Spanish Inquisition arrives as expected (Don Carlo)

I kid, I kid. Don Carlo (better yet, Don Carlos) might be Verdi’s grandest tragedy, it also might be my favorite Verdi opera. This current Met revival unfortunately features turgid conducting and a cast that, with the exception of Ferruccio Furlanetto as Filippo, is adequate at best. But I have to give them some credit, which should be shared with Nicholas Hytner’s production. This is a work that easily slips into Bad Opera Comedy. You know: we’ve got a fainting tenor, a veil swap, an abduction by dead emperor, and the nineteenth century’s idea of incest. (The Met titles seemed particularly sensitive about the latter point. Whenever Elisabetta or Carlo said “figlio” or “madre,” they just didn’t translate it.) But this performance never went into laugh zone and stayed tragic and dignified. While rarely inspired, it’s basically credible and unlike the Carlo I saw in Vienna in June, never threatened to put me to sleep.
Since I might be the last person in the world to see Nicholas Hytner’s production (which is also in London), I’m not going to describe it in detail, though this was my first experience of it. I don’t mean to damn it with the faint praise of “effective,” but that kind of pared-down traditional, vaguely modern, no really big ideas style is kind of its thing. The sets are simple and stark, the costumes mostly black, white, and red. Everything moves along quickly and it’s handsome without being indulgent, which is good. The Personenregie tended towards the cliched at many points, but there were enough original touches to suggest it was once better. The production doesn’t seem to have particularly strong perspectives on any of its characters, so there was that. And I’m not sure why the priest in the auto-da-fé scene was quite so chatty. And I wish the final Carlo ex machina had been preseved instead of the monk instead just appearing and looking scary. But the story is told in a straightforward, uncluttered way and for the Met this is an achievement.
So if we’re going to give up on Big Ideas, and we’re going to have to (I’m going to only say it once, but Peter Konwitschny’s production of Don Carlos was one of the major things that got me into this whole racket, and if you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself), let’s get onto the performances. With more good ones this production could be really grand. All were hampered by the lugubrious baton of Lorin Maazel, who never met a tempo he didn’t want to slow down. The orchestra had, sometimes, an impressive solidity, but mostly it just seemed to wander, and the singers struggled to stay with it. Since the first run of this production at the Met was conducted by speed demon Yannick Nézét-Seguin, I vaguely wonder if Maazel was obliged to restore the cosmic balance of the Don Carlo continuum. I’d have preferred if he hadn’t. The orchestra did fine, the cello solo was excellent, but the chorus sounded out of sorts and there were some major coordination issues.
Overall I found Ramon Vargas’s Don Carlo more convincing than his take on the role last June, but nature gave him the voice (and face) of a lyric tenor, and ultimately I don’t think that makes a Carlo. (He couldn’t help but play “yeah, that’s a picture of me, HI” for laughs.) Carlo’s singing is mostly in the ensembles, and he just didn’t power through the other voices, particularly in his upper range. He’s always stylish and never exactly inaudible, but never particularly compelling either. As Rodrigo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky sported some unfortunately vintage (though not the correct vintage) facial hair–which does not appear in the official production photos–and didn’t sound that great either, a considerable step downwards from when I heard him sing this in around 2006. The sound is forced and gravelly, somehow squeezed.
On the ladies’ side, listening to Anna Smirnova do her best with the Veil Song is a bit like watching a football player attempt yoga. It’s not really in her very loud, metallic mezzo’s skill set. I guess “O don fatale” is, but then you notice that the voice is quite shrill. She brought decibels, but not much in the music or acting departments. Barbara Frittoli probably knows how Elisabetta should sound, but I don’t think she’s got the voice to deliver it anymore, and sounded awfully wobbly, particularly at louder volumes and higher pitches. She was also not an actress of insight in this particular production.
That leaves us with Ferruccio Furlanetto, the best thing about this performance bar none. He was the only one who has created a complex character. His Filipo is not entirely happy to be king, but doesn’t want to follow in Carlos V’s footsteps either, and is very very lonely. His entire “Ella gianmai m’ammo!” was incredibly introspective and vulnerable, yet sung with true basso depth and warmth. (This was a particular contrast to René Pape’s take on the aria last June, which was, despite the claims of the text, a declaration of vocal supremacy. Listen to how amazing my legato is!) Eric Halfvorsen was a chilling Grand Inquisitor, and their scene together was a highlight. Supporting roles were uneven, with Miklós Sebestyén a weak monk and the Voice from Above following up on the Parsifal Voice from Above’s act by being exceptionally out of tune.
I’m glad I saw this because I’m almost always glad to see this opera, but a more convincingly lifelike conductor would have helped a lot. If you want to talk about how this opera is even better when it’s in its proper French, we can do that in the comments.
Don Carlo runs through March 16. Photos follow the break.

Don Carlo, Met Opera, 3/6/2012. Production by Nicholas Hytner (revival), conducted by Lorin Maazel with Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Ferruccio Furlanetto (King Philip II), Barbara Frittoli (Elisabetta), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rodrigo), Anna Smirnova (Princess Eboli), Eric Halfvorsen (Grand Inquisitor)

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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La traviata: Death on a summer night

My last
night at the Munich Opera Festival ended happily. Elusive Anja Harteros
canceled her first Traviata, but she
showed up for this one, her second. The other two leads, Ramon Vargas and Simon
Keenlyside, both sounded the best I’ve heard them sing in ages, and the three work
together beautifully: not exactly Italian, but dramatically sensitive and musically
stylish in a way that made for a moving performance. The production is tired
and the conducting was unfortunate, but with Traviata the cast can get you a long way.

Verdi, La Traviata. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/31/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Omer Meir Wellber

Inszenierung Günter Krämer
Bühne Andreas Reinhardt
Kostüme Carlo Diappi
Licht Wolfgang Göbbel

Violetta Valéry Anja Harteros
Flora Bervoix Heike Grötzinger
Annina Tara Erraught
Alfredo Germont Ramón Vargas
Giorgio Germont Simon Keenlyside
Gaston Francesco Petrozzi
Baron Douphol Christian Rieger
Marquis d’Obigny Tareq Nazmi
Doktor Grenvil Christoph Stephinger
Giuseppe Dean Power
Ein Diener Floras Tim Kuypers
Ein Gärtner Peter Mazalán
Alfredos Schwester Demet Gül

production leaves no corners uncut, with vague minimalist settings that either
confuse or just don’t do anything (Act 1 features lots of doors, Act 2 a
children’s playground?). The setting is black-and-white (except Violetta’s red flower) Belle Epoque, with the ladies of the chorus wearing beaded shower
caps and the gentlemen in penguin suits. Act 1 features an inexplicable
multiplicity of conga lines. Sometimes the economy hurts—the ballet consists of
nothing more than the chorus gently bobbing up and down on the beat—but for the
most part it is just an absence. Act 2 Scene 1 features a visit from Alfredo’s
sister, but another problem is that the production keeps the action largely
confined to small areas of the stage. This is fatal in a theater with such poor
sightlines, and I saw almost nothing for this entire scene. I suspect the
people on the other side of the theater saw almost nothing in Act 3, but that’s
not the way to balance it out. Given some decisive Personenregie it might not
be too bad, as it is now it left the singers to their own devices.
Regal Anja
Harteros is a Violetta that anyone could take home to their parents. (I have
seen her sing the role once before, at the Met in 2008. I thought she was
better tonight, and the rest of the cast infinitely better.) As Act 1’s party
girl she doesn’t really convince, though the production has her do nothing more
debauched than twirl around some champagne glasses. In Act 2 her poise and
majesty is of a degree that would certainly impress Germont, but collapses into
a vulnerability that is very touching. She hadn’t shown many signs of weakness
in the first two acts, but apparently this Violetta went downhill very quickly,
and her hacking up of a lung in Act 3 is raw and brutal, with a technically
impressive amount of singing from a horizontal position (unrealistically luxe
pillows providing a suitable angle). Her voice is big but flexible, with a
dark, woody texture that isn’t really Italianate fullness but is uniquely
beautiful in its own way. For someone with a large sound she navigated “Sempre
libera” exceptionally well, but again it’s in the rest of the opera where she
really shows her strengths, with an almost too-slow “Dite alla giovine” and
letter aria sung with long phrases, and “Amani Alfredo” filling the house.

Ramon Vargas
and Simon Keelyside as the Germont family were both much improved from their
earlier Verdi essay in Vienna’s Don Carloin June. There’s something a little gummy about Vargas’s voice, possibly just
wear, but he’s so meticulously stylish; not a note comes out carelessly. (He knows
his limits—no high C. Harteros didn’t try that annoying E-flat, either, thank
goodness.) Simon Keenlyside also sounded more at ease, and developed Germont
with great passive-aggressive nuance, weighing his words and singing with a far
greater variety of color than he did as Rodrigo or Wozzeck (that this has been
my Summer of Keenlyside is purely accidental and unplanned).
Alas, there
was a hitch, and that was Omar Meir Wellbur’s conducting. It was improved over
his Vienna Rigoletto which was maybe
the closest I’ve ever heard to a train wreck in a major new production (FYI, that production of Rigoletto is not, after all, going to be the Met’s, it was, in fact, that bad), but
there were lots of little wrecks (the most obvious being getting a few beats
off  from Harteros in the Act 1 duet and
staying there for a measure or two). He pushed the orchestra into expressive
phrases, but sometimes the various sections didn’t really stay together, even
the usually ironclad strings. More problematic were his speed demon tempos. He
would strike up each cabaletta at a mean clip and the singer or singers would
enter at a slower tempo and a tug of war ensued (Harteros and Vargas won their
battles, Keenlyside seemed to cede defeat and regrouped after the end of each
phrase). Other times, singers seemed perfectly content in holding their high
note fermatas while the orchestra would prematurely reenter and obviously take
them by surprise. You can’t fault him for energy, but there was obvious
disagreement afoot.
Despite the
faults—and not being able to see much of any of Act 2 Scene 1—this was really a
lovely Traviata. Harteros is a frequent canceler and can be hard
to catch, but she’s worth tracking down if you can. This was a fortuitous combination of
three singers with great taste and similar styles. Given how much opera I see
with wildly mismatched casts I suspect it’s a fluke, but a rare and lucky one.

The Festival ends tonight with Rosenkavalier but I’m a little Rosenkavaliered out and am skipping it. See you this weekend from Salzburg, where I will be reporting on Ariadne (DUH) and La bohème.

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.

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What a day for an auto-da-fé (Don Carlo in Vienna)

Don Carlo is a notoriously difficult opera to cast, but this new Wiener Staatsoper production looked promising on paper, including René Pape, Krassimira Stoyanova, and Simon Keenlyside. I’m rather baffled at how the result turned out to be so aggressively, mind-numblingly boring on nearly every level. Intendant Dominique Meyer’s Regieprobleme aren’t getting any better.

Verdi, Don Carlo. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/22/2012. New production directed by Daniele Abbado, “Bühnenkonzeption” by Graziano Gregori, sets by Angelo Linzalata, costumes by Carla Teti, lights by Alessandro Carletti. Conducted by Franz Welser-Most with René Pape (Philipp II), Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo), Krassimira Stoyanova) Elisabeth von Valois, Luciana D`Intino (Prinzessin Eboli), Eric Halfvarson (Il Grande Inquisitore), Valentina Nafornita (Stimme von oben)

The Staats is using the four-act Italian version, which
starts awkwardly with the Monk calling out to Carlo and then the duet with
Posa. Reminiscences appear without their antecedents, the Italian text is far
inferior to the French, and it’s a lot of development of something for which we
never had exposition.

Franz Welser-Möst
got the actual Philharmoniker to conduct (Rattle has been touring with the
second string), and you could tell from the showiness of the playing.
But while it was something, it wasn’t like any Verdi I’d ever heard before. Welser-Möst may have been proud of getting this
bunch at the Staatsoper, but he never seemed to notice the singers or the
drama. Crashing effects alternated with gratuitously picky dissection of
the orchestral fabric. The singers struggled against the volume and
inflexibility emanating from the pit, and ensembles showed a wide variety of tempo
choices simultaneously. (The choruses were generally better.) It really didn’t
“Why this awful lighting? WHY????”
None of the singers succeeded in developing any kind of
characters, which is rather remarkable considering their amount of talent. The
first problem was that Daniele Abbado’s production (yes he’s Claudio’s son) lights them almost entirely
from behind, and even then only sparsely. They could have been the best film-style actors in the world and I
wouldn’t have been able to tell, because their faces were almost never illuminated.
The rest of the production doesn’t do anything else either. A series of sliding walls (Bartlett Sher
writ large) slightly alter an empty, barn-like unit set. The setting is, for no
particular reason, the early nineteenth century, with simple costumes that for
the women resemble the ball dresses still so loved in these parts. While Abbado
has nothing to say about this piece and what it’s about, with good
Personenregie it still could have been effective drama of a sort. Alas,
everyone basically stands still. Even would-be exciting bits, like Carlo being
sucked up by the Monk at the end, were botched (moving far too slowly and well
before the gesture is indicated in the score and libretto). The gesture of
choice seemed to be, tellingly, a shrug. The only good things I’ve heard from anyone about this production is that it will be very easy to revive. Who knows, if they fix the lights maybe some later singer can bring something inspired to it. But it won’t ever be a complete drama. I would give more details but honestly most of it has flown out of my head already.
The most distinguished performance of the evening came from
René Pape as Filippo II, whose honeyed bass-baritone was at full force despite Welser-Möst’s unhelpful tempos. Still, he was much
better in the role back at the Met in 2006, which was a tired revival of an old
production but still gave him something to work with. Simon Keenlyside is a
singer I like a lot but he made very little impression here, adequate
and nothing more. He appeared to have drawn the hotness card among this cast
but I really think one should button up one’s shirt in the presence of the
King. Krassimira Stoyanova was announced as indisposed, which was a shame
because I think she could sing a fine Elisabetta. This one had some fine
moments but was short on volume at the top and only sometimes came into focus.
Her best quality onstage is a sweet simplicity, which for a queen is a little
“Flanders? Nah, I’m sending you back to the new Probebühne.”
Luciana D’Intino’s Eboli was a showcase for her fearsome
deployment of chest voice.While the lone representative of Italy among the
cast, she doesn’t do much with the language, and her presence is more queen
mother than king’s mistress (her costume was not doing her any favors). Somehow
I have left Carlo for last, which is not entirely unusual. This role is a
graveyard for lyric tenors (from what I heard Piotr Beczala was originally cast
in this production but wisely decided not to attempt it and is here singing in Lucia instead–maybe he chatted with Villazon or Filianoti). Ramón Vargas is too
smart to be done in by its demands but doesn’t exactly conquer it either. He
lacks the spinto heft at the top and his tone tends to turn pale and weak above
the passaggio. Some middle-range phrases had full tone and phrasing but like
Keenlyside he seemed to mostly struggling to be heard and stay with the
orchestra. Valentina Nafornita was a bright spot as the Voice from Above. She won Cardiff
a few years ago and certainly deserves better casting than this.
I love this opera and generally find something to enjoy
in it even in flawed performances, but this one was uniquely boring, possibly
one of the most confounding evenings I’ve had at the opera in a while. The argument seems to be we’re
the Wiener Staatsoper and hence we put on opera at a world class level. But drama needs some impetus, some reason why we’re here
seeing this thing, and most of the time last night I wished I were somewhere
else. It might be a bad way of putting it, but someone needed to provide a
photos copyright APA, because the Staatsoper site is less than forthcoming.
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On DVD: Medea kills again

Last year the Bayerische Staatsoper unearthed Giovanni/Johann(es) Simon Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto and gave it a production by Hans Neuenfels, now available on DVD. It was worth the effort: this is a really good opera. The performance is worth seeing too.

I have been making something of a specialty of Medea operas recently, with entries by Cherubini and Reimann preceding this one. The thrilling Reimann remains my favorite, but this one also has its moments. The libretto is the most complex and political of the three and is the only one to include Creusa’s original fiancé Aegus (Egeo), who teams up with Medea for revenge. It’s a lengthy piece and sometimes moves slowly, but there a few really great scenes, like Medea’s confrontation with Jason and Medea’s big Act 2 scena.

Mayr’s operas are the missing link between La clemenza di Tito and Donizetti, with a side of Der Freischütz. The composer’s Germanic heritage shows up in his complicated harmonies, but the vocal lines sometimes sound like proto-bel canto. Indeed, Mayr was Donizetti’s teacher, Rossini’s rival, and in his day was sometimes called a greater composer than Beethoven. His music sounds a little odd to me, it’s so familiar and yet not quite like any of those other composers. It has a few rote patches, but the overall level is high enough to classify this as a rediscovery of a major forgotten work. It’s good stuff.

Hans Neuenfels’s stark and brutal production contains a lot of Regie cliché and fussiness but ultimately is quite effective and engrossing. He obviously minded the adage of incorporating the opera’s original setting, the time of its composition, and the present day. We have ancient, ritual timelessness mixed with Egeo in 19th-century garb (he apparently represents 19th-century honor?), and most of the rest in harsh modern dress. It’s hard to get a good look at the multi-level set in the many close-ups of the DVD, but it seems to combine a temple setting with a little house on top.

You can’t blame Medea for not wanting any part of this Corinth. It’s a miserable, inhuman place and she seems like the only sympathetic and empathetic character in the whole thing. Pregnant women are machine-gunned and happy choruses accompany brutal wrestling. Neuenfels seems to suggest that their music is how these characters wish to present themselves, while the staging shows them as they appear to the objective world. Medea at first enters wearing a hula skirt and an elaborate headdress, a total outsider. Her first aria includes a prominent violin obligato and the violinist joins her onstage, implying a sincerity to her music that the other characters never get. Her infanticide is still horrific, but it becomes more comprehensible, because who would want to stick around in this place? It sometimes turns heavy-handed and is extremely German–there’s a Cupid figure who seems to castrate himself, as if we didn’t notice that Love is over–but the singers commit to the concept and the psychology works.

Ivor Bolton’s conducting and the orchestra are excellent; after a scrappy start the chorus sounds great too. Unfortunately there’s Nadja Michael to deal with in the title role. She’s a transfixing presence, intense and deeply expressive, actually making this impossible role sympathetic. But her voice is unevenly projected, harsh in tone, and intonationally approximate. Not a single phrase seems to come out smoothly, but she sure is intense. A few strong notes suggest that if she were to get it together she could be vocally memorable too. The rest of the cast is much better. Ramón Vargas is in good voice as Giasone (and doing the best he can acting-wise, looking typically tenorial), but the two highlights are the younger leads, Elena Tsallagova’s bell-like soprano as Creusa and particularly tenor Alek Schrader, who seems to have no trouble with his role’s high tessitura and sings with easy grace–a name to watch.

Definitely worth checking out. The DVD is published by Arthaus Musik and will be available on October 25 in the US.



Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper

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Don Giovanni at the Met

The Met has rounded up a good cast for this Don Giovanni premiere, particularly stellar late replacements Fabio Luisi conducting and Peter Mattei in the title role. It’s a shame that despite a lot of excellent singing the evening rarely rose above lukewarm. Michael Grandage’s fearsomely homogenizing and tame production bulldozed any personality in its path.

Mozart/Da Ponte, Don Giovanni. Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/11. New production premiere, directed by Michael Grandage and conducted by Fabio Luisi with Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni), Luca Pisaroni (Leporello), Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna), Barbara Frittoli (Donna Elvira), Ramón Vargas (Don Ottavio), Mojca Erdmann (Zerlina), Joshua Bloom (Masetto), Stefan Kocan (Commendatore).

Based on this and Anna Bolena, the new Met house staging style seems to be “no interpretation allowed.” More on that in a second, let’s start with the interesting and positive part–the music. New principal conductor and Levine stand-in Fabio Luisi led an elegant and clean account of the score, with fast to moderately fast tempos and light textures. He has a fantastic sense of dramatic pace and is never obtrusively showy or different. Everything flowed along as it should. He played the harpsichord continuo himself (the first time I’ve seen a non-HIP conductor do that, I think) and was witty and well-timed without ever straying towards René Jacobs’s sports commentator fortepiano territory. He passed my Don Giovanni conductor test–how is the timing in the Act 2 sextet?–with flying colors.

The cast was almost universally strong, and well-cast for vocal size, projecting without sounding oversized. Peter Mattei’s velvety baritone is the most seductive characteristic of his Giovanni, who otherwise tends towards the aggressive and dangerous. But it is a very sexy voice, and his serenade was a highlight, simple (with tasteful ornamentation in the second strophe) and quiet. He also managed an unusually accurate “Fin ch’han la vino.”

My last impression of Luca Pisaroni was in the Wiener Staatsoper’s Nozze di Figaro, but no singer should be held accountable for that particular production. He was a delight as Leporello, funny and spontaneous in the recitatives and musical and smooth in the big aria. It is nice to see Ramón Vargas back in Mozart as Don Ottavio after his dubious attempts at heavier rep. There was palpable effort in his “Dalla sua pace” messa di voce, but he sounded sweet and clear and the coloratura in “Il mio tesoro” was long-breathed and impressively clean. Stefan Kocan was an undersized Commendatore and Joshua Bloom an excellent Masetto.

Rebeka and Vargas

The women were led by house debutant Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna (like 60% of singers these days, she is Latvian). Her cool, somewhat steely and white soprano isn’t naturally glamorous, but everything was evenly produced, elegantly musical, and solid, including her coloratura. She’s quite loud and tended to dominate the ensembles. Barbara Frittoli’s much warmer and richer-voiced Elvira was an excellent contrast to Rebeka. Her top notes often turned wobbly but I appreciated her refinement. The cast’s weak link was Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina, whose fragile, very small soprano awkwardly shifted between a straight silvery tone and an excess of vibrato. Her phrasing was inexpressive.

But despite the good performances, no one gave a true star turn. Zachary Woolfe’s “charisma” and JJ’s “glamour” were both in short supply. The extraordinarily bland production may be to blame. If you gave any opera buff or stage manager this set and these costumes and told them to produce the most conventional Don Giovanni they could imagine, they’d probably come up with something like it. The Personenregie is detailed and not that bad, meaning that it’s clear and it’s not static. Mattei and Pisaroni are strong actors, Vargas and Rebeka less so. But Grandage has no perspective on a work that really demands interpretative unpacking. Don Giovanni is a weird, fascinating, confusing, contradictory opera, it’s a black hole of mystery, but no personality at all emerges from these harmless characters. They all seem to lack individuality and soul. It’s a smoothly executed job, but there’s nothing beneath the surface, and fails to draw you in emotionally.

Christopher Oram’s set has multiple levels of balconies and lots of little doors. This is a look we’ve seen before at the Met and it’s not one I like. The tiny space at each balcony doesn’t allow for much action, and Donna Anna and Don Giovanni’s confrontation at the beginning of the opera (something I care about a lot) was so constricted in space that you couldn’t tell what was being expressed. (I was gratified that she did not seem to like him very much, though.) The walls move around a bit, creating some variety, but it’s basically a unit set. The costumes, also by Oram, are basic frilly 18th century, with a side of our favorite (meaning least favorite) time period, the Slutty 18th Century, when even Donna Anna’s mourning dress displays lots of cleavage.

Ben Wright’s choreography is rather busy and fills the stage during Zerlina’s wedding and the first act finale, but it seems to function solely as a space filler. Grandage surrounds Giovanni with some downmarket ladies of the night in the last scene, hardly as daring a move as giving them to Scarpia but still the most originality to be found here. The final scene is a conflation of an anticlimactic Darth Vader entrance by the Commendatore and the Fire Swamp scene from The Princess Bride (minus the ROUSes, unfortunately). After a lot of am dram shaking, some hellfire does start up, but it’s too little, too late.

Despite the musical accomplishment, this was an unfulfilling evening. Unlike Jean-Louis Martinoty’s recent Wiener Staatsoper train wreck, it is not a confusing or incompetent Don, just an empty one with a discouraging lack of intellectual curiosity. Very disappointing.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (special thanks to @PaulCavaradossi)

Curtain Call (photos courtesy of B., who unlike me had a camera and was on the orchestra level):

Video: Peter Mattei sings “Da vieni alla finestra” in a different production.

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L’elisir d’amore: Your love is my drug

Sometimes the Wiener Staatsoper has a Noises Off! quality to it.  I’m not talking about onstage mishaps, though those happen also, or middlebrow artistic attitudes, though those are far too common as well.  No, I mean cast changes!  When ensemble member Benjamin Bruns fell ill and couldn’t sing Nemorino last night, Ramón Vargas, in town for Un ballo in maschera, took it on.  I’ve always thought Vargas a likeable guy and these one-off performances can be great fun, so I spent my beer Beerenpunsch money on a gallery standing room spot.

Bonus: it helps me organize my study of the art of Otto Schenk.  Because here we have ur-Schenk.  It’s CUTE!

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore.  Wiener Staatsoper, 12/21/2010.  Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Guilermo García Calvo with Julia Novikova (Adina), Ramón Vargas (Nemorino), Tae Joong Yang (Belcore), Alfred Sramek (Dulcamara), Elisabeta Marin (Giannetta)

I’ve never found never found Ramón Vargas’s forrays into bigger rep very convincing; he lacks a certain vocal heroism and stage authority (his earlier, more lyric efforts are excellent).  But those would be liabilities when you’re Nemorino, and last night he turned in a free-wheeling performance of joyous singing and wonderfully undignified acting.  It wasn’t very polished in an acting sense, but come on, it’s Nemorino, the primary task is to be endearing and dumb.  And Vargas has that down, much more than Flórez in October.  Vocally he sounded better than I’ve heard him in ages, with sweet tone and unbroken legato, though he sings pretty much everything forte and the one time he tried a piano (cadenza of the Lagrima), he immediately went flat.  But such are the costs of the spinto years.

Yes, that’s La Netrebka. Only photo I could find.

Julia Novikova was a more vivacious and capricious Adina than Sylvia Schwartz in October.  She has a beautiful upper range and easy coloratura, and showed sensitive phrasing in “Prendi.”  But in a lyric role her voice is perilously small for the Staatsoper, and her sound got lost in ensembles.  Tae Joong Yang’s Belcore has grown in comedy since October and is now quite funny, but he struggled with intonation in the aria and elsewhere sounded blustery.  Vienna favorite Alfred Sramek sleep-walked through Dulcamara’s aria and somewhat compensated with tired schtick elsewhere.

I didn’t notice anything distinctive coming out of the pit but Guillermo García Calvo kept things together a lot better than Yves Abel did in October.

Otto Schenk’s production makes a better visual impression from the gallery than it did from the Parterre Stehplatz, because you can appreciate the depth of the stage and don’t see the dopey and wrinkly backdrop that clearly.  But it still has the colors and details of a picture postcard and none of the texture that brings something to vivid life, or the ideas that would focus the story in any particular direction beyond a children’s book.  People really like skipping around in circles in this production.  It’s totally kitsch, and while L’elisir d’amore isn’t exactly an opera of extremes, if can be more touching and human and less old-fashioned cute if you give it a push.

Of course it probably looked better in 1973, when this production premiered.  A coat of paint would do wonders, though it wouldn’t make it be about anything.  Remember, you can see this production on DVD with Anna and Rolando.  But if you’re just looking for an Elisir, I recommend Angie and Roberto in happier days more highly.

This is the first full entry in my series Schenk/Anti-Schenk.  The Anti-Schenk counterpart will be David Bösch’s Bayerische Staatsoper production, which I’ll see in early January.  Also, I am prepared to take whatever consequences I deserve for this post title.  But if L’elisir d’amore were pop music, it wouldn’t be Radiohead in terms of intelligence, would it?

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Rigoletto: Puffy shorts brigade

Take three first-rate voices (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ramón Vargas, and Patrizia Ciofi), one of which might not be quite ideally cast (guess), add a psssshhhht, and you have Rigoletto. That last bit is the sweet song of separating Velcro on the Gilda-containing sack in the last scene. Just another rep night at the Staatsoper.

Verdi, Rigoletto. Wiener Staatsoper, 16/11/10. Production by Sandro Sequi, conducted by Michael Güttler with Ramón Vargas (Duca), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rigoletto), Patrizia Ciofi (Gilda), Kurt Rydl (Sparafucile), Nadia Krasteva (Maddalena)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is no more a pathetic loser than Juan Diego Flórez is. Hvorostovsky’s carelessly sprightly Rigoletto wasn’t annoyingly smug like Flórez’s Nemorino, but he was even less plausible on a theatrical level. Looking only mildly bedraggled, hunching over roughly half the time, and giving one or two rakish smiles too many, he was closer to being the drunken life of the party than an outsider from it. Rigoletto flirting with the Countess Ceprano seems a little wrong somehow, or at least it does in a production as utterly conventional as this one. I’m sure Hvorostovsky has a more convincing Rigoletto in him, but he’s not the best actor and is so naturally unsuited for the part that it would require more rehearsal than a Staatsoper rep performance gets to bring it out.

Vocally there were some weird things going on. His tone sounded much darker than I remember from the last time I heard him (around a year and a half ago, Trovatore at the Met), and I wonder if he’s doing something odd to get the volume. He was perfectly audible for the Staatsoper’s size, but the tone lacked brilliance. It’s still a deluxe voice, but I liked the moments when he lightened up a bit to a rounder, more resonant sound best. It wasn’t bad at all, but based on this outing Rigoletto is not a role that plays to his strengths.

He smartly positioned himself in one of the stage’s hot spots downstage left for “Pari siamo.” It’s always interesting to see which singers manage to gravitate towards the acoustically best locations on the stage (Flórez is also adept at this). Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to interest the lighting folks, and he was completely in the dark for the entire monologue. Better unseen than unheard, though, especially when suffering from an excess of hotttness.

Ramón Vargas was an undercharacterized but stylishly and assuredly sung Duke. His ease and comfort with the notes and the style were impressive, however I wish they had led him to a more dynamic portrayal. I think the years of heavier rep are beginning to take a toll on his voice, which has the traces of a beat and can be kind of spread and unfocused, but the sound is still pleasant. No high C, which I think was wise; the high Bs sounded excellent. (OOPS, I mean high D, not that either, even better that he skipped it.)  Experienced Maddalena Nadia Krasteva (last seen feeling up a different tenor as the Foreign Princess in Munich’s Rusalka) managed to light up her short scene, getting more life out of Vargas than he had shown in the rest of the opera.

Patrizia Ciofi as Gilda was the most unqualified vocal success of the evening, with a clear yet full sound that sounded bell-like in the coloratura. Her very top notes turned shrill, and she rushed through the “Caro nome” cadenza, singing the highest section legato. However, for the most part this was really lovely and vibrant singing. Gildas often sound generically angelic, but she was nicely distinctive. Acting-wise she did the best she could, somewhat more engaged than Vargas but nothing particularly innovative.

Smaller roles were fine. Kurt Rydl sounded ancient and wobbly as Sparafucile but he sure was loud. Janusz Monarcha as Monterone could graduate to Sparafucile should Rydl ever retire. Michael Güttler led a conventional but tight account of the score with good control over the tempos and only a few coordination hitches with the chorus and offstage bands. The orchestra sounded slightly below their usual standard, the brass particularly out to lunch.  Everyone sang their lungs out in a shapeless “Bella figlia dell’ amore,” leading to a most graceless effect.

I believe this production has received a sprucing-up since I last saw it in 2006. The new costumes are rather loud and fussy. Rigoletto’s jester’s suit looks like a tribute to the German flag via the Italian Renaissance, there are more men in tights than there should be when the men are not ballet dancers, and even Gilda’s man costume has puffy slashed sleeves. Their brightness clashes badly with the same old, faded set. It’s all by-the-numbers, though some things could be improved: why does Giovanna enter with the music obviously portraying Gilda? And that Velcro is just a crime. Shame on you, Staatsoper tech. I have been there–I believe it was around “Venite, inginocchiatevi”–and I have chosen not to do that.

Bows. I got one at the end of Act 2, the other is from the actual end:

Vargas, Ciofi, Güttler, Krasteva, Hvotostovsky, Rydl

 Scenic photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper (first one credited to Axel Zeiniger), bows photos by me.

Next: I got a ticket to hear Thielemann and the Philharmoniker’s Beethoven show on Saturday.

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Attila the underdone

Verdi, Attila.  Metropolitan Opera, 2/23/2010.  Conducted by Riccardo Muti and no one really cares about anything else.  No, wait, it was a new production by Pierre Audi with Violeta Urmana (Odabella), Ramon Vargas (Foresto), Giovanni Meoni (Ezio) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila) with sets and costumes by Herzog, de Meuron, and fat-phobic Miuccia Prada.

The story of this show, for good and ill, begins and ends with Riccardo Muti.  The good is that the music had tremendous style and shape, the orchestra sounded fantastic, and the singing was variable but committed.  The bad is that Muti wields his power over directors in ways not necessarily conducive to dramatically exciting productions.  The most important thing seems to be that the singers have an uninterrupted view of Signor Muti at all times.  I got the feeling that the director and designers were very aware of this and were trying to make the restrictions part of their concept, but it backfired a bit.  They might have been aiming for the formalism of Greek tragedy, but the blocking was so sparse it just ended up static and stiff.   Not a successful collaboration, but the production has redeeming qualities, and I enjoyed it.

Purely as looks, I liked a lot of the design.  It’s certainly more visually striking and original than many other endeavors this season (e.g. Carmen, Hoffmann, Tosca).  The prologue begins on an enormous pile of rubble, most of the other scenes are staged against an enormous curtain of greenery.*  But both provide little space for movement.  The costumes are vaguely steampunk post-apocalyptic something, including a scary Marge Simpson/Bride of Frankenstein ‘do for Odabella, but even from my seat around a third of the way back in orchestra (thanks, lady who rescued me from standing room!) only some of the details read–namely the car-wash fringe on Ezio shoulders and the occasional LED lights.  Most of it was too dark.  Also, all the hems were too long, everyone was holding up their skirts and capes all evening.

The blocking was, to put it gently, minimal, clustered in the stage’s limited spaces, all of which coincidentally were near Muti.  There were some efforts to be static with ATTITUDE, most successfully by Urmana, but generally everyone just stared out at the audience at Muti.  A sympathetic interpreter would say that the concept is that the characters are caught in a destroyed (rubble) and wild (forest) world where human connections are impossible, Attila’s army is nothing more than a faceless mass (in fancy t-shirts).  A less sympathetic one would say that this distant approach is a poor fit for a work that has a lot of passionate relationships, both of love and hate.  I’m somewhere in between these two.

OK, now for the music.  The orchestra sounded fantabulous from the first bars.  The strings had an amazing gauzy quality, I was never once conscious of there being oom-pahs, though I know there were, I have never heard a less bombastic and bangy account of early Verdi.  Or most middle Verdi.  It was loud, there was a lot of dramatic contrast, but nothing was underlined solely for flashy effect, it felt right.

The singers similarly showed subtlety and sensitivity–in early Verdi terms that is–though their instruments weren’t ideal.   I liked Violeta Urmana’s Odabella quite a lot despite some obvious problems.  She owned the role and production more than anyone else in the cast, and tore into the music and its considerable quantity of notes.  But her high notes were shrill, her middle voice better but not always opulent, and her chest notes loud enough but not exciting.

Ildar Abdrazakov should have been the star of the show.  The problem is that he wasn’t.  He wasn’t bad, his sound is warm and biggish, he looked scary, but he lacks charisma and star power.  It seemed like Attila’s part is somewhat dull, which I’m sure in the hands of a star bass it isn’t.  The production didn’t help by depriving him of the opportunity to show his power over the troops–the chorus being caught in the set’s underworld.  Unmemorable.

Ramón Vargas is a tenor of great musicality and cruised through lots of the music with a nice legato.  But he lacks the heroic heft needed for this part, he was audible but the voice is just too lyric for an opera this fierce.  I think there is strain, his tone is developing an unfortunate flutter similar to Alagna’s in recent years.  Finally, Giovanni Meoni subbed for Carlos Alvarez as Ezio and did a fine job with a large, round, pleasant sound, though he lacked something in dramatic attitude I can hardly fault a cover for that (and everyone except Urmana needed an attitude injection, really).

As for the booing, I talked to a bunch of people in intermission and afterwards, and their major complaints all seemed to be about the abstract sets.  OPEN YOUR MINDS, people.  As long as we’re all whining that the Big Wall o’ Green Stuff is not a legitimate visualization of a wild forest, we’re never going to get to get to Level 2 of Abstract Regie, at which point we consider that the forest could perhaps not even have trees and still be OK (GASP).  It’s not that there weren’t problems here, but don’t be ridiculous.

To catch up with the news, Prada’s skinny replacements for the fired supersized supers were superfluous, though skinny.  Also, Robby Duiveman is credited as “Associate Costume Designer” and gets a picture and bio in the program, which makes me wonder as to the extent of Prada’s involvement with the production.

There are some memorable scenic effects, most of all some rotating gobos that made the wall o’ green stuff come alive, which made me remember that I missed Lost last night.  Do we know if Sayid is a zombie yet?  No, don’t tell me.  Also, can Daniel Faraday show up wearing Attila’s  kickass spiky helmet?  Because that would be awesome.

Next: Have you seen my Nose?

*The wall serves to remind us to visit the David Rubenstein Atrium down the block, which has a very similar albeit smaller green wall designed by the same dudes–also, have a sandwich there, they’re delicious if a bit pricey.  Unless you’re in danger of being fired by Miuccia Prada, that is.

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