Moor or less

Verdi’s Otello doesn’t have the big, underlined earworms of his earlier work. Both the music and plot move quickly and themes seem to vanish before you can grasp onto them. When a performance really works—and that isn’t very often—it all swirls into a kind of fateful vortex.

The Royal Opera House’s highly anticipated new Otello, featuring the internet’s favorite and also probably least favorite tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in his role debut, isn’t quite that vortex. It’s a slightly disorganized storm, uneven and at times a little rote. But mixed in are some things that are really, really good.

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When I was young and charming, I practiced baby-farming

trovatore1

Conventional wisdom may suggest that in a duel between a stage director and the plot of Il trovatore, the director is never going to win. This libretto is, er, complicated, and it belongs to a kind of lurid sensationalism that we often assume has nothing under its surface shock and awe. So the most we dare wish for is mere comprehensibility, hence pro forma efforts like David McVicar’s Met production. I don’t mind that production that much, it does what it has to do, but it sets a fairly low bar.

That’s not the only option, though. La Monnaie had a great Tcherniakov production a few years back that took the plot’s complexity not as an insurmountable problem but rather as its subject, becoming a bunch of people in a room experiencing a claustrophobic series of flashbacks. And there was that Olivier Py job in Munich a few years ago, which I saw only on a technically challenged internet stream and thus believe I can only describe as batshit crazy. And there are more.

And now, I hoped, we would have David Bösch’s at the Royal Opera House too. We did, but we also didn’t.

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Otello at the Met

The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.

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TB is cured—La traviata in London

I spent last weekend in London at a seminar discussing canon formation in opera. When, how, and why have some operas become canonic while others have not? Who gets to decide? It’s a complicated question (and one we will attempt to tackle in a book). But it was only fitting that while I was in town I saw La traviata, today one of the most canonic of all operas. (The other operas on were, go figure, La bohème and Carmen, but my schedule precluded attending either of those.)

I love Traviata, but I’ve seen it a million times. It’s the kind of opera that I go to see if a singer or conductor or the production particularly appeals to me, or if I feel like I just want that nice familiar feeling (that’s canonicity from an audience’s perspective). In this case,  the novelty wasn’t the production: the Royal Opera House has trotted out this Richard Eyre production on the regular for more than 20 years. It was actually my first experience of Traviata, in the form of the DVD with Angela Gheorghiu; I’d never seen it live before. I signed up because I wanted to see Sonya Yoncheva, because she’s the latest hot singer and when it comes to hot singer bandwagons I am eager to hop on (or tell you that you should not hop on) as early as possible. (In this case I arguably already missed the boat.) She cancelled and her replacement was Marina Rebeka, a singer I’ve heard before and think is only OK. Bummer.

I probably should have given Marina Rebeka slightly more credit. Technically speaking she is an extremely accomplished singer: exceptionally accurate and possessed of the wide arsenal of skills to sing all three acts of Violetta with equal strength. Her coloratura was good in Act 1’s “Sempre libera” (and she sang the final interpolated E-flat), she’s plenty loud in Act 2’s dramatic outbursts, and she’s tasteful and graceful enough for Act 3’s letter aria. Her sound is slightly metallic with a dark sheen, attractive if not immediately memorable. As an actress, she did all the production asked her to do. The problem was that she is not gifted in showing us her character’s inner life. Most obviously, she did very little to suggest Violetta’s illness until Act 3 and even there it was rather spotty. For all its accomplishment, her performance remained curiously unmoving.

The last time I wrote about Traviata I was dealing with Natalie Dessay, a singer whose vocal fragility at times merged with her character’s bodily decay. Dessay was obviously dancing on the edge, pushing her voice places it didn’t want to go. That was a dangerous game and musically there was a price to pay. But her performance had an undeniable depth, even tragedy, which Rebeka’s heartiness never approached. This isn’t an either/or proposition–vocal health is, in general, a good thing and it didn’t really get in, say, Anja Harteros’s way–but it’s nonetheless an interesting question. Rebeka’s vocal wholesomeness ended up being, well, a symptom of her larger disinterest in vocal acting. Your voice doesn’t need to be falling apart, but you need to somehow use it to suggest your character is. A production this bland needs a stronger presence at its center.

Rebeka didn’t really have any help from Marc Minkowski in the pit, who made the fast parts very fast and the slow parts extra, extra slow. He did, however, in his customary HIP fashion, open up many of the opera’s customary cuts, including all the cabalettas (it felt like some of the cabalettas had their own cabalettas) and the second verses of “Ah! fors’è lui” and “Addio del passato.” His prelude was the quietest and slowest I’ve ever heard, a very thin thread of sound which eased into the (still slow) waltz. Later in Act 1 there were some unfortunate coordination issues with the chorus.

Elsewhere in the cast, Ismael Jordi was an energetic, bouncing Alfredo. His voice is bright and fresh and also kind of uneven. At times he micromanages his phrasing and color to discontinuous effect, he bops between registers, and his intonation wasn’t always accurate. That being said, all the effort Rebeka didn’t expend, he definitely did. My pick of the cast might have been Franco Vassallo’s Gérmont, to which he gave a highly sympathetic interpretation. He’s got a real Italian sound and made the text sound more spontaneous than any of his castmates.

I don’t know if there’s a lot to say about the production, which is itself locally canonic. It’s not, however, particularly iconic; the most well-known image is probably Violetta’s Act 2 Scene 2 dress (right). It’s nineteenth-century period, the sets are relatively spare (lots of circular elements), and if you are looking for a symbolic interpretation of the gypsies and bullfighters you are definitely barking up the wrong production. I don’t think this production invented the so-called “victory lap,” in which Violetta takes a triumphant jog around the stage before she dies, but given Rebeka’s blooming health I think it’s safe to say that this was not its most cathartic iteration.

The production continues for 200 more performances this spring and summer and another 750 next season. (Click on the link if you don’t believe me.)

I will be back at the ROH in July for Guillaume Tell. As much as I like London this again has far more to do with academic conferences than anything else. Why aren’t there more conferences in Berlin? But first I will be seeing Yardbird back home in Philadelphia, where I have already returned.

Verdi, La traviata. Royal Opera House, 5/25/15. Production by Richard Eyre (nth revival), conducted by Marc Minkowski with Marina Rebeka (Violetta), Ismael Jordi (Alfredo), Franco Vasallo (Gérmont)

photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/ROH

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Don Carlo in Philadelphia

Don Carlo is a big and ambitious opera for Opera Philadelphia, even in the four act version. I’m happy to report that with this production the risk has paid off: the cast, led by Eric Owens and Leah Crocetto, does the best singing I’ve heard from Opera Philadelphia in years. Tim Albery’s generic period production is rather bland, but it’s well-acted and appropriately dark. In a city which has long been dismissed as “not an opera town,” this is a production any regional company would be proud to perform.

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La forza della Bavaria

Was it mere coincidence that both operas I saw during my holiday weekend in Germany both considered free will and fate? Or was it…. something more? Meh. There’s none of Hans Neuenfel’s ambiguity on the fate question in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production of La forza del destino. For director Martin Kusej, fate as explication–particularly when wielded by organized religion–is a handy tool of oppression by the powerful. It’s an interesting production, and more notably this was an unusually excitingly sung production of an exceedingly tricky opera.


Verdi, La forza del destino, Bayerische Staatsoper, 5 January 2014. Production directed by Martin Kusej, set designer Martin Zehetgruber, costumes Heidi Hackl, lights Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Ascher Fisch with Anja Harteros (Leonora), Jonas Kaufmann (Alvaro), Ludovic Tézier (Carlo), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla), Vitalij Kowaljow (Marchese di Calatrava/Padre Guardiano), Renato Girolami (Melitone)

Let me start off by saying that my review of the production is a bit limited, because my view of the stage was a bit limited. I was not too badly put out by this, because I managed to snag a ticket to a ridiculously sold out production only two weeks ahead of time and it cost all of 15 Euros. But I recognize that it is not ideal for a review. (I didn’t watch the webstream.)

I love Forza; I think it’s a fascinating and ridiculously underrated piece that presents enormous musical and dramatic interest and possibilities. (I’ve written about it before.) The, er, “plot” is convoluted and sometimes seems to entirely disappear, as do major characters for acts at a time; the tone swings wildly between the most solemn late Verdi drama and La fille du régiment. It’s the biggest argument against Verdi as a dramatist who operates solely in simple and literal terms. He obviously has more abstract fish to fry here, and a staging that doesn’t reflect this complexity… well, maybe that’s why this opera’s reputation is so bad.

Martin Kusej’s production does make a real attempt at dealing with meaning, though in the end I found it to be something of a hedgehog at loose in a fox of an opera. Like the everpresent table onstage, everything comes down to the destructive effects of patriarchal and religious authority and control. We being with a solemn family dinner at that table, presided over by the Marchese with a prominently placed cross (above). In contrast, Leonora’s forbidden boyfriend Alvaro is quite disreputable-looking and seems to exist well outside the system.

Act 2 seems to be constructed of remanants of this first act in a dream-like way–Leonora’s maid Curra becomes Preziosilla, Carlo grows up (and eventually loses the dorky green sweater), the Marchese becomes the Padre Guardiano, and one of the mysterious dinner guests turns out to be Melitone. Leonora still can’t escape, it seems, and finally submits to the Church (as represented by her dead father, the Marchese/Padre Guardiano) in a baptismal dunking apparently lifted from an American church.

The Act 2 inn set evokes a 9/11 disaster photo, prefiguring the American tone of Act 3, which leaves Leonora for an Iraq-like war. This act begins with a startling tableau of images familiar from the US in Iraq. It’s an apt setting for a chaotic conflict that depends on personal trust. (For an American for whom such things remain open issues, the torture stuff felt underexamined and gratuitous–I don’t think I’m ready to see anything about this as a symbol yet. But it was gone fairly quickly.) The staging of the Alvaro and Carlo scenes, however, is strong and intense (what I saw of it).

The music of the following crowd scenes turns comic but the production remains grim, an orgy that seems ordered out of a Regietheater catalog. This made the production seem a bit deaf to the score’s change of tone, and besides I never got any good sense as to who these people represent or what they’re doing here. While their random appearance and manic energy—were the conductor to become a little more energetic, that is—could seemingly be mined for something grotesque and extreme, here it’s a bit generic and deflated. Even a striking scene of rows of dead bodies in the Rataplan is somehow less horrifying than it should be. (Honestly, after an Abu Gharib tableau, I’m not sure if you have anywhere to go.) The production’s low point comes in the opening of Act 4, which seems to have slipped Kusej’s mind entirely. (Act 3 is rearranged, with the Alvaro-Carlo duet moved after the Rataplan.)

Fortunately, the last act is more effective. Alvaro can’t talk Carlo into forgiveness and Leonore, adrift on a giant pile of white crosses, is not granted her wish for peace. While the Marchese/Padre Guardiano does his blessing duty, Alvaro is no longer convinced of the redemptive power of faith, and ends up throwing one of those crosses on the ground and leaving in despair.

While this production was interesting, the performance’s biggest reward was the singing, more glamorous, charismatic, and committed than you usually hear in this rep. If only the cast hadn’t been consistently counteracted by Asher Fisch’s uninspired conducting. While he and the orchestra got off to a strong prelude, elsewhere he proved too laid-back for his own good, failing to build to climaxes and lacking in energy. This particularly dogged the choral scenes, which tended towards the limp. The chorus, though, was excellent.

Anja Harteros deservedly received the largest ovation for her Leonora. The role suits both her big, dark, slightly grainy soprano and her introverted temperament: she always seems conscious and in control of everything she does, and Leonora here is someone who has never been able to express herself freely. While she doesn’t have the vocal warmth or round sound of a more Italinate soprano, she sounds absolutely like herself and is wonderfully musical. While she doesn’t always have the greatest high notes, the ending of her “Pace, pace” was terrific, and she doesn’t shy away from chest voice, either.

No one would accuse Jonas Kaufmann of being Italian either, but his muscular, forceful tenor and surprisingly bright upper range is perfect for Alvaro’s tortured character. He was also endlessly energetic compared to the more withdrawn Harteros (as well as far greasier-looking compared to her elegance). “Tu, che in seno agli angeli” featured some terrific high soft singing. As Carlo, though, Ludovic Tézier was somewhat overparted and sometimes resorted to barking, as well as struggling with the fioriture in “Urna fatale.” He did his best singing in the duets with Kaufmann, where they blended well.

The supporting cast was good: I kind of wondered what had happened to Vitalji Kowaljow after I heard him sing a pretty strong Wotan a few years ago, and it turns out he is a solid Verdi bass as well. This was the second time I heard Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, and while she has the right kind of spicy tone and sass for it and can hit all the notes loudly, she had an awkward break around the bottom of the staff that impeded her Rataplan. Renato Girolami did nothing to make Melitone seem very necessary, but nor was he annoying.

It’s a shame there isn’t going to be a DVD of this. I’m very glad I got to see it in person.


Trailer:

Photos (copyright Bayerische Staatsoper):

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Celebrating the Verdi Anniversary

This Sunday, I will be speaking about blogging and the Verdi anniversary on a panel at Verdi’s Third Century, a conference put on by the American Institute for Verdi Studies (at New York University). In the spirit of blogging, this discussion wouldn’t be complete without your thoughts! I would like to talk about how the Verdi anniversary has been recognized outside academia, and would love to hear your thoughts, recent Verdi experiences, and so on (comment at the bottom of this post!).

(I am also giving a formal paper about ritual and repetition in Verdi production. Sorry, you can’t contribute to that one unless you show up to ask a question afterwards.)

I asked around on Twitter a few days ago and got some interesting thoughts. Many immediately confirmed my initial suspicion: Verdi Year mostly means seeing more Verdi. Verdi is at the core of most modern opera houses, and a few more Traviatas and maybe a Stiffelio tend to sneak into people’s schedules without a major fuss.

First: a lesson on social media. I put this question up around 8:30 in the morning, before I started work. No one responded. A few hours later I wondered out loud if that meant no one cared, and it turned out I was just too early, and suddenly everyone wanted to chat (this explains the tweet everyone is responding to below). Thanks to a retweet from the Royal Opera House, I got a lot of British responses.

As Lucy put it,

For some people this was not entirely welcome:

There’s also the 800-pound gorilla: Wagner. Verdi had competition, and seems to have been the less recognized of the two.

 I suspect there’s a different kind of engagement between Wagner and Verdi audiences. Wagner audiences form societies and go to conferences (I went to a Wagner conference in January that had a handful of non-academics who flew to South Carolina just to hear papers about Wagner), while Verdi audiences tend to just go to operas. I liked Ruth’s theory on this:

 This was backed up by some of the other responses:

What has Verdi done for you recently? Please leave a comment or email me at likelyimpossibilities at gmail.com.

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Nabucco in Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia has changed a lot in the last few years. Their name is different (it used to be Opera Company of Philadelphia), their program has more variety (with smaller works in the smaller Perelman Theater), and, judging by the Nabucco that opened this season, their mainstage productions are aiming for a higher level as well. While Thaddeus Strassberger’s production promised more than it delivered, it basically worked, and this is a musically solid production of a tricky opera.


Verdi,
Nabucco. Opera Philadelphia, 9/29/13. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger with sets by Strassberger, costumes by Mattie Ullrich. Cast includes Csilla Boross (Abigaille), Sebastian Catana (Nabucco), Morris Robinson (Zaccaria), Adam Diegel (Ismaele), Margaret Mezzacappa (Fenena), Angela Mortellaro (Anna).

Verdi’s first big hit includes much of what we love or love to hate about Italian grand-ish opera: a distant setting, big tableaus, forbidden love, deus ex machina plot twists, public and private contrasts, and scenes that, in their clunkier moments, lurch from aria to choral interlude to cabaletta with the inevitability of an undersized model train set. The plot is complicated and many of the characters are broadly drawn, but the title role does offer a chance for a star turn by a baritone.

Strassberger’s production, previously seen in Washington, turns the opera’s potential hoariness in on itself by giving us a lightweight frame narrative of Nabucco in Risorgimento Italy. (The theater-in-theater trope is terribly overdone at this point, but this one at least is earnest rather than cutesy.) This manifests itself with a handful of aristocratic audience members, a bunch of entrances by soldiers, some patriotic stagehands, and a lot of business surrounding “Va, pensiero,” the anthem that may or may not have instantly organically become the de fact anthem of a non-yet-extant Italian state. We see the stagehands joining in, for example. (The exact nature of this event is one of the more hotly contested areas of Verdi studies and neither Strassberger nor I constitute experts on the topic.) This comes to a head in the supposed curtain call, where the singers (as the cast of this nineteenth-century performance) lead an encore of “Va pensiero.”

“Va pensiero” with 19th-century Italians in back

The main body staging is mostly earnest nineteenth-century stuff, complete with flat painted backdrops and tromp de l’oeil curtains (which look pretty cool). The costumes are also very colorful, and occasionally jangly. It’s fairly well done, a cut above what you often see in this kind of opera. Strassberger knows how to arrange people on a stage, though he isn’t always quite as good at moving them around, and the implication that the final scene is only Nabucco’s dream is interesting. But it’s not exactly revelatory.

Boross, Diegel, Mezzacappa

The real stars of the show were the large chorus and conductor Corrado Rovaris, who formed the backbone of the score’s many big ensemble numbers. The orchestra sounded fine as well. The most interesting voice among the soloists was Csilla Boross as Evil Daughter Abigaille, whose performance involved a good dealing of snarling and dramatic hand gestures. She’s got a huge, laser bright voice that she uses with a respectable amount of nuance. But her passagework tended to include considerable approximatura, and her chest voice did not project. Margaret Mezzacapa had in Fenena a rather ungrateful role, but sang well with a full, warm sound. In the even shorter role of Anna, Angela Mortellaro sounded excellent, and despite having a light soprano was clear in the ensembles.

In the title role, Sebastian Catana was authoritative without being quite electric. He’s got a fine, noble sound, a deeper sort of Verdi baritone that would probably sound excellent in lots of roles, but lacks a degree of stage charisma to take it to the next level. As Ismaele, Adam Diegel sang very loudly (it’s a loud singing sort of opera), with a bright and steely sort of tenor. Morris Robinson, in the significant role of Zaccaria, sounded appropriately authoritative at louder volumes but shaky at softer dynamics.

Honestly, I wondered if Strassberger’s concept backfired a bit. If you’re going to say that the opera reflected Risorgimento politics, why not really go for it beyond the one chorus? There’s a lot of stuff about religion here, for example. That seems important. Moreover, by showing a historic Nabucco that has a very important and urgent meaning for its onstage audience, the production defines the opera as something of the past, precluding any more radical rethinking of its relevance to today. This is why the final encore of “Va, pensiero” doesn’t quite work: while the production shows that it means something to its nineteenth-century audience members, it hasn’t made it mean anything to us, and inviting us to sing along is a little like crashing someone else’s party. Simultaneously, it never acknowledges that its own brand of meta-staging is a very modern kind of interpretive act. (It is missing, in other words, the final twist that Stefan Herheim’s Serse presented in its modern dress last scene.)

All that being said, it’s consistently watchable and would be a respectable effort for opera houses much larger than Philadelphia. The company’s season will continue with Ainadamar, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Don Giovanni, A Coffin in Egypt (a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon), and, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Salome.

Correction: I originally said this production was seen in LA. It was not, but Strassberger’s I due Foscari was.

Photos copyright Kelly & Massa.

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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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Il trovatore: Cecily, how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother?

The old canard is that all you need for Trovatore is the four best singers in the world. That’s stupid on a number of levels, one of which was illustrated in this Met revival, which is super excellent despite being a rep night with only one known name. It was the best of what you can expect from a non-Event performance: an old favorite (Dolora Zajick’s Azucena) with an exciting newcomer (Guanqun Yu as Leonora) and a few more workman-like performances that nonetheless had much to enjoy. Even Daniele Callegari’s conducting was pretty good! However, this production is so bland that you almost wish David McVicar had made a frame narrative about the singers we are seeing this evening. Nah, not really.

Verdi, Il trovatore. Met Opera, 10/17/2012. Production by David McVicar (revival), conducted by Daniele Callegari with Guanqun Yu (Leonora), Dolora Zajick (Azucena), Gwyn Hughes Jones (Manrico), Angel Òdena (Conte di Luna), Morris Robinson (Ferrando).

Il trovatore’s lusty embrace of melodrama provided Verdi plenty of chances to write exciting music for so-called “extreme situations.” But today, when that opera is considered part of our cultural pantheon and operatic characters are conventionally analyzed in psychological terms, no one is sure as to how seriously we should take it. Contemporary opera-goers tend to be a rather literal-minded bunch who want to follow the plot and identify with the characters’ plights, and with Trovatore they can find their credibility awkwardly tested. Even after you untangle the complicated back story, you are left with plot devices like baby-swapping, gypsy curses, infants thrown in fires, and a very sketchily drawn political situation, plus a few points where the motivations of the characters are, shall we say, obscure.

David McVicar’s Met production takes the friendliest path out of this mess by telling the story in as straightforward and easy to follow a way as possible, making the characters lively and sympathetic when applicable, and keeping the action moving with his turntable stage. The early nineteenth-century costumes and looming walls of set are fine and not over the top without doing much of anything. What distinguished the first run was McVicar’s personal touch with the singers, who gave fairly nuanced interpretations based on their personal standards. It doesn’t look like he directed this revival (some of the anvil-hitting guys were wearing shirts–a dead giveaway), and the blocking is more schematic this time around. When Ferrando goes up the stairs, it looks like he’s doing it so he’ll sing out from above the chorus, not because he wants to go anywhere.

It’s still an effective-enough staging that gets the job done without too many egregious clichés, but I would like to see something that has a stronger perspective and doesn’t seem to want to put the mellow in melodrama. For a red meat sort of opera this thing seems pretty mild-mannered in its earnest (and, granted, mostly successful) attempts to avoid unintentional comedy. Everyone’s measured reactions give the impression of logic and rationality, but is Trovatore happening in a rational, reasonable sort of place? I don’t think so. McVicar’s concern seems to be ironing out a problem opera into something no one can really object to (except on grounds of boredom). For a more inspired director with a more adventurous audience, the opera’s unusual aspects might present not a liability but an opportunity to do something interesting and distinctive.* Oh well.

But this kind of affair lends itself easily to changing casts, making it an asset to a repertory house like the Met. The highlight here was very young Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu as Leonora, making a super Met debut with this run. She’s got a beautiful, sweet, creamy lyric soprano that fills the house well except for something of a loss of power at the bottom end. Her stage presence is a naturally sympathetic and she infuses her singing with both outstanding musicality and details of character. This was an unusually convincing and complete, integrated performance, particularly for someone at a very early point in her career. (She recently came in second at Operalia. I do hope she goes and spends some quality time with Donna Anna, Mimì, Marguerite, Violetta, etc. instead of killing herself with too many really monstrous roles so early, even though she has the technique to handle them.)

Making his house debut this performance was baritone Angel Òdena as the Conte di Luna. His instrument is formidable, a gravelly, imposing, somewhat dry baritone that has real Verdi quality. Unfortunately his sense of rhythm and pitch tended to be vague, particularly in the big aria, and his sense of character more mustache-twirling than anything else. Still, considering he was the cover and got virtually no rehearsals, an impressive effort. Also impressive if not entirely satisfying was Gwyn Hughes Jones as Manrico. He is an honorable performer with a bright, ably used tenor, and sings with consistent taste and style. Unfortunately the voice is a little on the small side for this role at the Met, and lacks power at the top, where his narrow vibrato turns towards a bleat. While an OK actor he didn’t make an enormous impression, character-wise. Morris Robinson was a vocally smooth and sonorous if less than dramatically imposing Ferrando.

I have left Dolora Zajick for last because her Azucena is a legendarily known quantity. She was announced as ill but sounded as mighty as usual (high notes were a little short). She showed some signs of remembering McVicar’s direction (she was in the premiere cast of this production), but her main appeal remains her ability to sing louder and more excitingly than anyone else. She does that, and inarguably knows her way around this music. It’s a classic portrayal, and still thrilling.

Conductor Daniele Callegari’s goal seemed to be to go as fast as possible, but excitement isn’t amiss in this opera. Over than the speediness, it was competent and usually flexible when it needed to be. Sometimes Òdena didn’t seem entirely with him, but the orchestra was fine.

If you need some satisfying operatic protein in your diet, consider this revival, which has two performances left this fall and will return in the spring with the same conductor and an entirely different cast.

*For more interesting Trovatori I recommend considering Dmitri Tcherniakov’s dark Brussels effort (not yet on DVD but streamed on the internet this summer, so hopefully coming). I am also curious as to what Olivier Py’s Munich production will bring next summer, considering his Lulu was extreme enough as to almost melt my eyeballs.

Guanqun Yu sings “Tacea la notte,” then follow some photos of previous casts.

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