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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The Tucker Gala strikes again

The annual Tucker Gala always promises an evening of old-fashioned big singing by people who are opera famous and people who are soon to be opera famous. Usually, it’s also a prime example of the hoary journalistic cliche about opera drama playing out backstage as well as on-. This year was no exception: the event fell on my fall break so I made a trip up to see it, only to discovered that four of the singers had canceled, including Anna Netrebko, the one I wanted to see the most. The remaining program was somewhat underwhelming, honestly.


Tucker Gala, 10/12/2014, Avery Fisher Hall. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume with a pickup orchestra and the New York Choral Society.

This is a gimmicky gala (remember Bryn Terfel and his beer chugging? that might be my non-singing-related Tucker Gala highlight), so I prefer to cover it in gimmicky fashion. This year I have given everyone a rating in the unit most appropriate to their performance, which I fear has ended up sounding like a demented Twelve Days of Christmas but whatever. Emmanuel Villaume conducted and he did an admirable job with the pacing and balances, all told.

This is, as I said, a really old fashioned event. The singers deployed more variations of Baritone Claw (an outstretched, partially clenched hand gesture most common among baritonal gentlemen) than I have ever seen in one event. There was nothing sung in German or any Slavic language, and it seemingly took only a big loud high note for the audience to erupt. I must admit I was somewhat less enthused, particularly because the printed official program didn’t mention Netrebko. This means she must have cancelled at least a few days ago (according to Barry Tucker, she decided she couldn’t sing the day after Lady Macbething, which seems fair enough), and it was poor form for the Tucker Foundation not to announce this but rather continue to publicize the event with her name attached.

Richard Tucker, Rossini, “La Danza”
We opened with the traditional recording of the Foundation’s namesake, the late tenor Richard Tucker, this year singing what was introduced as an unnamed Neapolitan song but which turned out to be not traditional but rather Rossini. It’s a tarantella-type deal with a refrain consisting primarily of “la la la” and “Mamma mia!” and was more rollicking than most of what followed it.
Rating: Three arancini

Fabiano

Michael Fabiano, Verdi, “Tutto parea sorridere… Si! de’Corsari il fulmine!” from Il corsaro
Fabiano was the winner of this year’s big Tucker Award, and a worthy winner he is. He has a strong, ringing tone with a fast, narrow vibrato. His singing is well-controlled and precise, and yet also intense and exciting. He is definitely going places, probably major places. That being said, he’s a lyric tenor at this point and we’re going to have to wait a bit for him to sing the big stuff. He acts primarily with his chin and is afflicted with, for a tenor, a serious case of Baritone Claw.
Rating: Four “all’armis” with a bonus “Andiam’!”

Pretty Yende, Bellini, “Qui la voce… Vien diletto” from I puritani

Pretty Yende is as charming as her name suggests and her voice is sweet and has a unique color. This wasn’t the best vehicle for her talents. The tiny introduction demands she set a strong mood right away and she didn’t, really. Technically, it wasn’t quite there, with some flatness in the high notes and more elaborate ornamentation in second verse of the cabaletta than she could carry off.
Rating: Two appoggiaturas, plus the Best Dress award

Ildar Abdrazakov, Verdi, “Infelice!… e tuo credevi!” from Ernani
This was authoritative and loud and perfectly fine. I think he’s lacking in charisma, though. He did have some quality Baritone Claw.
Rating: Two “all’armis”

Joseph Calleja, Puccini, “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca
Calleja often lets his beautiful tone do all the work for him and comes across as slightly uninvolved. He’s also pretty light for Cavaradossi. While the opening had a lovely dreamy quality to it, he seemed to lack the heft required for the second half.
Rating: Half a firing squad

Angela Meade, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Massenet, “Esprits de l’air” from Esclarmonde
YOU GUYS THIS PIECE IS BANANANAS! It’s Massenet’s Ride of the Valkyries fused with Lakme’s Bell Song. It is perfect exotic sorceress music. How have I gone to so much opera and not know that this thing exists? It is simultaneously delightful, hilarious, and slightly alarming. I’m not going to describe it any further, I’m just going to have you listen to it in case you have been as deprived as I have.

Thank you, Angela Meade, for singing this with the gusto and high notes such ambitious vocal writing demands, whatever the merits of the enterprise. It wasn’t all audible, but this piece is kind of chaotic. (Meade’s preferred gesture is not The Claw but what might be called The One-Armed Evita.) Jennifer Johnson Cano’s part was smaller but she sounded nice and I wish she had gotten her own solo number to better display her capabilities.
Rating: Ten Valkyries

Ildar Abdrazakov and Ingeborg Gillebo, Mozart, “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni

Gillebo seems like a perfectly good mezzo, but this isn’t exactly a role in which one can judge for star quality. (This number was originally assigned to Isabel Leonard, who cancelled.) Points for choreography.
Rating: One vaguely outstretched hand.

Lucic demonstrates classic Baritone Claw

Zeljko Lucic, Giordano, “Nemico della patria” from Andrea Chénier
Lucic let out a wimpy evil chuckle at the beginning. He just seems like too nice and decent a guy to be able to pull off villainy. The plus side is that I noticed that this aria actually has some good and pretty parts to it, which are not usually given such sensitive treatment. I usually think Giordano is a relatively crap composer, but to Lucic’s credit this made me wonder if I’ve been missing something. Villaume helped him out with the orchestra volume.
Rating: Two-thirds of a tricoleur

Joseph Calleja, Massenet, “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther

At first the answer to the aria’s question seemed to be, “whatever, I’m going back to sleep.” But Calleja seems to be making some effort on the intensity front, and it built up a bit. Unfortunately there was a weird buzz afflicting a few of his forte high notes. No idea what that was.
Rating: Three spring breezes

Michael Fabiano and Joyce El-Khoury, Massenet, “Toi! Vous!” etc from Manon

I believe these two are married, so they’re the Perez-Costello of this year’s Tucker Gala. (Oops, apparently they aren’t married! Sorry, guys!) El-Khoury was new to me; she has a nice rich lyric soprano (sometimes a little harsh under pressure) and is an immediately interesting performer. She injected some welcome energy and intensity into the proceedings and I’d like to see her in a full opera. Fabiano is high octane too, and at times this performance resembled Puccini’s louder and more full-blooded Manon more than Massenet’s. That’s the Tucker Gala for you!
Rating: Four slightly ripped cassocks

Angela Meade, Verdi, “Pace, pace” from La forza del destino
This didn’t appear on the program, not even the updated program. Meade sang with with great control and sensitivity, though at times it could use more color and fullness. While her voice cuts through coloratura, in this kind of rep it can sometimes seem hard-edged and over-bright. Her high C sure is big, though!
Rating: Two intentionally improbable coincidences

Elena Bocharova, Mascagni, “Regina Coeile… Inneggiamo” from Cavalleria rusticana
I’ve never seen this lady live before, I don’t think, but I think there’s a picture of her in the Book of Fachs under “Powerhouse Slavic Mezzo.” She is loud, she is metallic, her dress is from the 70s and is also metallic, and you do not mess with her. You hear her over the whole chorus even when she is singing with them in unison. The New York Choral Society sounded fine in the choral portion of this.
Rating: One Carmen, one Azucena, and an Eboli

Joseph Calleja, Sarazabal, “No peude ser” from La tabernera del puerto

Calleja has a very pretty voice, but I don’t think he has a sexy enough voice for zarzuela. I’m not sure exactly how to define it, but the delivery lacks a certain edge and he’s not quite present in the moment in the way one has to be for this rep to seem exciting. This was fine, but of those present Fabiano would have been better in this number.
Rating: One thing which cannot be
 
Pretty Yende, Bernstein, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story

OF COURSE. She kept it classy, but I wasn’t entirely sure what this number was doing here other than punning.
Rating: Two wedding veils

Paul Appleby and Alexandra Silber, “Tonight” from West Side Story

I was less sure of what this number was doing here. Since both the singers who were originally going to do this cancelled (Leonard and Stephen Costello), I’m not sure why they called in these two (who are both fine artists themselves) when they could have called in these two to add to the program and gotten them to sing material more suitable for their talents. They seemed mismatched and both less than ideally cast. Silber would be better off with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Appleby in Mozart or Donizetti.
Rating: A fire escape that only goes up one floor

Fabiano, Meade, and co, Donizetti, Act II finale of Lucia di Lammermoor

I’m not sure about starting this right at the beginning of the Sextet. I think a good part of that number’s magic comes from the big lead-up into it (its stillness in contrast to all the chaos which preceded it), and that’s not something I can imagine when just given the sextet as a cold open. But there’s still the chaos after it, so there’s that. Fabiano did most of that, and rage and anger seems to be one of his strong points so that was good. (I would like to hear him sing something a little more gentle at some point but maybe that’s not his style?)
Rating: Three faked letters and one wedding photographer

Can’t win ’em all. I’m going to hear Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass in Philadelphia later this week, and I still haven’t written about the blistering Netrebko Macbeth, so maybe you’ll hear from me again soon.

Photos copyright Dario Acosta/Richard Tucker Foundation.

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Met takes a bet on a new Rigoletto

The Met has been turning out productions that look like they belong in Vegas for decades. I guess that it makes a certain amount of sense that they would eventually, in the their quest for theatrical creativity that will still satisfy the rather conservative audience, come up with something that is actually set in Vegas. But while the Met’s usual goal seems to be something like The Venetian, or, hell, Cirque de Soleil (hello, Robert Lepage), this here Rigoletto is an update set in historical 1960s Vegas, which means dangerous and sleazy stuff rather than Zeffirelli’s dancing cows in Traviata. Rigoletto, a story about an absolute ruler who abducts and rapes an innocent girl, whose father then takes out a hit on him, could be dangerous and sleazy? My stars, look at what they’re doing at the Met these days. So shocking.

To be fair, the audience seemed to realize that nothing very alarming is going on in this tame, relatively entertaining production. From my seat the boos were surprisingly few. The real problem is, fairly unusually for a Met new production, some seriously mediocre music-making.


Verdi, Rigoletto. Metropolitan Opera, 1/28/2013. New production premiere directed by Michael Mayer, sets by Christine Jones, costumes by Susan Hilferty, lights by Kevin Adams, choreography by Steven Hoggett. Conducted by Michele Mariotti with Zeljko Lucic (Rigoletto), Piotr Beczala (Duke), Diana Damrau (Gilda), Stefan Kocán (Sparafucile), and Oksana Volkova (Maddalena).

Conventional opera fan wisdom had written off this production by Michael Mayer as a total train wreck before anyone even saw it. He’s a Broadway director with no opera experience, and that often goes badly. But let me say before I start to criticize it: it’s not great and has basically no emotional payoff, but it’s still pretty much watchable, and I’d take it any day over several other recent productions–Elisir, the Ring and Faust, just to name a few.

The setting is 1960’s Las Vegas, den of sin. We don’t see terribly much sin–David McVicar’s Rigoletto is far more debauched–but there are enough shiny suits to know that none of these courtiers are up to anything good. There’s about ten seconds of pole dancing at the start of Act 3, which was enough to get the audience buzzing but come on, guys, this is the modern world, it’s not much. The Duke is a vaguely shady sort of Sinatra-type singer, who apparently has his pick of the ladies (or “good-looking dolls,” as the subtitles put it) and does “Questo o quella” as an elaborate production number involving some showgirls with feathers. This is, it turns out, the most complicated aria staging in the whole production by a long shot, and the Met has helpfully put a video up on their website and you can watch it here. (Considering that Piotr Beczala is singing the Duke, here we have another sort of Pole dancing.)

Christine Jones’s sets are big and colorful and deal ably with the excess space. She alternates large spaces with smaller ones defined only by light frames–effectively so in Act 3 but more confusingly in Act 1. It uses lots of neon to decent effect, including some palm trees in Act 1 and some flashy lighting bolts in Act 3. Monterone is an Arab, supposedly an outsider, but since his introduction is right after some casino Egyptian kitsch I was unsure whether he was supposed to be taken seriously, because he looks pretty silly in those surroundings, honestly, and it robs the moment of its power. There’s clever stuff too–I liked Sparafucile and Rigoletto meeting at a sad late night bar, and the set’s elevators doors get people on and off helpfully. But there’s certain carelessness with details that gives a few bits a somewhat amateur touch. The Duke’s elaborate break-in to Rigoletto’s house by way of the garden wall makes no sense here (I’m not saying you have to do it the way the libretto says but you have to come up with some reason they’re singing what they are), and the passed out drunk chorus all waking up together just in time to sing the chorus after “Parmi veder le lagrime” (with a nice light change) is unintentionally hilarious.

This is basically a traditional Rigoletto in updated dress. The story is told fairly clearly with no major logical gaps or problems. It goes, and Rigoletto is such an expertly paced work that it never feels too slack. But the design concept and the characters never connect with each other, and the characterization is catch as catch can. Rigoletto is some kind of outsider jester figure in an ugly cardigan, but his relationship with his surroundings is never clear, and the performance here becomes a major problem (more on that in a second).

More seriously, Mayer never demands us to take the material seriously. That’s OK, but nor does he seem to find enough fun in the over-the-top nature of his setting to make it intense in a different sense either. The smartass Damon Runyon titles, which elaborate and interpolate (most memorably a line about making sure Rigoletto has enough gas in his car to get to the river, once he has Gilda’s body in the trunk) constantly take us out of the drama. The whole thing is PG at most, with no real sense of danger. (OK, Monterone gets knocked off. There’s that. But I want to see Gilda’s kidnapping for once be really frightening, not bordering on unintentional comedy. She gets stuffed into an Egyptian sarcophagus here.) For all its garish color this production is kind of bland and lacking in oomph. It entertains well enough, but it never punches you in the gut, it’s too slick and superficial for its own good. It needed a little more dirty, scary melodrama to get under our skin.

One major issue was the lack of focus in the performances and conducting. The cast is basically up their doing their standard Rigoletto characterizations, with little that connects them to the setting or each other. Also putting a lid on everything is Michele Mariotti’s tired, endlessly unexciting conducting. Seriously, he makes Richard Bonynge sound like Giulini. I was sitting in rear orchestra, which is a bad place acoustically, but I was amazed at how quiet and unexciting the whole thing sounded, with no snap or energy whatsoever. The first diminished seventh chord had no sting, slow tempos were very slow and not flexible, and fast ones had no drive. I have to wonder how Mariotti got this job with such poor results. The orchestra sounded fine, though.

The biggest casualty otherwise was Zeljko Lucic in the title role, who also seemed to be having a poor night vocally. His Rigoletto was undersung and underacted, with little stature, soul, or edge. His lyric voice has fine warm tone and he was never inaudible, but nor did he have the force or heft that would make him the main character. Something big was missing here, particularly in the seriously underwhelming “Cortigiani.” The “Si, la vendetta” triplets got away from him, but the lack of bite was more serious.

Piotr Beczala wasn’t in quite his best voice either, sounding a little congested around the middle of his range. But that’s only according to his very high standards, and his Duke was still beautifully sung, with sweet tone and fine musicality and just enough freedom of rhythm to make the character. Acting-wise he is more animated than Lucic and did everything with enthusiasm and good spirit, but at least from rear orchestra he never quite vanished into the role. He’s a little bit too much of a nice, modest sort of guy, more naturally Gualtier Maldè than Duca. One needs, strangely enough, a more self-regarding tenor here. (The second cast has Vittorio Grigolo, just saying.)

Diana Damrau was the finest actor in the cast, her Gilda a compelling portrait of insecurity, curiosity, and helplessness. This is a totally unbelievable character, but she plays up the sheltered aspect enough to make it kind of make sense. After two babies her voice has newfound warm and luster, and she’s not a tweety bird Gilda. Sometimes she sings just under or over the pitch, which irritates me a bit, but this was still a complete portrayal. If only the various performances had seemed to have a little more to do with each other! Some parts kind of work but it seem like it’s mostly by chance, at times everything falls into static park and bark.

In the smaller roles, Stefan Kocan showed excellent feeling for the concept as a greasy Sparafucile, and sang loudly enough if not particularly cavernously. I remember my friend Scott saying of the Maddalena in an old Met Rigoletto video (I believe this one), “I wonder how it feels to be the breasts of the production.” In this case the relevant body parts are the legs and they belong to Oksana Volkova but she also does a perfectly OK job singing one of the most thankless roles in Verdi.

The best thing is that I can see this production working much better with a cast and conductor that can get it together a little more. There’s no grand concept here, but it makes a big visual impression and with more energy and magnetism from the performers it would be a lot more exciting. The second cast has, as well as ideally egotistical Grigolo, super Rigoletto George Gagnidze and wonderful Lisette Oropesa as Gilda, so it might be worth checking out. Unfortunately it also has Mariotti. Mariotti is replaced by the always adequate Marco Armiliato, who in this case should be an improvement. The inevitable HD broadcast features the first cast and will be on February 16.

Dates and tickets here.

But it’s ironic, isn’t it? We’d all dismissed the production when it turns out that the music should have been our concern all along.

The only photos I can find so far are just of the sets with techies and no singers, but here are a few to give you an idea of the look. All copyright Ron Berard/Metropolitan Opera.

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Richard Tucker Gala: The stars are loud

Some of the stars came out for the Richard Tucker Foundation’s annual gala at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday night. With a program dominated by 19th-century Italian meatballs (despite a complete absence of actual Italians onstage), there was much drinking, cursing, praying, pleading to Mama, and other traditional operatic activities as sung by loud voices such as Dolora Zajick, Stephanie Blythe, Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann. The recipient of this year’s award was Angela Meade, who also sang, but in my following write-up, everyone gets a prize.

Marcello Giordani and Marina Poplavskaya canceled; René Pape disappeared off the program sometime last week. (This is all normal operating procedure for this gala.) Angela Gheorghiu was rumored to be materializing to sing Carmen mit dem Jonas, but her name was not mentioned once and La Scala Carmen Anita Rachvelishvili turned up to do it instead–meaning that instead of Don José-ing his Adriana of Tuesday’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Kaufmann Don José-ed his Principessa instead. Also the chorus was not the Met chorus but rather the New York Choral Society and they sounded excellent.

Orchestra:
Saint-Saens, Bacchanale from Samson et Delila
Emmanuel Villaume was conducting and did a fine, unobtrusive job (well, there were some strange tempos later on but I don’t know if that was him or the singers). The orchestra was “members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.” This was a sassy and zippy choice for an opener, I approve. I quickly realized that from my third-tier seat I could hear the strings barely at all, but considering the notoriously awful acoustics of Avery Fisher I’m not going to blame Villaume for this. Luckily the voices later on came through loud and clear. It helped that this was one loud bunch of singers.
Verdict: Most Brassy

Angela Meade:
Verdi, “Santo di patria” from Attila
I heard Angela Meade’s Met debut in Ernani back in 2008 and I was astonished at how much she’s grown (back then I was tipped off by a friend who went to high school with her, but she’s a secret no longer). She still has a big, clear, easy tone and agile coloratura but now sings with thrust and incisiveness, and a sense of pace that I didn’t remember at all from her before. Only a final high note came out a little shrill. This was exciting, gutsy stuff. Brava.
Verdict: Most Thrilling

Zeljko Lucic:
Verdi, “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera
Lucic has a lovely warm tone but not a lot of power at the top. The first half of this aria came out as barked, but the second half showed he can sing a good legato when he puts his mind to it. The bit with the cello at the start was shaky in the orchestra.
Verdict: Most Blah (sorry Zeljko)

Bryn Terfel:
Donizetti, “Udite, udite, o rustici” from L’elisir d’amore
The evening’s comedy act came from our current Wotan. To serve as his elixir, Terfel kept pulling bottles of beer from his jacket, including a Guinness, a Brooklyn Lager, and what I believe was a Sam Adams. That plus a lot of other gags made this more about the entertainment than the singing, but who cares to hear an amazingly sung Dulcamara anyway? Also, he seemed to chug the whole Brooklyn Lager at the end, showing fine taste in beer if not in consumption habits.
Verdict: Most Fun

Jonas Kaufmann:
Mascagni, “Mamma, quel vino è generoso” from Cavalleria rusticana
The programming sequence was unfortunate here; this was Very Serious Stuff after we’d just had lots of hijinks. But there was a real emotional intensity and trajectory to this that drew me in quickly enough. At times the phrasing was micromanaged but done so cannily that I almost didn’t notice. Also his fortes are really formidable and there were excellent pianos too. Powerful!
Verdict: Most Serious, possibly also Most Demented (Good Division)

Stephanie Blythe:
Thomas, “Connais-tu le pays” from Mignon
Everyone knows Stephanie Blythe can sing loudly but I at least forget that she can sing really prettily too. This had a gorgeous simplicity and floated quality that opened up naturally on the high notes. Very very nice!
Verdict: Most Enchanting

Dolora Zajick:
Chaikovsky, “Tsar vishnikh sil” from The Maid of Orleans
I was coming at this with a disadvantage because I don’t know the opera so I might have missed a lot, but I found it sung with conviction but rather unvariably. She’s monumental, but she’s kind of monochromatic.
Verdict: Most Resembling a Tank

Yonghoon Lee:
Massenet, “O Souverain, ô juge, ô père” from Le Cid
Lee has such a beautiful instrument but he shows even less musical variety than Zajick. Pretty much his only mode is a squillo-infused bellow, which is exciting but I never got the feeling he was taking me on a journey, and I DO know this aria. The tempo was on the (very) slow side.
Verdict: Most Squillo

Meade, Zajick, and Frank Porretta:
Bellini, Finale of Act I of Norma
Meade was again exciting, Zajick contributed some great chest voice (which is not quite what one listens to Bellini for but no mind) and I didn’t notice Porretta too much.
Verdict: Best Parterre Comment Thread Bait

(The squillo in this concert seemed unhappily apportioned. If Lee could give a little of his to Frank Porretta, they’d both be better off.)

Kaufmann and Terfel:
Verdi, “Dio che nell’alma infondere” from Don Carlo
Has Terfel ever sung this role onstage? I don’t think he has. Kaufmann looked more comfortable with it, to no surprise (or maybe it was the beer). But they blend surprisingly well and both have such hefty, heroic sounds that it sounded most unusually Wagnerian.
Verdict: Most Beneficial to Flanders

Maria Guleghina:
Puccini, Vissi d’arte from Tosca
Like everyone else said when they saw her in Nabucco (sorry, the early Verdi, I can’t do it), very loud vocal train wreck Maria Guleghina sounds surprisingly good right now! Her vibrato is still far wider than Broadway but she sounded amazingly in control, and sang a legit piano at the end. But she must have been miffed at only getting to sing one aria, because she sang it at a tempo where it could have been two.
Verdict: Slowest, also Most Demented (Probably Bad? Division)

Zajick and Lee:
Mascagni, “Tu qui, Santuzza?” from Cavalleria rusticana
Lee’s Turiddu is seemingly less conflicted than Kaufmann’s. Nevertheless, Zajick went for it with an enthusiasm to make up for the lack of staging, and Lee sounded quite impassioned before kind of running out of steam at the end. To be fair, if I had gotten cursed like that I’d probably crumple too.
Verdict: Loudest

Anita Rachvelishvili and Kaufmann:
Bizet, Act IV Duet from Carmen
This was my first time hearing Anita R., whose difficult last name was horribly mangled by Barry Tucker in his introduction. She’s got an even, sexy mezzo soprano that was very effective, though it seemed this time like Don José gets the more interesting singing in this scene. Or maybe that was just because Kaufmann was kind of totally fabulous in this, which he was. They tried to semi-stage it and, well, points for effort. I couldn’t see all of it from my seat location so I won’t comment further.
Verdict: Program Choice Most Unsuited to Concert Presentation

Terfel, Meade, and Blythe with additional help, Verdi, Fugue and Finale from Falstaff
This is a good way to end such a concert! It was quite well-balanced for a minimally rehearsed effort. but that’s partly because it’s composed so cleverly.
Verdict: Most Contrapuntal (sorry, I know that’s weak)

See you from Adriana on Tuesday. Hopefully our favorite current Romanian diva will show, if she doesn’t we’ll probably get Guleghina, which I’m dreading only slightly less now than I was earlier.

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La forza del destino: Showdown at the Staatsoper corral

Preziosilla is onto Carlos’s game.
(Note: picture is a different cast, though same Preziosilla.)
(Photo: Opera Chic)

Of all the caves in the world, you had to walk into mine.  La forza del destino might not be the most outwardly coherent of operas, but Verdi didn’t call it an “opera of ideas” for nothing, and it has an agenda under all that shaggy discursiveness.  Unfortunately David Pountney’s Wiener Staatsoper production, shorn of almost half an hour of music, has the ideas underlined and highlighted and little of the dark chaos.  This messily-staged revival and Philippe Auguin’s conducting went unstoppably forward like the plot’s bullet fired by mistake, and despite four strong singers it all felt rather off.  And the cowboys, well, they were a mistake too.  Giddyap, pardner.

Verdi, La forza del destino.  Production by David Pountney, conducted by Philippe Auguin.  With Eva-Maria Westbroek (Leonora), Fabio Armiliato (Alvaro), Zeljko Lucic (Don Carlos), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano), Tomasz Konieczny (Fra Melitone), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla)

If you’ve ever met me, I’ve probably told you how you have to read War and Peace.  (Because you do.  It’s wonderful in every way.  It’s my favorite novel.)  La forza del destino is kind of like War and Peace.  Shit happens, some personal and some global-historical, and sometimes there’s little the characters can do to control it.  They wander through things that are larger then themselves.  Some glory in the chaos (Preziosilla) , others try to hide from it (Leonora, eventually Alvaro).  In the opera, you don’t have Tolstoy’s narrative voice telling you all the fateful stuff.  But if you’re at the Staatsoper, you have David Pountney, who’s even more pedantic.

As suggested by the opening video of a butterfly starting an enormous wheel, the production is about coincidences and unintended consequences (I was sadly distracted through the whole overture).  Christianity provides a kind of anchor for these characters adrift, who finally all end up assailing the monastery for help and guidance.  The inn is a place of momentary respite, where many Bibles seem to provide a veneer of security.  The period is sometime during the twentieth century, but only vaguely so (there are still swords for dueling).  As an interpretation it makes sense, but it hits you over the head a few times too often.  Moreover, its extreme minimalism and attendant demurral to create a world outside the principal characters undermine the portrayal of larger forces (of DESTINY) at work.  When we’re suddenly at war in Act 3 the means are not great enough to give us any real atmosphere, just some halfhearted projections.  Destiny’s force never seems adequately cataclysmic.

Crosses, crosses everywhere (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

The sets are simple and OK enough, but the chorus in the inn scene is a somewhat inexplicable band of sexy dancing cowboys, including also sexy dancing cowgirls, and later at war we gets sexy dancing nurse nuns.  I think most opera suffers from an excess of good taste but I’m going to make an exception here.  We have lost any opportunity to establish who these people are in favor of sexy dancing cowgirls.   If the dancing had been fun or meaningful, it would have been alright, but it was just awkwardly bad.  The execution as a whole was so messy that I really can’t say how good or bad the production as originally conceived was.  The buttons in particular were hopelessly off, with some awkward silences and interruptions–the audience had no clue when they should clap and it made the reception feel tepid just because it was unclear.  (The lights, blocking, and conductor should always signal when we should applaud.)

The score suffered from some major cuts, particularly in the choral and minor character material of Act 3.  Not that I really miss Preziosilla’s “Al suon del tamburo” and Trabuco’s aria as such, but they give this opera its texture, its wildly incoherent patchwork of random events and moments that confuses the characters as much as it does me.  Making Forza neater seems to go against its spirit.  And the one major rearrangement–reordering some scenes in Act 3 so the tenor and baritone get a break between their duets and then cutting directly to the Rataplan–destroys the wonderful sequence of the Act 3 finale entirely.

Opening scene (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

Conductor Philippe Auguin favored a fast and loud account of the score that, while sometimes exciting, similarly allowed for few excursions into anything.  We’re getting this sucker done in under three hours or else, he seemed to say (my recording [Levine] is two hours fifty-six minutes total and the intermission was 20-25 minutes).  By the time Leonora pled for pace, pace, I was thinking, you and me both, sister.

The singing was mostly very good, though not transcendental enough to overrule these production and conductor-ly deficiencies.  Fabio Armiliato offered solid and admirable Italian tenoring with good phrasing and intonation, fine coloring and very loud and rich high notes, faulted by a muscley and dry tone at the passaggio and below.  I feel kind of bad for never warming to him, but he failed to grab me somehow.  His acting is generic but he does manage to look impressively Jesus-like in Act 4 in a long white robe with his short beard and longish hair.  I think this was unintentional.  If it wasn’t, I have no idea what it was supposed to signify.

Act 3.  Several of the upper parts of this set were MIA last night.
Photo: Der Standard

Eva-Maria Westbroek has a fabulous soprano, lush and creamy and even right up to the top of the staff.  Above that it gets steelier, but not unpleasantly so (that is to say, her first two “malediziones” were better than the last one).  I would liked to have heard more rhythmic flexibility and Italianate phrasing from her, but Augiun was conducting like he would slow down for no woman or man, so I’m not going to say she couldn’t do it elsewhere.  She did some marvelous acting when onstage alone.  And as for her future role as Anna-Nicole Smith, well, if Anna-Nicole had had better taste she would have wished she could look that good in a pantsuit.

Zeljko Lucic has plenty of volume for Don Carlos and sang his aria with real beauty and musicality, but he seems too fundamentally decent and his voice too lyrically gentle for a villain who kills his own sister.  I would love to hear him as Boccanegra, but am not convinced of his Verdi-villain status.  Tomasz Konieczny, as Melitone, had a metallic edge to his voice that made me think he would have been more suitable, if less opulent.  Ferruccio Furlanetto is not the type to be confined to near-last in a cast list and I’m rather surprised to see him singing such a small role as Padre Guardiano.  It was lovely, and his duet with Westbroek had, along with Lucic’s aria, the best singing of the night, but, still.  It’s minor.  Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla had the misfortune to get totally lost in Auguin’s manical tempo for the Rataplan, but otherwise didn’t sound bad and, hey, she can do both a split and a backbend.

Finally, a Great Moment in Opera Titles: “The bullet in his chest worries me.”  (“La palla che ha nel petto mi spaventa.”)  (Even in Italian it is somewhat dry, but “mi spaventa” is more properly “scares me.”)

Bows, another lousy in-house photo from me:

Next: The Semele prima is tomorrow but I need a break and think I’ll go on Friday.

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