21 Apr 2008
OONY Performs Puccini's Edgar
It was one of Queler’s good nights.
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
It was one of Queler’s good nights.
You know the bad ones, the reputedly great unknown score that, like a defective Frankenstein’s monster, refuses to come to life under her listless thunderbolt, the overparted “name” star, the clueless newbies – but there have also been great Queler nights, where a forgotten masterpiece made everybody’s eyes shine (while we wonder why on earth this is obscure), familiar singers do things you never dreamed they could do, and the unknown names are names everyone will know someday, are, well, great opera nights. Edgar was a blend of familiar (Puccini melody) and unfamiliar (but those tunes were better in other scores), with a star giving a star performance, a couple of promising youngsters, and an oldster out of depth and style but camping it up to thrill us.
Edgar is like some disreputable relation you always enjoy running into for their exuberance and oddity, and are grateful not to meet at every family party. Puccini’s second opera and first full-length effort deserves its obscurity (which is legend); one hears it nowadays mostly from a lack of anything else to scrape from the exhausted barrel of the later Italian line. (Though another association, Teatro Gratticielo, has done an impressive job resuscitating verismo works of unexpected worthiness and charm.)
The problem for Puccini – as no one knew at the time but we easily detect in hindsight – is that he didn’t quite know how to tug our heartstrings with a male protagonist. The women here are a study in contrast (goody-goody soprano, wicked, sexy mezzo), but neither has enough room, musically or dramatically, to become a living, memorable figure. Why is Tigrana such a shallow sensualist? Because she’s a Gypsy foundling? But Carmen, to take another such, has a range, an inner life, a distinctive outlook in any single act of Bizet’s opera that makes Tigrana seem an irritable child. Why is Fidelia so loving, no matter the provocation? Is it because of her name? The story takes us no deeper than that. (Again: compare Bizet’s Micaela, a fully-rounded person with a comprehensible inner life.) Puccini could make a drama out of sympathetic or unsympathetic women – but he could not (at this early stage) make one from a pair of cardboard shadows.
Therefore the outpourings of self-disgusted melody from Puccini’s protagonist (though they produce a terrific night for the right tenor, and Marcello Giordani, our best Puccini tenor nowadays, was in clover) may arouse applause but they never create interest in the outcome of this bitter little story of a man caught between a saint and a whore. The only question: will Tigrana stab herself? Or will she stab the neurotic Edgar? Or the innocent Fidelia? is not very interesting. (Which would you choose, if your objective was to shock your audience? And that was always Puccini’s aspiration.)
Queler has conducted this score before, an occasion I barely remember: it is difficult to imagine Renata Scotto sinking her teeth into Fidelia to any great degree (there’s so little meat), but Grace Bumbry surely had fun with Tigrana and we missed her on Sunday. Edgar is a lush score with verismo outpourings but also a grand concertato near the end of Act I left over from bel canto style (Puccini never wrote such a thing again) and several “ecclesiastical” numbers (vespers, a requiem) that were perfect for his family tradition.
Giordani sang with a bright, metallic sheen and an ease conspicuously lacking in his Met Ernani. It was a performance of little variety, agreeably loud (and OONY regulars like it loud), but with some interesting colors during the character’s scenes of teeth-gnash self-loathing, which include a sermon in disguise at his own funeral.
Latonia Moore, one of Queler’s stable of rising young sopranos, has a sumptuous, beautiful, crowd-pleasing voice, but it was not clear from separate, limpid, often wonderful phrases if she can put things together into a fully rounded presentation because sweet Fidelia offers such slight opportunity to do so. But the notes themselves were so wonderfully produced that one longed to hear her in more familiar repertory to see if she’s the real thing – too many ladies have fallen by the wayside in recent years as the Verdi/Puccini soprano we all long to die for.
Jennifer Larmore, alarmingly pudgy a couple of years ago, is now alarmingly rail-thin. Her acting was suitably over the top for Tigrana the heartless vamp (Theda Bara couldn’t have outplayed her), but the voice (never a Puccini-verismo voice) was not up to the role: the luscious dark colors that floored us when she first came on the scene are completely gone, and she sounded thin, overstretched, unsensuous. This role was written for a blockbuster mezzo – where was Dolora Zajick when we needed her? (Stephanie Blythe or Olga Borodina would have had fun with it, too. And all three have sung with Queler.) Larmore was all pose and gown, and she appeared to have stolen the gown from Karita Mattila’s recital wardrobe.
Stephen Gaertner, a frequent figure in concert operas and a recent Met debutante (Enrico, Melot), was impressive as Fidelia’s manic brother, Frank. “Parli il pugnale,” he and Giordani cried at one point – “Our swords will speak for us!” – when they are about to do dubious battle over Tigrana’s much contested (living) body. That tells us right there that the story is too archaic for the era Puccini lived in.
Fortunately, the swords did not do the singing.