16 Nov 2008
La Traviata at the MET
When La Traviata had its first performance, in Venice in 1853, it was a scandal.
The Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.
‘Beauty is the one form of spirituality that we experience through the senses.’ In Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice, Plato’s axiom stirs the hopes of the aging, intellectually stale poet, Gustav von Aschenbach, that he may rekindle his creativity.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
There is a sense in which it all began in London, Puccini having been seized in 1900 with the idea of an opera on this subject after watching David Belasco’s play here.
The tenor that the audience most wanted to hear, Plácido Domingo, opened the vocal program with “Junto al puente de la peña” (Next to the rock bridge) from La Canción del Olvido (The song of Oblivion) by José Serrano. He sounded rested and his voice soared majestically over the orchestra.
Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Così fan tutte from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.
Rossini's Maometto Secondo is a major coup for Garsington Opera at Wormsley, confirming its status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain. Maometto Secondo is a masterpiece, yet rarely performed because it's formidably difficult to sing. It's a saga with some of the most intense music Rossini ever wrote, expressing a drama so powerful that one can understand why early audiences needed "happy endings" to water down its impact
I suppose it was inevitable that, in this Britten Centenary year, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival would open with Peter Grimes.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley isn’t Mozart as you’d expect but it’s true to the spirit of Mozart who loved witty, madcap japes.
What a pity! On a glorious — well, by recent English standards — summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached.
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Wagner’s Lohengrin is not an unfamiliar visitor to the UK thanks, in the main, to Elijah Moshinsky’s perennial production at Covent Garden.
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
When La Traviata had its first performance, in Venice in 1853, it was a scandal.
That was the point of making the story into an opera in the first place. Serious, tragic operas were not, in those days, set in contemporary times, or among bourgeois persons. The management of La Fenice was sufficiently nervous to backdate the sets and costumes by a hundred years to the era of Manon Lescaut, but no one was fooled – everyone knew about Dumas’s recent, somewhat autobiographical hit novel and play, La Dame aux Camellias.
But more: La Traviata, for all its denunciation of hypocritical society, underlined a moral: once a woman had been around the block, she could never go home again, make a successful marriage, live happily ever after, become somebody’s mother, for heaven’s sake! It was important that this moral be made clear because, even back in 1853, everyone knew it wasn’t true – women of dubious reputation made prominent, respectable marriages all the time – even in Italy, never mind Paris. (For men with a past, of course, there had never been a problem.) In Italy, where divorce would not be an easy matter for another hundred years, marriages ended and divorced persons made alternative arrangements, accepted by their friends and families with greater or lesser indifference. Violetta simply had bad luck – and bad microbes. (Her original, Marie Duplessis, the high-class courtesan who discarded Dumas fils, wedded a nobleman but died of consumption at 23.)
The Met’s overcrowded Traviata has been touched up, polished and primed because Act II was telecast as part of the opening night Gala – but also to give a little more clarity to some of the muddier moments of the overblown Zeffirelli staging. There is a new conductor, Paolo Carignani, who leads a taut, lean performance without skimping on necessary sentiment – a waltz is a waltz is a waltz. His tempos are a bit frenetic in Act I – the singers seemed to find them too fast as well – but throughout the evening the climaxes evolved naturally from what had gone before, and no one was drowned out.
Anja Harteros is a tall, slim, handsome lady of aristocratic mien, appropriate to the Countess in Figaro, the role of her Met debut. In the party scene, where a tiara perches atop her dark curls, she resembles some frozen, forbidding royal of World War I vintage, which did not make for a sympathetic figure. I’d have liked her a lot more without the sparkles up top.
Her voice, when not warmed up, is harsh, even acid. In Act I she was not at all appealing, coloratura uneven, pitch sometimes off target, and her top capable of no optional high notes. She was not, in this scene, a Violetta, and it was unclear what role would be suitable – Lady Macbeth perhaps, where a large, ugly sound and uneven coloratura are excusable. But by Act II, she had calmed down – or the conductor was not pushing her so hard – and she made rich, creamy sounds, especially at “Più non esiste – or amo Alfredo” (an exquisite moment, and one that usually goes by unremarked). Her “Amami, Alfredo,” was capable but not demented – she is entirely too collected to play a woman losing emotional control. The last act was her best. The voice then revealed a sweetness when singing softly – it is the brilliance of the first act that escapes her, that hardens her sound.
A scene from Verdi's "La Traviata" with Anja Harteros as Violetta.
At least her height means she is one Violetta who does not look absurd beside the inevitable Baron Douphol of seven-foot-tall John Hancock, who has sung the part 36 times since this production premiered. Among other novelties this year: at curtain rise, he and Violetta were on the stairs, preparing to retire for a night’s romp, when their rowdy friends burst in, to his manifest annoyance. There is less picnicking on cushions in the opening scene than there used to be. But I miss the glove of challenge Hancock originally threw down to Alfredo at the end of Act II – the music expresses it, the era demands it, why has the Met deleted it? Do they think modern audiences would laugh? Would they? Would it matter?
The evening’s Alfredo, Massimo Giordano, is short, stocky, and not very handsome in the long “romantic” hairpiece that looked so good on Jonas Kaufmann. Giordano does not possess an instrument of exceptional beauty, but his instincts are musical; he does not bray and his high notes fill the room. He pays attention to the filigree in his cabaletta, and he launches himself into impassioned phrases with a nice sense of line. His finest moment – and Harteros’s – came during “Parigi, o cara,” sung caressingly, filling the house softly and accompanied tenderly – for a few minutes they were the perfect Alfredo and Violetta, singing to comfort each other, and we happened to overhear – a lovely bit of intimacy in this outsize occasion. (Harteros could use this voice for Lady M’s sleepwalk.)
Germont was Željko Lučić, who sang Macbeth last season: a real Verdi baritone, with a smooth, mellow sound as large as you could desire, and an actor’s judgment of the effect of each word. Most Germonts either stand stiffly or become excessively, even tearfully, sympathetic to the lady with a past whom they encounter in Act II; Lučić’s body language showed a provincial’s discomfort in this sophisticated milieu, and he had the grace to seem downright embarrassed at the sordid sacrifice he requested of her. A bit of a sob frilled each line of the second verse of “Di Provenza,” and I thought for a moment they might not cut his cabaletta. Cut it they did; the number is a pointless convenienze, but for once I wanted to keep it in, just to continue reveling in his sound. Ever-reliable Theodora Hanslowe sang Flora and Kathryn Day sounded clear as a bell in the usually fade-out role of Annina.
With Lučić as the thane, Harteros as his lady, Giordano as Macduff and lively Maestro Carignani urging the witches on, a potentially great cast for Macbeth currently holds the stage in the Met’s Traviata.