25 Feb 2009
Rigoletto at the MET
The Plague of Beautiful Sounds: Has Bel Canto gone too far?
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
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For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
The Plague of Beautiful Sounds: Has Bel Canto gone too far?
The term Bel Canto, historically associated with operatic singing, is essentially easy to define; however, as of late it has come to represent something other than its initial connotation. “Beautiful Singing,” is not simply the manifestation of a beautiful sound, but an actual aesthetic singing method that has been passed along from its early masters to those singers who choose to execute it. But, have we become obsessed with the “beautiful sound” rather than the aesthetic concept of Bel Canto? Is making beautiful sounds enough to ensure the verisimilitude of Opera?
On February 4th , the performance of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera began with an announcement that on the eve prior Italian tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti, had spontaneously filled in for Mr. Rolando Villazón in the role of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, opposite Anna Netrebko. A significant feat for any well-seasoned professional, the announcement that Filianoti would sing back-to-back performances and continue with his scheduled performance as the Duke in Rigoletto was met with much applause.
Giuseppe Filianoti as the Duke
Debuting with Rigoletto, young Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza handled the Metropolitan Orchestra well, if perhaps lacking some of the necessary vibrancy required of Verdi’s scoring. At times, the tempi were held much too strictly and were devoid of rubato, that when used tastefully in middle-period Verdi can assist singers in carrying out pure Bel Canto singing. While tentative at first, Maestro Frizza settled into a more dramatically charged orchestral character by Act III. The swells in the storm scene, however, could have been more substantial, especially in a scene where Verdi employs the use of the human voice as a natural device, the howling wind of the storm. Chorus Master, Donald Palumbo was magnificent in his direction of this chorus that was the foundational support of the production.
George Gagnidze (Rigoletto)
Georgian Baritone, George Gagnidze, whose singing was the most accurate, aesthetically pleasing, and dramatic was promising in his portrayal of Verdi’s hunchback. His Rigoletto was both pathetic and sometimes sinister in his vendetta. In scenes his with Gilda, portrayed by Polish Soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, the dramatic effectiveness of his singing faltered and several scenes became stagnant, if not all sounding the same. Gagndize began to tread the line between reality and the other in Act III, with his most dramatic singing and acting at the point when Gilda is discovered in the sack. A lovely, baritone with colore brucciato, Gagnidze carried the brunt of this production on the merits of his talent.
Soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak possessed a beautiful, clear voice, if not too clear for Verdi. Because Gilda is young, she is often portrayed by a coloratura lirica; historically however, Verdi’s orchestral palate and the dramatic penchant of his writing would require a fuller voice that is capable of high tessitura and yet broad enough in the middle registers to mesh with the orchestral thickness of Verdi’s middle-period writing. Ms. Kurzak’s voice was even soubrette-like and much too light in contrast to Filianoti’s full dramatic tenor and Gagnidze’s burnished Baritone. Her Caro Nome left much to be desired. Unfortunately, Maestro Frizza was not helpful; almost painfully strict, he did not allow any semblance of stretching, rubato, or colorito. In fact, it resembled early Mozart more than a middle-period work of Verdi. If a voice of this type were to sing Gilda, it would be to implement the bell-like quality of the notes in the higher tessitura; however, Ms. Kurzak lacked squillo in her upper range, presenting her with difficulty in the final fioriture of Gilda’s cadenza. Unfortuantely, she also lacked fullness in her middle register, a likely cause why Mr. Gagdnize’s scenes with her affected his own vocal colour. While producing some lovely sounds throughout, dramatically Ms. Kurzak failed to add any electricity to this production.A scene from Rigoletto with Giuseppe Filianoti as the Duke, Viktoria Vizin as Maddalena, Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda and Roberto Frontali in the title role of Rigoletto.
Mezzo-Soprano, Viktoria Vizin, was highly effective as Maddalena, exuding just the right amount of sultriness. She was dramatic and illuminated the stage perhaps more than her colleagues, and possesses a rich mezzo that is well suited to the Verdian palate.
While the majesty of the Met always remains, this production was not one of its most memorable. A young cast of promising talent is always exciting, however the shift in aesthetic understanding is equally noticeable. What would a Rigoletto have been like 40 years ago or even in 1851? Historically speaking, opera is an art of old and its aesthetic properties, even if set modernly by present-day artists, should remain as they were intended. Verdi’s hunchback is perhaps the character to whom he related the most for a number of reasons; yet, this production lacked the dramatic penchant that even one glance at the score makes blatantly evident.
“Careful,” might seem the word of the day. Taking the risk of making an audience believe that what is occurring on that stage is a reality in the midst of a larger one is becoming more and more sparse. Swallowed by the need to make a “beautiful sound,” the risk of dramatic intensity is flickering. Is removing the portamenti that are essential to Bel Canto, and singing strictly on the beat the way to create drama or remain historically accurate to Verdi’s aesthetic? If we continue to cater to the “beautiful sound” alone, the art of opera cannot remain true to its historical ancestry. It would be the desire of any spectator to hear a few sounds that were not as beautiful, at the behest of dramatic efficacy.
Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere © 2009