25 Feb 2009
Rigoletto at the MET
The Plague of Beautiful Sounds: Has Bel Canto gone too far?
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.
On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.
New Co-Production Tristan und Isolde with Metropolitan: Simon Rattle and Westbroek electrify Treliński’s Opera-Noir.
In an operatic world crowded with sure-fire bread and butter repertoire, Opera San Jose has boldly chosen to lavish a new production on a dark horse, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
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