25 Feb 2009
Rigoletto at the MET
The Plague of Beautiful Sounds: Has Bel Canto gone too far?
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
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