25 Feb 2009
Rigoletto at the MET
The Plague of Beautiful Sounds: Has Bel Canto gone too far?
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
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