15 Dec 2009
Zürich’s Riveting ‘Corsaro’
Il Corsaro, the Verdi rarity currently on display at Zürich Opera, is the best of both possible worlds.
Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera.
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‘If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?’
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The mantle of tenor Peter Pears’ legacy hung heavily over his immediate ‘successors’, as they performed music that had been composed by Benjamin Britten for the man to whom he avowed, ‘I write every note with your heavenly voice in my head’.
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Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an effort shared with Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, tends to emphasize emotional involvements against a backdrop of spare sets.
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Il Corsaro, the Verdi rarity currently on display at Zürich Opera, is the best of both possible worlds.
For starters, it is uncommonly well sung and played with authentic style and real Italian ardor. One has come to expect such top tier musical quality from this marvelous Swiss company. But the surprising marvel of the evening was a wholly modern “concept” production that not only offered thrilling visiuals, but also uncompromising clarity.
Anyone who reads the pages of virtually any opera-related publication is well aware of the profusion of so-called “Eurotrash” productions that litter (word chosen carefully) the theatrical landscape, willfully undermining the work of art they are meant to serve, running perversely counter to the authors’ intentions, or just plain setting out to create an entirely un-related work casually relegating the music and drama to second banana status as a means to some sort of arrogantly pretentious “end.”
All the more remarkable then, that such a surreal production could pack such a wallop. How? Set designer Paolo Fantin used the ‘‘elements” as a basis for his breath-taking design. The island of the opening scene consisted of a weighty, over-sized, tilted writing desk, littered with books, and bearing its lone citizen: our troubled hero Corrado. Mr. C attempts to script letter after letter to his beloved only to crumple them and discard them in the sea. The desk floated and spun on a water-filled stage, backed by a huge tilted mirror wall that reflected the assembled forces as if from above. This provided a sensational kaleidoscopic effect that combined the best efforts of ‘performance art’ and contemporary ‘living’ sculpture.
The side mirrors could rise and fall when necessary to admit choristers or other scenic elements, chief of which was a huge floating/spinning bed that bore our soon-to-be-unhinged heroine Medora. ‘Earth’ consisted of a long narrow platform that tracked in to intersect the water, and occasionaly bringing with it an enormous dining table put to good use as a symbolic prop and another level as a playing area.
The front of the stage was outfitted with gas jets, so when the invaders set the town on fire, Corrado summoned the flames Wotan-like to appear, and appear they did, creating a dazzling wall of fire between us and the players, brilliantly multiplied by the mirrors.
Mr. Fantin had a willing accomplice in costume designer Carla Teti, who not only handsomely outfitted her male cast in rather traditional period attire, but served up some fantastical robes for the chorus, and eye-popping, shiny red plastic ball gowns for Gulnara and the Damenchor’s first scene. The riot of color and movement created by these crimson reflections was evocative of strewn poppies being carried by the wind. Wow!
I am not sure how difficult it must be to light all of this effectively, what with all the possibilities for blinding the audience with all those shiny surfaces, but Martin Gebhardt’s lighting design was just remarkable in its many effects, not the least of which was a really decent general wash when required.
Carmen Giannattasio as Gulnara
Director Damiano Michieletto provided an assured staging that was lean and mean. He chose to confine the action to a smallish playing space for each scene, and to concentrate on intensely personal and specific interactions between the characters. What a concept! Actors listening to, and reacting to each other! If just this basic tenet caught on, many a Euro-trash production could improve 50%!
The tense duet between Seim and Gulnara was heightened to searing proportions by having the baritone unceremoniously heave her onto the dining table and begin to strangle her amid the fine china and flower arrangements, a shocking juxtaposition of uncivil behavior amid all the trappings of civility. Having Corrado and Medora play their entire first duet on her careening bed, not only added a hint of a carnal dimension, but more important, underscored and presaged her character’s fragility and instability. Throughout the night, Mr. Michieletto’s sure hand gave us telling stage pictures, focused drama, and (not inconsequential) wonderful traffic management of the large choral forces (singing dynamically under Chorus Master Jürg Hämmerli).
But all this would have been for naught had the music been ill-served, and here we were equally favored. For, as the Corsair of the title, Vittorio Grigolo is the real deal. There was not one moment that Mr. Grigolo was not fully committed to his portrayal, dramatically engaged, and interacting deferentially with his colleagues. He has a clean lyric tenor with some heft in the core sound, and while he is often singing at the limit of his current resources, the good news is he never attempts to exceed his capabilities. He is young, he is handsome, he is gifted with a meltingly beautiful instrument, and he is pacing himself well without ever stinting on emotionally-charged, arching lines. It is hoped that he does not just yet sing this role too often, or attempt such parts in a larger house, but note for note, this was star singing with superstar potential. Vittorio is a tenor to watch.
As Medora the reliable Elena Mosuc provided some bell-like fioriture and seamless flights above the staff. Her limpid tone was a terrific match for Grigolo’s in the warmly lyrical passages and she offered a very clear understanding of our heroine’s dramatic journey. In one of the few minor staging miscalculations, Ms. Mosuc’s superb vocalizing in her final mad scene was unnecessarily competing with the ladies sloshing through the water, strewing flowers (as noiselessly as they could, but distracting nonetheless). I would challenge the director to find a way to keep the wonderful effect but perhaps move it to a different moment.
Juan Pons as Seid
Carmen Giannattasio (Gulnara) was new to me and what discovery she was, taking the stage from her first entrance and commanding our attention with ravishing phrasing, assured histrionics, and complete command of early Verdi. Ms. Giannattasio’s dusky soprano has a hint of metal, meaning she crested the climaxes with fine effect. Early on, I worried I might tire of her no-nonsense delivery. But she soon proved herself capable of well-controlled introspective phrases and moments of hushed, haunting piannissimi. I hope to encounter her again.
Stalwart veteran Juan Pons as Seid is in the autumn of a long and distinguished career. Mr. Pons is still a formidable figure and consummate professional, and he performs with fearless bravado. If his substantial baritone still has the presence and volume of old, it has to be conceded that years of Scarpia’s and Tonio’s et al. have left the instrument a little woolly around the edges. But his imposing artistry proved a perfect foil for the three fresh-voiced “youngsters” in the cast.
And speaking of youth: in the pit young Eivind Gullberg Jensen led quite a stylish account of this equally youthful score. At all times, he displayed a real flair for the genre, and the maestro inspired his talented performers with an evident love of the piece. His belief in Verdi’s early effort was infectious and we all willingly succumbed to his committed rendition.
This hit performance of Il Corsaro (wildly cheered) offered sure-handed direction in a visually pleasing physical production married to superlative playing and singing that included a rising star tenor: the best of both worlds, indeed.