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.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
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.