08 Nov 2010
Il Trovatore, Metropolitan Opera
It’s difficult to be reasonable about Il Trovatore. Reason is the last quality we expect from any of its characters or situations.
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.
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.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
It’s difficult to be reasonable about Il Trovatore. Reason is the last quality we expect from any of its characters or situations.
They are extreme people, yielding unreflectively to extreme passions. Verdi’s score expresses just that element (richly evident in its source, a blood-and-thunder Gutierrez drama somewhat watered down for the libretto in order to appease papal censors), and the singing should emerge with just this sort of unreasoning passion. We may not believe that X loves Y, but we ought to believe their minds are at fever pitch: “I’m going to hit that orgasmic high note if it kills me.” No, you never hear a Trovatore like that any more, but back when all theater was live theater and Il Trovatore was the most popular theater piece on Earth, that’s the sort of excitement you could hope for. If you want it now, you might want to check out the old RCA recording with Milanov, Barbieri, Bjoerling and Warren. And that was an everyday Metropolitan Opera cast!
The Met’s current David McVicar production in Charles Edwards’s unattractive but functional sets (time period: Spain during a civil war — any old civil war — there were plenty to choose from, but anyway it’s not the one in 1410 where Gutierrez set it) is not without its absurdities. (Why are all those floozies hanging around the soldiers’ camp, acting so very camp, when the general is formally reviewing his troops?) But the job gets done and sets up the singers to play their parts with minimal fuss.
Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Ferrando
One particular thing struck me about the leading singers on this occasion: None of them had their eyes glued to the conductor. Singers who sing to lovers, tormenters, wounded children or God while keeping an eye on the baton the whole time are often a necessary evil, a whimsy one grows used to, but it was a pleasure to have the stars of this revival, though they never lost the beat (and conductor Marco Armiliato never let Verdi’s powerful rhythms fade or grow less than propulsive), looking at each other the entire night. They were in it, they were on it. This is one of those professional touches you hardly notice if you’re not looking for it — and are accustomed to too many singers who can’t manage it.
Patricia Racette as Leonora and Renée Tatum as Inez
You seldom get four top stars in top form in a Trovatore, but the opera calls for just that. On this occasion no one sang badly but the glitter was seldom gold. The men had it rather over the women; their voices seemed better designed for singing Verdi. One felt in especially good hands with the Count di Luna of Željko Lučić, who makes one think the great days of the Verdi baritone live again. His “Il balen” was flawless, the long, long line filling the house without effort, each note on the proper pitch as though his throat could not consider putting it anywhere else. I don’t remember there being quite so much bladework in this production, but Lučić certainly startled the house when he drew his sword through his hand, drenching it in blood, in his determination to possess Leonora. He held his own in the confrontational duets and trios, too.
Marcelo Álvarez sang his offstage serenades beautifully (to the accompaniment of a harp that never appeared — hey, guys, he’s a troubadour, y’know?) but his double aria in the besieged fortress seemed on the gruff side and he ran out of voice by the time of the dungeon scene. Hoarseness seemed to be the problem; perhaps, like Franco Corelli, he should conceal glasses of water around the set. His canteen in Act IV seemed not to have been filled, and he needed it. He looked a romantic enough figure whenever he did not stand in profile.
Patricia Racette’s Leonora is not the loopy teenager jumping around the set played by Sondra Radvanovsky in this production: Leonora may be a teenager, but she’s a lady of high Spanish birth, and she knows it; Racette knows it, too. Spanish grandezza used to mean something, and Verdi’s Leonora is that sort of dignified character.
Željko Lučić as Count di Luna and Patricia Racette as Leonora
Racette is such an intelligent singer, so persuasive in her understanding of predicament, that I wish I liked her voice better. Her instrument always seems too small for the Met. She manages very professionally, but the voluptuous floods of sound that other sopranos have brought to the role, the voice that seems to define Leonora’s desperate heart and new-awakened passions, are not at Racette’s disposal. Her “Tacea la notte” was fascinating as vocal storytelling, but the tidal rise at its conclusion did not overflow. “Di tale amor” was, as it usually is, a bit of a mess, drawing no applause — Sutherland is the only soprano I ever heard sing it flawlessly, and the rest of her performance was inert. (“Di tale amor” is one of the few cases where I’d like to take his Orsinitá the composer aside and say, sternly, “Maestro, this tune isn’t good enough; go write a new one.”) The convent scene was no celestial flight, and Racette seemed out of breath in much of Act IV; there were many thin notes and others not precisely where one wanted them. Racette coped with the part but she did not take joy in it, or exploit its opportunities.
Marianne Cornetti has the heft for Azucena, but it takes her an awfully long time to warm up. Her “Stride le vampe” was loud but pitchless. Only at the end of the “Condotta” did she give evidence of the ferocity of a maddened Gypsy — her final notes actually brought forth the first responsive “echo” I’ve ever heard at the Met! The dungeon serenade, however, gave Cornetti place for her most beautiful singing of the night.
Alexander Tsymbalyuk, as Ferrando, has a clear, persuasive young bass but he bleats a bit. Renée Tatum was not the first confidante in my experience to make us all wish Inez had more to sing. The monks’ offstage “Miserere” in Act IV was downright heavenly, evidence of what those guys can accomplish when they’re not swashbuckling around shirtless, fighting with knives and spitting in each other’s faces, as they were obliged to do at other times.
Marianne Cornetti as Azucena and Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico
The acting from all hands gave evidence of a bent towards melodrama. This is not out of place in Trovatore, of all operas, but many were the moments (“Ah sì, ben mio,” for example) when I felt the singers would give Verdi his due and us a better time if they’d stand and deliver in the old-fashioned way, instead of emoting like antsy banshees, losing their breath and tripping over their own feet.
The omission of nearly all cabaletta repeats implied a desire not so much to energize the occasion as to get it over with. That’s no way to do Trovatore; Trovatore must breathe.