28 Sep 2012
Rigoletto in San Francisco
Four Rigolettos in nine days (for this critic), of twelve Rigolettos in 24 days (are these world records?).
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..
Four Rigolettos in nine days (for this critic), of twelve Rigolettos in 24 days (are these world records?).
Major support for this San Francisco operatic extravaganza is provided by, among others, the Great Interpreters of Italian Opera Fund. Hyperbole, or not?
It is a qualified answer. That conductor Nicola Luisotti may join the ranks of, let us say, Toscanini and von Karajan (et al.) is yet to be determined. Luisotti is however Italian and this alone endows him with integrity as an interpreter of Italian opera. Based on the September 19 performance the maestro did indeed achieve some greatness.
Rigoletto may be the quintessential Italian opera sitting on the cusp between the glories of bel canto and the agonies of Romantic realism. Formally it is pure bel canto, the individual blocks (“numbers”), arias and duets are interrupted, then capped with a fast, determined “cabaletta.” The trios and quartets are vocally splendid and dramatically static. Finales (when things get done) are brief and to the point.
But add to bel canto the pathos of a cripple’s love for his daughter, the philosophic examination of love and the malevolence of fate. Francesco Piave’s libretto uses Monterone’s curse to close each act and explain why. It is rapid and violent melodrama.
Maestro Luisotti knows that Rigoletto is about beautiful singing, and he gives his singers all needed support based on the supposition that any aria is really a duet — for him and the singer. At its most dramatic were paroxysms of podium involvement in Gilda’s stunning Caro nome, and in the next act Rigoletto and Gilda’s wrenching duet that ends with Rigoletto’s Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta. All this, needless to say, elicited paroxysms of instrumental involvement (the oboe obbligato in Gilda’s Tutte le feste al tempio as example). Tempos, always slower or faster than anticipated, served to generate genuine emotional immediacy obliterating the suspicion of conductorial willfulness. And hardly to be outdone in bel canto by the stage, the maestro imposed an full-voiced orchestral lyricism that took unrelenting flight throughout the evening.
Houston trained, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova without qualification is a great interpreter of Gilda. While she has gained her international fame as Queen of the Night, her vocal endowment well encompasses much of the lyric repertoire. The facility and agility of her voice is enriched by a sizable palette of color and delivery that matches her dramatic concentration. Rarely has a singer so completely embodied the Gilda character. Time stood still in the adolescent musings of the young girl who had just had melismatic sex with the Duke (yes, the second act love duet was mesmerizing).
Arturo Chacón-Cruz as The Duke of Mantua and San Francisco Opera dancers
San Francisco trained, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was the over-sexed, heart-throb Duke of Mantua. With a voice that resides in color somewhere between the French and Italian repertoire and a technique that belies his youthfulness, he constructed Verdi’s vocal lines with precision and the hint of spinto that make tenors desirable lovers, ably seducing the splendidly drawn Countess Ceprano of Adler Fellow Laura Krumm as well as the production’s sympathetic, sexually ripe Maddalena, former Adler Fellow Kendall Gladden.
Italian baritone Marco Vratogna too achieves status as a great interpreter of Rigoletto, given that this twisted human is more, and in Mr. Vratogna’s case much more than a big voice who rages at the cortigiani. Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto is small in scale but, and maybe therefore, large in insinuation that more than a victim, Rigoletto is indeed an ugly soul in an ugly body. This compromises the blatant pathos that might be awarded a big voiced Rigoletto who will seem righteous by sheer volume. Mr. Vratogna uses his medium scaled voice of many colors and much Italianate style to make Rigoletto sinister, unsympathetic, maybe pitiful.
And very interesting.
On the other hand Canadian bass Robert Pomakov as Monterone roared his curses, quivering with rage, well anchoring the conciseness of the drama by sheer volume, abetted by Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the honest murderer Sparafucile, incomparable casting in both cases.
This San Francisco Opera production, designed by veteran American scenographer, now Yale professor, Michael Yeargan, debuted in 1997. Mr. Yeargan too assumes stature as a great interpreter of Italian opera with a set that echoes the conciseness of the dramatic action of Rigoletto in an abstracted, classically forced-perspective Italian street. Hard edge, repeated porticos are obsessive, sinister and overwhelming. Colors are saturated, basic and bright when not cast as dim, sinister washes on the buildings. The set is minimal, no props (save one chair in the third act). The set functions with almost machine-like precision. Like Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Because of the number and proximity of performances San Francisco Opera must provide two sets of principals. On September 11 I saw Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda and Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as the Duke. Mr. Lucic is a big voiced Rigoletto whose well focused tone did not waver over the course of events resulting in a hunchback of little interest, though Cortigiani, vil razza dannata was hurled with maximum vehemence. Mme. Kurzak is a brilliant singer whose musicianship is abstract rather than dramatic, and while she did make music with maestro Luisotti she made no attempt whatsoever to impersonate Verdi’s vulnerable heroine. Mr. Demuro is an ideal Duke, good looking with a bona fide tenorial swagger. He possesses a light voice that too easily negotiates the Duke’s high tessitura with little of the vocal excitement that makes the Duke musically and dramatically alive.
At this performance the brilliant colors of the set seemed abrasive, the costumes seemed ridiculous and the staging by Harry Silverstein seemed to try too hard to make something out of nothing. In retrospect this reaction was caused by the non-involvement of the principals in their characters.
On September 12 I saw the cast described in the body of this review. At this performance the staging by Mr. Silverstein redeemed itself as a totally competent management of the chorus scenes, if more complicated than Verdi’s direct story telling ideally requires. The principal scenes seemed more detailed than the incipient realism of middle-period Verdi provokes (but, hey, opera these days is supposed to be “acted” — the exception was Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto effected with minimum gesture and maximum vocal physicality). In particular the Gilda of Mme. Shagimuratova seemed artful rather than felt in her final scenes.
On September 15 the Lucic/Kurzak/Demuro cast was again on stage at the War Memorial opera house and on the scoreboard of the local ball park, home of the SF Giants, where 27,000 spectators and I braved the cold for the duration (other years have been far warmer in temperature and far warmer musically). The format requires much focus on faces and acoustical manipulation of voices exposing the limitations of this cast. Mr. Demuro however seemed a natural born TV actor, to the degree that there was the suspicion he might be playing himself.
On September 19, above, it was all pure magic. Go figure. There are four more performances but I’m stopping while I’m ahead.