Sunday, December 4, 2016
I bring you today a new recording by an excellent mezzo soprano, rather than by an orchestra, a string player, or a pianist. It is time for a change… Ha, ha… Her name is Elīna Garanča. This amazing singer explores the emotional storms raging in the lives of opera’s strong women with her new DG album ‘Revive’. Here are the titles: Berlioz: Ah! Je vais mourir (from Les Troyens) Cilea: Acerba volutta (from Adriana Lecouvreur) Ecco: respiro appena. Io son l’umile ancella (from Adriana Lecouvreur) Leoncavallo: È destin… (from La Bohème) Mascagni: Voi lo sapete o mamma (from Cavalleria rusticana) Massenet: Ne me refuse pas (from Hérodiade) Va! Laisse couler mes larmes (from Werther) Mussorgsky: Skushno Marina! (from Boris Godunov) Ponchielli: Stella del marinar!… È un anatema (from La Gioconda) Saint-Saëns: Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse (Samson et Dalila) Reine! Je serai reine! (from Henry VIII) Thomas, Ambroise: Connais-tu le pays (from Mignon) Verdi: Nei giardin del bello saracin ostello ‘Veil Song’ (from Don Carlo) Cor de la Comunitat Valenciana Rataplan, rataplan, della gloria (from La forza del destino) Cor de la Comunitat Valenciana All selections are performed by Elīna Garanča (mezzo), with the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Roberto Abbado conducting. Presto Classical wrote the following: “Each of these complex and diverse women spring to life fully formed and meticulously differentiated, and you never get the sense that she’s using every item in her new technical tool-box for its own sake…And what a chest-voice!” Here is Ms. Garanca in Chanson from Boheme:
What does a great opera production do, and what does a bad production fail to do? Discussions of this subject reveal divisions as deep as those in arguments about the 2016 presidential election, and the discussions can be almost as acrimonious. Some operagoers believe a production should recreate what a composer and librettist would have seen in their time, albeit with modern technical capabilities. To the most conservative of these fans, even a cosmetic change to the prescribed time period (19th century instead of 18th or 13th, for example) is a betrayal. Others accept a new production as an individual response to the material, and will embrace Regietheater rethinkings of familiar works if the results are absorbing as theater. Still others find a middle ground: do what you like with the sets and costumes, but stay faithful to the narrative. We all have to decide where we are on this spectrum, and placement on it is not necessarily fixed. I know that in 2016 I enjoy things I would not have expected to enjoy in 2006. Sometimes I return to a Regietheater production that actually made me angry when I saw it at an earlier point of life and experience with the medium, and while I still do not like it, I have a mellower view. I can criticize it in a different way and see how it fell short, rather than being affronted that it was allowed to happen at all. Similarly, a lesser traditional production that may have satisfied me years ago, because it stuck to the script and did not get in the way, now may displease me because it does not do or give enough. Those who resist Regietheater often ask a good question when confronted with a production that takes liberties: “What if this were someone’s first performance of [title]?” The implication is that such an audience member would be confused and alienated, would get the wrong ideas about the work ostensibly being produced, perhaps would never set foot in an opera house again. Of course, we all have to jump in somewhere, and in theater there are always risks. I remember the first Don Giovanni I saw. I already knew the music well from recordings, and I saw a local production with a good young cast. As the singing went, I was more fortunate than I could have known at the time. The Donna Anna went on to Wagner/Strauss success in Europe and has appeared at WNO and the Met in recent years. The Leporello (the clear crowd favorite) sings Leporello and Escamillo everywhere now. The Don Giovanni also has had a good career. The production was as traditional as anyone could have wanted. If you looked at a still picture, you would have correctly guessed the opera immediately. Giovanni even had a plumed hat. But as I sat through scene after scene comparing what I was seeing to what I had heard on my recordings, and what I had read and knew, I thought, “Is this opera always so…dumb?” I do not think Don Giovanni is Mozart’s greatest opera, and I did not think so at the time, but it deserved better than this. The performers had been directed to behave like idiots. Unfortunately, I was sitting close enough for all the idiocy to land with force. Most of the examples have left me, but one I remember was at the conclusion of the first act. Anna, Ottavio and Elvira, huddled together, advanced on a cornered and unarmed Giovanni like timid rabbits. All he had to do was raise his hands and let out a threatening yell and they scampered offstage in terror while he laughed. Making these characters so cowardly undermined their continuing search for vengeance in the second act to come. The whole evening was like that. It was “traditional,” but it was ill-considered shtick with no dimension to it, no dignity about it. Maybe some people went home talking about how beautiful the clothes were, but I did not like to imagine it was “what Mozart and Da Ponte intended.” I never held my bad first production against Don Giovanni. I went on to see better ones, and some that were equally bad in other ways. I recently decided to put the “first performance” question to the test. I frequently have friends over to watch streams and DVD performances, and also have invited friends to Met HDs and to live performances within driving distance. I have had more than 40 unique guests since 2009, some of them being “one and done” (opera is not for everyone), others becoming regulars. This outreach is something I think every opera buff should do. We can spend all our time worrying and complaining about attendance figures and criticizing pop music, or we can try to be part of the solution. You never know. Maybe someone you had over to watch Madama Butterfly in your living room will buy a ticket to Fanciulla del West sometime down the line, and one more seat will be filled. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7tqdwFVdMQ Stefan Herheim‘s 2012 La bohème for Den Norske Opera is a “radical” production I think highly of. It has been available on DVD for four years. I will not formally review the production (which I call “La bohèmatology“), as that would extend this article to punishing length, and there would be no improving on Henson Keys‘s review in the parterre archive. I encourage you to pause and read Henson’s review if you are unfamiliar with the DNO Bohème. I agree with him on every point. One thing I will add is that in Bohème and in other operas (Meistersinger, Pikovaya Dama), Herheim combines very old and more modern devices and techniques in a way that makes me think of another Scandinavian director, Ingmar Bergman. The term “Bergmanesque” has come to mean something narrow in popular usage: austere settings, a tone of solemnity, anguished monologues, the contemplation of women’s faces. This is reductive. Bergman was about much more than that. He mingled psychology and dreams, eroticism and belief, magic and mystery. He grappled with big questions, and his body of work in film and on the stage had uncommon scope and vision. Herheim has similar audacity, and the comparison is intended as high praise. I hope someday to see original work by Herheim, who is still only in his forties. If I have a criticism, it is that he can pour so much creativity into the vessel of a repertory work that it is spilling over. I had intended to show this production to three friends who had never seen Bohème (two were familiar with Larson’s Rent) and a fourth who had seen two traditional productions, a DVD of the famous 1981 Franco Zeffirelli and an undistinguished local performance. The friend who already knew Bohème ended up being otherwise engaged for the evening. He is a young philosophy professor, so I lost my Colline. I asked the other three to brush up on a synopsis of the opera beforehand, which I always consider a good idea with a new opera, even in this age of simultaneous translations. It seemed especially advisable this time. While we watched this Bohème, the level of engagement was high. Everyone was paying close attention, but I was aware that some good detail was passing for nothing. Some things Herheim does will only register if you know Bohème well, such as assigning ironic meanings to specific lines, and blocking “Oh! sventata, sventata!” in an almost satirically by-the-book fashion. For a few minutes, we could be looking at any Mimì and Rodolfo of any time since 1896, and the familiarity is comforting, both to the grieving hero and to us. Then Mimì sheds her period costume and wig and is again gowned, chemo-bald, dying. Again and again, reality intrudes upon the dream. Two of three guests admitted in a break at the midpoint that they were confused by the production. We talked a little about what we had seen so far, and I encouraged them not to make up their minds until they had taken in the whole show. The second half went better. The small crowd (in my living room, not in Oslo) clearly found Mimì’s “Donde lieta uscì […] Addio, senza rancor” very affecting as sung and acted by the gifted soprano Marita Solberg, and also as Herheim directs it: the spectral heroine’s granting of forgiveness from beyond, to her lover left behind. The death scene was likewise effective, with the ghostly Mimì appearing to strengthen the bond between the oft-quarreling Musetta and Marcello (a nurse and a maintenance worker in the production’s “outer” story), drawing their hands together. I told the group I would be sending them a few questions to answer in writing once they had had a day or so to mull it over, and I encouraged them to be honest. All have graciously complied. “Schaunard,” 47, works for a large law firm. He had seen eight prior operas within the last year, from which his favorites were Weinberg’s The Passenger (for “the compelling story and the brilliant set design,” despite 20th-century music he found challenging), Richard Jones‘s production of the complete Trittico (for the music and the commentary on human nature), and the David McVicar Roberto Devereux (“beautiful staging and costuming,” pleasing music, and an easy story to follow). Of the three guests, Schaunard was least receptive to Herheim’s Bohème. “I found the first half confusing, didn’t appreciate the sterile modernism of the present-day hospital bed sitting there throughout the piece, and found the male lead’s unrelenting and exaggerated physical expressions of grief from beginning to end (dare I say) tedious. I would much prefer to have seen the story as a progression rather than a retrospective. I did, however, appreciate the “death figures” being portrayed by the same singer [Svein Erik Sagbraten]. In any event, I wouldn’t mind seeing a traditional version for comparison. I enjoyed the music, and appreciated the singing talent. It would be defensible to label me a philistine, I suppose. The more difficult to access a piece of art is, the more impatient I get.” “Marcello,” 26, recently completed graduate school and works as a system/network administrator. Marcello has been the most enthusiastic of these three for seeing operas, even being willing to see two or three in a month. The Passenger was a previous favorite for Marcello too, among his 18. Two others were Carmen with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, and Manon Lescaut with Kristine Opolais and Alagna. He disliked the Wourinen/Proulx opera Brokeback Mountain and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride (a Regietheater take by Dmitri Tcherniakov). Marcello, who had admitted to being confused by the Herheim Bohème in the early going, ultimately found it “incredible” for the way the unusual structure added layers of poignancy and grief even to what are happy moments on the page. He did say he might have preferred first to see Bohème the way it was “supposed to be done,” and then to see how it can be “altered to give a different meaning.” He liked the performance of the lead tenor (Diego Torre) more than Schaunard did above, and enjoyed the music. He would recommend this Bohème to someone who knows Bohème well. Marcello’s thoughts on what makes a good production: he is interested in set design, and cited the Met’s sparse yet luminous Madama Butterfly (Michael Levine for Anthony Minghella) as well as the old-fashioned opulence of Julian Crouch‘s sets for the same theater’s Merry Widow. However, his favorite productions are the ones he remembers for having amazing acting and singing with a real star turn at the center, “such as Carmen. That woman [Garanca] was able to dance, sing and seduce anyone. ” “Rodolfo,” 29, is a process consultant with a healthcare corporation. He had seen 12 operas prior to Bohème. The only one he had disliked was, again, Wourinen’s Brokeback Mountain. Favorites were the Jones Trittico, the Mariusz Trelinski-directed double bill of Iolanta/Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, and the Otto Schenk Rusalka as seen in its final Met revival. Rodolfo seemed the most affected by the Herheim Bohème when it was over, and asked if he could borrow the DVD to watch it a second time before submitting his thoughts. He ultimately wrote that it was “radical [but] interesting,” and believed it would work best for someone who had seen the opera before. “I was very grateful to have read a detailed synopsis of the work. Otherwise, I would have been lost in the blending of fantasy and reality. […] Instead of the sudden, gut-wrenching loss of Mimi in Act 4, the viewer has to deal with [the protagonist’s] bereavement through the entire opera. ” Rodolfo too would recommend the production to others, because it “brings a new life to an old classic.” However, “a novice viewer would have to be able to actively think on her feet and pay close attention to the nuances of this production.” Rodolfo does not feel he yet has “the critical ear to detect a fantastic vocal performance [as opposed to] a mediocre one.” He commented that, being used to the kind of entertainment that Hollywood offers, he is drawn to scenic beauty and stagecraft. On those levels, he appreciated the Herheim Bohème, with its vivid colors and ingenious transformations from hospital room to imaginary 19th-century Paris and back. Henson wrote in his 2012 review: The first lines of the essay in the DVD’s accompanying booklet […] are these: “Who among us doesn’t already have a personal relationship to La bohème? Probably a deep and intimate one: this opera, more than any other, strikes a chord that resonates in us where we are most sensitive.” Well, I think this is certainly true of those who love opera, but I’m not sure that goes for newbies or those attending one of their first operas. I therefore would not necessarily recommend this DVD to those who want the sentimental story of young love and tragedy (though I think my acting students and many of their generation would love it). I would say that my experiment gives validity to his comments. All three guests would have preferred their introduction to Bohème to be something more orthodox. The extreme-Regie treatment did give them problems orienting themselves, problems I have not seen with milder interventions such as putting Carmen in the 1930s or Falstaff in the 1950s. That said, no one checked out on it. It held attention and there was appreciation for its qualities, even a few superlatives. Everyone present would gladly see another Bohème. Maybe there is a follow-up piece in that. The opera’s conclusion remained powerful, and there were some watery eyes. I suppose there is no point in deciding whether to give the credit to singers Solberg and Torre, conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen and the orchestra, director Herheim and his production collaborators, composer Puccini and librettists Illica and Giocosa, or the author of the source book, Henri Murger. When a standard-repertory opera still works, it does so because of what everyone involved, living and dead, brought to it. We in the audience, who bring our own life experiences and feelings in with us, make a contribution as well. Special thanks to “Rodolfo,” “Marcello” and “Schaunard” for making this piece better by contributing their time and their words. I hope it has been of some interest to the parterre readership.
Happy 40h birthday mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmNBsxqBuKc Born on this day in 1899 conductor Hans Swarowsky. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkaQRmucgCo Born on this day in 1908 contralto Hertha Glaz. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVOcnnmPvUM Happy 78th birthday conductor and composer Mario Perusso. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR12B6alRDc Happy 71st birthday soprano Krisztina Laki. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=XX3u1BuZaH8 Happy 67th birthdays directors Christopher and David Alden. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk06P-5hhoo //www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJRdq6yUic8 On this day 50 years ago the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in Lincoln Center. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=SK6xUH_tzR0 Left this world on this day in 1977 in Paris. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=lm6_ZMtyYFU
Shirley Verrett remains one of my all-time favorite artists, and I am pleased to introduce her to my Mixcloud site in one of her parade roles: the femme fatale in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, partnered by the young Plácido Domingo in a 1980 performance from San Francisco. Verrett’s career began a decade before her 1968 Met debut as Carmen, at which time she had already sung in Köln, and at New York City Opera, The Royal Opera at Covent Garden, and the Bolshoi Theater. She introduced her Dalila to La Scala in 1969. After receiving a positive, if not exactly overwhelming, reaction to her first dozen Met performances in Carmen, Don Carlo, Aida, and Il trovatore, she was thrust into national headlines when, on opening night of the Met’s premiere of Les Troyens in 1973, she subbed for an ailing Christa Ludwig at the last minute and triumphed as both Cassandre and Didon. That was my first experience with her, and my love for her musicianship, grace and beauty, dramatic acuity, and especially her wide-ranging, silvery mezzo grew with each new role. Among my most treasured memories are Verrett’s electric Judith in A kékszakállú herceg vára (sung in English), of which I attended all 12 performances; Neocle in the rather bastardized edition of L’assedio di Corinto, in which her marathon 15-minute coloratura scena at the beginning of Act III on some nights garnered a longer, louder ovation than that awarded to debutant Beverly Sills; a youthful Adalgisa with alternate high notes to burn opposite Montserrat Caballé, as well as her first-ever performance as the titular Druid priestess in Boston in 1976 (I flew over for the show in the middle of a Provincetown vacation). She held her own as Madam Lidoine in the Met premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites (in English), and against Luciano Pavarotti in the company’s first performances of La favorite (in Italian) in 73 years. She brought her first soprano role, Tosca, to the Met in 1978 opposite Pavarotti, soon followed by her first Normas at Lincoln Center, but Leonore in Fidelio was not a success, and she cancelled as many performances as she sang. She sang only one Met performance of another parade role, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth in 1988. She brought her Dalila to Lincoln Center in 1990, also with Domingo, a decade after the San Francisco Opera performance featured this week. Two Azucenas the following month marked the end of her Met career, at which point she was 58-years-old. Domingo, 39 at the time of this performance, was just beginning to take on the dramatic roles which he favored for the later part of his career, having sung his first Otello the year before. There is still a youthful gleam and power in his upper register which would not remain there much longer. It also took him another decade to bring his Samson to Lincoln Center, but he maintained it in his active repertoire until 2001; he cancelled six performances as Samson in 2006, which marked the most recent Met performances of the opera. One could wish for a more suave, French baritone as the Grand-Prêtre de Dagon than Wolfgang Bredel, but he gets the job done (what there is of it). Julius Rudel offers a passionate, wildfire reading of the score. And what of that score? Saint-Saëns was an admirer of the oratorios of Händel and Mendelssohn, and decided in 1867 to compose his own to a Biblical story. A relative’s young husband convinced the composer that it should be a full-fledged opera, and not the extended duet with choral interjections that Saint-Saëns had envisaged. Finding the subject matter unsuitable for the stage, the French public rejected the idea after only the second act had been completed. It would take several years plus the convincing of Franz Liszt, who also guaranteed a Weimar premiere, for Saint-Saëns to complete the opera in 1876. The premiere was sung in German in Weimar the following season, and then in Hamburg; it did not reach Paris until 1890. The opera quickly spread throughout France and to Monte Carlo, and reached Carnegie Hall in 1892, in concert form. After a few Met performances with Francesco Tamagno, it took the team of Enrico Caruso and Margarete Matzenauer to turn it into a company staple: there has not been a decade without a revival or new production since those 1915 performances. Rumors have Elina Garanca and Bryan Hymel teaming-up for a new production in the 2018/2019 season. Camille Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila San Francisco Opera Julius Rudel, conductor 18 September 1980 Samson – Plácido Domingo Dalila – Shirley Verrett Le Grand-Prêtre de Dagon – Wolfgang Brendel Abimélech – Arnold Voketaitis Un vieillard hébreu – Kevin Langan Un messager philistin – Robert Tate Premier Philistin – Michael Ballam Deuxième Philistin – Stanley Wexler
In January “Trove Thursday” took a break from longer full-length offerings and served up a trio of “small plates”: Elina Garanca, Jonas Kaufmann and Anu Komsi singing Berio, Mahler and Sibelius. Another edition arrives this week with Genia Kühmeier, Christian Gerhaher and Phyllis Bryn-Julson performing works by Richard Strauss, Mahler and Berg. It’s been nearly nine years since Kühmeier’s Met debut as a radiant Pamina, one of the best I’ve ever heard. Sadly she hasn’t returned to the Met nor sung much opera in recent years due to the severe illness of her husband who died two years ago. The Austrian soprano has made relatively few recordings but she does occasionally appear in concert and this live Vier Letzte Lieder from 2014 provides a glimpse of her artistry. (That my beloved maternal grandmother’s middle name was Genia—and most people called her that—might partly explain why I’m pre-disposed to admire the lovely Kühmeier.) Two years ago baritone Gerhaher appeared as the distant, grave Jesus in Peter Sellars’s chic and high-priced Berlin Philharmonic production of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion at the Park Avenue Armory. In recent seasons he has sung more and more opera, roles ranging from Wagner’s Wolfram and Pelléas to Wozzeck and Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Unfortunately he has yet to sing opera in the U.S. where he remains known as an acclaimed recitalist and concert singer. His Mahler performances are particularly striking as one may experience in this version of the Rücker-Lieder from last year conducted by Bernard Haitink. Now retired, American soprano Bryn-Julson was best known for her fierce advocacy of 20th century vocal music. Mostly a concert singer, she did occasionally appear in opera; for example, she was Malinche in Sarah Caldwell’s U.S. premiere of Session’s Montezuma in 1976. A favorite of Michael Gielen’s during his tenure at the Cincinnati Symphony. I heard them collaborate in 1984 in Schoenberg’s Erwartung. However, I missed this performance two years later of Berg’s lush concert-aria Der Wein which shows off her insouciant confidence in the most demanding music. Did she ever sing Lulu complete? Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder Berlin 8. September 2014 Genia Kühmeier Bamberger Symphony Jonathan Nott Mahler: Rückert Lieder Munich 6 February 2015 Christian Gerhaher Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Bernard Haitink Berg: Der Wein Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra January 25, 1986 Phyllis Bryn-Julson soprano Michael Gielen conductor “Trove Thursday” offerings can be downloaded via the audio-player above. Just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory. In addition, each of these three pieces, last week’s Olivero Fanciulla, and all previous fare remain available from iTunes or via any RSS reader.
This season’s Met Donizetti Tudor Trilogy concluded with Roberto Devereux, given its penultimate performance by HD transmission Saturday, April 16. It is good to see these works finally given here; they are too important, too crucial a part of the operatic repertory to have been ignored for as long as they have. Having heard the Met Livestream at its premiere, as well as some succeeding performances on Sirius, I was intensely curious to see how it played out visually. Opening night was problematic vocally, fraught with what sounded like nerves or exhaustion. In addition, Maestro Maurizio Benini’s tempi were soggy, draggy and portentous. Improvements commenced subsequently, although certain drawbacks, which I will discuss below, remained throughout the run. David McVicar, the designer and director, kept scenic matters on the traditional side, with richly dark, forbidding, but handsomely conceived sets which served as a fitting backdrop for the drama. Some of those concepts seemed unnecessary and confusing; the orchestral prelude had the choristers surrounding and paying tribute to the queen’s marble tomb, then facing, and staring at the audience. This seemed superfluous. Then, at several points in the performance, the chorus was relegated to standing in balconies on either side of the stage, observing the proceedings below. At the very end the cast bowed to the applauding chorus before doing so to the audience. What purpose this served was unclear. It was also unclear why Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, initially decked-out in royal garb, was subsequently made be be dressed as a scrubwoman for the rest of the opera. The most egregious act of savagery that McVicar committed, though, was having the queen made to look like a Grand Guignol ghoul in the opera’s crucial closing scene. In Elisabetta’s music, we hear, quite vividly, her womanly anguish; but it is of a monumental kind, filtered through the sovereignty of a queen, with all of her majesty. Her grief, via the composer, is made epically implicit. To strip Elisabetta physically of her dignity by suddenly turning her into a doddering, wizened old hag, laid bare before her subjects, seems deeply atypical of a queen’s behavior. It is not just here that McVicar similarly imposed this idea: in the Met Anna Bolena, he had Anna looking like a mental patient escapee (but not when Netrebko sang it); and in Maria Stuarda, Maria is made to be nearly bald (history tells us her hairless head wasn’t revealed until she was chopped, when her wig fell off). The shock value aspect—revealing each queen to be “just a woman”—seems more like a gimmicky fallback cliché than a dramatically credible device. It veers toward the melodramatic and slightly tawdry. In the Devereux, if there has to be a tear-off-the-wig moment, the timing of it in McVicar’s staging—right at the beginning of the scene—seems wrong dramatically. Having it flung off near the end seems a more apt place. All that aside, this is in many respects one of the best-directed, and blocked bel canto stagings I have ever seen. I have rarely seen such care in the “working-out” of all of the crucial duets and one-on-one confrontations. These players are made to be clearly listening to, and interacting with each other. Reactions to specific words and phrases are compelling, and vocally and physically, there’s a dynamic sense of the drama’s stake taking place. Best of all, there’s an obvious collegial sense of duty and rapport, an active mission to work together harmoniously in the service of the proceedings. This element, by far, was the most successful factor in the production; there was nothing that smacked of the worst of provincial Italian opera in any way. Elina Garanca is far and away the best Sara I have ever encountered, in every possible aspect. Her physical beauty alone makes it very credible that she is both the object of love in Roberto’s case, and of jealousy in Nottingham’s. Sara is considered the seconda donna, but you’d never think that given Garanca’s natural stage charisma. The Latvian mezzo’s lustrous, brilliant tone afforded real pleasure whenever she sang: her sinuous legato in “All’afflitto é dolce il pianto,” and “Dacché tornasti,” in particular revealed a shimmering, ductile beauty of tone. Garanca’s vowels and consonants are scrupulously crisp, clear, and conscientious; even during tense dramatic moments, the tonal emission remains firm and centered. The voice is all of a piece, with blooming, pealing highs, and a firm, well-supported lower register. Garanca’s singing and performing in this run of performances sustains her high-caliber international reputation. May we please hear her as Léonor in La favorite? Matthew Polenzani, in the title role, continues to grow in leaps and bounds as an artist. His recent star turn in the Met’s Pearl Fishers, took me by total surprise in his beautifully poised soft singing and involved stage presence. He turned in no less for Roberto’s “Come uno spirto angelico,” which was sung with flair, beauty of tone, the breath control remarkable. In addition, Polenzani showed rapt involvement in all of his scenes, in particular the duet with Sara, in which he convincingly effected romantic ardor, physically and vocally. Earlier, in contrast, his standoffish recalcitrance with the demanding Elisabetta was equally well played out and conveyed. Ostensibly, the friendship between Devereux and Nottingham is a platonic one, but the affection the two were made to portray—hugs and kisses—might have inadvertently hinted at something further. But it did effectively underline the massive betrayal Nottingham registers when Sara’s scarf is revealed: he’s lost both best friend and wife. Marius Kwiecien, as Nottingham, is a superb physical actor. He has an old-tyme swarthiness and a theatrical, Boothian look to his persona, and cuts a dashing figure onstage. Kwiecen was especially vivid and intense in the duet with Garanca, well conveying the hurt and dangerous anger at her transgressions. Vocally, though, matters were starkly inconsistent. Kwiecen has a most pleasing tonal quality, but he has a distressing tendency to throaty belting, especially above the staff, and it disturbs the cantabile lines of his phrases. In fact, both the baritone and tenor frequently appear to lose resonance in declamatory and higher-lying forte passages (Polenzani appeared to tire during the cabaletta). These are matters of concern rather than deal-breakers in so much that was outstanding. In a more scholarly vein, though both tenor and baritone sang double verses of their cabalettas, there were no variations utilized for the second stanzas (I always wonder, in these times of awareness of stylistic elements in the bel canto realm, how these matters get persistently overlooked or disregarded when it comes to the male singers). As Elisabetta, Sondra Radvanovsky, in far better form than in the premiere, reached heights of true magnificence in the pivotal final scene. Freed from the earlier distractions of having to enact contrived bits of business (more on that shortly), she’s allowed to revel in the lyricism of Donizetti’s magisterial, and perhaps greatest, grandly dramatic final scene. Radvanovsky, it must be said, here sang her heart out; personally and artistically, it was a triumph. Personally, because she appears to really be transmitting Elisabetta’s broken soul with the sincerest outpouring of herself: artistically, she shows real affinity for the Donizettian cavatina. The soprano revels in displaying her fine dynamic control, and the long, unbroken line, in which she excels; the exquisitely plaintive, poignant emotions within those lines suit her gifts most persuasively. Other than the costuming choice I objected to above, allowing Radvanovsky to be relatively still and unencumbered during this scene proved to be marvelously felicitous. The spotlight just on her, everything else out of the picture, she made time stand still by just being at one with the music (and a touching moment occurred during the bows when she appeared overwhelmed by the roaring ovation she received.) Elsewhere in the performance, two other moments stood out. Radvanovsky effectively conveyed Elisabetta, the woman, and her tender, wistful side in “L’amor suo mi fe’ beata,” etching its lines with care and skill. Also notable was her sympathetic entreaties to Roberto in their duet; the soprano touchingly revealed Elisabetta’s most vulnerable emotions with quiet fervor; “Oh rimembranza… Un tenero core” was, especially, gorgeously sung. As to the reservations, first to the dramatic: can there please be a lasting moratorium on the “neurasthenic” extraneous physical characterization in the portrayal of Donizetti’s Queen Elizabeth? Nowhere in Donizetti and Cammarano’s sweeping, sovereign conception of Elisabetta, either in the text or the music is there any indication of a nervous, twitchy, fidgety queen as the one Bette Davis popularized in her 1939 movie, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Though well-received at the time, Elizabeth is one of Davis’s hammiest, and ultimately, most anachronistic creations: she’s more Davis than anything else. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8Irm7lZ3DA It may be Davis in costume, but what comes through is all of the characteristic Davis mannerisms—nervous, fidgety, and twitchy (one of the reasons Davis preferred William Wyler as her director is that he tirelessly squelched those mannerisms). Beverly Sills, as evidenced in the 1975 performance from Wolf Trap, plainly adopted the Davis model. Whether it worked in tandem with Donizetti’s is a matter of debate. Unfortunately, being long familiar with the Wolf Trap video, I saw much evidence that Radvanovsky studied it, and used many of Sills’ Davis manifestations. Too, I heard, throughout the trilogy, many aspects of Sills’ performances—certain lines taken up, bits of phrasing identically intoned, and occasional interpretive ideas—being utilized. Only in the final scene did Radvanovsky emerge as her own, more appealing entity. Act two, I felt suffered as a result; it was not Radvanovsky’s strongest work here. She seems less confident in the imperious-seize-the-drama mode, and she indicated anger and frustration in ways that Sills did: slamming of hands on the table, lurching and pitching about, and much in the way of extraneous, unceasing physical reactions. All these busy manifestations betray dramatic insecurity. Elisabetta here has the upper hand, and her majesty should be all-encompassing, regal and mighty. Her words and manner are decisive, intractable, and unyielding. Now to matters vocal: the issues I have with certain traits in Radvanovsky’s singing, I have concluded, are most likely mine; but in the interest of disclosure, it is only fair of me to detail why. I have, in the span of about two years, heard/seen of Radvanovsky in several Anna Bolenas, Normas, Maria Stuardas, and Roberto Devereuxs. Overall, I thought her Maria Stuarda was the most successful, because the role calls for, mainly, the kind of plangent, lyrical singing which is her strongest suit. Radvanovsky’s natural vocal endowment is one of the greatest in opera today: its fullness, size and strength is matched by few of her peers. There are, though, elements which I feel make her work less optimal than it could be. In my opinion, the areas where she is less effective and convincing lie in her recitative, declamatory sections in moments of high drama, and difficult passagework. Radvanovsky’s vowels tend to be rather bland, and are quite often discolored. Consonants will blur or flatten out. Her grainy tonal production strikes me as low, and laryngeal rather than high, frontal and resonant; could this be the reason why her vowels don’t emerge—and “place”—clearly? The “eh” vowel seems to give her the most trouble; when she sings a word like “furore” for example, it comes out like “furori;” “orribile like “orribili.”“Ah” will sometimes sound like “uh.” And yet, there are other times when those vowels will have their correct integrity of coloration; when she intoned “Non ami” in the duet with Roberto, Radvanovsky produced an effectively “chesty” sound. Yet, throughout, in “Alma infida,” and in the bottom notes of other phrases, you’ll hear a vacillation between a diffuse lower note, and a more pungent one. This inconsistency in her tonal palette I feel restricts her effectiveness in the second act, where Elisabetta has many strong, vigorous lines which require some bite in the tone, and a kick of firm, decisive vowels and phrases. Here, crucially, the queen has so many memorable moments of exciting febrility where the soprano can turn herself completely loose in the reveling of high drama; and Radvanovsky seems inhibited and cautious, her rhythmic sense not strongly defined in the deployment of key phrases. Benini’s slow, un-propulsive conducting seemed to prevent Radvanovsky from gaining momentum in building to the climax, “Va, la morte.” Controversial too, are Radvanovsky’s sopracuti. Sometimes they work, but many times they do not, emerging as a hoisted-up yelp. Again, I think this results from where she places the tone, which seems to be laryngeal, from which lacks ideal ping and resonance, and causes the characteristic flutter we often hear, especially as the line rises. At times this fluttering tonal emission will veer on the underside of the pitch. I also gather that her opacity of tonal production prevents difficult passagework from being ideally springy and buoyant, as in the cabaletta to the first aria. Sequences of notes blurred rather than being distinctly articulated, and the repeated high Bs were “dragged” across rather than separated by repeated, accented strikes on the notes. Sutherlandian precision in coloratura is not Radvanovsky’s; on the other hand, the latter artist is vastly superior in the moulding of a slow melody. My reservations by no means nullifies Radvanovsky’s personal triumph. Her success promoted the validity of these works, which, frankly, I thought would never see the light of day at the Metropolitan Opera. In being critical in the ways that I outlined, it is perhaps to my disadvantage that I have decades of study, in both score and performances, behind me, so that I have many more firmly-held views than someone who has only a casual, or no experience with Roberto Devereux. As it is, I enjoyed this performance very much, because it further contributed to my experience; and, if it must be said, I am overjoyed that this great work of Donizetti’s is getting the showcase it so deserves. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
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