Monday, August 29, 2016
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
Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. Orchestra (Seat T33, $25.) Story. Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, comes back to England, having failed to win the war with the Irish. He is accused of treason and is condemned to death, but Elizabeth, who is in love with him, wants to pardon him. Robert loves Sarah, who was forced to marry the Duke of Nottingham, a good friend of Robert. When the two meet, Sarah gives Robert a blue scarf. When Robert is arrested, the scarf is discovered, which makes Elizabeth suspicious enough to sign the death warrant. While waiting to be confined, Robert asks Sarah to give Elizabeth a ring which will earn him a pardon. Sarah is unable to do so since she is confined by her husband. When Sarah manages to get to Elizabeth with the ring and the Queen is about to relent, Robert is executed. Nottingham admits he wanted revenge, and Elizabeth laments that she only wants to be freed of her role as queen. Conductor – Maurizio Benini; Sarah Duchess of Nottingham – Elina Garanca, Queen Elizabeth – Sondra Radvanovsky, Robert Devereux Earl of Essex – Matthew Polenzani, Duke of Nottingham – Mariusz Kwiecien. The synopsis I provided above is basically a further synopsis of the one found in the Playbill. Chung Shu read up a bit on Elizabeth’s real story, and thought the romance angle was a bit dubious. In any case, what I got from watching the performance was this is indeed a very simple story, which I can summarize as: Elizabeth loves Robert and wants to spare his life after he returns from Ireland. However, when she finds Robert with a purple scarf she orders his execution. She eventually relents, but it is too late. All the other incidents probably happened on stage, but they didn’t leave a mark on me at all. So this is one of those operas that need great music to save it. While there is some drama in the third act, the first two acts are quite flat dramatically. Perhaps that is why this is the first time this opera is staged at the Met (what I saw was the second performance.) Luckily, the music is great, and the orchestra and the singers all put in a great performance. The great music started with the excellent performance of the overture, under the direction of Benini. A review of my blog indicates I have seen him several times before, conducting Donizetti operas – perhaps an expert on this particular composer? The orchestra kept up the great sound throughout, sometimes in support of the singers, often times on their own. We last saw Polenzani and Kwiecien together in the Pearl Fishers, and enjoyed their singing. Today they did an equally admirable job, although I would say Polenzani was particularly good. I had a similar reaction to their Pearl Fisher performance, calling Polenzani’s performance “great” and Kwiecien’s “dependable.” Garanca’s voice was simply heavenly, penetrating and smooth. Of all the principal roles, I enjoyed her singing the most. Since I didn’t know how the story unfolded at the beginning, I actually thought wow, this Elizabeth is really quite something. And this Elizabeth is really quite something. She has the volume and the expressiveness that fit the role very well. Her tone is a bit on the harsh side, so it didn’t work very well for the tender moments; but when there is anger, jealousy, or hatred, it footed the bill very well. And there were a lot of those moments. Scene 3 of Act 3 is basically a mad scene for Elizabeth, and I really wish the earlier parts had a similar level of drama. At some point she shed her wig and acted credulously as an old woman. The Met made a big deal out of Radvanosky’s singing the roles of all three of Donizetti’s Tudor queens this season. For various reasons I didn’t get to see the other two. I do wonder if the level of difficulty is comparable to being Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Ring. Given that this is a Met first, the production is naturally new. That makes the staging a bit puzzling, it is basically the three walls, with two rows of chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. By moving the center wall back and forth, the audience is supposed to surmise whether we are talking about the palace, the plaza, or, at the end of the opera, a grave. The chandeliers also move up and down so as not to be caught by the moving wall. On many occasions I couldn’t tell what the staging was supposed to represent. And what is this peanut gallery on the second level? Chung Shu told me it was to show royalty at that time didn’t have any privacy, their lives lived out for everyone to see. Maybe, but it didn’t add to the story at all. Similarly, the opera began with a display of Elizabeth’s tomb, which reappeared at the end of the opera. The costumes were generally okay, with Elizabeth’s two “wings” a bit on the overdone side. However, if you google Elizabeth’s images, many of them have these wings, so there is some historicity to the design. Curtain Call. I have seen the other two Donizetti Tudor queens: Netrebko as Anna Bolena, and DiDonato as Maria Stuarda. I must say both were impressive performances, and both had more drama to them. I resisted reading the New York Times review until just now. As usual, I admire the wordsmithing of the reviewer, but take some issue with his observation that there may be some degree of homoerotic longing between Robert and the Duke. Shades of Pearl Fisher? I would say his “ranking” of the singers is the same as mine. For instance, he described Radvanovsky’s voice as having a hard edge to it, and Garanca’s as sumptuous. He is also scratching his head a bit about the staging, but correctly points out the hint of Tower of London in one of the scenes. I met up with CS to have a quick meal at Europan. Since we had to take the 11:18 pm train, it was past midnight before I got home.
Roberto Devereux - Metropolitan Opera, 3/24/2016 Polenzani, Radvanovsky, Garanca, Kwiecien / Benini This premiere was an event, but not - as Maria Stuarda was (in the best way), a one-woman show. Polenzani, Garanca, and Kwiecien provided the first strong side cast of the trilogy, one that could hold attention even with the queen offstage. But, whether from nerves, indisposition, or something else, Radvanovsky's breath didn't have the effortless full-scale pop that usually rings the house - and the bodies of those listening within - like a bell. She powered through the night, and bore the drama and crowd adulation quite well, but we'll see what this week's performances bring. David McVicar's staging brings an interesting conceit, perhaps building on his Cav/Pag: courtiers are always watching, whether from the ground (the more public scenes) or from the onstage rafters (the more private). Only at Devereux's final scene, as he expects human intervention that never arrives, are they wholly absent, making for a striking effect one might recall from an proper staging of Manon Lescaut. McVicar, acting as his own set designer, and costume collaborator Moritz Junge (who also worked on Cav/Pag) have made the most handsome of the Tudor productions without departing much from that period. More on further viewing.
During its first-ever Roberto Devereux Thursday evening one felt transported back to the Volpe years: four of the Met’s biggest stars shining in an opulent (if occasionally perverse) but reassuringly non-challenging production paid for by Sybil B. Harrington. Unfortunately, Sondra Radvanovsky, Elina Garanca, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien were consistently undermined by the shockingly aimless conducting of Maurizio Benini, and so the gala premiere turned out to be less than the sum of its impressive parts. Donizetti’s darkly grim opera about the aged Queen Elizabeth I’s deluded passion for the dashing—and decades younger—Earl of Essex rounded out the Met’s so-called “Tudor Trilogy” all produced by Sir David McVicar. In fact, it was a gift from the Harrington Endowment Fund that made possible McVicar’s seventh Met show in seven years, the first for which he served as his own scenic designer. The generally vivid and intense interaction between the four principals displayed his gift for bringing out the best in his cast, but having chorus members clustered on each side of the stage throughout the evening observing, silently commenting upon, and even applauding the opera’s searing private interactions was downright odd. Initially Elizabeth’s glowing white marble tomb dominated his handsome black and gold symmetrical unit-set which featured narrow arcades topped by matching balconies at each side. It was to those areas that the chorus retreated after promenading on and then turning to glare at the swanky audience during the overture. The action was played out front-and-center as in a play-within-a-play—for no apparent reason. In fact, after Elisabetta’s final cabaletta ended, the cast bowed first to the applauding chorus onstage before turning to the enthusiastic audience in the house. For a director who claims to have little patience for concepts, McVicar couldn’t resist imposing a discordant one that didn’t make much sense. That said, he drew grandly outsized portrayals from his lead quartet, in particular Garanca and Polenzani, The Latvian mezzo nearly stole the show in the relatively short role of Sarah, the restless, dissatisfied wife of the Duke of Nottingham whose unrequited yearning for Devereux precipitates his eventual beheading. I hadn’t heard her since La Clemenza di Tito in late 2012, and since then the voice has grown enormously—particularly its now thrilling top—while retaining its signature smoky opulence. From her entrance clad in one of Moritz Junge’s most strikingly luxurious Elizabethan gowns, she vividly conveyed the Duchess’s desperate fear for Roberto’s safety in her desolate opening aria. I’ve never paid much attention to Sarah in the past but Garanca made her impossible to ignore, singing with imposing grandeur and surging longing, particularly in her convulsively furtive duet with Devereux. Polenzani, as Garanca’s thwarted paramour and the Queen’s doomed love-object, gave a surprisingly flamboyant performance. Always appreciated for his scrupulous musicality, the Met regular is taken for granted by some as a bland, ever-dependable performer. But recently he has been going from strength to strength. His exquisitely haunted Nadir dominated this season’s new Les Pêcheurs de Perles, and his virile and fiery Devereux made one understand why he had caused at least two women to lose their senses. Without an ideally glamorous or individual timbre, Polenzani sang with a melting legato and threw in a few thrilling interpolated high notes. However, it became increasingly clear that he was not operating at 100%. He finally ran out of steam toward the end of his demanding prison scena and got through the final cabaletta by sheer dint of will. However, surely no one felt short-changed by such a generous and committed portrayal. After his simple, moving Nemorino (so different from Grigolo’s current ego-spree at the Met) and his ardent Leicester in Maria Stuarda three years ago, Polenzani has evolved into one of today’s top bel canto tenors. Dare one hope that he will be Pollione in the Met’s upcoming McVicar Norma next year? He could surely hold his own opposite the expected high-gauge fire-power of Anna Netrebko and Joyce Di Donato. In the meantime , his Fernand opposite Garanca’s Léonor in Munich’s La Favorite will no doubt be one of this fall’s highlights. That Favorite’s Alphonse XI, Kwiecien gave another of his recent frustratingly uneven performances as Nottingham. As he had in Pêcheurs on New Year’s Eve, he performed his aria admirably—with burnished tone and suave phrasing. But elsewhere he barked and forced and woofed his high notes. He reveled in the Duke’s particularly intense, touchy-feely connection to Devereux and one surmised he felt more betrayed by him than by his wife. Kwiecien’s over-the-top drunken antics in the third act suggested Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and drew muffled titters from the audience. Happily next season at the Met he returns where he belongs–Don Giovanni in April 2017. I can’t have been the only one who had real doubts about Radvanovsky’s suitability when it was announced several years ago that she would be tackling the three iconic Tudor roles at the Met. While I had appreciated her recent Norma there, that’s a role sung by many different kinds of sopranos—one remembers other Met Normas like Maria Guleghina and Marina Mescheriakova with chagrin. But Donizetti’s queens have mostly been the province of specialists, as one can sample in Niel Rishoi’s excellent survey of Roberto Devereux. After a rocky beginning with Anna Bolena during the season’s opening week, Radvanovsky made believers out of many, particularly with her near-universally acclaimed Maria Stuarda. In it she successfully tempered her voice’s glaring harshness and sang most movingly with spellbinding legato and an impressive display of coloratura, trills and pianissimo high notes. Even before she first tackled the role in Toronto, the common wisdom was that Devereux’s Elisabetta would be Radvanovsky’s best role of the three queens. Based on Thursday’s premiere, I’m not so sure, but it’s entirely possible that, like Polenzani, she was not at her best. A lot of the hard glare had returned to her huge, glinting soprano, particularly during her first-act aria and cabaletta where she seemed peculiarly tentative. Things improved in her tortured duet with Polenzani in which he matched her high note for high note in its thrilling final pages. In embracing bel canto Radvanovsky has become particularly adept at its most plaintive arias, hence her success in Stuarda. The downside proved that she was less convincing portraying Elisabetta-as-virago, and the usually crackling second-act confrontation with Devereux and Nottingham fizzled failing to make its usual impact despite her decidedly aggressive use of chest voice. After a long and tiring first half (both the first and second act), Radvanovsky rallied for a most moving final scene. As has apparently become the norm, she doffed her elaborate wig and, like a balding wizened Marschallin, began “Vivi ingrato” staring into the mirror on her dressing table. Although less risible than Elza van den Heever’s doddering manic Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, McVicar’s vision of Devereux’s Elisabetta was frustratingly inconsistent. To become the Elizabeth of the time of the Essex scandal, Radvanovsky was decked out in heavy, elaborate make-up and trembled about on a cane. But as Donizetti’s opera has little, if anything, to do with real English history, why the oppressive preoccupation with depicting the aging queen in physical decline? While at times Radvanovsky seemed barely able to cross the stage without leaning heavily on her cane, for much of long final scene she stood commandingly erect and unaided at the center of the stage. For her previous two Donizetti portrayals, Radvanovsky successfully battled recent local memories of Netrebko and Angela Meade as Anna and Di Donato as Maria, and ordinarily she would have had Elisabetta all to herself. But two years ago Mariella Devia returned to New York after an absence of 15 years for a revelatory Devereux Elisabetta. Thinking back to Devia’s stylish performance, I realized what I most missed in Radvanovsky’s earnest Virgin Queen. Throughout Thursday’s performance one was always aware of the hard work, the sheer industrious effort that Radvanovsky had devoted to the enterprise. The end result was mightily impressive but it lacked the spontaneity and (apparently) effortless élan of Devia whose command of bel canto has remained supreme for over 30 years. Although Radvanovsky may have been nervous and/or exhausted from the long rehearsal process and challenged by the burdensome make-up and gowns, she may gradually find her way to become a more complete Elisabetta. If so, it won’t be thanks to any help from the pit, as Benini’s conducting was one of the worst things I’ve heard at the Met in years. He rushed through a crazily fast overture like the local bandmaster in Bergamo, then every cavatina meandered and nearly fell apart. While there were occasional exciting moments along the way, the concluding dirge-like “Quel sangue versato” was dragged out unconscionably. Perhaps he was just over-indulging his singers, but more likely he conveys no innate feel for Donizetti’s arching bel canto lines. For nearly 20 years Benini has been in charge of numerous ottocento works at the Met but this disappointingly inert Devereux must be his weakest effort yet, and one now fears for next season’s eagerly anticipated I Puritani with Diana Damrau and Javier Camarena. Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Great opera singers