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Elina Garanca

Monday, February 20, 2017


parterre box

February 5

Woman on the verge of a repertoire breakthrough

parterre box First, an admission. I do not love Elina Garanca’s voice. I admire it a great deal—the fluidity of tone across her registers, the effortless technique. But I only like the basic timbre; I cannot say I love it. What makes Garanca special to me is less the quality of her voice than the way she deploys her instrument. In recent years, the voice has grown, transitioning from lyric to spinto. Revive is a manifesto of sorts, declaring her intentions for the new direction in her career. The aria choices are eclectic. Garanca covers both familiar ground and roads less travelled, even a couple of rarities. She offers tantalizing roles like Eboli, Dalila, and Charlotte, but not “O don fatale,” “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” or Charlotte’s Letter Aria. In the accompanying essay, Strong Women in Moments of Weakness, she explains her inspiration for programming this new album. The selections are representative of her new repertoire—roles suited to her current voice — but also her age. She is happy to consider Eboli or Amneris but not Azucena, because she feels that the singer portraying the old gypsy should literally be old enough to be Manrico’s mother. One can appreciate this thinking intellectually while being glad that most mezzos and casting directors have not followed it. I wouldn’t want to be without Fiorenza Cossotto’s Azucena recorded in her mid-30s. And I have no problem with Dolora Zajick (at a similar age) playing Luciano Pavarotti’s mother—though he was some two decades her senior—in her sensational Met debut. The point here is that Garanca takes on roles that make sense to her in every way—vocally, dramatically, and her stage in life. Because she sees her choices in the Italian rep as limited to a handful of roles, she mines the French repertoire extensively, finding roles that suit her new voice while also taking advantage of her relative youth. In the essay, she points to her natural affinity for the French repertoire. And she is not incorrect in that assessment. She may not do anything special with the French language but she embraces the spirit of the Romantic French arias with inspiration. The hallmarks of a great Garanca performance are musical alertness and a surrender to the dramatic moment. In her best roles, whether as Mozart’s Sesto or Donizetti’s Giovanni or Sara, Garanca puts all her considerable skill and talent at the service of the moment. The result is often performances of great urgency and high musical value. Throughout this album, Garanca’s musicality is never in doubt though, interpretively, she responds better to some arias than others. Still, there are a number of selections in which all the pieces come together. Mascagni’s “Voi lo sapete” starts the album and was apparently the departure point for the entire album. Santuzza was Garanca’s first venture into dramatic repertoire and she brings the character’s pitiable desperation vividly to life. After a strong start, she carries forth with one of the best tracks on the album, “Acerba volutta” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. In this aria and others, her voice displays a biting quality at the bottom of her range and a certain hardness of tone. But if her low notes lack the opulent tone of great Principessas of yesteryear, she certainly has plenty of opulence at the top of her high mezzo. She builds the final stanza of the aria to its climax with satisfying grandeur. Later in the album, she switches roles, singing Adriana’s “Io son l’umile ancella.” This is the weakest selection, not reaching the high standard she achieves elsewhere. The soprano notes are not a concern. Rather, she can’t quite float the notes the way she would like so one hears the effort that goes into coaxing those gentle lines, especially when the notes sit in her passagio. The ending is forceful when I suspect she was going for merely passionate. As noted, there are a large number of French Romantic arias, and they almost all tend towards sweeping, lush melodies. The exception is Didon’s “Ah! Ah! Je vais mourir… Adieu, fière cité” from Berlioz’s Les troyens. She portrays the Carthaginian queen’s grief with dignified pathos and, while there is a lot more to the role than that aria, one has every hope that the role could be a major triumph for her. Fortunately, she plans on taking it to the stage in the future. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOduAJ_Z3GM At first I was a bit disappointed to be getting Eboli’s Veil Song instead of the high-drama “O don fatale” but she puts down one of the most musically accomplished accounts of the aria I’ve heard. Where the main melody alternates between two notes, she articulates them without sounding “clucky,” achieving instead a kind tremolo effect that suits the song’s character. She takes her time with the cadenzas, showing musical imagination. I especially like her way with the quiet roulades at the end of each cadenza. While she could do more to portray Eboli’s fiery personality, she displays an appealing rhythmic incisiveness. This confidence also serves her well in Priezosilla’s “Rataplan” from La forza del destino. What can often be an ungrateful aria is a showpiece for Garanca and her rhythmic acuity. In both selections, she has an equal partner in conductor Roberto Abbado, who knows where to put the accents to keep the music buoyant. Throughout the album, he and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana offer polished and sensitive playing. Her choice of “Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse” from Samson et Dalila is a reminder that Saint-Saens gave his anti-heroine three great arias. Garanca sings the alluring melody with urgency and beautiful legato. This is another role which Garanca plans to take to the stage and, even if her voice sits a bit higher than the ideal of the part, one does not doubt her powers of seduction. She brings similar musical qualities and dramatic resolve to “Hérode! Ne me refuse pas!” from Massenet’s Herodiade, building the aria to a passionate climax. This is one of the album’s high points. Listening to the brief aria Ponchielli gives Laura made me fantasize about a Gioconda with Anna Netrebko. What a confrontation the two would have! Because of the spinto requirements of the role, Laura often comes off sounding too matronly for my taste. Here, Garanca strikes the right balance of fulfilling the musical requirements while still bringing youthful vitality to the part. She finishes off the aria with a gorgeous piano portamento. In the booklet, she says that she’s very keen on singing the part but wonders if any company will want to spend the resources on mounting the opera. I think a joint call to Mr. Gelb with friend Anna could possibly do the trick! Eschewing the Letter Aria from Massenet’s Werther, Garanca opts for Charlotte’s less obvious “Va! laisse couler mes larmes” and delivers it with tender melancholy. In the booklet , she admits that Mignon’s “Connais-tu le pays” is a bit out of place in her album concept but she loves it. It is the most touchingly sung selection. Marina’s aria from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is the only aria not in French or Italian. It is well-sung but fails to take off. On the other hand, Musetta’s aria, “Marcello mio,” from Leoncavallo’s La bohème is an album highlight. Leoncavallo gives his Musetta music of greater depth than Puccini does his and Garanca takes full advantage of the material, delivering the aria with fervent sweep. I wish she had chosen to close the album with this aria, instead of the less substantial “Reine! Je serai reine” from Saint-Saens’s Henry VIII. She sings that aria well, and one can see the appeal of closing an album with cries of “I will be Queen” (a declaration most every parterrian has surely made at some point) but it is not as strong a statement as many other selections. Throughout, she does a good job of enunciating the words without necessarily doing much to highlight them. There is no text-pointing here, no sense of a particular textual phrase driving the musical interpretation. While she has room for dramatic growth in some selections, she is sensitive and probing. Her voice has grown, yes, but so has her temperament. In the past, I have found some of Garanca’s early work beautifully sung but dramatically pallid. The best selections on Revive demonstrate that her singing has increased in breadth, not just in vocal amplitude but also in interpretive grandeur. If this album is a credo for a new chapter in Elina Garanca’s career, I say bring it on!

parterre box

December 23

There arose such a clatter

With Christmas Eve 2016 falling on a Saturday, the Met offers contrasting orchestral splendors at noon and 6 p.m. Early birds will have another opportunity to catch the earnest performances of Susanna Phillips and Eric Owens, and the commanding one of Tamara Mumford, in Robert Lepage‘s Lite-Brite display of Saariaho’s L’amour de loin. A waning crescent will be overhead when the evening crowd files out of Strauss’s Salome, with its evocative moon talk. Patricia Racette‘s negotiation of the title role has been polarizing, but one acknowledges a game professional’s valor in covering several performances of a difficult role when a colleague withdrew. We draw nearer to the end of a year that has been tumultuous and often upsetting, within and beyond the opera world. It would be fair to say that many of us did not get what we expected or wanted in 2016, and we have said goodbye to many admired figures in the arts. Some had lived long lives full of accomplishments; others were taken too soon. The uneasy situation surrounding the Met’s music-director position reached a resolution in the spring, and the future holds promise. There was much to cheer, and to be cheered by, on the stage: triumphs of favorites such as Nina Stemme, Elina Garanca, Anna Netrebko and Karita Mattila in new Met roles; acclaimed productions of Les pêcheurs de perles, Elektra and Tristan und Isolde; the long-awaited return of Guillaume Tell. Even in disappointing new productions and ordinary revivals, we welcomed newcomers. One day when I am long gone, perhaps someone will pick through the archives and marvel that 2016 was the year Metgoers made the acquaintance of Juan Jesús Rodríguez, Andrew Bidlack, Virginie Verrez, Karel Mark Chichon, Artur Rucinski, Eleonora Buratto, René Barbera, Susanna Mälkki. Every one of them, whether in a large assignment or a small one, did something worth noticing, something that made me want to hear more. Our holiday survey will not, alas, feature Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, critic Noel Straus, baritone Natale de Carolis, or either Ian or Leah Partridge in a pear tree. But there will be a swan a-swimming. Here is a look back at just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on December 24th through the years at the Met. 1883: Covering the theater’s first Christmas Eve, a Times reviewer (probably W. J. Henderson) did not mince words: “Rigoletto was represented at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening in presence of an audience which included a great many persons who had evidently never attended an operatic performance before, and by a few persons–those occupying boxes–who, out of consideration for people who care to listen to the singers and band, ought never to attend an operatic performance again.” Principals Marcella Sembrich, Roberto Stagno and Giuseppe Del Puente were credited with singing “tastefully and correctly,” but criticized for “literally walk[ing] through their parts with a genteel placidity.” The reviewer noted that the new company had worked hard to present 14 operas over its first nine weeks. He hoped that the underrehearsed, indifferently acted performances he had often seen would not become the norm. 1903: Parsifal received its first staging anywhere other than the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, to which Wagner had decreed it be exclusive. Risking the enmity of the composer’s widow, who always had plenty to spare, were Milka Ternina, Alois Burgstaller, Anton Van Rooy, Otto Goritz, Robert Blass, Marcel Journet and conductor Alfred Hertz. The Times‘s Richard Aldrich was enthusiastic to the point of hyperbole: “The artistic value of the Parsifal production was of the very highest. It was in many respects equal to anything done at Bayreuth and, in some, much superior. It was without doubt the most perfect production ever made on the American lyric stage. Those who wish to quarrel with the performance on aesthetic, moral or religious grounds have still as much upon which to stand as before. Artistically it was nothing less than triumphant.” Parsifal‘s nearly 300 Met performances have been spread over every decade since. The work failed only to catch on as a yuletide perennial. 1908: Perhaps the adage should be “Some show must go on.” An audience “not large, but of excellent disposition” (the Sun) got the consolation of Geraldine Farrar, Riccardo Martin, Jean Noté and Adamo Didur in an on-the-quick Faust when indisposed leads prevented a planned Christmas Eve Aïda. The singers calling in sick were Emma Eames and Enrico Caruso. 1920: Now suffering from a much more serious illness, Caruso appeared as scheduled for what would be his final public performance, Eléazar to the Rachel of Florence Easton in La Juive. During this difficult month, the tenor also had sung Met performances of Samson, Canio, Don Alvaro and a single act of Nemorino. When he died the following summer, 48 years old, with a Met tally of 863 appearances, 36 roles, and 17 opening nights, the world mourned both a global celebrity and a great artist. Caruso once had been quoted as saying, “I would like to die at the height of my fame, some night when I had just sung Pagliacci, perhaps. But I suppose that cannot be. You may be sure that I will not hang around opera houses with the vestiges of a voice, like so many unfortunate musicians.” On another occasion, in 1916, he had told the New York Friars Club, “I promise you that when I go to heaven I shall sing forever.” 1925: A Tribune reviewer was pleased to report that Tullio Serafin‘s conducting of La Gioconda disclosed full recovery from a recent road accident. Another sparse Christmas Eve crowd heard Rosa Ponselle “singing with a brilliance and power which she has hardly equaled this year,” and rewarded Beniamino Gigli with “rapturous thunder” for Enzo’s second-act aria. 1928: A mischievous unsigned Telegraph review gives a sense of the high spirits and unfocused air of a Lohengrin on the last Christmas Eve before the Great Depression. “The audience at the Metropolitan last night must have been very late hanging their own stockings for they stayed to the end of the late last scene and acted as though there was nothing about this evening different to any other. Various attendants of the staff, however, […] left the building, carrying various kinds of bundles. Backstage, the singers and musicians had a celebration […] The chorus was absolutely impossible from the point of view of good performing, but in the right mood for the evening. A little bird said that gifts had been passed around by quite a number of the stars and principals and that they had been opened before or during the performance.” Translation: Prohibition was being flouted. The cast included Easton, Margarete Matzenauer, Rudolf Laubenthal and Gustav Schützendorf, but only conductor Artur Bodanzky was said to have been “completely the disciple of true art.” 1936: “The singer is neither a Bori nor a Tetrazzini,” wrote Olin Downes in the Times, getting the obligatory comparisons out of the way, “but if all rôles at the Metropolitan were taken as competently and intelligently as her Violetta of last night we would have an extremely high level of performance there.” The Violetta in question was alluring Belgian coloratura Vina Bovy, 36 but with nearly 20 years on the stages of Europe. She made her house debut with support from Nino Martini, Lawrence Tibbett and Maestro Ettore Panizza. Mme. Bovy’s brief Met tenure would consist of 16 appearances over two seasons. 1955: The 80-year-old conductor Pierre Monteux‘s Indian summer at the Met included a fondly recalled Les contes d’Hoffmann, heard in a famous radio broadcast earlier in the season. On Christmas Eve, Richard Tucker remained the titular poet, and Martial Singher continued to give lessons in style and dash as the villains. The love interests, two of them new to the production, were Laurel Hurley, Jarmila Novotna and Lucine Amara. Future headliner James McCracken, 29, sang the small role of Nathanael as if determined to prove his readiness for Tannhäuser or Otello that season. 1957: Ms. Racette was not the first star soprano induced to change her Christmas Eve plans for the Met’s sake. Opera News recorded the following: “Victoria de los Angeles was honored with a backstage Christmas party by Rudolf Bing prior to her appearance as Violetta on December 24, 1957. The soprano had foregone her expected holiday at home in Barcelona with her family in order to accept extra performances at the Metropolitan, at Mr. Bing’s request. Among the guests were the Vienna Choir Boys, who serenaded the assembly with traditional hymns and carols.” Fausto Cleva conducted (the Traviata, not the hymns and carols); Daniele Barioni and Robert Merrill were the younger and elder Germonts. 1960: The Tribune‘s Martin Bernheimer carefully appraised a house favorite in Bohème: “[Renata] Tebaldi was in relatively good voice, and there is no question that she pleased her many admirers. The tender Puccini heroine suits her temperament, and the quieter moments such as the Act Three farewell were exquisite. Although her histrionic technique is of the stand-and-smile variety, and although she is not exactly frail either in voice or in appearance, Miss Tebaldi was a touching and dignified Mimi. The soprano has been having some trouble with top tones lately. Most of Mimi lies comfortably for her, but the role does pose a problem or two. The exposed High C at the end of Act One, for instance, was avoided by a downward transposition of a half-tone, and–even at that–Miss Tebaldi attacked it from below.” Hurley, Eugenio Fernandi and Clifford Harvuot were the other young lovers in Thomas Schippers‘s cast. 1976: Beverly Sills starred in her first Met Lucia di Lammermoor. Newsday‘s Peter Goodman was generous toward the shrewd soprano from Crown Heights: “Sills is an excellent actress with a voice that does much more than make music. She acts with that voice, conveying wide swings of emotion within a brief musical moment. And the singing is marvelous just for itself.” Goodman saw a bright future for the debuting Enrico, Ryan Edwards, “a tall young baritone from Texas [with] a very fine voice, dark and strong, and a powerful and intelligent stage presence.” John Alexander and John Macurdy completed the principal quartet. 1977: The annals are littered with the names of special artists who for whatever reasons, their own decisions or others’, had negligible Met careers. Christmas Eve 1977 began with a Bohème starring ladies who settled in and made the house a home: Renata Scotto and Leona Mitchell racked up more than 500 performances between them. But the evening show was one of just four opportunities to hear Maria Chiara in her only Met role, Violetta, opposite Alexander and Louis Quilico. A week later, the last of these Traviatas received a New Year’s Eve broadcast. Chiara’s only subsequent Met connection would be through the illusion of cinema: in Woody Allen‘s 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters, she is seen and heard as the Puccini Manon in the opera date of the Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest characters. The footage was from Teatro Regio Torino. 1979: The 1967 Nathaniel Merrill/Robert O’Hearn Hänsel und Gretel framed the debut of a soprano who would return over 23 years in music from Beethoven to Berg to Bolcom. Per Newsday, “Catherine Malfitano, long a mainstay soprano at City Opera, made a most successful debut as Gretel–her sweet-shaded soprano carried beautifully in the large house, and she was cute as a button in every movement.” Tatiana Troyanos, singing her first Met Hänsel, was the debutante’s partner. 1993: A Franco Zeffirelli Bohème conducted by Carlo Rizzi, starring Veronica Villarroel, Gwynne Geyer, Fernando de la Mora and Dwayne Croft, sounds like business as usual for this era, but there was an unexpected development. A note on the performance’s page in the archive reads: “As the houselights were dimming, a gentleman from the audience climbed onto the stage apron and proposed marriage to his seated companion; she accepted. The man wished the audience a merry Christmas, and climbed down. No delay occurred.” We wish them a happy 23rd anniversary of the engagement, and hope things worked out well enough for the wish to be tactful. 1998: A Danish baritone and an American conductor made a joint house debut in the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen Fledermaus. Per the Times‘s Allan Kozinn, Bo Skovhus “proved a charismatic actor and sang with both power and playfulness,” while Patrick Summers led “a sparkling, gracefully paced performance that had both the warmth and rhythmic fluidity that the style demands.” Whirling along with them through the froth were Carol Vaness, Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, Jochen Kowalski and Michael Schade. 2007: A Russian conductor of pedigree, 27-year-old Vladimir Jurowski, had first appeared on this date in 1999 (Rigoletto). He made another Christmas Eve appearance eight years later, conducting a Hänsel und Gretel newly acquired by the Met but seen in Cardiff and Chicago in the preceding nine years. F. Paul Driscoll‘s review captured the qualities of a love-or-hate proposition typical of new productions in the Peter Gelb era: “[Richard] Jones‘s staging is a sweet-and-sour Hänsel, sharp-edged and short on sugar. […] [It] embraces Hänsel und Gretel as an opera suitable for adults.” Driscoll had mixed feelings about the cast (Christine Schäfer, Alice Coote, Rosalind Plowright, Alan Held and Philip Langridge) but only high marks for the maestro: “Jurowski’s first-class command of the Met’s orchestral forces gave full, uninhibited play to the score’s rhythmic variety and Wagnerian depth of color.”




My Classical Notes

November 15

Elina Garanca’s Heroines

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:

parterre box

November 11

Stage beauty

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.



parterre box

July 11

Biblical sense

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

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