What a long Saturday last February 23rd proved to be! The reason: back-to-back Metropolitan Opera productions of two of the company’s most popular presentations, the first of Bizet’s immortal Carmen, the regular Saturday afternoon radio feature; followed later that evening by a Live in HD re-transmission of Puccini’s Turandot from 2009, in the gargantuan Franco Zeffirelli setting. Oy vey, it’s enough to make one’s ears split and head spin. Let’s start with Carmen.
Georgia on My Mind
Everybody and their mother seem to know this seminal work. Deemed a “failure” at its 1875 Paris premiere (not so, according to musicologists), it was Bizet’s last completed composition. In fact, the title character is considered one of opera’s quintessential female leads, a femme fatale who attracts not only spineless men-folk but also singers from all walks of operatic life, with some of Mother Russia’s best known artists among the more plentiful. Past interpretations by mezzos Irina Arkhipova, Elena Obraztsova, and Olga Borodina are indelibly etched in our minds.
Even the younger crop of East European singers holds Carmen in esteem. This includes the 28-year-old Georgian-born Anita Rachvelishvili (pronounced rotch-VELL-esh-VEEL-ee), who made her 2009 La Scala debut in the part, as well as her first Met appearance in Richard Eyre’s new production back in 2011. Set in so-called “modern” times, i.e., 1930s Fascist-era Spain, this version received a rousing reaction from both audiences and critics alike when it starred the sizzling combination of Elina Garanča as Carmen and Roberto Alagna as her lover Don José. The current cast did its vocal best to duplicate the previous couple’s success, but with mixed results.
The problem I have with this production is the Met’s decision to use musical material not written by Bizet, but rather a fellow named Ernest Guiraud (who did the same for Jacques Offenbach’s unfinished Tales of Hoffmann), in place of the original opéra-comique dialogue, which gives greater prominence to Don José and the other participants. With great singing-actors, this hurdle can usually be overcome; not so with lesser artists. Still, by not respecting Bizet’s original intentions, the Met, which previously used the dialogue-heavy edition in 1973, discarded almost 40 years of musical scholarship in favor of this bowdlerized version. So be it.
In last Saturday’s broadcast, Rachvelishvili definitely stood out, the voice dusky and burnished, with that peculiarly vibrant Slavic “ring” so typical of the breed. This newer generation of singers, incidentally, has pretty much dominated the company’s roster for several seasons now. Nothing wrong with that, but the results aren’t always what one would hope for. This turned out to be the case with the otherwise talented Rachvelishvili. Already the signs of overuse abound, especially around the edges of her voice, the high notes coming out as unfocused and wishy-washy – that is, when she didn’t avoid them entirely – the low ones blowzy and unsupported.
Performance-wise, it was hard to judge from the radio how she fit into the picture. However, I could tell that she threw herself into the part, which was a welcome change from earlier expectations. Each of Carmen’s numbers was individualized, and as the opera progressed – and the drama grew darker and more fatalistic – her final duet with the spent Don José (voiced by another newcomer, the Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff) drew plenty of sparks from the stage. She ended up in a better position than when she started, which is a good indication of how far this singer can go. My advice would be for Rachvelishvili to study the coloratura mezzo roles of Rossini and Donizetti, which have done wonders for Garanča, Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato and their ilk, as well as preserving the natural range and elasticity of their voices.
Speaking of Schukoff, this debutant’s soft singing outshone his more robust outpourings, most prominently in his exquisite delivery of the Act II Flower Song, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” When Roberto Alagna reached this same point a few years ago, he too preferred the less showier, less rafter-raising ending – indicated in the score, by the way – at the words “Et j’étais une chose à toi / Carmen, je t’aime” (“And I was but a plaything to you / Carmen, I love you”). Tenor Schukoff took an even more discreet approach, floating his high note so sedately it barely registered on the meter. Earlier in the aria, his superbly controlled diminuendo on the phrase “De cette odeur je m’enivrais,” was a thing of rare beauty. I was surprised at the smattering of applause that greeted his efforts.
Lamentably, Alagna had received a similar mild response from Met audiences. I guess the public, weaned on past performances of more dramatic types – Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Vickers, and Domingo among the better ones – finds it awkward to reward their male protagonists who espouse a subtler view of things. It wasn’t the first time this incident has occurred, to the unfortunate detriment of the performance as a whole; but I’m sure Schukoff will move on to meatier parts.
Moving on to the other cast members, soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko (from Moscow) gave a finely etched portrayal of Micaela, the country bumpkin role given short shrift by some, but here rendered with potency by this lyrically adept singer. But the real rabble-rouser of this show – that of the flashy bullfighter Escamillo – was assumed by fellow Russian Ildar Abdrazakov. His wide-ranging bass, while perfect for Verdi and Mussorgsky, was all over the musical map in this part, in particular his overly familiar Toreador Song. He must’ve cut a virile figure on the stage, however, what with his movie-star looks and muscular build – perhaps a little too muscular for a bullfighter – but he served the purpose nicely.
Baritone Trevor Scheunemann showed promise as Morales, while bass Richard Bernstein was a flavorful if underpowered Zuniga. The four gypsies, Daniella Pastin (Frasquita), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Mercedes), Marco Nistico (Dancairo), and Scott Scully (Remendado), were all decent in their respective roles.
Conductor Michele Mariotti, who drew such miraculous playing from the Met Opera Orchestra from the previous Saturday’s Rigoletto, here toned things down a might. Unlike the energetic Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who plunged headlong into the prelude with such verve and gusto, maestro Mariotti took a more leisurely tack, but without diluting the essence out of the opera’s most sparkling sequences.
The Riddle of Turandot
Puccini’s last opera Turandot is a most curious piece. It’s the most challenging of his stage works, requiring singers of the highest abilities as well as a huge orchestra and chorus. Included in the old RCA Victor recording with Nilsson, Bjoerling, Tebaldi and Tozzi, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, was a learned essay entitled “The Riddle of ‘Turandot’,” which discussed not only the three riddles posed by the icy Princess Turandot to the love-struck Prince Calaf, but the unsolved riddle of what the opera might have sounded like had Puccini not died before finishing his score.
Commissioned by La Scala and supervised by the work’s conductor, the famed Arturo Toscanini, one Franco Alfano completed the opera from the middle of Act III to the end. Mysteriously, there are no commercial recordings of Alfano’s ending, although I did hear his version at New York City Opera in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s a fuller, more logical conclusion to one of the last in a long line of grand operas, with music of an exotic, other-worldly nature quite in keeping with the story line, but so unlike Puccini’s writing. Unfortunately, it’s never been given a chance. Toscanini hated it, and promptly went about cutting and pasting, as well as rearranging, the last scene for the 1926 world premiere. What we hear today on most of the world’s stages, then, is Toscanini’s re-edited and re-composed amalgamation, which is not entirely in Alfano’s hand.
With that business out of the way, let’s talk about the performance. This 2009 revival of Turandot starred Russian diva Maria Guleghina in the title role, workhorse tenor Marcello Giordani as Calaf, another Russian singer, soprano Marina Poplavskaya, as the slave girl Liu, and veteran basso Samuel Ramey as Calaf’s father, Timur. The opera was conducted by Andris Nelsons. None of these artists was outstanding; in fact, they all sang about as well as anyone could, given the conditions they were performing in.
Those conditions included the preposterous faux chinoiserie that took the place of actual story-telling. Zeffirelli’s overpowering Met production originally featured Eva Marton, Placido Domingo, Leona Mitchell and Paul Plishka in the principal roles, with James Levine presiding. Not that these artists were any more outstanding than the current group above, but at least they brought needed star power to the proceedings. All were dwarfed by the lumpy staging, the haphazard nature of the sets, and the lack of a reliable playing area for the singers to perform in (a problem endemic to the Met’s recent Ring cycle as well). What direction there was simply did not fit the mise-en-scène. And the absence of a cohesive design or viable choreography basically left the singers and chorus to their own devices. The Met is long overdue for a more functional production. How about it, Mr. Gelb?
As for the singing, Madame Guleghina has a big, burly voice of tremendous proportions. She also has stunning good looks and a fine stage presence. That’s the good news. What she doesn’t have are high notes to go with the role. Oh, she acted it well enough, but Guleghina ran out of gas toward the middle of the Riddle Scene, where she basically scooped up to whatever notes she had left in a most unappealing manner. She ended up only approximating the role’s high notes but never quite attaining them, a major disappointment.
In 2009, Ms. Poplavskaya was still developing an artistic personality. Since then, she’s been working on her own individual identity and profile (much as Anna Netrebko has done in recent years), so it’s unfair for me to judge her by this filmed performance. As a whole, she made a pleasant sound, but neglected to play up the inherent sympathetic qualities that Liu can afford a more experienced artist. Conversely, Mr. Ramey has seen far too many productions to be anything less than professional in his limited capacity as Timur. But after almost 35 years on the stage, his middle voice has turned wobbly and, to be honest, unpredictable. His top notes are still potent, but the rest of the voice is in parlous condition. He makes a mighty noise, however, and he’s gotten bigger with age. He’d make a formidable Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo.
Indeed, the best singing of the day came from 80-year-old character tenor Charles Anthony as the aged Emperor Altoum. Still commanding the stage after nearly 3,000 performances in 67 roles at the Met, the matchless Mr. Anthony blew away the competition with his stentorian voice, a true miracle man.
As you might expect, I’ve saved the worse for last. Poor Marcello Giordani! No one works as hard at a role as he does. If only he stayed on pitch. His singing has always been a bit raw for my taste, but unobjectionable. Lately, however, he’s forever singing sharp, and it annoys the heck out of me. He’s ruined so many good performances of standard and non-standard works that I’ve grown to accept this defect – which is bad for me, and bad for his fellow performers.
Everything above the staff is grating. Besides his lack of an inviting tone, Giordani continues to play the same forlorn character, and in the same forlorn fashion, in every single piece he’s in. Whether it’s Calaf, Pinkerton, Faust, Ernani, Benvenuto Cellini, Edgardo, and Des Grieux – you name it, there’s no differentiating one part from another. He manages to hit the high notes all right, but the sound he makes in getting there is a most unpleasant one.
I’m sorry, folks, but is it me, or have others heard what I’ve heard? That may explain why record companies failed to sign Giordani to any long-term commitments. Look in the catalog or on Amazon.com: you won’t find a single complete opera album with his name on it. There are plenty of DVD’s and Blu-rays of live performances, though; even a compact disc or two. Beyond that, he’s nowhere to be found – and that’s evidence enough of what I’ve been saying.
Here’s my last gripe about this performance of Turandot: the opera is still not being played note complete. Surely, other operas have benefited from completeness (i.e., Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, Die Frau ohne Schatten, all of Wagner’s works), but the Met still cuts the wonderful Ping, Pang and Pong trio, from Act II, Scene i, to shreds. It’s my opinion, and the opinion of music scholars far more knowledgeable than I, that this scene contains Puccini’s finest vocal writing. Please, the next time Turandot is given at the Met, do the right thing and give us more of its music!
In addition, do give your audiences a chance to hear Alfano’s original ending. It’s not as bad as Toscanini thought it was, and quite worth the cost and effort to let others come to their own conclusions. Thus, the riddle of Turandot will be answered once and for all: but for Puccini’s untimely death, this is how his last opera would have sounded – even if he didn’t write the music.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes