Month: May 2015
Met Opera Double Bill: ‘Iolanta’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ — A Toast to the Bizarre and the Unexpected
The live Met Opera season is over for now, but the work of reviewing has only begun!
It’s fun to look back on the past season and reminisce about the hits and misses, as well as the ones that got away. That’s where we come in, i.e., to put order to the chaos and make sense of what at times can seem like utter senselessness.
The Metropolitan Opera’s 2014-2015 radio broadcast season got underway, on December 6, 2014, with a whimper with a mediocre Barber of Seville. It ended in April/May 2015 with two wham-bam performances of Verdi works, along with a hum-drum presentation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. We’ll be getting to Verdi at a later time, but first let me backtrack a bit to summarize some earlier goings-on.
James Levine returned to the Met in splendid form for a rousing Die Meistersinger, featuring a capable cast. Mozart was well represented, too, with The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute on separate occasions, but La Traviata let this listener down with an uninspired presentation. I missed the New Year broadcast of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, but caught the Live in HD transmission of same on a preceding date. While the singing was satisfactory, the staging felt imposed upon, as if British director Richard Jones was reaching for an interpretation that lay beyond his grasp.
January was indeed a cruel month for the Metropolitan, what with Aida going by the boards, The Merry Widow wallowing in a perilously unfunny English translation, and a La Bohème that barely passed notice, despite a finely-etched personification of the dying Mimì by soprano Kristine Opolais. Verdi’s Macbeth came up a winner (and was previously reviewed on this blog), but the new double bill of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s romantic Iolanta paired with the sinisterly shaded Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, broadcast on February 14, merits a few lines of commentary.
I was familiar with Iolanta only through King René’s lovely arioso, “O God, I have sinned,” which basses from Sibiriakov to Ghiaurov have recorded throughout the years. This short but beautiful air, whose ascending melody starts low and ends high (unusual for Tchaikovsky, who had the opposite tendency) and boasts an exceptionally wide-range for the singer, is about the extent of my knowledge of the Russian composer’s final stage work.
The Met’s casting of Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the blind Princess Iolanta, with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as her lover Vaudémont, sent sparks flying out into the auditorium. Their soaring love duet and peerless vocalism were the central highpoint of the afternoon, a goose-bump inducing moment to rival the very best. Though Alexei Tanovitski’s King René failed to provide the “rolling thunder” required of his role, baritone Alexey Markov’s brief assignment as Robert and mezzo Mzia Nioradze’s Marta lent a legitimate air of Slavic authenticity.
Coupled with Bluebeard’s Castle, Iolanta came off best for what it was: that is, 90-minutes of high-powered melody and richly-realized characterizations. In sharp contrast, the brooding quality of Bartók’s masterpiece, with its symbolic episodes concerning the enigmatic Duke Bluebeard and his overly curious bride, Judith, invites as one critic put it “thoughtful, serious engagement,” not rafter-raising adulation.
Judith’s unlocking of the seven doors to the Duke’s crumbling estate is meant to be taken figuratively. As they are opened, each door reveals, or should reveal, some aspect of the title character’s nature and being (“frequently disturbing” is the general consensus), in addition to his homicidal past. What action there is binds itself exclusively to the music; what psychological insight it has into the soul of its two protagonists depends upon the staging. The shadow-laced score for Claude Debussy’s dreamlike Pelléas et Mélisande, for example, readily comes to mind when discussing the Bartók work.
The Met’s earlier 1989 attempt at reviving Bluebeard’s Castle (paired alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung) floundered, mostly due to a too literal approach to scenic design and a penchant for box-office drawing power. With that said, bass-baritone Samuel Ramey’s richly vocalized Duke and soprano Jessye Norman’s mournful, volcanic Judith were beyond rebuke, but neither artist prevailed over the curiously contrived staging. The big “to-do” of that production was Ramey taking off his wig to reveal a completely bald pate — a senseless coup de théâtre that missed the point of the story entirely.
In this latest incarnation, Polish director Mariusz Treliński opted for a “film noir” approach to both works. This probably served Bluebeard better than Iolanta, but the premise was well thought out nonetheless. Still, the unbeatable casting coup for Tchaikovsky did not carry over into Bartók’s moody opus. As Bluebeard, St. Petersburg-born basso Mikhail Petrenko’s mewling vocal production and theatrical skills can be quite effective in any number of parts, including the boisterous Prince Galitsky in last season’s new production of Borodin’s Prince Igor, or the voluble monk Pimen in Boris Godunov. Here, he seemed over-parted and under-powered, a victim of busy stage effects.
One could say the same for German soprano Nadja Michael as Judith. A serious and compelling artist on stage, whose unique physicality has made her an equally successful Salome and Lady Macbeth, Nadja sounded somewhat reined in by her surroundings (which included a nude bathtub sequence). My gut feeling is that both singers were done-in by the elaborate production as a whole.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the director’s use of computer graphics, visual projections and digital wizardry helped propel Bluebeard’s Castle into a theatrical nether-region beyond anything the Met has seen to this point. On the radio, however, these facets tend to go by the wayside: vocal performance is what counts. Whereas the team of Netrebko and Beczala overcame their circumstances to deliver bravura performances, that of Petrenko and Michael couldn’t begin to match their intensity. Blame the composer for that!
In conjunction with the above observations and in fairness to the artists involved, pitting the romantic attributes of the Russian Tchaikovsky against the Hungarian Bartók’s differing yet no less remarkable musical capabilities probably let the air out of the audience’s bag long after the golden curtain had come down on the stirring Iolanta. In an interview for Opera News magazine, Treliński described Bluebeard’s Castle as “a work with an incredible undertone of dread.” If hope, as epitomized by Iolanta, comes before dread, which Bluebeard’s Castle clearly hints at … well, then, in the end, there is no hope; the quixotic notions of a late nineteenth-century world (in Iolanta) evaporate before the war-shattered world of the twentieth (as depicted in Bluebeard’s Castle).
Valery Gergiev, who is near the top of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “friends-of-Vlad” list, conducted both works in typically breathless fashion. There is no one in the classical realm, or in the opera house for that matter, that can spin out those intensely passionate, long-limned Tchaikovsky-esque phrases the way Gergiev can. His Bartók was taken at a slower but no less absorbing pace, which stood as proof of his versatility. With an orchestra of the caliber of the Metropolitan Opera’s group of musicians, native Muscovite Gergiev had a first-class ensemble at his beck and call to do justice to these two rarely performed but fervently conveyed works.
On a thoughtful note, I felt that maestro Gergiev prefers to wallow in Bluebeard’s darkly foreboding fortress rather than let the sunlight in on the happy fairy-tale ending to Iolanta. It’s merely an observation on my part from what I was able to gather of the broadcast. From this listener’s vantage point, perhaps a reversal of the order in which both works are presented may provide a respite to the letdown one experiences with Bartók after the exhilarating climax to the Tchaikovsky piece.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
In reading critic and author David Thomson’s The Big Screen, a book about the history of motion pictures, I came upon a section devoted to movie musicals — specifically, the 1954 musical version of A Star is Born with Judy Garland and James Mason, produced by Sid Luft (Judy’s husband at the time), directed by George Cukor for Warner Bros., and written by Moss Hart.
The 1937 version, produced by David O. Selznick, was conceived by Alan Campbell, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and William Wellman after Adela Rogers St. John’s story, “What Price Hollywood?” — the 1934 film which Mr. Cukor also directed. Thomson points out a connection I had never noticed, before now: that the wistful music for both “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born and the nostalgic song, “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939), were composed by the same person, Harold Arlen — a coincidence perhaps? Hmm … perhaps. And both numbers in turn were performed by the same singer and entertainer, Judy Garland, at opposite ends of her fame and fortune.
If it can be said of any artist, it most assuredly can be exemplified in the work of the former Frances Ethel Gumm: that she wore her pain on her sleeve. In Judy’s world, it would be considered a badge of honor (or dishonor, depending on your point of view), to be shared with anyone and everyone you had come into contact with.
When we’re young and naïve, the mere thought of experiencing pain and hurt are anathema to one’s being. It’s so traumatic a sensation that you would want to flee the room — and the person — where that pain was patently present. As we grow older and, we must admit, hopefully wiser, we long to be near it; to grasp it, to hold it, to stroke it, much as a moth is helplessly drawn to the flame. We know we may be burned by our proximity to the one whose pain and anguish erupts from every fiber of her soul. But that’s exactly how we should experience Judy Garland’s art at this, the pinnacle of her movie career. Her pain was our pain — and it’s inescapable.
This film, made when she was only 32 (but looking years older), is Judy at her tortured peak, her “swan song” to her fans; an insider’s fisheye glimpse of a complicated life lived in full view of the paying public. By now, most viewers will be familiar with the plot of talented band singer Esther Blodgett (Judy), rechristened Vicki Lester, whose career rises in direct proportion to her alcoholic actor-husband Norman Maine’s faltering one.
To spare his wife from tumbling right along with him, Norman (Mason) decides to end his life by drowning his troubles at sea. That tragic ending may remind audiences of Joan Crawford’s sad demise in Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque (1946).
Both Garland and Mason shine in this fabulous Technicolor widescreen, CinemaScope spectacular, with Judy dancing and singing her way to the top, and providing equal parts vulnerability and humor to overcome her many backstage issues (i.e., her dependency on drugs and alcohol, her weight problems, and her illnesses, both real and perceived).
Judy was an expected shoe-in for an Academy Award that year as Best Actress, but she was denied the honor in favor of Grace Kelly’s performance in The Country Girl. Coincidentally, that film’s story line was also about an alcoholic husband (Bing Crosby) whose long-suffering wife (Ms. Kelly) stands by her man to the end (a happy ending in this case).
Besides the aforementioned “The Man That Got Away,” which summarizes the story textually and contextually, there is the 18-minute “Born in a Trunk” sequence to admire, choreographed by Richard Barstow to the music and words of Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. Other songs include Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “Gotta Have Me Go With You,” “Here’s What I’m Here For,” “It’s a New World,” “Someone at Last,” and “Lose That Long Face,” along with a medley of George Gershwin and Rodgers & Hart tunes. The other cast members include Charles Bickford, Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan, and Amanda Blake.
Trimmed of approximately 37 minutes after its successful release, A Star is Born has been painstakingly reconstructed to 176 minutes (but not the test-cut time of 196 minutes or the premiere running time of 182 minutes) for the DVD/Blu-ray Disc editions, with scenes and numbers restored using photographs, pan and scan footage, and snippets of outtakes, making it a not to be missed, home-viewing experience.
Sadly, once you’ve seen the end product, you may never want to view it again. Considering what Judy went through in the final months of her life in London, England (epitomized in Peter Quilter’s hit theatrical play, Judy Garland – The End of the Rainbow) in eerie imitation of the film’s premise, there’s just too much pain attached. Indeed, she paid the ultimate price for Hollywood stardom: Judy passed away on June 22, 1969, at the age of 47.
The film was remade for a third time by Warner Bros. in 1977, as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, in more of a pop-rock hippie milieu; and indirectly by Twentieth-Century Fox in 1979 as The Rose, with Bette Midler and Alan Bates, where the star herself goes off the deep end. The latter picture was actually based on the self-destructive life of Janis Joplin, who died of an overdose of heroin laced with alcohol in October 1970. Joplin was all of 27, twenty years younger than Garland.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
Everything Verdi: ‘La Traviata,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Ernani,’ ‘Don Carlo,’ and Other Met Opera Tragedies (Part Two)
“Ernani, Ernani, Envolami”
Moving on to the April 4 transmission of Verdi’s Ernani, that old flu bug hit one of the major cast members. This time around, former tenor Plácido Domingo, who was supposed to have made his broadcast debut in the principal baritone part of Don Carlo, begged off due to illness.
Instead of a placid Saturday afternoon, we heard the robust Italian voice of baritone Luca Salsi, who had previously sung Enrico Ashton in the March 28 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. About 30 minutes before the start of the show, Domingo felt ill and unable to give his best, so Salsi was called up from the reserves. The other radio participants were tenor Francesco Meli in the title role of Ernani, soprano Angela Meade as his lady love Elvira, and basso Dmitry Belosselskiy as Silva, the supposed bad boy (or old man) of this opera.
Not given as frequently as it used to be, Ernani is quite a tuneful hallmark in Verdi’s oeuvre that can make for a rousing night at the opera. As the composer’s fifth opera (after the highly successful Nabucco and I Lombardi), its solo numbers for soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass are popular concert and recording showpieces, as are the rousing ensemble pieces.
Back in the Met’s Golden Horseshoe and Lincoln Center heydays, such staples of the company as tenors Giovanni Martinelli, Mario Del Moanco, Franco Corelli, and Carlo Bergonzi, along with sopranos Elizabeth Rethberg, Zinka Milanov, Eleanor Steber, and Leontyne Price, baritones Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil, Mario Sereni, and Sherrill Milnes, and basses Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Ezio Flagello, and Jerome Hines, could be heard to their full advantage. While not equaling their stellar attributes, some of our modern-day interpreters included the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Marcello Giordani, Leona Mitchell, Aprile Millo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Thomas Hampson, no slouches in that department.
Alas, those times have long since past. In today’s opera world, few singers are capable of attaining the vocal richness, infectious energy and individuality the above artists were wont to bring to their respective roles. For one thing, there has to be a complete absorption of Verdi’s mood, style, and delivery — a balance of sheer bombast mixed with tonal flourishes. For another, a total belief in the convoluted story line which strains credibility at almost every vantage point.
For the most part, Ernani can be considered an early precursor to Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, and most emphatically Don Carlo in its passion and fervor. These operas are hard acts to follow. However, great singing can surmount the many hurdles; and even greater singers can convince skeptical audience members they are reliving the troubled times of 16th century Spain and France, the settings for Ernani’s plot.
I won’t begin to delve into the particulars of that plot, only to say that it involves, at its climax, a fateful gathering at the tomb of medieval Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (how morbid) and what went on between the protagonists prior to their getting there. Without strong voices and outgoing personalities, this opera goes by the wayside. Given this caveat, how did the Met Opera’s cast do? Passably, if not exactly with a grade of A. Let’s say a B minus for effort and results — no more, no less.
Leading off with the tenor lead, Francesco Meli has carved a solid reputation in Europe, including a well received turn as Jacopo Foscari in another early Verdi work, I Due Foscari, with Señor Domingo as his father.
So, did he finally make it to ovation time? Only tolerably, I’m afraid. There was nothing particularly bad about his singing, and his native Italian diction was perfectly true and clear. The high notes were there but without that last ounce of “ping” or squillo that would excite audiences to their feet; the legato and portamento were carefully crafted, and the voice well-husbanded all the way to the end. I wouldn’t call Meli a tenore spinto at this point, but his basic sound was a pleasing one. So why didn’t he make a better impression on me? As with many singers on the radio, the visual element went missing, and Meli proved incapable of vocally filling in the blanks.
Angela Meade is that rarest of bel canto songbirds, one with a potent stage figure and even more potent vocal resources at her command and disposal. Meade’s assumption of Bellini’s Norma last year was indeed a personal highpoint in her still-rising career. But as Elvira, where the highs and lows tend to recall Abigaille’s vocal lines in Nabucco, I felt she might have been slightly under the weather in this appearance. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve listened to better renditions of her opening aria, “Ernani, Ernani, envolami,” by this same artist at earlier revivals. Dramatically, however, Meade encompassed every facet of the part, if vocally she was a shade below her usually acceptable standards.
Luca Salsi made a positive impression overall. His previous run as Enrico in Lucia served as fuel for his performance here as the politically minded Don Carlo, who during the course of the plot is crowned Charles V of Spain — the father of King Philip II, as strange as it may seem, in the next work to be reviewed, Verdi’s Don Carlo. That bearded old Bear of Busseto certainly loved those far-flung Spanish tales, even if they were written, in Ernani’s case, by the Frenchman Victor Hugo, and, with Don Carlo, a German named Friedrich Schiller.
Signor Salsi was helped along by the superb Met Opera forces in the ensemble that concludes Act III. His pleasure-inducing reading of Carlo’s Act III scena, where the baritone predominates both at the beginning and end of this moving act, as well as his flowing cantilena line above the chorus won a hearty ovation from an audience starved for excellent male voices.
With the bland Don Ruy Gomez de Silva of Dmitry Belosselskiy, this was not to be. The singer, a Ukrainian basso who’s come up from the Bolshoi Theatre and Moscow Academy to try his hand at this central role, revealed a large voice of some distinction. Lately at the Met, Silva has been taken by Ferruccio Furlanetto, who practically owns this part. Without his experienced hand, the final trio that concludes the opera collapses of its own weight. Superior vocal and acting skills are the minimum prerequisites, items that Belosselskiy, as sturdy as his tones came across over the air, has yet to possess. Perhaps in the future, when we revisit this young artist, there may be some noticeable improvement. For now, final judgment will be reserved for a later date.
James Levine, the Met’s beloved music director and longtime champion of the early Verdi repertoire, presided over the company’s orchestral forces. His contribution on this date was as one would have expected: a solid line, strength and tautness where needed, but accommodating and relaxed when the principals were onstage.
His handling of the orchestra in Act III, in particular the gorgeously evocative outpouring of clarinets and bassoons at the introduction, followed by the delicate interplay between cello and solo baritone in “O de’ verd’anni miei,” and in the moving harp arpeggios of “O sommo Carlo” that concludes the act, were of extraordinary beauty and melancholy. How like a foretaste of King Philip’s reflective air, “Ella giammai m’amo” (“She never loved me”) from Don Carlo, is Verdi’s masterful orchestration here. The conspirators’ music was superbly articulated and forthrightly voiced by the excellent Met chorus.
Though not the best of Levine’s recent assignments, I’ll grant you that, there were many moments of sheer delight and marvel at how much the Met maestro loves this music. Verdi was well served under his superb guidance.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
What makes a film a classic? A better question to ask is: what makes a film epic a classic film epic? Without boring readers to tears with dry, statistical analysis — and for the sake of argument — let’s say that Sir David Lean’s 1962 desert epic Lawrence of Arabia conveniently and consistently fits both bills.
At roughly four hours in length, including overture, intermission, and exit music (in Robert Harris’ exemplary restoration effort), it’s every critic’s Exhibit A in the “classic film epic” department, no contest about it. But why is that? Well, it’s got style to burn. It’s got wit; it’s got taste; it’s got sweeping romantic vistas and magnificent location scenery. And it has an enigmatic title character in T.E. Lawrence, deftly handled by the young and nearly unknown Peter O’Toole in a wide-ranging (and incredibly revelatory) performance of the first order.
Viewers were equally divided as to whether Lawrence was any more knowable at the end of the saga than at the beginning of it. Certainly the way the character’s been written (Sir Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson contributed to the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, with Bolt taking most of the credit since Wilson had been blacklisted at the time of the movie’s release) makes Lawrence out to be more of a warmongering adventure seeker and less of a stand-up-and-get-shot-at hero — an anti-hero, if you prefer.
Still, all glory and honor are due O’Toole for what must have been an impossible acting assignment. He had to capture Lawrence’s softer “feminine” side, so to speak — his latent homosexuality could only be hinted at in 1962 — without a) giving away the game; b) without making him into a limp-wristed caricature; and c) without giving up any of the manly heroics associated with the historical figure per se.
In addition, O’Toole had to reveal Lawrence’s exceptionally volatile nature, as well as his high tolerance for pain — the torture scene featuring the sadistic Turkish Bey with the troublesome cough (played by José Ferrer) is a good case in point. Although such an electrically-charged term as “male rape” could never have been uttered in an early 1960s feature that is exactly what occurred here and what director Lean was going after. Lawrence’s refusal to go into specifics about his manhandling is an indication of how far he was willing to go to prove his manly (that is, heroic) nature to his Arab friends.
The plot, in brief, concerns a misfit British officer, Lieutenant Lawrence, and his involvement with Saudi Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness, in a false beard and even more faux accent). His orders are to keep a close watch on those Arab beggars (“They’re a nation of sheep stealers,” comments the bigoted General Murray) and report his findings to British High Command in Cairo. Instead, Lawrence takes the bull by the horns by throwing himself headlong into an ad hoc campaign of his own devising. “I’ve got orders to obey, thank God,” exclaims Murray’s replacement, General Allenby. “Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.” Indeed, a whirlwind that lands him in hot water.
Lawrence’s goal is to oust the stubborn Turks from the gulf port of Aqaba by using a ragtag army of Bedouin tribesmen, the only force available to him. As fate (and luck) would have it, his plan works brilliantly — too brilliantly, one might add – and rather too easily for Lawrence’s future benefit. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there for the heavily burdened “El Aurens,” as the natives now refer to him. A legend of his own making, helped along by the cynical American reporter Jackson Bentley, Lawrence learns that he’s human after all and prone to all-too human failings — among them, a built-in self-loathing for what he’s become, i.e., a masochist as well as a sadist. His unraveling at the Arab council and the realization that he’s been a pawn in the hands of both Faisal and Allenby leads to his abandoning the desert for anonymity in the British countryside.
In his international film debut, Egyptian-born Omar Sharif contributes class, charm, and good looks (along with a sizzling screen presence) as Lawrence’s sympathetic Arab companion, Sherif Ali. Both Ali and Lawrence share a unique love/hate relationship with each other. Today, our so-called modern sensibilities might admit to a probable “bromance” between these two politically and culturally distinctive individuals. This opens up the issue of whether Lawrence, as depicted in the film, had homosexual tendencies. The introduction of two servant boys, Daud (John Dimech) and Farraj (Michel Ray, an Anglo-Brazilian), may even have allowed for such an indulgence. Historically, however, Lawrence was said to have been asexual, so that ends that query.
Others in the all-male cast include Anthony Quinn (with an immensely prominent, hooked proboscis) as warrior chieftain Auda Abu-Tayi, his Arab “ally” in arms; Jack Hawkins as a remarkably convincing General Allenby; Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, head of the Arab Bureau; Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton; Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley, the Lowell Thomas doppelganger; and bushy browed Sir Donald Wolfit as the short-sighted General Murray.
The film is divided into two parts, with the second half dragging slightly. The downbeat ending is, as expected, just that. But there’s no overlooking the award-winning desert cinematography by Freddie Young, or Maurice Jarre’s flavorful and much admired (by this author, anyway) film score, another Oscar® winner. Despite many months in the desert (Lawrence of Arabia was filmed partially in Jordan and along the southern coast of Spain), director Lean held it together, in the process showing how to keep the focus on the human element amid the bloody spectacle of war. Produced by movie mogul Sam Spiegel, whose crowning achievement this undoubtedly was. All that’s left to say is: “Here, here!” Ω
At the final performance of April 26, 2015 of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, given by North Carolina Opera at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh, the audience rose to its feet to applaud one of the better productions of this masterwork to be found anywhere.
With scenery courtesy of Virginia Opera and designed by Erhard Rom; costumes by John Pascoe, originally conceived for Michigan Opera Theatre and coordinated for North Carolina Opera by Denise Schumaker; and English captions by Jonathan Dean, owned by Seattle Opera, this Don Giovanni set new levels of vocalism and professionalism in the Tar Heel State.
Timothy Myers, who led the North Carolina Opera Orchestra in a full-bodied reading of this miraculous score, deserves much of the credit for its success, as do several others. Myers also contributed to the harpsichord continuo with his baton clenched between his teeth. This made for a few humorous moments during Don Giovanni’s Act II Serenade. Along with a rapid reading of the work itself, there was a forward thrust that brought dramatic focus and cohesion to the opera as a whole, leading to its inevitable and justly celebrated climax with the ghostly apparition of the Stone Guest. I would have welcomed a more leisurely approach to some of the more familiar airs, but for the most part this was a first-class venture from start to finish.
Myers got down to business by plunging headlong into the work’s familiar D minor opening chords and never letting up thereafter. The string section sounded a tad scrawny at the outset, but it made up in articulation and timing what it lacked in luxuriance. There was also plenty of pit-to-stage contact, which helped maintain good communication throughout the performance (there is no prompter’s box in the 600-seat A.J. Fletcher auditorium).
Some loss of momentum was natural at the beginning of Act II, but blame Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, for setting up a first act finale that is hard to beat no matter what they subsequently dreamed up. Ever the over-achiever, the workaholic Signor da Ponte had co-opted a libretto by Giovanni Bertati for a one-act version of Don Giovanni composed, oddly enough, in the same year as Mozart’s work (1787) by one Giuseppe Gazzaniga. The play that da Ponte eventually presented to Herr Mozart for his consideration, while dramatically viable in its first act, was one that bordered on the repetitious for the second (take, for example, the two Zerlina and Masetto exchanges, which are virtual mirror images of each other). From the middle of Act II on, the action moves swiftly to the fiery finish.
The opera’s sets were of the sliding, utilitarian variety that permitted quick scene changes, while maintaining at least a semblance of the Spanish countryside, for one; a balcony with alcove, for another; and, finally, a lavish banquet hall. The curtain went up on a gathering of fallen women (literally and figuratively) strewn about the stage. Immediately, a thought came up: “Oh, great, another ‘concept’ production.” Thankfully, that never materialized. The only concept director Crystal Manich had in mind was to follow the script. Obviously, Ms. Manich had done her homework and studied da Ponte’s libretto for clues as to how to block each scene and number in the most flowing manner possible. In the scene just described, the remains of the Don’s conquests, the physical remnants of his many affairs with women of every type and description (so humorously enumerated in Leporello’s excruciatingly detailed “Catalogue” Aria) became part of the drama at key intervals.
Praise must also be given the director for those inventive interplays between characters. Why, even the supernumeraries played a major role in the action, either by their holding aloft props and lighted candelabra, or fanning themselves in the hot Spanish sun. Whatever bits of business were incorporated, they worked brilliantly in maintaining the specific mood of the number or numbers being sung. They kept the action moving, a nice touch overall; indeed, much of the singers’ movements were fluid, transitioning seamlessly from one scene to the other, with no signs of awkwardness anywhere, nor from any of the participants who may have lost their way.
A case in point involved the scene in Act II where Don Giovanni, in disguise as his servant Leporello, gave conflicting instructions to Masetto and a group of none-too-bright peasants. Their movements up-and-down and across the stage were cleverly choreographed to the text in perfect coordination and in time to the music.
The chorus was spare and lean befitting the sparseness of the sets, save for a well-stocked dinner table at the Act II banquet scene (the Don’s final supper, it turns out). Don Giovanni partakes of heaping mouthfuls of food, mighty tempting to Leporello’s eyes, and a most convincing display of gluttony. I missed the sledgehammer blows to Giovanni’s door by the Stone Guest (indicated in the score, by the way). Beyond that, there were no complaints about the acting or singing. The duel at the start between the dashing Don and the old Commendatore could have used a touch more panache, but the scene of Masetto’s beating by Giovanni was expertly staged.
In my view, Mozart should be sung by young singers; his music has the exuberance and energy of youth, as well as a youthful impetuosity. And this group of stylish young artists gathered by North Carolina Opera for this performance was more than attuned to the rigors and exigencies of the Mozartian style. For in the end, Don Giovanni is about the music, which most of the cast members were able to convey with mastery and effectiveness.
As the nefarious libertine of the title, Korean-born bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha made an excellent impression. Suave and smooth in form, Cha had an elegant stage presence and vocal finesse in his wooing of the three women. Virile of voice, with splendid Italian diction and loads of sex appeal — these are the essential qualities of a truly great Don, which Cha is well on his way to attaining.
He ran a little short of breath at the breakneck speed with which maestro Myers dashed through the so-called Champagne Aria, “Finch’han del vino,” but was smooth as silk in his gorgeously vocalized “Deh vieni alla finestra” (he even managed some dexterous fingering on the mandolin, played pizzicato by the violins). Cha’s soft-singing was most pleasurable to the ear in the recitative leading up to the “La ci darem la mano” duet with a playful Zerlina. He let out all the stops, though, for a spine-tingling final encounter with the statue of the dead Commendatore. Cha’s Don maintained his defiance to the end, unrepentant and unbowed, as he was dragged literally to hell (elevator going down?). A superb performance!
Adam Lau was a funny and jovial punching-bag of a Leporello, fast on his feet and quick with the quip and the wisecrack when the situation called for it, with a plummy-toned bass-baritone that was sufficiently individual from Cha’s as to be distinctive. Both artists are of Asian descent, which lent even more credibility to their exchange of clothing in the scene where they dupe the jilted Donna Elvira into thinking she’s being wooed by her ex-lover the Don. Lau’s Catalogue Aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” was humorously done, as female embodiments of the various nationalities that populate the Don’s list milled about. (The one from “Alemagna,” or Germany, held a pretzel in her hand!) Lau was the clear audience favorite at ovation time, winning a well-earned round of applause.
Soprano Alexandra Loutsion’s formidable Donna Anna effectively conveyed the character’s steadfastness in seeking revenge for her father’s murder. Her “Or sai chi l’onore” and “Non mi dir” were models of vocal coloration and emotional commitment, fulfilling every coloratura requirement called for. A full-throated performer, Loutsion, in looks and voice, reminded one of a young Angela Meade, which is a backdoor way of saying that a career in early Verdi and bel canto is right around the corner, with Puccini and Strauss waiting in the wings. Her acting was above reproach and her moments with Don Ottavio turned into a heart-wrenching experience. Keep up the wonderful work!
Her betrothed, Don Ottavio, was sung by tenor David Blalock, a graduate of UNC Greensboro. Although he was denied his Act I aria, “Dalla sua pace,” Blalock passed the breath-control test with a poised and assured “Il mio tesoro,” taken at a faster than normal clip, which probably served the sentiments of the piece well enough. His tone was ingratiating throughout, the voice slightly nasal. But he offered straightforward masculinity in a character usually passing for a wimp in Donna Anna’s hands. His was a commanding Ottavio, with a strongly projected persona. His part in the trio of the masqueraders blended well with the two outstanding sopranos yet stood out on its own. He also saw the joke in Donna Anna’s telling him, in the Epilogue, to wait another year before they can marry.
Soprano Hailey Clark, another native Carolinian, took the vocal honors as a barnstorming, breathlessly exciting Donna Elvira. She burned up the stage at her every opportunity with a voice demanding that attention be paid. Now here’s a real find: robust stage deportment, a potent and agile soprano, expressive body language, and a torrent of temperament — the perfect combination for an opera star in the making. From her first entrance in Act I, “Ah, chi mi dice mai,” in which she was joined by Don Giovanni and Leporello, on through to a moving “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata,” an aria written for the Vienna premiere, Ms. Clark dominated the proceedings by employing her rock-solid technique in the service of the score. This is a performer to watch! No Don Giovanni in his right mind could possibly resist this Donna Elvira’s pleas to reform his wicked ways. In Hailey’s capable hands, this was the outstanding performance of the afternoon, and the applause at the end reflected it.
As the pert and lively Zerlina, the petite Jennifer Cherest showed plenty of spunk, with a spry personality and the suppleness of a born comedienne. She spouted real spit-fire in confronting both the seductive Don and her bumbling boyfriend, Masetto. There was a huge height differential between her and David Weigel, the Masetto, who she successfully played off of. They made a fun couple, one minute tender and loving, and the next minute scolding and defiant. Cherest was especially enchanting in her “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,” in which she threw herself at his mercy, practically begging him to punish her for having flirted with the Don.
As for Weigel, his clunky stage delivery meshed well with Masetto’s rube-like character. Nobleman or no, this Masetto’s gut instincts told him Don Giovanni is not to be trusted (“Ho capito, signor si!”). Tonally, though a shade underpowered (at least, from where I was sitting), I wager Weigel would make a fine Marcello in La Bohème, as well as an optimal Billy Budd. He could have used more heft to underline his jealous rants, but that’s a minor point. Both he and Cherest were treasurable in their scenes together.
Benjamin LeClair’s Commendatore, despite some initial woofy tonality at his first appearance, offered great height as an imposing Stone Guest. His voice was electronically enhanced in both the graveyard scene and in the Stone Guest’s visit to Giovanni’s palace. The supernatural elements worked just fine here, thanks to the amplification. More focused projection would help LeClair to put over the Commendatore’s anger in the early going, as well as putting more bite into his words.
As you can see, this was one of the most enjoyable productions of Mozart’s immortal Don Giovanni in memory. May there be more of this kind of solid musicianship and professionalism from North Carolina Opera. The cast and crew are to be commended.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes