Month: August 2015

Another Opening, Another Met Opera Show: Ringing in the New 2015-2016 Broadcast Year

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So Many Choices, So Little Time…

Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello (Photo: Met Opera)
Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, the Moor of Venice (Photo: Met Opera)

When one radio season ends, another begins. That’s how swiftly things move about in the fast-paced world of grand opera… I’m kidding, of course. Typically, there’s nothing slower than grand opera, especially those grandiose efforts by Wagner and sometimes by Strauss. Verdi tends to glide along at a fairly rapid clip, with Puccini even quicker. For the most part, verismo composers take a brisk view of their work, whereas the French savor over their output (and their ubiquitous ballet sequences).

But I do digress. This latest post will pay homage to the coming Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast season, scheduled to begin in early December 2015. The Met’s official gala opening night, however, gets underway three months before that, on September 21 (broadcast via satellite on SiriusXM radio), with a new production of Verdi’s Otello, to be heard later in the season on April 23, 2016. More about that venture when we come to it!

Soon after the close of the 2014-2015 season the Met’s management informed radio listeners that one of the show’s senior producers, Mary Jo Heath, had officially taken over the duties of announcer and host from the late Margaret Juntwait. Ms. Juntwait passed away on June 3rd of ovarian cancer, a tragic blow to long-time listeners who had grown accustomed to her on-air presence as only the third announcer in Met Opera broadcast history, and the first woman to assume the role.

Mary Jo Heath, the Met's new radio announcer and host
Mary Jo Heath, the Met Opera’s new radio announcer and host

A native of Norman, Oklahoma, Ms. Heath earned a Ph.D. in music theory from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, as well as Bachelor and Master’s degrees in music from the University of Oklahoma. Ira Siff, the late Ms. Juntwait’s co-host for the series, will remain on board to add “color” commentary to the proceedings. A wise decision! Siff’s gushing delivery and intimate knowledge of the art form, in addition to his affable repartee with and respect for colleagues, are most welcome. I wish the team well in their joint assignment!

With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get the opera show on the road!

We’ve already mentioned that the broadcast season kicks off on December 5th. The opening work on the program is that perennial favorite of the holiday season, La Bohème. It will star soprano Barbara Frittoli as the tubercular Mimì, Ramón Vargas as her poet-lover Rodolfo, Ana María Martínez as the flirtatious Musetta, and Levente Molnar as the painter Marcello, with Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, Christian van Horn as Colline, and John Del Carlo as Benoit/Alcindoro. Conducted by Paolo Carignani in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production (which has been filmed on several occasions, but with different casts), Puccini’s classic tale of young love was based, in part, on the composer’s own experiences as a struggling artist.

December 12 will bring us Verdi’s Rigoletto in Michael Mayer’s glitzy Las Vegas-style adaptation. Starring Željko Lučić as Rigoletto, Nadine Sierra as his daughter Gilda, Piotr Beczala as the lascivious Duke of Mantua (a Frank Sinatra wannabe in this production), Nancy Fabiola Herrera as the hooker Maddalena, and Dimitry Ivashchenko as the hit-man Sparafucile, it will be led by Roberto Abbado. I thoroughly enjoyed this version of the opera, which is similar, in many respects, to an earlier production by Jonathan Miller (from the 1980s) that set the story in New York’s mob-controlled Little Italy.

Joyce DiDonato (center) in La Donna del Lago (Met Opera)
Joyce DiDonato (center) in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (Met Opera)

Moving on to the bel canto realm, the December 19 broadcast reintroduces audiences to Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (“The Lady of the Lake”) in a production by Paul Curran, with Joyce DiDonato as Elena, Daniela Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcolm, the spectacular Lawrence Brownlee as Giacomo V, John Osborn as Rodrigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. The conductor is Michele Mariotti. The opera is based on a romantic poem by Sir Walter Scott, the same author who fired Donzietti’s imagination with Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s a 16th-century tale of knights and damsels in distress set in the Scottish highlands. The difference is: everyone warbles in Italian! Mamma mia!

What better post-Christmas present than a December 26 broadcast of Rossini’s infectious The Barber of Seville, produced by Bartlett Sher and given in J.D. McClatchy’s English translation. Anthony Walker is on the podium, with Elliot Madore as Figaro, Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva, Isabel Leonard as Rosina (one of her most in-demand parts), Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo, and Robert Pomakov as Don Basilio. I am not especially enamored of this adaptation, but the sets and costumes are a feast for the eyes, and the singing is on a generally high level. It’s something to look forward to on a cold, chilly Saturday afternoon, which should warm the cockles of one’s heart.

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

The New Year rings out in true January 2nd fashion with Johann Strauss Jr.’s effervescent Die Fledermaus, also sung in an English translation. The producers are Jeremy Sams and Robert Jones. With Met musical director James Levine at the helm, this performance should be nothing less than a rousing affair! It stars Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde and Adele Crowe as Adele. One of our favorite singers (and a delightful intermission host), mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, will take on the part of Prince Orlofsky, with Toby Spence as Eisenstein, Dimitri Pittas as Alfred the rambunctious Italian tenor, Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, and Alan Opie as Frank. In my initial review of this production, I too found the English version a trifle forced and anachronistic. But it got the requisite laughs, so who am I to argue?

The most highly-anticipated production of the new season, however, involves the Met’s first-ever presentation of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy. That’s quite a major undertaking, but a long-delayed one in my view. The now-defunct New York City Opera had previously staged the three works way back in the 1960s and 1970s for their erstwhile singing sensation, the lively coloratura Beverly Sills. It’s a shame the Met never got around to giving Ms. Sills a better chance to shine in one of her bel canto specialties (barring the misconceived L’Assedio di Corinto by Rossini). Still, better late than never!

Donizetti's Anna Bolena (Met Opera)
A scene from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Met Opera)

The trilogy starts the ball (or heads) rolling with David McVicar’s version of Anna Bolena on January 9, headed by the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn, mezzo Jamie Barton (winner of the 2015 Richard Tucker Award) replacing the previously announced Elīna Garanča as her rival Jane Seymour, Tamara Mumford as Smeaton, Stephen Costello as Lord Percy, and Ildar Abdrazakov as Henry VIII. Marco Armiliato conducts. I found this production mostly drab in setting, but the colorful costumes by Jenny Tiramani and the choral work under Donald Palumbo are truly exceptional. In any case, the glamour and glitz should come from the singing. This was the case when the legendary prima donna Maria Callas revived the work in the now-famous 1957 Luchino Visconti production at La Scala.

Talk about glitz, the January 16 broadcast unveils a new production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (“The Pearl Fishers”), not heard at the Met in many, many generations. This stunningly beautiful piece, which has lately received a plethora of revivals domestically, was termed by Francis Robinson, one of the Old Met stalwarts from radio days gone by, as the most requested of productions. Mr. Robinson’s reasoning for why the company hadn’t staged the work in, oh, 100 years or so was that all of its best tunes are heard in Act I. How absurd! Bizet never wrote a catchier score (his final opus, Carmen, on which his fame now rests, came over a dozen years later). With that said, soprano Diana Damrau sings the part of Leila, with Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, and Nicolas Testé (Damrau’s real-life husband) as Nourabad. Gianandrea Noseda mounts the podium for this one. The production is by Penny Woolcock, with sets by Dick Bird and costumes by Kevin Pollard.

Pilgrim's Chorus from Wagner's Tannhäuser (Met Opera)
Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (Met Opera)

Next up, we have the January 23 broadcast of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, presided over by maestro James Levine, a renowned interpreter of the German master’s oeuvre. As you can see, the breadth and variety of opera on this coming season’s slate take in many neglected bel canto and modern masterworks — some more tuneful and/or respected than others — while those of Wagner have taken an unfortunate backseat. Why is that? Simply put, the singers most capable of breathing life into these demanding parts are few and far between.

However, the cast announced for this overdue revival of the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production is something to look forward to. Johan Botha, whose girth is almost as large as his voluminous voice, takes up the challenge of the title role (he was an excellent Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, so that is some comfort). He’s joined by blonde bombshell Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth, Michelle De Young as the goddess Venus, Peter Mattei (his Amfortas in Parsifal was achingly moving) as Wolfram, and Günther Groissböck as the Langrave Hermann.

On January 30, Puccini’s final statement on the subject of opera, the lavishly conceived Turandot, is heard in the famously lavish Franco Zeffirelli production. Paolo Carignani conducts, with the laser-like tones of Nina Stemme as the icy Princess Turandot, beefy Italian tenor Marco Berti as the unknown Prince Calàf, Anita Hartig as the tender Liù, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk as the deposed Timur. Signor Zeffirelli is credited as both producer and set designer.

I’ve always wondered why the Met, of all places, has yet to present Turandot in either the original Franco Alfano-penned ending (with its additional high notes for tenor and soprano) or in the late Luciano Berio’s truer, albeit eerily dissimilar appendage. As opera-lovers are aware, Puccini died before he could complete his magnum opus. Leaving behind mere sketches, among which was a cryptic scrawl in his all-but unreadable handwriting of the words “poi Tristano” (“after Tristan”), Puccini expired never having seen his work performed. At the 1926 La Scala premiere, Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton at the point where Liù’s body is carried away by the populace. The next night’s performance included Alfano’s ending, as amended by the conductor. I once heard this original, unexpurgated ending in a late-1980s production at New York City Opera. It did not sound like Puccini at all, but it was fuller and more exciting than the truncated one we’ve been hearing. Let’s give it a shot, Mr. Gelb!

It’s Going to Be a Doozy!

Turning now to two jewels in the verismo crown, the double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (in David McVicar’s recent mounting) will return on February 6, with the Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi once more leading the orchestra for both works. Cavalleria will star Violeta Urmana as Santuzza, with the sensational Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turiddu, and Ambrogio Maestri as Alfio. In Pagliacci we will be privileged to hear Roberto Alagna as Canio (one of his signature parts), Barbara Frittoli as Nedda, George Gagnidze as Tonio, and Alexey Lavrov as Silvio. I reviewed this production a few short weeks ago. At the time, I felt that, while it paid tribute to the verismo legacy in part, it was far from ideal. Given McVicar’s track record both at the Met and abroad, I remain hopeful he will be fine-tuning the production for the better.

February 13 is “make room for Verdi” day, with David McVicar’s Goya-inspired rendition of Il Trovatore, one of the Italian master’s darkest, most melodious early works. Marco Armiliato is back on the podium for this performance, with the marvelous Angela Meade as Leonora, Dolora Zajick in her signature role as the gypsy Azucena, Marcello Giordani as the troubadour Manrico (watch out for those high C’s!), stalwart Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count Di Luna, and Kwangchul Youn as Ferrando.

In late June, Opera News and other major publications announced the sad news that Siberian-born baritone Hvorostovsky had cancelled his performances through the summer of 2015 for treatment of a brain tumor. According to published reports, while his voice and vocal condition remain unimpaired, Dmitri’s “sense of balance has been severely affected.” We are indeed confident that this remarkable artist, whose main focus has been the Russian and Italian repertoire (in particular, the Verdi canon), will make a full and speedy recovery. Mr. Hvorostovsky was last season’s major highlight, what with that burnished voice and virile stage presence of his.

Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)
Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

Round two of the Donizetti Tudor Trilogy continues on February 20 with the broadcast of Maria Stuarda (“Mary Stuart”), in a repeat of David McVicar’s production. The sets and costumes are by John Macfarlane. We will once again be graced by the presence of Sondra Radvanovsky as Maria (or Mary Stuart). Elsa van den Heever will also be repeating her veddy British, very Bette Davis-like interpretation of Queen Elizabeth, along with Spanish tenor Celso Albelo as Leicester, Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil, and Kwangchul Youn as Talbot. Conducted by Roberto Frizza, this opera is notorious for perpetuating the myth (concocted by German playwright Friedrich Schiller) that Elizabeth I and her rival for the English throne, Mary Stuart, had actually met and traded insults with each other. This bit of creative license, while historically inaccurate, makes for thrilling theater. I can’t wait to hear Mary hurl her infamous “Vil bastarda!” (No translation necessary) at the neurotic ruler. Sparks are sure to fly!

And speaking of neurosis, February 27’s broadcast work is none other than Alban Berg’s notorious twelve-tone Lulu in another new production, this one conceived by renowned artist William Kentridge, who gave us Shostakovich’s The Nose (the opera, that is, not the organ) a few seasons back. It will be co-directed by Luc De Wit. The set designer is Sabine Theunissen, with production design by Catherine Meyburgh. Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s searing stage plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, and memorably enacted for the silent screen by Louise Brooks, the production stars the peerless Marlis Petersen as Lulu, Susan Graham as the gay Countess Geschwitz, Daniel Brenna as Alwa, Paul Groves as the Painter, Johan Reuter (fresh off his portrayal of Hans Sachs in last season’s Die Meistersinger) as Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper, and Franz Grundheber as the execrable Schigolch. Conducted by James Levine, whose championing and command of this work as well as Berg’s equally harrowing Wozzeck are justly celebrated.

Kristine Opolais in Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)
Kristine Opolais in Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

March comes in like a lion — on March 5th, to be exact —with a new Richard Eyre production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, considered to be the Italian composer’s first big international hit. With sets by Rob Howell and costumes by Fontini Dimou, this film noir variation on Puccini’s star-crossed lovers features the young and talented Kristine Opolais in the title role (with Manon as a femme fatale?), smoldering tenor Jonas Kaufmann as the Chevalier des Grieux, rising Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s brother Lescaut, and Brindley Sherratt as that old lecher Geronte. Fabio Luisi leads the way to ruin for our entranced pair.

The last time Manon Lescaut was revived in 2008, it was ill-served by the unfortunate miscasting of soprano Karita Mattila. One of the Finnish artist’s few failures, the normally fastidious Mattila, an exceptionally gifted actress and performer in her own right, simply did not evoke youth and beauty. Her lover on that occasion, tenor Marcello Giordani, also had problems projecting youthful vigor. Nevertheless, the Met decided to re-cast the work with a more, shall we say, visually credible couple. By the way, both Opolais and Kaufmann have partnered in this piece on more than one occasion — most recently, at the Royal Opera House in London.

On a lighter note, the March 12 broadcast will present Otto Schenk’s 2006 staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, starring that fabulously funny comic giant, bass-baritone Ambrogio Maestri, as the Don, with Eleonora Buratto as the shrewish Norina, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, who caused a sensation in the previous season’s broadcast of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, as Ernesto, and Levente Molnar as Dr. Malatesta. Maurizio Benini conducts.

Oy vey! Prepare yourself on March 19th for more Donizetti — a rarity, I’ll have you know, for any North American opera house to include so many of his works — with a revival of Bartlett Sher and Michael Yeargan’s vibrant production of L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”). With richly-detailed costumes by Catherine Zuber, the opera will star Aleksandra Kurzak as Adina, and matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo, the Met’s newest tenor heartthrob, as the clueless Nemorino, with Adam Plachetka as Belcore, and veteran scene-stealer Alessandro Corbelli as the patter-spewing quack, Dr. Dulcamara. Enrique Mazzola will be in charge of the proceedings from the pit.

Restoration Efforts

Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight! Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or The Marriage of Figaro, will certainly entertain you on March 26. The cast for this revival of Richard Eyre’s production from last season includes the hearty Anita Hartig as Susanna, chirpy Isabel Leonard as Cherubino, Luca Pisaroni as Count Almaviva, Mikhail Petrenko as Figaro, and Amanda Majeski as the Countess, with maestro Fabio Luisi putting the orchestra through its paces. The one thing here that caught my eye was the casting of Russian basso Petrenko as the very Italianate (or should I say Spanish) Signor Figaro. Petrenko has proven his versatility at the Met as the dignified monk Pimen in Boris Godunov and the sinister Duke Bluebeard in the recent Bluebeard’s Castle, so I’m expecting some surprises by his latest assignment.

This production is another of Eyre’s contributions (along with those of the aforementioned Messrs. McVicar and Sher) to the refurbishing project spearheaded by Met General Manager Peter Gelb. Livening up the standard repertoire has been one of Mr. Gelb’s goals, many of which have involved replacing the old Zeffirelli productions with ones espousing a fresher viewpoint. I’m glad to report that most of his efforts in this vein have been met with support and acclaim. However some of them, including a positively dreadful Tosca by the usually on-the-money Luc Bondy, gave way to derision in the press and a lukewarm audience reception.

Scene from Act II of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Met Opera)
Scene from Act II of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Met Opera)

April showers bring May flowers, so they say. And in Madama Butterfly, scheduled for an April 2nd hearing, Puccini brought us lots and lots of tears. Here is one replacement of a major repertory item, first seen and heard back in 2006, that deserves the high praise it has garnered. An outstanding example of Gelb’s vision and foresightedness for the company, this Anthony Minghella production, with its fascinating use of Bunraku puppetry and inspired Kabuki-like displays, along with superb direction and choreography by Carolyn Choa, incredible set design by Michael Levine, and dazzling costume work by Han Feng, has been wowing the opera-going public for several seasons now. This revival boasts Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San, mezzo Maria Zifchak (always a welcome presence) as Suzuki, romantic lead Roberto Alagna as Lt. Pinkerton, and dependable Dwayne Croft as the sympathetic Sharpless. Karel Mark Chichon conducts. Get out your handkerchiefs, folks!

April 9 finds us back to Verdi territory, with the master’s darkly foreboding Simon Boccanegra. This version, the work of Giancarlo Del Monaco, the son of the great spinto tenor Mario Del Monaco, will star Plácido Domingo (in his faux-baritone guise) as the titular brigand-turned-doge, basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno, with James Levine presiding. Curiously, Amelia, Boccanegra’s long-lost daughter, is supposed to be announced. Let’s hope the singer assigned to this part won’t be lost for long.

I wonder, too, how long Señor Domingo will continue to cruise the baritone seas. It’s my sincere belief, expressed a few years ago in a review of his Germont characterization in La Traviata that the workaholic, over-achieving former leading man should “hang it up” as far as performing is concerned. From the reviews I’ve read of his performances of late, Mr. Domingo’s softly-modulated tones and near-inaudibility in the theater have been hampering any number of forays. It’s time for the legendary artist to call it a night and gracefully retire from the scene.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux (Met Opera)
Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux (Met Opera)

April 16 will mark the final installment of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, with a new production of Roberto Devereux. Our old friend, Sir David McVicar, will be serving as both production and set designer, with costumes designed by Moritz Junge. Maurizio Benini will lead the all-star cast, which boasts powerhouse diva Sondra Radvanovsky in a recurrence of her quirky Queen Elizabeth interpretation (as a much older monarch, of course), followed by mezzo Elīna Garanča who returns to sing Sara, Matthew Polenzani as Roberto Devereux (who, you may remember from Errol Flynn’s screen appearance alongside Bette Davis, is actually Robert, Earl of Essex), and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as the Duke of Nottingham.

The Best is Yet to Come

We now come to what is, for me, the ultimate pièce-de-résistance of the Italian operatic repertoire: the April 23 broadcast of Verdi’s next-to-last masterpiece Otello, based on Shakespeare’s play. With a masterful libretto by poet and composer Arrigo Boito (whose own opera, Mefistofele, is scheduled for a Met revival a few years hence), this extraordinary piece — the musical and dramatic equivalent of being sprayed with titanic ocean currents — when rightly performed, has to be one of the most visceral experiences of any imaginable. I vividly recall a threadbare production from the early-1980s with a no-name cast in some remote Manhattan corner. While the singing left much to be desired, the sheer sound that emanated from the orchestra during the volcanic opening storm scene was thrilling beyond anything I have heard in the theater.

This is another of those Bartlett Sher productions, sight unseen for the moment but for which great things are expected; the sets are by Es Devlin, and costume design the work of Catherine Zuber. The cast is headed by Latvian-born Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, who has established a reputation among the cognoscenti as a dramatic tenor in the Del Monaco mold. I’ve listened to his portrayals of the bandit Ramerrez in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and as the Pretender Dimitri in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. If I what I heard holds true, we are in for an exceptional afternoon of opera. With soprano Hibla Gerzmava singing Desdemona, Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as the duplicitous Iago, and veteran James Morris as the Italian ambassador Lodovico, this promises to be an equally thrilling ride. The conductor is Hungarian-born Ádám Fischer, although opening night is slated for the dynamic Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

April 30 is a date you will not want to miss: that incredibly concentrated, psychologically probing one-act shocker Elektra by Richard Strauss, will be the featured work. Starring the sterling voiced Nina Stemme as the put upon title character this is a realization of the late Patrice Chéreau’s posthumous production which became a critical and artistic success in France and Italy. Others in the cast include Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis, Waltraud Meier as the evil Klytämnestra, Eric Owens as Orest, Burkhard Ulrich as Aegisth, and conducted by orchestral master Esa-Pekka Salonen. Chéreau’s frequent collaborator, Richard Peduzzi, is credited with the set design, along with costume designer Caroline de Vivaise and stage director Vincent Huguet. Whew! I can feel the tremors already!

Scene from Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
Scene from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

The radio season ends on May 7 on an agreeable comic note, with a revival of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, featuring soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze, the perky Kathleen Kim as Blonchen, tenor Paul Appleby as Belmonte, basso profundo Hans-Peter König as Osmin, and Matthias von Stegmann in the speaking part of the Pasha Selim. Conducted by James Levine, this is one of the few active productions to have been directed by the late John Dexter, a pioneer on the Broadway and London stage as well as in the opera house. The set and costume designer is Jocelyn Gilbert, with lighting by Gil Wechsler.

So there you have it, fans, a season rich in firsts and the last word in fullness! Will the Met’s continuing financial troubles and union demands delay the start of the new season? Will the company be able to overcome the chronic shortage of adequate covers? Stay tuned for further developments as they arrive…

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

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New Met Productions of ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and ‘Pagliacci’ — Two Operas Joined at the Hip (Part Two): Fellini or Bust!

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‘Si può?’ — ‘If I may?’

George Gagnidze as Tonio in the Prologue to Pagliacci (Photo: Met Opera)
George Gagnidze as Tonio in the Prologue to Pagliacci (Photo: Met Opera)

Returning to the topic at hand, verismo (or “realism,” in the operatic sense) concerns itself with simple truths; that is, a “slice of life” portrait — “Uno squarcio di vita,” as Tonio explains to audience members in the Prologue to Pagliacci — of its harshness and brutality, its lost hopes and unfulfilled dreams, its bitter disappointments and its utter failures. Why, it’s the essence of opera itself, in many people’s view.

In that regard, it pains me that a book such as the Opera Lover’s Companion, put out by the Metropolitan Opera Guild back in 1948 — specifically, the section devoted to Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci — would condone such purple patches of “insight” as those that claim Mascagni’s magnum opus as being “cruder and less sophisticated” than Leoncavallo’s; that the opening “peasant folk ensemble” in Cav has “little to do … with the actual business of the piece”; and that Nedda’s poetic Ballatella in Pag is sung “over pretty instrumentation, but in itself filling no dramatic purpose whatever.” What nonsense!

Instinctively, a smart director will know how to make these moments work in each opera’s favor. It’s apparent from the cutting remarks above, however, that neither Cav nor Pag were held in high esteem, despite the fact that both operas at the time of the Opera Lover’s Companion’s release had already become permanent fixtures of the standard repertoire — indeed, since their debut not 60 or so years prior to the book’s publication.

Such disparaging comments have gone unchallenged for much too long. It was not until the publication, in 1958, of Mosco Carner’s masterful critical biography of Giacomo Puccini that scholars and musicologists, along with the public at large, began to take verismo seriously and, ergo, look upon it with keener eyes at what the period produced.

Marcelo Alvarez as Canio & Patricia Racette as Nedda, "Un grande spetaculo a ventitre ore!"
Pagliacci at the Met: Marcelo Alvarez as Canio & Patricia Racette as Nedda, “Un grande spetaculo a ventitre ore!”

Over two generations later, Cav and Pag stand firm as ground-breakers of a sort, the high-water mark for verismo that eventually spawned such varied endeavors as Puccini’s La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Il Tabarro, Francesco Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana and Adriana Lecouvreur, Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, Jules Massenet’s La Navarraise, Eugene d’Albert’s Tiefland, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s The Jewels of the Madonna, and quite a few others.

When Mascagni and Leoncavallo both failed to fulfill their early promise by not writing other equally potent barn-burners; and long after Puccini passed into opera legend with his bombastic swan-song Turandot, the postwar revival of Italian cinema gave rise to renewed efforts to cast verismo — now called neo-realism — in an entirely different light, i.e., the light of the silver screen.

The advent of foreign film directors Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini (whose 1954 effort, La Strada, is a modern-day reworking of Pagliacci), Luchino Visconti, and Michelangelo Antonioni brought added prestige to what was considered a lost art. Neo-realism went on to make a huge impact internationally, influencing not only the French Nouvelle Vague and Brazilian Cinema Novo movements, but the earlier film noir school of American-made movies.

The place where opera once originated — Italy — and the very idea of opera underwent a miraculous transmogrification: it replaced verismo and the passion that was initially poured into the genre with another art form. In the process, it reemerged as a stronger and more viable, if not exactly better, realization of its original aims.

To be fair, both Leoncavallo and Mascagni wrote a number of stage works that, in many critics’ estimation, are ripe for reevaluation. For example, Mascagni’s delightful L’Amico Fritz is a perfectly respectable and, in many places, thoroughly charming pastoral comedy (I’m thinking of the popular concert piece, the Intermezzo, as well as the much-recorded “Cherry Duet” from Act III). Similarly, Leoncavallo’s Zazà (with its own theatrically-based themes) and his version of the La Bohème story also merit attention.

Scene from Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz at Sarasota Opera (Photo: Richard Termine)
Scene from Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz at Sarasota Opera (Photo: Richard Termine)

Still, if Messrs. Mascagni and Leoncavallo are principally known for Cavalleria and Pagliacci (an unfair assessment of their total output) one can at least appreciate what made the above masterpieces the hands-on favorite of artists and conductors the world over. I’ll take a hefty “slice” of their pie anytime, anywhere!

Fabulous Fabio!

This brings us to David McVicar’s new production, which separates the two works by a half-century in time. As it were, they are thematically linked by a unit set which, in Cavalleria, represents the inside of a crumbling church; in Pagliacci, it’s the remnants of a makeshift theater where the age-old Commedia del Arte (or, as we know it in the States, the old “Punch and Judy” show) is routinely performed. The Saturday matinee broadcast of April 25, on which this post is based, was part of the Met’s Live in HD series.

As the company’s principal conductor, Genovese-born Fabio Luisi had a field day on the podium. I have not heard such marvelous violin playing in Cavalleria since Herbert von Karajan led the La Scala Opera forces in a 1965 recording of the work. From the opening statement, with its translucent string section on down to the last agitated blast of the full orchestra, Luisi lived and breathed the score, making every bar count for all it was worth.

Prior to him, any number of conductors have taken up the baton in defense of Cavalleria. I remember Leonard Bernstein’s erratic downbeat and exaggerated tempi when the Franco Zeffirelli production first premiered in 1969. Why, even Mascagni himself took up the challenge, in a leisurely reading he committed to disc (on the HMV/RCA Victor label) as far ago as 1940. Though many have tried, few have succeeded in negotiating this score’s tricky time-signature changes and stop-and-go episodes. Fabio Luisi, stand and be noticed!

Fabio Luisi, the Met's principal conductor
Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal conductor

I have praised maestro Luisi’s assignments in the past, principally his classically inspired sculpting of Berlioz’s massive score for Les Troyens, but not so much for Wagner’s Ring, which I found a work in progress. But here, the violins soared, punctuating the air with aching urgency in Cavalleria’s prelude. Even better, the famous Intermezzo, that sea of calm amid an ocean of torrent, was an ideal harmonic counterpoint to the “somber, tortured phrases” that followed Santuzza’s entrance (repeated at the opera’s close). The Intermezzo divides Cavalleria at its halfway point. While some conductors tend to give it short shrift, Luisi turned this luxuriously scored piece (based on the Regina Coeli, or “Queen of Heaven” hymn heard earlier, with organ accompaniment) into a tone poem of repose in preparation for the tragedy to come.

Most unexpectedly, this was the first time in my radio-listening and opera-going experience that both portions of the double bill were presented absolutely complete. On long-playing records, this has not been an issue, but in the opera house it was a long time coming. As with most works — especially Verdi’s Rigoletto and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, two standard repertory items that have been shredded beyond all recognition at the Met in years gone by — Cavalleria and Pagliacci sound fuller and more meaningful, dramatically as well as musically, when every note and word of their compact scoring is heard.

In particular, Pagliacci has suffered many such indignities, one of which (a grave disfigurement of its original intent) in the languorous duet between Canio’s disenchanted wife Nedda and her clandestine lover, Silvio. Repeats and additional pages of music (for Nedda, most of all) fill in the gaps, in addition to providing a consistent explanation for her illicit involvement with a much younger man. If not, the substance and force of Canio’s celebrated lament, “Vesti la giubba” (“On with the makeup”) and its introductory passage, “Recitar, mentre preso dal delirio,” (“To act, though one’s heart is breaking”), lose their meaning.

Lucas Meachem as Silvio & Patricia Racette as Nedda in Pagliacci (Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera)
Lucas Meachem as Silvio & Patricia Racette as Nedda in Pagliacci (Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera)

Maestro Luisi and, it can be presumed, director McVicar deserve high praise for restoring this previously missing music, along with snippets of dialogue and choral chatter normally cut from both the beginning of Acts I and II of Pagliacci (for one) and the supplementary line or two for chorus in Alfio’s entrance song, “Il cavallo scalpità,” in Cavalleria (for another). Both operas shone brightly as a result of this practice. May it continue unabated for the foreseeable future.

Incidentally, this is also the first live Pagliacci production at the Met where the closing line, “The comedy is ended,” was delivered by Tonio.

“Laugh, Clown, Laugh!”

The late and much lamented Sicilian tenor Salvatore Licitra was the last singer of substance at the Metropolitan Opera to have tackled the lead roles of Turiddu and Canio together. This was back in early 2007, the broadcast of which I heard and, quite frankly, enjoyed. His friend and colleague, Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez, also did double duty in the same parts for the Met’s most recent transmission.

Álvarez has been stretching his naturally reserved sound for several seasons now, taking on such major tasks as the poet Andrea Chénier and the painter Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca. Neither poet nor painter, Turiddu is more of a womanizer and wayward idler, while his counterpart, Canio, is a hard-working strolling player by profession. Licitra, in the old Zeffirelli production indicated above, lent a heart-on-sleeve approach to both parts, which worked well within the confines of that director’s vision.

Marcelo Alvarez as Pagliaccio (Met Opera)
Marcelo Alvarez as Pagliaccio (Met Opera)

In contrast, tenor Álvarez’s solution was in conserving his energy and limiting his outbursts to selected portions of the drama. In that, he proved adept at conveying the clown’s rage more than the lover-boy’s ardor. As a result, his Canio was the more riveting of the two, with open-throated emoting at “Vesti la giubba,” and firm control of the vocal line for the play-within-a-play (a most convincing “No, Pagliaccio non son!”). Turiddu, however, was another matter. I found his interpretation too laid-back for my taste, with “Voi dovrete fare,” his tear-filled farewell to Mamma Lucia, eliciting little audience empathy and no match for some of the role’s finest interpreters (among them, Gigli, Del Monaco, Bergonzi, Corelli, Tucker, even Mario Lanza in the movies).

The problem for me became Álvarez’s relative coolness in the early going of Cavalleria, in comparison with Licitra’s more blatant outpouring. Marcelo has a habit of cutting off his high notes a shade too early — this was previously noted in his appearance as Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera a few seasons back, as well as the cavalier manner with which he sang Cavaradossi. This pattern can leave audiences begging for more. Here, it became obvious he was attempting to pace himself in Cavalleria for the rigors of Pagliacci later on, even though neither part is of marathon proportions.

As an example, the knock-‘em-down, drag-‘em-out tongue-lashing bout with Santuzza (a stunningly beautiful Eva-Maria Westbroek, dressed all in black) should have shaken the Met’s rafters (it did not). What could have been a red-hot moment for the pair stayed stubbornly earthbound.

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (Met Opera)

Westbroek, the talented Dutch soprano who has taken on any number of assignments of late (from Francesca in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, to Sieglinde in Die Walküre, along with recent forays as Katerina Ismailova in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the notorious Anna Nicole Smith in the opera, Anna Nicole), has the refined, filigreed timbre essential for the lyric repertoire. But as far as verismo passion goes, her Santuzza remained as cool as cucumber.

What’s needed is a singer of raw, overpowering earthiness — the operatic equivalent of Anna Magnani or Sophia Loren. In their heyday, Renata Tebaldi, Giulietta Simionato (a mezzo), and Maria Callas were naturals in this category. Although she never sang Santuzza or Nedda on the stage, Callas’ 1953 recording of Cavalleria (with erstwhile singing partner Giuseppe Di Stefano, and veteran conductor Tullio Serafin presiding) illustrates her particular gifts. Her brief exchange with Mamma Lucia (Ebe Ticozzi), and especially that shattering cry of “Non posso entrar in casa vostra. Sono scomunicata!” (“I cannot enter your home. I’ve been excommunicated!”), tear one’s heart out with pity for this woman.

On the other hand, Westbroek made a fair stab at the line, but left out the all-important emotional content. It may have been a simple question of portamento. Yet again, to be honest how many singers have Callas’ innate feel for this music or, more precisely, her unerring way with the text?

George Gagnidze as Alfio in Cavalleria
George Gagnidze as Alfio in Cavalleria

As Alfio, burly George Gagnidze applied his nasally produced, thick-toned baritone to decent effect in his scene with Santuzza (their fiery duet closes out the first part of Cavalleria) and his final encounter with Turiddu. Gagnidze seemed more at home with this character’s aggressive personality than with the equally brutish Tonio in Pagliacci. Looking like a cross between stand-up comics Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield (in a pencil mustache), Gagnidze came out before the curtain with mike in hand to do what he could with the Borscht Belt shtick handed him via McVicar’s “concept” of Pagliacci as a troupe of washed-up actors playing to a crowd of ignorant peasants (in this, the director borrowed liberally from the aforementioned La Strada; he also utilized the services of consultant Emil Wolk for the vaudeville sequences).

This approach may have turned up the flame on Leoncavallo’s opus, and it was certainly a valid one for this work; but the shabby treatment allotted Cavalleria was inexcusable. If Santuzza is supposed to be excommunicated, as she so poignantly admits, why then does she participate in the church’s holiday ritual? The sets were all of a dark gray color, as if the Sunday Easter service were being held at night.

Getting back to Pagliacci, Patricia Racette’s Nedda needed little in the way of guidance. This terrific performer always gives 100 percent of herself in everything she does. Hers was a deeply felt, richly acted, and heart-breakingly pungent portrayal, despite a frayed top and a tendency to approximate any note above the staff. Still, Racette was absolutely riveting throughout, not only in the tragic finale but in the long love duet with Lucas Meacham’s strongly vocalized and substantially involved Silvio. Both artists disappeared into their roles. Consequently, their impassioned duet can be considered one of the finest realizations of this key scene in many a year.

In minor roles, contralto Jane Bunnell’s Mamma Lucia exuded sympathy for Santuzza and Turiddu’s plight in Cavalleria, and mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson was the light-hearted Lola. In Pagliacci, Andrew Stenson’s Beppe was solidly delivered, as were the brief turns by Daniel Peretto and Jeremy Little as the Villagers.

But the real hero of this newest Cav and Pag was Fabio Luisi, whose command and knowledge of the verismo idiom is without question. As an interpreter of the Italian and French wing at the Met, Luisi’s future is secure there. Perhaps with the next run of the Ring cycle (in the Robert Lepage/Carl Filion production) we may yet get a chance to hear him at his best. For now, this is as close as we’ve gotten. Bravo, maestro!

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

New Productions of ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and ‘Pagliacci’ — Two Operas Joined at the Hip (Part One)

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Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Act II (Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera)
Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Act II (Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera)

“Reality…What a Concept!”

Starting off a review of the Metropolitan Opera’s last new production of the 2014-2015 season (of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci) with the title of a debut record by the late actor/comedian Robin Williams, who later recorded a comedy album called A Night at the Met — yes, dear readers, Mr. Williams appeared live at the Metropolitan Opera House back in 1986 — gets right to the heart of the matter.

When opera took a turn for the better, from the stately affairs of the Baroque and Classical periods to the resoundingly robust Romantic era, it brought with it a fresher, more vibrant concept to deal with. That concept was called verismo. Known widely by the term “realism,” verismo (the Italian word for it) planted its seed in the arts, namely in painting and literature. Myriad works by the likes of Millet, Courbet, Degas, and others, in addition to novels by Zola, Daudet, and their ilk, flourished from the mid-nineteenth century on.

That verismo would eventually penetrate the hallowed halls of opera is not entirely a mystery to followers of the form. To be sure, it was inevitable that, while theatrical displays of passion and jealously were no strangers to opera, the fundamental core of verismo would concentrate these displays on the lives of everyday citizens — Reality TV before television and the term “Reality TV” were even in existence.

Years before, it was a given that portrayals of kings and queens, princes and princesses, haughty knights and their ladies fair, as well as mythological gods and goddesses, would be deemed fitting subjects for stage depiction, along with their high-minded stories. However, beginning with Bizet’s Carmen (1875), the sheer audacity of such personalities as a flirtatious gypsy woman, a homicidal soldier, a lusty toreador, and a pigtailed country girl, would bring “real life,” such as it was, front and center to patrons of the art in ways rarely seen up to that point.

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (Met Opera)
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (Met Opera)

Extending the now-crowded field to other “character types,” the one-act Cavalleria (1890) and the two-act Pagliacci (1892) concerned themselves with chronicles of simple village life and the folks that populated those villages. Only, they weren’t as “simple” as one might have assumed. For these were people whose lifeblood depended on their standing and repute in the village. They lived and loved, fought and suffered to within an inch of their lives, and many times forfeited those same lives in unattainable pursuits.

What we’ve described is a dog-eat-dog world, i.e. survival of the fittest or, at the very least, of the most passionate. “All’s fair in love and war,” or so it’s been said. That Cav and Pag, as they are affectionately known in the opera world, clearly exemplify this world in all its filth and grime has only made them more palatable to fans, this writer among them. These works share a common thread: they made their composers, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo, world-famous; they feature scorching scores with instantly recognizable tunes; they offer both male and female performers copious opportunities for display; and, despite their sometimes scandalous reputation for all-out emotional content, they’ve attracted scores of conductors of international repute. That’s saying a lot!

Marcelo Alvarez as Canio in Pagliacci (Met Opera)
Marcelo Alvarez as Canio in Pagliacci (Met Opera)

And no matter how they’ve been mistreated by the press or by independent-minded producers and directors, Cavalleria and Pagliacci will continue to survive whatever “concept” has been foisted upon them. Their basic themes — love and hate, jealousy and betrayal, adultery and sorrow, and finally out-and-out murder — are all touched upon in the brief running time allotted to each work. Although the operas have always enjoyed success on their own, or paired with other works (most of them incompatible), once Cav and Pag teamed up with each other and became joined at the hip as the perennial “double bill,” it’s been impossible to break up their union — a storied “marriage” made in musical heaven lasting longer than any of its major characters.

Despite often negative reaction, why have these works remained so beloved of opera-goers? Perhaps their very similarities have something to do with their durability. As indicated by the above, structurally both works evince a commonality of musical ideas, in that: both operas begin with a prelude; both preludes are “interrupted” by male voices (Turiddu intoning his Siciliana from backstage; Tonio in his pre-curtain Prologo); both operas favor extended choral numbers and set pieces; both employ instrumental Intermezzi between their two halves; and both end tragically with spoken dialogue (the Peasant Woman’s piercing shriek of “Hanno ammazatto compare Turiddu!” – “They’ve killed our friend Turiddu!” in Cav; and in Pag, the immortal line, “La commedia è finità” – “The comedy is ended,” usually given to the tenor, which in actuality belongs to the baritone, Tonio).

Pietro Mascagni (www.bbc.co.uk)
Pietro Mascagni as a young, struggling composer (www.bbc.co.uk)

In between, a variety of confrontations take place (some in duet form, most in solo arias), the gist of which, in Cavalleria, must be determined from the context: a peasant girl, Santuzza, has been excommunicated from the church, after being impregnated and, we learn soon enough, abandoned by her ex-boyfriend Turiddu. The plot of Pagliacci is more easily discernible through the characters’ utterances: Canio’s cantabile, “Un tal gioco” – “Such a joke is not to be taken lightly,” whereby he tells the villagers not to make fun of his situation; Nedda’s Ballatella, “Stridono lassù,” where she longs to be free and fly away, like the birds; Tonio’s “So ben che difforme” – “I know I am deformed,” an admission of his own repulsiveness; and so on. Are we not moved by these confessions? Indeed, we are!

Audiences coming to both Cav and Pag for the first time, especially if they are non-Catholics, may have a tougher time in figuring out what all the ballyhoo and religious pageantry are about. To be clear, the holiday alluded to in Cavalleria is Easter, a time of rebirth and reaffirmation of one’s purpose in life. In Pagliacci, it’s the Feast of the Assumption, or the elevation of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s body and soul into heaven. Religious rituals were extremely important to Italian villages and cities at the turn of the last century. And they remain so today, however reduced their influence has been of late.

The point here, then, is the contrast between what is happening with the characters in the midst of these religious events; and, from a dramatic point of the view, the total lack of morality and common decency in their relationships to each other. These simple folks are anything but sanctimonious, as displayed, for one, in Santuzza’s inability to enter her fellow villagers’ homes (her “sin” will follow her wherever she goes).

Turiddu (Marcelo Alvarez) & Santuzza (Eva-Maria Westbroek) in Cavalleria
Turiddu (Marcelo Alvarez) & Santuzza (Eva-Maria Westbroek) in Cavalleria Rusticana

This is powerful stuff, red meat for the masses! Of the two works, Cavalleria tends to be the more heartless in its disregard for women’s feelings. For instance, Lola, the current object of lover-boy Turiddu’s affection, is a floozy, in the parlance of the time, the promiscuous, unhappily married spouse of the seemingly respectable but dull Alfio, a teamster by profession. In most productions, Alfio is made to play the bad guy (albeit unfairly), while Turiddu gets off with the best aria in the score, his sorrowful farewell to Mamma Lucia, “Voi dovrete fare,” (“Do this for me”), pleading with his mother to take care of Santuzza should he not return (that is, from his one-sided fight with Alfio, who is only trying to defend his honor).

The abandoned Santuzza wreaks vengeance on Turiddu by informing Alfio of his wife’s affair. In turn, Alfio “thanks” Santuzza for spilling the beans, and then exacts his revenge by challenging Turiddu to duke it out with their switchblades.

They may smack of soap-opera conventions, yet these unprocessed emotions hit fairly close to home for audiences at the time. Cavalleria Rusticana proved to be a sensation at its premiere, making Mascagni rich and renowned beyond his wildest dreams. The story, based on a play by Giovanni Verga (a writer who also attracted the attention of an up-and-coming fellow musician named Giacomo Puccini), inspired the 26-year-old Mascagni to heights he never again achieved.

Ruggero Leoncavallo (Britannica.com)
Ruggero Leoncavallo (Britannica.com)

In the same breadth, Leoncavallo, five years older than Mascagni, had written two unperformed pieces prior to hitting it big with Pagliacci. Much like his hero Wagner, the portly Leoncavallo (whom Puccini unflatteringly referred to as Signor “Leon-assino, “or “Lion-Ass”) wrote both music and text for many of his subsequent works, to include Pagliacci.

The opera itself is said to have been based on a real-life court case. The magistrate in charge of the case, who just happened to be Leoncavallo’s father, presided over a trial in which an actor killed his wife out of jealousy over her love affair with another man.

There have been many variations of this story, including assorted cinematic depictions and the like. Some historians have even questioned the veracity of this incident outright, and Leoncavallo’s recollection of same.

Be that as it may, it makes for a whale of a tale. And, as another saying goes (this one, an Old Italian adage), “Si non è vero, è ben trovato” — in other words, “If it isn’t true, it’s well-founded.”

(End of Part One)

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

Is There a Doctor in the Opera House? — ‘Don Carlo,’ ‘Un Ballo in Maschera,’ and the Met’s Cover Crisis

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“Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo & Barbara Frittoli as Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlo
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo & Barbara Frittoli as Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo

All season long, the Metropolitan Opera has been coping with the constant vicissitudes of New York’s miserable weather conditions. In addition to which, the loss of several major artists to illness and the never-ending flu, among them tenors Jonas Kaufmann and Piotr Beczala, for the company’s planned revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo and Un Ballo in Maschera left a gaping hole in the body of these respective works.

Nevertheless, while the lineup for Don Carlo was not as seriously hampered by the absence of a star lead, Ballo suffered the most sans a first-rate performer to properly bring it off (more about that later). Of all Verdi’s middle period pieces, the principal role of Gustavo (and the opera itself) in Ballo rises or falls with a charismatic performer. As a point of fact, the late Luciano Pavarotti made a specialty out of this wonderful part, his smoothly caressing manner and fabulous phrasing, as well as top-drawer characterization — one the great man found most congenial to his own buoyant personality — proved a major asset to the Met in his glory years.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated participation of the Polish-born Mr. Beczala went for naught, as he came down with the same affliction that had earlier forced Kaufmann to bow out of Bizet’s Carmen on March 7. The virus had also flummoxed the normally unruffled Plácido Domingo (in his guise as a baritone), knocking him out of the running for the matinee performance on April 4th of Verdi’s Ernani.

As if on cue, the previously scheduled Don Carlo, Yonghoon Lee, the sensational Korean tenor who substituted for Kaufmann as Don José (which I raved about in a recent post), also fell victim to the influenza outbreak that had sidelined his illustrious colleague. Oy vey! Not to fear! Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura, a native of São Paulo and an artist of Japanese and Syrian extraction, came to the rescue (well, sort of) by filling in for Mr. Lee as the volatile Don Carlo in the April 11th broadcast of the opera.

Others in the Don Carlo cast included Italian diva Barbara Frittoli as Elisabetta, Moscow-born mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova as Princess Eboli, Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo the Marquis of Posa, Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II, bass-baritone James Morris as the Grand Inquisitor, Jennifer Check as the Celestial Voice, and Eduardo Valdes as the Count of Lerma. The conductor for this performance was the brilliant young French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

It’s Better the Second Time Around

Verdi’s darkest, gloomiest work has been a favorite at the Met ever since newly installed general manager, Rudolf Bing, inaugurated his regime in 1950 with a spectacular new production. Although the Met has continued to present Don Carlo in the more-or-less familiar Italian translation (the work originally premiered in Paris as a five-act grand opera, with a ballet and much additional music, including an extended duet for Elisabetta and Eboli, and a completely different ensemble that concludes scene ii of Act IV), the opera has proven to be a fairly long one, lasting nearly five hours in five acts, with only two intermissions between them.

Unlike the previous revival by the lugubrious Lorin Maazel, reviewed here in March 2013 (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/parsifal-and-don-carlo-a-celebratory-feast-of-wagner-and-verdi-for-the-ravenous-opera-fan/), maestro Nézet-Séguin stressed drama and ensemble over atmospherics. His generously flowing line kept the unwieldy opus moving and on track throughout a lengthy afternoon, while drawing breathtaking playing from the masterly Met Opera Orchestra, truly one of the world’s most excellent ensembles.

The massively impressive auto-da-fé sequence that ends Act III, for example, was skillfully handled and (you’ll pardon the expression) adroitly executed. Each individual component — from priests to populace, from the delegation of Flemish Deputies to the various soloists (six in all, not including the Grand Inquisitor, who makes his entry in the next act) — had its moment to shine. And shine they did.

First of all, Barbara Frittoli had one of her best afternoons in many a season as Elisabetta, Don Carlo’s stepmother who is forced into a marriage of political expediency to Spain’s Philip II, all the while harboring amorous inclinations toward his troubled son, Carlo. This is one of the longest soprano roles Verdi ever conceived, and an overpowering one at that. To her credit, Frittoli pulled out all the emotional stops for a show-stopping “Tu che le vanità,” her last act solo before the tomb of Charles V (the same Charles V who, as Don Carlo in Verdi’s earlier Ernani, also appears before a monarch’s tomb, that of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne). Nézet-Séguin provided fine accompaniment throughout, the brass and violin sections offering a perfect counterpoint to her mournful pleas for aid.

Ekaterina Gubanova as Princess Eboli
Ekaterina Gubanova as Princess Eboli

As her supposed rival Eboli, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova had thrilling if less than focused high notes, along with acceptable coloratura passagework in her Act II “Song of the Veil,” ably seconded by the chirpy soprano of Amanda Woodbury as the page Tebaldo. Later on, her forceful rendition of “O don fatale,” a real crowd pleaser, brought the curtain down on her flamboyantly acted principessa. Previously, Gubanova has acquitted herself well in such varied assignments as Jane Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and as the courtesan Giulietta who brings the title hero to his downfall in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

And now, let’s get to the male contingent. This is where things get difficult for me personally. In the first place, to have a fellow Brazilian make his broadcast debut in such a demanding role in last-minute fashion, and with such first-rate company as Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto and Morris, not to mention the other cast members, must be a dream come true for any up-and-coming young artist. Then again, it could also be a nightmare on Elm Street, or Broadway and 64th Street as this case proved.

So which was it for tenor Tamura? A little bit of both, I’m afraid. While possessing a pleasing enough tenor with clear Italian diction and good projection, Tamura started to land his basically lyric instrument in trouble almost from the start. To judge him on his totally unexpected appearance would be unfair at best, so I will refrain from comments deemed too harsh or condescending.

That said, I must take the Met to task for its inadequate cover policy, especially at the sky-high prices the company charges for their seats. A similar situation developed a few seasons back when tenor Ramón Vargas took sick and was covered by a substitute named Salvatore Cordella as Nemorino in The Elixir of Love. The performance was saved, of course, but the end result was far from convincing.

Barbara Frittoli & Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Phillip II
Barbara Frittoli & Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II

Broadcast nerves may have prevented Tamura from performing at his best. It may also have thrown him for a loop. He sang himself hoarse in Act III (with noticeable high-note difficulty in the powerhouse trio with Rodrigo and Eboli, a sign that all was not going well). By the time the curtain came down on the auto-da-fé, one got the impression that Tamura might have set himself ablaze: from the sound of it, his vocal chords were totally shot and on fire. I felt certain that a statement was imminent, informing the public of Tamura’s sudden indisposition. But who would the Met put in his place? Why, the self-same Tamura, of course. Actually, it was announced that he would gamely soldier on despite his apparent handicap.

Miraculously, Ricardo seemed to have “recovered” somewhat for Act IV, his voice holding out long enough to finish the Prison Scene in slightly better condition than when he started. However, losing strength as he went, by Act V Tamura experienced an abrupt turn for the worse. He was once again left without a voice. The now completely inaudible tenor plowed on to the inevitable finish, whereby he was dragged away by the mysterious Friar, who has revealed himself to be the long-lost Emperor Charles V, in one of Verdi’s least convincing (and most confusing) endings. By now, Tamura may have wished to join the emperor in the tomb, but the Met audience greeted him with warm applause for going on with the show. A nice show of support!

On the opposite side of the ledger, things picked up with the entrance of the suavely elegant Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo. Sounding every inch the aristocrat, Dmitri thrilled audiences with his vibrant, burnished tone. A veritable molten lava of sound and Italianate cantilena line, he outdid himself in delivering one of the most mellifluous-sounding and full-throated readings of this part that this consummate and impeccably talented artist was capable of providing. All the boldness, courage and nobility implicit in this character were brought to bear on the developing drama. Hvorostovsy’s quite considerable best served the part well. Indeed, we were treated to a first-class presentation every step of the way.

During one of the intermission features, Hvorostovsky claimed in an interview that his upcoming death scene always left him vocally and emotionally drained. He wasn’t kidding! In many ways, Rodrigo’s elaborately sung “Per me giunto,” which proceeded his death, was the highpoint of the story, made more so by Dmitri’s careful attention to words and the way he maintained breath control over of that long Verdian line. Consequently, his supremely nuanced “Oh Carlo, ascolta,” may have been anticlimactic but nonetheless spotlighted his bravura singing at its most robust.

Hand in hand with this performance was an even more convincing one from the veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto. His trademark Philip II has long been this singer’s most engaging stage part. On a side note, two of the greatest exponents of King Philip and Rodrigo, Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff and Italian baritone Tito Gobbi, were in fact related to each other by marriage (Gobbi was Christoff’s brother-in-law). Though no such affiliation exists between Hvorostovsky and Furlanetto, it is interesting to note that the Italian in this case is Signor Ferruccio, who held his own in their super-charged duet in Act II, beginning with the word “Restate!” (“Stay!”) and ending with Philips’ warning to beware the Grand Inquisitor.

In all, we were treated to an even more subtle rendition of his character’s great third act soliloquy, “Ella giammai m’amo,” the monarch’s inner musings and grave misgivings regarding his loveless marriage to the much younger Elisabetta, as well as his suspicions concerning his hypersensitive son, were all beautifully conveyed in an episode of near Shakespearean majesty and sorrow. Furlanetto, too, earned a massive ovation for his formidable acting skills and pleasurable vocal display. Well done, Signore!

James Morris as the Grand Inquisitor & Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip
James Morris as the Grand Inquisitor & Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip

It was unfortunate, then, that the subsequent episode with the aforementioned Grand Inquisitor, another of Verdi’s most ingenious expository sequences involving two lower-voiced artists (compare it to a similar one between Rigoletto and Sparafucile), went almost by the wayside, no thanks to James Morris’ subdued output. At this late stage in his distinguished Met career, Mr. Morris, formerly one of the world’s finest interpreters of Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle, was too dry of tone and lacked the requisite intensity implicit in the Inquisitor’s words and plunging vocal line. I am convinced, however, that his formidable six-foot four-inch frame filled the role’s physical requirements better than his wan vocalism.

Speaking of which, Robert Pomakov’s blandly portrayed Friar was no better to these ears than his previous assumption of Count Monterone in Rigoletto. What’s needed at that point in the drama is a dominant Voice of Doom, a sort of avenging Commendatore figure (in disguise that is to say). The same goes for the Friar, who must sound chilling enough to freeze the marrow of one’s bones, yet embody royalty. What we got instead were subpar sonorities that neither excited the public nor delivered on the promise of a thoroughly satisfying radio broadcast.

Oh, well, so be it. The Metropolitan has much to learn, and much more to improve upon, in the sensitive area of cover artists. The only question I have is this: Is there a doctor anywhere in the opera house who can help diagnose the problem of a lack of good cover singers and, in the end, come up with an acceptable solution to poor coverage? One can only hope.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes