Month: July 2016
And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor
This has been a heck of a year for opera houses in general, especially for the good ole Metropolitan in New York. That’s the one we hear about the most in our area, and the one this writer listens to and blogs about more than any other.
Why is that? Well, it helps to have grown up in the city (which I did). It also helps to have attended performances at the Met (which I did), or its sister company across the plaza, the once defunct but now revitalized New York City Opera (which I most emphatically did).
Having lived in a foreign country for a number of years, there’s a tendency to get cut off from the operatic mainstream. When you come back to the States, you kind of want to get away from all the problems you had previously left behind in the first place. Ah, yes, it’s an odd love-hate relationship we have with opera, a constant give-and-take, albeit one I find most enthralling and stimulating. Quite rightly, we fans put up with a lot for our opera. It’s all part of the process, I assure you.
Let me give you a for instance: about a month ago, I read a series of online articles discussing the current state of this country’s opera houses. Of course, the Met was at the center of the controversy. There’s no question about it: the Metropolitan is the most expensive house in the world to run and plan for, as well as to eke out a profit from. If you want my unsolicited opinion, ANY opera house is a hard sell in financially troubled times, but for me that’s a non-starter: one either loves the arts, or one doesn’t; either music soothes the savage beast in you, or it doesn’t. As for myself, I couldn’t live without opera for too long. It’s been ingrained in my system from earliest youth, and so have the untold problems associated with it.
With that bit of business out of the way, one of the articles put forth readers’ suggestions for improving the finances of said U.S. opera houses — with the mighty Met high on the list. To get its fiscal house in order, so to speak, and improve its ability to deliver what for most folks is a fairly expensive proposition (opera has always been considered a luxury item in most quarters), a slew of cost-saving proposals, practical ideas, and potential long-term solutions were disseminated. I haven’t the time or inclination to go through every one of these proposals in depth, but I do want to highlight a few of the more sober observations.
Weekends at the Waldorf
One of them was to provide for more weekend performances, in particular on Sunday afternoons, something the Met has rarely if ever done. The NYCO used to have Sunday matinees. I should know: I participated in a number of them. The rationale behind this ploy is that Broadway, off-Broadway, and other select venues, including restaurants, movie theaters, shopping malls, commercial establishments, and the like, cater to the tourist trade — with spring, summer, and fall being the most favorable seasons.
Would the Met’s board of directors be open to presenting the opera, say, on a Sunday afternoon at two? That would be an attractive option, one that in my own city (Raleigh, North Carolina) is an opportunity I have taken full advantage of from time to time.
Part of the problem with that is the Met’s multiple contracts with workers, stage hands, orchestra players, chorus members, and front- and back-office personnel. Why, the overtime alone would far outweigh any possible benefits realized from such a plan. How this specific scheme would be handled by the various unions and their members is a matter of pure conjecture.
If money for the arts is indeed tight, as has been stated at the outset, then I have no clue as to how presenting opera on a Sunday would help matters any, given the circumstances I’ve just described.
If It’s English, It Must Be Opera
Other issues were brought up, such as performing opera in the vernacular (that is, in English, in this country’s case). Believe it or not, historically this was a fairly common practice in the U.S. (and on 1950s television) long before supertitles and surtitles became fashionable. This begs the question as to whether singers, familiar with their parts in the original language (be it Italian, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Czech, or what have you) are inclined to re-learn them in American or British speak.
It’s hard enough to learn the roles in the original language, making it doubly difficult if the language in question isn’t native to your culture or upbringing. Not that it matters, but the Met has on occasion put on truncated versions for children of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as part of holiday festivities. We’ll get to the issue of cuts to great works in a moment.
Then there’s the matter of intelligibility. The fact that artists are singing in what appears to be English does not necessarily indicate they will be understood in that language. Clarity of diction is a must in most works, but English can sound mushy in the voice boxes of singers unused to its syntax and stress points (and American artists are not immune to this problem, either). The same holds true for our own linguistic abilities in a foreign tongue. So the problem here, then, is one that cannot be solved by simply translating the text (hardly a simple matter in itself).
Whether we wish to admit or not, the use of supertitles and surtitles has revolutionized the opera-going habit. For the first time, audience members have at their disposal a reliable means by which they can finally break down the language barrier and understand what the characters are singing about. While some may find them distracting and hard to follow, I call them a godsend, if the translations are up to par.
In that, I strongly take issue with the late British music critic and author Rodney Milnes, who famously described surtitles as “idiot boards.” Most people watching and listening to opera are a curious lot, who may know a thing or two about the music they enjoy. They do know what they like, even though they might be clueless as to a character’s motivation, or the intricacies of an opera’s plot. But they most certainly are not “idiots.” Or else, why would they be going to the opera?
That was a poor line of defense, I must say, the proof being the overwhelming acceptance of this type of advanced technology in many of this and other country’s opera houses.
Slim Your Way to Success
Another, more odious suggestion (ugh, I can hear the groans now) would be to trim some operas of their excessive fat, so that testy audience members could arrive home at a decent hour.
The reasoning here is that many attendees are commuters, who happen to live in cities other than those in the Greater Metropolitan area. Since commuter trains operate on a fixed schedule, with wait times growing between trains the later the hour becomes, it’s crucial for the public to leave the theater before the opera ends, in order to make it to their train before departure time.
The plan to cut certain operas — usually those five- and six-hour Wagnerian butt-busters, with Strauss or Verdi, or perhaps even Rossini and Donizetti, waiting in the wings — to a more reasonable, real-world length sounds “feasible” in theory.
What this means in execution, however, is that a work such as Die Meistersinger would have to end long before the midnight hour in order to satisfy the rush-hour crowd. It would need to start at around five thirty or six o’clock postmeridian time (already put in practice, mind you), which warrants your wolfing down your meal, or grabbing a quick bite to eat, prior to curtain time.
Still, if the opera’s management slashes a few lines of dialog here and there, what would be the harm? As long as you can make the 11:54 to Yonkers, how could that be a bad thing?
Let me count the ways!
The Met was notorious in its day for slashing Die Meistersinger, or any number of Wagner’s works, to literal shreds. It ruined the continuity for purists, and made hash out of the composer’s carefully constructed scoring. Thankfully, once saner minds prevailed, later Met managements made the sound decision to present Die Meistersinger — and, for that matter, most of the standard and not-so-standard repertory pieces we know and love — in as complete a form as possible. And Wagner wasn’t the only composer given this ill treatment. Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod, and various others had undergone this procedure, with the judicious application of surgical scissors to their oeuvre.
Lovers of the art form have only benefited from the practice of “inclusion,” as I like to call it. I’ve often commented about hearing, for the first time on the air, several note-complete versions of my favorite works (Cavalleria and Pagliacci come readily to mind), many of which have never received a full hearing in the years they were performed at the house. What a difference that has made to people like me who’ve dreamed of catching every last bar of Rigoletto.
To have to go back to those olden times, when works would breeze by in the twinkling of an eye; to hear Wotan’s gripping Act II monolog in Die Walküre bereft of its most intricate passages; or lose whole sections of operas, such as was the case for decades with Donzietti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, is to return to the operatic dark ages.
Too Many Notes
As a case in point, it took the NYCO’s adventurous Tito Capobianco production from 1969 — with Beverly Sills at the helm — to FINALLY allow audiences a chance to hear Raimondo’s melodious Act II aria and duet with Lucia, as well as the fiery Wolf’s Crag episode with Edgardo and Enrico, in addition to the brief, never-before-staged sequence in which Enrico (Lucia’s brother) accuses Normanno of being the instigator behind the opera’s tragic consequences.
In the years since French coloratura Lily Pons undertook to sing Lucia, not only did she move the role’s keys up an octave (!), but the Met indulged her “request” to cut the opera’s last scene, the one that includes “Fra poco a me ricovero,” a most excellent air for the tenor, along with Edgardo’s ensuing suicide, “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” featuring one of Donizetti’s loveliest, most gorgeous statements for voice and solo cello. This was done, I am told, so that Madame Pons could savor the final applause for herself.
Horror of horrors! How could that have been allowed to prevail?!? But yet, it was considered the norm back then, to cater to lead singers’ whims and to the spurious demands of managers, impresarios, prima donnas, and their ilk.
In an age when opera stars ruled the roost, that was perfectly fine for most followers. Today, however, with the easy availability of complete recordings, satellite radio, CDs, videos, DVDs, and Blu-ray®, not to mention iTunes, YouTube, Met Opera on Demand, digital downloads, and such, listeners can indulge their taste for opera at any time, and at any place, all for a most reasonable price.
We’ve become spoiled by progress, and I, for one, strenuously object to having to go back to the way things were. I don’t know about you, but I get upset when even the most insignificant piece of music gets snipped away, especially if I have heard it reinstated in one of the myriad forms mentioned above.
I cringe whenever I think back to Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, and that notorious line given to Emperor Joseph II at the premiere of Mozart’s delightful comedy, The Abduction from the Seraglio: “Too many notes. Just cut a few, and it will be perfect.” But I especially enjoyed Wolfgang’s comeback retort: “Which few did you have in mind, your Majesty?”
On the other hand, we’re powerless to do anything about it. If the Met and other companies insist on cutting the music to some scenes, who are we to say no? The only means of objection we have at our disposal is to boycott the theater, or not attend any of the performances.
I must concur that some operas are in drastic need of a haircut, or a little trim along the sides, if you will. For example, I find Strauss’ interminable Der Rosenkavalier a chore to sit though. And that boorish Baron Ochs is the most verbose individual I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet. If any opera needed trimming, that would be my prime target to start.
And then, there’s always the argument that some operas sound LONGER when they’re cut. I find this notion an odd one, to say the least, but I’ve heard it a number of times, usually during the Met’s radio intermission, by any number of panelists on the Opera Quiz. How a work can seem lengthier by cutting is one of those psychoacoustic anomalies that defy physics and logic.
So who said opera was logical?
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Highs Cs and Low Bs
Lampooned and lambasted by everyone from Gilbert and Sullivan (The Pirates of Penzance) to the Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera), as well as the British rock group Queen (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), Verdi’s Il Trovatore, a work full of fire and brimstone — not to mention copious quantities of blood — is that rarest of birds: a true, red-hot poker of a piece that provokes rivalries and violent outbursts in its protagonists and in the listener.
With its soaring melodies, fiery utterances, and eye-for-an-eye aesthetic, there are few lulls in this opera’s musical moments. Dramatically, most of the battles take place off-stage, although some directors try to get away with showing some of the fancy footwork we’ve been missing, in the grand manner of an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks Sr. swashbuckler.
To some extent, this was the case with the Metropolitan Opera’s February 13th broadcast. It was preceded by the PBS-TV network airing of the September 25, 2015 opening night performance of Il Trovatore, starring the redoubtable diva Anna Netrebko as Leonora, and the silver-haired hunk Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna. The other cast members included bass Štefan Kocán as the family retainer Ferrando, mezzo Dolora Zajick as the crazed gypsy woman Azucena, and Yonghoon Lee as the titular troubadour Manrico.
For the Met’s radio broadcast, however, we had Kwangchul Youn doing service as Ferrando, Angela Meade as the lovely Leonora, Spanish baritone Juan Jesus Rodriguez making his on-air debut as the lovesick Count, and Marcello Giordani as main man Manrico. Holding it all together in the pit for both performances was maestro Marco Armiliato.
Reporting on the TV transmission, I can say that director David McVicar’s staging and designer Charles Edwards’ revolving set hold up well when seen in this format. It makes for quick scene changes and fills in the gaps in the story better than most such productions. No matter what approach is taken, one can never get completely away from plain old stand-up-and-sing. Although the houselights were raised a might for TV viewing, all in all this was an exciting program.
What made it work was the absolutely stunning performance by the two Russian leads, the winning team of Ms. Anna Netrebko and Mr. Dmitri Hvorostovsky. They played off one another beautifully: she, with an overwhelming sense of tragedy and that emotionally gripping quality; he, with a snarl on his lips and that dark burnish to his tone.
The all-out fervor Netrebko displayed in her two arias and cabalettas (the fourth-act one, the rarely heard “Tu vedrai,” was pure magic) was old-fashioned grandstanding at its finest — and the audience loved every minute of it! Her voice was overpowering dramatically, if a tad fuzzy as to the actual words. Coming off the previous season’s Lady Macbeth cycle, I can see why Ms. Netrebko has decided to drop some of her previous soubrette roles in favor of ones where boldness and the big gesture are called for. We hear that Wagner is on her horizon! Stay tuned for further bulletins …
The other winner was Hvorostovsky. This was his first appearance after undergoing months of treatment for a brain tumor. His entrance in scene ii of Act I stopped the show. You could tell that Dmitri was moved by the huge outpouring of love for this marvelous artist. It took all his powers of concentration to go on with the show, which he did in spectacular form. It is no exaggeration to state that this was his most exuberant, most dynamically involved performance to date of the tempestuous Count di Luna.
Musically, Dmitri’s singing was beyond cavil. Talk about a golden age! That long Verdian line, for which he is rightly celebrated, was never better in the aria “Il balen del suo sorriso.” The role was firmly in his voice, and under his control, at all times. The top notes were all there, along with that characteristic melting quality. And, to top it all off, Dmitri looked simply smashing in his outfits, his smoldering carriage and noble bearing at one with the character. He was pelted with roses from every corner of the house at his curtain call.
Both Kocán and Youn, along with Ms. Zajick, are veterans of this production, and their respective parts. Kocán did what he could do with the lowly secondary role of Ferrando. He basically has that one scena at the start, “Abbietta zingara” (where a bit more bel canto agility is called for), and then disappears for a couple of scenes; only to return in Act III for some extra lines of dialogue and a concerted ensemble. On the radio, Youn brought a mellow tone and firm presence to the role.
The voluminous Dolora Zajick has put more vigor into Azucena’s hallucinatory ravings in past performances, but histrionically she played it to the hilt when and where the score demanded (as in “Condotta all’era in ceppi,” her hair-raising account of throwing her baby onto her mother’s funeral pyre). She was a loving mother and a fierce avenger of the wrongs done to her in the past. What a back story this character has!
The misguided object of her affection, and of her revenge, is Manrico, her “adopted” (or perhaps one should say “co-opted”) offspring. Sung by Yonghoon Lee, the Korean tenor has given better all-around performances of spinto roles in both the French and Italian repertoires. His Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, for instance, was straight out of the Richard Tucker/Franco Corelli belt-it-to-the-rafters school (and that’s a good thing!).
In Trovatore, however, I felt he had reached his limit as far as volume and vocalism were concerned. Although Lee achieved varying shades of tenderness and finesse in “Ah, si ben mio,” his bombastic “Di quella pira” and forced high C, which sounded pushed beyond all comfort and ability, failed to catch fire with this listener. Maybe he was having an off night, or possibly opening night nerves. This was a Live in HD transmission, by the way, so that could have been a factor. Still, he was no match for the others.
Conductor Armiliato did his utmost to mold these disparate forces into a cohesive whole. He continued to do so with the Saturday afternoon broadcast of February 13. Originally scheduled with Mr. Hvorostovsky as Di Luna, the Met substituted a debut artist, Spanish baritone Juan Jesús Rodriguez, in place of the indisposed Russian artist. Rodriguez delivered the goods in a virile manner, but the growling aspect that Dmitri is able to convey over the air was sorely missed. Not that Rodriguez sang badly — quite the contrary! This was a thoroughly competent reading that managed to salvage the radio performance, while doing no damage to the up-and-coming singer’s reputation.
Turning to Leonora, soprano Angela Meade has developed into an exceptional bel canto specialist. Like her colleague Netrebko, Meade’s voice has grown by leaps and bounds, spinning out phrases and trills with equal facility. At home in early and middle period Verdi, Meade caressed the vocal line in long, loving arcs, earning much-appreciated applause for the breathtaking beauty of her tone throughout. Her Act IV scene, “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” where she asks that her lover’s pain in prison be relieved by her love, was a tour de force, followed by an impassioned statement in the cabaletta. Marvelous!
As for Signor Giordani, he behaved himself for the most part. He surprised me — pleasantly, I might add — with the warmth of his solos. Not only that, his past experience in the part, as well as his previous assignment as Verdi’s Ernani (a similar type of dashing, romantic lead), brought out hitherto untapped nuances where they were least expected. For example, “Ah, si ben mio” was delicate and sweet, with excellent enunciation and filled with conviction. The subsequent “Di quella pira” was stirring and vibrant. I had a tough time distinguishing whether the cabaletta was transposed down a semitone for the final high B, or performed as written, but ending on high C. Maybe my hearing was off that day as well.
Whatever note was sung, I do love this opera! It’s what Italian opera is all about: rivalry between opposing forces, love for the same woman, love for another man, love of mother for her son, love of son for his mother, lust for vengeance, lust for power, lust for possession of that which one cannot possess. Oh, yeah! All’s fair, or unfair, in love and war. It may give the art form a bad name, or make opera look silly to non-fans, but it can also make audiences rise to their feet and shout “bravo” with the best of them.
And there’s no finer composer for this kind of extroverted, do-or-die drama than Verdi. Say what you will about his gloomy temperament, he was the grandmaster of operatic passions. His times were mighty turbulent, too; much more so than many readers have been led to believe, if you consider the facts found in the definitive book in its field: Mary-Jane Phillips-Matz’s remarkably lucid and incredibly well-documented biography of his personal, business, and familial relationships. The great man was driven by passion and excellence, and it showed in this, his most exemplary outing.
As far as we’re concerned, Verdi had no rivals. And to bring this work to life requires singers of equal passion and excellence. Fortunately, there are enough of them around to do Trovatore justice. “Viva Verdi!” as they used to (and still) say.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Sprinkle a Little ‘Turandot,’ Seasoned with a Dash of ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’ (Part Two): Cast Reshuffling and Dueling High Notes
Two for the Price of One
The January 30, 2016 broadcast of Puccini’s Turandot featured Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the stratospheric title part, Italian tenor Marco Berti as the Unknown Prince Calaf, Romanian soprano Anita Hartig as the slave girl Liu, and Ukrainian bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Timur. The ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong were taken, respectively, by baritone Dwayne Croft, and tenors Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes, with a third tenor, Ronald Naldi, as the aged Emperor Altoum. Baritone David Crawford sang the minor role of the Mandarin. The conductor for this Saturday afternoon performance was Paolo Carignani, with chorus master David Palumbo leading the forces of the mighty Met Opera Chorus.
This revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s lavishly conceived and cumbersomely executed production (Zeffirelli also served as set designer) was supervised by David Kneuss, with choreography by Chiang Ching. Due to German tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s cancellation as the Chevalier des Grieux in the new Richard Eyre production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, the originally scheduled Roberto Alagna, who was to have sung Canio in the revival of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, stepped in at the eleventh hour to take over for the ailing Mr. Kaufmann. In the spirit of a late-inning pinch hitter, Signor Berti offered to sing Canio as well as Calaf — that’s two C’s for the price of one — so that Monsieur Alagna could continue to add luster to the program (and save the Met’s heavily advertised Manon Lescaut from box-office oblivion).
The Pagliacci performance in question was heard, along with its companion piece, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, in the following week’s transmission of February 6. The cast for Cav included Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana as Santuzza, Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turiddu, Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Alfio, American mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell as Mamma Lucia, and Italian-American mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson as Lola. For Pag, we had Marco Berti as Canio, Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Nedda, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Tonio, Russian baritone Alexey Lavrov as Silvio, and Greenville, South Carolina native Tony Stevenson as Beppe. Fabio Luisi, the Met’s outgoing principal conductor, was in command of the orchestra.
Hearing Berti in two back-to-back broadcasts, and in two of the cornerstones of the Italian spinto repertoire, was revelatory in that one could gauge where he felt most comfortable, and where he still needed work. Without batting an eye, it was obvious from the start that Signor Berti fit in better with the more realistic Pagliacci milieu than in Turandot’s patently fairy-tale realm. We’ll discuss his efforts as they arrive. Right now, however, let’s get a few words in about the supporting players in each work.
Conductor Paolo Carignani took a faster than usual pace with Turandot, which moved the opera along at a nice, even clip. It made for a perfunctory reading at times, but taken as a whole the feeling was one of suppressed emotion, which was only let lose at the proper moment. Puccini was a master of such musical phrasing, in fact the shorter the better. To wit, he gave the chorus his most elaborately drawn, most soaring music, backed by full orchestra with organ, which gave each of the opera’s three brisk acts a deeply sonorous quality.
In many respects, the chorus is the most prominent element in the work. The crowd (la folla in Italian) with its mob mentality is what drives the bulk of the action. They comment on the course of the drama; they voice their concerns and cry out in rage, in pain, and in excitation as the situation arises. It would be fair, then, to compare their part to that of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, where the chorus represents, and are superbly characterized as, the oppressed Russian people.
As expected, Donald Palumbo’s Met Chorus unleashed a torrent of sound throughout, earning justifiable applause from every corner of the house for the thrilling volume they emitted. At the start, David Crawford’s steely Mandarin made one sit up and take notice, which is the whole purpose of having a lustrous-voiced singer in the part. The Mandarin serves a similar purpose as the Herald in Wagner’s Lohengrin: dramatically inert, but vocally imperative. He must snap the audience to attention from the first brass notes in the orchestra and to the eerie accompaniment of the xylophone.
Anita Hartig performed well as Liu. She had a nice, quick vibrato sound, which she skillfully employed throughout the afternoon. Her softly nuanced high notes in the two scenes in Act I made the most impact: “Perchè un di … nella reggia, mi hai sorriso” (“Because one day … at court, you smiled at me”) is Liu’s explanation to the Unknown Prince (Calaf in disguise) as to why she suffered exile and agony in caring for his father, the deposed Tatar king, Timur.
“Signore ascolta” (“Listen, sir”) was also deeply felt, a plea for understanding in her attempt to dissuade the enamored Unknown Prince from his reckless pursuit of the Princess Turandot. Taking deep breaths to convey Liu’s anguish was a big factor in Hartig’s success in this piece. Signor Berti’s response, “Non piangere Liu” (“Liu, don’t weep”), was restrained in its first half, if inelegantly conveyed. A native Italian and one overly familiar with the words, Berti was capable of expressing a good deal of meaning through the text, if a shade or two loudly over the airwaves. I sensed a bit of fumbling around with the balances on the radio station I was listening to. Sorry, folks, but the guy does have a huge voice — and he knew how to use it, too!
Ms. Hartig’s death scene in Act III (“Tu che di gel sei cinta” – “You who are made of ice”) was movingly uttered, her acting gaining strength and force prior to her plunging the dagger into her breast. Liu’s self-sacrifice is what melts the ice-cold princess’ heart, which gives way to love in the opera’s finale. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, too, had a quick vibrato, with a voice resembling that of the Greek basso Nicola Zaccaria, who appeared with and recorded alongside the legendary Maria Callas. He was most effectual in the brief arioso after Liu’s suicide, where the blind monarch stumbles along next to her lifeless body (much like Shakespeare’s King Lear, it must be noted), guiding her spirit on to the next world. Both he and Hartig gave sincere performances that earned the audience’s approval come curtain time.
In the Act II Trio of the Masks, Dwayne Croft as Ping ran aground on the high tessitura of his part, but his supple singing with Tony Stevenson (Pang) and Eduardo Valdes (Pong) was most pleasurable to the ear at the phrase “Tutto cinto di bambù” (“All covered with bamboo”). During the intermission, it was mentioned that it takes singing this trio over 21 times together before the artists involved can get it under their belt. Incidentally, this scene, coming as it does before the Riddle episode, is one of Puccini’s richest and most melodious creations — unfortunately, standard cuts were applied, much to my chagrin.
I’ve mentioned this issue before. Why the Met continues to slice this diverting sequence is beyond reason. The cuts hardly amount to a few extra minutes of musical continuity, so excising them seems pointless. General Manager Peter Gelb, please consider reinstating them the next time Turandot is presented (hopefully, in a newer and fuller production, which incorporates Alfano’s original ending). How many more pleas will it take to get through to the Met’s management? Ira Siff, the broadcast’s co-host and commentator, agrees this is his favorite part of the opera (mine, too). Well, then, what are we waiting for? Most, if not all, of the modern recordings feature these extended lines, so why not hear them in a live performance? It’s one of those unsolved riddles associated with this piece.
Losing Your Head Over Turandot
And speaking of big, strong voices, Nina Stemme’s Turandot stressed more than overt vocalism. Following in the illustrious footsteps of fellow Swede, the iron-lunged Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, in one of her specialty roles can be an intimidating proposition for any singer. Be that as it may, Ms. Stemme, who we’ll be reviewing in the coming months as Strauss’ Elektra, gave the title role her considerable all. Taking the approach that a little less can mean a lot more in terms of character development, Stemme portrayed a more vulnerable, even womanly principessa than the norm for this monumental assignment.
Beginning demurely with her Act II narration, “In questa reggia” (“In this kingdom”) where she relates the rape and murder of her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, Stemme expanded the vocal line and range of her voice as necessitated by the dictates of the plot. She made explicit points in the text, stressing the words “Un uomo come te, come te: straniero” (“A man such as you, such as you: stranger” – note: straniero can also mean “foreigner”) with specificity and purpose, placing the blame on men such as he, who come into her kingdom seeking love and passion, yet end up raping and pillaging. This is the raison d’être for her being, the sole purpose of all the beheadings after each pretender to her throne fails to answer her riddles. Oh joy!
Stemme joined voices with Berti in the climax, “Gli enigmi sono tre, l’una è la vita!” (“The riddles are three, one of them is life!”). Singing a tad sharp, Berti got to pull out his high C, as did Stemme, but did not prolong it (a dramatic choice on his part). An otherwise excellent Altoum by Ronald Naldi added spice to the proceedings. As for Berti, he took the optional C in alt on the phrase “Ti volgio tutto ardente d’amor” (“I’ll take you in ardent love!”), which, regrettably, was none too convincing. One can compare its execution to having been hit on the head with a trowel, which destroyed any romantic illusions the line was meant to convey. The succeeding portion, “Il mio nome non sai; dimmi il mio nome” (“My name you do not know; then tell me my name”), came off better, in the best Pavarotti-like tradition, to cite a much lamented singer who knew how to deliver the goods but within his own strictly lyrical means.
There has only been one other artist whose traversal of the killer role of Turandot has moved me as much as Stemme did here: the late Joan Sutherland in the classic Decca/London recording from 1972, with Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Zubin Mehta conducting. Her understated way with the text and the manner in which Sutherland held her voice back until coaxed into action by the thrilling sound of the young Pavarotti, along with his melting of her heart in the penultimate scene, were re-captured (for the most part) in Nina’s potent re-enactment. It’s a minor quibble to complain about her less-than-perfect Italian (a lot better than mine, I assure you), but Madame Stemme came through covered in glory. She may not have dislodged Nilsson from Turandot’s throne, but she came awfully close.
As formidable a challenge as the part may have seemed, in reality it’s a relatively short one. Turandot puts in a visual appearance in Act I (normally done by a stand-in), and is only heard during the latter half of Act II, scene ii, in the so-termed Riddle Scene. She does not make her presence felt again until after Calaf has delivered “Nessun dorma” in Act III; and after the three ministers’ failed attempt to pry the secret of his name from the uncooperative Unknown Prince. Turandot falls silent during Liu’s torture and subsequent death; and she nary makes a sound until the crowd has completely left the stage, which leaves Calaf to face and berate her as the “princess of death,” and (horror of horrors!) threaten to place his “throbbing mouth on hers.” Whew, wipe my sweaty brow with a mop!
What some singers wouldn’t do to deliver on a line like that! Still, of all Puccini’s love duets between tenor and soprano, this was the only one the composer did not have a personal hand in. In truth, he hardly wrote a note of this sequence. As we know from previous posts, the job of completing the unfinished Turandot was given to a minor verismo composer named Franco Alfano, with much of this final “clash of the titans,” as well as the last choral episode, reworked, recut, and reshuffled by Toscanini, who conducted the premiere.
There will always be controversy surrounding this final sequence. For instance, was it Calaf’s impassioned kiss that awakens the princess from her “slumber,” or was it Liu’s untimely death and Timur’s lament for her passing that convinces Turandot to treat her suitors (and the “Popolo di Pekino,” or “People of Peking”) more humanely? Probably a bit of both: if the Liu in question happens to be Ms. Hartig, or the creamy-voiced Madame Caballé, whose slave girl is one of the loveliest on records, then our vote goes to her.
Laugh, Clowns, Laugh!
It helps, of course, if the Unknown Prince puts on a show of his own. Of all the lead parts in the Puccini canon for tenor, this one has the possibility of taking the cake every time — that is, if the artist is fully up to the task. In my day, such talents as Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, James McCracken, José Carreras, Giuseppe Giacomini, Ermanno Mauro, Vladimir Popov, Nicola Martinucci, and others carried the day with comparable ease.
A large voice and clarion delivery can also stir audiences like nothing else. But that’s only the start of it. Tenors with less substantial vocal equipment — I’m thinking of Jussi Bjoerling in the RCA Victor version with Nilsson and Renata Tebaldi — can persuade listeners with their ardent timbre alone.
In the past, Berti’s thick, beefy tone has been an asset in such serviceable assignments as Manrico in Il Trovatore, Radames in Aida, or Cavaradossi in Tosca. Here, he dived headlong into the meatier aspects of Calaf’s musings. This was straightforward, dramatic singing where Berti’s stentorian voice was hurled into the Met’s auditorium for all to hear. I must admit this was an exciting, even thrilling sound, one not heard at the Met since the halcyon days of Del Monaco, Corelli, and Tucker (for background information on these fabulous singers, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/three-titanic-tenors-del-monaco-corelli-and-tucker/).
For all its volume and heft, however, I missed the Unknown Prince’s more reflective side in Berti’s assumption of this role. In Act III, for instance, he could have opted to caress the opening lines of “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”) in generous proportion to his voice. Berti handled the middle portion well enough, though not as musically sound as, say, tenor Mario Filippeschi did in his recording of the piece. Filippeschi, who had much better technical skills all around, easily encompassed the heroic aspects, along with the tricky tessitura and its emphasis on the passaggio (similar, in many respects, to Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” and the earlier “Recondita armonia,” from Tosca).
Surprisingly, for all the sound and fury hinted at earlier on, Berti’s B flat — the one with the infamous fermata on the word vincerò (“I will win”), allowing the tenor to hold on to the note for dear life — was cut short for some reason. And try as he might, Berti simply could not replicate the sweetness and lyricism that either Bjoerling or Pavarotti could bring to the number. Consequently, tenorial warmth was lacking here.
As the broadcast Canio in Pagliacci, Berti pulverized the listener into submission. To be honest, his was an unsubtle performance, but a highly effective one. Despite the deficit noted above, the important thing was that it moved me, mostly at “Ridi, Pagliaccio” and the stirring finale. Comparing Berti to the previously mentioned Filippeschi, one must admit to a preference for the latter singer. Filippeschi had a solidity and security on top, along with a fullness and steadiness of tone, blended with remarkable breath control, musicianship, a rock-solid technique, and a caressing line that betrayed little effort.
The part of Canio does not reach up to high C, but is somewhere in the middle A and B departments. Sustaining the vocal line, using the voice as the instrument of the clown’s despair, acting with the voice, expressing sorrow through the words, and emphasizing the poetry inherent in Leoncavallo’s text (which he himself wrote)— all of these are what make Canio stand out from the rest of the characters, and what can distinguish a great artist from the merely adequate. Berti is on the right path, but more guidance and thought is required at this point. Sheer volume is fine for what it’s worth, but more is demanded in this quintessential verismo role.
As Tonio, George Gagnidze was a rough and tumble antagonist, and indicative of director David McVicar’s conception of the part as a vaudeville standup comic. His Prologue was a blowout, bludgeoning the beauty of the text except where Gagnidze’s expansive final phrase of “E voi, piuttosto” was spun. He went all the way up to the unwritten A-flat, and ended on a final G. My thought was: wow, he made it this far, but nothing more after that.
Barbara Frittoli’s La Strada-esque Nedda (a Fellini heroine in every way), along with Sergey Lavrov’s suavely interpolated Silvio, made the best impression with their long, languorous love duet. Tony Stevenson was a smoothly voiced Beppe, while Berti earned kudos from the audience for his altogether mesmerizing play-within-the-play singing and acting, the verisimilitude of which leads Canio to murder his wife and her lover for real.
In Cavalleria, none of the singers were especially outstanding, however tenor Yonghoon Lee continues to impress with his suavely enunciated, essentially committed Turiddu. The large, economy-sized Ambrogio Maestri was wasted in the brief part of the teamster Alfio. His Italian diction and snappy delivery of the text, though, were beautifully pronounced and a continuing joy to listen to, even in this minor assignment. That is about the best I can say for his contribution.
What I can say about the performance overall is that maestro Fabio Luisi continues to outdo his own excellent contribution by shaping both Cav and Pag in as gorgeous a fashion as I’ve ever heard. Rarely have the strings and woodwinds sounded so wonderfully well together: they sang, they soared, they did everything but weep (and for a moment, I thought they did THAT, too, during the lovely Intermezzo in Cavalleria). I have raved about his conducting when this production was new (and especially in Berlioz’s Les Troyens a few years ago). Ergo, I will continue to praise his efforts to the four winds as long as is he with us.
It’s a shame that maestro Luisi was passed over for the recently vacated position of Met musical director. Now that James Levine’s successor has been named (the winner was French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a wise choice), Luisi felt that his services would be better appreciated elsewhere, possibly at the Zurich Opera.
The news is he will be leaving his post as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as of the 2016-2017 Season.
We wish him buona fortuna and Godspeed.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes