‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, Act IV and Epilogue (Part Eight – Conclusion)

‘Mefistofele,’ Act IV: The Vale of Tempe Scene (in Las Vegas kitsch-style), from the Teatro Massimo, Palermo (2008)

Night of the Classical Sabbath

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium—

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.—

[Faust kisses her] Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!—

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

The above lines were taken from English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Oft quoted by aspiring thespians and used as a running gag in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Shakespeare in Love, the lines are spoken by the philosopher Faust upon meeting the fabled Helen of Troy from Antiquity.

The legend of Faust and his bargain with the Devil (actually, a wager between Lucifer and the Lord) have inspired many an artist throughout the centuries, most noteworthy among them the German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust, his own two-part study in verse, was the inspiration as well for a number of like-minded composers.

Gounod’s five-act Faust, the most memorable of the works transformed into operas based on Goethe’s poem, eliminated all mention of Helen of Troy; it concentrated instead on the love affair between the maiden Marguerite (called Gretchen in Goethe’s original) and the dashing young cavalier Faust. Berlioz, too, maintained a reasonable focus on the Faust-Marguerite love story in La Damnation de Faust, a symphonic poem for orchestra, soloists and chorus that is frequently staged as an opera.

Even earlier than either the Gounod or the Berlioz work is Robert Schumann’s oratorio-like Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a three-part choral and orchestral piece for eight solo voices. Later, Busoni, in a more eclectic, intellectually conceived design, gave the operatic world his version of Doktor Faust, which eliminated Marguerite entirely (the character is hinted at via the presence of her brother) in favor of metaphysics. Helen, too, is scarcely perceptible as a phantasmagoric vision.

Stage production from the Teatro Regio, Parma, of Robert Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Faust’ (2008)

It was left, then, to the Italian Arrigo Boito to conjure up the voluptuous image of the Greek beauty Helen, stolen by Paris from her husband, the warlike Menelaus, which led to the decade-long siege of Troy (or Ilium, as it was also called) and to the city’s eventual fall and destruction. Although Boito’s Mefistofele, a cosmic interpretation of Goethe’s epic work and originally presented in two parts, was considered an abject failure at its 1868 La Scala premiere, it was later re-worked, re-written, and re-thought and given a triumphant remounting in 1875. Further revisions shaped it into the bombastic piece we know today.

What remained of the so-termed “Night of the Classical Sabbath” is a truncated, hardly awe-inspiring fourth act to follow the emotionally charged third. Tacked on to Mefistofele as more of an after-thought than a carefully constructed bridge between acts, it contrasts the romantic liaison of Faust and Margherita (who, you will recall, met her untimely demise in Act III) and the make-believe one of Faust and the regal Helen, who holds court by the River Pineios (or Peneus), named after the river god of ancient Thessaly. This act is also known as the Vale of Tempe sequence.

In the volume Opera on Record 3 (edited by Alan Blyth), music critic and contributor John Higgins proposed that “the music of the fourth act [of Mefistofele] is never included in selections of highlights from the opera, and it could possibly be considered optional in a stage performance, in much the same way as the Walpurgisnacht Ballet in Gounod’s Faust” (coincidentally, as part of a very long Act IV of that work). Well, we needn’t go that far. While it’s true that audiences are eager to get on to the rousing conclusion, I am of the opinion that Boito’s Act IV makes for a palatable lead-in to what comes after.

However, Higgins went on to claim that “the Vale of Tempe Act also poses the problem of whether to cast a second soprano as Elena (Helen) or whether to treat her as another facet of Margherita.” Surely, there was a financial consideration involved in this suggestion. In most live productions of Mefistofele, the part of Elena is normally taken by a second artist (as in San Francisco Opera’s 2013 revival with soprano Marina Harris). It makes perfect sense, too, to cast the same singer as both Elena and Margherita, provided she has the goods to mold separate and distinct characterizations. Elena’s tessitura is not as vocally demanding or as emotionally taxing (or rewarding) as that of Margherita’s. Still, either way will work given that both roles are clearly differentiated on stage.

As the act opens, the audience hears a barcarolle-like musical theme amid harp-plucked textures that call to mind (and that listeners may rightly compare to) the more famous Barcarolle from Offenbach’s unfinished The Tales of Hoffmann. Elena and the mezzo-soprano portraying Pantalis blend their voices together in an ethereal number, “La luna immobile innonda l’etere …. Canta” (“The motionless moon bathes the still ether … Sing on”). The two women give pause from their moonlight boat ride as Faust, from a distance, calls out Helen of Troy’s name repeatedly, each time in varying octaves (“Elena, Elena, Elena, Elena”) — the last of which rises in anticipation of his meeting with the legendary figure.

Faust (Ramon Vargas) greets Helen of Troy (Marina Harris) in San Francisco’s 2013 production of ‘Mefistofele’

This number is similar in execution to the opening of the third act Witches’ Sabbath scene at the hellish Brocken Mountain (“Folletto, folletto, velloce, leggier”). Here, though, familiarity breeds contempt. Surely, Boito could have found a more trenchant musical representation, though in truth the calmness and serenity of this sequence (including a delightful minuet in the Boccherini mode) boosts the languid nature of the plot. Furthermore, the change in tone and mood is palpable, and clashes markedly with the rest of the opera. Listeners should take this episode for what it is: a pleasant diversion, even a brief respite, before the big finale.

Mefistofele has brought Faust to this ancient locale so the philosopher can forget his remorse at how the pitiable Margherita met her tragic fate. Faust will taste of mythical love, but the overly-respectable ambience and decorum leave Mefistofele cold and bored: He much prefers the harsh scents of the Brocken (the Hell he does!). With the entrance of dancing nymphs and such, Mefistofele momentarily takes his leave.

Helen enters and, in an intensely dramatic delivery (“Notte cupa, truce, senza fine, funebre!” – “Oh night, dark and grim, endless, funereal!”), she recalls the terrible time that Troy was sacked. The very air reverberated with the echoes of clashing shields, thundering chariots, and whining catapults; the very ground turned red with blood. The gods, enraged, rained down fire and fury upon the city. The gigantic shadows of the invading Greeks were cast against the flaming walls of Troy, until a deathly silence was all that was left. One of Boito’s many additions to the score, it’s a shame this declamatory piece has never been recorded on anyone’s recital disc. It can be quite effective in performance.

Helen of Troy (Angel Joy Blue) relives the terrible night of the sacking of Troy

Just then, Helen’s nymphs turn to see a stranger slowly approaching. Who is this splendid hero? Why, it’s the gallant Faust, decked out in all his finery (he’s dressed, according to the libretto, as a fifteenth-century knight). He prostrates himself before Helen and declares his undying love. Various assorted sirens and fauns, along with Pantalis, Nereus, and the curiously aroused Mefistofele accompany Faust as he pitches his woo at the receptive queen (“Forma ideal purissima” – “Purest and ideal form of beauty”).

Tormented at first by her recollection of that horrible night, Helen opens her heart to this handsome fellow. The two join their voices in a rapturous ensemble, beginning with their mutual declaration of love (“T’amo, t’amo, t’amo, t’amo”) to the same tune as Faust’s earlier repeated entreaties of her name. Together, the couple and the assembled participants engage in a powerful concertato (“Ah! Amore! Misterio, celeste, profondo!” – “Ah, Love, mysterious, heavenly, profound!”), the main melody of which will recur near the end of the Epilogue where Mefistofele urges the dying Faust to once again listen to the song of love (“Odi il canto d’amor!”).

This ensemble, as previously mentioned in Part Six of this series (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/mefistofele-ecco-il-mondo-the-devils-in-the-details-of-boitos-opera-part-six-second-intermission/), shares many similarities with a comparable one in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The lovers’ voices rise higher and higher, until at the ensemble’s climax the gathering begins to disperse. Helen tells Faust that Arcadia lies just beyond a peaceful valley. And that is where they will live forever, declares the ardent knight. They continue to exchange terms of endearment as the curtain slowly falls to a tremulous theme in the strings, the same one that opened the act.

“Stay, Thou Art Beautiful”: The Death of Faust

A long and languorous postlude sets the scene for the celebrated Epilogue. It is here that librettist and musician Boito finally attained the Olympian heights he had so long desired. As one writer derisively put it, “Attempting too much, he accomplished too little.” That may be a fair analysis of the Mefistofele project as a whole. But whether you agree with this assessment or not, certainly the Epilogue brings the heady drama to a stirring close in a most satisfactory way. Boito has taken the listener on Faust’s journey of enlightenment. “From heaven through earth to hell, and back to heaven,” wrote Goethe. Did Boito achieve his purpose? We think so.

We are back in Faust’s laboratory, where the philosopher and the Devil first struck their fiendish bargain. Faust is old now, having lived his life twice over. He’s tasted both the passion (and the despair) of mortal love, as well as experienced an amorous fling with a legendary figure. Faust sold his soul for an extended period of physical pleasure, yet even in advanced age he has yet to see that vision of loveliness where he must pose that fateful declaration.

And true to form, the observant Mefistofele reminds him of this. “You have lusted,” Satan bellows, “indulged yourself and lusted anew, but still you have not bid the fleeting moment to ‘Stay, thou art so fair!’ ” Faust concurs with this evaluation. Indeed, he’s known the real and the ideal, the love of a fair maiden and the heart of a goddess, but what of them? The real (“il Real fu dolore”) only brought him suffering, and the ideal was but a dream (“e l’Ideal fu sogno”).

‘Mefistofele’ – Baden-Baden 2016 – The Epilogue with Charles Castronovo (Faust)

At this point, Faust launches into one of the most beautiful and dreamlike tenor arias in the entire Italian repertoire: “Giunto sul passo estremo, della più estrema età” (“Having reached the final step of extreme old age”). He awakens from his trance to find a peaceful world, one of an immense expanse; one where life has a purpose, and one where he can give life to a fruitful people. Mefistofele, in an aside, is concerned that his prize is slipping from his grasp. The Devil means to seek out his heart’s desire — a desperation move at best.

The philosopher continues to apostrophize despite the dire situation: his one desire is that his people and their flocks, their houses, fields and cities, will rise up by the thousands to live under a cogent set of laws. Dream on, Herr Faust, dream on! A wary Lucifer urges himself to be on the alert. Seeing that his victim has become obsessed, at this late stage, with doing good works, Mefistofele primes himself for battle with the Heavenly Host.

Unlike the Vale of Tempe section, there are multiple recorded extracts of both “Dai campi,” the first-act tenor aria, and the elegiac “Giunto sul passo.” According to Opera on Record 3, the best of the early acoustic and/or electric batches were those by the Italians Giuseppe Anselmi, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Aureliano Pertile, and Giovanni Zenatello. For those wanting a more modern-sounding style, Luciano Pavarotti’s recitals can’t be beat. And from the complete albums, Plácido Domingo’s two sets (recorded in 1974 for EMI/Angel and 1989 for Sony Classical, respectively) are excellent mementos of the Spanish tenor’s art.

As Faust concludes his reverie, suddenly a radiant glow appears in the distance. Faust hears a heavenly hymn and rejoices in the “august rays of such a dawn.” But the Devil sees through the light. “Good now reveals itself to him!” he spouts. “Tempter, beware! Tempter, beware!”

The “End of Life” sequence from Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ (Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 2008)

Trumpets sound from every corner of the theater. Their fanfare hails the arrival of the Heavenly Host. Spreading his cloak on the ground, Mefistofele orders Faust to fly through the air with him one last time. Perhaps he can entice the good doctor away for further madcap adventures. But as the trumpets grow louder, the Celestial Choir, the harbinger of the coming Heavenly Host, rises above the din. It too grows louder and louder, repeating a wordless “Ah!”

Now in extreme distress, Mefistofele calls out the doctor’s name in vain: “Faust! Faust! Faust!” Each time he does, it is more desperate and anxious than the previous cry. And the music has taken us back to the start of the opera: “Ave Signor, degli angeli, dei santi, delle sfere…” – “Hail, Lord of the Angels, and All of the Saints, and All of the Spheres ….” It’s a remarkable moment, certainly one of the most invigorating climaxes in all opera. The voices grow noisier and more clamorous, until they drop to barely a whisper for the “Ave Signor.”

In a final outburst of insolence, Mefistofele cries out to Faust: “Hear the song of love! Come drink the blood from the sirens’ breast!” It’s the theme of Faust and Helen of Troy’s amorous declaration. In some productions, signs of a homoerotic relationship between the Tempter and the tempted are openly implied. At New York City Opera’s famed Tito Capobiano production, Mefistofele all-but embraced the hallucinating Faust to prevent him from fleeing his clutches. Topping that, both bass-baritone Norman Treigle and basso Samuel Ramey, his successor in the part, would writhe on the floor in agony over Faust’s impending salvation.

At last, Faust utters the dreaded words: “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (“Arrestati, sei bello!”). “Look away!” Mefistofele roars in disapproval. “Look away!” – “Torci il guardo, torci il guardo!” But it is too late. Clasping the Bible to his bosom, Faust cries out to God and Satan that “The Gospel is my bulwark!” He reaches up to high C. (Note to audience members: Say a silent prayer that the tenor doesn’t crack on that pivotal note!) The cherubim chime in, accompanied by the Celestial Choir. Falling to his knees, Faust, much like the condemned Margherita, prays for his deliverance from this mocking demon. “Lead me not into temptation!”

Repeating his entreaties to “Stay, grant me eternity,” and in the ensuing ruckus of the competing choirs of angels, cherubim, and seraphim, Faust gives up his soul and expires. At the same time, Mefistofele is pelted (according to the original stage instructions) with a shower of roses, which also descend over Faust’s lifeless body. Most productions ignore this directive, but one can imagine the effect it would have if some director had the courage to try it. What we usually get is a patented light show, or, in some productions, a freeze-frame of the action.

Nevertheless, the Celestial Choir hails the Lord’s victory over evil (and Faust’s personal victory over adversity) with a long-sustained final note. The impressive trumpet fanfares, heard at the beginning of the opera, conclude the Epilogue with a stunningly climactic explosion of sound.

The last solo voice to be heard, however, is that of Mefistofele himself. Thrusting an angry fist into the air, the Devil tosses his wrath to the four winds. “The Lord triumphs, but the reprobate whistles! Eh! Eh!” It sounds even stronger in Italian: “Trionfa il Signor, ma il reprobo fischia! Eh! Eh!” Putting his fingers to his lips, Satan blows those ear-piercing screeches at God, but to no avail.

Open to Interpretation

‘Mefistofele’ from Baden-Baden 2016: Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) tears out the pages of the Holy Bible in the rousing finale

In the Epilogue to the Met Opera’s revival of Mefistofele, Satan is literally carried away on the shoulders of masked choristers. He thrashes and shouts over the cries of the chorus. For a different take, two variants on the standard ending are available online. They can be viewed and enjoyed on YouTube: one, from the 2008 Teatro Massimo of Palermo production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco (tenor Mario del Monaco’s son), features Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role, with Giuseppe Filianoti as Faust; the other, a 2016 Philipp Himmelmann production for Munich’s Baden-Baden theater, stars an electric combination of Erwin Schrott as Mefisto and Charles Castronovo as the youngish Faust.

The Teatro Massimo presentation concludes as it began, with an end of life vision of a long, concentric-circled tunnel that leads to a bluish light at its center. In the Prologue, Mefistofele slowly crawls out from this wormhole-like aperture as if it were a birth canal. When he reaches center stage, the Devil picks up an armchair and threatens the light with it. This motion is carried over into the Epilogue, but in reverse order. After Faust’s “Giunto sul passo” air, the doctor retrieves the torn pages of his Bible and clasps them to his chest. This is his salvation. In a last-ditch effort to change Faust’s mind, Mefistofele hungrily embraces the old man but is driven away by the voices of the unseen chorus. As the music reaches its apex, he picks up that same armchair (on which an elderly Faust has sat) and, for the last time, threatens the choir with it in the same manner as before.

Incidentally, Filianoti is especially poignant in his rendering of Faust’s one chance at recovery. The voice, cracking with emotion, mimics that of an aged philosopher, not that of youthful tenor in his prime. How the listener may take this approach, which I find much truer to the drama, is a matter of taste. I, for one, liked it. Not to be outdone, Furlanetto pulls out all the stops. His deep, resonant bass rings out firmly in this scene. Plush is the term I would use to describe his vocal apparatus, if only slightly past its prime. His acting is even better; one can sense the desperation as Mefisto struggles to stay ahead of the game, despite his realization that all is lost.

In the presentation from Baden-Baden, Erwin Schrott’s sturdy bass-baritone, while resounding strongly  on the soundtrack, is not nearly as plush as his colleague’s. His is a leaner, less full-toned instrument than Furlanetto’s true bass grounding. While it fails to plumb the depths of the part, Schrott’s acting is in a different league entirely. This is based on director Himmelmann’s conception of the Devil as a hipster, and on Schrott’s own view of the character as a sexy beast in a butch haircut. The swagger, the self-confidence, and the total identification with the master manipulator fit Schrott’s physical and vocal attributes well.

Contrasting this production’s Epilogue with that of the Teatro Massimo, in Baden-Baden the Devil is the one who tears out the pages of the Holy Bible, not Faust. He ends up ripping the book in two and throwing it to the ground. Faust, sung ever-so-delicately by Castronovo, barely takes notice. Instead, he gives the audience its money’s worth with a gorgeously timed, gently laced rumination on “Giunto sul passo.” He strains at the highest notes, however, which slightly mars and disrupts the vocal line. All in all, his is much tamer and less compelling version of Faust’s vision than Filianoti’s more verismo-based account.

As to the powerful conclusion, I much prefer Furlanetto’s handling of the close. In Schrott’s interpretation, the Devil loses himself in a string of chintzy tinsel strips suspended from the stage’s ceiling. Swishing his arms back and forth along the strips, Schrott appears to be lost backstage while swirling in and out of view. Meanwhile, Castronovo stands front and center as the curtains slowly close in on him. I, too, was lost as to the meaning of all this, but no matter.

Erwin Schrott (as Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (as Faust): The Devil gets lost in Tinsel Town

Both performances are available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. If you’re looking for a change of pace while waiting for the Met Opera’s December revival of Mefistofele; if you’re curious to learn how our mania for old warhorses can be tailored to fit freshly-minted Las Vegas kitsch, either the stylistically challenging Palermo production or the later Baden-Baden version should fill that bill quite nicely. Fortunately, the singing in both productions is top-notch. They can be safely recommended with only minor reservations.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘They’re BAAAACK!’ — The Return of the Met Opera Saturday Broadcasts

Boito’s “Mefistofele” starts the radio season off on December 1

It’s the 2018-2019 Radio Season

Yes, they’re back. And it’s about time, too! So what does the Met Opera radio and/or Live in HD series have in store for us fans? Anything in the way of bold innovations, newly commissioned works, or plain old favorites?

Looking over the recently received The Metropolitan Opera 2018-2019 Live in HD and Radio Program Guide, I found a lot to admire, but also much to be desired. That’s about par for the course. Since last season’s broadcasts got off to a scandalous start with the revelations concerning former Met Opera music director James Levine, this season the company decided to put a new spin on the series — or, rather, in the orchestra pit.

Taking the podium (and some of the luster) away from maestro Levine will be Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Canadian-born conductor will be presiding over three broadcast works: a new Michael Mayer production of Verdi’s La Traviata on December 15, with Diana Damrau as Violetta, Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo, and Quinn Kelsey as the elder Germont; a revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande a month later, on January 19, 2019, with Isabel Leonard and Paul Appleby in the title roles, along with Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud, and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Arkel; and the final radio broadcast of the season (on May 11) of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in the classic John Dexter production from the 1970s, also starring Isabel Leonard as Blanche, Adrianne Pieczonka as Mme. Lidoine, Erin Morley as Constance, Karen Cargill as Mère Marie, and Karita Mattila as Mme. De Croissy.

Although there’s nothing really earth-shaking to this lineup, I am curious to hear Mayer’s take on Traviata. He made quit a splash a few years ago with that glitzy Las Vegas-style Rat Pack Rigoletto. We may get a surprise or two out of this next Verdi work yet! Pelléas is another tantalizing offering. Despite its strictly Symbolist roots, the only completed opera by Claude Debussy is an orchestral tour de force. I am especially eager to hear Signor Furlanetto’s sepulchral tones as old King Arkel, a surprising character role for the celebrated Italian basso. The work of another Frenchman, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues had a brief resurgence a few years back in a lone run that many listeners (and live audiences) protested was NOT shown in theaters — a bad mark against the Met’s mismanagement of its schedule.

With that out of the way, the actual broadcast season officially kicks off on December 1st with a revival of Robert Carsen’s “out there” production of Boito’s Mefistofele. Frequent readers of my blog know that I am quite fond of this pre-verismo work and have written about it extensively. The opera is one I’ve heard on countless complete recordings as well as seen in a plethora of live and/or YouTube performances featuring Samuel Ramey, Justino Diaz, Ildar Abdrazakov, Giulio Neri, Cesare Siepi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Erwin Schrott, and others. Angela Meade is scheduled to sing Margherita, with Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, Michael Fabiano as Faust, and relative newcomer Christian Van Horn (now THERE’S a Devil of a name for you) in the title role. Joseph Colaneri conducts.

“Suor Angelica,” the second panel from Puccini’s “Il Trittico”

December 8 promises the long-awaited revival of Puccini’s Il Trittico. This triptych panel of one-act operas, each lasting about an hour in length, remains (for me) the Italian master’s unquestioned masterwork. Chromatics and late-verismo fireworks abound. The three pieces in question are Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comedy. There are humorous asides and sly takes on greedy family members in Schicchi which have made it the odds-on favorite. However, in my view both Tabarro and Angelica take top honors as perceptive studies into the human condition. A mixed cast features the well-proportioned Amber Wagner and Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Álvarez, and George Gagnidze in Tabarro; the stunning Kristine Opolais, Maureen McKay, and Ms. Blythe in Suor Angelica; and veteran tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Gianni Schicchi, with Blythe again, and newcomers Kristina Mkhitaryan and Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the lovers. The conductor is Bertrand de Billy and the production is by Jack O’Brien.

Puccini’s ersatz spaghetti Western, La Fanciulla de West, is on tap for December 22 in Giancarlo Del Monaco’s lavish production. If the name Del Monaco is a familiar one to readers, well, that’s because Giancarlo is the dramatic tenor’s son. This revival boasts a powerhouse cast of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the return of Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson, alias Ramerrez the Mexican bandit, and the versatile Željko Lučić as Sherriff Rance. Marco Armiliato conducts.

This Tosca retread has never been as popular as Puccini’s earlier trio of works, to wit La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and the aforementioned Tosca. Jointly with Il Trittico, Fanciulla is Puccini’s most ambitious theatrical realization, an Italian variation on an American theme based on David Belasco’s barnstormer of a play, The Girl of the Golden West. Puccini previously used Belasco and John Luther Long’s one-act Madam Butterfly as the basis for his popular opera of the same name. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice with The Girl.

Step up to the bar for “La Fanciulla del West”

An abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in J.D. McClatchy’s English adaptation, is the featured work on December 29. The by-now overplayed Julie Taymor production stars Erin Morley as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Ben Bliss as Tamino, Nathan Gunn (an audience favorite) as Papageno, Alfred Walker (who I remember as Wotan in North Carolina Opera’s semi-staged production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the Speaker, and Morris Robinson as Sarastro. Harry Bicket leads the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

There are two more Mozart works on the agenda: Don Giovanni on February 16, starring Luca Pisaroni as the Don, Ildar Abdrazakov as Leporello (I believe they might even be alternating their respective parts during the opera’s run), Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Federica Lombardi as Donna Elvira, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, and Štefan Kocán as the Commendatore, with Cornelius Meister conducting; and La Clemenza di Tito on April 20, with Ying Fang as Servilia, Matthew Polenzani as Tito, Elza van den Heever as Vitellia, Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, and Christian Van Horn as Publio, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s elaborate production. Maestro Lothar Koenigs is in charge of the orchestra.

The New Year brings forth a revival of Bartlett Sher’s production of Verdi’s Otello (Hint: It’s done with lots and lots of mirrors!). Verdi poured every ounce of skill and passion into this penultimate piece, lauded by critics and musicologists as the epitome of Italian operatic art. Taking over as the Moor will be tenor Stuart Skelton, who made a sensational showing two seasons ago in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Desdemona will be taken by Sonya Yoncheva, the only bright spot in this tenor-baritone showcase, along with Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Željko Lučić as the oleaginous Iago, and James Morris as Lodovico. Gustavo Dudamel will make his Met Opera podium bow leading the combined forces of chorus and orchestra.

Bartlett Sher’s production of “Otello”

Listeners on January 12 will be treated to a rarely performed verismo warhorse in Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Not as popular as it once was, the starring role has attracted high-voltage prima donnas from the moment of its 1898 debut — a partial listing of which must include Lina Cavalieri, Claudia Muzio, Magda Olivero, Leyla Gencer, Renata Tebaldi, Raina Kabaivanska, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, and Angela Gheorghiu. But it’s not just a soprano outing! There are juicy morsels for mezzo, tenor and baritone as well. Sparks will surely fly when the scheduled Adriana of Anna Netrebko meets up with Anita Rachvelishvili as the jealous Princess de Bouillon, both of whom are romanced by Piotr Beczala as Count Maurizio, alongside the smitten Michonnet of Ambrogio Maestri. It takes an Italian conductor to pull this piece off to even a modicum of satisfaction. And waiting in the wings is Gianandrea Noseda.

A most offbeat work pops up next on the Met Opera parade of hits, and that work is the January 26 radio premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie, based on the Winston Graham novel that also attracted filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Marnie was not Hitch’s most-watched film venture, not even with Piper Laurie and Sean Connery as the leads.

I’m not much into our modern-day penchant for bringing motion pictures to the operatic stage. Usually, it’s the other way around, with the order being from stage to film. Film to stage rarely works, but who can tell? Considering how shabbily Mulhy’s previous Met Opera effort, the controversial Two Boys, was treated by the company there might be some hope that Marnie will come off better this time around. Certainly the cast is promising enough, with the ubiquitous Isabel Leonard as Marnie, the dashing Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland, Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland, Denyce Graves as Marnie’s Mother, and Iestyn Davies as Terry Rutland, with Robert Spano presiding. This is another Michael Mayer production, which might give the opera that all-important lift it surely needs to succeed.

Parlez-vous français? Oui, oui, Monsieur!

Bizet’s “Carmen” being wooed by the toreador Escamillo

We then hear Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen on February 2. Starring Clémentine Margaine as Carmen, Roberto Alagna as Don José, Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna) as Micaela, and Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production will be conducted by Louis Langrée. With so many French-speaking natives in key roles, one would think the Met management capable of presenting the original opéra-comique production of the work instead of the bowdlerized version (the one with those excruciatingly inappropriate Ernest Guiraud recitatives) currently in use at the house. Not a chance! Not only did Bizet not write this music, but Guiraud eliminated the spoken dialogue after the composer’s untimely death, supplanting them with his own “score.” Guiraud also assisted with the completion of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. It’s an intriguing premise: which version to present? Perhaps it’s time for the Met to get back to basics and bring about a change in their perspective.

A double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle appears on February 9. This hit production, directed by the Polish-born Marius Treliński, is thought-provoking and challenging. It paid off handsomely at the box office, mostly due to the pairing of the Russian Anna Netrebko with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala (see Adriana Lecouvreur above). This revival will see the Met’s newest diva, the Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva, as the blind Princess Iolanta, to include Matthew Polenzani in the high-lying part of Vaudémont, Alexey Markov as Robert, and Vitalij Kowaljow as King René. In place of the star-power that Russian maestro Valery Gergiev generated when he last performed the piece in 2015, we have the less flamboyant but equally capable Henrik Nánási in charge of the Met Opera Orchestra, which in the brooding Bartók work acts as a principal character in conveying the drama inherent in this intensely probing score.

We’ve already mentioned Mr. Mayer’s production of Rigoletto. And on February 23, it will be heard live, with the stratospheric Nadine Sierra as Gilda, Roberto Frontali as Rigoletto, matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke of Mantua, Ramona Zaharia as Maddalena, and Štefan Kocán as the assassin Sparafucile (the one with the bottomless low E). Nicola Luisotti is the conductor. On the heels of Verdi’s middle-period gloom we plunge into the comedic world of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment on March 2. This Laurent Pelly production (he also designed last season’s delightful rendering of Massenet’s Cendrillon) will feature Pretty Yende as Marie, Stephanie Blythe as the Marquise of Berkenfield, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as Tonio (the fellow with the nine, count ‘em, nine high Cs!), and Maurizio Muraro as Sulpice.

Javier Camarena belts those high C’s to the rafters in “La Fille du Regiment”

Two weeks later, more comedy pours forth in the revival of Robert Carsen’s English countryside production of Falstaff, Verdi’s final comment on the state of Italian opera, and on comic opera in general. The all-star lineup includes the gigantic-framed Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Ailyn Pérez as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly, Golda Schultz as Nannetta, Juan Jesus Rodriguez (who subbed for the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore) as Master Ford, and Francesco Demuro as Fenton. Trying to keep the orchestral forces in check will be Richard Farnes.

It took Falstaff an inordinate amount of time to be considered an integral part of the standard repertoire. For a late period work from the pen of an acknowledged master such as Verdi, that’s a huge surprise. Such was not the case with Puccini’s Tosca, to be heard on April 6. From the moment of its debut, this once-maligned work has gained in number and variety of performances throughout the years, especially at the Met. This revival, then, of last season’s new David McVicar production stars the up-and-coming Jennifer Rowley as Tosca, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, German baritone Wolfgang Koch as Scarpia (an odd choice for this part), and Philip Cokorinos as the Sacristan. Carlo Rizzi will be on the podium. Rowley, you may recall, subbed for an indisposed Patricia Racette in the broadcast of Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac. She also sang (again, as a last-minute choice) the part of Leonora in Il Trovatore. This promotion to Floria Tosca is a major career step for the budding prima donna. Let’s hope she takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Saint-Saëns’ biblical French pageant Samson et Dalila will debut in a new production by Darko Tresnjak. This version brings back mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila seducing the muscular strongman Samson, sung by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. Laurent Naori, so effective last season as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, interprets the High Priest of Dagon, with Tomasz Konieczny as Abimelech (well, it looks and “sounds” like Alberich), and another Wagnerian, Günther Groissböck, portraying the Old Hebrew. Sir Mark Elder presides. Can you say kitsch?

The Met’s flashy new production of “Samson et Dalila”

At the tail end of the season, on May 4, the Met revives the highly successful Penny Woodcock production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (or The Pearl Fishers) by Bizet. The rematch between Pretty Yende as Leila and Javier Camarena as Nadir is guaranteed to win audiences over to their high-wire act above the staff. They’ll be joined by the retuning Marius Kwiecien as Zurga, the third wheel of the plot. Nicolas Testé also puts in a return appearance as Nourabad. Emmanuel Villaume mounts the podium for this one. While not as well known or as perennially popular as Carmen, The Pearl Fishers draws audiences into its exotic world of tropical palm trees with its captivating vocal airs and that famous duet for tenor and baritone.

Of course, I’ve left the best for last: a compete run, on alternate Saturday afternoons, of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is only the second re-mounting of Robert Lepage’s critically bashed all-digital, all-mechanical Ring. My biggest complaint with the production is the reduced playing area, which also reduced the span and scope of Wagner’s epic drama of greed and lust for power. The tetralogy, as it is known to fans, begins on March 9 with Das Rheingold, with an impressive roster boasting the powerful bass-baritone of Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Jamie Barton as a womanly Fricka, Norbert Ernst as Loge, Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, Gerhard Siegel as the sniveling Mime, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt, and Dmitry Belosselsky as Fafner. Two weeks later, on March 30, we’ll hear the most popular portion of the Ring dramas, Die Walküre, starring Christine Goerke in her Met role debut as Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jamie Barton reprising her Fricka, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund (a nice segue from Otello), Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and Günther Groissböck as Hunding.

April 13th brings the third work in the cycle, Siegfried, starring Stefan Vinke as the titular man-child, Christine Goerke returning as the sleeping Brünnhilde, Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Michael Volle taking over for Greer Grimsley as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise), Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, and Dmitry Belosselsky bellowing smoke and fire as Fafner. The Wood Bird will be taken by coloratura Erin Morley. And ending on a high note, Götterdämmerung brings the cycle to a close on April 27. Christine Goerke gets to sing one of the greatest soprano sequences ever composed, the Immolation Scene. Others in the cast include Andreas Schager as Siegfried, Edith Haller as Gutrune, Michaela Schuster as Waltraute, and Evgeny Nikitin as Gunther. A former Alberich, bass-baritone Eric Owens has been promoted to Hagen, while Tomasz Konieczny wraps things up as Alberich. Keeping it all together will be conductor Philippe Jordan.

The “Ring” cycle returns in Robert Lepage’s hi-tech outing

And now, a final word about the passing of a legend: the one and only Montserrat Caballé. I first heard that unmistakable, meltingly beautiful voice in the late 1960s, with the first complete stereo recording of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Madame Caballé could be politely termed a “full-figure” girl; in fact, her huge frame was a hindrance to swift movements on the stage. She may have been criticized for being too static in her parts, but once she started to sing that golden throat could move mountains.

In her prime, she was at the very pinnacle of coloratura singing. Not only was she a charming presence, she was most generous to her fans and to her colleagues. She sang all the major soprano parts, including Aida, Tosca, Mimi (a memorable Met radio performance with superstar Franco Corelli as Rodolfo), Liu, Luisa Miller, and Marguerite in Faust (her Met debut in 1965, along with that of baritone Sherrill Milnes as Valentin). Later in life, she experienced poor health and had several life-threatening crises during her career. Many fans will remember her duets with rock star Freddy Mercury of Queen — himself, a former student of opera (vide Bohemian Rhapsody). May this real-life “Fat Lady” rest in peace.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’: A Fairy-Tale Wish Comes True at the Met

Cendrillon (Joyce DiDonato) goes to the ball in Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’

First Time’s the Charm

Yesterday, July 14, was the French holiday Bastille Day, or Le jour de la Bastille. In France, it is better known as la fête nationale, a national holiday. And in honor of said holiday, our topic today is French opera.

Jules Massenet’s charming Cendrillon, a rarely-heard late nineteenth-century work based on French author Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, was given its first Metropolitan Opera production nearly 120 years too late. Nevertheless, the opera worked its magic on Met audiences and on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of April 28, 2018.

Originally in four acts, this piece was presented in a lengthy two-act version with the first-night cast virtually intact. That cast featured, among others, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming, contralto Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière (the Wicked Stepmother), soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Maya Lahyani as the ditzy stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, and the stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, called La Fée.

The Fairy Godmother, or La Fee (soprano Kathleen Kim), prepares the magic spell that will send Cendrillon to the ball

The opera was conducted by a fellow Frenchman, maestro Bertrand de Billy, and staged by Parisian-born Laurent Pelly who also provided the fanciful costume designs (it originated at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera in 2006). The sets were the work of Barbara de Limburg, and the Met Opera’s own Donald Palumbo served as chorus master.

French opera, as far as history records for us, has been deemed a close cousin to the Italian variety. And there is much truth to that connection. For centuries, Italy and France shared like thoughts regarding the genre. This extends to their respective musical language. Unusual for such an expressly Mediterranean art form as opera, its development in France ran almost parallel to what was happening in the Italian peninsula. Where the two countries branched off was in their choice of subject and performance styles, specifically the formulaic approach taken by composers Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian by birth), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (of German background and birth).

Classicism, in the main, was most favored at the court of “Sun King” Louis XIV, where mythological themes from classical antiquity aspired to “enlighten” the ruling classes (fat chance of that!). The resultant fervor of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte brought about many changes to French society and to opera as a whole: in other words, opera as pure entertainment but on a grand scale, where pageantry took precedence over the mundane. These changes had a profound effect on the likes of Luigi Cherubini, another transplanted Italian expatriate, and on his contemporaries, Gaspare Spontini and Antonio Salieri.

Interestingly, as the French style took hold and began to encompass repetitive performance practices — to include extended ballet sequences, leisurely pastorals, mighty choruses, florid solos, and other hackneyed elements — any connection to actual drama and perceived human emotions was secondary at best; they were given much less prominence in the overall structure than the meandering plots and clichéd interactions. Gluck’s innovations along this front were strategic in recapturing the essence of the story while refocusing the drama on the struggles of opera’s main protagonists. He was also a prime melodist, which lent his operas the primacy of originality.

It was a little after this time that opera, in Italy, started to capitalize on the bel canto advances developed by Messrs. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In due course, however, even the epicurean Rossini, accustomed to finery in all its richly embroidered form, relocated to Gay Paree where his final opera, the truly grandiose Guillaume Tell, made its rousing debut.

A return to classicism of a sort occurred with the advent of Hector Berlioz and his highly individual choice of subject matter (for example, The Damnation of Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these works followed the traditional path of elevated stories borrowed from classical mythology or other literary components. The most ambitious of which, the two-part Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), gave Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid a colossal stage treatment that influenced a host of admirers, among them one Richard Wagner and his equally momentous Ring of the Nibelung saga.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), acknowledged purveyor of French grand opera

Contemporaneously with  Berlioz, opera in France — in particular, at the artistic epicenter of the City of Light, the Paris Opéra — became the focal point for the career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), one of the most wildly celebrated composers of that era. Born Jacob Liebmann Beer, the rechristened Meyerbeer, a Prussian-born Jewish descendant, began his studies in Berlin. While traveling to Italy, he developed his own brand of opera that emulated, for a brief time, the Rossinian model. Venturing forth to the neighboring France, Meyerbeer settled down in Paris where, with such oeuvres as Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Étoile du Nord (each of them incredibly elaborate five-act monstrosities), he set the operatic world on fire.

But Meyerbeer’s flame, which burned so bright for so long, soon began to fade from view. After the posthumous premiere of his final work, L’Africaine (originally titled Vasco de Gama) — a startlingly derivative piece reminiscent of Les Troyens — the way was cleared for a variety of artists to make their individual marks on the art form: Charles Gounod (Faust, Roméo et Juliette), Fromental Halévy (La Juive), Georges Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen), Ambroise Thomas (Mignon, Hamlet), Léo Delibes (Lakmé), Jacques Offenbach (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas (Ariane et Barbe-bleu), Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole, L’enfant et les sortilèges), and Ernest Chausson (Le roi Arthus), were some of the more familiar names who thrived during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.

Intricacy, delicacy and melody continued to be the hallmarks of mid-nineteenth century French opera, until Wagner’s music cast a different shadow over the European model. Although  French opera had staggered, both this way and that, from the sumptuously elaborate to the intensely personal, with the lighter-touched opéra-comique (known for an abundance of spoken dialog) serving as an intermediary between the two forms, relatively few composers had the wherewithal to artfully navigate between these forms.

Interspersed among the above-named masters of their craft, one must conclude that Jules Massenet (1842-1912), born near the Loire Valley of France, eventually emerged as one of his country’s finest proponents of opera. His major works traversed an immense range of subjects, styles, genres, and literary and poetic influences, from the heroic and the epic, to the biblical and pseudo-historical: Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Werther, Thaïs, La Navarraise, Sapho, Grisélidis, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse, and Don Quichotte.

French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

With so much creative output to his credit, one has to stop and wonder when Massenet found the time to relax from his labors. To many critics and musicologists, he became France’s answer to Italy’s Puccini. That’s not entirely fair or accurate; still, for our purposes we can cite his one-act La Navarraise as the Gallic equivalent of Italian verismo. For the most part, Massenet was his own “made man,” a fellow who marched to the tune of whatever suited him best: namely, the feminine mystique. Whether on an epic or less than grand scale, Massenet never lost touch with the unique qualities associated with his female subjects.

Performance Becomes Art

Cendrillon meets Prince Charming (Alice Coote) at the ball

So where did Cendrillon fit in? In between Sapho and Grisélidis, the delightful Cendrillon was conceived and composed between 1894 and 1896. The libretto by Henri Cain adheres closely to the Perrault story, including all the manufactured hocus-pocus. The later version of the tale, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, introduced the grittier, less pleasant side of storybook life. We make note, too, of Rossini’s earthier La Cenerentola, an opera buffa as popular at the time (if slightly less so today) as the same composer’s The Barber of Seville.

In Cenerentola, the title character Angelina is a scullery maid in her adopted family’s service. The fantastical aspects of the Fairy Godmother, for instance, or the magical transformation, and, of course, the proverbial “glass slipper” (which may or may not be a mistranslation of the original pantoufle de vair, or “fur slipper”) are non-existent in Rossini, in exchange for a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Whereas in Massenet’s construct, the characters are more broadly etched, even one-dimensional (as is the case of the stern Stepmother and her meddlesome daughters), their humanity has been preserved in music of a sweetly caressing nature, with pathos and tenderness taking bittersweet turns with the romance of Cendrillon and her lovesick Prince Charming. It is here that we begin to appreciate that Cendrillon is anything but a cardboard figure straight out of a Disney animated feature. And the incredibly tantalizing depiction of the Fairy Godmother, as luminously effervescent a musical realization as any in opera, rings true for our time. We could all use a little magical help from time to time.

The one major character left out of previous versions of the story is Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s doting parent, the paterfamilias — a rather foppish fellow, but a caring individual nonetheless. There are a few moody moments in their tender third-act father-daughter duet (Massenet was a master of melancholy), which Parisian-born Laurent Naouri delivered in deliciously natural-sounding French. His rich enunciation of the text (again, based on Perrault) was the equivalent of a fine French wine come to sparkling life, alongside his fuddy-duddy interpretation.

Cendrillon confesses her dream to her father Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri)

The singing throughout the broadcast performance was on a respectably high level. Curiously, the normally spectacular Joyce DiDonato was more subdued than usual for an artist of her repute. Perhaps this opera’s late season start or the harshness of New York’s winter weather prevented DiDonato from expanding her vibrant mezzo into the farthest reaches of the Met’s massive auditorium. It is my understanding that the staging by Laurent Pelly had placed the characters well to the back of the theater. And the lack of physical structures to bounce one’s voice from may also have inhibited more accurate displays of vocal fireworks. No matter, since Ms. DiDonato’s portrayal onstage was instantly believable from her first entrance onward. In softer, gentler passages, Joyce was untouchable. There are few singers of her caliber who could establish a character with her presence alone.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Prince Charming (a “trouser” role, in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, or Mozart’s Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), was also off her generally fine form. This wonderful singer, for whom this writer has often heard and long extolled the many virtues of, could have found, as DiDonato did, that Massenet’s music is a shade too high for either of them at this stage in their respective careers. DiDonato, who will be 50 next year, and Coote, who is already 50, may have approached the age when, vocally speaking, the effort at embodying youthful exuberance has given way to reality. That the voice tends to get less flexible with age; that tautness sets in when one least expects it; and that the requirements of agility and lightness of tone diminish, are all a given. Visually, both artists looked divine.

Physicality as a positive trait was the province of contralto Stephanie Blythe as the haughty Madame de la Haltière. This force of nature galvanized Met audiences with her patented Earth-Mother approach to the part of Cendrillon’s Wicked Stepmother. That she used her (ahem) natural endowment to the betterment of her characterization is one of the many reasons why Blythe remains a compelling artist. She, too, is fast approaching middle age; but in her case, there has been little diminution in vocal output. Too, Blythe has a natural talent for broad comedy and slapstick, which was used by director Pelly to exaggerate her character’s dubious nature.

Madame de la Haltiere (Stephanie Blythe, c.) with her two daughters, Dorothee (Maya Lahyani) & Noemie (Ying Fang)

The two stepsisters, sung by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang, profited from the overly lavish costumes they and Ms. Blythe were given to wear, clothing that accentuated their broad, over-the-top personalities. As an example, both Fang and Lahyani wore dresses that made them look like upside-down pomegranates. Their gowns were also ridiculously gaudy. Beside DiDonato, Coote and Blythe, the incredibly able warbling of soprano Kathleen Kim, in her assumption of the Fairy Godmother, was the shimmering candle atop this wedding cake. Thanks to Massenet, who provided music of the most delectable quality — one hesitates to use the term “gossamer,” but in this instance, the word fits — Kim outshone all the others.

The staging left something to be desired, what with its overuse of Perrault’s text (in French, mind you!) lining the walls of the sets throughout. Unless one is fluent in French, the words lose their connection to the stage action. But never mind. The finest aspects of this long-awaited production were the marvelous stage pictures, among them the magical horse-drawn carriage that swept Cendrillon to the Prince’s palace, and the carrying-on of the participants (especially, the parade of potential brides for the Prince’s hand — a veritable eighteenth-century reality show a la The Bachelor) at the ball itself. Holding it all together was Bertrand de Billy, who only sped up the orchestra slightly during the Cendrillon-Prince Charming encounter.

In the final analysis, the winner had to be Massenet. If I were to describe this piece, I’d say that if you are familiar with the opening segments to Werther or Manon — that is, the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the scrambling about that occurs when people are trying to get on with their business — then you would have no problem deciphering what Cendrillon sounds like to initiates, but only to a point. The opera may not have scaled the heights that either Manon or Werther, or even Thais, had reached, but there are memorable moments nonetheless. Many surprises are in store for those who wait, and that includes the lovely Cinderella herself.

This is one fairy tale that really came true!

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova’ — Preface to Life

The Fat Lady Sings!

Life is not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it.

My soon-to-be-finished book, Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, and the stories within it were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever-fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in the country of my birth.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome (which I pray it has not become) but as a series of challenges in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet website. Why challenging? Because, as it became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would be spent on the task of researching, studying, and analyzing the subject beforehand. While this is a regular, everyday part of most professional writing assignments, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema. But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America, at any rate, movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — “and never the twain shall meet.” This has been the time-tested thought pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a healthy curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern for these same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — never had I felt that these seemingly independent activities should be divorced from one another, not by any means. This led directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnectedness with, and close identification of, individuals and groups with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had a vast and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these areas, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” entertainment should be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of class, color, and origin, or their economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was referred to at one point as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious sentiments off the map of our subconscious.

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

Jair Rodrigues, “Deixa Isso Para La”

  • listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, ever-joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso para lá” (“Leave that to the side”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music;

 

  • remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, knowing I was Brazilian, quite innocently inquired as to how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded warily); he went on to mention a former top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by someone called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the scenic virtues of the film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus might be;

 

  • seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known to the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

 

  • getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was present), at my first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculously lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

 

  • hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será” (from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), reached the top of the worldwide charts; this was also my initial exposure to the Brazilian martial art and dance form known as capoeira;

 

  • experiencing my first — and most likely last — Carnival dance party in February 1979, inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I have ever had the misfortune to obtain after four non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

 

  • finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the São Paulo back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, piping away in fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about this album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about;

Grande Otelo

  • catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished It’s All True epic;

 

  • having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population fifteen million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the start of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

 

  • making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

Susana Moraes

  • placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to the late filmmaker Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his favorite partner Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count through the years of the number of individuals I’ve come into close contact with as a result of my writings. These and other noteworthy episodes aside, I sincerely feel that this maiden literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture. Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout, and can be found on almost every page: from native-born artists studying opera abroad, to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores; from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces, to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters; from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors, to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants; and many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multi-faceted and multi-racial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately about and what I aspired to recreate with the writing of this book.

As a consequence, I have scrupulously tried to capture the flavor of these various events, hence the longwinded subtitle A Personal & Cultural History of Opera, Pop, Soccer, Cinema & Musical Theater in the Land of Carnival & Samba. As any writer will tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not present to experience it, is a supreme challenge to anyone’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multi-culturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous undertaking? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous significance to me in augmenting my sometimes myopic perception of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, and modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, shows, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office Network of Brazil; and my fifty+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, cultural, and/or cinematic events. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in this text.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, along with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first time any South American nation has been accorded that prestigious honor. A book covering this wide swath of Brazilian culture would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be. It is to be hoped that my efforts were not in vain. ☼

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Potpourri: A Season of Ups and Downs and All-Arounds

The Best is Yet to Come

Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino & Pretty Yende as Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore (Photo: blog.onopera.com)

Much has happened this season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Some of it good, some of it bad, some of it very, very good and bordering on the divine. That’s to be expected.

As for the others? Um, not so good, I’m afraid. The casting, the singing, the old and the new, the tried and the true; surely, a lot of what one “expects” from the country’s most expensive and financially lucrative repertory theater left much to be desired.

What really got me was the routine programming for the upcoming season. I’ll address that issue at the proper time, but for now a few choice words are in order with regard to the 2017-2018 season, so far as it went.

To say there was nothing memorable about it would be a falsehood. Indeed there were some welcome niceties to my Saturday afternoon listening schedule. One of them was the February 10, 2018 broadcast of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, or The Elixir of Love, in Bartlett Sher’s heartwarming production. The raison d’être for this production rested on the shoulders of tenor Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino. His assumption of this part was (to coin a much abused term) a revelation. His facial expressions alone were enough to elicit high praise. That his vocal performance this time around was even more exemplary stands as a testament to Polenzani’s continuing development as an artist of quality.

In seasons past, Polenzani has undertaken some of the more strenuous of lyric tenor assignments, including a pair of German poets in two French works, Hoffmann in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and Werther in Massenet’s Werther.  He partnered with colleague Mariusz Kwiecien in the long-awaited revival of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at the Met; and he also appeared in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy as Robert, Earl of Essex, in the same composer’s Roberto Devereux — all of them winning portrayals.

In L’Elisir, Polenzani was ably seconded by the descriptively named Pretty Yende, the perky South African soprano who lately has caused a stir in Lucia di Lammermoor, another of Donizetti’s chirpy heroines (see below). The supporting cast for The Elixir included baritone Davide Luciano as the pompous Sgt. Belcore and bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as the charlatan Dulcamara. All were sheer icing on this Italian dessert tray as they covered themselves in glory (or gaiety, as the case may be).

The next broadcast work, Wagner’s mammoth Parsifal in a revival of François Girard’s critically acclaimed production, was heard on February 17. It went a long way toward solidifying this author’s impression that the Met is still one of the world’s premier Wagner houses, rivaling the best that Europe and Bayreuth could muster (even if Wagner has been given short shrift these past few seasons at the house).

Evelyn Herlitzius, Klaus Florian Vogt & Rene Pape in Act III of Parsifal

While the critical reception in the media for maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting was generally enthusiastic (a bit too overboard in praise, I suppose), it did not take away from his accomplishment of the impossible. And that is, as the Met Opera musical director designate Yannick established and maintained a high standard with regard to Wagner’s most difficult stage piece. Still, I missed the spiritual essence of the work as expressed by Daniele Gatti, the previous conductor, who set his own standard of excellence and led a truly mesmerizing performance (from memory, if memory serves me).

It helped that some of the original cast members were on hand: bass-baritone René Pape showed profound depths of emotion and tonal variety in his assumption of the garrulous Gurnemanz; histrionically, he was beyond complaint, if vocally a tad low-key at the outset. His third act Good Friday Spell dispelled any doubts that Pape was a star of the first magnitude. We look forward one day to his Wotan and Wanderer, if the gods allow.

Another tremendous asset was baritone Peter Mattei as the most movingly sung Amfortas in anyone’s memory. The emotional and physical toll this role takes on a performer must be counted among the standard repertoire’s most challenging. Still, Mattei came through like the trouper that he was, his tall and lanky frame seemingly paralyzed by his affliction. This was a masterful interpretation for the ages, one where the endurance of pain and suffering became both a blessing and a curse.

My only complaints, if I may be so bold, were with the other two leads, tenor Klaus Florian Vogt’s lightweight (on the radio) Parsifal and soprano Evelyn Herlitzius’ wildly inconsistent and widely fluctuating Kundry. Dramatically, Vogt has delivered some solid portrayals of note, first in Wagner’s Lohengrin, then as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Here, his sturdy lirico-heroic tenor was simply overwhelmed by this arduous assignment. True, he was more than capable of presenting Wagner’s “guileless fool” in Act I — the innocence and naiveté were plaintively conveyed in honeyed tones; and his confrontation in Act II with the “formidable” Flower Maidens was perfectly realized. When the going got rough, however —after Kundry’s wickedly enveloping kiss — the tenor’s temperature hardly rose above the boiling point. And his outcry of “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” went totally by the wayside.

Past  exponents of this part, to include Wolfgang Windgassen, along with Met stalwarts Jess Thomas, Helge Brilioth, and James King, as well as the voluminous Jon Vickers (weighty and a force of nature when paired with Leonie Rysanek or Christa Ludwig), and the eloquent baritonal-sounding Jonas Kaufmann, all proved their mettle, each in their various ways. Vogt, to these ears, was simply not in their league. I’m sure it all comes down to personal taste, in that you either love his not unattractive voice or loathe it. Honestly, the voice itself was not the problem; it was the manner in which it was wielded.

I have more-or-less the same view of Herlitzius’ Kundry, although histrionically she was leaps and bounds ahead of her partner. Her basic problem was in controlling a voice that fluctuated in every direction at once. That long and grueling second act sequence with Parsifal, where the temptress tries every trick in the book to seduce this ignoramus of a boy, displayed the sheer abandon this creature of antiquity had in her possession. It was Kundry’s only armor, her sole defense against her wicked master Klingsor’s machinations — and Evelyn let it all hang out.

In that respect, Herlitzius shaped this Kundry very much in the Rysanek mold. Yes, it was thrilling in the extreme; yes, she scaled the heights of music and drama; and yes, it was inconsistent and tiring on the ears. Her trips above the staff grated at times, but from chaos a definite character emerged. As an actress, Herlitzius mowed down her rivals. As a singer, well, about the best we could say was that she was the original Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s remarkable take on Strauss’ eponymously titled masterwork (see the revival below).

Elsewhere, in Europe, she has been a striking Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which bodes well for future assignments in this repertory. Speaking of the evil Klingsor, Evgeny Nikitin’s black-as-night villainy continued to hold sway, his very features bathed in stage blood in conformance to director Girard’s vision.

Italian, Anyone?

On the Italian front, spinto tenor Michael Fabiano made for an outstanding Rodolfo in the February 24 broadcast of La Bohème, which also starred the Met’s latest workhorse, Sonya Yoncheva, as Mimì. Lucas Meachem was a heart-on-sleeve Marcello, and Matthew Rose a basso profundo Colline. Alexey Lavrov excelled as Schaunard, the ever-popular Susanna Phillips pitched her patented reading of Musetta (a thrice familiar interpretation) to the stands, and that veteran scene-stealer Paul Plishka did double duty as the tipsy landlord Benoit and the cuckolded sugar-daddy Alcindoro. Marco Armiliato lit up the Met Orchestra from the pit, despite some coordination problems with the on-stage chorus.

Not much to be said for the next Puccini work, Madama Butterfly on March 3. Headed by soprano Ermonela Jaho and accompanied by tenor Roberto Aronica as Pinkerton, Roberto Frontali as Sharpless, and the always-dependable Maria Zifchak as Suzuki and Tony Stevenson as Goro, this was a routine performance of the lavish Anthony Minghella production.

The March 10 broadcast of Rossini’s rarely heard Semiramide had already been cut to ribbons by critics who complained of similarly egregious snips to the score and the depressingly snail-like pace of the venture as a whole. The only, and I do mean only, saving graces were the fine coloratura singing of Mexican tenor Javier Camarena and the sepulchral sounds that emanated from bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.

Michaela Schuster as Klytaemnestra & Christine Goerke as Elektra

Strauss’ Elektra (speak of the devil) on March 17 featured, among others, a completely individual interpretation of the title role by that formidable American soprano Christine Goerke. Vastly different from her predecessor Nina Stemme’s view, Goerke’s rock-steady ranting and monumental depiction of the tragic heroine had some solid foundations. Boasting an immense voice of comparably Wagnerian proportions, her soul-searching, compelling performance anchored an excellent supporting cast, which spotlighted some telling moments throughout this 100-minute work.

Of particular interest was Elza van den Heever’s vulnerable Chrysothemis, sung with womanly warmth and distinguished by its slimness and variation from Goerke’s more potent instrument. There was no difficulty at all telling the two sisters apart. Michaela Schuster was a Klytämnestra of notable presence, a psychologically warped interpretation that somehow made one relate to this harridan’s dilemma.

As Elektra’s brother and chief rescuer, Mikhail Petrenko’s Orest profited from his richer, more varied delivery than prior interpreters in this part. When the brother-sister duet is given complete (as it was here) this all-too-brief episode gains immeasurably; it rises or falls, depending on the artists involved. In that, both he and Goerke played against each other superbly.

The same could be said for the cameo part of Aegisth, conveyed with strength by the stentorian Jay Hunter Morris in a welcome return to the Met after too many seasons away. An equally strong secondary cast rounded out the proceedings (we give a shout-out to Tichina Vaughn as the Serving Woman, Susan Neves as the whip-wielding Overseer, Scott Scully and James Courtney as the Two Servants, and Kevin Short as Orest’s Guardian).

It was held together by the rigidity of maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I’m not knocking his tempo choices or his swamping of the singers by the mighty Met Orchestra’s brass and percussion section. I’m just pointing out that I preferred his predecessor’s more measured approach to this score as a whole. Of course, that predecessor happened to be Esa-Pekka Salonen, an experienced hand at symphony conducting and one of tremendous prestige. Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was a viable alternative, although I felt that a few more rehearsals might have smoothed out those overpowering climaxes.

Some of these miscues might have arisen from Nézet-Séguin’s last-minute takeover of the company from disgraced former Met musical director James Levine, who was summarily fired earlier in the season for alleged sexual misconduct in years past. That detestable state of affairs continued to leave a sour taste in everyone’s gut months after these accusations had first surfaced. They sullied what could have been a most rewarding season overall.

Repertoire Your Way to Health

Instead, some slapdash performances resulted, two of them being a lame and bloodless (!) revival of Puccini’s Turandot on March 24 under the baton of the ubiquitous Marco Armiliato; and an unfunny, over-the-top carnivalesque outing of Mozart’s Così fan tutte from March 31, originally scheduled with Mr. Levine in mind, but taken over by David Robertson.

Marcelo Alvarez & Martina Serafin on Turandot

Casting on paper for this Turandot seemed promising, with soprano Martina Serafin as the icy princess and tenor Marcelo Álvarez as the Unknown Prince. The loyal slave girl Liù was taken by Guanqun Yu, Timur by Alexander Tsymbaluk, the Mandarin by robust-voiced Patrick Carfizzi, and the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong by Alexey Lavrov, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes. The ancient Emperor Altoum’s duties were handled by Ronald Naldi.

Trouble started from the start when Álvarez appeared to be having an off day. He completely ducked most of Calaf’s money notes, including the famous high Cs in the Act II Riddle Scene, something I have never heard in all my years of radio listening. OK, one of those notes is an alternative, but the other is definitely called for in the score. On the other hand, Ms. Serafin acquitted herself well as Princess Turandot, although her assumption is a relatively brief one; the same for Ms. Yu and Mr. Tsymbaluk in their respective roles. The Trio of the Masks would have stirred the bones a shade better had the three vocalists been more closely blended — something that additional rehearsals would have remedied before air time.

The less said about the burlesque that Così fan tutte put on for audiences on March 31, the better for all concerned. I must say that British baritone Christopher Maltman, as Don Alfonso, rose above it all with his upstanding stiff-upper-lip interpretation. Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara, a riot in the Met’s disastrous Merry Widow, did what she could with director/producer Phelim McDermott’s circus-like atmosphere, which included a fire breather, assorted acrobats, a sword swallower, and all manner of distracting non sequiturs. Just because David McVicar was able to loosen up Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci with slapstick straight out of vaudeville was no excuse for this sorry mess.

On a higher note, the April 7 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor came off better than expected, thanks to decent casting, a successful revival of this thought-provoking, Gothic ghost story, and the presence of hunky lead Vittorio Grigolo as Edgardo of Ravenswood. We have been watching Grigolo’s career over the years with interest. I remember him mostly for his shirtless Cassio in Willy Decker’s spare reading of Verdi’s Otello from the Teatro Liceu, with José Cura as the Moor. Soon after, the steadily improving artist made a film version of Verdi’s Rigoletto with Plácido Domingo (in his baritone guise) as the hunchbacked jester and Grigolo as the womanizing Duke of Mantua.

Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti & Vittorio Grigolo in Lucia di Lammermoor

It goes without saying that the Italian-born Grigolo was the star attraction of Saturday’s Lucia broadcast: his elegantly assayed Edgardo was thrilling in its vitality and passion, as well as lovingly enunciated in perfectly phrased Italian. High notes were there in spades, but remained part of the drama. There was a noticeable correlation between what the artist was singing and how he transmitted those feelings via his golden-throated expressions on the stage. His was another performance that belonged in the record books.

It is hard — nay, impossible — to imagine that such a singer, had he been part of the so-called Golden Age at the Met, would have been able to accomplish this feat had his prima donna been someone of Lily Pons’ ilk. As most knowledgeable opera fans are aware, Pons had the nasty habit of insisting that the tenor’s stirring scena ed aria in Act III be cut from the performance. Thus, Lucia would end with the ditzy damsel’s Mad Scene. Finito and Kaput! Scandalous and sacrilegious, I say, but that was par for the course back then. Aren’t you glad those “good old days” are over?

If only the other cast members were up to Grigolo’s sterling example. Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti (the Mariotti portion of her surname was added when she married Italian conductor Michele Mariotti) took the challenging name part. Mushy diction was the order of the afternoon. She even flubbed her final high note, but within the confines of the story I guess this Lucia went cuckoo long before they called it a matinee.

Good old-fashioned barnstorming, then, came from her partners, Massimo Cavaletti as Enrico Ashton and Vitalij Kowaljow as Raimundo. Gregory Schmidt made a real character out of Normanno, as did a solidly-voiced Mario Chang (impressive as Narraboth in last season’s Salome) as the hapless Arturo Bucklaw. Roberto Abbado gave Signor Armiliato a break by ably leading the Met Orchestra.

The over-achieving Señor Domingo was the attraction in extremis of the April 14 transmission of Verdi’s rarely heard Luisa Miller. Melodically flavorful, with a ripe dramatic context, fine scoring, and a healthy mixture of solo voices, this Verdian version of Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) became the talk of the town back in 1968 when Attilio Colonnello’s production first made the rounds. It served to boost the budding careers of both soprano Montserrat Caballé and baritone Sherrill Milnes (then only into their third season at the Met), and gave a new spring to the step of veteran tenor Richard Tucker, who experienced an autumnal rebirth as Rodolfo. Fausto Cleva was the seasoned conductor.

Sonya Yoncheva & Placido Domingo in Luisa Miller

But this late-season revival of the Elijah Moshinsky production needed more sparkle, especially with a dry and over-the-hill Mr. Domingo as Miller, Luisa’s father. The role demands the vocal richness and dramatic fireworks of a true, dyed-in-the-wool baritone (i.e., such as Milnes, Cornell MacNeil, Vladimir Chernov, Renato Bruson, and Leo Nucci), something the once and future tenor was unable to achieve. He simply sounded too much like the tenor that he was, and not the baritone that he wanted to be. His acting, however, was splendid, which salvaged the performance.

As Luisa, the Maria Callas-sound-a-like Sonya Yoncheva portrayed a character with gumption, but few distinctions. The bass pairing of Dmitry Belosselskiy as the villainous Wurm (egad, what a moniker!) with Alexander Vinogradov as Count Walter struck a chord with listeners, and tenor Piotr Beczała let his fine, rich voice ring out with thrilling vibrancy, in particular with the popular aria, “Quando le sere al placido.”

Mezzo Rihab Chaieb as Laura (she sang Lola in the Met’s Cavalleria Rusticana) was wasted in the under-developed part of Rodolfo’s fiancé. There was some fine orchestral playing under Bertrand de Billy’s baton, but otherwise this performance failed to catch fire.

We’ll save the best for last in our next post about the broadcast premiere of another rarely heard work, Massenet’s Cendrillon.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lust in the Stage Dust — The Fire and Brimstone of ‘Tosca’ and ‘Trovatore’ (Part Two)

No One Knows What It’s Like to Be the Bad Man

Quinn Kelsey as bad guy Count di Luna (L.) faces off against Yonghoon Lee (Manrico) in Act II, scene ii, of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Met

A little less than half a century separates Puccini’s Tosca from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. And there could not be two more dissimilar works in the repertoire than these. With that out of the way, the above operas, considered standards by just about everyone, do have one thing in common: a magnificent villain.

Ah, yes, the villain, the proverbial “bad guy.” As the old Who song goes, “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man.” But what motivates these fiends? What gets them to do what they do? And is everything they do really all that bad?

Granted, there are countless bad women around. In fact, opera is littered with a wide variety of seducers, gypsies, jealous princesses, tempestuous divas, and evil queens. Mezzos and contraltos are the primary recipients of this category, but sopranos can be just as mean and ornery as their lower-voiced counterparts. Still, why are most male villains given to baritones, while the so-called “good guys” are invariably tenors?

These are primarily the province of the composer, but certain caveats apply in casting for these parts, i.e., a few operatic rules of thumb to remember. Take, for instance, the notion that higher voices tend to be sympathetic to listeners’ ears, while lower ones have the air of authority about them. In opera, that authority can be used for either honorable or deceitful purposes, hence the manly sound of a baritone. Basses also tend to be authority figures: fathers, priests, judges, gods, even demons. And yes, they too suffer the indignity of villainy.

Vittorio Grigolo, as the painter Cavaradossi & Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via AP)

Nevertheless, when people think of treachery in opera, that designation falls to the baritone of the species. But what inspires Scarpia to be the most despised character in all of Puccini? The answer has been provided by Sardou, the author of the verbose five-act French play on which Tosca is based. We know from the playwright that Baron Vitellio Scarpia is a quasi-historical figure — a nobleman and a Sicilian by birth; and a successful keeper of the peace, if also an especially ruthless one.

According to the inventive Sardou, whose philosophy was to provide the public with “the well-made play,” Scarpia was charged with arresting the aristocratic Cesare Angelotti, who had a brief fling with a young girl he met in Hyde Park, London, of all places. Much later, that girl turned out to be Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Naples. And Lady Hamilton had close ties to Queen Caroline of Naples, Scarpia’s patroness.

In order to cover up her friend’s youthful indiscretion, the Queen ordered the chief of police to keep Angelotti under lock and key. Not only was Angelotti a potential squealer, he was also violently opposed to the monarchy, having been deposed as Consul to the short-lived Roman Republic (Cavaradossi spells this out early in Puccini’s Act I). His escape from prison adds a high degree of immediacy to Scarpia’s job of recapturing Angelotti or face humiliation and loss of his authority.

As for Cavaradossi, he too was sympathetic to and in league with the revolutionaries of his day, and therefore bore close watching. His association with Angelotti, the fact he was painting a portrait of the ex-Consul’s sister (whom Scarpia once tried to seduce), and his open affair with the flamboyant Floria Tosca, the darling of the highborn court, brought increased suspicion and vigilance. Ever on the lookout for a weak spot in the opposition, Scarpia endeavors to use Tosca as a way of getting to Cavaradossi, who he knows is harboring an escaped fugitive from justice, Angelotti. Urgency, then, is the leading motive for Scarpia’s viciousness, which allows him further leeway both as a corrupt official and a sexual deviant.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca brings candles to light the corpse of Scarpia (Zeljko Lucic) at the Met Opera

In Trovatore, Count di Luna appears to be the de facto antagonist. However, his father, the elderly Count, was the REAL instigator of the plot. You see, years before the story opens old man Di Luna had a woman burned at the stake as a witch. This witch, who was accused of placing a curse on one of the old Count’s two young sons, also happened to be the gypsy Azucena’s mother. In defiance of the old codger, Azucena crept into the sons’ bedroom and stole the infant Manrico from his crib. With her own mother in full view, Azucena threw the lad into the ensuing bonfire.

As it turned out, Azucena’s act had a fatal flaw. In her blind quest for revenge, she had inadvertently tossed her OWN child into the flames (she must have been absolutely delirious at that point to have made such a mistake). The old Count, upon hearing of the kidnapping, fell ill and eventually died from remorse. But before his death, he asked his only surviving son (the present Count di Luna) to swear an oath to keep searching for his lost brother.

Meanwhile, once Azucena had come to her senses and realized she had murdered her own flesh and blood, the gypsy vowed to wreak vengeance on the surviving Count by using Manrico as a means toward that end. So what’s the catch? Manrico has no idea that HE is Count di Luna’s brother.

See how “complicated” this gruesome tale can get?

Count di Luna (Kelsey) has the gypsy Azucena (Anita Rachvelishvili) arrested in Act III, scene I, of Il Trovatore

One of the many criticisms thrown at Trovatore’s plot has been the convoluted stories its characters attempt to tell, associated mostly with melody-driven narratives. Most of the incidents depicted in these narratives take place, or have already taken place, out of the audience’s sight — which makes the opera a challenge to present, and the staging of paramount importance. The Met Opera’s 2009 production, directed by David McVicar and revived by Daniel Rigazzi, solves many of these issues with a revolving set (courtesy of Charles Edwards) that makes for swift transitions from one group of characters to another.

The first narrative, related by the family retainer, Ferrando, who served under the old Count and is presently in the service of Count di Luna, begins the opera proper (“Di due figli”); the second, expressed with passion by Leonora, the beautiful heroine enamored of the troubadour Manrico (“Tacea la notte placida”), occurs in scene two; the third, as told by Azucena (in her Act II, scene one narrations, “Stride la vampa” and “Condotta all’era in ceppi”) of how she mistakenly threw her child into the inferno; the fourth, in Manrico’s retelling of his encounter with Di Luna (“Mal reggendo”), follows in the same scene; the fifth, with Count di Luna (Act II, scene two) in his cantilena, “Il balen del suo sorriso,” conveys his undying ardor for Leonora; the sixth (Act III, scene two), belonging primarily to Manrico (“Ah, sì, ben mio” and the rousing “Di quella pira”), goes from one extreme (tender avowals of love) to the other (outright swagger and bombast); and the seventh and final narrative, in Act IV, scene one (“D’amor sull’ali rosee” and the frequently cut, “Tu vedrai che amore in terra”), are expressions of Leonora’s desperation to save Manrico from his impending execution.

Stefan Kocan as Ferrando starts things off with a ghost story in Act I, scene i

Gee whiz! With so much singing and loving and cursing and despairing, when does the villain have time to be a villain? That’s easy: whenever he appears. Di Luna is one of opera’s most cherished scoundrels. He’s given plenty of opportunity (as the late, great Russian divo Dmitri Hvorostovsky was accustomed to doing) to show off his machismo; to display what mettle he has in the voice, and what determination he embodies in convincing the prima donna that he’s the man of her dreams.

Good luck with that!

No matter how handsome he may be, how brilliant he is with small talk, how tall or how charming, or how good he is with the sword, Leonora simply cannot accept this fellow as her match made in heaven. Di Luna does have a bravura aria to sing, the aforementioned “Il balen del suo sorriso” – translated as “The flashing of her smile.” The tessitura lies high up in the baritone’s extreme range, making it difficult to sustain the melodic line without undue effort. Only the best of the best can pull this number off.

But that’s not all. While the Count pours his heart out to her, practically begging the light of Leonora’s gaze to chase away the tempest of his heart (mercy me!), the cabaletta section that follows is even more daring in his plea for death to come swiftly; the joy that awaits him can only be reached in heaven. In vain, a hostile God — no, not even God himself — can steal her from him.

A villain with a heart! Does this sound like a bad man to you? Why, for all we know he could be a teenager in love! The words are so bold and forthright, so poetic and refined. But the soprano is in love with the tenor (who else?), case closed. And this tenor, whose name is Manrico, has a certain way about him. He strums his lute to songs of love. His unseen entrance in Act I, scene two, encompasses a serenade, “Deserto sulla terra,” the main melody of which he repeats later on when Manrico is locked up in the prison tower during the Act IV Miserere.

No matter, the baritone re-emerges in Act IV with orders that Manrico be put to death by the axe, his mother to be burned at the stake. In the ensuing scene, he wonders aloud if in ordering their deaths he has not gone too far. Could the love of his life be doing this to him? Leonora accosts him and pleads for mercy for her lover. The Count is adamant: nothing doing! Ah, but Leonora has a trick up her sleeve: she offers herself to him. (In this, Leonora shares a kinship with Tosca, who acquiesces to Scarpia’s demands by offering her body in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life, only to kill the villain as he tries to ravage her person.)

Count di Luna cannot believe his good fortune. Will she keep to her word? Yes, she swears it. In many productions, Leonora turns her back to the villain and swallows a vial of slow-acting poison. She mutters to herself that the Count will indeed have her cold, lifeless body, as promised. Librettist Arrigo Boito and composer Amilcare Ponchielli would more-or-less re-enact this episode (albeit in more violent fashion) for the shocking ending to their grand opera La Gioconda, a precursor to verismo as well as Puccini’s Tosca.

Speaking of shock endings, the climax to Trovatore comes about quickly and inexorably. Confronting Manrico, Leonora tells him to leave, but she will not be accompanying him. What? Life without you? Are you insane? No, not insane, just desperately in love. Manrico refuses to budge without her. His sense is that she has betrayed him in order to spare his life. He will not run away. Suddenly, the poison takes its effect and Leonora collapses to the floor of the prison cell. As the Count enters, he hears Leonora’s dying words, asking the Lord’s forgiveness.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Azucena (Met Opera)

Enraged, Di Luna orders that Manrico be killed, this instant. As he is led away to the executioner’s block, Azucena awakens and begs the Count not to slay him. Too late! He is gone. The time has now come for a startling revelation: “He was your brother!” Azucena shouts at Di Luna. Then quickly adds, “Mother, you are avenged!” The Count can only blurt out his pathetic last line: “And I live on!”

Now we know what it’s like to be the bad man! At least Scarpia went down fighting. He deserved his fate, but this poor guy? We think not.

It’s the Casting That Counts

To experience the emotions of the characters that Verdi and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, had envisioned for Il Trovatore (keeping in mind that Cammarano had previously written the librettos for Verdi’s Alzira, La Battaglia di Legnano, and Luisa Miller, along with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor), a strong cast of singing-actors would seem to be the prerequisite.

For the Met’s Saturday broadcast performance of February 3, 2018, Count di Luna would be taken by Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey, the lady-in-waiting Leonora by Cleveland native Jennifer Rowley (in place of the indisposed Maria Agresta), the stalwart hero Manrico by Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, Azucena by mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili from the former republic of Georgia, and Ferrando by Slovakian basso Štefan Kocán. Sarah Mesko sang Ines, Edward Albert the Old Gypsy, David Lowe the Messenger, and Eduardo Valdes the part of Ruiz. Marco Armiliato, himself replacing the previously announced James Levine, conducted the Met Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

Let’s start with maestro Armiliato, whose older brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared with the company. An expert hand at Verdi, Puccini, and most of the Italian repertoire, Signor Marco filled in for one of his mentors, the now disgraced Mr. Levine. It’s been that kind of season, people. That he was able to lead the orchestra with another substitute on hand, the effervescent Ms. Rowley, for the revival of a major repertory piece, and still keep a cool head about him, speaks loudly for his work ethic and professionalism.

Keeping the correct tempos and marking time to Verdi’s deceptively simple scoring is a major task in itself. There have been few conductors in the past who’ve enlivened Trovatore to acclaim. Arturo Toscanini was one of them, Herbert von Karajan was another. Zubin Mehta yielded positive results in his RCA Victor complete recording of the work, as did Levine in his various recorded versions. But pacing Trovatore is no walk in the park: lots of stops and goes, lots of rests and reposes, and definitely too much of what smacks of “oompah-pah-pah” bandmaster music.

What helped is that this production had at one point opened up standard cuts that have been the curse of this opera since it first premiered. Repetitions, unheard cabalettas, and snatches of phrases normally carved away were reinstated, for the most part (though the company is starting to slacken a bit from this policy). I’m still ticked off by the shearing off of “Di quella pira.” Come on, Met Opera! Let’s hear the whole thing, shall we? Why only one stanza of this sure-fire audience pleaser? Maybe Yonghoon Lee, our Manrico of the afternoon, was having an off day, so an accommodation was called for? I don’ think so. From what I heard, his Del Monaco-like timbre and high volume outpourings could have managed it handily.

Yonghoon Lee as Manrico rallies the “troops” in Act III, scene ii, of Il Trovatore

In fact, Mr. Lee hardly sounded strained at all. I did notice that dynamic levels veered sharply from a near whisper to a huge bark. His softest passages were reserved for a respectable “Ah, sì, ben mio,” along with some coarsening of his basic sound in a bludgeoning-of-the-ears delivery of “Di quella pira” (he did NOT hit high C, I’m sorry to note, but took the number a half- or whole-tone down). Too, Lee’s emulation of the great dramatic tenor Mario del Monaco has been observed by other online critics. So it’s not just my impression, but the impression of many that Lee has been carving out a career for himself as a spinto. Nice work if you can get it!

Still, the young performer Jennifer Rowley was the real star of this broadcast. She held on to her top notes for all they were worth, yet managed to convey a strikingly lifelike portrait of a woman in dire distress. Leonora’s agitation and eagerness to resolve her plight came through loud and clear. Rowley gave a rousing rendition of the lady-in-waiting’s first act aria; she sounded even better in Act IV, where she regaled the audience with the rarely heard “Tu vedrai che amore in terra.” But the higher up she went the less focused her basic sound became. Ms. Rowley came to attention via another substitute performance: in Franco Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac with tenor Roberto Alagna. I would advise caution, at this early stage in her career; to be a shade more restrained lest her ability to please the public be spent too quickly and too soon.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley as Leonora, wearing her lover’s green frock coat: Act IV, scene i, of Il Trovatore

As the harried gypsy woman Azucena, Anita Rachvelishvili (what a mouthful) chewed the scenery brilliantly. She might have been aiming her potent mezzo high up into the gallery, but I had no problem relating to her all-out emoting. While this was her role debut at the Met, I too have some advice for this budding artist: you have an incredibly flexible and multi-hued vocal apparatus. Use it wisely for dramatic purposes, and not only to please the crowd. Your acting abilities, from what I gathered of the glowing reviews, serve you well. We could stand more of your powerful vocal thrusts, but please do so at the service of the composer and of the character you are interpreting.

Take a lesson from some of your illustrious predecessors: Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, and Fiorenza Cossotto. And from the former Soviet Union, pay close attention to Elena Obraztsova and Olga Borodina. They each had something to say about how to play these parts to the best of one’s abilities.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Azucena, with her “son” Manrico (Yonghoon Lee), Act IV, scene ii of Il Trovatore

Štefan Kocán poured out his characteristically rounded tones as Ferrando, the first storyteller of the afternoon to be heard, although his basic enunciation of the all-important text left much to be desired. We should be grateful to have a major artist of Kocán’s repute in a role usually given to a comprimario singer. In years past, I have heard such excruciatingly sung attempts by lesser artists that it poisoned the well for others. It’s a marvel to actually hear such a robust sound in this thankless part. After scene one, Ferrando is given brief patches of dialog in Acts II and III, and only ensemble singing in those same scenes. A pity!

And now, for the villain of the piece: the “evil” nobleman Count di Luna. Despite favorable press coverage, given that HIS predecessor in the role was the estimable and still, to my mind, incomparable Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone Quinn Kelsey was incapable of producing a vocal snarl or the equivalent of a sneer and a snivel. So be it! Since I have already made the case that this villain is anything but your average bad guy, let it be said that Kelsey once again impressed me with his noble presence.

I first heard this fine young artist a few seasons back as a substitute Giorgio Germont in the Saturday broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata. He reminded me then (as he did in this Trovatore) of a young Rolando Panerai: superior Italian diction, clear-as-a-bell vowels and consonants throughout his range and at all volume levels, along with attractive tone. So what if he fudged the Count’s high note at the conclusion of “Il balen del suo sorriso”? I’ve been privy to worse-sounding performances in my day — and from some pretty famous folks!

Rowley with Quinn Kelsey (Count di Luna): making an offer she’d rather refuse

True, dramatically Kelsey lacked that “fire in the belly” of the best of his breed. But really, can anyone expect a young and talented singer near the start of what may be a major career to be another Leonard Warren, or Sherrill Milnes, or even a Cornell MacNeil? You’ve got to be joking! So many young “stars” have come and gone, without leaving their mark. I’m convinced, as I was with the likes of Robert Hale, Greer Grimsley, Mark Delavan (who Kelsey strongly resembles), and others, that stardom will come to those who wait; and, most likely, to those who do the work and align themselves closely with Verdi’s music.

It worked for Hvorostovsky, a Siberian-born performer leading an aimless life in a dead-end city, until the day he was discovered — actually, until Dmitri HIMSELF discovered he had the voice and soul of an artist. When that day comes, get out of Kelsey’s way! There won’t be an empty seat in the old opera house.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lust in the Stage Dust — The Fire and Brimstone of ‘Tosca’ and ‘Trovatore’ (Part One)

Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi & Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca in rehearsal for David McVicar’s new production of Tosca (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Imitation: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Lately, Scottish opera and theater director Sir David McVicar has been serving as a viable alternative to Franco Zeffirelli and other directors as the production designer of choice at the Metropolitan Opera. This season, the Met has staged new productions and revivals of several of Mr. McVicar’s directorial efforts, including back-to-back broadcasts of Puccini’s Tosca on January 27, 2018, and the February 3rd radio transmission of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

It is fascinating to note that at one time, Verdi had shown an inclination to tackle French playwright Victorian Sardou’s five-act tragedy La Tosca, but due to his advanced age decided against it. A rival composer, Alberto Franchetti, under contract to music publisher Giulio Ricordi, was tricked into giving up the rights to the play by both Ricordi and Puccini, the fellow who ultimately wrote the score. They were aided and abetted by librettist Luigi Illica, who had submitted a working scenario of the piece.

Along with his co-librettist, poet Giuseppe Giacosa, the duo sliced and diced, as well as pruned away vast quantities of expository dialogue from the overly-wordy play. The final draft, excluding a long-winded third-act ode to art for Cavaradossi, formed the gist of the libretto we know today as Tosca. Puccini’s music reflects the rapid nature of the plot, which takes place over a 24-hour period.

The opera proper begins with the thunderous three-note chords of the brutal Baron Scarpia’s motif. Some listeners, including this writer, feel there are actually five notes attached to his theme. Nevertheless, it’s a forceful beginning to a speedily advancing story line — the better to put aside the eccentricities of the plot, which skirts the fringes of the obvious and outlandish.

At the start of Tosca, there were extraneous stage noises and grousing from the strong-voiced baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan. His mumbling and grumbling drowned out the lilting rhythmic tune that accompanies his footsteps. Before the Sacristan emerges, however, bass Christian Zaremba had a few words to deliver. He sounded out of breath and at the end of his rope as the escaped political prisoner Angelotti — quite appropriate for someone fleeing the Roman police. Angelotti’s perilous situation gets the story moving from the first minute he is on stage.

Patrick Carfizzi (c.) as the Sacristan in Puccini’s Tosca (Met Opera)

Of course, everyone waits with bated breath for the tenor to make his entrance. He did not disappoint. Italian matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo’s light-voiced, Pavarotti-like timbre was a major plus in his role debut as the handsome painter-cum-revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, a thoroughly romanticized portrayal. But how would he compare to the dark-toned Jonas Kaufmann, who was originally slated for this part until Kaufmann opted out of his contract? Quite well was the final verdict. In fact, Grigolo brought to mind some noteworthy Cavaradossis, including the even lighter-toned Ferruccio Tagliavini, and the much admired Fernando De Lucia.

The raked and tilted stage platform (the sets and costume designs were the work of John Macfarlane) presented a skewed view of Tosca’s world. The period costumes lent authenticity to McVicar’s more traditional touches. French-born conductor Emmanuel Villaume led the Met Opera Orchestra in a most indulgent manner. His leisurely accompaniment slowed the pace in Act I, but picked up immeasurably in the heightened pulsations of Act II, the dramatic and emotional climax of the work.

This was also Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva’s role debut as Tosca. She was a substitute for the Latvian Kristine Opolais, who had dropped out of the production, taking her husband, conductor Andris Nelsons, with her. Nelsons’ pinch-hitter, former Met music director James Levine, also removed himself from contention due to late-inning accusations of sexual assault.

Callas-like, headstrong, and by turns equally amorous and playful, applause greeted both Yoncheva and Grigolo’s entrances. Yoncheva certainly captured Floria Tosca’s jealous nature, and love of life and art, with full-toned abandon. She suggested a more restrained delivery of the text than the norm, although her Italian vowels needed a cleaner and rounder definition. She has the range required and sufficient color in the voice to encompass her character’s mood swings (a frequent occurrence in Act II).

Grigolo was the perfect partner for Yoncheva’s Tosca. Dashing and handsome, he was also good humored. His first aria, “Recondita armonia,” where the painter compares the various features of his portrait of Mary Magdalene to that of his lover Tosca, was superbly realized. He even took the phrase “S’affisa intero; occhio all’amor soave,” during his first act duet with Tosca, in a single breath. I wondered if he was going to make it through to Act III (especially during a potent, full-throttle shout of “Vittoria!” after his second-act torture sequence).

Cavaradossi is taken away after shouting “Vittoria!” (“Victory!”) upon hearing of Napoleon’s win at the Battle of Marengo (Met Opera/BBC)

For her side, Yoncheva was able to get in touch with her inner Callas, turning the spigot on full blast in the opera’s later acts, but minus that singer’s notorious wobbles. And indeed, hers was a Tosca very much in the Callas mold, as the broadcast of Bellini’s Norma involving other artists had earlier indicated (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/casta-diva-bellinis-norma-tries-for-a-comeback-at-the-met/). The late, great diva Maria Callas has been a pivotal role model for young artists for many, many seasons. And she continues to exert a strong pull to this day — more so, when some of her signature portrayals are involved.

Tempestuous and temperamental, with raw emotion on permanent display, Sonya’s middle voice evoked memories of La Divina. I don’t know if this was coincidental or deliberate on her part. However, it may be disadvantageous to Yoncheva in the long run to be associated with the Callas style. It certainly hasn’t been detrimental to her colleague, Sondra Radvanovsky, whose Tosca was the embodiment of grand opera singing (see my review of her performance: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/and-before-him-all-rome-trembled-where-the-villain-outshines-the-hero-puccinis-tosca-on-the-radio/). In so much as they may learn from their illustrious predecessor, at some point both artists will need to forge their own individual identities.

I detected a wobble on her highest note in Tosca’s iconic aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I live for art”). But otherwise, Yoncheva turned out to be a believable diva. This is one of those roles where an opera star gets to play an opera star. (Author’s note: In Sardou’s play, Tosca is coached by composer Giovanni Paisiello). We make note of a curiosity: for the first time in my live listening experience, the short snippet of phrases spoken by Scarpia (“Risolvi?” – “Is your mind made up?”); and Tosca (“Mi vuoi supplice ai tuoi piedi” – “See, I am begging at your feet”) following her aria, normally cut in performance were heard. Lasting no more than a few seconds, it goes to McVicar’s respect for the composer’s intentions, demonstrated in the same director’s Cavalleria and Pagliacci production which restored formerly excised material. This may have been a Met Opera first. Score one for completists!

The Bad Guy You Love to Hate

Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, a substitute for Bryn Terfel, another defector from this new production (this time due to vocal problems), sang Baron Scarpia. He sounded soft-grained in Act I, his notes coming up from below instead of head on. His verbal attacks were mushy and indistinct, and needed a pointedly sharper conveyance of the all-important text to make their effect. He was less impressive in the concluding Te Deum, where Scarpia blames Tosca for making him forget God (it’s all her fault, you know — I wonder what the police chief would say about the #MeToo movement). He needed to dominate the ecclesiastical proceedings, which concludes with sonorous replications of the Scarpia motif, heard throughout the opera in various forms.

Zeljko Lucic as Scarpia, about to sing the Te Deum (Met Opera/BBC)

Fortunately, Lučić was markedly better in Act II, expanding the line and range of his voice and letting it ring out with more abandon and in less opaque a fashion than he had previously. This made his character’s villainy all the more plain. When things started to spin out of control, this Scarpia hurled his threats and frustrations at anyone in sight and in ever-mounting rage.

In his and Tosca’s long second-act duel of wills, Lučić roused himself from his first-act stupor. Transformed into an insidious lecher (the “bigoted satyr” described by Cavaradossi early on), Lučić’s Scarpia enjoyed toying with his quarry, the harried and cornered opera diva, Tosca. He took a divergent perspective from George Gagnidze, his predecessor in the part in the disastrous Luc Bondy production, mercifully put out to pasture. Gagnidze pummeled the opposition in no-holds-barred mode, whereas Lučić took an understated approach. At first, he turned on the charm before revealing his debauched nature. You gotta love this guy!

He did have some trouble with high notes, and was under the pitch throughout many passages. True, the on-air volume levels were frequently adjusted (lots of meddlesome knob turning) to conform to the sound engineer’s taste. This detracted from my enjoyment of the performance as a whole, but did not completely damage it.

I couldn’t tell if Scarpia went off to look at the birds, as the late baritone Tito Gobbi used to complain about at this point in the story. Chalk it up to the conductor, maestro Villaume, who paused at strategic moments in Act II to allow the drama to hit with added force. One example turned out to be the unusually long break before Scarpia’s “E bene?” query (“Well, then?”), prior to Tosca consenting to give him her body in exchange for her lover’s life. The chief of police’s death rattle was exceptionally effective, with both Lučić and Yoncheva responding to each other’s prompts, and Villaume in support of their onstage chemistry. Their battle of wits was the best part of the show.

“This is Tosca’s kiss!” (Met Opera/BBC)

In Act III, Villaume led a marvelously evocative introduction, the woodwinds, double basses, and horns all in concert with each other and contributing to an aural picture of sunrise over Rome. The boy soprano, singing an engaging shepherd’s song in authentic Roman dialect, along with a myriad of bell sounds, each tuned to precisely the ones used in the Eternal City’s churches, was one of several sonic instances of scene painting. Absolutely fabulous! But what dramatic purpose do they all serve? For the reasons behind this musical interlude, we quote from William Berger’s Puccini without Excuses:

“[T]he intermezzo was a stock-in-trade of the verismo school, made indispensable by the success of the intermezzo in Pagliacci and the wildly popular one in Cavalleria Rusticana. The idea of ‘pure music’ was understood  as a component of dramatic truth, another chance for ‘modern’ Italian composers to distance themselves from the conventions of bel canto, and even perhaps a nod to French and German trends in opera at the time.” (Berger, William. Puccini without Excuses, p. 103).

For Cavaradossi’s third act farewell to his lover and his life, “E lucevan le stelle,” Grigolo’s long-held diminuendo, carried out (again) on a single breath of air, was a thrilling yet heartrending moment. The ovation he received afterwards was well deserved. I still find his tenor two shades too light for verismo, but with age and experience Grigolo might meld into a sprightly spinto of distinction.

It was here that I also noticed another deviation from standard performance practice: when Tosca comes to show Cavaradossi the good conduct letter that Scarpia had signed (prior to her killing him), soprano and tenor did not join together as tradition dictates, but Yoncheva alone sang the line, “E al cavaliere che l’accompagna” (“And the gentleman to accompany her”). One is tempted (in Watergate-style fashion) to ask, “What did the composer write and how did he want it sung?” We may never know. But one may be witnessing the dawn of a new era, one where the will of the composer may be taking precedence over mindless “tradition.”

Cavaradossi (Grigolo) faces the firing squad, as Tosca looks on (Met Opera/BBC)

Despite Tosca’s assurances that he will escape death by firing squad, Cavaradossi instinctively senses this will be their final moments together. Consequently, their triumphant shout of “Difonderem!” on high C celebrates the couple’s all-consuming passion for one another, even in the face of his imminent demise. This duet, written sometime in 1899 before the opera’s premiere in January 1900, may remind listeners of the exciting conclusion to Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, which premiered four years earlier at La Scala on March 28, 1896.

The action moves swiftly at this stage to its crushing conclusion. Puccini provides audiences with the final line from the painter’s sorrowful tune: “E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!” (“And never have I loved life more than I do now!”), the Italianate version of a slow-motion march to the scaffold (compare this achievement with one that Hector Berlioz conjured up for his Symphonie fantastique).

Christopher Job provided the wobbly Sciarrone, and Brenton Ryan made for a shaky-voiced Spoletta. Within the context of the drama, and the fact that their boss was the intimidating chief of police, they were perfectly justified in their nervous reactions. Richard Bernstein sang the part of the jailer. In all, this was a most auspicious reading of one of Puccini’s most frequently performed works.

So how did Il Trovatore, another of David McVicar’s Met presentations, hold up? Stay tuned for the next installment!

End of Part One

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes