Diana Damrau

Met Opera Round Up: Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Two): ‘Nabucco,’ ‘La Bohème,’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’

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Set for Verdi’s Nabucco at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Now, Where Were We?

Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Verdi’s Nabucco. The time interval between these two radically diverse works was half a century. Mozart composed his three-act comic masterpiece (a Singspiel, or opera with spoke passages) in 1782, while Verdi completed work on the four-act drama Nabucco in 1842.

Not only were these operas as different from one another as the proverbial day from night, but the lifestyles of their respective creators were equally as far apart. Despite the disparities, Verdi and Mozart were students of politics. All throughout his short life Mozart struggled with his inability to be taken seriously as an artist. Perhaps it had to do with his more playful, carefree nature. On the other hand, Verdi was dead serious from day one.

Who could have foreseen that these two great musical minds might have shared a commonality of thought: the humanist and eternal optimist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart versus the darkly pessimistic genius of Giuseppe Verdi?

They both experienced extraordinary success as well as the deepest sorrow and tragedy. In Verdi’s case, as recognition in the Italian opera world was within his grasp, within a span of a few short years he lost his entire family, comprised of two small children (a girl and a boy) and his raven-haired wife, Margherita. In his own words, Verdi insisted they had perished in a matter of months. This was not so, although biographers have often cited his version of events for its dramatic impact.

We tend to forget in our so-called more “enlightened” times that early childhood deaths were a common occurrence in centuries past. This was why families, whether they had the means at their disposal or not, produced large broods of siblings. In fact, it is not generally known that Mozart had produced children of his own — by some counts, as many as six from his wife, Constanze Weber (some say no more than two). His papa, Leopold, beside Wolfgang and older sister Maria Anna (nicknamed “Nannerl” by Wolfie himself), fathered an additional handful of children, all of whom died young.

In contrast, Verdi sired no more offspring — and by that, we mean legitimate ones. His long-time relationship with a live-in lover, the former singer Giuseppina Strepponi, may have resulted in at least one illegitimate daughter (given up for adoption). Much later in life, Verdi was quite taken with a seven-year-old cousin of his, Filomena, whom the composer rechristened “Maria” and officially adopted as his own.

As far as politics was concerned, Mozart, during the time that he lived and worked in Salzburg, then later in Vienna, may have floundered on many occasions but continued to navigate the ever-changing political headwinds as best he could. Certainly, he ran into the censors; and finances (or the lack of them) were a constant, pressing issue.

It was Mozart’s fondness for living high on the hog, his immaturity regarding money matters and inability to maintain a steady source of income that historians felt contributed to his dire financial condition. They may also have precipitated his decline into a premature death at the age of 35.

With Verdi, who was born to modest means (even though he felt that his family was poor) and blessed with life-long robust health, musical ability, along with shrewdness, thrift and a peasant’s appreciation for cultivating the land, made the Master of Busseto a very wealthy man.

Lucky in life, lucky in art, right? But all that would come later. In 1842, however, Verdi had reached rock bottom. He was commissioned by a fellow called Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, Milan, to write an opera based on the Old Testament monarch Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabucco for short, and the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.

The story goes that after the failure of his 1840 romantic light-comedy Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”), coming so soon after his family’s passing, Verdi had given up the notion of composing as a stable occupation. Running into the impresario on Milan’s streets, the depressed Verdi, in the direst of despairs, reluctantly agreed to take up the challenge of a new opera. He had no choice, when you come right down to it: Merelli had his signed contract, so Verdi was honor bound, as well as legally constrained, to provide an opera for La Scala at the height of its season.

Ever the dramatist, Verdi would later claim that he came back to his hotel room and threw the libretto onto his bed (or a table, in some versions). Miraculously, the pages opened up to the words “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on golden wings”), the cry of the Hebrew slaves yearning for their homeland. Duly inspired by the lyrics, set down by the librettist and poet, Temistocle Solera (a hell of personality in his own right), Verdi was overcome with emotion — but not enough to do it the proper justice at that point.

The chorus sings “Va pensiero,” the lament of the Hebrew slaves, from Nabucco

He tried to return the libretto, but Merelli would have none of it. Thrusting it back into the composer’s coat pocket, Merelli left Verdi to his own devices. This is a wonderful story, which, in Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s scrupulously researched biography, she does not disprove outright but only questions as to its veracity. The fact remains that Verdi went on to complete the music, and Nabucco, as the opera came to be called and only his third work for the stage, became a tremendous hit.

Verdi’s future lover and spouse, Strepponi, was cast as Abigaille, Nebuchadnezzar’s adopted child. Their father-daughter relationship, fraught with nervous tension and high-flying vocal pyrotechnics, provides a powerful contrast to the prayer-full prophet Zechariah’s messianic musings.

But the crux of the work, and the raison d’être for its continued success, is the emotionally compelling third-act chorus “Va pensiero.” The Robert Shaw Chorale recorded the definitive version of this piece for RCA Red Seal’s Living Stereo label, but any opera company worth its weight in seasonal subscriptions can deliver the goods.

What You Hear is What You Get

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, led by its choir master Donald Palumbo, is one of the finest such ensembles on the planet. It got a stirring ovation at the premiere of Nabucco earlier in the season, with the “Va pensiero” chorus itself getting a deserved encore. No such luck at the January 7, 2017 Saturday matinee performance, which starred Plácido Domingo in the title role, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as the fiery Abigaille, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria (the spelling of these Slavic names will be the death of me!).

Music director emeritus James Levine conducted the Met Opera Orchestra in this Elijah Moshinsky production, with massive sets by John Napier and appropriately classical costumes by Andreanne Neofitou.

No need to tell readers that the opera Nabucco is a travesty of ancient history. It makes nonsense out of the plot, and even imposes on the title character an uncharacteristic religious conversion! Yet the music in this early work is stirring in the extreme. My favorite recording is the first note-complete stereo version on Decca/London, with the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi as Nabucco, and the Greek-born Elena Souliotis (in her finest Maria Callas incarnation) as his daughter. The two make an impressive team, along with Lamberto Gardelli’s expert leadership on the podium. If only Carlo Cava as Zaccaria were of equal worth …

As for the Met’s radio broadcast, I’m a firm believer that Domingo has ventured far beyond his normal capacity as a tenor into the baritone realm. It may be too late for him to ever go back, but I must say that here, his dramatic instincts were far better served than his vocal ones. By all reports, Domingo managed to dominate the stage whenever he was on — even if his resources have now dwindled down to an audible but decidedly low-level caliber.

Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska) confronts her father, Nabucco (Placido Domingo)

As Abigaille, Monastyrska made some imposing noises, although her coloratura needed steadiness and control. Notes poured out of her with a galvanizing wallop, but the dramatic purpose behind them was lacking. A mighty sound indeed! With careful nurturing, she may yet turn out to be a singer worth hearing. For now, let’s say that Liudmyla is getting a thorough workout at the Met’s dramatic bel canto wing. She knows how to husband her resources, which is a better verdict than some of her predecessors received, including the aforementioned Souliotis, whose career fizzled out much too soon, and that of Italian diva Anita Cerquetti in the late 1950s to early 1960s.

We’ve run into basso Belosselskiy before as Silva in the Met’s Ernani. What I said then about his performance goes double for his Zaccaria: an imposing sound, with a pleasant beat to the tone, but not the rolling, booming force of nature of, say, a Boris Christoff or a Nicolai Ghiaurov. Compared to them, Belosselskiy lacked individuality. His soft singing was admirable, but unlike another Slavic powerhouse, the Russian Yevgeny Nesterenko, who practically owned the part (on records, at least), one missed the massive weight of a voice that could rain down God’s wrath on Nebuchnezzar’s head.

In a change of pace, the January 14, 2017 Saturday broadcast of Puccini’s popular perennial La Bohème, in the by-now-classic Zeffirelli production (with costumes by Peter J. Hall), brought out an essentially youthful cast of aspirants, which it well deserved.

Among the raw talents on display were baritone Alessio Arduini as a tremulous Marcello, tenor Michael Fabiano as an especially ardent Rodolfo, bass Christian Van Horn as Colline, baritone Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, veteran basso Paul Plishka in the dual role of the tipsy landlord Benoit and cuckolded old geezer Alcindoro, the lovely Ailyn Pérez as Mimì, and brassy Susanna Phillips letting it all hang out as the noisy Musetta. The opera was conducted by Carlo Rizzi, who knows this verismo terrain about as well as anyone.

While most of the above artists tread lightly over their parts, I was immediately impressed by tenor Fabiano’s bright, lava-like outpourings as the poet Rodolfo. Incidentally, I was also struck by his similarity in timbre to the late Franco Corelli. Mind you, this comparison to a primo tenore of the Met’s unrivaled Golden Age was more than just mere coincidence.

Mimi (Ailyn Perez) tells Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) about herself in La Boheme (Met Opera)

I do not attribute Corelli’s incredible lung power and unmatched ability to coax high notes out at his will and pleasure (when Franco was able to exercise control over his output) to anything that Fabiano displayed. No, it was just that Fabiano’s basic sound, the way he shaped the poet’s words and phrases — most markedly, how he caressed the vocal line by either lengthening it or bending it to his particular purpose — smacked of a growth in artistry I had not expected of him.

The climax on high C of “Che gelida manina” (“How cold your tiny hand is”), the true litmus test for any aspiring lead, was well handled. I sensed only a slight discomfiture in his taking of it. He ended his narrative softly, running out of breath at the phrase “Vi piaccia dir.”

Ailyn Pérez was an appropriately vulnerable Mimì, without erasing the memory of such past luminaries as Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, and Ileana Cotrubas. Soprano Phillips cleared the stage of rivals as a thoroughly bombastic, self-absorbed Musetta in Acts II and III. God help the fellow who got in her way! She powered down noticeably for Act IV, where Musetta displayed her sensitivity for and empathy with Mimì’s situation.

Wherefore Art Thou, Roméo?

About the best one can say for these January broadcasts was that here, in little old Raleigh, we had good weather for most of the month. That was not the case in New York City, my old Met stomping ground. Because of this, I had mixed feelings about the January 21, 2017 transmission of Charles Gounod’s romantic opus, the five-act French opera Roméo et Juliette, based on Shakespeare’s tragic play.

Romeo (Grigolo) & Mercutio (Elliot Madore) are threatened by Tybalt (Diego Silva) in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

Gounod’s 1867 foray into this territory, after his highly ambitious retelling of the Faust legend by Goethe, was a step down in musical-dramatic vitality and distinctiveness but a decided step up in the development and enrichment of nineteenth-century French opera.

This new production, the handiwork of director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan, with costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, choreographer Chase Brock and fight director B.H. Barry, brought back fond memories of a relic from the Old Met’s days on Broadway and 33rd Street. During those halcyon times the company staged this piece with Bidu Sayão and Jussi Bjoerling in the leads. At Lincoln Center in the late 1960s, a production that starred Mirella Freni and Franco Corelli brought out these respective singers’ fans en masse. Perhaps all they wanted to see were Franco’s manly thighs in hip-hugging tights, along with those fearsome high C’s.

Getting more than they bargained for, followers of the contemporary teaming of German soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette with Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo were regaled with his (as per the Met’s sure-fire ad campaign, he was supposed to be shirtless) appearance as an intensely involving Roméo. Grigolo was the hit of the season, and not just for his hunky Roméo, with high notes blazing, sword flashing, and crooning and carrying on to his fans’ delight; he made an especially memorable Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as a brooding, Byronesque Werther in Massenet’s eponymously titled opera.

With a voice to match his strikingly good looks, this was French opera in the raw. Especially endearing were Vittorio’s vulnerability and athleticism. Could Signor Grigolo be the next generation’s embodiment of Corelli? Already he’s been tapped to replace the smoldering Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi in next season’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca. Wait till you hear Vittorio’s second act cry of “Vittoria!” We shall await his presence with bated breath.

Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo) embraces his Juliette (Diana Damrau) at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl)

Damrau, as his Juliette, was recovering from a recent illness which left her out of the dress rehearsal. Still, hers was a peculiarly non-French traversal of this part, one that emphasized the girl’s rapid development from youthful impulsiveness to considerate adult. Her passage work, roulades and coloratura scales were above criticism, so easily did she encompass every facet of her character’s opportunities to shine. Dramatically, she made one believe that Juliette was an over-eager, tempestuously minded sixteen year old who gained in maturity and understanding as the opera progressed. THAT made all the difference.

Her duets with the handsome Grigolo was one of the Met’s most propitious pairings to date. Damrau made equal gains in her prior encounter with Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, in which her partner was the ever-dependable Matthew Polenzani.

Mezzo Virginie Verrez was a quicksilver Stéphano, as was Elliot Madore as Mercutio. His “Queen Mab” air was light and airy, as it should be, yet he showed real bite when the going got rough in his duel to the death with the vengeful Tybalt, played by tenor Diego Silva. Madore showered Met Opera audiences with an ample, vibrant baritone sound of assertive proportions. In fact, his deportment and that of the extras who embodied the feuding Montagues and Capulets betrayed the pervasive influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in the staging and choreography of Gounod’s opus.

One can either praise or revile director Sher for this obvious intrusion into what Broadway does best. There’s no denying it, since Sher has long been associated with the Great White Way (his 2008 Tony Award-winning staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is a perfect case in point). This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the times. Still, I have no doubt that Elliot Madore would make an excellent Marquis de Lafayette, should the occasion arise.

The other citizens of Verona were sung and acted by bass-baritone Laurent Naori, as an authentically Gallic Capulet; bass-baritone David Crawford as Paris; mezzo-soprano Diana Montague (!) as the nurse Gertrude; bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Grégorio; peripatetic tenor Tony Stephenson as Benvolio; and bass Oren Gradus as the grave Duke of Verona. The only cast member who disappointed was bass Mikhail Petrenko as an easily bristled Frère Laurent, his mushy-sounding tones and wavery notes above and below the staff were inadequate for this key character.

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who has spent the last few years in St. Petersburg, Russia, as the principal conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, in addition to his duties with the BBC Philharmonic, drew splendid brass and string playing from the Met Orchestra. This was not a particularly Italianate reading of the piece, but rather an elegantly conceived interpretation —personable, authoritative where it needed to be, yet stylish and enveloping, with just the right amount of Gallic reserve.

If I have mentioned the hallowed name of Franco Corelli often in this piece, it is because his grand style of vocalism and outsized personality are in desperate need of revival on the world’s opera stages. If the likes of the young Michael Fabiano and Vittorio Grigolo have embraced Corelli’s galvanizing stage presence and formidable technique, then more power to them (and to us).

 Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes       

‘Les Pêcheurs de Perles’ and ‘Tannhäuser’ (Part One) — Casting ‘Pearls’ Before Swine and Vice Versa

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Better Late Than Never

Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, with the Met Opera Chorus in Les Pecheurs de Perles
Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) with the Met Opera Chorus in Les Pecheurs de Perles

Why did it take so long for Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles to come to Lincoln Center?

How could the Metropolitan Opera, this country’s most prestigious and enterprising operatic repertory theater — one that has introduced such borderline causes as Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and Iolanta, Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, and Shostakovich’s The Nose — have neglected to revive such a tuneful piece as The Pearl Fishers, as it was known in the U.S., for well-on a hundred years?

How did such an oversight occur and what changed the opera company’s mind about it?

In an earlier post of mine, I suggested that it was the late Francis Robinson, a long-time member of the Metropolitan Opera’s administrative staff and dean of the intermission series, “Biographies in Music,” who had the strongest and most vocal opinions regarding the work.

Francis Robinson (The Nashville Opera)
Francis Robinson (The Nashville Opera)

When listeners wrote in with repeated queries as to when, if ever, The Pearl Fishers would be staged anew, the old Kentucky-born gentleman would grumble and squirm in his announcer’s chair before coming up with a reply. After much hemming and hawing and rifling of his notes, Mr. Robinson would provide a measured response: if an iconic cast, comprised as it was, in 1916, of Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel, Giuseppe de Luca, and Léon Rothier, was incapable of turning The Pearl Fishers into a gem of the repertoire, how could anyone else hope to do so? Besides, all the best-known melodies are heard in Act I, indicating that nothing beyond that peak was worth bothering about.

Oh, ye of little faith! This is one of those spurious old wives’ tales that has been circulated around the opera for as long as I can remember. The main criticism, even in Bizet’s time, was aimed not so much at the composer’s music but at the creaky and trite libretto concocted by Eugène Cormon (the nom de plume of author Pierre-Étienne Piestre) and Michel Carré, which set the story in ancient Ceylon (our present-day Sri Lanka) among the pearl-diving denizens of that island nation.

Despite the drawbacks, the music far outweighs the silliness of the plot and stands out for what it is. Exotic and melodious, with an airy charm and youthful impetuousness, Georges Bizet’s 1863 opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles marked the musician as a bona-fide artist of the first rank and on the cusp of stardom. Of course, this and Bizet’s subsequent oeuvre (e.g., his incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne and the opera La Jolie Fille de Perth) would pale in comparison to his final masterpiece, the four-act Carmen from 1875.

Due to a pre-existing throat condition, Bizet died of a fatal heart attack (he was only 38 at the time) a few short months after Carmen’s controversial debut at the Paris Opéra-Comique. What could have been a major career in the theater was cut short by illness and his premature passing. Had he lived another two or three decades, Bizet might have given Wagner or Verdi a run for their money, and quite possibly have earned him the title of greatest living opera composer.

The young Georges Bizet, composer of The Pearl Fishers
The young Georges Bizet, composer of The Pearl Fishers

Yes, the young Bizet was that talented! Not only was he an exceptionally gifted musician and pianist, but he was known and respected by, as well as mingled and mixed with, many of the era’s most illustrious contemporaries, among them fellow Frenchmen Charles Gounod, Camille Saint-Saëns, Hector Berlioz, Fromental Halévy (whose daughter, Geneviève, became Bizet’s wife), and Jacques Offenbach, as well as the pre-eminent Italian composer of his day, Gioachino Rossini.

However, it was Bizet’s command of the French idiom and the influence of Gounod, Offenbach, and ultimately Wagner that propelled the young composer forward. In Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Nadir’s music at his entrance is doubly reminiscent of Hoffmann’s initial appearance in the prologue to Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. As well, the chorus in Les Pêcheurs, with echoes of Bizet’s Carmen, is given similar-sounding treatment in their introductory passages. Even the ubiquitous French horns, featured prominently in Leila’s Act II solo from Les Pêcheurs, may kindle fond memories in listeners of Micaela’s “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” from Act III of Carmen. Like many composers, Bizet had no qualms about borrowing from himself.

Unfortunately, there was no complete orchestral score for Les Pêcheurs, only the surviving vocal score. Written when Bizet was 24, the version that went into circulation after his death, and that was subsequently published by Choudens, is many times removed from the original. In addition, other editorial hands have altered and rearranged the opera’s music (Benjamin Godard for one, who inserted a new trio at the end). Why, even the work’s most famous and best-loved number, the duet “Au fond du temple saint,” had a much different ending (this one, by Bizet’s hand) that contrasted radically with the familiar main theme.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help noticing that this same theme, sung so movingly by Nadir and Zurga in Act I, could have served as a model for Verdi’s tenor-baritone pairing, “Dio, che nell’ alma infondere,” from his opera Don Carlo, or the Don Alvaro-Don Carlo duet, “Solenne in quest’ora,” from La Forza del Destino. A justifiable and recognizable coincidence? Perhaps, perhaps not.

There are various explanations as to what brought the opera back after so many derisive decades in limbo. But for the purposes of the Met’s revival, an October 2008 article in Opera News, by architect and writer James C. Whitson, made it clear that Les Pêcheurs had regained its foothold in the U.S. due partly to American audiences’ craving for “romance.”

Whitson quotes dramaturg Roger Pines in claiming: “[We] want the music we hear in the opera house to be beautiful. American audiences simply can’t accept much of the repertoire [in European houses], because the sounds aren’t attractive enough to our ears.”

Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) & Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), in "Au fond du temple encore"
Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) & Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), in “Au fond du temple saint”

Fair enough. Certainly a large portion of this feeling comes from the “narcotic effect on listeners” induced by the stirring tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” — paradoxically, the very tune that Francis Robinson had once found so restricting to the opera’s success at the Met.

Additionally, Whitson’s article takes a few well-placed swipes at the common knowledge concerning the libretto’s lack of viability and the composer’s incredible ability to overcome its source: “Bizet shows tremendous skill in building a dramatic scena, providing subtle musical cohesion where recitative meets aria or ensemble. Through the sophisticated orchestration and novel harmonic diversions, one frequently glimpses the shapely form of Carmen.” So there it is.

Whitson concludes his argument by stating, unequivocally, that “It’s a miracle, really, how Bizet shaped [the librettists’] ‘infamous bear’ into a creditable opera.”

So, On with the Show Already!

Much work went into restoring the composer’s original vision, including that stirring tenor-baritone duet and the final denouement, for the Met’s newest presentation of Les Pêcheurs de Perles. The production was directed by Peggy Woolcock, which was originally conceived for the English National Opera, with set designs by Dick Bird and video projections by 59 Productions.

The story’s setting was relocated, somewhat, to a village in the Far East, which still kept the exoticism implicit in the scoring, amid potent reminders of the ravages of the tsunami that hit Indonesia about a decade ago. Was it another of those “modern dress” updates? Yes, but only intermittently so.

Nourabad (Nicolas Teste) & Leila (Diana Damrau)
Nourabad (Nicolas Teste) & Leila (Diana Damrau)

In keeping to audience expectations, the familiar climax to that favorite among record collectors, “Au fond du temple saint,” has also been preserved, the main theme of which gets repeated at various intervals all through the opera — and fittingly so. Bizet was no fool where main themes were concerned. Just give a listen to Carmen’s impressive “Fate” motif, and you’ll know what I mean.

He has also built his scenes in strict symphonic order: first, the main statement and theme, followed by a middle section with variations thereof; then, a return to the primary statement, but more forceful upon its recurrence. Such was the case with the opera’s opening chorus, “Sur la grève en feu,” and the scene of Leila’s taking of her priestess’ vows, which ends with a reiteration of the orchestral introduction. There’s an incredibly vivid second-act storm scene, robustly executed by the Met Opera Orchestra and projected onscreen in a powerful video display.

Moving on to Saturday’s radio broadcast of January 16, 2016, the cast featured German soprano Diana Damrau as Leila, American tenor Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, and French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé as Nourabad — not exactly comparable to Hempel, Caruso, De Luca, and Rothier, mind you, but more than satisfactory all by themselves. The conductor was the noted Italian maestro Gianandrea Noseda, who previously led a masterfully conceived reimagining at the Met of Borodin’s epic opera, Prince Igor, back in 2014.

In as important a revival as this one turned out to be, casting was key. In that, the singers met every challenge head on, so much so that I came away with renewed respect for this beautifully melodic work. If nothing else, it proved beyond a doubt the folly of the Met’s original assessment.

Mary Jo Heath, the broadcast host, mentioned on the air that listeners had not heard this work in a hundred years. That may have been true of the Met itself, but not for this listener. I had previously familiarized myself with The Pearl Fishers’ musical jewels through numerous recordings by such artists as Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill, in their superb and justly admired rendition of “Au fond du temple saint,” and the likes of Alfredo Kraus, Léopold Simoneau, Richard Tucker, and Nicolai Gedda, with Nadir’s benchmark tune (mentioned below).

Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, in "Jes crois entendre encore"
Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, in “Jes crois entendre encore”

To begin with, Matthew Polenzani’s Nadir was the virtual embodiment of exotica in extremis. His dreamy depiction of the Act I aria, “Je crois entendre encore,” was skillfully handled and softly uttered high up in the nether reaches of his range, leading to an exquisite morendo ending whereby the combination of head and chest tone mixed with falsetto (termed voix mixte) was flawlessly balanced and evenly produced. The number is marked pianissimo throughout, and in this instance Polenzani kept to the composer’s directive.

Likewise, Polenzani displayed a melting mezza voce, as well as took the elongated phrases of each verse all in one breath — amazingly done, with nary a hint of effort on his part. That’s artistry for you! The result typifies that mood of “intoxicated surrender,” as Lord Harewood described it in the chapter on Les Pêcheurs in the volume Opera on Record 2, “with which the composer drugs his lovers as with an opiate.” I’ll vouch for that! Bizet also happened to have left the enthusiastic Met audience drugged right along with it, and pleading for more.

The ebb and flow of Nadir’s lilting, trance-like air reflects its undulating rhythm as a barcarolle (mirroring the work’s seaside surroundings), which just about sums up his Act II serenade to his beloved Leila, “De mon amie fleur endormie,” sung with equal facility. Marvelous!

As Leila, the object of Nadir’s affection, Diana Damrau managed the role’s coloratura fireworks with efficiency and ease, tossing off the roulades and scales called for in her extended scene, “Me voilà seule dans la nuit,” much to the public’s delight.

Diana Damrau as Leila
Diana Damrau as Leila

Dramatically, the soprano helped build a solid case for this part, one that’s been too often glossed over in the past by artists with less means of expression and vocal assurance than Ms. Damrau demonstrated. Need we mention that she looked absolutely stunning in her flowing silk robes? Many thanks to costume designer Kevin Pollard for his fine work, and to the Met’s makeup department for those convincing body tattoos.

The work’s high spot was the electrically charged Act III confrontation between a raging Zurga, marvelously voiced and acted by a swaggering Mariusz Kwiecien, and the equally insistent Leila, sung by Damrau. Their sizzling duet, “O ciel, quel trouble,” wherein the jealous Zurga comes to realize how much Leila still loves his childhood companion Nadir, pushed both artists to their vocal and histrionic limits.

Kwiecien chewed up the scenery, as it were, not only with Damrau in attendance but in his extraordinarily lyrical piece, “Ô, Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge,” that came before and that opens the third act. The buildup is the atmospheric prelude that Bizet obligingly provided and the remarkable recitative that comes afterward, “L’orage s’est calmé,” along with the character’s changing moods and reflections on his golden youth.

Damrau (Leila) with Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) in Act III
Damrau (Leila) with Kwiecien (Zurga) in Act III

Though he started the opera off a bit rough around the edges, Kwiecien settled down sufficiently to blend well with Polenzani. Again, both artists took the last line of their Act I duet in one breath, holding on to the climactic note and milking the moment for all it was worth. They were greeted with the warmest applause of the afternoon. Damrau’s real-life husband, Nicolas Testé, looked and sounded properly authoritative in his brief turn as the high priest Nourabad.

In a choir-heavy piece such as this, the chorus is of paramount importance in conveying the mood and flavor demanded by the composer. Donald Palumbo’s Met Opera Chorus was particularly outstanding in this regard, exuding both a physical and tonal force of nature that perfectly fit director Woolcock’s concept of a community in transition.

Even though it was not an acknowledged hit at its premiere, Bizet’s pearl of a stage work was undeniably influential in its heyday. It is speculated that Léo Delibes, a fine tunesmith in his own right, may have borrowed some of its intoxicated airs for his 1883 opéra-comique Lakmé, set in British-occupied India. I wouldn’t doubt it.

We can top that: The Pearl Fishers’ Act II chorus, during that violent storm scene, is almost a line-by-line musical quotation from Saint-Saëns’ future 1877 opus Samson et Dalila, specifically in the High Priest of Dagon’s railing against the Hebrew slaves, “Maudite à jamais soit la race des enfants d’Israël” (“May the children of Israel be forever cursed”), and in the chorus’ interjections.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the French owe Monsieur Bizet a hefty and long-overdue royalty payment. Along those same lines, the Met should apologize for Francis Robinson’s poor evaluation of the composer’s youthful work.

It’s tough to admit when you’re wrong. But after nearly a century of excuses, The Pearl Fishers’ time has finally come. Vive la différence!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Salad Bowl Italian-Opera Style Continues with ‘La Traviata’

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Domingo Takes the Lead from Damrau

Placido Domingo as Germont (AP Photo/Ken Howard, Met Opera)
Placido Domingo as Germont (AP Photo/Ken Howard, Met Opera)

Continuing with my review of the Verdi bicentennial celebration at the Metropolitan Opera, the next broadcast work to be heard was La Traviata on March 30, in Willy Decker’s Salzburg-borrowed production from last year, which premiered at the Met with Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta Valery. For this revival, the German Diana Damrau took on the challenge of Violetta’s formidable vocal range, with Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo Germont, and the famed Spanish tenor (now baritone) Placido Domingo as the elder Giorgio Germont.

For an opera based on Alexandre Dumas Fils’ play and novel, La Dame aux Camélias (“The Lady of the Camellias”) – one that’s primarily focused on the female lead and her transition from worldly courtesan to noble, self-sacrificing heroine – it’s a rare occurrence indeed to have that focus shift away from the soprano protagonist to the tenor, or is it the baritone?

Superstar overachiever Placido Domingo first sang the tenor part of Alfredo as far back as 1961 in Monterrey, Mexico, and most memorably at New York City Opera in Frank Corsaro’s landmark 1966 production with Patricia Brooks and Dominic Cossa. Domingo later took on the role at the Met and other international opera houses. But the part of Giorgio Germont has traditionally remained the property of the baritone.

A high-lying, lyrically expansive role, in the frame of Verdi’s other middle-period creations such as Rigoletto and the Count Di Luna from Il Trovatore, Germont has been coveted by singers for over a century and a half. Some of the finest interpreters in the business have undertaken this short but dramatically/vocally appealing character: from the Italians Mattia Battistini, Giuseppe De Luca, Riccardo Stracciari, Ettore Bastianini, Tito Gobbi, Rolando Panerai, Renato Bruson and Leo Nucci, to the Americans John Charles Thomas, Robert Weede, Richard Bonelli, Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, Cornell MacNeil and Thomas Hampson; along with the Germans Heinrich Schlusnuss, Josef Metternich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Frenchmen Michel Dens, Robert Massard, Ernest Blanc and Ludovic Tézier, Russians Pavel Lisitsian, Vladimir Chernov and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Brazilians Paulo Fortes and Lourival Braga, among many, many others.

I never expected to experience an artist from another vocal category to tackle this part, although I am familiar with the career paths taken by both Renato Zanelli and Ramón Vinay, two versatile Chilean singers who switched from baritone to tenor (and, in Vinay’s case, back to baritone again). However, since 2009 Señor Domingo, whose full name translates to “Placid Sunday” (and who began his professional career as a baritone in the late 1950s) and nearing the twilight of his performing days, has expanded into lower-voiced territory with his assumption of the title role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, followed subsequently by the same composer’s Rigoletto in 2010 and 2011, Nabucco in 2012, and now Germont in 2013.

I can’t speak for Nabucco, which I have not heard, but of his Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra there is much to admire in the earnestness of his endeavors. However, after listening closely to these varied assignments, I find the timbre of Domingo’s voice to be absolutely wrong for both these parts. Boccanegra especially demands an individual of weight and stature, with a sizable voice to match. Ditto for Germont, who represents the authority as well as the key morality figure in Traviata.

Damrau & Domingo in La Traviata (Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Damrau & Domingo in La Traviata (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

As a tenor, Domingo had authority to spare in such traversals as Otello, Manrico, Siegmund, even Parsifal. I’m afraid that, as a late-in-the-day baritone Germont, he is nowhere near what Verdi had imagined. Oh, yes, the tenderness and sensitivity are there, as is the all-important empathy for Violetta’s plight – a plight of Germont’s making, I should add. But the heft and strength, along with the “sound” and substance of a full-fledged lower-voiced singer were simply nowhere to be found. The mere fact that Placido easily reached and attained the role’s highest notes, including some of the unwritten ones, was insufficient for me to justify the Met’s indulgence of this prized artist’s whims. Where’s the challenge in that, where’s the excitement of anticipation? There was none to be had, sad to say.

Please do not misunderstand my intentions, which are not to disparage a beloved singer, one whose career and artistry I have been fond of following with some interest since his 1966 appearance in Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo at NYCO. He has brought much joy and comfort to these ears, as my previous post regarding his Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino clearly noted.

But, as a Latin artist, one who has made his fellow Latinos justifiably proud of his many career accomplishments over the years, I can’t help feeling that Placido is coasting down an artistically barren path unworthy of our time and his efforts. I trust he will take this advice to heart: You are a fine musician and opera-house administrator, Placido, with survival in the opera world and longevity and good health on your side. Please give this foolishness up now, while your public is still behind you.

Diana Damrau as Violetta (Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Diana Damrau as Violetta (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

As for the other singers on the broadcast, soprano Damrau gave one of the best portrayals of Violetta I have heard in a long, long time. Her sprightly vocal personality reminds me of the late Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar, whose classic rendition of the part has been preserved for posterity on the Decca/London label. I was particularly taken with Damrau’s discretely timed pauses in between the repeated phrase of “Gioir!” during the first act “Sempre libera” (“Always free”), where she adroitly negotiated the rapid-fire coloratura with surprising ease and, most impressively, with a spectacular high note at the end. Her superb pairing with both Mr. Domingo and tenor Pirgu earned much praise from a very appreciative audience.

Her Alfredo, Mr. Pirgu, with a smallish though pleasant-sounding voice, still managed to convey the character’s youthful ardor and lovestruck nature to good effect (Domingo should be proud, I think, of this young artist), as well as his quicksilver temper. The voice hardened noticeably above the staff, though, but at least he gave the high C at the end of his cabaletta, “O mio rimorso,” the old college try – even though the result wasn’t exactly applause inducing.

This production, originally conceived to take place in one, long continuous act without interruption or intermission, was divided into two at the Met. By doing this, the momentum and build-up to Violetta’s tragic death are lost, as the Salzburg DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of the opera so movingly proved. Decker’s single-set concept, with an ominous giant clock ticking away what little time Violetta has left to enjoy life, is concentrated around the soprano and tenor – a most innovative plot device, as is the use of two Dr. Grenvil’s, one of who doubles as the personification of death. Chilling!

Montreal-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin held it all together in a most convincing manner, with a performance of subtlety, grace and overwhelming compassion. One thing I admired: he did not race through the proceedings at breakneck speed, as he had done a few years back with Bizet’s Carmen. No, this time out the maestro took his time to make his points count, and complemented the soloists throughout without the drive and thunder of a Toscanini. Instead, I sensed the inner workings of a young Carlo Maria Giulini at play in Yannick’s choice of tempos. As I said, a rare occurrence, indeed!

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Ring-a-Ding-Ding ‘Rigoletto’ – Viva Las Vegas at the Met

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Rigoletto Act 1, circa 1960s Las Vegas (dartmouth.edu)
Rigoletto Act 1, circa 1960s Las Vegas (dartmouth.edu)

Updating the settings of nineteenth century works to modern times is a fairly common practice in many opera houses, particularly in Europe. So it was not at all surprising that the Metropolitan Opera’s February 16 presentation of Verdi’s Rigoletto, an 1851 work I much admire and have mentioned on numerous occasions in other posts, finally got an extreme makeover in debuting director Michael Mayer’s new production.

In this version, the story takes place in Las Vegas around the year 1960, with the action revolving around a glitzy gambling casino, and its principal characters carbon copies of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Here, the Duke of Mantua is Ole Blue Eyes himself, with Rigoletto a cross between the acerbic Don Rickles and the razor-tongued Joey Bishop. The other courtiers – Borsa, Marullo, the Count and Countess Ceprano – are more or less operatic embodiments of Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Shirley MacLaine (or was it Marilyn Monroe?).

Of course, it’s impossible to “see” this latest venture on the radio, but one could “hear” the new story line in the singers’ voices and in their words. I’ll have to wait for the HD telecast in order to express my full opinion as to the visual qualities of this program, but for the most part (sonically speaking) what I heard I liked.

One of the more enjoyable aspects was the manner in which the conductor, a young man named Michele Mariotti, whipped the orchestra into line by coaxing a real performance out of the players. For the first time in my 45 years of listening to this work (live and in recordings), the orchestra was a real character, wholeheartedly taking part in the drama transpiring above. Mariotti made the Met’s musicians snap and crackle at every opportunity, at times speeding along ahead of the plot, at other times slowing down the pace – literally to a standstill.

Another admirable innovation (in this work, at least) was allowing the singers enough room to create an individual personality. Thus the Duke’s swagger was readily apparent, Gilda’s desperation was more prominent, and Rigoletto’s love and concern for his daughter, as well as his fear for her safety, all became part of the framework. My hat’s off to Mariotti for his accomplishment.

This was obviously the director’s plan all along, and it worked like a charm with respect to the players in the pit. However, the stage was another story. Again, judging strictly by what I heard, the singing was a mixed bag – some good, some great, others woefully inadequate. This, too, may have been part of the larger scheme of things: that is, to employ vocalists who could perform their tasks in tune to the new plot.

Zeljko Lucic (ilovfc.com)
Zeljko Lucic (ilovfc.com)

Still, I was disappointed in Željko Lučič’s Rigoletto. To begin with, the Serbian baritone’s voice, reminiscent of Swedish singer Ingvar Wixell in his prime, lacked Italianate warmth. It tended more toward the monotonous. His constant scooping up to notes from underneath was troublesome, while his soft singing became a bit of a chore – he strayed off pitch as often as he was flat. His contemplative approach to the role, one of opera’s greatest singing-acting challenges, while fixed to the director’s vision, did not convince me that his was a true Verdian voice. Just so readers won’t think I’m partial only to Italians, one of my favorite recorded Rigolettos is German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so there! With that said, Željko did fit into the general sonic palette outlined by Mayer. I just wasn’t at all moved by his portrayal.

As for the self-absorbed Duke, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was the very model of a swinging sixties hipster. Strangely, he ran aground in the opera’s most famous moment, the hit tune “La donna é mobile,” running out of breath at the aria’s climax. Despite that minor faux pas, Beczala sang marvelously well throughout, his voice ringing out with abandon, the character firmly in his grip. His Act II duet with German soprano Diana Damrau was a highlight of the show. He even attempted the high D at the end, not easily produced by the way. He also gave us the Duke’s rarely heard cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama,” although it was shorn of the repeat.

Beczala and Damrau in Rigoletto
Beczala and Damrau in Rigoletto, Act 1, scene ii

Damrau gave a superb rendition of Gilda, with fireworks to spare in her Act II aria, “Caro nome” – you know: the one the late comedian Victor Borge used to make fun of during one of his hilarious concert recitals. Beyond the coloratura, Damrau showed real spunk in a role that’s usually too low-key to be effective. No such difficulty here. Damrau was as determined a Gilda as I’ve ever heard. She paid the ultimate price by being stuffed in the trunk of a car, Mafia-hit style.

Incidentally, this version of Rigoletto was given almost note-complete, minus a few snippets here and there (in Gilda and the Duke’s duet mostly). How much beautifully the opera plays, I thought, when it’s presented uncut as this production was. Verdi’s carefully worked out reiterations are lost when these repeats are not adhered to. They make the drama flow in an orderly and logical progression. Cutting them only draws unneeded attention, a nasty practice in the Met’s heyday but mercifully abandoned today.

Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán was a booming, low-voiced Sparafucile, who earned considerable applause for his limitless low F during the conclusion of his duet with Lučič. Otherwise, his diction was mushy. The same could be said for the Maddalena, sung by mezzo Oksana Volkova, who was fine but no more. It’s not her fault the role is so short. Besides, most Maddalena’s make their greatest impact visually anyway. The other cast members, including the excellent Giovanna of Maria Zifchak (subbing for the indisposed Edyta Kulczak), the ineffectual Monterone of Robert Pomakov (he wasn’t nearly as thunderous as he needed to be; he was more mincing instead – perhaps that was the idea?), Alexander Lewis as a pleasant sounding Borsa, Emalie Savoy as a throwaway Countess Ceprano, and David Crawford as her husband, the Count Ceprano, were supportive in their way.

While this performance had its share of surprises – the most pleasant being the reinvigorated and totally involved orchestra reading – the singers needed more time to make a fuller impact. Perhaps a few cast changes later on in the run, or at its next revival, will make this Rigoletto truly soar. For now, not even Ole Blues Eyes could hit that jackpot – ring-a-ding-ding, indeed.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes