James Levine

Met Opera Round Up: Playing ‘Catch-Up’ and Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part One)

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Here’s What We Missed

John Dexter's set for Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
John Dexter’s colorful set for Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

We’re back with more tales of operatic woes. One of them being the record number of missed Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts this author has experienced during the course of the past year.

For a die-hard fan, that may be considered anathema. However life — and not just operatic life — has a way of interfering with the normal course of events. I’ve mentioned this truism on various occasions in the past, but lately it has become the rule rather than the exception. If the current U.S. administration’s mania for cutbacks to funding for the arts continues on the path it’s been threatening to go down, will we even have an operatic life to talk about?

Whatever the future holds, let us deal with the here and now. Looking back at the current season, I can’t breed much enthusiasm for the casting in many of the recent Met Opera radio broadcasts. But before we get into that, let me go over old terrain by playing “catch-up,” as I call it, with what I have heard but failed to report.

Starting with the broadcast of February 20, 2016 of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, I could tell that bel canto, which Maria Stuarda is a prime example of, was much on the minds of listeners. What transpired over the airwaves was a very fine performance indeed of this rarely heard (at the Metropolitan, at last count) cornerstone of the bel canto repertoire.

Leicester (Celso Albelo) tries to spare Maria Stuarda (Sondra Radvanovsky) from Queen Elizabeth's wrath (Elza van den Heever)
Leicester (Celso Albelo) tries to spare Mary Stuart (Sondra Radvanovsky) from Queen Elizabeth’s wrath (Elza van den Heever) in Maria Stuarda

Donizetti’s so-called Tudor Trilogy, comprised of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, has been a showcase for dramatic coloratura sopranos for nearly two centuries. Some of our modern interpreters include Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballe, and Mariella Devia. And the stories (greatly embellished, I might add) of the Elizabethan period, involving King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and Robert Earl of Essex, have been widely depicted in a multiplicity of forms, especially in books and motion pictures (for example, that old 1939 Warner Bros. vehicle The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and the more recent The Other Boleyn Girl from 2008).

Sir David McVicar’s production of Maria Stuarda was staged along the same lines as the previous Anna Bolena, i.e., with drab gray sets offset by stunningly vibrant costumes. In the second part of the trilogy, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky took on the title character, the one who confronts the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, sung by the fiery South African soprano Elza van den Heever in her best Bette Davis mold, and ends up calling her a “vile bastard.” Historically, neither character met, but then there would be no opera as we know it!

Both artists acquitted themselves admirably, but all ears were focused on a remarkable new tenor named Celso Albelo as Leicester. A native of the Canary Islands, where his compatriot, tenor Alfredo Kraus, once hailed from, Albelo scaled the vocal heights in daring if somewhat cautious fashion. Nevertheless, his was the voice that caught the audience’s notice.

At the time, Albelo remarked, to the Latin Post, that he had sung Leicester “at La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and all I was missing was the Met. So to do Maria Stuarda with a composer to whom I owe it all. For me it is a dream.” He went on to indicate that Leicester “is one of those roles that I have found some hidden difficulty. This one has a lot to sing in very little time and the tessitura is high. You need a lot of lyricism in the voice. Sometimes you tend to overdo it and end up going down the wrong path.”

Not likely, for such a budding talent. Albelo managed to tread lightly but securely. His colleagues all put on a commendable showing as well, to include the charismatic baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil and the rumbling bass tones of Kwangchul Youn. While Radvanovsky was the obvious attraction (she looked ravishing and sounded more and more like Callas than ever, minus the wobbles), the other participants showed their mettle, too.

Queen Elizabeth (Radvanovsky) pitches some woo at Robert, Earl of Essex (Matthew Polenzani) in Roberto Devereux
Queen Elizabeth (Radvanovsky) pitches some woo at Robert, Earl of Essex (Matthew Polenzani) in Roberto Devereux (Met Opera)

Another demonstrable vocal showcase was put on with the April 16, 2016 broadcast of the third and final work in the series, Roberto Devereux, starring the incredibly pliable tenor of Matthew Polenzani in the lead, along with his frequent stage partner, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (known as The Pearl Fishers duo), as the Duke of Nottingham. We were also treated to the gloriously sung Sara of Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča, in addition to the tempestuously acted Elizabeth of the Met’s reigning queen Sondra Radvanovsky, who mitigated her opulent tones somewhat to deliver a fiercely competitive sovereign in the twilight of her reign.

What a Lulu!

I started this post off by mentioning that I had missed several Met broadcasts, one of them being the difficult to appreciate Lulu by Alban Berg. Scheduled for February 27, 2016, this was to be the last time that German soprano Marlis Petersen would be assuming the title role in a new production designed by South African artist and director William Kentridge. Kentridge had earlier brought his highly stylized vision for Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose to the Met’s Russian wing. That production featured the versatile Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, whose ancestry is Polish.

Kentridge is the type of artist who loves to push the outside of the envelope. Both The Nose and Lulu share a similar theatrical basis, but the music is what differentiates them. Berg’s final stage work was left unfinished at his untimely passing in 1935. A tawdry tale from the pen of playwright Frank Wedekind (whose coming-of-age play, Spring Awakening, was transformed into a hit Broadway musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), Lulu was derived from two of his works, Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit. Shorn of its third act (a situation shared with another unfinished 12-tone masterpiece, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron), the opera was completed in the late 1970s by Austrian composer-producer Friedrich Cerha.

Alwa (Daniel Brenna) is "hands-on" with Lulu (Marlis Petersen) in William Kentridge's production
Alwa (Daniel Brenna) gets “hands-on” with Lulu (Marlis Petersen) in William Kentridge’s production of Lulu (Met Opera)

Personally, I have a tough time listening to Lulu. I can’t put my finger on it, but this opera leaves me cold, sad and depressed. There is no joy anywhere — indeed the joy of living has been drained from its very essence. It’s a Lulu, all right; one of the most viciously scandalous and thought-provoking pieces ever to enter the modern repertory. And if you think this one is rough going, try lending an ear to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s immensely orchestrated and gigantically conceived Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”), which is even MORE daring and disheartening. But I do digress.

Although I’ve grown accustomed to the defects and virtues of Wozzeck, Berg’s previous output for the stage, I greatly value its harshness and drab realism (one can have actual sympathy for the protagonists and empathize with their plight). It’s the character of Lulu herself that I find most detestable. Sorry, but she’s not my cup of tea.

Lulu meets her end at the hands (or blade, if you will) of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Yikes! Maybe Berg was right to have died prior to completing act three. Some things are better left undone.

Believe it or not, I missed two other bel canto broadcasts: the March 12 performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with the immensely enjoyable Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and the impressive Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as his nephew Ernesto; and the March 19 transmission of Donizetti’s other comic jewel, L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), with the artist of the moment, hunky tenor Vittorio Grigolo, as the country bumpkin Nemorino.

I did catch a moment or two of the March 26 Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) by Mozart, marvelously conducted by Fabio Luisi. However, the sameness in voice and timbre of the two male leads, Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko as Figaro and Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as the Count (“One, two, three, ha-ha-ha!”), made for a bit of bewilderment as to who was singing whose lines. Figaro’s two arias, “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino” and “Non più andrai,” were undistinguishable from one another. More solidity in the low register and a more pointed tone on top — and, especially, a finer sharpening of the words — were called for.

The Joke’s on Us

Blondchen (Kathleen Kim) parries as Osmin (Hans-Peter Konig) thrusts in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
Blondchen (Kathleen Kim) parries as Osmin (Hans-Peter Konig) thrusts in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

The final May 7, 2016 broadcast of the 2015-2016 season, Mozart’s delightful The Abduction from the Seraglio (or, in the unpronounceable German translation, Die Entführung aus dem Serail), under the leadership of the ever-resilient maestro James Levine, was a decided disappointment. In the right hands and with the right artists, this opera can make audiences squeal with glee at its comic antics and ever-so-timely statement about the rights of women in a male dominated world.

The Met Opera’s cast featured soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze (trivia note: she was named after Mozart’s spouse), chirpy coloratura Kathleen Kim as the perky maidservant Blondchen, tenor Paul Appleby as Belmonte, Konstanze’s rescuer, and actor Matthias von Stegmann as the Pasha Selim (the fellow whose harem Konstanze needs to be rescued from).

This always charming, always beguiling work, with its madcap plot and extremes of both comic and dramatic devices — along with its humorous and irrepressible characterizations — lacked spontaneity, even in the gorgeously bedecked production by the late John Dexter. Especially revealing was the slack conducting by Maestro Levine. We were told he had been suffering from the ill effects of recent back surgery, which has been the bane of his conducting assignments at the Met for more than a decade. Take a long and welcome rest, Maestro!

The premise of this piece, something that many viewers and music critics miss, is that The Abduction from the Seraglio, at its core, is a spoof of opera buffa (or “comic opera”). Imagine a huge basso profundo named Osmin — in this case, embodied (literally) by the large economy-sized voice and figure of Hans-Peter König, in a capacious turban and baggy pantaloons — put in charge as the overseer of the Pasha Selim’s harem.

Now here’s the gimmick: this gargantuan guardian of feminine pulchritude was supposed to be neutered! Most such individuals, in actuality, were of African descent and likely castrated upon being given the job, resulting in their massive forms and high, squeaky voices (castration, naturally, would have had an effect on their vocal chords by stunting them). They’re supposed to be eunuchs, people; the reasoning being that eunuchs would be more trustworthy as they were incapable of molesting the “flock,” as it were. Yet here we have a big, booming bass pushing his volume up and down the scale, right into a cavernous low D.

Was this Mozart’s little inside joke, another outstanding example of the Austrian master’s wry sense of humor, and of his going against the accepted grain?

Ah, Wolfie! You are STILL the undisputed master of your musical universe!

(End of Part One … To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Yee Haw! A Met Opera Year-End Round Up with ‘The Barber of Seville’, ‘Die Fledermaus’, and ‘Anna Bolena’ (Part One)

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Some Productions are Best Left Unheard

Almaviva (David Portillo), Figaro (Elliot Madore) & Isabel Leonard (Rosina) in The Barber of Seville (Photo: Karen Almond)
Almaviva (David Portillo), Figaro (Elliot Madore) & Isabel Leonard (Rosina) in The Barber of Seville (Photo: Karen Almond)

There’s a lot happening lately over at Lincoln Center Plaza in New York, as well as right here in our little old hometown of Raleigh. Some events are, by their physical proximity, fairly easy to get to; others are much too far away. But wherever they take place, hearing and seeing opera takes precedence (for this opera buff, at least).

Let’s take the Metropolitan Opera, if you please. Last season, the house was plagued with a relentless flu epidemic that devastated the carefully programmed Saturday matinee broadcasts. One had to keep away at all costs to avoid the virus. The miserable wintry weather was partially to blame. Such as they were, both these unforeseen eventualities left their mark on the casts of several important revivals, among them Bizet’s Carmen and both Verdi’s Don Carlo and Un Ballo in Maschera.

Nevertheless, the shows must and did go on as scheduled. However this season, with a milder than average early winter and relatively pleasant daytime temperatures (that drastically changed this weekend, as we all know), the Met broadcasts have been entertaining for the most part, and without incident.

Still, my own feeling about some productions is that they are better left unheard. By that statement, I mean that the Met Opera’s revival of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, on December 26, 2015 (known in England as Boxing Day), happened to be the company’s sliced-and-diced and everything-is-oh-so-nice, English-language concoction by poet, librettist and literary critic J.D. McClatchy. This is one presentation that, by its very nature and execution, I needed to pass up.

Isabel Leonard as Rosina in The Barber of Seville
Isabel Leonard as the minx Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville

Having written at length about this version in a prior post (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/opera-review-the-barber-of-seville-in-english-shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits/), and blown my own gasket over its egregious cuts to such sure-fire elements as Don Basilio’s “La calunnia” and those marvelously timed Rossinian ensembles, I can only state the obvious: this is no way to woo young audiences over to opera.

With that bit of frustration put to rest, let me add that Rossini’s masterpiece is easily and without reservation his most admired work by far. It’s been in the public eye for well over two centuries, and has lost none of its sheen or its ability to gladden the ear and lift the spirit with those sparklingly inventive melodies.

The Barber has firmly established itself as a paean to popular culture, with Figaro’s entrance aria, “Largo al factotum” (“Make way for the jack-of-all-trades”), having long ago joined the ranks of Carmen’s “Habañera,” Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” and Alfredo and Violetta’s “Brindisi” as the most frequently played of operatic numbers.

Our own North Carolina Opera will be staging The Barber of Seville this coming April 2016, which I will be very much looking forward to attending. If it’s anything like the NCO’s successful run of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it will surely be a hit. Readers can be assured of a much longer treatment and review when the time comes. For now, I’ll refrain from further comment.

I do want to mention the Met’s radio cast, which included the resourceful Rosina of Isabel Leonard (she’s made a career out of this part, along with the trouser role of Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), tenor Taylor Stayton as Almaviva, baritone Elliot Madore as Figaro, bass Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo, and bass Robert Pomakov in what was left of the reduced role of Don Basilio. Anthony Walker was the conductor in Bartlett Sher and Michael Yeargan’s colorful production.

A “Bat” Not Worth Taking

Susanna Philips (Rosalinde) & Paulo Szot (Falke) in Die Fledermaus
Susanna Phillips (Rosalinde) & Paulo Szot (Falke) in Act II of Die Fledermaus

One opera I missed last year, but this time got to hear in full was the live January 2, 2016 broadcast of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, in another English-language presentation translated by producer Jeremy Sams (lyrics) and Douglas Carter Beane (dialogue). Well, I asked for it.

For the background and plot of this riotous work, please see my previous review of this production when it was new (follow the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/). Suffice it to say, I am far from waxing enthusiastic over this piece. Although it was a favorite of Old Vienna and neighboring venues in its glory days, the forced sentiments and comedic double-dealings (including outright attempts at cuckolding) are somewhat passé by modern standards. You’ll find about as much if not more dirty laundry by tuning into any episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

In any case, the Met put its best foot forward by having their beloved music director, the ailing maestro James Levine, preside on the podium. The move, in my view, was strictly overkill. His legendary care and accustomed expertise was in no way challenged by the frothy, more lighthearted requirements of Die Fledermaus. We’re not talking Wagner here, or Richard Strauss (no relation to Johann) or Mahler, nor even Schoenberg or (heaven help us) Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose unbelievably bombastic and immensely orchestrated Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”) has become in recent years the surprise hit of European opera houses.

But enough about Europe, let’s get back to Manhattan (which, in 2008, mounted a production of Die Soldaten at the Park Avenue Armory) and the broadcast performance of Die Fledermaus, which starred Susanna Phillips as the wacky accident-prone Rosalinde, Lucy Crowe as the chirpy maid Adele, and Susan Graham (always a welcome and valuable commodity) in the walk-on part of Prince Orlofsky, another trouser role.

Ms. Phillips & Toby Spence as Eisenstein
Ms. Phillips & Toby Spence as Gabriel von Eisenstein

On the male side of the ledger, we have pop-eyed British tenor Toby Spence as Gabriel von Eisenstein, Dimitri Pittas as Alfred the Italian singer, Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, the titular “Bat” of the opera, Alan Opie as prison director Frank, and Broadway actor and comic mime Christopher Fitzgerald as the drunken turnkey Frosch. How could you miss with a talented crew such as this? Well, let me count the ways…

Seriously, this was a most distressing affair, topped by a total waste of Levine’s talents. Sure, there were individual bright spots and moments of sheer orchestral delight. But they were few and far between to be effective over the long haul, and clearly unnecessary in a work that tends to play itself. A lively overture and a Ländler waltz or two simply weren’t enough to merit the maestro’s presence. As I mentioned above, this isn’t Wagner, but Fledermaus is a long enough opera to slog through without having to put up with one-too-many dull spots.

Christopher Fitzgerald as rowdy jailor Frosch
Christopher Fitzgerald as rowdy jailor Frosch

Back in the mid-1980s, director Otto Schenk’s tradition-bound production of Die Fledermaus (along with an old-fashioned Ring cycle and an attractively adorned Tannhäuser, which we will soon be hearing) was a clear Met audience favorite. It at least mixed an authentic Viennese flavor with vintage champagne, principally in the New Year’s Eve party and jailhouse sequences. Schenk himself put in an appearance and made a particularly raucous and funny Frosch. But the jokes and hijinks in this American-English version fell flatter than a cheap bottle of imitation Dom Perignon.

At the least, Christopher Fitzgerald got some mileage out of the “inebriated sot” of a jailor, a tired old routine about as old as vaudeville itself. He joined such past cut-ups as Sid Caesar, Jack Gilford, Dom DeLuise, and Danny Burstein in the part. Fitzgerald even offered a bit of leftover schnapps to hopeful audience members, which delivered a goodly number of guffaws from the crowd. Of the two soprano leads, Ms. Crowe got the loudest applause for her stratospheric coloratura turns as Adele, while Ms. Phillips proved the more adept at a flowing cantilena line in the part of the scheming Rosalinde.

However, Susan Graham’s take on the pokerfaced prince (as an Earth Mother par excellence, mind you) left me cold. She appeared wearing a white fright wig, which made her a dead-ringer for Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Well, why not? Orlofsky is supposed to be a bored Russian prince (out of the Eugene Onegin mold, perhaps?), but this sort of cartoonish display can quickly get out of hand (i.e., considering the current state of Hvorostovsky’s health). I’m sure everyone got the joke the first time around. How I long to hear someone as classy as Ms. Graham in a truly praiseworthy part: as Dido again in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, or Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Oh, the pain…

Susan Graham as the bizarre Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus
Susan Graham as the bored and bizarre Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus

Another waste of a talented performer’s time and taste came with Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot’s limited assignment as Dr. Falke. With no major solo to boast of or anything worthwhile to show off this classically trained singer’s artistry, Mr. Szot melted into the woodwork, as did Mr. Opie’s smoothly vocalized Frank and Spence’s veddy British Eisenstein (here excruciatingly called “Gay-bree-ell” by the cast members).

Queens native Dimitri Pittas’ exuberance as Alfred, the lovesick and highly-strung tenor, overcame his apparent struggle with the part’s requisite high notes. Those top A’s poured forth with some effort and were anything but easily produced. He did display a winning comic persona, which was small comfort indeed in what was essentially a not-so-festive atmosphere.

Time to break out that fake Dom Perignon. I’d settle for some schnapps…

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Everything Verdi: ‘La Traviata,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Ernani,’ ‘Don Carlo,’ and Other Met Opera Tragedies (Part Two)

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Scenes from Verdi's Ernani (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
Scenes from Verdi’s Ernani (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

“Ernani, Ernani, Envolami”

Moving on to the April 4 transmission of Verdi’s Ernani, that old flu bug hit one of the major cast members. This time around, former tenor Plácido Domingo, who was supposed to have made his broadcast debut in the principal baritone part of Don Carlo, begged off due to illness.

Instead of a placid Saturday afternoon, we heard the robust Italian voice of baritone Luca Salsi, who had previously sung Enrico Ashton in the March 28 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. About 30 minutes before the start of the show, Domingo felt ill and unable to give his best, so Salsi was called up from the reserves. The other radio participants were tenor Francesco Meli in the title role of Ernani, soprano Angela Meade as his lady love Elvira, and basso Dmitry Belosselskiy as Silva, the supposed bad boy (or old man) of this opera.

Not given as frequently as it used to be, Ernani is quite a tuneful hallmark in Verdi’s oeuvre that can make for a rousing night at the opera. As the composer’s fifth opera (after the highly successful Nabucco and I Lombardi), its solo numbers for soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass are popular concert and recording showpieces, as are the rousing ensemble pieces.

Back in the Met’s Golden Horseshoe and Lincoln Center heydays, such staples of the company as tenors Giovanni Martinelli, Mario Del Moanco, Franco Corelli, and Carlo Bergonzi, along with sopranos Elizabeth Rethberg, Zinka Milanov, Eleanor Steber, and Leontyne Price, baritones Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil, Mario Sereni, and Sherrill Milnes, and basses Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Ezio Flagello, and Jerome Hines, could be heard to their full advantage. While not equaling their stellar attributes, some of our modern-day interpreters included the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Marcello Giordani, Leona Mitchell, Aprile Millo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Thomas Hampson, no slouches in that department.

Alas, those times have long since past. In today’s opera world, few singers are capable of attaining the vocal richness, infectious energy and individuality the above artists were wont to bring to their respective roles. For one thing, there has to be a complete absorption of Verdi’s mood, style, and delivery — a balance of sheer bombast mixed with tonal flourishes. For another, a total belief in the convoluted story line which strains credibility at almost every vantage point.

For the most part, Ernani can be considered an early precursor to Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, and most emphatically Don Carlo in its passion and fervor. These operas are hard acts to follow. However, great singing can surmount the many hurdles; and even greater singers can convince skeptical audience members they are reliving the troubled times of 16th century Spain and France, the settings for Ernani’s plot.

I won’t begin to delve into the particulars of that plot, only to say that it involves, at its climax, a fateful gathering at the tomb of medieval Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (how morbid) and what went on between the protagonists prior to their getting there. Without strong voices and outgoing personalities, this opera goes by the wayside. Given this caveat, how did the Met Opera’s cast do? Passably, if not exactly with a grade of A. Let’s say a B minus for effort and results — no more, no less.

Ernani (Francesco Meli) & Elvira (Angela Meade) emoting
Ernani (Francesco Meli) & Elvira (Angela Meade) emoting

Leading off with the tenor lead, Francesco Meli has carved a solid reputation in Europe, including a well received turn as Jacopo Foscari in another early Verdi work, I Due Foscari, with Señor Domingo as his father.

So, did he finally make it to ovation time? Only tolerably, I’m afraid. There was nothing particularly bad about his singing, and his native Italian diction was perfectly true and clear. The high notes were there but without that last ounce of “ping” or squillo that would excite audiences to their feet; the legato and portamento were carefully crafted, and the voice well-husbanded all the way to the end. I wouldn’t call Meli a tenore spinto at this point, but his basic sound was a pleasing one. So why didn’t he make a better impression on me? As with many singers on the radio, the visual element went missing, and Meli proved incapable of vocally filling in the blanks.

Angela Meade is that rarest of bel canto songbirds, one with a potent stage figure and even more potent vocal resources at her command and disposal. Meade’s assumption of Bellini’s Norma last year was indeed a personal highpoint in her still-rising career. But as Elvira, where the highs and lows tend to recall Abigaille’s vocal lines in Nabucco, I felt she might have been slightly under the weather in this appearance. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve listened to better renditions of her opening aria, “Ernani, Ernani, envolami,” by this same artist at earlier revivals. Dramatically, however, Meade encompassed every facet of the part, if vocally she was a shade below her usually acceptable standards.

Placido Domingo with Luca Salsi before airtime
Placido Domingo with Luca Salsi before airtime

Luca Salsi made a positive impression overall. His previous run as Enrico in Lucia served as fuel for his performance here as the politically minded Don Carlo, who during the course of the plot is crowned Charles V of Spain — the father of King Philip II, as strange as it may seem, in the next work to be reviewed, Verdi’s Don Carlo. That bearded old Bear of Busseto certainly loved those far-flung Spanish tales, even if they were written, in Ernani’s case, by the Frenchman Victor Hugo, and, with Don Carlo, a German named Friedrich Schiller.

Signor Salsi was helped along by the superb Met Opera forces in the ensemble that concludes Act III. His pleasure-inducing reading of Carlo’s Act III scena, where the baritone predominates both at the beginning and end of this moving act, as well as his flowing cantilena line above the chorus won a hearty ovation from an audience starved for excellent male voices.

With the bland Don Ruy Gomez de Silva of Dmitry Belosselskiy, this was not to be. The singer, a Ukrainian basso who’s come up from the Bolshoi Theatre and Moscow Academy to try his hand at this central role, revealed a large voice of some distinction. Lately at the Met, Silva has been taken by Ferruccio Furlanetto, who practically owns this part. Without his experienced hand, the final trio that concludes the opera collapses of its own weight. Superior vocal and acting skills are the minimum prerequisites, items that Belosselskiy, as sturdy as his tones came across over the air, has yet to possess. Perhaps in the future, when we revisit this young artist, there may be some noticeable improvement. For now, final judgment will be reserved for a later date.

Dmitry Belosselskiy as Silva
Dmitry Belosselskiy as Don Ruy Gomez de Silva

James Levine, the Met’s beloved music director and longtime champion of the early Verdi repertoire, presided over the company’s orchestral forces. His contribution on this date was as one would have expected: a solid line, strength and tautness where needed, but accommodating and relaxed when the principals were onstage.

His handling of the orchestra in Act III, in particular the gorgeously evocative outpouring of clarinets and bassoons at the introduction, followed by the delicate interplay between cello and solo baritone in “O de’ verd’anni miei,” and in the moving harp arpeggios of “O sommo Carlo” that concludes the act, were of extraordinary beauty and melancholy. How like a foretaste of King Philip’s reflective air, “Ella giammai m’amo” (“She never loved me”) from Don Carlo, is Verdi’s masterful orchestration here. The conspirators’ music was superbly articulated and forthrightly voiced by the excellent Met chorus.

Though not the best of Levine’s recent assignments, I’ll grant you that, there were many moments of sheer delight and marvel at how much the Met maestro loves this music. Verdi was well served under his superb guidance.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Werther’ and ‘Wozzeck’ — The Poet and the Peasant: Two Big W’s at the Met (Conclusion)

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“We Poor People”

The Doctor and the Captain in Wozzeck Act III
The Doctor and the Captain in Act III of Wozzeck

The Great War, as it was once called, served as the dividing line between the conventions of class-conscious Europeans and the introduction of modern sociological methods into fin de siècle thought. As an example, the resultant jolt that mechanized warfare brought to bear on the lives of the populace henceforth dispelled all pre-war notions of glory and honor in battle.

As previously indicated, 19th-century concepts of romanticism and morality, as they related to literature and art, were already on the wane and began to give way to more a nihilistic outlook overall. Cynicism and disillusionment grew rampant among those who survived the most catastrophic conflict Continental Europe had ever witnessed.

While in literature the elevation of the poor and downtrodden to near reverence was hardly front-page news — Dickens, Hugo and Zola were a few of the outstanding authors whose novels had been preeminent before this period — it was Goya and his provocative Disasters of War etchings, Daumier with his powerful rendering of Rue Transnonain, and Géricault via his monumental The Raft of the Medusa who had previously set the tone for polemically-charged artwork.

Not to be outdone, the advent of realism in opera (known as verismo), with such praiseworthy efforts as Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s La Bohème, Charpentier’s Louise, Massenet’s La Navarraise, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, and d’Albert’s Tiefland, gave notice to audiences that attention must be paid to festering social issues and economic injustice (still a hot topic even today).

This trend eventually brought forth new and artistically viable forms of protest, with expressionism one of the most striking. Having made its presence felt in late 19th to early 20th-century poetry and art, expressionism’s effect on music was elaborated on by German sociologist Theodor Adorno as the “literary ideal of the ‘scream.’” Every work of art, he wrote, “was thus likely to be shocking or difficult to understand. Only through its ‘corrosive unacceptability’ to the commercially-defined sensibilities of the middle class could new art hope to challenge dominant cultural assumptions” (Source: New World Encyclopedia, August 24, 2012).

There is no other opera I know of that challenges our “dominant cultural assumptions” better than Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Once scorned by critics as “the twelve-tone Puccini,” Berg and his atonal compositions (to include the unfinished opera Lulu) have always occupied a shadowy corner of the standard repertoire. Accordingly, his works have earned the unique title of opéra noir (dark opera), an allusion to a type of drama where “the depiction of fear lies at the center.”

Dramatically speaking, we need only consider the much later Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler through-composed vehicle, Sweeney Todd, as a distant but equally perverted relative.

Based on the exploits of a former soldier-turned-barber (again, the Sweeney Todd connection), the Willy Loman-like Wozzeck suffers a constant stream of mental anguish and physical abuse from his so-called betters. Unable to cope with his and his common-law wife, Marie’s impoverished status, Wozzeck lashes out impotently at his tormenters, to no effect.

Wozzeck (Alan Held) shaves the Captain (Gerhard Siegel)
Wozzeck (Alan Held) shaves the Captain (Gerhard Siegel)

Right from the opening scene, the hypercritical Captain rebukes Wozzeck for having had a child out of wedlock, thus questioning his moral makeup. Wozzeck counters with a profoundly moving observation that it is difficult for “Wir arme Leut” (“We poor people”) to have morals without money. At this, the Captain nearly chokes on his own vehemence. It’s a good thing he’s a fictional character. Who knows what he would have said if he’d ever had the chance to meet up with Wozzeck’s promiscuous sister-in-arms, Lulu!

Wozzeck’s signature motto, “Wir arme Leut,” is repeated by the orchestra in the penultimate scene, after Marie’s brutal murder and his self-induced drowning have taken place, in what the Saturday Review’s late critic Irving Kolodin once praised as “a dirge for the collapsed world” of the protagonists, a “tensely, proudly beautiful and expressive” last interlude before the painfully poignant finale of the couple’s now-orphaned child playing on his hobbyhorse.

The themes of poverty, hopelessness and despair, spiced with a touch of the Grand Guignol, were explored in another brief work, Puccini’s one-act shocker Il Tabarro. This grimly realistic portrait of working-class Parisian life premiered as part of his Trittico (or Triptych) project at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1918, barely a month after armistice was declared.

Conceptually, Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”) has much in common with Wozzeck, in that both operas feature adulterous pairs in amoral situations, wretched social conditions, and overly violent episodes and/or conclusions. Puccini did not bask in this work’s unrelievedly gloomy company for long. His final lavish opus, Turandot, debuted at Milan’s La Scala in 1926, a year and eight months before Wozzeck made its mark in Berlin.

What a difference that year and eight months made! Why, to anyone’s ears there can be no question as to the sharp contrasts between these two composers’ approach to their subject: the debonair Puccini, a master melodist and experienced “man of the theater” extraordinaire; and Berg, a master of dissonance, as well as a doctor of musical expression and emotional upheaval.

John Rockwell, formerly of the New York Times, described Berg as a gifted, “psychologically acute colorist” — but a “twelve-tone Puccini”? Hardly!

Welcome Back, Maestro Levine!

Maestro James Levine conducts Wozzeck
Maestro James Levine conducts Wozzeck

Indeed, no other conductor has done more to turn the audaciousness of Berg’s vision for Wozzeck into a palatable “twelve-tone” staple of the opera-going experience than James Levine. Since first presiding over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a 1974 revival of this fabulous masterwork, Maestro Levine has conducted all but a handful of productions (he divided his Wozzeck duties with the British-born Jeffrey Tate during the 1984-85 season). Here, Levine’s experience with this work and how it should sound in the patently huge confines of the Met Opera auditorium proved invaluable.

The current revival, directed by Mark Lamos and designed by Robert Israel, premiered on February 10, 1997. “It was a dark production,” observed veteran opera writer Garry Spector, “with splashes of color [red being the most prominent] and excellent use of shadow effects.” I heard the Saturday afternoon broadcast of March 22, with a cast headed by baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, soprano Deborah Voigt as Marie, tenor Peter Hoare as the Captain, bass Clive Bayley as the Doctor, and tenors Simon O’Neill and Russell Thomas as the Drum Major and Andres, respectively.

This was Hampson’s first assumption of the difficult, laser-like role at the Met. His connection to Massenet’s romanticized Werther, the previous broadcast work heard just the week before, and Berg’s harried private is intriguing, to say the least. Incredibly, Hampson has sung the rarely performed baritone version (arranged by the composer) of Werther on past occasions. Barring a few key changes and a transposed high note here and there — and given a singer of stature and charisma, which he qualifies for on all counts — it can be safely pulled off.

Wozzeck (Thomas Hampson) kills Marie (Deborah Voigt) in a jealous rage
Wozzeck (Thomas Hampson) stabs Marie (Deborah Voigt) in a jealous rage

But how did Hampson do as the hallucinating “poor soldier” Wozzeck? With such illustrious Met predecessors as Hermann Uhde, Geraint Evans, José van Dam, Christian Boesch, Alan Held, and Mattias Goerne to contend with, Hampson raced through the ordeal with voice and stature intact. He brought his own particular brand of emotional commitment and sterling musicianship to the part, along with his thorough preparation and a solidly-conceived incarnation of a man slipping ever so noticeably into madness.

Using his imposing height to his advantage, Hampson’s slender build is nowhere near Alan Held’s massively bulky form, bald pate and haunted visage. There’s something feral about the character, but in a childlike, non-threatening way. Although possessed by inner demons, the best Wozzeck interpreters are fairly adept at evoking the audience’s sympathy. While Hampson proved a bit short in that department, his peerless tones nonetheless penetrated the heavy orchestration at crucial moments. The final denouement where Wozzeck wades too deep into the lake to drown was gripping theater, thanks to Hampson’s noble efforts.

Deborah Voigt’s Marie, while not as taxing as her recent Wagner and Strauss assignments, was crisply acted, as well as firmly articulated. This is a most congenial role for Deborah, whose thinned out top notes in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung have definitely seen better days. As Marie, she etched a sympathetic portrait of the whore with a heart of gold — for her child, that is — and an uncontrollable urge to be loved by the strutting Drum Major (trumpeting tenor Simon O’Neill). The famous bible-reading passage at the start of Act III was heartbreaking in its simplicity, as delivered by Voigt.

Marie sings a lullaby to her child
Marie sings a lullaby to her child

Peter Hoare’s Captain and Clive Bayley’s Doctor fit the general pattern set forth by Berg of two clueless and duplicitous souls convinced of their own infallibility, yet incapable (or unwilling) of noticing Wozzeck’s physical and psychological deterioration. The other minor characters, as brief as their assignments were, each in turn contributed to the sum of the opera’s individual parts.

This is a harrowing work indeed, a disturbingly concentrated look at a sick mind trying to survive in a sick world. Wozzeck can take place at any time, and at any place (I’ve often thought of Fort Bragg as a possible spot for the action). In that, it’s a timeless masterpiece of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man. As an ensemble piece, Wozzeck is as intricate as anything in Mozart. And to think that at one time the opera was deemed unplayable (come to think of it, so were Strauss’ Salome and Elektra). Look how far it’s come since the time of its debut.

Much of the credit for the opera’s staying power at the Met can be attributed to James Levine. His championing of this once inaccessible stage piece has enriched the modern repertoire and brought richness and diversity to the Met broadcasts as well. We poor people thank you, Jimmy!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

What Happens in Vegas Stays at the Met — A Rousing ‘Rigoletto’ Kicks Off this Preview of the 2013-2014 Radio and ‘Live in HD’ Season

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“La donna è mobile,” “Caro nome,” “Pari siamo,” “Bella figlia dell’amore,” and other well-known tunes from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto are just one of the many delights to be heard beginning December 7, 2013, as the Metropolitan Opera radio season returns to the airwaves.

Glitzy Rigoletto at the Met (wqxr.org)
Glitzy Rigoletto returns to the Met (wqxr.org)

This will be the Met’s 83rd consecutive season of radio broadcasts and its eighth season of high definition transmissions, a record unbeaten in the communications industry. But before we get all mushy over the statistics — and lest that Thanksgiving turkey takes over our appetites — let’s review the list of tantalizing treats on the operatic menu that awaits us.

As mentioned above, Rigoletto kicks off the broadcast season with a cast headed by silver-haired Russian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky singing the title role for the first time at the Met. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is the scheduled Gilda, tenor Matthew Polenzani, who scored a resounding triumph last year as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, is the Frank Sinatra-like Duke of Mantua, with Oksana Volkova as the vampish Maddalena and the returning Štefan Kocán as slimy assassin Sparafucile. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado makes his broadcast debut in a revival of the Michael Mayer production. Las Vegas will never be the same.

This is followed on December 14 by a new Robert Carsen production of Verdi’s Falstaff, starring Ambrogio Maestri, who portrayed a robust Dulcamara in the same L’Elisir d’Amore. Angela Meade, who made a terrific splash earlier this season in Bellini’s Norma, will play Alice Ford, followed by Stephanie Blythe’s quicksilver Mistress Quickly, Franco Vassalo’s Master Ford, and Paolo Fanale’s Fenton. James Levine, the Met’s peripatetic musical director, who’s been missing in action for almost two seasons (due to back injuries), will return to the podium — a specially constructed one, at that — in the first new production of Verdi’s final masterpiece in almost 50 years. Can’t wait to hear it! Conversely, we won’t be hearing much of the Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who’ll be taking a bit of a respite after his strenuous conducting assignments of last season.

Next up is a rarity, Benjamin Britten’s operatic take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (December 23). The previous season saw the Met’s presentation of Thomas Adès’ Shakespearean-based The Tempest, which wasn’t my cup of tea to be honest, but hey, maybe things will turn out to be different this time around. James Conlon conducts the returning Tim Albery production, which features Korean coloratura Kathleen Kim as Tytania, Erin Wall as Helena, Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia, Iestyn Davies as Oberon, and Joseph Kaiser as Lysander, in a performance previously recorded in the fall.

Giacomo Puccini’s indestructible Tosca is scheduled for December 28, in the horrid Luc Bondy production from a few years back. Diva Sondra Radvanovsky will play, well, diva Floria Tosca (talk about typecasting), for which many listeners will be looking forward to! Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, will be taken by Marcello Giordani (here’s hoping this time he stays on pitch). He’ll be threatened with dire consequences by baritone George Gagnidze, the Baron Scarpia, who plans to intimidate the Sacristan of John Del Carlo beforehand. Marco Armiliato will mount the scaffold, uh, I mean the podium.

Julie Taymor's The Magic Flute (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)
Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)

The New Year brings a bumper crop of diversity in the operatic repertoire, starting with a January 4, 2014 broadcast of the truncated, English-language version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, designed by Julie Taymor, with text and lyrics by J.D. McClatchy. Jane Glover will lead from the pit. She’ll be guiding the likes of Heidi Stober as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alek Shrader (last season’s English-language Almaviva) as Tamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, and Eric Owens as the deep-voiced Sarastro. If this revival is as good as the last one, it should be a stimulating Saturday afternoon indeed.

The week after, on January 11, the champagne continues to flow with another new production that will be making its radio bow: that of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, which is being given an English-language tune-up by the team of Jeremy Sams and Douglas Carter Beane. The cast includes Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde, Christina Schäfer as her servant Adele, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Orlofsky, Christoher Maltman as the cuckolded Einsenstein, rising tenor Michael Fabiano (our Cassio in the Live in HD broadcast of Verdi’s Otello) as Alfred, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, and Patrick Carfizzi as Frank. Adam Fischer conducts the orchestra. Drink up, everybody!

January 18 begins with the broadcast premiere of Deborah Warner’s highly anticipated new production (directed by Fiona Shaw) of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Anna Netrebko as Tatiana, Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Piotr Beczala as Lensky, and Alexei Tanovitski as Prince Gremin. Netrebko and Kwiecien have teamed up before, most winningly as Lucia and her brother Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, as Norina and Malatesta in Don Pasquale, and Adina and Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore (a Donizetti triumvirate, if you like). This is their first time working together at the Met in a truly authentic Russian work. The sparks are sure to fly for Onegin, so don’t miss it!

Kwiecien & Netrebko in Eugene Onegin (nypost.com)
Kwiecien & Netrebko in Eugene Onegin (nypost.com)

Two back-to-back favorites from years past highlight the next two weeks’ worth of works. On January 25, we have the aforementioned L’Elisir d’Amore by Gaetano Donizetti, with returning cast members Anna Netrebko as Adina and Erwin Schrott as Dr. Dulcamara. The Russian soprano and the Uruguayan bass-baritone are a real couple in real life, so this should be an entertaining pairing. The lovesick Nemorino will be sung by Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, and Nicola Alaimo is Sgt. Belcore. The conductor is Maurizio Benini.

Returning after a hiatus of a few seasons is the acclaimed Anthony Minghella production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on February 1. My only regret is that the Met has never performed the composer’s original two-act version, which would benefit from the dramatic and scenic elements this particular production has to offer. Oh well, the cast is especially enticing and includes soprano Amanda Echalaz (new to me) as Cio-Cio San, Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki, Scott Hendricks as Sharpless, and rising young tenor Bryan Hymel, who scored a sensation last season when he single-handedly saved the Met’s revival of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. His was a stunningly delivered portrayal of the near impossible role of Aeneas. I look forward to his warbling as bad-boy Lt. Pinkerton with bated breath.

Antonin Dvořák’s opera Rusalka returns to the repertoire on February 8, in a production previously designed and directed by Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen. They last brought you the old Ring of the Nibelung production at the house, which was replaced by Robert Lepage’s 45-ton monstrosity (Come on, you know. It’s the one with the 24 movable planks). The Met’s young conductor of the hour, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will preside over a cast starring the dependable Renée Fleming as Rusalka, Emily Magee as the Foreign Princess, old reliable Dolora Zajick as Ježibaba, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the Prince, and John Relyea as the Water Sprite. Sounds inviting!

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Ildiko Komlosi (right) in Die Frau ohne Schatten (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Two very different works by Richard Strauss are next on the agenda. Fortunately, they’ll be given on successive weekends, which make perfect sense. The first of these, the mammoth Die Frau ohne Schatten, on February 15, has been termed a modern-day traversal of The Magic Flute. And there’s plenty of truth to that statement. Coincidentally, the following week (February 22) will see one of the Met’s oldest productions, Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s 45-year-old Der Rosenkavalier, which marks its 100th anniversary at the house. It too has been referred to as a modern updating, but of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Pity the Met is only giving The Magic Flute in comparison. It’d be great to have all four operas to contrast with and savor over, but alas it’s not to be!

The cast listing for Die Frau ohne Schatten (in a performance recorded in October 2013) features two sensational sopranos, Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress (the lady without a shadow) and Christina Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife. Ildikó Komlósi is the scheming Nurse, Torsten Kerl is the Emperor (the guy who turns into stone), and Johan Reuter is Barak the Dyer (No, not Obama…). The clarion-voiced Richard Paul Fink (Alberich in the broadcast of Götterdämmerung) will interpret the Spirit Messenger. I’ve heard some marvelous things, and read some fabulous reviews, about this performance. Der Rosenkavalier features Martina Serafin (Sieglinde in Die Walküre) as the Marschallin, Alice Coote as Octavian, Eric Cutler as the Italian Singer, and Peter Rose as the boorish Baron Ochs. The previously announced Mojca Erdmann, in the ingénue role of Sophie, is indisposed. Erin Morley will be the substitute. Do I hear a waltz?

We’re at the midway point in the season, but instead of an intermission we shall plow ahead to the next pair of items, both of which are definitely off the beaten path. For the first time in nearly 100 years, the Met will offer Alexander Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor on March 1, in a new production by Dimitri Tcherniakov. Fans of the Forrest-Wright musical Kismet may recognize many of the themes in Borodin’s piece, especially the popular Polovtsian Dances. The all-star Slavic cast includes bass Ildar Abdrazakov as the titular Prince. Ildar comes off a successful run of Boito’s Mefistofele at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Yaroslavna will be sung by Oksana Dyka, Konchakovna by Anita Rachvelishvili (last season’s Carmen), Vladimir Igorevich by Sergey Semishkur, Mikhail Petrenko as Prince Galitsky, and Štefan Kocán will take on the congenial Khan Konchak. Gianandrea Noseda will lead the orchestra. Low notes are optional.

On March 8, the Met will revive what it calls a “fantastical Baroque pastiche,” The Enchanted Island, written and devised by Jeremy Sams in a production supervised by Phelim McDermott. A historically accurate compilation of music from various 18th century composers, including Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and others, it will be conducted by Patrick Summers and feature a plethora of early-music exponents, including Danielle de Niese as Ariel, Andriana Chuchman as Miranda, Susan Graham as Sycorax, famed countertenor David Daniels as Prospero, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Ferdinand, basso Luca Pisaroni as Caliban, and old favorite Placido Domingo as Neptune. As you can tell, this operatic appropriation of the masters of Baroque was “inspired” by Shakespeare (and quite possibly Disney’s The Little Mermaid). I hate to admit it, but I’m not that into Baroque opera as much as I should be. I do love Handel’s Giulio Cesare and, of course, his Messiah and other related works. But this one takes some getting used.

Danielle de Niesse & Placido Domingo in The Enchanted Island (Met Opera)
Danielle de Niese & Placido Domingo in The Enchanted Island (Met Opera)

The one I’m really looking forward to will be the new production by Richard Eyre and Rob Howell (the same people who brought us Bizet’s Franco-era Carmen) of Jules Massenet’s crowning achievement Werther, based on Goethe’s romance novel. That will be on March 15. Making his role debut in the house will be superstar Jonas Kaufmann as the title character. His smoldering dark looks and sterling delivery will, hopefully, deliver the goods as well. Kaufmann’s co-stars include Sophie Koch as Charlotte (Jonas and Sophie have appeared together before in the their respective parts, but not at the Met), Lisette Oropesa (last season’s Magda in La Rondine) will sing Charlotte’s little sister Sophie, David Bižić as Charlotte’s husband Albert, and Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff. Get out your handkerchiefs for this one, folks! The ending’s a killer…

And speaking of killers, Alban Berg’s post-romantic, near-modern shocker Wozzeck returns to the repertoire, on March 22, in Mark Lamos and Robert Israel’s production of the work. This revival is conducted by James Levine. Wozzeck happens to be one of the maestro’s specialties. A truly memorable broadcast is being planned, with the likes of Thomas Hampson as Wozzeck, soprano Deborah Voigt as Marie, Simon O’Neill as the Drum Major, Peter Hoare as the Captain, and Clive Bayley as the Doctor. As the work indicates, attention must be paid to the downtrodden.

For a change of pace, we’ll have Vincenzo Bellini’s delightful bel canto specialty La Sonnambula, broadcast on March 29. Conductor Marco Armiliato will preside over a cast starring Diana Damrau as Amina the sleepwalker, Javier Camarena as Elvino, and Michele Pertusi as Rodolfo. The production is the work of Mary Zimmerman, with sets by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. I can’t hear enough bel canto operas: they’re such delicate, refined creations which must be treated with the greatest of care and respect. But what I read of Zimmerman’s deconstruction of this masterwork, however, left me wondering “What on earth was she thinking?” I’ll have more to say about this production come air time.

Some operas never die. And that goes for Puccini’s perennial La Bohème on April 5, in Franco Zeffirelli’s loving hands, now considered a classic (although Zeffirelli’s La Scala original, available on DVD, is the one to watch). This revival features soprano Anita Hartig as the consumptive Mimi, Susanna Phillips as Musetta, rising star Vittorio Grigolo as the poet Rodolfo, Massimo Cavaletti as Marcello, Patrick Carfizzi as Schaunard, and Oren Gradus as Colline, with Donald Maxwell playing the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro. Puccini’s four-act opus has been described as the “perfect opera,” and I’m inclined to agree. The third act is a masterpiece of music drama that hits audiences in the gut with its tragedy and pathos, as well as the beauty of its writing. Credit is due, too, to librettists Illica and Giacosa, who labored over this work under the demanding eye of the composer. The performance will be led by Stefano Ranzani.

Two very different styles will be represented by Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (on April 12), his verismo take on the French Revolution, and Richard Strauss’ bourgeois melodrama Arabella (on April 19). Giordano’s powerhouse opera requires, no, demands stellar voices to put across its emotional impact to audiences. However, I’m not so sure the scheduled cast meets that prerequisite, but we shall see. Listed as vocal principals are Marcelo Álvarez as the poet Chénier, Patricia Racette as the love of his life Maddalena, and Željko Lučić (the lead in that Las Vegas Rigoletto) as former servant Gérard, in Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s bold production, with costumes by the renowned Milena Canonero. Gianandrea Noseda will be the maestro.

Of all Strauss’ mature works, Arabella is the one most aficionados have the hardest time accepting. He may have been trying to recapture the glory days of his one bona fide hit, Der Rosenkavalier, by recycling themes (i.e., young love, an ideal romance, and domestic bliss) previously explored. No matter. The production is in the grand tradition of Old Vienna. Conducted by Philippe Auguin, we’ll hear Swedish soprano Malin Byström as Arabella, Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka, Michael Volle as Arabella’s suitor Mandryka, Roberto Saccà as Matteo, and Martin Winkler as Waldner. Both baritone Volle and tenor Saccà have sung together in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at Salzburg recently, and are acknowledged interpreters of their respective roles. With that said, there’s hope for this old warhorse after all.

Cosi fan tutte cast (nytimes.com)
Cosi fan tutte ensemble cast (nytimes.com)

The last three broadcasts of the radio and HD season are sure to bring smiles to everyone’s faces, for they all feature slightly lighter fare. Mozart’s seriocomic Così fan tutte concludes the month of April (on the 26th, to be exact), with Met maestro James Levine putting a cast of Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi, Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, Matthew Polenzani as Fernando, Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo, Danielle de Niese as Despina, and Maurizio Muraro as Don Alfonso, through their paces. The production is by Lesley Koenig and Michael Yeargan.

May Day begins (on the 3rd, actually) with the return of Bellini’s final opera I Puritani, which hasn’t been seen in a while. This should be an exciting performance, what with soprano Olga Peretyatko making her debut as Elvira, bel canto specialist Lawrence Brownlee as Arturo (he of the stratospheric high C’s and D’s), along with Mariusz Kwiecien as Riccardo, and Michele Pertusi as Giorgio. Michele Mariotti will conduct. This is a Sandro Sequi production, with sets by Ming Cho Lee, and Peter J. Hall is credited as costume designer.

And finally, the season ends on a high note (or two, or three!) with Gioachino Rossini’s tour de “farce” arrangement of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola. The production is the work of Cesare Lievi, with sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò. Helmed by principal conductor Fabio Luisi, it stars Joyce DiDonato in her first appearance at the Met as Angelina, the Cinderella of the title, with high-flying Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez as Don Ramiro (Prince Charming to you), Pietro Spagnoli as Dandini, Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico, and Luca Pisaroni as Alidoro. The “magic” in this opera stays earthbound, and no, there’s no Italian equivalent of the song “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” although Angelina’s concluding aria was “appropriated” (if that’s the correct term) by Rossini and placed in the mouth of The Barber of Seville’s Count Almaviva.

So there you have it: a season to end all seasons — with an opera to suit all tastes. This is as diverse a gathering of styles and works as I’ve heard in a long time. If the Met (and its General Manager Peter Gelb) continues along this route, we’ll have opera to kick around for many years to come. As Mozart’s Don Giovanni would say, “Bravo, bravo, arcibravo!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Salad Bowl Italian-Opera Style, from Verdi to Zandonai: ‘Otello,’ ‘Forza,’ ‘Traviata’ and… ‘Francesca da Rimini’?

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This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, the reigning king of Italian opera and the acknowledged grand master of the genre no opera house can do without.

With that in mind, the Metropolitan Opera has been celebrating the occasion with a festival of his most cherished works, along with performances by other operatic notables such as Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini, and… Riccardo Zandonai? Now where the heck did he come from? Oh, well, you’ll read more about him a little later, but first let’s move on to the main attractions.

Otello Live in HD: “I Like Not That”

Johan Botha & Renee Fleming in Otello (Met Opera)
Johan Botha & Renee Fleming in Otello (Met Opera)

The other day I was talking to a producer friend of mine from New York City, who was telling me about the possibility of bringing Shakespeare’s Othello back to Broadway. “It hasn’t been seen there in over 30 years,” he told me. “Yes, indeed,” was my response, “and I remember the last time it was done. It was at the Winter Garden Theater in the early 1980s.”

Next, I proceeded to remind my friend that the cast back then included the likes of James Earl Jones as Othello, Dianne Wiest as Desdemona, and Christopher Plummer as Iago. “Jones was good,” I recalled, “with that imposing voice and daunting frame, but Plummer ran rings around him in the acting department.”

When, in October 2012, the Metropolitan Opera revived the Elijah Moshinsky production of Verdi’s next to last work Otello, in homage to one of the greatest opera composers who ever lived, wouldn’t you know the exact same thing happened: the Iago ran rings around the Otello, which I myself haven’t seen in over 30 years of opera viewing as well.

I got to see the Live in HD re-transmission of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece on the same day (March 2, 2013) as the impressive live broadcast of Wagner’s Parsifal was aired. How I wish I could say that Otello was equally as impressive (and how I love this work!), but unfortunately I can’t. It wasn’t a total disaster, mind you, what with Renée Fleming’s regal bearing as Desdemona and Michael Fabiano’s passionately felt Cassio. Semyon Bychkov was the so-so conductor, and South African tenor, Johan Botha, whose own massively rotund form could give Jones a run for his money, was the Moorish general Otello.

But the real “hero” of the proceedings was unquestionably German baritone Falk Struckmann as Iago. A veteran of past Wagnerian ventures (he had previously sung Wotan in Harry Kupfer’s revised Ring of the Nibelung cycle in Barcelona, as well as Don Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Met), Struckmann’s voice and figure so dominated the Met Opera stage, and the other participants, that Verdi’s original intention of naming this masterwork after the villainous ensign began to take hold.

Falk Struckmann as Iago (Met Opera)
Falk Struckmann as Iago (Met Opera)

The insinuatingly vicious nature of this fearsome beast was brought out in remarkably subtle ways, with his revealing (and not so revealing) facial expressions among them. Struckmann’s masterful “Credo,” with his long-held high note and disdainful delivery of the line “E vecchia folla il ciel” (“And heaven is an old wive’s tale”), was greeted with huge shouts of approval, something I haven’t heard in this scene in many a year.

It was a pleasure to see and hear a real baritone for a change in this part, so often taken in the past by pushed-up basses, many of who either dodged or gave short shrift to these high-lying passages. Earlier in Act I, Struckmann savored those same high notes with a deliciously swaggering account of the “Brindisi,” helped along by the newly re-worked choreography for this revival, which added much dramatic flair to what can be a rather static episode.

Botha’s lumbering, pop-eyed Otello, already a known quantity from previous seasons, was passively sung and indifferently interpreted. There wasn’t much outpouring of grief in his traversal of one of opera’s most tragic creations, or much excitement either. Botha has been better in Wagner, of all things, and his wonderfully communicative Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger is a good example of a role fitting the confines and limitations of the singer. Here, one realized that Otello simply does not suit this tenor’s temperament. The same problem existed with Canadian Ben Heppner, an otherwise excellent artist in Tristan und Isolde, but totally at sea when it comes to such roles as Giordano’s Andrea Chénier or Puccini’s Prince Calàf in Turandot. The same arguments I made over Deborah Voigt’s assumption of Italian roles hold doubly true for both Botha and Heppner: avoid them at all costs and proceed with a good degree of caution.

Fleming was her old reliable self as Desdemona, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, I find her take on this and other Italian soprano parts a bit too tepid for my taste. Not that she ever sings badly – she doesn’t; it’s just that there’s no warmth there. She reminds me of the overly cautious Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, whose last-minute substitution as Desdemona back in the 1970s I was privileged to hear on the radio, opposite the emotionally thrilling Otello of Jon Vickers, another Canadian artist. Whatever happened to Te Kanawa’s promise? I couldn’t tell you. The same issues hound Fleming, in my view: a perfectly solid voice, with a velvety tone and lovely stage deportment, especially in Strauss – but as cold as a three-day old mackerel in comparison to the blood-and-guts Iago, or the lively Cassio of the young Fabiano. There’s something about Fleming’s cool air of detachment, of being above it all, that continues to nag at me.

The rest of the ensemble performed dutifully but without much vigor, and the conducting left little doubt that this revival was as misbegotten and ill-timed an affair as they come. Considering that Botha was coming off a recent bout of the flu, which affected numerous cast members of other works at the Met this winter, I for one was perfectly willing to see a cancellation rather than go through this lame excuse for a performance. Maybe I’m being a might harsh, but at these prices I think Met audiences are entitled to one hundred percent (if not more) of an artist’s efforts.

La Forza del Destino: A Real Golden Age Rabble-Rouser

Leontyne Price as Leonora (www.vpr.net)
Leontyne Price as Leonora (www.vpr.net)

All the snap, crackle and pop missing from Bychkov’s flaccid reading of Otello was more than present in the young James Levine’s handling of the score for Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (“The Force of Destiny”), a re-broadcast from the Met Opera archives, heard on March 23.

Originally aired in 1977, the opera starred the legendary Leontyne Price as Leonora, tenor Placido Domingo as Don Alvaro, Cornell MacNeil as Don Carlo, Rosalind Elias as Preziosilla, Martti Talvela as Padre Guardiano, and Renato Capecchi as Fra Melitone. Riveting from start to finish, maestro Levine certainly whipped the Met Orchestra into splendid shape for the overture and the rest of the performance, keeping tautness and tension, as well as a fine line throughout this rambling work.

Price’s peerless high notes and that marvelous long soprano line served her well as Leonora. The emotional content of the role was paramount; the clarity of her tone, along with the beauty of her lyrical singing, was there as I remembered it. Outside of some hollowness in her lowest notes and in her scene with Talvela’s grandly eloquent Guardiano, this was Golden Age singing at its finest. Interesting how Price’s character disappears from the story for long stretches at a time, only to reemerge in Act IV to give an incredibly spacious and penetrating account of “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” to a rousing welcome.

Placido Domingo as Don Alvaro (Louis Melancon)
Placido Domingo as Don Alvaro (Louis Melancon)

The young Placido Domingo showed his youthful form in a vigorous traversal of Don Alvaro. He was eloquent, ardent, and thoughtful to his leading lady, the honeyed sweetness of his voice coming through loud and clear. Placido could give a vocal lesson or two to Botha or many other tenors around today. He almost came to grief, however, near the end of Alvaro’s strenuous Act III solo, “O tu che in senno agli angeli,” by choking a bit on the treacherous tessitura. Few tenors can manage this tricky passage comfortably, although I always marveled at the way the late Richard Tucker handled it, with his full-throated outpourings and catch-in-the-throat vocalism. Domingo recovered in time to finish the piece and went on to a fine conclusion.

His baritone counterpart, Cornell MacNeil, was nearing the last decade of an illustrious Met career. Here, he gave Don Carlo a solid, characterful villainy, with clear, always intelligible Italian diction and blazing high notes when called for. I did notice, though, that MacNeil sounded tired toward the end, until the roof-raising last duet with Domingo, the famous “Invano, Alvaro,” which never fails to raise the rafters and get an audience on their feet. MacNeil continued to sing until the late 1980s, as we shall read further on when we get to Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.

On the lower end of the scale, Martti Talvela lent a solid air of authority as Padre Guardiano, with firmness of line and low notes to match. There’s a close kinship in this role with Verdi’s later High Priest Ramfis in Aida, most notably in that opera’s Judgment Scene. What did Verdi know of Egyptian high priests? Practically nothing, but he knew a great deal about Italian ones, having written for the church in his early youth. This was reflected in the lovely hymn-like theme he adopted for “La Vergine degli Angeli,” which so closely resembles Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Renato Capecchi’s cacophonous Fra Melitone was a joy to listen to, his Italian nimble and pointed as only a native-born artist can produce. He appeared in many comic parts throughout his life, including Dulcamara and Dr. Bartolo, and had sung the serious baritone repertory early in his career as well. As Melitone, Capecchi proved that one can’t take this boisterous fellow too seriously. It was Verdi’s dry run for his later Falstaff.

Other Met comprimario stalwarts, such as Rosalind Elias, Andrea Velis, Carlotta Ordassy, Andrij Dobriansky, Malcolm Smith and the ever dependable Robert Goodloe, were all there, just as memorable as I recalled them. It was a most nostalgic re-broadcast of a time when the Met was on the cusp of becoming a major international theater again after too many years in limbo. At least Forza gave radio listeners and the paying public something to cheer about, which is more than one could say about the lackluster Otello above.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes