Haunted by the Past
It’s fair to say that the ghost of Maria Callas has haunted the Metropolitan Opera’s casting department for well over half a century. The Greek-American singer whose fiery temperament on and off the stage has passed into the realm of legend was a noted advocate of Italian bel canto, along with much of the verismo school. But no matter the musical genre, Callas left her mark on everything she touched, which is why she was known by the soubriquet La Divina, or “the Divine One.”
Squally, ear-splattering high notes aside, Callas (christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos) was nevertheless an artist through and through. Born in New York City, Callas lived, for a time, in Upper Manhattan, in the same general area as composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in. The family then took up residence in Astoria, Queens. After a time, Callas’ mother took her and her older sister to live in Athens, Greece, while both daughters were in their teens. Now, if you were deemed by fate to become a myth or a legend, where would you go to live?
We will deal more substantially with La Callas at a later time. Suffice it, then, to say that her interpretation of the title role in the Sicilian-born composer Vincenzo Bellini’s greatest creation, the opera Norma, has been all-encompassing. Even today, no opera house in the world would even think of mounting this masterpiece without taking Callas’ influence into account. The short time that she was with the Met, amid heated battles with General Manager Rudolf Bing, would mimic many of her own confrontations on stage with characters burdened by personal crises.
The possessor of enormous passions, Callas’ flame burned out too quickly and too soon. She passed away in Paris, in 1977, at age 53. While Bellini himself was short-lived (he died at age 34 in 1835), he left his mark on many composers who came after him, including Chopin, Donizetti, and Verdi.
Wagner, of all people, was an admirer of Bellini’s languorous melodic output. That long line and the unique way that Bellini had of embellishing a viable idea while incorporating it into a character’s musical fabric had an altogether deep and abiding sway on the German composer’s mind-set. We need only cite two examples from Wagner’s oeuvre to confirm that fact: the Act II ensemble from Tannhäuser; and Erik’s lovely cavatina in the third scene of The Flying Dutchman.
Norma, which premiered at La Scala on the day after Christmas in 1831, had its origins in Greek tragedy. A well-schooled pupil of classicism, as well as an incurable romantic, Bellini modeled his finished work on those of his illustrious predecessor, Christoph Willibald von Gluck (Alceste, the two Iphigenia operas), and on his contemporary Giovanni Simone Mayr (Medea in Corinto), along with Luigi Cherubini’s Medea and Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale (“The Vestal Virgin”), both operas that were prominent in Callas’ repertoire.
Principally, the myth of the sorceress Medea is of major significance to the plot of Norma. As we know from classical literature, Medea helped the hero Jason and his Argonauts steal the fabled Golden Fleece. Jason’s reward, as it were, was marriage to Medea and his fathering of her two children. When the couple fled Colchis to Corinth, Jason eventually abandoned Medea for the charms of the beautiful Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. In retribution, Medea murdered not only Glauce and Creon, but also her sons by Jason!
In the opera, the Druid priestess Norma has had a secret liaison with Pollione, the Roman proconsul. The action takes place in ancient Gaul, which the Romans have conquered. The Druids, headed by Norma’s father, the high priest Oroveso, plan their own revenge against their Roman usurpers. The situation is further complicated by Pollione’s abandonment of Norma for the young priestess Adalgisa. Can you guess what happens next?
Instead of the expected infanticide, Norma spares Pollione’s children. She realizes, to her horror, that they are her children too! She tells us so, in the moving scena that begins Act II: “Ah, son miei figli, miei figli!” That melancholy, almost heart-breaking string introduction to this act clearly moved Tchaikovsky to weave a similar-sounding passage into the poet Lensky’s bleak lament from Act II of his opera Eugene Onegin, which opens with the line “Kuda, kuda, vi udalilis,” (“Where have you gone, oh golden days of my youth?”). Misery and melancholy, it seems, are universal sentiments.
There are many variations on the Medea theme, one of which, as related by the Greek poet Herodotus, has Medea flee Corinth and run straight into the arms of King Aegeus of Athens. He, too, drove the wily enchantress away when she tried to poison his mind against his son, Theseus, the fellow who grew up to slay the Minotaur.
In Norma, the priestess leaves her children in the care of Adalgisa, as the two join together in friendship in the glorious duet, “Mira, o Norma.” The opera ends tragically, however, as the vengeful Norma and her ex-lover Pollione, taken captive by the Druids as he was about to abduct Adalgisa from the temple, mount their own funeral pyre in a double sacrifice to the gods.
Cast Your Fate to the Winds
That long Bellinian line was in ample supply during the “Mira, o Norma” duet, especially during the cabaletta section. At the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Norma on December 16, 2017, conductor Joseph Colaneri pulled the main melody along in stop-and-go fashion — first slow, then fast, then slower, then faster still. But it failed at quickening the pulse, something no Norma production should be without. When the late Australian soprano Joan Sutherland (“La Stupenda”) performed this duet on a 1970 broadcast with her friend and colleague, mezzo Marilyn Horne, it brought down the house.
A guaranteed showstopper, it was nothing of the kind in this most recent of Met broadcasts. The number simply came and went without having accomplished what it set out to do. This is not to fault the singers, in this case soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Their pairing was indeed fortuitous, but it missed that timely spark of inspiration that any performance of the opera demands. What could have been the problem?
My theory, if I may be allowed to expand upon it, is that a pall had descended over the proceedings, due to the loss of James Levine. As indicated in my last post concerning Verdi’s Requiem (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/quid-sum-miser-verdis-requiem-and-the-end-of-a-met-opera-career/), the issue surrounding the dismissal of maestro Levine will haunt the company for years to come.
Unable even to speak his name on the air during one of the intermissions, General Manager Peter Gelb expressed the sadness of a company that has relied on Mr. Levine’s presence and guidance for over four decades. Whither thou goest now, Met Opera? Just as Norma had done, Levine had to be “sacrificed” to atone for past sins. The fate of the opera company, then, is in the public’s hands.
The “Callas” Mold Holds Firm
As for the specific artists involved in the performance, Angela Meade as Norma bravely ventured forth where most sopranos fear to tread. The thing she lacked most of all was that catch in the throat, that final touch of pathos that only Callas, and intermittently Spanish diva Montserrat Caballé, were capable of bringing to the part. In every other respect, though, Meade fulfilled the vocal requirements: her coloratura runs were expertly handled; highs and lows were perfectly judged; and loud and soft passages were negotiated with skill and dexterity.
But let’s be honest here: few sopranos today can live up to the challenge set by Callas. Ms. Meade’s predecessor in this new production (by David McVicar and Robert Jones), soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, came the closest to scoring a home run. Her Callas-like timbre easily sailed through the house, but, in the same manner as Meade, even she failed to fully capture the character’s essence. Perhaps it was a matter of enunciation of the text, to make it live and breathe as if it were part of one’s soul and being. Or perhaps both artists failed to absorb the life lessons necessary to make the part their own.
In my experience, and in the experience of listeners with memories of operas past, only Callas, as our modern-day exponent, could truly “live” the part in her inimitable fashion. In the two EMI/Angel studio recordings she left behind, the first from 1954 and the other from 1960, in stereo, listen to her rendition of “Casta diva” (“Chaste goddess”) — how reminiscent of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata it sounds — and the way Callas negotiates the notes around Felice Romani’s text; the total respect she conveys for the solemnity of the occasion where Norma calls upon the moon goddess for peace instead of war.
Move on, then, to Norma’s second act confrontation with Pollione. The ferocity with which Callas imbues the line, “In mia man alfin tu sei” (“Your life is finally in my hands”), is utterly frightening, especially as she hurls the word, “Giura!” (“Swear it!”), at her former lover. In the stereo remake, Callas is partnered with full-throated abandon by tenor Franco Corelli, who makes a worthy partner to this tigress, matching her decibel for decibel. This is what WQXR radio announcer George Jellinek once termed as “acting with the voice.” Callas had the innate ability of getting underneath the written text, at finding the hidden meaning behind what she was singing. This is the model to which all others must be compared.
In other roles, Jamie Barton sang Adalgisa with ample volume but veiled tone (at least, that’s how she came across on the radio). British bass Matthew Rose lent weight and solidity to Oroveso. But like the above artists, Rose had some notable competition in that his music has been sung by the finest bassos around, to include the mighty Italians Ezio Pinza and Tancredi Pasero, and the Bulgarian Boris Christoff, along with Met stalwart Cesare Siepi (vide that 1970 radio broadcast mentioned above).
The opening chorus and subsequent march tunes, as the Druids gather in force against their Roman captors, have been described as nothing more than Salvation Army music. Be that as it may, Verdi was much obliged to Bellini for this bandmaster’s approach to his score. You can find traces of Bellini’s choral writing in such early Verdi works as Nabucco, I Lombardi, and Ernani, up through Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino and the later Don Carlos and Aida.
As the duplicitous Pollione, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja held up his end in the ensembles. In his duets with Meade and Barton, however, he seemed too lightweight to take command. This Roman proconsul would wither at the drop of a hat if he had to confront the likes of a Maria Callas or a Rosa Ponselle. Plainly put, the role lies too low for him, some solid high notes excepted.
Again, I must go back to that 1970 broadcast, where Pollione was sung by the stylish but portly Carlo Bergonzi, not by nature a bel canto specialist or the possessor of a strong physical presence. At the time, I felt that Bergonzi was a good decade too late for the assignment. Still, he managed to modify his usual seamless approach by giving full value to the text, which carried him through to the end.
In that same 1970 broadcast of Norma, the podium master was Joan Sutherland’s husband, Sir Richard Bonynge. A conductor, vocal coach, and concert pianist in his own right, Bonynge was an early champion of the bel canto cause. An Australian by birth, he met and afterwards married Ms. Sutherland in the mid-1950s. Through his coaching, he was able to bring out the bel canto refinements in Dame Joan that made her a household name in the opera realm.
Bonynge employed his essentially pedantic conducting style to such places as Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Europe, as well as his native Australia. Along with Callas, Caballé, Bonynge, and Sutherland — and in league with Italian maestros Vittorio Gui and Tullio Serafin — the singers Giulietta Simionato, Luigi Alva, Leyla Gencer, Ebe Stignani, Fedora Barbieri, and Sesto Bruscantini, joined later by Teresa Berganza, Beverly Sills, Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti, and others brought flair and substance to the neglected works of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. It’s to them that we owe the revitalization of such obscure items as Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux, Armida, Il Pirata, Il Turco in Italia, L’Italiana in Algeri, and a crowd of others.
But without Callas spearheading the revival in the 1950s, there would be no bel canto tradition as we know it. While there has been a vast improvement in the techniques needed to perform these essential works, with singers (especially tenors) having upped the ante in ability and skill (thanks to such artists as Juan Diego Flórez, Javier Camarena, and Lawrence Brownlee, to name a few of today’s specialists), there is still much work to do in convincing audiences of the viability of bel canto in the modern world.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
To hear a great musical masterwork performed to perfection by master craftspeople is worth waiting for. Sometimes the effect can be overwhelming, and sometimes not. Anticipation can get the best of you, knowing that you are in for something out of the ordinary. Likewise, disappointment is around the corner if the outcome isn’t what you expected.
For example, could an unsuspecting Metropolitan Opera audience (and worldwide listeners tuned in to their radios) have known that during the Saturday intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth, performed on the afternoon of January 23, 1988, an elderly audience member would plunge to his death from the auditorium’s top balcony? No one could, until it actually happened. As a result, the rest of the performance was cancelled.
The fall would be ruled a suicide. Bantcho Bantchevsky, the 82-year-old man involved, had been a regular at the opera house for many seasons. In declining health and fortunes, and having suffered a recent heart ailment, Mr. Bantchevsky, who normally sat in the orchestra, decided to end his life in dramatic fashion.
Bantcho chose the time and the place as well as the method of his demise. But most of us are not so fortunate. Life has a way of choosing for us. And, more times than not, our choices are governed by unfolding events.
Nearly thirty years later, on the Saturday afternoon of December 2, 2017, the Met launched its 2017-2018 radio broadcast and Live in HD season with another Verdi masterwork, the Messa da Requiem, or Requiem Mass. (For the background to this towering and emotionally compelling piece, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/the-fab-four-of-opera-mozart-verdi-wagner-puccini-part-three/.)
This was not the first time the Met has performed Verdi’s opus. However, I do not recall a Saturday radio broadcast devoted exclusively to it — at least not lately. Nevertheless, the performance was dedicated, as all four of the sold-out performances were, to the memory of the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom I recently wrote about (please see the following link to last week’s post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/and-the-curtain-slowly-falls-the-passing-of-classical-music-artists-in-2016-2017/).
The four soloists that headlined this showcase consisted of Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. Chorus master Donald Palumbo was in charge of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and Music Director Emeritus James Levine led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, two of the finest ensembles to be found anywhere.
Starting off softly with the bowing of the cellos, the chorus enters along with the strings. It solemnly intones the first lines, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine – “Grant them eternal rest, Lord.” A brief a cappella section follows; then, all four soloists enter. One by one, starting with the tenor, they proclaim the Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), which is the characteristic opening line of every Roman Catholic mass. Embellished to a degree by each of the singers, they are joined by the chorus in the concluding repetition of Kyrie eleison.
Suddenly, and without warning (the better to shock audiences into submission), pandemonium breaks out in the orchestra, a veritable Hell on earth: vigorous string movements collide with thunderous whacks on a gigantic bass drum; the blasting of the brass section (Tuba mirum spargens sonum – “The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound”), the chorus practically spitting out the words Dies Irae, dies illa — that fateful Day of Wrath when the heavenly trumpets shall sound and the earth cracks open; where the dead rise up with the living to face their Maker.
In this fiery recreation of the Last Judgment, Verdi summoned up every ounce of skill he had as a musical dramatist. Shades of his previous work, most notably Don Carlos and Aida, resound in the vocal and orchestral lines, along with hints of the masterpieces Otello and Falstaff to come. In the hands of an ensemble up to the task, this impressionable portion of the Requiem should knock the literal socks off us listeners.
I once experienced this feeling when, at Carnegie Hall in May 1982, yours truly was present at maestro Lorin Maazel’s farewell concert of this work with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. I can vouch for the hall’s celebrated acoustics. Indeed, every filigree of sound was clearly and discernibly audible. Those tremendous bass drum smacks shook the very foundation of the place. There was a general feeling of both awesome grandeur and respectful religiosity, as befit the occasion in question.
Few of these qualities emerged in James Levine’s cautious reading, although the Met Chorus shone brilliantly in its moments under the spotlight. The Met Opera Orchestra, too, remained as pliable and responsive as always, if slightly devoid of its customary sheen. None of those spine-tingling moments guaranteed to send a shudder down one’s back, or grab you by the collar, or shake the life-blood out of your system, manifested themselves in this performance. Sorry to say, it remained stubbornly earthbound.
With the exception of the veteran Furlanetto who, despite some noticeable strain on top, managed to inject pure terror into the haunting words of Mors supebit et natura (“Death and nature will be stupefied”) — a superb acting job, I might add — none of the other soloists approached this level of artistry. Both Stoyanova and Semenchuk came off better vocally than verbally in their individual numbers and duets, with many of their words getting lost in mushy projection. Antonenko, in his solo, Ingemisco tamquam reus (“I groan as a guilty man”), displayed a worrisome wobble every time he strayed into high-note territory.
Then again, the occasion was a somber one, and not the usual festive affair. Even before Hvorostovky’s passing, I mentioned the rather offbeat programming of the Requiem, done in contemplation of the Met Opera’s perilous financial condition.
Let me spell it out for anyone whose grasp of subtlety remains less than acute: to begin the radio broadcast season with a work honoring the deceased (in this case, the late Hvorostovsky, although Verdi dedicated the piece to famed author Alessandro Manzoni) is tantamount to admitting the inevitable: Are we paying tribute to a failing institution — that is, the Metropolitan Opera itself— and the dying art of opera? Are we about to embark on a series of cost-cutting measures (fed by ever-distressing news from our Congress) that will end with curtailment of any future opera seasons?
We await further news along this front.
What Goes Around Comes Around
The title of this post, “Quid sum miser,” is taken from one of the sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead, that is, the notoriously apocalyptic Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). It is first voiced by the mezzo in gently hushed tones. She is joined by the soprano and tenor as the solo transmogrifies into a trio. The full Latin text is given below:
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus?
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
It translates to the following:
Then what am I, a wretch, to say?
To whom should I make my appeal?
When even the just are in need of mercy?
Later that same Saturday and throughout the following week, the news broke that longtime maestro and Met Opera music director James Levine — a revered figure in New York’s classical music circles, and beyond, for well on 45 years — had been accused more than three decades prior of the sexual abuse of several men when they were teenagers.
There have been rumors circulating to this effect for quite some time. Whether or not Met Opera management had anything to do with playing down the gravity of these charges, or whether maestro Levine, 74, (and, by implication, any of his “enablers”) will continue to deny these stories as unconfirmed accusations, the sad part is that only NOW such matters are being taken seriously and investigated. If there was the possibility of a crime being committed, then it must be ferreted out.
Consequently, the Met suspended maestro Levine for the rest of the season (he had been scheduled to conduct several more works there), leaving his continued association with the company in doubt. Health-wise, Levine has been in a debilitated physical state for a number of years now, due to numerous back injuries brought about by falls in or about his home. Because of his condition, a specially-constructed conductor’s podium, which rises from below the house’s orchestra pit, was set up for his specific use. What is to become of this contraption?
Along similar lines, New York Times’ classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote a self-explanatory postmortem the other day titled “Should I Put Away My James Levine Recordings?” Good question! Do we stop listening to maestro Levine’s many excellent recorded mementos because of these latest developments? One can say the same about other artists in the entertainment and broadcast field (I will not get into the political arena).
Michael Smerkonish, CNN’s television presenter and talk-radio host, voiced similar concerns regarding the likes of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others. “Is it okay to enjoy the work of those accused of sexual misconduct?” he asked on the air. “Can we as consumers continue to enjoy the fruits of the labor of those who are now under a cloud of suspicion?”
The above-named men weren’t the only ones to have been charged with impropriety. Add to them the names of Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Bryan Singer; from the past, we should also mention Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Puccini, Wagner, Diaghilev — the list is long and troubling. Although Smerconish mentioned some of these individuals, historically sexual abuse or misconduct, including within the Catholic Church, has been far too prevalent, and not only against women but against men and underage children, too.
“People in the public eye,” Smerconish went on to say, “tend to be larger than life by the definition, but when we hear the sordid details [of their abuse], what does it mean with our past relationships to their work? I’m having trouble making up my mind.” He’s not the only one!
What are we to say, wretches that we are, when faced with such revelations? To whom should we make our appeal? What does one do when even the just among us are in need of mercy?
As I mentioned at the outset, the expectation of something out of the ordinary can lead to disappointment. We do not choose the time of our demise. Events unfolding before us, often out of our control, make the choice for us. It’s a safe bet that maestro Levine will no longer conduct at the Met, or anyplace else.
In order to reconcile ourselves with our Maker, the church teaches us to confess our sins, to be contrite in our confession, and to go and sin no more. We are all fallible and in need of redemption. And we all fall short. This is the message of Verdi’s piece.
The Requiem concludes with this final prayer for deliverance:
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris judicare seclum per ignem.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved
When you will come to judge the world by fire.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
We Interrupt This Program
No sooner had one Metropolitan Opera broadcast season ended when the dutiful announcement came of productions yet to come.
By that, I mean General Manager Peter Gelb’s glib note of “an exciting lineup of live radio broadcasts and movie theater transmissions in store” for listeners in the upcoming 2017-18 season. No word, however, about the company’s growing financial concerns or the cost-cutting measures being taken behind the scenes (see the New York Times for details).
While there are some tantalizingly obscure items in the lineup, the coming Met Opera season is already shaping up to be another ho-hum event. Stepping up to the plate, listeners for the most part can be assured of all-too-standard fare, with precious few out-of-the-way works to enliven what promises to be exceptionally conservative programming.
Surely, there is nothing comparable to last season’s revival of Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, based on Edmond Rostand’s play about the giant-nosed swordsman. Recalling your opera history, Alfano was the fellow granted the unenviable task of completing Puccini’s Turandot. The only thing that kept me from reviewing the 2005 production of Cyrano (with Placido Domingo receiving top billing) was my total unfamiliarity with the piece. I did listen to the May 6, 2017 broadcast, which starred the versatile Roberto Alagna in the title part, debuting soprano Jennifer Rowley as Roxane, and (to my surprise) Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the tongue-tied Christian. To my ears, Cyrano was a pleasant-sounding, late verismo work with a moving final scene and few memorable tunes, but I do digress.
There are no real novelties in the new season — that is, if you consider Bellini’s Norma (broadcast on December 16, 2017) and Verdi’s Requiem (heard December 2) and Luisa Miller (April 14, 2018) to be novelties in-and-of themselves. Still, when was the last time you raved over a live transmission of Norma, one of bel canto’s finest achievements? And when was it, really, that Luisa Miller, Verdi’s Sturm und Drang middle-period drama, stirred anyone’s blood?
Ah, well, at least one can drool over the broadcast of Norma, which stars power diva Angela Meade as the Druid priestess Norma (a dead-ringer for Greek mythology’s Medea), the equally endowed mezzo of Jamie Barton as her rival Adalgisa, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione, and British basso Matthew Rose as Oroveso. The orchestra will be presided over by Joseph Colaneri in this new Sir David McVicar production.
For Luisa Miller, we have what might be the final pairing of maestro James Levine with former tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Luisa’s father, Miller. I have no idea how Domingo will deliver the vocal and dramatic goods this role calls for. Heck, I’m still in thrall over the sheer sound of the young Sherrill Milnes when he sang the part in the late 1960s, or the voluminous Cornell MacNeil in his heyday, with high notes to spare.
Of course, these were Verdian masters in their prime, but I’m willing to give old Plácido a try. And why not? He’s come through unscathed before, so don’t count him out just yet! Others in the cast are the rising prima donna Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, mezzo Olesya Petrova as Federica, tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo, and basses Alexander Vinogradov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Count Walter and Wurm, respectively. I’m hoping James Levine can bring some thunder to the proceedings.
It Always Sounds Better in French
To say there is no adventurous oeuvre out there might be an underestimation on my part. In fact, one of the premieres planned for this season is of Jules Massenet’s rarely heard Cendrillon, an enchanting French retelling of the Cinderella fairy story that rivals La Cenerentola, the more familiar Rossini version. With a cast headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Alice Coote as Prince Charming (yes, it’s one of those “trouser” roles for women), and stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, this Laurent Pelly production, conducted by fellow Frenchman Bertrand de Billy, promises to be a truly Gallic affair. The opera airs on April 28, 2018, a simulcast with the Live in HD series.
There is also a new work in the offing, another of those operas based on this-or-that famous novel or movie: Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel, adapted from the iconoclastic 1962 Luis Buñuel film. I’m no fan of Buñuel’s output, but if anyone can turn this director’s surrealistic horror story of guests trapped at a dinner party into a viable operatic vehicle, then Adès surely can. The production is by Tom Cairnes and premieres in late April 2018 (the performance will be recorded on November 18, 2017, for re-broadcast).
In addition to Cendrillon, Massenet’s Thaïs is also up at bat (scheduled for January 20, 2018), in John Cox’s lavish production. Soprano Ailyn Pérez sings the role of the Alexandrian courtesan, with baritone Gerald Finley as the enamored Athanaël, tenor Jean-François Borras as Nicias, and David Pittsinger as Palémon. The conductor will be Emmanuel Villaume. Most listeners will recognize the thrice-familiar “Meditation” for solo violin, this opera’s most famous concert piece.
Another French favorite, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (May 5, 2018) has been steadily gaining ground in popularity over its more familiar older cousin Faust. A surprise hit last season (due to the impressive combination of German soprano Diana Damrau with smoldering Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo), this year listeners will be treated to the aforementioned Ailyn Pérez as Juliette romanced by her Roméo in the person of New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel, in the Bartlett Sher-Michael Yeargan production. The conductor is Señor Domingo, of all people. Mercutio will be sung by Joshua Hopkins, Stéphano by Karine Deshayes, and Frère Laurent by Kwangchul Youn.
The score so far: two for Massenet and one for Gounod. And that’s it for Les Français! What about the Saxons? Well, I’m afraid there’s not much improvement in that department: only three German works by an equal number of composers.
On February 7, 2018, there will be a repeat of the controversial but well-received François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal. The cast for this revival will include Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal (the role that Jonas Kaufmann made his own), returning bass René Pape as Gurnemanz, Evelyn Herlitzius as the sultry Kundry, the excellent Peter Mattei as the long-suffering Amfortas, and inky-voiced Evgeny Nikitin as the wizard Klingsor. Boy wonder Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be on the podium.
Starting the New Year right, we take note of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the weirdly fantastical production by Richard Jones, sung in English. Set for January 6, 2018, the cast stars Irish-born mezzo Tara Erraught as Hansel and soprano Lisette Oropesa as Gretel, with veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as their mother Gertrude, Quinn Kelsey (a baritone star in the making) as their father Peter, and German tenor Gerhard Siegel (a wickedly nasty Mime in Siegfried) as the maniacally cackling Witch. Donald Runnicles is the conductor.
Wrapping up the paltry German contingent is Richard Strauss’ Elektra, broadcast on March 17, 2018. American soprano Christine Goerke will make her role debut at the Met as the titular protagonist. She will be joined by Dutch diva Elza van den Heever as her concerned sister Chrysothemis, mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster as their murderous mother Klytämnestra, Jay Hunter Morris as her husband Aegisth, and bass-baritone Mikhail Petrenko as the revenge-seeking Orest. The landmark Patrice Chéreau production, with monumental sets by Richard Peduzzi, will be presided over by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Mamma Mia, That’s Italian!
The remainder of the season will be taken up by Italian works, which is the core of any opera house’s repertoire. However, warming up in the bullpen are several items by Herr Mozart.
The Austrian composer is well represented with simultaneous revivals of Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s Die Zauberflöte (sung in the original German) and, in a truncated English adaptation by J.D. McClatchy, The Magic Flute. We’ll be hearing The Magic Flute on December 9, 2017, with Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Pamina, Charles Castronovo as Pamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alfred Walker as the Speaker, and Tobias Kehrer as Sarastro, with Evan Rogister on the podium.
Two weeks later, on December 23, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) will be performed in Sir Richard Eyre’s Upstairs-Downstairs meets Downton Abbey rendition. It will be populated by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Figaro, soprano Christiane Karg as his betrothed Susanna, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Countess Almaviva, basso Luca Pisaroni as the womanizing Count Almaviva, and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino. The work will be conducted by Harry Bicket.
Towards the latter part of the season (on March 31, 2018), the last of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations returns in Phelim McDermott’s Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”). It’s a madcap affair, updated to the 1950s; a drawing-room comedy of sparring couples, featuring Amanda Majeski and Serena Malfi as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, along with Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara as Despina, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka as Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively, Christopher Maltman as the suave Don Alfonso, and maestro David Robertson presiding.
As we mentioned above, this will be a predominantly Italian season, which kicks off with Verdi’s Requiem on December 2, 2017 — a rather ominous note, if you ask me. James Levine, the company’s Music Director Emeritus, will be leading the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of the Manzoni Messa da Requiem (its original title). The soloists will include soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. I cannot vouch for the other participants in this staggeringly forceful piece, but most certainly Signor Furlanetto will lend his potent voice and signature artistry to one of the Italian master’s most noteworthy accomplishments.
This pillar of the Italian repertory will be joined the following month by the double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (January 13, 2018), with Roberto Alagna doing double-duty as Turiddu and Canio; the new David McVicar production of Puccini’s Tosca (January 27, 2018) with Sonya Yoncheva (replacing Kristine Opolais), Vittorio Grigolo (in lieu of Jonas Kaufmann), and Sir Bryn Terfel in the leads; Verdi’s potboiler Il Trovatore (February 3, 2018), featuring Maria Agresta, Yonghoon Lee, Quinn Kelsey, Anita Rachvelishvilli, and Štefan Kocán; and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), starring Pretty Yende, Matthew Polenzani, Davide Luciano, and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.
Along similar lines, there is the classic Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s La Bohème (February 24, 2018), with Yoncheva, Susanna Phillips, Michael Fabiano, and Lucas Meachem; the same composer’s Madama Butterfly (March 3, 2018) in the now-iconic Anthony Minghella production, with Ermonela Jaho, Maria Zifchak, Roberto Aronica, and Roberto Frontali; Rossini’s Semiramide (March 10, 2018), with Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Javier Camarena, and Ildur Abdrazakov; the Zeffirelli mounting of Puccini’s Turandot (March 24, 2018), which features Martina Serafin, Guanqun Yu, Marcelo Álvarez, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk; and, last but not least, Mary Zimmerman’s version of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 7, 2018) by Donizetti, starring Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti, Vittorio Grigolo, Massimo Cavalletti, and Vitalij Kowaljow.
The sole non-Italian, non-French, and non-German work is famed Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow (broadcast on December 30, 2017) in Jeremy Sams’ veddy British translation. The cast includes the ever-popular Susan Graham as Hanna Glawari (the cheerful widow of the title), Paul Groves as Danilo, Andriana Chuchman as Valencienne, Taylor Stayton as Camille, and veteran baritone Sir Thomas Allen as Baron Mirko Zeta (!). The conductor will be Ward Stone for this Susan Stroman production.
Where’s the Beef?
One thing I noticed is the prevalence of non-Italian artists in major Italian roles. For instance, the female lead in many of the Met Opera broadcasts are to be taken by the likes of Sonya Yoncheva (Tosca, Mimì, Luisa), Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti (Lucia), Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza), Pretty Yende (Adina), Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Angela Meade (Semiramide), Anita Rachvelishvilli (Azucena), Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Martina Serafin (Turandot), and Guanqun Yun (Liù).
The same issue goes for the lower-voiced artists: Željko Lučić (Alfio), George Gagnidze (Tonio), Sir Bryn Terfel (Scarpia), Quinn Kelsey (Count Di Luna), Štefan Kocán (Ferrando), Matthew Rose (Colline), Alexey Lavrov (Schaunard), Ildur Abdrazakov (Assur), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), and Vitalij Kowaljow (Raimondo).
I’ve complained before about the mushy diction and indecipherable vowel sounds from some of the foreign artists engaged by the Met of late. While that’s always a pet peeve of mine, I have come to the realization that it’s unfair for me to judge a singer through a radio broadcast alone, when compared to that of a live performance.
There are so many factors that go into a theatrical presentation, intractable hurdles and variables of one kind or another (i.e. acoustics, venue, crowd response, orchestral and choral forces, and the like). So to criticize singers for poor delivery of the text — or not sounding Italian enough (or French, or German, or Russian, or what-have-you) — is just plain carping on my part. I will temper my views in the foreseeable future.
We should be grateful that opera, my favorite pastime (along with movies and music), is given at all these days, considering the current state of the art — that is, the sky-high cost implied in its production. Opera has always been, and will continue to be, an expensive proposition. It’s an art form that demands huge financial outlays and extraordinary commitment. The reason for that goes back to the vast number of artisans, performers and musicians, in addition to stagehands and crafts people, involved in its implementation.
The world’s greatest singers, conductors, producers, and directors are more than happy to participate in opera. That’s why they are booked solid so many years in advance. The difficulties implicit in the conception, however, can be off-putting and frustrating to professionals as well as to non-professionals. Opera is no place for initiates, nor does it have time for amateurs or first-timers. Consummate artists and musicians are called for, which explains, too, the high cost of production. The time and investment required to reach their level of professionalism are astronomic and, despite the efforts, infrequently attained.
Yet opera can be as rewarding for the amateur as it is for those thoroughly trained in its intricacies. Keeping all this in mind, one can only hope for the best.
Will the Met hit a home run this season? Stay tuned for late-inning developments!
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Here’s What We Missed
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Yee Haw! A Met Opera Year-End Round Up with ‘The Barber of Seville’, ‘Die Fledermaus’, and ‘Anna Bolena’ (Part One)
Some Productions are Best Left Unheard
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.
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
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.
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.
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…
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)
“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.
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.
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.
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
“We Poor People”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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