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
The Tawdry Ways of Operatic Royalty
Opera is such a fascinating subject! There’s no end to the plots and personalities depicted in them; a steady stream of individuals placed in complicated situations — sometimes by their own doing, but more often than not by the devious machinations of others.
For all intents and purposes, opera is the great leveler of the high and mighty, as well as the low and the commonplace: aristocratic kings and noble princes, haughty queens and ice-cold princesses, gnomes and giants, mythical and magical creations, simple seamstresses and impoverished poets. All are brought down to earth in the end, to meet their fate: whether it is never-ending love or everlasting torment.
Just as well, since historical and fictional portrayals are one of opera’s myriad delights. A guilty pleasure, if you will, for lovers of the form. We mortals, who dream of better lives for ourselves and for our family and friends, simply dote on the foibles of those who believe they are over and above the natural order of things. But know that in opera there is no such thing as the “natural order.”
Opera — and those talented souls who wrote the musical scores and fashioned the poetic librettos — was originally intended to uplift one’s spirit to another time and another place. In identifying ourselves with the characters depicted onstage, we feel transported by them and, in a sense, commiserate (admittedly, to a limited extent) with the quandaries they are inevitably confronted with. This goes for most works in the standard repertoire, but especially those that follow the lives of the self-styled rich and famous. And not just with one work, but with several.
Some of the more, shall we say, “out-of-the-way” curiosities can be found in the ignoble protagonist of the fabled spouse murderer, Duke Bluebeard, portrayed in two wholly distinct interpretations, i.e., Bartók’s darkly shaded Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) and Dukas’ no less somber Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (1907), along with Offenbach’s earlier 1866 satirical opéra-bouffe Barbe-Bleue, which makes light of the serial killings by bringing back those supposedly deceased ex-wives to marry six princely suitors.
Among the royals, there are several depictions of the British House of Tudor, notably Camille Saint-Saëns’ rarely heard Henri VIII (“Henry VIII”) from 1883, which dramatizes the philandering ruler’s attempts to divorce his Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry the lovely Anne Boleyn. Henry’s only child from Catherine was a daughter, Mary Tudor, or Mary I of England and Ireland, identified in history as “Bloody Mary.” She served as queen from 1553 until her death in 1558. Her husband (or consort) during her short reign was none other than Philip II of Spain, who we know from Verdi’s Don Carlos.
An opera entitled Maria Tudor by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Gomes, depicting Mary’s alleged love affair with the fictional Italian adventurer Fabiano Fabiani, premiered at La Scala in 1879 with an all-star cast headed by soprano Anna D’Angeri as Mary, mezzo Emma Turelli as Giovanna, tenor Francesco Tamagno as Fabiano, baritone Giuseppe Kaschmann as Don Gil, and bass Édouard de Reszke as Gilberto. Unfortunately, the work was an abject failure at its first hearing, due mostly to a highly partisan local crowd.
In dealing with Henry VIII’s other daughter, the temperamental Elizabeth I (whose mother, you may recall, was the beheaded Queen Anne), we are not only faced with Donizetti’s two treatments — Maria Stuarda, i.e., “Mary Stuart,” from 1835, in which the Virgin Queen puts in a truly memorable appearance (even though the two cousins never met in real life), and Roberto Devereux from 1837, documenting the rise and fall of Elizabeth’s lover, Robert, 2nd Earl of Essex — but an earlier 1815 setting of her story, Gioachino Rossini’s two-act Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (“Elizabeth, Queen of England”).
Less well known than those of his rival Donizetti, Rossini’s piece concerns itself with the affairs of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the jealous queen’s commander of the army, and his secret marriage to Matilda, the daughter of Mary, Queen of the Scots(!); in other words, our friend Mary Stuart. Essentially, it’s the same old story (more or less embroidered, of course) as Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in which the Earl of Leicester also plays a prominent part.
Be that as it may, Elisabetta is probably better known to musicologists as having been pasted together from several different sources, among them the composer’s thrice familiar overture to Aureliano in Palmira, which was later reused in The Barber of Seville, and several melodic references to Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa,” also from The Barber. You can’t keep a good melody or tawdry tale down, now, can you?
The Other Boleyn Girl
Of the many bel canto works scheduled to be heard this season, the most highly-anticipated involve the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever presentation of Donizetti’s complete cycle known as the Tudor Trilogy. This was quite a major undertaking for the company, but a long-delayed one in my view. The now-defunct New York City Opera had previously staged the works back in the halcyon days of the 1970s for their erstwhile singing sensation, the lively and bubbly Beverly Sills.
It’s a shame the Met never got around to giving Ms. Sills a better vehicle to showcase her singing and acting talents: one of the above-mentioned coloratura specialties would have been right up her alley. Barring the misconceived Sandro Sequi/Nicola Benois production of L’Assedio di Corinto (“The Siege of Corinth”) by Rossini, in which she made her belated company debut on April 7, 1975, with co-stars Shirley Verrett, Justino Diaz, and Harry Theyard, and a new production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a few years later, La Sills was barely heard from. Still, better late than never, I always say!
The trilogy started the ball (or the heads) rolling with Sir David McVicar’s version of Anna Bolena on the Saturday matinee broadcast of January 9, 2016. Originally, the opera had its overdue Met premiere back in 2011, with Russian diva Anna Netrebko in the title role (for the background and review of Anna Bolena, as well as some historical perspective on the bel canto period, see the following links: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/met-opera-odds-and-ends-the-works-i-couldnt-miss-and-those-i-wish-i-had/, and also: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/a-bel-canto-bonanza-the-met-presents-bellinis-la-sonnambula-and-i-puritani-rossinis-la-cenerentola-and-donizetti/).
The cast for this revival of Anna Bolena was spearheaded by the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn. She will be featured in all three Donizetti works over the course of several months. Serbian mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic made an unscheduled Met Opera and radio broadcast debut as Anne’s rival Jane Seymour, replacing the previously announced Jamie Barton.
The other cast members included mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Smeaton (who is smitten, you’ll pardon the pun, with Anne), tenor Stephen Costello as her former lover Lord Percy, bass Ildar Abdrazakov as King Henry VIII, and bass-baritone David Crawford as Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort. Marco Armiliato conducted, without a score I am told.
Initially, I found McVicar’s production rather drab in setting, with the prevailing gray-and-black color scheme tiring and oppressing. But the vibrantly colorful costumes by Jenny Tiramani, and the superb choral work under Met Opera chorus master Donald Palumbo, were truly exceptional. In any case, the glamour and glitz should come from the singing, which was obviously the case with the incredibly agile Ms. Radvanovsky.
The Callas Connection
The legendary prima donna, Maria Callas, was one of several major artists to revive the long dormant bel canto repertoire, and this neglected work in particular, with the premiere of the legendary April 1957 Luchino Visconti production at La Scala, Milan. Her co-stars on that gala occasion happened to be equally legendary: Giulietta Simionato, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Gabriella Carturan, and Gianni Raimondi. Her conductor was Gianandrea Gavazzeni. We’ll be discussing La Divina Callas in a minute.
What struck me most about Anna Bolena were the ever-present echoes of the forthcoming Lucia di Lammermoor, which debuted in 1835, five years after Bolena’s completion, especially in the extended scena ed aria near the end, just prior to her execution.
The character of Anne Boleyn may have been on her way to her death, but the singer in question, Sondra Radvanovsky, was alive to every nuance the role could offer. Parallels to be drawn between Radvanovsky’s Anna and Madame Callas’ interpretation were absolutely necessary and justifiable. It was uncanny, to these ears, how Sondra’s overtones were so very like those of Maria in the winnowing way she sang the part. Radvanovsky held her own throughout that lengthy death scene in which she rose to tender heights of poignancy.
The final tableau, a tour de force mad scene of sorts, finds Anne warbling a haunting variation on the song “Home, Sweet Home,” with the nostalgic line, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” especially telling. Surely, the bel canto style was at its most persuasive and emotional in this context, with Radvanovsky’s sedate ornamentation and delicate vocal turns.
Touching, affecting, and evocative of better times, the tune reverberated quietly throughout the house and surely must have touched listeners’ hearts, both at home and in the theater, with its aptness and simplicity. Wise old Donizetti played the same trick again, with his use of the English national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” in the overture to the last work in the Tudor Trilogy, Roberto Devereux. Hey, if it worked the first time around, why not give it another spin?
Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s Henry VIII (called Enrico in the score) also compared favorably to other exponents of this part, i.e., Rossi-Lemeni, Cesare Siepi and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Although he has no major solo to speak of, musically I found Abdrazakov to be slightly more throaty in his duets and dry-voiced in the lowest reaches of the role. However, he looked authoritative and smashing in the monarch’s regal robes. Stephen Costello’s light-toned tenor felt strained in the higher passages of Lord Percy’s music, coming in just under the note on several occasions.
The other artists Nikolic, Mumford and Crawford (sounds like an advertisement for a patent law firm) were all fine and acceptable in their parts, with maestro Armiliato conducting about as well as anyone can, given what he had to work with. Donizetti is one of those Italian operatic composers whose every number ends in practically the same oompah, oompah, stop-and-go manner (if you don’t believe me, try listening to his L’Elisir d’Amore — afterwards, we’ll talk). There is much to admire and like about the Tudor Trilogy, which only gets better and more dramatic as it goes along.
We can see now why Maria Callas was so taken with Anna Bolena, but not for the reasons she may have thought of at the time. An ironic connection to her own life occurred when she was faced with her Greek lover Aristotle Onassis’s desertion, dumping her for former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy — a strange twist of fate and an uncanny resemblance to the notorious acts of Henry VIII.
Callas had left her own husband and longtime stage manager, the much older Giovanni Battista Meneghini, in 1959, two years after she met Onassis at a party given by admirer Elsa Maxwell, in her honor, after a performance of Anna Bolena in Milan. While Onassis was still legally married at the time, he and Maria had a torrid affair aboard his yacht.
Almost ten years later, in 1968, Onassis left Callas to marry Jackie. The marriage lasted until his death in France, on March 15 1975, though he never stopped seeing Maria clandestinely and on the side. Callas herself passed away two years later in Paris, of a heart attack. Some believe it may have been due to a broken heart, the more likely cause of her early demise.
In a September 2011 Opera News article about the real Anne Boleyn, author Adrian Tinniswood quoted the nineteenth-century writer Henry William Herbert, who penned the Memoirs of Henry the Eighth. In it, Herbert wrote: “If nothing in [Anne Boleyn’s] life became her like the leaving of it, at least that became her well.”
One could say the same for the fate of Maria Callas, Anna Bolena’s greatest interpreter. No champagne wishes or caviar dreams were served at either of their funerals.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Belle of the Masked Ball — ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ and the Met’s Continuing Cover Crisis (Conclusion)
Lost in Translation
When last we left the Metropolitan Opera radio season, which for me culminated on May 2 with the broadcast of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”), the company had to face yet another of those infuriatingly abrupt cast substitutions. While the April 24th revival of its controversial David Alden production of Ballo had been headlined by the strikingly stylish Piotr Beczala as Gustavo, the Saturday transmission a week later brought Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura back to the airwaves. Yes, dear friends, Mr. Beczala took sick and our stalwart champion of lost causes, Senhor Tamura, stepped in once again to enter the fray.
Tamura’s earlier understudy of Don Carlo in the opera of the same name, reviewed here on August 1 (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/is-there-a-doctor-in-the-opera-house-don-carlo-un-ballo-in-maschera-and-the-mets-cover-crisis/), was not, to put it bluntly, the “big break” one might have expected given the eleventh-hour nature of the circumstances. However, as indicated in my initial post, I determined to give Tamura another shot at shining in a part that would showcase his not inconsiderable talents.
With that out of the way, let’s say that the odds were stacked against him. Trying to follow in Beczala’s footsteps is, by any rationale, an act of bravery if not downright lunacy. Beczala had received glowing reviews from the press for his lyrically adept portrayal of King Gustav III and his ill-fated passion for Amelia. Drawing comparisons with famed Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, one of the Met’s brightest and dearest lights from the 1940s and ‘50s, Beczala superbly transcended director Alden’s sometimes awkward staging, as well as sidestepped the geometrically intricate patterns weaved by set-maker Paul Steinberg, to give a delicately nuanced, emotionally satisfying and vocally thrilling performance. Still, one held out hope that Tamura could hold his own against the competition.
Before I get to the singing, I have a few words to say about the staging: this was one more in a long line of tiresome modern reconfigurations that have enveloped the Met Opera world of late. Mind you, I am not opposed to innovation for innovation’s sake, nor am I adverse to a strict traditionalist viewpoint either. I do like to see some thought behind a director’s concept. I also like for directors and producers to provide a clearer focus and motivational impetus for why they are interpreting a piece in the way they are interpreting it. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?
But in this production, we’ll need to take the good with the bad. And there were plenty of good things in it to soothe the most savage of beasts in all of us. I was particularly taken by a massive painting of the mythological figure Icarus, which loomed large over each of the succeeding acts as this production’s main motif: Gustavo, whose devil-may-care frivolity gets him into all kinds of illicit activity, skirts too close to the sun for comfort. He gets knocked down. Well, let’s just spell it out, shall we: Gustavo is killed for taking one too many liberties with his best friend’s wife, the lovely Amelia. His chief advisor, Count Anckarström, who happens to be married to Amelia, swears vengeance on the king by conspiring with the plotters Horn and Ribbing to assassinate him at a masked ball.
Wow! Talk about jealousy, that’s basically the plot of Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece Otello, with a few modulations, of course. And the music of Un Ballo in Maschera constantly reflects that coming storm of a work, as well as the tempest that permeates the opera Don Carlo. For instance, take the last scene of Ballo, where the courtiers are dressed all in black, their faces covered by matching black masks, surely one of the most potent examples of operatic irony that Verdi was capable of conceiving. Count Anckarström stands out by virtue of his purplish outfit, purple being the color of royalty or nobility, therefore “ironic” in the sense that the fellow with the “noblest” of intentions is the one who actually murders the king.
As the dying monarch gasps out his last words (“Addio, miei figli” — “Farewell, my children”), forgiving those who perpetrated the crime upon his person, the violins have played a mournful theme high up in the strings’ register which listeners might find reminiscent of Rodrigo’s air, “O Carlo, ascolta,” in the death scene from Don Carlo. The prevailingly black, white and gray color scheme (by costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel) all-but washes out any sense of vibrancy. Ah, but that vibrancy comes chiefly from the singing, which on this occasion mostly lived up to the previous standard set when this production was new.
Something to Rave About
The chief architects of this revival were, in order of vocal excellence, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as his wife Amelia, soprano Heidi Stober as the page Oscar, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as the sorceress Ulrica, basses David Crawford and Keith Miller as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, baritone Trevor Scheunemann as the sailor Cristiano (or Silvano in the so-called “Boston” setting of the piece), and tenor Mark Schowalter as the Judge. The conductor on this occasion was the returning James Levine, always a commanding presence on the podium.
All were fine, with particular praise going to Hvorostovsky’s “Eri tu?” from Act III, his long-lined legato phrasing lovingly displayed in a riveting, tour de force performance unequalled in strength and breath control; and, of course, to the belle of the masked ball, the stunning Ms. Radvanovsky, whose pristine “Morrò ma prima in grazia,” her heartbreaking farewell to her little son, moved the audience to cheers and shouts of “brava, diva.” Now there was something to rave about!
Maestro Levine surely loves this score as much as anything else in Verdi, although his tentative touches in the opera’s introduction slowly but surely caught up with the rest of his exemplary paced output later on. Heidi Stober’s tomboyish Oscar (in top hat and cane, of all things!) and Dolora Zajick’s voluminous Ulrica filled out their roles to perfection, as did the sinister duo of Crawford and Miller as the booming bassos of the piece.
As for Tamura’s spur-of-the-moment contribution, let’s say that Pavarotti he is not. Beczala he is not. Not even Marcelo Álvarez, who brought a wonderfully crisp, bel canto-esque elegance to Gustavo at this production’s premiere. Tamura, at this stage in his career, for better or for worse, is a pleasant, workmanlike artist who gives his all, albeit one who has yet to develop a distinct vocal personality, or a definable stamp of presenting a dynamic characterization of one of opera’s most individually multi-hued personae.
Time and experience, along with constant exposure to artists of the caliber of those mentioned above, will likely alter and shape Tamura’s view of this and other Verdi parts into a transformative whole.
Tamura did gain in strength and confidence as the opera progressed, even though he ducked the optional high C at the conclusion of his Act II love duet with Amelia (to be fair, though, most tenors tend to bypass the top note, one that Verdi never wrote but that tradition dictates be taken anyway). By the time he got to his show-stopping last act aria, “Ma se me forza perderti,” Tamura even managed to kindle some tenderness and involvement in the drama.
You may have noticed that I am being hesitant in negatively criticizing the tenor in my typically “forthright” manner. Again, I must emphasize that Ricardo Tamura was literally shoved onto the spotlight as a surrogate performer, and for the second time on radio and on short notice. The other participants are all veterans of this production, ergo they’ve each had sufficient rehearsal time to find their marks and ease into their characters — much more so than the lead.
I am giving the devil his due here, and allowing for extenuating circumstances to temper my feelings about an obviously gifted performer, one with a promising future in opera. It’s not every day that young artists can be heard nationally (or internationally) over the public airwaves. Consequently, it is my fervent wish that Tamura will take full advantage of the opportunity awarded him — one less fortunate singers would give their right arms for.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘And Before Him All Rome Trembled?’ — Where the Villain Outshines the Hero: Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ on the Radio
“Oh, Scarpia, We Meet Before God!”
Never let it be said that Giacomo Puccini was a mere ladies’ man. Oh, he was that, all right — and more! But one should also regard him as strictly a man’s man. In fact, he loved boating and fishing, hunting and hiking, as well as fast cars and all things mechanical. And let’s not forget those fast women, people. We could say that Puccini lived in the fast lane before speed became a fact of modern life. He’d even be a regular fixture on the E! Network, were he alive today.
In his opera Tosca, broadcast live by the Met on Saturday, December 28, speed is of the essence. The drama flows continuously, from one scene to the other, in riveting spurts. All three of his leading characters, the opera singer Floria Tosca, the painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, and the dreaded chief of police Baron Scarpia, show facets of the composer’s love/hate relationship with both sexes: Tosca, by turns flirtatious and loving, jealous and pious; Cavaradossi, daring and reckless, irreverent and passionate; Scarpia, bigoted and repulsive, lustful and duplicitous.
By now, everyone knows the story of how Puccini, who had a high degree of difficulty finding (then settling on) a proper subject for his operas, had wrangled away the rights from a rival composer, one Alberto Franchetti, to French playwright Victorien Sardou’s blood and thunder stage-work La Tosca.
The play was originally conceived as a vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt, who made quite a show of it in her day. Puccini saw the play while working on Manon Lescaut. He was suitably impressed by it, understood nothing of the text, but felt the action a ripe prospect for operatic treatment. He then promptly forgot all about it, until, shortly after La Bohème’s premiere, Puccini had read in the local papers about Franchetti’s involvement in the project. At that point, the composer swore he had to have it!
In that respect, Puccini had the full support of his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, the head of Casa Ricordi, who conspired with his protégé to “trick” Franchetti into giving up the rights. In the general scheme of things, it was providential that Franchetti eventually saw the light, for a Tosca by any other composer, even the elderly Verdi, would not have sounded quite the same.
For one, Puccini was as an absolute master of the short signature phrases the verismo style called for. Those wonderful hit tunes the Tuscan-born Puccini became famous for were made up of fragments of melodies that, strung together and shaped into the main story line, blended aria and recitative into a seamless whole. Few Italian composers of the era were as adept as Puccini in conveying the rhythms of everyday speech into his work. Also, the secret of his success was the constant and relentless badgering he subjected his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to. From the ruins of this torturous relationship, a workable text was fashioned that would somehow placate the unsatisfied composer.
As a result, the title and supporting roles in Tosca have been much coveted by singers the world over for more than a century. Many of our modern-day Toscas, in this country at least, were the cream of the operatic crop, beginning with the incomparable sopranos Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Dorothy Kirsten, Antonietta Stella, Montserrat Caballé, Raina Kabaivanska, and Galina Vishnevskaya. Her tenor lover Mario has been taken by the likes of Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti.
As for the part of Scarpia, such stalwarts as Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, George London, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, and Ruggero Raimondi have provided the requisite thrills in the baritone department. Needless to say, the above-named vocal categories are all tailor-made for showing off an artist’s capabilities. If a singer fails to impress in Tosca, it’s probably due to miscasting.
If there was any fine singing to be had on Saturday afternoon, it certainly came from the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Floria Tosca, who gave the part luster. While I felt she was too subdued throughout her lengthy Act I scena with the scheduled Cavaradossi (tenor Marcello Giordani), Sondra soon came into her own in her brief sequence with Scarpia, just before the Te Deum. Gorgeous tone and a silky-smooth delivery were the hallmarks of Radvanovsky’s performance thereafter. Her prolonged Act II encounter with the wily baron was a battle of two strong wills, a classic match-up and one that Puccini and his librettists took great care to preserve from the play.
A Callas and a Gobbi, or a Tebaldi and a London, could chew up the scenery, yet still give off sufficient allure or an equivalent amount of regal splendor to their respective roles to believe in their plight. One had a reasonable sense of the diva’s situation, as it began to unfold and spin out of her control.
“Vissi d’arte,” Tosca’s “I live for art” moment, was, as expected, the highpoint of Radvanovsky’s art as well. A long, sumptuous line, the tone beautifully flowing, an authentic enunciation of the text, along with a dark and lustrous vibrancy to her voice, lent an air of distinction to the diva’s suffering at the hands of the ruthless bad guy.
Her highest note, sung near the end of the phrase “Perchè, Signor?” (“Why, O Lord?”), a veritable cry of despair, was trailed off by the softest of sounds. She was greeted with an explosion of applause that held up the action for several minutes, a well-earned ovation. Sondra also excelled in her Act III narrative describing Scarpia’s murder at her hands. Speaking of which, her half-growled, half-sung tossing of the line, “È morto… or gli perdono” (“He’s dead… now I forgive him”) sent a collective chill down the audience’s spine. We must also mention her long-held final note, whereby just before leaping to her death she hurls out the line, “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio” – “Oh, Scarpia, we meet before God.”
Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani as her partner Mario simply was not up to the task of this most dashing of lovers. In addition to my previous commentary about this once illustrious artist’s annoying habit of singing sharp can be added a noticeable and quite disturbing wobble, one that detracted from this listener’s enjoyment of the part. His cries of “Vittoria, vittoria!” were forceful enough; they were just not very pleasant to the ears. He went hoarse at one point in Act III, during his final rapturous duet with Sondra, which is inexcusable.
Giordani must have been having a bad day. In Act III, he tried mightily to sing softly, but the strain of doing so was more than evident. His attempts at pianissimo were raw and beat driven, as well as not very ingratiating. The applause for his otherwise handsomely delivered “E lucevan le stelle,” which tenors from Di Stefano, Del Monaco and Corelli to Domingo, Carreras and Kaufmann, not to mention Pavarotti, made especially memorable, was more polite than vociferous. His was a disappointing assumption of this can’t-miss role. And Giordani missed it by a theatrical mile. Here was a case where the snarly villain clearly outshone the wimpy hero.
And speak of the devil, George Gagnidze, from the former Soviet Union’s Georgia of all places, was an old-fashioned, snarly-toned Baron Scarpia. A real mustache twirler (to be perfectly blunt about it), with a beefy essence and imposing physique (I saw Gagnidze in the HD telecast a few years back when this production was new), frankly there was nothing subtle or mellifluous about his conception of the part. He was all brute force, with little of the aristocratic bearing that marks Puccini’s most dastardly creation to be such a formidable foe. His Italian enunciation was slightly accented, but not in a distracting way. In truth, it made his Scarpia novel but not entirely out of place as Rome’s guardian of the peace. Note: The historical Scarpia was a Sicilian by birth, so the accent can be defended on those grounds alone.
Indeed, Scarpia should be “different” from the other characters. In the hands of a superb singing-actor such as Gobbi, my generation’s model baron, or the leonine Mr. Taddei — even the distinguished and smooth-voiced bass Raimondi, who’s recorded the part in almost every medium, including several outstanding film forays — the dubious nature of this vicious bully shines through, but with the proverbial “iron fist in the velvet glove.” Vocally, Gagnidze bludgeoned the role to death, long before he got hold of his “nemesis,” Mario. And Tosca without a credible villain is one-half of a great opera.
On the plus side, Met maestro Marco Armiliato knows his way around this score as well as anyone. He helped move matters along smoothly, and kept the various bits of stage business in check, especially during the crowded Te Deum that concludes Act I. The music’s ebb and flow, which this opera is justly famous for, were expertly handled. Puccini is in this conductor’s blood, no doubt about it, and Armiliato proved it time and again with an atmospheric reading of the lovely third act introduction, an evocation of Rome at dawn. In the best productions, the city itself is a major contributor to the drama.
Sadly, this lame excuse of a programmer lacked the usual finesse. The décor was, shall we say, appallingly bad and of the bargain-basement variety. The stage action was even worse, which featured (at the time of its premiere) Scarpia kissing the statue of the Madonna, while caressing her bosom as the Te Deum peeled forth. If this is what is meant by Regietheater, I’ll take the tried-and-true formulas anytime.
It’s my understanding this notorious bit of hokum has been thankfully removed (or maybe not). Good heavens! It never made much sense to begin with. We know that Scarpia is a sexual deviant, but as an aristocrat and holder of high office he would never — and I mean never! — have exposed his inner self in such an obviously obtuse manner.
French director Luc Bondy, whose previous work with Verdi’s Don Carlos I very much admire, went way over the top, not just here but in Act II as well, where Scarpia has not one but three prostitutes hanging around to service him. How about showing those “ladies” the door, Luc?
John Del Carlo was the burly, bustling Sacristan, but nothing too original or enlightening. It smacked too much of Paul Plishka’s old interpretation, seen as well as heard for many seasons at the Met. Del Carlo added little to Plishka’s legacy. He sounded dry-toned and overly fussy. Perhaps that’s how director Bondy saw the character. I, myself, didn’t see it that way.
On the other hand, Eduardo Valdes’ Spoletta was too restrained to comment positively on. I found him too vague and tonally adrift to be effective. It’s a small role, granted, but character players from Alessio de Paolis, Andrea Velis, Paul Franke, Charles Anthony, Anthony Laciura, and the unforgettable Piero de Palma, made much of this distasteful individual. Where’s the fun in just singing the notes?
David Crawford, substituting for an indisposed Richard Bernstein, as Angelotti (the first voice heard after the thundering opening introduction) had trouble rolling his “r’s” in a most un-Italianate fashion. He could have sounded more out of breath, too; after all, his character has just escaped from prison. He’s fleeing for his life, whereas Crawford sounded as fresh as a daisy — not convincing, fellas. Jeffrey Wells was a wooly sounding, hollow voiced Sciarrone.
In sum, not the best served Tosca in memory, but not the worst either. At least we had Sondra Radvanovsky to salvage the day. And a Tosca without a Tosca is simply not worth staging — period. As one of my favorite Puccini works (I’m biased, I know, since I love all of the master’s output), it should be treated with care and respect, and a modicum of fidelity. I’m all for avant-garde productions and I’m certainly no prude, but to have mediocre singers and pointless directorial touches does nothing to preserve the quality. Why make compromises where none are called for? Such is opera life!
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
Last Saturday, December 8, was the first broadcast of the new Metropolitan Opera radio season. It was of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) in a new production directed by David Alden. It was good to have the Met Opera back on the air I have to say, after a long, hot summer and a tediously unproductive fall.
I’ve been listening to the Met broadcasts since (yikes!) 1965-66, and regularly after the 1967-68 season. The first opera I heard was Aida, also by Verdi and scheduled for airing this coming Saturday, December 15. I was very young at the time, but I can still remember the names of the individual cast members, which included American soprano Leontyne Price as Aida, tenor James McCracken as Radames, and baritone Robert (“Oh, say, can you see”) Merrill as Amonasro. I can’t tell you any more about the performance without consulting the Met Opera’s archives, but I do recall taping most of Act II for later playback, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.
But this post is more about the current scene, so let’s get back to Ballo, one of the Italian master’s finest and most intricately detailed works. Composed between 1857 and 1859, Un Ballo in Maschera is a transitional piece that came just after his so-called middle period (1851-1853), a time that produced three of his most popular operas, i.e., Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. It shares similar thematic material with Rigoletto, in the basic plot of an assassination attempt on its tenor lead; and looks forward to the Judgment Scene in Aida (1871), particularly the heavy use of brass, which adds considerable weight to the conflicts that take place between the main characters. There are nods to the future Otello (1887), too, in the Third Act drawing of names sequence with its sonic echoes of Otello’s farewell to arms speech (“Ora e per sempre addio”) and the Vengeance Duet that closes Act II of that work.
Verdi wrote Ballo on commission for the theater in Naples. He chose as his subject the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which took place there in 1792. However, due to the sensitive nature of the story, highlighted by the actual onstage murder of a royal figure, the Neapolitan censors refused to stage it unless drastic changes were made. An old hand at dealing with bureaucratic stonewalling (especially after the modifications to Rigoletto’s plot and characters), Verdi directed his first-time librettist, Antonio Somma, to comply with the censors’ demands. Somma did as he was told and the original title of Gustavo III was changed to Una Vendetta in Domino (“A Revenge in Costume”).
Still not satisfied with the results, the censors called for even more cuts and alterations, no doubt spurred by a terrorist’s bomb hurled at French emperor Napoleon III’s carriage. Both Verdi and Somma were thoroughly dismayed by the actions demanded of them and subsequently withdrew the work. A short while later, after further adjustments to the story, which transformed King Gustav into the fictitious Riccardo, governor of colonial Boston, and placed the opera in pre-Revolutionary War times (!), they offered the re-worked and re-titled Un Ballo in Maschera to the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where it met with sizable success.
There were other incongruities involved in this new context as well, the most noteworthy being the character of King Gustav (now Riccardo) himself. An extravagant individual and patron of the arts, the historical Swedish king was an admitted Freemason as well as rumored to be of a homosexual bent, although this has never been proven. That did not stop Verdi from giving him a love interest, Amelia, the wife of his would-be assassin Count Anckarström. In the Boston scenario, Amelia remained Amelia, but the Count had his name changed to Renato, the conspirators Horn and Ribbing were now called (don’t laugh) Sam and Tom, Oscar the page stayed Oscar the page, and Ulrica the mysterious medium became Ulrica the witch (or a soothsayer or prophetess, either one was acceptable). The work has since been performed in both its Swedish and American locales, while the Met uses the original Swedish one for its current production.
In the opera proper (and in the history books), the murder of the king occurs at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where the titular masked ball takes place. It’s this scene – the final one in the opera – that most resembles its predecessor Rigoletto, although everything about Ballo has an orderly flow and logical connection to the earlier work. The music here is bouncy and bright, full of ironic contrasts and startling juxtapositions, and done by the simplest of means: a minuet serves as the musical backdrop to the king’s murder, thus increasing the tension almost to the breaking point. Compare it to Rigoletto’s opening scene in Act I, which is equally light and airy, but with nary a hint of the darkness to come.
Enter Oscar, the king’s lighthearted page, voiced by a coloratura in boy’s clothing, what is often termed as a “trouser” role. Verdi fashioned this character after the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, but he clearly took after the adolescent Cherubino of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Needless to say, Oscar’s music is the main attraction in Ballo, and the most titillating Verdi ever wrote: at once charming and carefree, full of youthful vigor and warmth, the master would not compose themes of this flavor and wit until his very last work, the comic Falstaff, some 44 years later.
The story, in brief, involves King Gustav’s affair with the married wife of his chief counselor and friend, Anckarström, who hatches a plot to kill the king after he catches his spouse in an illicit encounter with the monarch. The role of both King Gustav and his friend are plum parts for tenor and baritone, as are Amelia, Oscar and Ulrica.
Now on to the review: Marcelo Alvarez did well as Gustavo. The Argentine tenor has a real feel for the words, and his lyric singing – the opening “La rivedra nell’ estasi,” for example – was exceptionally heartfelt and exquisitely phrased. However, he does not like to linger on high notes (unlike the late Luciano Pavarotti, who relished every aspect of this part). Elsewhere, Alvarez refused to dawdle. The attitude was, let’s get this show on the road, which was fine by me (and no doubt the conductor’s choice).
Unfortunately, he ducked the high C in the great second-act duet with Amelia, sung by the excellent Sondra Radvanovsky – what’s with that? Pavarotti was known to have thrust his face (and prickly beard) into the back of his female lead’s hair at this point, but he still managed to get that C-note out. In conductor Georg Solti’s Decca/London recording of the work, Carlo Bergonzi was all-but overwhelmed by the Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, but he still made it to C (or tried to, albeit in drowned-out form). As I recall, Marcelo (as Cavaradossi) sang the note in Tosca’s Act III duet with Karita Mattila, so I was a little taken aback by the omission. He did deliver a ravishing last act lament, though, so reminiscent of Otello’s death scene, with the final word cut off just as Gustavo expires – a nice touch, that.
How like the Duke of Mantua the king is, but without that character’s insouciance and self-centered egotism. A truly rewarding role for any tenor to tackle, which Alvarez could have made more of than he likely did. His “È scherzo od è follia,” Gustavo’s mocking reaction to Ulrica’s prophecy that the next person to shake the king’s hand would be his assassin, lacked the customary “laughs” and “giggles,” a practice started by Alessandro Bonci, and later taken up by Beniamino Gigli. Perhaps Alvarez was going for a more straightforward approach. Not that the scene was badly sung, it just missed that final spark of “fun” that would have truly ignited his performance.
Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia was sublime, the only word that comes to mind when talking about this marvelous artist. Sondra has done magnificent work in Verdi and Puccini before, but in Ballo she really outdid herself. All the emotional impact and dramatic thrust this role can have on an audience were there in spades. Mind you, Amelia is not the most gratifying of soprano roles – she makes a brief appearance in Act I, in a remarkable trio with Ulrica and the disguised king. But she really comes into her own in Act II, where she is onstage throughout. Act III starts off with her pathetic farewell to her son, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which earned Sondra a huge round of applause at its close. Brava!
The Anckarström was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in good, solid voice but in my opinion he took an inordinately long time to warm up. He may have been under the weather, but Dmitri picked up steam in Act III during “Eri tu?” This aria stands as a carbon copy of Rigoletto’s great scena, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” from Act II of that opera, they’re so strikingly similar (in musical terms, that is, not textually), especially in the way both pieces start off fast and furious, but end up slow and calm. A prolonged and well-deserved ovation was in order! Stephanie Blythe was Ulrica, and a good one, to boot! I love her low notes. It’s one of the few true contralto roles that Verdi wrote, one to be savored no matter how brief it is. And no contralto worth her salt can hope to make it in the opera world without making one’s hairs stand on end in this part. Blythe met the challenge head on.
On the high-end of the scale, Kathleen Kim was delightfully chirpy as Oscar. I remember her as Madame Mao in Nixon in China – a killer role, to be sure, but she pulled both of them off with aplomb. Basses Keith Miller and David Crawford chuckled convincingly as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, respectively, without actually delineating their personalities to any audible degree (at least not over the airwaves).
Maestro Fabio Luisi conducted. He, too, refused to dawdle, although I like this opera to be more expansive in spots. Luisi sped things along á la Toscanini, much unlike James Levine, who used to find great drama in this piece. Less tautness and more deliberation next time, maestro, please. The Met’s chorus was in tiptop shape, a tribute to its chorus master, Donald Palumbo, who in the last six years has done yeoman work in making this aspect of the performance stand out from the rest. A job well done! Let’s see what awaits us with Aida. The season is young and there’s more to come… Stay tuned!
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes