Imitation: The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Lately, Scottish opera and theater director Sir David McVicar has been serving as a viable alternative to Franco Zeffirelli and other directors as the production designer of choice at the Metropolitan Opera. This season, the Met has staged new productions and revivals of several of Mr. McVicar’s directorial efforts, including back-to-back broadcasts of Puccini’s Tosca on January 27, 2018, and the February 3rd radio transmission of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
It is fascinating to note that at one time, Verdi had shown an inclination to tackle French playwright Victorian Sardou’s five-act tragedy La Tosca, but due to his advanced age decided against it. A rival composer, Alberto Franchetti, under contract to music publisher Giulio Ricordi, was tricked into giving up the rights to the play by both Ricordi and Puccini, the fellow who ultimately wrote the score. They were aided and abetted by librettist Luigi Illica, who had submitted a working scenario of the piece.
Along with his co-librettist, poet Giuseppe Giacosa, the duo sliced and diced, as well as pruned away vast quantities of expository dialogue from the overly-wordy play. The final draft, excluding a long-winded third-act ode to art for Cavaradossi, formed the gist of the libretto we know today as Tosca. Puccini’s music reflects the rapid nature of the plot, which takes place over a 24-hour period.
The opera proper begins with the thunderous three-note chords of the brutal Baron Scarpia’s motif. Some listeners, including this writer, feel there are actually five notes attached to his theme. Nevertheless, it’s a forceful beginning to a speedily advancing story line — the better to put aside the eccentricities of the plot, which skirts the fringes of the obvious and outlandish.
At the start of Tosca, there were extraneous stage noises and grousing from the strong-voiced baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan. His mumbling and grumbling drowned out the lilting rhythmic tune that accompanies his footsteps. Before the Sacristan emerges, however, bass Christian Zaremba had a few words to deliver. He sounded out of breath and at the end of his rope as the escaped political prisoner Angelotti — quite appropriate for someone fleeing the Roman police. Angelotti’s perilous situation gets the story moving from the first minute he is on stage.
Of course, everyone waits with bated breath for the tenor to make his entrance. He did not disappoint. Italian matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo’s light-voiced, Pavarotti-like timbre was a major plus in his role debut as the handsome painter-cum-revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, a thoroughly romanticized portrayal. But how would he compare to the dark-toned Jonas Kaufmann, who was originally slated for this part until Kaufmann opted out of his contract? Quite well was the final verdict. In fact, Grigolo brought to mind some noteworthy Cavaradossis, including the even lighter-toned Ferruccio Tagliavini, and the much admired Fernando De Lucia.
The raked and tilted stage platform (the sets and costume designs were the work of John Macfarlane) presented a skewed view of Tosca’s world. The period costumes lent authenticity to McVicar’s more traditional touches. French-born conductor Emmanuel Villaume led the Met Opera Orchestra in a most indulgent manner. His leisurely accompaniment slowed the pace in Act I, but picked up immeasurably in the heightened pulsations of Act II, the dramatic and emotional climax of the work.
This was also Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva’s role debut as Tosca. She was a substitute for the Latvian Kristine Opolais, who had dropped out of the production, taking her husband, conductor Andris Nelsons, with her. Nelsons’ pinch-hitter, former Met music director James Levine, also removed himself from contention due to late-inning accusations of sexual assault.
Callas-like, headstrong, and by turns equally amorous and playful, applause greeted both Yoncheva and Grigolo’s entrances. Yoncheva certainly captured Floria Tosca’s jealous nature, and love of life and art, with full-toned abandon. She suggested a more restrained delivery of the text than the norm, although her Italian vowels needed a cleaner and rounder definition. She has the range required and sufficient color in the voice to encompass her character’s mood swings (a frequent occurrence in Act II).
Grigolo was the perfect partner for Yoncheva’s Tosca. Dashing and handsome, he was also good humored. His first aria, “Recondita armonia,” where the painter compares the various features of his portrait of Mary Magdalene to that of his lover Tosca, was superbly realized. He even took the phrase “S’affisa intero; occhio all’amor soave,” during his first act duet with Tosca, in a single breath. I wondered if he was going to make it through to Act III (especially during a potent, full-throttle shout of “Vittoria!” after his second-act torture sequence).
For her side, Yoncheva was able to get in touch with her inner Callas, turning the spigot on full blast in the opera’s later acts, but minus that singer’s notorious wobbles. And indeed, hers was a Tosca very much in the Callas mold, as the broadcast of Bellini’s Norma involving other artists had earlier indicated (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/casta-diva-bellinis-norma-tries-for-a-comeback-at-the-met/). The late, great diva Maria Callas has been a pivotal role model for young artists for many, many seasons. And she continues to exert a strong pull to this day — more so, when some of her signature portrayals are involved.
Tempestuous and temperamental, with raw emotion on permanent display, Sonya’s middle voice evoked memories of La Divina. I don’t know if this was coincidental or deliberate on her part. However, it may be disadvantageous to Yoncheva in the long run to be associated with the Callas style. It certainly hasn’t been detrimental to her colleague, Sondra Radvanovsky, whose Tosca was the embodiment of grand opera singing (see my review of her performance: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/and-before-him-all-rome-trembled-where-the-villain-outshines-the-hero-puccinis-tosca-on-the-radio/). In so much as they may learn from their illustrious predecessor, at some point both artists will need to forge their own individual identities.
I detected a wobble on her highest note in Tosca’s iconic aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I live for art”). But otherwise, Yoncheva turned out to be a believable diva. This is one of those roles where an opera star gets to play an opera star. (Author’s note: In Sardou’s play, Tosca is coached by composer Giovanni Paisiello). We make note of a curiosity: for the first time in my live listening experience, the short snippet of phrases spoken by Scarpia (“Risolvi?” – “Is your mind made up?”); and Tosca (“Mi vuoi supplice ai tuoi piedi” – “See, I am begging at your feet”) following her aria, normally cut in performance were heard. Lasting no more than a few seconds, it goes to McVicar’s respect for the composer’s intentions, demonstrated in the same director’s Cavalleria and Pagliacci production which restored formerly excised material. This may have been a Met Opera first. Score one for completists!
The Bad Guy You Love to Hate
Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, a substitute for Bryn Terfel, another defector from this new production (this time due to vocal problems), sang Baron Scarpia. He sounded soft-grained in Act I, his notes coming up from below instead of head on. His verbal attacks were mushy and indistinct, and needed a pointedly sharper conveyance of the all-important text to make their effect. He was less impressive in the concluding Te Deum, where Scarpia blames Tosca for making him forget God (it’s all her fault, you know — I wonder what the police chief would say about the #MeToo movement). He needed to dominate the ecclesiastical proceedings, which concludes with sonorous replications of the Scarpia motif, heard throughout the opera in various forms.
Fortunately, Lučić was markedly better in Act II, expanding the line and range of his voice and letting it ring out with more abandon and in less opaque a fashion than he had previously. This made his character’s villainy all the more plain. When things started to spin out of control, this Scarpia hurled his threats and frustrations at anyone in sight and in ever-mounting rage.
In his and Tosca’s long second-act duel of wills, Lučić roused himself from his first-act stupor. Transformed into an insidious lecher (the “bigoted satyr” described by Cavaradossi early on), Lučić’s Scarpia enjoyed toying with his quarry, the harried and cornered opera diva, Tosca. He took a divergent perspective from George Gagnidze, his predecessor in the part in the disastrous Luc Bondy production, mercifully put out to pasture. Gagnidze pummeled the opposition in no-holds-barred mode, whereas Lučić took an understated approach. At first, he turned on the charm before revealing his debauched nature. You gotta love this guy!
He did have some trouble with high notes, and was under the pitch throughout many passages. True, the on-air volume levels were frequently adjusted (lots of meddlesome knob turning) to conform to the sound engineer’s taste. This detracted from my enjoyment of the performance as a whole, but did not completely damage it.
I couldn’t tell if Scarpia went off to look at the birds, as the late baritone Tito Gobbi used to complain about at this point in the story. Chalk it up to the conductor, maestro Villaume, who paused at strategic moments in Act II to allow the drama to hit with added force. One example turned out to be the unusually long break before Scarpia’s “E bene?” query (“Well, then?”), prior to Tosca consenting to give him her body in exchange for her lover’s life. The chief of police’s death rattle was exceptionally effective, with both Lučić and Yoncheva responding to each other’s prompts, and Villaume in support of their onstage chemistry. Their battle of wits was the best part of the show.
In Act III, Villaume led a marvelously evocative introduction, the woodwinds, double basses, and horns all in concert with each other and contributing to an aural picture of sunrise over Rome. The boy soprano, singing an engaging shepherd’s song in authentic Roman dialect, along with a myriad of bell sounds, each tuned to precisely the ones used in the Eternal City’s churches, was one of several sonic instances of scene painting. Absolutely fabulous! But what dramatic purpose do they all serve? For the reasons behind this musical interlude, we quote from William Berger’s Puccini without Excuses:
“[T]he intermezzo was a stock-in-trade of the verismo school, made indispensable by the success of the intermezzo in Pagliacci and the wildly popular one in Cavalleria Rusticana. The idea of ‘pure music’ was understood as a component of dramatic truth, another chance for ‘modern’ Italian composers to distance themselves from the conventions of bel canto, and even perhaps a nod to French and German trends in opera at the time.” (Berger, William. Puccini without Excuses, p. 103).
For Cavaradossi’s third act farewell to his lover and his life, “E lucevan le stelle,” Grigolo’s long-held diminuendo, carried out (again) on a single breath of air, was a thrilling yet heartrending moment. The ovation he received afterwards was well deserved. I still find his tenor two shades too light for verismo, but with age and experience Grigolo might meld into a sprightly spinto of distinction.
It was here that I also noticed another deviation from standard performance practice: when Tosca comes to show Cavaradossi the good conduct letter that Scarpia had signed (prior to her killing him), soprano and tenor did not join together as tradition dictates, but Yoncheva alone sang the line, “E al cavaliere che l’accompagna” (“And the gentleman to accompany her”). One is tempted (in Watergate-style fashion) to ask, “What did the composer write and how did he want it sung?” We may never know. But one may be witnessing the dawn of a new era, one where the will of the composer may be taking precedence over mindless “tradition.”
Despite Tosca’s assurances that he will escape death by firing squad, Cavaradossi instinctively senses this will be their final moments together. Consequently, their triumphant shout of “Difonderem!” on high C celebrates the couple’s all-consuming passion for one another, even in the face of his imminent demise. This duet, written sometime in 1899 before the opera’s premiere in January 1900, may remind listeners of the exciting conclusion to Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, which premiered four years earlier at La Scala on March 28, 1896.
The action moves swiftly at this stage to its crushing conclusion. Puccini provides audiences with the final line from the painter’s sorrowful tune: “E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!” (“And never have I loved life more than I do now!”), the Italianate version of a slow-motion march to the scaffold (compare this achievement with one that Hector Berlioz conjured up for his Symphonie fantastique).
Christopher Job provided the wobbly Sciarrone, and Brenton Ryan made for a shaky-voiced Spoletta. Within the context of the drama, and the fact that their boss was the intimidating chief of police, they were perfectly justified in their nervous reactions. Richard Bernstein sang the part of the jailer. In all, this was a most auspicious reading of one of Puccini’s most frequently performed works.
So how did Il Trovatore, another of David McVicar’s Met presentations, hold up? Stay tuned for the next installment!
End of Part One
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Don’t Lose Your Head, John!
While Elektra was without hesitation Richard Strauss’ most concentrated effort in a theatrical vein, his fame, as it were, in the operatic realm rested on his previous opera, Salome.
As a young musician, Strauss gave the world a series of tone poems that quite literally expanded the range and repertoire for orchestral works: Aus Italien, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — see the following link to my review of this sci-fi classic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-man-losing-his-humanity/), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) — all written before Salome’s 1905 debut in the decade between 1888 and 1898.
There was also Sinfonia Domestica, a blissful elegy to middle-class married life, composed in 1903 and immediately preceding the strident Salome. Twelve years later, in 1915, as war erupted all around Europe and along the Turkish frontier, Strauss gave his public An Alpine Symphony, a musical depiction in 22 individual episodes of a hike up the hills (alive with danger if not music), which had taken place years earlier when the composer was a strapping young lad. He made note at the time of possible sketches and themes, but was never able to complete the project until word came in May 1911 that his longtime ally and rival, Gustav Mahler, had passed away.
It was so like the composer to have used the impetus of a friend’s death to recall a long-ago trek in which he and a hearty band of mountain climbers go up and down the Alpine trail to face frightful weather conditions that culminated in a picturesque, Technicolor sunset. Um, right….
The exuberance and daring of youth was not wasted on the budding talent. Having met Hugo von Hofmannsthal circa 1900, Strauss went about turning Oscar Wilde’s scandalous French-language play Salomé into a viable operatic vehicle. He would follow a pattern of taking and using a poet’s words verbatim. Without benefit of editing or trimming, he would set the text whole-scale to his music. This would account for some of Strauss’ unrelieved wordiness in such oeuvres as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Arabella (all written to Hofmannsthal’s texts). He did base his Salome, however, on a German translation provided by poet and author Hedwig Lachmann (who was also responsible for translating Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, into German).
To be fair, Strauss abridged much of Wilde’s verbal imagery (mostly to speed up the narrative) by lacing his opera with music of a most peculiar brand of exoticism and bitonality (peculiar, mind you, for turn-of-the-century tastes). Two years after the Dresden premiere, Strauss arranged his score for a French version of Salome which made the rounds of France and other locales. Some musicologists insist that the Gallic language fit the sensual nature of the piece better than the guttural Deutsch. I happen to believe the opposite: that the German text emphasized greater “shock” value, if that’s what it required, in order to pull the work off.
Dance to the Music
No matter which language was employed, the title character remains one of the most elusive and challenging to cast of any in the standard repertory. As in his next project, Elektra (equally ponderous to cast), Salome is onstage throughout, either singing or reacting to what is being sung from the moment she struts forth. The performer taking up this role must display the physical attributes and over-eager impetuousness of a sixteen-year-old, yet sing with the voice of an Isolde so as to penetrate the thick orchestration.
Decadence, eroticism, and sacrilegious attraction to parts of the human anatomy, known as “objectification” in psychosexual terms, are essential elements in the overall plot and stifling ambience that pervade both the opera and the play. French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who had a profound influence on the so-called “decadent” movement of the late nineteenth-century (of which Wilde was a part), described Salome as “the symbolic incarnation of undying lust … the accursed beauty exalted above all beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything she touches.”
In addition to this overripe explanation, the singer must be a convincing actress as well as a lithe dancer. In many, if not most, productions the soprano is replaced by a member of the corps de ballet for the exhausting “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Not at the Met, though. This thumpety-thump, bump-and-grind episode seems like something straight out of vaudeville burlesque. A concert hall favorite for many generations, it is highly anticipated by audiences.
Mahler had discussions with Strauss about where in the opera the dance should be placed. Nevertheless, it was Strauss’ intention to “isolate the piece in all its enigmatic grandiosity and psychological depth.” To wit, he located the number at the point where Herod gazes in lust at the voluptuous figure of the princess Salome. She, in turn, manipulates the lascivious Tetrarch of Galilee into granting her wish of placing John the Baptist’s severed head (he is called by his Hebrew name, Jokanaan) on a silver platter. So be it!
The Metropolitan Opera’s production, directed by Jürgen Flimm, with sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto and choreography by Doug Varone, dates from 2004. Another of those “modern” stagings (ha-ha, with “Danish” modern furniture?), the set is divided into two separate halves, part of which resembles a swanky bar and cocktail lounge that spirals off into a staircase above and below the stage; the other is a somewhat stylized depiction of a Middle Eastern desert where Jokanaan’s cistern lies as he hurls his imprecations at Herod, his wife Herodias and their tipsy court. The cistern resembles a makeshift lift (in the old British tradition of “lifts”) where the Baptist preacher is raised and lowered. Access to this portion of the set is made by walking across a plank — treacherous footing, it’s true, but effective nonetheless.
The portly King Herod, as portrayed here by the phenomenally accomplished German tenor Gerhard Siegel (Mime in the Met’s Ring cycle production of Siegfried), was dressed up to resemble comic Zero Mostel in a top hat and pink flowered shawl. Siegel spat his words out with bite and relish. From his initial utterances (“Wo ist Salome? Wo ist die Prinzessin?” – “Where is Salome? Where is the Princess?”), to his pained and drawn out cry at the end of “Man töte dieses Weib!” (“Kill that woman!”), Siegel took the vocal and acting honors for his skillful realization of the depraved and lustful Tetrarch.
Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Herodias, Salome’s mother, had a beautiful voice (too beautiful for such an iniquitous creature), but she stayed within the role’s confines. Possessor of a gorgeous instrument and pliant, ardent tone, debuting tenor Kang Wang’s voice rang out vibrantly as the smitten young Captain Narraboth. “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute abend,” with its exposed high note, held no terrors for the native from China, who grew up in Australia. Another debuting artist, bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, lent solid heft to the First Soldier’s lines. He was seconded by veteran bass Richard Bernstein, along with a sympathetic Page by the sprightly mezzo Carolyn Sproule.
As Jokanaan, or John the Baptist (Strauss expunged all mention of his Biblical title), baritone Željko Lučić seemed like an odd, left-field choice for this assignment. I have not been the most enthusiastic supporter of the Serbian-born singer, but I admired his past efforts as Rigoletto and Macbeth, to say nothing of his recent Iago. As an interpreter of Verdi, Lučić may be limited in expression but his choice of roles always makes sense from an interpreter’s point of view. He has the artistry and the range to carry them through.
Here, however, I felt his strong tones were nothing more than a blob of amorphous sound, with little to no differentiation between notes. It came at you unleashed, as one solid, massive force — impressive but lacking in the finer details. The words were often opaque and without form. His departing curse at the debauched princess’ entreaties to kiss his mouth, “Du bist verflucht,” fell flat when it should have shaken the rafters. Željko may have been having an off-day (this was a Saturday matinee), since many of the subsequent reviews praised his performance, so I will reserve judgment until proven otherwise.
Sex in the City
Substituting for the ailing Catherine Naglestad, the surprise performer of the afternoon was none other than soprano Patricia Racette. Labeled a “veteran” by some reviewers (she has been a Met mainstay for over a quarter century) Racette would be filling some pretty hefty shoes. After all, the original Salome when this production was new, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, was much slimmer of build, blonde and blue-eyed, and the possessor of an uniquely Nordic temperament (with innate acting skills to match). Mattila’s striptease version of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she unveiled herself in the raw for a few precious moments of titillation, was censored in theaters and on public television when the Live in HD series broadcast the 2008 revival (it was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in 2011). The Met got cold feet where nudity was concerned (although no sex acts were present in Flimm’s gaudy and bawdy roadshow).
What the buxom 50+-year-old Racette brought was a commanding upper voice that gained strength as the opera progressed, albeit with less focus and pitch, but with limitless reserves and staying power. Racette easily rode the orchestral crests in the long closing scene where Salome, in possession of Jokanaan’s severed head, fondles and kisses its lips. She bared her breasts (Racette prides herself on her authenticity as a person and as a performer) and even unveiled herself in the altogether — all within the parameters of depicting the reckless princess’ baseness and moral abandon.
“There’s nothing quite as fun and interesting to portray onstage as a really poorly behaved person,” she told Los Angeles Times reporter Catherine Womack. “And Salome is that, if nothing else. This, for me, is truly a theatrical feast.”
On the debit side, Racette’s lowest notes were lost in the upper reaches of the Met’s auditorium. Still, she was ably partnered by the young German conductor Johannes Debus (another debutant), who kept a tight rein on the Met Opera Orchestra, never allowing the superior forces at his beck and call to overwhelm the artist. A few stray notes and wobbly flutters aside, this was a major comeback for a singer whose obvious pluses outweighed the relatively few minuses.
Well done, Patricia! And keep up the great work. Your authenticity is sorely needed (and missed!).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘V’ is for Verdi: The Met Opera’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ and ‘Otello’ — How the Mighty Have Fallen (Part Two)
Two Peas in a Pod
The subtitle of this post, “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” expresses not only the fate of Verdi’s title characters in Simon Boccanegra and Otello, but also the ultimate outcome of those who deign to hold public office.
Despite claims of only being a simple farmer and land owner, Verdi, that student of the affairs of state, was a shrewd observer of the body politic. He served as an unwilling member of the Italian Parliament when the fledgling republic had achieved its longed-for reunification. He was forced to deal with the absurd demands of the censors when faced with making radical changes to Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera. He had also written about the difficulty of serving two masters in the first version of Boccanegra, as well as in the Judgment Scene from Aida and in the multiple revisions to Don Carlo, where public duty clashed with private anguish.
Today, we ourselves are bearing witness to similar wheeling and dealing, as a new administration begins to take hold via the age-old process of a peaceful transition of power. An endless parade of loyalists and appointees have come and gone, with each one vying for a piece of the coming administration’s pie. In this scenario, the main preoccupation appears to be the settling of old scores, along with the nursing of past grievances and perceived slights. To curry favor or gain the upper hand, politicians are prone to pit one against the other, a real-world Survivor contest in the timeless tradition of “may the best man win.”
These grievances and slights can serve as the modus operandi for any number of operatic plot points. Luckily for us, maestro Verdi has taken the drudgery out of the task. He has brought the problem to light by setting down for modern audiences the basis for the story lines of both Simon Boccanegra and Otello. Grazie, signore!
The two works, composed roughly 30 years apart (which takes into account Simon Boccanegra’s 1881 revival), are more alike than they seem to the untrained eye. Take the character of Paolo Albiani in Simon. A goldsmith by profession and a plebeian by birth, Paolo is an agitator as well as a political opportunist. In the Prologue, he is the person who proposes that Simon run for the office of Doge of Genoa. As his main supporter, Paolo expects to be handsomely rewarded for his efforts in guiding Boccanegra to the top. Unfortunately, the rivalry between the plebeians and patricians rages on after 25 years of struggle; while Simon, now older and wiser, continues to be looked upon as a pirate and usurper.
In the emotionally compelling Scene i of Act I, the aged Doge has come to inform Amelia Grimaldi that she is to be married to Paolo as a reward for his unwavering loyalty. She, on the other hand, is repelled by the money-grubbing Paolo who is only interested in her family’s wealth and status. When Amelia insists she is in love with another suitor (the fiery Gabriele Adorno), and especially when Boccanegra realizes that Amelia is his long-lost daughter Maria, he is obliged to renege on his promise to Paolo. Swearing vengeance, the now seething Paolo hatches a plan to kidnap Amelia and force Boccanegra’s hand, among other matters.
It is in the justly celebrated Council Chamber scene that the kidnapping plot is revealed and foiled. The antagonists face one another in judgment, hurling allegations of murder, inciting to riot, and various other misdeeds. Seemingly cornered and unable to escape his accusers, Paolo becomes the focus of the great ensemble that begins with Boccanegra’s outcry of “Fratricidi!” (“Fraticide!”), and soon after by his splendid oration whereby he quotes the poet Francesco Petrarca, aka Petrarch, pleading for peace and love between combatants: “E vo gridando: pace! E vo gridando: amor!”
The Act ends with Boccanegra ordering Paolo to pronounce a curse on the head of the man responsible for the uproar — in other words, on Paolo himself. Recoiling in abject horror, Paolo repeats the curse, “Sia maledetto!” (“Let him be accursed!”), which is picked up by the entire cast and chorus, then whispered twice more in unison. Paolo can only blurt out the word, “Orrore!” (“The horror!”), over the blasting of the orchestra. In the subsequent acts, Paolo executes on his promise to seek revenge by lacing Boccanegra’s drink with a slow-acting poison. What a guy!
No less a scoundrel is the duplicitous Iago of Verdi’s Otello. In Shakespeare, this villain’s motivation is basically his anger at being passed over for promotion. In Verdi and Boito’s reconfiguration of the play for the operatic stage, Iago is evil incarnate, as his magnificent “Credo” makes plain. “I believe in a cruel God,” he thunders forth near the start of the second act, “who has made me in His image and who in wrath I now worship!” Iago’s hatred of the Moor goes beyond his elevation of Cassio to the rank of captain. In fact, it borders on the pathological.
Paolo, too, has his “Iago moment,” coming as it does, coincidentally enough, at the opening of Act II of Simon Boccanegra. Next to Iago’s perfidy, however, Paolo is an outright amateur. Both men were written about extensively in the correspondence between the composer and his librettist Boito. “It is a pity,” Verdi insisted, “to have such powerful verses in the mouth of a common rogue … I have, therefore, decided that this one shall be no petty villain.” Boito stressed Paolo’s skill as a manipulator of public opinion, along with his willingness to switch sides to suit his own purpose. “Paolo should take an active part in the later uprising of the Guelphs to betray and dethrone the Doge,” he suggested to Verdi. “He will be caught, imprisoned and condemned to death. Thus we shall at last see the Doge put someone to death!”
Lest we overlook the composer’s sheer admiration of Shakespeare, we now turn to Verdi’s fascination with the fiendishly clever Iago: “His manner would be absent-minded, nonchalant, indifferent about everything, skeptical, bantering, and he would say both good and evil things lightly, as if he were thinking about something completely different from what he is saying, so that if anyone were trying to reprove him and say: ‘What you’re saying or what you’re doing is monstrous,’ he could perfectly well reply: ‘Really? I didn’t see it that way. Let’s say no more of it then!’ A fellow like that might deceive everybody, even his own wife, up to a point.”
Verdi was so taken with this character that he often referred to the opera as Iago, not Otello. This was partially due to the deference he paid to the late Gioachino Rossini, who had premiered his own version of Otello back in December 1816. Not wanting to take the thunder away from his much admired predecessor, he was mindful, too, that Rossini had set out to stage The Barber of Seville in juxtaposition to a prior version by Giovanni Paisiello. History records that Rossini’s original name for the work was Almaviva, ossia l’inutile precauzione (“Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution”). After the disastrous premiere and subsequent successful revivals, the title reverted back to The Barber of Seville. This convinced Verdi to think the matter over and keep Otello as the title of his piece. A wise move!
Is It Live or is It Memorex?
Both Simon Boccanegra and Otello have been recorded extensively, mostly in the modern age after the 1960s and 70s when complete albums of these works became readily accessible. Neither opera appeared to have had an especially strong following on 78’s, however, which points up the undeniable fact that even today excerpts from Boccanegra are extremely hard to come by. Certainly the LP era improved matters somewhat, as did the video and DVD/Blu-ray Disc period. Live performances of many rarely performed Verdi works are plentiful online and on-demand, as well as on YouTube.
If I were to recommend a particular recording or performance of either opus, I would have to say that a live 1939 Met Opera radio broadcast of Simon Boccanegra, featuring a sterling cast headed by Lawrence Tibbett, Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, and Leonard Warren, conducted by Ettore Panizza, is high up on the must-have list. Tibbett spearheaded the Verdi revival at the Met of the 1930s. Here, this remarkable artist is at the top of his form, with a seamless legato, superb phrasing, peerless top notes, and that marvelous cello-like quality Tibbett was noted for. He and Rethberg make a marvelous father-daughter combo, as does the trumpet-like Martinelli (who was also an excellent Otello). Pinza is a model of what an Italian basso should sound like, and the young Warren was at the start of an illustrious career in Verdi. Included on this refurbished CD is a studio recording of the Council Chamber scene, with Rose Bampton replacing Rethberg, and Wilfred Pelletier on the podium. In either case, these are historic performances thrillingly captured for posterity.
For most opera buffs, Tito Gobbi is a name on everybody’s short list as one of the greatest Boccanegra and Iago interpreters. His RCA Victor recording of Otello with Jon Vickers and Leonie Rysanek is a model of its kind, due to the musicianship of conductor Tullio Serafin. Following close behind is Piero Cappuccilli whose snarl can be heard to fine effect as Iago in a live Arena di Verona video. The Otello is the wild Russian spinto Vladimir Atlantov.
Speaking of which, my favorite Moor performance comes from Mario Del Monaco, whose leonine stage presence, robust vocal output, and dynamic delivery of the text can be found in any number of live excerpts, including an astounding rendition of Otello’s grand entrance, “Esultate!” (“Exult!”). Del Monaco takes the difficult passage, “Dopo l’armi lo vinse l’uragano” (“To those who were left the storm has scattered”), in one long-held, drawn-out breath, comprising the usually omitted acciaccatura (or triplet) notation above the staff. He must have had iron filament for lungs!
Do live performances supersede their recorded counterparts? That all depends on the caliber of the artists involved. For the Met’s Boccanegra broadcast of April 9, we have Plácido Domingo in the lead, with Armenian diva Lianna Haroutounian as Amelia, veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele, American baritone Brian Mulligan as Paolo, and bass Richard Bernstein as Pietro. The ailing James Levine was back at the helm of the Met Orchestra, in the revival of a production by Giancarlo Del Monaco (the mighty tenor’s son), with sets and costumes by Michael Scott, and lighting design by Wayne Chouinard.
From the initial sound of things, I would say that Señor Domingo tried to give his considerable all to Simon. In the early portions, where the part stays comfortably in the middle of his range, Domingo was heard to best advantage. However as the opera progressed, the voice lost body and luster. In the all-important Council Chamber, it sounded disembodied from the rest. Where was the requisite authority, or the command of his forces implied in the opening lines to Boccanegra’s great speech, “Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo dalla feroce storia!” (“Plebeians! Patricians! People with a ferocious history!”)? The volume and fullness called for in this sequence was nowhere to be found. Boccanegra’s voice must soar above the fray. It must send shivers down his betrayer’s spine. He must dominate by virtue of his position as Doge. Here, it vanished into the woodwork, with no sign of the ever-present sea in the staging either, another of this production’s faults.
Gobbi, in His World of Italian Opera (published 1984 by Franklin Watts), describes Boccanegra as “a giant, both physically and in character. He cannot be performed by a small man … [T]he figure is of a tall, imposing man … It is not even a question of what is suitable for your voice, although naturally this is of first-class importance … It is the strength and nobility of the inner man which makes the effect, and he should be in harmony with his surroundings.” Domingo certainly has the height and physique du rôle, but at age 75 (at the time of this broadcast) the “strength and nobility of the inner man,” represented by what can be transmitted via the voice, can no longer hold its own. This has given short shrift to a part Verdi himself considered to be “a thousand times more difficult” than Rigoletto.
I have spoken about this distortion to the composer’s carefully calculated effects on a number of occasions. Domingo’s attempts to do justice to the great Verdi baritone parts continue to do his favorite composer a disservice. Now, I know that Plácido Domingo began his career as a baritone, later changing over to tenor and back again to baritone. I wrote about this transition a few years ago in connection to his appearance as the elder Germont in La Traviata (see the following link for details: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/salad-bowl-italian-opera-style-continues-with-la-traviata/). But his soft-grained, streamlined variation on the manly, baritonal timbre has short-changed audiences expecting a more viral, penetrating interpretation.
At full tilt, that sound can be the most visceral imaginable! Give me a Leonard Warren, an Ettore Bastianini, a Cornell MacNeil, a Robert Merrill, or a Sherrill Milnes any day of the week. I’ll even take a Renato Bruson, a Giuseppe Taddei, or even a Leo Nucci when pressed hard for examples. All started and ended up as baritones, nothing more and nothing less.
For a change of pace, Chilean dramatic tenor Ramón Vinay, a noteworthy Otello, Samson, Tristan, and Siegmund in his day, began as a baritone. He switched over to tenor in the 1940s and 50s, but reverted to bass-baritone in the early 1960s to assume such parts as Telramund in Lohengrin, Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, and Scarpia in Tosca. There’s even a snippet of Vinay as His Moorship’s Ancient, Iago, with Del Monaco’s tremendously exciting Otello (documented on YouTube) in a 1962 broadcast from the Dallas Civic Opera of the “Si, pel ciel” Vengeance Duet, conducted by Nicola Rescigno. Vinay kept that rich, dark timbre from his baritone days, as evidenced in the above excerpt. Domingo, regrettably, has not.
Cast from Strength
The other members of the cast showed their mettle. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s rich-voiced Jacopo Fiesco was an absolute joy to listen to. He fulfilled every nuance and requirement — even down to the low F called for in the aria, “Il lacerato spirito.” He dominated at every turn, his booming basso falling pleasantly on the ear, as did that of the mellifluous sounding Joseph Calleja in a memorable portrayal of the hot-headed Gabriele Adorno. Calleja’s been able to tame his quicksilver vibrato to the point that he can concentrate on characterization. I enjoyed his “Sento avvampar nell’anima” solo, with its rapid articulations indicative of Gabriele’s shifting states of emotion. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian matched him in vocal quality, with some fluid outpourings in the Council Chamber scene amid her dramatic pronouncements. Her lovely Act I scena was meltingly sung, as were her duets with both Gabriele and Boccanegra.
The only other downside, in my view, was — surprise, surprise — the inconsistent conducting of maestro James Levine. At times, Levine lost track of the forward momentum of this piece, which is deserving of a steadier hand in order to makes its subtle effects felt. His wasn’t necessarily a “bad” performance, just not up to his usual high standards. His finest moments were during the Council Chamber scene, which was to be expected. Verdi poured his heart and soul into this newly minted sequence, one that supplanted an earlier one that proved entirely inadequate. It may remind listeners of the big concertato that closes Act III of Otello. As well it should, since the 1881 revision of Boccanegra preceded the later work by only six years.
Getting to the new Bartlett Sher/Es Devlin production of Otello, heard on April 23rd, the listening audience was in for more than its fair share of surprises. To begin with, this was another in a long line of tiresome “barebones” production values. By that, I mean shifting glass-mirrored panels (or window panes — more like “pains,” if you get my drift) taking the place of actual scenery and sets. We were treated to more of that dispiriting “same old, same old” look that most productions have encompassed of late. The mirrored effect of all those sliding panels finally came into its own in Act IV, with Desdemona’s bedroom. And the opening storm scene, one of Verdi’s most elaborate episodes, featured some interesting cloud formations via digital software.
Otherwise, listeners heard a radio tribute in celebration of the four hundredth birthday and death of William Shakespeare (!). Nice, but what about the singers? Well, starting things off were American baritone Jeff Mattsey as Montano, Siberian tenor Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Iago, and Texan Chad Shelton as Roderigo, followed by squally Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, and a pristine-sounding, movingly sung Desdemona by Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmova, with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano as Emilia, baritone Tyler Duncan as the Herald, and low-volume bass James Morris as Lodovico. The conductor was Hungarian-born Ádám Fischer.
The most consistent of the above artists happened to be maestro Fischer, who started Otello off with a (literal) bang in an utterly involving storm scene of manic turbulence and excitement, helped along by the wonderful Met Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo. This tidal wave of sonic splendor dissipated somewhat at the appearance of an under-powered, under-the-weather Antonenko, which highlighted another problem with this production: Otello wasn’t even in “blackface,” to use the politically incorrect term. More to the point, Otello is supposed to be a Moor, a black African man in an all-white Venetian society, serving at that society’s whim to rule, in their name, as a governor on the island of Cypress.
I’ve been impressed in the recent past by his assumption of the Russian repertoire, in particular a very fine Dimitri in Stephen Wadworth’s staging of Boris Godunov from 2010, and some notable Puccini assignments, including Ramerrez in a Swedish production of La Fanciulla del West by director Christof Loy. The tenor is only in his early 40s, but he’s managed to develop a nagging wobble that has marred many of his performances.
More problematic was Antonenko’s inability to find his comfort zone with Otello’s daunting tessitura. I’ve heard my share of disastrous assumptions in years past, as well as an unnerving one by the barrel-chested Richard Cassilly. I have listened to enough broadcasts and recordings of the work, including several live transmissions and actual stage presentations, to form my own opinions about how Otello should be handled. And I instinctively know when a voice has the stamina and thrust to acquit itself favorably in the part. I’ve also been privy to the best of the best: Zenatello, Martinelli, Vinay, Del Monaco, Vickers, McCracken, Cossutta, Domingo, Cura, et al. But never have I heard a more wobbly, more tonally inferior, more dramatically inert performance than the one I experienced with Antonenko.
To be fair, even though no announcement of his disposition was forthcoming, I sensed trouble ahead, from the moment he opened his mouth. The love duet with Gerzmova’s beautifully inflected soprano, came off better than expected. And Antonenko’s Act II wasn’t all that bad, thanks largely to his Iago, the ubiquitous Lučić. For all his skills and ability in this repertoire, Lučić does not sound like your standard Verdi baritone. He hits all the right notes, holds on to those high ones with vigor and heft, and even injects an equivalent degree of dramatic urgency to whatever he imparts. This is what may have saved the broadcast from complete and utter ruin.
That, plus an intriguing last-minute substitution by debuting Italian tenor Francesco Anile as Otello, put this radio transmission on the radar. After the Act III ensemble, in which Otello flings his poor wife to the ground and practically accuses her of having an illicit affair with his former lieutenant, the disgraced Cassio, Antonenko , at the line, “L’anima mia, ti maledica!” (“Wife of my bosom, I curse thee!”), lost his voice. So little was left of his vocal apparatus that he barely got the words out. No wonder the chorus ran off to shouts of “Orror!” (in an echo and reversal of Paolo’s infamous cry at the Act I curtain to Simon Boccanegra).
A quick switcheroo took place behind the curtains, as Antonenko’s cover was moved into position for Act IV. Overlooking one of the balconies nearest the stage, Anile was dressed in jeans, sneakers, and T-shirt, but with a black cape covering his form, while Antonenko mimed the role onstage. Right on cue, Anile delivered a most welcome Italianate rendition of the last act of Verdi’s masterpiece with an ideal Shakespearean flourish.
Now HERE was a sound I had not heard in many a season. The Met was indeed fortunate to have engaged the services of this veteran artist, who has sung Otello and most of the Italian repertoire in his native Italy (he hails from the Reggio Calabria area) and abroad. In September 2016, Anile sang in the revitalized New York City Opera production of Pagliacci, via the principal role of Canio — a performance that generated glowing reviews.
We remain hopeful that a Met Opera star in the making may have been born that afternoon. Let’s hope, too, that another star tenor, i.e., Aleksandrs Antonenko, can recover from this ill-fated episode to re-emerge as the talented individual he no doubt is.
The mighty may yet recover from their fall …
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Updating the settings of nineteenth century works to modern times is a fairly common practice in many opera houses, particularly in Europe. So it was not at all surprising that the Metropolitan Opera’s February 16 presentation of Verdi’s Rigoletto, an 1851 work I much admire and have mentioned on numerous occasions in other posts, finally got an extreme makeover in debuting director Michael Mayer’s new production.
In this version, the story takes place in Las Vegas around the year 1960, with the action revolving around a glitzy gambling casino, and its principal characters carbon copies of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Here, the Duke of Mantua is Ole Blue Eyes himself, with Rigoletto a cross between the acerbic Don Rickles and the razor-tongued Joey Bishop. The other courtiers – Borsa, Marullo, the Count and Countess Ceprano – are more or less operatic embodiments of Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Shirley MacLaine (or was it Marilyn Monroe?).
Of course, it’s impossible to “see” this latest venture on the radio, but one could “hear” the new story line in the singers’ voices and in their words. I’ll have to wait for the HD telecast in order to express my full opinion as to the visual qualities of this program, but for the most part (sonically speaking) what I heard I liked.
One of the more enjoyable aspects was the manner in which the conductor, a young man named Michele Mariotti, whipped the orchestra into line by coaxing a real performance out of the players. For the first time in my 45 years of listening to this work (live and in recordings), the orchestra was a real character, wholeheartedly taking part in the drama transpiring above. Mariotti made the Met’s musicians snap and crackle at every opportunity, at times speeding along ahead of the plot, at other times slowing down the pace – literally to a standstill.
Another admirable innovation (in this work, at least) was allowing the singers enough room to create an individual personality. Thus the Duke’s swagger was readily apparent, Gilda’s desperation was more prominent, and Rigoletto’s love and concern for his daughter, as well as his fear for her safety, all became part of the framework. My hat’s off to Mariotti for his accomplishment.
This was obviously the director’s plan all along, and it worked like a charm with respect to the players in the pit. However, the stage was another story. Again, judging strictly by what I heard, the singing was a mixed bag – some good, some great, others woefully inadequate. This, too, may have been part of the larger scheme of things: that is, to employ vocalists who could perform their tasks in tune to the new plot.
Still, I was disappointed in Željko Lučič’s Rigoletto. To begin with, the Serbian baritone’s voice, reminiscent of Swedish singer Ingvar Wixell in his prime, lacked Italianate warmth. It tended more toward the monotonous. His constant scooping up to notes from underneath was troublesome, while his soft singing became a bit of a chore – he strayed off pitch as often as he was flat. His contemplative approach to the role, one of opera’s greatest singing-acting challenges, while fixed to the director’s vision, did not convince me that his was a true Verdian voice. Just so readers won’t think I’m partial only to Italians, one of my favorite recorded Rigolettos is German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so there! With that said, Željko did fit into the general sonic palette outlined by Mayer. I just wasn’t at all moved by his portrayal.
As for the self-absorbed Duke, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was the very model of a swinging sixties hipster. Strangely, he ran aground in the opera’s most famous moment, the hit tune “La donna é mobile,” running out of breath at the aria’s climax. Despite that minor faux pas, Beczala sang marvelously well throughout, his voice ringing out with abandon, the character firmly in his grip. His Act II duet with German soprano Diana Damrau was a highlight of the show. He even attempted the high D at the end, not easily produced by the way. He also gave us the Duke’s rarely heard cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama,” although it was shorn of the repeat.
Damrau gave a superb rendition of Gilda, with fireworks to spare in her Act II aria, “Caro nome” – you know: the one the late comedian Victor Borge used to make fun of during one of his hilarious concert recitals. Beyond the coloratura, Damrau showed real spunk in a role that’s usually too low-key to be effective. No such difficulty here. Damrau was as determined a Gilda as I’ve ever heard. She paid the ultimate price by being stuffed in the trunk of a car, Mafia-hit style.
Incidentally, this version of Rigoletto was given almost note-complete, minus a few snippets here and there (in Gilda and the Duke’s duet mostly). How much beautifully the opera plays, I thought, when it’s presented uncut as this production was. Verdi’s carefully worked out reiterations are lost when these repeats are not adhered to. They make the drama flow in an orderly and logical progression. Cutting them only draws unneeded attention, a nasty practice in the Met’s heyday but mercifully abandoned today.
Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán was a booming, low-voiced Sparafucile, who earned considerable applause for his limitless low F during the conclusion of his duet with Lučič. Otherwise, his diction was mushy. The same could be said for the Maddalena, sung by mezzo Oksana Volkova, who was fine but no more. It’s not her fault the role is so short. Besides, most Maddalena’s make their greatest impact visually anyway. The other cast members, including the excellent Giovanna of Maria Zifchak (subbing for the indisposed Edyta Kulczak), the ineffectual Monterone of Robert Pomakov (he wasn’t nearly as thunderous as he needed to be; he was more mincing instead – perhaps that was the idea?), Alexander Lewis as a pleasant sounding Borsa, Emalie Savoy as a throwaway Countess Ceprano, and David Crawford as her husband, the Count Ceprano, were supportive in their way.
While this performance had its share of surprises – the most pleasant being the reinvigorated and totally involved orchestra reading – the singers needed more time to make a fuller impact. Perhaps a few cast changes later on in the run, or at its next revival, will make this Rigoletto truly soar. For now, not even Ole Blues Eyes could hit that jackpot – ring-a-ding-ding, indeed.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes