A Tale of Three Operas (In Two Acts)

In Classical Music, Opera on April 24, 2011 at 2:55 am

Listening To – Il Trovatore (Domingo/Plowright/Giulini)
I recently travelled to The Met and attended performances of three operas – Die Walkure in Lepage’s new production, Capriccio and Il Trovatore. Lepage’s Die Walkure will follow in a subsequent entry but for now to Capriccio and Il Trovatore.
First, the respective casting:
Capriccio – Renee Fleming, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Peter Rose, Morten Frank Larsen & Sarah Connolly. Production – John Cox. Conductor – Andrew Litton.

Il Trovatore – Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dolora Zajick. Production – David McVicar. Conductor – Marco Armiliato.

On paper similarly strong casts. Yet in reality how differently they turned out.

Capriccio had a superlative cast and with the exception of Andrew Litton, none of them were part of the original 1998 production which featured Kiri Te Kanawa. Naturally Fleming is today’s consummate Strauss interpreter, and while in places she had a tendency to overact – something she seems to do increasingly these days – hers was an almost definitive performance, superbly supported by an incredibly strong ensemble. Of course there is Sarah Connolly, but the Flamand of Kaiser and Braun’s Olivier were vividly brought to life, beautifully sung and provided perfect foils to Rose’s La Roche. The main cast was completed by Frank Larsen’s dashing and beautifully voiced Count.

Everyone’s diction and sense of ensemble was perfect. It reminded me precisely what a gem Capriccio was – a beautifully balanced scored, full of the achingly beautiful lines of Strauss’ final years. The final scene was just ravishing.

The production was simple yet effective, transplanted to 1920s Paris without any sense of loss in terms of the specific 18th century references to Gluck and the Guerre des Bouffons. The three and half hour performance – without an interval – flew by. Before the audience knew it, Litton was launching into the orchestral prelude before the Countess’ final monologue.

Litton’s conducting – he is simply underrated in the UK – was fluid and revealed a deep understanding and love for the luminosity of Strauss final opera. The Met’s orchestra achieved a real sense of warm glow, with the wind skittering brightly throughout the score.

The standing ovation – so common at the Met where the audience gives standing ovations to every production – was richly deserved. This was almost superlative Strauss.

I am so glad that I caught this – the final – performance. And one thing suddenly crossed my mind during the performance. Perhaps she chooses neither Flamand or Olivier. She ardently defends La Roche and subsequently commissions an opera for him to direct. Now La Roche is always portrayed as an older, slightly rotund figure. Almost a cultured Baron Ochs. Now what’s to say that in fact he isn’t Madeleine’s choice, bringing words and music together with his own skills of producer/director. And it is meant to be the 18th century when women married men older than themselves. Now that would make for an interesting denouement!

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Il Trovatore. This was my first ever production of this opera. It was at the Met. What could possibly go wrong?

It was obviously conceit on the Met’s part, and perhaps a fear of not shifting tickets for a commonly performed opera, that led them to cast the original quartet of principals.

In 2009 all four were probably – I imagine – at their peak and all are renowned Verdi performers. Sadly this just wasn’t the case on the evening I attended. From the start things went awry. In the opening scene Stefan Kocan’s Ferrando lagged behind the conductor, and Radvanovsky disappointed from the start. I have her singing Tacea la notte on CD and while I realise that a studio recording is vastly different from a performance on stage, at the Met her voice was unresponsive, bland and – dare I say it – forced to the point of being more suited to steering ships through the fog. Hvorostovsky fared no better. Il balen del suo sorriso was almost painful as he struggled to sing sotto voce and failed. His conceit at holding the final note – with no finesse – simply added insult to injury.

And Ms Zajick was simply a disaster. Her voice has seen better days and now her soprano is simply ravaged. Tonally it was all over the place, there was no sense of line and simply a desperation to get to the end, which the audience obviously took for passionate interpretation.

Poor Alvarez. Lumbered with such weak colleagues he too failed to shine. The end of the Second Act, combined with terrible ham acting, was almost the nadir.

Yet the final nail in the coffin was Armiliato’s completely lacklustre conducting. Uninspired. Dull. And simply failing to find the colours, sense of breadth or rhythm that Verdi so beautifully crafted into the score.

A shame as two things almost saved the evening for me. First the chorus provided the only sense of musicality on the stage. And McVicar’s production, inspired by Goya, was suitably brooding. As I said, almost saved the evening. It is an inexcusable conceit to cast as clumsily – or greedily – as this. There are other – and better – performers who should have had the opportunity to perform this production.

Strangely the audience seemed to love it and especially the principals. Clapping rapturously after every number even when it was clear – as in the case if Ms Zajick- that she had simply failed to hit the right notes, at the right volume or make any attempt to clear enunciate her words. As I mentioned above, the Met audience – or at least the Met’s Verdi audience – seem to think it is necessary to go wild for anything and everyone.

It was all I could do to get back to my hotel and immediately listen Domingo and Plowright under Giulini’s admirable baton.

Now that’s Il Trovatore as it should be performed.

  1. […] from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with […]

  2. […] this was also my second Verdi production at The Met. My first was Il Trovatore during my visit to see Die Walküre live. It was not a good experience and at the time I did wonder […]

  3. […] Orbelian) had sung this wonderful aria from Il Trovatore like this when I saw McVicar’s production at the Met. Sadly neither she nor the rest of the cast were on anything close to good form on that […]

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