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Cross-purposed Verdi

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on December 30, 2013 at 11:43 am

Review – La Forza del destino (Live Stream from Bayerische Staatsoper, Saturday 28 December 2013)

Il Marchese di Calatrava & Padre Guardiano – Vitalij Kowaljow
Donna Leonora – Anja Harteros
Don Carlo di Vargas – Ludovic Tézier
Don Alvaro – Jonas Kaufmann
Preziosilla – Nadia Krasteva
Fra Melitone – Renato Girolami
Curra – Heike Grötzinger
The Mayor – Christian Rieger
Trabuco – Francesco Petrozzi

Director – Martin Kušej
Set Design – Martin Zehetgruber
Costume – Heidi Hackl
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturgy – Benedikt Stampfli & Olaf A. Schmitt

Conductor – Asher Fisch

As Verdi operas go, La Forza del destino doesn’t have a complicated plot so it’s a shame that the director Martin Kušej’s best intentions to create a simple narrative was at best patchy.

Fortunately, the quality of the singing on the stage was up to the usual high standard as was the technical achievement of the Bayerische Staatsoper as they continue their commitment to making their productions globally available. And it was elevated even higher by role debuts of Anja Harteros as Donna Leonora and Jonas Kaufmann as Don Alvaro. However there wasn’t a weak link in the principal roles with each singer delivering musically intelligent performance in spite of Kušej.

On this occasion the laurels must go to Anja Harteros. From her first entry she dominated the stage both vocally and dramatically. In both her solo numbers as well as her duets and ensemble numbers she displayed enviable musical discipline with well-placed vibrato, a masterful control of dynamics and a range of vocal colour. As expected Pace, Pace, mio Dio was the highlight of her performance but throughout her portrayal of Leonora – especially her often missed vulnerability – was musically intelligent. Take for instance her opening Romanza Me pellegrina ed orfana or more especially the way she spun out the vocal line of Madre, pietosa Vergina in the second scene of Act Two and La Vergine degli Angeli at the very end of that same act.

As Alvaro, Kaufmann was equally confident both musically and performance wise. However – and as I have said before – there are times when I would like to see more finesse and sensitivity in his singing although admittedly there isn’t that much scope afforded for this in the role of Alvaro. However I did wont for me little more vocal colour and flexibility in his first duet with Leonora. I cannot deny that his singing during the opening of the Third Act wasn’t poised rather than sensitive yet still thrilling but I can’t stop thinking that in terms of musical interpretation his approach is still rather black and white with very little shading. However he does seem to spark off his fellow performers as his scenes with Ludovic Tézier’s Don Carlo demonstrated. And as the vengeful son, Tézier with his bright and supple baritone, was excellent once he had gained musical momentum after a rather wooden Son Pereda, son ricco d’onore.

Nadia Krasteva – hamstrung by a ridiculous costume – is in possession of what I would describe a typically Eastern European voice. Big and bold, deep and dark-hued it has a heaviness to it that isn’t unappealing and well suited to Verdi roles if not this one completely. It’s worth checking out her YouTube channel.

The remaining male roles were well cast. As both Calatrava and Guardiano, Vitalij Kowaljow didn’t quite distinguish between the two. However this might have been at the bdding of Kušej but if it was, it wasn’t followed through by the director himself. Similarly both Christian Rieger and Renato Girolami acquitted themselves well.

It was quite difficult to make out any of the subtlety or nuances in the orchestral playing however the Fisch’s choice of tempi was smart and he gave the singers the space they needed to do full justice to Verdi’s vocal lines.

Sadly, Kušej’s vision of Forza didn’t pass muster as well as the performances on stage. The set – at times reminding me of Tcherniakov’s set for his ENO Boccanegra – aimed at simplicity. Perhaps over simplicity. In paring down this opera to his interpretation of its elemental themes ultimately led Kušej to strip too much away.I also wondered what the dramaturgists Stampfli and Schmitt had contributed.

Set somewhere that seemed a cross between Mafioso Sicily and a war-torn country somewhere in the Balkans, the Calatrava’s familial tensions were played out over dinner in the overture. Indeed the table and the crucifix upon it were evident throughout the entire opera as recurring visual motifs regardless of whether it was home, chapel, prison or battleground. But apart from acting as visual anchors – with the only arresting use of the cross coming at the end in a last gasp of creative desperation – the director didn’t seem interested in developing any true sense of narrative around either item.

Parts of each act played out in a prison or demolished house but with little dramatic intensity. Kušej’s idea of laying out the stage in different perspectives for example was clever in as much as it gave him the opportunity to have an imaginary Leonora walk up the back wall but ultimately it was just a visual vanity. The minute that any real action was required – the battle scene or the duet between Alvaro and Carlo, the set became a single one-perspective entity. For the battle scene itself Kušej resorted to simply having extras (or the chorus) run from right to left – choosing movement over any sense of dramatic intent.

And the chapel – almost Nordic with its emphasis on wood – opened up to reveal (to me at least) a set of ‘priests’ who would not have looked out of place in a production of Parsifal. This idea was strengthened further still when Harteros (well her body doubled) was baptized via full immersion.

The scenes with the chorus were similarly unfocused with Kušej again failing to deliver any sense of a coherent narrative. Whether acting as corpses or indulging in a most predictable scene of sex and drunkenness, it seems that Kušej was at some points ‘directing by numbers’.

And the over-sized crucifixes of the final scene seemed like a last ditch effort to develop one of the visual motifs and bring a semblance of continuity and vision to the production. But having the singers clamber through them was clumsy but fortunately for us all, their impassioned performances overcame the distractions of the stage as they played out the final tragedy.

Costumes were basic and in the case of Kaufmann’s over-long hair looked like a device simply to differentiate him on stage. Similarly the lighting was so simple as to be ineffective.

And while the idea of having Calatrava and Guardiano played by the same singer should have been an opportunity for some real characterization, in reality this duality – as well as the doubling of the waiter with the mayor, and Preziosilla dressed as Curra for her first appearance – underlined the fact that Kušej seemed to have forgotten to give any direction at all to any of the singers. While the singing was excellent it was clear that the singers – left to their own devices – were resorting to their own dramatic lexicon to portray their characters. Some better that others.

Indeed throughout it seemed that somewhere – lurking in the shadows of the stage – there was a single unifying idea. But sadly for Kušej, ultimately that idea remained just outside his grasp.

And yet the singing – particularly of Anja Harteros – made the entire production worth hearing.

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Frock Me – Virtual Verdi.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on October 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Review – Les Vêpres Siciliennes (Royal Opera House, Thursday 17 October 2013)

Guy de Montfort – Michael Volle
Hélène – Lianna Haroutounian
Henri – Bryan Hymel
Jean Procida – Erwin Schrott
Robert – Jihoon Kim
Ninetta – Michelle Daly
Thibault – Neal Cooper
Le Sire de Béthune – Jean Teitgen
Le Comte de Vaudemont – Jeremy White
Daniéli – Nicholas Darmanin
Mainfroid – Jung Soo Yun

Director – Stefan Herheim
Set Designs – Philipp Hürhoffer
Costume Designs – Gesine Völlm
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Choreography – André de Jong
Lighting Design – Anders Poll

Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director – Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master – Vasko Vassilebv)
Conductor – Antonio Pappano

It is both unbelievable but somewhat acceptable that Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes has never before been performed at Covent Garden. It requires not only a cast of singers with incredible technique, musicianship and stamina but also a director – and team – who can visualize a path through the convoluted story.

For the debut run the Royal Opera House almost had both. Without doubt it was a strong production both musically and production-wise, and with some tightening both in terms of performance and artistic vision it could be a great production. But I do wonder if it will ever return to Covent Garden considering the demands it makes of the singers? Even one fault line in the cast would mar a return.

Yet on the first night – despite some glitches – the singing from both cast and chorus was very good but the greatest plaudits must go to the incredible performance of Michael Volle as Guy de Monfort. Having thoroughly enjoyed his Mandryka opposite Renée Fleming in Paris and his Kurwenal in Loy’s Tristan und Isolde, I have always admired him as one of those rare-breed of singers who can act. And as de Montfort he totally invested in the character from the overture to the end of the opera – switching from conquering swagger to all-too-human father to great effect. Vocally he was on top form, with clear diction for the most part and a firm, full tone through the breadth of his range. From Oui, je fus bien coupable he dominated the first scene of Act Three with his son Henri and Pappano drew both excellent singing from both father and son in the ensuing duet and playing from the orchestra to make this the emotional and musical highlight of the evening. I was not surprised when Volle drew the biggest cheers once the curtain fell.

According to the programme, Lianna Haroutounian – who stepped in for an indisposed Anna Poplavskaya – has sung the role of Hélène before in Spain and Germany and in Italian in Athens and her experience of the role showed. Inhabiting the character from her first appearance, veiled and holding the rotting head of her brother Frédèric like her nemesis de Montfort Haroutounian can sing and act. Her opening air, Viens à nous, Dieu tutélaire was delivered with great dignity and breath of vocal line. Ms Haroutounian’s is possession of a formidable voice – putting aside first night nerves, for the most part it is resonant and richly timbred from bottom to top and when required she could sail over both chorus and orchestra but also showed an innate musicianship in the ensemble pieces with her fellow protagonists. I always think it rather cruel of Verdi to score Hélène’s set piece in the final act and it was a small shame that tiredness seemed to almost get the better of Haroutounian in Merci, jeunes amies, d’un souvenir si doux. Although at times slightly behind Pappano in the pit the soprano took the vocal challenges of the air head on and what she may have lacked in total finesse she made up for with dramatic impact.

Following Bryan Hymel’s success as Aeneas in ROH’s Les Troyens it’s no surprise that they wanted him back as Henri with his clear and clarion-toned tenor. As mentioned, his scene in the Third Act with his father was electrifying and his sustained delivery of O jour de peine and the subsequent duet was quite beautiful.

Personally I found Erwin Schrott’s Procida the least convincing characterization. Vocally, while he had all the notes, I felt his Procida was slightly over-cooked – veering from almost pantomime camp to an almost baseless malevolence. In fact, for me, the moment when he appeared frocked-up was the most powerful. More of that later.

The smaller roles were well delivered and particular mention must go to Jihoon Kim’s Robert – well sung and believably acted.

Pappano – is there a better Verdian than him at the moment – drew some of the best singing and playing from chorus and orchestra that I have heard for a long time at Covent Garden. The chorus, from the first scene were well-drilled both in terms of their ensemble and acting, with Pappano mashalling them with great effect alongside the solists in the great choral tableaux. In the pit, Pappano lovingly revealed that special tinta the composer baked into the score from the start of the overture through to the prison scene with great delicacy.

If musically the production was strong, so for me was Herheim’s production. With expectations high for his Covent Garden debut, in its overall approach his vision was both eloquent and intelligent. And any fear that Herheim – and his team – might overly intellectualise the drama itself was unfounded.

This was a production that revealed deep thought and smart insight. In the days before the first note was sounded, it was made clear that the setting would be the Académie Impériale de Musique where the opera was first performed (although by my reckoning by 1855 it was in fact called the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra). Both Pappano and dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach relayed that the focus would be on passion and power, illusion and disillusion within opera itself.

This was Verdi in a virtual world.

And indeed the curtain rose on Degas’ famous painting of ballet dancers rehearsing. A beautiful and delicate image that did nothing to prepare me for the savagery of the ensuing rape scene. Not only was it almost too visceral but in its physicality, unintentionally reminiscent of the opening Bachannale from Albery’s Tannhauser.

And having dispensed with the ballet Les Quatres Saisons earlier on as the production developed, Herheim successfully integrated dance throughout, weaving it cleverly into the narrative. I liked the way that he used dance to tell the story of Henri for example, the black-clad ballerinas returning at key moments as in the Third Act – and I thought – in rather sinister fashion for the wedding scene.

Another technique of Herheim’s also seems to be the use of recurring visual motifs. The Young Henri for example – reminiscent of his Parsifal at Bayreuth in many ways – appearing not only in the Third Act as a vision before de Montfort’s eyes before his real confrontation with his son, but again as ‘Cupid’ at the wedding. For me this was ironic – a son born out of violence, conflicted by love and presiding over a wedding that would lead to a massacre.

Similarly, Hélène’s dead brother Frédèric also loomed large throughout the opera. The masks worn for the ball for example, sported rather chillingly by the Young Henri at the start of the third act and by Procida-in-drag at the start of the fourth. It reminded me that for Hélène revenge and duty were inextricably linked with her love for de Montfort’s son.

And for me this is also why Herheim put Procida in a black dress. Despite the audience titters, it wasn’t simply a dress but a replica of Hélène’s own wedding dress. And as Procida – always standing across from the doomed bride – mirrored her every move, he suddenly and eloquently became her conscience. And this was magnified when, as her conscience/the spirit of Frédèric, Procida acted out in that virtual reality created on stage the massacre that the audience never really sees.

However there were moments when the overall approach didn’t quite work. The prison scene in the Fourth Act for example, suddenly felt very ‘traditional’ with the duet – with Hélène and Henri simply circling the executioner’s block – lacking the clarity that was in evidence elsewhere. I did wonder had Herheim brought in the spectators in the boxes earlier – rather than rather obviously created a prison set complete with Don Carlo-like clergy – would it have been more effective?

Also the ending, with Herheim blinding the audience with stage lights was too obvious a reference to the idea of theatre as illusion. Creating that illusion within the parameters of the stage itself – with its own cadre of voyeurs seated in fictitious seats was strong enough on its own. Turning the lights onto the real audience at the end diminished for me the virtual world he had created on the stage.

But overall this was an impressive production. Musically, I could not have wonted for a stronger, more committed and impassioned cast. And Herheim and this team did not disappoint with a brave and as I have said, mostly eloquent creative idea.

I hope that Les Vêpres Siciliennes returns again to Covent Garden. It would be a shame to waste all the thought, effort and commitment that has gone into this Verdi debut.

And I hope Herheim will return with another production in the near future at Covent Garden.

Verdi. Betrayed.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on August 23, 2013 at 8:04 am

Review – Verdi Arias (Anna Netrebko, Orchestra Teatro Regio Torina, Gianandrea Noseda)

It sometimes feels like the Verdi bicentenary is being overlooked. Verdi has certainly not fared as well as his German contemporary at the Proms. Or maybe it’s just that Wagner fans are more vocal.

However I recently picked up three recital discs of Verdi arias so perhaps he has not been completely forsaken.

The first disc, by Anna Netrebko has the full weight of the label’s marketing effort behind it.

Initially I wasn’t going to pen this review because of Ms Netrebko’s position on the dehumanization of gay people in Russia and her own sit-on-the-fence statement. However this recital marks a well-publicised shift in the soprano’s repertoire that will also see her tackle the role of Lady Macbeth on the Munich stage. As such there is no avoiding that this disc being positioned as a major additional to the catalogue.

But that it were. In the true sense of a Verdian tragedy, this recital is one that betrays the listener.

Voices change and talented, wise sopranos manage the transition with great skill.

So I am not quite sure what has happened with Ms Netrebko.

Listening back to her Giulietta in Bellini’s Capuleti – a recording I still enjoy immensely – she seems to have lost a great deal and gained not very much as a consequence.

The Verdi roles featured here require two qualities, to varying degrees, which are lacking in this recital – profundità and agilità.

The first is essential for any successful and meaningful characterization with agilità equally vital not only to tackle the coloratura but also to ensure that the purity and fluidity of Verdi’s vocal lines are uninterrupted.

The voice is indeed darker or rather heavier and at times unwieldy. There isn’t the assurance in terms of navigating the more florid passages and the longer phrases are marred by distracting gasps for breath and are neither smooth nor fluid.

Moreover Ms Netrebko exhibits distinct intonation problems, more often than not a distinct wobble and a spread in the higher reaches of her range. These factors heighten a general lack of clear diction.

Indeed on repeated listening it seems to be a voice not quite where it should be – still very much in transition and a voice not yet under the control of a secure technique.

As I mentioned earlier, Lady Macbeth is a role she will tackle in Munich in 2014 and here they form the weakest part of the recital. The faux melodrama of Nel di della vittoria is matched only by the photography in the booklet and the subsequent cavatina is hardly helped by a lack of any sense of urgency in terms of tempo. The result is that Ms Netrebko makes heavy work of what should be a thrilling scena, heightened by some rather clumsy handling of the closing coloratura.

La luce langue is similarly lacklustre with Netrebko declaring the deed of killing Banquo as if she was reading a shopping list. In this aria in particular, the soprano mistakes the ability to generate over generous volumes of sound for dramatic interpretation while a greater attention to the words and dynamic range would have been more effective.

The famous sleepwalking scene is unintentionally more somnambulistic that either Shakespeare or Verdi intended. This is not helped by Noseda’s rather bland handling of the orchestra and the lack of any sense of breadth in the marvelous tune that Verdi spins out and here more than elsewhere on the disc Netrebko sings to get through the music without any sense of interpreting the horror of the scene. Shaky intonation mars the ending.

A letto, a letto indeed.

In the title role of Giovanna d’Arco she fares slightly better. Perhaps this is because this scena and romanza are closer to the Verdi roles she has sung previously.Indeed there are moments of delicacy and wistfulness to O faticida foresta that underline for me that perhaps there is true capability somewhere in Ms Netrebko but it needs more tutoring and development.

Sadly what follows undermines the success of the previous romanza.

I Vespri Siciliani is represented by Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core which Netrebko sings through competently enough only for the listener to be subjected to limping Mercé, dilette amiche.

Where is the swagger? The lightness of touch? Not only in the vocal line but also in the orchestral playing? It’s missing, perhaps lost in the ponderous tempo that Noseda sets.

Tu che la Vanità again comes close but doesn’t quite past muster. The orchestra –sadly lacking any sense of finesse, colouror energy throughout the rest of the recital – play their best in this famous scene. How could they not? But it still seems underpowered and bland.

Anna Netrebko – gasping it seems for breath at points – demonstrates that she almost has the notes down pat, but there is a distinct lack of character. Again, it as if she is reading a shopping list rather than portraying a woman riven by inner conflict – “I’ll take a Prince to go. Don’t bother wrapping him, I will just throw Carlo in with the rest of the shopping”.

The final selections come from Il Trovatore and again Netrebko seems for the most part, more confortable in the role of Leonora. She gets through D’amor sull’ali rosee more or less intact although on more than one occasion the span of the vocal line gets the better of her breath control. The subsequent Miserere … Quel suon, quelle preci with Rolando Villazón – not my favourite tenor with his unattractive and strained timbre – is messy. Netrebko again misinterprets volume for dramatic characterization and her handling of al labbro il respiro, il palpiti al cor is simply ugly.

And the closing Tu vedrai che amore in terra sounds like a desperate dash for the finishing line. Complete with snatched breaths, stodgy coloratura and a distinct harshness in the closing phrases, Ms Netrebko barely makes it to the finishing line.

Considering the hype heralding this release, the recital is a massive disappointment. Hints of technical assurance are betrayed by a general lack of musical intelligence, poor characterization and bland support from Noseda and the orchestra.

Which brings me back to the question of whether this disc and Ms Netrebko’s ambition are far too early? There are hints here and there that with more preparation and training the soprano could successfully tackle some of these roles but at the moment, it is simply premature.

And what of Gianandrea Noseda? As I said of Noseda on the Mozart recital disc with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, his accompaniment seems for the most part simply there to provide background. In the excerpts from Macbeth – for example the opening tracks, there is no sense of menace or bite in the marvelous music that Verdi wrote – music that should chill the bones. But more surprisingly is that Noseda not only fails to find the expansive lyricism in Verdi’s music but he seems to make no effort to tease out the instrumental colours that the composer fused into this music. Clearly he is better when heard live.

So if Anna Netrebko lets us down through her premature ambition to sing these roles, then Noseda lets both soprano and the listener down with his disinterested conducting.

Aria for … Saturday – Ecco l’orrido campo (Un Ballo in maschera)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera, Verdi on November 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

Whatever happened to Susan Dunn? A soprano in the spinto tradition I have two discs of her singing. The first, from which this aria comes, is a disc of Wagner and Verdi together with Beethoven’s Ah, Perfido! conducted by Riccardo Chailly. The second is the First Act only – sadly as it is a brilliant recording – of Die Walküre in the role of Sieglinde with Klaus König and Peter Meven conducted by Maazel who surprisingly is an intuitive Wagnerian.

Ms Dunn has both formidable technique and a formidable instrument. Her voice is bright and evenly controlled throughout its range. What’s more she has a thrilling burr – almost a growl in fact – at the lower end of her register that she uses with telling effect. And all this is coupled with strong diction.

In this particular aria from Un Ballo in maschera – as well as throughout the recital CD – she deploys all these skills and her innate musicianship to amazing effect. This can be a cruel aria to perform and on more than one occasion I have seen a soprano catch themselves by failing to navigate it with due care as in parts the vocal line is cruelly exposed. This isn’t the case with Ms Dunn. Not only does she ride effortlessly above the orchestra switching when required to a most dramatic effective mezze voce with incredible ease, but she sings each note with due diligence with intense care given to phrasing and the overall arc of the vocal line with masterfully dynamic shading.

And as ever while it’s impossible in excerpts to generate real dramatic tension, Chailly leads the orchestra with due attention to detail, driving the music forward while sympathetically supporting Ms Dunn throughout.

Time to dig out more Dunn.

Aria for … Friday – Tace la notte! (Il Trovatore)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on November 16, 2012 at 8:56 am

Ah! if only Ms Sondra Rodvanovsky (here with the Philharmonic of Russia conducted by Constantine 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 night but here she knocks it out of the ball park.

If nothing else this single aria on a rather remarkable recital disc reminds me that this soprano is a formidable soprano. She soars with a richness and beauty of tone through the opening section even if her sense of vocal and dynamics is more starkly black and white that shades of any particular colour. And although perhaps I would prefer a little more finesse in the cadenza before the allegro, her pinpoint accuracy and vocal swagger in the second section makes up for it.

Not a bad start for a Friday …

La Traviata – The Beauty & Brutality

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on April 16, 2012 at 8:40 am

Review – The Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast (Saturday 14 April)

Violetta Valéry – Natalie Dessay
Alfredo Germont – Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont – Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Flora Bervoix – Patricia Risley
Annina – Maria Zifchak

Production – Willy Decker
Set & Costume Designer – Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting Designer – Hans Toelstede
Choreographer – Athol Farmer

New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor- Fabio Luisi

According to Deborah Voigt I am one of millions who has experienced live performances from The Met via live HD simulcasts. My first was the final instalment of LePage’s Ring cycle Götterdämmerung, and while the production itself remains as flawed as it was for his Die Walküre, I couldn’t fault the high production values of the broadcast itself.

So with that in mind it wasn’t a hard decision to book a seat for Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata. Not only to see what all the original fuss was about when this pared down production debuted in Salzburg in 2005, but also to hear Natalie Dessay essay her Violetta.

And 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 if Peter Gelb and his management team allowed the lure of high box office returns overwhelm their good sense in casting the opera. The principals were poor and the conducting even worse. The evening was only salvaged by David McVicar’s production.

So after this production of La Traviata I found myself asking the same question. Had Gelb and his Finance Director fallen into the honey trap offered by Ms Dessay? She first sang the role at Santa Fé in 2009 but three years later in a bigger house I wonder if I was the only person left disappointed?

Do not misunderstand me. I am an admirer of Natalie Dessay in Handel, Mozart, the bel canto composers and even the CD of Strauss excerpts alongside Felicity Lott, Angelika Kirchschlager, Sophie Koch, Thomas Allen under Antonio Pappano and the players of Covent Garden.

But Verdi’s La Traviata is an unforgiving opera. Not only is the story harsh and brutal, but the music he wrote literally takes no prisoners and is similarly brutal as it exposes those who tackle it. Fortunately the sublime beauty of Verdi’s music is that even when the singing is mediocre his genius shines through. And this was very much the case in The Met’s production.

As an actress she was – at times – painfully convincing but for me her performance in the title role exposed her vocal vulnerabilities mercilessly. While Ms Dessay sang all the notes – and who really cares that she didn’t sing the top ‘e’ at the end of the first act – there was something that remained just out of her grasp throughout the evening. Quite simply she lacked a richness of tone and heft for the music that Verdi wrote for his consumptive courtesan. Her voice remained flat and one dimensional throughout and added to this it seemed that for significant parts of the opera she was either in front of or behind the beat coming from the pit.

In short, Natalie Dessay’s Violetta was as colourless and pale as we would presume to be the pallor of her skin due to her prognosis.

And while son and father, Alfredo and Giorgio – Matthew Polenzani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky – fared better in delivering heft, what they made up in volume they lacked in subtlety. Polenzani has a rich timbred voice and is a good actor but there was little finesse or delicacy in his singing when it was required. As for Hvorostovsky it seems that his volume button is forever jammed on ‘loud’ and finesse is simply out of the question. What should have been a seminal series of scenes in the second act simply reminded me of shouting matches in my own Italian family’s household in moments of crisis. Except my parents really could act.

Indeed the most refreshing performances of the evening were the brightly projected roles of Maria Zifchak as Annina and the Flora Bervoix of Patricia Risley.

And in the pit was Fabio Luisi. In my last blog regarding the Met it was pointed out to me that Maestro Luisi was conducting Wagner like Verdi. I am afraid to say that in La Traviata his conducting was less Verdi and as lacklustre as the vast majority of performances on the stage. Admittedly it might be a problem of hearing the orchestra once-removed via satellite but – giving modern digital technology the benefit of the doubt – Luisi seemed to be conducting by rote with a distinct lack of bite being coaxed from the orchestra. Clearly Luisi is a virtual shoo-in to replace Levine at some point in the future. It would be a shame if this happenstance was merely the result of being in the right room at the right time rather than on account of his ability.

Elsewhere on the stage the chorus was impressive. The ensemble singing was for the most part strong but all credit to choreographer Athol Farmer for marshalling them so effectively and tapping into a real sense of menace especially in the second act.

And that sense of menace and brutality was at the core of Willy Decker’s production. It takes a brave and talented theatre director to take a well-loved opera and pare it back. And pare it back Decker did to literally nothing. And it was incredibly effective and emotive.

The main set was completely empty bar a single clock face and a solitary figure. It wasn’t too hard to deduce this was Violetta’s doctor Grenvill (Luigi Roni) and together with the clock, he was a constant reminder of her impending death. Built into the wall was a bench on which the protagonists either sat or walked along as the drama unfolded. And above the bench was a space where the chorus appeared. At some point towards the end of the first act as the chorus leaned forward from above as voyeurs on Violetta and Alfredo it occurred to me that perhaps Decker had been inspired somewhat by ancient Greek theatre.

The opening of the second act literally bloomed with flowers. The protagonists were robed in floral patterns and the sofas were extravagantly draped in them. But again Decker never let us forget – however subtly – the transience of the relationship and Violetta’s own life. The poignancy for example of their innocent game of hide and seek or how Violetta herself pulled off the covers, literally stripping bare the veneer of her own life before she is forced to abandon her life of happiness in the country.

However it was Decker’s reinterpretation of the Spanish divertissement that was a master stoke that underlined the brutality and violence of their world. Dispensing with the normally expected flamenco dancers and matadors, in Decker’s mind the divertissement became a malicious and cruel critique of Violetta’s life.

Even Decker’s resolution of moving without break from the second to final act was inspired, with the chorus – Violetta’s former party people – leaving her to her demise only to return later to reclaim the clock face for their ‘new’ Violetta who is even dressed in the dying courtesan’s red dress.

It was only in the closing scenes – and more as a result of her acting skills than her vocal ability – that Dessay almost convinced me that she was an almost credible Violetta even if she remained vocally bland to the end.

So while not the most disappointing La Traviata I have ever seen, this production – where the director has stripped away all artifice – requires singing and conducting of the highest standard for all the elements to fuse together effectively.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. This could have marred the entire evening had it not been for Decker’s single-minded production and – as stated above – the fact that the genius and beauty of Verdi’s music can overcome even the most mediocre singing.

He Didn’t Drink The Poison

In Classical Music, Opera, Verdi on June 12, 2011 at 3:57 am

Siimon Boccanegra, English National Opera, June 10 2011

Simon Boccanegra – Bruno Caproni
Paolo Albiani – Roland Wood
Jacapo Fiesco – Brindley Sherratt
Amelia – Rena Harms
Gabriele Adorno – Peter Auty

Director/Set Designer – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Conductor- Edward Gardner

After the recent disappointments on the stage of English National Opera, it was good to see something resembling a return to creative form with Simon Boccanegra. Overall the production was good, and I can only hope that when it reaches the even higher standards of their co-production partner, the Bayerische Oper in Munich, it will lift itself even further artistically.

As I said, I have been disappointed with recent productions at the London Coliseum, so much so that I have yet to renew my ENO Friends’ membership. And while this production has gone some way to restoring my confidence it doesn’t quite counterbalance the recent rash of ill-conceived endeavours.

Figgis’ simply ridiculous Lucrezia Borgia, where it seemed that the entire stage budget had been spent on a handful of badly made, ‘let’s-play-the-opera-for-titillation’ episodic films. At the expense of any drama on the actual stage. The whole evening was short on quality on the stage and in the pit and this was exacerbated by the disastrous decision – backed by conductor and former house Music Director, Paul Daniel – of cutting some of the music as well.

Their complete gutting of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse was even worse. If the opening S&M prologue was an early low point, nothing prepared me for the smearing of greasy fried chicken on the walls and a lazy execution of Personregie. After that nothing could save the evening for me, especially not the majority of miscast singers. And despite a hope that Gilliam’s debut with The Damnation of Faust might be a turning point with subtle observation and some wit judging from the massive PR campaign behind the production, it proved hollow and desperately crammed full of clichés. Even the singing was only passable.

Thank God, therefore, for Tcherniakov.

Simon Boccanegra is a difficult opera in many ways. First, let’s face it, the story is convoluted to say the least. But Tcherniakov’s simple way of keeping the audience up to speed was effective.

Secondly, setting the opera itself. There is, naturally, the option to set it as originally intended in Renaissance Genoa. This was, of course, what Covent Garden did, scoring some success with a very traditional production by ????. But I also remember the more anonymous production that preceded the current attempt at ENO itself.

Tcherniakov is clearly a director cast in a more modern mould and overall – with some nice touches – the production generally works well. The pseudo ‘café italia’ of the opening hinted slightly at a Latin setting, as did the hysterical ‘Nona’ as Simon tried to steal Maria’s dead body. But I particularly liked Amelia’s opening scene. Here the director shrunk the tableau of the previous Prologue into a frame. A neat visual trick. The emptiness of the space – a single arm chair, the aforementioned picture and a large opaque window, seemed indicative of her state of mind.

His interpretation of the subsequent Council Chamber – a faceless office with theatre style seating which then dominated the rest of the opera – worked less well. A quick glance at the programme inferred that Tcherniakov had taken some inspiration from the European Commission or some other nameless chamber of deputies. Rows of chairs arranged theatre-style however, gave more of a sense of a corporate meeting room than the seat of government – although it did give an opportunity for some chair slinging.

However – and this was a relief – there was clear attention to detail in the direction of the main protagonists – who played their parts effectively for the most part. From the beginning it was clear that the director had spent some time with the singers, exploring their characters. In particular, I noted how Fiesco literally seemed to shrink, and Bocanegra himself grew more weary as events unfolded. But best of all was the Amelia of Rena Harms. She captured the real sense of an adolescent in rebellion, slightly damaged by her past, and desperate for love and identity. Personally I am surprised that Boccanegra would want to reclaim such a testy teen. Her final transformation, from goth in black leggings and baggy jumper to teenage bride in a suitably ‘off-the-shelf’ wedding dress and veil was another nice touch.

Some critics have made much of the direction of the chorus. While I do think that the ENO chorus is one of the company’s best assets – together with its orchestra and Music Director – I didn’t think that there was anything remarkable or different about their stage management in this production. For example, I think the chorus was far more effective and dramatic in a previous production of Jephtha.

As an ensemble, the cast were strong and melded well and this has always been a strength of ENO. Any weaknesses that individuals might have displayed effectively disappeared in the ensemble.

Bruno Caproni’s Simon Boccanegra was – for me – probably the weakest of the soloists as h3 didn’t project any real presence or dimension on stage. His voice lacked the rich, deep sonority that I think is necessary in this role. Additionally he sometimes lacked the heft to rise the above the orchestra. But his was a musically astute and sensitive performance.

The Albiani of Roland Wood reminded me of former Labour minister Ed Balls. I wonder if that was deliberate. Bar the almost comedic, Basil Fawlty moment when his ambition to marry Amelia is thwarted, it was a finely caricatured performance supported by some very fine singing. Particularly chilling was his reaction during the curse scene. I wouldn’t mind seeing Wood as Iago in the future.

Brindley Sherratt, a regular at ENO, delivered the finest performance of the evening. His rich, sonorous voice, even in tone throughout brought every scene he was in alive with drama. A strong actor, he successfully went from grieving and vengeful father, to a broken and resigned man.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to make of Peter Auty’s outfit. When he first entered, crash helmet in hand, I wondered if Gabriele Adorno was a part-time stunt man. However as the evening progressed I decided that he was, in fact, a pizza delivery boy cum hero. He was in fine voice and had no problems delivering the notes on the page with its often taxing tessitura. However his was not a performance of particular finesse, with no real sense of light and shade, and for the most part, one single volume – loud. This was particularly true when singing with Rena Harms.

And so to the Amelia of Rena Harms. Again I understand that she did not find favour with some critics. I beg to differ. Despite a somewhat shaky start, Harms has an incredibly flexible instrument. It has a rich warm timbre, except perhaps at the very top of her range where it can take on a slightly harsh tone. But she produced a clean vocal line with an real ability to float her highest notes. And she performed the role wonderfully, both as soloist and as a member of the many, beautiful ensemble moments. And her keen acting communicated her truly damaged character. This wasn’t the wooden cipher of the Amelia portrayed by Marina Poplavskaya at Covent Garden, but a real flesh and blood girl verging on womanhood but unable to cope. And Harms delivered the most memorable image of the opera – her breakdown in the closing scene. It will stay with me for some time.

And so to the most puzzling thing for me. The poison and the end of the opera itself. When I say poison, I mean the lack of poison. At the seminal moment of the opera, Simon Boccanegra does not drink from the poisoned glass. Now I realise that sometimes Personregie – and from here on in, I detected it’s particular influence – can result in some strange decisions (bamboo in Cologne’s production of Der Rosenkavalier for example), but for the main character not to drink the poison made no sense at all. Especially as it was constantly referred to in the text. More on the translation later. So having not drunk the poison, the final scene almost stepped from reality. For example, Boccanegra’s fashioning of an admiral’s hat from a piece of newspaper (clearly one he had made earlier) seemed nonsensical as it was the single reference to his nautical past in the whole opera. Indeed, at the beginning he seemed more ageing Fonzie than successful pirate. Then his descent, not into death, but rather into a trance-like state, or breakdown didn’t seem appropriate. His ambling exit stage right – quite literally – detracted from the emotional impact that Ed Gardner had led the audience to at that precise moment. Fortunately the brutal physicality of Harms’ breakdown returned us to the stark reality of the denouement, heightened even more by her inability, moments before, to hug her own father as he implored her to do.

I have always supported ENO’s mission to perform opera in English. But a small plea, and I know that this isn’t always possible, but it seems ludicrous and somewhat distracting, that the libretto can’t be more reflective of the drama onstage. The references to swords for example, seemed ridiculous coming from a man in a motorcycle outfit.

And finally to Ed Gardner and the orchestra. Without doubt the most thrilling part of the evening. A remarkable conductor and Music Director, he clearly has an exceptionally close relationship with the orchestra and they respect him immensely. He drew exceptionally fine playing from them, sympathetic to the singers, and tuned in to the fine detail of Verdi’s score. The sonorous brass at the opening, the wonderful string and wind playing for Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna, demonstrate now far the musicianship of the orchestra under Gardner has come,

So, all in all, a good evening and a welcome return to a higher standard for ENO. Hopefully in Munich however, Tcherniakov will allow Simon to drink the poison and die with dignity on stage.

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