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Posts Tagged ‘Fabio Luisi’

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.

Flawed in High Definition

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

Götterdämmerung, The Metropolitan Opera (11 February 2012)

Three Norns – Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Brunnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Hagen – Hans Peter König
Gunther – Ian Paterson
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Alberich – Eric Owens
Woglinde – Erin Morley;
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor – Fabio Luisi
Director – Robert LePage
Set Designer – Carl Fillion
Lighting Designer – Etienne Boucher
Costumer Designer – Francois St-Aubin
Video Image Artists – Lionel Arnoud

Having seen the Met’s production of Die Walküre live I decided, due to time restraints, to experience the final instalment of Robert LePage’s production through the medium of cinema. Live HD transmissions are proving a bit of a success for the Met and I was intrigued to see how opera would translate to the big screen.

Personally I don’t think anything beats a live performance but clearly watching a live broadcast has its advantages similar to those when watching opera on DVD – you have the best seat in the house and, if the director is worth his salt, the advantage of not missing a single moment of the unfolding drama.

LePage’s production remains dominated by his mechanical set and in his introduction before the curtain went up Peter Gelb, in a well-prepped speech clearly written by his PR team tried to convince that LePage’s production was a combination of Old World and New and was, in fact, something that Wagner would have approved. I have no doubt that Wagner – with his obsession with modern technology – would have been intrigued by LePage’s intention but, with his equal if not overriding passion with both the importance of singing and acting, perhaps he too would have been left more than a little nonplussed.

As I said when I wrote about Die Walküre, the entire production is subsumed by the mechanical set, overshadowed by its hundreds of tonnes of steel, which don’t so much dominate the entire proceeding as suffocate them. Reviews of Götterdämmerung maintained that LePage had finessed his manipulation of the planks and that they had taken a less obtrusive role compared to in the first three operas. To be honest – and perhaps this was because of watching the production in a cinema with its close-ups – I didn’t feel that at all. The set was almost like an extra character that for the most part simply distracted especially as the singers continued – for the most part – to interact with it gingerly. I still remember Deborah Voigt’s fall on her first stage entrance on the first night of Die Walküre but all hats off to the Rhinemaidens who made it all look so effortless although it took me a while before I could relax as they slid down the stage and not think they were going to hit their heads.

Lionel Arnoud’s projections, a critical element to keep LePage’s production alive and bind the narrative, were an odd mix of hallucinogenic wallpapers and non-descript animated scenes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on my laptop. However they didn’t distract too much and there were some nice touches – the ravens in the final act for example.

Singing above all of this was a pretty strong cast. Jay Hunter Morris – as was repeatedly made clear a late stand-in for Gary Lehman – was an impressive Siegfried. It’s difficult to know because I was in a cinema whether or not the sound was ‘assisted’ in the sense that carefully placed microphones are going to ensure the right balance between singer and orchestra, but he clearly had the heft for the cinema-attending audience. He managed to pace himself and there were only occasional signs of strain in his Third Act scene. But while his voice was equally clear and resonant and there were times when I did wish there was a little more colour and inflection in his vocal line. At times his delivery seemed to verge on the bland but I hope that as he develops this role that will change.

Deborah Voigt’s Brunnhilde – one of the most anticipated and analysed debuts in this role for a while I would imagine – had clearly developed in the role since Die Walküre. Interestingly when interviewed during the interval by Patricia Racette she discussed how Götterdämmerung was her preferred opera in the trio in which Brunnhilde appears as Siegfried lies uncomfortably high for her voice. I have to admit that she did give a compelling performance in Götterdämmerung and clearly she – I don’t think I can credit LePage with this considering the lacklustre direction and ‘stand-and-deliver’ style of Die Walküre – had thought deeply about the role and has always been, in my opinion, an intelligent and thoughtful singer-actress. The trouble with HD however is that it does zoom in which isn’t a luxury that is afforded you in the opera house even with the best theatre glasses. For me this meant that every nuance was exaggerated which at times was distracting. I still believe that Brunnhilde is not a role that sits easily within Voigt’s voice and while there didn’t seem to be the level of strain that she suffered in Die Walküre there were still moments when he voice took on a slightly metallic, single dimensional role. However overall this was a strong performance and it would be interesting to see how Voigt handles a complete cycle.

The surprise of the evening for me was the Gutrune of Wendy Bryn Harmer. More normally a cipher or a casting afterthought, Bryn Harmer has a rich vibrant soprano and made the character incredibly human, married with excellent technique. In her interval interview she professed an ambition to sing Sieglinde which would be something to hear. Iain Paterson as her brother was similarly well cast, delivering a believably flawed character and strong singing.

Similarly Hans Peter König and Eric Owens as Hagen and Alberich respectively were impressive. König exuded a calculated malevolence coupled with an intelligent musical performance. The ‘duet’ between father and son – Owens being equally vocally strong and a thoughtful actor – was one of the highlights of the evening even if the direction was slightly awry.

The Norns and the Rhinemaidens – were also impressive. The ensemble singing was closely knit without weak link in the casting. I have to profess to a small chuckle as the Norns rose, Jedi-like, from under the stage. Complete with their hooded gowns they would not have looked out of place in George Lucas’ Star Wars. But they gave a very credible performance and sang beautifully. Similarly, the three Rhinemaidens managed the perfect balance of flirtatiousness and what I always think is gentle malevolence and again, the ensemble singing was superb.

However the highlight of the evening was Waltraud Meier as Waltraute. She brought an intelligence and humanity to the role that made that single scene the most mesmerising of the whole performance in a way I have not seen in Götterdämmerung before. Ms Meier is of course a seasoned performer and an expert interpreter of some of Wagner’s greatest female roles – her Ortrud in Munich and her Isolde in Paris are particularly memorable – and her performance as Waltraute, bringing out the ‘humantiy’ of the role and demonstrating through her entire performance how far the Gods had fallen was truly remarkable. For a moment it lifted the entire opera.

Fabio Luisi has stepped in at the Met after Levine cancelled due to ongoing health problems. I couldn’t quite put my finger on his conducting style in the first act but I am indebted to fellow blogger @The Wagnerian for hitting the nail on the head – “late Verdi without la passione”. Precisely. I missed Levine’s drive and bite.

Overall however LePage’s interpretation of Götterdämmerung was as flawed for me as was his Die Walküre. The staging itself continued to dominate and while in the latter there as some method to his mechanical obsession in Götterdämmerung, where LePage had either run out of creative steam with his own creation or was trying – a little to late – to compensate the end result was even less compelling. In truth – as was the case with Keith Warner’s production at Covent Garden – perhaps seeing LePage’s Ring in its entirety once the novelty has faded, might enable me to see beyond ‘the machine’. But for now the staging remained too obtrusive and the directing of the characters seemed more secondary if not – thank goodness – the afterthought that it seemed in Die Walküre.

And seeing Götterdämmerung as a live HD transmission had both advantages and disadvantages. Clearly the quality of the broadcast and the sound is impressive but you do miss the atmosphere and excitement of being in the audience. Also if the director is worth his salt you do not miss a moment of the action. But what you do not see the entirety of the staging for, of course, the director only lets you see what he wants you to see. In this case, LePage wanted to make sure, it seemed, that the staging itself got ‘star billing’.

Additionally the intense focus on the singers as individuals detracts from the overall sense of an ensemble. No matter how fast the camera is, it cannot compensate for the speed in which – sitting in the theatre itself – the viewer can absorb an entire scene and the characters motivations in a nanosecond.

However I have to admit that I have been nibbled by the HD bug and will return again for Dessay in the Met production of La Traviata in April. But for now, LePage and his Ring remain less human and more machine.

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