Monday, March 19, 2018

Guest reviewer Jamie Henderson and Don Carlos in Lyon


How much Verdi is too much Verdi? That was a thought that crossed my mind on occasion during this weekend in Lyon, when three of his operas were performed on consecutive nights by conductor Daniele Rustioni and the forces of the Opera de Lyon. Somewhat heretically, that thought even crossed my mind during Don Carlos, one of Verdi’s greatest operas (second only to Falstaff, in my opinion).

The auto-da-fé
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
But this was no run of the mill performance of Don Carlos; the five hour running time told us that. Firstly, in was performed in its original French version of 1866 rather than in the later Italian version (‘versions’ might be more accurate) which tends to be performed without the opening Fontainebleu act. Indeed, with the exception of a small cut in the ballet music, we were given all the music that Verdi composed for the Paris premiere (and some that was excised before the first night, for reasons of length). Some of the many things we heard which are not usually performed were a peasants’ chorus at the opening of the opera (which certainly gives added context to the weight on Elisabeth’s shoulders - she really can’t refuse to marry Philippe); a duet for Elisabeth and Eboli when the latter reveals herself to be the King’s mistress; and a duet for Philippe and Carlos after the death of Rodrigue (recognisable as the Lacrimosa theme from the Requiem). Notably, when Elisabeth discovers Eboli’s treachery, she leaves the stage and it is the Comte de Lerma, acting on the Queen’s behalf, who banishes Eboli.

Sergey Romanovsky as Don Carlos
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
Christoph Honoré was entrusted to bring the piece to theatrical life, and in that he partially succeeded. In some ways, the production appeared entirely traditional: this dark, sombre piece was given dark, sombre sets. Black, empty sets were the predominant theme, with a few moving curtains in the Garden scene and the ballet. Given that the set design was pretty minimal, it was surprising that there so many pauses between scenes; perhaps it was to give the orchestra and audience a rest, but it undercut the momentum. Stage lighting was sepulchral, making it hard to read facial expressions. Costumes were all over the place, more of a goth or steampunk take on traditonal dress; nothing wrong with that, but any ‘edginess’ this might suggest simply wasn’t developed or taken far enough, though there was more groping and bare flesh than we would normally see in Don Carlos (Philippe’s court seemed a rather naughty one). Thibault was played as a female, as so many modern directors seem to have a problem with breeches roles; again, I am open to the idea but it went nowhere).

Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Eboli) and Sally Matthews (Elisabeth)
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
There was little sign of the political machinations that form a huge part of this opera, and Honoré didn’t make much of the relationship between Carlos and Rodrigue. I found Honoré’s direction terribly inconsistent - in some scenes, bringing out intense performances (particularly from Sally Matthews as Elisabeth), in others leaving the cast and chorus to stand and deliver (the nadir being the Auto-da-Fé scene). The ballet was another low point, and mostly consisted of a group of scantily clad slaves stomping around in a fountain and licking each other. In the end, I felt that this production fell uncomfortably between a traditional ‘Don Carlos’ and an edgier, Regie take; it didn’t wholly succeed as either.

Fortunately, the performance was much stronger and more consistent on the musical side of things. With the exception of Michele Pertusi and Roberto Scandiuzzi, all the leads were making their role debuts; indeed, some had never sung any Verdi role before. The results were interesting, if not always entirely convincing.

It was perhaps not surprising that Pertusi was the most satisfying performer of the evening. A relatively experienced singer of Verdi (the Requiem, as well as some operatic roles), he is not the most galvanising or expressive of actors. However, his voice suits Philippe II perfectly, especially in French (he has not yet sung it in Italian), and his Act IV scene was an exemplary piece of singing, if not the most moving rendition I have heard. The tone has greyed a little over the years, but that is not inappropriate for this role.

Sergey Romanovsky took the lead role of Carlos, and revealed an attractive lyric tenor that is probably a size too small for the part. There was much attractive, lyrical singing, and he never forced the voice or made an ugly sound, but he lacked some power for the dramatic climaxes (such as his confrontation with Elisabeth in Act 2). Probably his finest singing came in their touching final duet, Romanovsky displaying a plangent mezza voce, free from any crooning. Romanovsky was also a good actor and a game performer, willing to bare some flesh throughout the evening; he is a handsome man, and Honoré made sure we were all aware of it.

The biggest revelation of the evening was Sally Matthews’ assumption of Elisabeth de Valois, her first ever Verdi role. Being a fellow Brit, I have heard her sing many times over the years, but nothing she has sung before had quite prepared me for this. Indeed, I’m not sure I have heard her dip into her chest register before, at least not so noticeably, or so impressively. Her top soars as thrillingly as ever, and in many ways she was the most uninhibited of performers, vocally and histrionically. Apart from audibly gulping for breath on occasion, there was no sense that she was at the limit of her capabilities. Do I think she is ideally suited to Verdi? No - at least, not yet. Her vibrato is on the fruity side, which makes the voice sound a little matronly; ideally, one wants the smooth tone of a Harteros (who currently reigns in this role). At present Matthews also lacks the ability to float a piano high note, though her technical proficiency is such that she can diminuendo a note, as she did to beautiful effect in ‘Oh ma chère compagne’. I’ve a feeling that this will not be Matthews’ last time singing Verdi.

Stéphane Degout was making a rare appearance in his home town and was also singing Verdi for the first time. Degout is one of the finest baritones around, so my expectations were high but were not quite fulfilled. There was certainly little to fault with the singing - Degout’s voice is rock solid and his music was expansively phrased, and stylishly sung. Of course, his sung French beautiful to listen to, but - and this is purely my view - the voice itself was not of the most beautiful quality in Verdi. Simply put, I think the voice needs a bit more ‘meat on the bone’ for Verdi - it’s a focussed, slender sound, lacking the velvet and richness of some other Posas I’ve heard recently. As with Romanovsky, there was a sense that his voice was a size too small for the part. Though there’s nothing much he can do about that, I think he will, with time, find his way more deeply into the role than he did on opening night.

Eve-Maude Hubeaux is a mezzo to watch, though I suspect that Eboli may not remain in her repertoire. She has a big, vibrant sound and is a confident performer with bags of stage presence. She managed to sell Honoré’s conceit of confining Eboli to a wheelchair throughout (this physical disability taking the place of Eboli’s partial blindness, though to little effect or dramatic pay-off). Like many Ebolis, she was not equally comfortable in both arias: she impressed in the arabesques of the Veil Song, but started to tire by the end of 'O don fatale', which was a smidge too high. A sympathetic Brangaene in Lyon last year, this is a mezzo I’d like to see as Carmen, Dulcinee, and Charlotte and perhaps Oktavian.

Roberto Scandiuzzi - in the past, an excellent Philippe himself - bellowed threateningly as Le Grand Inquisiteur. It’s an appealingly dark sound that contrasted well with Pertusi’s brighter timbre, and Scandiuzzi’s low notes rumbled impressively. However, his vibrato has loosened over the years, and the top notes were sometimes more shouted than sung.

The cast received strong, sympathetic support from conductor Daniele Rustioni, who brought out all the dark wonders of Verdi’s score without drowning out even the lightest-voiced of his singers. Tempi were deliberate, sometimes lacking the fire and impetus of performances of the Italian versions, but with so much additional material being performed that is perhaps to be expected. The chorus were on better form than the night before, surer in their entries and singing with concentrated tone, though they don’t ‘do’ acting; or at least, they don’t act especially well when under-directed.

Undoubtedly, Verdi’s revisions and cuts make for a better, more powerful Don Carlos (though I never want to be without the Fontainebleu act). Overall, though, this was a fascinating experience and a huge achievement for Rustioni and his orchestra and chorus. One felt he had bitten off a little more than he could chew (this Don Carlos was sandwiched between a distinctly average and under-rehearsed opening night performance of Macbeth and an ebullient matinee concert performance of Attila. I hope they are all having a well-deserved break; Rustioni certainly looked like he needed it.

Review: Jamie Henderson
Twitter: @jsdhenderson

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My new drag name: Peaches Melba

I love food and I love opera, so of course after watching this Food Wishes video about five times (admit it--you do the same thing!) I looked for online recordings of Nellie Melba.

I already knew Dame Nellie Melba as one of the mostly highly paid and esteemed entertainment figures of her day.  As with most great singers of her time (and a few from our own time!) recordings don't flatter her, and as recording technology was improving she was aging.  But you can still hear what a wonderfully expressive singer she was.

Listen to this Caro nome from 1904:

And this Si, mi chiamano Mimi from 1907:

Considering this blog first arose out of efforts to keep the memories of great singers alive, I think it's a good thing.  Both the dessert and the historic recordings.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Opera with a capital "Oh!!!!" Preliminary thoughts on Il Trovatore

I was thrilled to hear the live audio streaming online as the Sir David McVicar production of Mr. Verdi's Il Trovatore opened for this season on Monday night. Il Trovatore is one of those operas. You know the ones--a story that seems laughable, every conceivable human emotion set to ridiculously singable tunes, but incredibly gripping when done well and we are paying attention. It is perhaps unfortunate that Il Trovatore is know as the "Oops! Wrong baby [in the fire]!" opera, for it has so much more to offer!

One of this season's surprises at the Metropolitan Opera was the announcement that dear Jennifer Rowley would sing Leonora in all performances of Il Trovatore, replacing the originally scheduled artist. Stepping in late in the game has become a common occurrence for Miss Rowley. Her triumph last season as Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met occurred in just this way. If I'm not mistaken, she was hired for her first Verdi Requiem just two weeks before the performance. And she was thrust into the international spotlight with a spine-tingling performance of Maria in Mr. Donizetti's Maria di Rohan at Caramoor in 2010, replacing the scheduled artist.

Caruso is said to have quipped that all you need for a successful Trovatore production is the four greatest singers in the world. Call this production successful! Although I recently raved about Miss Rowley's Tosca, I found on Monday night her Leonora was even better vocally than her beautiful Tosca. Everything Leonora needs--warm sound throughout, a broad palate of vocal colors and the ability to use them intelligently, great musical instincts, and chutzpah--Miss Rowley has in abundance.

Anita Rachvelishvili was a marvel as Azucena. The same qualities I praise in Miss Rowley--vocal color, intelligent and artistic musical instincts, chutzpah--were quite abundant in Miss Rachvelishvili's performance. (I wanted to hand the Met's radio announcer a tissue every time she said Rachvelishvili!) I wasn't familiar with her before, but I hope to hear much more from her.

I praised Quinn Kelsey's 2011 Rigoletto highly, and I've since seen and heard him give equally impressive performances. As Count di Luna, Mr. Kelsey displayed the same qualities that impressed as Rigoletto--singing that was beautiful and expressive, and vocal acting that was impressive. I have heard Yonghoon Lee grow as an artist over the years, and I found last night's Manrico quite thrilling vocally. When he was younger, I found his singing occasionally yell-y, but there was none of that in last night's performance.

To Marco Armiliato I give great credit for the overall high level of artistry and expressiveness in last night's performance. There was ample evidence that Mr. Armiliato is a singer's conductor, while he kept pacing and shape to the performance tightly reigned. And of course, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus performed at the superb level we expect of them.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Newsflash: Puccini's Shabby Little Shocker Not All That Shabby!

I was delighted beyond measure to see The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca on January 12. Regular followers know that I am a great fan of the soprano Jennifer Rowley, and this was her one scheduled performance in this production. Why it was only one, I can't imagine, but I was delighted to see the recent announcement that dear Jen will sing Leonora all of the Met's scheduled performances of Il Trovatore, which opens January 22, taking over for the originally announced Leonora.

Željko Lučić  as Scarpia
Photo:  Sara Kulwich, New York Times
Scarpia! Wow! Željko Lučić (I don't know how to pronounce it, either) was simply amazing. Enough vocal power to stop a Mack truck, enough stage presence to make one attend to his every move and gesture, and enough acting power to make one want him to die a thousand painful deaths instead of the one merciful death he is granted. Scarpia's big moments dramatically were also phenomenally beautiful vocally. How often can one say that? Remember I came of age during Cornell MacNeill's later days, when George London was still a fresh memory for my teachers and advisors. This man deserves comparison with those greats.

I admire Vittorio Grigolo very much, but I won't say I would happily cast him as Cavaradossi. Quite often I find his voice light for the roles in which he is cast, and this is certainly the feeling here. Although there was never a feeling of "Oh dear--I wonder if he'll get the next bit!", one simply lacked the feeling of "Ahhh! This is how Cavaradossi was meant to be sung." I was so conscious of this studied lack of discomfort that in the end I missed Mr. Grigolo's artistry, which is indeed considerable. Having said that, I can state his "Vittoria! Vittoria!" was glorious and his "O dolci mani" was sweet and tender.

The most beautiful soprano at the Met
But I might be biased
Quite frankly, Jennifer Rowley is the reason for this post, the reason I braved the Henry Hudson Parkway and actually went into Manhattan for the first time in months. And yes, that feeling of "Ahhh! This is how Tosca was meant to be sung!" was there in abundance! Vocal beauty, acting, commitment--a totally satisfying performance. One can see in her portrayal that Floria Tosca was actually a very young woman--jealous, insecure, impetuous, gullible. All eyes were on Miss Rowley whenever she took the stage. Her scenes with Scarpia were magic.

Tosca is built around conversations--Tosca and Cavarodossi, Tosca and Scarpia, even Cavaradossi and the Sacristan. This was where the entire cast shone.  (The Sacristan of Patrick Carfizzi, Sciarrone of the handsome Christopher Job, and Angelotti of Christian Zaremba were very good indeed.) There were many fine dramatic touches in this new production by Sir David MacVicar, who is known for his recent Norma, as well as the three Donizetti Tudor queens at the Met (It's not a trilogy!  Stop calling it that!).  I've never seen Cavaradossi working with both an initial small-scale painting and the large-scale final painting of Mary Magdalene in Act I, and I also adored the moment in Act I after the Tosca-Scarpia confrontation when Scarpia grabs Tosca's stole and locks her in a gaze before she runs away in disgust and horrror. And Cavaradossi's trembling with terror in Act III, just before he is shot by the firing squad (sorry if that's a spoiler) shows that he knew from the first that the "mock execution" wouldn't be mock at all. Sets and costumes by John Macfarlane were stunning. I especially liked Scarpia's apartment in Act II and the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo in Act III.

The always amazing Metropolitan Opera Orchestra lived up to their reputation under the leadership of Emmanuel Villaume. It must be a great challenge having a rotating cast, but there were very few moments when pit and stage were not together, and the vast majority of those involved singers who are singing most of the performances in this run.
Castel Sant'Angelo
Photo:  Sara Kulwich, New York Times

Monday, December 4, 2017

Guest reviewer: Berlioz would be dazzled!

Warner Classics/Erato graciously provided me with a copy of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, which they released November 24, Since the works are Berlioz are far from my field of expertise, I entrusted dear Bocca L. Lupo (Bucky to his friends), who has graced these pages before as guest blogger, with the happy task of listening to and evaluating the recording:

This fine recording is drawn from two concert performances that took place in April 2017 in Strasbourg, France. Under the inspired leadership of conductor John Nelson, the magnificent cast includes Joyce DiDonato as Didon (Dido), Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandre (Cassandra), and Michael Spyres as Énée (Aeneas).

Joyce DiDonato
Photo:  Paul Dukovic
Berlioz based Les Troyens on Books II and IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, and its creation was a labor of love for the composer. Any performance of Berlioz’s magnum opus is a significant event, not only because of the extraordinary resources required, but also because of the quality of the opera as a work of art. Poor Berlioz never saw or heard his extraordinary dramatic creation in its entirety: in his memoirs, he laments the atrocities performed against the score by the producers and directors who gave only a truncated outing of part two (Les Troyens à Carthage). This recording is, for all intents and purposes, complete: only 16 measures of a repeat in the Act IV Danse des Esclaves are cut.

John Nelson is an acknowledged master of Berlioz’s music and of Les Troyens in particular, having conducted the opera more frequently than anyone else during the past 40 years, including performances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1974. Nelson brings us Berlioz’s score with well-judged tempi and clear care for his singers. His attention to detail allows the fine Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg to bring out the myriad felicities in the orchestration, whether it be the stopped horns accompanying Hector’s ghost or the six harps supporting the women of Troy in the Act II finale. The Chasse Royale et Orage is an atmospheric tour de force for Nelson and his fine band. Nelson employs judicious, unwritten ritardandi fully in keeping with French style and Berlioz’s intentions. Just as it should be, Nelson’s performance is all about Berlioz.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Photo:  Denis Rouvre/Naive
The Choeurs de l’Opéra national du Rhin, the Badisher Staatsopernchor, and the Choeur philharmonique de Strasbourg perform their complex parts admirably. They are somewhat recessed in the overall sound picture, but the distinction between full-and semi-chorus in the Chant National, “Gloire à Didon,” is clearly drawn. En masse, their sound is indeed thrilling.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux is excellent as Cassandra. At first I wondered how her rich, plumy contralto voice would manage the higher range outbursts in her demanding part, but she proved more than equal to the task, giving a highly musical performance using clear, perfect French diction and thoroughly integrated registers. Lemieux's Cassandra is not possessed from the start: only as the disaster for Troy becomes apparent does she express despair. A very satisfying performance.

It should be no surprise that Joyce DiDonato, in her debut as Didon, gives an outstanding performance. She employs her creamy tone, smooth and intergrated throughout the registers, to express Dido’s initial regal repose and, as her relationship with Énée develops, her desperate attraction to the man who must leave her behind. Her French is clear and elegant: no libretto is necessary to understand every word. Her performance of the final scene is moving. She truly lives the role of Didon.

Michael Spyres is a revelation as Énée. Many previous performances and recordings have filled the role with heroic tenors or heldentenors, who often seemed to struggle with the role’s requirements for flexibility. Spyres makes everything seem easy, with a lyrical voice of even emission and subtlety of expression that nevertheless has the metal to make climaxes ring with passion. This is a voice Berlioz would have welcomed in the role.

Not surprisingly, the performance by DiDonato and Spyres of the Nuit d’ivresse duet at the conclusion of Act IV is outstanding. Nelson and the orchestra provide a subtle but passionate accompaniment.

Warner Classics provides this video about the making of the recording:

Complementing these marvelous artists is a cast of singers almost without a weak link. Stéphane Degout as Chorèbe and Marianne Crebassa as Ascagne provide focused voices and strong dramatic involvement. Cyrille Dubois as Iopas and Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Hylas have beautiful tenor voices perfectly suited to their roles, and each of their solos is a highlight. The voices of Hanna Hipp as Anna and Nicolas Courjal as Narbal both lack a clear center to the tone, so their performances do not rise to the level of the rest of the cast, but their commitment to the drama and their roles shines through. In the smaller parts, there is no weak link.

The performance is presented on 4 compact discs, with Acts II and III on CD 2. A full libretto in French and English is provided, along with an extensive background essay in French, English, and German. Also included is an 85-minute bonus DVD of video highlights of the concert performance on April 15, 2017, an opportunity to see all these dedicated, amazing artists at work.

There have been previous, excellent recordings of Les Troyens (Davis on Philips, Dutoit on Decca, Gardiner on Opus Arte DVD, and Levine with the Metropolitan Opera), and I would not choose to be without them, but this new recording, with its outstanding cast and inspired conducting, would now be my first choice. Highly recommended. If you care about Les Troyens, about Berlioz (who would be dazzled by this performance), about fine singing, about first-quality performance, about French opera, about opera itself, don’t hesitate.

--Bocca L. Lupo