Monday, January 31, 2011

A hit with no misses!

When the Met gets it right, it gets it REALLY right, and such is the case with Simon Boccanegra. Although not a new one, the Giancarlo del Monaco production honors the intent of Verdi to knit together two major themes--the personal and the political. The personal one very much centers on the father-daughter relationship, often worked through in Verdi’s operas. Having sired a child with the daughter of the aristocratic Fiesco, unfortunate former pirate Simon Boccanegra is persona non grata in the 14th Century city-state of Genoa. As librettists Piave and Boito weave the tale, Fiesco will not allow Boccanegra to wed his beloved Maria and their illegitimate child has been turned over to a nurse who has died. The child is lost. Fiesco will not forgive Boccanegra until the child is produced and turned over to him. As the prologue opens Fiesco is grieving the death of his daughter and then Boccanegra also learns of the sad event.

Fiesco’s grief is given haunting expression by the aria “Il Lacerato Spirito”, movingly sung by bass Ferrucio Furlanetto who has a way of making stubborn old men supremely sympathetic. Poor Boccanegra also gets an opportunity to express his grief; baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, another artist of the highest caliber, immediately tugs at our heartstrings.

As the tale unfolds a quarter century later SB rediscovers his now-grown daughter (the winsome soprano Barbara Frittoli, possessor of a thrilling vibrato), wins her love and loyalty, disappoints the villain Paolo (ably portrayed by baritone Nicola Alaimo) who wanted to call in his political chips to marry the girl, forgives the girl’s beloved Gabriele Adorno (stunningly portrayed by tenor Ramón Vargas) and manages to bless the union and proclaim GA the new doge before dying of poison administered by Paolo. PHEW!

On to the political theme! Simon “has power thrust upon him” by Paolo who gets him elected doge. He assumes the (ermine) mantel of power and becomes a fair and merciful ruler, devoted to bringing peace to the warring factions in Genoa. Having lived through the process of unification of Italy, it seems clear that Verdi was drawn to stories that deal with compromise, peace and reconciliation. It is here that the chorus assumes a major role and does it with its customary excellence.

The musical values are topnotch overall. On Monday night, John Keenan assumed the conductor’s baton and neglected not a single detail in his nuanced reading of the score. Never was a singer drowned out. Every instrumental soloist who introduced a new idea did so with clarity, whether harp, bass clarinet, or oboe. The orchestra told the tale as well as the vocal line and the lyrics.

Sets and costumes were particularly apt. The only quibble I had is that more might have been done with the lighting. It would have been quite special if dawn at the seaside garden of the Grimaldi palace had been lit to suggest dawn, for example. But what a tiny quibble that is in light of this magnificent evening when luxury casting came together with honest production values. Let us cherish these productions before they are retired and replaced with costly and ineffective newcomers.

(c)meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Monday, January 24, 2011

Marilyn Horne's Legacy

I am happy to report that Marilyn Horne’s gift to the world of vocal music has not been diminished by its present incarnation as a presentation by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. This yearly festival celebrating the art of the vocal recital has endured since 1997 and assures us that the vocal recital is alive and well here in Gotham. The lovely woman sitting next to me for all the recitals and master classes has come every year from Geneva to attend. I only come from around the corner! Our pleasure was equal.

The first master class was given by German bass Kurt Moll. His unique way of coaching his four young pupils was highly personal; he actually stood face to face with each one and conducted each phrase in a way that pulled out of the pupil exactly the effect he wanted. There was a remarkable difference between the first offering of a song and the concluding one, even though only a half-hour had passed.

The second master class was given by Marilyn Horne herself. Particularly valuable was her work with the German language. In her kind and engaging way, she ensured that no consonant went unpronounced. Phrases that were initially incomprehensible eventually made sense. Art song is, after all, storytelling and we want to understand the words. Hearing a recital the next day in which every word was intelligible prompted me to ask the artist whether he had studied with Ms. Horne and it was not a surprise to learn that he had indeed.

The third master class was taught by Malcolm Martineau, a gifted accompanist from Scotland who worked exclusively on the French style. My French speaking seatmate was initially appalled by the youngsters’ lack of intelligibility, but a huge difference was noted after their brief instruction with Mr. M. and she left beaming. Apparently in French there are no accented syllables and emphasis is gained by stretching out the syllable a bit.

In addition to the three master classes there were two recitals by up and coming singers. The standout was Wendy Bryn Harmer’s offering of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder sensitively accompanied by Kristin Okerlund.

The final celebration is on Sunday with contributions from soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo Jamie Barton, tenor Paul Appleby, and baritone Eugene Chan, not to mention some of our favorite piano partners. Special guest artist is Christine Brewer. The song continues........

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, January 13, 2011

If scenery could sing - Puccini's Girl of the Golden West

Sometimes an opera is memorable for the brilliance of the singing; sometimes it’s the conducting; sometimes the staging. In the case of La Fanciulla del West, it is Michael Scott’s sets and costumes that linger in my mind a week after the performance. One has the sense of the Wild West all the way through, from the miner’s Polka Saloon in Act I to Minnie’s rustic mountain cabin in Act II and finally a street scene in a California Gold Rush town for Act III. The sense of verisimilitude is absolutely essential to overcome the preposterous idea of cowboys singing in Italian. Somehow it is easier to accept American naval officers in Japan singing in Italian, or even Chinese empresses. But cowboys on their own turf? Give us some help here!

That being said, Puccini’s opera is well-loved as well as well-laughed at; although not often performed it is generally well-attended. It is missing the lovely romantic arias that our ears yearn to hear, but it does offer intensely dramatic orchestration and rich harmonic textures. Whose heart does not pound in time with the insistent plucking of the basses during the fateful card game! The bass clarinet and the harps are put to excellent use.

The cast worked well as an ensemble with the all-male chorus doing their customary excellent work, as did all the comprimario roles. Covering for an indisposed Deborah Voigt was Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos whose appealing voice and fine acting won over the audience, although Nicola Luisotti’s enthusiastic conducting drowned her out at times.

Marcello Giordani has sounded better, but he has also sounded worse. What happened to his moustache part way through???? Lucio Gallo lent his substantial baritone to the role of the sheriff and Keith Miller did his customary fine job as the Wells Fargo agent.

The staging was awkward in places, especially with regard to the horses. If Minnie and Ramerrez rode off together in the sunset it was not visible from the balcony. A particularly magical moment was when the snow fell on Minnie’s cabin. Indeed, a verismo opera demands a realistic set and in this case it got one. Let us hope that the Met won’t hire some egotistical director who finds some obscure symbolism or subtext in this simple tale of the redemptive power of love. The sets are perfect just as they are and really and truly sing of the Wild West.

-- Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider