The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bavarian St Opera Aida: a la Gatti step - Egyptians, Verdi in flats

Barbara Frittoli was originally to have sung in this production of Verdi’s Aida, but whether it was the heaviness of the title role for a lyric, the lack of any clear beat to happen from the podium, or confusion surrounding the staging (by Christof Nel) in question that led her to backing out may still remain an open question. On paper then, that is still including Frittoli, this appeared to be a somewhat promising outing with Verdi’s Aida, on terms of its three principal singers. Lyric bass Giacomo Prestia has had some success before with Ramfis at other houses too.

Kristin Lewis, soprano from Little Rock, Arkansas, with certainly some attractive qualities, took Frittoli's place. There is a warm, thick molasses to the sound here that is quite attractive and should continue to help her find work in more lyric repertoire than the title role of Aida. I certainly hope she has not added Tosca or Amelia in Ballo to her repertoire as of yet. Lewis is said to have a degree of acting ability that apparently, according to one other writer who has written in, said that the rest of this cast lacked. Lewis’s first entrance, in trio with Amneris and Radames, a good ways already before becoming necessary for a lyric, involved quite a degree of pushing the voice - evident too during “Su del Nilo" several minutes later how flat she could become above the staff.

Most worrisome, for singer I estimate to be in her late twenties, was the pushing down on not only low notes to reach them, but also doing so on pitches around the break. The perils of doing so, for sake of the longevity of a career just starting out especially, should be blatantly obvious by now. She certainly won some sympathy for the part, but also had to stick at times to coasting through things, glib expression should any going nearby get rough. “O patria mia” certainly suited Lewis better than did “Ritorna vincitor,” but high C and high A at the end, though in tune, were unsupported. From what clip of this Aida I have seen, there are certainly some fine dramatic and musical instincts here that Lewis presents - all threatened however by taking on an assignment that is too big for her voice and too demanding of more secure technique.

Ekaterina Gubanova made overall a lyric Amneris, fairly even across her range, and with the expected Slavic coloring along with the rest. She still effectively managed to convey some of the imperious manner with which Amneris should carry herself, and if not rising to the most vocally resplendent tragic heights of inspiration during the Judgment scene, certainly did not eschew musical and dramatic involvement. Through several of the most dramatic moments in the part, she relied heavily upon Gatti to provide the clipping of note values she might have needed to keep lines she was singing sustainable, including her threatening lines to Aida during first scene of Act Two. While on that, her “Vieni, vieni, amor mio”’s starting Act Two became curiously stuck, tremulous around the break – a needed fix for which Gatti did not show much ability to come to her rescue.

Salvatore Licitra displayed the lyricism for Radames, along with some of the nobility, plus about all the guilelessness, romantic ardor, naivete, stupidity true of Radames as well. “Celeste Aida” had good sustained line, but through which Licitra coasted his way, toward being able to make some still strained B-Flats; at the temple of Phtah, he managed to go sharp several times in his duet with Prestia. Good characterization persisted through the Nile scene, but Licitra could not hide bench-pressing he started engaging in even for the slower, more lyrical part of Nile duet with Aida. Lewis, having to go about its cabaletta in ‘hail Mary’ fashion, provided suitable distraction unfortunately for what trouble Licitra had here as well. The fatigue for what is really not a very long evening fully set in for Licitra by the Tomb Scene – in which past his sensitive opening phrases to it, he emitted some raw sounds. It has been said that this guy can hardly act his way out of a paper bag. One does not evaluate a Radames so much on that as being able to sing the part - one that sits quite often uncomfortably in the middle of the voice. One need only look back to Carlo Bergonzi, however, to know how well it can be done.

Christian Van Horn, apart from several doubtful low notes, provided a very sturdy, stalwart King, with pleasing dark timbre to voice that hopefully will not (too soon) encounter being forced onto assignments too heavy.. Angela Brewer, with voice placed too forward, was found to slough off phrase endings and unsteady as the Priestess. Kenneth Roberson (Messenger) was fine, except for being rushed off his lines by Gatti.

Audibly painful high F’s, far placed back wobbly unsteady tone characterized most of all the Amonasro during the Triumphal Scene, that for which no amount of incisiveness from Gatti was able to compensate during “Quest’assissi” - starting point for enslaved foreign monarch. Marco Vratogna then had us encounter overt touch of sprechstimme for the entirety of one phrase during “Ma tu, re.” The slightly long held acuti that start off lines in the violent part of his Nile duet with Aida indicated possible membership in the Fiorenza Cedolins school for singing acuti a whole tone lower than pitch - possibly learned from last year’s Don Carlo at La Scala – should real pitch not be attainable. Both singers involved here, as assisted the best they could by Gatti, coasted through the Nile scene duet with only just as much as they were able to give it.

Giacomo Prestia started Ramfis well, with writing lyrical enough to handle, but on “Noi t’invochiam” during the temple scene, a repeated pitch on low B-flat for several measures changed four or five times over span of three measures. It must be, given how slithery this Ramfis was – including on calling out Radames’s name during the Judgment scene - that here perhaps in this staging as having been raised in the backwoods of Tennessee as priest (or minister) who has spent a little too much time at his contribution to the snake-handling division of his vocation for attaining top of the ladder. The worried tone that this Ramfis developed for his third calling out for Radames to respond to his indictment seemed to indicate that should there be present defense counsel among priests, he must have fallen asleep on the job. We can leave it to Calixto Bieito or Peter Konwitschny as to how to find more clever way to change the plot to Act Four.

As for Gatti, this Aida was not quite the disaster which Don Carlo at La Scala had been. That can be taken as pretty much a given. Aida is forty-five minutes shorter or so than the four-act Don Carlo - with duet between Carlo and Phillip that Gatti restored for it during the prison scene. That is the good news. However, this was more not so much an interpretation of Aida as a marginalization of Verdi’s score and of its most distinctive tendencies found therein. Tempo relationships were frequently questionable, as for anything to make dramatically or musically cumulative sense. Gatti's ability to draw some tinta out of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester was admirable, except for streamlining some of it away and thus leaving so much relatively undefined.

The Triumphal scene benefited by not being overstated, certainly; Gatti shaped the difficult ‘Ma, tu Re’, to have included such an unsteady Amonasro, circumspectly. Accenting however in the framing choruses for the big scene was found to often go awry and at times in what made accents sound as though they would do so at just about always the most awkward times too - with such a casual step through it all as well. Contours to Gatti’s work for the second half of Aida sounded more secure than first half. Partly due however to not having sufficient voices, the Nile Scene went by as aone of the most anticlimactic renditions of it I have yet heard. As for the dances in Aida, rhythmic shape was slightly lacking for Priestesses at the temple, pacing casual for the Moorish slaves in Amneris’s boudoir. Following where there was no acoustical spacing for whatever reason between trumpet led sections of the triumphal march came uneven leadership overall of the ballet, with vulgar jerking about of first F Minor episode therein.

Choral work overall veered between acceptable to mediocre, sounding ‘glee club’ to start the Triumphal Scene. One issue at stake was the uneven, flaccid beat the chorus would get quite frequently from the podium, and also their awkward placement on the stage - with violated sounding priestesses during temple scene for being placed too forward.

On program I do not find led very well, concerning issues that affect our country and politics - (ABC) This Week with Stephy - I learned a new word that could indeed become quite useful at times, if used sparingly. The topic at hand was ‘breakdown in discipline’ (quoth Ed Gillespie) during Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Congo last week – to what is - pause for breath here, i.e. how evil - ‘a male-dominated world’ over there. Well, yes, with frequent rape, genital mutilizations, other forms of gender violence, it sure must be bad, as Donna Brazile mentioned. All this was during an episode she as pure aside admittedly quoted Ronald Reagan - trumpeting a very accomplished Hillary Clinton’s prerogative to show a little emotion.

First of all, what verb should be conjugated here? I do not know, but the new word found above, can it be found in an Ebonics dictionary? I just wonder how legitimate I may be to attempt using this word myself. Somehow it morphs together two verbs with which we are all familiar – ‘to utilize’ and ‘to mutilate.’

Why am I so off topic here? Is it some knee-jerk reaction I have to watching priests on stage for little I have seen of this each throwing one among many strapping youth head first over their shoulders – I certainly should hope not resulting in any type(s) of mutilization. I wonder too about the white slaves in this production – as Aida Americana - that from the appearance of things, does seem to have at least a few clever ideas. As these get sorted out and any unsalvageable be found among new breed of indentured, do they then have to be submitted before the ‘death panels’ that Sarah Palin has told us exist now, supervised from Washington DC?

How about instead utilizing the new word to apply to an insecure podium for partly undue accommodation that results in mutilating or in effect mutlilizating Verdi’s rhythms? It happened frequently here, and (supposedly) for benefit of more than just Miss Lewis. Gubanova needed help in the cabaletta to the Judgment scene duet with Radames (as did Dolora Zajick, Gatti’s Eboli last year in Don Carlo – also when she sang Amneris here last time in Houston with Carlo Rizzi). ‘Ritorna vincitor’ got all kinds of help as well – most notably “Numi, pieta” close to waltz time - in three-four.

Gatti himself hardly ever needed any excuse as to what a specific singer on stage might need at any given time. I just naively happened to think I was tuning in to Bavarian State Opera of Munich instead of second cast from New York City Opera or at Houston Grand Opera, but after all if the inherent right is to show a little emotion – whether in diplomacy on world or on world operatic stage, then ‘so be it.’ At least, to answer someone else who has written in, it has to have been more comfy to do so in flats instead of heels. That at least Ms. Brazile would know.

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