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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

RAVE: Musically riveting I Puritani (Bologna - January 2009) - Machaidze, Florez, Mariotti

It is good, after the bel canto morto di Glyndebourne/Muller/Arden in Houston to finally make assessment, of this Bologna/Mariotti/Pier’All I Puritani, filmed last winter at the Teatro Comunale, as shown at cinemas across the U.S. and the world, including Yorktown Rave in northwest Houston. Given often at times the provincial character of the musical performing arts here, it is a great outlet to have the innovation of operas in HD from even overseas so readily available to us. Not near enough people here take advantage of such great opportunity available to them.

Some Rave managerial staff has adjustment or two to make, to guarantee their audiences chance for an interval - for instance at least ten minutes after a long act. Theater staff waited to inquire until right after Act 2 of Puritani, as to if we all needed a break, whereas there were people who had sat for it for a little over two hours thus far. We did get the break, but there was chorus to open Act Two several people still missed.

It is also rare to get such a fine performance of a Bellini opera available to us; whatever shortcomings this one may have had, it would be churlish not to somewhat make light of them. One of the very first operas the Met gave us in their HD series was also I Puritani (January, 2007). I was satisfied just to pick up Act 3 on NPR and then was content that I had missed out on attending it. The Teatro Comunle di Bologna has a very gifted new music director, just barely thirty, in Michele Mariotti. Catching just a snatch of Act Two from the Met in HD Puritani off youtube – as conducted by Patrick Summers - I was immediately turned off by the wan, pallid color, equally pallid ‘period’ assumption or approximation of ‘bel canto’ of the orchestral playing under him at the Met.

Mariotti spoke in interview, via youtube, of an element of parlando in Bellini’s writing that does indeed, on close observation of Bellini’s vocal lines, infuse his writing with considerable degree of realism. Such makes Bellini, as has been written about him before, indeed a forerunner of verismo. Leaving the theater, it was commented by a retired lady from Italian faculty here that both there is such tragic and passionate feeling in Bellini’s writing, even for an opera the plot of which results in a happy ending. I find it quite visceral myself to have such a direct encounter with this opera from the old house in Bologna - with the distinctive richness of color from the orchestral playing and overall ambience of everything, beautifully supportive of the singers. Such can give vent to strong feelings and emotions from anyone watching so sensitive, open to allowing response to something so different, as this is for people here.

Nino Machaidze was the Elvira Walton on this occasion. Her name was merely just that, a name, while attending my first from overseas HD presentations of opera I ever did – her Lauretta (Gianni Schicchi) in an immensely great and penetrating Il Trittico conducted by Riccardo Chailly and staged by Luca Ronconi at La Scala in March of 2008 - viewed here soon thereafter. In her expression, an utter determination to get most everything right for this most demanding part, one can not help but be moved by what Machaidze put into it. The emotions of a character of somewhat fragile mental and emotional state were made palpable in facial expression and sensitive shading of Bellini’s melodic lines. She also cuts a most lovely figure on stage, and except on slightly smudged rapid chromatic scale patterns, her coloratura emerged clear across the range.

As Bellini’s vocal writing exposes so much, there did however come up a few issues. Legato, for long spun vocal lines in Bellini is less pure and secure than it ideally should be – with as Neil Rishoi has pointed out before about this same performance, a mild intrusion of aspirates. No more challenging moment for either Machaidze or Mariotti occurred the entire way through I Puritani than the first part of the Mad Scene, during which Mariotti perhaps just slightly insisted on too regular a pulse for good of how to shape the line. There is by now a rarefied sense to getting such a passage, in the very individual way in which Bellini writes such, up to what demands really should be. Such issue as Machaidze had with legato was exposed here more than anywhere else - and also some coolness to the timbre, to just gently perhaps remind us of from how far East comes this attractive artist. I would welcome however eschewing having to make homage to Netrebko by lying prone on stage for any portion of the Mad Scene. This, in terms of stage direction, regardless as to who came up with it, accomplished nothing.

The smoky color of Machaidze’s lower register is very attractive; such, without pushing chest excessively, allows for just adequate flexibility to expand into the middle register without doing anything precarious. For there to be a podium with true authority doing Bellini, there needs to be along with the strong rhythmic profile that Mariotti brings to this, the yielding rubato for the long lyric lines that can help a singer bring out the right qualities for such. “Oh, vieni al tempio” in Act One, preview mad scene it is often called, made one first so very aware of these qualities - how they may have been shortchanged by mild enforcement of too regular pacing through it.

Once on to ‘Vien, diletto, - though it possibly lacked the last amount of current of hysterical ecstasy to it - Machaidze pretty much hit home stretch from this point on - with splendid support for Juan Diego Florez in duets and ensemble with him for highly successful third act from her as well. Her opening duet with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo made apparent fine psychological understanding of Elvira with the fine vocal qualities she has at her disposal too. Communication between singers on stage was acute, in an opera with drama, action so often static. Stage direction was attentive to getting all this right – momentarily heavy reliance on stock gesture aside.

Ildebrando d’Arcangelo was curiously just halfway effective as Giorgio Walton. It is a good resonant voice, with an internal rapid vibrato, that under stress, approaches becoming a beat. A little of such internally old-world quality to tone production though got curiously matched up with a modern approach to making something expressive with it here. Legato varied between good to halfway patchwork. For comfort in making strong sense of his line and of gravitas in dramatic situation at hand, he chose to sing “Se tra il bujo un fantasma’ – middle section of his long scena with Riccardo Forth declamatory, non legato. Lines therein allow for breaks for verbal emphases; taking it all non legato however is slightly vulgar. “Cinta di fiori” conveyed fine sense of narrative– a comparable piece to introducing Lucia’s mad scene in Donizetti for Raimondo – but was as always here slightly weak on legato. D’Arcangelo overall had the vocal weight if a bit exaggerated for an essentially lyric bass, the gravitas too in appearance; it was just more legato that one sought here. Ugo Guagliardo, as Lord Walton, second bass, gave his two passages of accompanied recitative the weight, warm gravitas desired and fine look of authority as well. Gianluca Floris (Bruno) was adequately incisive on his thankless opening lines but sounded thin vocally.

Gabriele Viviani, with still the youthful bloom on his voice and fine malleability too, was Riccardo Forth. It is hard to make much villainous out of “Ah, per sempre io ti perdei”, but still first, this being Bellini, in its demands is the legato, and.Viviani has it. Such grasp of legato enhanced bringing out just right the auburn grain, color in his sound; all worked to make very attractive Forth’s first act aria and cabaletta. This is an essentially lyric instrument, one we do not want to see pushed into the dramatic repertory, at least too soon, as is tempting way too often these days. Viviani was incisive, if with in facial expression stock gestures for playing a villain, in making something menacing of those lines with which Riccardo threatens Arturo in Act One. As up to task d’Arcangelo was, one’s ear still often led one to Viviani whenever the two sang together.

Incisively facing up to him was the Arturo Talbot of Juan Diego Florez. “A te, o cara,” which in supporting lines had Machaidze so engaged – promising their very fine Third Act together – carried with such pliancy, ease, shape to line, passion, as to send shivers up and down one’s spine – even more than his handsome looks - for me that alone would not do it. A recent recital disc of Florez sounded as though recorded so close it brought out more metal to this voice, suggesting perhaps that Florez might already have started forcing things too heavy. There was however so little evidence of such on this occasion, perhaps that it also takes some economization to sensibly be able to get through the Third Act for any Arturo.

Florez eschewed taking the high F in “Credeasi, misera”, settling for a strongly delivered D-flat instead. The scene with Henrietta in the First Act, rightly considered a lapse in dramatic and musical inspiration on Bellini’s part, hardly seemed so at all, with the strong single-minded determination with which Florez started it, fine support from Nadia Pirazzini as distressed Henrietta with fine character to his lines and from Mariotti accompanying, leading it all. Someone wrote in somewhere about Florez’s tone being too clear, perhaps too open, light for the demands of singing Arturo. Florez however mapped, scaled what he had before him so wisely, singing it all very expressively, that one can only reckon such remark as churlish.

Pier’Alli’s stage direction was somewhat of an abstraction, but such was his intent, not to distract from what penetrating insight he sought into what goes on psychologically with the characters in I Puritani. He also has a weak libretto with which to work – having as much as any other producer to rely so much upon Bellini’s musical inspiration alone. In persistence of abstract hand motions for chorus, he did seem mildly glib in taking passages involving them on. The somewhat geometric blocking into varied military positions he applied to his choral forces, during early scenes especially, made good sense and even enhanced atmosphere, as did even more the deep lighting across width and breadth of the stage past well lit proscenium. Only a little rushing up and down the length of the stage floor - perhaps in pursuit of Arturo – looked almost silly, as did lapse of judgment during the Mad Scene already mentioned.

Michele Mariotti did not waste any time, revealing what understanding and command he has of Bellini. The opening introduction and choruses were rapt with intensity, color, suavity for subtle harmonic changes in and beneath the line and intimations of febrile meaning along with it. His allowing color that occurs naturally in ruddy form to the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale, such as very seldom encountered on this side of the pond (or at Glyndebourne for their excursions into bel canto either) and command of fine choral forces all emerged very naturally. All was so distinctive and also indicative of wonderful gain of having someone already so sensitive on opera podiums in various locales before long. The swagger he brought to this score’s polacca (and habanera?) rhythms and to extensive scena closing Act Two, especially to the Risorgimento driven ‘Suoni la tromba’, especially there, was fiery, highly compelling.

Mariotti’s atmospheric framing starting Act Three and line to command all so flexibly but authoritatively the remainder of the way, including incisiveness during storm portion of this to set things off, was all remarkable. There were just one or two passages, most of all the first part of the Act Two Mad Scene, that betrayed some inexperience, but such with time that may get well overcome and before long from such an already determined mind and with serious intent not just about his craft, but about the art as well. This makes, in high definition, a most auspicious debut for the young Mariotti, in contrast with more venerable complacency that still visits local opera podium this week. Mariotti demonstrated by his own work there should be little room for such complacency.

With this for Bellini, not being quite everything it could have been by standards a generation or two ago, there was still something to have been reckoned about this experience. Such can only linger on for having faithfully disclosed most of all the paramount virtues of Bellini’s music, as opened out so very well here.

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