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.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

MET: A special helping of broken chinoiserie - Hui He in slipshod re-run of Verdi's Aida 03.04.10 An aside on PBS re-airing of fall Turandot.

It is with the second heaviest Verdi role with which Hui He of Xi’an, China, graduate of Shanghai Conservatory made her Met and Met broadcast debut. She got heard as Tosca in a concert (semi-staged) performance, broadcast with the New York Philharmonic, approximately a year ago, Lorin Maazel conducting.

The part of Aida is versatile in its demands - elusive this way. Hui He made this much clear. It was just partly a case of nerves that obstructed her being able to start well lyrically, for which she placed back too far - to be careful. It thus made for cloudy tone production from her entrance on stage through end of trio with Amneris and Radames. She gained slightly more confidence for the large ensemble and opening of ‘Ritorna, vincitor’ to follow; her tone better opened out and more of a character began to emerge. Persistent pitch problems then began to compromise line; she lacked quite the control to scale voice down where, such as to start “L’inana parola’, the line is marked pianissimo.

There is attractive color here, for instance a smoky colored lower register, but pitch problems at the break and above killed her first go at ‘Numi, pieta’, that fortunately she repeated much better to end Act Two, Scene One. Gentle imploring of Amneris for news of Radames conveyed fine intimacy as same music taken more slowly during ‘Ritorna vincitor’ had in her previous scene. She then however opted for thickening her sound a little much, making intonation suffer once more, this time for her well felt despondent entreaties for mercy to a threatening rival ('Ah! pieta ti prenda').

‘O patria mia’, starting off the Nile Scene, revealed the effect of some wear and tear of singing Aida on essentially a lyric instrument. The right lyrical impetus was present, and feeling for emotions of the character, but for sake of maintaining control through some of the long cantilena in this aria, tone began to turn whitish under pressure and the high C just about misfired completely. Hui He then managed to quickly regain poise for by and large a quite successful Nile duet with Amonasro, with especially some fully spun out lines to close it, that she then made quite affecting. Through ‘Pur ti riveggo’ with Radames, she also revealed well toughness of the slave girl, alongside the vulnerability. Intonation again became for a few phrases very hit-and-miss for Hui He as the second big duet to include her required so much scaling down of the voice. Most revealing of having succumbed to effect of having had run across some questionable training was the reach-from-behind approach to ‘O, terra, addio’ which broke apart the line and again killed intonation, whereas she had started the Tomb Scene well.

Slight glibness apart, including through ‘L’inno nostro di morte’ in this final scene, a real character as Aida started to emerge, in such quasi-heroic attempt at it, but with so much faulty technique to just simply got excessively in the way. Not encumbered by such heavy demands, here is a lovely instrument, but, one would hope, not one to be quickly ruined soon by plethora of Tosca’s, Aidas, Amelia’s, etc. It would be good to report here that, from veterans of Met and other big house Aida’s, there might be some example for Hui He to follow Saturday. However, all to encounter here were only faint to mediocre reminders of what Aida, singing it, is about.

Salvatore Licitra was the Radames, appearing all eager, naïve, ambitious, guileless, stupid as any Radames should for ‘Se guerrier io fossi.’ All this was fine and well, just as long as Lictira did not have to reach much for the break or anything above it. What hint of anything like heroism that Radames should convey, such as from for instance a Bergonzi, fell seriously by the wayside. Licitra did manage to plan here and conserve energy better than he did last year in Munich with Gatti, singing Radames again, but still several high notes emerged as raw, even here. Clipping of ‘Nel fiero anelito’, inelegant lunging for long sustained F’s in Celesta Aida’ and poutish behavior for cabaletta to the Nile scene duet ultimately contributed to one anti-heroic Radames indeed.

In fact, one would have hoped that the priests, others in charge, once betrayal of the Egyptian forces has occurred, might have paused to consider how perhaps little of a factor Radames might have been in securing victory for which he has just been lauded. Once having done so, it might have been easy to release Radames as unworthy to the cause from the get-go to the Ethiopians to join his Aida in smelling i freschi valli of new jungle home down south. We could have then had a happy ending and no Act Four.

Dolora Zajick, for what seems the umpteen hundredth time - wear and tear on her voice to show for it - was the Amneris. She joined Licitra in giving, even solidifying well the following impression of lets say ninety minutes before curtain, loud stretch and yawn, ‘time to get derriere down to Lincoln Center, put on the Egyptian, and give it all once more what they came for..’ In other words, for the most part, other than to phone Amneris in, the cause was lost. ‘Hmm - how shall we nuance ‘Ah, vieni’ today? Let’s perhaps place each succeeding one even still a little further back from previous one this time.’ How imaginative! What extra gilding Zajick gave them did however succeed in derailing intonation. Zajick comfortably coasted through the ‘Trema, vil schiava’s’ of Act Two, Scene One, then after nice pause for extra half a second from Armiliato, indulged us of her chest voice on ‘Del tuo destino’, that starts and remains comfortably lower.

Marco Armiliato gave Zajick a fairly breezy tempo for cabaletta in the Judgment scene, instead of abetting her clipping it, such as happened earlier here in Houston. The forza for it still got compromised quite a bit. For arioso to precede trial of Radames, Zajick varied between good garden variety verismo and giving the princess’s special voicing of desperation for hope a few shimmers of real insight. There is still indeed an Amneris here, even quite the voice for it, though with chest register more separate from the rest than before, and one looking as though en route to shadow of her former glorious self.

Carlo Colombara made the lyrically achieved Ramfis, achieving proper gravitas and menace for some pages - temple scene with Radames for instance - and compromised, reach-from-above intonation for the rest of it. The profile for what once has been a very fine voice for the part is still there, but some edges now begin to show. Invocations of Radames’s name eventually went completely sharp. Stefan Kocan played the somewhat nasal, Slavic toned King of Egypt quite firmly, but also with minor intonation problems.

Carlo Guelfi energetically fletcherized a bit to put forth a fully rounded Amonasro across the footlights. Other than for several key lines, for instance at the end of the Nile duet with Aida, top notes were unsteady and sense of legato patchy at best. Clearly what continues mostly a character-baritone profile of the embattled and enslaved Ethiopian king emerged here. My expectations for Guelfi were lowest of all, but in context of this cast, he hardly did poorly at all. All three lowest male voices in this cast sounded best in negotiating exchange of recitative toward end of the Triumphal Scene, following Guelfi’s unwritten doubling of Hui He on all instead of part of her long second phrase to repeat what Amonasro just had in full to himself for ‘Ma, tu Re.’ He sounded, non legato, two dynamic levels louder than she did.

More heroic sounding than anybody else in the cast was the Messenger of Diego Torres, perhaps the one unqualified success here. Could he have been a double for Licitra? What could have things been like, had he been able to fill in? The Priestess (Elisabeth DeShong) however was a case, all the way around, of blatant disregard. Nobody, from the podium to backstage showed any evidence of care for how the music is marked, in terms of dynamics, balances, placement, or anything else. DeShong blasted her way through this at an unyielding fortissimo – not making enviable at all where the new Chinese soprano may have stood within grand scheme of things.

After cancellation of Paolo Cargnani just slightly within one week of this run, came on Marco Armiliato to conduct this instead. Heavily misplaced accents in segue off the Judgment Scene duet for one revealed that, for Armiliato, there was nothing other than perhaps cosmetic that needed fixing since Gatti, the far more glorified (and more willful) routiniere who conducted this last fall.

The affectation, mannerisms with Armliato up there in Gatti’s place was at times exactly the same, as I have heard in a Munich Aida and more painfully the La Scala Don Carlo. The Met chorus most often sounded thin and unfocused. Strings were a bit ragged, even for prelude to Act One and mezzo-forte for what should be the magical opening of the Nile scene. Many phrase endings were loud and crude, often to a truly unwarranted extent, i.e. toward end of ‘Ma, tu Re’ during the Triumphal Scene for stretto right before closing phrase. This was shouted to extent that brief line of chord progression therein could have been mistaken for writing out of Utrenja or Moses und Aaron instead.

Obsequious yielding to his singers on stage, when in violation of Verdi’s rhythms, came across highly insipid. Dance episodes during the first two acts were clunky - the dance of the priestesses flat-footed and loud. Amneris’s slaves, even as looking forward to a few special privileges in lieu of the day being prep for her nuptials with Radames, sounded tired and disengaged – with loud, clunky harp to accompany them. What the Met orchestra and chorus has been able to offer before in terms of refinement under Levine and others seemed to have exited for left field entirely. The grandeur of such an occasion, to see Aida at the Met, with chorus sounding at times so thin, went almost entirely missing. Ira Siff’s comparative evaluation of this cast - for it to have been just as good for us in our own day as Toscanini’s of the 1908-09 season (Destinn, Louise Homer, Caruso) had been for that time, Verdi’s Aida notwithstanding - hit a new low.

Desecration from earlier this Met season of again a true masterpiece - what has so often now been left bowdlerized, with still the Toscanini butchered Alfano ending to it, was on display on PBS this evening. When bare-chested Pu-Tin-Pao came on stage, in the stage directions, for the Liu, I thought he could have been headed for either the somewhat raw sounding Turandot (Maria Guleghina) or Calaf (Marcello Giordani) instead, for what had happened to the shape of so many of Puccini’s phrases, pitch, etc. Andris Nelsons (Met debut), with deft touch for some of Puccini’s sonorities, made something close to muzak of the rest. - in place of ability for the modernism of Puccini’s score to make it to the fore. After shaky ensemble for passacaglia to flaccidly end Act One, one then picked up real garden variety Tommy Dorsey waltz of just about the entire Riddle Scene to end Act Two.

In Berlioz’s day, should this Turandot have occurred in Beijing then, someone would have had to step in to save even Nelsons, lest he not have been able to leave Tian’anmen with ears and nose intact after likely encounter with Pu-Tin Pao himself Otherwise, what would we be able to make today of what Berlioz wrote on the subject of penalties for desecrators? The Liu (Marina Poplavaskaya) practically or artistically emerged the victor of the day, even with her own moments of questionable intonation. Pu-Tin-Pao still perhaps had score to settle with her - for her execrable Elisabetta in Don Carlo weeks earlier in London.

The Zeffirelli, with the three ministers doing ‘this is what we do to look Chinese for the tourists’ act, looked as silly as any production of his has ever looked, all the excessive dancing around and posing with fans hardly less. Nelsons took the same bad cut to the ministers’ scene opening Act Two as usually taken. No gravitas was able to be found for anything, least of all either the tone of Samuel Ramey or Charles Anthony as senior figures on stage, or as to what Puccini’s final opera could have meant. It would have hardly mattered if the highly relevant Berio finale of today could have been performed. With both the staging and Nelson’s mix of chartreuse into Puccini’s sonorities, even for Puccini composed like he did – the cause would have most likely been lost anyway. What Turandot might offer in terms of grandeur got compromised by road-show quality work (including in number on stage) from the Met chorus.

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