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, June 10, 2010

LOC 2009-2010: Verdi's Ernani - of definitely routiniere, concert-in-costume class - deserving of better

Lyric Opera, in addition to Kat’a Kabanova, for most interesting part of their repertoire last season, gave this relatively routine, safe revival of Verdi’s Ernani. In being so safe, it partly missed what Ernani is about, except to present it as period or museum piece.

Lack of contrast between more forceful accents and cantilena during the prelude set the tone just almost too well. Here was leadership slick and efficient, content to just supportively accompany the singers, that did not miss so much in connecting line in Verdi’s music, but what might be any driving passion behind it. In fact, in a derivative sense, it much resembled James Levine’s conducting of Ernani from over twenty-five years ago (as seen on dvd with Leona Mitchell and Pavarotti), but even Levine put more fire into this than has Renato Palumbo. It all still fit within context of an entirely concert in costume Ernani, with generic abstract sets and painstakingly historically accurate costuming – in Samaritani production (not the one Lyric used here) the Met employed.

Salvarote Licitra made an eager bandit Ernani, delivering opening aria, “Come rugiada al cespite” with fine curve and swagger to the line, if some strain on top. He, together with Sondra Radvanovsky, the Elivra, coasted his way through the extended concertato finale to Act One, not wanting to risk more than minimal input of passion into what he was singing, but with still having to bench press high A’s for closing portion of it. The character of Ernani got denied being any challenge to situation at hand. Forza was similarly lacking for Act Two terzetto with Elvira and Silva and confrontation of Elvira right afterwards – contrast for duettino with Elivra ‘Ah! morir” to follow thoroughly insufficient; once into it, Licitra invested the passage with more feeling than had been the norm thus far. The final scene elicited good lyrical shape for easier lines, but caution to avoid excessive strain again ruled the day for what proved too timid a bandit by half.

Sondra Radvanovsky, albeit with uneven placement of breath, elicited fine sense of the cantilena line as Elvira, including for “Ernani, involami”, a little better diction than Leona Mitchell as Elvira as well, but minimal passion. Whereas the ardor for Ernani was there, the enterprising, risk-taking nature of this Verdi heroine got compromised by retiring and flaccid accents, no less than during her reply to Carlo’s first advances to her during Act One, and on brief refrain replacement of cabaletta for Elvira (showing early sign of fatigue by Verdi to write cabalettas when there are available, such as this, better options) right before ‘O sommo Carlo’ during Act Three.

Giacomo Prestia made for a retiring Silva, who had it only so far for the lyrical pages of this, but for instance on ‘No, vendetta’ to Elivra and Ernani, had he tried giving it more voice or vitality, it could have gone hoarse. Palumbo gave Prestia assistance in making waltz step out of Ernani’s oath with which Silva reminds him several times during Act Four – solemn enough in what it then requires of Ernani, one would think. Phillip Gossett reports that in Milan in 1982 there had been rumor that Ghiaurov got spared singing Silva’s cabaletta in Act One for no longer quite having the voice for it. Prestia, less stable than 1982 Ghiaurov, attempted singing it nevertheless. Ghiaurov, especially by today’s standards was still capable of it in 1982. Paul Corona, Kathryn Leemhuis and Rene Barbera ideally acquitted themselves for their three supporting roles.

Best of all in this cast was Boaz Daniel as the king, Carlo. Carlo’s first wooing of Elvira, outrage of whom made flaccid by La Rad, combined lyricism and heft very well. Sense of being goaded, treated duplicitously by Silva (‘Lo vedremo di ribelli’) had good force, feel of menace. Palumbo undercut Daniel for ‘Lo vedremo, veglio audace’ by breezily streamlining its accompaniment, but Daniel held his own with fine legato and strong marking of text especially toward cadences, with Prestia in obbligato as Silva to Carlo fitting in well with Silva in so obsequious mode as occurs here. “Vieni, meco, sol di rose” alone for Boaz Daniel came off a bit heavy, but with Palumbo cutting its repeat and choral interlude before vis-à-vis the libretto being cut illogically creates an imbalance. Silva’s loyalists forever miss what is due them musically out of choral text that the king’s retinue gets privileged to have alone. As proper both Levine and Palumbo affect being, what could have ever authorized this cut?

Boaz Daniel combined well sense of destiny with scheming tone for start to Act Three, and dignified both ‘Oh de verd’anni miei’ and ‘O sommo Carlo’ with secure line and release with even, oaken timbre. However, accompaniment for the latter again got streamlined by Palumbo to extent it might make one surmise that Verdi missed writing in extra accents, tenuti for this music, this moment especially, to receive the gravitas it needs. Boaz Daniel, for the big Verdi baritone parts, does not have quite the full range of color and expression, but has good size of voice, the secure technique and intelligent musical and dramatic sense to pull it off. Anticipation of hearing Daniel as Carlo made listening in worth it, if little else. He shows considerable readiness for all but several or so biggest Verdi roles for baritone - even potentially as a fine Iago in Verdi’s Otello.

Palumbo paralleled Levine well in limning a beautifully played bass clarinet solo for start to Act Three just fine, but so much of this Ernani was flaccid, lacking in necessary vitality, bloodless. Choral preparation by Donald Nally proved fine, but at times undercut by stiff accenting and even on occasion clipping from the podium. The four beats marked for the central Congiura of Act Three got cut down to very nearly three, denying opening to it more than anything else a feeling of mystery. Self-conscious attention to stylistic genre of this music typified Palumbo’s efforts to point things steered clear of invoking any Risorgimento fire here – note streamlining of the Trovatore accents of Elvira and Ernani’s unison refrain response to Carlo during Act One. Just as fatally, this Ernani emerged free of any ideas at all of his own as to how it should go.

I can not fail to again find inclusion of Silva’s Act One cabaletta insipid, its dragging of the dramatic argument at hand, and not fitting at all well anything else in its having been copied and pasted over by a basso, Marini. He wanted it not only for 1842 Barcelona revival of Verdi’s first opera Oberto, but for their Ernani as well two years later. For performances, copies of Ernani that predate the critical edition that very much mostly Philip Gossett and others helped painstakingly prepare, there are presumably only orchestral parts, with winds, brass, percussion added in for the Ricordi edition (with what errors it may have therein) with preceding cadence for Silva’s cabaletta included and nothing for the parallel segue into the much more forceful and dramatically cogent recitative to instead immediately follow it (starting with ‘Uscite!’).

Gossett then made the highly questionable claim that Riccardo Muti, in excising the cabaletta (‘Infin che un brando vindice’), used the Ricordi-included cadence for the cabaletta, yet without the cabaletta. Could have Muti realized his mistake, intervened with who did the sound for filming the new Ronconi production that marked Muti’s debut at La Scala and EMI Classics (that picked this up live) as well to cut the revised cadence on dominant chord for F Minor (C Major) and cut and paste in its place instead the original that clearly ends on tonic chord in F Minor? I doubt it.

Whatever the case, the heckling of Muti while the music played on, ‘Il cabaletta, filologo!, Gossett reported, got picked up on neither dvd nor compact disc. What did get recorded then had to have been during a subsequent performance to the opening, so I still find it doubtful that there may have been any changes made for subsequent performances. If not, most likely it is not, then Gossett has perhaps hoped that in reckoning that Muti used the Ricordi edition – it likely not being possible to have done differently at the time – we might have overlooked, for passage of two measures, on what chord Muti had things land – and necessary adjustment to half a measure of continuing sixteenths in violins leading into it.

Where Muti slipped, we all can agree with Gossett, is in having publicly for La Corriere della Sera perhaps made excessive claim of having achieved philological purity in addressing all this. Where Gossett also may slip is in revealing a patronizing attitude, harmonizing well with Milano loggionisti, in taking a very patronizing attitude toward Luca Ronconi’s production (with admittedly expensive sets by Ezio Frigerio). It is absolutely brilliant, even with its mixture of costuming styles from different periods of history. The philosophical import of it, the intensity and vitality it draws out of its cast, especially from Domingo and Bruson, but also from Freni, Ghiaurov and supporting cast is all riveting.

No physical perils face any of the cast, of which a few people including Gossett have made excessive emphasis, to parallel an Andrei Serban production of Lucia di Lammermoor to have surfaced once, or at least equally bad or worse the Zambello production of also Lucia the Met back in 1993 had to immediately mothball. The video quality, in being up to date or not, may not be the most brilliant of any dvd’s I own, but I must even almost shamelessly reveal my own bias to report here that it is the most brilliant staging of a Verdi opera I have probably seen yet in any medium. Apart from Il Trittico perhaps, there is no Ronconi production to be preferred over this.

Dr. Philip Gossett (University of Chicago) was the excellent guest for one intermission, tacitly helping make Lyric a referendum on how bad it is for the Meg and Ira show to have replaced what we could still honestly call the Met intermission features. He got close to addressing – with me all ears – the Silva cabaletta philological issue at hand, but shied away from it, content with providing listeners the Saturday Ernani was on with other very fine musical and historical insights. Gossett is honest and thorough in citing the cabaletta’s inclusion in Ricordi without it existing in any of the other extant editions of the opera. I will make further effort to look into the controversy even beyond how he has addressed it in his recent, otherwise never to be doubted book Divas and Scholars.

Let us not forget the lifelong, selfless service Dr. Gossett has provided us in terms of helping revive unjustly neglected Rossini operas, musical preparation, and most of all very fine, extensive editing work that we could have at least ninety-nine percent of the time the best editions possible of these and of so much else. We all owe Gossett a debt we may never be able to pay for the love he has shown the art and all of us so interested in it. Any comment I may have made amiss, I will return here to edit in due time.

Best singing heard on this broadcast belonged to Giulietta Simionato, who other than perhaps very early on had no part in Ernani, but nobody has any doubt her fully deserving the loving retrospective Lyric provided during first intermission feature for Ernani. There is nobody quite worthy to replace her today, for the beautiful voice she possessed, her love for the art, for then only after that and her love for her colleagues, her love for taking good care of her voice, not to mention, remembered by others, sense of humor. I can only stand to envy anyone who might have known her in person at any time, but her recorded legacy lives on.

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