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, July 22, 2010

BBC Proms 2010: Proms 1 and 3. BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Jiri Belohlavek. Prom 3: Royal Opera. Antonio Pappano.

Prom 3. Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (semi-staged from Moshinsky production). Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus. Antonio Pappano. Marina Poplavskaya, Placido Domingo, Josef Calleja, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Jonathan Summers, Lukas Jakobski. Royal Albert Hall.
July 18, 2010.

It has become a given that, even a year ahead of time, Placido Domingo’s taking on the part of Simon Boccanegra is a major accomplishment, wherever it may occur. So far, that has meant New York, Berlin, Milan, and now London. All Domingo should have to do is for him to affix himself to a pose for the cameras of tragic poise or grandeur, to circulate hither and yond, and then automatically, we have a great interpretation of the Doge. Unfortunately, most of the interpretation of the Doge happens vocally, not so much otherwise. Here, at the Royal Albert Hall, the right voice for the Doge just simply was not there. In fact, the closest from this cast to having it was the Paolo Albiani, at age 61, of Jonathan Summers.

Domingo felt impetus slightly less here than at the Met five months previous to draw as vigorously upon what lingering resources of darker tone he may possess; even so, we are still hearing much more a low tenor instead of baritone. Most deferential on the podium of anybody, Antonio Pappano was a close ally of Domingo in even misguidedly playing best advocate possible for Domingo – for Domingo being able to hold out vocally to the end. Unfortunately, he helped make himself weak advocate for both the part and entire work at hand. This being middle period to i.e. with the Council Chamber Scene, fully mature Verdi, it is Pappano’s business with a score like this, to lead. In nowhere close to consistent fashion did he but very seldom do so.

Attractive among this cast were Josef Calleja (Gabriele Adorno) and Marina Poplavskaya (Amelia). Calleja sounded immediately the ardent Romantic hero, with clarion passion he gave his first off-stage lines – albeit with swallowed phrase endings, something he ceased allowing once on stage with Poplavskaya. Crest of his lines in his duet with Fiesco came across effortful, but he sustained legato well and also sounded sufficiently stern for sense of something ominous afoot. He also affected good stance of heroism for standing up to Doge in the council chamber – amidst confusing scenario to have developed there. Opening agitated lines for Gabriele in Act Two put Calleja under some strain again, but he then achieved finely sculpted line with attractive tone, plentiful musical sensitivity for the longer, more florid, quasi-Schubertian ‘Cielo, pietoso’ portion of ‘Sento, avvampar.’

Following indefinitely shaped, phlegmatic introduction to Act One, Poplavskaya sang ‘Come, quest’ora’ with dark, but warm mezzo-ish color, voice placed back. Her top though was freely achieved; she joined Calleja in presenting very convincingly two young people in love, and as Amelia individually presented a character to have been quite a variety of hardship and travail. Once Domingo was out on stage for recognition scene to get underway, some of Poplavskaya’s best efforts here got undercut by flaccid, retiring command from the pit. Bumped up pace for loud orchestral cadence to Amelia’s revulsion at the Doge’s mention of Paolo undercut the firm attack Poplavskaya gave Amelia’s strong exclamation right before. Oboe line to begin Amelia’s private narration to the Doge – ‘Orfanella il tetto umile’ – was too retiring by half; it took Poplavskaya’s all to give it any real shape at all. Accenting beneath never overcame being flaccid; her passionately conceived ‘Mi bacio’ refrain found her having to watch Pappano instead of vice versa – unbecoming irony that it was.

The transition to gentle, but robust cabaletta of the great duet - Domingo choppily reading off notes and text right before - got flaccidly, carefully paced - with silly forceful push forward where Verdi has marked gradual stringendo. Pappano made it sound instead like postlude or refrain to Italian popular song. Poplavskaya continued having to watch both Pappano and Domingo carefully through the great cabaletta, ‘Figlia la tal nome’, all taken breezy – not for so fast a tempo per se, as being taken so weightlessly. It sounded more redolent of what got composed in Act One of Verdi’s Luisa Miller instead of in its Third Act for Luisa and her father.

Except for excessive verismo pointing of Amelia’s narrative in the Council Chamber Scene – practically by end to makie Sprechstimme out of it – and a few moments of cloudy intonation, Poplavskaya achieved strongly even line between smoky colored midrange and low notes and easily produced top the rest of the way. Her Elisabetta at Royal Opera Don Carlo earlier this season hardly prepared one for how well she succeeded here.

Baritones in singing the opening Prologue for part of Simon, affect being the high baritone, even in head voice quasi-tenorial in some of their nuance, placement, etc. They are obviously still baritones. Domingo especially affected the same thing at the Met this past spring, but from perspective of still being a tenor, a low one now, sounded more tentative at it. Chilean tenor Ramon Vinay, whose timbre was somewhat baritonal from the get-go, still darker later – had voice to halfway successfully make something of Iago and Telramund – but a different voice than Domingo has ever possessed.

Sustained notes for Boccanegra took on here feeling of insecurity to mild tremolo. More remarkable here was the utter lack of contrast between widely varied levels of communication that Verdi and Boito have crafted so brilliantly into the part. Lines such as ‘Ecco i plebi’ and Fratricidi’ during the Council Chamber scene sounded preoccupato (worried) and tired, respectively, where there is forceful irony, sense of outrage called for. Instead of having chill run down one’s spine at ‘Paolo!’– coming after vaguely negotiated ‘Plebi! Patrizii! Popolo!’ - Domingo precariously reached from below for baritonal top C and down on a C one octave below. It was so curious that at end of Act One, with so little Domingo had left to do that Pappano had to mercilessly clip so much of a then waltzy ‘Tu al cospetto’ through ‘Sii maledetto’ – thoroughly making trivial final choral outcry in reaction to the curse. What, after all, was sacred here - Placido Domingo, his legacy, or Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra? Martin Bernheimer said of Domingo last spring in (British) Opera (April) that his sound remains stubbornly tenorial, inappropriately slender – Domingo courting tedium to continue coursomg his way through this The supposedly always evergreen Placido Domingo, now taking on Rigoletto, sounded even more slender here.

Domingo affected well his entrance lines for the Doge in the final two scenes of this with fine sense of gravitas; what he provided was not quite completely void of insight. Lines of conversation between Doge and Gabriele however had one easily confuse one for the other, to practically be embarrassing. At the Met, one had in later scenes Marcello Giordani with more squeal than squillo as Gabriele and Domingo in better voice.

Ferruccio Furlanetto started of colloquy with the sinister and vocally ample Paolo of Jonathan Summers well, then some semblance of legato for refrain to ‘Il lacerate spirito.’, but little else as Fiesco. Never have I before heard duet for tenor and bass-baritone in the final scene of this opera; more noticeable than in the Prologue, that is what occurred here. Furlanetto’s voice, pressed by engagement in so much pouting, contrived histrionics, was all patchwork for this assignment. What nobility, mystery Fiesco should convey got completely lost, and even Sprechstimme became so extensive in Act Three – before six minutes prior to opera ending, it made me think on behalf of the unsuspecting it might seem that Verdi had written Fiesco a mad scene. For someone who remembers seeing Cesare Siepi, rock-solid at sixty-one - with sense of gravitas extending out miles behind the Jones Hall stage, sing Fiesco here – opposite an inexperienced and unsteady Leo Nucci as the Doge – it is to deny any such memory of being relevant at all to have taken Furlanetto seriously at this.

The pouting I surmise Furlanetto has learned from the Hytner co-interpretation that Furlanetto next foists upon us at the Met. It must go, as what use it slightly may have been for him before is completely gone now. ‘No! la figlia del Grimaldi’ got emitted all choppy, without meaningful semblance of legato or weight, not to even try reckoning what appropriate weight for it might be like. This is the weakest Furlanetto has sounded yet – fine artist he has been before for Muti, Levine, and Barenboim, numerous others. Lukas Jakobski, the Pietro, had as much voice for Pietro as either Furlanetto or Domingo on their parts, and probably more, as did Jonathan Summers as Paolo, Act Two opening scene for which Pappano at last found some meaningful shape to anything he could sustain for more than a few measures. Several exclamations from Summers were so forceful, one wondered how Paolo got passed up as candidate for Doge. It took no hectoring or grand-standing for Summers to accomplish it. Nobody in either the Met cast or this one was more in character than him. One regretted hearing, seeing him taken away at the start of Act Three.

Antonio Pappano numerous times has proven himself adept at Verdi; while in hyper-obsequious mode, there hardly could be anyone worse at it. With all focus out of whack compared with where it should be, Royal Opera orchestral forces, with most of all the strings often sounding thin and ragged, also sounded out of focus. The light bump and grind Pappano gave some of the agitato for chorus during the Council Chamber scene was totally mal-apropos. There was constantly the faux-sensitive consideration, caution out of supposed deference to his singers that denied them so frequently any means of real support. Brief orchestral interludes, exclamations in which he decided to infuse some life ran risk of sounding off-kilter and often did.

Even the brief exchange involving Paolo right before the Council Chamber scene, lasting barely a minute, took on a weight, practically a preponderance in comparison with what came before and after, by just conducting it straightforwardly. All shape, overall perspective to make reach through much of the entirety of Verdi’s score to give it the nobility, variety of even often somber color got blended, eviscerated away to making much of its entirety register as tepid, shallow instead of how it should be.

For managing optimum effect of getting placement, phrasing, overall vocal production right, the other singers in the cast need what solidity, weight the Doge and Fiesco (Furlanetto lacking it even in the Council Chamber scene) and orchestral parts provide. It clearly, for those several who did get things mostly right, was often go-it-alone here. As for the majesty, somber weight, variety of tinta in regards to atmosphere of the sea constantly on the horizon, Prommers attending this also got left mostly high and dry as well. The overall blandness, lifelessness of the Moshinsky production could not have alone done so much damage. This, apart from several fine solo contributions, proved an evening at the Proms and for reputation of the Royal Opera, notably sub-par.

Prom 1. BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Jiri Belohlavek. Madi Byers, Twyla Robinson, Malin Christensson, Stephanie Blythe, Kelly O’Connor, Stefan Vinke, Hanno Muller-Brachmann, Tomasz Koleczny. St. Paul’s, Westminster, Crouch End and Sydney Choristers. Royal Albert Hall. July 16, 2010.

In context of this Boccanegra, any calling on Jiri Belohlavek for lack of heft in approaching the Mahler Eighth Symphony two nights before was mere whining.
This is the most impossible Mahler symphony, upon performance of which to write in authoritatively. There are many places where voices, things get covered up, that to insist upon such heft - for which Mahler writes in indeed some (for today’s standards of vocalism) awkward doubling of solo voices, is to lose so much in return. From Belohlavek, compared to, most sophisticated at it, a Gielen or Boulez, there was here some loss of resonance to some of the subtle shifting harmonic changes through the inner voices, while taking such a lean approach. At such a place as the hushed choral entry of ‘Infirma nostri corporis,’ Belohlavek sensitively provided mystery to infuse its sepulchrally compelled harmonies. Beyond that, it is probably whenever I have run across it, one of the most listenable recordings of the piece (as Mahler 8 does not really ever fit well a recording, but only good concert, acoustical space instead) being Kubelik, who in part, tradition from which he came could have set example for what here opened the 2010 Proms.

The muscular, lean, rhythmically forthright opening to ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’ set the tone right for what was indeed here a very festive occasion, with 630 musicians on the Royal Albert Hall stage. Belohlavek wisely avoided making bathos out of ‘Imple superna gratia’, with its turn of phrase to ideally remind one of pop song derivations of Chopin’s Fantasie Impomptu so many times. How many times have I heard ‘I am always chasing rainbows’ at this spot – i.e. how much I often dread anticipating arrival of this passage . However, a lingering manner over more lyrical, slower pages of especially Part One here threatened to make several sections of Part One appear too episodic. The big ‘Accende, accende’ segue to double fugue entered strongly, abruptly, but also with compelling urge to drive it forward through lean, moderately swift march with ‘Hostem, repellas longuis’ - moment and perhaps similar as to how it got played here, is said to have impressed Stravinsky very much. One could though still feel here a little want or lack of vehemence underneath through this and imminent double fugue as well.

The highly animated, even also physical impact of hearing this music made one forget or put aside any feeling that Belohlavek’s tempo relationships may have felt episodic; effect of such complacency this way did eventually make itself felt during the recapitulation (the opening to which needed more support from underneath) and coda to the first part here, yet little to dampen spirits of what made quite a start to performing the Eighth complete. There was also just some accelerando toward the end in approaching final affirmation at the end, that in not sounding like having arisen organically from preceding material, sounded slightly on verge of not so much hysteria as of just having come somewhat loose from the rest.

The pointillism with which Belohlavek infused the craggy edges of extended introduction to Part 2 was such toward helping mark well depths to be plumbed below – and fine principal oboe to help connect febrile line through it - with of course a gradually ascending sense to all that would follow it. With fine stress he supported well his first two soloists, giving voice to contrasting ecstatic ardor and emotional asceticism here. Much Wunderhorn frolic caroled through scherzo to follow thereafter, with most if not quite all sense of pervasive gloom having lifted by this point – and without turning it insipid (such as threatens to happen with Abbado on his live recording several times). Pointing of lines in high winds and small contingent of strings, percussion – and with ‘Von der Jugend’ turn in phrase apparent - was all airy and piquant here – and in color as informed by all that has preceded such in this long movement. The Jeden Rosen’ chorus in women and children had good freshness to it – momentary ensemble lapse during which was fully compensated by supple and very well voiced engagement of deep color in making the harmonic changes that occur here. All wafted with fine calibrated ease through transition into long slower final portion of Part 2 through majestic reckoning of the Chorus Mysticus altogether to its climactic conclusion – sufficient weight provided all underneath.

Most noteworthy among soloists here were Stephanie Blythe and relatively new tenor Stefan Vinke – already seen at some houses in Germany to critical acclaim as Lohengrin and Siegmund – and here replacing Nikolas Schukoff on short notice. Blythe contrasted, with fine cavernous sonority at her disposal, sang with consoling even line and simple tonal warmth her ‘firmans virtute’ and lumens accende’ off more stern accents to help sustain line very well through one or two lingering tempos Belohlavek provided She made something morally repudiating (or in Sarah Palin lingo, refudiating) sounding of the Muler Samaritana, verging on making shrewish nun out of the part, but altogether with compelling authority. Blythe, most of anybody, provided firmly solid bedrock to solo trio, quartet, and full ensemble passages throughout. Stefan Vinke, though starting tense during Part 2 as Doctor Marianus, sang all his exposed writing in Part One with most lyrical ease and melos, and then as Marianus quickly got all placed right to get off a few heroic, ringing high notes and fully informed passionate ardor for calls of ‘Jungfrau.’ Whenever Belohlavek might let pace relax too much, especially during Part One, Vinke, like Blythe, was someone to whom one’s ear would forthwith feel compelled.

Hanno Muller-Brachmann in fine voice fervently pointed his text as the Pater Ecsaticus, but without such exaggeration of doing so to put personal stamp on his two minutes in the limelight, as Fischer-Dieskau did for Kubelik on disc, example after which many baritones partly take in singing this. Less compelling was Tomasz Koneczny, musicality of this young bass-baritone not in question, but lean sonority not quite entirely right for his solo of ‘Infirma, nostril corporis’ or for the Pater Profondis during Part 2. Among the women, Madi Byers had the brighter, more penetrating top than Twyla Robinson, with reach-from-behind approach to phrasing from the latter. Even with weight Byers (appearing on the Royal Albert stage as case of the frizzies) provided midrange and below, she had her own support issues, as did Robinson. More lyric mezzo Kelly O’Connor made some stretch of engaging register shifts with as Muler Aegyptica. It was easy for all three voices to get covered up by so much else going on – except for when Byers put forth brightly above staff or accompaniment remained light.

Belohlavek, with fine calibration of all his forces through very much of this Mahler Eighth brought clear, focused sense of being, just like Mahler, a man of the theater to this engagement. Such clearly carried the day with very well prepared choral forces and fine orchestral contribution to make this Mahler Eighth, if not a profoundly achieved opener certainly a very brightly limned, festive one - excellent sense of occasion pervasive all about.

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