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, September 22, 2010

NPR - SFO 2009-2010: Topics of exotic malevolence - Steph Blythe la zingara, Nadja Michael Judaean princess. Il Trovatore. Salome. Nicola Luisotti.

This I believe to have been third time in a row to pick up Il Trovatore in the David McVicar production, originating in Chicago and then borrowed by the Met. Sondra Radvanovsky has been cast therein as Leonora each time; she had already sung it well in Houston in 2005 when Lyric’s opened, to resounding acclaim. On paper, this Trovatore looked definitely reliable. On this occasion however, much unevenness became more the rule than the exception.

There have been issues all along with the distribution of breath in the singing of Sondra Radvanovsky, that for all the sincerity, good intentions she reliably puts forth, she has been able to disguise or hide quite well for some time now. Here due to a combination of factors she came to grief however. Some easier among extended passages she was still able to make buoyant – especially on any crests to the line that refrain from going too high, such as during arioso right before ‘Tacea la notte’ in Act One – and arioso outside the convent to poignantly help begin the finale to Act Two. Some narrowness, constriction of the flow of air toward goal of producing more sound just simply got in her way - together with compromise of one or two other factors she had trouble in overcoming. Sogginess of line and of intonation overcame La Rad for concluding ‘Tacea la notte”

The same issues plus inability to sustain line well afflicted “D’amor sull’ali rosee”; she then started the Miserere tentatively and until Luisotti freed up a little extra space for her, the cabaletta after the Miserere was flat and minimal in shape– with what determination must take over here. We still got the idea of some nobility of character, but much heavy attack and droopy quality left Leonora somewhat incomplete in conception this go at it.

Stephanie Blythe made the strongest impression of anybody here. Profile to the line, trill and other ornamentation was all complete in “Stride la vampa”, together and with fine sound making it all believable. Sense of narrative continued strong through tale to follow - high notes secure. By into pair of duets to close her first scene, one began to notice however Blythe glibly editorializing on what she was singing. If she can not believe her own lines as to what purpose she is putting them, how should we? Such was the case too during Act Three in dialogue with the Count.’ Blythe then started out well for the final scene, in prison, but well before a ringing, triumphant high B at the end, she very curiously began playing with placement, vowels during “Ai sacri monti.” Vocally, just about all the goods were on display; but so far this Azucena lacked real authority.

Marco Berti started off his evening by singing his offstage serenade too loud, then greeted Leonora wobbly, and coasted through trios to follow, lacking sufficient defiance for both to end each of the first two acts. He then started messing with his placement, pushing, forcing, chopping up his lines, and similarly forthrightly ruined “Ah sib en mio” with much choppiness and loss of intonation. “Di quella pira” lacked heroism, and it was not until the first half a dozen pages of the final scene that Berti rediscovered his gift for being a lyric. He then returned to making conventional brute out of Manrico as he sounded most of the way before It sounded too as though this reprise of the McVicar production had started making exaggerated shtick out of some gesture one expects of this production.

Such being the case, next in line so afflicted was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as di Luna – heard from the Met last time opposite Marcelo Alvarez as Manrico – an insufficiently heroic lyric for the part like Berti, but very tasteful in musical and interpretive choices he made. In quality of the singing at the Met Hvorostovsky provided, he was more than a match to Berti. Here instead we got a hectoring, bullying, yelling, unsubtle stock villain. He started off well, di Luna’s venomous contempt in Act One for Manrico showing up well. “Il balen”, taken too strictly, got hectored, became choppy and also quite venerable sounding – after blasting of a high G right before the aria to reveal to any doubters what vocal prowess he has left.

Hvoirostovsky later then made incredulity of di Luna at what is only apparent change in romantic fortune for di Luna exaggerated to point of schoolboy naivete. One only heard vestiges, passage here and there to indicate either the still natural beauty of Hvorostovsky’s voice or of his ability to make anything more elevated than cardboard, two-dimensional of the Count. Most musical and sounding good in intent were Messenger, Ines, and the pensive Ruiz. Burak Bilgili, sounding well as though he fully understood the part of Ferrando, was vocally uneven with tremulous handling of some sustained notes, but halfway decent mastery of tricky turns and gruppetti for his opening racconta.

Nicola Luisotti conducted an utterly shapeless Trovatore. He frequently secured good sound out of the San Francisco opera orchestra, but with sound while under pressure, that got pushed up, even hooty, unyielding. He has figured out from somewhere how to dig in, make the most of the darkest, most brooding transitions in this opera, but even at times framing a (lengthy) phrase, often failed to make something to connect a succeeding number to such gesture in the opera.

Before the cabaletta had really become obsolete, Verdi through incisive marking and exact tempo markings, made something of them in Trovatore to push action forward - to even begin redefining the concept as something to perhaps have exited more quickly than it had, had Verdi ignored doing so. Here then comes Luisotti to take all the sap, the gas out of these passages, not for tempo being wrong or eccentric, as just being so willing to lightly put his orchestra on auto-pilot and gently coast right through. There were places too, in quasi-improvisatory writing, especially for instance in Leonora’s Act Four aria, even before changeover to that therein Luisotti must have reckoned having transcended issue of who should be following whom – issue having threatened to arise several times already. After unevenly light, weightless accompaniment to duet and cabaletta with the Count to come, he started the final scene with good, circumspect weighting of what transpired, but once just past Leonora’s final entreaties to Manrico at point the Count has entered, too late for entreaty to do much of any good, Luisotti insisted on mechanically pacing Leonora’s descant in string of broken appoggiaturas to extent it no longer made sense how this passage got written so expressively.

Luisotti’s jumping over rests before start of two different sections, for instance giving Marco Berti a really hard push into his first duet with Azucena in Act Two, was equally inelegant. Indecisively, he first rushed brief interlude into the Count’s first entrance in Act One, then jerked the passage back to apply Karajan-esque weight on chords right before moment the Count enters. With Marco Berti eventually entering flat, Luisotti distorted rhythm of a rushed Miserere in Act Four to where it became something resembling being in three, several minutes after sensitive pointing of concertato in winds opening Act Four. His pulverizing of the opera’s final chords in E-Flat Minor, targeted with silly accelerando, was so hard that final chord upon which Trovatore lands was hardly anymore identifiable.

This was conducting at times so insensitive both to Verdi’s demands and to singers, it made one momentarily doubt even Luisotti’s credentials as a coach; he however skillfully managed to avoid falling into several traps for unwary conductors the score offers, even practically with aplomb, to indicate that such ‘taking control’ of it all, likely had as much to do with ego as with inexperience – so much so at several points that it practically made one wish that his vanity could have taken him far enough to fall right in. In return, he got the worst performances I have heard yet from his two male leads, including the previously fine lyric tenor Marco Berti, and also arguably from Sondra Radvanovsky. Luisotti got Berti off on the wrong foot, by allowing him to sound as though standing right before the footlights for the very (and most often) offstage beginning to his part. Having this even sound placed halfway so far forward begins to make nonsense out of the dramatic situation - such out of which one can only construe what a real goof Leonora must be.

Extraneous stage noise, such as near start of a crudely pumped Anvil Chorus indicated well a lack of focus or even of purpose to the entire effort here. Nothing happened to either erase memory of Bruno Bartoletti’s highly authoritative conducting, pacing of Trovatore with Lyric on his fiftieth anniversary with Lyric, or of even shockingly near as good, Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting of what turned into a new Met production two years later in 2009. Walter Fracarro, a certainly less ingratiating lyric than Berti I hope still can be, made more sense overall of Manrico in Chicago; Radvanovsky proved much more up to the still more daunting task of singing Leonora on both occasions. Hvorstovsky had also been very fine as di Luna.

Hardly more satisfyingly turned out Strauss’s Salome, except mostly for the expertly turned Herod of Kim Begley. This was Nicola Luisotti’s first attempt to conduct Salome, and certainly while some allowance should be made, there appeared little relevant impetus behind taking it on.

Nadja Michael, mezzo converted up to being a soprano, made somewhat heavy weather of the Judaean princess. Whereas in the past Grace Bumbry might have been squallier in her stab at it, had Michael put the level or amount of energy into acting and singing it, it is hard to imagine how it would not have turned out squallier than Bumbry had been. A few lighter moments intermittently worked for Michael, such as where she first entered, for which Michael communicated the princess’s private nervous expectations very well. The well anticipated low notes for gaze down the cistern housing Jokanaan were good, but Michael’s matronly ‘Er ist schrecklich’ on first observing Jokanaan above ground was choked, swallowed.

Michael’s first amorous overtures to Jokanaan had good simple ardor forthright, all going well, until having to negotiate the break and a very unsteady top. Incisive was her start to expression of disgust with the prophet’s hair, but with again having to apply additional stress on the voice, all turned frumpy hausfrau for about the entire rest of the scene - with Michael and Luisotti together carefully plotting how pacing of all this should proceed. Including her sounding hardly distinguishable from your average Herodias for some of the more malicious lines therein, the final scene, all the rest sounded carefully anticipated, but heavily vocalized, uncertain of pitch. She in effect made nonsense out of “Und das Geheimnis … des Todes” for their being no contrast at all between quality of her sound around what should be the break (and light there) and her low notes.

Irina Mishura was the stately, vocally opulent Herodias – remindful of Larissa Diadkova at the Met, except that Diadkova’s tone may have been the more sensuous. Here was a good piece of singing, no doubt, but seemingly misapplied. Not all sense of irritability and then evil glee about Herodias was lost, but vocal poise got maintained practically at all costs. Greer Grimsley provided a grim, poised interpretation of Jokanaan, but missing some of the fanaticism of the prophet, many of his lines cosseted by well parked orchestral support. A few notes at top of his range turned unsteady, and some of his final lines, which should speak more ominously than some of the rest, came across vaguely church-style – at least sanctimoniously right before the sonorous feeling with which Julien Robbins eloquently invested his lines as First Nazarene. Dramatic engagement with the Salome during scene together was minimal, but little provided Grimsley for it to improve upon that from either Michael or Luisotti.

Answered by very well sung, acted Page by Elisabeth DeShong, Garrett Sorensen proved musical, but a little strained by the part of Narraboth, and Sorensen at loss for failure to turn up much agitation or excitement underneath his lines – moment of the captain’s death handled flaccidly – from orchestra following, accompanying him up to this point. Beau Gibson led quarreling consort of Jews very capably, incisively.

Kim Begley was the least encumbered by any of the principals of this cast by the characterless, limp leadership of Nicola Luisotti. The energy, vitality behind Herod’s neurotic agitation was missing to extent it could have sounded ludicrous for Begley to compensate toward ratcheting it all up to where it need be all on his own. Begley had the right feeling of lilt for all the waltz-like character of music in attempting to make Salome concede to his wishes, whether Luisotti had it more than tentatively or not. Except for one falsetto whelp near the end of long post-dance dialogue with Salome, one probably can not remember a better sung Herod from Begley than this one – with his being prudent that it all be sung instead of barked, shouted, etc. One has experienced a Herod more frantic at attempting to make Salome concede here, but otherwise from Begley - a little unusual coming alone from the Herod - one could find a compass steadily working to mark how this music really should go.

Other than securing a fine, lustrous sound out of the San Francisco Opera orchestra, Nicola Luisotti’s conducting of this score, not entirely free of unnecessary vulgarity or of ensemble problems, was altogether tentative. Dynamics got brought down considerably from where marked not to cut into or altogether drown out singing by Nadja Michael or Greer Grimsley – and then not to lose place in fugato for quarreling Jews. Feeling for waltz-like rhythms was missing beyond just a generic best guess at them; snarls from brass intruding upon them and other intrusions lacking so much snap or menace.

Dance of the Seven Veils dragged, with Luisotti making careful, measured pacing of most of it. One got a little accelerando here, some clipping of rests there to bump up the pace, attempt to get some vitality going, but electric current of neuroticism that should run through about the entirety of this score went missing. Even some of the most obvious dramatic moments, that even a tentative Valery Gergiev emphasized well at the Met six years ago did not clearly register here. Some knowledge of the score beforehand was obvious, but not quite sufficient toward knowing what it is that might make any of this score click.

Underlining of contrabasson’s impish solos – one right before Herod’s first entrance – proved entirely contrary to purpose - as did Luisotti’s perfectly metrically timed runs to portray wind of which Herod is neurotically cognizant – all as perfectly steady, hinged as callous reproaches one hears next from Herodias. Following solo timpani getting the Salome motif as crisply as it should have sounded numerous times already, to introduce Herod calling his step-daughter a monster, Luisotti made all flat-line the passage accompanying Salome’s “Ach, ich habe deinen Mund gekusst.” Low repeated elaborate dissonance in organ and brass became unexceptional and equally as this, as anything else the notoriously loud bitonal chord to ring out several measures later. Question always remained of what might have drawn Nicola Luisotti to conduct this – both at War Memorial, then soon thereafter at Bologna’s Teatro Communale – other than to add just another staple to his repertoire.

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