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, March 23, 2011

NET on NPR (also in HD): Heavily pedantic revival of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Natalie Dessay. Patrick Summers. 19.03.11

Mary Zimmerman’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor opened three years ago – after two previous productions of this at the Met, especially first one of which had to (quickly) get scrapped. This is arguably Zimmerman’s most successful production of three thus far at the Met - all of bel canto repertoire. James Levine was to conduct the 2008 broadcast, but due to health issues, cancelled, being replaced by John Colaneri. Natalie Dessay played Lucia. The production first got aired for Met in HD, starring Anna Netrebio, conducted better by Marco Armiliato, though hardly less conventionally.

With general period costumes and backdrop (with minimal updating?), Zimmerman employed a feminist meta-textual approach to Lucia, some of which with Netrebko, singing better than Dessay, faded into the scenery. Dessay took her cue on how to interpret Lucia in 2008 with emphasis more on acting than (should be) the norm – in context of how histrionics got influenced Until settling down for the Mad Scene – how ironically this reads – bordering on comical histrionics became partial culprit for precarious vocalism then. Ironically, it was not for Dessay all she could emotionally invest into Lucia, but with state of alienation, detachment to portray to the hilt – putting aside special affection for any man, even Edgardo. Some of Walter Scott, Donzietti’s story hinges on there being some connection – let us hope.

Natalie Dessay’s voice today, less stable between registers to take on such high-lying flights, alone caused her problems this time. Prudently, she decided this year on starting out, as she explained in interview, taking more musical approach, actually trusting the music, God forbid, than during previous run of this and than also of La Sonnambula. Strongly, supportively partnered on stage by Theodora Hanslowe (Alisa), Dessay attended to line for recitative and to open ‘Regnava’ better than before. With employing more tone toward achieving better sostenuto, Dessay filled out Lucia’s lines self-consciously, while encountering tension around the break. Reach into high register, during conscientiously sung cabaletta, became tentative, especially negotiating runs therein. Through duet with the amply supportive, emotionally engaged Josef Calleja, Dessay, after tentative phrasing from both, coasted well free of rigid beating time beneath to fully shape her lines and combine effort very well with his.

Starting Act Two, Dessay, attempting to darkly achieve forza needed, settled for more back, occluded placement for ‘Il pallor funesto’ making obvious a real blandness of tone and of diction to color it (Complaints over holidays about tenor Yonghoon Lee’s dry Italian for Don Carlo seem completely churlish now). After telling moment through expressive recitative, Dessay struggled to keep line together for ‘Soffrivo nel pianot’, for scooping her way in, then making increasingly heavy weather of register shifts through remainder of scene with Enrico.

The ‘Mad Scene’ became as much willed as sung. After expressively starting recitative, Dessay after unsupported high G, turned glib, detached, perhaps anticipating having to emit nonsensical laugh right before scooped into ‘Ardon gl’incensi.” Remindful of common verismo effects earlier - with Lucia imagining it sounded like moments earlier Edgardo entering the room, the thick, quavery tone, sour on low notes, became unattractive. Agility on runs adopted a quasi-improv worked quality. One had to gasp slightly at Dessay bravely taking on her cadenza unaccompanied – though with dull intonation, but managing to keep idea of pitch steady. Agility continued mostly unencumbered into Part 2 of the Mad Scene, except for things continuing to veer precariously toward sounding like Recital One for Cathy gig with handful of lunged at notes, to go with choppy accompaniment underneath, then several changes of placement on one climactic high B-Flat (nearly) – to then shy completely away from highly expressive half step above to instead without moment’s further hesitation drop a major seventh to C-Flat below.

One can hardly doubt Dessay’s dramatic abilities toward winning empathy with Lucia’s plight; how this combined with unsteady singing, however one either takes on faith or does not. No doubt, there are still roles still well suited for no doubt this genuinely gifted, still often charming artist, even while Lucia may no longer really be fully within reach.

Josef Calleja provided the sweet toned, ardent, ever attentive, prudently sung Edgardo. In context of much confusing going on musically, he conveyed well Edgardo’s despondency at his fate, genuine ardor for Lucia during first scene on stage. Curiously, he attempted putting up as little resistance as possible, somehow without missing dramatic intent of Edgardo’s defiance of Lucia, concerning freshly signed contract. He then provided good ring, swagger to scene with Enrico at Wolf’s Crag, starting out, but accompanied by unyielding beat from the pit, all went, dry-toned, unvaryingly flat-line together with Ludovic Tezier for cabaletta to their extended duet. Adding in more vibrato first within natural means, Calleja began the tomb scene with fine sostenuto, expressive regret, For slow cabaletta however, Calleja’s tone became more distraught, vibrato-laden to broader effect. While being as genuinely stylish an effort as anybody here could muster, definition as to Edgardo’s goals and eventual fate got mildly compromised – for interpretation providing just little more than half of what’s at stake.

Ludovic Tezier, with voice perhaps one cut below power required to sing a truly menacing Enrico, provided good snarl and darkened tone for the part. With emphasis on projecting much, line slightly broke up for especially opening lines to ‘Cruda, funesta’, cabaletta to which found him more prudent. His slightly nasal sound helped compromise conveying firm fortitude to Lucia in their extended scene together. In scene with Arturo, anticipating Lucia’s arrival with light snarl Enrico’s hypocrisy carried well, and as bedrock together with the Raimondo of Kwangchul Youn, stayed very well in character and provided good support, better than did man on podium for lyric voices floating above. Similar to Calleja, he started off the Wolf Crag’s scene incisively, to then later match Calleja in dryness of tone, delivery thereof for the rest of it.

Kwangchul Youn best supplied gravitas to this enterprise – hypocrisy tainted though Raimondo may be. Hint of making more nuance, insinuation out of ‘’Cedi, Cedi’ (duet) with Lucia somehow seeped through, with knowledge evident of how to otherwise eloquently shape his lines. He sounded perhaps as undercut as anybody in this cast by an unyielding beat from the pit. Even with a little gravel in the tone - sound Youn also has to plumb fine depths - he provided Raimondo’s Act Three racconta with excellently varied narrative sense, conveying use of rich experience he has accumulated away from bel canto, and providing the best legato and assurance of how to phrase Donzietti of anybody here, cheerfully able to overlook much insistence on beating time underneath.

Mathew Plenk was the bright toned confident Arturo, fearlessly tackling his arioso, what should not be enormous feat for second tier tenors - nowadays often just that. Philip Webb, after getting slightly covered up by ensemble starting Act One, aptly supplied a malevolently conniving Normanno.

On the podium was Patrick Summers. He conducted Lucia in Houston in 2003 - cast led by Laura Claycomb and Vinson Cole - likely better than he conducted this go-around. He spoke in interview of approaching Lucia more as influenced by what had preceded it, such as Gluck he conducted weeks earlier, than as how it might anticipate Verdi. Working with the Met orchestra, one however had trouble hearing what he might have meant. Numerous rhythms got clipped, maintenance of tempo was strict. This was fully modern playing – fully assured of itself - often projecting better than some of the singing.

Most insipid was the special pointing, underlining of orchestral interjections during recitative passages; several choral interludes, by comparison, plodded along monotonously. Rushed endings to especially cabalettas, pushing relentlessly past highly expressive broken appoggiatura during ‘Verranno a te’ too for instance, proved much insistence, but also inattention to supporting singers for naturally sculpting, sustaining their lines, for sake of however ‘correct’ eschewal of rubato. For any bel canto context, not to mention specialist, such is indeed really entirely wrong. Singers seemed compelled to follow Summers here, and seldom the other way around. It became hard to tell whether Summers, though intermittently, allowed his singers to at times freely take command or if they were breaking free on their own toward achieving reasonable semblance of legato.

Kwangchul Youn again most of all explicitly insinuated, then included necessary rubato to shape his lines, to supply for instance his Act Three narration much feeling, insight. Nuptials introducing chorus got marked with forced accenting, then for Summers to streamline most of the rest of his way through what follows, smoothing over important dramatic accents. Dessay and especially Calleja prudently kept their voices light, over much push and shove, to ward off damage thereof.

Somehow, in attempting to break free of Romantic tradition, Summers matched what this production - conceits thereof ubiquitous - attempted to say. Sticking to being a diva-accommodating maestro for a bel canto piece can make for a bland, faceless affair out of such, both dramatically and musically. Summers’s frequent over-insistence though came across pedantic, with playing louder than marked and insensitive ear for harmonic change in the accompaniment - its intended expressive effect toward singers being still able to flexibly shape their lines and avoid strain undercut. Not only were some rhythms wrong, but overall this music’s profile, character missing as well. One could remember at end of the day that Patrick Summers had conducted this, but while asking why, concerning what should come across. This was hardly a Lucia missing shape more than during its first run three years ago, but even with its dogged insistence, ironically seldom providing anything more.

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