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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

MET: Met McVicar Il Trovatore (in HD). Marco Armiliato. 30.4.11. Met Ariadne auf Naxos (on NPR) - Fabio Luisi.07.5.11

David McVicar’s production of Il Trovatore at the Met, when it first opened there in 2008-2009 became something of a Godsend, particularly after Graham Vick’s production. Vick later disowned it, after the Met had imposed some changes upon it, but also after really disastrous luck in making this ever reliable old warhorse come to life. Should one want to pick up the ideal party opera dvd, a Genoa Lucia di Lammermoor Vick produced, starring Marcelo Alvarez in only decent vocal performance therein, contends strongly, misfiring in all ways imaginable, often risibly so.

The spring 2009 broadcast Il Trovatore – with same vocal quartet as cast here – likely turned out, with Gianandrea Noseda conducting, tmost thrilling of that season. Equally to only mildly more authoritatively was Bruno Bartoletti conducting this fairly recently from Lyric of Chicago – where this production originated. While less distorting of balances and of other subtle intentions Verdi requested than Nicola Luisotti in San Francisco, Marco Armliato while keeping all together and alternatively finding good poise and swagger for numerous passages, lacked much compelling to say about Il Trovatore.

David McVicar clearly has ideas about Il Trovatore, while giving it a critical look especially toward how participating nobility behaves. Given what eccentricity that can emerge from such a perspective, and based on experience thus far, this production looks to depend upon having a strong ally on the podium to help keep dramatic tension alive. The action is updated to ‘Goya period’ Spanish Civil War - and placed on a turntable set. Prison cell for final scene looked instead to be an outdoor prison courtyard to which to get chained up. Only too obvious awkwardness was change from cramped interior to ‘outdoors scaffolding’ - preceding ‘Di quella pira’

The brutality of period in history in question, sense of class warfare arose eloquently to the fore, near as much as likely on previous outings. Mix of common townspeople, laborers, Gypsies, soldiers milling about, and then generically lusty whores for scene of taking leisure opening Act Three provides color. Swashbuckling motif became slightly excessive, but with set up of tableau for confrontation ending Act Two highly adept. Lighting tends to be consistently dark – also manner in how this got beamed by satellite – to point of obscuring several essential details of action on stage. Costuming (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) true to updated ‘period’ – was consistently very handsome, attractive.

How entire milieu taking over agitates di Luna, Manrico, turns Leonora neurotic can, with somebody more thorough conducting this feed it an expressionistic grandeur and abandon – very welcome here – such as has transpired before On the surface, to Armiliato also, Il Trovatore is a singers’ opera. Toward one goal however of holding its occasionally disparate levels of musical and dramatic inspiration together, this is also clearly a conductor’s opera - perhaps more so. Crudely (almost) making orchestra more prominent than the singers of course is wrong – Luisotti conducting this same production in the Bay Area one most culpable.

Best of the three men for this outing, most even vocally, was still relative newcomer, Stefan Kocan as Ferrando. He cut a handsome figure with dark, grainy voice to match – excellent case for making Slavic equivalent of veteran basso Bonaldo Giaiotti on the old Price/Domingo/Mehta recording. Gruppetti, runs, turns were all accurate, even some trills, to make Kocan envy of any bass attempting this thankless part. He also, yet stoically, infused his lines during opening racconta with fine involvement. He in front of men of the Met chorus very capably led obbligato to Hvrostovsky during two ensembles midway through.

Central to McVicar;s thinking here is necessity of having a strong Azucena. The ever stalwart Dolora Zajick failed to disappoint him. Some streamlining of the process of putting this back in rehearsal for two runs at the Met this season may have taken its toll, but Zajick, with darting eyes for key moments, still commanded the stage. She stoically assisted McVicar in providing Azucena full sense of gravitas - for one so single-minded but also complex - in evincing both full warmth and menace – enhancing too the mystery surrounding the gypsy woman. Trills during ‘Stride la vampa’ may have been unsteady, Zajick’s voice overall may not consistently roll out the power it could instantly on command ten or twenty years ago, register shifts may be less even. Sense of authority though, from fine low notes through ringing top through most of her lines – was still intact. McVicar also opts for keeping Azucena alive at opera’s conclusion – logical perhaps in this context for her to have survived action thereof.

Marcelo Alvarez, who during excellently focused milieu of this production’s debut in 2009, gave of his lyric best – striking one then as only slightly underpowered for Manrico. He opted with abandon afforded him here to push a little more metal into singing Manrico this outing. Indisposed earlier during this run, he seemed to have recovered well to close this same run well. Ringing high B’s were intact, with fine swagger through ‘Di quella pira’, he managed to utter some honeyed tones during ‘Ah si ben mio’ and recitative preceding it, but still managed to chop up line somewhat during this passage toward making strong verbal emphases. Somewhat of a blank as an actor on stage, he emerged vocally most lyrical, convincing in the final scene of the opera, working closely with Zajick – doing so also paying off several dividends during their first scene together. Rhythmic slovenliness through a blustery ‘Deserto sulla terra’ to start things out was singularly unattractive – also his streamlining of refrain during the Miserere. His letting go of anything resembling good intonation for sake of achieving dramatic heft continued recklessly through Act One.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky played Manrico’s unsympathetic rival, di Luna. A little stiff at acting he still cut a commanding and handsome figure, with mane of silver hair, colonial style get-up, and during Per me ora fatale’ outstretched self-bloodied right hand – self-emboldening impetus for moments later taking on Manrico’s men – very insightful on David McVicar’s part.. Dark toned sense of mortal resolve carried across the footlights for recitative with which he first appeared on stage (‘Tacea la notte’) and made resentful looking, sounding ‘In braccio al mio rival’ later. Intonation issues surfaced for pumping out his sound that later intermittently turned into pure bluster – thank heavens less so than recently in San Francisco; his di Luna emerged entirely two-dimensional there.

Apart from bench-pressing the top, putting at risk maintaining legato, ‘Il balen’ came across stalwart, if less alluring than whomever out there might strive with smoother line to more subtly enhance it. Machismo in engagement with especially Manrico and Leonora, also an element of narcissism, surfaced well – compromised late by intonation momentarily going sour on him upon making final stage entrance.

Sondra Radvanovsky cut attractive figure on stage as Leonora, with noble ladylike poise for a good half of how she carried herself – still compellingly for the rest of this. Even if making Leonora appear willful or neurotic, a Leonora all noble, dignified without any sense of daring also obscures telling the whole story. Vocal placement, somewhat back, causing her to flat numerous times around the break, particularly during Act One, remains curious. Steadily infusing extra vibrato into the sound seems quite consistently her means of opening things out and achieving a clear, less occluded top better than might otherwise emerge – her reasonably even, creamy tone, legato underneath a mainstay. An excitability to laugh during several tense moments looked slightly out of touch – perhaps due to some streamlining this go-around. Superficially, Leonora may appear one of Verdi’s more passive heroines, but element belonging to Verdi’s earlier notably heroic warrior maidens, sense of new liberation they convey, can also factor in – if less so for Leonora than for handful preceding her. While having to confront di Luna, such likely should not remain under wraps. Radvanovsky looks fully convinced of how she portrays Leonora – apart perhaps from impetus to give things a little extra oomph she may this outing have sensed lacking from the orchestra pit.

Once past Act One, intonation problems became less significant. Floating of numerous lines during ‘’D’amor sull’ali rosee’ – starting off slightly flat - and during especially repeat of “Per che d’’altri vivere’ - long-breathed final entreaty to Manrico provided fine allure, winning much sympathy. Maria Zifchak (Inez) and Eduardo Valdes (Ruiz) capably led supporting cast – Robert Maher also fine (Old Gypsy). Choral preparation (Donald Palumbo), natural feel for moving chorus across stage, all sounded and looked very apt.

Marco Armliato evinced fine mastery of idiom with aplomb while not challenged by Verdi’s more subtle demands. His ear for catching this music’s colors is good. Swagger, specificity with Verdi’s rhythms throughout first scene of Act Three certainly came across forthright. With exception of glibly coasting through explosive transition into closing trio to Act Two, necessary fire to seethe through Il Trovatore became more evident during its middle two acts. In numerous passages, a glib streamlining of how to pace this work became the norm. Opening of the final scene suffered somewhat - passage in which Verdi achieved new heights of simplicity. Efficiency, loyal support of his cast, decent ensemble seldom came up short, yet some lack of fire to infuse, surge underneath, propel forward the best Trovatore’s one can encounter came up a little short; hopefully the same will occur again soon with this production.

With Fabio Luisi now new principal guest at the Met, perhaps soon more than that, a generous helping of Strauss from him over next handful of seasons or so can likely be welcome. Like an Elektra during fairly recent Christmas holidays, this Ariadne auf Naxos evinced an equal mastery of Strauss, the idiom, but as held back again in part by quality of some of the singing. Combination of catching the healthy robust air, thrust of prelude to the Prologue, lightness to infuse much from within revealed somebody a slight cut above average at this – inherent qualities slightly more evasive to Kirill Petrenko (new Bavarian State Opera music director designate) last season. Providing, combined, a fine sense of gravitas and importance, with dollop of fine comic wt and irony was Thomas Allen, in interaction with Major-Domo of Michael Devlin – Devlin fluent, but whining, marking it excessively, making more of it than can happen.

Voice still relatively intact, Joyce di Donato, absolutely certain to look charming on stage, vocally left some of the youthful qualities altogether infusing this part lacking. Determination to get Composer’s idea across did so at cost to stability of line and to intonation, all quite slippery around the break partly for what flutter one finds there now.

The impetuosity, even heroic quality of this character hardly got compromised, but something of the charm, openly at Sarah Connollly’s disposal last season, went missing here. Mystery of particular lines serving as preview to what gets raised after intermission got short changed by weak low notes – high notes also succumbing to strain for lack of support underneath. Thin as opposed to thick and strained, coy, utterly without charm was the Zerbinetta of Kathleen Kim – repeat from last year’s cast – less up to the demands of her big aria than for tentative stab at it last season. Attempt to expressively compensate for obvious sloppiness, compromised intonation during the aria were excessively breathy starts to especially lines starting on off-beats - to ruinous coy effect.

Contrast of gesture, intermixing of colors, unified pacing to the Prologue worked well for Luisi - mysteriously somehow little at his disposal useful toward helping out some of his cast. Among supporters during the Prologue, Tony Stevenson availed himself directly well as Dancing Master. Violeta Urmana and Robert Dean Smith individually affected prima donna manner, habits backstage with fine aplomb. Vasily Ladyuk dryly, but capably, with good diction led Zerbinetta’s sidekicks – team only let down by a coarsely dry Truffaldino (Joshua Bloom) but enhanced by recent Lindemann Young Artists grad Paul Appleby (Brighella) partnered well by Mark Schowalter (Scaramuccio).

Opera opening scene came across slightly glib, compromised by merely competent Nymphs (Audrey Luna, Tamara Mumford, Lei Xu) in place of a more consistently silvery impression. Luisi’s lightly malleable way of moulding Straussian line waited for Met woodwinds to enter to cast ispell during prelude to the opera. Curiously, return of the nymphs heralding arrival of ‘ein junger Gott’ came across hard-pressed, Luisi then waiting for orchestra moment before Bacchus enters to magically open out perspective. His accompaniment for Ariadne’s solos was warmly supportive throughout – lightness Luisi usually best at conveying while accompanying comedian troupe’s banter.

Violeta Urmana, past several early slightly uneven moments, with plummy, warm timbre, portrayed Ariadne as woman of stately poise and resolve The clumsy breaks that can too easily emerge between registers during recent attempts at spinto Verdi do not inhibit her efforts here. Slight Slavic edge near the break sneaked in, but hardly obstructively so. “Es gibt ein reich” carried forth with even line, intimating well a betrayed, stranded woman’s darker misgivings, but then direct manner with rapturous coda to this aria betrayed a keeping at arm’s length what infusion of vulnerability might work toward revealing the complete picture. Urmana conveyed well, darkly Ariadne’s more distraught emotions - before point Ariadne fully awakens to, becomes cognizant of new reality before her. Shock of mistaking Bacchus for Theseus blazed forth with a ringing high A. Once transformation should have done its work, however, Urmana came across cool, only dispassionately able to take all in where one might expect more involvement, yielding to it until during closing lines; one departed hearing this grateful most of all for some fine singing.

Robert Dean Smith, intensely lyrical Tristan on short notice at Met in HD three years ago, got handed here the thankless role of Bacchus. In attempting to sound heroic starting out, some strain ensued; such hardly ever fails to show up from most tenors attempting this. For relaxed passages to follow, “So willst du mit mir” and confident ‘’Bin ich ein Gott” toward gently bringing Ariadne around, Smith let melt most effortlessly. Once into last part of this scene, Smith finally then evinced good moment or two of ringing heldentenor sound, bringing Met forces under Luisi to point of at last fully breaking free from phlegmatically, as opposed to effortlessly negotiating, sostenuto, Strauss’s ornately voluptuous demands.

From pretense up front of being written for chamber orchestra, yet to take on larger peaks of Ariadne/Bacchus finale ahead with similar transparency, little goes unexposed here. By opera’s end all then should rhapsodically take flight. Luisi is not one to come up with transformation overnight of how Met forces (that likely might soon be his own) will approach playing Strauss. He reckons it something to communicate by most unforced means, something natural to the Met’s playing to slowly get inculcated as only certain way magic can transpire, as opposed to smugly putting contrivance forth instead.

With Ariadne – when she is bad truly Ariadne Obnoxious - orchestral forces can not alone make it happen - instead working alchemy between all constituent parts, especially singers, perhaps working past clunky staging conceits (Elijah Moshinsky production the Met still cranks out). It can mean the difference between the good, serviceable presentation that has surfaced here and one to predominantly lift far beyond the footlights to very rear ceiling of the house, filling all in in-between.

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