Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tosca at WNO

WNO pulled out some big guns for its season opener Saturday (from the looks of it, perhaps the most significant gunshow on offer this season) for a satisfying if not memorable Tosca.
Pat Racette brings considerable assets to her Tosca, though I don't know if she really breaks away from the pack. The voice is certainly a fine fit, and everything seems comfortable, but Vissi D'Arte, for instance, never grabs you the way it did last season with Radvanovsky. Now, its tough competing with a special quality like SondRad, but hey--the game is just more intense when you're trying for something beyond a reliable workaday Tosca. But still--great performance, great voice, and hopefully she will continue to make this attention to WNO a habit.
Ditto for Alan Held's Scarpia. It needs no repeating that Held is a great actor endowed with a voice that is always a pleasure to hear. I don't think I ever hit publish on the review, but let me just add for the record his Met Wozzecks last Spring were a "delight". There are some intriguing aspects to his Scarpia--here's the police chief as robust and handsome, an true perverted aesthete rather than just a lech. His psychological torture of Tosca becomes more acute because we can better believe her resistance to seeing him as a monster, often a foregone conclusion with obviously suspicious characters. This also allows the big "reveal" about what he wants from her to be a more powerful break with the rest of the scene. That said, Held and the production would have to go farther to make this interpretation really pop--instead we we mostly got standard issue Scarpia business but without the full complement of nastiness.
Catapulting a voice with the heft of Frank Poretta's up into Cavaradossi's heights is not an easy thing, but he managed it with a pleasing dexterity that surprised again and again throughout the evening. Just when one was getting comfortable, "E Lucevan le Stella" included a kind of disturbing crack, but he recovered well. Also, some might accuse him of being bit of a ham acting wise, but I'm a sucker for when people do gestures that underline the notes they want you to pay attention to, so we're cool.
As for Placido Domingo's conducting...just...damn. I mean, at least its a useful reminder for folks who only attend professional opera that conducting this stuff is really hard. If the worst of it had just been relentlessly draggy, four-square tempi it would have been *only* dull. But he seems not to have mastered the fundamental skill of anticipating the singers in close-quarters aria work, which, if distracting to the audience, must have been brutal for the singers. What is this conducting racket he has going? Is it like a consolation prize to companies when he can't afford to use a limited vocal appearance on them? Please, dude. I just want to have positive, uncomplicated feelings about you. Stop these shenanigans.
If the old Zefferelli production is the Cadillac of traditional Toscas, this Dallas Opera production is more like a Ford Focus. Yes, everything has four walls and there is a lot of fake stone of various sorts, but its not actually an attractive set. Also, let me throw out a pet peeve with "traditional sets" like this: if you are going to depict a "real" interior, you can't just disregard the basic architectural elements of that interior and think the set dressing will allow it to pass. Case in point--the Act I church has most of the action taking place at ground level, and a balcony overhead which, through some scrim cleverness, is revealed as the altar area for the Te Deum sequence. Yeah, I see how that's a convenient way to do this scene, but is there a church in all of Italy that has the altar suspended on a balcony thing above the main sanctuary area? Little quibbles maybe, but this sort of thing just invalidates the whole appeal of a traditional set, which should allow the audience to lose themselves in a credible facsimile of a real space.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Attila at WCO

Raphael's Vatican fresco of Attila meeting Pope Leo, part of the series on 1st Millennium Christianity WIN.
For its fall show this past Friday, Washington Concert Opera presented Verdi's Attila headlined by John Relyea and Brenda Harris and an excellent supporting cast.
I missed out on the Muti-led Attilas at the Met last season so this was really my first experience with it. Musically, its neglect is certainly unfortunate--lots of colorful orchestral writing, a string of excellent if not quite top-40 arias, and some thrilling ensemble/chorus numbers. Libretto wise, however, its curiosity status makes a bit more sense. Editing isn't the problem--Attila is all business in banging through its plot points--but rather that the dramatic possibilities of the characters aren't quite realized to the point where they take off.
Attila is really the most interesting and, in a way, sympathetic character onstage. Being a Hun and all, he starts the opera indifferent to anything that doesn't involve pillaging, but is moved by Pope Leo to renounce his plan to sack Rome and ends up making a short-lived truce with the Italians. But, Michael Corleone style, he is pursued by his past wrongs and ultimately gives into and is undone by his thirst for blood and power. That arc also comes with a love story--part of his attempt to be a better barbarian is his love for Odabella, daughter of the general of the town he has just destroyed when the opera starts--but she of course has sworn her revenge and ultimately stabs him. Certainly a lot to work with in the tragic anti-hero department, right? But Attila's best music passes without much in the way of psychological engagement and he is virtually a bystander for Acts II and III until he is unceremoniously dispatched. Perhaps Verdi hasn't quite invented the signature introspective baritone aria that serves his later works so well, or perhaps the sublimated political agenda that runs through the work precludes any stronger sympathy for Attila. Either way, the piece feels like it revolves around a missed opportunity.
The same limitations afflict Odabella's character as well. The setup is clutch: she is introduced with that powerhouse aria about the badassery of Italian women which perversely attracts her father's killer to keep her in his camp. The potential for some internal conflict between her need for revenge and some mutual attraction with her captor is high, especially after we meet her wet blanket of a boyfriend (Foresto). But again, Odabella is largely sidelined after her aria opening the first act (a strong showpiece but emotionally static). These possibilities keep the drama interesting for a time, but ultimately do not move the plot.
* * *
Washington Concert Opera's production, if not quite a homerun on par with their Werther last spring, had lots to recommend it. Antony Walker excelled in demonstrating how much more there is to this score than oom-pah, and shepherded some riveting climaxes with the massed chorus and principals.
As discussed above, an Attila is somewhat disadvantaged by the material he has to work with, but John Relyea still seemed underwhelming. Its a fine voice certainly, and he turned in engaging readings of the main arias, but he lacked the authority required to give Attila much a commanding profile. His voice is probably not ideal for this work, which would benefit from some blacker flavor than his very pleasing instrument delivers. But still, it was a bit casual.
Brenda Harris made the strongest impression of the principals--here is one of those remarkable voices that is just naturally at home at its loudest. On the evidence of that killer first aria, I was a bit concerned that she actually didn't have a viable piano. But those fears were dispelled in her first Act aria, a smorgasbord of chilling effects, which, if not always the priddiest, were deftly executed and made for the evening's second biggest showstopper.
As whiny boyfriend Foresto, Arthur Espiritu brought a sweet beguiling tenor and fine sense of Italian diction and style (as I understand these things at least) that made his multiple arias a musical highlight, even if the drama could benefit from a lot less Foresto. That said, I see where Anne Midgette is coming from here--a sound like Espiritu's is more suited to an Ernesto than, say, a proto-Manrico, and there's certainly an argument to be made that the role should lean heavier.
James Stearns' Ezio (this Italian buddy of Attila's that ends up conspiring against him who also gets a questionable amount of stage time) was a strong player as well, bringing a rich baritone to the role and good command of the role.
Kudos as well to the assembled chorus, who offered the kind of precision that allows one to really take notice of the choral writing.
Next up, Saturday night's WNO opener...