Sunday, November 27, 2022

Don Carlos in Chicago

Despite some solid casting Lyric's first take on the 5-Act French language Don Carlos (seen in its last iteration on November 25th) was not so much a revelation as a reminder about what a slog this show can be. I think a lot of the blame has to go to Lyric MD Enrique Mazzola on the podium, who conducted a performance that seemed to be trying to convey how important and momentous a show this is but just ended up sacrificing any sense of momentum or excitement in the music. For all it's epic sweep Don Carlos still operates by the same musical logic as other Verdi potboilers and it needs to be played with an eye towards building tension and milking the drama like usual. There were a few glimmers of life in random places like the Posa-Philip scene and stretches of Act IV but the norm was plodding and uninspired. Endless pauses in transitional moments added to the sense of stasis. The length of the piece and relative lack of showpieces means you really have to sell the musical tension in every scene, but this reading felt  content to coast on the obvious greatness of the music. 

Perhaps even more than the Met's outing of the French language version last year, the text sounded very mushy and more like a factor that inhibited the singers than one that enlivened the drama. I remain convinced that the French can be great given some of the recordings I've heard, but we are clearly at an early stage where any routine collection of principals is not really prepared to sell the French text, and one sorely misses the expressiveness they might have been able to deliver in more familiar Italian (maybe?).

Some takes on the principles:

  • Joshua Guerrero has the right natural sound for Don Carlos to be sure and he was mostly a pleasure to listen to, though at times there is a tightness in the top half of the voice that verges on uncomfortable. Character-wise this seemed like an attempt at playing up the moody, neurotic version of Don Carlos and ending up with something that just felt inert. The tempi from the pit certainly didn't help, with big moments like the opening Fontainebleu aria and the Act 2 scene with Elisabetta DOA.
  • The beauty of Rachel Willis Sorensen's voice is undeniable, though in most of the early part of the evening she was dogged by twin handicaps of noticeable caution and thinning of the sound in Elisabetta's big soaring moments and a volume level one notch softer than what most of her counterparts were putting out. That said, she seemed to address some of these issues by the final Act and "Tu che le vanità" (sorry too lazy to look up the French names) was legitimately engrossing.
  • Clementine Margaine's vocal presence and dramatic commitment as Eboli popped hard against the lukewarm temperature onstage and in the pit--at times you could almost feel her trying in vain to push the whole opera into a higher gear. This was surely the most confident and stylish vocal portrayal of the evening, with all the pungent turns, dynamic creativity, and generally irresistible energy I remember from her DC Carmen a few years back. That said, the Veil Song had lovely moments but also included some strong choices that seemed like maybe an attempt to sell the piece on something other than its own merits. While her "O Don Fatale" was absolutely a highlight due to Margaine's exciting vocalism, the great climax wasn't as fully locked in as one might have hoped, no doubt due in part to a lack of inspiration and responsiveness from the pit.
  • Dmitri Belosselskiy's Philip had the welcome heft to fill the hall and the right gravitas for the part. The big Act IV scene was one of the first really moving stretches in this production, even if the aria didn't quite come together as an integrated whole, I think in part due to a limited sense of that Verdian line, but perfunctory pit business was certainly an issue here too.
  • I liked Igor Golovatenko's Posa quite a bit, with a warm musical sound and nice sense of legato. "Per me giunto è il dì supremo" was a bit pedestrian.
  • Solomon Howard, very familiar to DC audiences, was a very compelling Grand Inquisitor and a counterpoint to my recent complaints about casting very young singers in (very) old roles.
There has been a lot of ire directed at the physical production, which I suspect may be in part an expression of disappointment in the snoozy musical presentation. But it is definitely not good. Apparently before David McVicar foisted his off-putting Met Don Carlos on New York audiences' eyes he was testing out his theory that the audience should experience the visual analogue of the characters' pain and hopelessness in real time with this 2007 prod for Frankfurt. The set, entirely composed of white bricks, looks a bit like a neglected Eastern European sauna. Little platforms of bricks raise and lower at times but except for one platform representing Carlos V's tomb it is unclear why they are doing this. One might be ok with looking at this for 4 hours if it was used more creatively, but it was not. I'm not calling for 10 sets and realistic ramparts or whatever but the lack of creativity in some of these budget post-COVID stagings is worrying.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Il Trovatore at Washington National Opera

I'm afraid this Il Trovatore was a bit of a rocky start to Washington National Opera's 22/23 season, with the company assembling some good fundamentals but turning out an inconsistent show overall. 

Latonia Moore's Leonora was the big draw here, and for good reason--the voice is a gorgeous fit for Leonora, combining an unimpeachable top with a rich chest sound that easily filled the KC Opera House. But unfortunately the big numbers just never made it past the level of a beautiful voice singing beautiful songs. These should be vocal and dramatic events driven by whatever the diva in question has to share, but Moore seemed to be largely coloring within the lines of the perfunctory tempi coming out of the pit. Also, she had a tendency to slide between notes in the more coloratura passages--making a bit of a hash of the cabaletta to Tacea La Notte and generally marring that beautiful sound with a sense that she wasn't fully in command where the score gets a bit thorny. 

Dramatically she was fine if a bit generic through the first Act or so, but really found her footing in the final confrontations with di Luna and Manrico which showed off some exciting Verdian fire. Hopefully the warm up was an artifact of opening night and more of that late energy will find its way into the rest of the portrayal later in the run.

Manrico was Gwyn Hughes Jones, who has one of those curious tenor voices that easily fills the hall despite an inherently light timbre that seems like it couldn't possibly be associated with that degree of volume. It is a generally appealing sound with a nice ping in the top, though can occasionally veer into too much of an unpleasant nasal quality. Ultimately I think his voice is just miscast for Manrico, who needs more heroic heft in his sound to balance the heavyweight female voices he spends most of his time competing with. While "Ah, si ben mio" isn't quite in the same league as some of celebrated statement pieces for the other principals, as with Moore, this was again some very pretty singing without a lot of style or dramatic urgency.

Christopher Maltman is of course familiar from lots of Don Giovannis, though is apparently moving into more Verdi per his bio, appearing as Count di Luna here. It's a big, imposing sound that is excellent for di Luna's authoritative presence in the ensembles and confrontations, and Maltman has a great facility for bringing out the text. But...he just lacks that extra element of vocal suaveness that makes the Verdi baritone parts special. "Il balen del suo sorriso" does not need to serve Hvorostovsky-levels of decadence but it does need to be a little prettier and more irresistible than what Maltman turned in Saturday night. His di Luna was also a pretty one-note villain, which, watching it again I realize is really 90-95 percent of the role on paper, but that's why the great exponents of the role know that you need to milk those rare opportunities to show something different for all they are worth.

That leaves Raehann Bryce-Davis's Azucena, which really stood apart among the principals on opening night for bringing vocal excitement and a top-to-bottom level of consistent characterization and commitment. She delivers a vocally complete Azucena with a deliciously cutting chest voice and ample power on top, but also memorable stylistic choices in Azucena's go-for-broke madness moments, sassy moments, etc. Other quibbles with the evening aside, finding a singer really owning and running with a great new take on Azucena is extremely exciting, and I hope Bryce-Davis has many more of these lined up.

Elsewhere in the cast we got the ridiculous luxury casting of Ryan Speedo Green, who is really in town for Orest in Elektra next weekend, as Ferrando. It's sometimes hard not to zone out during the prologue but he had me very hooked.

To be clear, the musical issues were broader than the principals and it really seems like this Trovatore may have just been a bit under-baked for opening night. Coordination problems with the pit cropped up in a number of scenes, and the big Act 2 finale had such a plodding disjointed feel that it seemed like the only explanation was some element of caution to make sure things didn't go off the rails. 

Perhaps that will clear up as the run goes on, though it was hard to tell what conductor Michele Gamba would have in store under more comfortable conditions. The oom-pah orchestra material definitely had an energetic verve, but for most of the show one did not get a sense of his capacity to really build drama in the scenes at more than one speed. As noted, whether a function of the singers or the leadership or both, readings of the big arias came off as very straightforward. Chorus work apart from the coordination issues was strong.

And then there is the production. So, if folks remember, right before the shutdown, WNO's 2020 spring season had Don Giovanni running at the same time as Samson et Dalila, and they shared the same set by Erhard Rom, sort of a deconstructed office building/sterile modern space, using different projections and configurations for the two shows. It worked well enough in the Don Giovanni where the contrast with traditional costumes seemed to echo the production's focus on modern "me too" themes, but now it appears WNO has revived that set again for this Trovatore (again with period costumes) and I am trying to figure out whether there is even an attempt at any artistic justification here or if they just own the set and times are tough. 

They've re-dressed it here and there with medieval Spain stuff and have added some new projections (including some effective animations for the exposition sections), but that just seems to emphasize that the modern set is not really supposed to have meaning within the production? Certainly wasn't picking up on much directorial intent beyond putting a serviceable Trovatore into the available physical space. There are also these huge gray walls that look like the side of the office building which they fly in for some of the scenes done upstage which are...very not good to look at. 

I now have a sinking feeling this set is also going to be used for the Elektra that opens next week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Michael Spyres in Recital

Michael Spyres took a night off from his celebrated run in the Met's Idomeneo revival to open the Vocal Arts DC season in a compact program of song cycles from Berlioz, Beethoven, and Liszt.

Spyres' rendition of Berlioz' Les Nuits d'Ete was a fine showcase for his distinctive "baritenor" and the range of colors he is capable of producing with it. After the half, An die Ferne Geliebte was elegant if a bit forgettable (tough being the classical transition piece between two romantic-era powerhouses). For such a distinctive sound, Spyres is something of a chameleon, employing a whole different approach and set of seemingly period-appropriate(?) effects for each cycle. 

After the tasteful Berlioz and Beethoven, Spyres offered Liszt's spectacular Tre Sonetti del Petrarca for the final cycle. Vocal recitals by opera singers tend to withhold something a bit more explicitly operatic for the big finish, but rarely has the reveal been as dramatic as it was here, with Spyres unleashing 20 minutes of big, overwhelming sound only hinted at in the earlier part of the program.

For his single encore, Spyres gave "Fuor del Mar," the number from Idomeneo that has been getting him so much attention on the New York stage the past two weeks. Without the pressure of filling the Met, this was a bit more unified and less gutsy than the version I heard Spyres do in the house, though still thoroughly exciting. Hopefully this doesn't HD-style cannibalize any DC audience members that were thinking about a trip for one of the final shows...

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Medea at the Met

The Met’s opening night production of Cherubini's "Medea" played to the house's strengths: putting great singers in comfortable surroundings and letting them do their thing. Medea is ripe for more thoughtful interrogation than this McVicar joint could provide, but this was undoubtedly the right vehicle for the company's star-driven opening night and it came off splendidly. 

The superstar at the center, Sondra Radvanovsky, delivered all the big-time Medea one could ask for, serving utter command of the stage but also depth of characterization and attention to detail. Radvanovsky does not deliver CD-perfect sound on stage but the vocal excitement and awe she can create is far more important, and any idiosyncrasies were easily folded into the character. Besides the vocal demands, this is a treacherous acting assignment for a singer. Maintaining a feverish emotional pitch through I dunno, 10 - 20 oaths of revenge, may be the easy part—Medea must also sell whiplash turns of emotion and maintain audience interest through long monologues that rest entirely on the lead. Radvanovsky made all of this highly engaging.

This is also a production that does not provide a lot of distractions from its lead. The last/first time I saw Medea onstage was in Simon Stone's utter waste of a production at the Salzburg festival pre-pandemic. Stone's fussy, hyper-realistic take (sorry now I'm going to complain about this old production) constructed elaborate modern-dress scenarios which buried the leads under so much cinematic detail that most scenes were already done by the time you had figured out how the text fit to the scenario you were observing.

McVicar, working with a straightforward unit set showing the walls of Crete which open to reveal the inside of the palace, mostly just lets the leads play the scenes in front of a static set, which I was very grateful for, at least this time around. A few bits were pushed too far—Medea slithering around on the floor when she initially crashes the wedding didn’t need to go on for so long, some of the upstage tableaux, like Glauce’s gory demise, overstayed their welcome, and Medea’s interpretive movement under the Act III prelude was too on the nose. Least forgivable was the choice to have Medea curl up with the corpses of her children at the end, even though the libretto clearly states she has gone down to the river. Blocking that so clearly contradicts the text needs a good rationale but it was hard to find a justification besides injecting a bit of sympathy for this…checks notes…*vengeful child murderer* in the last seconds of the show. But mostly this was a non-interventional production that just worked.

Elsewhere in the cast: it feels odd to say Polenzani didn't "stand out" but that is the fate of basically everyone who is not Medea in this show. He was absolutely Radvonovsky's equal in their ensemble work, especially the big duet that ends Act I. The show makes you wait perhaps a bit too long before Medea shows up and by 30 minutes in you could feel the audience's attention starting to wander a bit. I assume that was Cherubini's plan all along, because if the Medea-Jason duet comes off the way Radvonovsky-Polenzani delivered it the audience collectively kicks itself for being doubters just moments later. Polenzani shines in this heavier rep by maintaining much of the delicious pingy sound familiar from his Mozart days, though here he sounded a tad shouty and careless at times. Despite having his cake and eating it too at the outset of the plot, Polenzani’s Jason was almost as bedraggled and sulky as Medea, never letting the audience forget that he has been compromised and brutalized by tragedy as well. 

Michele Pertusi was an imposing Creon, perfectly sitting in that intersection of gravitas and vocal luxury that one expects in supporting authority figures at the Met. I complained last week about how the dad in Rossini's Otello was cast with a perfectly pleasant young artist which cost the dynamic between Desdemona and her father some credibility. Pertusi's imposing father neatly validated that observation a few days later. I know there are economics at work here for smaller companies and getting young artists exposure in these roles is important, but companies should think about the impact as well.

Janai Brugger was a luminous Glauce reaching just a bit at the top of her otherwise very satisfying Act I showpiece. Ekaterina Grubovna’s Neris was gorgeously sung, but I grew a bit distracted in her major Act II aria.