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13 April, 2013

Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Don Carlo by Verdi at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Conductor - Lorin Maazel
Title - Ramon Vargas
King Philip II - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Eboli - Anna Smirnova
Elizabeth - Barbara Frittoli
Roderigo, Marquis of Posa - Dmitry Hvorostovsky

This opera has always been one of my favourites yet until this outing I really had little idea what went on between all those beautiful and haunting arias, duets, choruses, etc.  I even once thought that the ‘Don’ of ‘Don Fatale’ was one of the menfolk (don is actually the Italian word for ‘gift’, Eboli’s beauty - and her curse).  Like all his later operas, every nuance of the story is used dramatically and vocally by the Verdi genius.  This is his longest and most complex opera if not his most ‘extravagant’ (which is probably Aida).  I attended the last two performances of the run, considering my own limited attention span, worsened by jet-lag the first time.  Even without ballet, the 5 acts finished near midnight. 

The opera raises Q&A about the Holy Roman Empire, an English connection, German, French, Italian and Spanish speakers and their rulers.  We also learn about the relation between church and state circa 1560.  An auto-da-fe scene is the centre of the work, all in a day’s activities in the Spanish Inquisition it would seem. 

So how was the singing?  Before all else opera is about big, beautiful voices in wonderful musical drama … and we had a dose-and-a-half of that in this production at the Met.  Most thrilling and novel for me was the mezzo-soprano Ms Smirnova who has a fine, penetrating velvet voice which fills the auditorium to the distant rafters.  Her act II ‘teaser’ aria and chorus was superb as was most of ‘O don fatale’.  She just seemed to run out of breath a second too soon on the final note, despite a magnificent rendition of this soul-searching and vocally taxing aria. 

Ramon Vargas sang creditably, possessing an even vocal facility into the high range needed for this long role.  This may have contributed to the downfall of Rolando Villazon and his lovely voice, pushed perhaps beyond its natural limits in this and other ‘Olympian’ vocal feats.  Strangely, Carlo has no more than one discrete aria early in the opera (Io lo vidi) … yet lots more concerted singing.  Some of Mr Vargas’ ‘r’ sounds were imperfect yet they did not affect the vocal line. 

While soprano Barbara Frittoli is also a fine singer, few of today’s singers have ‘everything’.  As Elizabetta she produces much elegant mid range vocalising, yet, despite having the facility to sing loud high notes, at times these seem to come out of nowhere and they do not always meld with the preceding vocal line, none of this made easier by Verdi’s taxing score.  There is also a beat in some of her open exposed notes. 

As the Spanish king Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang and acted superbly.  His nine minute aria which opens Act IV received a well deserved rapturous ovation from a packed Saturday night Manhattan opera audience.  ‘Ella giamai m’amo’ is the aria which episomises the work while Don Carlo’s early exclamation ‘Io lo perduto’ equally underscores the hopelessness of the entire plot which has to end badly as father has married the son’s betrothed. 

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang and acted deliciously.  He is one of today’s few super stars who can tick all of the boxes [I ignore his terrible recording of Neapolitan songs!].  Initially I thought he sounded slightly under-powered but by his last scene, finishing in the famous ‘double aria’ culminating in his death, the Russian rose to phenomenal artistic and vocal heights.  This may reflect advice from Maria Callas who said that the audience only ever remembers the last act.  His breath control is phenomenal and enables him to sing entire phrases seamlessly and with unhurried elegance. Even the famous ‘duet’ with Vargas, ‘Dio, che ad alma infondere’ is actually part of a complex chorus cloister scene.  And its melody and sentiment of brotherly love returns more than once in the drama. 

The supporting roles were superbly sung: Eric Halfvarson as Grand Inquisitor; ‘celestial voice’ of Jennifer Check (from the rafters); Flemish deputies; the friar and voice of Carlos V. 

As is traditional there was a major ovation for the conductor Lorin Maazel at the start of the third part.  However, there was also some noisy booing, ‘tisk-tisk’ and banter in opposition as some clearly did not like his tempi.  He certainly chose some atypical speeds from recordings and other performances I have heard.  But that is part of being one of the world’s best - trying new contrasts, etc.  At one point just before his death, Roderigo continued singing an optional long note and timing went awry - something which is usual blamed on the conductor.  Mr Maazel entered the pit from the left, unique in my Met experience where conductors normally enter from the ‘prompt’ (right) side. 

The production is a joint venture with London and Oslo, first seen in 2008.  Nicholas Hytner’s production has a consistent tension and is true to the libretto details, even to the burned down candles at dawn in the king’s chamber.  Some of the religious scenes in Don Carlo reminded me of the Papal voting process which was going on at that very time.  There were rectangular stage shadows in monochrome, snowy exteriors, back-lit trees, austere walls with small palace windows emitting various colours and a magnificent gilded cathedral fa├žade, and miniature font/confessional in the King’s chambers … these can all be seen and heard on Met broadcasts and telecasts.  A marvellous artistic endeavour in every respect. 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

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La Traviata at the Met. Domingo tenor, conductor and now baritone. Violetta next?

La Traviata - Tuesday 26th April 2013. Metropolitan Opera, New York City.

Violetta - Diana Damrau
Alfredo - Saimir Pirgu
Papa Germont - Placido Domingo
Conductor - Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Production - Willy Decker (the “clock” Traviata).

Dear Colleagues,

This was a highly memorable performance in every respect. The production is novel and quite the opposite of the traditional. The formal interiors of Acts 1 and 3 are replaced by a stark stage containing nothing but a full-width semi-circular rear bench at the right side of which sits an enormous clock face with real hands and a variable pace ticking the minutes down. For the initial duet a large rectangular two-seater sofa appears, at one stage held aloft by muscular chorus members who are all wearing tuxedoes, even the women.

Five or six such sofas are used in Act 2, despite one being sufficient for two lovers. The use of floral fabric with matching projections on the ceiling … with the bright colours fading to black-and-white … brilliant concept and execution as Violetta’s hopes for happiness fade.

The scene at Flora’s house is also bare-bones with the clock recycled as a gaming table, and quite effectively, as Alfredo throws money at a humiliated Violetta and an admonishing Papa Germont sings from the mezzanine above, a deep, parabolic back-drop above the ubiquitous bench. The chorus reversed out in a unique slow-motion manoeuvre allowing act 3 to commence without a break. They returned briefly for the carnival bars which are normally heard from the street outside (again turning the usual production on its head while still being largely consistent with the libretto).

After the (single) break following the first act I found myself sitting with Placido Domingo junior, in the front stalls to support his father. “Aren’t you Maestro’s son, Mr Domingo?” He confessed and bubbled about his father’s continued international success, as one would. He had only nice things to say about Australia. This is just a New York story, something which if it happened anywhere else would be fantasy but here it can and does happen all the time because of the ‘gravity’ of the place. [I also found that Harry Belafonte was at the next table at a midtown restaurant the following week!]

Ms Damrau was better matched both vocally and dramatically than Natalie Dessay last year. It is neither fair nor is it necessary to compare Domingo with Dmitry Hvorostovsky, the consummate baritone of the age. Both are magnificent in their own individual ways. When Dmitry has done a few tenor roles we might be able to make a fair comparison.

The young Albanian tenor Samir Pirgu looked and sounded excellent, despite omitting the optional high C in Act 2 and cracking briefly in the final scene (Parigi, o cara). He is the best looking tenor I have seen in a long time, so many others being gawky tall or short and fat, one of the truths of opera. But he was not chosen for his looks alone, possessing a pleasing, smooth and accurate line but with just a hint of singing above the note at times.

Another ‘truth’ of opera is that people sound different on the radio and on recordings. In the Saturday broadcast later that week Mr Pirgu sounded less smooth, almost to vocal roughness with an odd timbre to the voice. Nerves play some part perhaps yet as a season progresses the ‘chemistry’ between singers usually improves. Whatever, the adrenalin was flowing and in this performance he chose to hit the high note ending ‘O mio rimoso’ cabaletta. It was not all that long, but quite respectable and had the crowds responding enthusiastically. I do hope he does not burn himself out like Mr Villazon did (I note that he is slated for yet another return in a few months and one can only wish him well). In the radio broadcast there were no swallowed or gargled notes from the tenor in the sections I heard (although there was an audible cough before his high C).

For the Saturday broadcast performance Mr Gelb came to the stage at the start of Act 2 to announce that Mr Domingo was suffering from ‘allergies’ but would continue to sing ‘for the public’. He sounded to be in reasonable voice yet early in Act 2 he appeared to be clipping some notes yet nothing serious went awry. From his big aria Di Provenza he settled into his role more comfortably. I am pleased I was not sitting next to Sig Domingo junior for THAT performance.

The conductor Mr Yannick Nezet-Seguin continues a long tradition of Canadians at the Met. Two of their general managers and some of the most important singers of each generation have come from north of the border. And the new Ring’s genius is Robert LePage, also Canadian.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

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Late news: Despite seeing the first Met Ring opera yesterday (Rheingold) I still have the strains of Caesar going around my brain. Is there a cure for all those repeats? A friend wrote to say the cure was to sing the national anthem and that it always works for him!

12 April, 2013

"Veni, vidi, vici". Dramatic Julius Caesar at the Met.

Handel - Julius Caesar. Metropolitan Opera Gala Thurs 4th April 7.30pm - 12.15am

Dear Colleagues,

This opera production by David McVicar is a right romp from the Old Country. I sat next to two Englishmen who said it was essentially the same at its Glyndebourne progenitor. It seemed to arise from a fantasy realm using a recipe of ‘when in doubt, add more’ … and they did. There were acrobatics, aeronautics, on-stage musicians, historic ships, maps and even zeppelins aloft. Conductor Harry Bicket entered the pit from the left - is this becoming a habit started by Lorin Maazel? He certainly knew what he was doing with Handel’s melodies and most important, his pregnant pauses therein.

Set as a stage within a stage in fact there were four discrete proscenium arches, each with its own side-pull curtain, the front and main one being pale cream then emerald, papal purple and ochre. Behind were four huge silvery-grey horizontal rollers which mimicked the ocean and which ground on for the entire performance apart from a couple of palace scenes when other flats obscured their rolling motion.

It must be said that Giulio Cesare in Egitto, to give it its full title, is operatic archaeology - reflecting both the stage of the art form and the long hours idle rich Londoners had in 1724. Apart from two choruses and two or three duets the rest of the near 5 hour work is a long string of discrete ‘da capo’ arias. Yet the four or five immortal melodies and much other beautiful music has kept this opera alive despite the many other styles which have developed meantime.

The evening went without a hitch despite the myriad of things which can and do go wrong in opera - Das Rheingold opening two days later had an entire scene scotched by a seized 50 ton ‘machine’.

The brass section of the orchestra appeared to tire toward the end of the long evening, yet the energy on stage continued to the end with a magnificent ‘Piangero’ from Natalie Dessay. She took an unusual but glorious “V’adoro … (pause), pupillae” in act 2 as she emerged from a body bag or ‘wrap’). She was better cast in this role than as Violetta last year.

All the deceased members of the cast, Pompey excepted, were restored to life to sing the big final chorus with champagne served by the Bollywood dancers and their assistants.

David Daniels is still one of the few counter-tenors whose voice I can warm to … and we had two others in this casting. The on-stage violin duel with Caesar is a classic and David Chan as concertmaster is a showman as well as a musician. Amongst a fine cast for my taste the stars were Alison Coote as Sesto and Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Sesto’s mother (and the wife of Pompey whose severed head is shockingly presented to Caesar in the first minutes of the action). Coote and Bardon each had all it takes to do Handel justice - and they also had two of the charming duets.

Guido Loconsolo has a rich baritone voice and as Achillas did some very elegant singing with convincing drama. We also heard alto Rachid Ben Abdeslam sing and dance a hilarious “Chi perde un momento” (‘Don’t waste a moment’). He must be one of a very few serious singers from North Africa (Morocco). Christophe Dumaux made himself a very unlovable and effete Ptolemy XIII who was initially belittled by his sister, Cleopatra VII, then to go from gaff to gaff in his unprepossessing descent to disaster.

Somehow I come down on the side of traditional voices, especially mezzo-sopranos and baritones as being the backbone of any opera. We will never know what a castrato really sounded like (despite some imperfect recordings of the last Vatican victim) thus we cannot glean the true voice balance that Handel expected. We can be sure that some of these emasculated men had phenomenal voices, for power and beauty, as many adjectives were used by contemporary critics. Likewise, the actual sound of Nellie Melba and others of her era may never be known for sure, especially when most of the imperfect ‘golden age’ recordings were made after their prime. It is a shame that Joan Sutherland did not make some 78rpm recordings using historical equipment for that reason. Or has this been tried?

The gala Met audience for the Handel was appreciative although a small number did not last the distance. And it was not quite a full house. I had seen the dress rehearsal two days before thanks to a generous Met donor … yet at no point on opening night did I consider it a chore, nor did I nod off.

This action-packed production has so many elements of fantasy, gore, sex, homo-erotica and simple beauty that it would be worth a visit if you were deaf. There were images of cowboys, gangsters, rifle shooters, archers and even machine-gunning. Ships were from ancient felucca to modern naval, ocean liners and even a series resembling the Mayflower era. An enlarged period map of Alexandria was used as one of the backdrops, enumerating depths in fathoms, reefs, rocks, shallows, famous lighthouse, library and catacombs. The cinema HD broadcast should be a sell-out.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

More elsewhere on the Met Traviata, Otello, Don Carlo, Faust and Das Rheingold in due course. On my return to Sydney Carmen on the Harbour was a splendid spectacle on a perfect but cool autumn evening on Thursday 11th April. With two prominent casts and other nights with less than ideal weather, it is not possible to pass judgment on this risky venture by a troubled national ‘opera’ company. I was sorry to miss Milijana Nikolic and Adam Diegel, but happy to hear Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham in the title role. Yet amplified opera ain’t opera in my book – but it is a marvellous side-show, when it works.

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