Opera Journal-1 by ashrafp

VIEWS: 100 PAGES: 71

									Monteverdi
L’Orfeo (1607)
Barcelona Opera 2002: Savall, Zanasi, Figueras

      I started watching this for historical interest, but found the music
       moving and haunting even though the acting was inert.
      I believe it‟s considered the first opera.

Mozart
Idomeneo (1780-1) Two productions
The Met 1982: Levine, Pavarotti, von Stade
Glyndebourne 1983: Haitink, Langridge, Kenny, Hadley

      There is much to appreciate in Idomeneo, but it‟s the only Mozart
       opera I don‟t love from beginning to end. It‟s not because it‟s opera
       seria – I love La Clemenza di Tito (Philip Langridge plays the title role
       in both productions!). But Idomeneo is so long and the great numbers
       are so far (and so many secco recitatives) apart.
      To be treasured though: The requiem-sounding Neptune chorus (Act I,
       Scene II); Ilia‟s Se il padre perdei with Mozart‟s always exquisite
       woodwind accompaniment (Act II, Scene I); the trio, Pria di partir, o
       Dio!, just before the storm that ends Act II; the spectacular quartet of
       Act III Scene I, Andro ramingo e solo (this is the Mozart I‟ve been
       waiting for!); Electtra‟s accompanied recit and aria, D’Orestes, d’Aiace,
       from Act III Scene 3 (surely the forerunner to Donna Elvira‟s Mi tradi,
       so much so that it seems out of place in this opera seria). Anna
       Netrebko performs this on Great Performances at :53, calling it
       Electtra‟s mad scene, reflecting how desperate she is. (On the same
       program at :46 Ekaterina Siurina performs Ilia‟s Se il padre perdei just
       beautifully.)

Abduction from the Seraglio (1781-2) Six productions
Bavarian State Opera, Munich 1980: Bohm, Gruberová, Araiza, Grist
Covent Garden 1987: Solti, Van Der Walt, Nielson, Moll
Salzburg 1989: Van der Walt, Nielson, Watson, Rydl
Salzburg 1997: Schafer, Groves
Teatro Della Pergola, Florence 2002: Mehta, Mei, Trost, Ciofi, Rydl
Movie: Mozart in Turkey 2003: Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Kodalli, Groves

      I can‟t resist Seraglio. I reach for it when I‟m blue and a few bars into
       the overture, I‟m smiling. A young Mozart, full of fresh ideas; it
       reminds me of the exuberant Schubert of the Trout Quintet.
      Mozart gives the tenor so many beautiful love songs, starting with
       Belmonte bursting into a song of longing for Konstanze as soon as the
       overture ends. Then, in Konstanze, Konstanze, you can hear his heart
       throbbing in the falling thirds. (Mozart wrote to his father about this
    aria: “You see the trembling, the faltering.”) Rainer Trost is one of my
    favorite Mozart tenor. He makes sweet music, here, and (10 years
    earlier) as Ferrando in my favorite Cosi and he‟s so earnest as an
    actor. I wish I could see his Don Ottavio and Tamino, roles his web bio
    says he‟s played. The tenor who really excels in all the productions of
    Seraglio I‟ve seen is Deon van der Walt (Covent Garden, 1987 and
    Salzburg, 1989). His voice is so strong, yet vulnerable. He played
    Tamino in the Ludwigsburg Magic Flute production that was so
    strange.
   The Mehta production (featuring Trost) excels in every way; even the
    sets are a wonder. Kudos to Patrizia Ciofi for performing the nutty
    Blonde here and the tragic Lucie de Lammermoor in the same year.
   Amazon review of 1997 Salzburg production: I can‟t resist Abduction
    from the Seraglio. I reach for it when I‟m blue and a few bars into the
    overture, I‟m smiling. I hear a young Mozart, full of fresh ideas. It was
    composed as a comic Singspiel. The characters sing and then they spiel
    (talk), sing and then spiel. Audiences of Mozart‟s day loved it. They
    socialized with each other during the “spiel” and stopped to listen
    when the singing started. A great night out of fun. So, when I put on
    this production, I was surprised to see barbed wire, bullhorns, pepper
    spray, demonstrators. Add to that a Pasha who feels like he's lecturing
    me every time he speaks, and the fun was gone. It‟s true that Seraglio
    contains some serious music (e.g. Konstanze‟s magnificent arias), but it
    didn‟t work for me to turn the opera into a contemporary commentary
    on oppression. Too much of its exuberant joy was lost – that young
    Mozart bursting with musical ideas. The three stars are to
    acknowledge the great performances by Christine Schafer as
    Konstanze and Paul Groves as Belmonte. Schafer has a strong,
    expressive voice (I also recommend her performance as Gilda in the
    Rigoletto DVD from Covent Garden, 2001). Groves is a sweet-voiced
    Mozart tenor (he‟s equally wonderful as Don Ottavio in the Don
    Giovanni DVD from The Met, 2000). I can understand that some will
    find this contemporary approach inspiring. It just didn‟t work for me. I
    recommend the DVD from the Teatro Della Pergola, 2002, Zubin
    Mehta conducting.
   Re: 1980 production. Here is Karl Bohn conducting at age 86, a year
    before his death and looking like he‟s having a great time. This
    production belongs to Edita Gruberová. She has such an exquisite
    voice and such exquisite phrasing. Always. She‟s the perfect Mozart
    soprano. Her Marten aller Arten brings down the house. I watched it
    over and over. Seven years later, as Don Ottavio, Francisco Araiza also
    plays opposite Gruberová (La Scala 1987 Don Giovanni). Lovely tenor
    voice. Reri Grist, who plays Blonde, was Oscar, the trouser role in
    Ballo from Covent Garden in 1975. She has a lovely light coloratura



                                    2
       voice. The four lovers‟ voices blend magnificently in the long quartet
       that ends Act I and in the Act II finale. The latter is touchingly staged;
       Konstanze‟s conflicting feelings about the two men is clear. (My only
       criticism of the splendid 1987 Covent Garden production and my
       favorite Teatro Della Pergoda production of 2002 is that they fail to
       show how Konstanze is torn between the two men at the end of the
       opera. Gruberová gets it right. So does the movie: Mozart in Turkey.)
      Young kids (and certainly teenagers) would enjoy this opera. Some of
       Konstanze‟s arias are long, but the “escape” plot is fun, and Blonde and
       Osmin‟s relationship and Osmin and Pedrillo‟s drinking song provide a
       lot of laughs. And what better lesson for a young person to learn than
       not to rush to judgment about people; it‟s the “foreigner” who turns out
       to be the hero of the drama, showing compassion and forgiveness at the
       end. The Pashim‟s wisdom is acknowledged by the four Westerners
       who, in the final chorus, sing “Nothing is so hateful as revenge. To be
       humane and kind, and to forgive without self-interest, is the mark of a
       great soul.”
      After listening to 19th Century Italian opera, I‟ve come to appreciate
       Mozart‟s intimate use of the orchestra in all his operas, whether it be
       one instrument accompanying a voice (here, the woodwind in
       Belmonte‟s Ich baue ganz) or a complete little chamber piece (!)
       preceding a song (as in Konstanze‟s Martern aller Arten).

The Marriage of Figaro (1785-6) Eight productions
Glyndebourne 1973: Skram, Cotrubas, Te Kanawa, von Stade
Drottningholm Court Theatere 1987: Ostman, Samuelson, Resick, Lindenstrand, Biel
Theatre du Chatelet 1993: Gardiner, Terfel, Hagley, Gilfry
Glyndebourne 1994: Haitink, Finley, Hagley, Fleming Schmidt [The first opera I watched]
Lyon Opera 1994: Szymtka, Furlanetto [not Ferrucio though], Tezier
The Met 1998: Levine, Terfel, Bartoli, Fleming, Croft
Sellars‟ movie 2000 (set in a Trump Tower penthouse): Sylvan
Teatro Argentina Rome, 2002: Made for Italian TV by Enrico Castiglione

      A guy‟s about to marry his own mother. Could an opera be funnier?
       Add to that, sparking music (duets become trios then quartets,
       quintets and so on) and the theme of forgiveness, and it‟s just about
       perfect. (Months of Verdi watching later, here‟s the Verdian version of
       those first two sentences: “A guy‟s about to marry his own mother.
       Could an opera be more tragic?”)
      Oddly, Cherubino‟s two famous arias are my least favorite part of the
       opera although it‟s an inspiring piece of plotting to have several
       players determined to get the “pants role” character into a dress.
      It‟s Susanna‟s show even though she‟s short on arias (as modernly
       staged). But her ensemble pieces are rich, including two hilarious
       duets (trading insults with Marcellina, getting her si’s and no’s
       backwards with the Count). Hagley, Szmytka, Cotrubas, Bartoli each


                                            3
    bring something wonderfully unique to the role. Hagley and Szmytka
    have great comedic timing. Cotrubas‟ Deh vieni is something to behold
    –exquisite. Bartoli sings Susanna‟s two alternate arias – a treat.
   My favorite production is John Eliot Gardiner‟s from 1993. Great
    singing, milks all the humor from the script. Even though, aside from
    Alison Hagley (my favorite Susanna) and Rodney Gilfry (I like his
    interpretation of the Count as more than a one-dimensional bully), the
    other players aren‟t my first choices in a Figaro production, this cast
    works together great as an ensemble, both in singing and in dramatic
    presentation. Great comic direction. Two runner-ups: Glyndebourne,
    also with Hagley (and Gerald Finley as a fine Figaro and the luscious
    voice of Renee Fleming before it became affected); and the Lyon Opera
    with Elzbieta Szmytka (from La Clemenza) as Susanna and Ludovic
    Tezier (from Lucie de Lammermoor) as The Count. The Lyon Opera
    presents the opera as a bedroom farce and it works. I particularly like
    Giovanni Furlanetto as Figaro. He makes him an equal player to
    Susanna in the drama by the way, in his Act I final aria, he
    sympathizes with Cherubino and by the way he stands up to the
    Count. Both productions are from 1994.
   Drottningholm Court: I love the low key approach of this and their
    Magic Flute production. They use 18th Century period instruments and
    dress the players and orchestra as if we are circa Mozart‟s time. It feels
    like you‟re seeing the production as it would have appeared then.
    Unlike Flute though, this production never really catches fire and the
    orchestra provides little support – sounds out of tune at times and is
    out of synch with the players at others. Odd for such a good opera
    company. All the performers are competent, but Ann Christine Biel
    really shines. She‟s the only player in all their productions I‟ve seen
    (Fiordiligi in 1984‟s Cosi and Pamina in 1989‟s Flute). Next to
    Frederica von State, Biel is the best Cherubino I‟ve seen. Her sweet
    soprano sounds just like a teenager and she‟s wonderfully awkward
    physically. Sylvia Lindenstrand sings the Countess‟ two arias with
    great pathos.
   The 1973 Glyndebourne production is terrible in video and sound
    quality, but features three singers early in what became great careers:
    Te Kanawa, Cotrubas, and von Stade. What a treat.
   I think Figaro is an ideal first opera for children. They‟ll enjoy the high
    jinx and slapstick: jumping out of windows; hiding in closets; a boy
    played by a girl) dressing as a girl; mistaken identities throughout. An
    adult watching with a child can explain away the parts of the plot that
    are hard to follow, mainly the business of the secret notes, some of
    which never go anywhere in the plot and are thus confusing even to
    adults (what does happen to that one Figaro proposes when he comes
    into the Countess‟s bedroom in Act II?).



                                     4
Don Giovanni (1787) Nine productions
Salzburg 1954: Furtwangler, Siepi, Grummer, Della Casa,
Losey Movie 1979: Raimondi, Te Kanawa, Berganza
Salzburg 1987: Von Karajan, Ramey, Tomowa-Sintow, Battle, Furlanetto, Varady
La Scala 1987: Muti, Allen, Gruberová, Murray, Araiza, Desderi
Vienna Opera 1999: Muti, Alvarez, Pieczonka, Antonacci, Schade
Sellars‟ movie 2000 (set in Harlem): Perry, Patterson, Hunt
The Met 2000: Levine, Terfel, Fleming, Groves, Furlanetto, Hong
Zurich Opera 2001: Harnoncourt, Gilfry, Bartoli, Rey, Sacca, Widmer, Nikiteanu, Salminen
Salzburg 2006: Harding, Hampson, D”Arcangelo, Schafer, Lloyd, Diemer, Beczala

      From the first notes of the overture, the emotional intensity in Don
       Giovanni is high. The music grips me and doesn‟t let go until the
       curtain falls. It‟s like being under a demonic spell (a description I got
       from David Cairns: “The whole score has a demonic quality”). I‟ll never
       forget the shock I felt the first time I watched it: the opera is barely
       underway when the title character commits murder most foul.
      Every character can be interpreted in multiple ways, making the opera
       endlessly fascinating. I think the score brings out the best in a
       performer. Even the usually aloof Kiri Te Kanawa shows some fire as
       Donna Elvira.
      Except for the elusive Giovanni himself, Mozart gives each character
       his or her own musical style, resulting in great musical variety and
       deep character development. Peter Conrad wrote that Giovanni is an
       archetype, not entirely human and so each performer must display his
       own personality while inhabiting the role (wonder what Terfel thinks
       of that!).
      So much of the music seems exceptionally hard to sing. A few
       examples: Donna Anna‟s agitated accompanied recit “Don Ottavia, son
       morta” followed by her aria; Ottavio‟s “Il mio tesoro” (just how long is
       he supposed to hold that note?); and Donna Elvira‟s wildly emotional
       pieces.
      The more I see this opera, the more I'm coming to see Elvira as its
       “hero.” Some play her as a mad woman, providing comic relief for us
       and thus making her a buffa character. But that no longer seems
       accurate to me because it is Elvira who steps in and, with the wild and
       short aria, Ah, fuggi il traditor, stops Giovanni from seducing Zerlina.
       Then again it is Elvira who, in the great quartet with Giovanni, Donna
       Anna, and Don Ottavio, so rattles Giovanni that he gets too close to
       Donna Anna, allowing her to see that it's he who seduced her in the
       dark. Finally, in discussing how Mozart‟s music sometimes contradicts
       Da Ponte‟s libretto (the typical example being Cosi Fan Tutte), David
       Cairns points out that he doubts Da Ponte “imagined an Elvira
       redeemed from her folly by the beauty and sincerity of her music.”



                                            5
   From a magazine article re: Act I finale: “In a spectacular effort in the
    first-act finale, Mozart placed three dance orchestras for the ball on the
    stage, each one playing entirely different and even contradictory
    rhythms but in perfect harmony, the greatest pyrotechnical display of
    contrapuntal art ever put on the stage.”
   The Zurich Opera production is my favorite. I prefer Rodney Gilfry‟s
    “spoiled bad boy” Giovanni to Bryn Terfel‟s Giovanni as psychopath in
    The Met production. Wouldn‟t women just turn and run from the
    latter? (I would.) And Cecilia Bartoli in the Zurich production is
    explosive. It feels as if she‟s literally (physically and mentally) being
    torn apart by her simultaneous love and hate for Giovanni. Her singing
    is hair raising. I also like Roberto Sacca‟s interpretation of Don
    Ottavio. Instead of playing him as Donna Anna‟s ineffectual sidekick,
    Sacca presents a character struggling against his nonviolent nature in
    order to satisfy his love‟s desire for revenge. He‟s the “anti-Giovanni.”
    Isabel Rey plays Donna Anna straight, as David Cairns said Mozart
    intended. Her performance is touching; she plays Donna Anna as a
    young woman in shock, vulnerable and suffering deeply. Until I read
    Cairns‟ book, I was enamored with Renee Fleming‟s interpretation of
    Donna Anna as a less-than-innocent grieving daughter, but I‟ve
    decided Cairns is right. But two performers, two different
    interpretations is fine with me and Fleming‟s singing is spectacular.
   More on The Met 2000. Although Terfel‟s Giovanni-as-psychopath
    doesn‟t work for me (I think Giovanni can be played that way, but
    Terfel‟s performance is way over-the-top), the supporting cast is great
    and I love Levine‟s energetic conducting. Ferruccio Furlanetto‟s
    experience playing Leporello shows; he‟s superb. (He also plays
    Leporello in the 1987 Von Karajan production. See I Vespri Siliciani
    discussion of Furlanetto‟s remarkable opera run – I‟ve seen him from
    1981-2000.) Paul Groves is a beautiful-sounding Mozart tenor (as he is
    as Belmont in Seraglio). His Il mio tesoro is outstanding. I bet that
    Hei-Kyung Hong (Zerlina) will soon be a major star.
   Furtwangler: For variety, I enjoy the slow tempo set by Furtwangler in
    the 1954 production (one of the first filmed operas). It allows me to
    savor every nuance in Mozart‟s music. Cesare Siepi‟s Giovanni is
    different sounding to us today because he‟s a bass (and a great one at
    that). He‟s wonderful in the role – a “bad boy” (like Gilfry) but with a
    lighter touch. Siepi plays Giovanni as a real charmer (making him a
    more sympathetic character when the inevitable end comes). A kind of
    Errol Flynn. He appears so relaxed in the role – no reaching for effect.
    (Months later I found a different take on Siepi from Bob Levine writing
    about a 1953 Furtwangler recording of Giovanni: As the Don, the
    stunning Cesare Siepi is just that--exquisitely oily, sure of himself,
    tonally accurate, smooth and silky, and vicious to the end.) And Bob



                                     6
    says this of Elisabeth Grümmer: Grümmer's Donna Anna is ravishing--
    sad, scared, mad--and she somehow manages "Non mi dir" at
    Furtwängler's introspective tempo (only Karajan, with Janowitz, takes
    it more slowly). Her soft singing is lovely.
   La Scala 1987: I knew I‟d love Gruberová and she doesn‟t disappoint,
    especially in Non mi dir. The surprise for me is the magnificent mezzo
    voice of Ann Murray as Elvira even though she has a “stand and
    deliver” style. I‟ve also seen her as Cenerentola (performed a year
    later). Claudio Desderi plays Don Alfonso in the first Cosi I saw (La
    Scala 1989). Here, as Leporello, his baritone voice and comic skills both
    shine. As in Seraglio, Francisco Araiza‟s gentle tenor voice is a great
    match for Mozart‟s music. He plays Don Ottavio as sad and bit
    bewildered by the events happening around him. Making exquisite use
    of pianissimo, his Dalla sua pace is the most moving rendition I‟ve
    heard (helped by Muti‟s stirring use of strings at the end). It‟s a
    touching portrayal of Ottavio and is among the best I‟ve seen. The Brit,
    Sir Thomas Allen is the only disappointment (surprising because many
    consider him to be a great Giovanni). I just can‟t get a handle on how
    he is portraying the character. He does have a splendidly rich baritone
    voice, but as an interpreter of Giovanni, he lacks flare (whether of the
    charming or of the psychopathic variety). Muti‟s conducting is
    energetic and expressive. All in all, one of the best Giovanni’s I‟ve seen
    even though Allen was a disappointment.
   Salzburg 1987: I like Von Karajan‟s spacious conducting of the music.
    Ferruccio Furlanetto looks like a young boy here – 13 years before
    playing Leporello at The Met. His freshness and comedic touch just
    about steal the show here. He‟s the most animated of all the
    performers. (See I Vespri Siliciani discussion of Furlanetto‟s
    remarkable opera run – I‟ve seen him from 1981-2000.) Samual Ramey
    is does a fine job as Giovanni, playing him as an “insinuator” (as
    opposed to a charmer). He moves around the stage like a panther
    about to strike – much scarier than Terfel‟s overdone approach. None
    of the other performers stand out to me, even Kathleen Battle as
    Zerlina. Masetto looks like her father and she acts and looks (oh, the
    jewelry!) too sophisticated to be a peasant girl. The cast is best in the
    ensemble pieces, perhaps due to Von Karajan‟s work.
   Vienna Opera, 1999. This is the production Bob L. recommended when
    I was having trouble appreciating DG. It worked. I didn‟t really see the
    point in having the characters in increasingly modern costumes as the
    production progressed, but it didn‟t matter because the performances
    were so go. Carlos Alvarez as a great voice; her moves on from this to a
    Verdi baritone, playing Rigoletto in 2006. He plays Giovanni as a self-
    centered guy who wants what he wants when he wants it and just
    doesn‟t care what others think. Michael Schade is a splendid Mozart



                                     7
       tenor. He delivers Ottavio‟s two arias beautifully. See him perform
       Dalla sua pace on Great Performances at :14. I particularly liked
       Ildebrando d'Arcangelo as Leporello. At times, with his bass voice, he
       was a menacing as the Don. Adrianne Pieczonka is beautiful
       Mozartian soprano. Her "Non mi dir" is wonderful.
      Salzburg: 2006. See three-star Amazon review.
      Teenagers will feel quite satisfied with how the plot ends in Giovanni;
       with justice running its course, it‟s a little morality play. They should
       also enjoy how Mozart matches a particular music style to each
       character (except Giovanni as discussed above). And excuse the cliché
       “you have to see it to believe it,” but it is true of Giovanni‟s death
       scene. Terror on stage.
      Revisiting Giovanni after months of watching later composers (mostly
       Verdi), I‟m struck by how clear, clean, and precise each piece is in
       Mozart‟s operas. I‟m also thinking that comparing Mozart to Verdi is
       like comparing apples to oranges except that (with the possible
       exception of Otello and Falstaff), Mozart excels between the two at
       using the music to draw his characters. In all of Mozart‟s operas,
       almost every character has a distinct musical style. Sometimes this is
       true of Verdi (Azucena in Trovatore), but it seems to be completely
       lacking in Puccini where the songs sound interchangeable to me from
       opera to opera.

Cosi Fan Tutte (1789) Ten productions
Drottningholm Court Theater 1984: Ostman, Biel, Hoglind, Tibell, Florimo
Ponnelle movie 1988: Harnoncourt, Gruberová, Ziegler, Furlanetto, Lima, Stratas
La Scala 1989: Muti, Dessi, Ziegler, Corbelli
Theatre du Chatelet 1992: Gardiner, Roocroft, Mannion, Gilfry, Trost
Teatro Argentina, Rome 2000: (Made for Italian TV) Scalchi, Damato, Novaro, Martinez
Zurich Opera 2000: Harnoncourt, Bartoli, Baltsa, Nikiteanu, Widmer
Sellars‟ movie 2000 (set in a modern day diner): Larsen
Berlin Opera 2002 (set in 1960‟s): Barenboim, Roschmann, Kammerloher, Muller-
Brachmann, Gura, Bruera
Aix-en-Province 2005: Harding, Wall, Garanca, Bonney, Degout, Mathey, Raimondi
Sacramento Opera 2006: Live at Community Center Theater

      There are lots of reasons to love Cosi – how contemporary it feels, the
       uncertainly the consequences of those wild 24 hours. But in the end it‟s
       the heavenly music that makes it one of my favorite operas.
      Amazon review of Gardiner production begins with: “There are several
       excellent productions of Cosi available on DVD. Because the opera can
       be interpreted in different ways (that‟s one of its joys), I don‟t think
       there‟s a „best production‟ out there. This one, though, is my personal
       favorite. It‟s conducted by John Eliot Gardiner who says of Cosi that no
       other Mozart opera has such an unmistakable sound, one he can only




                                           8
    describe as „feminine.‟ It‟s the opera I put on when I need to nourish
    the soul.” See Amazon for rest of review.
   I have so many runners-up, the first being the lightening-fast and
    spare Drottningholm production. It‟s strikingly different from
    Gardiner‟s production in style and even in substance. Re: substance,
    the Drottningholm players make it clear that the such a cruel trick will
    not lead to a happy ending for the two couples. Second, Muti‟s La Scala
    production is a feast for the eyes and features fine singing, including
    the best Despina I‟ve seen, Adelina Scarabelli. An added treat are
    Alessandro Corbelli as Guglielmo in his pre-Rossini/Donizetti “patter”
    days and Daniela Dessi as Fiordiligi in her pre-Verdi, pre-Puccini days.
    It‟s fascinating to hear a “Verdi” soprano in the making as she sings
    Come scoglio. I don‟t usually like modernized settings for opera (as one
    Opera-L person said, “I go to the opera to get away from cell phones, 9
    “stiletto heels, skin tight jeans, leather jackets, obsessive drinking, etc.
    – in other words, everything brash and crass that bombards my senses
    in contemporary life.” However, the Berlin Opera‟s flower child update
    to the 1960‟s is wonderful, partly because the producers made the
    quality of the singing a top priority. Throw in hippies romping around
    and the players climbing out of the orchestra pit as if it‟s a swimming
    pool, and this could be the good production to pick for young people.
   Re: Ponnelle film: This is a movie version of Cosi in which the
    performers lip synch to a pre-recorded sound track. I expected it to
    detract mightily from the quality of the production, but it doesn‟t for
    two reasons. First, the lip synching is just about flawless. I don‟t recall
    seeing lips moving without the words matching (although there‟s a
    slight change in the tone of the audio as the singing starts and the
    soundtrack switches to “pre-recorded” mode). Second, the director
    Jean-Pierre Ponnelle gathered a first-rate group of performers, led by
    the great Edita Gruberová as Fiordiligi. Gruberová‟s "Per pieta" is
    reason alone to see (and hear) this production. So, it‟s a trade-off. You
    lose the spontaneous and intimate feel of a live onstage performance,
    but you gain a sound track that is recording-studio quality.
   At the other end of the spectrum is the Zurich Opera‟s production. My
    Amazon review: There‟s a serious side to Cosi (after all the guys play a
    pretty nasty trick on their fiancés), but this production is too solemn
    and dark, detracting from Mozart‟s music, some of which is
    wonderfully comic and much of which is sweet and heavenly. The slow
    tempo adds to the somber mood. The players seem to be either angry or
    gloomy most of the time, even the comic character of the maid,
    Despina. And then in one of the few scenes that shouldn‟t be comic,
    Ferrando and Guglielmo inexplicably engage in silly stage business
    with their teacups and silverware while Ferrando sings one of Mozart‟s
    most beautiful and tender arias, Un’ aura Amorosa. The production is



                                     9
       saved by the powerful voice of Cecilia Bartoli‟s as Fiordiligi and I do
       appreciate the director‟s choice to present us with a (literally) chilling
       final chorus that highlights the characters‟ disillusionment.
      By contrast, Aix-in-Province is a dark Cosi that works (I think because,
       although it‟s serious, it‟s not cynical like the Zurich production). The
       director says this in the program notes: “Why shouldn‟t Cosi be
       something other than bubbly and light-hearted? And why shouldn‟t
       one take seriously everything that Mozart and Da Ponte wrote? For
       Cosi deals with complex issues, speaking to us of the all-pervasiveness
       of desire, showing us that one can have love for more than one person
       at a time and that there is infinite sorrow in discovering this, and some
       little sweetness in accepting it, and furthermore that Alfonso knew all
       this, and that he had a natural vocation to torture those unhappy souls
       who did not know it…” Read my Amazon review about how Dorabella
       steals the show! There are times when scenes just don‟t hold together
       though – the pace seems off. It could be because it‟s outdoors and the
       players can‟t hear the orchestra well, but as a result some ensemble
       pieces don‟t build in intensity the way they should and sound
       disjointed.
      Avoid the Teatro Argentina production (2000). None of the principals
       stand out and Don Alfonso‟s off-key, sour singing absolutely ruins the
       heavenly duo: The Addio Quintet and Soave sia il vente.
      On Great Performances at :40, Thomas Hampson sings Guglielmo‟s
       omitted “catalogue” aria that we heard in the Sacramento Opera
       production.
      Teenagers will think the plot of Cosi is hip, and that‟s a great backdoor
       opportunity for adults to introduce teens to some of the most heavenly
       music in all of opera. In addition, even though the future of the couples
       in Cosi is uncertain (a good life lesson in itself for teenagers), the opera
       teaches that our actions have consequences and that practical jokes
       can be cruel when people‟s feelings are involved (and can even turn
       against the perpetrators themselves). A good production to start with
       would be the Berlin Opera‟s “flower child” version, set in the 1960‟s.
       (See my notes on it above.)

La Clemenza di Tito (1791)
Glyndebourne 1991: Davis, Langridge, Montague, Putnam, Szmytka, Mahe

      From my Amazon review: My understanding is that Mozart began
       composing La Clemenza di Tito after he'd started The Magic Flute but
       finished Clemenza first, and that this is why there's disagreement over
       whether Clemenza or Flute is his last opera. No matter, we're just so
       fortunate that Mozart squeezed in this little opera seria gem before he
       died. Lean, with sublime vocal and instrumental music, and with
       forgiveness as its theme, Clemenza is very moving.


                                        10
   This production has a superb cast. Philip Langridge is touching as the
    troubled Tito, who naively wants to rule with love, not power. On Great
    Performances at :26 Michael Schrade performs Tito‟s aria that
    expresses this sentiment: Se all’impero, amici Dei. But at least in the
    end, Tito can use that power to grant forgiveness all around. Ashley
    Putnam has a strong stage presence as the cunning Vitellia. Her aria,
    Non piu di fiori, where she duets with the basset horn, is stunning.
    Diana Montague is excellent as Sesto. The beautiful clarinet
    accompaniment in Sesto's aria Parto, ma tu ben mio, is one of the
    highlights of the production. It‟s performed by Magdalena Kozena on
    Great Performances at :33, she saying she believes Mozart intended the
    clarinet as Sesto‟s conscience talking to him as he expresses how
    divided he is between his love for Tito and for Vitellia (who‟s asked him
    to kill Tito); During the piece Sesto must answer to the clarinet (his
    conscience).
   And then we have the love duet, Ah perdona al primo affetto,
    beautifully performed by Elzbieta Szmytka and Martine Mahe. It is
    sweet and tender and understated and, typically Mozart, is not even
    written for the lead characters. Ending with "Banish from life, all that
    is not love," is it the last love duet he wrote?




                                   11
Magic Flute (1790-1) Eight productions
Bergman Film 1975
Drottningholm Court Theater 1989: Ostman, Biel, Polgar
The Met 1991: Levine, Battle
Ludwigsburg Festspiele 1992: Sonntag, Van Der Walt
Stagione d‟Opera Italiana, Festival St. Margarethen 1999: Miklosa, Kurz, Beer, Holecek
Zurich Opera 2000: Welser-Most, Salminen, Neumann
Covent Garden 2003: McVicar/Davis, Roschmann, Keenlyside, Damrau
The Met 2007: Taymor/Levine, Polenzani, Huang, Pape, Miklosa, Gunn

      I had to go through a couple versions of Flute before it became “magic,”
       but when it happened, I fell fast. Mozart has given us several operas
       for the price of one – so many different styles of music are represented.
       Who would expect the music of the Queen of the Night, Papagano, and
       Sarastro to appear in the same opera?
      Quote from magazine: “With Magic Flute, Mozart went still further,
       combining popular Austrian style with music of religious gravity, a
       double fugue for an overture, a chorale prelude on a Lutheran hymn
       (in Catholic Vienna!) in the style of J.S,. Bach, a virtuoso display of
       coloratura passagework that is still dazzling, and music of the most
       exquisite and moving simplicity to celebrate the ideal of fidelity in
       marriage.”
      The ensemble pieces of the Three Ladies and the Three Boys contain
       the most exquisite harmonies I‟ve ever heard. Unsettling and
       sometimes even creepy, but still exquisite. Could anyone but Mozart
       pull off that combination?
      My favorite is the Zurich Opera production. It‟s understated, allowing
       the characters and the music to take center stage over the ceremonial
       stuff (not that I mind the latter, having gone through a “Rosicrucian
       period”). The Drottningholm production shares the qualities of the
       Zurich, but the singers aren‟t as strong and the Three Boys are played
       by women.
      I love the bass, Matti Salminen (in two Zurich productions, as Sarastro
       in Flute and as The Commendatore in Don Giovanni. And, many years
       younger, in Salzburg‟s 1986 Don Carlo).
      The minimalist Ludwigsburg production is just plain weird; the actor
       playing Papageno should have refused to wear that ridiculous Big Bird
       costume. The much touted Met production has too much pomp and
       circumstance for me. The production was so strange that Deon van der
       Walt, as Tamino, went unnoticed by me – until I saw him steal the
       show as Belmonte in Seraglio (Covent Garden: 1987)
      From my Amazon review of McVicar Magic Flute. It‟s a shame that
       this Magic Flute falls short because the individual performances are so
       good. Diana Damrau is the most expressive Queen of the Night I've
       seen. She doesn't just belt out her two impossibly difficult arias; she
       acts the part of the crazed queen. Dorothea Roschmann has a rich,


                                            12
    creamy soprano voice and dramatically gives us a Pamina who is both
    touching and brave. Simon Keenlyside has a wonderfully deep baritone
    voice and has an unusual but effective take on Papageno, playing him
    as a down-on-his-luck type. Yet, when the opera was over, I felt that
    the whole was less than the sum of its parts. The cast didn‟t work well
    together as an ensemble; it felt like a series of solo performances. As
    result, I wasn't caught up in the enchanting spell that this opera
    should cast. No doubt it's a big challenge to direct Flute. It's part
    comedy, part fairytale, part spiritual journey, part love story (two love
    stories, in fact). The challenge for a director is to make the plot work
    together as a cohesive whole. And to make matters more difficult,
    musically, Mozart has given us several operas for the price of one - so
    many different styles of music are represented. Who would expect the
    music of the Queen of the Night, Papagano, and Sarastro to appear in
    the same opera? A production that can surmount these plot and
    musical challenges has certainly created a bit of magic! Having
    admired McVicar's creative directing in the recent DVD's of Carmen
    and Rigoletto, I was looking forward to this Flute, especially with Colin
    Davis conducting. But Mozart‟s spirit was missing from this
    production.
   Bergman film: Sung in Swedish with English subtitles. It‟s a film of
    the opera onstage and backstage. The onstage action is filmed mostly
    with extreme close-ups, giving it a very intimate feel. Bergman‟s
    approach is a dreamy, ethereal one which allows the pure beauty of
    Mozart‟s music to predominate. The backstage antics are fun – like
    when Papagano is napping in his dressing room, only to hear the
    opening bars of his first aria and has to rush like mad to get onstage
    before his first note is due.
   A lot of people say kids love Flute, but I think they‟d get bogged down
    in all the Freemason-related recitative (I do). On a DVD though, adults
    can skip ahead and let the kids focus on all the fun stuff watch
    (Tamino taming the animals with his flute, Papagano‟s antics, etc.). A
    good DVD to try for kids would be the Opera Festival St. Margarethen
    in Austria. From my Amazon review: This production was filmed in a
    Roman quarry at the Opera Festival St. Margarethen in Austria. It is
    quite a sight to see the performers romp around in the ruins,
    sometimes scaling rocks that are several stories high. I gasped a couple
    of times. The production was made with children in mind and so is
    edited down to 90 minutes. It's not for purists, but the singing is
    spirited and it is staged with spectacular special effects, starting right
    out with a huge fire-breathing dragon. I loved it and think children
    would be enchanted. Two cautions though: There are no subtitles, and
    the DVD case says "Interviews, Making of, Synopsis in 6 languages,"
    but I could find none of these.



                                    13
Between Mozart and Verdi (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti et al)

Paisello
Nina (1789)
Zurich Opera 2002: Bartoli, Polgar

      A showpiece for Bartoli; I‟m sure she proposed it to the Zurich Opera.
       The heroine can be played as truly insane or as faking it to get back at
       her father. Bartoli chose the latter interpretation.
      Paisello must have influenced Rossini and Donizetti. Nina bares a
       similarity to their music, especially with its primitive “patter” (that is,
       primitive compared to Rossini and Donizetti). The exception is Nina
       and Lindoro‟s sweet duet, “What a blissful moment,” which reminds
       me of Mozart (and is thus my favorite piece in the opera!).

Beethoven
Fidelio (1805, revised 1806 and 1814)
The Met 2002: Levine, Mattila, Heppler, Pape

      I‟ve read psychological analysis positing that Beethoven was attracted
       to this subject matter because, given his unhappy childhood, he had a
       “rescue fantasy.” But I say this opera is another example in
       Beethoven‟s music of his taking us from darkness into the light. Only
       here, with a stage and actors to work with, he can do it literally – in
       Act I with the prisoners‟ chorus (when they move from their cells into
       the sun) and in Act II with the principals (when they emerge from the
       underground dungeon to the world outside). And despite his
       ambivalence about Napoleon, Beethoven would have been attracted to
       the themes of liberté, egalité, fraternité. “Love is stronger than
       tyranny” sings the chorus at the end.
      Except for the “thinks” quartet, the family stuff at the beginning seems
       weak to me. The opera gets good when the bad guy comes onstage.
      Act II: Enter the Beethoven I‟ve been waiting for. Powerful and
       riveting from beginning to end. Great matching of music with action in
       the confrontation quartet. And what a burst of joy (and relief) in the
       Leonore/Florestan duet.
      It never ceases to amaze me that this man, miserable in both body and
       mind, could write so much music that is filled with joy. The final
       chorus of Fidelio can lift my spirit for days.




                                           14
Rossini (1792-1868) Wrote 35 operas between ages of 18 and 37; then quit
L’Italiana in Algieri (1813) Two productions
The Met 1986: Levine, Horne, Montarsolo, Ahlstedt, Monk
Schwetzinger Festival, Suttgard 1987: Soffel, Gambill, Von Kannen, Focile, Serra

      I had high expectations (Stendhal called it “organized madness”), but
       When I watched the Schwetzinger Festival production, much of it felt
       dated to me. It was my least favorite of Rossini‟s comedies until I saw
       The Met production a year or so later. After praising L’Italiana, Denis
       Forman says: “But beware, it needs an alpha production, and if the fizz
       and sparkle are missing, it can go flat and you will wonder what the
       hell I am going on about.” That was it!
      Re: Schwetzinger Festival: Oh to see Cecilia Bartoli as Isabella (but
       she‟s moved on to other types of music) and Juan Diego Florez as
       Lindoro! None of the players stood out to me although Doris Stoffel‟s
       voice, which is almost a contralto, has a nice tone and edge. Gunther
       von Kannen couldn‟t handle the coloratura or patter requirements of
       Mustafa and Robert Gabill, the tenor playing Lindoro, was earnest but
       his voice was too light and generic sounding. One nice feature: the
       theater and the stage are so small that it must have been great to be in
       the audience. Like opera in one‟s living room.
      Re: The Met production. Superior in every way. Denis Forman was
       right. Directed by Ponnelle, so no surprise that the directing, sets, and
       costumes are top notch. But the performances outshine those in the
       Schwetzinger production – every single player is superior. Just one
       example: Douglas Ahlstedt‟s Lindoro just can‟t be compared with that
       of Gambill. The former has a tenor voice that just rings out in the high
       register. Oh, and Marilyn Horne – see below and see Amazon review.
      A great overture – a concert piece in itself. I love the use of winds, even
       the piccolo no less!
      Act I. Scene 1 opens with a lovely, sad chorus with the singers
       consoling Elvira and reminding her that women were born in this land
       to suffer. The ensemble finale to Mustafa‟s first piece is vintage Rossini
       – so fast! Lindoro‟s aria, Languir per una bella, sounds quite average to
       me even though it‟s famous. (I guess I need to hear Juan Diego do it.) I
       do like its French horn accompanifment though. I love the duet with
       Mustafa that follows about the qualities they seek in a woman. It has a
       lovely combination of lyric melodies and patter. Scene 2: Enter Isabella
       or I should say: enter Marilyn Horne. Such a great mezzo voice. And
       then when she reaches those high notes, accompanied by superb
       coloratura, it‟s just transcendent to hear. I love her crisp enunciation
       and confident singing. She has a wonderful duet with Taddeo: Ai
       caprici della sorte (“I can be indifferent to the caprices of fortune, but
       I‟m tired of complaining, jealous men.”). Great orchestral


                                            15
       accompaniment. Scene 3: Mustafa‟s aria of lust. Boring to me. Scene 4:
       The highlight of the opera. First, the cuckoo clock vocalizing of Isabella
       and Mustafa (Horne‟s precision here is truly amazing), then a quartet,
       then a trio, and then the best piece in the opera: the canon-like septet
       Confusi e stupidi which starts right after Isabella and Lindoro
       recognize each other. I can‟t stop humming it. It‟s followed by the
       famous wacky finale in which the characters, speechless at the
       absurdity of the plot, can only utter noises.
      Act II. Scene 1: In the Schwetzinger Festival production, Lindoro‟s
       aria, Oh come il cor, about finding his lost love is the highlight of the
       scene because of the dueting oboe. The Met production uses the
       alternative aria, Concedi, amor pietoso. Scene 2 . The Met production
       features a stunning cello obliggato preceding and during Isabella‟s
       aria, Per lui che adoro. The aria also has a more elaborate ending in
       The Met production, allowing Horne to use coloratura to great effect. I
       love the last couple of minutes of the scene (a quintet) featuring a high
       register swooning motif from Elvira and Isabella. Scene 3: Haly‟s short
       solo just takes up time and the famous Pappataci trio doesn‟t come
       alive for me either. Isabella‟s patriotic song is just what I hate: a
       patriotic song. She has some nice coloratura in it though. Scene 4: The
       finale isn‟t as good as the Act I finale. All in all, I prefer Act I to Act II
       except that Horne is fabulous whenever she‟s onstage (yes, even in that
       patriotic song).

Il Turco in Italia (1814)
Zurich Opera 2002: Welser-Most, Bartoli, Raimondi, Widmer, Rumetz, Schmid

      Amazon Review: Il Turco in Italia is much less well-known than
       Rossini's L‟Italiana in Algieri, but I like it better. It feels so
       contemporary, with a plot revolving around marital difficulties. The
       short three-part arias are an inventive break from the usual opera
       format, making Il Turco particularly accessible to newcomers to the art
       form. The entire cast is superb, led by Cecilia Bartoli whose coloratura
       is crystal clear and sparkling. And she has great comedic timing. This
       would be a wonderful opera for young people. The energetic cast are all
       having a great time onstage. The costumes and sets are a feast for the
       eyes, so colorful and creative. It has a zany plot, short arias and
       ensemble pieces, quite a bit of slapstick, and a nice little moral at the
       end (“Slight is the error if afterwards love is reborn”). Teenagers, in
       particular, will appreciate the humor that comes from the ingenious
       “play within a play” plot device where the character of the poet is
       writing the opera as it‟s taking place. As a result, we get scenes where
       the players don‟t know where to stand and the poet is frantically trying
       to position them on the stage, and scenes where the poet is frustrated
       because he can‟t get the players (and even the conductor) to do what he


                                          16
       wants. At one point the players are so unhappy with the way the plot
       is going that they beat up on the poor poet! The DVD comes with a
       booklet that discusses Il Turco in general, this production in
       particular, and provides a comprehensive plot summary. I have a great
       time whenever I watch this gem.
      The Don Giovanni of Losey‟s 1979 movie and Silvo from The Met‟s
       1983 Ernani, Ruggero Raimondi plays the Turk in what I thought was
       a “later-in-the-career” role until I saw him in full form as Scarpia in
       The Madrid‟s Opera‟s 2004 Tosca.

Barber of Seville (1816) Five productions
La Scala 1972: Abbado, Berganza, Prey
Gyndebourne 1982: Ewing, Furlanetto
Cologne Opera 1988: Bartoli, Kueble, Quillico
Teatro Real, Madrid 2005: Bayo, Florez, Spagnoli, Raimondi
The Met Movie theater simulcast: 3/25/07: Di Donato, Florez, Mattei, Del Carlo

      [Written prior to seeing Juan Diego Florez DVD in February, 2007]:
       Barber is not my favorite Rossini. I tend to get bored unless Rosina or
       Figaro are on stage. This means that, with the exception of Figaro‟s
       Largo al factotum, it‟s a long wait until Scene 2. [Post seeing Florez]: I
       love Scene 1 because Florez is in it singing, from the cavatine Ecco,
       ridente in cielo to the mandolin serenade for Rosina. For the first time,
       Act I, Scene 1 came alive for me. Such is the power of a great
       performer. (See Amazon review of this production.)
      That said, when Barber is good, it‟s really good (e.g. the famous duet,
       Dunque io son). And I love both finales (but then, Figaro and Rosina
       are in them!).
      I enjoy my CD with Beverly Sills – she has such a warm and
       welcoming voice. For a total delight, watch her sing Una voca poco fa
       at 1:42 on “30 Years Live from Lincoln Center” DVD or at :53 on her
       Great Performances special.
      The 1992 Glyndebourne production features Ferruccio Furlanetto (as
       Basilio) near the beginning of his career. Almost 20 years later, he‟s
       superb as Leporello in The Met‟s 2000 Don Giovanni.

La Cenerentola (late 1816) Two productions
Houston Opera 1995: Bartoli, Corbelli, Dara
Salzburg 1988: Murray

      This is the most unique musically of Rossini‟s comedies (not counting Il
       Turco where the musical form is different). In his other comedies, the
       songs sound interchangeable to me, that is, they‟re not specific to the
       character or to the opera. Not so here.




                                              17
      There are so many comic gems in this opera, capped by Cenerentola‟s
       long aria of forgiveness at the end – icing on the cake.
      I love the Houston Opera production. Of course, there‟s Bartoli who, at
       the end, looks and sings like every child‟s fantasy of Cinderella.
       Alessandro Corbelli is hysterical as Dandini and the step sisters milk
       every ounce of comedy out of their roles. Enzo Dara‟s “patter” is as
       good here as it is in Donizetti‟s L’Elisir d”Amore.
      I don‟t remember a lot about the Salzburg production, but Ann Murray
       was great as Elvira in La Scala‟s 1987‟s Don Giovanni.
      A great Rossini for kids, especially girls. Malia loves to watch it with
       me and it gives me a chance to teach her that, not only did Disney not
       invent Cinderella, but the Disney version doesn‟t contain the profound
       lesson of forgiveness. “My revenge shall be forgiveness”: says
       Cenerentola.

Le Comte Ory (1828)
Glyndebourne 1997: Davis, Massis, Laho, Montague, Tezier

      The first time I watched Le Comte Ory, I didn‟t find it funny and the
       music didn‟t grab me. It may have been a case of too many comedies to
       absorb at once: Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti. On second viewing, after
       weeks of watching Verdi, I enjoyed Ory a lot.
      Rossini‟s usual patter numbers are absent. The opera is stylish; it feels
       every inch the French it‟s written in.
      I‟ve now seen DVD‟s with the always serious looking Ludovic Tezier in
       such different roles as Figaro’s pompous Count (1994), Lucie de
       Lammermoor’s nasty Henry (2002), and here in the minor role of Ory‟s
       friend Raimbaud. The only similarities in the roles are Tezier‟s full,
       rich baritone and the fact that even in the two comedies, he‟s not very
       comedic.
      I was surprised that in 1828, Rossini was still writing a “pants role” for
       a mezzo-soprano. It distracts from the romance. Diana Montague sings
       beautifully but here (and in La Clemenza) looks so feminine.
      Great opera for kids. They‟ll get a kick out of Ory and his buddies
       dressed as nuns, not to mention their having way too much to drink.

Bellini (1801-1835) Wrote 10 opera seria and one opera buffa
I Capuleti e I Montecchi (1830)
Martina Franca Festival, Italy 2005: Ciofi, Polito, Formaggia, Sacchi, Amodio

      Ah, Patrizia Ciofi at her best, coming close to Sills in Juliet‟s great aria
       (Chapters 11 and 12). She‟s completely absorbed in Bellini‟s long,
       flowing lyric melodies, singing theem with beautiful legato and without
       her usual distracting facial contortions.



                                             18
      As good as Clara Polito is as Romeo, I agree with Bob Levine that the
       role should be sung by a mezzo. There‟s no contrast in voices in the
       Romeo and Juliet duets. It wouldn‟t work for Romeo to be a tenor
       because of Romeo‟s extensive duetting in Act II with the tenor Tebaldo.
      As Tebaldo, Denilo Formaggia is, as Bob Levine says, terrific. “He
       sings with style and power, unafraid of top notes and always sensitive
       to the line.” (Listen to Chapters 5 and 6.)
      I don‟t think of Bellini as a great ensemble composer, but I love the
       ensemble finale to Act I, starting at Chapter 22.
      I love Bellini‟s use of solo instruments in this opera: French horn and
       harp with Juliet‟s famous aria and then a very long clarinet solo that
       precedes Romeo‟s Act II entrance.

Norma (1831) Two productions
Theatre Antique d‟Orange 1981: Cabellé, Veasey, Vickers
Canadian Opera Company: 1981: Bonynge, Sutherland, Troyanos

      Beautiful beautiful music.
      Casta Diva and its cabaletta is, as promised, the ultimate bel canto
       aria. Joan Sutherland is marvelous (even though she‟s past her prime)
       but Monserrat Cabellé is otherworldly. On Fleming CD. Denis Forman:
       “Bellini is the composer of the purest and most beautiful melodies in
       all of opera. The melodies can be long, with an early strain capped by
       another and yet another, climbing onwards and upwards to a climatic
       outburst of song which delights and surprises the ear in a way no other
       composer can match.” His example is Casta Diva.
      I love the duets between Norma and Adalgisa: Oh! rimembranza” and
       “Mira, o Norma” (the latter is on my Beverly Sills CD). Two sopranos
       together singing those bel canto melodies is double the beauty. Forman
       says that Bellini was “ingenious in writing for two voices, first
       alternatively, then overlapping and finally in full simultaneous
       accord.” He also says Bellini didn‟t care much about the orchestra.
      The L‟Orange production is hard to watch because it was filmed
       outdoors in a heavy wind that kept hitting the microphone. I‟ll try
       again.

I Puritani (1834) Two productions
Teatro Verdi di Trieste 1966: D‟Angelo, Saldari
The Met 1/6/2007 HD Simulcast in movie theater: Netrebko (Act II only)

      I love much of the music in this opera – so lyrical and flowing. Elvira
       and Arturo‟s “pre-wedding” duet (A te, o cara, amor talora) is vintage
       Bellini – the way their voices overlap as Denis Forman describes in my
       Norma notes. All of this scene is wonderful, including the mini-aria
       and ensemble that‟s on my Beverly Sills CD.



                                           19
      See my notes on the opera in Forman‟s book.
      Teatro Verdi is a black and white production, perhaps for Italian TV.
       Gianna D‟Angelo is known as a light coloratura soprano. She gives a
       passionate performance but sounded off-key to me way too much. I
       loved the tenor, Luciano Saldari, who played Arturo.
      I‟ve also listened on Sirius to parts of the 3/30/91 Met production with
       Gruberova.

Donizetti (1797-1848) Wrote 70 operas

I agree with Sir Denis Forman: “Donizetti was the most human of the bel cantos, the most
versatile, the most tuneful, and the best.”

Anna Bolena (1830)
Canadian Opera Company 1984: Sutherland, Morris, Forst, Heppner

      This opera was Donizetti‟s first hit. It sat idle after its initial success
       until it was revived in 1957 as a vehicle for Maria Callas at La Scala.
       This was a major factor in the revival of bel canto. It has fine bel canto
       music, especially for Anna Bolena and Jane Seymour, although
       without as much coloratura as in Donizetti‟s later works.
      This is my favorite of the Tutor Queen trilogy. It seems more
       consistent throughout in the quality of the music and more complete in
       plot and character development. And the recitative seems to move
       seamlessly into the songs. I also love the chorus work, especially that
       of Anna‟s ladies-in-waiting who open two of the scenes with choruses in
       which Donizetti gives us music that just weeps.
      Some highlights: The overture!; Anna‟s Act I, Scene 1 coloratura aria
       (full of great trills) in which she expresses how unhappy she is (with
       the chorus‟s help); the Act I, Scene 2 duet between Jane and Henry (it
       really heats up as it goes along); the Act I, Scene 3 achingly slow trio
       with Anna, Henry, and Percy which starts as a round and turns to
       beautiful harmonies after the chorus enters (Bob L. says the finale to
       Act I, Giudici! Ad Anna! is one of the greatest ensembles ever – the
       trio I‟m referring to here being the beginning of the finale and he
       referring to the stretta (the final part of an aria or ensemble where the
       main theme is usually repeated over and over with clear rhythms)
       when Henry tells Anna she‟ll be judged. “Her outrage is spectacular
       though not in Sutherland‟s throat. Callas uber alles as usual.”; Anna‟s
       Act II duet with Percy where he starts of in a minor key (sounding
       Mozartian), declaring that he just can‟t leave her; the achingly sad
       chorus that opens Act III, where the Queen‟s ladies-in-waiting show
       concern for her depressed state (“Where are the throngs that crowded
       around happier days?” the music weeps); the scene between the Queen
       and Jane Seymour that immediately follows and culminates with their


                                            20
       duet, Sui suo capo aggravi un Dio in which Jane admits she‟s the one
       who betrayed the Queen with the King (she asks the Queen‟s
       forgiveness and it is given -- Judith Forst has a powerful and
       expressive mezzo voice and their final stanzas together are coloratura
       at its best); the short but stunning Act III, Scene 2 trio (Percy: “From
       your tenderest years you have always been mine”) which follows
       Percy‟s claim that he was once married to Anna (the trio sounds
       downright Verdian – not decorative coloratura, but powerful and
       emotional); the Act III, Scene 3 opening chorus where Anna‟s ladies-in-
       waiting once again express their sorrow in weeping, beautiful
       harmonies; and finally, Anna‟s Mad Scene, especially the aria at the
       end, Copia iniquia (“Wicked couple, I do not invoke vengeance in this
       dreadful hour”).
    Joan Sutherland reminds me of Pavarotti – the voice is stunning but
       the acting is lacking. It matters more in some scenes than in others.
       When I first started listening to her, she didn‟t move me at all, but I‟m
       coming around just based on the incredible power of her voice.
    Sutherland is about 20 years past her prime here. She‟s still beautiful
       to listen to except for the high notes which sound screechy and off-key
       to me (even though some Amazon reviewers say she transposed the
       Mad Scene down a step). The production also features a young Ben
       Heppner in a minor role, and James Morris, my favorite of the three
       Iagos I‟ve seen in Otello.
L’Elisir d’Amore (1832) Four productions
The Met 1991: Levine, Pavarotti, Battle, Dara, Pons, Upshaw
Lyon Opera 1996: Pido, Alagna, Gheorghiu, Alaimo, Scaltriti
Macerata Opera Arena Sferisterio Macerata 2002: Machado, Esposito, Schrott, Marrucci
Wiener Staatsoper 2005: Netrebko, Villazon, Nucci, D‟Arcangelo

      My first two viewings of L’Elisir were of the The Met production. The
       first time, I loved it. A year later, it was funny in places but, overall,
       too saccharine sweet for my taste. I didn‟t know if the change in my
       opinion was due to months of watching a lot of Mozart and Verdi (even
       Mozart‟s comedies have an underlying pathos, like all great comedic
       drama) or was due to The Met production itself, so I bought the Lyon
       Production. I also wanted to see the “hot couple” of opera, Angela
       Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, onstage together in Lyon. I still didn‟t
       warm up to L’Elisir.
      Then I saw the 2002 Macerata Opera production, none of whose
       performers were known to me, and I fell in love with this opera.
       Amazon review: There is no shortage on DVD of famous opera
       performers pairing up to play Adina and Nemorino in L‟Elisir d‟Amore:
       Kathleen Battle and Luciano Pavarotti; the Alagnas (Angela
       Gheorghiu and Roberto), Anna Netrebko and her favorite onstage
       partner, Rolando Villazon). All of these productions have much to


                                           21
    commend them, but my favorite is this one from the Arena Sferisterio
    in Macerata with not a single famous performer in it! The production is
    brilliantly staged in a huge (5,000 seat) arena that is made intimate by
    putting the players and the orchestra onstage together in three-sided
    box that serves as a stage-within-a-stage. This also allows the
    performers to interact with the conductor and the orchestra, a comic
    device used (but not overused) to great effect throughout. Soprano
    Valeria Esposito has the brightest and sweetest upper register I‟ve
    ever heard. She creates a flesh and blood, strong-minded Adina.
    Donizetti left his soprano room to show off her coloratura skills and
    Esposito relishes the opportunity. In her final duet with Nemorino, she
    just takes off, singing “a capella” at times. She throws in several false
    endings, only to start singing again when Nemorino (thinking she‟s
    finished) moves in for a kiss. It‟s beautiful to listen to, funny to watch,
    and brings the house down. As Nemorino, the Venezuelan tenor,
    Aquiles Machado, sings with a big sound and a big heart. His phrasing
    and legato in Una furtiva lagrima are executed beautifully, and his
    interpretation of this famous aria is heartbreaking. Lyrical baritone
    Enrico Marrucci is wonderfully pompous and conceited as Belcore.
    Erwin Schrott has a big and rich bass voice that contrasts perfectly
    with the other players. He creates a different Dr. Dulcamara than
    we‟re used to – a rather harmless hustler, more like a TV hype guy
    who trades on our dreams of perfect looks and perfect health. Roberta
    Canzian, as Giannetta, is wonderful too; perhaps an Adina-in-the-
    making. It‟s an utterly charming and joyful production all around.
   A few of my favorite pieces. Act I. The chorus led by Giannetta in Bel
    conforto al mietitore starts the opera off wonderfully. Adina and
    Nemorino‟s first duet, Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera – “Ask the gentle
    breeze why it flies without settling,” has a poetic libretto to go with the
    wonderful music, as Adina explains to Nemorino why she won‟t be tied
    to one man. I love the finale, especially where Nemorino stops the
    action cold with his heartrending plea to Adina not to marry Belcore
    that day. Adina, credimi ten e scongiuro – “Believe me Adina, I implore
    you,” he sings, believing he needs another day for the elixir to take
    effect. The melody is so lyrical, Adina picks it up next, while Belcore
    patters on about Nemorino, the buffoon, Finally, the ensemble picks up
    the slow beautiful song. Act II. The quartet with chorus, Che vedo?, as
    Adina realizes all the girls want Nemorino and Dulcamara wonders
    how in the world his elixir worked! Adina‟s three-part duet with
    Dulcamara after he tells her he gave the elixir to Nemorino: Quano
    amore! Ed io spietata – “Such love! And I was pitiless.” It begins with
    Dulcamara pattering and Adina singing a slow coloratura melody of
    regret and realization; it then moves into his presto seduction and ends
    with the fabulous Una tenera occhiatina – “A tender glance, a smile, a



                                    22
    caress,” where Adina lectures him on the true formula for an elixir of
    love, he back to pattering. A truly great duet. Ah, and then the bassoon
    and harp accompanied Una furtive lagrima, one of the great tenor
    arias. It‟s so straightforward – no coloratura, no high notes to reach for
    – just a guy singing straight his the heart (and into ours). A Donizetti
    masterpiece. Finally, Adina‟s long duet with Nemorino, precious from
    beginning to end. It begins with her telling him to take back his
    contract to join the army; she has freed him: Prendi, per me sei libero.
    Donizetti gave her such beautiful lyric melodies, leaving room for her
    to show off her coloratura skills.
   Re: The Met. Pavorotti and Battle‟s acting is surprisingly good.
    Although I love Kathleen Battle‟s sweet silvery soprano (I own a CD of
    her Mozart arias), on DVD as Mozart‟s Zerlina and then Pamina, she
    doesn‟t flesh out the characters. (Pamina is not just a sweet young
    thing; in fact, she‟s the character who transforms the most in Flute.)
    But I digress. In L’Elisir, Battle captures the spirit of Adina and her
    singing is heavenly. Enzo Dara as Dr. Dulcamara is as great a
    “patterer” here as he is four years later in the Houston Opera‟s La
    Cenerentola.
   Re: Lyon Opera. Edited from Amazon review: I‟m disappointed in
    Gheorghiu and Alagna‟s performances since they are superb in
    Traviata and Lucie de Lammermoor respectively. Gheorghiu‟s singing
    is, as usual, steely and pure, but she doesn‟t seem to have a feel for
    comedy. By contrast, Alagna is having a lot of fun onstage but his voice
    is grating much of the time. Both of their performances feel forced.
    Donizetti‟s sparkling melodious score is not well-served. Compare this
    to the delightful Met production of 1991. Pavarotti and Battle are so at
    ease on stage (well, as at ease as Pavarotti can get) and their singing is
    heavenly. I've read that Gheorghiu and Alagna aren't onstage together
    as often because he's more comfortable performing in French. That
    sounds like a good choice to me because he's outstanding in the French
    versions of Donizetti's Lucie and Verdi's Don Carlos. By contrast, here
    and in Trovatore, his voice often sounds forced and even sometimes
    shrill.
   The Wiener Staatsoper production has a great set. Anna Netrebko
    didn‟t disappoint, but the production belongs to Villazon. His singing
    and acting (even when the latter is overdone) are irresistible. And it
    was such a treat to see the “serious” Verdi baritone Leo Nucci in a
    comic role. He handled the coloratura beautifully.
   Young children and teenagers will love L’Elisir. They‟ll enjoy watching
    the naïve Nemorino think his newfound success with the girls is due to
    imbibing a love potion when all he‟s received is too much booze (and an
    inheritance which only the village lasses know about). Children and
    teens will relate to the very contemporary “false advertising” of the



                                    23
       huckster Dr. Dulcamara, and enjoy the comic antics of the young
       lovers. I recommend the Lyon Opera or the Macerata Opera, the latter
       because it sparkles from beginning to end, the former because, not only
       is the Alagna‟s comic acting fun, but they‟ll get a kick out of knowing
       the male and female leads were real-life newlyweds at the time. And
       then they can watch Angela Gheorghiu in Traviata, the Verdi opera I
       recommend for teens.

Lucia di Lammermoor (1835, rev. 1839 in French) Four productions
The Met 1982: Bonynge, Sutherland, Kraus, Elvira
Bel Canto Society: 1982: Ricciarelli, Carreras, Nucci
La Scala 1992: Devia, La Scola, Bruson
Lyon Opera 2002: Ciofi, Alagna, Tezier

      Lucia caught me off-guard, having immersed myself in Donizetti‟s
       comedies. It took me three viewings to come under the spell of its
       beautiful music.
      I‟m struck by how very sad the opera is throughout, including Lucia‟s
       and Edgardo‟s love duet at the beginning. That duet has become a
       piece that haunts me even when I‟m not playing it.
      The duet between the soprano and the flute in Lucia‟s mad scene must
       be a unique operatic event. Stunning. (I‟ve read it was written for glass
       harp but a flute is usually substituted.)
      The La Scala production is high quality throughout, especially
       Mariella Devia‟s bel canto. Some months after writing that sentence,
       the Opera-L list took up the subject of Devia in their usual nasty way,
       some agreeing with a critic who once said she had the stage
       personality of a “dead fish” and others praising her musicality as a bel
       canto artist, even if she‟s not the most dynamic of stage personalities.
       One person said he enjoyed the broadcasts from The Met with her and
       so he bought this DVD. His review: “What a boring Lucia; what an
       undramatic rendition, Perhaps not „dead fish‟ but „wilted fin.‟” I like
       her here and as Konstanze on the Sirius Met broadcast of Seraglio
       from 1990, her Marten aller Arten is stunning – as good as
       Gruberova‟s. Vincenzo La Scola, as Edgardo, is as wonderful here as he
       is in I Due Foscari.
      Joan Sutherland‟s coloratura in The Met production is spectacular as
       everyone says, but I prefer Callas. I note that here and as Donna Anna
       on my Don Giovanni CD, she doesn‟t enunciate the words. I guess
       that‟s really using your voice as an instrument, and I suppose no one
       minds.
      The Lyon production is Donizetti‟s rewrite in French (Lucie not Lucia).
       It‟s about 25% altered in both characters and music. Patrizia Ciofi is
       terrific as Lucie. She can sing; she can act. I was drawn to her every
       sound and every move. What a contrast from Blonde in Seraglio. (I


                                              24
    read that Ciofi was a last minute replacement for Dessay when this
    was filmed for European TV and that her performance catapulted her
    to stardom.) And no reason to leave after the Mad Scene (as I‟ve read
    audiences are apt to do); Roberto Alagna‟s portrayal of Edgard‟s suicide
    in the Tomb Scene is both realistic and heartbreaking. The guy knows
    how to die onstage.
   On Bob Levine‟s recommendation, I bought the 1955 CD featuring
    Maria Callas. The gold standard. It‟s hard to articulate why she is so
    great, especially since her voice isn‟t really pretty and can even sound
    harsh when she turns up the volume. For one thing, the decorative
    requirements in the vocals (trills, coloratura, etc.) are never done for
    effect (a singer can “show off” as Lucia). Instead they seem to flow
    organically from Callas as she inhabits the character. In addition, it
    seems like her power as a performer comes from a total commitment to
    the material and to the character. It‟s just transporting. Finally, with
    other singers, I use adjectives: powerful, passionate, sweet, vulnerable,
    etc. With Callas, adjectives don't apply. She stands and delivers. Bob:
    “It‟s her obsession that turns into everyone else‟s obsession; it's her
    flaws that make her perfect.” Another treat on the 1955 CD was the
    great tenor work by Guiseppe di Stefano as Edgardo. He sings with the
    perfect combination of wild abandon and voice control. I‟ve read that in
    the early 1960‟s he suddenly lost his voice due to pushing it too hard.
   My Amazon review of Carreras DVD: This is my favorite production of
    Lucia di Lammermoor on DVD. If you're not familiar with the opera, it
    wouldn't be the best choice because there are no subtitles. Although
    the picture can be a bit grainy, the all-important sound quality is fine.
    Jose Carreras, as Edgardo, is the star of this production. His final
    scene (staged next to Lucia's deathbed) is as powerful as Lucia's Mad
    Scene. Carreras' voice flows so naturally from him that it can appear
    effortless. His voice is full but also beautifully delicate and vulnerable.
    His acting is restrained but expressive; it's never overwrought (as we
    sometimes see today) no matter how emotional the scene. This is a
    great opportunity to see the least famous of The Three Tenors in an
    opera on DVD. Katia Ricciarelli as Lucia has a beautiful bel canto
    voice; there's no straining at the top (always a relief for me). Her voice
    doesn't create the fireworks of a Joan Sutherland, but she uses her
    singing and acting ability to draw you right into Lucia's tragic
    circumstance. It's a gripping portrayal. The duets between Carreras
    and Ricciarelli are electrifying, starting with their desperate-sounding
    love duet of Act I and ending with their confrontation after Edgardo
    discovers that Lucia has married Arturo. As Enrico, Leo Nucci
    completes the stellar cast. It's a treat to see Nucci as a young
    performer before he became a major Verdi baritone. The conductor,
    Lamberto Gardelli makes the orchestra an integral part of the



                                    25
       production, with spirited execution of the opera‟s ominous preludes and
       of Donizett‟s unsettling choice to subject us to cheerful wedding and
       then party music in the midst of such a sad sad tale. If you love Lucia
       di Lammermoor, you'll love this production.
      Lucia is the first tragedy I loved; it will always be special to me.

Roberto Devereux (1837) Three productions

Wolf Trap, 1975: Rudel, Sills, Alexander, Marsee, Fredericks
Teatro di San Carlo, Napoli 1998: Pendatchanska, Sabbatini, Servile, Komlosi
Munich Opera 2005: Gruberová, Aronica, Schagidullin, Piland

      This opera features the role of Elisabetta that Beverly Sills said took
       10 years off her career. Bob Levine points out that this opera
       demonstrates that bel canto is not just “beautiful singing”: Donizetti
       uses bel canto here to make us understand what‟s going on in
       Elisabetta‟s mind. Sills discusses the role at :59 on her Great
       Performances special.
      Although I still think that this is a weaker opera than Anna Bolena
       (for one thing, the chorus pieces are weak), the opera changed for me
       when I saw Beverly Sills in the role. She‟s fearsome, she‟s tender, she‟s
       broken, she‟s crazy. She sings and acts every mood change to
       perfection. Of course, as Bob Levine points out, Elisabetta gets all the
       good songs...
      Oh dear. In the overture, Donizetti throws in excerpts from God Save
       the Queen for some inexplicable reason. An absence of inspiration
       perhaps?
      Act I: Sara‟s beautifully flowing but sad opening aria, All’afflitto e dolce
       il pianto – “Weeping is sweet to a sorrow laden heart; it is it‟s only joy,”
       is said to be the inspiration for Verdi‟s Va’ pensiero; Elisabetta‟s first
       aria, L’amor suo mi fe beata – “His love was like a gift from heaven,” is
       heartbreaking in Sills‟ hands (not so before I heard her – great
       pianissimo) and I love the cabaletta that follows, Ah! Ritorni qual ti
       spero – coloratura fireworks; this is followed by her duet with
       Devereux, Un tenero core – “Your heart was tender toward me,” which
       again, in Sills‟ hands, is sad and pleading, almost pitiful; then comes
       their fast-paced Un lampo orribile – “A fire burns within me,” in which
       her mood changes to contemplation of revenge and Devereux sings
       about keeping his secret buried – a great “thinks” ending to this duet;
       Nottingham‟s cavatina, Forse in quel cor sensibile – “Perhaps her heart
       is easily moved to tears but I‟ve fallen into the melancholy too,” is a
       lament over his wife‟s mood and the suspicion it arouses in him; a
       typical cabaletta follows in which Nottingham swears to defend
       Devereux, their friendship being so great (ha ha); Sara and Devereux‟s
       love duet, Dacce tornasti, ahi misera! – “Since your return, love stirs in


                                            26
    my miserable heart,” finishes with endless “addios” and is just average
    to me although the mezzo, Susanne Marsee, in the Wolf Trap
    production is outstanding.
   Act II doesn‟t come alive (an chorus that is uncharacteristically boring
    for Donizetti starts it out) until Elisabetta starts singing of Devereux‟s
    betrayal (upon learning he had another‟s scarf next to his heart) while
    Devereux continues to defend him. It‟s a duet, but it‟s all about
    Elisabetta‟s anger (at least as Sills performers it – she just owns the
    stage). The two have some fine coloratura dueting toward the end of Su
    lui non piombi il fulmine though. The Act has a great ending, starting
    with a trio (Elisabetta, Devereux, Nottingham) in which Elisabetta
    now seems wretched and pitiful. Then she erupts into anger as the
    finale starts: Va, la morte sui cacpo ti pende – “Go, death awaits you.
    Shame shall cover your name. My fury opens a tomb no tears can
    warm” (just for starters). The singing heats up fast, with the chorus
    joining in. Donizetti makes great use of minor chord harmonies in this
    finale. Fantastic music and Sills is unbelievably good.
   Act III: Scene 1 starts slowly after the wild finale of the previous act,
    but then the duet between Sara and Nottingham gradually heats up,
    first with some beautiful bel canto singing from Sara (again, Marsee is
    superb here in the Wolf Trap production) and then with some great
    dueting. Scene 2: Devereux‟s final, touching aria, Come un spirito
    angelico, ends with the strangely cheerful cabaletta, Bagnato il sen di
    lagrime – “With my chest soaked in tears and red with blood,” but then
    it seems to be a Donizetti specialty to throw cheerful music into his
    tragedies at the oddest moments (here, as he‟s about to be beheaded);
    Scene 3 opens movingly as Elisabetta wishes for comfort. As she says
    in her slow lament “My fury is spent.” Then comes Vivi ingrato a lei
    accanto – “You shall live, ungrateful man, by her side” (not realizing
    that Devereux has given the protective ring to Sara, Elisabetta still
    holds out hope that he might be saved). This is another slow and
    soulful lament, a beautiful piece. In it, she‟s broken, but trying to
    maintain her dignity as Queen and again, Sills is exceptional. Then, of
    course, Elisabetta‟s final demise after learning of Sara‟s betrayal,
    Nottingham‟s actions, and Devereux‟s death. She sings Quel sangue
    versato al cielo s’innalza – “The blood you have shed shall rise to
    heaven.” Beverly Sills is astonishing in this last scene (it‟s on her
    highlights CD). As she sings, “I do not reign. I do not live. In place of
    my throne is a tomb into which I descend. James shall be King of
    England,” she appears to just collapse into herself and shrink into
    death before our very eyes.
   Re: Munich Opera. See my Amazon review, titled “A frustrating
    production even though Gruberova shines.” That title of the review
    about sums it up.



                                    27
      Re: Teatro di San Carlo: This is the theater where this opera
       premiered in 1837. The men are the best in this production. It‟s
       supposed to star Elisabetta – she gets all the coloratura pieces. But
       Guiseppe Sabbatini as Devereux steals the show. I‟d like to see more of
       him. He has a full-bodied expressive tenor voice; great actor.
       Breathtaking pianissimo. The production comes alive when he‟s
       onstage. Alexandrina Pendatchanska (whom I saw in I Due Foscari
       two years earlier) gets rave five-star reviews from Amazon viewers, but
       I have to agree with Niel Rishoi of Opera-L who found her performance
       painful to watch. Everything is push push push – the voice, the acting,
       the facial expressions. Unpleasant all around. Rishoi says, “The great
       physical effort she exerts makes it appear as if she is readying to
       upchuck the notes.” Cruel, but on point. I love Roberto Servile‟s rich
       baritone as Nottingham. I‟d like to see more of him too. (He sings Di
       Luna on my Trovatore highlights CD.)

Maria Stuarda (1843) Two productions
English National Opera 1984: Baker, Plowright, Rendell
Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo 2000: Remigio, Ganassi, Calleja, Zanellato

      Maria Stuarda starts weak, but gets better and better as it goes along.
       From the moment Elisabetta and Maria meet up in Act II until end of
       the opera, I think it‟s a great work. Bob Levine considers it to be the
       weakest of Donizetti‟s Tutor Queen trilogy, saying it really only has
       good music for the two women. (I rank it with Roberto Devereux, both a
       step behind Anna Bolena.) The only oddity I find is the surfeit of
       cheerful orchestral writing Donizetti put into this melodramatic
       tragedy. (One shouldn‟t call it a historical tragedy since Elizabeth and
       Mary never met.) Of course, Donizetti‟s does the same in Lucia too,
       right before the wedding. In Maria Stuarta though, more than in his
       other operas, Donizetti seems to rely on vocal writing and relegate the
       orchestra to a supporting role (Forman calling it “music hall” at times).
      Note that the Leicester of this opera is none other than Roberto
       Devereux. Poor Liz. First he‟s in love with Maria and then with Sara.
      Act I. I agree with Forman that the opera gets off to a slow start. It
       comes alive with Elisabetta‟s second cavatina, Ah! dal ciel discenda –
       “Ah, let heaven send light to clear my muddled thought,” where she
       tries to figure out what to do about Maria. The ensemble joins in to add
       to the heft to the piece. A spirited performance by Sonia Ganassi. Nice
       coloratura technique. Leicester‟s rather dull cavatina (in which he
       declares his love for Maria) is interspersed with some lively dueting
       with Talbot – the dueting being the best part of this extended piece.
       Act I ends with a lovely bel canto duet between Elisabetta and
       Leicester, following a rather sappy cavatina from the latter. The duet
       keeps heating up, getting faster and faster as befits a good finale. It‟s


                                            28
    the best part of Act I. (It‟s interesting that both of Leicester‟s solos are
    not Donizetti at his best.)
   Act II. Maria sings a truly lovely cavatina, O nube che lieve per l’aria –
    “Oh lightly drifting in the sky.” It‟s followed by a spirited cabaletta (a
    new version provided in the 2000 production). A lyrical duet with
    Leicester follows, starting slow and then heating up. I love Donizetti‟s
    duets, this one in a cavatina/cabaletta form, the cabaletta having some
    great minor harmonies. Enter Liz…and the opera becomes a great
    work. First, a way-too-short “thinks” sextet, E sempre stessa in which
    Donizetti brilliantly weaves their private thoughts into an ensemble
    piece. Then the famous “Dialogue of the Queens”: Maria pleads for
    mercy at Elisabetta‟s feet; Elisabetta rejects this in a lively cavatina;
    Maria hurls her insults – Figlia impura di Bolena! Vil bastarda (no
    translation needed). Great scene. High art? Shameless camp? Who
    cares! Elisabetta then takes us to the finale, condemning Maria (“you
    wild creature”) to death. Great ensemble finale!
   Act III. Scene 1. Elisabetta and Cecil‟s jaunty duet (why jaunty?!),
    Quella vita a me funesta – “That life is so damning to me,” as she signs
    Maria‟s death warrant is followed by Leicester joining them in an
    incredible extended lyrical trio. Bel canto ensemble work at its best.
    Leicester starts it off with Ah! Deh! Per pieta sospendi – “Alas, for
    pity‟s sake, hold back.” The trio has four sections, starting slowly,
    switching gears twice, and then moving to a presto finish. The
    ensemble writing, especially the last two sections, is downright
    Mozartian. Just stunning. Scene 2. The “Confessional Duet.” In
    Quando di luce rosea – “When with rosey light the day shone on me,”
    Maria confesses her sins to Talbot. It‟s a bel canto showpiece. I‟d love
    to here Sills sing it. Scene 3. Forman says: “The complete scene is a
    dramatic and musical masterpiece.” A dirge-like prelude is followed by
    a sotto voce chorus. Then comes Maria‟s prayer for foregiveness, Deh!
    Tu di un’ umile preghiera – “Alas you hear a humble prayer” starts solo
    and then spreads through the chorus (“The Hymn of Death”) with
    Maria‟s high soprano floating above in a great legato line. It‟s one of
    the most beautiful pieces I‟ve heard in opera. And then, with great
    dignity, in D’un cor che muore – “From a dying heart bear her pardon,”
    Maria prays that Elisabetta be forgiven. After a final love duet with
    Leicester, she goes to her death accompanied by a short ensemble
    finale, Innocente infamata – “Innocent defamed, she dies.” Riveting.
    Bob L. says that Maria‟s death scene is ravishing – as good as anything
    Donizetti wrote for soprano.
   I loved the 2000 production with its young and energetic performers.
    Sonia Ganassi has a beautiful lyric mezzo voice and is wonderfully
    bitchy as Elisabetta. As Leicester, Joseph Calleja‟s tenor rings out. I‟d
    like to hear more of him (he‟s currently playing the Duke in Rigoletto



                                     29
       at The Met). Carmela Remigio has a beautiful voice, if not quite
       passionate enough for the role of Maria. The DVD contained great
       “behind the scenes” interviews. Remigio says that sensuality is the key
       to Maria‟s character. She shows passion right until the end. She‟s a
       passionate but simple woman – a devout Catholic. To Maria,
       Elisabetta is cold and incapable of love. In her interview, Ganassi says
       that Elisabetta is strong and intelligent, but Donizetti also gives us an
       Elisabetta who is scorned and hurt because her love isn‟t returned. She
       has nasty and violent outbursts, but must always stay in control
       because of her position.
      The 1984 production is in English which rather wrecks it for me (same
       with the English version of Fille du Regiment). For some reason, the
       opera comes off as a parody of opera (maybe it‟s because Rosalind
       Plowright bears such a close resemblance to Carol Burnett who so
       brilliantly parodied another Queen Elizabeth). The costumes are
       incredible though and Janet Baker has a stunning voice with one of
       the best trills I‟ve heard. She steals the show.

La Fille du Regiment (1840) Three productions
Wolf Trap 1974: Sills, McDonald, Malas
La Scala 1996: Devia, Kelly, Podles
Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa 2005: Ciofi, Diego Florez, Franci, Ulvieri

      Written for the opera-comique in Paris, Fille opened there in 1840 and
       in New Orleans in 1843. It has French-style spoken dialogue rather
       than Italian recitative. It is often presented as farce, but Donizetti
       lovers see it as an elegant comedy of manners (I do).
      Act I has a few too many soldiers‟ “ra-ta-tat” choruses and orchestral
       accompaniments. Even Marie and Sulpice‟s lovely duet, Au bruit de la
       guerre, has its “rataplan” intervals. At least the “rataplans” are
       punctuated by some stunning arias from Marie and Tonio. I love Act II
       where tomboy Marie tries to learn how to live like a “lady.” Maria‟s sad
       aria, C’en eest done fait, has the most beautiful cello introduction and
       accompaniment. The trio when she and Sulpice are reunited with
       Tonio is fabulous – spirited and lyrical (Tous les trios reunis).
      Marie‟s aria at the end of Act I, “Il faut partir!, where she must take
       leave of the regiment is so lyrically beautiful and Mariella Devia‟s
       rendition in the La Scala production is stunning. She has a lovely bel
       canto voice, put to good use here and in Lucia in 1992.
      The Wolf Trap production is in English. I thought I‟d enjoy it more but
       found the opposite to be true. I missed the “Italiana” sound. Beverly
       Sills is utterly charming and in beautiful voice. She famously called
       the role of Marie: “Lucille Ball with high notes.”
      Excerpts from Amazon review of Teatro Carlo Felice production: La
       Fille du Regiment has too many “rata-tat-tat” marching choruses for it


                                              30
to be my favorite Donizetti comedy, but it has some magnificent bel
canto pieces (like “Il faut partir”) and some great comic moments (like
the music lesson in Act II that requires the soprano playing Marie to
purposefully sing off-key). This production succeeds on all levels. The
director cleverly sets the action in a French village in the final days of
World War II, after the Germans have withdrawn. Marie is the
daughter of an American army captain who has died, resulting in her
being “adopted” by the entire regiment. Tonio is a young French
villager whose love for Marie leads him to join the American ranks.
The updated setting works well. The relationships among the
characters feel even more authentic than in the opera‟s original
Tyrolean setting, and the Act I and Act II sets invoke the historical
period well – Act I taking place in a bar in the French village and Act
II in the chateau of the Marquise who is determined to turn tomboy
Marie into a refined woman. Usually the soprano playing Marie (the
fille du regiment) is the star of the show, but in this production,
Patrizia Ciofi must share those honors with Juan Diego Florez who
plays Tonio. Florez must be the best lyric tenor around today. His “Ah!
mes amis” is worth the price of the DVD alone. He hits each of its
famous nine high-C‟s with such precision, ease, and punch that I
almost came out of my seat nine times! And then nine turns to 18 as he
encores the piece. (And if 18 isn‟t enough for you, Florez performs
excerpts from “Ah! mes amis” on the bonus DVD, treating us to his own
commentary on each note prior to our seeing him sing it.) Patrizia Ciofi
has a beautiful lyric soprano voice that is incredibly strong given her
slight build. She sings with precise attention to phrasing and just
floats those high notes. Her voice blends well with Florez‟s, making
their duets a delight. My only difficulty with Ciofi is that she lacks a
certain ease onstage (this is true in the other performances I‟ve seen
her in: La Traviata and Lucie de Lammermoor). There may be nothing
she can do about it, but I‟m always aware of how hard she‟s working at
singing (I can see it in her facial contortions). In a comic opera, this
effort sometimes detracts from the comedy. Beverly Sills famously
called the role of Marie, “Lucille Ball with high notes.” There‟s no
Lucille Ball in Ciofi‟s performance simply because she isn‟t relaxed
enough to project that kind of screwball comedy. That said, Ciofi
demonstrates that this opera need not rely on slapstick; using her
dramatic abilities, Ciofi gets us to focus less on the comedy and more
on Marie‟s relationship to the other characters: to her surrogate father
(Sulpice), to her newfound “aunt” (the Marquise), and, of course, to her
lover, Tonio. Ciofi offers stunning renditions of Marie‟s slow, poignant
arias and is justly rewarded by the audience for her expressive,
nuanced singing. Francesca Franci does a fine job as the Marquise,
making her into a flesh and blood character. Nicola Ulivieri, with his



                                31
       full-bodied bass voice, sings and acts the part of Sulpice convincingly.
      Another good opera for kids. They‟ll probably love all that “ra-ta-tat-
       tatting” in Act I and will laugh at all the antics in Act II, especially
       Marie‟s attempts to learn how to sing. A performer must sing really
       well in order to be so funny singing terribly! I wouldn‟t necessary
       recommend the Wolf Trap production over the others even though the
       former is in English. First, it may look too out-of-date for kids and
       second, half the time you can‟t understand the English anyway (a
       combination of poor sound quality and the muddiness of the chorus at
       times). The choice: Ciofi and Diego Florez! Young people will relate to
       the more modern setting and will enjoy the real-to-life performances by
       the entire cast and the special feature on the bonus DVD that
       juxtaposes rehearsals with performances of various scenes will be
       instructive and fun.

Don Pasquale (1843) Two productions
Italian Television, Bel Canto Society 1955: Tajo, Bruscantini, Noni, Valletti
Teatro Lirico, Cagliari 2002: Corbelli, Mei, Siragusa, De Candia

      Funny funny funny and then suddenly bittersweet. Full of great
       ensemble pieces, even a patter duet, but it‟s not the consistently high
       quality of L’Elisir. There‟s a lot of talking over the music. In fact, one of
       the interesting features of Pasquale is that what‟s going on in the
       orchestra is often more interesting than what the performers are
       doing. One example: all the Act II marriage charade business takes
       place to beautiful orchestral music, the characters just speaking
       dialogue for the most part.
      Act I. Unusual opening with string accompanied melodies that develop
       the plot. Then, nothing particularly memorable until the very end of
       Pasquale and Ernesto‟s Scene 1 duet, the former pattering, the latter
       upset about his friend‟s betrayal. Then comes the treat – all of Scene 2
       – starting with Norina‟s cavatina and cabaletta, Quel guardo il
       cavaliere (nice trills in the former) and the great duet that follows with
       Malestesta where they rehearse how she‟ll behave with Pasquale. This
       duet is very funny, has great melodies, and several unusual key
       modulations. Beverly Sills sings Norina‟s aria at 1:09 on her Great
       Performances special.
      Act II. Opens in great sadness for a comedy as, first the orchestra plays
       and then Ernesto sings of his broken heart. I find the orchestral music
       to be the most interesting part of the whole marriage charade
       business. The singing picks up with a spirited quartet as Norina‟s
       character suddenly changes and is followed by a stunning, slow,
       beautifully harmonized “thinks” quartet as everyone figures out what‟s
       happened (Pasquale starting it with E rimasto la impietrato – Am I



                                              32
    dreaming or awake?). Then there‟s a wonderful lightening-fast finale,
    full of patter and wonderful harmonies.
   Act III gets off to a slow start (dull chorus, Pasquale recitative) but
    gets going when Norina enters. I love how Donizetti uses the orchestra
    to tell us that Norina has gone too far by slapping Pasquale (the
    strings begin to weep). Her (slight) remorse follows in an inventive
    duet, Pasquale pattering, she singing in the high register. A lovely
    waltz duet follows in which she urges him to go to bed (so she can
    party!). A gossipy servant‟s chorus follows that is brilliantly staged by
    Teatro Lirico, the servants busily working at their various tasks ala
    “downstairs” in Gosford Park. Pasquale and Malatesta‟s “plot to catch
    the lovers” duet only takes off at the end when the presto patter
    begins. Denis Forman says that Ernesto‟s serenade, Come e gentil is as
    good as Una furtive lagrima. I think not. But ah, then the beautiful
    love duet between Norina and Ernesto, Tornami a dir’ che m’ami, the
    most beautiful piece in the opera. A quick but lovely finale follows.
   I enjoy Eva Mei here and in Seraglio. (I see she‟s on DVD as Violetta in
    Traviata).) Strangely though, the quality of her singing suddenly
    moves up a notch the very last scene of the opera: beautiful trills in her
    duet with Ernesto and then her voice leading the finale. Alessandro
    Corbelli is excellent here (as usual); great patterer and actor. I like
    Antonino Siragura‟s light lyric tenor, but would love to hear Juan
    Diego Florez, especially in Ernesto‟s aria that opens Act II.
   The 1955 DVD turns out to be a black and white production of the
    opera that was shown on Italian TV in May of 1955. No subtitles.
   Another good opera for kids. They‟ll enjoy watching the bride turn
    bitchy and should enjoy all the pattering.




                                    33
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)


“Mindful of the sad fate of Jerusalem, either bring forth an air of bitter lamentation or let
God inspire us with music and grant endurance in our suffering.”
                                                        -- Va’, pensiero from Nabucco

“Verdi said: Give me the truth of human emotion, even if it‟s the ugly truth.”
                                                     -- James Levine
“He sang and wept for us all.”
                        – The poet Gabriele d‟Annunzio, shortly after Verdi‟s death

                                              ***


Verdi: Through La Traviata

Ernani (1843-44) Two productions
La Scala 1982: Muti, Domingo, Freni, Bruson, Ghiaurov
The Met 1983: Levine, Pavarotti, Raimondi, Milnes, Mitchell

       I love Ernani – the spirited choruses, the bel canto arias, the rich
        ensemble pieces, the rousing finales.
       Even though it was written before Macbeth, the wild feel of the music
        in Ernani’s ensemble pieces reminds me of Trovatore. Some examples:
        the “rock „n roll” trio of Act I, Scene 2 (Tu se Ernani with Elvira, Carlo,
        Ernani), the extended trio of Act II (Oro Quant’or with Ernani, Elvira,
        and Silva), and the closing trio of Act IV (Solingo, errante e misero
        with Elvira, Silva, Ernani).
       Of course, in Trovatore, Verdi takes that wild feel a step further:
        Ernani never has that exhilarating feeling I get in Trovatore of the
        music sounding like it‟s about to spin out of control!
       Verdi has written a difficult dramatic coloratura role for Elvira. Her
        music may start out in a low register only to suddenly soar high
        requiring the skills of a lyric soprano, trills and all. Mitchell's voice
        just doesn't have the flexibility to execute everything Verdi asks of it.
        By contrast, Freni handles the vocal requirements, not without effort,
        but splendidly nonetheless. Her Act I Scene 2 cabaletta (following
        Ernani involami) is stunning and in the ensemble pieces, her voice
        soars powerfully above the others.
       If you want to hear the two pieces that Verdi later added to Ernani,
        you'll have to buy The Met production. Verdi revised the opera, adding
        a cabaletta for Silva in Act I (apparently to put the role on equal
        footing with the others) and also composed an aria and cabaletta for
        the title character as the finale to Act II. The two numbers add a lot to
        the opera and I would have liked to have heard Ghiaurov and
        Domingo tackle them. (See Amazon review.)


                                               34
       I agree with the Amazon reviewer who says the La Scala production is
        fiery and exciting compared to the The Met‟s (the reviewer calling the
        latter one “plodding” which I wouldn‟t go so far as to say).
       The real treat for me (and several other reviewers) is to see four stars
        in their prime performing together: tenor Domingo, baritone Bruson,
        soprano Freni, and bass Ghiaurov (the latter two being newlyweds in
        real life at the time).

I Due Foscari (1844, rev. 1845-46)
Teatro di San Carlo Napoli 2000: Nucci, La Scola, Pendatchanska

       I Due Foscari is one of Verdi‟s lesser known operas. He himself decided
        at one point that it was too gloomy and even called it boring. NOT! It‟s
        no more gloomy than Lucia di Lammermoor and Trovatore et al and
        the music is anything but boring. I found it strong throughout, if not as
        complex as in his later operas.
       It is true that there‟s not much of a plot in I Due Foscari (as William
        Berger points out). He says that without drama in the libretto, it was
        hard for Verdi to inject drama into the music and that the result was
        an invariability of tone that has relegated the opera to “lesser known”
        status. As I said, this didn‟t bother me because the music, even if
        invariable, was wonderful, with his usual emotional ensemble pieces
        where the soprano soars above the others.
       The lack of plot leads to a lot of “stand and deliver” singing form both
        principals and chorus (although it might have been the director‟s
        choice).
       The opera is clearly early Verdi because all the roles call for lyric
        singing – the tenor, the baritone, and the soprano (the latter with bel
        canto thrown in). It features an extremely tough soprano role (partly
        because the character, Lucrezia is angry throughout). She must project
        anger while simultaneously displaying a beautiful lyric voice. Her
        pieces require incredible vocal leaps, in one place a two octave drop in
        one note. Her first aria is a prayer of lilting beauty, ending with a
        cabaletta that shifts gears dramatically, displaying the wildness of
        Ernani and of Trovatore yet to come. A great scene and Alexandrina
        Pendatchanska performs it admirably.
       I love the viola and cello solo that opens Act II and continues into the
        beginning of Jacopo‟s aria in which he begins to hallucinate. Berger
        calls the instrumental solo “weird, haunting, and ravishing.”
       I‟ve seen Leo Nucci in many productions, spanning over 20 years,
        including Germont in Traviata (1994), Iago in Otello (2001), Henry in
        Lucia (1982), and as Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino (1984). He‟s
        always competent, but not spectacular, and in his later productions,
        his voice is often brittle. He can even seem to be barking the notes (I



                                           35
       noticed that in Otello). But here, he‟s very moving as the heartbroken
       Doge. The opera, like Macbeth and Rigoletto, really belongs to the
       baritone. Nucci doesn‟t disappoint.
      The tenor, Vincenzo La Scola is very expressive, although his voice is a
       bit tinny. He‟s also in the La Scala Lucia. The Slavic soprano
       Alexandrina Pendatchanska handles the difficult vocal requirements
       well. I can see her succeeding in many Verdi roles. (I see her later in
       Roberto Devereux and think she‟s terrible…).

Macbeth (1846-7, rev. 1864-5 in French) Three productions
Glyndebourne 1972: Paskalis, Barstow
Zurich Opera 2001: Welser-Most, Hampson, Marrocu, Scandiuzzi, Lima
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2004: Campanella, Alvarez, Guleghina, Scandiuzzi, Berti

      I love this opera. Taught. Not a wasted note. Political thriller (starting
       right with the sound of the overture!). William Berger says the role of
       Macbeth may be second only to Rigoletto in its challenge and rewards
       for a baritone and that Lady Macbeth may well be Verdi‟s most
       challenging female role, vocally and dramatically. I agree. For one
       thing, vocally, the soprano must have the bel canto/coloratura skills of
       a lyric soprano but also be able to perform like a dramatic soprano in
       places. Who could do both other than Callas? Verdi did not want a
       pretty voice for Lady Macbeth, one reason why her three arias on my
       Callas CD are riveting. I doubt Callas can be matched in the
       sleepwalking scene. Verdi: “I want Lady Macbeth to be ugly and evil…I
       don‟t want her to sing at all [disapproving of a beautiful-voiced soprano
       chosen for the role]. Lady Macbeth‟s voice should be hard, stifled and
       dark.” (See Ticket to the Opera, p. 396.)
      Commentators seem to disagree over whether this or Luisa Miller is
       Verdi‟s transitional opera from bel canto. It‟s hard judge since the
       version of Macbeth usually performed is Verdi‟s 1864 revision (about
       1/3 altered) which is about the time he was composing Don Carlo.
      It‟s often called Verdi‟s chorus opera, with good reason; it functions as
       a Greek Chorus.
      Act I. Scene 1: I like the witches chorus even though, I take it,
       musicologists do not. Scene 2: Lady Macbeth. Great rushing music to
       introduce her cavatina, Vieni! t’affretta. What a tough song – leaps,
       high notes, low notes. Then, the “Duet of Terror” after Macbeth
       murders Duncan (Fatal mia donna – “My femme fatale, did you not
       hear the noise?”) which is considered a seminal moment in the growth
       of opera because the duet advances the plot (Lady M remonstrating
       Macbeth and calling for action, Macbeth unable to handle what he just
       did). It has “dramatic momentum” to use Berger‟s phrase. It‟s the most
       terrifying of marital fights and is amazingly conversational even
       though set to music. The chorus that ends Act I is powerful, the chorus


                                           36
    singing a capella at first, reflecting its shock at Duncan‟s death; then
    becoming first mournful and then angry, all the time with Lady M‟s
    voice soaring above it all.
   Act II. Scene 1: Lady M‟s second aria, La luce langue – “The light
    fades” – written for the Paris revision and replacing a Donizetti-like
    coloratura cabaletta. It‟s a complex aria. Very dark and moody, to use
    Bob L.‟s description. Lady M‟s imagination begins to torture her,
    leading to her eventual undoing., Berger: At times her vocal line
    sounds out of tune with the orchestra. Scene 2: Banquo‟s bass aria.
    Scene 3: Lady M‟s great brindisi, Si colmi il calice – “Fill the cup with
    choicest wine” – where we can see her start to dissemble – has some
    great coloratura (which Guleghina struggles with). Then my favorite
    moment in the opera – the “thinks” finale (starting with Macbeth‟s
    “The shadow asks for my blood”), as it develops, the Macbeths singing
    counter to the chorus in a haunting, swaying melody that the two
    repeat over and over, kind of like a nightmare lullaby.
   Act III. The witches “toil and trouble” chorus, followed by the parade of
    apparitions in front of Macbeth and his aria. Hair-raising
    orchestration. The act ends with a short duet with Lady M, Vi trovo
    alfin, where they egg each other on to commit more mayhem – a rather
    weak ending to the act, this duet being part of the Paris revision.
   Act IV. Scene 1: Berger says the chorus, Patria oppressa “may well be
    Verdi‟s finest ever.” It starts pianissimo in a funereal tone and becomes
    a melancholy lament on the state of the Scot‟s homeland. It sounds like
    a requiem to me. Berger: “You won‟t (unlike Va pensiero) whistle this
    on your way home. Verdi wrote an amorphous melody, relying on
    disturbing dissonant harmonies and chromatics. Listen to it a few
    times and you‟ll be privy to the well-kept secret that Verdi could be as
    revolutionary as Wagner and Liszt.” It‟s followed by MacDuff‟s tenor
    bel canto aria, Ah la paterna mano – “Your father‟s hand did not
    protect you…” Even though he‟s expressing grief over his family‟s
    death, it‟s a beautiful romanza and it provides musical relief after the
    funereal chorus. Marco Berti is outstanding in the Barcelona
    production; his tenor voice just rings and he brings out the tragic
    nature of the song. A brisk “call to arms” chorus ends the scene. Scene
    2: Lady M sleepwalks: Una macchia e qui tuttora (“A spot, yet here‟s a
    spot; out damned spot”). Berger calls it unique in opera because Verdi
    instructed that it be sung in an ugly voice – an example of Verdi‟s
    words: a “suffocated voice” (see Berger p. 166 for more of Verdi‟s
    markings). It‟s as if Lady M is half dead, half alive because the song
    demands a kind of presence and absence. Marrocu isn‟t able to pull
    this off. The aria is too pretty in her hands. She‟s better at being angry
    than at being disembodied! But Guleghina, despite her faults (see
    below), truly shines in this scene. I love the taunting accompaniment



                                    37
    in the strings – a seven note rising motif. Scene 3: Macbeth‟s aria,
    Pieta, rispetto, amore in which we find an underlying humanity in the
    man. The orchestration is the best part. Scene 4: A great final chorus –
    rousing, but subdued at the same time, expressing mostly relief that
    the ordeal is over. Whew.
   Re: the 2001 Zurich production. From my Amazon review: Had I
    known this production was set in the modern day, I wouldn‟t have
    watched it. (Shakespeare doesn‟t need updating.) But it really works.
    It works because murder for political gain is still a timely topic. For
    that reason, the modern-day setting not only works, but makes the
    story all the more horrific. The performances are excellent, including
    the work of the all-important chorus. Thomas Hampson inhabits the
    role of Macbeth with powerful and thrilling singing and acting. He
    commands attention whenever he‟s onstage and even manages to gain
    our sympathy in his final aria. Paoletta Marrocu is a convincing Lady
    Macbeth. Dramatic acting is her strength, but on the whole, she
    handles the difficult vocals well, using her somewhat rough voice to
    good advantage as the corrupt and corrupting queen. I give the
    production four stars, not five, because the symbolism of many of the
    costumes, sets, and stage business is too obscure for me (why is
    Banquo‟s blood green?) and distracts from Verdi‟s powerful and intense
    music.
   People say Thomas Hampson can be a “ham” (and I saw a bit of that in
    the Volpe Gala and in Don Carlos even though his singing was great in
    the latter). Bob L. says he can be “too precious.” He controls himself
    here and gives a disciplined and spellbinding performance.
   Re: Barcelona production. Oh, how I love Carlos Alvarez‟s voice. He
    performed this the same year as his great Rigoletto. Thomas Hampson
    may match Alvarez in acting, but Alvarez is the better Verdi baritone
    and, to me, compares favorably with the great baritones of the past
    (Warren, et al). Maria Guleghina certainly commands the stage; she‟s
    quite unique in that sense. She‟s a dramatic powerhouse, even though
    her singing can be sloppy (I‟m not sure how to better express it) and
    she sounds flat to me in several places when reaching for the high
    notes (La luce langue, the Brindisi, her Act III duet with Macbeth) –
    and flat is always worse on the ear than sharp. I think the Opera-L
    person had it right in saying “Guleghina is an awesome if un-Verdian
    Lady Macbeth.” My interpretation of that statement is that she‟s
    undisciplined onstage, a dangerous characteristic for a performer
    attempting Verdi! Some also say she doesn‟t have the coloratura skills
    required for the role – trills, runs, etc. I would agree, but her dramatic
    intensity makes up for a lot. Her sleepwalking scene is spellbinding
    (and she‟s not even flat at the end). The bass-baritone Roberto
    Scandiuzzi is again Banquo, but is much stronger voiced than in the



                                    38
        Zurich production of 2001. And he‟s better dramatically. The Act I,
        Scene 1 duet with Macbeth came alive for me for the first time, seeing
        he and Alvarez in this production. The chorus is great in this
        production. Patria oppressa is stunningly tragic, performed with the
        Macbeths onstage.
       I have Callas on CD singing Lady Macbeth‟s three arias. Oh Callas.
        She seems to channel the characters she‟s portraying. Her voice is not
        as beautiful as some, but it is powerful and pure.

Luisa Miller (1849) Two productions
The Met 1979: Levine, Scotto, Domingo, Milnes, Morris
Lyon Opera 1987: Anderson, Tumagian, Ichihara, Plishka, Anselmi

       Luisa has been called Verdi‟s transitional opera in which the first two
        acts are “early Verdi” (in the mold of Bellini and Donizetti), and the
        third act anticipates the musical style and dramatic atmosphere of
        Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata, et al. This analysis seems valid except
        I‟d say that Ernani already contains some of the wildness of the
        “mature” Verdi.
       Denis Forman calls Luisa Miller “Verdi‟s most underestimated opera.”
       Once again, the censors were at play, moving the action from a
        German princely court to a Tyrolean village. In this case, the change
        of location helps the opera by making it about regular folk and thus
        more intimate, like Stiffelio.
       I love the spirited overture, spirited here even though it‟s repeated by
        the chorus in the opening of Act III in a very sad form, reflecting
        Luisa‟s state of mind.
       Act I feels lighter in tone and “prettier” than Ernani or Macbeth. This
        must be why Luisa is seen as more Bellini/Donizetti-like. There‟s none
        of the wildness of Ernani that I love so much. Luisa‟s first cavatina
        and cabaletta (in the latter she is joined by Rodolfo and then by all)
        sounds like a bel canto piece. Both Luisa‟s father‟s aria (Scene 1) and
        Rodolfo‟s father‟s aria (Scene 2) in which they express outrage at their
        children‟s behavior sound tame to me for Verdi (although Sherrill
        Milnes as Miller makes the most of his cavatina and cabaletta – very
        passionate). Rodolfo‟s Scene 2 duet with the Duchess also sounds bel
        canto to me. Act I ends with a powerful, if rather melodyless,
        ensemble. The chorus must excel for it to work.
       Re: Act II. Scene 1 has the great aria that‟s on my Barbara Frittoli
        CD, beginning with the cavatina Tu puniscimi, o signor, accompanied
        by pulsating strings. Both June Anderson (Opera de Lyon) and Renata
        Scotto (The Met) perform the cavatina and the incredibly difficult
        cabaletta (A brani, a brani, o perfido) superbly. Scotto‟s fury in the
        latter is stunningly portrayed. The end of Scene 2 has an interesting a
        capella “thinks” quartet. I can‟t recall hearing this in Verdi before.


                                          39
        Shades of Donizetti and sounding out of place to me. But Scene 3 is
        mature Verdi with its heartbreaking tenor cavatina, Quando le sere al
        placido, which speaks of Luisa‟s betrayal. William Berger calls it one
        of the most magnificent scenes Verdi wrote for tenor. Domingo is
        magnificent in both the cavatina and the cabaletta. His young, fresh,
        full-bodied tenor voice and his passionate commitment to the role are
        a joy to watch. It‟s the highlight of the opera for me.
       Act III is vintage Verdi: a moving father-daughter duet, Luisa‟s final
        prayer (the structure and plot of the final Act of Luisa and Otello
        resemble each other), a final desperate lovers‟ duet, a surprisingly
        intimate ending (the father, daughter, lover trio). Powerful and
        moving. Scotto, Milnes, and Domingo are unforgettable here.
       I was so excited to finally see Luisa Miller because I read that, like
        Traviata, it was a personal story; but, although I liked it better on a
        second viewing, it doesn‟t move me the way several of Verdi‟s other
        “second tier” works have (Ernani and Ballo in particularl). I‟m not
        sure why, but it feels emotionally distant until Act III, except for
        Luisa‟s Act II, Scene 1 aria and Domingo singing of betrayal at the end
        of Act II.
       Re: The Met production. Overall, much superior to Opera de Lyon.
        Sherrill Milnes‟ baritone just rings with power and emotion as Luisa‟s
        father. James Morris is, as usual, great, this time as the evil Wurm,
        singing bass here. (He seems to specialize in “bad guy” roles – Iago in
        Otello and Henry VIII in Anna Bolena). Renato Scotto doesn‟t have the
        most beautiful voice to me, but her acting is superb. And Domingo
        steals the show…(but then, despite its title, Julian Budden called
        Luisa Miller “a tenor opera.”) I heard Scotto on Sirius‟ Met broadcast
        of L’Elisir d’Amore from 1972 and she was great. I never would have
        guessed that Adina was a good role for her.

Stiffelio (1850)
Covent Garden 1993: Carreras, Malfitano, Yurisich

       As with Ballo, the history of the creation and production of Stiffelio is
        fascinating. See Berger‟s book.
       Berger describes it as the most internal opera he knows. I agree. It‟s
        about the characters, pure and simple, and how they come to terms
        with adultery. Just note the Act III, Scene 1 duet where husband and
        wife, in duet, try to work out their marital difficulties. This could have
        been written today. And, given how opera usually handles even a non-
        adulterous rendezvous (e.g. those in Ballo and La Forza), the true
        wonder is the outcome of this introspective opera. I like Stiffelio with
        its intimacy and realism that we soon see again in Traviata.
        “Forgiveness is easy in a heart that has not been wounded,” sings



                                           40
       Stiffelio in Act I; the rest of the opera is largely about his journey to
       that place of forgiveness.
      The opera starts with a Rossini-sounding overture, reappearing as the
       song the villagers sing to welcome Stiffelio home.
      Act I has great ensemble pieces – the too short septet (that follows
       Stiffelio‟s boatman‟s story) and the chorus (referred to above) that
       immediately follows (welcomeing Stiffelio home, Lina‟s troubled voice
       soaring above the others). Lina has a beautiful aria in which she asks
       God‟s forgiveness and prays that Stiffelio will forgive her; we see here
       that she still loves him. It is movingly performed by Catherine
       Malfitano. And then there‟s Verdi‟s specialty: the father-daughter duet.
      Malfitano excels in this role, vocally and dramatically. This is
       especially evident in Act II where she‟s onstage the whole time, first
       with another prayer aria, then in a spirited and angry duet with
       Raffaele, and then in a great quartet that adds Stiffelio and her father
       to the mix.
      The final scene, with Stiffelio pardoning Lina, is unlike anything I‟ve
       seen from Verdi and not just because of it‟s “emotional austerity” (to
       quote Berger). Verdi, who hated the church, sets the scene at the pulpit
       and Lina is forgiven because it‟s God‟s word in the Bible that
       adulterers be forgiven. Verdi, the church pulpit, the Bible, organ music
       – what an unlikely combination…
      José Carreras is in great voice here at age 47, post leukemia. Full-
       bodied and mature.

Rigoletto (1850-1) Four productions
The Met 1977: Levine, Domingo, Cotrubas, McNeil, Diaz
Ponnelle movie 1981: Chailly, Pavarotti, Gruberova, Wixell, Furlanetto, Vergara
Covent Garden 2001: McVicar/Downes, Alvarez, Schafer, Gavanelli
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2004: Lopez-Cobos, Alvarez, Alvarez, Mula, Konstantinov

      Robert Greenberg: Rigoletto represents Verdi‟s final move from bel
       canto divisions of “song and recitative” to parlante which means
       continuous music where recitative-like vocal parts are under laid by a
       memorable and tuneful orchestral accompaniment. In parlante “the
       musical interest is in the orchestra; the dramatic interest is in the
       voices.” Rigoletto and Sparafucile‟s first encounter is a good example.
      Joseph Kermin: Verdi took his sheer gift for lyricism and put it to its
       proper dramatic use; that is, he used the right music for the right
       character at the right moment. Greenberg: Perhaps only Mozart is
       Verdi‟s equal here.
      I‟ve fallen in love with Rigoletto, but took me three productions and
       five viewings. I just needed to see a variety of performers in the roles.
       Now I see that the frivolity of the Duke‟s music and those oom-pah-
       pahs choruses (Berger calls them idiot choruses that are supposed to


                                           41
    irritate us) are Verdi‟s intentional way of presenting us with an opera
    of stark contrasts: the frivolous and the tragic, the depraved and the
    innocent, the haves and the have-nots…with Rigoletto manifesting all
    of these traits at different times. Now I know that the opera will be
    endlessly fascinating to me for years to come.
   First production: McVicar‟s Convent Garden. I like the look of the
    production, but even after seeing it twice, I hadn‟t yet come to love this
    opera. I found the Duke‟s arias to be too sentimental (even though
    they‟re intended to be cynical) and the choruses to be too “oom pah
    pah.” I did love the two extended father-daughter duets though,
    especially the one after Gilda is raped and Rigoletto keeps repeating
    piangi (weep). Verdi‟s music expressing their conflicting emotions is
    beautifully crafted.
   Act IV‟s quartet, Bella figlia dell’amore reminds me of Mozart‟s
    ensembles in the way the music varies greatly as it delineates each
    character‟s thoughts and emotions, yet the piece fits together perfectly
    as one whole.
   Second production: Ponnelle film from 1981. I watched this to see if it
    was the McVicar production that was keeping me from appreciating
    Rigoletto as much as I do Verdi‟s other “Big Three.” The answer is: yes!
    Watching Ponnelle, I realized that to really love this opera, you have to
    develop deep compassion for Rigoletto. To that extent, this production
    helped me appreciate the opera because Ingvar Wixell gives a powerful
    and moving performance. It‟s an opera of contrasts, depravity and
    innocence on a collision course, with Rigoletto embodying both
    qualities. Wixell, as Rigoletto, got inside my heart in a way the
    McVicar Rigoletto, Paolo Gavanelli, did not. (Gavanelli just doesn‟t
    move me. His voice is dry and uninteresting.) And, oh, is Wixell
    transcendent as Rigoletto in The Met‟s broadcast on Sirius from
    2/10/73. Even after the Ponnelle film though, much of the opera‟s
    music still doesn‟t resonate with me as does the music of almost all of
    Verdi‟s other operas. I‟ll try The Met production.
   A side note on the Ponnelle production: I‟ve never seen Pavarotti do
    such a good acting job. This (1981) must have been the height of his
    career because his acting in Ballo (1980) is also good (the singing
    spectacular). he is also fabulous on The Met‟s 2/10/73 Rigoletto played
    on Sirius. Hearing him on radio and seeing him in concert (“30 Years
    from Lincoln Center” – singing in 1980) where acting isn‟t such an
    issue makes me realize he may not be the greatest tenor of our
    generation but he has the best tenor voice. This is my first sighting of
    Ferruccio Furanetto whom I‟ve seen in more Mozart and Verdi operas
    than anyone (see list in I Vespri); as always, Edita Gruberova lyrical
    singing is glorious (the coloratura, the trills, the legato), but she has
    never looked more homely (I‟m not sure why as this was filmed only a



                                    42
    year after Seraglio). I also realized that the McVicar production kept
    me from appreciating Gilda. Christine Schafer‟s voice lacked the
    innocence and beauty required for the role (much as I thought of her in
    Seraglio). Like Ponnelle‟s Cosi, the songs are dubbed in the studio, but
    unlike Cosi, not as much care is taken with the lip synching.
   Interesting note: I just learned on Sirius that Ponnelle had Wixell also
    play Monterone, an interesting twist on “the curse” (the original name
    of the opera), suggesting that Rigoletto was the source of his own
    undoing. Here‟s a good place to quote William Berger: “Verdi had
    censors to maul his operas; we have directors.”
   Third production: The Met from 1977. Rigoletto has now won me over.
    I love the music, every bit of it. (In addition to the last-act quartet, my
    favorite scenes as of now are the two Rigoletto-Gilda extended duets
    and, of course, Caro nome (who can resist the latter). Cornell MacNeil
    first played the title role in 1959. He seems a bit fatigued in the role at
    times; so far, Ingvar Wixell is my favorite Rigoletto. Domingo first
    played the Duke of Mantua in 1969. In the backstage interview, he
    says he hates the role because, although he likes to be happy in life, he
    likes to suffer onstage and the Duke has only one brief moment of
    suffering (Parmi veder le lagrime). One Amazon reviewer points out
    that the Duke isn‟t the best role for Domingo‟s baritonal tenor because
    the tessitura is too high (and Domingo mentions the high tessitura in
    the interview). I agree. It‟s the only time I‟ve preferred Pavarotti over
    Domingo in a role (partly I suspect because the acting requirements in
    playing the Duke aren‟t great). Ileana Cotrubas sings beautifully, with
    a rich and creamy tone. Her voice just caresses you (especially in
    Levine‟s slow rendition of Caro nome, despite her struggle with the
    highest notes in it).
   One of the most beautiful and effortless sounding renditions I‟ve heard
    of Caro nome is Reri Grist on The Met‟s 2/10/73 Rigoletto (Sirius).
   Barcelona Amazon review (in one long paragraph): If you want a
    kinder, gentler “Rigoletto,” this may not be the production for you. It‟s
    as if the director is examining the underbelly of the all the characters.
    Even Gilda, although still sympathetic, doesn‟t make her initial
    entrance as the innocent bird-like creature we‟re used to. That said,
    this production excels in every way: the performances, the conducting,
    the direction, the sets and costumes. As the Duke of Mantua, Marcelo
    Alvarez is a revelation. His interpretation of the role has deepened
    since his 2001 Covent Garden performance (also on DVD) where he is
    essentially arrogant and full of raging hormones. Here, he‟s all that
    and more: a demonic, cruel bastard. It‟s the best interpretation of the
    Duke I‟ve seen. (If Rudy Maxa could hear Alvarez‟s sarcastic and
    bullying rendition of “Questa o quella,” he‟d stop using it as the bouncy
    theme music for his “Smart Travels” TV show! I‟ll never again be able



                                     43
       to relate to that song as fun and frivolous.) Alvarez‟s tenor voice just
       rings out throughout the opera. He sings the bel canto-style “Parmi
       veder” beautifully, but we can still hear his self-centeredness
       underneath the sentiment. And he performs “La donna e mobile” right
       in our faces, as if the Duke knows this tune is destined to become an
       opera cliché. What a brute. Carlos Alvarez is superb as Rigoletto. I‟ve
       never seen a role so well-studied. He appears to have a specific
       intention behind every word, every note, every move. His voice is
       powerful and expressive. In “Corteggiani, vil razza,” by the time he
       gets to “Give an old man his daughter back,” our heart is breaking for
       him. His deformity is no longer wretched for us to look at – it's just his
       outward physical appearance. Inside, he's just another parent suffering
       over a child. I‟d never heard of Inva Mula before, but she has an
       especially full-sounding and strong voice for a lyric soprano. She takes
       a different approach to Gilda. Yes, she‟s devoted to her father, but she‟s
       not as innocent initially as she‟s usually portrayed. You can tell from
       her first duet with Rigoletto that she wants a life of her own. I think it
       makes her character more realistic. She‟s an equal participant the
       lover‟s duet with the Duke. She‟s her own woman in “Caro Nome,”
       seeming at times to flirt with the audience as if we were a stand-in for
       the Duke. I‟ve never seen this famous aria performed in this way; she‟s
       no chirping bird, that‟s for sure. It definitely works for me. At the
       opera‟s end, the director wisely has Rigoletto lift the dying Gilda into a
       chair during their final duet which allows her voice to project the final
       moments of her life out into the audience. It makes for a riveting and
       powerful end to the opera. The conductor, Lopez-Cobos, makes the
       right choices throughout. Two examples. The fast orchestral pace of the
       first scene gives the impression that events are spiraling out of control,
       something only the audience and Rigoletto sense by the time the scene
       is over. Later, the conductor‟s lively, “not a care in the world”
       orchestration upon Rigoletto first seeing Gilda is incredibly jarring
       after the decadent and sinister scenes that have preceded it. Lopez-
       Cobos‟ approach serves to remind us that this is an opera of stark
       contrasts – between love and cruelty, between goodness and depravity
       (Rigoletto himself manifesting all these traits at one time or another
       during the opera). This production presents these contrasts in the most
       compelling and honest manner I‟ve seen. I don‟t think you‟ll find a
       better “Rigoletto” on DVD.

Il Trovatore (1851-2, revised 1856) Four productions
Vienna Opera 1978: Karajan, Domingo, Kabaivanksa, Cossotto, Cappuccilli
Arena di Verona 1985: Bonisolli, Plowright, Cossotto, Zancanaro
Covent Garden 2002: Rizzi, Cura, Villaroel, Naef, Hvorostovsky
Paris Opera, Bastille 2003: Alagna, Radvanovsky, Zajick, Frontali




                                          44
   The first Verdi I truly loved. Trovatore is riveting to me from beginning
    to end. The music is powerful yet lyrical at the same time. It and Otello
    are my favorite Verdi operas, with Don Carlos close behind.
   Trovatore has a wild quality to it with its firelight nighttime settings,
    its revenge theme, its intense (and sometimes crazed) characters. I love
    how it often feels out of control even though, of course, the singers can‟t
    be.
   Verdi‟s magic to me is how he can write a song (whether solo or
    ensemble) that is both so big in sound and intimate in feel.
   Leonora seems to require a soprano who has both dramatic heft and
    the lyric qualities of a bel canto singer, complete with coloratura.
    Tough assignment. Act IV, Scene 1: D’amor sull’ali rosee is one of the
    most beautiful pieces ever written for the vocal instrument. In this
    aria, Leonora bids the breezes of the night to carry her sighs to her
    lover who is in prison condemned to death. The sighing motifs are
    exquisite and heartbreaking. I have many performances on CD. My
    favorite is Zinka Milanov from the 1952 complete set. Leontyne Pricce
    and Barbara Frittoli are fine too.
   I like different aspects of all the performances I‟ve seen. Fiorenza
    Cossotto is famous for playing Azucena and, indeed, she inhabits the
    character in the two productions I‟ve seen her in, but I prefer the
    freshness of Yvonne Naef‟s voice and the more textured performance
    she gives in the Covent Garden production (she doesn‟t play Azucena
    as so crazed that we can‟t identify with her). Both Piero Cappuccilli
    (Vienna Opera) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Covent Garden) are great as
    di Luna, although Hvorostovsky is the better actor. It sounds to me
    like the latter is the successor to the former as the great Verdi baritone
    of his day – both are great because their sound is loud, lyrical,
    burnished, earthy. What else could one ask for?
   Re: Covent Garden: See my Amazon review. The singing isn‟t always
    the best (Veronica Villaroel struggles at times with the vocal
    requirements of Leonora and Jose Cura‟s voice is rough around the
    edges as Manrico), but the four leads attack their roles with passion
    and with the wild abandon that befits this opera. I love the production.
    (Cura appears to be a controversial tenor. Opera-L folk love or hate
    him; one called him a strangulated tenor and some of the criticism is
    personal – he‟s arrogant, etc. I like the visceral quality of his singing
    and acting. I also note an Opera-L post praising the rich Latin color of
    Villaroel‟s voice. I hadn‟t thought of that, but I agree.)
   Re: Vienna Opera. I read this was Karajan‟s last performance of
    Trovatore, one of his favorite operas. He must have wanted to savor
    every moment because the tempo is extremely slow. It‟s effective in the
    slow arias (di Luna‟s Il balen, Manrico‟s Ah! Si, ben mio, Leonore‟s
    D’amor sull’ali rosee) but takes the wildness out of the cabalettas and


                                    45
    the ensemble pieces. A young Domingo is wonderful as Manrico (even
    though he is to get better and better with age). I love how he embraces
    the tender and slow Ah! Si, ben mio, rather than just seeing it as a
    prelude to the famous battle cry, Di quella pira. The audience thought
    so too; they wouldn‟t stop applauding the former, making it hard for
    him to get to the latter! Raina Kabaivanksa isn‟t the most passionate
    performer (I like passion in Trovatore) but her pianissimo in D’amor
    sull’ali rosee makes it heartbreaking although some criticize her lack of
    a trill (said to represent Leonora‟s trembling soul). Unfortunately,
    after the Miserere, she doesn‟t perform the cabaletta, Tu vedrai che
    amore in terra (it‟s also omitted from my Karajan CD with Leontyne
    Price).
   Re: Paris Opera. The sound is so out of synch with the picture, that it‟s
    a challenge to follow. What a shock to see Dolora Zajick as Azucena
    almost 15 years after seeing her as Amneris in Aida. The voice is still
    great, but she looks like an old woman (can‟t tell how much is the
    Azucena costuming and make-up). She‟s great as Azucena, just as I‟d
    expected. She seems to be the successor to Cossotto as the Azucena of
    choice. The unpredictable Roberto Alagna is a disappointment. Here,
    he is either too aggressively loud – shouting his songs – or too soft to be
    heard. Sondra Radvanovsky sounds terrific. She‟s full-voiced and
    expressive. Her D’amor sull’ali rosee is exquisite, especially her trills.
    Too bad the cabaletta is omitted. I‟d like to see more of her.
   Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli are great on the 1962 Karajan CD.
    Price‟s husky voice is powerful yet beautiful. Comparing her to Frittoli
    feels like comparing apples and oranges. Franco Corelli‟s rendition of
    the slow Ah! Si ben mio is stunning; he croons it, drawing out some of
    the notes for a long long time. The audience goes wild even though the
    more famous Di quella pira is about to follow. The 1952 production
    with Zinka Milanov, Jussi Bjoerling, Leonard Warren, and Fedora
    Barbieri illustrates the point that we‟re not producing singers like we
    used to. The strength and flexibility in all of their voices is like nothing
    I‟ve heard before. That said, I prefer Corelli as Manrico because it‟s a
    role that calls for passion and wildness. Bjoerling‟s voice is too
    beautiful and sedate for this particular role.
   The unbelievability of the plot puts some people off – a mother
    mistakenly throwing her own infant into the fire – but the plot fits the
    wild feel of the opera. Is the Trovatore plot any different from the
    scare-me-to-death campfire stories we told each other in the dark of
    night?




                                     46
La Traviata (1852-3, revised 1854) Eight productions
Lanfranchi movie 1967: Moffo, Bechi, Bonisolli
Wolf Trap 1976: Rudel, Sills, Price
Zeffirelli movie 1982: Levine, Stratas, Domingo
La Fenice 1992: Rizzi, Gruberová, Shicoff, Zancanaro
Covent Garden 1994: Solti, Gheorghiu, Lopardo, Nucci
Kirov Opera St. Petersburg 2003: Gergiev, Netrebko, Chernomortsev
La Fenice 2004: Maazel,Ciofi, Sacca, Hvorostovsky
Salzburg 2005: Rizzi, Netrebko, Villazon, Hampson

      To fall in love with Traviata, I just had to see the right production. It
       was the third one I tried: La Fenice of 1992. Why that one? One
       reason: Edita Gruberová. (The first two I saw featured Stratas and
       Sills.)
      Gruberová‟s Violetta runs deep. She convincingly portrays the intense
       changes Violetta undergoes as the opera progresses. Until I saw her
       performance, I simply didn‟t understand what was going on in
       Violetta‟s long set piece at the end of Act I where she‟s taking a long
       hard look at how she wants to live her life. Throughout the
       performance, Gruberová performs every piece, no matter how difficult,
       with clear intention; not a note is thrown away.
      I‟m overwhelmed by the number of powerful and moving pieces in this
       opera, from Violetta‟s set piece referred to above, to her extended duet
       with Germont, to the concertato finale after Alfredo insults her (the
       interplay between chorus and soloists here is like nothing I‟ve ever
       heard), to the grieving orchestral prelude before the bedroom scene, to
       the reality of the portrayal of Violetta‟s death (starting with her
       seeming to literally fade away as she sings Addio del passato).
      I‟ve fallen under the spell of Traviata and have Gruberová to thank.
      I‟ve read that there can never be the definitive production of Traviata
       because the vocal demands on the soprano are too great for any one
       singer to excel in all four acts. Case in point. Overall I find Gruberová‟s
       performance to be more profound and moving than Angela
       Gheorghiu‟s, but the latter‟s cry of “Amami, Alfredo!” in Act II seems to
       have seared itself permanently on my brain – I cannot get the sight or
       sound of it out of my mind. Both are great sopranos with voices
       sufficiently different in sound that I feel no need to compare them.
       (The most spellbinding Armani, Alfredo! cry I‟ve seen is from Beverly
       Sills at :29 on her Great Performances special, sung in 1955, the same
       year she debuted at the NYCO.)
      A further comparison of the La Fenice (Gruberová) and the Covent
       Garden (Gheorghiu) productions: Neil Shicoff as Alfredo and Giorgio
       Zancanaro as Germont are superior to their counterparts in the Covent
       Garden production. Shicoff‟s sensitive portrayal of Alfredo turns him
       into a tragic character at the end and he and Gruberová have great
       chemistry. Perhaps because neither of them is that attractive


                                          47
    physically, they make a believable match! Zancanaro plays Germont in
    the Act II duet not as an evil force (which is the easier way out as a
    performer) but as a concerned, if overbearing, parent. As Germont, Leo
    Nucci is, however, superior to Thomas Hampson (Salzburg 2005) who
    seems not to know how to play a father.
   The 2004 La Fenice production was a big disappointment. (Amazon
    review is in a separate document.) Traviata seems to be the one Verdi
    opera that, like Mozart‟s Da Ponte operas, lends itself to contemporary
    stagings. On that matter, I would repeat the Opera-L poster‟s
    comments from my Cosi discussion. One of her points is that there
    seems to be a desperate need to convince people that opera is hip
    (which suggests the art form is in trouble). Watching the La Fenice
    production a year later, my negative opinion remains the same. Ciofi‟s
    Addio del passato is the highlight moment.
   From Amazon review: The 2005 Salzburg production gets mixed
    reviews, partly because of its modern and stark stage design. [As
    usual, those who don‟t like it call it Eurotrash.] But unlike the recent
    2004 production from La Fenice, which also has a contemporary
    setting, this one works for me because the chemistry is great between
    the two stars and the director allows their relationship to bloom. Anna
    Netrebko has the most remarkable voice – rich, creamy, and dusky. If
    you like seeing two lovers light up the TV screen, you‟ll love this
    production. Assuming she takes care of it, Netrebko‟s voice should only
    get better, but I didn‟t feel that her interpretation of Violetta was as
    nuanced and deep as others I‟ve seen (perhaps she‟s just too young);
    but oh, can she sing. Rolando Villazon is wonderfully expressive as
    Alfredo and has a great tenor voice. He flails a bit too much around the
    stage though (strangely enough, a criticism leveled at Netrebko in her
    recent performance in Don Pasquale at The Met). Thomas Hampson
    sings well as Germont, but was a bit stiff in the role; odd for a
    performer who is often criticized for being too much of a ham onstage.
    [Both Hampson and Hvorostovsky fall short as Germont, the latter in
    La Fenice 2004. They are such great baritones and performers that I
    have to think they were just too young to know how to play fathers of
    grown men, so they did so by being stiff.] Bottom line, don‟t miss the
    chance to see two superstars in the making.
   Kirov Opera. Looks like it was recorded off Russian TV. No subtitles.
    Netrebko‟s Sempre Libera is transcendent here. She executes the
    treacherous falling couplets with precision that I‟ve not heard before.
    And she truly looks like she‟s dying in the last Act. Addio del passato is
    riveting. Great death scene, as she stands up on the bed and collapses.
   1967 move with Anna Moffo: The dubbing is so horrible at times, that
    it‟s better to just listen to the soundtrack. As I‟ve read, Moffo‟s voice is
    indeed wonderfully pure and she is a real beauty. Her Sempre libera is



                                     48
    a highlight. It‟s sung with incredible ease and flow. Some have called
    her the Violetta of the 1960‟s. I enjoy her straightforward delivery – a
    minimum of extra stage action, even though she‟s acting and singing.
    (The movie director was her husband at the time.) Franco Bonisolli
    looks like a baby compared to his 1985 Trovatore. His upper register is
    just beautiful.
   Traviata and Otello are two Verdi operas that lyric sopranos (who also
    sing Mozart) can handle. I‟ve seen several singers in both these Verdi
    operas and in several Mozart ones: e.g. Gruberová, Fleming, Te
    Kanawa, Ciofi.
   I heard the overture to Traviata played as a stand-alone piece on the
    local classical station. It struck me that the sadness, hope, and tragedy
    of the opera are all contained in this short piece.
   Re: older children and teenagers. Some of Verdi‟s plots are too far-
    fetched for adults to accept (a revenge-seeking mother mistakenly
    throwing her own infant into the fire, a father unknowingly carrying
    around his own daughter‟s corpse). And, even if believable, the plots
    may be too gruesome for children (Rigoletto again, Aida and her lover
    being buried alive.) But Traviata is a great choice to introduce
    teenagers to Verdi. The plot is contemporary enough to make a good
    soap opera: a woman of dubious means has a terminal illness but
    sacrifices her one chance at happiness so as not to sully the reputation
    of her lover‟s family. Of course, her lover is not told the real reason for
    her sacrifice until she‟s about to die. Soap opera all the way. And the
    story is full of real-life family issues, from money problems to a parent
    objecting to his child‟s choice in a mate. Oh, and, it‟s full of great
    music. You can chose from traditional productions or those set in the
    present day. Of the latter, I recommend Salzburg, 2005 with Netrebko
    and Villazon over La Fenice of 2004 with Ciofi and Sacca. The latter
    (as my Amazon review indicates) is just too grim and, in my opinion,
    cheapens Verdi‟s magnificent music.




                                     49
Verdi: I Vespri Siliciani to Falstaff

I Vespri Siliciani (1854)
La Scala 1990: Muti, Merritt, Studer, Furlanetto, Zancanaro

      The opera was first composed for the Paris Opera as a “Grande Opera”
       (five acts, ballet, lots of big chorus numbers, etc.).
      Vespri was a shock after the intimacy of the “big three” that preceded
       it. And the music is, for the most part, much more restrained than in
       those operas (little of that wild feel I love in Verdi). I agree with
       William Berger‟s assessment (after he notes that Verdi‟s mind was
       committed to the project but not his heart): “If anything is missing in
       Vespri, it‟s the sustained level of emotional truth so evident in his
       previous three operas.”
      I‟d say that Verdi perfected the Grande Opera form on his second try
       with Don Carlos.
      Great work by Ricardo Muti in the overture (which Forman calls
       Verdi‟s best).
      This was my first viewing of Cheryl Studer (Elena) and the tenor Chris
       Merritt (Arrigo), although she sings Konstanze on my Seraglio CD. He
       does a good job although his voice is a bit dry in sound. She‟s another
       strong Verdi soprano. I especially appreciate her good diction. Her
       melancholy Act IV aria, Arrigo! Ah parli a un core, is beautifully
       performed, complete with coloratura. In fact, there‟s an unusual
       amount of coloratura required in this Verdi role. This aria is my
       favorite piece in the opera.
      It‟s great to see the familiar Ferruccio Furlanetto singing bass. I‟ve
       watched him in Mozart and Verdi operas over a span of more than 20
       years, starting as Sparafacile in Rigoletto (1981), then as the Grand
       Inquisitor (1983) and as Phillip (1986) in Don Carlo, then Leporello
       (1987), then Guglielmo in Cosi (1988), and most recently as Leporello
       in The Met‟s 2000 Don Giovanni.
      First time through, this is not one of my favorite Verdi operas. I much
       prefer the even lesser known I Due Foscari – which isn‟t even in
       Forman‟s book! Sometimes Verdi‟s brilliance is on display in Vespri,
       but for such a long opera, those moments are too few and far between
       for me (Elena and Arrigo‟s Act II duet, Monforte and Arrigo‟s Act III
       duet when the former tells the latter he‟s his father, Elena‟s Act IV
       aria referred to above). I did enjoy all the dancing in the opera.
       (Because he already had a ballet company on the payroll for the long
       Act III ballet, the director must have decided to use dancers
       throughout the opera‟s five acts, in many of the chorus numbers.




                                            50
Simon Boccanegra (1856-7, lib. by Piave; revised 1881 with Boito as librettist)
Two productions
Glyndebourne 1998: Pasquetto, Prokina, Sidhom, Rendall
Teatro Communale, Florence 2002: Abbadfo, Guelfi, Mattila, La Scola

      On first viewing, unlike in Trovatore, the convoluted plot of Boccanegra
       gets in the way of the opera. The best part of the opera for me is the
       great orchestration – Verdi as a composer of concert music! The
       orchestration is dark – low strings, often without the violins.
      In a Sirius interview, Thomas Hampson called Boccanegra “Verdi for
       grown-ups.” It‟s certainly not as easily accessible as other Verdi, so I‟ll
       work on it. Hampson said that the libretto to the 1856 version was
       weak and that the 1881 rewriting was a brilliant, including the
       inclusion of the Council Scene. He says the opera doesn‟t make sense
       without that scene.
      I love the Prologue theme which is repeated over and over during the
       “talking” that develops the plot.
      Amelia‟s aria in Act I, Scene 1 is lyrical and beautiful (Come in
       quest’ora bruna). No wonder sopranos like to record it ((I have Te
       Kanawa and Frittoli performing it on CD). The aria is preceded by a
       flowing orchestral interlude that sounds pastoral. The scene continues
       with a touching duet between Amelia and Gabriele and then ends with
       yet another one of Verdi‟s stunning father-daughter duets. This one is
       special because it‟s during the course of the duet that they discover
       their true relationship. The orchestration again is special, Verdi using
       it to express how overwhelming the moment is for both of them. As
       Amelia, Elena Prokina sings beautifully; she has a lilting and
       expressive voice. And, not surprisingly, Karita Mattila is stunning in
       the role.
      Act I, Scene 2, The Council Scene, was added by Verdi and Boito in the
       1881 revision. It is powerful, especially again in its orchestration, a lot
       of which sounds like sacred church music to me.
      Act II seems like a hodge-podge of moments. I agree with Berger that
       it‟s a let down after the Council Scene. The first part of the concertato
       finale, Plebe! Patrizi, is somber but expressive and beautiful,
       dominated by Simone‟s baritone and Amelia‟s soprano, the latter
       repeating pace, pace.
      Act III poses quite a performing challenge for the title character since
       he is poisoned in the previous Act. As a result, he spends Act III slowly
       dying (not unlike Violetta in Traviata I suppose). When his death
       finally occurs, it‟s a powerful moment with bells tolling and a hushed
       chorus. This is preceded by Boccanegra blessing the newlyweds and
       the two of them then pleading with him not to die, Amelia‟s voice
       soaring above the others. Wow.


                                           51
      I still haven‟t taken to this opera the way I have to some of Verdi‟s
       other “lesser knowns” like Ernani, Macbeth, and Ballo. It‟s uneven.
       The three highlights for me are Act I, Scene 1, the moving ending in
       Act IV, and Verdi‟s orchestral score.

Un Ballo in Maschera (1857-8)
Covent Garden 1975: Abbado, Domingo, Ricciarelli, Cappuccilli, Grist
The Met 1980: Patane, Pavarotti, Ricciarelli, Quilico, Blegen

      Re: Covent Garden 1975: This is my earliest Domingo sighting
       (Rigoletto was 1977 and Trovatore was 1978 and Luisa Miller was
       1979). Here he‟s 34. I‟m in heaven listening to the young Domingo‟s
       voice. He‟s having a great time onstage in the early part of the opera.
       It‟s a joy to watch. And to think I just saw him in 2006 in the Volpe
       Gala, stealing the show with his energetic and expressive performance.
      Re: The Met 1980: The sound (like an echo chamber) and picture (dark
       and fuzzy) are terrible. It‟s set in Boston (with the fictional Riccardo,
       Governor of Boston) where Verdi had to move the action after the
       censors said “no” to Europe. Pavarotti: Oh the voice, the voice – and
       the best acting I‟ve seen from him (a much tougher assignment than
       the one dimensional Duke in Rigoletto).
      Katia Ricciarelli plays Amelia here and in Covent Garden. I love her
       warm, rich, expressive voice. People call it “creamy.” I‟ve read that the
       heavier Verdi roles and Turandot ruined her lyric/spinto voice. Louis
       Quilico (Met) and Piero Cappuccilli (Covent Garden) are both great
       baritones.
      Reading about the history of how this opera came to be is as
       fascinating as watching it. I also read that on January 7, 1955, Marion
       Anderson became the first black singer at The Met and that this was
       the opera. She played Ulrica.
      Some say that Ballo should be grouped with Verdi‟s Big Three, but
       that the public has never supported it like they do the others. I don‟t
       think Ballo sustains the high quality that the other three contain from
       beginning to end. (e.g. Act II is not up to their quality except for the
       stunning love duet between Riccardo/King and Amelia and the frantic
       trio with Renato that follows it).
      Verdi has written a “pants role” and one for soprano no less. Oscar‟s
       music is a coloratura delight. In Covent Garden, Reri Grist shines in
       the role. I‟ve now heard her two years earlier as Gilda in The Met‟s
       Rigoletto on Sirius. Her voice is perfect for Gilda. Beautiful lyric and
       coloratura singing.
      Act I, Scene 1 is splendid. I‟m taken by all the characters very quickly,
       each being given a short solo: the besotted (per Pavarotti) or the fun-
       loving (per Domingo) Riccardo/King; the earnest Renato; the cheerful
       Oscar (with the orchestra laughing behind him). The final galloping


                                            52
       chorus is delightful, with shades of Rossini in its speed and patter
       (Forman says it anticipates Offenbach).
      I love the ensemble pieces of Act I, Scene 2 (in Ulrica‟s cave): the trio
       (Amelia, Ulrica, the King) and the beautiful flowing quintet (E scherzo
       od e follia – “It‟s a joke, this prophesy”; note the word “scherzo” that
       Beethoven used for his pieces that replaced the traditional minuet and
       trio movement). The quintet follows Ulrica‟s prophesy and we‟re
       treated to the simultaneous expression of the King‟s amusement (“it‟s a
       joke” – although Pavarotti plays the scene differently from Domingo,
       as if he‟s worried underneath that it‟s not at all a joke), the two
       conspirators singing ominously in the bass, and Oscar‟s voice soaring
       above it all. The finale to the Act is great too, with full chorus. And, of
       course, this scene features the great tenor showpiece, the “Fisherman‟s
       Song”: Di’ tu, se fedele il flutto.
      Re: Act II. A let down except for what I noted above.
      Act III, Scene 1 is as wonderful as William Berger describes it, moving
       from the two arias (including Renato‟s Er tu) to a trio to a quartet to a
       quintet. In the latter, Amelia and Oscar sing the same melody, the
       former in the minor and the latter in the major; a stroke of genius by
       Verdi.
      A splendid (and long) death scene, unusually staged by Verdi with full
       chorus accompaniment. It makes for a powerful ending.

La Forza del Destino (1861-62 for St. Petersburg, rev. 1868-69 for La Scala)
The Met 1984: Levine, Price, Giacomini, Nucci

      William Berger calls this “Verdi‟s wildest opera.” If by wild, he means
       “all over the place,” I agree. I‟d call it Verdi‟s potpourri opera. I find it
       to be a jarring combination of intensely personal stories, frivolous
       diversions (the gypsy Preziosilla, the peddler Trabuco), serious
       religious music, comic relief (the monk Melitone), military marches
       and confrontations. It has no unifying tone. As a result, I like it for
       some of its great pieces, but the story doesn‟t affect me emotionally.
       Like Vespri, it‟s not a favorite Verdi of mine (not yet, at least).
      What I love: The “destiny” motif in the overture which consists of
       rushing, ominous strings and reoccurs before and during Leonora‟s
       arias; Leonora‟s beautiful prayer aria: Madre, pietosa Vergine; the
       tenor and baritone duet, Solenne in quest’ora (described by Berger as
       “the love duet Verdi never wrote for tenor and soprano”); Don Carlo‟s
       cabaletta, Ah! Egli e salvo follows his exclamation Oh giola! – “he
       lives.” After the great baritone, Leonard Warren, cried “he lives,” he
       died on stage at The Met, March 4th 1960; Leonora‟s Pace, pace mio
       Dio! Is beautiful (performed by Dessi on Verdi Gran Gala DVD and by
       Angela Georghiu on Essential Verdi CD). I heard Price on Sirius in a



                                           53
       1977 Met broadcast of Forza; her voice and acting were absolutely
       superb, and Zinca Milanov was out of this world in a KXPR broadcast
       from the New Orleans Opera, 1953.
      This was my first opportunity to see Leontyne Price. What a powerful
       voice and what stage presence. She sounds like a soprano of a bygone
       era (even though, at 57, she does sound strained in the upper register).
       I own a CD of her as Leonora in Trovatore, recorded 22 years before
       this La Forza production. She must have also been a great Aida. And
       what a treat to hear her as Donna Anna on Sirius‟ 1974 Met broadcast.
       Her Non mi dir is exciting. She executes the coloratura like a lyric
       soprano even though she‟s already singing the big Verdi roles (e.g.
       1962 CD of Trovatore).
      I wouldn‟t have recognized such a young Leo Nucci had I not seen his
       name in the cast. It made me realize how much, in the ensuing years,
       his voice has grown brittle and hard-edged. I wonder if this is his first
       Verdi role. (I‟ve seen him in a Lucia from 1982.)

Don Carlos/Don Carlo (1866-7, rev. in Ital. 1882-83, omitting Act I, rev.
again in 1886, restoring Act I) Four productions
The Met 1983: Levine, Domingo, Freni, Quilico, Bumbry, Ghiaurov, Furlanetto
Salzburg 1986: Von Karajan, Carreras, D‟Amico, Baltsa, Furlanetto, Salminen, Cappuccilli
Theatre du Chatelet 1996: Pappano, Alagna, Mattila, Hampson, Meier, Van Dam
Amsterdam Opera 2004: Chailly, Roocroft, Villazon, Croft, Lloyd, Urmana

      This massive “Grande Opera” is on Denis Forman‟s A+ list. William
       Berger says “The opera world can be divided into two populations:
       those of us who think that Don Carlos is the Greatest Thing That Ever
       Happened To Art, and everybody else.” Berger also says, “Whether you
       enter into the mind-set of this opera fully depends on how much you
       are able to meditate on death for five hours.” I agreed with this latter
       statement until I saw the full five-act French version from Theatre du
       Chatelet; now I‟d say it‟s about life, not death. I do agree with Berger
       that “It‟s really a series of one-on-one confrontations punctuated by
       profound soliloquies and a few large ensembles.” In other words, Don
       Carlo’s greatness lies in its duets (except for the great Carlo, Rodrigo,
       Eboli trio and Elizabeth‟s two arias).
      Musically, the opera sounds closer to Otello than to Aida even though
       it is considered a middle-period opera and was written before Aida.
       (Some suggest that Verdi reverted to his more conventional form in
       Aida because he even scared himself with his daring innovations in
       Don Carlos!) Like Otello, Don Carlos doesn‟t contain many hummable
       tunes. Because it lacks the sharp focus of Otello (the latter single-
       mindedly driving toward the end from the moment the curtain goes
       up), in my first two viewings of Don Carlos, I found myself at wanting



                                           54
    “melodies” to hold onto. But after seeing the Theatre du Chatelet
    production, I was hooked.
   Don Carlos is now one of my favorite operas. It‟s “grande,” and
    intimate at the same time. One example: By giving Philip II the aria,
    Elle ne m’aime pas, Verdi even makes the cruel and brutish leader
    sympathetic; everyone wants to be loved. Bob Levine: “The cello solo
    that precedes Philip‟s aria sets a mood of such dejection that it aches.”
   Re: productions that omit Act I. I struggle with the first part of Don
    Carlos if Act I is omitted (which it commonly is) because then the opera
    doesn‟t come alive for me until the last two acts. By the end of Act IV,
    Scene 1 (Act III Scene 1 in the versions that omit Act I), the characters
    have finally become flesh and blood people (up to that point, for me,
    that is only true of Don Carlos).
   Ah, Act I at last! (on my third production). The Theatre du Chatelet
    production, in French, contains Act I and it makes all the difference
    because Don Carlos and Elisabeth‟s love scene, followed by the
    heartbreaking choice on her part to marry Carlos‟ father make all the
    subsequent motivations and sufferings of the characters clear (starting
    right off with Don Carlos‟ and Rodrigue‟s Oath Duet which had never
    fully made sense to me). And an Opera-L person pointed out that
    absent Act I, it isn‟t clear that Elisabeth was betrothed to Don Carlos
    and thus legitimately had his portrait in her jewel box.
   More on Chatelet (and see my Amazon review): This is Verdi‟s original
    French version, running 3 ½ hours. It‟s rare to see this Wagnerian
    length version of the opera. This is my second chance to see Karita
    Mattila (Leonore in Fidelio). Could she be the best soprano around
    today? Her voice is full-bodied, strong, and expressive and, as icing on
    the cake, is mysteriously sweet. Her high pianissimo is breathtaking.
    And she‟s great dramatically. She is perfection as Elisabeth, a tragic
    figure trying to do the right thing politically, but in secret mourning for
    her lost love and her lost country. Her final aria, Toi qui sus le neant is
    stunning. I blow hot and cold on Roberto Alagna (as others appear to).
    His voice is not beautiful to listen to. It can grate (one person called it
    “leathery” and another “thin and tinny;” yet another, as a compliment,
    said it has a “brownish tint which is endlessly appealing”). All agree
    that he has a tendency to turn sharp. But his voice is very expressive
    and he‟s totally committed to his characters onstage. I thought he was
    great in Lucie (2002), not so great in Trovatore (2003), awful in L’Elisir
    (1996 – the same year as this Don Carlos). Here he‟s terrific, both
    dramatically and vocally, at portraying Don Carlos‟ weak character
    and tormented soul. And, he and Mattila have great chemistry. The
    rest of the cast is strong too. There‟s not a weak link. As a result, we
    are treated to sterling displays of the major voice types: soprano and
    tenor (already discussed); mezzo-soprano (Waltraud Meier as Eboli);



                                    55
    baritone (Thomas Hampson as Rodrigue); and bass (Jose van Dam as
    Phillip). This is a great production, one of the best operas I‟ve seen on
    DVD.
   The 1986 Salzburg production has too many cuts (Act I; the second
    verse of the Veil Song, the scene where Elisabetta and Eboli swap
    identities). It‟s a treat to finally see José Carreras. Agnes Baltsa is
    fabulous as Eboli, but why oh why did Karajan omit most of the Veil
    Song? She is riveting in the famous mezzo aria O don fatale, even
    pulling off a controlled breaking of the voice at the high emotional
    point in the piece. She must have been one of the great mezzos of the
    1980‟s. And Piero Cappuccilli is great as Rodrigo. His aria, Per m’e
    guinto (“It‟s my day”) in the cell with Don Carlo is gut wrenching. He‟s
    also great in the 1978 Vienna Opera‟s Trovatore as di Luna and in
    1975‟s Ballo from Covent Garden. He must have been one of the great
    baritones of his day. And here is the ever present Ferruccio Furlanetto!
   Edited version of Amazon review of Amsterdam production: When the
    original Act I is omitted, as it is here, we miss the one moment of
    happiness for Don Carlo and Elisabetta. In addition, too much
    background regarding the subsequent action is omitted – references
    are lost (e.g. Elisabetta‟s reference to Fontainebleau during her great
    last act aria) and the characters‟ motivations aren‟t always clear. I was
    looking forward to seeing Rolando Villazon as Don Carlo. As expected,
    his singing is superb. His voice is crisp and expressive, and he pays
    such careful attention to phrasing that every piece sounds fresh and
    new. But I was disappointed in Villazon‟s interpretation of the title
    character. I thought he took the same approach to Don Carlo that he
    did to Alfredo in the 2005 Salzburg production of “La Traviata” (hard
    to believe, the two characters being so utterly different in
    temperament and circumstance). But in both operas, Villazon‟s onstage
    demeanor is that of an immature and crazed adolescent, flailing
    around too much. I was hoping for a more nuanced performance from
    him as the troubled but complex Don Carlo. That said, the DVD is
    worth seeing just to hear Villazon sing. Amanda Roocroft, who was so
    sparkling as Fiordiligi in the Theatre du Chatalet‟s 1992 DVD of
    Mozart‟s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” struggles hard to meet the demands of
    Elisabetta. This role doesn‟t require the performer to be a “dramatic
    soprano” as is the case with many Verdi roles (Aida, for example); but
    the voice required for Elisabetta is heavier than that of a strictly “lyric
    soprano.” The word “spinto” is often used for this “in between” quality
    of voice (“spinto” meaning “pushed” in Italian), but of course, the skill
    is to “push” without sounding pushed. The voice must naturally sound
    lyrical but with considerable heft to it. Roocroft‟s attempts to meet the
    vocal requirements of the role sound harsh and strained throughout,
    especially when in the upper register. Violetta Urmana as Eboli was a



                                    56
       disappointment. Not only does she not act the part of a femme fatale,
       she and the chorus are downright clunky in the Veil Song. With its
       flowing Castilian sound, this melodic piece should come as a breath of
       fresh air after the doom and gloom of the previous scenes (and of most
       of the subsequent ones!). Urmana fares better in O Don Fatale, as if
       she finally just lets her deep chest voice relax and show its stuff.
       Lastly, I was disappointed by the directorial choice to make Don
       Carlo‟s fate clear at the end. Irresolution is one of the themes of this
       opera from beginning to end. It‟s what Verdi and his librettist intended
       and I prefer that it be left that way.
      The Met from 1983. A Spanish DVD with automatic English subtitles.
       What a cast! Five Act version in Italian (although it‟s presented in
       three Acts). It even includes the peasant chorus and scene with
       Elisabetta at the beginning that I‟ve never seen before. This scene sets
       up the misery of the people, showing us why Elisabetta‟s sacrifice in
       marrying Phillip is so great. Even Verdi omitted this scene at one
       point. Ah Domingo in 1983. Pure heaven – the best Don Carlo I‟ve seen
       – such passion. He‟s reunited with Freni who was in Ernani with him
       in 1982. She‟s very good but a cut below the transcendent Karita
       Mattila. Freni is 48 here and may have lost some of her voice power,
       but her acting is superb. Her Non pianger, mia compagna is incredibly
       moving and shows off her acting skills even though she has to work
       hard to hit the high notes. Nicolai Ghiaurov‟s strong-voiced but
       emotional performance of the great bass aria, Ella giammai m’amo, is
       the best I‟ve heard and The Met‟s cellist excels in the obliggato. I
       enjoyed seeing the great Grace Bumbry, but Agnes Baltsa rules in O
       don fatale!

Aida (1870) Three productions
The Met 1989: Levine, Millo, Domingo, Zajick, Milnes
Teatro di San Carlo Napoli 1999: Cedolins, Fraccaro, Zajick
Gran Teatro del Liceu, Balcelona 2003: Dessi, Armiliato, Fiorillo

      The first time I saw Aida, it was all spectacle. By the third viewing, it
       had become an intimate tale, so familiar to us all: a tragic love triangle
       (and an interracial one at that). On fourth viewing, I fell in love with
       all of it – the spectacle of court and war, the dances, Verdi‟s use of the
       orchestra, the heartbreakingly beautiful pieces he wrote for Aida, the
       stunning (as in, “it stuns me”) ending…and on and on.
      It amazes me how Verdi can move seamlessly from spectacle (e.g. the
       triumphal march) to the most intimate of songs (Numi, pieta; O patria
       mia). And, uncharacteristically, Verdi gets downright sensuous in Act
       II, Scene 1 with Amneris being dressed and pampered by her ladies
       and slaves; Denis Forman calls it “one of the most beguiling scenes in
       all of opera.”


                                             57
   The final scene is nothing short of brilliant: Verdi ends this bigger-
    than-life opera not with the brass of the orchestra blasting away but
    with the most intimate of scenes, accompanied by strings alone. Yes,
    the lovers die, but it‟s Verdi‟s brilliant overlay of their death duet with
    Amneris‟ prayer for peace – she, who must live with what she‟s done –
    that has me crying every time.
   See Amazon review of the Barcelona production. It‟s a feast for the
    eyes with its restored trompe-l’oeil sets from 1945. Fabio Armiliato and
    Elisabetta Fiorillo (Radames and Amneris) are good, but are outshone
    by The Met‟s Placido Domingo and the incredible Dolora Zajick.
    Fiorillo‟s singing as Amneris in the Barcelona production is strong (and
    the audience thought so) but she sings as if it‟s a solo performance.
    Even in the ensemble pieces, she continually faces the audience,
    raising her arms straight out to her sides, creating this massive
    rectangle with her robe. The effect is that she appears to be on the
    stage by herself instead of part of an ensemble. For me, it ruins the
    great Act IV, Scene 1 duet with Radames. By contrast, Dolora Zajick in
    The Met production from 1989 not only sings Amneris powerfully and
    beautifully, but the intensity of her interactions in the scenes with
    Radames and Aida make my spine tingle. I think she just about steals
    the show and some in the audience thought so too. (I don‟t mean to
    slight the other performers from The Met: the always superb Domingo
    and Aprile Millo as Aida.)
   As Aida, I cannot chose a “best” between Daniela Dessi (Barcelona)
    and Aprile Millo (The Met). They each bring their own excellence to the
    role: Millo singing with great emotion and passion; Dessi (a favorite of
    mine) projecting her usual fascinating combination of strength and
    vulnerability. Dessi‟s Ritorna vincitorci dialogue is followed by the
    most heartrending rendition of Numi, pieta (“Have pity on my
    suffering, O Gods”) that I‟ve heard on CD or DVD except for Maria
    Callas.
   The real-life husband and wife, Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato are
    also in Tosca and Madama Butterfly together. They have great
    rapport. As a singer, she can sometimes be shrill in the upper register,
    but I enjoy her strong yet often poignant stage presence. (See my
    comments on her under Tosca and Butterfly too).
   Re: Teatro di San Carlo: This production does seem amateur compared
    to the two others I‟ve seen. The principal reason to watch it is to see
    Dolora Zajick as Amneris, although I don‟t think she was putting her
    all into the performance (except in the finale to Act II where she takes
    charge of the opera, making sure her voice soars above the entire
    ensemble!). Fiorenza Cedolins, as Aida, has a lovely voice, more lyrical
    than dramatic, a new sound for me as Aida. She is moving throughout.




                                    58
Otello (1884-6, rev. 1887) Three productions
Covent Garden 1992: Solti, Domingo (at 51), Te Kanawa, Leiferkus
The Met 1995: Levine, Domingo (at 55), Fleming, Morris
La Scala 2001: Muti, Domingo (at 60), Frittoli, Nucci [Domingo‟s first Otello: 1975 at 34]

      I am in awe of this opera. It feels as life changing as seeing my first
       opera was a year ago. Otello is clearly late Verdi. Unlike Rigoletto,
       Trovatore, Traviata, and Aida, it has no “tunes.” A year ago this simply
       would not have appealed to me. (Amazon review is in a separate
       document.)
      The librettist‟s contribution to Otello should not be underestimated.
       Arrigo Boito condensed Shakespeare‟s play (eliminating Act I) and this
       drives the action forward. In addition, Boito wrote dialogue that is
       clear and expressive and poetic. He wrote this libretto for Verdi alone
       and waiting patiently for years for Verdi to set it to music.
      Robert Greenberg‟s summary. Act I: Otello as hero and lover; Act II:
       Otello in doubt; Act III: Otello‟s degradation; Act IV: Otello‟s
       destruction.
      The choruses in Act I are riveting: the storm chorus, the fire chorus,
       the drinking song chorus (which turns riotous when Cassio and
       Montano fight). The music in the storm scene is wild, conjuring up the
       uncontrolled forces of nature. The impression Act I leaves is that the
       populace is totally dependent on Otello to keep order in the universe. It
       makes his fall in Act II all the more tragic.
      More on Act I: Could this be the most perfectly crafted first act in all of
       opera? It ramps us up to a fever pitch the moment the curtain rises,
       maintains that intensity through most of the act only to suddenly
       sooth us into a deep calm as Otello and Desdemona sing the love duet,
       Gia nella notte densa, that brings the curtain down. It must be among
       the most beautiful of love duets ever written. It‟s certainly the sexiest
       one I‟ve ever heard. Yes, sexy – to be frank, it‟s foreplay. And,
       remarkably, it stands as the finale to the Act.
      Act II. It‟s so painful to watch this heroic figure from Act I descend so
       quickly into the hell of a petty, jealous husband. We‟re deceived by
       Otello‟s bravado in Act I; this war hero from a foreign land is not at all
       prepared for the machinations that come with political power or for the
       hatred engendered by his being a Moor. (Of course, the motivation
       behind Iago‟s heinous actions can be interpreted – and thus played – in
       several ways; but whatever way, Otello is simply no match for him.) I
       can‟t help but hate Iago even while recognizing this is silly: his aria,
       “Credo,” reveals him to be sick of mind, to have a malignant view of
       man‟s place in the universe.
      Act III. The intensity of the singing and orchestration does not let up.
       To think that Verdi was 73 when he wrote this opera. It takes a lot of
       energy just to watch it! The finale to this act overwhelms me: Otello‟s


                                              59
    abuse of Desdemona, her singing about sinking into slime after he
    throws her to the ground, Otello‟s subsequent fainting. It‟s almost
    more than I can bear.
   Act IV. I am stunned: Desdemona‟s Willow Song and Ave Maria
    prayer, Otello‟s suicide with the “kiss theme” reappearing as he crawls
    dying toward her. The end of Act I and Act IV parallel each other:
    Otello asking for a kiss…and then for another kiss. And then he and
    Desdemona “departing the stage” together. Verdi refuses to let the
    opera‟s final chord resolve, leaving us desolate.
   Otello is the most powerful opera experience I‟ve had to date.
   These final paragraphs are notes from my Amazon review: I‟ve seen
    three DVD‟s featuring Placido Domingo in the title role: 1992 (Covent
    Garden), 1995 (The Met), and 2001 (La Scala). They are all high
    quality and worth owning but, in my opinion, this Met production has
    the best Desdemona (Renee Fleming), the best Iago (James Morris),
    and a stunning performance by Placido Domingo.
   Some comparisons. Domingo‟s voice is clearest and most effortless in
    the Covent Garden production. But his understanding of the role
    deepens dramatically between 1992 and 1995. By 2001, he embodies
    Otello, but his voice is not as full-bodied and is strained in places. His
    overall best performance is in this 1995 production. This conclusion is
    not just a compromise between when he‟s youngest in voice (1992) and
    most experienced in acting (2001). In Acts III and IV of The Met
    production, it feels as if Domingo is no longer performing; he becomes
    Otello. Words are inadequate to describe him here; it simply has to be
    experienced. His work in Otello‟s Act III soliloquy, the brief “Dio! Mi
    potevi,” is one of the finest two minutes I‟ve seen in opera. And he is
    simply spellbinding in Act IV, as he crawls dying toward Desdemona,
    crying out for a kiss while the “kiss theme” from their Act I duet plays.
   The three Desdemona‟s are Kiri Te Kanawa (1992 Covent Garden),
    Renee Fleming (1995 The Met), and Barbara Frittoli (2001 La Scala).
    All excel in different ways. Desdemona is a challenge to play. It‟s hard
    to convince an audience that she would so submissively accept the
    unjust fate she knows is about to befall her. Perhaps her love for Otello
    is so strong, she believes it will eventually bring him to his senses.
    Perhaps she‟s in a steadily increasing state of shock over his irrational
    behavior, shock that prevents her from acting. Perhaps she sees no
    choice but to accept whatever consequence follows from her bold move
    of having left her homeland to follow the Moor. These are but three
    possible approaches to the role.
   For purity of voice and lyrical quality, Te Kanawa (Covent Garden) is
    unsurpassed, but her acting is weak. Some might call her portrayal of
    Desdemona restrained; I find it too wooden. But it‟s worth seeing Te
    Kanawa to hear the purity of her voice, especially in Act IV‟s “Ave


                                    60
       Maria” prayer. Frittoli (La Scala) has a beautiful dark and dusky voice,
       and her portrayal of Desdemona as young and naive is moving.
      But Fleming‟s Met performance surpasses the other two. Her voice is
       more expressive and she‟s a better actress. In Otello and Desdemona‟s
       Act I duet, “Gia nella notte densa,” I can hardly breathe when Fleming
       and Domingo get to the kiss. The tenderness between them is palpable.
       In their duet and her “first tears” solo at the beginning of Act III,
       Fleming‟s combination of incomprehension, pain, and fear is
       heartrending. In Act IV, Fleming draws us to her sadly but quietly in
       the Willow Song only to stun us with her cry of terror at the end: “Ah!
       Emilia addio, Emilia, addio.” I‟ve read that this one short cry must
       communicate all the passion of an entire song. That‟s a tall order and,
       in my opinion, only Fleming pulls it off.
      Frittoli (La Scala) plays Desdemona as in an increasing state of shock.
       It‟s believable and effective, but Fleming‟s performance is deeper
       because it‟s multi-layered. To flesh out the character, I think Fleming
       incorporates all three of the approaches I described above, making
       Desdemona a more complex woman.
      A performer can take several approaches to Iago. There is no subtlety
       in Sergei Leiferkus‟ approach (Covent Garden). He exudes slimy evil
       intent, looking crazed at times. I think there‟s also a sexual component
       to his characterization (whether aimed at Desdemona or Otello, I
       couldn‟t say). Leo Nucci (La Scala) takes a more traditional approach
       to Iago, playing him as a nasty schemer. But once again, I prefer The
       Met production‟s James Morris. His Iago is the most frightening to me
       because he‟s seemingly so personable around Otello. His smile and his
       smooth baritone voice run chills down my spine.
      I prefer The Met DVD over the others, but you can‟t go wrong with any
       of the three. Bottom line, I recommend you don‟t miss Domingo as
       Otello in this powerful Verdi opera.

Falstaff (1889-92, rev. 1893 & 1894) Two productions
Covent Garden 1999: Haitink, Terfel, Frittoli, Tarver, Rancatore, Frontali, Manca di Nissa
Busseto Teatro Verdi 2001: Muti, Maestri, Frittoli, Florez, Frontali

      Here is Verdi at 80, writing his first comedy (again, with the wonderful
       Boito as librettists). Sometimes I think I‟m listening to a heavily
       orchestrated Mozart accompagnato because the music is so light on its
       feet and so precise. Other times, I hear a more sophisticated
       Rossini/Donizetti-type patter. But at the same time, it‟s all Verdi.
      Here‟s my read of the devilish Verdi at 8o. He was saying, “Want some
       Mozart? Here‟s some lighthearted and spirited ensembles and a final
       here‟s-the-moral chorus. Want some Rossini or Donizetti? Here‟s some
       patter. Want a Puccini-style young lovers‟ duet? Here‟s a snippet of
       one; I didn‟t bother composing the whole thing.” (I have to agree with


                                            61
    William Berger that Verdi is playing with us in Act IV when Nanette
    joins Fenton after his short love aria and we settle in for a sensual
    young lovers‟ duet, only to be jolted by Quickly abruptly interrupting
    the two of them. Berger writes: “Slyly, Verdi has let us know, at this
    late stage in his career, that he was quite capable of writing the sort of
    love music that we now associate with Puccini.”)
   Listening to Falstaff is like hearing a new composer. Gone are the
    powerful arias and memorable tunes, replaced by delightful ensemble
    pieces and orchestration that I would say can stand on its own as
    concert music if played without the voices.
   Oh, Act I, Scene II. Have I died and gone to heaven? The (almost) “a
    capella” quartet of the four women is amazing. Perhaps more patter
    than melody, but so expressive and so pleasing to the ear. And then
    four men enter with their own quick-paced quartet. Squeezed between
    all the chatter of the scene, we get the only love duet between Fenton
    and Nanette. It‟s exquisite and over in a flash. He: “Lips that are
    kissed lose none of their savor.” She: “No, they renew themselves, just
    like the moon.” Berger: “So it appears Verdi could write a duet about
    beautiful young love after all, he just waited until he was 80 to do it
    and dispatched it in six measures.” Before we know it, all eight are
    singing together while Fenton‟s lyrical crooning winds around them
    musically (Juan Diego Florez is just outstanding here). One of the
    greatest scenes I‟ve seen in opera. I hope Verdi had as much fun
    writing it as I have watching it.
   The performers in the two productions: Barbara Frittoli is as
    wonderful in these productions as she is in Otello. I‟m a big fan and
    hope to see more of her. The 2001 Teatro Verdi production was my first
    chance to see Juan Diego Florez, the Peruvian tenor who‟s being talked
    about as Domingo‟s successor. He was outstanding. Can‟t wait to see
    more of him. And Bryn Terfel sings fabulously although his
    interpretation of Falstaff is off to me – he‟s too brutish (just like his
    Don Giovanni!).
   I much prefer the Teatro Verdi production to the Convent Garden one.
    The only negative in the former is the clown costume they make
    Ambrogio Maestri wear as Falstaff (Terfel definitely looks more the
    part). The Covent Garden lollipop sets (a McVicar design) look silly to
    me and the overly bright primary colors are blinding. More
    importantly, with the exception of Frittoli (who is in both productions)
    all the performers are weaker. Act I, Scene II doesn‟t have the magic it
    should. By contrast, Juan Diego Florez (Teatro Verdi), with purity of
    voice and stage presence, manages to turn his small role into a major
    force in that scene.




                                    62
63
                                      Post-Verdi

A note on Wagner: I’ve yet to watch a Wagner opera on DVD, but have listened
to excerpts from several of them from The Met as played on Sirius radio. What
I’ve heard so far comports with this Opera-L poster’s opinion: “Although there
are some beautiful passages, the operas are tedious, pompous, and far too long
and I could not sit through one in a live performance if my life depending on
it.” Perhaps more exposure to his music will change my mind.

Johann Strauss
Die Fledermaus (1873-74)
Glyndebourne 2003: Allen, Armstrong, Ulfung, Ernman

      I‟m not sure technically what distinguishes opera from operetta. It
       can‟t be the spoken dialogue: Seraglio and Flute have that. Perhaps it‟s
       the quantity of spoken dialogue and the fact that it tells us more about
       the characters than the music does.
      Fledermaus has the feel of a musical comedy, and for that, I‟ll take
       Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their musicacls are moving even though
       they‟re comedies; by contrast, Fledermaus just seems silly to me.
      Of course, I love all the familiar Viennese waltz tunes but would prefer
       a CD of them so I don‟t have to sit through the endless dialogue that is
       supposed to be funny but isn‟t to me.
      The Glyndebourne production values are a feast for the eyes though –
       revolving sets and sumptuous costumes. Had I been in the audience,
       I‟m sure I would have had a good time.

Bizet
Carmen (1873-74) Five productions
Karajan movie 1967: Bumbry, Vickers, Freni
Zeffirelli movie 1984: Orchestra Natl. de France, Domingo, Migenes, Raimondi
Glyndebourne 1985: Haitink/Hall, Ewing
Covent Garden 1991: Mehta, Ewing, Lima
Glyndebourne 2002: McVicar, Jordan, von Otter, Haddock

      I prefer the later Ewing to the earlier; in the earlier, she seems to be
       straining to create the character. Was she too young to play Carmen?
      Amazon review: Anne Sofie von Otter‟s interpretation of Carmen drew
       “love it or hate it” reviews when it opened at Glyndebourne in 2002.
       Supporters called it passionate; detractors even called it lewd. Von
       Otter‟s performance is bawdy, sometimes even vulgar, but not lewd
       (which implies inappropriate). One thing‟s for sure: she‟s a force of
       nature onstage -- so much so, that I couldn‟t get her performance out of
       my mind for days after watching this DVD. Her quick-tempered
       Carmen is on a self-destruct course from the start. It‟s as if she and


                                           64
    director David McVicar used Don Giovanni as a model. Like Mozart‟s
    Giovanni, von Otter‟s Carmen is threatening from the moment she
    steps on stage (literally kicking a co-worker out of the way). Quite a
    contrast to the warm and playful entry and “Habarena” we‟re used to
    seeing (e.g. Grace Bumbry in the 1967 movie of “Carmen”). The
    freshness of von Otter‟s portrayal may come partly from the role being
    such a departure for her. (The blonde, blue-eyed Swede admits in an
    interview that she‟s “not anyone‟s idea of the Carmen-type.”) She may
    well have found an onstage sensuousness she didn‟t know she
    possessed! Her mezzo voice is big and expressive. She pays careful
    attention to phrasing, allowing her to make the most of Bizet‟s Spanish
    rhythms. Marcus Haddock is excellent as Don Jose. Often when Don
    Jose first looks at Carmen, we see an innocent guy and want to cry out,
    “Don‟t go near her!” By contrast, we can read suppressed anger off
    Haddock‟s Don Jose from the start, and his violent tendencies show
    early. This makes von Otter‟s Carmen and Haddock‟s Don Jose utterly
    believable as the doomed couple; they are both desperate and volatile.
    Haddock‟s strong tenor voice keeps pace with von Otter, no easy feat.
    I‟d give this production five starts if it weren‟t for the disappointing
    performances of the two main supporting players: Lisa Milne as
    Micaela and Laurent Naouri as Escamillo. Milne has a lovely voice, but
    her stage presence is weak. As a result, she misses the opportunity to
    contrast her character with that of Carmen as an alternative love
    interest for Don Jose had his life only taken a different path. As for
    Naouri, it can‟t be easy to make the Toreador Song sound fresh and
    new, as if it has grown out of the action in the opera, instead of
    recalling for us one of the many times we‟ve heard it out of context
    (perhaps as overhead music at the shopping mall!). Unfortunately,
    Naouri‟s rendition invokes all those clichés. His entire performance
    struck me as aloof and uninspired. The conducting by Phillipe Jordan
    is spirited, the chorus (including some fine dancers) is excellent, the
    sets and costumes complement the dark undertone of the opera, but
    it‟s Anne Sofie von Otter who sets this production apart.
   Lima (in Ewing #2) and Haddock (in Von Otter) interpret Don Jose
    differently but were both very effective. Lima‟s DJ is so boyishly
    innocent at the beginning, I want to cry out, “Don‟t go near her!” By
    contrast, I can read suppressed anger off Haddock‟s DJ from the start
    and his violent tendencies show early.
   I love Bumbry‟s sensuous and warm voice. It lifts the spirit. But oh my,
    who was that terrible-voiced guy that Karajan chose to sing Toreador
    (a relative perhaps)? And this is the same perfectionist Karajan who
    forces us to endure poorly executed lip-synching so that the vocals will
    be studio quality!




                                   65
      I don‟t know how to say this except to be blunt: after watching half a
       dozen Verdi operas, Carmen has fallen a bit in the ranks of tragedy for
       me.

Tchaikovsky
Eugene Onegin (1877-78)
Covent Garden 1994: Prokina, Drabowicz, Thompson

      I love this opera mostly because I love Tchaikovsky. He‟s the only
       composer whose romanticism moves me, instead of sounding
       sentimental to me; it‟s because for me, he composes straight from the
       heart. Yes, the music meanders in that Puccini-style I don‟t like but I
       forgive all with Tchaikovsky. See my notes in Denis Forman‟s book.


Offenbach
Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1877-80) Two productions
Covent Garden 1981: Domingo, Cotrubas, Baltsa, Serra
Paris Opera, Bastille 2002: Terfel, Shicoff

      For reasons I can‟t yet articulate, this one went straight to my heart. Is
       it my namesake singing herself to death? Is it the incredible Domingo?
       How can a voice be so powerful and sweet at the same time? He gives a
       moving performance.
      I was stunned to see such a young and beautiful Agnes Baltsa after her
       dour turn as Despina almost 20 years later with the Zurich Opera. I
       wish her Carmen were available at Netflix.
      Move forward 20 years to the Paris Opera. This staging is 180 
       different. I prefer the more traditional version from 1981 (I miss
       Venice), but to call this production “euro trash,” as some Amazon
       viewers do, is ridiculous. The staging is creative and consistent with
       the opera‟s themes. The singing is excellent throughout. The Doll Song
       is both hilarious to watch and beautifully sung. One criticism: Even
       though he‟s one evil presence in different guise, I wish Terfel had
       distinguished the four villains more. (I‟d love to see a soprano playing
       all three heroines.)
      Domingo and Shicoff put different spins on Hoffmann, the former being
       a scruffy type of down-and-out artist and the latter being more of a sad
       and lost type of down-and-out artist. Shicoff looks like a different
       person than he did 10 years earlier in Traviata. I never would have
       recognized him.

Massenet
Manon (1892-3, rev. 1884)
Paris Opera, Bastille 2001: Fleming, Alvarez




                                               66
      Finally, I‟ve seen Renee Fleming in one of her signature roles. Yes, the
       singing is mannered in all the ways people complain about: scooping,
       affectedness, changing rhythms, etc., but it seems to fit the character
       of Manon so it doesn‟t bother me. I think it‟s partly because Verdi was
       so precise (and brilliant) in his composing that I expect singers to
       “stand and deliver” what‟s on the page and not take liberties. But in
       Manon, let Fleming take liberties with that spectacular voice of hers.
       In reviewing her By Request CD, Bob Levine, after glowing praise,
       says “On the basis of this CD, one would have to acknowledge that
       Fleming is more interested in – and more successful at – pure singing
       than she is at character delineation,” going on to comment that her
       Butterfly sounds too much like her Norma. I thought she created a
       complex character in her Otello’s Desdemona, but I see what Bob
       means as I listen to the CD and as I watch her Manon.
      As an opera, Manon is not my style – too unfocused, Puccini-like – but
       without those soaring, beautiful arias that grow out of Puccini‟s
       orchestrations. Manon just doesn‟t move me. For one thing, I don‟t care
       about any of the characters. I read that the French have a musical
       term called “Massenetique” which means suave, elegant, flowing, but
       rarely deep. That about covers it for me.
      Act I. I liked the lover‟s duet, Nous vivons a Paris. Marcelo Alvarez, as
       Chevalier des Grieux, is a bit stiff onstage here, as in Rigoletto, but I
       like his full-bodied tenor voice.
      Act II. Adieu notre petite table shows the beauty of Fleming‟s voice and
       Alvarez is moving in En fermant les yeux.
      Act III, Scene 1: Another great showpiece for Fleming‟s voice, the
       gavotte Obeissons, quand leux voix appelle, on the joys of youth and
       love (it‟s on her CD). Scene 2: Again, Alvarez is moving in Ah, fuyez
       douce image (Ah, depart, fair image) as he is unable to banish Manon
       from his thoughts. The extended duet between des Grieux and Manon
       (on my Beverly Sills CD) is very Puccini-esque to me with its soaring
       vocal lines. Fleming‟s voice is at its best here – rich and expressive.
      Act IV. By now (gambling scene, des Grieux singing to Manon, “I love
       you and loathe you”), I‟m just waiting for the final act. Unlike Violetta
       and Alfredo in Traviata, I have never believed this was a true love
       bond and so the events at the end of the Act don‟t move me. Act V:
       Touching final duet.

Humperdinck
Hansel und Gretel (1893)
Zurich Opera 2001: Welser-Most, Nikiteaunu, Hartelius, Vogel, Jankova

      Rich orchestration (Wagnerian, I‟ve read). Lovely music, sounding folk
       song in origin but developed into full operatic splendor. I feel like I‟ve
       listened to my first Wagner – lightweight Wagner. (Forman calls it


                                           67
       “Wagner without the heavy breathing.”) The Zurich production
       features stunning sets by Maurice Sendak, but the lighting is so dark,
       it‟s hard to appreciate them.

Puccini

I have yet to appreciate most of Puccini. Two comments best sum up his operas for me. An
Opera-L member describes his operas as containing a few showstoppers separated by over-
orchestrated and aimless writing. I was surprised to see this comment as I read it after I‟d
made similar notes on his operas as I watched them. Second, was a comment by Maryanne
Bertram who said Puccini‟s music is like soundtrack music, telling the audience when to feel
this emotion and when to feel that emotion. I would add to this that I miss hearing baritones
and mezzos when I listen to Puccini; he virtually ignored the latter.

La Boheme (1894-5) Two productions
The Met 1982: Zeffirelli/Levine, Stratas, Carreras
Sidney Opera: 1993: Luhrmann

      Several people have told me that this is their favorite opera. I thought
       if I tried an updated version (Luhrmann‟s is set in 1950‟s bohemian
       Paris), I would enjoy it more, but I didn‟t. I haven‟t taken to Puccini‟s
       composing style – long stretches of sung words that occasionally turn
       into a song. It‟s just not focused enough for me. Too rambling. The
       music just isn‟t interesting to me. Puccini‟s music as soundtrack music,
       telling the audience when to feel this emotion and when to feel that
       emotion.)
      His musical style seems to bridge the old and the new in music: the
       songs are romantic in style, but the orchestral accompaniment to the
       sung dialogue is 20th Century sounding. I hear Debussy.
      I do appreciate Puccini as a dramatist and like best his staged group
       scenes – the street scene at the beginning of Act II here and the saloon
       scene in Fanciulla.
      And I admit to welling up with tears at Rodolfo‟s final cry of “Mimi,
       Mimi.”

Tosca (1898-9) Two productions
The Met 1985: Zeffirelli, Domingo, Behrens
Madrid Opera 2004: Dessi, Armiliato, Raimondi

      My second time viewing Tosca (after seeing Boheme twice, and
       Fanciulla once), while listening to the Act I Dark Eyes love duet
       between Tosca and Cavaradossi, I unexpectedly felt a surge of emotion
       and was deeply moved. It was the first time Puccini‟s music touched
       me.
      In the Madrid Opera production, Ruggero Raimondi is excellent as the
       menacing Scarpia, 25 years after starring in Losey‟s Don Giovanni


                                             68
       movie. The chemistry between Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato (real
       life husband and wife) is palpable. (It may be why I found the Dark
       Eyes duet so moving.) Dessi‟s middle voice is rich and full, but she
       sounds shrill when in the higher register. Still, as I‟ve said elsewhere, I
       love her stage presence. She‟s human and vulnerable and always
       moves me, which makes her Vissi d’arte the highlight of the opera for
       me. (Interestingly enough, I‟ve seen Dessi in two concerts – the Gran
       Verdi Gala from Busetto and the Jose Cura concert – and in neither of
       these did she struggle in either the upper or lower registers.) Armiliato
       sounds like a tenor entering his prime. His rendition of the short Act
       III aria, E lucevan le stelle, is powerful and moving. (This song was
       immediately recognizable to me as a favorite in ice skating
       competitions – second only perhaps to music from Carmen.) Note:
       Renee Fleming sings Vissi d’arte on my “30 Years Live from Lincoln
       Center” DVD at 1:38.
      Concert and gala performers seem to favor Puccini pieces. I think it‟s
       because intensely emotional and memorable tunes suddenly spring
       from the rambling music, making for great short solos. E lucevan le
       stell is an example of this.
      Puccini appears to have his supporters and detractors (unlike Mozart,
       Verdi, and Wagner who are universally accepted as opera geniuses).
       One example: Joseph Kerman, author of Opera as Drama, called Tosca
       “a shabby little shocker.” I‟m still among the detractors I‟m afraid. His
       storylines (too sentimental) and, more importantly, his music just
       doesn‟t appeal to me. And I recoil at hearing Cavaradossi tortured (in
       the Madrid production, they move it onstage so we actually have to
       watch it). And then in Turandot, Puccini calls for torture of the opera‟s
       most sympathetic character. Turns me off.
      I can‟t be in that bad company, having read that Callas didn‟t like
       Puccini either even though Tosca was one of her most famous roles.

Madama Butterfly (1901-03)
Torres del Lago Opera 2003: Domingo (conducting), Dessi, Armiliato, Pons

      I rented this to give myself another chance to learn to appreciate
       Puccini, having seen two productions each of his other “big three”
       operas. Unfortunately, I have the same problems: the music meanders,
       the storyline is too sentimental. Puccini just doesn‟t penetrate my
       heart and soul like Verdi does. I hate to say it, but I get bored except
       during those too infrequent soaring solos or duets.
      As before though (Aida, Tosca), I enjoy the husband and wife team of
       Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato. Dessi displays her usual vocal
       shortcomings. She has the fullest and perhaps loveliest middle register
       I‟ve yet heard, but struggles at the upper and lower ends. Her high
       notes are often shrill and her voice sometimes disappears when she


                                           69
       gets to the low chest notes. It‟s odd. But I love her anyway – her stage
       presence, her warmth of spirit. Her Un bel di is very moving – another
       beautiful Puccini melody that makes a good concert solo.


La Fanciulla del West (1908-10)
Covent Garden 1983: Domingo

      I love the concept of the Wild West but lost interest after the action
       moved out of the saloon. Will try again.
      I was amused to find out where Andrew Lloyd Weber stole the melody
       for “Music of the Night.”


Gianni Schicchi (1913-18)
Gyndebourne 2004: Corbelli

      Well, that was an enjoyable way to spend 55 minutes!
      Alessandro Corbelli is very funny (as he is in Rossini‟s La Cenerentola
       and Donizetti‟s Don Pasquale).
      This is the first Puccini I‟ve really liked. But it‟s late Puccini and it‟s a
       comedy and it‟s only one act, so it feels like it shouldn‟t count…
      Kids might like it, especially since it‟s short and funny.

Turandot (1920-26)
Forbidden City of Beijing 1998: Mehta, Casolla, Larin, Frittoli

      Puccini died in Nov. 1924, with 20 minutes of the opera left to compose
       (Liu‟s suicide and the love duet between Calaf and Turandot).
       Toscanini picked Franco Alfano to complete the opera. Critics say that
       Turandot‟s transformation from cruel ice princess to alluring woman
       would have been handled a lot better by Puccini. (A contemporary
       composer has written an alternative score that many feel is closer to
       the spirit of Puccini, but it‟s not yet in standard use.)
      This Forbidden City production is beautiful to watch – the setting, the
       sets, the costumes. And Barbara Frittoli (as Liu) is, once again,
       outstanding.
      But despite the exciting grand spectacle feel of Turandot, I react the
       same way to Puccini‟s music. Once in a while it soars into a beautiful
       melody and moves me, but on the whole it‟s too unfocused for my taste.
       And here, the frequent fake Chinese sounding stuff (mostly in the
       Ping, Pang, Pong trios) is off-putting.
      Did Puccini have a sadistic streak, calling for torture in Tosca and here
       of Liu, the most sympathetic character in the opera?



                                             70
Tan Dun
The First Emperor (2006)
The Met 2007 Live simulcast at movie theater: Dun, Domingo, Futral, Groves

      Some great Eastern-sounding melodies and instruments, but the rest
       was Puccini-like meandering but without the payoff arias that the
       Italian composer provides.


“Through singing, opera must make you weep, shutter, die.
                                            – Bellini




                                           71

								
To top