The Met Telecast of La Boheme Bats a Thousand!

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The Met’s playbook for Puccini’s La Bohème was really thrown out of whack on April 5th when General Manager Peter Gelb woke up that morning and learned he didn’t have a Mimì for the 1:00 p.m. telecast. Anita Hartig, in an early-morning phone call to Mr. Gelb, informed him she had not sufficiently recovered from her bout with the flu and wouldn’t be able to sing. From what we have been told from news sources and during the telecast itself, Gelb then decided to call Kristine Opolais and asked her to fill in for Ms. Hartig. The problem facing Opolais was that the night before she had sung the long and demanding role of Cio-cio-san in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and when the call came at 7:30 in the morning, the soprano was in a sound sleep. At first, it was reported, she refused, but within a half hour she called back, and luckily for Gelb, agreed to sing. To add to the uncertainty, no one knows for sure whether a cover for Mimi was assigned or not.

But the end result in all this turmoil was a telecast that turned out to be one of the most touching and engaging performances of La Bohème the Met has given us in some time.

The event also marked the much-anticipated telecast debut of the exuberant Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo, who has changed the accent in his last name to highlight his climb to stardom. On a serious note, however, what Opolais and Grigòlo presented was an emotional and vocally-intense interpretation of Mimì and Rodolfo that left us with a lingering heartfelt memory of the tragic lovers.

At her first entrance, all eyes were on Opolais, wondering whether she could fit in vocally and dramatically with Grigòlo’s impassioned Rodolfo. But the bigger question was how was she to navigate her way through director Franco Zefferelli’s huge stage setting of 19th-Century Bohemian life in Paris which, since its 1981 premiere, has unashamedly dazzled Met audiences. Over the years, critics have  bashed Zefferelli for what they have considered his over-the-top, action-packed production, dripping in excessive opulence. But they have lost the battle. Audiences have always loved the production and the Met has reaped a gargantuan financial profit with its popular success.

From the beginning, Ms. Opolais expressed Mimi’s penchant for melancholy with a vocal tenderness she sustained right through to her demise in Act Four. And Grigòlo attentively partnered her, never failing to cover his impetuous, romantic outbursts with his own brand of sadness. The singers’ apprehension on just how their performances would unfold only heightened their emotional commitment to each other and, luckily, to their audience, as well.

But La Bohème needs a committed ensemble of singing actors to encompass all of Puccini’s musical narrative, and the afternoon’s cast was just what the composer ordered. Rodolfo, who is a poet, shares a garret in the Parisian Latin Quarter with three struggling artists: the painter Marcello, Colline the philosopher, and the musician Schaunard. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti and basses Oren Gradus and Patrick Carfizzi, respectively, imbued their roles with a warm vocal charm that expressed their characters’ carefree, but, when necessary, levelheaded approach to their rambunctious life style. Also, as performers, their confident, relaxed stage presence gave Ms.Opolais the artistic support she deserved as she journeyed through Mimì ‘s tragically short time on earth.

Puccini, in an overt display of his deft theatrical know-how, gives us a second romance in which to revel. In Act Two, at the outdoor Cafe Momus, we meet Musetta, a fun-loving woman who is still harboring a deep passion for her former lover Marcello. With soprano Susanna Philips, we got the full vocal and dramatic thrust of her Musetta as she seductively worked her way back to her beloved. Phillips, who debuted the role this year at the Met, delighted the audience with her alluring aplomb. In Act Four, when she brings Mimì to the garret where Mimì and Rodolfo first fell in love, Phillips easily handled her theatrical cues giving Opolais full opportunity to share Mimì ‘s intimate last moments, not only with the heartbroken Rodolfo, but also with the audience. Opolais’s last hushed words created a trembling quiet throughout the house.

And the spirited, attentive hand of conductor Stefano Ranzani made sure the pit went along with this unexpected, but no doubt, tender rendering of Puccini’s youthful, stirring masterpiece.

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Rare Russian Opera Performed in Barcelona

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April 20, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun; (c) A. Bofill

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SpainSpain Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesz:, Liceu’s Orchestra and Chorus, Josep Pons (conductor), Liceu, Barcelona, 16.4.2014 (JMI)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is an important figure in the history of opera, both for his own works and for his orchestration of works by other composers. Rarely performed outside Russia, this opera retells the legend of the medieval city of Kitesz which escaped Tartar attack through the intervention of the Maiden Fevronia. With her prayers she ensured that God would make the city invisible to the invading Tartars. The plot hardly justifies three hours of music, and the few times I’ve seen the opera performed it has always seemed to me too long, especially the last scene in which Fevronia reaches celestial glory.To dedicate no less than twenty minutes of music to this scene is excessive and almost tiring.
Liceu has mounted a new production by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov, whose work here I found quite surprising, as if he had been converted to classicism after passing through what has been called the Regiekonzept and its excesses. He brings the action into modern times but narrates the story with huge respect for the libretto. In my opinion it is somewhat surprising that these modern Tartars have to resort to traitors to find the way to Kitesz. It’s not difficult to understand it in the Middle Ages, but today we all use GPS and mapping has advanced dramatically.
Mr. Tcherniakov is also responsible for the sets. The design is quite attractive in the first and final acts: a beautiful forest (greeted with spontaneous applause from the audience) that reflects Fevronia’s love for nature, and is the place where she will die. The sets in the other two acts are less attractive ? a bar in Act II and a kind of hospital in Act III. Mr. Tcherniakov confronts two opposite worlds here, the world of respect for nature, represented by Fevronia; and the world of human selfishness, represented by both Tartars and Russians. Apart from some incidental excess, there were no provocative details, and Mr. Tcherniakov did great work on stage with both chorus and extras.
I had no big expectations of Josep Pons at the podium since he has little experience in Russian opera, but his conducting was adequate and at times quite good, especially in the final act. The orchestra offered a solid performance, while the chorus was at their usual excellent level.
The cast featured a group of singers familiar with the opera. I missed hearing more important singers in the main roles, with the exception of Prince Yuri who was played by the only non-Russian in the main quartet of singers.
The protagonist, Fevronia, was sung by Svetlana Ignatovich, who offered a very convincing interpretation on stage though less so vocally. Her voice has a certain appeal in the center, not too big in volume, but it falls short on lower notes and is rather tight at the top where the timbre is unattractive.
The character of Grishka Kuterma is a real draw for any tenor, offering ample opportunities to act and to sing. Dmitry Golovnin did well on the acting, but vocally he offered a not particularly attractive and somewhat reduced voice.
Maxim Aksenov performed well as Prince Vsevolod. His voice is not very important although his vocal characteristics are well suited to the character. Eric Halfvarson as Prince Yuri offered the best voice in the cast, but he does not appear on stage until the third act of the opera.
The secondary characters were very well cast. One should note the presence of a sound Dimitris Tiliakos as Fiodor; Vladimir Ognovenko as an excellent Burandai; and Alexander Tsymbaliuk as a remarkable Bediai. Maria Gortsevskaya gave a strong performance as Prince Yuri’s page, and veteran Gennadi Bezzubenkov, Prince Yuri in the Mariinsky for many years, was a luxury as the Gusli Player. Of the two birds, the one announcing death (Alkonost), played by Margarita Nekrasova, was better than the bird anouncing eternity (Sirin), played by Larisa Yudina.

New Production:
Liceu with Nederlandse Opera and Teatro alla Scala
Direction and sets: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes: Elena Zaitseva and Dmitri Tcherniakov
Lighting: Gleb Filschtinsky
Cast:
Fevronia. Svetlana Ignatovich
Grischka: Dmitry Golovnin
Prince Yuri: Eric Halfvarson
Vsevolod: Maxim Aksenov
Fiodor: Dimitris Tiliakos
Burundai: Vladimir Ognovenko
Bedia: Alexander Tsymbaliuk
P.Yuri’s Page: Maria Gortsevskaya
Gusli Player: Gennadi Bezzubenkov
Sirin: Larisa Yudina
Alkonost: Margarita Nekrasova
Nobles: Josep Fadó and Alex Sanmartí

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Placido Domingo at His Most Convincing in Simon Boccanegra

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March 31, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun

SpainSpain Verdi: Simon Boccanegra, Orchestra Comunitat Valenciana, Chorus Generalitat Valenciana, Evelino Pidò (conductor), Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts, 27.3.2014 (JMI).

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Valencia’s regular opera season comes to an end with this Verdi opera. However, there is the upcoming Mediterranean Festival in June which will feature performances of La Forza del Destino and Turandot under the baton of Zubin Mehta. I will not miss the appointment.
This production of Simon Boccanegra premiered in March 2007 under Lluis Pascual. I could not see it at the time and therefore can’t tell whether it has aged well or not, but it is not an interesting production, much less a brilliant one. Everything takes place in dark environments with the somber sea aways present at the back of the stage. It’s a minimalist production with an almost bare stage except for some stands for the Council scene and some mirrors for the Grimaldi mansion in the first act. Costumes respond to the historical era of the action, but they’re not the best work that I have seen from Franca Squarciapino.
The stage direction is unconvincing. The chorus is static on stage and only a few extras occasionally make some movement. The direction of the actors is quite basic and characters like Paolo or Gabriele Adorno are rather colorless; obviously, Superman Domingo does not need to be told what to do in his character. The pivotal scene of the Council was too flat.
This opera in the revised 1881 version has always held great appeal for the top conductors, and there are good reasons for this. The scene of the Council, to which I referred above, and the last act are among the best by Verdi. A great conductor is needed to do justice to this score, and I’ll only refer to three of them. First, there’s the great Claudio Abbado, to whose memory these performances in Valencia are dedicated; through his version I discovered and learned to love this splendid opera. Then there is Riccardo Muti, a Verdi conductor par excellence in recent years, whose reading of Boccanegra reaches sublime heights. Finally, I would mention Christian Thielemann, who rarely conducts the Italian repertoire but has chosen to do this opera next June in Dresden.
Simon Boccanegra is more than an opera: it’s a fundamental work by Giuseppe Verdi and requires a top conductor. Evelino Pidò is one of the best specialists in the bel canto repertoire, but this opera, especially in the final version, falls clearly after that period and enters more deeply into what we can call drama in music. Mr. Pidò’s reading here was insufficient to the demands of the score. Everything was controlled, everything in its place, but there was no dramatic strength, and it seemed more Donizetti than Verdi. The first part of the opera was particularly bland; things improved in the second half, but his conducting never flew high. The orchestra gave a decent performance, but I have seen better work from this excellent group.
Doge Boccanegra was played by Plácido Domingo, who made his debut in the character four years ago. I was impressed then ? how could the 69-year-old singer offer such intensity as a performer and such an exceptional vocal freshness ?? and I now have to repeat myself. He is a true miracle of nature, difficult to understand and even more difficult to see repeated. Still, he’s a tenor, as he himself knows perfectly and at no point pretends otherwise, singing in a very natural way. I found his voice has darkened somewhat over the last years and the low notes now sound better than four years ago. What has not changed is the freshness of his timbre and the strength of his performance. Physically, he is in exceptional shape; I prefer not to think what might happen to me if I tried to emulate the death scene with that fall on stage.
One can’t really compare him with the great Simons from the past or with the very few outstanding performers today: Plácido Domingo creates his own interpretation and he is most convincing. Great singers have always been scarce and great artists even more so. He is one of the very few in opera history who is both.
Soprano Guanqun Yu was back in Valencia in the role of Amelia Grimaldi. As on previous occasions, she offered a large and atttractive voice but rather impersonal singing.
Bass Vitalij Kowaljow gave a solid interpretation of Jacopo Fiesco. The current panorama of bass singers is dreadful, so it is not surprising that he has become one of the most sought-after performers today. One missed here a more important voice and a more important lower register, but there are not many alternatives.
Tenor Ivan Magri as Gabriele Adorno exhibited both the positive qualities and the defects one has experienced in the past. His tenor is attractive, but his singing is somewhat expressionless and monotonous.
Gevork Hakobyan was Paolo Albiani, and he was no more than serviceable. Sergey Artamonov was a luxury in the part of Pietro.

Cast:
Simon Boccanegra: Plácido Domingo
Amelia Grimaldi. Guanqun Yu
Jacopo Fiesco: Vitalij Kowaljow
Gabriele Adorno: Ivan Magri
Paolo Albiani: Gevorg Hakobyan
Pietro: Serguei Artamonov
Captain: Valentino Buzza
Maid: Chiara Osella

Production: Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts
Direction: Lluis Pascual (original)
Leo Castaldi (revival)
Sets: Ezio Frigerio
Costumes: Franca Squarciapino
Lighting: Albert Faura

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