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).


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.

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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Tosca Times 3 in Barcelona

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March 22, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun

SpainSpain Puccini: Tosca, Liceu’s Orchestra and Chorus, Paolo Carignani (conductor), Barcelona’s Liceu, 17,18 & 19.3.2014 (JMI)
Tosca Barcelona (c) A Bofill

Barcelona’s Liceu has scheduled fifteen performances of Tosca with three different casts that have to be considered as alternatives since the price of seats is the same for all of them. Judging from this sales policy, it could be assumed that the main star is Tosca herself.
Ten years after the controversial production by Robert Carsen, Liceu has commissioned a new production from Paco Azorin, a well-known theater director in Spain, who has worked as an opera set designer for directors such as Mario Gas and Lluis Pasqual. Azorin does a fairly traditional job in terms of sets and costumes, but the aesthetic interest of the production decreases from act to act. There is an attractive scene of Sant’Andrea della Valle, featuring an altarpiece whose figures are video projections. Palazzo Farnese is just the back of that altarpiece with a pretty bare Scarpia’s office and the rather strange presence of a prison at the right of the stage. In the last act we move to the roof of the prison, where Cavaradossi wanders and where finally he will be executed.
Paco Azorin provides his personal touches, but they are not too successful. At the beginning of Acts I and III he includes a number of extras who accompany Angelotti and Tosca to the church and prison respectively. The first two acts are fairly traditional, although it’s odd that Tosca shakes hands with the prisoners after killing Scarpia, whom she kisses goodbye as well. The last act is the most confusing, with a change of dress by Tosca in prison and the action transferred to the roof of the building.
Paolo Carignani’s conducting was satisfying, with adequate tempos and good care taken of the sound coming from the pit. There was tension and dramatic sense and, overall, I found his reading rewarding. The orchestra continues to improve, which is good news.
Sondra Radvanovsky, the first Tosca, was quite convincing. Her dark timbre is very attractive, and the size of her voice is second to none. Her very important middle range is not an obstacle to a glorious top register. However, I found her low notes weaker than before. She got the biggest applause of the three performances at her “Vissi d’ Arte.”
Martina Serafin was a convincing Tosca on stage but less so vocally. She has no problems while the tessitura stays in the center, but her timbre changes color for the worse on the high notes.
I found Fiorenza Cedolins improved from the last time I saw her on stage. Her middle range is now richer with bigger volume and consistency, but her low notes are still insufficient and the upper area has not recovered the brightness she had in the past. She was a good Tosca, although not the exceptional Tosca of some twelve years ago.
Jorge De León was the first Cavaradossi. There is no doubt that his voice is very important and one of the most attractive today in the big repertoire, but he tends to sing mostly forte. If he seemed to me somewhat superficial, Alfred Kim was even more so with the difference that De León’s voice is more attractive. Alfred Kim has no problems of tessitura, and his high notes are like trumpet blasts and always in full voice. His interpretation of “E lucevan le stelle” was a real display of decibels. Finally, we had Italian tenor Andrea Caré in the third cast, and overall he made a good impression. His voice is suited to the character, but his biggest handicap is his forced top notes which give the impression he doesn’t feel safe up there.
Ambrogio Maestri was an excellent Scarpia on stage although I prefer a darker voice in this evil character. He is one of the best Scarpias around, but I prefer him in characters such as Falstaff or Dulcamara. Scott Hendricks was a convincing Scarpia on stage and very nuanced in his singing, but his baritone is not particularly attractive and the size of his voice is limited. Vittorio Vitelli was a very modest Scarpia; in fact, his voice was smaller than Sciarrone’s. I do not understand his presence in this house.
The secondary characters were rather mixed, with an excellent Sacristan from Valeriano Lanchas.

New Production: Gran Teatre del Liceu in co-production with Seville’s Maestranza
Direction: Paco Azorín
Sets: Paco Azorín
Costume: Isidro Prunés
Lighting: Pascal Mérat
Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky/ Martina Serafín/Fiorenza Cedolins
Cavaradossi: Jorge De León/Alfred Kim/Andrea Caré
Scarpia: Ambrogio Maestri/Scott Hendricks/Vittorio Vitelli
Angelotti: Vladimir Baykov/Alessandro Guerzoni
Sacristan: Valeriano Lanchas
Spoletta: Francisco Vas/José Manuel Zapata
Sciarrone: Manel Esteve
Jailer: Dimitar Darlev/Pierpaolo Palloni
Shepherd: Elena Copons

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Andrew Davis in a Fresh, Exciting Clemenza

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March 12, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By:James L. Zychowicz

Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 8.3.2014 (JLZ)

After a quarter-century, Mozart’s 1791 opera seria La clemenza di Tito returned to the Civic Opera House in Sir John McVicar’s production, originally designed for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (in conjunction with the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Opéra de Marseille).
McVicar’s stage conception is stark, with unadorned sets and dark colors. While the libretto by Caterina Mazzolà (based on Metastasio) celebrates the generosity of the first-century Roman emperor Titus in forgiving those who plotted against him, the production offers a post-modern spin by suggesting that the clemency goes against Roman law. An emphasis on the military aspects was quite effective in the first act, where the guards used martial arts and highlighted the distance between the emperor and his people; the guards separated the crowds in all the ensemble scenes. McVicar’s comments in the program help to explain the production’s final gesture, when Publio and the Praetorian guards threatened Tito as the curtain dropped. This looming threat left the opera open-ended, as if something more were to occur, while the text and music imply a more conventional resolution of the drama’s conflicts. As an aesthetic matter, it was not entirely convincing.
As Sesto, Joyce DiDonato sang with finesse, especially in the conflicting emotions of the aria, “Parto, parto,” paying close attention to the phrasing of the text. DiDonato started at a lower level, letting her passion grow as she reached the climax—a defining moment, and one that set the tone for the other principals.
As Vitellia, Amanda Majeski was similarly impressive, even stylish, with an even range that resonated clearly, even as she faced the sometimes challenging vocal lines. Her first-act duet “Come ti piace, imponi” was commanding, and set the dramatic and musical tone from the start. Yet her second-act aria “S’altro che lacrime” was even more powerful; its wide range does not always receive the low tones and rich high notes that Majeski gave. It was an impeccable performance, both technically and interpretively.
Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn stood out with his nuanced approach to the role of Publio. He was clear and distinctive in the first act, but in the second-act aria “Tardi, s’avveda d’un tradimento,” he, too, was exemplary in his lyricism, clarity, and elegance. My hunch is that Van Horn would be equally outstanding as Leporello or Don Giovanni.
In the role of Annio, Cecelia Hall gave the character appropriate style, and like many others, was even stronger in the second act. The aria “Torna di Tito” at the opening commanded attention for its impassioned delivery. Emily Birsan offered an appropriately dignified Servillia, with a lithe reading of her single aria “Ah, se fosse intorno al trona.” As Tito, tenor Matthew Polenzani’s tone in the first act was sometimes unnecessarily loud and monochromatic, but in the extended scenes of Act II—the recitativo accompagnato that underscores Tito’s forgiveness for his political enemies—he was commanding, singing the role with dignity and poise.
Sir Andrew Davis gave a persuasive interpretation, leading the orchestra with insight and great attention to detail—details that are not always made so accessible. The vocal duets called to mind similar-sounding music in Così fan tutte, which Mozart composed around the same time. Above all, Davis made the ensemble sound fresh and exciting, a memorable performance of this important score.

Tito: Matthew Polenzani
Sesto: Joyce DiDonato
Vitellia: Amanda Majeski
Annio: Cecelia Hall
Servilia: Emily Birsan
Publio: Christian Van Horn[Br]
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Original Director & Set Designer: Sir David McVicar
Revival Director: Marie Lambert
Costume Designer: Jenni Tiramani
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Choreographer: David Greeves
Associate Set Designer: Bettina Neuhaus

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