Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala: Playing Safe Does Not Always Work

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February 26, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By:Jose Mª. Irurzun

ItalyItaly Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro alla Scala, Pier Giorgio Morandi (conductor), La Scala, Milan, 19 & 21.2.2014 (JMI).


Lucia di Lammermoor is a very safe opera, one offered time and again by second-tier opera companies. It is usually a triumph, with a soprano who is easy at the top of the range. But when a major opera house such as La Scala stages it, one is entitled to expect something special and not the Lucia you might see at other venues. However, only the second or alternate cast was consistent with the history of the theatre. The suitability of the first cast was far more debatable.
In recent years La Scala has mounted Pier’Alli’s stage production; the most recent performance took place in 2006. Now they are offering the staging by Mary Zimmermann; it comes from the Metropolitan in New York where it had its premiere in 2007. This is a realistic production with sets that allow for rapid scene changes in the three acts: a wooded landscape in the first act, a large room in the palace of Ashton for the wedding of Lucia, a room with a long staircase for the mad scene and, finally, an empty stage with crosses at the back that evokes Ravenswood Cemetery. The costumes appear to move the action to the second half of 19th century.
The stage direction is appropriate and includes the presence of a ghostly figure as a double Lucia, already present in the fountain scene and reappearing in the final scene with Edgardo dying in her arms.
Little was required musically to improve upon the weak impression left by Daniele Rustioni in Il Trovatore. Pier Giorgio Morandi was on the podium for Lucia, and his reading was just controlled and routine. To his credit I must say that at least the orchestra sounded better than at Il Trovatore, but it still was not what we have heard in this house in the past. The performance of the chorus was unobjectionable.
The protagonist in the first cast was Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova who is known for her frequent performances as the Queen of the Night. I think we should start a conversation about whether Lucia is a role for a light soprano or, on the contrary, a different kind of soprano is required. In my opinion, Lucia is not suitable for a light soprano, as proven by Maria Callas in the 1950s, then by Renata Scotto and June Anderson, and more recently by sopranos such as Mariella Devia and Diana Damrau. It could be argued that in Donizetti’s time light sopranos sang the role, but things have changed a lot since then. At La Scala itself in 1839 Lucia was sung by Giuseppina Streponi who does not seem to have been a light soprano, unless we consider that the character of Abigaille also belongs to that category.
Albina Shagimuratova has a pure light soprano, rather reduced in size, with a more or less childish middle range. Her voice is very weak at the bottom and quite easy at the top. She went almost unnoticed at “Regnava nel silenzio,” was short of power in the duets with Enrico and Raimondo, but had no problems with the very top notes in the mad scene. If I claim that Lucia is not for a light soprano, it is due to the fact that it is almost impossible to move the audience with that type of voice. For me, emotion is consubstantial with romantic opera.
The alternate Lucia was Jessica Pratt, whose performance was much better than her colleague’s. Her voice, a light-lyric soprano, is beautiful in timbre. Contrary to what happened in the first cast, Ms. Pratt was able to move the audience by means of voice, refined technique, expressiveness and exquisite taste. No doubt we are face-to-face with one of the most exciting performers of Lucia di Lammermoor at present, but to be a great Lucia she’ll need to have a wider center. There was a noticeable difference in voice and stylistic approach between her Lucia and Albina Shagimuratova’s.
Vittorio Grigolo was an unorthodox Edgardo, to say the least. His voice is beautiful, it flows very naturally, and he is a paradigm of ardor and delivery on stage. Is this good for Edgardo? Yes, of course, provided that one doesn’t forget that Lucia di Lammermoor is a bel canto opera. Mr. Grigolo sang Edgardo as if it were written by ??Puccini and not by Donizetti. There were too many open sounds and dramatic effects and little elegance in his singing. As Malatesta says in Don Pasquale: “La parte non è questa.”
Italian tenor Piero Pretti in the second cast left a positive impression. He is a light-lyric (maybe a little more) tenor, homogeneous in voice. He has a tendency to throaty sounds in the first octave, while his high notes are bright and nicely projected. At the moment, his weakest point is his lack of expression on stage. He often reminds one of the stereotypical tenor singing with his arms at his side. There should be something in between the ardor and perpetuum mobile of Vittorio Grigolo and the static mien of Piero Pretti.
Massimo Cavalletti was not too convincing as Enrico. His singing wasn’t precisely belcantista, and there were too many open sounds as he tried to convince us that he really was the villain in the opera. I found his top notes less brilliant than a year ago.
Sergey Artamonov was a correct Raimond, while Juan Francisco Gatell was well-suited to Arturo.

Lucia: Albina Shagimuratova/Jessica Pratt
Edgardo: Vittorio Grigolo/Piero Pretti
Enrico: Massimo Cavalletti
Raimondo: Sergey Artamonov
Arturo: Juan Francisco Gatell
Alisa: Barbara Di Castri
Normanno: Massimiliano Chiarolla

Production: Metropolitan Opera
Direction: Mary Zimmermann
Sets: Daniel Ostling
Costumes: Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting: T.J. Gerckens

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A Passionless Tosca

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January 26, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun

GermanyGermany Puccini: Tosca, Deutsche Oper Orchestra and Chorus, Matthias Foremny (conductor), Berlin Deutsche Oper, 22.1.2014 (JMI)

A year ago I saw this production of Tosca and Anja Harteros’s debut in the role. We have now moved from a special occasion to a mostly routine performance that held little interest.
The Deutsche Oper again offered the stage production by Boleslaw Barlog that has had 365 performances in this house. It turns 45 next April – a true marvel of longevity. It’s a production that is out of fashion nowadays, with realistic sets, costumes from the period when the drama unfolds and not even the slightest provocation. The sets lack nothing: the Madonna in a column as the libretto states, together with the stack and the chapel in the first act. And, of course, there are the crucifix and candlesticks in the second act, and the terrace, the angel and the view in the distance of St. Peter’s in the last act. It is a production to be recommended to nostalgic opera goers.
Last year Donald Runnicles was in the pit; this time it was Matthias Foremny and the difference is important. His reading was too slow in the first act, improved afterwards, but never moved beyond routine. Mr. Foremny’s reading was 12 minutes slower than Mr Runnicles’s last year, and the orchestra disappointed. A Tosca without passion is not acceptable to this reviewer.
Russian soprano Tatjana Serjan was a rather modest Tosca. Listening to her, one does not understand how she has become Riccardo Muti’s Verdi soprano of choice. Her voice is not too attractive in timbre and rather short of harmonics. She is a good interpreter on stage and offered a strong “Vissi d’arte,” but it was far from what Anja Harteros gave us a year ago.
Marcello Giordani was Cavaradossi, and his performance was unconvincing. His tenor has never been very bright in the middle range, and his vocal evolution has been fairly negative in recent years. As I said, the center was never his strength but today it is much duller than before, and his low notes are almost nonexistent to the point of being inaudible. The top notes are still there, but more insecure than before, particularly at the passage area. He went unnoticed at “Recondita armonia” but sang “È Lucevan le stelle” with gusto, although he had problems at some piani.
Baritone Thomas Hampson canceled as Scarpia and was replaced by Sergey Murzaev, who gave a recital of decibels and bad taste. There was not the slightest hint of nuances in his performance.
Ben Wager was Angelotti and his voice was poorly projected. Seth Carico was good as the Sacristan, but his voice sounds too young for the character. Jörg Schörne (Spoletta) and Andrew Harris (Sciarrone) were well suited to their roles.

Floria Tosca: Tatjana Serjan
Mario Cavaradossi: Marcello Giordani
Baron Scarpia: Sergey Murzaev
Angelotti: Ben Wager
Sacristán: Seth Carico
Spoletta: Jörg Schörner
Sciarrone: Andrew Harris
Production: Berlin Deutsche Oper
Direction: Boleslaw Barlog
Sets and Costumes: Filippo Sanjust

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Superb Traviata—with Skeletons

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December 28, 2013
From Seen and Heard International By: James L. Zychowicz

United StatesUnited States Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Massimo Zanetti, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 20.12.2013 (JLZ)

All of the elements that contribute to the appeal of Verdi’s La traviata were fully in place for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production. The casting, staging, and acting all came together to pay homage to the story’s nineteenth-century setting. Massimo Zanetti gave a convincing reading of the score, which had a sense of drive and direction while never seeming the least bit rushed. The orchestral timbres were heard clearly not only because of the rich, textured sound from the pit, but also through Zanetti’s attention to dynamic levels that brought out some of the more intimate sonorities.
In the title role Marina Rebeka was convincing musically and dramatically, with a commanding performance that remains strongly in memory. Stylish and persuasive, Rebeka had no problems with demands of range or tessitura and delivered a clear reading of Verdi’s melismatic passages. While this is de rigueur in the opening “Libiamo”, it continued at the end of the act in “Sempre libera” and also in the second act, with Rebeka’s duet (with Germont) “Dite alla giovine,” and in the final act aria, “Addio del passato”—her precision accentuated the pathos.
Joseph Calleja was outstanding as Alfredo, a role he commands fully in range and technique. His “Libiamo” had exquisite phrasing and dynamic nuance, and the duet with Violetta, “Un di felice,” was also memorable because of Calleja’s sense of detail. Calleja was powerful at the opening of the second act, when he realizes the sacrifices Violetta made for him as expressed in the cabaletta “O mio rimorso.” Calleja gave a bravura performance, with a full range of dramatic emotions, plus clear and idiomatic phrasing. His duet with his father Giorgio Germont was also powerful, as was the acting that defined the tense relationship between the two. Such dramatic pitch continued in the dénouement, with the duet “Parigi o cara” evincing a masterful balance between the emotional relationship of Alfredo and Violetta and the musical demands of the scene.
Quinn Kelsey gave an intense approach the character of Giogio Germont. Kelsey’s rich, deep, bass-baritone was just about perfect, and he was expressive throughout. The duet with Violetta, “Dite all giovine” was persuasive, but the scene with Alfredo at the end of the act was even more powerful. Here the conductor Massimo Zanetti did not take the usual cuts, but performed the latter in its entirety, perhaps reflecting Kelsey’s intense performance. The estrangement between Giorgio and Alfredo was even stronger in the act’s final scene, when they confront each other during the decisive party at Flora’s home. Kelsey was utterly convincing, and more importantly, sang with conviction.
The production merits attention because of the ways it evokes the period. Accoutrements of mid-nineteenth century Paris are present, plus some modern touches. The party scene costumes emphasize the decadence of the milieu. Also, the use of life-size puppets for the party at Flora’s at first seems gratuitous, but the skeleton shapes prefigure the death that takes placed in the final scene. Those puppets return in shadow in the opening scene of the final act, when Violetta hears the revelry outside her chamber, where the skeletal shapes portend the tragic conclusion.
While some may quibble about moments when the volume of the orchestra covered some of the vocal lines, it is hard to dispute the result. In this fine, new production, Michael Black’s chorus preparation was evident, as was the orchestra’s contribution with Zanetti.

Violetta Valéry: Marina Rebeka
Flora Bervoix: J’nai Bridges
Marquis d’Obigny: Will Liverman
Baron Douphol: Nicholas Pallesen
Doctor Grenvil: Richard Ollarsaba
Gastone de Letorière: Adam Bonanni
Alfredo Germont: Joseph Calleja
Annina: Julie Anne Miller
Giuseppe: John Irvin
Giorgio Germont: Quinn Kelsey
Conductor: Massimo Zanetti
Director: Arin Arbus
Set Designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume and Puppet Designer: Cait O’Connor
Lighting Designer: Marcus Doshi
Chorus Master; Michael Black
Choreographer: Austin McCormick

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