Several years ago, I announced a boycott: No More Met. My rant doesn't appear to be anywhere here in the site, but if I come across it, I'll link to it, rather than repeat my arguments, which centered on poor acoustics and preposterously distracting productions. But there was one opera that I really wanted to see at some point in my lifetime, and the Met's first-ever production of it, by John Dexter, has been revived this season after a break of nearly thirty years. Just why I should be so enamored of Verdi's I vespri siciliani was something of a mystery to me until this afternoon, when it occurred to me that the opera uniquely combines grand opera style, Verdian intensity, and an aria-based structure. Despite the grim finale, which lasts less than a minute, Vespri is supercharged with an obvious athletic élan that would become much less obvious in Verdi's more fluid, later, constructions. There seem to be almost as many numbers for multiple singers as there are solo arias, and each act ends with a big choral number. The four principals get to sing their heads off in a chain of great tunes. As tunes go, they're fairly complex and not easy to recall, but when you're hearing them, you're thrilled by Verdi's knowing exactly where he's going. As always, he plays against the very expectations that he creates, but he does so here without ever breaking rhythm or jumping the formal rails. Massacre notwithstanding, Vespri is musically a lot of fun.
The story of Vespri is rooted in history. In 1282, there was a popular uprising against the French occupiers of Sicily, and for the next several centuries the Sicilians had the really bad fortune to be governed by Spain and its puppets. The opera takes no note of the future, however. It pits three freedom fighters, Arrigo, Elena, and Procida, against the French viceroy, Monforte. All are aristocrats. Arrigo and Elena fall in love, of course, and Arrigo turns out to be Monforte's long-lost son - of course. Procida turns out to be more implacable than Monforte, who's softened up considerably by paternal pride. At the end, the lovers' wedding is the signal to ring the bells that will summon the Sicilian avengers, armed with daggers. Verdi does his customary, extraordinary job of giving divided loyalties a riveting musical dimension.
If you know I vespri siciliani, you probably know it from the RCA recording that James Levine made in 1973, with Martina Arroyo, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and Ruggiero Raimondi. It is a superb performance, and makes the best possible case for the opera. Although the men have some wonderful music, and the Act III duet between baritone and tenor is terrific, my favorite parts of the opera are those that feature, or at least include, the soprano. So it was important to find out something about Sondra Radvanovsky, whom I'd never heard of. I certainly didn't want to sit through an evening of one of those noble wrecks who go on singing through all the damage that Verdi's 'ungrateful' music can do to a voice. My old friend Michael told me that she "wasn't bad," and that was good enough. I bought a ticket. So much for the boycott.
I could tell from the moment that conductor Frédéric Chaslin got the overture going that the Met's terrible acoustics had not gone away; sitting in Seat G 12, which is off the the right, I could hear a definite lag between the percussion right in front of me and the winds far off to the left, and on top of that there was an echo from the overhanging balconies. But I wasn't there for a fine symphonic experience. Nor was I in a mood to complain about Josef Svoboda's extremely drab sets, which famously feature a broad flight of stairs the runs from quite near the apron to a third-story level backstage, or Jan Skalicky's equally drab costumes - black and white for the Sicilians, and pale blue cloaks for their French oppressors - and pretty soon I forgot all about these banalities. As the first solo, "In alto mare," got going, and Ms Radvanovsky warmed to Elena's music, I began to think that I was in for some special singing. It wasn't until the middle of the Second Act (played without interruption between the First and Third Acts before the only interval) that I was sure, and in the finale to Act III I just sat back and drank it all in: Sondra Radvanovsky was giving me the biggest treat that I've ever had at the Met. I've heard Verdi tackled by beautiful voices, accurate voices, powerful voices, and interesting voices, but all these voices have never belonged to the same singer - not to mention a singer with a very attractive figure and a relaxed body. In short, Ms Radvanovsky has it all. To describe her voice to someone who'd never heard it, I'd say that she sounds something like what a completely untroubled Renata Scotto would have sounded like, with the something like the creamy legato of Anita Cerquetti toward the top, and something like the laryngeal menace of Maria Callas toward the bottom.
By 'relaxed body,' I mean that Ms Radvanovsky can sing without bracing herself; this leaves her free to act. Indeed, she appears very little different from someone speaking. This was in sharp contrast to the demeanor of tenor Francisco Casanova as Arrigo. Mr Casanova has a nice voice, but it is not really powerful enough for the Metropolitan Opera, and projecting what sound he could evidently required him to lock his arms at his side, lean back a little, and push. It was the difference between the two singers' presence, more than any purely vocal matter, that kept the performance as a whole from deserving top marks. (Whether in the interest of cutting the running time, or because the aria ends with a stratospheric run, Arrigo's Fifth Act aria, "La brezza aleggia intorno," was cut.) The other two principals, Leo Nucci as Monforte and Samuel Ramey as Procida, are veterans in their early sixties. Mr Ramey acted with vigor, but his voice was somewhat clouded, and Procida's big aria, "O tu, Palermo," was not as sumptuous as it might have been. Mr. Nucci sang quite gloriously, but with a strange restraint, as if he had just recovered from a serious illness, or were deeply into Zen Buddhism.
Even the chorus got better and better as the evening went on. At first, the male chorus of French soldiers sounded anemic when pitched against the mixed Palermitan populace, but by the end of the opening number, they were making some noise. It was hard to keep track of the orchestra, because the singing was so good, but I can say that there was only the usual handful of momentary flubs in the brass. I felt very sorry for the corps de ballet; doing the tarantella on risers can't be easy, but it was made to look easy. The persistence of the stairs even when they made no sense at all, as in the Third Act, must have been some consolation to the dancers for the loss of their showpiece, Verdi's biggest ballet, I quattri stagioni. It is always cut, of course, except perhaps in Paris, for which the opera was written and where it was first performed, in June of 1856.
The audience took a long time to appreciate Ms Radvanovsky. In the first half of the show, there were no cries of appreciation save for "O tu, Palermo" and for Monforte's one aria, "Si, m'abboriva." Happily, focus had shifted by the time Elena's famous Bolero was reached. Ms Radvanovsky nailed it. But I can't help feeling that the audience was underexcited by the brands on offer. Messrs Ramey and Nucci have been around for a long time; Mr Casanova does not quite have what it takes; and operagoers haven't yet figured out how much they're going to love Sondra Radvanovsky. (November 2004)
The New York City Opera's new production of Handel's Alcina has excited a polarized response. Some people - most of the audience in the theatre the other night - really like it, while others walk out. This sort of thing happens from time to time, but I'm mystified by its happening in this case, because nothing about the production struck me as unusual one way or the other. I take that back: the orchestra, under Daniel Beckwith (leading from the harpsichord), played with consummate and very Handelian elegance. This, however, was the only remarkable thing about the evening.
Handel's operas have become pillars of the bel canto repertoire, but without much true bel canto singing. I know of only one singer today who can be relied upon to sings bel canto every time she opens her mouth, and that's Cecilia Bartoli. This singer phrases her notes with an unerring judgment that sounds both magisterial and totally natural, and that obviously reflects the most intense study. It is exciting to hear Ms Bartoli sing almost anything - and such excitement is very important, because it's the only kind of excitement that bel canto operas deliver. Of theatrical drama there is usually little to none. What Handel gives us instead is a subtly-shaded series of psychological portraits, taking the form of action-stopping arias, and each designed to be realized by artful song. Getting the notes right is hard, but bravura alone will not carry Handel's operas; there must also be the transposition of emotion into sheer music.
The City Opera's singers managed the bravura. They looked good on stage and acted as well as the scenario permitted. But their Alcina was a long evening of long arias - long in both cases because the singing rarely caught fire, and when it did, it was the wrong kind of fire. Christine Goerke, in the title role, did what struck me as a fine job of singing a kind of opera that doesn't really exist: coloratura verismo. She poured herself into the enchantress, vividly expressing each of Alcina's successive states of mind, from amatory delight to abandoned despair. It was as if Handel had set Manon Lescaut to music. Perhaps he ought to have done, but the proposition remains historically, and, what's more, artistically unthinkable. Handel's arias are not expressions of emotion, but imitations of it. They don't seek to penetrate the psychological moment, with all the suggestion and mystery that the next century's great masters put into naturalistic opera, but rather to reduce it to strictly musical terms, blotting out every ambiguity. Passions are replaced by vocal finesse.
Just when I was getting used to countertenors at City Opera, Alcina was staged without one; the hero, Ruggiero, was sung by Katharine Goeldner. Although she managed her big aria at the end with lots of authority, I found her wanting in vocal power. Jennifer Dudley, as Ruggiero's betrothed, Bradamante, had a somewhat richer mezzo. The comic couple of Morgana and Oronte, sung by Lauren Skuce and Keith Jameson, gave endearing if not particularly inflected performances; I should like to hear Mr Jameson's Don Ottavio. I was very sorry that Joshua Winograde, as the supporting character, Melisso, had only aria. Not only was it very refreshing to hear a baritone amongst all the women, but I suspected that of all the cast Mr Winograde had a genuinely Handelian gift.
Because Handel's arias stop the dramatic action - not a problem when the singing is first-rate - today's producers and directors like to insert mime into the scenario in order to hold audience attention. While the singer of the moment stands center stage, another cast member may, for example, drag the trunk containing all her earthly possessions across the back of the stage. Or enchanted crusaders, transformed into trees, may languish while their Circe pays them a visit. Francesca Zambello, this production's director, managed to keep these distractions under control. The sets (Neil Patel) and lighting (Mark McCullough) were charming, but the costumes, which seemed borrowed from Fidelio and involved far too much leather, were rather drab, and I couldn't understand why the female characters had to go barefoot at the end. The choreography, by Sean Curran, seemed to recapture the simple grace of the period's French ballet style. But once I realized how well Mr Beckwith's orchestra was playing, I knew where to look for a pleasant evening in the theatre. (October 2003)
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