Saturday, January 22, 2011

Meet and greet

Having recently posted about Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Sondra Radvanovsky's duo concert here last year, I should note that the two will be signing the new CD of their Verdi (plus non-Verdi encores) at the Met Opera Shop this Thursday (1/27) at 2pm.

The disc -- apparently recorded live near the beginning of the pair's world tour -- is one I'd thought long-ago released, but I guess not. Definitely worth hearing: the close miking of Met broadcasts is about the worst way to learn how these singers (particularly Radvanovsky) actually sound.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Moment, stay

Rigoletto -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/18/2011
Machaidze, Chávez, Calleja, Meoni, Kocán / Arrivabeni

The Met finally has two baritones who can actually sing Rigoletto: Giovanni Meoni has followed up the promise of last season's debut Ezio with this musically impressive account of Verdi's baritone star turn. Nevertheless, Meoni is one of the main reasons why this feast of good singing adds up to less than it should.

Upsides first. Tenor Joseph Calleja is, as he was his debut season, a golden-voiced, sonically authoritative Duke -- this time strengthening act-by-act to spellbinding versions of "La donna e mobile" and the quartet intro. I've praised him enough on these pages, I think.

Calleja and Meoni have sung Verdi well here already, but Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze made her debut just earlier in the run. She's a very good singer, though not a classic Gilda: her voice has the part's whole range, but instead of chirpy sweetness there's a dark individuality (particularly in the middle) that may -- until she's known and famous and valued for it -- be taken as part-time sourness. In fact Machaidze's sound reminds me rather a lot of Angela Gheorghiu's, and I suspect her future is more in heavier stuff (where the darker character will show well) than today's chirpy -inas and -ettas.

Machaidze's Gilda, then, was less about the first act's youth and rapture than the latter acts' more painful storms -- which she both sang and acted with stronger conviction. Again, I saw echoes of Gheorghiu in dramatic temperament and even specific body language. One could do much worse, and I'm excited to see the young Georgian in a meatier role.

Also impressive (and again, with a nice sonic character) was relatively new Slovak bass Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile.

What didn't work, then? Well, Meoni is an unusually... upright Rigoletto: neither body nor spirit show more than the baseline minimum of warp from his life and environment. (In fact, this iteration of the court seems, for all the vice and cruelty, rather jolly -- which, mind you, may well be true to life.) That's a legitimate starting point, but though it's nice to see the him catch a moment of relaxation with his daughter after a rough day at the office, Meoni's jester never bodily reflects his later travails. He sings them well, but again without the full measure of horror. (I'd love to see Meoni as Miller, though, perhaps with Machaidze as Luisa.)

The other letdown was Paolo Arrivabeni, who debuted in the pit with this show in the fall. He actually does well in the broader things, pacing each number with well-judged energy, giving singers their space when necessary, and playing up dynamic contrasts in the score. But on the micro-level his sense of time seems to conflict with Verdi's: Arrivabeni's conducting, particularly in the rapid passages, tends to dissolve rather than emphasize the underlying beat/rhythm, undoing the contrast of forward motion and indelible time that gives Verdi's music -- even the melodies -- its characteristic charge. It recalled Adrianne Pieczonka's shortfall in last year's Boccanegra, but Arrivabeni made the whole cast sound like that -- except, thankfully, in the quartet.

This revival used, rather jarringly, an alternate configuration of the court and Rigoletto-home sets, not used here for two decades. The former was interesting, but the latter was shifted over so as to show much less of Rigoletto's home courtyard -- so the staging this time had Gilda wandering outside the gates to sing most of "Caro nome", a bit that made little sense.

Perhaps, if careers continue to flower, we'll look back at the names here decades later and wonder how great the combination must have been... But it's rarely so simple. Sounds great, though.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Opening the vault

Perhaps this has already been all around the net, but I got a press release this morning that four famous Met broadcasts were being released next Tuesday... on Sony Classical.
FIRST OFFICIAL, REMASTERED CD AND DIGITAL RELEASE: These historic performances originally broadcast via the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday afternoon radio series have never before been available internationally in authorized versions from original sources. Now, Sony Classical is presenting the first commercial releases of this material, newly remastered from the original sources and with the imprimatur of the Met.

ROSSINI: IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, December 16, 1950 (two CDs). This live broadcast from the Met of the Rossini favorite features the legendary Lily Pons in the role of Rosina, with the sterling young tenor Giuseppe di Stefano as Count Almaviva, a role he never recorded commercially, and baritone Giuseppe Valdengo, well known for his recordings with Toscanini, as Figaro. Alberto Erede conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, with the cast also including Salvatore Baccaloni as Don Bartolo and Jerome Hines as Don Basilio.

PUCCINI: LA BOHÈME, February 15, 1958 (two CDs). This classic performance of one of the repertory’s most popular operas stars the passionate singing of two paragons of Italian style, soprano Licia Albanese as the doomed seamstress Mimi and tenor Carlo Bergonzi as the poet Rodolfo. The conductor is Thomas Schippers, with the cast also including Mario Sereni as Marcello and Laurel Hurley as Musetta.

GOUNOD: ROMEO ET JULIETTE, February 1, 1947 (two CDs). The star-crossed lovers in this version of Shakespeare's tale are the celebrated Swedish tenor Jussi Björling and the sweet-voiced Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão, both in roles they never recorded commercially. Emil Cooper conducts, with the cast also including John Brownlee as Mercutio and Nicola Moscona as Frère Laurent.

PUCCINI: TOSCA, April 7, 1962 (two CDs). Live from the Met, Leontyne Price sings Puccini's tragic title heroine – in the prime of her career, opposite the thrilling tenor of Franco Corelli as Cavaradossi. Baritone Cornell MacNeil sings the evil Scarpia, one of his most famed portrayals. Kurt Adler conducts the Met Orchestra and Chorus.
There have been previous releases of this stuff -- mostly in pirate editions -- but a commercial release is a very big step. Whatever you might say about his administration, Peter Gelb (himself, of course, the former head of Sony Classical) has certainly done well to solve the apparently intractable rights issues involved in freeing the Met's amazing archive for general consumption.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The show-stopper

Tosca -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/10/2011
Radvanovsky, Alagna, Struckmann / Armiliato

If the whole of Sondra Radvanovsky's Met-first Tosca had been as exquisite as the thunderously received "Vissi d'arte", it would already be one of the outstanding accounts. But not quite yet: it's good, and she has more of the appropriate raw material than decades of predecessors (including, I think, Mattila), but the rest of the part isn't yet natural to her.

Part of it is Puccini, whose music -- after some early Musettas -- hasn't been Radvanovsky's material for a while. His ebb-and-flow melodic lines simply don't seem to complement the vibrato-driven texture of her voice the way Verdi's arcing, rhythmically-precise ones do. And in trying to produce a consistently strong, more classic spinto sound (vs. the dramatic coloratura she more familiarly is), Radvanovsky seems at times to pressure the voice rather than trust her natural carrying power. We shall see how she adapts to this repertoire over time.

But the aria -- as it was last spring -- is already glorious show of vocalism that has me, writing about it now, thinking of stopping by the house tonight for a repeat.

*     *     *

With fully-equipped Toscas rare in this age, the piece has been of late more about the men, as Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann showed in the spring. In that spirit came tenor Roberto Alagna -- in town for Carmen -- as an emergency substitute for the ill Marcelo Alvarez. Alagna had sounded a bit off himself in the Carmen five days previous, but though he still didn't have quite the free sound he in the season's first months, his Cavaradossi was a good one, and in better voice than his Jose. His relative unfamiliarity with the production -- he almost tipped over his painting scaffold in Act I, and a chess game with a guard had (I think) to be substituted for their scripted Act III opening interaction -- caused no harm, and in fact nicely highlighted the turns into spontaneous happy playfulness of the central couple.

Falk Struckmann doesn't have the powerful physical or vocal presence of his immediate predecessor Terfel, but returns to the psychologically gross manner of George Gagnidze in the production premiere. Struckmann's Scarpia actually may carry it further than Gagnidze's, drawing an unmistakable and pervertedly exquisite pleasure from lashing Tosca's psyche. Both he and Radvanovsky seemed to be feeling out their voices in the first act, but there were no complaints for the second (and, in her case, third).

As ever, Marco Armiliato shaped Puccini's lines straightforwardly but well.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The last seduction / Old school

Carmen -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/9/2010
Vizin, Hong, Jovanovich, Relyea / Gardner
Carmen -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/5/2011
Rachvelishvili, Hong, Alagna, Croft / Gardner

It's not entirely true that you can't fake sex appeal: Elina Garanca did a pretty good job of it last season in this production's debut. But there's no true substitute for the real thing, and Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin offered more of it last month than, well, any Carmen here in at least a generation.

There are other sides, of course, and other Carmens have shown her well as a man-eating, tragic, musical, or temperamental character. But Vizin showed what these interesting and even hypnotic Carmens have had us overlooking -- the power of basic seductiveness. It helps that she looks terrific on stage, but that's just the beginning. Vizin's Carmen has a certain lightness to her shifting moods, making each of her advances more delectable caprice than heavyhanded play. With this comes a delight and engagement in the moment, so that -- despite the obligatory and mildly ridiculous Gelb-era interpolated humping -- her in-jail seduction of Brandon Jovanovich's Jose is, for the first time in long memory, actually hot. It's a seduction, not a browbeating -- and again in Act II. There, for example, as she sings of the joys of the open road and "la liberte", Vizin's Carmen isn't lecturing Jose, but really trying to get him to share her anticipated pleasure. Jose, then, isn't necessarily chasing some disaster: lust, this time, explains things well enough.

The particular Jose in December was Brandon Jovanovich, who despite an announced indisposition was again a more interesting spinto than one might have expected. The contrast with Alagna was also interesting: both show Jose's inner torment, but Jovanovich seems more a decent soldier dragged fatally off the straight and narrow, while Alagna (as ever, it seems) is aware of the doom within him from the beginning. Micaela, for the latter, is an impossible evasion, and there's a periodic resignation in his downward journey that's terrifying.

This month's performances returned (from last season's premiere cast) Alagna, and though he sounded less fresh than his recent standard, he again made the finale almost too believable. His Carmen, this time, was a hitherto unheard mezzo named Anita Rachvelishvili, who apparently got a mixed reception last season at La Scala. Rachvelishvili, debuting here because of Kate Aldrich's pregnancy, has from the first some resemblance to the previous-century stars one may spot in the Met's concourse-level picture gallery. But her dark prominent eyes and retro figure aren't the extent of the time warp: Rachvelishvili (do I really have to keep spelling this out?) sings with a rich sound and commanding, not-quite-tasteful individuality of colors and phrasing that, in itself, makes for as effective a Carmen as any of her predecessors'. And while she's not one for the up-to-date engagement of Garanca or the pure seductive appeal of Vizin, the Georgian mezzo moves gamely around, not at all at odds with the production's demands as Borodina was.

*     *     *

The star of both shows, though, may have been local favorite Hei-Kyung Hong. Last season's Traviata showed her as a still-intelligent but audibly aging soprano, but these Micaelas were rather more flattering. If Hong is aging, she is doing so gracefully -- at least in a part that doesn't foreground virtuosity -- and the audible limitations seem to frame ever the more interesting artist. Direct youthful appeal doesn't, it turns out, require an obviously youthful voice.

Both Escamillos sang and acted their parts well, with Dwayne Croft (substituting for an ill Paulo Szot) a much more expressively smitten toreador than usual. Meanwhile British conductor Edward Gardner took, intentionally or not, sort of the ideal approach in following Nezet-Seguin's electrifying debut. Where the French-Canadian was almost wild in scope and tempi, Gardner takes a measured and almost chamber view of Bizet's opera -- everything in its place -- until the deadly climax. With therefore no question of direct comparison, the thought of the previous conductor didn't impinge too much on enjoyment of these well-led evenings.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


The past year brought some impressive triumphs of star power from the Met stage (none greater than Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel in Tosca) and pit (the arrival of French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Carmen and Don Carlo is, I think, more momentous than Fabio Luisi's Principal Guest Conductor appointment), but the vocal highlight may have been an event on a different stage altogether. I didn't finish blogging it at the time, so let me elaborate now.

It was a National Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall on April 1, but no one was there to see DC's "other" orchestra, even conducted by Marco Armiliato. Instead, it was the pairing of two singers who have in recent years often appeared together: Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who will return to the triumphant David McVicar Trovatore this spring.

The frequent pairing of soprano and baritone is no coincidence, for the two simply complement each other in both voice and temperament. Radvanovsky's instrument is disconcertingly like air: the sound rings towards you from everywhere, as spacious as the house itself, and whether whisper or roar there's little sense of personal strain. (The emotional channel is her vibrato, which again defies the expectations of some listeners.) Hvorostovsky's sound, meanwhile, comes in a single dark piece from his person, and when he drives it full blast it can seem to overpower its origin. But I'm back to appreciating this as just his way.

Hvorostovsky's mastery is, in any case, not of sonic force but personal, and the spell he cast on this occasion was perhaps the strongest I've witnessed from him. (So much so that I left wondering if he wasn't, in the right context, the greatest singer in the world -- though I also thought that later that month about Terfel.) Sharing the stage with the amazing American soprano seemed to inspire not direct competition in vocal climax and ease but the desire to excel as much in his mastery -- communicative intensity -- as his partner was in hers.

But as she pushed him also to charged pure vocalism of his own, Hvorostovsky brought out more dramatic and personal intensity than Radvanovsky is accustomed to show in his absence. It's not that she lacks these qualities, but they are not instinctual -- so engagement with a partner like Hvorostovsky (and a director like McVicar) makes her actually more interesting in herself.

Radvanovsky also, mind you, showed a grander and more luxuriant vocalism than even her usual, including barrages of well-integrated but gloriously long-held high notes that are sadly absent from the all-too-tasteful (and studioish) recordings these two have done of this material.

About the only downside was the orchestra, which acquitted itself quite well in tutti portions (and credit to Armiliato here) but was unable to provide the distinguished solo accompaniments one would have gotten at the Met in, e.g., the Ballo scene.
*     *     *

As well as the pair did in the concluding Onegin finale, it was Verdi that best showed their complementary talents, and Verdi that dominated the evening. We'll see the matchup again soon enough when the Trovatore production premiere cast reunites under Levine's baton this spring.

But Radvanovsky's encore gave a taste of next week's house role debut: singing Tosca's "Vissi d'arte", she showed the impressive-but-soft character (and, of course, Puccinian vocal ease) that should make for a near-ideal run in the part. I'd be surprised if this Tosca were the highlight of 2011, but it should certainly be better sold than it is.