Cher Public

Cross purposes

crociato_amazonThe subtitle for Il crociato in Egitto, the last of Meyerbeer’s great Italian operas, is “Historic Melodrama in Two Acts,” and boy is it!  A melodrama, I mean. I’m not sure about the historic part.

On one side you’ve got an AWOL castrato crusader fathering a child with, and secretly marrying, the sultan’s daughter, who is in turn loved by the evil Grand Vizier. On the other side you’ve got the Master of the Knights of Rhodes, willing to start a war to bring the miscreant back home and push him into the arms of the good Christian girl to which he is already betrothed — who just happens to be his niece.

Very entertaining melodrama it is, too, for the most part. I’ve never been a big Meyerbeer fan, but I have to confess I really enjoyed listening to this 2007 performance from Teatro la Fenice, conducted with a sure hand by Emmanuelle Villaume. Maybe that’s the secret; a conductor of French sensibilities at the helm of a French composer’s last foray into Italian grand opera. The performance has been available for some time on DVD but is just now being released as a CD on Naxos. So for many of you this is old news, but for those who have not seen the video, here we go.

First, the score is not what you think of when you first think of Meyerbeer. There is a lightness of touch, sureness of dramatic structure, and the beginnings of what would become the Italian “bel canto” style in the solos, duets, trios and larger ensembles. I found the whole thing very accessible, so if you’re unfamiliar with Meyerbeer, this is not a bad place to start.

Casting a Meyerbeer opera these days is always hard. The vocal writing is virtuostic in a very specific way, and we no longer have the voice parts for which he wrote some roles, and I mean that literally. Armando, aka Elmireno, was the last great role written for castrato. We can only imagine the power and virility that these monstres sacrés brought to their singing, but I am not convinced that casting a male falsettist in these roles is the best solution . In this performance, Armond is sung by “male soprano” Michael Maniaci (not to be confused with the pro football player Marc Maniaci).

For the first five minutes I was struck by the focus, quality, spin, range and high notes of Maniaci’s falsetto, but as the opera went on, it began to grate on my nerves. Based on the pictures, Maniaci is a tall, virile, handsome man — much like his chief rival in this repertoire, David Daniels. But when divorced from the visual, I just don’t think this type of casting works. For that matter, I’m not convinced it works with the visuals. No matter how good the falsetto, there is still a “whiteness” to the sound and a lack of real core and strength to the voice that effectively makes the sound “neuter” to modern ears.

When Rossini produced Il crociato in Egitto a few years after its London premiere, he cast the great Giuditta Pasta as Armando. No fool Rossini!  I’m likely to get crucified for this, but I have yet to hear a male soprano sing anything that I would not rather have heard sung by Marilyn Horne. There. It’s out. Run with it. That is not to say I don’t admire the work, artistry, musicality, intelligence, and frankly, balls of these guys, but as an opera-goer I do not find the sound satisfying. And I don’t for a minute believe that male falsetto singing is what a castrato sounded like.

For me, the chief pleasure of this recording is the gorgeous singing of Patrizia Ciofi. I keep coming back to words like limpid, lyrical, facile, etc., to describe her voice. As the Sultan’s daughter secretly married to Armando, she is the heart of the opera and it is a beautiful heart indeed.

As the Master of the Knights of Rhodes, tenor Fernando Purtari is okay, but nothing to write home about. He’s won several prestigious vocal competitions, but I found his singing provincial and decidedly lacking in the technical fireworks that would have made this part really stand out. In the best of all possible worlds, this role would have been sung by Juan Diego Florez, or going back a generation, Rockwell Blake. Alas, Mr. Purtari is not remotely comparable.

As Felicia, the erstwhile fiancee of Armando, mezzo Laura Polverelli is quite good. The voice has a nice chiaroscuro balance and an interesting timbre. Her fioratura is very good and her big show pieces are dispatched with aplomb. My only criticism is a lack of musical personality that tends to make her singing a little square. I think it could be an important voice and I would like to hear more of her in the future.

As the Sultan Aladino, Marco Vinco effectively declaims the part’s more somber passages but is at best stolid and reliable in the rest. (Note: Thought none of his bios state it specifically, I’m guessing Marco is Ivo”s son?)

In the small part of the duplicitous Grand Vizier Osmino, character tenor Iorio Zennario is very good. I only mention it because he doesn’t sound appreciably different from Mr. Purtari, so the needed contrast between the good guy and the bad guy, or if you prefer, leading tenor and character tenor, is missing.

The La Fenice chorus sound fine and for a live recording the sound is well balanced, if a little tinny for my taste. To sum it up: a nice way to acquaint yourself with unfamiliar but important operatic repertoire.

  • Jay

    Nice review, but I prefer Wagner lager over Meyer beer.

  • jatm2063

    “Based on the pictures, Maniaci is a tall, virile, handsome man…”

    Wendy Escambia: This is a fantasy on your part of the most embarassing sort. Michael Maniaci is about 5’8″ and shaped like a pear. He is not possibly handsome or virile, even on his very best day.

    The voice is very nice (a clip of this recording has been played on Parterre a few years ago), he’s a nice guy (so I’ve been told), and he is a great musician who works hard. But the rest, sorry, you just made that up somehow in your own mind.

    • Jay

      I’d imagine David Daniels will be flattered by his being compared to “virile” countertenor. Daniels is a good actor and singer, etc. And I’d let it go at that. Generally, I prefer mezzos to countertenors in such roles as Orfeo and in this part of the review Ms. Escambia (is she from Pensacola?) nails it.

  • I enjoyed reading this review and comparing Wendy’s comments to my own thoughts after having watched the DVD of this opera several times. Ciofi is clearly the star here, both vocally and based upon her acting ability (obviously unapparent on a CD). I first heard this work on an Opera Rara CD, where Yvonne Kenny portrayed Palmide. She was a damned good choice and someone a bit more lyrical than Ciofi, but still not as compelling in this role as Patrizia. The OR production chose to use, as Armando, mezzo Diana Montague in place of a countertenor. I liked her better for her singing (the sound male sopranos make sort of creeps me out a bit), but it was easier to watch Maniaci fulfill this role on DVD rather than imagine how Montague or one of her colleagues would have played it.

    ** Note: According to one interview I read online (from malesopranos.com), “…He does not sing falsetto, nor does he have a baritone register, as counter-tenors do. On the other hand, he is whole and male (he obviously shaves; he assures me he is fertile). It is just that some quirk in his development led to all the appurtenances of puberty appearing except one – his larynx did not grow along with the rest of him. As a consequence, his voice never broke.”

    Regarding “Adriano,” I agree with Wendy that Fernando Purtari was adequate, at best. Opera Rara employed Bruce Ford for their production, and he was spectacular. Too bad he was unable to reprise this role in Venice.

    • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK

      My God ! “He assures me he is fertile.” Is there no end to A -- the questions people will ask, B -- the answers that will be given, and C -- the inane criteria by which we judge singers. I can’t wait for Gelb to latch onto this. Not only must singers look the part, sound the part, act the part, but now they will have to undergo a sperm count.

      • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK

        “Madame Milanov, we would like to have you sing Aida next season, but first we need to know, are you fertile? and are those tits real?”

        I don’t think so.

      • Jay

        If they start collecting “samples”, wonder who will be the Moby Dick of countertenors?

      • “I told him I would take his word for it.”

        • Mwahaha.

          And apparently Mr Maniaci is capable of Penetrating Wagner’s Ring.

          And as someone later in this thread notes, there is a problem with clicking on specific comments. I though it was a problem with my browser, but it happens in Firefox and Safari.

      • No Expert

        Interesting pick-up line, though.

  • RobNYNY1957

    “Maybe that’s the secret; a conductor of French sensibilities at the helm of a French composer’s last foray into Italian grand opera.”

    This opera was composed before he became French. He was still a German Jew living living in Italy at the time.

  • Orlando Furioso

    This opera was actually my first live Meyerbeer — a concert presentation in Carnegie Hall that happened to coincide with my spring-break week away from grad school.

    As with Opera Rara, Yvonne Kenny was the soprano; my first encounter with her. We had Rockwell Blake (who certainly made some astonishing noises, but at least did have the heroic edge [yes, that’s the right word] in his delivery) and Justino Diaz. Armando was to have been Frederica von Stade, but she withdrew at a late date, to the evident disgruntlement of management: the pre-concert speech thanking Felicity Palmer for jumping in on short notice was about as frank an admission of annoyance with an absent artist as I can remember hearing under such circumstances. But Ms. Palmer (not yet a mezzo, but clearly thinking about it if she undertook this part) needed no special consideration. She was excellent.

    The thing I most remember about it, along with Ms. Kenny’s virtuosity and a particularly well-tuned and -synchronized trio showcasing the three female voices, is the presence of the West Point Band for the onstage banda. For once we got the full effect intended in these Italian operas of that period (when the groups would indeed be recruited from the local military company): a massive incursion of wind sonorities with a different weight and articulation from the orchestra.

  • CruzSF

    Wendy, does the CD case contain the libretto and any background essays? Thanks for the review. (I disagree with you about countertenors, but accept that their sound is an acquired taste. I actually like that bit of weirdness about the tone.)

    • I’m guessing this Naxos disc does NOT come with an enclosed libretto, simply a 10- or 12-page booklet that includes a cast list and accompanying biographies, a listing of each cut and its elapsed time, and a scene-by-scene synopsis. This is what I received when I bought the Naxos 2-CD set of the early Meyerbeer opera “Semiramide” (conducted by Bonynge!)

      Naxos DOES provide an online link to the libretto on the back cover. However, it only includes (in the case of “Semiramide,” anyway) the Italian text, and no translation into other languages.

      • CruzSF

        That’s what I was afraid of, operablogger.

  • manou

    Please restore Emmanuel Villaume’s virility -- he is not the eponymous Emmanuelle of soft porn fame.

  • Will

    Maniaci indeed does not sing falsetto. We recently had a superb performance from him in Boston in the premiere of the new opera Madame White Snake. He is a genuine soprano, male variety.

  • E-news

    As someone noted above, Michael Maniaci claims that he does not sing in falsetto. Therefore, I’m a little baffled as to why you devoted so much space in this review to why you don’t like falsettists, when there are none on this recording (if Michael is to be believed). Are you saying that you think he is lying/mistaken/misinformed? A discussion on why you think he is singing in falsetto when he claims he is not would have been an interesting addition to this review.

    Also, I would hardly call David Daniels “his chief rival in this repertoire” as they sing few, if any, of the same roles; David Daniels specializes in the contralto castrato roles of Handel and Gluck, while Maniaci does mostly the soprano castrato roles of Handel, Mozart, and the bel canto. So I don’t really see how they’re in competition with each other.

    • jatm2063

      I just checked Amazon and there is a new recording of Maniaci singing “Mozart arias for male soprano”.

      Perhaps someone could review that for Parterre and illuminate us all a bit further.

  • judycadanna

    Go with the Opera Rara recording this time-- the Naxos tenor is not up to the challenge, especially the best and most un-Rossinian part of the opera, ‘Suona funerea’, a gorgeously elegiac piece that Verdi would have been proud to have written.
    On the other hand, this Naxos has the major advantage of not having Kenny cock-a-doodle-dooing her way through everything above the staff. The LONG scenes for Palmide are a painful slog for her, so if I listen to that part, I mentally edit in early 60’s Sills, or maybe Damrau (or Sutherland, or Ella Fitzgerald, or hell, even Christina Aguilera-- pretty much anyone else).

  • LittleMasterMiles

    Here’s what Grove Music (in an article penned by Matthias Brzoska) has to say about Il Crociato:

    After the relatively unsuccessful L’esule di Granata (12 March 1822, Milan), Meyerbeer surpassed even the success of Margherita with Il crociato in Egitto (7 March 1824, Venice). This work has a unique place in operatic history, for while it adheres to the contemporary Italian style of domestic drama, with the addition of an ‘irresolute hero’ and a colourful historical background, the leading part, written for Velluti, is one of the last castrato roles. He makes a virtue of this anomaly by skilfully incorporating many neo-Baroque references and other archaisms into the score, while developing the illustrative techniques that had proved successful in Margherita. The introductory scene now becomes a monumental tableau, and national confrontation is expressed in the opposition of two bands of musicians (no.11, finale primo), intercutting with each other in the stretta and combining with the chorus and orchestra. The exotic subject, an encounter between Egyptians and Crusaders, inspired Meyerbeer to instrumentation of a new kind to depict character: the Egyptians’ janissary music employs percussion and five clarinets in C, supported in the upper register by the piercing timbre of a piccolo flute and a piccolo clarinet in F, and in the lower register by a serpentone, a trombone and two bassoons. The reminiscence motif of the romanza ‘Giovinetto Cavalier’ in the central recognition scene (Act 1, terzetto, no.9) is introduced with a similarly new effect. The romanza is a kind of parable relating to the action, telling the tale of an unfaithful knight, as all three characters, the two women and the hero, recall the melody torn between them, they recognize each other.

    With Il crociato Meyerbeer became the leading Italian operatic composer after Rossini. His status is illustrated by the fact that Goethe envisaged someone ‘like Meyerbeer’ setting his Faust (see J.P. Eckermann: Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, Leipzig, 1837–48/R). Writing on 12 February 1829, he saw Meyerbeer as Mozart’s only true successor: ‘Mozart would have been bound to compose Faust. Meyerbeer might be capable of it, but will not embark on such a venture’.

  • rysanekfreak

    Marco Vinco is Ivo Vinco’s nephew.

    I love the Opera Rara recording. Lots of bouncy cabalettas. And there’s an appendix with lots of alternate and insert arias.

    • Regina delle fate

      And Fiorenza Cossotto is his auntie!

  • manou

    [Small housekeeping problem :

    Clicking on the links in the new comments (top left) does not always redirect to that comment, but often only to the thread where it appears. Given the intricacies of the re-instated “Reply” feature, it is sometimes difficult to find the said comment.

    This does not occur when one goes to the Comment Feed, which is not always up to the minute and has its own idiosyncrasies.]

    • pernille

      Thanks for bringing this up. I thought it was just me.

    • manou

      The erratic linking only occurs sporadically, and so is obviously a small glitch which should be resolved.

      The Comments Feed shows about 20 comments -- maybe it could be expanded (scope for more advertising…). As it seems to be chronological, it would answer the pleas of those who are getting confused by the new system, or indeed those on different time zones.

  • iltenoredigrazia

    The same here. Hard to find the comments.

  • peter

    Please, please, please La Cieca, can we go back to the old way of threading? It’s very hard to follow comments this way.

    • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK

      Maybe you could get your guru to set up a program that works one way, but every midnight (EST) with a wave of the magic wanky turns into the other way. That way all of us could be miserable half the time.

      • peter

        Betsy Ann, don’t you prefer the old way?

        • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK

          Only in certain things.

          I find the linking a bit sluggish, yes, but the chronologic method could get confusing and it was too easy to lose track of who was responding to what. The current system arranges by topics and sub-topics (more or less) so you can just skip to the next paragraph, as it were.

        • SF Guy

          For me, it depends on whether or not the thread has stayed on topic. With the current set-up, there’s no problem if a few of us go off on a tangent about where to stay in San Francisco or the dulcet tones of Mara Zampieri--as Betsy points out, it’s easy for everyone else to cruise on by.

          However, when pretty much everyone is staying on topic--as occasionally actually happens--things can get chaotic pretty quickly, and I have no idea exactly where to post. So…neither system is perfect. Toss a coin.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Asian Falsetto Mullett Man:

    What ever happened to Sebastien (Sebastian?) Na??

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • Henry Holland

    If you need a Meyerbeer fix in the 2010/11 season, La Monnaie is doing Les Huguenots in June of 2011, with Marc Minkowski conducting and a cast of:

    Marguerite: Marlis Petersen/Henriette Bonde-Hansen
    Valentine: Mireille Delunsch / NN
    Urbain: Yulia Lezhneva / Blandine Staskiewicz
    Raoul: Eric Cutler / John Osborn
    Saint-Bris: Philippe Rouillon
    Nevers: Jean-François Lapointe

    • CruzSF

      Is Petersen trying to be the next Domingo? She’s everywhere!

    • Buster

      Too bad they did not hire Michael Spyres -- I would have loved to hear him in this.

      But how to combine Petersen and Delunsch? I would like to avoid Henriette Bonde-Hansen, who was the dullest Mélisande for the great Serge Baudo last year. Really bad.

  • mrmyster

    to: Wendy Escampia — it is not accurate to call Michael Maniaci’s voice “falsetto,” for it is not that. Don’t you know the story of his vocal development? In brief, and this is no secret, he was a boy soprano who, just entering adolescence, suffered a stroke (!), which in effect ‘froze’ his voice at that point. He went on to develop adult muscles, size etc. and developed normally, except the voice remained as it had been, except strengthened as he grew into adulthood. This is a singular situation, but I heard it from one of his vocal coaches who knew what she was talking about. I have heard it from others, subsequently; and once you know it, and listen with that in mind, it explains the very unusual nature of his instrument and sound. I enjoy his singing and find him an excellent musician. His voice is well supported and is a true singing instrument -- a boy soprano in an adult male body. One of a kind!

    • LittleMasterMiles

      Am I alone in finding Maniaci’s “true soprano” voice a little over-hyped? He sounds to me like nothing more or less than a good soprano-range countertenor with a weak lower register.

      No, he doesn’t sound like he’s singing falsetto, but neither does a good countertenor.

      A quick web search turns up stories of what happened to his voice ranging from the stroke mentioned above to “some medical mystery.” I don’t mean to say that he’s lying about his physical instrument, only that the mythology is important to his public persona.

      Prominent in much of this mythology is, of course, the comparison to a castrato, giving Maniaci a claim to “authenticity” surpassing other countertenors. Whether he really captures the sound of good castrato is impossible to know; what’s certain is that he is trying to capture the mystique of one.

      But I’d still rather hear Andreas Scholl.

      • soubrettino

        OMG Andreas Scholl! Around the house we call him ‘The 8va Euphonium’, LOLs! I heard he’s singing @Met next year, is it true?

        Jaroussky is also very good.

      • quoth the maven

        LMM--You are not alone.

  • mrmyster

    Well Miles, not to prolong this rather pointless commentary,
    I would point out that Maniaci has a distinctive quality that
    counter tenor falsettos do not have -- his voice has a natural
    vibrato; have you ever heard a counter with same? I have not.
    What is means, to me, is that his is a “natural” voice with
    a fully supported tone, ‘on the breath.’ The counter tenor
    falsetto is a very ‘held’ sound — it is quite different from
    all other singers in that quality alone for the voice itself is
    constricted and squeezed into a certain range. As for lower
    range being absent, when have you heard a boy soprano with
    a lower range? Just think of Maniaci as a grown up boy
    soprano and I think that may answer some questions. You
    seem to disdain him into the realm of myth or legend. I do
    not; I find him perfectly valid, myth or not.
    What’s the matter Master Miles? Is your boy soprano career
    ending? :)

    • LittleMasterMiles

      I’ve heard Jaroussky, Davies, Scholl, Daniels, Mehta, Asawa, and plenty of other countertenors (and haute-contres) sing with vibrato, and Maniaci’s sound is simply not categorically different. The anxiety surrounding countertenor vocal production mystifies me—I think it has to do with the pejorative associations with the word “falsetto,” and of course a dose of gender panic. People also have a hard time accepting Vivaldi’s female tenors as basses as “real” voices.

      I don’t know why you think I’m mythologizing Maniaci—I’m not the one who insists on marketing him as a pseudo-castrato. As I said before, he has a very nice sound, and I think he has a good career ahead of him, but in my opinion he’s not quite on the same level as most of the guys I cited above.