Cher Public

A tale of two Alagnas

two_bobbiesIn 1890 Cavalleria rusticana had taken the whole world by storm and in the next decade or so, hordes of composers, willing or unwillingly, jumped on the Verismo bandwagon.  La navarraise (1894) is generally considered Jules Massenet’s homage to the genre, and for a long time the two works were often performed together.   Emma Calvé, the creator of the title role in Massenet’s opera, and one of the most illustrious champions of the Verismo movement, frequently appeared in the two operas in the same evening.  

When La Calvé introduced La Navarraise at the Met in 1896 for its American premiere, it was with a very odd comrade, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.  In the next couple of decades, Massenet’s opera appeared at the Met quite frequently, in double bills with operas such as La traviata, Pagliacci, Rigoletto, Aida and Il trovatore.  It was not until 1921 that it was paired with Mascagni’s masterpiece.

Although La Navarraise would probably not exist if it had not been for Cavalleria’s huge popularity, even the most superficial listener cannot fail to detect its considerable debt to Carmen, so much that Massenet’s work could be aptly described as a somewhat eccentric cross between the Mascagni and Bizet evergreens.

Based on Jules Claretie’s novel “La cigarette”, La Navarraise is a very short opera with a far-fetched plot made even more implausible by the extreme speed of the storytelling.  Taking place in the mountains near Bilbao in 1874, at the height of the third Carlist war, the story focuses on Anita, the girl from Navarre, whose mad love for the soldier Araquil is thwarted by his father, Remigio, who demands a substantial dowry from the destitute girl.

After overhearing the commander Garrido’s outbursts of frustrations at not being able to capture Zuccaraga, the leader of the Carlist army, she volunteers to assassinate him if Garrido remunerates her with 2,000 duros, the sum Remigio demanded.

When a fellow soldier, Ramon, tells Araquil that he has seen Anita fleeing towards the enemy camp, the young man is led to believe that she is either a foreign spy or, worse, Zuccaraga’s mistress.  As he desperately runs to the Carlist camp, Anita returns to Garrido, still stained with Zuccaraga’s blood, and demands her compensation.

Araquil is brought back fatally wounded; when Anita shows him the money, he accuses her of prostituting herself.  The girl refuses to tell him how she has obtained the money, but when he hears bells in the distance, and is told they are tolling for Zuccaraga, who has been murdered by an assassin, he realizes the truth, only to die just moments later.  Anita loses her mind and bursts into hysterical laughter.

This all happens in barely 45 minutes, a time frame in which Massenet not only concentrates the whole sequence of events, which follow one another at break-neck speed, but also inserts color pieces such as a haunting Nocturne as well as a clapping dance song with 3/4  interrupting thrumming chords in 6/8  entrusted to an utterly peripheral character.   On the other hand, the protagonist has no solo except an undistinguished arioso.

My overall impression of La Navarraise is of a work with many a remarkable and effective musical moment, loosely bound together by a defective dramaturgy.   The same tightness of action that makes Cavalleria such a high-powered, self-propelling work, also makes Massenet’s opera dramaturgically implausible and far-fetched.

Maestro Alberto Veronesi managed to find and highlight the fil rouge linking the two operas.  The newly appointed music director designate of the Opera Orchestra of New York—he will replace Eve Queler in 2011—may not please everyone by virtue of a quite individual but coherently developed approach to the two works, especially Cavalleria rusticana.

His conducting is tight, plastic and fluid at the same time, reluctant to abandon itself to the languor and extreme allargandos of much of the tradition.   Its tautness brings to mind the harsh life under a merciless sun in a poor, arid Sicilian village, without romanticizing the story and its protagonists.   The speed of “Gli aranci olezzano” and Alfio’s entrance gives these pieces an authentic folk song flavor.  Vigor, élan and terseness are the first qualities that come to my mind when describing Maestro Veronesi’s interpretation.

Unfortunately the Opera Orchestra of New York is not exactly a first tier ensemble, and there was a pervasive sense that Maestro Veronesi’s intuitions were occasionally thwarted.   Still, his intentions were clear and he was able to obtain rich dynamics, marvelous colors (the muted violins during the preparation to “Gli aranci olezzano”) and exquisite touches like the light rhythmic hesitations of the female voices in the above mentioned chorus and dazzling virtuosismos : the accelerating ascending scale at the end of the Santuzza-Alfio duet was terrifying in its vehemence and precision.

Roberto Alagna sang the leading tenor roles in both operas. The French work does not give the tenor many opportunities to shine.  Araquil may be presented as a war hero, but his behavior during his stage time and his complete submission to his father make him seem a weak and sickly character, which reflects in his generally undistinguished music.

Turiddu is a much more rewarding role.  Alagna negotiated the difficult tessitura with ease, displaying a ring, a squillo quite suitable to the effrontery typical of the role, as well as a “larmoyante” quality that made his “addio alla madre” particularly moving and affecting.  He was in general in much better voice than I had heard him in quite a while.

Regrettably, it was distracting to see him with his eyes constantly glued to the score, which he put away only at the very end to belt out a (slightly sharp) B flat on “S’io non tornassi”.   One thing I enjoyed was his authentic accent in the “Siciliana”, with a perfect rendition of the Sicilian t’s and d’s, two very difficult consonants that only natives can pronounce correctly. I wouldn’t be surprised if Turiddu played a very significant role in Alagna’s near future.

If it is true that you can see how things end by the way they start, Maria Guleghina’s first foray above the staff, a painfully flat G on Mamma Lucia, was not a good omen.   Ms. Guleghina is usually credited with having a very big, loud voice, and this is partially true, though limited to the first high notes.

For the rest, I have always been frustrated by her absolute refusal to even minimally take advantage of her chest voice.  We all know that its abuse is unhealthy and normally destructive, but there are roles where an intelligent use of this register is essential.  In Guleghina’s case, key phrases like “ Sono scomunicata” or “Io piango” are barely audible and go for nothing.  On top, as hinted before, the sound is loud, but uncontrolled and often flat.

Carlos Almaguer shouted most of the role of Alfio.  I don’t understand why the overwhelming majority of baritones singing this role make their entrance looking and sounding menacing and vicious, while it is very clear – in Mamma Lucia’s words (“Beato voi, compar Alfio, che siete sempre allegro così”) – that he is generally a jolly guy: after all, he has a job he likes and a beautiful young wife.

As for the rest of the cast, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann, donning a blinding crimson gown, was an appropriately flirty Lola and Mignon Dunn (Mamma Lucia), who had not been on a stage since the Met Elektras in 1994, was rightfully welcomed with an ovation by an audience grateful for her huge contribution to the operatic world.

In La Navarraise there was the luxury casting of Ildar Abdrazakov, frankly wasted in a marginal role like Garrido.  Michael Anthony McGee made a favorable impression in Bustamante’s fleeting but flavorful appearance (he is the one who comes on stage, sings the dance song and leaves), and Brian Kontes and Issachah Savage were adequate as Remigio and Ramon.

garancaElina Garanca was Anita.  The Latvian beauty was very recently discussed in detail in this blog after the release of her latest CD.  Considering this performance, I could not agree more with the general consensus that Ms. Garanca has a correct, pleasant, well-placed, homogeneous instrument.  It is however a bit too lyric (i.e., light) even for a lyric mezzo-soprano and endowed with something less than a full rainbow of colors.

More than the voice itself, it is the interpreter who can be maddeningly frustrating.  With a bland, generic fraseggio, Ms. Garanca’s Anita was, brutally speaking, as dull as dishwater.  This is a role with minimal vocal gratifications, a role that—even in the confines of a concert performance – wagers everything on expressiveness, fearlessness and emotional investment; a role that challenges the interpreter to verge almost on the border of campiness, with the famous—or infamous—final hysterical laughter, required by the score but which she shied away from.

Navarre is no country for ice queens.

  • Bill

    Phoenix -- Ilona Tokody made her Vienna Staatsoper
    debut in Vienna as Mimi in 1979 and probably started
    in Budapest some years before. She still sings
    Mimi regularly (always at Christmas) in Budapest and also last season Leonora in Forza and has done
    Manon Lescaut and Desdemona there in recent years as well. (at one time she was an outstanding Manon Lescaut) She was a refined soprano doing mainly
    Italian roles with an attractive and rich middle voice and was (and still is) an accomplished actress. In Figaro (and she never sang much Mozart) the middle voice is still very much intact, but the top (and the Countess is not a very high role) thins out quite a bit now -- the richness fades and that is never
    effective in Mozart where a very even voice is required top to bottom. So it was a bit disappointing to hear her with diminished resources but it has been a longer than 30 year career
    singing leading roles (often subbing for Freni in
    Vienna) and she is celebrated in Budapest --
    equivalent of Kammersaengerin and Honorary Member of the Budapest Opera and it is quite right they give her a few performances now each season while she is still
    not an embarassment though certainly no longer in her considerable prime.

    The acoustics in the Theater an der Wien are fantastically good -- the Ariadne sounded almost
    Wagnerian. Most productions there these days
    are often closer to the baroque opera age, and things like Intermezzo, Pelleas, Freischutz etc. But for
    the period from 1945-55, the Staatsoper performed
    there regularly, all the grand operas, Meistersinger,
    Salome, Elektra, Walkure etc. with superb casts and some of the greatest conductors and it must have been a revelation to hear these works in a somewhat smaller jewel of an opera house. It is just the right size for Handel, Mozart, Bellini (Gruberova upcoming next year), and operas like Capriccio (also upcoming in a few years), Ariadne and any chamber opera.

    Gruberova has engagements listed up until 2014, mainly in Vienna, Munich, Barcelona and in other
    cities in Germany, Budapest etc. -- and to Japan for
    some concerts. Only one new role is planned (I think it is Beatrice di Tenda for Vienna and some other cities or Straniera.) She sings her last ever Traviata in Vienna in December (in concert form). She has aria concert evenings planned here and there and a few lieder recitals. Anna Bolena is coming up in Barcelona with Garanca. Vienna has an exhibition with Gruberova as the focal point at one of their palace museums to celebrate her 40 years at the Staatsoper -- we went to the opening (she spoke) and the place was packed. She and Hollender were not the best of Friends but it is said the new director of the Vienna Opera has told her she can do whatever she wants. And why not ? She has an adoring public, most all her performances are immediately sold out and she always puts on a good show even if not in the best of voice. She paces herself very well and of course some of her current roles such as in Roberto Devereuz are really tough and there is not alot of competition from those who might surpass her efforts. There are many who never liked her voice much (though maybe not so many in Central Europe which Callas and Sutherland
    pretty much ignored) And her voice may slightly fail her at times these days in spots but her technique is still rock solid and she has a bag of vocal tricks at her disposal which most other current singers in her fach could hardly be able to imitate let alone surpass.

    Thanks, Phoenix, for your informative postings.

    • phoenix

      Thanks to you… you communicate much clearer than i do … particularly re: Tokody. That is exactly the way i remembered her sounding as you described her in best days…. it was a very beautiful tone, but age is age & none of us can avoid it.
      — Of course Tokody was the prima donna assoluta at the Hungarian State Opera … But she was everything they said she was & more… she had that personal, totally honest, open stage presence… when i first saw Tokody perform, i realized the only singer I had ever seen before in a live opera performance who had enough class & charm to compete with her was Victoria de los Angeles.
      — They haven’t broadcast Tokody’s live opera performances in recent years on Bartok Magyar, but i have heard a few recitals with piano accompanying her (also heard a few with Sylvia Sass, too). The last complete opera broadcast i remember with Tokody from Budapest was with her as Rachel in La Juive & that was quite a few years back… she was still wonderful — that full, rich, warm tone & her voice was still intact — they even included the Rachel-Eudoxie duet in the performance.
      — About Gruberova, i don’t know what to say. My late, best friend saw her Wiener staatsoper debut 40 years ago & i saw her do Zerbinetta over there the next year in 1971 with Janowitz as Ariadne. opera has changed over the years… more young people seem to be interested in the history of the art form itself as well as the historical artists who emerged out of it… come to think of it, i was interested in them too when i was young. i remember meeting Jeritza & having such wonderful time talking with her… i thought i’d died & gone to heaven… but even then i knew myself better than that & there is certainly no heaven in my destiny.

      Again, thanks for your posts!

    • Regina delle fate

      I so wish I could have seen the ThanderWien Ariadne. I’m going later in the month for La finta giardiniera, which could be interesting. Jacobs conducting, D Alden directing. It’s terrific that Wien has a small international house that is a real alternative to the Staatsoper. Nothing is thrown on at the AnderWien nowadays and the casts are consistent, festival style.

      • manou

        I saw la finta giardiniera at Covent Garden a few seasons ago……as I recall, one big yawn. But I do hope you have fun and that the Viennese (and Jacobs) have a surer touch.

        • Buster

          Arminda’s two aria’s are great, though -- or is it Margiono who convinces me they are? Same thing with Lella Cuberli and Lucio Silla -- I only started to listen to that opera because of her, and still only really like Giunia’s music.

          • Giardiniera ain’t a masterpiece that’s for sure, but it’s a delightfully crafted buffa with really original finales. I’d recommend Dorrie’s Salzburg production under Bolton with Gens, Donose and Mark Ainsley (incidentally, swallowed by a giant venus trap!) apparently having fun. Plus, it introduces two delightful leggieros, Markus Werba and Adrianna Kucerova.

      • When are you going to the Theater an der Wien Giardiniera, Regina? I’m going to be at the prima.

    • Thanks for the very warm words about Tokody. I have her complete La Fiamma and the RCA Tabarro and she is regal in both. A while ago somebody sent me a phenomenal version of her singing Tosti’s Non t’amo piu and she turns this rather cheap song into a masterpiece. Maybe I’ll download it to Utube.

      • phoenix

        i don’t know how to post music or pictures or utube or anything up on these blog/comment sites … but Cequetti/Farrell very welcome you are & thanks for your insight … i know exactly what you mean about what Tokody could do with an old song … awhile back on Magyar radio they broadcast a memorial concert from the Great Synagogue in Budapest & she sang two songs, one was from Ravel’s melodies hebraique & the other was an old sephardic hebrew folk song (anonymous composer)… i believe i kept them both over here on micro sdhc chips, but i don’t really need to play the chips again… from the first second i heard them they were mine…

        • I’d love to hear that…
          Sometimes you hear something and you just know it’s there for eternity, playing in your mind.

          One more rarity and worthy to mention is Arleen Auger singing I’ll Follow my Secret Heart so hauntingly and sincerely it just melted my heart. And she’s a singer I don’t usually relate to.

          • phoenix

            you are in good company … apparently the late Auger was well-liked by many, many people who loved concert singing (in those days i was even more ignoring of what was going on in that dept. than i am now)…
            but i do remember admiring the way Auger sang when i heard her on the radio… compact voice, thorough concentration on the material at hand, no histronics nor drama necessary, sort of what I thought a hiclassic balladsinger should sound like, she shifted my attention away from her personal interpreation & into harmonies & counterpoint of the song itself… i think she came to the Met in the 80’s & did a Marzelline, but i didn’t see it.

        • mrmyster

          CF: Interesting to note Auger singing Noel Coward’s “I’ll follow
          my Secret Heart (my whole life through)” — a charming and
          sentimental song. I once attended a production of Bitter Sweet
          in which the first act finale (this was in a large urban area with
          outdoor opera in summer), had to be entirely re-written for politically-correct reasons — lots of N-word and so on,
          so what was done was excise the Ta Ra Ra Boom Ti Eh, and
          Eeny meeny miny mo… and replace it with a long solo of
          Secret Heart -- sung by, guess who: Roberta Peters all in pink.
          It was good and very sentimental. But I would LOVE to hear
          Arleen A. sing it; did you put it up on You-Tube? In revising
          Act I Finale as St. Louis did, they had to cut the Carl Sarah
          duet “The Call of Life,” so that was inserted later in the show.
          It was a good solution to the N-word problem. Bitter Sweet should
          be brought back to the Straw Hat Circuit; it’s a most melodious
          score and a great story with solid second plot line and wonderful
          solo songs/arias — “Manon” a secondary character gets to sing
          “Kiss me Before you go Away; miss me through ev’ry night and day”
          . . . if done right it is a knock out song!

  • Bill

    Elisabeth Kulman has been an “ensemble mitglieder”
    at the Wiener Staatsoper. That means, as a member of the ensemble, she sings a variety of leading and
    somewht smaller roles and probably covers some other roles. Her Herodias was gorgeously sung and not at all a character charade that some aging Mezzos (or sopranos) make of the role.
    Kulman has just recently (this week) announced that she
    no longer plans to be a member of the ensemble in Vienna, with bookings elsewhere in leading roles but
    maintaining Vienna as her base. Garanca (and probably Kirschlager before her) also began in
    Vienna as an “ensemble mitglieder” before branching out as a freelance artist (all over the world) --
    In the past many of Vienna’s great Mezzos (Anday, Hoengen, Christa Ludwig, probably Baltsa were members of the ensemble and stayed true to the Vienna Opera
    througout their careers…and the public stayed true to
    them as well.

  • phoenix

    Cerquetti/Farrell: Ummmmmmm! thanx for the 2 clips. Both clips are great & not as dissimilar from each other as i thought… i wasn’t as familiar with Auger & i didn’t remember how she caressed those high phrases. Tokody did so, too… the warm TONE of Tokody’s voice (& her intonation!)… that’s home for me!

    • Thank you. They are slightly similar because they are not content with just producing beautiful tone. They paint the words and both are acutely aware to the hamonic shifts. Just note how Tokody uses a different colour for the chromatic scale at “sognai felice di carezze e baci”, each step adds to the tension of the line, yet all held together beautifully by a slur. Nothing is cheap or outdone, justification for the words and intense emotion (reminiscence, in this case) comes from the lay of the musical phrases. That’s the kind of singing I love.

    • Also, the B flat ending the “te ne ricordi ancor” is of course the same note as the B flat starting the next phrase / section starting the “or la mia fede”, yet the same note serves a different harmonic function and therefore is coloured differently by Tokody. Maybe it sounds like pinpoint detail but this kind of detail gives the music it’s shape and meaning and defines the architecture / emotional journey of a piece.

      • mrmyster

        CF: What is the proper pronunciation of Tokody in Hungarian?
        I’ve been told it’s ‘Tokodie’ rather than ‘dee.’ Any thoughts?
        Not to be confused with “Tokay, the golden sunshine of a
        summer day….” from Mr Coward’s little “Hungarian” operetta.

        • phoenix

          yes, that is so. same with Kodaly, it’s pronounced english “ie” not “ee”. Also, when you look at the magyar sites (and the opera casts) you will notice that people of magyar nationality are listed with family (last) name first, example: Tokody Ilona, as well as in the example below, Tokody Tibor:

          • m. croche

            My Hungarian is minimal, but I’m kinda sure this is wrong. The “ly” in Hungarian is a sort of “i” sound which combines with the vowel with precedes it -- in MOST cases. So that Kodaly sounds like Ko-die (as in Die, Mommy, Die). There are exceptions to this rule, where the “y” is used as a genitive case, like “de” in French or “von” in German. So, for example, “Kerpely” of the Waldbauer-Kerpely quartet (which premiered so much Bartok), is pronounced with three syllables: ker -- pe -lee.

            Tokody may have that same genitive “y”, I’m not sure. But this youtube video of Tokody Tibor seems pretty clearly to suggest that the final syllable is “ee” not “ie”.

          • No, I got the English equivalent wrong. I was thinking latin and tried to imply that the g is soft . Therefore you are quite right, its gee not gie.

          • m. croche

            CF: in Hungarian, I believe soft g sounds are formed by adding “y” to “g”, like Gyorgy (djoerdj) or Nagy (nadge). Adding “y” to “d” simply makes “dee”, like Sandra.

          • I

            (not only Hungarian, but of royal blood)

        • I was told Tokody should be pronounced Tukogie

    • The same thing happens in Auger’s singing.
      Try singing the phrase “but what if I meet with a sweetheart so sweet” and see that’s it’s the same phrase repeated twice, but “I meet” and “so sweet” serve different hamonic functions and Auger certainly darkens the tone imperceptibly to ackgnowledge the difference. And it does ALL the difference in the world.

  • MontyNostry

    I just realised where Elina’s stylist got his/her/its inspiration.