Cher Public

All my Edgardos

A friend of mine tells a story: it’s 1951 and he’s waiting at the stage door of the Old Met after a matinee of Rosenkavalier. The woman in front of him says to Helen Traubel as she emerges “Oh, Madame Traubel, it was such lovely music!” and Traubel thanks her. The Octavian, let’s say Jarmila Novotna (because it’s fun to say!) comes out, and the same thing happens.

Finally, Erna Berger makes her way to the door and the woman says “why, it was such lovely music!”

Berger dryly responds, “No, lady. It was not.”  

Well that’s a terrible place to start a review, and it’s not quite fair to SFO’s Lucia di Lammermoor, but it did come to mind when the gentleman behind me reacted in delight to the sextet. “I think that’s the finest moment of opera I’ve ever heard,” said he, and immediately my inner Erna Berger, of which I assume we all have one, chimed in with her tart opinion. That this relates to the sextet is apt, as the story of the whole night is: largely fabulous parts adding up to a somewhat lackluster whole.

Let’s take Piotr Beczala, for instance. In certain roles, and I’m thinking foremost of Des Grieux, Beczala is pretty much nonpareil. As Edgardo, though, I can’t help but think of him as basically top notch but just a little bit pareil, if only around the edges. He made lovely sounds, and his phrasing was never careless, and even his acting was not inferior to anyone’s in particular. Just the same, it wasn’t a performance to set the soul ablaze. (His Des Grieux truly was.)

I’m just going to call all the men’s roles Edgardo, by the way, because that’s how they’re filed in my head, and I can’t seem to do much about it. Brian Mulligan, as the Edgardo who is a baritone, proved again his great worth to the company, turning in perhaps the evening’s most complete performance.

I always held the opposite opinion of Patti, that instead of lopping off everything after the mad scene, it might make sense to dispense with everything before. The first scene, in particular, often goes for nothing, but Mulligan, looking here like a hotter Phillip Seymour Hoffman, proved that he knew the importance of rubato and portamento in this music, and wasn’t too butch to use them.

I went into the evening a little nervous for Nadine Sierra. Musetta is one thing, and Lucia another. As it happens, her Lucia is exquisite. The tone is sweet but not without requisite shadow, where needed, and she uses dynamic changes, as fine bel cantists do, a bit like sentence intonation rather than just sprinkling them about for variety.

Dramatically, a Lucia can get by well enough if she can walk backward in a long dress—and in fact, Ms. Sierra was kitted out in enough dress for several genteel madwomen—but she rose above the pretty girl poses that occasionally marred her Figaro Countess and made something pitiable of the role.

In lightly accompanied moments, Sierra was something like ideal. It is, unfortunately, perhaps a role for her to sing in a smaller house, and she was not infrequently swallowed up by the orchestra and her colleagues. I think the usual charge is “inaudible” and she wasn’t that, but the balance of musical lines was often askew. On the whole it was a poignant “almost,” with very many moments of vocal delicacy and finesse.

Smaller roles were ably handled, though one almost downgraded Nicolas Teste’s earthy, attractive bass when he entered done up for the Westeros PTA. Zanda Svede did about as much as you can with She-Edgardo, and looked elegant. After a croaky go at the opera’s opening music, which in fairness tends naturally toward the ranid, Maestro Nicola Luisotti gave a poised account of much of the music, lapsing now and again into boxy tempos.

Duty-bound to present you with my unalloyed pronouncements, I have not yet read what other critics have said about Michael Cavanagh’s new production, but I’m awfully curious. For my money, the devil-may-care century-mixing of the scenic and costume design leaves one little option but to pretend it is 1997, when people still used the word “postmodern.”

Crinolines and the world’s largest Arco lamp, together at last! I don’t entirely see the point of it, but I don’t see the harm either. The mix of grey scale and jewel tones makes for a number of arresting tableaux, even if they are in many instances framed by squares that close in on them like, oh I don’t know, the patriarchy?

I doubted there would be pictures of this in the press release, but some will be interested to know that supernumerary Charlie Martinez, as press materials tell us, “makes his San Francisco Opera stage debut as the stand-in for the murdered Arturo, found naked and bloody in the wedding bed.”

Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

  • Porgy Amor

    Yeah, but in 1997, weren’t we still hung up on that idea of the sets getting more and more off-kilter, distorted, and funhouse-y in anything with a character who is slowly going insane (Lucia, Otello, Pikovaya Dama)? Or had that passed? I just remember there was a lot of it in the ’90s, and it was always so cute how directors and designers would talk in interviews as though they were the first to think of it. “The sets will start out realistic, and as the character loses her fragile grip…” You just wanted to pat them on the head.

    Great review. I dunno…I saw Beczala in the Lucia HD and completely bought into the star-is-born thing. He not only made me stop thinking of whatever was going on with Villazón for the afternoon, but he gave the best performance of the big four. Of course, I have not heard his more recent Edgardos.

  • zinka

    I E-mailed Zinka and told her of my idea for Leyla’s birthday present for. today. Answer was, “So vat!!…Birthday…Shmirthday! Novun coaches Zeenka EVER.”
    She remains my favorite singer, but still a Kunc. Maybe I could ask Nelli?

    Clips to come!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • zinka

    Oct.10, 1928……Say what you will about “scoops and breaks!” She is for me (Il Pirata) one of the greatest ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The audience sure likes “PIE!” (Sounds like Musetta)

  • zinka

    1:19…ATTACK!!!!! Who knows about this kind of singing except HERE?????
    I designate all of you to apply for coaching all divas…. They would say, “My teacher is afraid I will lose my voice.” Play some Magda for them….
    Callas may be DEEP..but I still want Leyla on my desert island…with Soviero…No..forget it….I have no more Prozac…

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Is there a fireplace for Lucia?

  • messa di voce

    A new leader in the “Worst Wig of the 2015-16 Opera Season” category.

  • basically top notch but just a little bit pareil

    LOL. Thanks for the great read. We had Brian Mulligan as Enrico the Edgardo who is a baritone here a couple of years ago, and he was terrific. A great voice, wonderfully deployed.

  • mercadante

    Watched clips on YouTube. Sierra and Bezcala sound great on them, presumably the dress rehearsal. With modern productions I always seem more inclined to notice little discrepancies rather than just get into it. Like here, why is it cold enough for Edgardo, Enrico, and Arturo to be comfortable in turtlenecks and leather, but Lucia is wafting around in off the shoulder chiffon? A non menopausal woman not complaining about the cold!? Impossible! No such creature ever existed, even in the most fevered imagination. I know she’s supposed to be half nuts, but even so she’d still be wearing a sweater and telling her brother to turn the heat up.

    • mountmccabe

      At my wedding my wife wore a dress with tiny little straps and bare shoulders while some men kept on their jackets all night. I don’t think she even put on anything as we went outside to take a cab to the hotel though the temperature had dipped into the 30s.

  • LT

    “she was not infrequently swallowed up by the orchestra and her colleagues.” -- so was she or wasn’t she swallowed up by the orchestra and with what frequency?

  • Krunoslav

    Great Traubel/Novotná/Bergere stage door story, but your friend must have been at the stage door of Philly’s Academy of Music , since that performance there of 1/6/51 was the only time that trio sang together in a Met ROSENKAVALIER.

  • Operngasse

    An excellent review. I just attended the Sunday matinee, and have two observations:

    1. “Dramatically, a Lucia can get by well enough if she can walk backward in a long dress…” Well, Ms. Sierra had trouble this afternoon walking forward at one point. She was close to the orchestra, and all of a sudden lurched forward and had to use her arms to regain her balance. The person next to me thought she was going to take a fall into the pit.

    2. Also, during the first half of the mad scene’s “duet” between (according to the program) a glass harmonica and Lucia, Luisotti stepped away from the podium into the pit and stopped conducting, only reappearing when the orchestra was going to resume playing. I had never seen this before -- has anyone else?

    • grimoaldo

      Yes, lots of times, for instance when an off-stage “banda” (military band) is playing in an Italian opera, or an offstage unaccompanied chorus, etc. An assistant conductor is directing them.
      In the case you mention it is one instrumentalist and the singer so they don’t need the conductor, it is between the two of them I guess.