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.