20 December 2007

The blonde leading the blind

Imagine La Cieca's delight when she heard that Julia Roberts has been cast in the starring role of Voce di Donna, a biopic based upon the whirlwind adventures of your very own doyenne.

Oscar-winner Roberts (left) beat out A-listers Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon and Dame Judi Dench to portray "Older Cieca." The character in more "youthful" days will be played by Zac Efron. Additional casting for the film includes George Clooney as "Gualtier Malde," Robert Downey Jr. as "Little Stevie" and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as "Maury D'annato."

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27 November 2007

Diva, from head to mistletoe

Our Own Gualtier Maldè reflects on Maria Guleghina's first Met Norma.

True confession: I love Maria Guleghina, I really, really love her. I know her flaws but her strengths are such that they sweep aside severe demerits that would consign any other artist to filth. Among contemporary singers she is one artist who thinks big, sings big with a big voice and gives everything she has even when it is more than she can afford vocally or artistically. She lives dangerously onstage and at the end of the night there is blood on the stage floor, sometimes hers, sometimes the composer's. She may flirt with vocal disaster but she is never routine or boring.

When she was announced as Norma, I felt some trepidation - would this be the breaking point in my love affair with the Russian diva? This is a role where guts and temperament can only get you so far. A lot of the substance of the role is written into the notes and the range of vocal demands is superhuman. Guleghina's rough, approximate singing at the "Macbeth" new production premiere had earned her critical brickbats (the second performance I attended was much better) and it seemed that bel canto was something beyond her reach at this point. Guleghina has sung Norma before but somewhat outside of the main international circuit and not for a few years.

Now I am sure that over the Sirius network this was not anywhere near a complete musical triumph. However in the house it was certainly impressive and often very, very moving. Guleghina's conception of the role is greater than her technical means of achieving it but she shirks nothing and doesn't shy way from emotional extremes or vocal challenges. As an actress and interpreter she is more consistently successful than as vocalist but she cannot be dismissed as totally provincial or crude. Though a few attempts at delicacy, accuracy and finesse may fail, others will surprise you by succeeding and she scored many points in her acting and singing. The voice is major and imposing and suggests a force of nature. Unlike Papian, she was a fearsome rival and didn't sound like the junior priestess next to Dolora Zajick's majestic Adalgisa.

First of all, she is glorious to behold on stage. She has lost some weight in anticipation of the January "Macbeth" satellite moviecast and the often rather soignée new gowns suited her. Tall and majestic with wide-set flashing eyes, she commanded the stage at all times.

Guleghina is often happiest when she can hurl her voice like steel javelins at the music - preferably in the higher range. Some of these vocal assaults miss the target but the energy and force is always exciting. However as Norma, Guleghina attempted many soft attacks, sustained piano singing and modulated phrasing. This in itself was admirable but years of daredevil oversinging are hard to shake off for one role. These piano phrases - including the opening and ending phrases of "Casta Diva" - suffered from hollow, unsteady tones and fell short of the intended pitch. Whereas Papian was capable of more lyricism and delicacy, Guleghina could sweep you away with passion and terrify you with her rage. The two divas strengths and weaknesses seem to be polar opposites of one another. Neither had pinpoint coloratura control but Guleghina had expressive vocal attack and excitement in her fioritura.

Guleghina's control of her forte top was better than before, none of the many B's and C's turned into a squall though she can sharp. She had good clean attacks on some of the killer high cadenzas which will swoop up to a high note and then spiral downward on a chromatic scale. The downward scale was often smeared and sloppy but the top was responsive including a short but firm high D at the end of the trio climaxing the first act.

Though the first act found Guleghina at times managing the role and thinking through her vocal choices phrase by phrase, the second act showed her in greater command of the role. As the role of Norma goes on the vocal gestures become broader and the phrases grander, better suiting Guleghina's big-boned vocal framework. The scene where Norma ponders murdering her children was a different woman from the proud and almost otherworldly priestess of the first scene - this was a tortured, desperate woman. The maternal aspects of the role were powerfully communicated - the way that she embraced her two boys you knew Guleghina has had children of her own. Maria managed to match Dolora phrase by phrase and staccato scale by staccato scale in "Mira, O Norma".

In the scenes where Norma incites the Gauls to battle showed Guleghina tearing up the stage as the epitome of the warrior diva. The confrontation with Pollione "In mia man alfin tu sei" showed one Norma who was truly in love with Pollione even as her anger turned her against him and eventually against herself. The final scene with the moving "Qual cor tradisti" and "Deh non volerli vittime" plumbed real depths of emotion. Guleghina's Norma was relieved to be able to admit her love and free herself from her lies even at the cost of her life. But then there were her children who were now unprotected. Guleghina's plea to her father could have moved a stone to tears.

Throughout there were pitch problems, phrases broken by inadequate breath control and approximated passage work. But also throughout was a real, larger than life yet very human Norma who was compelling and moving whether alone or interacting with her colleagues. Imperfect? Definitely, but this seemed to be the real thing unlike Papian's often elegant but unconvincing attempt at the role. So though the singing was anything but "casta" in many respects, the "diva" in her human and divine aspects propelled the story. At the end of the night there was blood on the stage but tears too and the fire of Bellini's genius burned brightly. -- Gualtier Maldè

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13 November 2007

Too much casta, not enough diva

Last night's season premiere of Norma at the Met restored Bellini's opera to musical and vocal distinction but the dramatic fire was burning only fitfully.

Hasmik Papian is a hugely experienced Norma who some consider to be the best contemporary exponent of the role. But the key word here is contemporary not best. Her voice is not the conventional soprano drammatica d'agilita (with more or less agility) that has been associated with the role in the past. Instead it is a bright, high-placed floaty soprano of medium size. The tonal quality is an intriguing and not unattractive mixture of copper and silver. Gold and platinum probably are the elements needed for this role but she wasn't dealing in base vocal metals.

However, it is a voice without a great deal of variety of tonal color and the lower middle register is weak and colorless. This meant that this druidess shone in moments of reflection, tenderness and lyricism like the "Casta diva", "Ah, rimembranza" and "Deh, non volerli vittime" but fell way short in moments of wild anger and dark threatening command. The coloratura was decent but not brilliant. Some of the tricky runs were finessed and the climactic high C's were short and hardly effortless. Vocal thrust and command were in short supply all night. Her weakest moment of the evening was the second act trio with Pollione and Adalgisa. Here Papian seemed lost and clueless as to how to make an effect. She lacks really exciting vocal attack and could not dominate the ensemble. However, Papian did stronger work in the final scenes with solid vocalism and shone in the final moving scenes of renunciation and self-sacrifice.

Papian, a slim shapely woman who was sporting three newly designed and created gowns in blue crushed silk, russet velvet and scarlet velvet with gold accents was an unusually youthful and feminine Norma. One wondered what Pollione and the Gauls were intimidated by. Her anger came across more as agitated distress and her threats seemed mere sarcastic insinuation. The real emotional depths of the part seemed sketched in skilfully but not fully plumbed.

This was contrasted against the heroic yet vulnerable Adalgisa of Dolora Zajick who had the attack and vocal breadth but also depth of feeling and variety of color as the junior priestess. I think in the 19th century Zajick would have been a Norma with whatever adjustments to the vocal line were needed for her comfort and endurance in the role. Zajick showed herself a mistress of vocal coloration and dynamic control. Like Cossotto she removed a lot of the steel and chest coloration from her tone and sang Adalgisa with gentle purity to suggest a virginal, innocent and youthful woman. The soprano-like tone did not preclude power and richness when appropriate but informed the tonal palette - she most often chose to end phrases piano rather than forte and didn't slam into low notes. She performed a flawless messa di voce on "Io l'obbliai" and also managed a pianissimo high C in the second act. Dolora had the grandeur both vocal and physical that Papian lacked.

Franco Farina is a confounding artist, seemingly a Jekyll and Hyde vocalist. A superb musician with excellent technical control in lyrical legato lines and piano singing, he devolves into a braying, wobbling, unmusical shouter when he attempts robusto heroics. At times it seems that a Pertile or Bergonzi are within him fighting for his soul against Baum and Mauro. The whining, blown-out upper middle tones were contrasted against a firm, bright and expert shaped line in cantilena. He managed a superb piano tone in the duet with Adalgisa and when striving for line and style was really impressive. But here or there a loosening tone or shouted high note would intrude and remind you of his dark side. The costume suited him and he worked well with both ladies.

Vitalij Kowaljow poured on rich velvet tones in the musically rich but dramatically uninteresting role of Oroveso. Juliana di Giacomo gave notice of a major soprano voice in the small role of Clotilde in her Met debut. The two boys playing Norma's children were given more specific direction including reaching out for their mother in the last scene with moving results.

I happened to like the conducting of Maurizio Benini who stressed the dramatic weight and symphonic qualities of the score while not slighting elegance and forward movement. This score too often has fallen into the hands of routiniers and this was a step in the right direction.

I won't devote much space to John Copley's production and John Conklin's sets because they don't deserve it. Norma is an opera that seems to confound modern directors. Why Norma decorated her house with wooden crates painted black is not something this inquiring mind wanted to know. Sometimes it looked like a high school production of Shakespeare's Macbeth or a minimalist Camelot. Laurie Feldman who staged this revival attempted some creative choral movement but it was pretty much park and bark. Despite the cheapo minimalist look they might as well have been singing in front of musty old drops of Stonehenge and paper maché rocks.

After the dismal last two outings with a way past-it Renata Scotto (please no historical revisionism here - she could not sing the role by the time she got to the Met) and a never-really-had-it lumpen Jane Eaglen, last night restored Bellini's opera to musical respectability. One could get a sense of its greatness, particularly when Zajick was center stage. But the real fire and ice was last seen with Caballé in 1976 and we are still awaiting her successor. -- Gualtier Maldè

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26 October 2007

Di faci tuttavia splende il Costello!

Our Own Gualtier Maldè reflects on last night's Met Lucia:

The Met has often been accused and rightly so of ignoring young talent and waiting too long to hire up-and-coming new stars while hanging on to declining old favorites well past their sell-by date. Occasionally a promising new talent from the Young Artists Program will blossom quickly and get chances - Dwayne Croft fifteen years ago is an example.

However, it was a surprise when James Levine announced 26 year-old Stephen Costello for one performance of Edgardo in Lucia this season. He had definitely made an impression as Arturo on opening night and I have been told did impressively subbing for Giordani as Edgardo in some early rehearsals. It was with a mix of trepidation and excitement that I attended last night's performance. Making a starring role debut at age 26 in a house the size of the Met is a daunting experience for anyone.

Well, how was he? This much can be said - he immediately got the audience on his side and got the biggest ovation at the end (admittedly many family members, schoolmates and friends were in the audience but not that many). His youth, sweet timbre, precocious poise and emotional involvement communicated to the audience. However, the role of Edgardo, though lyric, is demanding with a wide range of dynamics, vocal coloration and requires both declamation and floated legato. Costello's voice seemed a size too small for the role in a house this large. Though he wasn't inaudible, he definitely seemed lightweight vocally. He seemed boyish and slight next to Annick Massis who is hardly a Lucia in the Sutherland/Callas heroic mold.

The elegant phrasing and poised musicianship were juxtaposed against a voice that could turn shallow and a touch insecure when pressures mounted. Lyrical moments like "Verranno a te" and "Fra poco a me ricovero" were sweet and pleasing. Declamatory moments like the outbursts in the "maledizione" scene and confrontation with Enrico in "Wolf's Crag" found the young man working close to his limits. The fact that he didn't push well beyond those limits and lasted in fairly fresh form to the end of the opera speaks well for his pacing and intelligence. A naturally appealing and graceful stage presence, he gained in dramatic authority as the evening progressed culminating in a moving death scene.

However, at this juncture he might be wise to leave the Edgardo to smaller theaters and concentrate on roles like Ernesto, Nadir and Nemorino that could capitalize on his soaring upper register and boyish charm and let himself grow into roles like the Duke of Mantua, Edgardo, Rodolfo and Alfredo with time.

A salutory example currently singing on the Met roster is Matthew Polenzani who started modestly at the Met seven or eight years ago singing parts like Jacquino and Lindoro and now in his thirties is moving into Romeo, Edgardo and Alfredo internationally with superb notices. It isn't a splashy overnight star trajectory but it worked for him and the Met and when the big star roles came, he was fully formed and ready to do them and himself full justice.

The evening really belonged to the elegant Lucia of French coloratura Annick Massis. Her voice is creamier and softer-textured than that of Natalie Dessay but she has a fuller and more reliable upper extension. A patrician stage figure, her acting was detailed and intelligent but lacked the "in the moment" intensity and spontaneity that Dessay brings to her work. There were pluses both musical and dramatic to Massis' more calculated approach - she never lost vocal poise and beauty and her performance was consistent and beautifully paced.

The loss of some dramatic excitement definitely had musical gains and resulted in a performance that gave overall pleasure. The flute obbligato in the cadenza of the mad scene was reinstated for her as was about 95% of the traditional Mathilde Marchesi cadenza minus the top E flats. Those were abundant elsewhere and held to exciting effect.

Kwiecien shows greater command and suavity in his Enrico, singing more judiciously in the beginning but having lots of power when needed - especially in his climactic top notes. John Relyea has a hint of graininess and dryness in his tone that is worrying in an artist who is still fairly young. I miss the vocal velvet of his earlier days. He was solid but not exciting.

Mr. Costello came through his trial by fire with grace and made some new fans. Now, he needs to pace himself wisely singing lighter roles at the Met and letting his voice and technique mature in the smaller and medium size houses until he is ready to tackle the major lyric repertoire here and internationally. The stuff was definitely there last night, but in embryo. -- Gualtier Maldè

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18 October 2007

Alagna, Anna again to bed

Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaOf course, cher public, you heard it about it here a few weeks ago, but La Cieca has just read a press release from the Met announcing that, yes indeed, Roberto Alagna will reprise his Roméo opposite Anna Netrebko on December 12 and 15. (Our Own Gualtier Maldè, as you no doubt recall, confirmed the rumor when he spoke to Alagna after Aida on Tuesday night.) The December 15 matinee of Roméo et Juliette is the first of this season's "Live in High Definition" transmissions to movie theaters around the world.

Joseph Kaiser is Roméo on December 8 and 20, and finishing up the batting order will be Matthew Polenzani on December 27 and 31.

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17 October 2007

Bobby takes one for the team

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaSo, was last night a triumph or a disaster? Well, it was neither since the role of Radames doesn't play to all of Roberto Alagna's strengths but it was a very fine showing by a distinctive and sensitive artist in a repertory that isn't his natural metier. The evening's biggest triumph was scored by old reliable Dolora Zajick who got the biggest hand at the end. As she should.

Was Alagna overparted or inaudible? Not at all. Really in some ways the role of Radames is easier than Romeo in that the tenor gets some rest here and there as other major characters take the stage, the tessitura is lower and there are intermissions to give the vocal cords a rest. The orchestra is often less dense than Puccini's orchestration in Butterfly and conductor Kazushi Ono was stressing string articulation over brassy blare. Was Alagna lacking in metal and heft for the role? - not really, the top was there (veering sharp occasionally) and the vibrato was wider than it was (but not really too wide and not only in this role).

Oddly enough, despite its reputation as being a "robusto" tenor role, the part of Radames has long stretches of lyrical singing. "Celeste Aida" is a love song, not a call to arms. The Temple Scene is prayerful, the Nile scene love duet is romantic and impetuous. The Tomb Scene also requires lyricism and pianos. I think that Karajan or somebody told Carreras (or was it Pavarotti?) that the only phrase that requires real dramatic declamation is the last phrase of the Nile scene "Sacerdote, io resto a te!".

In the best lyric Radames tradition (think Gigli, Bjorling and Pavarotti - though not quite in their league) Alagna treated "Celeste Aida" as a love song sung mostly mezza voce with a lot of sensitive coloring and phrasing. He hit the final B flat forte and repeated the phrase softly an octave lower as Richard Tucker did for Toscanini.

It helped that he had the most romantic appearance of any Radames since Corelli. In the first scene he was bare-chested (and looking slimmer than he did last year at La Scala) with a gold metallic collar, cape tucked around his shoulders, gold arm bands and leather peplum and gold sandals (not elevator sandals as he wore at La Scala). He looked very sexy with nice pecs with just the right amount of chest hair. The applause at the end of the aria seemed to please Roberto no end and he smiled joyously at the audience and seemed to feel vindicated and happy to have a chance to put last year's disaster behind him.

Then he made the first of a few musical mistakes (understandable given the circumstances) in the duet with Amneris before Aida goes on. (This is the same piece of music that marked his exit at La Scala) Dolora and the conductor got him back on track and things went quite well from there on. Alagna was occasionally covered by Dolora but reached a pretty good balance with Angela M. Brown.

His lack of an easy and integrated piano was a problem in the Temple Scene which was just okay. His contribution to the Triumphal Scene was solid but Radames doesn't have much to do there. The Nile Scene had his biggest challenges and most distinctive successes. Alagna's top carried him well in this scene ringing out reliably though his lower range can get grainy and woolly-sounding. The duet with Aida was full of interesting nuances and verbal expression that many Radames miss or ignore. Here finally he got some nice diminuendos. The final outburst to Ramfis was broad-phrased and ringing with a prolonged final note.

The "Gia i sacerdoti adunansi" duet with Amneris was well-done though Dolora definitely held back a bit for him and both she and Roberto got out of sync with the conductor. The final "A Terra Addio" duet with Angela Brown was some of his best singing of the evening matched by Brown, both spinning out gorgeous piano phrases. He didn't seem tired at the end and gained strength as he went on.

He acted more than most Radames do and he was visually credible as the romantic bone of contention between two passionate women (less so as a warrior and leader of men). However, the role still is two dimensional and more complex, vulnerable heros like Romeo, Rodolfo in Boheme and Des Grieux in Manon show better what Alagna can do as an actor. His timbre is a little odd-sounding in Verdi. It has a white wine quality - a combination of bright-toned forward tartness on the top with a hint of fruity mellowness below that is ideal for French repertoire but a little exotic in standard Italian opera.

The whole performance was a refreshing change of pace from business-as-usual tenor bombast and highlighted qualities in the role that are often missed. Was it ideal?, was it what we are used to? No. But it was interesting and I mean that in a good way.

Ms. Brown has all the vocal attributes of a great Aida but couldn't pull together an even line as she moved from high to low or forte to piano or declamatory to legato. Whenever she had to change pace (which is often in this demanding role) Brown had a momentary loss of vocal control and focus while the voice changed dynamics or register. This meant that unsettled phrases were then followed by swaths of gorgeous tone. But the bumps did take their toll, particularly on the high C in "O Patria Mia" which started to go badly awry and then was truncated.

Dolora was the pro she is and has been for a very long time giving more vulnerable colors to Amneris but still sounding the brass when needed. Dobber had a handsome compact tone and suave phrasing as Amonasro with a nice mahogany finish to the timbre but also needed a bit more bite - Di Luna might suit him better. Kowaljow was sonorous and solid as Ramfis and Reinhard Hagen had a pleasing but somewhat unimposing debut as the King. Ono does better with the orchestra players than he does with the singers and lacks the slancio and dramatic phrasing that Italians have in their blood in this music. He is a very intelligent musician and, once again, this wasn't a routine reading of the score. -- Gualtier Maldè

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