Back in the 2009-10 season, Plácido Domingo launched his twilight baritone career by assuming the role of Simon Boccanegra. After his role debut in Berlin, his performance at the Met (in a stodgy production) was unconvincing at best. By the time he got to Covent Garden in the summer, he had settled into the role with great sensitivity, even if his voice ultimately failed to convince as a baritone. The electric atmosphere at the opening night at the Royal Opera House was unlike anything I’ve experienced there in years. In between, Domingo had came back from cancer surgery to perform the Doge at La Scala, Milan and it’s this performance which is documented here.
Domingo is a true Verdian stylist and a singer who truly ‘gets beneath the skin’ of the characters he portrays; I doubt I’ll ever see as nuanced an interpretation of Otello. He assumes the world-weary authority of the pirate-turned-Doge expertly. But while Domingo, the tenor, just about has all the notes for this iconic baritone role, the lower ones sound desperately growly. More of a concern is that his timbre – often described as baritonal - is still that of a tenor and just sounds too heroic and plain wrong. So while I enjoy his sensitive acting, phrasing and sheer musicality, there are always nagging doubts and ghostly echoes of Piero Cappuccilli ringing around my head, reminding me what this role should sound like.
The real reason to treasure this recording is the peerless Amelia of Anja Harteros. She sings a most radiant performance, absolutely even across her range and spins fabulous legato. Her Act I aria 'Come in quest'ora bruna' is beautifully sung and the great duet with Domingo, when Amelia and the Doge discover they are long lost father and daughter, is full of tenderness. Harteros is a little subdued, even passive, as an actress. Where Marina Poplavskaya scored significantly in the Covent Garden production (happily also preserved on DVD) was in dramatically conveying a younger woman, girlish in her excitement and fear. The ROH performance also comes out on top in terms of tenors, Joseph Calleja’s Gabriele Adorno far finer than Fabio Sartori’s rather careful rendition.
Both Milan and Covent Garden productions boasted the anguished Fiesco of Ferruccio Furlanetto, completely inside his role and in plangent voice; not the possessor of the darkest bass voice around, but a stylish Verdian. Massimo Cavalletti is a decent enough Paolo Albani, although he looks too young for the embittered schemer beyond the Prologue.
Federico Tiezzi’s production has a solid, traditional feel to it. I particularly liked the way the Prologue referenced Boccanegra’s life as a pirate, with deckhands hauling rigging, and billowing blue sheets at the start of Act I neatly evoke the sea. Both Domingo and Furlanetto are made to look considerably younger than in the rest of the opera, meaning the 25-year gap between Prologue and Act I is conveyed well. The Council Chamber scene is grandly presented, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes opulent. Much of the action takes place in sepulchral gloom.
The opening night had been met by audience aggression, most of it directed towards Daniel Barenboim. No such booing is audible here, but I can sympathise with those who felt Barenboim’s touch was a little too limp for Verdi. Tempi sag and there’s little of the fervour or passion which Antonio Pappano brings to the score, as well as the Orchestra of La Scala plays. Nevertheless, a sense of occasion is conveyed and for Harteros alone, this disc deserves a place on your shelves.
Arthaus (108 039, 149 minutes)
Of all Falstaffs strutting their stuff in the world’s opera houses, only Bryn Terfel comes within a country mile of challenging the great (in all senses) Ambrogio Maestri. First coming onto my critical radar with a splendid La Scala production in the tiny theatre at Busseto over a decade ago, Maestri has made the role his own. Last season saw a superb new production at Covent Garden directed by Robert Carsen, but the previous year he was starring in this Sven-Eric Bechtolf production at Zurich Opera.
There are several links between the two productions; both are set in the 1950s (possibly later in Zurich), with tweeds and riding habits putting in appearances on the costume front, while Falstaff and his cronies, Bardolph and Pistol, appear in mock Tudor garb. Alice turns on a transistor radio to provide her musical entertainment for her rendezvous with Sir John; they end with the characters at a great dining table and both employ the use of freeze frames to focus attention on Fenton and Nanetta in the second scene. However, Carsen does it so more stylishly that comparisons between the two do Bechtolf few favours.
Rolf Glittenberg’s set makes the Garter Inn looks a bit like a boathouse in Henley – essentially a white frame which (rotated) is lined with floral wallpaper to become the Fords’ residence. Falstaff chases his layabout retainers from the boathouse with an oar, but the scene doesn’t have the rumbustious sense of fun which Carsen injects into his Royal Opera romp. After his ducking in the Thames, Maestri’s Falstaff recovers on a giant haystack… with not a sign of a horse named Rupert to upstage him!
Maestri is in excellent vocal and comedic form, rolling the libretto about his chops with relish, switching from honeyed pianissimo to raucous forte in the twinkling of his roving eye. Barbara Frittoli (another survivor from that Busseto production) makes a wonderful foil for him as Alice Ford. She is an underrated actress and her interactions with Maestri are quite deliciously done. Vocally too, her Alice is a treat, without the vibrato that worried me in her Mozart at the Met.
Where Zurich does score over its London rival is the idiomatic Ford of Massimo Cavalletti, whose rich tonal colour can compete with Maestri in their great scene together, flexible enough for the ornamentation of his mock-madrigal.
The sweet-toned Fenton of Javier Camarena is beautifully sung (shades of Luigi Alva), if a little woodenly acted. His Nanetta, Eva Liebau, has the ideal light lyric soprano for the role, although she tends to sharpness in her Windsor Forest aria. Yvonne Naef is an adroit Mistress Quickly.
As well as sharing fat knights, Zurich and Covent Garden both benefited from having Daniele Gatti conducting, his fine ear for orchestral balance and detail aiding his singers. I’ve no idea if Opus Arte intends to release the Royal Opera Falstaff (it was filmed for cinema, but Opus Arte already has a Covent Garden and a Glyndebourne production on its roster), but I’d be tempted to wait and see if it comes down to choosing between the two.
Unitel Classica (711204, 126 minutes)
Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Macbeth for the Royal Opera is perfectly serviceable without being anything special. Her curious chorus of mono-browed, orange turbaned witches inspires more amusement than terror and at times Anthony Ward’s set designs look more like a padded cell of chocolate velvet. Lloyd’s use of symbolism – a giant gilded cage which, far from protecting Macbeth, is the scene of his demise – is neat and the apparitions in Act III effectively done. The witches play an integral role in driving the plot, delivering Macbeth’s letter to his wife and ensuring Fleance escapes the assassins after Banquo’s murder.
The production has been revived several times, here by Harry Fehr, with different casts. What makes this performance worthy of commercial release is the striking Lady Macbeth of Liudmyla Monastyrska. The Russian soprano wowed many critics as Aida the previous season and her appearance in this production was keenly anticipated. It’s an enormous sound – and I heard it at very close range on opening night! – but what surprised was how light and agile she could be; Lady Macbeth’s cabaletta ‘Or tutti sorgete’ and the Brindisi show just how nimble she can be. Although her trills are not exactly a strong feature, she demonstrates that hers is not just a big powerhouse blasting voice. At the opening of ‘La luce langue’, her voice isn’t ideally supported, but the Sleepwalking scene, aided by excellent contributions from Elisabeth Meister and Lukas Jakobski as her lady-in-waiting and doctor, is memorable. Her soprano is lusciously dark but can pierce ensembles with ease. Monastyrska’s acting is rudimentary – lots of patting her bed and smiling serenely to camera – but when vocalism such as this is on display, I couldn’t care less.
In the title role, Simon Keenlyside makes his most convincing showing so far as a Verdi baritone – he phrases tremendously, the long-breathed lines in Macbeth’s ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’ are gorgeously rich in tone. His dramatic interpretation was surprisingly subdued – he looks peeved rather than enraged, a rather introverted Macbeth. I did wonder at the time how severely his left arm – pinned and strapped following an accident – was inconveniencing him. Nevertheless, the great scene between the Macbeths as she drives him on to murder Duncan and seize the crown comes off well, nuanced singing from both Keenlyside and Monastyrska as the murderous deed is done. Given in the opera’s familiar 1865 revision, Macbeth’s deathbed aria ‘Mal per me’ is reinserted – an excellent idea, but what a pity it is followed up by the banal 1865 ending, which is as trite as they come (not to mention derisory when the chorus is searching for Macbeth who they’ve just watched perish in front of them).
Raymond Aceto is a decent Banquo – a good ‘Come dal ciel precipita’ just before he’s bumped off – and Dimitri Pittas has a bright, attractive tone as Macduff, although his aria ‘Ah, la paterno mano’ lacks any great sense of loss or involvement, but is just belted out rather insensitively.
Antonio Pappano whips up a storm in the Covent Garden pit, with plenty of fire, but he also sculpts the big ensemble at the end of Act I superbly. A lack of chapter cues in the booklet is the only black mark in Opus Arte’s presentation.
Opus Arte (OA BD 7095D, 170 minutes)
The Teatro Regio di Parma has launched Verdi’s bicentenary year in great style, issuing a doorstep of a box containing DVDs or Blu-rays of all 26 of his operas, plus the Requiem. I covered the first eight releases in this series when they were released individually in January’s International Record Review and shall cover the rest in a series of round-up articles during 2013; however, readers here may appreciate a flavour of what my initial impressions are on some of those early operas in the series.
Firstly, the title. Tutto Verdi isn’t quite the whole story. There is no space here for his significant rewrites of I Lombardi and Stiffelio (Jérusalem and Aroldo respectively) but all the other operas are happily present and reasonably correct (Don Carlo is in the five act version, sung in Italian). The recording of Ernani is a reissue, licensed from Dynamic, of a 2005 production, while Otello is the only opera where we venture forth from Italy to the 2008 Salzburg Festival, a superb performance under Riccardo Muti. Otherwise, all these operas were specially recorded either in the Teatro Regio di Parma or (for Oberto and Attila) at the tiny Teatro Verdi in Busseto. In terms of direction, forget the radical Regietheater north of the Alps, these are mostly straightforward interpretations, traditionally costumed, and are also decently sung. In short, they are decent provincial performances from a decent provincial house, given by mostly Italian casts doing their local hero proud. Each disc contains a ten minute introduction to the opera, offering a synopsis and a brief history of the work.
All releases from Unitel Classica.
Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio
The Teatro Verdi in the composer’s home town of Busseto is quite tiny, which restricts any grand designs a director may harbour. Pier’Alli is credited as the director, though quite what he’s done to earn that title is difficult to decipher, as the production is static, with singers rooted to the spot to dispatch their arias, the exception being Marianna Pentcheva (as Cuniza) who is entrusted with singing and moving at the same time! Alli is also hampered by the plot where, like Il trovatore, much of the action takes place before the curtain rises, making any exposition dramatically limiting. Much of the singing is decent, though, especially Pentcheva’s Cuniza. As Oberto’s daughter Leonora, Francesca Sassu is a bit insipid soprano – small and colourless, although she is decent enough in the Act II finale as Leonora takes the veil after her father’s murder. Tenor Fabio Sartori is dependable rather than exciting, while the bass Giovanni Battista Parodi is disappointing in the title role; that a bass so early in his career suffers from such a wobble and is so under-powered, even in a small auditorium, is concerning. Antonello Allemandi balances voices and orchestra well from the minuscule pit (124 minutes, 720104).
Un giorno di regno
For Verdian comedy on a Donizettian blueprint, Un giorno di regno proves a delight. Pier Luigi Pizzi directs, and it’s arguable that there is more action in the fizzing overture than in the whole of the production of Oberto. The plot is frothy in the extreme, but it’s an opera full of delightful melodies and Pizzi’s production is good fun, beautifully costumed in bold colours.
The principle reason for acquiring this disc is the delicious appearance of Anna Caterina Antonacci as the Marchesa, who conspires with a pair of young lovers to foil her fiancé. She has incredible presence and her elegance and sexy charm work well in the role. After her intense Cassandre in Les Troyens last year at Covent Garden, it’s good to see her displaying a nice touch of comedy when she strips down to her undies during her entrance aria to take a bath, scalding her toe as she tests the water! The other singers include Guido Loconsolo as Belfiore, whose strong bass-baritone makes a positive impression, and Ivan Magrì, a reedy but stylish tenor singing the role of Edoardo, one half of the other love match. Donato Renzetti keeps things buoyant in the pit, which is as it should be (119 minutes, 720304).
Nabucco was Verdi’s breakthrough opera. Daniele Abbado, who is to direct the new production for the Royal Opera this spring, offers a serviceable production, the centre of which is a large temple wall with three giant drawbridges on which characters make some of their appearances. At the centre of this production is Leo Nucci who, fast approaching seventy, has a baritone which is still in remarkably good nick; it spreads on high notes and has always had a certain nasal quality about it, but it’s still a strong instrument and he has a true sense of Verdian style about his phrasing. His depiction of the Babylonian king is a dramatic tour de force.
Dimitra Theodossiou’s Abigaille contains a certain wildness about her singing which is in keeping with her character, but you can feel the gear changes between her head and chest registers and she can verge towards the squally. Intonation is wayward here, but it doesn’t stop hers being quite a vivid interpretation. Riccardo Zanellato and Anna Maria Chiuri offer strong support as Zaccaria and Fenena, but Bruno Ribeiro’s Ismaele is weedy in tone. There is good choral singing from the Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma. Michele Mariotti sets keen tempos, with ensembles going at a real zip. (137 minutes, 720504).
I Lombardi alla prima crociata
I Lombardi has been consistently ignored in London, since 1976 performances of a production shipped in from Budapest. Its plot is convoluted, but no more so than Trovatore, but it is difficult to cast; two tenors are required for Arvino and Oronte and Pagano offers one of Verdi’s juiciest early bass roles. Returning from exile for having attempted to murder his brother, Pagano’s plans to seek his bloody revenge fail when he kills his father instead. He then seeks refuge as a hermit living in a cave outside Antioch, where he encounters his brother Arvino again, leading the Lombards in the first crusade to the Holy Land, and Arvino’s daughter, Giselda, who has been captured and is held in the palace, where she has fallen in love with Oronte (son of the Muslim leader) who she has persuaded to convert to Christianity. Pagano joins his brother in the crusade, losing his life, but gaining his brother’s forgiveness at the opera’s close.
Lamberto Puggelli’s production uses video projections to offer an effective series of scene changes. Michele Pertusi’s Pagano is absolutely magnificent, completely nailing his first aria ‘Sciagurata! Hai tu creduto’ and offering a sympathetic portrait as the hermit afterwards. Aside from the chorus, the other highlight is the Act III trio for Pagano, Giselda and the dying Oronte. With Francesco Meli a very decent Oronte and Dimitra Theodossiou in much more controlled form as Giselda, this trio is sublime. Roberto De Biasio is ‘the other tenor’, a rousing Arvino in good voice and smaller roles are well cast. The glory of Paolo Bregni’s set is when the wall parts at the end, offering the dying Pagano a shimmering glimpse of the newly liberated Jerusalem. (144 minutes, 720704)
Ernani is the one lemon in the bunch. Pier’Alli directs again and his sets are impressive, especially the vault of Charlemagne’s and Silva’s castle, lined with giant portraits. Vocally, it’s a massive disappointment, from Marco Berti’s bullish Ernani and Giacomo Prestia’s woolly, unfocused Silva to Carlo Guelfi’s blustering Don Carlo, snarling his way through music which frequently has nobility threaded through it. Susan Neves is a notch above the other principals as a decent Elvira, if slightly breathy in ‘Ernani, Ernani, involami’. When Riccardo Muti’s La Scala production, splendidly cast, is happily still available on DVD, this one is a non-starter. (130 minutes, 720904)
I due Foscari
Foscari is regarded as one of Verdi’s weaker operas. Written for the Teatro Argentina in Rome after La Fenice showed little interest in being reminded of Venice’s less than glorious past, it concerns the Doge Francesco Foscari and his son, Jacopo, who is – in a curiously undramatic plot – brought back from exile to be tried again by the Council of Ten… only to be sentenced to exile once more. Joseph Franconi Lee’s production is simple and unfussy, traditionally costumed. A drab set, lined with steps serves the drama effectively and there is colour from the costumes and a lively regatta to contrast with Jacopo’s exile to Crete. Roberto De Biasio a decent Jacopo, his tenor bright and well-focussed. Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan is an excellent Lucrezia, with flashes of steel in her spinto with dark undertones also applied. She shades her dynamics sensitively and phrases her Act I aria gorgeously. Leo Nucci returns as the Doge and is on excellent form, stealing the show shamelessly, especially in his Act III aria ‘Queste dunque è l’iniqua mercede’ and his death scene. (117 minutes, 721104).
Giovanna d’Arco has never been hugely popular either, with relatively few modern stagings. Giovanna inspires the king in his battles against the English, but her father, the shepherd Giacomo, accuses her of witchcraft. In this version of the tale, however, she is not burnt at the stake but, released from prison to join Carlo’s troops, suffers a fatal injury on the battlefield, but not before she saves the king’s life in the process.
Italian film director Gabriele Lavia delivers the required spectacle with Carlo’s coronation and the (silhouetted) final battle. Musically, however, things are decidedly mixed. The veteran Bruno Bartoletti conducts vigorously enough, and in the title role, Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva looks just right for the role and her acting is fine. However, she comes up short, vocally, of being a Verdi soprano; in alt she can be shrill and her bottom notes are hollow, added to which she rolls every ‘r’ mercilessly. Evan Bowers is a poor Carlo, light-voiced and ill-projected. His acting is rudimentary and there is little chemistry between him and Vassileva. The performance is partially saved by Renato Bruson, whose baritone is now rather gruff, but he can still spin a Verdian line well and there are traces of his once famous velvety tone. He struggles later on and eventually withdrew from the production after the opening night, which is preserved here. (128 minutes, 721304)
Busseto hosts the eighth opera in this tranche of ‘Tutto Verdi’ and I enjoyed this production much more than Oberto. The stage accommodates an opening chorus of only a dozen Huns, who wouldn’t get far on any raping and pillaging mission. Pierfrancesco Maestrini’s direction employs a video projection as background, which resembles an animation from a computer war strategy game and verges on the silly. Attila enters from the skies, his chariot, sporting bladed wheels, part of the back-projection. Attila and Odabella are dressed in full warrior garb, face paint, animal skull headdresses and all, but it’s backed up by some marvellous singing. Giovanni Battista Parodi is on much finer form here, but the revelation comes opposite him - Susanna Branchini as Odabella has an incredibly exciting voice, lacking fullness in some of her lower register, but the virtuosity and vibrancy is frequently thrilling. Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana is a superb Ezio, makes the most of his Act II aria and cabaletta. He is also excellent in duet with Parodi in the Prologue. Roberto De Biasio’s Foresto is short on poetry, but his singing, especially with Branchini, hits the spot. Andrea Battistoni, barely in his twenties, conducts stylishly (118 minutes, 721704).