Tag Archives: Verdi

La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera

The Force of DestinyVerdi’s La forza del destino lingers in the mind as one of those late mid-career messes, a giant cauldron of opera overflowing with musical inspiration but stewed up with a super-heated libretto and way too many melodramatic plots twists. It feels like we never see it on stage, though we know it in bits and pieces, its famous overture (turned into folk music in Claude Berri’s Pagnol films of the 1980s) and its arias, especially “Pace, pace mio Dio,” a regular of soprano recital programs.
    It’s good to see it at the Washington National Opera in a stylish and often sexy production, directed by WNO artistic head Francesca Zambello and beautifully designed by Peter J. Davison. Although the production has casting problems throughout, the show nevertheless works, making a strong case not just that Forza has great material, but that is a coherent, cohesive opera, building to dramatic unity despite or because of its many divagations. By the end of this tale of vengeance, shame and thwarted forgiveness, the piece takes on some of the primal power of Greek drama, breathless and relentless, like Aeschylus’s Euminides, or Sophocle’s Electra.
    The production updates the setting to what has become the standard vision of the operatic present tense, with neon lighting and lots of flesh-revealing sexy costumes, though a gray, formal sense of the 19th century lingers around the edges. The stage pictures are compelling, an enormous dining room for the first act, a Times Square vision of fleshpots for the beginning of the second, and a gritty, graffiti splattered urban alley for the monastery scenes. Each one is meticulously realized, and only moderately discordant with the more historically specific references of the libretto.
    Dramatically, the hallmark is energy, and a nuanced sense of dark comedy always in the background. Valeriano Lanchas, as Brother Melitone, sang the most explicitly comic role, and conveyed the officious bumbling of his character without caricature. Like a big sprawling 19th-century novel, there are small strains of muted comedy throughout the opera, and it’s impressive that Zambello finds them without tipping the scales to smug mockery of the libretto’s easily ridiculed excesses. Even so, there was laughter in the house several times on Saturday evening, which is frustrating and silly. There are conventions to 19th-century drama just like any other art form or period style, and one convention is that intensifying the dramatic conflict takes precedence over strict verisimilitude. No one laughs at Van Gogh because he intensifies color and stylizes brush work to heighten visual impact. Why is melodrama treated as such a bastard form?
    Soprano Adina Aaron, as Leonora, sang with remarkably energy, unflagging dramatic intensity and vocal abandon. Even at the end of a long evening (Forza stretches on to three hours), tenor Giancarlo Monsalve and baritone Mark Delavan egged each other on through the opera’s crucial final scenes, when the possibility of redemption is agonizingly close, but squandered again and again by hatred and emotional insecurity. The opera lives or dies on the believability of its last act, in which years of animosity, regret and self loathing are finally felt in their full, corrosive power. The cast gets high marks for constantly pushing this study in relentless forward motion always forward, with exuberant spirits and total commitment.
    But not one of them is entirely vocally satisfying, and several of them lead one to be quite concerned about vocal longevity. Aaron is an exciting singer and fine actress, but too much given to vocal effects, to low notes with a lot of bite, and impressive but perhaps mannered diminuendos and crescendos on top tones. One wished for a simpler, more lyrical, more direct line, with attention to continuity and legato. I hope she can continue to do everyone of these impressive vocal feats twenty years from now; and I hope they are better integrated into a more natural sense of style. Monsalve looks the part and sings with intensity, but when pushing his voice, very few notes are hit directly, but come with little helper tones just before attack, a bad habit that makes tenors such as Roberto Alagna very hard to listen to unless the only thing you want is volume. As Preziosilla, mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze was physically a seductive, boisterously sexual presence, but only approximate to the musical line in her lower register. I often couldn’t make out what she was singing.
    As for conductor Xian Zhang, making her WNO debut, it’s hard to be certain. The overture (displaced to serve as an entr’acte between Acts I and II) was deftly done, dramatic and detailed. But the first act was a mess, and often the beat felt spongy. One heard more problems–tempo disagreements and ensemble smudges–than there should be when opera is made at this level, and yet the overall effect was often exciting. And the orchestra sounds very well these days. So the jury is out.
    But this show remains worthwhile despite serious musical misgivings. Verdi’s experimental genius, his restless creativity, shines through. That alone is worth the investment.

Photograph: Adina Aaron as Donna Leonora of Vargas, by Scott Suchman for WNO



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Un ballo in maschera at Washington National Opera

Last night, I took in the last performance of the Washington National Opera’s season-opener, Un ballo in maschera, by Verdi. I’ve always put Ballo in the same category as Il Trovatore, a musically infectious work with a silly libretto. But I came to respect the work, and its libretto by Antonio Somma (after Scribe), a lot more after seeing this version.

The production is returned to Verdi’s original conception, set in Sweden, with the main tenor playing Gustavo III, a fun-loving, benevolent king, rather than Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick and governor of Boston (in the compromise version which Verdi produced under the duress of censorship). The general sense is that by transferring the action to Boston, Verdi simply changed a few names. But while the music remained intact, it simply makes a lot more sense as a reflection of ideas about kingship than it does as an “American” opera with a governor beset by treasonous colonists. There is a remarkable amount of substance transferred intact from Scribe to Somma, especially when it comes to analyzing why a king may be beloved in some circles and loathed in others, esteemed for both generosity and recklessness at the same time. Verdi’s suggests the fluidity of the king’s reputation in the opening chorus, in which the animated figures of the conspirators and the flowing, tender lines of the king’s supporters are passed back and forth, rather than bluntly integrated, reminding us that a king willing to break his own laws, even in the name of kindness, may be willing to break other laws for more malevolent purposes.

There is one musical moment, in particular, when you are thankful to have Ballo transported back to a royal, European court. Near the end of Act I, Scene I, a sailor whose loyalty to the king has been rewarded with a promotion, bursts into the general tumult to lead a chorus of praise to Gustavo. The melodic line is, as the Verdi scholar Julian Budden points out, basically the same as the line which the king sings upon being confronted with a fatal prophecy. Thus the praise of the people is directly linked to the kings insouciance (and reluctance to confront reality). The chorus, however, is also rather grand, far too grand and high toned for colonists praising their governor. It requires the elevated status of a king to make musical sense.

The sailor who leads the chorus, sung in this performance by Aleksey Bogdanov, was singled out for praise by my colleague Anne Midgette, in her September 13 review of the opera for The Washington Post. It was a parenthetical plaudit for a minor character. But Bogdanov made a similarly powerful impression on me as well. He has stage presence, a fine, and nicely produced, well-supported voice that held up to the challenges of singing in a large, crowd scene. And he made the sailor, in this version called Christian (Silvano in the Boston version) a genuine character, albeit a small one. It’s rare that a singer stands out with this much clarity in such a negligible part. So here’s hoping he returns in a larger one.

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Don Carlo at the Royal Opera

            The Royal Opera in London has revived its 2008 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo, this time with Semyon Bychkov in the pit and rising star, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. The short verdict: Kaufmann was just about perfect, and Bychkov never less than interesting.

            It’s a production that anyone weaned on the Metropolitan Opera’s old John Dexter version will find refreshingly intimate and sharply etched. Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, The Madness of King George) has staged the 1886 version, which was written after Verdi had composed his late masterpiece Otello. For this version, Verdi reinstated much of the original first act, and thus it adds up to a very long evening.

Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplavskaya in Don Carlo

Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplavskaya in Don Carlo

        But the drama is taut and rather miraculously, in Hytner’s hands, even the problematic last act makes a certain kind of sense. Act V is almost always an anti-climax: We’ve had four acts of devastating vignettes, which establish the ferocious power of absolutism, the corrupt machinations of the Church, the ugliness of jealousy and the weakness of the human heart. We’ve also had a thwarted love story between Carlo and Elizabeth, who are cruelly separated when Elizabeth’s hand is given to Carlo’s father, Philip II, in a blunt act mix of marriage and real politik.

            But this love story often seems rather irrelevant to the deeper thrust of the piece, which is more about politics and idealism and friendship and trust. The greatness of Don Carlo lies in its moral seriousness as much as its music, and the love between Carlo and Elizabeth is important only to the extent that it establishes the depth of sacrifice two people must make to live up to their own values. The last act brings back Carlo and Elizabeth for one last reunion before Carlo flees to Flanders to oppose his father’s imperialism and defend the oppressed victims of Spanish and Catholic ambition.

           The lovers don’t really need to meet one more time, and given the depth of their repressed passion, they both know a meeting is foolish. But they meet anyway, are surprised in the process, and Carlo is somehow saved from certain death at the hands of either king or Inquisition by the sudden appearance of his dead grandfather, Charles V, who leads him to safety in his capacious tomb.

            Of course that makes no sense, and it is a very unsatisfying way to end an opera that has, up to this moment, been so deeply intelligent about ordinary life in the shadow of repressive government. Hytner doesn’t really solve the problem, but he gives the act psychological depth by focusing on a plausible reason for the meeting: Carlo and Elizabeth are talking their way into an acceptable fiction, an understanding of how and why their love must end so that both can get on with life. This, at least, connects the act to the concerns of the rest of the opera and, in the process, makes their final encounter deeply poignant.

            Bychkov has found a surprisingly amount of chamber music in the score. This is sometimes frustrating (the orchestral sound can be very spare in his interpretation, especially early in the “Fontainebleau” act). It’s also revelatory—you hear details, vocal doublings in the orchestra, and the wonderful architecture of argument in Verdi’s magnificent act-ending ensembles. The whole production downsizes the occasional remnants of French grand opera that crop up here and there in Verdi’s score. Even the auto de fe scene is relatively tame. The reward comes in the many scenes built around one-on-one encounters between the various protagonists, where Bychkov’s direction makes it seem as if Verdi was channeling the spirit of Monteverdi more than Meyerbeer.

            And Kaufmann? The voice is sounding very fine—light and bright but strong, pliant and tireless—and he looks the part. Given Carlo’s many character flaws, a handsome Carlo really helps engage the cynical listener. We need some reason to care about this callow, mooning brat (the real Carlo seems to have given the world very little reason indeed to love him) and Kaufmann’s boyish yet chivalrous charm went a long ways to establishing sympathy for the character.

            As Philip, Ferruccio Furlanetto was a magnificently regal presence, like Wagner’s Wotan but with a real personality and blood in his veins. Simon Keenlyside struggled with the lower end of Rodrigo’s music, but he also managed to flesh out a more complex Rodrigo than most, letting the audience see why, perhaps, Carlo doubts even his best friend. Marina Poplavskaya may be building towards a solid Elizabeth, but the voice isn’t quite there yet. And Marianne Cornetti’s Eboli was mostly a disappointment, better in its manic-mezzo moods than its coquette passages, but not fully woven into a coherent performance. But this is a guy’s opera, so minor quibbles with the leading ladies didn’t spoil one bit of the evening.

            One final note: The Royal Opera audience was magnificent the night I attended. They were quiet and attentive, as still as statues, and their enthusiasm was perfectly modulated to the merits of the performance. A standing ovation night? No, and they didn’t give one. But it was a very good night in the theater, and the audience let the musicians know that.

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Opera Sightings


           This fine young fellow with a perky codpiece is Don Carlos, a prince of Spain. Opera lovers will recognize him as the title character of Verdi’s Don Carlo. Schiller lovers will recognize him as the title character of Schiller’s play of the same name, a dramatic study of absolutism and liberal values, and the inspiration for Verdi’s opera. Historians may not recognize him at all because this is a very flattering portrait.

            Carlos was the son of Philip II, and this painting shows him in the resplendent armor that is the subject of the National Gallery’s engaging exhibition “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain.” The show is a mini-history of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain, which saw the country reach its zenith of imperial power, and overlapped with a great age of armor production. The exhibition pairs paintings of Spanish rulers in armor with their still extant tin cans preserved in the Royal Armory in Madrid.

            Carlos, seen here in finely worked armor of darkened steel and gold typical of the time, never ruled Spain. If you believe Verdi and Schiller, this is because he was too sensitive for the sordid business of kingship, and because he fell in love with his father’s third wife, and harbored radical ideals about freedom and national self-determination. Dad was not down with any of this, and Carlos was arrested.

            If you believe historical accounts, it’s because Carlos was an erratic lout and a violent man, with a temper made all the worse by a traumatic head injury, probably caused by an accidental staircase dive in 1562. But we see him here, around age 20, dressed like a future King of Spain, with royal sword and dagger, a helmet and his rather badly painted hand resting on a desk or table—a common feature in paintings of royal power.

            This painting, attributed to Jooris van der Straeten, is not the star of the show, which features works by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck. And frankly, a nearby painting of Don Juan of Austria, illegitimate son of Charles V (Don Carlos’s grandfather) depicts a more handsome, vigorous and successful man. But the image of Don Carlos underscores and exemplifies some of the basic themes of the exhibition. He may have been bats, but when dressed in royal armor, Carlos was all but a king. Although we prize paintings more than armor today (at least in the museum context), Carlos’s armor would have been far more expensive than the painting that memorializes it. The armor served not just as handsome dressing for a royal figure, but carried with it allegorical and historical data too. Although dramatically lit, many of the portraits are rather stark and barren—in part because the armor was bearing all the necessary messages, about religion, power, famous battles and dynastic networks.

          That Don Carlos appears in armor is rather touching. The painting captures his promise, or at least the expectations heaped upon him. His life went a different direction. And Schiller and Verdi took the slim details of his short existence and elaborated an even more fanciful history. But when you hear Verdi’s Don Carlo sing his dreamy, starry-eyed love songs, you’d like him to look good and  sound like this. And not remind you of the usual product of Habsburg genetic engineering.

 Image courtesy of the National Gallery: Patrimonio Nacional, Convento de las Descalzas Reales de Madrid

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Byron Smyron

          I thought it might be interesting to read Byron’s The Corsair before attending the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of Le Corsaire last weekend. The poem was wildly popular when it was published in 1814, selling some 10,000 copies when it first hit the streets. Written in three cantos, propelled by the poet’s obsessive and muscular heroic couplets, it’s a wild, 50-page performance. It tells the tale of the gloomy, independent minded, misanthropic pirate Conrad, whose sole redeeming virtue is his love for the desperately vulnerable Medora. Conrad is captured while raiding the stronghold of his enemy, Pasha Seyd; he is rescued by another beauty, the slave Gulnare, but his return to Medora is not a happy one:


It was enough – she died – what reck’d it how?

 The love of youth, the hope of better years,

The source of softest wishes, tenderest fears,

The only living thing he could not hate,

Was reft at once – and he deserved his fate…

 The poem opens with a magnificent description of the ocean, and man’s tenuous dominion over it, and it sets up a powerful dichotomy between adventure and life, and fear and decay. Which almost seems to extend to the couch potatoes reading Byron or sitting on their fat asses at a performance of opera or ballet based on it (Petipa’s Le Corsaire, Verdi’s Il Corsaro or Paisiello’s version of the same):

 Let him who crawls enamour’d of decay

 Cling to his couch, and sicken years away;

Heave his thick breath, and shake his palsied head;

Ours – the fresh turf, and not the feverish bed.


Of Byron’s poem, the ballet is faithful only to this general spirit. When the corsairs appear and dance together for the first time, you sense the ocean’s lusty power running in their veins (“The exulting sense – the pulse’s maddening play/That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way”). And you begin to think: Maybe I ought to be on a ship cruising the Aegean in stormy weather, rather than at the Kennedy Center on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. But expect no more of Byron, beyond character names and the general sense that this a ballet about pirates, slave girls and daring rescues. Pasha Seyd has no real menace, and his minions are ridiculous, Orientalist stereotypes. The slave girls are happy, larkish things, and there’s no sense of danger or exploitation.

Opera lovers with a proper respect for literature wince at the damage done to the classics by librettists and composers. It’s a fact of life. Gounod’s Faust is romantic fantasy with some woolly-headed religious sentiment thrown in; Goethe would be appalled. The list is endless.  But Le Corsaire  really is a travesty.

 Albeit, a tremendously enjoyable one. I was lucky to see Medora danced by Natalia Osipova, a ballerina with amazing plasticity, who never seems to strike the ground with muscles and flesh, but keeps it at bay, like a master can make a yo-yo hover in mid air with no sense there’s an end to the string. Much of Osipova’s charm is in her acting—which acknowledges the silliness, the cartoon-like quality of the role she must play, and yet registers all the necessary emotional distinctions as she is passed from hero to villain and back like chattel.

Verdi’s opera, far from his best and perhaps one of his worst, nevertheless takes the Byron a little more seriously. And it has a few wonderful arias and duets. Even lesser Verdi demonstrates the literary gulf between opera and ballet in the 19th century.  That raises a question: Did the story ballet fall into disrepute in part because it never really had any narrative seriousness? Discuss.

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