Saturday, February 11, 2012

Met Opera Review: Is Singing still King? "Ernani" says yes

By David Salazar (for 2.10.12 performance)

Is singing still king/queen of the opera world? One side of the argument would surely make an argument for opera being a consummate theatrical experience in which all elements work side by side equally; but this operatic vision is dominated by the director. The other side posits great singing as the driving force of the operatic world. The people on this side of the fence  don't like the distractions imposed by modern directors. The job of any great repertory house is balance this medium so as to please both sides of the equation. For any of those who have read my previous reviews, you likely know that I have not been particularly impressed with the Met's attempts at the former during this season. With all the new productions (minus Manon in the spring) out of the way, revivals are now dominating the Met's stage, and giving us an opportunity to truly study the case for said operatic style. Can opera remain relevant and alive as only a vocal art where all other artistic forms are used in service of the music? Is singing still king? The revival of Verdi's early "Ernani" certainly makes a good case for the affirmative.

I apologize to returning readers if I'm becoming a broken record at this point, but the singing was obviously the highlight of the evening. This may seem like a rhetorical absurd statement (after all this is the Met Opera where supreme singing is always the norm), but if I would have written reviews for performances I saw two seasons ago where I got cancellations left and right and some disappointing singing overall, I would have been far from congratulatory.

Soprano Angela Meade was the toast of this production from the get go. And why not, two years ago, she subbed in for a sick Sondra Radvanovsky, and made a sublime debut in this same opera. I was at that performance, and she stole the show from all the veterans around her (Met favorite Marcello Giordani, diction and text specialist Thomas Hampson, and powerhouse Ferruccio Furlanetto). Then she was featured as a winner of the National Council Auditions in the famed documentary "The Audition." Then she stepped in for the second run of Anna Bolena earlier this season to solid reviews, despite having the arduous task of making people forget about a certain Russian diva, who premiered the production to tremendous acclaim. So Meade's profile has quickly risen in the last four years, generating moderate hype along the way. The elevated expectations were surely met and exceeded for much of the night. Starting the night with the famed "Ernani involami" is frighteningly difficult and she was strong throughout. But she really made her mark during the aria's famed cadenza. She ascended into her vocal stratosphere with a breathtaking dimuendo to a high C, then held the note for what seemed like an eternity before crescendoing it to filling the house. In that same breath she sang the descending runs to end the phrase and on the subsequent breath finished the entire cadenza with a gorgeous crescendo reminiscent of Maria Callas' first phrase in "Pace Pace Mio Dio" from her Forza del Destino recording (it's a tough comparison for anyone to swallow, but I needed to get the point across somehow). Her singing throughout was dominant; she could turn on the volume at any moment to ring over the massive concertatos at the end of Act 1 and Act 3.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky was the celebrity of the cast, known more and more for being at the forefront Verdi Baritone. I am not a lover of Hvorostovsky's Verdi ( I personally think that he is ideal for Tchaikovsky) because I feel that his voice lacks that fortitude commonly associated with Verdi's baritone writing. The orchestra's explodes at times that challenge the power and heft of the Baritone in many instances. During these moments, Hvorostovsky's pushes his voice and tends to take away the ring and luster from his voice. When he does not have to do this, his singing is marvelous, no other baritone today possesses the legato or vocal purity that Hvorostovsky has (I hear way too many Baritones wobble their way through Verdi operas). The end of Act II in which he sings the cavatina "Vieni meco, sol di rose" and the Act 3 aria " Oh de'verd'anni miei" were perfect displays of the vocal purity that I expect from a Verdi Baritone but rarely ever get. No wobbles, no pushing, just fluid and elegant singing. The final pezzo concertato "O Somma Carlo" was the perfect punctuation for a strong outing by one of the world's premiere baritones. 

Feruccio Furlanetto was in many ways the most complete performance of the night. The moment he walked in, energy exuding him as he found two men in the room of his beloved Elvira, we knew that this was a powerhouse ready to explode. And that's exactly what he did, giving a complex portrayal of Silva as an elder, lonely man seeking comfort in his final days. He was brutal, ready to do anything to obtain the love of Elvira, and his final intervention between the dying couple demonstrated how that sick obsession had seized control of the noble, but tragic figure at the start of the work and transformed him into a perverse murderer. Furlanetto's singing only added to this, as he sang with tremendous commitment throughout. He sang the opening phrase of the  trio "No Vendetta piu tremenda" as if a volcano had erupted. His anger and fury was scary. During his opening aria "Infelice, e tu credevi" in which  he essentially laments his old age and loneliness, Furlanetto's voice was weeping. Verdi's writing here is among the best in the opera as he portrays Silva's sadness with a great sense of dignity and nobility. Furlanetto caught every last color of Verdi's music to perfection. He was the complete opposite in the Final Trio. There was no nobility, just ruthless cynicism. A horrid grin of satisfaction, he smirk at the other two as they pleaded for his forgiveness. He was evil, he was deplorable, and it was absolutely wonderful to experience. Furlanetto has had a great career, and this portrayal is one the highlights among many. 

But what of the tenor? Ernani? The title character? Roberto De Biasio was the wild card here, as most Verdi tenors usually are (I don't care what time period, not all tenors that sing Verdi are ideal for it). He was the "unknown" in the cast, carrying little hype, and generating the least buzz of the group. Of course, it is really a shame he won't be getting the HD performance of this run, as he was in many ways the most successful of the bunch. For those who know nothing of Mr. De Biasio, it is prevalent that you know that this man only started his professional vocal career in 2006, making his Met debut last year as a replacement for Ramon Vargas in Simon Boccanegra. Prior to his operatic career, De Biasio was a professional flautist and teacher of History of Modern and Contemporary Music at the University of Cassino. As we all know, the late Salvatore Licitra was slated to sing this role last year, but his untimely death robbed us of that opportunity (he had already cancelled it prior to his accident, but it is nonetheless a shame). De Biasio had big shoes to fill there and double the pressure knowing that Met favorite Marcello Giordani would take over the role later. Add in the fact that Ernani sings an aria and cabaletta without an opportunity to warm up, and you have a tremendous battle on your hands. And he won. Every single time he opened his mouth, I don't care who else was singing, he commanded everyone's attention. His voice is the ideal Verdi voice: vibrant, potent, ringing, flexible, warm, you name your ideal characteristic of the Verdi tenor, he has it. His final lines in which he sings goodbye to his beloved and pleads with her to not kill herself were gorgeous pianissimi that most Verdi tenors are unable to produce, much less after an entire night of singing. But De Biasio sang with such technical assurance that he showed no wear and tear. If anything, he got better, his voice sounding more and more assured and brilliant as the night wore on. Ernani is arguably the least interesting of the characters in the drama, but De Biasio created enough gravitas to make up for the limited dimensions of his character. Let's see him next year in Verdi's anniversary year. 

Marco Armiliato had one of the best nights I've ever heard from him, and I've heard many. Verdi's early scores are known for their ardent lyricism, but many tend to overlook his music as one "oom pah pah tune" after another. To some degree, one cannot overlook the rhythmic accompaniment of Verdi's early music, but from his early works, Verdi provides great dramatic insight in his orchestra. The dark rumbling tremolos in the opening bars of the Prelude are generally kept in the distant background to give the horn its due. But that same affect was later applied to Verdi's "Rigoletto" where no one ignores it. Armiliato made sure to emphasize it, adding tension to the opera's opening bars. The "oom pah pah's" emphasize forward moving propulsion of Verdi's drama, driving the action relentlessly. When taken at leisurely tempi, this does sound vulgar and comic. But when taken with swifter tempi, as Armiliato observed, these "oom pah pahs" become perpetual drives. Armiliato also tended to emphasize the winds and brass from among the orchestra, uncommon considering these parts tend to double the strings throughout.

Pier Luigi Samaritani's production is 26 years old and dates back to the years of a certain Luciano Pavarotti. Visually, the production is stunning, but not in a lavish sense. Every single scene (there are 5 total scene changes) features a staircase of some sort (even Ernani's rocky hideout) positioned on stage right (audience left). The other side of the stage is filled in with a diversity of different features in each scene, creating a polished yet clashing visual frame. The costumes are obviously intricate and in period style. In the vein of modern opera's move toward theatricality, there was new stage direction, which was at times brilliant, and at times less so. An attempt at a duel between Don Carlo and Ernani in Act 1 saw both actors constantly doe-si-doeing around poor Elvira in anticipation for combat that never came to fruition. But this was merely an afterthought after the tremendous direction taken for the opera's iconic final trio. In Verdi's libretto, Ernani kills himself and the curtain falls with Elvira devastated and Silva triumphant. In Victor Hugo's "Hernani" (the original source for the opera), all three characters fulfill their suicidal tendencies as Dona Sol (Elvira) drinks the poison that Ernani ingested, and Silva, lonely, stabs himself. When I saw the production in 2008, the direction remained faithful to Verdi's original plan, with Elvira contemplating the suicide, but never fulfilling it. Here, stage director Peter McClintock and company opted for a compromise between Verdi and Piave's original text and Hugo's by having Elvira stab herself moments after Ernani commits the fatal blow. But the brilliance comes about later. Ernani is fatally wounded up the stairs, while Elvira is near the bottom. The two crawl toward one another to reach out one last time, but just before they reach one another, Silva walks in between to prevent the union. Not only is the moment heartbreaking and beautiful, but it confirms a question that permeated a brilliantly complex portrayal by Feruccio Furlanetto of Silva.

All in all, this performance was a great replica of what the conservative opera goers have long come to expect from opera and what much of the "newer" directors revile. In some ways, this is both opera at its most basic and pure in which all the elements are in place, and at the same time it is opera at its most artificial in which the drama is simply framework for the music. The battle rages between opera's warring factions, but on this night great singing was the true victor.

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