Monday, February 06, 2006

What a difference a month makes!

Liz and I were glad we went to the MET performance of Verdi's Rigoletto on February 1. Although Placido Domingo is still not well enough to sing these days (he is undergoing treatment for a severe case of tracheitis), he was back at the podium on the 1st to conduct this performance, featuring Frederick Burchinal in the title role, Anna Netrebko as Gilda, Rolando Villazon as the Duca, Vitalij Kowaljow as Sparafucile and Nancy Fabiola-Herrera as Maddalena.

Domingo's conducting was generally sensitive to the singers, although (surprisingly) there seemed a certain lack of sympathy (I thought?) with Burchinal. I didn't sense it was at all deliberate. They just somehow did not seem entirely in sync to me. This was hardly the case throughout, just at certain odd moments.

As for Burchinal himself, he was reasonably effective on an emotional and dramatic level. It was odd, though, hearing the very occasional flatness and unsteadiness to a few incidental high notes, but then hearing him triumph easily with the really exposed high notes, such as the climax of "Si, vendetta" and the final scene. Here, the tones were pingy and steady as a rock! In fact, in general, the essential amplitude of the instrument itself and the presence he brings to the role as a result make his entire interpretation persuasive and authentic enough not to "let down the side", as the saying goes.

Anna Netrebko's spellbinding and remarkably fluent "Caro nome" was the capstone to a luminous Gilda. It was especially welcome hearing her sound so free and easy after her (I thought) pretty spotty reading on the broadcast. To me, she did not sound at her best in the Saturday b'cast at all, and I actually wondered if she was in vocal trouble. On the 1st, she demonstrated conclusively that she is now in fine shape after all. Thank goodness.

In Villazon's case, too, I heard more strain in the b'cast than in this February outing, which registered as a distinct improvement. Again, he was a bit rocky at the start, but he got going at the "La costanza tiranno del core" stanza, where I thought he was fine (unlike the broadcast, where he took much longer reaching his stride). Yes, at this February performance, the opening before that second stanza was indeed a bit strained, but honestly, he seemed to me in ringing and easy form for the rest -- and his exciting "Possente amor" in the second act, despite his not going for the optional top note at its climax, was so wonderfully precise in the "little notes" (the Nilsson term) and so energized at the same time that it convinced me even more that this aria is essential to the Duke's character and should never be omitted.Villazon's interpretation was as much a triumph of brilliant characterization, pure impatience and eagerness and callowness and selfishness and hot-headedness incarnate, as scrupulous music-making. This was my first time hearing him in person, and I felt he fulfilled most expectations.

I did much admire the Sparafucile too: Vitalij Kowaljow -- the first time I've ever seen him too. This is one formidable talent, and I applauded lustily at the conclusion of his second-scene duet with Rigoletto. He sports a spooky-smooth line and is a musician of uncommon suavity. His tones, rich and steady with an unfailing legato, combine clear definition with great ease at his lowest extension. The true menace he imparted to this role was achieved through sinister precision with the vocal line. One knew this character was especially dangerous precisely because of the icy delivery Kowaljow has mastered. Then when the full nastiness of the man exploded in the confrontation with his sister (with the disguised Gilda eavesdropping), the impact was terrifying. This man is an artist.

Fabiola-Herrera's Maddalena was musical enough not to detract from the final act, even though there was nothing that made it especially memorable. Still, with a voice that well disciplined, I'd be curious to see here in some more meaty role.

The Count Ceprano (a role one rarely notices) was a standout, Andrew Gangestad. Surprisingly, in this one case, this was very much like the December broadcast, where the Ceprano was possibly even more of a standout, John Shelhart. At any rate, for both Shelhart and Gangestad, I was hooked from the words "anima nera" on! I am even reminded of the impact that Brian Davis's Valvert had on me in Alfano's Cyrano on January 31. Suddenly, the Met seems to be producing a bumber crop of these young bass-baritones. Where are all these wonderful new bass-baritones coming from? We definitely need them.

It was unfortunate that Stephen West, usually a much more distinguished singer, did not match his usual standard, nor that of his colleague's Ceprano, in the pivotal role of Monterone. Still, he did not take away from the glow of the evening, and one hopes that it was a momentary lapse.

This was certainly one of the few recent Rigolettos of my experience where there was little out of place. In fact, much in it was superb and there was nothing that was really inadequate. In all, an uncommonly solid reading.

Geoffrey Riggs

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