Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Opera Hyperesthesia

Our own Sam Shirakawa writes from Mannheim, savoring two masterpieces fifty years apart: a bel canto pinnacle from Donizetti and Offenbach's most serious composition.

ROBERTO DEVEREUX  (Gala Concert) 30 October 2010 

LES CONTES D’HOFFMAN 31 October 2010 

It’s not often that I get goose bumps while attending an opera performance. At Mannheim’s Nationaltheater recently, though, I got such a chronic case of that tingling sensation, that I really thought I was succumbing to the vapors. 

The cause, wouldn’t you know, was a lady named Edita Gruberova, who turned up for a gala concert performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

I can’t remember with certainty the last time I heard this opera fully staged -- probably deep into the last century at the New York City Opera -- but attending Mannheim's first-ever presentation in concert-form last January reminded me of what a killer work it is, especially for any soprano trying to get her voice around the role of Elisabetta. Part of the excitement in experiencing any performance of this work, is simply the peculiar rush you get, just listening to Sills, Gencer or Caballe running the gauntlet of trills, roulades, scales and tessitura leaps with agonizing ease.  

I had all but forgotten that Edita Gruberova can do it too, maybe because her New York appearances have been relatively few and far between. She hasn’t sung with the Metropolitan Opera since 1996 in Frankfurt. She also slipped away from me because her portrayals of Zerbinetta and Violetta at the Met struck me as the work of a nightingale (the name of her recording firm, by the way) rather than a soprano assoluta.  Last year, I renewed acquaintance with her way with Lucrezia at the Munich Festival, which was satisfactory and crashed a sold-out concert performance of Norma a few months ago at Brussels’ Monnaie, where her pitch [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc8q-kNDeHQ] was only sporadically on the money. 
But Mannheim was something else. With no score in hand and a bit of stage business, Gruberova electrified the orchestra, chorus and audience with that incalculable combination of voice, technique and personality that defines diva. This was a different singer from the one that appeared before me in Munich and in Belgium. The kind of grip she exercised on her audience may be no longer be a regular occurrence nowadays, given that she’s in her 60s, but her sovereign power at holding everyone in thrall on this evening was indeed a one-in-a-hundred-performances phenomenon.
Which is not to say, she was flawless. Donizetti is at his most inspired with Devereux, but the challenges he hurls thick and fast at his lead are as merciless as they are tantalizing. He apparently composed Elisabetta specifically for the skills of Guiseppina Ronzi de Begnis (1800-1853), who also created four other roles for him. If the number of times the vocal line plunges unnervingly into the lower register is any barometer, Ronzi must have sounded cavernous down there. Gruberova in this region rings shallow. Not necessarily a shortcoming, since the part is most dazzling at its summits, where Gruberova reigns supreme, even after lo these many years. 

What Gruberova has gradually accrued over time that eluded some of her former coevals in their prime is dramatic intensity. And today, she has only two peers of which I am aware, who can trill, turn and acciaccatura unspeakable torment in this repertoire at her standard: (sorry, no names). 

Name-worthy, though, were Gruberova’s colleagues, in particular: Juhan Tralla in the title role and Marie Belle-Sandis, both of whom sang far better on this muse-driven evening than they had at the premiere earlier this year. The Mannheim Orchestra and Chorus were also up for the performance under the idiomatic direction of Andrej Yurkevych.  

Maybe I was suffering from the after-effects of opera hyperesthesia, but the performance of Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann I attended the following night was a bit dürftig. Not that anything was wrong. Good if not great singing from the principals: Istvan Kovacshazi (Hoffmann), Thomas Berau (Four Villains), Stefani Schaefer (Muse/Nicklausse) and Barbara von Münchhausen (Stella), Iris Kupke (Antonia), Maida Hundeling (Giuletta) and Anja Bitterlich (Olympia); an attractive production by Christof Nel and grand work in the pit under Alois Seidlmeier’s direction. Everything worked, but  less than 24 hours after experiencing opera Elysium in the same theater, it was just another night at the opera. 

If there was one thing that was markedly different from productions of Hoffmann I’ve attended in recent years, it was the order of the scenes. Offenbach left no official final version at the time of his death, so every production commits act-swapping in some way. Nel’s production uses Offenbach’s sequence: Prologue - Olympia - Antonia - Giuletta - Epilogue. From what I could gather, the text used is sort of variorum. Not that any of this really matters. Hoffmann has one of opera’s most flexible story lines.  

I want to be fair to the obvious effort that went into making an unwieldy opera work, so I’ll try to return to Mannheim and hear the production again.
Now an hic jacet about Shirley Verrett. Her recent death caught me by surprise in a different way than Joan Sutherland’s passing.  Hearing Joan for the first time was an event for me; hearing Shirley for the first time was a rite of passage that turned out to have little to do with music specifically but a lot to do with life.
It happened in Philadelphia at a concert in 1960: the return of Leopold Stokowski to the Orchestra he made world-famous after an absence of 19 years. Following tumultuous applause at the start of the concert, he launched into the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro The ovation for the four-minute piece seemed to go longer than the piece itself. Finally, Stoki turned to the Orchestra and started the next piece while the clapping continued. The work was El Amor Brujo.  Where was the vocal soloist? A singer billed Shirley Verrett-Carter was stated on the program as making her debut, but she was nowhere to be seen.  
About 100 bars into the music the doors of the stage shell were flung open, and a stately young black woman appeared. An audible gasp swept through the audience. This was the soloist? 
Verrett-Carter made her way with measured amble to her place at the podium. And proceeded to sing as though there were no tomorrow. 
As it turned out, there were many tomorrows and triumphs, and she never looked back.
But I look back frequently at that concert. Verrett-Carter’s dramatic entrance at that moment in the music, I learned, was the result of a mistake Stokowski was so impatient to get on with the concert, that he simply started the next piece without his soloist.  The unintended effect worked so well, that he intentionally delayed her entrance at the three remaining concerts in the series, including one at Carnegie Hall. It was a blast of luck for everybody. 
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Shirley’s supernally-timed entrance taught me that luck and timing are worth more than anything else besides good health, even money.
Later, as her fortunes in opera blossomed I began associating the lustrous smoky sound of her voice with luck, and I felt lucky to be in her presence at some high points in her career, notably her Amneris at Covent Garden and her double-duty Cassandra and Didon at the Met's premiere of Les Troyens.
So I thank Shirley Verrett (and Stoki) for the timely good fortune of bringing me to one of the most important lessons of life.
Rest in Peace.
©Sam H. Shirakawa

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