Saturday, February 26, 2011

Toeing the (Verdi) Line

Sam Shirakawa is back in Cologne:

Verdi: Il Trovatore (Concert)
21 February 2010

Oper Cologne is currently treating the city’s opera fans to an ultra-minimalist production of Il Trovatore. You can‘t get much more minimalist than an opera in concert form.

The first of only three performances at the Philharmonie, the city’s concert venue of choice, was a revelation for me in several ways. It reminded me, above all, of how comforting the music is. The concatenation of irresistible arias, ensembles and choral passages constitutes manna for the soul. The principals, most of whom I've never heard before, were excellent.

Anya Herteros

The only star quantity present was German-Greek soprano Anja Harteros, who is also a Cologne-area native. Now in her late 30s, she is coming into her vocal prime. She has been a hit at Bayreuth and has racked up about 30 performances at the Met so far. Even though she dropped most of the optional high notes, her Leonora was assured and finely spun with her warm, luminous voice and commendable technique. But she is no Verdi soprano. Nerve-diddling, pre-menstrual morbidezza, which sets the Verdi singer apart from the rest of the songbirds, can‘t be taught or bought. Which is not to say, Harteros doesn‘t have it. After all, she’s half-Greek. If she does have it, though, she needs to find it and soon. Listen to Milanov, Spani, Price (Leontyne), Stückgold, Gencer, Tebaldi, Scotto, Cigna or Callas, and you'll know what I mean. Radvanovsky is getting there. Voigt at her Met debut in 1993 sounded like the Great Verdi Hope, but she's moved north, where she should stay.

Giuseppe Gipali as Manrico produced a smallish but evenly distributed voice. He sounded oddly freer and bigger in the dungeon scene, where he was placed on a terrace near the organ loft. If he can get himself to sing with more such abandon, he might go far on the A-line circuit.

Andrea Edina Ulbrich deservedly won the biggest applause at the calls. She is a ballsy Azucena. Recent antecedents in her gear-stripping way with the Gypsy yenta include Cossotto, Verrett and Zajick.

Kiril Manadov's Luna took a few pages to find the center of his voice, but ultimately produced a glowing “Il balen.” He shone best in his upper register.

Mirco Palazzi as Ferrando is in command of a superb basso cantante. He skated through the figurations in the introductory narrative without a trace of aspiration. Andrea Bastidas Gamboa as Inez offered a glint of the expectations she could soon bring to fruition.

Markus Stenz tightly paced the orchestra and chorus, both of which were in excellent shape. He is steering his course to earning his stripes as a versatile, seasoned conductor, but his reading of this particular Verdi score at the premiere remained little more than a reading. Whether Stenz ultimately becomes a Verdi visionary remains to be heard. But maybe that‘s not a priority.

Seeing the orchestra on the same level as the singers was also a revelation. You can view as well as hear the musicians actualizing Verdi’s shrewd instrumentation as it complements the vocal line and colors the drama.

All in all, a correct, well-behaved performance. Interpolated high notes these days seem, alas, to be disappearing, unless you're Juan Diego. Holding any note longer than the next beat is frowned upon, even if you're Juan Diego. Trovatore in particular used to offer singers a field day for elbowing each other out of the way to get a better view of what was behind the conductor. Today, they tend to be collegial and deferential. And drawing out the vocal line -- especially in Verdi -- has evolved into toeing the line. Purists find this admirable But having been weaned on opera in an era when singers commonly showed off, sometimes outrageously, I long for a shamelessly vulgar Trovatore. Call me meatball, but I freely admit, that I'll return to Cologne‘s Philharmonie for another bowl of Verdi Bolognese, even if it’s missing that hefty dollop of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which once made live Verdi-munching soooo umami.

The next sitting starts in an hour, so I gotta get going.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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