Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oldies But Goodies

Sam Shirakawa saw three evergreen singers last week:

Pagliacci [Excerpts]
5 June 2011
Ford-Sinfonie Orchester Philharmonie Cologne

Leo Nucci Recital
6 June 2011
Theater Bonn

8 June 2011
Deutsche Oper am Rhein

Last week, I attended three vocal performances within four days, each of which featured a comparative oldster -- old, at least, among opera singers. The most junior of these veterans was Wagner tenor Wolfgang Schmidt, who reportedly turns 55 this year. Heldentenor Wolfgang Neumann accrues 66 years this month. Star baritone Leo Nucci at age 69 was the most senior among them. In a brutally tough line of work, these guys have hung in there at the top of their profession for at least three decades and counting.

Schmidt’s career is typical of beefy tenors who have managed to thrive on singing Siegfried, Tristan and Tannhäuser at the world’s big-name opera houses. After racking up a to-date record 18 Siegfrieds at Bayreuth (1994-2004) -- beating Windgassen and Jerusalem -- he’s downsizing to Mime in the current production of the Ring at Wagner’s shrine. There’s certainly no shame in being able to belt out Aegisth, Albert Gregor or the Captain in Wozzeck, and playing such roles competently can make you pretty much recession-proof.

Schmidt’s Herod last week in Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s production of Salome at Düsseldorf paid off expectations. He was licentious and loud with not a smidgen of subtlety -- just the way Herod should be. Even in his prime, Schmidt’s voice tended to wobble in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like it’s going to steady up. But the clarion alarum of his “Ah! herrlich!” and other such outbursts was indeed herrlich.

Among his colleagues, John Wegner was in super form as Jochanaan, Renee Morlac a powerful, deep-throated Herodias and Anne King-Williams musical but underpowered as Salome. She was not entirely to blame: the orchestra, even lacking an instrument or two, was simply too loud under Wen-Pin Chien’s direction. Ah, but in the final pages... those horns! those horns! Play it again, Sams!

Wolfgang Neumann officially retired last season as a company member of Mannheim’s National Theater. Unlike Schmidt, he didn’t downsize and departed with a valedictory Götterdämmerung Siegfried. Which obviously meant that he’d draw his pension and keep singing freelance: exactly what he did last weekend at Cologne’s Philharmonie in a concert by the Ford-Simphonie Orchester, slinging “bleeding chunks” of Pagliacci.

I was beginning to think this opera was going the way of Germania, Nerone and other gut-busters of Verismo vintage after I barely survived some tepidly sung performances of this pot-boiler in recent years -- including one at the Metropolitan with a so-called star as Canio. But there was liebes altes Wolflein last week, batting those bang-on high Bs and Cs way out of the Philharmonie, as though the bases were loaded with Paoli, Martinelli and Lázaro. At noon on a Sunday, yet!

Next day, Oper Bonn presented Leo Nucci in recital with an all-Verdi program before a small but enthusiastic crowd. He deserved better attendance, but he knows he’s part of his popularity problem. Following highly publicized disagreements with some German stage directors, he reduced his appearances in Germany for many years. (Maybe they were reduced for him, whether he liked it or not.) But, as he told an interviewer recently, “I’m singing better now than 20 years ago.” A true statement, I believe, given my recollections of orgasmic yawning during his big numbers at the Met and La Scala in those years.

It took about four early Verdi songs at his Bonn recital for him to hit his stride, but once he got going, Nucci really did sound better and more interesting than way-back-when. His voice has become darker and richer, although it occasionally spreads under pressure. Nonetheless, the top is still there: open, persuasive and at crucial junctures, heart-rending.

Following intermission, Nucci, nicely accompanied by Paolo Marcarini, offered lollipops from Macbeth, Vespri, Otello and Falstaff with several encores including “Di provenza” from Traviata -- all of them subtly detailed and gorgeously sung. His voice, I’ve noticed, has become larger in his senior years, and its vibrato remains sensual -- here and there awakening abstract insights. Whodathunkit?

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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