Thursday, September 27, 2012

WHEELS OF FORTUNE

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO      New Production Premieres
Cologne Opera 
16, 18 September 2012
© Sam H. Shirakawa
Musikalische Leitung Will Humburg 
Inszenierung Olivier Py 
Bühne & Kostüme Pierre-André Weitz
Licht Bertrand Killy 
Dramaturgie Georg Kehren 
Chorleitung Andrew Ollivant 
Orchester Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Il Marchese di Calatrava Dirk Aleschus 
Leonora di Vargas Adina Aaron/Maria José Siri
Don Carlo di Vargasn Anthony Michaels-Moore/Dmitris Tiliakos
Alvaro Enrique Ferrer/Vsevelod Grivnov
Padre Guardiano Liang Li/Nikolay Didenko
Fra Melitone Patrick Carfizzi 
Preziosilla Dalia Schaechter/Katri Wundsam
Mastro Trabuco Ralf Rachbauer 
AlcaldeYoung Doo Park 
Chirurgo Leonard Bernad 
Curra Andrea Andonian 
ChorExtra Chor & Chor der Oper Köln 

Cologne Opera at the Musical Done on the west bank of the Rhine.

A party mood pervaded the season opening of the Cologne Opera last week, as first-nighters mingled prior to curtain time in the foyer and bars of the company’s temporary home at the Musical Dome on the banks of the Rhine.  (The Opera House is undergoing a lengthy, costly and controversial renovation.)  The late-setting sun brightened the red carpeting in the lobby area, as it poured through the wide windows facing the Rhine.  The opening took place just as Photokina, the world's biggest trade event for photography and video, was about to get underway at Cologne's Convention Center directly accross the river.  Extra performances have been added to accomodate conventioners in search of lyric theater.
Opening Night patrons included former General Manager Eric Uwe Laufenberg, who planned the current season.
The sanguine mood subsided, though, once the audience sat down to face the dour sets housing Olivier Py’s production of La Forza del Destino.  While Verdi’s view of fate hardly hungers for lush and plush appointments, Pierre André Weisz’ bleak series of starkly lit (Bertrand Killy) gray buildings exuded unremitting gloom, as they slid in and out of view atop a stage-wide bank of steps. 
Production: Oliver Py, Sets: André Weisz, Lighting: Bertrand Killy
Weisz’ sets, of course, have some distinct plusses going for them.  They are stylishly ooh-aah at first impression and easy to forget thereafter.  They traverse the stage noiselessly and convey a queasy sense of foreboding when they move.  On the other hand, they give little feeling for a shift in locale.  The personae seem to move from one neighborhood to another, rather than from Spain to Italy, the two environs of the story.  Maybe that’s intentional: the program slip has no list of scenes and notes no specific time-frame.

What remains omnipresent throughout the proceedings are three large faux-iron wheels mounted at each side of the proscenium arch.  They spin remorselessly throughout the evening.  Okay, I think I get the idea -- wheels of fortune, spinning, spinning.  But they also become pesky, pesky.  And if I’m right about their on-stage significance, they ultimately contradict the storyline throughout the opera.  Wheels of fortune tell of bad and good luck, but the principal characters in Forza are beset with misfortune
only, triggered by the curse invoked at the outset.  

The stage-wide bank of ten stairs leading to the peregrinating edifaces may not be as distracting as those gears of ruin, but they pose hazards for the singers, who risk tripping as they mount and descend them. They also restrict everyone to moving in often awkward and unmotivated combinations.  


I admit I don't get Py's concept, although I've now attended three performances of his production and plan to go again -- to hear the music.  In the demi-monde of Continental theater, he has become a legend, following his dismissal last year from Théâtre de L'Odéon in Paris, presumably for mounting an unflattering play about France's late president François Mitterand.  To which, some might ask: So what?  I ask:, So what else?  French theater has always prided itself on fomenting provocation, but I, for one, believe that when theater directors of any nationality or persuasion tread beyond the borders of their empyreal realms, they owe their foreign, unwashed hosts some measure of elucidation about what they are provoking, apart from -- in the case of Py's production at the Cologne Opera -- non-Brechtian alienation.  
Enrique Ferrer, Adina Aaron
For those who, perhaps vainly, cling to the notion that opera is still about singing as the primary medium for articulating feeling, drama and ideas, the vocalism at the premiere proved far less stress-inducing than the production.  In fact, American Adina Aaron scored a triumph with her first-ever Forza Leonora, even though the first-night audience gave her less applause at the curtain calls than she might have received from a savvier crowd.   Aaron has clearly worked hard on polishing her considerable gifts since I last heard her last two seasons ago in Cologne as Aida.  The color of the voice now evokes platinum rather than silver, and she has mastered the transitions between her middle and upper registers.  She also now manages to channel Milanov, Caballé and Leontyne Price in producing some astonishing high-wire volume variations, most notably at the start of her big aria “Pace, pace mio Dio.”    Few currently active sopranos I’ve heard live can do what she did at the premiere.

Dalia Schaechter appeared to be having the time of her life as a bawdy Preziosilla.  Her ballsy mezzo is in great shape, and her jug-juggling antics are as delightful as they are shameless.

As Alvaro and Carlo respectively, Enrique Ferrer and Anthony Michaels-Moore seemed to be suffering first-night nerves. (It was Ferrer’s first Alvaro).  Both sounded vocally constricted and were occasionally challenged in finding the center of some notes.   They both have sung better and no doubt will again in succeeding performances.

Dirk Aleschuss as Calatrava and Liang Li singing Padre Guardiano were in fine form.  But it was Patrick Carfizzi who enlivened Fra Melitone’s scenes with his gift for seizing a comic moment, while eliciting that wanna-hear-more buzz through his distinctive, light-weight vibrato.  He received a well-earned ovation at the calls.

Maria José Siri/Patrick Carfizzi

Two nights later,  Cologne Opera presented the Maria José Siri (Leonora), Vsevolod Grivnov (Alvaro), Dmitris Tiliakos (Carlo) and Katrin Wundasam (Preziosilla) heading a semi-alternate cast.  Again it was Ladies’ Night Out as Siri and Wundsam largely out-sang their male coevals.  Siri has a Verdi-prone temperament that came boldly to life after Leonora goes into seclusion, but she tired somewhat in the fourth act, cracking while attempting the pianissimo on B-flat in the treacherous line “Invan la pace... quest'alma...” (At a later performance I attended, she hit the note squarely, ma meramente con mezzo-piano.) Wundsam created a sassy young Preziosilla all her own, leaving no doubt of her character’s lusty predisposition.  Grivnov is in possession of a bright, forwardly produced tenor, whose sound lingers in the mind’s ear.  But he has a tendency to growl under pressure.  Tiliakos has an ample saturnine voice that makes him a good choice for Escamilio and Lescaut.  But it needs to acrue more heat before he becomes a choice Verdi baritone.  Both he and Grivnov also are disposed to aspirating on vowels sung over two notes or more.  My Italian is at best maimed, but Dio, pieta and other frequently uttered sustained words heard as "dee-hee-io" and "pee-hay-ta" tend to "gray-hate" on the nerves.

Vocally, Nikolay Didenko proved an even exchange for Liang Li as Padre Guardiano, but broad experience has purchased him a bigger stage personality.  Patrick Carfizzi, as well as Young Doon Park, Ralf Rachbaier and Andrea Andonian confirmed the impressions they made at the premiere.

Will Humburg
Will Humburg showed a deft hand at maturing Verdi, keeping the orchestra and chorus firmly in unison, while moving the performance along at an energetic pace.
Musical Dome interior
Opera Cologne has lucked out in finding such congenial temporary quarters at the Musical Dome.  The steeply raked auditorium provides both good sight-lines and balanced acoustics throughout the house. The orchestra pit is deep and juts back several meters under the stage, which enables the ensemble to play full blast without overpowering the singers.  The subdued, warm decor is also more hospitable than the drab ambience of the auditorium in Offenbach Platz. 

Production Photos: Paul Leclaire 
Will Humburg: Theater Bonn
All other Photos and Graphix Post-Production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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