BY DAVID SHENGOLD | Up in Ulster County, Phoenicia’s four-day International Festival of the Voice — founded in 2010 by bass-baritone Louis Otey, mezzo Maria Todaro, and baritone Kerry Henderson — takes a broad, holistic view of its mandate, taking in world music, drama, performance art, and choral singing as well as opera and other vocal concerts.
Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral, and Morris Robinson have figured among many noteworthy participants. The architecturally spectacular open-sided mainstage tents in this tiny (population circa 310), gorgeous, recently flood-beset, Woodstock-area mountain town two and a half hours north of Manhattan host semi-staged (costumes, choreography, lighting) performances. To “Falstaff,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Butterfly,” this summer added a rewarding “Rigoletto,” gratefully received by a largely local crowd, many new to opera.
Conducting and producing were in the capable professional hands of Steven White (a leading American regional conductor also familiar at the Met and NYCO) and Beth Greenberg, a City Opera player trained by Götz Friedrich and adept at site-specific work. White obtained good, straightforward results, with a surprising degree of atmosphere and ensemble after what can’t have been extensive rehearsal. Repeats and cadenzas were kept to a minimum. Greenberg presented things cogently, her work complicated only by uneven microphone placement and feedback. One real lapse: Otey’s use of two canes for his suffering jester was visually interesting, but constant amplified thumping jarred the ear.
Verdi and Mozart on the festival circuit
Otey’s experience and incisive dramatic and verbal projection helped anchor an involving, committed performance, but his resources — though still resonant — were occasionally tried by Rigoletto’s high line; sometimes he took refuge in veristic aural grimacing. Gianni Schicchi would fit better — or maybe Don Quichotte opposite the lovely Todaro, his wife? Barry Banks tried out his English National Opera-bound Duke, enjoying a confident, splendid night, his voice forward and bright, with much impressive dynamic variety. His performance and that of Bradley Smoak’s lanky, obsidian-timbred Sparafucile were of international caliber.
Nancy Allen Lundy’s girlish, decent Gilda used diminuendi as a too-frequent crutch against difficulties in passagework, and she interpolated very unwisely. Carla Dirlikov’s stunning-looking, churning-vibratoed Maddalena sounded almost as undistinguished as the Met’s recent beautiful pole-dancing cipher. The (contractually?) unbilled Monterone barked roughly — the evening’s low point. Robert Balonek’s Marullo and Shirin Eskandani as the Page and (filling in for indisposed longtime IFOV participant Cori Ellison) Giovanna performed strongly.
Other offerings included a Verdi “Requiem,” Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, Victoria Livengood, and Alfred Walker headlining a Wagner concert, and — to offset certain Wagnerian vibes — Sephardic and cantorial concerts. In a leafy county full of tubing, hiking, B & B’s, and fine restaurants, this ambitious but likable festival adds to New York’s summer musical destinations.
Mostly Mozart presented three performances of “Le nozze di Figaro,” semi-staged and conducted by Iván Fischer, starting August 11. This kind of imported event must make up economically in lack of rehearsal time fees what it expends in visa and transport. Even though Mozart’s opera was in the Met’s repertory last season and is in NYCO’s next — “Nozze,” for many the greatest opera ever written, is always welcome, and the orchestral playing by Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra was a pleasure throughout — cogent, fleet, and sonorous.
The staging and singing proved much more a mixed bag. Working with three platforms, Fischer concentrated on the imagery of clothing, with flown-in dress for the five leads hovering above the stage (and sometimes noisily lowered) and a non-stop parade of more or less appropriate frocks and jackets by Györgyi Szakács mirroring the opera’s themes of shifting identities. Sometimes it worked well, as in the “recognition” sextet, uncommonly well blocked. At other points — as in the ill-lit, poorly defined space of Act Four — it looked amateurish. The chorus served well but the eight (again, all those visas!) supernumerary actors made their pert, attention-grabbing selves unwelcome very quickly, and some of the self-referential gags handed down from the William Christie and René Jacobs concert playbooks — like the endless, mirthless play with wigs — fell utterly flat.
The women fared best. Romanian-trained Laura Tatulescu — the only American-born singer in sight — made a mettlesome, flamed-tipped Susanna, her fine high notes occasionally overfreighting a line but generally masterful. In her dark yet agile vocal approach, she reminded me of Andrea Rost, whose best Met role Susanna proved. Miah Persson, lovely of person and tone as Countess Almaviva, far outshone the Met’s dismal Maija Kovalevska; her “Dove sono” capped the performance, and she showed the best command of decoration. Rachel Frenkel sounded fluid and stylish — if very feminine — as the teenaged randy guy Cherubino.
In her US debut, Norma Nahoun showed charm and a fine, unusually substantial voice as Barbarina. Since, due to relentless Met Britcasting, New Yorkers have heard the hard-edged-under-any-pressure-and-thus-ensemble–spoiling Marcellina of erstwhile Cherubino Ann Murray 11 times already, we might have been spared her here.
The leading men were both German Fischer-Dieskau students, among the many competing for the late baritone’s (equivocal) mantle. Neither gave full satisfaction. Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Figaro) has John Krasinski-like big galoot good looks and sounds duly imposing in slow music in his lower range. Legato is lacking and — at 42 — he had to struggle for his over-vibratoed high notes.
The much-ballyhooed Roman Trekel’s Almaviva evoked two historic recorded predecessors: he sounded as dry as John Brownlee on the Fritz Busch set and as nasal and unitalianate as Alfred Poell did for Erich Kleiber. Intelligent musical phrasing can only get one so far in this part, one of the rare roles better served in the last 20 years than in any supposed Golden Age of singing.
Andrew Shore’s juddery, Anglo-voweled Bartolo was no great asset. Rodolphe Briand camped up Basilio and Curzio but certainly knew his business vocally. The relentlessly hammy Antonio, Matteo Peirone, should have been shot. Something like Rawls’ Theory of Justice pertains to Antonio: if this “lowest” character is badly done musically and dramatically, something is badly askew in the production. Despite some substantial pleasures, this “Nozze” remained a curate’s egg.
David Shengold (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about opera for many venues.