Autumn Overtakes the Blue States

Autumn Overtakes the Blue States

Britten’s bid for peace; Verdi at the Met, Chicago’s Lyric, Milwaukee’s Florentine

The Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall under Robert Bass played a very timely concert on Veterans Day: Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” written to mark the 1962 re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, built next to the ruins of its Luftwaffe-destroyed predecessor.

Britten, a pacifist, dedicated the work to four friends who died in the Second World War. The three solo roles show the vocal thumbprints of the three singers intended to premiere the piece––Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, chose to underscore Britten’s claim that the three European nations thus linked, Russia, Great Britain and Germany, were those that suffered most in the war. He failed to recognize the Jews and the Romani as equally injured, and he also forgot Poland.

In any event, Moscow would not countenance Vishnevskaya’s appearing on a program equating Russia and Nazi Germany, whose storm troopers committed dreadful atrocities on Soviet soil. Dublin-born Heather Harper instead created the soprano role––sung in Latin, as she was placed behind the chorus and took part in the Mass texts only. Christine Goerke, picking up the role at Carnegie, was in full, soaring voice, though, perhaps due to distance from the instruments supporting her line, she tended to flat on top.

Anthony Dean Griffey does well in Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and other music the composer crafted for his lifelong lover, Peter Pears. I greatly prefer the healthy sound Griffey makes to Pears’ bloodless tone on recordings, and the American tenor certainly has the technique and diction to channel the idiom successfully.

That fine baritone musician Hakan Hagegard, three decades after achieving world fame as an adorable Papageno in Bergman’s “Magic Flute,” still sounds very good.

Bass offered a strong, satisfying rendition of this testing work. Both his Chorale and the Riverside Choral Society excelled, as did the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; the difficult percussion and first-chair string parts were especially impressive. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, up in the balcony with an organ, sounded otherworldly and convincing.

The Met’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” (October 30) had transparent-textured but not very Italianate orchestral work courtesy of Dennis Russell Davies—interesting to hear, but lacking texture.

“Cavalleria” had a scratch cast, though Eva Urbanová—hard-pressed except in pianissimi––gave a fine acting performance and Fabio Armiliato, with a basically suitable voice and figure, found some ringing squillo high notes that the audience ate up. Armiliato is a pretty good Turiddu; that’s something these days.

“Pagliacci” brought on the huge-voiced Vladimir Galouzine; if one doesn’t seek for Italianate sound, there are few tenor voices more thrilling than this one. Galouzine is a little too sexy for the cuckolded older man––not a common complaint on the operatic stage––so the Met did well to deploy foxy young Mariusz Kwiecien as his rival for Nedda’s affections. The baritone sounded a little rattled on top, as did Daniela Dessì (Nedda), though her timbre suited the music. (The wonderful Patricia Racette offers her first-ever Nedda opposite Galouzine in March.)

Anna Netrebko, having recently broken contracts and hearts in L. A. and Philadelphia due to the demands of her accelerating multi-media career, reappeared at the Met for a few Musettas. Heard November 17, she sounded and looked superb—a real star turn, but moving when it counted. She and Peter Mattei––the best Marcello I’ve ever heard––made a dynamic, sexy pair.

All Verdi-lovers should catch the Met’s “I Vespri Siciliani,” the rarely given work harboring some of his most stunning music––the quartet, “Addio, mia patria” is like a five-minute distillation of what’s great about this composer. Heard November 16, the revival under Frédéric Chaslin is strong. In the romantic leads––parts of surpassing difficulty––Sondra Radvanovsky and Francisco Casanova are a study in visual contrast: she movie star glamorous and he like a caricature of an opera singer.

Radvanovsky could use more tonal weight in the middle, but her bright, thrusting top voice soars attractively clear up to E natural; her fearlessness in confronting Elena’s technical challenges is pretty exciting, even if some are finessed rather than met. Casanova does best in soft singing, but he commands Arrrigo’s fearsome high notes, though the jaunty duettino that would take him up to D is cut.

Samuel Ramey now wobbles alarmingly in sustained music but can still muster a fine cabaletta and show star presence as the bloodthirsty “patriot” Procida.

But the triumph is Monforte’s. Thanks to some autumnal miracle, Leo Nucci, now 62, sounds better than in his supposed prime in the 1980s: a real lesson in Verdi singing. “Vespri” continues through December 11, with the fantastically vivid Nelly Miricioiu, a diva in late career, replacing Radvanovsky for two evenings.

Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera staged “Trovatore” on November 6, a rather drab production except for Milanka Berberovic’s sumptuous costumes. Yet the audience rightly cheered, since they witnessed something rare today––a “Trovatore” in which all four principals had a right to be onstage. The spectacular success was Ewa Podles’ first Azucena. From her entrance, the part’s intensity suited her perfectly, but she did not limn the conventional eye-bugging madwoman. Podles deployed her lush, loamy sound with awesome skill and expressive musicality up to high C, a riveting assumption, which should be seen widely.

Renzo Zulian––slated for Johnson at the New York City Opera this spring––made a promising U.S. debut as a somewhat staid but plausibly romantic troubador. The Venetian tenor offers good line and clean diction; his top, mercifully unpushed for now, has thrust and a real high C. It took a while for a real dramatic soprano, Lori Philips, to seem comfortable at the top, but in Act IV she really let loose excitingly. A serious artist, she moved and phrased with dignity. A seasoned professional, Donnie Ray Albert is not really a high baritone but coped with finesse as di Luna. Stephen Lord achieved highly respectable results in the pit, despite a less than first-rate orchestra.

It’s always fun to be in the majestic auditorium of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The company celebrates its 50th anniversary this season and remains one of America’s foremost operatic destinations. “Aida” (November 7) was quite enjoyable. Andrea Gruber’s loud, rather hard voice would not caress ears raised to hear Aida as sounding like Price or Caballé, but it was salutary to hear a genuine dramatic soprano in the role. Plus, Gruber can shade the sound down dynamically and offers an intelligent reading of the text wedded to responsiveness onstage.

Oddly, while all the other Ethiopians, including her father, glowed a Queen Boadicea blue, Gruber looked like Betty Hutton got up as a Native American in “Annie Get Your Gun.” Richard Margison offered his foursquare but clear-voiced Radames. Carlo Guelfi suited Amonasro well; if Olga Borodina seemed bored as Amneris, she sang with remarkable beauty of tone when the line and scale of the Judgment Scene didn’t test her limits. Interesting to hear ex-baritone Joseph Kaiser, a frequent presence at New York Festival of Song, as the tenor Messenger; the transition is going very well indeed.

David Shengold ( writes about opera for Time Out New York, Opera News, Opera and other venues.

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