Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Night at the Semi-Opera


Tonight I went to the Deutsche Oper to see Il Trovatore. But not Il Trovatore on stage, Il Trovatore in concert.

Strange, I thought. In my mind concert performances are reserved for recondite or unstageable pieces. La Contessa d’Amalfi, Il Barone di Dolsheim or Zaira.
But I shouldn’t have worried. The theatre was packed to the rafters, and people were begging for tickets outside.
But I still have my reservations. With a concert performance, the music may get its due – and this work is one of the ‘pop’ operas of all time, one hit tune after another -- but the drama inevitably suffers. And operas don’t come more dramatic than Il Trovatore.

I suppose it shouldn’t matter in a concert if you have a grossly stout Manrico, or if you have a Luna who resembles Anna Magnani with a beard. But it does. You shouldn’t be distracted by the conductor’s shirt tails bouncing up and down, but you are. And worst of all is the hilarious business of the scores and music stands. Ruiz and Inez come on to sing their few lines with a score, and two minutes later go out with it. Luna turns pages in the middle of ‘Il Balen’. Please! How can you take the action seriously. It’s worse than an oratorio. At least there they only sit and stand. They don’t waddle or stroll on and off with a big black book.

OK. So it’s a concert. No scenery, no costumes, no action. But no drama? Just ‘songs’. Well, tonight, for the first half of the performance, that’s what we had. Just songs. We had a soprano (Anja Harteros) who was making lovely smooth milky noises, a tenor (Stuart Neill) who was singing the notes, and a baritone (Dalibor Jenis) who was non-existent vocally and dramatically, to the extent of being swallowed up by the orchestra. Only the mezzo-contralto (Dolora Zajick) seemed aware that this was supposed to be rousing melodrama, and she showed up with an alarming hole in the middle of her voice.

I returned glumly for the second half. But something had happened in the interval. Everyone seemed to have woken up. Miss Harteros had found some spirit and drama. All right, Leonora is a boring ingenue, a full-time victim with beautiful music to sing, but if she’s not more than just that? Just beautiful and boring? Thankfully, not Miss Harteros. After a super-smooth ‘D’amor sull’ ali rosee’ and a throbbing ‘Miserere’,’ this Leonora really took off, and gave us all we could have asked for until the final curtain.

Miss Zajick had found the missing three notes during half-time and she launched into the final scenes with her tail on fire, with searing top notes and plumbing bottom tones, in an audience pleasing performance of uninhibited melodrama which won over even an oldtimer brought up on the Azucena of Fedora Barbieri. The house left no doubt in the curtain calls as to who was for them the evening’s star. And rightly so. I have always thought the opera should have been called La madre del trovatore.

The Manrico made an effort to go with the flow. He really did. But ‘Di quella pira’ didn’t ring out. It might have rung somewhere near the back of his soft palate, but it didn’t ring to me in Row 17.
And Luna was still non-existent.

The orchestra and chorus under Andrea Battistoni and William Spaulding respectively did their jobs impeccably—I don’t understand why a little clique booed them at the end, for the male chorus was one of the successes of the evening – and the supporting players (especially Jana Kurucova as Inez) were fine when they weren’t coping with scores and stands and exits and entrances.

So, all in all, an evening of mixed pleasures.

I am not sure that the concert format is right for a work so well known as Il Trovatore. I am quite sure that all the exiting and entrancing and pretending to read from the score is absolutely destructive to the drama and continuity of the opera. And I am pretty sure that casting for such an evening needs to be done with the same dramatic criteria in mind, in this day and age, as it would be for a stage performance.

After all, this is an opera. And one of the most popular operas of all time.

No comments: