There are three big anniversaries in 2013; the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner and the centenary of Benjamin Britten. One would think all would be represented but maybe not. We know Verdi will be. Gerald Finley announced at the Rubies that he would make his role debut in the title role in Falstaff at COC in 2013/14 so we can ink that one in. Britten seems probable. There’s a Houston/COC co-pro of Peter Grimes, directed by Neil Armfield that is due to to come to Toronto. I think we can pencil that one in. No idea on casting but I would love to see Stuart Skelton myself. Wagner, I’m not so sure. Maybe February’s run of Tristan und Isolde will be COC’s sole nod to Wagner. Certainly the next most likely candidate; the Lyon/Met/COC Parsifal is, apparently, not expected before 2015.
I despair. I really do. Yesterday’s MetHD broadcast of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera had so much going for it. The singing was brilliant and David Alden’s production seemed to have plenty of interesting ideas. I say “seemed” because we only got the briefest of brief glimpses of it in between the succession of close ups served up by video director Matthew Diamond. On the odd occasions we got to see more than a head or a body it was usually from a weird angle. It’s particularly irritating because the two elements of the production that seemed to be most important were the ones most ruthlessly undermined. Alden’s movement of chorus, supers and dancers and the contrast between what they do and what the principals do seems to be important but who knows? Similarly his use of contrasting spaces, especially in Act 3, is obviously important but when the viewer gets only a couple of seconds to establish the context before the camera moves in and loses it the effect is fatally weakened.
It’s hard to think of a play that would make a better basis for an opera libretto than Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Henri Cain’s adaptation is rather good; somewhat simplifying and tightening up the plot in a similar manner to that later taken by Britten and Pears with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a shame Franco Alfano’s music doesn’t really rise to the same heights. It has its moments, especially later in the opera, but much of the time it’s dull and impressionistic; more like a film soundtrack than an opera score. I guess the lesson is that one just can’t do verismo while trying to avoid vulgarity and excessive melodrama. It also has to be said that much of the time the music seems to be fighting the natural rhythm of the words rather than supporting it. What the music does have is Alfano’s trademark torturing of his singers, especially the principal four roles of Cyrano, Roxane, Christian and De Guiche.
Il Trovatore has gypsies, burning at the stake, dead babies, mistaken identity, poison, love, hate, revenge and enough plot holes to sink the Titanic. It also has some very effective dramatic moments and some utterly fabulous music. The biggest snag is probably that the utterly fantastic music needs a quartet of soloists who can deal with fiendishly difficult parts that require a combination of flawless bel canto technique coupled to Puccinian power and stamina. The power and stamina requirement being especially high in a barn like the Met. It also has a dramatical problem in that it consists if a sequence of fairly short scenes which means a production runs the risk of being chopped up by the changes of set.
The current Met production by David McVicar (broadcast in HD today) avoided the scene change problem by using a rotating set that made shifts virtually seamless. Beyond that the sets and costumes were fairly unremarkable but for a looming crucifixion scene in the background which set the appropriate tone. Blocking was fairly straightforward but effective and the fight scenes were well choreographed. All in all it provided a perfectly adequate setting for what was very much a singers’ performance.
The four principals were all utterly fantastic. I can’t single out any one of them. So Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sandra Radvanovsky, Dolores Zajick and Marcelo Alvarez, bravi a tutti! The supporting cast were excellent too, especially Stefan Kocan as captain of the Guard. Praise due too to orchestra, chorus and conductor (Marco Armiliato). All in all, this was, musically, one of the best Met performances I have seen in HD.
The usual reservations about the direction for HD and the cinema sound quality but they couldn’t spoil a rather special afternoon at the opera.