Guillaume Tell

Date: July 6, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

Guillaume Tell: Michael Volle
Arnold Melcthal: Bryan Hymel
Walter Furst: Goran Jurić
Melcthal: Christoph Stephinger
Jemmy: Evgeniya Sotnikova
Gesler: Günther Groissböck
Rodolphe: Kevin Conners
Ruodi: Enea Scala
Leuthold: Christian Rieger
Mathilde: Erika Grimaldi
Hedwige: Jennifer Johnston

Bavarian State Opera
Dan Ettinger, conductor
Antú Romero Nunes, director

Guillaume Tell seems to be enjoying a mini renaissance after years of neglect (outside of Pesaro anyways). New productions have popped up recently in Amsterdam, Liège and Torino, and more new ones will be staged in Cardiff, Graz, Monte Carlo and Covent Garden. Part of it is due to the Florez-led revival of Rossini appreciation, but part of it is simply a matter of time: a tragic overdue.

Florez, as good as he has been in Rossini roles, would have no business in Rossini’s last opera. The major tenor role here, Arnold, belongs to a heavier lyrical voice, delivered in Munich majestically by Bryan Hymel, who is fashioning himself as the go-to person for French grand operas, having recently done Robert in Robert le diable and then Aeneas in Les Troyens. Between his Aeneas in 2012 and now, Hymel’s French diction has improved remarkably. With Asile héréditaire, he brought down the house with incredible breath control, fiery output, and pulsating pacing. More importantly, he delivered not with voix mixte but with a full and punchy voice.

The set, by Antú Romero Nunes, has nearly nothing other than enormous tubular pipes that descend, spin and angle to assemble into shapes, in a stage concept not unlike Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met. For example, in the militarization scene, the pipes would descend and present themselves as though they are gun barrels. In Altdorf, the chapel is depicted with pipes angled at each other, as if presenting themselves as two slanting sides of a chapel roof. Trees in the forest are depicted with plenty of the pipes floating sturdily in midair. The difference here is that, unlike Lepage’s concoction, the pipes are not treacherous walking hazards. Nor are they making crackling noises that inhibit listening. In other words, the pipes are not so obtrusive as to affect the listening experience; it is simply a way, albeit an expensive one, to define a set and make an impression.

As Jemmy, Evgeniya Sotnikova was fine, sweet and persuasive. Michael Volle, in the eponymous role, was fine dramatically but couldn’t muster enough tonal color and lyrical beauty to be a truly great Rossini singer. More problematically, his voice often disappeared in the ensemble. Erika Grimaldi sang with sweet expressiveness in Matilde’s aria Sombre forêt, or rather Selva opaca – she was flown in as a last minute replacement for the indisposed Marina Rebeka and could only sing the opera in Italian (she is currently singing the Hapsburg princess in Graham Vick’s production in Torino). Dan Ettinger was a steady hand and delivered what Rossini promised: dramatic grandeur and joyous bliss. Some overt massaging of the score was done: the overture, instead of being played at the beginning, was moved to after the intermission, before which much of Act III has already been done and up to the shooting of the apple. However, in some perverted ways, this rearrangement worked, as the pulsating Swiss Soldiers March served to provide a cliff-hanger of a drama to the apple shooting scene. It also provided some context to the fascinating composition, which heretofore was relegated as an inconsequential show piece. Traditionalists be damned.

The production turns out to be a dark and cynical take on the idyllic themes of love, family, liberty and country. Act I comes with no dances, as would be expected from this Rossini opera. The showy grandeur and Schiller’s emphasis of nature seem coolly assailed by the listless roboticism of the tubes. Yet somehow the sheer presence of the gigantic tubes defines the scale of the opera without the need for an elaborate set and/or a show-stopping dance scene. Equally, the destructive nature of the tubes serves somehow to highlight an important theme in Schiller’s omen: that of the unpredictable and destructive power of the political man. In that respect, as perverse as it may seem, Nunes and Munich found an interestingly workable formula.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

The Barber of Seville

Date: July 18, 2013
Conductor: Pier Giorgio Morandi
Production: Pier Francesco Maestrini
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Beijing Opera Festival continues with Barber, Rossini’s opera buffa that has graced opera houses for more than a century. Director Pier Francesco Maestrini offers a cartoonish vision of 17th century Seville fixated with organic modernism. Set designer Zhang Wu obliges, and creates something akin to a microcosm of Gaudi’s artistry. Buildings would bend and curl irrespective of perspective, as if viewing a version of Seville through an ambiguously curved mirror. Actors would inhabit the stage with outrageous postures and outsized movements as though Maestrini was to purposely redefine the perspectives between physical structures and those who live in them, a la Gaudi. Figaro was sung by Liao Changyong, an established baritone in Greater China who nevertheless found limited fame elsewhere. His voice was dependable and carried heft, but lacked an embellishing charisma that one would typically assign to Figaro. Take his all-important cavatina at his stage entrance: he sang almost every note without fault, delivered all the requisite dynamics, but seemed to languish dramatically, whether physically on stage or tonally as a voice. When the great Tito Gobbi attacked the same aria, he delivered with a fiery confidence and a kind of innocent humanity that seemed lacking in Liao’s roboticism and seeming indifference. In comparison, Geraldine Chauvet’s Rosina was more serviceable and more “human” as a Rossini voice. Antonino Siragusa was not my favorite bel canto singer, and he proved it here in Beijing with an uncharacteristic voice and a murky coloratura. All problems amplified when he attacked Almaviva’s final (optional) aria, “Cessa di più resistere”, which JDF revived to astounding success a few years ago and capable tenors tried to follow but rarely came close. This evening, Siragusa sounded hopelessly strained, with too much nasal congestion and not enough clarity in phrasing. In the technically impossible phrases in allegro, Siragusa was barely catching up to the music of the orchestra. To Siragusa’s credit, he provided slightly more visual drama than JDF’s “park and bark” by providing some authentic twist moves. Chen Peixin’s Basilio swamped the stage with clarity and stentorian heft, and proved catalytically comedic. And then there was Bruno Praticò. Praticò was supposed to appear in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, but had to bail out at the last minute, due to an alleged hip injury. The premier basso buffo of our age, with his deliberately Donald-Ducky walking posture, invoked laughter as the Doctor merely by walking across the stage. Perhaps due to age, his upper registers languished without bel canto’s requisite clarity, but his middle registers beamed with a punching firepower in forte and a careful embrace in piano. He even memorized a few Chinese words in his recitative, to the delirium of the capacity audience, some of whom couldn’t help but stood in a jaw-dropping awe as he counted, slowly but surely, and in Mandarin Chinese, the pieces of paper left by Rosina after she wrote that fateful letter to the Count. Barber rarely fails to invoke a jolly good mood, and this performance overall bears no exception.

Pier Francesco Maestrini's Barber in Beijing

Pier Francesco Maestrini’s Barber in Beijing.

La Cenerentola

Date: July 12, 2012
Conductor: Antonello Allemandi
Production: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

When Nikolaus Bachler, the Intendant of the opera house, appeared on stage before the curtain went up to announce that Joyce DiDonato was not feeling well, the hall permeated with a concerted gasp of disappointment, only to be replaced by relief when Bachler said that DiDonato would nevertheless continue.

At the outset, DiDonato’s voice was buttery and clean, and did not sound particularly stressed. Nevertheless, she took care to preserve her voice for the opera’s finale, so much so that she was nearly inaudible in most of the ensemble singing. That put additional pressure on the two other female voices, who had the unenviable task of counterbalancing an all-male tag team of lead vocals as well as chorus. If DiDonato consciously saved her voice throughout the evening, she let it all out in Non piu mesta. DiDonato proved that textural sensibility and vocal agility could coexist beautifully, as her acrobatic passages flowed with sensual, expressive coloration. An optionally interpolated high D-flat before one of those two-octave descending scales provided a playful counterpoint, akin to a plump cherry sitting atop a Rococo-style, multi-layered wedding cake.

When Dandini arrived at Don Magnifico’s house as Ramiro, he casually threw his hat and baton to his real boss in a terse but fine moment of dramma giocoso. But such was the theatrical masterstroke of Ponnelle, who with this short interaction was able to convey Ramiro’s slight displeasure at being subjugated, even temporarily; Dandini’s satisfaction in being his own boss; and the dramma giocoso’s playful sensibility. (This directorial brilliance was also evident in a video recording of the same production, with Claudio Abbado and La Scala, some thirty years ago.) The staging showed signs of its age, with the colors of many of the scrims fading away. One scrim malfunctioned briefly and caused Cinderella to sing part of her second Une volta…un re with a half-drawn scrim, but otherwise the drama flowed perfectly.

Lawrence Brownlee, as Ramiro, was confident and accurate in delivery, but lacked bite and charisma. In Si, ritrovarla io guiro, Brownlee added a third high C in the da capo. Alessandro Corbelli, as Don Magnifico, lost some of his vocal prowess due to age, but more than compensated with dramatic weight, as he should in this genre. Nikolay Borchev’s vibrato, sounding forced and unnatural, needed more refining. As an actor he drew genuine laughter whenever the drama required of his Dandini. Alex Esposito, as Alidoro, projected an exceptionally strong and ringing voice, albeit just a tad too bright for bel canto. As Clorinda, Eri Nakamura excelled vocally. More importantly, she acted the part with a whimsical but cheerful giddiness, and didn’t look at all like someone who sandwiched this Clorinda performance between her Woglindes during the Munich Ring.