Opera

La Boheme

Date: July 17, 2012
Conductor: Dan Ettinger
Production: Otto Schenk
Location: Bavarian State Opera, National Theatre, Munich.

When the curtain rose to reveal Scene II’s Latin Quarter, the audience gasped with frothy astonishment. An air of Parisian flair and authenticity roamed free, and the collective gaiety of the chorus and stage extras proved infectious. Then, in this warm summer evening in Bavaria, a wintry chill loomed when the colorless set of Scene III exuded a morbid gloom, as if foretelling the opera’s end. Such was the emotive and communicative power of Otto Schenk’s production, which, despite its fifth decade of service, has looked as fresh as it has ever been.

Schenk’s star shone brightly, but not alone. Angela Gheorghiu portrayed a Mimi whose health but not her spirits slowly withered away, while Joseph Calleja played an emotionally-wrecked Rodolfo witnessing Mimi’s gradual but certain demise. Gheorghiu nurtured her sweet tonal quality with the care of a mother tucking her child into bed. If the Romanian soprano had any fault, she harbored a tendency to sing at her own pace, with nary a peek at conductor Dan Ettinger, particularly during her Scene I solo aria. Calleja began the evening with some hesitation, but warmed up on time to find boundless comfort and confidence in Che gelida manina. As he sang the line: “E come vivo? Vivo! / And how do I live? I live!” he acted as though he really meant it. His Rodolfo, like Gheorghiu’s Mimi, was entirely believable. When he cried Mimi’s name towards the opera’s finale, he oozed so much melancholic doom that, after the orchestra’s final note, the audience remained silent for a few seconds to regain composure before erupting in unreserved jubilation. Levente Molnar was reckless with his rhythm and pitch at Marcello’s Scene I entrance, but otherwise recovered well. Dramatically, Molnar expertly balanced his duo role of Rodolfo’s comedic muse and emotional support with an effortless ease. Christian Rieger, as Schaunard, held sway with vigorous baritonal security, while Laura Tatulescu, as Musetta, flourished as an outwardly whimsical but inherently good-natured Parisian darling. Impossible as it may sound, Alfred Kuhn, approaching his fiftieth year as a professional singer, stole dramatic glory by exacting a deliriously funny Benoit.

Dan Ettinger’s conducting was uneven, with moments of brilliance followed by bouts of mediocrity. At times he let Puccini’s legato lines fly with sweeping boldness, but at others he barely bothered with the composer’s exquisitely crafted dynamics and tempi.

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Opera

Don Pasquale

Date: October 29, 2010
Conductor: James Levine
Production: Otto Schenk
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

After spending 17 hours on a plane, nothing relaxes me more than a light-hearted comic opera where the villain gets punk’d and the boy and the girl live happily ever after.

The above crudely, if not slightly irresponsibly, summarizes the story framework of Don Pasquale, and says nothing about Don Pasquale’s essence: Donizetti’s bubbly, effervescent music. Without any famed arias (like Elixir’s romanza or Lucia’s mad scenes), this work is nevertheless infused with plenty of honeyed passages that, altogether, form one coherent magnum opus, and the enactment of such would require nothing less than a stellar cast with a mastery of Donizetti’s written coloratura and of the piece’s buffo dramaturgy.

In that respect, Jon del Carlo delivered. His Don Pasquale was funny: his fine acting made it easy to believe that he was this wealthy old man whose farcical compulsion to get married was evidenced by the maniacal grin on his face, especially when he sang about his imaginary future children in Un foco insolito. His voice was slightly small for the house, but he made up for it by his outsized theatrical movements and broad-stroked physical comedy.

Anna Netrebko, playing Pasquale’s faux wife “Sofronia”, clearly had quite a bit of fun on stage. She was bouncing on and off the bed (in Pasquale’s house), and dancing, hopping, and two-stepping across the stage even as she was delivering her difficult bel canto lines. Voice-wise, she was not, on the surface, perfect for the role, as the lyrical power of her voice seemed to overwhelm the feathery lightness of Norina’s lines. But Netrebko treaded carefully, reserving power in the more exquisite lines while unleashing her vocal potency when the libretto’s emotional arch demanded it. Her impeccable vocal agility was precisely why she was able to effortlessly switch back and forth between a lovesick Norina and her meaner, fake alter-ego, “Sofronia”.

Matthew Polenzani, as Ernesto, Norina’s true love, was meticulous in his phrasings and precise in his delivery. His voice seemed to morph into whatever characteristics he so chose: he would project with a tinge of melancholic sadness in the heart-breaking song of Cherchero lontana terra, and with an aura of unmistakable mischievousness in the serenade. Mariusz Kwiecien delivered a masterminding but believable Dr. Malatesta, and together with del Carlo’s Pasquale, the pair delivered a massively fun dueling patter, at a breakneck speed that effused plenty of playfulness and none of the fast passage’s vulgarities. At the scene change curtain call, James Levine was gracious enough to let Kwiecien and del Carlo do an encore. Amazingly, after 40 years at the MET, this was Levine’s first time conducting Don Pasquale. Levine meticulously phrased Donizetti’s melodic arches with a caressing care, and drew a refined and fresh performance by the excellent MET Orchestra.

Otto Schenk came out of retirement a few years ago to create this production at the urge of ex-Met GM Joe Volpe. According to the lore, the signing of Netrebko onto the production was the deal clincher that compelled Schenk to do one more production. At the final curtain call, when Schenk appeared on stage amidst rapturous applause, he beamed with a big smile and a towering satisfaction, probably realizing that despite a movement towards a more avant-garde, cerebral stage design, the Met audience was still quite receptive to the classical realism that he so represented for a better half of the past century.

Netrebko, in Otto Schenk's Don Pasquale.

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