La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Royal Opera Covent Garden Don Carlos

With all the hoopla surrounding the Metropolitan Opera in HD, it is easy to overlook that there are other games in town. Since last season, DigiScreen has been presenting operas and ballets from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in selected Canadian theatres. I have seen Luisa Fernanda with Placido Domingo, and a stunning Carmen starring Ana Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann. To be sure, these shows are not "live" like the Met - they were taped for DVD release, so it doesn't have quite the sense of occasion. There are no intermission features or interviews, for example. Still, there is something to be said about seeing it in a large screen with state-of-the-art equipment. The products from Opus Arte - a company owned by Royal Opera - are always of a very high level. Presumably, these operas will be commercially available on DVD sometime in the future.

This past weekend, I attended a screening of Verdi's Don Carlo, taped at Covent Garden last June. The main interest for me was the return of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, who withdrew from the stage for the latter part of 2007, for reasons not entirely made clear. He came back in January-February 2008 for a few performances of Werther at the Vienna State Opera, to mixed reviews. This June Don Carlo represented his first large-scale production. At the time, critical opinion was mixed - some felt he had return to form, while others felt his performance left something to be desired.

It is impossible to tell at what point during the run this performance came from. Indeed it is likely that it's a composite from two or more performances. Judging from what I saw and heard, Signor Villazon is back and in great form. Granted a filmed performance isn't quite the same as experiencing it live in the opera house. For one thing, it is difficult to judge the size of the voice. Having heard him live on several occasions, I have noticed that his instrument isn't all that large, and sometimes, in big houses like the Met, it sounds like he is pushing. For what it's worth, based on this taped performance, one can't ask for a more passionate and involved Don Carlo, and vocally he was completely secure, with none of the little cracks and glitches that plagued his performances throughout most of 2006-7. His Don Carlo for Amsterdam - available on DVD - is a little neurotic, quirky, and vulnerable, in keeping with the directorial concept. His characterization here is more straight-forward and less idiosyncratic, but equally touching. He has excellent chemistry with other cast members, especially Rodrigo and Elisabetta. There is less interaction with Eboli in this production. His duets with Rodrigo and Elisabetta were real highlights of the evening.

This is a new production by Nicholas Hytner which replaced the ancient Visconti production dating back to around 1958! It is darkly handsome, with an understated grandeur that is entirely appropriate in this grand piece. The direction is more mainstream and less eccentric than the Nederland Opera production. Past productions of this opera favoured an ending where Carlo is dragged into the cloister by Charles V. But this rather problematic ending has become less and less popular - most modern productions have Carlo stabbed or shot to death, like the Vienna and Barcelona productions. In the COC production, Carlo is blinded and tortured before dying, a real gruesome end. This ROH production, despite being the 5 Act version, is really the Italian Don Carlo with the Fontainbleau Scene tagged on in the beginning. It has none of the music that is found in the true French version, and there is thankfully no ballet. Still, the opera was almost four and a half hours long. With the wonderful music and superlative singing, the time went by in a flash. One unusual feature of this production is spoken dialogue between the priest and the heretics during the Auto d'afe Scene, something I had not seen previously.

The ROH cast was uniformly strong. Other than Villazon, top vocal honours went to Ferruccio Furlanetto as a most impressive Philip. Simon Keenlyside was wonderful too as Rodrigo, while not erasing memories of the great Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this role. Sonia Ganassi (Eboli) took some time to warm up, and her Veil Song did not show her to advantage. But her O don fatale brought the house down as expected. American basss Eric Halfvarson made the most of his brief appearance as the Grand Inquisitor. Robert Lloyd is equally excellent as the Friar/Charles V, although the voice is starting to show its age. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya is a fine Elisabetta vocally, but I have to say she does not move me. There was a coolness about her, and her face remained immobile in the dramatic moments. Antonio Pappano brought out the full lyricism of the score, eliciting wonderful sounds from the Covent Garden orchestra.

The success of Villazon here really makes me curious about this recent Hoffmann at Covent Garden. I spoke to a friend who attended it in November, and the report was extremely positive. Noted critic Rupert Christiansen also gave it 5 star in his review. Let's hope ROH will preserve it for posterity on DVD.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Viva Villazón!

Best of Rolando Villazón (CD; 57 m 30 s)
Live in
Prague - Concert from Smetana Hall (DVD; 51 m)
Virgin Classics 504762-20

***** $$$

If you are new to the art of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, this combination CD-DVD set is the one to buy. The CD contains selections from all the recital discs he made when under contract to EMI/Virgin Classics. While the 35-year-old singer is still very much in his vocal prime, his hectic schedule and a tendency to give unstintingly have taken a toll on his voice, at least temporarily. A certain unreliability has crept into his singing, resulting in a 6-month hiatus in the latter part of 2007. (He resumed performing this January, as Werther at the Vienna State Opera, to cautiously good reviews). His Virgin Classics output dates from 2004-6, when his voice was in pristine shape. His Italian opera arias disc - my personal favourite - was recorded in 2004 with the late Marcello Viotti. Everything is sung with gorgeous tone, rock-solid technique and his trademark sense of drama. His ingratiating, darkish timbre recalls a young Plácido Domingo; his liberal use of mezza voce is an unalloyed pleasure. Also in this potpourri is the French album from a year later with Evelino Pidò, and a marvellous third disc of mixed repertoire under the baton of Michel Plasson. Everything has been previously issued except for "Donna non vidi mai" from Manon Lescaut, the Puccini Des Grieux role he has yet to sing onstage.

However beautiful Villazón's voice is, a substantial part of his magic is visual. A charming and irrepressible personality onstage and off, Villazón exudes an unbridled joy of singing that is infectious. You can get a glimpse of it in the concert from Prague, taped in November 2005. It was a relatively short concert of ten arias, all your usual chestnuts. In thrilling voice, he gave his all vocally and dramatically. He even took the trouble to learn a few words in Czech and had the local audience eating out of his hand. Let's hope he has completely recovered from what ailed him for the past year or so, as a tenor of his stature is hard to find. Highly recommended!

-Joseph K. So

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Donizetti: L'Elisir d'Amore

Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper; Alfred Eschwé, dir.
Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Leo Nucci, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo
Otto Schenk, production, Karina Fibich, réalisation

Virgin Classics 00946 363352 9 (DVD: 130 min)


Captée sur le vif en avril 2005, cette production de l'Élixir d'amour est enlevante dans l'ensemble, mais brille surtout par la présence du couple qui nous a déjà donné une inoubliable Traviata. Anna Netrebko incarne une Adina mutine et fraîche qui sait néanmoins, le moment venu, montrer la sincérité de ses sentiments amoureux. La voix est belle et le jeu toujours nuancé prouve qu'il s'agit là d'une véritable cantatrice. Rolando Villazón démontre des qualités de comique, mais peut-être en fait-il trop par moments sans y croire; la candeur de son Nemorino ressemble à la longue à de la stupidité; on s'étonne alors que l'intelligente Adina puisse s'éprendre d'un tel benêt de village. Le charlatan Dulcamara est rendu par un D'Arcangelo en grande forme : son duo endiablé du deuxième acte avec Adina est l'un des meilleurs moments de la production. Seul le vétéran Leo Nucci (Belcore) semble en retrait autant par la voix que par une interprétation quelque peu guindée malgré une présence scénique indéniable. Le décor réaliste et les costumes dans les teintes pastel évoquent une contrée lumineuse et sans drame; orchestre et chef sont à l'écoute des chanteurs. Une réserve : la prise de son est lointaine dans plusieurs solos, y compris Una furtiva lagrima que Villazón a dû bisser.

-Alexandre Lazaridès

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Rolando Villazon Makes Successful Return to the Opera Stage

The opera community breathed a sign of relief last night (January 5, 2008). Star Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon made a triumphant and successful return to the operatic stage at the Vienna State Opera in Massenet's Werther. According to Associated Press's review, the audience started clapping right from the start and gave him an extended ovation at the end.

His return Saturday set the stage for huge expectations that were mostly -- but not completely -- met.

While wonderfully supple -- and surprisingly strong at times -- Villazon's voice was occasionally lost in the more powerful orchestral passages -- and it wasn't the fault of conductor Marco Armiliato.

Although he appeared to be hitting his high B's, it wasn't always apparent -- because when trying too hard to be heard, Villazon's lyric tenor just seemed to top out among all those potent brass passages of the second and third acts.

Villazon himself appeared to be less than completely satisfied. Miguel Perez, who described himself as a friend of Villazon from Barcelona, said the tenor told him between breaks that he was "very happy" with the first act but "not very happy with the second."

Villazon is considered a leading heir to the "Three Tenors" but took 6 months off from singing, leading to speculations that he was suffering from vocal trouble.

On the web:
  • Check Opera Chic's blog for other comments.
  • The Mostly Opera blog for a translation of post from a German forum which expressed reservations on Villazon's voice.

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