Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Harteros: My New Violetta!

Having been impressed by hearing her Violetta several times on Sirius, I knew what I was going to do my last night in New York. See Harteros at the Met. Holy moley. Hers is unlike any Violetta I've heard in a long, long time. It's a big voice and she knows exactly what to do and how to do it. Violetta has now no difficulties, no hurdles that Harteros doesn't simply obliterate. To hear a voice of such healthy proportions navigate perfectly through Verdi's bravura ending to Act I is thrilling. I mentioned to a friend that most Violettas (even many i have liked in the past) have a certain phony quality, a kind of "Look at me, I'm playing a courtesan . . . ha, ha ha!" Harteros convinced me from the very first moment she appeared that THIS was Violetta.

I'm embarassed to admit I don't believe I've ever even heard of Paolo Carignani before this run, but I will not forget him and race for tickets to anything he conducts again. His work with the orchestra was exemplary, particularly in the two famous preludes. He begins this music so tenderly I felt as though I'd walked into the middle of a performance already in progress. It was magical. He paces well for his singers, even numbers like "Di Provenza" which can sometimes be milked and dragged out to within an inch of its life, were perfect, allowing the singers to revel in beautiful sound, but never at the sacrifce of the drama at hand.

Speaking of "Di Provenza," what a treat it was to have Zeljko Lucic back at the Met. His Giorgio Germont was very close to as good as it gets in this role. Warm, burnished sound, with as beautiful a middle to the voice as I can recall hearing. The bottom of his voice isn't as strong as it could be, but my God the rest is so beautiful, and he sings with such passion and style that nothing is really missed. While this production doesn't require a lot of Germont dramatically, Lucic had touches that were heartbreaking and toward the end of his scene with Violetta, Lucic made me believe that Germont was going to say, "Never mind" and let his song stay with this wonderful woman. He braced himself on the back of a chair, realizing he was going too far, and when he is reproached by Violetta's "addio!" he quickly leaves before he changes his mind. You could "feel this."

Massimo Giordano is not always vocally perfect as Alfredo - but he's damned close. It's a beautiful sound, with some nice "ping" to it, and he's got a lovely tear in the voice that he doesn't overdo. Additionally, there was something about him which I liked more than many other Alfredi: the believability of youth about him both in both voice and action. This was a teenaged boy Alfredo, his mannerisms, his behavior all resembled a young man in the throws of his first love. When he reads Violetta's letter this kid was positively crushed. His face a silent sob of shock and loneliness. He had all the manic qualities perfectly. His "De’ miei bollenti spiriti” is about as good as one is likely to hear. The cabaletta was good, but I wanted him to be specatcular in it, and it just wasn't. But, considering how many tenors I've heard destroy the aria itself, to have it sung as lovely as we got it tonight - is a blessing. This guy is really good!

And back to the reason for going. Harteros has a dark, tragic beauty to her that, during the first act alternated with Violetta's sparkling qualities that made her instantly both likeable, and unforgettable. Tall, and with a dark, striking beauty (Harteros reminded me at times variously of Callas, Gheorghiu and Balsta - sometimes all three rolled into one) she moves with genuine elegance. When she collapses, faints, falls or otherwise hits the floor she appears to have had all of her bones removed, so perfectly fluid is her movement. If she gave up singing, I think this is one of the few sopranos who could make it onstage as an actress, so convincing were all of her physical gestures and mannerisms. But she DOES sing - and amazingly. To hear a voice of this size voice scale back to a mezzo voce that could make a stone weep is rare enough, but the way she can shift gears, point up the text purely by voice, her lack of "outsized" histrionics - is just amazing. Amazing. Amazing.

Outside at first intermission a man told me he did not like this Violetta and pointed out "she hasn't got high notes and didn't do the High E flat." I told him he was crazy, her top was glorious and besdies, when you've got everything else in spades: perfect diction, style, command of the voice in all of the writing its assigned, an exquisite ability to shade the text and make it believeable, not to mention good trills where they're written, and the ability to pop off 5 high C's with ease, you don't need an E flat for a couple of reasons: Verdi didn't write one; and two, half the time the E flat is included is because the soprano is going to be half inaudible the rest of the opera.

There are so many highlights to discuss and not enough time. "Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core" in Act II, Scene ii, was just wrenching. Again, the manner in which Harteros can scale back that huge, warm sound down to a sliver of voice, andn still penetrate through through the orchestra and be heard in every corner of the house . . . is pure magic.

Convincing throughout, her third act was even better than I thought it would be (and I was thinking it was going to be really, really good). This was a tragedienne par excellence, knowing how to pace virtually every minute, and yet make it feel as though it were playing out in real time. Thankfully she didn't overdo the letter scene, didn't scream "e tardi" like she was at a college football game, and offered an "Addio del passato" that was absolutely exquisite. A slight catch in her breath in the final
phrase kept her from getting a roaring ovation, but that would come when she returned to the stage for her bows after the final curtain. I didn't time it, but the bravos, cheers and a standing ovation from most of the house went on for a good while.

I will defend some of Zefirelli's production, but the opening of Flora's party, the set still resembles some enormous alien/monster vagina. When those "curtains" finally go up Flora's house looks like a Rococo cathedral taken over by a commedia del ar'te troupe and a gang of whores. Also, I think it is a HUGE mistake to change scenes for Violetta's death. It breaks up Verdi's drama and calls attention to the direction more than it does to Violetta's tragedy and that is unforgiveable. And ghastly. Still, not even that could detract from the magic Harteros brought to this role. I would love to hear her in more Verdi, I'm thinking Luisa Miller, Don Carlos, Ernani . . . and eventually, soon even, I would love to hear an Aida from this voice.

Okay, I've got a new soprano to obsess over!


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