Monday, September 21, 2009

Met's Controversial New Tosca

Well, I'll speak for those too frightened to otherwise do so: I LOVED tonight's Tosca - blemishes and all. I found Mattila thrilling in a true visceral "gutsy" way - ever involved in the drama and with good enough vocal chops to sound glamorous in much of her singing. If we're going to count the boo's for the production team, then we HAVE to acknowledge the bravi, cheers and wild applause the singers received.

I felt Levine gave a thrilling reading, doing his thing with bringing out inner voices and colors from the band, particularly with the winds in the first act and the strings in the second and third. There were moments the orchestra was scorching, blistering hot - the strings digging into the wood with this throbbing intensity that gave me shivers (in the good way!). I was fascinated by the manner in which he kept a nice fluidity in the score while really accentuating Puccini's ever shifting rhythms, and some of the syncopation in the score in Act II brought a freshness not often heard in this music these days.

I enjoyed also, the "extra" bits Mattila brought to torture scene, whispers, moans and screams - all had a natural, unforced feel that seemed borne of the script. She did go a bit wild (and both sharp AND flat) in the higher sections while Mario was getting it, but this too (to me) felt perfectly in character given the situation.

Alvarez is not (to my ears) a natural Mario, but he makes (most) of the role work for him and the voice is just so freaking beautiful I didn't mind some of the crooning. He was a bit strained at "Vittoria!" - but the entire thing worked as "musical theatre" and I (again) had goose flesh during the entire scene. The tenor did seem to have some rhythmic problems in "E lucevan le stelle" but ended it beautifully, and the final music with his lady love made for great drama.

The real find for me tonight was Gagnidze - a singer I've heard before, but was not so impressed with. Well, tonight he managed to knock me into next week. There was this rich, juicy baritone-y malevolence wed to an intensity of tone and good - make that GREAT wordplay as (since I couldn't see him) he acted marvelously with the voice. Like Mattila, he gave these little vocal "extras" (e.g., that upward inflection he gave in his response "Quanto?") all made his Scarpia come alive with a rich, juicy malice that I just loved.

It all built to an absolutely thrilling 3rd Act, with Mattila, perhaps in her best voice of the night and showing off a really wonderful chesty bottom with a thrilling over-the-top top, and as ever seemed to be "in the moment."

I truly wish I could've seen the production and just what it was that seemed to get everyone's panties in a twist. That booing was incredible - much more so than last years boofest!

I've loved everything I've seen of Bondy's - and though friends have already told me I'll feel otherwise, I have a sneaking suspicion I'm going to enjoy this production when I (finally) get to see it.

All in all, this was a fun, fun night - tempers, boos, cheers, whistles and Puccini . . . an awesome way to spend a chilly September evening! So, grazie, Jimmy, Met, cast and . . . most of all, Signor Puccini!


Rene Jacobs: Idomeneo Perfection

Mein Gott in Himmel - this recording just blew my entire world apart - in a good way! It's no secret to those who know me, I adore Richard Croft in Mozart (well, in anything!) and while some prefer a beefier tone in this role, I completely love his work here. Croft brings countless "acting with the voice" nuances to every scene, imbues every bit of text in deeply thoughtful manner that make his King believable, heroic and richly human.

Ah, then there is the way he tosses tosses off "Fuor del mar's" coloratura fireworks (in Mozart's own "bravura" version). This reading is insanely fast - shaving almost a full minute off of any other recording I know of the same version (a criticism leveled at the entire set by a number of reviews). While it didn't appear to leave the singer so - it certainly left ME breathless by the end! I've never heard the coloratura in this aria sung with this kind of agility and speed and the result is tremendously thrilling, and tremendously beautiful. Aside from the fireworks, Croft like the very best singers, always knows how to thrill during the recitatives - something Jacobs seems to have worked out in great detail with the entire company, as the recits are here as dramatically exciting (well, almost) as the arias that follow. All of that aside, it is his singing of the opera's closing pages - in a reading that is so full of hope and joy that sells me on his interpretation of Mozart's greatest (to me) tenor role.

As to those recitatives, there has been a lot of complaining in the press that Jacobs has gone out of his mind and turned them into caricatures of how a recit really should go. Not for me (and evidently, not for many who have purchased this set and are similarly loving it). The recitatives are restored (I believe) to almost 100% and the fleshing out of them on the fortepiano almost seems to add another character to the opera itself. Mozart perhaps? Regardless, I think it's a stroke of genius and gives this set - already bursting at the seams with new(ish) ideas, an edge over other sets - at least for me. (I must say, several times I felt as though the foretepiano sounded like it should have a couple mugs of beer sitting atop it!)

Like the singer of the title character, everyone participating in this the set is so fully involved with their characters it's almost impossible to single out any particular singer - but I must, and it is, for me, a singer brand new to these ears: Kenneth Tarver, the tenor singing Arbace is a revelation. Singing with gorgeous tone, solid musicmaking, elegant of line his agility in rapid passagework is absolutely thrilling - and the tone seems to be one of those voices that truly sings "from the heart." I look forward to hearing a lot more from this young singer.

I'm a nut for any singer with the last name of "Fink" as, in my experience, they're always at the top of their game, and Bernarda is no exception. I tend to like her more in lied or baroque opera/oratorio, but she is simply wonderful here as Idamente, fully engaged and her scenes with Ilia are lovely and full of a genuine tenderness.

Though a studio recording, Sunhae Im, took (by my measure) a little while to warm up, her voice sounded just a bit underpowered and wan early on - but by "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" the tone is warmer, fuller - and the gentle, expressive manner in which she takes the aria is exquisitely beautiful, her ornamentations delightful, the ability to swell out and color the tone, most impressive.

Alexandra Pendatchanska became - about a dozen years ago - one of my favorite sopranos in a single hearing of her as Donizetti's Parisina. While I adore her "fierce" singing - there is Elettra's exquisite solo "Soavi Zeffiri" in that choral masterpiece "Placido e il mar," . . . divine would not be too strong a word to describe this moment. Of course, we LIVE for Elettra's final mad scene "D'Oreste, d'Aiace" - where she joins a long line of deliciously delirious predecessors (most notably, Hildegard Behrens who made this such a memorable coup d'theatre).

Previously having mentioned the chorus, the RIAS Kammerchor is here just about as thrilling as it gets in this music and their contribution to this set simply cannot go unmentioned - the chorus is one of the greatest characters in this drama; wringing out every moment of pathos, sounding properly and breathlessly terrified when called for, singing impeccably at every dynamic level, offering a glorious blanket of sound that envelops all.

Jacobs leads the Freiburger Barockorchester in what is, for me, the single most propulsive, action-packed reading of this score I have yet encountered. He's never afraid to let the timpani, brass or wind machines make their effects realizing Mozart himself packed all of this drama into the score. Many moments in this reading are the aural equivalent of "special effects" we'd "see" in movies. Everywhere is there a combination of muscle and grace, intensity and gentility - all coming off in a manner that seems to make the familiar even more alive and new.

There are moments that he gets better than anyone, such as the delicious quartet for Ideomeneo, Ilia, Idamante and Elettra "Andro ramingo e solo." This is one of the greatest ensembles ever set by Mozart, beginning with an almost deceptively simple quasi-fugal beginning that soon turns into a complex, thrill-a-minute drama of its own, all four characters either accepting their fate, declaring their love or cursing the gods and seeking revenge. It's "opera as concerto movement." The quartet simply grows and grows, and Jacobs builds the orchestral contributions to a pulse pounding pace, never coming close to overwhelming his singers, who each, respectively are coloring the text and musical line with an almost unbelievable sense of precision. The complexities of harmonies and textures of sound achieved here is alone worth the purchase of this set.

The box is a fairly lavish affair (particularly these days) with a nice four language libretto, essays by Jacobs, Silke Leopold, plot synopses, and smaller-than-postage stamp photos of the cast (would it KILL anyone to have decent photo sets in these things like the old days?) One silly touch is those teeny-tiny photos show up on three consecutive pages with the singer's characters translated into French, German and (for English speakers) the original Italian names. Why? To make up for this, the package is accompanied by a DVD (as yet unwatched by me) of the recording sessions. Why not?

For sheer thrill of Mozart music drama I don't know that we'll see a better recording of anything this year. It's a magnificent set that I'll look forward to playing often.

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