Opera Critic

Sandro Sequi’s streamlined but traditional approach to this standard repertoire favorite continues to thrive on its noticeable absence of distraction.  Placing some of the opera world’s greatest soloists in the principal roles made the performance nothing less than stunning.  The excellent Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky might not seem to be a natural choice for the role.  His regular parts usually carry far more dignity than a mean-spirited court jester who seeks an outraged father’s revenge.  But here adding a limp to the ordinary crooked back diminished his natural stature and aristocratic bearing and resulted in a refreshingly believable characterization.  The voice, with its impeccable line and steady, silvery quality, proved a fine vehicle for Verdi’s challenging tessitura.

The young soprano Patrizia Ciofi’s Gilda suffered slightly from upper register difficulties that marred some of the role’s greatest moments.  Her “Caro nome” lacked the flair that makes for truly artful coloratura singing.  But she was effective enough in the duets and in the opera’s sad final scene.

Ramon Vargas performed his first Duke for Vienna.  While not of the same caliber as the role’s greatest interpreters, the voice has matured over the years.  If it gave “La donna e mobile” a pedestrian reading, the audience had the memory of Act II’s “Parmi veder le lagrime” as a model of Vargas’s finest singing.  His well trained dramatic abilities were showcased throughout the performance.

The veteran bass Kurt Rydl brought menacing talent to the role of Sparafucile.  Nadia Krasteva’s Maddalena captured the petulant qualities of the character as well as her seductive power.  Michael Guettler made his Staatsoper debut in the orchestra pit.  Well trained by Valery Gergiev in a long residence in St. Petersburg, he demonstrated a mastery of the score and moved the performance along with a carefully measured intensity.

After more than three hundred performances, Josef Gielen’s almost anachronistically traditional production of Puccini’s beloved tale of naïve devotion and callous betrayal would appear to radiate little excitement.  How fortunate it was to have a solid cast, proving yet again that it is truly the voices that matter in opera.

Veteran tenor Neil Shicoff, a Staatsoper fixture who narrowly lost appointment as the house’s intendant, has advanced in years and showed occasional signs of it.  But his Pinkerton radiated charismatic strength and soaring melody.  Clearly skilled in balancing his strengths, he paced himself well through the evening, leaving enough power for a compelling “Addio, fiorito asil.”

Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva sang a charmingly nuanced Cio-Cio-San.  Soaring ascents made the difficult entrance scene a model of fine operatic performance.  Her duets with Shicoff movingly saturated the house with romance.  Marco Caria’s Sharpless made less vivid of an impression, but the execution proved competent.  Aura Twarowska’s Suzuki and Herwig Pecoraro’s Goro stood out among the supporting cast.  Patrick Lange’s orchestral effort supported a charming performance of which the musical public will probably never tire.

Fine Verdi singing is one of the great attraction’s of Hungary’s premiere opera company.  Tackling this middle period favorite is a challenge anywhere, but the State Opera is blessed to have the talented Russian baritone Anatolij Fokanov on hand for the title role.  Possessing an instrument of true distinction and an excellent dramatic skill, Fokanov rendered the tortured court jester with a superbly entertaining passion.  The voice can betray hints of dryness in the upper register, but its overall effect recalls Golden Age Verdi baritones.  He was fortunate to be partnered with Erika Miklosa, a Hungarian soprano of international renown.  Her skilled technique delivered splendid notes across the register and the fine coloratura ornamentation that “Caro nome” demands.  Xavier Moreno was a less fortunate choice as the Duke of Manuta and took no risks with the high embellishments that starrier tenors can deliver.  He came most alive in the well directed ensemble singing, but this led to disappointment in the role’s famous arias.  The talented bass Istvan Racz and mezzo Annamaria Kovacs performed the Sparafucile-Maddalena duo with convincing power.

Miklos Szinetar and Maria Harangi’s production updates the action to the nineteenth century, placing the Duke’s court in a run-down palazzo with crackling Renaissance frescos on the walls.  The opening scene’s party is a costume ball, a clever device to adhere to the original stage directions.  The later era’s more severe dress gave gravitas to Monterone and authority to the Duke’s soldiers, who appear to threaten the liberty of his realm as much as resistance to his whims at court.  Rigoletto’s introspection is handily suggested by the use of an old-fashioned theatrical dressing room mirror.  It works well in the first act monologue, but it seems a bit labored at the end of the third act, when Rigoletto realizes the full power of Monterone’s curse and the extent to which he has been deceived.  Domonkos Heja coordinated the performance well.

Beethoven’s lone opera offers many connotations in the former lands of the Habsburg Empire.  The opera premiered in Vienna to an audience largely composed of occupying French troops.  Its liberation theme has appealed to nationalists all over the world, to believers in democracy, to opponents of tyranny, and even to both Nazis and Communists.  It is not easy to tell what Balazs Kovalik’s relatively recent production means to add to this tradition.  A copious, and often gratuitous, use of Christ-images (an actor playing Jesus with a cross and crown of thorns appears on stage) clearly identifies Florestan’s plight with religious martyrdom.  The green and, for Leonore, red costumes may or may not be likened to Christmas colors.  Either way, the cliched comparison is rather tired.  And what are we to make of the four veiled women, the casual passersby drawn from contemporary Budapest, and the winter-uniformed troops?  Are we to believe that all religions are the same?  Do the passersby suggest the indifference of modern urbanites to the injustices of their surroundings?  Are the troops the guard of the opera’s prison or some larger force that keeps us all in line?  While the basic set – three levels of walkways built with concrete blocks, allows all of these affectations to unfold at once, — the production is far too busy to answer these questions.

The distractions emerged in greater relief as the musical performance unfolded.  Tunde Szaboki’s Leonore presented clear tones, but the production’s demand that she remain on stage for virtually the whole performance clearly diminished what she could do.  Andras Molnar’s sweet-hued dramatic tenor is well suited to Florestan and Wagner roles.  But again, the surroundings took away from what could have been a more rousing performance.  Istvan Berczelly’s aged voice made a poor impression in the role of Don Pizarro.  Eszter Wierdl, on the other hand, seemed too young for even the immature character of Marzelline.  Geza Gabor’s Rocco truly sounded the part, but the opera can hardly rise and fall on its abused jailer.  Janos Kovacs led this unexciting performance.