Opera Critic

Bartlett Sher’s approach to Offenbach’s greatest work and swan song (it premiered after his death) replaced yet another Zeffirelli production last season, albeit with serious casting difficulties and an essay into production values that some observers found too busy.  This season Tales of Hoffmann has returned with a more stable musical effort and streamlined approach.  The revisited production’s overall effect is quite pleasing.  Taken from the director’s fanciful study of Kafka and Fellini, this adaptation of nineteenth-century dark Romanticism to a 1920s dreariness leaves the opera’s themes of alienation, desperation, and personal growth through suffering all the more poignant.  The principals are still dressed in elusive black.  Luther’s bar appears a bit more cheerful.  Spalanzani’s workshop has become something less of a circus.  Crespel’s house is a model suggestion of bourgeois propriety.  Venice remains a place of lustful intrigue and decadent orgies, but perhaps not on the same scale.

The production’s premiere last season was to feature superstar tenor Rolando Villazon in the title role, but alas vocal difficulties sent him into eclipse.  In Giuseppe Filianoti, however, the Met has found a more than credible replacement.  Bringing a sunny Italiante tone to the role of the doomed lover, Filianoti sang with agility in the solo parts as well as the opera’s challenging ensembles.  He remained sympathetic throughout the afternoon.  His four nemeses – one in each of the failed love affairs – were ably sung by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, a singer of stentorian power who held his own throughout the performance.  It was a misfortune that the masculine talent had no consistent analogue in the roles of Hoffmann’s loves.  Only Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc’s Olympia came close to their quality of singing.  Possessing a gorgeous coloratura sound, she made the first act the most enjoyable by far.  Hibla Gerzmava’s Antonia flagged disappointingly from the very beginning in “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” and left a pallid impression following on Anna Netrebko’s performance of the part last season.  Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa’s Giuletta did not wholly lack grace but sounded too throaty to make the Venice scene work.  Kate Lindsey, the only principal held over from last season, repeated her musically and dramatically solid delivery of Nicklausse, Hoffman’s muse.  Joel Sorenson sang the servant roles with comic relief.  Dean Peterson made a strong impression as Luther and Crespel.  Wendy White, a Met comprimario stalwart, sang Antonia’s mother but showed signs of age and diminished voice.  In Patrick Fournillier, who made his debut with this revival, the Met has found a conductor capable of eliciting Latinate charm for the French repertoire.

One would never have imagined Otto Schenk’s storybook production of this middle Verdi masterpiece – now more than 20 years old — to command the fresh critical comment it has received since its reintroduction in the first week of the new season.  But the replacement of the producer’s monumental Ring Cycle with the beginning of Robert Lepage’s dismal effort has led many spectators to reflect on the endurance of Schenk’s conventionality.  In every way it remains a pleasing backdrop for this morality tale warning against the evil that can come of seeking revenge.

The Met did not display the soaring vocal heights of its roster to fill the cast, but the effort was fine enough.  Georgian baritone George Gagnidze dominated the performance with an authoritative interpretation of the title role.  His fine dramatic skill and burly physique captured the pathos of the alienated hunchback and outraged father, while his excellent line delivered the music of this quintessential Verdi baritone role with passion and verve.  The only unfortunate moment came in the second act’s exciting finale, when some poor coordination with the conductor led him to fumble the phrasing and miss the drawn out “sapra” we really want to hear.  Otherwise it was a commanding performance that only showed signs of slackening in the final scene.  Christine Schaefer sang Gilda a bit too quietly, suggesting, as she has in other roles, that her voice might be too small for the Met.  But delicate phrasing in the set piece aria “Caro nome” and her duets with Rigoletto and the Duke betrayed fine technique that allowed for a commendable performance.  Tenor Francesco Meli’s talents fell mainly in the ensembles, but disappointingly so considering how important the Duke’s arias are to the work, and to a tenor making his house debut in the role.  Murmurs of audience recognition at the first orchestral notes of the famous “La donna e mobile” suggested expectations of great singing.  Meli, however, simply did not have the high notes or necessary legato there or in “Parmi veder le lagrime” to reach the role’s proper stature.  Indeed, the vocal weaknesses nearly made the character seem introverted.  Nino Surguladze’s Maddalena (her debut role) had to draw some verve out of him with a suggestive yank across a table in Sparafucile’s inn.  Her mezzo and bass Andrea Silvestrelli’s stentorian (if a bit rough) Sparafucile shored up the lesser roles.  Keith Miller’s Monterone, another outraged father who drives the plot by cursing Rigoletto, stood out among the comprimario cast.  Debutant conductor Paolo Arrivabeni’s fortuitous name heralded an excellent orchestral reading, though at times he seemed to lose touch with the singers on stage.

Washington’s truncated season continues this fall with a new production of Richard Strauss’s one-act shocker.  Staged by Francesca Zambello, whose Ring Cycle effort here was cut short by budgetary problems, the staging features the famous soprano Deborah Voigt in her company debut in the title role.  Zambello stuck close to Biblical idiom for the production, giving us a very literal depiction of Herod’s court that vaguely evokes the Hollywood genre pictures of two generations ago without missing the work’s important color metaphors (white, red, and purple, all of which suggest death and decay).  Her major innovation is to place a kind of translucent shower curtain across the stage to separate the scene of action from the off stage banquet.  The idea is to show that all the characters are under observation and that larger constraints (society? public opinion? morality?) shape, direct, and condemn actions and choices.

This is a heavy interpretation of a work mainly about the relationship between power and death.  While not the poorest or most tasteless interpretation of Salome out there, it does not exactly ring true on stage.  Unusual twists water down the themes somewhat further.  Jokanaan spends much of his time on stage looking conflicted between his horror of Salome, well established in the music and libretto, and an erotic fascination with the temptress that Zambello seems to imagine in him.  Augmenting the Dance of the Seven Veils with four dancers all more talented than Voigt, whose nudity is, for the better, suggested at the end subtracts from the piece’s seductive effect.

Nevertheless, the cast soldiered along under the firm baton of Washington National’s new music director Philippe Auguin.  He led an energetic performance that recalled how well the orchestra can play when in the proper hands.  Voigt’s soprano has not always lived up to its reputation for size or beauty, but in the Strauss repertoire she can be called credible at least.  Her Salome was vivid and strong, benefiting from fine supports and an impressive dramatic interpretation.  Daniel Sumegi sounded rougher and more forced as Iokanaan but still captured the Prophet’s passions and conviction.  Richard Berkeley-Steele’s fading dramatic tenor was easily adapted to Herod, whom he sang convincingly in his Washington debut.  He was well matched by debuting German mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel’s Herodias, who held the necessary dramatic edge over him throughout the evening.  Sean Panikkar stood out among the talented supporting cast in the role of Narraboth, a part that can leave a strong impression when performed by a fine tenor.

The nation’s official opera company has opened its new season under a cloud.  Budget problems have reduced 2010-2011’s offerings to just five productions, down from the usual seven or eight, leaving Washingtonians with the smallest repertoire in nearly two decades.  After announcing staff cuts in the recent past, the company has confirmed rumors that artistic director Placido Domingo, who has led Washington National since 1996, will step down at the end of the current season.  Negotiations are reportedly underway to merge the beleaguered opera with the management of its only venue, the Kennedy  Center for the Performing Arts.

Starting the ill starred season with James Robinson’s production of Verdi’s tale of illicit love and anti-monarchical conspiracy does little to alleviate the sense of woe.  Robinson’s effort last season with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was a happy enough jaunt into the world of stagecraft, but his Ballo leaves much to be desired.  Adopting the opera’s proper Swedish setting, Allen Moyer’s sets are dominated by a Nordic bleakness.  Gustavo’s first act throne room resembles a Quaker meeting house with undecorated walls and two rows of plain chairs.  The second act, set by the gallows outside Stockholm in the original stage directions, is here an inexplicably disused hall with no walls and scattered broken chandeliers.  Only the Ulrica scene seemed to match something one would recognize, but why spoil the effort by having her throat slashed at the end of her all too accurate predictions and Gustavo’s enlightened (the historic Gustav III had pretensions to the “enlightened” part of “enlightened despotism”) pardon of her?  James Shuette’s costumes, at least, seemed right.

Tenor Salvatore Licitra may be the closest thing we have to an Italian superstar, and his casting as Gustavo was entirely right.  His small stature was not helped by the scale of the production, but his vocal tones were clarion and he delivered the doomed king’s music with a beauty rarely heard even in middle Verdi pieces today.  Sadly his performance was diminished by his fellow principles.  The young soprano Tamara Wilson shows some promise, but lacked the pyrotechnics for a successful Amelia.  The revelation scene in Act II was downright boring.  I wondered why anyone would take any sort of risk for her charms, let alone the fatal one Gustavo takes in seducing (at least with words) his best friend’s wife.  Luca Salsi’s Renato fell flat.  His singing lacked the passion one would expect from a cuckolded husband bent on murderous revenge.  His dramatic interpretation was stiff.  Elena Manistina’s Ulrica added a fine mezzo to the cast, but alas the character’s appearance in Act I was too short to save a lackluster performance.  Basses Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins were menacing conspirators.  Daniele Callegari is new to Washington’s podium but led an undistinguished orchestral effort.