Opera Critic

Despite its theme of supercilious youth and squandered love, Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin occupies as conventional a place in Russia’s literary canon as Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera does in its musical landscape.  Livening up the operatic adaptation is a difficult task, one that too often overwhelms those who attempt it.  The Vienna State Opera’s current production, by Katrin Hoffmann, falls into this category.  Here the action is improbably updated to the lighter side of the 1950s, a cultural milieu that can only with much imagination accommodate an army of happy serfs, chaste confessions of love, and duels to the death to defend one’s honor.  But here we have it, complete with housewifey period costumes and early rock-n-roll dances not uncredibly choreographed to the composer’s waltz, cotillion, and (abbreviated) écossaise.  Only the famous polonaise, which has no satisfactory staging in any currently running production of which I am aware (at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater – hearth of Russian opera – it is disappointingly played before a closed curtain), escapes the cliché, only to appear as a kind of somber march followed by the black-tied aristocratic guests of Act III’s ball.  Some touches are overdone.  Acts I and II are set against a constant snowstorm that distracts from the action.  Russia is cold, and so is the young Onegin’s heart, but did my lovely guest for the evening need to risk a motion-induced headache to grasp that?  The Larin home (or at least Tatiana’s bedroom) is encased in bluish blocks of ice.  Her birthday party – a surprisingly bawdy one for a teenaged daughter of the nobility, however provincial – is focused on what would today (not in the 1950s, for they did not exist then) be called an ice bar.  Placing the production’s only intermission after Act II imposed an interminable sit and left the drama unbalanced.

The production’s incongruities wore off on the cast.  Dmitrii Hvorostovsky and Olga Guryakova went through the motions as Onegin and Tatiana in the first two acts.  Guryakova performs this most Russian of soprano roles widely, but I have never appreciated her voice’s throaty quality, which deprives the character of her wistful youth and leaves us with an unenchanting nerd.  Hvorostovsky sang respectably, though with a curious lack of power in the first part of the evening.  It was only in the final scene, when Onegin recognizes his love for Tatiana just to have her spurn him, that they radiated real passion.  Indeed, this might have been the most dramatically moving performance of the scene I have ever witnessed.  It is too bad the principals did not electrify us with that chemistry before then, for the performance would have benefited immensely.  Pavol Breslik’s weak Lensky failed to inspire much sympathy, though he gave a reasonable account of his pre-death aria “Kuda, kuda, vy udalilis’?”  But I still repaired to my nearby hotel suite during the only intermission thinking the character’s death was pretty much his own fault for whining so much around the more stolid Hvorostovsky’s title character.

A performance of Eugene Onegin can hardly be called a success when the greatest applause goes to the bass who performs for about seven minutes as Tatiana’s husband, the aged Prince Gremin.  Yet it was the talented Ferruccio Furlanetto whose expansive charcoal voice received the evening’s greatest recognition.  His Russian was imperfect, but his stentorian delivery of the Act III set piece aria “Liubvi vse vozrosti pokorni” stood as the most impressive vocal highlight.  Kirill Petrenko’s uneven conducting tended to be sluggish in moments of high drama and too fast in the dances and dialogues.  Over post-performance Wienerschnitzel and Fassbier, I found myself wanting to hear German music at the stately Staatsoper.

It is unusual to hear an Italian opera with recitatives in Hungarian (no subtitles in any language for the recitatives), but an even odder intrepidity in theatergoing presents itself when a principal is injured too soon before the performance to be replaced by something other than a stand in who acts and mouths the lines while the injured singer performs from the orchestra pit.  Nevertheless, the Hungarian State Opera’s staging of Handel’s Xerxes, which dates from 2008, joined the international roster of efforts to restore the eighteenth-century composer to the repertoire.

Xerxes is a typically Handelian work in that it reduces a towering historical figure – in this case the famous Persian king who tried to conquer Ancient Greece – to a melodramatic figure whose love problems are magnified or at least made more identifiable by his greatness in the broader historical context.  The opera is unusual in its relative brevity and inclusion of a comic element, personified by the factotum and go-between Elviro.  Although these qualities doomed it to relative failure in Handel’s own milieu, it is exactly the type of story that succeeds in our contemporary culture, besieged as it is by romantic comedies.  To make a complicated plot simple, or attempting to do so, Xerxes pursues his vassal’s daughter, Romilda, who is loved by his brother, Arsamene.  Arsamene is in turn loved by Romilda’s sister, Atalanta.  The king’s ex-fiancée Amastre, who still loves Xerxes, disguises herself as a man to manipulate the characters to get what she wants.  Through a comedy of errors, she is able to win back a repentant Xerxes, while Romilda and Arsamene are happily united and Atalanta, who had attempted some manipulation of her own, goes off to find someone else.

The State Opera’s artistic director Balazs Kovalik delivered a production set in a caricature of modern Iran.  Most of the action centers around a functional but ugly apartment building of the type familiar to anyone who has visited the Middle East.  In homage to the Islamic Republic’s recent history, the building is covered by the image of a multi-story Shah-like figure, complete with sunglasses that recall Qadafi.  The characters sport casual but high-style outfits, sometimes with a military dimension.  Vehicles are important, and we have progressively more sophisticated ones transporting the cast around, from a sports car in the opening scene (it knocks down the plane tree Xerxes is meant to contemplate) to a World War I-era airplane from which Xerxes drops bombs on conspirators, to a modern warship whose bow enters the stage only to invite its casually comedic sinking.  The production breaks the fourth wall from the first moments of the overture, during which conductor Peter Oberfrank enters from the audience and hops over the divider to take the podium.  Later in the work characters enter the stalls to confide the feelings of their arias to amused spectators.

Hungary has a reserve of well-trained singers who are highly skilled in both the opera seria repertoire and ensemble singing.  Andrea Melath, a talented mezzo-soprano who sings predominantly in Budapest, approached the title role with verve and talent.  “Ombra mai fu,” the opera’s first and most famous aria, resonated with plaintive charm.  Gabriella Fodor’s fine soprano endearingly engaged the part of Romilda.  Countertenor Peter Barany’s Arsamene proved that the singer has a great future if he is judicious enough to keep his tones balanced.  Bernadett Wiedemann’s Amastre stole the show, by turns outraged and enamored.  Beatrix Fodor’s injury kept the voice of Atalanta in the orchestra pit, but her voice pleasantly filled the part to Zsuzsanna Bazsinka’s acting.  Andras Habetler’s Elviro talented bass was a bit too buffoonish, but this was probably more the fault of the production, which at one point had him swallowed by shark, from which he later escaped with the help of a diving mask and snorkel.  I could only think of the famous “land shark” skit from Saturday Night Live when it was fresh and young.  Oberfrank’s conducting was serviceable with a much reduced orchestra.

An unseasonably cold and rainy spring has put no damper on musical festivities in Central Europe.  As Budapest prepares for a lavish summer opera festival (a full Ring of the Nibelung and two performances of Tristan and Isolde, all featuring internationally acclaimed soloists, will accompany standard repertory revivals in June), audiences can whet their appetites with this production of Mozart’s last opera.  A definitive if long neglected specimen of the opera seria genre, La Clemenza di Tito resonates with meaning in what was once the Habsburg Empire’s second capital.  Mozart composed the opera to a modified version of a libretto by the great Metastasio, a work adapted from elements of Suetonius’s account of the life of the Roman Emperor Titus and previously set to music by nearly 40 lesser composers.  The purpose of Mozart’s opera was to fill a last minute commission to provide the Habsburgs’ Bohemian crown lands with an artistic contribution to celebrate the coronation of the briefly reigned Emperor Leopold II (1790-1792), a younger son the great Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa and brother of both his predecessor, Mozart’s patron Joseph II, and the doomed Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.  The formulaic plot is one of standard opera seria intrigue, but one that highlights the virtues of mercy and self-sacrifice in imperial rule.  Tito spurns his beloved Berenice, an Eastern princess, because he does not wish to force a foreign empress on an unwilling Rome.  Vitellia, who loves Tito but has grown jealous of Berenice, uses her wiles to persuade her smitten inamorato Sesto, Tito’s best friend, to join a conspiracy to kill the emperor.  Despite some fleeting hope after Berenice’s departure, it becomes clear that Tito is now in love with Sesto’s sister Servilia, enraging Vitellia even more.  When Tito learns that Servilia loves his friend Annio, he magnanimously agrees to renounce his interest in Servilia and marry the vindictive Vitellia instead.  Word comes to her too slowly to stop the plot, however, and it turns into a full on rebellion in which Sesto mistakenly believes he has killed Tito.  The rebellion suppressed, Sesto is arrested and brought before the imperial court in expectation of a death sentence.  When all is finally revealed, Tito pardons the conspirators, promises to take the penitent Vitellia for his wife, mourns the burden of power, and calls upon the eternal gods to strike him down if he does not always have the good of Rome at heart.
The opera has enjoyed renewed popularity over the last couple of decades for its artistic achievements.  Mozart’s technique was arguably at its harmonic best if not its most stirring, and more thought clearly went into the opera’s intricate arias and ensembles than the eighteen days his first major biographer attributed to it.  The cadenzas prefigure the bel canto singing that would blossom fully a generation later.  The Hungarian State Opera chose to present the work with significant recitative cuts that eliminated much good dialogue and replaced it with Hungarian-language summaries delivered by an actor.  But the production retained all of the musical highlights and left the audience facing a shorter evening than usual.  Tünde Szaboki’s Vitellia stood out among the soloists with a charming full sound that only occasionally sang under the part’s higher notes.  “Non piu di fiori” in Act II resounded with virtuoso talent.  Eszter Wierdl’s Servilia left less of an impression but still served the ensemble pieces well.  La Clemenza di Tito depends on strong mezzos to carry off the trouser parts of Sesto and Annio, and Andrea Melath and Eva Varhelyi strengthened the cast in the respective roles.  Melath’s first act “Parto, parto” betrayed a rather weak effort, but she also came alive in the ensemble singing and in Sesto’s second act aria, “Deh per questo instante.”  American tenor Timothy Bentch, who has a separate career as an evangelical pastor, is not blessed with the strongest of voices, but did radiate an appealing lyrical quality that came alive in “Se all’Impero” and in the final scene.  Adam Fischer led a competent effort from an unusually small orchestra, which was accompanied by a harpsichord that looked as though it dated from Mozart’s times.

An unseasonably cold and rainy spring has put no damper on musical festivities in Central Europe.  As Budapest prepares for a lavish summer opera festival (a full Ring of the Nibelung and two performances of Tristan and Isolde, all featuring internationally acclaimed soloists, will accompany standard repertory revivals in June), audiences can whet their appetites with this production of Mozart’s last opera.  A definitive if long neglected specimen of the opera seria genre, La Clemenza di Tito resonates with meaning in what was once the Habsburg Empire’s second capital.  Mozart composed the opera to a modified version of a libretto by the great Metastasio, a work adapted from elements of Suetonius’s account of the life of the Roman Emperor Titus and previously set to music by nearly 40 lesser composers.  The purpose of Mozart’s opera was to fill a last minute commission to provide the Habsburgs’ Bohemian crown lands with an artistic contribution to celebrate the coronation of the briefly reigned Emperor Leopold II (1790-1792), a younger son the great Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa and brother of both his predecessor, Mozart’s patron Joseph II, and the doomed Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.  The formulaic plot is one of standard opera seria intrigue, but one that highlights the virtues of mercy and self-sacrifice in imperial rule.  Tito spurns his beloved Berenice, an Eastern princess, because he does not wish to force a foreign empress on an unwilling Rome.  Vitellia, who loves Tito but has grown jealous of Berenice, uses her wiles to persuade her smitten inamorato Sesto, Tito’s best friend, to join a conspiracy to kill the emperor.  Despite some fleeting hope after Berenice’s departure, it becomes clear that Tito is now in love with Sesto’s sister Servilia, enraging Vitellia even more.  When Tito learns that Servilia loves his friend Annio, he magnanimously agrees to renounce his interest in Servilia and marry the vindictive Vitellia instead.  Word comes to her too slowly to stop the plot, however, and it turns into a full on rebellion in which Sesto mistakenly believes he has killed Tito.  The rebellion suppressed, Sesto is arrested and brought before the imperial court in expectation of a death sentence.  When all is finally revealed, Tito pardons the conspirators, promises to take the penitent Vitellia for his wife, mourns the burden of power, and calls upon the eternal gods to strike him down if he does not always have the good of Rome at heart.
            The opera has enjoyed renewed popularity over the last couple of decades for its artistic achievements.  Mozart’s technique was arguably at its harmonic best if not its most stirring, and more thought clearly went into the opera’s intricate arias and ensembles than the eighteen days his first major biographer attributed to it.  The cadenzas prefigure the bel canto singing that would blossom fully a generation later.  The Hungarian State Opera chose to present the work with significant recitative cuts that eliminated much good dialogue and replaced it with Hungarian-language summaries delivered by an actor.  But the production retained all of the musical highlights and left the audience facing a shorter evening than usual.  Tünde Szaboki’s Vitellia stood out among the soloists with a charming full sound that only occasionally sang under the part’s higher notes.  “Non piu di fiori” in Act II resounded with virtuoso talent.  Eszter Wierdl’s Servilia left less of an impression but still served the ensemble pieces well.  La Clemenza di Tito depends on strong mezzos to carry off the trouser parts of Sesto and Annio, and Andrea Melath and Eva Varhelyi strengthened the cast in the respective roles.  Melath’s first act “Parto, parto” betrayed a rather weak effort, but she also came alive in the ensemble singing and in Sesto’s second act aria, “Deh per questo instante.”  American tenor Timothy Bentch, who has a separate career as an evangelical pastor, is not blessed with the strongest of voices, but did radiate an appealing lyrical quality that came alive in “Se all’Impero” and in the final scene.  Adam Fischer led a competent effort from an unusually small orchestra, which was accompanied by a harpsichord that looked as though it dated from Mozart’s times.

After a ten-year absence, New York can once again hear Wagner’s first mature work.  August Everding’s 1989 production, set in a late nineteenth-century industrial idiom, now appears rather tired and scaled down, at least compared to my last viewing in, it pains me to say, 1994.  As a consequence of what appears to be Met fiscal cutbacks, the chorus and supernumerary casts have been reduced.  The blizzard that masked the stage after Senta’s death plunge is now a mere flurry falling on hapless Norwegian bystanders.  The transcendent postlude is illustrated only with streaks of sunlight and no longer includes the ascending illuminated souls of the two tragic leads.  The transparency of the Dutchman’s ship – represented by a massive hull — is used less, dampening the vital impact of the otherwordly.

Much of the evening’s singing matched the revival’s disappointing visual effects, a special let down in a house whose audience has in living memory heard Hans Hotter, George London, James Morris, Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Leonie Rysanek, Hildegard Behrens, and other greats in the opera’s leading roles.  Deborah Voigt is the Met’s voice of the current era in Wagner’s dramatic soprano repertoire, having appeared to some acclaim as Sieglinde, Elsa, Elisabeth, and Isolde, and next season scheduled to sing her first Brünnhildes.  Her Senta was a pale effort.  The voice is more suited to Richard Strauss – Ariadne was Voigt’s “big break” in the 1990s, she sang the title role in The Egyptian Helen to perfection a few years back, and her Chrysothemis in Elektra earlier this season proved a considerable success.  But in this latest Wagner role, she suffered from a noticeable lack of energy.  Although she warmed over the course of the evening and delivered her final self-sacrificial lines credibly enough, subdued vocalism and stale dramatic delivery eviscerated the second act’s ballad, the scene with Erik, and the duet with the title character.  The top notes presented a major challenge Voigt never really overcame, and her German diction sounded surprisingly weak.  Her stage presence as Erik recounts his fatally accurate dream moved in what seemed to be an unintentionally comic direction and provoked audience giggles that I have never heard at any performance of the opera.

Paired with Voigt in the title role was the Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo, whose Jochanaan in Salome last season raised expectations.  The voice, however, might also be better deployed in Strauss roles.  His Dutchman, which he sings internationally, suffered from a dry legato that gave the impression of an aged singer holding back.  Petulance rather than gravitas dominated his dramatic delivery – the character’s massive if misguided sense of betrayal in Act III registered more as a mild annoyance than the life- and love-renouncing trauma it really is.

The supporting cast contributed some bright spots.  Tenor Stephen Gould, making his Met debut in the run’s first performance, lived up to his well founded European reputation in Wagner.  The voice is not quite up to the Heldentenor capacity required for Siegfried or Tristan, but the lighter and more lyric Wagner tenor roles suit him well.  Projecting a robust sound and credible pathos drew more attention than usual to Erik’s music, and with only a few exceptions he managed the entire register with aplomb.  Hans-Peter König’s sturdy bass deserves to be known better everywhere. He delivered Daland with attractive force and stentorian verve.  Perennial Met mezzo comprimario Wendy White contributed solid characterization to the small but important role of Mary, Senta’s governess.  I never cared for the superfluous role of the Steersman, but the young tenor Russell Thomas sang it with merit.

Kazushi Ono has had some success with Wagner in second-tier European houses, even conducting a complete Ring in Karlsruhe.  His treatment of the score was better designed for them than for the cavernous Met.  The orchestra is well trained in Wagner, but under his direction it glossed over too many meaningful phrases and played with a pedestrian blandness that failed to capture much of the passion.