Opera Critic

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.

As New York’s second opera company, City Opera has evolved as a venue for experimental and less frequently performed works.  In no repertoire is this more apparent than Handel, where daring productions of the composer’s operas face no serious competition from any other American company (apart for Julius Caesar and the recent Rodelinda, the Met barely touches it).  In recent seasons the newly named David Koch Theater has witnessed Ariodante, Xerxes, Rinaldo, Orlando, Alcina, Acis and Galatea, Semele, and Agrippina, in addition to Partenope, which dates from 1998.

Francisco Negrin’s effort is a light take but suitable for an opera that combines a comedic plot with instances of real drama.  John Conklin’s airy, pastel sets evoke the Italian south of one’s imagination, with pale blues and greens suggesting the warmth of sky and sea.  Paul Steinberg’s bright costumes place us there in an outré modern milieu that might well be the province of the royalty and nobility who populate the cast.

The plot of Partenope demands a steady stream of male voices.  The title character, the Queen of Naples, has three suitors – the Greek princes Arsace and Armindo in residence and a would-be foreign conqueror Emilio, the ruler of the barbarian Cumans.  Arsace is pursued by a jilted lover, Rosmira, who arrives to reconquer him in a male guise only he can see through.  Seeking his heart through Partenope’s offices, Rosmira contrives to force him into a duel, which Arsace unmasks by demanding, as the right of the challenged, that the combatants fight stripped to the waist.  Partenope succumbs to her original instinct to fall for Armindo, Rosmira and Arsace are more or less happily reunited, and Emilio, though undefeated in battle, learns humility and accepts Partenope’s friendship rather than her love.

The opera draws great interest as a period piece.  After a rather dull first act, the second and third parts blossom into a cornucopia of well designed arias that require a virtuosity characteristic of Handel’s better works.  The heavily male cast is well served in City Opera’s revival.  We live in a veritable age of countertenors, and both the young (27) Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Armindo and Iestyn Davies’s Arsace were models of the genre with their crystal clear diction and a purity of sound that the vocal type uniquely demands.  Tenor Nicholas Coppolo carried off the role of Emilio with real feeling, and City Opera veteran Daniel Mobbs sang well as Partenope’s tutor Ormonte, the opera’s lowest part.  Cyndia Sieden did rather less well in the title role, sounding consistently underpowered.  Stephanie Houtzeel matched her colleagues as Rosmira, combining dramatic talent with fine mezzo singing that has filled the proverbial trousers of Richard Strauss’s Octavian and Composer in major houses.  Christian Curnyn’s conducting followed the intricacies of Handel’s score with remarkable feeling.