Opera Critic

Hungary’s principal operatic stage surged into summer with this revival of Puccini’s heart string-pulling third opera.  Manon Lescaut is a weaker retelling of the Abbé Prévost’s novel than Massenet’s Manon, but its emotive power, particularly in the final scene, which is improbably set in the “desert outside New Orleans,” has long thrilled audiences around the world.  Peter Vallo’s production updates the action from the original Old Regime setting to the mid-nineteenth century, but the bourgeois settings enhance rather than diminish the effect.

A last minute cancellation had the happy result of placing the talented soprano Eszter Sumegi in the title role.  Her skilled middle register suited the part ideally, accompanied as it was by fine technique and superb support for her ascents.  Only toward the end of the evening, in “Sola, perduta, abbandonnata,” did Sumegi suffered from a slight throatiness that impaired her high register singing.  Her leading man, Gaston Rivero, sang with authority, especially in the first act aria “Donna non vidi mai.”  He was less convincing dramatically than vocally and did not exactly embody the persuasive machismo of a man with whom a woman would run off.  Peter Kiss serviceably sang the role of Lescaut.  Tamas Szule’s Geronte was covetous rather than cynical, though his expressive singing made the lust come through.  Zsolt Hamar led a respectable performance from the podium.

David McVicar’s gray production of this iconic Verdi work – often called the last bel canto opera because of the eras and styles it bridges – has returned this season.  I was not a fan of the effort when it premiered two seasons ago or when it migrated to San Francisco the season after that.  But it has grown and become more effective.  Although I could not put my finger on one precise factor, it seemed that the energy levels were up in a way that reminded one of the addage that any party ultimately succeeds because of its guests.  The sets also seemed brighter, livelier, and more agile than in the past, when they recalled the battleship backdrop in the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera.

The current revival, which has been a surprise sell out despite the competition of the Met’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, is populated by some of the best Verdian singers today, the proverbial party guests.  Marcelo Alvarez acquitted himself beautifully in the title role.  What a surprise it was that he withdrew due to illness after the first part, but in the person of his understudy Arnold Rawls what a revelation replaced him!  Called in at the last minute and hastily fitted into Manrico’s costume for the second part, Rawls delivered a stunningly phrased performance that drew heavier applause than one normally hears in such a situation.  Sondra Radvanovsky lent ler limpid lyrico-spinto soprano to the performance with great verve.  The voice at times approached a metalic quality that has not really colored it before, but on the whole she resonated through the Met’s enormous hall with appealing strength.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Simon Boccanegra delighted Met audiences earlier this year.  His di Luna was even more impressive.  The gorgeous line that this distinguished singer brings to his parts and his mastery of the Verdi baritone’s difficult tessitura were purely evident.  His dramatic talents lent the character a violent edge, which underscored the deep passions whirling in this plot of murder, revenge, and lust.  Stefan Kocan stood out among the supporting cast with his well crafted bass, an asset that has already taken him to leading roles.

“An opera,” says one of the characters in Richard Strauss’s last effort in the genre – his so-called “conversation piece in one act – “is an absurd thing.”  At the heart of Capriccio is an impassioned but exquisitely polite debate over what matters most in opera – the music or the words.  At stake is the favor of Countess Madeleine, a dilettante dwelling in a country villa outside Paris who balances the musician Flamand against the poet Olivier as they create an opera for her amusement.  The artist who makes the better case for his medium will triumph in love as well as in art.  After more than two hours of rumination, intrusion, and glorious singing and versification, Madeleine decides that there is no answer to the dilemma that could not be trivial.  That Strauss and his librettist – the famed conductor Clemens Krauss — could ask such a question as German armies ground their way to defeat at Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942 alone speaks to the power of art.

The Met’s Capriccio first appeared in the 1998-1999 season as a vehicle for the leading soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who was well known for her interpretation of Countess Madeleine’s dominant role.  This rival, the only one since the premiere, is also a vehicle – for the star soprano Renee Fleming.  Some critics charge that the voice has lost its luster, particularly in lighter and bel canto parts if the mixed reviews of her performances in this and last season’s Armida are any guide.  But the Strauss repertoire remains her ravishing own.  Indeed, as the years pass, I only find her more and more at home in Strauss heroine roles and similar parts, such as her triumphant Thais in Massenet’s opera of the same name.  The vocal line is articulated with great care and nuance, while the dramatic personae she delivers are truly aristocratic creations.  Countess Madeleine demands no less.  The finale, a monologue in which she ruminates on the question of which art form matters more, flowed with iconic charm.  Fleming maintained her hauteur throughout, only playfully letting her guard down during the famous Moonlight Music, when Madeleine basks in the romantic situation she masters, clad in a gorgeous silvery gown while twirling a long-stemmed rose.  The cloying artists can only pale before such a woman, but Joseph Kaiser’s Flamand and Russell Braun’s Olivier captured their spirit with excellent performances.  Peter Rose sang the impresario La Roche, whose monologue about theater reminds us, if in a parodic way, of how important management is to the magic.  In his debut season and role, Morten Frank Larsen played Madeleine’s brother, identified only as the Count, as what used to be called a sportsman, a philistine whose interest in art extends only as far as the talented mezzo-soprano Sarah Conolly’s Clairon, his actress love interest.  Olga Makarina and Barry Banks were well considered additions in the short roles of the Italian singers who serenade the Countess and her party of guests.  Sir Andrew Davis may well be the best conductor of the work performing today.  He led a drawn out performance that balanced the score’s harmonies with the dissonant elements that recall the twentienth century musical milieu Strauss did so much to shape.

With such a talented orchestral reading of this complex yet sublime score, it makes sense that the John Cox’s production is updated to the 1920s – nearly the time of the opera’s composition — from the original eighteenth-century setting.  The dialogue that revolves around Lully, Rameau, and other composers whose memories were more present in the earlier era seemed a bit anachronistic in an era when Wagner was the most popular composer in France, but Mauro Pagano’s inviting sets place us well at ease in a milieu where the arts are considered both so seriously and so lightly.  Having Madeleine served a martini added the perfect touch. – Paul du Quenoy

The Chicago Symphony’s residence at Carnegie Hall this season has brought with it a riveting musical treat – a full performance of Verdi’s late tragedy taken from Shakespeare’s famous play.  The event attracted enormous attention in any case, but focus was sharpened on the direction of CSO’s music director Riccardo Muti, a stalwart Verdi conductor who has been in the news this year both for poor turns of health and a recent and very public political display about arts funding in Italy.  Muti left behind ailments and politics to deliver a stunning – even authoritative — interpretation of the opera’s sophisticated score.  It would be a worthy successor to the recorded CSO performances under Sir Georg Solti, but the quality on display at Carnegie suggests that the Solti recording was merely a predecessor.

Muti’s disciplined approach neither underserved the tender moments nor spared anything in the more riveting passages.  He knew exactly what he was doing at every moment, and the intense physicality he radiated left no one with any doubt about it.  He also assembled a stunning cast, a factor that partially derailed Solti’s earlier bet on Luciano Pavarotti’s unsuited lyric tenor.  The title role went to the noteworthy Latvian-Russian tenor Anders Antonenko.  It was announced that he was ill and begged the audience’s induglence, but the high vocal quality on display made one wonder how radiant a sound he could produce when well.  He lacked nothing all evening and colored the role’s tenore di forza demands with uncommon insight and strength.  Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova proved to New York that she remains one of the world’s most accomplished lyrico-spinto sopranos.  A pyramid of creamily phrased tonality rose above the audience with no noticeable flaw.  Her Willow Song and Ave Maria certainly ranked among the best that could be heard anywhere in the world today.  Carlo Guelfi’s Iago did not reach the same artistic heights as the other principals, but nevertheless showed improvement over the baritone’s earlier New York appearances in the role.  A rich stentorian sound complemented a truly outstanding spectacle.  Generous supporting cast decisions enriched the overall effort.  Eric Owens, fresh from his triumph as Alberich in this season’s new Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, sang an imposing Lodovico.  The talented young tenor Juan Francisco Gatell contributed a fine Cassio.  Muti last conducted Verdi operas in concert formats at Carnegie about two decades ago.  With Richard Strauss’s Salome billed for the Cleveland Orchestra’s visit in May 2012, one hopes that the other great Midwestern ensemble may keep up the tradition. – Paul du Quenoy