Opera Critic

This season’s revival of Puccini’s tale of love and loss opened with a bang in October, with the debut of the young Italian tenor sensation Vittorio Grigolo.  He has not remained in the cast as the year approaches its end, but Franco Zeffirelli’s warhorse production – one of the few left in the Met’s repertoire (his La Traviata will be replaced on New Year’s Eve) soldiers on without him.  Now nearly 30 years old, this classic and conventional Boheme is not without it signs of wear and tear.  It could be freshened up, but its grand Act II sets and imaginative other scenes still have the power to enchant.

The talented Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja admirably replaced Grigolo as Rodolfo.  Blessed with radiant top notes and an excellent line throughout the register, he exhibited some of his best singing to date.  A skilled dramatic actor, Calleja brought an uncommon pathos and tender vulnerability to the role, reminding us of the travails of youth.  Krassimira Stoyanova got off to a slow start as Mimi but by the demanding third act she had returned to her radiant self, singing with a powerful clarity.  In his debut season the fine baritone Fabio Capitanucci mastered Marcello’s music, by turns sensitive and gruff.  Ellie Dehn showed less promise as Musetta, but fortunately her best singing happened to be in the character’s seductive Act II waltz.  Gunther Groissbock and Dimitris Tiliakos both make their Met debuts in this revival, as Schaunard and Colline, respectively.  Groissbock’s delivery of Colline’s sad Act IV “Vecchia zimarra,” an apostrophe to the coat he must sell to buy medicine for the dying Mimi portends a noteworthy career.  Met veteran Paul Plishka returned in his signature pairing of roles as Benoit and Alcindoro.  Roberto Rizzi Brignoli also debuts with the opera this season.  While his effort was respectable, the tempi were a bit too slow to convey the drama in the most effective way.

A good author gives us both sides of ourselves; a great author puts them in tension with each other, as Mozart and Schikaneder did in the Magic Flute by giving us Tamino and Papageno, and Pamina and Papagena, just as they already live in tension within ourselves. If the academic and intellectual puzzles over which part the author or the artist meant (as did the great Egyptologist Jan Assman in his recent book, Die Zauberflöte), he provides a small number of us who read him with the opportunity to extenuate the problem. On the one hand he consoles us by telling us the tension we already felt in ourselves is true and legitimate, but on the other he lies by making this a literary conundrum reveal some great author’s intentions when in fact it is nothing more than a conundrum that Tom, Dick, Harry, and I, face in our lives every day and even every moment.  To put it in suitably gross terms, at home we are Papageno but at work we are Tamino.

Tonight in Berlin, the 199th performance took place of the version of the Magic Flute that premiered here in 1994. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, mostly, and so has the venue.  The usual house Unter den Linden is closed for repairs that will take three years, and the Staatsoper has moved to the Schiller Theater on Bismarckstrasse, just a few blocks from the Deutsche Oper. While they are there it will repay the visitor to go to the second floor lounge during intermission and study the concave inside of the etched glass window work, cubist in style, whose outside is the primary architectural feature of the house, easily viewed on the web. Adam and Eve are featured in the middle of 34 vertical panes.

The house has a very unusual feature that has been lavishly exploited by the current production of the Magic Flute, and probably by other productions that have been brought here.  The stage can extend around the orchestra’s sides to a concourse along its front, separating the orchestra from the first row.  The singers can walk a complete circuit around the orchestra and, when they do they give the audience an opportunity to be disarmingly close to them while they are singing at full volume. I will need to ask my psychotherapist why tears came to my eyes when Papageno and Papagena sang their duet so close to me, sitting in the third row center, and why during her bravura aria in Act Two the Queen of the Night stopped at the same place and seemed to be singing with flawless virtuosity to me alone.

This old and traditional production does not need a new description.  The sets are reproductions of the old Schinkel decorations from 1816, and nobody cares if the soloists’ shadows are cast on the backdrop as they used to be in the time of limelight. But again the special flooring and doorways of the Schiller Theater have been provided for refreshing special effects that break down the barrier between the audience and the stage. In his first appearance Sarastro is located in the audience, singing from the boxes on the left; Papageno once emerges from the orchestra; and there are side doors on the concourse around the orchestra that provide for exits and entrances outside the actual plot while it is being played out a little further back on stage.

I learned tonight what Tamino needs to be because Martin Hormich failed to achieve it. He must be inherently attractive so as to make the Queen’s ladies fight over him, capable of guessing the truth better than Papageno, capable of a conversion when he finds he was right, and manly enough now to live up to his new high calling; but Hormich unfortunately, tonight at least, seemed to have only one voice and one emotional message: sing hard. I think everybody in the house was relieved for the few moments while Tamino was passing the test of silence! Pamina (Adriana Queiroz) on the other hand, was supple, emotionally satisfying, and very much in tune.

Papageno was one of the favorites, as Loge tends to be in Rheingold, because of his refreshing frankness.  But Hanno Muller-Brachmann who sang the role has a very great voice and moves very well. For me a highlight was the choreography (by Roland Gawlik) of the Three Ladies at the very beginning, each vying to tend to Tamino while sending the others to report back to the Queen.  Theirs will never be more than a minor role but it will seldom be played more enjoyably, and competently, than here.  Another highlight was Sarastro sung by Alexander Vinogradov: his arias are the best and truest of the opera, and Vinogradov sang them that way, with all the low notes despite a sinus congestion that appeared only in his nasal syllables. The conducting of youthful Alexander Soddy and the performance of the orchestra started with some sag in the high violins but soon got completely onto the mark and up to Mozart’s thrilling pace.

It is a wonderful innovation of this production that at the end all the Papagenos and Papagenas that these two had just vowed to create in their own images, actually show up. At the end, the stage is filled with all twenty of them along with everyone else in the cast; and even the Queen of the Night helps Sarastro remove his mantle and place it onto the shoulders of the newly betrothed royal pair, Tamino and Pamina.

The Realm of Night and the Realm of Day are again reconciled, and the Pagageni will continue to have their lives and live them without knowing any better. It is a reconciliation achieved by heroism in the case of Tamino, and divine mercy in the case of Papageno, the two paths that all of us find ourselves moving along, all the time of this life. – Ken Quandt

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.