Saturday, December 21, 2013

Italian Drama On/Off-Stage

La Traviata
Teatro alla Scala – December 18, 2013

La Scala’s season opening production of La Traviata was dripping with drama: Diana Damrau missed her entrance in the Second Act, Piotr Bezcala declared he won’t ever sing again in Italy after the hard core loggionisti booed him, director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Daniele Gatti were booed even more for allegedly butchering Verdi’s masterpiece - and at La Scala, of all theaters!

I happened to be in Milan during the run of this production and decided I simply had to see it to have an informed opinion on such a juicy show (also, I have a soft spot for Željko Lučić). Getting tickets for La Scala is no easy business, the box office sells out almost immediately and the black market is full of dubious scalpers who will meet you in a dark alley and ask 600 Euros for a partial view ticket that may or may not actually let you into the theater. So, the only way is the old school one of “knowing someone” and, thank goodness, I did: a family friend with a season subscription very gracefully let me go in his place.

La Scala’s public is definitely cockier and way more ferocious that the Met’s. Before the show started, my neighbor was very colorfully complaining that he heard Damrau was sick and was going to be replaced by Irina Lungu and that was going to be a total “sòla” (“ripoff”). He was evidently expressing the general sentiment, since when La Scala’s general manager Stéphane Lissner made the relevant announcement on stage, he was assailed by a chorus of boos and other insults (and if these days folks still threw market vegetables to performers on stage am sure they would have tossed a few tomatoes to the poor guy).

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

Also, when conductor Daniele Gatti made his entrance and took his spot on the pit, someone in the audience yelled “falla piu’ veloce stasera!” (“make it faster tonight!”), voicing the widespread criticism that Gatti chose an unusually slow tempo for this production. I will say that Gatti’s choice of tempi may have been academically respectful of Verdi’s 1854 revision for the Venice San Benedetto theater, but was indeed a bit all over the place, some parts too slow (the first scene, not matching the party’s frenzy), others way too quick (Germont’s aria “D’un padre e d’una suora / t’affretta a consolar” – poor Lučić was struggling to keep up).

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
The curtain opened the moment the orchestra started to play, and during the overture Violetta stood in the middle of a big room with a few fancy chairs scattered throughout, high ceilings with antique molding and a Parisian-like balcony overlooking the street. She spent the overture in front of a mirror, looking pretty ennuied and fatigued while getting ready for her party, fixing her make-up and adjusting her blue gown, silvery necklace and red flower in her hair, at times with the help of a mature redhead Annina, who looked and behaved more like a retired opera diva than a servant (and popped up throughout the opera when you least expected her).

When the party erupts and Violetta’s guests arrive, the decadent modern-day take was painfully evident, with the chorus wearing a hodgepodge of trashy party dresses and behaving in line with their outfits. If the direction’s aim was to depict Violetta’s party life as vane and shallow, it was definitely successful, just not a pleasant sight. While the direction of the duets with Alfredo worked pretty well, Dmitri Tcherniakov chose to have Violetta perform her usually solitary arias “E’ strano! e' strano!” and Follie, delirio vano e’ questo! while drinking hard liquor and clunking glasses with a silent over-dressed and over-jeweled Annina who thus emerges in a role of girlfriend-confidante who did not add much and, rather, was unnecessarily distracting.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
The country estate scenes were to me the most successful direction-wise, with the couple having retired to the tranquility of the countryside, they indulge in simple domestic pleasures, Alfredo rolling out home-made pasta dough, Violetta (sporting comfy furry slippers) scolding him on the proper way to do it while arranging market vegetables to be prepped on the kitchen table. These moments were cute, heart-warming and real, just the way the enjoyment of pure romantic love should be and also worked wonderfully well with the music. It was also a nice touch having glimpses of Germont father pacing back and forth outside of the kitchen window, as looming presence that will ruin the idyllic romance. The only thing that did not work here was an odd creepy rag doll sporting Violetta’s party outfit of the opening scene sitting on the kitchen counter (why?) that Alfredo nurses and cuddles when he realizes that his lover is gone. While I get what the director tried to accomplish here, it was totally unnecessary and looked pretty awkward.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

With the second act, we’re back to a trashy party, this time allegedly in costume, though the only character really wearing one seems to be Flora (with a ridiculous native American huge feathered headpiece), while the rest of the attendees were maybe dressed up like distasteful party people if that’s even a costume. Also, why on earth is Violetta wearing a small Afro wig? And she takes it off at the end of the act? Outfits aside, I had a major problem here with the chorus singing arias such as “Noi siamo zingarelle” and “Di Madride noi siam mattadori” that are normally sung and danced by characters looking and behaving like gypsies and matadors, just because that’s how they dressed up for the party. Here they did not have any such costumes and their sang words did not really match their acting as they just paced back and forth nonsensically following poor Alfredo from one end of the stage to the other. Drastic departures from the meaning of the libretto like these are pure heresy, no excuses allowed. The “money-throwing” scene though was effective, with the bills flying in the frame of the arched walls and the crowd in the background.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
The final act was set back in Violetta’s apartment, this time virtually empty, except for a mirror, two chairs, a tray of medicines, a phone, a comforter, an ikea cardboard box full of pictures and again the odd creepy Violetta-looking rag doll. The bare bones sets were successful in conveying the fact that the poor woman sold everything (cannot even afford a bed) and provided a perfect barren backdrop for the heart-wrenching arias throughout the finale. A couple of things did not entirely work though: Alfredo sings “Parigi o cara” while trying to force Violetta to eat a cream puff (while I get he’s feeling awkward about the whole situation, this was too much) and, most importantly, Violetta dies alone on her chair, while Annina is disdainfully chasing away Alfredo and his dad, as if to say “it’s all your fault now get out of here”. Call me romantic, but to me Violetta must die in the arms of her loved one and leave him heart-broken. Tcherniakov’s take was excessively nihilist in denying the unfortunate couple even this final comfort, as if to say it’s too late, nothing can fix this anymore.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
Having said all that, if one has really good singers, sets and direction become secondary. And La Scala had some pretty good ones. Piotr Beczala sounded fresh, confident and with a full-bodied tone and, although he is warmer and more passionate when he sings in Russian (think about his Lensky in the Met’s opening Onegin), his Alfredo was convincing if a touch clueless at times, though that’s part of the character.

Željko Lučić was, as usual, magnificent with his signature sweet effortless power and musicality that are just made for Verdi. His duets with Violetta were warm and tender, expressing the quintessential Verdian father-daughter love, as  Lučić always does so masterfully in Rigoletto. I was curious to see whether his voice sounded even stronger at La Scala than at the Met given the theater’s size difference, but I will say that the Met’s acoustics are such that really amplify it all, even more than a smaller space like La Scala.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

But it was soprano Irina Lungu who literally brought the whole house down, including my cynical skeptic neighbor who at the end was applauding like a madman and ecstatically yelling brava, brava!  While she was understandably tense at the beginning given her last minute engagement, she loosened up towards the end of the first act party scenes and grew stronger throughout the opera, delivering a truly terrific performance in the third act, her “Addio, del passato” making me weep like a baby. She movingly cried herself at curtain call when the whole theater rose to salute her enthusiastically which, coming from the ferocious La Scala’s public, was quite a sight.   

All in all this production had some good and bad moments, the modernizing efforts to keep La Traviata contemporary and real being successful only a few times, with some unfortunate silly touches (that rag doll!). The very core of the emotions at stake, however, was conveyed powerfully, except maybe in the nihilist finale. It was brave of La Scala to commission such a controversial production to open its season on the Verdi bicentenary – there’s nothing like some good extra-curricular drama to stir the drama on stage.

- Lei

Thursday, December 19, 2013

You're Irresistible, Baby!

The Met’s Las Vegas Rigoletto
November 30, 2013

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
We're in Las Vegas, circa 1960. “The Duke” is a Sinatra-like singer and the powerful owner of a casino where vice, money and decadent entertainment abound. He’s also a serial womanizer who can never get enough of the ladies. In fact, his entourage of suave men in shiny tuxedos often procures fresh prey for him. The hunchback Rigoletto is a comic who works for the Duke and is always poking fun at everyone, often pushing jokes too far. Enter a wealthy Arab sheik that Rigoletto needles obscenely as a cover to the Duke's recent conquest of his daughter. The humiliated sheik explodes in a rage and curses both the Duke and his comic. In a city where luck and superstition rule, a “maledizione” is serious stuff.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Rigoletto gets off his comic shift and goes home to his only family, his beloved daughter Gilda – a beautiful pious young thing he keeps locked up at home at all times (except to go to Sunday mass). He is too afraid the vicious men of the town may corrupt his good little girl. Bad luck has it that somehow the Duke managed to lay eyes on sweet, chaste Gilda and decides he wants her. This time his trick will be to play the part of a lovey-dovey penniless student, which works pretty well. Gilda falls romantically head over heels for the “student” who also seems totally taken though that, too, could just be another womanizing strategy.

The Duke’s entourage decides to play a prank on Rigoletto and, thinking that Gilda is his lover, they abduct her and bring her to the Duke for his entertainment. The Duke deflowers Gilda at lightening speed and immediately thereafter loses interest. When Rigoletto discovers what happened to his innocent daughter he is rage-crazed and swears to avenge her honor. His bloody vengeance involves a hired (but honest) assassin and his slutty sister and it may or not go as planned...

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Does this sound like an 1851 opera? Or more like a modern mob movie? The Met showed us that time and place hardly matter as this story could be set in 16th century Mantua or 1960s Las Vegas and work equally well. Either way, it’s rife with dramatic tension, fiercely passionate Verdi music and some of the most beautiful singing.

It was a thrill to see the Met’s 2012 Las Vegas Rigoletto again. The singers in last year’s inaugural cast for the debut of this new production were so spectacular that it hardly mattered where they set it. Revisiting it again this year with a new cast and Pablo Heras-Casado conducting, we stand by the conviction that this modernized production works. The sets are dynamic and elaborate and the story is only made more vivid than if they had kept it in sixteenth-century Mantua with men in tights and puffy sleeves.

This time we decided to follow the Met English subtitles throughout the opera. And not out of necessity (being Italian speakers and knowing Rigoletto by heart) but rather because we heard that subtitles, too, were innovated by this production. The Met pushed its modernizing efforts to the point of revising the traditional English translation of the Italian libretto to jazz it up with 1960s Vegas slang. Updating the subtitles to match the era in which the opera is set is sure blasphemy to purists and really a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can engage the non-Italian speaking audience in livelier ways than a verbatim translation of 19th-century poetic language, which is admirable. On the other hand, however, it may be distracting and fall into the trap of going too far and radically changing the sense of the original, which is, indeed, a mortal sin even by our standards.

The Met did not fall into such trap and offered a refreshingly updated and often clever translation by Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo, without ever departing from the original core meaning but rather just massaging the text with glittery period touches that most times worked pretty well. Here’s an example:
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Original Libretto:

Ma dee luminoso
In corte tal astro qual sole brillare.
Per voi qui ciascuno dovrà palpitare.
Per voi già possente la fiamma d'amore
Inebria, conquide, distrugge il mio core.
Calmatevi …

Traditional Translation:

So bright a star should be shedding
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
its brilliance on my court.
You would make every heart beat faster here.
The fires of passion already flare
headily, conquering, consuming my heart.
Calm yourself!

“Rat Pack” Translation:

Your movie-star looks
really light up the place
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Every heart in this club
should be beating for you
You’re irresistible, baby
you make me burn with love
you send me to the moon!
Take it easy, fella!

The “astro,” or star, metaphor carries over into a reference to movie starlets, and the Duke’s court is appropriately reconfigured as a club, while the Petrarchan language of the consuming fires of love translate directly into hepcat talk. It’s colorful and clever and almost even more successfully poetic with respect to the otherwise rather bland conventional English translation also presented here. After all, the Duke’s character is the kind of superficial lady’s man who would have come up with zingers like: “Come on, baby, let’s give it a whirl!

When it comes to narrative strategies, Michael Mayer’s production not only remains true to the core of the original opera but also adds several touches that flesh out better the characters. The Duke’s is one of the characterizations that benefited most from the Vegas take. In classic productions, when in Act II he is sad because he thinks Gilda has been kidnapped and he starts going all mushy about she being “the one,” it is always a bit hard to believe since the Duke is supposed to be a chauvinist womanizer. This production has him do lines of cocaine and drink hard liquor while he sings these arias, thus suggesting, in line with the core of the character, that the Duke was just babbling under the effects of hard drugs and stiff alcohol, and, no matter how convinced he sounds in his singing, his convictions are as steadfast as a feather in the wind. Later, in Act III this Sinatra-like Duke sings the famous misogynistic aria “La donna e’ mobile / qual piuma al vento” while twirling around the pole of a strip club, making it clear (in case there was any doubt) that he’s the fickle one, not women.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Another stroke of genius is the Rat Pack transformation of the Duke’s entourage that perfectly reflects the goliardic spirit of the courtiers, and very entertainingly so. Their chorus scenes are extremely vivid and effective, with a group of men in shiny multi-color tuxedos and a lot of hair gel gallivanting around in grand early-1960s cinematic style, all while singing Verdi. The three main Rat Pack characters, Borsa (Alexander Lewis), Marullo (Jeff Mattsey) and Count Ceprano (David Crawford) were definitely more fleshed out here than in other productions. Inspired by the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Sam Giancana, they evidently had a lot of fun with their roles and they were a pleasure to watch with their shenanigans, especially during some of the musical interludes.

This production at times even improves the narrative when compared to a more traditional setting. In fact, in Act II classic productions always struggle with a weak plot point when Rigoletto cannot hear the courtiers kidnapping his screaming daughter while he holds a ladder because he has a mask over his eyes (that allegedly also covers his ears?!?). Mayer cleverly solves the problem by sending Rigoletto “upstairs” in an elevator so that he’s not physically there when the actual kidnapping occurs and his failure to notice is thus made credible.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Željko Lučić was just so spectacular last year that it was going to be a tall order for Dmitri Horostovsky to match his predecessor’s performance in the eponymous role. With his action movie star good looks, Dmitri is not your typical Rigoletto. And boy did they do a number on him in make-up! His transformation from “barihunk” into old hunchback with paunch and a few strands of white hair combed across an almost bald scalp was terrific, particularly since the proud shaking of his flowing silver mane is one of Dmitri's signature moves in virtually every other role he performs. Also, one would think that both his haughty acting and fierce singing style generally better suit a sexy villain rather than the hunch-backed, pathos-invoking paterfamilias at the center of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Photo credit: Ruby Washington / The New York Times
Dmitri’s acting was intensely accurate and generally successful in getting into character, showing a range that we rarely see from him. In the first scene he was hamming it up with the lounge dancers and twisting his hips like Elvis as he taunted the sheik, rendering the comic side of Rigoletto very energetic when compared to traditional settings. Horostovsky was a fairly convincing tender father in his duets with Gilda, however his best stage presence (not surprisingly) was in the raging bits, so much that in “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” he was a bit too busy forcefully acting and running from one courtier to the other, affecting a bit the intensity of his singing. While Dmitri’s angry-edged baritone sounded on the snarling end at times, he consistently delivered deep dark tones with hints of a smooth sweetness that made for a vocally charismatic Rigoletto. The evening we saw him, his voice felt unusually restrained in the first act, but when he loosened up he was sensational. His duets with Gilda were as lovely and heart wrenching as ever, “Fanciulla piangi” making the fanciulla of us cry copiously and Dmitri’s vocal performance in the third act ranged from vengeful to deeply dramatic to desperately defeated, just the way we like a Rigoletto.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
But it was the young soprano, Sonya Yoncheva, who stole the show while stepping in to replace Aleksandra Kurzak (pregnant with tenor Roberto Alagna’s child). Yoncheva sang consistently stronger than anybody else on stage, outshining even all of the seasoned Met veterans in this cast, including both Horostovsky and Polenzani. The piercing purity of her voice streamed effortlessly from her petite frame. With her frail yet powerful lyricism and her charming presence, Yoncheva dominated her scenes gracefully and tragically. Fresh faced and youthful, she really looked the part and embodied all the vulnerability of the poor tragic naïve Gilda. Yoncheva did not win Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2010 for nothing – definitely a singer to keep an eye on.

Matthew Polenzani is growing on us, while we were not convinced by his Nemorino in 2012, we enjoyed him in Maria Stuarda and Così and really appreciated him as the Duke. He delivered clean, fresh sound, clear articulation, on point tempo and musicality, and great Sinatra-like acting. On the whole, he is highly likeable, but he still does not stir the deep turmoil that a world-class Italian-style tenor should be capable of. We find Polenzani to be often too high pitched; lacking a certain manly depth, with his voice still sounding almost too young, remaining too firmly on the surface.  

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Slovak bass Stefan Kocán always exudes charisma with commanding stage presence and his Sparafucile was no exception. While we've seen and loved him before in the role, this time his acting got even better, portraying the honest villain (he may be a hired assassin but he's not a thief!) with the sleek confidence of a film noir actor. Vocally, Kocán has a deep, rich and smooth tone that somehow comes as a surprise from such a young singer and is always a pleasure to hear. We wish there were more extensive bass roles around so that we could get more Kocán –looking forward to seeing him as Konchak in Prince Igor in February!

A lot has been said about the spectacular sets of this production, for which no detail was small enough, from the diverse use of the “neon vocabulary” throughout the three acts, to the wink-wink references to the Met’s own decorative elements (gates, chandeliers, curtains), to the Nevada license plate of Sparafucile’s car ("SPARFUC"). We can only let the pictures speak for themselves and salute the Met’s set design team for the terrific effort.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera
This production is to us the perfect example of a clever new take on a classic and thus a must see for virtually everybody: it may entertainingly lure opera-virgins into the art form, convert the traditionalist to modernizations of classic repertoire and refresh Rigoletto for those who know it by heart. Let’s hear it for Met Opera taking more calculated risks like this!

– Lei & Lui