Monday, November 30, 2015

First Tudor Queen Down – Two More To Go

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena
Metropolitan Opera
October 9, 2015

Queen Anna Bolena unleashes her rage
Photo credit: New York Times
Lei: As bel canto lovers, we are always over the moon when we get to see an opera from Donizetti’s “Tudor trilogy.” In this series the incredibly beautiful and virtuosic singing also serves the purpose of expressing a range of dramatic emotions that runs the gamut, particularly for the regal title roles. Each of these works features a most complex female lead, a queen who rules, loves, rages, suffers, fights, avenges and melts (not necessarily in that order). The singing here is so challenging that there are very few artists able to tackle it. So, when the Met announced that it was going to present all three of the “Donizetti Queens” in the same season, with the title role sang each time by one of the most exciting sopranos around, Sondra Radvanovsky, we started jumping up and down, giddy with excitement and anticipation. Drama! Vocal fireworks! Thundering yet tender but crazy queens!

The Queen cannot believe she's fallen into Henry VIII's trap
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is a rare gem. Despite or perhaps due to the musical supremacy of its score and the vocal extravagance it demands of its singers, the first of Donizetti’s three queens only appears all too infrequently. In fact, this season the Met is one of the only two opera houses staging it around the world (the other being Bergamo) – how lucky for us! The role of its heroine comprises an odyssey of musical moods and emotional tones that is among the most dynamic in the repertoire. With its forbidding vocal demands and its broad range that spans the whole spectrum of human emotions from somber sadness to raw feminine heroism, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is one of the great soprano assoluta roles par excellence, up there with Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s third queen, the Elizabeth of Roberto Devereux, who will be making her Met debut later this season.

This was Sondra Radvanovsky’s night in every way. From the very start, she rendered the reflective, nostalgic mood of her opening aria, Come, innocente giovane through lyrical low-lying phrases and intricately delicate coloratura juxtaposed to flexible high notes with several flights into the uppermost registers.

Regal dignity
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lei: In this early aria, the forlorn queen ruminates on her estranged husband and her difficult life at court as a queen who fails to produce male heirs (though she did give birth to Elizabeth but that’s for another opera…). Things heat up shortly thereafter, with Anna’s private, ill-fated encounter with her ex-lover Percy and her subsequent arrest by Henry for adultery (though she was not really adultering – evil skirt-chasing Henry is just making up excuses to get rid of her and marry his new lover, Giovanna Seymour).  

Queen Anna, Queen-to-be Elizabeth and the lusty page Smeaton
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
In terms of the story and score, Anna Bolena’s initial trajectory presents a powerful woman who is steadfast in her convictions as she withstands the temptation of seeing Percy again. Here Radvanovsky demonstrated great feats of coloratura flexibility and a truly resolute, stouthearted tone. In the concluding Ah, segnata è la mia sorte, Radvanovsky gave us the full power of her dramatic sound. The full heroic strength of a true soprano assoluta was on display.

The treacherous Giovanna pleads with Anna
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: Incredibly moving was her forgiveness of Giovanna Seymour in the beginning of Act II. The two women share a dramatically charged moment in which Bolena realizes that her rival for the affection of the king is none other than her closest confidant and friend Giovanna Seymour. After an initial moment of surprised growing rage, Radvanovsky’s soaring vocal lines in her recognition that Seymour is as much a victim as she is in this moment of human tenderness and understanding were so transcendent that they sent tingles through my body. The dark dusky hues in her voice that shone through were just so human. 

Lei: This Act II opener really caught me off guard in its surprising human and moving twist. One would expect Bolena to unleash all sorts of insults on her double faced friend who’s sleeping with her husband, but the queen here actually forgives her as she’s been in her same shoes before (when she was the king’s lover causing him to dump his then queen) and so she understands the lure of Henry VIII and the power that comes with him (è reo soltanto / chi tal fiamma accese in te). On the other hand, though, Anna’s forgiveness has the effect of further punishing Giovanna who just cannot bear the guilt of having betrayed the trust of her amazingly gracious queen (ah! peggiore è il tuo perdono / dello sdegno ch’io temea).

The Queen suspects her husband's fidelity
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: Dauntless during her trial, Anna expresses regret in haunting, pathetic phrases, ever somber but understated. Radvanovsky’s vocal agility was sensational. Her encyclopedic singing was simply breathtaking. And if you were weren’t satisfied with all of the ground she covered by the end of Act I, she really pulled out all the stops in Act II.

Lei: Her performance was extraordinary throughout the first two thirds of the evening. But by the time she got her grandiose finale that climaxes with the famous “mad scene” in her prison cell and subsequent execution, it was like she was only pacing herself in the lead up to this phenomenal passage of music.

Coppia iniqua!
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: For her last scene, Donizetti gives us a panorama of her emotional existence. Radvanovsky’s voice masterfully embodied every contour of her heroine’s psychic landscape with resilience and stamina. Her vocal technique ranged across the spectrum – the melancholy piano pianissimo of her sad and somber reminiscence back to happier times (Al dolce guidami), the hurt (Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimi), the heroic (Coppia iniqua). It’s an emotional storm. And Radvanovsky was mind blowing. The way her voice got all friable and frail, almost like dry parchment, during the most delicate moment of her big climax in the mad scene, ranks up there with some of the great Met performances of my humble experience. It’s just a shame that the rest of the cast was rarely at her level.

Serial husband Henry VIII
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lei: Ildar Abdrazakov, who is usually reliable, had his moments but from time to time tonight just couldn’t get there. His voice seemed to drop off and was almost inaudible. Which is only made more conspicuous by the sheer force of his extraordinary female lead. I hate to say it but his heart just didn’t seem to be in it. Taylor Strayton as Percy was a mediocre tenor at best, though he has shown signs of improvement since the last time we saw him in Bellini's La Sonnambula a few years back. Milijana Nikolic in her Met debut as Giovanna Seymour was solid, though I found her sound to be muddled, almost milky. Her enunciation of the Italian wasn’t as crystal clear and cutting as Radvanovsky’s.  

Smeaton pours his heart out.
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: The court singer, Smeaton, sung with romantic agility by one of my favorite bel canto mezzo sopranos, Tamara Mumford was perhaps the highlight of the supporting cast. She has great stage presence and really embodies the lovelorn longing of the young Cherubino-esque farfallone amoroso, who flies a little too close to the flame with tragic results for all involved.

Anna falls into the trap
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
I also came to a greater appreciation of Sir David McVicar’s production this time. I was a little underwhelmed by the starkness of Robert Jones’s sets when we saw this production at its debut back on opening night in 2011. But tonight they really struck me as almost painterly in their attention to period details like the cavernous space of the early modern royal castle and palace. The modular design makes for fluid set changes that keep the action flowing almost oneirically. And Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are just spectacular. So plush in their florid Renaissance flair. Many scenes looks like a Holbein or a Bronzino painting. With the light flooding into the vast interiors of the palace through high gothic windows and the pencil thin trees that populate the wasteland that lies just outside the castle walls, the set design is starkly expressionistic in its minimalist efficacy.

The sets for the big Anna/Giovanna confrontation scene
Photo credit: Met
A more defiant Anna by Netrebko in 2011
Photo credit: Met
Lei: Interestingly, in this run of the production they switched things up for the last “mad scene.” Back in 2011, when Anna Netrebko sung the title role, she wore a fitted black gown and, after attacking the raging aria Coppia iniqua, she lifted her long hair to bare her neck for the executioner’s ax and marched resolutely towards her death, with a feisty defiance that was exciting to see. Radvanovsky, on the other hand, was wearing a loose white tunic, almost like an under garment or the smock of an in-patient at a mental hospital, and, after her ladies in waiting cut her hair to a short bob, she was blindfolded and guided gropingly towards the executioner. While Radvanosky’s singing was sublime (and, in my opinion, superior and more convincing than the Russian’s soprano), her acting was of a terrified madwoman, quite a change from Netrebko’s dramatic and proud interpretation of that same scene. One thing did not change though, the blood-red silk curtain swishing down the scene immediately after the sight of the scary executioner and his ax – that’s what I call a powerful finale!

Lui & Lei

Radvanovsky's Anna loses it before the executioner
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Netrebko's Queen is regal till the end
Photo credit: Met

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Don G as Diabolical Coke-Sniffing Priest

Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Venture Opera
November 9, 2015
Angel Orensanz Center
Lower East Side, Manhattan

Don G's hellish descent
Photo credit: Ken Howard
You never know in NYC. I thought I was going to see yet another Don Giovanni for the sake of supporting a new indie opera company, but the moment I arrived at the Lower East Side venue, a synagogue turned arts center, something was off: bouncers carded me at the door. Seriously? It’s opera! Amidst what is generally a predominantly geriatric crowd there is no risk of public under drinking age, ever! The clubby aura got even more exclusive once we got in: rows of gold pleated bamboo chairs packed mostly with young professionals (on a Tuesday night!), ladies in ball gowns and venetian masks pacing around as in a trance, a fully stocked bar pumping out mixed drinks. But, it also felt like stepping back to the 1800s, with superbly decadent gothic architectural details, massive gold chandeliers, musicians peeking out from behind red velvet curtains and a first floor wrap around balcony, the space was the most perfect (and immersive) setting for a Don Giovanni. I was definitely excited, and the moment the excellent orchestra led by Ryan McAdams attacked the first notes of the overture, I felt a frisson all over my body - we were off to a great start.

Voi star dentro con la bella
Photo credit: Ken Howard
I did not have time to read the director’s notes in the program so I was caught off guard by the radically unusual take of this production. My scribbly notes on the opening scene go like this: “Catholic ecclesiastical setting. Is Don G a priest?!? And he is stabbing the Commendatore with a crucifix!!” Indeed, Don Giovanni made his first grandiose appearance in the guise of a diabolical Catholic priest. Turns out director Edwin Cahill’s production is set to explore “the theme of corruption of power with Don Giovanni as a leader of the Catholic Church.” And the inspiration for this pretty unusual idea seems to be in the real lives of Tirso de Molina (author of the first Don Juan) and Lorenzo Da Ponte (librettist of the Mozart opera) that were intertwined with the paradoxes and excesses of the Catholic Church. De Molina was a Jew who converted to Catholicism to protect his family from the Spanish Inquisition and became an ordained priest, while Da Ponte, coincidentally also a converted Jew and a Catholic priest, lead a dissolute life and was accused of public concubinage and abduction of respectable women.

Don G officiating some rites
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Cahill’s take on Mozart’s opera opens with the ghost of Tirso de Molina summoning, during the overture, the phantom souls of the Don Giovanni characters who then proceed to “sing the greatest story of divine retribution” (or so the program notes tell us). And so, in this setting, Don Giovanni is a renegade dissolute priest (Da Ponte’s alter ego?), at the center of a number of more or less plausible satirical vignettes: his attempted rape of Donna Anna happens under a church altar, during the Madamina il catalogo e’ questo aria a bunch of nuns of all shapes and sizes pop out to represent the Don’s conquests, at the end of the Champagne aria he sprinkles the public with holy water, the Commendatore statue thundering Pentiti! (Repent!) has a Jesus-like appearance and so on. While this interpretation was at times a bit of a stretch, having Don G. be a priest was a propelling force on the magnitude of his excesses (in Act III, the piatto saporito contains multiple lines of cocaine), resulting in a perversely unsettling yet addictive effect from one scene to the other.

Sta a veder che il malandrino
Mi fara' precipitar
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Charismatic and intense, baritone Philip Cutlip embodied the title character with a devilish energy that carried and made the show. Sporting red patent leather pants, a disheveled priest collar, red latex finger gloves and a combed back mohawk, Cutlip was every inch a dangerous and powerful but somehow irresistible villain. His singing was consistently strong throughout the opera yet never swooningly seductive (as can happen with more lyric baritones) but, rather, with a brutal Mephistophelic edge – this Don Giovanni gets his way more by force than by charm. Bass-baritone Eric Downs had great stage presence as Don G’s sidekick Leporello and possibly the singer who interacted most with the public, particularly in his rants against his master.

Soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra as Donna Anna was the vocal highlight of the evening. No surprise since she already had her Met debut (last year in Die Zauberflote). Her sound was crystal clear, soaring and electrifying, particularly in Or sai chi l’onore, when Donna Anna demands vengeance for her sullied honor. Mezzo Cecelia Hall was an excellent Zerlina, seductive and coquette yet sweet and loving too, a true pleasure to hear. Mezzo Marquita Raley embodied an uber-furious and clingy Donna Elvira, at times forcing her hand a bit too much, however coming out really strong and lyrical, with the right balance between heartache and hope in her rendition of Mi tradi’ quell’alma ingrata.
 Venite pure avanti / vezzose mascherine
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Venture Opera, led by its general director Jonathon Thierer, delivered superb quality curated to the last detail, setting the bar pretty high for an indie company (or any company for that matter). New crazy ideas, a tight convincing cast with exciting peaks (Don G, Donna Anna, Zerlina), a great use of an extraordinary space, and an electrifying orchestra were the ingredients of a sexy, irreverent yet highly polished show. No detail was small enough: effective costumes (Brandon McDonald), sophisticated lighting design (Yael Lubetzky), thoughtful props and the additional layer of the Tirso de Molina back story (that came up in overture and at in the finale) were all perfectly executed. This company has access to good money and knows how to put it to great use – looks like they had ads running in Times Square and the Orensanz Center is a most coveted wedding and corporate event space in lower Manhattan.

In its twitter account @ventureopera presents itself “a new opera company producing installation events around classical repertoire” which is yet another indication of their appeal for an audience beyond the traditional opera aficionados, as this Don G production clearly showed. They have a similar formula to LoftOpera in making opera “cool” and targeting audiences under 40. Where LoftOpera is Brooklyn hipster though (public sitting on the floor sipping beers), Venture Opera is Manhattan exclusive (gold pleated chairs, mixed drinks in calices). Even the after party was pretty wild: right after curtain call the space was cleared of all chairs, a fancy deejay started pumping out dance music and an acrobat popped up doing impressive tricks with a neon-lit hula hoop. Again, not what you see at the end of your average opera show on a Tuesday (or any day). Next up in Venture Opera’s season are Carmen and Pagliacci on February and August 2016, respectively and we cannot wait to see how they tackle these. Rumor has it that the Pagliacci production will team up with an honest to goodness itinerant circus and its acrobats….

- Lei & Lui

The Orensanz Center
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

O statua gentilissima del Gran Commendatore
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Monday, November 2, 2015

From Noon to Midnight at the Met, Part II

Giacomo Puccini
Metropolitan Opera
October 3, 2015

Zeffirelli's grand Orientalist extravaganza
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
After having seen just a few hours earlier the Goya-dark and emotions-stirring Trovatore matinee, the Turandot evening show on the very same stage felt like a kitschy operatic Disneyland – all glitter but no depth or complexity of any sort. And we experienced Puccini’s Oriental extravaganza in its best possible form (Zeffirelli’s grand production) with a sensational cast (Goerke, Alvarez, Gerzmava). The performance was truly spectacular, the way a Turandot should be. One could see why this is a house-filling blockbuster: elaborate sets that create an exotic fantasyland, extremely straightforward fairy tale plot and dozens of dancers and singers swarming all over the stage, doing all sorts of eye-catching stuff. Had I seen Turandot any other evening, I would have probably been pretty excited about it, but catching it on the same day I witnessed the best Trovatore ever, I really could not help but compare the two operas and the Verdi one was the clear winner for me, mostly because I found the plot way more multi-layered, relatable and interesting than Puccini’s. No matter how gorgeous the music, if the narrative does not captivate me, I simply don’t enjoy an opera as much.

Disneyland glitz in all its glory at the Met
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Putting aside the sets’ many bells and whistles and the excellent lead singers, the Met Orchestra and the Met Chorus, led by maestri Paolo Carignani and Donald Palumbo, respectively, were the true protagonists of this piece. The orchestration was through the roof. I never heard the Met Orchestra playing like that. So loud, so full. So grandiose. And the Met Chorus as the Peking mob and the court at Turandot’s imperial palace was truly sensational and carried the opera through, matching the explosive grandiosity of the orchestra.

Calaf mourns the loss of Liu
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
When it comes to Turandot’s individual singers and smaller ensembles, though, while there were many perfectly enjoyable moments, very few were memorable or captivating to me. And not for any singer’s fault. It’s just that the opera itself does not have more than a handful of truly compelling arias, basically Nessun dorma by prince Calaf and Tanto amore segreto by the loving slave Liu before she kills herself. Nessun dorma is one of the most famous operatic arias ever, as Sir Denis Forman put it in Night at the Opera, this “wonderful aria shines out, pure Italian gold, amidst all the surrounding exotica. It has a sweeping line, a great climax and if you don’t fall for this you might as well give up hope of a good relationship with Italian opera.”

Timur and his faithful Liu fare their way
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez was a force of nature as Calaf. This singer is growing on me every time I see him. He truly rides orchestras and has a manly melodic power that is a pleasure to hear and at times pretty gut stirring, too. I particularly liked his soaring Nessun dorma and the power with which he attacked his responses to the three riddles. Russian up-and-coming soprano Hibla Gerzmava was a moving and intense Liu. I will be interested to see her again in other roles. American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as the ice princess Turandot had impressive and almost thunderous power, however, her lines are pretty declamatory in nature and there’s not much expressivity that can come out of that no matter how good the singer.

Trovatore and Turandot together total more than Die Meistersinger, however, after spending over six hours at the Met, I actually felt pretty exhilarated about the Verdi + Puccini operatic overload – which I could not really say after equally long yet painful Wagnerian experiences. Just another confirmation of the fact that I can take Italian opera in huge doses but continue to have digestive issues with Wagner...

– Lei & Lui

The ice princess Turandot remains impenetrable
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

From Noon to Midnight at the Met, Part I

Verdi’s Il Trovatore
October 3, 2015 (Matinée – Live in HD)
Metropolitan Opera

Dmitri Hvorostovsky just keeps fighting back
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: My absolute favorite villain-playing baritone, the silver-haired, intriguingly handsome and velvet-voiced Dmitri Hvorostovsky, announced back in June that he was cancelling all future performances (including Il Trovatore at the Met) due to treatment for a sudden brain tumor. The news came as a terrible shock, especially since Dmitri exudes that action-movie-hero-operatic-rockstar aura of invincibility. But then, at the end of September, Hvorostovsky announced that he was actually going to sing three October dates of Trovatore, during a break from his treatment.

Lui: We obviously rushed to get tickets as we definitely could not miss him and wanted to show our support for an artist we admire so much. And that is how we ended up lining up two operas in one day – Trovatore matinee for the love of Dmitri and an evening show of Turandot for which we already had tickets.

Lei: With Dmitri’s plight on my mind, I came to this performance of Il Trovatore already feeling more than just a little emotional and I came out of it blissfully weeping for a number of great reasons, as it was easily the most perfect and deeply gratifying performance of Il Trovatore that I have ever experienced.

The gypsies working away at their furnaces.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
While I’ve seen David McVicar’s Goya-inspired production on at least two other occasions, it never much spoke to me. This time was different. Maybe it was one of those rare occasions where every singer on stage was top notch, or maybe Dmitri inspired everybody to give their best. Whatever the reason, the lead cast and the terrific Met chorus and orchestra (led by the fierce Marco Armiliato) brought the opera to life in a way that it felt like discovering Il Trovatore for the first time, seeing it in a new, more vivid light.

Kocán sets the stage.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Even the plot, traditionally considered unnecessarily convoluted, made perfect sense to me. One just needs to be attentive to the backstory as it is very clearly laid out in the very first scene when the troops’ captain Ferrando, played by the excellent Stefan Kocán, narrates in his seductive bass how the youngest of the previous Conte di Luna’s sons went missing. And the rest of the opera just flows from there. He had me on the edge of my seat during this opening exposition aria. With starts and stops he pulls his listeners in. I was hanging on his every word like never before. 

LeiEvery time I see this singer I lament the lack of more extensive bass roles in the operatic repertoire, as I really would like to hear more from him. Kocán’s instrument is smooth and thunderous, with a menacing edge, and, all in all, exudes a quintessential manliness. As Ferrando, he made a sensational opening with his aria Di due figli, telling the tale that is really the origin of several dramatic tensions running through the opera (infanticide, avenging fury, maternal and filial love, outcasts vs. ruling class conflicts). Kocán sets the tone for the evening from the get-go, permeating this aria with a hypnotic and captivating force that remained constant throughout.

Lui: After more than two decades of absolutely owning the role, it is abundantly clear that Dolora Zajick was born to sing the gypsy Azucena. She has all the vocal moves. I particularly appreciate the way she transitions from her head voice, intoning Verdi’s soaring bel canto lines, to her chest voice, dropping into more guttural jarring notes through which seeps the fervor of her anger against the ruling class. Over the years, I feel like her voice has only gotten deeper, making her even more perfect for this role. Zajick is entrancing to listen to as she recounts her trials and tribulations as a mother forced to sacrifice her infant son as the child-swapping plot thickens.  

The big reveal: Azucena and her adopted son
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: Her Azucena is definitely one of the emotional cores and driving dramatic forces of the opera. Her final line Sei vendicata, o madre! (mother, you are avenged!) when Manrico is executed was chilling and almost demonic. Zajick perfectly embodies the conflicting nuances of a vengeance-driven yet lovingly maternal character, who cannot help getting her offspring (both biological and adopted) killed in order to avenge her own mother burnt at the stake. Rigoletto and Lucrezia Borgia come to mind as other Verdian variations on this theme of a parent causing the tragic death of his/her own child. 

Lui: Slight of build and svelte of gait, Yonghoon Lee brought a youthful exuberance to the role of Manrico. But he was also entirely self-assured, which lent an air of composure to his demeanor. Not to mention the fact that his instrument is decidedly manly. As a tenor, he is satisfying in his poignant delivery of the filial affective core of Verdi’s opera. He was confident of his place in this world and his voice rang out strong. I had been curious to catch him live and I look forward to more. He obviously has what it takes.

The heart-wrenching loss of young love
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: While I found Lee powerful, expressive and technically accurate I was not blown away in any soul stirring melting way. His is a clean, strong voice but lacking that streak of male sensuality I look for in a tenor. Also, I was not particularly captivated by his acting and stage presence that, other than in Di quella pira when Lee was all fiery and up in arms,  I found a bit flat when compared to the intensity of the other singers on stage.

Lui: Anna Netrebko sounded better than ever. Her Italian has really come a long way. Usually brutal with the nuances of her pronunciation of the Italian language, this afternoon I could make out every syllable of every word she sang. And this really stood out to me. She was angelic and lovey dovey. In Il cor s’inebria, I was moved by the conviction of her young love. At turns, she was receptive to her two suitors; at others she was downright fiery and feisty. We even see her ramping up the gate in the scene where she pines for her lover who is locked away in the tower. That is, before she really comes to the realization that her feelings may lie elsewhere.

Leonora at the rampart
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: And that’s where Dmitri Hvorostovsky comes in. The show really belonged to him. The Siberian singer was in top form, despite his ailment. His baritone was insanely manly, yet lyrically tender at the same time. As usual he had an amazing stage presence. The Conte di Luna is really a role that gives him a lot to work with. He is the evil villain but also has ample room to show his soft side, which is just how malleable I came to discover this character to be.

Lui: Di Luna is often played like a dirty old power-hungry fiend, but he can also be played with a more mature sense of his sensual self, which in my mind is even more in line with certain nuances of the score and narrative flow. From the moment we are introduced to the Conte in Act I, his Tace la notte parallels Leonora’s Tacea la notte placida, which it immediately follows. Are we meant to see them as subconsciously already on the same wavelength? And then the depth of his feelings is juxtaposed to those of Manrico when the troubadour can be heard sweetly strumming his lute and faintly serenading his love from offstage (dolci si udiro e flebili / gli accordi d’un liuto).

In the clutches of the Conte
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Depending on how these roles are sung, the Conte can end up representing the manly alternative to the delicate blossom of Manrico’s young love, particularly when the troubadour is played by a singer as fresh faced and jejune voiced as Lee. After all, the Conte is given, from the outset, some of the most mature and moving musical expressions of human affection.

When he is portrayed as more than just an evil old man, lusting after a poor maiden in the throes of her first experience of love, new possibilities in the story arise. It all begins early in the score and libretto and continues up to the climax. At the end of Conte di Luna’s Act IV Vivrà duet with Leonora, the prey seemed to respond to her predator, at least in this particular performance. In a surprising turn of events, Netrebko actively initiated a kiss, pressing into Hvorostovsky passionately, fervently, as though she was indeed actually swept off her feet, rather than just making believe to deceive di Luna to get what she wanted. When Leonora goes off with him at the end, Netrebko in this case took charge – she was unequivocally the one who whisked him off the stage.

In the Russian soprano’s hands, the prey suddenly becomes the predator, making it clear that one take on this story is that the young Leonora gets over her first love with the feeble poet once she discovers the sheer seductive power of this bolder velvet-voiced specimen of manhood. It obviously only works with the likes of Dmitri in the role – irresistible barihunk that he is. And the seeds are nevertheless planted as early as the first act, if you are clued in and not reading him or playing him as a scowling monster, which is much more often the case.

Sorry, Manrico, this time the Conte gets the girl. At least for a fleeting moment, because of course her guilt is too much to bear and things don’t end well for anyone really. And that is what makes this drama only seemingly convoluted, but also so incredibly moving. When in the right hands it can be as cathartic as the best Greek tragedy.

At which point does the prey become predator?
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: The combination of Netrebko, Lee and Hvorostovsky brought a new twist to the opera’s love triangle. While the plot empathizes with the Leonora / Manrico pure and innocent bond, I found myself cheering for the apparently villainous Conte di Luna (or is he?). Putting aside the fact of Dmitri was the hottest singer on stage, his rendition of the character was of a man so deeply and furiously in love with a woman that he would defy God to keep her:

Invano un Dio rivale
s’oppone all’amor mio,
non può nemmeno un Dio,
donna, rapirti a me,
non può rapirti a me!*

The love of Conte di Luna is also the most profound, tender and mature love in the whole score. Think of the show stopping aria, Il balen del suo sorriso, where Dmitri soars with the most elegant and effortless legato, not to mention the emotional charge of a man exuberantly yet firmly in love that left me shedding copious tears.

This is possibly the most moving aria in the whole opera, which to me grounds the counterintuitive conclusion that the villain is a more profound love interest than the romantic hero. Frankly, any woman listening to Dmitri deliver Il balen del suo sorriso would pick him over the Troubadour. It’s really a no brainer. Remember, Manrico is the guy who dumps Leonora to run to save his mother (who is not even his mother and he kind of knows that too!):

Era già figlio prima d’amarti,
non può frenarmi il tuo martir...
Madre infelice, corro a salvarti,
o teco almeno corro a morir!**

Also, Manrico is quick to doubt Leonora when she tells him she saved his life, immediately jumping to the conclusion that she betrayed him with the Count and covering her with insults (Ha quest’infame l’amor venduto / This wretch sold her love). Little does he know that she already poisoned herself and will die shortly. So, really, Leonora, you deserve better: next time don’t take that poison, dump that momma’s boy and go home with the hotter and far superior Conte di Luna!

Lui & Lei

Charles Edwards' Goya-esque sets
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The tragic denouement
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

In vain a rival God
opposes my love,
not even a God is able,
O woman, to steal you from me,
is able to steal you from me!

** Before I loved you, I was yet her son;
your suffering cannot restrain me...
Unhappy mother, I hasten to save you,
or at least, hasten to die with you!