Monday, November 2, 2015

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!

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