Monday, April 03, 2006

Review: Don Pasquale

This past Friday evening, Raindog and I attended the new production premiere of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Metropolitan Opera.

Mostly it’s great. The sets are wonderful: they nicely evoke the crumbling, sun-baked casual glamour of middle-class Italy. The garden in the last act is especially beautiful. Still, they take too long to switch: Pasquale is a wonderfully paced, relatively short opera. The Met stretches it out to three and a half hours. Directed by the great Otto Schenk, in his farewell to the stage after a long and wonderful career, the staging is traditional; generally very good, but the ensembles lack a spark of originality, and poor Malatesta has nothing to do but sing the first half of “Bella siccome” on the left side of Pasquale’s chair and then switch for the second verse.

Maurizio Benini was the perfect choice to replace James Levine at the podium following the maestro’s shoulder injury: Benini understands and happily exploits the built-in flexibility and expressiveness of Donizetti’s orchestra writing; paying close attention to dynamics and changes of tempo, he elicits a wonderful, quintessentially Italianate energy. In the solo moments, he happily lets the singers do their thing, understanding the required symbiotic relationship.

Overall, the singing was truly exceptional. Anna Netrebko, as Norina, has a stage presence rare among opera singers, and the Met audience clearly adores her. Her voice is unusually dark and creamy for the repertoire she sings, but I do fear it’s a bit manufactured. She’s quite musical, but we wondered if she was worried about filling the cavernous Met: she sang at a mostly unstinting forte all evening long. The effort was apparent in the shrill and squally timbre of her high C’s and the badly articulated coloratura. Norina is not a technical tour-de-force; next year Netrebko is slated for I Puritani at the Met, and if she doesn’t back off and relax on her singing, I don’t think she’ll be able to do it. She sounded like a Tosca; she’ll never get through “Son vergin vezzosa” like that.

Her partner in volume was the young baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. It’s a robust and glorious sound, even in timbre from top to bottom and easily produced. Still, he sang as if to say, “I’m just singing this junior role now, but I’m letting you know that really I’m a Rigoletto.” Loud, loud, loud. Wonderful voice, but his performance was woefully lacking in musical nuance and anything but the most generalized character.

They both need to take a cue from the primo tenore di grazia del mondo, Juan Diego Florez. His is a slender, small-scaled instrument (as voices of that register tend to be), but he sings with confidence that even his gentlest mezza voce will carry all the way to standing room. He sang effortlessly with tremendous grace, sensitivity and attention to musical and textual detail, even in this mercilessly high role.

Unfortunately he was undone between Acts 2 and 3 by a sudden allergy attack, and had to withdraw from the performance, being replaced by Barry Banks. Interestingly I’ve met Mr. Banks; he was singing in Rossini’s Ermione at Santa Fe when I was an apprentice there. I remember him saying that he never needed to warm up, he was always able to just sing. Lucky him, since on a moment’s notice he had to step into the last act of a new production premiere on the heels of a popular and wonderful singer, launching immediately into the high-flying serenade “Com’e gentil” with its high B followed by the duet “Tornami a dir” with a high C-sharp. He was spectacular: his singing was every bit as healthy, beautiful and expressive as Mr. Florez’s, and he seemed astonishingly confident given the circumstances. He received a well-won ovation.

There’s not much to say about Simone Alaimo’s portrayal of the title character, other than “masterful.” He perfectly captured the difficult balance between the parlando quality of basso-buffo roles while really singing. He expertly telegraphed the sincere anguish at the beginning of Act 3 when Norina impetuously smacks him across the face. At that moment she realizes that for all Pasquale’s curmudgeonly unlikeableness, he’s a human being, not a villain, and her farce has gone one step too far. All he wanted was a wife, and now she’s broken the heart he gave so easily.

All things considered, it’s a superior performance. If Netrebko and Kwiecien just had more confidence in their voices and stopped trying so hard to prove themselves, the production might well achieve perfection.


kr pdx said...


You can tell you're a musician--with all the set and staging issues, such a production would mostly irritate me ;).

Do big time opera companies not have musical directors, to make shows (and the singers) musically coherent? Big time theatre often has the equivalent problem to this show, that directors don't direct the actors because it, like, impinges on their "professional achievements"--or something. Or, they let the actors run wild because the actors are, you know, "so good!" Which leads to occasionally intense performances, but disgusting incoherence onstage. (Thank goodness, the most horrific Directors' Union practicioner of this style of "directing" left town several years ago--YAYYYY!)

Andy said...

I hope I didn't make it sound like the staging was a disaster; I don't think you'd have been distracted by it at all. It was mostly great, just the sets take forever to change (they're huge) and the ensembles are not as inventive as they might be. But it's not bad.

Every opera house is run a little bit differently; every production has a conductor, of course, and s/he's usually the person in charge of the musical aspects of the performance, though sometimes they also contribute (helpfully or not, welcome or not) to the staging and other aspects. At a major company such as the Met, there's also a flock of coaches and assistant conductors to help with musical preparation.

How much "instruction" or "direction" one can offer an opera singer depends on a) who you are and b) who the singer is. For example, if you are Angela Gheorgiu singing Violetta in La Traviata, the Met audience is coming to hear YOU, not La Traviata -- they've heard it. Most of the audience knows every. single. word. And presumably, barring some significant error like a wrong note or a bad rhythm, Ms. Gheorgiu will sing Violetta just exactly as she pleases, thank you very much. If Ms. Gheorgiu is not happy, she can easily take her vocal goods elsewhere and you'll get a hole in your box office. If you are just Random Lyric Soprano, then the "Met" audience (it will be a different one...the Bridge & Tunnel and Tourist crowd) then no, they are here to see La Traviata and you will do what the conductor tells you. There are exceptions: famously Ms. Gheorgiu objected to the blonde wig they asked her to wear as Micaela in Carmen. The General Director told her, quote, "That wig is going on with or without you."

There is a difference between singing something "correctly" and singing something "well." If you're doing it right per the score, there's not really much anyone can tell you. They can make suggestions about style and interpretation, but professionally one is always careful not to comment on technique unless there is already a good professional relationship built up.

Anthony said...

You're missing an H in your Gheorghiu, Lieber.

Andy said...

Ack! I stand correchted.

kr pdx said...

I don't know, your review sounds like lazy staging and lazy people-directing from ye olde retiring director. But then I am the last person who should ever review opera, since if the acting/staging doesn't hold it together I don't give a rip about how great the singing is. You opera/music people mystify me ;). Music can't carry it for me. (I know that's a little weird.)

(Misc, did you know "ye" is actually pronounced "the"? The "y" shaped letter was the letter for the "th" sound in Old English--I believe the voiced "th," rather than the unvoiced, but can't remember.)

Andy said...

KR, that's awesome!

kr pdx :)! said...

isn't it, yo'? I think it's terribly hilarious, especially when I pass a "Ye Olde Pizza Shoppe" ;). Just lovely.

kr pdx said...

PS AIGH! After 12 years (I stagemanaged it in 1993), I had finally vanquished the catchy finale of Don Pasquale from my brain--but now it's back! ARGH!

Anonymous said...

I bet this stupid mother-fucker doesn't even know what country Gheorghiu comes from...