Thursday, October 28, 2010

Love, Death, and Local Color: Cavalleria and La Navarraise

I blame the scaffolding for the lighting.
I could also claim it's an artistic effect.
The Opera Orchestra of New York's much-anticipated return to the musical landscape was, for me, actually a Planned Event rather than Spontaneous Frivolity.  The orchestra, conducted by Alberto Veronesi, played with energy and sensuality, if not faultlessly.  There were a few brass wobbles, and I thought I noted one missed cue.  Veronesi seemed to have very clear ideas about how both verismo operas should sound, however: atmospheric and unabashedly, urgently emotional.  His website is still under construction, but according to Opera News he will be officially directing the OONY from next season onwards.  Technical faults are fixable, so I look forward to good and exciting things.

Usual caveats in place about the fact that I am feeling my way into the vocabulary, not to mention the more technical aspects of musical appreciation, I found the singing of Cavalleria curiously uneven.  The sexiest thing about Lola was her red dress (nerves, maybe?)  Alfio, Carlos Almaguer, seemed to have a nice timbre, but this was masked by a tendency to bellow, which affected intelligibility as well.  Veteran artist Mignon Dunn was a treat as Mamma Lucia, vividly characterized and sung.  Maria Guleghina sang a Santuzza I wanted to like more than I did.  With a warm tone and dramatic commitment she created a Santuzza with uncommon understanding of herself and Turiddu, and a resulting gentleness which was quasi-matronly.  Even phrases like "Turiddu mi tolsi l'onore" were more informed by fond memory than by present anguish.  (Quite a contrast with Waltraud Meier, who created a Santuzza straight out of a Greek tragedy, fierce and rawly passionate.)    Interesting as she was, though, she was occasionally inaccurate, and more than occasionally nigh-inaudible, which I found puzzling and disappointing.  Alagna sounded darker, stronger, and more focused than when I heard him in a run of Cav/Pag at the Met last spring.  (And I heard him from the orchestra, thanks to rush tickets, so the potential problem of his not-very-large voice getting lost should have been obviated?)  At any rate, I was quite impressed.  Curiously, he was the only performer on book for Cavalleria and I missed the unrestrained energy of his on-stage Turiddu.  Still, he sang vividly, and "Mamma, quel vino" was sung with a sob in the voice, urgent with desperation and remorse.

The second item on the program, Massenet's La Navarraise, was utterly unknown to me, and a very pleasant discovery.  The plot is patently preposterous, but I found the music to be lovely: dark, intense, and evocative.  The plot in a nutshell: against the bloody backdrop of the Carlist Wars, a fragile love affair between a poor and pious Navarraise, Anita (mezzo) and a courageous sergeant, Araquil (tenor) has blossomed.  His father (baritone) is contemptuous, and demands an exorbitant dowry if he is to countenance their union.  His general (bass) promotes him for valor.  Anita, despairing, swears to the general that she will kill the rebel leader for a cash reward of the necessary sum.  She spontaneously swears that she will not tell a living soul of her deed.  The general does not take this offer seriously, but she rushes off to attempt assassination anyway.  Camp rumor more than hints to Araquil that his lover is a spy or worse, and attests that she has been seen behind enemy lines, asking for the rebel leader.  Desperate, he rushes off in his turn, to find and stop her.  She returns from her mission triumphant, and receives her reward; he returns mortally wounded.  He demands to know how she got the money she offers him as her dowry; she refuses to tell.  He makes predictable inferences; she despairs.  In his last delirious moments, his father explains to him that the knell tolls neither for him nor his love, but for the rebel leader.  Enlightenment dawns on poor Araquil and he utters an enigmatic "C'est horrible" before expiring.  La Navarraise goes mad.  The extravagant libretto may be found here (one of its most interesting features to me was the recurrent textual motif of madness, foreshadowing the end.)

As may be inferred from the above synopsis, there is, musically speaking, never a dull moment.  A highlight is the atmospheric "Nocturne", which provides an interlude while the soldiers settle down for the night and we are in agonizing ignorance as to the fate of our protagonists.  Here as in Cavalleria, Veronesi maintained dramatic momentum and rich sound.  Ildar Abdrazakov, in a textbook example of luxury casting, gave the principled general's relatively small part great emotional depth.  A nice, and possibly rare example, of how his voice lends itself to a non-villainous role.  I quite liked Issachah Savage (another under-construction website) as the lyric tenor who expresses leering cynicism about what Anita is doing behind enemy lines.  As I managed to miss her in both Carmen and Cenerentola (Really Shameful Confession), this was my first time hearing Elina Garanca live.  I was impressed both by her instrument and her command of it; she has a beautiful voice, from rich chest tones to clarion high notes.  But.  As the above synopsis makes clear, Anita is a character on the emotional brink from start to finish of a tempestuous journey.  And nowhere in Garanca's beautifully executed performance did I hear this desperation.  In her first scene, she is examining the few straggling survivors of a bloody skirmish in hopes of finding Araquil; when her lover finally appears, that "Ah!" was a gorgeous sound... but not the cry of a woman in love.

Garanca's relative coldness was, in a sense, highlighted by Alagna's commitment.  So this, I thought to myself, is what reviewers mean when they speak of the French repertory as being among his best work, and of him as one of its best exponents.  I could understand every exquisite word, and every word was given exquisite expression.  The strikingly non-glamorized depiction of war by the score and text was borne out by his portrayal of Araquil, in grief for killed companions, matter-of-fact pride in doing his duty, and hope for personal peace, at least, with Anita.  He even managed to act the thankless scene of "male romantic protagonist suspecting female romantic protagonist of infidelity when she has really accomplished deed of self-sacrifice" credibly and sympathetically.  I was looking for blood on the music stand during the death scene.  French rep for Alagna forever! least after next month's Don Carlo.

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