|Principals of L'Africaine 1865 premiere in costume|
My impressions are of course hampered by the fact that this was my first hearing of the music, but I was favorably impressed, if not transported. Eve Queler was--understandably and, I think, commendably--applauded with a fervor that acknowledged her role as the OONY founder. However, while the orchestra gained in energy over the course of the evening, I suspected that the music could have been given more variation in dynamics and tempi to communicate the emotional drama of the score. Maybe I'm looking for something that's not there, but the orchestration, the vocal characterization, and the libretto all seemed to suggest the possibility for more intensity than I experienced. Still, the music was interesting and evocative. Piccolos, soft cymbals, and a triangle may seem like a musical cliché in the introduction of the Exotic Other, but if everyone else was copying Meyerbeer, one can't blame him (except for Orientalism.) The scene where de Gama's plans are debated in council was dramatically great--factions of a male chorus shouting at each other over an orchestra, with more important characters voicing their own motivations as well!--and the music of the mysterious island was lushly sensual. I'm not familiar enough with the score to say whether or not there were cuts; the music and drama developed smoothly, though.
The secondary roles were well-filled, with Harold Wilson (whom I feel retrospectively gratified to have noticed as the gaoler in Tosca) a standout as the High Priest of Brahma. Also impressive was bass-baritone Djoré Nance as the Grand Inquisitor. Daniel Mobbs--he's everywhere!--sang Don Pedro with fine melodic shaping and appropriate snakiness. Fikile Mvinjelwa must, I think, have been having an off night. His career is impressive, but as Nelusko, he seemed to shout through much of the role; huge swathes of his French were lost on me, and unfortunately, so was much of the nuance of the character, which is admittedly perhaps the most challenging in the opera. In the matter of the principals, I must confess that I have a more-than-occasional problem with damsel characters. Ellie Dehn has a sweet soprano, but it was only at the end that I felt she found a core of steel for Ines, who gets a lot of sentimental music but not, perhaps, a lot of brain. Dehn does have a pleasant timbre, though, and a staged production would certainly help the issue of individualization.
Marcello Giordani's amiable stage presence went a good way towards dulling my need to twitch or cringe when Vasco de Gama says that posterity will vindicate his enlightened ideas and make him immortal. Twitch, twitch, cringe! I do not think that he can be exonerated from a charge of Tenor Caddishness in his vacillating behavior towards the women in his life. However, de Gama gets a lot of good music, and is an interesting and complex character, capable of generosity and thoughtless cruelty, visionary ideas and narrow selfishness. Giordani was far more cautious and less subtle this evening than when I heard him as an excellent Dick Johnson. Having saved himself for the Act IV "O Paradis!" he sang it generously... and then relaxed. It was a competent and even ardent performance, but far from his best, I thought. This left soprano Chiara Taigi, in her U.S. debut, to steal the show, and steal it she did. (She also wore no fewer than three gowns and confirmed my stereotyped idea that all Roman women look fabulous and know how to dress themselves fabulously. Sigh.) Where has Taigi been all my life? All over the Italian peninsula, apparently, but not on my radio, and this is my loss. She has a huge, gorgeous dramatic soprano. If I were going to nitpick, I could say that it was only after her first scene that her range sounded effortlessly integrated and her top notes had the fullest sweetness. But then they did; I thought she was excellent, and she owned the stage and the role. Her dramatic commitment and ability were striking, and gave Selika the queenly dignity of a Dido. Her understanding of her own passion was poignant; her shame and pride, anger and generosity equally so. And her death scene was almost unbearably beautiful; when the sentimental chorus came in I almost wanted to tell them to shut up, as I was having a moment. Sniff! Stupid tenor... he didn't deserve her anyway.