Calleja, Joseph


RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Árpád Schilling, Joseph Calleja, Franco Vassallo, Patricia Pettibon, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Nadia Krasteva, Tim Kuypers, Dean Power, Christian Rieger | Live Internet Streaming, 30 December 2012

Despite appearances, with a production that made use of some eccentric touches in each of the scenes, the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Verdi’s Rigoletto didn’t really seem to have anything new or even meaningful to add to a popular and brilliant work from the composer that will surely have more memorable outings in the year of his bicentenary. Better sung ones too, undoubtedly, but that might have been a problem with the failure of director Árpád Schilling to give the fine singers here any meaningful characterisation and direction to work with.

There’s little doubt about where the focus of interest in the opera is from Verdi’s perspective. It’s not about the King’s or, in this case, the Duke’s amusements (the work derived from Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi s’amuse‘), as much as the dilemma of the little man, Rigoletto, his court jester, who is caught up in the intrigues and less capable of dealing with the fall-out that results from the Duke of Mantua’s wilder and more licentious activities. What’s intriguing about the work is how Rigoletto is not entirely a sympathetic figure (and the Duke is not entirely without some redeemable features either), and that he is in many ways the agent of his own downfall - even though he can’t see that as being anything more than the curse of one courtier, Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke.

That much is retained in Schilling’s version for Munich, and it would be hard to present Rigoletto in any other way, such is the precision of Verdi’s structuring of the work and his purposeful musical arrangements, the opera driven by a series of duets that establish the characterisation and the relationships between each of the figures. Rigoletto is indeed shown - perhaps through no fault of his own having been born a hunchback and otherwise unable to attain love and acceptance through ordinary means - to be a lapdog to the Duke of Mantua, complicit in his schemes, believing himself secure in his favoured position. He’s not completely naive however. He knows the true nature of the Duke and looks to protect his own little idealised existence - his daughter - from the kind of corruption that he himself is party to. Rigoletto is “an amoral petty bourgeois man” according to Schilling, “who dreams of innocence”, and who in the end is destroyed by his own attempts to defend this untenable position.

That’s fine as far as it goes, and if it doesn’t present any new ideas on the nature of Rigoletto, it at least adheres to Verdi’s dramatic and musically astute depiction of this intriguing figure. There’s no necessity either for Rigoletto to be dressed as a court jester or bear his deformity in order to draw his character - Verdi has it so well written in his musical arrangements. If the costume designer chooses to dress him in a shirt, chinos and a neckscarf, changing to a white bow-tie, top-hat and tails for the final scene, that’s just as fine a way of distinguishing his social aspirations. And if the Duke slums around in slacks, a chunky cardigan and vest shirt, and Gilda wears a jumper and jeans or a bathrobe, well, it doesn’t look like much, but Rigoletto need not be as much about class and clothes as personality and love. And since Gilda loves Gualtier Malde whether he is a poor student or a nobleman, there’s no need here for lavish period costumes.

It still doesn’t look like much. What passes for distinctiveness in the production in the absence of any social or period context however is unfortunately rather odd. In Act 1, the court of the Duke is represented by a stepped platform, a viewing gallery from which the courtiers watch the proceedings. In the second scene, the assassin Sparafucile’s weapon isn’t a sword, but a wheelchair with oversize wheels - or more precisely, a flick-knife and a tin of black paint that he uses on his victims having lured them to sit in the strange wheeled apparatus. A huge statue of a rearing horse is wheeled out briefly as the climax to Act 2 for no apparent reason or significance, and Act 3 brings back the steps for the inn scene. It’s all very representational - if the meaning isn’t entirely clear - but it doesn’t unfortunately create the necessary impression.

In such a context, neither unfortunately does the singing. Joseph Calleja sings well enough, but his Duke lacks regal arrogance and boyish charm and there’s a curious lack of feeling in his delivery. There’s a little more urgency to Franco Vassallo’s Rigoletto and Patricia Pettibon’s rather more sympathetic Gilda, but the direction never allows them to express the roles with any sense of feeling for the drama. One other curious touch in the casting that might have significance is the duality or contrast made by casting Dimitry Ivashchenko as both Monterone and Sparafucile and having Nadia Krasteva play Maddalena and Gilda’s maidservant Giovanna - but again, what this adds exactly to the work remains elusive. Still, despite the best efforts of the production design and direction to undermine it, the Bavarian State Opera production of Rigoletto benefitted from reasonably good singing performances, and ultimately won through by virtue alone of the wonder of Verdi’s score and its performance by the Munich orchestra under Marco Armiliato.

Rigoletto was viewed via live Internet Streaming from the Bayerische Staatsoper.TV website. The next free live broadcast will be Janáček’s Jenufa starring Karita Mattila on 9th March 2013.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

The Royal Opera - Covent Garden, 2010 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Eyre, Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja, Thomas Hampson, Monika-Evelin Liiv, Sarah Pring, Haoyin Xue, Eddie Wade | Opus Arte

Renée Fleming has matured into one of the finest sopranos around at the moment, a true star with a sparkling personality and a velvet-toned voice that is capable of wringing the finest emotions out of works by Strauss and Tchaikovsky that from a lesser singer could sound rather cold and clinical. I wouldn’t have thought her voice would be so well suited to Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, and it does take some getting used to, but I think she at least brings a distinct quality to the role with an emotional heart that isn’t always necessarily there when a leading diva uses it primarily as a display for her vocal talents. It’s served well also by Antonio Pappano’s conducting of the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a traditional but effective production by Richard Eyre.

There’s only one way to really measure the true performance of La Traviata however, and that is by the qualities of the soprano. Renée Fleming does seem a little faltering in the first act, the warm enveloping richness of her tone perhaps not quite bringing out the clarity of the Italian diction. The production also seems a little disjointed in Act 1, setting up the great arias well (and is there any opera that has quite so many memorable, technically and dramatically impressive arias?), but not really sure what to do with the performers in between. Fleming’s ‘È strano …ah forsè’lui‘ however is excellent, the soprano most definitely singing it her own way, putting a different complexion and personal interpretation on the opera.

If Act I doesn’t flow as well as one might hope, Act II however is superb in every respect – singing, dramatic representation, the precision and timing of the orchestration all played to perfection in both scenes. Fleming’s duet with Hampson’s Germont Sr., ‘Ah! Dite alla giovine‘, is technically stunning, but at the same time full of heartfelt emotion. I’ve rarely seen it done so well and it’s capable of leaving you dead in your tracks. Much as I sometimes find Act III a little gruelling in this opera, here it also comes across with great emotional force, again primarily down to Fleming’s superb acting talent, but also to how well she blends with Joseph Calleja. Calleja is a tenor very much in the classic mould of a Pavarotti or Domingo, and as such is perfectly suited to a role such as Alfredo. There is some maturing to be done in his voice, and he certainly doesn’t have the personality or range of the greats, but his voice has a beautiful tone and blends well with Fleming here.

It’s hard then to find fault with the production or the performances, but there are so many versions of La Traviata out there that a new version really needs something special to entice you into reconsidering it anew (such as in the fascinating Willy Decker production with Anna Netrebko). This is a straightforward, traditional, period staging – it doesn’t add anything new, it doesn’t make the viewer reconsider the whole tone of the piece or allow them to plunge into its emotional heart – but it has Renée Fleming, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. Other than for Fleming however, one can’t help but feel that this would indeed be just another La Traviata.

The quality of the Blu-ray release is good, but not great. The lighting is rather soft, so it doesn’t have the clarity you might expect, but it does seem to capture a sense of the ambience of Covent Garden. The audio likewise doesn’t really have a full depth of tone. The violins dominate, but feel slightly detached from the rest of the orchestration in the 5.1 mix, only occasionally achieving the thunderous tone that is often demanded. The PCM stereo mix however is excellent and may be the better option. The extras on the disc consists of a worthwhile 21-minute interview of Fleming by Pappano, where the soprano acknowledges the personal challenges the role represents, and describes her technical approach.

LammermoorGaetano Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Mary Zimmerman, Natalie Dessay, Joseph Calleja, Ludovic Tézier, Kwangchul Youn | The Met: Live in HD - March 19, 2011

Donizetti’s bel canto operas, with their emphasis on elaborate ornamentation of extremely challenging vocal parts that would give their lead players an opportunity to demonstrate the virtuosity of their singing, were considered somewhat old-fashioned even by the end of the nineteenth century when the huge influence of Richard Wagner put dramatic content back at the heart of the music-drama. Of all Donizetti’s operas, it’s the dramatic tragedy of Lucia de Lammermoor (1835) that is considered to be the opera that gives its prima donna the opportunity to demonstrate her vocal prowess.

It’s a role therefore that Natalie Dessay, along with perhaps La Fille du Regiment, is most associated with, and it’s clearly a role that the French soprano relishes. Dessay starred in the first run of the oft-criticised Mary Zimmerman’s much-maligned 2007 production, and, indulged by the current conductor Patrick Summers, she clearly delights in adding a capella embellishments to the coloratura – particularly in Lucia’s “Mad Scene” at her wedding. There were some worrying signs at the start of the performance that her voice might no longer be quite up to it or that it was showing signs of tiredness perhaps from rather overdoing things in the current run of performances (this Live in HD broadcast was the last Lucia of the season), but Dessay in her interval interview put it down to a dry throat, and certainly didn’t let it affect her extraordinary performance elsewhere.

What is even more wonderful about her performance is that, while fully rising to the challenges of Lucia’s vocal parts, she also managed to remain focussed on her character’s dramatic journey of gradual disintegration. Lucia is torn between she man she loves, Edgardo di Ravenswood, and the duty towards her family, the Ashtons, and comes to feel that she is being used in the great feud that has existed between the two families. Those concerns are heightened by her own fragile state of mind, one perhaps made fragile because of the long-running rivalry that has seen other tragic events take place, events in the past that leave ghosts in the grounds of Lammermoor castle that still haunt Lucia.

Based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, this is the stuff of pure melodrama however, and it can’t honestly be said that Donizetti seeks to give it any greater psychological depth or dramatic credibility, either through the playing out of the intense scenes or through any subtlety in the musical composition of the piece. It’s straightforward blood-and-thunder melodrama fuelled by jealousy and political rivalry (one can see the huge influence the piece has on the works of Verdi in this respect, as well as in some of the musical arrangements), with expressions of deeply romantic and forbidden love, swooning heroines, challenges to duels – the restored Wolf’s Crag scene, often cut, is intact here at the beginning of Act 3, only adding to an already over-heated situation – and of course a descent into pure madness and death with thunderstorms raging outside.

Lammermoor

All of which would seem to give credence to the rather old-fashioned nature of the opera as little more than a dramatic piece for the leading diva to show off her credentials, and in some cases even make a name for herself. To mess about with any of these elements or to try to downplay those excesses could prove fatal to the sheer crowd-pleasing enjoyment that the opera, with its beautiful melodies and dramatic sense of purpose nevertheless contains. This production somehow manages to successfully retain all these elements, while also managing to give a little more depth to the piece, or at least, by even including the presence of real ghosts, throw up other elements for consideration.

Partly, that’s down to the fine production that stirs up echoes of the best cinematic equivalents – the likes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the 1943 Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine and even Dreyer’s silent film Michael – films likewise of a bygone age, made during the silent period or shortly afterwards, made to a style that is somewhat old-fashioned now, but still retaining an enormous power of the “they don’t make them like that anymore” kind. They don’t make operas like Lucia di Lammermoor anymore either, but they should be cherished and lavished with a sympathetic presentation and that is fully achieved in the elaborate sets that reach upwards, like an old film in academy ratio rather than in widescreen. If filmed, and shown in black-and-white, this Lucia di Lammermoor could convincingly pass for a film from the late 1930s or early 1940s, in its style, in its content and in its production values.

Given that kind of stage to work with, each of the singers fully enter into the spirit of the drama, but some try to bring a little more shading to the characters. Vocally, all fully meet the demands – Dessay, evidently, but Joseph Callejo is a bit of a revelation, with a classic tenor voice that, with a bit more robustness and fitting of it into a more solid dramatic context, will be a fine singer of bel canto and Verdi dramas. In his interval interview, Ludovic Tézier made some interesting observations about his Enrico, seeing him not just as a stereotypical baritone baddie, but as a character who is as cracked and has been pushed as close to madness as Lucia, adding a further dimension to the tragedy.

On the actual Met Live in HD production itself, Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the more fascinating broadcasts of the season from a backstage point of view, Renée Fleming presenting and managing to get a wealth of behind-the-scenes information from the performers, from the Irish Wolfhound handlers and from backstage crew managers. The two intervals drew out a relatively swift moving opera to excessive lengths (there have been some criticisms of this in the press), but the sheer scale of the elaborate production was revealed in such fascinating detail that the audience at the cinema I attended sat glued to the screen watching the stage-hands manoeuvre it all into place. Along with the success of this particular performance, the clever promotion for the next production, Le Comte Ory, another star-studded bel canto opera, will ensure that the growing attendance at these broadcasts will all be back for more of the same in two weeks time.