Flórez, Juan Diego


ZelmiraGioachino Rossini - Zelmira

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2009 | Roberto Abbado, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Alex Esposito, Kate Aldrich, Juan Diego Flórez, Gregory Kunde, Marianna Pizzolato, Mirco Palazzi, Francisco Brito, Sávio Sperandio | Decca

Rossini’s final opera written for Naples, Zelmira, is rather less well-known now than the greater works written for Paris that immediately follow it - Moïse et Pharaon, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell. It’s an opera that places exceptional demands on the singers, but perhaps no more so than those later works, so that only accounts for part of the reason why it so rarely performed. Produced for the Rossini Opera Festival in 2009, the problems with staging Zelmira would seem to derive from the nature of the work itself as an opera seria. It’s a long work that follows the format of set scenes and emotions that presents challenges that even the musical invention of Rossini or strong singing performances alone can’t overcome. It needs to work dramatically, and unfortunately, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s messy and confused production for Pesaro doesn’t do much to help it.

Although there are claims by Roberto Abbado and the Pesaro Festival organisers that Rossini’s music here extends the constraints of opera seria, the structure remains largely intact, and Rossini in reality does little more than play around to bring the form of the da capo aria into what we associate today with bel canto ornamentation. There are some terrific arias and arrangements here in Zelmira, but there is nothing that Rossini hasn’t already taken much further and with better dramatic integrity in earlier work for Naples like La Donna del Lago. The music for Zelmira for the most part - in between the showpiece arias - remains fairly rigid and lacking in variation, building from a canter to a gallop in that famous Rossinian style to create a rising emotional intensity, but its peaks are ill-served and ill-matched to an unexciting plot.

The main problem lies with the fact that the overall structure of the piece is weighed down by the unwieldy conventions of the opera seria form. The plot of Zelmira is mechanical and improbable, relying on standard situations, coincidences and actions that arise from rather one-dimensional character development. In the tradition of Baroque opera, the main dramatic drivers of the action have already taken place even before the opera even starts. Set on the isle of Lesbos, a struggle for power has erupted while Ilo, the husband of Zelmira, has gone to defend the homeland. Azor, the Lord of Mytilene, has launched an attack, burning down the temple of Ceres, where Azor has been led to believe - on the word of Zelmira - that her father, King Polidoro is hiding. Zelmira however has secured her father secretly in the royal mausoleum. Antenore takes advantage of the situation, killing Azor, laying claim to the throne himself and he accuses Zelmira of being complicit in the death of Azor and her father, the king, as well.

Now there are plenty of opportunities for Zelmira to prove her innocence during Act 1 of the actual opera, but Rossini forgoes any realistic dramatic progression to the conventions of opera seria where everyone laments the current state of affairs in arias adorned with repetition and ornamentation. The troops lament the death of Azor, Polidoro is distraught and broken alone in his hiding place, while Zelmira’s protests of innocence fall on deaf ears. Amazingly, there seem to be no witnesses among the public or the troops to back up her claims, and even faced with imprisonment, Zelmira doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to reveal that the king is not actually dead. She is at least able to eventually convince her confidante Emma to take her young son into hiding.

Even when her husband Ilo returns to his homeland (delivering one of Rossini’s great arias - ‘Terra Amica‘), Zelmira’s actions only seem to dig her in deeper and it’s Antenore and his lieutenant Leucippo’s account that Ilo is told. In one of those improbable situations that only occur in opera then, Zelmira - attempting to rescue Ilo from assassination by Leucippo, ends up with the dagger in her own hand and has another crime to answer for. Inevitably, it’s going to take a few more rounds of arias to assimilate the enormity of this new heinous act and the kind of conflicted emotions it engenders in each of characters, before Zelmira eventually produces Polidoro and her son, and the villains are found out.

Ostensibly then Zelmira is very much in the tradition of the opera seria, dealing with rulers, power, corruption and lies, but in reality, as the title of the opera derived from the name of the heroine suggests, it’s more about the heroine, Zelmira. Faced with injustice, false accusations, her innocence and integrity called unjustly into question, Zelmira is very much the early prototype for the bel canto heroines of Donizetti and Bellini. As such, and particularly in how it holds closely to the opera seria style and stretching as it does to three and a quarter hours in length, Zelmira can be a bit of a stretch for anyone interested in strong character development and dramatic credibility, but it does have other compensating factors in the inventiveness of Rossini’s arrangements, the musical colours that he brings to the genre and the opportunities that this provides for the singers to imprint personality and character onto the work through their singing delivery.

If Kate Aldrich isn’t quite able to make her Zelmira work, it’s through no fault of her singing which has real power and expressiveness, but rather more of a question of this being a role that requires a singer of greater stature and personality to bring it to life and make her predicament credible and sympathetic. The same challenge faces all the singers here, but in their case, they really need better stage direction and a better production design than the one provided here. Juan Diego Flórez has plenty of personality and the range to meet the demands of this kind of Rossinian role - strong, resonant, wonderfully musical and expressive, but his high timbre is never the most pleasant and it’s not helped by the acoustics of the stage (set up in Pesaro’s Adriatic basketball arena) and sounds quite piercing at the high notes in a way that is hard on the ears. The sound suits the bass and bass-baritone voices much better, giving a lovely resonance to Alex Esposito’s grave Polidoro and Mirco Palazzi’s Leucippo, whose recitative even sounds beautifully rounded and musical. Gregory Kunde however also comes across well as Antenore, and Marianna Pizzolato almost steals the show with her luxurious mezzo-soprano in the contralto role of Emma.

With a cast this good, a stronger production might have made all the difference, but Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s concept doesn’t seem to suit the character of the work. Instead of Zelmira’s predicament, the focus is very much upon the nature of war and power, the director setting the production in near darkness, using overhead mirrors to reflect the darker and hidden side of all these power struggles and lies that we don’t normally see, reflecting wounded, tortured and dead troops placed beneath the grilled stage. Apart from not really helping the opera where it needs the support, it actually works against it, making it seem very messy, unfocussed and often downright ugly.

It may have looked better in the theatre, but the darkness of the stage, the figures highlighted in pale yellow light, with confusing reflections in the background mirrors, doesn’t come across well on the screen, even in High Definition. There appears to be some post-production adjustments to balance the contrasts, and even shadowing applied to block out the frequently visible conductor Roberto Abbado at the front of the stage, but this only proves to be even more distracting and messy. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks on the Blu-ray disc however are mostly fine, even if there is some harshness in the reverb of the acoustics. The Decca BD also includes a 25-minute Making Of, which contains interesting thoughts and information on the work itself and the production from the cast and the production team.

ChamounixGaetano Donizetti - Linda di Chamounix

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Emilio Sagi, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, Bruno de Simone, Simón Orfila, Pietro Spagnoli, Silvia Tro Santafé, Jordi Casanova, María José Suárez, Mariola Cantarero, Ismael Jordi, Paolo Bordogna, Mirco Palazzi, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Fabio Capitanucci | 7 and 8 January 2012

As an example of the semiseria opera tradition, where tragedy ensues but everything nonetheless works through to a happy end, the plot of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix shares a familiar plot line that is more than a little overwrought and even in parts ridiculous. Like Halévy’s semiseria Clari, recently rediscovered and revived (not entirely convincingly) by Cecilia Bartoli, it involves a young woman from the country, an Alpine virgin, who runs away to Paris on the promise of marriage to a rich man and in the process not only risks destroying the good name of her family but also losing her virtue and losing her mind when her fiancée seems to be unable to or is prevented from making an honest woman out of her.

In Haléy’s opera - written for the soprano Maria Malibran - this is an occasion then for long-winded opera-seria like virtuoso bel canto singing with extravagant coloratura to suggest the depths of despair, torment and eventual breakdown its heroine endures, as well as emphasising the importance of virtue in a manner that seems terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards and scarcely worthy of revival. Also rarely performed nowadays, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix is similarly encumbered by stern moralising, but the challenges of producing it lie more in the difficulty of finding bel canto singers capable of meeting its comparatively modest, but no less demanding singing roles. This new production from Emilio Sagi for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez in the main roles of Linda and Carlo, demonstrated the importance of the casting for this opera, one that is vital for it to work even half way convincingly.

Making this overall plot work is quite a challenge, but set-up in Act 1 at least is conventional enough. Linda is a pure and beautiful young country girl, the daughter of tenant farmers in the Alpine Savoy region of France in 1760. She is being pursued by the landowner, the Marquis de Boisfleury, a notorious libertine and seducer of young girls, who believes he has some claim to her, having extended her family’s lease on their factory. Warned of the intentions of Boisfleury by the Prefect, her father sends her away to Paris, entrusting her to her childhood friend Pierotto, but it means that Linda has to leave behind her true love, Carlo. Carlo, who has been keeping his identity secret, is the nephew of the Marquis de Boisfleury, promises “before God and man” that he will make Linda his wife, but his mother has other ideas and a more suitable match for the young viscount than a poor country girl.

Chamounix

Many of the difficulties with swallowing the dramatic developments occur in Act 2, where Linda, having been reduced to singing in the streets after Pierotto had fallen ill, has now been rescued by Carlo and installed in a luxurious Parisian apartment. By amazing coincidence, over the course it seems of an hour, she is joyously reunited with Pierotto; is then visited by the Marquis who suspects she is living in such surroundings on the expense of a rich admirer and believes it gives him freedom to make another play for her; is visited by Carlo who is concerned about the upcoming marriage that has been arranged for him; is then petitioned by her father who, when he discovers that the viscount’s mistress is none other than his daughter Linda, furiously repudiates her. To top it all, Pierotto returns to tell Linda that he has seen the preparations for Carlo’s marriage to another woman. Having endued all this, Linda, inevitably, and in the great opera tradition, goes mad.

The plot might sound outlandish and governed by extraordinarily unlikely coincidences, but Act 2 nonetheless manages to present the different facets of Linda’s situation with economical precision. Really, you couldn’t make the complications of Linda’s predicament any clearer. What helps matters and makes the contrivances rather more palatable, is of course the wonderful musical arrangements and the singing. Musically, Linda di Chamounix, coming several years after Lucia di Lammermoor and preceding the masterful Don Pasquale, is a rather more sophisticated affair than earlier Donizetti works. Characters are defined and identified by leitmotifs and the composer’s use of duets allows the dramatic flow to be maintained without the excesses of emotion expression in long arias. Even Linda’s ‘mad scene’ is a rather more restrained affair than the one in Lucia di Lammermoor, and so well orchestrated are the events that lead up to it, and so precise in delivery and expression is the scene, that it’s actually even more moving and tragic without all the excess.

While there may be few and shorter showcase arias than is customary, those that we have are demanding nonetheless and, when delivered by a singer of exceptional quality, certainly have their dramatic and emotional impact and linger in the mind, as much through the fine melodies of the mature Donizetti style as through the sentiments expressed in them and what they reveal about the characters. Diana Damrau’s mad scene consequently received long and enthusiastic applause at the Liceu, as did Juan Diego Flórez’s confidently delivered ‘Se tanto in ira agli uomini‘ in Act 2. Their expression of the characters in this difficult Act 2 was such that Act 3’s happy resolution of Linda being cured from the madness that has afflicted her by the refrain of Carlo’s promise, is capable of being musically satisfying as well as dramatically convincing. In the other roles, Simón Orfila had powerful presence and authority as the religious and moral guide, the Prefect, while Pietro Spagnoli was fine as Linda’s father Antonio.

Chamounix

The difference that this makes was evident from a viewing of another performance of the same production the previous evening with an alternate cast. Surprisingly however, the difference wasn’t exclusively down to the vocal characteristics alone. Both Mariola Cantarero and Ismael Jordi sang well - Jordi in particular fully deserving of the applause received for a fine performance that was a worthy alternative to Flórez, if Cantarero didn’t have quite the beauty of tone or range of Damrau, particularly when it came to holding that high note at the end of the mad scene. There was however a marked difference embodied in their characters, Damrau and Flórez a much more convincing couple who were able to breathe life into the characters that was lacking in the performance of the alternate cast. Mirco Palazzi was a good Prefect here, if not quite as powerful as Simón Orfilia, but I preferred Ketevan Kemoklidze’s Pierotto of the alternate cast over Silvia Tro Santafé, who has a pretty voice but irritatingly sang every note with vibrato. Fabio Capitanucci also made a stronger impression as Antonio, particularly in his duets with Linda and with the Prefect. Paolo Bordogna played the role of the Marquis de Boisfleury with a little more of a comic touch that seems right for the character, but Bruno de Simone’s Boisfleury fitted in better with the more sensitive touch of the Damrau/Florez pairing.

Emilio Sagi’s staging was perfectly in service of the opera without being overly conceptual or too literal. The nature of the Alpine Savoy region was evoked in clean, pure, classical lines, the inhabitants all dressed in white and far more fashionably and expensively than one would expect tenant farmers of a provincial region - but the outer garments were perhaps more of a representation of the inner nature of the characters. The same sense of classical design of Act 2 likewise reflected Linda’s inner purity, even when to outside eyes she appears to be an immoral kept woman in an expensive Parisian apartment. Marco Armiliato directed the orchestra of the Liceu delicately through Donizetti’s score, like the singers and in line with the restrained musical arrangements, maintaining a fine balance that held back any heavy-handed over-emphasis that might tip the work over into sentimental melodrama.

ComteOryGioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Juan Diego Flórez, Michele Pertusi, Joyce DiDonato, Stéphane Degout, Diana Damrau, Susanne Resmark, Monica Yunus | The Met: Live in HD - April 9, 2011

The big selling point of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2010/11 season has of course been the start of their new Ring cycle, the season opening with a technically impressive set and some wonderful singing for Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and it is due to end the season and prove the worth of its Ring cycle with the second instalment of the tetralogy Die Walküre later in the month. In between however, while there have been many highlights among the varied productions broadcast around the world live in HD, it’s undoubtedly been the bel canto operas that have stood out like sparkling little gems amidst the rather more solid fare of Boris Godunov, Don Carlo and Iphigénie en Tauride during the Met’s current season.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Lucia de Lammermoor where however revivals of successful Met productions, with Anna Netrebko and Nathalie Dessay slipping almost effortlessly into roles that they can be relied upon to perform exceptionally well, but the challenges of producing Le Comte Ory by Rossini, the father of bel canto, are rather different. One of the final operas composed by Rossini in France, a year before he prematurely retired from opera writing in 1829, Le Comte Ory features some of the composer’s most challenging singing roles in a rather more sophisticated composition that would draw on arrangements from some of his earlier Italian operas. Less well-known than the more famous Rossini works, it’s not so much then that Le Comte Ory is a lesser work by any means, but rather that it’s only recently that singers of sufficient ability have been trained to tackle the formidable challenges that Le Comte Ory – and indeed many other bel canto operas that are currently undergoing revival – present.

We’re talking evidently of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, one of a very few tenors who can consistently hit and hold the High Cs and Ds littered throughout the minefields of operas like La Fille du Regiment and Le Comte Ory to catch out and expose tenors who are rather less nimble and lacking in the kind of stamina they demand. Receiving its first performance ever at the Met for these reasons, it is indeed difficult to imagine anyone else but Juan Diego Flórez being able to carry off the role of the Count off with any conviction. It’s not however just a matter of being able to find a lead tenor who can meets the demands of the opera, Le Comte Ory also presents challenging roles for soprano and mezzo-soprano, and with Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato being drafted in to form a remarkable trio, the Met can justifiably make excuses for waiting so long to be able to assemble a worthy cast for Rossini’s late masterpiece.

ComteOry

Even after these successful performances, whether the opera is a masterpiece or not is however still open to question. The plot of the comic opera, based on a one-act 1816 vaudeville written by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson – who also produced the libretto for the opera – is not the most sophisticated. The story is little more than a Carry-on affair revolving around the activities of a notorious libertine who dons disguises in order to seduce as many of the women of the land as possible while their husbands are away fighting in the Crusades. In Act 1, wearing a long black flowing beard, he passes himself off as a wise hermit who dispenses advice to the women folk in exchange for offerings and one-on-one “consultations”. His ultimate aim is to bed the beautiful Countess Adèle, sister of the Count of Formoutiers, but he has a rival in the form of his own page, Isolier. His disguise rumbled by his own tutor, Ory regroups his forces and plans another assault on the women of the castle by disguising himself and his big bearded men as nuns on a pilgrimage.

The fact that Le Comte Ory is a comedy is in itself no reason why the opera can’t be great and reveal deeper truths about men, women, love and lust – Mozart’s operas with Da Ponte stand as testament to the deeper human urges and the tragic impulses that lie beneath them, expressed both through the music and the subtleties of the libretto. Le Comte Ory isn’t on the same level musically or in the libretto, but it is certainly a little more musically sophisticated than most other bel canto operas, and if the libretto doesn’t reveal any great truths or insights, the quality of the singing does at least raise it to another level. Flórez, unsurprisingly, is dazzling as the Count – even despite being up all the night previous to this performance and taking to the stage only a half hour after assisting his wife give birth – playing with verve and perfect comic timing, making it all look effortless yet consistently hitting all the high notes with not so much as a flutter or waver in tone. Diana Damrau was even more impressive as Adèle – her singing role equally if not even more challenging than that of the Count – adding colouratura and displaying impeccable legato in a performance that was not only technically flawless, but accompanied by fine, entertaining comic acting.

Despite having wonderfully written singing roles to demonstrate the exceptional singing ability and technique, the real test of the opera and its true brilliance is found however in the interaction of the singers, and in this respect, Flórez, Damrau and DiDonato formed a delightful team that fully justified the Met’s efforts to bring them together in this way. In this particular opera that close interaction is tested to its limit in a three-in-a-bed ménage-a-trois romp in Act II that not only lived up to the sauciness that was promised in the advance publicity for the opera – the scene exploiting the fact that DiDonato was in a trouser-role – but was as expertly orchestrated and choreographed as anything out of The Marriage of Figaro’s most complex mistaken identity denouements, with five to ten minutes of the most dazzlingly brilliant singing and entertainment delivered between the trio in the most tricky of acting situations. Simply stunning.

ComteOry

The stars all made their big impression then, but elsewhere they were well supported by a fine all-round production. Even though he explained the rationale behind the reduced scale of the production during his between act interview on the HD broadcast, I’m still not entirely clear why Bartlett Sher chose to stage the opera as a period opera staging-within-a-staging. It certainly put a little necessary comic distance between the theatricality of the old-style farce drama, but was also effective in allowing the performance to flow without long scene-change interruptions, which was ultimately to the benefit of the piece. The conducting of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Chorus by Maurizio Benini similarly played to the strengths of the opera’s fast-paced rhythms, and there was fine singing and performances also by Susanne Resmark as Dame Ragonde, the castle stewardess, and Michele Pertusi as the tutor.