Armiliato, Marco


Anna BolenaGaetano Donizetti - Anna Bolena

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2011 | Marco Armiliato, David McVicar, Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Ildar Abdrazakov, Keith Miller, Stephen Costello, Eduardo Valdes, Tamara Mumford | Sky Arts, The Met Live in HD - Oct 15th 2011

The Metropolitan Opera in New York chose the first of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy of operas, Anna Bolena, to open its 2011-12 season and also be the first of its Live in HD broadcasts for the season. With David McVicar now also directing Donizetto’s second Tudor opera Maria Stuarda for the 2012-13 season (broadcast this weekend Live in HD), and presumably in line to complete the trilogy with Roberto Devereux next season, it seemed a good point to catch up with the earlier production since it is currently available for viewing on the Sky Arts channel in the UK.

Moreso than the other two works in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, and indeed unlike most bel canto historical period dramas - Lucrezia Borgia and I Puritani, for example - Anna Bolena is a work that uses its history as rather more than just a colourful backdrop for the usual romantic intrigues leading to betrayal and despair. Those elements are certainly a part of what makes the story of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, human and relatable, but Donizetti’s work also takes into consideration the wider historical perspective and nature of the characters - particularly in what is revealed about Henry from his earlier marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It also takes into account the vast historical impact and the constitutional crisis that his desire to dissolve his marriage to Anne Boleyn would have on the English nation.

The first Act of Donizetti’s opera, opening in the oppressive atmosphere of the court of Greenwich Castle, establishes the context exceptionally well. Courtiers mill around, wary of the evident problems in the royal marriage that hasn’t borne Henry a male heir, while Anne looks troubled, feels isolated, her thoughts dark and gloomy. Even her Smeaton’s love-song ballad - the pageboy in love with the Queen himself - only reminds Anne of the way love can go wrong. Yet, she still can’t sense the guilt that is weighing upon Jane Seymour, or the seriousness of the threat that is posed by her lady-in-waiting’s affair with the King. Henry promises Jane “a husband, a sceptre, a throne”, but for Jane her personal sense of shame can only be alleviated by the legitimacy of marriage and that will come at a price. In order to break with Anne, Henry recalls the exiled Richard Percy, believing he can find justification in Percy’s prior relationship with Anne Boleyn to annul the marriage, but the unexpected presence of the love-struck Smeaton in Anne’s bedchamber gives Henry the opportunity to go even further.

The dilemma is laid out very clearly in Felice Romano’s libretto, but even more so in Donizetti’s brooding score which captures all of the drama and the dark foreboding of what lies ahead. That needs to come across in the setting as well as in the music and the singing performances, and by and large David McVicar’s production manages to get to the heart of those sentiments. It’s resolutely period in setting and somewhat stiffly arranged, the sets amounting to nothing more really than walls and doors - big doors, mind you - but this is an opera that works as a piece, a work driven by the dramatic flow rather than adhering to the standard bel canto number format, and the director manages to maintain a consistency of tone and purpose, allowing room for manoeuvre and expression over and beyond the words in the singing and in the coloratura of the singing. And for that you need exceptional singing talent.

The singing here, while very good across all the roles and showing no fatal weaknesses, was however not what you’d call exceptional. Ekaterina Gubanova perhaps comes across best as Jane Seymour, singing well and with feeling, making you really care about her character’s predicament and even pitying her not only for being in love with a nasty figure like Henry, but for having to admit it to Anne. She is very convincing in her dilemma, and her confession scene with Anna Netrebko’s Anna is consequently one of the best scenes in this production. Evidently however, all eyes are on Netrebko, but for the most part she is curiously stiff and even strangely vacuous, never delivering a performance as good as the one she delivered in this role in Vienna only a few months earlier (available on Blu-ray and DVD). When it’s needed however, she really gets her voice behind the extreme emotions and anguish of Anna Boleyn, if not always finding the variety of expression required in the coloratura, and even on occasion sounding a little hoarse on the high notes. Often it just sounds forced and operatically mannered, which is not something I’ve heard before in Netrebko’s usually more expressive and considered delivery.

Bearing the weight of history and a role that could so easily be simplified into an operatic ‘baddie’, it’s tough to bring any kind of degree of humanity and realism to the role of Henry. Donizetti and Romani recognise however that there is a man behind the crown (”May Henry be kind, even if the King is cruel”) and they rather brilliantly capture that in the music and the libretto. It’s particularly relevant in scene when Henry realises that Boleyn was “Percy’s wife. Before Henry” and in his subsequent scene with Jane Seymour that seals Anne’s fate, the whole sequence epitomising and encapsulating Henry’s attitude, his male pride, his kingly pride and the realisation that he can use that information and privileged position to his advantage. These are crucial scenes to the work where a singer has to make Henry’s dangerous authority and his ability to command a situation clear. Donizetti certainly nails it in the music, and fortunately so does Ildar Abdrazakov in the singing here.

Stephen Costello doesn’t have the most melodic tone as Percy, but is firm and steady and his singing is not without considerable feeling for the role. The importance of Mark Smeaton shouldn’t be underestimated in this opera and fortunately it was well-cast with Tamara Mumford in the trouser role, and the part was well-directed by David McVicar. There’s a sense of the bloody reality of Henry’s reign brought home in Smeaton’s confession under torture, McVicar bringing a certain realism that emphasises the horror of the situation and the brutality of the period. That’s balanced however with a rather more delicate touch in the symbolic fall of a blood red curtain at the execution scene. It’s the little touches that often count with McVicar and he brought them to bear effectively where they were most needed in a work that elsewhere didn’t quite have the urgency of the Vienna production.

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.

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.

OtelloGiuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opéra National de Paris | Marco Armiliato, Andrei Serban, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Sergei Murzaev, Michael Fabiano, Francisco Almanza, Carlo Cigni, Roberto Tagliavini, Renée Fleming, Nona Javakhidze, Chae Wook Lim | Opéra Bastille, Paris, France - 28 June 2011

The relative restraint and respect for the source that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito afford Shakespeare’s drama is all the more apparent to me for having a few nights previously watched a production of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (and also relatively recently, a Blu-ray recording of Verdi’s Macbeth). While Shakespearean drama suits the familiar big Verdi subjects of romance, jealousy and revenge, Otello (1887) however marks a change in Verdi’s approach to opera composition, moving away from the bel canto tradition in Italian opera that has been influential in his composition of great arias to express the blood-and-thunder nature of the subjects, towards a more dramatic focus with emphasis on psychologically realistic characterisation and a musical integrity that doesn’t stop at intervals to let the diva show off her vocal talents.

The amount of effort that went into consideration of the nature of the drama and the make-up of the characters is clearly evident in the way the drama plays out and in the respectful reading in the performance by the Opéra National de Paris at the Bastille that adhered to these intentions with a relatively low-key approach to a highly emotive subject – jealousy. The programme however revealed detailed notes made by the librettist Arrigo Boito on each of the characters and on how they out should be played. In the case of Desdemona, for example, he notes that “the serene and chaste figure of Desdemona must present a profound experience of love, purity, nobility, goodness, innocence and devotion… the more natural and measured her playing, the better she will arouse the sympathy of the spectator”. There could hardly be a better description than that of the performance of Desdemona in this production by Renée Fleming, although I would also add that her honey-inflected voice brought out another level to the nature of her character that was thrilling to see played-out to its inevitable and moving conclusion. Unfortunately, while Fleming came out of it better than most, I don’t feel that the direction or the dramatic staging in the revival of this 2004 production by Andrei Serban helped her or any of the other performers.

Otello

There’s a need to remain controlled and restrained, but there’s also a need to let go in Otello, even if it’s just a flash of emotional torment, rage, desire, jealousy or cruelty. It’s certainly there in the musical composition, which is measured and calculated both within the score and the libretto to achieve the maximum impact of the necessary condensation of the original drama, we saw it also in some of the performances, but it wasn’t brought out or enhanced by the sets or the stage direction. Visually, the sets looked fine during each of the three acts, in a typically tasteful Paris Opera fashion, making good use of the full width and height of the stage through a mixture of uncluttered props, organised choreography, strong colours and lighting and a considered amount of projections. It was however, too brightly lit, too colourful, too clean-cut and smooth-edged to be appropriate for the sombre tone of the opera itself, and there consequently remained a disparity between the content of the opera and how it actually looked.

It’s hard not to identify that the principal theme of Otello is jealousy, but what is marvellous is the subtle way that Verdi and Boito handle the potentially melodramatic situation that develops between Othello and Desdemona. The composer takes time to establish all the courage of the Moorish governor of Cyprus, all the charm, beauty and innocence of Desdemona and the love and devotion that they share, but he shows the utter devastation that jealousy can wreak on even the most stable of personalities and relationships, and this slow-acting poison is introduced brilliantly in the form of Iago. We were perhaps fortunate that on the performance I attended we had Sergei Murzaev in the role of Iago, since on alternate nights, Lucio Gallo took over the role and, by most accounts, played the part in his usual baritone baddie manner that was ill-suited to this particular role. Murzaev was a much more subtle and insidious presence, which is really how it should be, because, regardless of the order of billing or the actual amount of singing, it’s Iago who has the most important role in determining the course of events.

Otello

In an opera that doesn’t have any particularly big moments – apart obviously from Desdemona’s death scene, which was indeed extraordinarily moving here – one of the most famous arias in the opera (one not directly drawn from Shakespeare, it must be noted) is Iago’s Credo, where he lays out the nature of his cynicism in a powerful manner that the subverts Christian belief system. Wonderfully, and clearly thought through by Verdi and Boito, even if it does adhere to familiar stereotyping of the tenor, soprano and baritone types, the declamatory nature of the baritone villain in this section is balanced by the lyrical beauty of the soprano and the noble tenor elsewhere. They too each have their moments, but they are far from the usual playing of such roles. It’s Iago who runs this show, and his presence, his very existence, removes any trace of romantic idealism. If there is necessarily less ambiguity in the characterisation within the compressed libretto, Verdi makes these colourations in the score and in the very structure of the opera that refuses to play according to type.

All of this came through marvellously in this Paris Opera production, the orchestra finding those subtleties of shading, and the singers by and large finding and expressing the nature of their characters, particularly Sergei Murzaev and Renée Fleming. Aleksandrs Antonenko sang well and was a strong presence, but I would have liked to see him let his mask slip on occasion, as he appeared to suffer from the operatic version of the some Shakespearean actors’ gravitas and solemnity, intoning the scared words and going through the motions on cue, without ever hinting at any deeper understanding of his character. True, Othello is manipulated throughout by Iago like a puppet, but there should always remain the deeper resolve within Othello that the character exhibits earlier in the drama, which is not so much broken down as twisted into a perversion of its original nature in a way that reflects Iago’s Credo. The stage direction was somewhat lacking in this respect, failing to suit the drama or find a unifying theme or concept that would support the wonderful coherency and intelligence within Verdi’s opera, but the performance alone, aligned with the strong themes of the original work, was strong enough nonetheless to carry this through.