Urmana, Violeta


GiocondaAmilcare Ponchielli - La Gioconda

Opéra National de Paris, 2013 | Daniel Oren, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Violeta Urmana, Luciana D’Intino, Orlin Anastassov, María José Montiel, Marcelo Álvarez, Claudio Sgura | Viva l’Opéra Cinema Live in HD, 13 May 2013

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is a work that seems ideal for the French lyric stage, but although written in 1876, it has never been performed before at the Paris Opera. Watching it via cinema broadcast from the Opéra National de Paris in its first ever production there, a few reasons come to mind why this work of undoubted quality hasn’t been performed more often. Firstly, it probably falls into the same category as Meyerbeer’s operas, works that are a bit old-fashioned and overly ornate, their melodramatic content too exaggerated with Grand Operatic mannerisms for the tastes of a modern audience. Ponchielli was a contemporary of Verdi, but perhaps more significantly, Puccini was one of his pupils and the verismo style of the next generation of Italian composers undoubtedly played a large part in consigning many of the absurdities of the old style to the past.

The other reason La Gioconda perhaps hasn’t been performed more often is probably for much the same reason that the bel canto repertoire fell into neglect for almost a century - it really takes exceptional singers of personality and stature to really bring its qualities to life. It’s no surprise that the last time the work enjoyed popularity was when it was performed by Maria Callas and by Renata Tebaldi in the 1950s, but it’s rarely been heard since then. I wouldn’t say that Violeta Urmana is in the category of the world’s greatest sopranos, even by contemporary standards, but she certainly attacked the role with passion and distinction here in the Paris Opera’s production. What the Paris La Gioconda revealed however is that the work doesn’t just rely on the quality of the soprano singing the title role, but that there are five other difficult and challenging roles that it is essential to get right. Here, the Paris production was less convincing.

The set design for the opera’s Venetian locations at least looked terrific. Pier Luigi Pizzi creates the kind of typical big, bold design in primary colours that works so well at the Bastille, and works particularly well for this work. The action in the first two acts takes place on a piazza in Venice, and that’s recreated here well in Pizzi’s neo-classical style with canals and gondolas that seem to float naturally along them. A good sense of space is also created with bridges that serve to bring the choruses and the principals onto the scene. It’s all rendered in black and red, with a bright background that sets it in silhouette against a blazing sunset over the lagoon. The latter two acts simplify the design to a series of steps that allow space for the work’s most famous centrepiece, the Dance of Hours ballet, while also creating the necessary space for the focus to remain on the dramatic developments of the denouement. The set looks good and it functions well with the requirements of the drama.

The acting direction however is simply dreadful. Rarely do the singers interact with one another, but rather they pace up and down the stage in an old-fashioned style, directing their performance out to the audience. Once again, Marcelo Álvarez is the worst culprit. He’s a fine singer, but he has no sense of character and plays every role in exactly the same declamatory way, striking a pose, one arm stretched out, hand clasped in a fist and then swung into his chest, his delivery pitched at the back of the gallery with big gestures so that the audience can see the sincerity of his emotions. It looks even more ridiculous in close-up in a filmed performance. La Gioconda’s ripe melodrama, it has to be said however, does call out for this kind of performance from Enzo, and Álvarez has clearly been encouraged to play it to the hilt.

The other male roles could use this kind of energy and conviction, but it wasn’t much in evidence in Claudio Sgura’s Barnaba or Orlin Anastassov’s Alvise. Barnaba is an out-and-out villain, the scheming jealous mastermind who manipulates all of the characters, but is unable nonetheless to achieve the one thing he wants - making La Gioconda love him. It’s not particularly strong characterisation - Arrigo Boito’s libretto isn’t as refined here as it is for Verdi’s later works (although some of that may be to do with Victor Hugo’s source since Barnaba is no Iago) - but Sgura isn’t strong enough for the vocal demands that might make him more convincing. Even if his actions are equally villainous, Alvise is perhaps a little more nuanced in character, but it would require a singer with more acting ability than Orlin Anastassov to bring it out.

These are extremely difficult roles to sing however, almost as challenging in their range and expression as the writing for the character of La Gioconda, and what the work really needs then to really achieve its impact is six strong singers. The female singers thankfully fared rather better than the male roles. Violeta Urmana’s top notes aren’t particularly beautiful and getting up there is not a smooth process, but her interpretation has all the passion and strength of character required here and she copes exceptionally well with a very challenging role. Luciana D’Intino also sings Laura well, and the two ladies stand-off in Act II over who loves Enzo more was, as it ought to be, one of the highlights of the evening.

Laura: I challenge your heart, o rival! Gioconda: You blaspheme! Laura: You lie! I love him as the light of Creation. Like the air that enlivens the breath. Like the heavenly and blessed dream from which came my first sigh. Gioconda: I love him as the lion loves blood and the whirlwind its flight. And lightning its peaks, and halcyons the whirlpools and the eagle the sun!.

This is a prime example of the kind of ripe and floridly over-written lines that the singers are expected to deliver in La Gioconda, so full credit to Violeta Urmana for being able to sing “I love him as the lion loves blood” and being able to convincingly look as if she could eat her rival alive as well. Urmana’s scenes with her blind mother La Ciega are also excellent throughout on account of another strong performance from María José Montiel.

La Gioconda might be a work of a bygone age and the Paris Opera might not have made a totally convincing case that it can be staged well, but there are a couple of reasons why Ponchielli’s work has the ability to endure. One is the beautiful and famous Dance of Hours ballet sequence, which was exceptionally well-choreographed here and impressively performed, even if it wasn’t particularly in context with the rest of the work. With gold-coloured topless male and female lead dancers, it looked more like something from the Crazy Horse on the other side of town.

The other reason is the final fourth Act, which fully lives up to the contrived melodrama of the previous scenes. La Gioconda is a surprisingly dark work - and it’s in this you can see the impact the Ponchielli would have on the next generation of Italian verismo composers - with what little romance there is in it is tainted by jealousy, bitterness and hatred with one of the bleakest and unforgiving endings in an opera prior to Puccini’s Tosca. If the singing couldn’t always reach those heights, the full power of the work’s qualities were at least brought out in a terrific performance by the Paris Orchestra conducted with true dramatic energy by Daniel Oren.

DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Philippe Jordan, Jean-Claude Auvray, Mario Luperi, Violeta Urmana, Vladimir Stoyanov, Marcelo Álvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Kwangchul Youn, Nicola Alaimo, Nona Javakhidze, Christophe Fel, Rodolphe Briand, François Lis | Opéra Bastille, Paris (via Internet streaming) 8 December 2011

Verdi’s Il Forza del Destino is one of those fascinating mature works by the composer – along with Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera – which draw on the best elements from the composer’s earlier work in terms of melody, drive, pacing and plotting, but which have the benefit of a little more complexity in the orchestration, hinting at the greatness of the later final opera compositions – Don Carlos, Aida, Otello and Falstaff. The characters in La Forza del Destino, like the other works from this period, are somewhat limited by the conventionality of the melodramatic plotline, but Verdi’s score hints that there are other depths that can be drawn from the work. Consequently it’s a work that requires a little more thought given to the staging and a cast of performers who have the ability not only to meet the singing demands, but be able to give something to the acting. The direction of the current production for the Opéra National de Paris unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to those challenges, but that doesn’t prevent their La Forza del Destino from being any less brilliant musically.

I’m not sure it helps at all to displace the opera’s famous Overture, but it’s become something of a convention now (and not just here, but also recently in the Amsterdam production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes) and here it’s delayed until after the first act. The Overture of La Forza del Destino is now so familiar that it can be easy to forget that it has a dramatic function, and it’s the contention of Philippe Jordan, the musical director of the production, that it works better in that context as an introduction to the opera’s themes following Act 1, which is really just a prologue. Whether that’s the case or not is debatable, but what is not in question is just how impressively it is delivered. The filmed recording of the production, broadcast in French cinemas and available for Internet streaming from the Paris Opera web site, demonstrates Jordan’s controlled and precise direction of the Overture and confirms my belief from recent visits (Lulu, Tannhäuser) that the Paris Orchestra is one of the best in the world at the moment. The same musical intelligence and virtuosity is evident not just in the Overture, but throughout this production.

Destin

While the staging and the performances of a strong cast are more than adequate, they aren’t given anything much to do in a storyline that doesn’t quite deserve the beauty and intelligence of Verdi’s score, which is moving away from the convenienze of Italian opera and the yoke of the cabaletta towards a purer musical form of dramatic expression. That’s the case with most of the composer’s melodramas during this period, where there are moments of greatness and brilliance, but overall there isn’t an entirely satisfactory match between content and the growing confidence and complexity of Verdi’s musical arrangements. The religious themes, the question of honour and duty and the fighting of a duel remind one of Stiffelio, while the music and Spanish setting tug more in the direction of Don Carlos.

Despite some of the superficial similarities in the outline, La Forza del Destino is a Verdi opera that is far beyond the straightforward dramatic plotting of a work like Stiffelio. The religious and philosophical questions behind La Forza del Destino are, like the title itself (The Force of Destiny), rather more allusive for a Verdi opera, most of which are named directly after its principal character (Oberto, Rigoletto, Don Carlo) or an historical event (Il Battaglia di Legnano, Les Vêpres Siciliennes). It’s a title that, particularly in the context of the religious themes of the work, got Verdi into trouble with the censor, the opera indeed seeming to consider the power of destiny and fate and man’s attempts to control it through war, debts of honour or religious observance. Those seemingly subsidiary elements of the opera – Preziosilla, the fortune teller, Melitone, the monk and the soldiers going to war – are in the end just as important, if not more so, than the melodrama of Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas. Where do the common people, torn between sinning and God, asked to take part in these wars, fit into the greater scheme of things?

Destin

As such, it should be possible for an innovative director to make something of those contradictions and the darker undercurrents in the score or the libretto as with Tcherniakov for Macbeth, or Christof Loy for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, but Jean-Claude Auvray’s production doesn’t attempt anything quite as radical. It’s not unusual for directors to update the older historical periods of Verdi operas to the composer’s own time and align the revolutionary elements of the plots with the struggle for the reunification of Italy, the Risorgmiento, and that’s the case here, but the Viva V.E.R.D.I. (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”) slogans and flag-waving fit awkwardly and confusingly with the Spanish setting of the opera. The religiously sparse and ascetic sets however make the environment less concrete, allowing the wider dimension of the opera’s themes to be applied, where the backdrops, like the changes and whims of fate, are fluid, temporary and changeable, capable of being rolled-up and spirited away at a moment’s notice.

Somehow however – and it’s not necessarily a fault with the direction, since the opera itself is imperfect in this respect – the main characters lack substance within such an environment, caught up in extraordinary coincidences and twists of fate. It’s hard therefore to make that in any way realistic, despite the best efforts of Verdi’s score, the outstanding performance of it by the Paris Opera orchestra, and the generally fine singing of a strong cast. Marcelo Álvarez demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after and foremost Verdi tenors at the moment, a fiery Don Alvaro, but one who embodies a sense of conflict and honour in his struggle with the cruel twists of fate that occur. Violeta Urmana also seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice at the moment, but isn’t always the most versatile of singers or the best of actresses. She has some fine moments here and is generally impressive, but she clearly struggles with the high notes in places and it’s by no means a distinguished performance. There’s good solid support however from Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, Kwangchul Youn as Padre Guardiano and Nicola Alaimo as Brother Melitone – all of which are enough to make this a solid and entertaining La Forza del Destino, even if it is somewhat lacking in adventure.

The Opéra National de Paris’ La Forza del Destino is available for viewing on their website until February 2012.

AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Daniele Gatti, Sonja Frisell, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, Violeta Urmana, Stefan Kocán, Adam Laurence Herskowitz, Jennifer Check, Carlo Guelfi | Decca

Although there is an intimate and tragic love story at its heart, Aida is set against the exotic background of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and is full of patriotic, nationalistic sentiments, as the Egyptian army prepare to go to war to fight off a revolt by the Ethiopians. It’s a perfect subject, in other words, for Verdi, and it was undoubtedly the nature of the storyline, much more than any commission for the new opera house in Cairo (which he repeatedly refused) or the grand occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, that encouraged him to return to opera composition in 1871. This return would herald a new style of opera that we would see from Verdi in his final works, one that is mindful of the innovations introduced by Wagner, but which still retains elements here of bel canto in an opera that is filled with memorable arias and melodies. Despite its setting and the use of exotic Oriental melodies – which really see Verdi at his most inventive and original – Aida is very much an Italian opera, and one that is thoroughly and recognisably a true Verdi opera.

Considering its origins and its setting – whether it was composed for a grand occasion or not – Verdi’s Aida is appropriately stately in its expressions of nationalistic pride and identity, with extravagant marches, battle hymns, ceremonial processions and dances. There’s no point in doing Aida in a minimalist style, as Robert Wilson has done in the past (although it’s certainly interesting to see something different attempted) – this is an opera that just calls out for a grand scale production. If you haven’t got a stage the size of the Arena di Verona, and a director like Franco Zeffirelli to fill it, the nearest grand, traditionally staged Aida you are going to find is this Sonja Frisell production – now over twenty years old – for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

It’s a big production in every respect – and yes, I include the size of the singers in this – with towering temples, the stage filled with chorus, troops, dancers and well-tanned, bare-chested slaves, even horses and chariots, all arranged in grand ceremonial processions and formations. It’s unfortunately a little too static – an impressive spectacle even if it is a little bit kitsch, but not much thought has been put into the interaction between the main players. They just walk on in most cases, sing their part, and walk back off again. But, this is what you expect of an Aida production – particularly a traditional one at the Met – and really, you’d feel somewhat short-changed if it didn’t have all the other bells and whistles (and trumpets) .

You won’t feel short-changed by the singers here either. Johan Botha is one of the finest tenors in the world, a great Wagnerian heldentenor, which serves him in good stead for this particular Verdi opera. I don’t know about his acting ability – there’s not much required here of Ramadès – but he has an ability to fill his roles with life, principally through the wonderful warmth of tone of his voice. Violeta Urmana is the Verdian soprano of choice at the moment, and she is fine singing the role of Aida, if again there are not any real acting demands placed on her. Dolora Zajick is an experienced Amneris and sings the role well, but does unfortunately look constipated when singing (sorry, but she does). The final duet notwithstanding, Act IV of Aida belongs to Amneris however, Verdi giving her character real depth and human passion, and Dolora Zajick launches into it with relish, making perhaps the strongest impression on the whole production, which is a little lacking in energy elsewhere.

Recorded live for worldwide broadcast in 2009 for the Met’s Live in HD programme, the production looks fantastic in High Definition, is colourful and well-lit. The audio mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and, allowing for one or two minor sound issues with the live mix which is a little bit echoing in places, they both sound fine, the surround in particular dispersing the choral singing well. Extras on the BD include edited-down interviews (I’d have been happy to listen to much more of this) conducted by Renée Fleming with the cast and extras.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Teodor Currentzis, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Dimitris Tiliakos, Violeta Urmana, Furruccio Furlanetto, Letitia Singleton, Stefano Secco, Alfredo Nigro, Yuri Kissin | Bel Air Classiques

Dmitri Tcherniakov (now there’s a name to strike fear into the heart of every lover of traditional opera stagings) comes up with an interesting concept for this 2009 production for the Paris Opera. He sees the Scottish play in terms of a kind of American Beauty satire of modern life, with GoogleEarth-style 3-D overhead projections zooming into the map of a small surburban town, where we are treated to a peak through the windows into the drawing room of one particular moderately wealthy middle-class family. There erupts a power battle of social climbing, domestic disputes, vanity and identity crises that culminates in moral, social and personal breakdown.

That’s all very well, but Macbeth is Macbeth and American Beauty is American Beauty, and I imagine that some people would rather that the two remain entirely separate entities – except Verdi’s Macbeth was never really Shakespeare in the first place. Verdi does revenge and revolution well, and he also does drawing room melodrama well (it’s hard to beat La Traviata for that), and it’s hard to see Verdis Macbeth – which is certainly more domestic than political – as anything other than a Verdi opera, resounding with cries of “Vendetta!”. In the Italian translation, there’s little of Shakespeare’s poetry here (although the English subtitles do attempt to bring it back to the source drama), so if it’s all right for Verdi to adapt it to his favourite themes, isn’t it ok for Tcherniakov to adapt it in a way that it relates to a modern-day audience?

Well, evidently that’s for the individual to decide, but although it’s not without its problems, this production of Macbeth is spectacularly staged and sung, with real feeling for the piece and the underlying psychology that it exposes. Principally, there are only two real sets, one for the drawing room drama, the other for the people of the revolution (the people and the three witches converted into a kind of neighbourhood watch) – which perfectly captures the Verdian division of the essence of the drama. The sets are simple, but imaginatively employed, with dark clouds projected over the street scenes, the 3-D graphics superb for all the scene-setting that is required, and the drama within them is brilliantly and effectively staged. Banco’s death, for example, avoids all the usual on-stage dramatic clichés, and he is found left slumped on the ground as a whirlwind of people disperse.

Whether you buy into the staging or not, the performances are absolutely marvellous. Dimitris Tiliakos’ beautifully soft-toned baritone and his sensitive acting performance (again no opera theatrics here) make for a complex and nuanced Macbeth, working in perfect coordination with an equally intriguing Violeta Urmana, who also avoids all the usual Lady Macbeth clichés and even manages a few conjouring tricks while singing with conviction and personality. Furruccio Furlanetto, in duffel coat, is a superb Banco and Teodor Currentzis conducts the Paris orchestra through a powerful and dynamic rendition of the opera, which is as it should be.

Although quite minimalist, Tcherniakov’s set causes some problems with audio and video reproduction, but the issues are relatively minor. With much of it taking place within a box on the stage, the sound isn’t always as dynamic as it could be, and the choruses aren’t quite as full-bodied as you might like, but the detail is there and the impact is fully achieved with a definite woomph to those big Verdi moments. The staging also takes place behind a fine mesh screen, which slightly softens the image (although it suits the tone and lighting of this production), but the netting is only really evident in close-up and is not a major problem. The disc also includes an excellent 32 minute feature which gives a good idea of the ideas and personalities behind the production, with interviews and rehearsal footage.

MascheraGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2008 | Jesús López Cobos, Mario Martone, Marcelo Álvarez, Violeta Urmana, Marco Vratogna, Elena Zaremba, Allessandra Marianelli | Opus Arte

I’m always surprised that the likes of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Stiffelio, Oberto and some other early to mid-period Verdi operas, are not better known and more frequently performed. They certainly have the right balance and full complement of revolutionary plots, illicit liaisons, dire threats of revenge (what’s a Verdi opera without an exclamation of “Vendetta!” somewhere in it?), rousing choruses and good old-fashioned belt-em-out crowd-pleasing melodies and arias. What they lack in sophistication – certainly when compared to later Verdi – they make up for in the pure thrills, sensation and entertainment that are the principal reasons why Verdi’s most famous operas (La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto) remain popular favourites.

Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Melodrama in 3 Acts”) has all the above criteria in spades. It’s far from sophisticated, it has a revolutionary plot combined with an illicit romantic love and doomed relationships and it has some terrific singing roles for the performers to show their range. It’s the kind of storyline that is laughably ridiculous and wouldn’t work convincingly anywhere outside of an opera stage. But it is an opera, and if it works there (although not everyone will think it does) it’s because Verdi’s propulsive score carries you through the weaknesses with such memorable tunes that you are swept along (humming to yourself) rather than trying to assess the credibility of the drama.

Perhaps surprisingly, the plot is at least loosely based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, the libretto written by Antonio Somma, based on a work by Eugène Scribe. Un Ballo in Maschera was indeed originally composed as Gustavo III, but the opera was banned by the authorities while it was in rehearsals in Naples in 1858 after the attempted assasination of Napoleon III , as the opera contained a conspiracy plot.  The opera was reworked for Rome with the setting changed to America where Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick, is the English governor of Boston, Massachusetts. His rule is not universally accepted and there is consequently plots brewing for deaths that have occurred under his governance, but Riccardo refuses to let such rumours restrict his movements or his social gatherings. When papers are delivered to him to have a fortune-teller Ulrica banished from the state, Riccardo, out of curiosity, dons a disguise and takes his guests to see her. She also foresees death for Riccardo, and at the hands of a close friend.

You don’t need to be a fortune-teller however, just a familiarity with Verdi operas, to guess that his death will come to pass at the hands of his secretary and best friend Renato, since Riccardo has been seeing Renato’s wife, Amelia in secret. That familiarity with opera conventions will also serve you well as far as swallowing other expositional elements of the plot and the dialogue. “Heavens, my husband!”, exclaims Amelia, when the two secret lovers are in danger of being discovered, and when Renato does start plotting with the conspirators to carry out the deed (“Vendetta!”) at the convenient occasion of a masked ball, the skulk around whispering a secret password so that they can recognise one another. The secret password? “Death!”, of course.

Un Ballo in Maschera is consequently not the kind of opera for modern updating or interpretation, it’s firmly tied into the opera tradition of the period, and accordingly, this production from the Teatro Real in Madrid is a very conservative affair, a period production with stand-and-deliver performances in the Grand Opera tradition. It’s hard to put any real dramatic feeling behind this kind of a plot, what it really needs is a strong bravura performance to carry it through, and that’s what you get with Marcelo Álvarez as Riccardo. There’s no real acting ability here, Álvarez conveying everything by striking standard opera poses with his arms, but the Madrid audience just laps it up. The other singers similarly fit into this old-fashioned style, delivering a by-the-book production that alone would be good enough, but it helps when the performances are committed and that’s certainly the case here.

This 2008 production at the Teatro Real looks rather dark, which leads to strong contrasts in the Blu-ray HD presentation, but the image is sharp and deeply saturated. The audio tracks – LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.1 – are both superb in their clarity and dynamic range. Other than a Synopsis and Cast, there are no extra features on the BD.