08 April 2005


Ballo in Maschera, Met 07 April 2005

Perhaps I was being too dramatic to use “impostors” and “fraudulent” in characterizing the Tosca from two evenings ago, when I should have used more measured words like “mediocre,” “provincial,” “seedy motel,” and a “sorry waste of $21”. Maestro James Conlon returned to the podium for Thursday’s Ballo in Maschera and, in the same fashion, proved to be the weakest participant in an otherwise superb Verdi: thoroughly uninspired conducting, absent of a greater purpose, no dramatic arch, no Italian contour, heavy-handed while lacking poignancy and intimacy. One cannot be satisfied to just accompany Verdi (as one could in, say, a Tosca or a Butterfly); during the just concluded Met Don Carlo, Maestro Fabio Luisi showed us how it’s done, with (1) marked sensitivity to singers, (2) a flair for the dramatic and the romantic, (3) a masterplan to tell a story with music, (4) intelligent use of dynamics, tempi, and other tools. In this Ballo, Maestro Conlon is, in the best light, an accompanist.

Why is Sieglinde so bitchy about conductors these days? Because they usually spell the difference between a good night and a great, ethereal one. It’s unfortunate to have an “almost-five-star” cast (Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani, Carlos Alvarez, Lyubov Petrova, Marianne Cornetti) wallow in a routine reading. Conventional wisdom declares Voigt, while sparkling in Wagner and Strauss, is a work in progress in Verdi. Indeed, while lacking the Latin pose and short on the lachrymose hue in tone, Voigt’s Amelia can float and soar with the best of them; unfortunately, Conlon’s rapid push through the Campo Scene didn’t allow Voigt to showcase her strengths. What’s the rush, Maestro? The following duet lacked a swelling heart, even though Giordani was individually stellar in Gustavo’s music. Conlon lightened up a bit for Amelia’s “Morro, ma prima in grazia” and, happily, the results for Voigt were more satisfying. However, Conlon was stubbornly aggressive everywhere else; consequently, the Levinian pearl in the sound of Met orchestra was diminished. But enough of Conlon; you get what I mean. (We miss Levine already; I remember fondly the three Pavarotti Met farewell Toscas from a year ago, conducted by Levine, who broke the rule of the bread-and-butter by making a commonplace opera surprisingly nuanced, insightful, and memorable.)

Giordani is a changed tenor. His previous outings that I’ve heard (Cellini, Des Grieux, Gualtiero, Enzo) were marked by a vigorous brilliance, but qualified by a laziness/unruliness in the lower and middle registers. I’m pleased (and really surprised) to report here that last night, I sensed a discipline (and greater ease) in vocal production combined with a generous fullness of warm sound up and down the staff I’ve not heard from him previously. Adding those to his ever-natural delivery and the majesty of his stupendous top and we have, finally, a real Italianate tenor to speak about in this generation.

With Carlos Alvarez around, I don’t know why the Met continues to suffer Dwayne Croft. No offense to Croft, but Alvarez has a more full-bodied, elegant baritone, perfectly audible and regal for Verdi; Renato was well served indeed. The “Eri tu” was thrilling. Marianne Cornetti’s gifts are better displayed in Amneris’ music, but even in the short, one-dimensional role of Ulrica, she managed to hold her own. Lyubov Petrova elevated the role of Oscar to more than a supporting role. Every time I encounter Ballo, I’m always surprised at how much great music Verdi had written for this character, and glad to have with us an accomplished singer whose middle register is as authentic as the necessary leggiero top.

A few final words about Voigt. She can certainly sing the role of Amelia (and other Italian roles), but her true vocal temperament lies elsewhere. The voice is relentlessly bright, constitutionally joyful, regal, virtuous; her phrasing is even, its unit of expression broad (i.e., nuance moves from phrase to phrase, not word to word or sound to sound, a la Fleming); the flavor of the voice is heroic, superhuman, superfemale, archangel. Therefore, she will never truly succeed in much of the Italian repertory, which values qualities of intimacy, despair, quiet suffering with nobility, tragic darkness (even in the “happy” arias), as well as subhuman revenge. Much as she would like to decorate her delivery with tears and sobs, she will never be able to form an authentic dark veil around the voice. Much of it is genetic (Radvanovsky, Villaroel, and Frittoli were born with a natural throbbing sadness in timbre), some of it personality (she’s a happy, happy girl). She is, however, supreme in Wagner and Strauss, repertories that value a broader expression. Her superb accuracy in pitch and innate ability for loud sound (qualities thankfully preserved post-gastric-bypass) are especially exciting elements for roles like Sieglinde, Ariadne, Kaiserin, Elsa, Leonore, Elisabeth, Chrysothemis, Isolde; and hopefully Salome, Brünnhilde, and Elektra in the future. Which is not to say that her Aida, Leonora, Amelia, and Tosca are horrid; on the contrary, in my view, if no one truly great ascends and claims that repertory, Debbie is more than a pleasant stopgap.