Holiday Weeks at the Opera

“Guglielmo Ratcliff,” “Messiah,” and Inouye’s clutch lead on “Benvenuto Cellini”

The valiant verismo specialists of Teatro Grattacielo enlivened Alice Tully November 25 with the North American premiere of Mascagni’s “Guglielmo Ratcliff,” a melodramatic tale of Olde Scotland. To me the score lacks either the power of “Cavalleria rusticana” or the charm of “L’amico Fritz,” the composer’s two most enduring works, and the frequent narrative recits make for monotony; but it was certainly given its stylistic due by conductor Alfredo Silipigni, who clearly has this stuff in his blood.

One had to admire Lando Bartolini for sheer vocal stamina in the lead’s relentlessly testing tessitura; if somewhat four-square in delivery, the 60-ish tenor dispensed a more valid spinto sound than many claim-ants half his age. (The Met might want him on call when they stage “Il Tabarro” next year.) Eugenie Grunewald, announced as battling a cold, produced some highly impressive dramatic mezzo sounds as Margherita, a crazed housekeeper to rival Mrs. Danvers. (Would that she were singing Laura to Millo’s Gioconda this Spring). Carol Ann Manzi, clearly well versed in verismo and with an aptly italianate timbre, seemed a bit fragile at the top as the beloved “Maria McGregor” whom Ratcliff stalks. Brian Davis—at his best when he sings loudly, as here—performed well as her fiançé Douglas, and Anna Tonna sparkled in a small part. Not quite my cup of grappa, but I’m always grateful to Grattacielo for letting us hear unfamiliar works done with care and stylistic understanding.

Eve Queler has championed the fine Vienna-based Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, a lovely singer whose thorough musicality bespeaks the lifelong violin player and whose tone stays attractive at virtually all dynamic levels throughout a wide range. On December 14 Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York presented her in a game and generally pleasing first go at one of the great dramatic challlenges of the bel canto repertory, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. This—um—unhappy queen was created by the great Giuditta Pasta (the first Norma) and given new life by Callas under Visconti in 1957. Since then, singing actresses such as Gencer, Sills, Scotto, and Miricioiu have taken up this long difficult role, much dependent on textual nuance and charged verbal utterance. By their standards, Stoyanova proved lacking in variety and grandeur, and her arsenal does not seem to include a trill, much needed here. Yet she was touching and never false, and much can be forgiven for such beautifully poised and floated singing. Something to be grateful for: Krassimira Stoyanova will return to the Met as Nedda, Liu, and Mimì in future seasons.

Happily, Jennifer Larmore (as a very earnest Giovanna Seymour) showed a much easier, clearer top voice than in recent New York outings, though the middle remained a bit cloudy and transitional notes often strayed flat. The attractive Kate Aldrich seems a future Larmore, no kind of dramatic Verdi mezzo; she lacked the contralto color for Smeton’s lower music but vocalized well in a forthright manner.

Tenor Yegische Manucharyan (Percy) clearly has talent: easy extreme high notes and some mezza-voce velvet in the timbre. But the lower range sounds unformed and he seemed wooden, never looking up from the score, which he didn’t seem to have down cold anyway; maybe that’s why both arias were inartisticallly cut in half? He did best in the floaty passages tailor-made for the role’s creator, Rubini.

After 30 years of career, 15 of them spent as the world’s preeminent Wagnerian Heldenbariton, it’s astonishing that James Morris could get through a Donizetti part at all. Actually, early in his career he scored big in “Puritani” at the Met (1976) and “Semiramide” at SFO (1981). But that was then, and though some of the technique remains, the timbre shows the change in Fach and the years’ passing; it’s Telramund time. Morris simplified some things and drove his rusty sheet-metal sound through the others as if shifting gears. I am not sure, however, whom I would have cast as Henry VIII in his place; perhaps John Relyea, who does quite well by Rossini’s Alidoro?

OONY’s next outing is Verdi’s very enjoyable “Il Corsaro” March 21.

The New York Philharmonic continued its tradition of presenting “Messiah” in Riverside Church, a most festive occasion. Nicholas McGegan literally and figuratively danced through his orchestra debut (December 17) expertly, not getting the Mahler and Brahms-honed players to sound like a “period band” but reaching a fine compromise, with tempi swift enough to keep everyone awake (not the case last year under Neville Marriner) and achieving a nicely transparent texture that nonetheless carried in the church’s trickily vast resonances. McGegan presented an excellent solo quartet, though mezzo Alice Coote ( excellent in San Francisco’s “Alcina” last year), though verbally vivid, was rather off best vocal form on this occasion. Mark Padmore, a master of tenorial dynamics in the mode of Ian Partidge, and the pleasingly quicksilver soprano Rosemary Joshua made very good impressions, with Joshua so moving in “I know that my Redeemer liveth” that one regretted the absence of “If God be for us” (“Messiah” has more performance editions even than “Candide.”) But Gerald Finley, as anyone who’s heard the Canadian bass-baritone in “Rinaldo” on CD might anticipate, proved just spectacular: expressively nuanced, fleet in divisions and impressive in sustained passages. Someone please get him to do “Saul” and “Hercules.”

Major drama hit the Met pit when Derrick Inouye went on for an indisposed James Levine on three hours’ notice to lead the fifth performance of the new production of “Benvenuto Cellini.” The Canadian conductor had been scheduled for a January 1 company debut anyway, and so doubtless knew the piece cold, but jumping in to a successful debut in Berlioz’ quirky, rhythmically challenging score was a real achievement, especially given three new singers (Katherine Goeldner and Peter Coleman-Wright, spirited and highly acceptable as Ascanio and Fieramosca, and Richard Bernstein, miscast in the bass role of Balducci) plus an unscheduled fourth (Anthony Laciura pitch-hitting incisively as the Innkeepeer).

Someone should tell Marcello Giordani (and countless other male opera singers today) that the Fabio hair look is over, but he made a likable and plausibly romantic Cellini. Starting tired and beset by pitch problems, the tenor warmed up steadily in this near-impossible part and gave moving renditions of the two beautiful arias. Better in terms of delivering good French was Isabel Bayrakdarian, a bewitching figure onstage as Cellini’s beloved, with a well-focused and pretty tone if timbrally a shade shallow for Teresa’s fine music. Canny veteran Robert Lloyd, albeit nasal and dryish of tone, gave a marvelously specific and pointed performance as Berlioz’ cranky, compromised aesthete of a Pope Clement VII, and Patrick Carfizzi again showed his quality bass as one of Celllini’s henchmen.

This seems to be a distinctly minority view, but I thought Andrei Serban’s over-the-top production imaginative and well-suited to the youthful exuberance of the composer (and his subject, the brash Florentine sculptor). If they got rid of the egregious mimed onstage Berlioz (“That trick never works!” to quote Rocket J. Squirrel) and about 50 dress extra pulcinellos, it would work even better. But George Tsypin’s sets and, particularly, Georgi Alexi-Mesk-hishvili’s costumes are spectacular and Serban’s staging shows an understanding of the music not always forthcoming in theater-based directors. Some hidebound patrons grumbled, but this rollicking “Cellini” merits a judiciously edited revival.

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David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about the arts for Opera, Opera News, Playbill, Time Out New York, and other venues.

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