Opera is partly a sport of prestige, and to the untrained eye the line up of Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s “Il trovatore” promised much: An Italian tenor coming to international attention following a well publicized scandal, an up and coming soprano gathering exciting reviews for her Verdi roles, and a superstar mezzo-soprano of international caliber who has sung for dignitaries of state all over the globe. It is no surprise that the auditorium at the Belk Theater was well attended on the afternoon of October 23, a Sunday performance that would have otherwise suffered by the presence of the North Carolina Panthers playing at the stadium next door. Hell, I drove four hours to be there myself! Judging by the audience’s reception, a good time was had by most present, but the final tally on the performance is less encouraging: Opera Carolina’s “Il trovatore” joins the statistics of uneven performances of this testing opera, and though there were moments of beauty, the uneven cast threatened to drag the performance below the standards of good Verdi. And thus we will start with the least fortunate, and work our way up.
A sea of publicity surrounded mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves’ assumption of Verdi’s old, half-crazed gypsy. The virtues of an Azucena, however, are judged by the artist’s ability to execute the demands of the score, and one is smart to set all accolades aside as the lights in the house go dark. Seen through this lense, Ms. Graves’ performance was noteworthy for being unable to either live up to the standards required by Verdi or those set by her own reputation. Azucena enters the stage in the second act, and against the jolly song of her gypsy clan turns our attention back to tragedy with her difficult aria: “Stride la vampa”. Ms. Graves delivered this music with a pushed, lachrymose voice that struggled to shape Verdi’s phrases in terms of intonation and accuracy. A feeling that she was merely happy to get through these pages in any acceptable way crept in immediately, and Verdi’s imagery of the burning flames, the blazing ambers, and the woman’s terror at the thought alone was completely absent. That Ms. Graves seemed to have spent most of her juice delivering this canzonetta became a sobering reality as she embarked in the role’s keynote aria: “Condotta ell’era in ceppi.” What followed can only be summed up as a sad spectacle.
The middle and upper registers of this voice are now virtually colorless and unwilling to serve its mistress for long. After an honest delivery of the first bars, the sound began to tighten following Manrico’s first reactions to her tale. Azucena’s tricky writing caused her to stumble badly in the phrase “Nel foco la traggo, la sospingo!” and in retrospect, she never fully recovered after this mishap. She finished with desperate and wobbly lunges towards the high A’s and B flat that crown her aria, the final digs to the low A’s a sad reminder of what a world class instrument this voice once was.
Voices sometimes need a certain time to warm up, and as Ms. Graves opened the third act of the opera, one hoped she would improve upon her previous showing. This did not take place, if anything the rigors of the third act showed a singer in further strain. She labored to keep the voice focused during the “Giorni poveri vivea”, but fell off the rails in the demanding section “De rallentati, o barbari.” Here, the artist is required to dominate both chorus and orchestra through the strength of her stentorian G’s and A’s. For these, and perhaps the ultimate benefit of all, her mouth remained closed. Often, when an artist’s powers are diminished to this extent, the interest shifts to the special and mature interpretation they are capable of offering after a lifetime of experience. Ms. Graves, being relatively new to the language of Verdi, did not have much to offer in this department. The remainder of her role relied mostly on her acting skills, which are considerable but alas, not enough.
All of this begs a huge question: What has happened to her? For an opera singer not known for her long list of arduous roles and still relatively young, it is difficult to determine whether the voice or the technique to summon it has abandoned her. That she would return to the operatic stage with a role as exacting as Azucena begs another essay altogether. Leaving the auditorium after the performance, there was a congregation of fans waiting to meet her. One hopes that, for their sake and that of the composer’s, she will radically improve upon her work last Sunday. They deserve better.
In the heroic role of Manrico, the Italian tenor Antonello Palombi dominated the proceedings with a quality that has secured his services in operatic stages around the world: A big, bombastic sound. For those who do not know, he came to international attention following a much-publicized scandal at La Scala. In December of 2006, Roberto Alagna walked out midway a televised performance of Aida and Mr. Palombi stepped in to cover the role in his street clothes:
Ever since, he has been in high demand at opera houses the world over, but the very nature of his ascent indicates the irony of his situation: The technical basis of his art are not yet cemented, and as in the case of his Manrico this past Sunday afternoon, he is likely to disappoint the schooled ear by his inability to produce an even caliber of sound throughout the range. He entered the stage in an awesome manner, his offstage chant promising a voice that hailed back to the days of a Bonisolli (surely a spectacular “Di quella pira” was to come,) but this impression diminished more and more as the pages of the score made their demands on the artist. By the time he embarked in act’s closing trio, his production began to split so that the ear either picked up the solid bronze in the middle voice or a completely pushed, reedy attack to the head resonance. It also does not help that he sings out of the right corner of his mouth like a pirate.
These deficiencies can be put to use at the service of a clever artist, and in a role like Manrico that tests a singer’s lyric and heroic gifts, they must in order to yield a serviceable performance. To Mr. Palombi’s credit, he did try to get creative. He crooned and savored his way through the big cavatina “Ah si ben mio”, a sign that he has knowledge of the Italian tradition and is consciously trying to emulate it. Indeed, the turn on the phrase “Ma pur, se nella pagina de’ miei destin e’scrito” was classy. However he lacked the technical know how and taste to make a success of this, and while the top notes shrieked past the limits of his legato, his constant use of messa di voce was often out of place within the context of his phrasing. The results were mannered and lackluster.
I was willing to forgive all as he launched into the much-anticipated call to arms: “Di quella pira”, but this further proved that the more complex musical requirements of the score were outside of his grasp. In the case of the famous stretta, he was unable to blend the groups of dotted grace notes with the long phrases in a seamless legato gesture, a dysfunction that affected the drive and excitement of the piece. He offered the unwritten (yet expected) high C’s, but these were wanting in thrust and duration. Only the last one, held for an interminable length, excused the furore that followed. This will get a “hell yeah” out of an audience every time, but the gates of true art will remain closed before him until can control all aspects of his declamation and be free to truly express. The career is already under way, and so it may be too late.
A less hectic approach was found in the singing of baritone Michael Corvino, who assumed the role of Count di Luna. His voice, though tremulous, had a penetrating quality capable of making a musical effect over the orchestra without forcing his resources, and out of all the soloists he displayed the most precise intonation. This quality set him apart when compared against the work of his counterparts, and the ear was grateful for a singer who was not afraid to simply sing. His participation in the trio that closed the first act set the standard by which the other singers were more than happy to stray away form. It was thus a shame that the fabric of this voice was composed of a coarser material, and his lines were marred by a leathery tone that, though serviceable, dulled his expression. In addition, his phrasing also proved unimaginative, minimizing the impact of his solo in act two. This was the famous “Il balen del suo sorriso” which was both carefully sung and thoroughly forgettable: A remarkable and troubling feat all on its own. To have all the tools needed to lead the pack but remain in the middle by choice or lack of ability is a troubling trait. The baritone’s work improved markedly during the opera’s final act as he joined forces with the evening’s Leonora in the duet “Mira d’acerbe lagrime.” Here the impetus of his song found an urgency not previously heard as he rejected the pleas of the woman he loved, and when wrongly believing her to be his, he congratulated his happy fate with a newfound wealth of tone. He is likely to receive greater superlatives in future engagements were he to maintain this sort of vocalism through the duration of an evening.
While this performance yielded no outright winner, the honors ultimately belonged to the Leonora of Lisa Daltirus. Hers is a soprano voice better heard in its natural lyric state, such as when Ms. Daltirus let fly the top of her range. The rest of the instrument would have gained much from such less labored approach, but was instead rendered opaque and husky. Ms. Daltirus’ introductory scena, the aria “Tacea la notte placida” was hampered by a general lack a straight attack, glottal lunges and choppy phrases, and her realization of the cabaletta “Di tale amor” was found severely wanting. Like the work of Mr. Palombi, her singing was characterized by a general lack of evenness in emission between the middle and high registers. Fortunately, the remainder of the evening found Ms. Daltirus improving upon these deficiencies by leaps and bounds.
The convent scene found her in easier voice, and during the concertato “E deggio e posso crederlo?” she achieved a particularly beautiful suspended piano on a high A flat in the phrase “”Non regge a tanto giubilo”. She reverted to glottal mannerisms during her short participation in Manrico’s act three showpieces, but by the time the fourth act arrived she finally managed to shed (perhaps against her will) the Leontyne Price tribute that had limited her vocalism thus far. In the big aria “D’amor sull’alli rosee” the opaque sound was slowly shaken off the voice, perhaps as the singer became overwhelmed by the assignment, and the true, lyric voice came forth. “So THAT is your voice,” screamed my ears, as I hungrily devoured this new sound that the singer inexplicably had denied the public until now. Interestingly enough, a well executed, laser like trill capped the cadenza of the aria, a superior effort eclipsing the earlier sketchy attempts that had marred her work in act one. During the Miserere which followed the aria, she appropriately got lost in the character’s plight and allowed herself every opportunity to abuse chest, moans and sobs all the while taking the unwritten high C in the phrase “Di te, di te scordarmi”. This performance included the often omitted cabaletta “Tu vedrai che amore in terra”, and though Ms. Daltirus was certainly stretched by its demands, she made a brave showing of it. The final showdown with the Count, the duet “Mira d’acerbe lagrime.” became the crowning achievement of her Leonora. Here, she became unhinged, and unleashed the voice in its full splendor. During the tempo di mezzo section which bridges towards the concluding stretta, she promised herself over to the Count via a stentorian high C, and colored her runs feverishly as she expressed her joy at becoming her lover’s savior. Here finally we had a real opera singer, one that communicates through the voice and the special language of opera, and though we had to wait for her arrival in the final act of the opera, one was grateful that she had indeed arrived at all.
This motley crew was somehow held together by the able baton of conductor James Meena, who projected a clear and individual point of view whenever the proceedings were not hampered by the peculiarities of the soloists. He even managed to generate some sparkle during the choral scenes, which were somewhat hampered by the malnourished forces of the Opera Carolina Chorus. Visually, Director Jay Lesenger led a different show altogether. He initially achieved much through the use of backdrops and video projections, which served as dramatic background to the sparse staging comprised of walls and stairs. The opening of the first act, with the shadows of the chorus set against the relief of the projected castle and clouds slowly rolling in the background, made for an arresting image that provided interest without distraction. This unfortunately changed for the worst as this cloud action demanded center stage by changing direction, colors, and speed in every possible permutation, the effect being that of a disco ball at the library. A video projection of flames also degenerated from a subtle detail to outrageous excess, notably so at the end of the opera when a video projection that can only be described as the introduction to “Dr. Who” took over the stage. A red wormhole of fire…yikes. It was the final period on an afternoon filled with much frustration.
Newoutpost has experienced great opera at Opera Carolina in past seasons, among these a spectacular La Cenerentola in 2006, which featured the charming talents of Vivica Genaux as Rossini’s leading lady, and a Nabucco which unveiled Mark Delevan’s first stab at the title role back in 2003. Thus we are a bit irked to introduce this fine company to our readers through such a half-baked show. We hold much hope for the rest of their season, which will include Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”. For more information on these future productions, please visit the Opera Carolina’s website at http://www.operacarolina.org/