Conductor Eve Queler has a particular affinity for Verdi’s early masterpiece “I lombardi”. She also has a way of sniffing out the right mix of talent for this opera: The first go about featured the then reigning diva of Italian opera Renata Scotto, singing alongside the 24 year-old Jose Carreras. In the late 80s she revisited the work, pinning the legendary Carlo Bergonzi against the talents of a baby Aprile Millo, then the hottest Verdi rookie in the world. For this performance, Ms. Queler has once again found four outstanding principles to bring to live this gorgeous early Verdi gem, including the pairing of two AVA graduates who have been the talk of the American opera scene as of late. What ensued on the evening of April 8th was the equivalent of an operatic block party.
High honors were reserved for Angela Meade, who took on the testing role of Griselda and handled the complicated score with great aplomb. Her first test of the evening, the deceptively simple prayer “Salve Maria”, found her working out some early evening jitters (a casual slide joining the ends between the middle to high tessituras got in the way of an otherwise fine legato) eventually settling into an impressive array of piani and suspended fil di voce. The aria allowed for the inspection of this much admired voice, and revealed a brightly colored soprano, generous in size and capable of much agility.
At its best, her sound took on an angelic quality very appropriate to the tinta of the work. Her middle register has greatly mellowed since we last heard her in the title role of Rossini’s Semiramide back in 2009, and she could call upon the chest tones when the score made demands of it. At the other end of the spectrum, her soft singing was world-class. Her collective powers, coupled with a remarkable degree of technical mastery, summed up her performance as a tour de force.
This is not to say that she was without caveats. Though she managed to make herself heard through the concerted numbers, her voice remains as of this date more lirico than spinto. In fact, she approached perfection when allowed to wallow in her lyric state, sounding merely perfunctory when she pressed the voice to deliver the heavier pages of the score. The color of her voice is not yet dark enough to qualify as a true bel canto instrument, and while the vibrato many have griped about did not bother us in the least (this is, after all, hot blooded Italian music) a casual unmusical handling of the score certainly did. Case in point, in the many instances where she relished special skill (say a well achieved taper, or a good trill), the architecture of her singing was skewed to showcase it, leaving the rest of the arch either hastily resolved, or worse, left unattended. All would remain unnoticed if she immersed her singing into the dramatic situation at hand. That is, throw her head back and let her musical instincts take over, a quality almost begged for in the stretta “No!… giusta causa – non è d’Iddio” which closes the opera’s second act. In this sense, she was unresponsive, greatly amplifying the gravity of her various shortcomings. In our view, she will fulfill her promise as her generation’s great new bel canto hope once she develops this level of artistry.
Those who follow these sorts of things have known for a while that Michael Fabiano has been America’s (or at least NY’s) tenor sweetheart ever since he came to the attention of all in the critically acclaimed documentary “The Audition” back in 2007. The young tenor came to this performance with a myriad of superlative notices already under his belt (Gennaro in San Francisco, Rodolfo in Seattle, the Duke of Mantua in Dresden, just to name a few), yet his work with the big apple’s iconic Metropolitan Opera has so far been limited to small secondary roles (Raffaele in Stiffelio – Cassio in Otello). His casting in this performance of “I Lombardi” marked his NY debut in a principal role, and the near sold out house at Avery Fisher Hall seemed intent to ensure the young artist’s rise to the occasion. Quiet as it’s kept, the atmosphere in the house was almost violently supportive, like a gathering of overprotective uncles coming to support a favorite nephew’s recital. Mr. Fabiano made no attempt to hide his own awareness of this; He walked onstage with a grin as big and confident as his wonderful voice, and though he opted not to run the length the stage and high five all the patrons in the front row, we are willing to bet a shiny nickel that the thought did cross his mind. Of course, the moment he opened his mouth discarded this initial unsavory observation.
The role of Oronte is short and showy, and under the right throat it can dominate the evening. This is exactly what transpired. As he uttered into his introductory lines, Mr. Fabiano unleashed an alert, gleaming tenor of undeniable sex appeal. When this beautiful lyric tenor voice, capable of attaining an unexpectedly large sonority, embarked into a searing take on Oronte’s big aria “La mia letizia infondere”, the house – for lack of a better word, blew up. Those who would have complained about an occasional warning sign at the extreme top of the tenor range knew better than to risk a beat down, sensibly keeping such observations for later online musings. Mr. Fabiano’s remaining two numbers further confirmed the initial impression: His declamation was wonderfully at home in the natural phrasing of the Italian style, allowing his singing to be both brawny and sensitive. When the moment called for it, he unleashed his passion in a way that hogged the mind’s ear, delivering the music’s emotional punch through the duration of his brief assignment. His was the biggest triumph of the night, and not because New York seemed intent on crowning a new hero, but rather because he actually managed to exceed the city’s expectations.
Verdi’s “I Lombardi” features one of the rare instances in Italian opera where a bass carries a larger load than the traditional tenor lead, and the eminent role of Pagano was superbly sung by Opera Orchestra veteran Kevin Short. Mr. Short’s solid bass was well produced and never exaggerated, despite the initial impression of sounding underpowered. A less seasoned artist would have been tempted to force, but Mr. Short kept his bearings intact. In fact he seemed hardly concerned with competing with his colleagues at any point, keeping his tones true to his voice and method, and in no time his rich and expressive bass resonated through the hall effortlessly on its own accord. While there was more exuberant vocalism being thrown about by the younger luminaries around him, he essentially became the glue that held the cast together throughout the night. Similarly effective was the work of tenor Noah Baetge, here making an impressive OONY debut as Arvino. In great contrast with Mr. Fabiano, his voice was a blunter instrument, devoid of romantic pulse yet appropriate for his duties as the heroine’s tenor father (an unusual practice for Verdi). His big scena in the second act culminated with the exciting “Sì!… del ciel che non punisce,” where he revealed a stunning upper register of clarion ring. If not an ideal sound for Verdi, the promise of a stupendous Straussian career may be in his future.
Circling back to Maestra Queler, she conducted this (to her) score familiar to her with great verve. Her collaboration with the forces of the New York Choral Society at times seemed disjointed, but the choral involvement in this work is thankfully extensive, and the situation tidied up by the middle of the first act. A more distracting caveat concerned the two instances where the decision to locate offstage musical devices (such as the instances necessitating the banda, or Oronte’s singing from heaven) placed these in the upper balconies. The balance of sound was greatly compromised by these gimmicks, so when the singers onstage had their say it took the ear a great deal of adjustment to hear them again. Similarly, Oronte’s celestial singing was robbed of its desired effect. Mr. Fabiano is svelte enough to shimmy his way to the middle of the chorus section and at least approach the aural panorama Verdi is after here, so what gives? On a more positive, Ms. Queler did provide a rich frame for the violin concerto that bridges the first and second scene of the third act, performed here by the indulgent violin of concertmaster Erica Keisewetter, who went on to outdo herself during the opera’s unique trio (really a quartet for three vocalists and violin soloist), “Qual volutta trascorrere”.
This performance of Verdi’s “I Lombardi alla prima crociata” marked the end of Opera Orchestra of New York’s 2012-2013. We continually hit the refresh button in hopes of learning more about the company’s plans for the next season. If you would like to join us, visit their site at www.operaorchestrany.org