On March 2, Eve Queler ascended the podium one last time as Music Director of the Opera Orchestra of New York to conduct a concert performance of the same work that inaugurated the company back in 1972: Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. Following the thunderous applause that greeted her entrance, Ms. Queler raised her baton and proceeded to elegantly unwrap Meyerbeer’s exotic score to the near sold out Avery Fischer Hall for the next three hours. And what a score it is! Critics of Meyerbeer have dismissed his writing as calculated and cheaply affected, but this is bunk! Just the construction of Act One alone shows that Meyerbeer was a master musical dramaturgist. That he managed to entertain in the meantime is nothing but sheer bonus.
Making her US debut in the title role of Selika was the Italian soprano Chiara Taigi. Dressed in al dark brown gown, which contrasted beautifully against her cascades of straight blonde hair, Ms. Taigi sang her opening lines “On nous fit prisonniers sur les immenses mers” and immediately displayed the type of voice that audiences in the 1970s were beginning to recognize as a rapidly endangered species: The beautiful Italianate soprano voice. The voice was dark-hued, capable of impressive resonance when chest emissions were required, and was generously unleashed whenever Ms. Queler afforded her the chance to do so. It was, however, in the quieter lyrical moments, such as in her final monologue “D’ici je vois la mer,” where all who saw her are likely to remember her by. There were, to be sure, some deficiencies in technique: The voice could move, but was not capable of fully meeting the challenges imposed by her Act Two aria “Sur mes genoux.” Here, the required scales and trills were strongly suggested rather than truly realized. Further cracks in the vocal armor were betrayed whenever she navigated shifts from the middle voice into the lower notes, but perhaps this was perpetrated by the occasional forceful nature of her declamation. Still, she presented forth her prima donna application by providing qualities that seems very elusive nowadays: An artist with a glamorous voice, and a perceivable desire to express music in a creative fashion. I credit her art for my managing to sound both jaded and hopeful in that last sentence.
In the heroic role of Vasco da Gama, tenor Marcello Giordani offered one of his most satisfying portrayals to be heard in New York in recent years. As audiences have come to expect by now, the top of his voice is capable of brilliant clarity and clarion size, but when asked to travel towards the lower reaches of the staff things can turn slightly grey. His entrance monologue, “J’ai vu, nobles seigneurs,” is full of musical pitfalls, and it laid bare the most proficient and flawed aspects of his instruments. These contrasting qualities proved consistent through the duration of the evening. For instance, in the finale of Act One, “D’impie et de rebelled,” the tenor is called upon to dominate the ensemble shared with the bass and male chorus. Mr Giordani became a trumpet, and it was awesome. The burnished tone of his voice came to his aid best when dealing with the most famous excerpt in the opera, the great aria “O Paradis.” The shipwrecked soul enters a new jungle never seen before by western eyes. Here the overall effect was dreamy, fearful, overwhelmed. Mr. Giordani’s voice beautifully achieved the full height of “Tu m’appartiens!” which concluded with a well placed gulp to punctuate the expression, and the key concluding phrases of “Monde nouveau, tu m’appartiens, sois donc a moi” were shattering. Finely as it was delivered, the aria was then followed by a difficult interlude between tenor and chorus “Ayez pitie!” where lamentably some hoarse low notes had to be salvaged by a stentorian display at the top. Mr. Giordani’s art may not perfect, but he remains a compelling singer, able to achieve a lasting impression despite these shortcomings. He may, in fact, be the only tenor of international repute able to not just survive, but also sing through the various challenges imposed by this part. A case in point brings the listener to the scene where the brave explorer turns lover in the duet that closes Act Four “O, ma Selika.” Giordani’s first melodic statement lacked the necessary suavity to melt the heart of the queen. When he repeated the phrase, however, a more beautiful, relaxed lover came forth, culminating in the exquisite line “Je me sens au ciel.” I believed him.
While Selika and Vasco da Gama get the top billing in this opera, it is the character of the conflicted Nelusko that ultimately wins the sympathy of the audience. The role found an intriguing exponent in South African baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa. At times he seemed possessed onstage, the white in his eyes overtaking his face as he hurled his hate against his captors. His clear baritone voice proved, for my taste, a tad translucent for the part, so moments requiring a virile vocal command of the score, such as the recitative “Hola! Matelots!” and the subsequent retelling of the Amadastor legend “Tra, la, la, la!” were realized in undernourished fashion. Where he banked most convincingly were the poignant moments when he underlined the conflict of his character, such as in the memorable “Peut-etre! Acheve!,” and his pained outcry to the god Brahma: “Vous souffrez qu’il soit servi par elle! Dieu, puissant!” prompted spontaneous applause.
Singing the seconda donna role of Inez, soprano Ellie Dehn entered the stage wearing an unfortunate strapless number that strained to keep her goods in check. Once this bothersome detail was overcome (easy for me, easy for me,) the ear was treated to a girly, full voiced lyric soprano with a high extension. While not varied in its palette, the voice was easily produced through its range, and was quite capable of navigating through both the full orchestra and the concerted musical numbers. At times the tone became hard when pressed, yet hers was a solidly sung performance if not a particularly memorable one. She had the voice, but in both production and phrasing there was plenty of room left for creating expression. The score and the audience needed more.
The lesser roles were filled admirably by the veteran company, and two basses merit mention: Daniel Mobbs’ presence in the cast as Don Pedro provided the audience with a luxuriously cast rival to Giordani’s Vasco. Mr. Mobbs is the owner of a fine instrument, which was heard to better advantage in Rossini’s Semiramide two years go. As the High Priest of Brahma, Harold Wilson made much of his brief outing in Act Four and displayed a voice of great beauty and size as he led the chorus in the repeated chants of “Brahma! Wischnou! Schiva!” The presence of these two artists is greatly anticipated in future events.
One final detail of the performance must be mentioned. As the story goes, when deciding upon the repertoire for OONY’s opening season in 1972, Ms. Queler requested the services of Richard Tucker by asking the legendary tenor what he would like to sing. Having only sung the famous aria in concert but not the entire role, Tucker requested to debut with the company by essaying the role of Vasco da Gama in L’Africane for the first time. To commemorate this occasion, prior to Ms. Queler’s entrance the lights were lowered. In the darkness, the loudspeakers over the stage turned back time to a legendary evening in April 2, 1972 and Mr. Tucker’s “O Paradiso” (the performance then was given in its familiar Italian translation,) filled the house with its glorious splendor. As the excerpt came to an end, and the applause of nearly forty years ago mingled with the ovations of the present audience, it occurred to me that a most likely unintentional series of artistic commentaries had been by the company with this bold move. I will not bore the present reader with my crazy ideas, but I will always wonder what went through Mr. Giordani’s head as this excerpt was played prior to his entrance. Imagine the responsibility.