22 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — MANON LESCAUT (L. Haroutounian, B. Jagde, A. C. Evans, P. Skinner, C. Oglesby, A. Dixon, Z. Bai, S. Baek, C. Pursell, A. E. Moser, J. Thomas, L. Cameron Porter, S. Mouzon; San Francisco Opera, 20 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon LescautLianna Haroutounian (Manon Lescaut), Brian Jagde (Chevalier Renato des Grieux), Anthony Clark Evans (Lescaut), Philip Skinner (Geronte), Christopher Oglesby (Edmondo), Ashley Dixon (Un musico), Zhengyi Bai (Il maestro di ballo, Un lampionaio), SeokJong Baek (Un oste, Il comandante di marina), Christian Pursell (Un sergente degli arceri), Angela Eden Moser (Madrigal singer), Jesslyn Thomas (madrigalista), Laurel Cameron Porter (Un madrigalista), Sally Mouzon (Un madrigalista); San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Nicola Luisotti, conductor [Olivier Tambosi (Director), Frank Philipp Schlößmann (Production Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Dave Maier (Fight Director), Lawrence Pech (Choreographer), Ian Robertson (Chorus Director); San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA; Wednesday, 20 November 2019]

When the opera that solidified his reputation as the best-qualified successor to Giuseppe Verdi, his setting of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, was premièred at Torino’s Teatro Regio on 1 February 1893, Giacomo Puccini was thirty-four years old; hardly a child prodigy but still a young man by Twenty-First-Century standards. The son of a musical family, Puccini honed his craft via works in a variety of genres, but the early scores Le Willis and Edgar affirmed that the composer’s natural habitat was the opera house. Possessing an exceptional aptitude for theatricality that has prompted some observers to dismiss his operas as overly sentimental, Puccini wielded his talent for creating beguiling melodies—intermittently overused, admittedly—that characterized the music of Bellini and Verdi. Though his work exhibits many of the verismo aesthetics championed by his contemporaries, Puccini was an unabashed Romantic at heart. Manon Lescaut is a score in which the Twentieth Century is near on the musical horizon, but its defining qualities are neither radical nor pedantic. The essence of Manon Lescaut is a young composer’s passionately tuneful paean to a literary heroine who garnered his love.

The complicated gestation of Manon Lescaut suggests that, in this instance of Puccini’s pervasive affection for his opera’s heroine, Shakespeare’s well-known anecdote proved to be frustratingly apt: the course of true love indeed was not smooth. Though eager to capitalize on the enthusiasm that greeted Puccini’s first efforts in operatic form, the publisher Giulio Ricordi was openly hostile to the notion an operatic setting of Prévost’s L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Already familiar to European audiences when Puccini was falling victim to Manon’s charms were Daniel François Esprit Auber’s 1856 opéra comique Manon Lescaut, its libretto written by the influential Eugène Scribe, and Jules Massenet’s 1884 treatment of the story, not as widely known or beloved in 1893 as it is today. Nevertheless, Puccini refused to be dissuaded. The hands of Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva were the first to touch the libretto of Manon Lescaut, which ultimately became a muddle to which Puccini’s frequent collaborators Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, Giulio Ricordi, and Puccini himself contributed. Finally, Giuseppe Adami made minor alterations at Puccini’s request, engendering the edition of the work that is now familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences. To Puccini’s credit, the sutures in the text are not apparent in the music: in a well-rehearsed, intelligently-staged production like the one mounted by San Francisco Opera, Manon Lescaut displays a captivating wealth of musical invention and homogeneity.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass-baritone CHRISTIAN PURSELL as Il sergente degli arceri, tenor BRIAN JAGDE as Chevalier des Grieux, and soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Una battaglia per amore: (from left to right) bass-baritone Christian Pursell as Il sergente degli arceri, tenor Brian Jagde as Chevalier des Grieux, and soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Introduced to the company on 28 September 1926, with the legendary Claudia Muzio in the title rôle, Manon Lescaut has amassed a performance history at San Francisco Opera that reflects the opera’s and its composer’s popularities. In 1927, the inaugural production was reprised, with Frances Peralta (née Phyllis Partington and therefore of no relation to the celebrated Mexican soprano Ángela Peralta) portraying the eponymous heroine and Giovanni Martinelli as des Grieux. Two performances in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles in October 1949 united Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling, the latter of whom later returned to San Francisco to sing des Grieux opposite the Manon of Dorothy Kirsten. Mario del Monaco sang des Grieux in San Francisco in 1950. The Manon of Pilar Lorengar graced War Memorial Opera House’s stage, and two of the most memorable Manons of recent decades sang their débuts in the rôle in San Francisco, Leontyne Price in 1974 and Mirella Freni in 1983. When the present staging, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, débuted in 2006, it was with Karita Mattila as Manon. Especially in the United States, San Francisco Opera’s advocacy of Manon Lescaut has advanced the opera’s fortunes as markedly as the score legitimized Puccini’s global standing as Verdi’s successor as Italy’s most successful composer of opera. That advocacy has also created exalted standards to which the current and future productions of Manon Lescaut will inevitably be compared.

Director Olivier Tambosi’s staging of Manon Lescaut is largely traditional but is not one in which adherence to tradition is substituted for interpretive insight. Rather than conjuring the kinds of vague, fairy-tale evocations of Eighteenth-Century France that please the eyes but leave the emotions unmoved, this production strives for temporal and locational specificity. Allied with Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s elegantly-proportioned set designs, the colorful but period-appropriate costumes, and Duane Schuler’s expertly-realized lighting, Tambosi’s direction largely concentrated the viewer’s attention according to the dictates of Puccini’s music, delivering the opulent visuals expected of a production by a company of San Francisco Opera’s renown but avoiding dwarfing the intimacies of the drama.

Aside from an overabundance of climbing on furniture that particularly victimized Edmondo, a noteworthy accomplishment of this production was the relative absence of conventional operatic mannerisms and affectation: owing to Tambosi’s vision, supported by Lawrence Pech’s choreography and Dave Maier’s fight direction, the performers on stage moved as people move rather than behaving like creatures that exist only in opera. There were critical moments, not least during Manon’s death scene in Act Four, in which characters were not where they logically ought to have been, however, and the emotional connection between stage and audience was diminished. Still, too many of today’s opera productions demonstrate various degrees of ignorance of the basic goals of staging opera, foremost among which is the fabrication of an environment in which singers can plausibly portray characters whilst singing music that demands constant immersion in the rhythms and the words. This Manon Lescaut was perceptibly guided by cognizance of the score and respect for the artists performing it.

IN REVIEW: tenor CHRISTOPHER OGLESBY as Edmondo (center) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Un principe tra gli studenti: tenor Christopher Oglesby as Edmondo (center) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

In the current revival, supervision of San Francisco Opera’s musical forces was entrusted to the company’s former Music Director, Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti. Luisotti’s tenure as Music Director was not without difficulties, but his leadership of this performance exerted many felicities that distinguish the conductor’s work. Particularly commendable was the reliable coordination between stage and pit during large ensembles. Not least in the public scenes of Acts One and Three, the singing of the San Francisco Opera Chorus was thrilling, Ian Robertson’s much-admired training begetting uncommon accuracy without impeding dramatic involvement. Likewise, the marvelous playing of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra musicians disclosed thorough preparation and acquaintance with the score. Assured of the capabilities of the musical personnel at his disposal, Luisotti focused on exploring nuances of Puccini’s scoring, drawing lithe, flexible playing from the strings.

The conductor’s handling of the Intermezzo was stirring, the wall of sound constructed by the orchestra never permitted to overwhelm Puccini’s carefully-wrought interplay of thematic threads, but, both in large ensembles and, to a lesser extent, in smaller-scaled passages, the orchestra often overwhelmed the singers. [Patrons seated in other locations reported that this was less obtrusive elsewhere in the house.] There were moments in which Luisotti’s tempi seemed at odds with the singers’ inclinations, but there was compensatory adaptability, his pacing free from the dictatorial insensitivity that can spoil a performance. Luisotti provided propulsion and poetry as needed. A conductor’s objective in opera should be to mold performances in which the music seems to emerge from the drama. This was often true of this Manon Lescaut, in which Luisotti’s comprehension of Puccini’s style was manifested in an idiomatic, emotive performance.

Long one of America’s most nurturing training centers for emerging artists, San Francisco Opera cultivates an environment in which young singers refine their techniques by performing alongside established artists. This performance of Manon Lescaut was enriched by the participation of some of the company’s gifted young artists, several of whom are current Adler Fellows. The madrigal singers in Act Two—sopranos Angela Eden Moser and Jesslyn Thomas and mezzo-sopranos Laurel Cameron Porter and Sally Mouzon—delivered their parts mellifluously, complementing the lovely voice of mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, who began the madrigale with an appealing account of ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori.’ Bass-baritone Christian Pursell was an engaging presence, vocally and dramatically, as the Sergente degli arceri in Act Three, voicing ‘Il passo m’aprite’ forcefully. Similarly, baritone SeokJong Baek was engaging as both the Oste in Act One and the Comandante in Act Three, declaiming the latter’s ‘È pronta la nave’ with requisite authority. Tenor Zhengyi Bai deployed a bright timbre and sure-footed dramatic instincts, first in his singing of the Maestro di ballo’s ‘Vi prego, signorina’ in Act Two and later in the Lampionaio’s atmospheric ‘...e Kate rispose al Re’ in Act Three.

IN REVIEW: soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut (center left) and tenor ZHENGYI BAI as Il maestro di ballo (center right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]La signora balla: soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut (center left) and tenor Zhengyi Bai as Il maestro di ballo (center right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Portraying the rabble-rousing student Edmondo, tenor Christopher Oglesby sang characterfully without making his depiction a caricature. As embarrassingly puerile performances of the part affirm, this distinction is not achieved without consummate artistry. Oglesby’s ribald but tasteful depiction left the impression that the tavern in Amiens visited in Act One is a far livelier place when Edmondo is imbibing its offerings. The tenor’s singing of ‘Ave, sera gentile’ rose to an easy top A, and the adventurousness with which he sang ‘La tua ventura ci rassicura’ made the projected translation of the words redundant. In Oglesby’s portrayal, Edmondo’s mocking of the out-witted Geronte, ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton, sei tu,’ was unquestionably mischievous but not genuinely mean-spirited. Youthful joie de vivre emanated from his voicing of ‘Il colpo è fatto.’ Stating that a singer’s performance exhibited great promise is now so clichéd as to be inconsequential, but Oglesby’s secure, charismatic singing of Edmondo’s music—music that, like Puccini’s later writing for Goro in Madama Butterfly, Nick in La fanciulla del West, and Prunier in La rondine, merits voices finer than those to which it is typically assigned—identified him as a singer whose endeavors are likely to brighten opera’s future.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone PHILIP SKINNER as Geronte in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Il finanziere dei sogni: bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Geronte in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Bass-baritone Philip Skinner was the sort of Geronte di Ravoir for which Puccini surely hoped, his acting bringing the doting—not confused with dotage, as is often the case—roué to life with complete credibility but without his vocalism being marred by the aural scars of long experience. Plotting Geronte’s abscondment with Manon in Act One, Skinner sang ‘Questa notte, amico, qui poserò’ with the nonchalance of a man who was certain of the brilliance of his scheme. The implicit irony that oozed from the bass-baritone’s articulation of ‘Dunque vostra sorella il velo cingerà?’ succinctly disclosed the codger’s lecherous intentions, and he voiced ‘Di sedur la sorellina è il momento’ with seriousness that heightened the ridiculousness of Geronte’s pursuit of Manon.

In the scene with the pampered Manon in Act Two, Skinner’s performance emphasized the kinship between this episode in Puccini’s opera and the lesson scene in Act Two of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Later returning to his paramour’s boudoir to discover Manon reunited with des Grieux, the ferocity of his voicing of ‘Affè, madamigella, or comprendo il perchè di nostr’attesa!’ was exhilarating. The impact of the climax of Act Two can be blunted if Geronte cannot summon vocal muscle with which to threaten Manon and des Grieux. In this performance, Skinner flexed that muscle menacingly, his firm, flinty singing lending Geronte a depth beyond that of the usual aging libertine. His Geronte turning the tables on Manon by compelling her to observe her desperate state in the mirror with which she haughtily ridiculed him, Skinner brought the curtain down on Act Two with an astounding coup de théâtre.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone PHILIP SKINNER as Geronte (left) and baritone ANTHONY CLARK EVANS as Lescaut (right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Signori con piani: bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Geronte (left) and baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut (right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Manon’s brother and guardian Lescaut received from baritone Anthony Clark Evans a depiction in which limning the character’s ambiguous motivations was secondary to imparting obvious fraternal affection and, above all, singing the part with élan. In Act One, the baritone was a source of dramatic momentum, his utterances taking a vital part in the events that put the opera on the path to its tragic conclusion. Evans sang ‘Malo consiglio della gente mia’ engrossingly but without exaggeration, his phrasing faithful to the cadences of Puccini’s word setting. Holding court with his sister, chez Geronte, in Act Two, Evans’s Lescaut partnered his Manon handsomely, voicing ‘Sei splendida e lucente!’ with fervor that peaked on his well-projected top Fs. A steely core emerged in the singer’s voice during the final moments of Act Two, Lescaut’s instinct to protect Manon—and his own interests—tested by Geronte’s actions.

His character accompanying des Grieux on the quest to rescue Manon from deportation at the beginning of Act Three, Evans’s vigorous vocalism plaintively expressed the gravitas of the situation. His singing of ‘Perduta è la partita!’ touchingly communicated Lescaut’s sense of helplessness and despair. Lescaut is one of opera’s most complicated and, in many performances of Manon Lescaut, unlikable characters, but Evans’s portrayal, though heeding all of Puccini’s and his librettists’ instructions, made Manon’s paradoxical sibling atypically endearing.

IN REVIEW: tenors BRIAN JAGDE as Chevalier des Grieux (center left) and CHRISTOPHER OGLESBY as Edmondo (center right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Un inno all’amore: tenors Brian Jagde as Chevalier des Grieux (center left) and Christopher Oglesby as Edmondo (center right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Richard Tucker cited Puccini’s Renato des Grieux as his favorite rôle. Hearing recordings of his performances of the part opposite Dorothy Kirsten, Renata Tebaldi, Licia Albanese, and Raina Kabaivabska at the Metropolitan Opera, Montserrat Caballé in Buenos Aires, Virginia Zeani in Rome, and the inimitable Magda Olivero in Caracas, it is easy to discern why the rôle appealed to Tucker. Perhaps des Grieux is not tenor Brian Jagde’s favorite rôle, but his inaugural interpretation of the part revealed a superlative affinity for the music. Upon his first entrance in Act One, Jagde suffused his des Grieux with youthful disenfranchisement that enhanced the believability of the character’s impulsiveness. The tenor sang ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde’ with suitable ennui, fostering a significant contrast with his awestruck enunciations of ‘Dio, quanto è bella!’ and ‘Cortese damigella, il priego mio accettate’ after Manon’s arrival. ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ is one of Puccini’s finest arias for the tenor voice and, melodically, can be argued to be more gratifying than several of its companions in the Puccini canon. Jagde sang the piece ardently, untroubled by the top B♭s. Enchanted by his Manon, this des Grieux voiced ‘Oh, come gravi le vostre parole!’ rapturously.

Finding Manon ensconced in the splendor of Geronte’s Parisian residence, des Grieux’s wounded pride and anger electrified Jagde’s voicing of ‘Sì, sciagurata, la mia vendetta.’ It was necessary for him and all of his colleagues to boost their volume in order to be heard over the orchestra, and rarely deviating from forte sometimes deprived Jagde’s vocalism of finesse. Still, the intensity of his singing of ‘Senti, di qui partiamo’ and ‘Con te portar dei solo il cor’ was exciting, the latter taking him to a magnificent top B. Des Grieux’s music undergoes a further metamorphosis in Act Three, and Jagde responded with a lyrical reading of ‘Manon, disperato è il mio prego!’ that, as in his transition from sangfroid to romantic zeal in Act One, facilitated a meaningful distinction between the sadness of the act’s first scene and the avidity of the subsequent scenes. Jagde’s galvanizing voicing of ‘No! no! pazzo son io!’ recalled Franco Bonisolli’s singing of this music, his traversal of the largo sostenuto ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ throbbing with emotion and cresting on another ringing top B.

Vocally, Jagde was on near-best form throughout the evening: dramatically, he was most effective in Act Four. The voice remained strong, but the tenor’s demeanor as he sang ‘Tutta su me ti posa’ exuded exhaustion and faltering determination. Jagde approached ‘Vedi, vedi, son lo che piango’ and ‘Tutto il mio sangue per la tua vita!’ without artifice, and the emotional directness of his singing of ‘Nulla rinvenni l’orizzonte nulla mi rivelò’ was touching. As Jagde’s experience in the rôle grows, he is likely to discover more subtleties in the music and his interpretation of it, but he was in this performance a forthright, clarion-toned des Grieux.

IN REVIEW: soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Sola, perduta, abbandonata: soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

The title rôle in the present revival of Manon Lescaut is the third Puccini heroine that Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian has sung with San Francisco Opera. Like her des Grieux, Lescaut, Geronte, and Edmondo, Haroutounian made her rôle début in the first performance of this run, adding the part to her repertoire before an audience that has proved to be appreciative of her artistry. For a ruminative singer, taking on a new rôle in a house in which the part was sung by sopranos of the caliber of Claudia Muzio, Dorothy Kirsten, and Leontyne Price is surely intimidating and humbling, but Haroutounian coped admirably with Manon’s musical and dramatic demands and with the inescapable legacy of San Francisco Opera’s progression of illustrious exponents of the rôle.

Introducing Manon to des Grieux and the audience, Haroutounian sang ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ beautifully, but the irresistible magic that this passage can have was missing. She gracefully eschewed cloying silliness in ‘Il mio fato si chiama’ and ‘Vedete? Io son fedele alla parola mia,’ preferring a straightforward depiction of Manon as an ambitious young woman rather than a coquettish ingenue. The altered trajectory of Manon’s fate in Act Two was immediately palpable in the soprano’s voicing of ‘Dispettosetto questo riccio!’ The spoiled girl momentarily distracted from the luxury of her surroundings by thoughts of des Grieux, her ‘In quelle trine morbide’ was beautifully sung and crowned with lovely top B♭s. The top C in the scene with Lescaut was properly euphoric, but Manon’s trills were tentatively sketched. Haroutounian presented ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella’ as a calculated performance that pandered to Geronte’s vanity. The lack of self-restraint that permeates ‘Ah! Manon te solo brama’ was underplayed, but the biting cruelty of ‘Amore? Amore! Mio buon signore, ecco!’ was in Haroutounian’s portrayal more injurious than physical violence.

Placing Manon in an elevated prison cell, stage right, with des Grieux and Lescaut behind a gate at the rear of the stage, reinforced the audience’s appreciation of the emotional toll of Manon’s separation from her lover and brother, but the physical distance caused the pathos of ‘Tu, amore!? amore? Nell’onta non m’abbandoni?’ to seem more self-indulgent than poignant. Nonetheless, Haroutounian voiced ‘Ah! una minaccia funebre io sento!’ movingly, and, though she, too, struggled to project above the orchestral din, her singing in the act’s closing scene was vivid. The sorrow of ‘Sei tu che piangi?’ in the opera’s final act was only partially realized, but Haroutounian transcended awkward acting to lavish inviolable musicality on ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonataIo t’amo tanto e muoio!’ There were few histrionics in this Manon’s death: instead of resorting to the raspy Sprechstimme with which some singers intone the character’s final lines, Haroutounian truly sang Puccini’s notes. Manon does not inspire the kind of empathy that Mimì can impel in a good performance of La bohème, but Haroutounian’s portrayal was an honorable beginning to what will hopefully become a long relationship with the rôle—and an enjoyable addition to San Francisco Opera’s gallery of storied portraits of the first of Puccini’s piccole donne.

15 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI (B. S. Russell, S. Kantorski, R. Zeller, D. Pershall, J. Sorensen, C. Blackburn, S. Toso; Greensboro Opera, November 2019)

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (center left), tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (center right), and the cast of Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): PagliacciBrandon Scott Russell (Canio), Suzanne Kantorski (Nedda), Richard Zeller (Tonio), David Pershall (Silvio), Joel Sorensen (Beppe), Christian J. Blackburn (Un contadino), Sean Toso (Un contadino); Members of Burlington Boys Choir, Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Steven White, conductor [David Holley, producer and stage director; James Bumgardner, chorus master; Bill Allred, children’s chorus master; Jeff Neubauer, lighting designer and technical director; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; 15 and 17 November 2019]

No year in the four centuries since the first performances of Jacopo Peri’s and Claudio Monteverdi’s pioneering favole in musica has been wholly uneventful, but 1892 was an especially momentous year in the history of opera. In addition to the world premières of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally and Umberto Giordano’s Mala vita, Jules Massenet’s Werther belatedly received its first performance. The year witnessed the births of conductors Artur Rodziński and Victor de Sabata and singers Dame Eva Turner, Renato Zanelli, and Ezio Pinza. Amidst this sequence of musically-significant occurrences, the work upon which Ruggero Leoncavallo’s reputation as a composer of opera would ultimately depend, Pagliacci, premièred at Milan’s Teatro dal Verme on 21 May 1892. In this operatic ‘slice of life,’ Leoncavallo altered the course of opera’s evolution, reacting to the waning of one style by instituting a new one. Less than a year after Pagliacci’s première, the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, signaled the end of one of the most productive eras in Italian opera. With works like Pagliacci, the idealized passions of Romanticism gave way to the grittier vigor and violence of verismo.

Scenically, Pagliacci is a piece that can be—and in several infamously unconventional stagings has been—wholly effective despite directorial misadventure. Set by Leoncavallo, whose libretto for the opera was inspired by his father’s recollection of a criminal investigation over which he presided as a judge, in Calabria in the latter half of the 1860s, Pagliacci’s betrayal, marital infidelity, unrequited love, and class strife are, when approached with intelligence and respect, easily relocated to virtually any combination of place and time. In Greensboro Opera’s production, the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley sagaciously looked to Leoncavallo for guidance in staging Pagliacci. Originally devised for Sarasota Opera, the sets evoked a rural Italian village, in which the AT Jones-designed costumes and Trent Pcenicni’s wig and makeup wizardry believably arrayed the choristers as hardworking folk gathered in their town’s piazza to celebrate the Feast of Assumption and enjoy an evening of revelry.

Aided by Jeff Neubauer’s logical lighting designs and technical direction and attentive work from stage manager John Lipe and assistant stage managers Alexandra Scott and Eliya Watson, Holley presented Pagliacci as an exceptionally intimate drama. More so than in many productions, the townspeople on stage—and, by extension, the audience—were intruders in a very private realm. The dichotomy of personal strife playing out in a public setting has broad implications in Italian culture, and Holley’s direction exploited this ambivalence by focusing on blocking that simultaneously drew the observer into the drama and heighened the sense of encroachment. This is what verismo should achieve: as in this Pagliacci, the audience’s experience should be as visceral as the events that transpire on stage.

IN REVIEW: tenor JOEL SORENSEN as Beppe (left), baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Tonio (center), and soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderBeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]La commedia futile: tenor Joel Sorensen as Beppe (left), baritone Richard Zeller as Tonio (center), and soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

Like their counterparts who created the bel canto works of the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the masters of verismo are rarely praised for the inventiveness of their orchestrations, which are frequently dismissed as inferior to the scoring of Germanic composers influenced by Richard Wagner. In artfully adapting the full symphonic panoply of the late-Romantic orchestra to the opera house, Engelbert Humperdinck, Richard Strauss, and lesser-known exponents of Teutonic scoring had few peers originating south of the Alps, but Leoncavallo’s writing for the orchestra in Pagliacci exhibits deftness and imagination that sometimes eluded even Puccini.

Conductor Steven White led the Greensboro Opera Orchestra, here on excellent form, in a performance in which the composer’s creativity and ingenuity were fully apparent. In the orchestral introduction to the Prologo and the stirring Intermezzo, both beautifully played, Leoncavallo’s stimulating use of instrumental timbres and cleverly-wrought counterpoint were highlighted by White’s insightful reading of the score. Similarly, the choral writing was fantastically executed by the Greensboro Opera Chorus, trained by James Bumgardner and joined in this performance by members of the Burlington Boys Choir under the direction of Bill Allred. Brilliant throughout the performance, the choral singing in the tricky Chorus of the Bells was particularly laudable. White paced a taut, fast-moving account of the score but was also alert to the singers’ needs. Ensembles possessed clarity and energy, and the emotional impact of the opera’s conclusion was substantially increased by the subtlety with which White navigated the paths that lead to it.

Greensboro Opera productions typically feature talented singers in supporting rôles, and this  Pagliacci was enlivened by a cast without weakness. As the pair of villagers who interacted with Canio upon his troupe’s arrival, baritone Christian J. Blackburn and tenor Sean Toso sang handsomely, Blackburn voicing ‘Di’, con noi vuoi bevere un buon bicchiere sulla crocevia?’ with conviviality and Toso delivering ‘Bada, Pagliaccio, ci solo vuol restare per far la corte a Nedda!’ suggestively.

Having appeared in acclaimed productions in many prestigious opera houses throughout the world, tenor Joel Sorensen brought extensive experience to his portrayal of Beppe. In the opera’s opening scene, his acting was a masterclass in the art of vibrant but understated characterization. As Canio’s ire and suspicion threatened to upend his troupe’s rapport with the villagers, Sorensen’s Beppe sang ‘Padron! che fate! Per l’amor di Dio!’ incisively, as though only he was truly aware of the impending danger. In the Act Two play, the tenor sang  Arlecchino’s serenata delightfully, maintaining an ideal balance of comedy and musicality. He was a wonderfully wily Beppe, always present but never outstaying his welcome.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (left), baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Silvio (right), and tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (right rear) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]Gli amanti illeciti e la spia: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (left), baritone David Pershall as Silvio (right), and tenor Brandon Scott Russell as Canio (right rear) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

In recent Greensboro Opera seasons, baritone David Pershall has earned the adulation of Triad audiences with expertly-sung portrayals of Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (the rôle in which he débuted at the Metropolitan Opera on 29 December 2015), Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen, and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Silvio in Pagliacci is one of the rôles in which Pershall has found acclaim at San Francisco Opera, and his performance of the part in Greensboro Opera’s production of Leoncavallo’s opera was the work of a bonafide leading man in the tradition of the young Robert Merrill. In Silvio’s amorous rendezvous with Nedda, Pershall voiced ‘Sapea ch’io non rischiavo nulla’ with bravado, introducing his Silvio as an intrepid lover who wielded soaring high notes like sultry embraces.

Incensed by Nedda’s reluctance to surrender to his ardor, Pershall sang ‘Nedda, Nedda, rispondimi’ with wrenching immediacy, palpably evincing the young man’s yearning for his beloved. The erotic frenzy of his singing of ‘E allor perchè, di’, tu m’hai stregato’ was epitomized by a stunning top G. Watching Nedda’s performance in the Act Two play from the crowd, prepared to escape with her at the play’s conclusion, Pershall’s Silvio uttered ‘Io mi ritengo appena!’ and ‘Santo diavolo! Fa davvero’ with horror as he realized that Canio’s rage was no longer feigned. Rather than fleeing, this Silvio’s primary instinct was to protect Nedda—an act of chivalry that cost him his life. All of Pershall’s Greensboro Opera performances have been enjoyable, but his portrayal of Silvio, a rôle for which his vocal and dramatic gifts are ideal, reached a new height of artistic excellence.

In April 2019, renowned baritone Richard Zeller’s ingeniously comedic and touchingly human portrayal of Shakespeare’s mercurial Sir John was the heart of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff. The rôle of Falstaff was created in that opera’s 1893 première by Victor Maurel, who had also sung Tonio in the first performance of Pagliacci. Honoring Maurel’s legacy, Zeller followed his witty Falstaff with a menacing, melancholy Tonio. The baritone’s traversal of Pagliacci’s famous Prologo was majestic and multifaceted, his tonal colors metamorphosing with the changing moods of the text. The legato of his phrasing of ‘Un nido di memorie’ and ‘E voi, piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni’ was a testament to Zeller’s Verdian credentials, as was his resonant top G. His transformation into the bitter, bating Tonio was an example of operatic acting of the highest order.

The loathing exuded by his breathless growl of ‘La pagherai! brigante!’ was terrifying, but it was in Tonio’s pivotal scene with Nedda that Zeller most compellingly demonstrated his consummate mastery of his rôle. His statement of ‘È colpa del tuo canto’ was touchingly sincere, and the pathos of his ‘Non rider, Nedda!’ affirmed that, for all his faults, this Tonio was a man, not a monster. The poignant beauty of tone with which Zeller voiced ‘So ben che diforme, contorto son io’ made the fury of ‘Per la Vergin pia di mezz’agosto, Nedda, io giuro’ and the venomous spite of ‘Cammina adagio e li sorprenderai!’ all the more shocking. Summoning the villagers to the play in Act Two, Zeller declaimed ‘Avanti, avanti, avanti!’ excitingly. In this performance, Taddeo lurked in the shadows, spying on Colombina’s assignation with Arlecchino like a panther ready to pounce. The opera’s ominous final line, ‘La commedia è finita,’ was here uttered by Tonio rather than Canio, and Zeller spoke the words unaffectedly, his Tonio pleased by his own treachery but also shattered by the brutality of Canio’s vengeance. In Zeller’s nuanced, strongly-sung performance, Tonio was unmistakably a descendent of Rigoletto, a decent man twisted by disability and rejection into a depraved but still pitiable figure who hates what he cannot love.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (left) and baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Tonio (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]La moglie ed il mostro: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (left) and baritone Richard Zeller as Tonio (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

A prototypical verismo leading lady, Leoncavallo’s Nedda is, from a dramatic perspective, one of the most difficult rôles in the soprano repertoire. The prevalence of poorly-sung performances of the part divulges that the music is also far from easy, but a number of singers who conquered the rôle’s musical demands failed to create a plausible, sympathetic character. Greensboro Opera’s Nedda, soprano Suzanne Kantorski, crafted an engaging portrait of this complicated, sometimes confounding character. With her straightforward singing of ‘Confusa io son!’ after Canio’s outburst about the mercilessness with which he would punish infidelity, Kantorski displayed a trait that many characterizations of Nedda lack: though she does not truly love Canio, she has no desire to deliberately hurt him. [The question of whether Canio is physically abusive to Nedda, which seems likely, was unanswered in this production, as it is in the score.] Recalling her mother’s stories of nature’s freedom, this Nedda voiced ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!’ and ‘O che bel sole di mezz’agosto!’ rhapsodically. The trills that launch the Ballatella, ‘Stridono lassù, liberamente lanciati a vol,’ were honorably attempted, and the soprano vaulted notes above the stave with pinging precision.

The scorn with which Kantorski infused Nedda’s response to Tonio’s wooing erupted in her singing of ‘Ah! ah! Quanta poesia!’ and ‘Hai tempo a ridirmelo stasera, se brami,’ the latter marked ‘con elegenza’ and ironically rendered accordingly in this performance. It was an altogether different woman who subsequently sought refuge in Silvio’s arms. Kantorski voiced ‘Non mi tentar!’ delicately, her top B♭ gleaming, and the churning emotions of ‘Nulla scordai sconvolta e turbata’ received from her a surge of expressivity. The soprano joined Pershall in a gorgeous account of ‘Tutto scordiam!’ in which their voices intertwined with obvious carnal symbolism. Their lovemaking interrupted by Canio’s approach, Kantorski sought divine protection for her paramour with a meaningful ‘Aitalo Signor!’ From the start of the play in Act Two, Kantorski’s Colombina was the personification of barely-concealed defiance, her desperate attempt to lure Canio back into their scripted farce seeming coy and half-hearted. Her febrile top B, more slashing than the whip that she turned on Tonio, was the exclamation of a woman who demanded immediate liberty or death. Perhaps representing Nedda’s shame and unhappiness, Kantorski’s back was often to the house, lessening her connection with the audience, but she proposed viable solutions to a number of Nedda’s dramatic riddles and sang the rôle exceptionally well.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (center left) and tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (center right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]I coniugi condanatti: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (center left) and tenor Brandon Scott Russell as Canio (center right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Paglacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

Owing to his widely-known, often-parodied aria ‘Vesti la giubba,’ Canio is arguably verismo’s most recognizable protagonist. Perhaps only Wagner’s valkyries are as familiar beyond the ranks of opera aficionados as Leoncavallo’s weeping clown. [The commedia dell’arte figures in Pagliacci are of course not clowns in the strictest modern sense, but when has popular culture worried about distorting historical distinctions?] From Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli to Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, the legacies of past interpreters of Canio still haunt the opera, but Greensboro Opera’s Canio, tenor Brandon Scott Russell, never emulated another singer’s performance. Every tenor naturally wants to replicate Caruso’s diction, Gigli’s emotional candor, del Monaco’s vocal brawn, and Corelli’s peerless upper register, but Russell brought his own qualities to the rôle, one of the most admirable of which was evenness of tonal production that granted his lower register atypical force. The top G♯ that he dispatched in his delivery of ‘Itene al diavolo!’ was equally impressive, and his voicing of ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitrè ore’ was a proclamation of vocal grandeur that suited the text. Russell sang ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ sensitively, the top A emotive rather than ostentatiously demonstrative, and his unassuming enunciation of ‘Adoro la mia sposa!’ was movingly frank.

Canio is changed by Tonio’s report of having seen Nedda with another man, and Russell’s portrayal became more volatile as Canio pursued Silvio, the tenor singing ‘Derisione e scherno!’ with scorching intensity. Doubt clouded Canio’s mind in ‘E se in questo momento,’ plaintively sung by Russell. His was a performance of ‘Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio’ that was despondent but not overwrought. The sorrow that pervades ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ did not tempt the singer to break or distort the melodic line, and, in this performance, there was no need to project ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio’ to the theater’s last row: Russell had drawn the audience into Canio’s innermost thoughts. In Act Two, the conflicting anger and sadness with which Russell voiced ‘Nome di Dio! quelle stesse parole!’ indicated the deterioration of Canio’s mental state. His singing of the cutting ‘No! Pagliaccio non son’ and the exquisite ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ recalled Richard Tucker’s unforgettable performances of this scene, Russell’s top B♭ effortlessly filling the auditorium with anguished but beautiful sound. There were isolated moments in which the tenor’s upper register was not projected as effectively as the voice’s lower reaches, but tonal quality was splendidly consistent. Russell’s was a young man’s Canio, sung with technical assurance that has become all too uncommon among singers of any age.

In opera, the term ‘warhorses’ is often used pejoratively, describing works that are performed so often as to have become disinteresting. Popularity can be damning, especially with would-be cognoscenti eager to prove their superiority by condemning scores that are loved by the masses. Pagliacci is undeniably a warhorse, and there are productions of it that merit disdain. Nevertheless, there are almost always legitimate reasons that explain a work’s popularity with the public and productions that remind audiences of why they love it. Performances of Pagliacci are plentiful, but performances of Pagliacci of the caliber exhibited by Greensboro Opera are exceedingly rare.

14 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Wagner — SIEGFRIED Act Three (R. Cox, A. LoBianco, M. Ngqungwana, N. Piccolomini; North Carolina Opera, 10 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner - SIEGFRIED Act Three (North Carolina Opera, 10 November 2019; Graphic © by North Carolina Opera)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Siegfried, WWV 86C – Act ThreeRichard Cox (Siegfried), Alexandra LoBianco (Brünnhilde), Musa Ngqungwana (Der Wanderer), Nicole Piccolomini (Erda); North Carolina Opera Orchestra; Timothy Myers, conductor [North Carolina Opera, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 10 November 2019]

As Americans’ celebrations of the centennial of their declaration of independence helped to heal the still-fresh wounds of the Civil War during the summer of 1876, a new revolution was coming to fruition on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Artists from a plethora of nations and traditions, dignitaries, disciples, and naysayers gathered in the idyllic Bavarian town of Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner, by that time widely acknowledged as an artist with uncommon vision but still a divisive, controversial figure, brought to the stage of a purpose-built theater the first complete performance of his genre-transforming tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. With this epic work, an extended parable imparted by a Teutonic view of Norse mythology, Wagner immortalized his singular concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, an idea borrowed from the German thinker Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff. The first Bayreuth Ring was arguably less consequential than the American colonists’ struggle for independence, but, with the inauguration of Der Ring des Nibelungen and the Bayreuther Festspiele, Wagner unquestionably celebrated truths that he held to be self-evident.

Premièred on 16 August 1876, the third of the Ring operas advances the cycle’s narrative from Wotan’s abandonment of his spirited daughter Brünnhilde, the eponymous valkyrie who in Act Three of Die Walküre is banished from Valhalla and left to slumber, protected by fire, until she is awakened by a hero who knows no fear, to the maturation of the man destined to be Brünnhilde’s champion. Following its title character’s journey from his untamed youth under the nefarious guidance of Mime to his discovery of Brünnhilde, Siegfried is unique among its companions in Wagner’s ‘Bühnenfestspiel’ in having a third act that is longer in duration than the acts that precede it. [Das Rheingold, Der Ring’s ‘Vorabend,’ is of course structured in a single act, without interval.] Moreover, there is in Siegfried an extraordinary wealth of thematic development, Wagner’s Leitmotivs weaving the dramatic threads of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre into a fabric that unfurls to reveal the cycle’s dénouement in Götterdämmerung. In North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried, Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall resounded with an overwhelming account of one of opera’s most emotionally tumultuous sequences, as the old order represented by Erda and Wotan is supplanted by the purifying passion of Brünnhilde and Siegfried.

Productions of Wagner’s operas by the world’s best-funded opera companies are sometimes financially ruinous. The monetary benefits of performing a work like Siegfried in concert are obvious, but there can also be considerable artistic advantages not only to concert performances but also to performing single acts of Wagner’s operas. [It was by performing successive acts of the four operas in a period spanning October and November 1953 that Wilhelm Furtwängler recorded his much-discussed complete Ring for Italian radio.] Having already offered Triangle audiences memorable performances of Act One of Die Walküre (2013), Act Two of Tristan und Isolde (2014), and Das Rheingold (2016), North Carolina Opera assembled a group of artists who capitalized on every virtue of performing Act Three of Siegfried in concert. Without visual imagery to animate the opera’s drama, singers, instrumentalists, and conductor relied upon the music to exert its enchantment, aided by musicianship that brought the soul of Bayreuth to life in the heart of Raleigh.

Under the baton of the company’s former Artistic Director Timothy Myers, the playing of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra, expanded for this performance to fulfill the requirements of Wagner’s scoring, was superlative. Siegfried’s vocal demands are so formidable that, especially in the context of staged productions, the difficulties of the orchestral writing do not always receive the attention that they deserve. Wagner’s taxing music for horns is heard throughout Der Ring des Nibelungen, but Act Three of Siegfried also contains some of the composer’s most intimidating but incredibly beautiful music for woodwinds and strings. In North Carolina Opera’s Siegfried, the woodwinds rose to every challenge of their parts, Kevin Streich’s, Brian French’s, and Tony Granados’s respective playing of the bass clarinet, bass trumpet, and contrabass tuba garnering particular admiration. In the passage depicting Siegfried’s ascent to the summit of Brünnhilde’s rock, the violins traverse virtually the entire compass of their instrument, from the open G3 of the lowest string to harmonics at the tip of the fingerboard. The efforts of North Carolina Opera Orchestra’s violinists were laudably accurate in pitch and ensemble. Also noteworthy was the work of harpists Jacquelyn Bartlett and Grace Ludtke, their playing heightening the eroticism of Brünnhilde’s awakening and interaction with Siegfried.

Though his work on the score commenced two decades before the opera reached the stage, Wagner’s final revisions to Siegfried’s orchestrations were completed in 1871, when plans for the Festspielhaus’s recessed orchestra pit were also nearing completion. The positioning of the pit surely influenced the extremes of dynamics that provide much of the score’s momentum—and that make performing any of Siegfried’s three acts in concert, with the orchestra on stage with the singers, troublesome. In North Carolina Opera’s performance, Myers observed Wagner’s dynamic instructions with tremendous care, evading none of the score’s cacophonous climaxes, but silence was as significant as sound in the conductor’s reading. Myers’s emphasis on pauses magnified the emotional impact of the waning of Wotan’s power and Siegfried’s first pangs of fear. His pacing of orchestral passages, support for the singers, and intuitive handling of Leitmotivs revealed that Myers is a master of both the big moments that some conductors belabor and small details that are sometimes forsaken. In Myers’s handling, Wagner’s music was equally radical and accessible, the singularity of Wagner’s artistic vision omnipresent but never impeding enjoyment of what is, despite its countless subtexts, an uncomplicated story of social decay and renewal.

First heard in Das Rheingold, Erda returns in Act Three of Siegfried, her manifestation in response to the Wanderer’s summons anticipating Siegfried awakening her daughter Brünnhilde. The failure of her prescience also prefigures the opening scene of Götterdämmerung’s Prologue, in which the oracular faculties of the Norns of whom she sings are extinguished. In Raleigh, Erda’s sparring with the Wanderer was voiced with gravitas by mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini. Her singing of ‘Stark ruft das Lied’ was a stern rebuke of the Wanderer’s intrusion into her repose, but there was also a seductive aloofness in her tones that persuasively portrayed Erda as a figure who once inflamed proud Wotan’s libidinous desire.

As sung by Piccolomini, Erda’s statement of ‘Mein Schlaf ist Träumen, mein Träumen Sinnen, mein Sinnen Walten des Wissens’ was not merely a metaphysical conceit: divining the fates of gods and men was for this Erda a profoundly personal burden. The mezzo-soprano voiced ‘Männerthaten umdämmern mir den Muth’ with bracing intensity, and her declamation of ‘Wirr wird mir, seit ich erwacht’ crested on a striking top A♭. The disdain with which this Erda hurled ‘Du bist nicht, was du dich nenn’st!’ at the Wanderer was crushing. The natural resonance of Piccolomini’s lower register lent Erda’s words seismic fortitude, and the unmistakable finality of the measured exit of Piccolomini’s beautifully statuesque Erda intimated that the twilight of the gods was imminent.

It is as the Wanderer in Act Three of Siegfried that Wotan is last seen in Der Ring des Nibelungen, though Leitmotivs associated with his actions recur in Götterdämmerung. In the guise of a nomadic Wanderer, he comes to rouse and question Erda, the earth spirit who bore him Brünnhilde, and South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana assumed the tormented god’s mien with a powerful voicing of ‘Wache, Wala!’ From this entrance until the Wanderer’s ambivalent exit, the weary god both wounded by the demise of his authority and relieved to cede control over the fate of the world to a noble youth, Ngqungwana rose with galvanizing security to the top E♭s and Fs in the rôle’s music.

Asked by Erda why he disturbed her rather than posing his queries to their daughter Brünnhilde, Ngqungwana’s Wanderer replied with a voicing of ‘Die Walküre mein’st du, Brünnhild’, die Maid?’ in which the father’s pain was still raw. The bass-baritone sang ‘Dich Mutter lass’ ich nicht zieh’n, da des Zaubers mächtig ich bin’ with vehemence, the Wanderer’s frustration with Erda clearly a reflection of his own inner turmoil. Heralding the approach of Siegfried with a tense but good-humored ‘Dort seh’ ich Siegfried nah’n,’ this Wanderer interrogated his grandson with genuine interest, seeking in the young man’s words hallmarks of the heroism upon which the redemption of the world depended. Ngqungwana sang ‘Ich seh’, mein Sohn, wo du nichts weißt’ and ‘Kenntest du mich, kühner Sproß’ with dramatic potency that belied the fact that this was his first public performance of the Wanderer’s music. Neither ‘Es floh dir zu seinem Heil!’ nor ‘Fürchte des Felsens Hüter!’ over-extended the bass-baritone’s prodigious resources, and the zeal with which he delivered ‘Fürchtest das Feuer du nicht’ was tinged with resignation. There were moments in which Ngqungwana lost the Wanderer’s battle with the orchestra, a virtual inevitability in a concert performance with the orchestra at his back, but the superb quality of the voice was never eclipsed.

In the 143 years since Siegfried was first performed, there have been Brünnhildes who did not bring the character to life as vividly in fully-staged performances as soprano Alexandra LoBianco portrayed her in this concert presentation. As in her performance of the title rôle in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Puccini’s Tosca, none of her gestures was superfluous: even the simple action of the singer donning her glasses was dramatically involved, symbolically paralleling her surroundings gradually coming into focus as Brünnhilde viewed the world through a woman’s rather than a valkyrie’s eyes. When the soprano inhaled deeply in preparation for her first line, her smile shone as brightly as the sun she greeted with a luminous ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!’ Unlike some Brünnhildes, LoBianco neglected none of the rôle’s trills, her innate musicality faithfully serving the composer and the character.

Extolling her liberator with an exclamation of ‘O Siegfried! Siegfried! seliger Held!’ that conveyed adoration and apprehension, this Brünnhilde was unusually communicative of the uncertainty that grips her as she, like Siegfried, experiences womanhood for the first time. Though her vocalism was aptly valiant, LoBianco did not eschew lyricism, voicing ‘O wüßtest du, Lust der Welt’ and ‘Dort seh’ ich Grane, mein selig Roß,’ Brünnhilde’s greeting to her beloved horse, with affecting restraint. This contrasted markedly with the stark wariness that emerged from her singing of ‘Kein Gott nahte mir je!’ and ‘Sonnenhell leuchtet der Tag meiner Schmach!’ In a concert performance, LoBianco might have trusted her voice to evince Brünnhilde’s evolving emotions, but, not least in her expansively-phrased ‘Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich,’ her singing was supplemented by unflagging concentration on the subtleties of the character’s feelings. The exultant top C on ‘Leuchtender Sproß!’ and the progression of top Bs that followed were exhilarating without being over-asserted. That the final pages of Siegfried build to the euphoric top C with which Brünnhilde ends the opera is undeniable, but the resulting expectation is often disappointed. LoBianco projected the note into the hall with exuberant ease, achieving the sort of concupiscent catharsis that Wagner surely wanted. Musically, LoBianco was a Brünnhilde who impressed by singing the part accurately and alluringly, but the greatest joy of her performance was the expressive sincerity with which she depicted this iconic character’s bittersweet embrace of femininity.

There are Wagner aficionados who might argue that, by performing only Act Three of Siegfried, the tenor to whom the title rôle was assigned avoided the part’s most punishing music, notably the forging song in Act One. It is true that Siegfried is a mammoth rôle: solely in Act Three, he sings nearly as much as several of Puccini’s tenor protagonists sing in their complete operas. It was no easy task that tenor Richard Cox faced in North Carolina Opera’s performance of Siegfried’s third act, but this gifted artist acquitted himself ably and often splendidly. Ignorant of the fact that the mysterious impediment on his path to locating Brünnhilde is his own grandfather, Siegfried replies to the Wanderer’s quizzing impetuously, and Cox sang ‘Mein Vöglein schwebte mir fort!’ and ‘Was lach’st du mich aus? Alter Frager!’ with the arrogance and annoyance of a scolded adolescent. There was as much satin as steel in his articulations of ‘Bleibst du mir stumm, störrischer Wicht?’ and ‘Zurück, du Prahler, mit dir,’ but the tenor’s bright top A emboldened his singing of ‘Meines Vaters Feind, find’ ich dich hier?’ Cox’s utterance of ‘Hoho! Hahei! Jetzt lock' ich ein liebes Gesell!’ disclosed no unkindness, instead focusing on the playfulness and insouciance of Siegfried’s banter.

Surveying the landscape from the vantage point of Brünnhilde’s rock, this Siegfried exclaimed ‘Selige Öde auf sonniger Höh’!’ with an aura of wonder, and his surprise upon perceiving Grane coursed through a dulcetly-phrased account of ‘Was ruht dort schlummernd im schattigen Tann?’ Siegfried’s transformative realization that the sleeping Brünnhilde is not a fatigued warrior but a spellbound maiden prompted an awestruck voicing of ‘Das ist kein Mann!’ that predictably received ill-timed laughter from the audience. The shyness in Cox’s voicing of ‘O Mutter! Mutter! Dein muthiges Kind!’ was endearingly boyish, and the tenor’s sensitivity to the emotional nuances of Siegfried’s music was apparent in his singing of ‘Süß erbebt mir ihr blühender Mund’ and ‘O Heil der Mutter, die mich gebar!’ Like his Brünnhilde, this Siegfried made an honorable attempt at executing their unison trill. The growing ardor of ‘Wie Wunder tönt, was wonnig du sing’st’ and ‘Durch brennendes Feuer fuhr ich zu dir’ smoldered in Cox’s vocalism, but it was in his singing of ‘Nacht umfängt gebund’ne Augen’ and ‘Dich lieb’ ich: o liebtest mich du!’ that he was at his best, his top As fired into the auditorium thrillingly. Cox was an atypically thoughtful Siegfried, the young man’s lack of fear here not equated with brutishness. There was ample force in Cox’s singing, but volume was but one of his Siegfried’s attributes. Most rewardingly, his was an appealingly-sung rather than a shouted Siegfried.

Sadly, earnest Twenty-First-Century Wagnerians learn quickly that enjoyment of many of today’s performances of Wagner’s operas necessitates tolerance of loud, wobbly singing, indifferent conducting, and bizarre stagings. It is easily forgotten that one of Wagner’s musical idols was Vincenzo Bellini, for whose bel canto masterpiece Norma he composed an alternate aria. North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried was not merely a rare performance of music from Der Ring des Nibelungen by a regional company: it was a still rarer event in which none of the defects of modern Wagner performances inhibited appreciation of the score’s staggering beauty.

09 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — MACBETH (M. Rucker, O. Graham, S. Zaikuan, G. Sciarpelletti, J. Kaufman, N. Unser, R. Harrelson; Opera Carolina, 7 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): MacbethMark Rucker (Macbeth), Othalie Graham (Lady Macbeth), Song Zaikuan (Banco), Gianluca Sciarpelletti (Macduff), Jonathan Kaufman (Malcolm), Nancy Unser (Una dama di Lady Macbeth), Robert Harrelson (Un domestico di Macbeth, Un sicario, Un medico), David Clark (Prima apparizione), Ashley West-David (Seconda apparizione), Margaret Tyler (Terza apparizione), Bryson Woodey (Fleance); Opera Carolina Chorus and Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Ivan Stefanutti, Director and Designer; Atelier Nicolao, Costumes; Michael Baumgarten, Lighting Designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; 7 November 2019]

It is not solely four centuries’ accumulation of thespians’ superstitions that haunts the pages of ‘the Scottish play,’ William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Published for the first time in the 1623 folio of Shakespeare’s works and based upon the fanciful account of Scottish history contained in the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Macbeth dramatizes events from the reign of Eleventh-Century King of Alba Mac Bethad mac Findlaích and his wife Gruoch ingen Boite, virtually all accounts of whose lives cannot be corroborated. What can be verified is that, despite its relative brevity in comparison with its Shakespearean brethren, Macbeth has long been problematic for theatrical troupes. Inexplicable staging mishaps, physical injuries, fires, and financial calamities are all part of Macbeth’s lore, but the play’s foremost danger to actors is perhaps a deceptive sense that performing one of the Western canon’s most iconic dramas guarantees success. Plentiful amongst Macbeth’s victims are acclaimed actors whose skills proved to be inferior to the play’s demands.

Apart from a spectator’s startling suicide during an interval in a 1988 performance at the Metropolitan Opera, mayhem is less prominent in the performance history of Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic setting of Macbeth than in that of the play that inspired it, but neither the opera’s creation nor its subsequent revision was without complications. After receiving a carte-blanche commission from Florence’s Teatro della Pergola, Verdi was reminded by the availability of eminent baritone Felice Varesi, who would later create the title rôle in Rigoletto and Giorgio Germont in La traviata, of poet Andrea Maffei’s suggestion of Macbeth as a suitable operatic subject. Maffei was already adapting Friedrich von Schiller’s play Die Räuber for Verdi as I masnadieri, the first performance of which was given in London four months after Macbeth premièred in Florence. The libretto of Macbeth, modeled on Carlo Rusconi’s 1838 Italian translation of the play, was ultimately written by Francesco Maria Piave, who authored texts for ten of Verdi’s operas. The composer fell ill in the summer of 1846, delaying his work on Macbeth, but the extended gestation engendered a score in which aspects of Verdi’s genius that were only glimpsed in his nine previous operas sprang into view.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]Disordini in Scozia: the cast of Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]

Eighteen years after its première at Teatro della Pergola, Verdi extensively revised Macbeth for a Paris production, making significant modifications to the music for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and tailoring the piece to better suit the Parisian tastes influenced by Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer. Macbeth was not as successful in Paris in 1865 as it had been in Florence in 1847, but Verdi’s reworkings for the French production introduced new music that tightened the opera’s dramatic structure, bringing its narrative nearer to Shakespeare’s play. Though it was only after Maria Callas sang Lady Macbeth at Teatro alla Scala in December 1952 that the opera reclaimed a place in the international repertoire, a hybridization of components of the 1847 and 1865 versions of the enabled audiences to appreciate both the radical inventiveness of Macbeth’s earlier incarnation and the heightened psychological probity of Verdi’s maturity. Utilizing an edition that, aside from omitting the ballet music and including Macbeth’s ‘Mal per me’ in the final scene, largely adhered to the composite score published by Ricordi in the 1880s [a critical edition of Macbeth was not available until 2005, when David Lawton’s complete editions of the 1847 and 1865 versions were published], Opera Carolina recreated Macbeth’s Scotland in Charlotte with a decidedly modern approach to tradition.

In recent seasons, Opera Carolina productions have demonstrated how effectively projections can be used to minimize the costs of set construction and rentals without imperiling performances’ theatrical potential. The company’s 2011 and 2014 productions of Il trovatore and Nabucco affirmed the viability of scenic projections in Verdi repertoire, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs combined with the projections, devised by Baumgarten and director Ivan Stefanutti, to create visual effects that evolved in tandem with the drama. Not all of the imagery was wholly successful: in particular, the gargantuan specters that appeared on the screen drew the viewer’s attention away from the apparitions who sang on the stage. Scotland’s stunning landscapes clearly inspired many of the tableaux, but, like their paranormal counterparts, depictions of tempest-tossed seas and an undulating forest sometimes overwhelmed the stage action. The opera’s penultimate and closing scenes transpired before an evocative solar eclipse that gave way to a blazing sun, limning Scotland’s delivery from Macbeth’s tyranny. Avoiding blatant anachronisms [there are sometimes objections to use of Scotland’s emblematic rampant lion in productions of Macbeth, but the Royal Banner is known to have been a symbol of the Kingdom of Alba as early as 1222 and may already have been familiar during the historical Macbeth’s life], the production provided a dazzlingly atmospheric backdrop for the opera’s engrossing drama.

Scenically, Stefanutti’s opulent costume designs, masterfully realized by Stefano Nicolao and Atelier Nicolao, were this production’s foremost triumph. Singers of all body types were flatteringly attired in garments that, though indubitably more cumbersome than street clothes, impeded neither movement nor singing. The earth tones donned by Macbeth and his courtiers contrasted tellingly with the gleaming white worn by Lady Macbeth, intimating that the queen was unmistakably a woman at odds with her subjects. Trailing beards and illuminated, antennae-like appendages gave the witches’ bizarre appearance a subtle hint of humor that was inappropriate to neither Shakespeare nor Verdi, Stefanutti’s concept having much in common with the sketches of the inaugural 1847 Florence production of Macbeth now found in the Ricordi archives. So unobtrusive was Martha Ruskai’s typically thoughtful management of wigs and makeup that a pair of patrons were overheard at the interval discussing how artfully the principals’ natural hair was arranged. The absence of reliable primary sources inhibits scholars’ efforts to determine precisely how the denizens of Macbeth’s Scotland adorned and carried themselves, but Opera Carolina’s Macbeth proposed plausible solutions for the opera’s scenic enigmas.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (left) and soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Il caudore e la sua regina: baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (left) and soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

The visual appeal of this Macbeth complemented an unfailingly musical and unapologetically Italianate reading of the score by Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director, James Meena. An accomplished interpreter of an extensive repertoire, Meena has often displayed exceptional affinity for conducting Verdi’s operas, and his pacing of Macbeth was febrile but never frantic. The statement in the Preludio of the theme later heard in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene was phrased with cognizance of its bel canto origins, and tempi were chosen with care throughout the performance. Meena followed Verdi’s lead in progressing organically to rousing climaxes. The tension kindled by the sextet in Act One was palpable, as was the discharge of the accumulated electricity in the act’s finale. There were more mistakes in the Opera Carolina Orchestra’s playing of Macbeth than in previous Verdi performances by the company, the most noticeable of which was the unsettled resolution of the cor anglais’s final trill in the introduction to the sleepwalking scene, but the musicians’ concentration and preparedness yielded many passages of first-rate playing. Most importantly, Meena and the orchestra supported the singers with flexibility and finesse, fostering the creation of an environment in which the principals, certain that their endeavors were bolstered by the work of their colleagues in the pit, could immerse themselves in their rôles.

As has often been true of Opera Carolina productions, the singing of the company’s chorus in this Macbeth was a testament to the wealth of talent in the Charlotte metropolitan opera. As the coven of witches in the opening scene of Act One, the ladies of the chorus intoned ‘Che faceste? Dite su!’ eerily but without resorting to the silly, ‘witchy’ sounds sometimes deployed—often embarrassingly—in this music. Portraying Macbeth’s band of hired assassins in Act Two, the male choristers sang ‘Chi v’impose unirvi a noi?’ sinisterly. Called upon to continue their prophesying in Act Three, Opera Carolina’s ‘weird sisters’ chillingly imparted auguries of Scotland’s future and conjured spirit messengers with unexaggerated singing of ‘Ondine e silfidi, dall’ali candide.’ The sublime andante sostenuto chorus that launches Act Four, ‘Patria oppressa,’ equals the patriotic fervor and pathos of the famous ‘Va, pensiero’ in Nabucco and is perhaps even finer musically. The affecting performance that the piece received from Opera Carolina’s chorus was an ideal foil for the exuberant proclamation of victory with which the opera ended. It was indeed a victorious evening for the choristers.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (left) and soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Il trionfo di male: baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (left) and soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Without exception, Opera Carolina’s cast upheld and enhanced the production’s high musical and dramatic values. The mute rôle of Banco’s young son Fleance was expertly acted by Bryson Woodey, whose beyond-his-years stagecraft shone in his execution of Dale Girard’s choreography of his desperate, violent flight after Banco’s offstage murder. The ominous tidings of the three apparitions who confront Macbeth in Act Three were unnervingly but attractively delivered by David Clark, Ashley West-Davis, and Margaret Tyler. In many performances of Macbeth, it is easy to overlook the fact that Verdi asks Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting to double her mistress’s fearsome top notes in ensembles, but, despite serving a powerhouse Lady, soprano Nancy Unser was an uncommonly vivid, always audible ‘dama,’ the character’s alarm and bewilderment in the sleepwalking scene insightfully communicated. She was partnered in that scene by the firm-voiced doctor of bass-baritone Robert Harrelson, whose confidently-projected tones and intrepid stage presence were equally advantageous in his portrayals of Macbeth’s servant and the assassin who slayed Banco.

In the proverbial operatic Utopia that today’s productions rarely visit, the rôle of Malcolm, the rightful heir to Duncan’s throne, should be assigned to a singer whose performance of his character’s music leaves the impression that he might also have proved to be an effective, capably-sung Macduff. Twenty-First-Century audiences are likely to encounter barely-adequate Malcolms sung by character tenors, but, continuing the trend of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival, in which Macduff is sung by the renowned tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, Opera Carolina had in Jonathan Kaufman a Malcolm who was anything but a conventional secondo uomo. Kaufman’s lustrous timbre gave Malcolm’s lines in the Act One sextet and finale welcome muscle, and his vocalism in the scene with Macduff in Act Four was fittingly heroic. Ascents above the stave were handled with assurance that echoed the character’s rightful authority. Regaining the power usurped by Macbeth, Kaufman was a Malcolm whose singing was worthy of the crown won by his valor.

IN REVIEW: tenor JONATHAN KAUFMAN as Malcolm (center) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]L’erede legittimo: tenor Jonathan Kaufman as Malcolm (center) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]

Italian tenor Gianluca Sciarpelletti portrayed Macduff, the Thane of Fife, first as a flinty, fecund warrior and later as a man broken by Macbeth’s merciless slaughter of his family. Discovering the corpse of the slain Duncan in Act One, Macduff’s shock, horror, and grief resounded in Sciarpelletti’s singing in the sextet and finale, in which his navigation of the difficult tessitura of his music betrayed few signs of effort. Lamenting both the deaths of his children and his own feelings of helplessness and failure in his moving scene in Act Four, this Macduff declaimed the recitative ‘O figli, o figli miei!’ with wrenching emotion. The aria ‘Ah, la paterna mano’ is one of Verdi’s loveliest pieces for the tenor voice and the impetus for several famous singers who never sang Macduff on stage having recorded the rôle in studio. Sciarpelletti’s performance of the aria lacked bel canto eloquence, but his emphatic top A♭s and B♭♭ forcefully conveyed the despondent father’s anguish. In the battle scene, the tenor’s impassioned voicing of ‘Via le fronde, e mano all’armi!’ propelled Macduff’s quest for vengeance to its inexorable conclusion. Sciarpelletti’s singing was often reminiscent of that of Carlo Cossutta, who retained Macduff in his repertoire for four decades.

Historians conjecture that the character Banquo, Macbeth’s lieutenant and fellow recipient of fateful prognostications from the witches, is either a conflation of historical figures or an invention of Holinshed’s Chronicles who was reimagined by Shakespeare as a moral counterbalance for Macbeth. In duration, the music for Verdi’s Banco is not substantial, but the rôle is musically and dramatically substantive, a distinction that was accentuated by Chinese bass Song Zaikuan’s thunderous singing in Opera Carolina’s Macbeth. In the Act One duet with Macbeth that follows the witches’ declaration that his own sons will succeed Macbeth on Scotland’s throne, Song articulated Banco’s words with acuity, enabling the listener to differentiate Banco’s and Macbeth’s sentiments with unusual clarity. Like Kaufman and Sciarpelletti, Song ensured that his character’s lines in the sextet and Act One finale were not obscured. The bass sang his aria in Act Two, ‘Come dal ciel precipita,’ with evenly-produced, superbly-projected, and truly beautiful tone. In Shakespeare’s time, it was erroneously believed that the Scottish king James VI, who ascended to the English throne upon the death of Elizabeth I as James I, was descended from Banquo. History notwithstanding, Song’s innately noble Banco was a thoroughly convincing ancestor of kings.

IN REVIEW: tenor JONATHAN KAUFMAN as Malcolm (left), baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (center), and tenor GIANLUCA SCIAPELLETTI as Macduff (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Vittoria dei giusti: tenor Jonathan Kaufman as Malcolm (left), baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (center), and tenor Gianluca Sciapelletti as Macduff (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Returning to Charlotte, where she has previously sung the demanding title rôles in Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Turandot, to portray Lady Macbeth, soprano Othalie Graham first assayed the part in the present production’s October 2019 première at Toledo Opera. This auspicious rôle début inducted her into the very exclusive sorority of singers who have sung Lady Macbeth, Aida, and Turandot. Arguably, the most renowned members of this illustrious society are Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, and Leonie Rysanek, but other gifted ladies including Amy Shuard, Pauline Tinsley, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Rita Hunter, Martina Arroyo, Marisa Galvany, and Ghena Dimitrova contributed to the legacy that Graham continued. The vehemence of Graham’s calculating Lady recalled Callas’s standard-setting interpretation, and the incredible might of her singing rivaled Jones’s legendary vocal amplitude. Graham relied upon her own theatrical instincts and vocal resources in forming her characterization, however, thereby restoring to the rôle the Shakespearean grandeur that has been missing from too many recent performances of Macbeth.

IN REVIEW: soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]Bella regina: soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]

Lady Macbeth makes her initial entrance in Act One whilst reading a momentous letter from her husband, a spoken introduction that a number of Ladies have uttered with overwrought enunciation—and, in some cases, wretched Italian. In Graham’s performance, Lady seemed to actually be pondering a private communiqué rather than broadcasting a proclamation to the masses and did so with commendable diction. When she launched the recitative ‘Ambizioso spirto tu sei, Macbetto,’ the soprano began a journey that led the proud Lady from domestic discontent to treachery and destruction. The recitative’s top C was unruly, but the singer’s vocal control prevailed. The trills and bravura passages in the andantino cavatina ‘Vieni! t’affretta!’ and cabaletta ‘Or tutti sorgete’ are rarely comfortable for voices of the size of Graham’s, the former often ignored altogether by dramatic sopranos, but here, too, Graham’s dedication to fidelity to the score conquered the music’s difficulties. Her vocalism in the duet with Macbeth seethed with deadly cunning, her singing of ‘Regna il sonno su tutti’ at once cajoling and contemptuous. Feigning surprise, she credibly played the part of the unsuspecting beneficiary of misfortunate in the sextet and finale, though perceptive onlookers might have recognized her fortissimo top C♭ as an exultant celebration of the success of her scheming. Graham ended Act One with a magnificent D♭6 that might have leveled Birnam Wood.

In Lady Macbeth’s scene at the start of Act Two, Graham traversed the two-octave range of the allegro moderato aria ‘La luce langue’ with abandon, unafraid of roaring as the leonine aspects of Lady Macbeth’s character pounced into action. The false jollity of the Brindisi, ‘Si coimi il calice di vino eletto,’ drew from Graham singing in which Lady’s unrelenting resolve was audible, and, as in her aria and cabaletta in Act One, no trill was neglected. The Act Three duet with Macbeth found Graham at the height of her powers as a singing actress, her depiction of Lady’s ferocity exemplified by her Herculean top C. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of vocal strength in Graham’s traversal of the sleepwalking scene in Act Four, but the expressivity of her singing was no less prodigious. The scene’s kinship with Bellini’s and Donizetti’s mad scenes was apparent, but the disintegration of this Lady’s faculties was evinced not by manic actions but by an engrossing singularity of purpose devoted to ridding her hands of the ‘damnèd spot’ that only she could see. That such a large voice reached the written top D♭ quietly, as Verdi intended, was astonishing, but the ethereal beauty of Graham’s tone was captivating. Though undeniably unscrupulous and motivated by an unquenchable lust for power, Graham’s Lady Macbeth was no one-dimensional termagant: beyond the venom and vitriol, a vulnerable woman fighting to find lasting security in a hostile world could be discerned.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (left) and soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]Teste incoronate: baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (left) and soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]

In an acclaimed career that includes memorable performances of Rigoletto, Amonasro in Aida, and Don Carlo in La forza del destino at the Metropolitan Opera, Mark Rucker has garnered a position of honor among the preeminent Verdi baritones of his generation. With his performance in the title rôle in Opera Carolina’s Macbeth, he was a peer of Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe Taddei as an interpreter of Verdi’s music for the Thane of Cawdor. In his first scene, this Macbeth was noticeably amazed by the witches’ foretelling of his regal destiny, and the elation of his anticipated elevation in rank was tinged by uncertainty in his duet with Banco. It was a man who needed only a mild prodding to definitive action who sang ‘A me precorri’ in the duet with Lady Macbeth. Nevertheless, Rucker touchingly divulged the doubt and guilt that plagued Macbeth after Duncan’s assassination.

Some Macbeths make little of the brief scene with Lady Macbeth that opens Act Two, but Rucker deepened his psychological portrait of the tormented thane by singing with attention to Macbeth’s words and how they interact with those of his consort. There are many parallels between Macbeth’s agonized responses to the materialization of Banco’s spirit in the banquet scene and the ravings of the eponymous monarch in the latter half of Nabucco. Rucker voiced ‘Prenda ciascun l’orrevole’ with burgeoning dread, and he projected ‘Tu di sangue hai brutto il volto’ with terrifying vocal steel. His ‘Va! Spirto d’abisso’ was a command that not even the most audacious phantom could disobey. The baritone’s stalwart but unquestionably sincere voicing of ‘Oh! lieto augurio!’ in the gran scena delle apparizioni in Act Three effectuated an element of frailty in his portrayal. In the duet with Lady Macbeth, Rucker further refined his characterization, revealing the passivity at the core of Macbeth’s constitution that feeds his wife’s appetite for dominance.

Sensing the increasing feebleness of his grasp on the crown in Act Four, Macbeth contemplates his mortality in one of Verdi’s great baritone arias, ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore,’ sung by Rucker in this performance with the secure tone, aristocratic phrasing, and expressive elegance that are the hallmarks of important Verdi singing. Rightly rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation, this account of the aria bared Macbeth’s tortured heart to the audience. Including the final choral paean to Macbeth’s defeat and death after Rucker’s profoundly plaintive voicing of ‘Mal per me’ seemed cruel, Macbeth having earned pity with an acceptance of death that he had come to regard as retribution for his crimes. Every note of the rôle in the voice and a myriad of the complicated man’s emotions present in his introspective character study, Rucker offered the Charlotte audience a Macbeth of a caliber widely believed to no longer exist in opera. This is the essence of what Opera Carolina productions assert: opera endures in many of America’s great cities, but, with performances like this Macbeth, it thrives in Charlotte.