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Monday, April 28, 2008

Dry Land: The Met's Boccanegra on DVD

This Deutsche Grammophon DVD of Boccanegra has been available for a while now. Recently, I decided to add it to the collection, replacing my old worn out tape of the same performance from Channel 13. This is a video of the Met's current production, designed with some success by Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the great tenor Mario. Although it presents a lovely Mediterranean setting, and a truly whopping Council Chamber--damn that's a big set--it lacks one important element crucial to this opera. At no point can you see the ocean. This is a problem for an opera that is a) about a corsair, a kind of pirate b) features "sea pictures" throughout its score and c) is set in the very aquatic city of Genoa, Italy



That quibble aside, this is for the most part, a superior Boccanegra. It's shame that budget cuts prevented Levine and orchestra from making a full studio recording as part of their (terminated) Verdi series for Sony. From the night-time opening to the opera's moody conclusion, the Met orchestra plays with razor-sharp precision, especially in the woodwind textures that give this most beautiful of Verdi scores its unique nautical feel. The house chorus is also heard at their best in this performance. In an opera that is about political power as well as private struggles, they provide a noble vox populi throughout the actin,

This performance features three very strong baritone/bass roles. First off, Vladimir Chernov's dynamic turn in the title role. This is the singer at his brief height in the 1990s. He cuts an imposing onstage figure, and rises admirably to the considerable vocal challenges presented by this opera. Even better is Robert Lloyd in the role of Fiesco, the proud nobleman who swears vengeance upon Boccanegra (for seducing and impregnating his daughter--then losing the baby. Long story.) Lloyd, always an underrated bass, positively nails "Il lacerato spirito", making this impressive aria drip with heartbreak. The third baritone is Bruno Pola, who thrives like a Genoese Danny DeVito in the villainous role of Paolo, the power broker who gets Boccanegra on the Genoese throne and then plots his death. Pola is at his best in the hushed opening scene, singing his ballade with flair.

While the three deep-voiced gentlemen rock the house in this performance, less can be said for the all-star pair of lovers who make up the opera's secondary plot. Placido Domingo is in excellent voice here as Gabriele Adorno, singing with sweetness and a faint metallic ring that characterizes many of his Verdi recordings. Opposite him is Kiri te Kanawa, the New Zealand songbird. She is generally excellent in the lighter Verdi roles, and this is her second recording as Amelia (following a recently reissued 1989 Decca set with Georg Solti). Unfortunately, the camera shows these young lovers to be miscast physically--Domingo and te Kanawa are just too old for a pair of characters that are all about ardent youth. Happily though, te Kanawa has good chemistry with Vladimir Chernov--the father-daughter duet is sung here as a work of heart-melting sentiment under James Levine's expert baton.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Rant: Bayreuth on the Hudson?

New York opera lovers, and particularly that strange, obsessed, (occasionally helmeted) subset who love the works of Richard Wagner, are a spoiled bunch. We have been ever since the arrival of the production team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Scheider-Siemssen, whose productions of the major Wagner operas have provided the Met with a complete Wagner renaissance and a steady flow of box office, thanks to periodic revivals of the duo's spectacular 1989 production of the Ring Cycle.



Starting with their 1978 production of Tannhauser, the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen team went on to stage Lohengrin, The Ring, Parsifal and Meistersinger. Each production was designed and staged in a thoroughly traditional style that would have made Cosima Wagner proud. Their underground caverns looked like caverns. Dwarves skulked, Grail knights marched and Nuremberg burghers paraded in proud order. These productions (with the exception of the Lohengrin have been popular and long-running, filling the theater on a regular basis. The Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen Ring was filmed with great success, exposing a whole new generation of listeners to Wagner, including this writer.

Yet twilight is setting on this world of realistic Wagner productions. Robert Wilson's stark Lohengrin restaged the legend of the swan knight with minimal sets and light-boxes. Next year's run of the Ring will be the last for this venerable production. In 2010, the Met will explore a brave new Ring, designed by French-Canadian iconoclast Robert LePage, whose past credits include the Lorin Maazel opera 1984 at Covent Garden, numerous stagings of Cirque du Soleil and stage design and direction for Peter Gabriel's last three tours. I am sure that there will be controversy, there will be name-calling, and there will be rounds of booing from the ultraconservatives at the opening night of the new Rheingold.

Me, I can't wait. A little controversy in the opera house, a little booing, some loud opinions are all better than the audience being asleep at the switch.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.