Thursday, April 24, 2008

The surprise ball

Not too long ago, Maury wrote me that Ramon Vargas "[i]s the new Bergonzi". Now he tried to take back the sentiment later upon hearing another Bergonzi record, but there's something to it. Vargas (though always now audible) will never have the loud-louder-loudest physical impact of certain tenorial rivals, but -- at least in the seemingly reborn form we've seen since last year's Onegin -- his command of everything else is amazing. Word, sentiment, volume and above all phrase: he shapes, caresses, expands, and connects his phrases in simultaneously grand and refined style.

So he was last night in Un Ballo in Maschera. But the vocal outpouring may have been the least impressive thing: though a late substitution for this last performance in Ballo's run (he's in town rehearsing next month's Clemenza), Vargas inhabited the part (Gustavo/Riccardo) and production as if its originator, more physically energized, comfortable, and active than I've ever seen him. What's more, the ensembles -- particularly the tricky Act I parts featuring the tenor -- actually went more crisply than I've yet heard in this production. Yes, Vargas has sung Ballo this season in Houston, Florence, and Munich, but to step in here with such ease and panache is stunning.

(Actually, other unscheduled star substitutions this season -- Giordani in Romeo and Alagna in Aida -- have also been successes. Maybe the Met should throw these in more often...)

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Of course, Ballo is in some sense a conductor's opera, inviting a benevolent dictator to impose his spirit on the proceedings as King Gustavo does on his court. (Toscanini's recording of the piece is still the greatest among a pretty commendable bunch.) Gergiev protege Gianandrea Noseda is not exactly the man for this. He commands every discrete expressive element in the opera -- urgent intensity, springy (and sinister) jauntiness, and lighter shades, lilting or lyrical -- along with its finer-grained demands. But the overall spirit's sort of blank, for which Noseda's tendency to overdo the urgent onrush doesn't quite compensate.

That said, Noseda did very well indeed last night in the tricky ensembles, including the love duet. I thought that on Saturday and in the fall he was taking them too gingerly, but with Vargas in place of Licitra he blasted the company through them with all the fearless elan one could want. What a difference a flexible-voiced, musically sophisticated tenor makes? Or perhaps the fact of Noseda's birthday -- for which he was serenaded by last night's cast at the end of curtain calls -- helped.

Soprano Angela Brown seems to have improved enormously since the November Aida that was my first live hearing of her. Then, her instrument sounded like some scattered good notes in search of a voice; now it's strong and pretty even from top to bottom, with a nice warmth in the middle. And even sounding a bit congested as she did last night (did she get a touch of what knocked Licitra out?), Brown showed lovely soft singing, dynamic contrast, and long breath in her arias. My only sonic gripe is that the top notes cut but don't really ring out -- others seem to like this sound, however.

Brown has improved on stage, too. The casually contemporary mannerisms that stuck out like a sore thumb in Aida have been replaced by stock operatic poses of nobility, but this is a significant advance. She seems willing to do more, but first things first.

Ofelia Sala was a bit livelier in these last two performances, but remains an essentially earthbound Oscar. At least she could be heard, however: you'd be surprised how many Oscars here couldn't.

After all these years, sadly, it seems the legendary Charles Anthony has at last lost it.

Finally: Dmitri Hvorostovsky. When people throw around the phrase "not really a Verdi baritone", I wonder: would they have said the same about, say, Giuseppe de Luca? Lots of people sounding nothing like Leonard Warren have excelled in the Verdi parts.

And yet, the phrase popped unbidden into my head for much of Hvorostovsky's Renato (Anckarström). Thomas Hampson, another baritone tagged with the same words, has of late (most recently in Ernani but no less in last season's Boccanegra) used the grit that has entered his voice to fashion an unconventional but convincing sort of aural Verdian persona, but Hvorostovsky's gone through no such change. Hvoro has his control and his beautiful voice, and much of the first two acts of Ballo seem to find him struggling with the wrong vocal tools, ploughing ahead in a way that sort of works but doesn't optimally flatter himself.

Yet when Renato breaks off from marmoreal declamation and sings the last act's agonized "Eri tu", Hvorostovsky's near-decadent command and breath (though the latter would be more impressive if his air-gulping were less amazingly loud) pay big dividends. Worth it? I think so, particularly paired with birds of a feather in Vargas and Brown.

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Ballo has arguably Verdi's greatest tenor ("Di' tu se fedele") and baritone ("Eri tu") pieces as well as his greatest love duet. All got their due last night: another highlight of what's been a great half-season.

UPDATE (4/25): A comment below reminds me that I forgot to mention Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica. She's been excellent through all the Ballos: in the winter she was almost the only reason to see it.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great performance. At last year's Onegin, all we were talking about afterwards was Vargas's Lenski. How was Stephanie Blythe last night? I can't wait to hear her Orfeo next season.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.