Saturday, April 21, 2007

Night of the second bananas

Jack O'Brien's mediocre new version of Il Trittico is not, at least, the worst new production of the season. With solidly handsome sets and design, it is a servicable thing that may, in some future year, be the basis for a memorable account. But that account was not last night's, and though blame should be split with the vagaries of casting, health, and performance that produced the opening night lineup, the evening's dramatic inertness doesn't do him credit.

The premiere had its moments; unfortunately, none were created by the characters who were supposed to carry the drama. That Luigi, the tenor in Tabarro (Salvatore Licitra, again remarkable in verisimo) and the Frugola/Principessa/Zita trio (the characters, one per opera, played by Stephanie Blythe) were spellbinding is fantastic, but doesn't exactly make up for the fact that Giorgetta and Michele in Tabarro, Angelica in her eponymous piece, and Schicchi in his didn't make much impression.

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The program notes put this production of Il Tabarro on the waterfront of 1927 Paris, though it looks rather like Brooklyn circa 2007. The details are rendered realistically, though the water is frozen in its half-churned state. Most noticable in the staging is the lighting effect contrived by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer: the sun sets over the course of the opera, turning the scene from late-afternoon clarity to red sunset to evening. But this bit of high-tech literalism seems to be the only aspect of the action that has been imagined. The more important flow of time -- the subjective ebb and flow as the characters interact, lurk, and give in to fatal passion -- isn't much cultivated.

This calls for star turns among the leads, and in a sense there is one. As the other man, Licitra energizes the stage -- and one's ears -- whenever he appears. In another Puccini opera this might be enough, but here the baritone and soprano are the focus. Maria Guleghina does a decent enough job, but her sullen Giorgetta seems short on sexual energy. (Frugola should not be able to steal the female side of the show.) Meanwhile it's poor form to knock Frederick Burchinal, who after all filled in for the ill Juan Pons on short notice, but while commendable in character parts, neither baritone has the presence or vocal distinction to carry a new production. Still, all parts were well-sung -- not least debuting blogger-soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (as the female Young Lover), whose sound in the house is rather more liquid than I'd been expecting. I was impressed, and wouldn't be surprised to see her again in bigger and better things.

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Suor Angelica contains the evening's one big directoral miscalculation: the vision of Angelica's dead child is made as schlocky-looking as one can imagine, with him here coming through an actual set of doors all in white to take her into Heaven. This does Puccini no favors, but its literalness is characteristic. This staging, too, uses the day-to-night lighting effect; there is also an actual donkey.

Barbara Frittoli sounds sadly diminished in the title part. Neither voice nor -- more shockingly -- phrasing and character showed much of the focus that once made her a commanding performer. The contrast with Stephanie Blythe's electric Principessa could not have been more pronounced.

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Finally, Gianni Schicchi was a directorial success. The farcial timing and manner, though perhaps overstated a bit, were coordinated very well among the cast. Here James Levine, too, seemed most energized. Again, all involved sang well, particularly Stephanie Blythe and the tenor -- here Massimo Giordano.

And still, the main character seemed a problem. Alessandro Corbelli has been an excellent character singer at the Met, and he remains one as Schicchi. But this persona is too small for Schicchi, who should have the vigor and spirit that the Florentine aristos lack. Here Schicchi has more of Dudley Moore than arriviste businessman in him, and it lessens the piece. It is fun, though, despite the chorus of alarm watches at midnight (the show runs until about 12:20).

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For those who remember the last City Opera production, with Mark Delavan terrific as Michele and Schicchi, this Trittico doesn't come close. The final bows told the tale: Stephanie Blythe pre-emptively waved off the storms of appreciation that had greeted her at prior curtains, perhaps to avoid showing up the actual leads, while Jack O'Brien and his team took a cowards' bow with James Levine. No one is going to boo Levine, but perhaps next time someone ought to boo O'Brien for not facing the music himself. His production wasn't even that bad: it just lacked... theatricality.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.