Gagnidze, Feola, Polenzani, Ivashchenko / Luisotti
The house debut of 32-year-old Italian soprano Rosa Feola as Gilda was extraordinary enough that I went back between Ring installments to see if I hadn't imagined it. I found a second night even better than the first.
Although Feola (who was runner-up to Sonya Yoncheva at the 2010 Operalia competition) certainly has the notes and technique for the lyric-coloratura parts that are her current career (her Caro nome was a marvel), neither her voice nor her person present what you'd expect therein. Instead of the classic bright, chirpy sound Feola offers a darker, more emotionally charged timbre. And though she can (unlike, say, Diana Damrau) do ingenuous charm, neither that nor coquettish sex-appeal define her focused, presence. The overall impression was of nothing so much as an Italian Dorothea Röschmann with an integrated top extension - someone I'm eager to hear again, in the more serious of the -inas and -ettas though even these likely won't let her display all her powers. (The tragic weight her Gilda took on herself with full awareness before entering Sparafucile's place itself nearly broke the frame of the role.)
Incidentally: the contrast with the other notable female debut of the season - Aida Garifullina, who sang Zerlina in the first of two Don Giovanni casts - is striking. With a glorious silver-bell tone on an outsized scale perfectly suited to this big house and an effective, straightforward charm, Garifullina (who won the 2013 Operalia competition) is the classic soubrette starlet turned up to 11, singing a very similar range of parts to Feola's with an entirely different (but ever-appealing) spirit. Let's hope that she doesn't go off the rails and massacre bel canto for a decade before reinventing herself as a heavier-role singer as the last Russian soprano with this sort of star power did.
The other singers were, as expected, a pleasure - George Gagnidze neither glamorous nor titanic but, as usual, catching the right spirit and Dimitry Ivashchenko a nicely satisfying Sparafucile - with only newcomer Ramona Zaharia's Maddalena perhaps not fitting her part. Matthew Polenzani, too nice to be any kind of malicious Duke, sang well enough (particularly on the second night) for us to accept his caught-up-in-the-lifestyle autocrat at face value.
It wasn't just Polenzani's better form or even the cast's cleanup of stage business that wasn't quite in synch at the first performance that made for the more thrilling followup, but conductor Nicola Luisotti perhaps finally letting Verdi be Verdi. The supreme Puccini conductor of our era - despite a much worse cast, his guidance made the 2010 Fanciulla more of an event than the vocally thrilling one we got this fall - Luisotti nevertheless was the weak link in two previous Verdi shows this season. In the fall and winter Aidas (which were, admittedly, compromised by cast issues) and the spring Traviata (which wasn't the triumph that Anita Hartig's heartbreaking performance deserved), it seemed that he was intent on shaping Verdi's music as he would Puccini's - aiming to maximize phrase and line effectiveness without regard for the underlying beat. This just doesn't work: the alternately melancholy and ecstatic pleasure in the ordered passage of time is the rock on which not just Verdi but the cantabile-cabaletta form of all bel canto opera is built. One can't lose touch with that pleasure - even when it's not foregrounded - for even a moment without making a hash of the aesthetic whole.
Whether because of this opera's more headlong nature or just finding his way to Verdi's style after many performances, Luisotti here more or less restricted his micro-temporal tampering to some bizarre hitches in a single slow part. And by the second night he was not merely setting good starting tempi and getting out of the way but actively working with the underlying time-flow to impressive effect. With luck this development will carry over to future runs of other Verdi works.