Returns and Debuts at the Met Opening Week: Il Trovatore and Anna Bolena

Dima, photo by Marty Sohl

The Met 2015-16 season might have opened with a new production of Otello but the first performance of Il Trovatore was by far the most emotional, exciting start to the season. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky announced in the beginning of the summer that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He has returned to the Met as di Luna for three performances in the fall before he'd resume his treatments.

Last night as Hvorostovsky made his entrance music the ovation was so loud and deafening that conductor Marco Armiliato had to stop completely and restart the music after the applause stopped. Dima stepped out of character for a second to bow and acknowledge the audience appreciation. There was an equally heartfelt ovation after "Il Balen" and during the curtain calls the members of the Met orchestra pelted Hvorostovsky with flowers as the rest of the cast tactfully stepped back.

Hvorostovsky would have gotten a warm welcome back even if he'd showed up and marked the whole performance. But his portrayal of di Luna was worthy of all the cheers. No he doesn't have the sheer volume of a "classic" Verdi baritone, but his elegance, use of legato, and musicality make him a very special singer indeed. There's nothing to say except that he's a courageous, classy musician and I hope he gives us many more wonderful performances in the years to come.

Photo by Marty Sohl
The cast assembled for this Il Trovatore was one of the rare modern-day efforts to provide this opera with the voices it deserves. Anna Netrebko's Leonora represented the best of her mature, middle-career voice. The center of gravity in her voice has dropped: she now has a huge, cavernous lower chest register with an almost mezzo-like plumminess and resonance. This made for an exciting "Misere" and "Tu vedrai" (both verses included). Musically Anna was on her best behavior -- the rhythmic slackness and sagging pitch that have plagued her in the past were mostly absent last night. Both "Tacea la notte placida" and "D'amor sull'ali rosee" showed a richness and lushness of timbre that hasn't been present since maybe ... well, since maybe Leontyne Price. And yes, the trills mostly were there.

The tradeoff for this rich, mezzo-like New Anna voice: a thinning, less powerful top. In the first half of the opera high notes were either gingerly touched in cadenza (and quickly abandoned) or high options were not taken (as in the D-flat at the end of the Act One trio). After the intermission her top opened up a little but it still sounded thin and quavery compared to the rest of her voice. Of course Anna wouldn't be Anna if there wasn't some sloppy huffing and puffing during cabalettas "Di tale amor" and "Vivrà! contende il giubilio" but those small demerits paled next to the general excitement and beauty of her portrayal. This role is very simpatico to her current voice. The role doesn't offer much in the way of acting opportunities but Anna's naturally extroverted, bubbly personality gave the love triangle credibility.

Dolora Zajick (Azucena) can probably sing this role in her sleep and in her entrance scena when she forgot several bars of music I did wonder if she was coasting on her still impressive instrument. True, her Azucena doesn't bother to do much besides sit in the center of McVicar's rotating set and let her voice rip. Zajick has a classic mezzo donut hole -- her high notes are still powerful (including the high Bb that ends the opera), her lower notes are enormous. The middle of the voice has lost a lot of color and also horsepower -- it occasionally sounded curdled and (yes) inaudible by Zajick standards. But this would still have been an impressive portrayal whether she was 33 or 63 (Zajick's actual age).

I'm saving the worst for last. Yonghun Lee (Manrico) has a lot of superficial attributes that would make him seem like a good Manrico. His voice is large enough to cut through the orchestra. He has an okayish top. He's good looking. But he's what I call a 9-5 tenor in that he gets the job done but without much in terms of musicality, phrasing, diction, vowel articulation, acting or vocal beauty.

His lack of musicality was the most dismaying. His performance reminded me of Franco Corelli at his laziest but without Corelli's heaven-sent voice. He chugged along a totally ho-hum "Ah! si ben mio" and then of course cut "Di quella pira" down to one verse, let the chorus sing the repeated "Alarmi's" and dropped out completely before capping the act off with a bawled high C that started off with enough ping but went south both in pitch and steadiness as he insisted on holding the note over the orchestra's final bars. As I said, if you want to do this kind of musical hot-dogging, you really, really need to be Franco Corelli.

Stefan Kocan's Ferrando showed off what seems to be a perma-wobble but with an oddly intriguing timbre. Conductor Marco Armiliato indulged all his singers to a fault, allowing Anna in particular to luxuriate in the sound of her own voice all night.

But despite these quibbles this was undoubtedly an exciting night at the opera. The performance has a snap and crackle that matched Verdi's blood-and-thunder music. The ovations for Hvorostovsky are the reasons one goes to the opera -- to experience the love and affection between audience and singer, and the way an audience can sometimes propel singers into greatness with their energy. Viva Verdi and Viva Dima!

ETA: A youtube clip has surfaced of the curtain calls. Enjoy!

Photo by Ken Howard
The Saturday afternoon premiere of Anna Bolena kicked off Sondra Radvanovsky's Three Queens season. Peter Gelb is an unabashed fan of primo ottocento operas and has made them a priority in his season programming. But this afternoon's performance proved that the Met still has a ways to go if it wants to establish itself as a house with high standards for primo ottocento operas.

For one, Marco Armiliato led a performance that one would think might have been tolerated as a late-in-the-day Dick/Joan Australian tour, but was unacceptable with today's knowledge of bel canto performance practices. Internal cuts and hacked off cabalettas might have saved time but they were musically jarring. Armiliato started off by cutting the entire overture.

In other instances he let singers drop out not for just one or two bars, but an entire sheet of music, so they could bawl an acuti at the end of a number. This was particularly egregious in the Act One concertato finale, when Sondra Radvanovsky simply turned her back on the audience for most of the final portion, and turned around to scream a wiry high D. The charged, exciting duet between Seymour and Anna in Act Two also ended with both Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton (Seymour) dropping out completely for way longer than necessary so they could sing a high C.

For anyone who thinks this is "tradition," listen to Callas and Simionato in this duet. Neither singer drops out the way Radvanovsky and Barton did:

These extended drop-outs just to bawl acuti reveal an acute ignorance of the structure of primo ottocento music. The point of cabalettas is for accelerated, exciting singing. The singers, the orchestra, all are supposed to be eight cylinders roaring as the music reaches a climax. By allowing these drop-outs the architecture of the music is lost. Cabalettas simply become throwaway moments where singers can drop out to interpolate a high note.

Sondra Radvanovsky is one of the most frustrating, uneven singers I've ever encountered. She can often go from shrill and squally to exciting and impressive and then back to shrill and squally within a matter of seconds. For instance she can often sing a note and it will start out with laser focus and a trumpet-like ring, but before the note is over it's turned into a sour squeak. Her Anna Bolena was no exception -- it combined some very lovely moments (a surprisingly tranquil, tastefully decorated "Al dolce guidami") with some exciting moments (A "Coppia iniqua" that despite some quirky ornaments was genuinely thrilling and capped off with a strong Eb) with a whole lot of screaming.

Her Anna Bolena has been given a new set of costumes (slightly less dour than the 2011 originals) and the final scene has been restaged by David McVicar. Anna is now in a white gown and her trademark long hair is cut, lock by lock, as she awaits her execution. The blocking is now more like a traditional Mad Scene. I actually didn't like it -- one of the things I loved about Donizetti's writing for Anna was how much of the real-life Anne Boleyn he incorporated into the music. Her fiery temperament, her defiance in the face of death, those things are all vividly apparent in Donizetti's score. By having Anna twitter around like a blank-eyed Lucia McVicar made her more of a conventional heroine.

Jamie Barton (Seymour) has a bright, fresh, well-produced mezzo voice with a delightfully open and friendly stage persona. The role seems to lie a bit high for her -- she often seemed to be singing at the upper ceiling of her voice. But this is a voice with loads of promise.

The rest of the cast was almost identical to the 2011 premiere. Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry) was blandly inoffensive -- not really menacing at all. He nonetheless got some lusty audience boos because you know, Henry's the bad guy. Stephen Costello (Percy) continued to struggle with a role that lies too high for him in a house that's too big for his slender tenor voice. When pushed his voice tends to become a desperate bray. "Vivi tu" went okay but his habit of conking out on cabalettas continued as even with one verse cut he struggled and ended the aria with another huge drop-out, but not even an attempt at an acuti. Tamara Mumford (Smeaton) has an intriguingly plummy mezzo voice and it's a little weird to see that 4 years later she's still singing these smaller roles at the Met.

Radvanovsky received a warm ovation but the audience energy was noticeably lower than at last night's Il Trovatore. Anna Bolena is a great opera, but the current Met cast is not the best advocate for this masterpiece.


  1. So glad to read you, Ivy. Tough, honest, detailed and knowledgeable -- where can one find that today? Just look at the idiots in the New York Times. Brava!!!

    1. Thanks Albert! The "Di quella pira" cut is one of the most disfiguring cuts ever because the opening melody is so exciting that the audience wants a repeat. It's one of those catchy Verdi tunes that begs for a repeat and THEN maybe an interpolated high note. But to go from one verse to the chorus to the bawled C just hacks the structure of the aria completely. And as I said, Lee didn't even have the top to pull it off.

  2. This is a great review, Ivy. However, most of the egregious drop-offs that you mention in the 'Bolena' were (unfortunately) carried over by the Netrebko-led Bolena when the piece had its premiere. Case in point:

    1. thanks for that link. It's a very unmusical drop-off. I just listened to the Callas Bolena from La Scala. She takes a brief pause but otherwise you can hear her voice in the chorus up to the final D.


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