VERDI: Il trovatore
The Metropolitan Opera's sumptuous Franco Zifferelli production of Turandot has been a major hit for the company since its premiere in 1987. Here we have it in a fine, if not exceptional performance. The weak principal is Eva Marton in the title role. She is a loud soprano who manages the notes reasonably well, but her voice is unwieldy and not very pleasant to listen to. Marton appears uncomfortable (perhaps rightly so) in the elaborate costumes she must wear, particularly in Act II where, with about a dozen stiletos sticking out of her back, she looks like the victim of a voo-doo doll attack. Really absurd, indeed; Zifferelli went overboard in this area. Placido Domingo is magnificent as Calaf and looks dashingly handsome, with Leona Mitchell's Liù equally fine. The supporting cast is excellent, and James Levine's conducting could not be bettered. There's much of interest here, with superb photography and good sound—it's unfortunate the title role leaves much to be desired.
TDK's Turandot was filmed at the 2002 Salzburg Festival in a new production with costumes designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, sets designed by Johan Engels, stage lighting by Jean Kalma and direction by David Pountney. Of interest is the fact that the performance includes Luciano Berio's 2001 completion of the opera, which on this occasion had its first (and hopefully last) Austrian performance. The opera in this production takes place in a dehumanized society. There are some fascinating surrealistic aspects, notably the grotesque, mechanical costumes worn by members of the chorus and the machine-shop appearance of some of the sets. Ping, Pang and Pong here are sinister characters (in spite of their exquisite, sometimes comic music), with their left arms as weapons. A huge mask figures prominently and when it splits open we have the Princess Turandot wearing a very long gold cape/dress. In contrast to the elaborate detail of the main sets, some of the scenery and props (tables, chairs) at the front look like they came from Wal Mart.
The chorus is superb and is to be commended for being able to follow the director's detailed movement requirements. The featured singers disappoint. Christina Gallardo-Domas' Liù is the best of the principals—in spite of her wobble. Gabriele Schnaut who rather by default in today's operatic world sings much Strauss and Wagner, has her better days and her bad days, i.e. her Elektra at the BBC Proms this past season was excellent. She was in poor condition during this Turandot, with faulty intonation and vocal production, a lack of power as well. Perhaps she was unnerved by having to sing "In questa reggia" in a most awkward, rather precarious setting. Johan Botha, wearing a business suit, has neither the voice or temperament for Calaf. Berio's ill-advised completion of the final act, utilizing some of the sketches left by Puccini, is overly-long and unsatisfying—a lot of symbolic goings-on for Turandot and Calaf over the dead body of Liù accompanied by ineffective music, and there's no grand ending as in the original. Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic do their part magnificently. An extra on this DVD is a lengthy interview with Schnaut, another with director Pountney in which he calls Alfano's ending for Turandot "loud, silly, stupid, brutal and kitschy" and states that people who really care about the opera will find the Berio ending very much worth while. In many ways, indeed, it is fascinating, but I'll not return to it often.
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) is considered to be "the father of Russian opera," although he wrote only two, A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1837-42). From the latter the familiar overture is often featured in concerts and recordings, as well as "Chenomor's March" and "Oriental Dances" from Act 4. The opera is a rather grand spectacle in this Kirov Opera production in association with the San Francisco Opera. This performance was recorded at the Kirov Opera in 1995. R&L is the story of the beautiful Lyudmila's marriage to Ruslan after rejecting two other suitors, Ratmir (oddly sung by a mezzo-soprano) and Farlaf. Lyudmila is abducted by the evil sorcerer Chernomor and the rest of the opera tells of efforts to rescue her before the inevitable happy reunion in the final scene of Act V. It's a long opera including an extended ballet interlude in Act III. This production is gorgeous in every way with elaborate sets, glittering costumes, sensible effective scenery and very fine singing, particularly the Lyudmila of young Anna Netrebko very early in her career (DG has just issued her first solo CD REVIEW). The Kirov Orchestra and Chorus—and conductor Valery Gergiev—are splendid in every way. There's no libretto, but a track by track synopsis of action; of course there are surtitles, in six languages. As a dubious bonus we have Introducing Ruslan, an 18-minute rather boring explanation by Gergiev of the opera and its origin, and an hour feature on the conductor and his international career, which shows that humility is not part of his way of life. Camera work is superb, as is the sound.
Il trovatore is a pot-boiler of an opera with a convoluted, totally unbelievable plot (typical of many operas, of course); however, the music is glorious. Since the first "complete" recording in 1912 there have been many recordings over the years with superb casts. Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas have recorded Leonora; Placido Domingo, Franco Corelli, Luciano Pavarotti and Jussi Bjoerling have recorded Manrico; and Leonard Warren, Ettore Bastianini and Robert Merrill, Count di Luna. Azucenas have included Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto and Fedora Barbieri. This BBC Television DVD is a 2002 Royal Opera House production with realistic sets by Dane Ferretti and costumes by Anne Tilby. Best of the singers is Yvonne Naef's vivid Azucena. Young Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel manages Leonora's two big arias reasonably well—no vocal fireworks here. José Cura's Manrico interpretively has much to offer, but vocally cannot match the great tenors of the past, nor can Dimitri Hvorostovsky who here sings his first Count di Luna. Photography and audio are excellent. Extras include conversations with the director and costume designers, informal scenes with featured singers, and a fascinating explanation of the German form of dueling called "Schläger" which is seen in the fight scenes. Had you gone to the opera house for this performance you wouldn't feel too disappointed—but there are reasons for the non-ovation reaction of the audience. For repeated viewing in the home, this just won't do,
R.E.B. (November 2003)