Friday, June 14, 2013

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón in Concert (Moscow, January 22, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I were watching a download of an operatic concert given in Moscow on January 22, 2006 by Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. They’ve been hailed as the current generation of operatic lovebirds (though they are not a couple in real life, which is probably just as well after the bitter real-world breakup of the last superstar opera couple, Roberto Alagna and Anna Gheorghiu) and they certainly lived up to that reputation on this occasion, slobbering all over doing a long duet sequence from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore — which Alagna began by opening what looked like a quite ordinary can of commercial beer. (The opera is about a con man who comes to a small Italian village claiming to be selling the magic elixir of love with which Isolde ensnared Tristan; it’s really just cheap wine, but the tenor, Nemorino falls for it, with at least mildly humorous complications.) The show began with the aria “Ah, leve-toi, soleil,” from Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette (based on Shakespeare’s you-know-what), and almost as soon as Villazón opened his mouth I found myself disappointed. I remembered this aria from Florencio Constantino’s acoustic recording from about 1912 and missed the heroic ring Constantino brought to this aria; instead Villazón sang it prettily and emptily, making the notes but missing the ardor of the love-struck teenager Shakespeare and Gounod were writing about. The next piece was a long love duet from the same opera, and Villazón and Netrebko were pretty much on their best behavior — at least they didn’t drink or do an open-mouthed kiss on stage — but their voices were once again pretty bland, though at least part of that may be Gounod’s fault. (It still seems frustrating that geniuses like Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Debussy all contemplated doing Romeo and Juliet operas — Berlioz got as far as a 1 ½-hour “dramatic symphony” and Tchaikovsky as his famous fantasy-overture and a love duet for soprano and tenor based on the same Big Tune — but the ones who actually finished Romeo and Juliet operas were relative mediocrities like Vaccai, Bellini, Gounod and Zandonai.)

Then the conductor — whose name I haven’t been able to trace online (given that this was a Russian telecast his on-screen credit was in indecipherable, at least to me, Cyrillic letters) but who’s one of these young podium flibbertigibbets who probably watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts as a boy and thought Bernstein’s hyperactivity was the way to conduct — did a surprisingly well-phrased performance of the Intermezzo to Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and afterwards Netrebko came back for the most successful performance of the night: an aria (probably the famous “Song to the Moon,” though since this is an opera I don’t know it will have to remain mysterious) from Dvorák’s Rusalka. Until the last 20 years or so Dvorák’s operatic output has been pretty much terra incognita, probably for the same reason it’s been so hard to hear Smetana’s and Janácek’s operas for so long: the language barrier (not that many people outside what used to be called Bohemia, then Czechoslovakia and now the Czech Republic are trained to sing in Czech, and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride made it to the standard repertoire but for years only through a German translation), but Renée Fleming has made a personal specialty of the title role in Rusalka and Netrebko seems ready to rival her in the part. Even that hyper conductor calmed down for this one and spun an excellent mood from his orchestra.

Then Villazón came out for another Shakespearean piece — the big tenor aria “Ah, la paterna mano” from Macbeth (it’s Macduff’s lament that his “paternal hand” wasn’t present to save his wife and kids from being massacred by Macbeth’s thugs, and in an opera driven by the baritone and especially the soprano roles as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth it’s the only memorable music the tenor gets to sing all night) — at which he was, once again, O.K. He made the notes and conveyed a modicum of emotion, though at least part of the restraint may have been Verdi’s fault — in Macbeth, even more than in his other operas, the villains have far more interesting parts than the good guy, and I suspect Verdi realized he hadn’t done justice to Macduff’s character because when he revised Macbeth for Paris in 1865, 18 years after composing the first version for Florence, he rewrote the introductory recitative almost completely. Then came the big duet from L’Elisir, which as I mentioned above began with Villazón opening a pop-top beer can and swigging it, ended with him and Netrebko in a long embrace featuring an open-mouthed kiss, and in between had a lot of romantic/erotic byplay between them. Ordinarily I applaud opera singers who don’t let the fact that they’re just giving a concert (in a large, well-appointed hall with a big organ behind them that wasn’t actually played during the evening) absolve themselves of the need to act their roles, but quite frankly I thought the pair were really overdoing it here — and again in their final number together, the “Libiamo!” duet from Act I of Verdi’s La Traviata, for which they popped a champagne bottle (a real one, most likely — as Charles pointed out, even ginger ale, the usual soft-drink stage fake for champagne, doesn’t froth that much) and actually sipped it from tall flute glasses in the middle of their vocal lines.

After the L’Elisir number the orchestra played the entr’acte to Act III of Carmen (the oddly pastoral mood-setting piece for an act full of violent confrontations between the disgraced-soldier hero, his femme fatale girlfriend, her bullfighter alternate-boyfriend, gypsy fortunetellers and a company of smugglers taking advantage of a moonless night to do their thing) and then the duo returned for their most impassioned joint singing of the night, the Act III Saint-Sulpice duet from Massenet’s Manon. It’s impossible to explain just what this piece is without summarizing the entire opera; Manon Lescaut is a country girl from Amiens who’s lured to the big bad city of Paris by the hero, des Grieux; only she’s followed their by her unscrupulous, greedy cousin Lescaut, who thinks Manon can make much better use of her charms by going after sugar daddies instead of sticking herself with the penniless des Grieux. So she does just that, abandoning des Grieux and their tiny apartment (she even sings a farewell aria to their dining table — I’m not making this up, you know!) for life as the (well-)kept mistress of a rich man, and in anguish over this development des Grieux decides to enter the priesthood. But Manon comes to see him at the church where he’s studying and this time she seduces him — only she’s also dying of an unmentionable disease and she’s thrown out of the country as a prostitute and exiled to the French colony of Louisiana, but before she gets there she drops dead on the road to her embarkation port at Le Havre. (When Puccini and his librettists set the same story, they actually had her go to Louisiana, des Grieux in tow, and gave her a spectacular aria, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” before she expires; Massenet’s heroine just peters out along the roadside.) For once Villazón sang with emotional weight and a sense of drama instead of just making pretty sounds, and Netrebko matched him for a more intense performance than any of their other duets or any of his solos.

Afterwards Netrebko sang “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi — radiantly, except for a bad wobble on her upper extension — and then came the “Libiamo!” duet, which out of context comes off as a bit of mindless optimism but in context is a desperate attempt by the fatally ill courtesan Violetta Valery to maintain the “party spirit” when she’s dying, she’s lonely and the man she’s singing the duet with has offered her a more-or-less respectable sort of love (not that he’s able to deliver on that, as we find out in the next act!) as an alternative to her high-class call-girl lifestyle. I don’t want to sound more critical of this concert than I was — it’s really a nice, enjoyable half-hour of opera, the sort of thing socially responsible (and largely publicly owned) European television gives us a lot more of than private, mass-audience, only-in-it-for-the-bucks, public-interest-be-damned American television does — but as with so much classical music-making these days, the technique is there but the emotions are only at a low simmer instead of the full boil you get from the 78 era artists.