The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Monday, November 12, 2007

Viva Verdi

This month has been jam-packed with concert-goings, so now is a good time to clear the backlog of thoughts. I'll start with probably the most substantial helpings of great music, both emanating from Verdi's awesome brain -- Aida and La Traviata.

The genius of Verdi leaves the most significant impression on me when I hear these operas, although both featured notable performances in the female leads. Too often the audience's attitude towards operatic performances, particularly of Verdi, is that they're some kind of acrobatic feats of strength. So the biggest stories in the two performances were the female leads, Angela Brown and Renee Fleming, rising star and established star, respectively. I don't have much to say, other than both performed as billed -- Brown has a powerful, ringing voice, and Fleming sang with unparalleled tenderness and intelligence. My unprofessional opinion is that Brown has a future as a Wagnerian soprano, if she so chooses to go that route. Slap a horned helmet on that woman!

The performance of Aida suffered from some of the same unevenness and tinkering that I've complained about here before. It left me yearning for a James Levine performance. I also realized why I've never been thrilled with Olga Borodina -- she has a powerful voice, but has problematic timing. She lacks rhythm in her singing and does not attack the notes sharply, which is a fatal flaw in Aida, as Verdi characterizes Amneris with punchy, aggressive music. But as always, the opera as a whole was still immensely enjoyable.

La Traviata actually got me thinking about the under-appreciated Dwayne Croft, whom the Met took out of their backstage storage to sing Germont. Croft has sung over 350 performances at the Met, and the Met should be thankful. He has a warm voice and is an intelligent singer, and I think he is especially good at this role. One of my favorite parts of Traviata is the duet in Act II between him and Violetta, and Croft really nailed it.

Take just the word "Piangi," which Germont repeats several times to powerful effect in the duet. Croft sings the first syllable with no vibrato, building up to an emphasis on the second syllable, topping it off with some vibrato at the end. Contrast this approach with that of the legendary Sherrill Milnes on the Carlos Kleiber recording, which I listened to at home a couple days after the performance. Milnes sings the first syllable loudly, almost barking it out, then tapers the second syllable. It's perhaps blasphemous to say so, but I find Croft's approach both more convincing and kinder on the ear musically. It just sounds like a pleading cry. I also appreciate singers who use vibrato as an ornament (even an oft-used one), rather than as a constant part of their tone.

Marco Armiliato conducted the Traviata, and the Times gave him raves as one of the Met's "great finds." I thought his pacing was rather sluggish in many parts of the opera, though. But it's a tough opera to screw up, and the experience overall was a treat. Polenzani was even better than I expected as Alfredo.

Looking forward to seeing Fleming in Verdi again in February, as Desdemona in Otello -- perhaps our most perfect example of music drama.


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