Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Vehemently Venomous Verdi

One of the great joys of Verdi's writing is the sheer virility of his music -- the raw power with which he captures the greed, hatred and desperation felt by many of his most famous characters. Whether it be Master Ford's all-consuming jealousy, Lady Macbeth's unbridled lust for power or Princess Eboli's intense frustration over the problems in her love life, the composer usually manages to tap some primitive animal instinct within a singer's soul which enables his music to be used as a powerful expression of raw emotion.

Although many opera queens bemoan the lack of true Verdi stylists to be found in the current musical landscape, two of last fall's performances demonstrated that there is, indeed, a new school of American artists who are capable of carrying the torch once held high by such illustrious singers as Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker and Leontyne Price. Two young American sopranos in particular -- Aprile Millo and Susan Dunn -- are currently been hailed as the great white hopes for the Verdi repertoire. As far as Dunn and Millo are concerned, time alone can decide their fates. But, with true operatic excitement on the list of artistically endangered species, their performances brought back memories of the good old days when Verdi's music seemed to be emanating from a soprano's viscera as well as from her vocal cords.


The Met's October 16 Aida proved to be a strangely invigorating performance. Much of the evening's excitement was due to conductor Nello Santi's vigorous tempos and the speculation surrounding Aprile Millo's house debut in the title role. In all honesty, I found Millo rather odd to watch onstage. A short and rather lumpy lady, her acting strikes me as being alternately forceful and then clumsy. Although her vocal energy seems focused; her dramatic energy is quite scattered. Hailed by many insiders as the woman who might well fill Renata Tebaldi's shoes by the end of the century, this young artist's voice (though powerful, warm and well-produced) sometimes lacks excitement. At crucial moments it can shines like a shooting star; at other moments the results are decidedly uneven.

If Millo stood head and shoulders above her colleagues, her triumph was sometimes by default. Tenor Bruno Sebastian (who was thrown onstage to make his house debut as a last-minute replacement for the ailing Giuseppi Giacomini) delivered an impressive "Celeste Aida." Sebastian, however, began to lose steam by the end of the Triumphal Scene and later got lost in the shuffle surrounding the Nile Scene. As Amonasro, a noticeably slimmed-down Cornell MacNeil was adequate although the baritone's usually stentorian voice sounded surprisingly thin on this occasion.

Unfortunately, Grace Bumbry's once splendid Amneris has now become a crude and bombastic portrayal which is almost laughable in its wretched excess. Although Bumbry sparked enough excitement to provoke Millo's Ethiopian princess into a rather convincing bitch fight, the mezzo-soprano has added so much vocal and physical heft to her stage presence that several of my friends are now referring to her as "The Bovine Bumbarina." Although she attacked her music in the Judgment Scene with the vengeance of an enraged walrus, the results were often far from gratifying.


Down at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts the Washington Opera gave Verdi's Il Trovatore its due in one of the finer performances of this opera to be heard in quite some time. I suppose I should confess that, for me, the most incredible part of the evening was watching tenor Franco Bonisolli behave himself for an entire performance. Instead of leaping around the stage like Erroll Flynn, or reaching into his usually low and unprofessional bag of tricks, Bonisolli delivered a fine rendition of Manrico's music which was vocally secure and, simultaneously, the most dramatically restrained work I've seen from this tenor.

The reason, I'm told, is that the young Israeli conductor, Daniel Oren, reportedly read Bonisolli the riot act in Italy last summer, telling the tenor that under no circumstances whatsoever could Bonisolli indulge himself in his usual egotistical shenanigans while Maestro Oren was on the podium. Oren's conducting, by the way, was firm, vital and most impressive. Nicola Benois' unit set (whose various repositionings throughout the evening reminded me of a giant Japanese puzzle) served Verdi's opera well and, under Wolf-Dieter Ludwig's stage direction, the cast went through its paces with a sense of surety and purpose. Special credit goes to Washington Opera's chorus, which was quite magnificent.

As Leonora, Susan Dunn was in exceptional voice, singing with the kind of creaminess and solid vocal reserves that can easily make one think of Leontyne Price. Dunn, who moves well onstage and manages to act convincingly, has the markings of a great Verdian soprano and I look forward to hearing her sing again soon. Replacing an indisposed Matteo Manuguerra, baritone Brent Ellis sang the role of Count di Luna with a fierce power. As Azucena, mezzo-soprano Stefania Toczyska's vocally thrilling and dynamic gypsy hag was one of the evening's highlights.

What a joy it is to hear one of Verdi's most beautiful scores given such a fine performance! While some may wish to reserve judgment on Susan Dunn's voice, there can be no doubt that Brent Ellis, who has finally arrived at the very meat of his repertoire, is sounding magnificent.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 22, 1987.

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