Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Verdi Interesting Predicament

Leontyne Price always liked to stress the artistic wisdom of singing on one's interest rather than one's principal and, in a recent issue of The New York Times' Sunday magazine section, music critic Will Crutchfield pondered why so many young opera singers are brazenly burning out in the early stages of their careers. In addition to citing the usual villainous elements of a frequent flyer lifestyle, poor artistic counseling and the need to perform in huge auditoriums, Crutchfield stressed the fact that many opera singers -- with little if any concern for what shape their voices will be in ten years down the road -- are already performing roles which are far too demanding.

Alas, some of the blame must be placed on these artists' managers who, in their eagneress to "sell" a singer may actually oversell some of the younger singers on their roster. Years ago, Leonie Rysanek's husband, Elu Gausmann (who has managed his wife's spectacularly underpublicized career for many years in a touchingly old-fashioned and European manner) told me that, while it's hard enough to give the individual attention required by one singer, many of today's managers are juggling rosters of nearly forty artists. In the rush to peddle flesh, send out contracts and negotiate future deals, some have failed miserably with regard to counseling their singers on repertoire -- an area of the art form in which they may not be as well informed as some would like to think they are.

Therefore, it was most interesting for me to hear, within a week's time, the work of several important artists who have kept themselves in remarkable form as opposed to others (sharing the stage with them) on whose voices the strain of the operatic treadmill has taken a dreadful toll.


A recent visit to the ten-year-old Anchorage Opera showed that frontier arts organization to be thriving despite the bitter economic side effects of the drop in oil prices on Alaska's economy. Performing in the 530-seat Fourth Street Theatre (with its postage stamp sized stage) the company is eagerly anticipating the opening of Anchorage's new performing arts center in the Fall of 1988.

There are some who believe that Verdi's La Traviata should be performed as a chamber opera and, after seeing the Anchorage Opera's production, I would tend to agree. Although the slowness of Fiora Contino's tempos and the scratchy sounds of the local orchestra often left much to be desired, the intimacy of the evening made this performance of Verdi's classic tearjerker a much more poignant affair than usual. Without any doubt, the audience's physical proximity to the singers gave much greater dramatic impact to this opera than one feels when it is performed in a 4,000-seat opera house.

One of my main reasons for flying up North to attend this Traviata was because a former Merola graduate, soprano Evelyn de la Rosa, was performing the role of Violetta for the first time in her career. An extremely sensitive artist whose vocal production is rock solid, de la Rosa has not been seen too often on regional operatic stages because of a nagging problem with her weight. Noticeably slimmed down (I'd estimate she has lost two or three chins) the soprano is now not only dramatically convincing onstage, but in splendid vocal condition. The voice is warm, crystal clear, well supported and, thanks to her innate intelligence as an artist, used superbly as an instrument of musico/dramatic expression. Those who keep complaining about the lack of good voices will want to think twice after hearing Miss de la Rosa perform.

Another all-too-often underestimated stalwart of the regional American opera circuit, baritone John Brandstetter, appeared as the elder Germont. Singing with strong conviction and thrilling tone, Brandstetter repeated his rock solid portrayal of Alfredo's father. Only Michael Ballam's Alfredo sounded pinched and strained, making one wonder if this photogenic artist is really a good-looking tenorino struggling to stay afloat in deeper repertoire than he should be singing at present.


Alas, the much bally-hooed Verdi curse returned to haunt the San Francisco Opera during its revival of La Forza del Destino. A truly pathetic evening if ever there was one, this year's Forza served to underline the difference between those artists who have taken care of their natural resources and those others whose voices are in great, great peril.

I suppose one should be thankful to Donna Bruno's Curra and Florindo Andreolli's Trabuco for picking up the shattered vocal shards left onstage by the principal singers. Unfortunately, Carlo Cossuta's Don Alvaro was supremely embarrassed by the tenor's fearsome wobble while Maria Slatinaru's Leonora di Vargas skidded into notes like a panic-stricken bus driver on an icy highway. Because one had the sickening sensation that Renata Scotto could easily have navigated several aircraft carriers between Slatinaru's outrageous vibrato and Cossuta's pathetic wobble, there was really no hope of hearing anything even resembling great Verdian singing from these singers. With a sense of genuine mortification, one couldn't help but suspect that the San Francisco Opera's production of La Forza del Destino would be one engagement in which each of these international artists would be only too happy to pick up his paycheck and run for the hills.

If Wolfgang Brendel's Don Carlo was a hopelessly dull stick, one can at least be thankful for Judith Forst's well-sung, highly-animated Preziosilla and Paul Plishka's sturdy and reliable Padre Guardiano. Neither Vera Lucia Calabria's direction nor Maurizio Arena's conducting made much impact on Pierluigi Samaritani's dismal production. But I sincerely doubt that anything could.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 6, 1986.

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