The Diva and the Busker

Nights at the Opera

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | April 2009

Rosenkavalier with Sophie Koch (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger)

She came, she sang, she thrilled. And did so in all the four scheduled performances, despite the fairly widespread speculation to the contrary and "informed rumor" that she would sing in only two. And on all four occasions the house rose to acclaim the return of a favorite and the success of a new Lucia.

Some of those present may have remembered the young Violetta, a new voice, who held the Staatsoper spellbound in Apr. 2003, just six short years ago, and who two years later, together with her Nemorino, had a rapt audience standing for over twenty happy minutes as the curtain came down on one of the most memorable performances of L’Elisir D’Amore anywhere.

La Netrebko has returned.

Anna Netrebko has extraordinary operatic qualities: a virtuoso whose voice that has developed into an often perfect instrument she uses to full effect, and a sense of interpretation with which she draws us into whatever character she is playing. She  makes us want to share the feelings and experiences of that character and not just observe them.

So is it with Lucia. Vocally and dramatically we are drawn to Lucia and Edgardo as deserving lovers. Her husband, Arturo, becomes almost inconsequential and we sympathise with her inability to face down Enrico, her bullying brother. Her vulnerability shows through her confidence in Father Raimondo. But most cleverly, her mad scene (Ardon ‘gli incensi and Spargi d’amaro) is devoid of hysterical screaming and ravings.

Her descent into madness is dignified, one of an innocent loss to reality. This effect was enhanced by the eerie accompaniment of a glass harmonica (an instrument where glasses filled to different levels are played on the rims) instead of the more usual solo flute. The glass harmonica I have heard before only on the streets including once on the streets of Salzburg.  The effect was so powerful that I shall probably remember this Lucia as "The Diva and the Busker."

The new production of Yevgeniy Onegin was less satisfying. Stripped of their early 19th century Russian environment, physically, culturally and psychologically, the characters were imprisoned in a black contemporary tomb to perform some nonsense of a modern psychodrama with definite Germanic leanings.

The beautiful Russian folk dances and ballet were forged into contortions more usually found in displays by troupes of wandering breakdancers on Stephansplatz. The voices sounded strained, as if the singers were in strait jackets, but thankfully the pit escaped, and Maestro Ozawa preserved and presented Tchaikovsky’s music as Alexander Pushkin would have wanted to hear it.

Other highlights

Sometimes opera is thought of as heavy and difficult music for sad and tragic situations. But equally opera can be full of fun with lots of bright and lively music.  Maybe it is to celebrate the late arrival of Spring that we can look forward to no less than four such cheerful operas in the Staatsoper in April.  Richard Strauss returns to poke some more fun at the foibles of Viennese society with further performances of Der Rosenkavalier. Sophie Koch returns to sing the title role. The young Soprano, Chen Reiss makes her house debut as Sophie and the Marschallin is sung by Camilla Nylund. The bumbling Baron Ochs is sung by Alfred Muff.

Juan Diego Flores, who is perhaps the outstanding bel canto tenor of these times, sings both Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore and Lindoro in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. In Rossini’s other opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Colin Lee, sometimes pretending to be a Lindoro, makes his house debut as the Count Almaviva. Tatiana Lisnic returns to Vienna to sing Adina who attracts the charms of Sergeant Belcore (Leo Nucci).  Silvia Tro Santafe is the Italiana to be rescued by Lindoro from the clutches of Mustafa (Ildebrando D’Archangelo) in Algiers. Other newcomers are Joyce Di Donato from Kansas who sings Rosina in the Barber and the Neapolitan baritone Bruno de Simone, who appears as the dispenser of magic potions in the Elixir before moving on to stir up other potions as Doctor Bartolo in the Barber of Seville.  So lots of fun, and lots of new voices to be heard. There is, of course, lots more here and in the other opera houses.

Also, a reminder that the program for next season is usually available from the end of the first week in April, and that ticket sales begin on the first of June.  Finally, remember " 4, 7, 11" – these are the dates in May when Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja sing in Verdi’s La Traviata. See you in the queue!

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