Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Blanche Thebom, RIP

Now I'm going to say right here that my favorite mezzo of that era was Nell Rankin. But Rankin and Thebom's overlap of repertory, though substantial, was not complete, and anyway, they brought different virtues to their roles. Today, sadly, is Blanche's day (Nell died four years ago, before I began this blog), so, RIP Thebom.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

ATTILA broadcast: get Leone'd!

While I can't claim to know this early Verdi gem like the back of my hand, I've had a tendre for it since I saw it at NYCO back -- how long ago? Well, I remember Sam Ramey did a thrilling job in the title role, and, though memory may be playing tricks on me, I believe some of the younger members of the historical Attila's entourage were in attendance, though of course they would have been getting on in years by then and required special attention by the ushers.

How delightful to discover, then, that Sam Ramey is still appearing in ATTILA, though this time not in the title role, but in the striking cameo role of Pope Leo the Great.

Now as fans of this opera know, Verdi did not call this character Pope Leo the Great. The scene in which Leo does the ol' "You! Shall! Not! Pass!" number on Attila was far too operatic for Verdi, great man of the theater that he was, to leave out; yet Verdi was also an arms-crossed, lips-pursed, that's-not-funny anti-clerical, and as such, reluctant to give a Pope credit for saving Rome from the Hun. So Pope Leo appears in the official dramatis personae as "Leone, an old man."

Yeah, see, so Attila the Hun is terrified by a nightmare in which "an old man" bars his way into Rome, and later, "Leone, an old man" does in fact appear and bar his way into Rome, using -- spooooooky! -- the very words Attila heard in his dream!

Whatev'. It's a great scene. And commentators Juntwait and Siff, most graciously, referred to Leone as "the bishop of Rome." That'll do: as St. Thomas More puts it, "No, 'Bishop of Rome' if you like -- it doesn't alter his authority."

Given that Ramey can't quite sing the title role any more, then how delightful to find him "promoted" to Leone! Of course in operatic terms it's not a promotion: it's a prelude to retirement. I'm borrowing the "promotion" trope from that great Calaf (in Puccini's TURANDOT, as if you didn't know) of the '20s, Giovanni Martinelli, who came out of retirement at the San Francisco Opera to sing another small-but-important role, roughly corresponding to Calaf as Leone does to Attila: the Emperor Altoum. Afterward he said: "For years I was the Unknown Prince [Calaf]. Then San Francisco promoted me to Emperor. Now I wish to abdicate."

But to judge from his performance, Ramey has some time left before he has to "abdicate." What's different about his voice today, compared to his voice when he took the title role in this opera? A great big wobble -- a sign of age, or, some would say, a fault of technique (though if a queue is forming to accuse Ramey of faults of technique, include me out). Aside from that, his great and long-familiar voice was clearly there in Leone's oracular lines. (He also sang a ruddy good Timur, in TURANDOT, last fall. So I figure that as Pope he can't abdicate, and as exiled Tartar king he already has. But I digress.)

The guy who did sing Attila was Ildar Abdrazakov. Magnificent. I was going to say that he's a Slavic bass as much at home in Italian repertory as Christoff or Ghiaurov ever was -- but I think Abdrazakov is from Kazakhstan, and might not appreciate being called Slavic. Well I hope he'll appreciate being called an Oriental Siepi, which I'll gladly call him. Interesting, though -- in some parts of this role, especially its higher range (and Verdi was pretty merciless to his leading bassos in this regard), Abdr, er, Adbr, er -- f. this, let's call him Ildar -- Ildar sounded very much like a young Ramey. Maybe he was trying to; I don't know. (In an intermission interview he mentioned asking Ramey for advice, and the generous old colleague and former Hun said, you've got it fine, just do what you're doing.)

In other cast news, I liked Violeta Urmana's Odabella, but I still say she's a mezzo. She got all the notes, but so can many mezzos. The best part of her voice is the middle and lower range, and it's not like the world is overflowing with dramatic mezzos. Ever since the Bartoli phenom, lyric and coloratura mezzos have been a dime dozen, if the exquisite diDonato and her fans will forgive my saying so. It's dramatic mezzos that we need, and we end up fach'ed when they decamp for the soprano repertory. Plus, those who do so usually shorten their careers. We shall see.

Ramon Vargas used to have a sweet lyric tenor voice. The role of Foresto in this opera is not lyrical, and today Vargas did not sound sweet. Sometimes a bel canto tenor can sing "can belto," but this was "can't belto," at least in the higher and tougher passages of the role. Something of his old self returned in the lyrical passages.

Now, this new Ezio, Giovanni Meoni -- where'd he come from? who discovered him? Quite a find! When I first tuned in (on the car radio, I must admit -- later I listened on the home stereo) I thought I was hearing a tenore-baritonale. No, he's a baritone, but on the light-toned side. As I listened further, I found myself more and more reminded of a young Merrill. Oh please, let this one be a keeper, not another flash in the pan!

Much, much credit to Maestro Riccardo Muti. I've long been a fan of this Snape-in-the-pit, with his baton-wand. (Look at pictures of him from five or ten years back, when his black hair, parted in the middle, was longer, and you'll see what I mean). It was his recording of the Verdi Requiem that taught me to love that piece passionately. He excels in Wagner too (check out the YouTube clip of the end of Act I of WALKURE at LaScala, with Domingo and W. Meier, Muti conducting), but he's the Wizard of Verdi. Early Verdi is at risk of turning oom-pa-pa in ordinary hands; with Muti, not a chance: passinate and grand from start to finish.

I can't comment on the austere production or the Prada costumes, but the Met's new ATTILA is a musical triumph.