Ferruccio Furlanetto

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met

Pelleas_3036_A* Notes * 
Debussy's mysterious Pelléas et Mélisande (pictured left, photograph by Karen Almond) had a splendid fourth performance this season at the Metropolitan Opera yesterday. Though the singing was lovely, the real stars of the show was conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

The production is straight-forward enough, the revolving set is made of walls that can be rearranged to change the scenes. There were two short pauses for this (and two intermissions) but considering that the performance is 4 hours long, this was pretty efficient. The scene changes were impressively quiet.

The direction did take some of the dramatic effect out of Pelléas' death by having the couple kiss ardently, rationalizing Golaud's response perhaps, and certainly making him sound silly when he sings "Ils s'étaient embrassés comme des petits enfants...Ils étaient frère et soeur..." in Act V.

Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin had the orchestra sounding utterly transparent and vibrant. All the lushness of the score was on full display.

The cast is solid. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen seemed wooden in Act I and II, but perhaps that is how Golaud should be, as the evening progressed he got more and more erratic and downright scary.

Pelleas_2685_CTenor Paul Appleby is a fine, youthful Pelléas. He showed his range from tender to passionate in his last scene in Act IV. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard gave a convincing portrayal of Mélisande. Her pure sound tends toward the ethereal which is perfect for this role.

Most distinctive was bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. His voice is gorgeously resonant and his Arkel the most sympathetic of all the characters. His singing in Act IV Scene 2 was especially appealing.

* Tattling * 
Someone appeared onstage before the performance to announce a casting change. The relief of the audience that it was the role of Yniold, the young son of Golaud, that was replaced was palpable.

Since I was able to convince my dear friend to come to New York to see this opera with me -- she lives in Colorado, has two toddlers, and is 7 months pregnant -- I sprang for first row seats. My view was "obstructed" by the conductor, but I did not mind in the least.

Don Quichotte at San Diego Opera

Don-quichotte-2014* Notes * 
The last performance of the 2014 season at San Diego Opera was the matinée of Don Quichotte on Sunday, April 13. This may well have been San Diego Opera's final offering, complete with a Save San Diego Opera demonstration outside and capacity attendance inside. The production is a revival of the one at San Diego Opera in 2009.

Maestra Karen Keltner held the orchestra together, and the music sounded lovely. The chorus was generally good, though the bandits in Act III were not exactly together at first. This improved by the end of the act. The small roles were all filled nicely, it was especially nice to hear Susannah Biller (Garcias) and Joel Sorensen (Rodriguez). Eduardo Chama was delightful as Sancho Pança, he is a fine basso buffo. Anke Vondung sparkled as Dulcinée, and her voice is both rich and smooth. Ferruccio Furlanetto was again entirely committed to the title role. His pathos and ridiculousness came through with great beauty.

* Tattling * 
San Diego Civic Theatre only has four wheelchair locations, and an usher put a person in a wheelchair next to me in Row B Seat 43. I had purposely selected this seat as I have a temporary medical condition that requires that prompt attention every few hours. The usher did not consider me at all in his deliberations, and even asked that I get out of his way at one point. However, the person in the wheelchair was exceedingly considerate of me, and was careful to let me get past him at intermission and the end of the show. It was unfortunate that about half the stage was not easily visible for him.

Attila Opening at SF Opera

Sf-opera-attila-actii-scene2-2012* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's co-production of Attila (Act II Scene 2 pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened last night. The orchestra sounded cheerful and lively under Maestro Nicola Luisotti. The woodwinds, harp, and cello made notable contributions. The off-stage brass sounded clear. There were a few synchronization problems with the orchestra, chorus, and principals. This was obvious because Verdi's music, at least in this opera, keeps such predictable tempi.

Samuel Ramey sounded shaky in the small role of Pope Leo I, but looked dignified. Diego Torre's voice is bright, audible over the orchestra, but has a compressed quality to it. His Foresto was a bit wooden. Similarly, Lucrecia Garcia's Odabella was stiff. Her soprano has lovely resonances to it, but her control is imperfect, most noticeably in her upper register.

In contrast, Quinn Kelsey (Ezio) has a strong, warm-toned sound. His aria in Act II, "E' gettata la mia sorte," was the high point of the evening. In the title role, Ferruccio Furlanetto was commanding. He has some grit to his beautiful voice, and as ruler of the Huns, it is hardly inappropriate.

The action on stage, directed by Gabriele Lavia, was disappointing. No one looked particularly comfortable, and having child supernumeraries stand in the middle of the stage, as at the end of Act I, was ill-advised at best. Alessandro Camera's enormous set did not help. The carefully-wrought details made the staging inflexible. Scenes were meant to be transformed by the addition of a ship or a tree bough, but we are clearly in the same set, despite whatever projections happened to show up in the background.

The most convincing of these changes occurred in the last scene, which is set in a decrepit movie theater, complete with screen and strewn plush seats. While it was entertaining that Douglas Sirk's 1954 film about Attila the Hun, Sign of the Pagan, was played, it could be distracting. Despite my best efforts, I found myself staring more at Jack Palance and Ludmilla Tchérina than the singers.

* Tattling * 
The length of Furlanetto's coat knocked over a chair in Act I, and nearly tripped the singer.

The woman in Row R Seat 7 on the orchestra level talked at full-volume several times during the performance to her companion in Seat 5. My glares at her had almost no effect.

Chorus Director Ian Robertson marks his twenty-fifth year with the San Francisco Opera this year. He received the San Francisco Opera Medal after last night's performance.

Don Carlo at the Met

Met-don-carlo Metropolitan Opera's Don Carlo, a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, opened last night. What follows is the Unbiased Opinionator's account of the prima.

* Notes * 
Very rarely does an opera with a 7:00 pm start time and midnight closing curtain, on a Monday night, rivet an audience into rapt silence. Absent Bayreuth-style, hour-long intermissions, the performance can be a grueling experience, for singers and audience alike. I am happy to report that the evening sped by –with compelling stage direction, impressive set design and above all, a very strong cast led by a conductor who knew what he wanted from the score and radiated both confident mastery and reverence and respect for the difficult tasks faced by the principals.

It would require a curmudgeon the likes of Wagner's Beckmesser to nit-pick the performance last evening, the season premiere of Don Carlo at the Met. The opera was performed in the five act version in Italian, not the original French version, and is loosely based on the Schiller play, reworked by the playwright François Joseph Méry (1798-1866). The libretto was completed by Camille de Locle after Méry's death.

Verdi spent over twenty years tweaking what is considered by many, and most definitely by this reviewer, as Verdi's magnum opus. Many of his revisions were undertaken after Aida and the Requiem, and Verdi's growth and mastery, acquired after composing Aida (an opera similar in scope and ambition to Don Carlo, where the private passions of individual players take place before an enormous historical back-drop) and the Requiem, which drew Verdi into the realm of the sacred, seem to culminate in the final version of Don Carlo, where personages of enormous political power struggle to reconcile their private loves, disappointments and sense of tragic doom with the crushing political burdens forced upon them by history.

The sets and costumes were in every way effective and impressive, no more so than in the monastery of St. Just, with its subterranean catacomb containing the sarcophagus of Charles the Fifth, and the striking set of the third act auto-da-fe with the Valladolid Cathedral cast in gold, the sky blood red, and a huge portrait of Christ in torment dominating stage left, which at the end of the Act becomes a transparency behind which we see the remains of heretics burned at the stake. All the horror of the Spanish Inquisition was felt here. Torture and death by fire were suggested, not imposed on the audience literally, which increased the sense of terror and mania underlying the Inquisition.

Roberto Alagna's performance of the title role, after initial dryness and forcing in his only aria "Io la Vidi," was impressive and moving. This role is thankless and in most performances only memorable if the tenor is not up to its demands. Don Carlo has but one real aria, and the role is extremely long and taxing. As the evening developed, Alagna become more convincing, with an powerful top and deeply felt expression.

To this reviewer, the musical and dramatic high point of the show was Ferruccio Furlanetto's rendition of the King's great aria "Ella Giammai M'amo." It would take an entire review in itself to explore the rich detail, the sonority and variety of vocal and expressive color Furlanetto was able to bring to this aria, perhaps the greatest aria for bass ever written by Verdi. The arching phrase "Amor per me non ha," greatly feared by basses, is repeated twice. In the first of two repetitions, this great artist succeeded in slimming his large voice into a slender, yet ringing, stream of sound. He did not allow himself to be rushed by the conductor, taking all the time he needed to properly breathe and prepare for each, ever more challenge phrase, but in no way diminishing the intensifying drama of this scena. In the reprise of the difficult phrase mentioned above, he opened up with a massive, engulfing sound that was overwhelming in its emotional intensity, as the King, possessing all the political might of the world, mourns his wife's lack of love and his solitude.

Marilyn Horne, a great Eboli in her day, correctly describes the this role as actually requiring three singers; one with the flexibility of the Veil Song, one for the enraged Eboli, rejected by Carlo in their in the first scene of Act III, and one who can pull out all the stops for the virtuosic showpiece "O Don Fatale." The mezzo Anna Smirnova was really only truly suited to the last of these challenges: her Veil Song was labored and lacked subtlety. However, her powerful, dark vocalism and marvelous high B in her Third Act aria were breathtaking. Marina Poplavskaya's Elizabeth was sung with great beauty and a sublime fil de voce- the ability to thread a high note into a spinning pianissimo. Unfortunately, she was overburdened by the challenges of this long evening, and her final aria "Tu Che la Vanita" was effortful, with a forced top and limited emotional impact. Simon Keenlyside, who performed an admirable Hamlet last year at the Met in Ambrose Thomas' opera, was a fine dramatic presence, but seemed a bit out of his depth vocally. He was often overpowered by the orchestra, and his aria "Per me Giunto," where he pledges his life to saving beleaguered Flanders and declaring his loyalty and bond of love to Carlo, was weak.

The great stage veteran, Eric Halfvarson, a memorable Hagen in Götterdämmerung, captured impressively the ancient, blind yet all-powerful and menacing Grand Inquisitor. At this stage in his long career, Halfvarson's voice tends to spread and wobble at climactic moments, but this is a mere cavil – so effective and blood-chilling was his delivery and presence. His cardinal red robe, the only color in the darkness of Phillip's chamber, was a blood-shot reminder of his fanatical pursuit of heretics and the horror of burning at the stake of his victims. In the great confrontational duet between the King and the Inquisitor, I had the sense that phrases were not given an opportunity to resonate, but rather were precipitously jammed together by the conductor, which diminished somewhat the impact of this tremendous scene. Secondary roles were well sung, especially by Lalya Claire (in her Met debut s the Elizabeth's page Tebaldo) and the Celestial Voice (Jennifer Check), who is given the daunting tasking of performing a short, very high and exposed angelic line at the end of the Act III. She met this challenge with courage, and sang from a position high in the auditorium balconies, not on or behind the stage. The Friar (Alexei Tonvitsky, in his Met debut) was imposing. A special mention should be made of the 6 Flemish Deputies, who sing in unison in the Act III auto da fe, imploring King Philip for relief for the Flemish people. The blend was perfect, resulting in the sense of one voice pleading, yet dignified.

There were too many marvels emanating from the pit to describe them all. The horn section, playing in unison at the beginning of Act IV was perfect in its somber sonority. I had the occasion to hear this performance from two positions, one in the front row of the Grand Tier, where the orchestra seemed overloud, since its sound projects upward while the singers' voices tend to project directionally forward into the hall. A seat in Orchestra Row Z, just under the parterre boxes, gave a better sense of balance, and my initial impression that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séquin was insensitive to the singers was corrected when I heard the performance in this horizontal acoustic plane.

* Tattling * 
As this was the opening Gala Performance of Don Carlo, the audience was especially glamorous and well-dressed. Disruptions by cellphones and yakking were minimal, and people remained after the performance long enough to render a loud and fitting approval of the evening's performance, which will remain in my memory as one of the best I have heard at the Met.

Don Quichotte at San Diego Opera

Don-quichotte-sdo * Notes * 
Massenet's Don Quichotte opened at San Diego Opera on Valentine's Day, after a nearly 40-year absence from that opera's stage. Ralph Funicello's scenic design for this production is much in keeping with a very traditional aesthetic and Missy West's costumes invoked the ineluctable Gustav Doré illustrations of Don Quixote, though the influence of Velasquez and Murillo was also evident. Each scene began with a relevant quote from Cervantes translated into English and projected on the scrim. This was interesting in that the libretto of this opera is fairly different from the novel, for one thing, Dulcinea does not exactly exist in the latter, whereas she is quite present in the Massenet.

Denyce Graves is an arresting Dulcinée, though her voice is breathy and not smooth, she is incredible. She certainly does not sound like anyone else. Likewise, Ferruccio Furlanetto was fully engaging in the title role, completely embodying the long-faced knight. The duet in Act I between the two leads was quite effective, and Furlanetto was plaintive in Act III's "Seigneur, reçois mon âme, elle n'est pas méchante."

The rest of the singing was perhaps not as amazing, but perfectly fine. Eduardo Chama was charming as Sancho Pança, though his French diction was unclear and he did lack a certain resonance. Bryan Register started off sounding a bit distant as Juan, but did well. The French of the chorus members as bandits in Act III left something to be desired.

The choreography from Nicola Bowie was strong, the dancers were together and on beat. Only their hand movements were not completely exact. Karen Keltner kept the orchestra synchronized with each other, though not perfectly with the singers. There were moments that were somewhat sluggish, though the overture to the last act was exceedingly pretty.

* Tattling * 
Though there were no watch alarms or mobile phone rings, some audience members seemed to have difficulty being silent. The scene changes took some time to complete, and during the first one the ladies behind us in Row S of the orchestra commented that they should have played music. Naturally once they did play music for the second scene change, they expressed their approval aloud, but once the music stopped, everyone was perfectly quiet.

More alarmingly, the couple in Row Q Seats 7 and 9 not only spoke when Denyce Graves was singing and whenever else they felt like it, but also kissed rather loudly throughout the evening. They left before Act V.

Simon Boccanegra at the Met

Simon Boccanegra* Notes *
Giancarlo del Monaco's current production of Simon Boccanegra at the Met is traditional, the set and costumes, by Michael Scott, are lavish and exceedingly beautiful. The one weakness was the scene changes, some took a long time and people would start chattering and momentum was lost. Even still, Fabio Luisi had a fine handle on the music, the tempi were good. Angela Gheorghiu cut a fine figure as Amelia, her voice is precise, her tones silvery. Tenor Marcello Giordani strained somewhat as Gabriele, but was not bad. Thomas Hampson was convincing in the title role, his voice is warm and pleasing, but most impressive was bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco. The acting was all splendid, everyone fit their parts and nothing was out of place.

* Tattling *
There was some chatter but it subsided by the second half, except during the aforementioned scene changes. There were some cellular phone rings and watch alarms that went off as well.

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera was quite simply the best opera I have ever been to. Everything was amazingly marvelous. The difference between the San Francisco Opera and the Met is vast, despite the fact that they get some of the same singers and conductors and so forth.

First of all, Mozart is my favorite opera composer, and I've seen Le Nozze before in San Francisco. It simply blew me away, because it was just so much better than Puccini, Bizet et al. It was the longest opera I had seen at that point, yet I was fully engaged in it. So I was perfectly willing to see it again at the Met.

The Metropolitan Opera lives at the Lincoln Center. The building is, sadly, quite ugly, and also gigantic, though the acoustics seem to be good. They don't have a projection screen for supertitles, which great because I never need that kind of distraction. Instead they have a small screen on the backs of the seats, which one can leave on the off position. I don't understand why one can't just read the libretto, or learn Italian, but I'm crazy.

Money cannot buy happiness, so they say, but it can buy very good opera seats. Our seats were center third row orchestra, and we managed not to sit behind giants, so the view of the stage was good and the sound was good there. I could even see and hear the conductor, which is a rarity for me. I've been to operas that Donald Runnicles has conducted at San Francisco Opera, but I've never seen him up close. He looks very different than the photograph that he uses in the programs.

All of the singers were consistently good and at the same excellent level. This was a striking difference between the Met and SF operas. The singers were as good as the ones at the Volksoper in Vienna. Rebecca Evans was charming as Susanna, her voice was sweet, warm, and clear as ever. I've seen this Welsh soprano as Adina in the San Francisco production of L'Elisir d'Amore, in which she was also brilliant. Melanie Diener had the part of the Countess, and her voice was colder and airier. It was a nice foil, actually. Ferruccio Furlanetto also did a splendid job as Figaro, he also has a warm rich voice.