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Bel Canto Resurgence Flourishes

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“Ermione” harkens back to a golden age; “Xerxes” is a delight

The New York City Opera’s spring season has proven one of the best in memory, with plausibly-cast revivals and strong co-productions developed elsewhere reaching the New York State Theater already stageworthy.

The season’s final offering, New York’s first-ever staged “Ermione” (running through April 22) generated enough vocal heat to recall the 15 or so years when Beverly Sills, Marisa Galvany, Patricia Wise, Susanne Marsee, Judith Forst, Samuel Ramey, John Aler, Rockwell Blake, Gianna Rolandi, and June Anderson (and occasionally John Alexander and the young Placido Domingo and José Carreras) made the bel canto trio of Rossini/Be­llini/Doni­zetti the company’s trump card.

No one in this “Ermione” had the all-conquering Rossinian instrument of a Ramey, Horne, Devia, or Flórez, but all four leads produced prodigies of stylish singing. Due to Philip Gossett and others, the observance of a vocal Rossini style per se has improved since its 1970s flowering.

Director Helena Binder created reasonable drama from the fairly static conventions of the Racine-derived libretto. There is nothing either static or conventional about Rossini’s wonderful score, full of such unexpected formal experiment that it failed with the Neapolitan public in 1819 and remained unproduced until 1987.

Last June, the Manhattan Philharmonic managed to trump N.Y.C.O.’s planned “New York première” with a rough-and-ready Carnegie concert involving the fabulous Irini Tsirakidis and Barry Banks in great form, but “Ermione” profits most from being staged, and George Manahan’s orchestral forces have made a better go of it.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, an Ermione unafraid to embrace the gestural vocabulary of Itallianate melodrama, won a local following with her fierce attack and daring yet accurate roulades. She does not produce quite as charismatic a sound as Tsirakidis, but compensates with a greater accuracy.

Less even in style, but with mostly impressive florid work, Ursula Ferri made a vocally rich and touching Andromaca.

The rival tenors were pretty astounding. Gregory Kunde (Pirro), was drier of tone, but fearless in the stratosphere, while spark plug Banks (Oreste) again rang attractively, while convincingly enraged, throughout a huge range.

Resonant bass Valerian Ruminski (Fenicio) impressed with an excellent bel canto technique.

The smaller parts were all well served, particularly by Julianne Borg (Cleone) and Keith Jameson (Attalo), one of the company’s most consistently classy tenors.

John Conklin’s largely black and gold neo-classical frames, stairs, and statuary, partially reworked from his “Ariodante,” effectively varied the action; panels occasioanlly opened to reveal a Claude Lorraine-like cloudscape at the back, falsely promising an Enlightenment resolution to this dark, violent tale that is, apart from Andromaca, dominated by selfish, brutal egotists.

With spectators shouting approval for this brave “Ermione,” it seems odd that City Opera has not one bel canto work scheduled for next year. What about revisiting “Le Comte Ory” or “Lucrezia Borgia” with Pendatchanska or Tsirakdis, Ferri or Vivica Genaux, Banks and Ruminski? And perhaps the Met could give us Marcello Giordani and Kunde alternating as the high-flying Arnold in “Guillaume Tell,” arguably the most influential opera of the 19th century, a masterpiece that most New York operagoers have never seen.

Speaking of Enlightenment delights, Stephen Wadsworth’s very individual and bucolic production of “Xerxes” remains a delight, though to his credit Wadsworth clearly adapted the much-traveled staging to the new cast. The only holdover, Amy Burton (with her customary musical intelligence) has rethought Romilda’s decorations so that they generally took her voice down instead of up; hers is an enchanting, musically-felt portrayal.

Suffice it to say that Lisa Saffer gave her sprightly best as Atalanta (the Martha Vickers crazy sister part) and that the dashing Beth Clayton is easily the best Amastre I have yet seen. Sarah Connolly and David Walker as the leads (royal rival brothers) had the huge footsteps of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and David Daniels to fill, and while those earlier portrayals remain revelatory landmarks of Handel interpretation that I doubt I will hear surpassed, both Connolly and Walker sang very well indeed and gave their characters very much their own spin (and the music their own graceful decoration).

On opening night (March 30), Gary Thor Wedow’s violin section did not do full justice to Handel’s magical score, but have doubtless improved during the run. The last “Xerxes” on Saturday, April 24, is not a show to miss. You will want to live in its set forever.

Unless you are Anne Baxter in “The Ten Commandments” the same will not prove true of the Metropolitan Opera’s revolving-ziggurat “Nabucco,” fun as the music is. Its April 5 premiere offered two impressive assumptions––the rock-solid high priest of bass Morris Robinson, who had also shone as the First Nazarene in “Salome” even while dressed as the Traveling Salesman from “Summer and Smoke,” and the genuinely astonishing Leo Nucci. Many of us got a bit tired of Nucci back in the day, but you have to hand it to him; on the verge of 62 he produced a fully satisfactory evening of Met-scaled Verdi baritone vocalism, even throwing in some spontaneity.

Andrea Gruber, such a terrific Abigaille last time out, was off form except for a few daring high passages. Melancholy greets the passage of Samuel Ramey’s time for Zaccaria’s grandly sustained lines. With promising tenor material, Gwyn Hughes Jones sadly seems content to imitate his ultra-provincial fellow Welshman Dennis O’Neill. Sorry, lads, but Italianate singing is not about interpolating as many sobs and catches as you can.

The only good thing to say about Carlo Rizzi’s conducting is that he did not allow the (often unearned) encore of the popular “Va, pensiero” that made dramatic hash of this already dangerously kitschy production.

Washington Opera, now, if you please, Washington National Opera, reopened a cleaner and more comfortable refurbished Kennedy Center Opera House with “Manon Lescaut,” a Puccini work in which leading casting has become a tricky proposition. Veronica Villaroel and Franco Farina are no Tebaldi and Tucker; both have substantial instruments with problematic tops (she blares, he blasts) but they improved as the evening went on, and the Chilean soprano, uneven as her singing can be, exerts a certain fascination physically and vocally. If not urged forward (and Domingo in the pit did not urge), she tends towards languid tempi and a kind ofphlegmatic, hooded tone production, intriguing for Manon’s fleeting introspective moments and less effective in conversational passages. She rose to the final aria, “Sola, perduta abbandonata.”

Many American baritones would have improved vastly on Roberto Servile’s slightly hoarse, unincisive, eyes-on-conductor performance as Lescaut; why import such a sub-par performer?

John Pascoe’s production (he directed and designed) started unfocused and trivial and ended quite strong and affecting; part of this is due to Puccini’s greater confidence as he strips away the local color and concentrates more and more baldly on the lovers’ shared passion. But garishly ugly, Disneyish sets for Acts I and II also gave way to a handsome conception of Le Havre for Act III and a starkly abstract desert for the riveting final scene in which both leads sang strongly.

Another worthwhile set of evenings at the National: Hei-Kyung Hong sings Violetta, May 8 through 23.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes for Playbill, Time Out New York, and Opera News, among other venues.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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