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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Javier Camarena - King of the High D's

Buratto and Camarena in Don Pasquale, photo @ Marty Sohl

If there's type of opera fan that absolutely sets my teeth on edge, it's the high note freaks. The type that will dismiss an entire performance of Lucia because the soprano didn't sing two (unwritten) high E flats in the (transposed) Mad Scene, or will overlook hours of abysmal, unmusical singing just because a singer capped "Di quella pira" with a huge roaring high C. But occasionally there comes a singer whose upper register is so glorious, and who uses said register in such a musical way, that you can't help but scream and stomp when said singer brings the house down with a blazing high note. Javier Camarena is one of those singers.


In tonight's Don Pasquale when he capped "Povero Ernesto" with an interpolated high D flat, and then interpolated another D natural at the end of the Act II ensemble, the absolute beauty of his voice set the house on fire.  It wasn't just that he got to those high notes and held it for so long, it was him finding the center of the pitch and staying there. Camarena is not just a singer who relies on his remarkable upper register. His voice as a whole has such a sweet, round, enveloping sound. When he goes for that acuti it sounds like a natural extension of his naturally energetic, impassioned style of singing. He's versatile -- he can sound almost stentorian when interpolating a high note, but gentle and seductive in "Com'e gentil" and "Tornami a dir che m'ami."

Dramatically Camarena hits the right notes as well. He has a naturally sunny, impish stage presence. He manages to turn his pint-sized physique into an attribute -- Ernesto is one of the brattiest tenor characters ever written (just a notch below Pinkerton and Duke) but Camarena's foot stomping tantrums were endearingly childish. His interactions with Don Pasquale (Ambroglio Maestri) seemed organic -- you could believe that these two not-so-dear relatives had been living together and butting heads for a long time. Camarena managed to make Ernesto a likable brat, if still a brat. Camarena emits a real joy when singing and that joyful energy is really transmitted to the audience. Bravo x 1000.

Maestri and Molnar
The rest of the cast was professional but not up to Camarena's level. Ambrogio Maestri on paper looks like a great fit for Don Pasquale -- Italian bass baritone, known for his portrayals of Falstaff and Dulcamara. But he had some coordination issues with Maurizio Benini in the pit and sounded underpowered for much of the first act. His voice did warm up in the second and third acts, but his patter in "Cheti cheti immatante" was surprisingly poor for a native Italian speaker. He was a good actor who made one feel sorry for poor old Pasquale. Levente Molnár (Malatesta) was disappointingly bland and his baritone doesn't have much tone or body. Again, patter was subpar. The Pasquale/Malatesta chemistry was a bit off -- maybe it will become more playful and funny as the run progresses. Two years ago Alessandro Corbelli and Pietro Spagnoli put on a master class of how to do opera buffa patter in La Cenerentola. So it can be done.

As an aside, I never ever get tired of hearing this recording of the Don Pasquale patter aria made over 100 years ago. Listen to the way the patter rolls off their tongues:



Eleanora Buratto (Norina) was making her Met debut.  You can see from her operabase that she's worked a lot with Ricardo Muti. Plusses: she has a large, well-produced soprano with an attractive, darkish timbre. Certainly not the typical fluttery soubrette sound. Minuses: a tendency to sound flat and white on her high notes, approximate coloratura (although truth be told, no worse than Anna Netrebko when she sang Norina), an occasionally bumpy musical line without much sense of legato, and no trill. Norina is also one of the least likable opera heroines so you need a soprano with a lot of natural charm and charisma. Netrebko had/has that in spades, Buratto doesn't really. I have to see more of her to really get a judgment on what she's capable of. Oh well. One could certainly do a lot worse.

Here's a video of Buratto singing Norina's opening cavatina "Quel guardo, il cavaliere":



Maurizio Benini's conducting was not strong. He had coordination problems with the singers, especially Maestri, who in much of Act One was singing a bar ahead or behind. The horns were distressingly out of tune. His account of Donizetti's sparkling score was bland. It's depressing that he's been tapped to conduct the upcoming Roberto Devereux run. A real routinier.

Otto Schenk's 2006 production is charming and still serves the opera well. His directions make the opera funny enough that the cruel edge of the libretto is softened. I love Rolf Langenfass's set for Pasquale's mansion, which looks grand on the surface but has Pasquale sleeping downstairs in a dilapidated nursing home type bed. It's old fashioned, but Don Pasquale is not an opera that needs the regie treatment.

But this run of Don Pasquale is certainly worth seeing for Camarena. You're hearing a tenor in his prime singing a role that he was born to sing with a voice that can only have been a gift from God.

Here are the curtain calls from last night:


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