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Friday, March 10, 2017

Jean François Borras's Werther: Three Years Later, Even Greater

A little more than three years ago Jean François Borras got a last minute call to step in for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann. It was his first ever performance of Werther, and I remember being stunned at the beauty of his voice, the sensitivity of his portrayal, and his musical, idiomatic style.

Almost exactly three years later Borras once again got one evening to sing his Werther. It was the final performance of the run and the performance was again sparsely attended. I was a bit apprehensive at first -- would he be able to repeat the levels he reached three years ago?

I needn't have worried. He was even more wonderful. His voice has grown in the upper register, and his performance was more musical and stylish than that incredible debut three years ago. Borras is a lovely tenor, but he's not a showy singer, and his Werther didn't knock you over with the manic energy of Vittorio Grigolo's portrayal. At least not right away. However as the evening progressed I think many in the audience were jolted that they had unwittingly (???) experienced something rare and special: an, idiomatic, heartbreaking performance of one of opera's best tenor vehicles. At the end of the evening the applause was loud and deafening as the audience yelled and screamed even as the curtain was being lowered for the final time.

Since that Werther three years ago Borras' career has expanded -- he has returned to the Met every season since and is now a regular in Vienna. He has more experience with the role and it showed -- he was smarter about pacing himself.  In the first half of the opera he held his voice back sometimes. He probably realized that the big moments of Werther are in the second half of the opera. And indeed in the second half he projected his light, lyrical tenor with more force and power. "Pourquoi me réveiller" was capped with strong and secure high notes.

But Borras is not a tenor for those who want exciting, pingy performances full of squillo. He's also definitely not a tenor that eats up the stage. That was Grigolo. Borras has a pure, lyric voice. The chief virtue of his performance was his sensitivity. Unlike Grigolo, he remembered to constantly jot down thoughts in his notebook in the first act. His Werther was a young man worth caring about. Borras also seemed to inspire Isabel Leonard to give a much more emotional, inspired performance. Grigolo overpowered Leonard completely. With Leonard and Borras it was like witnessing an intimate dialogue between the two singers. They were listening to each other. The death scene was heartbreaking. David Bizic, Maurizio Muraro, and Anna Christy continued to provide solid professional vocalism. It was a performance to treasure.

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls. A very special moment.

And here is the performance on soundcloud:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Werther: Heartbroken and Heartbreaking

Grigolo and Leonard, photo @ Marty Sohl

I caught the matinee performance of Werther this afternoon. My last experience with Werther had been the memorable series of performances with Jonas Kaufmann where Kaufmann was showered with confetti at the curtain calls. (I had no idea that this would be the last time Jonas Kaufmann ever performed in NY.) This afternoon's performance was more sparsely attended -- rows of orchestra seats were empty.

If I wanted to I could probably list about 1,000 things wrong with Vittorio Grigolo's performance in the title role. Not idiomatic, too veristic, overwrought to the point of hamminess (he let out a huge scream before his suicide), overreliance on a few vocal effects and mannerisms. But when judging Werthers, there's only one factor that matters. Did he break your heart? And by that measure, Grigolo was an unforgettable Werther.

Kaufmann and Grigolo almost made it two completely different operas. Kaufmann played the poet as a withdrawn, depressed young man. Grigolo burned up the stage with intensity and energy. His was a candle burning at both ends. In the Act Three duet with Charlotte (Isabel Leonard) he so forcefully pulled Charlotte back to the couch that one worried about Leonard's shoulder sockets. His voice is not large but it projects well and has plenty of ping which served him well in the climax of "Pourquoi me réveiller." Grigolo wasn't all bombast though -- in the first two acts he toned down his energy considerably and was convincing as the sensitive, introverted poet. And in the death scene his final duet with Charlotte was tender and intimate. This was a treasurable, memorable performance.

photo @ Marty Sohl
The rest of the cast for this revival was solid if unspectacular. Isabel Leonard is a beautiful woman with a basically attractive voice, and she played Charlotte as younger and more unsure of her feelings than Sophie Koch. Her French is unintelligible though -- it sounded like mush. And in the more demanding moments of Act Three there was an unsteadiness to her tone. David Bizic (a holdover from the 2014 production) continues to do wonderful work as Albert -- his open friendly face and good-natured manner gives the drama another layer of depth. Anna Christy was a pert Sophie with a rather scratchy voice. Maurizio Muraro was a likable Bailiff. Edward Gardner's conducting was low-key and unmemorable -- too bad, because Massenet's score is so full of lovely moments.

The afternoon ultimately belonged to Vittorio Grigolo, who almost singlehandedly turned this series of Werthers from a routine, tired revival into something memorable and heartbreaking. Richard Eyre's somewhat prim, Downtown-Abbey production faded completely into the background as Grigolo so dominated the opera. Grigolo was also a wonderful Romeo and his voice seems to be getting stronger every time I hear him. I look forward to hearing this exciting artist in the future. No matter what, he's never boring.

Here is a curtain call I took. By now, the Grigolo curtain call antics are an expected and beloved part of the Grigolo Show.

And here's the last 40 minutes or so of the performance. Starts with "Pourquoi me révellier" and goes all the way to the finale.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

La Traviata: Oh Gioia!!!

Yoncheva and Fabiano, photo @ Marty Sohl

The Willy Decker production of La Traviata opened at the Met in 2010. I saw the first cast and every revival since. That's a lot of little red dresses. All the Violettas I've seen brought something special to the role. However I had never experienced a complete Traviata -- one where ALL the singers came together to create an unforgettable, moving experience. Until last night, that is.

First of all, great credit must be given to Nelson Martinez, who stepped in for an ailing Thomas Hampson with only a few hours notice. Martinez got a warm and deserved ovation at the end of the evening. His is a sonorous, rich, well-produced baritone with no troubles negotiating the role. His approach was direct and uncomplicated -- Papa Germont was a stolid, stodgy man who wanted to protect his family.  He sang most of the Act Two duet with Violetta in a clipped way, as if he really didn't know what to do with her torrent of emotions. "Di provenza il mar" earned a huge hand from the audience. What a voice, and I feel so lucky to have witnessed his triumph. So yes, there are baritones other than Placido Domingo and Zeljicko Lucic if the Met is recruiting.

Yoncheva, photo @ Marty Sohl
Sonya Yoncheva is the most complete, satisfying Violetta since Angela Gheorghiu. This is not to say she was perfect. "Sempre libera" was marred by some labored coloratura and a shrill upper register. The glory of Yoncheva is not her upper register, but rather the core of her voice. It's a soft-grained voice that nevertheless has enough power to float over the orchestra and ensemble and flood the auditorium with waves of sound. "Amami Alfredo" and the great Act Two concertato had her voice soaring. The final act was a master class of vocal control -- she brought her voice to a threadbare whisper before expiring with a huge, life-affirming "Oh gioia." The timbre of her voice is just so perfect for this role -- the dusky color of the voice can sound alternately sultry and melancholy.

Her interpretation was very different from the other Violettas I've seen in this production -- she was more languorous and world-weary than most Violettas. She wasn't manic and overeager to squeeze every ounce of hard-partying into her short lifespan. But with her bedroom eyes and indifferent manner, one understood why men pursued her -- she was undeniably the sexiest Violetta I've ever seen.  Of course it helps that, like the real life Marie Duplessis, she has raven hair, pale skin and is very beautiful woman. Run, don't walk to see this magnificent soprano.

Michael Fabiano's Alfredo is the first one who seems entirely comfortable with this production -- other Alfredos have always looked diffident and embarrassed when asked to cavort in boxers in the first scene of Act Two, and uncomfortable during the ugly scene at the Flora's party when Alfredo shoves money up Violetta's legs. Not Fabiano. He performed all the stage business with relish. Fabiano's natural intensity worked well, as did his muscular, handsome tenor voice. His voice is not the usual slender lyric tenor we often get for Alfredo. A few quibbles -- I wish he'd use more dynamics. He's one of those singers who loves forte. I also wish he wouldn't drop out so much in "O mio rimorso" just to hit a high note (listen to the YT clip below). But again, the intensity of the performance, the level of engagement and chemistry he has with Yoncheva, all make him the most complete Alfredo I've ever seen live.

The conductor Nicola Luisotti led an erratic account of the score from the pit. At times he sounded like he was trying to break some sort of record for the fastest La Traviata. But in Act Three he became so lugubrious and labored that both Yoncheva and Fabiano had trouble following his dirge-like tempi during "Parigi o cara." Papa Germont got one verse of the cabaletta, and Violetta got to sing both verses of "Addio del passato" but otherwise all the standard cuts were taken, including the big cuts in "Parigi o cara" and "Gran dio." Disappointing.

The Willy Decker production has by now lost most of its shock value. It's being retired after this season. It's a deliberately clinical take on the opera. The white background suggests a hospital ward, and the clock symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. But with Yoncheva, Fabiano and Martinez last night it became blood-and-guts theater. It was a phenomenal night at the opera. Really, GO SEE IT. If you don't live around New York, GO SEE THE HD. You won't regret it. The next time you get a Violetta/Alfredo pairing this dynamic might be never.

Here is a video I took of the curtain call. Very grainy but: