It was only about one week ago I was at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and incensed by the current production of Samson et Dalilah, one of the most horrible productions of any opera I have seen anywhere, which was reviled by the audience who also showered the excellent singers, orchestra and conductor with well-deserved bravos. I am a resident of Berlin and very active and familiar in the opera scene there. But do not think for a second that I have been co-opted when I write this post. I am as passionate as any when it comes to opera and will use this blog as a tool to rebuke anything, anywhere that I feel diminishes our art form by sheer incompetence. With balance I will also equally laud experiences that elevate our art form to its well-deserved glory. Such was my experience at the Deutsche Oper, last Saturday–an operatic evening that is up there with my most thrilling operatic experiences ever.
We do not need Franco Corelli to rise from the dead to have a viable Cavaradossi, nor George London to have a great Scarpia (even though Greer Grimsley does a good job of evoking our memory of the timeless London), nor must Leontyne Price come out of retirement to remind us how Floria should be sung. Indeed, as much as those three singers are among the greatest operatic Gods and Divas in my personal pantheon, I have no desire to see them revived even if it were possible. I want new operatic titans to fill a new Tartarus! On Saturday night, something rare happened. Three great principle singers were in top form, the comprimari were of a remarkably high level, the production was at once traditional and inventive and the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper was in rare form under the secure leadership of Alexander Joel, the General Music Director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig, a young conductor who is quickly gaining my respect as one of the finest conducting talents out there.
I have a special love for Puccini’s Tosca. Other than for children who should probably see Zauberflöte as a first opera, I think every adult should experience Tosca first. The opera is of a reasonable length, without intermissions, probably about the length of one of the Lord of the Ring movies, filled with every element of a modern blockbuster: love story, political intrigue, a fabulous villain who gets killed at the hands of the woman that he is trying to rape, a lot of fabulous deaths (Dick Clark once defined opera as “music with a lot of killing”) and a fabulous plot twist at the end. Add to that a number of the most memorable operatic tunes ever all packed in this compact score, and all of them completely necessary to the movement of the drama. There is real reason that Puccini is still the most appreciated operatic composer, dead or alive and why this opera is among the most produced by opera theaters.
But why does this opera so often fall flat even when produced by major theaters these days? No mystery here! Great operas like this require the right elements: great singing actors, a conductor who is a lover of voices and a solid motivator of a pit orchestra, and a production that does not hinder the simple but poignantly entertaining libretto. The same audience that resoundingly booed the Samson production and rewarded the singers last week, had no bittersweet experience this time. They got all they paid for and some more, and the bravos were already in great supply after the first act. I was personally willing to lose my voice that night yelling bravo by the time the stentorian Salvatore Licitra delivered his first high B on “la vita mi costaste, ti salverò!”
Memorable operatic evenings have a strange matter-of-fact quality about their beginning. Sometimes they are big events that are nonetheless routine for great seasoned veterans. Leontyne Price’s Met farewell Aida is one such occasion. Everyone had done their part before, and Price had chosen colleagues she had worked with very well before.
The Conductor and his Orchestra: Even the greatest operatic orchestras can sound ragged under the direction of an unprepared conductor. But when under a secure baton, great orchestras transform into poetically inspired chamber ensembles. And this was such a time! From the big opening three chords, Bb, Ab, E, a very flexible light-motif that has within it all the permutations that would develop the finest melodic material in this masterpiece, the audience felt a need to sit up straight. The togetherness of that first leitmotiv, followed by the crispness of Angelotti’s entrance music (which can very quickly fall apart unless the conductor is exact in his mind about the meter changes, without being self-conscious about it), it was immediately clear that this was going to be an evening of quality.
This was not a perfect evening without small flaws. This ensemble cast had not been working together for many days. This was a group of guests who in their highest professionalism reduced those rare moments to negligible–stuff that only a trained conductor with intimate knowledge of the score could catch. And they were moments of communication that could easily go slightly off in the heat of such a passion-filled opera.
What was the most riveting for me was the paradoxical calm intensity that was the hallmark of every beat conducted by Mr. Joel. I had first experienced this refined conductor in a production of La Bohème in Köln. Bohème is notoriously difficult, for the which reason, every conducting seminar and training program requires excerpts from it for entrance auditions. Mr. Joel conducted that score with such flexibility and ease that I was forced to take notice. I later experience Mr. Joel in his home theater in Braunschweig in a transforming orchestral program. The fact is I was not aware that Mr. Joel would conduct that night. I became excited when he walked on the podium. He was solidly in charge of his band and yet allowed them the flexibility to do what they are so well trained to do. I could laud Mr. Joel in several paragraphs but I will encapsulate his leadership by a moment in the opera that made me at once humbled and proud to be a musician. I could not hold back my tears: In the middle of the great soprano aria, “Vissi d’arte,” the principal contrabassist and his younger colleague were singing along with the soprano (Violeta Urmana) and looking at each other to bring in their pizzicati together at the right moments. They were all smiles! How many Vissi d’artes has this principal bass player performed at this opera house and others? In that moment everything was right with the world. This is what he practiced for, this is the moment of joy he dreamt about, and that would keep him energized beyond the many so-so nights that he would have to endure. It takes a special conductor to create an atmosphere of relaxed concentration. Bravo Maestro Joel! I have seen enough to be a bona fide fan! And bravo to the Orchestra of the Deutsche, particularly the contrabassi, for reminding me again how fun it can be to be a performing musician. I will also mention here the chorus, which was particularly inspired on that evening!
The singers: Beginnning with two young americans, Ben Wager (Angelotti) and Seth Carico (Sacristan), there was no disappointment. Mr. Wager added many subtleties to his short encarnation. His piercing young bass-baritone set the action convincingly. His jail escapee was desperate and exhausted when he arrived. After having eaten the food and wine that Cavaradossi gave him, he appeared refreshed with revolutionary Voltarian vigor (a subtlety often missed in this short role)! Mr. Carico lightened the mood immediately. Even though the caged Angelotti was only a few feet behind him in the Attavanti chapel, he was totally forgotten once Mr. Carico’s Sacristan began his well-timed, tasteful physical comedy. His lyric but incisive bass-baritone carried effortlessly in the sizable hall.
When a Cavaradossi makes his first appearance in Tosca, his matter of fact first line tells all about his state of mind. He only has a couple of minutes before he has to deliver a very difficult, passaggio-defying aria that everyone has in their ears, as effortlessly delivered by the legendary Luciano Pavarotti in the first (and only truly inspiring) three-tenors concert. I do not think I have ever seen a tenor make that first entrance with as relaxed a sense of fun as Salvatore Licitra did last Saturday! It was as if he was not even aware that there were some difficult top notes coming up in the aria that would define him to the audience for the rest of what could be a fun or long evening.
Every great tenor has something that makes him immediately loved by the audience, whether Pavarotti’s incomparable vocal consistency, Domingo’s animal magnetism. In Mr. Licitras’s case, it is a boyish playfulness that permeated every note he sang. He is a detailed actor with a disarming charm that I can only describe as Italian in the very best sense. Having spent a few hours with Mr. Licitra a few weeks ago in N.Y., I was not surprised by this charm, but I was not expecting this boyish ease to permeate detailed, well-thought out dramatic choices and to remain unobstructed through the most difficult moments of this score, which are many for all the principles and particularly exposed for the tenor.
I was equally surprised by the richness of Mr. Licitra’s voice. In previous experiences I had been concerned by an overly opened passaggio and high range, even though they could sound impressive. A friend had told me that she experienced a truly wonderful Tosca at the Met recently with Mr. Licitra and that I should hear him. I was not able to go in New York and made sure to take the opportunity in Berlin. I must thank her wholeheartedly for influencing me to hear this. Mr. Licitra exhibited power, richness, flexibility, dynamic subtleties, beautiful piano singing without ever compromising his substantial, full spinto quality. More impressively, every vocal choice had a relevance in the dramatic moment. In our times, we underestimate the singers who get to this level. It is a good question to ask, why they do not always deliver their best performances. The elements do not always line up! In this case they were all there. From here on, I will give this talented tenor the benefit of the doubt and go see him whenever I can. There is operatic excellence of a very high order here!
Of Violeta Urmana (Tosca), I have been a fan, ever since I heard her recording of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder with Pierre Boulez. Humbly, I did not think the role of Odabella in Verdi’s Attila at the Met was conducive to the natural warmth of her voice. I was rewarded with a Tosca for our times. I had gotten used to not liking the character of Tosca very much. For a man (probably because I am a tenor), she could appear so overbearing with her annoying jealousy that you would think, why would any man want to be with her? Well Urmana’s Tosca was every bit overbearing in her jealousy but balanced with such a playful charm and a promise of the fun to be had at Cavaradossi’s retreat that I personally fell in love with Floria again. This kind of powerful, feminine charm, so necessary for most of the great dramatic soprano roles is so rarely encountered in the theater, and in this case, matched by a voice of such voluptuous richness, control and power. Her high C in the second act was of a steely power and velvet beauty, all her other high notes were solid and flexible, never strained even when she is at the height of her most passionate rage against Scarpia. Her “ma falle gli occhi neri” at the end of her first act duet with Licitra was of such a seductive charm that even the most annoyed man would have to capitulate. Her “Vissi d’arte”was one for the books, never lacking in substance in the middle range the way many sopranos suffer. The Bb climactic phrase was effortless and it is luxurious to have this commonly sung aria in the voice of an artist who not only possesses all the necessary latin heat, the sense of vocal generosity necessary for a Puccini orchestra, but also a musical sophistication with respect to harmonic sensitivity, which dictates not only her phrasing but her dramatic timing as well. I will pay any time to see this refined artist. I just hope that she is given the kind of environment as Saturday and the roles that make her always as magnetic and at home as this.
One might not think of Licitra and Urmana as the ideal pair. She is a very tall statuesque woman and he not extremely tall as is the case for most tenors. In the case of Licitra, height is not an issue. His presence on stage on this occasion gives no sense that he is not tall and the interplay between these two artists is dramatically so convincing (in the most beautifully tender moments as in their moments of tension) that the question of their height difference never enters the mind. He is such a powerful masculine presence and she so nobly feminine that together they make a magnificent pair. Furthermore, they both pour out such amazingly satisfying vocal sounds!
When I was singing as a baritone, George London played on my CD player more than any other voice and Scarpia was my favored role. I was happy to have gotten to play this magnificent character in one production a few years ago. I had heard much buzz about the fabulous Greer Grimsley and was very excited that I would finally get to hear him live. For Tosca to have the kind of unmitigated triumph that it had on Saturday, the third part of the triumvirate had to be just as powerful. Menacing from his first entrance, sometimes barking his orders impatiently, then singing the most sumptuously sirupy legato to entice Tosca into his venomous web. He is a tall, slender and muscular man who wears Scarpia’s costume as if it was made for his precise frame. He wields his long whip menacingly and playfully to frighten his underlings as to excite Toscas jealousy when he points to the scaffolding where Attavanti’s fan was found. His Te Deum was one to remember for its gorgeous line, for his effortless high notes and his combination of lascivious intentions as for his respect for the religious environment. Not easily executable. Mr. Grimsley soared in the second act, never worrying about a single high note. He has the ability to open and cover a well supported, perfectly focused E natural, so necessary for the many big moments in the second act. His voice is ample and cutting. He matched his two powerful colleagues on stage at every turn. I look forward to more from this first rate singer.
Fillipo Sanjust (a brilliant director who influenced me in so many ways in my youth) is responsible for this magnificent production. His set design was not only brilliant in its detail but seeing Sant’Andrea della Valle (I lived right next to it for four months once) from the side, as the Te Deum procession passed, giving Scarpia’s voice total dominance over the background chorus is the kind of genius that is not experienced at the theater anymore. Sanjust was a director of pure genius who understood opera completely. He also had a love for the human voice that is clear to experience in the way he designs his sets. When I met him in the mid 80s, he spoke no less than 10 languages with extreme fluency. The many encounters with him in Spoleto, Italy that summer fed my appetite for linguistic proficiency. It thrilled me that this brilliant production was his handy-work. A perfect cap to a perfect set of circumstances.
This article is very long, perhaps even uncommonly long even for me. I could not spare words to express my extreme admiration for all the people involved in this magnificent evening now etched in my operatic memory. Legendary operatic evenings are still possible when all the right ingredients are added. One more time, a special thanks to the bass section of the Deutsche Oper for showing that being a musician can be intensely pleasurable even after many years that could take the passion out of even the most committed artist.