Unfortunately Zia Zeff has been involved in some unfortunate incidents lately that suggest he has succumbed to GOMS – Grumpy Old Man Syndrome. Shouting matches with journalists, bitter exchanges with opera house managers, insulting comments about singers and general nasty bitching about the good old days and the wonders of everything ever created by Zeff, have done much to destroy the reputation he once had. It has also coloured many peoples reactions to what he now presents, my own included.
A right click will "enbiggen" this shot of Zia Zeff's set for Il Trovatore - it certainly filled the Arena stage and despite various levels Di Luna's cavalry negotiated it with ease. The singers perhaps a little less so.
I approached Saturday night's Il Trovatore cynically wondering how he was going to fit his trademark hordes of extras, small children, animals and bare-chested muscle men into Verdi's gloom and doom revenge tragedy. Well I saw no small children and no pectorals were revealed – though surely the Anvil Chorus would have been a great opportunity for sweaty oiled torsos – but of animals and extras we had plenty. Manrico rode in on a horse to save Leonora from the Convent that appeared to house 100 candle bearing nuns accompanied by a dozen or more hooded members of the Inquisition (???) carrying Good Friday procession statues. They were all set to receive her into an order whose chapel (the centre tower opened up to much applause) rivaled Toledo for gold and religious glitz. Somehow or other a group of Spanish dancers were able to court both the patronage of the gypsies and Di Luna – I guess when you're an artist during a civil war you go were the money is. This meant that we got a bit of the mandatory ballet music that Verdi wrote for Paris but only enough to give the punters ample opportunity to take plenty of flash pictures – more about that later. At first I found myself smirking at some of the extraneous touches but ended up thinking – hell this is Verona, this is the Arena – we came here for the spectacle as much as the singing. And spectacle we got but sadly there appeared to be little in the way of stage direction for the principals – it was pretty much stand, clutch breast, fall to your knees (particularly poor Leonora who I sincerely hope had knee pads), arms raised, throat open 19th century posing. Sure the situations in Trovatore are pretty melodramatic and unmotivated but I seemed to recall a Tito Copiobanco staging at the Paris Opera that made it all seem pretty damned dramatic.
Someone once said that all you really need for Trovatore are five great singers (okay they said four but if you don't have a really good Ferrando that opening scene goes pretty flat). And, not wanting to sound like a few bloggers I know who are locked in the past, there was a time when we got that not just for Trovatore but all of the Verdi cannon. Last evening there were no great singers but at least one of them was getting pretty damn close by the end of the evening.
He didn't quite strike fear in our hearts with his recounting of the burning of the gypsy crone but Giorgio Giuseppini started the evening well as Ferrando. The chorus gave amble support and power to all those well-known important choral passages that pepper the work.
Marcello Alvarez (Manrico) is a singer that I have some problem with – I have never forgiven him for the ridiculous incident of the “arranged” and totally undeserved encore in Tosca a few years back in Roma, I know its silly to hold a grudge but that's me. I've always found him to be from the “Sing out, Luigi” school of tenors so was greatly surprised to hear what was a reasonably subtle and nuanced performance until his big moment. I'm not sure what happened during Di quella pira but he came acroppers at the end. That spectacular moment we all wait for as the tenor takes centre stage, arms, legs and lungs open wide and lets blast! It may not be what Verdi wanted but its what we've come to expect. And it just didn't happen.
The other disappointment of the evening was Marianne Cornetti's Azucena. It is a role she has sung elsewhere with some success but I founded it underpowered. Her Stride la vampa lacked any sense of drama or doom. Her acting was unconvincing – I've seen better gypsy crone impersonations by a few of the beggars on the streets of Roma. And she seemed embarrassed by the one piece of “innovative” staging Zeff gave her – Azucena's stabs herself at the finale – and it went for naught.
There are currently no photos available of the Arena production however here's a shot by Cory Weaver of Sondra Radvanosvky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the San Francisco Opera production.Dmitri Hvorostovsky has a great head of hair and he certainly looked handsome in his doublet, hose and armour – one questions Leonora's taste in men in rejecting his advances but chaqu'un as they say. Though he did a respectable job of Il balen and he has been singing it frequently I honestly feel that Di Luna is not his role. That sound of burnished bronze I recall from Verdi baritones of the past was missing though when challenged by Sondra Radvanovsky in Mira, d'acerbe lagrime in Act 4 he caught fire vocally and dramatically.
The star of the evening was Radvanovsky's Leonora. She may not have all the technique needed for Tacea la notte but as the evening progressed her Leonora gained vocal depth so by the time we came to D'amor sull'ali rosee she was in top form. No strain, no stridency – just pure unadulterated music making at its best. To my ears her's was the performance of the sort of spinto I grew up listening to and she rightly earned the cheers and bravi of the crowd.
Marco Armiliato has been making a name for himself as a conductor over the past few years both in Europe and in New York. Though he brought no new insights into the work he showed a firm grasp of the Verdian style and is one of those conductors who works with the singers to bring out the drama in the music.
There had been a bit of a to-do in the press about amplification being used at the Arena at Zia Zeff's insistence. If there was indeed any amplification I wasn't aware of it – in fact from my seat in the centre platea the sound was muted and it took a while for these old ears to adjust. Though they did hear very clearly the lady behind me singing along – not quite sotto voce – with the better known numbers.
Though it wasn't a great evening of opera – as I have often said these things come along very seldom – as an introduction to the spectacle of the Arena it was a satisfying evening. The atmosphere, the venue, the organization (yes here in my beloved Italy), the spectacle all make it something unique and special. I wonder why I'd left it for three years to make the pilgrimage.
One comment though – I would not want to have any form of epilepsy that was triggered by flashing lights. The constant barrage of camera flashes – though announcements are made that they are forbidden – was like viewing much of the performance by lightening. Very unpleasant, disturbing and stupidly selfish of the people taking photos – surely they have learned that at that distance their bloody flashes do SFA! Though Laurent's theory is that most of them don't know how to turn the flash off on their newly bought expensive digital toys. And more maddening the attendants did nothing to stop it. One of these days I would love to see a performance grind to a halt and the offenders turfed out. Or better yet someone beside me takes a flash photo and I have the nerve to grab their camera throw it to the floor and kick it under the seat in front! There I feel better for having said it already.
And here's a short video taken before the performance and during the intermission. The Anvil Chorus being sung by the Robert Shaw Chorale under Renato Cellini.
10 agosto - San Lorenzo