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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2011

VERDI: Aida (St Margarethen, 2004) (PAL) 2054059
VERDI: Nabucco (St Margarethen, 2007) (NTSC) 2056228
VERDI, G.: Traviata (La) (St Margarethen, 2008) (NTSC) 2057218
BIZET, G.: Carmen (St Margarethen, 2005) (NTSC) 2054528

These open-air opera performances, given at the ancient first-century Roman quarry at St Margarethen in Austria, were originally issued separately but are now packaged in a four-DVD set titled Opera Open Air. I asked to review them because the conductor on all of them, Ernst Märzendorfer, left us one of the finest (albeit cut) performances of any opera I’ve ever heard (the 1971 Les Huguenots with Tarres, Shane, Scovotti, Gedda, and Diaz), and because I just wanted to hear all these (to me) unknown singers to see how the casts stand up to the house ensemble of Rolf Lieberman’s Hamburg Opera of the late 1960s/early 70s.

I began my viewing pleasure with Aida. The erudite liner notes describe Verdi as “an enemy of compromises,” particularly mentioning the ending of “Celeste Aida” as a prime example: “When the singer cast as Rhadames proved unable to realize the pianissimo required at the end of his aria, Verdi would not allow him to go ahead and sing it more loudly; instead, he altered the closing phrase to something that enabled the tenor to produce the right effect.” Well, thought I, that means our tenor in this performance would either sing the high B♭ pp morendo or use the alternate ending that Toscanini introduced in 1949. Nope, not at all. Our Rhadames, a dumpy little man who glots and lisps his way through the role, belts out a beery high B♭ and skips the alternate ending that would allow him to finish the aria softly. So why even mention it?

Kostadin Andreev’s Rhadames is not the only thing to startle one’s senses in this performance. The costumes and makeup are tacky beyond belief. Ramfis appears with a raccoon-like eye mask and a glued-on beard of unnatural blackness. Andreev waves his arms about like a drowning man while singing. When our Amneris appears, she looks about 55 years old going on death, a heavier, more worn-out version of Cher. She’s wearing a wig with silvery threads running through it and walks like a bag lady, though she does have an excellent voice. At this point, I skipped ahead to “Ritorna vincitor.” Our Aida, Eszter Sümegi, has one of those acidic Slavic soprano voices with an incipient wobble. She descends a dark staircase, also flailing her arms, which seems to be director Robert Herzl’s solution to having the singers noticed in an open-air performance, and every time she raises her arms you can see her bra showing through the gaping looseness of her costume. At this point, I just couldn’t help myself; I started laughing, and couldn’t stop.

Also in this Aida, the orchestra is miked discretely from the singers, and so tightly that it sounds like a synthesizer, although Märzendorfer binds the music together quite well, maintaining some of the qualities of Toscanini without his stunning dynamic contrasts. And, to be fair, the dance of the priestesses is very nicely blocked, filling space well, and though the dancers don’t do a lot, what they do is well executed. In the triumphal scene, however, they just look like one of Richard Simmons’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies aerobics videos. In addition to the excellent singing (as opposed to acting) of Cornelia Helfricht, Pièr Dalàs (Ramfis), Sewan Salmasi (Priestess), and Martin Fournier (Messenger) are all excellent. Igor Morosow is a wobbly Amonasro.

Whether because the orchestra is different, or because it’s three years later and the engineers finally figured it out, the orchestra sounds much better in Nabucco. The staging is still cheesy, however, and Morosow returns (why?) to give an even wobblier performance of the title role. He’s also an extraordinarily hammy actor. Our Abigaille, Gabriella Morigi, is a fine actress, but her voice is just as strident and wobbly as Sümegi’s, thus she’s fighting her way through an extraordinarily difficult role without a good enough voice or technique for it. On the other hand, Simon Yang, Bruno Ribeiro, and Elisabeth Kulman are excellent in their roles, particularly the former, who has one of the most impressive Asian bass voices I’ve ever heard. Märzendorfer’s conducting is really splendid here; listen to the way he pulls the act I finale together. Herzl’s stage direction hasn’t improved with the years. The Arad State Chorus gives a fine reading of “Va, pensiero.”

Onward (and upward?) to La Traviata. Herzl is back as director, only the Lord and the Austrians know why, and again we have some incredibly dumb stage ideas, like Violetta in a nightgown, walking backwards with her arms outstretched during the act I prelude, then suddenly dancing with ballet guys in formal wear. Oy vey. Yet another orchestra, also miked better than in the Aida. Märzendorfer produces yet another clean, crisp, finely drawn reading of the score. (Verdi would have died for a conductor this good in some of his productions.) When Violetta (Kristiane Kaiser) first begins to sing, the voice is slightly off-mike, which produces a beautiful ambience around it. It appears to have a very pretty tone, if a little weak in projection. The Gastone (Michael Kurz) is also surrounded by stage ambience. So here we have a problem the opposite of the other Verdi operas, where the miking on the voices is a bit too aggressive; here they’re all swimming in reverb. (Odd, however, that the chorus is miked cleanly.) Our Alfredo, Jean-François Borras, is a shaggy-haired young tenor with the kind of French vibrato I thought had died out with Georges Thill. If you don’t enjoy that kind of sound, you won’t like his performance, but I am much taken with his elegance of phrasing, the likes of which I haven’t heard in many a long year. So far, so good.

As for Violetta’s famous scena at the end of act I, I’ve heard exactly four sopranos on record who sing it with the correct rhythm—Magda Olivero, Gwen Catley, Licia Albanese (in the dress rehearsal, not the performance, with Toscanini), and Ileana Cotrubas—and only one who sang it properly in live performance, and her name was Elisabeth Pruitt. The two traps are in the opening line of the aria “Ah fors’ e lui,” where you must break off the notes and insert rests between them, and in the cabaletta, which contains numerous little shakes and grace notes in the downward phrases. Kaiser, too, sings it right, including both verses of “Ah fors’ e lui,” and on some notes when she opens up the tone, we hear some good power behind the voice. Borras sings his offstage interjections in “Sempre libera” more beautifully than I’ve ever heard them done in my life, and Kaiser also sticks to the score by omitting the traditional high E♭ at the end. Verdi would have been proud of her, and I am, too.

Act II arrives on the impassioned wings of Borras’s “Lunge da lei…De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” and I’ve not heard a more exquisite performance in ages. His singing here reminded me of Fernando de Lucia’s elegant, impassioned interpretation, but without de Lucia’s distortions of phrase and tempo. This is, indeed, bel canto at its best, but Herzl has him singing it to a friend over sips of brandy, rather than a soliloquy to himself as the libretto directs. Oh, one other thing: In both the Aida and Nabucco, I notice that all the singers have these little things that looked like tassels hanging down their foreheads, but I thought they were part of their “ancient” costumes. It wasn’t until Traviata that the penny dropped: Those are the mikes! (I wonder if the wires in back of them are implanted in their heads?)

Alfredo departs and Giorgio Germont arrives in the person of Georg Tichy. Thank goodness, thought I, we’ve finally rid ourselves of Igor Morosow. Unfortunately, Tichy isn’t an upgrade. He’s just as wobbly, and worse, his voice production is muffled because he swallows his consonants. Oh, well, just when I thought I’d found a first-rate video Traviata, here’s the fly in the ointment. Ironically, Kaiser sings even more splendidly here than in act I, being both touching and musically accurate. Can’t the Austrians come up with one good baritone? It really is a crying shame to have one of the three major roles ruin an otherwise superb Traviata, but there is no way I can listen to this guy again, except under duress. Märzendorfer also conducts well in act II, scene 2. Damn, why couldn’t Tichy have at least been adequate?

If you think Kaiser and Borras are good in the first two acts—and they are—they’ll break your heart in act III. Everything is perfect: the singing, the conducting, the mood. Again, Kaiser sings both verses of her aria (“Addio del passato”), and her performance here is on a par with the best: Muzio, Callas, Moffo. (Two more dumb ideas from director Herzl, though: The opening lines of “Teneste la promessa” are read from offstage by Tichy instead of by Kaiser, and the “outside” carnival music—and dancers—actually, physically, invade her deathbed.) “Parigi, o cara” is sung with an elegance I’ve not heard since McCormack-Bori and a rhythmic acuity I’ve not heard since Toscanini. Kaiser’s death scene is both touching and realistic.

I ended my St Margarethen experience with Carmen. Though it was performed between Aida and Nabucco, thankfully, we don’t have Robert Herzl as stage director, but rather Gianfranco de Bosio. Though the orchestra sounds more natural here than in the Aida, for some reason the video is grainy and slightly out of focus. This is odd because the TV directors are exactly the same as on all the others. Perhaps the video just wore more poorly in this copy. Again, Märzendorfer’s conducting is highly musical, well phrased, and crisp, similar to Frühbeck de Burgos on his famous recording with Bumbry, Freni, and Vickers, but not quite as brilliant or intense as Carlos Kleiber’s DVD version. Our Morales (Dimitrij Solowiow) is surprisingly good, our Micaëla (Äsa Elmgren) a bit long in the tooth, visually and vocally, yet adequate enough to fill the role without annoying too much. Following in a long (albeit puzzling, to me) tradition of Slavic Carmens, Nadia Krasteva is exceptionally beautiful. Her voice is plummy and her vibrato at least even, with no trace of a real wobble. One thing I like about her “Habanera” is that it is a hip, cool habanera, not one of those sultry “come hither” types that I always find annoying.

I had a hard time deciding, at first, if I liked Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Don José or not. He has a really big, dark, almost baritone-sounding tenor, even darker and brassier than Jon Vickers. Eventually I got used to it despite some unsubtle phrasing and overpressured timbre. In “Parle-moi de ma mere,” Elmgren is far too coy, coming across like Shirley Temple playing Little Red Riding Hood. On the other hand, Krasteva and Antonenko strike sparks in the “Seguidilla.”

The act II opening is splendid in every respect, singing and dancing. Oddly enough, nothing in this Carmen elicits the same audience applause as in the Verdi operas—I don’t know why. Our Escamillo (Sebastian Holecek) is a big, burly man with a big, burly, and—again—wobbly voice. (Yes, it’s true: The Austrians cannot find a good baritone to save their lives.) The quintet is splendid. The Carmen-José duet really works well, both Krasteva and Antonenko getting into it, but the flower song is just shouted. Elmgren is unsteady in Micaela’s aria. And so it goes.

None of these performances would be at the top of my list, but Traviata comes closest. I hope my descriptions help you decide whether you’d like to own them or not. At least you now know what these singers sound like.

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12:45:57 PM, 10 October 2015
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