Monday, October 5, 2009

Verdi Reconsidered

Having now seen the San Francisco Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore in the War Memorial Opera House, as opposed to AT&T Park, I can conclude that much of my discontent can be attributed to the ballpark setting. Indeed, to follow up on my first round of negative impressions, I can even see how a conductor like James Levine could take great pleasure in conducting this work; and the energy that new conductor Nicola Luisotti brought to his performance had a lot to do with my arriving at that understanding. None of this is to apologize for the ludicrous plot and its rendering at the hands of librettist Salvadore Cammarano. Rather, it is to suggest that this production was not well served by the shortcomings of the ballpark setting.

Basically, there were two reasons why this setting undermined the event. Visually, this is not an opera that you want in your lap, so to speak. From a dramatic point of view, close-ups can do more harm than good. This was a production that is easily admired from a distance; and, as that distance increases, the absurdities fade away faster than the music, which brings up the second reason. This may not be Verdi's finest hour, but it still has more than its share of memorable minutes. Unfortunately, those moments are best appreciated without the interference of audio equipment. They have as much to do with the physicality of the opera house as they do with those responsible for turning the notes on the page into a musical-dramatic experience.

Much of the problem of visual distance is a matter of how individual performers approach the dramatic side of their roles and mesh that dramatic side with the musical demands. Sondra Radvanosvsky (Leonora) never quite had a secure command of the virtuosic demands of her part; and the camera ended up exaggerating her trials, turning an acceptable performance into an unpleasant one. Stephanie Blythe (Azucena), on the other hand, was in control of every last detail; and the camera helped us appreciate how meticulous her command of detail was. Marco Berti (Manrico) sounded underplayed at the ballpark; but, in the presence of "real" sound, one could appreciate not only the strength of his voice but also his ability to keep that strength in balance with both the orchestra and all the other voices on stage. Finally, there was Dimitri Hvorostovsky (Count di Luna), whose every note could shine through the shortcomings of the audio system but who never seemed comfortable with his dramatic stance. He has now left San Francisco, and yesterday his part was taken by Quinn Kelsey. Kelsey may not have Hvorostovsky's matinee-idol looks; and his voice is still maturing. However, last season he gave us some excellent interpretations of Gustav Mahler, both in recital and with the San Francisco Symphony, and a solid interpretation of Marcello in Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème. He now has Luna in his comfort zone; and I suspect that, given the opportunity, he would have been able to maintain his command of the role under the harsh scrutiny of a video camera.

The shortcomings of AT&T Park should not support argument against the principle that opera should be made available to more people in more ways. Rather, it emphasizes that certain works (not to mention productions of those works) play better for mass audiences than others. I came across one impression of the AT&T Park captured in a single sentence: "Why didn't they do Fledermaus?" Why indeed? The ballpark is as much a grand social setting as anything else. Why not go for something that plays up a similar kind of social setting seasoned with a lot of low humor about sex? When subtlety can be the factor that makes or breaks a performance, save the performance for a setting in which that subtlety can be achieved!

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