I don’t spend a lot of time listening to disks of opera arias. I’s music I much prefer live and in context but right now a dose of good old fashioned verismo tenoring is very welcome! Piotr Beczala’s new CD Vincerò absolutely delivers it. There’s a reason this guy (normally) spends his time commuting between Vienna, Zurich, Salzburg and New York with the odd side trip to Bayreuth. He’s the real deal. There’s power to burn allied to control and proper ringing high notes. His diction is excellent too. There are no unnecessary histrionics, just top class delivery.
Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are not only a commonly coupled pair of operas but pretty much define the genre we call verismo. It’s a curious genre in a lot of ways. Musically it defines a style, brought to its highest state by Puccini, that is a sort of Fukuyama-esque “end of opera” after which everything is, for a section of the opera audience, modern, inaccessible and frightening. It’s also dramatically an attempt to get away from stories from myth and history and root the drama in “stories of everyday folk”. Which is fine, I suppose, if one believes the only things “everyday folk” care about are female constancy and the more pagan end of Catholicism for these stories tend to be a touch unsubtle; “she done him wrong so he killed her” (and her dog and he probably crashed her truck too). It’s actually quite ironic that Puccini, held up as the arch exponent of verismo, rarely actually goes down this path. Il Tabarro perhaps, maybe Suor Angelica, at a stretch Tosca but in large part his material is drawn from the usual well of opera plots. So Cav and Pag is interesting as almost pure verismo.
I’ve just been listening to Revive; a new recital disk from Elina Garanča. It marks her move into more dramatic territory as she enters her fifth decade. It also says quite a lot about how she wants to develop her career. There’s a very personal introductory essay titled Strong Women in Moments of Weakness and it seems to me that she’s looking to find her place in the 19th century French/Italian romantic/verismo repertoire as opposed to, say, Strauss or Wagner. Certainly the pieces on the disk represent roles like Eboli, Didon, Delila and Hérodiade, as well as some more obscure stuff like Musette from the Leoncavallo La Bohème and Anne from Saint-Saëns Henry VIII.
The TSO’s season opener on Wednesday night featured Renée Fleming in one of her rare visits to Toronto. As one might expect for a crowd friendly season opener it was largely a collection of “lollipops” though the all Ravel first half of the program perhaps had higher ambitions. The orchestra kicked off with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso; a rather vulgar piece full of castanets, twiddly Spanish tunes and solo bassoon standing in for a clown. I guess one could at least say that Peter Oundjian and the orchestra were well into the spirit of the thing. It was followed up with Schéhérazade. I’m not sure what the score markings on this are… perhaps “très langueurezzzzz”. It was a very Renée performance with beauty of tone (even in the soprano killing acoustic) dominating over drama or diction (though again I’m cognisant that the hall swallows words). It was a bit understated and I heard comments in the interval from people less well seated than myself that “they couldn’t hear a thing”.