Thursday, October 29, 2009

A tedious Tancredi

This is a short post mortem on the Opera Boston production of Rossini's Tancredi, which closed on Tuesday. Due to other commitments, I had to attend the final performance - and perhaps therefore saw a rather tired Ewa Podleś in the title role. Still, I found the great contralto disappointing (given that I predicted she'd provide one of the highlights of the classical season). Podleś has plenty of power, and can summon a deep, gloriously mournful tone at will. But to be frank, she no longer has the full range of color I imagined she'd command (and which the role demands), and even though this is one of her signature roles, her acting was a bit flat - the contralto semed dramatically stuck in a certain bland nobility and pathos, and all but ignored the contradictions of the rigid firebrand at the heart of the opera.

Her acting problems extended to much of the rest of the cast - but not her vocal ones, I'm happy to report. Indeed, this was easily the best-sung production I've ever heard from Opera Boston, a huge step up in consistency from the likes of The Nose or The Bartered Bride. Which is a good thing, given the demands of Tancredi, in which Rossini regularly sends bel canto into the vocal stratosphere. Luckily, lead soprano Amanda Forsythe (left, with Podleś) came equipped with an exquisitely pearl-like tone; tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, if at first a bit reedy, was spectacularly at ease at the top of his range; and bass DongWon Kim impressed with a smoothly menacing resonance. The chorus was likewise coherent and robust, and there were appealingly nuanced solos from Victoria Avetisyan and Glorivy Arroyo.

But alas, of these vocalists only Forsythe managed anything like a real dramatic characterization (although it must be said that her character's self-sacrifice was ethically complicated by the singer's own actual pregnancy, which the production seemed to emphasize). Manucharyan in particular may be a wonderful tenor, but as yet he's no actor. To be fair, the singers weren't helped much by Kristine McIntyre's limp direction. I guess McIntyre was aiming for a hypnotic dream-pageant, but what she got was somnambulists wandering across Carol Bailey's minimal, modernist (but at least, by Opera Boston standards, attractive) set. What eventually undid the production entirely was McIntyre's (and Podleś's) mishandling of the big set-pieces for the hero in the overlong Act II; here these arias devolved into tedium.

But to be fair, it would take truly muscular direction to triumph over the Tancredi libretto, which is risible even by operatic standards, and which I won't go into here (it's hard to believe Voltaire was the source of this tripe). Needless to say, the opera is remembered for its score rather than its story, and Gil Rose gave a good account of it in the pit. Composed in 1813, Tancredi stands near the height of the bel canto tradition, but a certain classicism still echoes in its orchestration - and Rose seemed to understand that, as he drew a warm but consistently clean tone from the orchestra. Alas, as the drama ground down, his tempi did too.

[A brief sidebar on the press reaction. Of course the Globe and the Herald, which have long been in the bag for Opera Boston, did handstands over the show; luckily, the Wall Street Journal gave a more accurate account. I've long been the holdout in the local press for my rather-less-impressed assessments of this rising critical favorite. But ironically enough, as Opera Boston reaches a wider profile - and its vocal standards improve - the company may begin to attract critics from beyond their circle of friends, and face more criticism like mine.]

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