Verona, Arena Opera Festival: Gala Domingo-Harding

Arena di Verona, Verona, Festival del Centenario dell’Arena di Verona
Orchestra e Coro dell’Arena di Verona
Direttore Daniel Harding
Maestro del Coro Armando Tasso
Giuseppe Verdi, brani da: “La Forza del destino”, “Don Carlo”, “Macbeth”, “Nabucco”, “I Lombardi alla prima crociata”, “Simon Boccanegra”.
Richard Wagner, brani da : “Tannhäuser”, “Tristan und Isolde”, “Parsifal”, “Götterdämmerung”, “Die Walküre”.
Soprani Susanna Branchini, Evelyn HerlitziusVioleta Urmana
Tenori Placido Domingo, Francesco Meli
Baritono Davit Babayants
Vitalij Kowaljow, Gianluca Breda
Verona, 15 th August, 2013
The publicized Gala Domingo-Harding, on 15th August, Italy’s biggest annual holiday was in fact dedicated to excerpts from the operas of Verdi and Wagner. Thus a gala concert with the sure-fire attraction of super-star Domingo, and the prestigious draw-card of Harding, was the golden opportunity to bring Wagner, otherwise absent in this season’s celebrations, into the Arena, in the bicentenary of his birth.  To have reintroduced Wagner into the Arena after an absence of 30 years, and to an audience unaccustomed to his music was perhaps the greatest merit of the evening. A difficult choice to divide the programme between the two operatic giants,Verdi and Wagner. It inevitably leads to impossible and inadequate comparisons.  The choice of Verdi excerpts was taken from the more sombre and grandiose part of his production, bringing them into closer alignment with the music of Wagner, and especially in the case of Simon Boccanegra where Verdi continued to move away from the division into self-contained numbers, in the direction of a continuing and dramatically truthful melody.
The evening got off to a rather stiff start, with the fine assembly of soloists flanking Domingo, filing on and off the enormous expanse of stage in turn, to the polite applause, reserved for unknown singers, petering out before they got as far as the back of the orchestra.  Harding made a gallant, single-handed attempt to keep the applause going, but to no avail.  In defence of the 8,000 spectators, it should be noted that they really didn’t know what to expect.  For the most part, they had come to hear their idol Domingo, and no mention of the other singers or the musical content of the evening was given until they were provided with a handbill at the beginning of the performance.  But as the evening progressed, the fervour of the audience grew, certainly thanks to the charismatic presence of the star Domingo, but also to the intense and rewarding performances of the other soloists. The powerful and malleable vocal capacities of Evelyn Herlitzius, the expressiveness of her diction and the masterful use of colour, together with a profound and refined interpretation, graced the amphitheatre with a riveting Brunnhilde and passionate Elizabeth.   After a slightly tense opening aria, ‘O Don Fatale’,  Violeta Urmana gave a committed and moving performances  as Isolde, indulging in the voluptuousness of the vocal line, with her dark and vibrant quality, expressing tenderness and wonder, while maintaining intact the inner drive needed to compete with the swelling waves of orchestral sound.  She went from strength to strength and her Sieglinde received an enthusiastic reception for the elegant interpretation supported by her luminous and warm, mellow quality, coupled with an incisive and communicative articulation. The soprano Susanna Branchini has considerable vocal resources and a strong theatrical presence but her performance lacked the introspective characterization of the two heroines Elisabetta and Amelia. Her performance was sometimes marred by a tendency push in her upper register, resulting in a certain harshness and leaving the lower register unbalanced and weak in comparison.  Francesco Meli gave a beautifully stylish and vocally impeccable performance both in as Macduff and as Gabriele.  His distinguishing characteristics were particularly evident : his vocal control, his clean and smooth emission, his rich vibrant quality,  his long, smooth and expressive phrasing supported by a solid breath control all contributed to  confirm his collocation as a tenor of class, consistent, secure and in constant ascent.  Vitalij Kowaljow was a commanding musical and vocal presence as Wotan, capable of expressing great emotion and power in his moving farewell to Brünnhilde and no less  imposing as Fiesco.  Davit Babayants as Paolo and Gianluca Breda as Pietro integrated perfectly into the cast of Simon Boccanegra.
But the star of the evening was obviously Domingo. His excerpts, greeted by the enthusiasm usually accorded to famous actors or pop singers, were a discriminating selection of his more recent war- horses which trespass into the German tenor or Italian baritone repertoire territory, a blatant transgression.  But Domingo, the phenomenon, an ultra-70, which even a pulmonary embolism a month ago can’t stop, continually amazes with his punishing work schedule and voracity to continually extend his artistic and performing horizons.  With consummate skill and musical and artistic intelligence,  he hones each word and phrase with calculated and meaningful intensity.  The element of pathos in his warm, ringing and penetrating quality, the still strong, healthy and above all firm emission, his control and subtle use of of expressive nuances and of course his charismatic and all-embracing stage-presence are employed to outline his chosen roles with acumen and conviction, whether they be the climatic mystical moment of Parsifal, the fresh and vivacious Winterstürme from Walkürie or the noble and tormented Simon Boccanegra, compensating with an intelligent use of his unique vocal qualities the one insurmountable limit: the lack of authentic baritone edge, weight and colour.
The orchestra responded with attention to Harding’s  authoritative and concise gesture, the strings producing the necessary dense body of sound, much different from that of  their usual repertoire.  The brass section, in particular, gave a fine performance  for compactness,  roundness of sound, attention to dynamics, and smooth, mellow entries.  Harding’s firm  direction, rich in expressiveness, constantly alert both to the soloists and the instruments, elicited a changing palette of colours, timbres and phrasing from the orchestra. There were some signs that perhaps the concert lacked necessary rehearsal time. The orchestra, which in other occasions as well, has demonstrated to have difficulty adapting to tempi and styles different to their habitual ones, gave a cleaner performance of the Wagner excerpts than of  Verdi. The opening bars of  ‘Tu che le vanità’ was unrecognizable and different passages (especially in the strings) of  ‘La Forza del Destino‘ ouverture were not together. Unfortunately, the chorus didn’t fare much better.  The three Verdi choruses lacked internal homogeneity and cohesion, both in voice production and style, notwithstanding the careful guidance of the conductor.
The evening, which started intolerably late at 10p.m. causing the defection of many, to the delight of the remaining audience, ended on a gag during the encore, Vedi le fosche notturne spoglie.  Domingo took the baton from Harding, who took over the viola from one of the section, who in turn hijacked a bass.