Verona, The Arena Opera Festival: The Domingo Festival

Verona, Arena, Festival del Centenario 2013
Orchestra dell’Arena di Verona
Direttore Daniel Oren 
Soprani: Inva Mula, Pretty Yende, Irina Lungu, Ana Maria Martinez, Carmen Giannatasio
Tenori: Giuseppe Filianoti, Stefan Pop
Baritono: Placido Domingo
Bassi: Orlin Anastassov, Vitalij Kowaljow
Musiche di: Giuseppe Verdi, Umberto Giordano, Gaetano Donizetti, Francesco Cilea, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, Giacomo Puccini, Manuel Penella
Verona, 20 agosto 2013  
To Domingo goes the merit of having created a prestigious singing competition which takes place in a different city around the world each year.  It discovers fine, young singers launching them on an international career, thanks also to the presence of numerous jury members from the echelons of foremost, international opera house management who have a decisional power in casting.  This week the competition is being held in conjunction with Domingo’s many, and multifaceted commitments in this year’s Arena centenary season, an occasion which also provides him with the opportunity for a self-congratulatory  20th anniversary celebration of the competition.
Last night, nine previous prize winners, all of whom  in demand in the most important world theatres, joined Domingoin a concert performance of famous operatic excerpts in what promised to be a star-studded evening. Various factors however, contributed, to make the evening rather disappointing.  Not least of all, the late starting hour, a cool, humid, late-August 10p.m. , a fidgety to noisy audience,  and the orchestra relegated to a low-profile in the pit  leaving the singers alone on a the bare, monumental stage, their vocal presence supported and reinforced, however, by a sound system.
Over the years,  as  the orchestral ranks have been reduced,  we’ve seen a growing reliance on amplification. It was therefore not surprising to see a visible row of loud-speakers along the entire length of the proscenium between the orchestra and the stage. This situation has been evident in previous performances, but last night it was particularly disconcerting.  The opening orchestral ‘Sinfonia’ from Nabucco seemed to be in play-back, and the singers were obviously boosted during the evening, leaving us with the nagging doubt regarding what we were actually listening to.  How much of the vocal presence, the power and the body of the singers voices, was due to phonic doping?  In this context anyone can sing anything and it’s considered acceptable, especially in the world of marketing?  The bar is inexorably being lowered.   Isn’t the wonder of a classically trained singer, the fact that they can produce and project a voice by their own natural physical capacities?  Isn’t that the challenge and the specificity of the Arena?  Amplification is a leveller, and the sound technician  ultimately has the last musical and artistic word.
On the other hand, what singer, even in his prime could think of singing a Verdi/Wagner gala, a Nabucco and an operatic gala in the Arena in the space of 6 days !  Domingo, as usual, was generous and whole-hearted in his performance, relying on his innate musicianship, his masterful use of colour and phrasing, intense in both his dramatic and lyric expressiveness. But the baritone roles he chose to indulge  in, especially Gerard and the Count Luna, left a craving for the full weight, grittiness and edge of the authentic baritone, and the capacity to passionately convey harshness, violence, cruelty, contempt, and love/hate.  Even the more conversational part of Marcello although well-defined, was not convincing. Only the zarzuela duet, from El Gato Montès by Manuel Penella Moreno seemed to fit in style and vocality.
Among the other singers there were some very fine performances; the women more impressive than the men.  Irina Lungu, stood out.   A minor(!) prize winner in 2004, she was in splendid vocal  form and looked ravishing too.  Her ‘Ah, fors’è lui’ was sung with tenderness and pathos and the ‘Sempre libera’, with ease and naturalness. Her incisive, round and malleable vocal quality was  put at the service of a sensitive and intense interpretation of both Violetta and Juliette.
The other particularly strong presence was that of Carmen Gianattasio, 1st prize n 2002,  whose strong, round, dark quality and even emission supported a well-balanced interplay between the expressive lyrical moments of ‘Tacea la notte placida’, the agility and assertive dramatic accents in ‘Di tale amor’, and the final duet with Domingo, ‘Udiste? Come albeggi’.  A small though beautifully produced voice of intense colour, Pretty Yende gave a well-shaped and refined rendition of ‘O luce di quest’anima’ from Linda di Chamounix Inva Mula, notwithstanding her customary elegant vocal line, disappointingly showed  an evident slackening of her earlier perfectly controlled vocal support in a rather laboured performance of  ‘Ah! Je ris’ from Gounod’s ‘Faust’Ana Maria Martinez was a vocally and dramatically intense Violetta to Domingo’s light-weight Germont, but absolutely shone in the zarzuela( her winning prize category in the 1995 Operalia) encore, which was also sung with Domingo.
Giuseppe Filianoti sang with a beautiful, vibrant and even quality of sound as both Federico and Rodolfo, but Federico’s  ‘Lamento’, scored in pianissimo both in the vocal score and in the muted string sections, was given a full-throttled, vocally luscious, but heavy performance,  completely missing the heart-rendering, and intensely intimate melancholy of, as the title suggests, lament. Stefan Pop gave a disappointing performance both in ‘Les Pêcheurs de Perles’ with Domingo, and in ‘Che Gelida Manina’,  unable to break free of a tight and squeezed vocal emission which in the upper register fell even further back in the throat.  Orlin Anastassov gave an appropriately earnest and solemn portrayal of Banco’s aria from Macbeth, but the interesting colour evident in his middle register was unfortunately counter-balanced by a ragged higher and lower register.  Vitalij Kowaljow gave a well-defined and vocally commanding performance as the Duke in Lucrezia Borgia, notwithstanding the wrong and insecure entries in the orchestra, one presumes from lack of appropriate rehearsal.  Daniel Oren kept the orchestra continually at accompaniment level, helped, as mentioned above,by the sound technician. A festive and ebullient zarzuela encore duet from ‘El Gato Montès‘ by Manuel Penella Moreno with Domingo and Martinez and a final rumbustious encore with the sextett from Lucia di Lamermoor with an overdose of three sopranos singing the Lucia line, brought the concert to a close, amidst enthusiastic though shivering, late-night applause. Foto Ennevi per Fondazione Arena