Staatsoper im Schiller Theater
New voices for Il Trovatore: Netrebko and Domingo at Deutsche Staatsoper
© Matthias Baus 2014
The Staatsoper's winning streak continued into the winter with a star-studded Trovatore that was one of the most eagerly awaited events of the opera season, not just in Berlin but anywhere operas are performed (seen Dec. 4).
After the sensational season-opener of The Tsar's Bride and the glamorous ballet triple-bill Sacre by the renowned local choreographer Sasha Waltz, the Staatsoper continued to outstrip the competition with Philipp Stölzl's arresting production of Verdi's popular potboiler. The dream combination of Plácido Domingo, Anna Netrebko and conductor Daniel Barenboim made tickets a highly valued commodity. It was also the first time that Domingo and Netrebko, making their role debuts as di Luna and Leonora, have appeared together onstage. The scarcity of tickets, priced several times above the Staatsoper's usual fees, was compounded by the size of the Staatsoper's temporary home, the 1,000-seat Schiller Theater. The audience that turned out for the performance was uncommonly elegant, and the atmosphere in the house was closer to what one finds in Munich or Dresden than to rough-and-tumble Berlin. In fact, the only person I recognized milling about during intermission was director Achim Freyer, whose style seems to be a great influence on Stölzl.
Anna Netrebko, singing her first-ever Leonora, was announced as having a slight cold, sending anguished gasps rippling through the audience. (Incidentally, Berlin winter apparently also affected a large portion of the audience, who added their own soundtrack of coughing for much of the performance.) About Netrebko, however, they needn't have worried. Only during the cavatina "Tacea la notte placida" did she let out a short raspy sound while climbing to a high note. Aside from that, she was in characteristically brilliant, luxurious voice all evening long. Her precise and winking account of "Di tale amor che dirsi" was one of the early highlights. She showed that the extremities of her range were in tiptop shape, and she wowed the listener with ethereal high notes and beautifully hushed, crepuscular low ones. Throughout, she sang Leonora with honesty and directness, ornamenting her most dramatically urgent material with dazzling, ringing, full and even sound and a whole array of spectacular vocal modulations. Her proud and brazen interpretation in Act IV, from her flawless legato in "D'amor sull'ali rosee" through to the relentless drive and jaw-dropping high notes in "Tu vedrai che amore in terra," nearly brought the audience to its feet in mid-performance.
At seventy-two, Domingo has made a remarkable transition into the baritone repertoire, a process that he began with Deutsche Staatsoper in 2009 by singing Simon Boccanegra. Four years later, he was back to sing Count di Luna, who, like the Genovese doge, is a complex dramatic persona undistinguished by any show-stopping arias. As with that earlier incarnation, Domingo turned out a multilayered account that rarely seemed easy. He extended visible physical effort hitting his low notes, which were tinged at times by weariness, even bitterness. Early on, every forceful, dramatically urgent breath seemed an effort. Yet as he eased into the role, the burnished, weathered quality to his late-career baritone seemed very much of a piece with the overall performance.
Barenboim conducted broodingly and grandly, trying at times to make Verdi sound more like Wagner. But he was also kind to his singers, and perhaps this support and attentiveness is partially what keeps Domingo coming back to the company to add new roles to his repertoire.
Stölzl's production was first seen last spring at the Theater an der Wien with a far less glittery cast. The only holdover from that original incarnation was the sensational mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya as Azucena. She sang with affecting and generous tones, turning out a portrayal that was less hell-bent than usual. Brazen and full-throated, she was the most impressive of a highly skilled roster of singers the Staatsoper assembled to surround the production's two superstars.
Tenor Gaston Rivero, who jumped into the role after the last-minute cancellation of Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, was exciting and fresh as Manrico, a role that was one of Domingo's old calling cards. Reports from opening night were that Rivero was booed for ducking the high Cs in "Di quella pira." Be that as it may, he most certainly hit them in the second performance, and ringingly at that. He held his own against the production's more seasoned singers with a youthful voice that projected both daring and vulnerability. Young Romanian bass Adrian Sâmpetrean, a winning Leporello in the company's recent revival of Don Giovanni, lent his lush voice to the officer Ferrando. Anna Lapkovskaja, who shone as Dunyasha in the recent Tsar's Bride, was bright-voiced and honeyed as Leonora's confidante Inez. The much-used lyric house tenor Florian Hoffmann offered a memorable cameo as the soldier Ruiz, with a preposterous Salvador Dalí mustache.
The Staatsopernchor was in excellent form, obviously enjoying the eccentricities of the production while dispatching its very prominent role with precision and aplomb. For the famous anvil chorus, the choristers pitched things into a fury (with Barenboim's kind permission, of course).
The production, with its circus-like touches and Vélazquez-like costumes — powdered and ragged in a way that suggested Marat/Sade meets Tim Burton — seemed to be set either in an insane asylum or in the demented subconscious of one of the main characters. But one of the strengths of the production was that it didn't seem to feel the need to constantly try to explain itself. It was enjoyable purely on the level of the slightly kooky but mostly accessible visuals. A series of irritating video projections that often incorporated well-known paintings by Magritte, presumably to help draw attention to what the production team saw as surrealistic elements in the libretto, was the single misstep in a dizzyingly sublime evening.
A. J. GOLDMANN
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