Back when CD stores still existed on the Upper West Side, a Juilliard student I knew applied to work in one of them. The manager asked him one question: What opera features the popular aria "O mio babbino caro"? The student continued his job search somewhere else.
This incredibly well-known air, heard in spaghetti sauce commercials and Andre Rieu concerts, is from a rather underplayed Puccini one-act titled "Gianni Schicchi," itself one-third of the larger "Il Trittico." New York enjoys a special relationship with the tripartite work, as it received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918. On Thursday, last season's La Scala performance was projected on the large screen at Symphony Space.
"Il Tabarro," or "The Cloak," is a gritty, dark Grand Guignol that reminds one of "Cavalleria Rusticana" or any of a dozen Anna Magnani movies. The La Scala performance was a rare species, wherein everyone was very good. Maestro Riccardo Chailly led an intense reading, filled with passion and dark underpinnings. Sets were minimal, a few railings constructed to establish the line of demarcation between Seine barge and shore.
Juan Pons was simply spectacular as the cuckolded Michele, his "Resta vicino a me" doused in irony. Paoletta Marrocu was an earthy but oddly fragile Giorgetta, eliciting audience tears with her "E ben altro il mio sogno." And Miro Dvorski was an extremely expressive tenor, making the white-hot duet with Ms. Marrocu, "Ma chi lascia il sobborgo," shimmer with hormonal glow.
The best performance, however, was in a character part. Annamaria Popescu as the dissolute Frugola was masterful, and received the biggest ovation from both the Milan and New York crowds. Dramatically, the parallel of the closing of the cloak (wherein the lover has been murdered) and that of the curtain was deliciously macabre.
"Suor Angelica" had been the featured opera when the Met premiered the piece with superstar Geraldine Farrar in the title role. But over time there was a tendency to excise this second opera, since the three together make for a long evening, especially for Puccini fans accustomed to be out in two and one half hours. However, it has made a comeback in recent decades and is the most beautiful of the three.
Barbara Frittoli was the centerpiece of this version and she did not disappoint. There is a lot of long, legato singing weaving together disparate elements in an almost Brucknerian manner, and Ms. Frittoli, with the exception of one particular note that she must have wished to take back, was in fine voice. "Senza mamma" was breathtaking. Her sweetness contrasted nicely with the imperious Marjana Lipovsek in the classic unyielding aristocrat role.
All of this played out atop a gigantic fallen statue of the Blessed Virgin, a bit Regietheater for my taste but effective as stagecraft. In Italian tradition, a suicide was buried at a crossroads so that those who approached and had the strength to carry on would walk over him. This secular heritage and the concept of mortal sin make Suor Angelica's taking of her own life questionable at best, but Mother Mary forgives her and, at least in this production by Luca Ronconi, Angelica's dead illegitimate son greets her in heaven. Maestro Chailly is not at all embarrassed or hesitant to urge his fine orchestra to the apex of lushness.
Capped off with the spirited, Falstaffian Gianni Schicchi of Leo Nucci, who gets to utter my favorite line in all of Italian opera, the sardonic "I wave goodbye with this poor handless arm" — the collective crime that he urges the crowd to commit is punishable by amputation — this was a fabulous triple bill.
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Every summer the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College offers such a cornucopia of piano recitals that it can be very difficult to choose among them. Silly me, this season I made my picks based on repertoire, opting for Friday's later concert because three of my favorite pieces, each especially emotional, were on the program. Their presentation turned out to be a major disappointment.
Alexander Kobrin won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn competition in 2005 and has appeared in New York before, most notably in a summer slot with the Philharmonic. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, he now teaches at the State Gnessin Academy in the Russian capital. He played to a large crowd on a brightly tuned Yamaha piano.
Mr. Kobrin began well enough, sailing through the Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI: 20 of Haydn. This was perhaps not the most colorful of performances, but there is no need to soup up the Classical sonata simply because one is performing it on a modern piano, whose sound was not in the mind's ear of its original composer. Mr. Kobrin's reserved approach was appropriate.
The remainder of this program, however, was highly frustrating. Clearly Mr. Kobrin has the technical chops to tackle Beethoven, his accuracy level and general sense of touch and control more than a match for the difficult D Minor Sonata Op. 31, No. 2. But his excision of the drama in the work seemed almost perverse, as if he would be punished if he exhibited any sense of Sturm — quite literally in this case as this is the sonata now known as "The Tempest" — or Drang. Left-hand questions played forcefully enough were answered not by febrile right-handed responses but rather by timid mumbles. There was little power and no poetry, just reliable but rather pedestrian typing. A colleague noted at intermission that he had heard Mr. Kobrin before and that he normally played at a much higher level of communication. This buoyed my spirits for the second half and I retook my seat assuming that the Beethoven had been but an aberration.
No such luck. Frederic Chopin invented the Ballade as a way of combining disparate phrases in a somewhat flexible, free-formed manner to achieve a new method of telling stories, incredibly febrile stories. No work in the history of music is more laden with emotional freight than the G Minor Ballade that opened Mr. Kobrin's all-Chopin section. Except that his performance would have none of it. There was no elasticity of tempo, no feeling that we were at the precipice of rhythmic chaos, no dynamic contrast, no rubato. What Mr. Kobrin did was play the notes as written, and this is a serious disservice to the music.
It is hardly surprising that Alexander Kobrin is a Van Cliburn winner. Competitions of that ilk foster the gingerly approach to music to the detriment of the underlying aesthetic construction that is the key to why we listen to music in the first place. Chopin's particular brand of tone poetry is somewhat indescribable in mere words, but there always needs to be at least a touch of vertigo, a nagging feeling that artist and listener are just seconds or inches away from a dizzying fall. Mr. Kobrin instead kept everyone safe and secure, tethered to the ground, seat belts in locked position. As it so happens, this is a rather dull place to spend the evening.