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The Belcea Quartet, which is based in London but consists of a Romanian first violinist (Corina Belcea-Fisher), an English second (Laura Samuel), a Polish violist (Krzysztof Chorzelski), and a French cellist (Antoine Lederlin), has, within the last ten days, given one full concert and participated substantially in another at Alice Tully Hall, under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and in connection with the CMS's "Opening NIghts" and "Around Prokofiev" mini-series. I have been a great admirer of this young ensemble since 2004, when I first heard its EMI recording of Brahms's C minor Quartet and G Major Quintet (with the late Thomas Kakuska as second viola), and my admiration has grown even stronger over time. These four musicians -- all technically outstanding and musically intelligent -- pay fanatical attention to detail without ever losing sight of the whole; their performances, live and recorded, are compellingly intense and achieve the apparent naturalness that results only from extremely hard work. At the two CMS concerts, the Belcea delivered one remarkable interpretation after another: Haydn's Quartet in F-sharp minor (Op. 50 No. 4), Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, Britten's First Quartet, and both of the Prokofiev quartets. These events will remain in my memory as highlights of the musical season.
I'm open-minded about fresh approaches to opera staging, but generally speaking I'm a fan of the Less-Is-More school. In my opinion, directors who who want to avoid traditional production styles should clear away whatever is inessential and force us audience members to use our imaginations, rather than hitting us on the head or elbowing us in the ribs with their ideas, especially when their ideas are half-baked . My guess is that people who pay to attend opera performances are unlikely to want to settle for sitcoms, which they can see free of charge on television. Besides, the directors of even the most simple-minded sitcom scripts are capable of creating logical story sequences, whereas some opera stage directors seem to believe that logical thinking is an impediment to creativity.
Let's imagine, for instance, that an opera plot revolves around a young girl in a 19th-century Swiss village -- a young girl who is deeply in love with and about to marry a young guy, but who, one fine morning, wakes up alone in the bed of another guy and can't figure out how she got there. We in the audience know that she's a sleepwalker, not a streetwalker, but she and her boyfriend and most of the other people in the story are unaware of this fact until near the end, when all is happily resolved. Now let's imagine that a stage director decides that what this simple tale needs is not, perhaps, some extra charm or mild humor or even a touch of irony, to prod 21st-century audiences into remembering that 200 years ago, girls who were caught sleeping around before marriage were ostracized by society. No. What it needs, according to this hypothetical director, is another, more complicated plot set on top of and running simultaneous with the original one! Why not, for instance, stage the production as a rehearsal of itself in a contemporary rehearsal hall, with the singers who are playing the young girl and boy also pretending to be engaged to each other in real life? Hey, isn't that a great idea?
Unfortunately, the two stories don't jibe, and the stilted and far from first-rate Italian poetry by Felice Romani to which Vincenzo Bellini set his opera La sonnambula doesn't lend itself to the transposition. Imagine an actress in our day saying to her real-life adoptive mother, "To you, beloved, tender mother, who preserved me, a little orphan girl, for so happy a day [i.e., preserved my virginity until my marriage], let this sweet weeping and this embrace tell you this, expressed from the heart more than from the brow." You might as well try to do an updated movie adaptation of The Scarlet Letter with Hester Prynne played as a contemporary Hollywood actress who, however, has to recite Hawthorne's original words.
I'm glad that I heard Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez in the Met's new Sonnambula production -- although they and the other soloists and chorus could have done with somewhat stronger conductorial participation than that of Evelino Pido' --,but if ever there was an opera plot that can't be shoehorned into a modern urban American setting, this is surely it.
Stronger conducting would also have helped the Met's current production of Il trovatore. The production looks good, and Sondra Radvanovsky is a vocally and theatrically convincing Leonora. (Dolora Zajick was unable to sing at the performance I attended; the role of Azucena was taken by a cover.) But I had the impression that Gianandrea Noseda lets everyone do pretty much what s/he wants without giving a lot of thought to integrating the drama's various characters. Dmitri Hvorostovsky wants to sing "Il balen" at an incredibly slow tempo, maybe to show off his remarkable breath control (and it is remarkable)? Sure, go ahead and make a lovely, lyrical romanza into an inflated piece of pomposity! Marcelo Alvarez wants to transpose "Di quella pira" downward so that he can pretend to sing a high C that Verdi didn't write in the first place? Okay, let's not rock the boat -- let him wow the audience to his heart's content. Someone wants to cut a repeat here or a few bars there, to save maybe five minutes, total, of performing time? No problem!
Another Italian conductor named Gianandrea -- Gianandrea Gavazzeni (1909-96), who was a highly cultivated gentleman and a great wit -- used to say that Il trovatore is Italy's St. Matthew Passion. Its illogical plot, in which the four protagonists stubbornly pursue conflicting and ultimately self-destructive aims, may be seen as an allegory for the Italians' apparently eternal and certainly self-destructive factionalism and exaggerated individualism -- whence all the charm and all the exasperation of life in Italy. By juxtaposing Bach's intense religious masterpiece against Verdi's passionate melodrama, Gavazzeni was slyly juxtaposing the stereotype of Nordic earnestness against the stereotype of irresponsible Mediterranean fatalism. Of course the comparison works only as a bon mot, but I -- after having lived nearly a quarter-century in Italy -- can tell you that there is a grain of truth in it.