Verdissimo... ma non troppo
Lütfi Kırdar Convention and Exhibition Centre
Giuseppe Verdi: Excerpts from Nabucco, I masnadieri, Il trovatore, La traviata, Macbeth, Giovanna d’Arco, Otello & Luisa Miller
Diana Damrau (Soprano), Nicolas Testé (Bass-baritone)
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Pavel Baleff (Conductor)
N. Testé, D. Damrau (© Jiyang Chen)
The Istanbul Music Festival is an annual event that takes place over three weeks in May-June. It offers an assortment of local and visiting ensembles and soloists, from instrumentalists to vocalists, string quartets to orchestras. The biggest events involve a full orchestra and/or feature a star with major drawing power, and therefore require a hall with a large seating capacity. They take place in the Lütfi Kırdar Convention and Exhibition Centre. Smaller events take place in other halls such as the opera house, historic churches and synagogues and foreign Consulates. Incredibly, one event I recently attended took place on the platform of the Orient Express at the historic Sirkeci Train Station. Such a scattering of venues allows visiting music lovers to discover and enjoy different neighbourhoods and chapters from this glorious city’s long history. Tonight’s event involved a full orchestra, the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and a very popular star, soprano Diana Damrau, and her husband bass-baritone Nicolas Testé. Hence, the venue was Lütfi Kırdar Convention and Exhibition Centre.
There is a certain challenge to setting an all-Verdi concert involving bass-coloratura soprano duets or opera scenes for these two voices. Duets for tenor-soprano, usually lovers, and baritone-soprano, usually father and daughter or spurned lover/spouse and leading lady, abound in Verdi’s operas. The most famous Verdi bass roles are King Philipp II and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo, Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Sparafucile in Rigoletto, Ramfis in Aida, Banco in Macbeth and less famous roles from the early operas. With the exception of Rigoletto, these operas do not involve coloratura sopranos. Therefore the only bass-soprano scenes possible were from such lesser-known operas as I masnadieri and Luisa Miller, in addition to solo arias for each singer, suited to their register.
The orchestra, under the baton of Pavel Baleff, were great accompanists for the singers. It was obvious that the Russian conductor is a singer’s conductor. The disappointment of the evening was the orchestral passages, and there were plenty, to afford the singers a break. The only well-chosen and relevant orchestral pieces were the Prelude to Act III from La traviata and the Overture from Luisa Miller. The other orchestral pieces were from Verdi’s early works Nabucco, Macbeth and the monstrosity of an Overture from Giovanna d’Arco. The son of the town’s capo da banda (band leader), the young Verdi’s music was full of vulgar „Umpapa“ beats and tempo di waltzer, more suited for polkas than for lyric music. Thankfully, by the middle of his career, Verdi’s music was cured of this affliction. There was no need to show Verdi’s least accomplished side when the Overture to La forza del destino or the ballet from Les Vêpres siciliennes are obvious meaty orchestral choices.
Nicolas Testé is a basso cantante rather than a basso profondo, and hence Sparafucile’s famous aria was out of the question. Well-chosen for both their inherent musical value and suitability were Fiesco’s aria “Il lacerato spirit” from Simon Boccanegra and King Philipp’s “Ella giammai m’amò” from Don Carlo. It’s a pity that the French bass did not opt for the French original version, “Elle ne m’aime pas,” as we would have had the rare opportunity of hearing that less frequently performed version in idiomatic French, a rare occurrence. In both arias, he showed a rich malleable instrument, clear Italian diction and expressivity. Somewhat less interesting musically were Ferrando’s narration from Il trovatore, “Di due figli padre beato,” and Banco’s aria, “Studia il passo, o mio figlio,” from Macbeth. Another memorable moment was his encore “Un ignoto tre lune or sanno” from I Masnadieri.
Diana Damrau’s most felicitous choice was “Sempre libera” from La traviata. It was also the most appreciated by the public. In that famous aria, Damrau was able to thrill with her firm high coloratura notes as well as move through intense expressiveness. Her Italian diction was almost perfect and her emphasis on some words such as “Che risolvi, o turbata anima mia?” was deeply moving. Another brilliant choice was the aria “Tu del mio Carlo al seno” from the early opera I masnadieri, premiered in London in 1847 and written for the Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind. This aria was a revelation for many in the public and it is a delicious bel canto piece in the Donizetti style that showed off Damrau’s high notes, range and breath control. Sadly, the following bass-soprano scene from that opera, “Mio Carlo...Carlo, muoia,” was of much less interest. This was not true of the final piece on the program, the Luisa Miller bass-soprano scene, “Il padre tuo... Tu puniscimi.” This was a piece suited for both performers that enabled both Damrau and Testé to show a high degree of expressivity. The least successful choice was Desdemona’s prayer from Otello. This role is unsuited to her voice. It requires a lyric soprano with a distinctive timbre. Expressivity and communicating emotions, rather than high notes and a brilliant technique, are what this extended scene is about. The voice was too light for the role, and throughout the scene, she artificially made her voice heavier to disastrous effect in certain passages, forcing her instrument to sound altogether ugly. Moreover, with its long introduction, there are much parlando recitative-like passages. In sung passages, the German soprano’s Italian diction is more than acceptable, but here she remained unconvincing, despite her investment in the character. Lines such as “Scorreano i rivi fra le zolle in fior, gemea quel core affranto” and “Solea la storia con questo semplice suono finir” were belaboured, diminishing the drama and falling flat. Damrau more than compensated for this deficiency in her encore, “Merce dilette amiche,” from I vespri siciliani, perhaps the Verdi aria most suited for her voice at this stage. It was a cheerful and exhilarating ending to the concert, rendered more so by the boisterous applause and tremendous appreciation of the Istanbul public.
Ossama el Naggar