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Subject: POLIUTO this afternoon with Radvanovsky/Kunde
From: Geoffrey Riggs <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Geoffrey Riggs <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Wed, 10 Jan 2018 21:33:37 -0500

text/plain (111 lines)

Donizetti's Poliuto, 1838, is arguably the last great masterpiece in the
history of Italian opera pre-Verdi.  Although Donizetti did produce a tiny
handful of true masterpieces at the level of Poliuto for another five years,
gems like Dom Sebastien or Don Pasquale, these were triumphs in Paris, and
there were also triumphs in Vienna to crown his prolific career.  But the
story of Donizetti as the single leading composer in Italy, pre-Verdi,
closes with the shameful refusal of Naples' censors to allow Donizetti's
Poliuto on the stage in 1838.  That precipitates Donizetti's outraged
departure from Italy for good, effectively leaving the field clear for
Verdi.  Poliuto sums up a distinct genre, Italy's own pre-Verdi bel canto opera.

The work is also distinguished by the tenor writing for its title role. 
Although one highly gifted tenor of today who has performed the part with
rare distinction happens to question its much vaunted difficulty (one is
reminded of a Dylan Thomas line, "easy for Leonardo" :-) ), Poliuto's tenor
writing in Act II certainly breaks significant new ground for its time. 
While the protagonist's vocal demands in Acts I and III still have much in
common with other tenor roles from Donizetti's pen during his years in
Italy, the intensity and weight of the tenor writing in Act II is weightier
and more heroic than anything written for the operatic tenor before 1838. 
Granted, there are certainly a tiny handful of tenor roles, pre-Poliuto,
that are, as a whole, even more demanding than Poliuto. But Poliuto's massed
ensemble writing that is the context of the tenor's music in the latter half
of the second act and the unremitting intensity of the big scena for tenor
at the center of this act (one wag whose name I don't recall once termed
this scena "that double cabaletta" rather than a scena) are of a weight
never attempted before 1838.  Even though the original Poliuto only arrived
on the stage after Donizetti's death (a moral scandal for Italy),
Donizetti's later French revision of Poliuto, Les Martyrs, was premiered at
Paris in 1840, under the composer's own supervision.  So it was this same
second act that, in its revision as Act III of Les Martyrs, opened the way
to the intense weightiness and heroic charge of tenor roles like Jean in Le
Prophete, or Henri in Verdi's Vepres Siciliennes, or the title roles in
Wagner's Tannhauser, Siegfried, etc.

Revivals of Poliuto are relatively rare among the staples of the Donizetti
canon, largely because of the daunting demands in its second act.  Today, we
got to hear that opera over the web in a performance from Barcelona. 
Maestro Daniele Callegari did full honor to Donizetti's fine score leading
well-drilled forces throughout, including the most dulcet choral reading of
the offstage prayer that I have ever heard.  We were fortunate to be able to
hear this performance over the facilities of Catalunya Musica, "live".

However, the chief reason this revival was of special interest was because
Donizetti specialist Sondra Radvanovsky performed the soprano role of
Paolina.  Paolina's music has some of the most deeply affecting music
Donizetti ever penned.  Although this opera is not entirely free of formula,
its solo writing for both soprano and tenor is at a strong inward level,
requiring a mastery of nuance and the projection of three-dimensional
character in the singing itself that only artists at the highest level can
bring off.  For me, Radvanovsky's three Donizetti Queens at the Met a season
or so back fully attained this elusive stature.  I hear her singing as fully
imbued with the Donizetti "language", and her Paolina this afternoon proved
stirring indeed.  Radvanovsky not only dispatched all the intricate writing
of that "giubilo" cabaletta with aplomb. She conveyed vividly that heady
mixture of joy and confusion at knowing the first love of her life is still
alive, a high point of her performance.  Throughout, it was a privilege to
rediscover the abiding humanity in Donizetti's genius through acute vocal
artistry at this inspired level.

Although I freely concede I have never been a great fan of the tenor
performing the title role today, Gregory Kunde, he is admittedly one of the
very few Poliutos at any time to perform the second act with no cuts.  That
may not be as rare as hen's teeth, but one certainly encounters that very,
very seldom.  Did he do the same feat today?

Well, time marches on. Callegari in the pit did perform every note of the
gran scena in the center of Act II. But unlike previous appearances, Kunde
elected to drop out of the final phrases and not sing them (a "tacet") to
gather strength for the optional high C at the end, which, though delivered
here, was not sustained in the same way he has done it in the past.  One
realizes that any tacet is an old and honored tradition before an optional
high climax, one that many a serious composer would at one time have
countenanced.  I was merely struck by the tacet this time strictly because
it was contrary to Kunde's previous practice in this piece.

At any rate, what a brutal marathon that scena is. When the original Poliuto
was finally premiered after Donizetti died, Beaucard-e, also the first
Manrico, omitted the scena entirely!  Also, let's bear in mind that Kunde is
now all of 63 years old. That certainly places his current itinerary in a
clearer perspective. At this point, he is evidently ready to take on the
hugest vocal risks with little to lose. I imagine some conductors think
themselves lucky to have any tenor ready to take on this monster role at all.

If it comes to that, should we be grateful such rare and difficult works are
done at all with anyone and not just mothballed instead?  Unfortunately, in
this case, all the supporting roles were assumed by performers of strictly
pedestrian tone and phrasing.  The attention was effectively on the two
protagonists only and on Callegari's fine conducting.  Is it better, then,
to hear a hugely difficult but inspired work at regular intervals with due
flaws in its performance, or for it to remain a rarity and to emerge only at
those rare moments when an entire ensemble can render such a masterpiece
full justice?  I don't pretend to have a ready answer to that vexing
question myself.  I merely submit this question to the board for its

Geoffrey Riggs

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