After Vesselina Kasarova first sang in New York -- the title role of Rossini's Tancredi with Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra two years ago -- some overheated fans instantly dubbed her the Bulgarian Bartoli, a facile nickname that does neither mezzo-soprano any favors. True, both have reputations as Mozart-Rossini singers, and both arrive onstage as larger-than-life, let-me-entertain-you personalities, but there the similarities pretty much end. Aside from the basic differences in the weight and color of their voices, not to mention their musical priorities, these two careers are clearly going in opposite directions. Bartoli apparently has no immediate plans to venture beyond her Italian bel canto specialties, while Kasarova seems eager to explore other options. Her long-delayed Metropolitan Opera debut, in the fall of 2000, will be Octavian in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, and her latest recording for RCA/BMG is Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, two roles that are not on Bartoli's agenda and probably never will be.
That said, Kasarova's latest appearance here, as Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, again with the Opera Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall, reinforced the bel canto connection. It also suggested that this may not be the happiest area for her talents after all, although an enthusiastic audience seemed to think otherwise. I suppose it all depends on how much value one places on the basic disciplines of bel canto singing: even register alignment, unblemished tone, effortless delivery of florid passagework, and classically organized phrase structure. Kasarova's all-out attack on the role was exciting in its rather disheveled way, and the superior quality of the voice is indisputable, but she tends to bully music that wants more of a caress than a punch to bring out its expressive intensity. Her vocal temperament frankly strikes me as more appropriate to Strauss than Bellini, and I look forward to her Met Octavian. In contrast, Annick Massis, a young French soprano who should go far, sang Giulietta with exquisite poise and stylistic finish, exactly right for this tender, elegiac character.
On her RCA/BMG recording of werther, Kasarova is joined by tenor Ramòn Vargas in the title role, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (74321-58224-2). The performance is an honorable one, and Kasarova is heard to better advantage here than in Bellini, but the recording is aced by a competing version from EMI Classics starring Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu (5 56820 2). It's tempting these days to dismiss any project involving this overhyped, self-absorbed married couple -- opera's own Bonnie and Clyde, who go about the world terrorizing opera-house managements, insulting conductors, and dictating unreasonable terms. So far, the results have hardly been worth it -- nothing they have done at the Metropolitan justifies the high opinion they have of themselves -- but this Werther is special and will confound their detractors.
Alagna has sung nothing better within my hearing. His voice ranges freely and securely from top to bottom, the tonal quality is fresh and ringing, his emotional response ardent but sensitively modulated, and his articulation of the text exquisitely nuanced. Gheorghiu is also in top form, unafraid to give her attractive soprano the edge and pressure it needs to make Charlotte an active participant in the tragedy rather than a passive onlooker. In fact, until hearing this recording, I had never quite appreciated how much Charlotte sets Werther up for suicide and how these two disturbed characters feed upon each other's neuroses -- could the Alagna-Gheorghiu dynamic be producing some unexpected artistic benefits after all? Thomas Hampson sang the title role at the Met last season (in a misconceived baritone version of the opera prepared by Massenet himself), but here he is more appropriately cast as Albert, the embittered husband in this love triangle. The London Symphony Orchestra plays the score with passionate intensity without neglecting expressive details and instrumental color, a superior performance that at last explains why conductor Antonio Pappano has become such a darling in British operatic circles. A revelatory recording, and in more ways than one.