Diva In Extremis

Marcello Giordani and Aprile Millo in La Gioconda at Carnegie Hall.Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Long out of favor at the Met, where she enjoyed a brief celebrity back in the eighties, Aprile Millo is definitely now the cult diva du jour, especially among aging opera fans who worshiped the likes of Zinka Milanov and Renata Tebaldi in their youth and yearn for the past. For them, Millo offers an echo of the style, voice, and grand manner of those legendary goddesses, and, predictably, there was much swooning at Opera Orchestra of New York’s recent concert performance of La Gioconda in Carnegie Hall with Millo in the title role.

Compared with Milanov and Tebaldi—and I saw those sopranos quite a lot, too—Millo strikes me as more of a self-conscious invention than the real thing. Her voice has something of her predecessors’ richness and amplitude, but it lacks the distinctive tonal personality, or “face,” as the British like to call it, to animate the old-fashioned vocal gestures and expressive devices, which in her case seem more pasted on than genuinely felt or understood. The fact that her soprano has begun to show distinct signs of decay and loss of freedom up top hardly helps. Add to this Millo’s baroque notions of how a diva in extremis should behave onstage—soulful glances heavenward, body parts desperately clutched, arms melodramatically aloft, sweeping entrances and exits—and her whole made-up persona finally tumbles into camp caricature.

The most authentic ingredient of this La Gioconda was the gloriously sung Enzo of Marcello Giordani, an Italian tenor who truly conjures up the past with his liquid tone, shapely phrasing, easy control of dynamics, and gleaming top notes—I didn’t miss Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, or Giuseppe Di Stefano, even for a second. When this opera was a repertory item at the Met a generation ago, four other star singers were generally on hand as well, but OONY’s resources did not extend that far. Anooshah Golesorkhi (Barnaba), Milena Kitic (Laura), Luiz-Ottavio Faria (Alvise), and Sheila Nadler (La Cieca) all sounded pretty provincial, while Eve Queler conducted Ponchielli’s grand old potboiler with limp hands. Ira Siff’s clever direction of the singers, on the other hand, was astonishing. With a minimum of props and movement, Siff staged the most coherently organized and dramatically effective La Gioconda I’ve ever seen. Now, if only his alter ego, the great Vera Galupe-Borszkh, had sung the title role as well . . .

When I first started going to the opera, no one ever dreamed that all 39 Rossini operas might one day be revived, recorded, and performed in scholarly editions at an annual festival in the composer’s hometown of Pesaro. Before his stock rose so dramatically, Rossini had just one masterpiece to his credit (The Barber of Seville), a couple of other comedies with a few good numbers, and a lot of creaky, old-fashioned serious operas considered to be irretrievable. Besides, as my elders told me when I got into the critical profession, Rossini was at heart a hack who wrote to formula, like all nineteenth-century Italian opera composers—Verdi included, until he reformed his ways.

“Rossini usually shrugged off his flops, but he carefully preserved the manuscript of Ermione.”

I know a few music critics who still subscribe to that discredited view, but surely even they would be confounded by the City Opera’s new production of Ermione. This amazing azione tragica, as the composer termed it, was so far-out and misunderstood in 1819 that it vanished from the stage after one performance, not to be seen again until 1987. Even Stendhal, the composer’s biographer and enthusiastic fan, was put off by the structural originality and bleak tone of a piece that, he said, “was fixed in an obstinate mood of anger, which in the end proved very monotonous.”

Stendhal got the mood right, but monotonous is hardly the word for a score so crammed with jolting surprises. That first audience in Naples must have been thrown for a loop right from the start, when the formal overture is suddenly interrupted by a chorus behind the closed curtain singing a piercing lament for fallen Troy. More astonishing moments are to come, not the least of them a series of interlocked vocal movements for Ermione in Act Two as she becomes increasingly unhinged by the ferocity of her conflicted emotions—even Verdi never attempted a through-composed aria sequence of this magnitude and complexity, one that lasts nearly half an hour. Obviously, Italian audiences weren’t ready for this, and Rossini was disappointed by the tepid reception. The composer usually shrugged off his flops and proceeded immediately to the next project, often recycling the best music from a rejected opera. But he carefully preserved the manuscript of Ermion, which he later told a biographer had been written for posterity.

Closely based on Racine’s Andromaque, Ermione is one of Rossini’s tautest serious operas, containing a bare two hours of music—Semiramide, written four years later, lasts almost as long as Parsifal. All four main characters are indeed grim and anxiety-ridden in their fruitless pursuit of love, the heroine most of all. The title role is a stunning tour de force, and Alexandrina Pendatchanska seizes every opportunity to create a positively seething character portrait. Her soprano has an edge and a salty tang that will not be to all tastes, but its individual expressive color suits Ermione’s desperate nature, and she is in complete command of both the music’s declamatory rhetoric and its florid passages. As the besotted Oreste whom Ermione uses so cruelly, Barry Banks matches Pendatchanska note for note with a bright, securely focused tenor now functioning in peak condition.

Gregory Kunde (Pirro) is also an experienced and agile Rossini tenor, although he and Ursula Ferri (Andromaca) have insufficient vocal presence, especially opposite this demonic Ermione. George Manahan’s sympathetic conducting is a considerable plus, but the physical production lacks character. Director Helena Binder is mostly content to get the singers on and off stage, while we’ve seen designer John Conklin’s picture-frame backgrounds and bits of airborne Greek statuary dozens of times before—talk about creating to formula. No matter. The opera itself is what counts, and it looks like Rossini’s Ermione has found its audience at last.

Diva In Extremis