This afternoon’s matinee concert was, in a word, sublime. At least it was for me. In this world of classical, if you do a venn diagram showing the circles of symphonic enthusiasts and of opera enthusiasts, the crossover in the center is a narrow little portion. It’s like neither side really likes to venture into the other sphere of influence. I am one of those who most certainly enjoys it. I readily accept that the Austrian-Germanic influence on the symphony is a permanent stamp, but when it comes to opera, that’s when you have to remind people that the very language of music is coded for us in Italian. Ah, that’s amore! The thing is, when it comes to the world of opera, it seems like Verdi and Puccini are victims of their own celebrity. They’ve been non-stop popular since their lifetimes, and even in their own time they were vilified by critics and public alike. It’s weird. If you’ll forgive the analogy, it’s sort of like Kenny G. The man is one of the highest-selling instrumentalists today, but if you ask someone if they’re a fan of his music, they’ll deny it. His concerts sell out in minutes, and yet nobody’s listening? Riiiiiight. Verdi and Puccini have kind of that same stigma for opera, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why. Those who claim they’re not any good tend to use the Germanic explanations for what entails “good music,” as though there are no other means to measure it. Maybe it seems simplistic or perhaps it’s not intellectually satisfying. Maybe the plots of their operas don’t compare with the Tolkien-esque epics of Wagner, and maybe they don’t require the linguistic acrobatics of Mozart. But dammit, some music is meant to be listened to with the heart. And I have a soft spot for Puccini. Years ago I was lucky enough to see Sarah Brightman perform live, and I was absolutely entranced by her rendition of “Nessun dorma.” That was my on-ramp to arias, to Puccini, and to the wide world of opera as a whole. It wasn’t long before I learned the difference between “operatically trained” and “performs opera.” It’s two very different things.
As you might imagine by all that back there, I was very much looking forward to this performance, especially in light of the holiday disaster that’s best forgotten.
There was a slight change in the program, but nothing so traumatic, unless you consider an aria from Il Trovatore being switched out for one from Otello to be traumatic. There are some who would see that as sacrilege, and there are some who would take no such offense. Once I learned the reason behind it, I was good with it. Our tenor for the evening was Carl Tanner. Given his recent triumphs with Otello and long-standing engagement to perform the title role, it’s really no surprise in that context that we were treated to what he’s doing best right now.
The playlist was as follows:
VERDI: Overture to La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny)
VERDI: “Dio! Mi potevi” from Otello
VERDI: Prelude to Aida and “Celeste Aida”
VERDI: Triumphal March and Ballet Music from Aida
PUCCINI: Preludio sinfonico
PUCCINI: “Ch’ella mi creda” from La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West)
PUCCINI: “La Tregenda” (The Spectre) from Le Villi (The Willis)
PUCCINI: “Nessun dorma” from Turandot
RESPIGHI: Feste Romane (Roman Festivals)
I. Circenses (Circus Games)
II. Il Giubileo (The Jubilee)
III. L’Ottobrata (Harvest Festivals in October)
IV. La Befana (Epiphany)
Carl Tanner was amazing. His Verdi was impressive enough, but he absolutely nailed “Nessun dorma.” He’s no Luciano Pavarotti (who can be, am I right?), but he gave it his all, and it was every bit the showstopper that aria is meant to be.
I will say that I feel a bit cheated on the Puccini front. All of those selections were really short compared with the Verdi, and the Respighi clocked in longer at nearly 25 minutes, longer than either of the two headliners. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Respighi, but I was there primarily for the Puccini. It’s still a win for “Nessun dorma,” and I will not say otherwise. But if I’m being honest, I’m not really certain how Respighi flowed into this at all. It’s cool to have an example of Italian symphonic music in the program, proving yet again that the Austrian-German landscape isn’t all there is. But if there’s a theme to Puccini, it’s Bel Canto. Respighi outright clashed with that entire concept. It was chromatic in the extreme, and I can only imagine how daunting it is to attempt to learn a piece like that. It’s kind of the polar opposite of the Bel Canto arias. That big organ was fired up for the Respighi piece, and I watched carefully. There were maybe two notes played, and I definitely didn’t expect it to be so subtle that I might have missed it had I not been paying attention. I’m really confused by that. I’d have loved to have heard this selection as part of another concert geared more towards that style, with this concert program padded by more Puccini.
What? I like Puccini. Is that really so wrong?