Two Verdi Operas in Frankfurt

An excursion to Frankfurt, one of my favourite European cities for opera, enabled me to see two of their Verdi productions during a short season of celebrating the bicentenary of his birth.  Un Ballo in Maschera was the first of these and the signs were not auspicious. The famous Mexican tenor Joseph Calleja was to have sing Riccardo but he cancelled – was this anything to do, I wonder, with the fact that, two days later, he was to be a member of the BBC team of experts commenting on the final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year competition? However the cancellation turned out not to be a problem. His replacement, also a Mexican, Hector Sandoval was excellent: with a firm tone, brilliant upper register, and much intensity to his performance;  he was the star of the show. Although he had been scheduled to appear in the last performance of the run, this could not have been an easy interpretation of the role to master.

The ingenious production of Claus Guth, which explored the way in which human beings use masks to disguise emotions but also political power games, required him to run through a gamut of feelings and behaviour, but he did so very well. With the exception of Elizabeth Reiter who gave an unusually intense performance as Oscar, and Bernadett Fodor, a forthright Ulrica, that could not be said of the remaining principal singers who, while vocally competent , were dramatically pale. The major disappointment of the evening was, however, the pedestrian interpretation of the score by the Greek conductor Stamatia Karampini.

The following evening, a rare production of Sicilian Vespers, sung in the original French, in contrast was a triumph, both musically and dramatically. The young Spaniard conductor Pablo Heras-Caldo made us believe that this was a neglected masterpiece of Verdi. While quite ready to let things rip when passion was necessary, he brought out nuances in the score, particularly in the quieter, more introspective moments. And Jens-Daniel Herzog’s updating of the piece to the 1940s was marvelously successful at bringing home to the audience the awful dilemmas that arise when partisans must risk their lives to thwart occupying forces with violence. Too often, updatings of this kind work only partially, but this was remarkable in its coherence and conviction.

Alfred Kim’s tenor may lack colour, but he sang with enormous energy and was most convincing in portraying the weaknesses of Henri, who has with tragic consequences to change sides. I last saw the American baritone Quinn Kelsey ambling through a bad old-fashioned production of Lucia di Lammermoor at Berlin. It came as a surprise, therefore, that his intense, powerful interpretation of Montfort, the occupying dictator, was a vocal and dramatic tour de force. Yet, for me, the outstanding individual was Elza van den Heever. She had completely internalised her role as the heroine whose commitment to resistance is threatened by love, and in her bodily movements and facial gestures, as well as in vocal phrasing, was able to communicate all the ambiguities present in her situation.  Subject to only one qualification – a lacklustre Procida by Raymond Aceto – this was an exhilarating evening of musical theatre.