Triumphs at the Metropolitan Opera are extremely rare. They don’t happen very often. Most singers will go their entire career without knowing such accolades. They are usually reserved for sopranos and tenors. For a
baritone barihunk to experience the triumph Dmitri Hvorostovsky earned on Monday, November 11, is a life-time achievement. With the exception of one critic, who prefers sacred cows – the kind of soprano they speak of, in hushed tones, but is truly vile, every critic has basically gushed, not only about his mastering the difficult role of Rigoletto, turning into his own, but basically did so with a truly Oscar worthy performance. The baritone who put the hunk in barihunk, went from being not only one of the best looking leading men in opera, but one of the world’s best looking men, into someone ugly, inside and out.
His performance was so riveting, so amazing the only way to understand how he transformed himself from awesome to awful is to do it with photos, of his triumphant Iago a few months ago to his Rigoletto of this week. His Iago was so studly that in a single photo you can understand why women fall for ‘bad boys’. His de Luna was Regency perfect, then comes Rigoletto. Not only is he the hunkiest barihunk in opera, the world’s ruling baritone, but Monday he proved how great an actor he is.
Why has it taken so darn long for the Metropolitan Opera to schedule Dmitri Hvorostovsky to do Rigoletto. It is one of the great baritone roles. I’ve seen the immortal Sherrill Milnes do it at the Met, more times than even I can remember. The late Cornell Mac Neil was one of my favorite Rigolettos. Granted Hvorostovsky, who is in my biased and not so humble opinion the leading Verdi baritone in the world, had to deal with a tremendous Met legacy of Milnes, MacNeil but also the great Leonard Warren and my mother’s favorite baritone, Robert Merrill. Not only did my favorite barihunk master the role, but he triumphed enough to be declared the greatest Rigoletto in two decades. That would just about put him right there as the successor to the greatest of them all, Sherrill Milnes. And, no, I never thought I would ever say that there is a baritone who is an able successor to Milnes. But, Hvorostovsky is just that.
Very rarely do you get such long paragraphs describing a
baritone barihunk. Rarely do you hear a barihunk described as brilliant.
“...Leading the charge in the title role was the seemingly invincible Hvorostovsky….From the outset, Hvorostovsky makes it clear that this Rigoletto is a rather odd fellow and there are hints of some mental deficiency in some of his awkward movements and his constant attempts to gain attention from the Duke’s comrades; they seem to let him tag along out of pure pity for his loneliness. This helps explain why he does their bidding willingly; he is after all lonely in the world and likely rejected for his oddness. As he makes his first entrance Hvorostovsky races on stage like a child wielding a sword, his eyes wide open and his mouth almost like a dog salivating. The character moved about throughout the night with a limp that emphasized the awkwardness. As the night develops, Hvorostovsky’s characterization becomes increasingly internalized as the aforementioned physical traits become less and less apparent. Hvorostovsky was magnificent vocally, his voice surprisingly gaining in strength as the night wore on. The baritone’s rugged sound paired brilliantly with his characterization of the increasingly broken man; his “Cortigiani! Vil Razza Dannata” was filled with tremendous poetic anguish. At the start of this aria, Hvorostovsky was all “sound and fury” as he spewed his hatred about. After eschewing his insults, he fell to the floor and begged; his voice softening but ever powerful. By the end of the aria, Hvorostovsky’s audibly deep and quick breaths added a poignant urgency to the anguished singing; it was a moment of spectacular beauty. During the ensuing duet with his daughter, Hvorostovsky’s stone-faced expression gave way to a more compassionate treatment of Gilda; his voice followed a similar trajectory. The “Si Vendetta” that ends Act 2 was one of Hvorostovsky’s major crowning moments. While most baritones seem to falter a bit in this heavy segment, Hvorostovsky seemed to grow in his conviction and he held the final high F almost throughout the entire orchestral coda; the rage and power that Rigoletto feels in that moment could not be more aptly expressed. Hvorostovsky’s big moment in the final act came during the ending duet in which Rigoletto discovers his dying daughter in the trunk of a car. Whereas previous iterations of the production allowed Gilda to die in the car, Hvorostovsky’s Rigoletto opted for giving his daughter a more honorable death. He lifted her out of the trunk and carried her while singing; note that he did not put her down right away but held her momentarily. The bravery displayed here by Hvorostovsky was only topped by his decision to sing the final “La Maledizione” over the orchestra in a higher register than is often called for. …”
The production is a joke and it’s on Verdi. I am not a fan of taking an opera out of time and place, and putting a tale that is Renaissance at best, in 1960s Las Vegas. Sorry, but it does not work. It is not a tale that can be transcribed into modern language, and a modern setting. It is a work that can be pushed into the Regency period, at best, but that about it.
“…Singing Rigoletto at The Met may have been the baritone’s greatest challenge to date. He showed remarkable skill in applying his resources to this demanding music in a huge space; the legato was so savorable, the sustained phrasing as ever a source of great reward for the listener. His ‘Pari siamo!’ was a finely-crafted and deeply personal self-investigation, capped with a splendidly assured (and sustained) top note at “Ah no!…e follia!” and in the great ‘Cortigiani! vil razza dannato!’ Dima gave a vividly human depiction of the hapless jester’s fury and – in the end – his crushed plea to the courtiers. In the duet with his disgraced daughter which follows, the baritone held our focus with the heart-breaking tenderness of ‘Piangi! Fanciulla piangi…” and then launched the vendetta duet with snarling ferocity (without losing the vocal line in the on-rushing torrent of his anger) and capped it with a prolonged high A-flat….”
Willie Decker’s La Traviata is an exception. Considering the modern world with AIDS and resistant TB, it is not unworkable. I don’t like Traviata. I never have. The Decker version was so good, so well executed, with Hvorostovsky as Germont, that I found myself liking it. Last year’s new production of Un ballo in maschera, transposed from 1790s Sweden to some outlandish version of Deco never never land was deplorable, even if Hvorostovsky was amazing.
“…The charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang his first Rigoletto at the house. He was almost unrecognizable. The makeup department deserves credit for turning this handsome artist, with his trademark mane of thick white hair, into Verdi’s deformed jester. In this production, which zaps the story from 16th-century Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas, Rigoletto is presented as a hanger-on to the enabling crowd that tends to and amuses the Duke, the king of the strip.Mr. Hvorostovsky was made to look almost bald, with just strands of clumpy gray hair. He was padded front and rear to suggest both a paunch and a hunchback. Though his singing may have lacked traditional Italianate colorings and sound, he claimed this role on his own terms, infusing phrases with dusky richness and shaping melodic lines with an elegance that lent tragic stature to this oppressed and inwardly bitter character….But Mr. Hvorostovsky’s portrayal is so riveting, you don’t care. From the opening scene, when the courtiers — well, the gamblers and partygoers in the club in this staging — are carousing with the Duke, Mr. Hvorostovsky’s Rigoletto lumbers among them with an almost demented grin, trying to play the joker, but unable to hide his inner turmoil, shame and fear of everything…”
Rigoletto will be live on Sirius next Monday at 7:50, and again on the Saturday matinee on December 7. That’s it. I’m going to be there to listen to every moment. This brings me to another question. Why didn’t they do a Live in HD of Hvorostovsky’s Rigoletto? If you want this humble baritone junkie’s opinion, it is just plain insulting. I also don’t mind saying to put such a magnificent baritone in such a crappy production is also insulting. Forcing him to wait all these years is also insulting. And – he triumphed!
I find it rather amusing that the critics are so so shocked that Hvorostovsky knocked it out of the park on Monday night, with bases loaded. Anyone who follows his career knows that he has performed Rigoletto all over the world, to great acclaim. He is known as, perhaps, the greatest Rigoletto on stage, today. So, why are the NY critics just catching up on this? Are they that backward, or does it only count if it’s done at the Met?
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
It’s like his triumphant Iago this summer, which has been hailed as one of the greatest Iagos, ever.. When does he get to do Iago at the Met? Is there some reason the management keeps fielding second rate also rans when they have access to some truly incredible barihunks? The use of such mediocre baritones has become so bad, half the time, when you turn on Sirius, you cringe. Last week was one of the first times I’ve ever been subjected to a Tosca where Scarpia was so bad, I was rooting for Tosca to just put him out of our misery. You constantly read where the baritones put into a performance aren’t up to Met standards. Everyone knows that opera is scheduled 4 to 5 years in advance. But – why the lousy baritones?
There are some incredible young barihunks waiting in the wings. If the management of the Met has, apparently some hesitation in using the greatest baritone today, then why not use some of the hot young barihunk talent? We all know there are very few good tenors today. Is that why Peter Gelb curses us with truly cringe worthy baritones? It was like the rule of the mezzos a few years ago. I have very low tolerance for mezzos. I can’t really stand listing to most of them. The Met subjected us to so many repulsive mezzos that I literally quit listening to opera.
And so, this season, we’re stuck with divas and strong female roles. Fine, don’t expect me to bother listening. I want to hear men – the barihunks and bases. I want to hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Erwin Schrott. I don’t want to hear women and the tenors. One of the reasons I won’t even bother listening to the annual Richard Tucker gala is that it is all women. Don’t expect me to even bother. It makes one wonder if there is a conspiracy against the male voice at the Met – good male voices as in barihunks and bases. Why is Hvorostovsky doing less than a dozen performances this year, and we’re stuck with truly repulsive baritones? Why isn’t he doing Eugene Onegin? Not only that, the Met is stressing Russian opera this year. Why isn’t the greatest voice Russia has ever produced not doing a Russian opera there this year? Maybe the problem is the fact that the Met just isn’t interested in testosterone this year. Me, I want manly men. I want barihunks. I don’t want sopranos and mezzos who are so bad, one cringes.
While we’re at it, how much longer is the Met going to put up with Peter Gelb’s ‘operatic vision’ of modern productions, empty seats, repulsive new productions, and a hundred million bucks in the red? He told 60 Minutes that opera companies always run at a huge loss. Tell that to the late, great Beverly Sills. She knew what she was doing. Apparently Gelb only cares about impressing the false sophisticate with his Emperor’s New Clothes Opera Company. It’s naked, exposed, and is going to come crashing down on him. This is how opera companies die.
You keep them alive by scheduling more that off-key divas, miserable mezzos, terrible tenors, and barf baritones. You keep an opera company alive by bringing the super-stars, and catering performances around their strengths. You keep it alive by figuring out how to bring in incredible new talent, quickly. Gelb is doing neither. He is, though, bringing back his infamous Ring in a few years. If he can’t schedule some world class voices to go with it, lots of luck!