Murky Business: I masnadieri at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Verdi – I masnadieri

Massimiliano – Christian Van Horn
Carlo – Charles Castronovo
Francesco – Igor Golovatenko
Amalia – Lisette Oropesa
Arminio – Kevin Conners
Moser – Alexander K
Rolla – Jonas Hacker

Bayerischer Staatsopernchor, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Antonino Fogliani.
Stage director – Johannes Erath.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, January 28th, 2023.

This production of I masnadieri at the Bayerische Staatsoper was a long time coming.  I had tickets to see the opening run back in April 2020, but we all know what intervened back then.  There was definitely a buzz at the Nationaltheater tonight – the house was sold out and the audience responded throughout with frequent and generous applause. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

I masnadieri is one of the more rarely seen of the Verdi operas.  It contains some magnificent music, but the relative lack of ensembles and choruses does make it rather dramaturgically challenging.  The story is the usual tenor who takes up a life of crime, is in love with the soprano, but the evil baritone brother gets in the way.  Perhaps in an attempt to over-compensate for the lengthy solo numbers, Johannes Erath opted to keep the stage constantly full of action.  Similarly, perhaps in an attempt to illustrate the backstory, Erath showed characters sitting around a table when they were being sung about, or a coffin to remind us that Carlo had been declared dead by his evil brother.  We saw the chorus being dragged along the stage on a moving platform, or models of stags populating the stage, or conifer trees.  There was indeed a lot to look at.  And yet, far too often direction of the principals consisted simply of them having to stand and sing arms outstretched to the front.  While the additional detail had clearly been carefully choreographed, often it felt the principals were left to their own devices. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

I found that Erath’s staging also lacked a sense of place or dramaturgical development.  Perhaps that was indeed the point, to demonstrate the story as a moment in time.  Yet I felt that the evening as a whole, lacked a sense of dramatic progression, of a story moving towards its inevitable conclusion.  Part of this was simply that the stage was populated with so much detail that one lost the principals.  It was however, generous of Erath and his lighting designer, Olaf Freese, to be considerate of the current cost of living crisis – the show throughout was murkily lit, maybe it was to reflect some kind of Gothic romp, but it was all rather dark. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Musically, it was a positive evening on the whole – the quality of the singing was first class, even though I did leave with some reservations.  Lisette Oropesa is the owner of a fabulous technique.  She can turn the corners easily, has a genuine trill, and throughout gave us some wonderfully poised and limpid singing, sustaining the high-lying writing with ease.  One could genuinely see that this was a technically gifted singer who has clearly spent years on refining her artistry.  And yet, I’m sorry to say that she didn’t grab my attention or indeed my imagination.  Everything Oropesa does seems learned, rather than lived.  Her singing felt rather self-conscious, encouraging us to marvel in the technique, but not to believe in her character.  This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this with her – I had the same reaction to her Lucia, which I didn’t review, where my mind frequently wandered because Oropesa didn’t grab me and make me believe that she was really living her character.  The voice is undeniably beautiful, a medium-sized peaches and cream tone that is extremely well placed.  I left with the impression of an exceptionally fine technician, but an artist who, I’m really sorry to write, didn’t capture my imagination.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Charles Castronovo took on Carlo, a beast of a role that consists of so many big scenes.  He was absolutely tireless throughout a very long evening.  He gave us absolutely captivating singing – the legato was immaculate, he took risks with the line, shading it lovingly, using the dynamics to illustrate the text, colouring it to make us believe in his character, despite the limitations of the staging.  He gave us a ringing top, soaring over the chorus with ease in his big Act 3 revenge scene, although I did wish that he had chosen to ornament his cabalettas.  This is another terrific role assumption from an artist going from strength to strength. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Igor Golovatenko is a major talent.  What a voice!  A firm, focused baritone that just beams into the theatre in a huge burst of sound.  The top defies gravity, capable of sustaining long phrases up there with ease.  Yes, the voice does taper off a little further down which, combined with the ease on top does make me wonder whether Golovatenko might reach higher in future.  He also brought some genuine feeling to his music, perhaps not using the text as fully as Castronovo, but phrasing with delicacy, using an implicit understanding of the music to drive his characterization forward.  A really impressive artist, one I’d very much like to hear again.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Christian Van Horn brought his big, inky bass to his music.  There’s a beauty to the tone that I find most impressive, although the very top does lack a little in body.  The supporting cast reflected the exceptional standards of the house.  Jonas Hacker sang Rolla’s music in a very handsome tenor, indeed one could imagine him graduating to Carlo in due course, although his Italian is rather anglophone in flavour.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Antonio Fogliani conducted a Bayerisches Staatsorchester on magnificent form – the quality of the playing was exceptional.  They reacted as one to his baton, the unanimity of attack, at some sprightly tempi, was seriously impressive.  Fogliani conducted with a true bel canto sensibility, phrasing the long lines lovingly, interpolated over a constantly evolving and precise rhythmic framework.  The chorus had a very good night, dispatching some complicated rhythms off-stage with impressive precision.  That said, maybe it’s just the work, but I missed something in Fogliani’s conducting.  His tempi generally kept things moving, but I just felt that it was not quite visceral enough, perhaps just needing to keep things moving slightly more, as there were times where the tension did sag in some of the slower music.  Still, the accuracy he achieved from his forces and the unanimity of approach was seriously impressive.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This was definitely an evening that reminded us why this is one of the world’s greatest lyric theatres.  The quality of the orchestral playing and choral singing, and the depth of casting was most impressive.  Erath’s staging certainly gave a lot to look at, but did feel that it lacked a coherent narrative thread.  Still, the audience responded to it most enthusiastically, giving a massive roar of approval to the entre cast at the close.

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