Thoughts provoked by a fun, but flawed, Faust at Covent Garden – and why Gobbi was the greatest
Just what is it that makes the perfect opera singer? The question is prompted by this week’s revival of Gounod’s Faust at the Royal Opera House, where my pleasure at several individual performances was mitigated. Take la diva, Angela Gheorghiu, who, incidentally, seemed unable to comprehend that she had not been accorded the final curtain call and then took an age to remember to fetch on conductor Evelino Pidò. I’m not one of Gheorghiu’s detractors: her Adriana Lecouvreur (where she is so at home playing, in effect, herself) was massive, her Violetta is as convincing as I’ve seen (that may change after Netrebko in January and, who knows when?, Natalie Dessay) and her Tosca opposite Bryn Terfel put me in mind of Callas and Gobbi (of whom more anon). I enjoy her sometimes over-the-top histrionics and believe that opera can be a natural home for a drama queen with the vocals to match. The problem here is that the role of Marguerite does not really play to Ms Gheorghiu’s strengths. It demands more consistent raw power than she tends to produce these days (she gives us the occasional thrilling burst!) and, though it’s eminently watchable, her Marguerite doesn’t ever really tug at the heartstrings.
What, then, of her infernal paramour? Vittorio Grigolo does have a big virile Italianate voice and he makes a believable Faust. But there’s a deal of questionable “technique” in his singing. It’s a lot more thrilling when the tenor can “ping” his notes and hit them spot-on first time, but time and again Grigolo goes first to a leading note before sliding up a semi-tone. Or what of the Valentin of the Siberian Dmitri Hvorostovsky? I know he sings splendidly and it’s probably unfair that I’m always stifling a yawn when he’s centre-stage. (His Germont Père was another instance.) Perhaps he is more effective on disc; on stage, he is as wooden as they come. Maybe he skived off the acting classes: he reminds me of Magdalena Kožená, who has the voice of an angel. The first time I discovered her on CD I was instantly enraptured, yet her Cinderella on stage at Covent Garden four years ago was faintly risible. Danielle de Niese, on the other hand, comes to life on stage. Her recordings on Decca are so not the real thing. You have to witness her Cleopatra in the flesh to be blown away. And I was ready to be underawed by her Adina in this summer’s L’elisir d’Amore at Glyndebourne. Yet, despite myself, once again she had me wrapped around her little finger and if there were vocal flaws they seemed insignificant in the context of the bigger picture.
René Pape’s Méphistophélès was as near as we got to a perfect performance on Sunday. He makes a pretty personable devil and, while I wouldn’t say you might believe in him (and some faiths at least do believe in the devil, don’t they?) he’s a pretty chummy nasty-piece-of-work and very human in trying to avoid the amorous clutches of Marthe Schwertlein (Carole Wilson) – “She wants to marry the Devil!” – and he’s one of the best basses around. He’s damn good, you might say. He’s not Boris Christoff though. Nor Hans Hotter. Nor Feodor Chaliapin.
None of this albeit engaging cast constitutes the perfect opera singer. I have, though, mentioned above the one singer-actor, above all the rest, to whose performances (fresh in the memory albeit the earliest of them that I was privileged to witness was in 1963) my mind will often turn when his contemporary successors come up short. Through the 1960s I was fortunate enough to see Tito Gobbi, arguably the greatest Italian baritone of them all, in many of his greatest roles. He had a voice to die for – the character and the nuances as much as the impeccable sound – and was the subtlest most effective actor I have seen on the operatic stage in nearly 50 years. He could have been a star of the straight theatre and I still have vivid recollections of his gestures even as Almaviva from the starriest of casts in 1963 (with, if memory serves me, Freni, Geraint Evans, Teresa Berganza, Ilva Ligabue, et al). His Scarpia is the benchmark, his Schicchi unrivalled.
His Falstaff (he insisted on providing his own costumes, as I recall) was maybe a little over the top. Actually, calumny though it is, I believe that at the time I preferred (the quite wonderful) Geraint Evans in the role! But Pagliacci was his from the opening strains of the Prologue. And his 1965 Boccanegra, which he directed as well as taking the title role, introduced London to a work which was not at that time recognised as being central to the Verdi canon. He changed all that!
As for his Iago…in 1964 I attended in the old gallery at Covent Garden a performance with the unheralded James McCracken as Otello (a last-minute replacement for Mario del Monaco, who had been injured in a car crash). After the most incredible ‘Si, pel ciel’ at the end of Act 2 we applauded and were afforded curtain calls for the entire half-hour interval that followed. The clapping was stilled only by the start of the third act. There was another half-hour of applause at the end of the performance.
That was the perfect singer in the perfect performance.
Why not hear for yourself? For a list of ten indispensable Gobbi recordings, click here.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.