Because we are most familiar with the realistic operas of the late 19th century we tend to think of tenors as passionate, heroic and super-virile. In the early part of the 19th century the high tenor voice was seen as something else -- its possessor was extremely sensitive, maybe neurotic, but rather delicate.
In the unbelievable cornucopia of riches that is the New York classical music scene we had three recent examples of the latter sort of tenor -- all excellent.
The Metropolitan Opera did its first ever production of Rossini's "Le Comte Ory," perhaps because it is a great vehicle for the young Peruvian tenor juan-Diego Florez, who stunned New York a few years ago in "The Daughter of the Regiment." Florez, who has a voice of great power and sweetness and an unbelievable agility, was splendid as the title character, a count apparently too young to go off on the crusades. Left behind, he uses all his ingenuity to woo a woman whose husband has gone off gallantly.
Ory is, so to speak, a hero of the imagination rather than a conventionally physical one. Florez sang with passion, the florid passages spectacularly forceful. Perhaps because he doesn't stint, the top of his voice occasionally sounds hard and nasal, but it is impressive singing.
The Met's new production is by Bartlett Sherr, who emphasizes the theatricality of the plot. We are always conscious that what is happening is taking place on a stage, which is fine, though he gives the cast more business than necessary to stress this concept. Rossini's music is full of beauty and sometimes the visual business distracts.
The cast surrounding Florez is spectacular. As the object of the count''s designs, Diana Damrau sings exquisitely. Her voice is powerful in her solos and blends elegantly in the great ensemble numbers.
Joyce DiDonato plays Ory's page and rival for the countess, Her radiant, warm voice is, as ever, perfect for Rossini's rich music. Bass Michele Pertusi sings magnificently as the "villain" in this lighthearted work.
Conductor Maurizio Benini keeps the proceedings lively though the orchestra does not always have the effervescence the music can afford.
Across the Plaza the New York City Opera is also doing a bel canto gem, Donizetti's "Elixir of Love." Normally I do not approve of productions transposed to some other place and time, especially those of Jonathan Miller. But in this case setting the opera in some Midwestern plains town in the '50s where the heroine Adina runs a combination filling station and diner clarifies the setting. These people are rustics and not necessarily picturesque, as they would be in a traditional 19th century setting. Miller's conceit clarifies the action.
The City Opera has been fortunate in finding as gifted a tenor as David Loneli to sing the key role, Nemorino, a shy young man attracted to the brash Adina. He has one of opera's greatest hits, the aria "Una Furtive Lagrima," which he sings with great finesse. Stefania Dovhan is masterful as Adina, Meredith Lustig sings with great force as her rival, Jose Adan Perez has the proper vocal swagger as Nemorino's rival, and Marco Nistico is excellent as the snake oil salesman who dispenses "the elixir of love." Brad Cohen conducts the endearing score with abundant brio.
Of the three melancholy, neurotic tenor roles on display the most difficult is the unnamed singer in Schubert's "Die Schoene Mullerin," a song cycle about a young man who falls in love with a fickle miller's daughter. Though it is easy to perform Schubert's two great cycles (the other being "Winterreise")as examples of great musical beauty or individual songs, they are both monologues with a very clear personality in evidence.
In the case of "Mullerin" the singer is a young man of almost extraordinary naivete, experiencing perhaps his first ever love, crushed when his love object, never all that ardent toward him, flirts with a dashing hunter. What one, wonders, could he expect? She isn't very worldly either, and her notions of love are far more conventional and banal than his. Only in Schubert's hands could this ordinary misunderstanding attain such heights of beauty and sensitivity.
Similarly, it requires a performer with as rich and pure a voice and masterly a technique as tenor Matthew Polenzani to convey the full emotional and musical texture of these songs. Polenzani is a consummate artist and makes the situations entirely convincing and moving. The concert was billed as a Great Performance, and indeed it was.
He has an excellent collaborator in pianist Julius Drake. After what must be a harrowing performance they were generous to offer an encore, Schubert's "Im Abendrot," a song of similar darkness and beauty. It was an altogether enthralling afternoon.