Dallas Symphony’s program of Italian opera provides mixed rewards

Sat Nov 26, 2016 at 1:05 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay
Tenor Carl Tanner performed Verdi and Puccini arias with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Friday night.

Tenor Carl Tanner performed Verdi and Puccini arias with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Friday night.

Bleeding chunks carved out of operas don’t often add up to a convincing and meaningful orchestra concert, no matter how good the tenor.

This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra presented its final classical subscription concert of 2016 at Meyerson Symphony Center, with a program made up mostly of tenor arias and instrumental excerpts from operas by Puccini and Verdi, topped off with a tired but noisy tone poem by Respighi.

Roberto Abbado conducted and American tenor Carl Tanner, a 54-year-old former truck driver who went on to achieve a major international operatic career, sang the arias.

The issues this sort of program present are obvious, multiple, and intertwined. Operatic excerpts are inherently incomplete in themselves, and depend on their context within an opera to achieve their complete meaning. An evening made up of operatic excerpts is closer to a showcase or a pops concert—not a classical orchestral concert.

A second value missing from this particular event was the presence of a major orchestral work—and no, Respighi’s Feste romane (Roman Festivals) of 1928, with its purely visceral appeal, doesn’t qualify. A serious symphonic concert should offer its audience complete substantial works that reach beyond pretty noises and interesting effects, and this event did not.

Despite his musical pedigree, conductor Abbado opened with an overwrought reading of the Overture to Verdi’s La Forza del destino. Moving this music from the orchestra pit (and relatively small orchestra) of the opera house to the stage of the symphony hall with the full 21st-century orchestra is tricky business. By heading full-blast into this score as if it were the climax of a symphony by Bruckner or Mahler, Abbado weighed the music down with an unpleasant sense of melodrama.

Tenor Carl Tanner came on stage with a clearer concept of how to handle the evenig;s challenges in“Dio, mi potevi” from Verdi’s Otello. Tanner impressively evoked the sense of betrayal and hopelessness contained in the aria, demonstrating a distinctively muscular yet beautiful tone quality that carries miraculously into the upper register. Although Abbado nearly allowed the orchestra to overpower Tanner in the recitative, the tenor held firm to his emotional and musical command.

The Prelude to Aida demanded a more refined approach from Abbado, followed without pause by another almost hypnotically entrancing rendition from Tanner of “Celeste Aida.” The first half of the evening ended with the Triumphal March and ballet music from the same opera, here slapped out with enthusiasm, vigor, and not much subtlety by Abbado.

Roberto Abbado

Roberto Abbado

After intermission, Abbado turned to Puccini’s early Preludio sinfonico, which does indeed belong on a symphonic program as an intriguing example of a young composer reaching for but not quite achieving the level of genius lying in his not-too-distant future. The orchestra and Abbado handled this treacly slice of late romantic chromaticism with appropriate intensity.

Tenor Tanner followed up by once again masterfully—and sans any visual assistance of sets or costumes—creating character and emotion in Puccini’s deft, succinct portrayal of a condemned man’s final wishes in “Ch’ella mi creda” from La fanciulla del west.

A second example of a purely instrumental passage by the young Puccini, “La Tragenda” from Le Villi, once again demonstrated that there was a point early in his career when Puccini didn’t quite understand that he could create effect with something more than repetition and upward modulation. The Puccini segment of the evening closed with the familiar thrill of “Nessun dorma” from Turnadot, with Tanner calmly nailing that ringing final high A.

Feste romane closed the evening as whole, leaving this listener once again wondering if conductor Abbado realizes that there are volume levels between mp and fff. The offstage brass (here placed in a balcony to the side) provided the visual show here, with the Ivesian overlap of ideas near the end providing the one intriguing moment of musical invention in the entire 24-minute work. It was a polished rendition by the Dallas Symphony, with the numerous solos superbly rendered by principal players. Still, the performance didn’t quite overcome the plodding tunes and heavy-handed tone painting here, and the evasive final blast didn’t come a moment too soon for this listener.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. mydso.com; 214-692-0203.

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