Dallas — It was opera night at the Dallas Symphony. Conductor Roberto Abbado and tenor Carl Tanner delivered some fine Verdi and Puccini. They ended with the splashy, but not so operatic, Feste Romane (Roman Festivals) by Ottorino Respighi.
Abbado is a famous name in classical music. Let‘s start with his grandfather, violinist Michelangelo Abbado, a violinist and Director of Conservatorio “G. Verdi” in Milan. His father, Marcello Abbado, is a pianist, conductor and composer. His uncle is one of the elites of the podium, Claudio Abbado.
This Abbado, born in 1954, is the Artistic Partner of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. In 2015 he was appointed Music Director of Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain. His résumé has a lot of experience in the opera pit and it certainly showed in his sympathetic partnership with Carl Tanner.
Tanner’s background couldn’t be more different from Abbado’s. He was raised listening to Willie Nelson and Roy Clark. His first musical training was in the choir at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Vir. His early career was as a long-haul truck driver and a bounty hunter. A stint as a singing waiter in New York brought him to the attention of the opera world and today his long haul is from one international opera house to another.
The program opened with the overture to Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino. The opera premiered in 1862 but this overture was added in 1869 when the composer revised the opera. It is a standard in symphony programs and Abbado gave it an energetic performance, but slightly rushed as it barreled to the end.
Tanner has the exactly right voice for the big Verdi and Puccini roles. He can sing quietly and well as release some awesome marinara-sauced high notes.
We heard the prelude to Verdi’s spectacular opera, Aida, followed by the big tenor aria “Celeste Aida.” Tanner sang this well-known aria with a stentorian sound worthy of Radamès, the heroic Captain of the Pharaoh’s Guard in Egypt’s so-called “Old Kingdom.” It was a glorious performance until the very last note.
This note, a high B-flat, is notorious among singers and opera buffs because it is supposed to be sung softly, marked pianissimo, with the added instruction morendo (“dying away”). Historically, tenors have clobbered this note super fortissimo but, more and more, tenors are doing as Verdi asked. Tanner, who can follow the composer’s intention, chose to knock it out of the park.
Other heroic arias, with less controversial endings, were beautifully sung, with a ringing tenor that more than filled the Meyerson Symphony Center. We heard “Di Quella pira” from Verdi’s Il travatore. Puccini’s “Ch’ella mi credi” is from one of his lesser-performed opera, La fanciulla del west (The Girl of the Golden West). The aria suffers in a concert setting from the lack of a satisfactory tacked-on ending.
Tanner ended his part of the program with…you’ll never guess what. Of course, it had to be Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from his opera Turandot, but has taken on a post-opera life of its own. Tanner’s final high note was so magnificent that he decided to hold it a while longer for our enjoyment.
Abbado conducted some other well-known operatic selections. The “Triumphal March and Ballet Music” from Aida was beautifully played, although the procession would have had to move right along at his tempo for the march.
One rarity graced the program, Puccini’s youthful Preludio sinfonico. The 24-year-old composer wrote it for his final exam from the Conservatory of Milan. All the hallmarks of his later work are present, albeit in rudimentary form. The autograph manuscript was discovered in three separate fragments so, perhaps the composer tried, unsuccessfully, to destroy it. Probably this is because he harvested the music for use in his first operas.
The program ended with Feste Romane (Roman Festivals) by Respighi. This is the final composition in his trilogy of symphonic works about Rome, past and present (well, at least up to 1928). The others are the Pines of Rome (1916) and the Fountains of Rome (1924).
It is quite colorful, extravagantly orchestrated, and the most difficult of the three to play, which is why it is a rarity on symphonic programs. The first movement is “Circuses,” and is a musical depiction of gladiators battling to the death. The second depicts the Christian Jubilee, which occurs every 50 years. Next is the Harvest of October. The work concludes with Epiphany, which happens in the Piazza Navona.
It is a noisy affair, with no depths to plumb. The Dallas Symphony gave it a spectacular performance, despite Abbado’s swift tempi. It created a bit of amusement at the end, as the tempissimo Abbado set caused him to turn the pages of his (obviously required) score in a comedic manner. One super-quick page turn that occurred in an unfortunate moment of orchestral silence ripped through the hall with Tanner’s resonance.