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When Jérémie Rhorer first started his Mozart opera series in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, he was not exactly a household name, but now that it is close to reach its end, he has become something of a sure deal for Classical repertoire. I’ve had the luck to see the Così fan tutte in this series and I realize that it wasn’t only Rhorer’s reputation that has increased since then, he himself has developed as a conductor, most notably in the sense that he has found a more fine balance between his ideas and the means available to carry them out. It is curious that I’ve had the same seat both evenings, and the impression of the orchestral sound could not be more different: today, all sections of the Cercle de l’Harmonie were in perfect balance and, if the strings have a touch of astringency, this was put to good purpose in a punchy, vivid sound picture. Actually, if these performances deserved to be recorded (probably in studio, with cast changes), the main reason for that would doubtlessly be Rhorer’s conducting. This was probably the best conducted TIto I have ever heard (including recordings) – the Overture sounded entirely fresh to my ears, with wonderful interplay between strings and wind instruments and truly theatrical flair. His management of tempi proved to be ruled by the quest for the right balance between musical and theatrical values and the eschewal of empty effect. Soft affetti were treated with unusual care – the Servilia/Annio duettino exquisitely touching, while the orchestra could provide Vitellia with some of its most stingy and nervous sounds. I have been often let down in the finale ultimo, but this evening it has surpassed my expectations in the perfect matching of soloists, orchestra and chorus (which could be a bit short in tenor and bass sound during the whole opera).

Everybody wondered how further Karina Gauvin would be singing exclusively on the cream before moving up to the full glass of milk of her lyric soprano. The choice of the formidable role of Vitellia seems like a bold step into a future of new possibilities, even if this deserves some consideration. First, I was surprised to see how wholeheartedly she has embraced the virago attitude, spitting her recitatives with panache and chewing the scenery as if her life depended on it. However, she does not have the physique du rôle for a seductress, especially when sabotaged by an unbecoming gown strangely provided by no other than Christian Lacroix. Second, if Gauvin could delve most naturally in chest voice for the very low notes required by Mozart, she lacks either training or the instincts or even the spiritual disposition when things get high and loud. She tiptoed through every incursion above high a and produced a truly underwhelming account of the acuti of Vengo… aspetatte… . There is no “third”: other than this I’ve found her Vitellia really enjoyable in her rich, flexible soprano. She tackled many difficult runs unusually accurately and showed no reluctance before trills and sang a sensitive and heartfelt Non più di fiori.

Kate Lindsey too was a sensitive Sesto, singing with beautiful sense of line and true ease with mezza voce. Her mezzo remains, though, light for the role and heroic moments took her to her limits, most notably in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when her fioriture left a lot to be desired. Julie Boulianne (Annio) proved to be more generous in the vocal department, her velvety and homogeneous voice easy on the ear. Julie Fuchs has Mozart running through her veins. Her voice is very reminiscent of Barbara Bonney’s, but she finally offered a Servilia even more touching than Bonney’s in bother her recorded performances. Robert Gleadow was a positive Publio with very clear divisions, but there is a rattling, nasal quality suggesting the musical theatre rather than the opera that disturbed balance in many ensembles.

Kurt Streit was, for many years, a model of Mozartian singing, as one can sample in his many recordings in this repertoire, but these days seem to be behind him. It is true that the sense of line, the imagination for ornamentation, the elegant phrasing and the clean fioriture are still there, but passaggio is now handled in a glaringly open tone and, when he has to cover his high notes, they turn up tremulous and effortful. His handling of the text was extremely artificial, as if Tito were talking to small children during the whole opera, what made him seem insincere and studied and a bit dull. And that is not the character devised by Metastasio.

Director Denis Podalydès, from the Comédie-Française, had many interesting ideas – starting the performance with a very expressive actress (Leslie Menu) delivering Bérénice’s farewell verses to Titus in Racine’s tragedy before the overture and setting the action in a hotel, where the high echelons of government seem to be interned during a political crisis while the ruler’s authority is being restored. There are too many extras, though, and some intimate scenes sound overcrowded and too many secrets are being recited to an audience of silent roles. The Personenregie is very detailed and all members of the cast keenly follow it, but I am afraid that the Sesto’s mental unbalance after he has set fire to the capitol is too much even for well-intentioned opera singer.

The Kammerorchester Basel, a versatile ensemble that has tackled a wide-ranging repertoire with period practices very much in sight, has chosen Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for their European tour in the holiday season. I have to confess that I did not really understand that the performance would be split in two concerts and, therefore, will be able to speak only about the first one. Led by their concert master, Julia Schröder, the orchestra showed animation and a rhythmic vitality in the more festive numbers, usually given very fast tempi. In more pensive numbers, phrasing had some squareness and lack of purpose: Schlafe, mein liebster sounded too matter-of-fact in its purely dance-bound perspective and the sinfonia to the II Cantata could have done with a little bit more variety. The fact that the string section lacked tone did not help much in moments like that either. Furthermore, it could sound underwhelmed by the Deutscher Kammerchor, although it only had three voices per part. I also had the impressions that altos were too much in retreat, while tenors were often a little prominent,

The all-male group of singers here chosen places an immediate interest in this performance. The velvety-toned Valer Sabadus is my first countertenor in the soprano part in this piece. Unfortunately, the most challenging numbers for that voice appear in the second half of the program. As it is, Sabadus’s sound is a bit soft-grained in middle register but smooth and round in the higher part of the ressitura. Volume too cound seem restricted at times. In the alto solo, Terry Wey sounded like a fruitier and cleaner version of the young René Jacos and sang incisively and with disarming directness. Again, Schlafe, mein liebester could  be more expressive – and the fast tempo made some turns of phrase sound yodell-ish rather than graceful. Werner Güra was in excellent form both as the Evangelist and the solo tenor, his Frohe Hirten showed him at his most Wunderlich-ian. Last but not least, Matthias Goerne proved to have everything a bass in this repertoire should have: noble tone, clear diction and flexibiliy. I am really sorry I won’t be able to see the second concert.

BTW…

… the discography of Così fan Tutte in www.operadiscographies.com has been updated.

The Music Director Emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, has inscribed his name in the performance history of Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande with his recording from Montreal, a reference for those who want this work at its least “operatic”, and he conducted it most recently in 2012 at the Verbier Festival with Stéphane Degout as Pelléas. For someone who is not very keen on opera, Maestro Dutoit has conducted some key XXth century stage works in Japan:  Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, the Japanese première of Szymanowski’s King Roger and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. This afternoon, he offered the Tokyoite audience a concert performance of Debussy’s only complete opera with an all-star cast.

Although Dutoit is still faithful for his strictly-demi-tintes approach, eliciting very subtle and colorful playing from the NHK SO in flexible but never rushed tempi, some may find the orchestral sound a little bit more embracing than on his CDs, although weight is a word no-one would ever think of here. In comparison, Claudio Abbado sounds almost Verdian in his urgent and theatrical DG recording, in which the Vienna Philharmonic dazzles the listeners in kaleidoscopic orchestral effects. In any case, provided you have a castle as impressive as the one gathered here today, the Swiss conductor will be proved right in giving Maeterlinck’s text all the time and prominence it deserves.

If I had to be picky about the choice of soloists, I would say that Karen Vourc’h is one or two millimeters below her colleagues. Although her voice has an appealing shimmering femininity à la Ileana Cotrubas, it acquires a certain graininess above mezzo forte and the low notes are mostly left to imagination. On her favor, there is not a word in the text the meaning of which she does not fully understands – even if her approach is surprisingly sincere. Other singers could find a bit more sensuousness in this role, and I am afraid I have finally got used to that, especially in Mes longs cheveux, sung today without any hint of mystery or seduction. Stéphane Degout is simply the best Pelléas of his generation. First, it is vocally flawless; second, it is crystalline in diction; third, it is entirely devoid of affectation and unusually “masculine”. There is something extremely honest and direct about his performance that makes the role extremely believable. Vincent Le Texier is a forceful and intense Golaud. He is the less aggressive or fatherly Golaud I have ever heard and one can see why Mélisande agreed to marry him in the first place. Midway through act III, when the writing becomes somewhat heavier, Le Texier started to increasingly show some signs of fatigue, but he managed to channel this into his performance. Nathalie Stutzmann and Franz-Josef Selig as Geneviève and Arkel are the dictionary definition’s of embarras de richesses. Khatouna Gadelia and David Wilson-Johnson were ideally cast as Yniold and the doctor.

I have a long story with Marco Arturo Marelli’s producion of Verdi’s Don Carlo: I’ve seen the première in the Deutsche Oper and a reprise with a different cast last year. It must be said that serious rethinking has been done and I could say that third time’s a charm: not only does it look better within the New National Theatre’s higher proscenium arch, but also many important adjustments have been done, especially in the auto-da-fé scene. In any case, if the really superior blocking and acting is the result of Spielleiter Yasuko Sawada’s work, then she truly deserves compliments. Another improvement over the Berlin performances is Pietro Rizzo’s conducting. The Tokyo Philharmonic orchestra played with unusual animation and richness of tone, only occasionally lapsing into the customary bureaucracy. Maestro Rizzo did a very good job in balancing the need to accommodate a largely light-voiced cast and Verdi’s demands of a rich orchestral sound. He rightly opted for forward-moving tempi and theatrical effects. This was indeed one of the best performances in the New National Theatre in the recent years.

Serena Farnocchia’s lyric soprano is two sizes smaller than the role of Elisabetta and, if she sang elegantly and musicianly, she often seemed to be saving steam for her big moments. Once in the final act, she thew caution to the winds and offered an exciting account both of her aria and the ensuing duet. Sonia Ganassi too is hardly the dramatic mezzo soprano one usually finds as Eboli. Although her voice had a bleached out sound in its higher reaches, she husbanded her resources most intelligently and offered a dramatically compelling and vocally acceptable performance. As usual, her attention to the text makes all the difference in the world. I had never heard Spanish tenor Sergio Escobar before. It is an interesting voice without any doubt: its bright, firm sound has palpable presence in the auditorium and, when the phrase is congenial, he can provide some exciting acuti. He still needs to work on breath support, though – he is often caught short and some high-lying passages grate a bit. He has not been blessed with acting abilities and invariably looked awkward when he tried to reproduce some gesture or attitude outside his comfort zone. Markus Werba is the third singer below the right Fach for his part today. This did not prevent him from offering a convincing performance – he has solid technique, did not beef up unnecessarily his high baritone and only showed some sign of strain during the long scene with Filippo in the first act (this is the Italian 4-act version). I had seen Rafal Siwek as the Inquisitore in the Staatsoper back in 2011 and found him authoritative but lacking variety. For the role of Filippo II, the natural volume of his voice is an undeniable advantage. The slightly veiled tonal quality and a tiny hint of throatiness prevent him from providing the necessary impact in the auto-da-fé, but he proved to scale down to real Innigkeit in his act III aria. If Hidekazu Tsumaya could produce more consistent high notes, he would have been an entirely successful Inquisitore – here he sounded underpowered in many key moments.

When a theatre has the name of Constantin Stanislavsky, one expects to find acting of a certain level in any of its performances – and I have not been disappointed this evening. Although sets and costumes in Alexander Titel new production makes one think of stagings as one would find in European theatres in the 1970’s, the approach sounds fresh in the detailed Personenregie and the attention to Lorenzo da Ponte’s text rendered in a way that makes complete sense for audiences nowadays. Although I dislike the idea of Donna Anna as a hypocrite who would overlook the murder of her own father for a fatal attraction, this has been shown in a way that at least makes some sense. It is also very courageous to show Donna Elvira as the mezzo carattere role she really is, even if the seriousness in Mi tradì felt somewhat contrived. I have never seen such an all-round convincing  portrait of Zerlina as today: here she is definitely earthy, ready to have fun and streetwise: she plays the victim to Don Giovanni as long as she believes that she can profit from that. Even Don Ottavio has some nuance here, his lack of alpha-male quality combined with a repressed aggressiveness when his fiancée refuses him his intent to marry her as soon as possible. All this is made possible in a staging that focus the actors – the single set is a structure that shows a staircase covered by grapevine on one side and a wall of upright pianos on the other side. Don Giovanni’s final feast is a bit overdone with all those plastic grapes, but the effect of the Commendatore dragging his prey inside the wall was very striking and original.

This performance has been conducted by the assistant director, Timur Zangiev, who showed a very good grasp of rhythmic flow in his forward-moving beat dictated by needs of structural clarity and a good ear for matching the Hauptstimme in the orchestra with his soloists on stage. I wonder how the results would be with a truly adept orchestra.

My main source of interest this evening was the Donna Anna of Hibla Gerzmava, a soprano I have first heard in the solo of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore. Her singing in this recording impressed me so much that I decided that I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear her live. It is a voice of unusual creaminess and homogeneity used with seamless legato, but either she was not in a very good day or she has become a little careless since that Laudate dominum. Whenever things got high or fast or loud or all those, her soprano would acquire a metallic edginess that jars with her usual smooth vocal delivery. It is praiseworthy that she had tackled the stretta of Non mi dir a tempo in a fast pace, but the sound could be a bit Mara Zampieri-esque. In terms of interpretation too, although her Italian is very clear and well-pronounced, the impression was rather generalized, especially in a very tame Or sai chi l’onore. In any case, she sounded like a paragon of Mozartian singing in comparison with the sour-toned and gusty Donna Elvira. Although Inna Klochko had her unfocused moments, her bell-toned soprano is tailor-made for Zerlina. Vedrai carino was particularly lovely, graceful and sexy. She is a very good actress and knows who to use music and text to create a complete performance.

When it comes to Artem Safronov’s Don Ottavio, one must praise his extraordinarily long breath and flexibility, but his voice has very strange placement, his high register matte and bottled-up. Dmitry Zuev (Don Giovanni) too has long breath, but the tonal quality is too open, metallic and unvaried. His idea of interpretation was basically keeping you on the edge of your seat while he spitted out long stretches of text without breathing pauses in uninflected Italian. Although Denis Makarov’s Italian is very poor too, that is all I can fault in his Leporello – the voice is warm and pleasant and he is funny without exaggeration. Maksim Okosin too was a pleasant Masetto, richer toned than unsual. Finally, Dmitry Stepanovich was a very powerful Commendatore, a bit eerie in his straight-toned vocal production and weird vowels.

Before I write that this is my first visit to the legendary Bolshoi Theatre, an eventual Russian reader might observe that I have never actually been in the Bolshoi, for the true venue of this performance of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte is the “New Stage”, an annex to the old building just across the street. Dutch director Floris Visser’s production was premiered there only this year (according to the program, the actual première of Così in the old stage took place only in 1978…). Mr. Visser is a new name to me and, although his interview (also in the program) suggested something far more ambitious than what one ultimately sees, this staging is particularly noteworthy for its direction: the stage action is meticulously conceived, convincingly carried out by young and skilled singers and costumes, sets and use of stage contraptions is imaginative and always pleasing to the eyes.

If the director’s thesis that this work is essentially a tragedy with comedy touches does not really work, that must have done with the fact that the musical side of the performance was essentially very inexpressive. I was actually tempted to call it perfunctory – but this would be inaccurate. Conductor Stefano Montanari claims to have a background in historically informed performances, but acknowledges that it would be unpractical to have a period-instrument band duty in an opera house. In any case, the Bolshoi orchestra must be praised by its willingness to embrace an “authentic” approach – strings with very limited vibrato, woodwind presiding the orchestral sound, an overbusy fortepiano and fussy handling of tempo. I would have enjoyed many of the conductor’s interesting ideas – the mirroring of the overture’s pace in the stretta of Come Scoglio, for instance, was quite revelatory or the way the military chorus, made slower than usual, had all its illustrative effects “spoken” rather than “painted” (to use Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s terminology), but the sad truth is that the overall impression was rather disjointed, often awkward, strings poorly articulated, an amazing level of mismatch with every soloist, for catastrophic results in Soave sia il vento. In these circumstances, Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s expressive powers were very occasionally only hinted at.

Truth be said, although the cast was most efficient in the acting department, the singing itself was unfortunately variable. Anna Kraynikova’s basic tonal quality is extremely apt for the role of Fiordiligi. Her creamy, shimmering soprano is appealing and pleasant and nature gave her the range and the flexibility (but not trills) for it. However, the technique is not up to the task: her breath support is faulty, she is too often off steam in the end of phrases, her coloratura has bumpy moments and her approach to mezza voce is hit-or-miss. The beautiful Alexandra Kadurina has a truly interesting mezzo: it is firm, clean, warm but not overdark in its low reaches and occasionally ductile even in high tessitura. At moments, she sounds like a world-class Fiordiligi, in others she can be a little blowsy, rather metallic and sometimes just rough. If she can see to these drawbacks, there will be nothing between her and a great career. Alina Yaroyava (Despina) was probably the most finished female singer in the cast – the tonal quality is pleasing, her Italian is vivid and she has the low notes without which the role sounds incomplete. However, she is too often careless about her phrasing, with some gusty passages, forced high notes and some moments of dubious intonation. Her disguise as the notary was extremely well-handled.

The men proved to be altogether more reliable. Yuri Gorodetsky (Ferrando) is an extremely dependable singer: he produces all his notes easily, clearly and a tempo. But that is pretty much it. The tone is a bit dusky in the middle register but opens into rather nasal and glaring high notes, and his phrasing is blunt and without much affection. He was spared of some testing passages by the deletion of Dal fato dal legge, Ah, lo vegg’io and Tutto, tutto, o vita mia in the finale ultimo. Alexander Miminoshvili,on the other hand, was a winning Guglielmo, dulcet-toned and spirited. Last but not least, Nikolai Kanansky was a powerful, rich-toned Don Alfonso, who could have done with a lighter touch in the trio with the sopranos.

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