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Archive for November, 2007

Julia’s Variety

Julia Varady’s career is so varied that it is impossible to speak of one’s encounter with her artistry. One could speak of Varady, the Mozart soprano. I guess most people discovered her in Böhm’s recordings of Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito, in which her crystalline yet flexible soprano was impossible to overlook. Although her neverending struggle with Italian language wouldn’t allow her true dramatic command in these recordings, there was an underlying energy that prevents one from calling those performances bland.

Her recordings in the roles of the Countess in Nozze di Figaro and Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni for Colin Davis, Kubelik and Karajan show a stylish and almost vocally immaculate singer, but there is always something paradoxical – the voice lacks the smoothness one expects to find in a lyric soprano in this repertoire, but a strong discipline, unfailing musicianship and technical abandon ultimately convince the listener that hers is the voice for these parts.

I somehow believe that her success in Mozart prima donna roles led her to the German lyric repertoire – and her recording of the title role in Sawallisch’s Arabella somehow exposed the notion that maybe Varady’s voice did not exactly fit this choice of roles. Listening to her Arabella with the checklist of an Arabella’s requirements, one must concede that she meets every demand made on her, but the floating creaminess every great Arabella features. One reviewer even called her voice too “vinegary” for the role. I don’t remember any record of  anything like a Marschallin or an Agathe, for example.

My next encounter with Varady found her as a jugendlich dramatisch soprano. This time her undeniable skills failed to impress me as before. Her Sieglinde (for Sawallisch) seems lost around register break, her Kaiserin (in Solti’s CDs) sounded basically shrill to my ears – only her touching vulnerable Senta (again for Sawallisch) stroke me as a success beyond dispute.

I would finally meet Varady in her lirico spinto incarnation. It may sound exaggerated, but I believe it was only then she finaly found her locus. There is always the problem of her exotic Italian pronunciation – but here the finely focused quality of her voice, the strong chest notes, the edge necessary to cut the orchestra all work in her favour. Her Verdi heroines have nothing matronly about them and one finally feels that her vivid dramatic temper is free from the self-contained poise required by Mozart and Strauss.

I write all this while listening to a broadcast of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino from 1986. The role takes her to her limits in the long scene with Padre Guardiano, but even then she sounds in her element. Her Leonora is a young, passionate and tormented heroine exactly as described in the libretto. Her La Vergine degli angeli is heavenly, her Pace, pace mio Dio has the necessary spiritual anguish and the closing scene is just perfect.

I am not a fan of this opera (I would cut the roles of Preziosilla and Melitone, to start with) and cannot compare Giuseppe Sinopoli’s conducting with a choice of other conductors – he certainly does beautiful things with the Bayerische Staatsorchester. I can recall a more energetic approach from Muti and a more theatrical atmosphere in Levine, but this live performance could never be called unconvincing. Marjana Lipovsek is in great voice as Preziosilla, but the rest of the cast is unfortunately below standard, including Kurt Moll’s utterly foreign Guardiano. Veriano Luchetti’s tenor sounds tight and hard-pressed and Wolfgang Brendel’s handsome baritone is never really comfortable with the writing of the part of Carlo. But this is Varady’s show and she alone is worth the detour.

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Let me start with the apologies – it is not the I am overbusy, but I am actually doing 100 things at the same time right now. That could be my excuse not to answer some e-mails I have received – but they are high on my “to do [too]” list!

Now the eulogies, which are actually related to the things I am actually doing right now. Because I am: a) preparing a course on History of Opera (it is amazing how fast we get rusty when we stay away of this “teaching” thing); b) reworking the discography of Bellini’s Sonnambula for re:opera; c) recording some CDs I owe lots of people (and, of course, I still have my “official” job), I have been listening to many different things.

I have to confess that preparing a CD for a friend who doesn’t like tenors (and wants to be convinced maybe she is wrong to feel that way about the poor guys who have to sing up there) has proved to be a very difficult task. I am trying to select examples of tenors who have more to show than stamina and fervour and would rather go for tone-colouring, legato and dynamic variety. I acknowledge that coping with high tessitura and those requirements is not easy. As I have decided to be strict and avoid glottal attacks, lachrimosity, carelessness in low register and other disfiguring effects, I was surprised to find myself entirely “dispossessed of” Italian repertoire. I must explain myself – my idea is giving pride of place to purity of line and user-friendlier tonal quality over temper or dramatic vividness.

As it is, so far the fully satisfying entries (in the sense of both technical and expressive perfection) are Nicolai Gedda singing Je crois entendre encore (from Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles) live in Munich, Rainer Trost singing Un’aura amorosa (in Gardiner’s Cosi) and I have decided to try my luck with Rolando Villazón’s intense Monteverdi (from Emmanuelle Haïm’s CD). I haven’t found the right example of Fritz Wunderlich yet, but it is a matter of honour to find it. In any case, I am pleased to check how great Francisco Araiza was in his pre-Wagnerian days. His Mozart concert arias (with Hager) and Schubert Lieder(both in studio and live in Hohenems) are the most lovely pieces of singing in my “choice” of arias so far – the warm radiance of his singing back then sounds as if Lucia Popp had been reborn a tenor. Nobody speaks of Araiza anymore – and this is really unfair! So here it is – the whole point in this post was to say that.

My other praise goes AGAIN for Joyce DiDonato. I have read what she wrote about Handel’s Alcina and cannot help saying she really got the point. I believe that the role of Alcina was a token of gratitude from the composer to the soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, who faifthfully followed him to the Covent Garden after the incidents who made him leave the King’s Theatre. Of course I have no proof of what I am saying, but one can felt that in the music.

Also, my admiration for DiDonato has known a new dimention now: she could count me as a fan both of her singing and blogging, but now I have also discovered her photos.

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Post scripta

Those have been busy days and although I try to keep posting, I still couldn’t find enough time to write about everything I wanted to write about. So here are some bits of different stuff:

- Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. I have often written about my apreciation for Anderson’s movies. This is a director who is able to work in a purely visual approach in an age in which the visual element is almost ever reduced to illustration to the script. While I was impressed by the graphic humour of The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou, the absence of emotional content made me think of how longer he could advance into the abstraction from a “regular” plot in search of a purely plastic goal. I think it is not presumptuous to suppose he made himself the same question. While family ties is the recurrent theme of his films, the detachment adopted in Steve Zissou seems to be left aside and the right touch of involvement found in The Royal Tennembaums seems to be found again. Although much of what is shown in Darjeeling seems to be subject of mockery – the absurd spiritual journey, the Kafka-esque train, the over-the-top Indian exoticism – family relationships are taken seriously. Most cleverly, we are shown three American brothers who engage into a overwrought and artifficial trip to self-discovery in India portrayed in Anderson’s hallmark classically conceived frames with controlled use of colours to the point they are expelled from the train and are confronted to a real-life situation of a real-life family in India. From this point on, everything starts to look more “real” – India starts to look less fantastic, the scenes acquire a documentary-like approach, the feelings between these characters begin to surface. Masterly.

- Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris. I like Julie Delpy and I left the theatre after watching Before Sunset convinced that Jesse (E. Hawke)’s wife and kid didn’t stand a ghost of a chance after Delpy’s singing that song to her guitar accompaniment. As far as I understood, Delpy co-wrote the dialogues in Before Sunset and a great deal of the movie’s charm has to do with them. Reading that Delpy had written and directed her own Paris adventure (again involving an American guy in French “hostile” territory) seemed to be a must-see. All I can say is that she has talent for the writing and directing bussiness – the film would be perfect but for the last scenes. Until we get to these scenes, the dialogues are (again) witty with an almost Woody Allen-esque verve, the characters are delightful, some jokes are more than worth the ticket price, this is Adam Goldberg’s best piece of acting ever and Daniel Brühl’s tiny role is hilarious – but please fogive me the sexism, but everything was going well until Delpy had to “discuss the relationship”. When the movie is exposed to the sudden and drastic shift, the structual coherence is lost and the irresistibly cynical sense of humour that steers us through this story is replaced by voiced-over sentimental nonsense. Flawed but still worth the detour.

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It is fashionable to say bad things about Kathleen Battle and I would rather face the tomatos than throw one of them at her. In spite of her tantrums, her video and audio recordings preserve what is essential about her – her seductive soprano leggiero always beautifully employed in Mozart and Handel. Finding Andrew Davis’s Messiah recorded live in Canada by EMI for US$ 4.00 was a ready-made decision for me. Of course, this is the kind of performance with ponderous recitatives, large orchestra and crowded chorus we used to live with before the 80’s. That said, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir offers impressive choral singing and the conductor yelds to the coloratura abilities of his soloists by offering them swift tempi when their divisions require that. Battle’s background in gospel music pays off in her enthusiastic fully engaged singing. If some of her decoration occasionally makes one think of the Methodist Episcopal Church rather than XVIIIth-century England, her sense of religious fervour is truer to the spirit of the music than the polite oratorio approach one often find in this music. Both John Aler and Samuel Ramey offer astonishing performances, tackling fast passagework with clockwork precision. Only mezzo Florence Quivar is a bit cautious in the contralto area of her voice, but hers is a sensitive performance nonetheless. This is hardly my first, second, third, fourth or fifth recommendation for this piece – but it certainly is worth more than US$ 4.00 considering the level of the talents involved.

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I owe my love to vocal music to one singer – Margaret Price. And my gratitude for her is neverending. It is very difficult for me not to buy a disc where she is featured, even in a minor part. She is the kind of singer who treats every note as if the whole score depended on it, and that is why no opportunity to listen to her singing is a waste of time: there is always riches of musical and poetic insight in reserve. That is why reading an interview of hers in which she stated that Norma was the role in which she was less satisfied with her results made me curious for life. This curiosity has been satisfied with an in-house recording from the Opernhaus Zürich in 1979.

Bellini’s Norma is of course a fearsome role and it is wiser to be careful than overconfident. In 1979, Price was in her best shape and even if – predictably - Bello a me ritorna and In mia man take her to her limits, her singing is always confident, expressive and beautiful. I don’t think it is exaggerated to say that her creamy soprano is the most beautiful I have ever heard in this part. Although she more than copes with the florid writing and long tessitura, her main virtue her classical approach to the role. I am trying to avoid the word “Mozartian”, because many will take this in the wrong way. If you persist in the mistaken of considering Mozartian singing something small-scaled, dispeptic and sanitized, then forget I wrote that. What I mean is the instrumentally sculpted phrasing, the precise combination of dramatic intention and musical expression, the nobility of tone – in this sense Margaret Price’s Norma is unique and she should be proud of it. This is not a verbally specific and grand-scale performance such as Callas’s or Scotto’s, but if you are curious to sample a Grisi-bound perspective to the title role, you should give it a chance.

In this performance, Price is ideally partnered by Agnes Baltsa’s Adalgisa. Her quasi-soprano mezzo was then taylor-made for this role. She is comfortable with the coloratura and her voice blends beautifully with her Norma’s. Bruno Prevedì is a solid Pollione, if not particularly imaginative and Matti Salminen’s Wagnerian bass makes Oroveso sound particularly “barbarian”. In any case, he was in very good voice. Nello Santi is less bureaucratic than expected and shows some interesting ideas that never put his cast in difficult situations. I found the accelerando finale ultimo particularly effective. It is a pity that the recorded sound is atrocious. The tape-recorded was obviously on the lap of someone in the audience, but the real bad news is that the microphone cannot resist loud dynamics involving more than one singer and the orchestra.

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I have just arrived from Santiago, a city I had never visited before. The whole idea was to take a look at the Teatro Municipal, their opera house, which was presenting Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. As the Chileans are keen on repeating, Santiago is not a touristic place but if you have two days before visiting the beautiful destinations in the countryside, it might be worth the time spent there. The old city center has some beautiful neoclassical building and if there were some charming cafés, nice restaurants or interesting shopping, I am sure it would have an interesting atmosphere. As it is, the Chilean seem to prefer other neighbourhoods. They seem to have a fondness for the Miami-fied Las Condes, but Providencia is one of the most beautiful residential areas I have ever seen. But nothing has caught my attention so vividly as the opera house – it is a small exquisite theatre and their season is certainly interesting. It seems that there is a strong German influence in Santiago and German opera has a special presence in their calendar.

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The Teatro Municipal’s music director Jan Latham-König has conducted many a Wagner and Strauss opera in Santiago – and trusting him Die Zauberflöte seemed to be a choice for heavy Mozart playing, as in the days in which Harnoncourt was just a baby. That preconceived notion was soon dispelled in the first bars of the overture: Latham-König’s Mozart not only is structurally crystalline but also dramatically and coherently conceived. His eye for detail and his care with clear pheasing are praiseworthy, and the orchestra’s dry string playing and the occasionally blunder in the brass section could easily be overlooked. Michael Hampe’s understated production verged on the artless and one could easily think of budget limitation, but in the end the show’s old-fashioned charm found a convincing note. Some moments really gave me the feeling of watching a production sprung from a black and white picture from the 30’s – and I only hope this was intentional!

Conductor and director had an animated cast to work with. I confess I was not really excited to read that Valentina Farcas was taking the role of Pamina. My previous experience with this singer was Salzburg’s video of Die Entführung der Serail, in which she is an extremely metallic-toned Blondchen. Live her soprano is far warmer, if diminute and lacking roundness in the higher reaches. Despite those drawbacks, she produced a most sensitive Ach, ich fühl’s. From this aria on, she showed her strengths in floating pianissimi and an impressively long breath. As the Königin der Nacht, Canadian soprano Aline Kutan resisted the temptation of making it pretty and produced forceful intense accounts of her arias. Her in alts are certainly impressive and her fioriture are really accurate. French tenor Xavier Mas has an extraordinarily velvety voice and a caressing line, but his whole method is too heavy for such a lyric instrument. Because of that, his ascents above high f were invariably tense. Maybe if he could relax and adopt a higher and more natural placement, he would achieve optimal results. It was good to see again Rodion Pogossov’s beautifully sung Papageno. He has indeed a most likeable stage persona – and witnessing him out of Julie Taymor’s Met Zauberflöte is an evidence that a less intrusive production is always healthy. Kristinn Sigmundsson was in excellent voice as Sarastro, dealing with the role’s problematic tessitura without any difficulty and singing his lines with true feeling for Mozartian style. The Teatro Municipal has some good talents at its disposal – the three ladies were excellent, especially Evelyn Ramírez’s Third Lady. Her strong contralto is a true find. Jenny Muñoz’s bell-toned Papagena was certainly refreshing and Gonzalo Araya was a firm-toned Monostatos.

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