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Archive for December, 2007

I thought I would take forever to decide which would be my first download in DGG’s new website - after all, there were so many deleted items or those never released on CD, but it soon occured to me that the way to go should be purchasing the few tracks I would like to hear in CD’s the remaining content of which I had no curiosity about otherwise. Suddenly the idea of sampling Tatiana Troyanos’s Cleopatra in Karl Richter’s recording popped up in my mind. Richter’s conducting was supposed to be helplessly heavy and following Fischer-Dieskau’s contrived way through Handel coloratura is not a priori my idea of fun – but Tatiana Troyanos…! The first time I heard her voice was in Karl Böhm’s recording of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio and I thought: if Ella Fitzgerald sang opera, it would be more or less like that. And I have been an inconditional fan since then.

Having downloaded all Cleopatra’s aria (including Tu la mia stella sei and Venere bella) and listened to them (many and many… and many times), I have to say – I am spellbound. I simply disagree with all other reviewers. First of all, I don’t find Richter’s conducting heavy at all in these items (I cannot say anything about the rest of the opera) – the tempi are flowing, the orchestra is not thick as I guessed and there is more than graciousness going on there. As I use to do when I am being really subjective, I’ll disclosure the liabilities before someone point them out – she is a bit overserious and probably maybe austere in her interpretation, but no Cleopatra could dream to be seductive without that sexy suntanned voice. If that voice were a person, it would be Catherina Zeta-Jones; if it were food, it would be dark chocolate (Pierre Marcolini, of course); if it were a place, it would be Venice. Mix them all together and what have you got? Just a picture of what a Cleopatra should be.

With my Troyanos’s highlights, I shouldn’t need more about this recording – but I have to confess I am curious to hear further. A die-hard period-practices fundamentalist would be horrified to read me saying that one positive surprise was to listen to an aria like, say, Venere bella in a way every note has time to breath and blossom, instead of an exhilarating display of fioriture in which the singer hardly has time to make sense with the text. Of course, a René Jacobs or a Marc Minkowski are able to reveal all the facettes of a work like Giulio Cesare in Egitto in a way good old Richter couldn’t or wouldn’t (because of the approach to Handel’s works in those days, I would say), but I am convinced that knowing the right time to relax a bit certainly add flavour in key points of the score.

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Waltraud’s triumph

I really don’t get this whole fuss about Scala’s season opening every year – it is supposed to be a big deal if you live in Italy and could get a ticket and appear next to the Italian rich and famous who probably don’t really care for music anyway. I even happen to know someone who refused an official invitation (no comments). Anyway, as the world is a happy place and mankind has reached a perfect state of harmony, newspapers all over the world have nothing else to tell about and decided to write a lot about the Barenboim/Chéreau Tristan. Curiously, everything I read did not really made me feel I was actually missing anything special, but this could not pass unnoticed. I have seen only some excerpts and Chéreau’s production, the rest of the cast – so far there is nothing to die for there. On the other hand, Barenboim seems to have done a very good job – but all that pales next to the wonderful Waltraud Meier. I have always found her rendition of the so-called act I’s “narration and curse” splendid – every word and note rich with meaning and depth – and she has one of those voices that go beyond beautiful/not beautiful: it goes straight to the soul. She still is magnificent in this role and her voice is in very great shape. Of course, she is a mezzo dealing with soprano stuff – but in spite of all that she does it beautifully and turns all disadvantages into advantages.

Unfortunately, I have seen her only once – a splendid Ortrud in Berlin in 1999 – and it was one of the rare experiences in which your expectations are entirely fulfilled.

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The Norma debacle at the Metropolitan Opera House has ignited debated whether opera houses should stage such work without a prima donna up to the almost impossible demands made by the title role. This takes us to the question – how often does a theatre has an amazing Norma at its disposal? Many singers have experimented with the role – sometimes to great effect – but left it before it started to take its toil, others have overstayed to their own regret. In any case, considering the interpretative and technical difficulties involved, every good Norma should make into the gramophone. Margaret Price, for example, wasn’t lucky enough to get a decent broadcast and we should thank those half-industrious, half-crazy people who carry a clandestine tape-recorder to the theatre for the memento of her beautiful account of the role.

Fortunately, Nelly Miriciou had a different fate, for a 1999 broadcast of her Norma from Amsterdam is a valuable document of a truly great performance. Although the role is a bit high for her, she is the kind of singer who turns every disadvantage into advantage and creates a three-dimensional role by virtue of technical skill, natural feeling for the words allied to crystalline diction and a really fiery temper. When Adalgisa asks her to depose the celestial authority that surrounds her, for once the listener understands that request, for Miricioiu displays amazing command in public scenes but is also capable of touching tenderness. The long duet with Adalgisa is a perfect exemple. As required, she mellows into intimate melancholy while listening to the young woman’s story, but as soon as she starts to suspect that they are speaking of Pollione, her voice shifts immediately back to her formidable self through tone colouring alone. The closing scene is also original and effective, the keynote being rather worldweariness than regret. Her pleas to her father in favour of her sons show rather spiritual exhaustion than despair.

Miricioiu is brilliantly partnered by Violeta Urmana, a superlative Adalgisa. Her warm sensuous voice was in mint condition and she tackles her division with ease and graciousness and successfully portrays her character’s youth and naiveté. It is a pity that the only remaining great singer in this recording is Wilke Te Broemmelstroete, a particularly noticeable Clotilde. Both Carlo Ventre’s Pollione and Dmitri Kavrakos’s Oroveso are lackadaisical if unobtrosive. Maurizio Barbacini conducts an intense and forward-moving performance and the Dutch orchestra is up to the task.

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Listening to the broadcast of Handel’s Ariodante from Geneva (November 17th), I began to fear that a new and definitely unwelcome fashion may have crept into the performance style of Handel works. The two or three readers of this weblog may remember my opinion about Magdalena Kozená’s new Handel disc. Apparently, the Czech mezzo-soprano is not the only victim of this quasi Schwarzkopfian heavy interpretative style.

Although Switzerland recalls rather cold clockwork precision, the highly talented group of singers gathered there is amazingly heavy-handed in their treatment of Handel, as if they were trying to infuse large doses of theatricality and drama in every syllable, regardless if the patient actually needs this medicine – or if he is, for that matter, really ill.

It is true that there is a preconceived notion that Handel’s music is rather graceful than powerful and that his operas’ contrived libretti are helpless. But that is the prejudiced opinion. Artists should know better and this new let’s-help-the-composer-to-get-his-point-clear approach is ultimately offensive to the genius who created these impressive and undying masterpieces. Although these singers might have the impression that they are giving their hearts and soul to Handel while pumping their own emotionalism and excitement into Handel’s music, they are actually being narcissistic and concentrating too much in their own excitement. I know that there is no historical evidence whatsoever of how a singer should tackle interpretation of Handel operas, but I would simply let the music speak for itself too see which approach fits the music better.

We must always keep in mind that, although human feelings are always the same, the way they are portrayed in art has changed a lot. I am sure that there are lots of people in New York or Paris who were born with a post-modern Weltanschauung, but the rest of us tend to have a default Romantic point-of-view. This is probably why most people see baroque opera as cold technical display. However, those who have interest in baroque art and its complex code of expression, the affetti, will understand that these works are immerse in emotions, once you open your eyes to the peculiarities of its aesthetics. When a singer drowns the purity of a line with Puccinian vibrant top notes and parlando effects, he is presenting nothing other than a transvesti of a performance, neither powerful in the way a Wagnerian or a Verdian would recognise it nor satisfying in its unstylishness for those who happen to care about that.

When you listen to Lorraine Hunt’s Scherza, infida, there are no artifficially inserted interpretative reminders of Ariodante’s predicaments; the much lamented late American mezzo-soprano’s performance is a single profound statement of pain and despair. Her inbuilt intensity doesn’t need to go against Handelian phrases; on the contrary, it invests Handelian lines, it reveals the expression reserved in the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic brushstrokes with which the master portrayed that particular dramatic situation.

Although Waltraud Meier probably never sang any note by Handel in her life, I remember an interview of hers in which she says that the great challenge for an artist is to surrender. Singers tend to clad themselves with ideas before they go on stage in order to produce this or that impression – but according to Meier letting the music speak by itself is the ultimate courageous act: going before the audience and not trying to produce this or that impression but open yourself to the whole spectrum of expressive possibilities. Of course, this is risky business if you don’t have artistic maturity.

Anyway, back to Geneva, I have to confess the main issue is, of course, Joyce DiDonato. She is a great Handelian singer whose purity of line, technical finish and good taste rarely let the listener down. Curiously, the only time I really did not connect to a performance by her was watching her DVD of Handel’s Hercules, in which her Dejanira was so expressionistically handled that I couldn’t help thinking she was having far more fun than I was. Her Ariodante does not reach that level of schyzophrenia, but again I did not recognise her in that over-the-top approach which only made her voice tense and her singing a bit unstylish. When Patricia Petibon does that in the same performance, it does not surprise me. I always have the impression she is trying to sing Verdi’s La Forza del Destino into baroque music, making her damsells in distress sound nothing but particularly hysterical.

I have read that DiDonato is really going deep into her portrayal of Alcina, studying the text with thorough investigative eye and discovering many and many things, but I hope the results are not preciosistic and overambitious, that all those discoveries of hers will illuminate rather than overshadow the dramatic truth she is looking for. It would be a pity to see her fall in the same trap Kozená could not avoid.

PS – On second thought, I realise I was unfair to speak about the cast in Geneva’s Ariodante in a generic way. I should point out that Varduhi Abrahamyan is an outstanding Polinesso, a name to watch, and that Amanda Forsythe and Charles Workman are quite commendable in the parts of Dalinda and Lucanio. Patricia Petibon herself has indeed some beautiful moments, but most of the time she is trying to pour Medea-like intensity into the role of the vulnerable Ginevra. If she had a Medea-like voice, one could discuss if this is a valid possibility. As for Joyce DiDonato, I have the impression that, although she sang it unfailingly well, the role is a bit low for her voice and if you overlook the almost verismo-like pathos of Scherza, infida or Cieca notte, there is a breathtaking Doppo notte sung with true technical aplomb. I must point out that reviewers who saw the opera live tended to have the opposite opinion of mine – I am sure that live at the theatre the visuals must have given sense to a musical performance that sounds overdone when listened to alone.

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It is a bit silly to confess a soft spot for Deutsche Grammophon, but I am afraid that used to be my case.. When I was a kid and saw the LPs with the beautiful yellow table, I couldn’t help feeling tempted to buy them. I remember driving my father to madness to buy me Karajan’s Four Seasons (yes, Vivaldi’s…) because of that cover with the apples and the yellow logo. Then there were the car stickers – I never knew (to this day) how some people got them and I was crazy to get one myself. I even considered butchering one of my LP covers just to stick it to the family’s car… Anyway, my feeling for DGG are rekindled by their admirable new policy of offering their whole catalogue for download all over the world, while launching a new beautiful and user-friendly website. I hope all other labels follow the noble exemple and start to treat their clients as clients and not as potential criminals, EMI above all. As an exemplary customer, I always prefer to buy original CDs as my humble contribution the music industry on which all music lovers depend. Therefore, being refused in amazon.com, itunes store etc offended me to the bones. Having one’s honest money refused is simply an invitation to piracy – and I am glad Deutsche Grammophon is the first large-scale label to recognise that, if you want to make money, you must make your customers welcome.

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