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Archive for January, 2008

I remember a couple of years ago when this young sweet-looking pure-toned mezzo-soprano from the Czech Republic surfaced into the world of classical music media. I first saw her on video singing Bach’s Kantate BWV 199 and was immediately converted into a Magdalena Kozena’s fan. That said, I cannot state I have been an unconditional one – I believe that the French opera disc was a bit misguided (although there is much to cherish there) and the Handel disc… well, scroll down to read what I’ve said about it. But it seems that the fickle nature of the public has turned its thumbs downwards at the moment and, as much as poor Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, her luck has suddenly changed for a while. The ease with which she has been raised to fame has now become a constant effort to prove herself, which – in my opinion – is extremely unfair. Even when she is wrong, Kozena does not have to prove herself: she has already done it and proved she belongs into the list of serious artists in her generation (I would write “…of great singers…”, but it seems that this kind of artistry is usually measured in dB and histrionics).

I don’t know how wise was the idea of singing Rossini’s Cinderella live in such an inauspicious moment in her career. I remember an old interview in which she said she did not see herself singing anything by the composer from Pesaro in the future, because she didn’t feel connected to his music (truth be said, she mentioned then that Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier would be more like it, but I guess experience probably showed this was something like a pipedream for her). The outcome couldn’t be less promising – reviews were cold at best.

I feel inclined to write that certain externalities has some share of responsibility in the lukewarm impression on Kozena’s Cenerentola. By one of those coincidences made in hell, Cecilia Bartoli happened to be in town with her Malibran-on-the-road and include the Scene and Rondo finale from… La Cenerentola in the programme. It was expected from reviewers to compare them, but when an insensible one had the bad idea of liking Kozena better, the whole legion of Bartoli-fans started a gruesome campaign against the trespasser.

As I didn’t happen to be in London, I have to rely on Parsifal‘s in-house recordings (and thank him for his generosity) to say anything. Before I say anything, I must confess the Roman Diva does not count me among her admirers but nonetheless I muss admit that she still sings the hell out of that scene. I just don’t understand why Bartoli’s so-called supremacy must mean that Kozena should be stoned for her beautiful performance. Yes, I said beautiful.

I was surprised to find, against what I should expect, her low register fully functional in that role. Also, her excursions to the extreme top notes sounded crystalline to my ears, not to mention her fioriture are admirably clean (as usual). I am not a die-hard believer in Italianate style and never resist Mozartian poise (yes, I belong to those who like Gundula Janowitz’s Elisabeth, Gwyneth Jones’s Aida, Tatiana Troyanos’s Amneris [btw, I’ll be poisting on this subject next]). However, maybe because Kozena does not has a natural feeling for Rossinian lines (as she herself has acknowledged), her performance is basically uncommunicative. She expresses little sense of infatuation in her duet with the Prince, does not convey the necessary party-stopping glamour in her arrival at the ball and is a bit mechanical in the closing scene (a slower pace might have helped her there, I reckon). However, her vocalism is always secure, musicianly and pleasant in the ear. Therefore, I consider the stern criticism against her rather mean. I would even say she was probably the must-see feature in the show: the settings are widely considered ugly, the orchestra was indisciplined (and the conductor didn’t seem worried about making things less spectacular but tidier) and although Toby Spence sang well, the role is too high and fast for his voice and the results were rather hearty than charming. Of course, Simone Alberghini is a most reliable Dandini (as he was at the Met in 2005) despite a vibrato that can get loose sometimes and Alessandro Corbelli is a most experienced and charismatic if over-the-top Don Magnifico – but one could have sampled them in many other Cenerentole around the world.

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If it were possible to put Maria Guleghina and Hasmik Papian in a blender, maybe the Metropolitan Opera House would have found an ideal singer for the fearsome role of Norma in Bellini’s opera. But, alas!, life is never that simple. In any case, maybe because I had previously read all the trashing both singers have been receiving on-line, I have probably set my mind to find a positive note on their performances. And so I have. In their present shape, neither Guleghina nor Paspian could boast to be an exemplary Norma and they are even below the “but since Callas…”-excuse. That said, judging from the broadcasts of November 12th (Papian) and November 26th (Guleghina), I can honestly say that neither of them has covered themselves with shame.

It is difficult to tell which is Papian’s original Fach after all sorts of manipulation she has employed to sing roles such as Norma or Aida (incidentally, the only role in which I saw her live), but I would bet she is a lyric soprano whose former fresh-voiced self should have gone into the Desdemona-Amelia-Elisabetta slot. Her basic tone is still her main asset – hers is a pleasant velvety voice, reasonably flexible (although her coloratura is in the almost-off-track style), but whenever the line is too low, too high, too fast or requires the minimal cutting edge, the sound becomes helplessly bleached out. I cannot tell if she has little imagination or if overpartedness prevents her to employ whatever imagination she has. What is beyond doubt is that her results are decidedly bland. I disagree, however, with those who say it is better not to stage Norma with such a singer. Although she does not inhabit vocally or dramatically her Norma, she does give an idea of what the role more or less should be. Her performance is the type available in South American opera houses or German provincial theatres – it is certainly a decent if lackadaisical piece of singing.

Guleghina is a totally different case. In her performance, the spirit is all there – she evidently has a whole set of ideas of who her character is and employs all her weapons to share them with the audience. I would add she even has all the necessary weapons to accomplish her task – the problem is that either they are bit rusty or she herself should have warmed up before brandishing them after a long period of rest. What I mean is that nature is not to blame: she was born with the potential to be a perfect Norma. Her soprano has the size, the power, the range, the flexibility and the right colour for this role, but she has developed a plethora of bad habits that make it impossible for her to display any of these qualities on a consistent basis. During her performance, there is always this moments when things miraculously work – this low note is perfectly focused, that pianissimo floats, these melisme are perfectly articulated – and, when that happens, she more than delivers the goods. However, the next moment shows blurred coloratura, instable mezza voce, inaudible low register and erratic pitch.

Even if I run the risk of being thrown tomatos, I have to say that, although I find her infuriatingly imperfect, I like Guleghina. She has the generosity which is the hallmark of every great artist. The problem is that she does not seem to consider discipline part of what a devoted artist should have. In this performance, even when everything is going woefully wrong, she never spares herself – she always goes for the effect expected from her – she tries every pianissimo, she decorates her repeats, she even ventures in one or two high options. What I mean – although I prefer perfection, I can’t help being touched by sheer engagement. It is true I haven’t seen her Norma live – but I remember feeling that way when I saw her Aida and Tosca. Her enthusiasm made me fill in the blanks left by inappropriate technique.

I don’t think artists should read reviews – those are the communications between critics and the audience – but if I could presume to say anything she could read, I would tell her Mirella Freni’s wise advice: “I have always had a naturally placed voice. This is an advantage, but also a danger. When we begin, the voice is always there – or almost always. It is only later that we realise that the days when we are in olympic shape are quite rare and that technique is essential. I have the luck to love the physical aspect of singing, to have the talent to do what I call ‘engine check-up’. As soon as I feel the least tension, the least abuse of my vocal instrument, I painstakingly investigate the cause of the possible break-down and fix it”.

Last but not least, I was positively surprised by Dolora Zajick’s Adalgisa. Although she does not suggest a young innocent woman, she avoids coming up too strongly as when she sings, for instance, Azucena. Her voice is still quite flexible and her high notes are generally comfortable. Maybe she was just in better voice later in November, but I have the impression the interaction with Guleghina had a positive effect on her (also on the tenor, I would say).

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Joachim Lafosse seems to be another born-ready talent. Nue proprieté, his third feature-length movie, is an absolute masterpiece. In his no-frills photography, Lafosse creates the necessary claustrophobic atmosphere to tell the story of a mother stuck with her two sons in a country house in Belgium and how her attempt to break free from her virtual house-imprisonment by selling the house itself gradually leads this family to a state of near civil war. I particularly enjoy the perfect economy of means with which the story is told: every scene counts, every scenic element serves its purpose. The dry approach involves the absence of a soundtrack until the last scene, in which a nightmarish version of Mahler’s Urlicht is used to shattering effect. Also, situations that seemed to be apparently devoid of special meaning later reveal their full importance. Just compare the first scene and the last one to see how innoncent jokes already revealed the bitter truth that bound these people together.

And there is a sensational cast – the fabulous Isabelle Huppert finally finds again a role to the level of her talents and the brothers Jerémie and Yannick Renier offer almost unebearably intense take-no-hostages performances. The building tension offered by these actors is so overwhelming that you will take some time to chill out after this subtle but powerful movie.

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Born ready

The first film by Wes Anderson I have seen happened to be The Royal Tenenbaums – but the truth is I only thought this was a great movie when I saw it for the second time. The TV was silent and I was a bit sleepy but not enough to fall asleep – and followed the movie only through its images. This experience converted me into a Wes Anderson-fan for life. The visual sophistication I found there struck me not only as intelligent and original, but also unique. I have written here about what I see as being his development from this movie to The Darjeeling Limited – but I had not seen his first two movies until last week. Bottle Rocket was released in 1996 and it is already a “mature” Wes Anderson movie – all the elements one would see in his other movies are already there: the almost neoclassical poise of his framing, the existence of complicated projects run by at least one of his characters, the dead-end situation towards which these character go while trying to find their place in the world, to name a few. What makes Bottle Rocket an “early” movie is perhaps some sort of enthusiasm that makes it head towards many different directions at the same time (without ever loosing of sight his final aim, I would say).

His next movie, Rushmore, features a richer production and one of those almost absurdly complex outfits which would appear in his other movies (the family house in Tenenbaums, the ship in Steve Zissou, the train in Darjeeling), which is the school with its impossible list of extra-curriculars. I couldn’t help loving this movie – since my own school had so many extra-curriculars and I enrolled in each one of them (the school vegetable garden stands out in my memory…) and always invented some overambitious projects, such as staging my own adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (in which I had, of course, the role of Hercule Poirot…) or publishing a magazine named Graphic Juice… As you can see I really found a connection with this movie…

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