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Archive for February, 2008

Madrid

There are countries where there is some sort of rivalry between two cities – Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sao Paulo and Rio, Milan and Rome etc. In Spain, it is Barcelona and Madrid. Before I took my flight, many Madrid partisans and Barcelona partisans have tried to convince me that I would find their favourite city better. I have to confess that, in the short run, Barcelona has a clear advantage: it is an extremely sophisticated and cultured place that still exerting influence both for domestic and international purposes. Madrid is more stately and traditional and also a bit more decadent, in the Viennese sense of the word.

I have the impression, though, that in the long run one would finally feel more at home in Madrid. Behind its impressive imperial boulevards, there are hidden charms, but they are actually really hidden and without the help of local friends you won´t really find it. But I´ll write more about Madrid when I get home. This is my last day here, I still have to see Véronique Gens and there is also Lisbon ahead.

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Although everybody knows that Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla is the source of inspiration for what would become Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart´s Don Giovanni, the truth is that few people have seen the play outside Spain. As the British director responsible for the production at the Teatro de la Abadía, Dan Jemmett, himself explains, the text does not survive translation very well. If you think Italian is a dramatic language, you should REALLY check Spanish, in which “How are you? Fine, thanks” sounds like “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!¨.

As it is, although you do miss Mozart when the statue of the Commendatore appears on stage, Molina’s Spanish verses still do the trick either in funny or sad moments. Actually, the fact that most scenes involve people complaining about their disappointments with love must have something to do with the fact that the action is staged in a bar and people are almost invariably having a drink. The idea here is rather stylizing than updating and the actors handle their multiple roles very convincingly. The only actor who stays in one part throughout is Antonio Gil, taking the title role. His energy, charisma and animation are indeed amazing. It seems he leads an international career in different European stages – and I can see why.

The fact that the soundtrack involves lots of reggae music (as played in the bar’s stereo) is a bit of a turn-off for Mozartians, but it certainly works as a turn-on when Don Juan uses it to seduce his “victims” in dance numbers recalling Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. If there is one thing I dislike about this staging is a sort of “magic” thing some characters do with their hands in order to bring to scene some elements which are off stage – I found it terribly unconvincing. Also, the last scene could have done better with some lighting trick or something that showed the nightmarish atmosphere other than Gil’s excellent acting

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Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is an example of opera that disappeared from the seasons of opera houses all over the world only to be ressurrected in this new century. In Madrid for example, the opera has rarely been heard since the 1920′s with the notable exception of a run of performances in the 1970′s in the Teatro de la Zarzuela. And this may account for the cold reception by the audience on February 26th. I had the impression most people at the Teatro Real had no idea of what kind of opera this is and what they should expect.

I happened to be in the Metropolitan Opera’s ressurrection of the same opera in 2006 (also with Violeta Urmana). There, an audience that had been treated many and many times on a regular basis until the 1960′s knows very well what they are supposed to find in this very peculiar work. 

Violeta Urmana is possibly the greatest Gioconda of her generation. Her voice lacks some Italianate brightness, but she handles the difficult writing superbly – her high pianissimo in Madre! Enzo adorato, ah, come io t´amo! was exquisitely handled and she has no problem with the omnipresent percussive acuti, but the lack of encouragement from the audience might have some share of responsibility in her somewhat detached approach. Only in the last act, the proceedings seemed to launch from routine – and conductor Evelino Pidò cannot be held responsible for the lack of excitement. His conducting was exemplary – the polichrome aspect of Ponchielli’s orchestration was shown with mastery and he handled the dramatic effects in the score most efficiently. The house band responded with animation.

Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato offered a praiseworthy performance – his lyric tenor is adapted to emulate a lirico spinto and the trick is very noticeable, but he has a handsome voice and offers some elegant shading into mezza voce when this is necessary. His Cielo e mar had the right balance between ardour and elegance and if his performance is not more memorable, it is only because one feels how close to his limits he is – although expertly – operating. Similarly, baritone Lado Ataneli was a most reliable Barnaba – he sang with unfailing firm tone and sense of line and resisted the kind of vulgarity most baritones in this kind of role seem to indulge.

 In the Met, Urmana sang her Gioconda next to Olga Borodina’s Laura and their scenes were always the highlight of the evening. Elisabetta Fiorillo’s overvibrant mezzo lacks colour and handles awkwardly the passaggio. She does not look or sound attractive and it is difficult to understand why Enzo would prefer her to that nice lady with the pianissimi. Elena Zaremba was similarly overvibrant and it was difficult to guess which notes she was singing so large her vibrato. Her expression of gratitude in act II was far from touching as it should be.

When it comes to Orlin Anastassov, I cannot deny my dissatisfaction with his performance. If you put Paata Burchuladze and Sergei Leiferkus in a blender, the result must be Orlin Anastassov. It is a guttural voice with unclear vowels and this kind of  Leiferkus-like metallic attack. He is a young singer and maybe he should work a bit more in his Italian (and Italian singing style in general) before tackling this kind of role.

Pierluigi Pizzi’s production has been featured in the DVD from the Teatro del Liceu. At first the sets look elegant, but in order to accomodate the gondolas, the sceneries are unconvincingly transformed into a palace, a harbour and most of all Gioconda’s house (as portrayed here, the audience could have the impression she lives in the streets).  I am not fond of the all-in-three-colours costumes, but the most offensive thing is the evident lack of stage direction. Singers are generally standing in the wrong place for the dramatic action, move around with no apparent intent and in the end you really don’t care for what is going on stage. That was probably the point of coreographing a ballet “representing the hours of the day”, as Alvise explains, that has nothing to do with the hours of the day or any identifiable storyline. That said, the dancers were very fine and got the loudest applauses in the evening.

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Being acquainted with Calixto Bieito’ s production of Don Giovanni from the Teatro del Liceu on video, I thought it would be interesting to sample the controversial director in his own field and got a ticket to his adaptation of chivalric novel Tirant lo blanc, written in the XVth Century by Joanot Martorell.  Although this book is to Catalan language what Dante’s Divina Commedia is to Italian, it is primarily known abroad as Don Quixote’s favourite book.

My first and foremost curiosity was to know how any director would adapt this sort of book into a theatrical play, given the amount of battle scenes and other large-scale events. It came to mind a very creative production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Rio, in which war scenes were portrayed as American football matches and Greek heroes were hailed by cheerleaders (I swear it was not stupid as this sounds), but Bieito seemed to focus on different aspects of the work.

As I understood it, his adaptation and staging centered in the nodal point of chivalric love, to which death and sex converged in an unprecedented and probably never repeated way. Although the main events in the book are clearly represented in the play, someone who doesn’ t know the story would have some trouble to follow the plot (but this seems to be a general rule in Regietheater), since all aspects are seen through the lenses of this repressed sexuality conveyed to violence and religion.

Reading these lines, you would probably think that there was nothing gruesome portrayed on stage, but that would not be the case. In order to house this production, Teatre Romea had to be adapted. The proscenium stage was arranged in order to fit a red catwalk along which the audience would be seated. This configuration not only brings the action close to the audience, but also the audience into the drama. The main scene of the play is a combo of a battle and wedding, both of them portrayed with the help of a kitchen. To the battle part of the scene, Valencia’ s tomatina was shown on video, while the actors stripped, threw the blood of a rabit on each other, shouted at each other etc. I reckon it was stage stage blood, but there were two actual dead peeled rabbits (as in Polanski’ s Repulsion) actually dripping. In this scene, those seated by the catwalk were actually terrified that some of this food would be thrown on them! When the battle is over, there is time to party and to let go a bit of the tension, so why not a wedding? The ceremony is a fashion show featuring all characters while Madonna’ s music poured from the speakers and paella and wine were served to the audience. If you guessed few of those treated to a plate and a glass ventured to taste it after seeing those dead rabbits and those people covered in blood, you’re right. Later on, in a scene when Tirant baptises thousands of heathens, one actor in underwear covered with mud sprinkled water around to the desperation of these people (if you wonder why I tell this in such a detached way, the reason is that my seat was in the third level, from where I could safely see everything from above – now I see why the nice lady at the box office offered me this place on seeing I was a tourist).

(You might wonder how I could make through a play staged in Catalan without supertitles. Actually, if you know some Spanish and some French, you can more or less follow a Catalan dialogue. The nouns are always easy to understand, the verbs are a different story… In any case, I could get the general sense of most dialogues and even more specifically when a particular actor had outstandingly good diction, but the previous knowledge of the plot was essential to the whole venture.)

If you ask me what was my final impression on this play, well, I must say I found it worth the visit for a change. Bieito’ s insight to the chivalric novel is genuinely thought-provoking and, although one feels that the creative team and the actors are heaving far more fun than the audience (another general rule of Regietheater), differently from similar plays in this genre, you would actually laugh in the comedy passages, understand most of the ironies and references and even get touched in the most lyric moments. However, the show’ s main feature is undeniably the outstanding cast. These people are amazingly talented. For example, Alicia Ferrer (playing the part of the “blind organist”) not only acts, but plays the soundtrack in the organ while singing with a perfectly trained voice fiendishly dissonant intervals, in which she was joined by the equally adept Begona Alberdi, Alina Furman and Josep Ferrer. And when I mean the soundtrack was difficult – I mean having these people produce very high notes in intervals of a minor second, to start with.  But I don’ t mean that these people can only sing – they perform some very acrobatic and verbose scenes with amazing accuracy. Most directors wouldn’ t trust their casts with actual knives cutting vegetable while singing on stage (at least, most insurances company would NOT cover that!).

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Lisa Saffer and David Daniels are two American singers whose Handelian reputations are long established. Tonight they have teamed with Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie to offer an all-Handel concert in the Teatro del Liceu.

A whole generation of admirers of Handel operas have first listened to many famous arias with Saffer in Nicholas McGegan’ s pioneer recordings. Her  soprano has lost a bit of its former sheen – and maybe that is why she has been kept away from the gramophone since long. On listening to her opening item in the program, Voglio amare, from Partenope, this idea seemed very clear to me. She squeezed her way up in an uncomfortable way and much of the charm she projected was confined to her extremely likeable charismatic stage presence. Cleopatra’ s Non disperar only confirmed this first impression - strained high notes hardly suggest the nonchalance this aria requires. By then, I was truly sorry, for Saffer is a most intelligent and stylish singer. Fortunately, the intermission proved to be most healthy to her voice. Her Lascia ch’ io pianga from Rinaldo was exquisitely sung in warm and lovely voice. Semele’ s Myself I shall adore is a fearsome aria requiring true virtuoso quality – and even if the voice could be a bit more radiant, she tackled her divisions with impressive accuracy. More than that: she is a singer who masters the art of transmitting emotion in her coloratura – a rare talent today,

I have in my Ipod two Giulio Cesares with David Daniels – one from 1999 (if I am not mistaken) when he sang the part of Sesto and one from last year in which he had the title role. It is impossible not to notice that much of the brightness in his tone has declined considerably in these eight years. And this impression was confirmed in his first aria in the program, Va tacito e nascosto. His voice was rather pale and did not carried very well into the hall -  low notes were virtually inaudible. This first impression was quickly dismissed by a more lyric aria, Dove sei from Rodelinda, in which his legato and sensitive phrasing were shown to advantage. It seems that the intermission was also most positive for Daniels – his Aure, deh, per pieta was even more smoothly and touchingly sung. Even if his voice does not suggest heroic quality, he proved capable of producing the right sense of bravura in Furibondo spira il vento from Partenope through the fearlessness of his runs – a genuine tour de force. 

Both duets (Io t’abbraccio from Rodelinda and Più amabile beltà from Giulio Cesare) showed absolute congeniality between these singers, but the encores were actually the greatest moments in the evening. Theodora’ s To thee, thou glorious son of worth awakened in Saffer the bell-toned quality of her old recordings and both singers’  voices blended scrumptiously. Monteverdi’ s final duet from L’ Incoronazione di Poppea was a showpiece of erotic mezza voce; that was truly a memorable moment.

I have always had a good opinion of Bernard Labadie, but tonight he proved to be a masterly Handelian. His sophisticated sense of dynamics and rhythm brings welcome variety to repeats and he made his chamber orchestra (a handpicked group of musicians from the house band, if I am not mistaken) play with enthusiasm and discipline in the orchestral items of the program (a suite made of the overture and dance numbers from Alcina and highlights from Water Music, suite no. 3.

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My relationship with Donizetti’ s Lucrezia Borgia was love at first hearing when I first bought Jonel Perlea’ s RCA recording. I’d known Victor Hugo’ s play and thought the plot (but not the overwrought dialogues) compelling, but the truth is Felice Romani’ s inutilia truncat did a great service to the play and Donizetti’ s structural concision and theatrical understanding were at its best.  Seeing the work without costumes and sets – in concert version – and not missing the slightest prop proved my impressions right. Provided you have the cast to make it work is something one might say when we’ re speaking of a bel canto opera – but then I would have to guess the consequence of bad casting in these circumstances, because the Gran Teatre del Liceu has taken the pains to find the best group of singers one could possibly imagine these days.

Before I write anything else, I will acknowledge from the start that Edita Gruberova’ s soprano is hardly the Méric-Lalande-type of voice and, if you’ re used to Montserrat Caballe’ s recording of this role, you’ ll certainly miss the extra weight, colour and richness in the low notes. That said, differently from what she did in her recording of Rossini’ s Semiramide,  she didn’ t invariably  resort to upward variations (unless in repeats, when she were more or less “entitled” to do so, so to speak). To do her justice, I should add that she was particularly adept in managing her naturally ungenerous low register. Although one wouldn’ t hear spacious sounds in that area of her voice, focus was always there.

As in her Norma or Elisabetta (in Roberto Devereux), the amazing girlishness of her voice makes it a bit difficult for her to be truly convincing in these maternal roles, but if you like bel canto in the grand style, her Lucrezia has unending supply of high pianissimi, dictionary-perfect messa di voce, perfectly articulated divisions etc. For example, hearing the sequence of trills in the end of Com’ è bello done to perfection live at the theatre was like witnessing a miracle. As expected, she chose the showpiece Era desso il figlio mio to close the opera – and it was fascinating to see her weighing with Swiss-clockmaker precision the expressive and technical demands of this difficult scene (here made following the composite ending with the tenor’ s death and then the soprano’ s big aria).

Although the title role in Lucrezia Borgia is fearsome, this is truly an ensemble opera and Gruberova had fellow singers who left nothing to be desired and could never be overshadowed even by such an admirable prima donna.

As Gennaro, Josep Bros sang with unending graciousness, seamless legato and apollonian ease with top notes. Apart from one or two forced acuti in  T’ amo qual s’ ama un angelo (the aria written for Nikolai Ivanov), there is absolutely nothing less than exemplary in his stylish and sensitive performance. Although Ewa Podles’ s contralto has more than a splash of throatiness  these days (what makes her sometimes inaudible in ensembles), her graphical account of Orsini’ s narration in the Prologue was truly hair-raising and the panache displayed in Il segreto per esser felice (ornamented with a Spanish flavour, maybe as a tribute to the audience) was simply irresistible. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s bass should be a bit more flamboyant in order to make his Don Alfonso more dangerous, but he sang with firm tone and knowledge of style throughout. The minor roles were all splendidly taken.

Conductor Stefan Anton Reck was truly a positive surprise – his sense of theatricality is praiseworthy, especially the way he produced his effective orchestral effects without ever drowning his singers. He was also able to drive his orchestra through an unusually polished performance even when the dramatic situations required swift tempi.

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I’ve read around so many negative opinion on Karita Mattila’s Manon, especially from those who saw the cinecast, that I felt I should say something in her favour. First of all, it seems that the close-up shooting made Mattila’s acting seem ridiculous and unnatural. I must say that this was not the impression I had live at the theatre.

With the help of distance, she looked convincingly young. I am sure that the close-ups may have turned her jeune fille-acting a bit strange for a woman in her 50′s. But again – from a seat at the theatre, she looked believably innocent in act I (as she was supposed to).

When it comes to act II, it seems again that her spoiled-girl attitude didn’t survive the proximity of the cameras’ lenses.  Although one may discuss her choice to portray Manon that way, I may sound repetitive, but in the theatre she looked girlish enough to make it work. In any case, I think she has a point in her approach. There is nothing lady-like about Manon – she is not well-bred and all her elegance comes from her striking good-looks and sex appeal.

In one passage of Prevost’s book, Manon has arranged to meet one admirer in order to obtain some expensive gifts from him and then run away with Des Grieux. He is not entirely convinced she is being honest about the whole adventure, but she explains that, although she loves him, she cannot part with the prospect of making some money out of it. The plan is settled – she would insist to go to the Comédie with the rich gentleman and, during the intermission, she would invent an excuse and then run away.

While Des Grieux is strategically waiting for her, a young woman appears with a note from Manon. “G… M… has received her with politeness and magnificence beyond expectation. He covered her with presents and promised her the life of a queen. She assured me nonetheless that she had not forgotten me in this new splendour, but she was not able to convince G… M… to take her to the Comédie and had to postpone the pleasure of seeing me to another day. In order to make amends somehow for the distress those news may have caused, she had taken the pains to find me one of the most charming girls in Paris to deliver me this message. Yours faithfully, Manon Lescaut.”

Compared to something like that, kicking pillows and making fun of her dance teacher sounds rather innocent. I remember hearing a woman next to me saying she disagreed with Mattila’s intent to show Manon as a prostitute or something. But the truth is that this is not really far away from what the character is about. That said, I believe that libretto couldn’t help concentrating too much the plot into a few scenes and the singer/actress would be in more advantage in focusing her portrayal in the allure, the seduction (instead of the nastiness).

I know it is not fashionable to say good things about Kiri Te Kanawa, but I find her acting in the video from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, particularly convincing and effective. She takes advantage of her natural “iciness” to portray Manon’s selfishness and I do believe that this kind of haughtiness is something you find in many beautiful women who are convinced (probably by experience…) that the whole world is at her service.

In Manon’s case, reversal of fortune makes her finally see that in a particularly touching (in Prevost’s sentimentalized style) passage of the book: “You will be then the richest person in the universe, she answered, for, if there is no love in this world such as the one you feel for me, it is also impossible for someone to be more loved than you are. I make myself justice, she continued. I know too well that I have never deserved the exceptional attachment you formed for me. I have caused you suffering that you could have not forgiven without extreme generosity. I was shallow and flighty and, even if I have always desperately loved you, I was nothing but an ingrate. But you cannot believe how much I have changed. The tears you saw me shed so often since we have left France never had my own misery for object. I’ve ceased to feel miserable myself since you have started to share my fate with me. I have only cried out of tenderness and compassion for you. I cannot forgive myself for having been able to cause you distress. I cannot stop reproaching myself for my inconstancy and being moved on admiring what love has made you capable of doing for an unfortunate creature who was never worthy of these favours and who could never pay you even with all her blood, she added weeping abundantly, half  the trouble she has caused you”. [Please forgive the poor translations.]

As a final note, I am not speaking here of the musical aspects of Mattila’s Manon – the idea here is to say that I find the criticism against her acting in the Met’s production exaggerated. She has reasons to portray the character the way she did, as the serious artist she has always been.

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New York was cold and snowy and I took my flight from Brasilia, where it is warm and rainy. I guess I was supposed to get an allergic reaction or some kind of flu, but it seems that I was the only healthy person in the Metropolitan Opera for a week or two. Those people cough as if they were all stand-in’s for Mimì in La Bohème.

The most curious thing about coughing is the dynamics. If those people were really sick, they would cough out of control in any given time, but experience has shown me that opera coughing has its own rules. One would expect people to cough during orchestral fortissimo passages, when they would go more or less unnoticed – but the fact is that pianissimi seem to have an encouraging effect on people’s tracheae. For example, you can almost predict that the Marschallin and the violins in the end of Rosenkavalier’s Act 1 are going to be drowned in coughing…

Other interesting aspect of opera coughing is that everyone’s moms tell you to cover your mouth with your hand – or better – with a handkerchief. This makes the noise far less loud and it is also considered polite, but it seems that the audiences feel that they should contribute to the music-making by a generous unprotected open-mouth coughing. Thus they can be recorded to posterity while Montserrat Caballé was trying to do justice to the ppp markings in the score.

I intend to research further in this subject.

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Sorry – it is awful to hate things, but it must have vent or inward hating will consume me. Now that I have a proper blog, I have to say I like proper booklets – with photos of the production so that I can remind how much I liked/disliked it, erudite tests about Nietzsche and  opera that I am never going to read and some advertisement by EMI or Deutsche Grammophon about a disc I am probably not going to buy. They are also shaped like books and fit perfectly in your shelf – your friends can look at them and say “So you’ve been to the Vienna State Opera…” and other very useful things.  So I feel happy for actually paying to have them.

On the other hand, Playbills are given away and have to be cheap therefore. They also feature make-up and fragrance ads – they have thousands of pictures about every other opera and play in New York BUT the one you’re currently seeing and they have those cool articles in which you learn that Renée Fleming only uses her iPod to help her to learn by heart the stuff she’s working on…

But the worst thing about Playbills is that they stick to your hand. I won’t say my hand, because I keep it away from it in order not to produce that awful cracking noise when you try to pull your hand away. But it seems everybody needs to fidget with their playbills as if their lives depended on it. I remember one particular Mahler 2nd at Carnegie Hall during which there was so much noise with Playbills that I felt as if I was listening to an old LP cracking throughout.

But I’ll tell you the real reason for my bad humor. I have hundreds of playbills here and I don’t have the courage to throw them away, because I would like to keep record of what I saw at the Met. I have tried different storage solutions and a visit to Muji finally gave me the solution for my problem. I bought some small binders and now I am in the process of unstapling each one of my Playbills, keeping the center pages (related to the performance), throwing away the ads and the Renée Fleming/Anna Netrebko articles, re-stapling the remaining two or three folds and storing each one in an individual plastic thing in the binder. It should be a wonderful pastime for an obsessive-compulsive person while listening to music, I reckon.

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Confronted with accusations of out-of-dateness, I have decided to yield myself to the general opinion that I should have a “proper” blog. This decision was delayed by the horror story of a friend who lost all her posts on a crash or something like that at Blogger.  So I would still like to know how to settle this thing to e-mail me the content as a backup (any ideas?).

A second reason for this change is my intent to post from my Spanish/Portuguese vacation starting on Friday. Without a computer office (as in New York), it would be a bit difficult to use the pre-historical .doc system I have used so far. So let’s see how it works. In any case, please bear with me until I make final decisions about layout, commenting, posting etc etc.

A final comment: The old blog never had a title simply because I could never found one. I’ve tried some “clever” stuff, such as using verses from libretti or a jeu de mots on some Latin expression… Then I thought of a nonsensical title “Fermata prenotata” – I believed this sounded vaguely like something musical and made me remember the tram in Milan – but then it was nothing but  something you would find in a train or a bus… Then there was the idea of using Webseligkeit…. because of Richard Strauss’s song on Dehmel’s verses Waldseligkeit. But again it was too crafty, difficult to pronounce in any language but German and too silly.  “I hear voices” is also silly – it occured to me during an intermission at the Met when I thought about M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Sixth Sense (don’t ask…).  I might change that as soon as I finally realize it is a stupid idea.

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