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Archive for April, 2008

I’ve had bad luck with the weather in Boston – rain and more rain – and taking pictures was quite challenging! If you are in the area, I strongly recommend a visit to Cambridge in order to take a look at Harvard University. It is such a beautiful place and houses so many interesting museums – it is really worth the visit. I had a tight schedule and could only walk around, see the Carpenter building (Le Corbusier’ s only work in America, if I am not mistaken) and the fabulous Fogg Museum, where you can find a rich collection including paintings by Boticelli, Bronzino, Rembrandts, Rubens, Ingres, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Whistler, John Singer Sargent etc.

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James Robinson’ s production of Mozart’ s Abduction from the Seraglio for the Boston Lyric Opera has the action transferred to a train trip in the Orient Express, depicted as three wagons that move lengthwise according to each scene. In this concept, the Pasha Selim is a dandy, Blondchen is self-interested and smokes a lot and Osmin… well, Osmin resists updating and stays more or less like he usually is. Listening to the text translated to English has less to do with the feeling of musical theater than the slapstick comedy touches. Actually, there are many imaginative ideas going on there and the singers/actors generally cope well with the stage director’ s demands, which is mostly attentive to the text in order to avoid mismatch between what we see and what the text says. As for the translation, the flowing nature of English language robs a great deal of the cacophonic patter explored by Mozart in this Singspiel – Osmin and Blondchen’ s duet is the main victim of that.

Considering that we were probably hearing a pick-up band, conductor Willie Anthony Waters did a good job on playing safe and choosing considerate tempi in order to achieve clarity and finish. The results were hardly illuminating, but decent and unobtrusive. He is also a most attentive maestro for singers, helping them through difficult passages – something to be cherished considered the limits of his cast.

Mary Dunleavy has sung bel canto roles at the Metropolitan Opera House, but from what I could see today hers is rather a light coloratura struggling through a role helplessly heavy for her. The basic sound is remniscent of Natalie Dessay’s, except that she is strained when required to sing anything above high c (a liability in this role), her runs have their dangerous moments and she cannot float a mezza voce to save her life. Although she is a musicianly and sensitive artist, her singing makes one realize how difficult the role of Konstanze is. I understand that at this stage of her career, she must take risks to continue on the limelight, but heavy usages as this one cannot be healthy. Her Blondchen, Amanda Pabyan, is in the beginning of her career, but her grainy and metallic soprano sound distinctively less pleasant and young-sounding, in spite of a likeable personality and theatrical commitment. Norman Reinhardt’ s Belmonte was far more accomplished – he is a stylish Mozartian with more than enough technique to deal with the tricky writing Mozart reserved him. It is not the dulcet voice one expects to hear in this role, though. Timothy Oliver is a congenial Pedrillo, but the heroic patches of Frisch zum Kampfe test him. My first impression of David M. Cushing’ s bass is that it seriously lack focus. It is a sizeable and dark enough instrument and he is more precise with his divisions than many a famous singer recorded in studios on the other hand. I was going to say he is a bit short in the impossibly lower end of his range – but that is a sin he shares with almost everyone else, isn’t it?

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I have just noticed that my previous post lacked this piece of information. I am visiting my cousin Leila here in Massachusetts and took the opportunity to see some concerts and visiting again the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, this amazing collection of masterpieces masterly disposed as a sort of prototype of what would be later called “installation” as an independent work of art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, which is unfortunately for me (but fortunately for everyone, including me the next time I am here) being renovated and partially closed. On the other hand, there is a most interesting exhibit of Spanish painter and sculptor Antonio Lopez Garcia, who is probably the man who proved that there is still lots to explore in naturalism.

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Although I cannot call myself a Berliozian (but rather the opposite of that), I couldn’ t help checking the Boston Symphony Orchestra’ s concert with the first part of Berlioz’ s gigantic rarely performed opera Les Troyens. I have to say that my first positive experience with that work involved James Levine’ s DVD from the Metropolitan Opera in spite of the exotic (if impressive) cast and seeing that he would conduct the work again tonight was the decisive element to make me buy my ticket. As in his New York performance with Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos, Levine resisted the temptation of presenting too turgid a view of this pseudo-classic work.  On his hand, Les Troyens is a matter of Musikdrama, often shown in almost late-Romantic intensity – and that’ s all for the better.  In that sense, the BSO was the main feature of this concert. This orchestra’ s lush, full yet light sonorities never get in the way of soloists and chorus and also involve the necessary clarity that ensure that Berlioz’ s woodwind effects hit home as they should. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus also deserve compliments for their powerful yet disciplined contribution.

Levine has the habit of seating his orchestra in a rather exotic manner, which might be effective to balance the sound of violas with the remaining strings. However, I will never be convinced that having the soloists standing in the end of the orchestra right in front of the chorus is a reasonable idea. In the three times I could witness this arrangement, it has always been perverse to singers, who seem understandably nervous having to take pride of place in the sound picture when they are not in the front of the orchestra. Especially when you have lightweight soloists.

Taking the crucial role of Cassandra, Yvonne Naef displayed an exquisite middle-weight mezzo-soprano that makes me think of another Yvonne – Minton – although the Australian singer had a brighter edge to her sound. I am used to more incisive and intense portrayals of this role and I took some time to understand that it was not only a sensible but a sensitive idea for Naef to opt for a more feminine and vulnerable approach, since her creamy sensuous voice was a bit stretched by the more exposed top notes and tested by having to sing over a full chorus. That said, no ugly sound came out of her throat during the whole evening, not to mention that her diction is crystalline and her phrasing is musicianly and elegant.

Announced to be indisposed, Dwayne Croft still could produce a most praiseworthy performance. His dark baritone is supple enough for Berliozian phrasing and only the occasional bleached out mezza voce and also some coughing showed that this reliable singer was indeed ill. Curiously, it was Marcello Giordani who seemed not to be in his best shape. He was entirely grey-toned during the first act and regaining the brightness of his sound for the second act did not prevent the sensation of effort.

In the whole, Levine’s theatrical approach aided by the exquisite orchestral playing and the unconventional yet touching Cassandre of Yvonne Naef made me think I would gladly listen to the second part after a 20 min intermission (alas, this will be possibly only for those who – unlike me -  will be in Boston on May 4th), even if I have doubts about Giordani’ s Aeneas right when he has a lot to sing and most of all about Anne Sofie Von Otter’ s Dido, especially placed behind the orchestra. Last time I saw her, Levine was the conductor who chose to seat her like that in the Gasteig Concert Hall for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and I can tell you she had a bad time trying to be heard from the remote spot on stage reserved for her.

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Just to say that a review of Eugen Jochum’s Così Fan’ Tutte on DG has been added to re: opera (please find the link on the right of the page).

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The first movie by Alexander Sokurov I had the opportunity to watch was Russian Ark. Although my lack of knowledge in Russian History made me miss many a point made there, who can really resist the richness of imagery and the technical virtuoso quality displayed by the director? Then I saw “The Sun”, an amazingly sensitive portrait of Japanese Emperor Hiroito in the very end of World War II -a movie which is both an aesthetic and historical tour de force.

Now I have just watched my third Sokurov  – Father and Son, a rather unsettling film. In a highly stylized atmosphere involving exclusively pale colours, symbolic dialogues and a patchwork of Tchaikovsky and a bit of everything else for soundtrack, it is the story of motherless family in which father and son are so intimately connected that they have become more or less two sides of the same person: the father is only twenty years older than the son, they share the same job, live at the same house and their lives are more or less stalled by the fact that they have renounced to pursue any other project for the sake of staying together in a kind of eternal adolescence.

In order to portray this almost visceral connection, the director chose to depict their relationship in a particularly physical manner. Because of that, some reviewers said to see a homo-erotic element in the movie, to the disgust of the director. He does have some reason for his rejection of that view, because the storyline does not really allow this kind of interpretation, but truth be said – if someone unaware of the plot were shown the first three minutes, he couldn’t help thinking something like that.

However, this was not an issue to me, but rather the fact that many a Russian film give me the impression of operating on a range of emotion always close to the extreme – while comedy tends to look like slapstick to my eyes, drama tends to turn around the idea of melodrama. Although I am definitely not a specialist in Russian art, when a friend of mine who shares with me the passion for Chekhov plays had the opportunity to see the staging of one of his plays in Russia, she was surprised to discover that the actors had a rather lachrymose acting style which would seem exaggerated in comparison with the kind of Chekhov performance one would find, for instance, in New York or London.

Before you think I am rambling, I was also surprised to see some cute sentimentalism in this of all movies. Although Russian movies are not supposed to need some previous explanation to Western viewers as some movies, say, from China or Africa require, I have the impression this is some kind of “lost in translation” situation involving a different code of expressive gestures in Russian performing arts. You  have probably noticed by now that my re:opera page does not feature any review of a Russian opera – and I guess that this lack of understanding of the Russian aesthetical modus operandi might have something to do with that. Before I am accused of prejudice, I make a point on explaining that I don’t see any fault in Russian music or cinema, but rather a fault in myself. But I am always open to learn a bit more and change my mind. In any case, in spite of the occasional strangeness, the movie struck me as original and sensitive. And it was lovely to see a bit of Lisbon again.

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I have retouched the discography of Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the re:opera page (the link is on the right) and added comments of the DVDs from Zürich (Welser-Möst) and Madrid (Victor Pablo Pérez).

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