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Archive for June, 2008

Semele is the opera (I insist to call it an opera) who converted me into a Handelian. Of course, the irresistible melodies play an important part in the experience of this work, but I believe that William Congreve’s masterly libretto featuring some three-dimensional portraits of mythological characters led Handel into composing some of his most dramatic music. Therefore, the casting here goes beyond (although it certainly demands) immaculate singing; it requires dramatic imagination and also some sense of humour. I am afraid that Christian Curnyn’s new recording does miss a bit the point, although it is certainly pleasing on the ears. In any case, the review has been added to the discography in re:opera (the link remains on your right).

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When Brazil transferred its capital city to Brasilia in the 1960’s, a curious decision has been made: a great share of public investment in culture bestowed in the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions in Rio de Janeiro has been withdrawn while no counterparts have been established in the new town. As an example, Rio’s Theatro Municipal was an important opera house until then – Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Magda Olivero, Astrid Varnay, Mario del Monaco, Cesare Siepi performed there in their prime. The loss of State subsidies slowly buried that beautiful theatre in oblivion and Brazil lost its only international acknowledged operatic venue.

Unfortunately, Brasilia’s Teatro Nacional Cláudio Santoro has never been a replacement. It is a large theatre amazingly uncomfortable for the audience, famous for its impressively poor acoustics and also the home of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Teatro Nacional – OSTN (I  refuse to write OSTNCS – who had anyway the brilliant idea of adopting such a long and unpronounceable abbreviation?!). Despite everybody’s good intentions, this orchestra’s performances were amateurish at most (I remember a particularly embarrassing performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana) and I only decided to see the all-Mahler concert today because it is really rare to find a performance of Das Lied von der Erde anywhere. Fortune favours the bold – the event proved to be an unforeseen good surprise.

I knew that the orchestra has a new musical director, Ira Levin, whose concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre (act I only) with Violeta Urmana in São Paulo caused me a very positive impression last year – but I didn’t know he is one of those conductors who have the talent to build the sound of an orchestra. Of course, the OSTN is light-years away of world-class standard, but at least it can now claim the status of a serious professional orchestra. Thanks to Mr. Levin, the OSTN has finally left its childhood and made its first steps to adult life. I hope it is not only the good results of a new acoustic shell in wood, but for the first time in my experience this orchestra was capable of producing full tone in loud dynamics and to retain tonal quality in softer passages. More than that, it is now capable of producing consistently accurate phrasing – even the brass section was relatively catastrophe-free during the whole concert. Considering how fast the improvement has been produced, I can only believe that Ira Levin’s tenure is going to be the beginning of a new era for Brasília’s classical music scene.

Having all that in mind, I think I can allow myself to say tonight’s was a truly acceptable performance of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and particularly Das Lied von der Erde. Levin wisely decided to play safe, opting for considerate tempi, softer orchestral sound and preferred strife for polish to excitement. Sometimes the result were rather well-behaved than impressive, but again no wise conductor would aloofly force an immature orchestra into calamity all in the name of genius. I can also say Mr. Levin has a good ear for soloists. In the Gesellen songs, Homero Velho was more correct than inspiring – his baritone is forward and focused through the whole range and he can relax to produce piano singing, but the overall impression is a bit stiff and not entirely smooth in the ear. His best moment was Ich habe ein glühend Messer, when the edge in his voice fits the vocal lines better. The soloists in the second part of the program would offer performances of higher caliber. I will speak of the tenor first.

I had seen Brazilian tenor Martin Mühle’s Tamino maybe five years ago in Rio and I will not beat around the bush – it was awful. His voice had then an annoying bleating quality and his sense of pitch could only be described as “random”. I don’t know what he has done since, but I cannot believe this is the same singer – he must have worked really seriously in his technique in the meanwhile. Although he still has some minor pitch problems around the passaggio, his voice has developed into something like a bright and firm jugendlich dramatisch tenor with really golden full-toned top notes. One could see he was a bit tense in the impossible Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, but even in the less smooth patches his voice was always cleanly and richly produced. This was indeed a most satisfying performance, more compliment-worthy considering the difficulty of this piece. 

Although Denise de Freitas describer herself as a mezzo-soprano, her voice has an undeniable contralto-ish tint about it. I had seen her only once in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel many years ago and found her very very good, but I have the impression her voice had a lighter colour then. In any case, it is a slightly-veiled voice, rock-solid and finely focused. The basic tone made me think of Iris Vermillion (in Sinopoli’s studio recording), the differences being: Denise de Freitas is more comfortable to produce mezza voce, but darkens too much her vowels, what results less than clear diction and a more perilous break into chest voice. Sometimes the sound around the passaggio was somewhat hollow and overplummy. This was definitely a problem in the fast low phrases in Von der Schönheit such as Über Blumen, Gräser, wanken hin die Hufe. I also wished she refrained from the occasional resource to portamento, which sounded a bit unstylish to my ears. That said, this is a singer with extraordinary charisma, imagination and concentration. Her Abschied offered a valuable sense of story-telling and emotional development. 

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A review of the new DVD from Zürich with the Harnoncourt/Kusej Zauberflöte has been added to the discography in re:opera (look right for the link). It is a pity that the talent of the marvelous Mozartian soprano Julia Kleiter has been wasted in such a lamentable production. She is indeed an underrated singer who deserves more attention. She would have been an immense improvement in the Met’s last Clemenza di Tito (in which Heidi Grant Murphy was Servilia) or, for instance, in their Zauberflöte (in which Lisa Milne was the most frequent Pamina). Think about it. (I mention the Met, because it was precisely in New York the only time I saw Kleiter live, in a secondary role in Bychkov’s performance of R. Strauss’s Daphne at the Carnegie Hall).

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More about Antonacci

I don’t know how to say this, but Anna Caterina Antonacci is one of the most puzzling singers I have ever seen/heard. My first encounter was the video of Rossini’s Ermione from Glyndenbourne. The acting is impressive, but the voice itself had a glittery quality that I found irresistibly sexy. 

Then she became a mezzo-soprano. In her early soprano days, one could see that her top notes were a bit glassy and that she seemed a bit on a tight rope on high-lying passages, but the sound itself was always firm and full. In any case, it made some sense her shifting into mezzo-soprano territory. Moreover, with her ease with coloratura, she could make a stunning impression in roles such as Angelina or Rosina. But that was not meant to be. If I am not mistaken, her most significant recording those days was a (very good) Marcellina for Abbado (Le Nozze di Figaro). Recently I could listen to a Youtube clip of her Rondo finale from La Cenerentola – she deals with her scales superbly, but the sound is a bit on the slim side and the overall impression was of overseriousness.

The vocally unremarkable Donna Elvira in Muti’s DVD from Vienna could be understood as the threshold to her Falcon (or something Zwischenfach like that) roles – Cassandre, Marguerite (La Damnation de Faust), parts that boosted her intense dramatic qualities, but here the voice does not feature the nobility of someone like Régine Crespin. Then we had lyric roles, such as Rachel in La Juïve or Anna in Hans Heiling, in which an absence of sweetness in the tone was a serious liability (compensated, of course, by superb acting and good looks). 

Finally, I remember an interview in which she says she had been working on technique and that she was now comfortable with her top notes and ready to tackle echt soprano repertoire. Although I still miss the extra tonal sheen of her early days, the voice now has a kind of disturbing sensuousness that has nothing to do with prettiness (the more similar case that comes to my mind is also a singer who had a pendular career between soprano and mezzo: Waltraud Meier).

Her Carmen, for example, is beyond any doubt an important impersonation – there is nothing obvious about her sex-appeal; it has a spicy unloveliness that is in the core of what Carmen should be. Handel’s Agrippina was also an example of chic vocalization – one of the most fascinating performances in a Handel opera in a while. Then there was the amazing Vitellia from Geneva – again the sound itself says everything – there is this bitchiness only a gorgeous looking woman used to have everyone at her feet can produce. And also – perfectly connected registers, fluent divisions and a decent high d. I read she is thinking of Elettra (in Idomeneo) – I find that a real stretch for her, but she has made a career out of surprising, hasn’t she?

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I have to tell this – I am obsessed by the HBO TV-series “In Treatment”. It is probably the best thing on TV in years. I don’t know how accurate a real-life shrink finds the whole story, but for a layman all characters are four-dimensional, the situations are thoroughly crafted, clichés are largely avoided and the screenwriters deserve praise for awakening so much interest in a plot almost devoid of action. For those who have never seen it, we follow the sessions of a psychotherapist’s four patients and also his visit to his own therapist. Every chapter corresponds to the 30 minutes of those sessions and there are only two sets. Gabriel Byrne and Diane Wiest are only the crowning jewels in a brilliant cast.

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A review of Gustav Kuhn’s Così Fan Tutte (live from Macerata in 1991) has been added to the discography in re: opera (please find the link on the right). I have to confess that despite the minor flaws, Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Fiordiligi is really impressive. It is a pity I was never able to listen to the broadcast of her Dorabella (with Melanie Diener’s Fiordiligi and Abbado conducting)…

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