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Archive for November, 2008

There are people who like to dislike – I am not like that. When one dislikes something, one generally tends to miss an important aspect of what he or she dislikes. For example,  I like René Jacobs – I like his Bach, Handel and Haydn recordings. I even found his Rossini interesting – but I really don’t like his Mozart opera series for Harmonia Mundi. I find the orchestral sound brassy and unclear, the casting is eccentric and there is not a drop of sensuousness in these performances (at least for me, a serious blemish for the Da Ponte works). But I know I am alone here – everybody loves these recordings, they were awarded hundreds of prizes etc. That is why I am always ready to give a second chance.

If I had to rescue one among Jacobs’s Mozart recordings, this would certainly be La Clemenza di Tito. His baroque mannerisms somehow fit more comfortably in the context of opera seria – and that is why I finally decided to spend my last evening in Paris in the Salle Pleyel to check his concert performance of Idomeneo (to be released on CD).

First of all, I have discovered that Harmonia Mundi has a great share of responsibility in my dislike. Live at the theatre, I found the Freiburger Barockorchester significantly more pleasant than in Jacobs’s recordings. The brass instruments are far more integrated in the texture and the fortepiano (as one could imagine) is truly less intrusive (although we were treated to a mini-overture for act II on it ). I still expected clearer execution of passagework in string instruments, but what I heard is closer to what one would expect of a period instrument group (even if I have personally heard some far more polished in sound).

In what regards the conducting in itself, this was a gripping and theatrical performance, less efficient in lyrical passages when – again – everything seriously lacked affection. Part of the reason is the conductor’s overbearing intrusion in singers’ phrasing. For example, if he suspects something is a grace note, be sure that he’ll make the poor singer (or the orchestra) hiccup on it regardless of legato or the expressive atmosphere. Of course, the concept of legato and our intuitive ideas of expression do not belong to the XVIIIth century – but we, for that matter, don’t belong to that age either. In any case, this is too long a discussion for this post and I’ll answer the 1,000,000-question: yes, I will buy the CDs. Well, the truth is that I have bought all the others. So, I should say I will probably listen to this Idomeneo quite often – especially for the extremely well-buit public scenes, in which the RIAS Kammerchor offer accurate and dramatically aware singing: the act I finale is particularly effective.

Jacobs also counts with a distinguished cast here – some of these singers have appeared in previous releases in the series, but here they are more or less better cast. The immediate exception would be Sunhae Im, whose soubrettish voice is not anyone’s first idea for such a lyric soprano role. Her tone comes basically in one bell-like shape and, if her response to more dramatic scenes never went beyond adding a slightly more metallic edge to her voice, she finally convinced us of her Ilia by virtue of crystal-clear diction, vivid and intelligent response to the text and immaculate technique. Her ability to sing loooooong lines in one breath is really praiseworthy, for instance. It is a pity that the conductor prepared her such elaborate ornamentation for Zeffiretti lusinghieri – again the classical motto inutilia truncat would have ensured touching instead of extravagant results.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, on the other hand, has the perfect voice for Elettra. She is a singer with impressive resources, not always perfectly handled, but Jacobs seems to be a good influence on her. It is true that Tutte nel cor  was a bit lost on register shifting and  the fast and dance-like Idol’ mio was overcareful, but she really developed to create, in spite of an awkward close, the right effect in D’Oreste, d’Ajacce. To be more specific, the accompagnato Oh, smanie! Oh, furie! was sung in the great manner, with some stunning high pianissimi.

Bernarda Fink’s voice has seen more generous days – it is still lovely, but the lower end has become quite modest and top notes are less focused than they used to be. That said, she is the kind of singer who always goes straight to the point in what regards interpretation.  Her encounter with Idomeneo in act I and the sacrifice scene were extremely moving and convincing.  Considering her commendable handling of the difficult tessitura in No, la morte, one could say her performance gained in strength since a rather colourless Non ho colpa.

When Richard Croft first appeared on scene, I feared he might be indisposed or something like that. He seemed uncomfortable, often had his hands on his mouth or his ears and an anxious look about him, but as soon as he produced his first note, I reckoned that whatever affliction he might be experiencing had no effect on his singing. This is a voice of immediate charm, extremely pleasant on the year, light-toned but firm and strong to the bottom of his range. His phrasing is amazingly graceful and stylish (he was probably the one singer in the cast who followed Jacobs’s disciplinarian regime on phrasing and ornamentation as if he himself had devised all that) and his accuracy with fioriture is a marvel. His account of his difficult arias (including the long version of Fuor del mar and Torna la pace) were exemplary – I only wish he could gave himself a bit more to the emotional experience of singing Idomeneo. His approach to the role was so detached that sometimes I felt he was sight-reading his recitatives! Maybe this was the effect of his apparent uneaseness. In any case, this is a performance I don’t wish to find fault with - this was simply Mozart singing of the highest order.

The role of Arbace was similarly cast from strength with Kenneth Tarver, who is one of the most elegant and technically accomplished Mozart tenors these days. For a change, listening to both Arbace’s arias was rather a pleasure than an ordeal to the audience.  Nicolas Rivenq sang  the short role of Neptune’s High Priest to perfection and Luca Tittolo’s sonorous is exactly what the voice of Neptune requires.

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In the booklet to his performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio for the Paris National Opera, Sylvain Cambreling explains why he believes that some ideas in early versions of this work (usually referred to as Leonore) are, in his opinion, more effective than the definitive alternatives settled in the composer’s final 1814 version. Naturally, Beethoven’s own ideas of what is more effective are irrelevant compared to Cambreling’s, but let’s not talk about that. The edition performed at the Palais Garnier this evening featured the graceful Leonore I instead of the much loved and highly dramatic Fidelio overture. Also, Marzelline’s aria comes before the duet with Jaquino, which is followed by the trio Ein Mann ist bald genommen. In any case, replacing Beethoven by Beethoven might be debatable, but hardly matter for disappointment. The problem involves the replacement of the original functional if (refreshingly) self-effacing spoken lines by Martin Mosebach’s foolish dialogues which are supposed to connect every loose end in the plot by pseudo-smart explanations full of pocket philosophy and over-the-bar-table psychology.

 

One could say that these replacements could limit the musical and dramatic strength of Beethoven’s Fidelio, but lightness seemed to be the bottomline here – Cambreling ensured that the house orchestra offered clear, warm sounds in the context of a well-balanced and behaved performance. Although accents were firm and rhythms tended to be forward-moving (with the exception of a whimsical beat for Rocco’s “gold” aria), pride of place seemed to be given to shapeliness and correctness. The quartett Er sterbe, for example, never suggested anything wild or dangerous, but rather a certain orderliness. Accordingly, Johan Simons’s production offers us the pasteurized version of this prison drama – sceneries are aseptically white, inmates are dressed in pastels, Florestan is monitored by surveillance cameras. It takes some time to adjust to this Biedermeier version of Beethoven’s humanist drama in which blood and guts are replaced by the political correctness featured in Marie Claire magazine, but once you do that, it does fit one’s general ideas about classical elegance and balance. If you really don’t get my meaning, do yourself a favour by buying Karl Böhm’s CDs with Gwyneth Jones, James King, Theo Adam and the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Above any discussion about stylistic approach is the paramount quality of the cast gathered here. Angela Denoke has received some harsh criticism on her Leonore in Simon Rattle’s recording for EMI some years ago for excessive detachment and undernourished vocalism. Even if her Fidelio is still rather cool, it does feature the kind of Gundula Janowitz-like shapely sculpted phrasing even in the most hair-raisingly difficult moments that matches to perfection Florestan’s idealized vision of an angelic Leonore. Her voice is at once firm, radiant, pure-toned and surprisingly forceful – I sincerely doubt that there are many other singers around who can sing the role as musicianly as she does these days. Moreover, she looks believably boyish and offers acting of disarming sincerity. It is always difficult to find the right Marzelline when the singer taking the title role has such a beautiful voice – and casting Julia Kleiter is an evidence of good judgment. Not only does she have one of the loveliest lyric soprano voices in our days, but also boasts an engaging and charming stage presence.

Jonas Kaufmann is also a skilled actor. He convincingly portrayed Florestan’s physical debilitation even when this involved singing difficult music in very uncomfortable positions. His opening aria, for example: he risked to attack his initial high g on almost falsetto-like mezza voce only to slowly develop it into a very dark fff lying on the floor with his legs crossed in a truly disturbing manner. In the ensuing aria, he sang with sensitivity and imagination and negotiated its difficult second section with unusual accuracy. At this point, any doubts about his ability to sing heroic repertoire should be dispelled. I have seen Alan Held sing the role of Pizarro many years ago and again in Rattle’s EMI recording, but never better than this evening. His voice has acquired a darker hue but still has the necessary concentration to pierce through the orchestra, especially in high higher register. Ideally, the part requires a heavier and larger voice, but operating close to the limits does not prevent this singer from offering a satisfying and reliable performance. Franz-Josef Selig is again a most sensitive and rich-toned singer – only poor focus on high higher notes stands between him and complete success. Ales Briscein is a most pleasant Jaquino, while Paul Gay is a bit modest in sound and attitude for Don Fernando. Last but not least, although the Paris National Opera chorus still lacks some discipline, the final scene was effectively grand in sound and animated.

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First seen at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, Peter Sellars’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has become famous for the projection of videos by Bill Viola, while the action takes place in a dark setting with no props or other pieces of scenery. It is true that the videos might be an efficient tool to create atmosphere, on showing exaquisite images of the ocean or woods etc, but the fact is that they can also be distracting while depicting actors lighting candles, walking or just getting naked. They can also be unnecessary as showing images of fire when the libretto has words like “ardour”,for example. In any case, I did not feel that they highlight the action itself, which is poorly lit and in the end most people are just following the video presentation.

And the truth is that the performance seriously needed atmosphere. The Orchestre de l´Opéra National de Paris is not truly noble-sounding – wind instruments are not very distinctive and the sound of its string is not full, rich and supple as one would like to hear in a Wagner opera. It does not spoil the fun, but a  stronger-willed conductor than Semyon Bychkov would be of great help to see to that.  Most people point out the fact that he tends to opt for slow tempi, but in his defense I would say that he knows when some animation is needed and more or less knows how to make such transitions work. The problem, however, is the absence of a structural backbone. Act I, for example, seemed incoherent and rather loose – even the dramatic tension seemed to escape through the cracks of a poorly structured reading. In act II, truth be said, Bychkov’s justifiable main concern was to help his soloists through the difficult writing – only the final act would benefit from a palpable sense of development, although the Liebestod would prove to be quite tame.

The reader might be asking him or herself if I am not going to descibre the positive effect Waltraud Meier had on the proceedings. Those who have seen her video from La Scala know how she can electrify a performance, but, alas, that would not be the case here. Probably because she might be still recovering from the illness that troubled her during the first evening in this run of performances, this admirable German mezzo-soprano seemed overcareful in the first act. She still seemed mistress of the situation then, pouring forth gleaming tone and hitting firm if somewhat clipped top notes.  One may remember more gripping accounts of the narration and curse by this singer, but she still has no rivals in her know-how of mood-shifting through tone colouring and perfect diction. Unfortunately, act II and III were mostly a matter of surviving to the end. There were long stretches of inaudibility, imprecise pitch and other needs for adaptation, requiring a lot of help from the conductor, to the loss of orchestral tonal refulgence.

On the other hand, Clifton Forbis was in extremely healthy voice. Although his tenor is basically throaty, he effortlessly produces powerful notes at the top of this role’s range. His act III monologues were not necessarily subtle, but particularly intense and, it is never enough to say that, reliable. Ekaterina Gubanova could be a refreshing Brangäne – she has a young-sounding yet rich and velvety mezzo and is at ease with Wagnerian style, but the very velvetiness which made her act II calls from the watchtower ethereal did not help her to pierce through heavy orchestration. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was a particularly sensitive Kurwenal, exploring softer dynamics than most exponents of this role, but Franz-Josef Selig must be singled out for his King Marke – he used his chocolate-coloured bass with Lieder-singing expressiveness and good taste.

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Although the production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte presently performed at the Opéra de Paris has been warmed-up several times since its première at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, it still elicits some booing.  It am not a partisan of such public demonstration of dislike, but I can certainly understand why that happens. It is true that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto its hardly a masterpiece, but experience has shown that those who tried to improve it have only disgraced themselves in the enterprise. Alex Ollé and Carlos Padrissa, from the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, are responsible for what happened to be, in my experience, the most unfortunate attempt of interpretation of Mozart’s Zauberoper. Apparently, the ambiguous nature of the dichotomy “good/evil” is for them something of a novelty worthy of heavy underlining – beside the three genii and three ladies, we have also three dancers half-dressed as Sarastro and half-dressed as the Königin der Nacht… So you see, now you can un-der-stand the plot.

However, adding is something of an exception in this production – basically every element in the plot is replaced by a combination of gigantic air mattresses and video projection of texts featuring the cheapest version of pocket philosophy slogans. In other words, we have a completely white stage with some twenty people dressed as lab researchers carrying around the transparent mattresses  while the words “good-evil”, “beautiful-ugly” are projected all over the place.  Also, the original dialogues are often replaced by what is supposed to be psychologically insightful lines.

Let me give an example: before Pamina’s “suicide” scene, we have to wait two minutes while the  lab people sweat their way along mounting a pyramid of mattresses. Because the libretto instructions are Das  Theater  verwandelt sich  in einen kurzen Garten, I thought that the pyramid ought to be very important. Pamina had to climb on it and try not to fall to her feet while singing. In the end, she climbs down and the lab people jump like madmen on it to deflate the whole thing.  

The silliness was unfortunately not confined to the visual aspects of this production. Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has a fancy for pointless acc. and rit.-effects and unpolished orchestral sound. The result was more mannered than dramatic and more unattractive than revelatory. In the undernourished overture, different sections of the orchestra rushed to follow the beat and singers were often caught short by the inappropriate tempi. As usual, the most serious victim was the Queen of the Night.

Although Erika Miklosa is still very impressive in her high staccato singing, her passagework was uncomfortable and unclear. Moreover, her voice seems a couple of sizes more modest than it used to be and her low register is left to imagination.  Soprano Maria Bengtsson did not seem comfortable either as Pamina. Her basic tone is not really appealing and requires the art of phrasing to work its charm. She did pull out a sensitive and stylish Ach, ich fühl’s crowned by breathtaking mezza voce, but elsewhere she seemed either squally or curdled-toned or even shrewish or a combination of all that. American tenor Shawn Mathey was far closer to the mark as Tamino - he sang with naturalness and purity of line, offering a charming account of Dies Bildnis. Russell Braun clearly knows what the role of Papageno requires from him, but the tone too often lacks repose and/or focus and the results are sometimes rather graceless than artless. Kristinn Sigmundsson is an experienced Sarastro – I have seen him more connected to the proceedings in other occasions – but who can blame him?

I leave the endearing detail for the end: taking what is supposed to be a farewell role, José Van Dam was still an expressive and firm-toned Sprecher.

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Salut à la France

Well, Figaro had to wait, for I am in Paris right now to sample a bit of the Paris Opera’s season and enjoy the town.  Reviews will follow.

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Perdono vi chiedo

I haven’t posted anything for a while, but I have an excuse – I have been reviewing the commented discography of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. This involves listening to many CDs and watching many DVDs – but I’ll be finishing that soon.

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