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Archive for May, 2009

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is considered an opera in which very little happens and that is true if one limits his or her observation to actions. When it comes to feelings, the whole spectre of sentiments is generously poured on stage. It is a very emotional score – and conductor Andris Nelsons decided to spare nothing: the orchestra played with real passion, an extremely supple use of dynamics and tempi guaranteed that the last ounce of expression were extracted, sometimes to frantic effects. The word “blandness” would never occur to anyone in the theatre, but I wish that passion were achieved with a bit more polish for the musicians on stage. Although the orchestra achived a remarklable degree of intensity, that rarely tampered with precision. Unfortunately, the chorus did not often seem to follow the same beat from the orchesta and ensembles with soloists were poorly balanced. I have Jiri Belohlavek’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera House fresh in my ears and the Straussian grace with which the Czech conductor made his distinguished cast (Mattila, Semenchuk, Beczala and Hampson) blend their voices was truly admirable in comparison.

Olga Guryakova was an engaged and touching Tatjana – her basic tonal quality has the necessary young-sounding tonal sheen, but a sour edge to her tone spoils part of the fun, especially when she is hard pressed in more dramatic moments. As Olga, Ewa Wolak’s contralto seemed too dark in a cast where the contralto parts were taken by higher voices: the veteran Karan Armstrong (Larina)’s still bright-toned considering her age and easy on the passaggio and Lieane Keegan (Filipjevna). In any case, Wolak has an impressively deep low register. Andrej Dunaev’s tenor is pleasant all the way. His top notes lack a brighter edge and he sometimes disappeared in ensembles, but, with the help of the conductor’s attentive accompaniment, he gave a sensitive account of his big aria. At first, I found Boje Skovhus’s Onegin a bit hectoring and uncharming, but it soon became clear that this was a theatrical effect. Later in the Moscow act, his singing was exemplary in its clarity, beauty of tone and forcefulness. In comparison with the impressive cast offered by the Met this year, I would say I prefer his performance to Thomas Hampson’s, who was caught a bit short by the more dramatic passages. As for Paata Burchuladze’s Gremin, his voice is powerful as always, but I could never warm to his unclear diction and suspect sense of pitch.

Götz Friedrich’s production, which premièred the opera at the Deutsche Oper in 1996 has its moments of cold aestheticism in its light colours and geometrical cleanliness, but some moments are particular effective, such as the duel between Onegin and Lensky. What is beyond doubt is that the recreation of this production was extremely attentive to stage direction. All singers and choristers acted with conviction – Guryakova and Wolak were particularly believable. Skovhus tends to be overemphatic, but Onegin is everything but a spontaneous fellow anyway.

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It seems that Riccardo Muti has decided to launch a campaign to make Italian concert repertoire more widely known by audiences throughout the world. I have seen an all-Italian-music concert in Japan and this evening half program was dedicated to Italian music – his calling card, the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and his fellow Neapolitan Martucci’s La Canzone dei Ricordi.

I have seen Muti play Verdi’s most famous overture more than once, but today’s performance featured truly intense playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker, scintillating strings and inspired solos by the woodwind soloists included. Martucci’s song cycle is a tougher cookie: one of those piece with immediately expressive atmosphere that seem nonetheless to be going nowhere. The orchestra offered exquisite sounds and Violeta Urmana was an ideal soloist – the tessitura is very favourable to her zwischenfach soprano, here at its creamiest, her Italian diction was crystal-clear and she added her customary elegance to these songs that really do not invite Puccinianisms. However, Berliners have already their opinion about what they like best and reserved their most enthusiastic applause for Schubert’s Symphony no.8, performed tonight at its most gutsy and exciting, with animated and astonishingly precise (if not necessarily apollonian) playing from the orchestra.

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25% of your ticket price? Every opera house states that there is no guarantee in what regards casting: you may pay a fortune to see a dream-team and ultimately have to put up with a second-rate assortment. In this sense, one should praise the Deutsche Opera for its policy of giving a 25% discount-voucher for those who purchased a pricier ticket to see Angela Gheorghiu and were finally surprised (?) by her cancellation, but the underlying question is – in an opera like Verdi’s La Traviata, how much is the prima donna worth? 

I have had the chance of seeing Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta Valéry and found her vocally and scenically compelling, but hardly electrifying. What is beyond doubt is that her stardom has to do with a generalized sense of glamour hard to explain but immediately palpable. Considering how difficult the role is, the Deutsche Oper has done a good job in finding Carmen Gianattasio for replacement.

At any rate, this Italian soprano has offered a praiseworthy performance – the animated applause at the end (especially by orchestra members) is an evidence of that. She seems to belong to the kind of Italian sopranos who are not really concerned about producing beautiful sounds but still respect the basic rules of bel canto somehow.  Although Gianattasio’s soprano has a somewhat veiled tonal quality, her squillante top notes can be quite forceful. She is not entirely adept in coloratura, but is rarely caught short in the key moments for she always finds a musicianly and/or dramatically effective way of dealing with them. Unfortunately, she does not count with mezza voce among her expressive tools, a liability for Addio del passato. As a matter of fact, her Violetta was more incisive and less touching than most. Contrarily to the libretto seems to suggest, she eschewed Germont’s patronizing in their long duet and, when she asks him to hold her as if she were his daughter, it seems more like a fleeting moment of weakness. In act I, there is not much room for loveliness either – her Violetta is more feisty than beguiling and one would not have a doubt about her line of business here. That said, intelligent as her portrait is, Violetta is a prima donna role and the last sparkle of charisma was not there – was it the lack of a more charming tonal quality? It is hard to say, specially when we are speaking of a last-minute replacement performance. But what happens to a Traviata when there is not a prima donna?

I do not believe an Alfredo could make a Traviata memorable, but it certainly helps to have a first-rate tenor in the role. That was not exactly the case this evening. My first impression of James Valenti was extremely positive – his voice is really pleasant – it s a truly dulcet sound, firm, a little dark and easy on the ear. However, it progressively became clear that his comfort zone seats a bit low for a tenor in the Italian repertoire. While his low register was very positive, his top notes were clearly less powerful than the rest of his voice. At first, this was not a problem; he is an elegant singer who is not afraid of softening his tone, but O mio rimorso was a complete misfire. His breath control did not resist his intent of producing a larger sound and, when he abandoned his lines to prepare for the interpolated final note, I feared the worst – and the worst materalised in the shape of a tiny, recessed, nasal and unfocused high c.  I wonder if he is not in the wrong repertoire. To make things worse, he did not seem very comfortable with the stage direction and looked quite goofy making big gestures with his kilometric arms.

Lado Ataneli was the single “important” voice in the role. Although his phrasing has too many cupo moments, his dark, firm, forward-placed baritone finds no difficulties in this role. No wonder he was clearly the audience’s favourite.

La Traviata is a score that tends to sameness and, in the hands of a bureaucratic conductor such as Marco Armiliato, it seems to last forever. To start with, the orchestral sound was kept in such recessed volume throughout that there were moments you could hardly hear it. Even in the preludes to act I and III, no concern about subtlety and variety seemed to exist. The ensemble in the end of act II was such a mess as I have never seen in an important opera house before.

Götz Friedrich’s production was premiered in 1999, in what seems to be the begin of the strange Berliner fashion of  mixing costumes of different decades in the same staging. Here garments that ranged from the 1900 to the 1990 were paraded in one only all-black set that shifted from Violetta’s house to her country villa and to Flora’s place with minimal changes (but for serious decay – in the end, it looks as if a typhoon had visited the place). Maybe that explains why everybody goes and comes back from Paris so fast in act II. Other than this,a hospital bed seems to be “the concept” – disguised as a divan in act I, as… a divan in act II… until you finally see it as a hospital bed in act III.  Do I need to say more?

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