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Archive for July, 2009

This year’s Mostly Mozart Festival’s opening concert featured the three great Austro-German masters of Classicism under Louis Langrée’s styilish conducting. The evening’s first soloist, Leif Ove Andsnes offered the dictionary version of what classical piano playing should be about in Beethoven’s third Piano Concerto – perfectly articulated, rhythmic alert, sensitive to tone colouring and never overdelicate. The conductor and the pianist’s Einverständnis was admirable – the Festival’s orchestra responded in perfectly blended sound to Andsnes’s multicoloured playing.

After the intermission, British mezzo soprano Alice Coote featured an intense account of Haydn’s Scena di Berenice. As much as the evening’s pianist, she has a good ear for tone colouring – and also very good Italian, a spontaneous grasp of Classical style and perfectly connected registers. Again the conductor and the soloists seemed to be playing on the same concept, which was highlighting the theatricality of Haydn’s piece. The lyric moments seemed a bit displaced in this approach, but what a tour-de-force nonetheless. To close the evening, a most transparent and expressive account of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, when again the Festival’s orchestra proved to be in really great shape.

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Schiller’s Mary Stuart is probably his most popular play outside Germany – maybe because the theme is so dear to English and the royal characters such a treat for actresses. In any case, this is a play that would resent the Regietheater treatment more immediately than others because of the instantly recognisable historical characters. In this sense, it was most fortunate that I was able to catch the Donmar Warehouse’s 2005 production directed by Phyllida Lloyd currently on Broadway.

Those who know this theatre in London will more easily understand the sort of simplification disguised as stylization adopted to make possible the staging of a complex play in a small theatre. On Broadway, it could suggest only limited budget. One only set is adopted – a bare brick-walled stage with just a couple of props (or a real-water rain on stage for the scene in the Fotheringhay Castle garden) to suggest the shift from Mary’s cell to Elizabeth’s court and other nearby facilities. Although men are dressed in contemporary suits, women’s costumes have a historical touch. This balance between respecting tradition and pleasing contemporary tastes lies in fact in the core of this production: Peter Oswald’s version of Schiller’s text is very fluent, easy on the ear and a more up-to-date vocabulary; the acting style is more energetic and less formal (but not iconoclastic) and many a line is given an ironic twist instead of taken with face value.

The statuesque Janet McTeer makes great use of this approach, making of Mary something like a modern-like passionate woman who is ready to reconcile private and public affairs. Schiller gives her many lines in which she speaks rather to herself than to the other characters on stage, and McTeer takes the opportunity to exemplify this difficult balance she is desperately trying to achieve. Although Harriet Walter’s Elizabeth is more conventional, it is no less beautifully crafted. She is an actress of extraordinary control of stage gestures and crystal-clear diction. They are competently partnered by a great group of actors, especially Maria Tucci, Chandler Williams and Nicholas Woodeson.

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Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage too deals with the theme of civilization and nature: a boy hits a playmate with a stick and scars his face. The victim’s parents invite the aggressor’s parent to discuss theproblem and the situation escalates from uncomfortable to downright brutal. The whole concept is very clever – civilization and education are twin themes and mirroring the way adults and children deal with underlying violent instincts can be illuminating. However, in spite of clever dialogues, the dramatic development is extremely artificial and one can see all the clumsy transitions when one notices the hand of the playwright forcing their characters to conclusions he had made before the play was written. In any case, Christopher Hampton’s English version is praiseworthy. I cannot say how much French Waltanschauung has been lost in the process, but as performed in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, it seemed entirely spontaneous in the USA.

It is difficult to say if Ms. Reza wrote a text to flatter actors’ talents or if the play only works if redeemed by great actors. I tend to the second opinion, but the fact is irrelevant since director Matthew Warchus has gathered a truly sensational cast and masters the art of letting enough space for them to breathe in their own personalities but not too much space for them to overwhelm the proceedings. Hope Davis’s Annette believably develops from unease and nervous politeness to downright vandalism, while Jeff Daniels keeps a more crafted and more immediately “theatrical” approach to his Alan. James Gandolfini masters the art of “less is more”. Although his character is supposed to be the more extrovert of this quartet, his economical approach makes everything far more interesting and meaningful. Marcia Gay Harden has the lion’s share in this play. Hers is probably the main character – something of a Blanche DuBois in a tin can: the champion of civility poisoned by her own repressed violence. The play requires from her such extremes of quietness and frenzy that the occasional Luftpause is more than forgivable. She is also in charge of the funniest and most touching scenes and – the same can be said of the homogeneously admirable cast – the visible gear changes are rather the playwright’s fault. In any case, although the text requires a great deal of energy from them, one can see that they are actually having the time of their lives. And so the audience.

Finally, I don’t know if I really got Mark Thompson’s sets. I do not know if the semi-stylized approach added any layer of meaning to the staging. As it is, it seemed that he felt rather inclined to do something larger than life when a realistic approach would rather do.

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Let’s be frank – everbody should guess that Lohengrin could represent the process of civilization and Ortrud nature’s underlying instinctive forces. Actually, you don’t have to guess that, the libretto clearly tells you that Ortrud is pagan and Lohengrin is a force of Christianity. Director Richard Jones is probably the only person in the world who did not know that, for he was so enthusiastic about it that he chose to underline it as heavily as he could. So architecture was chosen as a symbol of civilization. Again you don’t have to be a genius to make that one out. When Tamino gets to the supposedly evil Sarastro’s temple, he recognizes from the buildings that some decent people should live there. The point is – making all the plot of Lohengrin turn around the building of a house for Elsa does not make the understanding of the story of Lohengrin deeper, but actually shallower. It makes it twice more complicate the fact that Lohengrin, first shows in jeans and a blue t-shirt develops into some sort of a Quaker leader of a blue t-shirt sect. I cannot deny that following the building of the house is interesting – I often felt distracted from everything else seeing if the roof would fit or the windows being set – but building it is something too difficult for chorus members to perform while singing. So choristers basically did nothing while supernumerary Handy Andies kept doing the hardwork. I wonder if there is someone left in Munich to repair your window during these performances of Lohengrin.

One might ask me how I could be distracted by bricks and cement while listening to Lohengrin. That is explained by Kent Nagano’s entirely uneventful conducting. To start with, his reputation as a “colorist”  here meant that the orchestra was kept at low volume throughout. The problem is that the gain of clarity was minimal and the considerate tempi left people wishing for more SOUND. If I have to make one harsh criticism is that both Richard Jones and Kent Nagano left no space for Ortrud and Telramund in their view of this opera – and God knows every Wagnerian sings Entweihte Götter in the shower! So back to the staging – since the action was transposed to the 50’s or something, Ortrud cannot be “pagan”. Actually, one cannot understand what she opposes to. In Nagano’s 100% gentle approach, their music lacks any trace of violence. The fierce repetition of their themes could barely heard in the famous declamatory passages of act II, scene 1. When the conductor was finally forced to plug in his performance (prelude to act III), the result was so messy that I felt sorry for him.

To make things worse, casting (alas, again…) was plagued by problems. To start with, the star of the show, Jonas Kaufmann, felt ill. Although he had high fever, he agreed to sing until the arrival of his replacement, who was flown in from London. All that said, I found he was an admirable Lohengrin. Although it is unwise to give a final opinion without act III (when he was replaced by an understandably unprepared Ivar Gilhuus), I am sure he should be fine there. From what I could hear, he unites the best from two different approaches to Lohengrin.  He has all the mezza-voce refinements of the young René Kollo and also the dark-hued tone and intensity of a James King. His tenor is not voluminous as some would wish, but he can pierce all right through the orchestra. In any case, if you find Klaus Florian Vogt too ethereal, Kaufmann should be your Lohengrin. And I wonder how better he should be when in good health!

Regardless of how good Kaufmann is, I am afraid that the best performance of the evening was Anja Harteros as Elsa. Even compared to the great sopranos who recorded the role, she goes to my shortlist of the really great Elsas. Her big lyric soprano is always warm, even, solid in its acuti and liquid in its velvety floating mezza voce. Her understanding of the text is exemplary, her imagination is neverending, her good taste is beyond reproach and she looks regal, in spite of the ugly costumes given to her. I know that her Traviatas both here and in New York have deserved warm reviews, but it is clear that her locus are Straussian and Wagnerian jugendlich dramatisch roles.

When it comes to Micaela Schuster’s Ortrud, I am afraid I found it less satisfying than at the Lindenoper. In the Bayerische Staatsoper’s largest auditorium, her voice sounds less rich and the dramatic high notes rather screechy. Worse than that, probably because she was worried about making big sounds, she was often out of steam in the end of phrases, exactly where verbs can be in German. Because of that, many a parola scenica would be lost in inaudibility. Her Telramund, Wolfgang Koch, did fare better in the declamation department, but his is the kind of Heldenbariton whose sound is often tense and raw – and a nobleman like Telramund deserves a bit more tone. King Henry is also a difficult role for Cristof Fischesser’s low-lying bass. Although he sang well, he was too often away from his comfort zone. Finally, Evgeny Nikitin’s herald was softer (and yet spacious) in grain than I am used to hear.

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Nabucco is a difficult opera to pull out. Although it is considered to be Verdi’s first truly “Verdian” opera, it is rather a torso of a Verdian opera. Without a truly commited approach from all involved, its many uneffective passages drain the dramatic power of the whole performance. The Bavarian State Opera has a good start – its orchestra has a truly rich and beautiful sound, with individual instrumental solos expressively performed. Conductor Paolo Carignani knows the value of forward movement, of theatrical atmosphere and structural clarity. It is truly a pity that he often gets overemphatic when percussion is involved, thus disfiguring his otherwise masterly balance. This prestigious opera house also has a very good chorus. Unfortunately, it took a while to warm from a messy opening number. It would eventually offer a sensitive account of the opera’s signature number, the choir Va pensiero, with perfectly blended voices and delicate accompaniment by the orchestra.

When it comes to the cast, we should speak rather of miscasting than casting. The performance’s prima donna, for example. Alessandra Rezza has truly interesting material – her voice is well focused, spontaneously bright-toned as only Italian sopranos can be, her divisions are really accurate, she has excellent diction, knows how to make use of the text and also has some charisma. However, Abigaille is such a heavy role for her voice that all those assets could not make into something really acceptable. Although her low notes are focused and not thrown on chest voice, she had hard time trying to make them run into the auditorium; some of her acuti were not truly on pitch and she had to chop her phrasing to make to the end of many a testing passage. I understand that maybe because of her weight, it might be difficult to cast her as something like Violetta or Donna Anna, but that is what she should be singing for a while before she tried Abigaille. When it comes to Stefan Kocán’s Zaccaria, I can only say that the role shows him in such disadvantage that it seems as if a comprimario had stood in for an ailing soloist. Finally, Aleksandr Antonenko does not have a problem with heaviness, but with lightness. Although his tenor is not as beefy as his recent casting as Otello might suggest, his is a big, penetrating quality – it only lacks Italian mellow legato and the role did not sound congenial as it should.

As it is, the really valid performance of this evening was Paolo Gavanelli’s Nabucco. Although his baritone has its squeezed-up and throaty moments, it is a spacious voice with considerable tonal variety. Lyric passages are expressively handled and his high mezza voce is a real treasure in his vulnerable approach to Nabucco. The lovely Daniela Sindram was also positively cast as Fenena. Although her mezzo has this German plushness, she has solid low notes and charm to spare.

I have been writing a lot about production in my recent reviews, but Yannis Kokkos is so inoffensive in its geometrical uneventfulness that it is not really worth writing about it. I know I am picky sometimes – but I am convinced that a staging has to make sense, even if one finally does not agree with that sense. Here we have the Jewish people represented as if during World War II, but the babylonians are dressed as characters from Die Zauberflöte. The coup-de-grâce: while singing Va, pensiero, the chorus is behind a barbed-wire fence, while Zaccaria is on the other side. Suddenly, he has an inspiration and finds a way to get in. The 1,000,000 question – if there is an unguarded way in to get behind the fence, why don’t they just get out?!

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