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Archive for January, 2010

Even some die-hard Wagnerian would rarely or ever care to listen to anything before Der Fliegende Holländer – and Rienzi’s grand-opéra style and Italian setting might be rather unsettling for those used to valkyries riding flying horses. That said, in spite of its gigantic length, the opera reserves many hidden treasures in its event eventful plot and full-power score with its large-scale ensembles and vocally challenging main roles. It is only fitting that this work deserved a whole new production in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Wagner Wochen.

Adolf Hitler had a fancy for Rienzi – he even had a manuscript score in his bunker. This historical fact might have given director Philipp Stölzl the idea of relating the demagogic and equivocal Tribune Cola di Rienzi to the Führer and, to a certain extent, to the Duce. The connection is not unfounded – Rienzi seduced the people of a dilapidated nation and promised the restoration of its imperial status by the glorification of an idealized past and belligerence. However, it does not seem that Rienzi was a lunatic, but would rather deem himself well-meaning in his intent to raise a Rome ravaged by a self-interested elite and revive the rule of law. Portraying him as a childish deranged mind, with the excuse of quoting Charles Chaplin, is ultimately reducing the discussion to the simplistic explanation of insanity. In other words, making Rienzi a comical figure has the effect of belittling the social and historical phenomenon as mere folly, while History shows that the likes of Hitler or Stalin were not joking. And if the director is not ready to make a valid parallel, why making it in the first place? Better leave poor Rienzi in his XIVth century.

All that said, Stölzl’s staging has its qualities. First of all, it looks grandiose enough and that is something grand opéra cannot part with. The two-level set depicting Rienzi’s bunker and a public space dominated by a large screen on which Rienzi’s speeches are exhibited is visually striking. The use of film is aesthetically effective and benefits from the leading tenor’s histrionic talents. Although there is a bit too much clownishness in the approach, Torsten Kerl embraces the direction with gusto. It is a pity though that tiny wrong decisions finally undermine the interesting concept – the staged overture (should we stress again that this rarely is a good idea?) showing a stupid choreography (and again?) for Rienzi (!), wobbly and wrinkled flats, poorly synchronized slow-motion scenes and an Adriano portrayed as an awkward boy (let’s not forget that this was Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s role). Worst of all, we all know that the score is invariably cut for performances – but those should be determined by musical values. Here Wagner’s music is ruthlessly cut in order to help the director force his ideas on the plot. Act 5 is pared in such uneconomical way that one could hardly understand what was going on – Rienzi’s excommunication is almost left to imagination and Irene and Adriano’s relationship is reduced to kindergarten complexity.

The title role is a challenge to casting – it requires a heroic voice that should preside above very large ensembles and that should work in some low-lying declamatory passages and also almost classical poise to deal with the grupetti and legato demands of moments such Almächt’ger Vater. Torsten Kerl may lack the volume of a true Heldentenor, but his focused, forceful tenor finds no difficulties in this writing and the tonal quality is healthy and pleasant. He phrases with imagination and has crystalline diction. He should be an ideal Lohengrin and I would be curious to see his Kaiser in the Florentine production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in May. But I wonder how wise it is to tackle Siegfried (Paris, 2011).

Although the role of Adriano is in the limits of Kate Aldrich’s resources, she did not seem fazed by the role’s difficult demands. She sang with affection, offered a stylish account of her act III aria (shorn of the difficult passage that stands in for a cabaletta soon after) and acquitted herself rather neatly in high-lying dramatic passages. Camilla Nylund found less comfort in the role of Irene, which is too high for her voice in the first place. Her opaque high register would gain the minimally necessary brightness and roundness during the opera. In her last interventions, she would even produce some rich acuti. Among the minor roles, Ante Jerkunica proved to be a convincing Stefano.

Replacing an ailing Vladimir Jurovsky, maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing offered an urgent account of the score, generating energy rather from bright-toned orchestral sound and clear articulation, for he wisely avoided heaviness and thickness, helping his light-voiced cast in many key passages. The orchestra had, however, its untidy moments, especially with brass instruments, but never showed itself less than animated. However, the excellent house chorus takes pride of place for its truly exciting performance – musical and dramatic values taken with same engagement and precision.

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No way Bach

Flirting with historically informed performances is something large orchestras could not resist. With various degrees of success, conductor like John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington or Nikolaus Harnoncourt are regularly invited to guest performances with the Wiener Philharmoniker or the Concertgebouw. For many of them, this should not be seen as a surprise – Harnoncourt, for example, began his career as a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, where he had the opportunity to work with people like Herbert von Karajan. In other words, he knew very well his mainstream before going HIP.

I am not sure if Ton Koopman has a similar background. This evening he had his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker – and my impression was rather of uneasiness. As one could have expected, the program turned essentially around Bach. The reduced orchestra was first heard playing the Overture no. 3 BWV 1068. I would have said that, predictably, trumpets and timpani could not blend into the aural picture, but my only previous experience with the BPO in this repertoire (Bach’s Mass in B minor with Claudio Abbado in Salzburg in 1999) had precisely surprised me by the way how the Italian conductor managed to solve this problem and keep an almost ideal balance throughout the whole performance. To make things more difficult, Koopman’s tempi were invariably too fast and the string section could simply not offer clear articulation. The only moment when it seemed to relax was during the famous Air, when the conflict between the orchestra’s impulse to sing on broad lines and the conductor’s rigidity ultimately rendered an almost ideal compromise between Romantic and baroque values.

After the intermission, the audience was treated to a performance of the controversial Motette “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden”, when the RIAS Kammerchor sang with enough clarity, but I am afraid that the sopranos had too clear an advantage over the remaining voices. One could hardly hear the basses. The ensuing performance of the Magnificat BWV 243 only proved that this piece has bad luck with the Philharmonie.

Its previous performance in this hall in 1984 has been preserved on video and shows Herbert von Karajan, a large orchestra, huge chorus, not one but two copulating-skeletons-style harpsichords and a group of soloists who could as well sing L’Italiana in Algeri. One would expect that this evening’s performance to vindicate the Berliners from the anachronistic approach, but I am afraid that it has only proved that it is very difficult to pull out a relatively stylish performance of baroque music with a Romantic orchestra.

Although the conductor has chosen a more sensible pace, it only had the dubious effect of sounding dull, as the orchestra sound was devoid of clarity, especially in contrapuntal passages. The balance between voices in the chorus became more apparent. It also lacked horizontal clarity – Bach’s beautifully built choral writing often seemed like a pointless series of vowels. The choice of soloists reflects the contemporary practices of abandoning singers with modest volume in big halls to no one’s avail. Soprano Klara Ek and tenor Werner Güra at least have a bright sheen on their voices. Ingerborg Danz is an experienced Bachian and, even if one wanted more sound, she was probably the only singer who offered something like an interpretation – and the tessitura is admittedly uncongenial to the contralto voice. The usually admirable Klaus Mertens also resented the size of the auditorium. He had to force a bit and lost some of his tonal quality. I wonder why this concert was not performed at the Kammermusiksaal, as it ought to.

Curiously, the only item in the evening that proved to be of some interest was the non-Bachian piece – Haydn’s Symphony no. 98. The difference in the quality of the orchestral sound was immediately sensed. Strings had a brighter, cleaner color; phrasing had purpose and energy; the fast tempi generated energy rather than lack of focus. No wonder that the piece got the most animated applause in the whole evening. I wonder to what extent the success of the Haydn piece would be due to the fact that the orchestra members were probably less straight-jacked by having to comply to esoteric performance practices imposed by a visiting composer. Who can tell?

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If life gives you lemon,…

.., make lemonade. The infamous quote is one of Joan Collins’s contributions to mankind. Her acting skills were unfortunately not one of them, but the lady has attitude, one must concede her that. One can only guess how far she would have gone if she could do what Helen Mirren does… When it comes to opera, how often one regrets nature’s avarice when listening to some singers who really deserved a great voice. For instance, Danielle de Niese. Although I do not subscribe to the Beyoncé-like routine she displayed in her recital with the Giardino Armonico in the Konzerthaus this evening, her energy, imagination, commitment and hardwork are hard to overlook. Life gave her a lemon – and she made limoncello.

If one had to classify de Niese’s voice, soubrette would be everyone’s first idea. But her diligent efforts to extract everything and a bit more from it has pushed her into other directions. Her middle register is modest, but she generally tries to keep it as light and conversational as possible, limiting her tonal colouring to a sexiness à la Kathleen Battle (to whom she cannot otherwise be compared, I am sorry to say). When things get low (and she is naughty about how low she should go), she manipulates her registers to produce some sound down there. On the other hand, I have found her high notes very healthy, fully produced and never shrill. At first, a light soprano in baroque repertoire who has an ersatz for a low range and who sings some rich top notes seems admirable indeed. But this gimmick has a price – which is her tonal purity. As it is, her alternative is to sing notes without vibrato, which ultimately comes about rather as tremulousness.

Nevertheless – and this is a big nevertheless – she is a singer I would gladly see in baroque repertoire, provided she does not take the prima donna role, i.e., as Morgana (in Alcina), as Dalinda (in Ariodante), as Poppea (in Agrippina) etc.  First of all, she has a remarkable instinct to establish the mood of an aria. Even in a restricted tonal palette, she never sings two arias the same way. One can even distinguish different characters when they appear in a row in a recital like this evening’s. Second, although she is no native Italian, she definitely knows how to use the text in her favor. After some very tame accounts of arie di furie, it is always good to hear someone who sings Morrai, sì as if she were really threatening someone. Also, in Volate, amori, from the way she sings the word due bei cori, one can feel Ginevra’s girly excitement about her upcoming wedding. Third, she really revels in athletic coloratura passages.  Her account of Cleopatra’s Da tempeste, for instance, was undoubtedly exciting. God knows that this can be preferable to bloodless propriety…  I have also noticed that the microphone is not very kind to her voice, exposing the lack of firmness in the middle of her range and adding a metallic quality to her high notes that one does not hear live.

Although de Niese’s program involved only Handel opera characters unsuited to her voice, she has chosen items which more or less flatter her. Predictably, lamenti such as Laschia ch’io pianga and Ritorna, o caro were the arias in which her lack of tonal depth and richness were more immediately felt. Fortunately, Giovanni Antonini and the Giardino Armonico were there to provide all the atmosphere one could wish for. These musicians have unending supply of panache and technical abandon, phrasing with protean quality, infusing every little decibel with energy, surprising the audience with their verve and theatricality. Never before have I heard such a sunny performance of Handel’s concerti grossi (op.6, no.1 and no. 6) and Geminiani’s Concerto Op. 5 no. 2 was an absolute tour de force. No wonder the orchestra got the greatest share of the applause (truth be said, the soprano was warmly acclaimed as well). And they do live up to the concert occasion with their extrovert personalities. Their nonchalance about their virtuoso quality is comparable to the naturalness with which Romans cross the Piazza della Rotonda as if the Pantheon was just another building. Between the pieces, they chatted, smiled, made jokes… I only hope that the collection of bizarre ties was a practical joke (that Berliners are unable to notice, I am afraid)…

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Franz Schreker’s opera Der Ferne Klang, premièred in Frankfurt am Main in 1912, made the composer one of the brightest stars in German operatic world before and during WWI until he was blacklisted as creator of Entartete Musik, what probably concurred to his early death in 1934. Although the shadow of names such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler has been large enough to cover contemporary composers, Schreker has had his advocates – such as Gerd Albrecht who recorded the work in Berlin in 1990 and Michael Gielen who persuaded the Lindenoper to stage it in 2001. This very production has been revived this evening.

Schreker’s main assets as a composer are his harmonic imagination, masterly orchestration and talent for writing declamatory music. It is a pity that melodic imagination and dramatic timing do not make into the list. As it is, many scenes overstay their effect and, although the music is precisely set to his own text, one must say that Schreker the librettist is no Hugo von Hofmannsthal. As a result, the opera, to use Hofmannsthal’s words, enthält Längen, gefährliche Längen… Strauss would have said that he might not be a first-rate composer, but then he would be a first-class second-rate composer. At any rate, one can certainly feel how inspired he seems even when he looses his way (as in FroSch’s act III, for example) in comparison to Schreker.

In any case, Die Ferne Klang is a work one should experience – its atmosphere of uncanny sensuousness is certainly noteworthy  – although it is one opera one can only truly enjoy when the forces available are top class to make it work as it should. In other words, this is not a bad-casting-proof work. The Lindenoper cast has two notable singers in key roles: tenor Burkhard Fritz as… Fritz and Hanno Müller-Brachmann as the Count. Although he has been singing jugendlich dramatisch tenor parts such as Lohengrin and Walther, Fritz’s rock-solid voice shows great depth in the lower reaches and an unusually clean top register. It cuts through the orchestra without any hint of effort and he phrases with true legato, a rarity these days. Even if he was announced indisposed, one could only guess that only from one or two constricted exposed high notes many a healthy tenor would have produce anyway. Müller-Brachmann’s perfectly focused dark baritone is always a pleasure to the ears – and he seized the occasion to offer a detailed and varied account of the glühenden Krone ballad. One must also not forget tenor Stephan Rügamer, who sang the role of the Questionable Individual with liquid tone.

However, a great deal of a performance of Der ferne Klang depends on the singer cast as Grete. Anne Schwanewilms is an extremely gifted actress, is a beautiful woman and has a good way with words, but her “tubular” lyric soprano is not what this music requires. In her first scene, her Gretel sounds rather childish than youthful and her transformation in demimondaine does not bring about anything sensuous, let alone sexy with it. Although she seemed to be in very good voice, she was too often strained by the writing, ending on being covered by the orchestra too often and her vocal production was more than occasionally fluttery. Her habit of pecking at notes does not help her to produce any sense of passion either. I wonder how much her casting has influenced Maestro Pedro Halffter, who obviously love this music and never failed to produce the right color effects in it, to adopt a rather restrained approach. I know that the name of Gabriele Schnaut makes many cringe, but back in 1990 in Albrecht’s recording, she could offer something far more impassioned and thrilling. Her closing scene (with a mellifluous Thomas Moser and the RIAS orchestra in full power) is something that would hardly leave anyone indifferent.

When it comes to the staging, one should really close one’s eyes and enjoy the music. First of all, it all looked ugly beyond salvation – and kitsch. Second, if you haven’t previously read the plot, you would not understand the story at all – I know directors love to say that everybody already knows the story, but that is just an excuse for poor results. The places described in the libretto are replaced by multipurpose dingy-colored sets that add nothing to the experience – the same happens to the characters’ actions, who are also replaced by some pointless choreographies (this time, I must acknowledge, expertly handled by the cast, especially Schwanewilms) that involve lots of trembling and shaking. Worse: many singers take various roles without changing costumes. As they hang around on stage in scenes in which none of their characters were supposed to appear, the results are even more confusing. The playing with the story is particularly harmful to the closing redemption scene, which looks here just messy and dull. Schreker has all effects played by the orchestra – nobody can accuse him of lacking that ability – and creates mood wonderfully. He really needs no help in that department – and stage directors should take note of that.

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Die Frau ohne Schatten is arguably Richard Strauss’s most formidable score, composed to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s most complex libretto, the symbolism of which is almost awkward in its multiple levels. Magic opera, psychological drama, myth, social analysis… there is plenty to choose in it. To make things more difficult, the music is some sort of Straussian showcase – from the multicolored chamber music atmosphere of Ariadne auf Naxos to the all-together-now hysteria of Elektra. That operatic Goliath does not seem to have intimidated Zürich’s small but brave opera house, though.

Although director David Pountney believes that the work is about the discovery of one’s own humanity, he seems to focus his staging on the social disintegration caused by the exploitation of working class in the early day of capitalism, more of less Hofmannsthal’s lifetime. Thus, the story is set on the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. While the Emperor and the Empress are here shown as k. u. k. aristocrats, Barak and his wife are proletarians in a sewing workshop. The Nurse is a key  figure in this context, since she is portrayed as something like a less fortunate relative who depends on her patrons’ favors (therefore, her interest in the Empress comes through more like self-interest than in other stagings). The magic elements of the plot are not abandoned, however. The surrealistic aesthetics of Max Ernst serve as inspiration to dream-like costumes and sets. Many ideas come through quite effectively, such s the play-in-the-play seduction of the Dyer’s Wife, where the Amme literally stages the poor woman’s romanesque fantasies (it is truly amazing how the music fits this concept), but many a detail ultimately seem unintentionally comical, such as the ballet-dancer falcon (why people feel that they have to bring the “voice of the falcon” to the stage?) or the walking dolls cloaked in white who are supposed to be the Ungeborene… If the many imaginative touches do not make an unforgettable experience, poor direction of actors is to blame. The cast did not seem comfortable with what they had to do and most scenes gave the impression of a routine followed with little conviction and almost no coherence: the tenor’s approach was stand-and-deliver, the baritone offered naturalistic acting and both sopranos seemed entirely lost. Only the mezzo seemed to invest the stylized acting required from her.

Franz Welser-Möst similarly eschewed any larger-than-life quality in his reading. The Opernhaus Zürich has a small auditorium and its orchestra is used to produce leaner sounds. Moreover, the conductor professes that Straussian style should involve lighter textures over which the text can still be easily followed by the audience. Let’s call it the “Cosi-fan-tutte golden rule”. I have to confess that I took some time to adjust to the undernourished orchestral sound, especially in what regards the string section. There was transparence in plenty, but the fact that the sound never ever blossomed even in the orchestral interludes finally robbed the music of a great deal of its impact. The end of act I sounded particularly deprived of substance. That could be overseen, if volume had been replaced by accent (as Marc Minkowski has showed us in his performance of R. Wagner’s Die Feen at the Théâtre du Châtelet), but, alas, the lack of forward movement and a sameness in what regard phrasing all in favor of orchestral polish finally suggested overcautiousness. The Mozartian poise had its advantages – a particularly clean ensemble in the difficult act II closing scene – but I am not really sure if this is how FroSch should sound.

The role of the Kaiserin is a bit high for Emily Magee, who had to chop her phrases too often to prepare for the next dramatic high note. However, her creamy soprano is a Straussian instrument by nature and, even when tested, she never produced a sour note during the whole opera. Jenice Baird was a puzzling Färberin. I have never heard her in such good voice – she really sang the part in her rich vibrant dramatic soprano, but seemed to be sleepwalking in the interpretative and dramatic departments. Her rather slow delivery of the text drained the Färberin music of all its bite. Although Birgit Remmert was quite overparted as the Amme, the size of the hall helped her to produce the right effect in this role. She has spacious low notes, clear declamation and, even if her top register is a bit strained, that did not prevent to produce some firm acuti. I know: Roberto Saccà’s voice is ugly, but I must say that I have never listened to anyone sing this part with such flowing lyricism, nuance and ringing top notes before. He almost convinced me that the role should be cast with jugendlich dramatisch voices. Michael Volle was extremely well cast as Barak – his spacious baritone is extremely pleasant on the ear and he sang sensitively throughout.

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Sometimes I feel that opera stage directors are the loneliest people in the world. They have to be orphan and friendless; otherwise someone would tell them “I know that this idea seems to work IN YOUR MIND, but the truth is…” And yet, no, they go all alone to their pitfalls – except for the audience, who is dragged to the directors’ ordeal without getting, unlike them, a penny for that.

When Jens-Daniel Herzog appeared on stage to take his bow in the end of the performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Semperoper, he seemed to be a nice guy, what makes it doubly sad that no-one, absolutely no-one had ever told him “just don’t” when he decided to indulge in some absolutely proven operatic sins, such as staging the overture, reserving loud action for extras while singers and orchestra are trying to make music, devising difficult movements and/or postures in vocally challenging passages or creating an atmosphere on stage in a different mood from the one portrayed by the music. But nothing – absolutely NOTHING – is so hideous as having soloists and chorus members perform cute choreographies while singing. First of all, these people rarely really know how to dance; second, it looks silly; thirdly, it looks silly.

What makes Herzog’s staging doubly frustrating is the impression that this is the flower power version of the Glyndenbourne production, in which the choreographies were meant in the context of Bollywood aesthetics. Here the action is set in Egypt all right, but in the 1940’s. Where the cute steps fit in is a mystery to me – the all-about-decolleté Cleopatra in a Muslim country makes even less sense! But let’s not concentrate on details. Many a misfire in Herzog’s staging is shared by almost every other director who tackles a Handel opera, especially not trusting the power of music and introducing all sort of funny little parallel actions to “entertain” the audience while what seems bo…ring music to them is being played in the background.

All that said, it would be unfair if I gave the impression that Mr. Herzog is the target of what is ranting about the general state of affairs. In this production, the cast seemed to be having fun, acted with conviction and many of the complex movements were actually well executed. I confess I have particularly enjoyed the idea of showing Lidia/Cleopatra during V’adoro, pupille as a crooner in some sort of nightclub, where the solo violinist in Se giulivo is one of those musicians who play for customers trying to entice them to give him some money.

The staging’s flamboyance contrasted to conductor Alessandro de Marchi’s rather inflexible approach. Having an opera house orchestra follow period practices in baroque music is always risky business, and de Marchi succeeded in immerse his musicians in the right stylistic universe. However, this was a compromise one could feel. There was a sense of straight-jacket in the slimmer sound picture of the traditionally lush-toned Staatskapelle Dresden and the fast tempi showed precision without true animation. I do not mean that the performance sagged in any way – it just lacked dramatic conviction. Although it is always good to find some energy in Cornelia and Sesto’s gloomy mourning, a little bit more suppleness would have helped to boost expression in a performance that seemed primarily about getting things rightly done. Although a die-hard purist would be nauseous, for instance,  at some of John Nelson’s performances at the Metropolitan Opera House (I’m particularly referring to the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels) , at least the ordinary opera-goer would definitely get some thrill out of the proceedings. If you’re playing Bach in a Steinway, it will be useless trying to make it sound like a harpsichord – better make it in the grand manner like Martha Argerich does.

The edition here adopted involved as expected the trimming of the B section of some arias, but this has been judiciously done. Tu la mia stella sei was fortunately preferred to Tutto può donna vezzosa, but the lovely Venere bella (among other numbers) was deleted, while Nireno’s aria has been kept.

Laura Aikin is an experienced Cleopatra, but the years have  robbed the roundness of her top register. It is still an extremely charming voice, but everything around a high g sounds a bit hard and unflowing. And to think that in 1999 she was an amazing Zerbinetta in Sinopoli’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Milan! Let’s hope she was just not in a good day. The rather awkward cadenze written by the conductor (for all soloists) tented to highlight the problem. Her Se pietà was pleasing if not heartfelt and she met with confidence the challenge of Da tempeste, in spite of some shrieking high options.

Casting a high mezzo as Cesare is a helpless idea. It is hardly Anke Vondung’s fault that she seemed a bit out of sorts almost all the time. More generously endowed singers, such as Tatiana Troyanos, experienced the same problems in this role. Nevertheless, this performance made that German mezzo rise in my esteem. She offered more or less fluent coloratura, has good trills, expert messa di voce, phrases tastingly and – if she does not sound heroic at all – her singing of the difficult fioriture in Al lampo dell’armi while performing a difficult stage fight with five extras deserves enthusiastic praise.

Christa Mayer is evidently no specialist in baroque opera, but she diligently adapted her Wagnerian contralto to the circumstances and offered some lovely moments as Cornelia, especially in Son nata a lacrimar. Pity that Janja Vuletic was not at the same level – her Barbarina-like soprano simply does not work properly in this lower tessitura and her wayward breath support involved many stances of unfocused tone and approximative pitch. She is a very good actress, though, and cuts a believably boyish figure on stage. Max Emanuel Cencic’s countertenor is not as rich in the lower reaches as Bejun Mehta’s or David Daniels’, but his firm-toned, vivid singing is very effective in this role, not to mention that some of his forceful high notes are truly exciting. Cristoph Pohl’s strong and flexible bass was ideally cast as Achilla and Christopher Field’s bright and flexible countertenor was finally worth the inclusion of Nireno’s Chi perde un momento.

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