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Archive for March, 2010

When I say that one should not even bother to stage Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor if one has not a brilliant soprano for the title role, I do not mean that everything else in a staging of that opera is irrelevant. For a long while, it has been considered a tenor vehicle, for example. The problem is that the whole dramatic and musical impact of this very particular work depends on how touching the main character appears to the eyes and ears of the audience. If you do not care about her, it is all about a very silly girl in a very high tessitura.  And you will only care about her, if she is not fighting with what she has to sing.

The cancellationfest still goes on in Berlin. Diana Damrau was supposed to be the Bride of the Lammermoor – and I confess I was not really excited about that. Although she is an excellent actress and an intelligent musician, her morbidezza-less soprano is entirely unfit for the Italian repertoire. My recollection of her Lucia at the Met was frankly disappointing in all accounts, but for her ease with runs and staccato effects. Therefore, the announcement of her replacement by Eglise Gutiérrez placed an extra interest in the performance. I had seen Gutiérrez back in 2005 as Lakmé in the Carnegie Hall, where she gave a lovely and technically adept performance. It makes me particularly sad to report that these five years have not been kind to her voice:  her vowels have become excessively covered, the tone lacks brightness overall, her mezza voce is breathy, her high register is a bit effortful and her in alts are quite fragile if mostly true in pitch. Her coloratura has also lost its agility and, if she gathered her resources to a minimally decent Mad Scene, many fioriture were given the rittardando treatment. This disfigured the music’s flow and made many passages void of pathos. Although she cuts a quite romantic figure on stage, her basic acting toolkit has no “mentally fragile virgin”-option.

The Lammermoor family seemed doomed to inaudibility this evening – baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, whom I have seen under a very positive light in the Staatsoper’s Macbeth last year, could not focus his voice and pierce through into the auditorium. Hyung-Wook Lee’s Raimondo seemed more interesting in size and tonal quality, but he would gradually loose steam to the point in which things went really badly in his last contributions. If you wondered what Alisa actually sings during the sextett, this was your Lucia – Katherine Tier’s mezzo was quite hearable throughout.

In these circumstances, although Roberto Alagna’s tenor now sounds quite juiceless, it most definitely sounds in the theatre, what had a very soothing effect in an audience who had to struggle to follow the other main soloist’s lines. His usual lachrymose interpretative style has become quite vulgar, but again it was a relief to hear one singer who had operating space to interpret at all.

Stefano Ranzani’s contribution to the performance as a conductor limited itself to the traffic cop activity. In his defence, one must always point out that he had to keep orchestra down during the whole performance and there was very little to hear from the pit. Since his soloists were quite free about note values, he had to concentrate on following them rather than on establishing a musical interpretation. The edition here adopted was also heavily cut – no Lucia/Raimondo scene, no Enrico/Edgardo scene, not to mention internal trimming to make Lucia’s part easier.

When it comes to the unearthing of Filippo Sanjust’s old production, I was tempted to use the word “amateurish”, but  Etymology shows us that it comes from the word “love” – and whoever is responsible for that dreadful staging has no love for his or her work.

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Although Tokyo’s Suntory Hall is a vineyard-style concert-hall, as much as its source of inspiration (the Philharmonie in Berlin), it has decided to give staged opera a try. As in Berlin’s most notable example (Abbado’s Il Viaggio a Reims), the prestigious Japanese hall has decided to avoid tragedy and launched in 2008 a Mozart-Da Ponte series. I was able to witness the last installment.

Director Gabriele Lavia has the stage placed right in the middle of the hall, with the orchestra behind it and has ensured that those seated behind and on the sides were able to have some scenes staged facing them too. Although I am not crazy about the art-nouveau-like mirrors through which entrances and exits were made, the sets looked rather elegant in the pale colours of wicker furniture and white fabrics. I am not so sure about the numerous extras in commedia dell’arte-style costumes – although the choreographies and changes of set were nimbly performed, sometimes I felt that their presence in scenes which were supposed to be intimate was unnecessary. Maybe if they interacted with the cast in less collective a manner, the effect would be less cumbersome. In any case, Lavia is a great director for actors, who profited of the personalities of each member of the cast and produced a lightly funny, flowing and pleasant stage action.

It has been a while since I have last seen such a spontaneous performance of a Mozart opera – and conductor Nicola Luisotti is a central piece of this concept. He obviously loves the score and lovingly conducts it: all rhythms flow naturally, all dramatic effects are played without tampering with forward movement, clarity abounds, woodwind blends with soloists beautifully. This is exemplary Mozart conducting and Tokyoites were lucky to have all three Da Ponte operas conducted by Mr. Luisotti. Although the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra lacked the last ounce of brilliance and nonchalance, their playing was never less than accurate, polished and energetic. All solos, including French horn in Per pietà were perfectly performed. I am not sure how authentic the idea of having the continuo alternately played by fortepiano, harpsichord and theorbo (plus the cello) is, but Luisotti (who played the fortepiano himself) made these choices sensibly and the effect was quite interesting.

Serena Farnocchia has an ideal voice for Mozart – her soprano is bright, elegant and flexible and she has fluent divisions and beautiful pianissimo. You may be asking yourself why you have not heard from her before then. The answer is a certain lack of discipline that stands between her and complete success. She is the kind of singer who will cheat in the least difficulty if she believes she will get away with it without everyone noticing. As a result, many a top note in ensembles was rather hinted at than truly sung, trills were left to imagination, awkward breath pauses were made and mezza voce was rather an obligation than a pleasure. That said, her tone is so pleasant, her diction is so crystal-clear and the natural use of her native Italian so rewarding that one finally surrenders to her artistry, even regretting that she is not a bit more hard-working. On the other hand, Nino Surguladze is entirely foreign to Mozartian singing. One can see that she tries to produce the most “instrumental”  quality available to her, but what she does is unfortunately not really sufficient. To make things worse, she seemed uncomfortable with the tessitura, both in its lower and higher ends. Davinia Rodriguez’ s quicksilvery soprano is taylor-made to Despina. Although hers is a very bright and high-placed voice, she has no problem with her bottom register, which is always forward and natural. She is also a very good comedy actress. It is only a pity that she got a bit lost in the middle of her second aria.

Among the men, bass Enzo Capuano takes pride of place with his spacious voice, excellent acting skills and charisma. As Guglielmo, Markus Werba seemed not to be in a very good evening – he lacked resonance in his lower register and failed to project his high notes. As a result, the decision to present Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo proved to be problematic. Francesco Demuro’s Ferrando also benefited from native Italian and also clear passagework. However, his tenor has too open a quality and finally sounds rather glaring than mellifluous. There is also some lachrymosity and uncertain intonation. As a result, Un’aura amorosa sounded a bit unseductive and Ah, lo veggio somewhat tentative. Although he is not a gifted actor by nature, the director found in him an endearing gawkiness that ensured many a funny moment in the evening.

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Katze im Sack

Replacement seems to be the dernier cri in the world of classical music. One pays a fortune for a golden ticket with a dream team and ends on an expensive seat to see the usual suspects. For example, I was eager to see Genia Kühmeier for the first time. I know Berlin does not have the charms of Paris and Vienna, but she definitely has a problem with the town. She has cancelled her only concert here in two years – a Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Bernarda Fink and the Berlin Barock Solisten. As I had the curiosity to check on the Philharmonie website, I found there Sandrine Piau’s name and no explanation about Kühmeier’s disappearance. It’s been a busy week and – after the French soprano’s very disapponting performance in the Konzerthaus’s Messiah in December – I have finally opted for staying home. Then there was the Deutsche Oper’s Rosenkavalier – Martina Serafin, Alice Coote, Lucy Crowe and Kristinn Sigmundsson. I can imagine more glamourous casts than this, but this was a solid one and I was curious to see it, even if – again – this was a REALLY busy week. Again my morbid curiosity made me check the website – they had only changed three out of four soloists for household names without any serious disease mentioned. Der Rosenkavalier is a long opera and Michaela Kaune and Kurt Rydl are hardly must-sees (if I do not mention the new Octavian, it is because I have never ever heard her name before). As we are not speaking of Elektra or Brünnhilde or those roles very difficult to cast, I guess that changing almost every soloist for less enticing options is something that comes close to fraud. This is not the same thing as having Waltraud Meier replace Deborah Voigt, or Joseph Calleja replace Rolando Villazón. If you advertise a visiting singer of some renown in an old production, you should expect that the audience would jump at the occasion to see something new and not the nth revival with all-too-familiar singers. Again my decision was to stay at home.

However, the Berliner Philharmoniker has gone this evening beyond all limits of replacement in my experience; I had tickets for Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle plus Ligeti’s Lontano and Double concert for flute, oboe and orchestra. Christoph von Dohnányi would conduct and Charlotte Hellekant and Matthias Görne would sing. After this week’s cancellation-fest, I was prepared to see Michaela Schuster and Hanno-Müller Brachmann. Indeed I would prefer to see them – so I was almost hoping for cancellations. But when you decide to play God, God always teach you a lesson.

As soon as I got to the box office, I was told that, since Dohnányi was sick, we would have instead Neeme Järvi conducting Brahms’s Akademische Festouvertüre, the Overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon and Grieg’s Peer Gynt suites. As you see, pieces of similar nature, atmosphere and complexity of the ones originally scheduled… I give it a thought and said Neh, thanks – I would like to exchange my ticket for another concert. “I am sorry, Sir, you have bought a ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker and that is what you are getting today”. Wie so?! Is now the Berliner Philharmoniker like Madonna? You just pay for the privilege to see it – and if it decides to play O Tannenbaum, then you should thank God for that?! Then I thought – what happened to Charlotte Hellekant? Matthias Görne? Are they sick? Are they dead? Has someone called them and said “You know, stay at home and have a dinner at Borchardt with the fees for the concerts you are not singing anymore”? And what about the orchestra – had they not rehearsed the Ligeti and the Bartok pieces at all? So they were no prepared? And could another conductor – such as Barenboim will do for Levine –  not take over? Or am I really that naive to believe in unexpected turn of events, while they knew since long time ago that this concert would not take place and then took three ready-to-play concert pieces to cash the box office money after all? No – I guess this is just some sort of swindle. I am a lawyer and I guess one should get what one has paid for. I understand that no-one can guarantee that this or that soloist will be healthy (or even alive) for an event years after contracts have been signed, but one can always produce some soloist or some conductor to perform what has been advertised, unless an earthquake or some sort of fatal pestilence has happened. But saying that  there is no problem when one has to pay expensive tickets to see Bartok and then being treated to Weber (no offense to Weber – I like Weber, but his music is very different from that of Bartok), this is not acceptable. Curiously, if you go to their virtual concert hall, it is said that if you paid for the BROADCAST of the Dohnányi concert, then you are entitled to a replacement! I know customers are treated like dogs in Germany, but this goes beyond any sense of decency. End of rant.

Update – I have received a very kind and informative letter from the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Intendentin, Ms. Pamela Rosenberg, who explained to me that the program alteration was due to the exceptional circumstances in which 13 conductors declined to replace Cristoph von Dohnányi in such short notice. The fact remains that the Berliner Philharmoniker does not refund or offer replacement tickets when such alterations are made, but exceptional circumstances are supposed to be exceptional at any rate. In what regards me, I believe it was gracious from the Intedentin to answer herself my letter and I deem myself in peace with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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