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Archive for May, 2010

Damiano Michieletto’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Teatro La Fenice could suggest a certain restraint in its cold colours, entirely indoors setting and elegant boiseries, but the nightly atmosphere proves to be a space of unbridled passion: Don Giovanni’s assault on Donna Anna is extremely violent, the Commendatore is beaten to death with his own walking stick, the peasants in Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding are heavily drunk and the closing scene is no feast, but a quite graphic orgy. Michieletto has a good instinct for character development and, with excellent acting from all involved, sheds interesting light on every figure, particularly Donna Anna, whose Or sai chi l’onore is a nightmarish vortex of guilt and passion in which the first scene is revived in an atmosphere of  unavowable desire, whereas Non mi dir is a statement of love not to Don Ottavio, but to her father’s own coffin. Similarly, Zerlina sings Vedrai, carino to an imaginary Don Giovanni, while Masetto is left alone to take care of his wounds. Still more interesting is the tormented Leporello, (nervous tics and stammer included) whose guilty vices are repressed by social inferiority. In the end, only Don Giovanni himself is rather clichéed in his my-candle-burns-at-both-ends manic, almost suicidal drive.

If the intelligent and often revelatory approach does not finally delivers the goods, it is because the director is ultimately too simplistic in his partiality for Don Giovanni as an image of every one’s repressed desires. Some of the evening’s less efficient scenes invariably involved Don Giovanni’s “symbolic” appearances, such as when he quite sillily pushes everyone on stage to the ground as an invisible force during the sextet Sola, sola in buio loco.

Conductor Antonello Manacorda is an alert Mozartian who understands the theatrical and musical meaning of every phrase in the score without being overwhelmed by his understanding. His tempi are swift and his orchestral sound is transparent and flexible. Most important, the right expressive atmosphere is settled for every scene – the orchestra laughs at Masetto, sighs with Donna Elvira and sobs with Donna Anna. I would be curious to hear him with a more virtuoso ensemble. Although La Fenice’s orchestra has done a decent job, the strings lack refulgence to start with, especially in passagework, and some complex ensemble were not perfectly synched.

Aleksandra Kurzak’s flexible bright soprano is light-toned for Donna Anna. Or sai chi l’onore takes her to her very limits and, although she is never less than stylish, sensitive and pleasant to the ears, her top notes have become a bit breathy and glassy. This lovely artist should be more careful with her choice of roles and void the temptation of parts that will eventually take their toll on her vocal health. In any case, the audience should cherish the occasion to hear such clean coloratura in a difficult aria such as Non mi dir. Carmela Remigio’s high-lying soprano resents the lower tessitura of Donna Elvira. In this production, she is portrayed as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I wished that this approach did not elicit from the singer the gusty phrasing, the erratic pitch and the parlando effects. In the end, her Elvira was one-dimensionally intense and unstylish. Irini Kyriakidou has a basically fruity, sexy soprano (she herself is really attractive too), but her high register spreads uncomfortably. Marlin Miller is a capable Don Ottavio who took some time to warm (Dalla sua pace lacked finish). His voice, especially in loud dynamics, does not sound round as a lyric tenor’s should, but rather metallic in a Spieltenor-like manner, though. Markus Werba’s Don Giovanni is devoid of nuance, and his baritone is too open-toned to suggest seduction. But he does have stamina. Alex Exposito’s voice seems to have shrunken at both ends since I last saw him in this same role. The general impression is of roughness, what unintentionally suited this production. Finally, Atilla Jun proved to be a powerful Commendatore.

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In view of Violeta Urmana’s debatable success in Verdi, one would tend to dismiss her incursion in bel canto without even hearing a note of it. Nevertheless, her Adalgisa to Nelly Miricioiu’s Norma in Amsterdam back in 1999 was a most satisfying performance. Of course, the title role in the opera is a far more fearsome enterprise.

Before I miss the attention of nay-sayers, I will go to the heart of the matter: Norma is not a role that naturally suits Violeta Urmana’s voice. I am not even entirely convinced that it suits her temper either, but – and this is an important “but” – her stab at it deserves praise nonetheless and speaks favorably to her status as a leading singer in her generation. This is not a performance that will make into history in any sense and must be seen as an example of this singer’s solid technique, good taste, musicianship and endeavor. In any case, the final results are far more consistent than one has recently heard from singers like Maria Guleghina, Hasmik Papian or Fiorenza Cedolins (to name a few recent broadcasts).

It might sound surprisising that the high tessitura proved to be less challenging to Urmana than what I had imagined. It is true that a couple of exposed acuti sounded either edgy or hard pressed, but one did not have the impression that she would not make it or that she was even getting tired out of the effort of requiring so much so often from her high register. If we keep in mind that her repertoire is that of a dramatic soprano, her fioriture are quite decent. She strays from pitch in the middle of a run now and then, but she was consistently true to tempo – and the conductor never slowed the pace to make things easy for her. When a lighter touch was required, she had her ungainly moments, but mezza voce, even in high notes, posed her no difficulties. As expected the edition  had all the adaptations adopted when a singer like this is cast in the main role, including no repeat for Bello, a me ritorna.

In the context of a concert performance, singers tend to concentrate on the vocal aspects, but Urmana could find the necessary theatricality for key moments, although grandeur remained the keynote here. In fact, if I had to single out one quality in her performance, this would be the elegance of her phrasing that brought about a sense of classical poise that fits this repertoire. However, the hallmark aspect of bel canto, the ability to produce the perfect blend of tonal colouring and declamation, eluded her unfortunatey. In this sense, the casting of Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa was especially telling. Even if her voice has seen more flexible and focused days, her skill in giving life to the text through phrasing was quite admirable, especially in what regards dynamics, inflection and tonal variety.

Korean tenor Francesco Hong’s gave me the impression of trying to be more Italian than Italians themselves. His whole attitude evokes the days of Corelli, del Monaco et al. Fortunately for him, his voice is indeed really Italianate and his Italian is idiomatic. A most pleasant tonal quality, a strong, spontaneous middle register and the potential for some exciting top notes should secure him a sucessful career (in spite of a disadvantageous physique), but his technique is rather irregular and impressive moments (he proved to be dramatically engaged and sometimes even nuanced) are often followed by clumsy ones, not to mention that outdated mannerisms appear now and then. Finally, Carlo Colombara’s bass is authoritative and firm-toned, but his legato leaves a lot to be desired.

The Teatro Real’s chorus offered a very good performance, but Massimo Zanetti is probably the wrong man to conduct the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, whose strings lack tonal richness to start with. As the maestro insisted on fast , percussive sounds, the aural picture seemed brassy and abrupt, missing the necessary warmth, especially in elegiac passages. Although the conductor was keen on precision and faithfulness to dynamic markings, the effect was too short in smoothness and expressive power, suggesting rather a work by Rossini than by Bellini sometimes.

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Daniel Barenboim’s close collaboration with both La Scala and Staatsoper Unter den Linden has resulted a joint venture, which is a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, apparently at the rate of one opera every season both in Milan and at the Schiller Theater. Although the production is going to be one for both theatres, casting differs. For example, Nina Stemme and Waltraud Meier sing Bruennhilde and Sieglinde in Die Walkuere in Milan, while Berlin will feature Irene Théorin and Anja Kampe.

Barenboim’s almost Furtwaenglerian large-scaled approach to the Ring is known through his Bayreuth performances released both in CD and DVD and it seems that the conductor tried to justify his second visit to the Nibelungs with a whole new different approach. Although Furtwängler himself has conducted a Ring at La Scala, one would believe that the maestro inspired himself in another German who has also tried his tetralogy there: Wolfgang Sawallisch (1973).  This time, large scale are hardly the words that come to mind – the orchestral sound is rather chamber-like and clear, with beautiful textures and rather detailed phrasing in more lyric moments, especially when soft dynamics are involved. In more purely “Wagnerian” passages, things tend to lack some finish. Curiously, the performance is dramatically rather blank and, in spite of the lightness, tempi rarely flow. Probably because of the light-voiced cast, restrain seems to be the keyword, what impared many of the opera climaxes, especially Alberich’s curse, which really misfired here.

The main source of curiosity in this performance is René Pape’s first Wotan. The Dresdener bass has made a reputation out of Wagnerian roles such as King Marke in Lohengrin and the King Heinrich in Lohengrin, but, if I am not mistaken, this is his first Wagnerian Heldenbariton emploi. Although the tonal quality is noble and the attitude is stylish and knowing, Pape’s velvety voice does not seem really cut for the part. In this tessitura, his voice does not really sound large and his high register sounds a bit bleached, what gives a more tentative than commanding impression. His Alberich, Johannes Martin Kraenzle, is similarly out of his sort. He seems to know what Alberich should be like and is also a good actor (even if he looks old for the part), but he cheats in every high note and is often overwhelmed by the orchestra, even in its light-toned version. Stephan Rügamer is also light-toned for Loge – and his nasality is often bothersome – but this imaginative tenor sings with amazing  tonal variety and an almost Mozartian dulcet quality that makes his character particularly insinuating. As always, he is a most gifted actor – certainly the singer who made most of the mechanical stage direction. Curiously, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s voice proved to be more penetrating than his in the role of Mime. Maybe it is a bit late for Doris Soffel to tackle the role of Fricka – her vocal production is now a bit raspish. She is a subtle artist with intelligent word-pointing and some effective use of mezza voce, but one wants more vocal comfort. Anna Larsson lacked firmness as Erda and Anna Samuil (Freia) was rather metallic in tone if quite hearable in her flashy Slavic voice. The remaining minor roles were all ineffectively taken. Truth be said, the only singer truly at ease in this performance was Kwangchul Youn, whose Fasolt outclassed the remaining members of the cast.

To make things even less exciting, Guy Cassiers’s production is a series of misconceptions. The omnipresent ballet dancers making their distracting steps all over the place would make Wagner turn in his tomb. In any case, it made me feel like kicking them and their clueless choreographies off the stage. From a certain point on, all effects described in the libretto were replaced in a most unconvincing way by dancers doing their routines.  Enrico Bagnoli’s sets are quite unsensational and oversimple. The whole concept turned around the use of water in the first scene, for a rather awkward impression, and, since it is not simple to dry the whole set, it remained wet to the end, the attempts to make that make sense even more pointless. The audience’s reaction was quite cold and it made me wonder if some things are going to be changed for next season’s prima, Die Walküre, which is going to need something more consistent than this.

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Often while I read a review of a French opera performance in Diapason magazine, where many a famous singer is dismissed for “not being French enough”, I think to myself that French should learn to accept the trade-off involved in the internationalization of their national repertoire, in the same way Italy and Germany have done without making such a fuss. However, this evening, while watching the performance of Chabrier’s L’Étoile in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden I guess I could finally understand their point. Of course, works like Bizet’s Carmen or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande are complex enough to survive the acclimation, but the subtle charms of an operetta are far more sensitive to new environments.

Simon Rattle’s wish to highlight the multicolored orchestration was evident from bar no.1 and he produced some brilliant effects with the Staatskapelle Berlin, but those were often achieved at the expense of lightness – and this is a no go in this repertoire. Under the heavy-handed beats, sprightly rhythms finally sounded martial, chiaroscuro was drowned in loudness and clarity was often left to imagination. I have to confess I was finding everything quite silly until I got home and played back my old recording with the Opéra de Lyon and John Eliot Gardiner and then was reminded of how delightfully kitsch the whole thing could be if one leaves it space to breathe and naturally move on.

The cast did not make things actually easier. The only francophone singer this evening, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Roi Ouf Ier) obviously established an authentic atmosphere whenever he was on stage. However, at this point in his career, his command of high tessitura is no longer faultless and, even if he cheated with savoir-faire, one wanted a bit more freedom in these high-lying phrases over the chorus and other soloists. Giovanni Furlanetto (Siroco) proved to have reasonably fluent French and found no difficulties in this writing, but his vowels could be some times too dark to achieve complete clarity. Among the women, only Stella Doufexis (Aloès) could produce the necessary chic in her pearly high mezzo soprano.

Although Juanita Lascarro has nothing to be ashamed of her Laoula – her soprano is seductive enough at least – she lacks the bright high register to shine atop ensembles as she is expected to do and her French is mostly indistinct. Magdalena Kozena is not entirely idiomatic either, but her diction is far clearer. Her high register always had a certain “constricted” quality that gave her a certain reedy charm, but this seems to have developed to downright strain and uneasiness. All ascent to top notes were marked by absence of legato and loss of tonal quality. To make things a bit more problematic, the lower end of her range also proved to be recessed and mostly inaudible. Her acting was most convincing, but the jauntiness did not made into her singing, which was quite unvaried and expressive in the wrong way – not natural enough as this music require. She had her moments, of course, such as in the quator des baisers, where her repeated calls for Laoula seemed infused in with sensuousness. I hope that this was only a bad day. Douglas Nasrawi’s Hérisson de Porc Épic involved a lot of ungainly vocal production, but Florian Hoffmann proved to be a most efficient Tapioca.

Baritone Dale Duesing is enjoying a second career as stage director. In this production, he does not seem to want to interfere too much in the action (what is positive), but too often offers slapstick clichés and abounds in silly choreographies (yes, I know…). I do not know if I like Boris Kudlicka’s scenery – it certainly looks like what one would see in an uncreative staging of a vaudeville play, but the point of the complicated change of sets escapes me, unless the idea was to produce an excuse to introduce more Chabrier into the proceedings. In any case, the homogenous good level of acting from all soloists is something to be praised.

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Calixto Bieito’s 2004 infamous production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Komische Oper is sometimes referred to as “the-naked-Osmin-Entführung” and my only surprise, if we have in mind the Catalan director’s reputation, is that the bass was actually the only naked singer on stage (don’t worry – there are plenty of other naked people on stage, only they do not sing). Considering that the show is forbidden for those younger than 18, I wonder who Bieito wanted to shock. I suppose adults (and unfortunately sometimes children) in the XXIth century just have to turn the TV on to see everything Bieito wanted to share with us in his staging of Mozart’s Turkish Singspiel. Ah, my mistake!, the concept is “no Turkey for you!”. In the performance booklet, Bieito explains that the whole East/West thing is secondary to the fact that this is a work about the war between sexes. He adds that in Spain 20 (twenty) women die every year in crimes of passion. Considering that the 2004 Madrid train bombings alone killed 191 and wounded 1,800, I guess that the real naive person here is Bieito himself.  Although Mozart himself found the libretto poorly written, he seemed to have taken a fancy to a story in which the conflicts between Christians and Muslims is solved by a precedent of good behavior, a lesson which we could certainly still use today – and we can say that because he composed a great deal of noble music for his serious character and inserts a particularly touching note in his formulaic Vaudeville in the end of the opera. The fact that Bieito has entirely let this go to make way for his private fancies is the main reason why his staging is ultimately a failure. That said, there are things to cherish there too. For example, the edge.

Although Die Entführung aus dem Serail is often staged as a cute fairy-tale, this is a story of violence, kidnapping, imprisonment and discrimination. In this sense, Bieito’s setting the story in a brothel is far from a misfire. That this brothel has an Almodovarian atmosphere is actually a good idea too – it is a pity that he has not learnt from Almodovar his trademark blended of tragedy and comedy, for this is a Singspiel and semiserio conventions cannot simply be overlooked to make for a contrived scandal-news ending. Although the production is six-years-old, the new cast acts convincingly in a coherent way and, if I have to retain something positive, is that for once the threatening atmosphere does come through in a vivid way. When Konstanze sings Traurigkeit, her words do not sound like cheap sentimentalism, but really like lamenting happiness and freedom hopelessly lost. It is indeed a pity that all that has been used to convey Bieito’s own agenda rather than Mozart’s.

Conductor Simon Hewett has a good grasp of Mozartian style, but his approach is too soft-centered for this staging. Harnoncourt, Minkowski – even the late Georg Solti – could dig up the dark sides of the score in a more effective way. With two notable exceptions, the cast is below standard. Many an important opera house waits to gather a team of truly technically fluent singers to stage this opera – the Komische Oper should do the same. Announcements of indisposition have become current these days and the audience is often puzzled trying to figure if the “indisposed” singer actually had some sort of illness. Unfortunately, that was not the case with Agneta Eichenholz, who evidently had a bad cold which tampered with her in alts in Ach, ich liebte and posed extra difficulty in some key moments. Other than this, she does not really have a true Konstanze voice – I would rather say a perfect Blondchen for a big theatre. But real Konstanzes are a rare breed and, among many sopranos not naturally cut for the role (Diana Damrau included, I am afraid), Eichenholz is probably one of the best I have ever seen. Her high-lying soprano is extremely pleasing in its creaminess and floating quality, her coloratura is fluent, her mezza voce is delicate and natural and she phrases knowingly. In spite of her illness, Martern aller arten was quite accomplished, if we overlook a non projecting low register and some extra breath pauses. Although Jens Larsen is always mentioned for his full-monty exposure, the real interest about his Osmin should be his true basso profondo and declamatory skills, even in difficult patter passages. If he had a little bit more discipline to produce more homogeneous Mozartian phrasing, he could be a reference for this role.

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Almost all tickets for three evenings sold in a couple of hours – Claudio Abbado’s mystique is more alive than ever, especially in what regards his collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Although many a detractor would blame the Italian maestro for the loss of Karajan’s deluxe sonic perspective, I reckon that, in hindsight, the nay-sayers may be shedding tears for the glory of days past. In a few words, among all concerts in the last twelve months, this was simply the one in which I could understand why the Berliner Philharmoniker is THE Berliner Philharmoniker. Until today, I had found it a very good orchestra living of its reputation rather than living up to the competition with rival formations even in the immediate vicinity, such as the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester Berlin, which seems incapable of producing a routine performance. Under the baton of Abbado, the BPO has an entirely different sound: glittering, slim-toned strings that produce cantabile even in the most awkward phrases, round-toned brass, expressive woodwind solos in the context of the most perfectly balanced ensemble: worlds apart from the rather purpose- and shapeless loudness sold as “punch” by the present chief conductor.

Before you ask me if I was entirely satisfied with this evening’s concert, I tell you that this is secondary to the fact that, regardless of WHAT was being played, the way HOW the orchestra played the pieces in this rather strange program takes pride of place in assessing the whole experience. To start with, I do not think that the orchestral arrangements of Schubert Lieder was a sensible choice of program. The tessitura in these songs was settled by the composer with the idea that the singer would have only a piano to deal with, allowing him or her to explore some less powerful areas in his or her range. In the orchestral version, cutting through the orchestra around the register shifts in the mezzo soprano voice proved to be tricky even to a technically accomplished singer such as Christianne Stotijn. Gretchen am Spinnrard was particularly challenging – the Dutch mezzo’s voice is not particularly large and she had to apply a little bit more pressure to her tone, which finally sounded anything but young or lovely, and the anxiety seemed to come rather from the singing itself than from the expression of Goethe’s text. Abbado has a vast experience with singers and helped her throughout Berlioz’s bombastic orchestration of Erlkönig, in which her characterization of father, child and phantasm did not truly came through into the auditorium. The choice of Nacht und Träume only seemed to confirm my impression – over the background of an orchestra reduced to pianissimo, Stotijn could finally relax and let us hear the natural warmth and smoothness of her voice. I bet she could do even better with the original piano accompaniment. Maybe a naturally larger-voiced singer with a more solid middle register could have done the trick – but why bother if we can always hear Schubert the way Schubert wanted it to be?

The Song of the Wood-Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder was introduced by the orchestral transition from Waldemar’s last song to his beloved Tove – and Abbado treated the audience to a universe of exquisite, sensuous and multicolored sonorities. Unlike many conductors, he never lets himself be overwhelmed in this music and treats the complex rhythmic and harmonic structures with extreme cleanliness and organization. Compared to this passage in his 1995 complete recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, I found today’s performance even more coherent and forward-moving. Christianne Stotijn had her underpowered moments, but when she find space to gather her resources, she produced some interesting effects. What is beyond doubt is her dramatic commitment, but I have the impression her voice lacks volume for this repertoire.

One would have to wait for the end of the intermission to discover the real Schwerpunkt of this evening’s concert. Brahms’s Rinaldo, a cantata for tenor and male chorus, is anything but popular, and Giuseppe Sinopoli’s recording with René Kollo for Deutsche Grammophon is hardly the ideal invitation to get acquainted with the piece (Abbado’s old recording with a not-entirely comfortable James King is currently out-of-print in many countries). That said, if you had first met the work this evening, you would probably find it a neglected masterpiece. The Berlin Philharmonic played it with Beethovenian intensity without ever trespassing the limits of Classical shapeliness, something I guess Brahms himself would have appreciated. In Abbado’s hands, the score oozed energy allied with elegance – and the forces available were simply ideal. Beside the gleaming orchestral sound, the combined forces of the men from the Rundfunkchor Berlins and the Chorus of the Bayerische Rundfunk offered exemplary tonal homogeneity and clarity in the delivery of the text and, last but not least, the soloist for the difficult tenor part could not be better. Although Jonas Kaufmann still has to deepen his acquaintance with the piece (and I am not saying this because he had the score in his hands), there is simply no-one who could sing this music as beautifully and stylishly as he does. His dark-hued tenor is admirably flexible and never lets legato go, even in some particularly contrived turns of phrase, and climactic top notes resounded in the Philharmonie without any hint of effort. I have no doubt that, should this performance be released on CD, it will be a reference for this piece.

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