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Archive for July, 2011

Although Mozart was only 14 when he composed Mitridate – and numbers tend to be formally straight-jacketed – his imagination, sense of drama and expressive power already placed him among the best opera composers of his days. The original audiences in Milan did not fail to notice that and the opera was reprised 21 times in its original run, what is noteworthy. I say all this because directors sometimes are overwhelmed by the fact that the composer was so young and cannot see much beyond that. This is definitely the case of David Bösch, who found it important to feature on stage  projections of  the young composer as a contemporary kid forced by his father to write an opera that would eventually feature a stern father oppressing his children. If Mozart really had had any power to interfere with the choice of subject, this could have made sense – but the truth is that he tried to respond to the situations in the libretto as adeptly as he could (and he certainly could). As he had to work since his early childhood, had traveled around Europe and had the opportunity to meet some of the most notable people in the whole continent, Mozart was far more experienced and open-minded than most adults those days (I avoid the use of the word “mature” because of his notoriously eccentric behavior). Most problematic than that is the director’s choice of portraying all characters (but Mitridate) as teenagers with diaries and toys, what does not go with the opera seria-style music and the intensity of the situations concocted by none other than Jean Racine, who was far from immature when he wrote his tragedy.

All that said, in spite of this misconception hard to overlook, David Bösch did not try to impose any private agenda on the plot, but rather tried to make sense of the complex family relations, building the stage action on sharply defined characters with simple and therefore effective gestures and attitudes. He confessedly avoided the public level of the plot, refurbishing characters like Ismene (and especially Arbate, who is not really much of a character anyway) with very silly motivations. In this sense, Günter Krämer’s Salzburg staging was far more successful (and far more visually striking) in giving characters more “modern” personalities. If Patrick Bannwart’s sets and Falko Herold’s costumes were (probably on purpose) hideous, the staging was nonetheless able to catch the right ebb and flow of dramatic situations and never failed to deliver when a theatrical climax was expected on stage.

Maestro Ivor Bolton was rather respectful in a clean, well-behaved and forward-moving account of the score. The members of the Bavarian State Orchestra played with great polish (even Zoltán Mácsai’s natural French horn solo in Lungi da te was accurate and pleasant in tone), but I wonder if some less extreme fast tempi would not have helped the cast to respond in a similarly polished way. As it was, they had to create the drama a bit by themselves. One might object to Minkowski’s more “theatrical” approach, but it does make a long opera a bit more seductive in live performance. The edition here adopted retained, as far as I could identify, all original numbers, but curiously has the original version of Se viver non degg’io, a pretty and entirely undramatic duet that helped me to understand why Mozart found it better to compose it again. Bolton should have followed his judgment.

When it come to the cast, it made me wonder where are the Arleen Augérs, the Edita Gruberovás, the Lucia Popps, the Teresa Berganzas of our days. Probably ruining their voices singing Wagner and Verdi. It seems that singers who would be singing Monteverdi in the days of Fritz Wunderlich and Gundula Janowitz are now the Fiordiligis and Idomeneos of the world’s leading opera houses. For example, Aspasia is a prima donna role, i.e., for singers who are capable of singing Donna Anna or Konstanzes. In any serious staging of Don Giovanni or Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Patricia Petibon would be Zerlina or Blondchen. It is no wonder that she sounds rather out of her element here. She is all-right a musicianly singer with excellent coloratura, but the voice lacks substance in this repertoire, is often inaudible in its lower reaches and sounds tense in a very un-Mozartian way when she really has to make it “dramatic”. The puffs of air she sang where forceful staccato notes should depict Aspasia’s predicaments in Nel grave tormento show that singing against the grain of one’s voice  is never effective – not to mention parlando antics the effect of which was only showing how the voice alone could not produce the dramatic impression that the music cries for. Just check Edda Moser live in Salzburg to hear what it means to flash dramatic acuti without having to distort Mozart phrases. Next to Petibon, Anna Bonitatibus sounded like Mozartian poise and good taste incarnated in the role of Sifare. The Italian mezzo’s sense of line, even in the most breathtakingly fast melisme, is admirable, but, alas, she finds this soprano role on the high side and had to disguise the fact that she was operating very close to her limits by singing her high notes very lightly, even when music and text demanded something very different. Lisette Oropesa, a charming Susanna at the Met, brings a more naturally bright yet round voice to Ismene, but seemed a bit nervous with the fast tempi chosen to her aria and failed to produce the right effect of loveliness. Eri Nakamura too found the role of Arbate uncomfortable, especially in her lower register. Lawrence Zazzo gave scenic tour de force as Farnace, but – again! – he found the part a bit low and couldn’t vocally depict his role’s bad-guy attitude – but I won’t pretend that I don’t REALLY prefer a contralto in this role (how about the amazing Romina Basso?!). In the fearsome role of Mitridate, Barry Banks gave an efficient if hardly impressive performance. It is also true that most tenors are usually less good than that live. The role has very little nuance, but one can always dream to hear it sung with all the niceties of true Mozartian style (as Gösta Winbergh did in Harnoncourt’s studio recording that serves as soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film with the best performance in Ann Murray’s career as Sifare).

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Otto Schenk’s production of R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier is probably by now listed in Frommer’s and TimeOut as one of Munich’s historical attractions: it was first shown in 1972 and made famous in Carlos Kleiber’s DVD with Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp. I can understand the Bavarian Opera’s unwillingness to part with it – it is an expensive staging that is still very popular. The sets to the second act were received by applause, something I had never seen in Germany before.  In any case, having seen the DVD does not mean that you’ll know beforehand what you are going to see. The new cast has brought it’s own contribution under a Spielleitung that responds to contemporary tastes rather than those of 1972.

Anja Harteros, for example, is a far more sensuous and less pensive Marschallin then Gwyneth Jones in the video. Her lighter approach is coherent with what Strauss himself expected in this role. She was, of course, born to sing it: she has the looks, the attitude and the voice. Her rich soprano finds no difficulties in the often low-lying declamatory passages, expands effortlessly in its higher reaches (exemplary contribution to the closing trio) and takes easily to mezza voce. She took a while to warm and only sounded her full-toned self by the beginning of her monologue. Although her diction is very, very clear and, being herself German, is usually spontaneous in her delivery of the text, I had the impression that she – very understandably – is still finding her way in this role. In many a key moment, she would opt for a studied, ready-made inflection borrowed from her famous predecessors in the role rather than trusting her own instincts. In these moments, her Marschallin invariably sounded uninvolved. But don’t mistake my words: if I make these observations, it is precisely because Harteros is on her way to becoming the leading Marschallin of her generation. If she is not that yet, the good news are that she is going to be even better in the future!

On the other hand, Sophie Koch is by now an experienced Octavian who knows exactly where her strengths are. Her creamy mezzo has the necessary brightness to pierce through, her passaggio is very smooth, she avoids pushing and can spin some forceful high notes and beautiful pianissimo. She is only tested when the tessitura remains too long in the soprano area. Even then, she acquits herself quite commendably. I like her stage performance as well; she knows how to play boyishness without making a charicature of it and how to seem aristocratic without seeming mature. She handles the physical comedy without overindulging herself too.

Lucy Crowe too is a convincing Sophie – she has the physique and finds the right balance between darlingness and purpose. Her soprano is a bit more substantial than usual in this part, but she can sound edgy and her cleanly attacked and floating high pianissimi sometimes develop a light, but noticeable beat. The other Briton in the cast, Peter Rose has the required low notes and clear articulation for the Baron Ochs. He is an excellent comedy actor too and can find a patrician note in an otherwise rustic character. I saw him in this role in 2003 at the Met, when he was more restrained with his ad libs and funny touches. At any rate, he has enough charisma to pull this out and certainly is one of the best exponents of this role in our days.

Conductor Constantin Trinks drew rich, warm sounds from the Bavarian State Orchestra without forgetting structural clarity; the prelude to act III was particularly clean – but had problems to find the right balance between pit and stage, often drowning his singers. In the more intimate passages, he gave the impression of being reined in and without ideas, while complex ensembles, especially those involving Ochs, were often messy.

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Even compared to Mozart early works such as Mitridate and Lucio Silla, his delightful stage serenata Il Re Pastore is a rarity. There is not much of a plot to speak of (basically a couple of connected misunderstandings involving unusually good-intentioned people) and fiendishly difficult vocal parts, but the lack of appeal of a pastoral setting might ultimately be to blame for that. Director Grischa Asagaroff considered a great challenge to respect the original atmosphere and yet to bring some fresh air into it. As an inspiration, he looked up to Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s stagings of Mozart operas. As a result, the story is told without much interference from superimposed concepts other than having it set in a baroque garden stravaganza from which these characters spring into life when unobserved by visitors from our days.  The concept – particularly the closing scene – made me think of Tankred Dorst’s staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (without the pretentiousness, of course). In terms of stage direction, the director transformed the libretto’s “awkward” naivete into almost sitcom-like physical comedy. While his primo “uomo” and his primo tenore have a natural instinct for it, the remaining members of the cast looked a bit lost on stage. If everything looks like polite entertainment, one can never blame him for doing exactly what Metastasio probably had in mind. In any case, without cute gestures and green fauns and with a little bit more imagination, the concept might have come to life.

Although William Christie says that Il Re Pastore is a hidden gem among Mozart’s early work, his conducting did not show great affection for the music. Abrasiveness seemed to be the keynote – the overture sounded rough and uncomfortable, arie di bravura received the egg-timer approach and lyrical moments sounded devoid of feeling, especially the Aminta/Elisa duet, which should be the opera’s centerpiece. The exception was – not surprisingly – a L’amerò a tad slow for my ears (I am used to Margaret Price and James Lockhart’s recording when everything sounds flowing and spontaneous). Under these circumstances, singers (with one notable exception) couldn’t help by sounding nervous and often imprecise – the orchestral sound was unpolished and rather cacophonic. Justice be made to concertmaster Ada Pesch, who played the solo part in Aminta’s famous aria expressively. In his recording with a period instrument orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a far more persuasive advocate of the hidden gem, finding far more variety and dept in it.

Aminta is a role generally taken by lyric sopranos, who can benefit from a serviceable lower register and creamy top notes. In Neville Marriner’s recording, there is Angela Maria Blasi, whose voice was substantial enough to sing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and in Thomas Hengelbrock’s DVD, we find Anette Dasch, Bayreuth’s current Elsa in Lohengrin. Martina Jankova is the Opernhaus Zürich’s resident -ina and couldn’t help finding the tessitura uncomfortable. Although she sang stylishly and often beautifully, her usually bell-toned soprano seemed opaque in its higher reaches and sometimes sharp. Her voice is very agile, but she would sound even more convincing in Aer tranquillo if the conductor had given her a little bit more leeway. Malin Hartelius’s last Mozartian role in Zürich was Fiordiligi and the next is going to be Konstanze. Elisa’s breathtakingly high tessitura accordingly suggests a bright-toned soprano “happier” in its higher reaches: an Arleen Augér role. Hartelius’s voice sits a bit lower than this. At any rate, if she is going to sing Martern aller Arten  in the near future, I have to believe she was really not in very good voice this evening. Her high notes were recessed and often unfocused. Only solid technique saved her in her act II aria. Her coloratura was generally precise and fluent, but she too strayed from what Mozart wrote in a couple of tricky notes. In any case, both ladies were far better cast than Sandra Trattnigg, who fought pitch, fioriture and low notes as Tamiri. It could have been nerves, but I suspect this is not her repertoire.

The men proved to be  far more commendable – Benjamin Bernheim has a firm, substantial and pleasant tenor. His voice is not very flexible and sometimes his phrasing is too cupo. But he has great potential, which he has yet to fulfill. Rolando Villazón had his hard edges in a role in which everybody else is basically  all hard edges. In other words, although the approach was sometimes too broad for Mozart, I have never heard it so beautifully sung as this evening: the tone is warm, natural and dulcet, his control of divisions is impressive and he even found variety, feeling and sense of humor in the role. He could also build a very funny yet unexaggerated character – the ad libs appropriate and sometimes hilarious. I am glad he has decided to explore lighter roles, in which had proved to more than fulfill the technical and musical requirements.

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