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Archive for December, 2011

Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles is hardly a masterpiece, but its many beautiful moments are supremely beautiful – and when a cast that makes them justice is found, one is ready to overlook the bad libretto and the formulaic moments. When one reads commented discographies of this opera, every reviewer concludes that there is not a perfect recording of this opera because a perfectly matched trio of singers have never been gathered in a single performance. This alone would make the Deutsche Oper’s feat of presenting a superb cast even more commendable, especially for a performance concocted to replace Donizetti’s La Favorite with Elina Garanca, cancelled because of the mezzo’s pregnancy. The fact that this was a concert performance also helped to drain a bit the opera of its kitsch – and conductor Guillermo García Calvo deserves praise for bringing every musician on stage to the core of the drama. One can see when an orchestra and a chorus are really engaged – and so they were this evening. I wonder how often this score has received such rich and inspired orchestral playing as this evening. The Deutsche Oper chorus too sang it with animation and sense of theatre. I have seen this opera only once live in Rio (and Luciano Botelho was a very commendable Nadir back then) and therefore really know it from Pierre Dervaux’s EMI recording with an irreplaceable Nicolai Gedda. Without being really “scientific” about what I am going to say, I found García Calvo a stylish and elegant conductor. I am not really aware of textual differences between editions, but I have the impression that the shortened last act has been used – the whole affair involving the chain given by Zurga to the young Leïla is only hinted at and the opera ends almost immediately after Leïla and Nadir’s exit.

Patrizia Ciofi sang Leïla’s music with such freshness, emotional commitment and good taste that I am more than ready to forgive her the occasional flapping top note. It must be added that I have probably never heard any other soprano who has dealt with the awkward florid lines as coherently and expressively as she did this evening. I wonder if someone can actually sing the role of Nadir these days better than Joseph Calleja – his old-style plangent tenor fits French repertoire to perfection and he avoids any hint of Italianateness and has very decent French pronunciation. He tackles high mezza voce without any strain or difficulty, while naturally pouring a quite voluminous voice for a lyric tenor. Gedda or Vanzo had sung more overwhelmingly romantic Je crois entendre encore in the good old days, but Calleja’s account is almost unbelievably clean and easy (including the optional higher ending). The torrents of applause were so vehement that the tenor agreed to sing it again – et nous l’avons donc entendu encore! The second time more dulcet than the first – it is no wonder that chorus, orchestra and the other soloists joined the audience in cheering this invaluable Maltese tenor. To make things better, Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis was an outstanding Zurga, singing with rich, ductile tone in his warm, pleasant voice.

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Emanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée have celebrated their 10th anniversary in the grand manner; in the world of baroque music this is what comes closer to a gala, with celebrity guests, gags and tv cameras. Haïm has chosen to concentrate on her favorite composers, Rameau and Handel, with the occasional visit to Lully and Purcell.

Haïm is a rhythmically vivid conductor who stimulates her musicians to engage and who is always ready to dare (sometimes at the expense of textual fidelity, it is true). She never cheats, though, and the panache is always there. She is also very sensitive to singers, trying to color the orchestral tone to their suggestion. The opening item, the Danse du grand calumais de la paix from Les Indes Galantes cracked with excitement and one couldn’t help but moving to the rhythm. If I am not mistaken, she has conducted some of the orchestral numbers in her concert with the Berlin Philharmonic this year, but with her own band the effect is obviously earthier and more convincing.

In the Handel part, I was particularly taken by the way she could find dramatic truth in the contrast between sections in the arie da capo, particularly telling in the sharp accents in the section B of Lascia ch’io pianga. Orlando’s Fammi combattere exuded vigor and grace, while arias like Venti, turbini (Rinaldo) and Ciel e terra (Tamerlano). Haïm is typically French in her almost studied exuberance, and was always ready to have fun, as in the Caribbean accents she added to Purcell’s Sound the Trumpet from the ode to Queen Mary, with spirited improvisations from Philippe Jaroussky and Pascal Bertin.

The distinguished guest singers offered compelling performances. If Jaël Azzaretti could float her high notes most consistently, she would have been perfect – her voice is extremely sweet and flexible. Her nightingale aria for the shepherdess in Hypolite et Aricie was ideally beguiling, but her contribution as Bellezza in the quartet from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno could be lovelier. Anne Sofie Von Otter offered a austere and classy account of Phèdre’s remorse scene. Stéphane Degout was perfectly poised and offered noble phrasing and clear diction in Antenor’s aria Monstre affreux from Dardanus. Patricia Petibon relished the campy physical comedy in the aria of La Folie from Platée, but it is also true that she sang it with accuracy, charm and lustrous tone. Karine Deshayes brought a rich, full yet clear mezzo and absolutely musical sincerity in Tristes apprêts from Castor et Polux. Sonya Yoncheva brought sexy back to the trumpet+drum aria with her rich and flashy voice – and she herself is sexy too.

Cristopher Purves’ Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori was a bit showy even if I am truly impressed by his perfectly focused extremely low notes and long breath. Ann Hallenberg proved that there is no overornamentation if you use it for expressive purposes in a a lovely and touching Lascia ch’io pianga. I had never heard Marijana Mijanovic before and cannot say if her voice was always that small – and her coloratura is something that the word “aspirated” can only partially describe. Natalie Dessay sang charmingly her duet with Degout from Les Indes Galantes, but had to work hard for purity in the duet from Dixit dominus (with an ideal Deshayes). Cleopatra’s Se Pietà, on the other hand, went beyond the occasional patches of nasality and other small glitches: that was the voice of a tormented soul, of a wronged queen – and prettiness was clearly not what she (and Handel) wanted. Sara Mingardo is the musical personification of dignity in her majestic voice, solid low notes and directness of expression. A great account of Piangete, sì from La Ressurrezione. Rolando Villazón was not in his best voice but he truly rocked in Cielo e Terra with his rhythmic buoyancy, dramatic engagement, exciting divisions and the usual take-no-hostages attitude. Sandrine Piau does not have the voice of a Handelian prima donna, but sang a clean, affecting Piangerò la sorte mia.  Philippe Jaroussky was brilliant, extremely sensitive in his Son nato a lacrimar with an inspired Von Otter and offered a coloratura showpiece in Venti, turbini. Lorenzo Regazzo and Laura Claycomb transformed Argante and Armida’s Al trionfo del nostro furore in opera buffa and I’m not sure that is the spirit. All in all, a great evening and a most felicitous anniversary!

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Masaaki Suzuki, the man behind the complete series of Bach cantatas with the Bach Collegium Japan, is now regarded as an authority in the music from the Master. It is, nonetheless, curious that the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester has invited this specialist used to his excellent period instrument band to conduct a very typical German Romantic orchestra – the encounter of these both worlds seemed promising enough, especially when the second item of the program is Mozart’s encyclopaedic Mass KV 427.

The opening piece in the program was Bach’s Orchestral Suite no.1. At first, the warmth of the orchestral sound was simply irresistible, but in the fugal section the conductor simply pressed his musicians too hard. While the woodwind wowed the audience with breathtaking accuracy, the strings were operating really close to their limits. As the egg-timer treatment did not bring about any expressive gain, I wonder if the idea was ultimately wise. In the remaining dances, there was a sensation of straight-jacked elegance, but very little charm (I write that as I hear Jordi Savall’s more relaxed and more seductive performance recorded in Metz).

The Christmas cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, didn’t dismiss the atmosphere of nervousness. While the tempi are not dissimilar from his recording for BIS, his Japanese performance sounds exhilarating and festive, maybe because his musicians are used to the approach. There he had more appropriate soloists too. Simona Saturová has exquisite high notes, but seemed uncomfortable with phrasing with Bachian instrumental poise. Moreover, she has something of a lisp that disfigures her pronunciation of the letter “s” (as in sun – not as in Senta). Truth be said, that duet is quite unsingable – and, if I had to choose, I would say she was rather an asset than a liability. Although Annette Markert sounds dignified enough in her typically oratorio contralto, the sound is a bit matronly and not clean enough – the matching with the tenor’s voice in their duet was problematic. It is not her fault that Bach has written the part in an uncomfortable area of the contralto voice (and Markert must be praised for her seamless passaggio), but even a firmer-toned and sharper-focused (and more expressive too!) singer such as Sara Mingardo in Gardiner’s live recording found it a bit difficult, while countertenor Yoshikazu Mera in Suzuki’s CD could not help finding the tessitura most congenial (I am no connoisseur, but – correct me if I am wrong – this aria was not written for a woman’s voice). Tenor Timothy Fallon, a replacement for Lothar Odynius, does not have the poised quality of a Bach tenor, but, other than this, offered a very decent performance. For his credit, this does not seem to be his usual repertoire. Dominik Wörner has a Klaus Mertens-like voice, baritone-like yet resonant in its lower reaches, but very light and short in harmonics in the upper end of his register. As usual, the RIAS-Kammerchor sang expressively and stylishly.

Suzuki’s approach to the Mass KV 427 would be more interesting, if no less problematic. Nikolaus Harnoncourt had said something like “baroque music speaks, while Romantic music paints”. The problem remains with what to do with Classicism – if it is true that Mozart still uses the “codes” of baroque music, his whole aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different from Bach’s or Handel’s, even when he is finding inspiration in them, as in this case. This evening performance couldn’t be more illustrative – Suzuki really let this score “speak”, highlighting every little expressive trait in a very discursive way. I confess I have discovered many “new” sides of this work this evening, but this treatment hampered the musical flow and drained some of the spontaneous grace from it. And the tempi were really fast – the RIAS Kammerchor (which has sung this very work earlier this year under their conductor Rademann and with an excellent soprano II in Stella Doufexis) met the challenge with brio: their accuracy and energy in the zippiest Cum sancto spiritu fugue in my experience was something to marvel. In the choral movements, this performance produced its right effect and paid off the conductor’s adventurousness. The solo parts are notoriously difficult and the conductor did not make anyone’s life easy. While no singer has disgraced him or herself, a performance that demands such dexterity of its soloists requires bel canto singers who could make light of the strain and show off virtuoso quality – Aleksandra Kurzak and Joyce DiDonato would have probably taken the audience to some sort of Koloraturfest. As it was, Saturová had the elements of greatness, but they didn’t build up to greatness itself. As said above, her high notes are glittering and project beautifully and she can trill, but there are fluttery or metallic moments and her middle register sometimes sounds as if it belonged to some older and more worn-voiced than her. She has sense of style and good instincts, but, well, she is from Bratislava, a city that “trained” Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberová and Luba Orgonasová, who were all of them immaculate soloists who went far beyond the notes themselves in this piece. I wonder if it is not time for Véronique Gens to move on – she had to work hard for the fioriture, her middle and low registers seemed reined-in and her high notes blossomed sometimes too exuberantly for this piece. I do have a soft spot for her sensuous and creamy voice, but I guess it is time to sing with the capital and tackle something heartier.

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Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmonic are on their way to producing a complete Mahler symphony series of live recordings, of which I could only attend a performance of the 2nd so far – a pleasant experience that led me to consider that this is one of the strongest features of the English conductor’s repertoire. The Mahler items are often paired with unexpected pieces – last time it was Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw followed without pause by the symphony, and this evening the last two scenes from Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen opened the concert. As the program reminds us, both pieces ultimately speak of eternal renewal – as a matter of fact, the very last scene in the opera was played by the composer’s request at his funeral. In it, Rattle offered luxuriant orchestral sound and relished on the coloristic effects, sometimes at the expenses of his soloists – not Gerald Finley, I am glad to report. This is the first time I have seen the Canadian baritone live and he more than fulfilled my expectations. Although it is not a dramatic voice, it is so flawlessly, cleanly and clearly produced that he does not find any problem in piercing through a thick orchestra. Moreover, he has very crisp and vivid declamation and could find spontaneity in the difficult declamatory nature of these scenes, especially for a non-native Czech speaker – now if you want to know how good his pronunciation is, you’ll have to ask someone else. As for his diction, I am able to confirm that it is crystalline.

Those who like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde have been very lucky  – this is the second time in a relatively short time the Berlin Philharmonic performs it this year. Last time, Claudio Abbado had given a clearly analytic and exquisite-toned yet somewhat cold performance of this piece, one that couldn’t be more different from that heard in the Philharmonie this evening. To start with, Rattle favors an earthier sound from his orchestra and, even if he is not less clear than Abbado, the sense of structural coherence takes second place to the intent of extracting the last ounce of feeling from each moment. The result not only is a far more flexible tempo (with the occasional transitional bumpiness), but also an extra degree in intensity. I found it a difficult yet finally rewarding account of this well-loved score. The first movement, for instance, had a rather sensuous sound picture and moved forward impulsed by regular surges of energy that made the whole quite uncomfortable and slightly awkward, but never dull. The performance would settle into something less unpredictable in the middle movements, with chamber-like sonorities that never sounded too well-behaved and really expressive solos – again brilliant woodwind and French horns, but not only. Everyone in the orchestra seemed connected to a sense of story-telling and theatricality – even the accompanying figures in the harps seemed more dramatic than usual. In Abschied, Rattle risked everything – this is a piece in which one can always cheat with sentimentality, but not this evening; no easy trick has been tried. Tempo, accents, dynamics – everything served one unified expressive purpose. Sometimes, one would miss a more exuberant crescendo, while something more understated had been chosen, but the approach paid off exquisitely in the otherworldly conclusion, far more fitting in its unexaggerated feeling to the text than the bombastic gran finale sometimes preferred elsewhere.

It is curious that Rattle has invited Abbado’s mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, whose performance had been, well, disappointing. Her voice is rather modest for this piece, but I wonder if she was not in a good day last time. This evening, while she still has her moments of inaudibility, she was clearly in better voice. Her low register sounded more positive, the tonal quality was attractively velvety and one could see that she felt that she had enough leeway to concentrate on tone coloring. It was a truly inspired performance, very sensitive to the poetic moods and emotionally generous – from the heart to the heart. Tenor Stuart Skelton was evidently extremely nervous in his debut with the Philharmonic. I have to confess that his whole stage attitude was very distracting and I avoided looking at his contortions, fidgeting, bending backwards, semaphoric movement with the arms, you name it. The voice itself is very pleasant and warm and he is capable of nuance, but his whole method is a bit chaotic – his voice is often unfocused and he pushes too often for comfort. When he does let a high note spin and acquire momentum without pushing it, the sound is huge and exciting, but his high acuti were often matte and covered by the orchestra and cut short rather than rounded off. I don’t know how he sounds in more relaxed circumstances – I only wonder how exhausting singing the way he sang this evening must be. In any case, he could find the right note of raw energy in the first song and quite successfully scale down in Vor der Jugend.

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