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At some point during the Ring performances conducted by Kirill Petrenko this week, I’ve started to wonder if my recollection of the orchestral sound in the Festspielhaus when I first saw the Ring with Christian Thielemann there in 2010 was some sort of “affective memory”, a collage of the actual experience of listening to the Ring in Bayreuth and the excitement of doing that in the Festival for the first time. Well, it was not not – Christian Thielemann himself showed me today that my memory did not betray me. It took him 10 seconds to do that: rich, full sonorities flooded from the pit and filled the whole auditorium. Some may say that the conductor’s approach was too Tristanesque and that everything sounded too loud, too powerful and too intense, but the fact is that he could sell his approach out, even to those who would prefer it the Weberian way: the musical effects were powerful, the orchestral sound was perfectly blended and yet absolutely transparent, even at full powers, strings tackled fast passagework cleanly. Even before anyone started to sing, you knew that this performance would be a complete success: you could hear the wind, the sea, the despair and the passion. This experience redeemed this year’s dubious musical standards in the Grüner Hügel.

One could have wished for a cast as compelling as the conductor, but this was fine enough. Ricarda Merbeth’s soprano lacks color (especially in its lower reaches), variety and subtlety, but she has stamina and dealt with the more testing heroic passages adeptly. If Tomislav Muzek (Erik) took some time to warm, once he did that, he sang with a bright, pleasant tone and a good sense of line. Benjamin Bruns (Steuermann) offered a spirited performance, sung in a spontaneous, dulcet tenor. Simon Youn’s baritone is on the light side for the Holländer and yet it is forceful enough and very well focused. His phrasing could have a bit more nuance and affection, though. Kwangchul Youn proved to be in excellent form and left nothing to be desired as Daland. To make things better, the Festival chorus sang famously, with admirable homogeneity and animation.

Jan Philipp Gloger’s production, as seen on DVD, turns around beautiful and elegant sets and the idea that Senta wants more than a glorious death: she wans to leave the world she lives in, but not THE world. As we see it, the Holländer is a man who has sold his freedom and happiness to a corporate world and wanders from airport to airport having lost faith in life, until he meets Senta, the daughter of the CEO of a company that produces ventilators, the “values” of which involve its employees having a tv advertisement “perfect” lifestyle. They burn dollar bills together and, when he doubts her intent of leaving all that behind, she symbolically kills herself, although the wound appears in his chest rather than hers: he is again a man of flesh and blood, they are free, but the establishment can still make money on them: Daland’s company now sells action figures of Holländer kissing Senta. It is not silly as it sound, although it could be a little bit less aestheticized and more meaningful in its conclusion. Beyond any shadow of doubt, it is very well directed – the choristers are made to act most efficiently.

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While there is no official entry for Simon Boccanegra in Riccardo Muti’s discography, the same cannot be said of Nabucco; there are the EMI CDs with Renata Scotto and Matteo Manuguerra and the DVD from Milan with Ghena Dmitrova and Renato Bruson. This afternoon’s performance unfortunately could not count with glamorous forces as those. While listening to the studio recording, I see that in the outline his approach has not really changed. The score still sounds like Rossini’s Semiramide on steroids (an entirely legitimate concept) – but if in London this seemed dazzling and intense, today “loud, brassy and unsubtle” would be more like it. The Rome Opera has a long history with this work, but its orchestra sounded on the bureaucratic side this afternoon. But for the percussionists, who seemed ready to drown everybody else in their enthusiasm. Maybe everybody was tired and jet-lagged. Maybe these Japanese tours seem like easy cash in the context of an audience overindulgent both in showing appreciation and in readiness to pay VERY expensive tickets. To make things worse, almost every soloist sounded heavily overparted. If the chorus’s hearty singing was an oasis of animation against a monochrome of band-like sounds, this made singers’  lives even more difficult in the many concertati.

It seems that a prospect of a trip to Tokyo had an unhealthy effect in the prime donne from the Teatro dell’Opera, for Tatiana Serjan too turned out indisposed. Her replacement, Raffaella Angeletti, deserves a C+ for effort, but her limitation in volume and in projection (add a veiled tonal quality to that) makes Abigaille a no-go for her. In this role that requires a flashing personality, getting the notes sung seemed to be her single purpose. I would have to see her in a role within her powers to really say something about this singer. Sonia Ganassi’s Fenena had more purpose (at least, we could understand which words she was singing), but I have seen this role more expressively sung before. Antonio Poli is a tenor of unusual good taste and the voice is a pleasant in an almost Mozartian way, but Ismaele is not his role. I wouldn’t say that Nabucco is Luca Salsi’s role either – his baritone is a couple of sizes smaller than his part and the heavy demand makes him sound dry and emphatic. The fact alone that Dmitry Beloselskiy (Zaccaria) was the one singer on stage who could be easily heard today made everyone forgive a curdled tonal quality. One should also remember that he is the only soloist featured in both casts for this tour and it is even remarkable that he sounded better today than yesterday.

Jean-Paul Scarpitta’s production turns around empty aesthetics, extremely sketchy Personenregie (something like “Abigaille is the girl with the arms crossed; and Zaccaria is the guy with raised arms”) and someone must have forgotten to explain him that the meaning of “Un fulmine scoppia sul capo del Re. Nabucco, aterrito, sente strapparsi la corona da una forza sopranaturale” is not “nothing happens – action goes on as previously”. The percussionist evidently knew that.

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I have a soft spot for the Teatro dell’Opera. Maybe the reason is the fact that everybody speaks about La Scala when one Italian opera house must be mentioned. But no. The experience of going to the opera in Rome has nothing to do with showing off costumes and sipping expensive cocktails as in Milan: it is rather the casual experience of spotting members of the orchestra and choristers having a cigarette near the entrance on one’s way to the Enoteca Chirra for an espresso and a tramezzino. I have also had the luck of seeing good performances there – but this evening it is the first time I have seen them in an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Also, this is the first time I see them with Riccardo Muti. To be completely frank, this is the first time I’ve seen Maestro Muti conduct an opera live at the theatre. So my 9 or 10 readers must imagine that my expectations were very high. And this is the sort of thing that usually leads to some frustration.

Maestro Muti has become famous with his Toscaninian white-heat performances of Italian opera in the first place. His recording of Verdi’s Macbeth for EMI should appear in the dictionary definition of “exciting”. That is maybe why I have taken some time do adapt to this afternoon’s performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. One could feel that a great conductor was in charge only by the prominence of the orchestra in the aural picture, although one could still hear singers in perfect balance throughout. If you have to gauge the abilities of a conductor, the prelude to act I and the ensuing aria are probably one very good test: the undulating woodwind phrasing usually come off as mechanical and lifeless and the accompaniment and the singing often seem entirely unrelated. Not today: Muti expertly oiled the perilous repeated woodwind phrases with an extra serving of the often neglected string parts and the result was smoother and more gracious than I had ever heard. Yet it still lacked true spontaneity. And this sensation would pervade the whole performance – the orchestra was able to narrate the story in an almost Schubertianly detached way, but rarely seemed to be pulsating with it. Beautiful moments followed each other, but the sense that dramatic tension was building up was not really achieved. For instance, the Council Chamber scene was exemplary in power and clarity, but short in tension and emotion. Sometimes one had the impression that the conductor was trying to make things comfortable for his orchestra and that sense of abandon that make a Verdian performance really thrilling was the price for polish and finish. If this were not Muti conducting Verdi, I would have probably found it “elegant and composed”. This is Simon Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s subtlest scores, and one could argue that this is indeed a valid approach.

In any case, a very good cast has been assembled for this afternoon. Although it was not really surprising that Barbara Frittoli would not sing today, getting to hear Eleonora Buratto proved to be more than a good surprise. It has been a while since I’ve heard such morbidezza in a soprano voice as in Ms. Buratto’s: although the voice is light in grain, it is always rich in overtones, spinning naturally to acquire slancio in exposed high notes and taking naturally to soaring mezza voce when necessary. Sometimes she made me think of the young Mirella Freni – and it was not a surprise that she was a student in the great Italian soprano’s academy in Modena for a while. A touching, sensitive and beautiful performance. Francesco Meli too proved capable of sensitive singing as Gabriele Adorno, blending capably with the prima donna’s pianissimo notes without effort. He sometimes beefs up unnecessarily his voice and the results can be emphatic and lacking naturalness – the warm tonal quality and the full-throated high notes are more than compensation. George Petean’s voluminous and warm baritone is tailor-made for the role of Boccanegra. He sang with musicianship, sense of style and commitment. By the end of the opera, he sounded just a bit tired and some high notes could be better focused, but even then the tonal quality was noble and his phrasing remained noble and expressive. As Paolo, Marco Caria sang forcefully in a dark, rich tone. Dmitry Beloselskiy’s grainy, guttural and metallic (I was trying to avoid the use the word “Slavic”*…) lacked the necessary patricianship for the role of Fiesco – and his diction is a bit cloudy.

Adrian Noble’s production is merely functional – costumes and sets are pleasant to look at – but everything seemed like empty gesturing. Some elementary faults could easily be corrected (singers too often took too much time to leave in moments when they should not be there or to get to the spotwhere they were supposed to do something).

* Reviewers tend to use the word “Slavic” as some sort of flaw, what makes little sense if one thinks of the many and many excellent Slavic singers who even sometimes do not sound “Slavic-in-the-bad-sense-given-to-this-word”. However, it is a shortcut to describe a singer with guttural/vibrant/metallic voice when he or she comes from that part of the world.

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In Gilbert Deflo’s new production of the Cav&Pag combo for the New National Theatre, one single set has been chosen: the ruins of a Roman theatre. While this goes immediately well with for the comedy troupe in I Pagliacci, it gives some sort of unexpected tragic dignity for Cavalleria’s small-village drama. As usual with single sets (especially here, when two unrelated plots are involved), lots of awkward solutions had to be found. In Cavalleria, this involves the procession to the church having to make some funny manoeuvres in the middle of nowhere; in Pagliacci, Canio would really need to be deaf and blind not to notice Nedda and Silvio making out two meters from his window. In any case, Cavalleria needed a little bit more skill in what regards direction. Santuzza has been excommunicated and this means that she could not take a prominent part during Easter celebrations, but here she is placed on stage as if she were some sort of priestess around whom the whole event turns around. If this is some sort of dramatic point, it is a poorly developed one. Pagliacci fares noticeably better – the plot offers more material to the director and the props and costumes add some sort of naif charm to the scenery. I only wished that a more climactic solution had been found for the closing line. Here it just seemed as if someone was counting to 15 to say that the play was over. I did not see the previous production – and I can bet this it was something very similar to this one. Although I now more or less see that the Japanese audiences like to watch opera from the safe distance provided by the “exotic and picturesque”, I will probably never understand why they prefer not to appropriate something that has to do with them, because it has to do with everybody. This is a country where people are still sentenced to death by crimes committed in circumstances very similar to those of Canio and Alfio.

I’ve had to read the program to really believe that this orchestra is the same one that played in Friday’s Arabella. These scores are no Richard Strauss, for sure, but it is amazing anyway that they were able to sound three times louder accompanying Santuzza and Nedda than taking pride of place right beside Arabella and Zdenka. Conductor Renato Palumbo did a very good job in engaging his musicians, even if he tended to drain the music of some guts in an approach that could be described as “let’s pretend it’s Mahler”. I had seen Lucrecia Garcia (Santuzza) only once, as Don Carlo’s Elisabetta and I would say that crime-and-jealousy ignites her more than palatial intrigue. Although her acting abilities are scarce, one could see that she established some sort of connection with the dramatic situations in a way I did not see in Berlin. Her singing too sounded more expressive – she meant her lines, played her registers adeptly to utter some key words (her curse was particularly believable) and presided over the orchestral sound with ease. It is an irresistible voice, but there were clumsy moments and she unnecessarily forces some notes as if she was trying to shift from lirico spinto into dramatic soprano out of will power. Rachele Stanisci (Nedda), on the other hand, is supposed to be some sort of singing actress. As some lyric sopranos before her, at some point she must have had a sound voice, for one can still hear that she manages trills or mezza voce, but most of what you hear is  matte tonal quality, a harsh middle register, nonexisting low notes and piercing acuti (or a flat version of them). But she is a good actress and has a good figure for the role. Walter Fraccaro is not musical refinement’s best friend and Turiddù’s siciliana (on stage) seemed as if he were very angry with Lola (very well cast with the lovely-toned Mutsumi Taniguchi), but then he is going to be angry with Santuzza and you adjusts to his invariably vehement style. The sheer volume and natural feeling for the text in his native language are, of course, most welcome. As Canio, Argentinian tenor Gustavo Porta offered a rather glaring, not truly appealing tonal quality and some squeezing into top notes, but he has impressively long breath. One could see he is fully committed, but the lack of variety made it all seem just consistently loud. While Hiroyuki Narita was overparted as Alfio, Vittorio Vitelli offered a rich-toned, Renato Bruson-like baritone in a powerful account of the Prologue from I Pagliacci, with exciting high notes and expert tonal shading. That alone was worth the ticket price.

 

 

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The problem of staging decadence is that the audience has to understand that there have been upper standards at some point. When you are shown something that looks like the dictionary example of “tawdry”, one might wonder why Arabella finds it important to explain Mandryka that the Waldners lead a dubious existence there. In Philippe Arlaud’s obscenely ugly, blunt and superficial staging, even Mandryka’s untrained eyes would not need more than a glimpse of the whole thing to feel that he might be somewhere unashamedly second-rate. In it,  you could take Baron Waldner for a waiter, the Baroness for the owner of a brothel and Arabella for the cashier with the messy coiffure. If someone like Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa had the bad luck to show up in a place like that, a sensible bouncer would escort her out and find her a cab.

Although there is not vulgarity in Anna Gabler’s Arabella, she ultimately fits her surroundings by the absence of any charisma and glamor, both in stage presence and singing. Her mezzo-ish soprano lacks radiance, does not project very well, has a hint of throatiness and sounds bottled up in its high notes. Her legato too can be problematic and the end of phrases are often undersupported and there is a problem of intonation (in the act II duet with Mandryka things went particularly astray). In those circumstances, interpretation here has fallen behind the intent to survive the high tessitura and the heavy orchestration. Anja Nina Barhmann’s Zdenka wouldn’t normally offer strong competition (as every good Zdenka should), but the natural brightness of her voice and her comparatively clear diction put the audience on her side, even if the ability of floating mezza voce eludes her entirely. As a matter of fact, the most testing passages brought upon a piercing and grainy sound that made her Zdenka more hysterical than exalted. Replacing Steve Davislim, Martin Nyvall was truly unfazed by the high notes in the part of Matteo. His medium and low registers, however, lack focus. The tonal quality, truth be said, is far from unpleasant. Even if Wolfgang Koch’s Mandryka is really devoid of charm, his glitch-free, firm-toned singing placed him far above of every other element in this performance. I would even say that his first act was top-notch in richness, volume and sense of line. As almost every other singer in this role, he would get a bit tired in act II, but even then he invariably produced exemplary heroic top notes – yet he seemed increasingly unengaged. If I had to appear in front of an audience with such ridiculous and unbecoming clothes, maybe I would feel that way too. Hidekazu Tsumaya worked a bit too hard for his Viennese accent as Waldner, but acted and sang famously, embracing the misguided directorial choices with gusto.

Although this evening’s drawbacks were various, Bertrand de Billy’s spineless conducting of a Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra matte in sound, unclear in articulation and often clumsy was the ultimate deathblow in Richard Strauss’s beautiful score. And saggy tempi only gave the audience plenty of time to realize the extent to which the composer has been ill-treated in his 150th jubilee.

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La Gazza Ladra is considered by many Rossini’s most original opera, the one in which comedy and tragedy are most perfectly connected and theatrical conventions then in force were most frontally and effectively challenged. Then the question is: why is it so rarely staged? And the answer is very simple: the vocal parts are so difficult and the acting requirements are so considerable that opera houses usually find it safer simply to refrain from staging it at all. For instance, for a long while, the only available recording had been made live with Katia Ricciarelli as Ninetta, Luciana d’Intino as Lucia, Bernadette Manca di Nissa as Pippo, William Matteuzzi as Gianetto, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fernando and Samuel Ramey as the Podestà. Although one would kill to see a cast like this, reviewers had called it a hands off because the romantic couple is sung by singers past their prime. Let’s consider it a tribute to their artistries that they still hold their own quite easily considering the competition.

For instance, this evening’s Ninetta, Sophie Bevan, shares with Ricciarelli a creamy tonal quality and a natural feeling for classical style, but, although she is far younger than Ricciarelli at then time of the recording, she too sounds strained when things get high – and also often unfocused and sometimes hooty. If her coloratura is nimbler than her predecessor’s, the Italian soprano had a far more substantial voice, a quality much missed this evening. In any case, Bevan has a congenial stage presence and is dramatically fully committed. As much as Matteuzzi’s, Francisco Brito’s tenor has a quite nasal sound. However, that does not ensure him the kind of brightness usually associated to it: the voice does not pierce through easily and his high notes come through as effortful.

Katarina Leoson (Lucia) is no Luciana d’Intino, but her voice has enough volume and flexibility, if not an individual tonal quality. Alexandra Kadurina sang her act II duet with Ninetta most sensitively, but sounded small-scaled elsewhere. Although Jonathan Lemalu had his woolly moments, he sang with imagination and sense of style, his overgenerous vibrato here less bothersome than usual. I leave the best for last: even if one can hear that there still room for development in Kihwan Sim’s singing, what he is doing now (as we could hear in his performance of the role of the Podestà) is already quite impressive. His forceful bass voice is extremely flexible, the sound is firm, dark and pleasant and he has attitude. He can certainly go places.

Conductor Henrik Nánási likes his Rossini fast and intense, and the fact that his orchestra was working noticeably hard to follow him did not seem a sign that maybe he should give his musicians a little bit more leeway. As it was, although the intentions were honorable, the results were often jagged and sometimes messy, what prevented some of the numbers with softer affetti to achieve true touchingness. This was made even more difficult by director David Alden’s refuse to take these characters seriously and to go for the slapstick approach, even in the serious passages. As a matter of fact, seriousness has been replaced by some sort of political agenda involving  Jewish question. The libretto has one rather stereotyped Jewish character, who is shown as amiable by the librettist, while Alden makes him someone quite nasty. Why then making all involved with Ninetta’s trial Jewish? While making little of Ninetta’s predicament? Is it really La Gazza Ladra’s story?! In the end, it all sounded excuse for some empty stylization. For me, it was only noise to Rossini’s music.

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La Fanciulla del West is probably no one’s favorite opera; although Puccini’s imaginative writing for the orchestra and harmonic adventurousness are often mentioned, the whole spaghetti western impression comes across are unforgivably kitsch for most opera goers. This is why the fact that director Christof Loy had not decided to rescue it from its innocence is what makes his staging particularly effective. His Golden West is a place of need for affection – almost every character yearn for their moms and behave in a childlike way. If you don’t take this in face value, the whole story seems awkward and silly. In this staging, this emotional need takes pride of place and even if the production could be described as “traditional”, it ultimately does not look traditional because it feels realistic in its almost Scandinavian movie restraint (it happens to be a coproduction with Stockholm’s Kungliga Operan). Under Loy’s direction, almost every one on stage offer convincing acting.

With her Claudette Colbert-like cheekbones, Barbara Haveman could have been a realistic leading actress in a Western movies if she had been born some decades earlier. Actually, she is at any rate a very accomplished actress full stop. Whenever she is on stage, it is very difficult to look away. And she happens to be a very compelling singer too. Her lyric soprano is not very distinctive in itself but for the fact that it always sounds natural, feminine and unforced. Naturally, the role of Minnie is on the heavy side for her, but her good technique makes it entirely functional in a small house such as the Oper Frankfurt: she masters the art of exploring her chest register as few transalpine sopranos and deals with exposed dramatic acuti rather by letting her voice spin in its natural brightness than beefing it up or pushing. However, what makes her performance remarkable is her complete understanding of the relation between music and text. Her Johnson/Ramerrez unfortunately doesn’t share her musical-dramatic intelligence. In any case, his unexaggerated acting under a good director places him above the regular standard as far as tenori di forza go. Although his voice sounds a bit breathy and worn in its middle register, his top notes are always impressively full and powerful, if not remotely nuanced. Marco Vratogna has the perfect attitude for the role of Jack Rance and, if his baritone is generally soft-centered and velvety, it produces the right effect in outspoken moments by sheer volume.

The Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester seemed fully engaged in the dramatic action, relishing the coloristic orchestration and boosting the effect of what was happening on stage. Conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi’s symphonic approach in this score paid off in the sense that one could feel the gradual increase in tension through the three acts. He did not spare his cast and unleashed quite often his orchestra, fortunately not very Teutonic in its rather leaner sound. Although he is not the conductor in the première (as well as soprano and baritone), it is impressive how the whole performance seemed coherent in its overall concept.

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