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Posts Tagged ‘Daniela Barcellona’

Taking profit of the Japanese tour of the Teatro alla Scala, the NHK Music Festival has invited the Milanese opera house for a concert performance of Verdi’s Aida, which was actually taped (both in audio and in video by NHK). Last week, Dudamel has proved to be an exemplary Verdian conductor in a staged performance of Rigoletto. This evening he proved he can be even better than that. During the first half of the concert (acts 1 and 2), I could not help thinking of how the audience reacted while hearing to Karajan’s Aida back then in Salzburg, in the sense, of hearing a great conductor who has seriously studied the score and, with the help of a fully engaged team of musicians, produced a revelatory (even if often slightly flawed) experience. I don’t think that I will be able to explain everything I could admire this evening – the ideal balance (upfront woodwind, perfectly blended brass and strings, even in large ensembles), once again the complete eschewal of vulgarity, the always dramatically alive accent, the control of rhythmic flexibility (masterly transitions, even those usually accepted as abrupt), the singing string section and the knowledge of the right moment to become Toscaninian in excitingly precise ensembles in very fast pace. The fact that the chorus from La Scala has such full-toned tenors, sopranos and altos with rock-solid bottom notes makes it even more admirable. I mean, this was TRULY exciting.

However, if I have to be honest, burning from both ends, this candle ran dangerously short after the intermission. First, singers began to give signs of fatigue. That required some adjustments, especially in what regards volume from an orchestra playing on stage. Although the whole cast had big enough voices, some of them had a lyric quality that already required adjustments. Act IV was a lesson of how to produce exciting orchestral sound without drowning singers in voluminous orchestral sound, La Scala’s bright and flexible strings coming up handy at these moments.

I have seen Hui He’s Aida here in Tokyo last year. I understand, therefore, she was not in her best voice today – intonation had its dodgy moments, the not entirely comfortable passaggio downright problematic this evening, a very evident physical effort entirely new in my experience with this singer. The problem became more evident after the pause, but she took profit of her late entrance in act IV to recover in time for an exquisite closing scene. All that said, even by this evening’s standards, Hui He is still my favorite Aida these days: her voice is lovely, her mezza voce is soaring, her Italian is now beyond suspicion, she phrases with the mastery of portamento of a Caballé and – even if her engagement is a bit artsy – it is far preferable either to the cold cleanliness or the anti-musical, supposedly Italianate histrionics usually accepted as Verdian style. This evening’s Amneris was Daniela Barcellona, a singer I would not expect to find in this role. Although her mezzo is sizable, it is not a dramatic voice in any way. She does have very strong technique and is a singer incapable of anything unpleasant to the ears. As a result, with great help from the conductor, she offered a sensuous, dignified and elegant Amneris this evening, who managed to be vulnerable without any loss of strength in the Judgement Scene, after which the performance was interrupted for thunderous applause. For those used to the likes of Dolora Zajick, that might have sounded too elegant, but the point is: she did not tried to sing against the grain of her mezzo and thus was able to offer something convincing and coherent to her voice and personality.

Spanish tenor Jorge de León has a very solid voice, capable of some very powerful high notes, but very limited in dynamic or tonal variety. He has clearly listened to Franco Corelli’s recordings as Radamès, but cannot emulate his ability to effortlessly shift to mezza voce. All in all, his is a very unproblematic account of a difficult role, and that is no mean accomplishment. The role of Amonasro is a bit on the high side for Ambrogio Maestri, but his is a very substantial voice that produces the right impact in key moments. Marco Spotti was a stentorian if not always immaculately sung Ramfis, while Roberto Taglavini showed a bit more nuance but less volume as the King of Egypt. In the small role of the Priestress, Sae Kyung Rim showed a beautiful, clear voice.

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In the first item of their Japanese tour, the Teatro alla Scala seems to have decided to show Japanese audiences that in the Verdi’s 200th anniversary, you cannot go more authentic than with La Scala: Falstaff was first performed there in 1893. Furthermore, this evening’s prima donna is Milanese herself and the singer in the title role is from Lombardy too. However, the inspiration for Verdi (and Boito) is Shakespeare – and director Robert Carsen has decided, in this co-production from the Milanese theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Canadian Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera House and, what else?… ah, the Nederlandse Opera, to delve into Englishness. On stage, no visual cliché about England is spared: wood paneling, leather armchairs, hunting apparel, tea parties etc. The results are pleasant to the eyes in warm colors and economy of resources. In terms of Personenregie, there is no complex concept to perform here: Sir John Falstaff, Mr and Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Quickly behave very much like normal people (I mean, like normal people in a staged comedy), what is refreshing for a change.

If there was something actually English in this Falstaff, this was conductor Daniel Harding. As I have often here said, Falstaff is no favorite opera of mine, but I have had the luck to find persuasive advocates in the conductors whom I’ve seen live in the theatre - James Levine back in the Metropolitan Opera and Daniele Gatti in Paris. Harding too is a conductor who places the orchestra in the centre of the proceedings – the Filarmonica della Scala played with great animation, offering the conductor the raw, flashy colors he needed for his ebullient approach to the score. Everything shone, sparkled and moved forward this afternoon. True clarity in ensembles was not really there, but the overall conviction would make you overlook that. What one could not overlook was the lack of lightness and sense of humor. You just have to pick your old Karajan CDs to see how famously Schwarzkopf, Barbieri, Taddei and the Philharmonia Orchestra were enjoying themselves. In comparison, this evening sounded a bit manic. In any case, I don’t want to give a false impression – this performance was fun, but – in terms of music – not always very funny.

Being funny is not a problem for Ambrogio Maestri. He is my kind of Falstaff – he is not trying to be funny at all and that makes him even funnier. He is entirely at ease with the music, the text, the character. Even when his voice shows some rough patch, he makes it part of his interpretation. And the sheer volume  and darkness makes his Falstaff a little bit more threatening than with singers who go all for buffoonery. Although Daniela Barcellona’s mezzo lies a bit high for the part, she too has more than the measure of her role – and her spacious chest voice is very aptly used here. Her scenes with Maestri were actually the highlights today. I took a while to recognise Barbara Frittoli’s voice this afternoon. At first, she sounded uncannily like Maria Chiara, but gradually her velvety, slightly astringent soprano began to sound like itself. In any case, she was in good, flexible voice and handled the text with naturalness and spirit. As Ford, Massimo Cavaletti was a bit blustery, but well cast nonetheless. The voice is, of course, Italianate and firm, not truly penetrating in its higher reaches, but hearable enough. At first, Irina Lungu’s soprano seemed too grown-up and smoky-toned for Nanetta, but she can float long high notes without effort and keeps a beautiful singing line too. If her Fenton, Antonio Poli, did not sound suave enough at first, he finally sang his “aria” with elegance and imagination. Meg is a difficult role and I find that it only works when cast with a beautiful-voiced singer. Otherwise, it disappears in background. Laura Polverelli was not in excellent voice and sounded squally and overvibrant this afternoon.

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The fact that Berlioz’s Les Troyens had been last performed in Berlin in 1930 with Frida Leider in the role of Dido (that must have been really something!) is no surprise. Other than the Metropolitan Opera’s fondness for it during the 1970′s and 80′s* or the occasional performance in France, this gigantic opera has been rarely staged full stop. However, the new century seems to have brought a change in this – last year, the Dutch Opera staged it with an international cast and almost one year later the Deutsche Oper has decided to give it its first production (F. Leider sang it at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden). Although the venture is praiseworthy in itself, I guess that, if you truly decide to undertake a difficult task, you should be above its difficulty level.

When I saw Pierre Audi’s production in Amsterdam, I found it unmemorable, but I was wrong, for I couldn’t help missing it while watching David Pountney’s awkward, inefficient and often quite ugly production. To be honest, I could live with the lackluster La Prise de Troie (and I confess I liked the literally larger-than-life Trojan horse), even if I still need to be enlightened about the reason why it was deemed important that Cassandre should die surrounded by rusty iron bed structures. When it comes to Les Troyens à Carthage, it is difficult to overlook the oceans of bad taste displayed before the audience’s eyes: plastic curtains, furniture reduced to cushions, unbelievably tacky yellow/green costumes and the less we speak of Renato Zanella’s choreography the better (suffice it to say that if you need to explain to your children how babies are made, you just have to show them the ballet invented for the Royal Hunt and Storm).  To make things worse, sets and costumes have been sloppily made (the “starry night projection” for Nuit d’Ivresse is frankly amateurish) and there are moments when the words “school pantomime” run through one’s thoughts. I am not sure either about the idea of showing Cassandre’s in the last scene singing Anna’s text for Didon.

As usual, one can always close his or her eyes and bask in the glorious sounds of the Deutsche Oper Orchestra, in truly great shape this evening. But I wonder how long one would take to notice that beautiful sounds alone do not say everything in a score like Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Conductor Donald Runnicles explains that it is unthinkable to perform the opera without cuts and mercilessly made excisions, of all things, in Chorèbe and Cassandre’s duet, not to mention that the role of Anna is reduced to comprimario. Not only the cuts in the part of Cassandra were an offense to the distinguished guest soloist, but they did not prevent the conductor to make the opera shorter. In Amsterdam, I can recall even an addition, the rarely recorded (let alone performed) episode with Sinon, the Greek spy, and the whole performance was roughly 30 minutes shorter than this evening’s. It is no coincidence that Amsterdam featured the great Berliozian conductor John Nelson, while the Deutsche Oper had good old Runnicles trying to make a Götterdämmerung out of it. The opening scene promised calamity: the chorus and the orchestra could not match to save their lives and it all sounded like chaotic noise. The Trojan part of the opera worked properly in bombastic moments, such as the end of Act II’s first tableau, but most of the rest hanged fire. However, the Carthaginian acts dragged and one could not help but noticing that Berlioz is one of those composers who need an expert to make it work: “…this music does not have the great organic momentum of a Wagner opera (…) it is not obvious that this piece is going to work: conductor and director always have to give it a push from time to time”. These are not my words, but Mr. Pountney’s. In Amsterdam, the pushes have been so masterly given that I could not even notice them – the score simply sounded consequent, intense and, by the end, quite gripping. It should be noted that John Nelson did not have an orchestra as impressive as the Deutsche Oper’s back then.

If you were at the Bismarckstraße opera house this evening, you would understand why everybody calls for Italy so often during this opera, for the Italian singers lent this performance its distinction. Although Anna Caterina Antonacci is not the dramatic soprano one would expect to find in this role, her voice is full and penetrating enough for it. And she sings in impeccable French, crystalline diction and admirable purpose. A committed stage actress, she did not allow a costume that made it difficult for her to move freely (apparently, nobody noticed it is too long for her) stand between her and dramatic engagement. She was ideally partnered by Markus Brück’s Chorèbe, who is at home in French music as he has proven to be both in German and Italian repertoires. His small contribution as a drunk Trojan soldier in the last act was also funny and idiomatic. However, it is Daniela Barcellona’s regally sung Didon who had the audience at her feet. The Italian mezzo’s luscious, spacious voice filled Berlioz’s music with classical poise and no lack of passion. At times, the name of Tatiana Troyanos came to my mind (and I mean it as the highest imaginable compliment). In the closing scene, she even allowed herself to use her strong chest register to depict the dying queen’s despair. It is only a pity that her French is not truly clear. In any case, a truly great performance that makes me think that Ms. Barcellona, who also looked gracious enough in this role, should be far more famous than she is.

Ian Storey’s Énée is controversial, but I would say that, if one has in mind that he is the wrong kind of tenor for this role, he has given a very decent performance. His voice is, as always, on the baritonal side and his middle register is a bit unfocused, but his ascent to his high notes are impressively powerful and warm-toned. The problem is that one can see that these high notes require lots of energy from him. While he can still cope with that demand, the results are undeniably exciting, but when he begins to tire, his singing cannot help but sounding efforful. It must be noted that he is a finer interpreter than he gets credits for and works hard for refinement in scenes like Nuits d’Ivresse. Finally, I must put in a word for Heidi Stober’s Ascagne, probably the best I have ever heard.

* In 2003, the Met launched a new production, in which Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang the role of Didon, recently released on CD.

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