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Posts Tagged ‘René Jacobs’

René Jacobs’ collaboration with the Berlin Staatsoper has gives the audiences in the German capital the opportunity to discover many rarely staged operas, but none so unusual as Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s proto-opera (if it is correct to call it thus) Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, premiered in Rome in 1600 (yes, 412 years ago). The truth is that, since it has been “unearthed” in 1912, it has had its moment – a staging in the Salzburg Festival (1968-1972) with José van Dam in various bass roles and a surprisingly historically informed 1970 recording conducted by Charles Mackerras and gloriously cast with Tatiana Troyanos (Anima), Hermann Prey (Corpo) plus Arleen Augér, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Edda Moser, Kurt Equiluz, Theo Adam et al.

As René Jacobs explains in the program, his choices for the Berlin performances were based in Cavalieri’s description of instrumentation plus some information gathered in contemporary treaties, but the keyword is tonal variety. Think of a plucked-string instrument – it was there. If you haven’t though of a ceterone, you don’t have to feel badly about this: a copy from the only extant original instrument has been ordered just for the occasion. Jacobs composed as well added parts for strings and woodwind in order to enrich the texture, as it would have been the case back in the 17th century. I am not a specialist, but I found the results very refreshing, especially because after 30 min one has the impression that the same melody is being played again and again. Maybe for the same reasons, Jacobs followed Mackerras’ example and invited operatic soloists (even if they are the kind of opera singer you would not find in an opera composed after 1790). Marie-Claude Chappuis was a delightfully sweet-toned Anima and Johannes Weisser sang with ideal balance between richness of tone and clarity. Both basses, Gyula Orendt and Marcos Fink, sang warmly and expressively and the two choirboys – Thoma Wutz and Raphael Zinser – sang very well and are very good actors.

I have had bad experiences with Achim Freyer, especially the fact that his personenregie usually has to do with making people move like robots in nonsensical circumstances. But, well, Rappresentatione… does not really have stage action, character development etc – and the director proved to be the man for the role. His staging is a feast for the eyes – not in the sense that it is beautiful (in the sense of pleasant), but in its imaginative, fresh-eyed playing with symbolism without ever falling on the trap of laughing at Agostino Manni’s libretto, but rather laughing with it – for all involved, musicians, actors, the audience, everyone were having a great time while taking part in it. It made me think of the stagings of mystery plays by members of the congregation of catholic churches in the northeast of Brazil – non-actors, improvised props and costumes, the mixture of sacred and profane, old and new, serious and comic, popular and erudite references and, most of all, a disarming sincerity in its heterogeneity. Maybe that is why it had such an appeal for me – in any case,  I had the impression that I was not alone in my appreciation this evening.

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Although Tommaso Traetta was an important name among the Reform composers, whose influence on the young Mozart can be clearly felt not only in works like Mitridate or Lucio Silla, but also in Idomeneo, his operas are today all but forgotten. Before Cristophe Rousset recorded his Antigona for Decca a couple of years ago, most music lovers had probably never heard about it before. And yet one may find it now and then mentioned as one of the finest operas composed in Italy in its day, an opinion shared by conductor René Jacobs who conducts its Berlin première in the Deutsche Staatsoper in a staging by Vera Nemirova (the name behind the new Ring from Frankfurt).

It is true that Traetta is a most skilled composer, but the first act is a bit lacking the sort of sparkling imagination that makes audiences draw a direct line between Handel and Mozart when buying tickets and CDs. From act II on, however, the music increasingly gains expressive power and, by the end, if you are not touched, you probably don’t have a heart. What is beyond doubt is its dramatic effectiveness. Marco Coltellini’s libretto is unusually straight-to-the-matter for its time, but it is Traetta the master of theatrical timing who keeps the action flowing seamlessly to its surprising lieto fine.

Vera Nemirova’s clean staging matches the directness and, although it is sometimes too informal for its subject, it ultimately suggests classical elegance and is refreshingly respectful of the action. Her controversial decision of keeping to a tragic ending in spite of the text could be defended as a tribute to Sophocles over XVIIIth century operatic conventions. I am not only sure about portraying Creon as a petty tyrant, with distracting comedy touches involved. At lease for me, this had the effect of belittling the character’s convictions, which are far from superficial. Moreover, I suspect this had a perverse effect on the singer taking the role, who seemed to be feeling obliged to sing his recitatives in an arch way that made the role sometimes closer to an operetta villain than a stern ruler in a serious opera.

Conductor René Jacobs produced an intense, fast-paced and strong-accented performance that makes Rousset’s recording sound gentle (if structurally clearer) in comparison. His casting (curiously made exclusively of singers from the other side of the Atlantic) worked hard to keep with the intensity and sometimes (with one notable exception) would be overshadowed by the orchestra. I’ve had my doubts about hearing Verónica Cangemi in the prima donna role, for her fragile and un-Italianate soprano is hardly prima-donna material. Her creamy yet light-toned voice often sounded brittle and sometimes downright strained. In comparison, Rousset’s María Bayo sounds like a model of classical poise even in the most testing passages and also yet more vulnerable and appealing. That said, Cangemi proved to be, in spite of an unglamorous voice, a powerful singing actress. Her performance was utterly convincing, truly gripping and refreshingly impassionate. And, truth be said, her high mezza voce is exquisite, her trills are effective and, even when tested by the writing, she can keep her pace in very fast divisions (and Jacobs makes things far more difficult by opting for some zipping tempi). As her sister Ismene, Jennifer Rivera too tried the white-heat approach. Although the part has a relatively low tessitura, having a mezzo in this role making things a bit confuse (Rousset has a particularly well cast Anna Maria Panzarella) – the effect was usually nobler and more mature in comparison to Cangemi’s. Although she showed a healthy low register and sang stylishly and with commitment, I had the impression the role did not really showed the strong features of her voice. As Haemon, while Rousset chose a mezzo-soprano (Laura Polverelli), Jacobs hit the jackpot with the incomparable Bejun Mehta, who not only sang with unfailing projection, but also with unbelievable wide tone-colouring: a masterly performance. For some who has been singing Wagner and Janacek, Kurt Streit seemed ill-at-ease with piercing through the period-instrument orchestra in the pit. He would eventually warm for a sensitive account of his big aria Ah, no, non sono gli dei that gave Rousset’s Carlo Allemano a run for his money. Finally, Kenneth Tarver was a clear-toned Adastro, but the role really sits a bit low in his voice.

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René Jacobs’s incursion in the field of Mozart operas has started with Così fan tutte and has met with wide critical acclaim. I have to confess that I felt alone in my lack of affection for these recordings – glassy and unclear orchestral playing, inorganic approach to rhythm, fancy for overdecoration, exotic casting and the intrusive fortepiano continuo largely to blame. That said, a sense of development can be felt – his recording of Le Nozze di Figaro is somewhat more polished and that of Don Giovanni has many powerful moments, while La Clemenza di Tito is a recording one has to appreciate and finally Idomeneo goes to the short-list in this opera’s discography (I am not so sure about Die Zauberflöte, though). It makes one wonders why the first work in the series is the first to be revisited.

The first information to stand out about this performance is that the new cast features singers who have become close collaborators of the Belgian conductor, but the truth is that it was hardly this evening’s memorable feature, which would be rather René Jacobs himself. Rarely have I witnessed a conductor whose own view of a work has matured so fast and so profoundly. I do not mean that the new Così does not sound like a René Jacobs performance. It does: the abrupt change of pace in the middle of numbers, the fancy for decoration, the vigorous rhythms, they are all there, but now they do sound like a natural means of expression of the score rather than mannerisms that only call attention to themselves. The immediate good surprise was a newly found sense of respect for the natural rhythmic flow where even the swift acc. and rit. effects proved to be consequent and musically/dramatically justified. Other than this there was the all-important sensuous orchestral sound largely absent in Jacobs’s early Mozart opera recordings. This evening, the Freiburger Barockorchester offered rich, clear and expressive sounds throughout. The transparence of ensembles, the neatness of rapid divisions both in woodwind and strings, the sense of story-telling and the perfect balance between singers and orchestra are an evidence of the adept Mozartian Jacobs has ultimately become. It is a pity that the old performance rather than this one been preserved for posterity.

In any case, if the old recording has an advantage, this would be the the euphonious and technically polished casting of singers like Véronique Gens or Bernarda Fink. Although this evening’s singers could be considered more theatrically engaged and the sense of team more vivid, none of them offered the nec plus ultra in Mozartian singing. Alexandrina Pendatchanska did not seem to be in a good-voice day and gave the impression of being nervous (even if she has actually taken roles more technically exacting than Fiordiligi in her career). Although her bottom register is usually generous, she seemed cautious about diving into the lower end of her range, while the voice sounded distinctively less bright than usual, especially in its high register. Sometimes she sank into background in ensembles, especially while singing coloratura. Nevertheless, she tackled very fast divisions accurately, even facing fast tempi in the strette of both her arias and had no problem with singing very high mezza voce. She has the interpretative and emotional resources for the role (her recitatives were particularly convincing), but the lack of a nobler tonal quality made her Fiordiligi short in vulnerability and touchingness. On the other hand, Marie-Claude Chappuis’s reedy mezzo is extremely appealing and she is stylish, musicianly and sensitive. It is only a pity that she fails to girare la voce, as Italians use to say, making her high notes tense and hard. Sunhae Im has everything in her favour to be an excellent Despina, but  for the voice for the role. Although her soprano is all right quicksilvery as a soubrette’s should be, the part is in on the low side for her. As a result, she could barely pierce through in the lower reaches and the tonal quality lacked the sexiness she had to produce rather by inflection and attitude.

Magnus Staveland clearly knows Mozartian style and never fails in good taste and elegance, but his tenor lacks stronger support in a role the tessitura of which is basically high. He was often overshadowed in ensembles, did not really project his top notes, too often shifted to falsetto or sounded grey and unflowing in more exposed high-lying passages. The deletion of Ah, lo vegg’io came  as no surprise and Tradito, schernito was all about difficulty. Johannes Weisser’s clear baritone is far more pleasant and generous, but it seems that he is one of those singers whose facility is finally an obstacle to optimal results. It is true that the sound was never less than pleasing, but one had the impression that he only really “placed his voice” when things became really low or required more thrust. When this happens, he does sound like a baritone – and a particularly rich-toned one – but that happens unfortunately very infrequently. Marcos Fink’s voice is a bit low for Don Alfonso, but he is an experient and resourceful singer who knows how to sound at ease, even when he is not.

Calling this performance a semi-staged concert is an understatement. Although there were no sets and costumes, some props were used and stage action had no interruption. Singers exited and entered the stage as in a fully-staged event. Although the program does not mention any director, the proceedings were actually very well directed and the cast made a very good job out of it, especially Sunhae Im, a brilliant comedy actress. Even the choristsers from the Coro Gulbekian proved to have acting skills in a most entertaining evening.

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My five or six readers know that I have tried hard to get used to René Jacobs’s wayward Mozart. I have even showed some appreciation for his Idomeneo, but the truth is that it always requires from me an enormous effort of adaptation. This evening’s Zauberflöte, performed in concert version in the Philharmonie, tested my open-mindness from moment one. The orchestral sound was brassy, the tempo was too brisk for the string players and blurred divisions abounded.

Then there was the omnipresent odd sudden tempo shift. Although some of that seemed to be justified by the libretto, the libretto itself did not inspire the composer himself to write any of these in the score. It seems that the many cute liberties taken with what Mozart wrote did not annoy the audience: unwritten pauses, an intruding fortepiano “continuo” (also during dialogues), misplaced ornaments (does the folksong-like simplicity of Könnte jeder brave Mann call for decoration, for example?), soloists appearing in choral parts and chorus appearing in solo parts… Does Mozart need all that? One could surely make use of some theatricality, but Jacobs’s approach is so Schwarzkopf-ian in its various and self-conscious mannerisms that all possibility of immediacy and directness is lost; one would think that the work had been composed for a court theatre! If I had to find a positive side to all that, that would be finally listening to a conductor who had at least cared to read through the score, but I really wished he had not overwritten on it.

During this performance, I have started to think that it is a pity that all lyric voices today are probably singing Wagner and Verdi above their natural Fach. Long gone are the days where substantial-voiced singers appeared in Mozart.  Our generation has very rare or no singers like Gundula Janowitz, Margaret Price, Francisco Araiza or Fritz Wunderlich and listening to Die Zauberflöte in a big hall such as the Philharmonie finally involves singing without the last ounce of tonal freedom, as we heard today.

Lovely as Marlis Petersen’s light soprano is, it has no colour in its lower reaches and moments that require stronger dynamics are met with some strain. Of course, she is an intelligent and expressive singer and her clever handling of Jacobs’s genuine andante for Ach, ich fühl’s deserves praise. Anna Kristiina Kaappola is tonally shallow and only acquires hearability in its high register. She handles the specific challenges of the part of the Königin der Nacht really nimbly – and her in alts are bright and firm – but “ordinary” phrases are handled in such an indistinguished manner that one could take the role as she were practising her Vaccai in front of the audience. In any case, her intent to sing her staccato notes with the vowel of the text is admirable. Daniel Behle’s tenor sounds a bit bottled-up and straight-toned in its higher reaches. That said, it has been a while since I last heard the role of Tamino sung with such variety, good-taste and stylishness. Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno, on the other hand, was tonally unvaried and vocally small-scaled. He is a funny guy and finally beguiled the audience with his acting skills, but there should be more than an Austrian accent (a must for the role, according to the conductor’s words in the libretto) in Papageno. Marcos Fink has a beautiful voice and sings with affection, but hitting the low notes does not mean that one has the depth of voice required by it. As it is, his Sarastro was more a matter of elegance than of authority. In his sense, the evening’s Sprecher, Konstantin Wolff offered something more forceful than anyone else. The three ladies, Inga Kalna, Anna Gravelius and Isabelle Druet were extremely spirited, but I wished for a bit more focus from all of them. In that sense, the three St. Florian Sängerknaben offered a particularly clear sound.

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Orlando Paladino is one of the operas Haydn wrote for the small opera house at the Esterháza Palace. It has been rarely performed and some might remember it as one of Elly Ameling’s rare operatic recording, conducted by Antal Dorati in his all-stars series for Phillips. It has also recently caught the attention of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who released a recording made live in Graz with some favourite singers in European stages: Patricia Petibon, Malin Hartelius, Werner Güra, Michael Schade and Christian Gerhaher.

As much as Harnoncourt, conductor René Jacobs made his own edition for his performances at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, involving basically the trimming of recitatives and the inclusion of one showpiece aria from Haydn’s Il mondo della Luna for the role of Alcina. As usual, Jacobs has a fancy for the decoration of repeats, what is less bothersome in an unfamiliar opera, for very active continuo (here beside a fortepiano, an alternating harpsichord plus a lute) and for writing over the composer’s work (the inclusion of loud percussion in the Eurilla/Pasquale duet Quel tuo visetto amabile and the inclusion of a part for Eurilla in Pasquale’s “catalogue” aria). But one would forgive Jacobs anything – his conducting was at one vital and spontaneous. Those used to Harnoncourt’s recording were certainly surprised by the flowing yet clear and forward-moving approach. With the help of the polished and animated playing from the Freiburger Barockorchester, ensembles were always transparent and the lyric moments, given all the time they needed, were particularly touching.

Even in such an excellent cast, one would have no doubt that Marlis Petersen’s is the prima donna role. Her golden-toned lyric soprano is extremely ductile and flexible  – the purity of line, accurate divisions, floating pianissimi and dramatic imagination are admirable – and, considering the light vocal quality, particularly penetrating. Also properly cast in the soubrette role, Sunhae Im not only sung with charm and instrumental poise, but also showed real talent for comedy. It is a voice that blossoms a bit high in the soprano range, though, and sometimes she disappears in her first octave. Although Haydn could not have said that Alcina is a mezzo soprano role, the notes speak for themselves. It is extremely gracious of Alexandrina Pendatchanska to take such a secondary role, but once again her wide spectrum of abilities did not build into a coherent performance. The role sits uncomfortably in her soprano – the lower end was dealt with with a somewhat overblown chest voice that did not seamlessly connect  to a recessed middle register and there was little opportunity for her forceful high register. She furiously decorated her part and I cannot see any other reason for her florid insertion aria in the somewhat pointless act III than Jacobs’s friendship with her. In any case, she seized the opportunity to offer a dazzling coloratura display.

 Magnus Staveland’s tenor lacks projection above the passaggio, but it is an extremely pleasant voice, rich-toned and flexible, what is essential for the role of the handsome Medoro (as clearly shown in the libretto, there is not really much beyond looks in Medoro). Tom Randle performs the “furious” aspects of Orlando to perfection, especially in a production that requires from him destroying sets with an axe à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. His tenor has a darker and more heroic colour than, for example, Michael Schade’s in Harnoncourt’s recording, but he lacks Schade’s floating mezza voce for the most meditative moments. Another favorable comparison with Harnoncourt’s recording is Pietro Spagnoli as Rodomonte, far more spontaneous both vocally and interpretatively (Italian is his native language, one must remember) than Gerhaher. The audience’s favorite, beyond any doubt, was Argentine baritone Victor Torres, who offered an all-round satisfying performance – velvety tonal quality, stylishness, solid technique, theatrical verve and, most of all, he is really funny.

The performance booklet makes a strong point for the Orlando Paladino’s semiserio style with many references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I would rather point to Così fan tutte – and I tend to believe that directors Nigel Lowery and Amir Hoisseinpour would agree with me. In Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and the Commendatore’s predicament are serious business and Mozart has a sympathetic eye for them, while Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Ferrando’s petty ordeals are made fun of and we only relate to them and finally care about them and suffer for them because we have first laughed at them. In Orlando Paladino, the serio roles, Angelica and Medoro, are so aloof that Haydn makes a series of musical jokes by abruptly changing the affetto for their neverending lamenting. Their arias are almost a parody of opera seria with their overwrought strette. Accordingly, Angelica is shown in this production as the demanding and needy beauty queen who is always upset by the less-than-glamorous circumstances – basically the passive-aggressive dyed-blond bitch who sings coloratura at every opportunity. In his text on the booklet, Jacobs also defends the idea that Alcina is a serious role, but I guess that again the directors agree with me that she would be mezzo carattere – here shown as a drunk hostess who never knows exactly when she should display her superpowers.

Normally, I would resent the excess of slapstick comedy, but one must acknowledge that the libretto demands so – and the cast is extremely comfortable with that. I am not sure about the bearded fairies performing distracting (but funny) subplots in the background amd definitely dislike the silly coreographies – but there are so many ingenious touches that one cannot help but having a great time.

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There are people who like to dislike – I am not like that. When one dislikes something, one generally tends to miss an important aspect of what he or she dislikes. For example,  I like René Jacobs – I like his Bach, Handel and Haydn recordings. I even found his Rossini interesting – but I really don’t like his Mozart opera series for Harmonia Mundi. I find the orchestral sound brassy and unclear, the casting is eccentric and there is not a drop of sensuousness in these performances (at least for me, a serious blemish for the Da Ponte works). But I know I am alone here – everybody loves these recordings, they were awarded hundreds of prizes etc. That is why I am always ready to give a second chance.

If I had to rescue one among Jacobs’s Mozart recordings, this would certainly be La Clemenza di Tito. His baroque mannerisms somehow fit more comfortably in the context of opera seria – and that is why I finally decided to spend my last evening in Paris in the Salle Pleyel to check his concert performance of Idomeneo (to be released on CD).

First of all, I have discovered that Harmonia Mundi has a great share of responsibility in my dislike. Live at the theatre, I found the Freiburger Barockorchester significantly more pleasant than in Jacobs’s recordings. The brass instruments are far more integrated in the texture and the fortepiano (as one could imagine) is truly less intrusive (although we were treated to a mini-overture for act II on it ). I still expected clearer execution of passagework in string instruments, but what I heard is closer to what one would expect of a period instrument group (even if I have personally heard some far more polished in sound).

In what regards the conducting in itself, this was a gripping and theatrical performance, less efficient in lyrical passages when – again – everything seriously lacked affection. Part of the reason is the conductor’s overbearing intrusion in singers’ phrasing. For example, if he suspects something is a grace note, be sure that he’ll make the poor singer (or the orchestra) hiccup on it regardless of legato or the expressive atmosphere. Of course, the concept of legato and our intuitive ideas of expression do not belong to the XVIIIth century – but we, for that matter, don’t belong to that age either. In any case, this is too long a discussion for this post and I’ll answer the 1,000,000-question: yes, I will buy the CDs. Well, the truth is that I have bought all the others. So, I should say I will probably listen to this Idomeneo quite often – especially for the extremely well-buit public scenes, in which the RIAS Kammerchor offer accurate and dramatically aware singing: the act I finale is particularly effective.

Jacobs also counts with a distinguished cast here – some of these singers have appeared in previous releases in the series, but here they are more or less better cast. The immediate exception would be Sunhae Im, whose soubrettish voice is not anyone’s first idea for such a lyric soprano role. Her tone comes basically in one bell-like shape and, if her response to more dramatic scenes never went beyond adding a slightly more metallic edge to her voice, she finally convinced us of her Ilia by virtue of crystal-clear diction, vivid and intelligent response to the text and immaculate technique. Her ability to sing loooooong lines in one breath is really praiseworthy, for instance. It is a pity that the conductor prepared her such elaborate ornamentation for Zeffiretti lusinghieri – again the classical motto inutilia truncat would have ensured touching instead of extravagant results.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, on the other hand, has the perfect voice for Elettra. She is a singer with impressive resources, not always perfectly handled, but Jacobs seems to be a good influence on her. It is true that Tutte nel cor  was a bit lost on register shifting and  the fast and dance-like Idol’ mio was overcareful, but she really developed to create, in spite of an awkward close, the right effect in D’Oreste, d’Ajacce. To be more specific, the accompagnato Oh, smanie! Oh, furie! was sung in the great manner, with some stunning high pianissimi.

Bernarda Fink’s voice has seen more generous days – it is still lovely, but the lower end has become quite modest and top notes are less focused than they used to be. That said, she is the kind of singer who always goes straight to the point in what regards interpretation.  Her encounter with Idomeneo in act I and the sacrifice scene were extremely moving and convincing.  Considering her commendable handling of the difficult tessitura in No, la morte, one could say her performance gained in strength since a rather colourless Non ho colpa.

When Richard Croft first appeared on scene, I feared he might be indisposed or something like that. He seemed uncomfortable, often had his hands on his mouth or his ears and an anxious look about him, but as soon as he produced his first note, I reckoned that whatever affliction he might be experiencing had no effect on his singing. This is a voice of immediate charm, extremely pleasant on the year, light-toned but firm and strong to the bottom of his range. His phrasing is amazingly graceful and stylish (he was probably the one singer in the cast who followed Jacobs’s disciplinarian regime on phrasing and ornamentation as if he himself had devised all that) and his accuracy with fioriture is a marvel. His account of his difficult arias (including the long version of Fuor del mar and Torna la pace) were exemplary – I only wish he could gave himself a bit more to the emotional experience of singing Idomeneo. His approach to the role was so detached that sometimes I felt he was sight-reading his recitatives! Maybe this was the effect of his apparent uneaseness. In any case, this is a performance I don’t wish to find fault with – this was simply Mozart singing of the highest order.

The role of Arbace was similarly cast from strength with Kenneth Tarver, who is one of the most elegant and technically accomplished Mozart tenors these days. For a change, listening to both Arbace’s arias was rather a pleasure than an ordeal to the audience.  Nicolas Rivenq sang  the short role of Neptune’s High Priest to perfection and Luca Tittolo’s sonorous is exactly what the voice of Neptune requires.

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