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Who among opera buffs have not seen the old videos from the NHK Hall with Japanese subtitles and Mario del Monaco, Giulietta Simionato et al indulging in a plethora of stock gestures surrounded by merely functional sets? I have certainly seen my share of such black and white movies, but never thought I would see one of them live – in something very close to sepia.

The Bunka Kaikan Concert Hall itself is a time tunnel – Kunyo Mayekawa’s 1961 building has an outdated charm with its hallmark wood decoration on the auditorium’s side walls that almost makes you believe that Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi are going to be your Violetta and Alfredo. However, my ticket offered me instead Daniela Bruera and Stefano Secco for this evening’s La Traviata. 

 The absence of colours other than variations of brown in the sets, the repeated use of lace curtains to hide the change in scenic elements upstage, the oversentimentalized approach of Beppe de Tomasi’s production (refurbished by Norio Baba) and a stage direction that consisted basically on indicating entrances and exits – all that could be a cherishable visit to the golden age if there were a concept behind it. And a key element of it would have to be the larger-than-life stage charisma singers of that generation used to exude. I do not want to fault the group of talented singers assembled here – it is the director’s responsibility to drench the cast in a stylistic concept. That did not happen here. When you have a singer frozen in the middle of a gesture in the end of an act waiting for the lights to fade, it is very clear that something is really wrong in the larger picture.

I have known Daniela Bruera’s previously as Despina in Barenboim’s video of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte from the Staatsoper unten der Linden and my first impression tonight was indeed that Violetta was quite a stretch for her. Her basic tone has this quicksilvery sweetness of a soprano taylor-made for the -ina roles, but Bruera is a singer capable of the necessary morbidezza in the lyric moments. She does sound stressed in more exposed passages, when diction and pitch also have its dubious patches, but she can gather her resources to pierce through the orchestra when this is necessary. She is a cunning singer and knows where her strengths lie – she is unfazed by the coloratura demands, can float soaring high mezza voce and produce beautiful legato phrasing when not taxed by the writing. However, what makes her Violetta a praiseworthy creation is the aura of naiveté and tenderness that makes sense into this story of a fallen-woman-turned-into-angel.

Violetta is a character that only makes sense if you understand her as someone whose lifetime as an outcast has developed a strong desire for approval, what she finally finds not in Alfredo, but in his father – she is ultimately a fatherless girl who wants someone to say she has done it right in the end of the day. This vulnerability, this willingness to please (who has taken Violetta to the life of a courtesan) is exactly what Bruera’s pretty but not patrician soprano was able to portray.  Her touching Addio del passato was definitely the highlight of the whole evening.

Stefano Secco’s bright easy tenor has its overly open moments but he is a likeable Alfredo who is not afraid of pulling back to softer dynamics and of colouring the text. He was particularly effective in the end of Act II, when he portrayed his character’s regret for his rash behaviour to perfection. A colourless interpolated high c following a series of unsung phrases in O mio rimorso may be overlooked considered this singer’s achievements in this performance.

Although Masato Makino seemed not to be in his best shape (his low register became quite wayward right in the moment of his big aria (here performed with the complete cabaletta), his was the most immediately impressive voice tonight: a pleasant large firm-toned baritone, a bit hard in the upper reaches. He has feeling for Verdian phrasing and is particularly musicianly too. Germont, père, is not the most eventful of roles and I would have to hear him more before I say that he seems to be a valuable Verdi baritone.

Conductor’s Giuliano Carella’s hard-driven performance suggested a Toscaninian inspiration, what placed a strong demand on his orchestra, which acquitted itself really commendably, especially in fast divisions. If Carella showed mastery in the art of giving a dramatic purpose to his phrasing, especially in what regards recitative accompaniment, I would say he failed into recognizing that some passages were crying for a moment to breathe and achieve the right effect, such as the big concertato in the end of act II. Also, his rhythmic straightjacket paired with the absence of really full-toned strings led him to the trap of making some passages sound like marching band-music.

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Showing an ideal view of a score made imperfect by the forces available or opt for an approach compatible with them? This is a question a conductor makes himself when he has a sub par orchestra. I write this after seeing Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Teatro São Carlos in Lisbon (March 1st). Conductor Johannes Stert evidently knows how he would like his Mozart – swift, dramatically rich yet flexible sounds to blend with the voices on stage and every theatrical effect in the score highlighted to boost the stage action, especially sudden shifts of pace. I subscribe to this approach, but in the first minutes of the overture one could see that the orchestra was clearly uncomfortable with that. Mistakes, mismatches, poor tuning abounded throughout, in spite of the musicians’ best efforts.

I make a point of stressing their commitment, for it is a heroic task to give one’s 100% to the world’s most blasé audience in the world. I was truly shocked by those people’s indifference to some very difficult arias, even when they were quite well sung. Truth be said, these singers do not belong to the type of cast that electrifies an audience. The evening’s Vitellia, Adriana Damato, for example, has a touch of Angela Gheorghiu in her voice, a strong low register, powerful acuti and clear divisions. However, all that is handled in too irregular a manner for comfort and in the end she offered a collection of good moments that never built into a coherent performance. Although she was the only Italian in the cast, she is careless about her declamation, along with the other soloists (albeit in more serious levels), what is a serious blemish in an opera notorious for its long recitatives.

Herbert Lippert had a promising career in the early 90’s and then became a second-rate affair. Seeing him live explains that. This is a tenor whose tone is pleasant on the ear (despite some nasal patches), capable of some heft, generally stylish in his phrasing and able to tackle some difficult fioriture (as in Se all’impero). His Tito is far more impressive than, say, Cristoph Prégardien’s or Michael Schade’s (to name two singers recently featured on DVD) – but no first-class tenor would dare to appear before an audience clueless about his Italian text. He clearly ignored the meaning of his lines and would apply some unconvincing emphasis as an Ersatz for proper declamation, not to mention he would even forget Metastasio’s words twice during his arias.

Sophie Marilley offered a most likeable performance as Sesto. Her mezzo-soprano is attractive and firm-toned, she handles the passaggio admirably and phrases arrestingly, but the competition for mezzos is tough and she needs to seriously work on her Italian. Also, she ought to be more exciting in the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio.

It is strange to say that the Annio has stolen the show, but the truth is Angélique Noldus offered the most all-round satisfying performance in the evening. Both her arias were sung in the grand manner. I hope to see her again.

Chelsey Schill could be a serviceable Servilia – her voice is pretty enough, but acquires a sour edge in the upper reaches and pitch is not always reliable. She also desperately needs to learn how to move on stage – she is disaster on high heels. Finally, Shavleg Armasi’s chocolate-y bass is promising enough. A bit more legato in his aria and he would have been an exemplary Publio.

When it comes to Joaquim Benites’s production, I am afraid it looks like the high-school version of Jonathan Miller’s staging from Zürich. It is basically the same concept (military régime and art-déco), only with uglier sets and costumes and no – and I mean NONE – stage direction. Singers moved about in a helpless manner doing the most basic gestures to illustrate their feelings (Vitellia would invariably hold herself as struck by a cold draft whenever she would sing the verb gelare – and she sings it a lot during the opera). Also, the transitions from recitatives to numbers would be marked by a pause in the action as if the stage had not been updated to gapless playing. To make things worse, the chorus was made to act like a group of zombies, marching on stage as in a military parade, standing still and singing their lines with the imperturbability of people who are mildly annoyed while the libretto explain that they are panic-stricken (such as in the finale to Act I). A theatre that received Maria Callas in the past should be more attentive to theatrical aspects.

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Although the Orquesta Nacional de España has labelled one series of concerts “Looking East”, the only obvious connection in the February 29th program is Ravel’s Shéhérazade. A text in the program book tries to explain the relation for Debussy´s La Mer, but even the author gives up when it comes to Schumann’s cello concerto op. 129.

Of course, the bizarre title has nothing to do with the music making itself. In the Schumann item, Steven Isserlis proved to be the cellists’ answer to Cecilia Bartoli – his intense playing goes beyond producing pretty sounds, but you still have to deal with a tone that is basically unnoble. I don’t know if Schumann would have expected the one-paroxism-per-second approach, but it definitely makes its point. Conductor Josep Pons, the orchestra’s musical director, fortunately could cope with the emotional approach without sacrificing polish – something he could not repeat in the Debussy piece. Maybe I am spoiled by the recent Carnegie Hall concert with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons but, even if the ONE has rich strings, the over-extrovert approach brought about a stridence that – in my opinion – has nothing to do with this kind of music. The conductor looked for bombastics and marked dance-like rhythms that eschewed any sense of demi-tintes (and some clarity either).

It is most curious, though, that Pons could fnd again the necessary subtle shading for Ravel’s Shéhérazade, when he had an extraordinary soloist in Véronique Gens. You can call me an admirer, but I have to confess this was the best I have ever heard from her either live or in recordings. Her sensuous soprano gleamed from bottom to top and one could understand each vowel and consonant in the French text, treated to masterly tone-colouring, the most ethereal mezza-voce and full-toned velvetiness, as required in the first song. This was definitely one of the most perfect vocal performances I have heard live in a while – hence my disappointment with the audience’s tame reception.

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Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is an example of opera that disappeared from the seasons of opera houses all over the world only to be ressurrected in this new century. In Madrid for example, the opera has rarely been heard since the 1920’s with the notable exception of a run of performances in the 1970’s in the Teatro de la Zarzuela. And this may account for the cold reception by the audience on February 26th. I had the impression most people at the Teatro Real had no idea of what kind of opera this is and what they should expect.

I happened to be in the Metropolitan Opera’s ressurrection of the same opera in 2006 (also with Violeta Urmana). There, an audience that had been treated many and many times on a regular basis until the 1960’s knows very well what they are supposed to find in this very peculiar work. 

Violeta Urmana is possibly the greatest Gioconda of her generation. Her voice lacks some Italianate brightness, but she handles the difficult writing superbly – her high pianissimo in Madre! Enzo adorato, ah, come io t´amo! was exquisitely handled and she has no problem with the omnipresent percussive acuti, but the lack of encouragement from the audience might have some share of responsibility in her somewhat detached approach. Only in the last act, the proceedings seemed to launch from routine – and conductor Evelino Pidò cannot be held responsible for the lack of excitement. His conducting was exemplary – the polichrome aspect of Ponchielli’s orchestration was shown with mastery and he handled the dramatic effects in the score most efficiently. The house band responded with animation.

Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato offered a praiseworthy performance – his lyric tenor is adapted to emulate a lirico spinto and the trick is very noticeable, but he has a handsome voice and offers some elegant shading into mezza voce when this is necessary. His Cielo e mar had the right balance between ardour and elegance and if his performance is not more memorable, it is only because one feels how close to his limits he is – although expertly – operating. Similarly, baritone Lado Ataneli was a most reliable Barnaba – he sang with unfailing firm tone and sense of line and resisted the kind of vulgarity most baritones in this kind of role seem to indulge.

 In the Met, Urmana sang her Gioconda next to Olga Borodina’s Laura and their scenes were always the highlight of the evening. Elisabetta Fiorillo’s overvibrant mezzo lacks colour and handles awkwardly the passaggio. She does not look or sound attractive and it is difficult to understand why Enzo would prefer her to that nice lady with the pianissimi. Elena Zaremba was similarly overvibrant and it was difficult to guess which notes she was singing so large her vibrato. Her expression of gratitude in act II was far from touching as it should be.

When it comes to Orlin Anastassov, I cannot deny my dissatisfaction with his performance. If you put Paata Burchuladze and Sergei Leiferkus in a blender, the result must be Orlin Anastassov. It is a guttural voice with unclear vowels and this kind of  Leiferkus-like metallic attack. He is a young singer and maybe he should work a bit more in his Italian (and Italian singing style in general) before tackling this kind of role.

Pierluigi Pizzi’s production has been featured in the DVD from the Teatro del Liceu. At first the sets look elegant, but in order to accomodate the gondolas, the sceneries are unconvincingly transformed into a palace, a harbour and most of all Gioconda’s house (as portrayed here, the audience could have the impression she lives in the streets).  I am not fond of the all-in-three-colours costumes, but the most offensive thing is the evident lack of stage direction. Singers are generally standing in the wrong place for the dramatic action, move around with no apparent intent and in the end you really don’t care for what is going on stage. That was probably the point of coreographing a ballet “representing the hours of the day”, as Alvise explains, that has nothing to do with the hours of the day or any identifiable storyline. That said, the dancers were very fine and got the loudest applauses in the evening.

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Being acquainted with Calixto Bieito’ s production of Don Giovanni from the Teatro del Liceu on video, I thought it would be interesting to sample the controversial director in his own field and got a ticket to his adaptation of chivalric novel Tirant lo blanc, written in the XVth Century by Joanot Martorell.  Although this book is to Catalan language what Dante’s Divina Commedia is to Italian, it is primarily known abroad as Don Quixote’s favourite book.

My first and foremost curiosity was to know how any director would adapt this sort of book into a theatrical play, given the amount of battle scenes and other large-scale events. It came to mind a very creative production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Rio, in which war scenes were portrayed as American football matches and Greek heroes were hailed by cheerleaders (I swear it was not stupid as this sounds), but Bieito seemed to focus on different aspects of the work.

As I understood it, his adaptation and staging centered in the nodal point of chivalric love, to which death and sex converged in an unprecedented and probably never repeated way. Although the main events in the book are clearly represented in the play, someone who doesn’ t know the story would have some trouble to follow the plot (but this seems to be a general rule in Regietheater), since all aspects are seen through the lenses of this repressed sexuality conveyed to violence and religion.

Reading these lines, you would probably think that there was nothing gruesome portrayed on stage, but that would not be the case. In order to house this production, Teatre Romea had to be adapted. The proscenium stage was arranged in order to fit a red catwalk along which the audience would be seated. This configuration not only brings the action close to the audience, but also the audience into the drama. The main scene of the play is a combo of a battle and wedding, both of them portrayed with the help of a kitchen. To the battle part of the scene, Valencia’ s tomatina was shown on video, while the actors stripped, threw the blood of a rabit on each other, shouted at each other etc. I reckon it was stage stage blood, but there were two actual dead peeled rabbits (as in Polanski’ s Repulsion) actually dripping. In this scene, those seated by the catwalk were actually terrified that some of this food would be thrown on them! When the battle is over, there is time to party and to let go a bit of the tension, so why not a wedding? The ceremony is a fashion show featuring all characters while Madonna’ s music poured from the speakers and paella and wine were served to the audience. If you guessed few of those treated to a plate and a glass ventured to taste it after seeing those dead rabbits and those people covered in blood, you’re right. Later on, in a scene when Tirant baptises thousands of heathens, one actor in underwear covered with mud sprinkled water around to the desperation of these people (if you wonder why I tell this in such a detached way, the reason is that my seat was in the third level, from where I could safely see everything from above – now I see why the nice lady at the box office offered me this place on seeing I was a tourist).

(You might wonder how I could make through a play staged in Catalan without supertitles. Actually, if you know some Spanish and some French, you can more or less follow a Catalan dialogue. The nouns are always easy to understand, the verbs are a different story… In any case, I could get the general sense of most dialogues and even more specifically when a particular actor had outstandingly good diction, but the previous knowledge of the plot was essential to the whole venture.)

If you ask me what was my final impression on this play, well, I must say I found it worth the visit for a change. Bieito’ s insight to the chivalric novel is genuinely thought-provoking and, although one feels that the creative team and the actors are heaving far more fun than the audience (another general rule of Regietheater), differently from similar plays in this genre, you would actually laugh in the comedy passages, understand most of the ironies and references and even get touched in the most lyric moments. However, the show’ s main feature is undeniably the outstanding cast. These people are amazingly talented. For example, Alicia Ferrer (playing the part of the “blind organist”) not only acts, but plays the soundtrack in the organ while singing with a perfectly trained voice fiendishly dissonant intervals, in which she was joined by the equally adept Begona Alberdi, Alina Furman and Josep Ferrer. And when I mean the soundtrack was difficult – I mean having these people produce very high notes in intervals of a minor second, to start with.  But I don’ t mean that these people can only sing – they perform some very acrobatic and verbose scenes with amazing accuracy. Most directors wouldn’ t trust their casts with actual knives cutting vegetable while singing on stage (at least, most insurances company would NOT cover that!).

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Lisa Saffer and David Daniels are two American singers whose Handelian reputations are long established. Tonight they have teamed with Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie to offer an all-Handel concert in the Teatro del Liceu.

A whole generation of admirers of Handel operas have first listened to many famous arias with Saffer in Nicholas McGegan’ s pioneer recordings. Her  soprano has lost a bit of its former sheen – and maybe that is why she has been kept away from the gramophone since long. On listening to her opening item in the program, Voglio amare, from Partenope, this idea seemed very clear to me. She squeezed her way up in an uncomfortable way and much of the charm she projected was confined to her extremely likeable charismatic stage presence. Cleopatra’ s Non disperar only confirmed this first impression – strained high notes hardly suggest the nonchalance this aria requires. By then, I was truly sorry, for Saffer is a most intelligent and stylish singer. Fortunately, the intermission proved to be most healthy to her voice. Her Lascia ch’ io pianga from Rinaldo was exquisitely sung in warm and lovely voice. Semele’ s Myself I shall adore is a fearsome aria requiring true virtuoso quality – and even if the voice could be a bit more radiant, she tackled her divisions with impressive accuracy. More than that: she is a singer who masters the art of transmitting emotion in her coloratura – a rare talent today,

I have in my Ipod two Giulio Cesares with David Daniels – one from 1999 (if I am not mistaken) when he sang the part of Sesto and one from last year in which he had the title role. It is impossible not to notice that much of the brightness in his tone has declined considerably in these eight years. And this impression was confirmed in his first aria in the program, Va tacito e nascosto. His voice was rather pale and did not carried very well into the hall –  low notes were virtually inaudible. This first impression was quickly dismissed by a more lyric aria, Dove sei from Rodelinda, in which his legato and sensitive phrasing were shown to advantage. It seems that the intermission was also most positive for Daniels – his Aure, deh, per pieta was even more smoothly and touchingly sung. Even if his voice does not suggest heroic quality, he proved capable of producing the right sense of bravura in Furibondo spira il vento from Partenope through the fearlessness of his runs – a genuine tour de force. 

Both duets (Io t’abbraccio from Rodelinda and Più amabile beltà from Giulio Cesare) showed absolute congeniality between these singers, but the encores were actually the greatest moments in the evening. Theodora’ s To thee, thou glorious son of worth awakened in Saffer the bell-toned quality of her old recordings and both singers’  voices blended scrumptiously. Monteverdi’ s final duet from L’ Incoronazione di Poppea was a showpiece of erotic mezza voce; that was truly a memorable moment.

I have always had a good opinion of Bernard Labadie, but tonight he proved to be a masterly Handelian. His sophisticated sense of dynamics and rhythm brings welcome variety to repeats and he made his chamber orchestra (a handpicked group of musicians from the house band, if I am not mistaken) play with enthusiasm and discipline in the orchestral items of the program (a suite made of the overture and dance numbers from Alcina and highlights from Water Music, suite no. 3.

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My relationship with Donizetti’ s Lucrezia Borgia was love at first hearing when I first bought Jonel Perlea’ s RCA recording. I’d known Victor Hugo’ s play and thought the plot (but not the overwrought dialogues) compelling, but the truth is Felice Romani’ s inutilia truncat did a great service to the play and Donizetti’ s structural concision and theatrical understanding were at its best.  Seeing the work without costumes and sets – in concert version – and not missing the slightest prop proved my impressions right. Provided you have the cast to make it work is something one might say when we’ re speaking of a bel canto opera – but then I would have to guess the consequence of bad casting in these circumstances, because the Gran Teatre del Liceu has taken the pains to find the best group of singers one could possibly imagine these days.

Before I write anything else, I will acknowledge from the start that Edita Gruberova’ s soprano is hardly the Méric-Lalande-type of voice and, if you’ re used to Montserrat Caballe’ s recording of this role, you’ ll certainly miss the extra weight, colour and richness in the low notes. That said, differently from what she did in her recording of Rossini’ s Semiramide,  she didn’ t invariably  resort to upward variations (unless in repeats, when she were more or less “entitled” to do so, so to speak). To do her justice, I should add that she was particularly adept in managing her naturally ungenerous low register. Although one wouldn’ t hear spacious sounds in that area of her voice, focus was always there.

As in her Norma or Elisabetta (in Roberto Devereux), the amazing girlishness of her voice makes it a bit difficult for her to be truly convincing in these maternal roles, but if you like bel canto in the grand style, her Lucrezia has unending supply of high pianissimi, dictionary-perfect messa di voce, perfectly articulated divisions etc. For example, hearing the sequence of trills in the end of Com’ è bello done to perfection live at the theatre was like witnessing a miracle. As expected, she chose the showpiece Era desso il figlio mio to close the opera – and it was fascinating to see her weighing with Swiss-clockmaker precision the expressive and technical demands of this difficult scene (here made following the composite ending with the tenor’ s death and then the soprano’ s big aria).

Although the title role in Lucrezia Borgia is fearsome, this is truly an ensemble opera and Gruberova had fellow singers who left nothing to be desired and could never be overshadowed even by such an admirable prima donna.

As Gennaro, Josep Bros sang with unending graciousness, seamless legato and apollonian ease with top notes. Apart from one or two forced acuti in  T’ amo qual s’ ama un angelo (the aria written for Nikolai Ivanov), there is absolutely nothing less than exemplary in his stylish and sensitive performance. Although Ewa Podles’ s contralto has more than a splash of throatiness  these days (what makes her sometimes inaudible in ensembles), her graphical account of Orsini’ s narration in the Prologue was truly hair-raising and the panache displayed in Il segreto per esser felice (ornamented with a Spanish flavour, maybe as a tribute to the audience) was simply irresistible. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s bass should be a bit more flamboyant in order to make his Don Alfonso more dangerous, but he sang with firm tone and knowledge of style throughout. The minor roles were all splendidly taken.

Conductor Stefan Anton Reck was truly a positive surprise – his sense of theatricality is praiseworthy, especially the way he produced his effective orchestral effects without ever drowning his singers. He was also able to drive his orchestra through an unusually polished performance even when the dramatic situations required swift tempi.

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