Feeds:
Posts
Comments

If there is a director who knows a thing or two about Alcina, this is Christof Loy. He has staged it three times in his career – and this is the second time I see him stage this favorite among Handel’s operas (at least, it is my favorite…). The first time, in Munich, I have praised the fact that he resisted the temptation of abusing comedy touches to get away with a long opera full of arie da capo. Then, he – and his prima donna Anja Harteros – was able to make the last act the dramatic culmination of the opera:  Alcina had fought even when she had no more weapons to fight with and lost it in the end: even the gods were deaf to her prayers.

His 2014 production for the Opernhaus Zürich starts with a powerful concept – Alcina’s magic powers are the magic of theatre. On stage, she can be and do everything and Ruggiero is under the spell of the diva. I was anticipating the last act – the run of performances is over, but Alcina the actress cannot let the character go and is unable to see reality from fantasy in her relationship to her leading man, whose hometown sweetheart comes to rescue him in the last moment from a star system that make people into beasts. But no, Loy has decided to make the opposite of what he did at the Bayerische Staatsoper: act III degenerates in buffoonry, Ruggero has a boyband choreography for his aria di bravura, Bradamante stripteases before a very much willing Melisso and Alcina embraces telenovela with a pistol gun and high heels. When she says that heaven had turned against her, it is just tantrum – she does get yet another second chance. While I cannot blame the director for disappointing my own private expectations, I did feel shortchanged to see the theatrical climax of the opera staged as undramatically as it has been (add to it an audience that behaved as if following laughing cues*). In any case, the first two acts were more than worth the detour in their keen Personenregie, exquisite sets and costumes not to mention brilliant solutions for the  challenging reprises of the A section in da capo arias.

At first, I had the impression that conductor Giovanni Antonini too was not interested in expression and drama. The orchestra phrased drily in the sinfonia and seemed a bit unwillling to move forward with abandon. Later in act II, in which all singers were at their most congenial, the maestro was able to provide some richness of sound and flexibility of tempo to illustrate the changes of mood in the text. As a matter of fact, Antonini would offer many natural and effective ideas to boost contrast in the B section of arias. It is also praiseworthy that he would not press the “fast and faster”  button for his choice of tempi. As a result, Bradamante could produce clean fioriture in her arie di furia, and Oronte was able to find the right pathos in Un momento di contento. In any case, the example of exhilarating tempo in Stà nell’Ircana also proved his was a safe choice, given the messy results there (I am not speaking of wayward valveless French hornes, as this seems to be the rule with historically informed orchestras in opera houses).

My eight or nine readers probably know by now that I am not truly a fan of Cecilia Bartoli, but in the title role and in the modestly sized auditorium of the Opernhaus Zürich, she left little to be desired. Although her voice still rattles uncomfortably and projects poorly in outspoken moments, the part focuses rather in expression of softer affetti and in tonal coloring, something she does as poignantly as Billlie Holiday used to in her jazz balads. Both Sì, son quella and Ah, mio cor were tackled with emotional generosity and dramatic imagination. If Ma quando tornerai proved to be a tour de force in the unusual rhythmic accuracy in the difficult coloratura, Ombre pallide was a bit all over the place. Curiously, Ms. Bartoli lacked concentration in Mi restano le lagrime, an aria that can otherwise prove to be very intense, as one could hear in the Munich staging with Anja Harteros.

Her Morgana, Julie Fuchs, is more of a lyric soprano than the leggiero one usually finds in this role. Although she dealt with the fioriture and high notes commendably, she would often sound in her element dealing with long legato phrasing and floating mezza voce. Maybe one day she will be singing the other soprano role in this opera. Varduhi Abrahamyan is rather a mezzo than a contralto and, although she manages the passaggio adeptly, one can hear that her voice truly blossoms from the middle register up. That said, she managed Bradamante’s difficult fioriture famously and also in warm and full tone. To make things better, she is a charismatic actress, an asset in a staging in which the character is made to be more ambiguous than it usually is (particularly in its response to Morgana’s seduction).

As much as in Aix-en Provence, Phillippe Jaroussky found Ruggiero’s arie di bravura on the low side and the heroic expression difficult to put across, but his singing of the act II arias was so exquisite and sensitive that one could forgive him anything. I doubt that there might be someone who sings Mi lusinga il dolce affetto as beautifuly as he does. I hope one day I will understand why the part of Oronte is never cast with a bright- and firm-toned tenor with some flesh in his high register, but at least Fabio Trümpy has long breath and easy mezza voce. He was spared È un folle, è un vile affetto (the role of Oberto and the ballet music too were cut this evening). Finally, Krzysztof Baczyk showed undeniable improvement in his rendition of Melisso’s aria since his performances in Aix.

* I know: today is New Year’s Eve and one would rather have a laugh than develop a depression over poor Alcina’s downfall…

My first encounter with Shostakovich’s operatic bête noire (in Petr Weigl’s film) was not love at first sight (there was a time when I would have written “has it ever been the case?”, but I have actually seen it work its charm on peple who are not particularly fond of opera, for instance). Now that I think about the reason why I had a problem with it, I see that it was the impression that the composer was not taking his characters’ predicament seriously. I would eventually realize that this is not true. Probably, the idea that their predicament should be taken seriously in the sense of “intended to awaken sympathy” seemed not serious enough to Shostakovich… In any case, the fact that the opera – both the music and the libretto – has an unsparing “angle”  on Katarina Izmailova’s story usually has the effect of inspiring directors to stage it in a grotesque, caricatural way, such as Andreas Homoki has done in his 2013 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, which seems staged in the Bizarro world version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory with the chorus acting like oopaloompas dressed as if they would go trick-or-treating in Halloween. The single set too did not seem designed to create any atmosphere in its geometrical shapes rather sloppily assembled (on purpose?). If there was something on stage for the audience to relate with, this was the leading soprano and tenor’s acting the honesty of which jarred against the backdrop of pantomime.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko seemed committed to make it all of Shostakovich’s kaleidoscopic score. This meant that the house orchestra was often taken to its limits in terms of clarity of articulation (particularly in the wedding scene), but at least the audience was kept on the edge of their seats during the whole performance. Gun-Brit Barkmin has an interesting voice for the role – it is bright in a way in keeping with what one would expect from a soprano in this repertoire, but warm enough in its middle and lower registers. Although there is more than a splash of vinegary tonal quality, ungainliness and sharpness in her singing, it is still a voice that can soften and produce a legato line when this is necessary. Above all, it is a role in which she clearly believes  and this makes it easy for the audience to connect with. It is hardly Misha Didyk’s fault that his tenor does not have the irresistible charm of Nicolai Gedda’s in Rostropovich’s recording or the sheer beauty of tone of Sergei Larin’s in Chung’s CDs, but the rough edges (and the heroic possibilities in his high notes) made him more believably rustic, as he should be. His stage presence – not really leading-man-ish in the cinematographic sense – matched his singing and made the whole package convincing. He was well contrasted to Oleskiy Palchykov’s forceful and steely Sinowy, more menacing than one would expect. As for Pavel Daniluk (Boris), I am not able to tell if the wayward intonation, breathlessness and parlando effects are what one is supposed to do in this role. I have often heard singers in old-man roles in Slavic operas sing that way and, to be honest, I do not see the point of it, but I am not a specialist in this repertoire and cannot really say anything other than my personal impression. As a matter of fact, I have to confess this secret phantasy of hearing this opera in deluxe conditions, with no extra layer of roughness related to the shortcomings of the forces avilable. I.e., I like to imagine how it would have been if Abbado had recorded it with, say, Karita Mattila, Piotr Beczala, Ferruccio Furlanetto and the Vienna Philharmonic. It would have been interesting to see if the score would sound less or more powerful in these conditions.

When I told a friend who lives in Paris that I was going to see Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris at the Opéra, he asked me right away if I knew that this was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. He did not know that I had seen his Un Tramway… with Isabelle Huppert in 2008 (?) and survived to be surprised by his fascinating Frau ohne Schatten in Munich a couple of years ago. Back in 2006, though, this Iphigénie, as far as I understand, was his first take on directing opera. And one can see that.

Dramaturg Miron Hakenbeck makes, in his text in the booklet, valid and insightful points in traumatic events in the context of family and war and also about family ties in times of war and how one survives and eventually finds healing. However, what one sees on stage is too contrived for one to make all that out. What is truly clear is that there is a woman in a retirement home reminiscing about sad events in her family, probably the consequences of the incestuous relationship between her mother and her brother (the part about Orestes and Pylades I’ll leave out, because this is hard to overlook in the text as it is…). The whole affair of Iphigenia’s duties as a priestress makes very little sense in the context: the moment a knife appears in her hand seems completely nonsensical for someone who had never seen this opera before. To make things worse, Warlikowski is not fond of choristers and one listens to their singing (and also every small role) off stage, what makes the last scene (when the Greek priestresses and the scythians fight over Orestes) impossible to follow (musically too). In any case, the director’s worst offense in an opera that can be low in dramatic tension was letting it be very low in dramatic tension. One just needs to check Youtube to see the excerpts from the performances at the Theater an der Wien and in Salzburg to see the difference.

Although the Palais Garnier had seen period instrument groups in its pit, this Iphigénie has the house orchestra under all-purpose conductor Bertrand de Billy. His approach was almost invariably valid in terms of tempo and accent, but the orchestra often sounded colorless, undistinguished and unclear. And the off-stage chorus is a something no serious conductor should accept.

Véronique Gens’s soprano is tailor-made for the role of Iphigénie, and she sings it with unfailing sense of style, clarity of diction and dramatic engagement – even if her high notes took a while to find the ideal focus. I had read a great deal about Stanislas de Barbeyrac and was curious to hear him live. It is indeed an interesting voice – rather big for a Mozart tenor, but curiously baritonal in color. One can understand why reviewers tend to imagine him in heavier roles, but he still has to figure out his high register, which sounds a bit tight and grainy. His ease with mezza voce, however, is praiseworthy, as well as his phrasing, musicainly and expressive all the way. Replacing Stéphane Degout, Etienne Dupuis offered an ideal performance as Orest both in terms of voice and interpretation. Bravo. I’ve read that Thomas Johannes Mayer would sing the role of Thoas with some surprise. Although his bass-baritone is not truly smooth, his singing did not make violence to classical style and the rough edges made sense for the role of the bloodthirsty king. Curiously, he sounded a bit out of sorts in the last act.

My last visit to São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal had not been very happy and it took me a while to decide to buy a ticket to their new staging of R. Strauss’s Elektra. The cast list finally take my chance once more. I saw Catherine Foster´s Elektra (in concert, full edition) in Berlin only last year and thought it would be interesting to see her in a staged performance. Luck favors the bold – the theatrical aspect of Ms. Foster’s Elektra proved to be a valuable addition to her musical performance. To say the truth, the concert in Berlin showed her in really, really better voice than yesterday, when her soprano sounded on the unfocused side and many high notes were sung below true pitch. But that was her singing – her acting was entirely focused and she never missed one dramatic point. Even not in her best voice, the tone coloring was apt, the word-pointing was clear (the one improvement from Berlin) and everything she sang was a consequence of her gestures and facial expressions. I have the impression that the complex sceneries might have had something to do with that, for Emily Magee (Chrystothemis) found it hard to pierce through the orchestra. Hers is usually a sizeable soprano, but this evening she had to employ a little bit more pressure than usual. It took her a while to find an ideal compromise. Under these circumstances, subtlety was out of the question. She too was scenically convincing and well contrasted to Elektra. Although her mezzo was two sizes smaller than the part and the low notes required some gear change, Natascha Petrinsky took pride of place in what regards intonation and, for a change, it is nice to hear someone who is not fighting with high notes in this part. It is difficult to assess how successful her acting was –  Klytämnestra is here portrayed as some sort of Cruella de Vil, a concept wholeheartedly embrassed by the Austrian mezzo. Is she to blame for a directorial choice? Jürgen Sacher was an efficient Ägysth, fazed by the acoustics as well. Albert Dohmen, even if a bit rusty (and visually old for the role), had the right gravitas for the part – and was the only person on stage whose voice truly blossomed in the auditorium. Maybe I was spoiled by the glamorous casting for minor roles in the Chéreau production , but the opening scene would have benefited from more solid voices and better diction.

The house orchestra is everything but a world class orchestra. Its strings lack tone, to start with. Then brass instruments had their bumpy moments, but, compared to what I heard in their Lohengrin, this evening was far more satisfying. Maybe because conductor Eduardo Strausser has “Strauss” in his name, he could find the right balance between minimally supplying this complex score’s demands and the practicality of the means available. As it was, tempi could be a little bit ponderous, but his concern with structural clarity and phrasing kept the proceedings “legible” and consequent. The Recognition Scene, for instance, was the moment where all these aspects found their best balance, providing the necessary lyricism and clarity.

As much as Patrice Chéreau, director Livia Sabag decided to present Elektra as a family drama and, in order to remove any hint of monumentality, she opted for an Ingmar Berman-ian atmosphere, “Cries and Whispers” a clear inspiration. The set shows a cutaway side view of a mansion house – groundfloor features the servants’ dining room and a storage area where Elektra treasures her mementos of Agamemnon, while the second floor has an entrance hall plus some stretch of the garden under a cloudy sky. The horrors described in the libretto are only hinted at by the scared expression of the servants. For atmosphere, videos are sometimes projected on the set – an image of Elektra buried alive in the opening scene or a corpse being unveiled by a man’s hand during Klytämnestra’s nightmare scene. The closing scene had too much information (most of each unrelated to the Hofmannsthal’s description of subjects overwhelmed by the victory of the legitimate king) and I confess I could not fully understand what was going on. As far as I can recall, maybe the whole encounter with Orest and what ensued only happened in Elektra’s mind, for the last chords show her hanging herself in her little storage room while the corpse of Klytämnestra is shown in a bathtub (until then, it was lying on the floor of the entrance hall, where it had been shown to Ägysth), while the rest of the sceneries and all other characters disappear from sight. If I understood it correctly, this is a clever and insightful idea that could have been developed a little bit more steadily since Orest’s first appearance rather than the coup de thêátre staged this evening.

Expectations can play tricks with our opinions. When I bought a ticket for this Don Giovanni, starting only three hours after a complete performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, I was not still convinced that I would really use it: I’ve never had luck with Don Giovanni at the Met and there were just a couple of names in the cast that seemed to make it worthwhile. But I’ve made it and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. If someone is responsible for my good impression, this is primarily Fabio Luisi, who offered an exemplary big-house Mozart performance, showing how flexible the Met’s opera violins can be, highlighting woodwinds as it should be and keeping the natural rhythmic flow, while using the power of a big orchestra to create the right theatrical effect. He also proved to be very attentive to his singers, helping them to make their best. For some members of the cast, this was more than providential – it was life-saving.

It is puzzling that, although this evening’s was far from being a dream team for this opera, it delivered the goods somehow. As a matter of fact, the problems were to be found more on the ladies’ side. I won’t deny that I was not very happy about the possibility of seeing Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna for the second time. Last time in Moscow was not truly compelling, and it was a good surprise to see how much she has developed this part since then. She still sounds hooty and hard-pressed when things get high and fast (and her dealing with coloratura is more a matter of resolve than of technical abandon), but her pronunciation of Italian language, her textual clarity and dramatic purpose are undeniably improved. She could more often than not produce Mozartian phrase of unusual purity and power and, whenever that happened, the effect was almost Golden Age standard. I don’t know if this was the influence of Luisi, but I noticed an effort to avoid pressing hard the tone (what invariably brought about what I called in Moscow a Mara Zampieri-ish hoot). If am not mistaken, the effort is paying off. Although Malin Byström’s soprano is becoming too smoky (not to say airy in a way that tampers with her ability to hold long lines without too many breathing pauses), her understanding of Donna Elvira’s mezzo carattere is very refreshing. And the fact that she sings her big aria in the original tone has unfortunately become something that one should praise these days. Serena Malfi’s high register is harsh and intonation can be iffy – and yet it is refreshing to hear a Zerlina that sounds earthy and who does not steal the show in “aristocratic” Mozartian poise. Paul Appleby, whose Belmonte early this year was a bit shaky, shows improvements too: his control of mezza voce was impressive. If only he could avoid unstylish portamento and the odd explosive high note, he could be an impeccable Don Ottavio. Simon Keenlyside was, for a while, the world’s favourite Don Giovanni – and he still can make a grand impression in the part. I had never seen Adam Plachetka before and I am glad I could hear his Leporello, not only the most compelling performance this evening, but one of the best I’ve seen in this role. His baritone is rich, large and, if it can be too grainy sometimes, it is pleasant in the ear – and he has amazingly (really – Caballé-sian) long breath. And he handles the text with perfect comedy timing, without clowniness and offering something really funny instead. Bravo. Matthew Rose too was a funny and vocally solid Leporello and Kwangchul Young sounded almost frighteningly dark as the Commendatore.

Michael Grandage’s production is traditional in concept and a bit dull visually, but if Spielleiter Louisa Muller was faithful to the concept (this was premiered in 2011), it is extremely well directed: sometimes one felt at a loss of which actor to follow, so interesting and dramatically coherent was everyone’s gestures and attitudes.

My aunt once said that a person who has never gone through psychoanalysis is like a ship adrift, unaware of the forces that pull him in this or that direction. Or maybe she was quoting someone. Director Mariusz Trelinski seems to agree with her: the first image in his new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a radar screen, then a ship in a tempest and then the young Tristan in his father’s arms. The father figure is Tristan’s idée fixe: he would appear on stage in key moments of the opera. His younger self appeared too during the third act, as a vision to his unconscious older self in a hospital. The infamously hard-to-direct monologues are here staged or illustrated by videos – the first of them actually sung in a dreamlike burnt house set on fire by the kid himself. The confusion between reality and fantasy also explains Isolde’s last solo in the end of act II. As Marke’s thugs had escorted her out before the King’s monologue, her acceptance to Tristan’s invitation to the realm of night only happens in his imagination. Here, the whole soul searching happens within Tristan alone.

Although Trelinski’s insights are apt and occasionally thought provoking, I am not sure if I am convinced by the way he stages it. Although the lighting tends to mirror the black and white cinematography of the video projections, the ship’s metallic structures and appliances and also costumes suggest a contemporary setting. We’re in a military vessel, but the war prisoner status of Isolde as a bride against her will feels funny in these circumstances (not to mention magic potions etc). There is also a flashback of Morold’s execution by gunfire. The choice of a control tower for act II offers very little atmosphere for the Liebesnacht, and the aurora borealis showed how frigidly this couple made love to each other. I know, it is rare to see a Tristan where the title couple truly touches each other, but here only fleeting kissing and embracing stood for this fatal passion. This could actually be a dramatic point – how much Tristan really, I mean really, desires Isolde? Is she just a symbol for something else? This line of interpretation was unfortunately not further developed. There is also a curious change of sets in the middle of second act – Tristan and Isolde are exposed by Melot in some sort of fuel storehouse – the purpose of which is mysterious to me: the control tower was probably too small for the closing scene.
Act III predictably opens in a hospital room and, other than the depictions of Tristan’s delirious thoughts, shows an Isolde who takes drugs to get in the mood for her Liebestod. Everything is dark, men have military uniforms and Isolde has a regrettable wig and a dress made from an old curtain.

“The sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word ‘focus’ is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the ‘singing’ line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity.” Those were the words I wrote after listening Sir Simon conduct the second act in concert in Berlin. I have also listened to the broadcast of the complete performance (also in concert with the same tenor) in the Philharmonie and cannot cease to be amazed by the English conductor’s absolute structural understanding, the naturalness with which he builds the performance on thematic framework and how the mastery in his choice of the Hauptstimme in the orchestra is frequently more expressive of the dramatic purpose of each scene than the singing. The broadcast from Berlin shows, however, that the Berlin Philharmonic made a huge difference for the final results: the Berliners’ refulgence and consistency of sound in lower dynamics are a great asset when the cast is not up to the full powers of a Wagnerian orchestra.

If Nina Stemme now shows complete understanding of the text and colors her voice accordingly, her soprano  has lost a bit in impetuosity. High notes require extra pushing and the sound may be a little opaque. Hence, her first act lacked punch. As usual, she was more comfortable in the second act, when her tonal warmth and rich high register are most appealing. The Liebestod had a shaky start but ended beautifully in haunting mezza voce. Ekaterina Gubanova is always a reliable Brangäne, even if her voice was too thick this afternoon to float her repeated Habet Acht in act II.

Stuart Skelton is the most dulcet Tristan I’ve probably ever heard, phrasing with Mozartian poise and clarity of diction. But – and this is a big “but” – his voice lacks focus above the passaggio and is produced up there by pushing, with reduced projection. He has enviable stamina, but act 3 was mostly bottled up and strained. As the frenzy required by the libretto is not really in his personality, the whole impression was of witnessing someone performing an impossible task. Evgeny Nikitin, on the other hand, has no problem piercing through a big orchestra. However, I had the impression that his alpha-male natural disposition is not truly comfortable with Kurwenal’s ancillary attitude. To say the truth, the important singing this evening was offered by René Pape, who left nothing to be desired as King Marke. Whenever he sang, even the orchestra sounded better. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Daniel Baremboim, but this afternoon – in spite of the conductor’s paramount knowledge of this score and abilities – engaged my brain, the heart was only occasionally involved.

The Metropolitan Opera House is to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle what Montsalvat is to Titurel: although the Swiss director died in 1988, the Met regularly shows his productions of operas like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito and L’Italiana in Algeri. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Because these are well-beloved stagings of not extremely popular works, the Met has been able to stage them more often than any other opera house in the world*. In any case, they still look better than most of the new productions concocted by Broadway directors presently seen in the house. I had seen it on video with Marilyn Horne, but I have to say that, under the Spielleitung of David Kneuss and the irresistible personalities gathered for this restaging, it works its spell very easily. Some may say the whole thing is over the top, but again: L’Italiana in Algeri is the dictionary definition of “over-the-top”.

Although I have never seen Elizabeth DeShong in a Rossini role, it would be surprising if she handled the Italian text as expertly as her replacement, the rich-toned and characterful Marianna Pizzolato. It is true that her mezzo is not voluminous as a big hall as the Met’s demands, her command of fioriture, warm, seductive tonal quality and, most important of all, deep understanding of Italian declamation just draw the audience to her. To make things better, she is entirely at ease with the style of acting required by Italian comedy. I had known Ms. Pizzolato only from recordings and seeing her live only increased my appreciation for her artistry. Her Lindoro was American tenor René Barbera, an intriguingly full-toned Rossini tenor with some surprisingly forceful top notes. Maybe Rossini would have found his high notes too forceful (and he could outshine his colleagues in ensemble), but it is just amazing that he is able to sing perilously high and florid lines as powerfully as he does. Moreover, he shades his voice beautifully and can hold his legato without effort. It might be too much for Lindoro, but think of the many hard-to-cast roles Mr. Barbera could be singing! At first, Ildar Abdrazakov seemed to be having a bad time with his coloratura, but he soon found his way and – if he did not reach the paramount levels of a Samuel Ramey (seriously – who does?) – he sang with consistent richness and energy. He also proved to have impecable comedy timing and never spared himself in his intent of making the best of every scene. He established an ideal partnership with Nicola Alaimo, a Taddeo imbibed in the right buffo tradition. Dwayne Croft relished his cameo as Haly and, if Ying Fang was unusually golden toned as Elvira, the truth is that the role requires a brighter edge to pierce through ensembles.

It is endearing that James Levine still has the passion for this repertoire, offering a very rich sound for an opera buffa, what makes it hard for Swiss-clock precision in ensembles, but the energy was – again – just hard to resist. In any case, _I_ did not resist long: this was simply fun.

*In the case of L’Italiana, this might not be true, for the work i understandably is far from a rarity in Italian opera houses; if you have one drop of Italian blood in your veins, you just feel it stir in your veins in Pensa alla patria!