Archive for October, 2005

James Levine’s credentials as a Mozartian are widely acknowledged. In his hands, the score of a Mozart opera is given the apparently incompatible virtues of suppleness and rhythmic propulsion – all of that dictated by a deep knowledge of theatre, what is of paramount importance in the drammi giocosi by Da Ponte. In this sense, Levine’s perfect understand of shifting in moods is admirable. It is true that a sculptor needs the right marble – and in Levine’s case this is the Vienna Philharmonic, as his rightly famous recordings prove. Although the Met’s orchestra is sincerely dedicated to its maestro, it is undeniable that Mozart exuberant passagework is still hard work for string players. That said, Levine is the kind of conductor who helps his musicians to make their best – and his cast should certainly appreciate that, especially in the trickiest passages, where his beat always came handy in order to give them time to breathe or to develop a line without making violence to the flow of phrasing. In this sense, Lesley Koenig’s production is also most welcome in its unobtrusiveness and elegance. Only director Robin Guarino should bear in mind that this kind of comedy is the one you smile rather than laugh with. This can be particularly bothersome when a particularly difficult roulade or trill is shadowed by the audience’s hilarity.

Barbara Frittoli’s vocal production these days is not immediately compatible with Mozartian repertoire. And that is not because she has poor technique, but rather because her technique is a bit unconventional. The tone has a certain veiled quality that takes to mezza voce almost automatically. One could point out that she is also over-reliant on that ability in order to get away with the most difficult points, where her clean divisions are always a blessing. In any case, once you adjust to her exotic velvety shadowy and ultimately sexy sound, her Fiordiligi is definitely appealing. Unlike most exponents of the part, Frittoli is a sunny only half-serious girl, more practical and ready to some entertainment than we are used to see.

The lovely Magdalena Kozena was a perky Dorabella, sung in her oboe-like flexible high mezzo and a powerful amount of imagination and charm. Although these sisters’ voices were nicely contrasted, the blending in her duets was simply admirable. More than that, it is praiseworthy that Kozena sounded almost as idiomatic as her Italian colleague. The result was crispy recitatives and a sense of true interaction between both artists.

Alternating Fenton with Ferrando may be a feat in itself, but it may have had something to do with the time Matthew Polenzani needed to focus his high register for Mozartian needs. Because of that, Un’aura amorosa sounded uncomfortable and uninspiring. However, act II revealed the American tenor at his best. Both Ah, lo vegg’io and Tradito, schernito were sung with golden liquid tone even in the exposed high notes and his interaction with Frittoli in their duet was also top class. Even next to such enticing tenorism, Mariusz Kwiecien can boast to have stolen the show with his firm flexible and dark-hued baritone. He is certainly going places.

There is no need to say Thomas Allen was a Don Alfonso to the manner born. Only an occasional lack of space in the bottom register could be singled out in a virtually perfect performance. He too can boast to have idiomatic Italian, as one could see in his scenes with Nuccia Focile’s Despina. It is a pity, though, that this spirited Italian soprano no longer has the technical finish to this repertoire. Some overacting had to do what voice alone could not.


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Although one can always acquire a taste, sometimes you really have to work hard for it. So here goes my confession: I don’t like Falstaff. I know all the reasons why I should, but the ear can be deaf to reasoning in matters like that. With that in mind, considering the good opinion friends of good taste have on this season’s Met Falstaff, I have bought a ticket on the level of price I reserve to the operas _I_ like. Well, it seems I am condemned not to like it – at least in this life – since James Levine’s conducting was indeed admirable. Richard Strauss, whose opinion is way way more significant than mine, was a great admirer of the work and wrote a letter to Verdi expressing his admiration. In this sense, Levine could find the connection between both composers on producing rich orchestral sound perfectly descriptive in its instrumental effects. Sometimes the richness of sound would pose problems to singers. But that’s also a Straussian feature, one could argue. In that sense, maybe a more exuberant-voiced cast would have been helpful. As it is, only Stephanie Blythe, a spirited Ms. Quickly, could sail above the deluxe strings without any effort in her strong focused and penetrating mezzo. A major performance. Matthew Polenzani’s dulcet but positive Fenton was also most welcome. Maria Zifchak’s firm and pleasant mezzo is worthy of mention too – and that is a compliment for any Meg. On the other hand, the charming and musicianly Patricia Racette had very little leeway to start with. The result was a permanent colorless tone. The same could be said of Heidi Grant Murphy’s Nanetta, who was able to succeed nonetheless in producing the necessarily ethereal pianissimi. As for Roberto Frontali, his Italianate tone and energy helped him through having to sing Ford in a big theatre.

Regarding Bryn Terfel, it is hard to say something definitive about his performance. First of all, it seemed it was not a good night for him. He had some trouble with one or two top notes until he got entirely grey-voiced in the forest scene. However, before that, his handsome bass-baritone was pleasant all the way, even in the poor patches. Although Terfel has developed into something far less artificial than his studio recording with Abbado, it is still something “from outside to inside”, built rather from an intellectual approach for something that should be completely spontaneous. When one think of the great Italian exponent of the parts, natural flamboyance is a key element of all that. In this sense, Terfel’s studied extroverts placed him far from pole position in this competition. Of course, the part of Falstaff might be approached from other points-of-view. The excellent Gabriel Bacquier, in Götz Friedrich’s film, for example, builds his Falstaff from a Baron Ochs-like decadent patrician perspective incredibly funny in its seriousness, something which would become Terfel’s nobility of tone and somewhat narcissistic temper.

Finally, I don’t know if I was really keen on the revival of Zeffirelli 1960’s production. It certainly looked liked its age, not because it was in bad shape (it has been entirely refurbished), but because it looks like those pale photographs of productions we see in books. Something like “Gabriela Tucci’s Alice is wooed by Giuseppe Taddei’s Falstaff in this 1957 production in Florence”. Maybe I had just expected something more glamorous.

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Daphne has always been, in my opinion, the hidden jewel among the unknown late Strauss operas and I guess that Renée Fleming has applied to a membership to the selected club of Straussian sopranos by championing it. Leonie Rysanek has done so with Frau ohne Schatten, Lisa della Casa with Arabella, Gundula Janowitz with Ariadne, Kiri Te Kanawa with Capriccio and Lucia Popp with basically all of it. As it is, this example of artistic generosity is most welcome and concert performances following the studio recordings with such a mediated diva will certainly help to place Daphne in the repertoire. As it is, although the part requires a more spacious soprano, such as Maria Reining’s, the truth is that the most famous exponents of the part, at least in recordings, tend to be lyric soprano tout court. In that sense, Fleming has the advantage of an absolutely creamy rounded tone, comfortable with the fast articulation for declamatory passages and readily taking to legato in the high-lying melodic moments. It is praiseworthy that she has really decided to delve into Straussian style and eschew the jazzy mannerisms displayed in her Arabellas and Marschallins. Here she is ready to take a pure line while still keeping some spirit. Compared to the recording, though, the voice tends to lose some colour in the more dramatic passages. The middle register does not come across as clearly as it should either, compromising some of the understanding of the text. That said, her performance is generally lovely and charming. If one has Hilde Güden in mind, a certain bright quality allowing for a more positive delivery of the text may be missed. Now if one has Lucia Popp in mind, one will miss an interpretation more verbally intense and a wider resource to tone-colouring, not to mention the important girlish impression in this role about chastity and innocence. All in all, this is an important step in Fleming’s career, in the sense that she is on her way to find the right balance between stylishness and expression in a repertoire close to her vocal nature.

As Apollo, Johann Botha is probably one of the most easily produced tenors visiting the part. As much as in the recordings, his top notes do not blossom as one might expect, but he knows how to keep legato and tries to play with dynamics. Those who know Böhm’s recording will be forever spoiled by the sheer charisma of James King, not to mention the vocal lushness of Fritz Wunderlich. That said, Roberto Saccà offered his best performance so far. Here, his focused tone and fearless approach to the role were all for the best. A thoroughly beautiful performance. As much as the excellent Michael Schade in the studio recording, he is no Wunderlich, but who else is? Robert Holl has not the dark sound required by the role, but was able to pull out a plausible performance out of his soft-grained yet forceful bass. The other roles were splendidly cast. The statuesque Anna Larsson’s deep contralto is impressive in itself, Julia Kleiter’s First Maid is the evidence that there is no small role, only small singers. I am eager to listen to her Mozart. There is no need to say Eike Wilm Schulte as First Shepherd is an example of embarras de richesse.

Nevertheless, the reason why this was above all a beautiful performance is Semyon Bychkov’s exemplary conducting of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. His vision is grander in manner than both Böhm and Haitink, but still keeping the necessary clarity enveloped in exquisite orchestral sound, positively indulgent in sensuous slow tempi in the most romantic passages.

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