Archive for July, 2007

A month ago I wrote down my first impressions on Emmanuelle Haïm’s recording of Handel’s first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. At that point, I hadn’t listened to the two other official recordings, Rinaldo Alessandrini’s and Marc Minkowski’s, and could only compare it to a broadcast from Luzern with Giovanni Antonini and the Giardino Armonico. Now that I have been able to hear all these recordings, one could say I am more prepared to give an opinion on this work’s discography – but the truth is this is a difficult task. All three recordings are very good, but none of them is really ideal.

Minkowski recorded his Trionfo back at the 80’s and I am sure he himself would not consider this his “definitive” account of the work. His recent performances live in Zürich and in Paris could maybe make it to the gramophone so that we could check that. As it is, his early recording has a pleasant raw energy, but I guess only in Tempo’s Urne voi I would recognize this conductor’s hallmark surprising theatrical gestures. I am not sure about his rather sprightly Tu del ciel ministro eletto. Although his cast is hardly immaculate, it is a very good one. Isabelle Poulenard’s Bellezza has its edgy moments, but is amazingly accurate in her divisions and expressive and intelligent in her use of the text. Unfortunately, the crucial final aria is rather blank. Nathalie Stutzmann is a stern and pitch-dark toned Disinganno and John Elwes is probably the most smoothly sung Tempo in the discography. Only Jennifer Smith is a serious piece of miscasting. Her voice has not truly sensuous and the coloratura taxes her.

Rinaldo Alessandrini’s recording is a far safer choice – his orchestra is in great shape and his tempi are always reliable and theatrically right. I am afraid no-one would be happy with his dance-like Lascia la spina. Even if this makes sense musically and probably dramatically speaking, I am afraid we are too used to the intensity of Rinaldo’s Lascia ch’io pianga. Deborah York’s crystalline flexible soprano is comfortable with the technical demands made on her, but her tone is too boyish for the right effect in this music. Her Un pensiero nemico di pace is thoroughly sung but the results are rather unexciting and her final aria – again! – lacks pathos. Gemma Bertagnoli’s Piacere is more verbally specific than her rivals but her attitude can be exaggerated now and then. Some of her repeats are a bit misguided too. Sara Mingardo is a discrete and velvety-toned Disinganno, but Nicholas Sears is uncomfortable with the part of Tempo’s low tessitura.

My first impression on Emmanuelle Haïm’s recording was similar to most reviewers’ – she is trying (as usual) really hard to make her point and some of her ideas sound rather artifficial (the most notable example is Urne voi), but it is undeniable that her orchestra’s playing is terrific and that she has what is closer to be the best cast in the discography. Natalie Dessay has a certain fondness for overdecorating her repeats and too coquettish an approach for this piece, but sings more exquisitely than all her rivals. No other Piacere can compete with Ann Hallenberg in coloratura abilities. Her voice doesn’t always suggest sensuousness, but she sings the best Lascia la spina here and goes for a breathtakingly fast Come nembo. Sonia Prina is the most incisive and expressive Disinganno in recordings and, even if Pavol Breslik has his rough moments, he has no problems with the low tessitura and generally handles well his divisions.

I still miss the emotional sincerity of Giovanni Antonini in his broadcast from Luzern. He is the kind of conductor who goes straight to the heart of the matter and scores his points on not trying to force his points in the composer’s score. His Bellezza, Laura Aikin, has some problems with her runs, but is miles ahead of the competition in conveying her “character”‘s development. Neither can Véronique Gens challenge Ann Hallenberg in fioriture, but her voice is far more seductive than those from the sopranos featured in the official recording. Cristoph Prégardien’s beauty of tone is similarly unchallenged. And Sonia Prina is always faultless in Handel. I still would like the Opernhaus Zürich to release on DVD their staging of this oratorio, in which Isabel Rey offered a most intelligent account of the part of Bellezza and Marijana Mijanovic was at her best as Disinganno.


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Although Thomas Quasthoff has flirted with baritone repertoire, the dark resonance of his low register proves he has no mistake in calling himself a bass. He has a fearless approach to top notes, as in Ich grolle nicht, but the truth is his voice acquires a grainy almost rattling sound around the baritone area, which is not entirely pleasant to my ears. But that is a minor detail in the context – what comes to my mind when I think of his Schumann recital at the National Theater is the neverending variety of tone colouring and his undeniable joie de chant.

Dichterliebe is a long cycle and risks to sound neverending in less capable hands. Quasthoff’s sweetness of tone in Lieder such as Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen is irresistible, while his animation and word painting in songs such as Die alten bösen Lieder establishes an ideal level of communication with the audience. After his recital, I can understand the reticence of some local reviewers about Magdalena Kozena’s Schumann, for example, which did sound flatter in comparison.

The second part of Quasthoff’s recital started with a touching and wide-ranging Der arme Peter, a charmingly naive little song cycle, but the famous ballad Belsatzar, sung almost entirely in half tones, lacked some brio. Finally, Liederkreis Op. 24 was sung with immaculate style – but I am afraid he sounded a bit tired at moments. As a result, Dichterliebe would still be the highlight of the concert. His accompanist Justus Zeyen established a wonderful unity of vision with him, offering subtle and varied playing during the Liederabend.

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Because my German is not good enough to follow a whole play in that language, I decided to buy the original English text of Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water), which happened to be the play performed in the Bayerische Staatsschauspiel on my free day in Munich. This was very convenient for my intent of seeing a play in Germany. I have been following the work of so many German directors in opera and felt like watching them “in their own field”, so to say. As for Ravenhill, I had seen some scenes on TV from the Brazilian staging of Shopping and Fucking some years ago and that was all.

I have to confess that reading the play was hardly an eye-opener. It seemed to be an interesting study about the old question whether art and the artist are the same, written in a rather innovative manner – no previously defined characters, just lines in which narration and action are intimately intertwined. I do not know how the play was staged in England – but I imagined very limited scenic elements and naturalistic almost Brechtian acting. But German dramaturgs can go really beyond that.

What striked me at first is the treatment to the text. I am used to staging of comporary works reverently respective to the text in which directors adopt a rather self-contained way. Director Florian Boesch, however, treated Ravenhill’s text as he would have treated Shakespeare or Schiller, in the sense that he proposed his reading of this text. I’ll explain myself – instead of trying to cleanse himself of his view in order to reach the core of the author’s vision, he rather added his own symbolic universe to to the written text. All I can say is that the experience proved to be – at least for me – illuminating. Boesch’s germanic view of Ravenhill’s play granted it the universality it could miss in the original version (also, the German translation brought a slightly more sophisticated register of speech to the text).

Pool (no water) is a nasty story about the visit of a group of artistic losers to their former colleague who has become famous and acknowledged and their sadistically vindicative response to an accident she suffers during their staying at her villa. Boesch goes beyond the nastiness and finds the raw cruelty and cynicism of the text – in a way only Germans could do. As conceived by Boesch, the whole staging could be descibred as a destructive allegory of the text. The minimalistic setting is progressively tranformed into an almost infernal chaos – every piece of prop is destroyed, torn apart to shattering effect. Something similar happens to the cast. In the end, they have exposed themselves, either stripped or covered themselves with ridicule, red paint or self-derision – all that performed with clockwork precision. It is indeed amazing the verbal and gestural expressive accuracy of these actors. I do not know if this is the usual standard of theatrical acting in Germany, but I haven’t seen that for a while, compared to the kind of “cinematographic” kind of acting seen in the other side of the Atlantic. No offense to Ravenhill – but I would really like to have the opportunity of seeing actors such as Michael von Au, Ulrike Willenbacher, Michael Tregor or Sophie von Kessel in a play by Ibsen or Strindberg, for example.

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Because dramatic timing and the expression of emotions in baroque opera usually do not survive under the scorching light of Romanticism, most stagings of Handel operas adopt a certain cynically comical approach, in which the actions of characters tend to look silly and nonsensical. Hence it is most commendable of Christof Loy’s staging of Handel’s Alcina for the Bayerische Staatsoper that he has taken his characters seriously without eschewing the necessary sense of humour (after all, this is a long opera). It is also characteristic of Loy’s the thorough direction of actors and the elegant settings and costumes. This late aspect is particularly important – one is always bound to expect something a bit larger than life when one goes to the opera.

Fortunately, the director found a cast of engaged singing actors with extraordinary musical and dramatic talents. Anja Harteros certainly displays impressive features – a statuesque figure, majestic bearing, a fiery temper, an extra rich voice flexible enough for Handel’s technical demands and ductile enough to fine down her sizable lyric soprano to floating mezza voce. She succeeded in the test of keeping the interest in the repeats of her long arias and conveyed to perfection the falling from grace of her character, first shown in stylized crinoline dress and finally in camouflage war uniform. A beautiful and intense performance.

The part of Morgana is undeniably high for Verónica Cangemi’s voice. As a result, she could not sparkle enough in her opening aria and in Tornami a vagheggiar. But her sensitive phrasing and showstopping flute-like pianissimi ensured she had the audience on her side.

The Munich audience is famous for its fidelity to singers who regularly perform in their opera house – and that might explain the ovation reserved to Vesselina Kasarova. I hate to produce the dissenting note, but the habit of being treated to such ecstatic applause could be the reason why such a gifted singer indulges in going on singing with appalling problems in her technique. In order to compensate a clueless middle register, she has to resort to ugly adaptations involving a grotesque covering of vowels or a nasal vibratoless chanting. This battle of chest and head voice has two victims – proper Handelian style and pitch. Of course, she is an experienced singer whose ability with fioriture is praiseworthy, but one just need to pick any Ruggero in the discography, be it Berganza, Susan Graham, Della Jones or Alicia Coote, to realize her shortcomings. I cannot help thinking of what someone like Joyce DiDonato, Anna Bonitatibus or Ann Hallenberg would do in such a beautiful cast.

Italian contralto Sonia Prina is an asset to any cast in baroque opera – it is difficult to single out any particular aspect in such a faultless performance. She is also a most engaging and likeable artist on stage. Tenor Benjamin Hurlett, a newcomer to the production, has an ideal voice to this repertoire. His honeyed Un momento di contento compares to the very best. In a boy soprano role, Deborah York is perfectly cast and Sergio Foresti is a stylish Melisso.

I was very positively surprised by Cristopher Moulds’s conducting. He went for exciting and spontaneous tempi in the faster numbers, but knew when to relax and give singers time for expression in the most lyrical arias. His orchestra played with gusto and technical polish. I read that the broadcast from 2005 (conducted by Ivor Bolton, with different male singers) is going to be released by Farao Classics. My memory may deceive me, but tonight’s performance seems to me a complete improvement from the one recorded two years ago.

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I have the impression that, because Magdalena Kozena comes across as quite pretty , she makes a point of always going beyond pretty. When I say “beyond”, I do not mean that her singing is not lovely. On the contrary, her crystalline mezzo-soprano is a consistent pleasure to the ears. What I mean is that Kozena takes her recitals in all seriousness and tries to dig out hidden niceties in each song. For example, I had never listened to such a frightening and vehement Waldesgespräch. Even in the merrier Eichendroff settings in Schumann’s Liederkreis Op. 39, she could find a hidden note of melancholy. In this sense, the occasional comparison with Lucia Popp does make sense, since the sorely missed Slovak soprano was a specialist in putting long known songs in new perspective. Kozena, however, cannot look up to Lucia Popp’s in variety of tone colouring – her charming and svelte mezzo tends to come in only one lovely shade. Maybe that is the reason that local reviewers found her Schumann lacking spontaneity and emotional depth. I still find it refreshing to hear her Gundula Janowitz-like austerity in Lieder interpretation, but I would agree that Schubert´s more immediate sense of story-telling would be more appropriate than Schumann to Kozena’s voice.

Beautiful as her Schumann was, I must confess that her rendition of Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles was the highlight of this Liederabend. In her clear French, she told these funny endearing stories with a child’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and the variety of a true diseuse. She should consider recording them. In her effort to avoid the obvious choices, she passed the usual suspects in Rachmaninov’s repertoire and produced gripping renditions of songs rarely treated to such a focused and instrumental voice. Finally, she let her hair down to the manner born in Bartok’s Village Scenes, showing that blondness can perfectly live with Bohemian verve. As encores, she offered her audience Fauré’s Rêve d´amour, sung with classical elegance and an elegiac performance of Schumann’s Mein schöner Stern and a beautifully shaded Der Nussbaum. Yefim Bronfman’s large-scale pianism could hardly be called “accompaniment”. As a result, he felt more at ease once the Schumann part of the program was over. He produced beautiful effects for Ravel, but Rachmaninov and Bartok really gave him the opportunity to unravel the whole scope of his resources.

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Thanks to the advocacy of Edita Gruberová, the Bayerische Staatsoper has reserved a special place for bel canto operas in its seasons – and judging from what I witnessed this evening, admirers of Donizetti operas have something to be thankful for. Never before had I experienced the charm of Donizetti’s writing for the orchestra as intensely as this evening in Munich. Conducted by Friedrich Haider, who happens to be someone who does not trifle with this repertoire, the hall was filled with rich, refulgent string sounds, unbelievably precise in passagework and perfectly blended with woodwind. Some may find that such an approach would be a disadvantage to singers – that was not the case. Allowed to dialogue with solo instruments in concertante manner, inscribed in the framework of beautiful orchestral sound, the cast could find a deepened level of expression.

Cristof Loy’s production is, of course, the same featured on DVD with more or less the same cast. As on video, Loy found updating as an enlightening way of focusing the political aspects of the plot. One is entitled to feel suspicious, but the efficient direction of actors makes it rather believable. It is, of course, Gruberová’s show, but she surrenders entirely to the concept. Having a lifelong experience with the traditional approach – red wig and tons of pearls – scaling down the clichéd “Elizabeth I”-act to the psychological days in which we’re living was not a stretch for her.

When it comes to the vocal aspects of her performance, one is tempted to speak of what an achievement this is for a 60-year-old singer, but Gruberová does not need that. Although her voice had seen more supernaturally impressive days, she can still boast to have resources almost no one possesses. Unfortunately, a strong low register has never been among her natural gifts. And Donizetti may be very demanding in this aspect. In her entrance aria, the search for low notes, for example, seemed to have unbalanced the production of her voice – all the mannerisms her detractors like to point out were there – scooping, fussying with tempo and slight behind-the-beat coloratura. During the evening, she would found her optimal level, though, managing to focus most of her plunges to chest register. The other low notes were dealt with with “acting with the voice”. She seemed to be willing to compensate this with an unending supply of her hallmark qualities, such as immaterial high pianissimo, effortless divisions and forceful in alts. The closing scene is a Gruberová classic – no one has ever gone so deep into the character’s mind and heart as she does. It has been – and it still is -one of her supreme achievements.

The replacement of the leading tenor and baritone on the video for two Italians has also proved most positive. Massimiliano Pisapia has a most beautiful and natural tenor and phrases in the most gracious and stylish manner. It is a pity that he feels tempted to produce his high notes excessively covered. This is the only problem standing between him and complete success. Paolo Gavanelli is always an intense stage presence. His first aria was sung with outstanding purity of style and control of line. Later his tendency to produce woolly top notes would rob a bit from the nobility of his phrasing. Jeanne Piland’s mezzo is pleasant to the ears and she is an engaged actress, but her voice soon started to develop a flutter and ended on sounding tired. The minor roles – even the very small ones – were cast from strength. I wonder if Donizetti himself listened to his Roberto Devereux as scrumptiously performed as we did tonight in Munich.

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The fact that the visual imagery proposed by designer Marja Björnsson in this 2002 production by Francesca Zambello – frankly anachronical in its disparaged style of costumes and sceneries – is ultimately unconvincing could be the reason why the intendant decided to give it a twist by selling the show as a “feast to the eyes both to ladies and a gentlemen” (I swear this sounds more appealing in French when this woman said it to a friend next to me while entering the theatre).

What is beyond doubt is that the Royal Opera House has succeded in its purpose of catching the attention of new audiences – Lorenzo da Ponte’s jokes rarely missed the mark and the cast would more often than not felt inclined to overact in order to boost laugh in a way that would have been splendid if it not tampered with Mozart’s music.

Although Paul Syrus proved to know his Mozart, the house band did not feel inclined to respond to his athletic yet not overfast approach. The sound picture was restricted, ensemble often imprecise and articulation blurred. Laughs had an easy advantage on them.

Anna Netrebko was supposed to be a treat to the eyes, but she proved to be also a treat to the ears, even announced to be indisposed. That could be felt in her reluctance to sing softly and a certain caution with high notes. That did not prevent her, however, from pulling out a dramatic and full-toned Or sai chi l’onore, guilt, regret and revolt finely balanced. Although she felt she was unable to go on after the intermission, I could bet she would still be the highlight of this performance in case she had decided to keep singing. Her replacement, Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya does have a forceful flexible voice, but not the polish of a Mozartian singer. She is scheduled to sing Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo soon – she should work on her mezza voce before that.

Ana María Martínez has indeed the temper for Donna Elvira, but cannot disguise the fact that she cheated with her high notes during the whole performance. When a young soprano has problems with a and b flat, something really wrong must be going on. After a shaky start, Sally Fox managed to produce a teazing lovely Zerlina in spite of a technique more proper to Bach cantatas than to Mozart. I have to say Robert Murray’s grainy tone prone to curdling in high notes is not to my liking, but he sang both his arias well. Erwin Schrott’s long experience with the role of Don Giovanni is evidentin his mastery of all dramatic aspects – especially the intelligent use of recitatives. The French would say he is bien dans sa peau as a seducer, as a rogue and as a nobleman. Sometimes he lets himself go too much and one is inclined to find the performance narcissistic but that is soon dispelled by the singer’s irresistible charisma. His bass-baritone is also in mint condition. The fact that Leporello has less rich a voice than his master’s is always a good dramatic point, but Kyle Ketelsen is more a baritone than a bass-baritone and the low tessitura really seemed uncomfortable for him. He was not fazed by that and sustained the challenge of interacting, establishing a splendid partnership with Schrott. Matthew Rose was a strong-voiced likeable Masetto and, in spite of the occasional rusty moments, Robert Lloyd was an efficient Commendatore.

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Roger Michell’s staging of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play is the perfect translation of Pinter’s dry playwriting style. Scenic elements are reduced to the minimum necessary and the different settings are cleverly told from each other with repositioning of props. Michell also had a great cast and it seems he has taken advantage of that to work on a very rigid palette of theatrical postures. This gives great strength to their every utterance and is particularly helpful to show the audience the development of the characters’ attitude in a story told backwards.

Although the three actors are outstanding, I must single out Dervla Kirwan, a magnetic presence on stage. This is an actress who knows how to radiate energy even when still or silent – a rare talent. Toby Stephens and Samuel West are aptly contrasted . While the former explores a more extrovert and vocally varied approach, the latter goes for a more restrained attitude – both do it to the manner born. A great show.

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Charles Mackerras does not need reviews – the audience felt honoured for having the opportunity to listen to Janacek’s Katja Kabanova conducted by such a widely acknowledged specialist. Although the Royal Opera House band cannot dream to compete in rich, crystalline and flexible sounds with the orchestra in the maestro’s studio recording, the Vienna Philharmonic, the great Australian conductor extracted the best from them – for more than commendable results. All orchestral effects were beautifully pulled out and the theatre was often bathed in exquisite sonorities. Also, Trevor Nunn is an experienced opera director and the cast seemed at ease with his sensible scenic solutions. I have found Marja Björnsson’s expressionistic settings striking and beautiful, but I was not entirely satisfied with having indoors scenes played outdoors, when the idea of claustrophobia is central to the libretto.The setting for Katja’s public confession of adultery was particularly misguided. This is supposed to happen during a rainstorm, but everybody looks really dry while lighting candles and painting icons in open air unsheltered from the bad weather. Katja herself is seen in a white dress and I ask you – who would go out under a rainstorm in the countryside in light colours? When the action is based on a naturalistic play called “The Storm”, details like that should deserve some consideration.

In the title role, Janice Watson displays a formidable sizeable voice with forceful top notes, a pleasant medium and rich, low notes. She can more or less fine down her soprano to piano, but it rarely floats. However, the sound tends to be really metallic. It works well for Katja, but I cannot imagine her singing other kind of repertoire in which this could be an advantage. As Katja, I repeat, she was tremendous. She has the looks, the acting skills and reserves of stamina and offered a gripping performance.

Taking the role of the Kabanicha, Felicity Palmer confirmed what an immense artist she is – a powerful stage presence and an irresistible voice – forward, colorful and perfectly focused. She could even find a humane note to her role, bringing the obsessive motherly love to the core of her performance.

Kurt Streit has an amazingly spontaneous voice – bright, easy and homogeneous. His Boris did not not displayed Petr Dvorsky’s Italianate alpha male attitude – and that only helped to make Katja’s infatuation for him more touching.

Reduced to character roles such as Tichon, Chris Merritt still brings some satisfaction in his big, rather dark tenor. It is a difficult role for an actor, and he could find some truth it. Toby Spence was a great Kudrjas – a warm pleasant strong voice and a very likeable personality. Oleg Bryak (Dikoj) has a huge dark voice – and I suppose the off-pitch effects are part of the Slavonic kit of expressive resources. Finally, Liora Grondikaite (Varvara) has a very rich and vibrant mezzo and a lovely stage presence.

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