Archive for August, 2007

Two orchestras, of course. That is why the Theatro Municipal in Rio was crowded for the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester all-Mahler concert under Philippe Jordan on Sunday afternoon. Many might say that having Thomas Hampson for a selection of songs from the Knaben Wunderhorn could explain a bit of appeal, but the truth is that an amazingly precise and virtuosistic account of the 6th symphony met with far more success with the audience. Mahler’s orchestral songs are always hard to pull out live – the orchestra is too big and the composer has a fondness for singers’ middle registers (making it hard to pierce through the large orchestra). Hampson generally made himself heard, truth be said, but even if he still has retained most tools in his kit of expressive tone colouring, his baritone has lost a bit of its honeyed quality and exposed passages lacked flowing quality. I understand that in order to make for this unease with legato, he chose only “military” songs in the cycle. The result was rather tautological.

The singer would face a sort of anthropological experience. Part of the audience had not been introduced to the practice of restraining from applause until the end of a program’s part and decided to clap their hands in approval after each song. The rest of the audience decided to show their education by energetically shh-ing them. The pro-applause group has decided to react by applauding with renewed enthusiasm. By the third installment of this battle of wills, the soloist himself decided to intervene. “Thank you very much, I really am honoured, but these songs require concentration and I would ask you to applause only in the end”. These words sufficed to produce the necessary silence – even after the last song. Encouragement from the orchestra cued the audience to deserved cheering.


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It seems the first time Arturo Toscanini ever conducted an orchestra before an audience happened to be in Rio de Janeiro in 1886. The opera then was Aida – and Aida (in concert version) was chosen by Lorin Maazel and the Symphonica Toscanini to pay him a tribute. As I have written in my comments on the Symphinica Toscanini’s Avery Fisher Hall concert with René Pape, this is an orchestra made of young musicians of which Maazel himself is the musical director. The 2007 tournée is meant as a tribute to Toscanini’s death 50th anniversary.

It is predictable that the main feature of the concert was Maazel himself. The prestigious conductor found the right balance between a symphonic reading and attention to soloists. His orchestra has an extremely polished sound and Maazel tried to cleanse the score from all vulgarity. Large ensembles looked amazingly Mahlerian in their polish and orderliness, without any loss in excitement. On the contrary: these young musicians were particularly enthusiastic and inside the dramatic action as rarely one sees in a concert version of opera. One could feel their interaction with soloists, masterly tutored by the conductor, especially in the more “chamber-like” proportions of act III. A beautiful rendition of Verdi’s masterpiece.

Maria Guleghina’s exuberant voice and personality do not fit entirely the role of Aida. Her soprano is powerful and ductile as demanded, but the low register eludes her entirely and having to produce some volume down there eventually tired the singer and her tendency to misfiring her top notes increased during the night. When sung forte, they could be below pitch. When sung piano, they could be airy and fragile. In any case, Guleghina is an intelligent, engaged artist who never cheats; her artistic sincerity and generosity steered her to the end of the opera with the audience on her side. Young mezzo soprano Anna Smirnova has all the elements of a Borodina-like dramatic mezzo in the making, but it seems she is tackling heavy roles too soon. She is a capable singer who has many tricks on her sleeves, but the fact that her powerful top notes and contralto-like low notes cannot hide a barely hearable middle register is an evidence that she should give her voice some time to develop. One can understand the seduction of singing roles such as Amneris to such a convincing and intense singer, but it would be a pity to see a talent such as hers burn out because of impatience. Walter Fraccaro is a very solid Radamés. His voice is the lirico spinto one would expect to hear in this opera and one will forgive his absence of variety and nuance in a role usually treated to overparted singers. Juan Pons’s sizeable baritone has seen better days and the most dramatic moments show him overemphatic and a bit behind the beat, but the tone is always pleasant to the ears and he has the charisma to make it work. A disappointing King Marke in Rome last year, Rafael Siwek works far better as Ramfis – his dark large bass produce the necessary authority in a role in which he does not have to be so verbally specific as in Tristan und Isolde.

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Some say Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the most fascinating of operas. I feel guilty to disagree: I simply cannot resist buying an extra Don Giovanni. But that is probably because I still believe one day the perfect conductor will find the perfect Donna Anna, the perfect Donna Elvira, the perfect Zerlina, the perfect Don Ottavio, the perfect Don Giovanni, the perfect Leporello and the perfect Commendatore and someone will realize that they ought to be recorded and in the day of that recording everybody is going to be in good voice, inspiring the orchestra to impassionate playing. But the truth is that I find that Così fan tutte is Mozart and Da Ponte’s absolute masterpiece and, in its apparently lightness, a neverending source of insights about theatre, music and the human nature.

Most people consider the closing scene of Così fan tutte extremely disturbing – there is no redemption for characters whose mistakes we perfectly sympathize with. I remember many conversations about that, in which I resisted the idea that this was a comedy with a depressing ending. I used to say that the key to understand Così is its subtitle “the school for lovers” – in the sense that Fiordiligi and Guglielmo’s and Dorabella and Ferrando’s relationship were engagements of convenience (made palatable by the fact that they were all young, good-looking and wealthy people) and Don Alfonso’s experiment obliged them to descend from their well-established pedestals and face the unpredictabilities of truly falling in love. In that sense, Ferrando would soon discover in Fiordiligi his soulmate, while Guglielmo and Dorabella would find each other hard to resist. Mozart’s score even supported this line of interpretation – is it not true that Fiordiligi and Ferrando’s lines become increasingly more and more similar during the opera? That theory does not however explain what happens when Alfonso reveals the whole scheme and tells them to get over the whole thing – after all “they were engaged”. If Fiordiligi is supposed to leave her newly-found kindred spirit Ferrando for Guglielmo – that would be indeed a sad ending. My own private idea was that the original couples would be restored but after their weddings the whole Naples would gossip about those sisters who had suspicious relationships with their brothers-in-law.

However, while watching the new Glyndenbourne video, it occurred to me that Ferrando is actually being sincere in Tradito, schernito. In this sense, it is him and Dorabella the two characters who experiment significant development during the opera. He discovers that – notwithstanding the fact that his beloved has none of the qualities he used to pray in a woman – it is her the one he loves. This is basically what the last lines in the opera mean: “fortunate those who are able to use reason to deal with the events in his life; he will find a matter for laughter in subjects that make others weep and will always enjoy perfect peace”. In other words – if you always use reason in your personal affairs, you’ll never be a victim of passions and your life will be a perfectly balanced row of peaceful days. In the eve of Romanticism, one might perfectly ask – who would want that? That is exactly what Dorabella discovers: it is better to surrender to passion and enjoy her life than being a well-behaved melancholic creature. In this sense, she is also actually being sincere in L’amore è un ladroncello.

It is no coincidence that both Ferrando and Dorabella have grandiloquent first arias (the hysterical Smanie implacabili and the almost childishly naive Un’aura amorosa) only to throw wigs and protocol to the airs and speak bluntly in their last arias. On the other hand, Fiordiligi begins as formidably as she ends and Guglielmo skates in the surface of events from note one to the fine in the last page of the score.

Of course, all that is idle writing – only to explain why I have changed my mind and now believe that the return to the original couples is not entirely sad – Ferrando and Dorabella have learnt something from the lesson taught by Don Alfonso and Despina – if you are in control of your feelings for someone, you don’t really love him or her – while Fiordiligi and Guglielmo are only shocked about themselves (she disappointed with her own vincibility and he disappointed with his replaceability) and will probably pursue their engagement out of convenience (exactly as in the beginning of the opera). On having a couple who has learnt the lesson and other who has not, the classical structural balance is preserved and the character of the experiment acquires a certain “scientific” character.

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New sopranos

The fact that almost no-one has ever heard British soprano Kate Royal’s voice before EMI has decided she is the world of opera’s new hot (litterally) property has fuelled good old debates about British classical music marketing and about looks in opera. Before I say anything about Royal, I have no problem about saying what I think about these two issues:

a) It is hardly British classical music industry’s fault if WE follow the trends they establish. For example, if Paraguay’s music industry decided to invest billions of dollars in order to satisfy the Paraguayan audiences’ thirst for classical music with massive releases of Paraguayan opera singers in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Barcelona and Milan linked with contracts with these cities’ opera houses, maybe we would be debating right now the Paraguayan version of Kate Royal. The problem is that Paraguay is not the only country in the world where music record companies prefer to invest in their national versions of April Lavigne et al. If you think that the audiences in New York (of all places) still wonder why they have to deal with underequipped British sopranos in main roles while there are hundreds of unemployed talented North American singers around, you have to concede that money is not necessarily the explanation.

b) It is hardly someone’s fault if one has good looks. As I have written before, it is curious that only women have their good looks used against them. When a baritone or a tenor is good-looking, this is considered a quality. This is particularly perverse because I have often observed that beautiful women in serious jobs tend to feel that they have to compensate their “disadvantage” by working even harder to prove themselves worthy of their positions – and frankly I don’t recall any bad singer promoted to stardom just because of looks. It is arguable that there might be better singers around albeit less pleasant to the eyes. But isn’t that true as a general rule? If you think of the cinematographic industry, in which even “ugly” roles are given to people like Michelle Pfeiffer!

Back to Kate Royal, I have only heard her on the Gramophone August issue’s CD, in which she sings Ravel’s Vocalise en forme de habanera. I have no idea of how her voice sounds live (or how she deals with words, for instance), but the voice as recorded is certainly charming and there is fine musicianship there. Gramophone says she has the right voice for Mozart – and there is indeed a bit of Kiri Te Kanawa in that sound. I have to confess I am curious.

Gramophone also reserves a track of its CD to Nicole Cabell, whose feats are more widely known, not only from Cardiff Singer of the World, but also from live performances in places like the Bayerische Staatsoper. Hers is a most puzzling voice. Her So anch’io la vertu magica from Don Pasquale shows a singer with a rich velvety voice really homogeneous throughout her range – her extreme notes extraordinarily comfortable. Although she never distorts her line, she is able to infuse her performance with sense of humour and nobody would mistake her Norina for a well-behaved modest girl – but there is something unsettling about her singing, as if her vocal personality did not belong to the light repertoire, although her voice does not seem to be heavy or forceful enough to tackle something more dramatic than that. Maybe this is a sign that, if she is patient enough to wait for her voice to blossom, maybe we’ll see her in big lyric roles in the next decade – but who knows? I confess again I am curious to see more from her.

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