Archive for October, 2007

The Zoo Story is Edward Albee’s first success and dates from 1958. This one-acter has an intriguing story full of unusual details, but recently the playwright thought it important to give a bit more information to the audiences and wrote a first act to it, premièred only recently. In the New York first production of the revised version, renamed Peter and Jerry, director Pam MacKinnon rightly chose a staging concentrated on the actors. All scenic elements are reduced to the minimum and the audience had all the time of the world to savour the optimal level of acting offered here. As Ann, Johanna Day brought an extremely likable personality and an excellent voice. As Peter, Bill Pullman was naturalness itself, his character entirely built on subtlety. He score many and many points in the difficult Central Park scene, in which most of the text is given to the role of Jerry – brilliantly performed by Dallas Roberts. It is difficult to describe perfection and I will not try – Roberts was just perfect, one of the best pieces of acting I have seen in a long while.

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The Met’s Aida is a monumental affair, and those who have seen it with monumental voices know how effective it can be. It sounds really empty when the huge sceneries have to work the magic alone while the orchestra is muted to accomodate small-scaled voices. This saturday a debut in such a fearsome role was scheduled with a singer whose accomplishment were at least to me mysterious. I cannot say how much of a good surprise Micaela Carosi is – but I am convinced that the surprise is somehow good. She has a voice in the good old Italian style – there is a faint touch of Gabriella Tucci in her lirico spinto. However, maybe because of her debut, the instrument was sometimes awkwardly handled. Act I was particularly messy – the low passaggio was clumsy, top notes fluttery and the pitch was suspect. From act II on, she found a better shape, treated her gear change more gently, focused her top notes and would now and then pull out some stunning things. Fortunately, most of them in act III. It is a pity she deemed unimportant to see to her mezza voce in the closing scene – she had sung some beautiful floating tones before that.

Olga Borodina was clearly not in a good day as Amneris. Until mezzo forte she seemed pretty much herself. Forte passages in the high register found her bleached-toned and laborious. Granted, her large velvety mezzo is not exactly the one for Amneris, but in her good days she certainly is able to prove she is more than Ersatz in this opera.

Replacing an ailing Marco Berti, Stephen O’Mara had a rather testing debut as Radames. Although his voice generally stands the heavy demands made on it by Verdi, his tenor seemed to have been beefed-up for German operatic purposes. As it is, the sound is coarsely dark and secure but top notes tend to be tense and there is very little sensuousness in it. Juan Pons may have the world’s record in the role of Amonasro. At this stage in his career, he has to disguise the strain with studied overemphasis, in which he succeeds to a certain extent. Both Vitalji Kowaljow as Ramfis and Reinhard Hagen as the King have spacious beautiful voices.

Kazushi Ono presided over an elegant performance in which he clearly was trying to make his singers’ lives easier. As a result, there was a certain economy with fortissimos and unfortunately also less impact. It must be pointed out that the ensembles were unusually clean and transparent, what is always praiseworthy considered the scale of the event.

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Flesh vs. spirit

Christian Gerhaher’s baritone is obviously beautiful and he has made a reputation as a Lieder singer (and Schubert lookalike). For his Carnegie Hall recital he chose to sing the composer’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. I have to confess to be surprised that his very good intentions were impared by a vocal method that could seem spontaneous at first, but in fact might be the final outcome of the confrontation of an exceptionally generous vocal nature and probably inadequate schooling. As it is, his clear baritone received a rather heavy-handed treatment in order to acquire a darker hue it does not naturally have. The main victim of this method is legato. Forte notes are marred by flutter and he seems to shift to an entirely different placement for mezza voce. Whenever Schubert spins a sweet melody, it was served chopped phrasing that drained it of sweetness. More animated passages sounded like hectoring in a style similar to the almost-retired Fischer-Dieskau (nota bene – at Gerhaher’s age, Fischer-Dieskau sang these songs as an angel). The only moment in which the approach seemed to make sense with the music was a forceful and energetic Der Jäger.

There is no doubt about the singer’s intelligence, sensitiveness and musicianship. These qualities always saved him in the last minute, but one cannot help thinking of what he would be able to do if his technique would rather enhance than compromise his accomplishments.

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I cannot recall a program so exotic as the one proposed by the New York Philharmonic – Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto and Zemlinsky one-acter Eine florentinische Tragödie. I had no experience of conductor James Conlon in the Classical repertoire and he surprised me positively with an elegant, forward-moving and sensitive account on Beethoven’s early piano concerto. The Philharmonic played in state of grace and their soloist, Jonathan Biss, is someone to watch – his nimble and yet generous playing involved marvelous fluent scales and tone-colouring worthy of a singer.

As for the Zemlinsky, as a friend of mine uses to say, if you have to be explained something before it happens, brace yourself. After the intermission, the conductor got hold of a microphone and explained what an injustice it was that Zemlinsky’s music has fallen into oblivion. I am not a specialist in Zemlinsky, but I have found nothing memorable in Eine florentinische Tragödie, but for the composer’s talent for orchestration. There is not one phrase in the whole opera close to cantabile, there is no dramatic timing – it sounds like people talking in strenuous tessitura over a huge showcase of orchestration technique. The Philharmonic did its part brilliantly, but the singers here involved were not really up to their ingrateful tasks. Maybe great singers could have saved the day – I have my share of doubts. As it was, Tatiana Pavlovskaya should be warned that whatever she is doing, she should not go on. Her amazingly artifficially covered sound will not allow her a long career. If I say that bluntly, it is because it would be a pity for a singer to be a victim of improper technique. Anthony Dean Griffey’s forward vocal placement seemed a blessing in comparison, but there is more than a splash of Charaktertenor in him to cause the right impression in the role of the young dashing tenor. James Johnson had the lion’s share in the music and the fact that he was really overparted was not of great help.

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In a series of concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst chose for his second program Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, a piece the main difficulty of which in live performances seems to be awake genuine enthusiasm in the musicians while keeping the complex ensembles functional and transparent. The Austrian conductor certainly succeded in eliciting elegance and clarity. But truth is that the performance rarely went beyond politeness. Those accustomed to Bernstein’s intense approach could even found it dull – the translucent strings did not produce the volume of sound one expects in this this music and did not blend very well with a brass section that sounded as if those instruments could have caught the flu. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, on the other hand, poured forth smooth well-balanced sounds. It is a pity that the climactic last movement did not take off – there had not been the necessary building tension to pave the way for it. Unfortunately, both soloists were rather small-scaled for the venue – Malin Hartelius’s ill-focused singing did not carry into the auditorium and the usually excellent Bernarda Fink failed to float her high register and had to distort her vowels to make for the demands on soft dynamics.

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In a sort of celebration of Sir Colin Davis’s 80th birthday, the Lincoln Center offered two concerts with the English conductor leading his London Symphonic Orchestra and Chorus. I was able to attend the first program – Mozart’s piano concerto no. 27 and Requiem. Imogen Cooper offered elegant Mozartian playing without the music-box approach so many Mozart pianists are fond of. In both pieces, Sir Colin lived for his reputation of specialist in this repertoire and the LSO offered beautiful translucent playing – only the brass section did not blend with the rest of an orchestra aptly reduced in strings. The chorus had a beautiful smooth sound, but the tenors were not always very tidy in their runs. In any rate, the Requiem was a good example of powerful yet structurally clear music making. The solo singing was nothing above efficient. Among them, Swedish soprano Marie Arnet was the most interesting, but her charming voice tends to loose focus in the upper reaches.

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Before I say anything, I must be sincere about my dislike of Edmond Ronstand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Beautiful as Ronstand’s verses are, the “what” never was a novelty and the “how” is marred by colossal lack of timing – the comedy scenes take ages to take off and the dramatic scenes are rather sentimentalised. In order to make it work, a director needs to impress an unfailing sense of rhythm to the proceedings and concentrate on extracting from his actors the last ounce of charisma available. And I am afraid David Levaux failed on that – the general impression is at most workmanlike. It is thus particularly problematic that Tom Rye’s beautiful sceneries are too spacious and a lot of noise echoes there while actors are reading their verbose lines. The result is that you can hardly hear what most of them are saying… In this sense, Concetta Tomei deserves praises for her king size voice and personality unfortunately bestowed on small roles.

Among the leading actors, Kevin Kline predictably stands out – he is a technically accomplished actor who gives life to his lesser utterance and knows how to seize the opportunities when they present themselves. Unfortunately, they rarely did so considering the rest of the talents involved.

Much of the play’s interest lies on Cyrano’s dialogues with Christian. The problem is that Daniel Sunjata is simply miscast – he is neither good-looking in a way Rosanne could have noticed (with the impossible wig he is made to wear, he looks like The Rock in The Scorpion King, i.e., there is nothing poetic about him) nor produces the impression of good-hearted stolidness – self-consciousness at most.

The fact that Jennifer Garner has limited theatre experience makes me more tolerant about her shortcomings. She has received excellent coaching – and the bad news is that this is evident. Gestures and inflexions are all in place and correctly done – but there is very little spirit behind all that. It all looks like well-rehearsed routine. Maybe experience will enable her to do the trick – she does have a good voice and a most graceful figure and that is already something.

Minor roles are dealt with in the way operatic direction deals with comprimari – they are given one defining trait and you’ll notice them if the actor or actress has natural charisma. In one word, a missed opportunity.

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