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Archive for November, 2007

Julia’s Variety

Julia Varady’s career is so varied that it is impossible to speak of one’s encounter with her artistry. One could speak of Varady, the Mozart soprano. I guess most people discovered her in Böhm’s recordings of Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito, in which her crystalline yet flexible soprano was impossible to overlook. Although her neverending struggle with Italian language wouldn’t allow her true dramatic command in these recordings, there was an underlying energy that prevents one from calling those performances bland.

Her recordings in the roles of the Countess in Nozze di Figaro and Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni for Colin Davis, Kubelik and Karajan show a stylish and almost vocally immaculate singer, but there is always something paradoxical – the voice lacks the smoothness one expects to find in a lyric soprano in this repertoire, but a strong discipline, unfailing musicianship and technical abandon ultimately convince the listener that hers is the voice for these parts.

I somehow believe that her success in Mozart prima donna roles led her to the German lyric repertoire – and her recording of the title role in Sawallisch’s Arabella somehow exposed the notion that maybe Varady’s voice did not exactly fit this choice of roles. Listening to her Arabella with the checklist of an Arabella’s requirements, one must concede that she meets every demand made on her, but the floating creaminess every great Arabella features. One reviewer even called her voice too “vinegary” for the role. I don’t remember any record of  anything like a Marschallin or an Agathe, for example.

My next encounter with Varady found her as a jugendlich dramatisch soprano. This time her undeniable skills failed to impress me as before. Her Sieglinde (for Sawallisch) seems lost around register break, her Kaiserin (in Solti’s CDs) sounded basically shrill to my ears – only her touching vulnerable Senta (again for Sawallisch) stroke me as a success beyond dispute.

I would finally meet Varady in her lirico spinto incarnation. It may sound exaggerated, but I believe it was only then she finaly found her locus. There is always the problem of her exotic Italian pronunciation – but here the finely focused quality of her voice, the strong chest notes, the edge necessary to cut the orchestra all work in her favour. Her Verdi heroines have nothing matronly about them and one finally feels that her vivid dramatic temper is free from the self-contained poise required by Mozart and Strauss.

I write all this while listening to a broadcast of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino from 1986. The role takes her to her limits in the long scene with Padre Guardiano, but even then she sounds in her element. Her Leonora is a young, passionate and tormented heroine exactly as described in the libretto. Her La Vergine degli angeli is heavenly, her Pace, pace mio Dio has the necessary spiritual anguish and the closing scene is just perfect.

I am not a fan of this opera (I would cut the roles of Preziosilla and Melitone, to start with) and cannot compare Giuseppe Sinopoli’s conducting with a choice of other conductors – he certainly does beautiful things with the Bayerische Staatsorchester. I can recall a more energetic approach from Muti and a more theatrical atmosphere in Levine, but this live performance could never be called unconvincing. Marjana Lipovsek is in great voice as Preziosilla, but the rest of the cast is unfortunately below standard, including Kurt Moll’s utterly foreign Guardiano. Veriano Luchetti’s tenor sounds tight and hard-pressed and Wolfgang Brendel’s handsome baritone is never really comfortable with the writing of the part of Carlo. But this is Varady’s show and she alone is worth the detour.

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I owe my love to vocal music to one singer – Margaret Price. And my gratitude for her is neverending. It is very difficult for me not to buy a disc where she is featured, even in a minor part. She is the kind of singer who treats every note as if the whole score depended on it, and that is why no opportunity to listen to her singing is a waste of time: there is always riches of musical and poetic insight in reserve. That is why reading an interview of hers in which she stated that Norma was the role in which she was less satisfied with her results made me curious for life. This curiosity has been satisfied with an in-house recording from the Opernhaus Zürich in 1979.

Bellini’s Norma is of course a fearsome role and it is wiser to be careful than overconfident. In 1979, Price was in her best shape and even if – predictably – Bello a me ritorna and In mia man take her to her limits, her singing is always confident, expressive and beautiful. I don’t think it is exaggerated to say that her creamy soprano is the most beautiful I have ever heard in this part. Although she more than copes with the florid writing and long tessitura, her main virtue her classical approach to the role. I am trying to avoid the word “Mozartian”, because many will take this in the wrong way. If you persist in the mistaken of considering Mozartian singing something small-scaled, dispeptic and sanitized, then forget I wrote that. What I mean is the instrumentally sculpted phrasing, the precise combination of dramatic intention and musical expression, the nobility of tone – in this sense Margaret Price’s Norma is unique and she should be proud of it. This is not a verbally specific and grand-scale performance such as Callas’s or Scotto’s, but if you are curious to sample a Grisi-bound perspective to the title role, you should give it a chance.

In this performance, Price is ideally partnered by Agnes Baltsa’s Adalgisa. Her quasi-soprano mezzo was then taylor-made for this role. She is comfortable with the coloratura and her voice blends beautifully with her Norma’s. Bruno Prevedì is a solid Pollione, if not particularly imaginative and Matti Salminen’s Wagnerian bass makes Oroveso sound particularly “barbarian”. In any case, he was in very good voice. Nello Santi is less bureaucratic than expected and shows some interesting ideas that never put his cast in difficult situations. I found the accelerando finale ultimo particularly effective. It is a pity that the recorded sound is atrocious. The tape-recorded was obviously on the lap of someone in the audience, but the real bad news is that the microphone cannot resist loud dynamics involving more than one singer and the orchestra.

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The Teatro Municipal’s music director Jan Latham-König has conducted many a Wagner and Strauss opera in Santiago – and trusting him Die Zauberflöte seemed to be a choice for heavy Mozart playing, as in the days in which Harnoncourt was just a baby. That preconceived notion was soon dispelled in the first bars of the overture: Latham-König’s Mozart not only is structurally crystalline but also dramatically and coherently conceived. His eye for detail and his care with clear pheasing are praiseworthy, and the orchestra’s dry string playing and the occasionally blunder in the brass section could easily be overlooked. Michael Hampe’s understated production verged on the artless and one could easily think of budget limitation, but in the end the show’s old-fashioned charm found a convincing note. Some moments really gave me the feeling of watching a production sprung from a black and white picture from the 30’s – and I only hope this was intentional!

Conductor and director had an animated cast to work with. I confess I was not really excited to read that Valentina Farcas was taking the role of Pamina. My previous experience with this singer was Salzburg’s video of Die Entführung der Serail, in which she is an extremely metallic-toned Blondchen. Live her soprano is far warmer, if diminute and lacking roundness in the higher reaches. Despite those drawbacks, she produced a most sensitive Ach, ich fühl’s. From this aria on, she showed her strengths in floating pianissimi and an impressively long breath. As the Königin der Nacht, Canadian soprano Aline Kutan resisted the temptation of making it pretty and produced forceful intense accounts of her arias. Her in alts are certainly impressive and her fioriture are really accurate. French tenor Xavier Mas has an extraordinarily velvety voice and a caressing line, but his whole method is too heavy for such a lyric instrument. Because of that, his ascents above high f were invariably tense. Maybe if he could relax and adopt a higher and more natural placement, he would achieve optimal results. It was good to see again Rodion Pogossov’s beautifully sung Papageno. He has indeed a most likeable stage persona – and witnessing him out of Julie Taymor’s Met Zauberflöte is an evidence that a less intrusive production is always healthy. Kristinn Sigmundsson was in excellent voice as Sarastro, dealing with the role’s problematic tessitura without any difficulty and singing his lines with true feeling for Mozartian style. The Teatro Municipal has some good talents at its disposal – the three ladies were excellent, especially Evelyn Ramírez’s Third Lady. Her strong contralto is a true find. Jenny Muñoz’s bell-toned Papagena was certainly refreshing and Gonzalo Araya was a firm-toned Monostatos.

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