Archive for March, 2008

Readers of the old blog might remember my constant disappointment with Rio’s Theatro Municipal’s house orchestra and chorus – I have seen some catastrophic performances there, but once in a while you could see that they could do something decent (for example, when Gabor Ötvös conducted Elektra there with Marilyn Zschau and Leonie Rysanek). 

Maybe it is only a coincidence, but the first time I saw conductor Roberto Minczuk was in that theatre, although he was conducting the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira. That orchestra used to be in bad shape too and Minczuk finally showed it could offer a decent performance (and a Richard Strauss Tone poem is definitely something that could give evidence of that).

Today Minczuk proved to be a good doctor for ailing orchestras. After decades of concert-going in Rio’s opera house, I can finally say I’ve seen a thoroughly good performance with the house forces. Never before had I listened to that orchestra not only fully prepared, but also offering rich beautiful sounds in every dynamic level. Also, the chorus showed unusual homogeneity and control. It still has some sharp angles, but this level of discipline is definitely a novelty. Truth be said, I cannot say much about Minczuk’s view about Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. He obviously loves the music and gave a dramatic large-scale account of the score, but the problem is I don’t share his love for the piece, which sounds over-sentimentalized to my ears (I am afraif I am too used to Pergolesi’s or Vivaldi’s approach to this text).

I was also impressed by the good team of soloists gathered for this concert. Although Elizabeth Woodhouse’s reedy soprano lacks focus in exposed high passages, she can float mezza voce without any effort, as this music requires. Adriana Clis’s lustrous firm mezzo soprano is always a treat to the ears and she negotiates her registers with mastery. Reginaldo Pinheiro displays a healthy dulcet tenor and phrases affectingly. Only some explosive high notes stand between him and complete success in this music. Last but not least, Hernán Iturralde (whom I had seen a while ago in Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis at the Teatro Colón) gave a most impressive account of the bass part – his large and supple voice operates on a rich tonal palette.


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Mirella Freni

I have probably written something about that in the old blog, but I have never really understood why most reviewers snob Mirella Freni. I believe that the reason is a reviewer only makes a reputation if he professes to like things not easily likeable. Thus readers are supposed to believe that he has some kind of hidden knowledge that opens him doors to worlds of aesthetic delights forbidden to the ordinary mortals. This can be the only explanation why no famous reviewer writes that Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, Plácido Domingo, for example, are really amazing. These singers’ outstanding qualities are so obvious that nobody actually needs to look for a review to understand that.

My first Mirella Freni disc was Karajan’s La Bohème. Back then I had no idea of how to choose a good recording and the whole idea was that Karajan was supposed to be a great conductor and even I knew that Luciano Pavarotti had a beautiful voice. But the great revelation to me was the soprano. This woman did not had a voice that suggested anything like a product of a technique or training of any kind; it basically sounded like a “real” voice. Her phrasing did not sound  like “phrasing” – it sounded like the only possible way of voicing an Italian text over a melody. Her interpretation did not sound crafted or intelligent or sophisticated – it actually did not sound like an “interpretation” at all, it sounded like the real thing. And that sound – that was truly something exquisite and feminine and irresistible.

I didn’t need to read any review to get Karajan’s Madama Butterfly and I remember that the high pianissimo d-flat in her entrance seemed like the most beautiful sound I had (have?) ever heard – this note alone says everything you need to know about the character of Cio-cio-san.

I remember I used to say back then “If I ever listen to any recording by Mirella Freni I do not like, it is I who haven’t understood it”. But the truth is I would soon discover I was not the inconditional fan I thought I was – I don’t like any of her Mozart recordings under Colin Davis, in which she is  trying too hard to be cute with the kind of unstylish off-pitch effects that I really dislike.

Then there is the problem of her shifting into lirico spinto roles. When she tackles these heavier usages in Puccini, the youthfulness of her voice is always welcome and I can only reckon that the composer himself would be positively surprised by the girlishness she could produce even when close to strain, but the truth is I have never warmed to her Verdi recordings in the roles of Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida, Leonora in La Forza del Destino, for example. The voice maintained all right the lovely sheen and feminity, but the tonal variety seemed irreversibly lost and the sense of strain goes again any idea of spontaneity. My last opinion on her had been formed based on recordings from this period, but I have recently found an old broadcast of her Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani (with Pavarotti) and I was again under her spell. In that evening, she was the most perfect singer in the world – such naturalness, such unforced loveliness. In her singing, you don’t see the artist, but the art itself. It is like seeing a painting by Boticelli.

Unfortunately, I saw Freni only once. She had the title role in Giordano’s Fedora at the Met (1997) and Fabio Armiliato was Loris. Dwayne Croft and Ainhoa Arteta were in the cast and I am almost sure Roberto Abbado was the conductor. My expectations were so high and I was pretty convinced I would be disappointed (I can never repress that feeling before I see for the first time in the theatre a singer favourite from recordings) – but the truth is I was truly overwhelmed by her performance.

My first impression was that I found the voice larger and more beautiful live than recorded. Although she is acknowledgedly not a bête de scène, I find the artlessness in her stage presence really convincing. I remember this particular scene in which she had in her hands the letter that accuses her as the responsible for the death of her lover’s brother. She had nothing to sing – she just came downstage holding the letter and staring ahead to the upcoming tragic events fate reserved her. It was truly thrilling!

There was a 30-minute ovation. The other singers refused to join her at curtain calls after 10 minutes. Everybody said it would be her last performances at the Met (I am not sure if she would sing there again after that) and nobody seemed to want to say the final goodbye. I  clapped my hands so much and – I didn’t noticed then – that a tiny wound in one finger had opened and I was bleeding (you know, a verismo opera is supposed to awaken melodramatic reactions…). That was really a great evening. Back in Rio, a friend of mine who had seen her many times in Salzburg in Karajan days asked me straight away – So, how was our Mirella? I couldn’t help answering she was still the real thing.

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I have added to the  discography of R. Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder comments about the Adrianne Pieczonka/Friedrich Haider, Michaela Kaune/Eiji Oue, Ricarda Merbeth/Michael Halász and Anja Harteros/Fabio Luisi recordings.

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Seeing her live in Madrid singing Ravel´s Shéhérazade with such irresistible warm tone, aristocratic poise and looking so glamourous and feminine, I wonder WHY nobody has ever invited her for the Feldmarschallin. I know there is only one recording in which she sings a German text, but I think she should really think about it – and what about Schumann´s Liederkreis Op. 39?

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Showing an ideal view of a score made imperfect by the forces available or opt for an approach compatible with them? This is a question a conductor makes himself when he has a sub par orchestra. I write this after seeing Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Teatro São Carlos in Lisbon (March 1st). Conductor Johannes Stert evidently knows how he would like his Mozart – swift, dramatically rich yet flexible sounds to blend with the voices on stage and every theatrical effect in the score highlighted to boost the stage action, especially sudden shifts of pace. I subscribe to this approach, but in the first minutes of the overture one could see that the orchestra was clearly uncomfortable with that. Mistakes, mismatches, poor tuning abounded throughout, in spite of the musicians’ best efforts.

I make a point of stressing their commitment, for it is a heroic task to give one’s 100% to the world’s most blasé audience in the world. I was truly shocked by those people’s indifference to some very difficult arias, even when they were quite well sung. Truth be said, these singers do not belong to the type of cast that electrifies an audience. The evening’s Vitellia, Adriana Damato, for example, has a touch of Angela Gheorghiu in her voice, a strong low register, powerful acuti and clear divisions. However, all that is handled in too irregular a manner for comfort and in the end she offered a collection of good moments that never built into a coherent performance. Although she was the only Italian in the cast, she is careless about her declamation, along with the other soloists (albeit in more serious levels), what is a serious blemish in an opera notorious for its long recitatives.

Herbert Lippert had a promising career in the early 90’s and then became a second-rate affair. Seeing him live explains that. This is a tenor whose tone is pleasant on the ear (despite some nasal patches), capable of some heft, generally stylish in his phrasing and able to tackle some difficult fioriture (as in Se all’impero). His Tito is far more impressive than, say, Cristoph Prégardien’s or Michael Schade’s (to name two singers recently featured on DVD) – but no first-class tenor would dare to appear before an audience clueless about his Italian text. He clearly ignored the meaning of his lines and would apply some unconvincing emphasis as an Ersatz for proper declamation, not to mention he would even forget Metastasio’s words twice during his arias.

Sophie Marilley offered a most likeable performance as Sesto. Her mezzo-soprano is attractive and firm-toned, she handles the passaggio admirably and phrases arrestingly, but the competition for mezzos is tough and she needs to seriously work on her Italian. Also, she ought to be more exciting in the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio.

It is strange to say that the Annio has stolen the show, but the truth is Angélique Noldus offered the most all-round satisfying performance in the evening. Both her arias were sung in the grand manner. I hope to see her again.

Chelsey Schill could be a serviceable Servilia – her voice is pretty enough, but acquires a sour edge in the upper reaches and pitch is not always reliable. She also desperately needs to learn how to move on stage – she is disaster on high heels. Finally, Shavleg Armasi’s chocolate-y bass is promising enough. A bit more legato in his aria and he would have been an exemplary Publio.

When it comes to Joaquim Benites’s production, I am afraid it looks like the high-school version of Jonathan Miller’s staging from Zürich. It is basically the same concept (military régime and art-déco), only with uglier sets and costumes and no – and I mean NONE – stage direction. Singers moved about in a helpless manner doing the most basic gestures to illustrate their feelings (Vitellia would invariably hold herself as struck by a cold draft whenever she would sing the verb gelare – and she sings it a lot during the opera). Also, the transitions from recitatives to numbers would be marked by a pause in the action as if the stage had not been updated to gapless playing. To make things worse, the chorus was made to act like a group of zombies, marching on stage as in a military parade, standing still and singing their lines with the imperturbability of people who are mildly annoyed while the libretto explain that they are panic-stricken (such as in the finale to Act I). A theatre that received Maria Callas in the past should be more attentive to theatrical aspects.

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Although the Orquesta Nacional de España has labelled one series of concerts “Looking East”, the only obvious connection in the February 29th program is Ravel’s Shéhérazade. A text in the program book tries to explain the relation for Debussy´s La Mer, but even the author gives up when it comes to Schumann’s cello concerto op. 129.

Of course, the bizarre title has nothing to do with the music making itself. In the Schumann item, Steven Isserlis proved to be the cellists’ answer to Cecilia Bartoli – his intense playing goes beyond producing pretty sounds, but you still have to deal with a tone that is basically unnoble. I don’t know if Schumann would have expected the one-paroxism-per-second approach, but it definitely makes its point. Conductor Josep Pons, the orchestra’s musical director, fortunately could cope with the emotional approach without sacrificing polish – something he could not repeat in the Debussy piece. Maybe I am spoiled by the recent Carnegie Hall concert with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons but, even if the ONE has rich strings, the over-extrovert approach brought about a stridence that – in my opinion – has nothing to do with this kind of music. The conductor looked for bombastics and marked dance-like rhythms that eschewed any sense of demi-tintes (and some clarity either).

It is most curious, though, that Pons could fnd again the necessary subtle shading for Ravel’s Shéhérazade, when he had an extraordinary soloist in Véronique Gens. You can call me an admirer, but I have to confess this was the best I have ever heard from her either live or in recordings. Her sensuous soprano gleamed from bottom to top and one could understand each vowel and consonant in the French text, treated to masterly tone-colouring, the most ethereal mezza-voce and full-toned velvetiness, as required in the first song. This was definitely one of the most perfect vocal performances I have heard live in a while – hence my disappointment with the audience’s tame reception.

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