Archive for May, 2008

The production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Theatro Municipal has barely survived the dengue epidemic. It seems that the whole season has to be rescheduled because foreign soloists preferred to stand clear of the risk of catching the disease. The results: a Cenerentola was cancelled and a Fidelio first said to feature Cheryl Studer and then Luana DeVol in the title role had to manage through emergency casting. Therefore, Brazilian soprano Janette Dornellas’s singing as Leonore can only be judged as an ad hoc performance. It is true that this singer has a history of hazardous casting, but saying she was overparted this evening is an euphemism. Although she could more or less wriggle her voice to a fair Ersatz for dramatic soprano´s acuti, that could be made only at the expense of the quality of the rest of her voice, which sounded bleached out, unflowing and occasionally inaudible in the middle and lower register. She is a fine musician and a cunning singer and would now and then make something out of very little – for example, she produced the necessary chiaroscuro of tenderness and resolve in Abscheulicher often unobserved by many a properly cast soprano in this role – but in the end one would only wish for healthy, honest singing and decent German pronunciation. As Marzelline, Carol McDavitt, an American singer resident in Brazil, also struggled through a part again helplessly heavy for what is basically a microscopic-sized oratorio soprano. In her favour, one can mention knowledge of style and a firm high c in her trio with Leonore and Rocco. In the role of Florestan, John Pierce displayed a large and basically pleasant Heldentenor that resents however Beethoven’s tricky high-lying moments. Truth be said, his big aria seemed to find him unprepared: he chopped mercilessly his phrasing in the recitative, produced clipped high notes throughout and held back the tempo in the stretta, to the noticeable dissatisfaction of the conductor. Brazilian baritone Sebastião Teixeira’s is the kind of voice built to produce the right effect in the top notes – and Pizarro rather requires a Heldenbaritone’s richness in the middle register. As a consequence, strained tone, dim low notes and problematic pitch abounded. His German too needs serious practice. An unidiomatic, woolly and flat-singing Don Fernando did not help the proceedings either.

The exceptions to the dismal casting situation were the rich-toned Rocco of Hernán Iturralde (whose beautiful pronunciation of German language also deserves praise), a most satisfying performance, and the surprisingly agreeable tenor of Atalla Ayan as Jaquino. His confident singing was only marred (once again) by sketchy German. It would be a pity if he could not be cast in roles fit to his voice because of lack of familiarity with a language that should be central to any singer who intends to have a serious career these days.

I would be lying, though, if I did not say that this performance’s redeeming feature is the exemplary conducting of Maestro Roberto Minczuk. Of course, the Theatro Municipal’s orchestra is the opposite of a dream-team for this music, but this most industrious conductor managed to extract from those musicians the best they could possibly offer. It is true that the sound is not terriby beautiful and also on the dry side, but the strings were unusually accurate even in the fastest passagework, the balance between sections was crystalline and the sense that the orchestra was the main “story-teller” in this score was immediate throughout. His fast tempi, theatrical awareness, structural clarity proves that this man can truly produce miracles. Given the right soloists and a world-class orchestra, he would definitely deliver a reference Fidelio.

It is a pity that Minczuk’s musical genius could not find a counterpart in the stage direction. Alberto Renault’s self-indulgent production involves pretentious geometrical settings, nonsensical acting, pointless gestures from all involved, silly pseudo-brilliant ideas (the “ballet” during Er sterbe! made the audience laugh), downright carelessness (the minimalist sceneries were particularly poorly built) and a despicable final scene that I could only describe as “Teletubbies aesthetics”.


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Those who have read Chorderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel know that there is nothing univocal there – readers are supposed to use all their imagination to read between words the meaning of which rarely correspond to their face value. Those who saw Stephen Frears’s adaptation for the screen of Cristopher Hampton’s play based on the above-mentioned book are probably spoilt by the brilliant performances of Glenn Close and John Malkovich, who were unafraid of going larger than life and achieving an almost mythical, symbolic status to their characters.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the first New York revival since the Broadway première in 1987. When I try to use one word to describe my impression of it, there is only one that comes to my mind – kapellmeisterlich. This is a word not used for theatre, since the idea is to describe the performance of a conductor who achieves reliable results based on his immersion on the stylistic atmosphere where the work was produced. In a kapellmeisterlich performance, nobody expects to be overwhelmed, for no-one has deeply thought about the work to be performed – the results are predictable yet satisfying because they are made out of the tradition associated to it.

In that sense, I see something of a Kapellmeister in director Rufus Norris. He offered a thoroughly correct approach to the work – the settings are elegant and coherent with late XVIIIth century decoration, costumes are exquisitely and stylishly fashioned, the stage direction is efficient and the cast is very talented. But not only is everything exactly as you could have imagined before you entered the theater, but also you cannot help comparing the results to what you have seen in Stephen Frears’s movie – and having the famous mirror walls as shown in Glenn Close’s boudoir makes the source of inspiration even more evident. However, the more evident comparison is that the book’s main quality – its ambiguity, the exercise of cunning from the reader to see through these sophisticated characters’ attitudes is almost entirely lost in a staging devoid of demi-tintes. No wonder the audience took most of what was shown on stage as comedy. A game of destruction and desire played on stage reduced to the mere entertainment of Sunday afternoon – I guess this is was not exactly what this play should be about.

Laura Linney, for example, should be praised for the economy of gestures and the sense of restrained tension. However, behind her restrain, there was very little to discover. Her Marquise de Merteuil was something you could guess from the five first minutes while this is a character who should be eluding our understanding to the very end. In one word, there was no danger in her – and the book shows us that the relationship with this woman was everything but safe. I know it is unfair to compare Hampton’s Merteuil to Heiner Müller’s (in Quartett), a play whose unsettling dialogues leave the audience uncomfortable and ill at ease to these days, but I miss what I saw in Brazilian actress Beth Goulart, whose forceful restraint showed instead a non-human quality close to the surface, the cruelty of an animal on a cage, of a force of nature controlled but ready to explode, of something beautiful yet lethal – the restraint of a samurai, the elegance of a bullfighter, the impassivity of a surgeon while cutting through the layers of other people’s flesh.

Ben Daniels’s Valmont had the right balance between the necessary patina of society manners and virile energy. As much as his Merteuil, he also walked dangerously close to the limits of monochrome. Although the character goes through strongly conflicted ideas and feelings, one could always tell which one was the “dominant” one so muted the others were in the background. Again I have no doubt that, as much as Linney, Daniels is an excellent actor; one just feels that the director left them operating within the limits of comfort. If we were speaking of a play by Feydeau, that would have definitely worked. But I don’t think this is the case here.

Curiously, the new and old generation are the shining features of this production: bête-de-scène Siân Phillips invests her Madame de Rosemonde with so much energy and feeling that in the end you have the impression she is more important to the plot than she actually is; and Jessica Collins’s vulnerable Madame de Tourvel has such freshness of expression, such vividness of feelings that you feel as if you were witnessing something freshly brought from the nature, a bouquet of flowers still full of life but in the actual process of decay. This is definitely an actress I would like to see again. I am not so enthusiastic about Mamie Gummer’s Cécile Volange, who again falls into the trap of sameness in her performance strictly for laughs. But don’t mistake me – nothing is really bad in this production compared to the soundtrack. If you want to copy Stephen Frear’s movie and use Handel’s Ombra mai fu, do as Frears did and hire a professional singer for that. I can tell you the strained falsetto featured here only makes sense as an expression of anguish experimented by some of these characters!

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If Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is now part of the repertory of the world’s opera houses, James Levine has had a great share of responsibility in it. He saw in Mozart’s last opera a “neglected masterpiece” and helped to make it widely known in a Unitel production directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle available on VHS, LD and then DVD featuring Tatiana Troyanos in the role of Sesto, a legendary impersonation. In various seasons in the Metropolitan Opera, this opera has seen glamourous casting with the likes of Renata Scotto, Anne Sofie von Otter, Ben Heppner et al.

Then today, for the first time, the opera was performed at the Met with a conductor other than James Levine. As much as Harry Bicket offered us a most reliable account of this score, I still believe Levine’s love for this music would have made some difference. As performed tonight, sometimes expression and grandeur were achieved with the expense of clarity. The old Ponnelle production holds its own better than its twin sister production, the same director’s Idomeneo for the same theatre. Ponnelle’s static and overformal stage direction (here revived by Laurie Feldman – but you just have to see the video to see its fidelity to the original) may look silly for those not used to opera seria, but it is otherwise refreshing not to see the story carelessly adapted into a corporate drama or a former East European dictatorship…

Lucia Popp once said that a singer has only six days per year when his or her voice is in such excellent shape that you know beforehand that everything is going to be perfect. In the title role, Ramón Vargas was clearly not in one of these days. His tenor lacked brightness during the entire first act and he tried to compensate that with upwards decoration that only brought upon an impression of effort. The intermission proved to be healthy for him. The voice sounded more natural and he handled the difficult coloratura in Se all’impero with confidence and accuracy. In the finale ultimo, few other tenors would pierce through the remaining soloists, chorus and orchestra as he did tonight. Considering the positive results, all I can say is that he must be one of the truly great Titos in a good-voice day.

Although Susan Graham sounds these days more like a short soprano than a mezzo, her sensitive account of the role of Sesto is truly touching. She is a natural Mozartian and dealt with the fireworks of the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio with panache and could break anyone’s heart with her deeply felt Deh per questo istante solo. In the difficult role of Vitellia, Tamar Iveri had everything in her favour but a more powerful voice. In a smaller hall, she should work to the right effect in this role. At the Met, her rich flexible soprano tended to disappear in ensembles. In the trio Vengo, aspettate, for instance, she was barely hearable. On a positive note, she negotiated the low notes quite commendably and displayed the right temper for the role. Although Non più di fiori is not usually billed as a mad scene, it fulfills the basic requirements for that – and the Georgian soprano explored this concept most successfully.

Both Anke Vondung and Oren Gradus offered reliable performances as Annio and Publio. Only Heidi Grant Murphy twittery and shallow soprano was below the level of acceptability, what is a pity considering the lovely aria reserved for Servilia.

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Mozart’s over-the-top-on-purpose Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail has been performed only 67 times in the Metropolitan Opera House. Some might say that the German dialogues might have something to do with that; I would rather blame the impossible casting: something like the German version of a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a flexible lyric tenor with an absolutely free top register, a soubrette with in alts and a basso profondo (profondissimo?) with perfect control of divisions and ease for patter… in German. If you check the discography, most symptomatically no recording features a cast like that.

You might imagine how much of a challenge this work is for any opera house. If the Met did not produce a cast in the standards of a Gruberová/Araiza/Moll-team, it is only because singers like that do no exist these days. Before I am accused of ungenerosity, I hasten to explain that I am convinced that today’s is the best possible casting one could think of. In the case of Matthew Polenzani, I still wonder if he does not belong to the shortlist of great Belmontes. It is true that the frequentation of heavier roles has robbed a bit of the golden quality of his tenor, but he still sings it with impressive fluency and richness of tone. Probably only Wunderlich would offer such liquid warmth in this demanding role. What I’ve missed is precisely the way the legendary German tenor caressed his fioriture, while Polenzani sounds a bit as if he were really looking forward to the end of every fastidious melisma. Belmontes less gifted by nature – such as Kurt Streit or the late Deon van der Walt – finally pulled out more convincing results in those tricky moments. Maybe this unease explains the adoption of the simplified version of Wenn der Freuden.

Diana Damrau could be a great Konstanze – she does have a most spontaneous high register, impressively clean fioriture and some heft. More solid low notes would help, but that is a problem even some very great Konstanzes (such as Gruberová) had to deal with. However, what will always remain a liability in Mozartian repertoire (with the possible exception of the Queen of the Night, the role that made Damrau famous) is an impure, metallic, harsh quality in her vocal production that devoids it entirely of loveliness. I am dying to use the word “focus” (because I use it a lot), but that is exactly what her soprano wants. The lack of focus prevents her from producing clean trills, from piercing through ensembles when in her middle and low registers and finally and most seriously from offering truly consistent legato. I notice she is a very energetic person – and sometimes singers with such disposition tend to overkill a bit. In any case, I don’t wish to complain about her performance: Diana Damrau is an extraordinarily intelligent singer, who invests her lines and phrases with such dramatic understanding and meaning that one cannot help enjoying her work. Her ease with mezza voce is also a strong asset. The descending serpentine phrasing in the end of Traurigkeit has rarely been so expressively handled and the way she blended her voice with the strings in des Himmels Segen belohne dich (in Matern aller Arten) was spellbinding.

Kristinn Sigmundsson was an excellent Osmin. The extreme low notes were not his best moments (as with almost every bass in this role), but his dark firm tone, his flexibility, imagination and sheer charisma were more than compensation. I had only seen this Icelandic Bass in serious roles and did not know he had such a bent for comedy!

Aleksandra Kurzak has the right quicksilvery voice for Blondchen and did not seem fazed with the very high notes in Dürch Zärtlichkeit. On the other hand, the voice lacks some substance and Welche Wonne, Welche Lust was a bit brittle. I felt somewhat sorry for Steve Davislim. He does not seem to be a very playful fellow and did seem a bit annoyed with having to play the ebullient Pedrillo. That did not prevent him from offering a firm-toned Frisch zum Kampfe, though.

It must sound surprising, however, that the shining feature of today’s performance was David Roberton’s masterly conducting. Rarely have I seen the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra so adept in Mozart style as today – the strings were entirely at ease with the rapid passagework, the level of clarity was admirable, not to mention the sense of animation so important in this score. Robertson offered vigorous, crystalline and dramatic alert conducting – the overture itself was exemplary in the way it filled the “Turkish” and “European” themes with the sense of storytelling.

If I am not mistaken, John Dexter’s is the Met’s old production from 1979. It still looks well in its Henri Rousseau-like portrayal of a cardboard Turkey. Some costumes look a bit 70’s-bound and the stage direction is only fair, if unobtrusive. I have to confess a more positive Selim than Matthias von Stegmann would be helpful. His portrayal is so devoid of menace and passion that it makes difficult to understand why Konstanze would fear or respect him at all.

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I’ll be quite honest and confess I went to the Met tonight with a negative disposition. I am a bit fed up with Natalie Dessay’s recent interviews in which she tells stories about herself and her artistry different from those she used to give ten years ago (yes, I have a good memory…) and I am still diggesting her Lucia “with an attitude”. I can even tell you right away that the first 30 minutes seemed to prove me right about my intuition – the overture was pretty disjointed, Dessay’s soprano wanted focus, brightness and projection during Au bruit de la guerre… By then, the whole performance promised to be long and pretentious. And then Juan Diego Flórez appeared on stage. I knew his comedy actor skills from the Met’s Barbiere di Siviglia, but his Tonio is a step further. His acting fulfilled to perfection the image of naiveté and gaucherie designed by the director. And that man really can sing. His tenor was at it most ductile and caressing and he seemed to laugh of the impossible difficulties in Ah, mes amis. Judging from what I heard,  even if that aria had 27 high c’s, this would not cause him any trouble! 

As for Dessay, it is beyond doubt that her voice has lost its former sheen and impetuosity and that she has some grey-toned patches and moments of virtual inaudibility. That said, I can tell you that those who were in the Met tonight left the theatre convinced that they have witnessed the work of a great artist: her talent for physical comedy is phenomenal, her delivery of the spoken lines is indeed worthy of an experienced actress, her musicianship is admirable and her charisma is irresistible. Most amazing of all, during the performance itself, it was very difficult to analyse those elements in their own values since they were closely imbricated on each other. Although her flexibility in coloratura is still something to marvel, she really won me over in lyric moments such as Il faut partir, when her voice regained the hallmark gleam, her legato could flow undisturbed and ethereal high pianissimi could be floated, all in the service of expression.

In the role of Sulpice, Alessandro Corbelli not only was in strong voice and showed command of French language, but also built a most likeable stage presence, funny without any hint of exaggeration. I cannot say this virtue was shared by Felicity Palmer, but I guess the role of the Marquise de Berkenfield requires the all-out approach. Her bright vibrant mezzo soprano was the aural image of the decadent and moody aristocrat.

Once past the mess in the overture, Marco Armiliato seemed to be concentrated on finding the optimal level of volume in order not to drown his lightweight cast (those are definitely not the Sutherland/Pavarotti-style voices), something with which he had relative sucess. Tempi tended to be animated and the lyrical moments revealed some inspired playing by individual players in the orchestra.

Laurent Pelly’s production looks somewhat like an illustration for Tintin comics – the idea of representing the Tyrolese relief with mountains of map is beautiful and intelligent, to start with. The stage direction is coreographied with Swiss clockwork precision and not only do the soloists act splendidly, but also the chorus. His Einverständnis with Dessay is particularly positive – she relishes the busy gesturing required from her and often uses it to give dramatic meaning to her fioriture. Someone seated next to me mentioned he felt as if he were watching a play and not an opera – and this should be understood not in the sense that theatrical values had price of place, but as a result of a wholly integrated approach to musical and dramatical expression. Bravo to Mr. Pelly and his truly talented cast.

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Tamerlano is probably Handel’s bleakest opera – the plot is so gloomy that even modern audiences may find it depressive: there are no light comprimario servants to make fun of their masters’ predicaments, the good guy is incredibly phlegmatic, the damsell in distress tries to save herself alone during the whole opera and even tries to get rid of the tyrant with her own hands (twice), not to mention almost everyone threatents to commit suicide until someone finally does it. Of course, Handel ensures that this is going to be a no-nonsense affair by providing a powerfully expressive score to match his best-known operas. But the bitter aftertaste is almost unique among his works*.

How to present a work as intense as Tamerlano to modern audiences largely unaware of the  code of affetti employed by baroque composers to portray feelings and sensations is always a challenge out of the context of specialized festivals and the Washington National Opera must certainly be praised by its boldness, largely explained by the fact its General Director and this production’s star tenor happen to be the same person.

Adapting an opera house orchestra into a baroque band is always something of a challenge, especially in what involves producing light textures that allow singers to project tricky vocal lines into a large auditorium without any loss in clarity. In order to achieve that, British conductor William Lacey apparently decided to play safe. The comfortable tempi were very helpful to all involved, but the sense of sameness was inevitable: arie d’affetto and arie di furie had basically the same sound. To make things more problematic, the orchestra played on the same plummy sunny sound that usually makes baroque music sound gentle and lovely – precisely what you don’t need in an opera such as this one.  If this performance finally achieved some animation, this is uniquely due to the excellent cast gathered here.

Unlike most reviewers, I had no preconceived idea about what Plácido Domingo’s Handelian venture would be like. First of all, I consider it impossible to intend to make a blind listening and disregard this tenor’s past achievements and present age. I must say right away that it is almost miraculous that a singer almost in his 70’s should be able to retain such beauty and freshness of tone. Although the part of Bajazet is not really high (baritone Tassis Christoyannis has just recorded the role for George Petrou – not in modern pitch, truth be said), its writing requires a great deal of flexibility. The problem in Domingo’s performance is precisely that he had to concentrate on the notes and the result was dramatically quite tame. Even on purely musical terms, he struggled a bit with passagework and large intervals felt also really large. Only in the closing scene, he seemed somewhat plugged-in. However, the question my ten readers are curious to ask has to do with stylistic matters and I must answer that a musician as refined as Domingo naturally has an intuitive grasp of how baroque phrasing is. His singing was generally clean and his attempts at decoration were discrete but not misguided. I really didn’t feel as if he would sing Nessun Dorma in the next minute. I would rather blame his seniority the occasional clipped high note or reluctance to scale down.

In the title role, David Daniels proved to be in excellent shape. Compared to his performance in the concert with Lisa Saffer in Barcelona, he seemed tonight a different singer. The voice was fuller, more generous in the lower and upper extremes and even more powerful. He must be praised by his variety and imagination in recitative too. Only a laboured A dispetto d’un volto ingrato (paced rather fast by the conductor) stood between him and complete success. I have to confess I am a partisan of Bejun Mehta in this role. Although he is still unrivalled, Daniels is a very commendable number two.

In the key role of Andronico, Patricia Bardon proved again why she is listed among the greatest Handelian contralto of our days. Her excitingly dark and forceful and extremely ductile and flexible voice was at home either providing caressing lyrical singing or sparkling bravura. She was positively partnered by the lovely-looking and -sounding Sarah Coburn. Her fruity creamy soprano is far richer than we are used to hear in this role – and this is all for the best. A role tragic as this requires more tone colouring than what an oratorio soprano generally offers – and Coburn never lets the audience down – she is dramatically engaged, floats high mezza voce whenever this is required, has easy trills and divisions and is also a convincing actress.

Although the part of Leone was pratically reduced to comprimario, Andrew Foster-Williams seized the moment with his only remaining aria, Nel mondo e nell’abisso, to showcase all the capabilities of his incisive and supple bass. His acting talents are also praiseworthy.

I know Irene is an ingrate role and the casting of yet another mezzo is always tricky. That said, I cannot consider Claudia Huckle in the level of her colleagues. She sang her aria di furia in a most placid state of mind and sounded contrived with her fioriture even in the very slow tempi provided by the conductor. She fared considerably better in the beautiful Par che mi nasca in sen.

Probably in order to compensate the uneventful conducting, the edition adopted in this production involves the loss of a significant number of arias and the reduction of some others to the A-section alone. I have the impression that the two orchestral interludes performed tonight non-existent in the score are arrangements of deleted arias, not to mention other small liberties.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber staged the opera in a hall vaguely 1940’s-like. Tamerlano is some kind of military dictator who has deposed local aristocracy and reduced them to the status of political prisioners. I couldn’t understand why Bajazet and Asteria are dressed as if they were characters of The Abduction from the Seraglio while the others have contemporary costumes. There was nothing like a feast to the eyes going on there, but what was shown on stage is neither ugly nor contrived. I should say that the direction of actors was mercifully economical and discrete, unlike most Handel stagings these days.

* Maybe the theme of suicide particularly inspired Handel, for the Lucrezia cantata is certainly one of his most gripping works.

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