Archive for September, 2008

Wrong direction

When I read that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was being staged with a Japanese cast at the Bunkamura’s Theatre Cocoon, I thought it would be a valuable opportunity to see the way Japanese artists deal not only with Western theatre, but also in a play that still keeps its freshness in a society in which many elegant households enshrine their own doll-wives. I was wrong, though, when I thought that there was something new about the play – it was actually premiered in Tokyo around 1900’s. In any case, reading again my English translation, I couldn’t help considering that the text has a special freshness in Japan.

The fact that English director David Leveaux was responsible for this staging was a bit of a turn-off for me. I have seen some of his stagings on Broadway and found them invariably disappointing and that would be the case again this time. Although sceneries and costumes were stylized (an arena stage with toy furniture and a couch – nothing more), the action was clearly set in the original late XIXth century, something that, in my opinion, broke any possibility of connection between the audience and the characters. I am positive that the audience viewed it as curious old and foreign story. I mean – what is the point of staging it in Japan with Japanese actors if everything was supposed to seem “European”? Why not bringing the whole staging from Europe with Japanese titles? The fact that the theatre was crowded certainly had to do with the fact that famous soap-opera actors were involved – and the dorama-style acting provided all-around made the whole thing sound silly beyond salvation. I have to confess that the redeeming feature for me in the whole experience was the quality Japanese language has to produce different kinds of enunciation for different kinds of situation. Even if you don’t understand the words, you can follow every turn of emotional atmosphere just by the change in the way actors speak.*

I believe that Nora Helmer is an almost impossible role – it is difficult for most actress playing the hysterically child-like aspects in a way coherent with the play’s denouement. If I can use a vocal image to describe it, the actress’s attitude has to be high-pitched with a hint of edginess. At first, doll-like Rie Miyazawa has the physique du rôle and also the right kind of nature. She has an excellent speaking voice and is extremely graceful. However, she never goes beyond the doll-like – as tension increases, she seems a bit at a loss and adds an extra dose of dorama-ish expression. To me, it is clear that the director never forced her out from her comfort zone – in a role in which an actress ought to be out of her comfort zone. She also misses entirely the sensuousness of her dance in act II and is undermined by an unbecoming costume in act III.

As Kristine Linde, Misuzu Kanno is far more comfortable in her skin. She plays well the Brangäne-like motherly attitude and is very sincere in her scene with Krogstad, but her sincerity is usually cut short by the overall shallowness. Shinichi Tsutsumi again falls in the trap of the soap-opera acting style, but at least he succeeds in keeping some dignity in his Torvald Helmer, a character easily made ludicrous by many actors. Hajime Yamazaki brought a welcome congeniality to Krogstad – there is nothing unbelievable in his volte-face, since he makes always clear that he is a desperate man fighting for survival. Tetsuya Chiba’s Dr. Rank needed a bit more reserve on the other hand.

* I don’t speak Japanese beyond the barely necessary for a shopping situation, but I had my English translation with me in the theatre.


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When the first CD of the Bach cantata series from the Bach Collegium Japan was released, I was immediately convinced by the project – Classic CD magazine offered two tracks from Actus Tragicus that I found simply otherworldly. Having bought the CD, I found not only all the performances praiseworthy, but also the explanations about performance choices scholarly, sincere and sensible – especially what was written about the reason for such an enterprise coming from a group in Japan considering the religious expression inevitably linked to these works. Therefore, when I have decided to come to Japan, my first thought was trying to find an opportunity to see the BCJ live.

This decision met the unexpected news that they would be performing three Bach cantatas in their own Kobe Shoin Chapel, the acoustics of which are widely praised. So that was it – I was to go to Kobe to see them. What I didn’t know before is that the building of that chapel was in fact the remote origin of the whole Bach cantata series. So it has more than a special meaning for the project.

It seems that the idea of building the chapel has to do with the fact that the Shoin Women’s University is an Anglican institution that, as such, views the study and practice of music as an important part of education. When the new campus was settled in 1981, it was decided that the chapel would be its centerpiece. Prof. Tatsuji Hirashima, a chemist whose studies finally shifted to the area of acoustics and tuning, was chosen to coordinate the acoustic project and the installation of the pipe organ (a French-styled instrument built by Marc Garnier in 1983).

When Prof. Hirashima died in 1986, Prof. Masaaki Suzuki was invited to take his place and, in order to fulfil the chapel’s musical activities, Bach Collegium Japan was created in 1990. Five years later, the president of BIS, the Swedish classical music label, visited Kobe and proposed the recording of the complete series of Bach cantatas. They are currently on volume 40. Considering the carefully placed microphones, I have the impression that Saturday’s concert was being taped.

Rarely has the experience of visiting the venue where a concert would be held has affected my impression on the music I would hear as in that afternoon. There is a benign atmosphere about that place – you would never guess you were attending a concert of a world-famous famous group to be eventually released in the international market. Some of the kindest and most artless people greet you as you approach the chappel. Then you are given a number while you wait outside. Then this nice gentleman takes a microphone and start to call number by number so that you take a seat inside. While that happens, you can see the performers stroll nearby, take a glass of water or something like that.

Once inside, you realise that the chapel is not a perfect concert venue. Although the CD booklets always show the musicians in the rear side of the building, the “stage” was set in the entrance. So microphones had to be removed in order to let people in and then replaced. A North-European lady (someone from BIS, I guess) with a roll of tape on her hand would eventually ask some members of the audience to excuse her while she settled cables on the ground etc.  Other than this, as one could have imagined, there is no inclination in order to prevent people in one row from blocking the view of those seated behind.

The program centered around cantatas written for Leipzig in 1726. The opening item was BWV 43 Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzet. I have to confess that the first chorus gave me a puzzling impression. Before choristers started to sing, I was struck by the warmest and most immediate sound one could think of, but as soon singers joined the instruments, I found the aural image rather tangled. This impression was increased by the following recitative and aria, when tenor Gerd Türk was under heavy weather trying to be heard. I am no specialist in acoustics, but I did have the impression the medium and lower ranges were somehow overblown – I cannot explain exactly, but there was a problem in balance. When soprano Rachel Nicholls sang the first words in the next recitative, I’ve started to think that the problem could be Mr. Türk’s tenor’s limited volume, for Nicholls’s bell-toned soprano easily filled the church. The next soloist, Peter Kooij, is a singer I had previously seen in 1999 in Rio (a Johannes Passion with Philippe Herreweghe). His pleasant round bass has lost a bit of its former resonance, especially in the lower end, but again I could not help noticing that lower tessitura was especially problematic – it seemed again that the medium and lower ranges seemed over-resonant, making it difficult for this singer to pierce through. However, my impression from Kooij in the past was that his strong rich-toned voice was perfectly hearable in a large hall as the one in Rio. The ensuing aria was probably the most problematic number in the whole concert – the excessively warm acoustics, mismatches between singer, orchestra and trumpet (I know, valveless trumpet is an ordeal for a performer, but the tuning was a bit trying for the audience too) teamed up for a messy result. Countertenor Robin Blaze’s bright sound fared a bit better (he was also in particularly fluent voice).

The next cantata, BWV 88 Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden featured similar problems, but one must single out Mr. Kooij’s amazingly long breath and clear divisions in his opening aria. Also, Ms. Nicholls deserves some considerations. I will right away say that she made me an admirer – it is an exceptionally firm, sweet-toned voice with none of those constricted, unflowing high notes some sopranos in this repertoire tend to produce. She also sings with unfailing grace and sense of style and, more commendably, handles the text knowingly. I only believe she was a bit outside the scale of the event – her voice was somewhat too powerful for that chapel and it is not because she was singing too loud. Saying that she could pierce through the orchestra (something her colleagues were having some trouble to accomplish) is an understatement: she presided over the sound picture and sometimes her top notes were quite obtruding. To say that there is something wrong with her would be more than unfair – this is an admirable quality for a Bach singer, I mean, to keep this level of purity without constriction or downscaling. I could not help recalling the Matthäus Passion with Helmut Rilling in the Carnegie Hall in 2007 when Sybilla Rubens’s soprano sounded pale and fragile in the big auditorium, whereas Rachel Nicholls would have probably sounded delightful instead. Here, she was an uncomfortable duettist for Blaze in Beruft Gott selbst, when she basically overshadowed him, even when she tried to pull back the brightness of her sound.

I have to confess I was really frustrated to this point. I know some of the world’s most famous acoustics can be challenging for visiting orchestras (such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam), but hearing the “house band” in such unfavorable circumstances seemed a mystery to my so far. After the intermission, we would have not only a longer, but more famous (and also most impressive) work in BWV 146 Wir müssen dürch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen.

The cantata opened in a positive note – the organ obligato part gave us the opportunity to listen to the smooth sound of the chapel’s organ and soloist Masato Suzuki relished the opportunity. The opening sinfonia was played in the grand manner. The ensuing chorus surprised me in its absolute clarity – instead of having the acoustics playing against them, singers and instrumentalists used the warm sound to produce an unforgettable atmosphere. Finally that was the Bach Collegium Japan I was wishing to hear! This number is particularly tricky in its dissonant effects, and the balance achieved by the chorus (2 sopranos, three altos, three tenors and three basses) was outstanding. Robin Blaze sang an immaculate Ich will nach dem Himmel zu and my only complaint again Rachel Nicholl’s exquisite singing in Ich säe meine Zähren is that she did not blend with the woodwind concertante writing as expected.

Considering that BWV 146 is a well-known work and more often performed than both BWV 43 and 88, I tend to believe that the BWV 146 had benefited from more performance experience from the BCJ than the other works, which not only need a bit more polishing but also require some adjustment to the delicate if ultimately rewarding acoustics (in the ideal conditions). I wonder if the performance I attended is going to be used by BIS – the first two cantatas will certainly need some cosmetic adjustment. The BCJ series has been famous for polish and these items would contrast with previous releases.

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Birgit Nilsson used to refer to Turandot as her “party role”, an opportunity to “relax”  from the enormous lenghts, psychological complexity and difficult harmonies of her signature Wagnerian and Straussian repertoire while still being able to dazzle the audience with her legendary vocal riches. When trying to produce an in-a-nutshell concept for the concert offered by the Wiener Philharmoniker in the Suntory Hall tonight I tend to gravitate around the idea of “party program” .

I personally bought this ticket because I was unable to find myself on for either the Haydn/Bruckner or the Haydn/Schubert concerts. But then I’ve started to think that there was a certain parallelism with the Chung/Filarmonica della Scala concert. Then we had a Milanese orchestra playing Viennese music, tonight there would be a Viennese orchestra playing Milanese music. From that point-of-view, I’ve started to find the concert quite promising.

I have never been particularly lucky in matching my schedule with the Vienna Philharmonic’s. I could see them only once (the second time the concert in Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica Catalana was rescheduled to an impossible day for me) at the Carnegie Hall in New York (with conductor Riccardo Muti). Then we had a more than enticing program – Mozart, Schubert and Richard Strauss. I have to confess that, while I write this, I remember it was not the earth-shattering experience I was hoping for – I found the Schubert and the Mozart a bit bureaucratic and only the immaculate rendition of Strauss’s marvelous orchestral effects in Tod und Verklärung saved the evening. In retrospective, I can say that tonight’s concert was far more interesting than the “traditional” one in New York.

Verdi’s most famous overture for an opera is without any shadow of doubt the one written for La Forza del Destino. It is widely performed as a concert piece (especially as an encore – for instance, that was the extra item in Chung’s concert two weeks ago). However, if one wants to surprise an audience with other example of Verdi’s mastery in symphonic writing, one would have to make some detective work. Maestro Muti found that the obscure overture to the opera Giovanna d’Arco would do the trick. It certainly highlighted the immaculate sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. The aural picture was studio-recording perfect – if something pierced out, you can bet it carried the Hauptstimme. Now if you ask me if the piece itself is something memorable, I won’t be able to tell.

The Verdian part of the program involved the lengthy “Four Seasons” ballet from Les Vêpres Siciliennes. If you had not made the acquaintance before, this is a piece where Verdi’s descriptive effects are remarkably creative if not necessarily inspiring after a while. What probably kept the orchestra’s animation was the Viennese twist that gave the triple-tempo dances sophisticated waltz-like fluctuation in tempo.

After the intermission, I had my first encounter with Nino Rota’s Concerto for trombone. Considering the limitations of that instrument, the whole piece is cleverly composed around rhythmic cells involving the kind of arpeggio-like  and repeated-note phrasing one would expect. The first movement gave me this Villa-Lobos-minus-the-sexiness impression. The slow movement is, to my ears, the most impressive, because it is always difficult to write a slow movement without lyric quality. Here Rota brings a certain melancholy that never builds into a soaring melody, but hits home anyway in its detached atmosphere. The orchestra’s second main trombonist, Ian Bousfield, could find the right touch of humour in the piece, particularly in the last movement, when the proceedings acquire a certain… I can’t avoid the word… Fellinianess.

To keep with the idea of Italian movies, the last piece was again Nino Rota’s Symphonic Orchestra Suite for Visconti’s Il Gattopardo. If you could make a collage of Mahler-ian and Puccini-an climaxes, than you would have something very close to Rota’s soundtrack. The Viennese certainly took the hint and played their hearts out – this was a showcase of lustrous string playing (with inspired oboe and clarinet solos to match). Although the music per se may lack the structural genius one expect in a great master, it certainly flattered the orchestra’s abilities. It would be a pity if this has not been recorded – I doubt Nino Rota’s music will ever receive such deluxe treatment again.

In order to keep up with passionate paroxysms, the encore piece was Puccini’s Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut. Here the take-no-hostages approach certainly payed off – the ferocity of accent, the evergrowing intensity. When you thought that these musicians could not go further, Muti could inspire them to exceed. I feel tempted to compare this with Giuseppe Sinopoli’s exemplary performance of this piece with the Philharmonia (in his complete recording), but the unpolished quality here was no representation of passion, but passion itself. This made me remember my friend Fernando, who considers himself Riccardo Muti’s biggest fan (I would be number two in our group) – this Intermezzo featured exactly the kind of music-making he reveres and the word “infernal” (which is his adjective to say something is extraordinarily good) would certainly be used here.

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I might be mistaken, but the Suntory Hall in Tokyo has been designed to the approval of Herbert von Karajan – the plaza in front of its entrance is accordingly called Karajan Platz. When you hear the first chord of any piece of music played by an orchestra in this auditorium, you cannot resist thinking of the legendary all-embracing full-toned sounds the Austrian conductor would conjure from the Berliner Philharmoniker.

It is curious to mention the Berliner Philharmoniker when you have just seen a concert with the Filarmonica della Scala, an orchestra the reputation of which is far from immaculate and which owes its share of respect from the audiences around the world by the good work of conductor Riccardo Muti (who is also visiting Tokyo with the Wiener Philharmoniker – I’ll report about that next week). For example, La Scala’s last season opening night featured Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and many a music lover was surprised to find the orchestra in such good shape. I have also heard that the orchestra has been “made up” for the event etc. But all I can say judging from this evening’s performance is that this is not necessarily true.

I have been an admirer of conductor Myung Whun Chung for a while. The repertoire around which his recording catalogue centers is not my favourite one, but I have heard some beautiful Wagner performances – particularly a Tristan und Isolde from Rome with Violeta Urmana – which are simply amazing. The Suntory Hall concert showed his skills in late Romantic music through the choice of Mahler’s First Symphony, but the program actually started with Mendelsohn’s Italian Symphony.  Although the tempi were flowing, the accents were appropriate and the mood was rightly established, I am particularly not fond of this kind of smooth articulation that shadows a bit the boundaries between the previous note and the next – this has somewhat hurt the shapeliness of the saltarello, although some might claim that this kind of music should eschew cold polish.

In any case, this kind of passion for grand, absolutely flawless sound above any “petty” preocupation with clarity, which was the hallmark of Karajan’s late style, is something where Chung could find some inspiration for his Mahler. Although the Filarmonica della Scala doesn’t feature truly refulgent strings and noble-sounding brass, its concentration and discipline and its willingness and ability to draw on a wide tonal palette was more than praiseworthy – it was truly admirable. Some of the great orchestras in the world often produce immaculate performance dispatched with a hint of bureaucracy – but Chung and his musicians were really living every minute of the experience of playing Mahler’s First, and that is a treat for any audience. I would also add that the Chung made a virtue out of what Mahler’s detractors call a fault – what could have sounded inorganic finally produced a refreshing effect in the sense that Chung relished the transitions and seized the change of atmosphere in such a masterly way that sometimes even the very sound of the orchestra changed. He is also a master of climax building and handled the “false endings” that infuriate many a Mahler-hater to beautiful effects. In the last moments of this symphony, one could rightly feel that a big earthquake was coming – the hall was shaking with sound!

As a treat to an enthusiastic audience, we were served one of the most intelligent performances of Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino I have ever heard – what  beautiful use of Rubato in the theme from Alvaro’s Le minaccie, i fieri accenti ! And, maybe to prove me wrong, Karajanesque impressionistic phrasing was set aside and amazingly accurate divisions produced.

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Who among opera buffs have not seen the old videos from the NHK Hall with Japanese subtitles and Mario del Monaco, Giulietta Simionato et al indulging in a plethora of stock gestures surrounded by merely functional sets? I have certainly seen my share of such black and white movies, but never thought I would see one of them live – in something very close to sepia.

The Bunka Kaikan Concert Hall itself is a time tunnel – Kunyo Mayekawa’s 1961 building has an outdated charm with its hallmark wood decoration on the auditorium’s side walls that almost makes you believe that Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi are going to be your Violetta and Alfredo. However, my ticket offered me instead Daniela Bruera and Stefano Secco for this evening’s La Traviata. 

 The absence of colours other than variations of brown in the sets, the repeated use of lace curtains to hide the change in scenic elements upstage, the oversentimentalized approach of Beppe de Tomasi’s production (refurbished by Norio Baba) and a stage direction that consisted basically on indicating entrances and exits – all that could be a cherishable visit to the golden age if there were a concept behind it. And a key element of it would have to be the larger-than-life stage charisma singers of that generation used to exude. I do not want to fault the group of talented singers assembled here – it is the director’s responsibility to drench the cast in a stylistic concept. That did not happen here. When you have a singer frozen in the middle of a gesture in the end of an act waiting for the lights to fade, it is very clear that something is really wrong in the larger picture.

I have known Daniela Bruera’s previously as Despina in Barenboim’s video of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte from the Staatsoper unten der Linden and my first impression tonight was indeed that Violetta was quite a stretch for her. Her basic tone has this quicksilvery sweetness of a soprano taylor-made for the -ina roles, but Bruera is a singer capable of the necessary morbidezza in the lyric moments. She does sound stressed in more exposed passages, when diction and pitch also have its dubious patches, but she can gather her resources to pierce through the orchestra when this is necessary. She is a cunning singer and knows where her strengths lie – she is unfazed by the coloratura demands, can float soaring high mezza voce and produce beautiful legato phrasing when not taxed by the writing. However, what makes her Violetta a praiseworthy creation is the aura of naiveté and tenderness that makes sense into this story of a fallen-woman-turned-into-angel.

Violetta is a character that only makes sense if you understand her as someone whose lifetime as an outcast has developed a strong desire for approval, what she finally finds not in Alfredo, but in his father – she is ultimately a fatherless girl who wants someone to say she has done it right in the end of the day. This vulnerability, this willingness to please (who has taken Violetta to the life of a courtesan) is exactly what Bruera’s pretty but not patrician soprano was able to portray.  Her touching Addio del passato was definitely the highlight of the whole evening.

Stefano Secco’s bright easy tenor has its overly open moments but he is a likeable Alfredo who is not afraid of pulling back to softer dynamics and of colouring the text. He was particularly effective in the end of Act II, when he portrayed his character’s regret for his rash behaviour to perfection. A colourless interpolated high c following a series of unsung phrases in O mio rimorso may be overlooked considered this singer’s achievements in this performance.

Although Masato Makino seemed not to be in his best shape (his low register became quite wayward right in the moment of his big aria (here performed with the complete cabaletta), his was the most immediately impressive voice tonight: a pleasant large firm-toned baritone, a bit hard in the upper reaches. He has feeling for Verdian phrasing and is particularly musicianly too. Germont, père, is not the most eventful of roles and I would have to hear him more before I say that he seems to be a valuable Verdi baritone.

Conductor’s Giuliano Carella’s hard-driven performance suggested a Toscaninian inspiration, what placed a strong demand on his orchestra, which acquitted itself really commendably, especially in fast divisions. If Carella showed mastery in the art of giving a dramatic purpose to his phrasing, especially in what regards recitative accompaniment, I would say he failed into recognizing that some passages were crying for a moment to breathe and achieve the right effect, such as the big concertato in the end of act II. Also, his rhythmic straightjacket paired with the absence of really full-toned strings led him to the trap of making some passages sound like marching band-music.

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