Archive for February, 2009

The Wiener Philharmoniker’s concert with Zubin Mehta at the Carnegie Hall on February 25th was a sort of bric-à-brac – you would never now what you would get next, but the bottom line was some sort of lightness. When the first bars of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture echoed in the hall, one could not repress a feeling of enchantment – the Philharmonic’s hallmark crystalline sound, homogeneous through all dynamic levels, perfectly balanced and clear in the fastest passagework is one of the wonders of the modern world. I have to confess that Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto seemed to be disappointing only because we would hear less from the orchestra – but I was curious to hear Chinese Wunderkind Lang Lang. 

Obviously, Lang is an immensely gifted pianist, but I was not convinced that Chopin is his best suit. Although he was capable of producing some beautiful playing in soft dynamics, the overall impression was of impatience and lack of subtlety, something that would be confirmed with one of the loudest and fastest accounts of the Heroic Polonaise no. 6 op. 53 – the only explanation for such formidably precise hammering on the keyboard would be a powerful sugar rush.

After the intermission, the audience was treated to a mini-new-year-gala of waltzes and polkas plus the Overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr, a repertoire in which the orchestra’s charm, animation and Echtheit finds no competition. Zubin Mehta indulged the orchestra’s know-how here.


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I believe that the first and foremost quality of Chekhov’s plays is the hallmark Russian melancholy that results from the characters’ sharp understanding of the social, cultural, psychological, you-name-it forces that crush them into the inability to change circumstances. In his staging for both the BAM and The Old Vic Theatre, when director Sam Mendes replaced that for a certain cynicism, the results were simply cold, uninvolved and unaffecting – the slow poetic tempo that give Chekhov’s lines the necessary depth of feeling basically lost and all motivations seem a collection of loose ends in a world closer to Woody Allen than to Russian theatre.

The main victim of the concept is the usually excellent Sinéad Cusack. Ranevskaya is supposed to be an aristocrat whose elegance and generosity of spirit is supposed to invite admiration even of those who would like to see the end of aristocracy, but Cusack sounds just awkward, plebeian, delivering her lines with a Fran Drescher-like nasal voice. The only side of this character who could make sense in such approach is that of the debauchée who leads a scandalous affair in Paris, but that side is only hinted at in the play. 

Anya is a difficult role, a certain girlishness must be reconciled with the sharpness that kids who are more practical than her parents usually have – but Morven Christie seems to glide through the play without much interest. Although Simon Russell Beale is physically miscast as Lopakhin, he savors his lines more noticeably, although his act III volte-face is a bit lost amid the director’s misunderstandings. I similarly did not get Selina Cadell’s George Sand-like Charlotta. I am sure the character is a bit over-the-top, but here she seems an alien who has just landed from another play. 

Paul Jesson, Dakin Matthews, Josh Hamilton, Tobias Segal and Richard Easton offer satisfying performances as Gaev, Simeonov-Pishchik, Yasha, Yepikhodov and Firs, but everything lacks the last sparkle of feeling. Ethan Hawke is the kind of actor who needs a director, and here the underlying meanings hidden in Trofimov’s lines are lost and replaced by a general sense of enthusiasm. If Rebecca Hall is closer to the mark it is because Varya is the acknowledgedly “depressed” character in the play and that probably explains why the director might have left her unbothered.

Anthony Ward’s sets are simple and efficient, Catherine Zuber’s costumes are beautiful and Paul Arditti’s sountrack is original and atmospheric but too ominous for the circumstances

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The Metropolitan Opera House has been more faithful to Russian opera than many important opera houses around the world outside Russia. Many Russian singers have achieved international fame at the Met – and the New York audience is quite keen on this repertoire. That said, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneguin is not necessarily a work in need of advocacy – it is probably the best known Russian opera in the West and the Met accordingly gave it well-loved singers.

Robert Carsen’s production has seen some glamourous casting – it has been featured on DVD with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in leading roles – but it is not in itself a glamourous production. On the contrary, it is simplicity itself. The bare white stage receives props for each scene and colour is largely provided by Michael Levine’s beautiful costumes. In the countryside scenes, the use of autumn leaves is poetic and creates the necessary atmosphere, but the Moscow scenes just needed something. As it is, the audience has the impression of watching a rehearsal.

If I had to mention the reason for this Onegin’s sucess, I would mention Jiri Belohlavek’s conducting. To start with, the Met’s orchestra seemed transfigured – offering voluminous, rich and warm sounds throughout. Belohlavek’s noble, pensive approach fits the work melancholy – some may say that he drained a bit of the Russian-ness of the score, but I considered the gain in expressive, almost Straussian atmosphere most welcome.

Karita Mattila’s soprano is smokier and less impetuous in both ends than it used to be – but the sound is irresistibly warm and creamy. She soared in ensembles and fulfilled her solos with immense depth of feeling. Her stage portrayal, from shy teenager to socialite, was expertly produced. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s solid mezzo soprano made Olga a bit more substantial than we are used to see.  Although Thomas Hampson was a bit fazed by Act III demands, his was an intelligent and elegantly sung performance. However, Piotr Beczala will remain the audience’ s favourite member in the cast. He sung with beauty of tone, sensitivity and good taste – Nicolai Gedda is the name that came to my mind. And this is a high compliment.

Among the minor roles, Wendy White deserves praise for a smoothly sung Madame Larina and  Barbara Dever was a touching Filippyevna. James Morris, on the other hand, was a bit rusty as Prince Gremin – and the role ideally requires a darker and deeper voice.

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Il Trovatore is widely acknowledged as opera’s most ridiculous libretto – an opinion I do not share. If you know something about Spanish theatre, you happen to know that the idea is really going over the top – especially during the days of Romanticism. And I tell you – Spanish language does make the 100% emotionalism believable. Verdi was well aware of this – and denied no expressive tools to produce raw, gutsy depiction of strong feelings on the stage. If you try to polish the proceedings, then your Trovatore is a lost case.

I would not say that the Met’s new Trovatore is a lost case – there is a lot to be cherished there, but the overall impression is of misfiring. A new production has been ordered from David McVicar, who claims to have found inspiration in the paintings of Goya. I am sure he is telling the truth, but the staging looked just like every other Trovatore you have seen in your life. And this may mean that he was respectful to the libretto (a rare quality these days), but the politeness we could witness at the Met – that, I am sure, does not come from Goya.  One must recognise that McVicar tries to throw in some spice by adding some prostitutes to the Soldiers Chorus and by having his prima donna throwing herself on the ground, crawling and panting at the least opportunity – but everybody seemed to be working hard for intensity and also a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. Intensity is something you cannot fake – if you do not have it, better go for dignity, something Italian operatic directors are well aware of.

As much as Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting showed a loving eye for the score, trying to highlight accompanying figures, to keep rhythms precise and flowing and to highlight dramatic gestures, the orchestral sound was too recessed to produce any kind of true excitement. Noseda was an attentive conductor for his singers, helping them in every moment of need – and keeping the orchestra in medium volume levels was essencial for a cast almost devoid of dramatic voices, but other maestros have been able to keep a brighter edge to their orchestral sound that keeps the sparkles going when sheer volume is impossible. I would mention Riccardo Muti’s live from La Scala, where a similar lighter-voiced casting was employed.

Sondra Radvanosky’s abilities as a Verdian soprano have always been an object of dispute.  It is undeniable that she fulfils some key requirement – it is a sizeable voice, capable of morbidezza (even if the tone is too veiled for this repertoire), flexibility, mezza voce and some stunning high notes (she took every optional in alt available and some more). However, her low register is not positive and projecting as the role requires, she is a bit challenged by trills (a fault shared by many a soprano tackling this role) and her soft singing is not always true on pitch. Her Tacea la notte was a bit uneventful and its cabaletta (reduced to one verse) was uncomfortable. On the other hand, she achieved some soaring efects in D’ amor sul’ ali rosee (although true abandon was not really there), showed real purpose in the Miserere and, a few notes barred, was quite impressive in Tu vedrai. What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, she has a good ear to find musical-dramatic effects in the writing of the role of Leonora, to chilling effects in her dying scene.

Dolora Zajick is an acknowledged Azucena and, although she was not in her best voice (the basic tonal quality seemed too nasal and somewhat recessed), she did not pull away from any challenge thrown by Verdi – she tried every trill in Stride la vampa, offered some big chest voice low notes and some really powerful top notes (she even tried a not entirely successful high c in her big scene with Manrico). Although her diction was a bit cloudy, she never refused her phrasing the necessary tone colouring and showed no problem with high mezza voce.  If I have some remark about her Azucena, it would be that, although her anguish was palpable, her madness seemed a bit artifficial and there was no sense of danger in her.

I had doubts about Marcelo Alvarez’s Manrico, soon dispelled. His medium volume lyric tenor has enough projecting quality for a big house and he phrases with such musicianship and good taste that you cannot resist him. One feels he is a bit cautious with the heroic moments, but he never produces an ugly or unmusical sound. I doubt there are many tenors around who can offer such a sensitive and dulcet-toned Ah, si ben mio these days. The problem is that Di quella pira does not come in the combo – even if the aria is transposed down a half-tone, he still feels uncomfortable about it. He commendably dealt with articulating the tricky divisions most tenor just glide through, but in order to achieve his matte high b, he had to let his interventions with the chorus unsung and the repeat was avoided. It is true that he was announced to be indisposed, but his problems with this fearsome aria seemed to be more an issue of Fach than of health.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s velvety baritone is still a treat to the ears – his stylish Il balen is an example of that – but his ease with big high notes is not entirely here anymore. He has charisma and gets away with some awkward moments – he is also the person with more panache on stage (although the stage direction reduced much of his menacing attitude).  Finally, Kwangchul Youn is glamourous piece of casting in the role of Ferrando.

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Von Herzen – möge es wieder – zu Herzen gehen – Beethoven wrote this at the head of the score of his tremendous Missa Solemnis. Since then, it has become a famous Beethovenian quote – and one I am willing to quote when I write about Venezuelan playwright Moisés Kaufman’s new play, 33 Variations. Everybody who likes music is eternally fascinated by the character of Beethoven, the man who loved mankind but was not really fond of people, the paramount composer who mastered his own limitations in god-given inspiration and, out of his own intelligence and skill, sublimed it in the most powerful example of originality and assurance.

Kaufman’s play is bold as his theme – this is no biopic, it is a play about a piece of music, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. As it is no lecture either, there is a plot to lead us through. Dr. Katherine Brandt is a musicologist specialised in Beethoven. She is seriously ill and her last book reflects her own perplexity with the fact that the great Beethoven spent so much energy and time working on such mediocre musical material such as Anton Diabelli’s waltz.  She can only understand it if the point was to prove that genius can transcend mediocrity – Beethoven would be mocking Diabelli by showing the difference between them (if you saw Amadeus, you are probably thinking in the scene when Mozart plays Salieri’s piece and rewrites it). But to prove her argument, she has to fly to Bonn in order to study the sketches and read through Beethoven’s many “fingerprints”  on the score (shoplists and soup stains included). The problem is that her incapacitating disease makes it difficult for the independent Dr. Brandt to go further without the help of her daughter Clara, whose incapability to settle in life is a source of disappointment for such an accomplished mother, of Mike, her nurse who soon becomes Clara’s boyfriend, and Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the Beethoven-Haus’s scholar responsible for the Diabelli Variations’ autographs. While the story unfolds, actors in the roles of Beethoven, Diabelli and Anton Schindler show us scenes relevant to Dr. Brandt’s studies.

I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that the plot is a bit contrived, that short scenes follow each other vertiginously, that many unnecessary situations exist for the purpose of mere entertainment… well, let’s use some musical expressions, that some transitions are forced, that the development of the main subjects are marred by the interruption by irrelevant material… but (and this is a significant but) this is a small drawback considering that this play hits home in such difficult aspects that its liabilities are far less important than its assets.  Kaufman has a talent to explain music to the layman without underestimating his intelligence – it is impossible to leave the theatre without learning anything about musical composition and structure. More than this, this learning is never done from the cold point-of-view of a laboratory research but from the perspective of expressive possibilities, i.e., from the way it will affect the listener, which is the point-of-view of the relationship between composer and audience. In a certain way, 33 Variations is a work of love of a writer and a piece of music the aim of which is to show the depth of emotion and ideas that Beethoven has built just for your ears, minds and hearts. In this sense, some important discussions about the art of music are made in a light but serious way during the play – and I believe that Dr. Brandt’s conclusions in the end of the play could reveal a new world of discoveries for many of those who have only skated on the surface of music so far.

Kaufman is also the director of the play – the whole staging is most ingenious – panels covered with sheet music over which images are projected in order to portray a subway station, a hospital etc. Behind them, bookshelves with files that represent either the archives in Bonn or Diabelli’s studio in Vienna. I am not so sure if the direction of actors is so efficient as the staging itself. I have the impression that the idea was to build clearly defined set characters – the irascible genius, the vain dilettant, the efficient woman, the problematic daughter, the always-ready-to-help boyfriend, the objective German etc – and that was it. Although a group of very good actors have been assembled, the proceedings never goes really beyond superficiality – and some stage gestures are a bit artifficial too, such as having characters speaking the same lines at the same time or having the cast sing an excerpt of the Missa Solemnis’s Kyrie after someone not particularly religious says “May God take pity on us”. Maybe if the casting involved the kind of actors who galvanize whatever they touch regardless of directing, that would have done the trick. As it is, Jane Fonda was a good choice for Dr. Brandt – she is a congenial, enthusiastic actress with a larger-than-life personality who is not afraid to reach out for the public in the more explanatory scenes. I am not really convinced by Samantha Mathis’s Clara – her performance tends to press the same key throughout and the vulnerability, the charm and the bitchiness come through more or less in one same shape. Susan Kellermann is a funny Dr. Ladenburger, helped by a stereotypic “German” attitude and Zach Grenier survives the checklist of conventional Beethovenian attitudes. Colin Hanks, Don Amendolia and Erik Steele offer efficient performances in the roles of Mike, Diabelli and Schindler. In any case, if you are in New York and you like Beethoven, you should not miss this.

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According to the Princess of Bouillon, this is how Adriana Lecouvreur’s voice is supposed to sound and, well, I must confess that this is probably the best description of Maria Guleghina’s big, ungainly and intense soprano. Before she could open her mouth in this run of performances of  the most “telefono bianco” of Italian operas, Guleghina has been blacklisted by many opera-goers who somehow are right to expect more vocal glamour in a role which was a sort of calling card for Renata Tebaldi. That said (and I know I’ll be thrown tomatoes at for saying this), this Ukranian soprano is an acquired taste I have ultimately learned to acquire. In an age of pasteurised expression, narcisism and cold professionalism in opera, it is refreshing to see someone who is really giving it all and who seems to be actually having fun and wishing that we have fun too.  Now that the tomatoes have been thrown, I can also say that I perfectly understand whoever feels discouraged by Guleghina’s singing – she is irritatingly uneven. In one moment, she is really close to the ideal just to spoil the whole thing, with sour, metallic and overvibrant singing. But once you realise that she is the sort of artist who gets so carried away by situations that it is impossible to maintain polish, you start to “get” her. There are singers who are just sloppy, but Guleghina is not that – she is a trouper and wants to do it all. She wants to offer you pianissimi worthy of Caballé, the intensity of a Scotto, the touching morbidezza of a Freni, the warmth and power of a Tebaldi, but all that at the same time and is unvariably caught short by the fact that the absolute soprano is a myth.

Back to Cilea. The mention of these illustrious Adrianas is not accidental – at moments you could almost guess that Guleghina has carefully studied what her forerunners have done in this role – Scotto and Freni are almost a 100% certainty. And the hardwork has paid off – her ability to produce a girly, vulnerable, touching sound in lyrical and conversational passages were a definite asset of this performance. Her strong speaking voice and viable declamation of italianized Racine (praiseworthy for someone born so far away from Italy) also carried her in the difficult closing of act III. However, both arias caught her short in flowing legato and command of low register. The results were rather tentative then. Not the final duet with Maurizio – a sour top note apart, it was sung with depths of feeling and sense of line.

Although Olga Borodina’s mezzo no longer counts with the firm powerful top notes that seemed to reserve a place in the dramatic repertoire for her, she still has everything else – her voice is at once generous, warm and formidable. As many other singers, she could not find any depth in her Principessa di Bouillon, but embraced the virago cliché with enthusiasm.

Before you ask me how Plácido Domingo was in this role in which he was first seen at the Met forty years ago, I deliberately chose to see Marcello Giordani instead. Everybody takes Giordani for granted, but – believe me – he will be sorely missed when he retires. At the moment, I believe that no-one tackles the lirico spinto repertoire as consistently and efficiently as he dones. And before you ask me what lies beyond mere efficiency, I answer you that Sicilians do not need to practice on passion, they have it on their blood. As expected, Giordani was an exemplary Maurizio – the voice is natural, the top notes are firm, his phrasing is elegant, his delivery of the Italian text is crispy and his approach is no-nonsense. In act III, when he offered his best singing, he shaded his voice with no hint of effort and proved that you may still do sobbing provided you know how to do it.

Last but not least, Roberto Frontali was a firm-toned, congenial Michonnet. Among the minor roles, Bernard Fitch should be singled out for his animation. The casting for the Comédie characters could have involved more focused voices – as it was, they could barely pierce through the orchestra. In that sense, conductor Marco Armiliato could not be accused of drowning his singers, but he could not do that without avoiding a muffled quality. Cilea’s coloristic orchestration sometimes sounded simply disjointed and atmosphere was sorely missing. This is not a score that has received the attention of great conductors, but I am sure that there are hidden jewels there to be found – you just have to sample James Levine’s CDs with Renata Scotto to hear that.

When it comes to the revival of the Met’s old production, I seriously don’t know what to say – I understand that this is an opera for which it cannot be considered justified to spend lots of money with, but one expects to see something more artistic in an opera house of this level of importance. I am not saying that this should be a richer production, but only that some creative mind had spent a bit of its time on it. As it is, if you have asked my cleaning lady to stage an opera in France a long time ago, the results would have been more or less the same. No offense to my cleaning lady, but I am sure that the guys who were responsible for the revival at the Met were far more richly paid than her. Even Mark Lamos’s stage direction was bureacratic and insistent on effects that ultimately did not work.

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And, yes, I’m in New York

Although the Alice Tuly Hall is not ready yet, it looks wonderful, a perfect example of how an architect should embellish and make even more functional an uninspired building. On the other hand, the new Metropolitan Opera Shop is horrid – it may be perfect to sell Renée Fleming’s fragrance, but it is a lame CD and DVD shop, which seem lost amid tacky souvenirs from the Opera House. I thought that the idea was to stand in for the much lamented Tower Records!  By the way, I have never missed Tower Records so much as  this time – Academy has nothing really worth while buying and Virgin and Barnes and Noble are centuries behind  schedule in what regards New Releases. One has to acknowledge that, in what regards Classical Music CDs and DVDs, New York is back to the Dark Ages if one has Tokyo, Paris, London and Berlin in mind.

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… schwachen Stimmen is a famous aria from Bach’s Cantata BWV 36, but could also be a summary of my impressions on Helmut Rilling’s performance of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung in the Carnegie Hall.  Last year, I had the opportunity to attend Rilling’s annual concert in the same hall with Kathy Saltzman Romey’s “festival chorus” and was positively impressed by the outstanding quality of the choral singing – registers are well balanced, articulation and pronunciation are crystal-clear , not to mention that the tonal quality is very pleasant. For a pick-up team, this is no mean accomplishment. 

An improvement in this year’s performance is the playing from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s – although the brass instruments are still below standard, the strings offered glittering, flexible sounds that not only beguiled the ears, but also allowed absolute transparence, even when the complete forces were in use. 

However, the level of fervour and concentration achieved in last year’s Matthäus Passion was reduced this time to mere correctness. The conductor has a keen ear for orchestral effects – the muted tone in the Representation of Chaos and its dramatic transition for the appearance of light was exquisitely handled, but elsewhere the proceedings simply lacked fire, in spite of flowing tempi and stylistic awareness.

A great share of responsibility for the lukewarm results  belongs to the soloists, I am afraid.  As I observed last year, the Carnegie Hall is not exactly the perfect venue for baroque and classical music out of the context of a larger-scaled performance. And larger-scale performances require larger-scale singers. Alas, that was not the case here.

To start with, I read with concern that Susan Gritton would be replaced by Heidi Grant Murphy, a singer who never failed to disappoint me in any of her appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House. Truth be said, I could say that tonight I can understand a tiny bit more of the reasons why she was allowed  an international career in the first place. The soprano solos were sung with good taste, grace, intelligence and a great deal of flexibility, but the tone is grainy, the volume is extremely limited, beauty is basically reserved to floating mezza voce and the least increase in volume brought about a tense, unfocused quality.

A last-minute replacement to the reliable James Taylor, Nicholas Phan must have nerves of steel or a long experience with the piece. As much as the soprano, Phan has a small voice with very little carrying power in the extreme low register, but other than this, his tenor is dulcet, ductile and flexible enough. He too sang with elegance and sense of style. In a more intimate hall, he would have been entirely satisfying. Last but not least, bass-baritone Nathan Berg has a somewhat more substantial voice and phrases with the variety of a Lieder singer. He too would benefit, though, from a venue where he could simply be more resonant.

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More Handel

A review of William Christie’s video of Handel’s Orlando has been added to the discography on re: opera.

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