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Archive for July, 2010

Missing and Wanted

I am looking for C. Davis’s first recording of Mozart’s Idomeneo with George Shirley and Margherita Rinaldi. I have combed the Internet and have not found anything so far. So, if anyone knows anything, I would be grateful to hear about it.

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Inutilia truncat is one of the most representative “slogans” of Classical art, one Dieter Dorn could have claim to follow when creating his 1997 production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro for the Bavarian State Opera. There is no lack of action in Beaumarchais’s story as told by Lorenzo da Ponte, but the truth is that you should take good care of what you are showing on stage when you are showing basically very little. Jürgen Rose’s sets never suggest anything clean and elegant, but rather lack of imagination and limited budget. As if saggy white fabric walls were not disappointing enough, the Countess is denied furniture but only a couple of blue chairs on a blue linoleum (Susanna has to write her letter to the Count on the floor with an instrument the handiness of which can only suggest a ball pen miraculously sent from the future) and the whole garden scene is reduced to three large pieces of white cloth under the most glaring lighting one can think of. If the Count does not recognize his wife as thoroughly lit as she was there, it was probably because he was dazzled by followspots. After 13 years, it is impossible to speak of the director’s original ideas for his actors, but the most positive aspect of this performance was the overall very good stage performances from all involved. Although there is probably nothing original going on here, this was nimbly performed by the cast.

The only character who seems to have deserved special consideration seems to be the Countess, here shown as the mistress of her own household ready to use Susanna and Figaro for her purposes (i.e., winning her husband back) almost as selfishly as the Count. It was most fortunate that Barbara Frittoli could perform the concept as believably as she has done this evening. Although her attitude towards her servants was quite liberal, this tampered nothing with the fact that they were supposed to obey her orders. Also, even if she longed for her husband attentions, this did not prevent her from loosing her temper at him whenever an instance of his misbehavior had been found out. The Milanese soprano’s vibrant soprano has always required some time for a demanding ear to adjust it to the needs of Mozartian instrumental purity and, even if these days it is running dangerously close to unacceptability, it still remains inside the realm of admissibility. Once you get used to it, you will find a stylish singer able to very clean attack in testing moments such as Porgi, amor, easy ascent to her high register (she sang her own high notes as written by Mozart, instead of delegating them to her Susanna) and a very homogenous tonal quality throughout her range. More than that, a singer who handles the text intelligently and whose soprano is large enough to tackle a lyric role in a larger house without forcing and capable of shading without holding back. Although her singing this evening was hardly immaculate, it was nonetheless engaging, expressive and spirited.

Camilla Tilling is the owner of  a pretty voice and has a strong sense of Mozartian style, but lacks projection and tends to be overshadowed by the orchestra and other singers. She was also an austere, rather charmless Susanna, but still spontaneous and surprisingly quite realistic. In the end, even if I missed some vivaciousness, I could not help thinking that the trade-off for the usual commandingness and cuteness was somehow positive. As Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus was, on the other hand, vivaciousness itself. Hers is an irresistibly warm voice and she has temper to spare. After some problems during Non so più , she offered a memorable Voi che sapete, desire, anxiety and seduction perfectly balanced. The Almaviva family was quite well represented this evening, for Mariusz Kwiecien proved to be an exemplary Count. His strong baritone finds no difficulty in this writing and he knows how to convey bossiness while keeping some charm. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo proved to be less creative as Figaro, his is a firm, generously and vigorously produced voice and, as Frittoli and Bonitatibus, could make recitatives sparkle in the idiomatic usage of their native language.

Juraj Valcuha seems to have a good idea of how this opera should be performed within the limits of Mozartian style and the house orchestra is adeptly flexible and clear, even if the sound was not terribly beautiful, but the idea behind the gesture was not always there. Too often, the proceedings suggested the mechanical rather than the spirited. To make things worse, now and then one would suspect that a couple of extra rehearsals could have been helpful – ensembles were often poorly timed and every member of the cast, in various degrees, would occasionally experiment some trouble in following the conductor’s beat.

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Looking back on my opera-going experience, I have noticed that, if there is an opera when things can get pretty awful when they go wrong, this opera is Bizet’s Carmen. I would primarily relate this phenomenon to this opera’s popularity, which basically means that packs of dispersive tourists invade an opera house whenever it is performed, ruining the artists’ concentration with thunderous coughing worthy of a sanatorium, obsessive-compulsive candy-unwrapping and chatting as one would never find in a movie theatre. Then there is the fact that intendants believe therefore that they should not waste intelligent creative teams in entertainment for the masses, hiring the most deplorable stage directors and set and costume designers. Subtlety is really something you can forget under those circumstances.

I won’t waste anyone’s time writing again the Deutsche Oper’s dismal production, but I must confess my surprise to find Yves Abel’s conducting so different from what he did last year. Maybe because the cast did not involve large voices, the orchestral playing was limited to recessed volume, which, allied to a matte aural perspective, gave an impression of distance and lack of enthusiasm. One could see the careful matching of tonal quality between different sections, but the effect was finally too discrete in a large hall such as the Deutsche Oper. To make things worse, the chorus seemed to be trying to infuse alone some animation into the proceedings, the result being messy ensemble.

While I would not dare to propose a no-hip-shaking rule for the title role, it should be obvious that the hip-shaking is not an end in itself, but rather a means to convey seduction. If the whole routine suggests rather pelvic disorder than sultriness, it is better to forget it. I would even go as far as suggest that Carmen does not really need to be showily seductive. Some singers have opted instead for earthiness and feistiness and ended up on being quite convincing. I particularly remember one Carmen who was indeed attention-gripping because she was the only unsmiling person on stage – and her unaffected intensity made a strong effect on Escamillo (and on us) when, among all the other frisky girls, she was the one whose “l’amour” fell on a dissonant note.

I write all that trying to express my sympathy for Anna Caterina Antonnacci, lost in this mediocrity fest. Although she is very attractive herself, anyone who has seen her off stage knows that she is a notably serious lady. In the Covent Garden production available on video, that seriousness is used to good effect, interestingly so in a vampiric closing scene, in which Carmen is shown in glowing golden colors and Don José is a pale, lifeless image to drag her from life into his personal void. Not this evening, where she had to follow every item in the Carmen-checklist. It was obvious that she was dying to break the cocoon of clichés in which she had been wrapped by the director, trying to insert some truly meaningful gestures in the proceedings, but an inert Don José was the coup de grâce to her intents and she finally seemed to have given up in a truly ineffective – musically and dramatically –  final scene.

Vocally speaking, this was not an unmitigated success either. Antonacci’s hybrid vocal quality does not mean, as with Shirley Verrett or with Grace Bumbry before her, a soprano voice with exciting low notes or a mezzo voice with powerful top notes (I won’t say who is who in these descriptions, for the subject is controversial), but rather a voice that really flashes in the middle range with some interesting excursions below but a rather tense upper range in dramatic moments. Beyond the technicalities, it is a indeed a seductive, well-focused voice with richness of tonal colouring and flexibility. All that allied to beautiful command of French made her first act especially sophisticated, with intelligent word-pointing, illuminating twists of phrasing and a huge amount of imagination. If someone can rescue the habanera from routine, this woman certainly is Anna Caterina Antonacci. In the remaining acts, her willingness to dare seemed to decline in the context of the prevailing shabbiness.

Jacquelyn Wagner has a pretty voice and her French is quite idiomatic. She is also stylish and musicianly, but I had the impression that her soprano is too light for this role and exposed high notes showed tiny but noticeable sourness. Ryan McKinny’s Escamillo turned around throatiness. Then there is Massimo Giordano’s Don José. The Italian tenor is a veteran in the Deutsche Oper’s Carmen and yet seems lost in the concept (if there is some concept to speak of) of this production. In 2009, his performance had already been plagued by uncertain pitch, poor French and unstylishness – but this evening he did not seem besides to be in good voice, sounding effortful and gusty in the Flower song.

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