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Archive for September, 2010

René Jacobs’s incursion in the field of Mozart operas has started with Così fan tutte and has met with wide critical acclaim. I have to confess that I felt alone in my lack of affection for these recordings – glassy and unclear orchestral playing, inorganic approach to rhythm, fancy for overdecoration, exotic casting and the intrusive fortepiano continuo largely to blame. That said, a sense of development can be felt – his recording of Le Nozze di Figaro is somewhat more polished and that of Don Giovanni has many powerful moments, while La Clemenza di Tito is a recording one has to appreciate and finally Idomeneo goes to the short-list in this opera’s discography (I am not so sure about Die Zauberflöte, though). It makes one wonders why the first work in the series is the first to be revisited.

The first information to stand out about this performance is that the new cast features singers who have become close collaborators of the Belgian conductor, but the truth is that it was hardly this evening’s memorable feature, which would be rather René Jacobs himself. Rarely have I witnessed a conductor whose own view of a work has matured so fast and so profoundly. I do not mean that the new Così does not sound like a René Jacobs performance. It does: the abrupt change of pace in the middle of numbers, the fancy for decoration, the vigorous rhythms, they are all there, but now they do sound like a natural means of expression of the score rather than mannerisms that only call attention to themselves. The immediate good surprise was a newly found sense of respect for the natural rhythmic flow where even the swift acc. and rit. effects proved to be consequent and musically/dramatically justified. Other than this there was the all-important sensuous orchestral sound largely absent in Jacobs’s early Mozart opera recordings. This evening, the Freiburger Barockorchester offered rich, clear and expressive sounds throughout. The transparence of ensembles, the neatness of rapid divisions both in woodwind and strings, the sense of story-telling and the perfect balance between singers and orchestra are an evidence of the adept Mozartian Jacobs has ultimately become. It is a pity that the old performance rather than this one been preserved for posterity.

In any case, if the old recording has an advantage, this would be the the euphonious and technically polished casting of singers like Véronique Gens or Bernarda Fink. Although this evening’s singers could be considered more theatrically engaged and the sense of team more vivid, none of them offered the nec plus ultra in Mozartian singing. Alexandrina Pendatchanska did not seem to be in a good-voice day and gave the impression of being nervous (even if she has actually taken roles more technically exacting than Fiordiligi in her career). Although her bottom register is usually generous, she seemed cautious about diving into the lower end of her range, while the voice sounded distinctively less bright than usual, especially in its high register. Sometimes she sank into background in ensembles, especially while singing coloratura. Nevertheless, she tackled very fast divisions accurately, even facing fast tempi in the strette of both her arias and had no problem with singing very high mezza voce. She has the interpretative and emotional resources for the role (her recitatives were particularly convincing), but the lack of a nobler tonal quality made her Fiordiligi short in vulnerability and touchingness. On the other hand, Marie-Claude Chappuis’s reedy mezzo is extremely appealing and she is stylish, musicianly and sensitive. It is only a pity that she fails to girare la voce, as Italians use to say, making her high notes tense and hard. Sunhae Im has everything in her favour to be an excellent Despina, but  for the voice for the role. Although her soprano is all right quicksilvery as a soubrette’s should be, the part is in on the low side for her. As a result, she could barely pierce through in the lower reaches and the tonal quality lacked the sexiness she had to produce rather by inflection and attitude.

Magnus Staveland clearly knows Mozartian style and never fails in good taste and elegance, but his tenor lacks stronger support in a role the tessitura of which is basically high. He was often overshadowed in ensembles, did not really project his top notes, too often shifted to falsetto or sounded grey and unflowing in more exposed high-lying passages. The deletion of Ah, lo vegg’io came  as no surprise and Tradito, schernito was all about difficulty. Johannes Weisser’s clear baritone is far more pleasant and generous, but it seems that he is one of those singers whose facility is finally an obstacle to optimal results. It is true that the sound was never less than pleasing, but one had the impression that he only really “placed his voice” when things became really low or required more thrust. When this happens, he does sound like a baritone – and a particularly rich-toned one – but that happens unfortunately very infrequently. Marcos Fink’s voice is a bit low for Don Alfonso, but he is an experient and resourceful singer who knows how to sound at ease, even when he is not.

Calling this performance a semi-staged concert is an understatement. Although there were no sets and costumes, some props were used and stage action had no interruption. Singers exited and entered the stage as in a fully-staged event. Although the program does not mention any director, the proceedings were actually very well directed and the cast made a very good job out of it, especially Sunhae Im, a brilliant comedy actress. Even the choristsers from the Coro Gulbekian proved to have acting skills in a most entertaining evening.

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If Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra does ring a bell in your mind, it is because of the famous article Telepatia musicale in which Giovanni Tebaldini suggests by means of musical examples that Richard Strauss either copied or had a transalpine case of coincidental inspiration with the Italian composer who premièred his opera a couple of years before the première of Elektra in Dresden. I had never heard Cassandra before this evening and the first bar already shows the famous motive associated to Agamemnon in Strauss’s opera. And this is only the first of a series of similarities. In any case, comparison between the two works only show that, if Strauss indeed “borrowed” some motives from Gnecchi, the Bavarian composer’s superior usage of them should have been reason for Gnecchi to be proud. As it is, Cassandra sounds like Turandot with a bold harmonic twist. The canzonetta-style of its melodies sandwiched between dissonant chords is something that requires some adaptation, but the work is certainly atmospheric and the orchestration is imaginative. It is curious, however, that the title role is more or less unimportant in the plot, even if it has a big scene before the opera abruptly ends.

Donald Runnicles could find the right balance between Italianate and German qualities in the work and provided beautiful sounds throughout. In the cast, Markus Brück stands out in a powerfully and richly sung account not only of the role of Egisto but also in the prologue (replacing an ailing Nathan De’Shon Myers). Takesha Meshé Kizart’s smoky soprano is a bit on the light side for Clitennestra, but she certainly did not seem fazed by what is required from her, producing some exciting chest voice in her low register throughout. Gaston Rivero is too light-toned for Agamennone, but sang firmly and securely in a tricky tessitura. Julia Benzinger could also do with a more dramatic voice. These singers suggested rather efficiency than thrill, and the results were finally quite unexciting, but I am afraid that the score itself is also to blame.

After the intermission, Donald Runnicles proved again that he is a most reliable Straussian, ensuring ideal balance in his orchestra and helping his singers by keeping his forces under the leash without losing tonal quality. The transparent reading was musically extremely rewarding and, if the cast allowed him a bit more power, it could be a quite gripping experience. As it was, the final impression was of sensitivity and stylishness. And the house orchestra followed the conductor in an exemplary account of this difficult music.

In the title role Eva Johansson could figure as an example of a long list of what-not-to-do in a voice lesson – her soprano lacks harmonics in her entire range, her intonation is erratic, there is no legato to speak of, the low register is unsupported, the high notes are pushed – but still I have to confess I found her flawed performance quite touching. If I may borrow a concept from La Cieca’s Parterre Box, this would be  “emotional journey”. Her underwhelming Elektra seemed more humane in her faltering expression of rage, a more believable sister to Chrysothemis. Her Recognition Scene finally produced the right effect for the wrong reasons – the imperfect attempt to produce a lyric line (topped by a praiseworthy intent to produce mezza voce whenever this was required) was itself the sound image of Elektra’s ruined beauty. All this aided by an engaged stage performance made me forgive the never-ending list of drawbacks, but I wonder how long she will be able to tackle this repertoire in such a reckless manner. Manuela Uhl seemed to be in an off day – the voice refused to flow, sounded shrill in its higher reaches and failed to pierce elsewhere. Julia Juon is an experienced Klytämnestra, her mezzo still pleasant and rich, but spacious low notes were not really there. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was in her prime when she sang the role in the Dresden première and I wonder why opera houses believe that this role should be cast exclusively by veterans. I really dream of listening to it by a large, full, warm voice. Burkhard Ulrich was a firm-toned Aegisth, but Stephen Bronk lost a bit steam in the middle of his performance. Katarina Bradic’s First Maid and Ulrike Helzel’s Third Maid are worthy of mention.

Director Kirsten Harms uses the same set for both operas – and I don’t need to describe it, for it looks like almost every set designed for R. Strauss’s Elektra. The same goes for costumes. It seems that the axe is very important for her, because Klytämnestra had to carry it throughout both operas. It is unintentionally funny when Cassandra says that she foresees a murder that very day as Clitennestra makes a what-is-she-talking-about?-face while greeting her husband with that enormous axe in her hand. As I use to say, Mrs. Harms has a problem with third acts and I thought that, since there was no third act today, she could feel a bit more confident about her directing. But there is always a last scene – in Elektra, for example, she found it important to have some ghost girls perform a ballet around Elektra. Maybe they were remains of a production of an old staging of Adam’s Giselle who were still bound by contract to the Deutsche Oper.

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Sweden has made a great contribution for the world of opera in what regards the fearsome title role in R. Strauss’s Elektra – Birgit Nilsson is reason alone to make the country proud. Among the world’ s leading dramatic sopranos in activity in our days, three names stand out: Nina Stemme, Irene Theorin and Katarina Dalayman. Theorin’s Elektra has received good reviews – she has sung the role most notably in Salzburg; Dalayman has been more prudent about hers, trying the role at home (first in 2009) before she takes it to the world’ s leading stages. Elektra is a testing role with difficult exposed acuti, one of Theorin’ s strong features, while Dalayman has a warmer and darker tonal quality that does not immediately suggest the voice for the role. Although I cannot really say that Dalayman’ s Elektra is an unmitigated success, it is a considerable success under the particular circumstances of a small auditorium and a sympathetic conductor.

The most immediately noticeable quality in Dalayman’ s Elektra is a healthy, velvety and round soprano that takes readily to legato and long lines. Although her high bs and cs require an extra push, they are loud and firm enough and she did not seem tired by the end of the opera.  She does have a problem to pierce through in her middle register and, in fast declamatory passages, she fails to project efficiently. The general impression is not of hysteria, but of stateliness, what is not unwelcome in a work of classical inspiration. A drawback difficult to overlook is the fact that she had to chop her phrasing to accommodate her top notes, sometimes in awkward places - especially in the Recognition scene, where every high note had its value bluntly shortened (basically, she would hit them a couple of seconds later than what the score indicates). In the intepretation department, her Elektra scored many points in subtlety, with finely shaded inflections and clear understanding of dramatic development. Although she never seemed really feverish on stage, her derangement was convincing and finally quite realistic.

Emma Vetter’s soprano is pleasant on the ear, if a bit sugary and the voice could be more strongly supported and more sharply focused throughout the entire range, but for her firm, bright top notes. Although Marianne Eklöf’s mezzo is a bit light and high for Klytämnestra, her voice is spacious enough, her interpretation is sharply conceived and her stage performance quite gripping – it does not hurt either that she is musically accurate in a role often abused in name of theatricality. Marcus Jupiter’s voice still needs to mature a bit – at moments his Orest was powerfully sung, but there were other moments where he failed to project clearly. Magnus Kyhle’ s firm-voiced Aegypt was clearly enunciated – and the idea of showing him drunk makes sense in the context of the libretto.

I am not sure if Ralf Weikert deliberately had the house orchestra’ s string so recessed – the opera’ s most emotional moments sounded quite tame therefore. If the brass and woodwind could clearly be heard and Klytämnestra’s nightmare turned out particularly transparent (and also the singers’  lives were made quite easier), the sensation of detachment was a serious blemish in the development of a theatrical atmosphere.  Sometimes, one had the impression of a well-behaved rehearsal, but somehow the second part of the opera seemed to gain in intensity and by the end it was almost but not entirely thrilling. Staffan Waldemar Holm’ s production is not helpful in what regards atmosphere, the stage is largely reduced – two wooden walls with a corridor between them leave only a few meters space for actors. All women but Elektra had light low-cut dresses, high heels and 1930′ s hairstyles and all men but Orest (who has an overcoat on) wore suits.  Secondary roles were kept on stage far longer than in any other production I have seen, joining Klytämnestra’ s derisive laughter at Elektra. Although it all seemed like the low-budget version of successful productions from somewhere else, barred some semaphoric acting from all involved, the interaction between these singers is praiseworthy and some key scenes, such as Elektra and Klytämnestra and both Elektra and Chrysothemis were efficiently performed.

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Although Così fan tutte has many operatic puzzles to be solved, the most controversial puzzle in the Mozart/Da Ponte operas arguably is the role of Donna Anna. The lady’s ambivalent behavior has reserved her increasingly nastier portrayals in recent operatic productions. It has been almost widely accepted that she is attracted to Don Giovanni and trapped in an engament of convenience with the unmanly Don Ottavio. In Roger Norrington’s words, she is often portrayed as a neurotic, while the libretto and the music show her as a heroic character instead. However, in Calixto Bieito’s and in Claus Guth’s productions, we see a schemy, unfaithful and two-faced woman. I know our days tend to see a hero rather than an anti-hero in Don Giovanni, but I have the impression that this view has been established at the expense of the opera’s serious couple’s seriousness.

In their first scene together, Donna Anna is trying to detain Don Giovanni while her servants are arriving to help her. Although the audience is unaware of what has happened inside, Leporello would later say that his master tried to rape her (due imprese leggiadre: sforzar la figlia ed ammazzar il padre). While she desperately tries to prevent him from escaping, he answers that this is all in vain, for she will not discover who he is (chi son’io tu non saprai). In any case, if she indeed knew who he is (as many recent productions suggest), why would she make such a scandal to attract her father’s and her servants’ attention? A lady such as Donna Anna in a conservative country as Spain used to be would never jeopardize her reputation like that. The text shows a woman ready to sacrifice her own life to save her honour (non sperar se non m’uccidi).

So the text is quite clear about the fact that Donna Anna was almost raped by Don Giovanni, who would kill her father soon after that. That said, still the pieces of the puzzle do not fit perfectly together. Although her fiancé, Don Ottavio swears he will revenge her father and kept – awkwardly, truth be said – his word, the young woman repels him with increasing vehemence. Her strange behavior is probably the reason why directors tend to see some sort of insincerity in her. Curiously, while trying to break into Don Giovanni’s party under their masks, Donna Anna answers to Donna Elvira’s comment that this was dangerous and risky business by saying she feared for her dear fiancé in the first place (temo pel caro sposo, e per noi temo ancor). One could even say that she is quite tender with Don Ottavio, even when he looses his patience with her and says she is cruel towards him. But he is somehow right to ask: why would she wish to postpone a wedding that her father himself has approved especially now that she is alone in the world?

Before I address the issue, I would like to make one previous question: where exactly does Don Ottavio live? We can assume that he does not live in the Commendatore’s house, for it would be inappropriate to have an unmarried couple living under the same roof. So, if he lives somewhere else, how exactly could Donna Anna fetch him so quickly when her father was in danger? In an emergency situation such as that, she would not have the time to get a carriage or even a horse to ride to Don Ottavio’s place, get a servant to open the doors in the middle of the night, wake him up, get him dressed and then run back. If she indeed managed to do that as fast as she could, she would nonetheless take a couple of hours in the operation. In any case, a reasonable person would guarantee that in-house servants who were supposed to have weapons around took care of the situation rather than leave her father unattended while facing an invader. Considering all that, it seems well-grounded to believe that Don Ottavio was already in the Commendatore’s house. In the middle of the night without his host’s permission, although the young lady seemed to be aware of that.

When Donna Anna recognizes in Don Giovanni her father’s murderer, she tells Don Ottavio: “It was quite late at night, when I saw a man covered in his cloak whom I first thought to be you enter my room”. One can only wonder why she would believe that this man could be her fiancé. I am sure that her father would not approve of those nocturnal visits – a young woman alone in her room with her fiancé in the middle of the night. Notice that she found it quite natural, also the fact that he had a cloak on (i.e.,  he came from outside). She only found it strange when she realized that the man was not Don Ottavio. It is therefore justified to believe that she accorded her fiancé this intimate interview. Probably because the couple did not want to wait for the honeymoon to have some fun, Donna Anna arranged this rendez-vous finally to be surprised by a strange sexual offender. This perfectly explains why the young woman felt so guilty about the whole event – she betrayed her own father’s confidence in the very day of his death and, if she had not opened the door, he would have had no reason to fight Don Giovanni and he would have not even died (before you find it exaggerated, please have in mind the first scene in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino). This also explains why she felt that rushing things towards consummating her marriage with Don Ottavio required some consideration: it was rushing things that put them into those tragic circumstances. In her big aria, she is hurt by the accusation of being cruel – for she knows that she had previously been extremely indulgent towards her fiancé. She even says “Love has spoken enough in your favor to me”.

One extra inference is believing that Don Ottavio and Don Giovanni were actually friends. After Donna Anna explained her fiancé the circumstances of her father’s death, he says “It is possible that under the sacred mantle of friendship…”. Donna Anna herself acknowledges that Don Giovanni is a friend of Don Ottavio’s when shortly before that she says that they need their friendship. Entering a rich lady’s bedroom without her consent was not the easiest thing in the world in the days when a sword was the most dangerous weapon a man could carry. And nobody forced Donna Anna’s door – she saw a man enter and was not surprised by it. Who knows Don Ottavio, trying to impress his philanderer friend, rashly told him about his plans only to be trumped? Convincing a beautiful serious lady to sin against chastity is something a guy could use to impress a friend far more successful in the seduction department.

Although this interpretation is closely based on the text, it is still pure speculation – but again Mozart’s music for Donna Anna is very different from what he composed to Vitellia. Her cries for revenge receive music of heroic quality, her consistently high tessitura and fioriture portray her as a serious character and the florid stretta of her noble aria are a good illustration of how sincere is her guilt and solem her vow to atone (“maybe one day Heaven will pity me” is her text). Donna Anna’s sincerity also makes Don Ottavio a far more interesting character – he might be not an alpha male, but he has hormones like everybody else and, as much as Don Giovanni, all he is trying to do is having some fun in a beautiful Summer evening, just like everyone in Seville before the invention of TV, Internet and Ipad.

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