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Archive for September, 2012

In the context of their complete series of Bach cantatas, the Bach Collegium Japan’s latest program focuses in cantatas written in Leipzig between 1728 and 1736. The concert actually began with two organ pieces – Bach’s Prelude and Fugue BWV 539 and Johann Ludwig Krebs’ Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, based on the same material that Bach had adopted for the cantata with the same name, this concert’s last item. Both were played by Naoko Imai. I am no specialist in organ music, but I have found that the registration was very well chosen, producing a warm and intimate atmosphere.

All the cantatas featured in these program had been recorded by Masaaki Suzuki’s teacher, Ton Koopman with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and these are my favorite recordings of these pieces – Koopman’s performances (in volumes 20 and 21 of his own series) exude what could be described as the “joy of faith”: Bach’s message of confidence in God’s grace is uttered in exuberant rhythms, colorful playing and fully engaged performance of his singers. In his approach, there is no austere piety, but almost defiant fervor, the bottom line being “join in and celebrate”. Suzuki’s view is altogether more cautious, the less buoyant pulse, the more detached phrasing combined with a warmer rather than transparent sound and the soloists’ less theatrical approach almost bring to the audience’s mind the hardships against which God protects us. I could let myself seduce by the Bach Collegium Japan’s darker view of these cantatas if their points had been put across more expressively. As it was, sometimes one had the impression of a certain politeness and coldness. And more clarity wouldn’t hurt either. In performances like that, one expects a bit more polish – compared with Koopman’s recordings the effect was heavier-footed, the natural horns and trumpets bumpier and the soloists generally less nimble. Here an admirably precise chorus (the sopranos particularly) and an unusually full-toned flautist deserve mention (Kiyomi Suga).

Among the singers, countertenor Damien Guillon takes pride of place. His is a very smooth voice, easily produced and very solid in his low notes. Koopman has contralto Bogna Bartosz instead, who does a very good job, but cannot avoid a difficult register break to negotiate. The bell-toned Hana Blazikova is amazingly pure-toned, but seems unconcerned compared to Koopman’s more assertive if less steady Johannette Zomer (BWV 14) and far less at ease in her low register than the also more persuasive Sandrine Piau. Gerd Türk had very little to sing this afternoon, but his recitative in BWV 14 had more spirit than almost anything else, but he was overshadowed by the countertenor in their duet in BWV 197. Peter Kooy has an ideal voice for this repertoire, but he now sounds rusty compared to his former self. By the end of the concert he sounded a bit tired. Here the comparison with a fresher-toned and more flexible Klaus Mertens for Koopman is rather disadvantageous.

Last but not least, the program also had BWV 197a, a fragmentary reconstitution of a lost cantata, beautifully sung by both Guillon and Kooy.

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While the Fujiwara Opera Company is a rather conservative institution, Tokyo Nikikai Opera has showed the Japanese audience a rather adventurous repertoire on borrowing productions from some innovative opera houses in Europe while manning them with Japanese musicians. In its 60th anniversary season, it has programmed Claus Guth’s staging of Parsifal, as seen in Zurich and Barcelona.

Nobody can accuse Guth of inconsistency: the revolving stage, the rewriting the plot, the psychologization/trivialization of archetypal/mythological/symbolic figures and situations – they are all there. As told here, the story takes place right before WWII in a mansion turned into what seems to be a hospital for war-traumatized soldiers. Gurnemanz is the resident chaplain, a very much visible Titurel is the lord of the manor, whose two sons (?!) Amfortas and Klingsor cannot come to an understanding since their father began to display an obvious preference for the former. This preference means that: a) Amfortas is supposed to be the field hospital’s “king”; b) and that his privileges are basically being bullied by the medical staff and having the blood of his wound extracted by nurses and drank (in the grail) by his vampiric father, who shares the diluted version with the patients in a very choreographic ceremony in the “hospital”. Why Klingsor is envious of all that will remain a mystery. Brothers will eventually become chums again in the end, when Parsifal becomes some sort of military dictator and Kundry decides that she should hit the road and get a life after all.

Although the concept has many loose ends and is essentially contradictory (the “the redeemer has been redempt”-moral is here only an irony…), I do find interesting the idea that an institution bereft of its spiritual content (therefore, of its purpose) will still exist as self-parody, as the mechanical repetition of its sheer phisiology. Monsalvat’s purpose was to protect the holy grail and spear that together produce Christ’s blood in a miraculous and purifying rite. However, the king proved to be impure and failed to fulfill the institution’s purpose – he has lost the holy spear – but at this point the institution serves no longer its purpose but rather its own existence. A ceremony must be performed; if the miraculous blood cannot be produced, someone’s blood will have to do. The fact that it is the king’s  blood being an interesting image of how a legitimate political project eventually becomes a power machine. It is a pity that this interesting aspect went lost in incoherence (the whole Parsifal-as-military-dictator (guess who we’re talking about…) episode, silliness (Parsifal trying to “cure” the symptoms of the mentally disturbed patient in a Mel Brooks-approach) and sheer misfiring (Kundry’s seduction scene followed by some 15 clueless extras.

Conductor Taijirou Iimori is an experienced Wagnerian with an impressively organized musical mind. The first five minutes of the performance perfectly balanced and more transparent than any other performance of this opera in my experience. Eventually, the maestro would have to deal with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra’s limitations in tonal glamour and homogeneity and his soloists’ lack of experience and vocal amplitude. Iimori must be praised by his commitment to the actual performance rather than his own concept: as a result, the performance took place without major incidents, but unfortunately without major revelations. I have the impression that he is the kind of conductor who works rather from detail than from the big picture; I often missed an act-long guiding line that would link the intention of isolated moments that would fade into grey zones before tension had to be build up from scratch. I would like to hear him in more “authentic” Wagnerian circumstances.

At first, I did not know what to think of Yuka Hashizume’s Kundry. She is not a dramatic soprano, but she has the stamina and the piercing quality for the exposed acuti; she is not a mezzo soprano, but her low register is warm, rich and voluminous enough; she is not really a bête de scène with a flashing personality, but she has an interesting subtle presence and also interpretative imagination and the technique to make it happen in tonal and dynamic variety. Hashizume is a singer with a wide range of possibilities, and I have the impression that all this could be focused into something truly amazing in less experimental milieux. She has sung Senta and Sieglinde in Japan in similar enterprises – it would be interesting to hear her how she would react to the influence of someone like Daniel Barenboim in the Lindenoper.

Kei Fukui was the Nikikai Opera’s Walther in their Meistersinger, but he is more usually seen in recitals in which he has plenty of opportunity to sing arias like Nessun Dorma and E lucevan le stelle, hardly the kind of tenor one would find in a Wagnerian cast in Europe. One could tell from his Italianized German, explosive phrasing and the habit of treating declaratory lines in a rather free way. Although his voice is big enough for this role, having to emulate a heldentenor (especially in the rather emotional way he understands this task to be) made he force too often and after a while he sounded basically tired. He still had his high notes, though, and had a “reiner Tor” thing about him, even if in a very generic manner.

Hiroshi Kuroda’s baritone has a really curdled sound and the results were often rough. He is a committed actor and could produce the necessary intensity. Kazuhiro Kotetsu has the voice for Gurnemanz, knows the text and Wagnerian style. His singing has many unfocused patches, though, and the interpretation is still wooden. This is, of course, a very challenging role usually cast with acknowledged singers and Kuroda is rather the ensemble’s leading bass (actually, I find it quite remarkable that the Nikikai Opera could cast from ensemble, in a way that only opera houses in Germany would do). Ryouhei Izumi proved to understand everything about Klingsor but the proper technique to sing the role. One could see what he wanted to do – and that this could be interesting – but rawness was one could ultimately hear. Tetsuya Odagawa’s Titurel was too woolly for comfort, but the flower maidens were very well cast.

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The Fujiwara Opera is said to be Japan’s oldest professional opera company and it has vowed itself – since the 1930, when it was founded – to preserve the traditions of Italian opera in this country (with occasional forays in other repertoires). I cannot be scientific about what I am going to say, but I notice that many an opera-goer (especially from a certain age on) in this country is also a fan of kabuki, a genre where the keyword is tradition: programs explain to you that the actor you are seeing belongs to the same family of the first person to play that role in the XVIIIth century etc. If someone from, say, Berlin happened to see today’s performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula he would understand the experience of some sort of museological experiment. Costumes sets, stock gestures, everything suggests a black and white photo from which someone like Toti dal Monte could spring back to life. If you get into this sort of mindset, there is some craft in the way everything makes sense in its extreme artificiality, but – since the spirit is doing things à la lettre – the anachronistic costumes and props (flashlights!) jar. For my part, I found it of great anthropological interest the way choristers were made to behave in what the director supposed to be XIXth-century-Swiss-village style (and what ultimately looked like the kind of acting one sees in a Kenji Mizoguchi film).

In any case, even if one doesn’t have any museological or anthropological interest, the musical side of today’s performance are to be reckoned with. Nobuko Takahashi has a shimmering, sweet tonal quality à la Ileana Cotrubas that makes all the difference in the world in a role like Amina. She has very secure in alts, lands in her low register with the naturalness of a Mirella Freni and phrases with grace and sensitiveness. There are some tremulous and unfocused patches in her singing and her coloratura is not really precise, but everything is dealt with with such elegance and musicianship that you forgive her everything, even the fact that she does not really try to go beyond “touching” (this Amina has no dark sides, what makes the inn scene really less interesting). I have really enjoyed her performance – especially her heartfelt Ah, non credea mirarti. On the other hand, tenor Yojiro Oyama was something of a frustrating experience to me. It is not a mellifluous voice – rather dry and nasal – but he sang Prendi, l’anel ti dono with such breathtaking ease in his high register, liquid legato and sense of style that I kept waiting for more, but nothing after that was truly smooth: technique, intonation and taste were erratic and some moments were downright awkward. Pity. Although Hidekazu Tsumaya’s voice sounded smaller than what it usually is, he still offered an extremely satisfying performance, a classy Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni in particular. He could also find a welcome patrician attitude that set him apart from the remaining villagers.

The Fujiwara Opera Chorus combined both animation and precision in their acting and singing, and maestro Ryuichiro Sonoda proved to have taken Bellini’s score seriously, refusing just to accompany his singers, but actually setting an atmosphere in an appropriately bright, alert yet polished orchestral sound and expressive contributions from instrumental soloists.

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