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Archive for October, 2012

The third and last installment of the Vienna State Opera’s Japanese tour is Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as seen on video with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. Eric Génovèse’s is the most recent and most complex production from Vienna in the series brought to the Japanese audience – and considering the improved quality of the choral singing – probably the “premium” item (it looks also better live than on DVD). The reason is the long and faithful appreciation for Edita Gruberová’s artistry in Japan. Although this has been announced as the Slovakian diva’s farewell operatic performance in Japan, the truth is that her later appearances in Tokyo have all of them been marketed as such. I have to confess that the last time I saw her (as Norma, in Berlin) left me a bitter aftertaste – that evening showed her below her usual standards and I wondered if she should not consider preserving her reputation by leaving the stage while still remembered by her qualities, not her flaws. In that sense, this afternoon proved that either she was in a very bad day that day or that she was in an exceptionally good day today.

Before the nay-sayers say anything, I will acknowledge that Anna Bolena requires a voice different from Gruberová’s – and her approach arguably is not what a bel canto specialist would consider “authentic”. But, even in her present vocal condition (i.e., although the tonal quality is still crystal-clear and young-sounding, legato is now imperfect, some runs are imprecise and intonation has its dodgy moments), she has practically no rivals these days in some very tricky passages, especially those involving trills and high mezza voce. What many critics overlook too is the fact that hers are fully-engaged performances, dramatically committed and intelligent: if her approach to interpretation is often more Straussian than Donizettian, at least she is truly investing the text with a wide tonal palette (and very clear diction), what is a sine qua non condition for true bel canto phrasing. I only wished that she did not try to prove herself with some showy embellishment and laborious in alts (why?) – when the matter is technique and insight, hers is still a convincing performance – at some moments, (such as Cielo, a’miei lunghi spasimi) even haunting.

Sonia Ganassi (Giovanna Seymour) was not at her most focused and took some time to warm. I am not sure if this is a good role for her, but that did not prevent her to offer her customary intensity of expression, attention to the text and sense of style. In any case, her contribution in her big duet with Anna was sensitively handled and she coped with the fast tempo in Ah, pensate che rivolti with aplomb. Although Elisabeth Kulman was in more incisive voice in the video, she still sang with irresistible charm – hers is a truly lovely voice. I would really like to hear her in Der Rosenkavalier (unfortunately not in her repertoire). As Percy, Shalva Mukeria proved to be something like the poorman’s Josep Bros – and that’s being really, really poor. I have to believe that he was indisposed or something like that. As much as with  Sonia Ganassi, I do not believe that Enrico is really Luca Pisaroni’s role and yet he sang very well. The necessary weight and menace were not really there, but what he offered was elegant, technically accomplished and connected to the drama.

Evelino Pidò is an ideal Donizettian conductor – the Vienna State Opera Orchestra offered him its most Italian sound and the extra polish of an orchestra used to Mozart and R. Strauss. He produced the ideal balance between orchestra and singers, never let rhythms sag, found excitement in buoyancy rather than in weight (as this repertoire demands) and made his musicians sing with the singers, not only in solo passages. This alone would have made this performance worth the while.

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Thirty-two years ago, the Vienna State Opera brought to Japan Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, particularly noted for its film adaptation (published five years before) with Kiri Te Kanawa, Mirella Freni and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The cast seen and heard at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan was no less glamorous: Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Agnes Baltsa, Bernd Weikl and Hermann Prey. Even in this uniformly prestigious group of singers, Popp’s Susanna was very much the evening’s Schwerpunkt, as it should be. After all, Susanna is the central role in this opera,and if the soprano does not provide the starting spark, the performance generally does not ignite.

The resurrection of Ponnelle’s old staging does seem anachronistic in the sense that its traditional approach, no added insight and cute routines are rarely seen in operatic stages these days. And yet, the staging presently in use in Vienna (by Jean-Louis Martinoty) too is more or less traditional, albeit stylized – and certainly less beautiful. What proved to be a surprise for me was the fact that, as staged this evening, sets and costumes looked shining new and Diana Kienast’s Spielleitung made the proceedings far more agile than they used to be in Ponnelle’s days. Also, the level of acting was above average, some singers bringing fresh ideas to their roles and some freshness to a potentially stiff enterprise.

I would say that a more agile conductor would have done the necessary trick to suppress the museological aspect of this performance. Peter Schneider has an old-fashioned view of this score – rich, vibrant orchestral sound, considerate tempi and elegant, light-on-the-foot tempi – pleasant, slightly decadent Mozart made believable by the echt decadent elegance imported from Vienna. The truth is that with any other big orchestra, this would have probably been quite boring – but these musicians know how to produce bright, clean, transparent sounds (I guess that the A-team featured in this evening’s Don Giovanni in the old opera house would have brought a little bit more smoothness too). As it was, moments like Aprite, presto aprite  could have done with less ponderousness, but whenever a serious undertone could be found, the maestro and his orchestra could find the right poignant note that makes a performance of this opera really special – something that many buoyant and supple performances of this opera unfortunately often lack.

Barbara Frittoli’s vibrant soprano can still produce the right effect in this music – her Porgi, amor deeply heartfelt and poised – but there is now some tremulousness in her mezza voce and her high register is no longer really comfortable (she predictably chose the lower options in Susanna, or via sortite). Her characterization, as always, three-dimensional and classy. Her Susanna, Sylvia Schwartz is unfortunately too small-scaled to produce the right effect. She was too often inaudible and unvaried and the tone is grainy and not sexy. She is a stylish and musicianly singer – but the memory of Lucia Popp in the same production makes things difficult for her.  As Cherubino, Margarita Gritskova offered the all-round more satisfying performance in the evening – her fruity mezzo projects well in the hall and she sang with true Mozartian poise. I intended to write that Carlos Álvarez was very close to be an ideal Count, full-toned and patrician with the right touch of nastiness – but I find his manipulation of his big aria’s stretta simply unacceptable. A baritone who has often sung Verdi shouldn’t be afraid of high notes. Erwin Schrott was clearly not at his most energetic – his voice sounded often undersupported, legato was often left to imagination, he overused parlando effects and was rather rhythmically imprecise. During the evening, he would improve and bring imaginative small effects (and some rather bureaucratically employed) to his Figaro. Small roles could be a little bit more solid (but for a charming Barbarina in Valentina Nafornita, more Susanna-material than Schwartz herself) – the chorus definitely could be improved upon.

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The guest performances of European opera companies are an important part of Japanese musical scene – when prestigious opera houses and famous soloists are involved, unbelievably expensive tickets are sold out in a couple of hours and a sense of occasion can be felt in the days of these performances. The Vienna State Opera has visited Japan eight times since 1980 and has a policy of playing safe for their Japanese tours – mainstream repertoire, traditional productions and rather than the crème de la crème in their roster (as in the past), solid ensemble singers with two or three celebrities in the overall package to make it more appealing.

This time, Richard Strauss’s Salome has been chosen to open their Japanese agenda. On reading that we were going to see Boleslaw Barlog’s 1972 production (yes, you’ve read it correctly – 1972), I braced for an unpleasant but necessary exhumation, but – kitsch as it is (think of Aubrey Beardsley in Benetton colors) – the Spielleitung embraced the concept’s out-of-dateness and convinced the cast to find the Sarah Bernhardt hidden in the recesses of their souls. Although I find it sensible to provide a very simple choreography for someone who still has to tackle a very tough piece of singing, the climax (i.e., the seventh veil) was truly poorly timed. Similarly, the closing scene woefully misfired – there was no change in atmosphere (lighting? anyone?) and – as usual – the last two minutes were just embarrassing.

The performance was supposed to be conducted by General Musical Director Franz Welser-Möst, but, for some reason, he could not make it and good old Peter Schneider, who is here for next week’s Nozze di Figaro, took over. As we were explained, he conducted this very work back in Vienna only last year. I have seen very good performances with Maestro Schneider and he is indeed reliable, but has never been electrifying. When the opera began, the prospects did not seem very positive – Narraboth and Herodias’ page conversed in such a leisured pace that you could “hear” the punctuation. Salome’s entrance livened things a bit and little by little the proceedings acquired momentum. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra was (predictably) not always in its better shape, but could be uniquely persuasive in key moments. The way these musicians understand Strauss’s hallmark theatrical  orchestral effects is a reward in itself. By the end, the performance seemed echt and quite convincing. For a difficult opera as this one, this is already something to be cherished. And there was a good cast too.

Although Gun-Brit Barkmin is a member of Berlin’s Komische Oper, this is the first time I have ever seen her. Her bright, slightly acidulous, but very firm soprano is hardly the most mellifluous Straussian instrument in the world, but, for a change, it is the right voice for this part: light, focused and very penetrating. Her phrasing – again most fortunate in the context of this production is almost endearingly old-fashioned, with a conversational, coquette-ish style in its occasional almost operetta-ish portamento and slightly sharp exposed high notes. There could be a little more legato – especially when Salome describes her infatuation with Jochanaan in the first part of the opera – but one cannot overlook the fact that she did not seem to become tired towards the end of the opera. Some difficult high-lying passages could sound pinched, but that was all. Ms. Barkmin has also an interesting approach for the role – it turns around some sort of childish perversity without any hint of lechery (this should be obvious, but most singers behave here as high-mileage vamps, even though Strauss himself discouraged that). She was well matched by the rich-toned Markus Marquardt, whose heroic high notes rang out freely in the auditorium without any loss in textual clarity. Rudolf Schasching has the necessary verve for Herod, but his singing is undersupported and did not come through as clearly as one would desire. Herbert Lippert (Narraboth) sounded more natural and more positive in comparison. Although Iris Vermillion has the measure of the role of Herodias, it lies a bit high for her and, as a result, she sounded too often unfocused.  On the other hand, the role of the Page is on the low side for the always reliable Ulrike Helzel.

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