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Archive for November, 2012

In his 2005 production for the New National Theatre, Josef E. Köpplinger seems to have tried to find the Spanish note missing in most stagings of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia – if his “Spanish” touch seems to have been borrowed from Pedro Almodóvar films (well, the “General Audiences” version of an Almodóvar film – the risqué touch reduced to Berta doubling as a brothel’s procurer or something of the kind), it all very much looks like the Austrian view of how Spain is supposed to be – there is an excess of color, decay, edge and ebullience. Heidrun Schmelzer’s revolving sets show Don Bartolo’s house both outside (when it looks realistic, albeit more Cuban than Spanish) and inside (think of a color, it is there). Extras are extremely busy and sometimes you have to make an effort to focus on the main story. As usual in the NNT, characters behave like puppets and you leave the theatre with no new thoughts about the libretto. I know, The Barber from Seville is no Die Frau ohne Schatten, but, well, they could have at least tried…

Some conductors decide how a performance should be before they met the orchestra they are going to conduct. In Carlo Montanaro’s mind, this should be a knockout of a performance – fast tempi, well-defined rhythms in the context of an a tempo-approach, dazzling virtuoso quality from all musicians. The audience heard something an else – the musicians desperately trying to cope with the fast beat, lacking lightness and buoyancy, ensembles very close to disintegrate (the long finale to act I was actually quite messy) and singers without leeway to build a performance. No-one could call this performance boring – it was exciting in a nervous, charmless way. You just need to listen to Claudio Abbado’s old recording for DG to see that it is worth while slowing down for some comfort – if it is not fun for the musicians, it will certainly not be for the audience.

Roxana Constantinescu’s grainy and smoky mezzo does not always suggest youth and her toying with soprano options are often not really beguiling, but she has very fluent coloratura, easy high notes and rarely sounds mechanical. Her Rosina is rather faceless, but one has never the impression that she is not trying to say something. Maybe in other circumstances. Luciano Botelho too has very clear divisions and a warm, pleasant tenor, but I could bet that he was not in a good voice day; his high register lacked brightness and sounded invariably bottled up and dry. In a role like the Count Almaviva, this is a non negligible shortcoming. I have little hope in Dalibor Jenis’s Figaro, but this was actually the best performance I have ever seen from him. Free from the burden of sounding like a Verdi baritone, he sounded simply more focused and spontaneous. He found no problem in high notes and he is more comfortable with fioriture than most. His unexaggerated interpretation is refreshing and his Italian is vivid enough. He is not terribly funny, though – and I missed a more “classical” poise in his singing. After all, this is technically bel canto repertoire . Bruno Praticò is the kind of buffo whose singing is more a matter of acting with the voice than actually producing flowing and musical phrasing. If his performance is all about comedy effects, he does it with animation and, if someone was actually having a good time on stage, this was him. Hidekazu Tsumaya, as always, was a reliable Don Basilio.

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Mihoko Fujimura is probably today’s most successful Japanese singer in activity in Europe. She has studied in Munich and, thanks to the Bayreuth Festival, has earned a name as Wagnerian mezzo. I have seen her there as Fricka – it is a warm yet bright voice that relies more on projection than on sheer size with an interesting fruity tonal quality. She has recently developed a career as a Lieder singer and is releasing her second CD in this repertoire.

For this CD and this evening’s concert, she has a brilliant accompanist in Wolfram Rieger. He seemed a different pianist for each composer – nimble and bright-toned for Schubert, orchestral and coloristic for Mahler, deep-toned, evocative for Hugo Wolf and very descriptive, with a good ear for effects in Richard Strauss.

I wonder if Schubert is a good idea for Ms. Fujimura. Although her German is very good, she is not the kind of singer who illuminates the meaning of words but rather one of those who draws from large vocal paintbrushes. To make things more difficult, she chose some pieces that ideally require a lighter voice. The program opened with Am See, in which she couldn’t help sounding a bit heavy. It is curious that she tackled the melisma in the end of the song (gar viele) more gracefully than most singers. Her rhythmic precision and flowing quality in Auf dem Wasse zu singer too was most praiseworthy and she could build the right atmosphere in Der Gondelfahrer, but Auf dem See lacked contrast and any development and Der Fluß tested her legato and did not sound particularly elegiac.

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder showed her, on the other hand, on the top of her game. First of all, her velvety, deep tonal quality are very appropriate to Mahler’s writing. But more than that: she lived through every note in these cycle in a very unusual way. Most singers tend to tackle these songs with some kind of retrospection and depressive melancholia. Not Fujimura, who sang them as if in the very peak of her morning, the despair palpable, the pain immediate, the attempt to find some solace secondary to a strong indignation. Some could find it a bit operatic, but it does fit her voice and comes very naturally to her.

I am not sure if Hugo Wolf is the best composer for her, more or less for the same reasons Schubert is not either. Ms Fujimura is not a diseuse and, although she can scale down her “Wagnerian” projection, the shifts of mood in the Mignon Lieder require a wider tonal palette. The final item in the program, a collection of famous Lieder by Richard Strauss should fit her more “operatic” manners, but Strauss is a composer who requires radiance from his singers, and Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is often too velvety to produce the right effect in its upper reaches. I have the impression that she was not in one of her best days either, around the passaggio her voice sounded a bit colourless in comparison to herself in the CD.

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The fact that Antonello Madau Diaz’s production of Puccini’s Tosca for the New National Theatew was premiered in 2000 is of little consequence – it might as well have been 1950. Cardboard versions of the actual Roman settings, stock gestures, puerile insights, it’s all there. It would be unfair if I did not say that it is all neatly done, but if you are going to do it the Zeffirelli way, well, you’ll have to out-Zeffirelli Zeffirelli, because he has already staged it in full Zeffirellian glory, as you can see in the video from the Met, if you are into those things.

The fact that this is a “traditional” staging has little to do with the fact that it has nothing to say. A more intellectually challenging director could have made something even in those circumstances. For instance, this evening’s prima donna, Norma Fantini, never went beyond the formulas and clichés, but she acted and sang with enthusiasm and a big heart. Under the Tebaldi-isms there was genuine commitment there. As many lyric sopranos in this role, her middle register is often shadowed by the orchestra, and if her acuti are powerful, she doesn’t offer true variety in her higher reaches. All that said, hers is a warm, fruity voice, her no-nonsense approach to Verismo is legitimate, her feeling for the text is palpable and she is not afraid of letting it rip (her big aria more spiritually exhaust than merely touching , for example).

Simon O’Neill is a powerful Cavaradossi with some stentorian high notes. I was tempted to write that his nasal, metallic tenor is somewhat offset in Italian repertoire by his healthy dramatic top notes, but his Italian is artificial, cantabile is not his cup of tea – and he hams as if his life depended on it. There were truly embarrassing moments. Korean baritone Seng-Hyoun Ko was, thank God, far more self-composed in the role of Scarpia. He has a dark, big bad-guy voice and did not need to make evil vocal effects to get to the point. His delivery of the Italian text could be a bit more specific, though.

Ryusuke Numajiri should be praised by his symphonic conducting, the orchestra very much in the center of this performance. Apart from some brassiness, the balance was often very good, with clear perspectives aplenty. Sometimes he made things difficult for his singers, but that would have worked if he and his orchestra could have gone beyond the efficient into something truly dramatic. Act I was often uneventful, the Te Deum could not develop into a powerful, inevitable climax, as much as the second act, once having achieved a certain level of tension, more or less settled on it rather than expanding from it.

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