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Archive for December, 2012

A Christmas tree on stage was the first sight I could get while looking for my seat in the Suntory Hall. Today is alright Christmas Eve, but other than the fact that Christmas and Handel’s Messiah share the same theme, should there be a relation (other than the fact that theatres like to present it at this time of the year)? Let us not forget that Handel himself did not devise it as a Christmas entertainment and that the Dublin première actually happened in April. Does this sound like idle talk? Maybe – but I wonder if the atmosphere devised by Handel has anything to do with the benign feel of “season spirit”?  He was despised, Why do the nations rage so furiously together have anything to do with eggnog and mistletoe? Even if you think of the sunniest moments in this oratorio, such as Rejoice greatly or Ev’ry valley,  do they sound comfy to your ears? Not to mine – and I often think that this gemütlich Christmas atmosphere rather robs than adds something to what Handel wanted to express in this piece.

This afternoon’s performance, for instance – as many that I have seen in this season – had all the sharp corners rounded off. Even when tempi were brisk, the accents lacked incisiveness, the theatrical gestures hinted at at most, the orchestra lacking body and rather edgy in the most exciting moments. Handel was an opera composer nurtured in the Italian tradition and acquainted with French style – the ascetic Lutheran atmosphere that adds a sense of spiritual concentration in early Bach cantatas unfortunately does not make this music blossom in all its intense and exuberant chiaroscuro. Some performances take off, some do not – the initial spark was not there and one could feel conviction decreasing as the evening approached.

If I could single out two successful elements today, those would be: the chorus and the bass soloist. The Bach Collegium Japan’s chorus sings with exemplary fluency and clarity. The lack of animation eventually caught them, but they resisted as much as they could. I would also say that I have heard far less proficient English pronunciation in Germany and France. As for Roderick Williams, whom I saw in the part a while ago in Berlin, he alone had the sense of communicating to an imaginary congregation and unfailing enthusiasm.  Moreover, his divisions are admirably fluent and he now colours the text even more efficiently. Since we had the 1743 version, he sang But who may abide with praiseworthy flexibility. Tenor Makoto Sakurada too is very adept in fioriture and his voice has more presence than most Handel tenors’. That said, he must really find a way to find some joy in his singing. As it is, he seems to be having very little fun and that tension builds up into his tight high register – the high a’s in Thou shalt break them were rather lunged at than truly sung. Countertenor Clint van der Lind maybe was not in his best voice – he seemed ill at ease around the break in O thou that tellest and, even if he did warm up for the rest of the performance, his voice never gave the illusion of naturalness that great countertenors never fail to produce. Johanette Zommer’s soprano often lacked focus and sounded uncomfortable either in high or low notes. She seemed more aware of the text than both tenor and alto, but true ease was never there. Finally, I really do not think that it was a good idea for one tenor and one soprano from the chorus to borrow some arias and recitatives from the soloists – good as they were, the soloists themselves were all in all still more interesting than they ultimately proved to be.

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Some exciting new names in the world of opera come from China, a country with its own tradition in musical theater and a large interest in Western classical music. It is only natural that Beijing’s architecturally impressive National Theatre has deemed important to give grand romantic opera a try – and it has done it quite boldly with Wagner’s Lohengrin.

I don’t know if this opera had been previously staged in the Chinese capital, but one could see that the initiative had something pioneering about it: the house forces were evidently out of their depth and the production was exotic, to say the least.

Before I give the impression that by writing “exotic”, I mean that Elsa and Lohengrin are shown in full golden Chinese glory, I – most disappointedly – here explain that there was nothing Chinese about this Lohengrin, but for the fact that this theater agreed to stage something between a 1950’s RAI opera movie and a Disney Christmas pantomime. I find it hard to believe that Giancarlo del Monaco actually created a staging in which Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding night takes place in the cheap version of an Alma-Tadema garden with millions of plastic flowers, a chintzy projection of luxuriant green mountains and a pond (by the end, tenor and soprano were basically drenched). The little cute/tacky directorial choices were hard to endure, but not harder than the superficial, awkward personenregie. Act II showed a grandiose, fairytale-like cathedral staircase that Elsa and her guests seemed unable to climb. As a result, King Henry and his subjects were obliged to show their pious respects to a pillar, while Ortrud and Telramund would not move an inch from the edge of the stage, conversing with Elsa 15 meters behind them  by what one was supposed to understand as Ortrud’s witchcraft tricks. The level of nonsense disguised as a “traditional” approach often made this look like the Monthy Python version of the story. There were, of course, some beautiful moments, aided by the theater’s state-of-the-art machinery and one could not help thinking of what could have been done with a similar budget by a seriously committed creative team.

Maestro Lu Jia obviously loves Wagner’s music, but it is difficult to assess his conducting in these circumstances: his orchestra was evidently immature to the task, strings particularly thin-toned. Although wind instruments fared better, balance was often poor and complex passages required slowing down the proceedings. The chorus showed even more difficulty in performing its duty. I wonder if the many cuts were not related to the sheer inability to play and/or sing the complete score, especially in the complex In wildem Brüten concertato in the end of act II, here entirely cut.

In terms of casting, the National Theatre assembled a cast as one could found in any important opera house in Germany*. Petra Maria Schnitzer was not in her best voice (she had to struggle to get to the end of Euch Lüften), but has solid technique and good taste. She embraced the “silly goose”-approach chosen by the director with professionalism (one could not possibly be happy having to act as a mentally impared person for almost four hours). The list of vocal and musical problems in Eva Johansson’s Ortrud is so long that I will spare you a description, but single out what can be considered positive: she has stamina and she is involved. Stefan Vinke is not the most mellifluous among tenors in the role of Lohengrin, but he sang healthily and even produced some ringing heroic notes in the third act. The part of the King is on the high side for Steven Humes’s otherwise well focused bass and Wieland Satter was a dry-toned if efficient Herald. I leave the best for last: Egils Silins’s richly sung Telramund, probably the best I have ever heard live. If he had not been sabotaged by the conductor in some very tricky passages, he would have been almost perfect.

*There was a second cast, almost entirely made of Chinese singers, but I was not able to see it.

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