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Archive for May, 2013

In a program named “Early Cantatas for Easter and Pentecost”, the Bach Collegium Japan offered this evening three cantatas – Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4 – Mühlhausen, 1707 or 1708), Die Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret! (BWV 31 – Weimar, 1715) and Erschallet, ihr Lieder (BWV 172 – Weimar, 1714, this one being the Pentecost item), preceded by three organ pieces BWV 531, 618 and 667) and by Pachelbel’s take on the Christ lag in Todes Banden text.

The program was exuberantly opened by Masato Suzuki’s playing of the Lüneburg Prelude and Fugue in C, the pedal opening played with more gusto than elegance, something we would miss when the choral pieces would finally begin. To start with, the Pachelbel item is not the most varied or inspired piece in the world and I would rather believe that it was chosen to highlight Bach’s superior imagination and abilities. In any case, it was a rare opportunity to sample it, aptly performed by the BCJ from a very introspective point of view. BWV 4 itself can be a rather atmospheric piece, as one can sample in John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording from Eisenach, a poignant sinfonia paving the way to an opening chorus that steadily grows in intensity. This evening, “intensity” is not the word I would use to describe it, but rather a cold elegance that made some of the more buoyant passages almost lighthearted. Yet it paid off in an exquisite soprano/alto duet, abstract in an almost otherworldly manner. While Gardiner avoided solo singing, Masaaki Suzuki, as much as Harnoncourt, had the choir singing the “coro” items. Soprano Hana Blazikova’s and countertenor Hiroya Aoki’s voices were perfectly blended in ethereal mezza voce.

BWV 31 had a very bump start. Natural trumpets can be testing for the musicians but this evening they proved to be difficult for the audience too. In BWV 4, the reduced orchestra sounded – in the Tokyo Opera City acoustics – quite scrawny and overshadowed by the choir. And the trumpets only made things more difficult. Moreover, BWV 31’s opening chorus is a tough cookie in what regards balance. I’m afraid that this evening “clarity” was not part of the recipe. Among the soloists, Makoto Sakurada showed himself as an almost ideal Bach tenor, exceptionally firm-toned, flexible and clear in enunciation. He handles the recitatives very adeptly, but could relax a bit and just “carry the tune” in a more spontaneous way in the arias. In any case, in comparison, to Dominik Wörner, he would could be taken as a model of legato. The German bass sings in an almost parlando style in a voice so poor in harmonics that sometimes you could take him for a tenor. Here Hana Blazikova too had her edgy moments and lacked tone in her lower register. In Gardiner’s recording, Gillian Keith sounds warmer and more engaging in comparison. Those allergic to vibrato, even used in a very sensible way, would not agree with me, I am afraid. De gustibus.

The final item, BWV 172, happens to be my very favorite Bach cantata and the BCJ choir did not disappoint me, singing with animation and clarity in an ideal pace set by Maestro Suzuki for the opening (and closing) chorus. Unfortunately, the reduced strings still proved to be problematic for balance. In spite of the meager tonal quality, Wörner dealt commendably with the low tessitura and the florid writing – sometimes better than some more famous singers. Moreover, he must have a very good sense of pitch to keep his line singing together with a very wayward “holy trinity” of trumpets. Again, Sakurada proved to have no technical problems in this writing, but found very little sensuousness in his depiction of spiritual paradise. A shortcoming also found in Blazikova’s countribution for the ecstatic duet in which she failed to float high notes and produce really clear trills. Aoki, on the other hand, was admirably sensitive and HEARABLE (I have many recordings of this cantata and the countertenor is usually eclipsed by the soprano here – not this evening, I am glad to report).

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The first word I could hear while on entering the auditorium of the New National Theatre today was “escalator” and I thought that those ladies were referring to the new ones in the lobby, but then I saw a couple of them on stage.  “Aren’t you performing Nabucco today?”, a man asked one of the ushers. “Yes, sir”, she answered in a very professional tone. “But why there is a department store on stage?!” “It seems that this is the modern way of staging an opera”, she repressed a smirk. “Aaah…”.

The New National Theatre has had its share of stylized stagings, but it seems today many members of the audience are going to google the word “Regietheater” for the first time. In any case, the program had an explanatory text in which you could see side by side pictures of Zeffirelli’s and Calixto Bieito’s stagings of Verdi’s Aida. I am not sure if I truly like Graham Vick’s new production of Verdi’s Nabucco, but I am grateful for not seeing choristers in Life-of-Bryan costumes trying to walk like a Babylonian. Most of all, I am glad that Mr. Vick had intended his production to the Japanese audience. I am not sure if he understands it or even really had something to say, but he did get it right that many of those in the the National Theatre watch and listen to opera as if it had nothing to do with their lives, but rather as a a) traditional, b) foreign; c) respectable entertainment. I am no sociologist, but I would rather believe that in many points, audiences in Japan could relate more directly to it than those in Milan or in Munich. You’ll only need to read Japanese newspapers to see my point.

In any case, there is a shopping mall on stage. Well-dressed people are drinking their cappuccini, fidgeting with their Iphones and buying Italian designer items. There is a beggar with a “the end is near”-sign, but nobody seems to notice him, until he grabs a passer-by, strip her from her overcoat to reveal her funkier clothes. She is Fenena. Later a gang of terrorists in pig masks would invade the mall led by some sort of Tracy-Turnblad-meets-the-bride-of-Chucky (Abigaille). Then you realize that: a) the Hebrews are the consumerists; b) the shopping mall is their temple; c) the Babylonians are the Die-fette-Jahren-sind-vorbei terrorists (they basically mess things around and place them in funny places) who put them in a hostage situation. As much as the no-fourth-wall approach could be interesting, this scenario does not really go with the plot. In Verdi’s Nabucco, the Babylonians are the established power with an army, the power to pass laws etc etc, while the Hebrews are the oppressed “nation without a state” that  has no one to protect them but their invisible and very abstract God (as the Babylonians more or less would describe it). I can see that Mr. Vick wishes us to have a fresh look into the situation – and I would guess that he finds the Hebrews as portrayed in this story some sort of uncongenial conservative bunch – but his reversal of values requires so much suspension of disbelief that in the end you just give it up: if the Hebrews are here the bourgeois clientele of the shopping mall and the Babylonians are the terrorists, where is the police? I mean – the terrorists are not the State and therefore have no right to resort to violence. So they are criminals, right? So, where is the police? Also, how come Zaccaria the beggar “belongs with” the mall clientele? Why would the clientele follow his lead in the first place instead of just calling security to escort him out? Finally, since we are adapting the story to give it a second layer of meaning, why God’s lightning is just good, old meteorological lightning? I mean, the anarchistic terrorist leader would loose his sanity because the shopping mall was struck by lightning? Well, that was enough for  the biblical Nebuchadnezzar , but he really meant it when he declared that he was God when that happened… Also, the option for  literal lightning makes the collective conversion in the end of the opera hard to take. In the libretto, Nabucco regains his sanity as a miracle once he accepted God in his heart. Is it what happens here? Seriously?! Once you stop caring about these “details”, there are somethings to enjoy here: Paul Brown’s realistic sets are extremely convincing, the underage offender Abigaille is an interesting take on the role and the choristers are very well directed.

This is my second Nabucco conducted by Paolo Carignani (the first one was in Munich) and, if my memory does not play me a trick, I find this performance superior. I was going to write that the orchestra this afternoon sounded as an orchestra entirely different from the one that played in the New National Theatre’s Aida and Tannhäuser – and the reason is very simple: this is the Tokyo Philharmonic  while Aida and Tannhäuser had the Tokyo Symphonic. This seems to be an evidence that larger-scale works should always get the Philharmonic. Today, the orchestra basically had SOUND. And that made all the difference in the world, especially when those musicians proved to be engaged in the drama, keeping up with some fast tempi. While Carignani cared for beautiful sounds first in Munich, here he seemed primarily concerned in keeping things exciting and animated, which is always a safe option in this repertoire. When one listens to Riccardo Muti’s studio recording, one finds that there are moments when one can find some dramatic depth in nobler phrasing in key moments and attention to detail, but that would be an unfair comparison anyway.

Abigaille is such an impossible role that pointing out this or that shortcoming in a singer is an entirely futile exercise. Does Marianne Cornetti make something of Verdi’s excruciating demands? Yes, with great distinction, I would add. Her voice is not the kind of flashy Italian soprano with big chest notes and piercing acuti one would expect to find here. Moreover, she is sometimes caught short when things get too Semiramide-esque but, except for a rather breathless Salgo già del trono aurato, she proved to be very much mistress of her resources, singing with unfailingly big, round and warm tones, admirably homogeneous throughout her range. One could observe that her singing lacked verbal specificity (especially in comparison to Renata Scotto in Muti’s recording), but her almost Mozartian poise in some fiendishly passages made her Abigaille more “human” than what I am used to hear (Anch’io dischiuso un giurno particularly touching without ever being schmaltzy). This very generous artist showed great abandon in her stage performance too – costumes and blocking showed her in her less glamorous (to put it mildly) but she seemed to relish the opportunity to give herself entirely to the experience of performing this role in such an approachable way.

As Fenena, Mutsumi Taniguchi proved to have a very interesting mezzo – the sound is dark and has a slightly veiled quality until it opens up in a gleaming and very firm top register. Oh dischiuso è il firmamento was beautifully and sensitively sung. Tatsuya Higuchi (Ismaele) has an attractively hued tenor with some piercing top notes, but he is over-emphatic in his phrasing and, as many Japanese tenors, operate in a very taut – but not thin – high register. This was a good afternoon for Lucio Gallo too, probably the best performance I have ever heard from him. He was in very firm and rich voice and, although his baritone is not as voluminous as those of many famous Verdian household names, it projected easily in the auditorium. He alone could highlight Verdi’s parole sceniche as singers in this repertoire are supposed to do and often ventured in soft singing that verged on falsetto sometimes. As his Abigaille, he seemed very comfortable with the stage direction – their scenes invariably being this performance’s best moments. I am afraid, though, that Zaccaria is not Konstantin Gorny’s role – it is indeed a very difficult role, but he found it hard to pierce through the orchestra and, when he did, the sound was often fluttery and curdled. He never cheated, though, and never showed himself less than fully engaged, but the part requires a nobler and ampler sound.

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Maybe inspiration did not last long, but Rheingold is by far Robert Lepage’s best effort in his staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. Here we find the best use of the “machine” and, maybe because there is so much going in the plot, singers have more to do and look less left alone (as in the remaining installments). Seen live, the effects are even more impressive than in the movie theatre.

The fact that Rheingold’s music is very “busy” may explain why Fabio Luisi is more comfortable here than elsewhere. There are lots of “micro goals” for him to concentrate on while most scenes have a clear rhythmic lead to follow. The orchestra was in very good shape and, except for the fact that some scenes lost steam and energy has to be built from scratch. Erda scene, for instance, was low valley to build up from and the closing scene resulted less climactic than it should. All in all, a good performance, strongly cast.

Replacing an indisposed Stephanie Blythe after having appeared as Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, Elizabeth Bishop proved to be a first-rate Fricka, actually more varied, especially in what regards acting, than Blythe herself.  Wendy Bryn Harmer is a full-toned Freia and Meredith Arwady is a forceful but not fully idiomatic Erda. As he did in Munich, Stefan Margita was clearly the audience’s favorite as Loge. He actually was in better voice here than at the Bavarian State Opera, his singing smoother and even more fluent. He also made far more of the staging than Richard Croft on the telecast. Robert Brubaker was probably the loudest Rheingold Mime I have ever heard. Considering that he has sung the Emperor in Frau ohn Schatten (in the Deutsche Oper Berlin, for instance), this is a curious piece of casting. Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich finds the role of Alberich a bit low and heavy for his voice, but he is a good actor and has good diction. Greer Grimsley has never been a noble-toned Wotan, but a very powerful one with exciting high notes. Although Franz-Josef Selig is still a commendable Fasolt, it is sad to see how his beautiful voice has been deteriorating. In his brief contributions, Hans-Peter König (Fasolt) proves to be again a great asset in the Met’s Ring. One cannot forget Dwayne Croft’s firm-toned Donner.

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Götterdämmerung is the most Italian among the Ring operas – we have a love duet, a revenge trio, a (double) wedding scene, a chorus and a mad scene (sort of). Is that the reason why Fabio Luisi was more at ease here than in Siegfried? To start with, either my ears have been unblocked or there were some large-scale orchestral sound to speak of this time. Strings still leave something to be desired, but I wonder if this is not a result of the conductor’s myopic approach: there are many interesting details in tonal coloring and highlighting of generally obscure motivic references, but the parts too often do not add up to a coherent result. There are micro-objectives – highlighting woodwind here, showing a propulsive rhythm there, helping singers somewhere else but if you try to see the big picture, it will probably be quite blurred.

For instance, this evening, the first scene in the prologue was about color and textual clarity at a funereal tempo, but the ensuing duet most commendably had a whiff of Il Trovatore in its athletic grace. Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt was athletic too, but in a rather clumsy way. The Gibichungenhalle scene had a refreshing conversational pace, but you could hear the space between every syllable during Waltraute’s Narration.

There was something Italian too about the way the orchestra tackled the accompanying figures in act II – bright, articulate sounds from the violins and clean, theatrical attacks, but the energy level was variable and tension had rather a peaks-and-valley than a upwards curve graphic. Act III opened to a rather unatmospheric scene with the Rhinemaids before it settled to a sensitive death scene for Siegfried, followed by a rushed account of the Trauermarsch.

Katarina Dalayman is a warm-toned, elegant Brünnhilde. Some high notes are tense and shorter than in the score, most of them however quite exciting in their sheer volume. She is a subtle performer who offers a dignified, womanly approach to the role. Jay Hunter Morris is predictably more comfortable here. Technique is still irregular and he has too many unfocused, undersupported and pushed moments, but he does have stamina. Sometimes, when all elements are well-coordinated, he produces some exciting high notes.

The low voices shined this evening – Hans-Peter König is a very powerful Hagen, Eric Owens again a dark-toned, frighteningly vehement Alberich and Iain Paterson is a noble-toned Gunther.

Karen Cargill is a capable Waltraute with a strong low register and beautiful mezza voce, but her high notes are not very forceful and she can be a bit fussy. Wendy Bryn Harmer is a reliable Gutrune and the Norns were very well cast (especially Elizabeth DeShong and Heidi Melton).

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Michael Mayer’s “rat pack” new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto for the Met could be seen on the telecast, but it won’t be very difficult to summarize it for those (like me) who did not go to a movie theatre: the action is set in the 1960’s in Las Vegas. The rest is pretty conventional. I cannot say that the updating has brought any special insight into any character or the plot itself. I don’t mean that the idea is not good a priori – those were days when casino big shots acted as if they were beyond the grip of law and a story more or less like that could have actually happened. But you have to add at least some psychology into the proceedings, because this is how people try to understand situations since good old Siegmund Freud spoke of id, ego and superego. When I was leaving the theatre, I overheard someone saying “What was that guy shouting ‘the curse!!!’ in the end? That was ludicrous!”. Well, not for Rigoletto – but there is a serious point here – what kind of person in 1960 would shout “The curse!” over his dead daughter’s body? And if there is an opera with plenty of Freudian elements, this is definitely Rigoletto – there is a father/daughter situation to start with. This is an opera in which the soprano has a nameless father and sings her big aria about how she loves her sweetheart’s NAME as soon as he invents one for himself (actually, he has no name either in this story).

There is a problem about the staging itself too. Many productions of Rigoletto turn around the opening scene, when the audience is supposed to see something spectacular. The problem is that the action develops in other directions after that – we have dark streets, the garden of a modest house, an antechamber in a palace and a tavern. But all this generally has to be adapted to cope with the opening scene. So you end up with an impressive set for a largely atmospheric scene, while the plot has to evolve in make-do sceneries. Here for instance. The curtains open for a complex, beautiful casino hall, but later you have to believe that: a) Rigoletto decides to hide her daughter in the very place where he wants her NOT to be seen (i.e., the casino); b) Rigoletto negotiates Sparafucile’s services in front of a barman; c) Gilda trills in the end of Caro Nome 20 cm away from a bunch of guys with masks who are ready to kidnap her; d) Rigoletto and Gilda are supposed to be alone for her to tell that she was deflowered (let’s use this word) by the Duke shortly before that, but here everybody just turn their backs to her and now she feels comfortable to explain all this to her father; e) the Duke almost bumps into Gilda and Rigoletto when he enters Sparafucile’s house; f) there is a huge storm outside, but Maddalena just goes out in her baby-doll and dressing gown to help hiding Gilda’s body and comes back free from the action of the elements. I may sound picky here, but again: those are basic elements of a staging.  You cannot place a wall on stage and expect the audience to pretend that sometimes it is not really a wall.

The musical aspect of the evening showed far more care. Marco Armiliato knows Verdian style and the importance of respecting propulsive rhythms, of orchestral effects and of a brighter, more flexible orchestral sound. He cared for his singers, helping them at key moments, but did not allow them to impair rhythmic coherence for narcissistic vocal displays.

Lisette Oropesa’s soprano is on the light side for Gilda. In act I, her gleaming high notes, seamless legato and sensitivity helped her to portray beauty, youth and loveliness most adeptly. In Caro nome, she displayed impressive technical abandon and musicianship. In the remaining acts, she did retain these qualities, but did not find enough leeway in Tutte le feste, for instance.

Vittorio Grigolo is a convincing, Italianate Duke, but his phrasing may be emphatic and his high notes a bit tense. George Gagnidze’s grainy baritone lacks punch in his high notes and he himself is a bit generic about interpretation. Enrico Giuseppe Iori’s bass is dark and spacious enough for Sparafucile,but Nancy Fabiola Herrera had some problem with following the beat in the quartet. Finally, I have always understood that the choristers should sing the “wind effect” in act III bocca chiusa. It did not sound like that this evening.

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David McVicar’s production for the Glyndebourne Festival can be seen on DVD in what may be the best seller in Handel’s Giulio Cesare’s videography. It is an imaginative, funny production that made Danielle de Niese (“the dancing Cleopatra”) a household name. The fact that it has been revived at the Met without this soprano, who has appeared in the old John Copley production (premièred in 1988 with Kathleen Battle, Tatiana Troyanos and Trevor Pinnock), seems to be explained by the fact that Cleopatra is the kind of leading role in a scenically interesting production safe enough for Natalie Dessay after her problematic Traviatas at the Met.

I have to confess that I was not eager to see the French diva in this opera at this point of her career. In the video from Paris, her performance did not strike me as really convincing.  First, the role sits a bit low in the soprano range (Troyanos herself recorded it for Karl Richter and also Magdalena Kozena for Minkowski), an area of Dessay’s voice in which she hardly sounds seductive or regal. Second, the kind of clear vocal production one expects from a singer in the baroque repertoire did not really come to her anymore as spontaneously as it used to do before. Actually “third” is more related to the way Laurent Pelly chose to portray Cleopatra than to the way Dessay embodied the concept. However, the fact is that her Cleopatra is the shining feature of the Met’s revival (technically a new production this side of the Atlantic).

Although she is less skilled a dancer than De Niese, this seems less important in the way Dessay re-invented the role. Here Cleopatra is more Claudette Colbert than Beyoncé, shrewd rather than alluring, overwhelming rather than persuasive – and you would take her side far more easily rather because of this. She was in also in exceptionally good voice this evening. Her high register particularly fresh and more ductile than it has been in a while. She has always had a fancy for over-decoration in repeats and some numbers – Tu la mia stella sei – for instance, sounded a bit deformed rather than embellished. She deserves high praises for capturing the character development and creating a new vocal and expressive “personality” for the moment Cleopatra stops being “Lydia”. As a matter of fact, her Se pietà, which I had already heard in the concert for the 10th Anniversary of Le Concert d’Astrée, was an example of how to build up intensity. That was truly the highlight of the evening. One could say that my positive impression might have something to do with low expectation, but I would disagree. All in all, she was simply the most interesting Cleopatra I have seen live in a theatre.

Alice Coote’s is an interesting choice for the role of Sesto – her mezzo has a warm yet light sound but is based upon a a very strong and positive low register. I am not sure if hers is an ideal voice for trouser roles in Handel operas, but I would gladly hear her in roles like Leocasta (Giustino) or Elmira (Floridante), for the appealing, vulnerable quality of her singing. Her Cara speme was exquisitely sung – and she teamed with Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) for an ideal Son nata a lagrimar. Unfortunately, the Irish contralto could not stand the comparison with herself on the DVD. This evening, her middle register lacked color, the vibrato could be problematic and some excursion upwards quite gusty.

Among these evening’s countertenors, Cristophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) took pride of place for evenness, precise divisions and panache. One could say that David Daniels (Cesare) had a bad start, but the fact is that the two opening numbers are very tough singing. The American countertenor has now a very recessed low register and gets tired in long florid phrases. When the affetto is gentler, his legato and warm tone are most effective, especially in Aure, deh, per pietà. Guido Loconsolo tackles fioriture quite commendably and has a pleasant voice, not exactly dark, but that seems to be the rule in this part.

When John Nelson conducted Giulio Cesare in the Met, he did not try to make any adaptation in the sound of the house orchestra. He just let it create the required effect within these musicians’ possibilities albeit with a clear view of what Handel wanted. In the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, there is no absence of drama, forward movement and excitement. This evening, although Harry Bicket took pains to keep things within the limits of Handelian style, this was achieved with a severe loss in expression. The orchestra sounded monochrome, uninvolved and entirely devoid of any sense of drama. Battle scenes, oaths of revenge, utterances of despair had only pretty, pellucid and not entirely clear sound in the background. I have seen Maestro Bicket conduct Handel in Munich – and the results were very different from what I’ve heard this evening.

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