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Archive for June, 2013

The Theater Basel has been chosen by Opernwelt magazine “Opera House of the Year” both in 2009 and 2010. Since this distinction has never been bestowed upon the Deutsche Oper, the Deutsche Staatsoper, the Bayerische Staatsoper or the Wiener Staatsoper, I reckon that the quality of the ensemble, chorus and orchestra may not be the key criterion. The Swiss opera house has reached the news with some controversial productions, particularly Calixto Bieito’s Aida.

In their Japanese tour, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro has been chosen for performances in Aichi, Toyama, Tokyo and Shiga. Elmar Goerden’s 2010 production does confirm the Theater Basel’s repution for theatrical values. It is hardly what one would call Regietheater – the action is updated to our days and the story is told more or less as Mozart and da Ponte would have explained it. But – and this is a big “but” – the director really took the pains of trying to explain who these people on stage are. There are many insightful little touches: the room Susanna and Figaro are moving in is a nursery that has never been used; the Countess has probably ever been bipolar, but has gone worse since her baby’s death; the Count has been shut out in her morning process and finally given up; Figaro and Susanna’s wedding exposes their masters’ dead-end marriage and is dealt with as a marital problem by Count and Countess Almaviva. The fact that these masters are oppressed by a traumatic event makes their oppression more difficult to repel:  Susanna says to herself “Please fogive me for lying to someone who is really looking for love” when she is pretending to accept the Count’s advances, for she here knows she is playing with the feelings of a grieving father and estranged husband. If there is anything in the concept which does not feel right is the fact that the Count’s role deserved a little bit more consideration from the director. For instance, when he sings Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro, frustration could be more evident than wrath – the keywords being mentr’io sospiro. He is declaring he is miserable – and that is not a small detail.

To make things better, Goerden’s staging is not just a concept – it really works on stage. Characters are very well defined, their course of action is continuous and coherent even in ensembles and everything is done in a natural and convincing way. Considering those are ensemble singers, it is curious that the guest “star”, Carmela Remigio, is very much in the core of this staging. I cannot say how much is her own contribution, but I have found her Countess outstandingly convincing in her confrontation with the Count in act II. Actually, this evening it made more sense than… ever. I had seen this Italian soprano in Damiano Michieletto’s Don Giovanni in Florence and there too she proved to be a compelling actress.

The musical aspects of this performance were far less inspiring. Presuming that I’ve heard their A-team (I don’t really think so…), the Basel Sinfonietta and the house chorus are quite sub par. Although maestro Giuliano Betta provided clarity and animated tempi in plenty, strings lacked a distinctive sound and were not terribly precise, in any case nothing appalling as French horn proved to be. Also, synchrony between soloists and orchestra was quite problematic, an overbusy fortepiano continuo making things difficult in recitatives too. At least this evening, the conductor seemed to have not a very good ear for singers, undermining predictable breath pauses and rushing them in moments where they (and the audience) expected them to take some time to convey their point.

The cast itself left more than something to be desired in terms of singing. Remigio can produce clear and stylish Mozartian lines, but seems to find that bothersome. She undersings in ensembles, resorts to acting-with-the-voice when she can and is often vehement rather than persuasive. For instance, while in the duettino with Susanna she proved to be a capable Mozart singer, Porgi, amor lacked poise (but not a broken heart). Dove sono was not truly gracious, but had some beautiful mezza voce. However, she “sold” her Countess with the conviction with which she delivered her words. Often when I found her gusty or sour or just harsh, the text actually made more sense that way (if not always the music…). A thought-provoking, capable but hardly ideal performance.

Maya Boog (Susanna) too knows her text, always has the dramatic action in sight and ultimately does not let down when Susanna music becomes “difficult”, but her soprano is seriously unfocused, sometimes in the verge of breathiness. Franziska Gottwald (Cherubino) has a beautiful voice, the low register particularly irresistible, and probably offered the best singing this evening. Her mezzo has some colorless patches and she can sound quite anonymous now and then. In any case, the raw material for a great Mozart singer is there. Christopher Bolduc (the Count)’s baritone lacks some volume and is a bit generic in tone (and he has to work on his Italian) and yet he acquitted himself in the stretta of his aria far more commendably than many more interesting singers.  His Figaro, Evgeny Alexev sometimes produces Hermann Prey-like sounds, but is mostly throaty and/or nasal.

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When the curtains opened this afternoon for Damiano Michieletto’s 2011 production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte for the New National Opera, the revolving set with a realistic forest gave me a feeling of déjà vu from Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni from Salzburg. But then I’ve remembered that Guth’s awful production was set inside a house where Don Alfonso had some sort of mesmeric power over the two young couples. The déjà vu happened again when this evening Don Alfonso had a similar episode of telekinesis by the end of the opera. Thank God the similarities ended there. Here we are in some sort of camping resort: Don Alfonso is the supervisor, Despina is the waitress, everybody else is a guest. Are you thinking of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s Youth Hostel production from Amsterdam? Me too, but in the Nederlandse Opera, the sisters and her boyfriends were shown as teenagers whose inexperience accounted for many hard-to-believe plot twists.

Here, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are probably the most down-to-earth people on stage – they take good care of themselves, clean their own camper truck, hold well their liquor and drive themselves the “Albanian” (i.e., “biker gang”) fellows away, when they first “show up”. Why do they behave just like the précieuses imagined by Lorenzo da Ponte? Good question… I have tried hard to see the point behind setting the action in the camping resort, but I could find none other than the fact that Paolo Fantin’s sets and costumes are nice to look at. In his Don Giovanni for La Fenice, Michieletto offered many insights into Da Ponte’s characters in a psychological whirlwind of desire, repression and excess. Here the psychology is cardboard level. Some would say “better so – now he can just tell the story”. Really? Fiordiligi and Dorabella refer to portraits, uniforms, drinking glasses that exist only in their imagination (and in the libretto, but not on stage), Despina’s disguise as a notary would fool only a blind person, among many loose ends. When Don Alfonso starts to use magic powers to hypnotize the group of young people only to end the opera with evil laughs, the audience has already given up to find some sense in all this. To make things worse, in order to accommodate the directorial choices, both finali were trimmed of some good music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (I won’t mention Fernando’s “difficult” opera, for this is an usual sin…).

Yves Abel is a theatrical conductor and also very kind to his cast – even when the tenor tried a tenuto on a high note, impairing the accompanying figures in the orchestra. His tempi were well chosen, vivid and coherent with the stage action, but the orchestra – kept on a leash to make these singers’ lives easier – could phrase with more clarity. A less pellucid tone would add a little bit more spark to the proceedings as well.

Miah Persson’s soprano too has seen brighter days. Now it can sound a bit tight, fluttery and metallic in its higher reaches, but – and considering the role’s formidable difficulties, this is a bit “but” – she does not cheat in florid passages, can sing piano when this is necessary (“mezza voce” would not be the right way to describe it though) and deals very commendable with the lower tessitura. She has very good sense of Mozartian style and is never careless with the text, but the voice itself has very little variety and, even if one hears her well, the results are small-scaled. Her Dorabella, Jennifer Holloway, took a while to warm, but once she reached performance level, offered a fruity mezzo, reasonable flexibility and a winning personality. If she really wants to sing Mozart, she still has to learn Italian and how to sing softer dynamics. Akie Amou has the attitude and the right Fach for Despina, but it seems that the days when the likes of Lucia Popp and Ileana Cotrubas were cast in this role are definitely over.

It is truly refreshing to find in Paolo Fanale a Ferrando with a thoroughly uncomplicated high register and whose vocal healthiness almost never stands between him and proper Mozart style, even if the tonal quality itself has more than a splash of Spieltenor in it. There is a great deal of harmonics in Dominik Köninger’s voice still to be discovered. So far, the sound is still pleasant but rather generic and unmemorable. Maurizio Muraro is a resonant, characterful but unexaggerated Don Alfonso. The cast has no weak link in what regards acting.

PS – On a second thought, there seem to be one development in terms of Personenregie in this staging – Ferrando and Guglielmo seem particularly coy but under the pretext of acting like the biker-gang Tizio and Sempronio, let loose their wild sides (including a homoerotic episode in their post-poisoning “mad scene”), what seems to have made them more sexually persuasive for the Fiordiligi and Dorabella. This could have had interesting results if we could see more clearly the effect of this transformation in their girlfriends. In any case, in order for the girls to have any sort of development (showing Dorabella in high heels… among the ferns of the camping resort is a very awkward solution), they should have had a very different starting point. At least, one that shouldn’t show them so self-aware in the first place. 

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