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Archive for July, 2013

For their program of congratulatory cantatas for Professors of the University of Leipzig BWV 205 and 207, Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan have chosen the title “Dramma per musica”, which is the way Bach called some of his secular cantatas. Although the composer did not intend to give these works an operatic atmosphere, there are characters (albeit allegorical) sometimes engaged in dialogue and there is almost a plot in BWV 205. Some conductors understand, however, that there must be some sense of theatre in these works and offer bold performances full of flair and contrast – Leonardo Garcia Alarcón in BWV 207 and Reinhard Goebel in BWV 205, for instance. Because of their laudatory nature, the élan is often translated in fast tempi, marked dance rhythms, virtuosistic playing, hearty choral singing and spirited soloists. However, I am not sure if I would place this evening’s performances in that group.

Although playing and singing were indeed animated for the Bach Collegium Japan’s usual standards, the whole concept reminded me rather of Ton Koopman’s recordings with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, in which the approach is less bombastic, the more exalted numbers (opening and final choruses especially) rather uncomfortable in their lack of clarity and purpose and direct rather than expressive in elegiac moments (such as the famous tenor aria Frische Schatten). Once again, strings lacked presence and brass has left a lot to be desired. The difficult solo in the soprano aria in BWV 205 sounded as difficult as it indeed is.

Joanne Lunn’s boyish soprano is pleasant on the ear and she sings with elegance and animation. Robin Blaze sounds a bit whiny these days, but found no difficulty in some very tricky passages. Wolfram Lattke is really adept in coloratura, but his tenor is rather thin, nasal and not really seductive. Intonation too was a bit dodgy. Makoto Sakurada, an usual collaborator of Maestro Suzuki, does a far better job in Garcia Alarcón’s recording of BWV 205. Although Roderick Williams’s baritone is a bit too congenial for the unsmiling Äolus, he is more fluent in his divisions than any other singer in the discography.   Last but not least, the BCJ chorus sang with the usual polish and cleanliness. They could be at times a bit more “dramatically engaged”, but I have the impression that this was not required from them.

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I would be in Zürich for the Fliegende Holländer. So why not checking this new staging of Bellini’s rarely staged La Straniera? I’ve got the last ticket available and then Opera Rara’s recording to prepare myself. I had never listened to this work before, but had read ages ago a report on Diapason that made me feel curious: the black pearl among Bellini operas or something like that. I won’t lie – I couldn’t make it to the second CD. I almost brought it with me in case jet lag prevented me from sleeping at night.

Maybe (very) low expectations have done the trick, but live at the theatre I kept wondering why I had found the CDs so boring. I have some theories:

1) although it has been often performed in concert, this is an opera that has to be experienced staged. The fact that there are no big arias (the tenor doesn’t even have an aria to speak of) and that numbers are so unorthodoxly structured is explained by the fact that the composer really wanted his audience to concentrate in the drama;

2) although the Opera Rara CDs has superior orchestral playing and a conductor who is a specialist in this repertoire, the cast is problematic and “thrilling” is not the word that comes to my mind when I think of it.

Why has this evening made me change my mind on Bellini’s bleak-pearl opera? To start with, Fabio Luisi proved to have made the right decision when he decided not to make little of Bellini’s score (there are many niceties, including an aria accompanied by flute arpeggi). As the orchestra has received a “Beethovenian” treatment, singers were obliged to take the cue from the pit and that basically keep them together in an unified musical concept instead of the usual coincidence of individual ego trips. The house orchestra is far from ideal, but the fact that it was there in the center of the event made everything sound different – rare indulgent tenuti or puntature to start with. Considering that this score has many interesting harmonic twists, it is particularly good to be able to hear more than a soloist andsomeguysaccompanyinghimorher. Especially when the soloists are that good!

Edita Gruberová first sang the part of Alaide last year. I am glad that, at this point of her career, she is still willing to add a new role to her repertoire, but I am sorry that she has not done that before, for this is indeed a role that fits her voice and personality like a glove. First, the high tessitura and the long-sustained-phrase writing highlight the Slovakian soprano’s best vocal abilities. Second, the role has a dreamy, otherworldly quality that agree to her dramatic instincts. We first hear Alaide off-stage singing a sequence of ascending trills and we are supposed to be in awe – so it must be a voice with inbuilt magic, and that was we got this evening. Gruberová was in amazingly good shape – her soprano was at its luminous best, she trilled with complete abandon and was at her less fussy. I understand that, if you compare her performance with Renata Scotto’s for instance, there is going to be more than a splash of Zerbinetta in it (as she has often been accused of), but – seriously – this is a small price to pay for her technical excellence and textual clarity and theatrical imagination.

As much as in the Opera Rara CDs, the Isoletta here lacks a youthful, truly agreeable tone. At least, Veronica Simeoni, being Italian, brings an idiomatic quality that, aided by crystalline diction, made the role less a cipher than it can be. The tenor between these two ladies is the same from the CDs – Dario Schmunk, whose emphatic singing style fits his the exalted personality of his role. His voice is more pleasant heard live, when the squeezed high notes sound less edgy and the off-focus mezza voce is not devoid of charm.  A convincing performance. Franco Vassallo has developed a lot as a Bellini singer since last time I saw him – this evening, he sung with poise, elegance and sensitivity and still offered his hallmark big, firm top notes. The ensemble singers too were extremely well cast here – Benjamin Bernheim (Osburgo) sang with round tone, focused low notes and perfect Italian style and Reinhard Mayer’s rich, dark bass was shown to advantage in the role of the Prior.

Christof Loy’s staging could be called minimalistic – there is only one set, which is indeed a “stage set”, you can see the mechanisms and that this is nothing but a piece of scenery. Characters operate the ropes themselves. Costumes are stylized 19th century and everything turns around a very sharp symbology – stage ropes that double as hangman’s halters, a Romantic painting of a lake that represents Arturo’s fantasy of happiness with Alaide, black and white veils and costumes to show the parallels between the fantasized woman (Alaide, as perceived by Arturo) and the real one (Isoletta). It is not a staging that reveals any hidden angle, but that makes the story itself clear and immediate. Considering that this is a very convoluted plot, this is no small feat.

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Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer is a key work to understand German Romanticism, a richly orchestrated score of sophisticated musical invention and dramatic impact. Yet, it is not staged as often as one would guess. Why? The immediate answer is that the two main roles are impossibly difficult. It is also quite testing for the orchestra – but one could make similar observations of operas like Tristan und Isolde or Götterdämmerung, which are nonetheless more frequent in opera houses’ seasons.

I would add that Der Fliegende Holländer is also difficult to stage. Even if you have a low budget and go Regie, if you don’t provide any kind of “special effect”, then it’s going to be a colossal debacle anyway. In his 2012 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, Andreas Homoki never forgets that. He has throwed ships, spinning wheels, fjords etc away, but there are plenty of spooky tricks to keep up with Wagner’s diminished seventh chords. Homoki explains he decided to stage his Holländer onshore – and so he does. Daland has a trading company and his instructions to his crew are here translated into telephonic communication with his ships at sea. However, whenever Wagner’s orchestra suggests sea tempests, everybody on stage falls to the ground as in they were on a ship. So, again, could we make a decision here? Aboard or onshore? Later I understood that the chorus has to remain onstage longer than what Wagner intended because they are supposed to screen the Holländer’s “magical” appearances and disappearances. So it is rather a convenience than an aim in itself. And one can see that. Also, the pre-war English setting is atmospheric and goes well with the story, but the association with the burdens of colonial system is a bit far-fetched. We see maps of Africa, Daland has an African servant and, when the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly crews is supposed to appear, the African servant is turned in a warrior and mysterious arrows kill Daland’s employees. This could be an interesting approach – Daland is in Europe and sees only the profits of colonial enterprise, while the Dutchman could be someone plagued by the actual heart-of-darkness experience of colonial oppression who cannot redeem himself. He does not fit anymore in the blood-stained welfare of his civilized surroundings. But this is not the story we see here – the Dutchman is pretty much concerned about himself and the African qualms are just added upon his plot.

The Opernhaus Zürich made a point, in this production, of trying to revive “the original version” of the score. In the program book, they acknowledge that Wagner has done so much retouching in so many instances that it is actually impossible to speak of one “original” version, but roughly speaking we had no intermission, the acts linked to each other by interludes and no redemption music in the end. Orchestration issues has been dealt with case by case. Maestro Alain Altinoglu seemed concerned with the large orchestral sound prescribed by Wagner and made a point in keeping his musicians in leash.  As a result, strings were often on the thin side and crescendo passages had very little development. The sound picture was often band-like, robbing this music of momentum and nobility. In terms of tempo,  the conductor made it fast and animated (sometimes making it difficult for the chorus to articulate the text) – but without weight of sound, the final impression had more to do with bounciness than suspense.

Although Anja Kampe was severely tested by high-lying passages (especially in the end of the first part of her duet with the Dutchman), her Senta was richly, sensitively and touchingly sung. It is a hard piece of singing – and there is no perfect Senta, even in recordings – but that did not prevent this German soprano of making this music hers. In what regard tenors, Marco Jentzsch’s singing is the opposite of ingratiating and the Steersman was too light-toned for his role. It is almost a miracle that Matti Salminen still holds his own as Daland. Now many passages are more spoken than sung, but he does it with such naturalness and conviction that you almost believes that this is supposed to be done that way. Last but not least, Bryn Terfel may not be the most voluminous or dark-toned (his high notes often sounded strangely bright in an almost tenor-ish way) Holländer in one’s experience, but he sings it with such commitment, tonal variety, clarity of diction and imagination that you can’t help taking his side. Even in the end, when his voice started to grate a bit, such was his engagement that you felt ready to see in it the Holländer’s and not the singer’s exhaustion. Thanks to him and Anja Kampe, this performance would intermittently rise above routine into something truly exciting and special.

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