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Archive for September, 2013

Taking profit of the Japanese tour of the Teatro alla Scala, the NHK Music Festival has invited the Milanese opera house for a concert performance of Verdi’s Aida, which was actually taped (both in audio and in video by NHK). Last week, Dudamel has proved to be an exemplary Verdian conductor in a staged performance of Rigoletto. This evening he proved he can be even better than that. During the first half of the concert (acts 1 and 2), I could not help thinking of how the audience reacted while hearing to Karajan’s Aida back then in Salzburg, in the sense, of hearing a great conductor who has seriously studied the score and, with the help of a fully engaged team of musicians, produced a revelatory (even if often slightly flawed) experience. I don’t think that I will be able to explain everything I could admire this evening – the ideal balance (upfront woodwind, perfectly blended brass and strings, even in large ensembles), once again the complete eschewal of vulgarity, the always dramatically alive accent, the control of rhythmic flexibility (masterly transitions, even those usually accepted as abrupt), the singing string section and the knowledge of the right moment to become Toscaninian in excitingly precise ensembles in very fast pace. The fact that the chorus from La Scala has such full-toned tenors, sopranos and altos with rock-solid bottom notes makes it even more admirable. I mean, this was TRULY exciting.

However, if I have to be honest, burning from both ends, this candle ran dangerously short after the intermission. First, singers began to give signs of fatigue. That required some adjustments, especially in what regards volume from an orchestra playing on stage. Although the whole cast had big enough voices, some of them had a lyric quality that already required adjustments. Act IV was a lesson of how to produce exciting orchestral sound without drowning singers in voluminous orchestral sound, La Scala’s bright and flexible strings coming up handy at these moments.

I have seen Hui He’s Aida here in Tokyo last year. I understand, therefore, she was not in her best voice today – intonation had its dodgy moments, the not entirely comfortable passaggio downright problematic this evening, a very evident physical effort entirely new in my experience with this singer. The problem became more evident after the pause, but she took profit of her late entrance in act IV to recover in time for an exquisite closing scene. All that said, even by this evening’s standards, Hui He is still my favorite Aida these days: her voice is lovely, her mezza voce is soaring, her Italian is now beyond suspicion, she phrases with the mastery of portamento of a Caballé and – even if her engagement is a bit artsy – it is far preferable either to the cold cleanliness or the anti-musical, supposedly Italianate histrionics usually accepted as Verdian style. This evening’s Amneris was Daniela Barcellona, a singer I would not expect to find in this role. Although her mezzo is sizable, it is not a dramatic voice in any way. She does have very strong technique and is a singer incapable of anything unpleasant to the ears. As a result, with great help from the conductor, she offered a sensuous, dignified and elegant Amneris this evening, who managed to be vulnerable without any loss of strength in the Judgement Scene, after which the performance was interrupted for thunderous applause. For those used to the likes of Dolora Zajick, that might have sounded too elegant, but the point is: she did not tried to sing against the grain of her mezzo and thus was able to offer something convincing and coherent to her voice and personality.

Spanish tenor Jorge de León has a very solid voice, capable of some very powerful high notes, but very limited in dynamic or tonal variety. He has clearly listened to Franco Corelli’s recordings as Radamès, but cannot emulate his ability to effortlessly shift to mezza voce. All in all, his is a very unproblematic account of a difficult role, and that is no mean accomplishment. The role of Amonasro is a bit on the high side for Ambrogio Maestri, but his is a very substantial voice that produces the right impact in key moments. Marco Spotti was a stentorian if not always immaculately sung Ramfis, while Roberto Taglavini showed a bit more nuance but less volume as the King of Egypt. In the small role of the Priestress, Sae Kyung Rim showed a beautiful, clear voice.

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As far as I could understand, the Kanagawa Art Foundation has established a partnership with the Nikikai Opera Company that has resulted co-productions with Biwako Hall (in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture) of operatic performances since 6 years ago. For Richard Wagner’s 200 anniversary a new (at least, this is what I’ve understood) production of Wagner’s Die Walküre with international guest soloists has been featured.

The name of Belgian director Joël Louwers does not ring a bell with me. If I have in mind what I saw today, I would have remembered. Although Tina Turner sings “We don’t need another hero”, Wotan begs to differ by singing “Not tut ein Held…”. Why then the Mad Max aesthetics (in a high school musical production standard) have been chosen? Considering the prevailing cluelessness (there is an interview translated to Japanese in the program that might provide something that should stand in as an explanation, but I am unfortunately unable to read it), I would rather not hear the answer to that question. First, there is some serious misunderstanding going on here. For instance, the Todverkündung scene. Sieglinde is supposed to be asleep then – and this is no small detail. Not only do Siegmund and Brünnhilde mention the fact countless times, but also – if she is awake (as this evening) – there should be no surprise in act III on hearing the news that she is pregnant. On discovering that she is going to be a mother, she decides to go on living. So, if she had known it in act II, her whole attitude in act III would seem pointless. This is no isolated example of poor decision. For instance, the magic fire music is here background to Siegmund crashing a family dinner party (Wotan, Fricka and the valkyries…) in the Walhalla. Also, the staging itself is exotically conceived – in less than 5 minutes, curtains go up and down many times to show some tautological flashbacks (Wotan by the ash tree, the young Sieglinde surrounded by Hunding and his gang…) or some truly “illuminating” titles (“The Punishment”, “The Flight” etc). The director seems to hate the possibility of having characters on stage when not singing; as a result, whenever Wagner has an orchestral passage, short as it may be, there would come the curtains and flashbacks and/or titles. And Fricka – in this staging, we get to see Fricka all the time.  She is so ubiquitous here that she has to be ironic when she says “Wo in den Bergen du dich birgst, der Gattin Blick zu entgehn”. Although there is some (misguided) insight here, the fact is that the Personenregie is also very superficial – everybody weeps when they are sad (Wotan included), Siegmund behaves as if he had some mental disorder, whirling Sieglinde ballroom-dance-style in every possible occasion. All that involved complex set changes – and this operation must be expensive. It is sad to see so much money spent that way, when something simpler, truer and deeper could have been achieved with lower costs (and more expertise).

Conductor Ryusuke Numajiri has built his career in his native Japan and in Germany (it seems he conducted Don Giovanni at the Komische Oper in Berlin, but I have missed that). For this performance, he had the joint efforts of the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra and the Japan Century Symphony Orchestra in the pit. The prospects had not seemed encouraging, but Numajiri proved to be the right man for the task. The word “kapellmeisterlich” comes to my mind in the positive sense of someone who has built an orchestral sound (rather than profiting from an orchestral culture of a world-class team) within the limits and possibilities of his musicians. Also his approach to this music does not seem to stem from any established tradition, but rather from studying the score in its face value. The results were fortunately quite refreshing, if not thrilling, overwhelming or truly moving. First, the conductor made a virtue of his orchestra’s bright but recessed sound, achieving a comfortable balance for his singers in the context of an orchestral sound that was not truly substantial or full but that retained enough timbre nonetheless. Second, he gave his musicians time to produce the necessary effects within the minimal levels of quality. In other words, tempi were unrushed but not ponderous, phrasing was comfortable, musically clear even if not terribly expressive. Third, he let the music speak for itself and you might be surprised of how eloquent it can be – even with less than optimal forces – when there is not a conductor trying to force his personality into it. Of course, when a conductor has a striking personality and great talent, it can be even more eloquent. But how often does that really happens?!

Since I saw Yuka Hashizume’s Kundry last year, I’ve been eager to see her again – especially in Wagner. She is an extremely talented singer who deserved an international career. If her Sieglinde was not striking as I had imagined, it was still far superior to many singers I’ve seen in this role. Her fruity soprano has a unique blend of warmth and cutting edge, her lower register not only is extremely comfortable but also seamlessly connected into her perfectly homogeneous soprano. She is never less than stylish and utterly musicianly, scales down to beautiful mezza voce whenever this is necessary and has reserves of power for the key dramatic moments. This evening her interpretation was rather generalized and she missed the tingling effect in act III – but I would rather blame the circumstances. I was not truly excited about the opportunity of hearing Eva Johansson as Brünnhilde at this stage of her career, but I have to say that she was in exceptionally good voice this afternoon. She still has her sharp/emphatic/fluttery moments, but she proved to be far more disciplined that I could have imagined and sang with the kind of firmness and fullness I thought she had left behind long ago. There was little finesse and variety in her singing, and yet she could find a softer quality for her long scene with Wotan in act III. In comparison, Etsuko Kanoh’s Fricka was far more interesting in her subtle but sure word pointing and dramatic instincts, even if the role is heavy for her voice and her low register now lacks space and color.

This evening’s Siegmund was Tetsuya Mochizuki, a singer I have previously heard as Tamino (a performance that left me no good memories) in the New National Theatre. He is far more comfortable in Wagner – he knows the style, the Italianate touch is not unwelcome, the voice has an appealing old-style fast-vibratoish quality when not tested in dramatic passages (when it acquires a Spiteltenorisch edge) and he can phrase with elegance when he finds it necessary. Yet he is overardorous and hams as his life depended on it. He lost some steam in act II too. I’ve seen Greer Grimsley sing Wotan both in Berlin and in New York. In a good day, he can be a very powerful Wotan. And today was one of these days – he was the aural image of vocal health, singing with unfailingly firm and dark tone throughout. In the closing scene, I remember more subtlety and shading in Berlin, but I guess he just couldn’t resist to pour voluminous and rich sounds in the hall as he could do today. Last but not least, Koji Yamashita was very well cast as Hunding. The team of valkyries too deserve praises – especially the fearless Miyuki Hibino as Helmwige.

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The second item in the Teatro alla Scala’s Japanese tour is Verdi’s Rigoletto – the name of Joseph Calleja making it enticing enough for those who were not eager to see Gilbert Deflo’s museological production (seen on DVD with Roberto Alagna, Renato Bruson and Riccardo Muti). Alas, Calleja cancelled and the old, old production with ballet dancers making cute steps during the orgy in the palace of the Duke of Mantua remains. Actually, calling this Deflo’s production is not really fair, for very little of his direction has survived. For instance: although this evening’s prima donna has sung this production in Milan, she seemed entirely clueless of what she should do on stage. “No rehearsal since 2010” was an idea that did cross my mind. At least, she tried to do something. The tenor just stood there and delivered – and the baritone seemed bothered by having to do the whole Rigoletto-routine…

In any case, the name of Gustavo Dudamel could be considered starry enough to “sell” this performance. I had seen him only once before – a Don Giovanni at La Scala that left a lot to be desired. But that was long ago – and the Venezuelan maestro is now an experienced opera conductor. Even if this evening was hardly unforgettable, the maestro must be praised for his untiring intent of making something out of it. He refused to surrender to band-like vulgarity, never ceased to look for dramatic meaning in every note in the score and (except for a brassy Gilda/Maddalena/Sparafucile scene) succeeded in doing this rather from musicianship than from bravado. For instance, this evening’s Cortiggiani, vil razza was exemplary in clarity, purpose, style… and thrill. If it did not work better, this was because Dudamel was considerate enough to a baritone who could not keep up with it. From this point of view, it was quite fascinating to observe how he tried to impose discipline but respected his soloists’ (many) limitations. It is always refreshing to hear a conductor who is not playing for his own ideals, but instead is dealing with the means at his disposal. Maestro and orchestra deserve the warm applause they received this evening. I am afraid I cannot include the chorus there – their “wind” effect in act III was poorly judged and unconvincing. In any case, I can only imagine what Dudamel would have done with the proper cast for this opera.

Elena Mosuc is a resourceful singer who produces many beautiful sounds, but this evening she was clearly not in her best voice and her heart was probably somewhere else. She was often tremulous and her breath was particularly short:  Caro Nome – in spite of beautiful in alts and perfect trills (no mean accomplishment, one must concede her that) – had many unwritten pauses and Tutte le feste was quite gusty and insincere, but her dying scene was surprisingly touching. On the other hand, Francesco Demuro’s tenor is firm, bright and strongly supported through long phrases on the breath. His voice is a bit on the small size for the role, has many nasal patches and the style can be kitschy now and then. Also, he did not seem really at ease playing the alpha-male role. I have seen Giorgio Gagnidze’s Rigoletto at the Met and found it bland in a role where blandness is a no-go. His singing this evening could be described the same way. Finally, Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s dark and voluminous bass is the right instrument for Sparafucile.

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In the first item of their Japanese tour, the Teatro alla Scala seems to have decided to show Japanese audiences that in the Verdi’s 200th anniversary, you cannot go more authentic than with La Scala: Falstaff was first performed there in 1893. Furthermore, this evening’s prima donna is Milanese herself and the singer in the title role is from Lombardy too. However, the inspiration for Verdi (and Boito) is Shakespeare – and director Robert Carsen has decided, in this co-production from the Milanese theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Canadian Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera House and, what else?… ah, the Nederlandse Opera, to delve into Englishness. On stage, no visual cliché about England is spared: wood paneling, leather armchairs, hunting apparel, tea parties etc. The results are pleasant to the eyes in warm colors and economy of resources. In terms of Personenregie, there is no complex concept to perform here: Sir John Falstaff, Mr and Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Quickly behave very much like normal people (I mean, like normal people in a staged comedy), what is refreshing for a change.

If there was something actually English in this Falstaff, this was conductor Daniel Harding. As I have often here said, Falstaff is no favorite opera of mine, but I have had the luck to find persuasive advocates in the conductors whom I’ve seen live in the theatre – James Levine back in the Metropolitan Opera and Daniele Gatti in Paris. Harding too is a conductor who places the orchestra in the centre of the proceedings – the Filarmonica della Scala played with great animation, offering the conductor the raw, flashy colors he needed for his ebullient approach to the score. Everything shone, sparkled and moved forward this afternoon. True clarity in ensembles was not really there, but the overall conviction would make you overlook that. What one could not overlook was the lack of lightness and sense of humor. You just have to pick your old Karajan CDs to see how famously Schwarzkopf, Barbieri, Taddei and the Philharmonia Orchestra were enjoying themselves. In comparison, this evening sounded a bit manic. In any case, I don’t want to give a false impression – this performance was fun, but – in terms of music – not always very funny.

Being funny is not a problem for Ambrogio Maestri. He is my kind of Falstaff – he is not trying to be funny at all and that makes him even funnier. He is entirely at ease with the music, the text, the character. Even when his voice shows some rough patch, he makes it part of his interpretation. And the sheer volume  and darkness makes his Falstaff a little bit more threatening than with singers who go all for buffoonery. Although Daniela Barcellona’s mezzo lies a bit high for the part, she too has more than the measure of her role – and her spacious chest voice is very aptly used here. Her scenes with Maestri were actually the highlights today. I took a while to recognise Barbara Frittoli’s voice this afternoon. At first, she sounded uncannily like Maria Chiara, but gradually her velvety, slightly astringent soprano began to sound like itself. In any case, she was in good, flexible voice and handled the text with naturalness and spirit. As Ford, Massimo Cavaletti was a bit blustery, but well cast nonetheless. The voice is, of course, Italianate and firm, not truly penetrating in its higher reaches, but hearable enough. At first, Irina Lungu’s soprano seemed too grown-up and smoky-toned for Nanetta, but she can float long high notes without effort and keeps a beautiful singing line too. If her Fenton, Antonio Poli, did not sound suave enough at first, he finally sang his “aria” with elegance and imagination. Meg is a difficult role and I find that it only works when cast with a beautiful-voiced singer. Otherwise, it disappears in background. Laura Polverelli was not in excellent voice and sounded squally and overvibrant this afternoon.

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As part of the New Japan Philharmonic’s celebration of the Wagner jubilee, conductor in residence Ingo Metzmacher programmed a concert performance of Die Walküre’s Act 1, with soloists from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, preceded by R. Strauss’s tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Metzmacher is famous for his fondness for bold, think orchestral playing (as I could hear in his concerts during his tenure at the DSO in Berlin) and, under his baton, the NJP displayed a large – properly late-Romantic – sound, rich in warm strings. In moments where the texture becomes more complex, such as the Der Genesende episode, the sound picture could get a bit slacker, especially when one has in mind Karl Böhm’s 1958 recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker, but clarity was almost always there. At the Tanzlied episode, the German conductor proved to be a bit heavy-footed, making for a rather clumsy waltz. At this point, his musicians seemed to have lost some steam too.

For the Walküre, the orchestra showed an entirely different sound, brighter and lighter. Looking at the list of soloists, one would have a deceptive first impression of a Karajanesque performance. Rather than Karajan’s flexible, luxuriant beat, Metzmacher offered a surprisingly a tempo approach, very economic with lingering breathing pauses, highlighting the Hauptstimme, which shifted from singers to orchestra in a commendably natural and consequent manner. The violins kept a cantabile quality throughout, even in fast passagework, which made me often think of Hans Tietjen’s 1938 Bayreuth recording. Later on, Metzmacher would prove to be suppler than I imagined, offering Sieglinde a Du bist der Lenz slower and more lyrical than usual and a truly climactic accelerando in the closing bars of the act. Although the approach paid off in its unusual structural coherence, musical soundness and chamber-music-like sonorities, the effect was unfortunately short in drama and excitement.

In 1938, Tietjen too chose light voices – in Maria Müller and Franz Völker – for his Wälsungen, but those were legendary singers of exceptional resources and technical finish. That was not the case this evening – and I have the impression that soloists who could have indeed pierced through the orchestral would have allowed the conductor more leeway to infuse energy in his otherwise musically persuasive approach. In the case of his Sieglinde, the final balance was surprisingly positive. Although Michaela Kaune’s high register is unfocused and colorless, she sang with unfailing theatrical instincts, a golden-toned medium register and very efficient low notes, exemplary diction, imagination and – in the more jugendlich than dramatisch moments – an elegant, almost Mozartian purity of line. She is not a Sieglinde by nature (act III would probably be very dangerous to her vocal health), but she “sold” me her version of Sieglinde this afternoon. On the other hand, Will Hartmann had to work hard for his money. The tone does have a young-Siegfried-Jerusalem quality, but the slancio, the resistance and the breath are not truly there. The result was often underpowered and wooden (the Wälse! sustained high g flat and high g particularly problematic). He started off with a refreshing lyricism, but when he got to Winterstürme, he was obviously too tired to make something of it. Last but not least, Liang Li was an efficient dark-toned Hunding.

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The Saito Kinen Festival, which happens every year since 1992 in Matsumoto, has been made famous by recordings of not-entirely-mainstream repertoire with world-class soloists and (in opera) ambitious productions under the baton of Seiji Ozawa and, more recently, other promising names. Also, the Festival orchestra has gained a reputation for its “sound culture”.

Due to unstable health conditions, Ozawa has been increasingly cancelling his concerts all over the world. In his own Festival, he took the very honest precautionary measure of informing that he might be replaced if he would not be up to the task of conducting Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. French conductor Stephane Denève, who was in charge of the second item in the double bill, Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, would be the replacement. Fortunately, the revered Japanese conductor proved to be in good health and could honor his engagement in Matsumoto.

Predictably, Ozawa and his musicians offered hauntingly beautiful sounds throughout. In their recordings, André Previn would provide more sense of humor and Simon Rattle a little bit more punch (some would say ‘too much”), but Ozawa did round off all the sharp angles in this music in a way that made it sound extremely spontaneous if less theatrical. The final scene – with its difficult spoken-word effects and anti-climactic ending – especially well-handled. Unfortunately, the Matsumoto Performing Arts Center has a difficult acoustic for singers, what gave them very little space for subtlety. In that sense, Isabel Leonard, whose fruity mezzo has gained strength since last time I saw her, was a good choice for the Child. If her delivery of the text lacks the clarity of, say, Magdalena Kozená (Rattle’s CD), her voice was very hearable and successful in suggesting feistiness. Among the other roles, Yvonne Naef proved to be the singer less challenged by the hall as the Mother, the Chinese Cup and the Dragonfly. Anna Christy may lack the crystalline quality of Arleen Augér (Previn’s 1st CD), but her grainy, metallic soprano carried well in the auditorium and her coloratura was very nimble.

For L’Heure Espagnole’s earthier score, Stephane Denève elicited an entirely different sound picture from the orchestra, which offered him fuller and more incisive sonorities. The very nature of this music made the challenge in producing demi-tintes less of a problem for the cast too. Isabel Leonard (Concepción) proved to have a Carmen waiting to be matured in her and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was very well cast as her husband, Torquemada. David Portillo (Gonzalve) may lack some roundness in his high notes, but they are all firm and easy. He also got the measure of his role and music, offering a spirited performance. Elliot Madore (Ramiro) too acted well and sung with some nuance in a baritone voice a bit soft-centered for the circumstances.

For Ravel’s operatic opera omnia, the Saito Kinen Festival has collaborated with the Glyndebourne Festival, where – if I am not mistaken – Kazushi Ono assumed the conducting duties. Director Laurent Pelly offered a chic, slightly unsurprising but exquisitely traditional approach to L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, aided by Barbara de Limburg’s beautiful sets (the Fire scene particularly impressive). For L’Heure Espagnole, the approach was rather Almodovar-esque – an interesting idea – but both Personenregie and Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard’s sets skated a bit on the crazy-comedy surface of the story, whereas taking these comedy characters a little bit more seriously would have made all the difference in the world.

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