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Archive for December, 2014

The operetta is a genre that thrived from the cultural exchange between Paris and Vienna. The libretto of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus is an adaptation of the French play Le Réveillon by Meilhac and Halévy and the very origins of operetta itself is arguably connected to the style of musical theatre established in the Opéra Comique. Director Ivan Alexandre has decided that a performance of this work at this very theatre should be special: a new French translation by Pascal Paul-Harang has been commissioned and the staging takes place in a highly stylized version of our days (sets and costumes are a bit confusing though). Although the music loses a bit when divorced of the very particular rhythm of the German language (you just need to compare Mit dem Profil im griech’schen Stil/Beschenkte mir Natur/Wenn nicht dies Gesicht schon genügend sprichst/So seh’n Sie die Figur with Regardez ce front, ce nez ce menton/Comme ils sont dessinés/Vous le voyez bien, vous ne trouvez rien/Qui ne soit distingué), the French text is faithful to the spirit and adds a very French sense of humor to the proceedings. As for the staging, much of what Mr. Alexandre creates is delightful: as usual, the ballet in Orlofsky’s party is not used, here replaced by a power shortage that has the audience retire (for the interval) only to be compensated by some offering by Prince Orlofsky – a couple of dances by Johann Strauss and his own impersonation of Cecilia Bartoli in Vivaldi’s Agitata da due venti from Vivaldi’s Griselda (I wasn’t very keen on this one but after two seconds I was laughing my heart out) – and the Frosch with a social conscience. Although the idea that Alfred is so infatuated by himself that he does not realize that Rosalinde would not require much of an effort of seduction is funny, but makes Rosalinde too much of a hypocrite. Anyway, this is evidently carefully conceived Personenregie and the cast is top level in the acting department. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had fun.

I was not so taken by the musical side of the performance. Although Marc Minkowski had already conducted this work in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic, I was surprised by how little idiomatic his conducting sounded this evening. There was very little flexibility with tempo, to start with. Then the strings lacked the necessary suppleness and charm – I understand that the idea was to highlight particular colors in other sections of the orchestra, but the result was a little military-band-like. I was surprised to hear an orchestra used to rapid passagework in Handel, Rameau and Gluck so imprecise in this music. All things Viennese had this ambiguity between seriousness and humor. When you listen to the Brüderlein und Schwesterlein ensemble in all recordings in Vienna there is this inimitable mélange of melancholy and sensuous playfulness – here it sounded just serious. In any case, although charm was very restricted, there was forward movement and animation.

Although the cast had many interesting singers, almost none of them were truly well cast. Chiara Skerath has an appealing smooth voice, flexible enough and ductile in lovely mezza voce, but she is helplessly light for this role: whenever things get low or high and fast or requiring louder dynamics, she sounds off focus and colorless. She should have avoided in alts in any case. I am not a fan of the idea of a countertenor Orlofsky. Kangmin Justin Kim has some naughty ideas about how to mix his chest voice in and finally has done better than most, but Brigitte Fassbaender, for instance, surpasses him in everything, even androgyny. He does deserve praise for his Bartoli-caricature – it is almost frighteningly accurate… Although Philippe Talbot’s extreme high notes are a bit tight, it is an extremely pleasing and natural tenor voice – and he phrases with elegance. Stéphane Degout is, of course, an impressive singer who deals heroically with the high tessitura of the part of Eisenstein… but you have noticed that I have written “heroically”? Precisely. Florian Sempey (Falke) sounded a bit grey-toned in the beginning but he developed later an almost Hermann Prey-ish velvety-toned charm for the Brüderlein and Schwesterlein scene. I leave the best for last: when Sabine Devielhe learns how to control the overmetallic quality of her in alts, she is going to be a perfect singer. As she is today, she is only very, very good: her soprano is delightfully bell-toned, her diction is exemplary, she phrases musicianly, has exciting coloratura and is also a terrific actress with looks to spare.

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Almost every opera is about love and death, but Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maachera goes a step further with a love scene in a graveyard. Director Katharina Thoma, however, did not seen to have found this enough: why not staging the whole opera in the graveyard?! Although props and scenic elements clearly shows us the different locations in the libretto against the cemetery backdrop, the audience still has to deal with a bunch of ballet dancers characterized as perambulant graveyard sculptures that interact with Amelia and Riccardo. Curiously, the only supernatural aspect of the story – the fortune teller Ulrica – is shown here as a charlatan, even if all her prophecies turn out very accurate. The fact that the “American” version of the libretto is retained in a staging that looks distinctively European is quite puzzling too. Also, having Oscar dressed as a soldier during the final minutes comes entirely out of the blue and seems to imply that Ms. Thoma has found the predicaments of Riccardo, Amelia et al irrelevant compared to “really serious matters”. In any case, if most of that looks a bit ludicrous and contrived, Ms. Thoma does deserve credit for making Joseph Calleja do, for once, something very similar to acting.

The Royal Opera House has gathered a stellar cast for this new production. Liudmyla Monastyrska has done some very commendable Verdian singing, but Amelia is so far her most compelling role: she finds no technical challenges in this difficult writing, avoids the usual trap of coming up too formidable and shows Amelia vulnerability in exquisite mezza voce and truly musicianly phrasing. Some demanding passages sounded entirely new to my ears in their cleanliness and shapeliness. When I saw Marianne Cornetti as Ulrica during the Japanese tour of the Teatro Reggio di Torino some months ago, I had the impression that her voice had taken the soprano direction, but she proved me wrong this evening in her solid and natural low register and the warm (if soft grained) quality of her voice. Serena Gamberoni was an ideal Oscar, her soprano full toned up to its highest reaches.

Although Riccardo is not among Verdi’s heaviest roles for tenor, it is nonetheless heavy for Joseph Calleja. Of course, it is always a pleasure to hear a tenor of unusual good taste, intelligence and extremely dulcet tonal quality, but his high notes sounded bottled up, some of them grating a bit. There is a great deal of low lying passages in this part and he was not truly at ease in them either. I wish this invaluable Maltese tenor is not directing his career towards roles that do not show up his many strong qualities. Dmitri Hvorostovsky has seen fresher toned days, but that did not prevent him from offering a strong performance, sometimes overthetop on emotionalism, but never boring, profuse in rich high notes and reserves of legato for soft passages. All small roles were ver well cast.

Daniel Oren presided over a very well organized and balanced performance that eschewed any kind of vulgarity and allowed his singers enough leeway to express themselves both in flexibility with tempo and dynamic variety.

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When Jérémie Rhorer first started his Mozart opera series in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, he was not exactly a household name, but now that it is close to reach its end, he has become something of a sure deal for Classical repertoire. I’ve had the luck to see the Così fan tutte in this series and I realize that it wasn’t only Rhorer’s reputation that has increased since then, he himself has developed as a conductor, most notably in the sense that he has found a more fine balance between his ideas and the means available to carry them out. It is curious that I’ve had the same seat both evenings, and the impression of the orchestral sound could not be more different: today, all sections of the Cercle de l’Harmonie were in perfect balance and, if the strings have a touch of astringency, this was put to good purpose in a punchy, vivid sound picture. Actually, if these performances deserved to be recorded (probably in studio, with cast changes), the main reason for that would doubtlessly be Rhorer’s conducting. This was probably the best conducted TIto I have ever heard (including recordings) – the Overture sounded entirely fresh to my ears, with wonderful interplay between strings and wind instruments and truly theatrical flair. His management of tempi proved to be ruled by the quest for the right balance between musical and theatrical values and the eschewal of empty effect. Soft affetti were treated with unusual care – the Servilia/Annio duettino exquisitely touching, while the orchestra could provide Vitellia with some of its most stingy and nervous sounds. I have been often let down in the finale ultimo, but this evening it has surpassed my expectations in the perfect matching of soloists, orchestra and chorus (which could be a bit short in tenor and bass sound during the whole opera).

Everybody wondered how further Karina Gauvin would be singing exclusively on the cream before moving up to the full glass of milk of her lyric soprano. The choice of the formidable role of Vitellia seems like a bold step into a future of new possibilities, even if this deserves some consideration. First, I was surprised to see how wholeheartedly she has embraced the virago attitude, spitting her recitatives with panache and chewing the scenery as if her life depended on it. However, she does not have the physique du rôle for a seductress, especially when sabotaged by an unbecoming gown strangely provided by no other than Christian Lacroix. Second, if Gauvin could delve most naturally in chest voice for the very low notes required by Mozart, she lacks either training or the instincts or even the spiritual disposition when things get high and loud. She tiptoed through every incursion above high a and produced a truly underwhelming account of the acuti of Vengo… aspetatte… . There is no “third”: other than this I’ve found her Vitellia really enjoyable in her rich, flexible soprano. She tackled many difficult runs unusually accurately and showed no reluctance before trills and sang a sensitive and heartfelt Non più di fiori.

Kate Lindsey too was a sensitive Sesto, singing with beautiful sense of line and true ease with mezza voce. Her mezzo remains, though, light for the role and heroic moments took her to her limits, most notably in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when her fioriture left a lot to be desired. Julie Boulianne (Annio) proved to be more generous in the vocal department, her velvety and homogeneous voice easy on the ear. Julie Fuchs has Mozart running through her veins. Her voice is very reminiscent of Barbara Bonney’s, but she finally offered a Servilia even more touching than Bonney’s in both her recorded performances. Robert Gleadow was a positive Publio with very clear divisions, but there is a rattling, nasal quality suggesting the musical theatre rather than the opera that disturbed balance in many ensembles.

Kurt Streit was, for many years, a model of Mozartian singing, as one can sample in his many recordings in this repertoire, but these days seem to be behind him. It is true that the sense of line, the imagination for ornamentation, the elegant phrasing and the clean fioriture are still there, but passaggio is now handled in a glaringly open tone and, when he has to cover his high notes, they turn up tremulous and effortful. His handling of the text was extremely artificial, as if Tito were talking to small children during the whole opera, what made him seem insincere and studied and a bit dull. And that is not the character devised by Metastasio.

Director Denis Podalydès, from the Comédie-Française, had many interesting ideas – starting the performance with a very expressive actress (Leslie Menu) delivering Bérénice’s farewell verses to Titus in Racine’s tragedy before the overture and setting the action in a hotel, where the high echelons of government seem to be interned during a political crisis while the ruler’s authority is being restored. There are too many extras, though, and some intimate scenes sound overcrowded and too many secrets are being recited to an audience of silent roles. The Personenregie is very detailed and all members of the cast keenly follow it, but I am afraid that the Sesto’s mental unbalance after he has set fire to the capitol is too much even for well-intentioned opera singer.

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The Kammerorchester Basel, a versatile ensemble that has tackled a wide-ranging repertoire with period practices very much in sight, has chosen Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for their European tour in the holiday season. I have to confess that I did not really understand that the performance would be split in two concerts and, therefore, will be able to speak only about the first one. Led by their concert master, Julia Schröder, the orchestra showed animation and a rhythmic vitality in the more festive numbers, usually given very fast tempi. In more pensive numbers, phrasing had some squareness and lack of purpose: Schlafe, mein liebster sounded too matter-of-fact in its purely dance-bound perspective and the sinfonia to the II Cantata could have done with a little bit more variety. The fact that the string section lacked tone did not help much in moments like that either. Furthermore, it could sound underwhelmed by the Deutscher Kammerchor, although it only had three voices per part. I also had the impressions that altos were too much in retreat, while tenors were often a little prominent,

The all-male group of singers here chosen places an immediate interest in this performance. The velvety-toned Valer Sabadus is my first countertenor in the soprano part in this piece. Unfortunately, the most challenging numbers for that voice appear in the second half of the program. As it is, Sabadus’s sound is a bit soft-grained in middle register but smooth and round in the higher part of the ressitura. Volume too could seem restricted at times. In the alto solo, Terry Wey sounded like a fruitier and cleaner version of the young René Jacos and sang incisively and with disarming directness. Again, Schlafe, mein liebester could  be more expressive – and the fast tempo made some turns of phrase sound yodell-ish rather than graceful. Werner Güra was in excellent form both as the Evangelist and the solo tenor, his Frohe Hirten showed him at his most Wunderlich-ian. Last but not least, Matthias Goerne proved to have everything a bass in this repertoire should have: noble tone, clear diction and flexibiliy. I am really sorry I won’t be able to see the second concert.

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BTW…

… the discography of Così fan Tutte in www.operadiscographies.com has been updated.

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The Music Director Emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, has inscribed his name in the performance history of Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande with his recording from Montreal, a reference for those who want this work at its least “operatic”, and he conducted it most recently in 2012 at the Verbier Festival with Stéphane Degout as Pelléas. For someone who is not very keen on opera, Maestro Dutoit has conducted some key XXth century stage works in Japan:  Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, the Japanese première of Szymanowski’s King Roger and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. This afternoon, he offered the Tokyoite audience a concert performance of Debussy’s only complete opera with an all-star cast.

Although Dutoit is still faithful for his strictly-demi-tintes approach, eliciting very subtle and colorful playing from the NHK SO in flexible but never rushed tempi, some may find the orchestral sound a little bit more embracing than on his CDs, although weight is a word no-one would ever think of here. In comparison, Claudio Abbado sounds almost Verdian in his urgent and theatrical DG recording, in which the Vienna Philharmonic dazzles the listeners in kaleidoscopic orchestral effects. In any case, provided you have a cast as impressive as the one gathered here today, the Swiss conductor will be proved right in giving Maeterlinck’s text all the time and prominence it deserves.

If I had to be picky about the choice of soloists, I would say that Karen Vourc’h is one or two millimeters below her colleagues. Although her voice has an appealing shimmering femininity à la Ileana Cotrubas, it acquires a certain graininess above mezzo forte and the low notes are mostly left to imagination. On her favor, there is not a word in the text the meaning of which she does not fully understands – even if her approach is surprisingly sincere. Other singers could find a bit more sensuousness in this role, and I am afraid I have finally got used to that, especially in Mes longs cheveux, sung today without any hint of mystery or seduction. Stéphane Degout is simply the best Pelléas of his generation. First, it is vocally flawless; second, it is crystalline in diction; third, it is entirely devoid of affectation and unusually “masculine”. There is something extremely honest and direct about his performance that makes the role extremely believable. Vincent Le Texier is a forceful and intense Golaud. He is the less aggressive or fatherly Golaud I have ever heard and one can see why Mélisande agreed to marry him in the first place. Midway through act III, when the writing becomes somewhat heavier, Le Texier started to increasingly show some signs of fatigue, but he managed to channel this into his performance. Nathalie Stutzmann and Franz-Josef Selig as Geneviève and Arkel are the dictionary definition’s of embarras de richesses. Khatouna Gadelia and David Wilson-Johnson were ideally cast as Yniold and the doctor.

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I have a long story with Marco Arturo Marelli’s producion of Verdi’s Don Carlo: I’ve seen the première in the Deutsche Oper and a reprise with a different cast last year. It must be said that serious rethinking has been done and I could say that third time’s a charm: not only does it look better within the New National Theatre’s higher proscenium arch, but also many important adjustments have been done, especially in the auto-da-fé scene. In any case, if the really superior blocking and acting is the result of Spielleiter Yasuko Sawada’s work, then she truly deserves compliments. Another improvement over the Berlin performances is Pietro Rizzo’s conducting. The Tokyo Philharmonic orchestra played with unusual animation and richness of tone, only occasionally lapsing into the customary bureaucracy. Maestro Rizzo did a very good job in balancing the need to accommodate a largely light-voiced cast and Verdi’s demands of a rich orchestral sound. He rightly opted for forward-moving tempi and theatrical effects. This was indeed one of the best performances in the New National Theatre in the recent years.

Serena Farnocchia’s lyric soprano is two sizes smaller than the role of Elisabetta and, if she sang elegantly and musicianly, she often seemed to be saving steam for her big moments. Once in the final act, she thew caution to the winds and offered an exciting account both of her aria and the ensuing duet. Sonia Ganassi too is hardly the dramatic mezzo soprano one usually finds as Eboli. Although her voice had a bleached out sound in its higher reaches, she husbanded her resources most intelligently and offered a dramatically compelling and vocally acceptable performance. As usual, her attention to the text makes all the difference in the world. I had never heard Spanish tenor Sergio Escobar before. It is an interesting voice without any doubt: its bright, firm sound has palpable presence in the auditorium and, when the phrase is congenial, he can provide some exciting acuti. He still needs to work on breath support, though – he is often caught short and some high-lying passages grate a bit. He has not been blessed with acting abilities and invariably looked awkward when he tried to reproduce some gesture or attitude outside his comfort zone. Markus Werba is the third singer below the right Fach for his part today. This did not prevent him from offering a convincing performance – he has solid technique, did not beef up unnecessarily his high baritone and only showed some sign of strain during the long scene with Filippo in the first act (this is the Italian 4-act version). I had seen Rafal Siwek as the Inquisitore in the Staatsoper back in 2011 and found him authoritative but lacking variety. For the role of Filippo II, the natural volume of his voice is an undeniable advantage. The slightly veiled tonal quality and a tiny hint of throatiness prevent him from providing the necessary impact in the auto-da-fé, but he proved to scale down to real Innigkeit in his act III aria. If Hidekazu Tsumaya could produce more consistent high notes, he would have been an entirely successful Inquisitore – here he sounded underpowered in many key moments.

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