Archive for March, 2015

Gilbert Deflo’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut  (a co-production with the Deutsche Oper Berlin actually) is entirely free of any Regie approach – it just tells the story in some sort of foolproof way that involves minimalistic sets/elaborate costumes combo. There is not much of a Personenregie either, but I would rather say that this wise choice under the circumstances. In any case, some things could be refined: for instance, when Des Grieux comes to prevent Manon to board the ship to Louisiana, the other deportees act as nothing were happening (what is VERY unlikely). Also, Geronte has the gait of an elderly man, but has no problem in reaching things on the floor and then getting up.

Pier Giorgio Morandi is usually a reliable conductor in this repertoire – and he did get things moving on, but “passion” is not the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra’s specialty. The score requires plenty of that, but here the replacement was “brassiness”. As a result, the overall impression was of bureaucratic noisiness. At least, singers were given enough leeway to take care of the interpretation department.

Svetla Vassileva is something of a director’s dream casting for the role of Manon: she has the looks and – although her Manon is too much of a good girl (at least in this production) – the attitude. I would not say she truly has the voice for it, but her lyric soprano can deal with it without much problem. Her soprano has a Freni-like shimmering quality that can get quite vibrant at times, but a very warmth and velventiness of her soprano eschews hints of what some call “Slavic” vibrato. She manages the passaggio very adeptly and deals with the low tessitura seamlessly and without any vulgarity. She can still be overshadowed by the orchestra down there (as in Sola, perduta, abbandonata), but compensates with sensitive shading and beautiful mezza voce now and then, not to mention flexibility and charm in the act II gavotte. The natural feeling for Italian style and the fact that she seems to inhabit her text and notes adds up to a pleasing if not truly moving performance. I have the impression that purely lyric roles would show her more advantageously. After seeing Gustavo Porta as an unsubtle Canio some months ago, I was not really looking forward for this afternoon. I am glad to report that his Des Grieux was a different story. I found the voice stronger-centered and a bit darker in sound. As in the NNT’s Pagliacci, he deals with heroic high notes without effort, but proved to be capable of some nuance too: he scaled down for piano quite often and even floated mezza voce once or twice. His line was also clean of some vulgarities some tenors sell as “verismo style”, but calling it “elegant” would be a stretch. There are moments of flutter and he seemed a bit tired in No, pazzo son. Dalibor Jenis was a congenial Lescaut, in particularly good voice today.


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The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and its musical director, Jonathan Nott, have offered today excerpts of Wagner’s Parsifal paired with Alban Berg’s Three Pieces from the Lyrische Suite as opening item. I have seen the Tokyo Symphony play Wagner at the New National Theatre a couple of times and I confess I was not very enthusiastic about this. Although there was some finely focused pianissimo in Berg’s highly atmospheric pieces, the final impression was of lack of variety and clarity. It is not fair to compare it to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, but, well, it has confirmed my impression.

Although the orchestra did fare better in a strange composite of Parsifal’s Prelude, plus the long Kundry/Parsifal scene in act II (without the flower maidens and Klingsor) and – most anticlimactically – further into the Karfreitagzauber after a series of shortcuts, the impression of lack of expansion persisted: one could feel as if listening to a radio recording with compressed range. Jonathan Nott’s didactical conducting adding very little sense of drama to the proceedings: slow tempi, his beat quite a tempo, reduced sense of continuity (the pauses in the overture sounding like interruptions rather than breathing points), very little nuance but everything made very clear (a recessed string section’s “positive collateral effect?”).

If the concert had any interest it is related to the very unusual appearance of Alexandrina Pendatchanska (why “Alex Penda”?!) as Kundry. Last time I checked a Kundry who also sings Rossini… this was… not Maria Callas… Agnes Baltsa has done it after that… and maybe Doris Soffel*. Anyway, once she had sung Salome, Pendatchanska must have started to wonder if there were more ahead in terms of German repertoire for her. Hers is a very particular voice – in her first appearances, it had a squally, piercing quality that made it a bit difficult to appreciate her flexibility and long range. Then she had put herself under the guidance of René Jacobs, who led her through Handel, Haydn and Mozart towards a more relaxed vocal production, legato and an ampler tonal palette. And now she found her way back into Romantic repertoire.

First of all, it would be unfair to call this her “final product” in terms of Wagnerian singing, but rather an early experiment made in safe conditions (a concert performance of a single scene in a non-German speaking country). One could see a certain anxiety, a concern in not losing sight of the score and some uneasiness in terms of interpretation until the very difficult end, when – not really curiously – one could finally see that she was finally “doing her thing”. All of this is perfectly understandable: this is no small challenge. First, although she can produce very forceful high and low notes, her voice is not of Wagnerian proportions. And one can clearly hear that when she is in the middle register, where there are no special effects to be played. Second, although she clearly knows the text, her German is still a bit artificial, “i” sounds like “ee”, “e” too often sounds like the one in “get” and “ch” still needs considerable work. Also, sometimes the wrong syllable is too heavily accented, especially when she resorts to chest voice to get to the end of a low-lying phrase (in Verdi, this usually works, because he probably had in mind that his singers would do something like that). Third, there is still a sense that she is trying to do it correctly, as if she had listened to Waltraud Meier’s recording one hundred times to get it right.

All this considered, this was still very fascinating for anyone interested in voice, technique and national styles. Ms. Penda could teach a lesson in breath control to many Wagnerian singers. She takes legato very seriously and would not adopt the usual pause between verb and object to gain an extra breath. For instance, phrases like “wann dann ihr Arm dich wütend umschlang” or “So war es mein Kuss, der welt-hellsichtig dich machte?” were sung in a single breath without any hint of constriction or strain by the end of them. Also, some of her most exciting high notes were sang without forcing or pushing, but span freely and roundly. One might argue that some effect of emphasis in key words were lost in this kind of approach. I wouldn’t disagree, but I would rather hear someone who chooses to do that rather than someone who cannot do it otherwise. And it’s easier to learn German than breath support technique. And there is the matter of style  – while the use of portamento (such as in “Fern – fern – ist meine Heeeeimat”) is interesting, historically correct (although this has been forgotten by most Wagnerian singers of our days), I still have to think before I say something about low register in full chest resonance Italian-style. The first time I saw Eva Randová in the video from Bayreuth, this had called my attention, but Alex Penda goes a little bit further. While it produces a thrilling effect in “Ein Sünder sinkt mir in die Arme”, it sounds rather odd in “des Trostes Süsse labte nie auch dein Herz”. I don’t have an “in conclusion” for this paragraph. If she really wants to be a Wagner singer (and I don’t see an Elsa or Elisabeth in her), this means tackling roles like Kundry and Ortrud (maybe Senta could be interesting), which require complete mastery of the text (and therefore a more spontaneous pronunciation of German). Moreover, although proper acquaintance of Wagnerian tradition would help a bit (for instance: her last utterance would be easier and more effective with a lighter “ge…” followed by quick and precise ‘…Leit” rather than emphasis in both syllables and the last one hold a bit longer than written), the most important thing is finding her own truth in this music. One could get a glimpse of that just before that moment from”Hilfe! Herbei!”. There I could see the Alex Penda I’ve seen as Handel’s Agrippina: the fiery temper, the flashing presence, the amazing energy, that old-style glamour in tackling very large intervals with this “the low note was great, but the high not was amazing, wasn’t it?”-attitude. As my 10 readers have seen, she got me to write three paragraphs just about her!

Christian Elsner will get one paragraph only. I have already seen his complete Parsifal in Berlin (and also his Siegmund). Back in 2011, I had found his tonal quality appropriate for the role of Parsifal, but his approach to high notes too Mozartian for the circumstances, while today he did not give me this impression. His attitude to passaggio seemed improved and his high notes larger and darker than before. It still lacks some brightness and he has to work hard to pierce through. After a while, he sounded tired. In any case, his was a sensitive and often musicianly performance.

* Well, Christa Ludwig too, but she herself would not put her Rossini as a staple in her repertoire. It also comes to my mind that Renata Scotto once sang Kundry, but I wouldn’t call her a usual visitor to the master of Pesaro either.

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Even among Vivaldi’s rarely performed operatic works, L’Oracolo in Messenia stands out as an absolute rarity – and the reason is that there is no surviving score. The fact that it has been performed at all is violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi’s creative re-invention based on a patchwork of numbers borrowed mainly from Geminiano Giacomelli (who composed a work on the same libretto), but also from operas by other composers and by Vivaldi himself. Taking a little longer than two hours and based on a libretto full of volte-face, Biondi’s pastiche is entertaining enough, even if it doesn’t avoid the sensation of sameness: all numbers are either arie di bravura or di furore that sound a bit like each other. Vivaldi composed some beautiful meditative and expressive arie, and the libretto would certainly gain in having incorporated some of them for the sake of contrast (isn’t it one of the key concepts of baroque art?).

Biondi conducted his edition in concert in Vienna in 2012 and a CD has been recorded live then. As a celebration of the 60th anniversary of its concert hall, the Prefecture of Kanagawa has invited the Italian conductor and his L’Europa Galante to re-create the concert, this time in full staging. Although the budget seems to have been modest, director Tadashi Miroku made the right choice when he decided to find inspiration in Japanese theatre. In its cleanliness, Izumi Matsuoka’s sets are vaguely reminiscent of Noh; Midori Hagino’s costumes too suggest that tradition, albeit with a splash of Issey MIyake. It is clear that the Personenregie intended to infuse in the cast Japan’s highly aestheticised stock gestures, but either communication problems or limited rehearsal prevented complete success here: some singers seem to have intuitively understood that, while others preferred to do their thing. That – and some amateurism in the production – made an experience that could be illuminating only very interesting.

The cast is basically the same as seen in Vienna, but for three singers. While the CDs treasure Ann Hallenberg’s flashing performance in the key role of Merope, Marianne Beate Kielland – in spite of a more substantial voice – is tamer of temper and not truly adept with Italian language. Her mezzo soprano has a truly pleasant and clean sound and she is stylish and committed, but this repertoire requires real command of the text. Back in Vienna, Romina Basso seemed somehow too formidable as Elmira, while today’s Marina de Liso’s fruity mezzo is more feminine in sound and readier to soften and float mezza voce. It is also rich, vibrant and spacious. Some would say “too much” for Vivaldi. The last replacement is Martina Belli, who takes the bad-guy role of Anassandro, previously cast with Xavier Sabata. There are interesting dark sounds and textual intelligence, but it is still a potential.

Vivica Genaux (Epitide) did not seem to be in her best voice: she sounds less abrasive in the recording. That did not prevent her from tackling difficult coloratura with aplomb and singing expressively and stylishly as always. Although the role of Licisco takes Franziska Gottwald to her limits, she goes to her limits without looking back. An intelligence and compelling performance. Julia Lezhneva appears here in the small role of Trasimede, but gets two showstoppers – one of them Broschi’s Son qual nave (created for Broschi’s brother, Farinelli). Some of her trills seemed to be made exclusively of one note, but other than this that was a Golden-age coruscating coloratura display. As much as in the recording, Magnus Staveland, for all his commitment, is not at home in florid writing, not to mention that his dulcet tenor does not suggest any evil unless distorted in Charaktertenor style.

When it comes to Biondi and the Europa Galante, one can only praise the sense of drama, the wide-ranging tonal colouring, the rhythmic alertness and the virtuoso quality of its strings. Bravi!

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