Archive for October, 2016

My last visit to São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal had not been very happy and it took me a while to decide to buy a ticket to their new staging of R. Strauss’s Elektra. The cast list finally take my chance once more. I saw Catherine Foster´s Elektra (in concert, full edition) in Berlin only last year and thought it would be interesting to see her in a staged performance. Luck favours the bold – the theatrical aspect of Ms. Foster’s Elektra proved to be a valuable addition to her musical performance. To say the truth, the concert in Berlin showed her in really, really better voice than yesterday, when her soprano sounded on the unfocused side and many high notes were sung below true pitch. But that was her singing – her acting was entirely focused and she never missed one dramatic point. Even not in her best voice, the tone coloring was apt, the word-pointing was clear (the one improvement from Berlin) and everything she sang was a consequence of her gestures and facial expressions. I have the impression that the complex sceneries might have had something to do with that, for Emily Magee (Chrystothemis) found it hard to pierce through the orchestra. Hers is usually a sizeable soprano, but this evening she had to employ a little bit more pressure than usual. It took her a while to find an ideal compromise. Under these circumstances, subtlety was out of the question. She too was scenically convincing and well contrasted to Elektra. Although her mezzo was two sizes smaller than the part and the low notes required some gear change, Natascha Petrinsky took pride of place in what regards intonation and, for a change, it is nice to hear someone who is not fighting with high notes in this part. It is difficult to assess how successful her acting was –  Klytämnestra is here portrayed as some sort of Cruella de Vil, a concept wholeheartedly embraced by the Austrian mezzo. Is she to blame for a directorial choice? Jürgen Sacher was an efficient Ägysth, fazed by the acoustics as well. Albert Dohmen, even if a bit rusty (and visually old for the role), had the right gravitas for the part – and was the only person on stage whose voice truly blossomed in the auditorium. Maybe I was spoiled by the glamorous casting for minor roles in the Chéreau production , but the opening scene would have benefited from more solid voices and better diction.

The house orchestra is everything but a world class orchestra. Its strings lack tone, to start with. Then brass instruments had their bumpy moments, but, compared to what I heard in their Lohengrin, this evening was far more satisfying. Maybe because conductor Eduardo Strausser has “Strauss” in his name, he could find the right balance between minimally supplying this complex score’s demands and the practicality of the means available. As it was, tempi could be a little bit ponderous, but his concern with structural clarity and phrasing kept the proceedings “legible” and consequent. The Recognition Scene, for instance, was the moment where all these aspects found their best balance, the necessary lyricism and clarity all there.

As much as Patrice Chéreau, director Livia Sabag decided to present Elektra as a family drama and, in order to remove any hint of monumentality, she opted for an Ingmar Bergman-ian atmosphere, “Cries and Whispers” a clear inspiration. The set shows a cutaway side view of a mansion house – ground floor features the servants’ dining room and a storage area where Elektra treasures her mementos of Agamemnon, while the second floor has an entrance hall plus some stretch of the garden under a cloudy sky. The horrors described in the libretto are only hinted at by the scared expression of the servants. For atmosphere, videos are sometimes projected on the set – an image of Elektra buried alive in the opening scene or a corpse being unveiled by a man’s hand during Klytämnestra’s nightmare scene. The closing scene has too much information (most of each unrelated to the Hofmannsthal’s description of subjects overwhelmed by the victory of the legitimate king) and I confess I could not fully understand what was going on. As far as I can recall, maybe the whole encounter with Orest and what ensued only happened in Elektra’s mind, for the last chords show her hanging herself in her little storage room while the corpse of Klytämnestra is shown in a bathtub (until then, it was lying on the floor of the entrance hall, where it had been shown to Ägysth), while the rest of the sceneries and all other characters disappear from sight. If I understood it correctly, this is a clever and insightful idea that could have been developed a little bit more steadily since Orest’s first appearance rather than the coup de thêátre staged this evening.


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Expectations can play tricks with our opinions. When I bought a ticket for this Don Giovanni, starting only three hours after a complete performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, I was not still convinced that I would really use it: I’ve never had luck with Don Giovanni at the Met and there were just a couple of names in the cast that seemed to make it worthwhile. But I’ve made it and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. If someone is responsible for my good impression, this is primarily Fabio Luisi, who offered an exemplary big-house Mozart performance, showing how flexible the Met’s opera violins can be, highlighting woodwinds as it should be and keeping the natural rhythmic flow, while using the power of a big orchestra to create the right theatrical effect. He also proved to be very attentive to his singers, helping them to make their best. For some members of the cast, this was more than providential – it was life-saving.

It is puzzling that, although this evening’s was far from being a dream team for this opera, it delivered the goods somehow. As a matter of fact, the problems were to be found more on the ladies’ side. I won’t deny that I was not very happy about the possibility of seeing Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna for the second time. Last time in Moscow was not truly compelling, and it was a good surprise to see how much she has developed this part since then. She still sounds hooty and hard-pressed when things get high and fast (and her dealing with coloratura is more a matter of resolve than of technical abandon), but her pronunciation of Italian language, her textual clarity and dramatic purpose are undeniably improved. She could more often than not produce Mozartian phrase of unusual purity and power and, whenever that happened, the effect was almost Golden Age standard. I don’t know if this was the influence of Luisi, but I noticed an effort to avoid pressing hard the tone (what invariably brought about what I called in Moscow a Mara Zampieri-ish hoot). If am not mistaken, the effort is paying off. Although Malin Byström’s soprano is becoming too smoky (not to say airy in a way that tampers with her ability to hold long lines without too many breathing pauses), her understanding of Donna Elvira’s mezzo carattere is very refreshing. And the fact that she sings her big aria in the original tone has unfortunately become something that one should praise these days. Serena Malfi’s high register is harsh and intonation can be iffy – and yet it is refreshing to hear a Zerlina that sounds earthy and who does not steal the show in “aristocratic” Mozartian poise. Paul Appleby, whose Belmonte early this year was a bit shaky, shows improvements too: his control of mezza voce was impressive. If only he could avoid unstylish portamento and the odd explosive high note, he could be an impeccable Don Ottavio. Simon Keenlyside was, for a while, the world’s favourite Don Giovanni – and he still can make a grand impression in the part. I had never seen Adam Plachetka before and I am glad I could hear his Leporello, not only the most compelling performance this evening, but one of the best I’ve seen in this role. His baritone is rich, large and, if it can be too grainy sometimes, it is pleasant in the ear – and he has amazingly (really – Caballé-sian) long breath. And he handles the text with perfect comedy timing, without clowniness and offering something really funny instead. Bravo. Matthew Rose too was a funny and vocally solid Leporello and Kwangchul Young sounded almost frighteningly dark as the Commendatore.

Michael Grandage’s production is traditional in concept and a bit dull visually, but if Spielleiter Louisa Muller was faithful to the concept (this was premiered in 2011), it is extremely well directed: sometimes one felt at a loss of which actor to follow, so interesting and dramatically coherent was everyone’s gestures and attitudes.

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My aunt once said that a person who has never gone through psychoanalysis is like a ship adrift, unaware of the forces that pull him in this or that direction. Or maybe she was quoting someone. Director Mariusz Trelinski seems to agree with her: the first image in his new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a radar screen, then a ship in a tempest and then the young Tristan in his father’s arms. The father figure is Tristan’s idée fixe: he would appear on stage in key moments of the opera. His younger self appeared too during the third act, as a vision to his unconscious older self in a hospital. The infamously hard-to-direct monologues are here staged or illustrated by videos – the first of them actually sung in a dreamlike burnt house set on fire by the kid himself. The confusion between reality and fantasy also explains Isolde’s last solo in the end of act II. As Marke’s thugs had escorted her out before the King’s monologue, her acceptance to Tristan’s invitation to the realm of night only happens in his imagination. Here, the whole soul searching happens within Tristan alone.

Although Trelinski’s insights are apt and occasionally thought provoking, I am not sure if I am convinced by the way he stages it. Although the lighting tends to mirror the black and white cinematography of the video projections, the ship’s metallic structures and appliances and also costumes suggest a contemporary setting. We’re in a military vessel, but the war prisoner status of Isolde as a bride against her will feels funny in these circumstances (not to mention magic potions etc). There is also a flashback of Morold’s execution by gunfire. The choice of a control tower for act II offers very little atmosphere for the Liebesnacht, and the aurora borealis showed how frigidly this couple made love to each other. I know, it is rare to see a Tristan where the title couple truly touches each other, but here only fleeting kissing and embracing stood for this fatal passion. This could actually be a dramatic point – how much Tristan really, I mean really, desires Isolde? Is she just a symbol for something else? This line of interpretation was unfortunately not further developed. There is also a curious change of sets in the middle of second act – Tristan and Isolde are exposed by Melot in some sort of fuel storehouse – the purpose of which is mysterious to me: the control tower was probably too small for the closing scene.
Act III predictably opens in a hospital room and, other than the depictions of Tristan’s delirious thoughts, shows an Isolde who takes drugs to get in the mood for her Liebestod. Everything is dark, men have military uniforms and Isolde has a regrettable wig and a dress made from an old curtain.

“The sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word ‘focus’ is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the ‘singing’ line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity.” Those were the words I wrote after listening Sir Simon conduct the second act in concert in Berlin. I have also listened to the broadcast of the complete performance (also in concert with the same tenor) in the Philharmonie and cannot cease to be amazed by the English conductor’s absolute structural understanding, the naturalness with which he builds the performance on thematic framework and how the mastery in his choice of the Hauptstimme in the orchestra is frequently more expressive of the dramatic purpose of each scene than the singing. The broadcast from Berlin shows, however, that the Berlin Philharmonic made a huge difference for the final results: the Berliners’ refulgence and consistency of sound in lower dynamics are a great asset when the cast is not up to the full powers of a Wagnerian orchestra.

If Nina Stemme now shows complete understanding of the text and colors her voice accordingly, her soprano  has lost a bit in impetuosity. High notes require extra pushing and the sound may be a little opaque. Hence, her first act lacked punch. As usual, she was more comfortable in the second act, when her tonal warmth and rich high register are most appealing. The Liebestod had a shaky start but ended beautifully in haunting mezza voce. Ekaterina Gubanova is always a reliable Brangäne, even if her voice was too thick this afternoon to float her repeated Habet Acht in act II.

Stuart Skelton is the most dulcet Tristan I’ve probably ever heard, phrasing with Mozartian poise and clarity of diction. But – and this is a big “but” – his voice lacks focus above the passaggio and is produced up there by pushing, with reduced projection. He has enviable stamina, but act 3 was mostly bottled up and strained. As the frenzy required by the libretto is not really in his personality, the whole impression was of witnessing someone performing an impossible task. Evgeny Nikitin, on the other hand, has no problem piercing through a big orchestra. However, I had the impression that his alpha-male natural disposition is not truly comfortable with Kurwenal’s ancillary attitude. To say the truth, the important singing this evening was offered by René Pape, who left nothing to be desired as King Marke. Whenever he sang, even the orchestra sounded better. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Daniel Baremboim, but this afternoon – in spite of the conductor’s paramount knowledge of this score and abilities – engaged my brain, the heart was only occasionally involved.

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The Metropolitan Opera House is to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle what Montsalvat is to Titurel: although the Swiss director died in 1988, the Met regularly shows his productions of operas like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito and L’Italiana in Algeri. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Because these are well-beloved stagings of not extremely popular works, the Met has been able to stage them more often than any other opera house in the world*. In any case, they still look better than most of the new productions concocted by Broadway directors presently seen in the house. I had seen it on video with Marilyn Horne, but I have to say that, under the Spielleitung of David Kneuss and the irresistible personalities gathered for this restaging, it works its spell very easily. Some may say the whole thing is over the top, but again: L’Italiana in Algeri is the dictionary definition of “over-the-top”.

Although I have never seen Elizabeth DeShong in a Rossini role, it would be surprising if she handled the Italian text as expertly as her replacement, the rich-toned and characterful Marianna Pizzolato. It is true that her mezzo is not voluminous as a big hall as the Met’s demands, her command of fioriture, warm, seductive tonal quality and, most important of all, deep understanding of Italian declamation just draw the audience to her. To make things better, she is entirely at ease with the style of acting required by Italian comedy. I had known Ms. Pizzolato only from recordings and seeing her live only increased my appreciation for her artistry. Her Lindoro was American tenor René Barbera, an intriguingly full-toned Rossini tenor with some surprisingly forceful top notes. Maybe Rossini would have found his high notes too forceful (and he could outshine his colleagues in ensemble), but it is just amazing that he is able to sing perilously high and florid lines as powerfully as he does. Moreover, he shades his voice beautifully and can hold his legato without effort. It might be too much for Lindoro, but think of the many hard-to-cast roles Mr. Barbera could be singing! At first, Ildar Abdrazakov seemed to be having a bad time with his coloratura, but he soon found his way and – if he did not reach the paramount levels of a Samuel Ramey (seriously – who does?) – he sang with consistent richness and energy. He also proved to have impecable comedy timing and never spared himself in his intent of making the best of every scene. He established an ideal partnership with Nicola Alaimo, a Taddeo imbibed in the right buffo tradition. Dwayne Croft relished his cameo as Haly and, if Ying Fang was unusually golden toned as Elvira, the truth is that the role requires a brighter edge to pierce through ensembles.

It is endearing that James Levine still has the passion for this repertoire, offering a very rich sound for an opera buffa, what makes it hard for Swiss-clock precision in ensembles, but the energy was – again – just hard to resist. In any case, _I_ did not resist long: this was simply fun.

*In the case of L’Italiana, this might not be true, for the work i understandably is far from a rarity in Italian opera houses; if you have one drop of Italian blood in your veins, you just feel it stir in your veins in Pensa alla patria!

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The Lyric Opera is seen as one of the leading opera companies in the United States, but Chiagoans are keen on explaining that it is a more modest affair than the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is indeed a newer company (it was founded in 1954) and does not have the rich Wagnerian tradition of the Met. Nonetheless, since 1971, it has offered its audience at least incomplete  Rings every decade*. Differently from the Met, their new Ring is not meant to be spectacular nor extravagantly expensive. Director David Pountney explains that, in opera, music and theatre  tell their own story each. As Wagner’s music is an overwhelming affair, he believes that an overcomplex staging would make things ultimately confuse. Thus, he leaves all the tricks to the orchestra and singers – his staging does not try to illude the audience. On the contrary: its truth is its tricks. The curtains open to what seems to be the backstage of a production, its structures very reminiscent of the stage in Bayreuth. The norns are very much the director here, presiding over stagehands who bring the Rhinemaidens in trolleys similar to those used by Wagner himself. Later, Fricka, Wotan and Freia would be brought in floats decorated with attributes, the giants being a complex structure with huge head and hands in which the singers would just stand while stagehands would operate it. In terms of symbology, Pountney seems to have left all the thinking to Patrice Chéreau: the gods are represented in Ancien Régime costumes (the director says “Habsburg style”), Alberich is the nouveau riche in flashy gold and the stagehands double as the sans culottes regular people. There are some new ideas: Freia falls in love with Fasolt and resents the way the gods treated them (an interesting idea, for she sings lots of “help!” in the first part of the opera, but later she is curiously silent). It is too early in the tetralogy to say much, but one can see that a compromise has been made to try something different to an audience that is really not into Régietheater. The program says that different concepts will be used for each opera: Walküre will be Ibsen-ian, Siegfried is to explore a child’s perspective and Götterdämmerung turns around grand opéra. Let’s wait and see.

The company’s music director, Andrew Davis, is hardly a reference in Wagnerian conductor, but rather someone snobbed as “kapellmeisterlich”. There is some truth in this – I use the word for a conductor who is reliable but never illuminating. That would describe my impressions of this evening. The orchestral playing had exemplary balance and clarity and Sir Andrew was commendably structurally conscious, especially in what regarded highlighting Leitmotive. However, Wagner does not make it easy for the conductor: many and many pages in the Ring do not “move by themselves “: sometimes there are no propelling bass figures and too much depend on singers’ rhythmic accuracy. Some conductors (like Karl Böhm) would keep everybody under a tight leash (especially his singers) and make it move at any costs; others would flood the hall in glorious sounds and infuse every moment with depth as if it couldn’t be otherwise, à la Furtwängler. Maestro Davis has done neither, and there were passages when one note did not seem to be the inevitable consequence of the previous one.

The raison d’être of this Rheingold was Eric Owens’s Wotan. After his exciting take on Alberich on the Met, one could only imagine what he would do with the “light side of the force”. So far, it is still work-in-progress. Vocally speaking, he is the rare kind of Wotan who has no problems with either low or high notes. And this is already something.  He seems to take James Morris (the Lyric Opera’s last Wotan) as a model in his kennness on legato and vocal coloring. However, his voice sounded a bit grainier than last time (when I heard him as Orest in New York). But the real problem is that he does not seem to have found the Wotan in himself. It is hard to tell his opinion about the role as he would often stand or move on stage with little authority and sink in the background to the performance of his Loge. This is the third time I see Stefan Margita in Rheingold  – and he seems to become even better in his part. While some singers seemed to find some trouble with the hall, this tenor projected with absolute clarity and effortlessness, delivering his lines with absolute dramatic conviction. Samuel Youn cannot be accused of not trying as Alberich – his performance was an example of dramatic commitment in a role not really meant for one’s voice and personality. As one could see in his Holländer in Bayreuth, he is hardly a force of nature and having to portray Alberich’s raw intensity really took him out of his comfort zone. Praiseworthy as this was, one could not help noticing that this was rather discipline than nature. The part was also on the heavy side for his voice – he would often sound open-toned and under true pitch and a bit shy of sustaining high notes. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was an elegant, fruity-toned Fricka, and Okka van der Damerau was predictably terrific as Erda, flashing high and low notes in the auditorium in the grand manner. Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a vehement Fasolt, well contrasted to the admirably deep-toned Tobias Kehrer.


* I could not easily find this information (the Lyric Opera’s website does not offer a search in their archives), but it seems that there was no Ring in the 1980’s. [Update: a friend informs me that the Lyric’s first complete Ring was staged in the 1990’s]

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Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, once favored by both singers and the audience, is now rather a rarity. I, myself, had never seen it staged before today. Although its rightly famous arias are foolprof with the public, the truth is that the score has more than a hint of a patchwork, many pages of which giving the impression of being stop gaps between the big-tune moments. Also, the plot lacks organicity and its very historically precise setting giving very little opportunity for a director to try to make something out of it. Nonetheless, it can be a pleasant evening in the opera – the historical aspects are interesting, the big arias are really something to write home about and the leading roles are raw material for singers with musical and dramatic imagination. If you left the theatre this evening feeling shortchanged, you cannot blame it on San Francisco Opera: every effort has been made to guarantee that Giordano received premium treatment. Even if – some might say – he probably did not make his best efforts to deserve it…

In an age in which the likes of Renata Tebaldi or Mario del Monaco are not easy to found, this run of performances offered – once idealness is not really possible – interesting voices that still drawed some interest when things did not really work as expected. Anna Pirozzi’s soprano, for instance, is something hard to resist – it is natural in tone, warm in color, homogeneous through its registers and completely ductile in floating mezza voce. She also has crystal-clear diction and has an almost Cerquetti-ian spontaneity in her phrasing that makes you think she was born singing this music. In other words, in three minutes, I’ve decided that I liked her full stop. Then I realized that shifting from lirico to lirico spinto required some preparation and that then her tone, even if still firm and hearable, acquired some tension and lost some bloom. And then there is La mamma morta. She did sing it with purity of tone, clarity of enunciation and flowing legato – but the thrill, that moment of spiritual liberation when she realizes that it was love the reason for living… Then one could feel that the singer was busy with her notes. There was more than a moment when I imagined the pleasure of listening that voice in Dove sono i bei momenti (yes, from Le Nozze di Figaro) and I could not help worrying about the Abigailles and Aidas in her repertoire. But again: even at that moment, I still like her.

Yonghoon Lee is an even more intriguing voice. His muscular, dark-toned and curiously taut but not edgy tenor – not Italianate in sound – made me think of some other voice, but it took me 20 minutes to produce the name of James King. But then the idea seemed absurd – James King’s high notes were different (and the repertoire too) – and yet there was this splash of James King in it, even in the way he released the sound with something like a gulp. Mr. Lee’s high notes, however, are almost unique in its absence of brightness – the sound lacks projection and, without the usual high overtones in a tenor high register, are produced with extreme physical effort. As he is not short in stamina, the method worked almost to the end of the opera. In the last act, he was visibly tired: notes were abruptly ended for many extra breath pauses. Before that, he seemed keen on legato (sometimes at the expense of textual clarity) and of shading without ever coming close to falsetto. He is an extremely serious man – and I cannot see him, with that voice and attitude, in lighter roles. On the other hand, the absence of squillo in his high notes would make it difficult to tackle really heroic roles. Also, his stand-and-deliver stage attitude is not to everybody’s taste. For Andrea Chénier, however, all that – fervor included –  worked out somehow.

George Gagnidze is no new name for me, and yet he sounded invested with a dramatic commitment this evening new to me. From his first entrance, he sang passionately and acted with unusual awareness to the theatrical action, culminating in an intense Nemico della patria?. He too could have done with a little bit more volume, but could be heard without problem.

The issue of volume – a problem for every singer in the cast – has special relevance since Maestro Nicola Luisotti did not spare his orchestra. In a score with many uninspired moment, he took the right decision of filling the blanks with sheer sound, for positive effects. Whenever he reined in his musicians – invariably to help out his singers in their arias and duets – one missed a bit the orchestral opulence a more dramatic-voiced cast could have allowed him to employ more often.

Confronted with the practical problems of staging a historical drama, director David McVicar chose a highly decorative approach: costumes and sets were exquisite and historically informed and sometimes one had the impression of watching a Merchant Ivory film. One can only imagine that the absence of stage animals in the cast may have been challenging, but an extra effort (especially regarding the leading tenor) would have paid off.


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