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Archive for December, 2016

If there is a director who knows a thing or two about Alcina, this is Christof Loy. He has staged it three times in his career – and this is the second time I see him stage this favorite among Handel’s operas (at least, it is my favorite…). The first time, in Munich, I have praised the fact that he resisted the temptation of abusing comedy touches to get away with a long opera full of arie da capo. Then, he – and his prima donna Anja Harteros – was able to make the last act the dramatic culmination of the opera:  Alcina had fought even when she had no more weapons to fight with and lost it in the end: even the gods were deaf to her prayers.

His 2014 production for the Opernhaus Zürich starts with a powerful concept – Alcina’s magic powers are the magic of theatre. On stage, she can be and do everything and Ruggiero is under the spell of the diva. I was anticipating the last act – the run of performances is over, but Alcina the actress cannot let the character go and is unable to see reality from fantasy in her relationship to her leading man, whose hometown sweetheart comes to rescue him in the last moment from a star system that make people into beasts. But no, Loy has decided to make the opposite of what he did at the Bayerische Staatsoper: act III degenerates in buffoonry, Ruggero has a boyband choreography for his aria di bravura, Bradamante stripteases before a very much willing Melisso and Alcina embraces telenovela with a pistol gun and high heels. When she says that heaven had turned against her, it is just tantrum – she does get yet another second chance. While I cannot blame the director for disappointing my own private expectations, I did feel shortchanged to see the theatrical climax of the opera staged as undramatically as it has been (add to it an audience that behaved as if following laughing cues*). In any case, the first two acts were more than worth the detour in their keen Personenregie, exquisite sets and costumes not to mention brilliant solutions for the  challenging reprises of the A section in da capo arias.

At first, I had the impression that conductor Giovanni Antonini too was not interested in expression and drama. The orchestra phrased drily in the sinfonia and seemed a bit unwillling to move forward with abandon. Later in act II, in which all singers were at their most congenial, the maestro was able to provide some richness of sound and flexibility of tempo to illustrate the changes of mood in the text. As a matter of fact, Antonini would offer many natural and effective ideas to boost contrast in the B section of arias. It is also praiseworthy that he would not press the “fast and faster”  button for his choice of tempi. As a result, Bradamante could produce clean fioriture in her arie di furia, and Oronte was able to find the right pathos in Un momento di contento. In any case, the example of exhilarating tempo in Stà nell’Ircana also proved his was a safe choice, given the messy results there (I am not speaking of wayward valveless French hornes, as this seems to be the rule with historically informed orchestras in opera houses).

My eight or nine readers probably know by now that I am not truly a fan of Cecilia Bartoli, but in the title role and in the modestly sized auditorium of the Opernhaus Zürich, she left little to be desired. Although her voice still rattles uncomfortably and projects poorly in outspoken moments, the part focuses rather in expression of softer affetti and in tonal coloring, something she does as poignantly as Billlie Holiday used to in her jazz balads. Both Sì, son quella and Ah, mio cor were tackled with emotional generosity and dramatic imagination. If Ma quando tornerai proved to be a tour de force in the unusual rhythmic accuracy in the difficult coloratura, Ombre pallide was a bit all over the place. Curiously, Ms. Bartoli lacked concentration in Mi restano le lagrime, an aria that can otherwise prove to be very intense, as one could hear in the Munich staging with Anja Harteros.

Her Morgana, Julie Fuchs, is more of a lyric soprano than the leggiero one usually finds in this role. Although she dealt with the fioriture and high notes commendably, she would often sound in her element dealing with long legato phrasing and floating mezza voce. Maybe one day she will be singing the other soprano role in this opera. Varduhi Abrahamyan is rather a mezzo than a contralto and, although she manages the passaggio adeptly, one can hear that her voice truly blossoms from the middle register up. That said, she managed Bradamante’s difficult fioriture famously and also in warm and full tone. To make things better, she is a charismatic actress, an asset in a staging in which the character is made to be more ambiguous than it usually is (particularly in its response to Morgana’s seduction).

As much as in Aix-en Provence, Phillippe Jaroussky found Ruggiero’s arie di bravura on the low side and the heroic expression difficult to put across, but his singing of the act II arias was so exquisite and sensitive that one could forgive him anything. I doubt that there might be someone who sings Mi lusinga il dolce affetto as beautifuly as he does. I hope one day I will understand why the part of Oronte is never cast with a bright- and firm-toned tenor with some flesh in his high register, but at least Fabio Trümpy has long breath and easy mezza voce. He was spared È un folle, è un vile affetto (the role of Oberto and the ballet music too were cut this evening). Finally, Krzysztof Baczyk showed undeniable improvement in his rendition of Melisso’s aria since his performances in Aix.

* I know: today is New Year’s Eve and one would rather have a laugh than develop a depression over poor Alcina’s downfall…

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My first encounter with Shostakovich’s operatic bête noire (in Petr Weigl’s film) was not love at first sight (there was a time when I would have written “has it ever been the case?”, but I have actually seen it work its charm on peple who are not particularly fond of opera, for instance). Now that I think about the reason why I had a problem with it, I see that it was the impression that the composer was not taking his characters’ predicament seriously. I would eventually realize that this is not true. Probably, the idea that their predicament should be taken seriously in the sense of “intended to awaken sympathy” seemed not serious enough to Shostakovich… In any case, the fact that the opera – both the music and the libretto – has an unsparing “angle”  on Katarina Izmailova’s story usually has the effect of inspiring directors to stage it in a grotesque, caricatural way, such as Andreas Homoki has done in his 2013 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, which seems staged in the Bizarro world version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory with the chorus acting like oopaloompas dressed as if they would go trick-or-treating in Halloween. The single set too did not seem designed to create any atmosphere in its geometrical shapes rather sloppily assembled (on purpose?). If there was something on stage for the audience to relate with, this was the leading soprano and tenor’s acting the honesty of which jarred against the backdrop of pantomime.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko seemed committed to make it all of Shostakovich’s kaleidoscopic score. This meant that the house orchestra was often taken to its limits in terms of clarity of articulation (particularly in the wedding scene), but at least the audience was kept on the edge of their seats during the whole performance. Gun-Brit Barkmin has an interesting voice for the role – it is bright in a way in keeping with what one would expect from a soprano in this repertoire, but warm enough in its middle and lower registers. Although there is more than a splash of vinegary tonal quality, ungainliness and sharpness in her singing, it is still a voice that can soften and produce a legato line when this is necessary. Above all, it is a role in which she clearly believes  and this makes it easy for the audience to connect with. It is hardly Misha Didyk’s fault that his tenor does not have the irresistible charm of Nicolai Gedda’s in Rostropovich’s recording or the sheer beauty of tone of Sergei Larin’s in Chung’s CDs, but the rough edges (and the heroic possibilities in his high notes) made him more believably rustic, as he should be. His stage presence – not really leading-man-ish in the cinematographic sense – matched his singing and made the whole package convincing. He was well contrasted to Oleskiy Palchykov’s forceful and steely Sinowy, more menacing than one would expect. As for Pavel Daniluk (Boris), I am not able to tell if the wayward intonation, breathlessness and parlando effects are what one is supposed to do in this role. I have often heard singers in old-man roles in Slavic operas sing that way and, to be honest, I do not see the point of it, but I am not a specialist in this repertoire and cannot really say anything other than my personal impression. As a matter of fact, I have to confess this secret phantasy of hearing this opera in deluxe conditions, with no extra layer of roughness related to the shortcomings of the forces avilable. I.e., I like to imagine how it would have been if Abbado had recorded it with, say, Karita Mattila, Piotr Beczala, Ferruccio Furlanetto and the Vienna Philharmonic. It would have been interesting to see if the score would sound less or more powerful in these conditions.

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When I told a friend who lives in Paris that I was going to see Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris at the Opéra, he asked me right away if I knew that this was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. He did not know that I had seen his Un Tramway… with Isabelle Huppert in 2008 (?) and survived to be surprised by his fascinating Frau ohne Schatten in Munich a couple of years ago. Back in 2006, though, this Iphigénie, as far as I understand, was his first take on directing opera. And one can see that.

Dramaturg Miron Hakenbeck makes, in his text in the booklet, valid and insightful points in traumatic events in the context of family and war and also about family ties in times of war and how one survives and eventually finds healing. However, what one sees on stage is too contrived for one to make all that out. What is truly clear is that there is a woman in a retirement home reminiscing about sad events in her family, probably the consequences of the incestuous relationship between her mother and her brother (the part about Orestes and Pylades I’ll leave out, because this is hard to overlook in the text as it is…). The whole affair of Iphigenia’s duties as a priestress makes very little sense in the context: the moment a knife appears in her hand seems completely nonsensical for someone who had never seen this opera before. To make things worse, Warlikowski is not fond of choristers and one listens to their singing (and also every small role) off stage, what makes the last scene (when the Greek priestresses and the scythians fight over Orestes) impossible to follow (musically too). In any case, the director’s worst offense in an opera that can be low in dramatic tension was letting it be very low in dramatic tension. One just needs to check Youtube to see the excerpts from the performances at the Theater an der Wien and in Salzburg to see the difference.

Although the Palais Garnier had seen period instrument groups in its pit, this Iphigénie has the house orchestra under all-purpose conductor Bertrand de Billy. His approach was almost invariably valid in terms of tempo and accent, but the orchestra often sounded colorless, undistinguished and unclear. And the off-stage chorus is a something no serious conductor should accept.

Véronique Gens’s soprano is tailor-made for the role of Iphigénie, and she sings it with unfailing sense of style, clarity of diction and dramatic engagement – even if her high notes took a while to find the ideal focus. I had read a great deal about Stanislas de Barbeyrac and was curious to hear him live. It is indeed an interesting voice – rather big for a Mozart tenor, but curiously baritonal in color. One can understand why reviewers tend to imagine him in heavier roles, but he still has to figure out his high register, which sounds a bit tight and grainy. His ease with mezza voce, however, is praiseworthy, as well as his phrasing, musicainly and expressive all the way. Replacing Stéphane Degout, Etienne Dupuis offered an ideal performance as Orest both in terms of voice and interpretation. Bravo. I’ve read that Thomas Johannes Mayer would sing the role of Thoas with some surprise. Although his bass-baritone is not truly smooth, his singing did not make violence to classical style and the rough edges made sense for the role of the bloodthirsty king. Curiously, he sounded a bit out of sorts in the last act.

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