Archive for August, 2017

Before the purchase of a ticket for a performance of Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear, I only knew its existence from seeing the DGG CD with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on its cover in music stores. As I had never seen Gerald Finley is a fully staged opera before (I did see him as Golaud in a semi-staged performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in Berlin), why not give it it a try? In order to prepare myself, I’ve downloaded the CD with Fischer-Dieskau, to whom the role had been written, and ordered the libretto through amazon.de . I have to be honest here – it took me a great deal of will power to keep listening after 10 minutes.

To start with, King Lear is my least favorite among Shakespeare’s plays. When my father first explained the plot when I was a kid, I remember thinking that every character was either very mean or very stupid – all of them conceited. Decades later, my impression has not changed much. Second, Reimann does not know how to write vocal parts. Singers are generally repeating the same note in a very uncomfortable spot in their range, generally a note too high to allow them to make any sense of the text. Also, the vocal lines are not truly integrated to the orchestra, which is on paper very complex in its serial motives, sophisticated sequences of clusters and ostinato bass, but ultimately sounds very loud, percussive and repetitive in its comments after the singer has ended to sing what he or she has to “sing”. It is so uniformly bombastic that after a while you just get used to the fact this is the default – and only very occasionally one is able to feel some emotional connection with what is going on on stage. Sitting through a whole performance of Lear made me see charms long forgotten in Verdi’s Aida.

In any case, I don’t think that I need a second chance. This evening’s performance had the Vienna Philharmonic jumping at every (and rare) opportunity to produce expressive sounds in a way the Bavarian State Orchestra could not dream to compete with, especially here under Franz Welser-Möst’s judicious conducting. One could see he was trying to add some contrast and variety to the proceedings, but was reduced by the very quality of this music to making things precise and balanced. His soloists too embraced their difficult parts with absolute engagement and often sounded more interesting than the singers in the original recording. Although Gerald Finley’s baritone  is less powerful than DF-D, his warmer tonal quality made him more clearly vulnerable and therefore touching. His absolute commitment to his role was the highlight of this evening. It is an admirable accomplishment of an ungrateful task, one that required immense artistic generosity. Taking a role first sung by Julia Varady, Anna Prohaska was often taken to her limits and was not always easy to hear, but brought a splash of freshness in her pure-toned soprano and poised phrasing. I am not sure if I prefer Evelyn Herlitzius’s Goneril to Helga Dernesch’s, whose extra warmth and clearer projection in her middle register added something regal to that uncongenial character. In any case, Ms. Herlitzius’s hoch dramatisch Sopran always causes a flashing impression in the theatre. The fact that Gun-Brit Bakmin’s Regan did not shy away of the competition in terms of radiance and power makes me think that there might be an Elektra or a Brünnhilde waiting for her in the future. She was far preferable to the singer featured in the première. I have the impression that Matthias Klink (Kent) and Charles Workman (Edmund) should have traded roles, for the former’s incisive projection of high notes would have added more menace to the latter’s role.

The Felsenreitschule is a difficult venue for a stage director – and Simon Stone had some very creative ideas, especially in the closing scene, but relied to much on repetitive gags and some Regietheater clichés that finally were more distracting than illuminating. I understand that the plot is very gloomy and pessimistic and that a bit of contrast might help, but when the caricature seems to be in the very core of a staging it is difficult to find the human beings behind the slapstick.

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The Salzburg Festival’s Aida is the best Aida money can buy these days. It has the world’s leading prima donna, the world’s most renowned Verdi conductor and one of the world’s top orchestras. As many of Verdi’s grand operas, it needs sacro fuoco to take off. And the problem is that this is something one can’t buy. In any case, the parts here were greater than the sum and all of them deserve respect.

I won’t make suspense and start with what everybody wants to read about. Anna Netrebko is a singer incapable of doing things bureaucratically. Even when she is not very specific about what she is doing, she always seems to be having lots of fun with it. Having fun with a role as formidably difficult as Aida requires that you are up to sing it. And she is. This is the first time I have been in the theatre to see this opera that I knew from the start that the soprano would reach the last scene without putting herself in a difficult situation. From beginning to end, her voice sounded full, unforced, voluminous and rich, every high note blossoming exquisitely in the large hall. The acuti in O patria mia sounded like music; with one exception, she floated her high pianissimo notes famously and chopped her lines less than she is often accused of doing. Some may say that this was rather a diva act than a coherent dramatic performance (i.e., something sung by Maria Callas or Renata Scotto), but that is not me. I’ve really got what I had paid for. And the ticket was expensive.

Ekaterina Semenchuk is a very solid singer, with faultless technique and good taste, but she is not a powerhouse Amneris. These days nobody is – and she comes closer than everyone else. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect things like “chewing the scenery” or “peeling the paint off the walls”. In any case, a crispier projection of the Italian text could have make it more compelling. I’ve seen a lighter-toned Daniela Barcellona generate some thrill just by her incisive delivery and two or three tricks under her sleeve. Tricks that she must have shared with Francesco Meli, who survived the role of Radamès really commendably. He understandably chose poise over macho-ism, never forced his tone, sang his high notes firmly but prudently and relied on the brightness and naturalness of his voice. In the end, he left an impression of youth and vulnerability that sounded like a viable option in those circumstances. Luca Salsi (Amonasro) was in very good voice. This was probably the best I’ve ever heard from him. At this point, Roberto Tagliavini could say his job is “King of Egypt” and he does it really as an expert. Dmitry Belosselskiy was a resonant Ramfis, firmer in tone than he sounded in the visit of the Rome Opera in Tokyo three years ago.

Riccardo Muti has serious competition in his younger self when he recorded Aida in London for EMI with Montserrat Caballé, Plácido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto. Verdi is no Brahms and what makes it happen is raw energy guided by clockwork precision. And that was Maestro Muti’s hallmark quality. Some decades later the raw energy is not there anymore. There is still the firm pulse and the ear for detail, but this is only half of what you need. When you expect things to develop to full impact they are only rounded off very professionally. I’ve had the luck to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct Aida in La Scala’s visit to Tokyo and the feeling was that you’re watching some very primitive force of nature being unleashed. This evening,  I’ll remember a closing scene in which the Vienna Philharmonic produced sounds the heavenly beauty of which might have inspired Richard Strauss.

Visual artist Shirin Neshat is a newcomer to the world of opera and one can see that in her generic, highly aestheticized production that looked as if she had bought everything in a Muji Store. I would use some of those sets if I had a garden big enough for them. The costumes borrowed from Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, however, were bought somewhere else. Somewhere cheap.


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The most famous opinion about Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is Empress Maria Luisa’s remark at the premiere that it was nothing but a porcheria tedesca (i.e., a German piece of sh*t) . The fact, however, is that absolutist monarchs could not have liked a work the whole concept of which is compromise. In terms of operatic writing, it blends the highly formal tradition of opera seria with the most recent innovations in terms of theatre and music eagerly apprehended by Mozart in his travels and readings, but most importantly: it is a story about acknowledging the point-of-view of one’s ennemies. As director Peter Sellars says, it is about “sharing the government with those who have tried to kill you”. This thought led him to compare the Titus Vespiasianus in the libretto with Nelson Mandela, whose example of reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa has become exemplary in contemporary History.

The idea in itself is thought-provoking and illuminating (and so fitting to libretto involving situations so similar to press conferences, state meetings, public events and even a terrorist attack). As conceived by Mr. Sellars, Tito is a Mandela-like head of government who makes a point in including a white friend (Sesto) in his inner circle. However, he has to deal with a close collaborator, Vitellia, who orchestrates a coup against him by seducing Sesto and pushing him into an attempt against the president’s life. In this version, it is not Lentulus who is killed by mistake. Here, Titus himself is seriously wounded and eventually dies in the end of the opera, just after forgiving his murderers.

It is indeed an interesting idea, but the problem about theatre is that you don’t _stage_ ideas, but _actions_. That is when the whole Dramaturgie concocted by Mr. Sellars starts to sink. First of all, the Felsenreitschule is no regular stage. It is a huge space with a very characteristic and inescapable multileveled colonnade that dwarfs actors and all possibility of zoomed-in acting. Combined with the fact that the director showed no interest in the private affairs of these characters, the plot here is reduced to public utterances the reason of which the audience is unable to understand. One doesn’t see any sexual attraction between Vitellia and Sesto, any sign of friendship between Tito and Sesto, anything behind Vitellia’s bitchiness towards Tito. Even after Sesto’s attempt against Tito’s life, the victim doesn’t seem really concerned about the fact that it was a close friend who has tried to kill him. In the end, the whole purpose of trying to reconcile these people and the country is left to imagination. Titus does not seem to care about any of them. What one ultimately sees on stage is almost nihilistic – the president is dead and everything seems lost. That could be a story, but not this story.  There are beautiful stage effects, but one feels shortchanged, especially when shown a possibility that could have worked beautifully if it had been REALLY staged.

Peter Sellars is not the only person with ideas here. Conductor Teodor Currentzis is a box of Pandora in that department. For instance, sandwiching numbers of Mass K427 and other works by Mozart in the performing edition, which has been shorn of the Tito/Sesto/Publio trio to make space for pages and pages of music in Latin. More problematic is the fact that the recitatives have been butchered in a way that one can hardly understand what goes on in act II, since the only link between one number and the next is a Kyrie or a Qui tollis. When Tito finally says he has forgiven Sesto, the poor fellow makes an expression of surprise. No wonder – all dialogues in which this fact was stated had been deleted!

Although the performance itself has many of the usual niceties associated to Mr. Currentzis – the orchestral playing is multicolored and theatrical, the structural clarity is revelatory, the choral singing is immaculate and there is energy aplenty – his mannerisms are all there too. There is the pervasive fortepiano, a dangerous amount of unwritten pauses, a fancy for overdecoration and a playing with the beat to highlight details that distorts the overall sense of proportion. I had known Mr. Currentzis’s Mozart from recordings and found all of them interesting for a change before I go back to less excentric performances, but live it has the virtue of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

In terms of cast, this afternoon was quite below the reputation of the Salzburg Festival, with the exception of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa (Sesto). Her finely focused, firm and warm mezzo sails through Mozartian lines without any hint of effort. She had the audience on her feet in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when she offered flawless coloratura and forceful high notes. Moreover, she has dramatic temper to spare and is a very good actress. Although Jeanine De Bique (Annio) is a soprano, I only discovered that when she sang the solo in the Kyrie from the Mass K 427. Until then, her mezzoish singing had fooled me. She could have caused a more positive impression, though, if her diction was a little bit clearer. The veteran Willard White (Publio) is still in firm voice and found no problem in his aria.

Golda Schultz is, of course, a lovely Mozartian soprano, but one cannot make a Vitellia out of a Servilia. As it was, her singing never went beyond prettiness and she was sorely tested by the tessitura in Non più di fiori. Russell Thomas has a strong, interesting voice, but Mozart is not his repertoire (I had seen him only once before, in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo). He sounded ill at ease with the style, needed more breathing pauses than every tenor I have heard in this role and sounded greyish when had to soften his tone. I have the impression he was not at his best voice today. Finally, Christine Gansch has beautiful high notes, but often sounded ungainly and blowsy, especially in her aria.

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Although it is a well established fact that the leading man in a baroque opera would be sung by a singer in the soprano or alto range regardless of its gender, modern audiences may be ready to discuss transgender rights, but they take a while to see a male role taken by a woman or a female role taken by a man – something that the regular opera goer in the XVIIIth century would find perfectly normal. In the case of Handel’s Ariodante, first performed in London in 1735, the knight Ariodante was sung by the castrato Carestini (whose range was ambiguous, having started as soprano and ended up as an alto), while the bad guy Polinesso was given to the contralto Maria Caterina Negri. Director Christof Loy too seems to be puzzled by this fact and decided to bring the sexual ambiguities in casting during the baroque to the spotlight of his staging for the Salzburg Festival. Even if the issue was a non-issue for Handel, his librettist and his audience, Mr. Loy begs to differ and resorts to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, excerpts of which are read before acts I and III, to show how Ariodante and his beloved Ginevra lost themselves in their gender identities and found themselves again only when they have found the female and male elements of their identities under a distant Lacanian inspiration. There is indeed something to be “read” there: Ariodante is a lover rather than a warrior and Ginevra is first a princess and then a bride. It is Polinesso, the high-testosterone bad guy, who polarizes everybody: he sexually harasses Ginevra and tries hard to make her a damsell in distress, while he twists Ariodante around his little finger and puts him out of the competition without much effort. When faced by Polinesso’s macho agenda, Ariodante acts emo: he tries to kill himself until he decides to pretend he has killed himself, while letting everybody else in the plot deal with HIS problem. On the other hand, Ginevra takes fate in her own hands: she denies the accusations made against her, accepts her death, refuses to have any guy championing her in duel and is only worried about her glory (the number one concern of every hero).

Now it seems that I fully subscribe Mr. Loy’s Dramaturgie. Unfortunately, no. I found it staged on face value,  the whole concept reduced to caricature by the portrayal of these characters’ psychological “journey” almost exclusively by having them crossdressed. The massive amounts of comedy in an opera seria doesn’t help it either, making it impossible to find any depth behind every scene when everything is played for laugh and easy effects. As the cast is mostly adept in acting skills, one felt entertained but never enlightened by the proceedings. As always with this director, sets and costumes are exquisite. The playing with different epochal styles could have been more effective if more sharply defined – as in Stefan Herheim’s Xerxes for the Berlin Komische Oper. Here, Handel’s baroque seemed underrepresented, while Classicism seems to have pride of place if rather generalized as something opposed to “contemporary”. Choreographer Andreas Heise was able to avoid that, for instance, in his intelligent deconstruction of XVIIIth century ballet.

If I write in such length about the scenical side of this performance, it is because the musical one left a lot to be desired. Conductor Gianluca Capuano seems to be there only to serve the scenical needs, adapting his tempi and phrasing to the gestures and blocking on stage, playing all arie di bravure in the egg-timer approach for extremely rough results and overcooking the sentimentality of all arie d’affetto. The orchestra never had an expressive “say” in any number and, after a while, everything sounded unsubtle, unclear and inexpressive. The fact that the Musiciens du Prince has scrawny strings and the kind of meagerness of sound that makes the bad reputation of period-instrument groups made this more problematic. I don’t truly understand the cavalier treatment of Handel’s score in what regards additional percussion and funny phrasing effects. As for the edition, which involved the deletion of some B sections and simplification of some numbers (most inexplicably of Bramo aver mille vite, considering the abilities of the singers involved), it was more inclusive than some and, in the context of this performance, quite welcome.

My appreciation for Cecilia Bartoli could be defined as “work in progress”, but I have found her Handelian prima donna roles some of her best work. For instance, her Alcina in Zurich last December was beautiful and mostly satisfying. Her incursion in the primo uomo repertoire not really so. First of all, her lack of projection and focus does not really serve the heroic quality associated to these roles. Next to her, someone like Lorraine Hunt sounds like a Fiorenza Cossotto in comparison in terms of richness and slancio. In order to disguise that, all bravura pieces are performed extremely fast in spiccato runs very light on the voice and approached as slapstick comedy. The more pensive numbers generally show the best in Ms. Bartoli, but her voice sounded ill at ease in the lower end of her voice. In any case, Dopo notte was the highlight of her performance, a very exciting display of precision in extremely fast tempo.

Her prima donna was American soprano Kathryn Lewek (Ginevra), whose fruity, creamy soprano, clean fioriture and exceptional control of high notes (amazing messa di voce effects) make her a natural in this repertoire. If she developes a more idiomatic Italian, she will have very few rivals in it. A beautiful performance. Sandrine Piau was also very well cast as Dalinda, offering haunting mezza voce and singing expressively throughout. Christophe Dumaux (Polinesso) forceful extra-clear coloratura, well-focused tone and charisma ensured that he was the most interesting person on stage. He was also extremely naughty with his very long breath, stunning the audience with kilometric phrases without internal pauses. I still believe that Handel knew what he was doing on casting the part with a contralto (just check Ewa Podles in Marc Minkowski’s recording), but no countertenor comes close to what Mr. Dumaux has done this evening. When it comes to Rolando Villazón’s singing as Lucanio, yes, it has Donizetti splashed all over, but it is so emotionally invested and wrapped in velvety, dulcet tone that one cannot resist it. He tackled the difficult passagework quite commendably if a bit roughly. In any case, the dueto with Dalinda was the most magical moment this evening. Nathan Berg too sang sensitively, but his grainy bass lacks nobility of tone and he has his wayward moments with intonation.

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Alban Berg’s is a monumental work, but not in a Wagnerian way. Its structural complexity is so subdued and integrated in its expressive content that one may enjoy  the experience of listening to it by only sensing without fully understanding its formal sophistication. I, for instance, cannot honestly offer here a profound analysis of how clearly the subject of the fugue in act 2, scene 2, was stated in this evening’s performance, but I can tell you that Vladimir Jurowski never failed to understand and to share with the audience the musical-dramatic purpose of every phrase in this score. At his service, a virtuosistic Vienna Philharmonik offering throughout sounds of extreme beauty and so eloquent that you could always hear its “discourse”. As when this orchestra (actually, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) played this work for Claudio Abbado (as seen on video with Hildegard Behrens and Franz Grundheber), some may say that the Viennese tend to perform it in almost Mahlerian poise, but I could bet that Alban Berg, who was Viennese himself, would rather expect it to sound that way.

No singer in the cast could compete with the orchestra in terms of expression, even if we have in mind that Matthias Goerne had the title role. I remember an interview with José van Dam in which he mentioned a conversation with Herbert von Karajan about the role. The Austrian conductor would say that there was no violence in Van Dam’s voice and that one would need a “baritone Jon Vickers”  to make the role justice. As it is, Mr. Goerne has many advantages for this tricky part – the voice has appeal, the diction is crystal-clear, the tonal variety is that of a Lieder singer and he masters the art of Sprechgesang with naturalness. But the raw energy (and the volume and the projection) is not there, making the transition of yes-man into murderer hard to believe. This might not have been a coincidence: scenically, this transition was not evident. One could see a directorial choice there: as much as Marie and Wozzeck’s son seems to find his mother’s death a banality, it seems that violence does not need really need a reason. South African director/painter William Kentridge directed Büchner’s play for the marionette theatre adapted to that country’s social context in the earlier days of his career. And one can stil see the puppet handled by forces beyond comprehension (although highly rationalized in discourse) in his Wozzeck.

Asmik Grigorian is an edgy Marie both in terms of her metallic and forceful singing and of the way she does not try to romanticize her character. She just lets herself be played out of sheer boredom and frustration. Gerhard Siegel too was a powerful Captain, sometimes recklessly so, what had the advantage of making his singing even more characterful. Although I had seen Jens Larsen in more resonant voice, his dramatic focus and firmness of tone added some menace to the role of the Doctor, which can seem too comic in other hands. I was not so convinced by the other tenors in the cast. In spite of a pleasant tonal quality, John Daszak lacked the alpha male quality this role cries for. As for Mauro Peter, the unfocused high register would not hits home for someone who learned the role of Andres with Fritz Wunderlich in Karl Böhm’s recording.

Predictably, Mr. Kentridge’s staging has a strong visual appealing in its textures inspired by charcoal drawings and stunning lighting effects. This was a compelling take on Büchner and Berg’s social drama, thought-provoking but not “invasive” in terms of Dramaturgie.

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