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Archive for February, 2022

Il Turco in Italia is hardly the audience’s favorite among Rossini’s opere buffe – I myself have seen it only once – but one is always surprised to find names like Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé in the discography. Even if one must acknowledge that Rossini was more inspired elsewhere, it is still a glittery, exhilarating score that produces the right effect even without starry casts. Of course, this is Rossini, and it is never easy to sing, but the demands in terms of acting here are not negligible and probably even more important in terms of live performance. That would hardly be a problem this evening, for Jan Philipp Gloger’s 2019 staging left very little to be desired in this department.

In his interview, the director says he finds Rossini comedies particularly appealing for present audiences, because their hectic rhythm is more similar to our daily lives in the 21st century than how things used to be in the 19th century. At the same time, the sensibilities around the theme of “clash of cultures” have significantly changed since the days in which the libretto was written – and this made it more justifiable to update the action to our days and to show it in a relatable way. As it is, we see a lower middle class apartment building where Fiorilla is a frustrated housewife who reads self-help books and has an affair with the housekeeper (Narciso) until a foreigner (Selim) moves to the apartment next door. There already is some incipient tension among the tenants, for Selim is not the first immigrant of Muslim background in the building. This all makes it sound like all the comedy was left behind. Not at all – the story is told with a congenial look at every character and their motivations, and while we could laugh of the screwball situations they are involved in, we always feel for them and understand their points of view. To make things better, Ben Baur’s sets balance the story’s needs, beautiful design and intelligent insight. Everyone on stage – even the extras – act brilliantly.

While effective, this is a very curious cast that would have probably felt more at ease in Mozart. This is not a disadvantage per se, but this means that this was hardly bel canto firework, but rather refined, musicianly singing. I had seen Olga Peretyatko in her prime as Zerbinetta and Lucia, and had to adjust to her present vocal condition. She took a while to warm, her high register mostly disconnected and forced in her opening aria. Once she reached performance level, one could see that her days of in alts are behind her. These days, her soprano sounds rather like a Susanna voice with some reserves of power when an exposed high note is required. She sings her coloratura legato, but you can’t really hear every note as we’re used to do with singers specialized in this repertoire. In any case, when the lines are not too high or too florid, she sings with classical poise, round tone and feeling for the line. One tends to forgive her lack of vocal exuberance considering her acting skills. She has the right temper, looks and timing for the role. Her Zaida, Chelsea Zurflüh has a fruity, spontaneous high mezzo, a perfect Dorabella instrument. I had heard Mingje Lei in video from vocal competitions – and can only believe he was not in perfect health today. He found it hard to project and his high notes grated. That said, his voice is unusually velvety for a Rossini tenor and I couldn’t help thinking that parts like Ferrando and Don Ottavio would suit him to a tee. Considering the rarity of good Mozart tenors these days, this is something opera houses should consider. Nahuel di Pierro, the evening’s Selim, shares with the tenor the unusual velvety quality of his voice. This is a voice I would expect to find in a Don Giovanni – Rossini’s buffo parts requiring a darker and more upfront quality and a tad more flexibility too. However, in this production, the character is shown as debonair and charming rather than formidable and exotic – and Mr. di Pierro’s fleece-like tonal quality makes sense for it. The two Italians in the cast couldn’t help stealing a bit the show, with voices better focused and more spontaneous than those of their colleagues. Pietro Spagnoli was ideally cast as Prodoscimo, the poet, both in terms of voice and attitude, and Renato Girolami crowned the performance in ideal buffo singing, with the right balance of funniness and earnest singing. And he is really an amazing comedy actor who had the audience laughing their lungs out with just a tiny gesture.

Conductor Riccardo Minasi never let us forget that Rossini was a composer famous for his writing for the orchestra too – this was no bel canto accompaniment, but vital orchestral sound, transparent, quicksilvery. Although he forced his way forward and demanded discipline from his cast, especially in ensembles, he always knew how to rescue his singers in difficult spots.

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First heard in 1735 in Leipzig, the Cantata BWV 14, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (“If God had not been on our side”) was meant to close the calendar of Christmas-related services. Its atmosphere has little to do with the visit of the Magi, for the sermon read that day involved the episode when Jesus calmed the storm in the Sea of Galilee.

It is a short but not really sweet cantata – its theme being a logical (or illogical) proposition: if we have survived times as difficult as these, if our powerful enemies have not crushed us, this means that this could only be the work of God. As in every concert of the J.S Bach Stiftung St. Gallen, a guest speaker offered a “secular sermon” about the theme of the cantata. Today, Eduard Käser, a writer on Physics and Philosophy, explained us that the theme of this cantata is the “if x, then y” proposition, reality, narrative, fact and alternative fact. In other words, the perception and construction of reality.

Bach himself not only had an instinctive sense of structure but also read extensively about rhetoric. It is no surprise, therefore, that this cantata is about alternative ideas. The austere opening chorus, for instance, is based on a very complex counterpoint in which the themes from Martin Luther’s hymn are answered by their inversions – as if we heard “if God had not been there for us…” and then “but there He was”. The triumphant soprano aria in military affetto with horn solo puzzlingly affirms “our strength would be too week to resist the enemy” – and yet we won, haven’t we? Only in the bass aria with the oboes, in very florid lines, the bass finally affirms – the faith in God is our secret weapon. It transforms hypothesis in fact, regardless of how unlikely it is.

The Bach Stiftung itself had faced its share of adversities in the pandemic years, but now it is back to its primary venue in Trogen. Now that I’ve heard them perform in the old church I understand why they missed it so much. It’s acoustics are simply splendid – it envelops the orchestra and the chorus in the right blend of warmth and clarity and one feels transported to musical paradise in a place like that. Maybe I still am under its spel, but I have the impression that this was my favorite concert with this ensemble so far. Conductor Rudolf Lutz avoided excessive gloom in the opening chorus, and offered something gently solemn instead. After all, there is no need to despair – “but there He was”. Joanne Lunn sings the difficult soprano aria in John Eliot Gardiner’s recording to the manner born and I was curious to hear her sing it live. She definitely lived up to recorded performance, delivering her serpentine lines with rhythmic vitality, producing bell toned sounds, hearable enough low notes, good trills and genuine animation. If Dominik Wörner’s voice is a tad high for the bass aria, he left otherwise nothing to be desired in his incisive, flexible singing. The chorus too sang with precision and a certain fullness of tone that suited the opening number. The slide horn and French horn solos (Bach did not explain exactly what he wanted here, and every conductor tries something different) were delivered with panache and technical abandon and the oboists seemed to be having the time of their lives.

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One of the most interesting persons I have ever met used to say that Dialogues des Carmelites was his favorite opera. I remember that he once interrupted a dinner party to “entertain” his guests with the final Salve Regina (well…). I remember I wasn’t very convinced. Moreover, I found the concept a bit gruesome with guillotine sound effects etc. I never gave it a second try – maybe I have also never had the opportunity of finding it in the program anywhere I happened to be. Until this month, when the Opernhaus Zürich is premiering a new production.

It is difficult to write about a work you have very little familiarity with, even when you prepare for it, as I did with both the legendary EMI Dervaux recording with Denise Duval, Rita Gorr and Régine Crespin and also the Nagano set with Catherine Dubosc, Rachel Yakar and Martine Dupuy. My impressions of listening to it at home and seeing it live in the theatre couldn’t be more different – even if the performance in Zurich could never boast to offer casts as starry as those on CD. In home listening, the words “atmospheric” and “wordy” would appear in the first paragraph. But in the auditorium, beyond the widely acknowledged effectiveness of Georges Bernanos’s text, I couldn’t help realizing that Poulenc did a terrific job there. Not that he needs my endorsement, but anyway – I believe that the musical performance this evening had more than a little to do with my opinion.

I don’t think I have ever seen conductor Tito Ceccherini before to say anything about his style, and yet I have the clear impression that his intention was to “sell” this score the audience, something of a “for dummies” performance. Differently from both Dervaux and Nagano, the music was served this evening with a double serving of chantilly. The orchestra enveloped singers with an almost Wagnerian richness (obviously at the expense of textual clarity), everything bustled and glowed in a “big picture” approach, with very little space for tiny effects that a specific word in the text could produce. Does this sound as if I were snobbing it? Not at all. This makes an opera that could sound unrelatable more immediate. Without the smoke screen of a “religious” atmosphere, these characters’ feelings, motivations, interests and passions make it seem that this story could have happened anywhere with anyone. Is there a loss in making it so “universal”? Maybe yes, and I would add that it ideally required a different cast too to produce the right effect. Some would point out that Mr. Ceccherini’s approach had its liabilities – Mme. Lidoine’s first address to her sisters as the new prioress was a tongue twister for a singer fighting to keep the beat, to start with. When it comes to the fact that the text – to make its full theatrical sense – needed a little bit more time, there is a clear advantage here. I cannot say that anyone in the audience would have this evening the impression that this was the French answer to Sprechgesang. Even the most dramatic scenes – such as the death of the old prioress – were delivered in the closest to cantabile one could achieve in this writing. For good or worse, it all sounded extremely song-like. I know we’re in the “wrong” part of Switzerland for the language of Racine and Molière – and I haven’t seen an effort of looking for national values in Lausanne or Genève to produce a fully idiomatic performance – but all in all the level of French pronunciation this evening was commendable.

This was the first time I have seen Olga Kulchynska and I didn’t have any expectations. Feel free to throw tomatoes at me, but I wasn’t entranced by Poulenc’s favorite singer’s account of the role in the Dervaux recording, whereas Catherine Dubosc got me hooked from note one. She sounds differently from everyone else, as if air was three degrees cooler around her, and we can understand why everyone has such a special interest of her. There is a Mélisande-like otherworldly purity in that sound, even if Dubosc gets a bit shrill when things get a bit heated. In her interview, Ms. Kulchyska says she looked for a French “sound” for her Blanche, and while she didn’t actually produce that, what she did produce was really effective. Her creamy soprano has a permanent float in the sound, a gentle roundness that prevents it from sounding edgy even when hard pressed (at these moments, it sounds a tad colorless instead). It is a beautiful voice, but there is nothing syrupy about it, but rather something coolly provocative in its airy fluffiness. But Ms. Kulchynska is more than a beautiful voice – she phrases with unfailing Mozartian poise, but not without passion. And her diction is crystal-clear. To make things even better, she has an appealing stage presence and acts with naturalness. She alone would have made this performance worth the detour. I’m eager for more.

The fact that Ms. Kulchynska’s voice is so appealing makes things even tougher for any soprano cast as Soeur Constance. Sandra Hamaoui’s voice is alright pure-toned, but it does not really flow and her mezza voce would be better described as crooning. That said, she sang well and projected an aura of innocence and youth, her death scene disarming and touching. Alice Coote is not someone I would have imagined in the part of Mère Marie. Maybe it is the repertoire I’ve seen her sing or her stage persona. However, it must be said that she was probably the most compelling soloist this evening. Neither Rita Gorr or Martine Dupuy corresponded to what I imagined for the part by reading the text alone – in my imagination something in between would be the perfect voice for the part. And I guess that this is why Ms. Coote did the trick for me. Hers is a lighter sound than both Gorr’s or Dupuy’s, almost soprano-like in color, but with reserves of resonance for the low notes and enough punch for the exposed acuti in the part. As it was, she provided the right balance between tough and sweet, driven and warm. The difficult role came across as particularly three dimensional, what added a lot to the whole performance, since it is a central character to the plot.

I happen to like Mme. Lidoine – and I found it sad the director this evening does not seem to share my opinion, showing her as a bit feisty and slightly dumb. For my own amazement, Régine Crespin in the Dervaux set sounded a bit lost in it, and Rachel Yakar (for Nagano) really overparted. This evening, nobody can say Inga Kalna did not sing well. For instance, she offered some breathtaking high mezza voce. Nevertheless, the tonal quality is a bit vinegary, her French seemed a bit mechanic to me and she really missed the spiritual conviction for the prison scene. Even if the director sees nothing in the part (as it seems to be the case), this is a crucial moment when all the other characters respond intensely to her. She is a practical woman of simple words, but there she manages to convince a group of frightened people to go to the gallows with remarkable dignity. And we were supposed to feel that happening. Liliana Nikiteanu sang well and acted with great conviction in the small part of Mère Jeanne. Being the French person in the cast, Nicolas Cavallier could have projected his text a little bit more crisply as the Marquis de la Force. Thomas Erlank, on the other hand, sang with finesse and sensitivity as his son.

I am leaving Evelyn Herlitzius for last. Unlike almost everyone else – in spite of a voice that could be described as “weird” – I have tended to take this German’s soprano side whenever I saw her in many Wagner and Strauss roles. It is a bit of a tough love, but her commitment is something I truly respect. That does not mean that I went to the theatre convinced that casting her as Mme. de Croissy was a good idea. In terms of acting, no doubt there. She really nailed it, even in the death scene, when she knew to stop just one inch before exaggeration. Two inches would have been too much. In terms of singing, I must confess that Denise Scharley is my favorite piece of casting in the Dervaux set. It is a masterpiece of a performance, delivered with a Judith Anderson-like virtuoso quality in finding the right inflection for every tiny little word – and the voice is famously uncomplicated. With Herlitzius, we get none of this. Her voice has always been famously complicated – if very big and powerful – and, good as her French is (really, above average), she doesn’t reach that level of verbal specificity. And there’s a big register break in the middle of all that. On her side, no orchestra is too loud for her and she produced some superpowerful high notes in her death scene.

I am a bit at loss for words to describe Director Jetske Mijnssen’s production. It is visually catching in very simple stage solutions – in a play that requires lots of difficult set changes. Yet it is conceptually problematic. The scene with the Marquis, which is fundamental for us to understand Blanche, is polluted by the presence of 5 or 6 dancers (!) cavorting around in a moment that requires our full attention on every gesture and facial expression. Then there is this idea that Blanche should be omnipresent. So we have her 30 cm from people saying “where has she gone?”, what could be very confusing, especially for her final appearance (after her disappearance) is a coup de théâtre. Then there is this internal trimming of the text, to make Blanche be more like the director’s (rather than Bernanos’s) concept of the role. All in all, this is commendable direction, we could see that everyone on stage was immerse in the concept and responding accordingly. That is why it is so sad that some pseudobrilliant ideas have compromised it.

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There comes a moment in life when one has to face that the Georg Solti’s album of R. Strauss Elektra is what it obviously is: a studio recording. Yes, as much as one admires Karl Böhm’s structural clarity and intelligence or Herbert von Karajan’s finesse and theatricality, this is a tragedy about raw emotions and one always has this fantasy of being knocked out with punches of orchestral sound and deafened by hochdramatisch acuti. Eventually one grows up and gets used to the limitations of real life.

It is not the first time I have used the names Böhm, Karajan or Solti when writing about a performance of Elektra, and I guess this won’t be the last. These recordings have established models for a conductor in this score and also for the audience in terms of what to expect. Yet new models are being built as we speak – and I have noticed that sopranos in the title role tend to say that they finally accepted an invitation to sing the title role in Elektra only when they realized that they don’t have to do it the Nilsson/Solti way. And this goes beyond “not having a Birgit Nilsson voice”, but – I reckon – with the fact that the world is finally reaching a point where a woman can take a strong stance without being being called “hysterical”.

I mean – is the vehemence really part of the score? It is indeed a powerful story – and the music is not to be taken lightly – but when the composer himself advises conductors not to overdo it and boost anything, there is a strong argument in favor of (some) restraint here. I myself don’t have an answer for that question. However, this performance in the Grand Théâtre de Genève got me thinking. I have to say that I have never seen or heard this opera shown the way it was this afternoon. I entered the auditorium ready to be overwhelmed but was transported instead to a ritualistic, mythical dimension faintly similar to the Noh theatre. But let’s talk of the production first.

Director Ulrich Rasche is no newcomer to Hofmannsthal’s Elektra. He staged the play in Munich not long ago – and what we see here in Geneva is an adaptation of the same production for the operatic setting. Adapting a staging conceived for actors without music for opera is not simple as it sound – the tempi are entirely different, to start with – but Mr. Rasche finds that Strauss was amazingly faithfully to the natural flow of the text and the music makes it even easier to time the stage action. I was going to write “the problem is”, but let me phrase it like that: However, the word “action” in the context of this production is something of an overstatement.

Mr. Rasche’s staging literally turns around a three-level revolving machine: on top there is a round arena, occasionally enclosed by an alternately transparent and opaque grid and surrounded by a walkway. There is a second walkway below for secondary characters. All parts of the structure are permanently spinning around its axis – the whole machine itself could turn at moments for the effect of different viewing angles. The idea behind of the perpetual movement is supposed to represent the fact that these characters are unable to move forward – they actively have to move to remain in the same spot (if they don’t they’d just carried away off the audience’s sight and then back).

In practical terms, this means that the singers are in permanent need of finding their balance in a steep and moving surface. As a result, they always look a bit worried about falling down. In order to protect them from accidents, the director has all of them in harnesses and lifelines, what makes moving around even more difficult. In order to avoid tangling, everybody moves at the same beat in slow, dance-like steps. And remember: they have to move because of the turning walkways. All this creates a procession-like impression, all the passions and emotions in the plot reflected in very few gestures and facial impression in a slo-mo pace. Devoid of drama as the proceedings were, they were not devoid of interest in this dreamy, ceremonial atmosphere.

The restrain seemed to have an echo in Jonathan Nott’s conducting. Here the accidents to be prevented were rather of technical nature: helping the singers survive the treacherous writing and the orchestra in this demanding music. The sensation of caution was never dispelled during the whole performance. Although this was a killjoy in terms of excitement, it also mean that there were enough polish and clarity. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande does not have the more refulgent string section in the world, but the articulation was clean, brass instruments responded to the heavy duty commendably, the level of harmonic transparency was praiseworthy. And yet everything sounded a bit rehearsed, what made the idea of ceremony even more noticeable: everyone in their marks at the right time. I have to be honest: I don’t know if I want to hear Elektra like that again. If there is something central to this score is it’s descriptive nature – we have to hear the axe falling, the dogs barking, the horses whining, the blood flowing. It cant be just a pageant.

Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg offers a curious combination of qualities for the part of Elektra. Her voice makes one think rather of someone who sings Elisabeth and Elsa in its basic sweetness. At moments I could think of Ingrid Bjoner, who tackled hochdramatisch parts with unusual “sweetness” of tone. However, Bjoner was a bit more steely in her high notes than Ms. Brimberg, who has indeed very easy top notes, yet produced by spinning and gaining momentum rather than slamming it on your face à la Nilsson. That was not a problem in itself – Ms. Brimberg has indeed sung lyric roles and has feeling for legato, singing her scenes with Orest and Chrysothemis with unusual sense of line and an appealing float to the tone. She lacked consistency in her low notes, though. In any case, she trod cautiously but surely and ended the opera in good shape, something to be praised.

The contrast with Sara Jakubiak’s full-toned, rich, healthy singing as Chrysothemis was telling in the sense that this American soprano was extremely well-cast in a role ideal for her voice. She is probably the best singer I have heard in the part live – and she can stand the competition with famous singers in recordings too. Brava. The Klytämnestra in Salzburg’s production only last year, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner has sung this afternoon even better than in the broadcast with the Vienna Philharmonic. Although her middle register could be a little freer, she sounds even richer in her lower notes – and made some exciting crescendo effects in the part’s climactic high notes. One could feel that she was dying to let the lifeline go and do some real acting. All in all, she was still the most expressive person on stage. Károly Szemerédy was a dark, forceful Orest, and Michael Laurenz sang the part of Aegisth with ideal focus and clarity of diction.

Probably for the sake of the staging, some extra cuts have been made other than the usual excisions we’re used to hear in this score.

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