Archive for December, 2022

Following the disastrous circumstances of the creation of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, it has disappeared from the repertoire until the 1960’s. It is nonetheless the most popular item in the “Tudor Trilogy” – and one can see why. It is one of the rare bel canto operas that has enough room for two prime donne in equal standing, with a famous confrontation scene. It is also rather structurally square, and yet it shines in scenes and recitatives (a Donizetti specialty). If the arias are not the composer at his most inspired, they are dramatically effective in their “Mozartian” characterization: Stuarda is something of the Donna Anna to Elisabetta’s Donna Elvira. 

As originally composed by Donizetti, both parts were written for the soprano voice. Yet at the official Milanese premiere, the title role was given to Maria Malibran, what involved lower options to fit her voice. That said, the audiences always expect the soprano to be the tenor’s beloved and the Donizetti revival would mean that Sutherland and Gencer would appear as the Queen of Scotts, while Tourangeau and Verrett would wear the English crown. That’s also what would we hear in the 1970’s and 1980’s in combos like Caballé/Berini or Gruberová/Baltsa. The recent interest in Malibran changed things a bit, making for a curious cast reversal: mezzo Stuardas against soprano Elisabettas, most famously at the Met with Joyce DiDonato and Elza van den Heever. 

Last time this opera was heard in Geneva, DiDonato sang Elisabetta to Gabriele Fontana’s Maria. That is why I realized only 30 minutes before the performance that Elsa Dreisig would actually sing Elisabetta, with Stéphanie d’Oustrac in the role of Maria. I first thought it was a misprint – I couldn’t make sense of this cast. I can understand that Dreisig was chosen for all the Tudor roles in the ongoing trilogy, but their vocal nature says otherwise. Anyway, that train had already left the station, so there’s nothing one could do but keep an open mind. 

Elsa Dreisig is not the kind of high soprano who can’t wait for the puntatura as one usually hears in this repertoire, but rather a lyric voice with a middle register solid enough for a part like Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte. As Elisabetta she did not find anything actually low. She sang securely and firmly throughout in very good Italian and with her customary classical poise. I was trying to look for a word an Italian opera goer would use to describe what was missing. “Morbidezza”? Her tubular soprano runs without any problem to its high notes, but it doesn’t truly blossom as with a bona fide bel canto soprano. She worked hard for characterization, but the fact that she sounds young and vulnerable (Elizabeth I was in her 50’s when Mary Stuart died) didn’t make her seem commanding, venomous or dangerous as we’re used to hear. And it’s a role that requires a little bit more playing with the text. Although Anna Caterina Antonacci was booed at La Scala when she sang it there, she plays the libretto around her little finger in a way you can almost find the Schiller in it. That said, in this production, Elisabetta is young and tight-corseted while Mary is sexy and womanly. So, ok, point taken. If this is the intended effect, it worked. 

The situation with Ms. d’Oustrac’s Maria is quite different. Except in the confrontation scene, the role is all about long, floating legato (and this is probably why Caballé liked it so much). The problem: this is hardly a quality one would associate with this French mezzo. She actually offered some forceful acuti and even beautiful mezza voce, but the sound had little sensuousness, the text was cloudy and intonation wasn’t flawless. She is a terrific actress and gave her all in the scenic department. Live in the theatre, it was interesting, but that was ultimately what her fellow Frenchmen call a contre-emploi. The whole cursing and name calling in the confrontation scene is the single example in recorded history in which Joan Sutherland is more dramatically efficient than anyone else – her “t” in “bastarda” hurts like a slap – and I was expecting something thrilling this evening, but that was limited to her acting. 

I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone with a microphone had informed us that Edgardo Rocha had the flu this evening. He sounded as if he were fighting mucus during the whole evening. It was amazing that he kept his cold blood and went through with a voice in the verge of breaking. At any rate, it didn’t – and he feels comfortable with the high tessitura, which is more than what one can say about almost anyone else in this part. Both Nicola Ulivieri (Talbo) and Simone del Savio (Cecil) were cast from strength, offering some of the best singing this evening. Last but not least, Ena Pognac was a characterful, firm-voiced Anna. 

It is difficult to talk about editions in a work that sounds different every time you hear it. Conductor Andrea Sanguineti says in the program he finds the idea of faithfully following the critic edition (which was first recorded in the video with Carmela Remígio and Sonia Ganassi) unthinkable in a repertoire in which the composers themselves adapted everything to the forces available. As it was, we had no overture (which is a good thing) and the jolly opening chorus (I confess I prefer the “inauthentic” one used in the past). Predictably, one would recognize some Malibran variations and other embellishments plus fortepiano add-ons during numbers. Mr. Sanguinetti showed he is at home in bel canto. He knows how to breath with his singers, has a most flexible beat, excellent control of ensembles and offered the most musical confrontation scene I have ever heard. The concertato that closes it normally feels mechanical and a tad awkward. Definitely not this evening, even if the choral singing was a bit subpar.

Director Mariame Clément connects Maria Stuarda to Anna Bolena via Elizabeth’s traumatic memory of her own mother’s execution – and the rather Freudian way she channels both her father’s tyrannical attitude and Leicester’s desire for Mary. Here the Stuart queen is the woman Elizabeth would like to be. While she is shown in short hair and trousers, Mary is seen in a pink, vaporous gown. The director tries to give Elizabeth some credit when she calls Mary scheming and manipulative, by staging the execution like a media stunt produced in order to sanctify her and make way for a comeback of the Stuarts. All that would be irrelevant if Ms. Clément hadn’t directed it in a way that hits home. I find it particularly commendable the way she uses the rigid cavatina/cabaletta structure on the context of courtly dance numbers in the first act, an idea that gave new life to scenes that almost always look a bit contrived. 


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The BWV is a perfect example of Bach’s feel-good cantatas, as one would expect in a new year’s service (it was first performed December 30th, 1725). It curiously opens with a dance-like aria for solo soprano with a trio of oboes. The text is about singing a song of gratitude, for God has given so many good things during the present year – so let’s hope he’ll give us even more in the next one. I find it entirely non-religious in mood in its whimsical sensuous rhythms.

The contrast to the gloriously profound second movement, a bit old-fashioned in style, did not make much sense to me at first, until I realized that this contrast is what this cantata is about. The lively soprano aria is very much a “me moment”. It’s all about “receiving” – we received so many good things this year, so let’s say thanks to God in order to see if we can get even more the next year. Yet the song of praise – the chorale – works from an entirely different level. It is about being weak and having sinned and nonetheless getting to experiment God’s grace. Its motette-like structure, the soprano voice blossoming from the introductory counterpoint of the other voices, the chromatic description of sin and the uplifting, luminous ending is almost a generational dialogue. We have this youthful opening solo, full with eagerness and looking at the bright side. Then the old lesson – the hymn – reminds us that the blessing has less to do with us deserving it than with God’s infinite providence.

The third movement promises to be very austere, we’re going to hear the words of the Lord, as said to Jeremiah in a moment when things were not particularly positive. Yet he says that bad things should happen to make people need God and never turn away from him. Thus, he can make sure that he’ll be able to do good to us. This chapter alone would deserve a doctor’s thesis, but Bach doesn’t want to explain anything to us, he just SHOWS us, by giving God here a very charming, friendly voice. We’re already in the second part of the story: we have kept close to him, and we know that because we had a year full of good things.

In the fourth movement – the tenor recitative – we hear our response to the text of the Bible: if we give ourselves to God without reserve, like children do, then we’ll be able to witness his neverending generosity. It has an exalted yet simple quality, and many a commentator finds that all movements after the chorale are underwhelming in comparison. However, this is Bach’s point – once you have given yourself entirely to God, you don’t need to fear, for he’ll show you only his congenial, familiar face. And that’s what we’ll hear in the duet. Its Italian-cantata simplicity is the very image of childlike, bright-eyes contentment. The cantata ends in a serene chorale.

Differently from Suzuki or Gardiner, who make it essentially brilliant and animated (with the formidable chorale in the middle of it), conductor Rudolf Lutz tries to show the work as an organic and coherent piece, the opening aria more graceful than glittery, the alto/tenor duet less sprightly than in most recordings. And rightly so. The text of the cantata follows a logical structure, and Bach composed it accordingly. Therefore, not stressing the contrasts make it surprisingly more eloquent as a whole.

I don’t think anyone can sing the opening aria better than Dorothee Mields. In her performance, there is charm and there is also the textual intelligence to establish the connection with the following choral. The venerable Peter Kooij offered an ideal rendition of the recitative, the tone appealing, the phrasing immaculate, the expression always true. Another veteran in this performance, tenor Charles Daniels sang with a light, firm and natural tone that blended well with Terry Wey’s pellucid countertenor in a rather austere rendition of their duet.

The acoustics at the Kirche St. Mamgen are a bit drier than in Trogen, where the right touch of warmth give all voices a heavenly halo. But dryness for baroque music is always better than excessive reverberation – and the chorus’s exemplary performance could be sampled with absolute clarity. The orchestra too retained the necessary tonal roundness and played warmly throughout – only singers suffered a tiny little bit, tenor and soprano sounding a tiny little bit hard in their hard notes.

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Tosca is one of the most popular items in the operatic repertoire. And this is some sort of a curse. You don’t have to build it – people will come anyway. So why bother? This is a title you generally see in old, old, old productions in which the leading singers basically do their thing, there won’t be many rehearsals and, other than in festivals, you won’t get a legendary conductor. Last time I saw it, it was the Robert Carsen production here in Zurich. At the time, my level of expectation was so low that I actually enjoyed it. The staging at this point has just one trick, but it works – and that’s all you need. Other than this, Sonya Yoncheva’s and Joseph Calleja’s performances were different from what I had imagined, and this drew my attention to the end of the evening. And Paolo Carignani offered the right kind of conducting for this repertoire – grand, bombastic and a little bit wild. For this year’s revival, the theatre announced a “gala cast” around Jonas Kaufmann, who sang the role of Cavaradossi at the première years ago. In the title role, Sondra Radvanovsky, and there was Bryn Terfel as the Baron Scarpia.

I increasingly notice that those who dislike Italian opera generally don’t speak Italian. There is an art in mastering the delivery of the Italian text in lyric repertoire. It is not high-flown à la Lieder singing, but it is no less skilled and detailed. When the cast is foreign to it, then the music does sound flat. During this performance, my appreciation for Jonas Kaufmann’s abilities was confirmed, even if vocally he is not as fresh-sounding as when I first saw him in this role in Berlin maybe 14 years ago – and one can understand why he is so respected in Italy. Not only does he have excellent pronunciation, but he does know how to make it crispy, effective and meaningful both in musical and dramatic terms. Yes, his tenor now has more than a splash of throatiness, glottal attacks and lack of spontaneity – and yet he delivers the goods – and in an intelligent way. His acting, on the other hand, used to be more enthusiastic in the past. In the scenic department, Sondra Radvanovsky showed superior level of commitment. Although Yoncheva was more faithful to the concept of the vulnerable Floria/mighty Tosca duality, her whole demeanour looked schematic. Ms. Radvanosky, on the other hand, offered true glamour and reacted with immediacy to everything that happened on stage. In terms of singing, the level of smokiness and astringency in her tone are two levels higher than exotic, and the text is totally unspecific and sometimes accented. The acuti were all of them alright big and powerful. Last time I heard Terfel, he sounded downright worn – and he is a singer I rarely saw in good vocal shape. This evening, although his bass-baritone had more than a touch of nasality, it did turn out particularly solid, the most exposed moments forceful and projecting. His Italian lacks spontaneity, and as usual his intent of producing detailed characterization tends to verge on affectation. However, what he offered hit home if you limit your evaluation of the character of Scarpia as “evil and loving it”, which is how most singers tackle the part anyway.

I don’t subscribe Gianandrea Noseda’s Straussianization of Puccini’s music. To my ears, Tosca sounds less convincing when made to sound like Der Rosenkavalier. I really prefer it raw, punchy and kitschy, and I don’t need to hear this music being saved from itself. Maybe in Vienna, for a change, once in a lifetime.

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If any opera has an unusual performance history this is Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo. It was composed in 1667 for performances in the following year’s carnival at Venice’s Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, but it was finally cancelled. For reasons unknown, the theatre’s owners changed their mind and had a different composer set Aurelio Aureli’s libretto to music. Cavalli’s score had its world première 331 years later in Italy, and has been since then performed in the United States and in Europe, most famously in the Paris Opera, under Leonardo García Alarcón, as one can see on YouTube.

Eliogabalo was composed following Claudio Monteverdi’s standards – some sources say the reason for the cancellation back in Venice was the fact it was considered old-fashioned at the time – and there is more than a splash of L’Incoronazione di Poppea there, especially a plot inspired in a bad-boy Roman emperor’s sex life. If Busenello’s libretto is a chicer than Aureli’s – and maybe Monteverdi’s writing more dramatically efficient, Eliogabalo feels rather like the HBO-version of entertainment inspired by Roman history – dialogues are witty in a vaudeville-like manner, the dramatic moments are more bombastic, the atmosphere is more risqué, the melodies are catchier and rather quite self-indulging in terms of dramatic timing. I watched the video with a TV-series-binge-watching interest. I write all this to explain why Calixto Bieito’s new production ultimately felt disappointing.

This is a work very few people are familiar with. If any. And I have the impression that those who haven’t watched the Paris video have left the theatre without the faintest idea of what was going on. OK, they can google afterwards – but it’s a good libretto, I had fun following the story on video and I am sorry for those who were denied the opportunity. It is not the simple fact that the plot was updated and there was lots of so-last-century episodes of people undressing for no particular reason, acting as if they had serious mental problems, screaming and jumping or throwing food at each other – it is just that the Personenregie was entirely nonsensical. And the very generous cuts did not help it at all. For instance, Alessandro Cesare is supposed to be the very opposite of Eliogabalo. While the emperor is dissolute, the libretto shows Alessandro as the very image of probity. In what regards his relationship with Flavia Gemmira, his affection, fidelity and respect are unshakable. I really see no point in showing him as the emperor’s mini-me, including the abusive way he dealt with his fiancée – in the libretto portrayed as a model of patrician dignity, but here shown as someone seriously under the influence of very VERY powerful entertainment drugs. I could go on, but I will write “etc etc etc” instead. That said, those who know the Paris video could resort to that experience to find their way towards the psychedelic videoclip performed this evening and enjoy its visual appeal, the excellent acting from all involved and the apt but poorly developed Almodovár-ish playing with gender-identity issues.

Only a scholar in Cavalli’s music could find anything to be desired in the musical side of this performance. I mean, I am unable to say what is authentic of not in terms of instrumentation, but it sounded authentic AND efficient in terms of a performance in an opera house these days. the sound picture was a little bit more violin-oriented than in the Paris performance (what is a good thing when you have a staging with the orchestra in the pit and noises from the production), conductor/violinist/countertenor Dmitry Sinkowsky is not trying to sell you any academic concept here, but rather concentrates on going to the heart of the music-dramatic matter of this work. Even when the staging undermined a bit the affetto, the conductor would put it across in such a powerful way that you would get it with your eyes open. The continuo was warmly performed, offering tonal variety without trying to compete with singers (as one sometimes hears in “historically informed” performances these days). In Paris, what one could consider the prima donna role of Flavia Gemmira was taken by Nadine Sierra, what added an extra dimension in terms of tonal glamour. If the comparison is rather unfair to Anna El-Khashem this evening, it is only because tonal glamour is precisely what she cannot offer. Other than this, hers was an all-round strong performance, firm in tone, agile in coloratura, clear in diction. Considering the directorial choice for the role, it is difficult to speak of poise, but she did her best to produce some. As Anicia Eritea, Siobhan Stagg showed an entirely different palette in a velvety soprano with some beautiful mezza voce effects. Her duets with the awesome contralto Beth Taylor (in the trouser roles of Giuliano Gordio) were the highlights of the evening. I was eager to see Sophie Junker live for the first time. Although the role of Atilia Macrina is rather seconda-donna-ish, she lived up to my high expectations. Exquisite voice, charming phrasing, lovely personality. In the title role, Yuriy Mynenko sang with a firm, round and rather spacious countertenor voice. For some reason, I had thought he did not have the attitude for the part, but that’s not true. What he offered was effective, unexaggerated and at moments almost relatable. David Hansen was the Nerone in Calixto Bieito’s Poppea in Zürich. Back then he sounded a bit strained and emphatic to my ears. This time, as Alessandro Cesare, my impression was rather that he displayed some impressive control of the high tessitura, either in powerful top notes or in piano passages sung with instrumental purity. Yes, there were some strained moments, but he disguised it well with “acting with the voice” and was ideally matched to Ms. El-Khashem’s reedy sound. Mark Milhofer was very well cast as Lenia, and Daniel Giulianini was a forceful Nerbulone.

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Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in the repertoire – and I have often asked myself why. I don’t mean that as a snob, I like Carmen. What I mean is: what in it that makes it so appealing? Unlike Nietzsche, I don’t feel driven to life after watching to hour of abuse and murder of a woman just because there are Mediterranean rhythms around it. But Nietzsche was not really off the mark. My father, for instance, disliked opera in general because he found it “gloomy”. So when he asked me to make an opera playlist for him, he said “please nothing sad or somber – choose something from Carmen!” As a matter of fact, even Carmen’s murder scene isn’t gloomy at all – she dies triumphantly, we hear the cheering from the corrida de toros on the background. Then there is the reinstatement of the grand fateful musical motive of Carmen and Don José’s first scene before Bizet quickly ends it.

A great share of the reason why the audience sees Carmen as “uplifting” is its “Spanish” setting – the reason for the inverter commas is the fact that there is not one Spanish artist involved in the creation of Carmen. Merimée, Meilhac, Halévy and Bizet are very much French. So how Spanish Carmen really is? I guess Spaniards may consider it convincing enough, if a bit on the folkloric side. And this is why I was curious about Calixto Bieito’s 1999 production, since 2017 in use in the Paris Opera. Bieito is Spanish – and seems to have made a point of cleaning the story of mantillas, peinetas and fans by placing it at the 1970’s or 1980’s. It is an old production and it is therefore difficult to know what remains from the director’s original ideas, but I have to say that I was disappointed by what I saw. As far as I can tell, this is a traditional production of Carmen without the mantillas, the peinetas and the fans. I don’t know, considering Bieito’s reputation of shaking the audience from their bourgeois sensibilities, this came dangerously close to a show for tourists. Maybe we’ll still have to wait for a Spanish woman director to bring us closer to the work’s Spanish-ness (or lack thereof),

I find it impossible to assess a musical performance in the Opéra Bastille’s horrendous acoustics. I dream that his building – an architectonic eyesore, to make things even worse – share the fate of the building that stood at the same location until 1789. As it is, all I can say about Fabien Gabel’s conducting is that he made all the sensible choices in circumstances like that: in a hall where the orchestral sound never blooms, what’s the point of lingering? He pressed forward in a way that did not make his singers’ lives difficult, helped his light-voiced cast as much as he could and tried to cope with a rather unruly chorus. In the end, it felt like a glittery, superficial and not truly moving account of this story and this music. Maybe I have been spoiled by too many performances of Carmen with German orchestras in decent acoustics, and it makes a hell of a difference!

It is unthinkable that a French mezzo soprano with Gaëlle Arquez’s voice, acting skills and physique do not sing the title role in Carmen. Indeed, her voice is warm and appealing and she phrases with unfailing elegance. What she does goes beyond good diction; she colors the text, stresses the right syllables in a way that makes it crispy and meaningful, always in exemplary style. This alone made this performance worth the detour, even if in the end of the day, one cannot really say that the role is close to her personality. There is something vulnerable and poised in Ms. Arquez’s vocal and stage presence that suggests rather a Werther’s Charlotte than a factory girl who’s not afraid to use her knife. In a way, Adriana Gonzalez’s Micaela sounded less fragile in comparison. She has an Angela Gheorghiu-like veiled soprano with exquisite floated high mezza voce, a strong lower register and some full high notes. There were tiny glitches here and there: unfocused patches and some miscalculation with breath support. Yet this did not spoiled the audience’s good impression of her.

Michael Spyres started off as Don José at his most Gedda-ish, but curiously from his aria on, adopted a darkened barítonal tone that projected less efficiently. Only in the last scene – the most difficult for a lighter tenor – he sensibly shifted to a brighter sound for exposed high notes. Predictably, his was a stylish performance, sung in excellent French, if a bit short in slancio. Lucas Meachum falls the slot of singers who find the part of Escamillo a tad low-lying and somehow lacks a bit alpha male exuberance, but other than this offered a commendable performance. Among the small roles, I must single out Andrea Cueva Molnar as one of the best Frasquitas I have ever heard,

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