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I have been following the Bach Cantata series with St. Gallen’s J.S. Bach-Stiftung since the beginning of the project, not only on their praiseworthy YouTube channel, but also with their DVD series, and was curious about hearing them live. I knew from YouTube that their concerts are preceded by musical and theological walk-throughs offered by conductor Rudolf Lutz and a guest preacher, but I was unaware of the structure of the concert itself.

We first heard the complete Cantata BWV 77 (Du sollst Gott, deinen Herren, lieben), which is a short item anyway. Then Swiss journalist Iren Meier took the floor to share her thoughts about the theme of the cantata – Matthew 22:37-39, i.e., Jesus’s answer to the question of which is the most important commandment (“love god first and then love your neighbor as much as you love yourself”). The guest speaker started by saying that once the cantata was over, the music should resonate within everyone in the audience. This was a rare opportunity to understand the power of Bach’s music in the context of its intent of communication with the congregation. 

Ms. Meier first discussed the idea of love being the absence of separation, the confirmation of one’s own existence through the communion with all other beings. And this is a central concept in the musical structure of the opening chorus. Then she quoted the text of the tenor recitative “give me, my God, a heart like that of the good Samaritan”.  As the cantata hints at, one tends to justify one’s inability to help others because one is not “good enough”. Ms. Meier stressed that the text of BWV 77 particularly addresses the issue; in her view, one is never too incapable of offering help, for the simple fact of not being indifferent means a lot to those who are suffering. And that is an important concept to understand the expressive features of both arias in the cantata. 


As it is, the opening chorus of the BWV 77 is one of the most complex polyphonic numbers in any cantata written by Bach. As much as Jesus himself develops the concept of the Ten Commandments in that passage of the Bible, Bach develops the concept of one of Martin Luther’s hymns, Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (“These are the holy Ten Commandments”) and created here one of his hallmark mathematically sophisticated structures. While the chorus sing in fugal style a subject developed from material traceable to Luther’s hymn, we have the hymn itself quoted in canon between the slide trumpet and the double bass (in longer note values). The trumpet offers, predictably, 10 quotations from the hymn, first parts if it and then the whole melody. In other words, we’re hearing basically the musical representation of identity established by unity. Every element in this chorus is a part of one single entity, and you only understand their singleness (i.e., of the derivations) if you refer back to the hymn’s melody (their source).The two arias in the cantata explore the fact that imperfection is not an impediment to express the love of God (and your neighbor, of course). In the first cantata, a pair of oboes offer wavering lines around a vocal part that may sound simple at first hearing, but has the soprano work hard for her money in the less congenial parts of her range in impossibly long lines. So you’ll basically hear her get hard to hear or red in her face before she is forced to stop for quick stolen breathing pauses. The second aria is even more challenging, you have the slide trumpet fighting with an ornamented part completely unfit for a natural trumpet and an alto (male or female) in a difficult negotiation with their passaggio. And – in spite of all that – it all sounds exquisite. 

I have a routine before I go to a Bach cantata concert: I listen to John Eliot Gardiner and then to Ton Koopman, because these conductors tend to offer opposite visions of how one performs Bach in the context of historically informed recordings. While Gardiner seems to be trying to prove that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are a Dreieinigkeit, Koopman is entirely circumscribed in Bach’s own musical universe, as church music from the 18th century. There is no right answer here, of course. One could almost guess how Gardiner conducts the opening chorus – with large brushstrokes of phrasing, rich orchestral sound and a sense of grandiosity. You feel as if you were witnessing Moses receive the Ten Commandments on the Mount Sinai. I’ll repeat myself here when I talk about Koopman’s performance. The congregation at St. Thomas’s was hardly philosophical and the Dutch conductor always seem to have that in mind, by choosing a very immediate and direct way of advertising the advantages of the Christian faith. He takes almost virtually half the time of Gardiner’s recording and the sensation is that of an explosion of fraternal love, with extra clear polyphony but the text spat in high velocity by the chorus. Mr. Lutz tends to see this number rather in Gardiner’s way, but in a zero calorie version. His tempo is slow but not super slow, the orchestra is rich but not super rich and the overall impression is less of “sei umschlungen, Millionen” but rather of warmth and affection. In acoustics that were almost too bass-friendly, we could definitely hear the double bass respond to the trumpet, which could have been placed a little bit more to the fore. As it was, sometimes it seemed in equal league with the oboes. Because of the pandemic, the Bach-Stiftung decided not choose its usual church for this concert, but rather a larger space in an exhibition hall. Although it proved to be less problematic in terms of acoustics than I imagined, it still tended to the overwarm. As a result, the double bass boomed in an almost unrealistic way – and the choral singing lacked definition. In other words, in a faster tempo, the texture would have probably sounded tangled.

Another side effect of the hall’s acoustics could be noticed in the way both female soloists’ voices failed to project in the auditorium. Both tenor and bass did not seem to have particularly larger voices, but the difference in audibility was evident. In any case, Miriam Feuersinger offered a truly musicianly account of the soprano aria, tackling the serpentine lines with the right lilt that prevents them from sounding mechanic. Her pellucid soprano has just the necessary amount of brightness, what makes her pleasantly pearly in tonal quality. It is hardly her fault that she was really hard to hear in the lower end of the tessitura. In that sense, Koopman has an unusually well chosen soloist in Dorothea Röschmann, whose rich lower register places her ahead of the competition. I am not sure if Michaela Selinger is the right choice for the alto aria. She is clearly a mezzo soprano lost in contraltoland. In the circumstances of that concert she was the aural image of trying to make the best of what you have (which is what the aria is about anyway). She worked really hard to focus her low notes while keeping homogeneity – and she deserves praise for that. But if you listen to Nathalie Stutzmann with Gardiner, you’ll see what I am talking about.

Tenor Raphael Höhn’s tone has more than a splash of nasality, but he is comfortable with Bachian style and delivers the text knowingly. Also bass Jonathan Sells offered a particularly sensitive account of his important recitative. Probably because the video is made on one single concert, after Ms. Meier’s speech, I was positively surprised to discover that the whole cantata would be performed again, probably to patch any mishap in the first performance. That said, I am not sure if the second performance could be considered – in the big picture – an improvement of the first one. In the opening chorus, yes, the double bass seemed more integrated in the texture. But the trumpet became more and more hazardous. I feel bad for writing that – natural trumpets are extremely difficult and famously unruly and one cannot have people like good old Crispian Steele-Perkins for every period instrument performance all over the world, but, well, things went really awry in the second performance, especially in the alto aria. On the other hand, my first impression of the oboes was a bit bumpy, while in the repeat the results were clearly more polished. To make the editor’s life harder, Ms. Feuersinger actually sang more precisely in the first performance. For that matter, Ms. Seelinger too sounded more comfortable with her low notes in the second time. I have no doubt about choosing Mr Sell’s first recitative. For some reason, the second time lacked the Innigkeit of his first appearance.

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I Capuleti e i Montecchi is rarely included among Bellini’s must-see works, and the interest of the more curious opera-goers is probably due to Richard Wagner’s impressions of Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s interpretation in the role of Romeo. Even the discography is less generous than those of operas like Norma or I Puritani, and I guess that the reason is: there is no big coloratura role in it and you won’t find either Callas or Sutherland in it. I myself have only seen it once in concert in Berlin. It should not be a surprise that I finally see it staged in the Opernhaus Zürich, a theatre with an unusually high record of Bellini operas in their seasons (probably due to the long-lasting association with Edita Gruberová). It is no coincidence that I have indeed seen another Bellini rarity there (La Straniera, with the Slovakian diva), not to mention the Bob Wilson Norma.

La Straniera had the same stage director as in this 2015 production: Christof Loy, a director whose stagings I tend to like primarily for visual reasons – they are always beautiful to look at. This C&I is no exception – in its mafia movie setting, it exudes a certain old-Hollywood glamour. More than that, the director’s angle of showing Juliet as victim of child abuse (yes, it’s becoming a cliché with stage directors) pays off in a plot where everybody is involved in some sort of violent act. However, if I had to single out one strong point in Mr. Loy’s work here is the fact that he makes space for the emotional content in Bellini’s music. There is a big difference between making singers move about and gesticulate to illustrate what the music is supposed to express and allowing them to be on stage and experience and share the expressive power of a score. In order to freshen up my memory of it, I have listened to Riccardo Muti’s EMI recording, an orchestral tour de force in a work not usually remembered for orchestral writing, and yet I would say that in comparison to this evening’s performance it came across as rather blunt.

Conductor Fabio Biondi (whom I have primarily seen as performer and conductor of Antonio Vivaldi’s music) has become a specialist in Bellini, a fellow Sicilian. He does share with Muti a sense that the orchestra plays an important part in the performance of a Bellini opera. With the help of a bright, light, Italianate sound, which the house orchestra adopted with gusto, he was able to make it sing together with his cast without drowning it. As much as Muti in the EMI recording, the ensembles sparkled like fireworks and bubbled like champagne in vital tempi and clear articulation (even if one might miss the volume or orchestral sound in the Neapolitan conductor’s recording in both act’s finali).

I have always had a good opinion of Jana Kurucová, a singer I often saw in secondary roles in Berlin. I actually wished to hear her in a major assignment – and here I find her in the difficult part of Romeo, which was taken back in 2015 by Joyce DiDonato. The way Bellini wrote it, it alternately sounds too low and too high for the mezzo soprano voice. To be honest, Ms. Kurucová’s mezzo is a tad light for it, and one particularly noticed that when the line was too central in tessitura. In these moments, her voice tended to sound a bit colorless. She mostly wowed the audience with very forceful acuti (she was often the loudest singer on stage whenever she sang in her high register), but she mostly knew how to shift into her chest registers for the testing low notes. Her control of the passaggio is indeed impressive. At moments, the most outspoken passages brought an edge to her tone, but somehow that fits the personality of this libretto’s Romeo, who rarely is the lovebird as seen in Shakespeare’s play. At any rate, she is – and I’ll repeat a word I once used to describe her – an efficient singer. You might find someone else whose voice might be darker, more flexible, more beautiful – but I’m not sure it would be easy to find someone who responds to every little challenge in the vocal part as effectively as she does in such a consistent way.

Her Giulietta was Italian soprano Rosa Feola, a singer highly praised everywhere whom I saw only once in Salzburg in Cherubini’s Medée as Dircé. I wasn’t particularly impressed then – and I understand why now. When we look at the discography of C&I, we generally find high coloratura sopranos in the part of Giulietta – Sills, Gruberová, Mei. Ms. Feola’s glory is not her high notes, although they are all right big and firm and round. I would call her rather a lyric soprano, with a warm, positive middle register and even, well-focused low notes. Hearing a singer with such creaminess of tone as Giulietta actually made me like the part more. With her Cotrubas-like shimmer, phrasing of Mozartian pose and a natural feeling for tonal colouring on the text (the true quality of a bel canto singer), Ms. Feola couldn’t help but touching every heart in the auditorium – also in terms of acting. It was a sensitive, beautiful performance.

At first, Omer Kobiljak’s tenor seemed a bit too robust for the role of Tebaldo. His high register, however, is made to sound darkened and, therefore, fails to project with the same intensity of the rest of his voice. On the plus side, he had no problem in scaling down for mezza voce and showed the necessary flexibility. Brent Michael Smith’s basic tonal color is noble as the role of Lorenzo requires, but he could have been even more convincing without the occasional woolliness. As Capellio, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev showed a more imposing voice, a bit grainy in the low reaches. All these singers are debuting in a way or another in this run of performances: everyone is singing their roles for the first time, but for Ms. Kurucová, who is singing for the first time in Zurich.

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My first impression of Andreas Homoki’s new production of R. Strauss’s Salome for the Opernhaus Zürich was that there was nothing new about it. It looks basically like his other productions: to start with, the neon tonal palette, the block set sceneries. This impression wouldn’t last long – the fact that I did not like any of this production’s novelties, however, doesn’t make them less new. First, yes, everybody probably since the première of Oscar Wilde’s play has noticed that Jochanaan is not entirely above the possibility of temptation. It is in the text – there is a reason why he refuses to look at Salome. The fact that he chose not to be tempted – just like when we go to the supermarket and say “better not buy chocolate” – proves his fortitude of character rather than if he was incapable of being seduced. Then there would be no merit in his behaviour, right? That is precisely why Salome is so upset with that – she knew he would be hers if only he allowed himself. That is why watching him having sex (or something like that) with Salome on stage did nothing but spoil the beauty of Wilde’s suggestion. In the closing scene, we hear Salome saying “only if” for ten minutes and, considering what we’ve seen, she seems just amnesiac. Another strong element of the play’s structure is that we are allowed to see Jochanaan in only one scene. The next time we encounter him, there’s only the head. And that’s, at least to me, essential for the understanding of the story. Salome is incapable of comprehending the whole scope of Jochanaan’s existence; so she breaks him into an object that fits her capacity of understanding. Wilde had experienced something similar in his own life and knew what he was talking about. That is why the fact that Jochanaan is let loose and is free to stroll through Herod’s palace as he pleases was almost unintentionally funny. Even after he was beheaded, there he was, walking to and fro (and the fact that the singer in the part did not have a magnetic stage presence made it even more frustrating). And call me conservative, but the fact that this evening Salome did not kiss the severed head but the omnipresent Jochanaan was a totally turn off for me. It’s like ordering carbonara and hear the waiter explain that they thought it better not to use eggs.

The sense of frustration was only enhanced by Simone Young’s musical direction. We could hear that she had to make many practical decisions here – helping singers in music that comes close to unsingable, helping an orchestra not truly comfortable with the writing – and, well, good for them. But the élan, the thrill, the overwhelmingness were not there. There are orchestras that are capable of keeping tonal color in reduced dynamics – their strings usually have a bright sound still present above the kaleidoscopic interaction of woodwind and brass. That is not the cast of the house band, the sonorities of which could be indeed described this evening as “band like” in the context of a pale string section. Also, articulation left more than something to be desired, what made the word “blur” come to mind more than once. Of course, we can’t have the Vienna Philharmonic on duty for every performance of Salome, and we could have adapted our expectation if some sense of drama had been produced. Strauss is a composer of effect – there are successive theatrical little tricks that keep the excitement on. Not this evening, I’m afraid.

I leave the best for last. At any rate, this evening’s was a solid cast. Elena Stikhina’s Salome was object of discussion in the pandemic season in the context of the videocast from La Scala. At the time, it was noted that hers was a refreshingly unproblematic take on a role that is essentially problematic, but there was an almost obtrusive problem of pronunciation of the German language. Ms. Stikhina deserves praise for her hard work – this was not an issue at all this evening. More than that, she showed a deepened understanding of the text, her word-pointing apt and some choices untraceable to the example of famous exponents of the role. Ms. Stikhina evidently understands that the nature of her voice demands an approach that puts girlishness in the first place. Hers is not a dramatic soprano, but her radiant high notes just flash in the auditorium. It is most clever of her not trying to beef up or darken the tone – she knows that her superpower is the brightness. This means lower-lying passages might sound close to spoken voice, but I’m ok with that. I’m also ok with her occasional pecking at notes and a rather “Mozartian” approach whenever the phrase is more immediately melodic. It works for her voice, it works for the role – and an important part of Ms. Stikhina’s performance is the sensation that she is in control of it. At no moment, I had the impression she would not make it (as it often happens). Yes, when the writing comes close to dramatic, her voice may lack some color, but that’s a very small price for hearing the part sound as music. Her Jochanaan, Kostas Smoriginas, does not fall in the Wotan/Alberich kind of singer we hear in the part, and yet his voice is at once focused and dark enough and pierces well the orchestral sound – at least in Zurich. He could have made a little bit more the text, though. In a part like Herodias, a charismatic singer like Michaela Schuster is always an advantage. Even if her voice is a bit past its prime, she still commands big high notes. I am less convinced by Wolfang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Herod. This was Karl Burian’s (i.e., the Czech Caruso) part in the première, and I always find it better when the tenor really sings it rather than go for the Spieltenor spiel. I was actually curious to see what Mauro Peter would do with the part of Narraboth – in Mozart, his unfocused high notes pass as “elegance”, but here there is a big orchestra to sing against. His high register might still lack overtones, but he muscled up all right for his high notes and, yes, sang with his customary good taste.

A final note – there are far more singers than you would expect for the “disputation fugue”. According to the stage director, Strauss himself had considered the possibility for one performance. So why not try? Musically, it is not a bad idea, I would say. Often the imbalance between solo voices make it less clear. There is also a dramatic point in having more singers on stage, especially in the closing scene – probably the single new idea that worked for me. I won’t even describe it not to spoil the fun of those who still intend to see it in the theatre.

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Although L’Incoronazione di Poppea was premiered in 1643, director Calixto Bieito believes it speaks more directly to audiences today than many a more famous title in the repertoire. Together with conductor Ottavio Dantone, he could boast he proved his theory; his production for the Opernhaus Zürich is thoroughly entertaining – I overheard members of the audience thanking friends for having brought them for the opera and saying that it was far more interesting than they could have imagined. Mr. Bieito’s premise for his staging is that the level of egocentrism, confusion of private and public interest and evasion of privacy of the likes of Nero and Poppea are only comparable to the 21st century’s everyman. As it is, the auditorium of the Opernhaus was transformed in the set of a TV show. The action takes place in a circular catwalk around the orchestra and video displays around it show us either images captured live or stylized version of scenes performed by the cast. Not unlike a stage adaptation by Mr. Bieito of the 15th century’s chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanc I happened to see in Barcelona a couple of years ago, the catwalk involves a lot of interaction with the audience, which is very much part of the action as the audience in the TV show. Here, the gender ambiguities are explored with a splash of Almodóvar – especially in the scenes around the attempted murder of Poppea by Ottone. It is not unusual to see tenors in the role of Arnalta and the Ottavia’s nurse, but here they are shown as men and the drinking scene with Nero and Lucano becomes a sex/domination/death game between the two guys. As the Personenregie is accurate, these singers can really act and the concept is coherent and efficient as theatre, the action doesn’t have a feeling of ancient history at all.

As the score of L’Incoronazione di Poppea is famously sketchy – there are basically the vocal parts and the continuo – Mr. Dantone too had enough leeway to concoct his own concept for this performance. As he explains in the performance booklet, he chose the Venice score and borrowed some pages of the Naples “edition” when he thought it would add flavor. His instrumentation was guided by tone colouring rather than strict historical acuity. He admits that he had the full La Scintilla orchestra at his disposal, so he felt free to shift from various forms of continuo to a more string-centered orchestra whenever he felt that the theatrical action required. The everchanging sonorities from the orchestra added an extra dimension to the performance and, yes, it made it sound curiously more “modern” compared to what someone new to opera would expect (i.e., a more homogeneously violin-led orchestral sound). There were moments when, in the middle of a number, an extra layer of feeling was highlighted by a change of the sound – and the effect was often thrilling.

I’ve already mentioned that the singers who performed this evening were all of them good actors, but they also proved to be effective in purely musical terms. French soprano Julie Fuchs charmed the audience in an all-round immaculate account of the title role. She sang in creamy, golden tone, masters the art of tonal colouring in her delivery of the text, had no problem with the part’s relatively low tessitura and radiated real sex appeal. I am always curious by what Ms. Fuchs is doing – she is one of the most interesting lyric sopranos these days. I have heard her sing Mozart, Rossini and Handel, always with excellence. Now I am glad to add her Monteverdi credentials to her accomplishments. This is the first time I hear Emily D’Angelo live. She has been very active in videocasts during the pandemic “season” and, although her talent is evident, her Cherubino and Dorabella sounded wrong to my ears – her mezzo as recorded had a metallic edge and a lack of roundness in her high notes that jars a bit with the instrumental poise one expects in a Mozart singer. Her Ottavia this evening, however, offered me the complete spectrum of her possibilities. It is a voice with undeniable presence, distinctive and colourful in every register (her low notes are particularly solid). It has indeed too exotic a color for Mozart, but it encompassed all aspects of the role of Ottavia. She displayed the regal, the tragic, the heartbroken and the underlying fragile aspects of her role. She also has very clear diction. I wonder if Ms. D’Angelo has considered singing Gluck, for instance. Hungarian bass Miklós Sebestyén, a name knew to me, offered an extremely convincing account of the part of Seneca. His is a beautiful voice above all, double chocolate and extra cream to the extreme low notes. And he learned a thing or two with his teacher Lászlo Polgár about legato, phrasing and colouring. I can only imagine he must be a good Lieder singer. An exquisite performance.

The part of Nero is infamously hard to cast – few sopranos (or mezzos) feel comfortable with the passaggio and is too high for a countertenor. But David Hansen begs to differ. Apparently, it is the Australian countertenor’s signature role. Indeed, he produces some big, forceful acuti and seems to have unending stamina (and vocal folds of steel). Yet one could hear how difficult the whole thing was. As often with countertenors like him, the lower end of his range can sound puffy and hollow. In the context of a stage performance, his performance deserves praise, but in the end of the day I’d rather hear a female singer in the part. Both tenors technically in drag had the measure of their roles: Manuel Nuñez Comelino’s brighter and edgier sound matched his angular acting as Ottavia’s Nurse, while Emiliano Gonzales Toro’s more dulcet sound worked wonders in Arnalta’s lullaby to Poppea. I am less enthusiastic about Delphine Galou as Ottone – the voice lacks color and volume, even if one must concede that she is unfazed by the difficult tessitura. All minor roles were taken by singers with interesting voices – South African tenor Thomas Erlank (Lucano, first soldier etc) has a particularly promising voice with some heroic potential.

In the first bars of the score, the Orchestra La Scintilla sounded a bit rough in the edges, but one soon realized it was a good approach for this score – it is not a story for “flattering” sonorities. During the evening, under the conductor’s guidance, these musicians’ willingness to explore different possibilities was praiseworthy.

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Partenope is never placed among Handel’s absolute masterpieces – such as Giulio Cesare, Alcina or Orlando – and rightly so, but it has many charms and deserves a pole position on the second-best level in the Caro Sassone’s operatic production. There is no lack of melodic invention – it is just short in drama and variety. Maybe the libretto is to blame – it’s a story not to be taken really seriously (what is a good thing) but this made the composer’s job even harder. Handel’s response was providing charming music throughout, yet there is not one truly gripping number such as Cleopatra’s Se pietà or Alcina’s Ah, mio cor.

In the context of his Jardin des Voix 2021, William Christie decided to offer a semi-staged performance with young singers, all of them promising. Yet I wonder if this is the kind of work that reaches truly expressive potential without a starry cast. For instance, Portuguese soprano Ana Vieira Leite is musicianly, bell-toned, really nimble in fioriture and has the necessary sexiness. Yet is she ideally cast in a role written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò, whose voice was described by contemporary reviewers as penetrating and very rich in its lower reaches, i.e., prima donna material? Ms. Vieira Leite’s silvery soprano makes me think rather of seconda donna roles, such as Dalinda in Ariodante and Poppea in Agrippina. That said, she sang very well this evening, especially when she let herself go a little bit more instead of taking refuge in an instrumental “baroque specialist” sound that did not always run into the auditorium. Her Arsace was British countertenor Hugh Cutting, whose voice is a bit on the high side for the part. Yet he offered beautiful legato and sang expressively throughout. He is not truly cut for heroic roles – and the part’s many arie d’affetto fit his talents. That said, he made far more than a fair stab at the score’s showpiece Furibondo, spira li vento, receiving deserved applause for his bravura. His rival for the love of Partenope, Armindo, was sung by Spanish countertenor Alberto Miguélez Rouco. Handel wrote it for contralto Francesca Bertolli, and it sits a bit low for male altos. Mr. Miguélez took a while to warm and sounded raspy in his first aria. There is a splash of René Jacobs in his singing, and I had to get used to his tonal quality in a part such as the in-love-with-love Armindo. That said, he delivered a seductive Non chiedo, o luci vaghi that hit home and made the audience understand why Partenope started to see some mojo in him.

British mezzo Helen Charlston had a tough incursion in contralto-land as Rosmira/Eurimene. She is technically adept and could handle the passaggio without difficulties, but the part needs more resonance in its lower reaches. Other than that, Ms. Charlston has clear coloratura and an ideal physique for trouser roles. Australian tenor Jacob Lawrence too has impressive divisions and tacked the florid writing in the part of Emilio with astonishing clarity, especially if one has in mind that the conductor adopted very fast tempi. Mr. Lawrence’s upper register lacks focus, though, and barely projected in the hall. I am not sure if casting a baritone as Ormonte is a good idea and, as fluently as Matthieu Wolendzik sang, he lacked color in his low notes.

William Christie seems to believe that Partenope is the kind of work that needs a little help from the conductor – and he is right. Yet this involved making everything bright and fast and exhilarating, what is not always the right answer in a work that may lack drama, more so when you don’t have a Bartoli/Fagioli/Dumaux cast. Even if one doesn’t share his point of view, one must concede that the Arts Florissants is an ideal orchestra for baroque opera. Each number seemed to have its own color (sometimes by way of Mr. Christie’s “creative” reading of Handel’s score) and the strings section proved to be really protean. Natural horns and trumpets, as usual, may be wayward. Unfortunately, this compromised the important battle scene, which sounded frankly awkward this evening. Of course, the edition involved the deletion of some numbers (most notably Partenope’s Voglio amare), the excision of the B section in some arias and simplification of recitatives.

Soprano Sophie Daneman (whom I saw as a lovely Galathea in Handel’s A & G with William Christie many years ago) here showed her skills as a stage director. Semi-staged performances are by definition something half-effective and sometimes painfully so. Not this evening. Ms. Daneman conceived an unobtrusive Personenregie that offered enough context for the audience to understand dramatic situations without interfering with the actual circumstances of a concert with conductor and orchestra on stage. All singers acted convincingly, and the audience seemed to be having fun, especially in the battle scene, when the director observed that having Ormonte (1), Arsace (2), Armindo (3), Eurimene (4) and Partenope (5) herself leading one army against Emilio alone (i.e., and his soldiers) is something that deserves an explanation.

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BTW

I am sorry I couldn’t find time to explain that the 52nd edition was the last installment of the Music Lounge. I’m away from my discs and books – and I’m afraid it outlived its original purpose. I also hope that the opera season won’t be interrupted during the winter months. If my hopes are not frustrated, we’ll have plenty to write about from now on.

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Intermezzo is an opera whose title says a lot about it. Not only was it created between two items conceived in collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and portraits a moment of Richard Strauss and Pauline de Ahna’s marriage when they were physically separated and almost divorced (due to a funny-in-hindsight misunderstanding), but also it is mostly about the illusory interval of peace and order in a world ruled by chaos and war. The opera’s main character, Christine (i.e, Pauline) has her world in strict control – and even her constant fighting with her husband Robert (i.e., Richard) is part of the plan. Fifteen years after the premiere of Intermezzo, the Strauss family would witness the metamorphosis of life as they knew and nothing would be the same, no matter how hard they tried to keep it the old way (and they tried harder and more obtusely than anyone else).

The references to Strauss’s own life make Intermezzo also hard to stage. For the premiere in Dresden, set designer it seems that Adolf Mahnke visited the composer ’s own house to find inspiration. In Rudolf Hartmann’s production for the Bayerische Staatsoper (available on YouTube), we can see how hard Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (as set designer) tried in vain to stylize the sceneries. That is why I find director Herbert Fritsch’s decision to stage Intermezzo in the manner of a pre-Vietnam US TV show highly effective. It fits the story, the Zeitgast and the low budget. As it is, there are two objects on stage – a pink baby grand piano and a gigantic ceiling lamp that change colors to create the atmosphere for every scene. There are no props and actors have to pretend that they are using a phone or ice-skating. The problem of having an empty stage like that is directors trying to fill the void with overactive Personenregie. Alas, that’s the case here – everybody acts as in sugar rush, there is a plethora of gags, slapstick, silly choreographies, nonsensical mannerisms that only make fantastical a story supposed to be close to real life. I see that the director is probably showing us that there is nothing realistic there – Christine has no perfect marriage for she knows Robert’s true love is his art, to start with – but Strauss himself made a point of saying that the feelings were real. And the director steered away from any attempt of true emotion.

The coldness of the proceedings proved to be particularly harmful in the context of the music performance. Conductor Clemens Heil obviously knows and loves this score – he kept it bubbly, sprightly, vital throughout and he truly helped his singers – but thats a tricky score that requires paramount standards. It’s like the pocket, “for dummies” version of Frau ohne Schatten (and the common musical motives are there to show us that). It requires an orchestra capable of clarity of articulation, tonal refulgence and virtuoso flexibility… albeit in demi-tintes in order to allow singers to project the text. And the Sinfonieorchester Basel is not that. As a result, the most “Romantic” passages could sound heavy, unclear and unsubtle.

Swiss soprano Flurina Stucki deserves praise for her Christine. First of all, for her musicianship. This is an impossibly difficult part, and some singers sound evidently approximative in wordy passages. Ms Stucki, on the other hand, made it all sound like music in her tightly focused soprano. Although her voice can acquire a piercing edge in exposed high notes, her experience with Mozart is evident in her “sound culture”: she produces a clean line, floats mezza voce in all registers and the basic tonal quality is pearly and appealing. She also shifts to spoken dialogue with absolute naturalness. Unlike Lotte Lehmann (the first Christine), she is a high soprano, and one misses a little bit warmth in the more intimate passages. Her Robert, Günter Papendell has a velvety baritone that makes one think rather of Hermann Prey in the Keilberth video than of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Sawallisch’s studio recording, what is fine. I prefer Prey to DFD in the role. However, the hint of wooliness in Mr.Papendell’s voice developed to lack of focus. By the end of the opera, it sounded basically grey. Michael Laurenz had the right touch of the operetta tenor in his voice, which is a requirement for the part of the Baron Lummer. Among the minor roles, Kali Hardwick sounded refreshingly free of mannerisms as Anna, Christine’s maid.

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Music Lounge (52)

As much as Alfred Hitchcock, Georg Friedrich Händel had a special relation with his prime donne. At some point, he famously threatened to thrown one of them out of the window, but mostly what he did was serve their talents with arias that highlighted all their special qualities when they were willing to serve his music. He was particularly fond of Italian soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, for whom he composed some of his best roles. One could say she was something like Händel’s Grace Kelly. So when she left England, Händel was in desperate need of a new muse – and he found one in Élisabeth Duparc, often called La Francesina. We know little about La Francesina – we can’t even say if she was really French. It is established that she studied in Italy, sang in Florence until she was engaged by the Opera of the Nobility in London, where she often shared the stage with Farinelli until she met Handel and, as we say today, it was a match (in purely musical terms, of course). He composed 12 parts for her in opera and oratorio – Clotilda (Faramondo), Romilda (Serse), Rosmene (Imeneo), Deidamia (title role), Michal (Saul), soprano solo (Israel in Egypt), Penseroso (L’Allegro, il Penseroso e il Moderato), Semele (title role), Asenath (Joseph and his Brethren), Iole (Hercules), Nitocris (Belshazzar) and the soprano solo in The Occasional Oratorio.

Ms. Duparc’s voice was described as “bird-like” due to her ability with trills and fioriture. Her technical facility was not the single quality praised in her voice – her singing was considered expressive and apt to suggest melancholy. Although we can only imagine how this voice was, I notice that singers who succeed in any of these roles often have a shimmering, floating quality that works wonders in this kind of writing. Curiously, they tend to avoid the part of Romilda, which seems to be plagued by miscasting both live and in recordings.

Serse is a curious work written in semiserio style filled with short song-like arias. Some numbers were entirely puzzling for contemporary audiences in their unusual structure and adherence to the dramatic action. It is probably Handel’s most visionary work in the sense that audiences today will find it more “modern” than some of his most famous works, such as Giulio Cesare in Egitto or Alcina. No wonder Stefan Herheim’s staging for the Komische Oper was enthusiastically reviewed in Berlin with phrases like “unmissable even for those who dislike opera”. The plot is predictably convoluted with misunderstanding galore. The eccentric King Xerxes of Persia is first in love with a plane tree (as we hear in the überfamous aria Ombra mai fu), but when he is made fun of by the beautiful Romilda, his brother’s girlfriend, he is immediately enamoured. To the young woman’s dismay, he stalks her, spurring her boyfriend Arsamene’s jealousy (and her sister Atalanta hopes, for she too is in love with the king’s brother). Arsamene refuses to act as a go-between and is banished from the court. Serse finally decides to court Romilda himself, but she doesn’t respond at all. When the irate king leaves her alone, she sings one of the loveliest arias ever composed by Handel, which we are listening today in our music lounge.

Nè men con l’ombre is a perfect example of the simple, direct arias that made this score infamous at the time of its première. This is the perfect opportunity for a grand aria (as we hear, for instance, in Ariodante when Ginevra sings Orrida agli occhi miei), but instead Handel goes straight to the heart of the matter by showing – in a simple, touching melody – the straightforwardness of Romilda’s feelings. It establishes her congeniality and puts us immediately on her side. I am incapable of listening to it just once and it always stays in my mind for a while. The text is unusually direct too for a baroque libretto: Nè men con l’ombre d’infedeltà/Voglio tradir l’idol mio/E se mio bene suo mal si fa/Incolpi amore, non gelosia. (“I won’t betray my beloved one/Even with a shadow of infidelity/If he makes his own harm/Let him blame love, not jealousy”). Actually, it shows Romilda as a very practical person too. Both Xerxes and Arsamene will test her patience throughout the opera and, at some point, she looses it entirely, but she holds no hard feelings. In her last aria, she explains the audience why: when you really love someone, you don’t get to hate him or her just because things are going wrong.

In Nè men con l’ombre, the mood is essentially very tender. This is the kind of simple aria that comes across as a masterpiece because every little note achieves its intended effect. As an aria d’affetto, it has very sparse accompaniment. The orchestra has one figure – a gently rocking repeated descending interval. It is extremely gentle and, although it is not descriptive of anything in particular, it suggests some sort of pondering. On the one side, she has reason (Xerxes is the king and it is not very wise to oppose his wishes). On the other side, she has her feelings – she loves Arsamene and she is very sure about it. But, you see, she hasn’t made a scene, she just refused to answer. For now, her resistance is pacific. This aria is also a good example of why many coloratura sopranos fail in this repertoire. A Handel soprano’s secret weapon is her middle register. It must be warm and colorful. High notes appear to add some zest, but the real work is to be done in the middle. Basically, Handel wrote this aria to flatter the soprano’s power of expression. It is almost like a Schubert Lied. Only in the end we have a very, VERY long melisma on the word anima (“soul”, here used in the expression “anima mia”, a term of endearment). It is no accident that Handel chose it – here we hear Romilda clinging to her beloved one, saying it to the end of her breath. It is the aural image of her faithfulness. We don’t need to hear much after that.

In her recital of arias written for La Francesina, Belgian soprano Sophie Junker leaves Nè men con l’ombre for last. She has the ideal voice for it – its warm, shimmering quality evokes Romilda’s loveliness and the tenderness of her feelings. It has also a very important sexiness. As we know, sweethearts in opera are always very anxious about getting married and we know why. Every delay is taken as the end of the world, because, yes, considering the options of entertainment, that’s exactly what it is. So, when Romilda thinks of Arsamene and how she chooses to wait for him (he has just been banished from the court), for a while the closest she’ll get from him is in her thoughts. And she is thinking about him right when she is singing this aria. This is also a one-part aria – it barely has a repeat (Handel reprises the first phrase midway but develops it differently from its first appearance) – and Junker decorates throughout. Maybe because Duparc was supposed to be French, the decorations used in this performance are rather French-like in style, what is a creative touch anyway. It called my attention that she inserts two breath pauses in the long melisma – Isabel Bayrakdarian, in the video from Dresden, sings the whole phrase on the breath and, to makes things more difficult, Christophe Rousset’s tempo is rather slow. This could have been a turn-off, but I don’t know, it has a tight-corseted appeal… And she compensates by offering an exquisite high a pianissimo the next phrase. Even with that proviso, I can’t praise enough Sophie Junker in this aria. It was love at first sight. I wish she recorded the whole part – and I am glad she realized that her voice is so effective in the music written for Handel’s last diva.

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Music lounge (51)

There is very little left to write about Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, I guess. Even those who dislike it have seen it many and many times. Yes, it is a very popular opera – and, as much as I am a die-hard Mozartian – I wonder why. To be honest, it is my least favorite among Mozart’s mature operas. It feels long, especially if the cast isn’t uniformly excellent (and it rarely is). But my puzzlement has more to do with the libretto, which requires a certain level of awareness of how ordinary life was in Europe in the 18th century for someone to make complete sense of it. Directors have been busy updating it in all possible ways – but there is always something important left behind when you don’t understand the original context. There is also a structural problem – it is the middle item in Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais’s trilogy about how things were changing in pre-revolutionary France. The audience usually forgets that these are the same characters from the Barber of Seville – and nobody ever stages The Guilty Mother to understands what is finally going to happen with these characters.

For instance, although directors do not seem very keen on doing that, the audience can still find remains of Rosine in the Countess Almaviva. Even if she is depressed in her entrance scene, we soon realize she is still playful, scheming and not to be trifled with. It is the Count Almaviva, however, who is shown as an entirely changed person in most productions of Le Nozze di Figaro. We have seen him in the Barber of Sevilla as charming, congenial guy – he can sing, he plays the guitar, he has a terrific sense of humor, he runs under assumed names, disguised as a soldier or a music teacher. However, when we find him again, he is a philanderer, a neglecting husband and a spoilsport always in bad mood.

In The Barber from Seville, the Count was in love with Rosina, a rich beautiful orphaned girl practically kept as a prisoner in her own house by an unscrupulous guardian. He places all his energy in getting her – and he does get the girl in the end. At the same time, Rosina is a spirited, bright girl who wants freedom and to enjoy life and her only hope is the Count. She didn’t even know he was an aristocrat – only that he was in love with her and wanted to help her escape. In other words, these two people had very high expectations about each other, while what they really want was… adventure. But that was the 18th century, they were both well-born and marriage was the only possibility on the table. If you keep that in mind, there is far more depth Le Nozze di Figaro than at first sight. The Countess is not melancholic about the beautiful moments in the past – they were never there. They were just a promise “from those lying lips” (as we hear in her aria). The moment the Count got her, she lost all her appeal to him. He only wants what he doesn’t have. The libretto informs us he would be always chasing foreign beauties, until he found something really tempting – a girl truly in love with her fiancé (i.e., Susanna). The fact that both Susanna and Figaro are gladly giving up freedom to be together triggers all frustrations in the Almaviva household. The Countess and the Count don’t hate each other – and the beautiful forgiveness scene in the end shows us that. They are not bad people, they are just miserable, jail mates in their own golden cage. That is why it is important to know what happens in The Guilty Mother – all dark secrets are discovered (their only child is actually Cherubino’s son and the Count does have a daughter outside wedlock too), there is a lot of plotting, but in the end they forgive each other and bless the union of their children. So in Léon and Florestine’s wedding we’ll finally see a true union between the Count and the Countess Almaviva. They did not bring each other any kind of personal fulfilment, but they finally brought each other peace.

We have to be honest: Mozart does not help us connect the dots between the two plays. The part of the Count Almaviva is written in a way that brings out almost exclusively the bad side of the character. From his first entrance, he mostly blusters in angular lines, closer to recitative than to song, as we can hear in the terzetto with Susanna and Basilio in act 1, then in the act 2 duet with the Countess and then throughout the act 2 finale. He does mellow now and then – but even then Mozart does not want us to believe about his sincerity. For instance, in the act 3 duet with Susanna, Crudel, perchè fin’ora?, we hear these little bouts of laughter in the strings telling us not to take him seriously. When he believes to be wooing Susanna in the garden, there is some suaveness in his singing, but the sprightly rhythms in the orchestra show us that the whole thing is just staged. The single moment when we believe he is being sincere during the whole opera happens a little bit later near the end of the opera, as he asks for the Countess’s forgiveness. There Mozart clearly tells us that this is a moment unlike any other in the opera – we’re transported to the realm of sacred music, which is the trick he uses to shows that the character is being truly serious (as when he borrows the melody of the Agnus Dei in the Coronation Mass for the Countess’s big aria).

I have written all that to say that I really dislike when the baritone in the role of the Count portrays him as “evil and loving it”. I have to be honest, most baritones skate on the surface of the role and content themselves in working with what Mozart apparently gave them – all those nervous, blustery vocal lines. But aren’t they too nervous and too blustery? Doesn’t the gentleman protest too much? There must be some palpable vulnerability there. Susanna sees that when she pretends to accept his advances. That’s the beauty of their duet: she feels bad for tricking him, even if he has been a total a******, because she senses that deep down he is suffering. When we can, just like Susanna did, feel his misery, then the forgiveness scene in the end gains an entirely different meaning. But this week we’re listening to his big – and difficult – aria, Vedrò mentr’io sospiro. If we read the text, we’ll see that this no declaration of war, but a cry for help – he is literally saying: why do I have to be the only unhappy person in the end of the story? (Actually, there is the Countess too – but he only realizes that in the garden scene). Let’s read it: Hai già vinta la causa! Cosa sento!/In qual laccio cadea? Perfidi! Io voglio/ Di tal modo punirvi… A piacer mio/ la sentenza sarà… Ma s’ei pagasse/la vecchia pretendente?/ Pagarla! In qual maniera! E poi v’è Antonio,/ che a un incognito Figaro ricusa
di dare una nipote in matrimonio./ Coltivando l’orgoglio/ di questo mentecatto…/ Tutto giova a un raggiro… il colpo è fatto. ARIA: Vedrò mentre io sospiro,/ felice un servo mio!/ E un ben ch’invan desio,/ ei posseder dovrà?/ Vedrò per man d’amore/ unita a un vile oggetto/ chi in me destò un affetto/ che per me poi non ha?// Ah no, lasciarti in pace,/
non vo’ questo contento,/ tu non nascesti, audace,/ per dare a me tormento,/ e forse ancor per ridere/ di mia infelicità.// Già la speranza sola/ delle vendette mie/ quest’anima consola,/ e giubilar mi fa.
(“I’ve won our case”? What have I heard?/ I was falling into a trap! Traitors, I will/Punish you in a way… To my own satisfaction/I’ll impose the sentence… What if he [Figaro] was to pay off/The old woman’s [Marzellina] claim?/Pay her? But how? And there’s also Antonio/Who is refusing to give his nice [Susanna] to a Figaro, a man whose family is unknown./ If I work on the pride/ of a man as stupid as him/everything favours my scheme:/ the blow is dealt!/ ARIA: While I languish and I sigh,/Am I supposed to watch the joy of a servant of mine?/Is he supposed to know/The joy I long for in vain?/Am I supposed to see the one who roused unrequited passion in me /united in love with a lowly vassal?/Oh, no, I won’t leave you in peace/I don’t want you to be content/An insolent fellow like you were not born/To bring me torment/or even to laugh/of my own unhappiness.//The very hope/of getting revenge/is a solace to my soul/and makes me rejoice!).

Yes, it is difficult to feel for the Count’s predicament. We have heard again and again this kind of “what about me?” growling from privileged men when, for a change, they are not the lucky ones. Especially here, when he is being particularly vicious and trying to ruin everyone’s lives. Yet Beaumarchais (and Da Ponte) are showing us that the Count is a walking cliché – he is miserable, he is in pain and it makes him hurt even more when he sees someone happy around him. In the aria, he is not referring to merely having sex with Susanna, but being in love, being contented by what one has, feeling well about him or herself. That’s what he envies. Those are not beautiful feelings to witness, but the singer has to be able to let us see the suffering in the bottom of all that ugliness. This makes the experience of listening to Verdrò mentr’io sospiro far more interesting. Again: Mozart waits until to the end of the opera to show us that the Count deep down is not a monster and here the music is all about cursing, complaining, threatening. And yet this is clearly an Ersatz for true satisfaction. By the end of the scene, he is enthusiastic about his plan, he acts as if he is happy about it: fake it until you make it.

The boundaries between recitative and aria are quite blurred here and I feel we could almost call it a scene. Although there is just one person on stage, it almost feels like a dialogue. To start with, it is almost entirely made of questions, mostly answered by the orchestra in the recitative. We hear the count pacing up and down in “Hai gia vinta la causa? Cosa sento! and then in the following plain loud chords, that swift gesture with the arm – In qual laccio cadea? Then the finger pointing, the punching in the air in Perfidi! Io voglio, io voglio… Then the musing, hand on chin in the dotted figures Ma s’ei pagasse la vecchia pretendente? Then we hear the laughing in Pagarla? In qual maniera? Then he feels more comfortable – there’s a plan being formed here. We hear that in the long chord that follows. He sits down. Then the orchestra is marked piano, there is a catchy, pleasant figure in the violins – he’ll convince Antonio do do whatever he wants, there is nothing to fear. The laughing figure is everywhere in the orchestra now – he’s got this under control.

The aria begins with a series of swift downward scales – the count punches the table – and there is a solemn figure, a trill, quite old-style, and an ascending sequence of plain chords marked forte. He gets up, in all his aristocratic proudness – Who does that fellow take himself for by trying his luck against (powerful, marvelous, formidable, handsome) me? As always, the Count’s vocal line are not truly Mozartian in a melodic, catchy way (as Figaro’s, for instance) – it is always recitative-like in style. The Count’s bravado does not last long – he soon has doubts. He starts to think about what could happen – Figaro and Susanna lovey-dovey right in front his eyes – the woodwind brings a certain harmonic tension, we have a series of nagging little figures, first many trills and then a provoking figure in the strings turning around second minor intervals. But the Count wants to believe he’ll succeed and, after an upward sweep we have the closest to a melodic line in the aria an up-and-down phrase on the words Vedrò mentr’io sospiro, infelice un servo mio and then E un ben ch’invan desio ei posseder dovrà. This is the very image of the Count’s state of mind – he is a bit down, but he’s acting out and trying to lift his mood (by making everybody around him as down as he is right now). Again it doesn’t last long – the nagging figures are all back when he figures Susanna and Figaro together. This time the whole thing is too much for him – he asks again and again Vedrò? (“Am I to see that?”) We hear short upward sweeps, almost as an engine whirring before it finally takes off. And it does – the count explodes from Ah, no, lasciarti in pace. We’re in a different tempo (allegro assai), the strings have a restless rhythm, the vocal line follows the text, we hear him shouting: audace! (“insolent!”), there is a chromatic line in “to bring me torment”, the nagging trills are all over the place, there is a laughing quality in the vocal line when he says che giubilar mi fa (“that makes me rejoice”). In the first time, it is a descending figure with slurs connecting notes two by two. In the end of the aria, it develops into a small piece of coloratura, quite challenging to baritones – mordente-like triplets up and down, a trill. The next phrase takes the baritone to a difficult high f sharp and that’s the end of the aria, the orchestra seems to be hysterically laughing with the singer.

How is the baritone supposed to make this tridimensional? Almost every singer goes to an all-out approach here, spitting consonants, snarling a lot, “acting with the voice” and going through the final coloratura in an almost impatient way, generally blurring the whole thing before he finally screams a high f sharp. First, this is Mozart. Yes, you can snarl, but you still have to keep the line, follow phrasing instructions, save energy for the difficult end of the aria – and, most important, take advantage of the downbeat moments (in which the character has doubts about himself and his plan) to show a more relaxed voice, some beauty of tone. We have to understand that the Count is not getting a machine gun and killing the rest of the cast in the next scene. It is a “what about me?”-moment, it’s a cry for help. You are right to feel annoyed by his tantrum and egocentrism, but you have to feel a bit sorry for him. You’re not calling the police, but rather searching for a psychotherapist’s visit card and saying “do yourself a favor and get an appointment”.

I first took notice of Boje Skovhus (his first name had four letters back then) in a Schubert recital on Sony. Back then, I found his voice beautiful and his phrasing sensitive. Then, he was cast as the Count in Claudio Abbado’s studio recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, a release not entirely well received by reviewers. As much as I can see why, I find Abbado’s conducting and the Vienna Philharmonic admirable. And Cecilia Bartoli is a vivacious, charming Cherubino. But there is also Skovhus – a replacement, if I am not mistaken – in the role of the Count. Although he recorded this part many and many times, he became increasingly heavy-handed and unidiomatic in it. That said, I consider him very well cast in the Abbado recording – and his Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro the most smoothly sung, richest in contrast – and he offers there the best rendition of the difficult final bars in the discography. It sounds what it is – a tantrum. He doesn’t seem dangerous at all, just overwrought, and there is still some aristocratic poise in his bullying. And Abbado is all the way with him, showing us all the detailed “stage action” and psychological variety in Mozart’s orchestral writing.

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Music Lounge (50)

I have no interest in voice/piano recitals with operatic reductions. I believe vocal scores exist for study and rehearsal and I find it disconcerting to hear someone singing Puccini for the last seat in the hall over piano tremolo. There is a huge repertoire for voice and piano – and singers are supposed to know it. That said, it is harder when you have a big voice. Most artsongs require a leaner and more flexible sound to express feelings of a more intimate nature and also clear vowels for the audience to understand the text. There are, of course, big-voiced singers who know how to scale down for a Liederabend, but there is always an impression of someone walking on eggshells. That is why the Russian songs are so interesting – they are generally composed with a large dynamic range in mind and the piano part is conceived in a way that it rises to the occasion. All famous Russian singers have performed and recorded the repertoire, especially the Tchaikovsky items, which are revered both by musicians and concert-goers in the country (and abroad). Among his romances, those in the 1893 set of six songs, op. 73 (his final works in the genre) are famous for their highly emotional atmosphere.

Tchaikovsky was an avid reader and received with interest the poems from a 24-year-old Law student called Daniil Maximovich Rathaus, sent with the purpose of having them set to music by the renowned composer, who immediately expressed his intent of using them in his next romances. The Op. 73 was published one year later and helped to establish Rathaus’s reputation: Rachmaninov, Glière and Cesar Cui would later use his poems in their songwriting. What calledTchaikovsky’s attention in Rathaus’s writing was the prevailing melancholy and pessimism, and therefore I chose for our Music Lounge the most depressing item in the group, the last one, Snova, kak prezhde, odin (“Again, as before, alone”): Snova, kak prezhde, odin,/Snova ob”jat ja toskoj/Smotritsja topol’ v okno,/Ves’ ozarjonnyj lunoj//Smotritsja topol’ v okno/Shepchut o chem to listy/V zvezdakh gorjat nebesa/Gde teper’, milaja, ty?//Vsjo, chto tvoritsja so mnoj,/Ja peredat’ ne berus’./Drug! pomolis’ za menja,/Ja za tebja uzh moljus’! (“Again, as before, alone/Melancholy has me again in its embrace/Through the window a poplar looks in/bathed in moonlight.//Its leaves whisper about something/The sky is ablaze with starlight/Where are you, my love?// I am not able to tell/All that is happening to me/My friend, please pray for me,/Just as I am praying for you!)

Although it sounds simple at first glance, this is a song about nuance – and there are many here. It is written in a “melancholic” A minor and follows a patter of bass note + repeated chords. But there’s more to it. For instance, a recurring descending, sigh-like figure in the upper hand – a dotted crochet followed by a quaver. It first appears with the notes f and then e and it stays, bar after bar, like that for a while, as long as the harmonic development follows its own pattern: A minor and then a German sixth chord (apparently one of Tchaikovsky’s hallmarks). It is no coincidence that the pattern is first shown with the lines “AGAIN, as before alone” and “Melancholy has me AGAIN in its embrace”. It is a very clever way of showing us the deadlock in the poet’s own feelings. The repetitive vocal line too goes along the same lines: cbacbac (we could image that the long c in the end feels rather like “and so forth”). Things start to change from the verse Trough the window a poplar looks in”, which is no longer in A minor, but chromatically slides down to a D minor in the next verse. The vocal line no longer follows the pattern but concentrates it – cccbbba… There is something claustrophobic about this song (maybe because it is rhythmically straitjacketed) and this “concentration” of the vocal line feels regressive in a certain way – I can’t speak Russian and maybe I got the translation wrong, but the way I read it, we have an inanimate object looking inside the house rather than the person inside the house looking at it, to start with. The next line (the one in D minor) is even more regressive, it is almost annihilating – it’s only a sequences of a’s on the text “bathed in moonlight”. It sound as if the world had moved over and left the poet behind. And back we’re to the pattern, although the text takes us to a strange description of the outside world. At this point, the poet’s state of mind is imprinted in the landscape – the tree whispers “something” (he can’t hear or doesn’t bother to hear), the sky is ablaze in starlight. The sigh motive adapts itself to harmonic shifts, but it’s always there – we know from the start that there is no salvation for the poet. He is confined to this state of mind.

I have the impression that Tchaikovsky would disagree with what I just wrote. The poet is not confined there, but rather has confined himself there, for the moment he gives some leeway to his feelings, things get too intense, it is too much for this worldweary soul. And we’ll hear that in the next verses. The composer informs us that the atmosphere is changing – the “flame” in the sky has nothing to do with stars and their silvery shine. In the middle section of the song the poet is speaking directly to his or her beloved – the dynamic is no longer piano, the pattern is no longer there and the vocal line gradually goes higher and higher above the c-b-a scheme up to a high g flat. The whole passage is harmonically tense and rich in dissonance. Now we know what the poet is repressing and why he keeps it locked. If he surrenders to his own despair, he might not survive. He probably won’t – the sigh motive is still there, disguised in the middle of what seems to be a more developed melodic line in the pianist’s right hand. After the outburst, Tchaikovsky chromatically brings us back to the first tempo of the song. While the poet asks his or her absent beloved to pray for him, for he is already praying for him or her, again we hear the pattern, the c-b-a-c-b-a-c… vocal lines. The A minor chords repeat themselves until they sink into silence.

This is our mezzo week and I decided we would listen to Olga Borodina, whose recording with Larissa Gergieva is a classic. But that is only a matter of taste – almost every important Russian mezzo soprano recorded this song and every recording is revelatory in its own way. Irina Arkhipova, for instance, offers a very cantabile account of it. At first, she sounds almost too objective. She does not make it a small operatic scene. It is clearly a song and she understands that each part requires a different approach. In her performance, only the repetition has a hushed tone, as if the poet crashed under the weight of his own feelings in the middle section. In purely vocal terms, Elena Obraztsova offers the wow-element, especially in the video recorded for Russian TV in what seems to be one of Tchaikovsky’s living places. It is impressive in cantabile and legato. She floats beautiful mezza voce and unleashes her formidable means in the middle section. It is heartfelt in a rather generalized but truly impressive way. Borodina, however, seems to have paid attention to the text when it says “again” and sings both first and the final section in the same “dead” tone, which she seems to have “learned” from Galina Vishnevskaya’s recording and taken things even further. She sings the first part in an almost non-voice. It is purely confessional in its small scale, lack of vibration and color. She does follow Tchaikovsky’s demand on crescendo and descrescendo with very discreet paintbrushes. It is a study in grey. She gradually lets her full voice develop in the middle section and, in its full color, we can hear the strength of the poet’s passion which, deprived of its object, weighs in his or her heart like a heavy stone. One might say that it feels a bit studio-ish in its extreme dynamics, but I find it effectively descriptive of the emotional landscape in the poem and, at least to my ears, she doesn’t come across as mannered at all. Moreover, Larissa Gergieva is really sensitive to the mood shifts and produces really rich, full sonorities in the middle section. On YouTube, one can find Borodina again – many years later – with Daniil Trifonov in concert. There, her voice is evidently less fresh – the “dead tone” feels a little bit unstable and her full voice less velvety. And yet the feeling is so genuine – her older self seems to have understood how to sing it “from within” and even the slight decay in the tone is an expressive tool. And Trifonov tries to squeeze the last ounce of color from his Fazioli there.

I was lucky to see Borodina in her prime – unfortunately, never in Russian roles – and she left nothing to be desired back then. I first heard her in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and I remember that I wrote “Rarely has the triumph of goodness sounded so triumphant”. Then I was lucky to confirm that she was my ideal Dalila not only in recordings. Her Carmen seemed as if she could fight the bulls herself, yet vocally I still was under her spell. I would hear her again – always at the Met, but for a Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti in Salzburg – in Italian roles (Amneris, Laura, the Princess of Bouillon), which never completely flattered the velvet of her voice. Even then, in terms of glamour, musicianship and expression, there was always something you could refer back to in your memories.

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