That was Gilda´s opinion when reviewing the service of Sparafucile and Maddalena’s tavern in Mantua. This is more or less my feeling while dealing with the press office of Teatro Colón.
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I can only imagine that Simon Rattle, when asked “which is going to be your next operatic project with the Berliner Philharmoniker?”, consults Herbert von Karajan’s discography. Although Karajan sometimes opted to record some of his performances made live with his Berliners with the Vienna Philharmonic, that was not really the case with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. His recording with Frederica von Stade and José van Dam is both famous and controversial, but the truth is that he never performed the work with the Berlin Philharmonic in concert or in the opera house, but rather did it in the Vienna State Opera with Hilde Güden and Eberhard Wächter in 1962/1963. His successor in Berlin, Claudio Abbado, also chose to record it with the Vienna Philharmonic with Maria Ewing and again José van Dam after performances in the Austrian opera house. Therefore, the name of the present music director is connected to the performance history of Debussy’s only opera – since 2006 the Berlin Philharmonic has only played it under his baton.
Karajan is accused of “germanizing” the opera in the above mentioned orchestra-oriented EMI recording, but I would not say he disregarded the composer’s efforts in avoiding Wagnerism at all costs. That recording could be rather fittingly called “Brahmsian” in its large scale and gravitas. Rattle instead begs to differ. How often one sees a child so determined to behave differently from his parents only to realize in the end that he is more similar to them than what he would like to admit? The fact that Debussy had Wagner as a “non-model” on writing Pelléas et Mélisande only meant that Wagner was in his thoughts while he wrote it – this seems to be the concept of this evening’s performance in the Philharmonie. Although I am not really a fan of Sir Simon’s, I do admire his intent of thinking things anew, even if this sometimes involves things going really astray.
I would not say that this evening went astray. Every little aspect in his performance was coherently informed by his Tristan-esque concept and rendered expertly to this purpose. The Philharmonic sounded its fullest, deepest and richest, responded to the conductor’s demands on increasing intensity adeptly and excelled in tone coloring. Act V, in particular, showed febricity enough to make the delirious Tristan in act III tame in comparison. As my 9 or 10 readers might be guessing by now, I do not subscribe to this concept. Some designs made in blue look just vulgar in red. The multilayered demi-tintes conceived by Debussy exposed to this coruscating approach sounded just like Mascagni without the catchy tunes to my ears, especially when the cast, having to compete with the full glory of the Berliner Philharmoniker, most often than not had to sing at full powers and – in the central tessitura preferred by the composer – would mostly sound overpowered.
To call this a staged performance may seem at first an exaggeration – director Peter Sellars made it almost exclusively by lighting effects, the only props here being a letter and a platform right in the middle of the stage. He explored all spaces available in the hall (some of them quite invisible to large parts of the audience); the remoteness also made some of the singing hard to hear under these circumstances. Mr. Sellars too does not believe in demi-tintes – his approach is a bit on the telenovela side. For him, this is a domestic abuse tale. Mélisande cannot help her sexuality; Pelléas is a nice chap in a high-testosterone groping way; Golaud is a psychopath, but it is not his fault: his father is a dirty old man and his mother is absent-minded. Here, the hapless title-couple kiss at the first opportunity, are quite graphic in the tower scene, Arkel molests the pregnant Mélisande, who is kicked in her belly by Golaud, who couldn’t care less about her condition. This might make things a bit too clear for those who were not getting in the first place – but if you come to think that Debussy took the pains of writing the scene in the castle’s souterrain just to suggest that Golaud is threatening Pelléas without actually saying anything, having the cuckold pointing a knife at his brother makes the whole detour pointless, isn’t it? Again, if I disagree with the concept, it does not mean it wasn’t expertly done – the Personenregie was utterly convincing, all singers placed in each scene to optimal dramatic and aesthetic results and fully in grasp of the meaning of each gesture.
Although this evening’s cast is what one would call “glamorous”, I have the impression that a Wagnerian approach would ideally require a Wagnerian cast. I mean it- I always wondered about the possibility of hearing some like Régine Crespin, Tatiana Troyanos or Jessye Norman as Mélisande – particularly when you have a loud and powerful orchestra on duty. Although Magdalena Kozená is the opposite of Wagnerian, her Mélisande (with whom I was acquainted from a broadcast from Paris with Marc Minkowski) was ideally sung in absolute clarity of text and line and, by the way of perfect focus and bright tonal quality, very easily heard. Her approach is extremely artless and direct, what does not exactly goes with the circumstances. Sylph-like bell-toned Mélisandres seem to be the default for this role, but I plead guilty to my preference for Maria Ewing’s powers of suggestion of making you wonder what she is aiming at by saying Si, si, je les ferme la nuit… Christian Gerhaher (Pelléas)is a singer with fondness for the emphatic and the underlined. Prompted by the bombastic direction and the grandiloquent conducting, he sometimes made me think of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau’s Scarpia in Lorin Maazel’s recording. But that is me being mean – he has very clear French, handles the text with hallmark care of a Lieder singer and is comfortable with the high tessitura. But he is no Stéphane Degout. Gerald Finley is a paragon of perfect technique and musicianship, not to mention that his French sounded perfectly idiomatic to my non-native ears. He is a very amiable guy, though, and the demands of having to seem wild and dangerous involved some barking, distortion of line and parlando effects that I found a little distracting. Bernarda Fink was an expressive Genieviève, comfortable in this contralto emploi, but I’ve found Franz-Josef Selig far more persuasive in the context of Charles Dutoit’s subtle performance in Tokyo one year ago.
Unlike Pinky and The Brain, Sonya Yoncheva does not have a plan to conquer the world; she focus on one country at a time. Her journey has really got momentum in France, where she sang everything from Rameau to the three leading roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Her next station was the USA, where her Gilda, Desdemona and Violetta have received rave reviews. Although she had already sung in Germany, a new production of La Traviata made specially for her at the Berlin Staatsoper with Daniel Barenboim seems to be the real beginning of her German “campaign”. I had seen her only once in four very exciting minutes of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes in the anniversary gala of the Concert d’Astrée – and was eager for more (her lovely CD of French arias plus Violetta’s Sempre Libera made me even more curious), even if it meant having to sit through a whole Traviata. Especially one staged by Dieter Dorn, whose Nozze di Figaro for the Bayerische Staatsoper and Elektra for the Lindenoper are hardly my favorite productions, to put it mildly.
This evening’s Traviata did not made me change my mind. Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors, a photograph showing a skull built from seven naked bodies, is recreated live as an image in Violetta’s mirror, in the top of which there is a very drab looking brown bag supposed to be an hour glass, the sand falling on a writing table. Around it, there is a semicircular black wall with doors. It is a single set for a performance without intermission. This fact alone makes for very problematic situations: Alfredo says he does not have any fun when Violetta is not there – but she is there; Violetta says she is leaving for good, but she is still there. Since the set has almost no piece of furniture, everybody has to sit on the floor and lie down and crawl. This makes me believe that Germont, Snr., is visually challenged – Violetta is shoeless, disheveled, crouching near a wall, there is a lot of her thighs to be seen, and his opinion is “She is so ladylike”. Then he looks around at that rathole and adds “But how about a luxurious place such as this?”. In any case, one could have said: “ok, this is a very ugly Traviata; now let’s focus on everything else!”. But this would not be an easy task. There are some vey basic problems – the blocking is often nonsensical, singers are often uncomfortable with what they have to do and Yoncheva has always her arms stretched out as if she were swimming rather than walking and more than once twirls as a 6-year-old girl… in her anticipation of vortices of pleasure… I don’t want to publish a spoiler, but the death scene is truly embarrassing. Peter Mussbach’s old production was not faultless, but it is worlds apart from this one in atmosphere, Personenregie and insight.
Although I have never been keen on Daniel Barenboim’s Verdi, this evening he has set a new low in his records: to start with, the orchestral sound was so recessed, brassy and unsubtle that one could legitimately believe that the banda off stage was in charge the whole evening through. La Traviata is not one of Verdi’s most inspired examples of writing for the orchestra, and this demands an extraordinary effort from the conductor in order to produce musically and dramatically coherent and refined phrasing. The performance this evening could rather be described as mechanical in terms of rhythm, inexistent in terms of strings and non-functional in terms of expression. If one remembers that the orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is even mind-boggling. A moment that exemplifies all the faults in this evening’s performance: the emotional peak in the whole opera is the act II Amami, Alfredo: it features the musical theme of the preludes to act I and act III, it comes as a culmination of a very difficult scene with a truly wide-ranging emotional aspect and it builds up to a vocal and orchestral climax. At this point, Ms. Yoncheva was trying to balance her strengths in a passage that tests her lyric voice. But then the orchestra was still comfortably in ppp. It erupted only abruptly for one second: Amami, AlfrE (outburst from the orchestra)-edo, Amami, quanto io T’A(another outburst)-amo. The effect seemed like cannon shots rather than a crescendo. Why?!
The success of La Traviata depends on the soprano in the leading role – and these performances have a clear advantage there. Sonya Yoncheva is simply the most interesting Violetta Valéry I’ve seen on stage. She knows exactly what every note and word means and does not take any second for granted. She kept me on the edge of my seat during the whole evening by virtue of her imagination and good judgment. To make things better, her voice is interesting in itself. It is not pretty in a classical way and at moments suggests the tonal “flashness” of an Callas (albeit in a lighter and smaller version) with the technical discipline of a singer who sang Mozart and Handel: until act III her passaggio was handled with unfailing precision, not to mention that her coloratura and mezza voce are very adept. And she masters the art of tone coloring – it is a voice that can caress and kill depending on the moment. So why am I not more excited about the performance as a whole? Intelligent, stylish and well-crafted as it was, it never sounded truly sincere. This was Sonya Yoncheva singing La Traviata, and it turned around her many talents, but Violetta’s emotional journey, from the intoxicated despair of act I, via the joys of the newly discovered sense of belonging even at the expense of happiness in act II, towards depression, mourning of her own dreams and hope of spiritual bliss in act III – all this was largely absent. Since act III is also the most challenging to her voice, the lack of a “vision” made this fact very clear. All that said, it is still the most interesting Violetta I’ve seen live (and I’ve seen some very good ones) and I reckon that apter production and conducting plus more experience in the role will make it closer to what it is meant to be.
Her Alfredo was Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri. It is a very particular voice, something like: Joseph Calleja minus the vibratello, the idiomatic Italian, the imagination and the technical finish. Now being fair: he was evidently very nervous, and I am sure that the wrong notes, the frogs and the extra breath pauses probably won’t be there by the end of the run. But there already is plenty to cherish: the good taste, the mezza voce, the flexibility, the naturalness and the good size for a lyric voice. The all-round more complete performance this evening was, however, Simone Piazzola’s as Germont, père. His Renato-Bruson-like baritone may lack some volume in its higher reaches, but the style comes to him without effort and he alone seemed to have some real emotional connection with what was going on on stage, even if one might call the approach rather generalized compared to the prima donna’s meticulous understanding of her lines.
São Paulo has been called the no.1 destination in South America for classical music, mainly for its compelling symphonic orchestra (the OSESP) and its home theatre (the Sala São Paulo). Things, however, are not up to the same levels in the opera house. I saw a complete opera in the Theatro Municipal just once in my life, more than 10 years ago – and it happened to be Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The performance was nothing to be ashamed of, and it was my first encounter with Albert Dohmen, who happened to be Wolfram then. The present series of performance can boast an even more impressive cast (I’m speaking of the “premium” cast, since I was not able to see more than one evening). And singers are the redeeming feature of today’s experience.
Marion Ammann is an exemplary Elsa in terms of style, musicianship and good taste. Her creamy soprano has its instable and hooty moments, but it is mostly easy on the ear, especially in soaring mezza voce. She was aptly contrasted with the provocative Ortrud from Marianne Cornetti. Hers was an Italianate approach to the role – keen on legato, powerful in top notes, varied in tone coloring and distinctively mezzo-ish in quality. Her second act was entirely built in seduction, subtlety and intelligence. In proper circumstances, she could have offered something truly memorable. Here let’s say that it was highly commendable that – having to guess the conductor’s beat – she was able to find leeway to develop an interpretation. Tomislav Muzek was a light, firm-toned Lohengrin, with a natural tenor quality and ardent phrasing. Extremes of dynamics did not come very easily to him, but the spontaneity was more than compensation. I’ve seen Tomas Tomasson’s Telramund in Bayreuth, unfortunately not in a good day. This time we were luckier – he was in incisive voice and only showed sign of fatigue by the end of act II. He and Marianne Cornetti established a winning partnership that rescued the whole performance of its emptiness. In spite of Luiz-Ottavio Faria’s nobility of tone and volume, his King Henry could not go beyond the lack of focus and wooliness. Carlos Eduardo Marcos’s Herald too had its throaty moments.
I am afraid that there is nothing positive to report other than that. John Neschling conducted a score notorious for its sameness of tempo as squarely as possible. This was made more evident by the blatant imbalance in his orchestra: a piercing brass section saturating a sound picture with strings as good as inexistent. Woodwind were not terribly expressive either. Then there was a colossal problem of synchronicity, most seriously in what involved soloists. By the first 15 minutes it was clear that the performance was scandalously under-rehearsed. Elsa was often ahead the beat, Lohengrin would constantly look hopeless trying to figure out where he was, Ortrud and Telramund mostly conducted themselves (and proved to be more efficient than the maestro in charge, for that matter). Ensembles were often everyone-doing-their-thing. To make things more “interesting”, the chorus was short of disastrous: tenors could not produce mezza voce to save their lives (in this of all operas), sopranos produced some funny sounds and I have never heard the altos as constantly as this evening.
I first thought that Henning Brockhaus’s production was amateurish, but curiously he seems to be a professional stage director. Hmm… The first scene had the men from the chorus playing billiards, some “dancers” contorting themselves standing on chairs and people acting like zombies. Then Lohengrin appears, the swan is a grey box with feathers stuck on a black fabric. There is a curtain of brass instruments to show that Lohengrin represents a dimension of beauty and transcendence. It is replaced by a curtain of knives for the duel. Characters enter from wrong places, exit through nonsensical spots (Elsa invites Ortrud in, but they take different directions; the grey box is supposed to be the swan, but Gottfried – here a piece of marble – appears in the opposite side of the stage), cast and chorus are required to squat and lie on the floor 80% of the time… Fremdscham is the bottomline here. Wagner deserved better.
Arnold Schoenberg’s hybrid behemoth among “lyric symphonies”, Gurrelieder, finally has its Brazillian premiere. Some may find it rather overdue and – they might be right – but, given the work’s various challenges, it is rather infrequently performed even in places like Vienna or Berlin.
The OSESP has invited veteran maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky to share the honor of making history. If his love for the music is evident, those were rather the embers of an Indian summer than the flames of young love. Tempi were sluggish, soporific even in Part I, and the proceedings would acquire some animation only around Part Three. Textures could be thick, with the double disadvantage of lack of clarity and extra difficulty for singers. Balance would often leave something to be desired: the male chorus had a blurred sound, but most problematic would be the polarity loud-noisy/low-matte. That lack of development in pace and dynamic robbed the passionate outbursts of Tove and Waldemar of variety and any sense of climax.
The choice of soloists proved to be mostly frustrating in these circumstances. Jeniffer Rowley has an interesting high register: her high notes are a bit veiled, but big and firm and round. Plus she can fine them down to piano and even pianissimo. In the rest of her range, her soprano barely pierces through. Her interpretation proved to have more spirit than usual, even if the pronunciation was basically nonspecific. Christine Rice proved more efficient in a light but healthy mezzo with a pleasant velvety sound and the best diction in the afternoon. Robert Dean Smith is always musicianly and pleasant in tone, but the part requires a voice many sizes larger than his. Most of his singing was, truth be said, really hard to hear. Andreas Schmidt’s miked contribution as the narrator was done in spontaneous manner, more sung than spoke in style, and yet bot truly varied or animated.
The raw material of Manon Lescaut is passion. If you catch yourself pondering or evaluating or judging anything during a performance of Puccini’s first big success, then you can claim your money back in the box office: you’ve been defrauded. The wigs and crinolines might pose an extra challenge for the audience to reach this emotional status, but considering the plot (a girl under 18 is sentenced to transportation to the colonies for indecent behavior), one would have to use a great deal of imagination to update it in any way – my suggestion: make Manon a refugee or something like that and you might stage a very dramatic airport scene.
Director Hans Neuenfels might have a legitimate interest for opera, but does he really like it? In his stagings, his efforts are basically concentrated on trying to rescue the librettos from its bourgeois and decadent values (yes, so last century…) by replacing the setting, the dialogues or stage instructions by superficially deep statements the shadow of truth of which can be found in the libretto as it is by someone with three functional brain cells. This evening, for instance, we have the usual laboratory lighting and décors, a chorus dressed as silver-clad teletubbies with red wigs, a Manon with costumes that vary from an outfit tailor-made for a missionary to those of a make-up sales-assistant in a department story, not to mention that the physical attraction here is left to imagination (although both singers in the leading roles have some chemistry going on between them). Considering the credentials involved, I was expecting a particularly repelling Geronte or a powerful deportation scene, but it was all very sanitized under cold lighting.
One could say – there is still Puccini’s music to make it all work. Not so fast, I am afraid. Faced with a lightweight cast, conductor Alain Altinoglu made everything in his powers to provide some orchestral lushness within the limits of restricted volume. He was often successful, but at the point he reached the intermezzo the whole calculation exercise proved too well-behaved: the crescendo was so managed and groomed that the climax just did not happen (you can imagine how the sexual depiction in the act II duet felt like…). Although the circumstances in the video from the Covent Garden were not exactly ideal, Giuseppe Sinopoli had it permanently on white heat, forcing Kiri Te Kanawa out of her comfort zone into the arms of an ideally inspired Plácido Domingo.
The fact that Kristine Opolais is no Renata Tebaldi is not a tragedy per se – many famous Manons weren’t either (the discography alone shows names of sopranos who sang Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, such as Licia Albanese or Mirella Freni). However – I am not old enough to vouch for Albanese – Freni’s mezzo forte would eat Opolais’s fortissimo for breakfast. What I “heard” today was a voice opaque in color, limited in volume and highly manipulated in both ends of her range. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to speak of any interpretation or even musical values (a high rate of false entries make it even more doubtful). I would say this is not her repertoire and will never be, but her biography says she is an Aida, a Butterfly… Hmm…
On paper, Jonas Kaufmann – in spite of the baritonal color or his tenor – is a bit on the light side for Des Grieux, but that was not at all a disadvantage – his tenor, as a whole, is sizeable enough for the part and he withstood the demands of some of the most testing passages in the score with admirable stamina. Anyway, this is not what I want to write about his performance; the reason why it rescued the whole evening from its rigor mortis was the fact that he sings it more interestingly than anybody else. Every little phrase is sung to the complete rendition of both its musical and dramatic values, by means of his customary control of dynamics and legato – all that without any hint of affectation and with real gusto for Italian style. Markus Eiche is an unexpected piece of casting as Lescaut. Although some high notes are tense and straight in sound, he sounded quite idiomatic in it. The voice lacks a bit volume – especially in his low register – but he compensated by incisive delivery of the text and his animation.