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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.
I have reread everything I’ve written about Don Carlos here in order to avoid repeating myself, but the fact is: I cannot. So I’ll sum it up: it is an opera that does not work by itself; it requires, therefore, a dream team (including stage director, orchestra and conductor) to develop its uniquely dark and oppressing atmosphere; this dream team never exists, even in legendary recordings, but opera houses should not accept this as inevitable and understand that it is something special (as in “if you see it as routine, better give up”). Now let’s speak of this evening’s performance.
Although I am very much surprised by Asher Fisch’s pulse, alertness and tension-building – he should try all of that in Wagner and R. Strauss – tiny miscalculations undermined too many key moments. First he seemed partial to a big orchestral sound, but then he seemed to believe that clarity and rich strings were incompatible until he finally seemed to have decided that his cast would prefer lower dynamics. Act V – we had the Italian 5-act versions – was basically a misfire in terms of conducting. When you have the Bavarian State Orchestra, you have everything you need to transport the audience to the overwhelming massiveness of San Jerónimo de Yuste in time for Elisabetta’s aria. Today, the strings had the ideal roundness of sound, but that basically did not build up in intensity. Then the poor soprano had to tackle the famously dangerous intervals of the aria without the “orchestral cushion” that would envelope her sound to form the ideal blend of a single musical statement. Her pleas to have her tears reported in heaven received a sprightly accompaniment that made one think of Amelia Boccanegra enjoying patrician life in the shores of Genova. Nothing compares to the closing of the opera – the ghost of Charles V appears, Amelia is terrified and then… then when I realized, it was over. One could barely notice that! If a conductor does not find it cataclysmic that the ghost of a dead emperor raise from the tomb to rescue his grandson from the hands of one of the most powerful monarchs of the earth and a gruesome fanatical religious leader, then what again is he doing there? If I cannot put across my meaning, just grab any of Karajan’s recordings to hear what I am talking about.
When it comes to staging, I have already accepted that all contemporary productions of Don Carlos look exactly the same: simplified historical costumes, minimalistic and monochromatic sets turning around the idea of a cross and no Personenregie to speak of. I find it all so petty and cheap and banal that my very soul craves to see Agnes Baltsa looking and moving racée as hell in her impossibly wrought dress in the gigantesque sets of the Grosses Festspielhaus. Of course, I would like to move on, but directors have not helped me so far. In any case, I would like to give Jürgen Rose the benefit of the doubt. This production was premiered in 2000 and this is the first time I see it. I once had a conversation with a stage director specialized in opera who was candid enough to say that he often had to deal with famous singers not willing to learn the concept and basically wanting to know where they enter from and exit through. This seems to be an accurate description of this performance: the body language of practically every soloist was wrong (nobody bowed to the king and queen, he often had to pick objects on the ground himself, Rodrigo demanded Carlo a sword he already had taken from him, Rodrigo does not kneel to be knighted, touching ladies during conversation seem to be standard practice etc), blocking was nonsensical and chaotic and there were many embarrassing moments where singers just stopped and looked around in a “what now?”-attitude. This would have not worked in a performance of Carmen or La Bohème for tourists, let alone in a difficult Schiller-adaptation of a story involving historical, philosophical, political and religious issues.
Anja Harteros is the exception to the stage awkwardness – she has an innate ability to portray aristocratic characters, moving with great dignity, doing beautiful, meaningful gestures and responding to the dramatic situations of the plot. Of course, real direction would have made her even more compelling, but in terms of theatre, she was this evening a beacon in the darkness. To make things better, she sang famously too. This is a role that poses her no difficulties and, if she is still not the most Italianate of sopranos, she has clearly made a serious effort in that direction. If you think that nobody else sings this so beautifully and interestingly as she does these days, that’s a win-win situation. The other German singer in the cast, René Pape, has also made a serious exercising in Italianizing himself. I find this performance a complete improvement in terms of style since I last saw him in this role in the Schiller-Theater in Berlin. He was in superb and commanding voice – and I cannot think of someone better equipped for this part today – and yet he still sounds a bit calculating and not truly trusting the power of Verdi’s melodic imagination in his big aria. In this sense, the only Italian in the cast, young baritone Simone Piazzola, offered a lesson of how you infuse emotion in this repertoire essentially by the quality of vocal production. In his death scene, his control of vibrato to increase expression shows that he knows Piero Cappuccilli’s performances (as heard in many recordings with Karajan, for instance). This is a voice of the right color and range for this repertoire, but I am afraid that volume is still a bit on the light side, especially in his lower register.
Anna Smirnova is a singer I saw before she became a household name. Although her all-out approach was reckless, it was also exciting in a very raw way. Since then, she has become more self-controlled, but also less powerful, less tonally rich in her middle range – and her diction is becoming indistinct. She could nonetheless pull out an O don fatale very easy in high notes and surprisingly close to what is written in the score. Tenor Alfred Kim’s dependability and cleanliness of phrasing made for a not truly engaging tonal quality – grainy and slightly nasal – and lack of squillo to pierce through in his high notes. Although Don Carlos is not considered one of Verdi’s most difficult roles, it is curious how rarely one listens to a truly convincing performance from a tenor in it. Last time I saw Rafal Siwek in this opera, he was Filippo – here he is back to the usual casting as the Inquisitor, where the sheer size of his voice is an undeniable asset, even if he is not truly vehement or frightening in it.
There have been so many words written about Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2007 production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin for the Bavarian State Opera that I wonder if there is anything left to say. In any case, the production has been nicknamed “Brokeback Onegin”, and there is no ill will in the joke: the director does acknowledge the reference, not only to Ang Lee’s movie, but also to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I would add something of Elias Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in the way the young Tatyana is portrayed (and I guess that a reference to Natalia Zakharenko – a.k.a. Natalie Wood – is not out of place here). The cinematographic references are hardly what the nay-sayers complained about – but the fact that the fact that Tchaikovsky’s own homosexuality here stands for the reason why shirtless cowboys do everything but lap-dance Onegin just after he has killed Lensky. On choosing this wording, I mean that many of those who dislike the production probably do not find problem in suggestion that there is more than friendship in the feeling between the two leading male characters in the plot. Even if Pushkin did not envisage that, this perspective is compatible with a plot in which the young poet rages and – most puzzlingly – vilifies his adored Olga without much reason while Onegin accepts the provocation that leads him to kill his only friend instead of acting with the kind of condescension typical of his haughty personality (as we have seen in his reaction to Tatyana’s letter). I even believe that the staging has grounds to put the matter in a more than “Platonic” way; the part I don’t go along with is the premise that both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky could have done better, that they got the second act all wrong and that the third act is a mistake that had to be corrected. I am sorry, but the only misjudged thing in Pushkin’s life was the duel – the real-life one that got him killed way too young. Tatyana’s refusal of Onegin is the culminating scene of the book and the opera – and the Lensky/Olga situation is the main step that took them to that point. I am not a cynical person – call me silly if you want – but I appreciate Tatyana’s decision to be faithful to herself and what she stands for (even if one does not share her beliefs). And I say all this having found the cavorting cowboys far less camp than the ballet numbers usually seen in the third act.
I always say that Onegin is the opera I’ve been most often lucky with: last time I saw it Mariss Jansons was conducting the Concertgebouw. My very high records with it made me difficult to feel happy about Leo Hussain’s conducting this evening. By saying this I do not mean it was bad, but rather that it did not bring me any satisfaction. It lacked the fundamental sense of sustained and increasing tension, some of Tchaikovsky’s famous emotional passages were played without any conviction, the orchestral sound lacked warmth and apparently the chorus could not really understand the conductor’s beat. I also have the impression – especially in the girls/boys quartet in act I – that soloists were basically doing their thing. I will never forget the exemplary sense of control and demi tintes that Jiri Belohlavek achieved at the Met with Mattila, Semenchuk, Bechala and Hampson – and what I heard today it miles away from that experience. And one cannot fault his cast.
This is the first time I see Anna Netrebko in a Russian opera and it seems that it is true that one has always an extra sparkle in the repertoire of his or her own country. She sang with extraordinary richness of tone in her whole range, tackled the exposed high notes roundly and without hesitation and gave a lesson in how to tell apart act I Tatyana and act III Tatyana just by the sound of her voice. The Letter Scene – where a most compelling conductor would have done all the difference in the world – she could find unusual alertness to the changes of mood (and there are many). Brava. It was more than a lucky coincidence that she could find a top-notch Olga in Alisa Kolosova, the best I have seen live, her mezzo ideally young-sounding with judiciously used reserves of depth in her low notes. Also, she knows exactly what kind of woman her character is. Brava anche lei. Since I last saw him, Pavol Breslik has grown immensely in the role of Lensky. It is still a light voice for the part, but the lightness is now used entirely in his favor, in phrasing of Mozartian poise and ductility, not to mention that he has developed in strength to deal with the most outspoken passages.
There is much to admire in Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin – he sings with sense of style, an unmistakably baritonal sound and commitment. He does seem a little tired in the last scene, but so are most singers in this part. And yet I missed the sheer chic a great Onegin exudes in acts I and II and the truly spiritual exhaustion in act III. The intent to portray this is there, but I have the impression that a voice of more depth and weight is required to fully accomplish that. Günther Groissböck, on the other hand, has the voice for Prince Gremin, but his aria was sung too objectively, the mellifluous legato a Russian bass would never fail to employ there largely missing.
The Théâtre de l’Archevêché has for the opera-goer the appeal of being the place where Teresa Stich-Randall sang her Mozart roles, where Régine Crespin sang her Ariadne, where Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey appeared together in Rossini’s Semiramide… I had never attended any performance there before and was very much surprised by its unfavorable acoustics: voices and orchestra are denied any bloom and the aural picture gives a metallic low-fi impression. I was wondering how someone could perform Mozart there – but then I remember that those were the days when people like Pilar Lorengar, Anna Moffo and Rolando Panerai sang Mozart. Those days are sadly gone. In any case, I strongly recommend anyone who is seeing Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to forget that people like Margaret Price, Francisco Araiza or Kurt Moll have ever existed.
As it is, this evening’s performance is quite well cast for the present standards of Mozartian singing. If these singers had sung this in the Opernhaus Zürich or at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées, it would have been quite satisfying. In the Archevêché’s unfriendly open-air venue however, one felt often short-changed. Soprano Jane Archibald, had the advantage of a very bright sound that runs into the “auditorium” without problems. Although the voice is not appealing per se and a bit light for the part, she tackles the long range without any problem and her coloratura is almost flawless. Some of her runs sounded almost new to my ears in their accuracy (in very fast tempo). As much as the leading tenor, she was made to sing an edition without many of the internal cuts usually heard in theatres and many recordings. Ms. Archibald grew steadily in strength during the performance: Ach, ich liebte sounded a bit grainy and not ideally focused, Traurigkeit could have done the extra mile of loveliness, but Martern aller Arten really sounded as if she had really lost it (and that’s rare) and her singing was simply exquisite and sensitive in the duet with the tenor. Her Blonde, Rachele Gilmore, too could pierce through the dry acoustics, but the sound was often… piercing, legato left a lot to be desired and her German is artificial. Truth be said, she has the voice for the part and by the way she won the competition with Osmin over their low notes in their duet, she might develop into “bigger” things.
Daniel Behle was announced indisposed and one could see he took a long time to warm. He is a very stylish Mozartian, with a dulcet tone and reasonable flexibility. When I saw his Tamino in Berlin, I could not help appreciating the elegance and musicianship, but the vocal production is a bit manipulated and complicated in a, let’s say, German way. The high register has neither brightness nor naturalness and is generally dealt with mezza voce (which he does beautifully). When he really has to sing out, the result is labored and dry. In another theatre and healthier conditions, he might pull off a charming performance. Today, he understandably made do, but I’ll retain a very lyric and pleasant Ich baue ganz. He was partnered by a very good Pedrillo in David Portillo, maybe the all-round best performance of the evening. He sang both arias very well – and that’s new in my experience of watching this opera at the theatre. Franz-Josef Selig sand the part of Osmin in all performances but this evening’s, and I am sad I could not see him in it. His replacement, Mischa Schelomianski, did a quite decent job. It is a pleasant, full-toned voice and he generally seemed to know his way through a Mozartian phrase. Except when things get very difficult. Then it was just ok. This is already better than most, one must concede him.
I had very high expectations for Jérémie Rhorer, especially after his brilliant Clemenza did Tito last year in Paris. If I had not seen the Freiburger Barockorchester in such terrific form yesterday, I would have misjudged this performance. I do not sincerely think that a period-instrument orchestra should not perform in a venue with such problematic acoustics. The sound was basically juiceless and – in the “Turkish” moments – one could basically hear drums and a collection of wiry sounds. It took me a while to get used to that and truly see what Rhorer and his musicians were doing. But once I got there, it was worth the while. First, I will say what bothered me – the fortepiano (it did not spoil the fun, but why?) and some overfast tempi that made singers spit German consonants in a sorry way. Other than this, the fact that one can hear the violas in the Overture already offered hope. His understanding of how woodwind should blend with the singers is everything a Mozartian could dream, but best of all is the structural clarity that makes every element of every number make sense as part of a whole, not only musically but theatrically. There were so many moments in which well-known passages revealed new meanings that I only felt more frustrated for not being to hear this in proper circumstances.
I leave Martin Kusej’s heartily booed production for last. Although I have no problem per se with relating Die Entführung aus dem Serail with contemporary Middle East issues other than the fact that many people in Europe have more concerns with the problem in thesis than with the people who live in neighborhoods in their town they would rather not pass through, I do have a problem with poorly directed stagings such as this one. First, I dislike the concept that the director is cleverer than the composer. Mozart was, indeed, not satisfied with the libretto at first and he imposed changes to make it acceptable. Case closed. The director has to make it happen – and replacing the dialogues just proves he could not do that. Especially with the pseudo-serious, awkward and alienating text used as Ersatz here. Second, the director has this idea – Konstanze et al are prisoners of a 1920’s Middle-East warlord who is sick of the incipient but regrettable Western interference in the region’s problems and there cannot be a happy ending for that (Osmin does not exactly carry out Pasha Selim’s final instructions…) – and he is so happy about it that he feels his job is done. For instance, Konstanze is musing about her lost love. Then a group of heavily-armed warriors surround her and start to grope her. Would you keep thinking “Ah, Belmonte, how I miss you…?” in that situation? Example 2: Blondchen is trying to avoid being raped by Osmin. She threatens him and he finally seems to give up. Would you find this the right moment to jump onto him and ride him while saying “You’ll see if you keep trying to harass me”? Example three: Pedrillo explains to Osmin that the wine he is going to serve him has been stolen from the Pasha*. Osmin says “well, I am forbidden to drink, but don’t tell anyone”. Then, all other warriors appear and everybody decide to steal the rest of the wine from their master while Osmin just forgets that he had just said that nobody could know – especially because it is against the law there. Third, there is this black humor made at the expense of the story some Regietheater directors are fond of: here Belmonte et al run away through the desert and are overcome with exhaustion and thirst à la Manon Lescaut. Then Pedrillo starts to sing Im Mohrenland. Belmonte gathers his forces to say: Oh, Pedrillo, this is lovely. Carry on! At least, Tobias Moretti seemed to find some sense in what he was required to do as Bassa Selim. I used to watch Komissar Rex and found it nice to see him on stage.
*In the original libretto there is no explanation about the origin of the wine. Since Belmonte has a ship nearby, one understands he brought it with him.