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In his program for a Mozart Matinée concert in the Mozarteum’s Grosser Saal, Raphaël Pichon has concocted a program of pieces by Mozart himself and contemporary composers such as Martín y Soler, Salieri and Paisiello that somehow led the Salzburg-born composer towards the creation of his Da Ponte operas. The program was therefore organized in three parts, one related to Le Nozze di Figaro, the other to Don Giovanni and finally one to Così Fan Tutte. As well as shedding some interesting light on the creation of these masterpieces (the relation between Paisiello’s cavatina for the Count Almaviva and Cherubino’s Voi che sapete being the best example), the concert offered the opportunity of hearing upcoming young singers in this repertoire.

I had never heard Claire de Sevigné’s voice before and I am afraid I was not very impressed. The program says she sings the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, but the lack of brightness, the reduced volume and the smeared coloratura made it hard to believe. She sang an orchestral adaptation of Myslevecek’s Ridente la calma, but the final impression was of extreme paleness. Siobhan Stagg’s voice too lacks substance and was too light for the big concert aria for Josepha Duscek (the first Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito) Bella mia fiamma, but she acquitted herself quite decently. I had heard Léa Desandre sing music written for the contralto voice and found it puzzling to hear her so soprano-like in tone in items like Vado, ma dove? and Chi sà, chi sà qual sia? Although she seemed uninvolved and a bit careful in everything she sang, her voice, if on the small side, sounded appealing in a reedy way and very flexible. Tenor Mauro Peter has a disarmingly velvety tone and sing affectingly, but is essentially incapable of projecting anything above high f in the hall. He sang an item Francisco Araiza happened to perform in the same hall some decades ago – Per pietà non ricercate – and the Mexican’s tenor firm and forceful high notes are worlds apart of what one (did not) hear today. Bass baritone Robert Gleadow is a regular in Mozart performances in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées, and I had the opportunity to hear him there a couple of times. I am not really fond of his metallic, open-toned singing, but he is a funny guy. I left the best for last, Huw Montague Rendall made dad and mom (mezzo Diana Montague and tenor David Rendall) proud in his rich, firm-toned singing. He is in his mid-twenties and is on his way of having an important career in this repertoire.

If I have to be honest, the shining feature of this concert was the brilliant playing of the Mozarteum orchestra (natural horns and trumpets) under Mr. Pichon’s exemplary conducting – everything sparkled in his ebullient, transparent and structurally coherent approach. If the spirit of Mozart still haunts his birthplace, he certainly recognized his music today.

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Cherubini’s Médée’s claim to fame has less to do with Beethoven’s interest in the Italian composer’s orchestral narrative writing but rather Maria Callas’s assumption of the title role (in its Italian version with recitatives). It is not difficult to understand why a singing actress would be interested in it – once Medea is on stage, the show is about her and the way Cherubini devised the part makes little concession to vocal narcissism. It is a Kunstdiva role through and through. This does not mean that you don’t need exceptional soloists to complete the cast – both the parts of Jason and Dircé are high lying and fairly exposed. And the orchestra does not give singers a rest.

I have to be honest: although I recognize the historical importance of Cherubini’s Médée, I cannot really say that I like it. I am unable to find a melodic genius behind this score, which does not strike me as harmonically profound either. And its nervous, relentless orchestra is so uniformly busy that, in the ends, it gives me the impression rather of fidgetiness than of intensity. In any case, the Schwerpunkt of a performance of Médée should be the way the TEXT is colored by these singers’ declamatory powers against the backdrop of the orchestral filigree. And that is why I find the Salzburg Festspiele’s effort self-defeating. First of all, the Grosses Festspielhaus is the wrong venue for an opera like this. In its huge stage and big auditorium, the text is largely lost. Cherubini makes it even more difficult by having most of Médée’s music in the most uncongenial part of the soprano voice – and most of Jason’s in the less comfortable part of the tenor’s voice. Having to project over the Vienna Philharmonic – even reined-in by Thomas Hengelbrock’s “historically informed” conducting – these singers’ last concern was textual clarity. This fact alone made this evening’s performance pointless.

To make things worse, not one singer in the cast seemed truly idiomatic in the language of Corneille and Racine. I understand that the original casting of Sonya Yoncheva in the title role was these performances’ raison d’être: the Bulgarian soprano is a capable actress with a very distinctive voice and long experience in French roles under the approval of French audiences. I cannot say the same about Elena Stikhina. If her voice is more powerful than Yoncheva’s (and therefore more appropriate to the large hall), the glory of this Russian soprano is not its lower and middle register. As a result, most of the text was lost to the public and, when you could indeed make out what she was saying, it hardly sounded flashing and formidable as it should. The tonal quality itself is appealing in its blend of metal and velvet, but, in spite of all her commitment, she is not the woman for the task. I knew Rosa Feola exclusively from recordings and, judging by what I heard today, she must have not been in very good voice. There was unexpected tension in her high notes and her phrasing sounded graceless and unaffecting. I will have to hear her again before I form my opinion. I had low expectations about Pavel Cernoch’s Jason. As written above, this is a high-lying part, and it did not flatter Mr. Cernoch’s tight upper register. His voice sounded bottled-up and rough-edged. He did not give an amorous impression in his scenes with Dircé and was overshadowed by Ms. Stikhina’s more exuberant instrument. Vitalij Kowaljow’s large bass baritone made all the difference in the world as Créon. I certainly understand the temptation of hearing Cherubini’s Medea in capital letters with a big orchestra. But then you’ll really need the likes of Maria Callas, Renata Scotto and Jon Vickers to make it happen.

Under Mr. Hengelbrock’s disciplinarian baton, the Vienna Philharmonic hardly sounded Beethovenian, but played with animation and clarity throughout – the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor also deserves praise for its rich yet precise singing.

At any rate, even if the musical performance had offered everything the listener could hope for, Simon Stone’s superficial and extravagant staging is the one who put the bullet in the heart of this opera. In its kitsch, realistic and various sets, the story of Medea is reduced to soap opera depth and the caliber of this most shocking of classical tragedies is reduced to the immigration agenda. Here, Medea is a Russian bride who hit jackpot living the wonders of bourgeois life with a rich and handsome husband, until she finds that he has another woman. Then she has to return to her shitty hometown (where she has to use an internet cafe when there is no shortage of power) to realize that it is unfair – dove sono i bei momenti by the lake, the expensive kitchen appliances? She only needs an episode of public embarrassment by immigration authorities on  returning to her alpine paradise to settle things with her ex, before she decides that enough is enough, the kids will have to die. That plot has very little to do with Medea, who never was simply a housewife to start with. In Mr. Stone’s view, it all sounds dangerously close to a warning against marrying crazy foreign women. When things go wrong, they won’t give up before you’ll have to call the police. Seriously? And I have to say that the closing acts are anticlimactic as they can be. In the original plot, Dircé is burnt to death in a cursed dress – and here she is just stabbed. Yes, stabbed. Considering that knives already existed in the days of Euripides and Seneca, if the idea were having such a prosaic death scene, a knife would have been chosen, wouldn’t it? The final scene first looks as if you’re going to have an extraordinary pyrotechnic special effect, but it seems that the budget had already been used up by then. Boo.

In these performances, all dialogues have been deleted, some of them replaced by messages from Medea in Jason’s cellphone, the text written by the director.

When I saw Peter Sellars and Teodor Currentzis’s take on Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito for the Salzburger Festspiele two years ago, I wrote that both stage director and conductor suffered from excess of ideas – and that, regardless of how good one’s ideas are, you cannot stage an idea. If it does not work scenically, then it belongs exclusively to the booklet sold by the usher when you get to the theater.

Although the above mentioned production’s success is debatable, the ideas were thought-provoking and, in the end, you really wished the whole concept worked in terms of theatre. I am not sure about their Idomeneo, though. When I entered the Felsenreitschule and saw the stage covered with inflatable plastic props, I thought it all looked like plastic pollution. Little did I know that, well, it was plastic pollution. At least, that is what the Dramaturg says in the booklet. I’ll take his word for it. I would later discover that plastic was not the only useless stuff washed ashore in Crete. There was Idomeneo himself too, but let’s talk about that later. What we see here is this timeless place covered with gigantic jellyfish-like plastic structures and the police separating the orange-uniform team from the blue-uniform team. As the policemen seemed to obey the people in blue, we could guess that the Trojan guys were the orange team. When Idomeneo endly shows up, he does not get a blue uniform like everybody else, he gets a military one, just like Arbace’s. So far, although there are dangerous levels of choristers doing cute steps as if they survived not from the Trojan War, but from the sixth season of Glee, the story seems to be exactly the one in Giambattista Varesco’s libretto, what could be a notable thing. However, my Italian neighbors kept complaining that, at La Scala, there were sand, rocks, waves, ships and people who looked like a royal family. But that impression was soon to be dismissed. Since the edition adopted by Mr. Currentzis involved an amazing level of cuts, there was a moment when it was impossible to understand the story anymore. I happen to like the scene when Idamante realizes that his father avoids him not because of disgust, but as an attempt to spare him of a gruesome fate and, having his confidence restored, volunteers his own princely neck to save the good people of Crete. I am afraid I’ll have to wait for another staging to see all that. Here Idamante is not urged to sacrifice anything; Neptune just needs to see him and Ilia together and, overwhelmed by the power of love, grants  them the throne and retrieves the kraken he had released before.

Although I found Mr. Sellars’s concept really frustrating (the sets were all right often beautiful and more integrated to the huge stage of the Felsenreitschule than those used in his Clemenza di Tito), I have to say that Mr. Currentzis’s contribution to the show tested my patience. First, the constant nipping and tucking did not make a long opera seem shorter, especially with the inclusion of music from Thamos, König in Ägypten (which worked fine nonetheless) and the concert aria Non temer, amato bene (the one with the piano), a piece Mozart never intended to include in this opera and whose dramatic voltage is such that makes one understand why Mozart called it a CONCERT aria. Second, there were pauses, long, disturbing, disruptive, disfiguring, uncalled for, annoying. I guess Mozart knew quite well when he wanted a pause in his music – those are the moments where he WROTE them in the score. Mr. Currentzis seemed especially happy to employ these gigantic pauses whenever the composer intended a dramatic contrast, entirely lost these afternoon to an audience who could barely remember what happened hours before each pause. Third, there were the nonsensical tempi. Everything tended to be slow in a way one could barely feel the pulse of the music anymore. Idol mio alone felt as if it lasted three hours and a half. Unless when the conductor decided it had to be fast – Tutta nel cor mi sento felt like it lasted three seconds. No wonder poor Elettra said she needed some time off in the depths of the underworld to get things a little bit clearer in her mind. Some numbers, even in correct tempo, were so short in atmosphere and theatricality – O voto tremendo could easily be mistaken by a number in La Finta Giardiniera today. Although the musicAeterna chorus sang with remarkable clarity and homogeneity, the impression was that they were singing long stretches of sacred music.

The Freiburger Barockorchester played well (woodwind particularly virtuosistic), but in the expanses of the Felsenreitschule, it sounded undernourished, more so in the lethargic tempi used by the conductor. I don’t know if the orchestra was kept under leash to spare the singers or if instruments and voices were together victimized by the venue’s difficult acoustics. Not one singer in the cast seemed truly at ease projecting in the auditorium. Ying Fang’s lovely soprano sounded a bit modest in terms of size, and her habit of resorting to mezza voce whenever the line is too exposed made her Ilia a bit pale and low-cal. She is ideally stylish and natural sounding, and I bet that in ideal conditions she could be exemplary in this role. Nicole Chevalier’s pure-toned and soft-centered soprano made me think that maybe Ilia would be her role, but – even if the results were hardly electrifying – her D’Oreste, d’Ajacce hit home somehow, rather by dramatic engagement than by vocal exuberance. Paula Murrihy too sang with knowledge of style and intelligence, but the voice itself is rather indistinctive and tonally unvaried. I could not help thinking of how Marianne Crebassa, Sesto two years ago, would have helped to lend this performance some profile. I still do not understand the idea behind casting Russell Thomas in Mozartian roles. He is ill at ease with the style, stresses all the wrong Italian syllables, is heavy handed with fioriture (even in the simplified version of his aria) and was in really unfocused voice, to make things worse. I  do not understand either the point of hiring the promising Rossinian tenor Levy Sekgapane NOT to sing any of Arbace’s florid music. Finally, Issacchah Savage’s Grand Priest of Neptune sounded juicier of voice than his Idomeneo.

Truth be said, the ballet music was my favorite moment of today’s performance. First, the orchestra offered its best playing under Mr. Currentzis’s really alert beat. And, yes, I liked the Samoan dancers. Their choreography matched the music really well, and their understated movements looked like the exotic version of Classical inutilia truncat. It felt that this was an example of how things could have worked well shorn of the prevailing cuteness and pretentiousness.

“Die Zeit, sie ist ein sonderbar Ding”, says the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and, although the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos repeatedly speaks of her mental confusion, it would be only normal if she had no idea about what time it is in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play. The libretto places the action in the days of Molière, the intermezzo performed in the play a mythological setting. As it is, the lucky audience who attended the Viennese première in 1916 saw a prologue set three centuries earlier and the “opera” in the aesthetics of the XVIIth Century (as mythological plays used to be staged back then). R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos has been increasingly staged with the prologue set in our days, what sheds a different light over the proceedings. In Hofmannsthal’s original concept, the characters in the prologue would not see the genre opera as something decadent. On the contrary, in the days of Molière it was quite avant-garde, especially in Paris, where it was in the core of the debate about a national style of musical theatre.

In Marcelo Lombadero’s new production for the Teatro Colón, however, opera is shown at its most caricaturally decadent – wigs, panniers, stock gestures. The fact that the director has decided that Zerbinetta and her troupe rescue the opera seria from its outdatedness is, therefore, intriguing.  Commedia dell’arte is only a bit more recent than opera – and I wonder if Hofmannsthal considered that his libretto had to do with an obsolete art form being rescued by contemporary sensibilities. Actually, a contemporary Zerbinetta would find the whole affair around “The Unfaithful Zerbinetta and her four suitors” the stuff of museums. That is precisely why I find Mr. Lombadero’s régie anachronistic: here the Composer is a woman and I anticipated that her duet with Zerbinetta would be something of a revelation to her. Remember: after that, the Composer says he(she) sees things entirely differently, that the depths of existence cannot be measured and that there is much in the world that cannot be said in words. Well, here the composer just gives Zerbinetta a sisterly hug and a “thanks for sharing” facial expression. I guess that everybody found that this is more conservative than the genre opera itself.

Curiously, Mr. Lombadero’s staging of the opera inside the opera was very satisfying in its creativity, provided if you shared the view of “the richest man in Vienna”, i.e., that the tragic and the comic should be staged simultaneously at any cost. Here the director never let Ariadne’s rediscovery of love involve the audience – this has been drowned in comedy and overbusiness. In the end, one could see that the director really agrees with the Dance Master and tried to save Strauss’s exquisite concoction from boredom through a generous dose of slapstick.

Conductor Alejo Pérez too did not indulge the score’s late Romanticism, but his objective eye had the perks of structural clarity, a minor advantage in the context of poor orchestral playing. Strings sounded wiry and intonation was far from faultless, to start with. The very irregular cast was redeemed by the serio characters. Carla Filipcic Holm, whom I had seen as the Feldmarschallin in São Paulo, offered a compelling performance of the title role. Hers is a very peculiar voice – if you put Gundula Janowitz and Alessandra Marc in a blender, maybe you’d get something close to the Argentinian soprano’s voice. A lyric soprano, Ms. Holm has enough volume and heft for the more dramatic passages and floats pianissimo at will. Her diction could be clearer, but her sense of style and sensitivity are undeniable assets. She was a bit tested by the low tessitura, but had no problem with long phrases and proved to be one of the most satisfying Ariadnes I have seen live in the theatre. This is something I cannot unfortunately say of this evening’s Zerbinetta. Ekaterina Lekhina’s grainy and unfocused soprano was barely hearable in the prologue. In her big aria, she showed some improvement and handled trills adeptly, but she fought with her in alts and is definitely not legato’s best friend. For someone who had been billed as a mezzo, Jennifer Holloway sounded quite juiceless in her low notes. Her voice lacked radiance throughout and she did not project as she should when things got high and loud. In her favor, the fact that she handled the more exposed passages forcefully and could scale down for the more lyric passages too. The three ladies left nothing to be desired in terms of acting.

At first, Gustavo López Manzitti’s Bacchus sounded labored and overdark, but he rose impressively to the challenges in his difficult part, supplying big round high notes. Hernán Iturralde sang richly and securely as the Music Master and Pablo Urban was an incisive and funny dance Master.

The Theatro São Pedro is São Paulo’s other opera house. It is a small auditorium, the size of an European baroque theatre. The acoustics are very good too. Although the budget is limited, their productions (I have seen two so far) are similar to what one would see in a provincial German opera house, and the orchestra is quite good for South American standards.

It is hardly the theatre’s fault that casting an opera in Brazil is something of an adventure. The level of voice teaching is below standard, the market for professional opera singers is restricted and most young tenors and sopranos are here trained to be Radames and Aida even if they have voices for Handel or Bach. That is the reason I decided not to write a review the last time I attended a performance there. Although everything else was acceptable (or more than that), the singing was simply depressing.

I have always enjoyed seeing Luisa Francesconi, especially in Mozart, and I was curious to hear her as Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito. So I have decided to try my luck. Although her high notes have lost a bit of the impetuosity missing in the stretta of Parto, ma tu bem mio, she did not disappoint me in a stylish and expressive performance. She was not immune to the prevailing lassitude this afternoon and shone rather in moments like Deh per questo istante solo.

Her Vitellia, Gabriella Pace, has the kind of voice one calls a Mozart soprano. It is bell-toned and able to phrase with instrumental poise, provided things are not fast or high or loud or a combination of those. In moments like that, the voice develops an acidulous edge that can verge on stridency. As a result, a great deal of what Mozart wrote sounded like “acting with the voice” today. In her defense, she can claim to deal with the low notes better than most sopranos of her type. And she has temper to spare, especially in a staging that requires constant evil laughter.

Actually, it was quite confusing to hear a Servilia (Marly Montoni) whose voice sounded more Vitellia-ish in sound.  I understand Ms. Montoni – in spite of an attractive rich and dark vocal quality – would be uncomfortable singing a part like that with a backwards placement that stands between her and ideal projection and clear phrasing. She was well-partnered by Luciana Bueno, a velvety-toned Annio who gained in strength during the performance.

Caio Duran’s Tito displayed very good divisions and ideal clarity of diction. His voice lacks high overtones and his approach to high notes can be touch-and-go. What bothered me, though, was the Brazilian flavor of his Italian – and a tendency to stress the wrong syllables and ignore double consonants. Saulo Javan’s resonant, round-toned Publio could have stolen the show if Mozart had given him a little bit more to work with.

Conductor Felix Krieger was capable of eliciting a Mozartian sound from his orchestra and generally kept good balance between sections and also with his singers, but his hesitant conducting compromised any possibility of drama. His reluctance to attack was such that you could go to the restroom, buy a soda and drink it between the end of an accompagnato and the beginning of the aria.

Caetano Vilela’s staging centered around Vitellia and if you overlook the evil laughing, he and Ms. Pace were able to build convincing dramatic development  for that character. Everything else was more or less in shadows. The scaffolding used as scenic element does not make much sense or add to the atmosphere, but did not spoil the fun either. On the other hand, Fause Hauten’s anachronistic and incoherent costumes were really confusing. For a Roman setting, the fact that everybody had a beard (the girls en travesti especially) did not help much. Sesto and Annio looked like twins and their oriental-flavored costumes (among choristers in togas) were especially nonsensical.

The fact that the Matthäus-Passion is Bach’s largest and greatest choral work has encouraged many a conductor to produce performances in large scale, especially in the context of symphonic halls. When we come to the subject of the original forces under the composer’s supervision, it is difficult to be precise of what is large and what is small in terms of number of people involved. The experience of hearing it in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig convinced me that a choir as big as the one used today would be impractical in the church’s resonant acoustics.

But this afternoon’s concert took place in the Sala São Paulo and the orchestra at hand was the OSESP. Under these circumstances,  conductor Nathalie Stutzmann must be praised by the reasonable decisions made for these events. First, she has not tried to emulate period-instrument sonorities and yet was able to keep it lean and clean. Second, that did not prevent her from adopting a dance-oriented approach, with sharply defined rhythms, firmly bass-rooted. Things did not run always smoothly: O Mensch bewein dein Sünden groß  was a bit all over the place and the orchestra sounded challenged with the (at the fast beat chosen by the conductor ) sprightly figures in the strings in Mache dich.

Although sopranos and altos lacked tone,  the OSESP chorus acquitted itself quite well, crystal-clear articulation was a bit beyond the possibilities allowed by the context of these concerts. What is remarkable is Ms. Stutzmann’s ability to inspire the chorus to give the chorale numbers a wide expressive palette.

Finding the right Bachian singers for a large hall is always tricky, and this evening was not an unmitigated success in this particular. The usually reliable Martina Jankova, for instance, sounded here brittle and not truly capable of floating her high-lying lines in Aus Liebe. Aude Extremo’s mezzo is more substantial, her low notes rich and well-connected, but the faulty intonation compromised her delivery of Erbarme dich. Robin Tritschler’s Evangelist benefited from exceptional ease through the passaggio and a crispy delivery of the text. Mirko Ludwig would have been ideal in the tenor arias if his voice did not acquire such pronounced nasality from a high f on. Stephen Powell’s Jesus was a bit on the operatic side and Leon Kosavic’s forceful baritone lacked a bit of Innigkeit to produce the right effect.

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for he Opéra de Paris has all his hallmark features – the labo chic sets, curtains, video projections, a cowboy costume, glittery party dresses. It has more to do with Warlikowski than with Nikolai Leskov. First, it looks too glamorous for the circumstances. Second, the approach is too detached for a story about human passions at their rawest. Third, act 3 – visually attractive as it is – makes no sense in terms of the plot. The whole affair with the discovery of the corpse and the appearance of the police simply did not match what was shown on stage. In Mr. Warlikowski’s favor, one must recognize that his Personenregie was effective and his intent of portraying the main character’s sexual obsession was right on the mark.

The combination of this staging and Ingo Metzmacher’s extremely cerebral approach to the score (unaided by an orchestra not exactly adept in tonal variety) made the characters’ predicaments even more distant to the audience. This does not mean that the conductor did not serve the music well. There were many moments of unusual transparence and finish – and it is hardly his fault that I’ll be forever spoilt by what Mariss Jansons did with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg.

I am no sure if I find the idea of using Rudolf Barshai’s orchestral adaptation of the first movement of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet as an interlude between the last two acts was effectively. The way the composer devised this transition seemed more coherent for me in its unbroken impact.

The extreme demands in terms of acting made on the soprano explains the casting of Aurine Stundyte as Katerina Izmailova. She gave herself entirely to the task and shone in all intensity whenever she was on stage. In terms of singing, I am less enthusiastic. Ms. Stundyte’s throaty, greyish voice does not suggest sensuousness and comes close to stridence in exposed high notes. Pavel Cernoch’s tenor has developed a lot since I last saw him. The tightness is gone and now he can all right produce heroic top notes. However, the tonal quality is not truly ingratiating and there is no smile in his voice. I have written that, once you’ve heard Nicolai Gedda in Rostropovich’s recording, it is difficult to hear the role otherwise. In the legendary Swedish tenor’s interpretation, you can always hear what is really going in Sergey’s mind while he speaks about how sensitive a man he is. In that sense, the comparison is too hard with every other tenor, Mr. Cernoch included. His effort to portray a role distant to his personality is praiseworthy , and he has done a very good job in terms of acting. Minor roles were all brilliantly taken – Dmitry Ulyanov again is a firm-toned and characterful Boris Timofeevich, John Daszak’s bright-toned Zinovy Borisovich had the right touch of nervousness and Alexander Tsymbalyuk was a rich-voiced police officer.