Posts Tagged ‘Alexandrina Pendatchanska’

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and its musical director, Jonathan Nott, have offered today excerpts of Wagner’s Parsifal paired with Alban Berg’s Three Pieces from the Lyrische Suite as opening item. I have seen the Tokyo Symphony play Wagner at the New National Theatre a couple of times and I confess I was not very enthusiastic about this. Although there was some finely focused pianissimo in Berg’s highly atmospheric pieces, the final impression was of lack of variety and clarity. It is not fair to compare it to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, but, well, it has confirmed my impression.

Although the orchestra did fare better in a strange composite of Parsifal’s Prelude, plus the long Kundry/Parsifal scene in act II (without the flower maidens and Klingsor) and – most anticlimactically – further into the Karfreitagzauber after a series of shortcuts, the impression of lack of expansion persisted: one could feel as if listening to a radio recording with compressed range. Jonathan Nott’s didactical conducting adding very little sense of drama to the proceedings: slow tempi, his beat quite a tempo, reduced sense of continuity (the pauses in the overture sounding like interruptions rather than breathing points), very little nuance but everything made very clear (a recessed string section’s “positive collateral effect?”).

If the concert had any interest it is related to the very unusual appearance of Alexandrina Pendatchanska (why “Alex Penda”?!) as Kundry. Last time I checked a Kundry who also sings Rossini… this was… not Maria Callas… Agnes Baltsa has done it after that… and maybe Doris Soffel*. Anyway, once she had sung Salome, Pendatchanska must have started to wonder if there were more ahead in terms of German repertoire for her. Hers is a very particular voice – in her first appearances, it had a squally, piercing quality that made it a bit difficult to appreciate her flexibility and long range. Then she had put herself under the guidance of René Jacobs, who led her through Handel, Haydn and Mozart towards a more relaxed vocal production, legato and an ampler tonal palette. And now she found her way back into Romantic repertoire.

First of all, it would be unfair to call this her “final product” in terms of Wagnerian singing, but rather an early experiment made in safe conditions (a concert performance of a single scene in a non-German speaking country). One could see a certain anxiety, a concern in not losing sight of the score and some uneasiness in terms of interpretation until the very difficult end, when – not really curiously – one could finally see that she was finally “doing her thing”. All of this is perfectly understandable: this is no small challenge. First, although she can produce very forceful high and low notes, her voice is not of Wagnerian proportions. And one can clearly hear that when she is in the middle register, where there are no special effects to be played. Second, although she clearly knows the text, her German is still a bit artificial, “i” sounds like “ee”, “e” too often sounds like the one in “get” and “ch” still needs considerable work. Also, sometimes the wrong syllable is too heavily accented, especially when she resorts to chest voice to get to the end of a low-lying phrase (in Verdi, this usually works, because he probably had in mind that his singers would do something like that). Third, there is still a sense that she is trying to do it correctly, as if she had listened to Waltraud Meier’s recording one hundred times to get it right.

All this considered, this was still very fascinating for anyone interested in voice, technique and national styles. Ms. Penda could teach a lesson in breath control to many Wagnerian singers. She takes legato very seriously and would not adopt the usual pause between verb and object to gain an extra breath. For instance, phrases like “wann dann ihr Arm dich wütend umschlang” or “So war es mein Kuss, der welt-hellsichtig dich machte?” were sung in a single breath without any hint of constriction or strain by the end of them. Also, some of her most exciting high notes were sang without forcing or pushing, but span freely and roundly. One might argue that some effect of emphasis in key words were lost in this kind of approach. I wouldn’t disagree, but I would rather hear someone who chooses to do that rather than someone who cannot do it otherwise. And it’s easier to learn German than breath support technique. And there is the matter of style  – while the use of portamento (such as in “Fern – fern – ist meine Heeeeimat”) is interesting, historically correct (although this has been forgotten by most Wagnerian singers of our days), I still have to think before I say something about low register in full chest resonance Italian-style. The first time I saw Eva Randová in the video from Bayreuth, this had called my attention, but Alex Penda goes a little bit further. While it produces a thrilling effect in “Ein Sünder sinkt mir in die Arme”, it sounds rather odd in “des Trostes Süsse labte nie auch dein Herz”. I don’t have an “in conclusion” for this paragraph. If she really wants to be a Wagner singer (and I don’t see an Elsa or Elisabeth in her), this means tackling roles like Kundry and Ortrud (maybe Senta could be interesting), which require complete mastery of the text (and therefore a more spontaneous pronunciation of German). Moreover, although proper acquaintance of Wagnerian tradition would help a bit (for instance: her last utterance would be easier and more effective with a lighter “ge…” followed by quick and precise ‘…Leit” rather than emphasis in both syllables and the last one hold a bit longer than written), the most important thing is finding her own truth in this music. One could get a glimpse of that just before that moment from”Hilfe! Herbei!”. There I could see the Alex Penda I’ve seen as Handel’s Agrippina: the fiery temper, the flashing presence, the amazing energy, that old-style glamour in tackling very large intervals with this “the low note was great, but the high not was amazing, wasn’t it?”-attitude. As my 10 readers have seen, she got me to write three paragraphs just about her!

Christian Elsner will get one paragraph only. I have already seen his complete Parsifal in Berlin (and also his Siegmund). Back in 2011, I had found his tonal quality appropriate for the role of Parsifal, but his approach to high notes too Mozartian for the circumstances, while today he did not give me this impression. His attitude to passaggio seemed improved and his high notes larger and darker than before. It still lacks some brightness and he has to work hard to pierce through. After a while, he sounded tired. In any case, his was a sensitive and often musicianly performance.

* Well, Christa Ludwig too, but she herself would not put her Rossini as a staple in her repertoire. It also comes to my mind that Renata Scotto once sang Kundry, but I wouldn’t call her a usual visitor to the master of Pesaro either.

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Orlando Paladino is one of the operas Haydn wrote for the small opera house at the Esterháza Palace. It has been rarely performed and some might remember it as one of Elly Ameling’s rare operatic recording, conducted by Antal Dorati in his all-stars series for Phillips. It has also recently caught the attention of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who released a recording made live in Graz with some favourite singers in European stages: Patricia Petibon, Malin Hartelius, Werner Güra, Michael Schade and Christian Gerhaher.

As much as Harnoncourt, conductor René Jacobs made his own edition for his performances at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, involving basically the trimming of recitatives and the inclusion of one showpiece aria from Haydn’s Il mondo della Luna for the role of Alcina. As usual, Jacobs has a fancy for the decoration of repeats, what is less bothersome in an unfamiliar opera, for very active continuo (here beside a fortepiano, an alternating harpsichord plus a lute) and for writing over the composer’s work (the inclusion of loud percussion in the Eurilla/Pasquale duet Quel tuo visetto amabile and the inclusion of a part for Eurilla in Pasquale’s “catalogue” aria). But one would forgive Jacobs anything – his conducting was at one vital and spontaneous. Those used to Harnoncourt’s recording were certainly surprised by the flowing yet clear and forward-moving approach. With the help of the polished and animated playing from the Freiburger Barockorchester, ensembles were always transparent and the lyric moments, given all the time they needed, were particularly touching.

Even in such an excellent cast, one would have no doubt that Marlis Petersen’s is the prima donna role. Her golden-toned lyric soprano is extremely ductile and flexible  – the purity of line, accurate divisions, floating pianissimi and dramatic imagination are admirable – and, considering the light vocal quality, particularly penetrating. Also properly cast in the soubrette role, Sunhae Im not only sung with charm and instrumental poise, but also showed real talent for comedy. It is a voice that blossoms a bit high in the soprano range, though, and sometimes she disappears in her first octave. Although Haydn could not have said that Alcina is a mezzo soprano role, the notes speak for themselves. It is extremely gracious of Alexandrina Pendatchanska to take such a secondary role, but once again her wide spectrum of abilities did not build into a coherent performance. The role sits uncomfortably in her soprano – the lower end was dealt with with a somewhat overblown chest voice that did not seamlessly connect  to a recessed middle register and there was little opportunity for her forceful high register. She furiously decorated her part and I cannot see any other reason for her florid insertion aria in the somewhat pointless act III than Jacobs’s friendship with her. In any case, she seized the opportunity to offer a dazzling coloratura display.

 Magnus Staveland’s tenor lacks projection above the passaggio, but it is an extremely pleasant voice, rich-toned and flexible, what is essential for the role of the handsome Medoro (as clearly shown in the libretto, there is not really much beyond looks in Medoro). Tom Randle performs the “furious” aspects of Orlando to perfection, especially in a production that requires from him destroying sets with an axe à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. His tenor has a darker and more heroic colour than, for example, Michael Schade’s in Harnoncourt’s recording, but he lacks Schade’s floating mezza voce for the most meditative moments. Another favorable comparison with Harnoncourt’s recording is Pietro Spagnoli as Rodomonte, far more spontaneous both vocally and interpretatively (Italian is his native language, one must remember) than Gerhaher. The audience’s favorite, beyond any doubt, was Argentine baritone Victor Torres, who offered an all-round satisfying performance – velvety tonal quality, stylishness, solid technique, theatrical verve and, most of all, he is really funny.

The performance booklet makes a strong point for the Orlando Paladino’s semiserio style with many references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I would rather point to Così fan tutte – and I tend to believe that directors Nigel Lowery and Amir Hoisseinpour would agree with me. In Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and the Commendatore’s predicament are serious business and Mozart has a sympathetic eye for them, while Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Ferrando’s petty ordeals are made fun of and we only relate to them and finally care about them and suffer for them because we have first laughed at them. In Orlando Paladino, the serio roles, Angelica and Medoro, are so aloof that Haydn makes a series of musical jokes by abruptly changing the affetto for their neverending lamenting. Their arias are almost a parody of opera seria with their overwrought strette. Accordingly, Angelica is shown in this production as the demanding and needy beauty queen who is always upset by the less-than-glamorous circumstances – basically the passive-aggressive dyed-blond bitch who sings coloratura at every opportunity. In his text on the booklet, Jacobs also defends the idea that Alcina is a serious role, but I guess that again the directors agree with me that she would be mezzo carattere – here shown as a drunk hostess who never knows exactly when she should display her superpowers.

Normally, I would resent the excess of slapstick comedy, but one must acknowledge that the libretto demands so – and the cast is extremely comfortable with that. I am not sure about the bearded fairies performing distracting (but funny) subplots in the background amd definitely dislike the silly coreographies – but there are so many ingenious touches that one cannot help but having a great time.

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There are people who like to dislike – I am not like that. When one dislikes something, one generally tends to miss an important aspect of what he or she dislikes. For example,  I like René Jacobs – I like his Bach, Handel and Haydn recordings. I even found his Rossini interesting – but I really don’t like his Mozart opera series for Harmonia Mundi. I find the orchestral sound brassy and unclear, the casting is eccentric and there is not a drop of sensuousness in these performances (at least for me, a serious blemish for the Da Ponte works). But I know I am alone here – everybody loves these recordings, they were awarded hundreds of prizes etc. That is why I am always ready to give a second chance.

If I had to rescue one among Jacobs’s Mozart recordings, this would certainly be La Clemenza di Tito. His baroque mannerisms somehow fit more comfortably in the context of opera seria – and that is why I finally decided to spend my last evening in Paris in the Salle Pleyel to check his concert performance of Idomeneo (to be released on CD).

First of all, I have discovered that Harmonia Mundi has a great share of responsibility in my dislike. Live at the theatre, I found the Freiburger Barockorchester significantly more pleasant than in Jacobs’s recordings. The brass instruments are far more integrated in the texture and the fortepiano (as one could imagine) is truly less intrusive (although we were treated to a mini-overture for act II on it ). I still expected clearer execution of passagework in string instruments, but what I heard is closer to what one would expect of a period instrument group (even if I have personally heard some far more polished in sound).

In what regards the conducting in itself, this was a gripping and theatrical performance, less efficient in lyrical passages when – again – everything seriously lacked affection. Part of the reason is the conductor’s overbearing intrusion in singers’ phrasing. For example, if he suspects something is a grace note, be sure that he’ll make the poor singer (or the orchestra) hiccup on it regardless of legato or the expressive atmosphere. Of course, the concept of legato and our intuitive ideas of expression do not belong to the XVIIIth century – but we, for that matter, don’t belong to that age either. In any case, this is too long a discussion for this post and I’ll answer the 1,000,000-question: yes, I will buy the CDs. Well, the truth is that I have bought all the others. So, I should say I will probably listen to this Idomeneo quite often – especially for the extremely well-buit public scenes, in which the RIAS Kammerchor offer accurate and dramatically aware singing: the act I finale is particularly effective.

Jacobs also counts with a distinguished cast here – some of these singers have appeared in previous releases in the series, but here they are more or less better cast. The immediate exception would be Sunhae Im, whose soubrettish voice is not anyone’s first idea for such a lyric soprano role. Her tone comes basically in one bell-like shape and, if her response to more dramatic scenes never went beyond adding a slightly more metallic edge to her voice, she finally convinced us of her Ilia by virtue of crystal-clear diction, vivid and intelligent response to the text and immaculate technique. Her ability to sing loooooong lines in one breath is really praiseworthy, for instance. It is a pity that the conductor prepared her such elaborate ornamentation for Zeffiretti lusinghieri – again the classical motto inutilia truncat would have ensured touching instead of extravagant results.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, on the other hand, has the perfect voice for Elettra. She is a singer with impressive resources, not always perfectly handled, but Jacobs seems to be a good influence on her. It is true that Tutte nel cor  was a bit lost on register shifting and  the fast and dance-like Idol’ mio was overcareful, but she really developed to create, in spite of an awkward close, the right effect in D’Oreste, d’Ajacce. To be more specific, the accompagnato Oh, smanie! Oh, furie! was sung in the great manner, with some stunning high pianissimi.

Bernarda Fink’s voice has seen more generous days – it is still lovely, but the lower end has become quite modest and top notes are less focused than they used to be. That said, she is the kind of singer who always goes straight to the point in what regards interpretation.  Her encounter with Idomeneo in act I and the sacrifice scene were extremely moving and convincing.  Considering her commendable handling of the difficult tessitura in No, la morte, one could say her performance gained in strength since a rather colourless Non ho colpa.

When Richard Croft first appeared on scene, I feared he might be indisposed or something like that. He seemed uncomfortable, often had his hands on his mouth or his ears and an anxious look about him, but as soon as he produced his first note, I reckoned that whatever affliction he might be experiencing had no effect on his singing. This is a voice of immediate charm, extremely pleasant on the year, light-toned but firm and strong to the bottom of his range. His phrasing is amazingly graceful and stylish (he was probably the one singer in the cast who followed Jacobs’s disciplinarian regime on phrasing and ornamentation as if he himself had devised all that) and his accuracy with fioriture is a marvel. His account of his difficult arias (including the long version of Fuor del mar and Torna la pace) were exemplary – I only wish he could gave himself a bit more to the emotional experience of singing Idomeneo. His approach to the role was so detached that sometimes I felt he was sight-reading his recitatives! Maybe this was the effect of his apparent uneaseness. In any case, this is a performance I don’t wish to find fault with – this was simply Mozart singing of the highest order.

The role of Arbace was similarly cast from strength with Kenneth Tarver, who is one of the most elegant and technically accomplished Mozart tenors these days. For a change, listening to both Arbace’s arias was rather a pleasure than an ordeal to the audience.  Nicolas Rivenq sang  the short role of Neptune’s High Priest to perfection and Luca Tittolo’s sonorous is exactly what the voice of Neptune requires.

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