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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Caterina Antonacci’

The fact that Berlioz’s Les Troyens had been last performed in Berlin in 1930 with Frida Leider in the role of Dido (that must have been really something!) is no surprise. Other than the Metropolitan Opera’s fondness for it during the 1970’s and 80’s* or the occasional performance in France, this gigantic opera has been rarely staged full stop. However, the new century seems to have brought a change in this – last year, the Dutch Opera staged it with an international cast and almost one year later the Deutsche Oper has decided to give it its first production (F. Leider sang it at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden). Although the venture is praiseworthy in itself, I guess that, if you truly decide to undertake a difficult task, you should be above its difficulty level.

When I saw Pierre Audi’s production in Amsterdam, I found it unmemorable, but I was wrong, for I couldn’t help missing it while watching David Pountney’s awkward, inefficient and often quite ugly production. To be honest, I could live with the lackluster La Prise de Troie (and I confess I liked the literally larger-than-life Trojan horse), even if I still need to be enlightened about the reason why it was deemed important that Cassandre should die surrounded by rusty iron bed structures. When it comes to Les Troyens à Carthage, it is difficult to overlook the oceans of bad taste displayed before the audience’s eyes: plastic curtains, furniture reduced to cushions, unbelievably tacky yellow/green costumes and the less we speak of Renato Zanella’s choreography the better (suffice it to say that if you need to explain to your children how babies are made, you just have to show them the ballet invented for the Royal Hunt and Storm).  To make things worse, sets and costumes have been sloppily made (the “starry night projection” for Nuit d’Ivresse is frankly amateurish) and there are moments when the words “school pantomime” run through one’s thoughts. I am not sure either about the idea of showing Cassandre’s in the last scene singing Anna’s text for Didon.

As usual, one can always close his or her eyes and bask in the glorious sounds of the Deutsche Oper Orchestra, in truly great shape this evening. But I wonder how long one would take to notice that beautiful sounds alone do not say everything in a score like Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Conductor Donald Runnicles explains that it is unthinkable to perform the opera without cuts and mercilessly made excisions, of all things, in Chorèbe and Cassandre’s duet, not to mention that the role of Anna is reduced to comprimario. Not only the cuts in the part of Cassandra were an offense to the distinguished guest soloist, but they did not prevent the conductor to make the opera shorter. In Amsterdam, I can recall even an addition, the rarely recorded (let alone performed) episode with Sinon, the Greek spy, and the whole performance was roughly 30 minutes shorter than this evening’s. It is no coincidence that Amsterdam featured the great Berliozian conductor John Nelson, while the Deutsche Oper had good old Runnicles trying to make a Götterdämmerung out of it. The opening scene promised calamity: the chorus and the orchestra could not match to save their lives and it all sounded like chaotic noise. The Trojan part of the opera worked properly in bombastic moments, such as the end of Act II’s first tableau, but most of the rest hanged fire. However, the Carthaginian acts dragged and one could not help but noticing that Berlioz is one of those composers who need an expert to make it work: “…this music does not have the great organic momentum of a Wagner opera (…) it is not obvious that this piece is going to work: conductor and director always have to give it a push from time to time”. These are not my words, but Mr. Pountney’s. In Amsterdam, the pushes have been so masterly given that I could not even notice them – the score simply sounded consequent, intense and, by the end, quite gripping. It should be noted that John Nelson did not have an orchestra as impressive as the Deutsche Oper’s back then.

If you were at the Bismarckstraße opera house this evening, you would understand why everybody calls for Italy so often during this opera, for the Italian singers lent this performance its distinction. Although Anna Caterina Antonacci is not the dramatic soprano one would expect to find in this role, her voice is full and penetrating enough for it. And she sings in impeccable French, crystalline diction and admirable purpose. A committed stage actress, she did not allow a costume that made it difficult for her to move freely (apparently, nobody noticed it is too long for her) stand between her and dramatic engagement. She was ideally partnered by Markus Brück’s Chorèbe, who is at home in French music as he has proven to be both in German and Italian repertoires. His small contribution as a drunk Trojan soldier in the last act was also funny and idiomatic. However, it is Daniela Barcellona’s regally sung Didon who had the audience at her feet. The Italian mezzo’s luscious, spacious voice filled Berlioz’s music with classical poise and no lack of passion. At times, the name of Tatiana Troyanos came to my mind (and I mean it as the highest imaginable compliment). In the closing scene, she even allowed herself to use her strong chest register to depict the dying queen’s despair. It is only a pity that her French is not truly clear. In any case, a truly great performance that makes me think that Ms. Barcellona, who also looked gracious enough in this role, should be far more famous than she is.

Ian Storey’s Énée is controversial, but I would say that, if one has in mind that he is the wrong kind of tenor for this role, he has given a very decent performance. His voice is, as always, on the baritonal side and his middle register is a bit unfocused, but his ascent to his high notes are impressively powerful and warm-toned. The problem is that one can see that these high notes require lots of energy from him. While he can still cope with that demand, the results are undeniably exciting, but when he begins to tire, his singing cannot help but sounding efforful. It must be noted that he is a finer interpreter than he gets credits for and works hard for refinement in scenes like Nuits d’Ivresse. Finally, I must put in a word for Heidi Stober’s Ascagne, probably the best I have ever heard.

* In 2003, the Met launched a new production, in which Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang the role of Didon, recently released on CD.

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Looking back on my opera-going experience, I have noticed that, if there is an opera when things can get pretty awful when they go wrong, this opera is Bizet’s Carmen. I would primarily relate this phenomenon to this opera’s popularity, which basically means that packs of dispersive tourists invade an opera house whenever it is performed, ruining the artists’ concentration with thunderous coughing worthy of a sanatorium, obsessive-compulsive candy-unwrapping and chatting as one would never find in a movie theatre. Then there is the fact that intendants believe therefore that they should not waste intelligent creative teams in entertainment for the masses, hiring the most deplorable stage directors and set and costume designers. Subtlety is really something you can forget under those circumstances.

I won’t waste anyone’s time writing again the Deutsche Oper’s dismal production, but I must confess my surprise to find Yves Abel’s conducting so different from what he did last year. Maybe because the cast did not involve large voices, the orchestral playing was limited to recessed volume, which, allied to a matte aural perspective, gave an impression of distance and lack of enthusiasm. One could see the careful matching of tonal quality between different sections, but the effect was finally too discrete in a large hall such as the Deutsche Oper. To make things worse, the chorus seemed to be trying to infuse alone some animation into the proceedings, the result being messy ensemble.

While I would not dare to propose a no-hip-shaking rule for the title role, it should be obvious that the hip-shaking is not an end in itself, but rather a means to convey seduction. If the whole routine suggests rather pelvic disorder than sultriness, it is better to forget it. I would even go as far as suggest that Carmen does not really need to be showily seductive. Some singers have opted instead for earthiness and feistiness and ended up on being quite convincing. I particularly remember one Carmen who was indeed attention-gripping because she was the only unsmiling person on stage – and her unaffected intensity made a strong effect on Escamillo (and on us) when, among all the other frisky girls, she was the one whose “l’amour” fell on a dissonant note.

I write all that trying to express my sympathy for Anna Caterina Antonnacci, lost in this mediocrity fest. Although she is very attractive herself, anyone who has seen her off stage knows that she is a notably serious lady. In the Covent Garden production available on video, that seriousness is used to good effect, interestingly so in a vampiric closing scene, in which Carmen is shown in glowing golden colors and Don José is a pale, lifeless image to drag her from life into his personal void. Not this evening, where she had to follow every item in the Carmen-checklist. It was obvious that she was dying to break the cocoon of clichés in which she had been wrapped by the director, trying to insert some truly meaningful gestures in the proceedings, but an inert Don José was the coup de grâce to her intents and she finally seemed to have given up in a truly ineffective – musically and dramatically –  final scene.

Vocally speaking, this was not an unmitigated success either. Antonacci’s hybrid vocal quality does not mean, as with Shirley Verrett or with Grace Bumbry before her, a soprano voice with exciting low notes or a mezzo voice with powerful top notes (I won’t say who is who in these descriptions, for the subject is controversial), but rather a voice that really flashes in the middle range with some interesting excursions below but a rather tense upper range in dramatic moments. Beyond the technicalities, it is a indeed a seductive, well-focused voice with richness of tonal colouring and flexibility. All that allied to beautiful command of French made her first act especially sophisticated, with intelligent word-pointing, illuminating twists of phrasing and a huge amount of imagination. If someone can rescue the habanera from routine, this woman certainly is Anna Caterina Antonacci. In the remaining acts, her willingness to dare seemed to decline in the context of the prevailing shabbiness.

Jacquelyn Wagner has a pretty voice and her French is quite idiomatic. She is also stylish and musicianly, but I had the impression that her soprano is too light for this role and exposed high notes showed tiny but noticeable sourness. Ryan McKinny’s Escamillo turned around throatiness. Then there is Massimo Giordano’s Don José. The Italian tenor is a veteran in the Deutsche Oper’s Carmen and yet seems lost in the concept (if there is some concept to speak of) of this production. In 2009, his performance had already been plagued by uncertain pitch, poor French and unstylishness – but this evening he did not seem besides to be in good voice, sounding effortful and gusty in the Flower song.

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Before I say anything about this evening’s performance, I must warn you that I cannot say that I really like Verdi’s Falstaff. I acknowledge the ingeniousness and creativity, but the music does not really pluck any string in my heart. The last time I have seen it live in 2005 at the Met, I remember I wrote that, if James Levine’s irreproachable performance had not convinced me to like it, I would probably never do it.  Although that performance has many similarities to the one I have seen today at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, I can say I am getting closer to enjoy the work than I thought.

First of all, as much as James Levine, Daniele Gatti is a conductor with a symphonic approach to this work. If my memory does not fail me, there is one crucial difference – while Levine’s rich-toned almost-Straussian performance gave pride of place to musical values, setting the orchestra as the real “soloist”, Gatti achieved the right balance between dramatic and musical values, rendering the graphic effects in the score with almost unfailing precision and taking care never to drawn his singers in thick orchestral sound – and yet the Orchestre Nationale de France produced multicoloured, translucent, expressive sounds.

As much as in the Met performance, a British singer took the title role. Curiously, back in 2005, Bryn Terfel was indisposed and could barely sing the final act. Unfortunately, Anthony Michaels-Moore also happened to be sick today, but agreed to sing nonetheless. The similarities between these singers end here. While Terfel was an extremely affected and heavy-handed Falstaff, Michaels-Moore scores all his interpretative points in subtlety. Even if the flu has robbed his velvety baritone of colour and overtones, one can see it is a round, rich and pleasant voice with a varied tonal palette, keen on fluent legato. Because he never overdid any comic effect, his Falstaff always sounded convincing in his aristocratic self-delusion and particularly funny because of that. To make things better, he possesses natural talent for comedy and had the audience on his side at every moment. Baritone Jean-François Lapointe too was announced indisposed. Although his low register was not really functional, he had no problem with the high end of his range and produced some firm top notes. Paolo Fanale’s tenor is rather open and lacking roundness, what made him a not entirely seductive Fenton, but he proved he could effectively soften his tone in his big solo.

This was my first experience with Anna Caterina Antonacci in the theatre – and all I can say is that she more than fulfilled my expectations. Her voice is both richer and smoother live than in recordings and the way how she inhabits the text, colouring each word as if she herself was speaking her own lines made her a particularly spirited Alice. This is a role that tends to take second place in most performances of this opera – not this evening. She was ideally matched by the fruity-toned Meg of Caitlin Hulcup and the not entirely Italianate, but ideally delicate Nannetta of Chen Reiss, who floated haunting pianissimi as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If Marie-Nicole Lemieux lacks the solid middle register of an Italian mezzo, she does have impressive low notes and a really engaging stage presence. Minor roles were cast from strength in the veteran butstill  fresh-toned Raúl Gimenéz (Dr. Cajus), Patrizio Saudella (Bardolfo) and Federico Sacchi (Pistola).

Mario Martone’s Victorian staging could not be less imaginative – although Ursula Patzak’s costumes were quite beautiful (if conventional), Sergio Tramonti’s sets were particularly unconvincing in the use of a fire-escape-like staircase as a fixed element around which props were added for every scene.  The closing scene especially gave an impression of carelessness and limited budget. That said, the direction of actors itself was refreshingly up-to-the-point and spontaneously yet precisely rendered by this gifted group of singers.

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A review of Gustav Kuhn’s Così Fan Tutte (live from Macerata in 1991) has been added to the discography in re: opera (please find the link on the right). I have to confess that despite the minor flaws, Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Fiordiligi is really impressive. It is a pity I was never able to listen to the broadcast of her Dorabella (with Melanie Diener’s Fiordiligi and Abbado conducting)…

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