Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Pappano’

Massenet’s Werther is hardly anyone’s favorite opera. Many dismiss it with the label “tacky” – and truth is that, were it not for the fancy of some star tenors, it would not be produced at all. All that said, the whole French repertoire has been rediscovered – even in France – and Werther, thanks to the advocacy of tenors like Roberto Alagna, Ramón Vargas, Marcelo Álvarez and Jonas Kaufmann, has mushroomed in the seasons of many opera houses.

This does not mean these tenors had to start over from a forgotten tradition. On the contrary, almost every important French tenor has left a recording – and even a secondary tradition of Spanish tenors such as Kraus, Carreras and Domingo may be traced back in the discography. Although Rolando Villazón’s French is quite more realistic than many Spanish-speaking Werthers, I would have no doubt in placing him among the Spaniards, for his emotionalism and fervor. I had seen Villazón only once as Lensky in the Lindenoper in Achim Freyer’s infamous production that makes any possibility of acting impossible. This evening, I could understand the Mexican tenor’s artistry. Guided by unbridled emotional generosity, he plunged into the predicaments of the young Werther with almost ferocious intensity. What in less sincere hands could sound and look exaggerated seems vehement, intense and very moving. He drives his lightweight yet rich and dark-hued tenor dangerously hardly, but the tonal quality is dulcet, the coloring is varied, the inflections are expressively drawn and the commitment is enormous. By the end, few eyes were still dry. Indeed, Villazón is a very special singer.

His Charlotte, Sophie Koch, has an ideal voice for the role. It is vibrant, full-toned and large enough, but still light enough to suggest youth. Act III maybe took her to her limits, but her adeptly focused high notes survived the test. Although she started the evening a bit too cool for the circumstances, she increasingly gained in pathos during the evening and almost matched the tenor in intensity by act III. Audun Iversen (Albert) has a noble and large voice, a little bit wooden in the end of the range, but even that worked out well for the role. He only seemed uncomfortable on stage. On the other hand, the bell-toned Eri Nakamura wad a vivacious and sensitive Sophie. Last but not least, Alain Vernhes was a congenial Bailli.

I am hardly a specialist in Massenet’s music, but I have found Antonio Pappano’s conducting very convincing in its large, late Romantic gestures. Act III sounded almost Tristanesque in its richness of sound, flexibility of beat and forcefulness of accent.

In the days of Regietheater, Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production might seem unimaginative in its historical propriety and unobstructive concept, but his meticulous direction of actors (as revived by Andrew Sinclair) is immensely refreshing; the level of dramatic engagement achieved here unfortunately rarely found in operatic stages. Although acts I and II could feature more interesting sets, acts III and IV found inspiration in Hammershøi and looked beautiful and expressive. I just wished each character had been allowed more than one costume during the whole opera.


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For the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s season opening concert, musical director Antonio Pappano has chosen Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a work that this orchestra had the honour to premiere in Italy in 1924 (!). It is certainly the right choice to highlight the abilities of chorus and orchestra – and the Santa Cecilia acquited itself quite well in the test. The strings have a clear, bright sound and deal rather commendably with passagework and the brass are generally accurate and noble sounding. The chorus has a full-toned quality almost exclusively found in Italy – the tenors are particularly healthy-sounding. I found their energetic approach proper to Beethoven and maestro Norbert Balatsch has done a very good work to keep discipline within the animation. The sopranos had their edgy moments and some melisme could be clearer, but that are minor blemishes in a commendably large-scale and enthusiastic approach. At this point, my five or six readers may be puzzled by these words in relation to this post’s title – yes, the 1,000,000 dollar-question is: why has this performance ultimately failed to deliver the goods?

I have a friend who uses to say that you should always see the last in a series of concerts in Germany and the first of them in Italy. According to him, the last concert in Germany will have gained in experience from the previous ones and offer an improved experience, whereas in Italy the musicians will simply have lost steam before that. Is that a prejudiced notion? Probably. I haven’t seen the first concert out of these tree performances with Pappano, but the truth is that the last one seemed to have the flesh, but not the spirit. His phrasing was lively, even theatrical at times, but the sound picture lacked weight somehow and instead of momentum, one had the impression of edge, hysteria rather than vehemence. I do not know how much the acoustics are to blame, but I found many contrapuntal passages blurred also. The solo by the orchestra’s spalla in the heavenly Benedictus was too sentimentalized in its generous vibrato to produce the right effect and the dona nobis pacem just failed to culminate into a sensation of conclusion.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is also hard work for the soloists, and Pappano’s choice of singers was almost invariably wrong for the approach and for the hall. To start with, larger voices were needed. It is not that these singers were almost always overshadowed by the chorus, they were sometimes difficult to hear when singing with the orchestra alone. The soprano part, for instance, is particularly difficult because of the periculously high tessitura. Emma Bell does master the art of floating high mezza voce, although one can now and then feel how strenuous this must be, but when the dynamic is other than piano, the sound is simply too unfocused to carry in the auditorium. Anna Larsson’s low register, dark as it is, is similarly too soft-edged for this piece. Considering the riches of choice of Italian mezzos and contraltos with a forceful sound down at the bottom of their range, this is particularly frustrating. If Roberto Saccà is technically accomplished, the tone is too metallic and unflowing for this music. Only German bass Georg Zeppenfeld produced the right effect in this music, especially in the second part, when he sang with classical poise, liquid phrasing and chocolate-y tonal quality.

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