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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Castronovo’

At this point, my 9 or 10 readers know that I have a soft sport for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. When the lights dim in the theatre before the performance, I am always ready for an emotional experience – and all I need is that the artists involved do not mess up. In other words, I can do with “ok”. As a matter of fact, my experience of seeing this opera has been variations of “ok”, until today’s performance in the Grosses Festspielhaus. This was a classy, festival experience with distinguished soloists in top form, amazing choral singing and one of the world’s best orchestras under a top-tier conductor.

Marina Rebeka was not the most touching of Amelias, but she is extremely well equipped for the job. Her sizable soprano is youthful, flexible and always easy on the ear – and she is the kind of singer who won’t find any problem singing all her notes, no matter how difficult the phrase is. She would even mellow during the opera and sang sensitively and tastefully the closing scene. Her Adorno was extremely Charles Castronovo, who proved to be an ideal partner. Even if his tenor is light on paper for the part, he was in healthy form and projected round, easy top notes without thinking twice. His singing was Italianate, fervent and appealing. Luca Salsi too was a very convincing Boccanegra, firm of tone, stylish in phrasing and dramatically alert. Some may say he does not compare to famous baritones in the past, but, even in his less than exuberant high notes, he displayed the virtue of making this performance about his character (and not about himself, as many singers in this repertoire). Truth be said, René Pape (Fiesco) almost stoled the show. His bass flooded the auditorium in dark-chocolate sounds, and his singing – even if a bit too straight to the point – was always expressive and elegant. Bravissimo. One feels a bit shortchanged not to find a world-class Paolo (as in Abbado’s or Solti’s recordings from La Scala), but unfortunately that is increasingly an exception – and the baritone cast is the role today never spoiled the fun.

The Vienna Philharmonic offered playing of superlative quality and finesse under Valery Gergiev’s Karajan-esque conducting – the orchestral sound always full, big, rich, flexible and yet transparent. Even if the cast could cope with such abundance of sound, Mr. Gergiev could lighten the picture for the more intimate scene without ever producing pale sonorities. And the Vienna State Opera chorus sang with firmness, homogeneity and animation. When a conductor has forces of such excellency, he does not need to resort to bombastic to make his points. This performance left nothing to be desired in terms of impact, but never needed to appeal to any kind of exaggeration or vulgarity.

Unfortunately, the paramount level of accomplishment is restricted to the musical side of this performance. Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging had more than a splash of amateurism not only in his Personenregie (which is nonexistent) but in his blocking of actors on stage. Saying that singers were often doing things that made no sense to what they were saying is an understatement. They would walk away from each other when they were saying that they were embracing, they would often have to be invisible not to be seen doing things supposed to be hidden in front of everybody and their movements were almost always poorly timed to the score. There is this moment, when Simon asks Amelia how she was able to escape from her kidnappers and, under Kriegenburg’s direction he does not even bother to listen. He walks away without really caring if she had suffered any kind of abuse, unlike every other parent in the whole planet. Just before that there was this moment when he ordered the doors of the palace to be opened for the people outside to enter. And yet nobody actually gets in! When he asks plebeian and patricians to reach out for each other, one would have to use his or her imagination to guess what he is talking about. The updating of the action per se is not a bad idea, the use of cellphones and twitters particularly effective to explain how Paolo could get so much support for Boccanegra’s candidacy in less than 10 minutes… The single set, striking looking as it is, was ill suited for the most intimate scenes. When Simon starts to feel the effect of the poison, he wasn’t even granted a table or a couch to recline on – and the whole affair of the poisoned bottle of water was carried on on a thin shelf near to a wall invisible to those seated in the extreme sides of the theater.

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Puccini’s La Bohème is the kind of opera that does everything to please you – it is easy on the ear, everybody can relate to the plot (no gods or heros here – just ordinary people meeting each other and trying to make the best of it before death finally comes to put an end on it all) and it is also short enough for you to get a table in a restaurant afterwards. However, as much as people who try really hard to please you, operas like that will from some point on and then maybe forever make you sick with their docility. I have to confess that, although I still find Mimì’s dying process quite touching no matter how hard I try to snob it, I never feel like listening, let alone watching La Bohème.

You might be wondering why I am bothering to write all that about an opera I don’t really have patience to hear. The answer is that I have decided to give it a new try. Because I am in Berlin, a city where people are far from sentimental, I thought that maybe an objective approach to this opera could be possible. And that would be interesting – a staging that looks more like Ken Loach than like Franco Zeffirelli, I guessed, with a Straussian treatment to the orchestra and maybe some restraint regarding lachrimosity among singers. Well, I was wrong.

The Lindenoper’s staging of La Bohème looks like the destitute man’s Met production: it basically features the same ideas, but in their low-budget version. To make it worse, scenes involving chorus singers and extras are so poorly staged that you feel ashamed for whoever directed that. The cast, on the other hand, was able to pierce through the routine and try to offer something less mechanical. Anna Samuil clearly knows how a Puccini “little woman” should be portrayed and she is not afraid of trying, but her basic vocal and stage personality are heartily Russian. Her lyric soprano is sizeable enough and she has probably learnt with Mirella Freni’s recording how conversational passages should be handled in a natural middle register, but there is a Slavic metallic edge on her singing that makes her the opposite of vulnerable and her chest voice can be a bit brash. Her portrait was engaged, but not really spontaneous – and finally lacking affection. In spite of some top notes below true pitch, Adriane Queiroz’s Musetta was sung in sultry tone and with enough playfulness to build an almost three-dimensional coquette. One could tell that Charles Castronovo had a background in Mozart from his elegant phrasing, good taste and concern with the text. His high notes are not exuberant as many an Italian tenor’s, but he strangely seemed to benefit from that in order to integrate them in his legato approach. Alfredo Daza’s heaviness and graininess made him a particularly unfriendly Marcello. Christof Fischesser, on the other hand, was a rich-toned, straight-forward Colline. All involved were at least at ease with the acting demands – and the closing scene was particularly well-handled by the cast. It is a pity only that conductor Alexander Vitlin never went beyond surface, often offering indistinct orchestral sound and choosing effect instead of true musical expression.

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