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Posts Tagged ‘Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’

How local should be the staging of an opera? This is the question director Roland Schwab must have posed himself when the Deutsche Oper asked him for a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This is an opera named after one of the characters and although this generally means that this is the main character, that does not mean either that all other characters unimportant. I write that for it seems that a great deal of new staging of this opera has been so absorbed by Don Juan that all other characters are left to imagination, even if they sing a great deal more than the burlador de Sevilla himself. I find it particularly bothersome when this involves messing with the score, as in this case: recitatives have been trimmed to fit the director’s concept and the loss of Il mio tesoro and the final scene has nothing to do with the Viennese edition (no razor duet, to start with), but simply with the fact that Mozart and da Ponte supposedly did not know better.

As staged here, this could be a two-role opera with pauses for concert arias from high-voiced singers. Don Giovanni is some sort of mobster who lives la vida loca in Berlin’s clubbing scene, with a little help of his sidekick Leporello. Although Mozart and da Ponte wrote an opera that reaches its climax in the second act, here this is transferred to the first act finale: Don Giovanni’s party is some sort of night-life inferno with two spiraled neon hell-machines, a boar’s head stuck on a spear, a naked girl with a fixator around one leg, other naked girl hanging from the ceiling, a quotation from Dante and good old Jesus on a stationary bike. Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Don Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto seem to be extras from Mike Nichols’s “The Graduate” who have taken a bus to Berlin in the end of the movie. What they are doing there, what they feel, what they think, who they are – these are irrelevant question.

So, the production concentrates on the issues of the addiction to freedom that clubbers experiment only to drive them always to live in their limits, until the never-ending quest for new limits becomes a prison. Point taken. How does the giocoso part fits in the story? In some sort of slapstick broad black comedy that Germans appreciate, basically all turning around Leporello, who licks arms, nipples, face, feet etc of half the cast and some extras, strips to his underwear while doing Beyoncé-like choreographies surrounded by dancing skulls with mickey-mouse ears in the graveyard scene while tossing evil laughs whenever there is time for it. When there is not, no problem – the conductor agreed to press the pause button in the middle of recitatives.

If the idea was to shock or wow anyone who knows Berlin’s underground scene, I guess that the effort was self-defeating. It all looked cutely quirky. Sometimes embarrassingly so. There was nothing truly disturbing going on stage – maybe an ill-humored member of the audience would find the unfunny jokes about Christ offensive, but they are so pointless that I doubt that – and I do not really believe that Da Ponte and Mozart truly give raw material for something blatant. Especially when the conductor is Roberto Abbado, who offered the best-behaved performance of this opera I have ever seen in my life. Vigor, strong accents, contrasts – one should look for that anywhere else. Emptily elegant phrasing, sprightly rhythms and graciousness is all you would find here. I have once read that one shopping-center somewhere in USA has always Mozart pouring from the speakers, because they have observed that this discourages young people from indulging in vandalism. The musical performance this evening seems to prove that. If those on stage seemed ready to let it rip, this must have been because they were paid to pretend.

The saving grace in this evening was Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, who offered a Mozartian performance in the grand manner. I cannot think of anyone else who could tackle the role of Donna Anna these days as beautifully as she did. With the exception of some wrong entries in Non mi dir, she sang immaculately: unforced, round top notes, crystal-clear coloratura, pure intonation, instrumental phrasing, sense of style, an amazingly lovely tone, you name it, she has it. I have a message for mezzo-sopranos: Donna Elvira is not a role for you girls. Ruxandra Donose is only the next victim of this misconception – she sounded uncomfortable throughout and struggled perilously with a transposed Mi tradì. Her intervention in Don Giovanni’s feast had to do with the optional lower notes. On the other hand, Martina Welschenbach found the role of Zerlina too low, but her voice is so pleasant and her singing is so engaging that one can forgive her that. Yosep Kang was an unsubtle Don Ottavio who still needs to know the art of tonal coloring and dynamic shading. No-one missed Il mio tesoro tonight. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s big, firm bass lacks some variety too and he is not very strong in vocal seduction, but considering what an over-enthusiastic singer could do in this production, his austerity is quite welcome. At this point, I could write a master degree about Alex Esposito’s Leporello. Although his voice is not remarkable in any sense, it is nonetheless quite reliable and healthily produced. His interpretation is now plagued by the sort of mannerisms that appear when a singer sings for too long the same role. He has a Roberto Benigni-like restlessness and clownishness that, framed by a good director, can come through as vivaciousness and funniness. This evening, rambunctiousness and vexatiousness would describe it more faithfully. Finally, Ante Jerkunica did not find problems in the writing of the Commendatore, but having a lighter and clearer voice than Don Giovanni was a little confusing.

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Inutilia truncat is one of the most representative “slogans” of Classical art, one Dieter Dorn could have claim to follow when creating his 1997 production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro for the Bavarian State Opera. There is no lack of action in Beaumarchais’s story as told by Lorenzo da Ponte, but the truth is that you should take good care of what you are showing on stage when you are showing basically very little. Jürgen Rose’s sets never suggest anything clean and elegant, but rather lack of imagination and limited budget. As if saggy white fabric walls were not disappointing enough, the Countess is denied furniture but only a couple of blue chairs on a blue linoleum (Susanna has to write her letter to the Count on the floor with an instrument the handiness of which can only suggest a ball pen miraculously sent from the future) and the whole garden scene is reduced to three large pieces of white cloth under the most glaring lighting one can think of. If the Count does not recognize his wife as thoroughly lit as she was there, it was probably because he was dazzled by followspots. After 13 years, it is impossible to speak of the director’s original ideas for his actors, but the most positive aspect of this performance was the overall very good stage performances from all involved. Although there is probably nothing original going on here, this was nimbly performed by the cast.

The only character who seems to have deserved special consideration seems to be the Countess, here shown as the mistress of her own household ready to use Susanna and Figaro for her purposes (i.e., winning her husband back) almost as selfishly as the Count. It was most fortunate that Barbara Frittoli could perform the concept as believably as she has done this evening. Although her attitude towards her servants was quite liberal, this tampered nothing with the fact that they were supposed to obey her orders. Also, even if she longed for her husband attentions, this did not prevent her from loosing her temper at him whenever an instance of his misbehavior had been found out. The Milanese soprano’s vibrant soprano has always required some time for a demanding ear to adjust it to the needs of Mozartian instrumental purity and, even if these days it is running dangerously close to unacceptability, it still remains inside the realm of admissibility. Once you get used to it, you will find a stylish singer able to very clean attack in testing moments such as Porgi, amor, easy ascent to her high register (she sang her own high notes as written by Mozart, instead of delegating them to her Susanna) and a very homogenous tonal quality throughout her range. More than that, a singer who handles the text intelligently and whose soprano is large enough to tackle a lyric role in a larger house without forcing and capable of shading without holding back. Although her singing this evening was hardly immaculate, it was nonetheless engaging, expressive and spirited.

Camilla Tilling is the owner of  a pretty voice and has a strong sense of Mozartian style, but lacks projection and tends to be overshadowed by the orchestra and other singers. She was also an austere, rather charmless Susanna, but still spontaneous and surprisingly quite realistic. In the end, even if I missed some vivaciousness, I could not help thinking that the trade-off for the usual commandingness and cuteness was somehow positive. As Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus was, on the other hand, vivaciousness itself. Hers is an irresistibly warm voice and she has temper to spare. After some problems during Non so più , she offered a memorable Voi che sapete, desire, anxiety and seduction perfectly balanced. The Almaviva family was quite well represented this evening, for Mariusz Kwiecien proved to be an exemplary Count. His strong baritone finds no difficulty in this writing and he knows how to convey bossiness while keeping some charm. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo proved to be less creative as Figaro, his is a firm, generously and vigorously produced voice and, as Frittoli and Bonitatibus, could make recitatives sparkle in the idiomatic usage of their native language.

Juraj Valcuha seems to have a good idea of how this opera should be performed within the limits of Mozartian style and the house orchestra is adeptly flexible and clear, even if the sound was not terribly beautiful, but the idea behind the gesture was not always there. Too often, the proceedings suggested the mechanical rather than the spirited. To make things worse, now and then one would suspect that a couple of extra rehearsals could have been helpful – ensembles were often poorly timed and every member of the cast, in various degrees, would occasionally experiment some trouble in following the conductor’s beat.

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My relationship with Donizetti’ s Lucrezia Borgia was love at first hearing when I first bought Jonel Perlea’ s RCA recording. I’d known Victor Hugo’ s play and thought the plot (but not the overwrought dialogues) compelling, but the truth is Felice Romani’ s inutilia truncat did a great service to the play and Donizetti’ s structural concision and theatrical understanding were at its best.  Seeing the work without costumes and sets – in concert version – and not missing the slightest prop proved my impressions right. Provided you have the cast to make it work is something one might say when we’ re speaking of a bel canto opera – but then I would have to guess the consequence of bad casting in these circumstances, because the Gran Teatre del Liceu has taken the pains to find the best group of singers one could possibly imagine these days.

Before I write anything else, I will acknowledge from the start that Edita Gruberova’ s soprano is hardly the Méric-Lalande-type of voice and, if you’ re used to Montserrat Caballe’ s recording of this role, you’ ll certainly miss the extra weight, colour and richness in the low notes. That said, differently from what she did in her recording of Rossini’ s Semiramide,  she didn’ t invariably  resort to upward variations (unless in repeats, when she were more or less “entitled” to do so, so to speak). To do her justice, I should add that she was particularly adept in managing her naturally ungenerous low register. Although one wouldn’ t hear spacious sounds in that area of her voice, focus was always there.

As in her Norma or Elisabetta (in Roberto Devereux), the amazing girlishness of her voice makes it a bit difficult for her to be truly convincing in these maternal roles, but if you like bel canto in the grand style, her Lucrezia has unending supply of high pianissimi, dictionary-perfect messa di voce, perfectly articulated divisions etc. For example, hearing the sequence of trills in the end of Com’ è bello done to perfection live at the theatre was like witnessing a miracle. As expected, she chose the showpiece Era desso il figlio mio to close the opera – and it was fascinating to see her weighing with Swiss-clockmaker precision the expressive and technical demands of this difficult scene (here made following the composite ending with the tenor’ s death and then the soprano’ s big aria).

Although the title role in Lucrezia Borgia is fearsome, this is truly an ensemble opera and Gruberova had fellow singers who left nothing to be desired and could never be overshadowed even by such an admirable prima donna.

As Gennaro, Josep Bros sang with unending graciousness, seamless legato and apollonian ease with top notes. Apart from one or two forced acuti in  T’ amo qual s’ ama un angelo (the aria written for Nikolai Ivanov), there is absolutely nothing less than exemplary in his stylish and sensitive performance. Although Ewa Podles’ s contralto has more than a splash of throatiness  these days (what makes her sometimes inaudible in ensembles), her graphical account of Orsini’ s narration in the Prologue was truly hair-raising and the panache displayed in Il segreto per esser felice (ornamented with a Spanish flavour, maybe as a tribute to the audience) was simply irresistible. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s bass should be a bit more flamboyant in order to make his Don Alfonso more dangerous, but he sang with firm tone and knowledge of style throughout. The minor roles were all splendidly taken.

Conductor Stefan Anton Reck was truly a positive surprise – his sense of theatricality is praiseworthy, especially the way he produced his effective orchestral effects without ever drowning his singers. He was also able to drive his orchestra through an unusually polished performance even when the dramatic situations required swift tempi.

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