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Posts Tagged ‘Marc Minkowski’

While it is still discussed if Handel’s Semele or Hercules are operas or oratorios, this is not the case of Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, premièred in Rome in 1707, where there was a ban on operatic performances. On writing the libretto for something closer to a cantata than to an oratorio, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili could hardly have any concern about dramatic action, so it is not Jürgen Flimm’s fault if his old staging for the Opernhaus Zürich cannot make much of an allegory on the development of physical beauty into spiritual beauty. The word “development” is intentionally used here: the parts of Beauty and Pleasure do show some evolution, while Time and Truth are rather cardboard “characters”. Considering this essential problem, Flimm’s concept is a priori interesting: the “action” is set on something of a 1940’s hotel bar. Beauty is some sort of demi-mondaine and protegée of some sort of Countess Geschwitz (Pleasure) – Truth and Time have some sort of mission, which is to “rescue” Beauty and show her the precariousness of her situation and open her eyes to reality. In keeping with the allegorical nature of the work, the whole atmosphere is Fellini-esque with many surrealistic extras with semi-parallel plots. As far as this goes, the idea seems to work – but, alas, there is some silliness going on here: Time is clownish; Truth is a bit lesbian-chic (and, yes, Pleasure too…); literal associations are often made (when the word “boat” is quoted, sailors appear… for no specific purpose) and, in the end, Beauty becomes a nun (?!). Why doesn’t she simply get a regular job? Handel’s sublime music does not deserve either a simplistic or a mock solution…

Marc Minkowski knows this score for a long while: he recorded it in 1988 and was one of the conductors associated with performances of this very production in Zürich. Comparing this evening with his old recording is a fascinating experience – the Musiciens du Louvre have a warmer sound today, the accents are more theatrical, but his choice of tempi is adapted by the needs of the production and, most of all, his present cast – far less ideal than the one in studio. This seems to have had an effect of weakening the conductor’s expressive purposes. The first part had its lackadaisical moments – the orchestra had to be reined-in for some singers, arias that required soloists with more tonal coloring abilities were left wanting – but it gained in purpose in the second part and finally paid off in a truly otherworldly Tu del ciel ministro (a desert-island number for ever Handelian)

Sylvia Schwartz’s grainy pellucid soprano does not suggest any sensuousness at the first part of the work or any angelical clarity of tone for the second one, but she showed herself never than fully committed – tackling her divisions with gusto (maybe because Cecilia Bartoli sang the role of Pleasure in Zürich, the difficult aria Un pensiero nemico is transferred to Pleasure here), never shying away from trills and finding true Innigkeit in Io sperai and, although less than vocally pure for the last aria, her spiritual concentration in it offered more than compensation. Inga Kalna’s voice too is devoid of sensuousness and rather harsh and blowsy – sometimes I had the impression that she was trying to channel Bartoli, what could be considered an advantage in terms of panache and crispy delivery of the text and a disadvantage in what regards lack of focus, legato and straightforward vocal production. What she does have is impressively clear coloratura and a very long breath. She could find a way to soften her tone for Lascia la spina and charm the audience there. I still have memories of Ann Hallenberg, but what Kalna could offer there was sincere and ultimately convincing – she is also a very good actress. Delphine Galou (Disinganno) is a stylish Handelian who offered some of the most satisfying singing this evening, but she is no Nathalie Stutzmann. This is the first time I see her live and cannot say if this was a bad-voice day, but her low register this evening did not have the impact and solidity of a Stutzmann, of a Sara Mingardo, of a Sonia Prina. Charles Workman’s singing has many hard angles and his Italian is not truly idiomatic, but his voice was refreshingly hearable in comparison to his colleagues.

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No mistake here – I am not talking about Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, but a forgotten work Strauss himself  championed, which is Richard Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, staged by the first time in France in the Theatre du Châtelet.

The curious Wagnerian has probably got acquainted with the work in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s recording made live in Munich by Orfeo luxuriously cast with Linda Esther Gray, June Anderson, Cheryl Studer, John Alexander, Jan-Henrik Rootering et al. So has Marc Minkowski, who has dared not only to use his own Les Musiciens du Louvre but also to offer a far less excised edition. The immediately first instance of comparison between these conductors is that Minkowski’s orchestra cannot, for the obvious reasons, compete with the Bavarian State Orchestra’s lushness of sound. In order to create the necessary impact with a leaner orchestral sound, the French conductor proved to have the energy and pulse of very few conductors in order to keep his musicians playing as if their lives depended on that for more than three hours – his beat never failed, the orchestra’s attack was always strong, phrasing was always the leading element of the story telling. Even when one could rightly miss an orchestra like Sawallisch’s, Minkowski proved to be more coherent, more structured – every one of the three acts built inevitably to their powerful finali.

As a side comment, it is impossible not to notice that the score’s shining features are its ensembles with full chorus and soloists, something the composer would use more economically in his mature works. Even if the work is decidedly uneven, long stretches of music are irresistibly powerful, especially in act II, when one has a feeling that Bellini’s Norma, Weber’s Freischütz and Beethoven’s Fidelio have been mixed in a blender together with the house’s secret ingredient. I wonder what would have happened to the history of music if this work had been staged when it was composed. More seriously, what would have happened if Wagner had actually succeeded in the mainstream department? Would there be place for Tristan und Isolde if he had indeed reformed the genre of grand opéra? The truth is that no-other composer has a first stage work so brilliant as Wagner.

As in many early works by operatic composers, Die Feen suffers from its impossibly difficult casting. These roles are so difficult that you feel you owe these singers the cost of an extra ticket! In the Isolde-meets-Agathe role of Ada, Christiane Libor does not feature the show-stopping dramatic soprano of Linda Esther Gray (in her sadly short career), but the gentler sound of Minkowski’s orchestra allows her to exude far more vocal allure. She is the kind of singer who never ever produces an ugly sound even when things get really difficult. To say the truth, Ms. Libor has instantly made me a fan of hers. There has to be some problem in the world of opera if a singer of her outstanding level is not more famous. Her warm sizeable lyric soprano has something of the sexiness of the young pre-wobble Eva Marton blended with the coolness, elegance and poise of Margaret Price. I know this is not a good description – but that is the best way I can describe her. She also has a regal presence and, even if she is not really an electrifying actress, she is never less than convincing.

In spite of the performance’s seconda donna’s talents, the role of Lora was, in my opinion, miscast. It requires a Bellinian voice with a bright and spontaneous high register. Lina Tetruashvili is a reliable, velvety-toned soprano, but there is nothing Italianate about her voice – she was fazed about fast and high passages, her diction is not very clear and her German is not really convincing. It was no coincidence that Sawallisch invited June Anderson for his Munich performances.

William Joyner got the ingrateful task of singing the role of Arindal, a part that requires both heroic heft and Mozartian grace. He has no problem with offering dulcet head tones when required from him, but is tested by exposed dramatic high-lying passages. Considering the difficulties of the role, he proved to be unusually accurate and musicianly, but the cracked notes at the end of the evening only proved that this run of performances maybe was really demanding for him. Laurent Naouri not only is an excellent actor, but sang Gernot’s act 1 romanze in the grand manner. It is a pity that his bass was a bit off focus for the comic duet with Drolla in act 2. As Farzana and Zemina, both Salomé Haller and the beautiful Eduarda Melo left absolutely nothing to be desired. Minor roles were strongly cast.

I do not know if the pun was intended, but Emilio Sagi decided to stage the world of fairies with glittery colours, lots of pink tones and male choristers dressed in female clothes. To say the truth, mortals had also its share of glossy scenic elements, but, maybe because there is a war going on, there seems to be a limited share of spangle going on in Arindal’s kingdom. Sagi claims to find inspiration in Jeffrey Koons for his settings – a gigantic rose, a gigantic doll and a gigantic chandelier seemed to be it and, if the effect could be dramatic blank, it never failed to have an aesthetic impact. Justice be made, actors were extremely well directed and scenes never sag, keeping continuous interest, but a heroic opera needs a bit more craft. For instance, act III describes Arindal’s fighting earth spirits and bronze men, but this is all reduced to a curtain of blue strings and colourful boxes. One could thing that the budget was not enough for the three acts…!

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