Posts Tagged ‘Marie-Claude Chappuis’

René Jacobs’s incursion in the field of Mozart operas has started with Così fan tutte and has met with wide critical acclaim. I have to confess that I felt alone in my lack of affection for these recordings – glassy and unclear orchestral playing, inorganic approach to rhythm, fancy for overdecoration, exotic casting and the intrusive fortepiano continuo largely to blame. That said, a sense of development can be felt – his recording of Le Nozze di Figaro is somewhat more polished and that of Don Giovanni has many powerful moments, while La Clemenza di Tito is a recording one has to appreciate and finally Idomeneo goes to the short-list in this opera’s discography (I am not so sure about Die Zauberflöte, though). It makes one wonders why the first work in the series is the first to be revisited.

The first information to stand out about this performance is that the new cast features singers who have become close collaborators of the Belgian conductor, but the truth is that it was hardly this evening’s memorable feature, which would be rather René Jacobs himself. Rarely have I witnessed a conductor whose own view of a work has matured so fast and so profoundly. I do not mean that the new Così does not sound like a René Jacobs performance. It does: the abrupt change of pace in the middle of numbers, the fancy for decoration, the vigorous rhythms, they are all there, but now they do sound like a natural means of expression of the score rather than mannerisms that only call attention to themselves. The immediate good surprise was a newly found sense of respect for the natural rhythmic flow where even the swift acc. and rit. effects proved to be consequent and musically/dramatically justified. Other than this there was the all-important sensuous orchestral sound largely absent in Jacobs’s early Mozart opera recordings. This evening, the Freiburger Barockorchester offered rich, clear and expressive sounds throughout. The transparence of ensembles, the neatness of rapid divisions both in woodwind and strings, the sense of story-telling and the perfect balance between singers and orchestra are an evidence of the adept Mozartian Jacobs has ultimately become. It is a pity that the old performance rather than this one been preserved for posterity.

In any case, if the old recording has an advantage, this would be the the euphonious and technically polished casting of singers like Véronique Gens or Bernarda Fink. Although this evening’s singers could be considered more theatrically engaged and the sense of team more vivid, none of them offered the nec plus ultra in Mozartian singing. Alexandrina Pendatchanska did not seem to be in a good-voice day and gave the impression of being nervous (even if she has actually taken roles more technically exacting than Fiordiligi in her career). Although her bottom register is usually generous, she seemed cautious about diving into the lower end of her range, while the voice sounded distinctively less bright than usual, especially in its high register. Sometimes she sank into background in ensembles, especially while singing coloratura. Nevertheless, she tackled very fast divisions accurately, even facing fast tempi in the strette of both her arias and had no problem with singing very high mezza voce. She has the interpretative and emotional resources for the role (her recitatives were particularly convincing), but the lack of a nobler tonal quality made her Fiordiligi short in vulnerability and touchingness. On the other hand, Marie-Claude Chappuis’s reedy mezzo is extremely appealing and she is stylish, musicianly and sensitive. It is only a pity that she fails to girare la voce, as Italians use to say, making her high notes tense and hard. Sunhae Im has everything in her favour to be an excellent Despina, but  for the voice for the role. Although her soprano is all right quicksilvery as a soubrette’s should be, the part is in on the low side for her. As a result, she could barely pierce through in the lower reaches and the tonal quality lacked the sexiness she had to produce rather by inflection and attitude.

Magnus Staveland clearly knows Mozartian style and never fails in good taste and elegance, but his tenor lacks stronger support in a role the tessitura of which is basically high. He was often overshadowed in ensembles, did not really project his top notes, too often shifted to falsetto or sounded grey and unflowing in more exposed high-lying passages. The deletion of Ah, lo vegg’io came  as no surprise and Tradito, schernito was all about difficulty. Johannes Weisser’s clear baritone is far more pleasant and generous, but it seems that he is one of those singers whose facility is finally an obstacle to optimal results. It is true that the sound was never less than pleasing, but one had the impression that he only really “placed his voice” when things became really low or required more thrust. When this happens, he does sound like a baritone – and a particularly rich-toned one – but that happens unfortunately very infrequently. Marcos Fink’s voice is a bit low for Don Alfonso, but he is an experient and resourceful singer who knows how to sound at ease, even when he is not.

Calling this performance a semi-staged concert is an understatement. Although there were no sets and costumes, some props were used and stage action had no interruption. Singers exited and entered the stage as in a fully-staged event. Although the program does not mention any director, the proceedings were actually very well directed and the cast made a very good job out of it, especially Sunhae Im, a brilliant comedy actress. Even the choristsers from the Coro Gulbekian proved to have acting skills in a most entertaining evening.

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While Idomeneo and Idamante had to work on their father-son relationship, Nikolaus and Philipp Harnoncourt are doing really well in that department – it is their collaboration that maybe needs some rethinking. Their teamwork has resulted the production of Mozart’s Idomeno first seen in Graz in 2008 and now reprised in the Opernhaus Zürich. Harnoncourt, Sr., claims that the idea of sharing responsibility in this staging is due to the fact that he had never seen any director who really understands that Idomeneo is rather a tragédie lyrique than an opera seria. Therefore, ballet should play a key role in it, especially in what regards showing the supernatural elements of the plot. I could agree with that on paper, but what has been finally shown on stage is only a low-budget production with unimaginative sets of dubious taste, unbelievably ugly costumes and a detailed if clichéd stage direction that reduces Idomeneo to mania, Elettra to coquetry, Ilia to childishness and Idamante to neediness. Then there is the ballet – I am not sure if classical ballet pirouettes are the right idea to portray sea monsters and menacing deities. I found it quite distracting, especially during the staged overture (yes, I know…). The complete ballet music in the end of the opera has been retained and, as much as Heinz Spoerli’s graceful choreography was expertly performed by the Zürcher Ballet, it added absolutely nothing to the understanding of the plot. One could actually take it for the second item on a double bill with the opera until Ilia and Idamante are finally brought in the last minute to justify the whole idea. To make things worse, with the excuse of the original Munich première version, the most exciting aria in the score (D’Oreste, d’Ajacce, of course) did not make it into this evening’s performing edition. The reason why Mozart cut it back then was the interruption of the dramatic flow caused by it. In the Harnoncourts’ staging, Elettra’s surviving recitative was an oasis of excitement in a rather uneventful closing scene… If I had to point out an advantage in the father-son teamwork, this would be the way the conductor’s fanciful playing with tempo found support in the dramatic action.

Compared to Harnoncourt’s Teldec recording with more or less the same orchestra (then under a different name), this evening’s performance is noticeably less coherent in its theatrical intent. Although Harnoncourt’s microscopic attention to details is often revelatory, pressing the break pedal to highlight every little one of them is finally an aim in itself, rather than a means to express anything. Moreover, the orchestral playing left something to be desired in its extremely dry sound, not to mention the occasional instance of poor tuning and lack of rhythmic precision. Although the choral singing was not bad, it lacked the necessary clarity to blend with the period instrument orchestra.

All that said, Harnoncourt masters the art of accentuation and produced some amazing results, for example, in recitativi accompagnati –  some chords were so sudden and intense that I almost jumped off my seat at moments! The scene when Idamante first sees his father was worth alone the (high) price of the ticket.

Julia Kleiter is an ideal Mozartian soprano and apart from one blunder during Se il padre perdei*, offered an exemplary account of the role if Ilia. If she ultimately could be  somewhat more affecting, I would rather blame the directors’ superficial view of the role, which left her little space to focus. Eva Mei’s bright soprano is a bit light for Elletra. Without her final aria, it is difficult to say anything definitive about her take on this role. As it was, she found the tessitura of Tutte nel cor uncongenial and failed to caress her lines in Idol’ mio, even if she found no difficulty with the high-lying writing. She is a seasoned Mozartian and made some beautiful sounds and used the text knowingly, but the  final impression was rather blank. She is not usually considered a magnetic actress, but was was certainly the singer who offered the bast acting in this cast. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s mezzo is similarly light for Idamante, but once she overcame the problems that thwarted her high register during Non ho colpa, this singer would win the audience over with her beauty of tone, elegant phrasing, exquisite pianissimi and engagement.

Saimir Pirgu’s italianate dulcet tenor is on the light side for Idomeneo. He was not entirely comfortable in a part that sits low in his voice and tended to be emphatic in a way that tampers with legato, but produced reasonably effortless divisions in Fuor del mare. He still needs to mature in the role in order to transcend correctness and achieve something really moving. Cristroph Strehl was a strenous Arbace who got to sing one of his arias (Se colà ne’ fati).

* This is the first time I have heard Ilia sing her complete recitative in which she speaks of Hecuba and Priam in a staged production. Harnoncourt recording has the usual shorter version, while, as far as I can immediately remember, Jacobs’s recording for Harmonia Mundi is the only one to feature the longer text.

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