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Posts Tagged ‘Mariss Jansons’

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk used to be a “for a change” item in the repertoires of big theatres in the world and you would expect to see the B-team creative team working on a low budget. It has, however, increasingly tempted adventurous first-rate sopranos (especially those who sing Wagner) willing to try a role challenging both in terms of music and theatre. Although this is a groundbreaker in Russian opera, the discography and videography practically feature no recordings made in Russia. For instance, Galina Vishnevskaya is the only Russian soprano whose performance in the title role has been officially released. As it is, this work’s performance tradition has been built rather in the “20th century opera” than in the “Russian opera” shelf of one’s library. This evening in the Großes Festspielhaus, in one hand, confirms this trend: it has the Vienna Philharmonic (there already is a live recording with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) conducted by Mariss Jansons (who had already recorded it with Eva-Maria Westbroek, Christopher Ventris and the Concertgebouw) and was supposed to feature Nina Stemme’s Katarina Izmailova. With her cancellation due to illness, this finally ended up being one of the most “Russian” casts ever to appear in an important theatre in the West. The leading tenor is American – and there are two Ukrainians.

In any case, the most important element of this performance is Mariss Jansons’s conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Maestro Jansons has developed the reputation of a specialist in Shostakovich’s music and proves to be immune to all clichés and shortcuts in this score. He resists the temptation of having an angle and lets the score speak in its wide-raging possibilities. Under his baton, this is grand-scale drama. The Latvian conductor paints, with deluxe orchestral sound, the kaleidoscopic atmosphere of this wide-ranging story without any parti pris. Every scene is given what its text and music demands, as a seasoned Lieder singer would do in a Schubert song. Mr. Janssons does not make light of Katarina’s predicament – he does convey the composer’s cynicism, but he takes it seriously too. And this only makes everything more poignant and more cruel. The fact that he has the Vienna Phiharmonic with him can be described by my neighbor’s reaction, which was letting go a “Wahnsinn!” every time he heard vortices of perfectly blended woodwind, brass and strings spin out in absolute precision. And this was often.

Originally cast as a prisioner in the last act, Evgenia Muraveva was promoted to the title role (it is not clear to me if she had already sung it or if she was scheduled to sing it for the first time in the Mariinsky in the near future) as Ms. Stemme fell ill. Hers is a vibrant and slightly metallic soprano one typycally calls “Slavic”, with a mezzo-ish low register and yet surprisingly ductile in floated mezza voce and keen on legato whenever lyricism is demanded. Being Russian herself, the text is delivered with crispness and purpose. Although I was curious to hear Nina Stemme’s unique vocal colors in it, I was fully satisfied by Ms. Muraveva’s freshness of approach and authencity. By the enthusiastic applause she received, I believe that everyone else in the theatre agrees with me. Her Sergey was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, whose warm tenor has the necessary smile to make the character truly believable. For someone who sings Wagner, his high notes did not ring heroically in the auditorium, but that only added a welcome soft-spoken quality to his character. Dmitry Uliyanov was a resonant, firm-toned Boris Timofeyevich and all minor roles were aptly cast.

Andreas Kriegenburg stages this in the decayed courtyard of a suburban residential building and, even if it might seem contemporary, this is actually secondary to the sensation of isolation, confinement and social desintegration. Although Harald B. Thor’s sets are impressive and atmospheric, the director’s focus is on the Personenregie, which tries to depict the moods and feelings of the character rather than make them symbolic or metaphoric.  As a result, the audience couldn’t help being drawn into the dramatic action and empathize with those people whose stories are being told on stage.

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The Nederlandse Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin cannot help being a must-see: it features only Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and the controversial Stefan Herheim as stage director. Before I write further, I will say straightaway that it is worthwhile the trip.

Although I was disappointed to see Herheim repeating his historic approach as in his Bayreuth Parsifal (it would be sad if he, of all people, turns out to be predictable), the formula does work. Onegin is a man in search of identity – and Russia has faced a similar problem as a nation. When we first meet both in this staging, the shadow of the Romantic world still haunts them. Revolution makes its appearance with the end of innocence, when Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel before revolutionary soldiers. The ball in Moscow is a parade of Sovietic icons – ballet dancers, athletes, astronauts – a collective self-affirmation that does not provide answers to Onegin’s individual questions. In this ball, Tatiana and Gremin are just idealized visions. Their real appearance, in Putin’s Russia, finally proves to be more violent in their new money/old habits-milieu. Even if you disagree with the analogy, Pushkin’s storyline is given an interesting twist when told in flashback. Onegin is in a kitsch-glamour hall when he sees Tatiana as a socialite. Suddenly, the glass-and-metal room centerstage becomes Larina’s house by virtue of a revolving structure. Past and present intertwine: Tatiana and Onegin write their letters simultaneously while Gremin sleeps in his bed. Sets and costumes are ingeniously and beautifully conceived (I only dislike the cheap computer-made projections – and maybe the guy in a bear costume borrowed from Herheim’s Lohengrin at the Lindenoper) and make the complex shiftings in time and in scope (social/private) coherent.

Mariss Jansons offers a subtle and elegant view of the score. It does not sound typically “Russian” in its transparent textures, clear strings and avoidance of emotionalism, but is somehow faithful to the melancholic atmosphere of the work. His sense of balance between stage and pit is exemplary, not to mention his ability to increase volume without saturating the aural picture with excessive loudness.

Crowning the performance, Krassimira Stoyanova’s immaculate Tatiana. The voice is exquisite and expressive, the technique is solid and she inhabits the role musically and scenically. Elena Maximova too has the perfect voice and attitude for Olga, but her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. Olga Savova and Nina Romanova are ideally cast as Larina’s and Filipevna. Andrei Dunaev is a reliable Lenski – the voice is spontaneous, but his big aria was not really thrilling (or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Piotr Beczala in New York and Rolando Villazón in Berlin). Mikhail Petrenko offered a sensitive account of his aria – a little bit more body in his high register would have been helpful. As for Boje Skovhus, although he sang better than in Berlin in 2009, his pleasant and well-focused baritone still lacks some depth in this role, but the truth is his overacting is always hard to overlook – even when relatively tamed by a strong-handed director

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There is an urban legend about the influence of the unique acoustic conditions of the Concertgebouw over its resident orchestra. According to it, the building’s warm resonant acoustics has taught those musicians to produce rich yet lightweight sounds; otherwise, the results could be rather tangled and unclear. So I was told in Amsterdam.

I had seen the Concertgebouw orchestra previously in Rio in a completely uneventful R. Strauss’s Metamorphosen + Mahler 5th bill, when the orchestra sounded plainly speaking opaque and grey-toned. But then the dry acoustics of Rio’s Theatro Municipal could be responsible for the debacle. A couple of years later, I had the pleasure to witness a Ravel/Stravinsky programme with the famous Dutch orchestra in their own hall – and I was simply overwhelmed by its absolute clarity and beauty of tone. That was eight years ago.

Since then, I have sampled the Concertgebouw only through recordings – until today, when the fabulous orchestra more than fulfilled my expectations – it went far beyond. Under the admirable conductor Mariss Jansons, the orchestra shines at its best.

I have chosen a programme quite unusual for my traditional “German” concert preferences. Although Debussy’s La Mer and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique are hardly “unusual” repertoire, these are pieces I have seldom heard in live performances. Therefore, I cannot expertly compare today’s concert with any particular one, but I don’t really feel I need it.

In Jansons’s hands, the orchestra poured liquid crystalline sounds in Debussy’s score, every tiny detail played to its perfect effect. The violins’ pianissimo playing could make even the Vienna Philharmonic envy. However, even that kaleidoscopic Debussy could not prepare the audience to the flashing performance of Berlioz’s masterpiece. There the orchestra proved to have amazing consistence of tonal beauty through the complete dynamic range. Although Berlioz saw himself as a classical composer, scholars would rather label him as “proto-Romantic”. That dichotomy, however, was not a problem for Jansons, who took advantage of both full-toned Romantic orchestral sonorities and hallmark classical transparence with perfectly blended woodwind. The waltz rhythms in the second movement revealed Viennese grace, the third movement featured organic coherence between the bucolic and tempestuous elements, the fourth movement was a showcase of dynamic control and the fifth benefited from an extremely wide-ranging tonal palette. An unforgettable performance.

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