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Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’s Idomeneo’

In the bunraku play adapted for kabuki Kokusen’ya Kassen (The Battles of Coxinga), the warrior Watounai and his mother Nagisa are sent to China in order to offer General Kanki alliance in their common purpose of restoring the Ming Dinasty. When they arrive at the gates of Shishigajou Castle, there is a problem: according to the law, foreigners are not allowed inside. Since they have military secrets to discuss, the Chinese propose a compromise: the old lady can come if she agrees to have her arms bound. They are both outraged and Watounai threatens to draw his sword, but Nagisa – “as a Japanese person would do” – smiles. As you can see, it is not from today that the Japanese have disliked public display of emotions. Now imagine the effect of Italian opera on people who work hard to be collected even among friends: Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco claiming vendetta and confessing amore in full stentorian voice as if their lives depended on that in front of thousands of people. At this point you can see the appeal of becoming an opera singer in this country: your job being letting it all out in the name of art. This may sound like wild generalization, but I ask my eight or nine readers – have you heard of a Japanese singer who has distinguished him or herself internationally as a Mozart singer, in the way… someone like Sumi Jo has done?

As it seems, the majority of domestically trained Japanese singers are irresistibly attracted to Verismo and some Verdi… with the possible exception of those who sing with the Bach Collegium Japan. Even when they do sing other repertoire, the pamphlets advertising solo recitals almost invariably show people extravagantly dressed to sing Puccini and Verdi. Displaying feeling through the mastery of immaculate technique, sense of style and absolute grace could be a summary of the art of Kabuki actors, but it is also how a Mozartian singer could be described – this seems, however, to be less appealing a task for someone who could be ultimately letting it rip as Nedda or Canio. I have seen Japanese singers in Mozartian roles in the New National Theatre and I am afraid that it has never been a pleasure (I have discovered some very impressive Wagnerians born in this country nonetheless). I have refrained from posting a review on a Magic Flute without International guest singers from that theater and even more so because I couldn’t make myself stay for the second act.

The reason why I’ve decided to attend to the Idomeneo offered by the Nikikai Opera Company with an all Japanese cast is the fact that I was curious to see Damiano Michieletto’s 2013 production for the Theater an der Wien. As it seems, the genial atmosphere of the Da Ponte opera seems to inspire the Venetian director more positively than opera seria. The single set shows a sand box surrounded by white curtains. In it, we can see remains of war: shoes, suitcases, pieces of furniture. Nobody seems to be particularly happy about Greece’s victory over Troy, but rather gloomy in all shades of grey. This has an effect of having the cast throw things around – while poor Arbace’s job seems to be getting the trash out of the way for the next scene while he sings his long recitatives. When the second tenor finally got to sing one aria, he had already tossed aside 100 pieces of luggage and seemed so exhausted that he could barely get to the end of his phrases. This unimaginative and bizarrely awkward concept (have I told you that Ilia gives birth to a baby on stage during the ballet music in the end of the opera?) involves Elettra shown as a brainless bimbo obsessed with glittery dresses and high heels (to be used in the sandbox…). This meant that her sensuously expressive aria d’affetto would be transformed into operetta-ish couplets sung off-pitch amidst capers. If the director really wanted to use his imagination, he could have thought of something convincing for Idomeneo, Idamante and Ilia to do during D’Oreste, d’Ajacce.

If there was something positive about this performance, this was Jun Märkl’s conducting. His structural understanding of the score informed an ideal orchestral balance, an absolute control of rhythmic flow, even when he indulged in some well-judged playing with tempo… I feel tempted to write “sense of theatre”, but the truth is that a problematic cast and a not truly virtuosistic orchestra did not allow him real impact. In any case, the Tokyo Symphony gave the maestro its best and occasionally played with gusto. I cannot say something similar of the Nikikai Chorus, who lacked discipline and couldn’t cope with the solo demands (here given to a reduced group of choristers). The edition adopted today involved none of the arias cut in the Munich première (but for the above mentioned D’Oreste, d’Ajacce), the excision of Arbace’s Se il tuo duol and a large chunk of the scene with the High Priest, the use of one of the longer versions of the utterance of the Oracle and a reduced ballet music.

Now the singers. I have to assume that Yukiko Aragaki (Ilia) must have been seriously indisposed this afternoon. Her soprano is produced with a piercing metallic edge with occasional saccharine off-focused almost white-voiced moments (which I suppose to be attempts at shaded dynamics). Pitch and note values were too often imprecisely handled and, judging the effort to produce what Mozart wrote, the misguided exercise in ornamentation should have been duly avoided. Chikako Ohsumi’s Elettra was an alternately admirable and infuriating experience. Nature gave her an echt Mozartian soprano drammatico: it is bright, but not light; rich but well-focused; and it runs to its high notes without any effort. One can see that there is a Donna Anna hidden somewhere there, but there are problems with technique (unsupported low registered, her natural high notes become tight with pressure, there is a lot of sharpness going on there…), with style (problematic legato, tendency to peck at notes and truly ill-advised fondness for upward transposition…) and with discipline. There were moments where everything was in the right place and the effect was indeed amazing, but those were unfortunately always short-lived. It made me sad to see such potential going awry. Takumi Yogi (Idomeneo) is in comparison technically more finished: he has very long breath and, even if the coloratura was smeared here and there, he tackled the florid version of Fuor del mar less perilously than some famous tenors. However, he is not an elegant singer and very poorly acquainted with classical style, singing emphatically and stolidly most of the time. In his invocation to Neptune, where I can guess that the conductor had said something like “please attack the notes CLEANLY”, he showed how better the whole performance could have been if the same care had been used elsewhere.

I leave the best for last. I have seen Makiko Yamashita sing small roles in the New National Theatre for a while and have always enjoyed her warm, fruity mezzo and wished to hear her in a major role. Idamante is a tough piece of singing and although her Italian is a bit lifeless, she inhabits a different stylistic and expressive world from the rest of this cast. She is a natural Mozartian singer who phrases with poise and musicianship, only challenged by the high tessitura. As it was, both arias tested her sorely and she only made it to the end out of diligence and knowledge of her own limitations. I am not convinced that she doesn’t really have the high notes – they are there begging to be used, but it seems that she should work on her breath support to accomplish that. In any case, the artistry and the loveliness of tone are already there.

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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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There are people who like to dislike – I am not like that. When one dislikes something, one generally tends to miss an important aspect of what he or she dislikes. For example,  I like René Jacobs – I like his Bach, Handel and Haydn recordings. I even found his Rossini interesting – but I really don’t like his Mozart opera series for Harmonia Mundi. I find the orchestral sound brassy and unclear, the casting is eccentric and there is not a drop of sensuousness in these performances (at least for me, a serious blemish for the Da Ponte works). But I know I am alone here – everybody loves these recordings, they were awarded hundreds of prizes etc. That is why I am always ready to give a second chance.

If I had to rescue one among Jacobs’s Mozart recordings, this would certainly be La Clemenza di Tito. His baroque mannerisms somehow fit more comfortably in the context of opera seria – and that is why I finally decided to spend my last evening in Paris in the Salle Pleyel to check his concert performance of Idomeneo (to be released on CD).

First of all, I have discovered that Harmonia Mundi has a great share of responsibility in my dislike. Live at the theatre, I found the Freiburger Barockorchester significantly more pleasant than in Jacobs’s recordings. The brass instruments are far more integrated in the texture and the fortepiano (as one could imagine) is truly less intrusive (although we were treated to a mini-overture for act II on it ). I still expected clearer execution of passagework in string instruments, but what I heard is closer to what one would expect of a period instrument group (even if I have personally heard some far more polished in sound).

In what regards the conducting in itself, this was a gripping and theatrical performance, less efficient in lyrical passages when – again – everything seriously lacked affection. Part of the reason is the conductor’s overbearing intrusion in singers’ phrasing. For example, if he suspects something is a grace note, be sure that he’ll make the poor singer (or the orchestra) hiccup on it regardless of legato or the expressive atmosphere. Of course, the concept of legato and our intuitive ideas of expression do not belong to the XVIIIth century – but we, for that matter, don’t belong to that age either. In any case, this is too long a discussion for this post and I’ll answer the 1,000,000-question: yes, I will buy the CDs. Well, the truth is that I have bought all the others. So, I should say I will probably listen to this Idomeneo quite often – especially for the extremely well-buit public scenes, in which the RIAS Kammerchor offer accurate and dramatically aware singing: the act I finale is particularly effective.

Jacobs also counts with a distinguished cast here – some of these singers have appeared in previous releases in the series, but here they are more or less better cast. The immediate exception would be Sunhae Im, whose soubrettish voice is not anyone’s first idea for such a lyric soprano role. Her tone comes basically in one bell-like shape and, if her response to more dramatic scenes never went beyond adding a slightly more metallic edge to her voice, she finally convinced us of her Ilia by virtue of crystal-clear diction, vivid and intelligent response to the text and immaculate technique. Her ability to sing loooooong lines in one breath is really praiseworthy, for instance. It is a pity that the conductor prepared her such elaborate ornamentation for Zeffiretti lusinghieri – again the classical motto inutilia truncat would have ensured touching instead of extravagant results.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, on the other hand, has the perfect voice for Elettra. She is a singer with impressive resources, not always perfectly handled, but Jacobs seems to be a good influence on her. It is true that Tutte nel cor  was a bit lost on register shifting and  the fast and dance-like Idol’ mio was overcareful, but she really developed to create, in spite of an awkward close, the right effect in D’Oreste, d’Ajacce. To be more specific, the accompagnato Oh, smanie! Oh, furie! was sung in the great manner, with some stunning high pianissimi.

Bernarda Fink’s voice has seen more generous days – it is still lovely, but the lower end has become quite modest and top notes are less focused than they used to be. That said, she is the kind of singer who always goes straight to the point in what regards interpretation.  Her encounter with Idomeneo in act I and the sacrifice scene were extremely moving and convincing.  Considering her commendable handling of the difficult tessitura in No, la morte, one could say her performance gained in strength since a rather colourless Non ho colpa.

When Richard Croft first appeared on scene, I feared he might be indisposed or something like that. He seemed uncomfortable, often had his hands on his mouth or his ears and an anxious look about him, but as soon as he produced his first note, I reckoned that whatever affliction he might be experiencing had no effect on his singing. This is a voice of immediate charm, extremely pleasant on the year, light-toned but firm and strong to the bottom of his range. His phrasing is amazingly graceful and stylish (he was probably the one singer in the cast who followed Jacobs’s disciplinarian regime on phrasing and ornamentation as if he himself had devised all that) and his accuracy with fioriture is a marvel. His account of his difficult arias (including the long version of Fuor del mar and Torna la pace) were exemplary – I only wish he could gave himself a bit more to the emotional experience of singing Idomeneo. His approach to the role was so detached that sometimes I felt he was sight-reading his recitatives! Maybe this was the effect of his apparent uneaseness. In any case, this is a performance I don’t wish to find fault with – this was simply Mozart singing of the highest order.

The role of Arbace was similarly cast from strength with Kenneth Tarver, who is one of the most elegant and technically accomplished Mozart tenors these days. For a change, listening to both Arbace’s arias was rather a pleasure than an ordeal to the audience.  Nicolas Rivenq sang  the short role of Neptune’s High Priest to perfection and Luca Tittolo’s sonorous is exactly what the voice of Neptune requires.

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