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Although I cannot call myself a Berliozian (but rather the opposite of that), I couldn’ t help checking the Boston Symphony Orchestra’ s concert with the first part of Berlioz’ s gigantic rarely performed opera Les Troyens. I have to say that my first positive experience with that work involved James Levine’ s DVD from the Metropolitan Opera in spite of the exotic (if impressive) cast and seeing that he would conduct the work again tonight was the decisive element to make me buy my ticket. As in his New York performance with Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos, Levine resisted the temptation of presenting too turgid a view of this pseudo-classic work.  On his hand, Les Troyens is a matter of Musikdrama, often shown in almost late-Romantic intensity – and that’ s all for the better.  In that sense, the BSO was the main feature of this concert. This orchestra’ s lush, full yet light sonorities never get in the way of soloists and chorus and also involve the necessary clarity that ensure that Berlioz’ s woodwind effects hit home as they should. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus also deserve compliments for their powerful yet disciplined contribution.

Levine has the habit of seating his orchestra in a rather exotic manner, which might be effective to balance the sound of violas with the remaining strings. However, I will never be convinced that having the soloists standing in the end of the orchestra right in front of the chorus is a reasonable idea. In the three times I could witness this arrangement, it has always been perverse to singers, who seem understandably nervous having to take pride of place in the sound picture when they are not in the front of the orchestra. Especially when you have lightweight soloists.

Taking the crucial role of Cassandra, Yvonne Naef displayed an exquisite middle-weight mezzo-soprano that makes me think of another Yvonne – Minton – although the Australian singer had a brighter edge to her sound. I am used to more incisive and intense portrayals of this role and I took some time to understand that it was not only a sensible but a sensitive idea for Naef to opt for a more feminine and vulnerable approach, since her creamy sensuous voice was a bit stretched by the more exposed top notes and tested by having to sing over a full chorus. That said, no ugly sound came out of her throat during the whole evening, not to mention that her diction is crystalline and her phrasing is musicianly and elegant.

Announced to be indisposed, Dwayne Croft still could produce a most praiseworthy performance. His dark baritone is supple enough for Berliozian phrasing and only the occasional bleached out mezza voce and also some coughing showed that this reliable singer was indeed ill. Curiously, it was Marcello Giordani who seemed not to be in his best shape. He was entirely grey-toned during the first act and regaining the brightness of his sound for the second act did not prevent the sensation of effort.

In the whole, Levine’s theatrical approach aided by the exquisite orchestral playing and the unconventional yet touching Cassandre of Yvonne Naef made me think I would gladly listen to the second part after a 20 min intermission (alas, this will be possibly only for those who – unlike me –  will be in Boston on May 4th), even if I have doubts about Giordani’ s Aeneas right when he has a lot to sing and most of all about Anne Sofie Von Otter’ s Dido, especially placed behind the orchestra. Last time I saw her, Levine was the conductor who chose to seat her like that in the Gasteig Concert Hall for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and I can tell you she had a bad time trying to be heard from the remote spot on stage reserved for her.

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Showing an ideal view of a score made imperfect by the forces available or opt for an approach compatible with them? This is a question a conductor makes himself when he has a sub par orchestra. I write this after seeing Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Teatro São Carlos in Lisbon (March 1st). Conductor Johannes Stert evidently knows how he would like his Mozart – swift, dramatically rich yet flexible sounds to blend with the voices on stage and every theatrical effect in the score highlighted to boost the stage action, especially sudden shifts of pace. I subscribe to this approach, but in the first minutes of the overture one could see that the orchestra was clearly uncomfortable with that. Mistakes, mismatches, poor tuning abounded throughout, in spite of the musicians’ best efforts.

I make a point of stressing their commitment, for it is a heroic task to give one’s 100% to the world’s most blasé audience in the world. I was truly shocked by those people’s indifference to some very difficult arias, even when they were quite well sung. Truth be said, these singers do not belong to the type of cast that electrifies an audience. The evening’s Vitellia, Adriana Damato, for example, has a touch of Angela Gheorghiu in her voice, a strong low register, powerful acuti and clear divisions. However, all that is handled in too irregular a manner for comfort and in the end she offered a collection of good moments that never built into a coherent performance. Although she was the only Italian in the cast, she is careless about her declamation, along with the other soloists (albeit in more serious levels), what is a serious blemish in an opera notorious for its long recitatives.

Herbert Lippert had a promising career in the early 90’s and then became a second-rate affair. Seeing him live explains that. This is a tenor whose tone is pleasant on the ear (despite some nasal patches), capable of some heft, generally stylish in his phrasing and able to tackle some difficult fioriture (as in Se all’impero). His Tito is far more impressive than, say, Cristoph Prégardien’s or Michael Schade’s (to name two singers recently featured on DVD) – but no first-class tenor would dare to appear before an audience clueless about his Italian text. He clearly ignored the meaning of his lines and would apply some unconvincing emphasis as an Ersatz for proper declamation, not to mention he would even forget Metastasio’s words twice during his arias.

Sophie Marilley offered a most likeable performance as Sesto. Her mezzo-soprano is attractive and firm-toned, she handles the passaggio admirably and phrases arrestingly, but the competition for mezzos is tough and she needs to seriously work on her Italian. Also, she ought to be more exciting in the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio.

It is strange to say that the Annio has stolen the show, but the truth is Angélique Noldus offered the most all-round satisfying performance in the evening. Both her arias were sung in the grand manner. I hope to see her again.

Chelsey Schill could be a serviceable Servilia – her voice is pretty enough, but acquires a sour edge in the upper reaches and pitch is not always reliable. She also desperately needs to learn how to move on stage – she is disaster on high heels. Finally, Shavleg Armasi’s chocolate-y bass is promising enough. A bit more legato in his aria and he would have been an exemplary Publio.

When it comes to Joaquim Benites’s production, I am afraid it looks like the high-school version of Jonathan Miller’s staging from Zürich. It is basically the same concept (military régime and art-déco), only with uglier sets and costumes and no – and I mean NONE – stage direction. Singers moved about in a helpless manner doing the most basic gestures to illustrate their feelings (Vitellia would invariably hold herself as struck by a cold draft whenever she would sing the verb gelare – and she sings it a lot during the opera). Also, the transitions from recitatives to numbers would be marked by a pause in the action as if the stage had not been updated to gapless playing. To make things worse, the chorus was made to act like a group of zombies, marching on stage as in a military parade, standing still and singing their lines with the imperturbability of people who are mildly annoyed while the libretto explain that they are panic-stricken (such as in the finale to Act I). A theatre that received Maria Callas in the past should be more attentive to theatrical aspects.

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Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is an example of opera that disappeared from the seasons of opera houses all over the world only to be ressurrected in this new century. In Madrid for example, the opera has rarely been heard since the 1920’s with the notable exception of a run of performances in the 1970’s in the Teatro de la Zarzuela. And this may account for the cold reception by the audience on February 26th. I had the impression most people at the Teatro Real had no idea of what kind of opera this is and what they should expect.

I happened to be in the Metropolitan Opera’s ressurrection of the same opera in 2006 (also with Violeta Urmana). There, an audience that had been treated many and many times on a regular basis until the 1960’s knows very well what they are supposed to find in this very peculiar work. 

Violeta Urmana is possibly the greatest Gioconda of her generation. Her voice lacks some Italianate brightness, but she handles the difficult writing superbly – her high pianissimo in Madre! Enzo adorato, ah, come io t´amo! was exquisitely handled and she has no problem with the omnipresent percussive acuti, but the lack of encouragement from the audience might have some share of responsibility in her somewhat detached approach. Only in the last act, the proceedings seemed to launch from routine – and conductor Evelino Pidò cannot be held responsible for the lack of excitement. His conducting was exemplary – the polichrome aspect of Ponchielli’s orchestration was shown with mastery and he handled the dramatic effects in the score most efficiently. The house band responded with animation.

Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato offered a praiseworthy performance – his lyric tenor is adapted to emulate a lirico spinto and the trick is very noticeable, but he has a handsome voice and offers some elegant shading into mezza voce when this is necessary. His Cielo e mar had the right balance between ardour and elegance and if his performance is not more memorable, it is only because one feels how close to his limits he is – although expertly – operating. Similarly, baritone Lado Ataneli was a most reliable Barnaba – he sang with unfailing firm tone and sense of line and resisted the kind of vulgarity most baritones in this kind of role seem to indulge.

 In the Met, Urmana sang her Gioconda next to Olga Borodina’s Laura and their scenes were always the highlight of the evening. Elisabetta Fiorillo’s overvibrant mezzo lacks colour and handles awkwardly the passaggio. She does not look or sound attractive and it is difficult to understand why Enzo would prefer her to that nice lady with the pianissimi. Elena Zaremba was similarly overvibrant and it was difficult to guess which notes she was singing so large her vibrato. Her expression of gratitude in act II was far from touching as it should be.

When it comes to Orlin Anastassov, I cannot deny my dissatisfaction with his performance. If you put Paata Burchuladze and Sergei Leiferkus in a blender, the result must be Orlin Anastassov. It is a guttural voice with unclear vowels and this kind of  Leiferkus-like metallic attack. He is a young singer and maybe he should work a bit more in his Italian (and Italian singing style in general) before tackling this kind of role.

Pierluigi Pizzi’s production has been featured in the DVD from the Teatro del Liceu. At first the sets look elegant, but in order to accomodate the gondolas, the sceneries are unconvincingly transformed into a palace, a harbour and most of all Gioconda’s house (as portrayed here, the audience could have the impression she lives in the streets).  I am not fond of the all-in-three-colours costumes, but the most offensive thing is the evident lack of stage direction. Singers are generally standing in the wrong place for the dramatic action, move around with no apparent intent and in the end you really don’t care for what is going on stage. That was probably the point of coreographing a ballet “representing the hours of the day”, as Alvise explains, that has nothing to do with the hours of the day or any identifiable storyline. That said, the dancers were very fine and got the loudest applauses in the evening.

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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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New York was cold and snowy and I took my flight from Brasilia, where it is warm and rainy. I guess I was supposed to get an allergic reaction or some kind of flu, but it seems that I was the only healthy person in the Metropolitan Opera for a week or two. Those people cough as if they were all stand-in’s for Mimì in La Bohème.

The most curious thing about coughing is the dynamics. If those people were really sick, they would cough out of control in any given time, but experience has shown me that opera coughing has its own rules. One would expect people to cough during orchestral fortissimo passages, when they would go more or less unnoticed – but the fact is that pianissimi seem to have an encouraging effect on people’s tracheae. For example, you can almost predict that the Marschallin and the violins in the end of Rosenkavalier’s Act 1 are going to be drowned in coughing…

Other interesting aspect of opera coughing is that everyone’s moms tell you to cover your mouth with your hand – or better – with a handkerchief. This makes the noise far less loud and it is also considered polite, but it seems that the audiences feel that they should contribute to the music-making by a generous unprotected open-mouth coughing. Thus they can be recorded to posterity while Montserrat Caballé was trying to do justice to the ppp markings in the score.

I intend to research further in this subject.

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Sorry – it is awful to hate things, but it must have vent or inward hating will consume me. Now that I have a proper blog, I have to say I like proper booklets – with photos of the production so that I can remind how much I liked/disliked it, erudite tests about Nietzsche and  opera that I am never going to read and some advertisement by EMI or Deutsche Grammophon about a disc I am probably not going to buy. They are also shaped like books and fit perfectly in your shelf – your friends can look at them and say “So you’ve been to the Vienna State Opera…” and other very useful things.  So I feel happy for actually paying to have them.

On the other hand, Playbills are given away and have to be cheap therefore. They also feature make-up and fragrance ads – they have thousands of pictures about every other opera and play in New York BUT the one you’re currently seeing and they have those cool articles in which you learn that Renée Fleming only uses her iPod to help her to learn by heart the stuff she’s working on…

But the worst thing about Playbills is that they stick to your hand. I won’t say my hand, because I keep it away from it in order not to produce that awful cracking noise when you try to pull your hand away. But it seems everybody needs to fidget with their playbills as if their lives depended on it. I remember one particular Mahler 2nd at Carnegie Hall during which there was so much noise with Playbills that I felt as if I was listening to an old LP cracking throughout.

But I’ll tell you the real reason for my bad humor. I have hundreds of playbills here and I don’t have the courage to throw them away, because I would like to keep record of what I saw at the Met. I have tried different storage solutions and a visit to Muji finally gave me the solution for my problem. I bought some small binders and now I am in the process of unstapling each one of my Playbills, keeping the center pages (related to the performance), throwing away the ads and the Renée Fleming/Anna Netrebko articles, re-stapling the remaining two or three folds and storing each one in an individual plastic thing in the binder. It should be a wonderful pastime for an obsessive-compulsive person while listening to music, I reckon.

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