Posts Tagged ‘Salzburger Festspiele’

After having seen Cecilia Bartoli sing Alcina in Zurich, I have said that this is her best Handelian role, and her performance tonight confirms that impression. Reading what I wrote back then, I realize that what she has done tonight is consistent with my memory. To be honest, she surpassed herself tonight – the coloratura in Ombre palide was more focused, she finally found her mojo in Mi restano le lagrime and her display of variety of phrasing in Ah, mio cor was impressive, even for someone who is not reaLly her fan. I mean, me. Although I admire the intelligence and ability behind all that, I just need to watch Arleen Augér in that video from Geneva to see that honest singing and emotional sincerity are better than craft and mannerisms. Sandrine Piau’s soprano is not as fresh as it used to be and fioriture in Tornami a vagheggiar lacked finish, but once she warmed up, she produced an exquisite Credete al mio dolore. Kristina Hammarström’s fast divisions are still something to marvel, but, other than that, her Bradamante now sounds lost around the passaggio. Philippe Jaroussky is now marginally more comfortable with the more heroic moments in the part of Ruggiero, but his countertenor is also marginally less soaring in the arie d’affetto. In any case, this is comparing him to himself. His Verdi prati remain a thing of beauty. I will never understand why the part of Oronte is never cast with a tenor graced by a beautiful voice. Christoph Strehl does have a long breath and his high g’s are firm, but that is pretty much it. Alastair Miles’s bass remains dark and powerful, and the Wiener Sängerknabe Sheen Park proved to be really brave with florid singing.

The Musiciens du Prince will never be the world’s richest toned orchestra, but their strings are far less scrawny than they used to be when I last saw them in this theater. This time, Gianluca Capuano too seemed a different conductor. He tried many different things in terms of phrasing (the contrasts in sound in Ah, mio cor were particularly innovative) and adopted some unusual ornamentation in the orchestra in some of the repeats. His continuo too was extraordinarily varied: there was a harp, a theorbo, a cello, a harpsichord and even an organ. All in all, his conducting was dramatically alert and the slow tempi in the arie d’affetto seemed to serve the purpose of highlighting his soloists’ expressive powers.

Damiano Michieletto’s exquisite looking production features some of this director’s hallmarks – rotating stage, retro décors, dreamlike sequences. Here Alcina’s island has something of the haunted hotel in The Shining. The stage is divided by a glass wall that mixes the reflex of what happens downstage with the action behind it upstage, the superpositions blurring fantasy and reality. The idea of having an older actress playing who Alcina is without her powers is a survival of Katie Mitchell’s staging from Aix-en-Provence, but Michieletto’s approach is ultimately cleaner and psychologically sharper, even if he does not try to wow you with his Régie insights.


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At this point, my 9 or 10 readers know that I have a soft sport for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. When the lights dim in the theatre before the performance, I am always ready for an emotional experience – and all I need is that the artists involved do not mess up. In other words, I can do with “ok”. As a matter of fact, my experience of seeing this opera has been variations of “ok”, until today’s performance in the Grosses Festspielhaus. This was a classy, festival experience with distinguished soloists in top form, amazing choral singing and one of the world’s best orchestras under a top-tier conductor.

Marina Rebeka was not the most touching of Amelias, but she is extremely well equipped for the job. Her sizable soprano is youthful, flexible and always easy on the ear – and she is the kind of singer who won’t find any problem singing all her notes, no matter how difficult the phrase is. She would even mellow during the opera and sang sensitively and tastefully the closing scene. Her Adorno, Charles Castronovo, proved to be an ideal partner. Even if his tenor is light on paper for the part, he was in healthy form and projected round, easy top notes without thinking twice. His singing was Italianate, fervent and appealing. Luca Salsi too was a very convincing Boccanegra, firm of tone, stylish in phrasing and dramatically alert. Some may say he does not compare to famous baritones in the past, but, even in his less than exuberant high notes, he displayed the virtue of making this performance about his character (and not about himself, as many singers in this repertoire). Truth be said, René Pape (Fiesco) almost stoled the show. His bass flooded the auditorium in dark-chocolate sounds, and his singing – even if a bit too straight to the point – was always expressive and elegant. Bravissimo. One feels a bit shortchanged not to find a world-class Paolo (as in Abbado’s or Solti’s recordings from La Scala), but unfortunately that is increasingly an exception – and the baritone cast is the role today never spoiled the fun.

The Vienna Philharmonic offered playing of superlative quality and finesse under Valery Gergiev’s Karajan-esque conducting – the orchestral sound always full, big, rich, flexible and yet transparent. Even if the cast could cope with such abundance of sound, Mr. Gergiev could lighten the picture for the more intimate scene without ever producing pale sonorities. And the Vienna State Opera chorus sang with firmness, homogeneity and animation. When a conductor has forces of such excellency, he does not need to resort to bombastic to make his points. This performance left nothing to be desired in terms of impact, but never needed to appeal to any kind of exaggeration or vulgarity.

Unfortunately, the paramount level of accomplishment is restricted to the musical side of this performance. Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging had more than a splash of amateurism not only in his Personenregie (which is nonexistent) but in his blocking of actors on stage. Saying that singers were often doing things that made no sense to what they were saying is an understatement. They would walk away from each other when they were saying that they were embracing, they would often have to be invisible not to be seen doing things supposed to be hidden in front of everybody and their movements were almost always poorly timed to the score. There is this moment, when Simon asks Amelia how she was able to escape from her kidnappers and, under Kriegenburg’s direction he does not even bother to listen. He walks away without really caring if she had suffered any kind of abuse, unlike every other parent in the whole planet. Just before that there was this moment when he ordered the doors of the palace to be opened for the people outside to enter. And yet nobody actually gets in! When he asks plebeian and patricians to reach out for each other, one would have to use his or her imagination to guess what he is talking about. The updating of the action per se is not a bad idea, the use of cellphones and twitters particularly effective to explain how Paolo could get so much support for Boccanegra’s candidacy in less than 10 minutes… The single set, striking looking as it is, was ill suited for the most intimate scenes. When Simon starts to feel the effect of the poison, he wasn’t even granted a table or a couch to recline on – and the whole affair of the poisoned bottle of water was carried on on a thin shelf near to a wall invisible to those seated in the extreme sides of the theater.

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The celebration of Jacques Offenbach’s 200th birthday is something of an unclaimed event. German by birth, but intrinsically French as an artist, he is a name in a no man’s land in the middle of the Rhein. Nonetheless, his key participation in the creation of the genre operetta certainly reserves him a special place in the hearts of Austrian musical history. This is why it is fitting that the Salzburg Festival has included a tribute in this year’s program in a new production of Orphée aux Enfers, a work famous for its galop infernal, usually referred to as the “can can”.

I am not familiar with French operetta and learned the piece in Marc Minkowski’s recording, a who’s who of the French vocal scene at the time, an ideal memento of a performance of historic status, but at the same time a reference of paramount excellence that somehow spoiled a bit of the fun to me this afternoon. Operetta performances are irreverent by definition, but when you have Barrie Kosky and his creative team from the Komische Oper in Berlin, be prepared to have something a little bit racier than “irreverent”. However, we are speaking of the staging later. For the moment, it suffices to say that the boldness here meant that the brushstrokes were far larger than those used by Minkowski’s troupe, the atmosphere more Kirchner than Toulouse-Lautrec in style. This means that none of the singers here displayed the chic piquancy seen and heard in the performances in Lyon. I felt particularly shortchanged by the casting of Kathryn Lewek as Eurydice. She is all right a good actress and has a creamy voice, the in alts and the coloratura, but it all sounded monochrome in comparison to Natalie Dessay’s vocally nuanced and scenically multilayered offering. It is unfair to expect anyone to meet these standards, but at least I would have enjoyed to make out the French words in her text instead of the plethora of shrieks and off-pitch effects that soon outstayed their welcome. Although Yann Beuron remains as the dictionary reference of French tenor singing, Joel Prieto’s round, warm tenor ultimately made more of an impression as Orphée.  His French unfortunately lacks the necessary crispness. Marcel Beekman came closer than anyone else to handling his text as meaningful words rather than as a sequence of sounds, the tonal quality itself very appropriate to the role of Pluton. Martin Winkler at least was clear of diction and deployed a bass of Wagnerian proportions as Jupiter. He too has comic timing and the audience in his hand.  It is endearing to find Anne Sofie von Otter on stage, yet her voice is now extremely soft-centered – and the part is really low for her (I tried to clean my mind of the sound of Ewa Podles’s contralto in Minkowski’s recording). Before the second act, she sang Offenbach’s Barcarolle with piano accompaniment quite charmingly.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola cleaned the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic of all glamour and elicited from the venerable orchestra its rawest and earthiest sounds, something those musicians gladly did. Even if the overall impression was not French in form, the palpable sense of fun was true to the spirit of operetta.

When I write that I missed something of the charm of the Laurent Pelly’s video, I don’t mean that this was a surprise to me. Being familiar with Kosky’s work in the Komische Oper, I did expect a Berliner edge, with a touch of the Kabarett aesthetics, in this production’s angle. That meant that some of the humor was heavy-handed, but done with gusto as this afternoon, it is hard to resist – provided you grant Offenbach his German-ness back. Dealing with an international cast, Kosky made the bold yet effective idea of having actor Max Hopp voice over all dialogues for the whole cast, a virtuoso feat. Mr. Hopp is a vocal chameleon not only in terms of producing different vocal personalities, but he also made all sound effects such as footsteps – and also sang John Styx’s aria with the help of a microphone. Costumes and sets, predictably were striking and Otto Pichler’s choreographies were outrageously funny. Although one or two people booed the director, one could feel that everyone else in the theatre had the time of their lives today.

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Cherubini’s Médée’s claim to fame has less to do with Beethoven’s interest in the Italian composer’s orchestral narrative writing but rather Maria Callas’s assumption of the title role (in its Italian version with recitatives). It is not difficult to understand why a singing actress would be interested in it – once Medea is on stage, the show is about her and the way Cherubini devised the part makes little concession to vocal narcissism. It is a Kunstdiva role through and through. This does not mean that you don’t need exceptional soloists to complete the cast – both the parts of Jason and Dircé are high lying and fairly exposed. And the orchestra does not give singers a rest.

I have to be honest: although I recognize the historical importance of Cherubini’s Médée, I cannot really say that I like it. I am unable to find a melodic genius behind this score, which does not strike me as harmonically profound either. And its nervous, relentless orchestra is so uniformly busy that, in the ends, it gives me the impression rather of fidgetiness than of intensity. In any case, the Schwerpunkt of a performance of Médée should be the way the TEXT is colored by these singers’ declamatory powers against the backdrop of the orchestral filigree. And that is why I find the Salzburg Festspiele’s effort self-defeating. First of all, the Grosses Festspielhaus is the wrong venue for an opera like this. In its huge stage and big auditorium, the text is largely lost. Cherubini makes it even more difficult by having most of Médée’s music in the most uncongenial part of the soprano voice – and most of Jason’s in the less comfortable part of the tenor’s voice. Having to project over the Vienna Philharmonic – even reined-in by Thomas Hengelbrock’s “historically informed” conducting – these singers’ last concern was textual clarity. This fact alone made this evening’s performance pointless.

To make things worse, not one singer in the cast seemed truly idiomatic in the language of Corneille and Racine. I understand that the original casting of Sonya Yoncheva in the title role was these performances’ raison d’être: the Bulgarian soprano is a capable actress with a very distinctive voice and long experience in French roles under the approval of French audiences. I cannot say the same about Elena Stikhina. If her voice is more powerful than Yoncheva’s (and therefore more appropriate to the large hall), the glory of this Russian soprano is not its lower and middle register. As a result, most of the text was lost to the public and, when you could indeed make out what she was saying, it hardly sounded flashing and formidable as it should. The tonal quality itself is appealing in its blend of metal and velvet, but, in spite of all her commitment, she is not the woman for the task. I knew Rosa Feola exclusively from recordings and, judging by what I heard today, she must have not been in very good voice. There was unexpected tension in her high notes and her phrasing sounded graceless and unaffecting. I will have to hear her again before I form my opinion. I had low expectations about Pavel Cernoch’s Jason. As written above, this is a high-lying part, and it did not flatter Mr. Cernoch’s tight upper register. His voice sounded bottled-up and rough-edged. He did not give an amorous impression in his scenes with Dircé and was overshadowed by Ms. Stikhina’s more exuberant instrument. Vitalij Kowaljow’s large bass baritone made all the difference in the world as Créon. I certainly understand the temptation of hearing Cherubini’s Medea in capital letters with a big orchestra. But then you’ll really need the likes of Maria Callas, Renata Scotto and Jon Vickers to make it happen.

Under Mr. Hengelbrock’s disciplinarian baton, the Vienna Philharmonic hardly sounded Beethovenian, but played with animation and clarity throughout – the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor also deserves praise for its rich yet precise singing.

At any rate, even if the musical performance had offered everything the listener could hope for, Simon Stone’s superficial and extravagant staging is the one who put the bullet in the heart of this opera. In its kitsch, realistic and various sets, the story of Medea is reduced to soap opera depth and the caliber of this most shocking of classical tragedies is reduced to the immigration agenda. Here, Medea is a Russian bride who hit jackpot living the wonders of bourgeois life with a rich and handsome husband, until she finds that he has another woman. Then she has to return to her shitty hometown (where she has to use an internet cafe when there is no shortage of power) to realize that it is unfair – dove sono i bei momenti by the lake, the expensive kitchen appliances? She only needs an episode of public embarrassment by immigration authorities on  returning to her alpine paradise to settle things with her ex, before she decides that enough is enough, the kids will have to die. That plot has very little to do with Medea, who never was simply a housewife to start with. In Mr. Stone’s view, it all sounds dangerously close to a warning against marrying crazy foreign women. When things go wrong, they won’t give up before you’ll have to call the police. Seriously? And I have to say that the closing acts are anticlimactic as they can be. In the original plot, Dircé is burnt to death in a cursed dress – and here she is just stabbed. Yes, stabbed. Considering that knives already existed in the days of Euripides and Seneca, if the idea were having such a prosaic death scene, a knife would have been chosen, wouldn’t it? The final scene first looks as if you’re going to have an extraordinary pyrotechnic special effect, but it seems that the budget had already been used up by then. Boo.

In these performances, all dialogues have been deleted, some of them replaced by messages from Medea in Jason’s cellphone, the text written by the director.

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When I saw Peter Sellars and Teodor Currentzis’s take on Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito for the Salzburger Festspiele two years ago, I wrote that both stage director and conductor suffered from excess of ideas – and that, regardless of how good one’s ideas are, you cannot stage an idea. If it does not work scenically, then it belongs exclusively to the booklet sold by the usher when you get to the theater.

Although the above mentioned production’s success is debatable, the ideas were thought-provoking and, in the end, you really wished the whole concept worked in terms of theatre. I am not sure about their Idomeneo, though. When I entered the Felsenreitschule and saw the stage covered with inflatable plastic props, I thought it all looked like plastic pollution. Little did I know that, well, it was plastic pollution. At least, that is what the Dramaturg says in the booklet. I’ll take his word for it. I would later discover that plastic was not the only useless stuff washed ashore in Crete. There was Idomeneo himself too, but let’s talk about that later. What we see here is this timeless place covered with gigantic jellyfish-like plastic structures and the police separating the orange-uniform team from the blue-uniform team. As the policemen seemed to obey the people in blue, we could guess that the Trojan guys were the orange team. When Idomeneo endly shows up, he does not get a blue uniform like everybody else, he gets a military one, just like Arbace’s. So far, although there are dangerous levels of choristers doing cute steps as if they survived not from the Trojan War, but from the sixth season of Glee, the story seems to be exactly the one in Giambattista Varesco’s libretto, what could be a notable thing. However, my Italian neighbors kept complaining that, at La Scala, there were sand, rocks, waves, ships and people who looked like a royal family. But that impression was soon to be dismissed. Since the edition adopted by Mr. Currentzis involved an amazing level of cuts, there was a moment when it was impossible to understand the story anymore. I happen to like the scene when Idamante realizes that his father avoids him not because of disgust, but as an attempt to spare him of a gruesome fate and, having his confidence restored, volunteers his own princely neck to save the good people of Crete. I am afraid I’ll have to wait for another staging to see all that. Here Idamante is not urged to sacrifice anything; Neptune just needs to see him and Ilia together and, overwhelmed by the power of love, grants  them the throne and retrieves the kraken he had released before.

Although I found Mr. Sellars’s concept really frustrating (the sets were all right often beautiful and more integrated to the huge stage of the Felsenreitschule than those used in his Clemenza di Tito), I have to say that Mr. Currentzis’s contribution to the show tested my patience. First, the constant nipping and tucking did not make a long opera seem shorter, especially with the inclusion of music from Thamos, König in Ägypten (which worked fine nonetheless) and the concert aria Non temer, amato bene (the one with the piano), a piece Mozart never intended to include in this opera and whose dramatic voltage is such that makes one understand why Mozart called it a CONCERT aria. Second, there were pauses, long, disturbing, disruptive, disfiguring, uncalled for, annoying. I guess Mozart knew quite well when he wanted a pause in his music – those are the moments where he WROTE them in the score. Mr. Currentzis seemed especially happy to employ these gigantic pauses whenever the composer intended a dramatic contrast, entirely lost these afternoon to an audience who could barely remember what happened hours before each pause. Third, there were the nonsensical tempi. Everything tended to be slow in a way one could barely feel the pulse of the music anymore. Idol mio alone felt as if it lasted three hours and a half. Unless when the conductor decided it had to be fast – Tutta nel cor mi sento felt like it lasted three seconds. No wonder poor Elettra said she needed some time off in the depths of the underworld to get things a little bit clearer in her mind. Some numbers, even in correct tempo, were so short in atmosphere and theatricality – O voto tremendo could easily be mistaken by a number in La Finta Giardiniera today. Although the musicAeterna chorus sang with remarkable clarity and homogeneity, the impression was that they were singing long stretches of sacred music.

The Freiburger Barockorchester played well (woodwind particularly virtuosistic), but in the expanses of the Felsenreitschule, it sounded undernourished, more so in the lethargic tempi used by the conductor. I don’t know if the orchestra was kept under leash to spare the singers or if instruments and voices were together victimized by the venue’s difficult acoustics. Not one singer in the cast seemed truly at ease projecting in the auditorium. Ying Fang’s lovely soprano sounded a bit modest in terms of size, and her habit of resorting to mezza voce whenever the line is too exposed made her Ilia a bit pale and low-cal. She is ideally stylish and natural sounding, and I bet that in ideal conditions she could be exemplary in this role. Nicole Chevalier’s pure-toned and soft-centered soprano made me think that maybe Ilia would be her role, but – even if the results were hardly electrifying – her D’Oreste, d’Ajacce hit home somehow, rather by dramatic engagement than by vocal exuberance. Paula Murrihy too sang with knowledge of style and intelligence, but the voice itself is rather indistinctive and tonally unvaried. I could not help thinking of how Marianne Crebassa, Sesto two years ago, would have helped to lend this performance some profile. I still do not understand the idea behind casting Russell Thomas in Mozartian roles. He is ill at ease with the style, stresses all the wrong Italian syllables, is heavy handed with fioriture (even in the simplified version of his aria) and was in really unfocused voice, to make things worse. I  do not understand either the point of hiring the promising Rossinian tenor Levy Sekgapane NOT to sing any of Arbace’s florid music. Finally, Issacchah Savage’s Grand Priest of Neptune sounded juicier of voice than his Idomeneo.

Truth be said, the ballet music was my favorite moment of today’s performance. First, the orchestra offered its best playing under Mr. Currentzis’s really alert beat. And, yes, I liked the Samoan dancers. Their choreography matched the music really well, and their understated movements looked like the exotic version of Classical inutilia truncat. It felt that this was an example of how things could have worked well shorn of the prevailing cuteness and pretentiousness.

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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 Salzburg Festival’s Aida is the best Aida money can buy these days. It has the world’s leading prima donna, the world’s most renowned Verdi conductor and one of the world’s top orchestras. As many of Verdi’s grand operas, it needs sacro fuoco to take off. And the problem is that this is something one can’t buy. In any case, the parts here were greater than the sum and all of them deserve respect.

I won’t make suspense and start with what everybody wants to read about. Anna Netrebko is a singer incapable of doing things bureaucratically. Even when she is not very specific about what she is doing, she always seems to be having lots of fun with it. Having fun with a role as formidably difficult as Aida requires that you are up to sing it. And she is. This is the first time I have been in the theatre to see this opera that I knew from the start that the soprano would reach the last scene without putting herself in a difficult situation. From beginning to end, her voice sounded full, unforced, voluminous and rich, every high note blossoming exquisitely in the large hall. The acuti in O patria mia sounded like music; with one exception, she floated her high pianissimo notes famously and chopped her lines less than she is often accused of doing. Some may say that this was rather a diva act than a coherent dramatic performance (i.e., something sung by Maria Callas or Renata Scotto), but that is not me. I’ve really got what I had paid for. And the ticket was expensive.

Ekaterina Semenchuk is a very solid singer, with faultless technique and good taste, but she is not a powerhouse Amneris. These days nobody is – and she comes closer than everyone else. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect things like “chewing the scenery” or “peeling the paint off the walls”. In any case, a crispier projection of the Italian text could have make it more compelling. I’ve seen a lighter-toned Daniela Barcellona generate some thrill just by her incisive delivery and two or three tricks under her sleeve. Tricks that she must have shared with Francesco Meli, who survived the role of Radamès really commendably. He understandably chose poise over macho-ism, never forced his tone, sang his high notes firmly but prudently and relied on the brightness and naturalness of his voice. In the end, he left an impression of youth and vulnerability that sounded like a viable option in those circumstances. Luca Salsi (Amonasro) was in very good voice. This was probably the best I’ve ever heard from him. At this point, Roberto Tagliavini could say his job is “King of Egypt” and he does it really as an expert. Dmitry Belosselskiy was a resonant Ramfis, firmer in tone than he sounded in the visit of the Rome Opera in Tokyo three years ago.

Riccardo Muti has serious competition in his younger self when he recorded Aida in London for EMI with Montserrat Caballé, Plácido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto. Verdi is no Brahms and what makes it happen is raw energy guided by clockwork precision. And that was Maestro Muti’s hallmark quality. Some decades later the raw energy is not there anymore. There is still the firm pulse and the ear for detail, but this is only half of what you need. When you expect things to develop to full impact they are only rounded off very professionally. I’ve had the luck to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct Aida in La Scala’s visit to Tokyo and the feeling was that you’re watching some very primitive force of nature being unleashed. This evening,  I’ll remember a closing scene in which the Vienna Philharmonic produced sounds the heavenly beauty of which might have inspired Richard Strauss.

Visual artist Shirin Neshat is a newcomer to the world of opera and one can see that in her generic, highly aestheticized production that looked as if she had bought everything in a Muji Store. I would use some of those sets if I had a garden big enough for them. The costumes borrowed from Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, however, were bought somewhere else. Somewhere cheap.


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The most famous opinion about Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is Empress Maria Luisa’s remark at the premiere that it was nothing but a porcheria tedesca (i.e., a German piece of sh*t) . The fact, however, is that absolutist monarchs could not have liked a work the whole concept of which is compromise. In terms of operatic writing, it blends the highly formal tradition of opera seria with the most recent innovations in terms of theatre and music eagerly apprehended by Mozart in his travels and readings, but most importantly: it is a story about acknowledging the point-of-view of one’s ennemies. As director Peter Sellars says, it is about “sharing the government with those who have tried to kill you”. This thought led him to compare the Titus Vespiasianus in the libretto with Nelson Mandela, whose example of reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa has become exemplary in contemporary History.

The idea in itself is thought-provoking and illuminating (and so fitting to libretto involving situations so similar to press conferences, state meetings, public events and even a terrorist attack). As conceived by Mr. Sellars, Tito is a Mandela-like head of government who makes a point in including a white friend (Sesto) in his inner circle. However, he has to deal with a close collaborator, Vitellia, who orchestrates a coup against him by seducing Sesto and pushing him into an attempt against the president’s life. In this version, it is not Lentulus who is killed by mistake. Here, Titus himself is seriously wounded and eventually dies in the end of the opera, just after forgiving his murderers.

It is indeed an interesting idea, but the problem about theatre is that you don’t _stage_ ideas, but _actions_. That is when the whole Dramaturgie concocted by Mr. Sellars starts to sink. First of all, the Felsenreitschule is no regular stage. It is a huge space with a very characteristic and inescapable multileveled colonnade that dwarfs actors and all possibility of zoomed-in acting. Combined with the fact that the director showed no interest in the private affairs of these characters, the plot here is reduced to public utterances the reason of which the audience is unable to understand. One doesn’t see any sexual attraction between Vitellia and Sesto, any sign of friendship between Tito and Sesto, anything behind Vitellia’s bitchiness towards Tito. Even after Sesto’s attempt against Tito’s life, the victim doesn’t seem really concerned about the fact that it was a close friend who has tried to kill him. In the end, the whole purpose of trying to reconcile these people and the country is left to imagination. Titus does not seem to care about any of them. What one ultimately sees on stage is almost nihilistic – the president is dead and everything seems lost. That could be a story, but not this story.  There are beautiful stage effects, but one feels shortchanged, especially when shown a possibility that could have worked beautifully if it had been REALLY staged.

Peter Sellars is not the only person with ideas here. Conductor Teodor Currentzis is a box of Pandora in that department. For instance, sandwiching numbers of Mass K427 and other works by Mozart in the performing edition, which has been shorn of the Tito/Sesto/Publio trio to make space for pages and pages of music in Latin. More problematic is the fact that the recitatives have been butchered in a way that one can hardly understand what goes on in act II, since the only link between one number and the next is a Kyrie or a Qui tollis. When Tito finally says he has forgiven Sesto, the poor fellow makes an expression of surprise. No wonder – all dialogues in which this fact was stated had been deleted!

Although the performance itself has many of the usual niceties associated to Mr. Currentzis – the orchestral playing is multicolored and theatrical, the structural clarity is revelatory, the choral singing is immaculate and there is energy aplenty – his mannerisms are all there too. There is the pervasive fortepiano, a dangerous amount of unwritten pauses, a fancy for overdecoration and a playing with the beat to highlight details that distorts the overall sense of proportion. I had known Mr. Currentzis’s Mozart from recordings and found all of them interesting for a change before I go back to less excentric performances, but live it has the virtue of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

In terms of cast, this afternoon was quite below the reputation of the Salzburg Festival, with the exception of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa (Sesto). Her finely focused, firm and warm mezzo sails through Mozartian lines without any hint of effort. She had the audience on her feet in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when she offered flawless coloratura and forceful high notes. Moreover, she has dramatic temper to spare and is a very good actress. Although Jeanine De Bique (Annio) is a soprano, I only discovered that when she sang the solo in the Kyrie from the Mass K 427. Until then, her mezzoish singing had fooled me. She could have caused a more positive impression, though, if her diction was a little bit clearer. The veteran Willard White (Publio) is still in firm voice and found no problem in his aria.

Golda Schultz is, of course, a lovely Mozartian soprano, but one cannot make a Vitellia out of a Servilia. As it was, her singing never went beyond prettiness and she was sorely tested by the tessitura in Non più di fiori. Russell Thomas has a strong, interesting voice, but Mozart is not his repertoire (I had seen him only once before, in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo). He sounded ill at ease with the style, needed more breathing pauses than every tenor I have heard in this role and sounded greyish when had to soften his tone. I have the impression he was not at his best voice today. Finally, Christine Gansch has beautiful high notes, but often sounded ungainly and blowsy, especially in her aria.

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Although it is a well established fact that the leading man in a baroque opera would be sung by a singer in the soprano or alto range regardless of its gender, modern audiences may be ready to discuss transgender rights, but they take a while to see a male role taken by a woman or a female role taken by a man – something that the regular opera goer in the XVIIIth century would find perfectly normal. In the case of Handel’s Ariodante, first performed in London in 1735, the knight Ariodante was sung by the castrato Carestini (whose range was ambiguous, having started as soprano and ended up as an alto), while the bad guy Polinesso was given to the contralto Maria Caterina Negri. Director Christof Loy too seems to be puzzled by this fact and decided to bring the sexual ambiguities in casting during the baroque to the spotlight of his staging for the Salzburg Festival. Even if the issue was a non-issue for Handel, his librettist and his audience, Mr. Loy begs to differ and resorts to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, excerpts of which are read before acts I and III, to show how Ariodante and his beloved Ginevra lost themselves in their gender identities and found themselves again only when they have found the female and male elements of their identities under a distant Lacanian inspiration. There is indeed something to be “read” there: Ariodante is a lover rather than a warrior and Ginevra is first a princess and then a bride. It is Polinesso, the high-testosterone bad guy, who polarizes everybody: he sexually harasses Ginevra and tries hard to make her a damsell in distress, while he twists Ariodante around his little finger and puts him out of the competition without much effort. When faced by Polinesso’s macho agenda, Ariodante acts emo: he tries to kill himself until he decides to pretend he has killed himself, while letting everybody else in the plot deal with HIS problem. On the other hand, Ginevra takes fate in her own hands: she denies the accusations made against her, accepts her death, refuses to have any guy championing her in duel and is only worried about her glory (the number one concern of every hero).

Now it seems that I fully subscribe Mr. Loy’s Dramaturgie. Unfortunately, no. I found it staged on face value,  the whole concept reduced to caricature by the portrayal of these characters’ psychological “journey” almost exclusively by having them crossdressed. The massive amounts of comedy in an opera seria doesn’t help it either, making it impossible to find any depth behind every scene when everything is played for laugh and easy effects. As the cast is mostly adept in acting skills, one felt entertained but never enlightened by the proceedings. As always with this director, sets and costumes are exquisite. The playing with different epochal styles could have been more effective if more sharply defined – as in Stefan Herheim’s Xerxes for the Berlin Komische Oper. Here, Handel’s baroque seemed underrepresented, while Classicism seems to have pride of place if rather generalized as something opposed to “contemporary”. Choreographer Andreas Heise was able to avoid that, for instance, in his intelligent deconstruction of XVIIIth century ballet.

If I write in such length about the scenical side of this performance, it is because the musical one left a lot to be desired. Conductor Gianluca Capuano seems to be there only to serve the scenical needs, adapting his tempi and phrasing to the gestures and blocking on stage, playing all arie di bravure in the egg-timer approach for extremely rough results and overcooking the sentimentality of all arie d’affetto. The orchestra never had an expressive “say” in any number and, after a while, everything sounded unsubtle, unclear and inexpressive. The fact that the Musiciens du Prince has scrawny strings and the kind of meagerness of sound that makes the bad reputation of period-instrument groups made this more problematic. I don’t truly understand the cavalier treatment of Handel’s score in what regards additional percussion and funny phrasing effects. As for the edition, which involved the deletion of some B sections and simplification of some numbers (most inexplicably of Bramo aver mille vite, considering the abilities of the singers involved), it was more inclusive than some and, in the context of this performance, quite welcome.

My appreciation for Cecilia Bartoli could be defined as “work in progress”, but I have found her Handelian prima donna roles some of her best work. For instance, her Alcina in Zurich last December was beautiful and mostly satisfying. Her incursion in the primo uomo repertoire not really so. First of all, her lack of projection and focus does not really serve the heroic quality associated to these roles. Next to her, someone like Lorraine Hunt sounds like a Fiorenza Cossotto in comparison in terms of richness and slancio. In order to disguise that, all bravura pieces are performed extremely fast in spiccato runs very light on the voice and approached as slapstick comedy. The more pensive numbers generally show the best in Ms. Bartoli, but her voice sounded ill at ease in the lower end of her voice. In any case, Dopo notte was the highlight of her performance, a very exciting display of precision in extremely fast tempo.

Her prima donna was American soprano Kathryn Lewek (Ginevra), whose fruity, creamy soprano, clean fioriture and exceptional control of high notes (amazing messa di voce effects) make her a natural in this repertoire. If she developes a more idiomatic Italian, she will have very few rivals in it. A beautiful performance. Sandrine Piau was also very well cast as Dalinda, offering haunting mezza voce and singing expressively throughout. Christophe Dumaux (Polinesso) forceful extra-clear coloratura, well-focused tone and charisma ensured that he was the most interesting person on stage. He was also extremely naughty with his very long breath, stunning the audience with kilometric phrases without internal pauses. I still believe that Handel knew what he was doing on casting the part with a contralto (just check Ewa Podles in Marc Minkowski’s recording), but no countertenor comes close to what Mr. Dumaux has done this evening. When it comes to Rolando Villazón’s singing as Lucanio, yes, it has Donizetti splashed all over, but it is so emotionally invested and wrapped in velvety, dulcet tone that one cannot resist it. He tackled the difficult passagework quite commendably if a bit roughly. In any case, the dueto with Dalinda was the most magical moment this evening. Nathan Berg too sang sensitively, but his grainy bass lacks nobility of tone and he has his wayward moments with intonation.

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Alban Berg’s is a monumental work, but not in a Wagnerian way. Its structural complexity is so subdued and integrated in its expressive content that one may enjoy  the experience of listening to it by only sensing without fully understanding its formal sophistication. I, for instance, cannot honestly offer here a profound analysis of how clearly the subject of the fugue in act 2, scene 2, was stated in this evening’s performance, but I can tell you that Vladimir Jurowski never failed to understand and to share with the audience the musical-dramatic purpose of every phrase in this score. At his service, a virtuosistic Vienna Philharmonik offering throughout sounds of extreme beauty and so eloquent that you could always hear its “discourse”. As when this orchestra (actually, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) played this work for Claudio Abbado (as seen on video with Hildegard Behrens and Franz Grundheber), some may say that the Viennese tend to perform it in almost Mahlerian poise, but I could bet that Alban Berg, who was Viennese himself, would rather expect it to sound that way.

No singer in the cast could compete with the orchestra in terms of expression, even if we have in mind that Matthias Goerne had the title role. I remember an interview with José van Dam in which he mentioned a conversation with Herbert von Karajan about the role. The Austrian conductor would say that there was no violence in Van Dam’s voice and that one would need a “baritone Jon Vickers”  to make the role justice. As it is, Mr. Goerne has many advantages for this tricky part – the voice has appeal, the diction is crystal-clear, the tonal variety is that of a Lieder singer and he masters the art of Sprechgesang with naturalness. But the raw energy (and the volume and the projection) is not there, making the transition of yes-man into murderer hard to believe. This might not have been a coincidence: scenically, this transition was not evident. One could see a directorial choice there: as much as Marie and Wozzeck’s son seems to find his mother’s death a banality, it seems that violence does not need really need a reason. South African director/painter William Kentridge directed Büchner’s play for the marionette theatre adapted to that country’s social context in the earlier days of his career. And one can stil see the puppet handled by forces beyond comprehension (although highly rationalized in discourse) in his Wozzeck.

Asmik Grigorian is an edgy Marie both in terms of her metallic and forceful singing and of the way she does not try to romanticize her character. She just lets herself be played out of sheer boredom and frustration. Gerhard Siegel too was a powerful Captain, sometimes recklessly so, what had the advantage of making his singing even more characterful. Although I had seen Jens Larsen in more resonant voice, his dramatic focus and firmness of tone added some menace to the role of the Doctor, which can seem too comic in other hands. I was not so convinced by the other tenors in the cast. In spite of a pleasant tonal quality, John Daszak lacked the alpha male quality this role cries for. As for Mauro Peter, the unfocused high register would not hits home for someone who learned the role of Andres with Fritz Wunderlich in Karl Böhm’s recording.

Predictably, Mr. Kentridge’s staging has a strong visual appealing in its textures inspired by charcoal drawings and stunning lighting effects. This was a compelling take on Büchner and Berg’s social drama, thought-provoking but not “invasive” in terms of Dramaturgie.

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