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Posts Tagged ‘Teatro alla Scala’

Taking profit of the Japanese tour of the Teatro alla Scala, the NHK Music Festival has invited the Milanese opera house for a concert performance of Verdi’s Aida, which was actually taped (both in audio and in video by NHK). Last week, Dudamel has proved to be an exemplary Verdian conductor in a staged performance of Rigoletto. This evening he proved he can be even better than that. During the first half of the concert (acts 1 and 2), I could not help thinking of how the audience reacted while hearing to Karajan’s Aida back then in Salzburg, in the sense, of hearing a great conductor who has seriously studied the score and, with the help of a fully engaged team of musicians, produced a revelatory (even if often slightly flawed) experience. I don’t think that I will be able to explain everything I could admire this evening – the ideal balance (upfront woodwind, perfectly blended brass and strings, even in large ensembles), once again the complete eschewal of vulgarity, the always dramatically alive accent, the control of rhythmic flexibility (masterly transitions, even those usually accepted as abrupt), the singing string section and the knowledge of the right moment to become Toscaninian in excitingly precise ensembles in very fast pace. The fact that the chorus from La Scala has such full-toned tenors, sopranos and altos with rock-solid bottom notes makes it even more admirable. I mean, this was TRULY exciting.

However, if I have to be honest, burning from both ends, this candle ran dangerously short after the intermission. First, singers began to give signs of fatigue. That required some adjustments, especially in what regards volume from an orchestra playing on stage. Although the whole cast had big enough voices, some of them had a lyric quality that already required adjustments. Act IV was a lesson of how to produce exciting orchestral sound without drowning singers in voluminous orchestral sound, La Scala’s bright and flexible strings coming up handy at these moments.

I have seen Hui He’s Aida here in Tokyo last year. I understand, therefore, she was not in her best voice today – intonation had its dodgy moments, the not entirely comfortable passaggio downright problematic this evening, a very evident physical effort entirely new in my experience with this singer. The problem became more evident after the pause, but she took profit of her late entrance in act IV to recover in time for an exquisite closing scene. All that said, even by this evening’s standards, Hui He is still my favorite Aida these days: her voice is lovely, her mezza voce is soaring, her Italian is now beyond suspicion, she phrases with the mastery of portamento of a Caballé and – even if her engagement is a bit artsy – it is far preferable either to the cold cleanliness or the anti-musical, supposedly Italianate histrionics usually accepted as Verdian style. This evening’s Amneris was Daniela Barcellona, a singer I would not expect to find in this role. Although her mezzo is sizable, it is not a dramatic voice in any way. She does have very strong technique and is a singer incapable of anything unpleasant to the ears. As a result, with great help from the conductor, she offered a sensuous, dignified and elegant Amneris this evening, who managed to be vulnerable without any loss of strength in the Judgement Scene, after which the performance was interrupted for thunderous applause. For those used to the likes of Dolora Zajick, that might have sounded too elegant, but the point is: she did not tried to sing against the grain of her mezzo and thus was able to offer something convincing and coherent to her voice and personality.

Spanish tenor Jorge de León has a very solid voice, capable of some very powerful high notes, but very limited in dynamic or tonal variety. He has clearly listened to Franco Corelli’s recordings as Radamès, but cannot emulate his ability to effortlessly shift to mezza voce. All in all, his is a very unproblematic account of a difficult role, and that is no mean accomplishment. The role of Amonasro is a bit on the high side for Ambrogio Maestri, but his is a very substantial voice that produces the right impact in key moments. Marco Spotti was a stentorian if not always immaculately sung Ramfis, while Roberto Taglavini showed a bit more nuance but less volume as the King of Egypt. In the small role of the Priestress, Sae Kyung Rim showed a beautiful, clear voice.

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The second item in the Teatro alla Scala’s Japanese tour is Verdi’s Rigoletto – the name of Joseph Calleja making it enticing enough for those who were not eager to see Gilbert Deflo’s museological production (seen on DVD with Roberto Alagna, Renato Bruson and Riccardo Muti). Alas, Calleja cancelled and the old, old production with ballet dancers making cute steps during the orgy in the palace of the Duke of Mantua remains. Actually, calling this Deflo’s production is not really fair, for very little of his direction has survived. For instance: although this evening’s prima donna has sung this production in Milan, she seemed entirely clueless of what she should do on stage. “No rehearsal since 2010” was an idea that did cross my mind. At least, she tried to do something. The tenor just stood there and delivered – and the baritone seemed bothered by having to do the whole Rigoletto-routine…

In any case, the name of Gustavo Dudamel could be considered starry enough to “sell” this performance. I had seen him only once before – a Don Giovanni at La Scala that left a lot to be desired. But that was long ago – and the Venezuelan maestro is now an experienced opera conductor. Even if this evening was hardly unforgettable, the maestro must be praised for his untiring intent of making something out of it. He refused to surrender to band-like vulgarity, never ceased to look for dramatic meaning in every note in the score and (except for a brassy Gilda/Maddalena/Sparafucile scene) succeeded in doing this rather from musicianship than from bravado. For instance, this evening’s Cortiggiani, vil razza was exemplary in clarity, purpose, style… and thrill. If it did not work better, this was because Dudamel was considerate enough to a baritone who could not keep up with it. From this point of view, it was quite fascinating to observe how he tried to impose discipline but respected his soloists’ (many) limitations. It is always refreshing to hear a conductor who is not playing for his own ideals, but instead is dealing with the means at his disposal. Maestro and orchestra deserve the warm applause they received this evening. I am afraid I cannot include the chorus there – their “wind” effect in act III was poorly judged and unconvincing. In any case, I can only imagine what Dudamel would have done with the proper cast for this opera.

Elena Mosuc is a resourceful singer who produces many beautiful sounds, but this evening she was clearly not in her best voice and her heart was probably somewhere else. She was often tremulous and her breath was particularly short:  Caro Nome – in spite of beautiful in alts and perfect trills (no mean accomplishment, one must concede her that) – had many unwritten pauses and Tutte le feste was quite gusty and insincere, but her dying scene was surprisingly touching. On the other hand, Francesco Demuro’s tenor is firm, bright and strongly supported through long phrases on the breath. His voice is a bit on the small size for the role, has many nasal patches and the style can be kitschy now and then. Also, he did not seem really at ease playing the alpha-male role. I have seen Giorgio Gagnidze’s Rigoletto at the Met and found it bland in a role where blandness is a no-go. His singing this evening could be described the same way. Finally, Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s dark and voluminous bass is the right instrument for Sparafucile.

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According to the program of his staging of Das Rheingold, director Guy Cassiers believes his Ring is a Ring of the “present moment” as an opposition to a historical approach. Although his dramaturgs’ grandiloquent ideas hardly make into what one sees on stage, he might have  unintentionally achieved his aim by producing the first ever interactive staging of the Ring. First, he has done the unthinkable feat of creating consensus among Wagnerians. Yes, the ballet dancers are gone! La Scala’s bible-like program even shows photos of two green ones hanging from ropes, but it seem that the audience has had the last word and they were dispatched back to where they should have never left. The Corriere de la Sera has also published an article where Waltraud Meier says that the director does not help its cast and is more concentrated on his video projections. Although this kind of pre-première statement is usually considered ungentlemanly (or, in the case, unladylike…), readers seemed to have taken her side. Maybe that is why she (and, for that matter, neither Siegmund) are not wearing the elaborate costumes portrayed in the program.

In any case, Meier has a point – if there is any stage direction to speak of in this production, one probably has to wear 3-D glasses to see it… The approach to acting as seen this evening is basic the classical stand-and-deliver while remaining singers on stage basically watch it with generalized concerned expressions. Not Waltraud Meier, who tries to apply her famous histrionic skills when she finds space for that. It is true that her maneuvers may have become something of a routine by now, but they have actually rescued many scenes of complete boredom. I have to confess that I find her understanding of change of moods in the final act really masterly. Although stage direction is supposed to be the main element of a staging, there is more than that in a staging – and expertly devised sets, costumes and effects can ultimately deliver what is missing elsewhere. Not here, I am afraid. Mr. Cassiers’s philosophically and psychologically overcharged ideas are often scenically realized with the depth of a schoolboy’s drawing. As a result, the audience has to deal with very elementary imagery (and remember: clueless and cueless actors) in a long opera. The depthlessness of Hunding’s house is portrayed with… video projections showing a fireplace, just like those DVDs you can buy to pretend you have a fireplace. It made me afraid that they would use the fishbowl one in the next scene. And there are giant white toothpicks – I know they are supposed to be giant spears, but they look like giant toothpicks – landing on stage during Winterstürme. The toothpicks are such important stage devices that they become… tree trunks in the forest-landscape of act II. Images are, of course, projected on them – when singer sings about Glut, you have… flames, for example. After all, how the audience would understand the reference without it? During the Siegmund/Brünnhilde scene, the projection of a leaf-canopy becomes sequences of falling computer numbers. I thought it was just my imagination, but that is indeed a quote from Matrix. Remember – this is a Ring of the “present time”… In act III, the Walkürenritt is a group of ladies in stylized black Victorian dresses on top of wood-crates. And Brünnhilde’s magic fire is 10 or 11 red steaming lamps (two of them not working). Wotan’s costumes suggests that he was found in a dumpsite, that Brünnhilde is a regular at the party-scene in Berlin, that Fricka has just come from Paris Fashion Week and that Sieglinde and Siegmund are actually using the costumes borrowed from a normal staging of Die Walküre.

As you see, one had to concentrate on the musical side of the performance. And that also required some sort of commitment from the audience. The house orchestra clearly was not in the mood. Daniel Barenboim quickly understood that making energetic gestures did not elicit from these musicians any extra ounce of enthusiasm, so he started to make energetic noises. To very little avail. From some point on, I started to suspect that the noises were meant to show the audience that he was trying. If I have to be fair, a great share of responsibility for the act-1 debacle goes to the singers. Waltraud Meier was simply not in good voice. As always, she is such a cunning performer that she took any opportunity for quiet singing to score her interpretative points, but she could not really sing anything relatively high above mezzo forte. She was clearly saving for act III, where her understated and heartfelt account of the Redemption motive fitted her waning vocal resources*. Replacing Simon O’Neill, Frank van Aken was so visibly nervous that it is almost a miracle that something really bad did not happen. He lacked concentration, had a hit-or-miss approach to breathing (he often let go breathing pauses only to get breathless in the next ten seconds) and does not really seem to have a natural Siegmund voice. As heard here, the tonal quality was often curdled and the sound had a patch of nasality. I would really need to see him under other circumstances to say something. Next to John Tomlinson, tenor and soprano sounded mousy. But he was approximative with pitch and overcareful with the high end of his range. The lack of direction made his Hunding particularly short of menace. Having to deal with this situation, the conductor could do nothing but play down an orchestra that has no tonal refulgence in softer dynamics.

Act II took off more promisingly. The orchestra had a more positive, if not necessarily polished or exciting sound and some fresh-voiced singers left the maestro more operational space. I have often read about how Nina Stemme can be a special singers, but my only experience with her (a closing scene from R. Strauss’s Salome with Ingo Metzmacher and the DSO in the Philharmonie Berlin) was quite disappointing. I am glad to say that this evening I could finally have the complete Nina-Stemme-experience. First of all, she was in excellent voice and, although she does not have the bright-toned impact of Irène Théorin, she offers the modern version of the Helen-Traubel-approach to Brünnhilde, with her round, plush, extra warm soprano with impressively sensuous low notes and seamless legato. Although one can feel that the exposed top notes require some preparation from her, she offered very commendable Ho-jo-to-ho‘s and transported the audience to a state of grace with her exquisite account of the act 3 Wotan/Brünnhilde scene, when her command of dynamic effects and expressive, shapely phrasing could melt a Wagnerian heart. She has also a very positive stage presence and made the best of very little. To make things better, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova offered a Fricka in the grand manner. Her full-toned, rich singing was matched by her intense delivery of her demands to Wotan and by her regal bearing. Finally, Ukranian bass-baritone Vitalij Kowaljow is a name to keep. He still has to develop his performance and ran a bit out of steam by the end, but he is a legitimate Wagnerian Heldenbariton and offered a far more secure account of the role than both Mark Delavan in Berlin and Albert Dohmen in Bayreuth earlier this year. These singers added a new life to the performance and, around act 3, the atmosphere was entirely changed. La Scala’s orchestra never achieved true brio this evening, but at least the proceedings acquired a Wagnerian scale after the second intermission. If I had a question to Mr. Barenboim, this would be – why keeping such considerate tempi with an orchestra that cannot fill in the slow pace with a big, intense sound? If that contributed to beautiful chamber-like sonorities in Brünnhilde’s pleas to Wotan in their last scene, it robbed most of any other moment of nobility and profoundness.

* disclaimer: I really like Waltraud Meier’s more intimate O hehrstes Wunder! For me, it describes more effectively Sieglinde’s gratitude than the usual full-powers approach.

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Daniel Barenboim’s close collaboration with both La Scala and Staatsoper Unter den Linden has resulted a joint venture, which is a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, apparently at the rate of one opera every season both in Milan and at the Schiller Theater. Although the production is going to be one for both theatres, casting differs. For example, Nina Stemme and Waltraud Meier sing Bruennhilde and Sieglinde in Die Walkuere in Milan, while Berlin will feature Irene Théorin and Anja Kampe.

Barenboim’s almost Furtwaenglerian large-scaled approach to the Ring is known through his Bayreuth performances released both in CD and DVD and it seems that the conductor tried to justify his second visit to the Nibelungs with a whole new different approach. Although Furtwängler himself has conducted a Ring at La Scala, one would believe that the maestro inspired himself in another German who has also tried his tetralogy there: Wolfgang Sawallisch (1973).  This time, large scale are hardly the words that come to mind – the orchestral sound is rather chamber-like and clear, with beautiful textures and rather detailed phrasing in more lyric moments, especially when soft dynamics are involved. In more purely “Wagnerian” passages, things tend to lack some finish. Curiously, the performance is dramatically rather blank and, in spite of the lightness, tempi rarely flow. Probably because of the light-voiced cast, restrain seems to be the keyword, what impared many of the opera climaxes, especially Alberich’s curse, which really misfired here.

The main source of curiosity in this performance is René Pape’s first Wotan. The Dresdener bass has made a reputation out of Wagnerian roles such as King Marke in Lohengrin and the King Heinrich in Lohengrin, but, if I am not mistaken, this is his first Wagnerian Heldenbariton emploi. Although the tonal quality is noble and the attitude is stylish and knowing, Pape’s velvety voice does not seem really cut for the part. In this tessitura, his voice does not really sound large and his high register sounds a bit bleached, what gives a more tentative than commanding impression. His Alberich, Johannes Martin Kraenzle, is similarly out of his sort. He seems to know what Alberich should be like and is also a good actor (even if he looks old for the part), but he cheats in every high note and is often overwhelmed by the orchestra, even in its light-toned version. Stephan Rügamer is also light-toned for Loge – and his nasality is often bothersome – but this imaginative tenor sings with amazing  tonal variety and an almost Mozartian dulcet quality that makes his character particularly insinuating. As always, he is a most gifted actor – certainly the singer who made most of the mechanical stage direction. Curiously, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s voice proved to be more penetrating than his in the role of Mime. Maybe it is a bit late for Doris Soffel to tackle the role of Fricka – her vocal production is now a bit raspish. She is a subtle artist with intelligent word-pointing and some effective use of mezza voce, but one wants more vocal comfort. Anna Larsson lacked firmness as Erda and Anna Samuil (Freia) was rather metallic in tone if quite hearable in her flashy Slavic voice. The remaining minor roles were all ineffectively taken. Truth be said, the only singer truly at ease in this performance was Kwangchul Youn, whose Fasolt outclassed the remaining members of the cast.

To make things even less exciting, Guy Cassiers’s production is a series of misconceptions. The omnipresent ballet dancers making their distracting steps all over the place would make Wagner turn in his tomb. In any case, it made me feel like kicking them and their clueless choreographies off the stage. From a certain point on, all effects described in the libretto were replaced in a most unconvincing way by dancers doing their routines.  Enrico Bagnoli’s sets are quite unsensational and oversimple. The whole concept turned around the use of water in the first scene, for a rather awkward impression, and, since it is not simple to dry the whole set, it remained wet to the end, the attempts to make that make sense even more pointless. The audience’s reaction was quite cold and it made me wonder if some things are going to be changed for next season’s prima, Die Walküre, which is going to need something more consistent than this.

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Since Riccardo Muti left La Scala and Claudio Abbado has made his activities as an opera conductor rarer, some might be asking themselves who would carry on the Mozartian tradition in Italy. Although Gustavo Dudamel comes rather from Venezuela than from Venice, it seems he has fallen into Abbado’s protection. Thus, this Don Giovanni might be a kind of test of fire to see if the young South-American conductor is able to fill in the shoes of his famous predecessors. In fact, La Scala’s Don Giovanni could not answer the question. It seems Dudamel has a strong sense of theatre and galvanizes his orchestra to enthusiastic music-making, but in the end I got the impression he was only trying really hard not to have a definable approach and to overgesticulate to the last seat in the theatre. If one asks me if Dudamel’s Don Giovanni was fast or slow, I wouldn’t be able to tell. For example: he responds to situations in a way that has more to do with making it loud and louder. I can say, however, what I did not hear: clear articulation. Rapid string passages sounded imprecise and muffled, and clarity was not this performance’s strongest asset. I have to say I really missed Muti’s masterstroke – and if the orchestra keeps to this subpar standard the Milanese will eventually join me.

When it comes to the cast, however, the afternoon reserved good surprises. Anna Samuil does have the metallic voice one would expect from a high soprano from Russia, but that’s all I could not be enthusiastic about in her performanc. She has a sizable, homogeneous and flexible voice that can sound sweet when this is necessary. She knows the kind of sound Mozart demands from her, has clear diction and some temperament. Her Or sai chi l’onore was phrased with elegance and accuracy after a vivid recitative. Non mi dir lacked nothing – long breath, pianissimi, trills and clearly articulated divisions a tempo. Morover, her melisme in the second act sextett crowned the ensemble in a way rarely available in recordings. She is a young singer and still has to mature; her potential, however, is beyond doubt. Annette Dasch was a light creamy-toned Elvira. Truth be said, the part is a bit heavy for her voice and she would now and then sound opaque. Fortunately, Mi tradì happened to be her best moment, even if she was operating really close to her limits. Sylvia Schwartz’s capable Zerlina was only hampered by a kind of Judith-Raskin-like old-school vocal production. It must be said that these three singers were quite good-looking and more willing to act than one would generally expect. When it comes to the men, the results are less impressive: Jeremy Ovenden has a nasal unappealing sound and, for a tenor who sings Handel, his runs in Il mio tesoro could be smoother. Alex Esposito’s Leporello had all the necessary elements to build a congenial performance (and he is a very good actor) but a substantial voice. His baritone sounded quite small-scaled, especially in La Scala’s dry acoustics. Ernesto Panariello has a really forceful voice, but not the depth and darkness a Commendatore should have. When it comes to the title role, there was indeed an outstanding performance from Erwin Schrott. He just has it all – the voice, the attitude, the style and even the looks. His command of Italian declamation is masterly – and he made one interesting intepretative point after the other from beginning to end.

Peter Mussbach’s production for the Lindenoper is very elegant in its revolving walls and blue lighting and, when there is a cast skilled as this one, concentrating on acting is always a good idea. However, when one has actors performing in such a naturalistic manner, the odd implausible directorial choice stands out: why Don Ottavio asks servants to fetch Donna Anna’s salts and carry away the body, when there is no one there? Why Donna Anna asks where the corpse is when she wakes from her faint she is right in front of it? Why Donna Elvira reads Don Giovanni’s victims’ names from a wall when the audience sees there is nothing written there? There must be a concept behind all that but in the end it all looks like sloppy work.

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