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Posts Tagged ‘Valery Gergiev’

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 was extremely Charles Castronovo, who 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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There is nothing new in saying that recordings do not say everything about a live performance – but I have never experienced that sensations as strongly as I have today in Verbier. Before you jump to the conclusion that the unrecorded part of the event was the thrill, I tell you right away that the performance was particularly unexciting. The unrecordable part actually was the technical aspects of making a demanding score work in unideal circumstances.

To start with, although many like to say that Salome is a symphonic poem with voices, Richard Strauss composed this music to follow the theatrical action – its effects, its atmosphere, its tempo were conceived to create a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk experience, and that is why this it is seen as a masterpiece. Of course, the depth of R. Strauss’s writing can survive the absence of a staging, but then the conductor has to make the action take place in the orchestra and soloists have to make it happen in their voices. That was not the case today. But this does not mean that the performance was devoid of interest.

Valery Gergiev faced two problems – a festival orchestra (a fact that goes beyond the absence of cohesion that long-standing orchestras have, but most of all that involves having to build a sound culture for the particular piece – something one would not need to explain to the Vienna Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Dresden, for example) and extremely unfavourable acoustics. The Salle des Combins is a very large temporary structure with particularly dry acoustics. Warm orchestral sound is impossible in such a venue and singers had to work hard to be heard. What struck me as particularly commendable of Mr. Gergiev was the fact that, not only was he aware of that, but also that he adjusted his whole performance to these conditions. As a result, instead of sensuous, rich sounds, the audience was treated to an impressively structurally transparent performance of this opera: singers did not have to shout themselves out to pierce through a thick orchestra, R. Strauss’s sophisticated harmonic effects were clearly defined and each part of this multicoloured score formed a coherent whole. What was missing then? The sparkle of imagination to make this marvelous structure say something. From the Dance of the Seven Veils, the performance started to simmer down and, by the closing scene, when things should be running unleashed, they seemed quite well-behaved and lacking purpose.

I wonder how microphones caught Deborah Voigt’s formidably unsubtle performance. I had the impression that R. Strauss would have found it unforgivably vulgar if he heard something like that in, say, the Vienna State Opera. Considering the venue’s difficult acoustics, however, its unvariably loud quality was quite refreshing. After some shaky moments in the recent years, it seems this American soprano has regained her vocal health and stamina, for she really had no problem with producing a neverending series of big top notes. I know her high register has always been the strong feature of her voice, but they seemed very well integrated into a serviceable middle register, differently from what I’ve heard from her the last three times I saw her – in singer-friendlier theatres. Her interpretation turned around naughtiness, what is probably what one does when one has no tonal and dynamic variety, but more believable pronunciation of German would have made all the difference in the world. This evening, Salome did not want to kiss Jokanaan, but seemed to want from him an object that would be translated as a mouth-pillow. Although Evgeny Nikitin’s German needs improvement as well, his very Russian-sounding baritone is impressively powerful and firm-toned. He is also emphatic to the point of hamminess in the interpretation department, but at least he more or less fulfilled the character description more readily than anyone else this evening. Siegfried Jerusalem struggled with his top notes through the whole evening, but his voice retains its natural tonal quality and his diction is exemplary. As for the 74-year-old Dame Gwyneth Jones, although she flashed one or two incisive notes during the evening, one must understand this as a generous cameo appearance from one singer who deserves more than anyone else the title of World’s Living Treasure. Someone like me, who did not have the luck to see her before her official retirement, should cherish the opportunity just to watch her on stage.

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