miércoles, junio 28, 2017

Händel´s “Julius Caesar”: best opera seria in worst staging

            Opera seria is a style that had a span of a bit more than a century, approximately between 1680 and 1795. Naples was the birth place of opera seria with composers such as Francesco Provenzale, Alessandro Scarlatti and Niccolò Porpora, and it was from them that Georg Friedrich Händel learned the style and afterwards perfected it becoming its greatest creator.

            Two librettists exerced a powerful influence: Apostolo Zeno and especially Pietro Metastasio.  Zeno, though Venetian, "established the formula for the Italian opera libretto that was accepted by Metastasio" (Grove´s Dictionary). And the latter´s popularity was enormous ("his 27 librettos were set to music over 1000 times in the 18th century", Harvard´s Dictionary of Music). Main features: characters and subjects drawn  from  classical history or legend, a rigid structure made of recitatives and arias for "prima" or "seconda donna" and "primo" or "secondo uomo", almost no choruses, duets or concertantes only closing the acts,  and a supportive orchestra  that accompanies the singers but also plays an overture, a march or introductions to the arias. "Bel canto" is born: beautiful singing; not only virtuoso florid passages but also long melodies (later on the term will be applied also to the very different virtuosity of nineteenth century Romanticism). And the castrato was a feature as primo and/or secondo uomo: the purity of a child´s voice with the strength and volume of an adult: Senesino or Farinelli were immensely successful stars but the sounds they produced affected the verisimilitude of the dramatic action, even if they were attractive.

            Händel took London by storm when he premièred his "Rinaldo" there in 1711 and the success determined him to stay there and become the principal composer of opera seria in Great Britain´s capital for more than two decades. "Giulio Cesare", on a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, was premièred in 1724 at the King´s Theatre and became his most often staged operatic creation. But tastes changed and opera seria was superseded by the Romantic intensity of the nineteenth century and the innovations of the first half of the twentieth.  Musicologists  and editors began a resurrection  before World War II, still quite arbitrary in style; however, after the war  much more relevant work was done and the world had reliable editions. Notwithstanding, there was a main problem: what to do with the castrato parts if such an aberration didn´t exist anymore. In the fifties and sixties the solution was a baritone, dramatically logical though it needed adjustments in the orchestra. But Alfred Deller rediscovered the art of the countertenor after two centuries, a reinforced head emission typically British and never before used in opera seria. And gradually in the seventies  the new breed of countertenors started to sing the castrato roles along with mezzosopranos. They can´t replace castratos and no true historicism is possible.

            Winton Dean, the greatest Händel specialist, specifies in his programme notes to the René Jacobs recording the roles and voices of Händel´s time: alto castratos Cesare and Tolomeo, sopranos Cleopatra and Sesto (but the latter was afterwards revised for tenor), contralto Cornelia and baritone Achilla. He doesn´t mention Nireno, an eunuch (castrato) and Curio, a baritone. "Giulio Cesare"  underwent several revisions, for Händel adapted the music to his available casts (1725, 1730, 1732). It was his most successful opera and not only in England during his life, and it remains so: in 1991 Dean says it was offered during the twentieth century in "well over 200 productions in many countries". The plot is historical: Tolomeo and Cleopatra are joint Pharaohs, the last in Egypt´s long history; Cesare defeats the villain Tolomeo and marries Cleopatra, who remains a vassal queen to Cesare. Cornelia is the widow of Cesare´s courageous enemy Pompeo and mother of Sesto, who wants revenge on Tolomeo, who killed Pompeo. And Achilla, a warrior of Tolomeo, turns against him and helps Cesare to win a decisive battle before dying.  

            It´s a long opera, almost four hours, and the main characters sing a lot: Cleopatra has eight arias (!), Cesare almost as many, and the others all have arias except Curio. The music is throughout of astonishing quality, both in the melodic slow sad arias and in the fast virtuosic ones, and the orchestration is varied, including horn, flute and violin solos; the duet of Cornelia and Sesto ending the First Act is of haunting beauty. The libretto by Haym is based on the one written by G.F.Bussani in 1677, though with many changes and addenda.

            "Giulio Cesare" had an early première in Buenos Aires, when Washington Castro conducted it for the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara in 1959, a very honorable performance. And in 1968 a starry one at the Colón: Sills, Treigle (bass-baritone), Forrester, Schreier, Crass, conductor Karl Richter; intelligent production by Ernst Pöttgen. We had to wait until 2017 for a Colón revival, though during the Lombardero tenure at the Argentino it was premièred at La Plata. Buenos Aires Lírica gave us "Agrippina" and "Rodelinda" and the Colón, "Serse" soon after "Giulio Cesare", and  in recent years "Rinaldo", though in a concert version. There are still about 35 operas of Händel that haven´t been heard in our city...

            And how fares the current "Giulio Cesare in Egitto"? (the new appellation defended by some recent scholars  that goes against Händel´s usual policy of naming them with only the name of the protagonist)? As so often nowadays, rather interesting musically, and a disaster as a production. Two artists made their welcome debut: Amanda Majeski as an attractive Cleopatra equally adept to lightness and intense melancholy; and Jake Arditti as that rare thing, a soprano countertenor,  a Sesto of beautiful timbre and completely smooth singing. Franco Fagioli is a countertenor star but I much preferred him as  Rinaldo; now he has acquired a bad trait: as the music descends to the low notes his voice changes and instead of sounding like a countertenor he seems a mediocre baritone; his highs are brilliant though his florid passages sound mechanical.

            As Tolomeo Flavio Oliver (Colón debut, heard at La Plata last year in a contemporary opera, "Written on skin") was so grotesquely handled by producer Pablo Maritano that his accurate but acid singing and agile calisthenics seemed a parody. And the fourth (!) countertenor, Martín Oro, was a mincing, disagreeable Nireno. Two local stalwarts compensated partially: a noble, clearly etched Cornelia by Adriana Mastrángelo,  and a  firm performance by Hernán Iturralde of the lascivious rough Achilla. And the young baritone Mariano Gladic was a fine Curio. Martin Haselböck  as conductor had the Colón Orchestra with the addenda of two recorders, two theorbos, a viola da gamba and a harpsichord, but the bland articulation of the strings was hardly historicist, and I longed for an augmented Barroca del Suquía  instead.

             Maritano ruined whatever pleasure Händel connoisseurs could have with an insolent, kitschy contemporary staging which looked like a cross of Tinelli and Las Vegas. The costumes by Sofía Di Nunzio were particularly ugly, and the unnecessary choreography by Carlos Trunsky was inane throughout. The only saving grace was a skillful stage design and lighting by Enrique Bordolini based on a sui generis black pyramid of changing facets. Händel´s Harp Concerto was added in absurd dancing interludes.

For Buenos Aires Herald


Reich, Xenakis and Messiaen: contemporary, demanding music

            What is contemporary? The matter is polemic; my definition is whatever I feel corresponds with my own lifespan. But the word embraces two antagonic possibilities (in this case applied to what we call classical or academic music): a work that pushes the limits to open new horizons, or one that is content with following on the steps of predecessors. The ones I will comment are of the first type.

            Inaugurating the Mozarteum Midday Concerts at the Gran Rex, MusicaQuantica, conducted by Camilo Santostefano, premièred "The Desert Music" by Steve Reich in chamber version by Alan Pierson (2001) accepted by the composer. Reich, who visited us months ago, is one of the Big Three of minimalist American music, along with Philip Glass and John Adams. Inspired by poems of William Carlos Williams (1954), the score we heard was composed in1982-3. For the poet the desert is a metaphore: a place where humanity can contemplate itself, retrieve their spirituality and make the decisive choices between changing for the best or destroying their very basis. The text is used by bits as part of the total massed sound and is quite unintelligible; the mere listing of the variegated orchestra tells us the density of it: the Percussion ensemble of the Conservatoire Astor Piazzolla, eight-strong (directress, Marina Calzado Linage); the Wind Ensemble of the Colón´s Institute of Art (flutes and brass) prepared by Claudio Fenoglio (eleven players);  the String Ensemble 440 (Ignacio Andrés Mandrafina), fourteen instrumentalists; and four pìanists. Plus the eighteen voices of the Choir. A grand total of fifty-five people.

            The five pieces last fifty minutes but the third is divided into three, so there are really seven. The technique Reich used is called "phasing" and consists in a combination of minimal patterns; the whole consists in entering or going out of phase. Relentless repetition of a rhythm with different colors combining the aforementioned ensembles, dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo, gradual changes, some counterpoint and dissonance, strong pulsating effect.   The work has impact and as far as I could apprehend was quite well done under the expert hands of Santostefano.

            Architect, mathematician and composer, Yannis Xenakis (1922-2006) was a controversial  creator who based his music on very complex mathematics-inspired schemes. In 1981 Les Percussions de Strasbourg premièred "Pléïades" for the Mozarteum at the Coliseo, and I was  vividly impressed. The score had been commissioned by the Opéra du Rhin for those six brilliant players. Now Colón Contemporáneo offered it with the Percussion Group of The Hague, quite cosmopolitan: two Dutch, two Mexican, one Spanish, one Japanese (the only woman).

            It´s a long score (53 minutes) divided into four parts: Mixtures, Brass, Keyboards and Skins (Drums). The instruments include one invention of Xenakis: the sixxen, metallophone tuned microtonally similar to the vibraphone but with aluminum profiles instead of plaques. They were imitated by the Colón´s artisans. I found the whole work fascinating, with a colossal variety of timbres and rhythms and dynamics controlled by a mind that knew how to give a solid structure to what could have been a sprawling chaos. And the players were excellent, especially the Japanese Ryoko Imai, adrenalic but strongly disciplined.  Before Xenakis we heard James Tenney´s "Having never written a note for percussion", and in its original version it would have been a frightful bore, for it merely was a tremolo tam-tam going from pianissimo to fortissimo to pianissimo, and it could last ad libitum "for a very long time". But the Hague players did something intelligent and interesting: not one but six tam-tams placed at different heights in the vast hall and a total length of seven minutes. The two culminating minutes had a visceral repercussion such as I have seldom experienced.

            There has never been a composer like Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) and there will never be another: he created a musical world that is completely personal. Not only his brand of mysticism is all-encompassing but, to mold it into music, he imagined a panoply of techniques that are all his own and of whom he was a past master. You need a very particular vision to call a symphony movement "Joy of stars´ blood". It is the fifth of the ten movements of the gigantic "Turangalîla Symphony", presented by the National Symphony under Francisco Rettig at the Blue Whale. It´s only the third time that it is played in BA; the second was two decades ago, by the same conductor and orchestra; and further back Pedro Calderón conducted the première. Last year occurred one of the Ministry of Culture´s habitual snafus: the plane tickets for Rettig and the Martenot player weren´t sent in time and the project collapsed...

            The score was commissioned by Koussewitzky for the Boston Symphony; it was written between July 1946 and November 1948 and premièred a year later at Boston conducted by Bernstein. There are two soloists although it´s a symphony: a pianist who has to surmount enormous obstacles; and a specialist in Ondes Martenot, electric instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot; it can produce microtones; it has a keyboard, and registers can vary the sonority and produce glissandi; it is purely melodic and the sounds are quite beautiful and mysterious. Turangalîla is a Sanskrit word; Turanga is time, Lîla is play in the sense of divine action on the cosmos, and also love. The movements are based on four cyclic themes that recur and are complemented by many others. It is, says the composer, a song of love and a vast counterpoint of rhythm. The instrumentation is monumental and extremely varied, winds, strings, keyboards and a huge assembly of percussion. And it lasts almost 80 minutes.

            This isn´t just a concert, it´s an experience; let yourself be penetrated by it and you will come out transformed, at least for a while. The vast audience gave the performance a rousing ovation, which speaks well of them, but also of the great job done by Rettig and the orchestra (save slight misadjustments in the first minutes) in music of the utmost difficulty, and the tour de force of Marcelo Balat, again demonstrating that he is an admirable pianist, plus Thomas Bloch on the Martenot waves, although I found him too subdued now and then. A triumph for this lovable orchestra, so often mismanaged.

            I will end this article staying with the orchestra although not in contemporary material except for one work. In what was a commendable and desirable initiative, to bring the National Symphony to the Colón after an unconscionable 14-year absence, again the damnable bureaucracy of the Ministry of Culture botched it by not paying in time the orchestral and vocal material for Prokofiev´s Cantata "Alexander Nevsky", with the Coro Polifónico Nacional thus stranded and conductor Javier Logioia Orbe resigning in protest. Darío Domínguez Xodo came to the rescue; he respected the First Part, starting with "Elegía", a brooding and overlong score by Manuel Juárez (1937) and completing it with a brilliant interpretation by Tomás Alegre of Tchaikovsky´s First Concerto. The Argerich protégé is a real talent, and encored with a Chopin Nocturne and something of Scriabin. And the conductor presented after the interval a serious and honest version of the great Sixth Symphony, "Pathetic", also by Tchaikovsky. Rather sparse audience due to bad communication.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Panoply of attractive piano and chamber music / Perianes, Dego, Viennese and Argentine artists show their talent

            Two years ago Spanish pianist Javier Perianes made an unheralded debut at the cozy small Museo Fernández Blanco. Now he was back, this time at the Colón for the Mozarteum cycle. He has an international reputation as a refined artist; his programme was admirably planned: Vienna represented by Schubert and Granada by Falla, Debussy and Albéniz. The intimate Allegretto in C minor preceded the final  Sonata of the Pre-Romantic Austrian, Nº21, overplayed (several are as interesting  as this one) but enigmatic, long and beautiful. It was soon apparent that Perianes has the secret of variety of timbre, perfect articulation and attention to detail.

            I defend his idea of playing with no pause the pieces by Falla (Homage to Debussy´s grave), Debussy (Afternoon at Granada from Estampes, "La Puerta del Vino" from Preludes Book II and "The interrupted Serenade" from Preludes Book I) and Albéniz ("El Albaicín" from "Iberia"), for thus he illuminated the connexions between these very different composers and the fascinating city of the Alhambra. In Debussy Perianes showed himself a past master of Impressionism, and he also caught precisely the morose sadness of Falla and the fantastic virtuosity needed for Albéniz. Falla´s Suite from "El amor brujo" ("Love the Magician") was fine in the mysterious ambiences but somewhat short in impact in the famous Ritual Fire Dance. There is only one flaw in this talented pianist: the lack of viscerality and true "fortissimi" when required. The encore was lovely: Chopin´s Eighth Nocturne.

            The Museo Fernández Blanco has had for many years a consistent policy of offering quality concerts in its marvelous main hall (120 capacity). A special feature is the series starring the magnificent Italian Eighteenth-century instruments of their collection, the best in South America. Francesca Dego had been here before and I have an excellent memory of her concert with orchestra, but this was a greater challenge: to play three virtuosic pieces of completely different composers, each on one of those wonderful instruments. Presented by the expert Pablo Saraví, she gave us  the fascinating Sonata Op.27 Nº2 by Ysaÿe on a Santo Serafin (Venice, c.1730); "To Paganini", an extremely complex piece by the Russian Alfred Schnittke, on a Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (Piacenza, c.1747); and the redoubtable Bach Partita Nº2 ending with the great Chaconne, in what is considered the most important violin of the collection, a Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (Cremona, 1732). Her encore: the celebrated Paganini Caprice Nº24. A tour de force brilliantly done by the interpreter, a tall beautiful blonde of immense command and stamina. And the instruments impressed me by their nobility and roundness of tone.

            But the Fernández Blanco in its "normal" concerts is often very attractive. I will mention three of them. The splendid Cracow Duo (Jan Kalinowski, cello; Marek Szlezer, piano) gave a mostly Polish recital: a young Chopin (Introduction and Brilliant Polonbaise) and three premières: a Post-Romantic Nocturne Op.39 Nº 2 by Ludomir Rózicki, the succinct and interesting Sonata by Tadeusz Majerski and the Neoclassic and charming Partita by Alexander Tansman. Plus tango-tinged Argentine pieces: José Bragato´s "Graciela y Buenos Aires", Piazzolla´s "Oblivion" and as encore, "Ave Maria".

            Astonishing: at the same place I experienced the 42nd Concert of Chamber Music by Czech Composers organised by clarinet player Luis Slabý, a lonely crusade I much admire. In this case he presented scores originally for wind quintet or adapted to it, with his colleagues Laura Rus (flute), David Bortolus (oboe), Leonardo Melgarejo (horn) and Gabriel La Rocca (bassoon). The brief four-movement Quintet by Jirí Laburda written when he was 80 in 2011 is dedicated to his friend Slabý and is a fine example of Neoclassicism´survival. The longer and more complex Quintet by Jirí Pauer (1919-2007) has a curious structure: six movements divided in groups of two (Introduction and main material), with the accent on humour (Burlesque, Grotesque); the music is imaginative and fresh, Neoclassic but more audacious. It´s a curious idea to transcribe Dvorák´s Quartet Op.96 ("American") to the very opposed texture of a wind quintet, but that´s what the French oboist David Walter did; I followed with the original score and the transcription is acceptably faithful but only partially convincing. All the players were good, except for the hornist in Dvorák.

            Another valuable crusader is Lucio Bruno-Videla, who year after year lets us hear Argentine music not available for decades, recovered by arduous investigation. His excellent comments previous to each performance were  a great help. Several pianists let us hear interesting pieces by Argentine or nationalised composers. The early Rhapsodies (1887) by Arturo Berutti (1858-1938), nicely played by Juan Pablo Scafidi, show that the man who later became our first important creator of operas (unfortunately forgotten) was also imaginative in his piano music. But undoubtedly the seminal pioneer of academic music (except operas) was Alberto Williams  (1862-1952), only author of nine symphonies but also of an enormous amount of piano music plus other pieces such as string suites or songs. Pablo Williams, son of Amancio the innovative architect and grandson of Alberto, has preserved his legacy and he is much to be thanked. Melina Marcos was the very proficient player of his First suite (1891) and "Payasos" ("Clowns"), of 1918, homage to Frank Brown, founder of the creole circus, in seven funny and extravagant fragments. I found the Sonatina (1918) by the Spanish-born José Gil (1886-1947) rather too conventional, and Patricia Lamprópulos hesitant in her reading. On the other hand, the three "Spiritual pieces" (1917 to 1921) by the catalan Jaime Pahissa (1880-1969) were searching and valid; well played by Scafidi. Finally, more Williams, in the interpretation of the Estonian Klarika Kuusk, quite good: the charming "Five new milongas" of 1942.

            Coincidentally, in the same week one of the Mozarteum Midday concerts at the Gran Rex gave us another rescue: an all-Williams experience by the Chamber Orchestra of the Nation´s Congress conducted by Sebastiano De Filippi, in fact a string ensemble of twenty players, not all of them up to par. The three Argentine Suites of 1923 were separated by small pieces: "Fog at La Pampa" (1951), "Goodbye to the Ranch" from the Second Suite of milongas "Airs of La Pampa" (1944) and the third piece of the Second suite of miniatures (1892).  The music is all evocative of our folklore but  never quotes, everything is creative and pleasant. The versions had their faults but were intelligible and useful.

            Another Midday Concert gave us the debut of the String Quintet called Wiener Kammersymphonie (Viennese Chamber Symphony) plus the return to BA of an Argentine pianist, José Gallardo, who lives in Germany (Mainz) as Professor but concertizes widely. It´s a strange quintet, for such groups generally have two violas or two cellos, but not this one: two violins, one viola, one cello, one bass. There´s practically no original repertoire for such a combination, and so they presented arrangements for it, but with a special touch: they aren´t of our times. An anonymous composer arranged in 1808 the Overture and two arias from Mozart´s "The Magic Flute". Vinzenz Lachner adapted Beethoven´s Third Piano Concerto to piano and this sort of quintet. And the incredibly precocious "Märchenbilder" ("Fairy Tale images") by Korngold (written for piano in 1909 at 12, orchestrated by him the following year) adapted by Josip Maticic. Very good playing from all concerned, Gallardo proving to be a stylish Beethovenian.

For Buenos Aires Herald

​Bellini´s “Norma” starts Juventus Lyrica´s season.​/ ​The disastrous love of Roman commander and Druid priestess

            "Norma" is undoubtedly Vincenzo Bellini´s masterpiece and a risky choice to start any operatic season, for its vocal and dramatic demands are of the highest order. It stands or falls by the choice of female singers; not only Norma, the Druid High Priestess, daughter of the Archdruid Oroveso, but also Adalgisa, the virgin of the Temple who innocently admits that the Roman proconsul Pollione loves her, provoking disaster because he is Norma´s lover and they have two children, unbeknown by the whole Gaul community.

            Before I go any further, let me say that the two artists who sang these roles in the second cast (the one I could see) justified being chosen and were the main reason to admit this revival, which had some flaws. But first, some background for those that aren´t familiar with this opera, an essential bel canto landmark. It is the eighth of his eleven operas and by far the most important of this short-lived composer  (1801-35). His librettist, as in other six operas, was the renowned Felice Romani, based on Louis Alexandre Soumet´s tragedy; both this and the opera were premièred in the same year, 1831, though Soumet in Paris (April) and Bellini at Milan´s La Scala (December 26).

            Indeed, as said in Grove´s Dictionary, Bellini´s genius was all for lyrical expression: clarity, elegance and beauty of form. But it´s only in "Norma" that the beautiful melodies and the recitatives have such strong dramatic force. And naturally it became the top role in the career of Maria Callas.

            Time and place: Sacred forest of the druids during Roman occupation of Gaul, first century B.C. Druid in Celtic means "Knowing the Oak Tree". Julius Caesar tells us that the Druids took charge of private and public sacrifices, judged quarrels and decreed penalties. Norma does the rite of the  mistletoe on the Sacred Stone in front of the Oak Tree. The druids were later suppressed by Tiberius (reigned AD 14-37). In the opera they want war against the Romans but Norma in Act One invokes the Moon ("Casta Diva") and says they must wait; however,  in Act 3 she calls for war because of her rage against Pollione. Contradictory, Medea-like she wants to murder her children because they are Pollione´s blood but seconds later she embraces them. In fact, we seem to be witnessing a Greek tragedy.

            Mariana Carnovali faced the challenge of Norma with aplomb and musicality; the voice has a good timbre, she sang with line and fine highs. However, she lacks the dramatic impact for those moments of terrible truth such as the revelation of Pollione´s love for Adalgisa. Mezzo Nidia Palacios has had a distinguished European career in many roles and theatres; her return to our city is welcome, for she has firm vocal means and  style; the duets with Norma were enjoyable and exact. Pollione is an ungrateful character and a difficult one; Nazareth Aufe barely coped with it. The experienced bass Mario De Salvo did an adequate Oroveso. With ringing voice tenor Ramiro Pérez gave relevance to Flavio, Pollione´s friend, and Romina Jofre was a correct Clotilde, Norma´s confidante.

            Hernán Sánchez Arteaga was both the conductor of the orchestra and the director of the choir; excepting a rather rough Overture, he proved an attentive supporter of the solo singers and he got excellent response in the choral fragments, especially those for male voices.

            The problem, once again, was the production. Florencia Sanguinetti avoided the prevailing sin of transporting everything to the Twenty First Century, but there are other  ways to be wrong. The unit set by Marcelo Salvioli  was aggressive, uncomfortable and unsuited: cutting rocks in a cliff and steps all over the stage certainly aren´t a Sacred Forest. Incongruously projections showed a glacier, a sea... and yes, suitably, a wood. Uncalled-for choreography for unexistent balletic music, added characters (Agénor, Clodomir) and slaves. The costumes by Cecilia Carini were better, and Rubén Conde handled  the lighting well. But things like a hospital bed for the kids  in a completely unbelievable "room" (Norma´s dwelling) dominated by  rocks are totally contrary to this opera´s needs.

​For Buenos Aires Herald

The richness of our symphonic life is amazing


             In our city we are privileged to have three quality professional orchestras plus three youth ones and several chamber outfits, plus numerous visits from the provinces and foreign countries. Once the season is on it doesn´t stop until the end of the year and it´s hard to cover in a weekly, but here is a partial synthesis.

            Last year Ciudad Konex presented a five-day-long Mozart Festival; now we got a Beethoven panorama, with the nine symphonies as the main event by La Filarmónica, the ad-hoc name of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic when it isn´t performing officially. With the sure hand of Carlos Vieu I enjoyed two of the four concerts of the cycle, those encompassing symphonies Nos. 6 ("Pastoral") and 5, and the First plus the 9th, "Choral". All are important, even essential, but some more than others (3, 5, 6, 7 and 9); together they form the most significative corpus of symphonies in history.

            The blissful  (save for the Storm) "Pastorale" was nicely played and conducted with fine command, though I missed some of the inner joy and flow of nature which makes it so special. The starkly built Fifth marked by its destiny motif  had the right feeling of inexorable progress and of clear articulation, only lacking the granite-like strength it needs in some passages. On the other programme the freshness and already unmistakable personality of the composer in the First Symphony was very cleanly communicated. And the mighty Ninth was quite powerful and intelligently interpreted in the first two movements; the slow one didn´t quite achieve its role of introspective oasis of beauty; and the last was good in the instrumental minutes but when the voices entered with the "Ode of Joy"  the results were uneven; the Coro Lagun Onak (Rubén Pesce) did well, but two of the soloists were below par: bass-baritone Lucas Debevec Mayer grimacing and forcing his line, and soprano Paula Almerares without the radiance she used to have. Mezzo Alejandra Malvino was correct but only tenor Enrique Folger sang with the conviction and projection the music needs.   The festival also had two outstanding concerts I couldn´t hear: one by the Petrus Quartet and the other of famous sonatas played by Horacio Lavandera.

            The Colón´s Orquesta Estable is generally in the pit but sometimes it is on stage, as in a Sunday concert beginning the Abono Verde (Green subscription series), with outrageous prices. After decades of absence, we finally had the visit of the famous Brazilian conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky, now 82 and still hale. The Mahler First Symphony had some initial difficulties but gradually showed his mettle and knowledge. However, what made the afternoon memorable was pianist Sergio Tiempo, at the top of his remarkable talent in Rachmaniniov´s huge Third Concerto (and well supported by the orchestra). His incredible dexterity meshed with the perfect phrasing of each fragment. His encores were a Chopin slow prelude , the Ginastera Malambo and a Venezuelan joropo.

            Two lines to celebrate the first visit to BA at the Colón by the Orquesta Sinfónica de la Provincia de Río Negro (born 2015) led by Fabrizio Danei. Playing Beethoven, Poulenc and Latinamerican dances arranged by Gerardo Gardelín, this small outfit (40 players) showed much promise.

For Buenos Aires Herald


Great singers in the Met´s final offerings Tchaikovsky´s “Eugen Onegin” and Strauss´”Der Rosenkavalier”

            Nowadays the Met´s productions are sometimes open to harsh criticism but we generally get important singers in great roles. The HD Live performances seen on certain Saturdays at the Teatro El Nacional and presented by the Fundación Beethoven remain very attractive. The final two offered Tchaikovsky´s "Eugen Onegin" and Richard Strauss´ "Der Rosenkavalier" and both had admirable singers.

            "Onegin" has been seen with some frequency in BA and has also been staged at La Plata. Based on the beautiful Pushkin verse novel, well adapted by the composer and Konstantin Shilovsky, these "lyric scenes", as Tchaikovsky called them, have a lot of wonderful music, particularly Tatiana´s Letter Scene and Lenski´s aria. If in the first two acts we are given the rural ambience of Larin´s estate and the stark duel in which Lenski dies, the Third Act transports us some years later to Saint Petersburg and to Prince Gremin´s great Ball; he has married Tatiana, and now it is Onegin who desires her but is rebuked.

            The cast had a superstar, Anna Netrebko, and the sensitive baritone Peter Mattei supplanting Dmitri Hvorostovsky, unfortunately very ill, as Onegin. Lenski was a first-rate Russian tenor, Alexey Dolgov, who sung with style and acted very well. I found Stefan Kocan rather gruff as Gremin. Olga, Tatiana´s coquettish sister, was done very attractively by mezzo Elena Maximova. And two artists who were stars twenty years ago, gave style and knowledge to Madame Larina (Elena Zaremba) and Filippyevna, the wet-nurse (Larisa Diadkova).

            Netrebko may be nowadays a bit too matronly for the part, but her singing and acting was so admirable that it didn´t matter, and her beloved Onegin was interpreted ideally by Mattei. The conductor, Ricardo Ticciati, was a surprise: young and very intense, he proved congenial to Tchaikovsky´s extremely Romantic inspiration.

            Deborah Warner´s production   felt Russian and was often convincing, but Tom Pye´s stage designs were problematic: the unit set for the First Act and the first tableau of the Second  didn´t observe the libretto´s specifications, and the columns in the Third Act complicated Kim Brandstrup´s choreography for the Polonaise. Nice costumes and good lighting.

            This "Rosenkavalier" was essential viewing for it was the goodbye to the stage of Renée Fleming  after 250 performances at the Met and the last Octavian of Elina Garança, the greatest interpreter of this marvelous role in recent years. Fleming was still lovely even with small vocal fissures, and Garança was perfect in every sense. Furthermore, we met a valuable Ochs, bass Günther Groissböck, of healthy singing and funny acting, and there was Matthew Polenzani at his best as the Italian Singer. Erin Morley (Sophie) and Markus Brück (Faninal) were good. And Sebastian Weigle mastered the gorgeous score: a conductor to watch. Alas, in a few weeks we will suffer at the Colón with this Robert Carsen production: a sad travesty of a fantastic libretto. Nevertheless, he couldn´t ruin such magical moments as the final minutes of the First Act or the trio of the third: the music and the artists  moved me to tears.

For Buenos Aires Herald

The Mozarteum gives memorable concerts from Munich and Venice

             The Mozarteum Argentino is now a venerable institution and no one doubts that its trajectory is matchless in our country. The first two items of this year´s season proved again the acumen of its Artistic Director Gisela Timmermann and the fine leadership of President Luis Alberto Erize, for they presented in their two subscription  series at the Colón admirable interpretations of Mozart and Vivaldi respectively by the Munich Chamber Orchestra with violinist Veronika Eberle and by the Venice Baroque Orchestra with mezzo Romina Basso.

            The Munich outfit has visited us several times; founded by Christoph Stepp in 1950, its local debut was in 1955 led by its founder Christoph Stepp; they came back in  1960 at the Museo de Arte Decorativo in the eighth season of the Mozarteum and with Hans Stadlmair, who was their leader for almost four decades. They visited us for the Mozarteum two more times before the present one, who had the characteristic of coming without their current conductor, Alexander Liebreich.

            In this tour the concertino was the Oriental Soyeun Kang (in early announcements it was going to be Giglberger) and she ran the show from her post, with almost imperceptible gestural indications. But the other twelve violins plus four violas, three cellos, two basses, one flute, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns (not always the whole was used), a total of 29 counting the concertino, were unflinchingly together, as the true and stylish professionals that they are.

            There were two programmes where only Mozart´s Symphony Nº33 was played in both, with talented violinist Veronika Eberle making her local debut. In fact Symphony Nº 33 replaced the originally announced Nº 29, for this one collided with the

Kammerakademie Potsdam´s programme scheduled for June 14; a pity that an early Mozart Cassazione (a type of Divertimento)  mentioned to begin the first of two concerts wasn´t included.

            Symphony Nº 33 in B flat, K.319, is rarely played  and less interesting than other symphonies before the big six (35, 36, 38 to 41)  such as Nos. 25, 29, 31 and 34, but it is a work of charm and consumate ability  in its four compact movements. It was beautifully played and served as an apéritif to one of the two great moments of the first concert: the immaculate reading of Mozart´s Violin Concerto Nº4, K.218 by Eberle and the orchestra. He wrote five in the brief time of nine months in 1775, when he was 19. Eberle, now 27, a disciple of the great Ana Chumachenco, showed grace, refinement and transparent articulation, as well as impeccable taste in the small cadenzas added at appropriate points where the orchestral music arrives to a pause. The encore was Kreisler´s "Liebesleid" ("Love´s sorrows").

            After the interval I didn´t enjoy the première of "Hirta rounds" by the Irish composer David Fennessy (born 1976), for me it is boring minimalism. After the brief "Lyric Andante" for strings, an agreeable piece by Reger far from his usual dense writing, we came to the other high spot of the evening: a wonderful performance of that very special Symphony Nº45 ("Farewell") by Franz Joseph Haydn. It´s one of the "Sturm und drang" ("Storm and impulse") symphonies (44 to 49), a precocious harbinger of Romanticism during Classicism paralleled in literature by Schiller and Goethe. Written in 1772, indeed it starts with a stormy first movement in F sharp minor, a complex tonality rarely used at the time. Followed by a melancholy Adagio and a formal Menuet, the last delicate movement makes us understand the "Farewell" sobriquet, as players gradually leave their seats until the last phrase is played only by the concertino: it was the composer´s subtle way to suggest to his patron, Prince Esterházy, that it was time to leave their Summer Palace and go back to Eisenstadt, their winter home; and the Prince complied... The playing was exquisite and stylish throughout, and led to the encore, the last movement of, yes, Mozart´s Symphony Nº 29!

            The second concert started with Mozart´s Symphony Nº 33, followed by his Concerto Nº5 for violin, called "Turkish" because of an episode in the last movement that parodies that music. It innovates by interrupting the first movement´s Allegro by an elegiac violin Adagio before the return of the Allegro.   Eberle was marginally less convincing, not  so exact in her playing and with added cadenzas sometimes too exotic for comfort in Mozart, but still quite good, as was the orchestra (whose only flaw in both concerts came from small smudges from the horns).

            We had Eberle also after the interval, for she played three Kreisler pieces: "Schön Rosmarin" ("Beautiful rosemarie"), "Liebesleid" and "Liebesfreud" ("Love´s joys"), orchestrated simply, for the violin soloist always leads (orchestrations unidentified). These are charming tidbits justly famous, and Eberle played them with the care and distinction they merit.

            The lovely Symphony Nº5 by Schubert, written at 19 in 1816, is a homage to Mozart but with the harmonic and melodic sensitivity that distinguished the great Pre-Romantic of tragically short life. The performance was delightful though without personal touches . A pity that their encore was a repeat of the Menuet.

            The Venice Baroque Orchestra sports its English name though it should properly be called the Orchestra Barocca di Venezia. It was founded in 1997 by investigator and harpsichordist Andrea Marcon. Since their inception they have made pioneer work rediscovering and in certain cases recording operas by Cavalli, Vivaldi, B.Marcello and Boccherini. In this debut tour they didn´t come with Marcon but concertino Gianpiero Zanocco proved a splendid leader. And with them came a talented mezzo, Romina Basso (also debut) who has recorded five Vivaldi operas (!) and been a soloist with a redoubtable covey of specialist ensembles.  Together thay gave a memorable all-Vivaldi programme presenting two Sinfonias, four Concerti and six opera arias. A veritable feast disproving the still existing prejudice about Vivaldi´s sameness, for the evening was a constant discovery of contrasting marvels.

            The group is basically a string ensemble (13) plus harpsichord, but one of the violinists, Anna Fusek, is also a virtuoso player of the sopranino recorder and she wowed the audience with the Concerto RV 443 (RV: Ryom Verzeichnis=Ryom catalogue). The other Concerti were for two violins, RV 516 (Zanocco, Giorgio Baldan) and the only one for two cellos, RV 531 (Massino Raccanelli Zaborra, Federico Toffano). Excellent playing save for some acidity in high long notes from the violins, probably because they use no vibrato at all (they are very historicist in style, with strong  dramatic colors, though their strings are metallic, not guts). The two Sinfonias were brief, in G major (RV 146) and minor (RV 157); the sinfonias of that time were as the concertos but without soloists, nothing to do with classicist symphonies.

            The treat of the evening was the very different operatic arias: they were turbulent in "Bajazet", dramatic and slow in "Farnace", florid in "Orlando furioso", mild in "Atenaide", expressive in "Giustino" and fast, intense in "Argippo". Musso has a remarkable technique and range, as well as theatrical temperament. She proved adaptable to dissimilar mooods and capped the evening with that wonderful slow Händel aria, "Lascia ch´io pianga", from "Rinaldo".

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, mayo 15, 2017

Monteverdi´s ·The Coronation of Poppea”: music respected, wrong staging


            A new way of telling stories with music was born in Florence in 1597, when the Camerata Fiorentina went back to Greek mythology  in a "Dafne" with music by Peri, unfortunately lost, but in 1600 both Peri and Caccini wrote an  "Euridice", and these are extant; they are mostly recitative and words dominate the music. But Claudio Monteverdi showed the right way in 1607 with his "La favola d´Orfeo" for the Court of Mantua (on the same subject but giving pride of place to Orfeo rather than Euridice): "notable advances both in dramatic characterization and in musical form" (Willi Apel).

             Monteverdi moved to Venice and it was there that in 1637 opened the first opera house, Teatro San Cassiano: now what had been a courtly entertainment was seen by the common people. The composer, equally adept in sacred and profane music, went in his  life (1567-1643) from the Late Renaissance to the Early Baroque, or as he said, from the "prima prattica" to the "seconda prattica". Unfortunately no less than ten of his operas were lost, and only two (apart from "Orfeo" and the admirable fragment of "Arianna": the "Lamento") survived, and were written in his final years: "Il ritorno d´Ulisse in patria" (1641) and "L´incoronazione di Poppea" (1642). It´s a good thing that all three have been staged in Buenos Aires.

            There was no edition of "Poppea" but two manuscripts have come to us: the Venitian at the Biblioteca Marciana, and the Neapolitan, at the Conservatory San Pietro a Majella; they have considerable differences. "Poppea" is recognised as a great masterpiece. There were editions in the Twentieth Century by the likes of specialists like D´Indy, Malipiero, Krenek and Redlich.

            It was premièred in Buenos Aires at the Asociación Cultural de Conciertos, Grand Splendid, 1927, and the Colón presented it in 1938 conducted by no less than Tullio Serafin. My first experience was in 1965, when Bruno Bartoletti presented an honorable performance with a certain degree of historicism, but the Colón touched greatness with the 1996 performances led by René Jacobs, staged by Gilbert Deflo, and sung by a distinguished cast. Then, Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) had the merit of giving a stylish staging by Rita de Letteriis and a very decent musical realisation at the Avenida in 2006.

            There are admirable recordings led by Leppard, Harnoncourt, Jacobs, Gardiner and Hickox, and it´s interesting to observe that both in them and in stagings seen in BA  some roles have been sung  by different types of voice: Nero by tenor or mezzo, Arnalta by tenor or mezzo or contralto, Ottone by countertenor or mezzo or baritone. Granted, that sort of problem is typical of the Baroque, but more  of later stages of that period when castrati reigned, nowadays replaced generally by countertenors (I don´t suppose historicism will go as far as reviving the castrati...).

            The opera is long (about three hours and a half) and most performances prune it here or there. The recent presentation was (for the first time) a joint enterprise of Nuova Harmonia (NH) and BAL, starting both seasons; the venue, the Coliseo. The initial night was that of NH (the one I saw), the other two, for BAL. Both institutions innovated: NH because it is a concert concern, BAL because its usual home has been the Avenida. Probably costs were the reason for this association. BAL will present only one opera at the Avenida (that overworked standard, "La Boheme"), and two chamber operas at the Picadero; their fifth title won´t be an opera but a concert at the Avenida.

            "Poppea"´s ample cast combines six Gods with nineteen Mortals; this version eliminates Pallade, Mercurio and Venere. The music is enormously varied: recitatives, ariosos, arias, instrumental pieces, duets, quartets, concertantes; laments, marches, brilliant and funny episodes, tragic ones (Seneca´s death). Not all of it is Monteverdi´s; e.g., the beautiful final duet of Nerone and Poppea was written by Benedetto Ferrari, otherwise almost unknown nowadays (his operas are lost). And although the instrumental music is all written out, there´s no specified orchestration. Of course, this means that they may change frrom one historicist interpretation to another, but with Marcelo Birman we were in safe hands: he has shown his worth in admirable premières and revivals of Baroque French operas with his Orchestra Compañía de las Luces (Company of Lights); Monteverdi proves to be up the conductor´s aisle. He used for the orchestra five violins, two violas, two cellos, bass, flutes, cornetto (a wooden trumpet), trumpet, three sackbuts (predecessors of trombones) and percussion. And for the continuo (in solo numbers), two harpsichords, two lutes and guitars, two theorbos, two harps, two viola da gambas and cello. The playing was excellent and the conducting, always flexible and expressive.

            Some words about Gian Francesco Busenello´s libretto, based on Tacitus´ "Annals" and Suetonius´ "Life of the Caesars". It is unabashedly licentious and cynical: here the bad ones win: Nero rejects and exiles his wife Ottavia, Poppea wins power through lust, the Stoic philosopher Seneca commits suicide by Nero´s orders (who didn´t tollerate his mentor´s sage counsels). And Ottone, clad as Drusilla, fails ridiculously to kill Poppea (whom he loves), instigated by Ottavia (the weakest moment of the libretto, otherwise interesting and well written).

            Two singers dominated: the Venezuelan bass Iván García (now resident here) was a powerful and noble Seneca; and the Brazilian mezzo Luisa Francesconi (debut, I believe) has important vocal material and gave her grieving but vengeful Ottavia much dramatic presence. I have enjoyed Cecilia Pastawski in Mozartian roles, but she lacks the arrogant sexiness Poppea requires and also some volume. Tenor Santiago Bürgi was a Nero alternately amorous and violent with less line than the Baroque requires, but he was a convincing actor. As in 2006, countertenor Martín Oro was Ottone, though this time I found him too mannered in phrasing and rather weak dramatically. Gloria Rojas, a Chilean contralto, sang Arnalta´s (Poppea´s wetnurse) lullaby expressively, but her later intervention was so absurdly marked by the stage director that I was sorry for her.  I think the same about soprano Victoria Gaeta: as Drusilla she was fresh and musical, but in the Prologue her Fortuna was so over-the-top that I cringed. The Amore of Adriano D´Alchimio was well sung but terribly kitsch, whilst Rocío Arbizu did well as Vertue and Damigella (Maiden). The others were good: Josué Miranda, Agustín  Gómez, Mariano Fernández Bustinza and Juan Pablo Labourdette. The seven dancers were accurate in the cabaret-ish choreography of Ignacio González Cano.

            As you may have inferred, I wasn´t happy with Marcelo Lombardero´s staging and kept thinking, De Letteriis come back! The Prologue (a dialogue between Fortuna, Virtú and Amore) was the wickedest sort of low kitsch.  The three acts were compressed into two; that doesn´t bother me. But the recurring near-soft-porn, the lack of subtlety, the uncalled-for grotesque (clown´s noses in the final scene), the incongruities, are so dominant that the few dignified moments hardly compensate (Seneca´s death, Arnalta´s lullaby). True, Daniel Feijóo´s stage design does have some quality, but the costume designs of Luciana Gutman are mostly ugly and absurd, and the lighting by Horacio Efron sometimes was unhelpful to understand the action.

For Buenos Aires Herald



Damrau and Testé: high point of the singing year

            Last week´s Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s concert was outside the norm, for symphonic repertoire was left aside and the orchestra, under our seasoned operatic conductor Mario Perusso, accompanied the brilliant debut of German soprano Diana Damrau and her husband, French bass baritone Nicolas Testé.

            She has a splendid twenty-year career and is a rarity: a soprano of enormous range (strong lows, stratospheric perfect highs), histrionic at all times, equally convincing in drama and comedy. She was imaginative as Rossini´s Rosina, florid and light in Meyerbeer (so rarely heard here), dramatic as Gounod´s Juliet, heart-rending in Bellini´s mad scene from "I Puritani".

            Testé was a surprise for many; not as famous as his wife, he is certainly one the best bass baritones nowadays, with a firm beautiful voice capable of fine shading but also of stark drama: from the cunning of Basilio´s "La Calunnia" (Rossini), to the comic bravado of "Pif, paf" (Meyerbeer´s "The huguenots"), the noble line from the French version of Verdi´s "Don Carlos"(clumsily not announced), the intense aria from Antonio Gomes´ interesting "Salvator Rosa" and the sinister Alvise in Ponchielli´s "La Gioconda". As contained as his wife is adrenalic, nevertheless the two combined admirably in the closing "Bess, you is my woman now" (Gershwin).

            In the encores, Puccini arias from both  and a lovely duet from Bernstein´s "West Side Story".

            Perusso and the orchestra shone in orchestral pieces of Rossini, Gounod, Saint-Saëns and Bernstein.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Wagner before Wagner: “Forbidden love” premièred at the Colón

            The Colón hasn´t offered Richard Wagner´s "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" since 1980, though it is arguably the greatest German operatic comedy of the Nineteenth Century; this in a big opera house of important history is quite simply an aberration. And "Tannhäuser" isn´t staged here since 1994. The composer´s second opera, "Das Liebesverbot" ("Forbidden love"), written in 1835-6, is clearly mediocre, and the only reason to present it is that for aficionados it´s a curiosity that, warts and all, in its better fragments gives some inklings of the great Wagner revealed in 1841´s "The Flying Dutchman" (though premièred in 1843). In fact, his first opera, "Die Feen" ("The Fairies"), created in 1833-34, was belatedly staged posthumously in 1888, and there the hints of the future are more evident. And of course, in "Rienzi", on Bulwer Lytton´s novel about Rome´s last tribune, even if it follows grand opera lines; it was composed in 1838-40, and had its first hearing in 1842 at the Dresden Court Opera: Wagner´s fame got a decisive giant step.

            Wagner was only 22 when he started on "Das Liebesverbot", a free adaptation of a problematic Shakespeare comedy, "Measure for measure", transplanting it from Vienna to Palermo (Sicily). It´s one of three comedies called "bitter" or "dark", the others being "Troilus and Cressida" and "All´s well that ends well". They were written in the difficult years before and after the death of Elizabeth I (1603) and they offer "a distempered vision of the world", especially "Measure for Measure" (1604-5), "searching, unsettling and precarious play" (Encyclopedia Britannica).

            I haven´t been able to compare it with Wagner´s libretto, but I have to state that I find the latter an aberration of continuous contradiction and improbability, from the very premise: Friedrich, Governor of Palermo, imposes the death sentence to anyone that indulges in sex for pleasure, and this in the middle of Carnival celebrations. No less absurd is Isabella´s behaviour: a severe woman living in a convent, she does expose Friedrich´s hypocrisy (he desires her) but in the final scene she robs the equally hypocritical Luzio from the light-hearted Dorella (to whom Luzio had promised marriage) and leaves the convent. And so on.

            Wagner had been named conductor of the small Magdeburg opera house; facilities were few, orchestra and choir were weak and the cast very poor, but the composer wanted this ragged lot to learn a long and complicated opera in just ten days. The only two programmed performances  failed utterly (the second was cancelled!), and Wagner tried in vain to obtain the support of other cities in the following years to offer "Das Liebesverbot" (curiously he didn´t even try to get them interested in "Die Feen"). So the opera lay forgotten for more than a century; and of course Bayreuth never staged the three initial Wagners. Until it was revived in 1923 in Munich with scant success. But matters changed in 1983 when Munich Opera´s Musical Director Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted all thirteen Wagner operas celebrating the centenary of his death: the ponderous (more than four hours) "big comedy"-"grosse Komische"- was judiciously pared down to two hours forty minutes, and with fast tempi and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle´s talented staging  it became a success and was recorded live. I own that recording (edited much later, in 1995) and find it very good. It puts the best possible face on a problematic opera.

            The Colón production lasts about the same and is based on the score edited by Breitkopf & Härtel. And as so often nowadays, it is shared by several theatres to cut costs: originated in Madrid´s Teatro Real, it is co-produced by Covent Garden and the Colón. The London theatre is there for the simple reason that the stage director Kasper Holten (debut) was until very recently the Covent´s Opera Director (in a polemic tenure that allowed such things as a gory "Lucia di Lammermoor").

            In fact this comedy is seldom funny and the music is a mixture of influences that go from Bellini to Auber and Weber. There are much better German comedies in those Romantic decades, but the Colón ignores them: Lortzing´s "Zar und Zimmermann"  (1837), Nicolai´s "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1849), Weber´s "Abu Hassan" (1811), Cornelius´ "The Barber of Baghdad" (1858). There´s some sparkle in the Wagner Overture and second Carnival scene, and a modicum of drama in the interview of Isabella and Friedrich; plus  lyricism in Mariana´s aria (the rejected wife of Friedrich) and a nice duet of Isabella and Mariana.

            I single out the  Isabella of soprano Lise Davidsen (debut, Norwegian, very tall, young and imposing): a stunning voice of ample volume  and range, managed with great skill: a Senta or a Sieglinde in the making. I wasn´t impressed by the arid timbre of tenor Peter Lodahl (debut, Danish) as Luzio, although he moves well. Our Hernán Iturralde was a sturdy and professional Friedrich. Christian Hübner (German bass, debut) did a convincing Brighella (maybe the most authentic "buffo" role), an arrogant policeman happy to arrest and judge... but he goes to the clandestine Carnival: the rough deep voice is also accustomed to the great Wagnerian villains (Hunding, Hagen). The Spanish light soprano María Hinojosa did a charming Dorella and Marisú Pavón sang with fine line her Mariana. Tenor Carlos Ullán seemed uncomfortable in the role of the condemned Claudio. The others did well, especially Norberto Marcos (Angelo); Fernando Chalabe was Pontio Pilato (what a name!), Sergio Spina, Antonio; and Emiliano Bulacios, Danieli.

            Slovak conductor Oliver von Dohnányi did an effecrtive job of preparation, obtaining  reasonable quality from the orchestra, and Fabián Martínez managed well the abundant choral music. As to Holten´s production, of course he didn´t respect the 16th Century specified in the libretto, and neon lights mixed with colorful buffo costumes and a handsome unit set full of stairs (a touch of Escher extravagance). Friedrich was ridiculed grabbing a teddy bear in bed. Stage and costume designer, Steffen Aarfing. Interesting lighting by Bruno Poet, and acrobatic choreography by Signe Fabricius (with good dancers hired for the occasion). There was a second, all Argentine cast. 

For Buenos Aires Herald


Ups and downs of National Symphony: Ministerial bureaucracy, CCK logistics

            The Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (National Symphony, NS) is one of the two top symphonic ensembles we have in our concert life; the other, of course, is the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. The latter has its home at the Colón and is costly; the NS plays at the CCK, at the Blue Whale and is always free.  The Phil has solid financial backing, the NS depends on the Culture Ministry´s capricious and ineffective bureaucracy  with its constant problem of non-payment of conductors and soloists and just as harmful, of orchestral material. Plus the CCK´s absurd policy of being totally free (no worthy orchestra in the world plays under such conditions) and allowing babies. And being a cultural centre, it depends on the Media chief, Hernán Lombardi, instead of the Culture Minister, Pablo Avelluto. And Lombardi doesn´t give the NS what it needs to feel at home, including appropriate offices and rehearsal times.

            So the NS season proceeds with constant alarms. And the orchestra is playing sometimes below expectations. But one thing holds fast: the audience fills the vast hall; is it only because they love the orchestra or because it´s free? Well, the Phil is expensive and  generally has a close to full house. And is it because it´s free that the CCK seems unable to provide reservations to reviewers?  

            A February night of Chinese music was postponed to a later date with a different conductor, and celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Argentina. Much later, in September, the NS might visit China and Korea if both Ministries (Cultural and Foreign Relations) understand the importance of giving the NS  a foreign tour after so many years without that experience. The NS has programmed both the artists and the repertoire.

            Zhang Zheng was the conductor, and the soloists were Yuan Yi (violin), Duan Biyan (piano) and Yang Yue (erhu); all made their debut. The music was all Chinese except for Bernstein´s "Candide" Overture. To my Occidental ears the adaptation of Chinese culture to an European product such as the symphony orchestra sounds forced and superficial. It seems to veer between the bombastic and the excessive sweetness, and significantly I only found interesting ideas in the final piece, the tone poem "The Hani minority" by Shao En (the Hani are Tibeto-Burmese).                                                                 The concert started with three short works by Bao Yuankai and was followed by the fourth movement of the Erhu Concerto "The Chinese Wall´s capriccio"; the erhu is the two-string Chinese violin and it´s amazing how varied and beautiful are the sounds that come from this apparently limited instrument, played with virtuoso panache by Yang Yue. But apart from the very professional Yuan Yi and Duan Biya, I found little to like in the fragments from the Violin Concerto "The butterfly lovers" by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, and the third and fourth movements of the Piano Concerto written by six composers (!) based on the cantata "The Yellow River" by Xian Xinghai. The efficient conductor got decent playing from the NS in this repertoire almost wholly new to them.

            I skipped the next concert, too crossover for me (symphonic rock -Emerson- and tango –Schissi), and went on to the following one, in which Günther Pichler made his BA debut as a conductor, though we knew him as a member of the marvelous Berg Quartet decades ago.  The programme couldn´t be more divergent with the two mentioned, and I enjoyed it a lot, for Pichler is a master of style and clarity, even in the score I would have thought not quite up his aisle: the  splendid Overture to "Guillaume Tell" by Rossini. But otherwise we heard Mozart, and Pichler´s phrasing was a lesson to all: the NS did its best to assimilate his teaching and accompanied beautifully that early masterpiece, Concerto Nº9, and afterwards gave us an admirable "Jupiter" (Symphony Nº41).   There was a further pleasure: the debut of Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi, utterly refined and precise, with interesting cadenzas. And equally notable in a contrasting encore: Liszt´s transcription of Paganini´s "La Campanella".

            Finally, after many years, the return of Yeruham Scharovsky to where he was born, after decades of professional conducting in Israel and from there to other 50 countries. The programme started with a favorite overture of mine, Weber´s "Oberon", in a middling version. But things promptly picked up when the twin clarinet players Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel showed their fantastic technique and beautiful timbre in two works (both wrongly called in the hand programme, and as usual, with no comments on the music – another bad thing of the CCK). First, the Concert Piece (not Concerto) Nº 1, op.113, by Mendelssohn (originally for clarinet and corno di bassetto –a clarinet a third lower- and piano), a charming and typical score fast-slow-fast. The orchestration may be by Mendelssohn and at least in this version the music was a BA première.

            And so was the following work (both unannounced...): "De mis raíces" ("From my roots"), Concert variations (not a concerto) for two clarinets and orchestra, Op.41, by Aby Rojze, who was a violinist of the NS during more than four decades until his retirement some years back and during his mature years decided to start a parallel career as a composer.  It's only fair that his beloved orchestra should give him a place in their programming. These variations are tonal and pleasant, with a curious orchestration of strings, trumpets and percussion and virtuoso interventions for the clarinets. The music indeed refers to his roots, which are Jewish and Argentine, so we hear a milonga but also parts that refer to the klezmer tradition, and the main melody sounds solemn and religious both at the beginning and the end. Wonderful playing by the twins, who added as encores two klezmer pieces, and committed accompaniment by conductor and orchestra. Rojze saluted the audience.

            Tchaikovsky created not only the six numbered symphonies but also the very impressive programmatic symphony "Manfred", on Lord Byron´s antihero (who also inspired Schumann). His Op.58 (1885), the score is huge, about 55 minutes,  dominated by the ominous melody of the very start, which reappears in all movements (as its model, the "idée fixe" in the Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz). It is the doomed Manfred that is portrayed, he who has loved Astarte and lost her, he who has been damned and is in the deepest despair as he recollects stages of his life. But in the second movement , a scherzo with trio, the Alps Fairy appears under a cascade in exquisite balletic music later interrupted by  Manfred´s theme. A charming Pastorale is an interlude before the terrible, devilish bacchanale of the fourth movement, until the spìrit of Astarte is evoked with solemn organ chords and Manfred dies. The orchestral imagination is prodigious almost throughout, and the work is very difficult though fascinating. Scharovsky had a brave go at it with some ups and downs but certainly with much expressive power; warts and all, this was a worthwhile occasion to meet a major Tchaikovsky creation. And the Klais organ certainly made a difference.

            The concert was dedicated to the clarinet player Eduardo Prado, who died recently and was member of the SN for decades.

For Buenos Aires Herald


miércoles, abril 19, 2017

New conductors and renewed programming at the Phil

            The second and third concerts of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s subscription series at the Colón coincided in two factors: maestros that had never conducted the Phil and innovative programming. One is old, Finnish, talented and excentric; the other is middle-aged, Italian, very effective and enthusiastic.  Leif Segerstam has been here before, Claudio Vandelli made his debut, and both had soloists from the orchestra in premières.

            Segerstam has changed enormously since his debut here in 1973 conducting Mozart´s "Le Nozze di Figaro".  Then he was slim, 32 and almost at the start of his brilliant career; decades passed until he visited us at the helm of the Helsinki Philharmonic some years ago in programmes that stressed Sibelius and one of the conductor´s myriad symphonies. He was transformed into a Nordic overweight patriarch with a huge beard, but his command and musical sensitivity were quite evident. I also had the good luck of appreciating him as a Wagnerian in Vienna (February 2009) with a splendid "Lohengrin".

            Now in his late seventies, he has serious locomotion trouble and barely manages to climb the two steps to the podium, but his arms respond well and his capacity remains. He started and ended with Sibelius: the iconic "Finlandia" in a rousing performance, and the very welcome second time at the Phil for the Third Symphony, premièred by Pedro Calderón in 1973. Anecdote: at the time the programming was in the joint hands of Calderón (then Principal Conductor) and myself, and curiously he wanted to do Third symphonies and so did I; so he exhumed Mahler´s Third after forty years of its Fitelberg première and I programmed the première of Dvorák´s Third (Smetácek), played complete (not with cuts as happened in Diemecke´s integral of Dvorák symphonies).

            The Sibelius Third also had a performance (rather good) at the Facultad de Derecho by the Lanús Symphony three years ago and I was there, attracted by the chance to hear it live, for this is a neglected symphony in BA (as is the Sixth) and it doesn´t merit such negligence. Of course the first two are longer and richer but there is much beauty in the Third  within its smaller scale. It was finished in 1907 and the composer´s stamp is everywhere, particularly in the attractive melodies of the first movement and the growing tension and density of the final minutes.  It had a detailed and impressive reading.

            The first of two premières was an interesting arrangement by Luciano Berio of Brahms´ Sonata Op.120 Nº1 for clarinet and piano, converting it into a Concerto for clarinet and orchestra. Berio added apposite small introductions to the first and second movements. This is nocturnal, intimate, late Brahms composed in 1894; Berio´s orchestration is at times too loud (the music needs more matte colors, less trumpets) but considering the dearth of clarinet concertos, it is a useful addition to that repertoire. It was premièred in 1986 as a commission of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its first desk Michele Zukovsky. Probably the execution by Mariano Rey, his counterpart at our Phil, was fully as good, for he is a virtuoso of international standing. I had the curious experience of following the music with the original Brahms score, and I found the interpretation (both soloistic and orchestral) cogent  with the marked speeds and articulations. As an encore Rey offered an expressive clarinet adaptation of Piazzolla´s slow, melodic "Oblivion".

            Can you imagine a composer-conductor presenting his Symphony Nº 302? Surely a Guinness record, that´s what Segerstam did in this work dedicated to the Colón and called "A fundamental and universal musical conscience". Carlos Singer says in his programme notes (and I agree): "he created a gigantic meta-universe  irresistible and labyrinthic, cosmic and chaotic". He uses what he calls "free pulsation", "leaving rhythmic decisions to the players". He certainly is "nonconformist, excentric and non-repeatable".  He didn´t conduct his 24-minute symphony, of very full orchestration; instead, some players got up and led a particular section from time to time; I suppose rehearsals must have been fascinating to watch, and apparently the Phil coped well. I found it intense, dissonant though tonal-based, and strange; I was left imagining the workings of Segerstam´s psyche and comparing it to other excentric and prolific symphonists such as Havergal Brian and Alan Hovhaness, both quite unknown here. It would be intriguing to have a chance to compare them live.

            Back to relative normalcy in the following concert.  The announced conductor was Alexander Vedernikov, but he fell ill and was replaced by Claudio Vandelli. What impressed me was that the programme was unchanged although it was made up of rarely played Russian music and a première.  Reading his biography I understood it: he has been invited for the last ten years by the Moscow State Symphony New Russia and is the second conductor of the Russian Youth Symphony, so he is well versed in the Russian repertoire, although he has plenty of activity elsewhere (he has conducted orchestras of great caliber).

            He started with an umistakeably Tchaikovskian score, the fantasy overture "Hamlet" (one of his three Shakespearian tone poems, for that´s what they are: the others being "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Tempest"). Written when he was occupied by his Fifth Symphony in 1888, all the hallmarks of his style are there in this unfairly ignored creation: the dark, ominous textures; the melodies charged with sorrow; the vigorous climaxes; the sense of drama. I enjoyed Vandelli´s sanguine interpretation, played by a committed Phil.

            Johann Baptist Vanhal (Bohemian) had a rather long life (1739-1813) and was staggeringly prolific: 73 symphonies, about 30 concertos, around a hundred string quartets, and  95 sacred works.  Very popular and well considered in his own time, but quite forgotten as the Nineteenth Century advanced, the vinyl catalogue after WWII and later the CD rush provoked a thirst for the expansion of the repertoire beyond the greatest names, and thus slowly Vanhal  was explored at least partially. There are few concerts for the bass, and so the two by Vanhal, purely classicist, began to be played again. The cumbersome instrument is habitually used in orchestras as the basis for rich string textures, but rarely gets solos to play, let alone concertos. So Osvaldo Dragún, first desk of our Phil, welcomed the chance of premièring Vanhal´s Concerto in D major, a pleasant twenty minutes that allowed the player to show the melodic and the virtuosic aspects of the bass. Dragún also played some of Bottesini´s Variations on the Carnival of Venice tune. A good player of charismatic appearance, he got strong applause. And Vandelli accompanied well.

            Now to another excentric composer: Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). He started as a Late Romantic but gradually he went on to an audacious mystical avantgardism. His three symphonies are steps in that sense, crowned by his two great poems: "of ecstacy" and "of fire" ("Prometheus"). The Second Symphony (1901) was marvelously done here by Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony, decades ago. In five movements (the first two and the last two joined), the music is exalted, turbulent and ample (48 minutes).  Vandelli led with enthusiasm and command, getting a big sound out of an attentive Phil.

For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, marzo 28, 2017

Brief account of Charpentier´s Baroque Orpheus

            Marc Antoine Charpentier was a great Baroque composer but his operas were obscured by Jean-Baptiste Lully´s monopoly of Louis XIV´s opera company. Decades ago Christie´s Les Arts Florissants revealed his worth in our city. Now Andrés Gerszenzon´s Selva Vocal e Instrumental offered "La descente d´Orphée aux Enfers" ("Orpheus´ descent on Hades") at the small theatre of Hasta Trilce. Two short acts, 56 minutes, 1686, it stops when Pluto allows Orpheus to reclaim Eurydice. As H.Wiley Hitschcock says, "The little opera is full of musical charm and cunning characterization".

            The playing was very good, the singing from admirable (bass Max Hochmuth, Pluto) to deplorable (Esteban Manzano, Orpheus). The staging (Alejandro Cervera), minimalist and ugly.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

The Colón´s “Adriana Lecouvreur”: Tola saves the day

            Last week readers got the Herald´s views on the Gheorghiu affair and the announcement that in her place the audience would see and hear Virginia Tola in the four subscription series performances of Francesco Cilea´s "Adriana Lecouvreur", thus starting the operatic season. Good news: it happened and things went well.

            But before I go on, noblesse oblige: I am correcting two slips on my preceding article. One: on the seventh paragraph the "mildly positive" review was published on The Guardian, not The Telegraph. And on the final paragraph, it´s the Colón 2018 programming that will be thoroughly analysed, not 2016.

            Nowadays opinions are divided about Cilea´s opera: some believe as I do that in spite of its weak libretto the music is too good to be lost (and there are plenty of operas that are saved by the composer and remain in the repertoire); others stress the mediocrity of Arturo Colautti´s adaptation of the French original play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé and find it too absurd and kitschy; I partly concur but still I get a lot of pleasure from good performances of it.

            Indeed Adrienne Lecouvreur was the great tragedy actress of the Comédie Française during Louis XV´s reign and she was one of the lovers of Maurice, Count of Saxony, who simultaneously had a liaison with the Duchess of Bouillon, whose husband had "la Duclos" as lover. Those were heady days for eroticism in Paris, and although the unpleasant truth is that Adrienne didn´t die by inhaling poisoned flowers sent by her rival (as in the opera) but from dysentery,  Maurice was quite a Don Juan, as well as being a brilliant military leader at the service of the King but with the ambition of getting the Baltic Duchy of Kurland, for though he was the son of Frederick August the Strong, elector of Saxony and King of Poland, he couldn´t aspire to succeed his father because he was the result of a morganatic union  that barred such a destiny.

            For some reason Colautti converts the Bouillons into Prince and Princess but we are not told of where, and also refers to "lire" as currency used in France. There are three subjects in this four-act opera: the quadrangle of lovers and their intrigues; the world of the theatre with five actors counting Adriana, and stage director Michonnet (who also loves Adriana but doesn´t dare to say it); and the military/political ambitions of Maurizio.

            Francesco Cilea was born in 1866 and died in 1950. He wrote only five operas and "Adriana Lecouvreur", 1902, is the one that still is staged with some regularity. A very strange thing is happening this week: for the first time in Argentina: another of his operas will be premièred, and in parallel to "Adriana": "L´Arlesiana" (on Daudet´s drama) will be presented at Avellaneda´s Roma Theater this Sunday at 7 pm (during the last century  the Colón announced it twice but failed to present it!).

            Back to the great tragedienne. Cilea´s music is very well written, melodic and expressive, and in the lighter moments the influence of Verdi´s "Falstaff" is felt. But the arias for Adriana, Maurizio and the Princess are the strong points, as well as the duos of Maurizio and Adriana. Both Adriana and the Princess are dramatically plum roles, particularly in their public confrontation of the Third Act, and the latter´s hate is so strong that she murders Adriana with poisoned violets.

            The Colón has given this opera in 1948, 1951, 1987 and 1994, and in recent years Buenos Aires Lírica presented it at the Avenida. Artists like tenors Gigli and Armiliato, soprano Caniglia and mezzo Barbieri  showed their mettle. This year´s first cast isn´t starry but they put on a valid show. Tola may lack some volume and theatrical presence but she was always musical and professional, with beautiful pianissimo floated notes; her fine looks also helped. Tenor Leonardo Caimi made an agreeable debut; he phrases well, the voice is fresh and pleasant and he is an adequate actor.

             The revelation of the night was Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva, who has an opulent vocal organ strong both in highs ans lows and acts with intimidating command. Veteran character baritone Alessandro Corbelli is now rather arid in the top range, but compensates with a warm, empathic interpretation of Michonnet. The other powerful singer was bass-baritone Fernando Radó as the Prince, projected with real impact. Sergio Spina found the exact inflexions to convey the malice of the Prince´s sidekick, the dissolute Abbé Chazeuil (character tenor). And the four actor friends were nicely interpreted by Oriana Favaro, Florencia Machado, Fernando Grassi and Patricio Oliveira.

            The principals of the well-chosen second cast, which I didn´t see, are Sabrina Cirera, Gustavo López Manzitti, Guadalupe Barrientos and Omar Carrión.

            Mario Perusso, now in his late seventies, remains a connoisseur of Puccini and his contemporaries and was in fine form; he obtained very good sound from an alert orchestra and phrased with taste. The Choir under Miguel Martínez did well.

            Readers know that I dislike the prevailing trend of changing time and place in opera staging, so I was happy that two longstanding members of Roberto Oswald´s team were in charge. It was the first time that Aníbal Lápiz did not only the costumes but also the stage direction, and he was seconded by Oswald´s collaborator in stage design, Christian Prego. Oswald was a consumate master of lighting design, but Rubén Conde has been chief of lighting technique at the Colón since 1988. So this is a thoroughly professional team, and it showed:  we felt in Louis XV´s time and the action was as coherent as the libretto´s flaws permit.

            Although Prego´s layout was based on an impressive unit set, he avoided the limitations of the concept by clever disposition of props and colors and especially because perspectives of the changing center provided (far from the proscenium) beautiful and convincing views of the theatre in which Adriana recites or of trees´ branches moved by the wind, or in the party scene at the Prince´s Palace the adequate backup for  Lidia Segni´s traditional choreography of mythological Greek-Roman Gods in the Judgment of Pâris (who´s the most beautiful, Hera, Pallas or Aphrodite?; much in vogue during Louis XV´s reign). Three dancers from the Colón Ballet and one hired, plus a supporting hired group, gave a stylised view of the famous tale.

             Lápiz showed his expertise on early Eighteenth Century French fashion with lavish and attractive costumes. And Conde´s lighting was always apposite and helpful.

            So this "Adriana..." was both watchable and musically good. Not memorable, but certainly not a letdown. 

For Buenos Aires Herald