viernes, marzo 30, 2007

"Wozzeck" starts atypical Colón season

This is the Colón's "gypsy" year. The theatre is closed for reforms until (hopefully) April 2008, but of course that institution is much more than a building and must be active during this season. So the ballet goes to the Presidente Alvear, the Philharmonic to the Gran Rex and the opera to the Coliseo. The reason for this latter choice is simple: no other theatre has a big orchestral pit that can hold 100 players. The story is a curious one: when the original Coliseo ceased functioning in 1937 it already had that big pit for its seasons had rivalled those of the Colón; when decades later the old Coliseo was torn down and a new one built on modern lines, the pit was left intact but covered. Now, at the cost of almost 300 seats, it has been uncovered; the current Coliseo has a capacity of 1700 rather than 2000, and it has proved enough, though tight, for the traditional Colón subscription series. The counterpart is a shallow stage and almost no flies. The Coliseo hasn't been used as an opera theatre for decades, and when it was a smaller pit was used. As to the acoustics, from my seat in Primera Pullman they sounded bright and clean but rather raw, with no aura; and I'm told the singers have little "return" (the sound they emit doesn't rebound to them the way it does at the Colón and that takes some getting used to). I thought I detected some discreet amplification but I may be wrong.

Marcelo Lombardero as the Colón's Artistic Director has chosen Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" to start the season and he is the producer; as he has explained elsewhere, the methods of production have to be adapted from the Colón's to the possibilities of the Coliseo and he preferred to be the one to do it , thus being in a position to advise other producers later in the year.

"Wozzeck" was premiered in Germany in 1925 and was fast recognized as a masterpiece of modern opera. Although fragments were heard in Buenos Aires in the '30s, the local premiere had to wait until 1952, when after extremely intensive rehearsal it had a triumphant success under Karl Boehm. It was repeated in 1953 with Boehm, 1958 with Leitner, in 1969 with Leinsdorf (and Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry!) and in 1995 with Stefan Lano (his debut here). Now Lano is the Colón's Musical Director and he was firmly at the helm. It is the first time that the cast (rather the two casts) are wholly made up of River Plate area singers, quite a challenge.

If there's a more modern writer in 19th century Germany than Georg Buechner I'm not aware of his or her existence. Born in 1813 and dead just 24 years later, his powerful sense of drama was shown in "Friedrich Lenz", "Leonce und Lena" and "The death of Danton". In "Woyzeck" (changed to "Wozzeck" by a misprint) the starkness and conciness of his style but also his treatment of a half-demented Lumpen driven to crime by misery and mental cruelty is prophetic of the social Expressionism of the 1920s Weimar Republic.

Alban Berg's music is atonal , Expressionistic and admirably wrought on classical forms. Three acts, each in five tableaux, for a total length of about an hour and a half, tell us in music both intelligent and sensitive about the relationships of Wozzeck with Marie, the sadistic Doctor (a proto-Mengele), the ridiculous Captain, the aggressive he-male Drum Major and Andres (Wozzeck's fellow soldier). With the sharpness of a stiletto Berg carves dolorous pictures that stay in one's heart. One aches for Wozzeck and hates the Doctor, and soon forgets the rigors of the non-compromising music to fully share the drama.

Lombardero took the decision to give us all three acts without an interval. As each act comes to a full stop there were a few seconds between each, but the aim was continuity and by and large it was obtained. He used sets and projections by Diego Siliano and appropriately "poor" clothing by Luciana Gutman, all abetted by the dramatic lighting of José Luis Fiorruccio. Lombardero has long shown his affinity with 20th century idioms and his staging was intense, well-rhythmed and theatrical, stressing the social side and the wrenching inhumanity. To my mind he made some mistakes, the main ones being arbitrary in certain scenes , lacking enough credibility in the drowning scene , but most especially giving us views of what looks like the Villa 31 in the last big Interlude distracting us from the glorious music, and utterly distorting the last scene by not giving the child a hobby-horse (he keeps saying "hop-hop"!) and particularly by inventing the presence of the Doctor and the Captain when it is precisely the desolate solitude of the Child what makes the ending so unbearably stark.

Full marks to Hernán Iturralde as Wozzeck and Adriana Mastrángelo as Marie, moving singing actors of international quality; good jobs from Carlos Bengolea, Gabriel Renaud, Gustavo Gibert , Eduardo Ayas , Nahuel Di Pierro and Vera Cirkovic. The Colón Choir under Salvatore Caputo and the Children's Choir prepared by Valdo Sciammarella were good (the silliness of last year's inspector denouncing children working late hours was somehow conjured) and the Orchestra responded fully to Lano's impressive conducting.

For Buenos Aires Herald - April 03, 2007

The Phil at the Gran Rex: bad acoustics, fine programming

I won't harp again with such tired slogans as the Colón's admirable acoustics; the fact is that the theatre will remain closed during all of 2007, so that's that. The authorities decided on the Gran Rex as this year's replacement, apparently because of its huge capacity: it holds about 3000 people, and some subscription concerts at the Colón have approached that figure. It can't be said that the Rex has no symphonic tradition: that enormously wide hall of the 1930s rationalistic school of architecture is impressive in its way, but it is also unresonant and punchless, matte to a fault; nevertheless it gave us in the 1950s such great concerts with the National Symphony as those conducted by Erich Kleiber (the nine Beethoven symphonies), Rudolf Kempe, Igor Markevich or Eduard Van Beinum. And of course it has received the Mozarteum Midday Concerts during many seasons. But the acoustics are still bad, even if panels have been added during the last decade.

Some weeks ago I announced the Phil's season and praised the programming . It is certainly the best the Orchestra has had in the last decade, and it is commendable that there's a reasonable assignment of money to pay for the rentals of orchestral parts ; without this requisite there can be no adventurous plan. The main thing is that each concert should have some intellectual stimulation for the seasoned music lover; a balanced mixture of old and new, of unknown, relatively known and very popular. A subscription audience does want to hear a Brahms symphony again, even if it has heard it often, but most people do need interesting music that isn't trodden to exhaustion.

The first three concerts are good proof that the ideas of Julio Palacio (programmer) are attracting the public. The start was in the hands of Stefan Lano, the Colón's Musical Director, who was in those days rehearsing "Wozzeck" with the Colón Orchestra. A recognized specialist in Alban Berg, he started the subscription series with that composer's admirable Violin Concerto (to the memory of an angel, it is inscribed, the angel being Manon Gropius, deceased when still a teenager, daughter of Alma Schindler and Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus architect). With a conscientious solo job by Fernando Hasaj, the work was well played but short on emotional projection both in the violin part and in the orchestral sounds.

The programme ended with a tremendous score, the incomplete Ninth Symphony by Bruckner. Lacking the fourth movement, it still lasts an hour. Late Romantic music of dense argument and powerful climaxes, it needs more forward propulsion than Lano gave to it; his exaggerated pauses and slow tempi made for heavy weather in a work that must be granitic but purposeful. The Orchestra responded correctly but with less conviction than I hoped for. Granted, this was a difficult combination of masterpieces for what was still late Summer. Perhaps something lighter would have been more apposite to start and this programme, impeccable in itself, would have worked better later in the season.

I haven't mentioned yet that this year the concerts are given on Tuesdays, apparently because the Gran Rex management wants to have Thursdays free for its popular music offerings. This has forced a Colón arrangement with the players of the Phil, for they have to rehearse on Mondays, a traditional rest day for the Colón's artists. I also want to state that some players told me they would have preferred to have the Auditorio de Belgrano as the venue, for its much brighter acoustics; but I told them that the 1200 people capacity would have forced to duplicate each concert to accommodate the habitual patrons of the Phil.

The second concert was conducted by the Argentine maestro Guillermo Scarabino with his usual seriousness and professionalism, but also his low communicative voltage. After the pleasant "Overture for a comic opera" by our Neoclassic composer José María Castro, homage was paid to Jan Sibelius in the 50th anniversary of his death: the nine-piece incidental music to "Pelleas and Melisande", and the premiere of his tone poem "The Oceanides", a late work (1914) of beautiful melody and characteristically Sibelian orchestration. A strong performance of Brahms' majestic First Piano Concerto by Alexander Panizza showed his firm command and big sound; Scarabino accompanied well.

The third concert had the welcome presence of Chilean conductor Francisco Rettig, who combined profound knowledge of scores with clear gestures and sane interpretative ideas. I am very sorry, however, that the original programme was changed. We were to hear Argentine cellist Eduardo Vasallo in Lalo's Concerto, but for some unexplained reason he couldn't appear. So this was replaced by Mozart's Symphony No. 36, "Linz". But Dvorák's "Scherzo capriccioso", a wonderful piece, was deleted, also with no explanation, and we were left with an absurdly short programme, just one hour. This won't do.

However, the concert was very good. We had clean, tasteful, even refined Mozart. And then, an enormously talented piece which has been played only twice here: Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for orchestra, modelled on Bartók's. The composer is to my mind the best of the Polish School that flourished after World War II. This score is closely argued, full of incident, dramatic, strong and accessible; it dates from 1954 . Rettig led it forcefully and with great intelligence, and the Phil responded beautifully.

For Buenos Aires Herald - April 05, 2007

martes, marzo 20, 2007

A flashy "Aida" starts operatic season

Quite early in the season, an independent outfit called Fundamús has presented Verdi's "Aida" at the Avenida and has reaped a considerable success. Although I do have some reservations, I do think it was a worthwhile effort. The soul of the organisation is director Eduardo Casullo, an enthusiastic independent who has been laboring for decades under difficult conditions with uneven results but undoubted drive and love for his profession. These last few years have seen the rise and gradual consolidation of Fundamús as both an operatic school and a producing unit and in the last two years they have also collaborated with Adelaida Negri's Casa de la Opera, responsible for two productions a year.

During these last five years Casullo has presented "Aida" in widely divergent conditions. The first was at that curious venue, the Manufactura Papelera, more a performing space than a theatre. There, in a small place, he attempted what seems almost a contradiction, a chamber "Aida": it certainly gave a strange feeling to hear and see the protagonists at such close range, and some parts became quite moving, but the big set pieces were fatally flawed by the constricted surroundings. Then, at Paraná (Entre Ríos) he went to the other extreme: an immense open-air space close to the river allowed an "Aida" in the grandest scale, although with the natural musical limitations of amplification. The Avenida is, as you know, the theatre chosen by most alternative opera seasons nowadays. Even if the chosen opera does have its rather abundant intimate moments, it does require the resources of a first-rate opera house to do justice to its huge concerted scenes. Some of the faults are inherent to the Avenida, which only proves that the Colón is the single theatre fully equipped for such ample operas that we have.

First, the orchestra pit can only hold 45 and "Aida" needs more. Second, the stage is shallow and the flies are almost nonexistent ; so where do you put the offstage chorus in the Trial Scene? Onstage because you can't do otherwise. OK, so that's that. But other matters were avoidable mistakes; a partial list:

a) It surely was wrong to add distracting dances to the Act I Prelude, quiet and subtle music that sets the stage for the dialogue between the High Priest Ramfis and the top- ranking soldier Radames . It was even more bothersome, later in the same Act, to have dancers doing arcing leaps just in front of the two mentioned characters as they solemnly go through the ceremony in the temple propitiating their gods.

b) The unit set was decided upon surely for financial reasons but it just isn't convincing to see the same elements for the borders of the Nile (Act III), the Triumphal Scene (end of Act II), or the Fourth Act tomb, which simply isn't there .

c) Of course, the Ghislanzoni libretto has flaws of its own, but it is clear that we are dealing with a period of splendor around the 19th Dynasty and we are supposed to look at a coherent stage picture; it can't mix, as here, architectural and sculptural features of two completely inimical periods: that of the monotheistic adorator of the Son, Akhnaton, and what came before or after with its whole pantheon of gods.

d) And whilst some costumes were beautiful and apposite, others were incomprehensible in "Aida", such as Bedouin chilabas, or clothes for poor Amonasro that made him look like one's nightmarish mother-in-law .

And still it worked, such is the magic of "Aida" and such were the factors that came together and jelled. For in Casullo's direction the relationships between the characters were clear and strong , the groupings were harmonious avoiding excessive symmetry, many of the visual elements were pleasant, and somehow the director managed to place the crowds without excessive cramming. And the singers did their larger-than-life parts with conviction.

A particular bit of silliness I could have done without: the hand programme said verbatim: "we ask the public to participate standing when the King enters". In the performance I saw (rightly) no one did; although those seated adjoining the central corridor did partake of bread distributed by "Egyptians".

I heard the first cast. Haydée Dabusti solves some of the problems of Aida but others are too much for her: the voice is rather hard and metallic and she is a poor actress. I heard Carlos Duarte in better vocal shape at the Manufactura, but even so he is able to ring out in the big moments, he has the style in his veins and a warm, Italianate sound. María Luján Mirabelli started weakly as Amneris but later took color, being quite strong and dramatic in the Trial Scene. Ricardo Ortale sang an impressive Amonasro, Oreste Chlopecki began well as Ramfis and later declined, and Cristian De Marco as the King lacked character.

No less than four choirs joined forces with varying results; they certainly put their best effort under Gustavo Felice's helm but some voices were substandard. The Orchestra (ad-hoc) was generally correct under Roberto Luvini's good conducting. Producing team, apart from Casullo: stage designer, Atilio de Laforé; costume designers, Mariela Daga and Azelio Polo; lighting designer, Ernesto Bechara; choreography: Luciana Prato.

Somehow I enjoyed myself , probably because it was so patently a labor of love. Or due to the summer abstinence.

For Buenos Aires Herald - April 29, 2007