lunes, julio 09, 2007

Study in contrasts: "Samson et Dalila" and "Clone"

The Colón at the Coliseo presented Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" in a concert version whose main attraction was the return of famous Argentine tenor José Cura. The CETC (the Colón's Center for Experimentation) reopened after thorough restoration effected under the Master Plan and offered Antonio Zimmerman's "Clone" (world premiere), in total aesthetic contrast to the French composer's masterpiece.

Very probably the Colón's Artistic Director Marcelo Lombardero chose "Samson..." because it is one of Cura's best roles. The controversial tenor sang at the Colón only once, when he did Verdi's "Otello" nine years ago. The last Colón "Samson..." was offered in 1997 with no less than Plácido Domingo as Samson and in a very interesting staging by Beni Montresor. At the time I felt that Cecilia Díaz was just adequate as Delilah, below the level necessary to accompany the best Samson there was. Ten years later I still feel that she doesn't create a strong character and sings it unevenly, though she grew in the part after a rather boring First Act. It would have been useful to get to know any of the outstanding European mezzos (quite a few) that haven't visited us. Not only Díaz was cast in the same role, but also Luis Gaeta as the High Priest, though in this case I must say that he was quite good then and now; in fact, he gave us the best singing of the evening (I'm writing about the first performance).

After the poor impression made by the very restricted acting seen at Boito's "Mefistofele" in the recent concert version, Lombardero understood that something better had to be attempted, and although he was uncredited, he was the author of a rather convincing handling of the singers (what he called "puesta en espacio", translatable as "setting in place"): in front of the choir (immovable, frontal and on steps) the artists acted as they sang, reacting to each other with meaningful gestures. Of course, no stage designs, and one had to imagine such things as the falling of the temple or the mill. Delilah wore an attractive dress and for the men evening clothes were avoided in favor of dark neuter garments.

And Cura? Well, he certainly has a commanding presence and always holds the interest. After nine years of absence there were intriguing questions as to the purely vocal aspects, for his Otello had ups and downs. Singing is a dicey profession and artists often veer rather widely from one performance to another; so I can only report on the one I heard. And these are my conclusions: when he sings loud and high, his tone becomes unfocussed and metallic; as decibels become lower and the music descends from the heights , Cura's singing sounds controlled and beautiful, with poetic accents.

The two bass parts of Abimelech and the Old Hebrew were quite well taken by Ariel Cazes and Carlos Esquivel, and the cast was completed acceptably by Fernando Chalabe, Gabriel Renaud and Walter Schwarz. The score has often been considered an opera-oratorio due to the abundant and serious choral music it contains; the Colón Choir under Salvatore Caputo naturally could read its parts which certainly facilitates things, but this doesn't diminish the good quality of their singing, apart from some passages that were too soft to be heard with comfort.

Rodolfo Fischer , who last year conducted at the Colón Mozart's "Cosí fan tutte", seemed comfortable in the French idiom after some initial trouble with balance and intonation. But the Orchestra sounded increasingly warm and brilliant and the final result was satisfactory. Also, there were no disfiguring cuts as had happened in "Mefistofele".

One bad point: dates were changed and the first was a non-subscription performance ("extraordinaria") instead of being as it should a "Gran Abono" night.

I was quite happy by the results of the CETC's restauration. Of course you can't change the basic architecture of this subterranean space with its vast columns which impede both stage movement and good sightlines, but a lot was done that was possible and is positive: a much improved access stairway with full lighting; comfortable toilets; new dressing rooms; modernized video, sound and lighting; better lighting in the hall and a less claustrophobic ambience; spick-and-span cleaning of the premises; much-improved fire prevention; and enhanced coloring of the brick structure.

Unfortunately, I didn't like "Clone". The idea isn't bad; it is based on Julio Cortázar's homonymous short story adapted by Alejandro Tantanian: a modern madrigal ensemble rehearses Gesualdo's Book V and a parallel to the composer's true story becomes apparent: the tenor madrigalist kills the soprano (or so it is intimated) presumably for similar motives to those Gesualdo had: the composer found his wife in bed with her lover and killed them both. It could have been dramatic and taut, but the morose and redundant music and the static and inert libretto make the 70 minutes it lasts very long. Good singers (especially Selene Lara and Ricardo González Dorrego) and players (an original combination of bandoneon and viola da gamba) compensate partially. I didn't feel that the staging by Cristián Drut did much to improve the piece. I will mention the only bit that impressed me: at the very beginning the handsome soprano wears a magnificent Renaissance dress (by Cecilia Zuvialde) whilst she sings the only theatrical music in those long minutes.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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