miércoles, abril 29, 2009

The abominable case of the shrinking Colón

This is a horror story. It started in July 2007. A meeting between Jorge Telerman and Mauricio Macri after the latter won the election for Chief of Government of the Buenos Aires Autonomous City had as main purpose to establish a pact for the long six months of transition until Macri took over. It transpired among other things that Macri had asked Telerman to lower the city deficit drastically; it applied to all areas, of course, but it affected the Colón immediately.

But there had been another episode back in July 2007: somehow it was published in the front pages what Macri had said to Telerman: that 700 people were enough for the functioning of the Colón; Telerman disagreed and said that 1300 was alright. As public opinion was staggered by Macri´s position, he sent a letter disavowing that affirmation; but many didn´t believe him, me among them. However, although he was vague in his words, he did say in February 2008 that the personnel would be reduced.

The whole of 2008 was a period of stagnation. In January 2009 Horacio Sanguinetti resigned as Director General of the theatre; he gave no official reasons, but I explained them in my article of March 10, "Questions about the Colón Theatre". Briefly summarized as a reminder, they were the presence of Martín Boschet back at the Colón (he had been fired by Sanguinetti) and "strong hearsay about wholesale discharges of Colón employees…Sanguinetti would never agree to a shrinking Colón". About Pedro Pablo García Caffi, named Sanguinetti´s successor, I mused, "what are the conditions unknown to the public under which Macri has designated him?" And I pointed out the necessity of "clearing up all doubts concerning the rumors about restructuring" (at the time both Macri and García Caffi denied it!).

Now the cat´s out of the bag and the news are bad bad bad. García Caffi has eliminated ten whole sections of the Colón and the new magic number is 808! In fact, out of 450 about 40 to 50 are pensioned off, and the rest aren´t fired (they can´t be under the law of public employment unless very grave offenses are involved) but transferred…to jobs in completely irrelevant areas of the Government (Hernán Lombardi, the Minister of Culture, has already said that there are no places for them in his ministry). So we are going to have an assistant producer in a menial job at a hospital.

But can you imagine a Colón without an Administration, a Maintenance office, a Photograph and Video Section? Any Colón at all? And why those sections and not others? What criterions were used? Has this any common sense? In a nutshell, the decisions are arbitrary and nonsensical.

García Caffi was summoned to the City Legislature´s Committee on Culture to explain all this and the result was shameful. His words were preceded by those of Máximo Parpagnoli, the spokesman elected by the Colón Assembly of workers; he was asked to make his statements by the Committee presided by Inés Urdapilleta (Frente para la Victoria). He denounced the current situation with unassailable arguments. Some of them: since January 11 all workers are strictly forbidden to enter the theatre; workers pressured without notification to initiate pension procedures haven´t been paid since January; contracts at the Colón are discriminated against, ending not in December but in March or August; no labor negotiations have been opened; a good deal of the people that are being forcibly transferred will probably be replaced for they are necessary, so the city budget will be bigger, not smaller; the transferees will be assigned to Health, Security and Green Spaces; the Autarchy Law is being deliberately flouted in many points, even by Macri.

When García Caffi started to read, it was the same text he had read at the ceremony in which he was invested Director. He started by stating that the Colón´s structures are obsolete and that there had been a lot of irresponsibility and errors; a deep structural reorganisation is in order. And then he pronounced the phrase that was his undoing: "the Colón is a theatre of production, not an assurance of public employment that piles up people in corridors". As he was booed, he sprung to his feet and left swiftly, leaving in consternation the whole assembly, including the other directors of the Colón. Urdapilleta tried to keep the meeting alive, but what happened was that those legislators that had voted against the Autarchy Law put the blame on its laxity and wrongheadedness (and I agree). The ending was spectacular and lapidary, for Urdapilleta said: "García Caffi came to answer for something that Macri has asked from him: if you want to be the Colón´s Director, 400 people must go". García Caffi was summoned for the following week, but he refused to comply pleading that he had been offended. So things were left unexplained.

At a press conference some days later, the workers were backed by the presence of Gustavo López, Under Secretary General of the Nation and former Culture Secretary of the City; he promised his support. Matters are far from calm and anything can happen in the next few weeks. A final word: I deplore the lack of reaction from the citizens at large, as if the gradual destruction of the Colón doesn´t concern them; it does, and they should get involved.
For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, abril 26, 2009

Mozarteum starts season with controversial Berlioz

The Mozarteum Argentino has long been our main private concert institution, keeping to a consistent high quality level, few exceptions apart. I´m afraid that the start of the 2009 season falls into the latter category and am truly sorry it was so, for the idea was very promising: the first performance of "Lélio" by Hector Berlioz in Argentina, and preceded, as was the composer´s idea, by the "Fantastic Symphony". It could have been presented in straight concert fashion and that would have been alright; however, this was a multimedia performance from France, and there lies the problem.

But before I get into the reasons for the disappointment, a paragraph or two on the works themselves. Almost no one disagrees with the statement that the "Fantastic" is one of the very greatest symphonies ever written; this true manifest of Romanticism is also the undoubted masterpiece of Berlioz, that strange and isolated genius of French musical history. Created in 1830, this "Episode in the life of an artist" is programmatic and was inspired by the famous book of Thomas de Quincey, "Confessions of an English Opium -eater". In the words of Berlioz (reproduced in the hand programme): "A young musician, of great sensibility and ardent imagination, poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by a frustrated love" (Berlioz smitten with English Shakespearian actress Harriet Smithson, who would eventually become his wife). "The dose of the narcotic engulfs him in deep sleep and evokes strange visions. His experiences are transmuted into musical images and his loved one becomes a fixed idea that he hears everywhere". Thus the listener goes through five tableaux: "Dreamings, passions", "A ball", "Scene in the fields", "March to the gallows" and "Dream of a witches´ Sabbath", where the "fixed idea" becomes a burlesque dance.

Rich material indeed for the listener´s imagination. But I very much doubt that even 1 % of the audience in this presentation found any connexion between what we saw and heard; it was indeed boringly and snobbishly irrelevant. Credited –if such is the proper word- to Jean-Philippe Clairac and Olivier Deloeuil, it was sad and distracting to see. On stage, in front of the orchestra, the protagonist deambulates in a state of confusion; the first dancer (so-billed, I would call them models) writhes erotically in a furious red garment; so do the second, third, fourth and fifth, although one of them is in her undies; all try to excite the almost inanimate opium-eater, and briefly (and tastelessly) unveil their breasts. Meanwhile, during the whole fifty minutes, women are endlessly enduring the process of makeup in the three screens over the orchestra…

What a pity, for the musical interpretation was worth hearing but didn´t stand much of a chance. In fact it was an important premiere of sorts: the first time that the composer´s orchestration was being heard here in its original version, with such instruments as the ophicleide (later replaced by the tuba), and with such fine matters of execution as were used at the time of its premiere. The debut in BA of the Orchestre des Champs Élysées (Paris) founded in 1991 by Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe (who came along on this tour) was very adequate. This artist was here about two decades ago as a distinguished interpreter of the Baroque with the Collegium Vocale Ghent. A thorough musician, his "Fantastic" was perhaps too contained, but it was beautifully played, especially in the subtler moments, and the artists surely know exactly what they are doing. There was no acoustic chamber (due to the lighting needs of the production) and the sound projection was thus inhibited.

"Lélio, or the return to life", was concocted between 1831 and 1832 and purports to show the protagonist of the "Fantastic" recovered from his bout with opium and decided to reasume his creative work. It is in fact a hodgepodge of odds and ends from the composer´s workshop with no unity whatsoever, certainly minor after the towering Symphony. But it is still worth knowing and quite pleasant. Of the six pieces for various ensembles I think the Fantasy on Shakespeare´s "The Tempest" is the best, with its evocation of Miranda, Ariel and Caliban. There are two tenor songs, both very sweet, one with piano ("The Fisher",on Goethe) and one with harp (appropriately, "The Aeolian harp"), and they were beautifully expressed by Robert Getchell (debut), mellifluous and accurate. A stirring "Song of the Bandits" showed to best advantage the powerful voice and presence of baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot (debut). A local choir, our Grupo de Canto Coral led by Néstor Andrenacci, did a nice job in their three appearances, including a "Chorus of Shadows". The Orchestra accompanied very well, with sensitive moments of phrasing.

Blissfully there were little dramatic shenanigans, except for the text of the protagonist written by Berlioz in wildly Romantic terms, and said with approximate French by a too emphatic Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, debut of an Argentine living in France (listen to Jean-Louis Barrault in the Boulez recording). Otherwise, only a brief appearance of the "fixed idea" and anodine images in the projections, apart from a seconds-long appearance of a full frontal nude woman (certainly a first for the Mozarteum!). Lesson to be learned: don´t import European shows unless you´ve seen them before and approved (this was premiered at Poitiers only a few weeks ago).

For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, abril 12, 2009

Still another "Traviata"

I am certainly not alone in having reached saturation point with some tired operatic warhorses, such as "Carmen", "La Boheme", "Tosca", "The Barber of Seville" and of course Verdi´s "La Traviata". But it is a truism that people flock like faithful parishioners whenever they are put on stage, no matter if well or ill. I keep being amazed at the lack of curiosity and the passive intellectual stance of such an attitude; still, that´s what happens and as a reviewer I´m condemned to endless repetitions.

This year the otherwise very interesting season of Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) started out with a particularly unfortunate choice, "La Traviata", for it had long been known that this opera was also in the plans of Juventus Lyrica (JL), and furthermore this institution likewise initiated its activities with this opera in their original plans; when BAL insisted in staging it, JL decided to postpone their presentation, ending the season with it. Really a pity.

About this famous creation I want to stress some points. First: one needs to place it in an historical perspective to realise that at the time of its premiere (1853) it was quite a shocker: even in the sweetened and softened Francesco Piave libretto, it showed a contemporary whore on the operatic stage, and indeed the Austrian censure in Italy forced the composer to place the action in the early eighteenth century to make it more palatable. Of course, Alexandre Dumas Junior had been one of the innumerable lovers of Marie Duplessis, the model for his novel and play "The Lady of the Camellias", rebaptised Marguerite Gautier by the writer and Violetta Valéry by the librettist. As a teenager I saw the admirable George Cukor film "Camille" and of course I was bowled over by Greta Garbo; when I revisited it as an adult I found that she was far too refined for the part .

Second: why is it that Violetta didn´t pass on the tuberculosis bacilli to her men? It was supposed to be very contagious!

Third: it serves no useful purpose to change the time period in the staging. Paris 1850, that´s what it should be if you are interested at all in the social mores. Although even in our dissolute times it´s still not done to marry a whore, other aspects have changed: aristocrats that keep women are on the wane, bourgeois fathers are more flexible, and TB and the Koch bacillus are much more under control.

Fourth: the Piave libretto could be much improved. E.g., is Germont deaf that he doesn´t hear Violetta saying "don´t you know I am struck by a terrible illness"? For not only he has no reaction, but later tells her that she will have a happy life… And there are plenty of loose ends.

But of course the music is the thing, and so much of it finds Verdi at his most inspired that one forgives some miscalculations, such as the two trivial choruses in the Third Act. Such things as the big Violetta/Germont duet or the protagonist´s "Addio del passato" are among his greatest utterances.

And how did BAL´s version measure up? Acceptably, no more. There was a point

of interest: the debut of an Argentine soprano, Ivanna Speranza, who started her European career about five years ago. Her parts so far, such as Adina and Nannetta, show her has a light lyrical soprano: hardly the ticket for Violetta. Naturally, there´s the notorious obstacle for lyrical-dramatic sopranos of the florid "Sempre libera", but most of the music requires strong center and low registers and a profoundly dramatic interpretation. A role in which Muzio and Callas worked wonders. Personal reactions to timbre vary widely; Speranza sounds to me frequently uneven and metallic, not rich enough. Her presence is unprepossessing and she is particularly unconvincing in spoken bits such as when she reads Germont´s letter. Now and again she does some nice vocal things, witness her soft and tender "Dite alla giovine", but she is not a Traviata.

She wasn´t helped by a weak Alfredo; Arnaldo Quiroga sounded and acted ill at ease, far from his best work (Rinuccio in "Gianni Schicchi"). Omar Carrión was his predictable self as Germont: noble singing of fine line but limited expansion and a severe impersonation that however is leavened by some tenderness. Of the others I found the ladies (Vanina Guilledo as Flora, Rocío Arbizu as Annina) more satisfying than the men (a too soft-grained Gastone –Gustavo De Gennaro- a bland Grenvil –Walter Schwarz- and contrariwise too rough-and-ready Douphol and D´Obigny –Ernesto Bauer and Claudio Rotella).

The enthusiastic choir was led by Juan Casasbellas. The best thing was a vehement but controlled reading by Carlos Vieu with a choice orchestra. His intensity and thorough knowledge (he conducted without a score!) meant an important plus.

The production by Pablo Maritano placed the action apparently around 1950, considering the miniskirts and the gowns designed by Sofía Di Nunzio (some rather untasteful). The stage designs by Diego Siliano include some imaginative and beautiful projections of the city and otherwise respond to Maritano´s ideas; e.g., a First Act alternating between the vestibule and the main hall of Violetta´s party or a Fourth where her bed is prolonged by stylized perspectives. The Third Act was the weakest, including a poor choreography by Cecilia Elías. Elsewhere there were some good ideas along with very conventional movements.

For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, abril 01, 2009

"Swan Lake", blend of French and Russian tradition

The three Tchaikovsky ballets remain the best of the nineteenth century, with only one composer offering real competition: Léo Delibes with "Coppélia" and "Sylvia". "Swan Lake" (1877), "The Sleeping Beauty" (1890) and "The Nutcracker" (1892) certainly have the most elaborate and memorable music of their time and have evoked choreographies of lasting power.

But "Swan Lake" had a difficult choreographic history, for its premiere at Moscow´s Bolshoi Theatre, signed by Julius Reisinger, was a failure. Two further versions, by Joseph Hansen (1880) and Lydia Geiten (1882) had no better luck. Paradoxically it was the success of Marius Petipa as choreographer of the two later ballets mentioned above that saved "Swan Lake"; the great French master of the Maryinsky Theatre at Saint Petersburg did his own choreography though with the assistance of Lev Ivanov, who did a short version with only the Second Act. Both worked on the dances of the other acts, and their joint efforts gave us the ballet that became a standard over the years, blending the pure academicism of Petipa with the poetic vision of Ivanov. Alfio Agostini mentions complementary characteristics: "formal clarity and disquieting psychological symbolism, fascinating virtuosity and expressive intensity". And particularly the complex double role of Odette-Odile combining the ecstatic abandon of the woman-swan and the magnetic provocation of Odile.

Other choreographers made their contributions later, especially Aleksandr Gorki in 1901 and Nicolas Sergeiev in 1934, both respecting the general scheme of Petipa and Ivanov. An observation about the music: Petipa asked Riccardo Drigo to add a few orchestrations of Tchaikovsky piano pieces and also some music of his own. And frankly some of those added pieces are distinctly below the much better quality of poetic and inspired fragments that were already there in 1877.

With its mix of "ballet blanc" in the second and fourth acts and divertimento-oriented dances in the first and third, "Swan Lake" provides an important challenge for a big company. The steady progress in recent years of the Teatro Argentino Ballet of La Plata allows them to meet the difficulties with professionalism and discipline. Their version, by Mario Galizzi, dates from 2004 and I feel it solves most problems of the Petipa/Ivanov tradition. In at least one case there´s an improvement: the first act is very weak dramatically in the original and needs some pep; Galizzi provides it creating a meaty role, the Buffoon, with his agile evolutions and innocent humor. I´m sorry that the choreographer cuts a big Waltz in the third act, however.

The hand programme gives information on the overwhelming presence in the Argentino´s seasons since 1948 of the second act , but the whole ballet was only offered in 2002 and 2003, where the original had contributions from Galizzi and Jack Carter, and in 2005, when the Petipa/Ivanov was revised by Gustavo Mollajoli. As "The Sleeping Beauty" was staged recently and "The Nutcracker" is programmed for December, the Argentino now has all three in the repertoire, quite a feat.

A blot in the general picture, however: there were to be two initial performances with the debut of stars from the Ucranian Kiev Ballet, Natalia Lazebnikova and the Czech "danseur" Jan Vana; apparently problems in rehearsals converted the first night into the dress rehearsal; the money had to be returned to the audience, though the resident "platense" public could see the rehearsal. Just bad planning or labor troubles? Anyway, a real pity for it was an unpleasant sign at the very beginning of the season. So I´m commenting on the only evening where the visiting dancers could be seen. There were later performances with regular members of the company.

The purity of the Russian school is always a pleasure to see, and the mentioned artists are good specimens. Lazebnikova is beautiful, has the technique for those terrible 32 "fouettés" she does as Odile and at least attempts to show the dramatic distinction between her two roles. Vana as Prince Siegfried is handsome, very young and lithe, but his face is immutable through all vicissitudes; maybe the years will bring what he now lacks in expression, for he is certainly talented.

I enjoyed the vivacity of Martín Quintana as the Buffoon and the good teamwork in the Pas de Trois of the First Act from Paula Elizondo, Stefanía Vallone and Esteban Schenone. In the second act Victor Filimonov appeared as Von Rothbart, the evil magician that has transformed the girls into swans; he, in former years a Siegfried, also comes from the Russian school, though a member of the company for the last decade. He knows the ropes and was good, but the part increasingly looks dated with its melodramatic gestures; some reforming touches would be welcome. Other parts, such as the Princesses in the third act "divertissement", were well taken.

In the second act I enjoyed the work of the girls of the "corps de ballet", who danced with stately and noble discipline and with adequate physiques . The solos of the "Three adult swans" were elegant, but the famous grotesquerie of the Pas de quatre of the little swans did show some unevenness.

The pleasant stage designs of Augusto González Ara and the splendid costumes designed by Eduardo Caldirola certainly added visual charm. And the musical side was well realised by an attentive orchestra led by the sure hand of Javier Logioia Orbe.

For Buenos Aires Herald