miércoles, agosto 31, 2011

“Tristan and Isolde” at La Plata: the magic still works

             The prowess has finally become true: Richard Wagner´s "Tristan and Isolde" has been premiered at La Plata´s Argentino, the first time that city hears and sees a wagnerian production in German. The only antecedent was a "Lohengrin" in Italian in the old theatre, as far back as 1952. Of course, the vast facilities of the new Argentino were ready for the challenge, although with one limitation: even with recent improvements, the badly designed pit still hold only 85 players, and Wagner sounds best with over a hundred. It is a paradox that the big Argentino´s Orchestra numbers 127, but this total can never be in the pit. Also, the acoustics aren´t particularly good, especially as it affects voice projection.
            The last time the City of Buenos Aires heard "Tristan…" was in 2000, and the vocal results were poor as far as the protagonists went. Unfortunately this is also the case for the two pairs of lovers (with one partial exception) heard recently at the Argentino. If the Colón, as a great international theatre, has the obligation to provide the very best in the world, the fees of the top artists are beyond the possibilities of a provincial theatre, as the Argentino is, even with its hugeness (over 2000 capacity). Whether  better choices could have been available or not, I´m in no position to answer.
            However, the magic of "Tristan und Isolde" still works, even when the full import of the words and the music doesn´t come over. Premiered in 1865 (though finished years earlier) it had a huge impact which kept on growing. As stated in Luciano Marra de la Fuente´s excellent programme notes, the innovations "are the subversion of harmony, melody and rhythm through the use of open and amplified processes…He employs a highly chromatic harmony, with suspensions and unresolved dissonances…creating a sensation of instability, tension and ambiguity, according to the never quenched desire and impossibility of earthly union of the protagonists".  
            It needs a medieval ambience for its text: a boat sailing through the Sea of Ireland and arriving to the Cornish coast; a woody refuge near King Marke´s castle; and the coastal ruins of Kareol at the Bretagne. Celtic places, a world of magic and filters, the same as King Arthur´s. I am at times saturated by the constant mix of Eros and Thanatos and the recurring exaltation of the Night and demonization of the Day, but the immense conviction and dramatic power of the music carries all before it.
            Marcelo Lombardero, the producer (and the current Artistic Director of the Argentino), didn´t improvise: he did "Tristan" twice for Santiago de Chile, and he brought that conception to Prague. With certain changes in respect to Santiago´s production, his use of cunning and beautiful projections allied to some well-designed sceneries by Diego Siliano gave us a "Tristan" worth looking at, devoid of the ridiculous "concepts" that nowadays so often ruin opera (also at the Argentino). In fact, if I have a criticism it concerns that old error of traditional stagings, the lack of enough interaction between the singers and the singing "to the public" rather than to each other. But his solutions were attractive, especially in crucial points of all three acts, when a small platform in the middle of the stage rose with the lovers, isolating them from the rest of the world, absorbed by the magnitude of their attachment. I liked the costumes of Luciana Gutman with the exception of Tristan´s (whose makeup furthermore was unattractive). The lighting of Horacio Efrón was irregular and sometimes left in the dark important bits of the action.
            The Argentino´s Orchestra keeps improving. Even if the first minutes were a bit tentative, they soon found their feet under the concentrated and intelligent impulse of conductor Alejo Pérez, who chose generally fast but coherent tempi and also phrased intelligently and in full collaboration with the singers. I felt his reading more in the Böhm tradition than in Knappertsbusch´s.
            Of the Isoldes I preferred the second, Eiko Senda; her unmistakably Oriental appearance (she´s Japanese) isn´t that of an Irish princess, but her vocal resources generally coped with the music and her interpretation became gradually deeper. The first Isolde, Anja Beer, has the right looks, but the voice is strident in the high reaches and poor in resonance and projection in the center and the low range. The Russian Leonid Zakhozhaev has some of the power required; however, he often sounded harsh and unlovely;  he sang the last part of his huge Third Act monologue with a naked torso appearing to be tattooed (it was painted), looking like a rocker rather than a Medieval knight. The other Tristan, the American John Pierce, looks the part and has an agreeable timbre, but his musical control was faltering (whole phrases sung under the tone) and the volume certainly didn´t rise to the big moments.
            The Brangäne of Adriana Mastrangelo was quite good; she felt the anguish of the character (she changes the filter of death by the one of love) and sang with free high register. Eugenia Fuente lacked that firmness and was rather too bland. I enjoyed the Kurwenal of Fabián Veloz far more than that of Douglas Hahn, and found Hernán Iturralde a notable King Marke, better than Christian Peregrino. The smaller parts were good, except Sergio Spina´s Young sailor.
For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, agosto 22, 2011

Artistry from singers and players

            In recent weeks we´ve had some interesting visitors: singers and players have given us their artistry and our medium has been enriched by their presence. Austrian mezzosoprano Angelika Kirchschlager is having an important European career; she recently made her BA debut at the Colón in the misnamed “Abono del Bicentenario”, where she was accompanied by an accomplished group, the Camerata Bern. The innovative program gave us a contemporary premiere by a Swiss composer, a group of Händel arias divided by a Vivaldi concerto, and a dense Schubert Second Part.
            Martin Wettstein, born 1970, offers in “Verdis Traum” (“Verdi´s dream”) an oniric traversal of themes from the Italian composer´s “Macbeth”, cleverly done with  writing that suggests nightmarish views. The Camerata Bern visited us long ago with the great oboist Heinz Holliger;  it is a string ensemble, now led by a lady concertino, Antje Weithaas, that combines technical proficiency with communicative energy.
            The Händel arias came from “Giulio Cesare” (the fast “Svegliatevi nel core” and the slow “Cara speme”), “Berenice” (the virtuoso “Sì, trai i ceppi”) and the oratorio “Theodora” (the contemplative “Lord to Thee each night and day”). Kirchschlager showed a good timbre and a sense of line, as well as awareness of different psychologies; she is an extrovert singer with well-honed professionalism. Between the operatic fragments we heard a short Concerto grosso in C major by Vivaldi, with the unacceptable absence of catalog number.
            The Camerata Bern was very concentrated and intense in Schubert´s Quartet Nº 14, “Death and the Maiden”, in the Mahler version (mostly the adding of basses). Schubert Lieder are normally heard with piano; if the idea of orchestrating them isn´t absurd, it must be done with much more imagination than demonstrated by Gregor Huber in the seven sung by Kirchschlager. She was pleasant in “Ganymed”, showed a nice legato in “Geheimes” and “Du bist die Ruh” and was charming in “Heidenröslein”. However, the tremendous “Der Erlkönig” is surely a man´s song. She ended with “Ellens Gesang”, which is none other than the famous “Ave Maria”; this piece, wrongly believed to be sacred, is one of the three songs from Walter Scott´s “The Lady of the Lake”. The artist sang it appealingly. Her encore was nice, the expressive Romance from “Rosamunde”.
            The Britten Sinfonia paid us a first visit in 2008 with the eccentric pianist-conductor Joanna MacGregor; now they are back, again for the Mozarteum and this time at the Colón. They were led by the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (debut). The First Part was given over to British composers and had a very high spot: the magnificent performance of Britten´s “Les Illuminations” by an English tenor of admirable subtlety, taste and musicianship: Allan Clayton. He was pretty well accompanied in this score which shows the composer at his best in the setting of Rimbaud´s fascinating poetry. I didn´t relish the two Purcell Fantasies, for to my mind they need the sound of a viol consort. A somber vocal piece by Purcell, “Let the night perish”, is an adaptation by Jeremy Taylor of the Book of Job; Clayton showed his command of the style. Michael Tippett was represented by “A lament” from a Divertimento on an old tune, “Sellinger´s Round”, written with other composers; it sounds like Purcell with wrong notes. 
            I dislike American minimalism, maybe you disagree: the playing in the Second Part was very good, but I was bored by the  repetitions of Steve Reich´s “Duet” (which at least was blessedly brief) and  by a rather famous score by John Adams, “Shaker Loops”. The encores were a fragment from Sibelius´ “Rakastava” and what might be called a variety number: Kuusisto alone whistled (very well) and played on the violin as a mandolin what he called (in good Spanish) a Finnish tango. Hardly the usual Colón fare, but fun. 
            The Buenos Aires Philharmonic gave a splendid concert where he met for the first time the Polish conductor Antoni Wit and we welcomed back after a long absence one of the best French pianists: Pascal Rogé. Wit has recorded about a hundred CDs and proved to be a vehement and concentrated artist well worth knowing. Liszt´s “Mazeppa” was the rousing start of the First Part; a fine and powerful tone poem rarely heard. Then, the Fifth and last of Saint´Saëns´Piano Concertos, the so-called “Egyptian”. This is charming though rather diffuse music, with some modernist touches as well as Orientalisms. It was a useful choice by Rogé, who bowled over the audience with his crystalline playing in the best French tradition.
            I believe Karol Szymanowski´s impressive Second Symphony was a local premiere. Its 35 minutes are a testimony to the Polish composer´s German training, important and complex music that ends with a monumental Fugue. In the skilled hands of Wit the music communicated strongly and was quite well received by the audience.
            Finally, a reference to Schubert´s tough but transcendent cycle “Die Winterreise” as interpreted by two Argentine artists of high rank: baritone Víctor Torres and pianist Fernando Pérez. It was at the Avenida for Festivales Musicales. Although I prefer a bass-baritone rather than a lyric baritone such as Torres for this dark music, the singer fully understands the meanings of the text and gives us fine diction and dramatic acumen. He wasn´t in his best voice and seemed nervous, however. Pérez played with marvelous adaptation to every mood and was technically perfect. 

jueves, agosto 18, 2011

Verdi, Rossini and Haydn: Three concepts in opera

            Fortunately the axe Buenos Aires- La Plata is providing plenty of opera. In just one week there were three widely different offerings: Verdi´s "Simone Boccanegra" at the Colón, Rossini´s "Il viaggio a Reims" at the Argentino (La Plata) and Haydn´s "Il Mondo della Luna" at the Avenida (Buenos Aires Lírica-BAL).  Due to lack of space I will deal with Rossini in another article.
            "Simone Boccanegra" is for me in its revised version one of Verdi´s masterpieces, where the blend of politics and love attains some high peaks, even if everything isn´t perfect .  As in "Il Trovatore", it comes from a drama by Antonio García Gutiérrez, a Romantic view of Medieval times. It matters little that historical truth isn´t respected in this story about a Genoese corsair that becames Dux. The first libretto was by Francesco Piave for the 1857 original; it was modified -and with an added tableau- by Arrigo Boito for the definitive version of 1882. Some of Verdi´s most sublime music was imagined for the father-daughter duets.
            The Colón has presented this opera handsomely in 1942 and 1946 with Leonard Warren, in 1961 with Giuseppe Taddei, in 1964 and 1967 with Cornell MacNeil (recently deceased) and in 1995 with Jose Van Dam. Last offered in 2003, it was hardly a necessary revival, especially with a rather weak cast. Roberto Frontali (debut) certainly can´t compete with such illustrious predecessors; after a tentative start he settled into a professional but uncommunicative traversal of the role.  Chilean soprano Ángela Marambio (debut) replaced the originally announced Svetla Vassileva; the voice is big and she sings with aplomb, but she becomes strident in high notes and lacks delicacy.
            It was a pity that the debut of tenor Keith Richards didn´t come about due to last-minute illness, but our tenor Gustavo López Manzitti (who had sung Gabriel Adorno in 2003) rose valiantly to the occasion, singing with intensity and fortitude. Russian bass Konstantin Gorny (debut) was a correct Fiesco, though too Slavic in timbre and with a voice that was far from the rotund tones of Ferruccio Furlanetto in 1995. Fabián Veloz sang very well as the traitor Paolo, but dramatically he was uninteresting. Mario De Salvo was a good Pietro, and in bit parts Fernando Chalabe and Cintia Velázquez did well. There was also a second all-Argentine cast that I didn´t see, with the Colón debut of conductor Carlos Vieu.
            Conductor Stefano Ranzani was very convincing; he believes in this score and knows how to transmit its theatrical and musical values with well-chosen tempi, dark hues and fine phrasing; the Orchestra played well. The Choir was also satisfactory under Peter Burian.
            Bearing in mind the parlous state of opera production in the world and lately here, the Colón debut of José María Condemi (Argentine, he works in the USA) had its points even if I wasn´t convinced.  He is a "concept" producer; his big idea: as Simone is a sailor, the sea dominates, although all scenes happen to be on land! So the Prologue, a street in front of Fiesco´s Palace in Genoa, is acted in a restricted area before a beautiful painting by Cameron Anderson (debut) of boats in heavy seas. And the following acts are variations of the inside of a boat making do for a garden and several chambers, including the Dux´s Council. Some beauty of design doesn´t compensate the basic inadequacy and discomfort (the negotiation of huge steps surely wasn´t easy for the singers). At least the period costumes of Eduardo Caldirola (from an earlier Colón production) helped to create the right ambience (although rather than Medieval they looked Renaissance). Some skilled lighting by Roberto Traferri  was also positive.
            I like Haydn´s operas and I have a fervent wish that some of them will be premiered in the near future, particularly "Armida", "Orlando Paladino" and "Orfeo ed Euridice", all of them really important and in the realm of dramatic rather than buffo operas. But Buenos Aires has seen several buffo operas by Haydn: in the far past, "La canterina"; just last year, "L´isola disabitata"; three years ago, "L´incontro improvviso"; and in 197l and 2006, "Il mondo della luna", by the Colón Chamber Opera.  I would certainly have preferred some of the aforementioned dramatic titles to a premature revival (2006 isn´t far away) of this latter opus; anyway, it is a charming piece.
            The Carlo Goldoni libretto (used previously by Galuppi, Piccinni and Paisiello) is no science fiction; rather, a mixture of ingeniousness and ingenuity concerning the well-named Bonafede and the false astrologer Ecclitico, plus two couples and two servants. So-called "dramma giocoso", it is in fact a farce where Bonafede lands on a false moon concocted by Ecclitico; after several light vicissitudes he eventually understands that he has been duped and he allows her daughters to wed their respective candidates. The music is beautiful and refined, not very theatrical, adapted to the exquisite tastes of Count Esterhazy, Haydn´s patron.
            The cast was dominated by Hernán Iturralde, an admirable Bonafede. Osvaldo Peroni was miscast as Ecclitico, both in "physique du rôle" and in vocality. The girls were nice: Jeanette Vecchione (debut) and Maria Savastano (she used to be called Virginia) managed to cope reasonably well with the very high tessitura and difficult florid writing. Vanina Guilledo (mezzo) and Rocío Arbizu (a "soubrette" in the Despina model) were agreeable enough. Sergio Spina was rough and wildly exaggerated as  Cecco. The eight-member choir was good and the 29-piece orchestra attempted successfully to conform to eighteenth-century style under the very able conducting of Rodolfo Fischer.
            As so many nowadays, producer Pablo Maritano gives us grotesque when comedy is called for.  His wild Moon includes the March Hare from Carroll, men-trees, tasteless fat men in tutus,etc. Constant references to trysts in bed make a travesty of the  libretto. Naturally the costumes of Sofia Di Nunzio were made according to Maritano´s bizarre ideas. I yearned for the tasteful 1971 production by Sara Ventura (which moreover had a wonderful cast). What a pity that no videos are left of the admirable work of the Colón Chamber Opera during Valenti Ferro´s directorship.
For Buenos Aires Herald

An explosion of virtuoso violinists and pianists

            The Buenos Aires Philharmonic has provided the opportunity of appraising the talents of two artists: our Xavier Inchausti and the Ukrainian Vadim Gluzman (debut). The
 former is still very young but already can show a substantial trajectory and an impressive repertoire.  On this occasion he played Paganini´s Concerto Nº l  both for Festivales Musicales and for the Phil´s cycle. I attended Festivales´ subscription night.
            Of course, Paganini´s writing is fiendish, for they were vehicles for himself and he had particular facility for some configurations that are physically hard for most violinists. Well, Inchausti wasn´t absolutely perfect (who can be?) but he did dazzling things with poise and musical sense. I have a better opinion than  some colleagues about Paganini´s music (e.g., I think he was a good melodist) and I don´t mind saying I enjoyed myself. Enrique Diemecke showed again that he is an efficient accompanist. Inchausti´s encore was more of the same, which seemed to me too much: Paganini´s Variations on Paisiello´s "Nel cor più non mi sento".
            The concert included an agreeable performance of Mozart´s Overture to "La clemenza di Tito" and Mahler´s Fourth Symphony, in a fluid, well-phrased performance, although I found the concertino´s solos (Alfija Gubaidulina) rather too impersonal and the ritornello of the first and fourth movement should have been wilder. Carla Filipcic Holm was the "Angel" singing the funny text from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" in the concluding movement, and although she sang well I found her too reticent.
            Another Diemecke program was enticing, for it combined Bernstein´s "Serenade" (rarely played) with Bruckner´s marvelous Seventh Symphony. The Serenade is a very original piece,  based on  the composer´s particular impressions on Plato´s "Symposium". Its five contrasting movements are written for solo violin, strings and percussion, in an engaging tonal idiom, fresh and imaginative. Written in 1954 and lasting half an hour, it´s certainly one of his best works.
            Gluzman proved to be a magnificent player, with a deep, burnished sound, a total intellectual comprehension (the score was premiered and recorded by no less than Isaac Stern) and  complete technical equipment. It was worth hearing him in an interesting encore, the Prelude from Ysaÿe´s Sonata op.27 Nº2, quoting the "Dies Irae".  The Orchestra wasn´t always as accurate as Bernstein´s music demands and there were lapses of  intonation, but it was conceptually well integrated by the conductor.
            Bruckner´s Seventh is his best known, along with the Fourth; inspired melodic contours are bathed in post Romantic harmonies and chamber passages alternate with massive blocks of sound. This creation attains sublime moments in the slow movement and is never less than  beautiful in its 70 minutes. I admired yet again Diemecke´s portentous memory and command, but I must say I found him far from the inspiration of Eugen Jochum or Franz Paul Decker: this music needs phrasing with mystery and metaphysics and it didn´t get it. Nor was the orchestra fully adequate to the demands, especially in some raucous brass interventions.
            Jinjoo Cho (Korean) and Nigel Armstrong (USA) won last year First and Second Prize in the Buenos Aires First International Violin Competition promoted by Shlomo Mintz and sponsored by YPF.  They are now back playing a series of concerts as a result of the mentioned event, and in their AMIJAI concert they acquitted themselves admirably. The Orquesta Académica de Buenos Aires under Carlos Calleja accompanied with reasonably good results (on their own thay did Elgar´s "Nimrod" from the "Enigma Variations").
            Armstrong played with panache and terse sound Chausson´s heated "Poem" and Saint-Saëns´ display piece "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso"  and gave us a nice encore, Kreisler´s "Scherzo". Cho was admirable in Tchaikovsky´s Concerto, playing with concentration, attention to detail and fine mechanism, as well as juicy and well-tuned sound. Both artists offered other concerts: Cho with pianist Paula Peluso and with the National Symphony under Pedro Calderón (Vaughan Williams and Sarasate), and Armstrong in a mixed programme where he played classical, jazz and tango.
            Our great pianist Nelson Goerner was back for a recital at the Colón in the series incongruously called "Abono del Bicentenario". Prices that were too high had their correlation in a half-empty theatre. The artist started with one of Mozart´s simpler Sonatas, K. 282; nicely played, of course, but not quite as Mozartean as I hoped (too much pedal, an overslow first movement). Then  he tackled Schumann´s enormously difficult "Kreisleriana" , which the composer thought with reason one of his best works. The work of a master pianist, Goerner nevertheless seemed labored in some passages. But all reservations disappeared in a fantastic performance of Liszt´s mighty Sonata: the technical perfection of a true virtuoso blended here with unerring phrasing and the breadth the music calls for. The encores were contrasting: a rather strange performance of Chopin´s Prelude Nº 6 (all chords were splayed) was followed with a dizzying traversal of Schulz-Evler´s "Concert arabesques on Johann Strauss´  ´The Blue Danube´".
            To finish, Bruno Gelber was in great, astonishing form in Rachmaninov´s Third Concerto with the National Symphony under Pedro Calderón at the Auditorio de Belgrano. The transcendental mechanical requirements were solved with massive, beautiful sound and deep, personal phrasing, in the manner of the great Romantic virtuosi. He was accompanied with great skill by Calderón, who also got excellent results from the orchestra in Mahler´s adaptation for orchestra of Schubert´s Quartet Nº 14, "Death and the Maiden".
For Buenos Aires Herald

A dance apotheosis: brilliant and needed

            The art of dance has had its abundant fans since many decades ago. We used to receive illustrious companies of all types : from the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev to the Alwin Nikolais, from the Moscow Bolshoi to the Ballet du Vingtième Siècle (Béjart), from the Paris Opera Ballet or the American Ballet Theatre to the José Limón or Martha Graham companies, the "porteño" saw the very best of dancing. It´s been a long while now since a big company has come whole, although smaller and less illustrious groups have visited in recent years.
            But there is another category that we need: that of great international galas combining artists in pas de deux or seeing them in solo numbers. We´ve had such visits in the past; e.g.,  in Iron Curtain times I remember the regular visits of Stars of the Russian Ballet. Although nothing replaces the satisfaction of seeing a full-length ballet by a great company, there´s a lot to be said for a judiciously assembled group of dancers from all over doing their favorite duets or solos. Galas by local dancers have been done in recent seasons (and there will be one at AMIJAI in a few days) but we should get to know outstanding dancers from other places.
            So the recent initiative of having two nights at the Coliseo combining a brilliant dancing roster is certainly to be welcome, and it was a huge success at the box office. The organizers called it "1º Gala de Ballet de Buenos Aires", so they intend eventually to do a second and perhaps many others. If they are as good as this one, it will be worth waiting. The Grupo Ars is led by Martín Boschet and Diego Radivoy, and they have the support of
Liana Vinocur as Executive Producer, of an old hand such as Miguel Levy as Artistic Coordinator and of the knowledegable Tatiana Fesenko as rehearsal teacher. Pablo Cabrera supervised the costumes, generally adequate. And the Colón´s José Luis Fiorrucio did the technical coordination (especially the lighting). Boschet was the controversial Executive Director of the Colón during the Sanguinetti period; I believe this new calling is far more his thing.
            It was a pity that in the second night (the one I saw) there were changes in the program and that they were announced by microphone, for such a procedure is much less clear than a flyer. I won´t analyze the show chronologically, instead I will write about the artists and their choices. The music was recorded and the sound was acceptable. As is the abusive custom, we never get to know what orchestras and conductors intervene.
            I was stunned by the duet from the Bolshoi, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. There was a major change: instead of an old Soviet standard, "Paris in flames" (1932, Asafiev-Vainonen, revised by Ratmansky), they danced an aggressively sensual modernist "Serenade" with choreography by Amerigo Ciervo, music by ?  (I couldn´t catch the name).
If you think of Bolshoi dancers as epitomes of classical perfection, you certainly got that from these dancers in the  Pas de Deux from Minkus´ "Don Quichotte" as choreographed by Petipa and Gorsky (it closed the evening) but I could hardly believe they were the same dancers that had been so wild in "Serenade" (surely an ironic title); certainly new winds are blowing in Russia.
            My other favorite was Daniil Simkin of the American Ballet Theatre. In the classical side, he was an unbelievably acrobatic "Corsair" in the old Drigo-Petipa ballet, with some steps that defied gravity and were surely perilous; there he was admirably partnered by Iana Salenko, from the Staats Ballett Barlin. But he also did a charming solo, "Les bourgeois", a humoristic and resourceful choreography by Ben Van Cauwenbergh on a typically satirical song by Jacques Brel; Simkin couldn´t have been more nonchalant as he danced with ease the funny steps imagined by the choreographer.
            Two partners from competing ballets gave much pleasure:  the Argentine Ana Sophia Scheller from the New York City Ballet and Joseph Phillips from the American Ballet Theatre. They kept to the classics: "Esmeralda" by Pugni, Perrot and Petipa (naturally derived from Hugo´s "Notre Dame de Paris") and the "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" by the master Balanchine. Phillips was always very correct, but it was Scheller that shone, with a spontaneity coupled with high technique that was quite attractive.
            The duo from the Opéra National de Paris had charm and distinction, without trascending to a higher plane: Mathilde Froustey and Mathias Heymann did  a "Delibes Suite" choreographed by José Martínez (very agreeable) and "Who cares?", by Balanchine on Gershwin, where Froustey gave us some delicately funny moments.
            A young Argentine duo from the Colón did fine work: Natalia Pelayo and Federico Fernández danced Tchaikovsky´s "Sleeping Beauty" (Petipa) and the Macmillan choreography "Manon" on Massenet´s music (not from the opera); they showed first-rate technique and pleasant personalities. Another Argentine couple was very adequate in Khachaturian´s "Spartacus" as choreographed by Gastyan; Agustina Verde and Bautista Parada have the "physique du rôle" and do honor to  La Plata Argentino´s Ballet.
            I am of two minds about the other solos: they were danced with precision and character but I disliked the choreographies and the "sounds" (rather than music). Daniel Proietto  from Eastman did "Two" by Andy Cowton, and Pablo Fermani (from CNDC) offered "Lay still" by Gustavo Lesgart.
For Buenos Aires Herald

The subtle mysteries of Debussy´s “Pelléas et Mélisande”

            Maurice Maeterlick´s symbolist drama "Pelléas et Mélisande" has had singular repercussion on the musicians of its time. It was the inspiration for Claude Debussy´s only completed opera, whose unique style has no precedent (unless you go back to Monteverdian times) as a case of syllabic projection of the text in a continuous recitative-arioso, with just one exception (Mélisande´s very Medieval song). And the music reflects the feelings of the words with uncanny sensibility. It is amazing that the seamless interludes between tableaux were added later, for they form an absolute unity with the sung music that follows them.
            Some years ago a wonderful  BA Philharmonic concert conducted by Franz Paul Decker contained three scores derived from the play: the incidental music imagined by Fauré and Sibelius, and the immense symphonic poem by Arnold Schoenberg, a masterpiece of late Postromanticism showing the way to atonalism. The great German master has a point of contact with Debussy: they both understood that Maeterlinck´s text needs both Impressionism and Expressionism. They also realized that Golaud is a terrifying psychopath. In Debussy both styles intermingle, and some scenes have a blend of both styles, such as the grotto´s.
            Finally premiered in 1902 after long years of preparation, "Pelléas…" has been gradually recognized as a very important opera, but it was never popular and it never will  be. It is too exquisite, too rare, the melodies are in the orchestra, feelings are always contained (except for Golaud), there are no arias. The mysteries are many: you never get to know whence Mélisande comes from, who hurt her and it what manner. And is her feeling for Pelléas quite so innocent? Pelléas seems right in wanting to leave, he presages that their love will soon become physical.  He is a hesitant, strange young man, with subtle mysteries of his own.  
            "Pelléas…" had an almost perfect version in 1999, with Jorge Lavelli doing an admirable producing job, and Frederica Von Stade and François Le Roux (as Golaud) references in their roles; Armin Jordan was the very stylish conductor. This year the level at the Colón was a good deal lower. This opera needs intelligent, professional and very sensitive artists; it doesn´t require singers with great vocal virtuosity for the music doesn´t demand it. They also must have good French, for prosodic truth is of the essence.
            Two were French: Mélisande was Anne Sophie Duprels, last year´s Manon; Golaud was Marc Barrard (debut, I believe). They both have healthy, pleasant voices, but Duprels remained superficial in her comprehension of the character, never suggesting a shy, complex creature. Golaud was probably marked wrongly by producer Olivia Fuchs (debut) for he shows his violence well before what the text warrants, but otherwise he was convincing, although far from Le Roux´s subtlety.  Although I didn´t see Markus Werba as Papageno, I know that he had a success when he sang that role earlier this season. But Pelléas is something else: the singer was extrovert, agile and boyish when he should be introspective and self-doubting. His voice is a pleasant high lyric baritone quite well-used and his French is very good for a Viennese, but he was very far from Pelléas´character.
            Kurt Rydl has sung at the Vienna State Opera for more than thirty years and he has been a redoubtable Wagner and R. Strauss singer, but he is now in the declining phase of his career: the voice remains big, but it has lost focus to an alarming degree, and the wide vibrato obliterated the  phrases´ contours. He still has a commanding dramatic presence, however.  Vera Cirkovic as Geneviève was properly contained and statuary in her reading of Pelléas´ letter. Fabiola Masino, being petite, has the right "physique du rôle" for the boy Yniold (I know that Debussy prefers a child singing it, but I acknowledge the difficulties and accept an adult female soprano) and  sang the role well  as she did in 1999. Mario De Salvo was a good Physician in the last act.
            I was very happy with the playing of the Colón Orchestra and the conducting debut of Emmanuel Villaume: he was exemplary in his respect for the lights and shadows of the score and he showed great perception about both the evanescent impressionist moments and the expressionist outbursts.
            I found Olivia Fuchs controversial in several points. I wondered whether the superficiality of both Duprels and Werba wasn´t the producer´s responsibility as well. I found the presence of dancers (doubling as stage helpers) unwarranted, for Debussy asks for no choreography. The evolutions, however, weren´t unpleasant (they were the work of Claire Whistler). And of course the producer leads a team, so the geometric stage elements of designer Yannis Tavoris are part of Fuchs´ views, as are Tavoris´  incongruous (although not ugly) costumes. I have always felt that Maeterlinck´s text evokes the Middle Ages, but the characters were dressed  rather as in Debussy´s time.  Many important things weren´t suggested by this staging (e.g., the perils of the grotto), and the lighting by Bruno Poet often ran counter to the sense of the words (luminous when it should be shadowy or viceversa). In  all, the production fell short of being truthful to this opera.
            Indeed, "Pelléas et Mélisande" is an elusive challenge for any producer. Fuchs avoided tastelessness and wasn´t outrageous (as so many of her colleagues are nowadays) but her vision remains incomplete.
For Buenos Aires Herald

sábado, agosto 06, 2011

From crossover to the Sixties´ avantgarde

            Crossover has a long history, although the word has become trendy only in recent decades. It goes both ways: from Classical to Popular and viceversa.  And it has been going on for centuries. When Mozart wrote reams of contradances for the Viennese people´s balls he was doing the same that Johann Strauss Senior and Junior would do with the waltz during the Nineteenth century. As time went by, however, their waltzes became classical.

            There are two sorts of crossover: composers that cross either way, or interpreters that mix genres. The best Twentieth-Century example of a great crossover composer could be heard in a recent National Symphony concert: Gershwin´s "Rhapsody in blue" in Grofé´s orchestration ( of "Grand Canyon" fame) played by an admirable pianist, Ralph Votapek, long associated with the best classics but also a Gershwin specialist. And in a year where our city also welcomed Andrea Bocelli, we heard Katherine Jenkins in her local debut (at the Coliseo).

            She has a good deal going for her: truly beautiful even at close range, the Welsh mezzo has a voice of ample register and fine timbre, and she sings in tune, very professionally. Her charm is partly manufactured, but I liked the way she assumed a memory lapse with total spontaneity. And she wears her tasteful and splendid wardrobe with grace.

            But…Why an artist blessed with looks and vocal means that could have led to an important operatic career has chosen a path of bland, sappy arrangements of mostly mediocre songs, sung with microphone in a theatre and accompanied with an also wired symphony orchestra, in a theatre where music can be heard without intermediaries that soup up the sounds bathetically? Well, because she´s a howling success and earns a lot of money and seems happy with her well-planned destiny. She sings with full, operatically placed voice; alas,  all seems alike, in a level of total superficiality, always going from pianissimo to fortissimo, in interpretations that never go beyond a standardized traversal of music and text. Of course, the unnamed arrangements are also to blame (the extremely poor hand programme didn´t mention the repertoire, the arrangers, not even the conductor, the efficient Anthony Inglis).

            There were of course some fine tunes in this bland Muzak, for we heard authors like Bacharach, Morricone or Lloyd-Webber ( a song from "Love never dies", the sequel to "The Phantom of the Opera"), or the Traditional "Amazing Grace". And she sang plausibly two fragments from "Carmen", only presentation of opera that night. For many, the musical cocktail was what they wanted, and in its own terms it was well done.  The local ad-hoc orchestra was alright.

            Back to Gershwin, the most amazing transculturation example imaginable: the son of Odessa jews became the greatest creator of jazz-influenced songs, of symphonic jazz and of  Negro opera, "Porgy and Bess". His "Rhapsody in blue", abetted by the skills of Grofè, remains a marvel of inspiration, as are the Concerto in F or "An American in Paris" (by that time he was a fine orchestrator as well). And played straight (as it should be) by Votapek and by the National Symphony under Alejo Pérez, we could again rejoice in its fresh innovation. Gershwin has remained one of a kind, all imitators have disappeared. It was a pleasure to welcome back Votapek, still splendid and young after four decades of visits; what a pity that this was his only appearance.

            The concert was completed with an interesting reading of Debussy´s "La Mer", and  a premiere:  "Continuar esperando…" by Dante Grela on a disenchanted text by Oliverio Girondo. Its 27 minutes combine a soprano with the orchestra and electroacoustic sounds in a complex and unrewarding net of contemporary techniques. Susana Caligaris did what she could with this tough material, apparently well conducted.

            Which leads me to the recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales (CLAEM): "International Festival Music at the Di Tella – Resonances of Modernity". Doubtless that was a very important experience for Latinamerican scholarship holders; during several years, the Alberto Ginastera-led experiment allowed them to be in touch with some of the greatest names in composition at that time: Olivier Messiaen, Yannis Xenakis, Luigi Nono, Luigi Dallapiccola, Roger Sessions  and others.  Now Eduardo Kusnir and Gerardo Gandini have concocted a total of two symphonic concerts with the National Symphony at the Auditorio de Belgrano, and six chamber concerts at the Centro Cultural Borges. They attempted a vast panorama of scores written by those that at the time studied with such illustrious creators.  I heard the initial symphony concert and the fifth chamber concert, so my view is partial. But I have to be sincere, I enjoyed very little of what I heard.

            I will single out as interesting the "Concierto ornamental" by Alejandro Núñez Allauca, and of some quality "Tartinia MCMLXX" by Jorge Antunes. And in the chamber concert, "Divertimento" by Antonio Mastrogiovanni and "Playas rítmicas Nos. 1 y 2" for piano by Jorge Arandia Navarro. I disliked and won´t mention the rest.  So I have to record that the results were less than what Ginastera had envisaged, but that adventure remains valid in its aims and shouldn´t be forgotten. The sad conclusion:  after the Fifties musical creation (exceptions apart) has fallen into a trough; why should the young Di Tella composers be any better?
For Buenos Aires Herald

Rossinian trip, French animal parody

            The Argentino of La Plata has offered recently the South American premiere of a special opera by Gioacchino Rossini: "Il viaggio a Reims". Or rather, unique: for it is  a long "bel canto divertimento" with practically no plot. I certainly welcome it, though I can´t help thinking that both Buenos Aires and La Plata are sorely in debt with the "serious" Rossini: we need well-cast stage versions of  "Semiramide" (though it had a condensed concert performance at La Plata some years ago), "Mosè", "La donna del lago" and "Il sitio di Corinto".

            "Il viaggio a Reims" is indeed a "rara avis": although written in Italian, it was Rossini´s first opera written for Paris. Specifically, the libretto by Luigi Balocchi (based partly on Madame de Staël´s "Corinne, ou l´Italie") is what might be called an "occasional piece", for it is unabashedly a tribute to Charles X´s coronation at Reims (May 29, 1825). Balocchi was the official librettist of the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, and the opera is subtitled ("ossia") "L´albergo del Giglio d´Oro", this being a hotel at the small spa of Plombières en route to Reims.

             In just one very long act (divided by an interval at the Argentino) a group of aristocrats stop for the night at the spa, and then can´t go on to Reims because of a shortage of horses,  but they console themselves with the thought that in Paris they will participate in the celebrations for the King. A minimal episode concerning a love triangle is all that can be mentioned as plot; otherwise you have minimal incidents as pretexts for displays of bel canto.

            Consider: three sopranos, a contralto, two tenors and five baritones have principal parts, and there are seven flank roles. A total of eighteen singers!  And at the Argentino everyone is double-casted except three of the smaller parts. I heard the first cast.

            The music is prime Rossini, scintillating, difficult and charming. Curiously there is no overture (a non-authentic adaptation of a dance from "Le siège de Corinthe" is wrongly circulated as the overture to "Il viaggio a Reims") The premiere wasn´t successful, and a good deal of what is in "Il viaggio…" ended up adapted and in French in "Le Comte Ory", a delicious " opéra bouffe". The Rossini Festival at Pesaro resurrected "Il viaggio a Reims" in 1984. Then came the two splendid recordings with different casts conducted by Claudio Abbado.

            The current staging at the Argentino is Emilo Sagi´s for a later Pesaro occasion  as revived by Elisabetta Courir, with stage designs by Daniel Blanco (an Argentine resident in Spain) and by the Spanish costume designer Pepa Ojanguren. As so often nowadays, Sagi brings the action up to date, with cellular phones, no matter ihat it makes complete nonsense of the tribute to Charles X. The only stage design is a huge white elevated verandah quite close to the orchestral pit; all concerned act in that area, except for a slow aria from Corinne sung from a loge. And up to almost the end, they all sport white spa bath robes, which doesn´t make it easier to distinguish the characters. Nevertheless, the moves of the actors are sprightly and there´s a lot of give and play.  

            The large cast was dominated by the baritones. The Chilean Ricardo Seguel did a brilliant job in Don Profondo´s patter aria where he impersonates people of various countries.  Luciano Miotto showed his buffo "savoir faire" as Lord Sydney. Luis Gaeta was his usual authoritative self as Trombonok (curiously a German aristocrat , the name sounds Slavic). Leonardo Estévez was correct as Don Álvaro. Granted that the tenor parts are very high-lying, the debutants Alessandro Luciano and Francisco Brito weren´t quite up to par, especially the former. Of the ladies Paula Almerares (Corinne) started weakly but then found her form and had some exquisite moments. Neither Marisú Pavón nor Victoria Gaeta were exempted from some acidity in high notes but otherwise were good. Not so Nidia Palacios (contralto) whose florid singing was quite disagreeable. Of the many other parts, I single out as pleasant the work of Santiago Ballerini, Francisco Bugallo, Ricardo Crampton and María del Rocío Giordano.

            I was surprised by the very Rossinian phrasing and good command of the conductor, the Italian Sergio Monterisi (debut) who got a quite satisfactory stylistic result from the orchestra.

            The Colón, as usual for the winter holidays, put on a show for the kids. It was a revival of a choreography by Oscar Araiz on Saint-Saëns´ "The carnival of the animals", a charming parody well known through recordings but not often heard in public, and then generally as a concert piece. It incorporates texts by María Elena Walsh said  by an emcee, in this case Karina K, well-routined and agile.  As the show is very short (just 35´), she filled up 15 extra minutes with jokes and riddles.   The Colón Ballet (23 dancers) did very nicely  the well-wrought steps imagined by Araiz.

            However, I found that the show was too abstract for kids: the animals were suggested by gestures, but the very simple costumes of Renata Schussheim gave no inkling of particular animals, there was no stage design, no special makeup helped the dancers. And a sore point, the music was recorded. Even the Walsh texts were too full of social criticism, touching on themes that were more for adults.
For Buenos Aires Herald