jueves, marzo 24, 2016
jueves, marzo 17, 2016
Prévost´s story about Manon Lescaut is an early Eighteenth Century romance that inspired Nineteenth Century opera composers. The girl is sensual, quite young and beautiful, the Chevalier Des Grieux rescues her both from the convent and an old seducer, but the attraction of splendor leads her astray and she will live in a palace with a rich protector. Eventually, Des Grieux has her back, but she will pay dearly: she is condemned to prison in the colonies , falls ill and dies in the arms of her lover.
In his charming opera Daniel Auber accentuates the lightness rather than the drama, but in the much better known "Manon" by Massenet the comedy of the initial acts becomes gradually more dramatic, though never losing its refined Gallic air. In Puccini´s 1893 "Manon Lescaut", his first success, there is less comedy and the drama becomes stark already in the final minutes of the Second Act. And the style of the music is clearly Italian and even verista.
In Massenet´s version the libretto makes Manon die in Le Havre; in Puccini there is a scene at that port in which he tries to liberate Manon but fails; however, he appeals to the captain to take him on and he goes with her to New Orleans. And the final act takes place in a wasteland, for they are fugitives. There´s no wasteland near that city in real geography, but no matter, the libretto says so; she dies there, and so will probably be the destiny of Des Grieux, though we are not told.
No less than four librettists labored on the libretto for Puccini, not a good thing for there are too many styles of writing and it shows. Nevertheless, the composer made a giant jump from his "Edgar", very uneven and with a truly bad libretto. Here the passionate melody, the feel for character and the skillful harmony, plus the colorful orchestration, make "Manon Lescaut" the first Puccini opera that has remained in the repertoire. In fact, this year we will see it at the Avenida in the season of Buenos Aires Lírica.
The Metropolitan Opera´s HD Live performances are seen at the Teatro El Nacional and presented by the Fundación Beethoven, and by now they are a yearly and very welcome feature, for we see many artists that don´t visit the Colón with good sound and image.
The protagonists dominate "Manon Lescaut", for she and even more Des Grieux have long parts with several arias and duets, and the flank roles add little. When it was announced, Jonas Kaufmann was supposed to sing the Chevalier, and as he has recorded it with Kristine Opalais (the Met´s Manon) I was looking forward to their joint interpretation. Unfortunately, Kaufmann fell ill; fortunately, Roberto Alagna learnt the role in record time and partnered the soprano. And although I deeply admire Kaufmann, truly Alagna was a splendid Des Grieux. In excellent voice, he showed a complete command of the part and acted with conviction. A veteran of a hundred Met performances, he is a stalwart tenor.
This was the first time I had a chance to appreciate the art of Latvian soprano Kristine Opalais. Born in 1979, at 37 she looks gorgeous, with as fine legs as any model, and although both artists are far from the age of their characters (Manon only 18, Des Grieux in his early Twenties) they prove to be quite believable. She has made a specialty of Puccini roles, and in fact the next date of this series couples them in "Madama Butterfly".
In Manon looks certainly help, but Opalais is also a gifted actress and sings with a fine expansive voice; she has a natural feeling for Puccini´s long lines and a communicative warmth that is crucial in these parts. The timbre isn´t particularly individual, and sometimes she is slightly under the note in her high range, but she remains quite a find and is having an important career.
Manon's brother, Lescaut, was sung correctly but with too much vibrato by Massimo Cavalletti. Geronte, the old seducer, was perfectly sung and acted by bass Brindley Sherratt. The others were in the picture.
Fabio Luisi is the Met´s Principal Conductor and he has just been named to very important posts, for he will be Zurich Opera's Musical Director and has also taken over the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. He deserves them for he combines fine technical control with a sense of color and phrasing that makes his conducting dynamic and expressive. And of course the Met's Orchestra is admirable. So is the Choir.
Alas, the Met is cutting corners with coproductions with Europe, in this case the Festival Hall Baden/Baden, and that comes with the distortion that nowadays pervades opera in that continent. Producer Richard Eyre has had the absurd idea of moving this staging to 1941 occupied France, thus ruining a lot of what happens, mixing the German soldiers with the joyful crowd of the First Act or the prisoners at Le Havre. Curiously, the Spanish translation of the libretto had distortions of its own, the stagecoach becoming a train!
The stage designs (Rob Howell) had their faults in the three initial acts, but became ridiculous in the Fourth, where the "wasteland" was replaced by the uncomfortable ruins of a city. The costumes (Fotini Dimou) at least allowed Manon to be sexy.
For Buenos Aires Herald
Some days ago I covered the initial three Tchaikovsky symphonies at the Colón played by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic conducted by Enrique Arturo Diemecke starting the astonishing marathon of the complete creations of the composer in this important and difficult genre. As you may remember, this special series of concerts also includes other symphonic works.
Thus, the Fourth was preceded by the Italian Capriccio; the Fifth, by the tone poem "Francesca da Rimini"; and Nº6, absurdly followed by "Romeo and Juliet", when that symphony is Tchaikovsky´s supreme masterpiece and his swan song. I was sorry to miss the Friday date (the one with the Fifth) but that was the day of the National Symphony´s first pre-season concert, and both the artists and the programme were very enticing: the NS merits full support. I will write shortly about this event.
Probably the lowest point of the Colón series came with the Italian Capriccio, a typical "light classic" without the quality of Rimsky-Korsakov´s "Spanish Capriccio". Pleasant enough, especially in the final fast dance, but also with excessive percussion and square rhythms, it was the victim of a second-rate interpretation in two basic senses: far too noisy on the one hand; on the other, in the main slow melody, a wrong distortion of phrasing gave us a huge slowdown in the first three notes of the melody each time it appears.
Things picked up sharply with the Fourth Symphony. Written in 1877, it shows great command of orchestration and a powerful handling of rhetorics in the dramatic First movement, dominated by the Destiny theme of the very beginning. The Second is elegiac and imbued with lovely melody. But the pearl is the Third, with its impish long pizzicato and then the contrast with flighty woodwinds and humoristic brass. The Fourth movement is a brilliant popular feast...but near the end it is interrupted by the Destiny fanfare; to no avail, for the joyous mood goes on with ever increasing speed until the final chord.
There were small flaws in the First movement (some unclean trumpet sounds) but the phrasing was right and the impact of this dense music reached the audience. From then on the level was consistently high, especially in the impeccable playing of the pizzicati and the dynamic rushes of the feast.
Reliable people told me that the concert with the Fifth was very good, but of course that´s as far as I can go as I was hearing Elgar and Reger at the time.
Apart from my total rejection about putting initially on programme the Sixth Symphony instead of giving it the lion´s part, I found both interpretations very convincing. Apart from a glaring horn mistake and a small misadjustment in the First movement, everything in the Symphony was as it should be, with fine control of phrasing and different tempi from the conductor and intense, accurate playing. I particularly admired the refined pianissimo execution by clarinet soloist Mariano Rey.
I have long been amazed by the sleight-of-hand of the composer, who somehow contrives to give the feeling of a waltz in the Second movement, although the typical pulse of three beats is converted to five (two plus three) in every measure. And even more in the Third movement, where what is probably the greatest symphonic March ever written is marked in four beats instead of two! But the ending dispels the triumphant and massive moods, with what may be the most moving of all symphonic laments.
I find "Romeo and Juliet", called by the composer Fantasy overture, Tchaikovsky´s most accomplished tone poem. Both the slow melodic parts and the vivid evocation of the fights, with its dislocated and imaginative rhythms, give us the gist of the Shakespearian drama. The splendid discipline of the orchestra under the firm and intelligent command of the conductor gave us a model interpretation.
With so much that was positive, I´m sorry to have to mention two matters that bothered me. One: in recent years (not before) Diemecke has been increasingly showman, and always addresses the audience with remarks upon the scores that are often kitschy, infantile and superficial. As you know, the Colón´s hand programmes always carry comments on the works, so even if what the conductor says were relevant, the job has already been done, and much better. One good thing about Diemecke is that he has always asked the public not to applaud between movements, so I was astonished when he mentioned that at the end of the third movement of the Sixth the music is so brilliant that many people applaud, but this time he did NOT ask them to refrain from doing so, and so they did...
Two: a healthy and ingrained custom is that home orchestras don´t give encores (visiting orchestras do) but this time Diemecke, prompted by an undiscerning section of the audience, ceded, and in a bad way, providing a chunk of "Romeo and Juliet". This was unmusical and wrong.
But I want to finish on a positive note: this integral series was a real treat for Tchaikovski fans and proof of the stamina and knowledge of conductor and orchestra. It was only possible because the players came from their Summer holidays two weeks before the start on March 1, but for many of them the first three symphonies were new scores, and they learned fast and well.
For Buenos Aires Herald
lunes, marzo 07, 2016
Think of marriage parties nowadays. They usually start with a Johann Strauss II waltz, danced initially by the father and the bride (I did this ceremony twice with my daughters), followed by Sinatra (habitually "New York, New York") and then the senior citizens leave the "stage" to the younger crowd and their music. So in 2016 the waltz is still a symbol of elegance and beauty in social occasions.
With good reason: the waltz is such a beautiful dance that the most "waltzy" city, Vienna, made both Johann Strauss I and Joseph Lanner the heroes of both the common people and the nobility before passing the scepter to Johann II, phenomenally popular and admired by all the great composers of the time. But apart from the balls, the waltz also had a place in opera (Richard Strauss), of course operetta, in symphony and ballet (Tchaikovsky) or even as a sui generis tone poem (Liszt).
And it still draws vast amounts of people, as demonstrated by the five thousand that attended "The Great Waltz", the fine selection imagined by veteran maestro Mario Perusso for his concert with the Colón´s Resident Orchestra ("Estable") at the Plaza Vaticano. It was the only "traditional" instance of the current Colón Summer Festival, heavily biased towards the 20th-21st Centuries.
I am not an enthusiast of the Plaza Vaticano, I prefer my music in theatres and concert halls; the open air means city noise and amplification and I can do without both. So I would have enjoyed this concert much more at the Colón. Also that night was windy, and the poor musicians spent part of their time keeping their scores in place with brooches.
The particular feeling for give-and-take of the waltz is quite tricky, and the sort of rigid beat of chains of waltzes -bits from several glued together- in marriage parties goes against the grain. Naturally such a distortion didn´t happen in this concert, but to be frank the particular "rubato" flexibility of the best practitioners wasn´t there: we had good, honest music-making, not the unmistakeable lilt of such references as Boskovsky, Krauss or Jansons.
The start came from a great composer, Carl Maria von Weber, famous for his Romantic opera (the first so-called) "Der Freischütz", but also for a lovely piano piece, "Invitation to the dance": slow introduction, waltz and slow coda; it became famous in its inspired orchestration by Hector Berlioz, and many decades later it was the basis of Fokin´s gorgeous ballet "The spectre of the rose", danced by the likes of Nijinsky and Nureyev. The reading was rather tame, but from then on things picked up.
I would have preferred a more imaginative choice than Johann Strauss II´s "Blue Danube" (or if you prefer the whole appellation, "On the strands of the beautiful blue Danube"); well, these days the river is hardly blue, but no matter: the waltz is still the most famous. But not necessarily the best; my own favorite is the "Emperor Waltz". By the way, it may interest you to know that originally the "Blue Danube" wasn´t written for orchestra but for male choir! The performance was nice enough.
Another piece that was originally for piano is Franz Liszt´s "Mephisto Waltz Nº 1 " and as such it is a stunning tour de force for virtuosi; I like it it very much in that form, but also in what feels in fact as a tone poem, the orchestration that converts it in the second episode for Lenau´s "Faust": "The dance in the village´s tavern". As suits the character evoked, the waltz is interspersed with rather sinister slow fragments. Perusso gave it some character and I enjoyed the version, although the amplification wasn´t good enough to appreciate the subtler details.
My way of feeling and thinking is completely un-fan-like: I believe fanaticism blurs the mind and the senses. But whenever that malady tempts me, Richard Strauss´ "Der Rosenkavalier" is never far: for me it is the greatest of German-Austrian dramatic comedies, and the composer had an intuition that proved pure genius: the action happens during the years of Marie Therese´s Eighteenth Century reign when the waltz was non-existent, for that was the age of the minuet, but the waltz permeates large patches of the whole opera and is one of the things that make it unforgettable.
After the enormous success of his opera, Strauss made a Suite which included waltzes but also such sublime pieces as the great Trio; eventually he made three sequences : one with waltzes of Acts 2 and 3; the second with those of only Act 2 (in which he corrected what he felt were ugly transitions); and one with Act 3. As I have no score I can´t be sure, but probably Perusso did the third of these sequences for he started with a waltz of the very beginning of Act 3 (after the Prelude). He did a pretty good job.
A charming Waltz from Shostakovich´s curiously named Jazz Suite Nº 2 (I see nothing jazzy except the presence of a saxophone solo) preceded that marvelous blend of Impressionism and Expressionism, Ravel´s "La Valse"; Perusso managed a decent version; however, comparisons with fantastic previous interpretations kept intruding in my mind (e.g., Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic). The encore wasn´t a waltz but a famous polka by Johann II: "Tritsch-Tratsch".
For Buenos Aires Herald
1927, Baden-Baden: première of "Mahagonny-Gesänge", "Songspiel"; in three parts, 23 minutes. Music by Kurt Weill, texts by Bertolt Brecht. Born in the declining years of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, after the disastrous hyperinflation of 1923, this small masterpìece shows in a nutshell the tremendous nihilism of a shaken society seen with a Communist bias. In 1925 Berg´s "Wozzeck" gave us the most finished portrait of anguish and misery in operatic history. By 1929 the rise of the Nazis was uncontrollable, though four years ealpsed before Hitler was named Chancellor.
Weill and Brecht expanded the short piece into a full-length Singspiel (spoken and sung) in that same year 1927 : "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" ("Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny") and converted it into a bona fide opera in 1930. I bought in 1956 the first integral recording (conductor Brückner-Rüggeberg) and was stunned: a revelation. So I was happy when it was premièred at the Colón in 1987 and revived in 2002. And now it is announced for 2017. It figures: Argentina is prone to recurrent major problems and this is the ideal crisis opera.
1917, Stravinsky´s "L´histoire du soldat" ("The soldier´s tale" ) is premièred in
Switzerland, where the composer is living poorly due to WWI and the confiscation of her family´s patrimony by the Bolsheviks. This was four years after his "Rite of Spring" changed the History of Music. The text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz is based on a Russian folk tale about a soldier on leave tempted by the Devil; the Soldier gives him a violin and receives in exchange a book that reads by itself and shows the future. In the end, the Devil wins...
This piece for a Narrator, actors playing the Soldier and the Devil and a dancer (the Princess) has wonderfully inventive music for seven instruments (the composer extracted later a Suite from it). The folk tale is ingenuous rather than ingenious but it has charm if properly done. It was often staged in BA and I saw my first in the early Fifties. During the last two years four different productions were seen; I wrote about one of them, with Les Luthiers and Barenboim.
This year the Colón has launched a Summer Season and of course, in principle it should be a good thing. But obviously venues matter, and so do choices of repertoire. Well, the venue chosen for most of it is open air with amplification: the Plaza Vaticano next to the Colón. "Mahagonny" cries out for a small theatre or a big tavern and amplification is quite wrong for it. On the other hand, "Histoire" was designed to be ambulatory, so it can be accepted in the open air.
As to the choice, the moot point is that both productions are presented by the Colón but have been seen elsewhere in recent years without that theatre´s auspices, so it was a matter of simply taking advantage of ready-made productions.
Weill-Brecht and this particular piece have been close to Marcelo Lombardero´s preferences since the start of his career as a producer and he has presented it in several occasions: the seedy, scurvy ambience, the social criticism, its angry attacks on capitalism, its mix of realism and surrealism, suit his instincts; and the cast, practically identical I believe to the one seen at the Usina del Arte a couple of years ago, is wonderful both acting and singing. The two whores are done with plenty of insight by soprano María Victoria Gaeta and mezzosoprano Cecilia Pastawski: in their voices the "Alabama Song" and "Benares Song", bittersweet jewels, have near-ideal versions. And the four men who have gone to Mahagonny for easy money, booze and women, are sung and acted with great dramatic presence by tenors Pablo Pollitzer (in very good voice) and Santiago Burgi, whilst baritone Mariano Fernández Bustinza and bass Juan Pablo Labourdette sang with powerful delivery and splendid material.
The very good small orchestra was perfectly handled by Pedro Pablo Prudencio, giving Weill´s music the cutting edge it needs. Lombardero´s team saw eye to eye with him: Noelia González Svoboda (stage design), Luciana Gutman (costumes) and Horacio Efron (lighting).
As "Mahagonny" is short we were offered a fine selection of fragments from other Weill-Brecht collaborations: "Die Dreigroschenoper" and "Happy End" (from it, the haunting "Surabaya Johnny") with the same admirable singers and players.
The translation and adaptation by Beatriz Sarlo of "L´Histoire du Soldat" seems to me misguided: it doesn´t respect the original: here the Narrator does not only his part but also the Devil and the Soldier; and there isn´t one dancer but three, for both the Soldier and the Devil dance. Listen in their marvelous 1962 recording what Jean Cocteau as the Narrator and Peter Ustinov do as the Devil to feel the enormous difference with the exaggerated and shouty interpretation of Pompeyo Audivert.
The instrumental side was decently done, with violinist Daniel Robuschi especially good but trumpet player Osvaldo Lacunza below his best level, perhaps because he didn´t play the part in a cornet, as in the original. Correct conducting by Santiago Santero. Paradoxically the added choreography and dancing was a plus factor: fine dancers (Ramiro Cortez, Juan González, Paula Almirón) in dramatically well-imagined steps by Edgardo Mercado. I fail to understand what was the contribution of Martín Bauer as Stage Director.
For Buenos Aires Herald