martes, junio 19, 2007

A bumpy orchestral traversal

In recent weeks the panorama of orchestral concerts as been rather bumpy. Quite apart from the scandal of the total paralyzation of all musical organisms dependent on the National Culture Secretariat –of which more below- we've had uneven concerts from the Buenos Aires Philharmonic (the Phil) and a couple of visitors of not quite first rank.

To leave behind the bad taste in my mouth, a brief reference to the cultural disaster that affects in the most Kafkian terms official national culture. It has happened before, but perhaps never in such an extended scale. A labor conflict of the technicians assigned to all national organisms has effectively stalled all activity at the National Symphony, the two big choirs (Polifónico Nacional and Nacional de Jóvenes) , two specialized outfits of social implications (Coro Polifónico de Ciegos and Banda Sinfónica de Ciegos), the Orquesta de Música Nacional Juan de Dios Filiberto and the Teatro Nacional Cervantes. And the matter is small and ridiculous: the State gave years ago to the administrative workers and the technicians the same working hours, which means that the latter can't be present at the evening shows; easy enough to fix what is a blatant idiocy, but nobody does it, neither the Labor Ministry, the Economics Ministry or the Culture Secretariat. Could some workers be hired to permit the realization of concerts? No, it would affect the sacrosanct solidarity among labor unions... Meanwhile, as much as five millions pesos have been paid this year by the State to players and singers that don't play and don't sing! And there's no solution in sight.

Back to something less sad, concerts that effectively take place. One was the visit of the Berlin Symphony prior to performing at the amazing Ushuaia Festival. This Orchestra is of course no match for the great Berlin organisms: the Philharmonic, the Deutsche Symphonie (ex Radio Orchestra) or the Staatsoper led by Barenboim. But it can be considered a very professional outfit. This was their third visit here; in the first, in 1970, Fritz Weisse offered Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" with the Berlin Concert Choir and foreign soloists; in the second, a few years ago, they came with their then Principal Director, Eduardo Marturet. This third is rather amazing, for according to the biography in the hand programme, the young Argentine Jorge Uliarte has been recently named their Principal Conductor (and he is the "alma pater" of the Ushuaia Festival). On the basis of what I heard, I can't understand it, for Uliarte seems to me a limited musician of barely correct technique and scant communication. Apparently his powers of organization and persuasion are greater than the musical ones, for after all the founding of the Ushuaia Festival is quite a feat of imagination.

They gave a concert at the Coliseo with hackneyed repertoire: Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture", Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Dvorák's Ninth ("New World"). All decently done, no more. I have my doubts that the Berlin Symphony has only 59 players, for such was the number listed; it probably boasts about 90 players back home. Apart from the lack of personnality and dynamism , their music making with Uliarte was acceptable, but one needs more in such overheard pieces.

I was much happier with the debut of the Denver Young Artists Orchestra led by Adam Flatt at the UBA's Facultad de Derecho Main Hall. Denver is of course home to the prestigious Colorado Symphony Orchestra, but it can be proud of this youth organism for it seems one of the best of its kind. They number 57 but in the overbright and resonant hall they sounded like a hundred, also because they play with such intensity and involvement, and with a technical quality that many adult orchestras don't have. And they are led with outstanding precision and style by Flatt, a young artist in the best American tradition. Minor blemishes hardly affected my pleasure. Both in the Overture for Sheridan's "The School for Scandal" by Samuel Barber and in Tchaikovsky's difficult Fourth Symphony they kept to a high standard. Also they accompanied well the 18-year-old Hannah Robbins in Elgar's Cello Concerto; she played nicely except for some lapses of intonation in high positions. The encore was interesting: an excellent arrangement by Kenneth Harper of Mariano Mores' "Tanguera".

The Phil completed the first section of its subscription series at the Gran Rex with a concert conducted by Ronald Zollman, who made his debut here last year and left a good impression. The session had a special attraction, the premiere of a rather strange Haydn Symphony, No. 60, "The absent-minded" ; the habitual four-movement structure is abandoned and instead we have six movements, several of them with humoristic details such as the "scordatura" in the last movement. And this is because in fact it was used as incidental music for a play of the same title as the symphony, written by Jean-Francois Regnard. I'm sorry to say that the music sounded wan in the undernourished acoustics and that Zollman didn't catch the humor, even making a pronounced pause between the two last movements when it is of the essence that both should be played without any interruption.

The rest went better: an agreeable version of Ravel's "Ma Mere l'Oye" and a professionally handled Dvorák Sixth Symphony, lacking however in the infectious gaiety of the Bohemian folk rhythms.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

martes, junio 05, 2007

From "bel canto" to "verismo"

Two recent revivals of worthwhile Italian operas brought us from the "bel canto " period to late "verismo". The Roma Theatre (Avellaneda), after a "Luisa Fernanda" (Moreno Torroba) that I decided to skip because I had seen most of the singers in the same parts at the Parque Centenario, offered Gaetano Donizetti's "La Favorita" with astonishingly good results. And the Casa de la Opera de Buenos Aires gave us Francesco Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur" at the Avenida with an uneven outcome.

Among the enormously fecund output that Donizetti produced between 1816 and 1844 (about 70 operas), "La Favorita" is amongst the most valid dramatic pieces. It has many good points, among them some admirable arias for Fernando and Leonora, several duets and ample concertantes. It started life as a French opera, "La Favorite", a transformation of an earlier incomplete opus, "L'ange de Nisida"; the librettists were Alphonse Royer, Gustave Vaez and Eugene Scribe and it was premiered at the Paris Opéra in December 1840; as was imperative at that theatre, it included a ballet. The story was based on a triangle formed by Alfonso XI, King of Castile (1311-1350), his lover Leonora de Guzmán (who had nine children with the King!) and the young Fernando, who falls in love with her ignoring her status as "la bella del Re".

When it was translated into Italian, the rigid Austrian censure intervened, several Italian librettists successively rewrote the lines (Calisto Bassi, Francesco Jannetti and Fausto Broussard) and some facts were ridiculously twisted around: what was logical in the French version became incoherent in the Italian (the Prior Baldassarre –of the Santiago de Compostela monastery - is also the father of the cuckolded Queen!). Still, this is the version given nowadays. With big roles for mezzo, tenor, baritone and bass and lovely melodic lines, it is still a pleasure to hear, though I wish I could get to know the original .

The Colón last offered "La Favorita" in 1995 and 1967 (with Kraus and Cossotto!). For the Roma it is a first, and I'm glad to say it's one of the best things I've seen there. The small old theatre has resonant acoustics and the voices sounded juicy and big, for the cast was well chosen and everyone was in very good shape. Carlos Duarte's voice is as expansive as his physique; he is a sanguine singer with a beautiful, Mediterranean timbre. He had a couple of uncomfortable moments, and his "Spirto gentil" was too lacrymous, but I liked most of what he did. María Luján Mirabelli has been uneven in the past, but this time all was right, her registers firm and expressive, her demeanor convincing and intense. I've never heard Enrique Gibert Mella sing with so much line and strength; his Alfonso had presence and he was up to the big climaxes. And Oreste Chlopecki sang with command and well-controlled shaping of phrases, his timbre not as black as I've heard him in earlier years. A fast vibrato diminishes the merits of Ana María Siniscalco (Inez). Correct jobs from dry-voiced tenor Pablo Gaeta (Gasparo) and the baritone Fabián Frías (Gentleman).

The Orquesta Sinfónica Municipal de Avellaneda certainly leaves much to desire, but it was led with vigor and style by the 29-year-old Sebastiano De Filippi, also known as a baritone. And although the voices of the Choir of the Instituto Municipal de Música de Avellaneda are of disparate quality, the young choristers were eager and responded well to their director, Ricardo Barrera. Producer Eduardo Casullo respected the laws of melodrama and of the historic environment evoked and was clear as well as dramatic in his indications; as stage designer a few columns were enough to give a feeling of monastery and castle, though the wrinkled white wall should have been improved. Fine costumes from Mariela Daga and Azelio Polo brought us to Medieval times. The lighting plot by Ernesto Bechara was traditional.

A shorter notice on Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur", for it was revived just a couple of years ago by Buenos Aires Lírica with Myriam Toker and Gustavo López Manzitti. The opera dates from 1902 and represents an attenuated "verismo" with a good deal of eighteenth-century pastiche. The story of the poisoning of actress Lecouvreur by her rival, the Princess of Bouillon, involves their lover Maurice of Saxony; there's an admixture of political intrigue and of the unrequited infatuation for Adriana by Michonnet, the manager of the theatre. The music is very well written and tasteful, with some fine melodies. Now I wish somebody remembered his other good opera, "L'Arlesiana" on Daudet, the one with the famous "Lamento di Federico".

Unfortunately there were grave vocal problems in both protagonists, Adelaida Negri and the young tenor Rodrigo Mora, quite green yet; the soprano as always has her moments but they weren't enough, and I found her spoken recitations too rhetoric. I liked Marina Biasotti as the Princess and Leonardo López Linares was outstanding as Michonnet. Eduardo Ayas as the Abbé of Chazeuil and Víctor Castells as the Prince of Bouillon were satisfactory. The others were in the picture. I didn't enjoy the choreography of Guido De Benedetti in a pseudo-Greek style. But Alejandro Atías was an attentive producer who respected the historical ambience both in the movements and in the stage designs (his own) and there were nicely designed dresses by Mariela Daga.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

"Rodelinda": a major Handel event

I have no hesitation in pronouncing the production of George Frideric Handel's "Rodelinda" by Buenos Aires Lírica at the Avenida the most important event of the operatic season. It isn't saying as much as it seems, for the context gives us an astonishingly poor season as far as renovation is concerned. The Colón does works it has offered within the last fifteen years, Juventus Lyrica can only boast of a revival of Ravel's two short operas, even Adelaida Negri's Casa de la Opera (generally a source of interesting material) opts this year for well-known pieces, there's nothing new at the Roma (Avellaneda) and frankly I have little hope for a Bacalov opera which will be premiered at the Argentino (La Plata), a theatre that otherwise gives us the rankest repertoire. So the Argentine staged premiere of "Rodelinda" is a major occasion. Mind you, a condensed concert version was offered some years ago at the Salón Dorado (Colón) by that theatre's Institute of Art advanced students. And it isn't –as announced- a South American premiere, for Caracas did that under Philippe Herreweghe in 1985.

The history of Handel opera performances in Buenos Aires is shamefully short and incomplete, if you consider that he is the greatest Baroque opera composer and we have forty titles to choose from. Curiously one opera has been offered thrice: "Giulio Cesare" . Otherwise we can only mention a second Richter-conducted opera, "Serse", in 1971, also with Schreier, and then we jump to "Agrippina" in 2005 by Buenos Aires Lírica! Thirty-four years without Handel...

"Agrippina" was a vivid success; with the same conductor, Juan Manuel Quintana, we now have "Rodelinda". It is a good choice for most specialists consider it amongst the half-dozen best; for future years I certainly root for "Alcina" and "Rinaldo", splendid and fantastic, for "Tamerlano" and for a "Giulio Cesare" revival. Of course, "Rodelinda" is an "opera seria" and has the defects of the genre: with just two exceptions, it is a succession of recitatives and arias (the duet that closes the Second Act and the ensemble at the very end bring welcome relief); the arias are "da capo" ( a main section A, a short contrasting B, and an A' that merely ornaments the same music); and the dramatic construction is patchy and stereotyped. But so much of the music is marvelous that we can hardly fail to yield to its beauties. You might feel legitimately that a lot is slow and contemplative and that sometimes you yearn for more adrenaline, but there's no gainsaying the harmonic and melodic sensitivity shown by the composer, at the service of one of those convoluted stories that mix historical occurrence with the contrasting miseries and ecstasies of love. For the record, it deals with the seventh century Longobards and proceeds via two librettists (Nicola Salvi and Antonio Haym) from Pierre Corneille's play "Pertharite, Roi des Lombards", based in turn on a "Historia Longobardorum" by Paulus Diaconus. Some cuts were made especially in recitative but the opera still lasted more than three hours.

A crucial decision was taken by the BAL authorities: a production in the Baroque style without Postmodernist distortions. They brought over from France a specialist, Ivan Alexandre (debut), who tackled this Handel at face value: painted curtain drops, localized light (lanterns following the singers), exposed machinery, changes of scenery done in front of the spectator, and also some matters that made me cavil. The acceptance of certain practices of the early eighteenth century can make for a feeling of absurdity nowadays, and also made me doubt if what I was seeing was strictly historical : slow silent film gestures, precious to a fault (especially Grimoaldo's), or the men dressed in garments that included short rigid open aprons: were these true historical practice, or the particular vision of Alexandre and his clothes designer, Eduardo Lerchundi? Anyway, I disliked them. But I liked very much the beautifully conceived and executed curtain drops by stage designer Santiago Elder, of true aesthetic quality and exquisite taste.

Quintana has assisted René Jacobs and Marc Minkowski in Europe, and in recent years has been acquiring a solid workmanship as a conductor, as well as forming in Rosario an admirable Baroque orchestra. I was impressed by the continuity and natural expression he obtained from his proficient group of players , and I would only wish he had taken a little faster the numerous and extended laments.

The singers were half Chilean and half Argentine; the Chileans took the main parts and did them better than well. I particularly liked Evelyn Ramírez as Bertarido, the deposed King (she sang Nero last year in Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea"); the part was originally for a "castrato contralto", Senesino. Claudia Pereira (debut) started too coolly as Rodelinda but then found the necessary warmth as the music proceeded. Jaime Cacompai , also from last year's Monteverdi, was musically satisfactory as the usurper Grimoaldo, though I didn't enjoy his acting. Of the Argentines the best was Norberto Marcos as the villain Garibaldo, firm and clear. Gabriela Cipriani Zec was too self-effaced, soft-grained to a fault, and Vanessa Mautner seemed in bad voice, with some croaky passages initially.

But even if the cast wasn't ideal, the total effect was certainly valuable and I can only urge BAL to keep on the good road in this repertoire in years to come.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, junio 03, 2007

Teatro Colón: Diagnóstico y Prospectiva

Para aquellos que les interese leer mi artículo: "Teatro Colón: Diagnóstico y Prospectiva", publicado en el libro " Cultura, nuestra PROpuesta", podrán hacerlo ingresando en: