domingo, octubre 28, 2007

Masterpieces of German opera: "Fidelio" and "Elektra"

Tough nuts to crack, two German operatic masterpieces were presented in recent weeks; a private company, Casa de la Opera, tackled at the Avenida the tall order of Beethoven's sole opera, "Fidelio"; and the Colón at the Coliseo offered Richard Strauss' "Elektra", his most uncompromising work.

The troubled road of "Fidelio" is well known; there was a first version called "Leonora" premiered in 1805 with little success, and then renamed and heavily revised with its definitive appellation, "Fidelio", in 1814. Add to this that he wrote no less than four Overtures , the three "Leonores" and "Fidelio", and you have a panorama of stress and effort. Based on a French libretto by Bouilly inspired by a real life situation, the librettos by Sonnleithner (1805) and Treitschke (1814) keep to the original .The plot has two ideas that were bound to appeal the composer: fidelity and freedom, with undertones of human rights. The subject certainly has relevance nowadays. The composer writes in the Singspiel tradition (sung sections alternate with spoken ones) music of enormous emotional power.

Unfortunately the results of Casa de la Opera's revival weren't good enough. The Orchestra under Giorgio Paganini sounded very insecure, with particularly bad work from the horns, and the conductor doesn't seem comfortable in this repertoire. He followed Mahler's tradition of interpolating the "Leonore No.3" between the First and the Second Tableau of the Second Act. On the other hand, the combined choirs were intense and generally accurate. Martín Palmeri led the "Coro Estable de la Facultad de Derecho de la U.B.A." and the "Coro de la Municipalidad de Vicente López". Although they aren't operatic choirs, they sounded convincing, and it helped that the best of Eduardo Casullo's production was the way he moved the choirs going from the anguish of the First Act to the jubilant and cantata-like Choir of the final tableau.

But the main singers weren't up to par. The worst offender by far was the septuagenarian tenor Ricardo Cassinelli, who substituted vocal line with uncouth shouting and acted hysterically. (It certainly didn't help that the spoken dialogues were in melodramatic Spanish instead of German). It was ill-advised for Adelaida Negri to choose this opera; neither the vocal side nor the dramatic were right in her Leonore. And Alejandro Schijman certainly doesn't have the means to sing Pizarro. The others were better; I rather liked the Rocco of Víctor Castells and that dignified veteran, Gui Gallardo, sang with poise as Don Fernando. Marzelline, the jailer's daughter, was unevenly sung by Andrea Maragno, but she had some good moments. Jaquino, who is in love with her, was correctly sing by Eduardo Ayas.

Producer Casullo opted for an almost bare stage and relied on projections (prepared by Edgardo Beck) of Goya and Piranesi, sometimes apposite to the action but not always. He was wrong in peopling Florestan's jail with other prisoners; Pizarro surely has isolated him. The costumes by Mariela Daga seemed based on the Franco period and were mostly acceptable, aside from Florestan's absurd jacket; he should be in rags.

"Elektra" is Sophocles' tragedy through a Freudian filter in Von Hoffmannsthal admirable (and terrifying) libretto. The 1909 one-act opera by Richard Strauss is probably his most important and surely the most advanced in its musical materials, with tense and dissonant language that meets the moral enormities of the action with music of granitic strength and character.

Elektra may be the most taxing German role; Luana DeVol (debut) , American, has had a long career in German theatres and she has the essentials for this character, the prototype of manic desire for vengeance: a strong voice of wide range and complete command of each musical detail; she lacks the final impact, vocal and theatrical, of a great Elektra, but she is thoroughly professional. The other Elektra, Susan Marie Pierson (debut), also American, is much younger and thinner; her problem: some top notes aren't there; several climactic phrases peaked in ugly squeals, though a lot of what she did was right.

Klytaemnestra's confrontation with Elektra is a unique tragical scene ; the moral and physical decay of the mother needs a great interpreter; the voice can be aged and harsh but it must have heft to hold her own. Graciela Alperyn and Elisabeth Canis were dramatically powerful but there were moments where they were underpowered. Chrysothemis needs an ample and luminous lyric soprano; Eiko Senda was closer to the mark than Virginia Correa Dupuy, very musical but relatively small-voiced. Orest, the executioner of his mother and of Aegisth, was sung firmly by Hernán Iturralde; however, he wasn't expressive enough and looked too elderly. Aegisth is a short part but must be well done; Fernando Chalabe was pretty good, Carlos Bengolea less so .

All the other parts are quite short and I have no space to list them, they were generally well taken. Stefan Lano conducted with symphonic thrust and adequate speeds but the Colón Orchestra was sorely tried by the virtuoso requirements; he tended to cover the singers but the orchestration is indeed very heavy . The Coliseo pit was fully used to hold the big orchestra.

The production by Mario Pontiggia told the story reasonably well, but I disliked Daniela Taiana's costumes, especially Elektra's pants; her stage design was interesting with its two levels (imaginative lighting by Horacio Efron), though it didn't look Mycenaean.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

Foto: Facundo Basavilbaso

domingo, octubre 21, 2007

Chamber music: from Classicism to the avantgarde

In recent weeks there were treasurable moments of great chamber music with sensitive and important artists and a range that covered the extremes, Classicism and avantgarde. I will start with quartets, which to my mind represent the purest type of chamber music, a conversation between equals with the exact quantity of players (two violins, viola and cello) to give the discourse an ideal poise and richness.

About 25 years ago the Mozarteum Argentino brought to us a very young and special Quartet, the Hagen, made up of four Austrian brothers (two boys, Lukas and Clemens, and two girls, Angelika and Veronika) of astonishing maturity. Rainer Schmidt took the place of Angelika in 1987, and they have played together ever since. They never deviated from their original aim: to play the great quartets with technical perfection and a deep sense of style. They offered at the Coliseo and for the Mozarteum two concerts with different programmes. The one I heard combined two masterpieces: Schubert's last Quartet (No. 15), much less played than No. 14, "Death and the Maiden", but very close in quality, particularly the fantastic imagination of the spectral middle section of the slow movement, and Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8, his best known due to its autobiographical content and deep drama. Both versions showed the Hagen at the very top of their profession: total concentration, character and instrumental achievement. Beauty and intensity from all four and absolute singlemindedness.

The Spanish Cuarteto Quiroga (named in homage of the violinist Manuel Quiroga) was a pleasant surprise. It is young (born in 2003) , strongly motivated and very professional. The players: violinists Aitor Hevia and Cibrán Sierra, violist Lander Etxebarria and cellist Helena Poggio. Their programme at the Museo Fernández Blanco was very classical: Mozart's Quartet No.16 , K.428 (not quite among the best of the 23 ), the fascinating Quartet No. 3 by Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, the shortest-lived genius of musical history (1806-26) and Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 1, op.12, already mature at 20 years old. Encore: the exciting last movement of Haydn's Quartet op.74 No. 3, "The Rider". The players showed admirable qualities : lovely sound, perfect intonation and committed phrasing. Spain is producing real talents in a field that was rarely trod in that country.

The Arditti Quartet has long been distinguished by its championing of the avantgarde; in an earlier visit they showed enormous technical aptitude and conviction . Their return was at the Coliseo in the incongruous setting of the International Theatre Festival (they are strictly musical). The audience was rather sparse. The current players are: Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan, violins; Ralf Ehlers, viola; and Lucas Fels, cello. The programme was exclusively for those who enjoy the latest avantgarde (not my case): the Quartet by the Britisher James Clarke (born 1957), Quartet No. 5 by Pascal Dusapin (born 1955), "Tetras" by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), Quartet No. 3 by Brian Ferneyhough (born 1943, father of the so-called "new complexity") and Quartet No. 3, "Grido", by Helmut Lachenmann (born 1935). The scores were written between 2001 and 2006, except for "Tetras" (1983). With no exception the music seemed to me deliberately aggressive and unpleasant, with no sense of a new and viable dialectic; rather , an apology of ugliness. I felt discomfiture at the feeling I had of a dead end. The commitment of the players was evident but not even their technical prowess convinced me.

Two quintets made me very happy in their local debut. Nuova Harmonia at the Coliseo presented the Quintetto dell'Academia Chigiana and the Mozarteum in their Midday Concerts brought us the Ensemble instrumental de Granada at the Gran Rex.. A point to remember: the Italian group comes from the same famous Siennese institution that gave name to the Quintetto Chigiano fifty years ago, but that ensemble was for piano and strings (with Sergio Lorenzi) whilst the current group is made up of two violins, two violas and cello. (Also, there was a Sestetto Chigiano for strings). The current Quintetto has a very special characteristic: it combines professors and pupils. The lady violinists are students of Salvatore Accardo, beautiful and splendidly accomplished: Laura Marzadori and Francesca Dego. Veteran violist Bruno Giuranna, a founder of I Musici, sits next to his student, Daniel Palmizio. And the very talented cellist Antonio Meneses, who has visited us as a soloist, completes this first-rate ensemble where different generations see eye to eye on all technical and stylistic matters. The programme was short but challenging: Mozart's Quintet No. 2 (he wrote 6), K.515, in radiant C major; and Brahms' dense Quintet No.2, op.111. More Mozart as encore: the Minuet from Quintet No. 1, K.174. Their playing was cohesive, clean and expressive, and again the country of opera shows that it can also produce first-rate chamber ensembles.

The Granada Ensemble is really a sextet but this time it played Schubert's marvelous Quintet D. 956, written for two violins (Peter Thomas and Atsuko Nerishii), viola (Germán Clavijo) and two cellos (Orlando Theuler and Juan Pérez de Albéniz). Thomas used to play with Argentine violist Tomás Tichauer and he was also here as soloist with orchestra. This cosmopolitan Granada group showed that it had the measure of Schubert's masterpiece and it played with much care and musicality . It is gratifying to observe that Latin groups can understand so well Germanic styles.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, octubre 17, 2007

The wonderful paths of Baroque music

This musical season is one of the best I can remember concerning Baroque music. Its paths are indeed wonderful and we've had interpreters that communicate that wonder. Nuova Harmonia presented at the Coliseo the local debut of the Orchestra Barocca di Venezia with the great violin virtuoso Giuliano Carmignola (heard in a previous year) , whilst Pilar Golf presented that astonishing group, La Barroca del Suquía, led by another admirable violinist, Manfredo Kraemer.

The Venetian group paid homage to the greatest Italian composer of that period's instrumental music, Antonio Vivaldi; most of his production was written for the admirably accomplished girls of Venice's Ospedale della Pietá. Special bonus: most of the chosen concerti are little-known and proved fascinating. Family troubles impeded the trip to BA of the founder and director of the Venetian group, Andrea Marcon, but he had prepared them very well, for the conductorless orchestra played with unanimity and richness of expression. It is a prime historicist ensemble: gut strings, little vibrato, intense phrasing, quick tempi, fierce rhythm. Carmignola is an audacious player with strong personality; he gave us astonishing feats of fast playing with abrupt accents and there was always a sense of the dramatic. He did Vivaldi's Concerti RV 190 (rare and ample), RV 278 (in E minor) and RV 331 (G minor) and Tartini's expressive Concerto D 96. The players without Carmignola performed Vivaldi's Concerti for strings (no soloist) RV 114, 156 and 127 and Symphony RV 146. The three encores: more Vivaldi.

La Barroca del Suquía, named after the river that goes through Córdoba, is a shining example of what can be obtained with discipline and hard work under a true specialist, Manfredo Kraemer. He is a world-class historicist violinist with ample European career, but in a way what he has done in Córdoba (where he was born) is even more important: he has moulded a talented ensemble that could play in Europe with the same standing of other groups of this type. The programme started and finished with Vivaldi's greatest opus: "L'estro armonico" (Op.3); we heard Concerti grossi Nos. 3 and 10 (in the latter the quality of the four violinists was unequal . Two other works are standard repertoire: J.S.Bach's Concerto for two violins and Handel's Concerto grosso op.6 No.2. There were two worthwhile rarities: Concerto grosso No.9 by Charles Avison (based on sonatas by D. Scarlatti) and Francesco Durante's fascinating Concerto "per quartetto" No. 8, "La Pazzia" ("Madness"); indeed its first movement is so extravagant that it justifies the title. A curious Telemann piece, "The Moscovites" (from one of his incredibly numerous suites), was the encore and almost sounded twentieth century. The ensemble played very well and Kraemer was his usual admirable self, always intense and involved.

Another concert at Pilar Golf offered vocal and instrumental music of the Italian Baroque with an outfit called I Febiarmonici made up of two Chilean singers (soprano Pilar Aguilera, debut, and tenor Jaime Caicompai) and three Argentine players (Miguel de Olaso, archlute; Manuel de Olaso, harpsichord and organ; and Juan Manuel Quintana, viola da gamba and direction). The programme was very interesting: in the First Part, fragments from Monteverdi's operas "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria" and "L'incoronazione di Poppea" plus one of his madrigals ("Zeffiro torna"), toccatas by Kapsberger for lute and by Frescobaldi for harpsichord, and songs by Tarquinio Merula and Luigi Rossi; in the Second Part, a lute piece by Gianoncelli; a beautiful cantata, "Eraclito amoroso", by Barbara Strozzi; a Pasquini Prelude played on the organ; a duet by Agostino Steffani, a Sonata by Domenico Gabrielli for gamba and continuo ; and a duet by Handel, "Caro autor di mia doglia". The players were uniformly excellent but the singers impressed more for good style rather than vocal quality.

I was rather disappointed by the debut at the Coliseo for the Mozarteum of La Capilla Real de Madrid under the Argentine Oscar Gershensohn. The First Part gave us J.S.Bach's Easter Oratorio stripped for some reason of its Prelude and Adagio and Handel's "Foundling Hospital Anthem" without its Overture ( we were told that there was some mechanical difficulty in the organ). The Second Part held some interest for it offered Spanish Baroque, still little known: the "Missa brevis de Palacio" by Francesco Corselli, and a selection from the zarzuela "Ifigenia en Tracia" by José de Nebra, where tragedy is mixed incongruously with two comical duets by characters called Mochila and Cofieta. The encore was two fragments from Bach's Cantata No.34. The results were uneven; on the instrumental side there were gross fluffs from the trumpets, though a lot was correct; on the solo vocal parts the quality was rather poor; I will only mention the best of the group, tenor Marcus Ullmann. The Chorus was generally good. Gershenson is well oriented but rather opaque in his phrasing. The interpretations lacked involvement and dynamism.

Finally, Robert Levin came back and offered the Second Part of Bach's "The Well-tempered clavier" (he had done the First Part in an earlier season) for the Bach Academy at the Museo de Arte Decorativo. He is a great instrumentalist with total command , though I was sorry that he played piano rather than harpsichord, and I found unnecessary his own contributions as a composer, short interludes between pairs of Bach Preludes and Fugues. But he is certainly a first-rate Bachian.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, octubre 08, 2007

Contrasting operas at BAL and Juventus

The Avenida Theatre is the home of rivalling private opera companies, Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) and Juventus Lyrica. In recent weeks the former chose a well-known bel canto work, Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore"; the latter offered a Ravel double bill, "L'enfant et les sortileges" and "L'heure espagnole".

Frankly, there's so much Donizetti to choose from that doesn't get staged and should be that I was sorry BAL had opted for the sure thing, for "L'elisir d'amore" has been staged several times in recent years by various companies. On the other hand, BAL came from two tough challenges, "Rodelinda" and "The Flying Dutchman", so maybe they needed something simpler. The piece is charming and relatively easy to put on.

There were two factors that interested me: in his time Dante Ranieri was our best specialist of the "tenore di grazia" repertoire and he was a first-rate Nemorino. The years have passed and now he has embarked in a conducting career. I'm happy to say that he emerged from the trial with flying colors. His tempi were slow and pauses between musical fragments were excessive, but he breathed with the singers and he elicited from the orchestra the most melting sounds.

The other matter of interest was the debut of two Chilean singers. I found tenor Luis Olivares a bit green though promising; the voice is sweet though he doesn't have a personal sound, and his musical instincts are mostly right. Not much of an actor, but then very few tenors are . He gained confidence as the opera progressed and offered a nice account of his aria. Patricia Cifuentes was Adina and she too got better gradually ; the voice is bright and unvaried though accurate. She was kittenish rather than charming, but Adina's character does have its bad points .

Although Fernando Santiago's voice had too much vibrato in the first minutes of Dulcamara's big number, he managed to tame it, and his charlatan was as should be, larger than life and quite funny; he knows how to act with the words, which he articulates with true precision. I was sorry to hear Emilio Estévez overtaxed by Belcore's music; his high register seems to be undergoing a bad patch. His acting was exaggerated but I put that at the door of the producer. Gisela Barok was an agreeable Giannetta. The Choir under Juan Casasbellas sounded natural and sincere and entered into the spirit of the action.

Claudio Gallardou is our local specialist in "commedia dell'arte", which is all very well if he does Goldoni's "Arlecchino", but "L'elisir" has nothing to do with that tradition, so the constant appearance of a troupe of commedia dell'arte featuring himself is certainly arbitrary, except when they do work as stage servers. I accept that we were never bored but that's not enough justification. On the other hand the action proceeded smoothly, even if he had a field day ridiculing the sargent. The costumes of María Clara Beitía were quite off the mark in two specific cases: Belcore dressed as a Renaissance noble, not as a nineteenth century sargent; and Dulcamara looking like a Turk; presumably Gallardou wanted them that way for producers are the head of a team and designers respond to his concept. The stage designs of Gastón Joubert were rather conventional and some could be moved around.

The Ravel double bill by Juventus Lyrica was quite welcome as a good idea, but infortunately they committed the same grievous mistake of their previous staging of "L'enfant et les sortileges": reducing the original marvelous orchestration to just three instruments just won't do and puts this revival out of court. And it isn't intellectually honest not publicizing this fact and not mentioning the author of the arrangement, which is quite poor. The piece is magical, Ravel at his best, but I couldn't enjoy it this way. Ana D'Anna, the producer, was also stage designer, and her daughter María Jaunarena designed the costumes. Some of the fantastic events were imaginative , others went awry, and the key scene of the fight in the garden was badly handled. The French was mediocre from all concerned, but I liked the singing of Cecilia Pastawski (the Child), Fernando Radó and Florencia Machado . Others were acceptable, no more.

Matters were much improved in "L'heure espagnole", a comedy by Franc-Nohain about Concepción, who employs the hour of the title (her husband has left to attend the official clock of the village) to have a weekly encounter with her lovers; alas, both are out of sorts that day, the poet Gonzalve and the pompous Don Inigo , so she prefers the robust Ramiro, a mule driver waiting for the return of Torquemada, the husband, who will fix his clock.. Ravel's music is witty and charming.The piece was last seen at the Colón in 1975, so the revival was very welcome, and here D'Anna was on much safer ground, both in her pleasant stage design and in the evolutions of the singers, who moreover were quite adept at playing their characters. It was a good cast, with Eugenia Fuente very comfortable in her juicy part, Santiago Burgi as a mellifluous Gonzalve, Fernando Grassi as an excellent Ramiro, Mario De Salvo as Inigo and Hernán Sánchez Arteaga as Torquemada. Emiliano Greizenstein conducted well a responsive orchestra; Ravel's orchestration was a bit reduced but it wasn't bothersome.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

Two centuries of French opera

In recent weeks French opera has been given pride of place by our opera companies. The genre was born in Italy in 1600 with Peri's "Euridice" (Florence) and soon had a masterpiece to show, Monteverdi's "Orfeo" (Mantova). One of his disciples, Francesco Cavalli, brought opera to France during Mazarin's regency. Soon after, a Florentine, Jean-Baptiste Lully (gallicized) wrote in French for Louis XIV's court and founded the "opéra-ballet", a mixed genre responding to the desires of the King, who was an excellent dancer. During the seventeenth century one composer represented the highest quality of the Rococo period: Jean-Baptiste Rameau. It was he, in his "lyric tragedies", that showed the way to Christoph W. Gluck, the German who had reformed opera with his "Orfeo ed Euridice" premiered in Vienna in 1762 . He adapted that work to the French taste as "Orphée et Eurydice" but he also produced such talented scores as "Armide", "Alceste" and two operas dealing with the same heroine: "Iphigénie en Aulide" and "Iphigénie en Tauride". The latter is probably his best opera and was written in 1779; the Colón presented it with great quality in 1964 with Crespin and in 1994 with Montague.

Marcelo Birman with his Compañía de las Luces has done yeoman work in bringing to our public admirable French operas by Lully ("Armide") and Rameau ("Castor et Pollux"). Last year he offered "Les Danaides" by Salieri (which proved the stature of a maligned composer) and now at the same venue, the Museo de Arte Decorativo, he presented a semistaged "Iphigénie en Tauride" which I don't hesitate to call a triumph. By now the cohesion and technical accomplishment of the orchestra following historicist lines and the intensity and freshness of a committed young choir are a tribute to Birman's talent as a conductor, and his stylish phrasing shows the influence of the specialised studies he did in Paris. His Gluck was urgent and dramatic, with strong attacks and accents. This "Iphigenia" shows the protagonist transported by divine intervention from Aulis, where she was about to be sacrificed by her father, to Tauris (Crimea), where she has to deal with the tyrant Thoas.

Without a stage, mingling with the orchestra, the singers communicated the tragedy through meaningful gesture , and they sang from memory (so did the choir). Ana Moraitis' voice has grown a lot and she made a moving protagonist. Sergio Carlevaris as Orestes was impressive; his voice is huge and he has an authentic dramatic presence. However, he should beware of exaggeration. Pablo Pollitzer (Pylades) on the contrary was small-voiced but very stylish. Alejandro Meerapfel was a forthright Thoas and Ana Santorelli put in relief Diana's intervention. The small parts were in the picture.

To my mind there was no need for a revival (by the Colón at the Coliseo) of Massenet's "Werther", for Buenos Aires Lírica offered it with López Manzitti two seasons ago in a reasonably good staging. Unfortunately the producer Louis Désiré (also stage and costume designer) presented a distorted view of the libretto. The four acts take place in the same black unit set of a big room in trapeze shape, although the first two are supposed to take place outdoors . To mention just a few of the solecisms the audience had to endure: at the beginning we are shown Charlotte's mother in her death bed (she is not a part in the libretto) and seconds later the mourning children sing joyously a Christmas carol prepared by their father the Bailiff; in many places during the course of the opera the singers eavesdrop on each other hearing what according to the words they shouldn't; a child is terrorised by Werther who arbitrarily gives the boy his ideas on death; there's an absolutely gratuitous sex act between Charlotte and Albert, her husband, who moreover is made lame for this production; and at the end a clone actor is dying in Werther's bed whilst the protagonist sings a few paces away. The added projections weren't unpleasant but seemed unnecessary. However, I rather liked the period costumes of Goethe's time.

The singers gamely tried to adapt themselves to such absurd treatment of their roles and Werther was interpreted for the first time in his career by the talented American tenor Jonathan Boyd , who sang Britten last year here. Although a bit uncomfortable in the highest register, the voice is beautiful and poetic, handled with much musicality, and he looks personable. He was the only reason to present "Werther", when there's so much interesting Massenet waiting in the wings for a revival or premiere. His Charlotte was Mariana Rewerski, whose voice took a long time to warm up; she is young, beautiful and a good musician, but her voice lacks a definite color. Graciela Oddone was a nice Sophie and Luciano Garay a competent Albert. Ariel Cazes, Gabriel Renaud and Leonardo Estévez completed honorably the cast.

Very good marks to the Colón's Children's Choir under Valdo Sciammarella and a valuable operatic debut here by conductor Arturo Diemecke, well known through his concerts with the Philharmonic. He showed himself in full command , with a sense of give-and-take with the singers and with an adequate sound from the Colón Orchestra plus an excellent saxophone player. Diemecke showed himself a man of the theatre, which doesn't surprise me for he is quite histrionic as a symphonic conductor.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald