domingo, diciembre 21, 2008

Adventurous choral music

Recent weeks have given us a wealth of offbeat choral music with two high points: the revival after decades of negligence of two valuable twentieth-century scores: Arthur Honegger´s "Le Roi David" ("King David") and Benjamin Britten´s "Saint Nicolas".

I have cherished Honegger´s symphonic psalm ever since I first heard it live conducted by Albert Wolff in 1953. In 1956 I bought the version conducted by the composer; since then I obtained Leopold Hager´s excellent CD and heard it twice more in concert; but now it has been absent for almost three decades. It was high time for the audience to renew its acquaintance with this masterpiece written in 1921 when the composer was 29. Based on a drama by René Morax, it was initially conceived as a biblical drama or sacred opera but was soon transformed into an oratorio. There were two versions: the first had an orchestra of 23 player according to Zadoff´s notes, but the composer in his recording says they were 17; the second, a full orchestra. I had always heard the latter, but Néstor Zadoff, the conductor of this revival, chose the former and it was very interesting, although he further reduced the 23 or 17 to only 14, combining winds with percussion, alternated piano and organ and only two strings, cello and bass. The sound was stringent and salutary, providing quite enough support to the big (84-strong) veteran but fine-sounding Grupo Coral Divertimento. I take exception to the cuts Zadoff made, for after so much time we were entitled to hear the whole thing, and anyway it isn´t long; it lasted almost an hour with Zadoff, it lasts 66 minutes with Hager and no less than 79 with the composer conducting! Practical reasons may have led to the elimination of the contralto´s song of the handmaiden, but he also cut the choral Song of Praise and the psalm "In my distress". Nevertheless I hugely enjoyed the occasion, especially in the biggest number, the Dance before the Ark, which builds to a grandiose climax, and the final alleluias of pure "Bachian" beauty.

The choral and orchestral interpretation was very convincing. The Narrator (an innovation) was the excellent Augusto Morales, quite expressive and with perfect French diction. The very correct though not intense enough tenor was Ricardo González Dorrego, and soprano Rebeca Nomberto recovered from a weak start and went on to well-voiced melismas. The Witch of Endor was voiced with raucous, agonic projection by María Rosa Chiaravalloti.

I was present at the premiere of "Saint Nicolas" in our city: it was offered in 1954 by that wonderful institution, the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara, conducted by Washington Castro. Since then I´ve been hoping for its revival (if there was one I missed it). It is a 50-minute cantata written in 1948 on the life of Saint Nicolas, converted later into Santa Claus, with an adequate text concocted by Eric Crozier. It assembles a mixed choir, a children´s choir and a chamber orchestra reinforced with organ and four-hand piano. Britten´s music is admirably fresh and varied, of course tonal, and it shows again his empathy with the sound of children. Premiered (and recorded) at the Aldeburgh Festival with Peter Pears as Saint Nicolas, it is the recording to have.

There were three performances in diverse venues; I heard the third at the church of Saint Ignatius, the oldest in BA. The subway strike and one of the habitual protests at the nearby Plaza 25 de Mayo led to an unconscionable delay of 70 minutes, but there was also bad planning: the local priest was still saying mass at 8,15 p.m. when the concert was announced at 8 p.m… Nevertheless I enjoyed this reencounter after so many years, for the combined Coro Polifónico Nacional (Roberto Luvini) and Coro Nacional de Niños (Vilma Gorini de Teseo) were quite good (the kids a bit overwhelmed in sound by the adults) and the competent ad-hoc orchestra (18-strong) were all led by Luvini with a clear hand . The weak link was tenor Pablo Travaglino, who doesn´t have the means for such a exposed part, although he read the music accurately.

Now to famous waters with Joseph Haydn´s mighty oratorio "The Creation" ("Die Schöpfung") offered at the Facultad de Derecho by Pedro Calderón leading the Coro Polifónico Nacional (Luvini) and the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, both in fine shape. The three Archangels were sung superbly by Soledad de la Rosa (Gabriel) and quite well by González Dorrego (Uriel) and Marcos Nicastro (Raphael), and in the last part Norberto Marcos was a fine Adam and Silvina Sadoly a well-sung but rather pale Eva. Calderón showed again his versatility and conducted with command.

It was nice meeting Juan Pedro Esnaola´s 1826 Mass for four voices. The score was found by Juan Florentino La Moglie and transcribed by Norberto Broggini and this was the premiere of this pioneer Argentine sacred score written in the Italian style at only 18-years- old. As the Mass is incomplete they added a Benedictus from his still earlier Requiem and in place of the Agnus Dei the motet "Agnus innocens". All the interpreters were good, though soprano Elena López Jáuregui and tenor Carlos Ullán were more sonorous than tenor Pablo Pollitzer and bass Walter Schwarz. La Moglie conducted with professional acumen the Cappella Vocale and the Orchestra "Proyecto Esnaola". The venue was the very full Cathedral.

For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, diciembre 02, 2008

The everlasting magic of Mozartian opera

One of the main trends of the last thirty years has been the steady increase of Mozartian opera. In particular the Da Ponte trilogy and "The Magic Flute" have become quite as popular as "La Boheme" or "La Traviata". I believe this has to do with many factors: the eternal appeal of the composer´s music; his uncanny psychological penetration; the excellence of Da Ponte´s libretti who make for excellent theatre; the high degree of professionalism and training of contemporary singers; the historicist tendencies; the relative lower cost of stagings as compared to full-scale operas.

It doesn´t mean, however, that the world of Mozartian opera is free from the current plague of preposterous productions. The most recent batch, however, has avoided the worst pitfalls, especially the transposition in time to the present or the gross lapses into obscenity.

Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) has given us "Don Giovanni" and Juventus Lyrica (JL) "The Marriage of Figaro" ("Le nozze di Figaro"), both at the Avenida. There were good points in both, though I incline to the latter for the best all-round effort.

In BAL there was one crucial casting mistake, the Giovanni, and some misguided markings from the Italian producer, Rita De Letteriis, but most of the evening was reasonably satisfying though it never delivered the special Mozartian magic alluded to in the title of this review. De Letteriis had a resonant debut in this city with her quite good Monteverdi "L´incoronazione di Poppea"). Mozart seems to agree less with her. There were an astonishing number of "non sequiturs" where she simply seemed not to have read the libretto and the singing actors seemed too often at sea in their relationships. There was nowhere as much fun as the libretto contains, and in the dramatic side there were ludicrous moments such as the totally unconvincing fall into Hell of Giovanni. On the other hand she kept to the Mozartian period.

In any production the stage and costumes designers follow the producer´s lead and if he/she is wrong, so quite often are they. I found the reticulated backdrop by Santiago Elder quite beautiful, the redeeming element of an otherwise minimalist staging that didn´t evoke the various ambits called for, and the stage props were at times absurd. Eduardo Lerchundi is a talented veteran costume designer and some of them were very attractive, but not Giovanni´s, who never looked like an aristocrat.

I said before that the Giovanni was miscast; indeed, Gustavo Ahualli, an Argentine who´s having a career in the USA, showed a serviceable voice, no more, with little insinuation and beauty, and as an actor was much too vulgar. Hernán Iturralde, usually excellent, seemed constrained by the producer: he sang well but with less humor than he showed in other circumstances, and acted rather stiffly. The outstanding artist was Carlos Ullán, who, although he exaggerated the recitatives, interpreted with sterling quality his two arias. Ricardo Ortale did with stalwart authority the "Commendatore", the stone guest. Gustavo Zahnstecher sang nicely as Masetto.

The best of the ladies was Carla Filipcic Holm as Donna Anna; her voice has grown a lot, and although there was some stridency in "Or sai chi l´onore", she found her stride afterwards. Andrea Nazarre was a late replacement for Gabriela Ceaglio as Donna Elvira, so she was comprehensibly nervous; quite young and with little experience, this tough role is still beyond her but she has good qualities. Ana Laura Menéndez sang correctly as Zerlina, but with little charm and innuendo.

Carlos Vieu showed his accustomed firmness and musicality as the conductor of a good orchestra, and the choir under Juan Casasbellas was correct. I was sorry that Elvira´s "Mi tradì" was cut, I suppose because of the replacement. Naturally the Avenida´s stage doesn´t have space for the three "orchestrinas" at the close of the First act, so the polyrhythms and stereophonies of that fragment went for nothing.

I found producer Ana D´Anna´s approach to "The Marriage of Figaro" quite refreshing. She narrated with ease, kept the story clear even in the intrincate Garden Scene and stuck to the original setting in time and place; I only object an excess of sexual play and slaps. The stage designs by Raúl Bongiorno were excellent, both beautiful, in style and functional, and the costumes by María Jaunarena showed a growing maturity.

Antonio Russo was an impeccable conductor, of perfect tempi and phrasing, and got the best out of the very professional orchestra. Pleasant work from the Chorus (Miguel Pesce). The cast I saw (there were three) had the special interest of the local debut of Chilean soprano Macarena Valenzuela as the Countess; I would call it a triumph, for she has a fine lyrical voice capable of much shade and very well used; also she looks right for the part. The very charming Laura Penchi was a vital, very physical Susanna and sang with much stamina and line, only faulted in the lowest notes. The Cherubino of Cecilia Pastawski was delightful in every way, and also moving. A well-sung Marcellina from Lara Mauro, a coquette Barbarina from Mariana Mederos and agreeable Peasants (Silvana Gómez, Marcela Marina).

Marcelo Otegui gradually became a sparkling Figaro, though the voice is impersonal. Fernando Grassi was a correct Count; I expected more from him. Barely acceptable Leandro Sosa (Don Bartolo), good Santiago Bürgi (Basilio), Sebastián Russo (Curzio) and Claudio Rotella (Antonio).

For Buenos Aires Herald