viernes, diciembre 18, 2009

Strange stagings at Berlin´s Deutsche Oper

In recent weeks I wrote twice about Berlin´s operatic life. This is the concluding article, and it will deal with the Deutsche Oper. The DO was for decades the West Berlin bastion, whilst the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and the Komische were on the Eastern side. As, apart from the famous Felsenstein productions at the Komische, few of the Staatsoper´s work was commented in the West, the DO was the thing until the demise of the Wall. Now, however, in the integrated Berlin the great prestige of Barenboim has meant that the Staatsoper competes for budgetary conditions with the DO, both trying to get the most out of their provider, the Berlin Senate.

They share three characteristics: great operative efficiency (they can put on four difficult operas in four consecutive days); they boast splendid orchestras and important rosters of soloists; and they adhere to the current disastrous wave of opera production . To resume: attack on tradition; arbitrariness; disrespect for the libretti; "concept" beating common sense; and ugliness for its own sake. I wonder: if a producer wants to present a "traditional" staging (by which I mean a reasonable visual picture based on the indications of composer and librettist), would he be roundly condemned and impeded to reach the stage?

Two very big and arduous operas confirm the first characteristic specified above: in purely practical terms the DO is capable of putting on in two successive days Wagner´s "Tannhäuser" and Richard Strauss´ "Die Frau ohne Schatten" ("The shadowless woman") with well-oiled precision. In Germany opera houses are led by an "Intendant" (Director General), and he or she is often a producer; such is the case at the DO: Kirsten Harms, born in Hamburg in 1956, produced both operas, both with Bernd Dambovsky as stage and costume designer. The other big post is the Generalmusikdirektor, the Britisher Donald Runnicles, and he was at the helm in "Tannhäuser".

"Tannhäuser and the singer contest at Wartburg" has two versions: the original Dresden one (1845) and the1861 Paris revision, expanding greatly the Venusberg music (including a ballet) and adding a lot of chromaticism. At the DO they chose the Dresden, which is perfectly legitimate and easier. The opera veers between the sensual world of Venus and the chaste, chivalrous Wartburg court, a marvelous medieval fortress still extant (it dominates Eisenach) which I visited a few days later and where I was moved standing in the very hall of the contest. "Sängerkrieg" is "singer contest" in German, and Harms apparently clung to "Krieg" ("war") as her inspiration, for these "Minnesänger" ("singers of love", the German equivalent of troubadours and trouvères) are warriors through and through, and their armors are either on them or over them with overwhelming presence. No sign of the Wartburg anywhere. The Venusberg was blessedly devoid of pornography (admittedly the Dresden version is less orgiastic than the Paris) but quite anodine.

In this interpretation Venus and Elisabeth are considered as two sides of the same woman, so Petra Maria Schnitzer sang both. She is a handsome artist and she sings well, in a traditional Wagnerian way, although without any special intensity. Her true-life husband, Peter Seiffert, now in his late fifties, is still a stalwart tenor with the stamina and command the huge heavy part requires, with only small fissures over the long night. Rainhard Hagen showed an attractive deep bass voice as Landgraf Hermann. Markus Brück was a correct Wolfram, without the plangency of, e.g., the splendid Wolfram the DO had 40 years ago, Barry McDaniel. The Choirs under William Spaulding were splendid, resonant, full and true. The Orchestra under Runnicles provided great pleasure; the conductor is a true Wagnerian and got a noble, bronzed tone out of the very proficient players.

"Die Frau ohne Schatten" is one of the mightiest challenges of the repertoire, the longest and most complex of Strauss´ operas on a very ambitious but flawed libretto by Von Hoffmannsthal. The basic idea is the shadow as the symbol of maternity, and the moral conflict of the Empress, daughter of Keikobad, Lord of the Spirits: she is transparent and if she doesn´t acquire a shadow she will remain childless and the Emperor will be petrified.

The fantastic difficulties of the orchestration and the Wagnerian demands on the singers make it an arduous but admirable opera. I greatly enjoyed the Roberto Oswald stage designs at the Colón with three different producers in 1965, 1970 and 1979, with such conductors as Leitner and Janowski and boasting casts with Nilsson, Bjoner, McIntyre, Hoffman, Thomas and Marton. I can´t say that the combined efforts of Harms and Damovsky convinced me to that degree, for there were confusing moments lacking good narrative instincts, Oriental ambience and sheer beauty, but there were striking images, such as the entrance to Keikobad´s world or the huge falcon .

The outstanding performance was Doris Soffel´s as the Amme, always intense and musical. I liked Johan Reuter´s Barak, sung with good timbre and line. Eva Johansson is a seasoned Wagnerian of ample voice, but her interpretation was much too harsh. Manuela Uhl coped with the high notes of the Empress, though she lacked the radiance the part needs. Stephen Bronk was insufficient in the exposed role of the Emperor. The heroes of the evening were the Orchestra and conductor Ulf Schirmer, always in command of the enormously rich score.

Opera thrives in "Mittel-Europa"

I first visited Dresden in August 1990, a few months after the Wall came tumbling down. A sizeable part of the city still showed the terrible scars of World War II and there was a lot of restoration going on; the Frauenkirche was still rubble. It was Summer, and the marvelous Semper Oper was closed. Recently, in early October, I was there again, open-mouthed at the beauty of the Saxon capital, most of it (including the Frauenkirche) made whole by dint of scholarship, steady work and big funds. The historic center is compact and just by standing in the Theater Square you can appreciate the architecture of the Court Catholic Church, the Palace, the enormous Zwinger (a complex of museums) and the Semper Oper. The latter was built in 1871-8 on plans by Gottfried Semper and is certainly one of the most attractive European opera houses, properly the Sächsische Staatsoper ( Saxon State Opera), before WWII the favorite venue for Richard Strauss premieres. It has a stunning foyer, second only to that of Paris´ Palais Garnier. The horseshoe-shaped hall is ample and tasteful. The orchestra (Staatskapelle) has been for many decades one of the best in Europe, both in opera and in concert.

After my Berlin experiences with German and Austrian opera, I welcomed a change of pace with Verdi´s "Il Trovatore" (not "Der Troubadour", as used to happen). In these cosmopolitan times, Dresden´s Generalmusikdirektor is the Italian Fabio Luisi. He is a careful, knowledgeable maestro, not especially passionate; apart from some not-quite-together chords, the orchestral side was satisfactory, with mostly fast tempi. The enthusiastic Choir (Ulrich Paetzhold and Pablo Assante) did well. The cast was less than starry. The most interesting and intense artist was Andrea Ulbrich as a wild Azucena, too prone to glottal attacks but with the dramatic highs required and a true theatrical flair. Rossella Ragatzu, born in Sardinia, was too gusty as Leonora but what she lacked in line was partly compensated by Italianate phrasing. Of the male singers curiously enough the best was a gigantic Cameroun-born bass, Jacques-Greg Bolobo, a marvelous natural voice as Ferrando. The Korean tenor Dongwon Shin managed a decent high C in "Di quella pira" but wasn´t idiomatic enough. And American baritone Enrico Marrucci showed a thick and unattractive material.

Producer Michael Hampe has done some good work at the Colón ("Così fan tutte", "La Cenerentola"). I am of two minds concerning his "Trovatore"; on the one hand, he gave us tautly constructed dramatic situations and "coups de théâtre", as well as atmospheric ambiences of great beauty (the insurgents´ camp), abetted by his Stage designer Carlo Tommasi and the admirable lighting of Jan Seeger (realistic twilight effects); on the other, why mix the 1410-12 story with Franquistas, and why kill Manrico with a gun? So he is tainted by the current silly trend of de-contextualization. But still, it was the best staging I saw in Germany.

Prague is now one of the most visited European capitals and certainly a gorgeous Baroque city. I had two early contacts with it, in June 1967 (Dubcek´s time) and June 1969, when tourism was less hectic and opera production went through a very creative period. I learnt to love the Národní divadlo (National Theatre), a charming nineteenth-century house of medium size, with no great frills but cozy. And I saw a splendid array of Czech operas done in proper style, by Janácek, Dvorák, Smetana and Fibich. However, I missed then the most emblematic of all, Smetana´s "Prodaná nevesta" ("The Bartered Bride"). I had attended a splendid production in German in Vienna, but I wanted to see it in the original; I got that desire fulfilled in this trip with a very charming production, the only one I enjoyed fully of the eight operas I saw in this European trip.

This work became the very symbol of a national Czech opera, with Smetana´s lovely and exhilarating music blended with a simple tale of rural life. The great talent of this revival was to be sufficiently inventive and modern without losing the original character. As the programme notes aptly put it: "The endeavor for authenticity, credibility does not strive for modernization but for understanding of the bygone life in the Czech village". This was fully obtained by producer Magdalena Svecová , with stage designs based on pieces of scenery that looked like rolls of hay and were amazingly versatile (by Petr Matásek) and charming costumes by Zuzana Pridalová. The matchmaker Kecal´s traveling contraption was particularly funny. And the circus scene wonderfully well executed at a tremendous clip. The choreograph lively (Ladislava Kosíková).

The best voice and interpretation was that of Dana Buresová as Marenka. Pavel Cernoch was personable as Jeník. Martin Gurbal´ was rather short of voice as Kecal, but he used his towering figure to advantage and was a good comedian. Václav Lemberk was a bit too sober as the nitwit Vasek. Others were in the picture (the two couples of parents and the circus people). The Choir under Pavel Vanek got into the spirit of the celebration with freshness and brio. And the Orchestra under Ondrej Lenárd, not quite as dazzling as some bits can be, were always professional and idiomatic.

This time I couldn´t see opera at the other two houses, the small one where Mozart premiered "Don Giovanni" (Stavovské) and the much bigger Státní.

miércoles, diciembre 16, 2009

The hard roads of contemporary music

About a year ago I wrote a review about the annual Cycle of Contemporary Music organized by Martín Bauer for the Complejo Teatral de Buenos Aires. I wasn´t sanguine about the results then, for I felt there is a deep creational crisis; a year is a short time in the History of Music and nothing has happened to change my views. But I intimated at the time that the lack of meaningful dialectical direction has been going on for a long time and that it is part of a deeper historical crisis. The fact that one of the most interesting parts of the recent November event was an homage to Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who died in 1940, speaks pretty loud about the anomie that has come over so-called "classical" music in recent decades. Bauer´s fixation with nihilistic composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman and Salvatore Sciarrino, however, gives a bleaker and less inclusive panorama than what would be fair, and I feel the time has come to a change of helm, showing an ampler view of creation nowadays; personal taste shouldn´t prevail .

There was a vast plan of 15 concerts, of which I have reviewed some weeks ago the very useful first session in which Alejo Pérez revived the Berio Symphony. I chose gingerly among the fourteen other offerings, frankly discarding things with which I deeply disagree (the minimalism of Steve Reich, the soporific meditations of Feldman). I will only comment on those I heard.

I have always liked the iconoclastic, fresh approach of Revueltas, who provided a unique blend of Mexican folk and pop roots with a personal, innovative language, a bit like Ives. Rather astoundingly, a Berlin outfit gave memorable versions of a long programme: KNM Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin. Introduced by its director Roland Kluttig, the Berlinese, plus seven local players, a mezzosoprano (Virginia Correa Dupuy) and a reciter (Lautaro Vilo), gave us such splendid pieces as the "Homenaje a Federico García Lorca", "Siete canciones", "Ocho por radio", "Tres sonetos" or "Toccata sin fuga".

It was a very good idea to give us the premiere of George Antheil´s "Ballet mécanique", a 1924 piece attempting to be a musical counterpart of Fernand Léger´s machinist paintings. The composer of course hasn´t the fantastic rhythmic variety of Stravinsky, but the experiment is still interesting: 2 pianos, 3 xylophones, 1 tam tam, 4 big drums, recorded pianolas and effects make quite a ruckus. A good local ensemble under Santiago Santero gave us the 31-minute score. I also enjoyed Henry Cowell´s "Three Irish Legends" (1912/22), one of the earliest uses of clusters, well-played by pianist Oscar Pizzo (Italian). I was bored by two Cage works for violin and by Martín Bauer´s "Maiakovski" (premiere), a name-dropping sermon about his artistic creed. Both concerts commented so far were at the Sala Casacuberta of the Teatro San Martín, to my mind ideal for this purpose.

There was a Dadaist feeling about the "Serata futurista italiana" ("Futurist Italian night") called "Uccidiamo il chiaro di luna" ("Let´s kill moonlight"), at the sparsely attended Teatro de la Ribera. Intended as a commemoration of the centenary of Marinetti´s Futurist Manifest, it stressed the light, variety side. I like very much such painters as Russolo, Boccioni, Severini, Balla and Carrà, who gave us such dynamic images of the new world of machines. But Futurism produced quality only in painting, Marinetti´s ideas were often merely extravagant and musically his movement was insignificant. Curiously enough the art of cinema, ideal for the expression of motion and machines, was little used. MCE Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble presented a 17-piece show, some by the above-mentioned, but most by contemporary artists: films, songs, poems, satiric sketches; all in Italian. Entertaining enough, sometimes funny, quite unpretentious…and unimportant. An excellent pianist (Oscar Pizzo), an uninhibited singer (Silvia Schiavoni), a rotund trombonist (Giancarlo Schiaffini) and a percussionist (Antonio Caggiano), worked well as a team.

The Prometeo Quartet is first-rate (Guido Rovighi and Aldo Campagnari, violins; Carmelo Giallombardo, viola; Francesco Dillon, cello): they play with full command of current techniques and great accomplishment; they certainly believe in what they do. But the music they played at the Fundación Proa was with one exception arid and even ugly: I liked Kurtág´s varied and inventive "Momenti musicali", but Cage (Quartet in four parts) bored me again, Giacinto Scelsi´s exhausting microvariations in his Third Quartet were no more than a skillful experiment, and Salvatore Sciarrino´s Eighth Quartet gave me no desire to know the other seven.

It was Sciarrino´s "Lohengrin" the 41-minute "opera" that closed the cycle at the Casacuberta; it had been locally premiered some years ago at the CETC (the Colón´s Center for Experimentation). I felt it is pure bluff, its title an insult to Wagner, the poor "singer" limited to unconnected noises and the orchestra to blips with no meaning. There are worthwhile contemporary operas, but this is a disaster. I imagine the ample chamber ensemble under Hans-Peter Achberger, singer Lía Ferenese and three supporting voices did a professional job, but how unrewarding!

On the other hand, what marvelous music there is in two great Schönberg scores: "Pierrot Lunaire" and "Transfigured night". They were played admirably by members of the Camerata Bariloche for the Colón´s CETC at the Teatro del Globo, and I was only sorry that Vera Cirkovic did poorly the "Sprechstimme" ("spoken melody") required by "Pierrot…".

Wrapping-up time for concert life

The long Summer snooze of concert life is at hand; it´s wrapping-up time. XXth-XXIst century music will be the subject of a separate article.

The Buenos Aires Philharmonic (BAP) kept up its standard in the last stretches of the season. Enrique Arturo Diemecke, their Principal Conductor, led three of the final four concerts. The first had Argentine violinist Sami Merdinian in Barber´s Concerto; a pleasant piece, it was acceptably played, no more. But Bruckner´s mighty Fourth Symphony ("Romantic") showed orchestra and conductor at their best, using the Novak edition according to the programme notes by Daniel Varacalli Costas. Resplendent brass and fine integration of contrasting elements were the hallmarks of the interpretation.

Another violinist, Elmar Oliveira, came back after many years of absence. Now apparently in his sixties, he is still first-rate, as he showed in Saint-Saëns´ Third Concerto, but not as gorgeous in sound and perfect in mechanism as he was two decades ago in Sibelius. Diemecke gave us beautiful versions of two scores by Mendelssohn (the Overture to "Paulus" and the Fifth Symphony, "Reform") and Richard Strauss´ Suite of "Der Rosenkavalier".

Alejo Pérez has had an enormously productive and eclectic year. The Second Part of his concert was interesting, for it provided a good sample of that wonderful Borodin opera, "Prince Igor", absent from the Colón since 1948; choirs, the Polovtsian dances and march, but no arias or duets. With fast tempi and strong dynamism, Pérez got a vibrant performance from the BAP and the Colón Choir under Marcelo Ayub. The First Part gave us ill-advisedly an unnecessary premiere: the transformation by Alexander Warenberg of Rachmaninov´s Second Symphony into a curtailed "Fifth Piano Concerto" (three movements instead of four). When Warenberg remained close to the original it sounded well (of course) but his own bits were anodine. It was beautifully played, however, by the young Ukrainian Anna Fedorova (debut).

The final concert, conducted by Diemecke, was South-American. "Inti Raymi" ("The Sun Feast of the Incas"), by Esteban Benzecry, sounds like early-period Ginastera with some avant-garde addenda, brilliant but not too well integrated. The premiere of Villa-Lobos´ "The discovery of Brazil" presented a full hour of tremendously variegated music derived from a 1937 film by Humberto Mauro. This is vital, uneven music, with lively melodies and rhythms in contrasting styles, in an uneasy but interesting blend of European tradition and aboriginal music. Diemecke´s phenomenal memory was again in evidence and the BAP followed him faithfully; in the last ten minutes, "First Mass in Brazil", the Colón Choir (Ayub) added its contribution.

I couldn´t attend all concerts of the final weeks of the National Symphony´s season, but the two I heard were interesting. The attraction in Carlos Vieu´s date was the fascinating and complex Stabat Mater by Karol Szymanowski; this is powerful, intense music. Although I felt that Vieu sometimes covered his soloists, he got strong performances from Mónica Ferracani, Lucila Ramos Mañé and Lucas Debevec Mayer; the Coro Polifónico Nacional under Darío Marchese gave a high-decibel, clean performance. The refined flutist Patricia Da Dalt was delectable in Debussy´s "Prelude for a faun´s siesta", and Denise Richart was a small-scaled soloist in Ravel´s Piano Concerto. The session ended with a well-detailed "Finlandia" by Sibelius. The venue was the Bolsa de Comercio.

Andrés Spiller at the Facultad de Derecho led a difficult programme where again the high point was Da Dalt´s splendid playing, this time in the arduous and interesting Penderecki Flute Concerto, one of the better works of the period following his avant-garde stance. I found little of interest in Amanda Guerreño´s "Resonancias" (premiere). The "Rückert Lieder" by Mahler can be a moving occasion, but not as sung by Susanna Moncayo, whose style is lamentably impregnated by her incursions into popular music. A very professional version of Ravel´s marvelous Second Suite from "Daphnis and Chloe" closed the evening.

There were two worthwhile events at the Teatro Argentino of La Plata: a concert version of "La Damnation de Faust" by Berlioz and the mighty Second Symphony ("Resurrection") by Mahler. This is the sort of repertoire that makes an orchestra grow, and whilst the Argentino´s isn´t quite first-rate yet, it has certainly made great strides during the last years under Anzolini and Pérez. "La Damnation…" is a fascinating score; the composer didn´t call it opera, so I actually prefer a concert version, for its narrative is too disjointed but the music is wonderful. Pérez got a reasonably clean job from the orchestra, but the choir sounded a bit too backward and imprecise (director, Miguel F. Martínez). Hernán Iturralde was the best soloist as Mephisto, articulated with skill. María Luján Mirabelli gave us a warm and well-sung Marguerite, not as Italianate as I feared. Unfortunately Carlos Bengolea can no longer face the awesome requirements of this Faust. I was sorry that there were cuts, especially in the fantastic Pandemonium, the most advanced fragment of the score.

Luis Gorelik tackled the enormous Mahler Second with responsibility and fine technique, giving us an honorable account of this transcendent work. He didn´t plumb the depths, but then, few can. The Choir under Martínez sounded well and the orchestra mostly coped with the difficulties, apart from a bad trombone patch. Alejandra Malvino was noble in "Urlicht" and Ana Laura Menéndez sounded crystalline but uninvolved. It was a La Plata premiere.

A lot remains unreviewed; so be it, space is a tyrant.

miércoles, noviembre 25, 2009

The Colón´s troubled opening in 2010

In principle, I, along with anybody else with cultural interests, can only welcome the confirmation that on May 25, 2010, the Teatro Colón will reopen. I might give you the information straight, but there´s a context to the bare facts. As space is tight, I will keep to opera, ballet and some special concerts.

The Grand Gala on the Bicentenary Day will be very short: a selection of the Third Act of Tchaikovsky´s "Swan Lake" and the barely 18-minute Second Act from Puccini´s "La Boheme". It will of course be an official function with plenty of VIPs and little substance. In fact the big news that day will be ( to the surprise of many of us) that the Colón´s vast restoration works will be finished in time, considering how far behind schedule they are now. True, the Government has given priority (to atone for their long neglect) to finish the basic essentials that allow the Colón to have a season, and as many as 800 people are said to be working these days. Whether the results will be satisfying is a very moot point (there´s plenty of knowledgeable dissenters).

The season starts with the pat choice of "La Boheme", quite unnecessary in every sense. Conductor (C): Stefano Ranzani. Producer (P), stage designer (SD) and costume designer (CD): Hugo de Ana. Singers (S): Virginia Tola, Nicole Cabell, Marius Manea, Marco Caria, Denis Sedov. May-June.

Then, Mozart´s "Don Giovanni", a reasonable revival considering that the last one was cancelled due to a strike. C: John Neschling. P, SD: Michael Hampe (a production from Santiago de Chile´s Teatro Municipal). S: Tola, Norah Amsellem, John Tessier, Juan Gatell, Eduardo Chama, Ernesto Morillo. July.

Massenet´s "Manon" is a wrong idea, it was offered recently (I was told that a much better choice, "Benvenuto Cellini" by Berlioz, fell through). C: Philippe Auguin. P: Renaud Doucet. SD, CD: Doucet and André Barbe. S: Anne Sophie Duprels, John Osborn, Carlos Esquivel, Víctor Torres. August.

I welcome Leos Janácek´s "Kátia Kabanová", a wonderfully expressive opera only seen in 1968. I can´t accept, though, that the Colón´s General and Artistic Director, with no previous experience on staging, will be P and CD; that´s a narcissistic use of power. C: Gyórgy Rath (he came in previous visits as Gyoryvangyi-Rath). CD: Mini Zuccheri. S: Andrea Dankova, Miro Dvorsky, Elena Zhidkova, Reinhard Dorm, Agnes Zwierko. September.

I find brilliant the coupling of two powerful scores in local premieres: Zemlinsky´s "A Florentine Tragedy" and Korngold´s "Violanta". And with the welcome return of Stefan Lano as C. P: Hans Hollmann. SD: Enrique Bordolini. S: James Johnson, Evan Bowers, Deanne Meek, Eiko Senda, Wolfgang Schöne. October.

And finally, Verdi´s marvelous "Falstaff" (a pity that Buenos Aires Lírica also programmes this opera). C: Marco Guidarini. P, SD: Roberto Oswald. CD: Aníbal Lápiz. S: Alan Opie, Svetla Vassileva, Paula Almerares, Darío Schmunck, Graciela Alperyn. November/December.

Only six operas, no Wagner and no Strauss, though as they are starting in late May, it is reasonable. Very few singers of any fame, but at least two baritones of exalted rank, Johnson and Opie, will be heard. Prices will be expensive, European Grade A. Subscribers of earlier seasons keep their rights.

I find the ballet season a marked improvement on this year´s (of course the big Colón stage allows much more space and greater projects than the Coliseo´s). A curious but interesting parallel will be established with the operatic side of 2010´s activity with Kenneth MacMillan´s ballet "Manon", on music by Massenet (not the opera); it was presented by Julio Bocca the last year before his retirement and it is a worthwhile incorporation to the Colón´s experience. C: José Luis Domínguez. June.

It is always a good thing to fall back on George Balanchine, to my mind one of the very greatest choreographers of the twentieth century. We shall see "Theme and Variations" (Tchaikovsky) and "Donizetti Variations". On the same session, Vittorio Biagi´s view of Beethoven´s Seventh Symphony.

C: Francisco Rettig. Dancers (D): Tiler Peck, Joaquín de Luz (New York City Ballet). September.

"The Corsair" had been a project of the Colón Ballet´s Directress Lidia Segni; it was postponed for 2010. With choreography by Anne Marie Holmes, we shall be able to appreciate a rich nineteenth-century ballet. C: Hadrián Ávila Arzuza. SD: Christian Prego. CD: Lápiz. D: Paloma Herrera, Marcelo Gomes (American Ballet Theatre). October/November.

Finally, "The Bayadere" is another famous nineteenth-century ballet, and I am glad that Natalia Makarova´s choreography is back; the Minkus music is arranged by John Lanchberry. C: Javier Logioia Orbe. D: Alina Cojocaru (Royal Ballet) and David Hallberg (ABT). December.

The trump card next year will be a very expensive and very good special concert season with some of the greatest names in Classical music, the Bicentenary Subscription Series. Yo-yo Ma, cello; Kathryn Stott, piano (June 11). The long-awaited first visit of a great pianist, Andras Schiff (August 24). The biggest star will be Daniel Barenboim, leading his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven´s "Choral" Symphony (August 24) and Milan´s Scala Choir and Orchestra in Verdi´s "Aida" (concert version) and Requiem Mass (August 29, 30 and 31). The half-brothers Karin Lechner and Sergio Tiempo will play a two-piano session on September 14. Zubin Mehta will conduct the Munich Philharmonic on October 1st. And a so-called Concert of the Bicentenaries will be conducted by Enrique Diemecke on November 26.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Off-Colón, a good variety of opera in 2010

A considerable variety of opera performances will be available next year at other theaters. I will start with the Teatro Argentino of La Plata. Led artistically by Marcelo Lombardero, there will be a welcome streak of audacity in the programming. As this house has an important structure, boasting a stage that is even bigger than the Colón´s and a considerable capacity, it is a rival for the Colón, especially taking into account that by car you go from Palermo to the Argentino in just one hour. Also, it will be the 120th year of existence of the Argentino as an institution, albeit in several houses during that long period.

There will be a spectacular and challenging beginning with the La Plata premiere of Shostakovich´s "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", with Lombardero as producer and Alejo Pérez as conductor, surely a talented team. And it will be an early start, on March 21, 26 and 28. Singers: Natalia Kreslina, Pedro Espinoza, Enrique Folger, Hernán Iturralde, María Bugallo, Gutsavo Gibert, Alejandra Malvino.

It is a pity that Mozart´s "Don Giovanni" at the Argentino will almost coincide with the Colón´s, a month earlier (May 2, 6, 8, 9). Conducted by Andrés Juncos and produced by Daniel Suárez Marzal, it will feature two Argentine artists that are working in Europe, Fernando Radó and Nahuel Di Pierro, along with Carla Filipcic Holm, Bugallo, Mario De Salvo, Santiago Burghi, Fabián Veloz and Ana Laura Menéndez (first cast).

Verdi will be represented by "Rigoletto", conducted by Guillermo Brizzio and produced by Pablo Maritano (June 27, July 1, 4, 10 and 11). It will be interesting to know Lisandro Guinis in the name part and Benita Puértolas as Gilda, and the Argentine tenor Darío Schmunck will be visiting us as the Duke of Mantua. Others: Christian Peregrino, Florencia Machado, Ernesto Bauer.

Then comes a true event, the first Handel opera ever at La Plata: "Giulio Cesare". With the specialist conductor Facundo Agudín and the producing of Gustavo Tambascio, it will be seen on July 25 and 29 and August 1. A good cast has been assembled: Chilean mezzo Evelyn Ramírez, the Platense soprano Paula Almerares, countertenor Fabrice Di Falco, mezzos Cecilia Díaz and Adriana Mastrángelo and baritone Sebastián Sorarrain.

Zandonai´s "Francesca da Rimini", a valuable but neglected work, was offered years ago at La Plata by the enthusiast maestro Mario Perusso, though at the cramped Teatro Rocha. Now with a different conductor, Carlos Vieu, it will have the facilities of the huge new theatre for the production of Louis Désiré originated at the Montecarlo Opera. The debut of Italian soprano Nicola Beller Carbone will be accompanied by another debut (Enrique Ferrer) and the Argentine singers Luis Gaeta, Díaz, Sergio Spina and Malvino. Dates: October 24, 28 and 31.

Gounod´s "Faust", curiously enough (I am told) a novelty for La Plata, will be conducted by Diego Masson and the producer will be Paul-Émile Fourny. The first cast will feature habitual singers at La Plata: Marcelo Puente, Almerares, Homero Pérez, Luciano Garay, Díaz, Matilde Isnardi. November 21, 25, 28; December 5.

In commemoration of the Bicentenary there will be a double bill with the premiere of Osvaldo Golijov´s opera "Ainadamar" complemented by Ginastera´s ballet "Estancia" (choreography: Carlos Trunsky). Conducted by Rodolfo Fischer and produced by Claudia Billourou, it will be sung by Franco Fagioli, Graciela Oddone and Patricia González. May 25, 28 and 30.

There will also be a full season of ballet and symphony concerts: in the latter I´m impressed by the mighty effort of putting on Mahler´s Eighth Symphony ("of the Thousand") conducted by Alejo Pérez ( September 5, 10 and 12).

The Teatro Avenida will be the venue, as usual, for the seasons of Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) and Juventus Lyrica (JL); the main hitch remains: the pit is too small and limits the projects of these companies. BAL will offer five operas with five performances each; three of them are of special interest. They will start with a milestone of the German repertoire: Beethoven´s "Fidelio". With Brizzio conducting and Rita De Letteriis producing, we shall hear Filipcic-Holm, Folger, Pérez Miranda and Iturralde from April 9.

I feel that "Madama Butterfly" is unnecessary, BAL gave it recently enough. With María Fabris (a new name), Folger, Bauer and Vanesa Mautner; conducted by Vieu. May 28. A welcome revival: Donizetti´s "Belisario", only heard at the Colón in 1981 with Bruson. Omar Carrión, María Luz Martínez (debut), Spina and Peregrino will sing; conductor, Javier Logioia Orbe; producer, José María Condemi. July 16.

Another important revival: Handel´s "Serse", unheard here since its premiere in 1971 at the Colón. Alejo Pérez conducts, Maritano produces, E.Ramírez and Ivanna Speranza sing. September 17.

Finally, Verdi´s "Falstaff" unfortunately collides with the Colón´s. Singers: Luis Gaeta, E.Ramírez, Leonardo Estévez, Osvaldo Peroni. Logioia Orbe conducts, Fabián Von Matt produces. November 12.

Finally, JL offers four operas, all Italian and well-known. Bellini´s "Norma" with Soledad de la Rosa, conducted by Carlos Calleja, produced by Oscar Barney Finn. April 30 to May 8. Then, Puccini´s "Manon Lescaut", conducted by Antonio Russo and produced by Ana D´Anna. With Eugenia Fuente; June 25 to July 3.

Mozart´s "Così fan tutte" is back, conducted by Hernán Schvartzman. No other details; August 20 to 28. To finish, Rossini´s "La Cenerentola" with Mariana Carnovali and the team of Russo and D´Anna, October 22 to 30.

For Buenos Aires Herald

jueves, noviembre 19, 2009

Opera in Berlin: the end of a tradition

Some weeks ago I wrote an article giving a general introduction about how I found the condition of opera in Berlin twenty years after my first visit. Now I will analyze two of the four operas I chose. Naturally, I gave pride of place to the three great names of German opera, Mozart, Wagner and Strauss. In all cases I got vivid pleasure out of many musical aspects and almost total revulsion about the sacrifice of the staging tradition, which I feel is done with complete conviction by this new generation of producers and, I¨m afraid, is amply backed by audiences and critics. Myself I refuse to give producers the status of co-creators, for me they are interpreters, just as conductors are, and they should simply keep to the spirit of text and music. The Staatsoper unter den Linden is led artistically by Daniel Barenboim. I thought the beautiful old house in reasonable shape, but I am told that it will shortly enter into a long period of restoration and reform in which the Government will spend about three times in Euros what is being spent at the Colón. I know no details, but the operational side seemed acceptable enough in the two operas I saw in successive evenings: Mozart´s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (“Die Entführung aus dem Serail”) and Richard Strauss´ “Der Rosenkavalier” (I´m always surprised that no English translation of the title is attempted in this case). “The Abduction…” has been done recently in Buenos Aires, so I won´t expatiate on it. Suffice it to say that it is a rescue opera of Turkish locale, as its Janissary music proves conclusively. I like to see an ersatz Topkapi on stage, but failing this, I do want some Turkish ambience; it´s what Mozart wanted and what he creates. Not here. Producer Michael Thalheimer and stage designer Olaf Altmann gave us a starkly black-and-white stage divided in two widely separated levels. Furthermore Thalheimer decided to give the three-act opera in one continuous act, 2 h 15 min. long, which was certainly heavygoing for all concerned, performers and audience. The noble couple, Konstanze and Belmonte, were reasonably well dressed (by Katrin Lea Tag) but Blonde and Pedrillo were shockingly ridiculed (they are the buffo characters in this Singspiel). Osmin and Pasha Selim had at least an inkling of Turkishness about them though the Janissaries were much too Prussian. Some of the stage business came off, but the Hitlerish characterization of Selim was all wrong; this is a generous ruler that pardons his enemy, not a rasping brute. The musical side, however, compensated. Philippe Jordan is a brilliant young conductor; I caviled at some fast tempi but the playing of the excellent orchestra was pointed and stylish. Daniel Behle as Belmonte was a real find; a Wunderlich-like voice, then which I can find no higher praise, plus a charming delivery of words and music. Maria Bengtsson as Konstanze coped with both the high florid phrases and the dramatic intensity required in several scenes; the voice is beautiful and so is her appearance. Although supposed to be ill, I found Anna Prohaska´s Blonde admirable in every sense. Florian Hoffmann as Pedrillo sang rather drily and wasn´t helped by the producer. Reinhard Dorn was a workmanlike Osmin, with accurate though rather impersonal singing all over the very wide range of the part; he can´t be blamed for the excessive stillness of his acting. I have a soft spot for “Der Rosenkavalier”, to my mind one of the loveliest of all operas. Producer Nicolas Brieger respected a good deal of it and in general terms I rather enjoyed it, though some matters were jarring: the absurd substitution of the little Moorish boy, Mohammed, by a white dwarf, moreover omnipresent when he is not required (even in the Trio), or making the Italian Singer a cripple in the “levee” scene. The stage picture (Raimund Bauer), based on a half-circle with numerous doors, mainly worked well. I disliked the lack of a bed and the lovers sprawled in the floor and distant from one another. But Bauer adapts well his main scheme to the three different places (the Marschallin´s room, the parvenu rich reception hall, the seedy tavern). Costumes (Joachim Herzog) were not always tasteful. The producer moved well his singers and they responded with high professionalism; they were a solid team. True, Anne Schwanewilms (the Marschallin) didn´t have the strong profile of Jurinac or Crespin, but she has a fine voice and uses it well. I was much impressed by the freshness and impetus of Katherine Kammerloher as Octavian; an admirably schooled strong voice always at the service of the right dramatic instincts and a good actress in those passages of double travesty (a mezzo plays an adolescent boy that plays a country girl). Sylvia Schwartz as Sophie sang very agreeably though without the radiance of the best exponents of this part (Rothenberger, Popp). The veteran Alfred Muff is still a redoubtable Ochs, encompassing the wide range of the writing and acting with debonair ease (again, without the strong personality of Boehme or Moll). Others did good jobs: Martin Gantner (Faninal), Irmgard Vilsmeier (Marianne), Andrea Bönig (Annina), Peter Menzel (Valzacchi), Stephen Rügamer (Italian singer). The brilliant Staatskapelle Berlin responded with aplomb to the intense conducting of Philippe Jordan, traversing with ease one of the most difficult scores.

martes, noviembre 10, 2009

Verdi´s charisma works like a charm

Yes, the magic of Verdi keeps sweeping the board. "Nabucco" at La Plata´s Argentino and "La Traviata" at the Avenida for Juventus Lyrica closed those institutions´ respective seasons with resounding audience successes. Not just the nobility of Verdian melody but also its total integration with dramatic truth even when the libretto isn´t convincing: those are the keys for Verdi´s evergreen impact .

"Nabucco" almost failed for the second consecutive year. Last season, when the production was ready (the stage designs, the costumes) a labor conflict stopped the season for a month and this opera was then reprogrammed for 2009. Now there was again a serious difficulty due to the provincial deficit.

And some activists even had recourse to physical violence to force a solution. But at the last hour matters settled down and the performances took place. In a double sense this was fortunate: first because we had foreign guests in the cast, and this is still a rare occurrence at La Plata. But even more important, the city was host to the Second Meeting of Ópera Latinoamérica with the presence of many persionalities. Although I dislike his ideas, the presence of Gérard Mortier had significance (he was the avant-garde leader of the Salzburg festival some years ago). In fact I attended two sessions, and I was particularly impressed by the story of the Manaus opera seasons at the Teatro Amazonas.

"Nabucco" had been plotted and rehearsed by producer Marga Niec last year; now that production was presented as curated by María Concepción Perré. The proven team of Enrique Bordolini (Argentine living in Chile), stage designer, and Imme Möller, creator of the costumes (Chilean) provided excellent "Babilonian" ambience. This was an "old-style" presentation, and I´m all for it. It was handsome to look at and it gave us the time and place of the action; for me that´s what culture is about, not Nebuchadnezzar in tuxedo parking his Ferrari… Granted, even within the traditional style some touches can relieve predictability and avoid continuous symmetry, and I did hope for a bit more imagination in the acting. On the other hand, no one can put right the absurdities of this libretto.

Susan Neves has shed many dozens of pounds in recent years, and I have no doubt this has done much good to her career. By now she is a seasoned performer, about to spend a long season at the Met. She is very assured in the upper range and she can phrase with intensity. I do find a problem with her numerous glottal attacks in the lower range, and also at times in this devil of a part she doesn´t quite fuse the enormous jumps of the vocal line. She moved well. Mexican baritone Jorge Lagunes made an interesting debut. The voice is quite beautiful and was shown to best advantage in the aria "Dio di Giuda", but he does lack the cutting quality of the many declamatory phrases; Nabucco needs not only a good singer but an imperious actor in voice and demeanor, and this Lagunes isn´t. As Zaccaria , High Priest of the Hebrews, Homero Pérez-Miranda was too backward in voice projection, feeling rather woolly or arid in timbre, but singing with fine expression the beautiful cello-supported aria "Vieni, o Levita!". The couple in love, Ismaele and Fenena, was sung perfervidly by tenor Enrique Folger and mezzosoprano Cecilia Díaz; they compensated with enthusiasm what they lacked in line. There were good cameos from Mario De Salvo, Sonia Schiller and Sergio Spina.

Alejo Pérez, a few days after conducting avant-garde music, showed his versatility with this seminal Verdi opera; his tempi were arguably too fast in some instances, but he got a good deal of punch and accuracy (though there were accidents). The offstage music played by no less than 18 musicians was well coordinated by Luis Clemente. The Choir has a lot to sing, and under Miguel Martínez did quite well, except for poor articulation of the words in "Va pensiero".

I´ll be brief with "La Traviata". There were several casts and I am commenting on the night of November 7. Starting 25 minutes late because of the Gay Pride Parade outside and having three intervals, it was a long night. It did respond to Juventus´ aims because the cast was quite young and sometimes green. Led by the wise though rather slow hand of Antonio Russo, the artists were sincere and likeable though a bit stilted. Ana D´Anna as producer and stage designer provided pleasant period pictures and tried to move the crowds with individual gestures, avoiding the feeling of a choir with a homogeneous personality, but some things bothered me (the help being present at the crucial Germont/Violetta duet, the silly bicycles). Nice costumes from María Jaunarena. The Third Act dances always seem to me unnecessary and absurd; this time they went by innocuously.

Laura Polverini lacks weight and harmonics in her voice, but her light equipment was agreeably handled, with some dramatic point. Her Alfredo, Santiago Bürgi, was even lighter, and felt overextended in the Third Act, though musical enough. Germont was sung with solemn mien and pleasant, soft timbre by Ernesto Bauer, small-scale but tasteful. The others: an explosive Flora from Guadalupe Barrientos, a rather harsh Gastone (Hernán Sánchez Arteaga), a good Douphol (Leandro Sosa), an uneven Grenvil (Claudio Rotella), and a well-conceived Annetta (María Eugenia Caretti).

For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, noviembre 01, 2009

Opera in Berlin (I), a challenge to tradition

I first visited Berlin in 1964, when the Wall separated East from West, and at that time I saw "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Deutsche Oper (West) and "Don Pasquale" at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (East). I was back in August 1989, some months after the Wall fell down, but it was summer and there was no opera. This year I made my trip in late September, just a few days after the beginning of the operatic season, and I was able to attend at the unified Berlin a total of four operas, two each at the Deutsche and at the Staatsoper.

The aim of this article isn´t political, but I can´t avoid the fact that I experienced three different Berlins: in 1964 an isolated but brilliant West and a rundown East; in 1989 the start of the transition to unity, when the scars of the past remained very visible in the East; and now a marvelously vital unified Berlin where you almost see no difference between both sides; twenty years later I felt a glamorous, beautiful, green and open city exempt from traffic jams, vital, disciplined, cosmopolitan and admirable.

The operatic structure remains amazingly like it was in 1964: the two great opera houses I mentioned were already there, as was the Komische Oper, successor to Klemperer´s 1920s Kroll Oper, smaller and always associated with both the avant-garde and its apparent contradiction, operetta. I couldn´t go there, alas, for it would have completed my overview. But some general conclusions can be made anyway. First, the city maintains three fulltime opera houses, and controversy has raged over its impact on the budget, especially now that Berlin, notwithstanding its fine image, totters under a very heavy deficit. One of them, many say, would have to go; if one of them has to be sacrificed, I wouldn´t condemn the two main houses but the Komische. However, it would be wonderful if they kept having three. But, truth to tell, it´s the only city in the world that does that: two yes (London, New York, Paris, Vienna, Munich), but three…There´s a second factor: Vienna, e.g., has two very contrasting ones (Staatsoper and Volksoper) but both the Deutsche and the Staatsoper in Berlin tread the same ground, which puts them in very direct rivalry (the feud some years ago between Barenboim at the Staatsoper and Thielemann at the Deutsche ended with the departure of the latter, both battling for a greater share of the Berlin Senate´s subsidy).

There´s another very important matter: the colossal amount of opera available. For these theaters are all repertoire houses, not "stagione" like La Scala or the Colón, This means that they have a steady core of no less than about thirty operas (or at the Komische also operettas) but others vary each year; I haven´t counted them, but I´m probably right if I state that each year a Berliner can see between 500 and 600 performances of opera of roughly about a hundred titles, perhaps even more. Of course there´s now a steady touristic input, but this wan´t so in 1964 and there were audiences for roughly the same amount of performances. "Repertoire" also means that they have house singers under yearly contract, but the two bigger houses have many guests (singers, producers, conductors).

I came out of my experience with two opposed impressions: on one side, a hearty respect for the musical quality exhibited (especially the orchestras) and for the well-oiled daily functioning presenting big, difficult and diverse operas night after night: a phenomenal capacity for efficient professional work. On the other, dismay at the aesthetics of the productions, which –as implied in the title of this article- dislodge tradition to such a degree that I felt they are ruining their own culture. This has been going on with increasing strength during the last two decades, and for those who like me believe in maintaining our roots, it´s so discomfiting that I left every night with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The crux of the matter is this: producers feel they have to offer "their" vision of the opera, with no regard to the original contents of the libretti; they think they are co-authors, not interpreters, and that only an extreme avant-garde view will do. Most of the time I couldn´t have told which opera I was viewing by the looks of it, that´s how distorted they were. It´s a curious schizophrenia: libretti and music are left untouched, but anything can go on stage; many call them "concept" productions, which means to have a wholly arbitrary view of the original. The sad thing is that public money and management support such travesties, and so do many critics. It is, I´m afraid, a losing battle to denounce this situation and hope that it will change. It seems to be the "Zeitgeist", the spirit of our time; I can only call it "extreme decay" and say that they give the young terrible models. Certainly they haven´t seen Strauss or Wagner but what the producer imposes on them. Thirty or forty years ago I came out of an opera performance in Germany with a degree of pleasure that has simply disappeared now. In a couple of weeks I will give details of what for me was good and bad in operatic Berlin.

For Buenos Aires Herald

sábado, octubre 31, 2009

Interesting music from the National Symphony

I have often written of the admirable qualities of our National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional) firmly led by its Principal Conductor, Pedro Calderón. This organism has no decent acoustics to rehearse or to play, its concerts are free -which is demeaning- and it has no budget to hire valuable guests from abroad, exceptions apart. Nevertheless, their concerts either at the Stock Exchange (Bolsa de Comercio) or at the Law School (Facultad de Derecho) of the UBA are often first-rate and illuminating. They should have a quality auditorium and a decent budget, for they are surely one of the best orchestras in South America, but the Governments (not just this one but many before it) have obstinately refused to give them reasonable conditions; it is a measure of the cultural blindness that pervades our country at the official level. With the very welcome presence of pianist Marcelo Balat, they offered a splendid concert at the Bolsa on August 21. After a scintillating rendition of Mozart´s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro”, Balat and Calderón tackled Rachmaninov´s best work, the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, a filigree of enormous imagination and accomplishment, played with admirable pianism and well-adjusted accompaniment. Although I was sorry that four of the twelve numbers of Prokofiev´s Suite from the ballet “Chout” were eliminated, the interpretation gave us all the sarcasm and precise savagery of this masterpiece. As there are never any comments in the hand programme, they should at least have the name right: they printed “Chauf”. David Handel is a dynamic American conductor who works regularly with orchestras at Mendo- za and La Paz. He presented a very ambitious programme and I think it was too much for the brass players, in particular provoking a fatal trumpet accident in Wagner. The First Part was dedicated to the arduous and complex Symphony Nº 2, “The Age of Anxiety”, by Leonard Bernstein, based on a W. H. Auden text about human relationships, and with such sections as “The seven ages”, “The Dirge” and “The Masque”. Musically it is very ingenious, in particular in the 14 variations of “The seven ages”, where each variation is based on an element of the preceding one (except the first, of course). It has a difficult piano obbligato part, very well played by Paula Peluso. Handel showed command and forceful views in his energetic interpretation, seconded with fine concentration by the orchestra. The Second Part was all-Wagner and too long, one of the Overtures should have been eliminated. It started with the Overture to “The Flying Dutchman”, stormy as it should be. “The “Entrance of the Gods into the Walhalla” is a concoction (by the composer) on the final minutes of “The Rhine Gold”. Preceded by the “Dawn” music, we then heard the marvelous “Siegfried´s Rhine Journey” from “The Twilight of the Gods”, quite convincing despite the terrible trumpet accident. And finally, the “Tannhäuser” Overture, where lip fatigue made it hard to hear balanced chords. But all in all, an exciting concert. Mario Perusso was the hero of the following great occasion, a not unblemished but still valuable rendition of Donizetti´s Requiem Mass, so much less-known than Verdi´s but very interesting and with some magnificent moments in its 75-minute duration. An inspired blend of bel canto and sacred music, this Mass is unfinished, and the hand programme didn´t help by stating that after the Offertory we heard the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Communio and Responsory; we didn´t because they don´t exist… Fine jobs from the Coro Polifónico Nacional under Roberto Luvini and the Orchestra, and of course Perusso was his utterly reliable self. Both Ricardo González Dorrego (tenor) and Alejandro Meerapfel (baritone) had commendable moments, with Soledad de la Rosa (soprano) doing well the little she has to sing, and the small-voiced Laura Domínguez (mezzosoprano) correct in her music. Only Alejandro Di Nardo (bass) was weak, with insecure intonation. At the Facultad de Derecho, quite as bad in acoustics as the Bolsa but bigger, I heard on October 16 a fine programme conducted by Calderón. The start wasn´t promising; perhaps under-rehearsed, there were too many hesitations and blurred sounds in that magnificently unorthodox Overture by Berlioz, “Les Francs Juges”, which evokes the Judges of the Secret Courts of Germany in the Late Middle Ages. But Tchaikovsky´s Violin Concerto brought us the fresh talent of Lucía Luque, a 21-year-old “Cordobesa” with a fine European career. In this infernally difficult piece it is a “tour de force” to be able to solve every detail, and some weren´t perfect, but by and large she impressed with her accomplishment and commitment; she is both intense and refined. The accompaniment was mostly accurate. She gave an attractive encore: Kreisler´s “Recitative and Scherzo-Capriccio”. There was a further merit in this concert: Calderón never shirks from major challenges, and he gave us what was only the second performance in B.A. of Edward Elgar´s huge, Romantic, rambling but fascinating First Symphony. Melodically inspired, complicated texturally, ambitious and very noble in the Victorian way, this is fine music and I enjoyed it in Calderón´s ample, well-considered reading, followed with intelligent concentration by the orchestra. If under such restricted conditions the Orchestra can give us such valuable nights, think of what it could do with a little consideration from the authorities and some interest from the Congress. It´s a matter of politics and policy.

martes, octubre 27, 2009

Mozarteum and Festivales end their seasons

For me this is a melancholy time, the end-of-season time. It wavers according to institutions and circumstances but it tends to be between October 15 and November 15. As I don´t believe in seasonal culture, I can hardly tolerate the barren months of Summer; in Europe it´s different, there are plenty of musical festivals to assuage my thirst; but here… So it´s a time for DVDs and CDs, old and new, but my anxiety for live music becomes pretty unbearable as March approaches with its timid pre-season efforts.

The Mozarteum Argentino ended their year with less than glory, for the final balance of an Austrian musical embassy was too uneven for satisfaction. On paper it looked good: Haydn and Schubert by the Wiener Akademie Orchestra, the Chorus sine nomine, four imported soloists and the conductor Martin Haselböck. But doubts began to creep in soon after the beginning. In fact the arrogant statements of Haselböck in a BA newspaper didn´t bode well, with his claims of giving us entirely new views of those great classics or his affirmation that Schubert´s Mass Nº 2 and Haydn´s Stabat Mater are masterpieces; those few early minutes confirmed that this is still rather immature Schubert (he was eighteen), only picking up from the Benedictus (a lovely trio). But it also proved that the choir is a really poor one, both in the quality of their voices and in their accuracy, apart from being too few (eight women, six men). There was a positive side: the Orchestra (14 strings, one bassoon, harpsichord –not organ as stated in the hand programme) sounded quite well, Haselböck´s phrasing was musical (and traditional) and two soloists were worth knowing: Polish soprano Aleksandra Zamojska and Austrian tenor Bernhard Berchtold, quite mellifluous. Through the microphone it was announced that baritone Christian Hilz was affected by our climate, so it was logical that he sounded under the weather…

The big Haydn Stabat Mater dates from 1767, early for this composer; it is certainly fluid and accomplished, but rarely comes to greater things. Here two oboes were added to the orchestra, which again sounded quite nice. The Choir, however, was even shallower. The soloists as before, with some rather brilliant moments for soprano and for tenor; here we also heard the local debut of the young Austrian mezzosoprano Ida Aldrian, promising but still a bit green. Haselböck has the measure of this music, but no revelations came from him.

Although it wasn´t the end of Conciertos de Mediodía (there are still two concerts to come), the presentation of Marcela Roggeri and Elena Tasisto at the Gran Rex was of special quality and a good occasion to mention here that these concerts celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, quite an admirable feat: 50 years providing good music for free at the lunch break (1 to 2 p.m.). It was courageous to present such an innovative and profound combination of music by Sofia Gubaidulina and texts by Marina Tsvietaieva. Both are independent Russian voices of great value, clear-minded, intense and uncompromising. Roggeri´s immensely assured pianism and Tasisto´s moving diction complemented themselves perfectly..

I was fascinated by the debut of Les Sacqueboutiers de Toulouse ending the season of Festivales; the venue was the Avenida. These artists are dedicated to the noble art of playing wind instruments used in the Late Renaissance and the Early Baroque and three of them are wonderful players: Jean-Pierre Canihac in cornetto ( a wooden trumpet of sweet sound), Daniel Lassalle in tenor sackbut and Fabian Dornic in bass sackbut (being the antecessors of the trombone). I found Jean Imbert marginally insecure playing natural trumpet (although I agree it´s the devil to play). With the fine support of two local players (Manfredo Kraemer, violin; Federico Ciancio, harpsichord and chamber organ) and with the Argentine soprano Adriana Fernández, who lives in Europe, showing her admirable sense of style in several pieces, this concert was sheer delight and demonstrated how to be both entertaining and instructive.

The programme, concocted by Canihac, gave us the music of Kromeriz, where the bishop of Olomouc had formed a splendid capella; thus in this Moravian town worked admirable composers such as Pavel Vejvanovsky (Serenada; Sonata "Tribus Quadrantibus") and Johann Schmelzer (Sonata a 3 in C, Sonata in G "La Carolietta"). German masters such as Johann Theile from Hamburg (Sonata "Sublationis") were also heard. But there was also the Venetian influence: Claudio Monteverdi ("Laudate Dominum"; "Confitebor"; "Lettera amorosa") or Ignatio Donati (O gloriosa Domina) or Tarquinio Merula ("Su la cetra amorosa"), plus the Italian influence on Händel ("Occhi miei, che faceste") and the great master Heinrich Schütz who brought the technique of the Gabrielis to Germany (Buccinate in Neomenia Tuba). A truly exquisite night, one of the very best of the year.

There are plenty of Bach cantatas still unknown here, but Mario Videla with his Bach Academy keeps unveiling new ones at the Central Methodist Church. With nine admirable players (Soloists of the Academy) and two fine singers (soprano Mónica Capra, baritone Norberto Marcos) plus the Grupo de Canto Coral (Néstor Andrenacci) he gave us Cantata Nº 96, "Herr Christ, der ein´ge Gottessohn" ("Lord Christ, the only Son of God"), a splendid work with a very fine initial chorus and a demanding soprano aria. Claudio Barile played at the beginning Carl Heinrich Graun´s interesting Concerto in E minor for flute, two violins and continuo.

sábado, septiembre 19, 2009

Disaster, jubilation and stark drama

Things have been jumping in our operatic world lately. Disaster struck the Teatro Argentino of La Plata with their worst production ever, a total travesty of Donizetti´s "Lucia di Lammermoor". In complete contrast, Juventus Lyrica provided a jubilant version of that lovely operetta, Lehár´s "The Merry Widow". And Buenos Aires Lírica gave us an admirable version of Menotti´s always relevant and stark drama "The Consul".

I presume Reinaldo Censabella (the Argentino´s Artistic Director in 2008) didn´t imagine the dire results of his decision to engage as producer the "platense" Claudia Billourou, who lives in Europe as assistant producer; Marcelo Lombardero, the current Artistic Director, maintained the engagement. The production showed us the very worst of bad European ideas about production: not so much the trendy mania about taking location and time out of context but the utter lack of taste and total arbitrariness. Thus Scott´s "The bride of Lammermoor" is no longer a conflict between Scottish aristocrats about 1690 but a brutish contemporary Mafioso tale. A few examples: Sir Edgar of Ravenswood strolls in a bicycle and in casual attire; the same unit set (a three-sided box by Juan Carlos Greco) is good for everything, in and out of doors; no fountain; no "tomb of my ancestors"; during the whole mad scene an enormously obese person straight out of Monty Python´s "The meaning of life" eats and drinks away whilst the presumed ghost of Lucy´s mother is impersonated by a well-known human-rights activist of La Plata, etc.

The poor singers did their best in this horrid context. Paula Almerares is more a lyric soprano than a true coloratura but she sang valiantly and often beautifully, even if she was overstretched at times. Uruguayan tenor Juan Carlos Valls was mostly agreeable to hear, with a clear lyric voice and good highs. Fabián Veloz for the moment isn´t a dramatic baritone; he sang musically but we never believed he was the villain. Christian Peregrino sang Raimondo initially with too much vibrato but he later settled down. In the flank roles there were good jobs from Leonardo Pastore and Vanesa Mautner; Sergio Spina was too harsh as Normanno.

Usually the Choir under Miguel Martínez is a big plus at the Argentino, but they seemed discouraged by what they were forced to do and were below their standard. So was Carlos Vieu, the conductor, generally first-rate but this time lacking in conviction and with uncommon maladjustments in his orchestra.

Eight years ago the Colón audiences were overjoyed by a marvelous "The Merry Widow" in German for the first time here ("Die Lustige Witwe") with Von Stade, Allen and Rudel, produced by Mansouri. I can give no higher praise to the recent Juventus production than to consider it a worthy successor. In what is certainly one of the best jobs of Ana D´Anna, she produced with clear understanding of the world of operetta, with the considerable assistance of Gui Gallardo (especially in the spoken dialogue); everything was buoyant and fleet, and her stage designs were tasteful and functional. And the impeccable costumes of Ponchi Morpurgo had the benefits of long and cultured experience. The dances choreographed by Igor Gopkalo were quite in the picture, with its Slavic touches.

Soledad de la Rosa was wonderful; she lacked the "physique du role" but otherwise she was ideal: lovely singing, charm, excellent acting, good German. Her partner was no less convincing: Armando Noguera´s light baritone suits Danilo perfectly, and he is a master of timing and inflexion. Sonia Stelman was a very agreeable Valencienne. Unfortunately, her Camille de Rosillon was too green: Sebastián Russo sang with stilted style and white tones and seemed ill at ease. I am accustomed to baritones as Baron Mirko Zeta; Argentine character tenor Carlos Rivas at first disconcerted me, but he´s a pro of such roles in Germany and I was soon accepting him as a definite positive contribution. Norberto Lara was an ebullient Njegus. The others were variable though always enthusiastic.

Carlos Calleja seemed a born Viennese as he led with subtlety his fine orchestra, largely made up of members of the appallingly dissolved Orquesta Académica del Teatro Colón .Both choristers and dancers fully entered the spirit of this evergreen operetta, deeper than it may seem.

For the sixth time our city has witnessed Menotti´s "The Consul", and again it seems completely contemporary in its Kafkian portrayal of a police state. In the model production of Fabian Von Matt we feel it as a compelling drama that has lost none of its urgency. He has added lateral booths where the burocracy of terror is displayed, whilst the room in Sorel´s house and the Consulate are starkly evoked. Fine work from Daniela Taiana (stage designs) and Stella Maris Müller (costumes).Very well conducted by Javier Logioia Orbe, this presentation of BAL gave us an extraordinary local cast, fully as good as the mixed English/Argentine cast we saw at the Colón in 1999 produced by the composer.

Carla Filipcic Holm was as true and sincere a Magda as can be imagined, and she sang with world class quality. Hernán Iturralde as John was no less admirable, and Virginia Correa Dupuy was an expressive Mother. There were fine contributions from Osvaldo Peroni providing needed comic relief, Elisabeth Canis in a complete portrait of the Secretary, and from Walter Schwarz, Mariano Fernández Bustinza, Andrea Nazarre, Gabriela Ceaglio and Vanina Guilledo.

For Buenos Aires Herald