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

Austrian guests and local orchestras enliven season

The concert season has recently been quite interesting. Distinguished Austrian visitors gave us great classics in high style and our two main orchestras proceeded with their seasons at an appreciably high level.

The Mozarteum brought us in succession at the Coliseo two worthy outfits: the Vienna Piano Trio and the Camerata Salzburg. Violinist Wolfgang Redik and pianist Stefan Mendl were founder members of the first named in 1988 and are still there; their current cellist is Matthias Gredler, replacing Marcus Trefny since 2001. They have of course a sense of style that comes not only from the ambience in which they grew up but also of great teachers such as the Beaux Arts Trio. I was very much impressed by Gredler´s sound quality, always burnished but precise, with perfect intonation. The pianist is a first-rate technician who had moments of real virtuoso. I do have small misgivings about the violinist, to my mind a bit spiky and lacking in sensuousness for the Romantics, but he certainly plays well and is integrated with his partners.

The programme for the first subscription series started with Haydn´s most famous Trio, Nº 25, "Hungarian", in a clean, dynamic version. The second choice was inspired, Smetana´s sole Trio is a Romantic, expansive score of great emotional impact and difficulty and it was played with true conviction. Mendelssohn´s Second Trio, op.66, less often played than the marvelous First, is a redoubtable work nonetheless, and it was a proper homage in the year of the bicentenary of his birth to hear it in such an involved and well-wrought interpretation. There was a lovely encore, the Andante con moto from Schubert´s Second Trio. I couldn´t hear the second programme, which included a rarity, Anton Rubinstein´s Second Trio.

The Camerata Salzburg is the new name of an ensemble who left quite a mark here as the Academic Camerata of the Salzburg Mozarteum in three splendid visits with wise old Sandor Vegh in 1989, 1991 and 1993. They keep to the standards we appreciated then: they play orchestrally as if it were chamber music, each member listening intently to all others and being acutely aware of a group personality. And they are naturally picked players of different nationalities, more cosmopolitan than of yore. Their period with Roger Norrington has given them a leaner sound, almost vibratoless. Their current conductor is violinist Leonidas Kavakos, but he fell ill and was replaced by a very proficient artist, pianist Stefan Vladar, who proved a convincing leader.

I caught their second concert, centered –as the other- on Haydn and Mozart. It was a great pleasure to hear such smooth, clear and up-to-date versions of wonderful music, Classicism at its best. I strongly suspect that the Orchestra had rehearsed the main pieces with Kavakos and that Vladar took over as the conscientious professional he is, keeping to the general mold. Haydn´s Symphony Nº 83, "The Hen", starts in G minor with a great whiff of "Sturm und Drang", but soon evolves to major regions and is mostly bubbly and full of invention; "tempi" now tend to be a bit faster (especially the menuets) than in Vegh´s time, but everything coheres with a common intention; individually several are virtuosi, especially the oboist and the flutist.

Mozart´s Piano Concerto Nº 19 has always been a favorite of mine, so full of charm and fascinating ideas. Vladar proved to be a very fluent pianist, playing sometimes a bit too fast but with great command and taste. The mighty "Jupiter" symphony (Nº 41), with that miraculous counterpoint in the Finale, is tough Mozart to crack; it was mostly very good, but some lines were obscured in the multiple entries of the last movement. The sweet encore was the third movement of Mozart´s very early Cassation K.63 for strings (a melody with pizzicato accompaniment).

In a noble gesture, the Mozarteum gave a hand to Nuova Harmonia, harassed by cancellations due to the influenza crisis, and the Camerata Salzburg also played for them, now led by concertino Alexander Hohenthal from his playing post. After an almost exact repetition of Haydn´s Symphony Nº 83, he played very nicely Mozart´s Concerto Nº 5 for violin, "Turkish", with frequent and apposite cadenzas and enough character in that strange episode of the last movement that gives the piece its nickname. A very accurate and stylish version of Mozart´s marvelous Symphony Nº 36, "Linz", gave full pleasure.

Arturo Diemecke was at the helm at a B.A. Phil concert (at the Coliseo) where the excellent soloist was Ángel Frette in vibraphone playing two premieres: a l5-minute Vibraphone Concerto by the French composer Emmanuel Séjourné (1961) that seemed to me short on substance though it gave good chances of sparkle to the player, and an arrangement by Saúl Cosentino of his tango-tinged "Nuestra esperanza" (Nº 3 of his "Minisuite"), pleasant enough. "Catalonia" (6 minutes) is practically the only independent orchestral piece we have by Isaac Albéniz, so its very agreeable music was a homage to the centenary of his death. A splendid performance of that evergreen, Tchaikovsky´s Fifth Symphony, brought the concert to an end.

Finally, Pedro Calderón conducted in a state of grace Bruckner´s mighty Eighth with the National Symphony, proving again that in this repertoire they are locally unbeatable: the best leader and the best orchestra, with fantastic brass playing. This was at the Facultad de Derecho.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Fine interpretations from the Philharmonic

The Buenos Aires Philharmonic was conducted in four concerts by its current Principal Conductor, Arturo Diemecke, who again showed his mettle and command. The first one I am reviewing was quite difficult and it included the world premiere of "Auris Concertum" for cello and orchestra, written by the Argentine composer Alejandro Civilotti Carvalho (1959) and dedicated to Queen Sophia of Spain, who facilitated a cochlear implant on the composer, thus avoiding his deafness. It is a big, 38-minute score; as I had the score in my hands and wrote the programme notes, let me quote myself: "it has a fluid language of clear tonal reminiscences, based on intervallic work and on brief rhythmic-melodic motifs. It shows conscientious artisanship and a moderate idiom without avant-garde ambitions". On hearing it I felt it was too long for its material and at times a bit arid, though it had the benefit of excellent playing by Eduardo Vassallo and careful accompaniment.

It was preceded by "Uirapurú", a tone poem that was later a ballet, by the great Brazilian Heitor Villalobos, as a homage to the composer on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The music takes its name from a small Amazonian bird of varied singing, and its luxuriant orchestration and melodic richness evoke the jungle with a symbiosis of the telluric and French impressionism. The conductor´s colorful handling of the 18-minute piece gave us the true ambience of this very personal creation. The concert ended with the "long" Stravinsky "Firebird" suite (1945), which adds to the five-number 1919 suite another five (three pantomimes, a pas de deux and a scherzo) and changes some aspects of the orchestration, notably in the Finale. Diemecke showed again his empathy with such music and got a splendid version out of an inspired Philharmonic.

The very long following concert offered the Mahler Ninth Symphony for the second time this season (it had been done already by the National Symphony under Calderón) and preceded it with the charming Weber Second Concerto for clarinet, which allowed us to meet one of the best players in the world, Wenzel Fuchs (he is the soloist of the Berlin Philharmonic). Although the constant pendular movement of his body was distracting, the execution was fabulously accurate in the fast passages and had moments of breathtaking subtlety in pianissimo that were on the verge of inaudibility and somehow remained full and beautiful.

Mahler´s Ninth is enormous and notoriously risky, both for its exacting technical requirements and its constantly changing moods, as well as for the heavenly Nirvanesque slowness of the Finale. Although Diemecke is up to the challenge, this time the Phil didn´t respond quite so well, especially the violins in the highest reaches; and there were some hesitant or maladjusted moments in the Rondo Burlesque. But I also missed a measure of inwardness.

The other two concerts combined Diemecke with our great pianist Nelson Goerner. In the first he was at his best in that special "tour de force", Ravel´s expressionistic and weird Concerto for left-hand piano, of such imagination that at times it seems that both hands are playing. An intellectual grasp of the layers of meaning the music contains and the complete command of the mechanics gave us a model version from the pianist, although there were minor smudges and slidings from the very difficult orchestral parts, and also some exaggerated stridency. Goerner played an encore with exquisite taste, the slow movement of Schubert´s Sonata op.120. The Ravel had been preceded by that wonderful Haydn Symphony, Nº 96, "The Miracle", in an interpretation that was full of character though not without some unhinged details.

There was a rather interesting premiere by a local composer starting the Second Part: Claudio Alsuyet´s "…De sombras", symphonic movement. As he tells us in the hand programme, this work started as a Viola Concerto for Marcela Magin, and there are traces of it yet; since then he transformed it twice, this is the second mutation and it adds a homage to his teacher Julio Palacio, who died last year. Also, it is part of a diptych, for the second piece is called "…De luces". The music alternates shadows and illuminations, consonance and dissonance, within its basically tonal sound. I found it attractive and expressive.

The disconcerting and fascinating Ninth Symphony by Shostakovich (1945) with its satirical, acid, tongue-in-cheek tunes, was hardly what was expected at the end of the war: no patriotic epic with chorus but a light, brilliant score. Diemecke caught its spirit perfectly and most of the playing was very accurate.

The second collaboration of Diemecke and Goerner was in a concert for Nuova Harmonia. The pianist played the mighty Beethoven "Emperor" Concerto (Nº 5) with his wonted seriousness; a lot was very good, but I felt that his approach was too heavy, obscuring sometimes melodic orchestral material; and though a couple of blurred passages were circumstantial considering the solidity of his technique, he has accustomed us to perfection. He was very well accompanied, with a strongly profiled statement of the principal themes. Goerner played beautifully two Chopin encores: the variegated Nocturne Nº 13 and the fleet Etude op.10 Nº 4.

The moody and dramatic Symphony Nº 2 by Sibelius provided a fine ending in the intense interpretation by Diemecke, who again showed his uncanny memory and painstaking phrasing in this very complicated music, so personal and innovative.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Mixed bag of modern ballet, rococo opera and piano music

Modern ballet seems to have a dearth of first-rate choreographers the world over. True, we don´t get many visits from abroad nowadays, but it´s been ages since really inspired dance creators have been here: Pina Bausch, the first Béjart, Neumeier, Kylian in his first visit, Nikolais, the Pilobolus group, José Limón, the Martha Graham group. .

The Mozarteum has brought to us recently at the Coliseo the Ballet Biarritz directed by its choreographer Thierry Malandain. They premiered "Le Sang des Étoiles" ("The Blood of Stars"), a 70-minute piece in thirteen parts. It is a curious mixture of Greek myth and contemporary ecological concern. The music comes from two different fields: six songs by Gustav Mahler and seven light selections featuring Johann Strauss II (two polkas, "the" waltz – yes, "The Blue Danube"- and a march), Waldteufel (the "España" waltz) and Minkus (the famous ballet of "The Shadows" from "La Bayadère", currently being performed complete at the Teatro Argentino). It isn´t the first time that I find it irksome to use sung material of very definite connotations for completely irrelevant dancing, but Malandain really exaggerates; just one instance, the grotesque lack of rapport between the metaphysical content of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am leaving this world") and what is narrated on stage. When the choreography is playful and has apposite music, the results are pleasant enough, though the dance steps have little personality; but when it tries to be profound it ends up being merely pretentious. It does have a tender episode when the dancers have bear suits and somehow mimic the Petipa corps de ballet in Minkus with gangling charm. And the thirteen very cosmopolitan dancers (few are Basque), following the globalization trend, are generally quite good and disciplined, though with very different physiques.

The Colón´s Center for Experimentation presented at the Teatro del Globo "La hija del enfermero" ("The male nurse´s daughter"), a choreographic tale by Carlos Trunsky using the extended score that John Cage called "Four Walls" as musical support. The key to this strange mixture is the phrase Trunsky puts as subtitle: "And if Nature were also an invention?" He imagines a homoerotic relationship between a male nurse and a dying man out of which comes the birth of the daughter. It is very much in line with current obsessions about sexual diversity but seen through a fantastic philter. The strong dichotomy between what one sees and one hears bothered me; indeed, Cage composed it for Merce Cunningham in 1944; it was played only once. The hand programme doesn´t specify the content of the Cunningham piece, but that choreographer (recently deceased) was extremely ascetic and believed in pure choreographic lines with no narrative sense; however, he was very young then and his ideas weren´t fully matured, so maybe some dramatic ideas were there. The music is strictly diatonic (only white keys), repetitive, with big silences and ostinatos. It isn´t my cup of tea, but I must admit that Cage almost never is. It was splendidly played by Haydée Schvartz.

Trunsky is discreet in his depiction of the couple´s love; his choreography sometimes is quite expressive, though there are plenty of typical contemporary trademarks. I especially liked the movements of the child (not a baby), with the right ludic, improvisatory and disjointed quality. And I found the scene of the patient´s death tasteful and moving. The dancers were excellent: Leandro Tolosa and María Kuhmichel. The patient was played by Gaby Ferro with adequate introspection, and in the only vocal interlude he sang accurately in an agreeable pop voice. With a spare but well considered stage design and functional costumes, Marta Albertinazzi did a professional job; so did Eli Sirlin in the lighting.

The Colón Institute of Art put on at the Golden Hall of the Casa de la Cultura a welcome rarity: "La schiava liberata" ("The liberated slave"), composed by Niccolò Jommelli in 1768 on an intricate libretto by Gaetano Martinelli. The composer was at the time very successful in a style midway between the Baroque and Early Classicism, and indeed he was a model for the teenager Mozart of "Mitridate Re di Ponto". This is the first time that one of his operas is premiered here, and I found it worthwhile. The semistaged performance used mostly makeup and costumes to suggest the eighteenth century traits; it was a nice production by Lizzie Waisse. The small instrumental group, which included two musicians from Boston, was stylishly conducted by Bruno D´Astoli. The whole thing showed the sure hand of Jeffrey Gall, visiting us for the fourth time as general coordinator, and of Igor Herzog in the musical coaching. Among the singers I especially liked Verónica Julio, Jaquelina Livieri and Sebastián Angulegui, but the others were in the picture: Andrea Maragno, Gabriela Ceaglio, Laura Domínguez, Emanuel Esteban (as the "gracioso") and Christian Casaccio (a bit strained).

Csarmen Piazzini gave a model recital for Festivales Musicales at the Auditorio de Belgrano, honoring both Haydn and Mendelssohn (respectively two hundred years of his death and his birth). Always a distinguished player, she is now an admirable exponent of both composers: an uncanny precision and a well-ordered mind that phrases unerringly with just the right turn of phrase. From Haydn, Sonatas Nº 40, 42 and 50; from Mendelssohn, seven of his "Songs without words" and those marvelous "Serious Variations".

For Buenos Aires Herald