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