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.