viernes, diciembre 18, 2009

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.

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