martes, julio 27, 2010

The Orchestras of the Teatro Colón

             The Colón is one of the few opera theatres in the world with two big orchestras and now a small chamber orchestra, the new Orquesta Académica.  The Estable is basically operatic but sometimes does ballets and concerts; the Buenos Aires Philharmonic is a concert orchestra but it also plays in ballets and during a brief period, many years ago intervened in some operas.
            This year the Colón´s General and Artistic Director has had the good idea of including five concerts of the Estable, though not as a subscription series. I believe this should be a permanent feature, for the Estable certainly benefits by the public exposure and challenge of being on stage instead of in the pit. Technical standards certainly improve when  they are the sole focus of interest.
            Their first two concerts held considerable attraction. The initial one was conducted by Stefano Ranzani, who had been in charge of "La Boheme", so the musicians knew him well. The programme was coherent: an early Romantic symphony (Schubert´s Symphony Nº 9, aptly called "The Great" and a masterpiece) and an all-Wagner Second Part featuring our soprano Carla Filipcic Holm. Ranzani´s concept of the symphony was orthodox and vital, the players responding with urgency to the tough requirements of the score, called originally unplayable. The two interventions of the soprano were very satisfying: "Einsam in trüben Tage" ("Elsa´s Dream" from "Lohengrin") and "Dich, teure Halle" from "Tannhäuser" were sung with appealing timbre, firm line and excellent German. I object the lack of the vibrant orchestral introduction to the "Tannhäuser" excerpt, as I question the decision of the conductor to do the purely orchestral version of Isolde´s Love-Death from  "Tristan and Isolde", for I´m sure the soprano was capable of doing it very well; also, if done without the voice it should include the Prelude, thus giving a feeling of continuity and of a symphonic poem.  There was also a professional performance of the Overture to "Tannhäuser". As the concert ended the Orchestra curiously paid homage to Ranzani and he referred to the current artistic difficulties in Berlusconi´s Italy!
            John Neschling, the Brazilian conductor who re-founded the Sao Paulo Symphony, has had a long career. After his "Don Giovanni" he went on to a concert with an excellent concept: four works concerning the sea. It started with Mendlssohn´s raraely played but lovely Overture "Tranquil sea and prosperous voyage" (on two Goethe poems), written at 18. There followed that fantastic example of Britten´s genius, the "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes", endlessly inventive and beautiful. Then, a world premiere (played before the interval and not after, as the hand programme had it; wrongfully there was no announcement): Marco Betta´s "Mari Notturni", four episodes which combine minimalism with some attractive timbric textures; the composer was born in 1964 and is Sicilian. Finally, that emblem of the best impressionism, Debussy´s "La Mer".
            A difficult and variegated program, it was played mostly with a reasonable competence, but with weak points now and then (unisons that weren´t quite that, shrill high notes from cornets). Neschling is certainly able; however, he didn´t transmit all the drama in Britten or the mystery in Debussy.
            Now let us pass to the  B. A. Phil´s subscription series. It´s been long years since I´ve witnessed such an utter exercise of excentric degradation as Ivo Pogorelich´s "reading" of Chopin´s Concerto Nº 2. On this evidence I can´t even understand how is it possible that his career, at 52, continues. I do remember his long ago presentation of Tchaikovsky´s First Concerto where the music all but stopped in the initial Allegro, but this went much beyond that mark. No evidence of a basic tempo (speed); completely extravagant phrasing, tearing apart melodies; no sense of continuity; absurd stressing of irrelevant materials; amidst beautiful but almost inaudible "pianissimi", grotesquely misplaced "fortissimi";  passages of still impressive technique followed by others labored and with wrong notes. How Enrique Diemecke managed to accompany such a chaos is almost beyond comprehension, but he did.
            But the concert was saved by the premiere of Josef Suk´s Second Symphony, "Asrael", a deeply reflexive long score of almost an hour based in its five movements on homages to Suk´s father-in-law, Antonin Dvorák, and Suk´s wife Otylka. Asrael is the Angel of Death. Post-Romantic, melodic, dense in its ideas, a bit too diffuse, this is an important symphony of an author badly known here; the score dates from 1906. Diemecke showed again his amazing memory and grasp of the material, and the orchestra responded quite well.
            The following session was programmed in celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of Otto Nicolai and Robert Schumann. The same works were played in successive days, first for Festivales Musicales and then for the Phil subscription series. Conducted by Diemecke, it featured British cellist Natalie Clein in her third visit, playing Schumann´s late and rather dishevelled Concerto. The soloist has an important technique, though this time I liked her less than in Walton or Dvorák; her attacks were rougher, but especially her over-the-top gestuality was disturbing. Diemecke showed again his skill in accompanying, and gave after the interval a lean, strong version of Schumann´s starkest symphony, Nº 3, "Rhenish", in five movements; some horn passages should have been improved. The start of the evening was the lovely  overture imagined by Nicolai for "The Merry Wives of Windsor", in a very pleasant reading.
For Buenos Aires Herald

sábado, julio 24, 2010

Masterpieces from Mozart and Verdi

            Masterpieces are always risky: the heavy hand of comparison weighs in as we evaluate the casts and we opera lovers have our own ideas on how to solve some problems in the staging. Cases in point: the recent performances of Mozart´s "Don Giovanni" at the Colón and Verdi´s "Rigoletto" at La Plata´s Argentino. The last "Giovanni" at the Colón was as far back as 1993, and the Verdian item was seen at La Plata in 1999, before the existence of the current theatre.
            Michael Hampe, now 75-years-old, is an old friend of the Colón, and I believe this is the fifth opera he stages here. He is a cultivated man who gives its due to tradition. I liked the general lines of his "Giovanni". But there were difficulties along with the good points. On the plus side: fast changes of locale through laterally sliding elements; an agreeable and tasteful basic frame with apt hiding places (although it looks more like a Viennese palace than a Sevillean one); a complete absence of tastelessness (a rare event nowadays); adequate placing for the small instrumental groups that have to be onstage for the First Act Finale and for the dinner scene of the Second Act.
            On the down side: the utter botching of the scene where Giovanni falls into Hell (a gyrating view of the cosmos hardly suggests the nether regions, the lighting is inappropriate and the Don lamely walks three paces behind the statue and merely lies down); the costumes veer between the late eighteenth-century and the first half of the Romantic era; the peasants instead of being colorful and joyful look like Quakers; the interrelationships between characters are too pat and rather boring ; there is an excess of symmetry. Stage designs by Hampe and Germán Droghetti; costumes by Droghetti; lighting by Ramón López.
            There´s a vexed point I want to raise: the Colón first opera production ("La Boheme") came from Milan; this "Giovanni" originated in Santiago de Chile, and that was also the source of the first ballet of the season, "Manon".  It all points ominously to a deep reduction in the Colón´s own production and seems to be connected with the deep cut in personnel decided last year  (now in partial remission, as over a hundred people have had to be taken back as a result of a judicial sentence).  And there are adaptation troubles, for the Santiago stage is much smaller.
            The cast was dominated by Nicola Ulivieri (debut), a Giovanni of firm, pleasant voice who sings with good line and has a convincing stage presence. Canadian tenor John Tessier (debut) may not have a particularly beautiful timbre, but as Ottavio he was the singer with the best style and breath control. The Argentine Eduardo Chama  was a traditional Leporello of clear singing and adequate movements. In terms of sheer voice no one was more impressive than Fernando Radó as Masetto  and he was also a good actor. I didn´t care for the woolly singing of Venezuelan bass Ernesto Morillo Hoyt (debut) as the Commendatore (Knight Commander).
            The ladies: I was much disappointed by Norah Amsellem, whose Donna Anna was unfocussed and vibrato-ridden. Virginia Tola, after her opaque Mimì, sounded reinvigorated and sang with purpose and character, but her timbre isn´t Mozartian. Eliana Bayón as Zerlina does have the right kind of voice but her singing had some small lapses of intonation and she lacked charm. Also disappointing was conductor John Neschling, so good in concert with the Sao Paulo Symphony; but this "Giovanni" was often poorly coordinated and the playing dind´t have enough precision. The Choir was correct.
            The Argentino´s "Rigoletto" had some positive things in the casting and the production, but enough flaws to make it less than a success.  Pablo Maritano was the producer, Daniel Feijóo the stage designer, Sofia Di Nunzio the costume designer, and Gabriel Lorenti was in charge of lighting. Maritano went overboard in the initial scene, a tasteless orgy with plenty of nakedness, but he was better in other scenes, especially in the last act, with its interesting idea of a bridge joining Sparafucile´s house and the opposite coast of the River Mincio (also to Feijóo´s credit) and the inclusion of a sexual encounter between Maddalena and the Duke was here fully apposite (in other stagings one can´t understand why the Duke goes to sleep without having had his tryst with Sparafucile´s sister). I don´t agree with a medieval fortress when what we need is a Renaissance palace, and I was bothered by a gross change of text as the Duke enters Sparafucile´s house: he normally says: "Two things, a room and wine", but here: "Two things, your sister and wine".  Some of the costumes were quite attractive.
            Lisandro Guinis, a Platense living in Italy, has a rather limited voice, but his portrait of the misshapen Rigoletto was powerful and convincing. Darío Schmunck was stylish and pleasant as the Duke, though he hadn´t enough volume for this vast house. Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas (debut) sang an accurate Gilda and had a sense of drama. Christian Peregrino was a sonorous Sparafucile, Ernesto Bauer sang nobly albeit with not quite enough impact as Monterone, Mónica Sardi looked fine as Maddalena though her voice lacks harmonics. The others were in the picture, especially Emiliano Bulacios and Oriana Favaro.Good conducting by Guillermo Brizzio and excellent choral work (Miguel Martínez).

For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, julio 14, 2010

Symphonic music´s endless variety

            The symphonic  season proceeds apace and as the weeks roll on leave some indelible marks in our spirit. There have been valuable sessions from our local orchestras and also a distinguished foreign visitor, the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover (debut) under Eiji Oue, for Nuova Harmonia at the Coliseo; I will start this survey with them.
            One of the good musical points in Germany is the tradition of maintaining quality radio orchestras. NDR stands for Nord Deutsche Rundfunk, which means North German Radio, and it is sited in Hannover, an important city of Lower Saxony. The Radio Philharmonic was founded 60 years ago, so it is a postwar outfit. Its Principal Conductor during ten years until 2009 has been Eiji Oue, a Japanese with an impressive career who has also been the PC of the Minnesota Orchestra (at that time he came to BA and conducted our Phil) and who was chosen as tour conductor, although currently the PC is Eivind Gulberg Jensen. Every radio orchestra is supported by a tax on radio and TV users.
            I was sorry that Oue chose such a hackneyed programme: Brahms´ Violin Concerto and Dvorák´s Symphony Nº 9, "From the New World". And also that these scores cover chronologically such a restricted time: 1878 and 1893. But of course they are masterpieces, and both conductor and orchestra showed their mettle in them; the organism is typically German in its beautifully burnished mahogany tone and fine discipline, and Oue certainly has a sense of line and style, with the intensity to rise to the climaxes. In the Concerto we heard the violinist Isabelle Van Keulen (debut), much more convincing in slow dreamy music than in the virtuoso requirements, where some roughness intruded often. Oue suddenly became a clown addressing the public in the encores, although the Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmilla" (Glinka) was finely played, but I was quite bothered by his decisions both to play only the fourth part of Rossini´s "William Tell" Overture and by asking the audience to join in by applauding rhythmically. But the main point remains that it was worthwhile to get to know this fine orchestra.
            I recently referred to the recuperation of fine acoustics by our main orchestras and I mentioned that the National Symphony (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional) has finally returned to the Auditorio de Belgrano. But before that there were pre-season concerts at the Bolsa de Comercio, an over-resonant venue. I want to mention an interesting concert well conducted by Roberto Luvini, where I deeply enjoyed the marvelous "Missa brevis" by Kodály with the Coro Polifónico Nacional (also conducted by Luvini) and outstanding soloists: Soledad de la Rosa, Luis Gaeta, Alejandra Malvino; and going down one step but still good, Duilio Smiriglia and Verónica Canaves.  The First Part started with the Bachianas Brasileiras Nº 4 by Villalobos, an important score professionally played except for a doubtful horn, and the world premiere of the Concerto for timpani, plates and orchestra ("plates" are instruments such as the xylophone or the marimba), by our septuagenarian composer Roque De Pedro, a piece without much content but crafted with skill and easy on the ear (Marcos Serrano and Lea Prime were the able soloists).
            Unfortunately, the first concert at the Auditorio collided with the Dresden Philharmonic, so I missed Mahler´s Sixth Symphony under Pedro Calderón. But I was there for the concert of June 4, featuring Shostakovich´s  Symphony Nº 12, "The Year 1917", and Mozart´s Piano Concerto Nº 19, with Claudio Santoro. I found the pianist´s playing quite satisfying, with accuracy, style and charm, and the conductor was closely attuned to the style. But I couldn´t help lamenting that the originally programmed piece wasn´t done: the splendid Cherubini Requiem in C minor. Coordination between the Coro Polifónico Nacional and the National Symphony must be ameliorated; the Choir recently presented a programme of scores with piano accompaniment when they sound so much better with their original orchestral support; a couple of those scores should have replaced the Cherubini, for which allegedly the rehearsal schedule didn´t work out. Calderón gave its full due to Shostakovich´s Nº 12, which the conductor had premiered at the Facultad de Derecho (another of the bad acoustics that plagued the Orchestra in recent years); I´m told that Calderón has programmed this year at the Auditorio a number of works which he had been forced to do in venues that are inadequate. Nº 12 isn´t the best of Shostakovich by a long shot, but it´s still worth knowing and I welcome the opportunity to hear it in decent acoustics. Gilardi´s picturesque "El gaucho con botas nuevas", with its quirky rhythms, started the concert.
            Alejo Pérez led admirably a programme of Brazilian music in the context of three concerts of Latin-American composers as a homage to the diverse Bicentenaries. The Italianate and melodic Overture to Gomes´ "Il Guarany" was followed by the premiere of an attractive work, Radamès Gnattali´s Concerto for viola and strings, beautifully played by Marcela Magin; the composer was prolific and is still barely known here: this sample of his production was enticing.  The curiously named Mozart Camargo Guarnieri is mainly popular through his "Three dances" of 1941, especially the "Brazilian" , played this time much faster than in my Fiedler recording.  The concert ended with the imaginative and dense Bachianas Brasileiras Nº 7 in a very good performance, culminating in a majestic Fugue.
For Buenos Aires Herald

viernes, julio 09, 2010

Unusual repertoire enhances private opera

        Private opera companies always have a problem in making ends meet. So it is particularly meritorious when they choose unfamiliar material instead of the umpteenth "Tosca". Veterans such as myself have had such a surfeit of the standards that we jump for joy when finally offered a piece long awaited in vain. Last week I wrote about the ballet "Manon" and promised for next time my review of Puccini´s "Manon Lescaut" as presented by Juventus Lyrica. This isn´t a rarity, but the difficulty of the main roles –particularly the tenor- tends to make this first success of the composer far less done than his favorite warhorses. In fact, the last revival at the Colón was undistinguished (Salazar and Scibelli, 2004) and before that you have to go back to 1966 to find a worthwhile couple (Caballé and Tucker). I commend the courage of Darío Sayegh in the terrible role of Des Grieux (four arias, several duets and much exposed writing), whilst admitting that he doesn´t quite fit the bill: his vocal method in the highs produces tight and strident sounds. But his center and low registers are fine, he knew the part well and acted with reasonable conviction.
            Both he and his soprano, Eugenia Fuente, are rotund in figure and look older than their characters; it´s hard to find the ideal physiques for young Romantic lovers. Fuente was  impressive years ago as Menotti´s "The Medium", a very different part. As a teenager immoral coquette of Louis XV´s time, she tried her best, helped with adequate makeup and fine clothes designed by Ponchi Morpurgo. Her voice has an indefinite color, not quite soprano nor mezzo, but she sings with fine intonation and good line, though she strains a bit in the highest register. But she had a cold on the performance I saw, and both artists showed their mettle and professionalism in their reaction to an accident: unseen by the audience, at the end of the Third Act they had a bad fall from the "ship"; after 20 minutes in the dark (for no interval was scheduled) they sang the Fourth Act with fortitude. Ana D´Anna, the producer (and Artistic Director of Juventus) at the very end explained to the audience what had happened. I believe the announcement should have been made before the Fourth Act.
            The rest of the cast was uneven. Fernando Santiago has the right idea about Lescaut but his vocal means are scarce. Oreste Chlopecki was a black-voiced Geronte, adequate for an unpleasant old man. Sebastián Russo was correct as Edmundo and Lamplighter, Damián Ramírez sang pleasantly as the Madrigalist (this was an interesting innovation, a countertenor in a mezzo role), and the others were in the picture (Juan Feico, Norberto Lara, Enrique Borlenghi).  An acceptable orchestra was conducted with taste and passion by Antonio Russo, and the young Choir sang and acted with enthusiasm and accuracy under Miguel Pesce. Ana D¨Anna´s stage designs were spare but sufficient in the first three acts but her "desert" was rather ugly. Her acting indications were generally right. Morpurgo´s costumes, as usual with her,  very nice.
            Alfredo Catalani´s operas are rarely staged nowadays, but they were very popular during 60 years. They tend to have German ambience, such as "La Wally", last done at the Colón with Neblett in  1981, and "Loreley", now finally staged by Casa de la Ópera de Buenos Aires, at the Avenida, but absent since 1934 (with no less than Muzio!). The subject is  the love of a Rhine nymph with a human, of course ending badly. On a libretto by Carlo d´Ormenville and Zanardini on Heine´s poem "Loreley", this 1880 opera  has plenty of atmospheric orchestral writing and some expressive vocal pieces with rather advanced harmony.  
            I have often admired Adelaida Negri´s spirit of enterprise and her dramatic presence, whilst lamenting that her vocal means are no longer up to the requirements, and so it was again, though certainly she does better nowadays in this sort of repertoire than in bel canto. Two Brazilians sang with valuable voices and professional projection: tenor Miguel Geraldi and baritone Douglas Hahn. María del Rocío Giordano as Anna was lovely both in her acting and singing, and Víctor Castells was a stalwart Rudolf. The Ballet Surdanza did acceptably a very conventional choreography by Luciana Prato. The staging by Eduardo Casullo was based on projections of uneven quality and the movements were quite elemental. Good costumes by Mariela Daga. A rather green Choir sang under Ezequiel Fautario, and the Orchestra played tollerably under young Lucía Zicos, who showed promising qualities.
            I decided in 1992, as Director General of La Plata´s Teatro Argentino, to stage the Argentine premiere in French of Bizet´s "Les pêcheurs de perles", a charming Orientalist love story with a dramatic ending and very beautiful music. I was hoping that the Colón or Juventus would revive it, but this finally happened at the modest Roma of Avellaneda, where a very well-chosen team of principal singers made it worthwhile. Carlos Ullán, Laura Polverini, Sebastián Sorarrain and Juan Pablo Labourdette all sang  the rewarding music quite well. There was too much dancing of little Orientalism, and a very simple staging by Boris with stage designs of mediocre quality by Hugo Ciciro; good costumes from the Teatro Argentino. Very poor choral singing but acceptable playing from the Orquesta Sinfónica Municipal de Avellaneda, well conducted by Roberto Luvini.

For Buenos Aires Herald