jueves, septiembre 29, 2011

After twenty years a wounded “Lohengrin”

            Richard  Wagner is a fundamental composer in any opera season. But we´ve had no performances from this great creator´s works in our city since 2005 ("Die Walküre"). There was an absurd announcement back in 2008 about a "Lohengrin" in 2009, but the only possible venue (the Coliseo) wasn´t  accepted by Horacio Sanguinetti. Now Pedro Pablo García Caffi has programmed it and we finally have Wagner after six long years.
            Alas, we had a "Lohengrin" without a Lohengrin. Three tenors came this year to Buenos Aires and went back without singing their assigned roles:  Patrick Henckens in "The Magic Flute", Andrew Richards in "Simone Boccanegra" and Michael Hendrick in "Lohengrin".  Ill health or incapacity were the apparent reasons; ¿bad luck or bad choices? And if the latter, shouldn´t García Caffi be better informed? As it happens, the replacement for Hendrick, John Horton Murray, was a disaster in the first performance. Still another tenor, reportedly better though small-voiced, Richard Crawley, took over in the second and third performances (the fourth and fifth are still to come).
            Good casts are generally hired three years ahead, but here they do it only  months before, so we have what is available. But even so, good advising could surely avoid so many mistakes.
            Our last "Lohengrin" was in 1991, and the others in my Colón experience were in 1979, 1964 and in 1951, when I was twelve. Even in that first experience, I was vividly impressed by this wonderful work; I also saw performances in Vienna (twice) and DVDs from the Met, as well as heard  several recordings. I am struck by two main qualities: its intense lyricism, so melodic that during many decades it attracted Italian singers who did the main part in Italian (both Caruso and Gigli sang it in BA though not at the Colón); and its marvelous use of rhetoric: the ample concerted pieces or the heightened recitatives are very exciting. There is also the authentic aura of mysticism of the shimmering Prelude to Act One, as well as the famous Wedding March.
            But the darker side is very strong too: for "Lohengrin" concerns basically the battle between Christianity and paganism, as shown by the invocation of Ortrud to Wotan and Freia (a fantastic outburst). We are deep in the Middle Ages (Brabant –a region of modern Belgium- around  960), an age where religion mixed freely with magic. Ortrud  manipulates her husband Telramund to claim the Duchy of Brabant by a false accusation which will be solved by a joust (the Judgment of God) between Elsa´s knight Lohengrin and Telramund.
            Two members of the cast were outstanding: Ann Petersen (debut) as Elsa and James Johnson as Telramund. A tall beautiful Dane, Petersen looked and sounded the part, with a luminous voice of the right type, a nice line and convincing acting. James Johnson, who sang last year in Zemlinsky´s "A Florentine tragedy", is one of the best character baritones; with adequate makeup and black costume, he sang with dramatic impulse and technical skill a high, anguished role. Twenty years ago Kurt Rydl was a distinguished bass; now his enormous vibrato ruins any attempt of line, but he is still an imposing presence. Janina Baechle (debut), exceeded in weight, was a relatively good Ortrud, for she can act, but had trouble with the frequent very high "tessitura" for a mezzo. Gustavo Feulien was a nondescript Herald, a part that needs better color and projection. As to Horton Murray, after two desultory acts where neither vocally nor in demeanor was  he a Lohengrin, calamity struck with a croak as he sang "Grail" (¡) and from then on he coasted singing an octave lower.
            Conductor Ira Levin (debut), an American with a varied and long career, gave a mixed impression. The Orchestra, which had played very well recently in the "Trittico", was uneven, shockingly so in the glassy beginning of the opera. But things gradually jelled and by the time of the huge "concertante" near the end of the First Act Levin seemed fully in command. From then on, there were imbalances here and there but also some very good moments. No less than 33 players made up the offstage band (led by Guillermo Brizzio) that included 12 trumpets. With an augmented Choir (led by Peter Burian) who sang with lusty vigor (at times rather shouty), there was excitement aplenty though not always subtlety where needed.
            Roberto Oswald is our most seasoned Wagnerian. He had been responsible for the production of 1979 and for the stage designs of 1964 (with Pöttgen). Now, with the collaboration of Christian Prego, he did the production, stage designs and lighting, and Aníbal Lápiz created the costumes. The results were often beautiful, with symbolist aspects acknowledged by Oswald in a statement in the hand programme. Influenced by the Art Nouveau  with some rather kitschy colors and details now and then, the proceedings went smoothly, with Oswald´s hallowed symmetry, blessedly free from the ridiculous concepts of recent Germanic stagings (a chorus of mice in Bayreuth or of birds in Vienna). I disliked the small helmets worn by the soldiers and Lohengrin, as well as his costume, but others were fine, especially Elsa´s gowns. The swan appeared hazily as a projection. I liked the cathedral´s tympan, inspired by Autun´s, though not the mixture of styles inside the church. There was a very pleasant blue curtain drop.

jueves, septiembre 15, 2011

Another round of stunning virtuosi

            We are having quite a year for instrumental virtuosi; in fact, I´m having a hard time to cover the activity.  
            Two very different pianists were heard on the same day at the Colón. Last year the then 9-year-old Natasha Binder played Beethoven in the first subscription concert of the Philharmonic, and I was astonished by her attainments at such a tender age. Now the daughter of Karin Lechner is a year older but still a child, and already she showed signs of increasing musical and technical maturity in Grieg´s Concerto. Of course at this stage her outstanding natural talent depends on proper guidance; for that she has her mother and her grandmother Lyl De Raco de Tiempo. Natasha´s  fingers are able to encompass the difficult writing, but she also gave it musical sense and shape; minor smudges meant little in the overall accomplishment. Pity that the encore was a very rushed Chopin Waltz (Nº9). She was accompanied by the Orquesta Académica del Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón, better than it was in 2010 but still far from perfection. The conductor was Francisco Noya, who works in New England and showed himself a correct professional in such varied fare as Ives  ("The Unanswered Question"), Stravinsky (Suite Nº 2 for chamber orchestra) and Ravel (Suite from "Ma mère l´oye"), though coordination with Natasha was often dicey.  
            That very night there was an important soloist with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic: Cyprien Katsaris.  Born in Marseilles in 1951, he has had an outstanding career and it was good to have him among us. His interpretation of Beethoven´s Concerto Nº 3 was magisterial in the best sense, clean as a whistle in execution but giving its due to all matters of style. Paradoxically, for his concept was closer to Classicism than to Romanticism, he played (I believe it was a local premiere), the very interesting Liszt cadenzas, which of course inhabit a contrasting sound world. The encore was a surprise: his own improvisations as a homage to Liszt on famous fragments from ballets and operas, flowery, light and virtuosic indeed.
            Enrique Diemecke had a brilliant night. He accompanied Katsaris with utmost care and he offered a cross-over Osvaldo Golijov piece ("Last Round", very tango-ish). However, what really mattered was the command and acumen with which he obtained admirable performances from the Phil of two masterpieces: Richard Strauss´ "Death and Transfiguration", and Scriabin´s "Poem of Extasis", with its enormous orchestration (nine horns!), where the trumpet player played with distinction.
            One of my candidates for Concert of the Year will surely be the debut at the Colón for the Mozarteum of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen led by violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Not only was the playing of soloist and orchestra of the highest standard, but the programme was marvelous and their comprehension of the idioms involved ideal. Mozart´s Concerto Nº 3 for violin, Schönberg´s "Transfigured Night" in the 1943 string orchestra version, Haydn´s seldom played but very beautiful Symphony Nº80 in D minor and Mendelssohn´s perennial Violin Concerto were a succession of wonders. If the 36-piece orchestra is a perfect chamber outfit, both  when Tetzlaff led them or when they were on their own in Haydn, the soloist proved wholly admirable in  technique and refined taste. The encore was a sparkling final movement of Beethoven´s First Symphony.
            American violinist Joshua Bell is by now a staple of our seasons and always welcome. The flexibility, ease and communicative phrasing he showed in Bruch´s First Concerto are those of a master. His encore was fun: Vieuxtemps´ Variations on "Yankee Doodle". It goes without saying that the executions as such were of the highest rank. Well accompanied by Diemecke and the Phil, the night also offered a strong and convincing reading of Sibelius´ First Symphony, who established him as a great symphonist, and a valuable premiere by an Argentine composer: "Rituales amerindios" by Esteban Benzecry, a triptych successively Aztec, Maya and Inca. Ginastera showed the way, but the imaginative orchestration and the great variety of systems and procedures used show a valuable personality; this score is being promoted by Gustavo Dudamel. Diemecke again astonished by conducting from memory a very complex new score.
            A paragraph for the courageous denouncing by a member of the orchestra just before the beginning of the sad situation provoked by Colón Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi, who is bent on firing eight employees of the theatre, seven of them delegates from ATE. Attempted booing by a few was roundly rebuked by full applause.
            Sergio Tiempo is Natasha Binder´s uncle. Ravel´s Concerto suits him like a glove; with absolutely stunning ease and nonchalance, he negotiated the fearful hurdles of this fascinating divertimento with a jazzy swing, but he was equally admirable in the dreamy and refined passages, even managing to hold his own when accompanying the English horn melody in the second  movement. Accompanied with care by Guillermo Scarabino and the Phil (apart from an awkward high-lying horn bit), it was an interpretation to treasure. The third movement was repeated as an encore.
            Scarabino had a good night. He presented with taste and equilibrium one of Gerardo Gandini´s best postmodern scores, "E sarà", in which the composer transformed fragments from the Baroque and the Middle Ages with true refinement and invention. And Beethoven´s Fourth Symphony, even if the first desks weren´t available (and it showed), had a very good and orthodox traversal.
For Buenos Aires Herald

sábado, septiembre 03, 2011

Onieguin and Lucy are back

Early in the year, Tchaikovsky´s opera on Pushkin´s Romantic antihero, “Eugen Onieguin”, was offered by the Argentino of La Plata. Now a different “Onieguin” was presented at the Colón, and it was a pleasure to have the John Cranko ballet back. Walter Scott´s “The Bride of Lammermoor”, transformed into an opera by librettist Salvatore Cammarano and composer Gaetano Donizetti, was presented by Juventus Lyrica; dear Lucy is in the hands of the Italians “Lucia di Lammermoor”, maybe the most famous bel canto drama.
            John Cranko, who died at only 46-years-old of a strange allergy, was the very soul of the Stuttgart Ballet, and his narrative ballets were a great contribution to the repertoire. Both “Eugene Onieguin” and “The Taming of the Shrew” were conceived for his group and seen here when they visited us. “Onieguin” isn´t, as might be thought, the Tchaikovsky opera in a danced version, which would have been a difficult hybrid to pull off, but a collation and orchestration by Kurt-Heinz Stolze of fragments from Tchaikovsky´s other music: pieces for piano from “The Seasons”, his opera “Cherevichki” and the last part of the fantasy overture “Francesca da Rimini”, all well chosen for their adaptation to the contrasting dramatic sequences. The story follows the Pushkin original closely.
            First presented at Stuttgart in 1965 and revised in 1967, it was premiered here in 1979 with those extraordinary dancers, Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun; they repeated it in 1985. In 1994 the Colón Ballet prepared it for the farewell performances of Raúl Candal and Silvia Bazilis, and there was another splendid pair, Maximiliano Guerra and Alessandra Ferri. I am happy to say that the current revival was fully worthy of the splendid Cranko imagination and represents a remarkable step forward for our principal Ballet.
            Cranko intersperses the pas de deux por the two main couples (Onieguin and Tatiana, Lensky and Olga) with Russian-folklore-influenced group dances as well as a Polonaise. His language is Neoclassic, elegant and tasteful, but always akin to the psychology of his characters and at times quite Romantic. And the productions, both the beautiful original stage designs of Stuttgart with their emphasis on ochre hues and the 1994 designs by Pier Luigi Samaritani (now used again) so evocative and attractive in a contrasting range of blues, were gorgeous. Subtle lighting by Alfredo and Carlos Morelli and lovely costumes by Roberta Guidi Di Bagno completed an atmosphere of enchantment.
            Two stars of the 2011 Stuttgart Ballet were invited for the first cast (there were three casts and I write on the first): I was very impressed by the charm and ethereal quality of Alicia Amatriain, a long-legged Basque blonde which seemed to float most of the time in aerial ease, her accomplished technique always at the service of a Tatiana that goes from adolescent infatuation to dignified early maturity. The American Jason Reilly has the right looks for the blasé Onieguin and is a good foil with his strong movements to this Tatiana; he is an excellent partenaire. The poet Lenski  was nicely danced by Juan Pablo Ledo. Carla Vincelli contrasted with this Tatiana, for her Olga was petite, coquettish and perhaps too trivial. Prince Gremin was danced dignifiedly by Vagram Ambartsoumian. Virginia Licitra and Norma Molina fulfilled with professionalism their character roles. The Corps de Ballet was generally good, with special interest in some beautiful girls that dance with refinement. The work of Agneta and Victor Valcu as revival curators of Cranko´s choreography was outstanding in every sense.  The Colón Orchestra played reasonably well under Javier Logioia Orbe.
            Donizetti´s “Lucia di Lammermoor” is by now a hoary warhorse flogged to death, for it is staged almost every year; it´s time to give it a rest and remember the Donizettian British queens. The point of interest in Juventus Lyrica´s offering was actress Leonor Manso´s first operatic production. Although she transposes the action from the early eighteenth-century to the time of Donizetti, her concept was generally respectful of the music and the libretto, at times even too traditional. Two interesting things: she emphasized Lucy´s brother´s brutality, and in the Mad Scene she correctly makes Lucy smile as she remembers the happy moments spent with Edgardo. The minimalist stage designs were based on a huge disk which could be a fountain, a moon or a sun. Nothing in the stage indicated Scotland, and the Tower scene especially was quite unevocative. Stage designs and lighting were the work of Gonzalo Córdova, and the costumes by Mini Zuccheri were attractive if you accept the transposition in time.
            There were two casts although only one Lucy (I report on the first). Laura Polverini was an increasingly convincing Lucia, with adequate florid singing, although her timbre isn´t particularly ingratiating. Leonardo Pastore replaced the announced  Nazareth Aufe; he sang with some strain and a rather bland lyric tenor, though the end result was correct. Sebastián Angulegui as Enrico looked appropriately nasty, but his voice is too dry for bel canto. Roman Modzelewski was an adequate Raimondo (his aria was included). Iván Maier sounded rather green as Lord Arthur, Santiago Sirur gave an edge to Normanno (Enrico´s confidence man) and Verónica Canaves was a positive Alisa. With acceptable choral singing prepared by Miguel Pesce and pretty good orchestral playing under the young maestro Hernán Sánchez Arteaga, this was hardly a memorable “Lucia” but neither is it to be dismissed.