jueves, marzo 29, 2012

Mascagni double bill and varied concerts

          Although Pietro Mascagni was a prolific creator of operas, only the initial one has held the stage. But “Cavalleria Rusticana”, premiered in 1890 at 27, was the parting shot of “verismo”, and so it holds a distinguished place in the history of the genre. It was soon followed by another one-act opera of great success, Ruggero Leoncavallo´s “I Pagliacci” (1892), and as both are short they soon came to be coupled in the theatres of the world: “Cav-Pag” has been a feature of the repertoire ever since.             However, it doesn´t follow that it should always be done like that, and the coupling of two Mascagni operas written in immediate vicinity makes sense: “L´amico Fritz” dates from 1892, and although written in three acts, it is shortish (92 minutes), so it makes a reasonable (slightly long) evening, if you add the 72-minute “Cav”.  That was the decision of Ana D´Anna and Antonio Russo to start Juventus Lyrica´s season at the Avenida. “Fritz” was poorly done at the Roma (Avellaneda) some years back, but within the limits of the capital was last heard at the Colón in 1955.
            Alas, only a marvelous cast and orchestra can partially redeem the mediocrity of the plot;  based on a novel by the Alsacians Erckmann and Chatrian, the libretto by P. Suardon tells in mediocre language an elemental love story between Fritz Kobus, wealthy and generous feudal lord (no definte date is stated and I wonder about feudal lords still existing in late nineteenth-century Alsatia), and Suzel, a shepherdess; a matchmaker Rabbi (!), a young gypsy (Beppe, trouser role) and a couple of friends also intervene. Almost nothing happens, though some of the music is charming, especially the Cherry Duet, and the interlude is rather interesting. Thin stuff.         
D´Anna seemed aware of the lack of dramatic substance, and so invented two expedient: a wagon carrying performers (but “Fritz” isn´t “Pagliacci”!), and the duplication of the characters by puppets handled by visible puppeteers; however, this was more distracting than useful. Sebastián Russo´s timbre isn´t beautiful enough, though his singing was generally acceptable. On the other hand, Sonia Stelman, a Mozartian “soubrette”, has expanded her voice to a reasonable lyric register, and she does have charm and musicality. Cristian Maldonado had too much vibrato as the Rabbi. Verónica Canaves sang the gypsy well and has the right slim physique for the part. The two friends were agreeable (Iván Maier and Juan Feico) and Laura Benítez coped nicely with the small intervention of Caterina. An Orchestra made up mostly of Colón players wasn´t as accurate as expected, though Russo knows the style.
            However, “Cav” proved enjoyable and showed again that it is an attractive and sincere opera. In this I found D´Anna´s work very good, with authentic ambience and natural performances, and a minimalist but convincing scenery. The Orchestra was much better here, and the Choir was very good in both works (prepared by Russo, and Hernán Sánchez Arteaga in the off-stage choir of “Cav”).
            Sabrina Cirera showed great progress as Santuzza, her singing always intense and controlled. Darío Sayegh has the voice for Turiddu, although he was too unyielding vocally and in his acting. Maldonado was much better as Alfio. Canaves didn´t seem comfortable as Mamma Lucia, and Mariana Artaza sang a sexy Lola with a rather light voice. 
            The Buenos Aires Philharmonic presented a valuable concert with the debuts of Italian conductor Marcello Panni and British cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber (brother of the ultra-famous Andrew). Panni is Roman, born in 1940, and has had an important career. He showed command, a personal baton technique and good stylistic comprehension in three divergent twentieth-century works. Penderecki´s “Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima” dates from 1960 and I feel this music has aged; it didn´t affect me like it did forty years ago, and now the title seems opportunistic.
            For many people the definitive version of the Elgar Cello Concerto is the partnership of Jacqueline Du Pre and John Barbirolli. By that standard the interpretation of Lloyd-Webber seems too tame and intimate, as compared to the enormous drive and intensity of that famous partnership, and although Panni is a good musician, he doesn´t have the Elgarian phrasing in his bones. But on its own smaller-scaled, at times chamberlike way, the playing was refined and beautiful; Lloyd-Webber is a sensitive artist with a true sense of melody and his tone is always in tune ; he has the fluid technique for the fast bits, too. His encore was that melancholy Piazzolla piece, “Oblivion”, with pianist Marcelo Ayub.
            The splendid Second Suite from “Romeo and Juliet” shows Prokofiev´s genius at his best, and I listened with fascination to the seven fragments, going from lightness to high drama. Panni and the orchestra gave us a fully convincing reading.
            A brief reference to the National Symphony´s second concert at the Bolsa de Comercio. It provided an agreeable surprise, for the conductress, 33-year-old Yeny Delgado, who hails from  Cuba and is currently Assistant Director of the Salta Symphony, did a very professional job, having the measure of Franck´s complex symphony and of such a different piece as the Danzón Nº 2 by Márquez. She also accompanied proficiently Carlos Ovejero in the premiere of Gordon Jacob´s Trombone Concerto, a rare occasion to hear as soloist this difficult brass instrument; Ovejero is indeed an expert and the score falls pleasantly on the ear.

lunes, marzo 26, 2012

Doubtful start of La Plata´s “Ring”

            Last year something very special happened at La Plata´s Teatro Argentino: for the first time in their history they offered a Wagner opera -“Tristan und Isolde”- in German. Although the protagonists were below par, the other singers did very well, and so did the orchestra. To boot, the production by Marcelo Lombardero was a pleasant surprise.                 This year an even greater challenge was announced: the first production ever at La Plata of Wagner´s gigantic tetralogy “The Ring of the Nibelungs”, two this season and the other two in the next one, which will coincide with the bicentenary of Wagner´s birth. The theatre´s authorities must feel very sure of themselves and of the Argentino´s resources to tackle such a task. Alas, although their technical elements proved to be quite impressive, conceptually Lombardero´s work was impregnated by the worst European influences.
                As readers know, I´m completely against the “Colón Ring”, the conflation of 16 hours (in four days) into an enormous seven-hour marathon in a single day. Unfortunately it will very probably preclude a “normal” Ring from the Colón in the near future, so the possibility of a new full Ring at our theatre with great international singers, even in installments, has receded to the far distance (the last one ended in 1998). Which leaves us with only La Plata.
                The enterprise was labelled in the announcements as having an “Iberoamerican” cast and “a twenty-first century Latinamerican vision”. The first statement is a tall order, for Wagnerian voices don´t grow on trees and tend to be Nordic or German, but the double cast was very carefully chosen and at least in the Prologue, “Das Rheingold” (“The Rhine Gold”) coped quite well. We´ll see what happens when we get to the vocally much tougher later parts (in November, “Die Walküre”). In fact not quite all the artists were Iberoamerican, for the definition doesn´t include Spaniards (and one of them was born in the Canary Islands) or Brazilians (and two artists come from there), but most were.
                As to the second statement, it proved the Nemesis of this version. Several examples will prove the wrongness of the vision.
                First Scene: the famous Prelude based on a chord of E flat major admirably depicts the flow of the Rhine waves. Here well-filmed projections show the River Plate´s surface at first, and then the camera penetrates the waters and we peruse the bottom, with oil barrels, “Quinquela Martín” wrecks and all sorts of rubbish. And then, the Rhine maidens (Undines) appear, perched on industrial metal stairs, with the Ensenada oil installation in the background. Hardly the pure waters of the Rhine... The crucial moment when Alberich steals the gold is completely botched: up to then the gold was very poorly symbolized by a gold-colored pennant; Alberich slits the throat of an Undine in mafioso way (Wagner only writes that he steals the gold, a big nugget) and the gold is nowhere to be seen in his hands...By the way, there are six Undines, not the three Wagner wants. And all dance like Tinelli girls!
                Second Scene: It´s worth remembering that there are four groups of characters in “Das Rheingold”: the gods (and one demigod, Loge), creatures of light; the Nibelungs, ugly subterranean dwarves; the Undines; and the earthy Giants. And that the conflict concerns two main subjects: the gold and the ring made of it, as symbol of power; and the devious conduct of the main god, Wotan, who promises Freia (goddess of love) to the Giants as payment for the great fortress they built, the Walhalla. It´s a world of myth and fantasy, vaguely Medieval and Nordic. The symbols inherent in the story are plain to any normally intelligent person and not only there´s no need for any transposition in time and place, but it is fatally harmful. Here we see the Villa 31 (or something a lot like it) and then Puerto Madero, an aseptic high floor instead of the valley Wagner asks for; and the Walhalla is a slim tower crowned with a round platform. The Gods are all in white, with Fricka, the goddess of matrimony, looking like Jean Harlow. Of course, Donner (god of thunder), Froh (god of love), Freia and Loge (demigod of fire) all ascend by a modern lift. And they use DVDs and cellular phones... For some reason, the Giants come from somewhere else quite undetermined.
         The Third Scene (the Nibelheim, the mine where Alberich reigns) fares much better (I understand that a San Juan mine is used as background), and at least one moment is stunning: the enormous snake seen in projection gives us for just one minute a taste of what this production could have been. But again the capture of Alberich is very tame indeed. Good point: the descent and ascent to and from the mine are brilliant. However, instead of coming out to the earth´s surface , we find Wotan, Loge and Alberich in the same scenery as Scene 2! It´s arrant nonsense to see the Nibelungs (boys) bringing the treasure from the depths of the mine to, say, Floor 30 of a building in Puerto Madero... Ah, and Donner has no hammer but a gun, and Fasolt kills Fafner (his brother Giant) not with a mace but with that gun.  And Donner uses the same gun to make a wall come down (thanks, Roger Waters!). Alas, no rainbow and no bridge into Walhalla, which turns out to be a very kitschy contraption. I did like a cosmic Erda singing from a projection, but it hardly saved the day. For the record, the stage designs are by Diego Siliano and the costumes by Luciana Gutman; lighting by José Luis Fiorruccio; and no less than six people handle multimedia and effects.
                The musical side was generally good: the singers in both casts knew thir parts thoroughly and mostly had the adequate voices; and the disciplined orchestra responded professionally to the seriously considered reading of Alejo Pérez. The lack of power in the climaxes was due to what I felt was a wrong innovation: a roof covered the orchestra trying to mimic the Bayreuth mystical ambience.
                The cast. Wotan: Hernán Iturralde was steadier than Homero Pérez-Miranda but both were good. First-rate Frickas: Adriana Mastrángelo and Alejandra Malvino. Alberich (the most important part): the second cast´s Luis Gaeta was particularly impressive, because Héctor Guedes´s voice (first cast) is too soft-grained for this character, though he sang well. Quite satisfactory the two pairs of giants: Christian Peregrino and Ariel Cazes, Emiliano Bulacios and José Antonio García. Loge: the Peruvian Francesco Petrozzi (debut) was a revelation, always meaningful in his phrasing, whilst Carlos Bengolea was in better voice than usual and acted skilfully. Excellent both Frohs (Martín Muehle and Enrique Folger), and correct the Donners (Ernesto Bauer and Federico Sanguinetti). Very good the second Mime (Gonzalo Araya), passable the first (Sergio Spina). Rather dull the Erdas (María Isabel Vera, Claudia Casasco).  Acceptable the Freias (María Bugallo, Claudia Riccitelli). And very nice the three Undines in both casts (Victoria Gaeta, Gabriela Cipriani Zec and Florencia Machado; María del Rocío Giordano, Cecilia Pastawski and Rocío Arbizu).

domingo, marzo 18, 2012

Trendy “St Mark Passion” starts Colón season

             Osvaldo Golijov, born in La Plata 52 years ago, is the most famous Argentine living composer, though not the best. In fact he was better known in New York than in our city.  Until last week, when his most celebrated composition was premiered here starting the Colón lyric season: “The St. Mark Passion”. A colleague called it “the most important score of the twenty-first century”. I can´t concur, but it was certainly worth knowing.                 It is not an opera but an oratorio, albeit a “sui generis” one that needs some staging. It came about in a special way: back in 2.000 the Bach specialist Helmut Rilling convoked four composers to write Passions to commemorate the 250 years of Johann Sebastian Bach´s death. Sofia Gubaidulina did her “St. John” linking it to the Orthodox Church; Tan Dun rather ludicrously wrote his “St. Matthew” on the cycle of water (that´s the sort of thing this Chinese-American does); and Wolfgang Rihm controversially based his “St. Luke “ on the Holocaust. Rilling chose Golijov for the “St Mark” because he is South-American and Jew:  the founder of the Stuttgart Bach Academy wanted passions in four languages and traditions : Russian, English, German and Spanish.
                In the recent Colón magazine there is a very complete dossier (including the text) on Golijov and his “St Mark”, particularly a  comprehensive interview with the composer. His statements are quite interesting and candid. He is not a believer but feels that Christ was touched by the divine, and the project made him understand the values of Christianity. He is politically a leftist and he compares Che Guevara to Christ (¡?), whilst he blames Christ´s death on  the hierarchies, not on the people (but it is the “turbae” that shout “Barrabam!” when Pilate makes them choose which one to save, the thief or Christ...). As he explicitly tells us, Argentine religious mores seemed to him boring, and so he went to syncretic sources of inspiration: namely, Bahia (Brazil) and Cuba, with their mixtures of African animism and Christianity; especially, the yorubas and their candomblé traditions.
                As his “Ainadamar” opera showed (it was premiered last year at La Plata), he is very skillful in the combining of different musical idioms (in that case, Flamenco and the European classical music tradition). His technique is highly accomplished and in this “St Mark” there is a fantastic array of different academic and popular styles, going from Gregorian roots to candomblé.  He tells us that he wanted an “Africanised Spanish”, although in fact considering his sources an “Africanised Portuguese” would have been more logical.  Texts: some chapters from St.Mark (the most direct of the four Gospels, closest to the oral tradition of Africans), fragments of Job´s Lamentation, a lovely Galician poem by Rosalía de Castro, and to finish, “Kaddish”, in Aramean, the Jewish prayer for the dead, instead of the Resurrection.
                The orchestra has a small group of strings, lots of percussion, a good deal of brass (including a fanfare), and features instruments that come from folk and popular music: varieties of guitar (tres, cuatro), birimbao, African percussion instruments. An immense choir subdivides into three groups in some pieces, and several of them are soloists. As Mario Videla´s programme notes specify, in the 34 numbers, we hear “samba, bossa nova, Gregorian chant, ´son´, Stravinskian echoes, guajira, flamenco, tango, instrumental enchantments ´a la Steve Reich´ , klezmer and iddish melismas and some Bachian touches”.  The story is frequently narrated by the choir and Christ can be sung by them or by a solo woman. I could have done without three capoeira dances, and by the weak personification of Christ; in fact, the theatrical elements (which have scant physical space) are distracting and mediocre.
                The same group of artists (apart from the orchestral strings) have been doing this work in many parts of the world since its 2000 premiere, and have recorded it twice. So what the Colón bought is a well-routined package. Central to the success it has had is the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, admirably guided by María Guinand: they are precise, involved, expressive even in their gestures (in fact the best theatrical factor of the evening) and completely musical.  And their soloists all did their bits with commitment. The Colón strings collaborated well.
                The Orquesta La Pasión, built ad-hoc, has five percussionists led by Mikael Ringqvist; a guitarist; a bassist; two trumpets (deliberately harsh and wildly Latin-jazzy); two trombones; and a rare hyper-accordion stretching the sounds electronically. One of the percussionists is also billed as salsa singer! They are excellent players. The Choir soloists unfairly aren´t credited in the hand programme. I was much impressed by Biella Da Costa, Venezuelan, described as jazz vocalist; in fact, her deep contralto and inflexions are rather those of a gospel singer, and this is indeed a gospel! María Hinojosa Montenegro is a Catalan soprano; she sang with much taste and radiance, although with excessive vibrato in some notes.
                Accepting his presence, Deraldo Ferreira is a good capoeirista (and player of berimbau). Reynaldo González Fernández is an Afro-Cuban singer and dancer doing mainly the job of Evangelist as a Senegal story-teller might: his raw, harsh projection is not what the Colón  generally hears, but I suppose this is what Golijov wanted.
                Final reaction: too much “boom-boom” at times, but mostly worthwhile in the trendy fusion movement. Some parts were genuinely moving.

domingo, marzo 11, 2012

Positive symphonic start of the season

  The long Summer desert of classical music is coming to an end. Come March and the orchestral musicians are back from their protracted holidays (main reason for the total hiatus in symphonic activity). The Colón´s orchestras start their rehearsals and the National Symphony (as usual very late in announcing its plans) begins what it calls its pre-season activities. In two consecutive days (Thursday and Friday) the Buenos Aires Philharmonic started its subscription series at the Colón, and the NS gave the first of three non-subscription free concerts at the Bolsa de Comercio.             The Phil this year will offer 16 subscription concerts instead of the 20 it used to play; but at least the organism had an apparently normal start of activities, not as last year, when both Colón orchestras( the Resident –“Estable”- and the Phil) were on strike. An isolated good point in an otherwise bad panorama happened at the very end of last year, when finally proper  competitions were held to cover over 25 vacancies in the permanent staff of the“Estable”  (they were until then held by artists under contract). Rumor has it that the same thing will happen at the Phil; I do hope so, for the traditional system of “permanent corps” (“cuerpos estables”) has beeen fortunately upheld by the mentioned competition, putting to rest fears of dissolving stability and of a new system of organisms made up purely of artists under contract, with no assured continuity of labor. But 16 concerts is  too little; I surmise that it perhaps happens because the Phil may be used as complementary orchestra in the November “Colón Ring” (no single orchestra can stand seven hours of playing). Also, I feel that it´s an exaggeration to have its Principal Conductor, Enrique Arturo Diemecke, in nine out of sixteen concerts.  It relegates variety, and there are so many interesting conductors that haven´t been here.
            Diemecke has a thing with commemorations and this year he decided to include four scores by our great pioneer Alberto Williams: 150 years of his birth and 60 of his death. Unfortunately he eschewed the desirable possibility of programming one of the composer´s nine symphonies, so neglected. In fact he began by one of Williams´ oldest pieces, the First Concert Overture of 1889. Some colleagues wrongly said that it is rarely done, when on the contrary it is the most popular of his symphonic works and has been played about a dozen times in the last 60 years in this city. A strong structure influenced by his master César Franck, the Overture is certainly pleasant and accomplished. It was nicely played and conducted with conviction  from memory.  
            It was a fine idea to programme Shostakovich´s First Violin Concerto, probably the best of his concerted creations. Written in 1948, the composer wisely waited until after Stalin´s demise to premiere it (the dictator was his nemesis). At the request of his interpreter, the great David Oistrakh, after the enormous cadenza he gave the soloist a break letting the orchestra expose the principal material of the final Burlesque. Intense music no holds barred, it is a challenge that was roundly met by Italian-American violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg (debut). Playing with enormous concentration, the mature artist showed herself fully involved and in command in the dense, introspective writing that alternates with fragments of disquieting fast-forward and sarcastic music . Very well-accompanied by a conductor and orchestra on their toes, the 38-minute score shone as the major work it is.
            Richard Strauss´ “Domestic Symphony” is in fact a huge four-section tone poem (48 minutes). Created in 1903 after his numerous masterpieces of the genre (suffice it to mention “Don Juan” and “A Hero´s Life”), this programmatic symphony (later complemented by the “Alpine”) was and is controversial for it purports to recount the married life of the composer and his wife Pauline de Ahna; the three principal subjects are “the husband”, “the wife” and “the boy” (a lovely melody for an instrument in disuse, the “oboe d´amore”). Fantastically complex, wonderfully orchestrated and always Straussian to the core, it has its ups and downs but most of it is fascinating.  Again Diemecke showed an almost miraculous memory and an admirable comprehension of the idiom. The augmented orchestra wasn´t always up to par (a bad trumpet mistake, unclean horn attacks) but the work has truly virtuoso requirements and this was more than a brave try. A very full audience was enthusiastic.
            The National Symphony was under their Principal Conductor Pedro Ignacio Calderón in their “rentrée” at the Bolsa de Comercio. For some reason (I don´t know if there are ameliorations) the acoustics felt truer and less resonant than of yore. The organism was in fine fettle and under the inspired conducting of their longtime leader gave us a splendid rendition of that beautiful symphony, Dvorák´s Sixth, certainly the best before the final famous three. Please do play the others!
            The First Part started with an unusual and in a way moving premiere: the Suite for strings and countertenor by Aby Rojze, 77-year-old violinist of the NS who started a composing career at 70 with the guidance of Augusto Rattenbach. Tonal music with an acute sense of melody and harmony, I enjoyed the three-movement score, as well as the lovely singing of Pehuén Díaz Bruno. Finally, the talented violist Silvina Álvarez played beautifully a charming work by Carl Maria Von Weber, “Andante and Hungarian Rondo”.