viernes, septiembre 28, 2012

Sullivan´s Utopia, Offenbach´s Hoffmann, Pergolesi´s intermezzo

 At last, Gilbert and Sullivan are back in our city after decades of neglect. Being a veteran, I fondly remember the G and S series of the 1960s conducted by Alannah Delias at the Xirgú, plus some later attempt by the Belgrano Day School. And I had the great pleasure of experiencing true G and S style from the D´Oyly Carte Company at London´s Savoy in 1964.  So as you see I´m an enthusiast of these masterpieces of light music and of Victorian-era satire.

Lírica Lado B is an enterprising independent opera concern that brings us annually interesting premieres since 2009 (Telemann, Haydn,Martín y Soler). I have generally liked the musical side and differed with their stage conception. When I heard that they were planning on a G and S "opera" (they are really operettas) I was happy but apprehensive for the right style is of the essence. Their choice surprised me: not one of the famous pieces ("The Mikado", "H.M.S.Pinafore", "The Pirates of Penzance") but one that is rarely done even in England: "Utopia, Limited", which I had never heard (I know there´s a D´Oyly Carte recording ). They are offering it on September, October and November Saturdays at the curious venue of the Sala de Representantes of the Manzana de las Luces, an old amphitheatre.  

They did it in English taking a comprehensible though regrettable liberty: all the spoken parts were taken by a talented actress, Camila Dougall, who had quite a job playing diverse characters. This made the singers´ task distinctly easier, for they didn´t have to learn their spoken parts.  "Utopia, Limited" is well worth the acquaintance. A late work, it was premiered in 1893 at the Savoy. The peaceful island Utopia is ruled by King Paramount; his realm is disturbed by the arrival of Princess Zara, schooled in England, plus seven Britishers: they are the Flowers of Progress (subtitle of the "opera") and will run havoc on Utopia´s ways. The plot is based on the clash of cultures and an innovation: each person will be a Limited Company. And the Party System will be instituted.

The "opera" is long (2 h 40´) and the music is very charming and catchy, done with superb professionalism . It was a pleasure to hear it, for the musical side was mostly good. The 21-member orchestra could be bettered (especially the trumpet) but Camilo Santostefano, the conductor, kept things together efficaciously. Some of the singers stood out: Alejandro Spies (Paramount), Selene Lara (Zara), Tamara Odón (Lady Sophie), Pablo Urban in a spoof on tenors, Gabriel Carasso as a witty Goldbury. The others (nine singers in ten parts) were in the picture, all of them ready to have and give fun, including the ten-member choir.

I have often been critical of producer Diego E. Rodríguez, for his farcical ideas ran counter to the eighteenth-century origin of the composers named in the second paragraph. His concepts haven´t changed: a crown of toilet paper rolls, recycled technological trash,etc., are used to concoct a particular type of pop aesthetics. His "Utopia" certainly has little to do with the D´Oyly Carte style, but this time it worked far better: the painted faces to symbolize different cultures, the frantic and maintained rhythm, the infectious enthusiasm of the singer-actors, made me smile frequently.  Stage designer Ángeles Miranda and the costumes of Virginia de los Santos were legitimate parties of this zany evening.

Offenbach´s opera "Les contes d´Hoffmann" has been done often in BA, often with good results. It proved too big a challenge for Avellaneda´s Roma. The Orchestra (Avellaneda Symphony) couldn´t handle the score under the erratic leadership of César Tello, the Choir (of the Avellaneda Municipal Music Institute) sang passably under Armando Garrido and the cast was very uneven, from rather good (Leonardo Pastore´s Hoffmann, María Gabriela Ceaglio´s Antonia, Trinidad Goyeneche´s Nicklausse) to correct (Antonello Tramonti´s Luther and Crespel, Luciano Straguzzi´s four villains, María Soledad Espona´s Giulietta, Miriam Casanova´s Mother) to downright bad, especially the Olympia, and simply horrible (the four character tenor roles done by one "artist"); the lower categories will remain unnamed in this review.

At the Roma they are always low on money and "Hoffmann" demands a big production. With the help of nice costumes (loaned, I was told, by La Plata´s Argentino) and minimalist stage designs by Ana Rodríguez Quiroga, Jorge Luis Podestá tried his best to tell the stories cogently, but a lot was very basic.

Pergolesi´s "La serva padrona" started in 1733 as an intermezzo between acts of his opera seria "Il prigionier superbo" ; it was the germ from which was born the "opera buffa". On the following year "La contadina astuta" had the same function in "Adriano in Siria" . Completely overshadowed by "La serva padrona", "La contadina astuta" has finally been premiered recently in BA by the group La Cetra led by Sergio Antonini at the Auditorio Fundación Beethoven. On an extravagant and poor libretto by Tommaso Mariani, Pergolesi (and Hasse?) have composed agreeable and quirky music, barely 39 minutes long; it was "clothed" this time with an attributed Pergolesi Symphony in F and a bona fide Pergolesian Sonata in G for violin and continuo.

The seven-member instrumental group was acceptable, the production by Daniel Viola poor, Walther Schwarz was very good as Tracollo and Laura Rozas funny but miscast: you need a young soubrette for this part.

For Buenos Aires Herald


An avalanche of good concerts

            I am, as everyone else, incapable of ubiquity, but still my weekly catch of concerts is pretty high and I always have a backlog in this intense season. Here´s a batch of rather interesting nights.

            The Mozarteum Argentino brought us the Israel Chamber Orchestra under Yoav Talmi at the Colón; I saw the second and last concert. The rather short programme was compensated by no less than three encores from the soloist, Alon Goldstein  (piano, debut) and three from the orchestra. I disagree about the programme as such: after three splendid fragments from Gluck´s "Orphée et Eurydice", two scores by Mendelssohn are one too much; either go the whole hog and give us a mini-festival of the same composer, or find a third one for variety.

            Quibbles apart, this was a magnificent session: the 37-member ICO is really excellent, perfect for the repertoire in size. The strings are of unusual quality; beautiful sound, complete unanimity, pliant phrasing; the flute soloist in Gluck was lovely; and the ensemble bears the marks of long acquaintance in their mutual empathy. Of course, veteran conductor Talmi is an essential part of the high level obtained: he has a sense of style and a complete command clearly seen in his always apposite gestures.

            Goldstein played mercurially Mendelssohn´s First Concerto, but the glittering music can take this speed in stride, and when the time came to relax and sing, that is what we got, with beautifully liquid sound. The encores were two Ginastera pieces  (that of the "gaucho matrero" not quite idiomatic) and –a pleasant surprise- Talmi joined him in the four-hand version of Dvorák´s Slavonic Dance Op.46 Nº12. 

            Then we had the freshest and most precisely executed version of Mendelssohn´s "Italian Symphony" (Nº 4) I´ve heard in many years. And the encores were very good: the "Hoedown" from Copland´s "Rodeo" (an exhilarating choice), the four last Romanian Dances by Bartók (accomplished concertino!) and a very stylish last movement from Mozart´s Fortieth Symphony.

            I heard two quite agreeable chamber concerts from Festivales Musicales, both at the Auditorio de Belgrano. In the first, the Quinteto Filarmónico de Buenos Aires (first wind desks of the Philharmonic Orchestra) gave us a very well-played panorama of rather light twentieth-century music. The delightful suite by Milhaud, "La cheminée du Roi René" (in this case "cheminée" is "walk", not "chimney", and the good 15th century King of Provence ambles along with invigorating charm) was followed by Barber´s mellow "Summer music". The "Three Moods" by Andrey Rubtsov were a premiere from a young composer born in 1982 and was the only piece from our century, for it dates from 2002; the music expressed well "Void", "Sadness" and "Frivolity".

            The Second Part was Latin-American: the very Brazilian Suite Op.37 by Oscar Lorenzo Fernández and "Aires tropicales" by the Cuban Paquito D´Rivera. Both scores are skillful amd well-varied. As encores, two tangos. The special sound of a wind quintet is certainly nice to hear from time to time, and all the players are expert.

            I have good memories of preceding visits paid us by the Ensemble Stanislas, who hails from Nancy (France). Though I never understood why they call themselves "ensemble" when they are a straight string quartet. Paradoxically, the quartet had guests in this programme and so they formed an ad-hoc group. They played two scores by Debussy in the First Part, and in this case it was justified to contrast this very French music with Schubert´s "Trout" Quintet in the Second Part, for there are no other Debussy pieces compatible with a members of a quartet. The Trio in G minor is a youthful work rarely played; it shows promise but there´s little  innovation yet. The Quartet on the other hand is a masterpiece of his early maturity. The players, not quite virtuosi,  are good, and they know the style inside out, very essential in this case. In the Trio Argentine pianist Hilda Herrera made a professional contribution. As to the "Trout", it went well without being outstanding. Herrera had an accident in one passage, but was otherwise very competent, and Luis Tauriello (bass) was correct.  I was sorry to miss (clash with another event) L´armée des Romantiques, a trio made up of soprano,

flute and piano, in a fine programme of french music, not all "romantique".

            There was a splendid night at the Auditorio when the National Symphony was conducted by Francisco Rettig, a talented Chilean well-known here. After the anodyne start with " tango" by Vicente Moncho, there was a stunning execution of Prokofiev´s ultra-difficult Concerto Nº2 with our  Marcelo Balat (who is now the orchestra´s pianist) a tremendously accurate and sensitive soloist, who even vanquished the redoubtable very long cadenza. And then, one of the best readings of Stravinsky´s seminal "Rite of Spring", where the fantastically complex rhythms were solved to a remarkable degree.  Two scores almost centenary and still vibrantly modern.

            A final mention for a concert by the Swiss Galatea Quartet at the Museo Fernández Blanco. They were truly admirable in a valuable programme with music by Swiss composers and Schubert. The former: from Bloch a bunch of beautiful atmospheric pieces and then Rudolf Kelterborn´s Sixth Quartet (2001), new proof of the reliable quality of this composer. Finally, an intense and romantic view of Schubert´s Quartet Nº 14, "Death and the Maiden". The MFB continues to offer intelligent programmes week after week.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, septiembre 24, 2012

Mixed fare: ballet gala, Harlemopera, singing competition

            Recently I wrote about a valuable ballet gala at the Coliseo. I´m sorry to report that  the following announced ballet performances there have been cancelled: September 21 and 22, the Brazilian Transit Danza would have presented Somorrostro; in the same month, 25 and 26, we will be left without the experience of seeing again the memorable French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem, she of the interminable legs. Last year the Colón offered a mostly positive ballet gala, though with some ups and downs; I´m afraid that this year´s gala was on a lower level.
            First, I don´t accept that the Colón took the entire Second Part with the "Shadows Act" from the Petipa/Minkus "La Bayadère", done complete earlier in the season. At the Coliseo the invited dancers were in both parts. Hogging the main spot in an international gala just won´t do. As I had seen the same dancers when I attended the whole show, I opted out. Second, of the eight foreign dancers six came from German institutions; one hopes for an ampler choice, even if the artists in fact have different nationalities. Third, the chosen repertoire was distinctly uninteresting. And fourth, not all the guests were quite first-rank. Of course, given the style of most of the music, it was recorded.
            The First Part (the only one I´m reviewing) started well, with an agreeable pas de deux from an old ballet, not often seen: "Esmeralda" (the street dancer in Hugo´s "Notre Dame de Paris"), by Jules Perrot and Cesare Pugni. Two beautifully pure Romantic dancers, Iana Salenko (Ukrainian) and Marian Walter (German) from the Berlin Ballet, gave a splendid exhibition of precise style. By the way, Salenko had been at the Coliseo, but there the group of which she is a member was called the Berliner Staatsballet, Berlin City Ballet.
            I was thoroughly bored by the music of Philip Glass and the choreography of Tim Plegge in "Sonnet XXII", well danced by Soraya Bruno (Argentine) and Martin Buczkó (Muscovite) to no avail. They are supposed to be from the Staatsballett-Berlin Opera; it´s very confusing. A breath of fresh air came with the sound track of "Singing in the Rain": Gershwin´s "I got rhythm" with the voices of Gene Kelly and kids, but with a charmingly jazz-inflected choreography by Johann Koborg, brilliantly done by Steven McRae (Australian) from the London Royal Ballet. Again I fell under the sopors of Phillip Glass in "Transcended", a cliché-ridden choreography by Terence Kohler, with Katherina Markowskaja (Ukrainian) and Tigran Mikayelyan (Armenian) from the Bavarian Opera Ballet, Munich; a strong disparity of height between the dancers makes for an unharmonious pair physically, although they dance well.
            Salenko and Walter then danced "Not anymore", a rather good choreography by Raymondo Rebek on singularly inane pop music by Lhasa de Sela. The announced "Onegin" by Fonseca/Tchaikovsky (not the usual Cranko choreography) was substituted by another piece (unmentioned in the programme) with music by Chopin and Gluck and unannounced choreography, rather pleasant and with nice projections, by Bruno and Buczkó doing a professional job. Roberta Márquez (Brazilian) and McRae danced the gorgeous MacMillan love scene from Prokofiev´s "Romeo and Juliet"; they were certainly very good, until one remembered the supreme poetry of Alessandra Ferri with Julio Bocca. Finally, that hoariest of pas de deux, the one from "Don Quichotte" (Petipa/Minkus) where the mentioned disparity between Markowskaja and Mikayelyan was much in evidence; they danced well but any ballet goer has seen many other performances  much more remarkable.
            Years ago Gregory Hopkins had considerable success here leading gospel groups. Now he was back leading the Harlem Opera Ensemble (debut) at AMIJAI. It was a worthwhile evening. Eleven singers, a saxophone player and (I believe) a trombone are led from the piano by Hopkins with his well-proven  assured command. It was a long and varied concert, where the First Part was a potpourri of varied pieces and the Second a good cross-section of Gershwin´s wonderful "Porgy and Bess". Among the voices I was surprised to hear a fine countertenor (Patrick Dailey) for this isn´t a type of voice associated with the chosen repertoire, but it sounded quite beautiful. Otherwise the best voice was Barry Robinson as Porgy. Of the others, apart from Cameron Jones who was below par in Kern´s "Ol´Man River", the five girls and the other men were mostly good, some details apart. 
            Repertoire: two Negro Spirituals, a Dvorák melody,  three rarely heard pieces from musicals by William Grant Still, four Weill songs (two from "Lost in the Stars"), three enchanting pieces from Joplin´s "Treemonisha" (I long for an Argentine premiere of the whole thing) and five admirable fragments from a little-known musical by Duke Ellington, "Queenie Pie". As you see, quite innovative for our medium. 
            Two years ago the ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón) had a good idea: an International Singing Competition. Apart from the Colón seven theatres intervened: the New York Met, London´s Covent Garden, Moscow´s Bolshoi, Seoul Opera, Sao Paulo Opera, Santiago de Chile´s Opera, Berlin´s Deutsche Oper. They thinned down 300 candidates to 21, and from those, 8 were selected to give a concert at the end of which the best 4 would get prizes from a distinguished jury: singers Sherrill Milnes (Chairman), Kiri Te Kanawa and Sumi Jo, plus Leonore Rosenberg (Associate Artistic Administrator of the Met), Nicholas Sears (Director of Vocal Studies of the Royal College of Music, Great Britain) and Renaud Loranger (Artists and Repertoire Producer for Deutsche Grammophon). 
            The winners were: María Florencia Machado, mezzo, Argentine; Jung Nan Yoon, soprano, Korean; Jaquelina Livieri, soprano, Argentine; and Alexey Lavrov, baritone, Russian. Well presented by Martín Wullich and well-accompanied by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic under Enrique Arturo Diemecke, this was a joyous night for the ISA  and  Argentine singers. The four winners will get an important push for their young careers.
For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, septiembre 17, 2012

The marvels of great violin playing

             In just eight days our city witnessed the marvels that two hands led by a sensitive brain can elicit from a small wooden box with four strings, and the wonderful music great composers have conceived for it. First Sarah Chang played the Sibelius Concerto with the BA Philharmonic under Enrique Diemecke; a week later Hilary Hahn gave us (with the same orchestra and conductor) the First Violin Concerto by Prokofiev; and the day after this, the very welcome return of Maxim Vengerov became one of the halcyon concerts of the year, partnered by pianist Roustem Saitkoulov. Although both ladies are redoubtable, especially Hahn, I will give pride of place to Vengerov, for to me he is David Oistrakh´s successor, and I conceive no higher praise.

            Vengerov is now 38; he was born in Novosibirsk and now lives in the USA. When quite young he came here invited by the Mozarteum Argentino and dazzled the audience. Now he was back as a sterling replacement of Evgeny Kissin´s concert in the Abono del Bicentenario; as you may remember, Kissin cancelled due to the demise of his father. As to Saitkoulov, who made his local debut, he was born in Kazan (Russia), studied with the brilliant Georgian Elisso Virsaladze (two visits to BA), won a covey of prizes and has played with many important orchestras; he looks in his middle thirties.

            One rather strange fact is that Vengerov, at the very top of his career, took a four-year sabbatical from concertising, a hiatus in which he taught and meditated; a year ago he was back in the circuit, for the immense pleasure of worldwide audiences. For indeed he is a model: a complete musician, a man of wisdom and superlative skill. His programme was long (about 100 minutes)  and made up of contrasting masterpieces by three greats: the Bach Partita Nº2, the lovely Sonata-Duo by Schubert and that mightiest of sonatas for violin  and piano, Beethoven´s Nº 9, "Kreutzer".  I had the immense pleasure of following them with scores and verifying once more that the most exact and scrupulous respect for the indications always leads to the best results: musical notation is a very precise guide ever since the eighteenth-century if you know the style and have the right intuitions.

             The pure mechanics in Vengerov are so completely assimilated, the sound is so  perfectly tuned that you feel his whole purpose is traversing a piece of music and presenting it whole as if were a medium of the composer. Bach´s suite of dances, crowned with the monumental Chaconne, is the greatest solo violin music ever composed, and in long years of concertgoing I have never heard it so perfectly realized with modern strings.           Enter Saitkoulov, and he was a revelation: in complete accord with Vengerov, he proved to be an equal partner, as behooves a sonata player. His agile, beautiful and expressive playing plus Vengerov´s subtle phrasing and uncannily exact articulation  gave us a lyrical and heart-warming Schubert. And the huge "Kreutzer" had all the tremendous power it needs in the outer movements and all the extreme refinement of the variations in the middle slow ones.

            Encores: two Brahms Hungarian Dances, Nos. 1 and 5, probably in Joachim´s arrangement (the originals are for piano) framed the exhilarating Wieniawski Scherzo-tarantelle, a stunning tour de force in the hands of Vengerov. And finally, an exhibition of total singability with the sweetest (but never mawkish) sound: Massenet´s Meditation from "Thaïs", I suppose in Marsick´s arrangement.

            I can´t confirm it but I seem to remember that Sarah Chang visited us before, though this isn´t mentioned in her biography of the hand programme (but neither was Vengerov´s first contact with BA). Anyway, this still young artist born in Philadelphia has had an outstanding career after her debut as a child prodigy, and she chose one of the most difficult Concerti, that by Sibelius, to show her qualities. The Colón stalls nowadays have variable acoustics, and I never hear violinists well enough when I am given a seat at the extreme right of row 9. So, although impressed by the resources and talent evidenced by Chang, sometimes she sounded too wispy in music that needs more presence. However, it was always clear that she is a major violinist. Generally Diemecke is an excellent accompanist, but this time I felt that were uncertain moments and some bad joins.  Instead, I was very impressed by the Orchestra and the conductor in Bruckner´s mighty Fourth Symphony, Romantic, where they could stand comparison with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Mehta.

            Two years ago Hilary Hahn wowed critics and audience in an impressive recital at AMIJAI where she audaciously played Ives Sonatas. Now (and I had the luck of being better seated) she was marvelous in Prokofiev´s First Concerto, which happens to be my favorite among twentieth-century violin concerti. Perfect mechanism and the subtlest nuances in lines drawn with a fine pencil rather than with heavy painting put into relief the exquisite ideas of Prokofiev at his most lyric, and this time Diemecke and the Phil delivered a lympid acompaniment. Her encores: two Bach pieces, an allegro, and the Sarabande from the Second Partita, both impeccable. Before and after, we heard two overplayed masterpieces: a fine performance of Debussy´s "Prelude for a faun´s afternoon", very nicely done, and Beethoven´s Fifth Symphony, which only found its feet in the last movement in an abnormally unclean reading.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Juventus Lyrica stages the Viennese “Don Giovanni”

            Two years ago Juventus Lyrica staged Mozart´s "Così fan tutte" with a historicist orchestra under Hernán Schvartzman. Now it was the turn of the mozartean "Don Giovanni" led by the same artist.  In both cases JL had the collaboration of the Dutch foundation OPERA2DAY, created in 2007 with a similar purpose as JL: " to promote the development of young operatic talents". Schvartzman is Argentine and a graduate of The Hague´s Royal Conservatory in orchestral conducting; he had previously studied with Antonio Russo. The ample (for Mozart) orchestra had 41 players, ten from various countries (USA, Brazil, Japan, Italy, Israel, Holland) and 31 from Argentina (including two living in Europe, as the concertino Mónica Waisman, working in Germany).

            There was another innovation: what we heard wasn´t the Prague version plus the Elvira monologue from the Vienna revision (too good to be left out in "normal" revivals) but the straight Viennese one, which means that for the first time here we heard the buffo duet between Zerlina and Leporello; unfortunately, however,  the marvelous "Il mio tesoro" of Don Ottavio was left out. I sorely missed it and I think that some flexibility was in order, considering that the sole motive of the elimination at the Viennese premiere was that the tenor wasn´t good enough; well, Carlos Ullán can certainly cope with that aria, as he has done in earlier seasons. The added duet is minor Mozart, interesting to hear, for any unknown Mozart is worth at least one acquaintance, but certainly below the level of the other pieces in this wonderful opera.

            There was a further rarity: as in the Viennese first production the same singer had done both Masetto and the Commendatore, they did the same here. And again this literalism didn´t work, for in fact Mozart´s singer must have been rather unusual as the vocal requirements are quite different: buffo bass the first, deep dramatic bass the second. Máximo Michailowsky fits the bill as Masetto but not as the Commendatore. And in his case there was no cover for the latter role, as there was for all other parts.

            I saw the performance of September 9, which gave me the opportunity of seeing the only European of the double cast, the Dutch baritone Martijn Cornet (debut). A good thing, for he has both the right voice, capable of fortitude but also of being mellifluous in the Serenade, and the "physique du rôle". Sometimes he sang hectoring and shouting, but this was a general fault, nowhere more marked as in Mariana Carnovali´s Elvira. I wonder if this general tendency to exaggeration was imposed by Schvartzman or by producer Ana D´Anna, or by both of them, but it was a bad thing for the musical line: Mozart needs greater cleanness and precision and you can have this without diminishing the dramatic aspect. Carnovali has a splendid voice; however, she was far from the exactness of florid singing she exhibited in her "Cenerentola" of 2010.            Macarena Valenzuela did well as Donna Anna; she needs to polish her style but she has the means and the beauty. Laura Penchi, as usual with her, was charming and professional in her Zerlina, but a bit more containment wouldn´t have come amiss. I do think that the currently snow-thatched Ullán should accept some appropriate wig and look younger, especially in an institution called Juventus (conversely, Michailovsky didn´t look old enough as the Commendatore). But he sang with refinement his "Dalla sua pace", although he too overdid the accents in the recitatives.

            To my mind Juan Salvador Trupia y Rodríguez (long name indeed) has done as Leporello the best job of his career; he is versatile (I recently praised his Attila), has real comic wit, agility, a fine voice and great professionalism. The frequent dialogues of master and servant were the best thing in this revival.

            A colleague blasted unmercifully the orchestra and its conductor; I can´t accept it. Doubtless there were rough spots, though they were generally were in tune (a tricky matter with gut strings), but as the music progressed the coordination between pit and stage ameliorated considerably, and the actual playing was generally decent. I don´t agree with all of Schvartzman´s tempi or editorial decisions, but it was an honest attempt at historicism, and we need them. A good remark: in the supertitles appeared the statement that the players would take five minutes to tune, as it is a historicist orchestra (they used a fortepiano played by Manuel de Olaso, to my mind too free in his ornaments and extrapolations: even the destiny motif of the later Beethoven Fifth!).  The resolution of the added stage bands was very poor in the First Act and null in the banquet scene of the Second: as I saw "Don Giovanni" in the small Prague Tyl Theatre (where it was premiered), I know it can be done in rather restricted stages, such as the Avenida´s. The Chorus under Schvartzman was alright.

            As happened years ago, I was disappointed by the stage designs of Ana D´Anna, based on a bunch of wardrobes; it had no beauty and little functionality. The lighting was also too basic. The stage movements were much better, if we except the heavy underlining of certain musical bits and some incongruities. The best thing was the costumes of María Jaunarena, of Mozart´s time, as inventive as they were beautiful.
For Buenos Aires Herald


jueves, septiembre 13, 2012

Mercadante and Muti, a package from Europe

            In this frankly exotic Colón opera season, apart from a Verdian standard ("La Forza del Destino"), we have seen the premieres of an oratorio (Golijov´s "Passion according to St. Mark"), Enesco´s "Oedipe", a concert version of Händel´s "Rinaldo" and Szymanowski´s "Hagith" as well as  the revival of Schönberg´s "Erwartung". As if there weren´t enough novelty for one year, a wholly imported package from Europe gave us the premiere of a Saverio Mercadante comedy, "I due Figaro".

            Pros and cons of this enterprise:
1)      After about 120 years, our city gets to know a Mercadante opera. In the second half of the nineteenth century, several of his dramatic operas were seen in our old opera theatres. But the twentieth century forgot him entirely in our midst.
2)     This premiere is the result of an investigation by Paolo Cascio (who gave two lectures in BA these days), of the Musicology Department of the Madrid Universidad Complutense, who found the music and prepared the edition with the help of Víctor Sánchez Sánchez (UT Orpheus Editions).
3)     As the result of an intrigue by a prima donna, the opera couldn´t be premiered in 1826; the madrileños finally heard it in 1835 at the Teatro Príncipe. And then, oblivion.
4)     Cascio made his discovery known to one of the greatest opera conductors we have, Riccardo Muti, and he took it upon himself to lead a coproduction that would include (apart from the Colón), the Ravenna Festival, Salzburg´s Easter Festival and Madrid´s Teatro Real.
5)     A valuable young  cast was assembled, along with the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini founded by Muti in 2004 and the Philharmonia Chor Wien, founded in 2002 by Walter Zeh.
6)     The producer is Emilio Sagi, a Spaniard born in Oviedo, well-known here for his refined view of zarzuela. The Argentine Daniel Bianco, who lives in Spain, created the stage designs; the costumes are by Jesús Ruiz, and the lighting by Eduardo Bravo. Choreography design by Nuria Castejón. In other words, a "castizo" view of  a Sevillian plot.
7)     The librettist, Felice Romani, was one of the most active and recognized of those times, and this libretto had been written for an earlier opera (1820) by Michele Carafa.
8)     The Colón only lends the theatre, the whole thing is an imported package. This means that, considering that there was no production in Golijov and Händel, the Colón workshops have very little work this year and I can´t help believing that this is a deliberate decision to minimize them.
9)     As the style of the opera is a carbon copy of Rossini, the choice of "La Cenerentola" as the following opera of the season is frankly objectionable. With only six operatic titles (I discount the oratorio and the "compact Ring") better planning is needed.
10)   Muti has long been a champion of forgotten operas. Appreciated here live only as a concert conductor with the Philadelphia and La Scala Orchestras, we finally had him in the pit and all the lucidity, balance and elegance of his style transpired in his beautiful reading with an orchestra shaped by himself, a sterling example of what a youth organism should sound like: disciplined, immaculate and dynamic.
11)    The Viennese choir meshed nicely both in its fluent singing and practiced acting with the soloists in creating an authentic atmosphere of early nineteenth-century operatic comedy.
12)   Is Muti´s enthusiasm justified? Partially. The music certainly falls easily on the ear and is very well written in the Rossinian style, but there are sections where the artisan rules rather than the artist; however, there are inspired arias and skillful ensembles. And the libretto? It is substandard Romani, being particularly silly that Cherubino should be a second Figaro, considering that this purports to be  a sequel of "The Marriage of Figaro" (Mozart/Da Ponte on Beaumarchais). I do like the introduction of Plagio, a poet that is looking for "il soggetto di una comedia" (the second title of this opera), similar to the poet in Romani´s libretto for Rossini´s "Il Turco in Italia". But otherwise the amorous shenanigans rarely are interesting to watch.
13)    The cast let us meet several vocalists of good quality and young. I especially liked the refined Susanna of Eleonora Buratto, but Annalisa Stroppa (Cherubino), Asude Karayavuz (Countess) and Rosa Feola (Inez) all were worthy of the Colón. Of the men, tenor Saimir Pirgu (The Count) was the best, though Omar Montanari gave point and charm to his Plagio. A notch below were Mario Cassi (Figaro) and Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Torribio).
14)   The production was blessedly traditional and tasteful; I was only bothered by the columns that sometimes obstructed the view but otherwise this was period opera the way it should be done.
15)   Should we further investigate Mercadante? By all means, but putting the accent on his mature dramatic operas: "Il Bravo" and "Il Giuramento".

Arcadi Volodos, the eleven-encore pianist

            This season is being one of great pianists and violinists. We had the visits of Lang Lang, Schiff and Buchbinder (pianists); and of Mintz, Chang, Suwanai, (violinists). Now we had the debut of the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos, 40-years-old, long famous for his amazing dexterity. He gave a recital at the Colón for the Abono del Bicentenario. At the end, apart from confirming that he is an important pianist -though with flaws- he had played an astonishing eleven encores. Although he was trumped by Daniel Barenboim, who years ago offered more than a round dozen, those eleven pieces amounted to a third part of a short concert and some of  the people who stayed were afterwards commenting outside the theatre and trying to identify the chosen scores, all of them rather unfamiliar: a rosary of his personal taste.
             A curious thing that all three famous pianists of this "Abono" placed a Schubert Sonata, and if Kissin had been able to offer his recital, he would have also executed one. Strange, for Schubert sonatas aren´t easy to understand, and their values are intimate and sometimes abstruse. One of the most uncompromising is Nº 14, in A  minor, D. 784. It starts with a severe movement reminiscent of the initial fragment of Beethoven´s Fifth Symphony in its sparing use of short motives and pregnant silences; Volodos opted for a rather slow tempo sustained with conviction; his pianism was infallible, but I felt that his touch in "fortissimo" wasn´t schubertian but lisztian, too brusque and forceful, far from Schiff´s control. However, the sound was beautiful when he played softly, and this was again shown in the dreamy slow movement. And the Finale, with its "avant la lettre" similitude to Smetana´s "Moldau", was stunning in its relentless drive.
            His choice to close the First Part was inusual for a celebrity of virtuoso feats: the introspective "Three Intermezzi" op.117, by Brahms. Although there was much beauty and sensitivity in his readings, I felt that tempi were too slow and the music needed more pulse. And now to Liszt´s huge, seminal Sonata in B minor, touchstone of great pianists. I confess to considerable disappointment: it is wrong to think that this sonata can be placed wilfully: on the contrary, the closer you come to note values as marked the better its splendid structure appears. Volodos distorted motives from the very beginning, he played the fast bits too fast and too slow the slow ones. And he annoyingly blurred descending scales thumping away with grotesque magnification in the deepest part of the clavier.
            And now, always seraphically calm, began the long string of encores, prompted by an audience that didn´t seem to have enough and by his apparently great desire to play. Well, circumstances were so rare that the Colón Press Office did something probably unprecedented: it sent to the critics a list of encores. Unfortunately they mentioned only eight of the eleven, but thanks anyway, for we were all nonplussed at least partially.  It was interesting that some were transcriptions by Volodos himself (his first record was indeeed called "Transcriptions")  and that no less than three pieces were by that delicate master of understatement, the Catalan Mompou. Also, most were slow, soft and short, charmingly played miniatures. 
            1: a poetic "Nocturne, S. 207, ´En rêve´ (´Dreaming") ", by Liszt. 2: Mompou/Volodos: "Sólo las flores sobre ti" ("Only the flowers over you"). 3: a virtuosic "Malagueña" by Lecuona as arranged by Volodos (stunning). 4: a Schubert "Menuet, D.600" that sounds quaintly Baroque. 5: The trilly Mompou piece "Jeunes filles au jardin" ("Young girls in the garden") from the suite "Scènes d´enfants" ("Children´s scenes"). 6: a fabulous performance, even with its excesses, of the "Rákoczi March" by Liszt/Horowitz/Volodos. 7: the Siciliana as arranged by Bach of Vivaldi´s Concerto RV 565, very cleanly played. 8: something slow and evanescent; Scriabin?  9: an Argentine piece. 10: Mompou: "Música callada" ("Muted music"). 11: unidentified. 
            Balance: Schiff is my sort of player, searching and noble, but both Lang Lang and Volodos are valuable executants of the first rank.
            As a complement, I want to refer to the Cappella Istropolitana, an interesting group from Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) who replaced the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields (they cancelled) in the Nuova Harmonia subscription series at the Coliseo.  It is led by concertino Robert Maracek, a portly gentleman who was revealed as very able and orthodox. The 18 players comport 14 strings, two oboes and two horns (which allows them to play a goodly number of symphonies of the classical period). Their collective sound is meaty and well-tuned, with fine mechanical control, and their versions may not be innovative but neither are they boring; only a few horn fluffs disturbed an evening of good music. 
            One choice was especially worthy: Joseph Martin Kraus, with similar dates to Mozart´s (1756-92), was the greatest musician of Gustavus III of Sweden´s court. His Symphony in C minor, Vb142, disquieting, very "Sturm und Drang", is quite interesting and well built. The author is  unknown here but very welcome. The sweet-and-sour Concerto for strings by Nino Rota is very characteristic of this Fellini-associated composer. The lovely Dvorák String Serenade is an evergreen. And Mozart´s Symphony Nº 29 is one of the best of his early period. Encores: a splendid movement from a Haydn symphony, a good Piazzolla tango and a Slovak melody.
For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, septiembre 09, 2012

DiDonato and Jo: The art of singing

            In just one week two important singers have shown their art at the Colón: American mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato and Korean soprano Sumi Jo. The first made her debut in our city with two concerts for the Mozarteum, accompanied by David Zobel (also debut). The second is here as part of the jury of a singing competition in which she has as co-jurors (among others) no less than Kiri Te Kanawa and Sherrill Milnes. Her presence induced the Korean Embassy to organize a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of diplomatic relations between Korea and Argentina.  It was free, Argentine tenor Darío Schmunck also sang, and the Orquesta Académica del Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón was led by Enrique Diemecke. 
            DiDonato has been considered for years one of the very best Rossini mezzos, along with Cecilia Bartoli and Elina Garança; some add Viveca Genaux to complete an illustrious quartet. We may say that in this particular repertoire we are traversing a golden age. In opera DiDonato also sings Mozart, Händel, Massenet, and even Richard Strauss. In her recitals she alternates songs with operatic arias. I found her choices very interesting and out-of-the-way, which certainly has merit. Fernando Obradors (1897-1945) is little-known, but his seven "Canciones clásicas españolas" are gems, especially "Del cabello más sutil". They were sung in correct though not quite idiomatic Spanish,  with fine comprehension of their subtleties and superior vocal refinement. The timbric quality for my ears isn´t always beautiful but most of the time it is; sometimes she uses a guttural tinge  for expression affecting the vocal line.  Zobel is French and a master of the art of the accompanist, blending a perfect mechanism with the utmost sensitivity of phrasing; he is the habitual partner of DiDonato and they mesh wonderfully.
            The two Händel arias showed two sides of the singer: sweet and fluid in "Semele" (Oh sleep why dost thow leave me), virtuoso florid singing in the terribly difficult "Dopo notte, atra e funesta" from "Ariodante" (if I prefer Janet Baker, it is because I am very partial to her timbre and artistry; in agility they are even).
            Then, arias based on Beaumarchais: two from  Mozart/Da Ponte´s "The Marriage of Figaro": Cherubino´s "Voi che sapete" and Susanna´s "Deh, vieni, non tardar" (with the previous recitative); the third from Rossini/Sterbini´s "The Barber of Seville": Rosina´s "Una voce poco fa". Cherubino suits her perfectly, and this particular Susanna aria also, although it is a soprano role (the whole thing wouldn´t be convincing probably). I was disappointed by "Una voce poco fa", very willful and plagued with doubtful aggregates.
            I was much happier with "Assisa a piè d´un salice", Desdemona´s marvelous aria from Rossini´s "Otello", sung with a refinement and beauty that rivalled Von Stade´s recording.  Then came quite a treat: "Venezia" (1901), five songs in Venetian dialect by Reynaldo Hahn, charming and melodious, done with insinuating inflexions by this versatile artist.  Stefano Donaudy´s "O del mio amato ben" used to be a Muzio specialty; it was beautifully phrased by DiDonato. The brilliant "La Spagnola" by Vincenzo Di Chiara (1880-1937) ended the programme.
            Encores: following a similar line, though previous in date, the funny "Canzonetta spagnuola" by Rossini. An agreeable version in homage to our country of Ginastera´s "Canción al árbol del olvido". Then, the best thing of the night: an absolutely stunning demonstration of technical ability in "Tanti affetti" from Rossini´s "La donna del lago". And a curious adieu to our public: "Over the rainbow" from Arlen´s "The Wizard of Oz"; it certainly didn´t trump the exquisite innocence of the teenager Judy Garland, but it was nicely sung. Zobel was a tower of strength throughout. I disliked the very American comments (quite unnecessary) of the singer at various points of the evening.
            Sumi Jo had great successes at the Colón: Gilda in "Rigoletto" (1997), "The Queen of Night" in "The Magic Flute" (1996) and Zerbinetta in "Ariadne auf Naxos" (1993) are fondly remembered as high examples of the art of florid soprano singing. I´m happy to report that her comeback concert was impressive. After Beethoven´s "Coriolan" Overture (a bad choice for this context) we heard the variations on "Ah! Vous dirais-je Maman" from Adam´s "Le toréador", where, well-partnered by flutist Gabriel Romero, she sang fast scales with bell-like, pure tones. She still looks very beautiful, although her dressing style was kitschy.  "Caro nome " from "Rigoletto" was admirable except for  poor diction. Then Schmunck sang two arias with a small but accurate voice: "Una furtiva lacrima" from Donizetti´s "L´elisir d´amore") and Lenski´s aria from Tchaikovsky´s "Evgeni Onegin". The duet "Lippen Schweigen" from Lehár´s "The Merry Widow" was played for laughs and was quite un-Viennese. 
            A Korean song, "Ari arirang" by Jungjoon Ahn, was preceded by the orchestral "Can- Can" from Offenbach´s "Orphée aux enfers", and followed by the automat´s song from the same composer´s "Les contes d´Hoffmann", marvelously well sung and acted. The concert, without interval and short, had the compensation of four encores: a lovely "O mio babbino caro" (Puccini´s "Gianni Schicchi"), a curious homage to Argentina with Panizza´s "Canción de la bandera" (from "Aurora") sung by both artists, another Korean song, and the Toast from "La Traviata" with both singers. The orchestra under Diemecke played agreeably, and the conductor showed his proverbial adaptability.
For Buenos Aires Herald