miércoles, septiembre 24, 2014

From Verdi´s revolution to Weill´s despair

           Verdi´s revolution? Yes, indeed. That´s what "La Traviata" is. "Traviata" means  a fallen woman. What Verdi did was, for the first time, to put such a character as the protagonist of an opera with an essential feature: she is a contemporary of the composer.  

            Considering our libertine times, it is hard to imagine the impact such a libretto had, even if Piave offers a sweetened, toned down version of the famous original, Alexandre Dumas Fils´ "La dame aux camélias" (habitually called "Camille" in English). The Venetian censure (at the time held by the Austrian Empire) forced a change from the Parisian 1840s to the last stretches of Louis XIV´s reign! Only later was he allowed to stage it in the proper time.

            Of course it was well-known that Dumas´ novel was partly autobiographical and that it was mostly a true story. In our times Mauro Bolognini made a revealing film with Isabelle Huppert telling the stark biographical facts of this woman who from misery raised herself to Parisian society by dint of her beauty and careful choosing of rich lovers. When real love appears in her life she is already condemned by tuberculosis and dies at 23.

            Marie Duplessis/Marguerite Gautier/Violetta Valéry are the same person (real life-Dumas-Verdi). Dumas is extremely precise and full of information about the life of such a "heroine", who has to encompass a very intense social net, show the best jewels and costumes and have a loge at the Opera.  This explains why in Verdi´s opera in two acts there are lavish parties thrown by the "ladies", the First in Violetta´s house, the Third in her friend Flora´s residence.

            My parameter for Dumas is Garbo´s presence and voice and for Verdi will always be the voices of Muzio and Callas.

            After a long hiatus after Wagner´s "The Flying Dutchman" (in April), the Argentino of La Plata finally presented Verdi´s "La Traviata". As Artistic Director Guillermo Brizzio was (unfortunately, for he was a responsible and knowledgeable man in charge) replaced briefly by Gabriel Senanes, and recently by Valeria Ambrosio, whose hardly acceptable claim for such a post is as stage director of musicals such as "Priscilla". She opted for a sure hit.

            The theatre has many troubles: low salaries, poor maintenance, mediocre budget, need to cover many vacancies, lack of good cultural information of the authorities that supervise it (main culprits of the grave mistakes in recent years). Now at least there is a plan offering ballet, concert and opera in these four last months of the season.

            Back in 2013, a production of "La Traviata" by G. Tambascio fell through due to labor troubles.  Willy Landin took over this revival and has taken multiple tasks:  producer, stage and costume designer.

             I believe in Visconti´s obsessive care for the right ambience: a true image of Paris in the 1840s done with refinement.  Landin gave us an almost surreal kitschy 1930s view, with strange contraptions instead of a normal staging: to the right an immense piece of furniture with a glass as main space for the principals, who sing from a height; a vast space below for the chorus and some unnecessary dancers. Big mistake: the First and Third Asts have the same decor though they are different houses! But at least Violetta´s costumes were becoming (though out of the right historical style) and the movements of the singers were reasonable.

            I was intrigued by the sole import; Violetta was sung by an American soprano who made her debut in Argentina: Elizabeth Blanke-Biggs. She is a handsome artist with an important career and a vast and contrasting repertoire (e.g., Lady Macbeth and Liù in "Turandot").  I found her voice rather unsettled in the First Act, somewhat harsh and with uneven florid singing, but from the Second Act on she was better and better, her voice rounded and full in every register and displaying a talent for acting vocally.

            Both Darío Schmunck (Alfredo) and Omar Carrión (Germont) were predictable: the tenor, now looking rather portly and mature, sang with good line and little volume, and the same applies to Carrión but with subtler interpretation. Eugenia Fuente was a good Flora and Patricio Oliveira a weak Gastone. The others were acceptable.

            The chorus (Hernán Sánchez Arteaga) and the Orchestra responded fully to Carlos Vieu´s admirable leadership, almost always very authentic in tempi and accentuation.

            When Marcelo Lombardero started on a career as a producer about twenty years ago he put on the Weill-Brecht "Mahagonny Sonspiel" with great success. Now he has shown a new production of it at the Usina del Arte´s chamber hall, and again he has demonstrated his empathy with this style. As it is short, fragments of "Happy End" and "The Three-Penny Opera" were added to round up the evening.

            We are in the dark expressionist world of the 1920s Weimar Republic, that disastrous period of decay that led to Nazism, transmitted in terrible images by painters such as Dix, Grosz and Beckmann. Here all are thieves and whores, and the bittersweet crossover music of Kurt Weill jells perfectly with the stark anticapitalism of Bertolt Brecht.

            Four male singers and two girls offered good professional jobs, with quality singing from María Victoria Gaeta and Cecilia Pastawski, though the authentic anguish of a Lotte Lenya was absent. Accurately accompanied by eleven players well directed by Annunziata Tomaro, Lombardero and his team gave us the right ambience.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

A white unstaged condensed “Porgy and Bess”

            "Porgy and Bess", by George Gershwin, is –no doubt about it- the greatest opera ever composed by a United States composer. That a first-generation American whose parents were Jews from Odessa understood idiomatically the mores, music and sensibilities of the black people Down South is almost a miracle. Add to it his genius (the only authentically first-rate crossover composer of the Twentieth Century) and his solid technique (to boot he also became a splendid and very personal orchestrator) and you understand why "Porgy and Bess" , his only opera although he wrote many admirable musicals, is absolutely indispensable. 

            It is also one of the most difficult operas to keep in the repertoire, unless...it´s a black company. For this is the "sine qua non" condition: only black voices can do justice to music that was thought especially for them. The timbre, the inflexions, the body language, just don´t work unless you have black artists on stage.

            I was very lucky with "Porgy...". In my first batch of LPs back in 1952 (I was 13) I received an album with a selection of "Porgy..." by the original cast conducted by Alexander Smallens. I then knew that the first complete recording had been made, led by Lehman Engel, and I got it some months later. And then came the surprise: in 1955 Everyman Opera, a black company led by Smallens, premièred the opera here at the Astral Theatre; seeing it on stage gave me the extra dimension I needed to convince myself of the stature of this opera.

            A long wait for a revival followed, until Sergio Renán brought the Virginia Opera Company in 1992 to the Colón with an interesting "Porgy...", of course fully staged and with a black company. After that, silence.  The wait was tempered by acquiring a marvelous 1989 CD interpretation conducted by Simon Rattle, certainly the best.         

            Last year I was happy to review an unexpected première: Scott Joplin´s "Treemonisha", written much earlier than "Porgy..." (respectively, 1915 and 1935); a vocational group staged it in blackface, emulating Al Jolson.  But both were preceded by Frederick Delius´ valuable "Koanga", a Florida  story (the composer was a plantation owner, by the way), dated 1904 (I hardly believe that it will be premièred here). So there are other black operas (I didn´t name them all)  but "Porgy..." reigns.

            Twenty-two years after the 1992 performances it is high time to see again a black staged version, but it´s very costly: you have to bring over a black company from the States. I have long liked the people of the Ensamble Lírico Orquestal, especially the leading couple, conductor Gustavo Codina and soprano (and coordinator) Cecilia Layseca. They are enthusiastic and enterprising and have managed to keep on with their projects almost by themselves, mostly with good results. But I think that this time they bit the wrong apple.

            The title of this article says it: "white, unstaged and condensed"; such conditions mean that this "Porgy..." can only be a stopgap; we need the real thing. And there is a decision by Codina that I contest: he made his own (well done) jazzy arrangement of the original (for jazz band, the hand programme says); why, if he has his Agrupación Sinfónica de Morón presumably available?  And why include two almost inaudible violins? The other instruments were well chosen: 2 saxophones, 1 flute, 2 clarinets, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass, piano and percussion. Fourteen in total.

            They played rather well and Codina knows how to swing as conductor. He also led an uneven but eager Coral Ensemble Adultos prepared by Layseca.

            They had a bad break: the supertitles system broke down; Layseca did her best to convey the sense of the selected numbers, but of course it wasn´t the same for the audience.
            They selected 18 pieces, including all the best known, of course. Taking as a guide the Rattle recording, this amounts to 70 minutes, reasonable for a vocal concert; but the opera really lasts three hours and ten minutes. It didn´t help that a couple of numbers were out of the right order.

            The singers had a Mission Impossible. The two that were closer to the mark were Lídice Robinson, who is from Ecuador and sang Serena´s moving "My man´s gone now", and Juan Salvador Trupia hit with his strong voice and demeanor the right style for Crown, the brutish stevedore that seduces Bess. Mario de Salvo (Porgy), Andrea Maragno (Bess), Layseca (Clara) and Clodomiro Forn y Puig (Jake) tried hard and are good professionals, but this is not for them. And Marcos Padilla was far from the particular very popular style of Sportin´ Life,  who induces Bess to become a drug addict and sings the famous "It ain´t necessarily so".

            All in all, a brave effort well received by the audience. But...

For Buenos Aires Herald

The quirkiness of opera: “The Tales of Hoffmann”

            "The Tales of Hoffmann" ("Les Contes d´Hoffmann") is a unique opera in the repertoire. It has no influences and it inhabits a world of its own. The posthumous masterpiece of Jacques Offenbach, the creator of operetta as a genre, has remnants of that style but basically it shows a degree of musical imagination and of technical command that are absolutely amazing.

            The Colón offered it in 1921 and 1936, but where it really had a definitive lease of life was with the splendid presentation of 1969 (Maag, Erlo, Bacquier, Konya, Mesplé, Harper). Afterwards in different productions it was revived in 1972, 1980, 1993 (a splendid Alfredo Kraus), 1994 and 2001 (with Neil Shicoff).  From then on, various alternative companies have staged it, including Juventus Lyrica some years ago. It was Juventus that  insisted now with this work, then and now with a production by Ana D´Anna, but this time with many aspects reconsidered.

            This opera  has a Prologue and Epilogue at a tavern, and then successive acts about Olympia,  the automat doll; Giulietta, the Venetian courtisan; and Antonia, a young singer with a bad heart. In all, the protagonist is  Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, famous for his tales both fantasmagoric  and  supernatural (by the way, he was also a composer and wrote ten operas!).

             Three of them were chosen by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré  for their 1851 "fantastic drama"; Barbier (minus Carré, who had died) adapted it as a libretto for Offenbach, who passed away in October 1880 leaving the opera practically finished, although it was presented at the Opéra Comique on February 10th 1881 with recitatives and part of the scoring by Ernest Guiraud (the same composer who did the recitatives in "Carmen").  As there are variations in the editions, the Juventus programme should have been clear about which one was used. Anyway, this one had the presence of the Muse (spoken part), put the Giulietta story second instead of Antonia´s (I agree), and presented some musical fragments that aren´t habitual.

            I read elsewhere that in this opera it´s the ensemble that counts and the quality of the voices secondary; I disagree on the second point, the vocality is difficult in several parts and the protagonist has an exhausting participation with plenty of high notes. It is  one of the most trying roles in French opera. As a character he is so ingenuous and blind to realities that I believe Hoffmann the writer would have been appalled to become such a personage, and the Barbier libretto, whilst witty and expressive, has its weak points, especially in the very chequered Venice Act. But the music is so beautiful most of the time that it sweeps all before it.

            I have no doubt that this one of D´Anna´s best jobs. The most positive thing is that the show has continuity, everyone has the proper movements for its character: even the chorus acts with total involvement. Add to it the fact that she aims at an early Nineteenth Century ambience, in which she is helped by the very attractive costumes created by her daughter María Jaunarena, and that the stage designs and lighting of Gonzalo Córdova are sufficiently suggestive, though of course the budget of a private company isn´t quite up to the display that "....Hoffmann" ideally should have.

             Faults: the mediocrity of the makeup, that gives us a young villain as well as a young Crespel (Antonia´s father) when both are old. And the four villains (played of course as Offenbach wanted by a single bass-baritone) don´t look sinister enough.  There are more : Antonia´s mother should be a disembodied voice, not a presence on stage; and the Muse should be subtler, less erotic, and not be present in the final scene. But the end result is certainly positive.

            I was quite happy with the brio of the orchestra (except some acidity from the violins) and the fine agreement with the stage shown by the young Brazilian conductor André Dos Santos, and the Chorus was splendid in every way under Hernán Sánchez Arteaga.

            I write about the second cast (the first is mentioned between brackets when it is different). As Hoffmann Enrique Folger (Mariano Spagnolo) seems to be passing through a difficult patch; the voice is big but the control of it wavers a lot and the timbre is often harsh; but he is intense and communicative. The villains (Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle) were taken by a young bass-baritone, tall and thin, with a very short previous experience: Felipe Cudina Begovic (Pol González); although the voice is serviceable, he sounded and acted very green, as well as having awful French. Norberto Lara was a funny clownish Spalanzani; Pablo Scaiola sounded firm as Crespel (a replacement for Juan Font); Darío Leoncini was quite colorless as Frantz (Scaiola); the others were in the picture.

            Laura Pisani (Natalia Quiroga Romero) was a spectacular doll, with added super-high florid singing. Although very sonorous, Eugenia Fuente (Ivana Ledesma)  was miscast as Giulietta. María Belén Rivarola (Carolina Gómez) did well as Antonia, although the part needs a more radiant voice. Vanina Guilledo (Griselda Adano) acted nicely as Nicklausse (a trouser role) though she sang a  bit incisively. Adano (Guilledo) doesn´t have the warm voice the Mother needs. Laura D´Anna as the Muse had good French but her timbre isn´t ingratiating.

            All in all, a good "....Hoffmann".

For Buenos Aires Herald 

martes, septiembre 16, 2014

Splendid choral music

            Although there are plenty of concerts of choral music (particularly on Saturdays), many don´t go above habitual repertoire. However, in recent weeks I heard two worthwhile concerts that renovated the ears of this veteran but always curious reviewer.

            The Bach Academy at the Central Methodist Church fished outside this year´s pond, theoretically consecrated to "The two Bach" (Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel) and presented a programme called synthetically "Trento", but subtitled "The splendor of the mass and the motet in the XVIth Century". Last year I wrote about a very interesting concert of the Conjunto Musica Prohibita led by Pablo Banchi and I praised their dedication to  precisely this admirable and important though neglected repertoire. I thank them again; to meet a Palestrina mass is a musical blessing not often encountered, especially if followed by motets of Lassus, Victoria, Byrd and again Palestrina.

            Although the mass was the most valuable musical form of the Renaissance and the motet the most prolific,  there´s a reason for their current neglect, and the structure of Musica Prohibita explains it: there are six lines of voices: countertenors, tenors I, II and III, baritones and basses. No women, so the habitual mixed choir doesn´t fit the bill; simply, the Church at that time didn´t admit women. You need a specialised choir nowadays; you can use contralto boys but not sopranos and the basses aren´t very deep: so the music occurs within a narrow range.

            The music disconcerts people that are used to the Baroque for these Renaissance pieces have no leading voice: the six lines intercross constantly varying initial cells with enormous ingeniousness. They are very difficult to sing and to appreciate, for concentration in the hearing must be total, but when you grow accustomed to their way of composing you discover its richness and serene beauty.

            The Mass "Illumina oculos meos" lasts no less than 32 dense minutes and is Palestrina at his purest; if at all, people know him for the Missa Papae Marcelli, taken by the Council of Trent as the sort of music the Counterreform needed, opposed to what they thought of as overornamented predecessors; I and many others disagree in the purely musical side and think that earlier masses are also marvelous, but the matter was much more religious than musical: they wanted clear and severe lines mirroring the new aim of cleansing the Church.  A caveat: not all masses require six voices: some are for four or five. And a fact: the enormous CD catalogue R.E.R. hasn´t a recording of this Palestrina Mass.

            A moot point: I personally prefer this music without supporting instruments, for they have no independent parts, and I like the pure sound of the voices; the players were good but for me unnecessary, and I could have done without the brief organ introduction. It´s worth adding that the chosen motets were for six voices and were quite beautiful; the ones by Lassus and Palestrina were for eight voices divided in two parts.

            Even with these reservations, the concert was blissful: the voices go from good to fine (the countertenors), and the fluid conducting of Banchi obtained the essential continuity without boredom.

            Although it wasn´t announced as a première, I have missed any earlier presentation in our city of the Händel Brockes-Passion, so I went to this presentation of the Händel Society at the Central Methodist Church with great expectations. In the aforementioned catalogue there is only one recording, in Hungaroton. This Passion, the second and last one one written by Händel, dates from 1716, and by then Händel was famous in London. However, that year he made a trip to Germany and wrote  this Passion in Hanover. At 31 he was a past master of both the German and the Italian styles. The subtitle of this Passion may be translated  thus: "The martyred and murdered Jesus, atoning for the sins of the World"; and the text was written by Barthold Heinrich Brockes; Telemann, Matthisson and Keiser wrote masses on the same text.

            On the basis that the Hungaroton recording is in three CDs I assume that the work lasts about three hours, so the less than two-hour concert I heard almost surely had heavy cuts. However, only in a couple of spots I felt some discontinuity. I am of two minds about Sergio Siminovich, the long-time leader of the Händel Society: on the one hand, he has done yeoman work through the years, premièring lots of very important scores (mainly Händelian); on the other, his ensembles have often been untidy and poorly textured. But this time the results were a good deal better, and I enjoyed myself.

            To be sure, the music is admirable: varied, dramatic, intense and to the point, it´s first-rate Baroque. As there were supertitles, the text (typically pietist) could be followed (Barthold Heinrich Brockes was the author). The 19-player ensemble had a historicist bent and some good soloists, the rather big choir (54 members) was enthusiastic though imbalanced (40 women, 14 men). Siminovich was in better behavior, more controlled than usual.

             Soprano Silvana Victoria Guatelli bore the brunt of the arias (Mary, Daughter of Zion, Believing Soul) and did quite well. Countertenor Adriano D'Alchimio sang correctly his rather short interventions. Two welcome imports gave weight to the narrative side: British tenor Philip Salmon (Evangelist, tenor arias) and Dutch baritone Frank Hermans (Jesus, baritone aria) acquitted themselves very professionally.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Three quality piano recitals plus a symphonic concert

            If recent piano recitals in our city are reliable signs of a general situation, I would say that the world is crawling with talented pianists capable of giving quality recitals. The main aspects common to all three artists I am going to review are first-rate technique coupled with a deep knowledge of styles. The first two started the Chopiniana series coordinated by Martha Noguera at the Palacio Paz, back at that splendid Oval Room, alas with rather too resonant acoustics.

            I was surprised by the announcement of the visit of 82-year-old Joaquín Achúcarro, and then delighted with the results, for at that age there can be a considerable falling off in the mechanics of playing. Fortunately it wasn´t so, apart from small smudges now and then. If I´m right, this is his fourth visit; the last time he played Falla with the Orquesta Nacional de España under Frühbeck de Burgos for the Mozarteum in 1990.

            He explained to the public the qualities of the Variations on a theme by Schumann written as a homage by Brahms, and played them with real empathy and beauty. Then, a Chopin Nocturne (Nº 5) lovingly played with fine tone, two Waltzes (pity, there were mistakes in Nº 10, but the posthumous Nº 14 went swimmingly) and a strong performance of the famous "Heroic Polonaise".

            Not surprisingly, he was in his element playing Granados and Albéniz. In fact, now that the matchless Alicia de Larrocha is no longer with us, Achúcarro must be one of the best specialists in this classy Spanish repertoire. He gave us relevant information about "El amor y la muerte", longest number of "Goyescas" (Granados), and played it with poetry and insight. Then, two of the numbers of "Iberia", that intricate and important suite by Albéniz: the fast and rhythmical "El puerto" and the evocative "El Albaicín" (a Granada borough). Finally, by the same composer, the brilliant "Navarra",  showing off Achúcarro´s stamina and firmness.

            Three admirable encores: a refined "Clair de lune" (Debussy), Chopin´s Prelude Nº 16, and a perfect "Nocturne for the left hand", one of the most attractive Scriabin pieces.

            Michael McHale was born in Belfast and I will make no political distinction: he is pure Irish. He has been here before (twice, I believe), and I liked him, but this time I was much more impressed. His touch can be ethereal, as in Debussy, or extremely forceful, as in Mussorgsky´s "Pictures at an exhibition", or flighty as in the two fast Op.90 Schubert Impromptus, and his mechanism is practically without blemish even in the hardest pieces.

            He spoke to the audience in decent Spanish, thanking the presence of the Ambassador (Irish, I presume) and making reference to his arrangements (agreeable though conventional) of old Irish songs: he played two at the end of the First Part and another two as encores, but in "Danny Boy" he suddenly "went" to the USA with a wild jazz improvisation!

            He played the four pieces of the mentioned Op.90, and I cavil at his "détaché" approach to the melody of the First; my edition has it "legato", not "staccato" as he did it.  But I liked his well-contrasted Schubert, and I truly enjoyed his two pieces from Debussy´s "Estampes", "Soirée in Granada" and "Gardens under the rain", fluent and mercurial; I was sorry that he didn´t include the first, "Pagodas". As to his Mussorgsky, it was dramatic and intense, and I didn´t miss the orchestra in "The Great Gate of Kiev" as I often do, so big (but unforced) was his tone.

            A few years ago I heard Emilio Peroni play Brahms with the National Symphony and I had then the impression of a solid pianist. This Argentine artist lives in Germany, where he has worked in Rostock (North of Berlin) for many years. Still young, he came back for a really satisfying Sunday morning recital at the Usina del Arte.

            For one thing, he dominates the art of programming: he offered unhackneyed and worthwhile pieces in widely diverging styles, as used to do Ralph Votapek. First, those wonderful late "Variations in F minor" by Joseph Haydn, played with crystalline clarity. Then, he fulfilled one of my dreams: to finally hear live some of Dvorák´s piano music (his complete production fits seven vinyl records that I treasure), so pleasant and unheard: he played four of the six pieces of Op.52. A tough challenge afterwards: three of the dazzling "Moments musicaux" by Rachmaninov, which were attacked with power and control. Then, a well-contrasted and colorful rendition of the Ravelian "Valses nobles et sentimentales". He ended the programme with Chopin, a fast Scherzo Nº 3, where I was surprised that he made a small cut in the coda; and the encore was also Chopin, the airy Prelude Nº3.  

            The National Symphony offered an interesting night at the Auditorio de Belgrano conducted by Carlos Vieu. Although there were a few flagrant mistakes (trumpet, horn) and some bad intonation, Vieu is a convincing and intense interpreter, who encompassed the various moods of Shostakovich´s admirable Sixth Symphony. In the First Part we heard a nice "El tarco en flor" by Gianneo, and a good rendition of Schumann´s Piano Concerto with the orchestra´s pianist Marcelo Balat, a young and fresh talent who did very well except for one passage where memory failed him, but the end result was positive.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Splendid visitors in the concert season

            Fortunately we keep receiving valuable visitors and the concert season certainly benefits in quality. Dresden is one of the most important art cities of Germany and it has sent in recent decades its two premium orchestras: the Staatskapelle and the Philharmonic. Now the latter has paid us its sixth (!) visit under its current Principal Conductor, Michael Sanderling. And, as in the previous five, it is the Mozarteum that brought it to the Colón.

            It´s worth recalling those other instances: 1992, conductor Michel Plasson; 2000, Gerd Albrecht; 2002, Roderich Kreile with the Chorus of the Dresden Church of the Holy Cross; 2005 and 2010, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.  So this is one of the foreign orchestras with several visits (a ranking led by the Israel Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic).

            German violinist Carolin Widmann came here before, to offer a concert of modern music, a field of her particular interest (although I don´t share some of her tastes, such as Feldman and Sciarrino). But if her interpretation of Beethoven´s Violin Concerto is a faithful reflection of her ideas about the standard repertoire, I have to say that I was vividly impressed.

             Before I go on, a reflection on Michael Sanderling´s very special family; for, you see, his brothers Stefan and Thomas are also conductors, and all three are the sons of a great conductor that never came here, Kurt Sanderling.  Michael was born in Berlin, is now in his forties and was long a cello soloist of such star orchestras as Leipzig´s Gewandhaus and Berlin´s Radio Symphony. So he has lived an orchestral life from inside before standing on a podium; he understands their psyche and their personalities. Since the 2011-12 season he is Principal Conductor of the Dresden Phil, and they seem to understand each other very well indeed.

            This Saxon Orchestra has 93 players according to the hand programme, and their sound is typically German in its solidity, dark hues, discipline and fine intonation; it also has some admirable soloists, of which I would single out an oboist of exquisite sensibility.

            The programme started with a near-première, the charming Little Suite by Witold Lutoslawski, ten lively minutes written in 1951 based on the folk songs and dances of Machov (nowadays a part of the Czech Republic) southwest of Wroclaw; they were played in a lively and precise way, letting us hear the many piquant timbres.

            Then, Beethoven´s Violin Concerto, which gave us a première of sorts, for all three cadenzas were written by the violinist; Widmann did a fine job, citing the various themes with plenty of double-stops and within the harmony of Beethoven´s style; she even insinuated in the first two cadenzas the main tune of the Finale. Her playing was subtle and beautiful, with little vibrato but avoiding whiteness, and fine technical accomplishment. She was  seconded by an alert and very musical orchestra. Widmann offered as an encore a Bach sarabande.

            Few symphonies are so overplayed as Brahms´ First, but I still surrender to such a marvel in a good interpretation, and this was one to remember: quite orthodox, which is alright by me, it showed in the conductor a comprehension of form and a communication with the players that had as an end result a strong Brahms with brio and density.

            The encore was questionable: only the fourth part of Rossini´s Overture to "Guillaume Tell", done brilliantly and with showmanship, but I like my pieces whole.

            They gave another programme which I didn´t attend, with the same Brahms symphony but with a première from the violinist´s composer brother, Jörg Widmann (the overture "Con brio") and Mendelssohn´s Concerto.

            Enrique Diemecke goes from strength to strength in his concerts with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. The British programme he offered, with the debut of the Taiwanese violinist Ray Chen, was pure pleasure. First, a rarely heard score by Benjamin Britten which I knew from a recording but never had heard it live: the very interesting Violin Concerto, 24 minutes of admirably wrought and very personal music culminating in a splendid Passacaglia. Chen proved quite a find, perfectly in command of the difficult solo part, with a terse, beautifully pure sound. Diemecke accompanied with an orchestra on its toes, in fine conjunction with the violinist. Chen gave a splendid encore, Paganini´s Caprice Nº 21.

            And then, that model of orchestration and imagination, Gustav Holst´s "The Planets", now deservedly famous and incredibly advanced for the years of its creation, 1914-16. In an astonishing virtuoso display, conductor and orchestra gave us a memorable execution where all aspects were driven home, from the terrible force of "Mars" to the evanescent "Neptune" with a well-tuned Colón Children Choir under César Bustamante.

            Finally, the Hungarian Keller Quartet, in the series Colón Contemporáneo, gave a severe account of a very special programme combining some pieces from Johann Sebastian Bach´s monumental "The Art of Fugue" with scores by György Kurtág, certainly one of the most independent composers nowadays. Born in 1926, he has evolved a style of his own, represented here especially by two ample works made up of small pieces: evoking Schubert, "Six Moments Musicaux" (2005), and the "Officium Breve" of 1989, which includes three homages to Webern. Three wispy short pieces completed the programme: "Secreta", "Aus der Ferne V" and "Ligature" (2 violins); the latter  somehow jelled perfectly with the incomplete enormous Bach "Contrapunctus XVIII".

For Buenos Aires Herald

“Don Giovanni” destroyed by a wanton production

            "Don Giovanni" destroyed, is, I freely admit, a strong condemnation. But a critic´s first rule is to be completely sincere and to give his true feeling about what he saw. And I affirm that, according to my wits and long experience, this was the worst production of Mozart´s "Don Giovanni" that I ever saw. Readers know that my view is based on respect for libretto and music. Paradoxically, the musical side was rather good. Buenos Aires Lírica  (BAL), at the Avenida, chose a fine group of Argentine singers, plus an interesting Venezuelan Leporello. But the culprit was the production team led by Marcelo Lombardero. He has been controversial before in Mozart ("La clemenza di Tito" and "Le nozze di Figaro") but never to this extent.

            Mind you, I have applauded such Lombardero productions as "Jonny spielt auf" (Krenek), "Dialogues de Carmélites" (Poulenc) or "The Emperor of Atlantis" (Ullmann). However,  I feel that his temperament and talent work well in Twentieth century operas but give diminishing returns in earlier centuries, simply because he has embraced the terrible European trend of German "Konzept regie", where the producer takes it upon himself to eliminate the essence of the masterpiece he tackles and superimpose a view of his own that most of the time has little to do with the original, thus robbing us of the original work.

            I think that creative freedom doesn´t include ruining the work of others. As you probably know, Lombardero had a career as a baritone, and then he played both Don Giovanni and Leporello at the Teatro Argentino alternating with Luciano Garay, a worthwhile experiment. So Lombardero knows this opera inside out: his doings have nothing to do with ignorance, they are wholly premeditated. He wants to give a modified "Don Giovanni", a Twenty-First Century one, and he doesn´t care if he tramples on the text and the very sense of what we see. He seems to feel that his changes are for the better and so are justified. Not for me.

            I will parody Kipling´s "If": if you accept that an Eighteenth-century (or Seventeenth or Sixteenth, for that matter) libertine nobleman millionaire with a palace of his own should be portrayed as a sleazy cocaine-inhaling drunkard; if you believe that a peasant wedding should be transformed to a Tinellian disco with pipe dancing ("baile del caño"); if massive manhandling of women with gross sexual innuendo is the right way to match the elegance of Lorenzo da Ponte´s libretto and the exquisite Mozartian music; if you are ready to exchange the supernatural, the stone statue of the Comendatore and the flames of Hell and convert the terrible scene of Don Giovanni´s damning into a portly man looking at Giovanni from a TV set; if...(an enormous etc.) all this is your cup of tea, then  drink it. I´ll stick to my Earl Grey and see a good "Giovanni" of the Fifties film passed to DVD (the Salzburg Furtwängler-conducted version with Siepi as a nonpareil Giovanni).

            There´s always the moot point of what would happen if the producer´s collaborators don´t agree with him, but as Diego Siliano (stage designer, in this case of  a ground floor and an upper floor, a separation often badly used dramatically by Lombardero) and Luciana Gutman (costumes) are his habitual "partners", they share his errors. Good lighting by Horacio Efron.

            I have to touch on a delicate point: I was a solitary booer. I can´t believe that no one else felt my dismay, so this is my conclusion: many out of shyness do nothing, others are indifferent, another group doesn´t like it but accepts that you can´t go against the trend, and others are too uninformed to have an opinion. The sad thing is that some colleagues  promote this orientation and predict a "descendence" from this "Giovanni". And I´m afraid it might happen.

            I didn´t enjoy Chilean conductor Pedro Pablo Prudencio´s conducting: this was violent, inelegant Mozart, although he held things together. The poor choristers had to go along with this production, which further featured underdressed dancers galore. Nicolás Luis was much too free in the recitatives and invented interludes unnecessarily.

            Now a good word for the singers. They merited a better context to show their considerable talents. I welcome the long-awaited return of Nahuel Di Pierro, who is only thirty: the voice is beautiful, he sings in tune and with style; he is a lyric bass-baritone. Iván García has a substantially big bass-baritone, capable of much impact; his Leporello was a bit too permissive and his looks aren´t what we expect from the part (he is a dark Venezuelan who seems always ready to dance a cumbia) but he has in his rough way a lot of presence.

            Before I go on to the other men, congratulations to all three girls for their musicality and fine voices: Oriana Favaro (Donna Anna), María Victoria Gaeta (Donna Elvira) and Cecilia Pastawski (Zerlina) know the style and moved well, though some of the producer´s indications made me cringe.

            I was impressed by the breath control and fine timbre of Santiago Bürgi as Don Ottavio. Mariano Fernández Bustinza was a sympathetic Masetto with a firm voice. And Hernán Iturralde was his stalwart self as the Comendatore, though his timbre was altered artificially in the damning scene.

            Repent, BAL, before it´s too late: we need you but on a different course, one of construction, imagination and beauty.

For Buenos Aires Herald