lunes, septiembre 07, 2015

Three admirable pianists of about the same age

             Boris Giltburg, born 1984; Mauricio Balat, 1983; Horacio Lavandera, 1984. The first is Russian-Israeli, the other two Argentine. All three are true virtuosi and started early, as most first-rate pianists do. And all three have won prizes in competitions.

 In fact, we are going through a Golden Age of the piano and with due patience and investigation I could probably give you a list of fifty very gifted young pianists all over the world.

 The three I mentioned above were before our public in concert, all within eight days. I will review them chronologically, so I start with Balat, who gave a joint recital with violinist Daniel Robuschi for the Soirées Musicales Premium of the Sofitel, coördinated by Patricia Pouchulu. This series has the characteristic that after the concert there´s a catering and you can talk with the players, which I did, for I have known Balat for many years, as the most valuable disciple of the recently deceased great pianist and teacher Pía Sebastiani.

 If a violin-piano recital is made up of sonatas, the technical and interpretative requirements are absolutely equal, and some of them are the devil to play. So you can judge the qualities of a pianist almost as well as in a purely pianistic recital.

They chose an excellent trio of sonatas. Balat and Robuschi are both members of the National Symphony; the first plays piano and celesta, and the second is assistant concertmaster. Although Robuschi is of the preceding generation, it was soon evident that these artists understand each other very well. Mozart´s Sonata K. 304 is in E minor and when he wrote in minor tonalities he always surprised his audiences with what for the time was avantgarde; the two movements are  exquisite and dramatic, a short jewel that was beautifully expressed by both players.

 Debussy´s sole Sonata for these instruments is very late in his life and its three movements go through a myriad of moods. I hadn´t seen Robuschi in a recital before and was surprised by his very clean technique and innate musicality; of course I knew those qualities in Balat, adapted to the half Impressionistic, half Neoclassic language of the score.

 The massive but enormously lyrical Sonata by César Franck is a masterpiece. A cyclical creation, its basic material is developed with endlessly varied talent; both the second and fourth movements are fraught with dangerous passages, very well vanquished by the players. After the density of this music, I thought the encore rather poorly chosen (Piazzolla´s "Tanguango").

 Giltburg is a known quantity in this city, for this was his fourth visit; I was vividly impressed in earlier seasons by his virtuosic technique and impetus, and that was again the case in his current recital. It was a benefit for B´nai B´rith, the 85-year-old institution that has provided valuable social services decade after decade in many fields, including culture, medicine, religion. The concert was given with the auspices of the Fundación Beethoven at their auditorium, Santa Fe 1452 (led by Pìa Sebastiani until recently and now by her very active daughter, who presents there the Met opera season).

  Two cavils: a) for some reason Giltburg changed the announced programme, which had Mozart (Sonata Nº 2), Brahms (Sonata Nº 1), Schumann ("Papillons"), Ravel ("Valses nobles et sentimentales") and Liszt ("Mephisto Waltz"). b) The small Kawai piano utilized is good of its kind, clear and well-tuned, though it can´t compete with a Steinway grand piano.

 Giltburg kept "Papillons" but added another Schumann, "Carnaval", that quotes the earlier work at one point. And gave us Russian music after the interval: Rachmaninov´s "Moments musicaux" (the fast ones are terribly difficult and intricate)  and Prokofiev´s Second Sonata, percussive and vurtuosic.

The technique as such was impressive throughout, but I found his Schumann interpretations too free, almost capricious in tempi. The Russians were consistently stunning. Encores: an arrangement of Sibelius´ "Valse triste", which I didn´t like in this form, and Prokofiev´s "Diabolical  Suggestion", which responds to its title indeed.

 Lavandera is very active at various venues, so I select among his numerous presentations. I was attracted by his programme for Nuova Harmonia at the Coliseo and I found him in splendid form. His combination of Beethoven´s Sonatas Nos. 17 ("The Tempest") and 18 was a great idea, for they are contrasting masterpieces endlessly fascinating, and I´ve never heard better Beethoven from Lavandera: incredibly exact in his respect for every detail of the score, perfect in the execution, he was a great pianist.

 Anecdote: he was bothered by coughs and even menaced between movements to stop the concert if he didn´t have silence; I felt he overdid it: I´ve heard much worse in this same season.

There was a lot of Chopin in Part II: Preludes Op.28 Nos. 7, 8, 15 and 16; Polonaise Op.53, "Heroic"; and the long Polonaise Fantasy Op.61. I felt him less attuned stylistically than in Beethoven, but the playing was often astounding. And of course the Concert Paraphrase on Verdi´s "Rigoletto" (specifically on the Fourth Act Quartet) by Liszt was a virtuoso "tour de force".

The encores were an exaggerated six (he kept sitting at the piano after seconds of applause): three Piazzollas (an ample and rhetoric "Adiós Nonino", "Fuga y Misterio" and a fast one I didn´t recognize) and three Chopins (the "Revolutionary Etude", Nocturne Nº 13 and the Fantasia Impromptu).

For Buenos Aires Herald

International Ballet Gala at the Coliseo: varied and enjoyable

           The Fifth International Ballet Gala of Buenos Aires, presented by Grupo Ars at the Coliseo, came just a week after a similar gala at the Colón. And, as has happened in earlier years, the Ars show was better. The Colón´s was given only once, the Coliseo´s twice. I saw the second.

            They have more flair to discover and attract talented dancers from several world companies. As at the Colón, they mix standard classics with modern choreographies. I dislike the poor filmed introductions, however: they are very basic and obvious. All the music was recorded.  Some pieces  weren´t identified, we were only given the names of the composer. Save one case, no information on costume design.

            There was one casualty, very probably due to rehearsal work to première "Sylvia" (Delibes-Ashton): the Pas de Deux from "La Esmeralda" (Pugni-Perrot/Petipa), with Colón stars Nadia Muzyca and Federico Fernández, was scratched.

            However, other Argentine groups were present, from the Argentino de La Plata and the Ballet Contemporáneo del Teatro San Martín.  The first offered  the refined Pas de deux from "La Sylphide", the beautiful choreography dated 1836 by Auguste Bournonville on music by Herman Lovenskjold: the pure tradition of the Royal Danish Ballet nicely done by Aldana Percivati and Esteban Schenone. From the second, two agile moments from "Las  Estaciones Porteñas", by Mauricio Wainrot on Piazzolla´s music, tango-tinged movements danced with precision by a group of seven.

            Two artists from the American Ballet Theatre were the Argentine Luciana Paris (soloist) and the American Corey Stearns (First Dancer), both with ample careers. They showed their versatility dancing a vibrant choreography by Liam Scarlatt called "With a chance of rain" on over-the-top Neo-Romantic music by Rachmaninov, and the traditional Petipa Pas de Deux from Tchaikovsky´s "The Nutcracker". Paris is lithe and beautiful, Stearns tall and impeccably muscled; both are very persuasive and have excellent schooling.

             Friedemann Vogel, First Dancer of the Stuttgart Ballet (of Cranko and Haydée fame), was the tall, skinny and flexible interpreter of "Mopey", a ballet by their current resident choregrapher Marco Goecke on a splendidly vigorous Concerto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. However, I found the piece excentric; does "Mopey" mean a guy afflicted by gloominess?  What I saw was dislocated, capricious and would-be humoristic.

            The following solo had been seen before in these galas, but I didn´t mind for it´s brilliant: "Ballet 101" is concocted by Eric Gauthier (revival by Renato Arismendi) on, yes, the 101 positions of classical ballet, with utilitarian music by Jens-Peter Abele. Narrated in English and anonymously, the poor dancer goes at a vertiginous clip through those 101 steps, straight and then mixed, until he finishes exhausted. I admired the stamina and exactitude of Yoshi Suzuki, soloist of the Sao Paulo Companhia de Dança.

            Next came the rousing combination of Ana Sofía Scheller and Nicolai Gorodiskii in the extremely difficult Pas de deux from "The Corsair" ( Petipa on Drigo´s music). She is Argentine, currently First Dancer of the New York City Ballet, of Balanchinian descent. And she has all the rigorous discipline  of that famous ensemble, along with poise and good taste. He looks like a grown boy, is just 20, has been dancing major roles since he was 16 (he came for last year´s Gala), is now soloist of the Pennsylvania Ballet and a highly gifted athletic dancer. He was born in Ukraine but, still a baby, he came to Argentina and eventually studied at the Colón Institute.

            The  two also gave us  a short and extremely energetic modern piece, "Temporary conflict", steps by Andrea Schermoly on expressive music by Yann Tiersen May; I found it convincing and splendidly danced.

            About 35 years ago I had one of the most hilarious nights ever when I saw the parodies of Les Ballets Trockadero of Montecarlo, men doing women roles with fantastic technique in farcical transformations of famous ballets. Then and now, a high point was "Death of the Swan", distortion of Fokin´s original on the famous Saint-Saëns cello melody; in this version the swan loses feathers until its (his? hers?) last breath. Raffaele Morra represented the Trockadero troupe in a version  that was indeed funny, though I found it grosser than the older one. 

            The evergreen Second Act Pas de Deux from "Giselle" (Perrot/Coralli) was presented with marvelous purity by Maria Eichwald, a Russian "prima ballerina" of the Stuttgart Ballet of perfect elegance and style, and by Friedemann Vogel.

            Finally, a romp by Jirí Kylián: the Sao Paulo Companhia de Dança presented his "Six dances", with costumes and stage props by Kylián on Mozart´s "Six German Dances" K. 571. It´s a broad parody of the mores of aristocrats at the time of the composer, and considering Wolfgang´s predilection for street humor, he might have liked it if he had been in the audience.

            Of course the Paulistas clearly look Brazilian, which adds an exotic touch, but men and women entered into the farce with a vengeance and communicated the constant body jokes and satyric traits of Kylián´s steps, always perfectly attuned to every detail of the music. The interpretation must be finely rehearsed, for the myriad movements work as bits of  a perfect puzzle. It´s offbeat humor and it includes strange black contraptions that travel swiftly across the stage. And a decapitation...

            So ended a varied and satisfying night. There´s plenty of splendid dancing around the world.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Verdi´s “Il Trovatore”: mayhem with wonderful music

            The so-called "Popular Trilogy" by Giuseppe Verdi in made up of "Rigoletto" (1851), "Il Trovatore" (Jan. 1853) and "La Traviata" (Mar. 1853). Verdi between his 38th and 40th year, in full maturity.  No less than 16 operas had preceded them, including such valuable works as "Nabucco", "Ernani", "Macbeth" (first version) and "Luisa Miller". After them, eight new operas and five revisions. A total of twenty-seven originals.

            "Rigoletto" has a Renaissance setting in Italy, "La Traviata", contemporary (quite a revolution at the time) in Paris and surroundings and "Il Trovatore", the late Middle Ages in Spain. That country fascinated the composer and it was also the setting of "Ernani", "La Forza del destino" and "Don Carlo".

             Both "Il Trovatore" and "Simone Boccanegra" are based on dramas by Antonio García Gutiérrez; the dictionary Espasa-Calpe praises his "El Trovador" (1836) thus: "he created a model Romantic drama; the plot is developed with great certainty and has such natural lyric quality that  its transformation into an opera was quite logical".

            Such was the appraisal of a great dictionary as late as 1945.  I haven´t found the García Gutiérrez play, so I can only judge the Salvatore Cammarano libretto. And I don´t enjoy it.

            I subscribe Frank Walker´s strictures and praises in Grove´s Dictionary, 1954: "The complication of the plot and the unintelligibility of the libretto have become proverbial; but during actual performance no one has time to think of such things, such is the furious onward drive of the music. The text is really indefensible, ludicrous in general conception and in detail... It is a singers´ opera, exciting by the sheer physical impact of the voices, but reverting largely to forms and formulas superseded in works that preceded it".

            True enough, although a really concentrated audition of the words makes the plot intelligible; but the words are often coarse, melodrammatic excesses of described mayhem. And the only interesting character is Azucena,  vengeance incarnated.

            Less attractive in many senses than "Rigoletto" (the best of the three) and "La Traviata", "Il Trovatore" isn´t so frequently staged mainly because its sinister aspects and the casting difficulties: all over the world a nearly ideal cast is very hard to assemble. The only Colón season where this "desideratum" was obtained was in 1968, with the marvelous conjunction of Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Carlo Bergonzi and Piero Cappuccilli.

              To offer a passable "Trovatore" with an almost local cast is really difficult; the recent presentation by Melodramma at the Avenida gets to that level.

            The audience´s verdict: the star of the evening was Anabella Carnevali as Azucena; and I agree.  She is a true dramatic mezzo with ringing highs (albeit with excessive vibrato), a firm center and a contralto-ish low register; the timbre is right, the volume important, and she sings and moves with hot conviction. Veteran soprano Haydée Dabusti has long shown to be an authentic Verdian, one of the very few in our midst; however, this time she was uneven: splendid in florid singing (the "cabalettas"), and with distinguished phrasing, nevertheless her voice sounded forced in the high register.

            Tenor Reinaldo Samaniego isn´t local, but close: he comes from Paraguay. Unfortunately  his vocal type isn´t adequate for Manrico, a part that needs some metal and a dramatic presence; he doesn´t have those requirements, although the voice is pleasant. Baritone Enrique Gibert Mella has had a long career, always intense and enthusiastic; but although all the notes are there, he lacks the easy bel canto fluidity for the quieter moments; he is physically gaunt and perhaps that accounts for a timbre that isn´t morbid enough.

            Ferrando, De Luna´s officer, was very well sung by Cristian De Marco, who has the technique and the voice for the part. Cristina Wasylyk (Inés) and Pablo Selci (Ruiz) weren´t satisfactory.  There was reasonably decent playing by the 34-strong "ad hoc orchestra", save for some dubious clarinet sounds, under the generally acceptable conducting by Ronaldo Rosa, marred by two things: excessive silences impeding momentum; and a horrid accompaniment to Manrico´s Serenade and Miserere; was it so impossible to find a harp? Good singing from the 67-strong Choir of the Avellaneda Municipal Music Institute under Armando Garrido.

            The production by Boris was based on the "black and white" concept; as it is a nocturnal opera with tragic circumstances, it worked as a general aesthetic, and was complemented by the oranges and reds of fire. The stage props by Diego Guerrero and Hugo Cichero were minimal, and the lack of separations in various instances strained verisimilitude even further (how can you take seriously that the two rivals stand at two meters from one another and don´t see each other?).

            The costumes by María Vucetich at least tried to look medieval. The lighting by Ernesto Bechara didn´t help: at crucial points principal singers weren´t illuminated and at others where necessary darkness would have concealed the chorus there was too much light. The whiteface makeup with black streaks was more Draculesque than convincing.

            The markings of Boris were variable: sometimes they made sense and worked, but there were several moments that failed dramatically, especially in the Convent scene. However,  in the last minute he innovated interestingly: as Verdi gives just ten seconds to liquidate Manrico, it is De Luna who kills him for he is nearby; and Azucena jumps into the fire, for vengeance is accomplished and she has no other reason to live.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Offenbach, so light and bubbly, is extremely difficult

            When people think about really tough assignments in opera, they soon mention Wagner´s "Ring" or "Les Troyens" by Berlioz: long, difficult and important. And so they are. But there´s an intriguing paradox: even more complex, especially in  Argentina, is to get all the ingredients right for a perfect interpretation of a Jacques Offenbach operetta. And that also applies for an ideal Gilbert and Sullivan here, or a wonderful zarzuela performance in Germany...with German singers. 

            For there´s a basic element very hard to get: to be completely idiomatic (and that goes much beyond good French diction, quite hard to find  in BA). Also, you must have money, for Offenbach needs a good show. And a small but adequate orchestra, a piano won´t do.  I leave aside, of course, his wonderful opera "Les Contes d´Hoffmann", a masterpiece that has had very good interpretations at the Colón and elsewhere.

            The best solution, of course, is very expensive: a topnotch French cast such as those in the celebrated Offenbach Toulouse series of recordings. And with an imaginative producer that manages to give us a feeling of the carefree times of Napoleon III without ridiculous updates to the present.

            Let us go back to the father of French operetta, Jacques Offenbach.  My edition of the Grove Dictionary lists 93 operettas, of which  most are one-acters and only a few   in two, three or four acts (three exist in two versions).

            The two founders of operetta are Franz Von Suppé in Vienna (31 operettas between 1834 and 1894) and Offenbach (from 1855 to 1879): light music with spoken sections plus dance.  

            Unfortunately, in my 65 years of attending operas and operettas, apart of course "Les Contes d´Hoffmann", I have been able to see just two Offenbach operettas in full stagings with orchestra: "La Vie Parisienne" about four decades ago, unfortunately in Spanish, and "La Belle Hélène" by Buenos Aires Lírica, of which I have fond memories.

            That is why I went to two recent Offenbach ventures, even if I knew that money was scarce and there was no orchestra. One was "Orphée aux enfers" at the Empire Theatre,  and the other was (I think) a première, unless it was offered about 120 years ago: the one-acter "Tromb-Al-Ca-Zar", presented at the Fundación Beethoven by the group Offenbach & Friends. They didn´t assuage my thirst for first-rate Offenbach, but they were better than nothing.

            In Europe "Orphée aux enfers" has had some success because it includes a galop that became known as the can-can. In fact that music has always been popular here, especially those of my generation and the following one, who had the pleasure of seeing the splendid Massine ballet "Gaîté Parisienne", a potpourri of Offenbach music admirably arranged by Manuel Rosenthal. Come on, Colón, give us a break and revive it!

            "Orphée aux enfers" of course kids the famous Gluck opera "Orphée et Eurydice", and its libretto by Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy tells us that Orpheus and Euridice hate each other, that she is abducted by Pluto and recovered by Jupiter from Hades and in the final scene all are drunk and led by Bacchus whilst dancing the galop. And there´s a peculiar character, Public Opinion, to which even Jupiter must bow...It was premièred on October 21, 1858, at the then famous Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens (the composer´s property).

            The music is charming though uneven; however, listen to the Plasson recording to hear it to best advantage. This production was modest. The Estudio de Ópera de Buenos Aires is directed by Rita Casamajor, and has been active since 1985, but unfortunately it never had sponsors that gave her the possibility of offering full-scale productions. She coordinated from the piano a weak cast which best remains unnamed, except the correct Euridice (Margarita Lorenzo). The gross production by José Calandron stressed the grotesque rather than true comedy.

            "Tromb-al-Cazar" is subtitled "The Troupe of criminals" and its single act deals with a minicompany of three that has been hooted out of the stage at a small village and arrive at an inn in the Basque country attended by the ex boyfriend of the diva, who believes that the men are bandits.  The piece dates from 1856 and was a great success. The libretto is by Charles Dupeuty and Ernest Bourget.

            Offenbach & Friends is led by pianist Fernando Albinarrate and soprano Anahí Scharovsky; they define themselves as Franco-Argentine musicians. As happened in "Orphée...", the sung fragments were in French and the spoken bits in Spanish. There are three imaginative scenes: Beaujolais (the character, not the wine!) in "Oh rage, oh desperation" quotes famous arias by Meyerbeer; there´s a funny Trio of the crocodiles (done well with puppets); and another Trio became famous, the one extolling Bayonne´s ham ("Le jambon de Bayonne", repeating syllables in typical Offenbachian vein).

            Following an acceptable practice, they added pieces from other Offenbach operettas and more dubiously a Delibes song. The production by Fabio Roppi was agile and the singer actors entered into the spirit of farce, although some vulgarities (especially from Scharovsky) should have been avoided. The soprano has a big voice though rather strident; the tenor Matías Tomasetto was in arid timbre but acted well; Gabriel Vacas is a promising baritone ; and actor Mariano Pauplys did the innkeeper convincingly. The stage props were adequate. Albinarrate accompanied with aplomb.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

The Barenboim marathon ends with memorable Schönberg

             In a final astonishing sprint, the Barenboim marathon ended with three concerts within 24 hours at the Colón. Him and the WEDO (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra) thus had a strenuous end to their 16 days in BA in which they were 12 times before the public in chamber groups or with the full orchestra (for Barenboim add the two reflexion days with Felipe González and have it in mind that in the brass quintet Conciertos para la Convivencia he was present but of course didn´t play or conduct). And in four concerts thay had Martha Argerich as a star presence.

            The final three concerts were on the seventh and eighth of August: the last of the Abono Estelar  was repeated exactly as a non-subscription performance the following day at 8 pm, but the artists also presented a free short Midday concert for students of city schools; this was coordinated by the Education Ministry of our city and was a warm initiative of important social content. Beethoven´s Triple Concerto was in all three concerts and in the longer ones it formed the First Part; the Second Part in both night events offered the enormous Arnold Schönberg tone-poem "Pelleas und Melisande", lasting 43 minutes.

            The Triple  Concerto is a rarity as a texture, for it adds an orchestra to a typical chamber combination: the piano trio (completed with violin and cello). If the piano trio comports the difficulty of blending two strings with an instrument of much higher volume, the problem is even greater if you add a Beethovenian orchestra, much heavier than Mozart´s. In fact, this Triple Concerto stands alone in the repertoire. It is a light Beethoven, with no drama.  Surrounded by fundamental scores like the Sonatas "Waldstein" and "Appassionata", it only aims to please. And it does, giving due relief to every soloist, though the best melodic moments are stated by the cello. A bit too long and somewhat repetitious for its material, it´s still an interesting experience.

            There are usually two types of performance for this work: an established piano trio combines with a local orchestra; or three soloists with independent careers decide to do it; but this particular case is different: the conductor is also pianist, and the string soloists are first desks of the orchestra. I have excellent memories of the first alternative: Trio di Trieste, 1963 and 1970, and Stern-Rose-Istomin, 1970; and of the second: Argerich with the Capuçon brothers.

            However, it´s pretty difficult for two first desks of a youth orchestra to compete on the same level with a world star pianist, and indeed Daniel Barenboim dominated on the piano, apart from managing  the conducting part. His son Michael Barenboim (violin), and cellist Kian Soltani (who days before had played Iranian music on the kemanche) did workmanlike and quite honorable jobs, but subordinate. In fact Michael substituted for Guy Braunstein, who fell ill. I feel that Michael is too shy, his sound is always small though in tune; he phrases musically but without a strong personality. Soltani is more sanguine but the timbre has no special beauty and he too lacks some volume, though he is louder than the violin.

            If I have some misgivings about the performance of the Triple, I can only express admiration for what the WEDO and Barenboim did with Schönberg´s masterpiece "Pelleas und  Melisande". It´s an extraordinary thing that Maeterlinck´s symbolist play inspired simultaneously the unique opera by Claude Debussy and the enormously complicated and fascinating tone poem which the Colón audience had the good fortune to hear in a model interpretation, especially considering that neither composer knew of the other´s project.

            Many years ago Franz-Paul Decker conducted the Buenos Aires Philharmonic in a marvelous concert combining Schönberg´s "Pelleas..." with the incidental music written by Fauré and Sibelius on the same subject. The whole night was a revelation. Some seasons later Bruno D´Astoli gave a very honorable reading of the Schönberg score. Barenboim´s is as far as I know only the third time that this essential creation in the composer´s life is heard here. He recorded it with the Orchestre de Paris; other great masters also did it: Boulez, Karajan, Mitropoulos, Barbirolli.

            "Transfigured Night" is still the Schönberg piece done more often: even in its original sextet version prior to its orchestration, the white-hot expressionistic Romanticism is deeply touching; the same is true of "Pelleas..." but in a much wider scale, four years later; by then he had started on his monumental "Gurrelieder" with its strong Wagnerian influence. Not much later, his First Chamber Symphony (1906), also played by the WEDO and Barenboim on this visit, would stand on the brink of atonality. And in 1908 in his Second Quartet, featuring a soprano voice, atonalism arrived. Then came his emblematic atonal works: "Erwartung", 1909, heard at the Colón two years ago, and "Pierrot Lunaire", 1912, often interpreted here.

            The WEDO was heard in full for the only time in this visit: as Schönberg specifies, 105 players, including eight horns. Barenboim´s reading was ideal and his players responded with moving professionalism and conviction.

            The first encore was a true gift: an immaculate and poetic interpretation of Impressionism´s manifest: Debussy´s "Prélude à l´après-midi d´un faune". And responding to the audience´s delirium, the Mores tango "El firulete" in a skillful arrangement for wind ensemble by José Carli.

            Farewell, WEDO and Barenboim, until next year.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Barenboim Festival: Iranian and Arabic music plus concerts in three temples

            In the so-called "Abono estelar 2015" at the Colón (the Barenboim Festival of Music and Reflexion) there was a completely unexpected inclusion: a chamber concert of Iranian and Arabic music.   The hand programme announced first the Shiraz Ensemble and then a clarinet/piano duo, but we were told via loudspeaker that we would hear it the other way around. 

            Moot points: a) the programme nowhere says that the players are members of the WEDO (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra) but the entrance ticket does! b) if you believe (as I do) that the Colón is for what is called "classical music" for lack of a better word, this concert is as out of place as Argentine folklore or "bossa nova" at an opera house used as well as a concert hall. c) If I accept the idea, what I want is true music of those origins, no fusion with other traditions. And this didn´t happen. d) Also, why Iran when the logic of the WEDO would have led to Arabic and Israeli music?

            So you see that I have my misgivings about this experience. I have to be honest, I am not an expert on these musical worlds as I was bred with Occidental classical history. But I have heard some of it through the decades and I think I can discern the authentic.

            In this sense, I certainly preferred Shiraz to the duo, and you will soon see why. First, I´d like to know why the Duo is made up of a Syrian (Kinan Azmeh, clarinet) and a Sri Lankan (Dinuk Wijeratne, piano). For Sri Lanka is certainly not an Arabic country, as it is made up of two basic ethnic groups, the Sinhalese (Buddhists) and the Tamil (Hindus). So the Arabic side was represented only by the Syrian artist.

            But it would have been far more logical and useful to have a true Arabian group where the natural star is the ´ud, the Arabic form of the lute; in fact, the latter evolved from it and became an essential instrument in Europe. And we should have heard the characteristic Arabic scales and the "maqam" (melody-types in a given style). But we were given three compositions by Azmeh and two by Wijeratne. Plus an introductory one by both based on Bartók´s melody "Pe loc".

            Both of them are graduates of the Juilliard School. As the programme says, their project "fuses elements of the Arabic and the Southeastern-Asiatic vocabulary with the language of (Western) academic music and jazz". And I personally feel that many slides and inflexions of the clarinetist sound akin to Jewish Klezmer music.

            I found Azmeh more creative and his playing very attractive "per se". Wijeratne seemed rather limited and minimalistic, abusing of playing monotonous rhythms on the strings of the piano. In Azmeh´s "Airports" an Egyptian violinist joined them in  a long solo.

            The Shiraz Ensemble was much closer to the mark and it provided an occasion to hear some interesting instruments. Khosro Soltani played duduk and ney, similar to flutes; Kian Soltani (his son?), kemantche and cello. The latter, also played by Astrig Siranossian (an Iranian-Armenian ?), is clearly Occidental and shouldn´t be a part of Shiraz, but the kemantche is worth knowing: "a long stick extending through a coconut" (Willi Apel). And the daf is a tambourine (skillfully played by Hamidreza Ojaghy).  Both Siranossian and Ojaghy also sang, and she  (Siranossian) also danced with stately and elegant moves, dressed beautifully.

             There was a total of seven pieces: the first three were played continuously; than Kian Soltani explained that the following three would be about Love, Nature and Destiny; the final work was written by Kian Soltani: "Persian Fire Dance". All the Shiraz music is thus defined in the programme: "a combination of Iranian folk, traditional and contemporary"; I fail to see the difference between the first two. But it was mostly attractive to my ears.  The three players of the First Part joined the Shiraz in an encore to end the concert.

            Big gaffe: the programme states that the music would last 50 minutes; in fact, we heard 97! And a final remark: did this show justify the very high prices? I think not.

            A typically Barenboim-ish idea: a concert with the same programme played in temples of the three great monotheistic religions; the Islamic Temple of San Juan (pity that it wasn´t the big one at Avenida Bullrich), the splendid synagogue Templo Libertad (it is the one I chose for practical reasons of distance) and the Catholic Cathedral. They are called "Conciertos para la convivencia".

            There was a lot of talk presenting the project in terms of peace and fraternity: especially from Rabbi Sergio Bergman, Barenboim himself (eloquent in his words but not in his rather halting delivery) and the leaders of their religious communities. Plenty of authorities were present.

            The Metals Quintet of the WEDO is certainly good and we rarely hear this sort of ensemble; in fact it sounds brash and open-air, and the acoustics were too resonant for it. In the First Part, scores in arrangement (Bach´s Contrapunctus I from "The Art of Fugue" and Bruckner´s motet "Locus iste") and written for the combination: Lutoslawski, Lior Shambadal, Kareem Roustom and Steven Verhelst. In the Second Part, pieces by Jan Koetsier, the Uruguayan Enrique Crespo and a tango by José Carli. It was invigorating and pleasant.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Mixed results in Buenos Aires Lírica´s “Werther”

             Back in April I reviewed the Colón´s production of Jules Massenet´s "Werther".  Now starting in July 31 Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) bring their own view of the composer´s adaptation of Goethe´s "The sorrows of young Werther".

            I stated in April that the Colón´s "Werther" was a replacement for the première of the Berlioz masterpiece "Les Troyens" and I lamented that some other Massenet such as "Thaïs" wasn´t chosen, for García Caffi (the Colón director who programmed it) knew that BAL had announced it. And two "Werthers" in the same season are much of a muchness (the same goes for any other opera that you care to name). But of course BAL had every right to accomplish its plan.

            A curious thing happened with Gustavo López Manzitti: the Colón theoretically had two Werthers, Ramón Vargas and Mickael Spadaccini, but the first fell ill, and so Spadaccini was the initial Werther and López Manzitti came to the rescue as the second...but had to cancel his announced appearance as Andrea Chénier for Juventus Lyrica. And now, Darío Schmunck was to be Werther and his name was in the press release up to two weeks before the initial date; suddenly, with no explanation, López Manzitti took his place!

             BAL offered "Werther" in 2004, and the tenor was...López Manzitti. So, even if this year he took up the role twice in unforeseen circumstances, he has long internalized the role. And of course he is an accomplished professional with an extensive career. I can do no better than to quote myself concerning his performance, for it was very similar to the one he gave at the Colón. "His voice is powerful and firm and he acts with intensity; I only missed the sheer beauty of timbre and more ´piano´ singing".  And I can add that in the intimate Teatro Avenida the "fortissimi" were much more present. He is helped by being tall and personable. 

            As to Charlotte, I was rather disappointed by Florencia Machado in the first two acts for she sounded small-voiced and lacked projection. But the Third Act contains her two very expressive arias, and there she rose to the challenge with a sense of drama and  adequate volume.

            Her teenage sister Sophie was sung very agreeably by Laura Sangiorgio, who has the right timbre for the young girl and the agility for the florid writing. Norberto Marcos was a good Albert, firm in his singing and convincing as an actor. Cristian de Marco had sung Le Bailli (The Burgomaster) at the Colón; he does the part with a deep bass voice, but either because the producer wanted it or he likes it that way, his characterisation was of a much older man than at the Colón, and I don´t agree: he shouldn´t look more than 50 to 55.

            The tiresome drunkards Schmidt and Johann were correctly sung by Sergio Vittadini (a new name) and Sebastián Angulegui, though grossly exaggerated in their movements and explosions of laughter, probably marked so by the producer.

            A general problem whenever a French opera is put on stage is the deficient diction, and there were many moments where some phonemes grated on the ear.

            The best thing in this production was the 50-member orchestra (both "avant-scène" loges were occupied) admirably conducted by the Chilean Pedro-Pablo  Prudencio, who unerringly phrased with the right tempi and inflexions, obtaining excellent collaboration from the first-rate players. The piece only requires a small feminine choir (eight singers) and the seven kids who sing Charlotte´s (and Sophie´s) brothers and sisters, pleasantly done by the choristers of Petits Coeurs (not Petites, as wrongly put in the hand programme); they were well handled respectively by Juan Casasbellas and Rosana Bravo.

            Now to the production, led by Crystal Manich, who had put on stage in other BAL seasons with considerable attainments "Madama Butterfly" and "Adriana Lecouvreur". The American producer was less inspired this time. True, the action happened in Wetzlar and in the late XVIIIth Century and that by itself is a merit nowadays. But there were vital mistakes alternating with well-thought-out moments.

a)     I don´t accept staged preludes or interludes: they are made for listening. The Prelude to Act I sets the dark mood of the tragic end and the music suffices: to show the children is an anticlimax. And the Winter Interlude between Acts Three and Four is a masterful small tone poem that leads to Werther´s suicide: it was grotesque to see a celebration of the gold wedding of the pastor with big laughs; it completely contradicts the music.

b)     Albert can´t appear at the end of the First Act, the libretto is clear on that point. And it is completely wrong to join that end directly with the beginning of the Second, which happens three months later and in a tavern.

c)      In that act Werther has a sombre monologue; it is completely absurd that he should tell it to the "garçon".

d)     The unit set doesn´t work out in the case of the first two acts. The stage designs of Noelia González Svoboda are adequate for the First but not for the Second. Her idea of Charlotte´s house in the Third Act is convincing but it must disappear at the end of it and the Interlude should give time for a new ambience, Werther´s room. 

There were good costumes by Lucía Marmorek and imaginative lighting by Rubén Conde.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Verdi´s “Otello” at the Argentino: a big challenge


            Giuseppe Verdi´s "Otello" is a towering masterpiece and a major challenge for any opera house. Its title role is the most difficult in Italian opera, for it requires a truly exceptional type of voice, a genuine dramatic tenor, capable of scaling the heights, of acting with his voice, of giving baritonal depth to the centre and the lows of his register.

There are only a very few per generation, and that explains why this opera is gingerly handled by the world´s houses. With much greater psychological depth than Siegfried but with similar vocal requirements, Otello is a plum of a part but an extremely hard one to cast.

            The Colón has since 1950 given us  prime interpreters of the jealous Moor: Mario Del Monaco (1950), Ramón Vinay (1958), Jon Vickers (1963), Plácido Domingo (1981) and José Cura (1999); there were others not quite so distinguished. 

            Of course the Teatro Argentino hasn´t had the means to obtain such starry protagonists. Nevertheless, one must mention that the old Argentino was inaugurated in 1890 precisely with this great opera.  Liborio Simonella in 1990 was the last protagonist.

            "Otello" was created by Verdi on an interesting libretto by Arrigo Boito. Verdi´s last opera had been "Aida" in 1871 and many thought there wouldn´t be another. In fact,  16 years would elapse before he finished "Otello" in 1887.

            Shakespeare had always been a special literary enthusiasm for Verdi, as witnessed by his two versions of "Macbeth". And the great opportunity lost: Verdi thought for a while that he would write an opera on "King Lear"; it could have been a marvel.

            But "Otello" is just that: a score of immense resource and inspiration and a drama of almost unbearable impact. A curious matter: Shakespeare´s "Othello" occurs in Venice and Cyprus; Rossini´s opera only in Venice, and Verdi´s happens in Cyprus!

             Some reflexions may be worthwhile. Othello is a Moor, and in Shakespeare´s time it was wrongly believed that they were black and savage, so, as there was strong discrimination in Venice against them, it was a great honor to be the warrior that defended them in Cyprus against the Turks, quite a tribute to his courage and leadership.

            But he is also a psychopath, and also he can´t quite believe his luck that Desdemona ("ill-fated soul" in Greek), the beautiful innocent blonde Venetian girl, is in love with him with total sensuality. Iago is a villain of Machiavellian skills full of apparent bonhomie and he knows Othello´s  Achilles´ heel; on the basis of flimsy evidence Othello will call her a whore and kill her; he will recover his noble side in self-inflicted death. And a final point: is there another example of lack of feminine intuition comparable to Desdemona? For she insists on rehabilitating Cassio when it´s obvious that his very name infuriates her husband. 

            The Chilean José Azocar took on the title part. He started poorly, with low volume and a tremolo, but he gradually found a much better vocal form. He knows the part well; however, he lacks presence and charisma, essential in this part, and the voice is only serviceable for the requirements.

            The best singer was undoubtedly Fabián Veloz as Iago, the only true young Verdian baritone we have. Although physically too weighty, the voice is first-rate, only lacking some volume in the big moments, and his vocal inflexions are right.

            I was a bit disappointed with Paula Almerares, the local credit (she´s platense): she sang reasonably well but the volume was too low in several passages; and was it she or the conductor that decided on interminably long repeated "Salce" ("willow") in her Fourth Act aria?

            Emilia is a thankless but important role, for she rebels at the last moment against her husband Iago and denounces Othello as Desdemona´s murderer: Mariana Carnovali was firm and interesting as actress and singer. Sergio Spina  avoided his usual exaggeration and was believable as the young captain Cassio.

            All the smaller parts were well taken except for the weak Rodrigo of Maximiliano Agatiello: Carlos Esquivel (the ambassador Ludovico), Mario De Salvo (Montano) and Felipe Carelli (Herald). There were two casts, I saw the first.

            Except for the slow tempi of Desdemona´s big scene and a too prolonged silence in Iago´s crucial Credo, I found Carlos Vieu an admirable conductor with strong command. The orchestra was reasonably expert save for some trumpet bits and the bad tuning of basses at Othello´s entry in the final act. As usual, the Choir was very convincing (Hernán Sánchez Arteaga), and the Children´s choir was nice (Mónica Dagorret).

            The stage designs of Enrique Bordolini are so determinant in this production that I wonder whether it was his idea or the producer´s -Pablo Maritano- to give us a very similar image to Shakespeare´s own Globe Theatre. Bordolini is an excellent technician, and the massive structure is impressive , although two-tiered, not three- tiered, as the Globe is in its modern reconstruction.

            It works well for the big choral scenes, and Maritano showed imagination in his handling of all the singers, though both a small stage with masked artists and the parts of the "Globe" on wheels were moved too many times. Sofía Di Nunzio did a good job with the abundant period costumes (blessedly the staging respected time and place) and the fine lighting was by Bordolini.

For Buenos Aires Herald