sábado, febrero 20, 2016

Sibelius´ antihero “Kullervo” wins over botched Shakespeare

             As readers know, I feel that curiosity about having new musical experiences is an essential quality of any music lover. And particularly if you are a critic:  it defines whether you can be a practitioner of this risky career or not. 

            That is why I chose two very dissimilar events; I liked one of them and was horrified by the other. I have long cherished the splendid recording of Sibelius´ "Kullervo" by the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Paavo Berglund,  a great artist that never came here.  And I have waited in vain for its première here.

            "Kullervo" is a big programmatic symphony in five movements lasting an hour and ten minutes about an antihero from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, "compiled and shaped by Elias Lönnrot in 1935 out of the oral tradition of Finnish folk verse;...it was a decisive factor in the process by which Finnish...moved from the status of a lowly ´dialect´ to become a language of culture" (Hannu-Ilari Lampila).

            The score was premièred in 1892 and its "gloomy, tragic ancient Finnish vision entranced the audience"; however, "Sibelius abruptly withdrew the piece;...permission to perform the work was granted only after the composer´s death". Time has shown that the composer was wrong: his symphony may have some youthful exaggeration but it is strong and inspired, a harbinger of what was to come.

            Sibelius´ fixation with the Kalevala would later produce masterpieces like "The Daugher of Pohjola" and the four Legends (Nº 2 is "The Swan of Tuonela"). The Kullervo story is terrible, he seduces his own sister without knowing it, she commits suicide, he kills his uncle in battle and later driven by remorse over incest he falls on his own sword.

            I think that the best way to present it is like a straight vocal-symphonic piece in concert, but to commemorate the 150 years of the composer´s birth the Finnish National Opera presented a ballet inspired by this story.  The very good DVD presentation at the open air Plaza Vaticano showed the splendid looks of the Opera´s hall and reminded me of the admirable current school of Finnish operatic composers such as Sallinen and Rautawaara.

            Frankly I didn´t care much for the choreography of Tero Saarinen, to my mind quite repetitive and too angular, but it was danced with much stamina and sense of drama by Samuli Poutanen (Kullervo), Terhi Räsänen (an attractive, muscular blonde) and David Scarantino (Kullervo´s friend Kimmo), plus members of both the Saarinen company and the Finnish National Ballet.  The show had interesting modern stage designs by Mikki Kunttu (and corresponding costumes by Erika Turunen) and I found really stunning the lighting of Kunttu, transfiguring the protagonist when he dies.

            The musical side was marvelous: Jukka-Pekka Saraste is along with Osmo Vänskä probably the greatest specialist in Sibelius, and he had a vibrant and technically perfect response from the Finnish National Opera Orchestra. The first two movements are purely orchestral but the gist of the score is the highly dramatic third with baritone and soprano solos (Kullervo and his sister) and the overwhelming male combined choruses: the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish National Opera. The singers were of Wagnerian caliber: baritone Ville Rusanen and Johanna Rusanen-Kartano (are they siblings?) seemed ready for Wotan and Brünnhilde. The fifth movement, "Kullervo´s death", also had wonderful choral interventions. I went home elated and lamenting the lack of subtitles in the sung portions: the Kalevala texts are necessary and powerful.

            Henry Purcell was the greatest English Baroque composer ; "Dido and Aeneas" is his only legitimate opera but he wrote several semi-operas alternating spoken and musical passages and often confining them to diverting intermezzos rather than participating in the narration. Decades ago the Colón was the venue of excellent performances of "King Arthur" and "The Fairy Queen". The latter was presented now at the Festival Opera Tigre in a Delta island, repeating a production from last year, but in 2016 producer Michal Znaniecki added "The Tempest", as far as I know a première in Argentina.

            Both last year and this time I decided against reviewing "The Fairy Queen" for Purcell´s rich instrumental music is reduced to the absurd presence of an accordion and a bandoneon and I find it insulting. But the press advances said that there would be a small orchestra available conducted by Juan Casasbellas, a musician I respect. Also, that the Tigre productions would be adapted to be presented in the gardens of the Museo Larreta in our city. And so I decided to venture and went to "The Tempest": grave mistake, for it was botched throughout.

            The culprit is Znaniecki: the audience was greeted for ten minutes with howls from that bestial being Caliban before he finally told the story of how Prospero had taken his island. And later on,  we were herded in the darkness in the direction of distant music  and there we had to tollerate the discordant trio of Caliban, Trinculus and Stephano. Later on we were trooped in disorder to the fourth and final place in the atrium of the museum, where half the public could barely see the proceedings (myself included).

            Partial saving graces: soprano Natalia Quiroga Romero (Miranda) and some orchestral passages (though the middling players took a long time to settle). My recomendation if you want to get to know the beautiful music: buy the Gardiner recording.

Mixed operatic Summer activity

             Sixty years ago we used to have Colón Summer opera (late February and all of March) at the Amphitheatre of Parque Centenario, but later it decayed, and in the Sixties we had excellent chamber opera in closed theatres such as the San Martín during the same period. 

             In recent decades productivity lowered substantially and the Colón stopped offering Summer seasons. Instead of the eighteen operas of the Sixties (from February to December) we only had seven or eight. This year it announces an exaggeratedly called Summer season starting in the middle of February, for the pieces announced only require a small instrumental ensemble  (Weill and Stravinsky).

            So we spent many seasons without January-February opera (or for that matter, concerts). In these last years, however, there was a welcome innovation: the Fundación Beethoven presented in certain selected Saturdays operas from New York´s Met in HD (high definition) images and with adequate sound at the Teatro El Nacional. They are a treat and it allows "porteños" to appreciate artists that mostly don´t visit us.

            I have a soft spot for Bizet´s "Les pêcheurs de perles", for in 1998 as General Director of the Teatro Argentino I convinced Antonio Russo to offer for the first time in Argentina this beautiful creation  in the original French (it was done in Italian by the Colón in 1913 and our principal opera house never gave it in the original language, either before or after 1998). And Russo eventually persuaded Ana D´Anna to première it in our city.

             Well, believe it or not, the Met´s production is the first in a century, and in this case it was proposed by soprano Diana Damrau as an ideal role for her voice (it is) and a charmingly exotic score with plenty of suggestive melody. And she was right, for the sold-out house gave this exhumation enormous applause. Indeed, the soprano sang admirably, with plangent timbre and perfect florid passages.

            Tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (Polish) are still young but by now they can be considered Met veterans (15 years). They are in this opera friends (Nadir and Zurga) separated by their love for Léïla, but there´s a catch: she is a Hindu priestess committed to chastity and brought by the High Priest Nourabad to be a protectress of the pearl fishers.

            Polenzani has a beautiful lyric timbre and a refined line that allows him to sing in pianissimo his difficult and dreamy aria, and Kwiecien, although he lacks some Gallic charm, sings very well and with dramatic sense. A young bass, Nicolas Testé, showed impressive means as Nourabad. The excellent choir and orchestra of the Met responded brilliantly to Gianandrea Noseda´s convincing approach to the colorful score.

            This was a joint production with the English National Opera (although there it is sung in English) ; the producer was Penny Woolcock,  stage designs by Dick Bird,  costumes by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Jen Schriever.  Considering the horrors one often sees in Europe nowadays, I found this staging viable in dramatic terms, although I saw no need to change it to contemporary times, and in what is basically an analphabet society to see people reading papers and Zurga with accounting elements is rather silly.

            And now to a new initiative. The Plaza del Vaticano is the ample space between the Colón and Viamonte Street; a huge screen and a barely acceptable sound reproduction system have been installed and during a whole month DVDs will be shown from different places, covering opera, ballet and concerts. Simple wooden chairs are provided and access is free first come first served. Basic complain: we are not given even very bare programmes. You will find information on the general programming in www.plazavaticano.com.ar.

            The Festival de Música started on Jan 14 and will end with the only live performance on Feb 14: "Mahagonny Songspiel" by Brecht-Weill. You will see productions from the Colón, Paris, Guanajuato (Mexico), Berlin, Oslo, Helsinki, Israel, Leipzig, Vienna, Naples, Rome and the USA. Everything is classical except an extemporaneous Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga recital. I haven´t the space to be more explicit, but e.g. in opera you can see "Aida" and "Tosca" (both from Paris), the ballet "Zorba the Greek" (Naples) or the New Year 2014 concert  (Vienna Philharmonic/Barenboim). The starting time is always 8 pm.

            I chose a novelty for Buenos Aires and myself:  the concert version of Vivaldi´s opera "Motezuma" (not a misprint but a gaffe from librettist Girolamo Giusti) as presented by the Festival Cervantino of Guanajuato. Vivaldi is a champion of instrumental music but little is known about his numerous operas; here I have only seen "Il Giustino" at the Coliseo, about four decades ago. When Berlin recovered from Kiev the manuscript, several pieces were absent, including the Overture and several scenes; the version we heard, by Federico Sardelli, incorporates the Overture from "Tamerlano" and choirs from "Griselda".

            Data from Internet: Sardelli´s  Orchestra Modo Antiquo numbers 16 first-rate musicians, especially a marvelous trumpet player. Of the good singers I preferred mezzo Vivica Genaux (known in BA) as Mitrena and Luigi De Donato as a bass-baritone Motezuma. Even in a concert version, it wasn´t a good idea to have rivals sung by the same soprano (unbelievable as both Fernando –Hernán- Cortés and Asprano, an Aztec General).

            I enjoyed the typically Vivaldian music, mostly fast, nervous and rhythmical, but it does have some serene melodic passages as well.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

The Colón´s operatic season 2017: A look into the future

            Early in December I sent an article called "Opera directors face the music together", the gist of which was the reunion of Iberoamerican opera directors with the intent of finding complementarization in opera planning. I ended it with a caveat: each theatre has its history and seasons must be programmed on solid historic reasons: stage the operas thar are really needed, and if you can find a way to share it, alright, but otherwise, face the music and do it.

            Earlier in the article  I cited five operas that were mentioned by Darío Lopérfido as possible candidates for 2017. According to a source who asked to remain anonymous, I got two other titles. This article elaborates on both informations and ventures a theory of my own as well as a hope.

            I´ll start with the hope: to have for 2017 what  is for me the very minimum quantity of titles that a Colón year should offer. As you know, ten operas will be seen this year although in nine nights or afternoons, for one of the titles will be made up of two short Dallapiccola scores. This is a substantial improvement from the seven titles we had in 2015, but I believe that good organisation and adequate budget should make it perfectly possible to arrive at ten titles. The conditions of public administration make it utopian to think in the terms of the Sixties: fourteen titles from April to December plus three in Summer; that´s what we had back then.

            Now the theory. It is an indisputed fact that Giuseppe Verdi is the champion among opera composers. I believe that an opera house of the Colón´s trajectory puts it in the group of ten most important in the world, even with its ups and downs, and that any planning requires a deep knowledge of its history but also of the repertoire: you have to take the long view and not only imagine 2017 but also as far as 2020 if you are to do a good job.

            I believe that a good way to do it is to imagine ten-year slices  and be aware of which operas should be revived : some will merit to be seen  within ten years, others after 15, still others after 20, 30 or once in a lifetime. Another guiding factor will be  to première wrongly neglected operas that must be incorporated if you consider the Colón a serious theatre...and I want to hope (that word again!) that it will be one.  And of course operas freshly created that give reasonable guarantees of quality.

            There are only two composers who have given us ten operas that merit to be in the ten-years slice: Verdi and Wagner.  The former has plenty of others that go into the fifteen-years slice whilst Wagner has none.  Wagner is a special case because four of his operas form the Ring and the ideal way is to give all four in one year. The Colón hasn´t been able to manage that since 1967 and I feel that to repeat that feat is a very long shot away. But two and two should be feasible (and particularly necessary after that horrid compressed Colón Ring).

            Now to the operas mentioned by Lopérfido. I quite agree with "Aida", last seen in 1996, so this is a long due Verdi. And with Richard Strauss´ "Der Rosenkavalier ", an essential work absent since 1998. We will have a Wagner première; at first sight this seems a nice idea, but truth to tell "Das Liebesverbot" ("Love´s Forbiddance"), based on Shakespeare´s "Measure for measure", is a rather charming completely uncharacteristic piece; it is logical for the Covent Garden to programme it, for the venerable London theatre attends to the basic Wagnerian repertoire, but the Colón doesn´t: it would be vastly more necessary to give us "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg", last seen, believe it or not, in 1980. And as 2016´s last opera, "Porgy and Bess", uses an imported choir,  it would be ideal to programme "The Mastersingers" starting the 2017 season.

            Weill´s "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" is a bitter pamphlet quite adequate to periods of reconstruction such as we face, as happened in the last revival, 1992. The possibility of an interesting première was mentioned: Villalobos´ "Yerma", on the García Lorca play.  So up to now we have five operas.

            However, two others would be added, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous. One is Händel´s best opera, "Giulio Cesare", only staged at the Colón in  1968; I do yearn for a historicist version, both in music and production. The other is Cilea´s "Adriana Lecouvreur", a fine opera seen at the Avenida a few years ago  but at the Colón the last date was 1994; we would have the presence of an important singer, Angela Georghiu.

            Three to go if we are to reach the magic number, ten. My choices: to top the season, the première that García Caffi wanted to give, the complete version of "Les Troyens" by Berlioz.  A long-awaited bel canto opera: Donizetti´s "Anna Bolena" ( only seen at  our main theatre in 1970). And the première of the Britten opera that is most missed, "Billy Budd". I only regret that I have no space for a Slav opera, Janácek or Rimsky-Korsakov (priorities for 2018).

For Buenos Aires Herald