lunes, mayo 15, 2017

Monteverdi´s ·The Coronation of Poppea”: music respected, wrong staging

            A new way of telling stories with music was born in Florence in 1597, when the Camerata Fiorentina went back to Greek mythology  in a "Dafne" with music by Peri, unfortunately lost, but in 1600 both Peri and Caccini wrote an  "Euridice", and these are extant; they are mostly recitative and words dominate the music. But Claudio Monteverdi showed the right way in 1607 with his "La favola d´Orfeo" for the Court of Mantua (on the same subject but giving pride of place to Orfeo rather than Euridice): "notable advances both in dramatic characterization and in musical form" (Willi Apel).
             Monteverdi moved to Venice and it was there that in 1637 opened the first opera house, Teatro San Cassiano: now what had been a courtly entertainment was seen by the common people. The composer, equally adept in sacred and profane music, went in his  life (1567-1643) from the Late Renaissance to the Early Baroque, or as he said, from the "prima prattica" to the "seconda prattica". Unfortunately no less than ten of his operas were lost, and only two (apart from "Orfeo" and the admirable fragment of "Arianna": the "Lamento") survived, and were written in his final years: "Il ritorno d´Ulisse in patria" (1641) and "L´incoronazione di Poppea" (1642). It´s a good thing that all three have been staged in Buenos Aires.
            There was no edition of "Poppea" but two manuscripts have come to us: the Venitian at the Biblioteca Marciana, and the Neapolitan, at the Conservatory San Pietro a Majella; they have considerable differences. "Poppea" is recognised as a great masterpiece. There were editions in the Twentieth Century by the likes of specialists like D´Indy, Malipiero, Krenek and Redlich.
            It was premièred in Buenos Aires at the Asociación Cultural de Conciertos, Grand Splendid, 1927, and the Colón presented it in 1938 conducted by no less than Tullio Serafin. My first experience was in 1965, when Bruno Bartoletti presented an honorable performance with a certain degree of historicism, but the Colón touched greatness with the 1996 performances led by René Jacobs, staged by Gilbert Deflo, and sung by a distinguished cast. Then, Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) had the merit of giving a stylish staging by Rita de Letteriis and a very decent musical realisation at the Avenida in 2006.
            There are admirable recordings led by Leppard, Harnoncourt, Jacobs, Gardiner and Hickox, and it´s interesting to observe that both in them and in stagings seen in BA  some roles have been sung  by different types of voice: Nero by tenor or mezzo, Arnalta by tenor or mezzo or contralto, Ottone by countertenor or mezzo or baritone. Granted, that sort of problem is typical of the Baroque, but more  of later stages of that period when castrati reigned, nowadays replaced generally by countertenors (I don´t suppose historicism will go as far as reviving the castrati...).
            The opera is long (about three hours and a half) and most performances prune it here or there. The recent presentation was (for the first time) a joint enterprise of Nuova Harmonia (NH) and BAL, starting both seasons; the venue, the Coliseo. The initial night was that of NH (the one I saw), the other two, for BAL. Both institutions innovated: NH because it is a concert concern, BAL because its usual home has been the Avenida. Probably costs were the reason for this association. BAL will present only one opera at the Avenida (that overworked standard, "La Boheme"), and two chamber operas at the Picadero; their fifth title won´t be an opera but a concert at the Avenida.
            "Poppea"´s ample cast combines six Gods with nineteen Mortals; this version eliminates Pallade, Mercurio and Venere. The music is enormously varied: recitatives, ariosos, arias, instrumental pieces, duets, quartets, concertantes; laments, marches, brilliant and funny episodes, tragic ones (Seneca´s death). Not all of it is Monteverdi´s; e.g., the beautiful final duet of Nerone and Poppea was written by Benedetto Ferrari, otherwise almost unknown nowadays (his operas are lost). And although the instrumental music is all written out, there´s no specified orchestration. Of course, this means that they may change frrom one historicist interpretation to another, but with Marcelo Birman we were in safe hands: he has shown his worth in admirable premières and revivals of Baroque French operas with his Orchestra Compañía de las Luces (Company of Lights); Monteverdi proves to be up the conductor´s aisle. He used for the orchestra five violins, two violas, two cellos, bass, flutes, cornetto (a wooden trumpet), trumpet, three sackbuts (predecessors of trombones) and percussion. And for the continuo (in solo numbers), two harpsichords, two lutes and guitars, two theorbos, two harps, two viola da gambas and cello. The playing was excellent and the conducting, always flexible and expressive.
            Some words about Gian Francesco Busenello´s libretto, based on Tacitus´ "Annals" and Suetonius´ "Life of the Caesars". It is unabashedly licentious and cynical: here the bad ones win: Nero rejects and exiles his wife Ottavia, Poppea wins power through lust, the Stoic philosopher Seneca commits suicide by Nero´s orders (who didn´t tollerate his mentor´s sage counsels). And Ottone, clad as Drusilla, fails ridiculously to kill Poppea (whom he loves), instigated by Ottavia (the weakest moment of the libretto, otherwise interesting and well written).
            Two singers dominated: the Venezuelan bass Iván García (now resident here) was a powerful and noble Seneca; and the Brazilian mezzo Luisa Francesconi (debut, I believe) has important vocal material and gave her grieving but vengeful Ottavia much dramatic presence. I have enjoyed Cecilia Pastawski in Mozartian roles, but she lacks the arrogant sexiness Poppea requires and also some volume. Tenor Santiago Bürgi was a Nero alternately amorous and violent with less line than the Baroque requires, but he was a convincing actor. As in 2006, countertenor Martín Oro was Ottone, though this time I found him too mannered in phrasing and rather weak dramatically. Gloria Rojas, a Chilean contralto, sang Arnalta´s (Poppea´s wetnurse) lullaby expressively, but her later intervention was so absurdly marked by the stage director that I was sorry for her.  I think the same about soprano Victoria Gaeta: as Drusilla she was fresh and musical, but in the Prologue her Fortuna was so over-the-top that I cringed. The Amore of Adriano D´Alchimio was well sung but terribly kitsch, whilst Rocío Arbizu did well as Vertue and Damigella (Maiden). The others were good: Josué Miranda, Agustín  Gómez, Mariano Fernández Bustinza and Juan Pablo Labourdette. The seven dancers were accurate in the cabaret-ish choreography of Ignacio González Cano.
            As you may have inferred, I wasn´t happy with Marcelo Lombardero´s staging and kept thinking, De Letteriis come back! The Prologue (a dialogue between Fortuna, Virtú and Amore) was the wickedest sort of low kitsch.  The three acts were compressed into two; that doesn´t bother me. But the recurring near-soft-porn, the lack of subtlety, the uncalled-for grotesque (clown´s noses in the final scene), the incongruities, are so dominant that the few dignified moments hardly compensate (Seneca´s death, Arnalta´s lullaby). True, Daniel Feijóo´s stage design does have some quality, but the costume designs of Luciana Gutman are mostly ugly and absurd, and the lighting by Horacio Efron sometimes was unhelpful to understand the action.
For Buenos Aires Herald

Damrau and Testé: high point of the singing year

            Last week´s Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s concert was outside the norm, for symphonic repertoire was left aside and the orchestra, under our seasoned operatic conductor Mario Perusso, accompanied the brilliant debut of German soprano Diana Damrau and her husband, French bass baritone Nicolas Testé.
            She has a splendid twenty-year career and is a rarity: a soprano of enormous range (strong lows, stratospheric perfect highs), histrionic at all times, equally convincing in drama and comedy. She was imaginative as Rossini´s Rosina, florid and light in Meyerbeer (so rarely heard here), dramatic as Gounod´s Juliet, heart-rending in Bellini´s mad scene from "I Puritani".
            Testé was a surprise for many; not as famous as his wife, he is certainly one the best bass baritones nowadays, with a firm beautiful voice capable of fine shading but also of stark drama: from the cunning of Basilio´s "La Calunnia" (Rossini), to the comic bravado of "Pif, paf" (Meyerbeer´s "The huguenots"), the noble line from the French version of Verdi´s "Don Carlos"(clumsily not announced), the intense aria from Antonio Gomes´ interesting "Salvator Rosa" and the sinister Alvise in Ponchielli´s "La Gioconda". As contained as his wife is adrenalic, nevertheless the two combined admirably in the closing "Bess, you is my woman now" (Gershwin).
            In the encores, Puccini arias from both  and a lovely duet from Bernstein´s "West Side Story".
            Perusso and the orchestra shone in orchestral pieces of Rossini, Gounod, Saint-Saëns and Bernstein.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Wagner before Wagner: “Forbidden love” premièred at the Colón

            The Colón hasn´t offered Richard Wagner´s "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" since 1980, though it is arguably the greatest German operatic comedy of the Nineteenth Century; this in a big opera house of important history is quite simply an aberration. And "Tannhäuser" isn´t staged here since 1994. The composer´s second opera, "Das Liebesverbot" ("Forbidden love"), written in 1835-6, is clearly mediocre, and the only reason to present it is that for aficionados it´s a curiosity that, warts and all, in its better fragments gives some inklings of the great Wagner revealed in 1841´s "The Flying Dutchman" (though premièred in 1843). In fact, his first opera, "Die Feen" ("The Fairies"), created in 1833-34, was belatedly staged posthumously in 1888, and there the hints of the future are more evident. And of course, in "Rienzi", on Bulwer Lytton´s novel about Rome´s last tribune, even if it follows grand opera lines; it was composed in 1838-40, and had its first hearing in 1842 at the Dresden Court Opera: Wagner´s fame got a decisive giant step.
            Wagner was only 22 when he started on "Das Liebesverbot", a free adaptation of a problematic Shakespeare comedy, "Measure for measure", transplanting it from Vienna to Palermo (Sicily). It´s one of three comedies called "bitter" or "dark", the others being "Troilus and Cressida" and "All´s well that ends well". They were written in the difficult years before and after the death of Elizabeth I (1603) and they offer "a distempered vision of the world", especially "Measure for Measure" (1604-5), "searching, unsettling and precarious play" (Encyclopedia Britannica).
            I haven´t been able to compare it with Wagner´s libretto, but I have to state that I find the latter an aberration of continuous contradiction and improbability, from the very premise: Friedrich, Governor of Palermo, imposes the death sentence to anyone that indulges in sex for pleasure, and this in the middle of Carnival celebrations. No less absurd is Isabella´s behaviour: a severe woman living in a convent, she does expose Friedrich´s hypocrisy (he desires her) but in the final scene she robs the equally hypocritical Luzio from the light-hearted Dorella (to whom Luzio had promised marriage) and leaves the convent. And so on.
            Wagner had been named conductor of the small Magdeburg opera house; facilities were few, orchestra and choir were weak and the cast very poor, but the composer wanted this ragged lot to learn a long and complicated opera in just ten days. The only two programmed performances  failed utterly (the second was cancelled!), and Wagner tried in vain to obtain the support of other cities in the following years to offer "Das Liebesverbot" (curiously he didn´t even try to get them interested in "Die Feen"). So the opera lay forgotten for more than a century; and of course Bayreuth never staged the three initial Wagners. Until it was revived in 1923 in Munich with scant success. But matters changed in 1983 when Munich Opera´s Musical Director Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted all thirteen Wagner operas celebrating the centenary of his death: the ponderous (more than four hours) "big comedy"-"grosse Komische"- was judiciously pared down to two hours forty minutes, and with fast tempi and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle´s talented staging  it became a success and was recorded live. I own that recording (edited much later, in 1995) and find it very good. It puts the best possible face on a problematic opera.
            The Colón production lasts about the same and is based on the score edited by Breitkopf & Härtel. And as so often nowadays, it is shared by several theatres to cut costs: originated in Madrid´s Teatro Real, it is co-produced by Covent Garden and the Colón. The London theatre is there for the simple reason that the stage director Kasper Holten (debut) was until very recently the Covent´s Opera Director (in a polemic tenure that allowed such things as a gory "Lucia di Lammermoor").
            In fact this comedy is seldom funny and the music is a mixture of influences that go from Bellini to Auber and Weber. There are much better German comedies in those Romantic decades, but the Colón ignores them: Lortzing´s "Zar und Zimmermann"  (1837), Nicolai´s "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1849), Weber´s "Abu Hassan" (1811), Cornelius´ "The Barber of Baghdad" (1858). There´s some sparkle in the Wagner Overture and second Carnival scene, and a modicum of drama in the interview of Isabella and Friedrich; plus  lyricism in Mariana´s aria (the rejected wife of Friedrich) and a nice duet of Isabella and Mariana.
            I single out the  Isabella of soprano Lise Davidsen (debut, Norwegian, very tall, young and imposing): a stunning voice of ample volume  and range, managed with great skill: a Senta or a Sieglinde in the making. I wasn´t impressed by the arid timbre of tenor Peter Lodahl (debut, Danish) as Luzio, although he moves well. Our Hernán Iturralde was a sturdy and professional Friedrich. Christian Hübner (German bass, debut) did a convincing Brighella (maybe the most authentic "buffo" role), an arrogant policeman happy to arrest and judge... but he goes to the clandestine Carnival: the rough deep voice is also accustomed to the great Wagnerian villains (Hunding, Hagen). The Spanish light soprano María Hinojosa did a charming Dorella and Marisú Pavón sang with fine line her Mariana. Tenor Carlos Ullán seemed uncomfortable in the role of the condemned Claudio. The others did well, especially Norberto Marcos (Angelo); Fernando Chalabe was Pontio Pilato (what a name!), Sergio Spina, Antonio; and Emiliano Bulacios, Danieli.
            Slovak conductor Oliver von Dohnányi did an effecrtive job of preparation, obtaining  reasonable quality from the orchestra, and Fabián Martínez managed well the abundant choral music. As to Holten´s production, of course he didn´t respect the 16th Century specified in the libretto, and neon lights mixed with colorful buffo costumes and a handsome unit set full of stairs (a touch of Escher extravagance). Friedrich was ridiculed grabbing a teddy bear in bed. Stage and costume designer, Steffen Aarfing. Interesting lighting by Bruno Poet, and acrobatic choreography by Signe Fabricius (with good dancers hired for the occasion). There was a second, all Argentine cast. 
For Buenos Aires Herald

Ups and downs of National Symphony: Ministerial bureaucracy, CCK logistics

            The Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (National Symphony, NS) is one of the two top symphonic ensembles we have in our concert life; the other, of course, is the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. The latter has its home at the Colón and is costly; the NS plays at the CCK, at the Blue Whale and is always free.  The Phil has solid financial backing, the NS depends on the Culture Ministry´s capricious and ineffective bureaucracy  with its constant problem of non-payment of conductors and soloists and just as harmful, of orchestral material. Plus the CCK´s absurd policy of being totally free (no worthy orchestra in the world plays under such conditions) and allowing babies. And being a cultural centre, it depends on the Media chief, Hernán Lombardi, instead of the Culture Minister, Pablo Avelluto. And Lombardi doesn´t give the NS what it needs to feel at home, including appropriate offices and rehearsal times.
            So the NS season proceeds with constant alarms. And the orchestra is playing sometimes below expectations. But one thing holds fast: the audience fills the vast hall; is it only because they love the orchestra or because it´s free? Well, the Phil is expensive and  generally has a close to full house. And is it because it´s free that the CCK seems unable to provide reservations to reviewers?  
            A February night of Chinese music was postponed to a later date with a different conductor, and celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Argentina. Much later, in September, the NS might visit China and Korea if both Ministries (Cultural and Foreign Relations) understand the importance of giving the NS  a foreign tour after so many years without that experience. The NS has programmed both the artists and the repertoire.
            Zhang Zheng was the conductor, and the soloists were Yuan Yi (violin), Duan Biyan (piano) and Yang Yue (erhu); all made their debut. The music was all Chinese except for Bernstein´s "Candide" Overture. To my Occidental ears the adaptation of Chinese culture to an European product such as the symphony orchestra sounds forced and superficial. It seems to veer between the bombastic and the excessive sweetness, and significantly I only found interesting ideas in the final piece, the tone poem "The Hani minority" by Shao En (the Hani are Tibeto-Burmese).                                                                 The concert started with three short works by Bao Yuankai and was followed by the fourth movement of the Erhu Concerto "The Chinese Wall´s capriccio"; the erhu is the two-string Chinese violin and it´s amazing how varied and beautiful are the sounds that come from this apparently limited instrument, played with virtuoso panache by Yang Yue. But apart from the very professional Yuan Yi and Duan Biya, I found little to like in the fragments from the Violin Concerto "The butterfly lovers" by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, and the third and fourth movements of the Piano Concerto written by six composers (!) based on the cantata "The Yellow River" by Xian Xinghai. The efficient conductor got decent playing from the NS in this repertoire almost wholly new to them.
            I skipped the next concert, too crossover for me (symphonic rock -Emerson- and tango –Schissi), and went on to the following one, in which Günther Pichler made his BA debut as a conductor, though we knew him as a member of the marvelous Berg Quartet decades ago.  The programme couldn´t be more divergent with the two mentioned, and I enjoyed it a lot, for Pichler is a master of style and clarity, even in the score I would have thought not quite up his aisle: the  splendid Overture to "Guillaume Tell" by Rossini. But otherwise we heard Mozart, and Pichler´s phrasing was a lesson to all: the NS did its best to assimilate his teaching and accompanied beautifully that early masterpiece, Concerto Nº9, and afterwards gave us an admirable "Jupiter" (Symphony Nº41).   There was a further pleasure: the debut of Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi, utterly refined and precise, with interesting cadenzas. And equally notable in a contrasting encore: Liszt´s transcription of Paganini´s "La Campanella".
            Finally, after many years, the return of Yeruham Scharovsky to where he was born, after decades of professional conducting in Israel and from there to other 50 countries. The programme started with a favorite overture of mine, Weber´s "Oberon", in a middling version. But things promptly picked up when the twin clarinet players Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel showed their fantastic technique and beautiful timbre in two works (both wrongly called in the hand programme, and as usual, with no comments on the music – another bad thing of the CCK). First, the Concert Piece (not Concerto) Nº 1, op.113, by Mendelssohn (originally for clarinet and corno di bassetto –a clarinet a third lower- and piano), a charming and typical score fast-slow-fast. The orchestration may be by Mendelssohn and at least in this version the music was a BA première.
            And so was the following work (both unannounced...): "De mis raíces" ("From my roots"), Concert variations (not a concerto) for two clarinets and orchestra, Op.41, by Aby Rojze, who was a violinist of the NS during more than four decades until his retirement some years back and during his mature years decided to start a parallel career as a composer.  It's only fair that his beloved orchestra should give him a place in their programming. These variations are tonal and pleasant, with a curious orchestration of strings, trumpets and percussion and virtuoso interventions for the clarinets. The music indeed refers to his roots, which are Jewish and Argentine, so we hear a milonga but also parts that refer to the klezmer tradition, and the main melody sounds solemn and religious both at the beginning and the end. Wonderful playing by the twins, who added as encores two klezmer pieces, and committed accompaniment by conductor and orchestra. Rojze saluted the audience.
            Tchaikovsky created not only the six numbered symphonies but also the very impressive programmatic symphony "Manfred", on Lord Byron´s antihero (who also inspired Schumann). His Op.58 (1885), the score is huge, about 55 minutes,  dominated by the ominous melody of the very start, which reappears in all movements (as its model, the "idée fixe" in the Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz). It is the doomed Manfred that is portrayed, he who has loved Astarte and lost her, he who has been damned and is in the deepest despair as he recollects stages of his life. But in the second movement , a scherzo with trio, the Alps Fairy appears under a cascade in exquisite balletic music later interrupted by  Manfred´s theme. A charming Pastorale is an interlude before the terrible, devilish bacchanale of the fourth movement, until the spìrit of Astarte is evoked with solemn organ chords and Manfred dies. The orchestral imagination is prodigious almost throughout, and the work is very difficult though fascinating. Scharovsky had a brave go at it with some ups and downs but certainly with much expressive power; warts and all, this was a worthwhile occasion to meet a major Tchaikovsky creation. And the Klais organ certainly made a difference.
            The concert was dedicated to the clarinet player Eduardo Prado, who died recently and was member of the SN for decades.
For Buenos Aires Herald