La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Don Carlo: Munich Opera Festival

Don Carlo Curtain Call (l. to r.: Thomas Hampson, Rene Pape, Nadia Krasteva, Ramon Vargas, Marco Armiliato, Olga Guryakova, Paata Burchuladze)

For Verdi Opera lovers, any performance of Don Carlo is an occasion. Based on the Schiller play, this is one of Verdi's grandest operas, one that operates on multiple levels - social, geopolitical, religious, historical as well as individual/human levels. It's one of those operas that one gains more insight with each viewing. A truly grand work that requires a large orchestra and singers of the first rank, it is certainly not a show that can be done on the cheap. Originally composed in French in 1865-67, with its 5-act plus ballet version, Verdi reworked it on several occasions resulting in a number of permutations. Perhaps the most frequently performed version has been a 4-act version sung in Italian, without ballet, and with Carlo's aria moved from act 2 to act 1, and occasionally with some of the music from the excised Fontainebleau Scene tagged on, in what one would call a hybrid version. However, many houses in recent years, such as in Paris and Amsterdam, as well as our own Canadian Opera Company have performed the "original" 5-act version, but invariably there are cuts and selective restorations of the original score. Some are basically Italian versions sung in French plus bits of the Fontainebleau Scene - as in the 1977 COC production, while others have restored more of the original music, such as the 2007 COC version with Adrianne Pieczonka as Elisabeth. This opera has been subjected to the radical "Regie-Oper treatment", like the Peter Konwitschny's Don Carlos production seen in Barcelona and Vienna. Konwitschny restored the ballet music, but instead of dancers, he had the singers miming their roles in a outrageously funny 25 minute sequence he called Eboli's Dream. While it provided a moment of comic relief in an opera that is unrelentingly gloomy, I have often wondered what Verdi would have made of this new creation.

The Bavarian State Opera's version isn't anything so radical. It is the 4-act Italian version, plus the Fontainebleau scene, with Carlo's aria moved to the beginning. [Note: Originally, I had made a mistake stating that it was "minus" - instead of "plus" - the Fontainebleau Scene. A reader wrote to point out my error. I stand corrected - that's what I get for writing this review in the middle of the night!] After the death of Rodrigo, a standard cut has been restored, with the music which Verdi later re-cycled as the Lacrymosa in the Requiem. The 10-year old Jurgen Rose production is austere, dark, spare, and uncontroversial. The three walls are black, as are almost all the costumes except for Rodrigo's which is brown. As a result Eboli's Veil Song lacks any sense of light and playfulness. A huge Christ on the Crucifix, propped on the left wall, dominates the proceedings. The ending, with Charles V wrapping his cloak around Carlo and going down into the crypt, is one that was quite common once but has since gone out of favour. Some productions have Carlo shot, some have him tortured beforehand, like the one in Toronto where he is blinded first - gruesome business. The auto-da-fe in Munich was impressively staged, with the heretics over the enormous woodpile looking quite real from a distance, even though they were dummies with movable arms and legs. This was one of the few moments in the whole production with some vivid colours, the rest of the time it was either white on black or grey on black.

To my ears, the best thing about the performance on the 22 was the singing of the men. Rene Pape was simply outstanding as Filippo, a voice of power and and resplendent beauty. Not far behind was the Posa of Thomas Hampson, whose voice sounded full and rich, and his acting as vivid as ever. Tenor Ramon Vargas started a little tentatively, with a minor crack early on, but he settled down to give a very fine performance. Even Paata Burchuladze, whose voice is now afflicted with a persistent wobble, rose to the occasion as Grand Inquisitor. Christian Van Horn, a frequent artist in Munich, was excellent as the Friar/Charles. I am sorry to say the women were not on the same level. As Elisabetta, Russian soprano Olga Guryakova displayed a big, dramatic voice under imperfect control. She sounded unfocused in the passaggio and occasionally off pitch. She had difficulties with dynamic shading, struggling with the high piano phrases. Her lovely stage presence and dramatic acuity were at least in this performance undermined by her vocal insecurities. Mezzo Nadia Krasteva, heard recently as Carmen in Vienna, had problems with the coloratura and the high notes in the Veil Song. "O don fatale" went better, but she ran out of steam near the end of this very strenuous aria. Her best moment was the trio in the Garden scene with Carlo and Rodrigo. The orchestra responded well for Marco Armiliato, who gave a lyrical reading of the score. Once again like Tosca, there were moments when it was too slow, particularly in "Tu che le vanita" - perhaps that's the curse of a singer-friendly conductor, to accomodate the singer. Given his sympathetic baton, Guryakova did her best work of the evening in this aria. Even with the uneven casting, there were enough fine moments to make this a well-spent four and a half hours in the opera house.


Thursday, 22 July 2010

Anton Kuerti gets Schumann, mostly

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

More than a few times during his all-Schumann piano recital Tuesday evening, Anton Kuerti looked like he was frustrated with himself. Unfortunately, he sounded liked it too.

Opening the fifth annual Toronto Summer Music Festival at Koerner Hall, Kuerti, who turns 72 years old this week, played with his usual integrity and nobility; but he missed too many notes to keep track of.

The blemished performance must have distracted even the celebrated pianist, because at times he took it out on the piano, hitting the jumps instead of landing them. Passages that required military precision came across as loose and muddled.

That being said, you could still savour Kuerti's Schumann like you would a frostbitten pint of ice cream.

To start it off, the program is a varied: it includes some of Schumann's least-heard works, as well some of his most-performed, and then some of his best-written. Kuerti gave us boundless soul, intrigue, and imagination with Novelettes, Op. 21, nos. 1, 7, and 4, Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, Toccata in C major, Op. 7, and Grand Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11.

It's also a program that's physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding for any pianist in his or her prime, never mind a septuagenarian, and Kuerti thrived on the music's sweet lyricism and sustained its rhythmic pulse with a sense of purpose, clarity, and admiration for the composer.

A loyal crowd cheered on their feet at the end of the concert, but Kuerti didn't give an encore.

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Wacky L'elisir d'amore at the Munich Opera Festival

A space ship? No, it's Dr. Dulcamara's vehicle - the funny David Boesch's L'elisir d'amore at the Munich Opera festival

This delightfully wacky L'elisir d'amore premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in December 2009. Most of the cast are back for this year's Munich Opera Festival revival - Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze as Adina, the imposing Ambrogio Maestri as Dr. Dulcamara, and Fabio Maria Capitanucci as a macho Belcore. Even the conductor remained the same - Juraj Vallcuha. The only change last night was in the Nemorino himself. Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, the Nemorino last December, is supposed to be replaced by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, who of course is famous in this role. After vocal cord surgery in spring of 2009, Villazon chose Nemorino to make his return this past March, in the friendly confines of the Wiener Staatsoper, where he has had many big successes.

Yesterday was supposed to be his return to Munich after cancelling Werther last July. When it was announced by someone in front of the curtain that Villazon was suffering from a stomach infection and was unable to sing, it was greeted with isolated but quite insistent boos. When it was announced that his replacement was Slovak tenor Pavol Breslik, there was a round of applause. Breslik of course was the Gennaro in last summer's Munich Lucrezia Borgia starring fellow Slovak, the evergreen diva Edita Gruberova. Breslik was excellent as Gennaro, in a rather far-out production that I admit I am not very fond of. This wouldn't be the first time he has replaced Villazon, and it was clear from the first note that Breslik was a most worthy replacement Nemorino. He brought a Mozartian quality to his singing of Nemorino, with a bright, pingy, and agile sound. Being youthful and possessing a good figure also helped. There was a great deal of physical acting - ie, stage antics - in this show, perhaps designed specifically for Villazon. Breslik was able to carry out all the physical requirements, including singing "Una furtiva lagrima" hanging precariously off a lampost 15 feet above ground! As if that wasn't enough, Breslik also spent extended minutes in his underwear frolicking with the adoring village girls. It takes a lot of nerves (and self confidence over one's body) to do that convincingly, and traditionally singers as a group aren't too comfortable with their body. As a last minute replacement, Breslik cannot be faulted in his performance. But I find that I missed the Chaplinesque qualities in Villazon. Breslik, for all his qualities, lacked pathos in his big aria. But the majority of the audience probably didn't agree with me as they gave him a huge ovation. Stage director David Boesch, new to opera, has scored a success with this production. He treats L'elisir as a complete fantasy, which it is! The location is indeterminate but it doesn't really matter. There were plenty of whimsical or downright silly sight gags, fireworks, sprinkling of the "elixir", you name it. The Adina was Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze who leaped to fame as Juliette opposite Villazon in Salzburg, a replacement for Anna Netrebko. She has quite a large voice for Adina, and rather steely at the top, where she sometimes go sharp. But overall she sang and acted well, as did Maestri (a visually hilarious Dulcamara) and Capitanucci (a rather understated Belcore).

There are two more performances of L'elisir during the waning days of the Munich Opera Festival, and its remains to be seen if Villazon will sing any of them. There is a rumour floating around that he has cancelled the whole run, as well as the Covent Garden Werther next May. I hope this is not true.

UPDATE: In Rolando Villazon's website , the tenor apologizes to his fans for cancelling the two performances of L'elisir, the second one is this evening. He still hopes to sing the third and last performance on July 27. I wish him a speedy recovery.

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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Red Hot Tosca at the Munich Opera Festival

Mario! Mario! Mario! The three huge banners hanging between the Grecian columns said it all. Puccini's great opera may be called Tosca, but it is as much about Cavaradossi as it's about the Roman prima donna. A great tenor demands equal billing. The Munich Opera certainly has a great Cavaradossi in its native son tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Without a doubt, Kaufmann is the hottest spinto tenor in front of the public today. His ability to excel in German, Italian and French repertoires is remarkable. In this production of Tosca, Kaufmann and the Finnish diva Karita Mattila (Tosca), aided and abetted by Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo at his sadistic best as Scarpia, generated so much heat that these three figuratively burned up the stage last night. The performance began a little slowly but built to a shattering climax. Kaufmann was in great voice; singing his two arias splendidly, with impeccable Italianate tone and nuanced acting. His full throttled Act 2 cries of "Vittoria, vittoria" was the most exciting I've ever heard. However he did make a small mental error in "Recondita armonia", entering too soon in the second phrase. Other than a few minor blemishes, it was a performance to remember. Mattila's Tosca was human, emotional, extroverted, genuine, and earthy. The voice with its cool timbre might not be ideal in Italian opera, but she makes it work by throwing herself totally into the role. Her chest register has grown with maturity, and she used it last night with abandon. Occasionally it sounded a bit rough and the break between chest and head voices was noticeable, but it suited the verismo style. Her five high Cs were searingly produced, and her "Vissi d'arte" was heart-felt. Uusitalo's Scarpia is rather unsubtle, and there isn't much suave and seductive quality to his voice or his acting - this Scarpia is a psychopath through and through. In Act 2, the performance caught fire and the confrontation scene between the principals were truly exciting.

A lot - mostly negative - things has already been written about Luc Bondy's production. Having seen it in New York and now here, I am puzzled as to why the Met audience hated the production so much. Yes, it is gloomy; and no, it isn't pretty like the Zeffirelli production it replaced, but then Tosca is not exactly a pretty story, is it?! There were also objections to the gratuitous sex in act 2 with the additions of three non-singing roles as Scarpia's playthings; and I've even heard objections to the demonstrably sexual interactions of the lovers, citing that in the Napoleonic era in the 18th century, this wouldn't have happened. But isn't sex the driving force of this story? Why not show it -after all this is the 21st century and this is a verismo opera! More problematic for me are some aspects of the staging, as in the end of act 2. No, I don't mean the business with the crucifix and the candelabras, but having Tosca sitting on the sofa fanning herself? Huh? Wouldn't it make more sense to have Tosca get out of there as soon as possible instead of lounging around? Also problematic is the ending of act 3, with a dummy jumping instead of Tosca. But in my mind, none of these are sufficient enough for the booing at the Met. There were boos last night too, but it was reserved for conductor Marco Armiliato, replacing Fabio Luisi who conducted the earlier performances. Yes, the tempo in act 3 was a bit too leisurely, but Armiliato offered sympathetic support to the singers, and the sounds coming out of the pit was fine. A bit taken aback, Armiliato took the boos in stride, at one point even smiling to the audience and shrugged his shoulders. What stayed with me long after the show was the energy and passion in this performance - no it wasn't perfect, but it was memorable.

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Monday, 19 July 2010

Aspen, Colorado: A Glorious Place to Make Music!

Aspen Music Festival and School

After a few days in Vail enjoying the music-making of Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Marita and I drove over to Aspen, about 100 miles away through the mountains. What we found there was a much older community and a festival and school operating on an equally high artistic plane but with a more varied range of goals and activities. True, Aspen has been in the news lately for its administrative infighting which saw music director and conductor David Zinman suddenly resign, and president Alan Fletcher emerge as the man in charge going forward, but on the basis of the two concerts I heard – actually one concert and a dress rehearsal – Aspen is maintaining its status as one of the world’s great oases of musical nurture and development.

Aspen Festival Over Half Century Old!
The Aspen Festival was founded in 1949, and in its formative years it was a philosophy rather than a full-fledged festival. What came to be called “The Aspen Idea” meant a place where people could develop in body, mind and spirit. Soon there was a school and more and more concerts and a performing space was built based on a design by the legendary Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. As a Finnish-Canadian, Marita took special pleasure in discovering this fact about Aspen.
Saarinen’s tent was replaced by a more permanent structure designed by Herbert Bayer and Fritz Benedict in 1965, and then in 1999 an even more elaborate building was erected – the Benedict Music Tent – designed by architect Harry Teague and acoustician Larry Kirkegaard. The “tent” had now become a 2,000 seat concert hall with a stage spacious enough to accommodate a large orchestra and chorus. An unusual feature of the construction is the tensioned membrane ceiling created by Birdair. The material, known as fiberglass fabric membrane, lets the light in but keeps out the heat of the sun, and apparently does no harm to the acoustics. The sound in the Benedict Music Tent is far more reverberant than one would expect and the overall effect in the two performances I heard – one by a string quartet and the other by a large orchestra – was very impressive.
Chamber Music in 2000 Seat Hall Acoustically Sound!
The Emerson Quartet presented a programme devoted to music by Dvořák, Barber and Shostakovich. I feared their sound might be lost in so large a hall, but that was not the case; possibly the effect of a wooden semicircular baffle placed behind them. I was delighted to hear the Emerson playing some of my favourite music: Dvořák’s Cypresses. These pieces began their lives as songs, and years later Dvořák reworked them for string quartet. Dvořák was a master of string quartet writing and these are some of his most beautiful works. To really appreciate them, the proactive listener would be richly rewarded by comparing the two versions of each piece.
Cypresses was followed by Dvořák’s String Quartet in E flat major Op. 51, to my mind not one of his best. Nonetheless, the Emerson Quartet gave it the careful preparation and total commitment it gives to every piece it plays.
After intermission came the original version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Coincidentally, I was to hear the more popular string orchestra version played by the Dallas Symphony in Vail the following night. Both versions are effective but in quite different ways. The quartet version has its own special intimacy, while the orchestra version has a strength and power which cannot be achieved by four players.
Finally, the Emerson played the String Quartet No. 9 Op. 117 by Shostakovich. Its last movement is one of the most exciting in any of the composer’s fifteen string quartets, and the Emerson played it superbly. The chordal pizzicati rang out with accuracy and authority and the contrapuntal writing had boundless energy. The Emerson Quartet brought the audience to its feet and then let it down gently and eloquently with an excerpt from Bach’s A Musical Offering.
Open Rehearsal with Hans Graf and soloist Gil Shaham
The next morning I was back in the Benedict Music Tent for the dress rehearsal of a concert by the Aspen Chamber Symphony (ACS) under the direction of Hans Graf, music director of the Houston Symphony. The ACS is one of three Aspen orchestras and each one is a remarkable ensemble. They combine well-known principal players from orchestras around the world and gifted students who have auditioned and succeeded in being accepted at Aspen.
ACS concertmaster is Alexander Kerr, Professor of Violin at Indiana University, and former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Principal second violin is Espen Lilleslåtten, concertmaster of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway, and principal clarinet is Theodore Oien who holds the same position in the Detroit Symphony. All the members of the American Brass Quintet teach at the Aspen School and play in one of the orchestras…and on it goes.
The Aspen orchestras also have a Canadian component. Principal clarinet in the Aspen Festival Orchestra is Joaquin Valdepeñas of the Toronto Symphony, and principal horn is John Zirbel of the Montreal Symphony.
“Composer in Residence” Christopher Rouse Takes Notes
One of the highlights of the dress rehearsal was the opportunity to hear Odna Zhizn (A Life) by Christopher Rouse with the composer in attendance and basically supervising the performance. Odna Zhizn was conceived as a tribute to Natasha, a Russian friend of the composer. Rouse has said that the piece functions “both as the public portrayal of an extraordinary life as well as a private love letter.” The work had its premiere just a few months ago by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
Like all of Rouse’s orchestral music it is dazzling in its orchestration and dramatically powerful. Rouse seemed generally happy with what he heard and at this final stage of rehearsal only made a few comments about balance. It certainly seemed to me that Hans Graf and the Aspen Chamber Symphony had prepared the piece very well indeed.
Sheer Joy: Shaham Shares Talent and Temperament
The other major work was the Brahms Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as soloist. Shaham has been coming to Aspen regularly since his student years and he is particularly renowned for his interpretation of this piece.
Now 39 years old, Shaham still exudes a youthful wonder at the world around him. As the orchestra plays the introduction to the first movement, Shaham looks at the conductor and at members of the orchestra as if to say “How can it be so beautiful?” And Shaham’s attitude is as infectious as I am sure it is intended to be. The players in return re-examine the music they are playing as if they had never seen it before, and can’t believe what they are seeing and hearing.
It almost goes without saying that Shaham’s violin playing was joyous and nearly impeccable. But it should be said that while he and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, whom I heard perform in Vail, share an intense commitment to music, they are very different personalities and interpreters. Salerno-Sonnenberg seems to bare her soul in everything she plays, and doesn’t hesitate to go to the dark side if she thinks the music requires it. Shaham, on the other hand, is more of a classicist. It is simply not part of his DNA to personalize the music. Fortunately, there is room for both types of performers in classical music.
Aspen, Colorado: So Much More to Offer than Slopes!
Like Vail, Aspen is primarily a skiing destination. Because of its limited size – it has mountains on three sides – with the crowds that come in winter and more recently in summer too, it is a very expensive place to live. There are only about 6,000 residents and many of them are jetsetters on the order of Michael Douglas, Goldie Hawn, Jack Nicholson and Charlie Sheen. And they generally arrive in Aspen in private jets, dozens of which were parked at the Aspen Airport during my visit. The people who have to earn a living in Aspen mostly live in less glamorous towns nearby.
The Aspen music festival runs for eight weeks and involves about 700 students and 150 faculty, but it’s not the only act in town. Every summer, the very prestigious Aspen Institute attracts many of the most famous minds in politics, economics and the media, The recent Aspen Ideas Festival featured the likes of Bill Gates, Thomas Friedman, Alan Greenspan, David Gergen, and Arianna Huffington.
For Those Wanting More…
The Emerson Quartet recorded all the Shostakovich string quartets in 2000, and they are available in a boxed set as DG 463 2842 2. If you want to hear exactly what Shostakovich had in mind, investigate the recordings by the Beethoven Quartet; this is the ensemble which premiered most of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Their recordings, made between 1956 and 1974, had the approval of the composer. They are now available in a boxed set from DOREMI as DHR-7911-5, and the remastering and restoration work done by Jacob Harnoy is excellent.
Dvořák’s Op. 51 and Cypresses are included in the latest Emerson release as DG 477 8765 5. Gil Shaham has a DVD of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded at a concert given in Palermo in 2002 (EuroArts 2051987).

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Photo of Gil Shaham by Marita

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