Under the Greek Sun

July 13, 2011

I have been referred to as a “busy Renaissance man” in other distinguished quarters of the blogosphere. I am not so sure about the second part, but busy, certainly. My print-and-radio self doesn’t cope easily with my blogging identity, or vice versa.

I am in Athens this week, reporting on the Athens and Epidaurus Festival. First two La Presse articles here and here. It looks like I’m turning into a Wajdi Mouawad watcher.

Dmitry Cherniakov’s sublime reading of Eugene Onegin (with the exquisite Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Tatyana – excerpt above filmed in Moscow, with Tatiana Monogarova) was also on the program. More soon (hopefully).

 

 

YNS @ La Scala

June 12, 2011

Young Québécois podium Wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin made a rather smashing  Scala debut last Monday in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. I have long ranted (most often on the Canadian airwaves) about the artistic miscalculation of programming the opera at the Salzburg Festival, be it a dream vehicle for Rolando Villazón or Anna Netrebko. It seems that Bartlett Sher‘s production, which first graced the shores of the Salzach river in 2008, has now reached its true destination – even if it retains much of its pinky cutesiness (a DVD of the original installment – excerpt above – is available on Deutsche Grammophon).  Nézet-Séguin lends the score more than glitter and entrain: some depth, even a touch of tragic grandeur which wasn’t quite there in Salzburg. He doesn’t nearly  steal the show from Vittorio Grigolo, whose mellifluous but small lyric tenor won him enthusiastic scaligeri raves, yet overshadows Nino Machaidze, who was clearly not at the top of her game on opening night.  La Presse has my (short) review.

Reverred colleague Jens F. Laurson, fresh from a Mahler (over)dose in Leipzig, zeroes in astutely on the YNS phenomenon.

 

The Berlin life goes somewhat underreported, it seems, at least as far as mainstream, non-German media on both sides of the pond is concerned. What makes it, then, so special? In this case, clichés are generally true. There is the overall cost of living, for one thing, which by any standard is still much lower here than in most occidental metropolises. Yet the over-abundent cultural offer one experiences in this town definitely rivals that of, say, Paris, London, or even (I dare write it) New York. The art scene, the theater, the music – the opera. Some of it is excellent, some of it is questionable, some of it is just anachronic and not entirely defendable, but it’s all part of the Berlin fabric. There is a sense of freedom, an understated but effervescent collective state of mind, a youthfulness, a license to experiment and fail that appeal to artists and intellectuals from all around the world at least as much as cheap rent does. This amounts to a form of utopia which certainly doesn’t exist anymore in any of those other cities, which are gentrifying by the day. As far as opera and, generally speaking, vocal music is concerned, this is both a blessing and a curse. There is more to see and hear than what even the most devoted aficionado could possibly absorb at once without jeopardizing one’s physical health; tickets are affordable, ensembles are strong, repertoire is relatively varied. Still, Berlin for all its glory cannot compete with, say, the much richer Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The number of expensive new productions is limited. Casts tend to be asembled a bit late. Fees being lower, stars are the exception rather than the norm (and are consequently more prone to cancellation).

The first few days of May offered a glimpse of what the system can produce at its considerable best:

May 1: Don Carlo, Staatsoper. René Pape sings his signature role of King Philip, surrounded by a fine cast (Amanda Echalaz, Nadia Kratseva, Fabio Sartori, Andreas Bauer, Alfredo Daza). The spine-chilling auto-da-fé scene, complete with naked supers hanged by their feet, is the highlight of Philipp Himmelmann’s mostly excellent staging.

May 4: Cecilia Bartoli in her yearly local appearance. All-Händel program includes a few unexpected bits from Alcina, Teseo, Amadigi. Orchestral excerpts are masterfully delivered by the Orchestra La Scintilla from Zürich. Our diva glitters but hardly surprises, yet her star power is unquestionable. The sweet-voiced Sunhae Im  and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin offer a bouquet of Rameau, Telemann and Clérambault at the Kammermusiksaal next door.

May 6: Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Christian Thielemann and the Berliner Philharmoniker team up for an evening of Richard Strauss (orchestral songs plus excerpts from Arabella). Fleming sounds glorious and inspired throughout. The partnership with Thielemann is  bearing some fruits.

May 7: Edita Gruberova takes the Schiller Theater by storm. “Bel canto extravaganza” sounds like a gross understatement: Lucrezia, Amina, Lucia, Elvira, Elisabetta – everyone’s at the party, except Norma. I’m boarding a train to Hamburg when Linda and Adele make a late arrival.

*****

True, neither Fleming, Hampson nor Bartoli are likely to appear in a local stage production at this point in their respective careers. But as long as Berlin is Berlin (fortunately I was in town that week), that’s pretty much as good as it gets.

Like it or not, it is this time of year already. Hopes and memories start fading in the distance, the wandering lyrical soul just about to plunge into the Summer’s luminous festive promises…Well, more or less, anyway. The unusually long Berlin opera season is about to come to a halt in just a couple of weeks: the Staatsoper has yet one new staging of Bernstein’s irreverencious Candide up its sleeves before the first edition of the new INFEKTION! festival in July; its Charlottenburg neighbour, the Deutsche Oper, will give the Berlin premiere of Verdi’s Macbeth on June 12. The Robert Carsen production, imported from Köln, hardly qualifies as “new”, making the actual run of Saint-Saëns’ rarely staged Samson et Dalila the de facto ultimate offering of Intendantin / Regisseurin Kirsten Harms’ highly controversial reign. She is to step down in July after a bumpy seven-year tenure which saw the successive departures of two music directors, Christian Thielemann and Renato Palumbo, and the appointment of a third, incumbent Donald Runnicles.

Harms has come under heavy criticism for her choice of repertoire and directors alike, her inability to maintain strong musical leadership before Runnicle’s arrival only exemplified by her ill-advised pick of Palumbo as a short-lived successor to Thielemann, one of the most important conductors of his generation. Not surprisingly, this season has seen few highlights. After Roland Schwab’s erratic take on Don Giovanni, David Poutney’s Troyens and Graham Vick’s Tristan und Isolde, both dramaturgically valuable but incomplete, Patrick Kinmonth‘s grim and precise vision of Saint-Saëns’ religious fable is more than a fair success. The British director unobtrusively updates the action of this tale of national self-definition to the composer’s time, namely, the politically charged 1870s and the Franco-Prussian war. While there remains little of the slightly over-blown pageantry one readily associates with the opera, his approach is strangely compelling – not flawless, certainly, yet enticing as it makes no concession to political correctness in its depiction of social and racial tensions in Second Empire Paris, setting the stage for Europe’s meltdown-to-come. If there is one occurence where Kinmonth might be taken to fault, though, it is for perhaps choosing to ignore the context in which his concept unfolds: it is a tad precarious – not to say redundent, in this town –  to have tenths of Jews board departing trains at the final tableau. The audience’s irritation, on May 19, though understandable, tended to overshadow Malgorzata Walewska‘s beautifully sung Dalila and Alain Altinoglu‘s superb conducting.

Almost 46, the Polish contralto is no household name on the top-league opera circuit, yet she boasts a sizeable and richly hued voice coupled with strong, instinctive acting skills, compensating with refined musicality what her registers lack in homogeneity. A much satisfying if somewhat belated discovery for this listener, Walewska is a real contender for Olga Borodina and certainly a serious one for Anita Rachvelishvili or even Elīna Garanča, when and if the Latvian mezzo adds the role to her already vast repertoire. The rest of the cast acquitted themselves aptly, if without distinction. José Cura‘s rough-edged Samson, while touching in his third act soliloquy (see clip above), lacks nobility and seductiveness in variable doses; Laurent Naouri sings the Great Priest with style and treasurable mastery of French prosody.

Altinoglu, it seems, enters the category of underrated conducting wonders. The young French maestro coaxes the most exquisite sounds from the Deutsche Oper orchestra, avoiding the pitfall of prettiness throughout and making this score sound both structurally solid and just plain magnificent in its celebration of rosy decadence. Who ever said 19th-century French music was too mild? A terrific achievement.

Herr Mahler is sounding pretty good.

The concert at the Philharmonie last Wednesday evening was perhaps one of the most typical yet fascinating happenings to come about on the Berlin musical scene this season – if any further testimony of the city’s unique cultural uptopia was needed – one which would no doubt be deemed improbable mostly anywhere else in the world. The Berliner Philharmoniker announced just a mere couple of weeks ago that they were going to commemorate the centenary of Gustav Mahler’s passing their own grandiose way: a special concert comprising Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony (the usual Deryck Cooke version),  featuring Anne Sofie von Otter and Jonas Kaufmann as vocal soloists and with Claudio Abbado at the helm. Just how extraordinary is that? The opportunity to hear one of the handful of podium masters of our age is not one to be overlooked, and tickets sold out quickly despite a whooping top-price of 220 euros (rather insane for a town where well-informed classical hords aren’t generally very gala-friendly).

Nearing 78, Abbado cuts a diminutive and frail figure, his health still greatly compromised by an excruciating bout with cancer which prompted him to terminate his otherwise successful tenure as the Philharmoniker Chief Conductor, almost a decade ago. Even if his gestures and overall stage demeanour are kept to a minimum, his aura, his very presence, subdued and concentrated, are absolutely magnetic – to audience and, one would assume, to musicians alike. His magic, though, is hard to summarize. Suffice it to say that this devoted listener had never had such a fulfulling live experience with this orchestra: the cohesiveness, the sheer liberty, the natural balance, the complex richness of texture and tone palette, the perfect characterization of each sequence, the depth of thought and interpretive intention, all aspects of this band’s unique personality which came together brilliantly under these most exceptional of circumstances. Individual players made contributions both athletic and poetic; soloists radiated throughout.

As one can judge from the clip posted above, Jonas Kaufmann, fresh from a run of Siegmunds in New York (his role debut), sounded a tad uncomfortable with the comparatively higher tessitura of the part, his burnished and muscular tenor at times hovering  forcefully in the stratosphere. This performance, though quite remarkably precise in diction and elegant in style, made the point for a slightly leaner vocal approach and a somewhat more idiomatic command, in true Heldentenor fashion, of clarion high notes – one might think of a younger Ben Heppner, or of heir-apparent Simon O’Neill. Assessing Anne Sofie von Otter’s profoundly moving performance is another matter. The Swedish mezzo, now well into the third decade of a glorious career, retains both integrity and intelligence in extraordinary amounts, her increasingly glamourous stage persona appealing way beyond conventional lip-gloss PR wisdom. Yet she sounded tentative and eerily quiet in some of the score’s full-bown passages, even a bit underpowered in the acoustically congenial but still vast auditorium. Hers was a reading both humane and earthy, her dignity in the epigonal last movement the result of confident acceptance rather than arch-romantic effusion. I have adored von Otter for years; her unusual Brangäne in the Sellars/Viola “Tristan Project” under the baton of Esa-Pekka  Salonen, heard in New York in 2007, counts among personal highlights of recent years; a recent Berlin outing, in which she and composer-pianist Brad Meldhau served the audience with a bouquet of songs by the composer, Michel Legrand and the Beatles to name only three, further proved her versatility and artistic appetite. Still, even if I wouldn’t tag myself an advocate of a baritone in the part, I must confess a sweet spot for Christian Gerhaher’s ethereal rendering of the final movement of Das Lied, beautifully captured in concert by Sony Classical.

Paul Smaczny, in his 2002 portrait of the conductor (quite accurately titled “Die Stille nach der Musik“), comes as close as possible to objectifying the essence of the Abbado phenomenon.

Thanks to Arte, which broadcasted the May 18 event live on TV and on the Internet, large excerpts of the concert are already available online.

Director / designer couple Renaud Doucet and André Barbe score a triumph with their new production of  La Cenerentola, unveiled last week at the Hamburgische Staatsoper. Montréal’s La Presse has my story.

Southern Call

March 30, 2011

Spring is in full bloom in Berlin, but I am off to Nice this morning to hear Marie-Nicole Lemieux in Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso at the Opéra. Back in Prussia later this week.

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