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).

 

 

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.

The Fourth Wall

February 11, 2011

Romain Duris in La nuit juste avant les forêts (photo Pascal Victor)

It certainly is in order for this blog to emerge from its protracted hibernation with a brief report on two extremely sought-after theatrical productions recently seen in Paris, both bearing the signature of Patrice Chéreau, the very topic of my last posting. An essential if elusive presence on the operatic scene, the French director has often been quoted in recent months as wanting to go back to the theater – to the roots, in fact, of his activity. Following a three-month-long carte blanche at the Louvre, where his current readings of both Rêve d’automne by the Norwegian dramaturge Jon Fosse and La nuit juste avant les forêts by Bernard-Marie Koltès have premiered in the Fall, Chéreau offers one further opportunity to explore the realms of these two authors, with the extra treat of providing actor Romain Duris with nothing less than his first stage role in 15 years.

Nearing 37, Duris remains one of the premier French actors of his generation. Brought in the limelight in his early twenties by Cédric Klapisch, he was the central figure of Chéreau’s latest cinematic opus, Persécution, in which he brilliantly portrays Daniel, an alter-ego of the director who tries (in vain) to escape the obsessive advances of a stranger. Their creative partnership was sealed, and it seems only natural that Chéreau would call on him for the daunting task of delivering Koltès’ intricate, 90-minute monologue in the intimidatingly intimate setting of Montmartre’s Théâtre de l’Atelier. Together with regular collaborators Thierry Thieû-Niang (co-director), Caroline de Vivaise (costumes) and Bertrand Couderc (lighting), Chéreau elicits from him a strikingly virtuosic performance, reaching into regions of controlled self-effacement that makes his character achingly believable – so much so, in fact, that we almost literally take him for a slightly deranged, anonymous man-of-the-street telling a seemingly inchoate story to an imaginary friend in front of peeping viewers.

His technical prowess is that of a young actor at the top of his game: the discreet and uncanny way in which he manages to step out of character at the end, after navigating this roller-coaster tale of an (extra)ordinary outcast beaten to death by nightly accointances – let alone the breath and tension of his effortless delivery – and the seemless beauty of his movements, executed in the über-poetical context of a bear stage expertly lit by Couderc, are astonishing feats. He could not possibly find a wiser guide than Chéreau, whose long-term association with Koltès was only cut short by the author’s untimely death in 1989. Yet, as I exit the theater, the beautiful and ever-actual words of Peter Brook (see The Empty Space) resonated through my wandering mind. An actor offers a performance to the audience, which in turn must carry him forward. Even under the best of circumstances, the rare kind of organic exchange one ultimately wishes for doesn’t necessarily materialize. Duris the stage actor is a relatively new phenomenon, yet he has the potential to definitely tear down the canvas on which he seemed to be projecting his character, that night in late January – even at the cost of technical security. Anyone lucky enough to find a ticket for one of the remaining performances (through March 20) should run to see him.

******

The night before, I could catch the last Paris performance of Rêve d’automne at the Théâtre de la Ville (the production tours France, Belgium, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands through June 11). Whereas Koltès’ retains some form of patina, Fosse’s idioma presumably speaks more directly to modern-day spectators. In its closeness to Chéreau’s sensibility, it is the ideal ground for him on which to build an actual fable of desire and death, love deceived, lives suffered and lived, beams of light thrown on shattered existences reconstructed and deconstructed with almost painful precision under the veil of chaos. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Pascal Greggory are both deeply moving. Veteran Michelle Marquais, playing a mostly silent but crucial part, attains nothing short of subdued tragic grandeur – further testimony of Chéreau’s undisputable master status.

******

I Am the Wind, a new play by Fosse, premieres under his direction at the Young Vic on April 26.

In the meantime, further ventures in the operatic sphere remain tentative. After talks of a new Boris Godounov to be co-produced by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and the Teatro alla Scala, the odds are now on a new Elektra, the result of Chéreau’s recent collaboration with one of his early muses, the German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier. A superlatively profound Klytemnestra in Salzburg’s most recent offering of this seminal work, Meier, who was debuting the role, has never hesitated to praise Chéreau – even to the point of spurring mild controversy in the wake of La Scala’s recent new Walküre. Theirs being one of the most fertile singer / director relationships of later decades, the production should be seeing the light of day. Chéreau’s much-lauded staging of From the House of the Dead reaches its final destination this Fall, at Berlin’s Schiller Theater.

Endlich in Berlin zurück!

September 3, 2010

It is good to be home. To greet the city properly, I treated myself to a three-hour stint at the Alte Nationalgalerie yesterday – their collection of Neoclassical and Romantic German paintings, prominent among which are the works of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Caspar David Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin, to name but a few,  remains a source of endless fascination to me. On this visit, I discovered some of the incredibly realistic still-lifes of Johann Wilhelm Preyer.

Native or adopted Berliners who like me missed the Lange Nacht der Museen on August 28 can console themselves: admission to most of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is free starting four hours before closing on Thursdays. Admission to the Deutsche Guggenheim on Unter den Linden is free on Mondays.

French Connections

August 16, 2010


The Salzburg Festival is in full flight, and thanks to the genius of Markus Hinterhäuser, the concert calendar is once again a quite astonishing mix of emerging talent, fascinating and unusual programs (featuring  some of the usual and less usual suspects), as well as the occasional, unavoidable concession to the goût du jour – even though it is remarkable how the local appearances of some of today’s hyper-hyped recording stars have turned out to be real artistic happenings rather than mere promotional events over the last couple of years. Very good, that is.

Two orchestral programs were noteworthy this week, both falling in the middle category: Bertrand de Billy and his Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien are regulars here, with one program every season; so are the Wiener Philharmoniker and Riccardo Muti, of course, their respective contributions encompassing, in diverse installments, both the concert platform and the opera pit. (Muti has been omnipresent here ever since his triumphant 1971 debut with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale – this is his 40th consecutive Summer in Salzburg, and tomorrow’s matinee will mark his 200th performance on these venerable grounds).

Unusual were the works performed and the guest artists: Arthur Honegger‘s rarely-heard dramatic oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, based on Claudel’s somber and haunting text, with de Billy at the helm and actress Fanny Ardant as the lead character; Prokofiev‘s eerily mesmerizing score for Eisenstein’s classic Ivan the Terrible, with Muti presiding and no less a towering figure than Gérard Depardieu as the wretched but visionary Czar.

Two contemporary (1938-1945) yet very different pieces, filled with political meaning and existential questioning for a torn-apart continent, given breathtaking modern performances by French narrators, one Italian conductor and one French, Austrian orchestras, Russian star singers (off-stage spouses Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov for the Pokofiev), in that most history-charged of cultural venues in the midst of its 90th anniversary…A brilliant if discreet evocation of  Salzburg’s founding pan-European ideals.

Theaters in Turmoil

May 7, 2010

Better days at La Scala: Visconti rehearsing Callas in La Traviata, 1955.

Much has been said and written on the situation of Italian theaters over the last couple of days, following the government’s unilateral decision to “reform” the funding system for the the 14 national opera houses in Italy. Havoc resulted: nation-wide protests, strikes, high profile performances cancelled, editorial statements by millionaire artists, alongside a fairly good deal of opera bashing among the general populace. Certainly there is cause for worry. While the idea of productivity-based subsidies may sound enticing, it comes with the matter-of-fact comment that the slashed public funds are quite unlikely to be replaced by private money – in the European operatic culture, individual and corporate fundraising amount to a minimum. It is just not part of the collective spirit. Yet amid the many informed opinions currently voiced, that of the venerable blogger Opera Chic seems most insightful (see threads here and here). Reform is needed, and perhaps not exclusively in Italy. What Europeans should bear in mind though is that opera lies at the core of their identity, historically, politically and artistically. Any backward step in the cultivation of the art form (and it is facing many such threats in our time, sadly) is a tragic loss.

Chasing William Kentridge

March 20, 2010

Just a few words* in connection to my earlier post from New York. If you are in the city or nearby, I can only urge you to try and catch one of the last few performances of The Nose by Shostakovich at the Metropolitan, another company premiere. Safe House of the Dead (perhaps I cannot be entirely objective here…), it may very well be the greatest production to come to life on this august stage in the last five or six years (nothing less!). Not unlike the Janáček chef-d’oeuvre, it addresses the issue of self-alienation in a totally (almost frighteningly so) absurd modern world. The composer lived, worked and survived under the Stalinian regime – his Gogol-inspired libretto verges on the satirical but remains, one could suspect, heavily charged with political allusions. From a more pratical point of view, it is heartwarming, to say the least, that among its greatest box office successes of recent times, the venerable Met counts definitive productions of fundamental 20th-century repertoire like The Nose, From the House of the Dead - chronicled below – and Philip Glass’ Satyagraha. Artistic audacity always pays off!

The questions of oppression, self-definition, individual vs. collective identity run through The Nose. It is perhaps not surprising that the actual hit production is directed by the South African multitasking artist William Kentridge. Up to recently, I was only vaguely familiar with his work; my recent visit to the MoMA, where an extensive exhibition is currently showing, was the best-spent couple of hours in a very busy weekend (let it be said again, admission to the Museum is free after 4 pm on Fridays!!).

You can follow the NYT discussion on The Nose through its Artsbeat blog.

Kentridge himself talks about his production here.

*I still need a bit of practice to calibrate everything. I promise to try my best to keep up with the demands of regular blogging.

Muti Imperatore!

March 19, 2010

A couple of weeks in the Western Hemisphere unavoidably comes with the pressing temptation of travelling to New York (if one is not already there). After much pondering, I finally gave in and escaped to the Big City for a whirlwind weekend: two operas and a concert at the Met, the penultimate appearance of Riccardo Muti on the podium of the New York Philharmonic, and a stint at the MoMA to visit the exceptional thematic retrospective of William Kentridge – but more on that later. Friday evening brought the opportunity to discover Pierre Audi‘s controversial new production of Verdi‘s little-known early opera, Attila, which was being presented by the Met for the very first time as a vehicle for Riccardo Muti to make a much belated and highly anticipated debut there.

Certainly there can be a case made against the piece. Characters lack the kind of psychological deepness and immediacy that cause us to regard works like Otello and Don Carlo as absolute masterpieces; the plot is awkwardly distorted; although full of gorgeous music, the score lacks the organicity of the composer’s maturity operas, and neither does it boast any hit tune the way Trovatore, Rigoletto or Traviata do. What we do have here, though, is a fascinating opportunity to “observe” Verdi in the process of refining and developing his own personal language.  Attila should be seen more as some sort of wizard’s laboratory than as an overlooked gem (bluntly put, it works much better as the former). Some minor reserves aside, I share Muti’s view that the music of Attila contains the seeds of his later pieces.  It is not difficult to hear, for instance, echoes of Odabella’s bombastic entrance, Santo di patria, in Lady Macbeth’s chilling Vieni, t’affreta – and this is only one particularly striking example.

Like other lesser-performed operas by Verdi (Stiffelio, Ernani come readily to mind – even Ballo and Boccanegra could fall in this category), Rossini or Donizetti, Attila does contribute to the evolution of Italian opera and is worthy of attention in that respect. Riccardo Muti remains a champion of these scores, and his work here is nothing but splendid. Unarguably the preeminent interpreter of this repertoire today, he brings a lifetime of expertise and dedication to the current production and leads the Met Orchestra in one of its most polished performances of recent seasons. Rarely if ever have I heard such exquisitely natural phrasing and seemless legato, each detail affectionately crafted but without ostentation, the overall performance deftly paced and wonderfully balanced. On top of that, Muti elicits from the pit his trademark orchestral sound, rich, full and perfectly sustained in quiet passages, powerful where needed but never forced, always lyrical, and ultimately built on the simple but quintessential notion of cantabile – literally, “with a singing tone”.

F. Paul Driscoll has an extended interview with the Maestro in a recent edition of Opera News.

A priceless shot at an incredibly candid Muti rehearsing Mascagni can be found here.

Riccardo Muti becomes Music Director of both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Rome Opera this Fall.

Butterfly Remixed

March 8, 2010

A quick note in the midst of (waning) Canadian winter. I was fortunate to witness last week one of Kent Nagano‘s most personal and certainly most daring programming initiatives with the OSM: a so-called “Japanese soirée” mixing the very familiar (excerpts from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly) with the new (a world premiere by Chris Paul Harman) and the extremely unusual (orchestrated folk songs; a concerto for taiko drum and large orchestra). Incidentally this answers a lingering question – yes, I am in Montréal this week.

Conceived as a grandiose study in transcultural perception, the evening dazzled as much as it raised questions. The Harman piece, for instance, is inspired by the lives of Canadian-Japanese citizens, marginalized and some of them forced into prison camps during World War II; Butterfly, the verist epigon of orientalism, speaks for itself. The very notion of imperialism lies in the background, waiting to be assessed.

Going one step further, it’s interesting to ponder just how fascinated the Japanese aristocracy was with Europe at the time when Puccini wrote some of his most famous scores. The Metropolitan Museum in New York City has an impressive collection of prints which are nothing less than revelatory. My discovery of them last Summer came as nothing short of a little shock!

Arthur Kaptainis (via The Gazette) and Caroline Rodgers (via La Presse) both have comprehensive reviews of the Montréal experiment.

I promise not to indulge in *too* much nostalgia here. This doesn’t count. The legendary Renata Scotto is Cio-Cio San.

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