Sunday, May 29, 2016
Even before James Levine announced his retirement as Music Director, one of this week’s concerts by the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall had a valedictory feel having nothing to do with Levine. Although it was not announced as such, Sunday afternoon’s all-Richard Strauss concert served as a de facto commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the debut of Renée Fleming, long one of the house’s biggest stars. Although she didn’t perform at the Met this season, in April 2017 she returns for what has long been whispered to be her final Met role, the Marschallin in a new Robert Carsen Der Rosenkavalier. At 57, Fleming was in remarkably fresh and uncharacteristically intense form for the Vier Letzte Lieder (and six other orchestral songs) in what was difficult not to take as the first installment of her Met farewell. Thought reduced a bit in volume, most of her top notes have remained secure and soaring, while, when warmed up, the middle—never her glory—often spoke beautifully and her sparingly used chest register still made its mark. I moved to New York City a few months before her Met debut as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro substituting for an ailing colleague. Since then the soprano has become exceptionally present in my musical life even though I’d never describe myself as a fan. I was shocked to discover that over the years I’ve attended over 40 of her performances—operas, concerts, galas—since my “Fleming-discovery”—her scintillating La Folie in Rameau’s Platée at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988! As many times as I heard her, I still didn’t manage to catch everything—I missed her Pamina, her Fiordiligi, her Ellen Orford, her Verdi Requiem, even her Imogene (a rare cancelation!). But otherwise I went to Fleming performances—three Rusalkas, for example and two Rodelindas—and in retrospect, I sometimes wonder why I did. Over these nearly 30 years, she has always been uncommonly dependable: impeccably prepared and dramatically alert. A canny public relations person dubbed her “The Beautiful Voice” and certainly one was always assured of getting that—but in the end she moved me rarely. While I admired her superior gifts, her cool reserve seldom stirred my affection, and her mannerisms (entirely absent during Sunday’s concert) could be maddening. But there were a few occasions where she did break through. Her hushed, heart-breaking “Porgi amor” in the Jonathan Miller production of Nozze did touch me as no other Countess has. As Arabella, she elegantly descended the long staircase holding the glass of water for Mandryka before unleashing a flood of ravishing Straussian silver that elicited a flood of tears. She always struck me as this era’s ideal Mozart-Strauss soprano—Kiri Te Kanawa’s obvious successor, but she consciously rebelled against the label singing a more eclectic repertoire. She inexplicably dropped all Mozart roles from her repertoire just after age 40; I was out of the country when she sang Fiordiligi at the Met in 1996, but I figured I’d catch it “next time”—that sadly never happened. But happily she has continued to embrace Strauss. True, those first Met Marschallins were smiling and bland, and one scarcely caught a word during the entire first act, but she had improved immeasurably for the 2009 run. On the other hand, I found her Met Madeleine in Capriccio irritatingly vapid and unsympathetic. However, her shining Carnegie Hall Daphne beamed from being courted by the god-like trumpeting of Johan Botha. She waited until late to take on Ariadne for just two performances in Baden-Baden, but it proved a surprisingly satisfying portrayal—preserved on DVD . Before Sunday’s concert I had caught her Vier Letze Lieder live just once before—ten years ago in Rome with Antonio Pappano and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. She was in splendid voice but the songs struck me as gorgeous vocalizes with not much meaning or heart. Happily, under the meticulously supportive baton of David Robertson (substituting for the absent Levine), Fleming navigated a journey of quiet hope, beginning with an atypically sunny “Frühling.” Although her voice was still a bit unsettled (and what soprano over 40 relishes that merciless first song anyway?), she reveled in the glory of spring. The mood darkened only slightly in “September”—the end of summer suggested the ever-changing seasons, not the ominous intimations of death that surface in remaining songs. She soared in the glorious conclusion of “Beim Schlafengehen” that follows the violin solo, and she held “Im Abendrot” to a sublime stillness draining all the color out of her voice for the final “der Tod?” While the voice had changed amazingly little from that Rome performance a decade ago, a deeply felt interpretation had matured. The slighter songs after intermission predictably had less of an impact, although the dark and deliberate “Ruhe, meine Seele” was haunting with Robertson drawing typically glorious playing from the Met Orchestra. It also shone in the magnificent postlude to Fleming’s final programed song, the otherwise slight “Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland.” The unsurprising encore “Cäcilie” inevitably brought down the house but exposed one tiny clink in Fleming’s vocal armor—forte high notes turn harsh. Robertson opened the program with a bristling bravura Don Juan; after Fleming’s exit (what? no flowers?), Also sprach Zarathustra was scheduled, but as I dislike that over-familiar and bombastic piece I fled content to have heard what may well have been Fleming’s last wistful VLL at Carnegie Hall.
In just two weeks our three main orchestras offered free concerts at the Usina del Arte (two) and at the Blue Whale (one). And all three were in pretty good shape. C Let´s start with the Usina and its slow transition with a new team led by Marcelo Panozzo, substituting Gustavo Mozzi who is working at the CCK. He has had important former posts: BAFICI´s Artistic Director (2012-5), editor of Penguin Random House and of La Nación´s ADN magazine, as well as Entertainment editor of Clarín. But nothing that indicates an interest in classical concerts. Of course, in this case the change of guard is within the same political party, which should make it easy, but up to now things are going very slowly and the logistics leave much to be desired. Item: you will look in vain in their Internet site for a telephone or a mail address. As to programming, up to now the Usina is saved by the Colón, which may have many faults but it has a yearly programme and a booklet giving all details. What´s relevant and positive is that the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, apart from its subscription series at the Colón, is giving no less than eleven programmes at the Usina, with completely different programmes than the ones at the Colón (last year they were similar, so the new policy is quite a gain). No less commendable is the fact that the Estable (Resident) Colón Orchestra is taken out of the operatic pit and will offer seven concerts at the Usina. The Usina hand programmes , except for one line that reads "Usina del Arte", are clearly the Colón´s: its authorities are stated there, not the Usina´s, a mere venue. (By the way, they are very poor, with no commentaries on the music played). I had recourse to the Colón to obtain my press tickets for the concert of April 30. Once I arrived at the Usina, I finally got the press contact and the telephone I needed and now things are normal, but it´s an ABC of communication whenever there´s a team change to send a presentation mail to habitual newspaper reviewers. One of the great mistakes of the Usina in preceding years was that it didn´t have a year schedule: you got the information one month at a time, and generally you were informed, say, about June in May´s last week; hardly the right way to run a concert-giving institution. Up to now, things haven´t changed, and the other non-Colón activities haven´t been interesting in the field of classical music. Meanwhile, a useful piece of news: a parking lot has just opened. There should also be a system at the Usina to be able to call for cabs, they are quite absent in that zone . And more security: Caffarena is very dark. But now to the good things. On April 30 Francisco Rettig conducted an attractive combination: Richard Strauss´ "Duetto-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon and orchestra" and the Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz. The Duetto, rarely played here (though it has at least nine recordings), is a charming piece written in 1947 when the composer was 83; completely tonal and nostalgic, it has no pretensions: just pleasant but individual writing, a bit too repetitive. It was beautifully played by Carlos Céspedes (clarinet) and Ezequiel Fainguersch (bassoon). As to the "Fantastic", created in 1830 just three years after Beethoven´s death, after dozens of performances I remain amazed: it opened a new world of sound both in the richness of its ideas and the ceaselessly innovative orchestration. The Chilean conductor showed his mettle in a faithful rendition of the score´s many moods, and the Orchestra responded with considerable virtuosity. On May 12 it was the turn of the Phil under Javier Logioia Orbe and with the return of a much loved pianist: Ralph Votapek. By now he must be seventy and he has lost none of his splendid musicality and command; also, he looks 55. Prokofiev´s Third Concerto (his best) is notoriously a great challenge, with its mixture of lyricism and savagery. The pianist gave us impeccably the relentless dynamism of the climactic passages and the delicacy of its dreamy bits. Logioia is a firm and studious conductor, though he has a tendency to force the sound and this was felt both in Prokofiev (he also conducted the short March from "The Love for Three Oranges") and in Elgar´s wonderful "Enigma Variations", certainly well understood and expressed, but at times too clangorous. However, my seat in the very last row and under a roof may have had an acoustic influence on what I heard. Finally, the National Symphony at the Blue Whale gave a splendid concert on April 13. Two valuable works were played with a degree of technical accomplishment and artistic comprehension that speaks highly of the orchestra, their conductor Günter Neuhold (who has come several times to BA in preceding seasons) and the pianist of the orchestra, Marcelo Balat. Ginastera´s Piano Concerto Op.28 (1961) is extremely difficult; its aesthetics are Expressionistic with a touch of Argentine rhythms. Balat played marvelously. Shostakovich wrote a 55-minute masterpiece in his astonishing Tenth Symphony (1953, the year of Stalin´s death). Neuhold showed an admirable grip on the phrasing of chamber passages and the buildup of climaxes, and the Orchestra responded with stunning impact. For Buenos Aires Herald
Changes of Government can be complicated for cultural institutions even within the same party, but much more so when a different political line takes over. Especially when certain decisions are arbitrary and feel wrong. Such is the case of the Centro Cultural Kirchner; as readers may remember, it was inaugurated last year half-baked, when a good deal of the wholesale transformation of the historic building wasn´t completed. When President Mauricio Macri took over he had a problem: last year the control of the CCK was divided between the Ministry of Planning (De Vido) and the Ministry of Culture (Parodi). Although the justification of this strange coupling was that the partnership was due to the complex works going on in parallel to the abundant cultural programming, it made for difficult logistics and a degree of chaos. Macri did two things: he eliminated the Ministry of Planning and created the Federal System of Media and Public Contents (Sistema Federal de Medios y Contenidos Públicos). He put Hernán Lombardi (ex Culture Minister of Buenos Aires City) in charge of it. And here´s the moot point: the logical thing was to assign the CCK to the new Culture Minister, Pablo Avelluto, but no, it went to Lombardi. And so the latter (who also will supervise Tecnópolis and Public Radio-TV) formed a team to reorganize the Cultural Center. There were two main factors: although it was obvious that the CCK had too many people, the touchy matter of layoffs and hiring new personnel was untidy and there are still conflicts; and from January to late April an ample team tried to finish several pending lines of architectural work, and to obtain the official seal of having terminated the big endeavour of restoration. In particular, there were intensive acoustics tests to ameliorate the Blue Whale (and other halls); the National Symphony collaborated at its new home and there were many rehearsals with and without an audience to allow the specialists to decide the improvements. Gustavo Mozzi, who had led the Usina del Arte in 2014-5 with good results, is now the Director of the CCK, but he isn´t mentioned as such in the hand programme. Instead, his title is National Director of Federal Expressions (Director Nacional de Expresiones Federales)… Isn´t it enough to be at the head of the CCK? There was a promise to announce the reopening and programming of the CCK starting in May; it stands to reason that the information had to be available at least a week before, but it wasn´t so. By happenstance I was told on April 26 about the National Symphony´s "rentrée" at the CCK on May 4th by one of the two concertinos, Luis Roggero. I tried to confirm it during the following days communicating with the CCK, but to no avail: they knew nothing or weren´t allowed to speak. However, there was a strange press conference by Avelluto on May 2, midday: the NS works at the CCK but depends on the Culture Ministry, and so the Minister had to mention this first concert at that venue, along with plenty of other information about the nine organisms within the scope of his portfolio. But when I insisted on hard information about tickets for the general audience and for reviewers, he admitted that connexions of the ministry with the CCK were still fuzzy. Only on the afternoon of May 3 I got a firm contact with the CCK and the concert was announced. So with minimal advance we went to the NS´ concert, of course with less people than usual (generally the house was full last year). Two policies must be reversed: no age restrictions and all events are free. Last year the much appreciated American conductor Stefan Lano gave a concert with the OSN but I couldn´t attend; later there was a row because he complained he wasn´t paid (it happened many times throughout the history of the NS, for the Culture Ministry has rarely been well administered). Apparently the matter was finally solved for he was back; it is to be hoped that the current Government will put an end to such disgraceful practices. Lano often programmes well, and this was certainly true on May 4. He started with a homage to Alberto Ginastera´s centenary of his birth: the admirable "Concertante Variations". Although Diemecke did them recently with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, I don´t complain for this is the composer at his best: an equanimous balance between refined technique and inspired ideas. The soloists had a field day and showed again that the NS is a first-rate organism worthy of full support, and Lano reaffirmed his professional ability. Béla Bartók wrote his only important choral work in 1930: the Secular Cantata subtitled "The enchanted stags" written for double choir, tenor, baritone and orchestra, on an old Romanian ballad adapted by the composer. The three parts are called "The nine children", "Meeting with the father" and "Thus was the legend"; they last 20 minutes. It´s about hunters transformed into stags; their father (baritone) searches for them and one of the stags (tenor) tells him: "Father, don´t shoot, now we are stags and will remain so". No text was available for the audience! Strong, dense music, it´s difficult and rarely done. Although the acoustics for the orchestra are better now, the chorus is placed on a First Floor level and the sound that came out was granulous and unpleasant, although the Coro Polifónico Nacional under Darío Marchese sang too loud. Enrique Folger (tenor) also forced his tone; Leonardo Estévez (baritone) was more controlled. But the splendid interpretation of Richard Strauss´ masterful "Thus spoke Zarathustra" (on Nietzsche) was the crown of the night. The enormous tone poem in nine joined movements was admirably understood and communicated by the conductor and the orchestra (Xavier Inchausti was the impeccable concertino). The sustained inspiration left us breathless. A great start for the season. For Buenos Aires Herald
Met Opera´s productions seen simultaneously via satellite at the Teatro El Nacional, organized by Pupi Sebastiani´s Fundación Beethoven, have become an indispensable way for local audiences to experience first-rate opera with artists that mainly haven´t been at the Colón. The final two of the 2015-16 season have been seen now, always on certain Saturdays at 2 pm. In October starts the 2016-17 activity, but many of those that have been appreciated in the recent series will be programmed again later this year at the Auditorium of the Fundación. The operas I am reviewing reflect the enormous variety of the world of opera both musically and dramatically. Gaetano Donizetti´s "Roberto Devereux" immerses us in the Late Elizabethan period through the lens of bel canto. Richard Strauss´ "Elektra" transports us to the dark world of Greek tragedy in Mycenaean times but with a Freudian twist. The prolific Donizetti wrote about 70 operas, buffo or dramatic. Success came only with his 34th, "Anna Bolena" (1830). It became his first to be staged in Paris and London and was followed by "Maria Stuarda" (1834) and "Roberto Devereux" (1837) to form the so-called trilogy of British Queens. After WWII there was a revival of bel canto and Maria Callas was essential in this trend: her Bolena set a pattern that was followed by great artists. Beverly Sills sang all three and here Adelaida Negri performed that feat with her own company. It is sad to consign that the Colón only offered "Anna Bolena" in 1970 and ignored the other two. But the Met has presented all three with a great artist unknown here: Sondra Radvanovsky. "Roberto Devereux", with libretto by Salvatore Cammarano based on a tragedy by François Ancelot ("Elisabeth d´Angleterre") , recounts a dramatic episode of the aging (69) Queen Elizabeth I. The year, 1601. Devereux, Earl of Essex, was the favorite of Elizabeth but theirs was a conflictive relationship. The Virgin Queen was called so because she never married, though she did have liaisons. Essex was brilliant, charming, in war courageous to the point of temerity; however, he lacked judgment and that was to prove fatal. Probably the Queen´s lover, he quarreled with her publicly and opposed her principal minister, Lord Robert Cecil. After failing to win a crucial battle against Scotland´s Tyrone, he plotted against the Queen, was tried and executed. The political facts are lightly touched upon in Cammarano´s libretto; instead, the accent is put on Robert´s affair with Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (and the Duke is Robert´s best friend!). Cecil wants Robert´s death, but the Queen will only agree when she has the evidence of her lover´s romantic treason. In the final scene, the old monarch falls to pieces in desperation. The music is prime bel canto, with plenty of lovely melodies, although less elaborate than "Anna Bolena". None of the four principals has ever come to BA; any or all should be warmly welcomed in the future. Radvanovsky is marvelous, both in her singing and acting: a vast register, fine timbre, total control of florid passages, but foremost a moving transformation in the final half hour when she throws her wig away and is no longer a queen but a wretched old woman in total anguish. As her rival Sarah we have Elina Garança, to my mind the best mezzosoprano in the present scene: beauty, poise, perfect voice and style, expressive but contained. Tenor Matthew Polenzani has a sweet timbre and a firm technique; he transmits the mercurial quality of Essex. And baritone Mariusz Kwiecien gives us the two aspects of his role faithfully: he defends his friend to his own risk until he knows Robert´s treason and then becomes his infuriated enemy. The other parts are well taken. Conductor Maurizio Benini is a specialist in the genre, and of course both chorus and orchestra are excellent. Sir David McVicar´s staging respects time and place and it looks handsome (he is also stage designer; costumes by Moritz Junge). One fault: voyeurism (witnesses where there should be none). "Elektra" is Strauss´ undisputed masterpiece: his most audacious and intense score and the best one-acter in history. The libretto by Hugo Von Hoffmannsthal, based on Sophocles, makes it clear that we are seeing the ideal example of Freudian Electra complex. The main role is the longest and most exhausting of all in opera. Unfortunately Patrice Chéreau´s production (his last before dying) continually contradicts the libretto from the very beginning. Here voyeurism is stretched to the extreme and makes nonsense of most scenes, and apart from that he ruins the finale: it is basic that Klytämnestra and Aegisth (the assassins of Agamemnon) should be killed offstage, but here they die in full presence of the audience; and Electra doesn´t die, when the whole point is that once vengeance is accomplished she has no reason to live. But the three leading feminine parts save the day. I hadn´t had the opportunity to hear and see Nina Stemme, considered one of the great dramatic sopranos nowadays: and she certainly is. The voice is firm, the musicality strong, she acts vividly and has the stamina to stay the course. The veteran Waltraud Meier was a subtle Klytämnestra and Adrianne Pieczonka a radiant Chruysothemis. Only the Orest of Eric Owens seemed poorly cast. Esa-Pekka Salonen´s conducting was professional but short on impact; the enormous orchestra didn´t seem so. For Buenos Aires Herald
Four years ago a mezzosoprano well-known to the New York Met´s public gave recitals for the Mozarteum Argentino´s two subscription series at the Colón and was an immediate success. Joyce Di Donato had conquered Buenos Aires with her vocal talent and easy communication. She came back in 2014 and now she punctually returned after another two years. She is one of the few undisputed stars that has made it a point of visiting us regularly. Her recitals always include bel canto arias, for she is a specialist in the fine art of expressive roulades of enormous difficulty. This season she sings at the Met Donizetti´s "Maria Stuarda" and Rossini´s "La Donna del Lago": an aria from the latter closed her B.A. recitals. She brought along a splendid pianist: Craig Terry (debut). Throughout he displayed not only an infallible technique but an exquisite ability to play very softly; and unexpectedly he showed his capacity as a jazz player (more on it later). There was a problem: with the exception of three songs by Granados and one by Strauss (an encore), which are legitimately for voice and piano, all the rest were arrangements. Of course, if you include zarzuela and opera, this is inevitable. But I can´t help feeling that Ravel´s "Shéhérazade" loses a lot (even if the arrangement is by the composer) without its sumptuous, perceptive orchestration. Joyce, beautifully dressed (she changed after the interval), has a commanding presence, and talks to the public in Italian, a bit of Spanish and some English and French. There´s people that like this sort of communication, others think that the music speaks for itself and you have the information in the hand programme. And that the personality of the singer should only exude from the music she interprets. Her first selection was a famous fragment from a zarzuela: "De España vengo", from Pablo Luna´s "El niño judío". The voice wasn´t quite settled in it, with some incisive tones and not completely accurate florid singing. She said that she felt very Spanish but curiously she was immediately much more convincing in "Shéhérazade", that delicious suite of Oriental songs that Ravel composed on texts by the poet with the Wagnerian pseudonym Tristan Klingsor. Her French is very accurate, and after a couple of fixed notes she found her voice, which can be quite powerful but also be subtle, soft and insinuating. The very long "Asie" goes through various moods and is in fact a narrative rather than a song; "The enchanted flute" and "The indifferent" are sensual portraits of girls attracted by men. Di Donato conveyed all this with great art and Terry almost (not quite) made me forget the orchestration. And now, Rossini: "Bel raggio lusinghier" from "Semiramide" was as expected dazzling; in this music, ornaments are the melody and the fluidity with which she accomplished it is the necessary and rarely heard condition to fully appreciate the Rossinian style. I love the tonadillas of Enrique Granados but they require a fully idiomatic acquaintance which seems to elude non-Spanish singers: "La maja dolorosa" in its three parts was sung in correct Spanish and let us hear Di Donato´s deep lows, but something was missing: the Spanishness of Berganza or De los Ángeles. Di Donato was splendid in that stately and noble aria from Händel´s "Rinaldo": "Lascia ch´io pianga"; her Baroque style is impeccable and the ornaments were all the right ones. Now we come to a moot point: three "arie antiche" from Parisotti´s famous recopilation (1885-8) which still are the way the Baroque is learnt by students, notwithstanding its Romanticized harmony: Giordani, "Caro mio ben"; Pergolesi, "Se tu m´ami"; and attributed to Salvator Rosa, "Star vicino". Most of the audience, I presume, were set to hear them from a great professional singer: what they got was very different (no warning in the programme). After a few seconds, jazzy sounds came from the piano, and from then on we had an excursion into a popular Twentieth-Century style; it was fun of its kind but many would have preferred the first option. Finally, more Rossini: from "La donna del lago", based con Scott´s "The Lady of the Lake", the scintillating final rondo in which Ellen expresses her joy, for the benevolence of the King allows her to celebrate her reunion with Malcolm (the man she loves) and her father Douglas. Three reflexions: the splendid version with Di Donato of the whole opera was offered last year by the Met and I commented it on the Herald; this is the same Ellen that sings her prayer in the famous Schubert Ave Maria; and both "La Donna del Lago" and "Semiramide" should be considered for future seasons of the Colón: neither has been ever done there, which is a shame. Encores: Irving Berlin´s "I love a piano" comes from the film "Easter Parade" and was originally sung by Judy Garland; it is an unabashed romp and was done to a T by singer and pianist. Then, in total and lovely contrast, Richard Strauss´ dreamy "Morgen", so ecstatically sung and played that I was sorry they didn´t include more Lieder. Finally, another Garland standard, Arlen´s "Over the rainbow" from the film "The Wizard of Oz", in the nicest of performances. To complete the mezzosoprano Heaven it would be wonderful to have in the future the visit of Elina Garança. For Buenos Aires Herald
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) IDOMENEO (arr. Richard Strauss) Robert Gambill Idomeneo Britta Stallmeister Ilia Camilla Nylund Ismene Iris Vermillon Idamantes Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden Fabio Luisi Live Recording, Salzburg Festival, August 2006 ORFEO C 701 072 I (2 CD) (flac&scans) This edition of Mozart's Idomeneo is an adaptation published by Richard Strauss in 1930. It is an extraordinary document, that should not be read philologically by having Mozart's original in mind, which would not make sense, but rather as a unique testimony of a taste often found in the early 20th Century music, and which purports to compare the modern lesson with the revered tradition of the past. Other outstanding examples of this approach are Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride again by Strauss and Carl Orff's edition of Monteverdi's Orfeo. In other words, it is a certain 20th Century musical world which - by following Wagner's footsteps - brings back to life the great tradition of musical drama by adapting it to its aesthetics and language.
Great composers of classical music