Posts Tagged ‘Giuseppe Verdi’

Fall Discs

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

Recommended CDs and DVDs

Published: November 26, 2017

MUNICH — Post is under revision.

Photos © Arthaus, BelAir Classiques, Querstand, Supraphon, Warner Classics

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Netrebko, Barcellona in Aida

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Aida at Salzburg Festival 2017

Published: August 30, 2017

SALZBURG — Qualitative upticks at the main festival here have heralded Markus Hinterhäuser’s installment as Intendant after a shaky two-summer void. The priority, it appears, is music itself over theater or opera, as might be expected from a boss who is also a professional pianist. Hinterhäuser is retaining the Ouverture spirituelle, a costly 2012 innovation of predecessor Alexander Pereira that ensures a big window for sacred music, and he is returning strength to the chamber-music slate. In a newly staged Aida and a fresh take on La clemenza di Tito this month, the pleasures were musical alone.

Riccardo Muti prepared and led the Verdi, heard at the Großes Festspielhaus fortuitously on Aug. 16 when Anna Netrebko and Daniela Barcellona faced off as the princesses — graduates of Donizetti and Rossini, respectively, and both rich of tone, secure, unstinting, and able to wield the Italian text to exact expressive purpose, generating sequences of actual drama.

One such occurred in the first scene. Barcellona’s Amneris hurled out the imperative Ritorna vincitor! with enough power and point to spin all of Act I around these two words. Muti’s forces — the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic — emblazoned the mandate with thunderous intensity, leaving Netrebko’s Aida to wanly echo it not as some affront, as many do, but as reason to fear. Her scena rose naturally from the thought, shaped with clear words, dark rumination, ravishing high notes, wondrous floats — this was a steadier performance than for the Aug. 12 video-stream — culminating in a Numi, pietà that would have melted the heart of the stoniest deity, before she promptly vanished, ovationless, as Verdi instructs.

Barcellona’s own brilliant highs and roundness of sound in the middle octave produced exciting duets and ensemble work. A tall actress, she regally commanded her scenes yet managed to convey vulnerability, and in Act IV she slid poignantly from bitterness to remorse — a woman, never the fire-eater — so that the dwindling string parts seemed to trace her fate as much as those of Aida and Radamès, closing the opera perfectly.

Probably the credit belonged with Muti for that last feat, and certainly the sensitive legato in Francesco Meli’s work as Radamès suggested keen preparation, an improvement on his Manrico here two summers ago (when Gianandrea Noseda conducted). Meli sounded best after Act I, his heady metallic timbre acquiring plushness as the action progressed, but he sang with elegance of line all through.

Luca Salsi exuded fatherly authority as Amonasro, sustaining long phrases on a single breath. Dmitry Belosselsky summoned requisite thrust for Ramfis, a stern but precise capo dei sacerdoti, aptly gruff of tone. Most impressive of all, measure for measure, was the true Italian basso of Roberto Tagliavini singing the Rè d’Egitto. Tall like his Amneris, he projected clarion words and mellifluous, weighty tones, apparently without the slightest effort.

After Netrebko’s plea and the brief scene investing Radamès for war — that is, after Act I — the maestro from Molfetta took a full intermission. He had paced this unit of the opera slowly on the whole, at 44 minutes, but had built into it latent strengths, enforcing piani and saying something new with each measure, even in the chanting and dancing, so that Nume, custode e vindice packed more punch than usual and the act could fully balance, not just precede, the one following. An intermission for combat felt only logical.

Out in the lobby, by Café Tomaselli’s (welcome) ice-cream cart, a none-too-sanguine-looking Mariss Jansons engaged in animated chat. The whole crowd in fact seemed stirred if not shaken by the rancor in Memphis. But Aida reverts to human dimensions the moment it has proclaimed its context, and Muti in the next scene elicited the lightest, most mercurial textures for the attendants’ and slaves’ music, choral and orchestral, as if tracing the thoughts of Amneris — leaving Barcellona to gamely play these out on Netrebko.

The conductor supported his singers’ breathing throughout, tending to encourage beauty of phrase and expression. He executed pristine shifts of tempo, tending to inject urgency and sharpen contrasts. He remembered to dance: to honor rhythmic impulses on the instant and ripely characterize them. Best of all, he erred on the side of dynamic restraint, permitting but never urging high decibels.

So this was an Aida on the composer’s terms, nowhere more virtuosic than in its second Thebes scene. Muti finely shaded the women’s and priests’ interludes in the opening Gloria all’Egitto e ad Iside. In the marcia trionfale, what looked like the meter-long, straight, single-rotary-valve C trumpets Karajan used — in place of Verdi’s trombe egiziane in A-flat and B-natural — rang out with immaculate intonation and thrilling antiphony across the gaping stage. The ballabile had infectious rhythm. Salsi’s smooth, obsequious Ma tu, Rè, tu signore possente offset neatly Tagliavini’s grand edicts. The tutti after the priests’ rejection of clemency made its ominous impact, and the Finale’s last section unfolded with tautness.

Each time he entered the pit Muti magnetized attention, and when he trod out it was with the bearing of a mortician, as people roared approval in vanity-stroking counterpoint. But he properly took the remaining three scenes without a formal break, returning in Act III to the stately speeds of the opera’s first two scenes. Netrebko rose to the stipulated dolce high C to conclude O patria mia after conveying that aria’s sense of reflection with exquisite tones, and she and Meli blended tidily for O terra, addio. Barcellona dominated Scene I of Act IV before injecting genuine grief at the close, as noted, to cap a proud Salzburg Festival stage* debut.

Italians in four of the lead roles in this hard-to-cast opera; expert choristers (aided by their confinement to the staging’s Brutalist box structures and by stage-direction prescribing little movement); and Vienna’s orchestra playing with more abandon than for opening night (Aug. 6, as broadcast by BR Klassik) or the video-stream — negating impressions of a musically stilted, dramatically aloof presentation, though these had borne out Muti’s 38-year hiatus from the score and the hiring of a stage director who is really a photographer — reinforced the belief that Salzburg is the one place where ingredients of such quality can come together.

Teodor Currentzis led a vigorous, aurally colorful, not especially elegant traversal of Mozart’s Roman opera Aug. 17 in the Felsenreitschule, with tight support from the Choir and Orchestra MusicAeterna of Perm Opera, or, more precisely, the Choir and Orchestra of Teodor Currentzis. His cast toiled diligently. Golden-toned Golda Schultz acted credibly but sounded overparted as Vitellia in this venue. Marianne Crebassa made a compelling but hyperactive Sesto, not especially sumptuous of voice. She was much cheered after Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio, for the obbligato to which Perm’s clarinetist slunk around her on stage. Reprising a title role he sang at the Met five years ago, Russell Thomas projected his voice with focus and musical authority. The smaller roles of Annio (Jeanine de Bique), Servilia (Christina Gansch) and Publio (Willard White) were adequately sung. At curtain, Currentzis drew wild, really quite bizarre applause, louder than for any cast member.

Neither of the two stagings will be much welcomed going forward. Shirin Neshat’s scheme for Aida, another essay in lens-obedient, firm, gray surfaces that bathe in any light and reflect any color but take us nowhere, features stiff, contrived action hampered and dwarfed by the box structures. Our engagement hinges on costumes, lighting, and initiatives by the singing actors. And Salzburg’s safety curtain more closely evokes Pharaonic Egypt than the commissioned sets. Peter Sellars’ realization of Tito, conversely, has too much fluidity and parades a number of old clichés, many of them Sellars’ own. The idea of intravenous infusions for a bedridden emperor proves especially irksome.

[*She and Netrebko sang I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the festival in 2004 under Ivor Bolton, but in concert. Her career is evolving. October, for instance, brings Schumann and Brahms songs at La Scala.]

Photos © Monika Rittershaus (set; Meli with Netrebko), Marco Borrelli (Barcellona; Barcellona with Netrebko), Franz Neumayr (Muti and Netrebko at curtain call)

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Chung to Conduct for Trump

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Donald Trump delivers a joint address to Congress

Published: May 17, 2017

MUNICH — President Trump will next Friday (May 26) attend his first orchestra concert since taking office. Scheduled for 7 p.m. al fresco at the Teatro Antico in Taormina, Sicily, the program consists of Italian opera overtures and intermezzos:

Puccini – Madama Butterfly: Act III Sunrise
Rossini – Overture to L’italiana in Algeri
Rossini – Overture to Guillaume Tell
Verdi – La traviata: Act I Prelude
Verdi – Overture to La forza del destino
Mascagni – Cavalleria rusticana: Intermezzo

Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Filarmonica della Scala in what is an opening event of the 43rd G7 Summit, themed Building the Foundations of Renewed Trust. The hilltop Teatro Antico dates from the 3rd century B.C. and functions as a performing arts venue much of the year.

Photo © The White House

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Plácido Premium

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

Plácido Domingo

Published: May 2, 2017

MUNICH — Like the miracle of compound interest, Bavarian State Opera’s pricing can chart smartly upwards when you’re not watching. The company sells using an astounding total of 128 price points — the product of eight price categories for its National Theater home and sixteen sliding scales. Things get interesting when the scale changes, which is usually, but not always, in single increments. Take La traviata. Today’s performance sells for a top price of €132 and a low of €10 for a no-view score seat, with six categories in between. Pertinent detail: Leo Nucci, 75, sings Giorgio Germont. But next month the same opera has a €264 top, a low of €20, and corresponding increases in the middle categories of as much as 130%. Same leading lady. Same chorus and orchestra. Same conductor. Same production. Pertinent variance: Plácido Domingo, 76, sings Giorgio Germont. Who would have thought the cold old paterfamilias could make such a difference? Apparently he does. To be sure, the costly performances (on June 27 and 29) are part of the Munich Opera Festival, when a small adjustment is customary. What amazes is a scale shift of four levels in this case. Separately, completely separately, June 29 will in all likelihood mark the erstwhile tenor’s farewell to this city, at least as far as staged opera goes. No announcement has been made, of course. But there it is. Sonya Yoncheva sings Violetta, Charles Castronovo is Alfredo, Andrea Battistoni conducts. Domingo made his BStO debut on Jan. 22, 1972, as Puccini’s Rodolfo.

Photo © Chad Batka

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Muti the Publisher

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Verdi opera recordings from Rome conducted by Riccardo Muti

Published: October 29, 2016

RAVENNA — Imprints, sub-brands, and discreet licensing entities were once a way for artists with bargaining power to secure fatter stakes in the published output of their work. Among conductors, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Nikolaus Harnoncourt enjoyed the privilege.

Are such endeavors still viable, given social media and the glutted commercial market for sound and video recordings? One artist who is surely finding out is Riccardo Muti. Some years ago he set up RMM, or RM Music Srl, here on the neat stone alley linking Dante’s tomb with Teatro Alighieri, main venue of the Ravenna Festival.

This is, sources say, a family business intended to provide income streams into the future for the maestro’s children: Francesco, 45, an architect; Chiara, 43, actress and stage director; and Domenico, 37, laureato in legge and in charge of contracts.

Holding “all the image and recording rights of Riccardo Muti,” no less, RMM produces, publishes, and licenses on its own account and in association with such names as Corriere della Sera and CSO Resound — the former an Italian daily newspaper, the latter a nine-year-old Chicago Symphony Orchestra “response to the upheaval in the music industry.”

Unlike those departed maestros coddled by Bertelsmann, Sony or Universal, Muti is charting an autonomous, probably arduous, path involving rights-retention, brand-building, and deal-adjusted marketing strategies. On its own, RMM lacks clout. In association with others, it must permit assorted offerings and suffer faults in packaging and distribution.

Worthy products bearing RMM’s stamp-like logo face the same hurdles to profitability nowadays confronting the conglomerates, on less publicity. It is practically a secret, for instance, that three new Muti-led Verdi opera recordings arrived on the market this past spring.

Nonetheless RMM operates as cagily as a pure-play licensor, disclosing little online. For this post, it declined an invitation to expound on mission or plans. RCS MediaGroup, which runs the newspaper and calls RMM a “partner,” said it had to confer before confirming the success of a lengthy recent operazione congiunta, and in the end could not.

The conductor began discernibly to tighten control over recordings of his work after Decca’s DVD release of the 2006 Salzburg Die Zauberflöte. This was and remains his last new release on a “major” label, a remarkable halt considering his eminence.

Rights started to move to RMM almost certainly through revised clauses in Muti’s engagement contracts, including those with orchestras, opera companies and festivals whose output is broadcast using public money.

The pace of Muti releases then slowed. In the nine years through last December, only a handful of new orchestral discs appeared, and only three opera issues — a 2008 Salzburg Otello DVD on the lately launched C Major label; a 2011 Otello audio CD set from Chicago; and Mercadante’s I due Figaro, recorded in 2011 for Ducale.

More recently, though, any instinct to restrict supply has given way to pragmatism. RMM products have grown in number despite market conditions. (The glut was not in any case constraining promoters of less bankable artists, or issuers of pirate Muti discs.) Even with these, however, an attractive backlog remains of unreleased broadcast recordings of the conductor’s work.

RMM as a standalone label tends toward specialty discs, many featuring the Orchestra Cherubini, based here. An 11-hour DVD set of orchestral rehearsals, led in Italian and wide-ranging in repertory, will be among the most prized of these long-term. Packaged in saintly white, it sells for €99. Then there is a 100-minute documentary about conducting Verdi; “assolutamente trascinante,” reads one plaudit.

The lineup, RMM-produced, can be sampled and acquired on the company’s website, but not, pointedly, at the ubiquitous online retailer or through channels outside Italy.

Of RMM’s deals, one with Warner Classics presumably earns revenue. The 2013 Verdi documentary, filmed in Chicago and Rome and directed by Gabriele Cazzola, fittingly caps the American company’s new single-box reissue of all eleven of Muti’s former EMI Verdi opera sets. This represents something of a bargain, at about $75, under a dark and piercing RMM cover image.

RMM’s largest project has been with the Corriere’s distribution arm: a €317 collection of 32 Muti titles (roughly 50 CDs) chosen by the artist himself and classically presented in black and bronze. Finalized in August after a 32-week rollout, it carries the banner La musica è la mia vita.

It is also, alas, a jumble. Most of the discs are reissues stretching as far back as 1970s concerto recordings with Sviatoslav Richter and the old Aida with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Later efforts from Philadelphia and Vienna occupy much space. Inevitably many collectors will already own parts of the set.

Yet hidden in the huge box are three legitimate new Verdi opera recordings that would once have caused a global stir. They originate in strongly cast live performances during the Verdi bicentennial year of 2013 at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma:

Nabucco, with Tatiana Serjan (as Abigaille), Sonia Ganassi (Fenena), Francesco Meli (Ismaele), Luca Salsi (Nabucco) and Riccardo Zanellato (Zaccaria);

I due Foscari, the most recent of seventeen Verdi operas now in Muti’s repertory, with Serjan (Lucrezia), Meli (Jacopo) and Salsi (Francesco); and

Ernani, with Serjan (Elvira), Meli (Ernani), Salsi (Carlo) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Silva).

Rome’s production of the biblical opera had made news two years earlier when Muti lectured Italy’s politicos — President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi each attended at least once — on the perils of low cultural subsidies. Halting one performance, he related Italy’s destiny to the “beautiful and lost” Jewish homeland before indulging the house in a leaden Và, pensiero, sull’ali dorate sing-along.

Aptly enough for a newspaper company, Corriere della Sera’s slow rollout took place on newsstands across this country, allowing buyers to skip unwanted titles if they could do without the “unedited little book of [Muti] memories and anecdotes” included in the set.

Cost per title: a modest €10.90, whether one, two, or, for Guillaume Tell in Italian, four discs. News vendors on Piazza dei Caduti and Piazza del Popolo here reported sales of “tanti” discs and “un successo,” evidently freer to speak than RCS MediaGroup.

At the Corriere’s online store, shipping can be arranged worldwide. But product details are missing. Shoppers see only the front covers and a footnote about the recording source. The new Verdi items come up without casts.

With the Chicago orchestra, RMM has weaker terms. The CSO made clear this month that it holds sole copyright in CSO Resound recordings and that RMM’s stamp, present by agreement on five of its published titles, indicates no financial participation by the Muti family entity. Nor is the label intended to function as a profit center within the umbrella CSO nonprofit, the orchestra said.

RMM-branded discs and downloads on CSO Resound are a motley array, no doubt reflecting goals and realities other than Muti’s artistic emphases as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director.

Issued: a Berlioz pairing of Symphonie fantastique with Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie (2010, much delayed); Schönberg’s Kol Nidre coupled with Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo (2012, much delayed); Mason Bates’ symphony Alternative Energy and Anna Clyne’s “sonic portrait” Night Ferry (2012); numbers from the first two of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suites (2013); and Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (2015).

Those realities have to do with how orchestras raise funds in the U.S. — meaning conditions or incentives attendant on specific subsidizing grants and gifts — and naturally whether a product is considered saleable. The Zoology item has sold relatively well, the CSO said, without providing figures.

Having no stake, managers at RMM have no reason to care about CSO Resound repertory, but other observers away from South Michigan Avenue — and record buyers — must wonder at the lack of music from the Classical period, where Muti excels. His discerning Schubert, for example. Moreover the CSO would not confirm it will issue the Verdi Macbeth it recorded in 2013, or Falstaff, basketed a few months ago.

As for RMM’s stamp, it appears merely “in support of [Muti] and his wider activities around the world,” explained the orchestra with lawyerly reticence. (It is omitted from two Verdi issues on CSO Resound, the mentioned Otello and a recording of the Requiem Mass made before Muti assumed his post.)

CSO Resound gives RMM visibility Stateside and has good distribution, using multiple online retailers for disc and download versions of most titles.

The label’s packaging, on the other hand, with crude typography and slipshod billing, cannot match RMM products created in Italy. Take the Berlioz disc. Finally released in 2015, five years after being recorded, its cover declares “Chicago Symphony” three times, plus “CSO”; lists the conductor before the orchestra, then the soloists, whose names are separated by a slash, and chorus; and allows the most noteworthy item, Lélio, to get lost essentially.

Muti the publisher, then, faces a host of hurdles. For RMM to be viable, never mind guarantee long-term family income, it needs all elements pulling in its favor. It must balance the pros and cons of independence against those of joint ventures while avoiding unforced errors such as caginess, intentional product delays and narrowed distribution.

At a glance, its best prospects lie in content from tax-supported broadcasts, as newly marketed. WFMT, WQXR, Italy’s RAI and Austria’s ORF have all aired the conductor’s work since 2006, filmed or taped. Standards are high, and in terms of production the output is largely ready for release — ready, but at present held up and falling to pirates.

Listing just operas, and not counting items discussed above, RMM may have “recording rights” in: Il ritorno di Don Calandrino (Salzburg) and Sancta Susanna (New York), from 2007; Così fan tutte and Don Pasquale (both Vienna), 2008; Iphigénie en Aulide (Rome) and Moïse et Pharaon (Salzburg), 2009; Attila (New York) and Orfeo ed Euridice (Salzburg), 2010; Macbeth (Salzburg), 2011; Simon Boccanegra (Rome), filmed in 2012; and Manon Lescaut (Rome), 2014 audio.

There is a solid if limited market on DVD or CD for this body of work, and one instinctively wishes the family venture every success in using the associated rights, even if the era has likely ended when imprints could assure fortunes.

That said, Riccardo Muti’s personal priority may be something else: legacy. His own, and more emphatically the artistic traditions he values. Hence the not necessarily lucrative documenting of preparation and rehearsal methods in RMM productions. It is no coincidence his Italian Opera Academy is headquartered on the same alley.

Images © RM Music Srl and RCS MediaGroup

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Muti Casts His New Aida

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Casa Ricordi’s piano-vocal score cover for Aida

Published: September 9, 2016

SALZBURG — Today’s iconic Verdian has completed the casting for his delayed return to the iconic Verdi opera, sources say. Due next summer here, Riccardo Muti’s opening-night roster for Aida reportedly will be:

Aida — Anna Netrebko
Amneris — Anita Rachvelishvili*
Radamès — Francesco Meli
Amonasro — Luca Salsi
Ramfis — Dmitry Belosselsky

Confirmation is expected in November along with other details of Salzburg Festival 2017. The participation of Netrebko and Meli, in role debuts, was made public in July; Rachvelishvili will be working with Muti for the first time. In the pit: the Vienna Philharmonic.

An astonishing 38 years will have passed since Muti last conducted Aida, in Munich. During this time he long served as direttore musicale at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and for six seasons (2008 to 2014) was actively engaged at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, where he remains direttore onorario a vita.

Muti’s past performances of the score belong to a different era, the 1970s, when his prime donne were Gwyneth Jones, Teresa Kubiak, Tamara Milashkina, Ljiljana Molnar-Talajić, Montserrat Caballé, Marie Robinson and Anna Tomowa-Sintow.

Aida will be Netrebko’s sixth complete Verdi role and the third requiring broad spinto heft. With Muti she has already prepared and sung the title part in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, in Rome, and it was during rehearsals there that she met her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov. Cast as des Grieux, he had been working in Ravenna with the conductor’s wife, stage director Cristina Mazzavillani.

Muti first planned to reinterpret Aida in Rome two years ago, eight months after the Puccini, but he abruptly severed what were informal ties with Teatro dell’Opera weeks before the premiere. His grounds: cyclical problems at the company and insufficient peace of mind.

Anticipating high ticket demand for the Salzburg run, the festival will reportedly announce as many as seven dates, with some rotation* of cast, including Eyvazov as Radamès. Written orders will be processed starting in early January.

[*At its Jahrespressekonferenz on Nov. 10, the Salzburg Festival listed Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris. Dates are Aug. 6, 9, 12m, 16, 19, 22 and 25. Vittoria Yeo and Eyvazov replace Netrebko and Meli for the last two performances.]

Illustration © Casa Ricordi Srl

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Mariotti Cheers Up Bologna

Friday, March 25th, 2016

Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Attila, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michele Mariotti

Published: March 25, 2016

BOLOGNA — Two years ago all was bleak in music circles here. Orchestra Mozart had folded. Claudio Abbado died. Teatro Comunale lumbered toward a fiscal guillotine mandated by the government. Now, the sun is back, much of it radiating from the reorganized opera house where Nicola Sani holds sway as sovrintendente. Certain theater functions have been outsourced, yet Sani retains his unions’ visible cooperation. The nation, the region and the comune (900 years old this year) underwrite his artistic program, as do private firms, starting with Bologna-born Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A., which parks a silver specimen in the foyer (called Foyer Respighi after the native composer, not Foyer Lamborghini). House income and expenses are perusable online. Tickets are affordable. An intermission glass of water (in a glass) costs 50 euro cents, the fresh torta di mele two euros. Not surprisingly Teatro Comunale is constantly full, its cheerful buzz spilling out onto Piazza Verdi and into the adjacent student-frequented cafés; any student can attend, and everyone knows it. Opera crowds, young and old, dress with a kind of sloppy elegance, as if perfect colors and fabrics chose themselves, but the listening is attentive — which is just as well because Sani offers two aces: direttore musicale Michele Mariotti, probably the most “complete” young Italian conductor around, and maestro del coro Andrea Faidutti, builder of an outstanding, musically alert team. For this season’s Attila (heard and seen Jan. 30 and 31) and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Feb. 7) both were busy.

Newly staged by Daniele Abbado and co-produced with Teatro Massimo di Palermo and Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, the Verdi unfolded amid gloomy gray panels depicting nothing much, its action scheme stand-and-sing. Two quartets of principal singers enabled seven performances here in nine days, the first one (Jan. 23) televised by RAI. On Jan. 30, Stefanna Kybalova sang an agile, powerful Odabella; Giuseppe Gipali phrased Foresto’s music handsomely, though his voice went to the sides, not forward; and Gezim Myshketa intoned incisively as Ezio. Riccardo Zanellato’s obsessive invader sounded remarkably smooth and warm, with plenty of capacity; acting is not his strong suit. The next night the cast of the prima returned, except that Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s dramatically vivid, but in the long lines unsteady, Attila did not make it past the Prologue. Jumping in, Zanellato this time moved and sang a little more wildly in his portrayal, without loss of vocal opulence. Maria José Siri’s Odabella had expressive power and a degree of magnetism, while Fabio Sartori’s awkward, rotund Foresto dealt only in f, ff and fff. The Jan. 31 Ezio proved especially fine, singing with imagination and reserves of power; Simone Piazzola is the name. Mariotti presided over a somewhat undersized string section, so that the score’s cantabile qualities were impaired. (Attila is at least his fourth Verdi opera, after Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto and Nabucco, and this month he adds I due Foscari in Milan.) But his reading had conviction and sweep, and on both evenings he and the orchestra — more than any cast member — drew the loudest, longest applause.

If anything, Mariotti had more to say about Beethoven’s symphony. Conducting with a concern for lyricism that never softened the rhetoric, he drew virtuosic work from the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale strings and, as in Schubert and Mendelssohn last year, picked out just the right details to create a beautiful and cogent interpretation. Upshot: rhythmic applause, foot-stomping, smiles all round. At 68 minutes with brief pauses, Mariotti’s Nona was neither fast nor slow but merely the sum of apparently artlessly judged tempos. The first movement’s turbulent exchanges emerged in plain relief despite intermittent problems in the winds. The conductor sprang the Scherzo’s rhythms emphatically, playing up contrasts and accentuating colors. He ennobled the third movement on pastoral, not grandiose, terms, drawing attention to collateral ideas. Through the last movement, he kept a steady momentum without slighting the episodic drama or exaggerating one dimension at the expense of another. Faidutti’s choristers projected forcefully into the comfortable 1,034-seat house, but their work also had precision and plenty of shading, in discernible German. Vocal soloists Carmela Remigio, Veronica Simeoni, Michael Schade and Michele Pertusi neatly complemented their colleagues.

Photos © Rocco Casaluci (Attila), Michele Lapini (Beethoven concert), Teatro Comunale di Bologna (Piazza Verdi)

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Ettinger Drives Aida

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Bavarian State Opera revives its Aida with Krassimira Stoyanova and Jonas Kaufmann

Published: September 30, 2015

MUNICH — Bavarian State Opera’s irredeemably banal 2009 Aida has been spiffed up and its awkward action scheme apparently restudied for a fall run here. Even so, the honors at Monday’s performance (Sept. 28) belonged firmly with the musicians, instrumental and vocal. Mannheim-based conductor Dan Ettinger exerted a Karajan-like grip, stirring Verdi’s music from the bottom up, parading its rhythmic strengths, brashly stressing percussive detail, and inevitably drawing attention to himself. Which is not to say he drowned everyone out: he accompanied attentively and savored well-rehearsed balances. The Bavarian State Orchestra cooperated gamely; the Bavarian State Opera Chorus sang with rare refinement in clear Italian. Krassimira Stoyanova acted so credibly and poignantly through her essentially lyric voice that nobody would have guessed she is new to this opera. Her sound was pure and unforced, her phrasing properly noble for the title role. Amneris suits Anna Smirnova better than did Eboli here four seasons ago, but her communicative singing in Acts III and IV followed a numb, robotic portrayal before the Pause. Jonas Kaufmann proved he can sing Radamès outside of studio conditions, and thrillingly, starting with an exquisitely shaped Act I Romanza and progressing to generous, imaginative ensemble work. Franco Vassallo’s warm and unstrained Amonasro, Ain Anger’s formidable Ramfis, and Marco Spotti’s eloquent Rè d’Egitto completed a straight-A cast of principals.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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Nitrates In the Canapés

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Karl-Böhm-Saal, a refreshment hall for Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule and Haus für Mozart performance venues

Published: August 27, 2015

SALZBURG — Two beggars sat on either side of the entrance to the Haus für Mozart Aug. 6 as attendees arrived for Norma. As if this was not alarming enough — and it disturbed one’s thoughts more than the tense Résistance staging of Bellini’s opera inside — another two panhandlers were positioned with military discipline at the Kollegienkirche’s door the next evening for the Klangforum Wien concert. And on Aug. 8, before Il trovatore, three beggars zigzagged back and forth between guarded entrances of the Großes Festspielhaus seemingly worried that they could not proceed with their assigned jobs — for these were E.U. citizens dispatched by predatory gangs from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, if media reports* are to be believed. Nowhere did the police intercept.

Gyrating in his nearby grave was Herbert von Karajan, the Salzburg maestro who ran the Salzburg Festival adroitly from 1956 to 1989. He liked his gypsies on stage, not on the steps. He continues to fret about his city as local people exile themselves to the suburbs, locally owned businesses die out, historic dwellings are gutted. Having launched two of the four classical-music fairs here, the Salzburg Easter Festival (in 1967) and the Whitsun Concerts (1973), he senses a certain festival fatigue now, with music visitors present eleven weeks of the year. And from Anif cemetery he projects his horror at the main festival’s fuzzy sense of mission and the preservatives lacing its corporate food.

Bärenreiter’s critical edition of Norma relates the tragedia lirica snugly with the rest of Bellini’s output, notably I Capuleti e i Montecchi. On the evidence of this performance — a revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s May 2013 staging conducted by Giovanni Antonini — it is a swifter, more emotionally direct opera than known in the 20th century, with barer dynamic contrasts, airier textures, incisive choruses and instrumental vibrancy. Its melodies sound more articulate now that they are less dilated, its ornaments more germane. It wants a bright voice for Adalgisa, rationally, and an agile Pollione. The title role is exacting but no sui generis few can sing. Credit the curators. Maurizio Biondi initiated work from the autograph score for Parma performances in 2001 conducted by his brother Fabio; Riccardo Minasi, himself a conductor, furthered the effort for 2010 concerts in Dortmund led by Thomas Hengelbrock.

Already fluent in this version, Antonini brought tautness to Bellini’s lines no matter the tempo or expressive purpose. Lyrical charm flexibly balanced urgency. His cast — the same principals as for Hengelbrock, who left the Norma project before Decca began its related studio recording in 2011 — apparently shared his enthusiasm. Cecilia Bartoli stalked the boards as a priestess and mother possessed (in a production that trades devotion and sacrifice for World War II realism and madness), her long lines and embellishments articulated and colored to keen dramatic effect. Rebeca Olvera portrayed the torn Adalgisa with tender tones and skilled musicianship, partnering Bartoli precisely. John Osborn managed the awkward musical and theatrical chores of Pollione with fluency, almost garnering sympathy, while Michele Pertusi made a dull, unexpectedly suave Oroveso. The Coro della Radio-Televisione Svizzera (from Lugano) and period-instrument Orchestra La Scintilla (based in Zurich) supplied due degrees of vigor, fury and reflection.

Rewards at the Kollegienkirche (Aug. 7) lessened as the music got newer. Sylvain Cambreling on the podium coaxed precise yet nuanced sonorities in Boulez’s orderly cantata Le marteau sans maître (1955), smoothing the handovers of the vocal and instrumental strands and validating the “fertilizer” role of Char’s bitty poems. Hilary Summers’ confident contralto injected spontaneity. Still a functioning church, the lofty space tended to open up Klangforum Wien’s neatly delivered textures, a flattering effect that also helped Olga Neuwirth’s Lonicera caprifolium (Goat-Leaf Honeysuckle) after the break. This haunting 1993 piece for ensemble and audiotape deploys its forces sparingly to spin a distanced, hollowed plaint.

Then came the same composer’s Eleanor in its world premiere. A reduction in suite form of her disliked American Lulu venture of 2011, it promised to distill that work’s strongest ideas via blues singer (Della Miles), drummer (Tyshawn Sorey), ensemble and taped samples. What emerged was a formally hideous anthem to the bravery in political protest, a coarse Neo-Expressionist collage of fragmentary musical and non-musical material awkwardly scored. Sticking out like dusty saucers glued to a Schnabel canvas were Martin Luther King snippets, stale and mournfully unimposing. (Rebecca Schmid has fuller observations.)

Alvis Hermanis’ staging of Il trovatore, from 2014, places the action in the galleries of an art museum energized in reds and enlivened with sliding tableaux. It advances ably enough in Parts I and II of the opera but then, like Olivier Py’s production in Munich, runs out of ideas. There were reassignments this year. Gianandrea Noseda took over the conducting; Ekaterina Semenchuk and Artur Ruciński essayed Azucena and di Luna. Noseda insisted on an outsize orchestral sound, from an eager Vienna Philharmonic, but paid little attention to shaping and informing Verdi’s phrases, at cost to the whole work. Semenchuk sang in lucid Italian with power, expressive control, and theatrical zeal, and just about stole the show. Ruciński produced handsome legato lines, giving full value to notes. He also served as a smart foil to the Leonora, Anna Netrebko, who reprised her warm portrayal. Francesco Meli returned as the capable, not so memorable Manrico. Adrian Sâmpetrean made a clarion Ferrando. The night went sloppily, though, for the Vienna State Opera Chorus, muddying Cammarano’s words.

Perhaps it was the beggars, but this visit has underlined a number of maladies at today’s Salzburg Festival. Politicians run things now. They use proxy managers whose skills center on balancing the books and appeasing conglomerate sponsors — not exactly what Hofmannsthal, Reinhardt, Roller, Schalk and Strauss had in mind. There is no Intendant, or artistic director, this year or next. (The last one, Alexander Pereira, was ousted for having too robust a vision; Markus Hinterhäuser acquires the title in 2017, but he served in the artistically dithering regimes that preceded Pereira’s tenure.) Old formulas are being followed for programming, without a demonstrated understanding of why. The last innovation was the Ouverture spirituelle, back in 2012. Perforce we have seen a weakening in chamber music, a sharp cut in new opera stagings, a thinned, disjointed Ouverture spirituelle, and a miscellany of star-driven programs where there should be focus and mission.

If the institution looks half-detached from its artistic origins, it is fully so from local citizens, who operate, whether farming families or blue-collar workers, at some remove from the city center. Festival catering is emblematic. Conglomerates, not Salzburgers, decide the beverages, the appetizers, the employment contracts, the terms of service — all the while claiming sponsor privileges and bragging of “social responsibility.” A 1-fl-oz ristretto costs €3. Chewy-bread gravlax canapés under nitrate-laced dill sauce are €7.20 a pair. In nearby Munich, where labor costs are higher, vying local caterers offer pure-ingredient fare for reasonable prices, and less recognition.

Some issues run deeper. Locally owned storefronts that forty years ago proudly displayed festival posters, leaflets, mementos and trinkets are now scarcely to be found. A beloved antiquariat vanishes, an Intimissimi opens for business. No large inn remains that is both of the town and independent. Austrian law, protecting building façades not structures, has allowed corporate vandals to rip out the staircases, inner walls and woodwork of a historic block of houses below the Kapuzinerberg to make way for the conforming spaces and plastic fittings of a chain hotel. Festivalgoers’ alienation mounts on the streets, where hoards of tourists from nations that supply the West’s fuel and factory goods now roam in packs, with prams, sticks, mobile devices and religious garb, oblivious to the city’s Roman Catholic roots and its place in music, never mind the goings-on on Hofstallgasse. Only Prague has it worse as a real-life theme park.

Detached and alienated of course is how the beggars feel. So what would Karajan do? He would press the politicians to tighten the laws. He would identify and demand remedies for the harm to the festival within the powers of the city. He would partner with the few local food businesses persevering in the center — Schatz Konditorei, Café Tomaselli, Zum fidelen Affen, a couple of brasseries off the Kaigasse. When he ran the festival, he lured sponsors even as he navigated the artistic direction, and driving Volkswagen’s Scirocco never meant betraying Salzburg’s interests.

[*Nine O’Clock: “Highly irritated by a large number of Romanian beggars taking over … , local authorities have initiated a large-scale operation … . Salzburg media [quoted Mayor Harald Preuner] as saying ‘these people do look for sympathy, but helping them would mean supplying all sorts of mobsters, because the cash does not get to the beggar.’” The Local: “At present, police … have very little power to stop organized begging. … Begging was a central theme in Salzburg’s local election campaign.” “At peak times, around 150 beggars per day have been counted in the center of Salzburg.” UPDATE, The Telegraph (May 25, 2016): “Salzburg banned begging on most of its streets on Wednesday. The ban comes just days after a court overturned fines imposed on four people by the Salzburg police for ‘aggressive begging’ because they said ‘please’ to passersby.”]

Photo © Tourismus Salzburg

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Verdi’s Lady Netrebko

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Simon Keenlyside and Anna Netrebko at Bavarian State Opera

Published: June 28, 2014

MUNICH — Verdi’s Macbeth is back, for its eighth run in six years at Bavarian State Opera, this time to open the dressy Opernfestspiele. The production’s giant chandelier, plastic sheeting, silly tent and field of skulls are now globally familiar, even if they don’t exactly transport us to 11th-century Scotland. Ditto its unison cast whizz during the witches’ Act III Incantation, made possible by a reverse diaper process and plastic tubes. Obsession still trumps oppression (or patriotism or tyranny), as stage director Martin Kušej in 2008 saw the tale. Mute kid supers still enact the witches. Just don’t look for a heath, castle, cave or Dunsinane Hill.

The dramatic instincts and opulent tones of Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth ignited last evening’s performance (June 27). After a 3½-month break from staged opera, the soprano brought voice to burn to this role debut and had apparently been expertly tutored for it. Her sound, often ingolato, correlated little with her 2012 Giulietta or 2011 Adina here, but power and a new exploitation of her rich chest voice riveted the ear. Stage skills found her reveling in the excesses of the character without descending to caricature.

She read the letter at the start with Italianate declamation and fresh point. Vieni! T’affretta! and both verses of Or tutti, sorgete paraded the value of a plush timbre skillfully deployed. She sailed over the orchestra and ensemble in a thrilling Act I Finale — Schiudi, inferno, la bocca, ed inghiotti nel tuo grembo l’intero creato being precisely what Hell should do with this staging — and rode other climaxes with comparable apparent ease. Act II brought contrast. After a chilling La luce langue, she mustered a series of expressive, varied trills and strong coloratura for the banquet, Salva, o rè! … Si colmi il calice, flatly defying expectations. She conveyed tameness and defeat in the Sonnambulismo, which in Kušej’s concept involves no walking, and invested Verdi’s last phrase with pathetic charm, touching the D-flat and then plunging with rounded certainty to “ndiam,” albeit in something greater than the stipulated fil di voce.

Simon Keenlyside tried hard as Macbeth, a role he has already documented. He observed the musical values of the part and summoned as much heft and intensity, fury and volatility, as his lyric baritone would permit, preserving beauty of tone. He paired credibly, magnetically, with Netrebko and faced the Act II ghost and Act III apparitions with reasonable histrionic flair, dumb dramaturgy notwithstanding. But he never resembled a killer or hesitant dope. Wisely, he saved his best till last, finding dignity and power for Perfidi! All’anglo contro me v’unite! … Pietà, rispetto, amore. He was singing this next to and over the body of his queen when, awkwardly, the news of her death arrived.

If the misdemeanor of this Macbeth is having the cast pee on stage, its felony is forcing Verdi’s witches to sing from the wings. Pushed out of focus and balance, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus toiled and failed to give the opening Che faceste? dite su! its thrilling edge. And so it was for the Incantation, the Apparizioni and the chorus Ondine e silfidi, music dear to the composer’s scheme. When they weren’t being witches, though, the Sören Eckhoff-trained choristers achieved precise and penetrating results. Joseph Calleja rang tenorial rafters with Macduff’s Ah, la paterna mano, the dynamic details well executed. Ildar Abdrazakov’s firm but agile bass delivered Banco’s Come dal ciel precipita in ominous shades, before the character’s swift hoisting by the ankles and exsanguination, as Kušej has it. The Bavarian State Orchestra mustered warm lyrical playing that could turn dazzlingly martial where required, under Paolo Carignani’s idiomatic if measured command. His reading suggested exceptional thoroughness of preparation, as if a certain other maestro had provided background guidance.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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