Posts Tagged ‘Netrebko’

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)

Related posts:
Muti the Publisher
Muti Casts His New Aida
Nitrates In the Canapés
Verdi’s Lady Netrebko
Mastersingers’ Depression

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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Six Husbands in Tow

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

Divas due in Munich

Published: March 13, 2016

MUNICH — Some contracts come with strings attached, others with husbands. In a remarkable set of coincident artistic priorities for company boss Nikolaus Bachler — or a broad capitulation — Bavarian State Opera’s 2016–17 season, announced today, features no fewer than six divas in performance with their husbands. Edita Gruberová, Elīna Garanča and Kristine Opolais will star in Roberto Devereux, La Favorite and Rusalka while their other halves conduct. Diana Damrau, Anna Netrebko and Aleksandra Kurzak will headline Lucia di Lammermoor, Macbeth and La Juive while alongside them their spouses sing. In another family tie, Vladimir Jurowski has apparently been allowed to abandon the new Ognenny angel he led (electrically) this season in favor of … his dad. Small wonder 2016–17 is dubbed “Was folgt”: What follows.

Photos © Wiener Staatsoper (Elīna Garanča), Opernhaus Zürich (Anna Netrebko), Bill Cooper for the Royal Opera House (Kristine Opolais), Catherine Ashmore for the ROH (Aleksandra Kurzak, Diana Damrau), Wilfried Hösl (Edita Gruberová)

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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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Netrebko, Barcellona in Aida
Mozartwoche: January’s Peace
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Manon, Let’s Go

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Kristine Opolais as Manon Lescaut at Bavarian State Opera in Munich

Published: December 11, 2014

MUNICH — Puccini lost even before the curtain went up Nov. 15 on Hans Neuenfels’ conceptual new staging of Manon Lescaut for Bavarian State Opera. Anna Netrebko, its titular star, abandoned the project in quiet disgust, understandably it turned out. Disaster did not follow, but the night and the subsequent run will long be remembered for what might have been, musically.

The company broke the sorry news Nov. 3 after securing a substitute in Kristine Opolais. It cited “unterschiedlichen Auffassungen,” divergent opinions, between star and director and lamely lamented the stresses of theater life. It had not, apparently, considered managing those stresses so that no cast change was needed. In any case, the neat explanation rang hollow: Netrebko has a history of flexibility with Regietheater. She had signed on with a régisseur known for strange concepts and was no doubt looking forward to the highly visible introduction to Germany of a successful new role.

Sure enough, a more accurate picture emerged within days, in Der Spiegel and from the horse’s mouth. While the Russian soprano remained atypically mute, Neuenfels, 73, echoed the conversation in rehearsals that caused the rift. Netrebko had conveyed views about the choice facing Abbé Prévost’s 1731 material girl — between a life of passion with penniless des Grieux and one of wealth with Geronte — that he, Neuenfels, found “lächerlich und degradierend,” laughable and degrading, to women. He had reasoned back: “Möglicherweise findet man es in Russland als Frau gar nicht schlimm, sich von einem alten, reichen Mann aushalten zu lassen,” or, Maybe in Russia it is not considered at all bad for a woman to let herself be kept by an old rich man — this, not incidentally, to an actress whose own family endured deprivation and hunger at the start of her career. Bottom line: your views are no good, and probably because you are Russian. Bravo, Herr Direktor!

The cast change would not have mattered so much had Netrebko not triumphed in February in her role debut as Puccini’s Manon, and before an Italian audience under Riccardo Muti’s strict tutelage. But she had. Tapes demonstrate she was red hot for this role this year, with clear Italian, a dramatic command of the evolving character gleaned from years as Massenet’s protagonist, and, especially, rich tones to wield in all sorts of expressive ways.

Opolais has sung here often since her radiant first appearance in 2010 in a lyrically conducted (Tomáš Hanus), perversely staged (Martin Kušej) Rusalka, not always equaling that achievement. She is an enchanting presence on stage, an excellent musician, a game and cooperative colleague. The voice never makes an ugly sound, but it wanes in volume as it descends (there is no “chest voice” of substance), and her Italian wants stronger consonant projection.

On opening night Opolais (pictured) teamed magnetically with her des Grieux, Jonas Kaufmann. Both gave their best in Act IV, she singing to the boards for heft in Sola, perduta, he sailing high as a generous embodiment of Gallic desperation. Throughout Act II, alas, the soprano’s relatively monochromatic voice and missing gravitas limited the music: a little morbidezza helps in the singing of In quelle trine morbide, and Tu, tu, amore! Tu? at the start of the duet requires intensity and volume. Markus Eiche, as the immoral Lescaut, sounded glorious but strove in vain for italianità. Ditto for Sören Eckhoff’s loosely regimented choristers. Vivid supporting contributions came from Okka von der Damerau, a vocally lush Musico; Dean Power, a spright Edmondo; and the veterans Ulrich Reß, cast inexplicably as a hypertrichotic Maestro di ballo (hand is pictured, lower left), and Roland Bracht, a credible and clear Geronte.

The Bavarian State Orchestra showed astonishing sensitivity to Puccini’s freshest score, finely tracing its melodic ideas, scampering through the momentary ironies, deftly tinting the myriad and occasionally peculiar textures. It was an evening of great acumen and discernment for the brass, notably the trombone group, where an oversized cimbasso provided discreet assistance. Everything came across new and instant as propelled by Alain Altinoglu, Munich’s first master Puccinian in many seasons.

Neuenfels’ staging, which returns next July and will be streamed, advances the action to “Irgendwann,” whenever. It is black, framed in white neon. Its black-clad protagonists emote under seldom-varied white light. Stripped of time and place, the French cautionary tale is spun with the aid of projected texts auf Deutsch, plugging holes the director perceives in the Italian libretto and injecting wisdom and whimsy, little of it profound or funny. Early example: “‘When a coach comes, the opera begins,’ said Giacomo Puccini.” Neuenfels uses the choristers — Act I’s students, Act II’s guests, the gawkers at Le Havre — to toy around more invasively, mockingly, endowing them with flame-red hair to ensure we watch.

The action is closely calibrated to shifts in the score, but the rootless and sterile settings, combined with Neuenfels’ propensity to play with paraphernalia and gags of his own invention, send the opera down a path that is at odds with the brutal application of law and the personal destruction driving the music. Result: a diminished dramma mitigated somewhat by a powerfully bare Act IV.

It is intriguing to contemplate how much of this production would still have worked had its director been fired last month after offending Netrebko. Chances are, all of it. One imagines a late but efficient Bavarian State Opera team scramble to prepare for opening night without Neuenfels, mounting Manon Lescaut with the planned and more gifted soprano. In business, it would have been that way, and one wonders why a public theater is any different. Instead the company’s management allowed hurtful on-the-job remarks to deprive Munich, and the world, of what would certainly have been a momentous series of performances. Prima il regista, poi la musica.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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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

Related posts:
Netrebko, Barcellona in Aida
Six Husbands in Tow
Time for Schwetzingen
U.S. Orchestras on Travel Ban
Ettinger Drives Aida


Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Furious Maria

By Albert Innaurato.

December the second was the 90th birthday of poor Maria Callas. The encomiums of hysterics appeared on the opera lists; there was even a doodle on Google. Isn’t that a thrill?

Like Placido Domingo, who lately cracked on a high note while trying to sing the Verdi baritone role of The Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, Callas has become a commodity. Domingo played “Let’s help the hype” by telling Anna Netrebko that she was “like Callas”. So Callas has become a decorative robe and essentially meaningless.  Netrebko had the savvy to demur. Whatever she has or doesn’t have to offer she knows she’s not Callas. And since Callas had a very tough and finally, a very sad life, who would want to be?

In all the Internet commentary that followed the crack and the comparison, only a few mentioned that Domingo is not a baritone, he’s an older tenor, period. Not everyone thinks he was great or even very good. People have made up their own minds about that, since he still sells tickets. But if one judges by resonance and sonority he remains a tenor.  On Netrebko’s recent  CD devoted to Verdi arias, a score follower would have to notice musical compromises that Callas could hardly have conceived of, let alone have been willing to put on something as durable as a CD. But again, let those who love Madame Netrebko buy their tickets and scream themselves hoarse for what she can actually do. It should not be that the only real world use of Callas is to promote someone else, from a very different background and of a very different generation, with their own hurdles to clear. Callas deserves more than to be used as a bandwagon. I know many are happy to see her exploited that way. I doubt the ghost of Maria Callas is.

That poor woman when asked in her last years how things were, would reply, “one day less!” She ended up miserable and alone. She was 54; her voice had collapsed ten years earlier and she had sung with reduced volume, range and control for four years before that. She had, a few years before her death, made money touring the world, sort of Sunset Boulevard meets The Marx Brothers with the then broke tenor, her once famous colleague, Giuseppe Di Stefano. One hopes she knew it was a joke but perhaps she didn’t. She needed an infusion of cash, too.  Her widely reported affair with Aristotle Onassis gave people the wrong impression of her finances.  Onassis’ sudden marriage to The Widow Kennedy hoping for her in- laws’ influence in his American businesses and the ensuing stresses, kept Callas before the public as the cast off of a billionaire. Only Mrs. Kennedy won in this strange interlude. But Callas became a tabloid floozy instead of the great artist she had aspired to be, and for a time, was.

Sadly, she had bought into her myth. Privately, she continued to work on her voice; a few late fragments on tape even sound like her. Could she perhaps have mastered part of the huge song repertory as the great Victoria de los Angeles did when her opera career ended early? But as Callas thought of herself as a diva, that was beneath her. She did try two sets of master classes and found the students poorly prepared and not stimulating. Her reward was an internationally successful play by Terrance McNally. Many thought it was true to Callas, though the complete tapes of her Julliard master classes, some of which I saw, show a very different person: shy, correct and helpful. The brassy, bitchy, sex obsessed fictional character raises at least the question of misogyny. We live however in a society where pretty much everything has been defined down, and the notion of il sacro fuoco — the sacred fire — that Callas embraced, is now a joke. Maybe she is too.

How could she have come to that? We all die, some of us are young when the heart stops; all artists know that a career is a tight rope walk over an abyss likelier at the end to hold poverty and obscurity than worshipful remembrance. Callas escaped the obscurity but it would be better were she remembered for a kind of genius in some roles, Norma, Anna Bolena, oddly enough the despised La gioconda — her second recording, made when her voice was failing is an amazing, perhaps unique, example of spinning pathos out of dross — than as a tired name snatched at by every opportunist to glorify qualities she conspicuously lacked: laziness, coarseness, musical ineptitude.

Yes, opera as Callas dreamed it and as it sometimes really was, is dying out. But don’t worry. Despite common belief, the dinosaurs lasted at least tens of thousands of  years gasping and roaring after what is thought to have been a comet wiped most of them out.