Bozar in Brussels – Paisiello and Berlioz

What De Munt/La Monnaie doesn’t offer in terms of variety this year (50% is 20th century music and the remaining 50% are the omnipresent Haendel, Mozart and Verdi, though still one interesting Fierrabras – albeit in concert version) was given at the Bozar with only a couple of days from each other, organized by the Klarafestival.

IMG_1664Il barbiere di Siviglia. Not the well-known rossinian version, but Giovanni Paisiello’s, composed over 30 years earlier for the court of Saint Petersburg. Petrosellini’s libretto (which was set to music also by Francesco Morlacchi) is almost equal to Cesare Sterbini’s libretto for Rossini, and I was amused when I heard the same scenes, and in some cases the  exact same words. Paisiello’s genius doesn’t show as much in the Barbiere as it does in other works like Nina or Fedra. But the music is delightful, with heights in the Pace e gioia ensemble, Rosina’s music lesson, Bartolo’s Vuoi tu Rosina. The singers also follow stage directions and act the respective roles so the evening is almost as enjoyable as a staged opera. The cast rests on Pietro Spagnoli’s shoulder who’s rendition of Bartolo is perfect: excellent diction, wonderful singing technique, versatile actor. The rest of the cast are solid professionals with Mari Erismoen as Rosina, André Schuen as Figaro and Fulvio Bettini as Don Basilio. I didn’t enjoy Topi Lehtipuu very much, whose voice I found weightless and dry. Renee Jacobs gives a personal but lively and sparkling rendition of the score making it a highly enjoyable evening.

 

IMG_1691The other vocal work given at Bozar only a couple of days later is Romeo et Juliette by Hector Berlioz. It is described as a symphonie dramatique and includes 3 soloists and a choire and is regarded as one of Berlioz most admirable works. Richard Wagner was present at the premiere on 24 November 1839 and it must have made an impression on him if 20 years later he sent Berlioz the printed version of his Tristan and Isolde with the inscription Au grand et cher auteur de Roméo et Juliette, L’auteur reconnaissant de Tristan et Isolde.

Isabelle Druet’s and Jean-François Borras’ roles are rather short and confined to the beginning and neither have particularly marked my mind. Jerome Varnier’s voice was a bit absent and I felt it didn’t give the big recitative and aria of père Laurence the gravity it needed. François-Xavier Roth, who directed an interesting Christophe Colombe (by Félicien David) in Gent which I much enjoyed, chiseld the wide variety of emotions perfectly, from the whirling “fête” to the sweet and delicate love duet (Romeo and Juliet are impersonated by the orchestra) and the stirring final “serment”

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Haendel dyptich in De Munt, Brussels

Tamerlano3_2005_1600x900Two operas by Haendel were given on two consecutive evenings in Brussels, Tamerlano and Alcina, both staged, directed and conducted by the same team. I did’t enjoy Tamerlano half as much as Alcina. Andronico (Delphine Galou) didn’t show a very colorful voice especially approaching the low register but has a good coloratura as shown by the aria “Piu d’una tigre altero“. Jeremy Ovenden as Bajazet is far too short in the lower register to properly sing some of his arias, some of the notes are just not there anymore. With his unrefined singing I find him quite misplaced in baroque. Musically much better I find Sophie Karthauser as Asteria although i missed a proper characterisation of her role. I much enjoyed Ann Hallenberg as Irene and Christoph Dumaux as Tamerlano. Both showed affinity with the baroque style, an even and warm voice, and decent coloratura.
The cast of Alcina was in average much better and homogeneous. Above all the Alcina of Sandrine Piau, who, although with good runs and trials, excelled especially in the lyrical and slower passages. I much enjoyed the rest of the cast and although not perfect, the team spirit sparked life to the score. The only big disappointment : the precious little interest the singers gave to Italian pronunciation. With subtitles that were turned off for the da capo part, it would have been nice to understand some of the text. Hélas.

Both operas were well directed by Christophe Rousset. Staging was a bit monotone in Tamerlano with narrowing panels on both sides of the stage to give a perspective depth. The same panels are used for Alcina (with foliage this time) with as only prop the same chair as in Tamerlano. And same descent of clouds shortly before the end. A change of set came 20 min before the end: the panels disappeared and wooden boxes remained on wooden floor all in warm colours and timeless white clothing. This staging by Pierre Audi was originally conceived for the famous Baroque theater in Drottningholm, which still uses original decors. But overall it was bit boring, considering that baroque operas are hard to listen to with their endless sequence of recitativo and aria (and even more so Haendel, who was rarely inspired in the orchestral part, unlike Vivaldi). So a visual activity in sets would have been welcome (and which was surely intended in Haendel’s time thanks to the famous theatre machinery). Pierre Audi’s stage directions were very varied with people entering and exiting frequently, easing some of the monotony. The question remains to why such operas like Tamerlano and Alcina should be played with the same set as they have little in common.

Tamerlano: Conductor-Christophe Rousset, Director-Pierre Audi, Set design & costumes-Patrick Kinmonth, Lighting-Matthew Richardson, Tamerlano-Christoph Dumaux, Bajazete-Jeremy Ovenden, Asteria-Sophie Karthäuser, Andronico-Delphine Galou, Irene-Ann Hallenberg, Leone-Nathan Berg, Zaide-Caroline D’Haese
Alcina: Conductor-Christophe Rousset, Director-Pierre Audi, Set design & costumes-Patrick Kinmonth, Lighting-Matthew Richardson, Alcina-Sandrine Piau, Ruggiero-Maite Beaumont, Bradamante-Angelique Noldus, Morgana-Sabina Puertolas, Oberto-Chloé Briot, Oronte-Daniel Behle, Melisso-Giovanni Furlanetto, Astolfo-Edouard Higuet

Brussels Opera Festival opens in 2016

logo1In times of crisis where one can barely avoid reading news of opera houses being on the brink of a precipice, it is such balsamous news to read of new opera festivals. This one is called Brussels Opera Festival and, according to the webpage (http://bofestival.com) will open in July 2016. The hosting house will be the Royal Park Theatre (facing the Belgian Parlament), which has a history of staging plays, but for a period presented also operettas and opera comiques. The first two production in 2016 will both be Mozart operas, namely Le nozze di Figaro and Zaïde. I can’t wait, and I wish the new festival a prosperous future.

Cecilia Bartoli – St. Pietersburg in Brussels

Bartoli pietersburgBartoli’s fans have the numbers but her detractors are loud. And although I myself adored her in the beginning of her career I was not always fully convinced of her interpretation in later years. Nonetheless I must say I loved the recital given in Brussels. The evening opened with an orchestral piece. And while the pompous ouverture dazzled towards its end the doors fling open and a white dressed Bartoli appears reaching the middle of the stage exactly in the moment the orchestra plays its final chord. It’s this kind of tacky things that Bartoli’s fans seem to love. Similarly, after an aria di furore she storms off the stage and out the door while the orchestra finishes. No big harm though. All her idea’s are a vast artistic and cultural process able to elicit curiosity. This was the case for Sacrificium, for Mission and many others. And it is the same for St Petersburg, an album dedicated to composers who wrote for the Russian court in the 18th century. From a nightly calm with chirping birds, through the mentioned aria di furore and the dramatic Vado a morire, to the duets with the solo instruments and a dueling contest with the trombone, I find her program very balanced with a wide variety of affetti. Bartoli surmounts the difficult coloratura with insouciant ease and interprets every single piece with the depth that characterizes her. Every word, every syllable has a meaning. And that she is still able to pronounce so clearly that I could understand everything even in the 5th row from the back on the second balcony makes her a remarkable artist able to move me with every single piece.

Sure the upper register is not very full and the move to a soprano register made her voice lose some body but the difference with previous years is that she returns to the calmer interpretation that I admired so often. Gone are the hyperactive body movements, gone the exaggerated sighs. What I found was an artist who serves the music with refined interpretation and creativity. Diego Fasolis and his I barocchisti are a perfect match.

Daphne at The Munt/La Monnaie

c1 (2)I tend to avoid the filth of downtown Brussels but during an opera evening one can’t. And being on the square of the Munt is like being in a dump: homeless people roaming through the garbage, broken glass, plastic trash (used bags, wraps, bottles), newspapers, people spitting on the floor, a whiff of urine. The square itself was refurbished less than a year ago in a perfect example of a city’s sterilization. Worst of all is the 70’s office building across the square on what was once a beautiful example of old-Brussels. It must have given, however, the idea of the huge staircase that dominated the scene in Guy Joosten’s interpetation of Daphne. Within this enormous staircase (one set of stairs up to half the height of the stage, the other splitting in two up to the very top) was an equally huge tree, one could only see the immense stem and its branches. it seemed like the over-winning of nature over modern civilization, or, worse, the other way round. Go figure. The setting is Wall-Street-like, with Daphne fighting against a herd of ipod-carrying businessmen. The overall sight was quite impressive but the idea was not reasoned out.  And this is what bothers me with mediocre stage directors: an idea thrown in with very little or no dramatic continuity. And very quickly boredom comes up, interrupted only by several silly ideas (the satyr-looking guests on stilts with a strap-on dildos and Daphne’s mother as a drunk air hostess-lookalike, just to mention two). The singers however deliver a very good performance. Sally Matthews doesn’t charm with the timbre but is a very convincing Daphne. Eric Cutler is a heroic-sounding Apollo, Peter Lodahl and Iain Paterson fittingly interpret Leukippos and Peneios. I also likeed Birgit Remmert’s low notes. Tineke van Ingelgem and Maria Fiselier convincingly deliver their parts of the two maids. Lothar Koenigs’ directorial intentions are admirable but not followed by the orchestra which plays with a limited dynamic range.

Orphée et Eurydice @ De Munt/La Monnaie

De-Munt-Orphée-et-EurydiceDe Munt recently staged Orphée et Eurydice in the version reviewed by Berlioz. The singing was adequate with Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Orphée, although I would have wished more depth. Sabine Devieilhe was a committed Eurydice and Fanny Dupont an acceptable Amour. The main attraction however, was the mise en scene by Romeo Castellucci. One finds oneself in the world of Els, a patient with Locked-in-Syndrome. I suppose Castellucci wanted to draw parallels between Eurydice, who lives in the Underworld, in another world, lives but not completely, as does Els, who feels, smells, and hears everything but is completely immobilized except for her eyes. The journey of Orphée to the Underworld is the journey the spectators take to visit Eurydice/Els in the Underworld/the neurological hospital in Flanders. I came out from the theatre with mixed feeling.
Here is the link to the streaming page, still active until the end of July 2014.

http://www.demunt.be/nl/mymm/related/event/323/media/2075/Orph%C3%A9e%20et%20Eurydice/

Guillaume Tell @ De Munt/La Monnaie

About two performances I did not report. One was the lovely Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, where Kovalevska, Lungu and Calleja all gave their best. Most memorable for me, however, was the enthusiasm of the American public, who carefully followed the text and reacted with laughter and clapping to show their appreciation and enthusiasm. It’s the kind of public we sometimes miss in Europe, where opera is sometimes just an occasion to be seen. Public is also more critic towards, well…almost everything (especially the Italians :-)), rather then just enjoy the performance. Of course this is sometimes due to a more traditional staging in the US than Europe…but here I open a whole new door….
I open a sidebar to praise and recommend the small and cosy Japanese restaurant Minca (536 E 5th St) where I had the best vegetarian Ramen I have ever tasted.

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Another beautiful show was Janacek’s Jenufa at De Munt in Brussels. The director Alvis Hermanis presented Act 1 of the action with the singers at the front of the stage, while at their back the stage was horizontally divided in half with traditional-style dancing at the bottom. On the top, beautiful colorful pictures link the story. Sometimes the screen would lift to show us the chorus, also in beautiful costumes. This is in opposite contrast to Act 2, where Hermanis transports us into a cold, communist-like setting of the 60’s. Although much criticised, this setting worked well for me, it kind of led me towards the drama which was about to unfold. This is not really my musical territory but I liked all the singers, among which i want to single out the Jenufa of Sally Matthews, the Laca of Charles Workman, Nick Spence as Steva and Carole Wilson as Kostelnicka. All together a wonderful experience. Mr Morlot, in an interview he claimed Jenufa is among his top 10 prefereed opera’s, was also more inspired than usual.

IMG-20140305-00322And now to Guillaume Tell. This is the 4th time I hear this opera in the last 11 months. But the music still amazes and moves me. The libretto is in its infancy of Grand Opéra and somehow a bit tedious. So let’s concentrate on the music and the performance at De Munt. Personally I think Evelino Pidò did a great job. He accompanied the singers well, gave them all the time to carve their interpretation, to develop their musical phrases. On rare occasions I would have wished the orchestra would follow Pidò’s gesticulation when he urged the orchestra to play piano (Sombre forêt), but otherwise the orchestra was in good shape with a delicate English horn, a sound brass, and a motivated timpani player, and accompanied well. The chorus was equally inspired and had an excellent diction, although I am always missing a bit of zest in the Italian repertoire in orchestra and chorus (and I consider Rossini as Italian also in his Paris years).
The bass Nicola Alaimo has not a big voice but rendered a very convincing interpretation of Guillaume and a moving Sois immobile. I found Michael Spyres in much better shape than in Wildbad. His diction is excellent and hearing him sing makes look Arnold’s part like a piece of cake. But the tessitura for the heroic Arnold, which Spyres interprets with vigor rather then boldness, lies very high, and Spyres resolves this with a cleverly used mixed voice.  I was less satisfied about Ermonela Jaho’s Mathilde. Nothing REALLY dramatically wrong vocally (although her coloratura in the Act III aria was very smudged), just her interpretation did not convince me. I particularly enjoyed Nora Gubisch’s luscious mezzo, Eerens’ clear soprano, Marco Spotti’s authoritative Walter Furst (in both the approach of the character and voice), the assertive and full-voiced Gesler of Vincent Le Texier and Julien Dran’s secure acuti of the fisherman Ruodi. Jean-Luc Balestra has a very strong and powerful, smooth voice, which, when skillfully used, can be adapted to a wide range of characters and emotions. I was less taken by Roberto Covatta’s Rodolphe.
All in all an evening above average with the Brussels public at its most typical, with no or hardly any applause during the opera (applause at the end of Arnold’s Act IV aria sounded like one applauds von Winter’s chamber music) with the a few “obbligato” bravo-shrieks.

La Boheme, The Metropolitan Opera NY, Conductor-Stefano Ranzani, Production-Franco Zeffirelli, Costumes-Peter J. Hall, Lighting-Gil Wechsler, Mimi-Maija Kovalevska, Musetta-Irina Lungu, Rodolfo-Joseph Calleja, Marcello-Alexy Markov, Schaunard-Joshua Hopkins, Colline-Christian van Horn, Benoit/Alcindoro-Donald Maxwell, Officer-Joseph Turi, Sergeant-Jason Hendrix, Parpignol-Daniel Clark Smith, 18/01/2014
Jenufa, De Munt Brussels, Muzikale Leiding-Ludovic Morlot, Regie en decor-Alvis Hermanis, Kostuums-Anna Watkins, Belichting-Gleb filshtinsky, Video-Ineta Sipunova, Jenufa-Sally Matthews, Laca Klemen-Charles Workman, Steva Buryja-Nick Spence, Kostelnicka Buryjovka-Carole Wilson, Starek-Ivan Ludlow, Rychtar-Alexander Vassiliev, Rychtarka-Mireille Capelle, Karolka-Hendrickje van Kerckhove, Pastuchnyna-Beata Murowska, Jano-Chloé Briot, Barena-Nathalie van de Voorde, Tetka-Maria Beretta, 24/01/2014
Guillaume Tell, De Munt, Music direction-Evelino Pidò, Chorus direction-Martino Faggiani, Guillaume Tell-Nicola Alaimo, Hedwige-Nora Gubisch, Jemmy-Ilse Eerens, Mathilde-Ermonela Jaho, Arnold-Michael Spyres, Melchtal-Jean Teitgen, Gesler-Vincent Le Texier, Walter Furst-Marco Spotti, Ruodi-Julien Dran, Leuthold-Jean-Luc Balestra, Rodolphe-Roberto Covatta, 05/03/2014

Hamlet by Thomas @ De Munt/La Monnaie

P1030054Not a highlight as I had hoped. Marc Minkowski and Olivier Py re-united to repeat the wonderful experience of les Huguenots a few years back..? Hardly. At least not Py’s direction. Large black brick stairs, wide as the whole scene almost, open the opera. Throughout the plot the stairs move in different directions and position to change the stage into the required setting. On paper it all sounds quite clever… was it not for the brick as material, painted black. It’s just too much black, and the painted bricks just give an impression of something old and cheap…as if someone would paints its walls and paint over the sockets. But black was all the monotonous rest as well, and one had the impression of being in a shady cruising area. The chorus was an annoying something one has to put up with, I had the impression, as often it was standing like, well, a chorus, instead of taking part in the action. The rest, not very original, were Py’s all time classics (half-naked men, leather, dog masks….) mixed with some highlights (Hamlet’s “glitterface” dead father).
mmLuckily the musical part was much better. The orchestra of De Munt/La Monnaie, for once, played lusciously and expressively under the baton of Marc Minkowski (how come HE is able to get those sounds out of the orchestra…?). Pacing and style were spot on. MM gets the orchestra to go from vigorous to tender in no time and directs the somewhat uninspired music perfectly.
The singers all did a fair good job. My only reserve goes to Grupposo (replacing a suffering Jennifer Larmore), who seems to loose control in the higher area of her voice, but renders a very motivated queen Gertrude. Lenneke delivers a controlled but touching mad scene and Laertes’ short role is ideally sung by Remy Mathieu. Claudius’ voice was dark enough to interpret the villain and the title role, sung by Stéphane Degout, one of the rising stars of opera, although personally he never really convinces me, sings correctly and he connects with the character, delivering a convincing Hamlet. Smaller roles all sang well.

Muzikale leiding-Marc Minkowski, Regie-Olivier Py, Decors en kostuums-Pierre-André Weitz, Belichting-Bertrand Killy, Claudius-Vincent Le Texier, Le Reine Gertrude-Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Hamlet-Stephane Degout, Polonius-Till Fechner, Ophélie-Lenneke Ruiten, Laerte-Remy Mathieu, Horatio-Henk Neven, Marcellus-Gijs van der Linden, Le spectre du feu Roi-Jerome Varnier

Clemenza di Tito, 2nd round

sleepingI went back to hear the other cast for this Clemenza production.

I was slightly disappointed by Anna Bonitatibus; I remember her as lovely Cherubino in London and Melibea in Genova with an outstanding musicality. But yesterday, after slight intonation problems, she sang monotonously with a limited dynamic range and a trembly voice. Also the coloratura was not very clean and fluid.

Similarly Veronique Gens, who has a very nice middle register but an inaudible lower register and a mushed coloratura, coupled with strained high notes which are pushed from below. If this was not too bad in “Non piu di fiori“, the terzetto “Vengo…aspettate“, was painful in “..io ge-lo o Diiii-o”, not to mention the last quavers of the terzet (“io gelo o dio d’orror”) with ascending and discending movement.

Kurt Streit has a clean pronunciation but he overaccentuates the vowels, which makes him sing in a very graceless and inelegant manner. His last aria in Act II (“Se all’impero”) didn’t convince.

Equally disappointing Ludovic Morlot. Never did the discending motive in semiquavers at the beginning of the ouverture after the opening bars seem so long, and we were only starting… Holding things together lacked a bit in “Quello di Tito é il volto” where each singer went one way, the orchestra not sure where to….

Music direction-Ludovic Morlot, Director-Ivo van Hove, Scenography-Jan Versweyveld, Costumes-An D’Huys, Video-Tal Yarden, Dramaturgy-Janine Brogt and Reinder Pols, Tito Vespasiano-Kurt Streit, Vitellia-Veronique Gens, Servilia-Simona Saturova, Sesto-Anna Bonitatibus, Annio-Anna Grevelius, Publio-Alex Esposito, Orchestra and Chorus of De Munt/La Monnaie, 23 october 2013