Belgium’s 2017/2018 opera season

(This article replaces the original one about the Brussels-only season with the present one about Belgium)

Brussel’s The Monnaie’s 2017-2018 opera season was recently announced. Although, with half of the 12 titles, La Monnaie/De Munt always leans towards modern music (and with modern I roughly mean the music around and after 1900) the choices are more varied than last year. We have a Wagner, of course, (Lohengrin) but at least we are spared Verdi and Puccini. I smile at Peter de Caluwe’s fear of staging Rossini and his overall mistrust in early 1800 music. So Tancredi in concert version, not the most original choice (it would if staged, though) but  always a pleasure to hear. Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci is a nice change considered it was given in Brussels 14 years ago (and Michieletto is always welcome). Lucio Silla is an inheritance from last year’s season, where it was programmed but not staged (as is also the Bartok) due to the delay in the renovations of the main stage. It is a rare but not minor Mozart – musically speaking, because action wise it is very thin (so why not this one in concert version?) – and performed far too rarely. Leonore (Beethoven’s first version of Fidelio) is given as concert version and I would much more appreciate a staged version in exchange of one of the modern opera’s, say Rihm or Boesmans. Conductor-wise I find the choices good, director-wise conventional and singer-wise there are some that are questionable but I am happy to be persuaded. An enjoyable rarity will be Dvorak’s Requiem while ballet wise I keep regretting the total absence of classical ballet. Let me finish with something that bothers me every year: is it not strange that there is not a single subscription that allows to see all opera’s?

 

Nicer surprises come from the two other opera houses in Belgium, the Opera de Liège and the Vlaamse Opera. I find the choices quite balanced with some very appealing surprises. In Liege we get the touching Donna del lago by Michieletto and the rarity Le domino noir by Auber. La favorite by Donizetti also contains lovely music and is rarely performed. Singer-wise the program is also very appealing although I remember Liege announcing a star only by replacing it last minute by someone less captivating (and not once). In Gent we get the extremely rare Das Wunder der Heliane, Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe next to a Clemenza di Tito and of course Verdi and Wagner (Falstaff and Parsifal). The Flemish Opera “continues its fascinating exploration of Russian opera” with The Gambler by Prokofiev. I am waiting impatiently for Dargomyzhsky, Cavos, Glinka, and Verstovsky….

Already available also the program of the Midsummer Mozartiade, which this year presents Don Giovanni at the Theatre de Martyrs.

The Bozar season also contains some vocal evenings.

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A new view on Die Zauberflöte @ Gent

34A0339How many Zauberflöte can one watch without start to be bored? I mean…the  priggish Sarastro is unbearable, the writing of the libretto awful with much racism and sexism, the horrible duet for the two priests etc etc etc etc… So well done David Hermann in giving the story a completely new interpretation. This was not without a proper tweak at the libretto, but OK….the horrible duet of the priests stayed horrible, but it was the first Zauberflöte (after my first and the Kosky one), where I did not leave somewhere before said duet.

diezauberflote-03-mg-4839-cannemieaugustijns-webExcept for the opening scene, which looks a bit post-apocalyptic and where the three ladies are constantly in contact with each other, moving like a menacing blob, the sets bring us to what looks like rural America, a small house in the prairie (I guess where people are held hostage and tortured). Sarastro is the ruthless, misogynistic leader who is into taxidermy, abusive of Pamina, and heartlessly kills the Queen and the ladies at the end. Papagena is a handicapped hostage in wheelchair and Papageno is an ape-like creature that crutches when frightened and hisses like a cat when he is scared. He brings hunted birds to the three ladies at the beginning. The ladies don’t offer a flute and glockenspiel to Tamino and Papageno, but a revolver and gas bombs, the latter of which Papageno uses to knock out Monostatos. The opera ends with Sarastro smoking a cigar on his patio (after killing the Queen and the ladies); Pamina and Tamino come back and shoot him dead, presumably ending the cycle of horror. It’s one of these staging which reading would have made me think it’s a bad Regietheater. Regietheater it is, but a refreshing interpretation well thought through. The sets are beautifully designed, alternate at almost every scene and the changes are swift.

34A0571The orchestra gave a beautiful performance, playing clear and transparently with Jan Schweiger at its head, who made me fear the worst with the too solemnly played opening bars, but who excellently conducted with vibrant dynamism. Tarver has a hard time to find delicacy in the higher notes, Miss Sabirova was not completely fluid with a barely touched f in O zittre nicht, Josef Wagner also a bit hefty as Papageno, but overall the cast was very good. Lore Binon interpreted a beautifully sung, pure and clear-voiced Pamina. I’d love to hear more of her. Sarastro doesn’t seem to have secrets for Ante Jerkunica, who displays an attractive and warm timbre, especially in the deepest register, the best Sarastro I’ve ever heard.

Muzikale leiding-Jan Schweiger, Regie-David Hermann, Décor, Kostuums-Christof Hetzer, Belichting-Bernd Purkrabek, Dramaturgie-Luc Joosten, Sarastro-Ante Jerkunica, Koningin van de nacht-Hulkar Sabirova, Tamino-Kenneth Tarver, Pamina-Lore Binon, Papageno-Josef Wagner, Papagena-Morgane Heyse, Monostatos-Michael J. Scott, Erste Dame-Hanne Roos, Zweite Dame-Tineke Van Ingelgem, Dritte Dame-Raehann Bryce-Davis, Sprecher-Evgeny Solodovnikov, Priester/Geharnischter-Evgeny Solodovnikov, Priester/Geharnischter –Stephan Adriaens, Knaben-Katrijn Van Cauwenberghe, Merel De Coorde, Giulia Schoofs

Idomeneo @ The Flemish Opera

34A4055I don’t feel this Idomeneo had any particular faults so maybe I just was in a particularly scrupulous mood. I found Roberto Saccà throaty, Renata Pokupic gasping for air every couple of seconds with not even a hint  of a legato, Serena Farmocchia missing the vocal gravity for Elettra, and the direction at times a bit silly. Furthermore the opera had quite lengthy recitatives and I couldn’t understand almost anything. Singers without a proper pronunciation are, in my eyes, not complete, even the phrasing comes across a very approximate when words are not taken care of. On the other hand I appreciated the direction’s narrative clarity, the diction of Roberto Saccà (the only one),  Ana Quintans sweet timbre and beautiful singing. I also enjoyed the swift and crisp sound of the orchestra, prepared by Paul McCreesh and on this evening directed by Benjamin Bayl. Everything considered a good performance though not fully convincing.

Muzikale leiding-Benjamin Bayl, Regie-David Bösch, Decors-Patrick Banneart, Falko Herold, Kostuums-Falko Herold, Belichting-Michael Bauer, Idomeneo-Roberto Saccá, Idamante-Renata Pokupic, Ilia-Ana Quintans, Elettra-Serena Farnocchia, Arbace-Anton Rositskiy, Gran sacerdote-Adam Smith, La voce di nettuno-Leonard Bernard

Rossini’s Armida @ Gent

ARMIDA_23_MG_0079_smallInteresting how Rossini and his librettist Giovanni Schmidt treated the subject. In Schmidt’s vision, Armida and Rinaldo already know and love each other. With this expedient Rossini is able to put the focus quite fast on the great love duet in the first act. At the same time, composer and poet are Romantics ante litteram with all the rekindling of a flame, the return of love, suffered sacrifices etc. On top of that Rossini, as he managed to do only in Naples, experimented with musical forms and Armida is one of the complexer operas of the Neapolitan period. Armida was different from current works, shown by the quartet “Sfortunata, or che mi resta,” where music adapts admirably to the situation and change of affections and is almost as elaborate as a closing of an Act; or the first act so full of events to almost predict the grand opera; a second and third act dramaturgically quite calm, but full of magic predicting the magical works of Spohr, Weber etc… The second and third acts are, after an eventful first, almost without action, beginning a more introspective work in the characters, which culminates in the final scene of a bitter and angry Armida. The importance given by Rossini to Armida (his future wife Isabelle Colbran) and the opportunites given to the character were spotted by Maria Callas, who sang Armida in 1952, in a period where Rossini known to the public was confined mainly to Guillaume Tell and The Barber of Seville.

The conductor of the Gent production was Aberto Zedda, a Rossini specialist, a key figure in the rediscovery of Rossini for the last decades. However, he is more of a theoretical specialist than a good conductor. His beat lacked vibrance, had no rubati and was metronomic.

UntitledBetter were the singers. Carmen Romeu sang Armida in Pesaro last year. Criticized at the time by many, I found her quite excellent, although driven by a director unable to give enough space to deploy her capabilities. In Gent I was surprised to hear some intonation problems. But I still find her a great Armida, remarkable in the coloratura, a great stage presence, a smooth and balanced voice from the lowest to the highest register. Enea Scala is a young tenor who is impatient to sing the the most difficult tenor roles. He has a nice tibre, the voice is flexible and bright. He certainly has the physique du role which helps and overall sings the difficult role of Rinaldo very convincingly. Robert McPherson sings well enough but his timbre in the higher part of his voice is dry and his approach to the role is a bit too delicate, almost Mozartian. I am not sure who wrote the variations, but they certainly brought out the shrillest, and most strident part of each singer. This was almost unbearable in the final cadenza of McPherson’s act I aria, where his voice was on the verge of breaking any second. Victims of unrefined variations were also Romeu and Scala in the finale of act I, trudging along flights of notes, composed regardless of their vocal capabilities. Dario Schmunck was overall acceptable as Goffredo/Carlo while Leonard Bernard and Adam Smith were vocally unpersuasive.

ARMIDAZedda was not very convincing, but Clement’s direction was an outrageous mass of inconsistent ideas which stripped the opera of its dramatic force, a heap of platitudes of the lowest class, and one cringing banality after the other, leaving the opera without any expressiveness.

 

Musical director-Alberto Zedda, Staging-Mariame Clément, Set-Julia Hansen, Costumes-Julia Hansen, Lighting-Bernd Purkrabek, Armida-Carmen Romeu, Rinaldo-Enea Scala, Gernando/Ubaldo-Robert McPherson, Goffredo/Carlo-Dario Schmunck, Idraote/Astarotte-Leonard Bernad, Eustazio-Adam Smith

Tannhäuser @ The Flemish Opera

55fe59aa2160bFor years I tried to listen to Wagner. But it’s just not my thing. And the 3-4 times I went to see it life (Tristan, Götterdämmerung, Holländer and one more I think, and only because it was part of my subscription) it turned out to be an expensive nap and a repetition of steps which followed the same sad pattern: 1-Enthusiastically think about an evening at the opera, 2-Listen carefully forcing myself to scratch together a bit of curiosity, 3-Feel the tiredness come up after 5-10 minutes, 4-being woken by thunderous applause and leaving the opera at the first interval. Big was my surprise when I assisted at Tannhäuser at the Flemish Opera in Ghent a few days ago. The ouverture is melodious, there are arias, duets, ensembles, instead of endless non-stop music, and not too bad ones at that. Of course for somebody who hungers for belcanto, everything seemed different, main thing being that singers seem to scream. But at least this opera made me want to stay another act rather than running off like a scalded cat.

Tannhauser

Tannhauser

I am really not the right person to talk about Wagnerian voices. But Tannhäuser sounds like a murderous role, a huge range. And I admired Andreas Schager who was up to task. Liene Kinca as Elisabeth had a beautiful timbre and never forced her voice. It rather sounded as if Venus (Ausrine Stundyte) and Walther von der Vogelweide (Adam Smith) had slight difficulties when notes rose too high. But I liked Daniel Schmutzhard and Ante Jerkunica in their respective roles as Wolfram von Eschenbach and Hermann. Calixto Bieto kept the things in black and white, tree tops hanging from the ceiling on black background in the first act, clean and minimal white lines in the second act. I don’t go into the interpretation as already reading the libretto awakened a mix of hilarity and ridiculousness. But the orchestra and chorus played and sang well.

Muzikale leiding-Dmitri Jurowski, Regie-Calixto Bieito, Décor-Rebecca Ringst, Kostuums-Ingo Krügler, Belichting-Michael Bauer, Dramaturgie-Bettina Auer, Koorleiding-Jan Schweiger, Hermann-Ante Jerkunica, Tannhäuser-Andreas Schager, Elisabeth-Liene Kinča, Venus-Ausrine Stundyte, Wolfram von Eschenbach-Daniel Schmutzhard, Walther von der Vogelweide-Adam Smith, Biterolf-Leonard Bernad, Heinrich der Schreiber-Stephan Adriaens, Reinmar von Zweter-Patrick Cromheeke

La Juive @ the Opera of Flanders

IMG_2105[1]The Opera van Vlaanderen staged La Juive by Fromental Haléy. This grand opera follows the fortune of other grand opera such as Guillaume Tell and Les Huguenots. One enters with mixed feeling into the opera house seeing heavily armed police at the entrance doors. In 1830 Europe other countries were equally careful, albeit for different reasons, such as Italy, where staging a cardinal was unthinkable. It is therefore surprising, how easy it was, at the first staging of the opera (and how marginally the local press touched the socio-political topic in a Paris, which went through all the horrors of religious wars and suppression), how easy it was, I was saying, to stage not only a whole council, but a plot which involves conflicting religions (present day problems then and now), horrible death sentences, and religious intolerance (from both sides).

At the first staging of the opera 23 February 1835 the setting was so magnificent, so spectacular, so outstanding that one could barely hear the music. Berlioz was present during that performance and wrote in his distinctive irony: “Malgré les efforts qu’on a faits pour empêcher d’entendre la partition, malgré le cliquetis de de toutes ces armures, ce piétinement de chevaux, ce tumulte populaire, ces volées de chloches et de canons, ces danses, ces tables chargés, ces fontaines de vin, malgré tout ce fracas anti-musical de l’Academie Royal de Musique, on a pu saisir quelques-une des inspirations du compositeur”, which, roughly translated reads as: “Despite the efforts that were made to prevent hearing the score , despite the rattling of armours, the trampling of horses, the crowd’s tumult, the sound of bells and cannons , the dances , the loaded tables, the fountains of wine , despite all anti-musical racket of the Royal Academy of Music , one could grasp just a few of the composer’s inspirations.”

IMG_2108[1]We certainly didn’t have this problem with the staging of the Opera van Vlaanderen. The scene is almost empty with just a few stairs in the first act, a table in the second act (to celebrate Jewish Passover) and a bed in the third. The choreography of the singers is conventionally silly: for eg while the chorus sings from the stalls at the end of act 1, the soloists just “act desperately” on a totally empty stage. Eudoxie is a hyperactive, alcoholic woman whom (in her first entry when she visits Eleazar to buy the “joyau magnifique”) we see waiving a bottle of champagne in one hand and a gun in the other. In the anathema of act three, cardinal Brogni tears the bed apart and throws the pillows to the Christians around them…. At the anathema!… A Cardinal!!… Throwing pillows!!!… One feels almost like praising the idea of the coloured hands: Christians have blue hands, Jews have yellow hands, sometimes they hide their hands in the pockets in order to hide their faith and the symbol is used throughout the opera, also in prison when Eudoxie comes to beg for Leopold’s life. Eudoxie and Rachel wash the colour off their hands and sing the stretta with “clean” hands to show that finally love and friendship are more important regardless which god you pray to. Not too bad as symbol, maybe a bit infantile, but bon…I’ve seen worse.  But then the director messes up everything by making the two women whirl in circles, laughing like girls and roll on the stage like on a blooming meadow. While Leopold is being sentenced to death!… Circling like girls!!… Laughing!!! But these are just examples of an overall very disappointing and superficial interpretation. One word on the lights: it’s hard to enjoy the evening if one is constantly forced to move from the plot of the opera to the real world. Since the action often moves to the stalls, these were regularly lit with bright light. How disillusioning is it to see people pulling down their skirts suddenly realizing they are observed, to see people yawning, leaning into bored positions. Then again on stage at the end of act 4 some of the main singers were so badly lit, one could hardly see who was singing. And then some of the light just went off similarly when pushing a light switch at home.

IMG_2112[1]Musically things went better. Roberto Saccà is a credible Eleazar, still able to move with his interpretation and he manages the range with ease and interprets the declamation passages well. Jean-Pierre Furlan had a less appealing timbre and a slightly stretched high voice but his interpretation was very moving.

Asmik Grigorian as Rachel has a lovely voice especially in the middle register. Sometimes her top notes sound stretched also, especially in the finale of act one and the musically marvelous duet with Léopold in Act II. Overall the singing was convincing in a murderous role which was created by nobody less than Cornélie Falcon (the first Valentine in Les Huguenots, just to name one). Gal James’ had a more cautious approach which made her low notes less vibrant and rich, but both rendered a touching Rachel.

I was personally put off by Nicole Chevalier’s Eudoxie due to the hyperactivity of the acting but she sang indeed very well with good top notes, agile passages and a rich middle register. As did Elena Gorchunova, with a more balanced interpretation. The big problem in this production was the Léopold part. While Randal Bills’ Leopold sounded muffled, Robert McPherson ‘s voice was unbearably throaty. Both of them are cast in Rossini ‘s Armida next season which, allow me, is inconceavable. Dmitry Ulyanov’s Brogni reached all the extremely low notes although his interpretation lacked in showing the ambivalent nature of the cardinal (which might be attributable to the director also), Toby Girling was an acceptable Ruggiero. The chorus sang the very impervious score extremely well.Tomas Netopil directed with much verve and motivation this far too rarely performed music. Verve which which was less obvious with Yannis Pouspourikas

Conductor-Tomas, Netopil (2/5), Yannis Pouspourikas (21/4, 2/5), Direction-Peter Konwitschny, setting-Johannes Leiacker, costumes-Johannes Leiacker, lights-Manfred Voss, Dramaturgy-Bettina Bartz, Luc Joosten, Rachel-Asmik Grigorian (21/4, 2/5) Gal James (6/5), Le Juif Éléazar-Roberto Saccà (21/4, 2/5) Jean-Pierre Furlan (6/5)Le Cardinal de Brogni-Dmitry Ulyanov, Léopold-Randall Bills (21/4, 2/5) Robert McPherson (6/5), La Princesse Eudoxie-Nicole Chevalier (21/4, 2/5) Elena Gurshova (6/5), Ruggiero-Toby Girling, Majordome-Thierry Vallier

Don Giovanni (Brussels), Lucia di Lammermoor (Verona), Così fan tutte (Ghent)

don n giovanni1The Don Giovanni in Brussels under the direction of Warlikowski was awful. I recommend  this director to read the libretto the next time. Da Ponte’s libretto offers a multitude of double meaninsg. No need to descends into pornography just for the sake of it. Musically things were not exciting either with a very disappointing Barbara Hannigan as Donna Anna. As much as she is acclaimed in modern music, she didn’t convince me at all in the classical style. I couldn’t find full enjoyment in any of the other singers (Don Giovanni-Jean-Sebastien Bou, Il commendatore-Sir Willard White, Don Ottavio-Topi Lehtipuu, Donna Elvira-Rinat Shaham, Leporello-Andreas Wolf, Masetto-Jean-Luc Balestra, Zerlina-Julie Mathevet) Don Giovanni never seemed such a drag…..

 

I rather preferred the Lucia di Lammermoor in Verona, which, with its thrifty set, gave a more complete and satisfying reading than the Mozart opera. Musically wonderful with a (to me) unknown Maria Grazia Schiavo who sang with a full deep  and a good upper register. The slightly unpitched top notes from the first two musical pieces didn’t affect the overall thrilling performance. An equally wonderful Piero Pretti as Edgardo and a very good Marco di Felice as Enrico made this a lovely afternoon. The cast was completed by Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as Arturo, Sim Insung as Raimondo, Elisa Balbo as Alisa and Francesco Pittari as Normanno.

 

cosi1A quite boring night in Gent with Cosi fan tutte followed in January. Musically not very convincing. A very good Dorabella and Guglielmo (Maria Kataeva and Riccardo Novaro), an acceptable Fiordiligi and Despina (Christina Pasaroiu Aylin Sezer) an inadequate Don Alfonso and Ferrando (Umberto Chiummo and Sebastien Droy) and a drab conductor (Jan Schweiger) make this evening rather easy to forget. Was it not for the director… Guy Joosten spoiled yet another Mozart opera. I am totally in the dark when it comes to understand what this amateur is trying to tell us in Mozart (or in any opera for that matter). The scenes are filled with slapstick and inconsistent ideas that could be used (and be equally out of place) in any other opera. Joosten hits the bottom when he made Despina awaken the two lovers by hitting them with the Mesmer stone in the groin. No idea what to do with the singers either when they don’t sing except letting them sit or stand still. The set is lovely (the bar/reception of a hotel) though not consistent (“in casa mia” sings Fiordiligi, which is not translated into subtitles. Are they the hotel owners?)

 

An 5-star Otello (Rossini) @ Flemish Opera/Vlaamse Opera in Ghent

What the major opera house in Belgium doesn’t dare to play, is bravely tackled by the two other two opera houses, the Opéra Liege and the Flemish Opera with its two houses in Antwerp and Gent. So while the money is ehm….spent in Brussels with the more conventional Italians with alternating success, Gent and Liege offer the possibility to broaden ones musical horizon with Rossini serio, rare Donizetti, Bellini etc. (Sidebar: in Brussels I saw the stupidest Trovatore by Tcherniakov…where the main characters tell each other the events which happened years earlier……Do me the favour, Mr de Caluwe!!! I suggest you use the same setting for all your future opera’s……… what better idea than having all characters telling each other the plot? with a setting that you can recycle for Tosca, Hoffmann, Norma, Carmen, Tristan, Zauberflöte……..)

otello2Rossini’s Otello presented in Gent is the one Leiser and Caurier created for the Opernhaus in Zürich and staged with Osborn, Camarena and Bartoli. This setting is quite good in mixing dramatic with more lyrical moments, and the portrayals of the different characters is well balanced also, from Desdemona’s disobedience and independence to Otello’s lost trust and desperation. I particularly like act 2, (where we see the moor Otello, who, although a respected military man, still does not deserve more than to hang out in a shady bar, fighting with racial prejudices) or the willow song, where Desdemona thinks of happier times listening to the harp intro from an old record player.

Musically the performance is way above average from what one would expect from a provincial theatre. And although the orchestra starts the overture awfully (with the violin accompanying the oboe solo playing the descending motives as eights instead of triplets of sixteenths ) the overall rendition is correct and the orchestra accompanies with precision a difficult but colourful score (Rossini had to shorten the horn solo to Desdemomas’s entrance at its Neapolitan premiere as even the horn player of the San Carlo deemed it too difficult). The orchestra, prepared by Alberto Zedda, is led through the sublime music by Ryuichiro Sonoda.

otello1Also the voices offer great pleasure. Otello is the marvelous Gregory Kunde. And although not equally smooth and mellow in all registers (at 60!), he renders the moor wonderfully expressive as a man driven by determined desperation. Kunde sang the same role in a concert version in Brussels in 2012. But in Brussels the approach to the character was distant, cold and unemotional, even with a Desdemona like Anna Caterina Antonacci (equally distant). In Ghent I was bolted to my chair. From the entrance Kunde was magnetic in his interpretation, in the ringing top notes and in the touching rendering of the wretched husband (yes, in Rossini’s Otello they are already married!)
The tender Rodrigo is interpreted by Maxim Mironov with a precise and flexible voice. “Che ascolto” is very touching and sung with clear diction. Desdemona is Carmen Romeu whom I never heard before. But i was positively impressed. Romeu mastered the monster role with panache and expression, her voice has an interesting timbre and the coloratura is precise. All other roles are adequately cast with a tender and full-body voiced Emilia (Raffaella Lupinacci), Josef Wagner as Elmiro, Robert McPherson as Iago, the gondolier by Stephan Adriaens and the doge by Maarten Heirman, all contributed to a close to perfection performance. I can only hope for more Rossini, especially the opere serie, into which Rossini poured his most inspired music.

Musical direction-Ryuichiro Sonoda, Director-Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, Set design-Christian Fenouillat, Costumes-Agostino Cavalca, Lighting-Christophe Forey, Otello-Gregory Kunde, Desdemona-Carmen Romeu, Elmiro-Josef Wagner, Rodrigo-Maxim Mironov, Iago-Robert McPherson, Emilia-Raffaella Lupinacci, il doge-Maarten Heirman, un gondoliere-Stephan Adriaens, Gent, 7-3-2014