Verdi’s Aida and Telemann’s Orpheus @ Brussels

Aida…one of those mysteries….everybody knows the title. But it’s not that there were less or more empty seats than when rarities of Cherubini, Berlioz or Gassmann were played at De Munt/La Monnaie….still, it was choosen to stage a famous title such as Aida (where the libretto never takes off, the action is succinct and stripped to a minimum and for which the music is quite long) without having the necessary forces to do so: If one does not have a perfect match of conductor, director and singers, the opera starts to bore at very early stage. In this production the setting is not without interest. Greek actor/director Stathis Livathinos puts a huge rock on stage which changes colour and becomes translucent with different types of lighting and which is used to sing and act on and around. Except for a cement square just above said rock the scene is completely empty but Livathinos’ setting is suggestive and evocative in using balanced colours, lighting and movements. Dancers are present on scene but they barely move. Although the director used some interesting ideas the setting did not conceal the shortcomings of the overall poor musical interpretation (at least of the cast I heard on that particular day). The voices displayed various opprobrium’s that ranged from wide vibrato singing, screams, poorly projected voices, sinking notes, no legato, … and if this was not enough, when the final chords of a piece ended, or when there were large passages of pianissimo (such as in Immenso Fthà) one was immersed in rumble of noises from outside like screaming children, chirping birds, quacking ducks, roaring airplanes and the like. Altinoglu, who I usually appreciate, was not able to get the imprecise orchestra inspired. The heat (27°C) did the rest so I left at the interval.

Refreshing therefore, to see an non-professional performance of an opera at Bozar. It is always a pleasure to hear singers of an opera academy. It has the benefit, except for the singers to get exposure, for the public to hear forgotten rarities, for which the main opera house is too cautious, and, I feel, too dismissive of the music. But Telemann’s music is varied, colourful, descriptive, heterogeneous, and although the main text is German, he adds arias in French and Italian language and style, which he perfectly assimilated, and merged with great taste.

Although the title of the ancient legend, Orpheus, refers to the unfortunate lovers, Telemann’s plot really evolves around queen Orasia, who provokes Euridice’s death, makes the Bacchantes kill Orpheus when repudiated and guild-ridden kills herself. The thing with fresh voices is that although there is already a great degree of professionalism, inexperience or nerves might explain an over-cautious approach, a little lack of colours, sometimes a weak projection or unfocused low or high notes etc. Nonetheless I feel some of the voices have amazing potential and I much enjoyed the beautiful timbre of Julie Gebhart and Sylvie Bedouelle, the emotional variety of Morgane Heyse and the vocal range of Louise Kuyvenhoven. All showed an acceptable coloratura although the German pronunciation could be improved during the sung pieces. Arthur Rozek was most appreciated in the more delicate passages. The setting was simple but effective. Only shame that Guy Joosten every now and again falls into the traps of most modern directors: platitudes, orgies, singing in underwear etc etc. and funny that the confidant is usually unkind (Ismene to Orasia, Alisa in Lucia, etc….). Musically, although not vibrant or energetic, Korneel Bernolet keeps it light, conducts with the right tempi, attention to fluidity and supports the singers well.

Aida: Direction Musicalea-Alain Altinoglu , Mise En Scène-Stathis Livathinos, Décors-Alexander Polzin, Costumes-Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, Éclairages-Alekos Anastasiou, Chorégraphie-Otto Pichler, Chef Des Chœurs-Martino Faggiani, Aida-Monica Zanettin, Radamès-Gaston Rivero, Amneris-Ksenia Dudnikova, Amonasro-Giovanni Meoni, Ramfis-Mika Kares, Il Re-Enrico Iori, Una Sacerdotessa-Tamara Banjesevic, Un Messaggero-Julian Hubbard, 17/5/17, Picture from the Facebook page of DeMunt/LaMonnaie

Orpheus: Dirigent-Korneel Bernolet, Regie-Guy Joosten, Decor, kostuums en licht-Roel Van Berckelaer, Orasia-Morgane Heyse, Orpheus-Artur Rozek, Eurydice-Julie Gebhart, Eurimides-Sylvie Bedouelle, Ismene-Louise Kuyvenhoven, Pluto-Dominic Kraemer, Cephisa-Ana Sofia Ventura,  Ascalax-Boris Kondov, 16/5/17

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Berlioz – Requiem @ Bozar

MI0001454913“Following my usual suspicion, I stayed behind Habeneck and, turning my back towards him, I watched the group of timpanists, which he could not see, the moment approaching when they would all take part in the piece. There are perhaps a thousand bars in my Requiem. But precisely during the one I just mentioned, the one where the movement expands, the one in which the brass instruments launch their terrible fanfare, on the main bar in which the action of the conductor is absolutely essential, Habeneck lowers his conducting stick, quietly takes his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I always had an eye on him; at that moment I quickly turn around, rush in front of him, I extend my arm and I mark the four main tempi of the new movement. The orchestras follow me, everything is in order, I conduct the piece to the end, with the effect that I had hoped for. When, with the last words of the choir, Habeneck sees the Tuba mirum rescued “What a cold blood’ he said, “without you we would have been lost!” – Yes, I know, I replied, staring at him. I did not add a word … Did he do it on purpose? … Is it possible that this man, in agreement with Mr. XX., who hated me, and friends of Cherubini, would dare to meditate and attempt to commit such a low villainy? … I do not dare to think … But I do not doubt it. God forgive me if I insult him”

This was the account that Berlioz gave in his Memoires when his Requiem was first performed. …”terrible fanfare” he mentions…. but there was no such thing in the Bozar. Especially in the tuba mirum I expect the heaven to open, the earth to part, the blinds to see, the toupets to fly and the elderly to hear. No such thing. In fact had I not read the score, I would not have known that there are 4 extra brass bands, as I did not properly hear them. I barely did in fact and only because they were slightly out of sync. Maybe the orchestral forces should have followed Berlioz’ advise: On top of the 400 musicians that are required “if space permits one can double or triple the vocal mass and increase the orchestral mass proportionally”. Of the 400 required I counted around 200 which one can argue whether they were able to give the requested effect.

But except for the fact that the Requiem was a bit too well-behaved, everybody involved was excellent. The chorus powerful, the orchestra adequate. The tenor Steve Davislim had audible difficulties with the extreme top notes but he has the benefit of replacing his colleague last minute. The music was sublime. It is always a joy to hear such wonderful pieces as the Rex tremendae, the Lacrimosa and the Dies irae and I am pleased that the La Monnaie/De munt put this work on the program.

Music direction-Alain Altinoglu, Chorus direction-Martino Faggiani, Tenor-Steve Davislim, Orchestra-De Munt Symphony Orchestra, Chorus-De Munt, De Munt Academy, Vlaams Radio Koor