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

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2014

20140812_barb7The Academy of Fine Arts of Urbino, who was assigned to stage this year’s Barbiere di Siviglia did a marvelous job. The students had such a well conceived view of the opera, that one would have to seriously reconsider the big names in opera, certainly if compared to the main attraction of the festival, Armida.  Only few scenic elements are seen on stage, but very cleverly used. The singers are well directed, they move well, on stage and in the stalls, lights are playfully projected on the balconies (for e.g. during the storm scene, light droplets fill the whole opera house in a whirling crescendo which goes hand in hand with the music), mimes added for small background sketches. But numerous are the brilliant and entertaining ideas (the Calunnia was particularly successful), which make this Barbiere a joy to look at. The singers are not only good actors but they are all quite credible in their roles and all sing very well. Although I have my preferences, I would like to praise the group effort especially of Alex Esposito, Chiara Amarù, Florian Sempey and Juan Francisco Gatell, all of which manage the score’s requirements with relative ease. The director is Giacomo Sagripanti who brillantly directs a sparkling Orchestra Comunale di Bologna, cheerfully singling out minor passages in the score. Even without subtitles one was able to understand everything and the public was amused.

rossini-pesaro-armidaThe other opera given in Peasaro this year was Armida, composed for the Neapolitan forces of the San Carlo theatre. Isabella Colbran’s role is intepreted by Carmen Romeu. This Spanish young singer has a very fluid coloratura and a nice and warm middle register. Her lower notes are not as present and the top notes a bit strained and sometimes not in pitch. Given the demanding part of Armida, however, I still think Miss Romeu did a good job. Antonino Siragusa on the other hand was, in my opinion, almost perfect. Rinaldo, who succombs to the love for Armida, is particularly well suited for his solar voice (his duets with Armida are simply beautiful) and the fiendish coloratura is impeccably mastered (e.g. in Unitevi a gara). The second tenor in Armida was Dmitry Korchak who was also very well suited for his role(s), the coloratura and the high notes pulled off convincingly, as was Carlo Lepore as Idraote/Astarotte. Less incisive and vocally not as plausible was Randal Bills as Goffredo/Ubaldo, who in some cases was barely audible above the orchestra. My big disappointment went to both the stage and the music director. Luca Ronconi places two huge mobile panels on stage, filled with hanging Pupi Siciliani. All the men on stage are also equally dressed with the same armour. This was actually quite convincing for revoking the knightly world of the plot. But Armida is a magical opera, where Armida, torn between love and hate, whimsically changes her isle between horrid wilderness (orrida selva) and magical garden (giardino incantanto, ameni colline), flying away, in the last scene, on a carriage pulled by two dragons, “enveloped by globes of fire and smoke“. Nothing of all this. The only difference between the acts is the background, which changes from a grey-ish/brown rippled cloth to a golden wall. The wooden panel with a plastic plant-like object (enchanted garden??) only ads to the horrid. Difficult to get immersed in Tasso’s world with such a distant interpretation. Equally emotionally detached was Carlo Rizzi. Who directed a score with very few means of expression and very little subtleness. The musical pieces sound like a disconnected patchwork, with no caring stitches to hold them together. The chosen tempos are on the swift side, with no rubati and little pertinence to the score. Some of the strettas don’t follow the singers with the result that coloraturas become mushed and unclear. The pleasing ballet in Act II was modern and energetic.

Musica: Aureliano in Palmira, opera riscoperta al RofThird opera in Pesaro is Aureliano in Palmira. When Will Crutchfield directs on stage, his movements are aggressive and stiff. And this is exactly how the orchestra sounds: an emotionless metronome. The American director starts the opera with lethargic tempos that last until almost half the first act. Doesn’t do Rossini, who poured magnificent music into the score, any justice. The orchestra Sinfonica Rossini plays faultily and not always together.
Arsace’s role is two sizes too big for Lena Belkina who completely lacks dramatic weight for the interpretation of the Persian prince. All the notes were there, but when she was alone on stage and Crutchfield was conducting one or two yawns had to be suppressed. Opposite to her is the tenor. Nothing seems too difficult for Michael Spyres who has a homogeneous and strong voice throughout his range. However, although the coloratura was precise, I would wish a better articulation of the embellishments. Jessica Pratt is a delicate Zenobia and overall I think it is the more lyrical passages that suite her most. But even in the more dramatic of strettas and caballettas, the Australian soprano sings with agile vigor. The cast is completed by the very good Raffaella Lupinacci as Publia, Dimitri Pkhaladze, Dempsey Rivera, Sergio Vitale and Raffaele Costantini. Cleverly simple but effective is Mario Martone’s setting, a small labyrinth with movable, semi-transparent cloth panels. Martone is able to convey the tragic love of Zenobia and Arsace, who have to jump cruel hurdles for their love. Costumes are oriental in an convincing mise en scene.

reims2013gJust two words on the Viaggio a Reims, the yearly performance given by students of the Accademia Rossiniana led by Alberto Zedda. As usual one is impressed by the motivation and the enthusiasm of the young voices, especially in an opera as Il viaggio a Reims, which was explicitly composed for the coronation of Charles X for 14 of the greatest singers of the time and withdrawn after only 4 performances. It is also normal to hear the young artists lack vocal experience or stage presence, which is benevolently ignored for the sake of the group effort of singers under stress. But this year several voices hardly reached sufficiency. I would only like to mention Nico Darmanin and Aya Wakizono who I quite liked and were able to master their roles vocally and on stage. Yunpeng Wang had a pleasing voice but couldn’t get quite through the interpretative obstacles of his aria. Shahar Lavì and Isabel Rodriquez Garcia sang well albeit coldly their respective roles (Corinna and Madame de Folleville). (16/8/14)

 

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