The Snow Maiden @ Paris Opera Bastille

Snegurochka was Korsakov’s favourite opera and for its composition he moved to a country house close to Louga to listen to nature’s voices, as he mentioned in his autobiography (“…an abundance of field flowers, continuous chirping of the birds, all this harmonized particularly with my pantheistic state of mind then, and my enthusiasm for the subject of Snegouochka. Some trunks of trees, large and twisted, or covered with moss, appeared to me like spirits of the woods…”). The opera was heard first in Saint Petersburg in 1885 and in 1893 in Moscow.
Korsakov went as far as to write the libretto himself. The story of Snegurochka revolves around Snow Maiden, the daughter of Spring Beauty and Frost, who wants to find love and live with the humans, the nomadic tribe of the Berendays. She finds love in Lel, who rejects her but is wooed by Mizgir, who sees her when he was just about to marry Kupava. The rejected Kupava appeals to the tsar who declares that whoever successfully woes Snow Maiden will be rewarded. At the end Kupava finds love in Lel while Snow Maiden melts under a ray of sun and the Berendays praise the return to the cycles of nature. The libretto is a bit unbalanced, with parts that move very slow and others almost ridiculously fast. The music, I found, never completely takes off with many declamatory passages and slow arias and what struck me most with little variations in tempi, which plunges the whole action in a long dreamlike almost monotonous flow. I guess Tcherniakov was not behind this although adapting the score to his vision is not new to him: In Snegurochka he makes Lel a countertenor instead of a mezzosoprano, he cuts the lively dances and makes Snegurochka declare her final lines to Lel instead of Mizgir making the plot even more confusing. I know I go against mainstream judgement but all in all I found the opera a bit long-winded and less inspired than for eg. The Golden Cockerel, which I recently saw in Brussels.

Tcherniakov sets the prologue in a dance school and all the rest in the forest. The Berendays live in caravans and dress colourfully (a mix of flower power, pagan sect, Russian traditions and camping outfit). The “tsar” is the leader of the pack. Nonetheless Tcherniakov makes them inhabitants of the 21st century (the sneakers, the photo flashes of mobile phones…) maybe to point at the universality of the plot. The sets are beautifully designed, well lit, and the costumes gorgeous. Snegurochka was not only Korsakov’s favourite opera but one Tcherniakov always wanted to do, he claims. Funnily enough I feel the inspiration was not the highest, the masses were not moved with such elegance and power as, say, in Borodin’s Prince Igor. Beautiful was the set change from the school to the forest, and the circling trees.
The orchestra played beautifully under Tatarnikov’s hand, showing off beautiful and sparkling colours. The singers were all very good or even excellent. Aida Garifullina and Martina Serafin have beautiful and strong soprano voices which fill the huge Bastille with ease. Yuriy Mynenko lacks the necessary projection but his voice is never covered as Lel’s orchestration is always delicate. A bit unrefined the baritonal voice of the charisma-lacking lover Thomas Johannes Meyer and the tsar of Maxim Paster. Adequate all others including the robust mezzo of Elena Manistina. Excellent the choir.

Direction musicale-Mikhail Tatarnikov, Mise en scène et decors-Dmitri Tcherniakov, Costumes-Elena Zaitseva, Lumières-Gleb Filshtinsky, Snegourochka-Aida Garifullina, Lel-Yuriy Mynenko, Kupava-Martina Serafin, Le Tzar Berendeï-Maxim Paster, Mizguir-Thomas Johannes Mayer, La Fée Printemps-Ekaterina Semenchuk, Le Bonhomme Hiver-Vladimir Ognovenko, Bermiata-Franz Hawlata, Bobyl Bakula-Vasily Gorshkov, Bobylicka-Carole Wilson, L’Esprit des bois-Vasily Efimov, Premier Héraut-Vincent Morell, Deuxième Héraut-Pierpaolo Palloni, Un Page-Olga Oussova. 22nd April 2017. Pictures Elisa Haberer from the Opera National de Paris.

De Munt/La Monnaie season 2015/2016

MM_Home_EM_VruchtvleesjpgAn excellent 2015/2016 season was recently presented at De Munt/La Monnaie with a balanced choice in styles and good casts. The season starts off with a belcanto gem by Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore, under the direction of Damiano Michieletto, whom I admire much, and conducted by Thomas Rösner, who, if my memory serves me right, I enjoyed hearing in a lively Cosi fan tutte in Winterthur two years ago. The loving couple, Olga Peretyatko and Dmitry Korchak, are belcanto experts and the evening promises, at least on paper, to be a success.After L’elisir d’amore the operahouse will close to undergo renovation works.

Powder her face is an appreciated new entry. Composed in 1995 by Thomas Ades on a libretto by Philip Hensher, it tells the story of the “dirty duchess”  (I refer to the guardians article for details http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/mar/27/thomas-ades-powder-her-face-sex-selfie). Musically it is an individual mix of different styles written for a small orchestra with a large  percussion section.

I am especially happy about the choice of La Vestale by Gaspare Spontini. Although an Italian, he perfectly merged the French declamatory and the Italian style, writing a milestone in French music which soon was extremely successful also outside France. Performed only rarely, Maria Callas was one of the great Giulias.

The Christmas spirit is brought by Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck, which is also a lovely opera. Pity it is given at the Bozar in a semi-staged version.

To be sung was created in 1994 on music by Pascal Dusapin, a composer who will present a world creation in April this year in De Munt/La Monnaie (Penthesilea). I am not fan of Dusapin and I would have preferred any of the cancelled proposals (Some of the pages in the program are grayed out, showing that these operas had to be cut due to the government’s financial change in subsidy policy. These opera’s are Die Dreigroschenoper by Weill, L’incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi and Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold.

A Russian is also present this year, and a rare surprise with that, with Anton Rubinstein’s The demon. One of the last Russian Romantics, Rubinstein was mainly known as pianist and The demon, his only opera, has become a rarity. Such a pity it is a concert version. Another concert version is presented with another Italian, this time a verismo opera (the reason for the concert version is, according to the program, that it “is difficult to present onstage”…): Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Not heard very often in these latitudes. A welcome composition. Pity again, it is in concert form (Why are the Dusapins never in concert form?)

A florian_leopold_gassmannreal jewel is L’opera seria by Florian Leopold Gassmann; After having heard this opera in 1997 in Innsbruck under the direction of Rene Jacobs, I am extremely happy to see it again in Brussels. The plot is a mockery of opera habits in the 18th century, an opera in the opera, where an opera troup is rehearsing an opera seria, with its whimsical singers, it’s egomaniac dancers, its greedy impresari.

An original, and welcome, choice is Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedicte, a far too rarely performed opera: “Je fis…l’opéra-comique Beatrix et Benedict (!). Il fut joué avec un grand succsès et sous ma direction, sur le nouveau théâtre de Bade, le 9 août 1862” writes Berlioz in his autobiography.

Mozart is always welcome, and although Mitridate, re di Ponto was given with Carsen’s direction in 2007, the opera, written by a 14-year old Mozart, will be a treat seen the chosen cast which includes Lenneke Ruiten, Myrtò Papatanasiu and the excellent Michael Spyres and Simona Saturova under the direction of Christophe Rousset.

The umpteenth world creation for the Munt/Monnaie is Frankenstein by Mark Grey. The idea came from La fura dels Baus, who will also take care of the direction, which, personally, is the reason to see the opera.

Picture1However, I can not refrain from some additional comments.

First-Belgium is a small country with 3 opera institutions. From Brussels, opera lovers travel to Gent or Antwerp and Liege. Why they sometimes give the same opera’s within the same season or the same year is a mystery to me. Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni are in the 2014/2015 season at Vlaanders Opera  while both operas were also given in the years 2013/2014 in Brussels. And this year we have L’elisir d’amore, in June in Liege and in September in Brussels.

Another thought I would like to share is about the Cirque Royal, a highly inappropriate venue for operas. The theatre is round and this poses problems on where to put the orchestra. Furthermore the singers sing in any direction, which results in a very peculiar sound. This is partially due to the renovation works and Peter de Caluwe “…takes this opportunity…to play with locations…matching them with the appropriate projects”. I hope he takes this opportunity only during the renovation works.

However, I must congratulate the Munt/Monnaie for an overall marvelous season, varied and with many rarities to look forward to. The absence of the various Joosten, Tcherniakov et similia  is also reassuring. The chief conductor Ludovic Morlot has resigned at the end of December. I am not sure this is such good news. Issues between the conductor the orchestra are a recurring thing and the orchestra could benefit (read: improve) from a stable baton. The concerts are also interesting and varied. These include recitals by Anna Caterina Antonacci, Simon Keenlyside, Matthias Goerne and Christophe Prégardien and concerts such as the Grande Messe de morts by Berlioz,

http://www.lamonnaie.be/en/502/Programme

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