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

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The 2014/2015 season of De Munt/La Monnaie

The-Homer-Scream-by-meowzaAh, for crying out loud!! The new season of De Munt/La monnaie 2014/2015 is out….. Are they serious???? How does he manage, Peter de Caluwe, to mess up a whole season? I mean… there are always one or two, maybe three things one doesn’t really like in a whole opera season.
1) But although there are a few interesting things, novelties, like Fierrabras and Paisiello’s Barbiere, they are in concert-version. GREAT!!
2) Two World premieres: (Shell Shock and Penthesilea). TWO??Really?? REALLY??? (Shell shock is also listed in the Dance section….so….is it both…Two for the price of one??)
3) Daphne is interesting also, a rarely played opera (which, coincidentally I just saw in Frankfurt), but it is directed by Guy Joosten, who fucked up Lucrezia Borgia with so much trash I wished THAT one was in concert version. Equally bad were Lucia in Brussels a Barbiere in Ghent and a Freischütz in Liege. IMHO
4) Two more 20th century opera’s (Frank Martin and Rachmaninov) out of 9 (not counting the concert versions) result in almost 50%. You GOTTA be kidding me!
5) What is left are two Haendel. Not one Haendel and one Vivaldi slash Monteverdi slash Lully slash Rameau slash Treatta No, no…TWO Haendel and
6) A Don Giovanni, which, if directed by Morlot with equal passion as Cosi and Clemenza, I will leave before the first interval. Door slamming!!
7) Remains a Verdi (Ballo in maschera) directed by Rizzi and Fura dels Baus, which might be quite interesting. But take a good soprano, the mezzo, a fine tenor and the base and they could have mounted Roberto Devereux with the same director. I mean, how many times in a row will we be hearing Verdi in an opera season?
Sorry Mr De Caluwe, with a program like this I will not be renewing my subscription. I will come and see them, sure. But with the least costly places…in case (….) I wanna leave at the interval.

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

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

Una porcheria tedesca (or La Clemenza di Tito) by W. A. Mozart @ De Munt/La Monnaie

incendio-roma-64-031791 is an important year in Mozart’s life. It’s the year where he composes Die Zauberflöte, the Requiem, the clarinet concerto, his last piano concerto (nr 27) and it is also the year of his death. The clarinet concerto was written for Anton Stadler, a clarinet virtuoso who also played the obbligato clarinet parts in La clemenza di Tito (there are two of them in this opera, one for Sesto’s aria “Parto, parto…” and one for Vitellia’s rondo “Non piu di fiori”).

Prague, 6 September 1791, just a few hours after the coronation of the emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia: La clemenza di Tito, opera composed by W. A. Mozart for the coronation festivities has its premiere at the Estates Theatre in Prague (the same theatre as Don Giovanni, 4 years earlier). The public gave it a cool reception, the emperor loved it (or the soprano, more likely), his royal wife belittles it as Una porcheria tedesca (“German crap” or “swinishness”).  As does the court diarist (….: “At 5 o’clock to the theatre in the Old Town, to the opera which is given by the Estates [the government of Bohemia] […] The court did not arrive until after 7:30 and we were regaled with the most tedious spectacle, La clemenza di Tito). This was the start of a criticism hard to die.

titoThough it had some decent success in the following years, la Clemenza was always regarded as an “old fashioned”, “cold” opera, a piece of “stale routine”. This was probably due to Metastasio’s libretto, a didactic plot in which betrayal, treachery, and political machination end with the example of the ruler who forgives everybody and rules with wisdom and humanity.  Partly maybe to the two already mentioned “Non piu di fiori” and “Parto, parto“, which were regarded as mere concert pieces and therefore emotionally detached from the singers’ characters. Undoubtedly it is different to the opera’s composed by Mozart in the previous years. A nostalgic look back to the opera seria? Maybe, but the mastery with which Mozart crafts the single pieces has an astonishing dramatic approach and, as Mozart’s first biographer Niemetschek already saw…”a sense of characterization and delicate taste”. (Just listen to the Terzetto “Vengo…aspettate….”, the following quintet which closes the first act, and Sesto and Vitellia’s aria’s). This was in part also thanks to Caterino Mazzolà, who took the libretto written by Metastasio, shortened it from three to two acts, added ensembles instead of only aria’s and worked with Mozart to add a theatrical grip and emotional complexity more adequate to the time. In our time, one recognizes and appreciates Mozart’s style in almost all pieces. How not appreciate the short (less than a minute) duettino between Sesto and Annio,  the delicate and moving S’altro che lacrime, and the monstruous “Non piu di fiori“, who demands a quick coloratura, lyrical singing and an enourmous range (low G to high D). In this example Della Jones does an excellent job.

Ensemble-wise the quintet who closes Act I is a masterpiece. It depicts a fire on the Capitoline Hill. The characters enter one by one and take up the same melodial phrase as they arrive, in different keys, both major and minor. Between these fall the cries of the chorus, who is off stage. The orchestral mass breaks in, leads to various key changes to a brilliantly conceived Andante, almost a funeral march (after all Tito is believed to be stabbed to death), which closes act I in piano.

The singers are pretty good altogether. Although Alexandrina Pendatchanska (or Alex Penda as she likes to be called today) has a tight vibrato and a somewhat metallic edge  which makes her pronunciation difficult to understand, she acts very well and pulls off the role quite well, using often her chest voice, which I don’t dislike. Tito is Charles Workman who has an excellent pronunciation. His voice slightly strained in the very high notes is powerful and he moves and acts with ease. Although his coloratura is not flawless, his sings and acts convincingly. Simona Saturova is perfect. A wonderfully sweet and impeccable Servilia, her whole register is equally smooth, her voice round and fluid, and Mozart and his contempararies fit her voice excellently. Alex esposito sings in the small role of Publio which seems under his capacities. I wish Peter de Caluwe would use the fee and pay Esposito for some Rossini serio. Sesto and his friend Annio are Michele Losier who has a nice timbre and Frances Bourne who complete the sextet. They both sing acceptably

IMG-20131011-00129The setting by Ivo van Hove is one room (bedroom and bureau) with colours kept in dark brown, mostly. The whole action is also filmed. Vitellia and Sesto mainly from above, the others side wise. However, the filming adds little to the concept. Moving as it is in Servilia’s joy and Tito’s understanding looks, it is pointless in the rest of the opera. Furthermore van Hove seems to have difficulties in knowing what to do with the singers on stage. There is very little movement and the little there is is oddly conventional.
And yet this would all be acceptable, if the musical direction would be satisfactory. But Ludovic Morlot is like I remember him in Cosi fan tutte: he beats time like a Chinese lucky cat: this results in the music being tedious, slow and without pulsating vigor.

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-Charles Workman, Vitellia-Alex Penda, Servilia-Simona Saturova, Sesto-Michele Losier, Annio-Frances Bourne, Publio-Alex Esposito, Orchestra and Chorus of De Munt/La Monnaie, 11 october 2013

Cosi fan tutte @ De Munt/La Monnaie in Brussels

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The plot of Cosi fan tutte seems quite frivolous: Two young ferrarese ladies living in Naples, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, each have a lover, Fiordiligi is with Guglielmo and Dorabella is with Ferrando. The two men, instigated by the cynical bachelor Don Alfonso, pretend to leave for war to prove the girls’ (they are 15 years old) infidelity. Despina, the housemaid, does not take that very seriously, and advises the girls to get new lovers. After Guglielmo and Ferrando left for war, they come back dressed as Albanians, and try to woo the other one’s girlfriend. By the end of the opera they succeed so well that a double marriage is planned, Fiordiligi marries Ferrando and Dorabella marries Guglielmo. Just after signing the contract a military drum is heard announcing Ferrando and Guglielmo coming back from the battlefield. Off go the two Albanians, back come Ferrando and Guglielmo, only to realize what happened and see the marriage contract. Despina is revealed to be the notary, and the sisters realize they have been deceived. All is ultimately forgiven, as the entire group praises the ability to accept life’s good times.

imagesCALCHR56The importance of the text for Haneke is clear from the beginning (although the silences in the recitatives last a bit too long to fully keep the interest in 3h and 40min of opera). His Cosi fan tutte is not frivolous at all. Haneke strips the opera from all the comic parts. If for Da Ponte the dramma was giocoso, for Haneke, Despina is not the silly little chambermaid (she usually is the funny one). All the things the public typically loughs about are never funny as she communicates everything very seriously. A melancholic and sad aura hangs over the whole duration of the opera. By giving Despina a bitter and unhappy guise, one can only imagine what she went through in her life.

In Haneke’s interpretation the two men are not overly dressed-up as Albanians and in Act II they are well recognizable as the original lovers. One starts to wonder whether it’s not the girls making a fool of the men. Do they know? Did they always find the other one more attractive? There are, I believe, 2 moving strikes in Haneke’s setting: When the “wrong” couples are about to marry, Dorabella touches Ferrando’s hand (her old lover), and looks at him as if to say “I still miss you, you know…?”. And Haneke’s end is the only end which makes sense: When, at the very end, the two original couples are reunited, it is clear that nothing will be the same again (how can it be, after they were able to show so strong emotions for another person in such a short time). At the very end Fiordiligi runs from his Guglielmo into Ferrando’s arms to get a last hug. Singing the last few bars, all are hand in hand pulling at each other and on the last chord they all let go as if the chain which linked them all together was too weak. (Even Mozart, one could think, suggests that the “wrong” couples should be together, as Fiordiligi and Ferrando both sing a higher tessitura, and Dorabella and Guglielmo both a lower ones)

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Unfortunately the singers are not up to Haneke’s standards. They are unable to pronounce the text in an understandable way. In fact, the recitatives, if dramatized by Haneke, are completely boring when pronounced by the singers. Acting and musical qualities vary from singer to singer. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are the two adolescents who sing touchingly and act youthfully. One wishes Anett Fritsch (Fiordiligi) didn’t save herself mainly for her two big aria’s (one in act I Come scoglio and one in act II Per pietà ben mio perdona) but overall she gave a positive impression. Her newly acquired Albanian lover is Juan Francisco Gatell. This tenor is a tad nasal but does the job. The other male lover Andreas Wolf acts and sings averagely with a not very appealing timbre. Kerstin Avemo’s Despina has good high notes, lacks the middle and lower register but interprets well the sadness and bitterness imposed by Haneke. And Don Alfonso never seems to quite understand what he is singing. And what a pain the learning of the Italian text must have been. The effort he has to put into everything he pronounces is palpable. As a singer he is very mediocre.

The single-set by Christoph Kanter is beautiful: A modern interior of a probably 17th century villa overlooking the bay. Modern dresses are mixed with 18th century ones.

Morlot is the new musical director of the Munt/Monnaie. He takes this production over from Cambreling in Madrid. Is it difficult to direct an opera directed and set by somebody else and created for another theatre? I don’t know, but what Morlot is totally incapable of is to bring a minimum of life into the opera. Morlot’s direction is monotonous and insipid. Even if he wanted to follow Haneke’s drift, he is totally unable to make the instruments sing. The accompaniment is a flat routine, sounding interminable and lifeless even compared to the recordings of the 50’s. The singers’ flaws is one thing, they are young, they will learn. But the director is meant to do more than just to stir the polenta-pot. The orchestra plays, as always with a mediocre director, its usual standard.

Music direction – Ludovic Morlot, Director – Michael Haneke, Set design – Christoph Kanter, Costumes – Moidele Bickel, Fiordiligi – Anett Fritsch, Dorabella – Paola Gardina, Guglielmo – Andreas Wolf, Ferrando – Juan Francisco Gatell, Despina – Kerstin Avemo, Don Alfonso – William Shimell, Orchestra and Chorus of De Munt, 23 May 2013