Letter to the BBC-Music Magazine

MTE1ODA0OTcyMDg0NDYzMTE3To be a critic is certainly not easy and there is even an article written by the BBC Music Magazine about it. But it is the kind of narrow-mindedness that I find inappropriate and irritating for every critic. Shouldn’t a critic be open to a wide choice and listen to everything with an unbiased ear and mind? Shouldn’t one judge with what one thinks, regardless what others think about the same piece? Are lesser known pieces by famous composers not worth discovering or listening to? I agree for example that Gluck is famous for the reforms he initiated in opera, but is his pre-reform period known as well as his reform operas? Do the pre-reform opera’s deserve oblivion because they were written before his reform? Should one not listen to them just because lesser known, albeit with a critic ear? (“Not worth listening to” was also said about Bach, Janacek and Rossini, among others). So why use the word “unfortunately” when talking about the selection of Daniel Behle’s Gluck arias in BBC Music Magazine nr 23/1: “Unfortunately, of the 11 arias he sings, the first 8 and the last one belong to what is known as the pre-reform Gluck with texts by the dreadful Metastasio”. With Behle we finally have somebody who breaks new ground, I would wish a music magazine (of the BBC nonetheless) to be more attentive with innovative choices. Because this is EXACTLY why I won’t renew my subscription: the constant reviewing of the same old. And by same old I am referring to the big public ‘s repertoire, the prevailing taste, the popular pieces, the Beethovens, the Brahms, the Williams, the Shostakovichs. But precious little interest for Fibich, Kalinnikov, Kalkbrenner, Mercadante, Finzi etc. A safe choice, certainly, but stale and repetitive on the long run. A follower and not a leader, they would say in business.

B12427565T12427570By the way what is so dreadful in Metastasio? Isn’t it a bit too easy to disperse derogatory comments without any explanation? Is the BBC Music Magazine not aware that Metastasio was one of the leading librettists of the time and that Gluck’s choice might have had several reasons, dreadful or not. A clear example of a mismatch of intentions. Also, are we sure that “Gluck could do things as well as other people”? What are the references? Other dreadful composers of the time? By the way the sentence “they (the arias) give Behle plenty of chance to show his phenomenal coloratura skill but none to show that, with his lovely voice, he is able to be powerfully expressive in the way that Gluck came to demand”. How can that be? Since the arias in question don’t represent Gluck in his reform operas how would the singer be able to be expressive in pre-reform operas in the manner of operas written in a later stage? And on top of that, is it implied that coloratura cannot be expressive? I suppose one can’t know if one refrains from listening to a wider repertoire. It is useful though, so that one is able to give e a more balanced account of music history. Incidentally, the review previous to this one lauded one of Gluck’s pre-reform operas.

If this is not enough the following article seems to belittle Livermore’s direction of Pesaro’s Italiana in algeri on the grounds that “the audience rarely laughed“. Equally funny or funnier opera by Rossini with better librettos were given in Pesaro the last decades. Did the audience laugh during those performances?  Do Italian ROF habitués even laugh at all anymore after knowing the libretto inside out? Do Japanese, German, and French spectators?

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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)

 

Une folie organisée o Guillaume Tell, L’occasione fa il ladro and L’italiana in Algeri at the Rossini Opera Festival 2013

imagesThe ROF or Rossini Opera Festival: The yearly festival dedicated to the opera’s of that tornado that revolutionized the musical world in 1810-1820. Pesaro is a small and pretty town on sunny adriatic, one eats well, enjoys the sea, in the evening one saunters well dressed in the centro storico or along the lungomare. There is also much music to be enjoyed and the happenings are semi-chique considering that one can sip Prosecco next to Alfred Brendel, be seated in a box next to Raina Kabaivanska or ask Patsy (aka Joanna Lumley) to light one’s sigarette during the break.
The 3 opera’s of the ROF 2013 are Guillaume Tell, L’occasione fa il ladro and L’italiana in Algeri.

tellThis year’s big attraction was meant to be Guillaume Tell. “Un’opera strana” was a comment from two well-read opera aficionado’s behind me. And one of the first Grand operà’s is indeed a little strange, with strikes of genius but also with long choral passages and little action. One can try to explain this with a mediocre libretto, or Rossini’s difficulty to adapt to the French style. The opera is undeniably quite long and includes the women’s terzetto in Act 4 and Jemmy’s aria in act 3, two often cut pieces.
Much has been written and discussed about Florez’s interpretation of Arnold, as the role is long and difficult, and his vocality does not seem fit for this heavier role. But he gets through the role and the first 3 acts without major problems. He sings a very moving Asile hereditaire in Act 4 but a mechanical Amis, amis in a discrete French. Big personal success and much applause of course, but Florez is an absolute star in Pesaro. I felt that Marina Rebeka’s voice was less controlled than in Amsterdam a couple of months back, with slightly screamed high notes and less precise coloratura (Mariotti’s tempi did not help) but she sang with a strong and steady voice. Like in Amsterdam, I did not like Nicola Alaimo as Tell, his stage presence and voice were not important enough to interpret the Swiss hero, neither in the heroic, nor in the more lyrical moments. In this Guillaume Tell, Jemmy’s aria, which is often cut, is re-introduced, but the game isn’t worth the candle neither for the piece on its own nor for the interpreter. Amanda Forsythe, whom I vividly remember as a spirited and sparkling Rosalia in L’equivoco stravagante in 2008 (Pesaro) sings well and with a good stage presence but with little voice and reducing the aria to a coloratura showpiece. The other singers were adequately cast although some of them had an execrable pronunciation.
tell5The musical director Michele Mariotti starts with a well directed Ouverture, playing with well placed rubati, but as already said, the opera is long and needs a director who is able to keep the suspense down to the wire. Although undeniably a good director, Mariotti had some odd choices of tempi and was not able to span the musical arch to the end.
Graham Vick’s direction is all based on socialist symbolism and a repeated display of the Habsburgs’ violence and humiliation over the Swiss. It’s a bit repetitive at times but it does not necessarily disturb the action. It is in fact quite conventional, occasionally even trivial (the stairs at the end; the soppy movie of Arnold’s father…) but the ballabili were very moving and well danced, although part of the public did not appreciate them, booing the dancers (shouldn’t they boo the director instead??). All in all, nothing to get overly excited or overly disappointed about. Just a bit too much.

occasione160813_640xL’occasione fa il ladro: One of the loveliest of the farse written for the Venetian teatro San Moisé, if you ask me. It is clear from the music Rossini forges for this short opera (eg the elaborate aria for Berenice and intricate second finale, which comprises several different musical structures) that the short form of farsa (a comic opera usually in one act, originating in Venice or Naples) was too tight to Rossini’s musical fecundity and inventiveness.
The production is the one Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created for Pesaro in 1987. It is based on simple and traditional acting with painted scenes and few props. The group of singers reunited is a mix of young newcomers like Enea Scala and Victoria Yarovaya, and more recurrent ROF singers like Roberto de Candia and Paolo Bordogna. The cast is good although one could pick about the insufficient coloratura di forza of one, the strained voice in the higher register of the other, the slight backwards voice of a third or the somewhat stiffness in acting of a fourth. But the group effort made it a very enjoyable musical evening.
occsI would like to mention Elena Tsallagova in the role of Berenice. She sang the loveliest Arpa gentil I ever heard life, in the 2011 Viaggio a Reims production in Pesaro (the yearly performance given after the seminar dedicated to interpretation of Rossini’s music). Unfortunately she made a bad choice with Contessa di Folleville of the same opera in Ghent in 2012. With her Berenice I found again the beautiful and pure voice I heard in 2011. Her coloratura can be impeccable if she finds a director who gives her the time to deploy it properly. Given a wise selection of adequate roles (belcanto, mostly, I hope) I wish Ms Tsallagova a very fruitful career.
The (female) musical director was Yi-Chen Lin, who directed with precision and supported the singers .

The third opera was L’Italiana in Algeri, which Rossini, already a small celebrity now, after the successes of Tancredi and La pietra del paragone composed for the Venetian Teatro San Benedetto in May 1813.
italiana150813_640xAlex esposito as Mustafà sings with impeccable pronunciation and nice, fullbodied voice. Which is a bit short in the deeper register but this does not lessen the overall respectable performance which he sings with precise enough coloratura in the florid passages. Mario Cassi as Taddeo and Mariangela Sicilia as Elvira sang admirable and Davide Luciano (as always accompanied by his good friend the eunuch…) gave a good interpretation of his aria, which btw, was not composed by Rossini but by an unknown collaborator. Yijie Shi does not have Florez’s smooth voice but he is a fine singer and comes across the difficult part of Lindoro quite well. The Isabella of Goryachova, on the other hand, was a questionable point. Clearly at ease with the coloratura, with a velvety voice, she is, however, a clear mezzosoprano, which makes it easy for her to fling to the higher, but gives her some trouble in the lower notes, which are barely audible (I had the same impressions when she sang Matilde di Shabran‘s Edoardo in Pesaro last year). Why she keeps singing contralto roles is unclear to me, which, if satisfactory when heard on radio, is unacceptable in a theatre, as her voice does not expand or spread well (She was a nice, velvet-voice Zerlina in Zurich, though)
Unfortunately the musical direction of this Italiana was given to José Ramon Encinar who directs in an unimaginative, lifeless, tedious and vigor-less manner. Never have i heard the Comunale di Bologna play so mechanically and with so little energy.
Where this Italiana scores brilliantly, in my opinion, is the 60’s-inspired direction by the always inventive Davide Livermore. It is quite difficult to list all the actions that are happening on stage. But Livermore’s interpretation is probably encouraged by the nonsense-inspired libretto (din-din, bum bum, pappataci etc); What we see on stage is a constant movement, a flow of people and animation, a non-stop of gags, a sophisticated machinery who brings us from Rome to Algiers, which shows us a plane crash on stage and an aquarium with a shark. From this point of view the singers were also fantastic actors, Alex Esposito jumps, dances, hops and leaps with astonishing energy, Goryachova showed us an enviable figure as the seducing Italian lady, and the innumerable variety of supporting characters like tourists, stewardesses and housemaids fill the stage with action; What I liked most is the dancing on stage, especially during the concertati and the strette, which accentuates so well Rossini’s musical sparkle and energy. Too much? De gustibus…

Guillaume Tell: Direttore-Michele Mariotti, Regia-Graham Vick, Scene e costumi-Paul Brown, Coreografie-Ron Howell, Progetto luci-Giuseppe di Iorio, Guillaume Tell- Nicola Alaima, Arnold Melchtal-Juan Diego Florez, Walter Furst-Simon Orfila, Melchtal-Simone Alberghini, Jemmy-Amanda Forsythe, Gesler-Luca Tittoto, Rodolphe-Alessandro Luciano, Ruodi Pêcheur-Celso Albelo, Leuthold / Un Chasseur-Wojtek Gierlach, Mathilde-Marina Rebeka, Hedwige-Veronica Simenoni, 20 august 2013

L’occasione fa il ladro: Direttore-Yi-Chen Lin, Regia, scene e costumi-Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Ripresa della regia-Sonja Frisell, Don Eusebio-Giorgio Misseri, Berenice-Elena Tsallagova, Conte Alberto-Enea Scala, Don Parmenione-Roberto de Candia, Ernestina-Viktoria Yarovaya, Martino-Paolo Bordogna, 21 august 2013

L’italiana in Algeri: Direttore-José Ramon Encinar, Regia-Davide Livermore, Scene e Progetto luci-Nicolas Bovey, Costumi-Gianluca Falaschi, Mustafà Alex Esposito, Elvira-Mariangela Sicilia, Zulma-Raffaella Lupinacci, Haly-Davide Luciano, Lindoro-Yijie Shi, Isabella-Anna Goryachova, Taddeo-Mario Cassi, 22 august 2013; Pictures from http://www.rossinioperafestival.it/