Bozar in Brussels – Paisiello and Berlioz

What De Munt/La Monnaie doesn’t offer in terms of variety this year (50% is 20th century music and the remaining 50% are the omnipresent Haendel, Mozart and Verdi, though still one interesting Fierrabras – albeit in concert version) was given at the Bozar with only a couple of days from each other, organized by the Klarafestival.

IMG_1664Il barbiere di Siviglia. Not the well-known rossinian version, but Giovanni Paisiello’s, composed over 30 years earlier for the court of Saint Petersburg. Petrosellini’s libretto (which was set to music also by Francesco Morlacchi) is almost equal to Cesare Sterbini’s libretto for Rossini, and I was amused when I heard the same scenes, and in some cases the  exact same words. Paisiello’s genius doesn’t show as much in the Barbiere as it does in other works like Nina or Fedra. But the music is delightful, with heights in the Pace e gioia ensemble, Rosina’s music lesson, Bartolo’s Vuoi tu Rosina. The singers also follow stage directions and act the respective roles so the evening is almost as enjoyable as a staged opera. The cast rests on Pietro Spagnoli’s shoulder who’s rendition of Bartolo is perfect: excellent diction, wonderful singing technique, versatile actor. The rest of the cast are solid professionals with Mari Erismoen as Rosina, André Schuen as Figaro and Fulvio Bettini as Don Basilio. I didn’t enjoy Topi Lehtipuu very much, whose voice I found weightless and dry. Renee Jacobs gives a personal but lively and sparkling rendition of the score making it a highly enjoyable evening.

 

IMG_1691The other vocal work given at Bozar only a couple of days later is Romeo et Juliette by Hector Berlioz. It is described as a symphonie dramatique and includes 3 soloists and a choire and is regarded as one of Berlioz most admirable works. Richard Wagner was present at the premiere on 24 November 1839 and it must have made an impression on him if 20 years later he sent Berlioz the printed version of his Tristan and Isolde with the inscription Au grand et cher auteur de Roméo et Juliette, L’auteur reconnaissant de Tristan et Isolde.

Isabelle Druet’s and Jean-François Borras’ roles are rather short and confined to the beginning and neither have particularly marked my mind. Jerome Varnier’s voice was a bit absent and I felt it didn’t give the big recitative and aria of père Laurence the gravity it needed. François-Xavier Roth, who directed an interesting Christophe Colombe (by Félicien David) in Gent which I much enjoyed, chiseld the wide variety of emotions perfectly, from the whirling “fête” to the sweet and delicate love duet (Romeo and Juliet are impersonated by the orchestra) and the stirring final “serment”

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Brussels Opera Festival opens in 2016

logo1In times of crisis where one can barely avoid reading news of opera houses being on the brink of a precipice, it is such balsamous news to read of new opera festivals. This one is called Brussels Opera Festival and, according to the webpage (http://bofestival.com) will open in July 2016. The hosting house will be the Royal Park Theatre (facing the Belgian Parlament), which has a history of staging plays, but for a period presented also operettas and opera comiques. The first two production in 2016 will both be Mozart operas, namely Le nozze di Figaro and Zaïde. I can’t wait, and I wish the new festival a prosperous future.

Don Giovanni (Brussels), Lucia di Lammermoor (Verona), Così fan tutte (Ghent)

don n giovanni1The Don Giovanni in Brussels under the direction of Warlikowski was awful. I recommend  this director to read the libretto the next time. Da Ponte’s libretto offers a multitude of double meaninsg. No need to descends into pornography just for the sake of it. Musically things were not exciting either with a very disappointing Barbara Hannigan as Donna Anna. As much as she is acclaimed in modern music, she didn’t convince me at all in the classical style. I couldn’t find full enjoyment in any of the other singers (Don Giovanni-Jean-Sebastien Bou, Il commendatore-Sir Willard White, Don Ottavio-Topi Lehtipuu, Donna Elvira-Rinat Shaham, Leporello-Andreas Wolf, Masetto-Jean-Luc Balestra, Zerlina-Julie Mathevet) Don Giovanni never seemed such a drag…..

 

I rather preferred the Lucia di Lammermoor in Verona, which, with its thrifty set, gave a more complete and satisfying reading than the Mozart opera. Musically wonderful with a (to me) unknown Maria Grazia Schiavo who sang with a full deep  and a good upper register. The slightly unpitched top notes from the first two musical pieces didn’t affect the overall thrilling performance. An equally wonderful Piero Pretti as Edgardo and a very good Marco di Felice as Enrico made this a lovely afternoon. The cast was completed by Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as Arturo, Sim Insung as Raimondo, Elisa Balbo as Alisa and Francesco Pittari as Normanno.

 

cosi1A quite boring night in Gent with Cosi fan tutte followed in January. Musically not very convincing. A very good Dorabella and Guglielmo (Maria Kataeva and Riccardo Novaro), an acceptable Fiordiligi and Despina (Christina Pasaroiu Aylin Sezer) an inadequate Don Alfonso and Ferrando (Umberto Chiummo and Sebastien Droy) and a drab conductor (Jan Schweiger) make this evening rather easy to forget. Was it not for the director… Guy Joosten spoiled yet another Mozart opera. I am totally in the dark when it comes to understand what this amateur is trying to tell us in Mozart (or in any opera for that matter). The scenes are filled with slapstick and inconsistent ideas that could be used (and be equally out of place) in any other opera. Joosten hits the bottom when he made Despina awaken the two lovers by hitting them with the Mesmer stone in the groin. No idea what to do with the singers either when they don’t sing except letting them sit or stand still. The set is lovely (the bar/reception of a hotel) though not consistent (“in casa mia” sings Fiordiligi, which is not translated into subtitles. Are they the hotel owners?)

 

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.

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