Czech National Opera

Boito, Mefistofele

My favorite Italian-language opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, may not be so obscure, but nevertheless it rarely appears on stage, so despite my enthusiasm I have never actually seen it.  Until now, that is: this evening at the Czech National Opera in Prague.


The music is sublime, but I wonder if the main reason this opera does not appear often is that it’s probably difficult to pull off convincingly.  It consists of a series of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, selected by Boito to try to capture the mysticism of that huge work, but in the process leaving out much of the character development.  There is a lot to read between the lines (which are often Boito’s idiomatic translation from Goethe).


The central figure in this setting is of course not Faust, but Mephistopheles (hence Boito’s chosen name for the opera), so a performance will live or die on who fills that role.  Slovak bass-baritone Štefan Kocán had sufficient charismatic stage presence and a dark biting voice (often more bass than baritone in a welcome way).  But he did not always project sufficiently, and had to come to stage front and center to deliver many passages or else his voice would have gotten lost (and despite this, he was still inaudible during the finale, overwhelmed by the celestial chorus not only in the action – he is defeated and pelted by flowers – but also in that we just did not hear his defiance at all).


The National Theater  is not an exceptionally large house, so it should be easily within the power of singers to fill the room.  But this seemed to be a problem for most of the cast – Kocán was actually the best at projecting.  Italian conductor Marco Guidarini actually led a restrained performance, very careful not to overwhelm the singers while nevertheless still keeping the drama (that said, the restraint did come at the cost of drama in some of the larger passages, and the celestial brass chorales never shook the hall as they should at key times, the backstage brass coming across more tinny than heavenly, as if from a pre-recorded track).


Argentinian tenor Raúl Gabriel Iriarte had a weakish-voiced but idiomatic Faust.  This role does not require a fully dramatic tenor, so the somewhat more lyrical approach worked.  I just would have appreciated a larger sound.  As Gretchen, the expressive Alžbĕta Poláčková (from the Czech National Opera’s house team) did mostly manage to project, and was clearly a hometown favorite.  The rest of the cast was mostly adequate.


Of course, pulling singers to the front of the stage to help them project more had as a drawback that it removed them from the effective action on stage.  In this case, I suppose that was OK – as the action on stage distracted from the plot.  This opera, as a series of scenes not always clearly related for those who have not read the original Goethe saga, could support numerous interpretations.  This one, by Ivan Krejči, was not one of them.  Static when the libretto called for action (the witches’ sabbath, for example) it was otherwise active with lots of strange choreography (including by dancing human hors-d’oevres at a banquet that does not appear in the plot).  I think Krejči tried too hard to make this a psychodrama and to give us visions, but if he did want that approach he should have related those visions to something in the text.

 

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Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Ruzicka, Poulenc, Schumann

I am not really sure how the Mozarteum Orchestra could follow this evening’s guest conductor, Peter Ruzicka from Hamburg, whose stick-wagging technique seemed to have little correlation to the music.

Actually, they really did not follow him.  When they could ignore him, as during some of the larger passages in Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony, a standard in the repertory, the orchestra sounded its usual full self, with especially soaring brass chorales.  But during more exposed portions, especially with tempo changes, the orchestra sounded a little lost.

The works before the intermission made it harder for the orchestra.  Soloist Iveta Apkalna, from Latvia, gave a lyrical interpretation of Francis Poulenc‘s Organ Concerto.  But there was often a disconnect with the string orchestra, who seemed determined to cut disruptively across her solos.  Only the tympanist engaged her in the dialogue, and the passages with the two of them alone stood out as the highlight.

The concert had opened with a forgettable work by the conductor himself: his fantasy for strings, Into the Open.  I’m not really sure what this was – I suppose it was a fantasy in that the violins provided unaccustomed high notes perhaps looking to escape from the Mozarteum’s Great Hall into another world.  But mostly the strings just kept up with the violent cutting noises.  Although I thought it was forgettable, in retrospect the orchestra may have remembered it long enough to disrupt the Poulenc.

 

Salzburger Landestheater

Hindemith, Cardillac

When I realized I had actually not been to an opera for nearly six months, I had a look to see if any last-minute tickets were available to opening night of the Salzburg Landestheater‘s new production of Paul Hindemith‘s Cardillac.  Surprisingly, a selection of seats remained, so off I went.

From Hindemith’s neo-baroque period, this opera employed a somewhat fantastical musical language, pushing forward the drama through use of warped early music conventions – syncopated and made dissonant.  The music matched the plot, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann about jeweller who cannot be parted from his art, and who murders all who buy his pieces so he can claim his creations back.  His undoing comes when he attempts to kill his daughter’s fiancé, a police officer who has been investigating the spree of murders.  The police officer blames the gold dealer for trying to stab him, but coaxes a confession from the jeweller, who is then lynched by the crowd.  But in the end Cardillac triumphs in death as his fame as an artist lives on.

The Mozarteum Orchestra, conducted by the young Brit Robin Davis, championed the cause from the pit, with playing both lush (considering the reduced-size Hindemith wrote for) and refined in its individual lines.  Marian Pop (Cardillac), Anne-Fleur Werner (his daughter), and Kristofer Lundin (the officer) headed a very good cast, working their way expressively through the drama.  There’s actually not much action in this plot, so the music and words must propel the work.  In that, the Landestheater’s team succeeded.

In my last-minute decision-making process, however, I forgot to check on whom the Landestheater had hired to direct this work.  Unfortunately, it was the despicable German poser Amélie Niermeyer.  The plot is fantastical and could lend itself to a variety of interpretations, but her confused staging often bore little connection, and indeed detracted from the fantasy.   Her Rigoletto with the Landestheater in 2014 included child pornography.  Thankfully she did not repeat that travesty this evening, although she did give us incestuous necrophilia (at least this was only the singers acting out incestuous necrophilia – the last time was actual child pornography).  Such is the current state of “art” in Germany.

Vienna Philharmonic, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar

I was not planning on going to a concert during a quick weekend trip home, but sometimes I just get curious and grab a ticket if one is available last minute.  The Vienna Philharmonic performed tonight in the Konzerthaus, Vienna’s second major hall, with a concert featuring music by the forgotten Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952).  Having Sakari Oramo on the podium and Sol Gabetta on cello hardly dissuaded me.

It seems Langgaard’s Symphony #6 (written in 1919-20 and fully revised between 1928-30) is supposed to be typical of his output.  The composer’s father had been a piano student of Liszt, so this became the young man’s starting point – his symphonic writing being more tone poem than symphony, just without the plot.  Apparently he became fascinated with Scriabin, too, so his music showed heavy influence from the zany Russian.  At times, the music also bore a resemblance to that of his contemporary Paul Hindemith (whom he knew).  With all of that said, Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all went somewhere with their music.  Langgaard – although making this symphony a setting of a theme and various variations on it, with theatrical extra brass (a whole additional row of trumpets sat in the choir seats) and percussion, I never got the sense that the work had any particular meaning.

I might give other works by Langgaard a listen (if they ever appear on a concert program – which they never do), but I suppose I can understand why he has not entered the repertory (it’s not bad music, but if we have Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all in the original, we don’t really need Langgaard).  That said, tonight’s symphony was infinitely more original than almost anything composed by Langgaard’s older countryman Carl Nielsen, whose interminable music has inexplicably entered the standard repertory.

To introduce the Langgaard symphony, Oramo opened the concert with Sibelius‘ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, in possibly one of the finest performances I have heard of that work.  The opening cello solo was other-worldly, and the various virtuosic woodwinds built on that to take us into the realm of Finnish mythology.  The violin shrieks – depicting the girl’s mocking laughter – propelled the work forward, as the winds tried valiently in back to achieve the tasks she had set for them.  Some of this coloration certainly helped set up the Langgaard work to make it more understandable, I suppose, but Sibelius was the undisputed master of northern color.

After the intermission, Gabetta joined Oramo and the orchestra for Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, demonstrating both dexterity and lyricism.  Elgar used the cello to set out each section of the concerto and then let the orchestra blend in.  Only a rare cellist can effectively lead a whole orchestra, and more rarely when that orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.  Gabetta established her mastery this evening.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Haydn, The Creation

 

The Mozarteum Orchestra created the world in the Great Festival House this evening.  Or at least part of it did.  When Joseph Haydn conducted his oratorio himself, he used 120 instrumentalists.   Tonight, conductor Matthew Halls only employed about 50 (seemingly those orchestra members that Krzysztof Penderecki did not use for his own reduced-orchestra Beethoven 7th on Sunday morning).

This is actually a rather whimsical work, with Haydn having illustrated everything from hopping rabbits to the waters flooding the earth.  Halls elicited some appropriately descriptive playing from the orchestra in full color portraits.  But the reduced forces meant that the work never became as monumental as it should have – indeed, it felt quite constrained, and at times even dragged.  These were elaborate miniature portraits, rather than a gradiose set of murals.

Among the soloists, the 28-year-old Austrian soprano Christina Gansch, doubling up as both the Angel Gabriel and Eve, shone.    She managed a rare triple, succeeding in pureness of tone, fullness of voice, and dramatic presence.  She is certainly someone to watch out for on the opera stages of the future (or today, for that matter).  German baritone Daniel Ochoa as both the Angel Raphael and Adam, matched her in drama, but not always in voice (though not bad, he simply got outshone).  Austrian tenor Bernhard Berchtold as the Angel Uriel had a nice voice, I suppose, but it was not very big and he lacked drama.  Perhaps he could stick to chamber music (although he does not seem to inflect enough to do Lieder, so I am actually not sure what his ideal repertory would be – maybe some minor Russian character-tenor roles?).  The Salzburg Bachchor provided an idiomatic backdrop.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Penderecki, Beethoven

Krzysztof Penderecki is one of those composers known more for his reputation than for his actual music.  I seldom see his music in any programs, and indeed, I don’t recall ever hearing his work live in a program myself.  

This morning he brought his second violin concerto to Salzburg’s Great Festival House, for a performance by the Mozarteum Orchestra and soloist Leticia Moreno.  He conducted himself.

His music is reminiscent of warmed-over Schostakowitsch, and in the case of this particular work, Schostakowitsch’s cello concerto. Maybe less-edgy and less-original, but nevertheless quite pleasant enough structured as variations morphing without breaks for about forty minutes.  Moreno made her Salzburg debut last Fall with some spectacular playing in front of the Cadaqués Orchestra, and it helped Penderecki that he had her to interpret today.  She handled all of the tones he required, compfortable in every idiom from lyrical to frenetic, with a wide range (indeed, she beautifully hit notes I thought were above the violin’s register).  She did not have the biggest sound today, sometimes being overwhelmed by the orchestra in the larger passages.  The audience really would have appreciated an encore (unfortunately we did not get one).

After the intermission, Pederecki returned to the podium for Beethoven‘s seventh symphony.  He chose to do this with a greatly-reduced orchestra, barely larger than a chamber group.  If his own concerto had been a mellowed version of Schostakowitsch’s, then his Beethoven 7 was a mellowed version of Beethoven 7.  The performance lacked the necessary exuberance, except maybe in the slow movement (which he performed too quickly and with too much staccato).  Penderecki mostly used only one arm at a time when he conducted, with brief overlaps as he shifted from one to the other every few measures.  I did not quite get the concept, and the orchestra may not have either (certainly the horns were a total mess of confusion in the first movement, although they got their bearings as the symphony went on).

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Machover

I would not normally post a review of a rehearsal, particularly one for a world premiere performance where the orchestra and composer were still fine-tuning ahead of the first concert.  But for this rehearsal, I have decided to make an exception (albeit delaying the public posting for a day until after the world premiere has taken place).  This is because I realized I am not actually reviewing the performance.

Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices is about to have its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a three-concert set in Philadelphia this week and then at Carnegie Hall in New York next week (along with works by Bernstein and Mussorgsky, not rehearsed this evening).

On an intellectual level, I’m glad I went.  On a musical level, there’s nothing to say.  It’s an especially awful piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring to Carnegie Hall – a Philadelphia audience might have fun with some of the inside jokes and immediate cultural references, but New Yorkers will lose that dimension, exposing that there is nothing else there.

Machover crowd-sourced his thing-a-ma-bobby.  He cobbled the inane text (partly sung, partly pre-recorded voices from around the city played over speakers) together from various sources, including on-the-street interviews (or in one case an interview with a short-order cook making a cheese steak).  Some of it came from snippets of documents like the US Constitution (written in Philadelphia).  The text contained juxtaposed words or phrases often presenting inside jokes; recent events ranging from the Pope’s visit that took place while Machover had begun to work on this, to the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl earlier this year complete with the play-by-play announcer’s calling of the final play of that game; and some truly dreadful poetry including one section that began: “My house is full of black people.”

At a pre-rehearsal discussion, Machover answered an audience member’s question about what will happen with this piece after this initial set of concerts, explaining that Haydn had written his London symphonies and they became part of the standard repertory. But Haydn’s “London” symphonies got the name because he wrote a set of them there (or at least for premieres there), not because they have anything specifically to do with London ranging from insider knowledge to recent (from 200 years ago) football championships. Haydn just wrote good music.

But intellectually, learning how Machover constructed this work (wandering around Philadelphia recording people and sounds, while getting to know the city – he himself is not from Philadelphia), and then hearing a full (final) rehearsal in which the composer and Nézet-Séguin had to make finishing touches and to see how to make it function in real life, was worth the several hours I spent in the Kimmel Center.  As a native Philadelphian, I also had fun with parts of the text.

Four different choral groups, apparently mostly drawn from a good selection of inner-city kids, sang the words.  For them, this was an opportunity to rehearse with the best orchestra in the United States and under one of the best conductors of the 40-ish generation, and then to perform live at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall (and of course at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, an undistinguished venue but likely exciting for these kids).  This was heartening to see.  What a great experience for these kids – and maybe they’ll even stick around for some real music.

Oh, yes… the music.  It was mostly tonal, and required performance on instruments (including voice) despite many voice-overs, but I’m not sure it was music.  It had no discernable structure or direction (not just a factor of the strange text, but a fundamental problem with the construction itself).

What did it really remind me of?  I attended a bizarrely experimental elementary school in Philadelphia.  On a typical day, we walked up and down the streets of this city exploring different neighborhoods (and once a week they bussed us city kids out to a working farm).  We had no formal classes – maybe the closest we came to a recognizable class period was music, which they taught us using the educational system developed by Carl Orff.  I could easily see my elementary school collaboratively writing this piece – both the words and music – and then performing it for our parents on our recorders and xylophones (and singing along) in the school’s “Multi-Purpose Room.”  Our parents would have had fun (or at least would have pretended to).  And then after that performance there would never – ever – be any reason to perform our piece again.

Philadelphia Voices should share the same fate.   Creative?  Sure.  But place- and time-specific, and otherwise with nothing of substance.