Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown

Highlights

With the world on pause due to the latest pandemic, cultural institutions have gone online.

I myself fled Salzburg and decamped home to Vienna before the authorities ended freedom of movement, so that for what looks like will last at least one month on lockdown, I can be more comfortable than I would be if crammed into my small Salzburg pad (my office is in Salzburg, and it’s just too far from Vienna to commute daily – all I really need in Salzburg is a place to sleep, with a reasonable kitchen, bathroom, and balcony for when I do spend Summer weekends there).  In Vienna, I have a good kitchen stocked with sufficient food, a cellar full of Georgian wines, and my private library (including my CD collection – and good external speakers for my laptop), so can survive more than a month if necessary.  My own day job goes on remotely, so it’s also good to have a home office with a desk and printer.

My ticket for a new Vienna production of Rigoletto was refunded – that show won’t go on.  A chamber concert of music by Moishe Weinberg in Salzburg will, I hope, be rescheduled (no refund yet – but I’d rather hear the concert so happy to wait to see about the new date).  My April trip to the US is off, so I lose a chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in its annual concert in memory of my father (would have been Beethoven’s Ninth this year – but not only my trip but also the concert itself is anyway canceled).  We will see when and whether concerts resume this Spring, or indeed for the Festival this Summer (I got my applications accepted for 19 tickets, and since I usually manage to add new ones during the Summer this would have meant my most performances ever at the Festival, surpassing last Summer’s final total of 19).  We will see.

At night, after work, I have been able to take advantage of the new offerings available online.  I am not going to pretend this is the same as hearing music live, but it’s nice to get some variety I might not have otherwise had.

Every evening the Staatsoper releases a new video available for that night.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera does the same (but with the difference in time zones, this comes after midnight here – thankfully I am nocturnal).

I am now halfway through the Staatsoper’s current production of Wagner‘s Ring cycle, which they have spread out over two weeks (so far just Rheingold and Walküre).  The staging is blah – I am not sure that the vapid German director Sven-Eric Bechtholf had a concept.  If he did, it’s not remotely clear.  Thankfully, it’s not Regietheater, so nothing offends.  But I hope the Staatsoper did not pay him for this lack of imagination.  The cast consists mostly of Staatsoper ensemble members or frequent guests, and does not need to have any star names to succeed dramatically.  I have especially liked the edgy-voiced Thomasz Konieczny as Wotan.  He apparently has sung more Alberich than Wotan, and his voice indeed would be well-suited for Alberich, but the two characters are almost alteregos (“Schwarz-Alberich” and “Licht-Alberich”), so it can work with intelligent singing as Konieczny provides.  In the big roles so far, Evelyn Herlitzius has disappointed as Brünnhilde, her voice is expressive enough but not big enough.  Siegfried (my favorite opera as a child) is tomorrow, and Götterdämmerung (my favorite opera since I was a teen) next weekend.

I actually realized I have not sat through an entire Ring cycle in a while, so even with the faulty staging this is quite a positive outcome of the global pandemic.  Next week, I will also sit through the entire Ring Cycle on four successive nights, courtesy of the Met.  And the Royal Swedish Opera has provided Walküre (just the audio in this case) – in another dramatic reading with only one big-name star, Nina Stemme, as Brünnhilde (a shame she wasn’t contracted by for the current Vienna set!), and a supporting cast that generally held up.

  • [Recording tips: since I am cooped up at home, I do get to tap into my archive to listen to comparative performances.  For Rheingold, the 1958 Solti set with the Vienna Philharmonic made for Decca works for sake of drama thanks to John Culshaw’s brilliant audio engineering; but since George London’s portrayal of Wotan lacks dynamism, I tend to favor the 1953 live recording from Bayreuth conducted by Clemens Kraus, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and a cast otherwise up to the same standards as the Vienna one (in some cases the same singers).  For Walküre, I’ve never found a recording that really does it for me.  There are two conducted by Erich Leinsdorf a couple of decades apart, the first with the Metropolitan Opera has the better cast – there are actually a few of these from the same period, of which I favor a 1940 recording the Metropolitan Opera made while on tour in Boston, with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann as a heroic Siegmund and Sieglinde, Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, and Friedrich Schorr as Wotan; the second Leinsdorf record came with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962, with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and a much better George London as Wotan, and has the more thrilling reading from the pit (indeed, from the orchestral standpoint, this 1962 Leinsdorf version may be the best Walküre available).  For sake of being unusual, I might also suggest seeking out the hard-to-find audio from the 1983 Bayreuth Festival with Georg Solti conducting a Ring cycle that was rightfully panned, but out of which came a surprisingly good Walküre.  Siegmund Nimsgern’s Wotan is similar in style to Konieczny’s in the recent Vienna cycle, Hildegard Behrens is at the hight of her career as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem and Jeannine Altmeier made an excellent pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde.]

Of course, there is plenty of non-Wagner in the Staatsoper’s offering.  In an effort not just to be popular, the Staatsoper also included one 21st-Century opera in its mix: Three Sisters by Peter Eötvös.  That was worth a listen – Eötvös’ music is intelligent and edifying.

From the Met, the highlight so far has been a 2010 performance of Bizet‘s Carmen, with a sultry Elīna Garanča in the title role, overwhelming poor Roberto Alagna as Don José (he was great, but could not compare to her).  A very young-looking Yannick Nézet-Séguin (this production came even before he was appointed Music Director in Philadelphia) provided a perfect spark in the pit.  (Among the other performances the Met streamed was Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s final public performance, when he returned to the stage for one set of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore, after he began his cancer treatment and before he died.)  The sad side-story from the Met, however, is that this week they fired all members of their orchestra, chorus, ensemble singers, and stage staff and it remains to be seen if the best opera house in the US will be able to survive the pandemic.

  • [Recording tips: I will be a bit zany here, and instead of suggested a “best” recording I will instead suggest one that will make the listener hear Carmen differently.  Carmen‘s international success derives from a production done in Vienna a few years after its Paris premiere.  So how about a German-language version?  The best one of those is a 1961 version from the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Horst Stein, with Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), and Herman Prey (Escamillo).  From a standpoint of drama, it is worth getting over the clumsy German that does not always pass with the music, and just enjoying some fantastic singing actors.]

The most disappointing production I have seen this week, though, was a new one.  The Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s third major opera house) was supposed to open a new production of Beethoven‘s Fidelio this week.  When it was clear a couple of weeks ago that this would not be able to go ahead – and indeed the entire run would be canceled – Austrian television rushed in to film it in front of an empty seats, so that all the work that had gone into producing it would not go to waste.  That was classy.

The problem, though, was the terrible production.  Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera did not go well and he gave up.  But he was still under contract, and the impressario was paying his living expenses while he wrote, so he was actually in debt to the impressario – Emanuel Schickaneder – and had to write something to fulfill his obligation, so he grabbed a French play he thought he could set as an opera: Leonore.  It went very badly.  A year later, he revised it.  The second version (now called Fidelio) survived two performances before being canceled.  Beethoven gave up.  About eight years later, with the help of another dramatist friend, he did yet another revision.  This third attempt worked and is the version of Fidelio that became a fixture in the operatic repertory.  Beethoven swore off writing any more operas.

Why anyone would think to stage the first or second versions of Fidelio is beyond my comprehension.  Actually, the music is Beethoven, so it’s great music, and certainly worth the curiosity factor to program selections for concerts.  But it’s lousy opera: there’s no drama (this got fixed in the third version, especially Act Two, which Mahler later augmented by adding the brilliant convention of inserting the Leonore Overture #3, which Beethoven himself realized was not a proper opera overture but a stand-alone piece in its own right, into the scene change).

The staging was blah here too – apparently they hired an architectural firm, which is not who should be doing stagings.  The construction of the stage indeed succeeded aesthetically, and I suppose it worked with this performing version – it, too, lacked drama.  The cast of no-names was mediocre – although it probably did not help that they had to perform this deficient version of the opera.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra was in the pit (they are world-class, but when I have heard them live in the last couple of years I have noticed they have slipped a bit from where they were a few years ago) under the baton of Manfred Honeck (I like him – he’s certainly the best Austrian conductor working in the US, currently music director in Pittsburgh, and I never understand why his adequate but undistinguished countryman in Cleveland has a higher profile) – but again, the score of this version has no drama, so it’s really hard to make it do anything.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has yet surpassed the 1969 Otto Klemperer recording of Fidelio with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christa Ludwig as Leonore, which continues to be my go-to recording.  However, for something different, there is an excellent 1991 version from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur, with some of the same folks who made the 1983 Bayreuth Walküre so compelling: Jeannine Altmeyer as Leonore, Siegfried Jerusalem as Fidelio, and Siegmund Nimsgern as D. Pizarro.  Fun fact: this was the very first CD I owned.  When I bought my first CD player, the electronics shop had a very small collection of classical CDs in the store and I bought this one so I could play something as soon as I got home.]

For non-operatic selections, I have to defer to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  When the City of Philadelphia banned large gatherings due to the virus, this orchestra was supposed to open a series of concerts to celebrate the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth.  That entire series is now canceled.  But they did perform the first concert in the series in front of an empty hall, and posted it on Facebook.  This concert included Beethoven’s Symphonies #5 and #6 plus a world premiere of a work the orchestra commissioned from Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum Spricht, inspired by Beethoven.  Nézet-Séguin’s tempi were far too fast for my taste, but the playing was sublime (they left the concert up online without a clear expiration date, so I recommend searching for it from the Orchestra’s webpage).  This orchestra is by far the best in the US right now (Nézet-Séguin is also one of the best conductors of his 40-ish generation, but he seems to be in a horrible rush here.)

As I write this, I have just finished enjoying a Philadelphia Orchestra concert from one year ago, added free for streaming on their website, with Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler‘s Ninth, which highlights many of the complex interior lines, played virtuosically by this Orchestra.  Overall a pensive performance, and perfect for an uneasy period in which the world is locked down by a Chinese virus.  The European orchestra Philadelphia is most similar to is the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, in terms of having a lot of virtuosi players with fantastic individual lines but who also understand how to blend those thrilling lines into an ensemble whole. Most of the first chairs in Philadelphia are every bit as good as the first chairs in Amsterdam (the Concertgebouworkest is better, as it has more virtuosic depth after the first chairs).

Speaking of the Concertgebouworkest, when Mariss Jansons died last year, they posted for free a nice selection of live concerts he had conducted with them over the years.  Although I have not re-listened to them this week, they remain up on the orchestra’s website.  From the available selection, I’d recommend in particular Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Symphony #4, but you really cannot go wrong with any of them.

Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Connesson, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bizet

The Brussels Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a three-night set with its music director Stéphane Denève, sounds like it takes representing its home city seriously: technically proficient, I suppose, but no personality.

The first half of the concert consisted of French music, which was not the problem but probably did not help.  A short contemporary work, Maslenitza, by Guillaume Connesson opened the performance.  A trip to Russia and Russian music supposed inspired the composer to write this piece, but I heard nothing particularly Russian about it.  It consisted of several tonal melodies or phrases, with no apparent logic for why so many and why he put them in the order he did.  An inoffensive muddle.

The concert dragged on with Edouard Lalo‘s cello concerto: still inoffensive, maybe less of a muddle, but no real point either.  It did contain some wonderful dancing melodies (especially one interplaying the solo cello and the flute in the slow second movement), but they never really went anywhere.  The soloist, Gautier Capuçon, had a large sweet and quite beautiful tone well-matched for this music – if anyone could have made something of it, he could have.  He and the orchestra followed this up with an encore: the “Swan” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, an animal of grace (thankfully short, however, so it had a point and finished).

The second half of the concert left France and moved to Russia for two sets of ballet excerpts: a long set from Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev and a suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky.  Both actually danced, but neither sounded particulary Russian, the orchestra producing melifluous sounds instead of the somewhat more biting tones a Russian orchestra would produce (although, bizarrely, during the finale of the Firebird, Denève oddly highlighted the strings above the orchestral balance by getting them to attack their instruments as though trying to use their bows to saw their instruments clean in half – out of character for this concert, but not especially clear in motive either.

As a final encore, the orchestra returned to French music and performed the farandole from the incidental music by Georges Bizet to The Girl from Arles: again proficiently – indeed pleasantly – but without nearly the verve and personality demonstrated, for example, by the Cadaqués Orchestra in this same hall last month for this same piece.

I am busy the next two nights, and so never bought tickets for the next performances (tonight is my monthly Wednesday subscription concert).  I’m probably not missing anything.

Cadaqués Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bizet, Sarasate, Falla, Chapí

 

The Cadaqués Orchestra picked up where it left off, with a complete triumph on the stage of Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening.  This was the same orchestra which successfully delivered Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony on Wednesday, with great drama and nuance directed from chief conductor Jaime Martín, once again joined by the spectacular Leticia Moreno for solo violin work.  Unsadled with the dreadful music of Piazzolla that weighed down the first half of Wendesday’s concert, music by Georges Bizet and Pablo de Sarasate let the orchestra glisten.

Tonight’s concert opened with a few short selections from Bizet’s incidental music to The Girl from Arles, that enabled individual instrumental lines to stand out within an overall complete sound.  The orchestra is still a tad small, but made up for the reduced size through enthusiasm.  This approach especially came out in the concert’s second half, a performance of Bizet’s Symphony in C, which he wrote when he was only 17 and then suppressed (it had its premiere sixty years after his death after the score was rediscovered).  Although a not-fully developed youthful work, the symphony showed great talent – the scope of a middle-period Mozart symphony, the internal humor of late Haydn, and the melodic inventiveness of early Beethoven or Schubert.  Martín drew out the solo lines – especially highlighting the woodwinds, who demonstrated remarkable virtuosity they had hinted at on Wednesday – but without overshadowing the complete symphonic sound.  (Why did Bizet suppress this work?  With a few notable exceptions such as the opera Carmen and the incidental music from The Girl from Arles, as well as portions of the opera Pearl Fishers,  his later music was mostly forgetable although he clearly had talent – there are theories that have to do with France’s complete lack of musical sophistication, but he could have rebelled against that in the way the others like Berlioz did).  The orchestra clearly enjoyed itself, and the audience erupted into applause – even briefly the rare rhythmic clapping normally reserved for the pinacle of ensembles in this musically-literate country.

The first half of the concert also included the appearance by Moreno for two programmed works by Sarasate: Gypsy Airs (based on central European gypsy fiddle music) and the Carmen Fantasy (based on themes from Bizet’s opera).  Moreno’s performance was sultry, dark but alluring.  She demonstrated mastery over every tone, thick in the slower measures, quick-fingered in the wild ones. Tonight she did not have to struggle with the poor score she had on Wednesday, but instead took charge of the already-complex music and made it her own.  The enraptured audience could not really contain itself, breaking into an inappropriate roaring applause right in the middle of her show, and refusing to give up cheering until conductor Martín turned around on the podium and pleaded with the audience to stop clapping.  I’ve never seen this behavior in Salzburg before – and while I shared the audience’s opinion of her playing, I did not go along.  When these two pieces ended, she added a work by Manuel de Falla, in duet with the harpist.

I think we could have kept calling her out, but it ended there.  Likewise at the end of the concert the audience demanded more, but we only got one orchestral encore tonight (the same Chapí overture for La Revoltosa they did on Wednesday, although tonight with even more buzz in the air).

Una triomfada!

Salzburger Landestheater, Felsenreitschule

Bizet, Carmen

I do not know what opera I just saw performed by the Salzburg Landestheater at the Felsenreitschule (something nonsensical about Mexican drug cartels), but I do know what I heard: a musically-outstanding performance of Bizet‘s Carmen.

The highest kudos must go to the Landestheater’s music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, for ignoring the idiocy on stage and getting the musicians to produce real drama.  She captured the emotion, drove the (real) plot, and balanced the tragedy with the light-heartedness and dance in much of this music.  The orchestral colors mixed in just the right combinations, full but never overwhelming the singers.

The cast, too, responded to her direction more than to the stage director’s.  The Byelorussian mezzo Oksana Volkova portrayed a seductive – both flirty and hard-to-get – Carmen with a full voice, although it tired during rhe second act (performed without a break from the first, so requiring her to show quite a lot of stamina).  Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi, like his character Don José a Basque, took most of the first act to warm up, but his originally somewhat-dry voice came into its own as the opera progressed.  Philadelphian Zachary Nelson disappointed as a weaker-voiced Escamillo, more telling in contrast to the others.  The best voice of the evening belonged to Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, as Micaela, whose beautiful instrument radiated confidently.

About the staging (a terrible concept by Andreas Gergen), the less said the better.  This was not an update into another time and location, but rather a retelling of the story.  Determining exactly how to get the new plot to match the libretto took too much energy.  When it became apparent that the musical performance deserved full attention, I started ignoring the revised plot on stage and just enjoyed the music.  Looking at the singers, it seems they tried to do the same, focussing entirely on Gražinytė-Tyla and getting on with it.

Armenian Philaharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Bizet, Gounod, Beethoven

Two weeks after my father died, I decided it was OK to start going to live concerts again.

I have long noted that only its principle conductor Eduard Topchjan seems to make the mediocre Armenian Philharmonic sound good.  I have suspected, though, that this might be because he does not schedule good guest conductors.  So tonight I got to hear what would happen if a truly excellent guest conductor took the podium: Pavel Kogan, whom I have seen at the helm of his Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, came to Yerevan.

The orchestra responded beautifully to him.  Even the normally-creeky strings produced full and nuanced tones.  Although not everyone always managed to play together, they still did far better than they normally do under guest conductors.

The concert opened with the suite #1 from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlésienne, in a reading which emphasized the music’s often-hidden peculiar inner harmonies and the melodrama sufficient to remember that Bizet wrote the music to augment a drama.

In contrast, the ballet music from Gounod’Faust was far less dramatic, because it never belonged in the opera to begin with.  Gounod had interpolated it into the opera only to fulfill the Paris Opera’s absurd ballet requirement.  So while the music did not portray drama, it still needed to dance, and Kogan had the orchestra dancing appropriately.

After the intermission came Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.  Although not programmatic, this symphony has great drama like all Beethoven symphonies, albeit more subtle.  Kogan knew how to draw out the drama that, when hidden, makes this symphony not well-understood.  The symphony, which starts slowly and quietly, springs to life in a way a mediocre orchestra might not manage.  This one managed tonight.

Only a very small audience showed up, but everyone knew what they had heard.  So did the orchestra.  Smiles all around and a standing ovation for Kogan from audience and orchestra.

Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Rachmaninov, Chopin, Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Puccini, Cilea, Sorozábal, Giménez, Khachaturian

The Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Vladimir Spivakov dropped into the Khachaturian Hall this evening, as part of its tenth anniversary season celebrations.  This orchestra was created essentially as the house orchestra of Moscow’s International House of Music, that bizarre Escher-esque building with the awful acoustics where I attended one concert (not this orchestra) and never went back again.  So, since I completely managed to miss hearing this orchestra (not to be confused with orchestras having similar names) during my time in Moscow, I finally got to hear them now in a different hall.

Incidentally, it seems that in Moscow they no longer perform exclusively in the International House of Music, but schedule a significant minority of their concerts in the Moscow Conservatory Great Hall, with its top-notch acoustics.  I suppose they too regret their link with their home venue.

According to the orchestra’s website, they were supposed to do two concerts in Yerevan, followed by one in Gyumri (Armenia’s second-largest city).  The posted programs for Yerevan were an exclusively-Rachmaninov concert and an opera gala.  In the end, they combined the concerts into a single one in each venue (abridging the Rachmaninov to a single work).  This produced a bi-polar evening.

Before the intermission, the young Ukrainian pianist Aleksandr Romanovsky joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto.  While dexterously maneauvering through Rachmaninov’s score, he also tried his best to get a sweet sound out of the Khachaturian Hall’s sour Steinway.  In this, the orchestra assisted him with some exceptionally warm playing, particularly from the woodwinds.  Afterwards, Romanovsky treated us to a moving encore rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne opus 20.

After a long intermission, the orchestra returned for a full 90-minutes-worth of opera excerpts (from operas by Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-SaënsPuccini, and Cilea, and from zarzuelas by Pablo Sorozábal and Gerónimo Giménez), joined by mezzo Juliette Galstian and soprano Hasmik Papian (both Armenian stars), and by baritone Vasily Ladyuk (a dynamic Russian).  The second portion of the concert had a spontaneous feel, in part because they did not keep to the printed program but added or subtracted arias or orchestral pieces independently of what was on the page.  Clearly they were having fun.  All three of the soloists demonstrated a sense of drama – or at least as much drama as they could muster with the arias taken out of context (and considering that the solo parts were all individual arias, so the program never allowed the three singers to interact with each other, which was unfortunate).  The orchestra, too, gave spirited accompaniment for the soloists, while also demonstrated its own spirit for the Carmen overture and intermezzi from Manon Lescaut and La Tabernera del Puerto, culminating in – as an encore – the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.

Although the playing was quite beautiful, the second half of the concert had the feel of a long set of encores, one after another, never really going anywhere.  By the time of the real encore, the orchestra’s playing had simply lost much of its spontaneity.  Yes, they played all the notes well, but no they were no longer showcasing themselves despite the boisterous music.  For a brief visit on tour, Spivakov and his orchestra should have selected their program more wisely.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner, Bellini, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, Orbelian

Tonight’s concert by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Armenian Philharmonic was peculiar long before it started.  Ostensibly part of the annual Yerevan Perspectives Music Festival, it appeared neither on the Festival’s published program nor on the Armenian Philharmonic’s schedule.  But when posters went up around town, tickets sold out.  Only cheap seats were available when I got to the box office, and in retrospect that was a good thing because this concert was not worth more than a 10-dollar ticket.  After the concert sold out (or over-sold out, since some people were literally sitting on every available stair in the aisles and standing to fill every other empty space), black market tickets were going for well above face value.

A list of composers was published on the concert flier, so presumably they knew what they were performing in advance.  But to tell us what was being performed, they hired a master of ceremonies.  Sometimes he was too slow to announce the next selection.  Sometimes Hvorostovsky beat him too it.  Sometimes we just had to guess.  A program would have been a nicer idea.

The first half of the program contained a mix of arias and orchestral overtures.  Hvorostovsky is clearly more comfortable in the Russian repertory, and Aleko’s lament from Rachmaninov’Aleko and an aria from Rubinstein’s Demon remain signature works, combining loving sensitivity with drama.  His singing style may be less suited for German and Italian repertory, at least for tonight’s selections, since his voice can sound somewhat bitter and not subtle in those languages, and this undermined the portrayal in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’Tannhäuser and in another aria that sounded (I’ll guess) like it came from Bellini’Puritani.  It worked better for Escamillo’s bullfighting aria from Bizet’Carmen, as Hvorostovsky ostentatiously made his appearance in the middle of the orchestral introduction, and then gave a swashbuckling portrayal quite appropriate for the scene (this may also have worked better since French is already an ugly enough language, and a biting Russian baritone will not make that worse).

The orchestra mostly kept pace, under the baton of the Armenian-American conductor Constantine Orbelian, but Orbelian does not have the same control that the orchestra’s music director Eduard Topchjan has.  Topchjan is perhaps the only one to make this orchestra sound good.  Tonight, they reverted down several levels, missing notes and entrances, and failing to allow natural phrasing in the music to flow, making the performance somewhat disjointed.  When Hvorostovsky sang, they thankfully stayed in the background (with some glaring exceptions).  When performing the overtures to Verdi’NabuccoGlinka’s  Ruslan i Lyudmila, Bizet’s Carmen, they just served to keep the audience entertained while Hvorostovsky took a breather.  Likewise for a Khachaturian dance in the concert’s second half.

When I worked in Russia, someone told me that someone famous (unfortunately, I forget who) once quipped that if the Russians have ever done anything cultured, they learned it from the Jews, the Armenians, or the Georgians.  The second half of the concert seemed designed to prove that no matter how well they have been trained, Russians remain tasteless underneath.  I suppose Hvorostovsky selects his own programs, so I will blame him.  His selections in the second half converted the hall into a Russian nightclub, but with the accompaniment scored for full orchestra to ensure it could become as tacky as possible.  He sang a string of Russian-language songs by Russian and Armenian composers (according to the flier: Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, and Konstanin Orbelian – the last being the uncle of the conductor and who came on stage personally to accompany Hvorostovsky and the orchestra on a miked piano, and whose music is as cheesy as it was when I last suffered through it in 2011).  Hvorostovsky used a microphone for these songs (he correctly did not use one in the first half of the program).  Why someone with his voice needed amplification is a mystery, but it just made the sound more seedy and defeated the point of paying to hear him sing live.  His gold chain glittered under his half-unbuttoned shiny black shirt.

Audience reaction was mixed.  Some – presumably the Russified Armenians, of whom there are far too many – clearly loved it and applauded madly.  But a sizable minority had expressions of disgust on their faces similar to mine.  After politely sitting through the scheduled part of the concert, and sitting on our hands during the applause, we waited to see what Hvorostovsky would do for encores.  He began with two differently-scored versions of the Russian nightclub favorite “Dark Eyes.”  When it became clear that the encores would continue in the same manner, lots of us got up and walked out.

Staatsoper

Bizet, Carmen

I opened my 2013-14 (or maybe 5774) music season tonight with Bizet’s Carmen at the Staatsoper.

The Staatsoper dusted off a 1978 production by Franco Zeffirelli, which ensured the staging matched the plot at least.  The large sets, painted to look even larger, produced a traditional reading, but also had some little touches.  One came when José and Carmen saw each other for the first time: everyone else on stage froze in whatever position they happened to be in, and only the two main protagonists moved, as the music amplified their clear passion.  As an example of Carmen’s rough and hot personality, when she danced for José in the tavern in Act Two, lacking castanets she smashed a plate left on a table, and used the shards to click the beats.  These little touches added to the drama.  Unfortunately, in the end, the production at the big-picture level remained somewhat cluttered, with superfluous action by extras leading to distraction.

The Philadelphia-trained Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham headed the cast, with a sultry Carmen.  Roberto Alagna, as Don José, overwhelmed her however, with a more secure stage presence and and fuller expressive voice.  Something about the chemistry between these two lacked, and Alagna had much better chemistry with the Romanian Anita Hartig, who sang the smaller role of Micaela with such controlled drama that she became the most sympathetic character (and characterization) on the stage.  The audience showered her with approval during the final curtain call, and the swell of the applause clearly took her by surprise judging by her facial expression.  She deserved it.  Just one more reason José should have married her and not gotten mixed up with Carmen.

The rest of the cast, in various supporting roles, kept up the basic required standard.  The orchestra sounded terrific in the pit, led with a beaming smile by Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger.

After seeing the level of dress in the audiences deteriorate over the years, tonight marked a pleasant exception.  Even though this was not a gala evening nor a special event, I saw a number of men in black tie (something I have not seen for years), including a little boy in my loge.  Women wore proper gowns.  While there was not as much Austrian Tracht as I like, I was far from the only one taking that option.  Even the tieless tourists looked neat and clean.  Sad that when an audience dresses for the opera it is so noticeable for being so unusual these days.

Stanislavsky Opera

Bizet, Carmen

Carmen at the Stanislavsky tonight.

I suppose even the Stanislavsky is allowed to have off days. Musically it was fine if not special. The Micaela (Natalya Petrozhitskaya) and José (Dimitry Polkopin) were both very good. The rest of the cast was mostly middling. The Escamillo (Aleksey Shishlyayev) was rather weak-voiced. And although I find French an ugly enough language as it is, I have discovered that it is even worse when sung and spoken with thick Russian accents.

The orchestra was fine. However the audience seemed fond of clapping inappropriately. It clapped not only when the conductor came out, but also after the first note of each act. And it clapped whenever there was a fermata. And it clapped randomly at other points for no apparent reason. The conductor (Wolf Gorelik) was obviously annoyed and kept turning around on the podium to stare down the audience every time it started clapping. Oddly, he continued to conduct when he did that, with his back to the orchestra. If he had guts he would have just stopped conducting and waited for people to behave before carrying on.

The Stanislavsky does not usually do elaborate stagings, but suggestive ones. I find that their suggestive stagings generally work. However, the only explanation I have for tonight’s staging is that the director was high, and kept doing more and more of whatever drugs he was taking as he moved from act to act. For a suggestive staging, I have no idea what he was trying to suggest.

In the first act, the girls from the cigarette factory all came out wearing 19th-century undergarments. I do not think that is how even gypsies dressed to go to work in Seville back then. There seemed to be some sub-plots going on which do not appear in the text, but were put front and center. I was not sure what was happening.

The second act tavern scene cannot really be described. The (male) tavern keeper flirted with Don José, apparently to warm him up for Carmen. Then he got onto the bed (bed!?) with them, but seemed more concerned with fondling José than making it an actual threesome.

The third act is supposed to be set in a smugglers’ hideout in the mountains. This one was set at a building with a big colonnade. The smugglers appeared to be smuggling hay, which was handed down from the roof of the colonnade in bales throughout the act. Goodness knows why. The smugglers themselves were dressed like monks. This act also contained perhaps the worst-choreographed knife fight (between José and Escamillo) I have ever seen on stage. Seriously, if they want to have the two jumping around the stage and stabbing at each other for five minutes, then there must be better ways to arrange this.

In the final act, someone should explain to the director that at bullfights, the male spectators wear normal clothes (for their period in time) and the bullfighters wear bullfighting costumes, because this director had it backwards. The stands were filled with men dressed like bullfighters and women who had obviously just stepped out of a pre-revolution Goya painting. Then Escamillo and the other bullfighters arrived to fight bulls in street clothes. Then Carmen showed up dressed like a slutty secretary (a sort-of off-white business suit with lots of cleavage and a mini-skirt), and José came wearing a black suit with a white shirt and no tie. When he finally killed Carmen, he draped her over the railing. And since no one else came back out on stage, as they are supposed to at this point in the opera, I suppose his plea to be arrested was addressed to the audience. Or maybe to the conductor. Who knows.

Throughout the entire opera, they left a wind machine on in the back of the stage. This caused parts of the back of the set to blow around. The wind machine was also clearly audible whenever the music was even moderately quiet.

Oh, well. Beats sitting at home.