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.