Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Gounod, Faust

The weekend at the Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic continued.  First I heard an orchestral concert, then a chamber concert, and tonight an opera: Gounod’Faust.  Musically, this was an exciting performance.  It was staged (in Salzburg’s Great Festival House), although it probably should not have been.

Stage director Reinhard von der Thannen is not German (indeed, he is Austrian) but he works primarily in Germany, and clearly he has been infected by whatever horrible disease has caused German opera directors to lose their ability to stage operas in the last half century or so.  The staging was at least not offensive, as German productions often are, but it was almost literally a circus.  The chorus were dressed up as clowns, and the main cast members often were as well.  There were acrobats.  There were lights (in fact, too many – the stage was usually glowing with bright light shining into the audience, sometimes blindingly so, to the point people were covering their eyes and some put on sunglasses).  There was comedy.  It had nothing to do with the plot, and often distracted from it.

Young Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez led a well-paced performance with the right orchestral coloring – both the colors and the amounts.  He managed to showcase the wonderful solos in the orchestra without overwhelming the singers, quite a fine balance to achieve.  And considering the nonsense taking place on stage, these were especially difficult circumstances.  To a degree, he forged ahead regardless of the imbecilic stage director, to craft a gripping drama.

The cast also helped in this sense, as they all demonstrated an understanding of the opera and the words they were singing, so could spin the right emotions regardless of what von der Thannen had them doing or had going on around them.

Piotr Beczala headed the cast in the title role.  While his acting and stage presence was superb, he was not in his best voice this evening, and was straining in the upper registers.  But, although Faust is the title character, Gounod’s setting is not actually about Faust – indeed, for many years the opera was performed under the name “Margarethe” to emphasize that she was understood to be the central character.  Maria Agresta did superb in that role.

However, for me, the key figure in this opera is actually Mephistopheles.  He drives the plot.  Ildar Abdrazakov handled that remarkably – even managing to sneak in some of the comedy von der Thannen had going on as a subtext.  This was a charming devil, but the devil he was.

Of the small roles, Alexey Markov stood out as a strong and courageous Valentin.  The Philharmonia Chor Wien was outstanding.  A performance worth hearing (although maybe only worth seeing to experience the sound live – it was recorded, but music sounds so much better when not over the tin).

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.

Staatsoper

Gounod, Faust

A very excellent new (as of last season) production of Gounod‘s Faust at the Staatsoper.

The cast contained Vienna regulars, which is to say they knew what they were doing.  Well-sung and well-acted, the cast members were all comfortable with each other.  Piotr Beczala sang a dynamic but tortured Faust.  Soile Isokoski is too old to look the role of Gretchen any more, but she certainly knows how to sing and act it.  Kwangchul Youn was a vibrant Mephistopheles.  And Adrian Eröd, as Valentin, is an up-and-coming baritone who has an expressive voice which is also large enough to fill the house.

Musically the production was very fine, under the baton of Bertrand de Billy.

But in addition, the staging was simply executed by Nicolas Joel.  This is a man who clearly familiarized himself completely with the opera, something that very few directors do these days.  Although the scenery was minimal (not minimalist, just minimal), it contained everything that the libretto required (for example, Mephistofeles comments in passing at one point that he wears a feather in his hat – his hat did indeed have one feather).  The cast members were directed to interact with each other, and to really act.  So there really was no explanation of the staging necessary – it spoke for itself, which is exactly what a good director should do.  Simple and elegant.

 

Highlights from 2007

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best performance: Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 3, Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam (performing in the Musikverein, Vienna) under Mariss Jansons (February). An emotional, transcendental, and ultimately triumphant performance that made me lose my breath several times. From my front-row seat, however, I discovered that Jansons makes snoring noises when he conducts, which is a little disconcerting. Otherwise he is a tremendous conductor and enormously popular in Vienna for good reason.

Worst performance: The Gypsy singer Carmen Linares, with the Spanish National Orchestra (performing in the Konzerthaus, Vienna, March). Orchestra under Josep Pons and young group of Spanish vocalists performed concert versions of de Falla’s ballet Amor Brujo and opera Vida Breve. However, the supposedly well-regarded Linares croaked the portions of Amor Brujo requiring a Gypsy singer and she also rasped the (supposed-to-be-male) Gypsy singer role in Vida Breve. Spanish Gypsy singing is a special art, but she may be the first Gypsy singer I have heard with no musical qualities whatsoever, and she even required amplification.

Worst performance at a concert (non-musician): Giorgio Mamberto, Head of the European Commission office in Kosovo, Pristina (March). Before a concert of the Kosovo Philharmonic (which deserves credit for actually managing to schedule a concert) sponsored by the EC to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Mamberto announced to all assembled that for fifty years there has been only peace in Europe, and that today Europeans can travel throughout Europe without passports and can work without visas. The Kosovars were not amused. The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman got up and replied that Kosovo would have loved to sign the Treaty of Rome fifty years ago, but unfortunately was otherwise occupied at the time.

Best opera: Gounod, Faust, Slovene National Opera Marburg (March). I somehow managed to go a whole year without making it to the Wiener Staatsoper, so took in my operas in other houses. This performance was anything but provincial, with a repertory cast under the Neapolitan conductor Lorenzo Castriota Skanderbeg (whose family claims it is descended from Albania’s mediaeval national hero).

Most fun at the opera: Offenbach, Orpheus in der Unterwelt, Volksoper, Vienna (September). The parody plot is very much dated, but easily adaptable by a good director thanks to Offenbach’s timelessly comic music. This version worked.

Worst opera: Ravel, Spanische Stunde, Volksoper, Vienna (October). The plot is a farce and should have been very funny, but Ravel’s boring music did not match up despite being well-performed. The evening was not a total write-off thanks to a terrific performance after the intermission of Orff’s Die Kluge, which was fun indeed.