Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Puccini

After needing to get an usher to eject someone from my seat, I enjoyed my second concert performance of Puccini’Tosca in two months, tonight with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra under Eduard Topchjan.

Hasmik Papian (the Vienna-based soprano I have only heard in Yerevan) headed the billing as Floria Tosca, providing a solid strong-willed heroine, who dropped into a delicate “Vissi d’arte” aria when at her most vulnerable moment.  She showed a clear chemistry with the two male leads, Hovhannes Ayvazyan as Mario Cavardossi and David Babayants as Baron Scarpia.  Both of them demonstrated tremendous expression in their voices, even if those voices did not display the same size as Papian’s.  Nevertheless, when it mattered during the second act Tosca-Scarpia duet and the third act Tosca-Cavaradossi duet, the combination excelled.

Maestro Topchjan kept everything together and well-paced, as usual, on the podium.  The orchestra did not sound big in the first act, but it grew throughout, without overwhelming the singers (as can happen in a concert performance).  By Yerevan standards, this was worth a strong ovation, with Topchjan the evening’s true catalyst.

As for my seat, I actually felt sorry for the older couple (the husband was in my seat, so he got ejected), but I did pay for my ticket in a full house, and their tickets were obviously fake (two seat numbers written by hand on a concert flier – someone must have sold this fraudulent paper to a poor unsuspecting older couple, all elegantly dressed up for a night of culture).  The wife gave me nasty looks for a while, but eventually settled down (she tried to make small talk, but we have no common language although neither of us thought to try Russian).  Her husband wandered around and seems to have found some empty seat somewhere else (the usher threw him out of the seat, not out of the hall).  The next two seats between her and the aisle were reserved for the Italian ambassador and his interpreter, making an obligatory appearance at an Italian opera (he went on stage before it began to thank Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic for programming Italian opera), although he seems to know little about opera since he had his interpreter lean over to me after the second act to ask me (in Armenian! I don’t know if she spoke English, so once I figured out what she wanted I answered in Italian) if it was over and time to go.  He seemed slightly disappointed he had to sit politely through another act.

Tbilisi State Opera, Tbilisi Conservatory

Puccini, Tosca

While its wonderful neo-Persian Opera House is still undergoing renovations (after almost four years since it closed, the renovations are almost done by the look of it), the Tbilisi State Opera continues to perform in other venues.  Tonight it did a fantastic concert version of Puccini’Tosca in the Tbilisi Conservatory.

Tosca‘s music alone has enough drama to survive unstaged, but it certainly helps to have a team like tonight’s that could make the drama unfold without the benefit of a staging.  The State Opera Orchestra produced a full sound under the steady baton of Giorgi Zhordania.  The climax of the first act nearly blew the roof off the Conservatory, whose main hall really is not that large, all the while keeping a very fine sound, swelling and ebbing as required to enunciate the plot.  I’d love to pack them up and take them back to Yerevan with me.

From the cast, Giorgi Oniani as Mario Cavaradossi and Nikoloz Ligvilava as Baron Scarpia excelled.  Oniani’s piercing tenor also effortlessly switched over to mezza voce as often required in this opera but not always achieved by many singers, although sometimes his voice lapsed into dry patches.  Ligvilava gave a menacing portrayal of the villainous Scarpia, in control of the plot right up to the point that Tosca murders him (but then, of course, getting his revenge beyond the grave).  Both probably speak Italian, or at least have sufficient familiarity to act their roles convincingly in the absence of a staging – they did not merely sing the notes, but also demonstrated they knew what they sang.

Unfortunately, Maqvala Askanidze did not do the same justice to the role of Floria Tosca.  Her voice failed to hit notes cleanly, wobbling around each note instead.  To overcome this failing, she often resorted to screaming, which had the benefit of lacking the wobble but simply became unpleasant.  We got stuck with her right to the end: Tosca has the last line.  Still, the title role aside, the stars shone for tonight’s performance.

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.

Volksoper

Puccini, Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi

The front and back ends of Puccini‘s Trittico came on stage at the Volksoper this evening.

The Volksoper performed both in German to make them more accessible.  This worked better for the darker Il Tabarro (Der Mantel) than for the comic Gianni Schicchi, which I had suspected.  I actually have recordings of both in German, so the concept is not unfamiliar, but the Volksoper’s Italianate performances tend not to reach the standards of other productions, whereas the brooding and less tuneful Tabarro could almost pass in German.  I have never actually seen Il Tabarro before, but have seen Gianni Schicchi (most recently at the Novaya Opera in November).

Conductor Stefan Klingele and the Volksoper orchestra contributed greatly to the success of the first part, with gorgeous lush tones emerging from the pit.  The cast, mostly nondescript, got on with the business of acting on a simple but apt set by Volksoper artistic director Robert Meyer, whose star continues to rise in my book.  The opera ended dramatically, if not in a convincingly realistic way, mostly on the musical strength of the orchestra and the principals.  Michael Ende as Luigi, had the biggest and most dramatic voice.  Alik Abdukayumov and Maida Hundeling starred as Michele and Giorgietta.

For the second part, Meyer moved the scene of Gianni Schicchi from 12th Century Florence to somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century (1950s?).  This presented no real problem, because almost nothing in the story is dated (except the criminal penalty for falsifying a will).  The realistic set worked.  And while the performance preserved the humor, the translation did not necessarily do justice to the original Italian.  This is a comedy that relies mostly on its script, rather than action (in contrast, the slapstick performance I saw in Moscow in the Fall was not the right approach).  Martin Winkler in the title role and Sebastian Reinthaller as Rinuccio stood out from the rest of the cast, all of whom acted in an appropriately comical manner.

Volksoper

Puccini, Madama Butterfly

I’ve seen some awful stagings of operas over the years, but I do not remember the last time I was left as speechless as I was tonight at the Volksoper at the end of something pretending to be Puccini’Madama Butterfly.  Most bad stagings are just obviously bad right from the beginning.  This one came as more of a shock since this was not Regietheater.  It was not even particularly modern.  The photos of the production made it look reasonable.  For most of the opera, I just assumed the director did not understand the plot – it was a bad interpretation, with some very questionable elements on stage, but not atrocious.  However, then he completely changed the ending and it crossed every conceivable level of comprehension.

If anyone reading this ever has the chance to see a production staged by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, shoot yourself first.

As I said, the production started out looking OK, as a period piece set in 1904 Nagasaki.  But the first sign that something was wrong was that the Japanese characters all wore westernized dress.  This remained so throughout the opera, with only Butterfly and Suzuki dressed in anything remotely Japanese.  Considering that this opera relates misunderstandings between cultures, placing Butterfly in the company of westernized Japanese removed that tension and the whole underlying context of the opera.

The next obvious interpretive problem was an extra character on stage.  Some Westerner (not Japanese) in a brown period suit was clearly meant to be obvious.  This man appeared in every scene, if not watching intently and scribbling notes to himself, then directly interacting with the other characters.  Pinkerton offered the whiskey to him (not to Sharpless).  Butterfly addressed her thoughts not to herself or even to Suzuki but instead to him.  Goro was shadowed in his work by this stranger.  And, amazingly, this character even took part in the love scene between Butterfly and Pinkerton.  In the Second Act, his identity finally became known: he was Yamadori, the wealthy Japanese suitor she rejects.  Clearly, this Yamadori had become so westernized as to become a white man.  And, by the way he was behaving, he was less mysterious and more a somewhat nasty stalker.  More on him later, unfortunately.

The third interpretive problem which appeared early on was the portrayal of Sharpless, the US Consul in Nagasaki, who came across as a befuddled clown.  Of course, in this opera as Puccini wrote it, Sharpless was the only one who saw the potential tragedy in this clash of cultures, and tried his best to convince everyone else that the whole affair would end badly.  But in this version, no one would listen to a fool, and his message was lost.

The opera continued along these lines until the second half of the second act (they staged the original version of the opera, which was not much different from the final version, but the material that would become Acts 2 and 3 was combined into a single act – indeed, I think the two act version works better dramatically).  During this final part of the opera, roughly corresponding to the third act of the revised version, Yamadori had thankfully stopped stalking Butterfly.  Pinkerton arrived not just with Kate and Sharpless, but also with a boatload of American tourists in modern dress, who started wandering around the set like it was a museum.  Indeed, banners showing old theater posters of Madama Butterfly and of Puccini adorned the stage, and many of the props from previous scenes now appeared inside display cases.  The tourists did not leave as the action tried to progress, but were obviously paying close attention (while examining Butterfly’s Japanese house).

All of this nonsense would have remained just nonsense.  However, nothing prepared me for the new ending.

Just as Butterfly was about to commit suicide (seemingly by slitting her throat), the American tourists rushed over to disarm and save her.  A happy ending perhaps?  What to do about Kate?  This dilemma was quickly resolved.

In the real plot, Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive too late – Butterfly has already committed suicide and the opera ends with Pinkerton calling out her name.  Not tonight.

Tonight, Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Kate re-joined the crowd of tourists as they disarmed and restrained Butterfly.  Yamadori then made an unexpected return right at this moment, and the shouts of “Butterfly!  Butterfly!” which Pinkerton was supposed to sing were instead transposed to this Yamadori character, who pointed at her menacingly.  And then, on a further hand-signal order from Yamadori, the American tourists took their turns stabbing Butterfly to death in a brutal murder and to Yamadori’s obvious delight.

Needless to say, this left the audience gasping in shock.  No one applauded.  Some boos rang out.  Then as the cast began to take its curtain calls in silence, I think most people realized that this travesty was not the cast’s fault, and the cast started to get polite applause (which swelled when Butterfly took her bow).  The applause ended immediately after the conductor motioned to the orchestra, and everyone just walked out as quickly as they could.

Melba Ramos, as Butterfly, had a pleasant voice which carried off her emotions.  Morten Frank Larsen, as Sharpless (and Jochanaan in Salome two weeks ago), had a dramatic voice, which somehow carried him through the absurd portrayal of Sharpless that director Herheim set out.  Adrineh Simonian as Suzuki was fine.  Jenk Bieck as Pinkerton was less so, but he clearly had a cold and was coughing throughout the performance.  Tetsuro Ban created nice orchestral tones in the pit – the orchestra deserved its applause.

Now, as for Herheim…

Novaya Opera

Puccini, Gianni Schicchi
Offenbach, Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home

Double-bill at the Novaya Opera tonight: Gianni Schicchi by Puccini and Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home by Offenbach.

Both operas were staged as farces.  This worked better for the Offenbach piece than for the Puccini, which relies more on its clever text to provide the comedy.  Perhaps the director assumed that Russians who do not speak Italian would not understand the humor (although supertitles were provided) so decided to ham it up for a laugh.  But people were not laughing that much.  By contrast, the Offenbach opera was performed in Russian, and the audience was in hysterics.

This production of Gianni Schicchi began before the music: at a birthday party for Buoso Donati, at which his family accidentally kills him as part of the slapstick act.  This type of humor continues throughout, and at the very end, after the opera should be over, Donati suddenly comes back to life, aware of what has gone on, and chases Gianni Schicchi out of the house.  All of this extraneous action was wasted, since the humor of the opera is more subtle.  The cast at least understood that, and when singing their roles (in clear Italian) did convey the text properly.  Oleg Didenko (as Simone) and Galina Korolëva (as Lauretta) especially excelled, and Dimitry Volosnikov kept the music lively in the pit.

For the Offenbach, the farce worked.  My Russian was insufficient to keep up with the text, and it is not an opera I previously knew (I’ve only read the plot summary on the day of the opera), but the audience kept laughing steadily, so I suppose it worked.  I could follow the plot easily enough, and enjoy the slapstick, but not catch the nuances of the text.  But the setting clearly worked better for the second half of the double-bill than for the first.  Musically, the company gave a better performance for the Puccini, however.

Stanislavsky Opera

Puccini, Madama Butterfly

The Stanislavsky Opera decided to showcase some of its new young talent in Puccini’Madama Butterfly tonight.  In Moscow, there seems to be no shortage of good young talent, so that was the evening’s entertainment.

The problem tonight was not the cast, however, but a conductor who must have been on drugs.  Vyacheslav Volich started out the overture at such a high speed that the orchestra could not keep up with him, making the start of the opera sound like a damaged CD that kept skipping all over the place.  And somehow they did this at high volume, which made life very difficult for the singers.  During the course of the first act, Volich slowed down, got things together (the orchestra actually sounded good, once they could follow the music), and modulated the volume, and we could begin to hear the singers properly by the final duet of the First Act.  Once we could hear them, the singers across the board sounded fully adequate.  Irina Vashchenko as Butterfly turned out to be a real treat, with a warm full voice and secure stage presence.

The staging was typical Stanislavsky minimal, with a few objects meant to suggest Japan (including Butterfly’s house, bizarrely shaped somewhat like Mount Fuji).  The director seemed to want to make up for the lack of scenery by overcompensating with the costumes, but these came off in part Chinese and in part silly.  She would have been better off keeping the costumes simple.

Two of her touches might have worked, if she had followed through properly.  The first was to have Butterfly become Americanized in both dress and movement in Act Two – including sitting in a Western-style chair (reverting in Act Three after she realizes Pinkerton has betrayed her).  But the whole tragedy here is that Butterfly never actually crosses over into Pinkerton’s world.

The other alternative touch came at the very end.  Butterfly stabbed herself not in the traditional Japanese way but instead by thrusting the knife downwards into her chest while standing.  The director had her drop the knife, but not collapse immediately.  This set up a dramatic ending, in which she would collapse dead just as Pinkerton came on stage, which would have made for a nice interpretive twist.  However, that is not what happened.  Pinkerton never arrived on stage, and she never collapsed dead.  Instead, the small boat she had climbed onto in order to commit suicide (an odd prop that had appeared in all three acts), gradually drifted across the stage, as Butterfly extended her arms.  So instead of having a nice interpretive twist, we got instead a heavily confused ending.  Close curtain.

Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Puccini, Turandot

Puccini’Turandot tonight on the Bolshoi New Stage (the one they are performing on during the botched renovation of their opera house across the street).

Conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius got an excellent tone out of the orchestra, particularly the winds and percussion, setting a great mood with the music. He took the first act more slowly than usual and painted a canvas. Unfortunately, he generally overpowered the singers, who had to work very hard to project over the orchestra (the chorus was not even always audible if it sang from the back of the stage).

The staging was a peculiar blend of costumes and sets which mixed influences from about 3,000 or 4,000 years of the Silk Route – I would swear there were ancient Babylonian statues and characters dressed in Maoist pyjamas. In general, though, the sets and costumes could be ignored. There were a couple of head-scratchers, though: for example, in the second act, Ping, Pang, and Pong, who are supposed to be court ministers, have been given rags to scrub down the palace walls, all the while trying to avoid getting run over by enormous statues (which might have been Babylonian gods, for all I could tell) that migrated around the stage (and occasionally opened to allow Ping, Pang, or Pong to hop inside and change their clothes, presumably because their fancy outfits were getting covered in paint scrubbed from the walls). Throughout, the three ministers actually sang with very pleasant voices (or at least what could be heard above the orchestra).

Another head-scratcher was the “appearance” of Turandot in the first act. She was carried on stage inside a large golden litter. At least I assume she was inside, since the litter was not transparent and had no windows, so she was not visible. It would seem that Calaf fell in love at first sight not with Turandot but rather with a large gold box. That is probably just as well, since when Turandot did appear in the second and third acts, no matter what mock-Chinese outfit they dressed her up in, they could not disguise the fact that she had the shape and the skin complexion of a very large potato, and only a famished Irishman could fall in love at first sight with such a spud. As Turandot, Yelena Zelenskaya was the only singer who could consistently project over the orchestra. This was unfortunate, since she also sang like a very large potato being boiled in hot water.

Roman Muravitsky, as Calaf, acted very well, but some of his notes cracked and he forgot his lines a couple of times (at least he is proficient enough in Italian to ad-lib sensibly).  Lolitta Semenina, as Liù, was not quite as good at acting, but was better at singing. However, by far the best performance of the night was by Otar Kunchulia (a Georgian), who was making his Bolshoi debut as Timur. He provided a noble portrayal of the deposed Tatar king – often this role is (with logic) portrayed as a tired old man. Here, he may have lost his eyes but he never lost his dignity.

Stanislavsky Opera

Puccini, Tosca

Rousing performance of Puccini’Tosca at the Stanislavsky this evening.

Aleksey Shishlyayev, the weak-voiced Escamillo I panned last week in my Carmen review, turned into a strong-voiced and energetic Scarpia this week. Probably had something to do with a more sensible staging. The staging also allowed the other characters to sing and act, and we got an excellent performance from a very diminutive tenor (but not with a diminutive voice) as Cavaradossi, Mikhail Vekua.  Natalya Muradimova as Tosca also performed well, although a notch off the other two principals.

Wolf Gorelik, who conducted Carmen last week, was on the podium again. He too provided a good musical platform for the singers, and did not have to face down the audience this week (although the audience was a bit too quick to applaud long before the ends of acts, and there were conversations going on during the performance, it was not quite as random as at Carmen last week).

The staging reverted to the more normal suggestive stagings that the Stanislavsky usually puts out, without the director being on drugs as he appeared to have been for Carmen. These stagings do not detract from the performance, and merely provide a foundation if the cast is good (which it generally is at the Stanislavsky). That said, there were curiosities: some of the staging was inexplicably Japanese-inspired (furniture, paper lanterns, some costumes of random characters), although most was not. Most bizarre though was the shepherd boy at the beginning of Act 3. He appeared dressed as a sheep at the back of the stage, and lip-synched to a recorded version of the boy’s song, which was played from a speaker on the balcony. This made no sense, besides being musically disconcerting (the sound coming from a different direction than the character ostensibly singing it, the music over-amplification in a non-amplified live performance, and the lack of an obvious reason for it).

But on the whole it was a very satisfying evening.