Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Verdi, Requiem

My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.

Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.

The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.

To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).

La Scala Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Cherubini, Verdi, Rossini

Rousing visit by La Scala Philharmonic of Milan to the Salzburg Festival this evening.  Befitting an orchestra whose musicians mostly play in the orchestra pit of an opera house, this group understands drama, and adds to that an Italian passion.  Chief conductor Riccardo Chailly, who began his tenure in La Scala in the middle of last season, knew precisely how to maximize the talents of this orchestra, with big gestures (to compensate for his small stature, perhaps) but fully under control to harness their exuberance.  

The program’s first half showcased the rarely-performed music of Luigi Cherubini.  Actually, it was the inclusion of Cherubini on this program that made it most interesting.  A contemporary of Beethoven, the two of them knew each other’s music and each informed the other – Cherubini being more known for drama and liturgical music, Beethoven for his instrumental output.  Beethoven was the more original composer, but Cherubini’s sense of theater did allow him to inject a certain verve into the orchestral pieces on the menu tonight: the Concert Overture in G and the Symphony in D (Cherubini’s only symphony).  These were italianate updates on classical form, rather than reflecting Beethoven’s masterful innovations, but in keeping with Cherubini’s style and true to himself.  Chailly and the orchestra had fun with this opportunity.

They had more fun after the intermission, though.  The second half of the program led off with Giuseppe Verdi‘s ballet music The Four Seasons.  The convention at the Paris Opera required ballets to be inserted nonsensically into operas, and Verdi complied – but in composing a ballet for the Sicilian Vespers, Verdi decided to write one that not only could be deleted when performing the opera outside France, but for which the music would not go to waste as it could stand on its own.  The resulting half-hour work demonstrated Verdi’s ability to write evocative music for the dance – and as interpreted here by the Milanders and Chailly we could almost feel the weather change as the seasons progressed.

The scheduled part of the concert closed with another overture: from Giachino Rossini‘s William Tell.  Although a warhorse, this performance had a balance to it, with the orchestra not going through motions but drawing out the lines excitedly under Chailly’s direction.  We would have galloped off into the night at its conclusion, except that this audience wasn’t going anywhere.  The crowd demanded and got an encore: Verdi’s overture to the Sicilian Vespers.  This music did belong with the opera (unlike the ballet we heard earlier) and in the ten-minute span we went through the key points of the drama, concluding with the Sicilian rising.

The orchestra does not always have the most beautiful sound – it’s obvious they play to be heard from the pit.  But their joy with the notes shows.  I hate to harp too much on the Cleveland Orchestra, whose performance here on Friday was so disappointing, but it is precisely this that the Clevelanders do not seem to ever understand: music is passionate, it is emotional, it is dramatic.  The Bartók and Strauss works on Friday may be quite different from Cherubini, Verdi, and Rossini, but they still required emotion, that Cleveland despite its more gorgeous playing simply could not produce.  That was precisely von Dohnányi’s criticism of the Cleveland Orchestra.  The La Scala orchestra just appears to understand music better than Cleveland, and shares one approach with the Vienna Philharmonic (albeit nowhere in the league of the Vienna Philharmonic): its musicians, like the Philharmonic, spend most of their time in the orchestra pit.  It was Claudio Abbado’s idea during his tenure at La Scala to pull this orchestra out of the pit and put it on stage (no doubt influenced by his time in Vienna), and Chailly sees himself following in the late Abbado’s steps.  It made for an exciting concert tonight.

Salzburger Landestheater, Haus für Mozart

Verdi, Rigoletto 

The Salzburg Landestheater put on a musically-excellent performance of Verdi‘s Rigolettoin the Haus für Mozart, for a rare Sunday afternoon show.  The production showcased two young stars, Ramë Lahaj (from Kosovo) as the Duke, and Eri Nakamura (from Japan) as Gilda.  Lahaj’s voice was big and lyrical, as he inhabited his role.  Nakamura’s voice, large enough to fill the hall, nevertheless came across innocent and almost delicate.  The Italian Ivan Inverardi’s experienced Rigoletto nuanced but bold baritone portrayed a tragic court jester, despite having to act around some atrocious staging (more on which below).

Young British conductor Adrian Kelly drove the orchestra along to depict the dark tragedy of this opera, setting the mood right from the overwhelming introduction.  In the draft, Verdi had originally titled this opera “The Curse” before settling on naming it after the court fool, but despite the opera’s lighter tuneful moments, it remains dark, permeated by evil.  Kelly’s musical direction never let this concept slip.

Unfortunately, the Landestheater contracted a German director to stage this production.  Nothing good ever comes from German (or German-trained) opera directors in the last half century, and today’s production was no exception.  Amélie Niermeyer explained in the program notes that since the censor forced Verdi to change the setting of the opera (based on a real-life jester and his king from early 16th Century France) to a fictionalized Italian town which could have been anywhere (in this case, Verdi chose Mantua), she saw no reason not to make this an opera about anti-Fascism, and move the setting to the 1940s and Salò, Italy (capital of the Italian Social Republic, a puppet state established in German-occupied northern Italy from 1943-1945).

Niermeyer set the action on the elevator landings of different floors in an apartment building.  It is unclear who the Duke was supposed to be – the program notes suggested he might be the building’s owner.  At any rate, the setting was impossible to pull off with the plot.  There was no “outside” and characters had to remain on the landing where they were on set with action they should not have been in the same room for.  This made some scenes especially difficult, which the director resolved in strange ways (such as having Gilda, and then Rigoletto after her, get into the middle of the Duke’s love scene with Maddalena; or even the abduction scene where Rigoletto somehow does not realize he is in his own apartment – or at least the elevator landing where he sleeps with Gilda – and yes, there was a suggestion that maybe he does sleep with his daughter).  The final scene took place on the roof, with the Duke sleeping in a deck chair while the rest of the action took place (and somehow he never got wet in the storm), exiting via the elevator after patting Rigoletto on the shoulder.

None of this made much sense, but it also destroyed the tragic character of Rigoletto, who is very much the product of his time in history.  Put him into the Salò Republic and he becomes a willing accomplice of the Duke and really rather despicable.  His tragedy is that he is stuck as a court jester who knows too much and tries to stay alive and protect his daughter from an evil world, an unenviable situation.  This Rigoletto was just ridiculous, and a caricature of a bad man.  Inverardi was brave to try to give him back some of his character development.

However, this was not the worst of the staging.  During the first scene, in order to demonstrate the depravity of the Duke, Niermeyer populated the stage with prepubescent boys and girls in various stages of undress.  This was not artistic license.  This was child pornography.  Normally I favor deporting German opera directors; this time I’d suggest arresting her.

Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love.  The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.

This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully.  There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed.  She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program.  For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious.  Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes.  And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).

The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness.  The playing was workmanlike.  They hit most of the notes.  They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert.  Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.

The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello.  Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra).  A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra.  The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction.  Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more.  The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky

Before tonight’s concert of the Armenian Philharmonic, the Italian Ambassador, on behalf of his country’s president, presented conductor Eduard Topchjan with the Order of Merit, making him a Cavaliere, bestowed for his services to music.  This honor he well deserved.

I had gotten sick of hearing this mediocre orchestra flail under guest conductors, and so the return of Topchjan meant an extra mark in the calendar.  The orchestra sounds remarkably different with Topchjan on the podium, and tonight’s concert showcased his ability to keep his orchestra in working order.  The concert actually began with an encore – I suppose, if Topchjan received an Italian knighthood, he needed to quickly program some Italian music in addition to the two Russian pieces already scheduled.  So he treated the ambassador to a spirited overture from I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi.

The scheduled portion of the program began with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  This concert actually marked the conclusion of the “Return Festival” (other than this concert, the Festival programmed mostly chamber music), in which Armenian-born stars who have settled elsewhere return to Armenia to perform.  Tonight’s piano soloist, Vag Papian, now based in Israel, began his international professional career as a conductor before settling in with the piano, and he at one point was the principal conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic in the late 1980s (succeeding Valery Gergiev).

Papian’s piano technique was curious – he set the bench rather high, and then hovered over the key-board as though he were short-sighted, bent over at 90 degrees with his nose practically jabbing at the tops of his fingers.  Papian handled the awful piano in the Khachaturian Hall by keeping his touch light, a softly-softly approach that hit all the notes without allowing too much of the tinny sound of this poor instrument to escape.  Topchjan kept the orchestra appropriately modulated, and an enraptured audience listened intently.  The strategy worked as well during the encore (which I could not identify), for solo piano and thus without any other instruments to cover if the piano should make its usual false noises.  Papian was rewarded by warm applause.

Oddly, half the audience did not return after the intermission for Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #4.  They missed a solid performance.  Despite a disastrous opening by the horns (especially sad, since the horns otherwise sounded great all night), Topchjan had the orchestra dancing its way through this exciting symphony, with an extra lilt in the second movement, some wonderfully-delicate play from the woodwinds in the third, and a boisterous brass finale.   Bravo, Maestro.

Soloists of the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, Cadogan Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Mascagni, Verdi

Russian oligarchs have adopted Sloan Square in London as one of their preferred neighborhoods to purchase real estate and hide outside Russia, which has somewhat ruined the quality around there.  Tonight, however, good Russians descended on the area: soloists of Moscow’s Vishnyevskaya Opera Center performed at Cadogan Hall.  The Opera Center, founded in 2002 as a training school by the great diva Galina Vishnyevskaya, who died last December, was one of seven opera venues I experienced during my Moscow years.  There, Vishnyevskaya taught the students the tricks of her trade: both the beautiful singing but equally importantly the acting, which made her – in my opinion – the greatest-ever dramatic soprano.

Tonight’s performance felt doubly disembodied: not only did they only perform brief excerpts, but they did so without an orchestra and only piano accompaniment, which removed much of the drama.  Nevertheless, these six young performers – Konstantin BrzhinskyLyubov MolinaAleksey TikhomirovSergey PolyakovYekaterina Mironicheva,and Karina Flores have learned well. They came across as much more comfortable in the Russian repertory (TschaikowskyRimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) than in the Italian (Mascagni and Verdi), which is probably no surprise. Certainly the Russian selections made the biggest impression.  The giant bass-baritone Tikhomirov sang excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a role I heard him perform live at the Opera Center’s theater in 2011.  The final scene of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, performed by Mironicheva as Tatyana (a role I also saw her in at the Opera Center in 2011) and Brzhinsky as Onyegin, concluded the Russian-repertory part of the program as a particular highlight.

Soloists of the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, Cadogan Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Mascagni, Verdi

Russian oligarchs have adopted Sloan Square in London as one of their preferred neighborhoods to purchase real estate and hide outside Russia, which has somewhat ruined the quality around there.  Tonight, however, good Russians descended on the area: soloists of Moscow’s Vishnyevskaya Opera Center performed at Cadogan Hall.  The Opera Center, founded in 2002 as a training school by the great diva Galina Vishnyevskaya, who died last December, was one of seven opera venues I experienced during my Moscow years.  There, Vishnyevskaya taught the students the tricks of her trade: both the beautiful singing but equally importantly the acting, which made her – in my opinion – the greatest-ever dramatic soprano.

Tonight’s performance felt doubly disembodied: not only did they only perform brief excerpts, but they did so without an orchestra and only piano accompaniment, which removed much of the drama.  Nevertheless, these six young performers – Konstantin BrzhinskyLyubov MolinaAleksey TikhomirovSergey PolyakovYekaterina Mironicheva,and Karina Flores have learned well. They came across as much more comfortable in the Russian repertory (TschaikowskyRimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) than in the Italian (Mascagni and Verdi), which is probably no surprise. Certainly the Russian selections made the biggest impression.  The giant bass-baritone Tikhomirov sang excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a role I heard him perform live at the Opera Center’s theater in 2011.  The final scene of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, performed by Mironicheva as Tatyana (a role I also saw her in at the Opera Center in 2011) and Brzhinsky as Onyegin, concluded the Russian-repertory part of the program as a particular highlight.

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.

Armenian National Opera

Verdi, La Traviata

Verdi’La Traviata tonight at the Armenian National Opera featured as Violetta Valéry soprano Anahit Mekhtaryan, who seems to be a bit of a celebrity here.  Her delicate voice matched the role well, on one hand, but proved big enough to fill the large hall on the other.  The upper registers tended sharp, especially at bigger volumes, but overall she was quite good.

As Alfredo Germont, Hovhannes Ayvazyan matched her well, although his voice sounded a tad tinny.  Arnold Kocharyan performed the role of Giorgio Germont as a sympathetic figure, rather than the necessary bad guy in many portrayals.  He was a character of his time, and meant well, but ultimately showed a human side and felt responsible for Violetta’s downfall (although her illness predated the events).

Staging was mostly traditional, except for some odd stone structures on the back wall.  Two stone figures appeared to be the couple from Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.  Each scene, they moved further apart from each other.  Other rock figures moving around were a devil’s face (I presume), and a lot of detached hands, not to mention two stone columns which melted onto the floor during the final act.  Although weird, the back wall could be safely ignored.

The orchestra sounded quite good, under the able baton of Karen Durgaryan.  Unfortunately, as I have noted before, the huge concrete block that is the opera and concert house is poorly insulated from the outside, so noise leaks in.  This evening, a rock concert was scheduled for a square in front of the opera side of the building, and the floor throbbed with unwanted bass.  During the final act, as Violeta prepared to die, an unfortunately-timed and very audible fireworks display began in the square.  It seems odd that they could not have been bothered to wait ten minutes.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner

For the closing concert of the Armenian Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season, the orchestra honored the 200th anniversary year of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, with a concert of selections (a “Gala,” as they refer to such concerts in the former Soviet space).  Hasmik Papian performed the soprano solos, and Eduard Topchjan conducted.

Papian, born in Yerevan but based in Vienna, has apparently made quite a career singing Verdi, and similar, heroines with her expressive large voice.  Although we only had arias, she clearly knew she had taken the stage and assumed the roles.  Verdi filled the program before the intermission (she sang arias from BalloDon Carlo, and Forza).  But she has recently added Wagner to her repertory, and we got that after the intermission.  Her voice certainly handled Senta in the 2nd Act ballad from Holländer and Elisabeth’s “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser (that particular aria coming across in with a poignant twinkle, since she clearly showed she had made a triumphant return to her hometown’s large concert hall, where she got her professional start in the opera house on the back side of the same building).  When it came to Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan, however, her voice may not yet have filled that role, especially if she had to sing for hours beforehand, but she made an excellent case as an Isolde for the not distant future.  For an encore, she treated the house to a rousing “Ritorna vincitor!” from Verdi’s Aida.  In this case, she herself had returned home triumphant.  The audience roared.

Papian aside, any concert with Topchjan conducting is worth going to.  In addition to the arias, the program also contained a selection of overtures.  The orchestra gave suitably spirited renditions of the overtures to Vespri Siciliani and Forza del Destino, which not only showed off some powerful chorales but also delicate solo work on the middle strings and winds.  I do not know how often Topchjan gets to conduct opera, but he certainly can convey a sense of the dramatic in the overtures.  The question on this hot night, though, was whether the orchestra would whither after intermission when the Verdi gave way to Wagner.  The Prelude to Lohengrin that opened the second half of the concert answered the question: the orchestra sounded even warmer and more lush.  But whereas it handled bits of Lohengrin, Holländer, and Tannhäuser, the next question was whether the Prelude from Tristan might not prove its undoing.  Yet here Topchjan had the orchestra sounding its best, effortlessly navigating the chromatics while keeping the full tone – another question with a good answer.  The thing is, this orchestra still has flaws, but when Topchjan conducts they sound completely different.

I hope they sound this good next season.

Belgrade National Theater

Verdi, Il Trovatore

In my trips to Belgrade a number of years ago, I never managed to catch an opera at the National Theater, whose stage also holds other types of drama.  This week in Belgrade saw me overlap with Verdi’Il Trovatore.  This opportunity seemed doubly novel, as I do not believe I have ever seen Trovatore live, despite it regular showing up in standard repertory as one of the most-popular operas not only within Verdi’s canon but in general.  Tonight I rectified both situations.

The music, as I already knew, was beautiful.  But I left the performance wondering why exactly this opera ranks so high in the canon.  It combines a silly plot (not unusual in opera, but maybe especially so in this case) with an idiotic libretto written by someone whose intention was to remove all drama.  Many operas survive silly plots, few can survive poor books.  Verdi’s wonderful music attempted to inject the drama, but utterly failed to do so.  What a pity Verdi had not met Boito earlier (although Boito was only about ten at the time Trovatore premiered, he still could have done a better job fixing up the text).

Belgrade’s National Theater, as a building, did live up to its billing.  The theater is a gem.  It has a surprisingly tiny stage and auditorium.  Although not very large, the auditorium is tall, with four levels, making the upper gallery rather high.  This does allow, however, the music to rise, giving a fuller tone than I would have normally expected in such a small place.  Yet the cast did not have to labor to project into the hall, nor even over the orchestra, whose position (spilling into the first boxes) was exposed and might in another house overwhelm the singers.

Ana Jorana Grajovic also deserves some of the credit on the podium.  She conducted a clean and clear performance, using a precise but nuanced stick technique.  Her orchestra sounded much better than I had anticipated, and clearly she kept them together.  The chorus, also taking its visual cues from her, never missed anything, although they looked generally bored on stage, and the choral singing came off so precisely as to sound blockish.

The cast was also mixed.  Many of singers in the smaller roles, but also Manrico (sung by Dusan Plazinic) had tired out their voices somewhere, as though they had spent the week yelling into a canyon hoping the echo would reflect a pleasant sound.  It did not.  Dragana del Monaco stood out as Azucena, clearly the star of this performance (she is the ex-wife of a son of Mario del Monaco, one of the greatest all-time Italian tenors; she perhaps understandably appears to have kept the name in her divorce despite a subsequent re-marriage).  Dragutin Matic (Count de Luna), whose elaborate hair braiding looked exactly the same as the conductor’s, and Jasmina Trumbetash Petrovic (Leonora) also had enough stage presence, at least in this small house.

I bought a program, as usual.  Nevermind that it was only in Serbian (this is Serbia, so fair enough), but it was recycled from 2011.  While recycling should be applauded normally, the cast reflected that of two years ago, which for the most part did not match tonight’s.  So the program was of no use.  If they are going to recycle programs, they should probably not print the cast in them but instead put the cast on a printed sheet insert (they had those sheets anyway hanging in the entrance displays, so people could see the cast when coming into the building).  I suppose they’ll learn this commonly-employed trick some day.

Staatsoper

Verdi, Rigoletto

Back to the Staatsoper this evening for Verdi’Rigoletto.  I saw this same production a few years ago, but a promising cast and an available ticket brought me back.

The British baritone Simon Keenlyside portrayed Rigoletto almost acrobatically – rolling a cartwheel to make his onstage entrance during the Prologue.  He did not stay still, although his actions never became hectic or frantic but rather measured, as a good court jester would understand. He also successfully navigated the two mutually-exclusive halves of Rigoletto’s tortured personality: the professional fool who is hated by the court for speaking truth and the doting father who tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to protect his treasured daughter from an evil world.

Young Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko made her Staatsoperdebut as Rigoletto’s dear Gilda.  Her voice and her demeanor graced the stages suitably delicately, as appropriate.  Her range impressed, but while her upper and lower registers produced the purest tones, her middleregister wobbled quite a bit too much.

As the Duke of Mantua, American Matthew Polenzani cut a dashing figure – a one dimensional character played to the fullest. Kurt Rydl, a menacing Sparafucile, and Elena Maximova as Maddalena rounded out the main ensemble roles.  Sorin Coliban, in the minor role of the Count of Monterone, deserves special mention, in that his character, although having only two brief appearances on stage, curses Rigoletto, thus driving the plot and sending Rigoletto into ultimate despair.  Without a strong curse, the whole plotcan collapse.  Coliban’s commanding voice projected from the back of the stage, hitting and devastating poor Rigoletto.  Keenlyside picked up the plot from there.

Jesús López-Cobos conducted the State Opera Orchestra from the pit, but appeared to have a smile on his face as he looked over the orchestra to the active and fully-engaged cast.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus, Mariinsky Concert Hall

Verdi, Aida

In 2003, the Mariinsky’s set warehouse, a few blocks from the Theater, burned down, leaving only parts of three walls from the historic building.  Valery Gergiev decided this was an opportunity to build a completely new concert hall inside those walls, and the Mariinsky Concert Hall duly opened in 2006.  Gergiev has boasted to me that the acoustics are as good as those in the Moscow Conservatory, which has some of the finest in the world and certainly sets the standard for Russia.  Until today, I had not yet had the opportunity to have a listen.  I am pleased to report that the acoustics did not disappoint, although today’s performance may not have been the best way to judge.

The Mariinsky’s new production of Verdi’s Aida has been designed for the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The front part of the stage submerges an entire level (a full floor down, rather than the usual lesser amount for an orchestra pit) to allow for an otherwise non-existent orchestra pit, leaving the rest of the stage clear.  I must say that the disembodied sounds coming from the submerged orchestra floated clearly into the theater in full sonority.  So, although this is not perhaps how the hall was designed to showcase orchestral acoustics, obviously the architects and acoustical engineers thought of even this detail.  Well done.

The singing from the stage was clear.  Some of the soloists sounded a tad tinny, but this may not have come as a result of the acoustics and may just be their actual voices.  As is usually the case in Russia, the male singers were stronger than the females.  Dmitry Polkopin, whom I have enjoyed in Moscow as part of the ensemble from the Stanisklavsky Opera (he provided a wonderful German in the Queen of Spades there last year), sang a strong-throated Radames.  His two unattractive female suitors, Zlata Bulycheva as Amneris and Yekaterina Shimanovich as Aida, had pleasant enough voices, when they could be fully heard (Bulycheva was more expressive, but less audible than Shimanovich – I was sitting in the second row, and only really heard her clearly when she was singing stage front and center, which could not have been an acoustical problem since I could hear everyone else).  Perhaps the two best-voiced cast members represented the clergy: Mikhail Kit as the High Priest Ramfis and Irina Vasilyeva as the Priestess.

In the pit, Andrei Petrenko, the Mariinsky’s Principal Chorus Master, conducted.  His reading ironically worked best with purely orchestral passages, particularly the lighter moments.  The singing was not always altogether in time with the orchestra.  He also provided no interpretation: good, bad, or otherwise.  Where the singers provided some, then the plot moved.  Where the singers did not, then the performance dragged.  The chorus, which in this production remained on stage the entire time, often looked bored.

Staging a performance on a concert hall stage obviously placed limits on how elaborate the sets could be.  In this case, Daniele Finzi Pasca, the stage director, is a circus clown (quite literally – the man’s profession is indeed a circus clown).  Finzi Pasca is also a Swiss peace activist, which may actually also be synonymous with “circus clown.”  In the program, he explained that he intended to stage Aida as an anti-war drama (“if only the Pharaoh and Amonasro could have sat down and talked.”)  Even knowing what his concept was, I could not discern it from the staging.  If the idea was in his head, he never managed to convey it.  The sets were minimal (because of the stage), and the costumes looked like they had been design leftovers rejected from a production of Zauberflöte (at least that made them mock-Egyptian, at any rate).  He presented nothing offensive, so in that respect he did better than every stage director working in Germany today.  However, he may wish to keep his day job.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus (St. Petersburg), Tschaikowsky Hall (Moscow)

Kruglikov, Verdi

Tonight’s special concert of Verdi’Requiem with the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev was for the benefit of victims of the disaster in Japan.

This was an extremely dramatic operatic reading of the Requiem.  This piece is already rather operatic, but tonight it was so expressive that the Mariinsky almost acted it out.  The Tschaikowsky Hall was absolutely packed, standing room only, but the orchestra’s sound managed to fill the hall.  I suppose that since they are used to playing in an orchestra pit, they know how to project up and out.  What I liked about this performance, however, was the way in which Gergiev drew out the woodwinds, who have some fascinating and dramatic parts that often get obscured by the strings and brass.  Tonight, I could clearly hear these interior lines.

The soloists all came from the Mariinsky roster.  Of them, only Olga Borodina (alto) is internationally known.  The other three were the sort of relatively young singers that Gergiev likes to showcase.  In terms of drama, stage presence, and beauty of voice, they all matched up to Borodina, particularly Viktoriya Yastrebova (soprano) and Ildar Abdrazakov (bass).  The fourth soloist, Sergey Semishkur (tenor) had a very beautiful voice, but came from the Russian school of dramatic tenors that I don’t personally like.  In Russia, dramatic tenors tend to have lighter (although not weaker) voices that tend towards the counter-tenor range rather than with supportive lower registers like European dramatic tenors.  This is purely a stylistic issue, and he certainly sang beautifully and dramatically.  All four easily projected over the orchestra and chorus.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Mourning Music by Feliks Kruglikov, a Russian who defected to the US in 1979 and became Zubin Mehta’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic.  The piece was sort of post-Schostakowitschian, although it did not really say anything.  Not unpleasant, just uninteresting: had Schostakowitsch lived longer, he would have had something to say.

Armenian National Opera

Verdi, Aida

An unexpectedly good performance of Verdi’Aida at the Armenian National Opera this evening.  Unexpected, I suppose, only because I did not expect anything going in, but came out quite pleased.

The program was only provided in Armenian tonight, and since I cannot even read the alphabet, I do not know who sang except for Amonasro, who received star billing on the English-language website: Zurab Bukhradze from Georgia.  He certainly had the largest voice (and was taller than everyone else in the cast, so literally stood out).  The rest of the cast were not exactly at his level, but all turned in solid performances.  Their voices were generally pleasant, although each of the cast members had dry moments.  The Aida also had a pleasant voice, not dry but with a warble in her upper register when she sang at volume.  Radames was the smallest of the cast members, and had the smallest voice, which did not always project quite as well.

The best performance, though, emerged from the pit.  Eduard Diadura, a guest conductor from Russia, led a very sensible musical production.  On one hand, he knew when to modulate the orchestra in order not to overwhelm the singers, making the orchestra almost unnoticeable to allow the audience to focus on the singing, but on the other he had the orchestra playing very well and providing passion.

The staging generally allowed all of this to happen.  The enormous sandstone sets (or made to look like Egyptian sandstone, but still solid enough to make the motors which move the sets around the stage groan loudly) essentially provided a backdrop, in front of which the cast could act, and it indeed responded with dramatic acting (albeit the director did not think some items through – such as at the very beginning Radames and Aida are still supposed to be hiding their love and not meant – as here – to be openly holding hands in front of Amneris and everyone else).  The costumes looked like Renaissance paintings of the way people in the Middle East were thought to have dressed in the time of Jesus; ancient Egyptians probably did not dress like that.  But the odd costumes were not offensive.  The stage direction could have used more people in the chorus (or at least extras – the chorus actually sounded large enough), since we were left to believe that the Egyptians defeated the Ethiopians with four battalions of six men each, plus a couple of dozen openly homosexual ballet dancers each carrying a phallus (I may not know my ballet very well, but the choreography throughout was so bizarre that the audience kept laughing, which cannot be an endorsement).

I explained last month how the theater itself actually has three stages – the main one in front of the audience, and then smaller ones to the left and right of the audience.  This innovative opera house architecture has potential, and tonight’s stage director made the most of it.  Oddly, he seems to have run out of ideas at the final scene – this last scene would be a perfect opportunity to use one of the side stages as the tomb – it is actually a difficult scene to stage in a normal theater (since not only is a dark tomb supposed to be visible, but Amneris is supposed to be in view outside the tomb).  But the director put this scene entirely on the main stage.  When the curtain opened, Amneris (who had thrown herself to the ground at the end of the previous scene) was in the same place but going up on a riser, while Radames walked down the steps into the tomb underneath.  However, when he sang his lines that the tomb had closed over him, he was standing outside the tomb looking at Amneris.  He then wandered out of the tomb part of the set to the front of the main stage, which itself was too large to be left dark, so the tomb was essentially the whole stage, with Amneris lying on an elevated slab in the back.  When Radames lamented that his strong arms could not move the rock blocking the entrance of the tomb, there was no rock (just a big empty front of the stage).  So I don’t really know what happened to the director’s brain in this scene.

Still, a very enjoyable evening.

Incidentally, regarding my complaints about the opera house building last month, it is still the same on a second look.  However, the deafening heating units in the lobbies are no longer turned on.  And I could also not feel the throbbing disco beat coming mysteriously out of the basement, so I assume I was right that that throbbing was caused by the motors powering the absurd industrial heaters.

Novaya Opera

Verdi, Rigoletto

Tonight was Verdi’Rigoletto at the Novaya Opera.

Musically, it met the standards I have come to expect from the Novaya. Conductor Yevgeny Samoilov drove the performance, and had an excellent sense of theater.

On stage, there was less of a sense of theater. The staging was simplified traditional, but the director had no sense of drama. Characters essentially stood around, or moved around the stage independent of events. This is possibly because the production was originally a co-production with an Italian festival, and since Italian opera singers tend towards the obese, perhaps it was designed to have minimal motion. However, Russian opera singers tend towards the starving artist look, and are much more agile, so they should have adapted the stage directions accordingly.

Singing was musically good, but it is hard to act with such lousy blocking. As a result, some of the cast did not even try (the Gilda, for example, seemed comically incapable of knocking on Sparafucile’s door in time with the knocking sound in the score).

Rigoletto was an exception.  Vasily Svyatkin, a big bear of a Russian baritone, acted with his voice, even when the stage director gave him odd blockings. He was the highlight.

Nurlan Bekmukhamvedov, as the Duke, also had a very pleasant voice, but it was a tad too high: he had absolutely no trouble hitting all the high notes beautifully, but without the lower register his voice did not fully resonate. Volume was fine, just not so much depth.

That may be my last performance in Moscow until the Fall. June is a thin month, and then I won’t be back here until October.

Tbilisi State Opera

Verdi, Aida

What a shame the performance of Verdi‘s Aida at the Tbilisi State Opera tonight interfered with the audience’s conversations, mobile phones, coming-and-going, and general overall rudeness.  The audience members were so determined to chatter, they even had to talk louder to hear each other over the louder sections of the music.  Then they probably thought that lots of inappropriate clapping would make it all better, rather than being further disruptive. And the standing ovation at the end also didn’t help (the cast must have also noticed the rude audience, since despite the standing ovation they did not even bother to come out for a bow at the end).

The performance itself (or what I could hear) was OK.  Orchestra was once again good, cast was mostly fine if not special.  The Amonasro was excellent.  The Radames was the same person who sang the tenor lead last Sunday – he has a good voice, but funny Italian pronunciation (and at one point obviously forgot the words and just sang la-la-la-la, not that anyone was likely to notice other than me).

The mock Egyptian staging was dumb – it was not clear that the director understood Italian or even read the libretto in any language, since the action on stage often had little relation to what was being sung.  Some of these were just details, but some were not explicable: for example, in the final scene, Radames (and Aida) were not enclosed in the tomb until the final moments (when the whole scene is supposed to take place already in the tomb – that’s the whole point).  When Radames sings that not even his strong arms can move the rock away from the entrance to the tomb (which, again, makes no sense if they are not inside), the director had Radames, and then Aida, sip water (or was it poison?) ostentatiously from a ceremonial dish.