Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Staatoper Unter den Linden - Tosca - 09/18/16

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Conductor: Domingo Hindoyan 
Director: Alvis Hermanis 
Angela Georghiu: Tosca 
Teodor Ilincai: Cavadarossi 
Michael Volle: Scarpia

So what do you do when you've enjoyed two fabulous performances by possibly the two most prestigious orchestras in Europe? Well, you go to the opera, of course! So on Sunday evening, in Berlin, I was more than ready to tackle yet another production of Tosca, the first opera I have ever seen and the first opera I've ever attended in the Staatoper Unter den Linden with my friend Nyla back in 2008. For those reasons and more, there's no doubt that Puccini's "shabby little shocker" has a special place in my heart.
And this Tosca would be truly special because she would be embodied by no less than Angela Georghiu, who by all accounts has the ideal voice, looks and temperament to take on opera's most hot-blooded diva. Michael Volle, whom I had admired in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, would fill Scarpia's detestable shoes, and I was curious to check relative newcomer Teodor Ilincai because, well, you never know.
Due to the extensive renovations going on at the Staatoper, the current season is taking place in the Schiller Theater, de facto moving one of Berlin’s most prominent cultural institutions from Mitte in the East all the way to Charlottenburg in the West. But the fact is, if the temporary home was rather dull-looking, its small size and good acoustics allowed for a wonderfully intimate experience of the performance, and that definitely counts for something.

 More by chance than by design, Tosca is probably the opera I've seen the most in my life by now, and I still cannot seem to get enough of the deliciously campy love triangle whose members all meet rather unsavory ends. The story is straightforward, the text vulgar, the emotions primitive, the deaths violent, and the score highly melodic, so really, what's not to love?
Despite the fact that she is one of the most famous and admired opera singers in the world, Romanian soprano Angela Georghiu has not been showing up at the Met much lately, except for a couple of performances of Bondy's Tosca last season, and I really was not up to see that production a third time, even for her. So I was only too happy to see that she was going to be in Berlin in September and made sure to strategically plan my stay there around her dates. So I booked transportation and accommodations, bought my ticket for the performance, and then spend the rest of the time keeping my fingers and toes crossed that she would actually show up and deliver.
Well, she did! And I have to say that in all my opera-going years there have been very few moments more thrilling than having Angela Georghiu pour her heart and soul out in a glorious "Vissi d'Arte" 17 rows straight in front of me. With her dazzling voice, passionate singing, committed acting and deep familiarity with a role, she effortlessly reigned supreme all night long. By turn tender, coquettish, jealous, angry, scheming and desperate, more self-confident mature woman than impressionable young girl, she was the ultimate Tosca.
German baritone Michael Volle was equally memorable as the sinister Scarpia, the man everybody loves to hate, the kind of SOB that has absolutely no qualms about using everything in his extended power to reach his goal. Although he did not even bother trying to give his evil character any underlying gentlemanly or sophisticated traits, he still came up with a scrumptiously complex villain. It is quite a stretch to go from a Wagnerian comedy to a Puccinian drama, but Volle managed to do it smoothly and convincingly. On Sunday night, his singing was superbly dark and his scenes with Angela Georghiu had the type of red-hot intensity that makes opera-goers' hearts beat faster.
Young Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai was a delightfully impetuous Cavaradossi, routinely expressing himself with a highly flexible, clarion-like voice that brightly resounded in the small theater every time he was making a point. I found him, however, noticeably tentative when it came to Angela Georghiu, and their scenes together did not always have the amount of sizzling chemistry that could have been expected between the famous pair of lovers. But he nevertheless held his own more than adequately. And predictably enough, his “E lucevan le stelle” was a gripping ode to lost love and life that readily brought down the generally reserved house.
The rest of the cast fared very well too, including Jan Martiník as the fearful Sacristan, Dan Karlström as the rebellious Spoletta, Vincenzo Neri as the sadistic Sciarrone, and Dominic Barberi as the jailer who doubled as executioner. The rambunctious children’s choir brought fervor and spontaneity to the church scene.
 If the singing was uniformly impressive, the production unfortunately was not. Director Alvis Hermanis obviously tried to inject some modernity into a quintessential classic by having a slide show projected on the upper half of the stage while the lower half was occupied by the traditional church, palace and prison. The main problem was that overall the images projected did not add anything to the action unfolding live below them, but occasionally made it more confusing. Why, for example, was a portrait of the blond Madonna displayed while Scarpia was obsessing aloud about Tosca in the first act?
There were also a few balance problems, which seem to be unavoidable with Tosca, like in the Te Deum scene when Michael Volle's voice, which is not known for being short of strength or stamina, could not be heard over the orchestra and the chorus. This is a minor squabble though, and the orchestra did a laudable job vividly highlighting the score’s rich lyricism under the baton of Domingo Hindoyan.
I did spend all of the third act wondering how on earth Tosca was going to perform her iconic leap of death from the tower since there was clearly nowhere for her to leap from. Well, turns out that she did not leap at all, but ended up standing in front of the stage facing the audience with her arms raised while her projected alter ego did took the leap on the screen. It looked awkward and incongruous, and concluded the performance on an off note. But never mind. The musical rewards were too high to pick at the misguided visuals.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Berlin Philharmonic - All-Adams - 09/17/16

Conductor: John Adams 
Adams: Harmonielehre for Orchestra 
Adams: Scheherazade.2, Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra - Leila Josefowicz 

Some weeks are decidedly more memorable than others, and the third one of September 2016 shall remain solidly imprinted in my memory as I got to revel in the ultimate Mahlerian experience courtesy of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam on Wednesday night and a flawless US-German collaboration with John Adams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic ─ and his unofficial muse Leila Josefowicz in one piece ─ in two compositions of his in Berlin on Saturday night. So much music, so little time!
So never mind the six-hour train ride and the lack of sleep. Before I knew it, I found myself listening to another prestigious orchestra in another perfectly sized, acoustically blessed and visually attractive concert hall on a deliciously crisp September evening in Northern Europe. I could have hardly expected a more terrific welcome package for my long-overdue return to Berlin.

Taking its name from Arnold Schoenberg's textbook on harmony, Harmonielehre probably sounded as fresh on Saturday night as it did when it was first released 30 years ago. After unapologetically opening full speed ahead, the three electrifying movements quickly developed from a Minimalist base and kept on going unabated, seemingly driven by an unstoppable pulse and creating a work remarkable for its ambition, scope and impact. Performed by one of the premier ensembles in the world, this rhythmically complex, wildly modern ─ and still hopelessly late Romantic ─ extended romp came out sophisticated and fun.
If, all things considered, Harmonielehre has the typical attributes of a bona fide symphony, Scheherazade.2 can also be called, for all purposes, a violin concerto. I had totally enjoyed the performance of it by the New York Philharmonic in the Avery Fisher Hall a couple of seasons ago, and I was therefore very much looking forward to hearing it again on the occasion of its German premiere. Inspired by an exhibition about One Thousand and One Nights that he had seen at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, John Adams created Scheherazade.2, a musical piece starring a modernized version of the exotic queen that had sounded beautiful and empowering, musically rich and easily accessible, to my spell-bound ears.
Leila Josefowicz, a violinist I would gladly go hear anywhere in the world, has brilliantly inhabited the composition written for her from the very beginning, making it simply impossible for me at least to imagine anyone else impersonating the fearless and uncompromising title character. And sure enough, there she was again, in Berlin this time, oozing feminine charm and unbending strength, her violin expertly spooling out stunning lyrical lines and assertively standing up for her rights.
The orchestra responded to John Adams' deeply informed conducting with impressive commitment, whether providing a gorgeous background for a love scene or powerfully unleashing the self-righteous anger of the "Men with Beards". Throughout the performance, the complex textures came out intensely alive in all their myriads of details, and the few vaguely random moments all eventually became part of a truly compelling whole. It was good to be back in such company.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Mahler - 09/14/16

Conductor: Daniele Gatti 
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (Resurrection) 
The Netherlands Radio Choir 
Annette Dasch: Soprano 
Karen Cargill: Mezzo-Soprano 

 Because one can never get too much of a good thing, on Wednesday, after enjoying a delightful chamber music concert mid-day, I was back at the Concertgebouw a few hours later for the real thing, and found myself in the sold-out large concert hall to hear the full Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Daniele Gatti, its new music director, and the Netherlands Radio Choir perform Mahler's stupendous Resurrection symphony, whose Dutch premiere the composer incidentally conducted at the Concertgebouw back in 1904, six years after having conducted the work's world premiere in Berlin and simultaneously kicked off his composing career in earnest. Although I would have been happy to hear them perform pretty much anything, I found it especially exciting that this particular program would be the one making my bucket list shorter.
But that was not all as this first experience ended up being even closer and more personal than I had imagined. As I was eagerly walking toward my seat in the perfectly sized, acoustically blessed and visually attractive concert hall, I quickly realized that for better or worse I would be sitting exactly three rows behind the timpani section and spitting distance from the chorus, which at least had the advantage to ensure that if any unsuspected remnants of jet lag surfaced, I would not be dozing off for long.

Putting myself through one of Mahler's sprawling symphonies often feels to me like an extremely condensed therapy session, or at least what I guess an extremely condensed therapy session would be like. The composer was obviously not afraid of tackling big existential issues and used all the musical instruments at his disposal to look for the ever-elusive answers. In the right company, the journey is typically long, intense and thrilling.
In the Resurrection Symphony, Maher sets the tone right away with a monumental first movement that includes a funeral match and take-no-prisoners surges, and turns out to be no less than a highly dramatic symphonic poem searching for the meaning of life. Since we were in the right company, the search was emotionally charged and distinctly urgent, leaving no stone unturned and no note unplayed.
On the other hand, the second movement is a gentle minuet, whose main goal could very well be to relieve the relentless tension that preceded it. But the charmingly lilting break soon made way for the implacable macabre humor of the third movement. Effortlessly switching from delicate sunshine to dark sarcasm, the orchestra polished off the instrumental part of the symphony with force and authority.
With valuable contributions from the remarkable soloists and the commanding chorus, the fourth movement, written for alto solo and reduced orchestra, was beautifully elegiac and peaceful before the apocalyptic fifth movement powerfully swept everything away in one of the most transcendental climaxes of classical music, the type that hurts so good that you do not want it to end ever.
Close enough to the action not to miss a single beat, I ecstatically reveled in the all-encompassing grandeur of it all, now secure in the knowledge that sometimes dreams do come true.

Royal Concertgebouw - Chausson - 09/14/16

Chausson: Piano Trio in G Minor, Op.3 
Caspar Vos: Piano 
Diamanda La Berge: Violin 
Marcus van den Munckhof: Cello 

 As I was suffering through a dreadfully hot and muggy summer in New York a couple of months ago, I figured that the universe was telling me that the time had come to plan a trip to Northern Europe that would not only allow me to cool off, but also to remove one significant item from my bucket list: Although I had attended performances of the prestigious Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Washington and New York in the past, I had always wanted to experience a concert of theirs on their home turf too, and explore Amsterdam by the same token.
After careful consideration of many factors, I decided – maybe a little extravagantly – to go to Amsterdam and Berlin for ten days in September, which presented the double advantage of good weather and no scheduling conflict with my cultural calendar in New York. Even better, I made sure that my stay in Amsterdam coincided with the Concertgebouw's season opening performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 AND one of their free Wednesday lunchtime concerts with Chausson's Piano Trio in G Minor. Because why settle for just one treat when you can get two?
The orchestra's reputation being of the most sterling, the beautiful small concert hall of the Concertgebouw quickly filled up with locals and tourists alike, whether they showed up out of curiosity, for the love of classical music or more prosaically seeking shelter from the unseasonal mid-day heat outside (So much for cooling off!).

Written when Ernest Chausson was a 26-year-old Paris Conservatory student who had just finished studying with Jules Massenet and was moving on to César Franck, the Piano Trio in G Minor never fails to impress by its scope and maturity. On Wednesday, played by such distinguished musicians in such a conducive space, it could only convert newcomers and enthrall aficionados, and I bet it easily managed to do both.
The extensive Allegro, which intensely unfolded with complex harmonies, subtle dark hues and an infectious élan, was spell-bounding from the very first notes. By contrast, the Intermezzo was a highly spirited romp and the Andante a delicately bucolic ballad. Probably in order to avoid the vigorous clapping that had spontaneously occurred between the previous movements, the musicians jumped right into the Finale, which started joyful and carefree before a melancholic mood fell upon it and remained there all the way to the conclusion.
Technically flawless and emotionally absorbing, the performance did complete justice to this impressive work that is unquestionably not heard as often as it deserves. And for me, that was also the perfect mouth-watering appetizer that made me look forward to the main course scheduled for that evening even more.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

NYCO - Aleko & Pagliacci - 09/08/16

Conductor: James Meena 
Aleko Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff 
Stefan Szkafarowsky: Aleko 
Inna Dukach: Zemfira 
Jason Karn: Young gypsy 
Kevin Thompson: Old gypsy 
Composer: Ruggero Leoncavallo 
Francesco Anile: Canio 
Jessica Rose Cambio: Nedda 
Michael Corvino: Tonio 
Gustavo Feulien: Silvio 
Jason Karn: Beppe 

After generally satisfying productions of Tosca and Florencia en el Amazonas last season, The New York City Opera was officially opening its boldly wide-ranging new season on Thursday night in the Time Warner Center's wonderful - if frigidly cold - Rose Theater. And the sight of the vast majority of the seats being filled by an excited crowd only reinforced my hunch that I was not the only one rejoicing at their return.
It is true that the double bill of Rachmaninoff's Aleko and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci was compelling for many reasons. Aleko's lush Russian Romanticism and Pagliacci's hot-blooded Italian verismo may sound drastically different in theory, but both operas were in fact premiered a few days from each other in April 1892, and both tell the story of a love triangle made of an older, ferociously jealous husband, a rebellious wife, and the de rigueur hot young lover, all evolving in an exotically bohemian environment. Needless to say, neither has a happy ending.

Composed in only three weeks when Rachmaninoff was a 19-year-old student at the Moscow Conservatory, Aleko surprises by its unexpectedly assured, if still resolutely conventional, nature. Although it earned the composer the highest grade, it has perplexingly remained a rarity in opera houses, and therefore any opportunity to experience it should be whole-heartedly welcome.
Fortunately for us, the NYCO has successfully dug it out and on Thursday presented a downright engaging production of it. The stage, which was occupied by a freight car in the background and some vague buildings on each side, had the advantage of discretion and versatility.
The singers came through efficiently, with dependable bass Stefan Szkafarowsky forcefully tearing through his scenes as the aging and raging Aleko who cannot for the life of him stand betrayal, let alone taunts about it. 
Velvety-voiced soprano Inna Dukach brought the right combination of darkness and fire to Zemfira, the free-spirited gypsy who is not afraid of displaying her thoughts and feelings, and who will pay dearly for her cheekiness.
Ardent tenor Jason Karn was the quintessential dashing young lover, and dark-voiced bass Kevin Thompson was the perfect ominous story teller. The ubiquitous chorus was decidedly in top shape when bringing the gypsy people to life.
The opera also happens to feature a long and elaborate dance sequence, which was energetically handled by members of the Moiseyev Dance Company.
While clearly not a masterpiece, Aleko turned out to be a curiosity totally worth-checking out. Already then Rachmaninoff had a solid grasp on the luxurious lyricism he would soon become famous for, and the beautifully melodic score received a fully engaged treatment from the orchestra under the baton of James Meena.

Pagliacci for sure does not need any introduction and on Thursday night the NYCO production proved as popular as could have been expected. Not the final school project of a promising young student, Pagliacci was written by a composer in his thirties who was becoming increasingly anxious about breaking through the Italian opera scene. And boy did he accomplish just that with this one.
Using the same decor has for Aleko, but smartly turning the train car into a make-ship stage for the commedia dell'arte play within the opera, Pagliacci briskly unfolded with plenty of intense drama, high-flying coloratura and one creepy clown.
 In the all-important role of Canio, the betrayed husband turned murderer, assertive tenor Francesco Anile impersonated the larger than life Pagliaccio with confidence and gusto. His "Vesti la giubbia" was the heart-breaking cry we were all hoping for and indisputably got in spades.
Versatile soprano Jessica Rose Cambio did not spare her ultra-flexible voice any acrobatics, but could also be tenderly emotional as well as fiercely self-protective as Nedda, the straying wife with the whip.
Veteran baritone Michael Corvino was convincingly conniving as hunch-backed Tonio, a lesser Iago who nevertheless had his revenge gruesomely played out in front of him after sexually harassing – and being harshly rejected by – Nedda.
Hunky baritone Gustavo Feulien made a short but memorable appearance as Silvio, Nedda's lover boy from the village. And the chorus continued to amaze us with its powerful and subtle singing.
All the non-stop action was reliably supported by the vibrant and supple performance of the orchestra, which vividly underscored all the passionate turmoil going on.

 With a two-level plot, well-developed characters and a highly colorful score, there is no doubt that Pagliacci is overall a superior work, but then again, it is not really fair to compare the final school project on a promising young student to the work of a seasoned composer who had been working at his craft for a while. In any case, the clever combination of the two proved to be a winner for the audience, and for the New York City Opera.