Tuesday, April 27, 2010

WNO - Le Nozze di Figaro - 04/26/10

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Conductor: Patrick Fournillier 
Director: Harry Silverstein 
Figaro: Ildar Abdrazakov 
Susanna: Veronica Cangemi 
Count Almaviva: Teddy Tahu Rhodes 
Countess Almaviva: Virginia Tola 
Cherubino: Michele Losier 
Marcellina: Victoria Livengood 
Dr Bartolo: Valeriano Lanchas 

Six months after Rossini's entertaining The Barber of Seville, The Washington National Opera is currently presenting its sequel: Mozart's all-around delightful Nozze di Figaro (especially if you take out the disheartening ending in which the spineless countess takes back her wayward husband that is). The first collaboration of Vienna's boy wonder with his most famous librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, it is a charming frolic elevated to higher, much higher grounds, by its flawless score. 
So, two weeks after enjoying the Met's exuberant production of Die Zauberflöte, I found myself back in the Kennedy Center Opera House with my friend Jennifer for a more straight-by-the-book but all-the-better-to-concentrate-on-the-music production from Mozart's seemingly bottomless oeuvre. Although the cast did not feature any household names, its evenly dependable range of talent assured that we were in for a predictably enjoyable evening, and sometimes that's all one needs. 

 Inspired by Beaumarchais's play "Le mariage de Figaro", which was banned in Vienna back in the days, just a few years before the French Revolution, because of its clever but stinging satire of aristocracy, the opera instead focuses on the laughter and tears of everyday life through the conflicts and plots of engaging characters thrown in comical situations, never mind the hot political subtext. Everything in it is pretext for exquisitely intricate harmonies and impeccably soaring vocal combinations, and it all starts with the flawless perfection of its ever-popular opening. 
Musical nirvana at the opera depends as much on the musicians as on the singers, and last night we were treated to quite an impressive cast. Ildar Abdrazakov was a solid, assertive Figaro, as present through his acting as his singing, and bravely holding his own against Teddy Tahu Rhodes's brazen hunk of a Count Almaviva. The latter, however, was not just a pretty face (or bare chest) as his voice proved to be as charismatic as his looks. 
The two lead ladies served admirably their roles as well: Veronica Cangemi was a savvy, pull-no-punches Susanna and won the endurance test that is her part. As the Countess, Virginia Tola was so physically and vocally lovely that you wondered why the Count would even bother looking somewhere else. 
Secondary characters were aptly embodied as well, with most particularly a sweetly endearing Cherubino (Michele Losier) and an unstoppable force-of-nature in Marcellina (Victoria Livengood). The decors and costumes were traditional and effective, all the more to let our ears do all the work, I guess. 
And they sure had a field day thanks to maestro Patrick Fournillier, who was making his WNO debut there. He made sure to keep the action swiftly moving along and Mozart's truly beautiful score seamlessly flowing through. The famous sextet at the end of Act II was the dazzling tour de force everybody was expecting, and after the classical happy ending, everybody eventually went home in a joyful mood.

Met - Tosca - 04/24/10

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Producer/Director: Luc Bondy
Tosca: Patricia Racette
Cavaradossi: Jonas Kaufmann
Scarpia: Bryn Terfel

What better way to end my Met opera season than with Luc Bondy's much debated, therefore abundantly advertised, Tosca? But it looked like all the mostly negative hoopla had at least one positive outcome: the performance was sold out, another proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity. My first taste of opera ever, and still the one firmly at the top of my list, I was just dying for a chance to understand what all the fuss was about. If anything, I figured that the cast was simply too good to pass with, in the title role, the luminous Patricia Racette, whom I was eager to see in a role that was a drastic departure from stirringly complex but decidedly unglamorous Jenufa or Ellen in Peter Grimes. The casting of Bryn Terfel as Scarpia was screaming "satisfaction guaranteed" and I had heard many good things about much-in-demand newcomer Jonas Kaufmann, who is currently juggling Tosca's Cavaradossi with Carmen's Don Jose at the Met. Ah! The bottomless energy of youth...

An irresistibly explosive cocktail of politics, religion, love and sex, Tosca may not be very subtle, but it is so perfectly served by its take-no-prisoner score (or is it the other way around?) that it is essentially impossible not to get pulled in. Even if the historical context is barely hinted at and the audience is unfamiliar with the Roman iconic landmarks, the fierce clashes among the sadistic chief of police, the Voltairian artist and the hot-blooded diva, not to mention Puccini's uninhibited melodies, provide enough entertainment to keep the audience happily spell-bound.
Tosca is one of those roles that can make or break a career overnight, and I was very much looking forward to finally getting to witness ever-reliable Patricia Racette in a downright sexy role, sporting a dark wig over her usually blond hair and donning lavish costumes in lieu of drab outfits. Even if her voice did not always carry the earthy overtone I always associate with Tosca, it was as bright and supple as ever, fitfully expressing her irrepressible, roller-coasting emotions. Her "Vissi d'arte" was as deeply moving as they come and unsurprisingly brought down the house.
As her most obsessed admirer, Bryn Terfel was just a riot as one of the world's most delectable villains, all black leather-clad, and his deep, rich baritone unmistakeably adding a deliciously sinister touch to his bad-to-the-bone Scarpia. Jonas Kauffmann has been unfairly blessed with the perfect looks, demeanor and vocal power to be a brazenly dashing Cavaradossi, the ill-fated hero as devoted to his political cause as to his ardent lover, and he was not afraid to make full use of those advantages.
Puccini's music is verismo at its very best, with short but instantly hummable arias (Who hasn't melted listening to "E lucevan le stelle" is simply not human) and discreetly evocative ambient sounds, such as the lovely shepherd boy's song opening Act III, followed by the morning church bells, which solidly anchor the action. A frequent visitor of Germany's and Austria's major opera houses, Fabio Luisi ripped through the intensely lyrical score without looking back, staying on top of the dramatic pulse of the music with unwavering gusto.
So what were the raging controversies all about then? Well, for a public accustomed to tradition-bound directors, a few things legitimately seemed odd at best, blasphemous at worse. Gone was Zefirelli's meticulously reconstituted Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant' Angelo. Instead, the sets were stark, brightly modern or non-descript. At least one unfortunate visual effect happened when Tosca's eye-popping red dress in Act II awkwardly disappeared on Scarpia's equally vivid couch, seamlessly blending in when contrasting the two would have yielded a better result.
A couple of directing choices did make the purist in me kind of gasp: Scarpia fooling around with prostitutes is an extremely unlikely sight for a man with particularly refined tastes, a true blue aristocrat who would never lower himself to mingle with the little people in any circumstances. Tosca failing to place candles around Scarpia's body after she killed him, thereby emphasizing the moral conflict she was enduring, was sorely missing too. But I hasten to add that, while important, those departures from tradition did not by any means ruin my enjoyment of the exhilarating joy ride that was this new production.

The 2009-2010 season is dead! Vive the 2010-2011 season!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

National Philharmonic - Mozart, Bruch & Mahler - 04/18/10

Conductor: Piotr Gajewski
Mozart: Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio
Bruch: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 - Soovin Kim
Mahler: Symphony No 4 in G Major - Arianna Zukerman

I may have slightly (oh, so slightly) complained last weekend about getting to hear Bruch's lovely Scottish Fantasy instead of his more thrilling (at least to my ears) violin concerto in G Minor, so fate intervened in having the National Philharmonic programmed the popular concerto this weekend at Strathmore. Solidly book-ended by Mozart's delightful overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio and Mahler's sunny (well, sunnier than usual) fourth symphony, it was an irresistible offer, and I did not hesitate to brave the bitterly cold weather and scheduled-but-still-annoying metro delays due to track maintenance to get to the afternoon performance. Once in the music center, I came across a surprise concert by four students of the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras down in the lower lobby. Nothing like a movement by Borodin or Mozart to get you in the mood for more!

Mozart's first full-length opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, was a stupendous success even if the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who had commissioned it, promptly stated after hearing it that it had "too many notes" for the Viennese. It is indeed "busy" Turkish music, bright and melodic, clearly evoking the exotic setting the story is about to take place in, but all the notes are definitely worth-keeping.
After Mozart's perky opening, Bruch's violin concerto slowly started, all understated and mysterious, before launching into the free-spirited Allegro Moderato. Unabashedly lyrical, and no doubt even more so thanks to the expert contribution of Joseph Joachim, who knew a thing or two about Romantic concertos, the score assertively puts the violin front and center as it lets it unfold seemingly endless florid lines. Young Soovin Kim gave it a warm, comfortable treatment, although he did not go for the larger-than-life approach that may have been more appropriate for such a glorious masterpiece. Under maestro Gajewski's baton, the orchestra was respectfully present, offering a discreet but indispensable support to the virtuosic soloist.
Then we were on to Mahler "light", which is of course a relative term when you're talking about the master of grand brooding. Shorter and often displaying an uplifted mood, it is probably the most accessible, and therefore the most popular, of all Mahler's symphonies. Opening with happily ringing bells, the composition is complex but still easy on the ears. The Ruhevoll or slow movement does express a Mahlerian quietness and simple beauty before ending with Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), from a folk song well-known in Bavaria and Romania. Our soprano du jour was Arianna Zukerman, and her voice, somewhat muffled at the beginning, eventually rose and nicely inserted itself in the soft finale, making it a subdued ending to a lively concert.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Millennium Stage - The Sachi Trio - Milhaud, Stravinsky & Bartok - 04/15/10

Milhaud: Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b
Stravinsky: Seelctions from L'Histoire du Soldat
Bartok: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano

On a slow musical week, one can always count on the Millennium Stage for short, fun and free pick-me-ups. So that's where I was on Wednesday evening, for the concert of three members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra who have formed their own ensemble: The Sachi Trio. I can't say that the program, which included Milhaud, Stravinsky and Bartok, made me drop everything and go, but I rather figured that the combination of violin, clarinet and piano was enough of an oddity to justify a quick jaunt to the Kennedy Center.

The concert started with the most recent piece by the contemporary French composer Darius Milhaud. Opening with a few feisty notes, its short span contained an impressive range of moods and styles, all vivaciously conveyed by the three easily engaging musicians.
Next came a series of selected parts from Stravinsky's theatrical work L'histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale) and here again, the diversity of rhythms and themes kept things lively and interesting.
To finish up, Bartok's Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano were a totally enjoyable study in technical virtuosity and poetic effect, a nice little conclusion to a nice little hour of live music.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New York Philharmonic - Mozart, Bruch and Brahms - 04/10/10

Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Mozart: Symphony No 31 in D Major, "Paris"
Bruch: Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 - Joshua Bell
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Three hours after the Met's delightful Zauberflöte, I was getting mentally prepared for more "light" Mozart with his bubbly Paris symphony. This lesser known piece by the Austrian composer was opening an attractive, if not particularly cutting-age, program including also Bruch's Scottish Fantasy and Brahms's Symphony No 4. I have to say that although I find the Scottish Fantasy appealing, I still prefer Bruch's hyper-Romantic violin concerto, but granted, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night in New York City than hearing the former performed by Joshua Bell. Brahms' fourth symphony is of course one of those mighty, timeless masterpieces, and having the Royal Opera House's Antonio Pappano in charge of it all sounded like an intriguing adventure.

Mozart's Paris symphony turned out to be a judicious concert starter because it perfectly combined the charm and the grandeur of the City of Lights. It also sparkled with a lighter touch that usual for the Austrian master, a slightly different touch that he mustered probably out of consideration for the Parisian audience who is generally more in tune with unabashed joie de vivre than its sterner neighbors to the east. In any case, it was lovely, bristling with pretty harmonies, offering just enough substance not to disappear into thin air with the last note and concluding my Mozart marathon with panache.
Written a decade after his famous violin concerto in G Minor, the full title of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy says it all: Fantasia for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, with Free Use of Scottish Folk Melodies. By liberally drawing inspiration from Scottish folk songs and the writings of Sir Walter Scott, the German composer came up with an eclectic work in which deep brooding and exuberant rejoicing are closely intertwined. Such a truly virtuosic piece requires a truly virtuosic violinist, and we naturally had one in Joshua Bell. Switching moods with remarkable ease and making his violin radiantly sing, he assuredly let the big Romantic waves and the joyful dance tunes mix and mingle for an all-around memorable result.
Brahms' Symphony No 4 is probably the musical work I've heard the most often in concert halls, but its endlessly complex nature makes listening to it a brand new journey each and every time. Grabbing the audience's attention from the very first notes, the opening movement's melodic power intensely displays the duality of emotions, deep sadness and serene happiness, that will remain constantly present in the whole score, and does it with poignant bitterweetness. Being conducted by an opera expert actually did wonders to the composition as maestro Pappano gave extra urgency to the dramatic passages and an additional boost to the well-crafted melodies, decisively steering away from the original composition's intellectual slant for a more visceral approach. Even Brahms, a notorious opera hater, might have been pleased. I sure was.

Met - Die Zauberflöte - 04/10/10

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Adam Fischer
Producer: Julie Taymor
Director: David Kneuss
Tamino: Matthew Polenzani
Papageno: Nathan Gunn
Pamina: Julia Kleiter
Sarastro: Hans-Peter Konig
Queen of the Night: Albina Shagimuratova

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart being probably the most well-known and beloved classical music composer in the world, it is hard to complain about overkill when it comes to live performances of his works. Therefore, I could only rejoice at the thought of a double-whammy on Saturday with his Magic Flute at the Met in the afternoon and his Paris symphony just around the corner at the Avery Fisher Hall in the evening.
I had heard an impresssive amount of positive feedback regarding the Julie Taymor production, and that was the main reason I was excited about seeing it. Otherwise, I can't say that the opera itself has ever been on my short list of favorites, mostly because Singspiel has never particularly appealed to me. But the unusual number of young faces in the sold-out crowd reminded me that it is first and foremost a mysterious story that is a lot of fun too, even if it never comes close to the comic genius that Mozart so magisterially demonstrated in Le Nozze de Figaro, for example. Hearing his music, however, remains one of life's highest pleasures, and the prospect of a feast for the eyes to complement it could only add to the anticipation.

The plot is a fairy tale combining farce and seriousness, featuring a bunch of colorful (indeed!) characters and taking place in Egypt, the traditional birthplace of Masonic fraternity. Since both Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were dedicated Freemasons themselves, it is not really surprising that the fraternal order is frequently evoked throughout the work. Familiarity with its rituals, however, is not a prerequisite to enjoy the opera.
This production had been advertised as visually stunning, and sure enough, for more than three hours we witnessed a never-ending parade of various shapes and colors as new decors and costumes kept on popping up all over the stage. Egyptians symbols, hints to Eastern religions and weird-looking puppets added bright touches of exoticism while a couple of characters truly stood out such as Monostatos, who did not hesitate to frequently flash his rotund and hairy belly under his bat wings, and the Japanese-looking Queen of the Night and her multiple fluttering wings.
All the singers were obviously game and seemed to have a fine time, especially Nathan Gunn who was a wonderfully endearing Papageno. The lead couple, Matthew Polenzani and Julia Kleiter, had lovely moments as steadfast Tamino and sweet Pamina. Last, but by no means least, Albina Shagimuratova was spectacularly arresting in the short but instrumental role of the Queen of the Night and carried out her second aria, "Der Hölle Rache", with unrestrained fierceness and clarity, sending the world-famous high notes flying all over the opera house.
Once in a while this non-stop mish-mash totally overwhelmed Mozart's delicate music as our eyes were too full to let our ears take anything in, but the committed singing eventually put everything back into place and let us enjoy this festive celebration of the eternal battle of good and evil to the fullest.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

WPAS - Bach - 04/03/10

Bach: Partita No 3 in E Major for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1006 - Joseph Lin
Bach: Partita No 1 in B Minor for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1002 - Joseph Lin
Bach: Partita No 2 in D Minor for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1004 - Joseph Lin

The Metropolitan Opera may have had its fair share of opera divas bailing out at the last minute lately, but the DC classical music scene hasn't been spared either as a few days ago we learned that Julia Fischer, who was scheduled to perform Bach's three partitas last night, had cancelled all of her US engagements because of a family matter. It was all the more frustrating as she is widely known as a superb Bach interpreter, but I decided not to let that new unexpected change of plan dampen my spirits and went to the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Chinatown ready to love Joseph Lin, the brave young man willing to tackle the challenging pieces with little notice, never mind that he has just wrapped a recording of them all. And really, who would object to hearing Bach twice in one week?

The partitas having been composed for unaccompanied violin, the soloist inevitably finds himself or herself standing in front of the audience sans the safety net that can sometimes provide an orchestra or a recital partner. Yikes! But this sink-or-swim situation can also be exhilaratingly rewarding for both the performer and the audience when everything comes together.
After a discreet and playful entrance from the back of the auditorium, Joseph Lin quickly proved that his modest introduction was hiding a ferociously talented musician who did not hesitate to assertively take charge of the whole concert. Right away his boyish smile, slim frame and Zen aura created a sharp and interesting contrast to his mature, elegant and widely inventive playing, and it eventually seemed a very natural combination.
Some movements of those partitas are well-known to regular classical music audiences because they are very popular concert encores. Such a favorite is the Gavotte en Rondeau from the Partita No 3, and Joseph Lin vividly expressed the vigor and grace of that old French dance. On the other hand, his Sarabande from the Partita No 1 was appropriately grave and thoughtful.
But, of course, the moment we were all waiting for was Bach's spell-binding Chaconne, the Himalaya for all violinists, which is a mind-boggling technical exercise as well as an emotionally draining feat. But Lin seemed unfazed, and after easily mastering the first four movements of the Partita's No 2, he grandly opened the fear-inspiring, 15-minute Chaconne and stayed on top of it until the very end, tearing through the score with fierceness and aplomb, proving one more time why such masterpieces are truly universal.

The delirious ovation that saluted his impressive achievement earned us an encore. As he rightfully pointed out, following the Chaconne is not easy, and only Bach would do. And so it did, with a beautifully subdued rendition of the Largo from the Sonata No 3 in C Major.

Friday, April 2, 2010

NSO - Bach - 04/01/10

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 - Dominique Labelle, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Michael Slattery, Thomas E. Bauer & The University of Maryland Concert Choir

Spring and its usual accompanying Easter, Passover as well as the enchanting sight of our famed cherry blossoms, are upon us again, therefore it is time for Bach's Mass in B minor. I'm not crazy about masses, but I have gradually learned to immensely respect Bach for all that we owe him (love isn't in the air just yet), so going to the Kennedy Center yesterday evening to hear Ivan Fischer conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in what may be the master's grandest achievement was more than a why-not? move on that definitely springy Thursday evening.

Over two hours but with an intermission, Bach's mass is a monument that can be approached as a religious or a musical experience. Either way, it is likely to be very satisfying in the right hands, and yesterday maestro Fischer took pain to dwell deep into its detailed intricacies while keeping the whole work unified. The set up was a bit odd with the wind instruments prominently placed and the chorus moving around quite a bit, but it eventually all worked. It did require some commitment from the audience though, as the score can often sound frightfully monotonous and linear. The chorus was all students from the University of Maryland and included some extremely promising elements. They sang with heart-warming vigor and poise and were a joy to listen to. The four soloists made a generally good impression as well, even if the baritone was sometimes barely audible in his first solo. Because of Bach's natural sense of restraint, which Ivan Fischer respectfully implemented, the voices could be easily heard most of the time and gave the whole concert an ethereally human dimension perfectly suited for the occasion.