Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Teatro di San Carlo - Don Carlo - 12/01/22

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi 
Librettist: Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle 
Conductor: Juraj Valčuha 
Director: Claus Guth 
 Don Carlo: Matthew Polenzani 
Elisabeth of Valois: Ailyn Perez 
Phillip II: Michele Pertusi 
Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa: Ludovic Tézier 
Princess of Éboli: Elīna Garanča 
Grand Inquisitor: Alexander Tsymbalyuk 

Keeping the momentum picked up in Rome last weekend, I went to gritty but fascinating Naples on Monday morning to visit my friend and host-with-the-most Vittorio, and enjoy a week of musical treats at the San Carlo, starting with an eagerly anticipated production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo on Thursday evening. 
My first and only experience of Don Carlo before Thursday was eons ago at The Met, where I quickly got swept up by the opera’s monumental size, unforgiving historic background, complicated family relationships and ill-fated love triangle, as well as the massive talent of the male singers (Sorry, ladies). I immediately put Don Carlo in my short list of favorite operas and waited patiently for the right opportunity to put myself through its voluptuous drama again. 
Fast forward 12 years, and there I was on Thursday evening, in the oldest, probably most splendid, and arguably most prestigious opera house of Europe for another go at it, after a de rigueur pit stop at the Gambrinus in anticipation of the 4.5-hour marathon ahead, which at least started at the civilized time of 6:00 P.M.
Even better, Vittorio and I shared our premium box with only two other persons, a retired science teacher and Italy-trotting opera buff from Padua who had stopped at the San Carlo on her way to Rome for Dialogues des Carmélites, and a deliriously enthusiastic Japanese neophyte whose use of his smartphone to take photos and videos of the performance was so relentless that an usher had to come in and make him stop, at least for a little while. Quite a tiny, random and eclectic community of opera lovers indeed.

Like all the versions of Don Carlo, the Modena one that we were about to see, which incidentally premièred at the San Carlo in 1872 with the first act rightfully in and the ballet thankfully out, is well-known not only for its length, but also for the need of an ensemble of equally excellent lead singers. Fortunately for us, upon taking his position, the San Carlo’s general manager Stéphane Lissner stated that he intended to return it to its former glory, and on Thursday, it definitely looked like he was walking his talk with an ambitious production and a starry cast. 
First in line stood universally beloved American tenor Matthew Polenzani, who brought his prodigious singing and acting skills to the complex main character, an uncharacteristically fragile and broken man. His well-established bel canto expertise may not have made him an obvious choice for such a demanding Verdian role, but any doubter would have surely been won over by his refined phrasing and extraordinary middle range that allowed him to convincingly flesh out the deeply neurotic anti-hero that was this particular Don Carlo. 
The cause of his bottomless despair was his loss of Elisabeth of Valois, the sweet daughter of the King of France to whom he was brieflyand happilyengaged before she felt obliged to marry his father, King Phillip II of Spain. Consolidating the peace between the two countries was a tough job, and somebody had to do it. 
American soprano Ailyn Perez was a lovely princess-turned-queen, readily switching from the pretty white dress and care-free demeanor of her happy French youth to the rigid black outfit and strict protocol of the stern Spanish court, her slender but naturally melodic voice easily riding the score’s long high lines to beautifully express her shattered spirit. That said, she also knew how to turn into a complete bad-ass ruler when needed, and her swift dealing with the princess of Éboli after hearing of her betrayal was one of the most divine operatic catfight I’ve ever gotten a chance to witness. 
Of course, it did not hurt that said princess was the perennially fabulous Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, who made the almost secondary but wonderfully juicy role of the besotted, scorned, vengeful and ultimately remorseful other woman her very own, from the gently lyrical veil song to the high-voltage cri du cœur "Oh don fatale" with exacting singing, superb acting, and an exceptionally magnetic presence. In other words, just another day at the office for her. Her impeccable tour de force was not lost to the audience, who made her the clear winner at the applause meter. 
French baritone Ludovic Tézier also had an unequivocally triumphant night as Don Carlo’s lifetime friend Rodrigo, in no small part thanks to the inconspicuous but undeniable power of his magnificently burnished voice, a true marvel of nature whose infinite dark shades he handily adapted to the wide range of situations he found himself in with unwavering poise and a strong sense of destiny, whether exchanging confidences with his friend, coolly seducing the King, or nobly facing death. 
Italian bass Michele Pertusi was by all accounts a solid King Phillip II, with the authoritative voice and imposing bearing necessary to project absolute command, and enough genuine humanity to show his emotional depth. And, while to my eyes and ears his totally respectable rendition of the quietly poignant aria “Ella giammai m’amò” did not supplant Ferruccio Furlanetto’s take on it at the Met, all the more devastating as he sang it all alone on a bare stage as opposed to the current production’s superfluous side action, my assessment is more sky-high praise for Furlanetto than unjustified qualms about Pertusi. 
As far as smaller but not lesser parts were concerned, Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s sinister presence was brief as the grand inquisitor, but it certainly did not escape notice, and even came close to prevailing over Pertusi’s king, in true Inquisition style. The rest of the cast and the chorus all made valuable contributions that helped bring the daunting endeavor that is Don Carlo to successful completion. 

Then there was the production, which had a lot going for it, with a starkly contrasting, stylish black and white theme, including a neat hexagonal chess board floor, a Goya-style painting of the Spanish family that discolored overtime to the point of eventually turning all black and symbolizing the tomb of Charles V, the bright white light illuminating the perimeter of the stage every time the king appeared, some discreet tree silhouettes reminding the serendipitous encounter in Fontainebleau Forest, and six high-end chandeliers hanging down almost to the floor in the queen’s garden at night, of all places. 
In particular, the various groups were handled with imagination and intelligence, such as the innocent white-clad Elizabeth being slowly but surely swallowed by a crowd of ominous black-clad Spanish nationals; the female chorus fully covered by white veils and symmetrically positioned on the floor for the princess of Éboli’s veil song was an effectively haunting sight. Even creepier, choristers’ heads occasionally materialized behind the wooden choir stalls lining the three sides of the stage for dramatic effect. 
But other choices were not as fortunate. For example, the various black and white video segments showing Don Carlo and Rodrigo playing as young boys were not only redundant but needlessly distracting, Polenzani and Tézier being perfectly capable of implying the indestructible bond between the two men. Not only redundant and needlessly distracting, but terribly irritating as well, was the highly agitated, although at least mercifully mute, dwarf court jester that would show up out of nowhere at some key moments and do his own annoying thing. 
Like most epic works, Verdi’s score is a challenging undertaking. The San Carlo’s Slovenian musical director and maestro Juraj Valčuha would not allow himself to be intimidated though, and having some first-class musicians and singers under his baton probably galvanized him too. Keeping coordination and balance under tight control while being mindful of letting the music live and breathe to its full potential, he did a terrific job at supervising and guiding this truly exhilarating performance, which kicked off the San Carlo’s new season with a glorious resounding bang. May there be many more.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma - Dialogues des Carmélites - 11/26/22

Composer/Librettist: Francis Poulenc 
Conductor: Michele Mariotti 
Director: Emma Dante 
Corinne Winters: Blanche de la Force 
Anna Caterina Antonacci: Madame de Croissy 
Emöke Baráth: Sister Constance 
Ekaterina Gubanova: Mother Marie 
Ewa Vesin: Madame Lidoine 
Jean-François Lapointe: Marquis de la Force 
Bogdan Volkov: Chevalier de la Force 

Leaving New York City was bitter-sweet for many reasons, and one of them was its pre-pandemic endless supply of first-class music performances, which have, as far as I can tell, returned, but which I can no longer enjoy. Although it would be delusional to expect the same kind of abundance anywhere else, at least this past weekend reminded of my music-filled New York years when after a chamber music concert on Saturday afternoon, I attended an opera performance on Sunday evening. 
As I was eagerly checking the 2022-2023 season of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma earlier this year, the one title that immediately jumped at me was Dialogues des Carmélites, Francis Poulenc’s originally polemical version of the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, the group of 16 Carmelite nuns who, as the Reign of Terror was about to end in 1794, died on the guillotine for refusing to renounce their faith. So I went. 
The walk to the opera house was uneventful, but once I got there, I quickly noticed beautiful people and VIPs walking the red carpet and air kissing one another, and realized that the performance would be not only the opening night of the Dialogues des Carmélites’ run, but also the opening night of the new opera season. So I discreetly sneaked up to my upper level first-row seat, which had come with a high price tag and turned out to have a slightly obstructed view. Seriously. 

But it took more than an admittedly fancy bar between me and the stage to tamper my excitement, and I started chit-chatting with the very friendly Milanese opera buff next to me as we were both watching the space filling up slowly (Northern Italians definitely know how to keep an eye on the clock). And then, 10 minutes after the official start time, and after a moment of silence requested by the general manager for the victims of the landslide on Ischia, the show finally got underway. 
A convent is by default a place of humility and self-effacement, and in that sense, the entire cast delivered uniformly superb performances. As Blanche de la Force, who would later become Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, American soprano Corinne Winters put her wide-ranging singing and acting skills to valuable use as the constantly fearful, endearingly impressionable, and yet surprisingly strong, young woman who, one day, decides to leave the real world’s turmoil behind and enter a Carmelite convent. Needless to say, her life will never be the same. 
As the first step, she will have to interview with the aging and ailing prioress of the monastery, Madame de Croissy, whom veteran Italian soprano and mezzo-soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci channeled magnificently. Although she disappeared early, her visceral death scene remained one of the major highlights of  the production. A singer as well as an actress blessed with infinite intelligence and bottomless resilience, not to mention a magnetic presence, she magisterially expressed the terror and doubt overwhelming her character in her last moments. 
Hungarian mezzo-soprano Emöke Baráth was a delightful Sister Constance, the ever-spontaneous chatter-box who will eventually join her sisters in their fate. Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, an old acquaintance from The Met’s, was an intrinsically kind Mother Marie. Polish soprano Ewa Vesin made her mark as the eventually heroic new prioress Madame Lidoine. 
The male parts are few and far between in this opera, but French bass Jean-François Laponte and Ukrainian tenor Bogdan Volkov did commendable work as, respectively, Blanche’s father and brother. Additionally, how could one forget Volkov and Winters’ genuinely heart-breaking duet as he’s trying to persuade her to return home? 

Regardless of the prodigious singing talents assembled, the name that I will probably remember most from these Dialogues des Carmélites is Emma Dante, the fearless Italian playwright, theatre director and stage actress who managed to come up with a production that adroitly incorporates secular and feminist bits to the proceedings, on top of being delightfully creative. 
The many inspired visual elements included sliding panels with Moorish-like design that were both stylish and versatile, a recurring huge cross dramatically swinging like a pendulum in the background, the sisters crushing the novices’ feet with heavy blocks to ply them, and the huge portraits of the pre-convent nuns that would accompany the women as the empty frames turned first into a prison, then into symbols of their death when, in the final scene, each nun signed herself one last time inside her own frame before a guillotine blow triggered the dropping of a white canvas that would obliterate her. 
Other tableaux featured lighter but equally inventive touches, such as the entertaining choreography of the group of nuns ironing sheets in unison, a set consisting mostly of shelves of skulls that looked straight out of Rome’s chiesa dei Cappuccini, and the surreal image of the nuns riding yellow bicycles in long leather coats, making the most of their first and last moment of intoxicating freedom. The eye-popping costumes—The nuns’ early futuristic outfits could have easily come from a modern-day fashion runway—proved that colors and originality are not antonyms of austerity. 
But the whole enterprise started with Poulenc’s uniquely complex, relentlessly challenging score, in which a wide-range of influences such as catholicism, impressionism, revolutionary brutality, and aristocratic refinement can be detected. As a side note, I find it interesting that Poulenc allegedly went to great lengths to come up with lyrics that would make vocal lines sound almost conversational, because it makes me wonder, in passing, how well the opera’s Italian and English versions work. 
On Sunday evening, maestro Michele Mariotti, who was fulfilling there his first engagement as the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma’s new music director, made sure to keep words and music admirably flowing together, while also properly emphasizing the loudness of the political unrest or the intimacy of Blanche’s shifting emotions. The orchestra did an excellent job at following his directions, but the last word, or note, had to be left to the all-women chorus, who was simply outstanding in the terrifying and terrific Salve Regina, their chanting being regularly interspersed with the sound of the guillotine’s blade falling until everyone had bit the dust. And there was nothing else to add.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

I Concerti dell'Aula Magna - Renaud Capuçon & David Fray - All-Schubert - 11/26/22

Franz Schubert: Sonatina in G Minor, D. 408 
 Franz Schubert: Rondo in B Minor, D. 895 
Franz Schubert: Sonatina in A Minor, D. 385 
Franz Schubert: Fantasie in C Major, D. 934 
Renaud Capuçon: Violin 
David Fray: Piano 

You have to get back on the horse that threw you, they say, so one week after my very wet and endlessly frustrating, but also richly rewarding, trip to La Sapienza University’s Aula Magna concert hall to attend a fabulous all-Schubert concert by the Quartetto di Cremona, I got a ticket for another all-Schubert concert the following Saturday in the same neck of the woods and (Gasp!) the same weather forecast. 
This time, however, the program featured four shorter piano and violin pieces, and while I was sure they would be very satisfying—How could I go wrong with Schubert?—I really bought my ticket for the performers, namely violinist Renaud Capuçon, whom I had already heard and loved when he came to perform during his own Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence, and pianist David Fray, about whom I had heard many good things and whom was ready to love. 
The sky having cleared earlier than expected, I decided to make the most of that lucky break. So I ended up walking there from home and arrived at the venue full composed, blissfully dry, and way too early. But then again, better safe than sorry. 

The concert started on a light-hearted and yet substantial note, as well as a discreet nod to Mozart, with the Sonatina in G Minor, D. 408, which established right away that the two musicians were in full command of their craft and perfectly attuned to each other. The relationship between the two remained collegial and collaborative throughout, with the absence of extravagant fireworks underlining the structural qualities and cheerful mood of the composition. 
We then shifted gears for the Rondo in B Minor, D. 895, whose rhapsodic nature was impeccably calibrated thanks to the duo’s right amount of professional poise, but also infectious excitement. There was a lot going on during those 15 minutes, but they knew exactly how to keep up with each other and Schubert while effortlessly jumping through the countless technical hoops all the way to the final exhilarating high-speed chase. 
After intermission, it was time for the Sonatina in A Minor, D. 385 to enchant our ears and our hearts with Schubert’s trademark pretty melodies and glorious lyricism, which were all expertly handled by both instruments, which danced and sang in beautiful unison. 
At last, we made it to the towering Fantasie in C Major, D. 934, another Schubert favorite of mine, one that stands out for sheer compositional brilliance and, on Saturday afternoon, gave the two musicians the perfect opportunity to finally let their hair down and deliver a downright electrifying performance while remaining within the limits of good taste (They’re French, after all). They may have looked like two young level-headed executives on that stage, but once they got going, they sounded more like two fired-up rock stars hitting the high point on their show. 

And since one can never hear too much Schubert, we concluded the concert right where we started it, with the first movement of the Sonatina in G Minor, D. 408, which came out just as fresh and satisfying as the first time. Not a bad way to make it through the finish line of this fun little Schubert Festival.

Friday, November 25, 2022

I Concerti dell'Aula Magna - Quartetto di Cremona - Esplorando Schubert - 11/19/22

Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D 810 (Death and the Maiden) 
Franz Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, Op. posth. 163 (Cello Quintet) 
Quartetto di Cremina 
Eckart Runge: Cellist 

After a terrific piano recital by Benedetto Lupo last Thursday night, I wasted no time getting mentally prepared to indulge in the power of strings—And what strings! —for a late afternoon concert last Saturday featuring two masterpieces by Franz Schubert performed by the highly regarded Italian Quartetto di Cremona, who would be joined by special guest cellist Eckart Runge for what has to be my favorite work among the composer’s remarkable œuvre, his String Quintet in C Major. 
My early excitement, however, got temporarily but drastically tempered by a dreadful combination of a wrong turn, dark buildings, low lights, deserted streets, fierce downpours, foggy glasses and a semi-deficient umbrella that turned the typically uneventful 15-minute walk from the Termini train station to La Sapienza University’s Aula Magna concert hall into a 40-minute harrowing odyssey. 
But hey, at least I was deeply grateful for my waterproof shoes, which kept me going even through the deepest puddles, and the understanding of the concert hall personnel, who did not freak out at the sight of poor breathless, disheveled and soaking wet me when I finally reached the venue, and kindly directed to the top balcony as the doors to the main space had just been closed. 

Having made it just in time to see the four musicians step onto the stage to a huge wave of applause from the packed audience, I felt very fortunately not to have missed any of the performance (Could Santa Cecilia still be looking after me?), and even the few other late-comers loudly settling in around me could not spoil my enjoyment of the extended and intense first movement of the String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, AKA Death and the Maiden
The sound coming up from the stage was by all accounts glorious indeed, as the musicians expertly navigated their way through the composition’s ambitious scale and heightened emotions. Having clearly realized at that point that he had not long to live, Schubert seems to have been keen on dealing with his dark and turbulent thoughts head-on, and did it brilliantly. Hearing a crack ensemble like the Quartetto di Cremona bring this dazzling ode to death to stunning life was certainly worth all the trouble I had encountered getting there. 
Then the intermission came, and with it the opportunity for me to claim my legitimate, much closer to the action seat. But I decided to stay on my perch and take advantage of the excellent acoustics and the almost empty space around me, and bask most happily in Schubert’s magnificent String Quintet in C Major, his final chamber work, which is also widely considered one of the top accomplishments of the classical music repertoire, and rightly so. I mean, when even Brahms, the ultimate perfectionist, is impressed, you know you’ve nailed it. 
Clocking in at almost an hour and still leaving the audience wanting for more, the Cello Quintet contains all the ingredients of a bona fide symphony while still preserving the intimacy of chamber music. The variety of rhythms, textures and colors is endless, and yet everything comes together for a wholly harmonious, constantly riveting experience. Fitting in such a tight ensemble cannot be easy, but German musician and teacher Eckart Runge did it effortlessly as the second cello, and we have him to thank for that beautifully burnished, darker hue. 

In fact, we ended up in his debt not just for his priceless contribution to the quintet, but also for apparently being the instigator of the encore, which was an inspired string version of Gustav Mahler’s possibly most spiritual song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”. We may not have been completely lost to the world on Saturday evening, but we sure willingly got lost in the music. Even better, I did not get lost on my way back to Termini.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Accademia Filarmonica Romana - Benedetto Lupo - Tchaikovsky & Scriabin - 11/17/22

Piotr Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Opus 37a 
Alexander Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Opus 11 
Benedetto Lupo: Piano 

After attending a wonderful chamber music concert by the Trio Hermes in the monastery of the Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere a couple of weeks before, I got the warm and fuzzy feeling that the divine protector of music and musicians was looking after me when I came across the poster of an upcoming recital by the much praised and much awarded Italian pianist and teacher Benedetto Lupo as I was walking through, of all places, the largely immigrant neighborhood surrounding the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino. 
It took me a half-second to figure out who “Čajkovskij” was, but when I realized that it was the same Russian composer that ignited for the most part my interest in classical music and that, on top of it, the second composer on the program would be the less difficult to decipher, although not as widely popular, “Skrjabin”, I got a ticket right away. Fact is, beside the pleasure of hearing beautiful music live, I was also very much looking forward to being reminded how fascinating Russian culture is beyond the awfulness of the current political situation. 
So on Thursday evening, at the ungodly hour of 9:00 P.M. after a busy day taking my second friend from New York City in two weeks around Rome, I found myself in the historic center’s Teatro Argentina, which, it is worth-pointing out, is known not only for being one of the city’s major performance venues, but also for standing on the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Ancient Rome history aside, the concert hall turned out to be both eye-popping, with its bright red theme, lavish ornamentation and stunning ceiling, and welcoming, with its human size and good acoustics. 
I had scored a prime parterre seat, which happened to be located right behind ever-rising pianist extraordinaire Beatrice Rana, whose international fame, infectious laugh and status as a former student of Lupo’s easily made her the most popular person in the room. More important, I knew that she would stick to concert-going etiquette, which was more than could be said about the woman sitting to my right, whose admittedly necessary but noisy cough drop unwrapping took forever, to the bottomless dismay of the guy sitting to my left, who kept of throwing her exasperated glances until she finally upped and left. Fun times. 

During the on-going drama, Benedetto Lupo was going through quintessential Romantic composer Piotr Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons with imperturbable poise and commitment. Contrary to his universally beloved take-no-prisoners piano concerto No. 1, this work for solo piano is a much more low-key collection of highly individual and equally engaging vignettes that represent the 12 months of the year, all depicted with his trademark heart-on-his sleeve sensitiveness. 
As expected, each and every one of those miniatures came out as a small irresistible jewel of glorious lyricism and understated melancholy; more unexpected were some of the associations, such as the openly playful Allegro moderato for November and the deeply introspective Barcarola, which has incidentally gotten a life of its own as a popular concert encore, for June. That said, no matter what the challenge was, Lupo swiftly rose to it and handily conquered. 
Immediately after The Seasons and without even pausing for a well-deserved intermission, our man threw himself whole-heartily into Late Romanticism composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin’s 24 Preludes, Opus 11. Modeled after Chopin’s 24 Preludes, which were themselves inspired by Bach’s (Not half-bad references, to say the least), Scriabin’s 30-minute set is a superb multi-faceted gift that keeps on giving generously to connoisseurs and neophytes alike. 
And it was all the more enjoyed by everyone in the audience on Thursday night as Lupo made a point of thoughtfully expressing the countless nuances and hypnotic quality of each of the tiny but dauntingly complex pieces. Subtly highlighting the dreamy Chopinesque nature of one or the fierce virtuosic fireworks of another, he took us on a terrific journey that ended all too soon. 

Once the official program over, since we loudly let him know in no uncertain terms that we were not ready to leave just yet, Lupo treated us to his own exquisite arrangement of one of Tchaikovsky’s Romances, the one that keeps on asking why, and then moved on to a short and lovely musical party favor before finally calling it a night.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Trastevere Classica - Trio Hermes - Haydn, Schubert & Mendelssohn - 11/05/22

Franz Joseph Haydn: Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Hob. XV: 10 
Franz Schubert: Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 148, D. 897 (Notturno) 
Fanny Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11 

If nothing else, this past year has taught me that serendipity is a major factor in finding out where live music concerts take place in Rome, or anywhere else in Italy for that matter, and that keeping my eyes peeled will likely yield rewarding results. And in fact, it happened again last Thursday afternoon as I was meeting my friend Paula at the spot she had picked, the Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, for one last rendez-vous before her flying back to New York City the next day after a very busy Roman holiday. 
Santa Cecilia being the patroness of music and musicians, and the 3rd-century Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere standing on the location of the house in which she allegedly lived and died, it is no wonder that after taking a very enjoyable spin around the lovely garden and church, we noticed a home-made flyer from Trastevere Classica advertising a free concert right there by the newish, but already much in demand, all-female Trio Hermes on Saturday afternoon. 
Flash-forward 48 hours, and I am back, same time same place, after having mightily struggled to make my way through a Piazza di Porta San Giovanni densely crowded with locals due to the huge “Europe for Peace” rally, and then through an Ancient Rome area densely crowded with tourists due to the irresistible pull of impressive ruins and perfect weather, all of which reminded me why I usually stay put on the weekend. 
Finally back in Trastevere, the basilica’s monastery in which the concert was to happen turned out to be an attractively understated, wonderful intimate and acoustically reliable space that would eventually fill up, partly with in-house nuns partly with neighborhood regulars partly with curious visitors, by the time the performance was over. Apparently, I was not the only one who could not think of a better way to ease into a Saturday evening. 

Although they have all graduated from different Italian conservatories, the three ladies displayed an impressive unison as they opened the concert with Haydn’s delightful Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Hob. XV: 10. The engaging, happy-go-lucky piece has just two movements, the cheerful Allegro moderato and the exuberant Presto assai, but those were definitely appealing fodder for the musicians to feast on, and they sure did, with plenty of talent, grace, and fire. 
Then we moved to full-blown Romanticism with the one movement—But what a movement!—that Schubert wrote for his Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 148, D. 897. Deftly oscillating between meditative serenity and jubilant elation while preserving a guarded elegance, featuring an extraordinary mix of exquisite wandering melodies and dark random pizzicatos, this Notturno unfolded leisurely in all its delicate yet intense beauty. It had to be a tall order to express its countless subtle nuances as eloquently as they did, but the fearless trio was able to handle it all. 
The last, but certainly not least, name on the program was Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister, who unfortunately lived in a time and place that neither fully recognized nor fittingly celebrated her prodigious talent as pianist, and even less as a composer. Two centuries later, the three modern young women of the Trio Hermes readily stepped up and delivered an electrifying performance of her Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, a truly exciting work that overflows with innovative ideas and glorious lyricism. It also proves that she was every bit the gifted melody maker that her brother was, and that it is high time she finds herself in the spotlight. 

This wonderful hour of superior music-making had flown by quickly, and the musicians kindly decided to extend it slightly with an encore that could only make everybody happy, the Scherzo from Beethoven’s sprawling Archduke Trio, which provided enough virtuosic fireworks to qualify as an official grand finale.

Monday, October 31, 2022

I Concerti dell'Aula Magna - Joshua Bell and Peter Dugan - Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy & Bartok - 10/25/22

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Opus 12, No. 2 
Robert Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 121 
Claude Debussy: Violin Sonata in G Minor, L140 
Bela Bartok: Rhapsody for Violin and Piano No. 1, BB 94a, Sz. 86 

Seeing a (friendly) familiar face is a treat anywhere, especially after a couple of years of not seeing many faces to begin with, except masked, on screens, or at a safe distance. That’s why I was thrilled last Monday evening to be attending a promising recital by Joshua Bell, which would be the familiar face, and Peter Dugan, which would be the unknown quantity, with my visiting Neapolitan friend Vittorio at La Sapienza University in Rome.
There is no doubt that I would have gone to the concert regardless, but in this case, it was also a not-to-be-missed opportunity for me to treat Vittorio to a memorable evening of timeless music for his birthday, which happened to be the day before. Not exactly perfect timing—Apparently the two musicians hadn’t gotten the memo—but I was confident that they would more than make up for this small mishap in their own ways. 
Although life has finally been getting back to normal in the Eternal City, it was nevertheless hard not to think that something was still wrong with the world when realizing that Joshua Bell, one of classical music’s biggest stars for decades now, had not managed to fill up the 600 seats of the Aula Magna, the university’s performance venue, whose main characteristics are a fascist design, egalitarian vibes and good acoustics, when he used to sell out Carnegie Hall’s 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium and other seemingly large venues in a matter of days. 
On the other hand, back in those days, no matter how much planning and scheming I would put into trying to find a decently located and decently priced seat for one of his concerts, I had never managed to grab such all-around unbeatable seats as the ones I had gotten for us for Monday night in Rome. And we were determined to make the most of them till the very last note. 

As if to set a positive tone for the evening, Bell and Dugan kicked off their performance with what has to be one of Beethoven’s most unabashedly buoyant works. Indeed, with plenty of light-heartedness to lift everybody’s spirits, and yet enough complexity to keep musicians and audience of their toes, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Opus 12, No. 2 was an overtly charming romp that kept on merrily running its 20-minute course in no small part thanks to the two musicians’ genuine connection and obvious comfort with each other. I honestly never thought I’d ever associate Beethoven with fun, but I do now. 
After such an invigorating opening number, the mood was bound to become more serious sooner or later, and it in fact grew distinctly more dramatic with Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 121. Adroitly bringing out the piece’s poised pensiveness, poignant turbulences, and inherent lyricism too, all the way to the deeply passionate last movement, the two artists worked their way through Schumann’s action-packed roller-coaster confidently and effortlessly, although Bell’s bow may beg to differ. 
After the intermission, we moved from 19th century Germany to 20th century France, and a significantly more somber mood, with Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G Minor, L140. Written as the composer was facing dire circumstances, including the general turmoil of the First World War and the more personal tragedy of his own cancer diagnosis, it therefore came to no surprise that the work had some predominantly dark undertones, but not without attractive melodies and elegant lines, and even a surprisingly optimistic conclusion. 
And then, after Beethoven’s cheerfulness, Schumann’s intensity, and Debussy’s melancholy, the official program wrapped up with the irresistible Hungarian dance rhythms of Bartok’s Rhapsody for Violin and Piano No. 1, BB 94a, Sz. 86. Thing is, when you have a certified technical wizard like Joshua Bell on the stage, you do expect dazzling virtuosic sparks to start flying all over the place at some point or another, and they sure did during that highly entertaining little number. Endlessly versatile artist and tireless music advocate Peter Dugan may not be the household name that Bell is just yet, but he clearly demonstrated all evening that he was every bit the accomplished musician that his more famous partner was. Ergo, a wonderful evening was had by all. 

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Joshua Bell is that he usually takes the time to introduce the encores he is about to perform, and he did it again on Monday evening, with his own delightful arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2, which leisurely unfolded in all its radiant beauty, and Wieniawski’s exhilarating Scherzo-tarantelle, which provided us with one last occasion to indulge in an explosive bouquet of uncompromising fireworks. Buon compleanno, Vittorio!

Monday, September 26, 2022

Teatro di San Carlo - I puritani - 09/14/22

Composer: Vincenzo Bellini 
Conductor: Giacomo Sagripanti 
Lord Arturo Talbo: Xabier Anduaga 
Elvira: Lisette Oropesa 
Sir Riccardo Forth: Davide Luciano 
Sir Giorgio: Gianluca Buratto 
Enrichetta di Francia: Chiara Tirotta 
Lord Gualtiero Valton: Nicolò Donini 
Sir Bruno Roberton: Saverio Fiore 

After a couple of family-centered interludes in small villages of the French countryside, I am now back in the maddeningly dysfunctional yet endlessly fascinating Italian city of Naples for the month of September, never mind that I had to trade—semi-reluctantly, I must say—my fancy but unfinished pied-à-terre in the historic center for more ordinary, but more modern, digs in the Arenella neighborhood. As they say, beggars cannot be choosers. 
And I have been rather busy, with exciting explorations underground into the city’s famed network of tunnels and above ground of the neo-Renaissance Villa Pignatelli’s attractive museum and gardens, as well as sun-drenched excursions by sea to the colorful island of Procida, and by land to the sleepy community of Piedmonte Matese and to Caserta’s sumptuous Reggia, even squeezing in a one-day trip to my beloved Eternal City, on top of memorable meals and leisurely walks by the ever-scintillating Mediterranean. 
Even better, the missing musical component to my Neapolitan life was added recently with a special offer from the landmark Teatro San Carlo consisting of premium parquet seats for a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece I Puritani. That’s when I knew I had arrived in Naples. Since for some inexplicable reason I had never come across this ubiquitous warhorse before, I immediately grabbed two tickets for my friend Vittorio and myself. 
And then, Naples being Naples, on D-Day the ride to the performance turned out to be more action-packed than the performance itself. It all started with a subway strike that was supposed to be over by 3:00 PM, but was still going on at 5:00 PM. So we had to rush to the only reliable taxi stand nearby, where we jumped into the one taxi waiting, to then simmer for a while in agonizingly sluggish traffic, before miraculously surviving a mad dash through the Kafkaesque labyrinth that are the Quartieri Spagnoli for an arrival 15 minutes before start time. 
And that’s how, on the last summer evening of the year, at the very civilized time of 6:00 PM, which is much appreciated when the projected running time is three and a half hours, we took our seats that were located two rows apart, a bit too close to the stage and a bit too far from the center—but again, beggars cannot be choosers—in an almost full house for Bellini’s last, but certainly not least, opera. 

Although the plot of I puritani dutifully follows opera tradition with its star-crossed lovers, political intrigue, and lots of hand-wringing drama, it also eventually takes an unexpected turn and comes to a happy ending just as things look decidedly dire for the main protagonists. And then, just like that, nobody dies and all is well that ends well! But many twists of fate must be negotiated before reaching the uplifting conclusion, and all of them present daunting technical challenges to the four lead singers who dare to take them on. 
A case in point would be the crucial role of Elvira, which for this run had serendipitously been assigned to the delicious American soprano Lisette Oropesa, one of the currently most esteemed opera singers in the world who, interestingly enough, is native of the jazz mecca that is New Orleans. Still young in years, but as self-assured as an old pro, she did not let the fact that she was making her double debut in the ruthlessly demanding role of Elvira at the prestigious Teatro San Carlo get in the way of brilliantly carrying out her mission. 
Not content to just display her inherently beautiful and highly supple voice, she also proficiently acted out her part, with a little help of no less than four different dresses. One show-stopping number was for sure her triumphant ode to life and love in a classy white dress, which was pure enchantment to the eyes and the ears. That said, throughout the entire performance, her slim, almost girlish figure and demeanor stood in stark contrast to the formidable presence she had quickly established by rising above even the most potentially overwhelming waves of sounds from the orchestra with disarming ease and unyielding precision, strength, or nuance, confidently handling the dazzlingly high-flying acrobatics, as well as her character’s convoluted journey, without missing a beat. I am therefore happy to confirm that the world is now blessed with one more certifiably accomplished Elvira. 
Her dashing love interest, Lord Arturo Talbo, was enthusiastically impersonated by Basque tenor Xabier Anduaga, who proved to be an ideal partner for Oropesa. Just about as young, skilled, and charismatic, he effortlessly slipped into the role of the romantic knight in no small part thanks to his handsome looks, determined disposition, and flawless clarion voice. One of the highlights of the evening was indisputably his superb rendition of the eagerly awaited aria “A te, o cara”, which he delivered with the perfect combination of ardor and poignancy. 
Not to be outdone, his kind of adversary for Elvira’s heart (and hand), Sir Riccardo Forth, who was sung by Italian, Campania-born baritone Davide Luciano, wasted no time stating his position and his goal with a naturally resounding, elegantly burnished voice that seemed to originate from a very, very dark place. That said, Riccardo was in fact not the ultimate enemy, and he knew when to make himself useful too, even if it was mostly for his own benefit. And it is to Luciano’s credit that he was able to successfully walk that treacherous fine line. 
Although the part of Sir Giorgio, Elvira’s well-meaning uncle/father figure, is less flamboyant, it is still essential to the story. Visibly aware of his place, Italian bass Gianluca Buratto provided solid and reliable support to the action and the performance. In fact, his duo with Davide Luciano for their blazing tribute to their homeland was so exhilarating that the audience vigorously demanded an encore... and got it!

The three smaller roles were all competently filled by a winning trio of Italian singers that included the mezzo-soprano Chiara Tirotta as the queen in distress Enrichetta di Francia, the bass Nicolò Donini and his impressive moustache as Lord Gualtiero Valton, and the tenor Saverio Fiore as the officer Sir Bruno Roberton, who had the dubious honor of opening the opera and then disappearing for most of it. 
I never thought that I could admire a chorus as much as I admired the constantly reliable and extraordinarily versatile Met chorus throughout all the Met-going years, but I have to admit that my first encounter with the San Carlo chorus pretty much blew me away. In I puritani, the part of the chorus is so critical and mercilessly complex that it is often rightly considered the fifth singing lead. But that apparently did not seem any of its members, who all stuck together for a performance that was consistently terrific in its technical acuity and emotional power. 
The same goes for the excellent orchestra, whose musicians played in impressive unison the relentless roller-coaster that is Bellini’s unabashedly glorious score (Just trying to imagine how many other masterworks he could have written if he hadn’t died at the lamentably young age of 33 is heart-breaking). Fully involved in the tiniest details while never losing sight of the big picture, Italian maestro Giacomo Sagripanti managed to keep everything under tight control, which was no small task considering the countless intricacies and sheer intensity of the composition. Adroitly shaping the scenes, efficiently supporting the singers, and energetically conducting the musicians, he resolutely brought all the various musical parts together to form a thrilling unified whole. 

Once the highly calibrated and immensely satisfying performance had reached its happy end, and the many rounds of frenetic applause had subsided, we were back in the real world of exasperatedly disorganized Naples for a long wait in a long line at a taxi stand located in one of the most trafficked areas of the city, where no taxi was waiting.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Quatuor Lugha - Mozart & Haydn - 08/27/22

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No. 11 in E Flat Major, K. 171 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, K.159 
Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Opus 64, No. 6 

Until this year, summer had always been for me the season to stay put and let everybody else frantically run around and deal with heat, crowds, and grossly inflated prices. For reasons mostly beyond my control, this year had to be different, so I decided to make the most of it. That’s why, after a wonderfully restorative month in Trieste, whirlwind and fun-filled visits to Turin and Aix-en-Provence, and a few nature- and family-bonding days in Dieulefit and Vollore-Montagne, I am now temporarily sojourning in Dieulefit again for some more good stuff. 
Even better, my extended stay has coincided with a chamber music concert by the fifth-year resident Quatuor Lugha, which is currently in the midst of fulfilling the exciting but taxing mission of playing all the string quartets of Mozart (23!!) and Haydn (68!!!). That said, their name being inspired by Lugh, the Celtic god of the arts, it looks like these talented young musicians are well-equipped to successfully meet the challenge. 
So last Saturday evening, after a de rigueur stop at Dieulefit’s chocolaterie in the afternoon (I hadn’t been there in almost a week and had started to suffer unmistakable withdrawal symptoms), my mom and I returned to nearby Le Poët-Laval, an expertly restored medieval hilltop village that has been officially deemed one of the 150 “Most Beautiful Villages of France” and is a frequent playground of ours, to gamely negotiate our way down its tricky cobble streets and attend what was bound to be, by all accounts, an elevated evening. 
Surprisingly, the pleasantly intimate, nicely decorated and acoustically satisfying auditorium of the Centre d’Art Yvon Morin was only about half-full and, even more surprisingly, the audience included a definitely handsome, seemingly laid-back and allegedly music-loving fox terrier, who in fact turned out to be much better behaved that some human beings I have encountered through all my years as an audience member. 

In the end, the slightly unusual circumstances did not prevent the quartet to readily dive into Mozart’s 1773 String Quartet No. 11 in E Flat Major, K. 171 with impressive skills and communicative fervor. One of the “Viennese” string quartets Mozart wrote after having heard a few from Haydn’s œuvre and being pretty much blown away by them, this relatively short composition was utterly charming, with a touch of melancholy, and a healthy dose of natural elegance. It also proved that the 17-year-old composer was smart enough to learn from the older master, by moving from the three-movement to the four-movement form, for example, and talented enough to become perfectly able to compete. 
We then jumped back to an earlier time in 1773, to hear Mozart’s String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major, K.159, one of the three-movement “Milanese” quartets, which, clearly under Italian influence, was beautifully melodic and endearingly light-hearted, but also showed a hint of the haunting darkness that would later appear in some of his major works such as Don Giovanni. As expected, Haydn was nowhere to be found yet, but the journey was already irresistibly engaging. 
After a short intermission, Haydn grabbed the spotlight for the last piece on the program, his String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Opus 64, No. 6, which he composed during his extended and productive stay in London  in 1791. Exquisitely crafted with a few intense peaks as extra perks, overtly lyrical with occasional discreet dissonances thrown in for good measure, highly contrasted while still preserving an air-tight unity, this wonderful mini music feast wrapped up the concert with dazzling fireworks, before we all found ourselves outside again, this time negotiating our way up the still tricky cobble streets in total darkness, minus our trusted flashlights, energy crisis oblige.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Società dei Concerti di Trieste - Progetto Beethoven - 07/24/22

Ludwig von Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3 
Ludwig von Beethoven: Fantasy for piano, vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80 (Choral Fantasy) 
Ludwig von Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Verdi 
LaFil - Filarmonica di Milano 
Conductor: Marco Seco 
Alessandro Taverna: Piano 

With my multi-stop Italo-French trek wrapped up and my social calendar pretty much cleared, I settled happily for an entire month in the unusually multi-cultural and serenely beautiful city of Trieste, blissfully tucked away from suffocating temperatures and even more suffocating mass tourism, except for the occasional mammoth cruise ship. And while the capital of the autonomous region of Friuli Venezia Giulia may not have the same endless supply of cultural sights, institutions and events as larger cosmopolitan cities, its extraordinary past and dynamic present have no problem keeping locals and visitors busy. 
Fact is, my summer here has already been quite eventful since last week we experienced the effects of the wildfires that were raging in the nearby Corsa Mountains as they brought the Internet down for several hours one evening, caused power outages, and reduced the air quality to “extremely poor” for a couple of days. And then, just as life was getting back to normal, fierce thunderstorms made hot water unavailable for a few hours one morning. 
Among all these climate change-related challenges, I was cheered up by a short visit from my Neapolitan friend Vittorio, who is prospecting Trieste as a possibility for retirement, and the closing concert of the Società dei Concerti di Trieste’s Progetto Beethoven summer series, whose serendipitously timing would bring us together at the iconic Teatro Verdi. On top of it, the program featured the 7th symphony, whose heart-melting Allegretto has always been a favorite of mine. 
And then, last Sunday evening, after yet another decadent meal at the Caffè degli Specchi, which has rapidly become my go-to spot in town, and a quick look at the dazzling sunset over the Adriatic at the end of the stunning Piazza Unità d’Italia, we were making our way to the opera house when we momentarily found ourselves in the middle of an admittedly rather civilized anti-vax protest on Piazza Verdi. Did I mention that there is never a dull moment in Trieste? 
Once inside the intimate and attractive space though, we quickly forgot the outside agitators and reveled in the good fortune of having a premium box all to ourselves instead. Although the theater was surprisingly far from being full—Apparently people had better things to do on a sultry Sunday evening—the mood was festive, and the couple of opening speeches by officials, who kept on effusively thanking everyone they could think of, went well. 

When show-time finally arrived, the Filarmonica di Milano’s musicians joined forces with the Teatro Verdi’s musicians for Beethoven’s glorious Leonore Overture No. 3. The composer spent an inordinate amount of time writing no fewer than four overtures for his one and only opera, Fidelio, and he allegedly rejected the third one because he found it too grand. Luckily for the rest of us, it was rescued from oblivion and is now part of Beethoven’s legacy. Efficiently condensed at roughly a quarter of an hour, the Leonore Overture No. 3 may for all purposes be considered a well-rounded CliffNotes version of the opera, and the orchestra gamely went through the plot’s dramatic twists and turns all the way to the happy ending. 
It is always fun to discover unsuspected works by familiar composers, and that’s what Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy was to me when I first saw it on the program. Later on, as the orchestra was playing it with precision and fervor, and more than a little help from the Teatro Verdi’s choir and a handful of soloists, I could not help but think of the universally popular Ode to Joy of his 9th symphony. The big difference, however, was the ubiquitous presence of a piano soloist on Sunday evening, an essential and demanding part of the composition that, for the occasion, was assertively fulfilled by the brilliant Alessandro Taverna. 
Even better, he responded to our enthusiastic applause with another superb performance of some variations by Max Reger on a theme by Telemann this time, which made our jaws drop even lower. This young virtuoso is already in high demand in Europe, and if he keeps it up, the world will no doubt be next. 
After the intermission, we were more than ready for Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and I was thrilled that after having reconnected with the joys of opera and recitals lately, I was finally getting an opportunity to dive into a big, lush and exhilarating symphony, which has also incidentally found its place in music history for leveraging the best of the Classical past while resolutely looking toward the Romantic future. Maestro Marco Seco, who also happens to be the artistic director of the Società dei Concerti di Trieste, led the musicians into a spontaneously engaging performance that superbly highlighted the many facets, from joyful dances to solemn marches to the high-speed Finale, of the action-packed journey. There is never a dull moment with Beethoven either.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Saoû chante Mozart - Inspirations Mozartiennes - 07/08/22 - 9:00 PM

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No.17 in B-flat Major, K.570 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for Keyboard and Violin No. 35 in A Major, K. 526 
Nathanaël Gouin: Piano 
Sayaka Shoji: Violin 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Improvisations 
Thomas Ehnco: Piano 

The first concert of the Saoû chante Mozart festival over, we took advantage of the wonderful estate just outside the castle to have a very French picnic—I would seriously attend any kind of festival if it comes with the opportunity to eat pâté en croûte among lavender fields during the golden hour—and compare notes, which were all overwhelmingly enthusiastic. After also pondering why the rest of the audience had apparently gone into the village of Saoû instead of taking advantage of the gorgeous setting and how the couple of small local restaurants would be able to manage the onslaught, we turned our attention to the second concert. 
Although everything would revolve around Mozart, there would a twist to it, which was that the second part would be all improvisations inspired by some of Mozart’s biggest hits as well as hidden gems. Moreover, a second twist had been added to it a couple of days before when Yvan Cassar, the pianist who had been tapped for that second half, had suddenly become indisposed and young, but already tireless globe-trotter and Saoû chante Mozart veteran, Thomas Ehnco was called to save the night. From what we could overhear among the connoisseurs, this was actually not a bad deal at all. And at least one thing was for sure: After a late opening of the doors and a subsequent chaotic settling by the audience, I found myself in an amazing seat, and definitely in the mood for more Mozart. 

Originally written for piano and violin, the Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat Major eventually would be performed only on piano, and while it may not be one of Mozart’s most dazzling works—Lets’ face it, the competition is dreadfully fierce—, it still has enough solid qualities, especially in the deliciously bubbly Allegretto, to have a legitimate place on concert programs. On top of it, when a musician as prepared and capable as Nathanaël Gouin takes a hold of it, it brings it to a whole other level, and that’s just what happened on Friday night. 
On the other hand, a composition of Mozart’s for piano and violin that stayed that way is Mozart’s Sonata for Keyboard and Violin No. 35 in A Major, for which Gouin was joined by violinist Sayaka Shoji. This is the last sonata the composer would ever write, but then again, once you have come up with such a well-rounded masterwork, there’s pretty much nowhere else to go. Book-ending the serene Andante with two unabashedly sunny movements, Mozart took pains to focus equally on the two instruments. Accordingly, the two musicians got equal share of the spotlight, even if the piano at times sounded ready to take over the violin. 

Mozart was still very much on our minds and in our ears when a seemingly energy-filled Thomas Ehnco climbed up onto the stage, sat at the piano, and started playing a spontaneous-sounding mix of classical and jazz and whatnots with the effortless skills, knowledge and aplomb of a true virtuoso. By then darkness had slowly but surely descended upon our surroundings, discreet mood-setting lights had appeared, and everything was in place for a magical summer night under the stars. 
After taking a quick break to catch his breath, acknowledge our thunderous applause and introduce himself, Ehnco was back digging into the bottomless treasure chest that is Mozart’s œuvre and repeatedly came up with special treats in a wide range of different flavors. As the night went on, we got to enjoy truly exciting, multifold variations of The Requiem’s Lacrimosa, Ehnco limiting himself to the eight bars that are indisputably Mozart’s, Don Giovanni’s ever-popular “La ci darem la mano”, which he played with septuple rhythms, the all-time favorite Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the 40th symphony’s formard-looking Finale, and the unusual dissonances of the String Quartet No. 19. And those were just the most well-known excerpts. 

And just like that, I was already done with the Saoû chante Mozart festival for this year, and I could not have ended it on a higher note.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Saoû chante Mozart - Contrastes - 07/08/22 - 6:30 PM

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Suite in C Major, KV. 399 
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Fantasia in F-sharp Minor H 300, Wq 67 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 54 (Sonata facile or Sonata semplice) 
Justin Taylor: Piano 

Claude Debussy: Menuet, from Suite Bergamasque 
Maurice Ravel: Menuet, from Le tombeau de Couperin 
César Franck: Prelude, Choral and Fugue 
Philippe Cassard: Piano 

Since I had to make a two-day stop-over at my mom’s in Dieulefit between the International festival d’art lyrique in Aix-en-Provence and my half-sister’s wedding in Lyon, I was pondering how sensible it would be to attend not one but two concerts in a row with my mom and our friend Jacqueline in nearby Saoû, which meant a return home roughly by midnight, on the eve of the big event. Shouldn’t I be planning on getting a good night’s rest instead? On the other hand, The Saoû chante Mozart festival had never failed me or anybody else, and after being deprived of live music for so long, the temptation was just too hard to resist. 
So in the end, last Friday evening, I found myself in the intimate courtyard of the château d’Eurre, a lovely 14th-century castle surrounded by lavender fields whose private owners are kind enough to open every year for the festival. Since my tickets were acquired later, I did not seat next to my mom and Jacqueline, who had premium seats, but in the middle of the first row house right, which essentially meant that for the entire time I would be staring at the shoes of the two pianists featured in the 6:30 PM performance. But hey, beggars cannot be choosers, and I felt lucky to be there, on a beautiful summer evening, as the small space was packed to the rims, or at least to the top of the staircases. 

The first pianist was Justin Taylor, a very nice young man who is also, according to his short bio, one of those multi-talented prodigies whose fortes span from Baroque to jazz. But even more than that is sometimes required when you play outdoors. Although he was obviously ready to handle anything musically, his biggest challenge on Friday evening turned out to be a strong and facetious wind that was apparently determined to mess his sheet music up. But not to worry, plenty of good humor and a pro-active page turner eventually allowed the performance to proceed without a hitch. 
Once everything was more or less settled, he wasted no time flexing his pianistic muscles on nothing less than the faithful replica of a 18th-century pianoforte, because bringing the real thing would have been way too risky. For the occasion, he had chosen Mozart’s Baroque-influenced Suite in C Major, KV. 399, a lesser-known but, needless to say, impeccably put-together piece that exuded the Viennese master’s trademark elegance and vivacity. 
Next, we stayed in the Baroque realm with one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s numerous sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and his exquisitely contrasted Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, Wq 67. While some may have taken it for a particularly inspired improvisation, it had a sharp structure that seemed to prove otherwise. In any case, it remained firmly under Taylor’s tight and informed control. 
We went back to Mozart—It is his festival, after all—in a more classical form this time, with his popular Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major. Thing is, while the work has been nicknamed “Easy Sonata” or “Simple Sonata”, and as such invariably shows up on the playlist of every piano student, it still takes a lot of commitment and practice to make it sound as spontaneously scintillating as Taylor did on Friday night. 

After this first part of the program was over, and almost without missing a beat, which was quite a remarkable feat considering the little space the crew had to maneuver, the old-fashioned pianoforte was replaced by a more modern Steinway, and the second part of the concert was underway without any further ado, this time in the company of solidly established pianist Philippe Cassard and his tantalizing 19th-century-French program. 

Music resumed with the Menuet from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, the impressionist composer’s dazzling tribute to the French Baroque harpsichordists. And if nothing of the traditional minuet could be found in this new take on it, there was hardly any reason to complain as we were all thoroughly enjoying the enchanting river of notes, overflowing with light rhythms and pretty melodies, that Cassard steadily produced. 
The second menuet du jour was from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, a moving six-movement tribute to six of his friends who died in World War I. In fifth position, the Menuet came out as an uncomplicated, peaceful, borderline nonchalant, homage to Jean Dreyfus, with one brief moment of tension, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared, as if to remind us all of the tragedy that inspired the composition in the first place. 
The pièce de résistance of this concert had been saved for last, but it was certainly worth waiting for. Franck’s extended and complex Prelude, Choral and Fugue, in which darkness always seems about to overpower light before the long, tormented and thoroughly magnificent journey ends in a transcendent ecstatic finale, is no fare for the faint-hearted. Thanks to Cassard’s magistral performance of it, we too were all transported by the composer’s compelling narrative, and came out all the better for it. 

One down, one more to go.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Festival international d'art lyrique - Salome - 07/05/22

Composer: Richard Strauss 
Librettist: Richard Strauss 
Orchestre de Paris 
Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher 
Producer/Director: Andrea Breth 
Elsa Dreisig: Salome 
Gábor Bretz: Jonathan 
John Daszak: Herodes 
Angela Denoke: Heradias 

Since it is always best to consider the cup half-full, I decided to make the most of my half-sister’s wedding as soon as it was made clear to me that there was no escaping it. So if I had to be in Lyon on July 9, I figured that I might as well stop in Aix-en-Provence to meet with my mom and at least enjoy one event of its prestigious annual Festival international d’art lyrique (International Festival of Lyrical Art), which this year happened to kick off on July 4, right after having treated myself to an extended Italo-French trip to get there because, why not? 
Back in the lovely Provençal town that was my temporary home last year, although in a different apartment, having learned the hard way last summer that, without the benefit of a lockdown, the historic center is not exactly conducive to a restful stay, I happily reconnected with beloved places and people, never mind that the temperatures were slowly but surely climbing to decidedly uncomfortable heights. 
All the more reason to feel fortunate that the performance of Salome would take place in the blissfully air-conditioned and acoustically satisfying Grand Théâtre de Provence, or “GTP” for the locals. Even better, it would start at the totally civilized time of 8:30 PM and, thanks to Strauss’ compact and intermission-free score, and would end a mere 100 minutes later, all but guaranteeing an evening of exciting musical revelry and still enough beauty sleep. 

 Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s French play by the same name, which involved a virtuous prophet, a horny teenager and a hornier king in biblical times, boasting Hedwig Lachmann’s faithful German translation and Richard Strauss’ formidable musical score, Salome the opera needs no introduction. Instantly igniting scandals, as well as huge popular successes, wherever it was performed, when it was not outright banned, the story’s tantalizing mix of eroticism, religion and death has always proven hard to resist, so these days most of us don’t, as the almost sold-out audience on Wednesday night could attest. 
Salome being a complex character for whom Strauss composed a particularly daunting part, one of the main challenges of any production is by default to find a singer with an unusual amount of singing and acting skills, not to mention power and resilience. Enter Elsa Dreisig, a young but already highly regarded French-Danish soprano, who at first may have seemed like a puzzling choice to many connoisseurs since her background is more Mozartian than Wagnerian. 
But that’s the thing: Her incredibly agile and deeply lyrical voice, combined with her angelic blond hair and a virginal white slip dress, turned out to be the perfect fit for the young, innocent, unwittingly seductive and quickly overwhelmed teenager she is actually supposed to be. And if you assumed she was too unexperimented to handle the role, just go and watch her tear through the last monologue. Suffice to say, Oscar Wilde would have been mightily pleased. And so would Richard Strauss. 
The object of her obsession, the striking and unattainable prophet Jochanaan, was winningly interpreted by physically and vocally blessed Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz, whose magnetic presence and commanding singing easily overcame the limitations of his main stations, which essentially consisted in being half-way buried in the cracked ground or beheaded on the banquet table à la Da Vinci’s Last Supper meets Magritte. 
British tenor John Daszak was in charge of the other man in Salome’s life, her lecherous and spineless step-father Herodes, and he did not hesitate to go the extra mile to come up with a memorable king in no small part owing to his natural poise and flawless diction. 
Not to be outdone, German soprano Angela Denoke, a former Salome herself, was a resolutely determined Herodias, Herodes’ unapologetic sister-in-law and then wife, whose dark looks and venomous singing brought another bit of ominousness to the already unsavory proceedings. 
The uniformly impressive cast was completed by a wide-ranging cohort of highly competent singers, who all immensely contributed to the high quality of the musical output. 

As for the visual output, German director Andrea Breth had clearly rejected any possible hint of orientalism and boldly gone German expressionism instead, and I got to admit that her rigorously black-and-white, cleverly surrealist vision, which included a magnificent moon, refined costumes, stunning lighting effects, as well as stylized gestures straight out of silent movies and old photographs, had a lot going for it. Quite a few of those tableaux were in fact downright arresting in their genuine inventiveness when depicting the hopelessly decadent milieu and the awfully thorny relationships. 
The devil, however, is often in the details, and some of them were just not up to par. Call me old-fashioned if you want, but to me, the main issue was the dance of the seven veils or, more precisely, the lack of it. While Breth should be commended for trying something different, her four ersatz Salomes engaged in various encounters with Jochanaan or Narraboth while the real Salome was lying on the banquet table were more mystifying than enlightening. And while a white-tiled bathroom kind of makes sense when a cold environment is called for, I found it much too aseptic for the highly dramatic last scene. On the other hand, Jochanaan’s head stayed in its bucket for the occasion, a little favor I was most grateful for. 
Richard Strauss’ Salome is famous not only for its sordid plot, but also for its sumptuous score and the huge orchestra it takes to bring it to life. That did not seem to be a problem for the Orchestre de Paris though, as they sounded in splendid form and happy to tackle a masterful serving of unapologetically opulent late Romanticism. They were confidently conducted by German maestro Ingo Metzmacher, who brilliantly managed to convey the composition’s relentless intensity while still bringing out its subtle colors and organic beauty, making sure to always support and not overwhelm Dreisig’s lighter voice. 

When all had been said and done, the curtain rose again to give Dreisig her moment in the spotlight, and the entire audience spontaneously joined in to give her the thunderous ovation she so rightfully deserved. The production team received less unanimously positive feedback, but the mood remained festive regardless. Even better, we had an enjoyable walk back to our temporary home in an Aix that was not even close to being ready to go to sleep yet.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Bologna Festival 2022 - Khatia Buniatishvili - 06/09/22

Eric Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1 
Frédéric Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 4 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 (Air on the G String) 
Franz Schubert: Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major, Op. 90, D. 899 
Franz Schubert/ Franz Liszt: Serenade 3S. 560/2 from Ständchen by Schubert 
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53 
Frédéric Chopin: Mazurka in A Minor, Opus 17 No. 4 
François Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses (The mysterious barricades) 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 (Transcription for piano by Liszt) 
Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major 
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, S.244/2 

The fabulous country of Italy has been keeping me so relentlessly occupied (The arts! The history!! The food!!! The people!!!!) that I haven’t been terribly frustrated by the miserly number of musical performances I have come across and, busy schedule permitting, attended. That said, when the right name shows up with the right program at the right time and in the right place  Truth is, I am not overly picky these days  I am still more than willing to drop everything and go. 
And that’s just what happened last Wednesday in Bologna when, after leaving the inconspicuous-on-the-outside-but-striking-on-the-inside art and history library of San Giorgio in Poggiale, I serendipitously walked by the Teatro Manzoni and noticed a poster advertising the Bologna Festival 2022, which happened to feature a piano recital by the one and only pianist extraordinaire Khatia Buniatishvili the following evening. 
My Neapolitan friend Vittorio coming into town that Thursday for a quick but culture-filled visit, we immediately decided to add a live music component to our already packed schedule, and that’s how, after a particularly decadent dinner, we found ourselves seating among the almost sold-out audience in the rather plain-looking auditorium, all dutifully wearing our masks and buzzing with excitement at the thought of an evening with the prodigiously gifted and unapologetically glamorous Miss Buniatishvili. 

I had the pleasure of attending a performance of hers last summer as part of the prestigious Festival de La Roque d’Anthéron, and back then, as the sun was starting to set over the lush estate, she had also kicked things off with Satie’s atmospheric miniature Gymnopédie No. 1, a bunch of unimpressed cicadas unceremoniously drowning the music coming out of her piano. Fast-forward about a year, Bologna’s acoustically satisfying space finally allowed me to take in the whole sound spectrum of the subtle composition and thoroughly enjoy it. 
Now that she had our full attention, Buniatishvili wasted no time moving on to one of Chopin’s greatest hits, his short and gorgeous Prelude Op. 28, No. 4, which she played with just the right amount of tenderness and melancholy. 
One of Bach’s most enduringly popular pieces has been indisputably his "Air on the G String" as arranged by August Wihlemj, which has known countless versions and interpretations since 1871. On Thursday night, we got to revel in an inspired and soulful, but thankfully sentimentality-free, performance of it. 
Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 started softly too, before increasingly big and deeply lyrical waves of emotions showed up as the pianist was flawlessly channeling the composer’s turbulent emotions. It was a beautiful interpretation of a beautiful composition, and understandably earned Buniatishvili her first big ovation of the evening. 
More Schubert followed with Liszt’s transcription of his Serenade for Solo Piano, which she handled with the same technical confidence and natural grace. 
After all those introspective episodes, we all eagerly switched gear as soon as we heard the first notes of Chopin’s "Heroic Polonaise", an all-time favorite whose flawless structure and assertive rhythms effortlessly speak to everyone’s heart and mind. A fact that proved to be true again on Thursday night, as it was unfolding with unwavering momentum and plenty of virtuosic sparks. 
We stayed with Chopin, but toned it down a notch, with his Mazurka in A Minor, Opus 17 No. 4, a lovely, leisurely work, that sounded like an affable conversation between two friends who were enjoying the simple pleasure of being together. 
Next, we moved to another popular piece for piano in Couperin’s "Les barricades mystérieuses", a rigorously low-key and yet highly complex composition whose modernity never ceases to surprise. 
Bach was back (Ha!) on the program with Liszt’s transcription of his Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 for Solo Piano, which gave Buniatishvili the perfect opportunity to make good use of her impressive technical skills and deliver music that exuded exactness and refinement. 
A dreamy mood soon prevailed with her take on Liszt’s outwardly understated but emotionally charged Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major, as she made the transcendental beauty of this little jewel slowly reveal itself and eventually mesmerize us all. 
To close the official program in grand style, what better choice could there be than Liszt’s second Hungarian Rapsody, and by far the most famous of them all (And there are 19 of them)? Bold, brilliant, and highly infectious, which probably explains its ubiquitous presence in concert programs and pop culture for well over a century now, it had clearly found an ideal performer in Buniatishvili, who threw everything she had into it and delivered in spades. 

After a truly thunderous ovation and many pictures taken by smartphones that were spontaneously popping up all over the place for a little memento, the audience was still not ready to let the star of the evening go. Always the indefatigable communicator, she heeded the call and eventually treated us to three wonderful encores, which I did not recognize, but appreciated immensely. 
Back on planet earth, as the night was still young, Vittorio and I decided to go for a stroll around Bologna’s illuminated and bustling Piazza Maggiore, just to extend the magic of that enchanted evening a little longer.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Teatro di San Carlo - Tosca - 04/27/22

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettist: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica 
Conductor: Juraj Valcuha 
Producer/Director: Edoardo de Angelis 
Oksana Dyka: Flora Tosca 
Jonas Kaufmann: Mario Caravadossi 
Gabriele Viviani: Baron Scarpia 
Coro e Coro di Voci Bianche del Teatro di San Carlo 

It is hard to believe that over four months have passed since I last attended a live music performance, and not just any music performance, but the most Roman opera of them all, the one and only Tosca, which not only unfolded in its original home, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, but was also replicating the original production. 
Those extra-special circumstances, however, were not quite enough to make the whole experience totally satisfying. So I took the only next logical step worthy of an opera aficionada: I jumped into a south-bound train, grabbed my Neapolitan friend Vittorio, and off we went to check out the Tosca playing in Naples’ prestigious Teatro di San Carlo ‒ AKA the San Carlo for the conoscienti ‒ which effectively allowed me to go from the 1900 original production to the 2020 modern take on it by local director Eduardo de Angelis in one fell swoop. 
Therefore, after a sun-soaked morning in the wonderful Real Orto Botanico, which was a wonderfully refreshing change from the treasure-filled but gritty historic center and the glorious but bare lungomare, a home-cooked lunch, and a quick spin around the beautiful park inside the walls of the Palazzo Reale, we found ourselves in the city’s first and foremost cultural venue at 6:00 PM, which is, for all I could tell, the Neapolitan version of a matinee. 
As if being the oldest continually active opera house, not only of Italy, or Europe, but the world was not enough, the San Carlo, which first opened in 1737, has remained one of the most highly regarded too. And while its red-and-gold décor is a common theme among such historical European cultural venues, it definitely takes it to another level in terms of sophistication and grandeur with, among other things, a royal box that more than lives up to its name. 
As for our commoners’ box (Spending time in the royal botanical garden and the royal palace earlier in the day still did not qualify us for the royal box), at one level above the parquet and slightly on the side, it was nothing to sneeze at either. Even better, we were eventually joined by equally excited opera lovers from Philadelphia and Edinburgh. 

One of the less satisfying elements of my Tosca in Rome was that Spanish soprano Saioa Hernandez turned out to be merely adequate. In Naples, Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka was anything but merely adequate, and took over the part with fierce determination, a truly magnetic presence and plenty of vocal power, even if the naturally steely quality of her voice occasionally made me wish for a little more warmth. Her first appearance, all-clad in shimmering black and donning a neat Louise Brooks haircut adorned by an also black tiara, made her look more like Morticia Adams than a 19th century Roman diva, but she was a sight to behold regardless. 
Cavaradossi was everybody’s favorite German tenor Jonas Kaufman, who delivered a more poised, but no less committed, performance than Vittorio Grigolo did in Rome. Forever the effortless charismatic Romantic hero, blessed with prodigious singing and acting skills, not to mention a still impossibly handsome face, he wasted no time pulling off another star turn as the dashing painter/revolutionary. Although he did not relent to our über-insistent request for an encore of “E lucevan le stelle”, he was still a huge hit with the sold-out audience, including our Scottish box-mate Edward, who openly confessed being a die-hard groupie (and who could blame him?). 
Italian baritone Gabriele Viviani was a deliciously bad-ass Scarpia, proudly donning a bald head, a stylish overcoat, an unflappable demeanor, and oozing just enough sadistic flair to be ominously present without being excessively overbearing. His commanding singing, all foreboding dark hues and haughty tones, winningly completed his superb portrait of the notorious chief of police. 
All the secondary roles were handled admirably, each providing infallible support in their own special way. The adult chorus acquitted itself splendidly of its part, and the mask-wearing members of the children chorus, not to be outdone, promptly distinguished themselves with equal dedication. 
A special mention should, however, go to the young contralto who showed up on stage flanked by two young girls at the beginning of Act 3 for the dawn-breaking shepherd’s song and conferred it ethereal beauty and poignant innocence, providing a welcome, if momentary, respite before the relentless drama resumed. 

As much as I lamented the lack of imagination of Rome’s staunchly traditional production, it did not take long for me to wonder what the action going on before me in Naples was all about. It all started as soon as the curtain rose, when the expected interior of the Basilica the Sant’Andrea della Valle was replaced by the apparently post-apocalyptic skeleton of a tree holding three huge rocks, which immediately brought to my mind the Giuseppe Penone sculpture standing by the Palazzo Fendi in Rome, which, I err to guess, was probably not the original intent. 
Even more unexpected was the fact that the painted portrait of the famously blond and blue-eyed marquise Attavanti that fuels Tosca’s jealousy had morphed into a very much alive African-American model proudly standing topless while Cavaradossi was gamely indulging in a little bit of bodypainting. But not to worry. As if to dispel any confusion (kind of), at the very end of the act, Scarpia quickly pulled the blue veil off her head to reveal a blond wig. If you think that’s taking political correctness a little too far, I won’t disagree. 
From there on, things did not exactly go down, but they did not go very high either. Some iconic moments, such as Tosca dutifully placing candles around Scarpia’s barely dead body as a sign of her unwavering piousness, were acceptably missing. Others directing choices, such as a badly hurt Cavaradossi grabbing a pile of gold necklaces laying on a table as he was collapsing in Palazzo Farnese in Act 2, was probably supposed to say something, but it was not clear what. The Fall of Scarpia’s Empire? 
On the other hand, the numbers and hieroglyphs randomly appearing in the night sky in lieu of stars at the beginning of Act 3 may have been another unexplained surprise, but at least they admittedly looked kind of cool. And the huge broken statue of the fallen Archangel of Castel Sant’Angelo occupying most of the stage was positively attention-grabbing, and brought a strongly symbolic touch of decadence to the proceedings. 
But that did not quite compensate for some frustrating stage direction, such as the beginning of “E Lucevan le stelle” and Tosca’s fatal leap happening so far off stage left that we, along with all the audience on our side, could barely see it. You’d think that a professional stage director would take that into account, but no such luck there. Cavaradossi’s death was another departure for tradition too when, with no firing squad in sight, he was just shot Camorra style. I am not sure if this was meant to incorporate a hint of local culture, but it did anyway. 

Needless to say, an opera house as world-renowned as the San Carlo owes it to itself to have a first-rate orchestra, especially when it comes to Italian fare, and I am happy to confirm that it absolutely does, as their remarkably inspired performance of Puccini’s intensely colorful, richly lyrical score under the baton of the theater’s music director Juraj Valcuha indisputably proved. Standing out among many memorable musical highlights was the Te Deum, a personal favorite of mine, which was as vigorously hair-raising as I could have hoped. 

Once all had been said and done, all three characters were certifiably dead, and we had finally gotten a chance to catch our own breaths, the world's hardest-working social butterfly that is my friend Vittorio suggested that we took a selfie of our international box, which ended up being so challenging that a parquet audience member kindly volunteered to take a couple of pictures for posterity. Contact information was eventually exchanged with high hopes for another similar experience in the future, and we all went our separate ways into the still young Neapolitan night.