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.