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.