Thursday, October 26, 2023

Accademia Filarmonica Romana - Quartetto Indaco - Schubert & Webern - 10/22/23

Anton Webern: Five Movements for Quartet, Opus 5 
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D 810 (Death and the Maiden) 
Cosimo Carovani: Cello
Ida Di Vita: Violin
Eleonora Matsuno: Violin
Jamiang Santi: Viola
Giovanni Bietti: Host

My carefully planned move to the quieter and greener neighborhood of Flaminio in Rome has first and foremost put me at a fantastically short distance from the Parco della Musica, which will allow me to attend plenty of concerts and other exciting cultural events there, hopefully of the same caliber as the terrific performance that the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia delivered last Saturday under the baton of Ivan Fischer. 
What I had not anticipated though, was that it would put me at a slightly longer but still walkable distance from another, much more low-key but still very promising, music venue, the Sala Casella, which turned out to be one of the performance spaces, as well as the headquarters, of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana, AKA the other major source of high-quality live classical music in Rome. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, or rather hitting two places with one move. 
So, without further ado, I got a ticket for the first of four music lessons dedicated to the string quartet, in general, and the links between the classical tradition of late 17th-early 18th century Vienna and the modern trends of the early 20th century, in particular. This fifth collaboration between the Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3 sounded like the perfect opportunity to go check out the place and indulge in some more live music last Sunday. 
The prospect was all the more compelling as the program would feature the odd couple of Franz Schubert and Anton Webern, would be performed by the young but already much in demand Quartetto Indaco, fresh from winning no less than the first prize at the prestigious Osaka International Chamber Music Competition, and would be hosted by eminent composer, pianist and musicologist, as well as Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia di Roma’s artistic consultant, Giovanni Bietti. 
So I walked down to the lovely estate, made friends with the originally suspicious house cat, and grabbed a seat in the smallish, unadorned and welcoming space, which quickly filled up to near capacity with an apparent mix of regulars and first-timers, and everything in between. 

Although it seemed more logical to hear Schubert first, Bietti had decided to do it the other way around, saving the significantly bigger piece for last, and it actually worked out very well. Thanks to his copious and insightful comments, which were all individually illustrated by the quartet before they played the entire composition (all 11 minutes of it) in one go, we got to appreciate the high concentration and meticulous composition of Webern’s Five Movements for Quartet, Opus 5, at a whole other level. 
Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, which frequently appears in chamber music programs, and occasionally in pop culture too, all over the world, was neatly deconstructed with the same bottomless knowledge and communicative enthusiasm, and enabled the neophytes among us to more easily discern the wide range of the themes, the stark contrast between darkness and light, and the hypnotic rhythmical repetitions. Last, but not least, our enlightened selves got to marvel at the final 16-note bouquet in all its dazzling splendor. 
And what about the mystery link between the two rather different composers? Well, minimalism, of course. Although that concept is much spontaneously associated with Webern and other composers who built on his lead, it is in fact present in Schubert’s œuvre too since, as Bietti pointed out, the man had composed over 1,000 pieces by the time he died at the young age of 31. Even with an early start and uncompromising industriousness, he had to reduce some compositions to come up with that kind of abundant output. 
Granted, Death and the Maiden may not be the most obvious example of it, but hearing it perform so superbly made us all forget about music theory anyway. The expansive first movement had to be played separately from the rest of the work in order to spread all the information about the quartet more evenly, and to avoid having the tolling bells of a nearby church included in the session recording. But I thoroughly enjoyed the total of 40 minutes of pure musical bliss regardless, and am looking forward to coming back for more.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Respighi & Liszt - 10/14/23

Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome 
Franz Liszt: O Roma nobilis 
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome 
Franz Liszt: Dall’alma Roma 
Ottorino Respighi: Roman Festivals 
Conductor: Ivan Fischer 
Video artist: Yuri Ancarani 

Since I’ve been spending quality time in Rome those last couple of years, my one and only foray into its fancy Parco della Musica, a de rigueur stop for anybody with even just the slightest interest in classical music or modern architecture, was wildly successful in terms of musical experience — It was a recital by Eugene Kissin. Nuff said. — but a bit frustrating in terms of the journey to get there (and back) from San Giovanni. So I did what any normal music lover would have done: I looked for and found an apartment within walking distance of it. Et voilà ! If the mountain would not come to Mohammed, Mohammed went to the mountain, or, in my case, to Flaminio. 
And that’s why, after a few weeks filled with unparalleled sunshine, food, history, cappuccinos and music in Naples, I moved to my new neighborhood and got busy exploring my new surroundings, becoming acquainted with my new washing machine, returning to favorite places, hanging out with dear friends, taking care of that pesky thing called work, and indulging in locally developed addictions (So glad I made it back in time for the short puntarelle window!). 
And then serendipity struck. As I was trying to plan my highly anticipated return to the Parco della Musica as a new and proud local, I noticed that its prestigious residents, the consistently fabulous Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, had been tapped for a particularly appropriate program, as if to welcome me back to the Eternal City and thank me for moving significantly closer, or at least that’s what I like to think. 
Therefore, last Saturday afternoon, I was getting mentally prepared for five short pieces about Rome by Ottorino Respighi and Franz Liszt as well as the documentary especially created for the occasion by Italian video artist Yuri Ancarani. And the cherry on top: The concert would be conducted by one of my favorite maestros ever since our National Symphony Orchestra days back in Washington, DC, the brilliant artist and wonderful human being Ivan Fischer. Stars had finally aligned. 

It all started in the foyer of the Santa Cecilia concert hall, where a few enlarged stills from the film were displayed featuring, of all things, a cowboy and his horse among archaeological ruins, possibly as an homage to Sergio Leone’s popular spaghetti westerns? Regardless, I was intrigued. Then, upon stepping into the huge auditorium, I was greeted by an image of white clouds in a blue sky on the large screen above the stage. M’kay. Not exactly ground-breaking art, but on the other hand, the performance had not technically started so no judgment should be passed. 
Once music and video got underway, it soon became clear that the visual part of our evening would focus on Rome’s legendary movie studios Cinecittà, first with historic black and white footage showing how the magic of movie-making has been materializing there since 1937, from seriously over-the-top peplums to opaque existentialist films, from blue-collar workers making humongous and complex sets with their bare hands to major movie stars making fleeting, unscripted, and oh so fun cameos. 
Here were Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance and Silvana Mangano in the biblical epic Barabbas, there Chalton Heston as almighty Ben-Hur riding his chariot, here a juvenile Gina Lollobrigida, there a radiant Sophia Loren, here a bored Monica Vitti, there Fellini, here Antonioni, and of course our beloved Marcello Mastroianni casually chatting while holding a cigarette. Needless to say, the life-long movie buff in me was totally thrilled by this unexpected look behind the scenes during the heyday of Italian cinema, even if I could not really figure out the connection to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” piece. 
But wait, the choral song that followed, Franz Liszt’s musical version of the medieval paean poem “O Roma nobilis”, in fact was accompanied by a slideshow of Rome’s vertiginous pine trees reaching for impeccable blue skies. Since the superb chorus was nowhere to be seen, just heard, those perfectly nice, but here again not exactly ground-breaking, images got all our attention, and we were able check the Roman pines off our list. 
Next, Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” did get some footage of water in various natural settings, although thankfully Ancarani did not go for the obvious and refrained from including the Trevi Fountain, or any other fountains for that matter, at that point. It is during that piece though, that the relatively good-looking cowboy and his extremely good-looking horse appeared and started wandering kind of aimlessly among what seemed to be ancient Roman ruins from movie sets. And so did we. 
The second and last choral piece of the program, Liszt’s “Dall’alma Roma”, was again performed by the chorus standing right outside the auditorium, and was heard perfectly well inside, which incidentally further highlighted the space’s genuinely impressive acoustics. Since the screen filled up with more images of white clouds in impeccable blue skies, I turned my undivided attention to the ethereally beautiful music and enjoyed every second of it. 
For Respighi’s last composition of his trilogy, “Roman Festivals”, the cowboy and his horse came back, hung out with another dude for a little while, and then, without any warning, we found ourselves facing the closed gates of Cinecittà Street, the entrance of the amusement park Cinecittà World, from the inside. Once those opened, smartphone-toting visitors started eagerly streaming in toward us, and that was kind of scary. More light-hearted was the series of youngsters dressed in vibrant colors videoing one another frenetically dancing in front of some of Rome’s best-known landmarks. 
Thing is, these days there’s really no need to go to a concert hall to feel invaded by countless hordes of unruly, clueless, self-absorbed and social media-obsessed tourists, just trying to cross the historic center will do the trick. But then again, Rome and Cinecittà have survived worse. 

And what about the music in all of this, you may ask? Well, considering the vast amount of talent on and off the stage, it came as no surprise that the entire performance was remarkably colorful, naturally dynamic and totally engaging. Of course, one might think that, since the first two symphonic poems of Respighi’s trilogy were written especially for their orchestra, the musicians of Santa Cecilia had a vested interest in doing an exceptional job at bringing them to life, and it may be so. In my view, they’re simply excellent musicians happy to play exciting compositions. 
The performance’s big challenge though, was that the sounds occasionally had a hard time competing for attention against the visuals, mostly because the large screen was showing a bright, evolving journey while the hard-working orchestra below was dimly lit. However, I can say from personal experience that any effort to focus on the music was richly rewarded — everything from the evocative poetry and compelling sensuality to the infectious playfulness and fierce intensity of the various tableaux reminding me why Rome is the Eternal City — and considerably contributed to the overall success of the unusual endeavor. 

Even better: With a 15-minute walk each way, a 6:00 PM starting time, a 90-minute running time and no intermission, I was home for dinner.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Madama Butterfly - 09/27/23

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa 
Director: Ferzan Özpetek 
Conductor: Dan Ettinger 
Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly): Ailyn Perez 
Pinkerton: Saimir Pirgu 
Suzuki: Marina Comparato 
Sharpless: Ernesto Petti 
Goro: Paolo Antognetti 

As my friend Vittorio and I were patiently waiting for the concert of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda to start at the San Carlo a couple of weeks ago, I was also doing my very best to eavesdrop on the animated conversation among three San Carlo regulars sitting nearby who had attended a performance of Madama Butterfly, the San Carlo’s official season-opening opera, earlier in the week. Although the distance made it difficult to hear their complete take on it, I was still able to figure out that the soprano was “extraordinary” and the production “all wrong”. So there. 
Since the soprano was Ailyn Perez, the first statement was no surprise, and since the ladies reminded me of my mom, which means the type of opera buff who hates everything nontraditional, I did not worry about it either. Moreover, since I had bought our tickets as soon as they went on sale months ago — You simply cannot dillydally too long when it comes to warhorses at the San Carlo — we were going regardless of what the buzz on the street (and in the house) was. And frankly, after a symphonic concert and an opera concert, it was high time we hit the San Carlo for what it was originally designed for: a full-fledged opera. 
That said, our first night at the opera of the new season came at a weird time for us, as we were both reeling about the recent passing of (totally unrelated) dear friends of ours, and I had been awake since 3:35 AM, at which time an earthquake in the Campi Flegrei neighborhood unceremoniously rocked Naples and the Napolitans. 
Fortunately, the performance would start at 6:00 PM, which meant that not only we would be home at a decent hour, but also that we could stop at the Gambrinus for a substantial snack — I had rightly figured that a delizia al limone and a caffè del nonno would carry me through the evening — before heading to our fancy box in the packed opera house. 

I had really enjoyed by then already well-established American soprano Ailyn Perez in Don Carlo last year, and I was looking forward to hearing her in Madama Butterfly, a character that is as magnificent as it is challenging, and kind of different from her usual repertoire. Blessed with a naturally beautiful, limpid and elegant voice that she seems able to control at will, Perez did not rest on her laurels, and threw herself whole-heartedly into the tough assignment of bringing to life one of opera’s most beloved heroines. 
In the end, her Cio-Cio-San may have sounded a bit demurer than expected at first, but then again, we’re talking about a wide-eyed 15-year-old Japanese girl who willingly gives up everything she’s ever known to marry her American officer. Three years later, her husband gone, she has grown emotionally and vocally while still clinging to the hope that he will return, as it is made clear in the show-stopping aria “Un bel dì, vedremo”, a blazing example of wishful thinking that Perez nailed with heart-breaking grace and laser-focused intensity and that, as a matter of fact, stopped the show for a well-deserved thunderous ovation. 
As the opera gained popularity and has remained a reliable staple in opera houses all over the world, B.F. Pinkerton has unsurprisingly become synonymous with “cad”. Although he could not escape the unsavory label on Wednesday evening either, Albanian-born Italian tenor Saimir Pirgu turned his character into an engagingly complex human being, from shamelessly cynical libertine to genuinely remorseful man, with gloriously ringing top notes, dazzling timbre, impeccable phrasing and, let’s not forget, classical good looks and dazzling charisma. No to big outdone when it comes to the opera’s big hits, his thrilling “Addio, fiorito asil” brought down the house as well. 
Veteran Italian mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato was a wonderfully assertive Suzuki, a secondary character that is sometimes considered an after-thought and treated accordingly. This was, however, definitely not the case in this production, which made full use of Comparato’s wide-ranging singing and acting experience. Whether she railed against Goro or gently gathered flowers with Cio-Cio-San, her Suzuki was an excellent contribution to the action. 
Another smaller but crucial part in the opera is Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, and here also, Italian baritone Ernesto Petti was given plenty of opportunities to shine, which he did with laudable no-fuss proficiency. A loyal friend to Pinkerton while keeping his distance from his moral deficiencies, this Sharpless benefitted immensely from Petti’s classy voice, which in particular displayed the right amount of sincere compassion in the final act. 

The main reason for which I hadn’t seen Madama Butterfly for over a decade is because I had been so taken by Anthony Minghella's striking production of it at the Met that I could not bring myself to checking out another one and most likely end up disappointed. Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Özpetek’s modern effort will not make me forget Minghella’s, but it certainly was not “all wrong” either. Resolutely minimalist with a hint of brutalist style, the set included a gray stormy sea in the background, colorfully lit Japanese houses in Act 1, and two massive side walls that would later on slowly but surely close in completely, building an insidious claustrophobic feeling and a stark separation between the two worlds in the process. 
Among the relatively original, albeit not boldly innovative, ideas were four silent red-clad geishas wandering among the audience as the performance was getting underway, and a video of Ailyn Perez starting with a close-up and progressively zooming out until we saw her waiting for her man by the shore at the end of Act 2. More puzzling was Pinkerton rhapsodizing about how lovely Cio-Cio-San looked all “dressed in lily” and “white veils” while she was right in front of him dressed in a stunning red outfit in Act 1. But hey, at least his compliments did not fall on deaf ears as she was wearing white in Acts 2 and 3. 
On the other hand, some choices did stand out positively. Being greeted by the light sound of waves nonchalantly crashing on a shore as we entered the theater was a nice transitional touch, and if the first night together of the newlywed couple was more gentle eroticism than hard-core sex on the beach, their extended love duet was pure enchantment to the ears and, come to think of it, the perfect incentive to in fact get in the mood. As for Cio-Cio-San’s tragic ending, her hara-kiri was a culturally correct, and just as efficient, slicing of the throat. 

Puccini’s score for Madama Butterfly is both gorgeous musical journey and treacherous obstacle course, but our maestro for the evening, the San Carlo’s young and dynamic music director Dan Ettinger, made a point of keeping everything in check, from the delicate balance between the various parties on and off stage to the sustained pace of the narrative. While the opera itself may feel a bit static at times, on Wednesday evening the music kept everything going briskly and splendidly, with ravishing colors, intense lyricism and dazzling melodies. And seriously, what more could we have wanted for our night at the opera? Absolutely nothing.