Saturday, December 23, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Turandot - 12/17/23

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettists: Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni 
Director: Vasily Barkhatov 
Conductor: Dan Ettinger 
Princess Turandot: Sondra Radvanovsky 
Calaf: Yusif Eyvazov 
Liu: Rosa Feola 
Timur: Alexander Tsymbalyuk 
Emperor Altoum: Nicola Martinucci 
Ping: Roberto de Candia 
Pang: Gregory Bonfatti 
Pong: Francesco Pittari 

Here she was, at last! After having stood us up last spring in Macbeth, American and Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, one of the world’s top lyrical singers of our times, was in front of my friend Vittorio and me, and the rest of the captive audience, on the stage of Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo last Sunday. Granted, I had been much keener to watch her as deliciously machiavellian Lady Macbeth than as cold-hearted princess Turandot, but beggars cannot be choosers, and I felt privileged enough to be getting what we were getting. 
I was all the more hoping that she would show up and make the notoriously unbending princess come compellingly alive like only she could because those tickets were a belated birthday present to my wonderful Neapolitan host Vittorio (Hey, it is not my fault if the San Carlo did not have anything on their schedule on October 24), and while the opera itself is no masterpiece, her mere presence automatically upgraded this run of performances to “special occasion” status. 
The road to the San Carlo, however, proved to be trickier than usual this time because I had unwittingly planned my trip on a day of national strike in public transportation. To add insult to injury, I also ended up in a, let’s say, highly spirited discussion with my grumpy but admittedly efficient Neapolitan cab driver about my lack of respect for law and order (in Naples!!!) because I had let the family of four plus heaps of luggage behind me at Napoli Centrale’s taxi stand go ahead and take the spacious van that was supposed to be my ride, therefore depriving him and his regular-sized car of a few euros in fare. “The customer is always right” has apparently not made it to the Parthenopean City yet. 
Things substantially improved on Sunday, however, a splendid winter day with the perfect balance of invigorating cold and radiant sunshine. Late morning, we got to hear a couple of Neapolitan songs and The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”, of all things, performed by the highly competent amateur winds and percussion band to which Vittorio’s nephew Francesco belongs, although he was not there that time. And then, after a yummy lunch at our favorite pizzeria, a smooth subway ride and a leisurely spin around Piazza del Plebiscito, we excitingly took our premium orchestra seats in the San Carlo for the main event of the day. 

Until last Sunday, I had seen Turandot twice, and neither experience had been totally satisfying for various reasons, including uneven singing talents. Plus, the plot is kind of silly, even by opera standards, although we must take into account that Puccini died before completing the last act, and therefore can always blame Franco Albano for the cheesy “His name is love” happy ending. In any case, I figured that I did not have a lot to lose giving it a try a third time, and that it may just be the charm. 
Having Sondra Radvanovsky, a superlative singer well-known for her expertise in 19th-century Italian opera, starring as Turandot was an iron-clad guarantee of high quality to begin with, and needless to say, the woman delivered in spades, from unshakable imperviousness to progressive softening to full emotional awareness. Blessed with prodigious acting and singing skills, as well as a naturally charismatic presence, Radvanovsky handled her challenging part with utter conviction and treated us to impeccably controlled musical feats. Her character was certainly not the most spontaneously likable of the repertoire, but she managed to make her a complex woman one could almost care about, which represents quite a tour de force
A truly engaging performance was also delivered by Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf, the besotted former prince determined to break the resilience of the strong-willed princess who wants nothing to do with him, or anybody else for that matter. His singing was ardent, generous and muscular, and he left no doubt about the intensity of his feelings. Last, but not least, I will forever be grateful to him for finally allowing me to hear a glorious interpretation of the score’s big hit “Nessun dorma.” In this case, the third time was the charm indeed. 
Not to be outdone at the applause meter, local soprano Rosa Feola, a certified bel canto expert with a remarkably clear and attractive voice, sensitively portrayed the slave girl Liu whose unrequited and selfless love for Calaf, who once smiled at her, will be her doom. Achingly vulnerable at first, but eventually displaying an impressive resolve even in the direst of circumstances, she just knew how to exquisitely unfold her delicate lines and soft pianissimos, and broke everybody’s heart in the process. On Sunday, Liu loved, Liu lost, but Feola won. 

In smaller but still significant roles, we had Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who brought quiet dignity to the fallen King Timur, and 82-year-old Italian tenor Nicola Martinucci, whose couple of cameos as Emperor Altoum were all but impossible to miss due to his unforgivingly sparkly outfit and poignant sense of weariness, which is not surprising when you’re stuck in a crystal coffin and just let out to sing a couple of songs. And the trio of court ministers Ping (Roverto de Candia), Pang (Gregory Bonfatti) and Pong (Francesco Pittari) provided welcome touches of light-heartedness with their comic antics à la commedia del’arte
One of the Teatro di San Carlo’s most valuable assets, its chorus proved to be as well-prepared and capable as ever, whether their voices were singing in powerful unison or in meticulously organized layers. They shared choral duties with the Coro di Voci Bianche, the children’s chorus of the San Carlo, whose endearing voices added a welcome breath of freshness and exoticism to the proceedings. 
Puccini’s score for Turandot may not be his proudest achievement — again, the poor guy did not get a chance to fine-tune it either — but it provides many opportunities for musical thrills, which the orchestra consistently grabbed and efficiently carried out. Every time I see the San Carlo’s musical director Dan Ettinger conduct, I am reminded a little bit more of Yannick Nézet-Seguin, and not just because of his short bleached blond hair, but also because he has always proved to be a deeply informed and genuinely enthusiast leader. And even if there were a couple of slight balance issues on Sunday, the music from the pit occasionally covering the singers’ voices during highly dramatic peaks, the orchestra’s performance was terrific. 

Then there was the modern production by emerging Russian director Vasily Barkhatov, who was making his Italian debut with this Turandot. And I must say that, while I am always open to new take on the classics, I also expect the final result to present a unified vision that makes some sort of sense. In that regard, the production we watched on Sunday evening looked like an overflowing hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, obscure references, and elusive concepts, and I found my frequent attempts to navigate this holy mess to be an exhausting, frustrating, and ultimately unrewarding. 
First of all, having black and white movie sequences adding a present-time context, and then presenting the actual opera as delirium experienced by Calaf and later Turandot, was probably doomed from the start, not to mention that Radvanovsky was atrociously dubbed in Italian. During the actual opera performance, the combination of the present, which usually appeared as the operating theater in which the Calaf or Turandot was being treated repeatedly descending from the ceiling, and the phantasmagorical visions, which were pretty much the rest of the not-so-organized chaos happening on the stage, was often overwhelming. 
I am not a big fan of extra visual media in stage productions in the first place, but I’ll admit that the black and white sequences had an appealing film noir atmosphere to them, and the inclusion of Naples’ Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore in them was a nice touch. On the other hand, the large projections of Calaf’s and Turnadot’s faces getting progressively younger through the magic of modern technology seemed to come out of nowhere and accomplished exactly nothing. And the recurring close-ups of Liu cutting her veins were essentially gratuitous (Yes, I get it that Liu had mental issues and that “blood” is the answer to the second riddle, but beating us over the head with the gory details quickly got on my nerves). 
On the bright side, there was the occasional proof of sure-footed taste, such eye-popping costumes and smart lighting, as well as the use the timeless silhouette of the Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany as part of the decor. Alas, red and pink neon signs displaying the answers to the three riddles, and the car involved in the accident, would at different points unceremoniously drop in front of it and effectively kill the mood. Fact is, the most memorable tableaux were the simplest ones, like the rowing boats containing the bodies of Liu and Timur gently sailing upwards over the dark background, and the most memorable moments were the quietest ones, such as Liu movingly joining Calaf’s and Turandot’s hands. 

I typically do not pay much attention to the systematic panning of modern productions, always strive to keep an open mind, and appreciate the boldness it takes to make unconventional and therefore potentially controversial choices, but this probably sincere yet definitively overblown effort did not bear its fruit as far as I am concerned. That said, I also think that if this young, apparently talented, and unquestionably ambitious enfant terrible learns to channel his clearly existing creative juices with rigor and purpose, things may just work out for him. And for us.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Mahler & Brahms - 12/10/23

Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10 
Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem 
Conductor: Philippe Jordan 
Soprano: Louise Alder 
Baritone: Gerald Finley 

As Rome is steadily moving into holiday season, fancy light designs, countless Christmas trees, and the smell of roasted chestnuts are everywhere, which admittedly creates a nice atmosphere. On the other hand, the equally perky and pesky holiday music relentlessly playing in stores is making my errands even more vexing than usual, and I am not even a big shopper. But a girl’s gotta eat, so I have soldiered on, even if I have had to put up with a particularly upbeat version of Jingle Bells during the five (5) minutes I had to spend at my supermarket last week. 
Mercifully, between Handel’s Messiah and other seasonal fare, the Parco della Musica had programmed a masterpiece that fills my heart with joy anytime of the year: My beloved Johannes Brahms’s stunning deutsches Requiem, featuring no less than my beloved Gerald Finley as one of the soloists, which naturally led me to think that there might be a God after all. Even better, that already fabulous gift was neatly supplemented with the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Thank you, thank you very much! 
So on Sunday evening, after a gloriously sunny and crisp weekend, during which quality time in Villa Borghese included an ethereal harp version of Wham!’s Last Christmas by the lake, a laid-back saxophone take on My Way by the gallery, and the grating rackets coming from the seasonal amusement park Christmas World, I was more than ready for indoors live music in the comfy Sala Santa Cecilia of the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone at the even earlier than usual time of 6:00 PM. No complaints here. 
Having grabbed my ticket during the Black Friday half-price sale, the choice of seats was limited, and I ended up in the fourth row of the orchestra section. Although it was by no means an optimal spot, it turned out to be not as bad as it sounds, except for the fact that I found myself surrounded by audience members exuding an insane range of colognes and perfumes that made me regret my usual perch. But then again, I eventually got to watch (and hear!) Gerald Finley superbly ply his art a few feet from me, and all was well in the world again. 

After seeing the Visconti’s sumptuous Death in Venice, I immediately decided that the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 would be my favorite Mahler work ever. But then I heard the sublime first movement of his Symphony No. 10, which incidentally is the last composition he completed, and I had to switch my preference. Listening to the Adagio again as it was confidently conducted by Swiss guest maestro Philippe Jordan and magnificently performed by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia last Sunday, I felt totally comforted in my choice. 
Composed when Mahler was painfully aware that he had been betrayed by his wife and that he was terminally ill (a horrifying double whammy if there ever was one), the roughly 30-minute Adagio intensely expresses the profound sadness and utter despair that he must have felt in those final months. Masterly using chromatic dissonance for inner turmoil and transcendental beauty for his farewell to the world, Mahler came up with a musical statement that still resonates today, and on Sunday evening brought a welcome sense of contemplation to the madness of the holiday season. 

while I thoroughly enjoyed Mahler’s Adagio, my main reason for being in the auditorium was to hear Brahms’ deutsches Requiem, one of my favorite pieces by possibly my favorite composer. Inspired by the German Luther Bible, the death of his mentor and friend Robert Schumann and then of his mother, and his own creative genius, Brahms wrote a Requiem that resolutely, and most unusually, focuses on humanity rather than on any kind of deity. In the end, thanks to the perfectionist composer’s deliberate choice and brilliant craftmanship, the emotionally gripping composition not only impressed his sophisticated peers, but was also understood and appreciated by Germans from all walks of life. 
On Sunday evening, beside the sure musical values of the orchestra and the chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, as well as upcoming English soprano Louise Alder and established Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, the Italian and English translations of the German text were provided on a large screen for a more complete experience, and I found it very useful. That said, the experience would have been extremely satisfying regardless, the chorus in particular being consistently excellent in conveying the quiet sadness of mourning and its fierce resolve when defying death. Seriously, that ferociously dramatic sixth movement has to be one of the most exhilarating choral numbers for performers and listeners alike. In their smaller parts, Findley was as flawless as usual, and Alder was a truly wonderful discovery. 
Not a work for the faint-hearted, Ein deutsches Requiem stretches over an eventful hour, which can become a problem for some (During the last movement, the first violin had to discreetly but firmly gesture a fidgety young boy in the first row to calm down already). But its bold message of hope was not lost to any of us, especially as the year is ending with more pain and suffering than our so-called civilized world should find acceptable. But then again, there is next year, and hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Accademia Filarmonica Romana - Quartetto Noûs - Beethoven & Bartok - 12/03/23

Ludwig van Beethoven: Grosse Fuge, Opus 133 
Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 5 in B flat Major, Sz. 102, BB 110 
Tiziano Baviera: Violin 
Sara Dambruoso: Viola 
Alberto Franchin: Violin 
Tommaso Tesini: Cello 
Giovanni Bietti: Host 

A couple of weeks ago, when I got to Sala Casella for the last music lesson of the four-lesson series organized by the Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3, I was informed by a very apologetic staff member that the session had been cancelled because one of the musicians had come down with COVID. Having just gotten over it myself, I could relate, and for a brief moment I even bonded with the bearer of bad news who had wrestled with it himself the previous month. Not all the news was bad though, as he told me that the lesson was tentatively rescheduled for December 3. 
Fast forward two weeks, and last Sunday I was back in Sala Casella more determined than ever to make the most of my last lesson featuring Ludwig van Beethoven, representing the classical Viennese school, and Bela Bartok, representing the early 20th-century contemporary music, a couple that, come to think of it, may not look as odd as the previous ones in the series due to the obvious ground-breaking nature of their respective œuvre. Either that or I have finally gotten good at figuring out the link between the composers featured in the programs. 
 One thing I had not figured out though, was what “Noûs” in the name Quartetto Noûs meant, but a quick look at the well-established chamber ensemble’s website quickly informed me that it is the Greek word for “mind”, and can therefore be interpreted as “rationality” or “creativity”, both of which being evidently befitting when it comes to music. In any case, any musician willing to tackle the Grosse Fuge is a certified hero in my book, and I was very excited about being able to witness it first-hand, especially after having patiently waited two extra weeks for it. 

Back in a well-filled Sala Casella that, for the first time, was bathing in a wonderful golden glow, eminent musicologist and genial host Giovanni Bietti started imparting a small portion of his vast knowledge of the Grosse Fuge (His book on the subject has just come out) to us, and the lesson was quite fascinating. Originally composed as the final movement of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, the Fugue did not meet the approval of the sophisticated audience of the Viennese salons, who promptly called it “Chinese music”, and not in a good way. A Russian critic even went as far as opining that Beethoven had lost not only his hearing, but also part of his mind. And the piece pretty much disappeared for over a century. 
And then, starting in the early 20th century, with a little help from Glenn Gould, who considered it the most astounding work of the entire repertoire, and Igor Stravinsky, who regarded it as a forever contemporary marvel, the Grosse Fuge no longer aroused only incomprehension, but also wonder. After Bietti pointed out, and the Quartetto Noûs demonstrated, how Beethoven relentlessly played with theme versions, inversions, and tempos, we could only be on the team wonder. Eventually, a fierce performance of the entire movement only confirmed what Stravinsky always knew: The Grosse Fuge is indeed timeless, and its boldly experimental nature feels totally at home with the equally challenging music of Schoenberg, Berg, and… Bartok. 

The transition was simply too good to pass, so we dived right into Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5, whose première took place in Washington, DC as part of a program also featuring – Surprise! – Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge. Fact is, while Bartok’s quartet presented fancy theme inversions and mirror games between movements and within movements that clearly owed a lot to the Grosse Fuge, it also had quite a few tricks in its own sleeve. And that’s why, beside the nifty arrangement of the four outer movements around the central scherzo, the highly rhythmical composition, including some particularly infectious Bulgarian folk tunes, proved to be irresistibly clever and irresistible fun in the expert hands of the Quartetto Noûs on Sunday evening. and it concluded our lesson, and the lesson series, with a cool and memorable punch.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky - 11/30/23

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30 
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 13 (Winter Daydreams) 
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Piano: Eugene Kissin 

My long-overdue first foray into Rome’s premier classical music venue, namely the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone, was for a recital by Eugene Kissin back in February. I was totally ecstatic at the thought of hearing this extraordinary pianist, not to mention composer, writer, poet, translator, and human rights advocate, after years of complaining about how hard it was to get tickets for his concerts in New York City, but I was significantly less ecstatic about the hassle of getting there. The foray and the recital having been highly successful, I decided to move closer to be able to attend more live musical experiences of a similar caliber, which I have. 
And then the man came back last week, not for a recital this time, but for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, also known as the Himalaya of piano playing. I have had the privilege of hearing it interpreted by some of the world’s top pianists in the past, and it was high time I got around to hearing Kissin as well. And I did just that last Thursday evening at the ungodly hour of 7:30 PM, which felt like a shocking departure from the usual 6:30 PM starting time of the Saturday evening concerts. But hey, anything for Eugene and Rach 3. 

If anybody still had any doubt about Eugene Kissin’s sky-high popularity in Rome, stepping into the packed and buzzing Sala Santa Cecilia of the Parco della Musica complex would have put their mind at ease. Although getting a ticket to the concert in the Eternal City was not quite the mission impossible it had often been in the Big Apple, there were very few empty seats on Thursday evening, the second of three evenings, and three big cameras were around to capture every minute of the occasion. Needless to say, having one of the most iconic works for piano and orchestra on the program obviously had not hurt ticket sales either, and there we all were. 
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 has been packing in eager audiences for over a century now not only because it is such a wild beast to tame and it is so much fun to watch somebody good enough and bold enough to give it a try actually do it, but also because it is roughly 45 minutes of consistently gorgeous take-no-prisoner music that undiscrimatingly sweeps everything and everyone in its glorious path, occasionally even converting classical music neophytes into die-hard afficionados. Having one of the world’s most admired pianists perform it had to be, and indeed was, a totally thrilling experience. 
Whether commandingly riding the big lyrical waves or pointedly shedding light on countless tiny details of this most technically challenging piece of the piano repertoire, the still endearingly cherubic Kissin proved that the impressive virtuosic skills he already displayed as a child prodigy have only gotten better with age. Add to that a healthy dose of emotional maturity, and you get a middle-aged artist at the top of his game, who can probably handle anything thrown at him with heart, poise and gusto, just like he did on Thursday evening. 
Well-known and well-liked for his bottomless generosity when it comes to encores, Kissin treated us not to one or two, but to three wonderful little nuggets as we kept asking for more. In the end, the much-appreciated parting gifts included an upbeat little number by Tchaikovsky, a soulful ballad by Chopin and an exquisite intermezzo by Brahms, as if to extend the Romantic mood we were all happily basking in. 

After the welcome intermission (There’s only so much excitement one can really take at a time), we moved back to Russian territory with the refreshingly artless and tentatively innovative first symphony written by a young Tchaikovsky who had just gotten a job at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. Whether it is true or not that this first composition of his is the one that gave him the most sleepless nights in his entire career, it is undeniable that this early effort turned out to be one of the most accomplished works produced by a composer still in his mid-twenties. 
With the perfect balance of sharpness and enthusiasm, Milan-born and educated maestro Gianandrea Noseda led the always reliable orchestra in a warm and informed reading of the readily engaging piece. I confess to having a soft spot for the endlessly melodic and delicately melancholic second movement, “Land of gloom, land of mists”, and I enjoyed it even more than usual on Thursday as the focus turned to its elegiac beauty rather than its potentially depressing nature. That said, the whole symphony was pure joy to the ears, all the way to the final exuberant bouquet of Russian folk tunes that surely lifted everybody’s spirits for the rest of the week and some.