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FEATURE: LETTER FROM EUROPE

Drama All Around

July 20, 2004


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By Lisa Hirsch

[Notes from one correspondent's recent travels to Italy and England — Ed.]

Florence, Teatro Verdi
Orchestra della Toscana
May 12, 2004

Like the United States, Italy has a number of regional orchestras that play out of the limelight but bring a high level of musicianship and polish to their concerts. The Orchestra della Toscana (ORT), founded in 1980, is one of these. Based in the Teatro Verdi, Florence, ORT plays a couple of dozen programs a year, touring them to cities and towns all over Tuscany. Its artistic director, Sergio Sablich, doesn't appear on the podium, it appears; instead, its programs are directed by guest conductors, most of them better-known in Europe than here, but including such luminaries as Oleg Caetani and Franz Brueggen. It's a fine small orchestra, numbering about 40 players, that performs imaginatively-programmed concerts featuring everything from Purcell and Bach to Stravinsky, Janacek, and Schoenberg.

In mid-May, maestro Corrado Rovaris led ORT in a program of works by the three great Classical masters, repertory ideally suited to the orchestra and, it would seem, to his own artistic temperament. He led off with Mozart's D-major Symphony No. 11, K. 84, written when the composer was 14. It's a sweet, short student-level piece, without much substance, that has variously been attributed to Mozart himself, his father Leopold, and Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf. If the boy wonder wrote the piece, it doesn't show many signs of the genius he'd grow up to be.

The Haydn work that closed the concert, the Symphony No. 60 in C, “Il Distratto,” on the other hand, dates from the middle of both the composer's long life and his huge symphonic output. Drawn from incidental music for a play, it is eccentrically structured and typically varied. Its six movements are often very funny, as when the orchestra grinds to a ragged halt and must retune.

In between came a rare opportunity to hear the American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who lives in London and doesn't perform in the Bay Area very often. He has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in the Classical repertory and recently completed recording a magisterial cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. For this concert, he performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15. He came on stage and bowed without making eye contact with the audience, looking rather as though he wished he could play from just off stage. Fortunately, after he sat down and the music started, any sense that he'd rather be elsewhere disappeared. He gave a characteristic performance, energetic and alive, with Beethoven's often-percussive, or even violent, accents and rhythms scrupulously observed. There was no lack of tenderness and rubato where called for, and he kept the long and crazy first-movement cadenza well under control, with no loss of direction of musical sense. He even looked as though he was having fun, singing along and smiling at the orchestra players. Rovaris and the ORT were sympathetic and musical collaborators.

The audience applauded wildly, and after several bows, Kovacevich made an inaudible announcement from the stage and sat down at the piano for an encore. It was brief, about 90 seconds long — a Beethoven bagatelle, perhaps? This he played with such riveting concentration and intensity that you knew, immediately, that you were in the presence of greatness. It was pure magic, and it was over much too soon.

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London
The Marriage of Figaro
Savoy Opera

This past spring, the Savoy Opera attempted to join the Royal Opera and English National Opera in presenting staged opera in London. The company's Web site stated as a goal their intention to “change the way opera is presented in London so that the finest and most loved operas, performed to the highest standards, are easily accessible to all opera lovers at West End theatre prices.” Another goal, quite clearly, was to reach theater-goers and persuade them to give opera a try in less intimidating surroundings than the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum. To that end, a hit-parade season consisting of The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, L'Elisir d'Amore, La Traviata, La Belle Helene, and The Magic Flute was planned, with ticket prices topping out at 50, all operas sung in English, and no fund-raising or subsidies at all.

Alas, ticket sales didn't match the company's ambitions, and the Savoy Opera folded after running Barber and Figaro in repertory for several months. It's a shame, as the lively and charming Figaro production augured well for the company, and the 900-seat Savoy Theatre, an Art Deco jewel, seems an ideal theater in which to present opera in English. On the other hand, theater-goers accustomed to lavish Lloyd Webber spectacles wouldn't have been impressed by the sparse sets and scenery of the Figaro, which consisted of just a few pieces of furniture, some walls, and, as needed, doors. The costumes and wigs, but not much more, told you the setting was the 18th century. It's hard to see how this matched up with “ . . . performed to the highest standards.”

But Mozart and Da Ponte's great masterpiece worked as well in this finely-directed and -conducted production, seen on May 27, 2004, as it does in more elaborately produced versions. Matthew Richardson had the cast working together beautifully, with plenty of nuance and detail, and good comic timing. Paul McGrath's tempos were very fast, an approach worked well for most of the opera, but which undermined the Countess's two arias and Susanna's “Deh vieni,” all of which needed more repose.

Matthew Hargreaves, a burly bass-baritone, made a solid, Terfel-esque Figaro and Tamsin Coombs was a beguiling Susanna. Doreen Curran caught all of Cherubino's love-sick charm and looked thoroughly boyish. Paul Hopwood brought much more voice and character than is usual to the tiny role of Don Curzio; it would be good to hear him in a leading role. The veteran bass Richard Van Allan was fine as Bartolo and Damian Thantrey was a more-than-usually menacing Count. Her biography notes that Pippa Longworth, singing Marcellina, has retrained as a mezzo from soprano; the transition hasn't been very successful, as she sounded much older than her age. Andrea Creighton, with the right kind of style and voice for the Countess, had difficulty staying consistently in tune. Everyone enunciated Jeremy Sams's translation well enough for most of the words to be understood.

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Ernani, June 11, 2004
The Valkyrie, May 29, 2004
English National Opera

Meanwhile, the English National Opera is back at the London Coliseum, following an exile to the Barbican while their home was being renovated and restored. The theater itself, a gaudy riot of stucco and statuary festooned in gold leaf and cream and maroon paint, is looking splendid, with the exception of the inexplicable and ugly catwalk that hangs right under the ceiling and seems to have no purpose at all. The public areas, from ticket office to bars, have been greatly enlarged, making it much more pleasant to buy tickets or relax during intermissions.

The spring operas included Wagner's The Valkyrie (the second staged installment of ENO's Ring cycle, which has been presented in semi-staged concert versions at the Barbican), and a revival of Verdi's early opera Ernani.

Ernani isn't performed too often, and based on the June 11 performance, it's easy to see why. The libretto is messy and complicated (although evidently less so than the Victor Hugo play on which it's based) with too much plot and not enough stage action. Three suitors vie for the hand of Elvira: Carlo, the King of Spain; her elderly guardian Silva; the bandit Ernani (Don Giovanni of Aragon in disguise), whom Elvira loves. Through a complex series of alliances and betrayals, Ernani and Elvira are ultimately allowed to wed — but Ernani must then fulfill a promise to Silva and kill himself. Verdi's music doesn't fully overcome the difficulties posed by the libretto. The notable tenor aria, “Come rugiada al cespite,” and the great soprano scene, “Sorta è la notte . . . Ernani, involami! . . .Tutto sprezzo,” both occur in the first fifteen minutes of Act I. Act III opens with a remarkable, dark-tinted ensemble that would be at home in Don Carlo. Beyond that, the music is enjoyable and perfectly competent without reaching heights of inspiration.

What Ernani needs is panache: a conductor and performers willing to push themselves and take some risks. What it got at ENO was something like the music itself: admirable competence, but not much sparkle. Lack of familiarity with the opera can't be blamed, since the conductor and principal singers all appeared in the 2002 revival. And it's not the late Maria Bjornson's production, which features a handsome unit set that is cleverly modified with lighting and rolling scenery elements to change the scene.

Perhaps the fault lies with conductor Mark Shanahan's tempo choices, which were all middling, nothing very fast or very slow. The principal singers, tenor Rhys Meirion (Ernani), soprano Cara O'Sullivan (Elvira), bass Alastair Miles (Silva), and baritone Ashley Holland (Carlo), all sang decently, coping well with the score's sometimes-florid writing and doing their best with the melodramatic plot. O'Sullivan and Holland have good but anonymous voices; Meirion and Miles have more distinctive instruments, and Miles, especially, plenty of stage presence. All in all, it was a pretty civilized evening in which less restraint would have made more of the opera's potential.

In the 1970s, ENO put on a Ring cycle starring Rita Hunter, Alberto Remedios, and Norman Bailey, and conducted by Reginald Goodall. The cycle was recorded and has become something of a legend, for the excellence of much of the singing, Goodall's massive, eccentrically slow tempos, and the English singing translation commission by ENO from Andrew Porter. If the new Ring is of a piece with the Valkyrie seen on May 29, 2004, it is more likely to be remembered as a legendary disaster. Even before the curtain went up for Act I, there were reasons to be concerned, because hanging in front of the curtain was a sign with a running crawl of news flashes from Wotan's world. (These recurred before the second and third Acts as well.) And what was one to make of the blood-curdling, distracting shriek that sounded just before the first downbeat?

The Act I set was the best in the opera: a two-room, bunkerlike apartment, with a bed in the right-hand room, a door to the outside and a table in the left-hand room, and not much else. Something was missing — the tree from which Siegmund eventually pulls Nothung — but in return, there was the visible bedroom, unusual in Valkyrie productions. More problematically, Wotan and Bruennhilde were on stage when the curtain went up. They snuck off right before Siegmund staggered into view. This was the first time, but not the last, that the production would suffer from having characters on stage when the libretto didn't call for them to be there (or call for them at all).

Much more disruptive were director Phyllida Lloyd's additions elsewhere in the opera. In Act II, Fricka and a camera crew appear when Hunding and Siegmund meet, filming Siegmund's death and making it possible for Hunding literally to kneel before Fricka when Wotan kills him. In Act III, during Wotan's Farewell, several white-clad orderlies come on stage with a guerney and subdue a struggling Bruennhilde so that Wotan can put her to sleep by injecting her with a drug. (Perhaps Ms. Lloyd saw the San Francisco Opera production of Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova, in which a guerney and orderlies played a similarly distracting and inappropriate role.) A crowd of thuggish men then appeared from the back of the stage to menace the dazed Bruennhilde, before Wotan finally summons Loge to create the magic fire that will protect her.

It was a production that was designed to bring the gods down to earth, robbing them of most of the dignity and the power that should set them apart from the mortals. At the beginning of Act II, for example, Wotan could apparently be seen snorting cocaine. He and Bruennhilde rolled about on the floor together, mirroring Siegmund and Sieglinde's passionate embrace at the end of Act I, although the Walsung were on the table rather than the floor. Wotan wore a leather hat and trench coat, with a button-down white shirt underneath, Fricka wore a business-woman's pant suit, and Bruennhilde wore tight black pants and a black jacket or shirt. The Valkyries looked like a mob of punk teenagers.

The drama wasn't especially well-served by setting up the Siegmund/Sieglinde/Hunding conflict to look like something out of the Palestinian territories. Hunding and Siegmund wore battle fatigues and Hunding carried a rifle. How obvious, in that context, to have Sieglinde remove a head cloth to symbolize her new freedom after she drugs Hunding and he falls asleep.

Neither the opera nor the singers were well-served by Jeremy Sams's new English translation, raising the question of why ENO abandoned the elegant, dignified, and singable Porter translation. The singers had difficulty putting it across and what came across sounded oddly prissy and anachronistic. Many of his decisions seem arbitrary or are outright distortions of the original German. It's hard to know why he translated a straightforward line such as “Siegmund, sieh auf mich” (“Siegmund, look on me” or “Behold me”) as “Siegmund, look this way.” (Especially since Siegmund was looking toward the back of the stage at a huge projection of Bruennhilde's face, rather than at the goddess herself, who was seated at a computer audience left.) The very last line of the opera is grossly mistranslated as “Only the man afraid of nothing will enter this ring of fire!”, but what Wotan is really saying is that only a man willing to face Wotan's spear may pass through the fire. It is his last promise to protect Bruennhilde, one she never hears because she is already sleeping, and it is a set-up for the Wanderer/Siegfried scene in Act III of Siegfried.

Great conducting and great singing could have rescued this train-wreck of a production. Sadly, conductor Paul Daniel provided sluggish, dull, leadership and was unable to bring much shape or direction to the great opera; the evening only caught musical fire in the middle of Act III. The singers were better. Best among them were the solid, well-sung Wotan of Robert Hayward, who brought a good voice and reasonable dignity to the role, and Clive Bayley's menacing Hunding. Orla Boylan sang Sieglinde well, with a dark, warm voice, playing her part well within the directorial conception. Kathleen Broderick made an unusually athletic Bruennhilde; she had clearly thought out the role well, but her voice is a size too small to sing it with sufficient impact. Susan Parry played the wronged Fricka well, but sounded vocally frayed. Pär Lindskog looked good and sounded miscast as Siegmund; his tenor is too light and whiney and his singing too out-of tune for the part.

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Arabella
Royal Opera House
June 9, 2004

At 7 p.m. on June 9, I would have told you that I hated Richard Strauss's Arabella, considering it nothing better than warmed-over Rosenkavalier, and had only purchased a ticket to the ROH's production for its principal singers. By 8 p.m., a half-hour into the performance, I was thoroughly in love and pondering the mysteries of what makes a great performance.

In this case, the recipe included a witty production placed into the 20th century (and seeming much more of a fantasy than the usual 19th century setting), splendid, detailed direction, masterly conducting, transparent and perfectly balanced orchestral playing, and, yes, a cast to die for.

It's an opera that can't work without a very fine singer in the title role, this tale of a young woman whose family desperately needs her to marry someone wealthy. If Arabella isn't wise beyond her years, if she isn't honest, sensible, noble, vulnerable, and kind all at once, if she can't convince you that she would know her soul-mate on sight, and if she can't carry the long, soaring Straussian lines, the opera is lost. In the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, the production had an Arabella for the ages, youthful, womanly, beautiful in both face and voice, thoroughly convincing. She might be the greatest soprano singing today. Who else can match her vocal splendor and utter immersion in every role she takes?

Well — for this production, at least, she had a perfect match in Barbara Bonney, as Arabella's brother Zdenko, who is really her little sister Zdenka. The two blonde sopranos looked and sounded like sisters, with Bonney's light, vibrant, and beautifully-projected soprano blending ravishingly with Mattila's. Bonney was a joy to watch, whether pining after Matteo in her boyish garb, or in her nightgown, deeply ashamed and miserable in Act III. I wanted to cry for her pain and anguish, or take her in my arms and comfort her.

Of course, Arabella has yet another major stumbling block in the character of Mandryka, the out-of-town suitor whom Arabella instantly recognizes as the man for her. It's all too easy for the character to be nothing more than a boorish, preening, country bumpkin, to the point that the audience simply can't believe Arabella would fall for him. There has to be something untamed and wild in Mandryka, but there must also be nobility. Thomas Hampson walked this line magnificently, delivering a performance that caught the provincial eccentricity and made it witty and endearing, while never letting you forget that Mandryka is a nobleman with a noble soul. He sang beautifully, and it also helped his characterization that his youthful handsomeness has matured over the last few years into something more rugged and more interesting. It was easy to believe in him, easy to believe that he had realized too late what he had lost when his first wife died.

The other leading roles were all cast to strength. Raymond Very has grown enormously as an artist since his last San Francisco appearances; he was an ardent, persuasive, and vocally impressive Matteo. Cornelia Kallisch and Artur Korn were delightful as Arabella and Zdenka's parents. Diana Damrau brought considerable charm to the Fiakermilli, a role that is all too easily nothing but an annoyance.

Presiding over this splendid cast, and providing considerable splendor himself, was Christoph von Dohnànyi. Every tempo and every change of meter was handled so naturally and unobtrusively as to seem inevitable and unarguable; the orchestral sonorities were all gorgeous and perfectly balanced; the singers were supported beautifully and never overwhelmed.

Kudos, also, to the production team; to Peter Mussbach for direction and understanding of the characters that can hardly be surpassed; to Erich Wonder for an amazingly workable unit set; to Andrea Schmidt-Futterer for beautiful and charming costumes.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2004 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved