sfcv logo

IN Music News THIS WEEK:
October 28, 2003
LETTER FROM IRELAND

Opera Both Rare and Well-Done


E-mail this page

By Janos Gereben

WEXFORD — This small Irish seaside town's modest but famed festival, running through November 2, has some major distinctions: it is more adventurous in programming than probably any opera company in the world, actively seeking out works not likely to be done anywhere else. It is also more formal in dress and less comfortable in seating than Bayreuth itself — the best-known institution in those two categories.

Wexford Festival Opera began in 1951, with Balfe's The Rose of Castile, and has managed to amaze each year with "other works." However little-known today Balfe's The Bohemian Girl may be, Rose is truly terra incognita. From Weber, it was Oberon, from Mozart, Zaide, from Humperdinck, Koenigskinder. The Wexford Turandot was by Busoni, the Manon Lescaut by Auber, Barber of Seville by Paisello, Rusalka by Dargomizhsky, La Boheme by Leoncavallo. And then there were the composers Gazzaniga, Fibich, Haas, Goetz, Storace . . .

On Monday night, black ties and gowns entered the unglamorous, store-front lobby — each patron greeted at the door with a handshake or a kiss from festival CEO Jerome Hynes — to hear Enrique Granados' 1898 Maria del Carmen, in the first performance of the work outside Spain.

Where Are the Irish?

As two spiffy audience members eased themselves into the tiny seats of the Theatre Royal right behind me, I overheard part of their conversation: "There is nothing Irish here," said one, "the orchestra is from Byelorussia, the singers are from Slovenia, and the opera is from Spain." "Now, now," said the other, "we are all Europeans now." They were both wrong.

The evening began, as all evenings here do, with the audience — well, at least some of them — singing "Amhran Na Bhfiann," the National Anthem, and that has to be Irish enough. As to being Europeans, the orchestra (from Belarus, not the old land of White Russians) may qualify, with a bit of a stretch, but the evening's glory was a duo of Mexican singers, whose country hasn't yet applied for EU membership — as far as I know.

Granados Mania

Granados' heated zarzuela sound, sweeping, melodic and passionate to a fault, is an acquired taste, and I, for one, love it dearly, ever since a surprisingly recent introduction to the operatic version of his Goyescas. The music is lilting, gushing, storming, altogether wonderful, but the weakness of the script probably explains this Carmen's neglect even in Spain, not to mention the world's near-complete ignorance of it.

Walter Aaron Clark, a Granados scholar from the University of California, traces the spooky story of the work's manuscript through several traumatic episodes. It was in the composer's possession when he visited New York for the premiere of Goyescas at the Met.

Torpedoed Manuscript

On the return to Spain, in 1916, his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine; Granados and his wife were among those who drowned, but his luggage, and the Maria del Carmen score in it, was recovered . . . only to be stolen and, supposedly, burned later in an accident. The story of the opera itself makes for better drama than the awkward adaptation of Jose Feliu Codina's play.

Ana Maria Garcia Perez is the dancer in the 2003 Wexford Festival Opera production of Enrique Granados' "Maria del Carmen," the first time the work is being produced outside Spain since its 1898 premiere.

(Photo by Derek Speirs.)

Maria is a Tosca-like figure, fought over by a good guy, Pencho, and an evil one, Javier. In order to save the life of Pencho, Maria agrees to marry Javier, and after a great deal of turmoil, all ends well, Javier avoiding the fate of Scarpia by mending his ways. Jesus Suaste, the Pencho, turned out to be one of the most appealing and dignified singers in opera anywhere. The baritone from Mexico City gives the very opposite of the over-the-top performance Wexford seems to favor, he is subtle and restrained, both in singing and acting. His musical communication — if not the voice — is reminiscent of Thomas Quasthoff's sincerity and simplicity in performance.

Another gem from Mexico (Guadalajara) is the tenor singing the role of Javier: there is no point trying to avoid the obvious comparison of Dante Alcala's lyric and yet powerful voice to the young Domingo. Alcala has a bright, secure tenor, always on the money, full of color, open, and fresh. He is very young, Wexford apparently providing him with one of his first major roles. He could — and should — go far.

Diane Veronese — name withstanding, born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and trained in New York — is the big-voiced soprano in the title role, compounding the character's exasperating goofiness ("I leave you because I love you . . . I marry you because you're the enemy of the man I love") with deer-caught-in-the-headlights stage manners, and a pair of fluttering hands that don't find a resting place through two and a half hours.

Vasquez from Valencia

From the fine cast, another standout was Silvia Vasquez, a young soprano from Valencia. In the secondary soprano role, she sang well, exhibiting a bright, soaring voice, and a natural, appealing stage manner. Baritone Alberto Arrabal, from Madrid, and tenor Riccardo Mirabelli, from Argentina, contributed well, although they should take lessons in restraint from Suaste.

Director/designer Sergio Vela very nearly sabotaged the production with an overly-literal, unworkable set. To reflect the setting of the drought-stricken Murcia region of southeastern Spain, Vela turned the stage into an uneven, cracked-earth obstacle field, challenging the cast — in their native costumes — to move and remain upright, and — oh, yes — sing as well.

And so we come to the greatest puzzle: the orchestral performance by the Belarus Philharmonic of a very, very Spanish score. The competent — if not particularly brilliant — result is to the credit of the Spanish conductor, Max Bragado-Darman. The man from Madrid has the unique distinction of leading orchestras both in Kentucky and the Canary Islands. "We are all Europeans now," indeed.

& & &

Little-Known Svanda at Festival of Unknowns

Next year's Wexford Festival Opera will be as intriguingly "different" as any of the 52 seasons before. Bellini is the one recognizable name in the 2004 festival, but who on earth has seen or even heard this one: Adelson e Salvini. It will be the 1828-9 two-act revision of the original three-act opera semiseria, to a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola after d'Arnaud's novella and Delamarre's play of the same name.

Josef Bohuslav Foerster's Eva follows, an 1899 Czech opera, based on Gabriela Preissova's play, Gazdina roba (The Farmer's Woman). E.T.A. Hoffmann shows up, but only twice removed, in Walter Braunfels' 1929-30 revision of Prinzessin Brambilla, first performed in Stuttgart, in 1909. The libretto is by the composer, after a Hoffmann story.

From the future to the present: tonight's performance of Weinberger's 1927 Svanda the Bagpiper was a complete delight. Heaven only knows why this melodic Czech work, with a fascinating story and opportunities galore for vocal and dramatic/comic bravura, is so neglected. Similar in its musical language and whimsical libretto to Kodaly's Hary Janos, Rimsky-Korsakov's Coq d'Or, Moniuszko's Halka, and Smetana's Bartered Bride, Svanda is a first-class "folk opera," with long passages of remarkable music. The Act I finale would not be out of place in an early Richard Strauss opera. Those who prevented performances of the eminently stage-worthy "Svanda" may bear partial responsibility for the unjustly neglected composer's suicide in 1967.

Czech to a Fault

The Wexford production does justice to the work, with brilliant Czech soloists, the festival chorus singing up a storm, the somewhat heavy-handed Julian Reynolds conducting the National Philharmonic of Belarus so that it sounds, at times, like the Prague Philharmonic on a good day.

Among the uniformly impressive cast, the great standout was Tatiana Monogarova, filling the tiny Theatre Royal with a volume sufficient for Albert Hall, and yet not too loud. Her Dorotka was a vocal and dramatic triumph — even while blending into the ensemble — enabling the audience to understand why Svanda would (literally) go through hell for her, and why even the great, magical Babinsky fell in love with her.

Those two roles had solid, definitive performances by Matjaz Robavs and Ivan Choupenitch, respectively. Larisa Kostyuk's sexy Ice Queen and Alexander Taliga's exasperated Devil served the performance superbly. Robin Rawstorne's set design was just right for a fairytale: a magical accomplishment. The Theatre Royal might have been a legitimate theater a long time ago, but it's really just a small-town cinema, narrow and with seats squeezed together as no airline would dare to try.

Great Set on No Stage At All

From a designer's point of the view, however, the worst thing is the size of the stage. To be precise: the lack of a stage. Imagine the space taken up by the screen in a movie theater, and you have the "stage" of the festival. It's beyond a "challenge."

And yet, Rawstorne came through amazingly. From the opening scene of the home of newlyweds Svanda and Dorotka (a gigantic barrel on its side, and yet very homey), to the metallic throne of the Ice Queen (a female torso sculpture from one side, the queen's lair from the other), to the cheap lounge setting for Hell, and finally, an Astroturf garden lowered from its vertical storage space (forming a wall) to become the base for the happy ending — the designer had it all.

And, Rawstorne has also contributed some wonderful costumes: Babinsky's royal capes, the queen's stunning red gown, the Devil's cheap-gangster outfit. All the pipes of the Wexford Svanda played together and in tune, the production enchanting the audience just as the electric instrument, with its flashing lights, subdued the forces of evil on stage.

& & &

3 Pintos, 2 Composers, 1 Fine Production

References to Die drei Pintos as a "Mahler opera" make little sense. Carl Maria von Weber's fragment of a work was, in fact, completed by Mahler between 1886 and 1888. He did mostly organization and orchestration, and added some music of his own, but if you heard the opera without knowing who composed it, Mahler would not be among your top choices. Weber, definitely, and any number of German Singspiel composers, at one point even Beethoven, but Mahler?

Wexford is giving the opera a brilliant production, trying to make something more of it than the tuneful, rhythmically appealing, pretty good operetta it really is. Still, unlike the season's other two offerings, no big "discovery" is made here, no wish to explore the work more, to hear it again.

Dramatically and musically, Die drei Pintos is uncomplicated fun, with very little lurking underdneath the surface. Three men claiming to be Don Pinto claim the hand of Clarissa, whose father had promised her to the son of an old friend, the son he had never met. Act 1 sets up the situation, in a long, leisurely setting of chorus numbers and a great deal of physical, not entirely funny, comedy. Act 2 is the exposition of the love story between Clarissa and one of the would-be Pintos, Don Gomez. Act 3 quickly resolves all problems, allowing a proper celebration.

Thin Story, Unengaging Music

There are operas with even thinner story, and yet instances of emotional-musical depth to make up for whatever may be lacking. Drei Pintos doesn't; it exists all on the surface. In a poor production, the work would be simply dreadful. Here, with a fine cast, excellent musical and stage direction by the Italian-born English Paolo Arrivabeni and Poland's Michal Znaniecki, respectively, and with the designing magic of London's Kevin Knight, the opera works pretty well.

Esteem for the National Philharmonic of Belarus is rising with each production: the orchestra sounded Spanish enough for Granados, positively Czech for Svanda, and tonight, it was difficult to believe that it's not a German — a good German — band in the pit. Arrivabeni deserves much of the credit: he paced both the musicians and the excellent festival chorus perfectly, getting just the right sound all the way through. Znaniecki enlivened the thin action with imaginative touches, but never at the expense of the work.

Knight's work on the sets is difficult to believe, even when you see it. On one of the world's tiniest opera stages he created a three-level "palace" for the last two acts, a Guggenheim-like round structure (albeit in an unfortunate shade of green), complete with a top level balcony, the main stage, and a round chute for surprising entrances and exits. He also covered the walls with glass display cases of intriguing contents, and imbedded glass-covered containers in the floor. Were it not for that outstanding orchestral performance, I might have left the Theatre Royal whistling the sets.

Three Ladies for Three Suitors

With all the Don Pintos around, three ladies were the belles of the ball in the cast: Barbara Zechmeister's Clarissa, with vocal fireworks and more passion and drama than the opera's creators managed to provide; Sophie Marilley's commanding and comic maid; and — unfortunately restricted to Act 1 — Sinead Campbell's lusty Inez.

The real Don Pinto was Alessandro Svab, getting every ounce of value out of the role. In the strange structure of the work, Don Pinto No. 2, Don Gaston, pretty much has all of Act 1 to himself. Gunnar Gudbjörnsson is one of those rare tenors, who can sing so effortlessly as if they were having a casual conversation. Looking and sounding a bit like Ben Heppner a few years ago, Gudbjörnsson was impressively, spectacularly natural and effortless, even if fell victim to what had plagued Heppner before, the voice breaking unexpectedly, and not necessarily on demanding high notes.

Peter Furlong sang Don Gomez with youthful vigor, determined acting, and quite oblivious to the fact that his fly was open — unintentionally, one may presume — through most of his time on stage. Considering that the director introduces the loving couple in a hilarious scene choreographed under a wildly gyrating sheet, and they spend half the prelude to Act 2 getting dressed, the oversight may be charitably overlooked.

'Humor' Underlies Stereotype

Robert Holzer was the sonorous Don Pantaleone, willing father of the reluctant bride. Ales Jenis sang the role of Ambrosio, properly dressed, a blessing because the character's main task is a travesty act, which — through no fault of the singer — falls far short of the finest German humor. An open fly just would not have been proper with those fake breasts. The festival chorus' excellent work, although mentioned before, deserves the place of honor in conclusion.

& & &

Janacek at the Gate

DUBLIN — Theaters are closed here on Sunday — the Abbey, the Peacock, others are all dark — but hark! there are lights on at the entrance to the Gate Theatre. Ask what's happening, and you will be told that the cast of Brian Friel' new play, Performances, is giving a concert.

Intrigued by that puzzle, you go in and discover the Alba String Quartet holding sway in the theater, with a brief but excellent program of Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor, Mozart's Quartet in E flat, Webern's Langsamer Satz, and Janacek's String Quartet No. 2.

This last item on the program, Janacek's 1928 Intimate Letters Quartet, provides for yet another "first," unless you have already attended a chamber-music concert that had been rehearsed nightly, with an audience, for over a month. This is how all those strange items come together: Friel's play is about Janacek and his decade-long pursuit of Kamilla Stosslova, a happily married 26-year-old when the composer, age 62, became possessed with her.

Quartet as Consummation

"Consummation" of the one-sided affair came in Quartet No. 2, an ecstatically happy, Tristan-passionate, achingly beautiful work by Janacek at 74, at the end of a troubled, but ultimately redeemed, life. The play — by the author of Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa — has a fictional graduate student researching Janacek's life, it brings in the already dead composer to answer her questions, and completes the cast with members of the Alba: Nicola Sweeney and Jana Ludvickova (violins), Fay Sweet (viola), and Tony Woollard (cello).

The musicians perform the first two movements of Intimate Letters off-stage, while the text of some of those letters is spoken and discussed on-stage; then the quartet plays on-stage and talks about the music while the actor playing Janacek (Ion Caramitru), contemplates some of letters, projected on the walls, in silence.

On Sunday then, the Alba Quartet musicians stepped out of their "roles" as the quartet in the play, and after playing what Richard Pine's program notes call this "massive soliloquy on longing and passion," more or less as background music for a month — and performed it, front and center, in its entirety, uninterrupted.

Young Quartet's Mature Sound

How was it? Glorious. The Alba is a young group, with a young, vigorous, somewhat raw sound, quite different from the end-of-life, Verdi "Falstaff"/Shakespeare "Tempest"-category Intimate Letters may be thought to require. And yet, the technically near-flawless, deeply-felt reading came across superbly. There are so many complexities and contradictions about this work, not least of it being in the music itself: Janacek had nothing but disdain for Wagnerian romanticism and "pompous chord progressions," but his two quartets are quintessentially romantic.

The Alba managed to resolve paradoxes all evening long: those of excess and classicism in the Schubert, elegance and deep feelings in the Mozart, chromaticism and gentle, "old-fashioned" tonality in the Webern, and — especially — bridging pain and happiness in Janacek's music the way the composer managed to accomplish that both in music and life.

Intimate Letters says one is never too old for passion; the Alba performance proved one is never too young to have mature wisdom of expression.

& & &

Suaste: a Voice to Remember

WEXFORD — There are lyric baritones, heroic ones, Verdi baritones and Wagner specialists, so on and so forth. Jesus Suaste, who gave a memorable recital here on Wednesday — as part of the Wexford Opera Festival — doesn't fit into a standard category.

A shorthand description may be "noble-gentle-lyric-intelligent-sincere baritone." But to hell with pigeonholes; just listen to the man. Already making a deep impression in the central role of Pencho in Maria del Carmen, the baritone from Mexico City captured the tightly-packed audience in the recital hall so completely that the attentive, deep silence became a vital component of the concert in the acoustic heaven of the beautifully simple St. Iberius Church.

(I don't know much about the Church of Ireland, except that it seems to build spaces visually and acoustically ready-made for recitals. By eschewing excessively tall structures and columns, by rounding corners, using wood and plaster walls (painted cream and pale blue), and a round wooden balcony, these churches are perfect for music, and they provide a bright, cheerful environment.)

Bach, de Falla, Liszt

Squeezing a great deal of music — varied and satisfying — into the hour-long format, Suaste and his accompanist, the American repetiteur Eric Malson, started with an aria from Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" (the baritone has 45 operas and 46 oratorios in his repertoire), continued with de Falla's "Seven Popular Songs," Liszt's "Petrarca Songs" and concluded with contemporary Argentine songs (composers and titles impossible to make out).

The Bach, unfortunately, turned into a warm-up exercise, especially for Malson. The accompanist performed better and better as the concert continued, but he merely banged away for most of the Bach. Suaste, who sang the rest of the program without a score, read the music for the Bach only . . . and it showed.

Once free of the music stand, Suaste sang with eyes closed, standing next to the piano, in line with the first row of the audience. In a small, uncalculating, and yet significant gesture, the singer did not stand up step higher, on the platform for the altar, used instinctively as the "stage" by other singers. Suesta stayed among his listeners, not separated.

'Packaged' Just Right

The passion and sadness of the de Falla songs came through directly and powerfully. Suaste doesn't have a huge voice, but it's big enough; it's not the warmest or most beautiful in the genre, but more than satisfactory in both regards. It's the "package" that's stunning, the overall presentation, with perfect vibrato and diction, sincere, believable, affecting phrasing.

With the entire cast of "Maria del Carmen" cheering him on from the balcony, the whole audience joining in, Suaste looked surprised at first, just opening his eyes, when the great outburst of applause washed over him, then broke out in a smile of utter delight that could not be faked. He is a singer who loves the music, and still finds it a surprising extra that he would be acclaimed for something that "comes naturally."

Suaste sang Liszt's "Pace non trovo" and "Benedetto sia 'l giorno" with passion and dignity, but abandoning restraint in "I' vidi in terra," power, rather than volume, bursting forth. The Argentine songs, quiet, simple and beautiful, were both glorious sequels to and fitting decrescendi from the great sweep of de Falla's and Liszt's music.

Drama After the Concert

There is an intriguing postscript to the recital. When it appeared to have ended, the audience filed out, even as Suaste appeared to be in conversation with his accompanist, perhaps about another encore. Caught in the line heading for the single exit, I reluctantly left, even against the possibility of more singing by an artist, who appeared at the top of his form.

The next morning, on the way to Dublin Airport, I heard that the animated discussion among the singer, the pianist, and the festival's music director had nothing to do with encores. Apparently, Suaste had a sudden and complete attack of amnesia, didn't know where he was or what he was doing there. He was taken to hospital.

From Perfect Recall to Total Amnesia

The really strange aspect of this incident is that Suesta just completed an hour-long, complicated program, performing lengthy song cycles in Spanish and Italian without a single musical or textual slip, without a score. After an hour of such complete mastery of the material, suddenly, he had no awareness of his environment and, in a poignant-dramatic turn, no memory of what has just transpired.

Along with everything else, he completely blocked out the immediate memory of what must have been one of the most successful concerts of his career. The hope, of course, is that just as suddenly this memory loss hit him, everything should be recovered instantly. It would be a truly cruel twist of fate if only the audience treasured the event, not the artist responsible for it. (Word came later that he made a complete recovery from what must have been a stress-related incident. Paradoxically, he showed no sign of stress during the performance.)

(Janos Gereben, a regular contributor to www.sfcv.org, is arts editor of the Post Newspaper Group. His e-mail address is janos451@earthlink.net.)

©2003 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved