Friday, November 27, 2009

DNO's Salome - Notte d'orror!

Attended 13/11/2009

Composer: Richard Strauss
Muziektheater Amsterdam
Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest, cond. Stefan Soltesz
Production by Peter Konwitschny

Herodes – Gabriel Sadé
Herodias – Doris Soffel
Salome – Annalena Persson
Jochanaan – Albert Dohmen
Narraboth – Marcel Reijans
Page – Barbara Kozeij
Juden – Alasdair Elliott, Marcell Beekman, Jean-Léon Klostermann, Pascal Pittie, Andrew Greenan
Nazarener – André Morsch, Julian Tovey
Soldaten – Alexander Egorov, Patrick Schramm
Ein Cappadocier - Jacques Does

I kind of expected something strange from this production, seeing DNO had already sent out a letter of warning – which is never a good omen. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect the piece of trash I saw on the 13th.

Set in some sort of bunker, Salome sports an entirely disgusting 80s hairdo and has sex with everyone. Her father, Herodes, shoots up on heroine and also has sex with everyone. Her mother, Herodias – surprise, surprise – also has lots of sex. John the Baptist (Jochanaan) is locked up in the bunker with them, and sports a nice shopping bag over his head, and also has lots of sex. When Salome wants to get it on with Jochanaan, Narraboth is so disgusted with her that he’s supposed to commit suicide, but in Konwitschny’s production, Herodes draws a gun, shoots him, drops his pants, and takes the lead in a necrophile gangbang. Meanwhile, Herodias is having sex with Jochanaan while Salome is playing around with Herodes’ needles. Confusing much? There was no focus to it all, and all the sex was very tiresome. I spent a large part of the opera yawning and fighting Morpheus’ attacks on my consciousness. Maybe that’s one of the problems of my generation – we’ve seen so much on television, the internet, you name it, that people on stage shooting up on heroine and constantly having (mostly anal) sex has lost its shock value.

Salome’s dance of the seven veils wasn’t really a dance. She just ran a couple of laps on stage carrying a tablecloth, and then started kicking the wall and drawing a door on it. Kind of strange on Herodes’ part to be so impressed by that as to grant Salome Jochanaan’s head. Jochanaan is ‘killed’ (or rather, not killed) by Herodias f***ing him to death, after which Jochanaan’s head is handed over to Salomé. She sings to the head and Jochanaan (apparently having survived Herodias’ attacks on his genitals) approaches her and they hug, kiss and fiddle around as the head prop is lifted into the air. At the end of it all, Salome and Jochanaan walk off stage a happy couple. Herodes’ last line was given to an actor sitting in the audience, who screamed “kill this woman”. There were two enthusiastic people in the audience screaming their bravos, countered by about twenty angry people exploding into a fair amount of boos. The rest of the audience (me included), just looked completely bored and clapped modestly for the singers and the orchestra, who were actually quite good (Gabriel Sadé excluded).

This was the single most crappy evening I have ever spent at the opera. Let’s just leave it at that.

Next up in December: Guillaume Tell in concert (Concertgebouw: with Poplavskaya, Giordani and Pertusi) and La Fanciulla del West (DNO: Eva Maria Westbroek and Lucio Gallo)

Herodias wants to do Jochanaan and Herodes (naked torso and all) wants to do Herodias

Salome and Jochanaan fall in love

The Bunker. Jochanaan (with bag on his head) in the middle.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

La Bartoli at the Concertgebouw!

Concertgebouw Amsterdam

Il Giardino Armonico, cond. by Giovanni Antonini

Programme (vocally speaking only, the fair amount of musical intermezzos were not listed anywhere and remain unidentifiable)

1. Vinci ‘Cervo in bosco’
2. Broschi ‘Chi non sente al mio dolore’
3. Porpora ‘In braccio a mille furie’
4. Porpora ‘Parto, ti lascio, o cara’
5. Porpora ‘Come nave in mezzo all’onde’
6. Leo ‘Qual farfalla’
7. Araia ‘Cadrò, ma qual si mira’
8. Porpora ‘Usignolo sventurato’
9. Graun ‘Misero pargoletto’
10. Caldara ‘Quel buon pastor son io’
11. Vinci ‘Quanto invidio la sorte … Chi vive amante’
12. Porpora ‘Nobil onda’
13. Handel ‘Lascia la Spina'
14. Broschi ‘son qual nave’

This was my very first Cecilia Bartoli concert and to be honest, I was kind of nervous. Bartoli holds a special place in my musical affections, simply because she was probably the first singer I ever consciously heard and could identify (this may have had something to do with the parental units being fans). At any rate, I was nervous because I was afraid her voice wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I had read it was pretty small, and since my seats were second row all the way to the side (and thus not directly in an optimal area projection-wise), I was kind of afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear a thing. So imagine my joy at discovering that my seats did not turn out to mar my hearing of La Bartoli’s voice at all and that her singing surpassed my expectations!

This may have in part been influenced by the amounts of rehearsal time that had gone into this concert tour: at a certain point, Antonini brought down the volume of the orchestra to almost a mere whisper, which allowed Bartoli to give us a beautiful, audible and sustained pianissimo. This is what I can only call the fruit of perfect collaboration.

The gems of the evening were, to me, the slower pieces. Although the faster arias showcased Bartoli’s technical prowess fully (and that of the castrati the pieces were written for), I tend to find that they, in some cases, display more ‘show’ than ‘substance’. I was, on the other hand, deeply moved by the more slow, sweet and slightly melancholy pieces such as ‘Quel buon pastor son io’ – my personal favourite of the Sacrificium repertoire.

The orchestra also gave us some musical intermezzos while Bartoli was adjusting the wardrobe (we’ll come to that in a minute…), and another highlight of the evening was to be found when Antonini laid down his baton in favour of a flute and performed like he was a rock star!

Speaking of the wardrobe – I absolutely loved it. No fancy designer dresses for La Bartoli here, but costumes that actually matched the theme of the concert. She started out in some sort of cape with hat to match, and removed props as the concert went on, ending up in black trousers, a white shirt with frills and riding boots. That is, until the very end, when she had done a very speedy wardrobe change into something else - an orange peacock-like dress that wasn’t a dress entirely since the black trousers and riding boots were still present. This probably reflected the effeminate image of the castrati, and of course ended the concert with a bang. Anyway, see my photos below for an impression.

So, the concert was absolutely spectacular, one of those rare ‘you really had to be there’ kind of nights. Only after a couple of days did the smile that got stuck on my face because of this concert disappear. So, if Bartoli’s up for an Amsterdam concert again next year (and I’m hoping she is!), I will certainly be there!

Afterwards, there was a signing session with an extremely long line – luckily I found myself in the middle of it, so I did manage to catch the last tram and train. It was really wonderful to see how much Cecilia appreciates her fans. We were told she would not be shaking hands due to H1N1, but when she saw two young fans (early teens), she jumped up and kissed them! I also had a brief chat with her (in English, it’s amazing how well she speaks that language nowadays) and she dedicated my Sacrificium CD to me personally and signed a photograph of her I had brought. Maestro Antonini also signed my Sacrificium CD, and I left for home very much a happy girl.

Rating: 5/5 (if only I could give 6/5)

Cecilia wearing her more masculine castrato costume

Cecilia in her more feminine outfit

About to start singing the Handel encore

Cecilia and Maestro Antonini signing

And my copy of Sacrificium!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ah, the Elisir at DNO

DNO – Het Muziektheater
Attended: 6/11/2009

Adina – Valentina Farcas
Nemorino – Dmitry Korchak
Belcore – Tommi Hakala
Il dottor Dulcamara – Lucio Gallo
Gianetta – Renate Arends

Nederlands Kamerorkest, cond. Daniele Callegari
Directed by: Guy Joosten

I was always convinced that it is extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, to ruin a Donizetti opera. Now, that faith had been rather extremely shaken last January, when I witnessed two singers of some stature break down in an opera house of, well, some stature as well (i.e. Villazon and Netrebko in the Met Lucia di Lammermoor). Anyway, that’s beside the point. The actual point that I’m trying to make here is that a production such as this promised to be a crazy travesty. Just have a look at the trailer:

But you know what, it was an absolutely GREAT travesty that actually worked! I really enjoyed it from the first minute to the very last. The focus of the production – Dulcamara as some sort of slick salesman straight out of a RAI studio, attended by showgirls and boys – actually worked. It was recognizable, yet crazy, and somehow really resonated with what we know from various shopping channels etc. We started to understand how the entire village comes to believe in the powers of a bottle of bordeaux. The important thing, however, is that the glitter and glamour didn’t constantly take up the scene: there was certainly plenty of room (and relative calm) for developing the Adina-Nemorino love story more or less credibly.

The singing was amazing, and the surprise of the evening came in the form of Dmitry Korchak (Nemorino). It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he is on his way to a very successful career in opera. His una furtiva lagrima was really as great as one could hope – even his long-held pianissimos just soared through the hall. Now to the other cast members: I had heard Romanian soprano Valentina Farcas (Adina) last year in die Fledermaus (Adele) and I have to say that her singing is almost palpably getting better and better. She treated us to some amazing singing (and the Adina attitude to match!), so only praise here as well. Lucio Gallo (Dulcamara) also deserves nothing but praise. Certain Youtube material from very long ago (heck, it stars the man singing Dulcamara to Pavarotti’s Nemorino) had me sort of worrying: the voice sounded tired and strained. But whatever that was, it luckily seems to have passed away, for Gallo really brought down the house. Unfortunately, Gallo won’t be here for the second run of Elisir in June/July, but he will be singing Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West next month (an entirely different role, which I hope he will pull off as successfully as he did this one). Tommi Hakala did his job very well, but didn’t shine as much as the others did (although he certainly did not drown). Renate Arends also did well, but Gianetta is such a small role that it’s difficult to really comment on. The only problem that does need some attention is that maestro Callegari was out of sync with the singers early on in the opera, and some tempi simply went a bit awry.

So, if anyone were to ask me whether or not they should go to L’Elisir in June/July, I’d definitely say ‘YES’. Heck, I’ve even got my July tickets at the ready!

Rating: 4/5

My reviews of La Bartoli (WOW!) and Salome (er…yeah) will be coming shortly!

Adina (Farcas) and Nemorino (Korchak) post-Nemorino's sip of the elisir.

Il Dottore's (Gallo) entrance!

Dulcamara (Gallo) trying to sell Adina (Farcas) some Elisir, attended by men... lots of men!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Strauss' Salome with a happy end?

I received a letter in the mail today, from DNO, concerning their Salome I bought tickets for months ago. For the record, DNO never sends letters about their upcoming productions. So why this letter?

Well, apparently, "the world's most friendly and advanced audience" [meaning the Dutch], will get to see "something spectacular" by German director Peter Konwitschny, who happens to be "world-famous and respected everywhere". Konwitschny "objects to the male gaze-ifying of this one woman", and has, with that in mind, come up with something "never seen before". Through the newspaper, we were also informed that Konwitschny has been battling severe depression for 4 years now, and that this is his first 'comeback production'.

So...what's up with Konwitschny's Salome, then?

Well, Jochanaan doesn't get decapitated. Instead, he falls in love with Salome, and she with him, and in the end, they walk away very much the happy couple.

WOT? This is really going to be the most insane stuff DNO has ever done.

So why the letter? Is this meant as a pre-emptive strike against booing? Against angry mobs asking their money back? Even the most lenient and friendly audience must have its limits, right? And why does the newspaper article dwell on the director's depression? Why do we have to know that? Again a pre-emptive strike against booing? Pity the director, he's been through so much?

Personally, I'm torn between curiosity (how do you even reach a happy end without some serious libretto twisting? Will people get angry?) and affront (seriously, my first live Salome should be a proper Salome, decapitation and all - and how far can you go in redoing the operas we know and love? What's next? A Traviata that has Violetta living and stabbing both Germonts in an avid attempt to avoid objectification by males?).

I really didn't like the 'revised' ending of I Puritani last year that much - Arturo returned, but got shot by Riccardo and died as Elvira went back to being mad. But at least that only concerned the final 5 minutes of an opera that - let's be honest - has a less-than-credible end to start with. What are we going to have to experience/endure with such a much more revised Salome?

Salome will premiere next Tuesday (10 November), and I've got tickets for Friday 13th....

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Renée Fleming and RPO at the Concertgebouw

Renée Fleming and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra cond. by Charles Dutoit
Amsterdam, October 31 2009
(1) Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-overture
(2) Letter scene from Eugene Onegin
(3) Polonaise from Eugene Onegin
(4) "Musette svaria sulla bocca viva" (La Bohème)
(5) "Mimì Pinson la biondinetta" (La Bohème)
(6) "Nel Suo Amore" (Siberia)
(7) "Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata" (Manon Lescaut)
(8) "O Mio Babbino Caro" (Puccini - Gianni Schicchi)


(9) Symphony no. 9 "From the New World"

Concertgebouw Amsterdam
So, last night I went to Renée Fleming's concert in Amsterdam. I didn't quite know the programme (it seemed liable to change a lot, so it was something of a surprise what we were going to get), but I was expecting lots of verismo, as that is the title of her latest album. And it really was an amazing concert, if not for two 'buts'. 'But' no.1: Renée didn't sing that much (let alone verismo). 'But' no.2: The Royal Philharmonic and Renée were not entirely 'balanced', with the orchestra at times drowning Renée's voice (especially in the Eugene Onegin letter scene).

Before the concert

After a wonderfully-played Romeo and Juliet overture, Renée Fleming appeared on stage, and started to sing the letter scene from Eugene Onegin. Beautifully done, but horridly drowned by the orchestra. Low notes had to be more or less mentally filled in. Renée's mouth was moving, but my ears just didn't register anything. High notes were more audible, but the overall balance just sucked. Maybe, but unlikely, it was just my part of the hall that was unlucky. I guess the real problem was the lack of rehearsal (or even sound checking) in the hall, and getting the 'feel' of it.

Photographing crowds storming at Renée down in the hall

Fortunately, the Italian arias required less orchestral 'violence', so they were more audible (and Renée's voice wasn't drowned anymore). First, we got the two arias from Leoncavallo's Bohème. Beautiful gems, but as everyone who has listened to Fleming's verismo album knows, they're very short. Then we got the beautiful 'Nel suo amore', also from the verismo album. Again, beautifully done. Last, we got 'Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata' - this one especially was amazingly done.

Renée receiving applause and flowers

I was counting on 2-3 encores, to be honest, because I felt the verismo part of the concert was pretty meagre as it was. I was thinking 'Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì' and Suor Angelica's 'Senza Mamma' at the very least - nothing like closing off a concert with some Puccini hits, right? Well, we got a Puccini hit alright - "O mio babbino caro", amazingly sung. The house fell into an adorational frenzy. Unfortunately, that was apparently all the encore we were going to get. After the interval Fleming had disappeared from sight, and although we got a beautiful New World Symphony, it was a pity the main draw (Fleming) was missing.

Renée signing programmes, cds etc.

But Fleming hadn't left the house yet - she was to have a signing session after the concert. Knowing the Dutch as people who generally don't give a damn about this stuff, I had sort of expected only a small group of hardcore fans to show up at the signing. Boy, was I wrong! It was a complete massacre! I guess almost a bit too insane for my tastes. Nevertheless, it was worth it - I waited my turn and got my programme and verismo cd signed. So did my sister. After about half an hour, the crowds had thinned a bit, and I could take some decent pictures of La Fleming signing.

Renée signing my sister's cd booklet.
All in all, a great concert, but too short when it came to its main draw (Fleming), and not 'balanced' enough volume-wise. But don't mistake me - I had a very good time and would go again if I could. I'm just hoping next time Renée will sing a bit more.
Next up: Friday 6th L'Elisir d'Amore, Tuesday 10th Cecilia Bartoli (I'm pretty sure she has had enough time to really balance things out with Il Giardino Armonico, and that she will sing the amount of arias the main draw of a concert is supposed to sing - so, very much looking forward to it!), Friday 13th Salome.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dido and Aeneas in Amsterdam

Henry Purcell (composer), Nathum Tate (librettist)
Dido And Aeneas
October 3, 2009
Venue: Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam
Company: DNO
Directed by: Deborah Warner
Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie

Dido - Malena Ernman
Aeneas - Luca Pisaroni
Belinda - Judith van Wanroij
Second Woman - Lina Markeby

Sorceress - Hilary Summers
First Witch - Céline Ricci
Second Witch - Ana Quintans
Spirit - Marc Mauillon
Sailor - Ben Davies

Pictures and Trailer (c) DNO

Dido and Aeneas is an opera that is difficult in its simplicity. The story is simple enough: Dido is in love with Aeneas. Aeneas reciprocates the feeling. Stirred on by Belinda, Dido's confidante, they hit it off and go hunting. Meanwhile, a group of witches gathers and they decide on ruining Dido by separating her from Aeneas by - hark! hark! - conjuring a spirit, letting him pretend to be Mercury with a command from the gods (namely that Aeneas leave Carthage at once). The spirit appears to Aeneas, who immediately agrees to sail off. Aeneas then breaks the news to Dido, who gets rather distressed. Aeneas then offers to stay anyway ("I'll stay!"), but Dido does not want him anymore ("away, away!"). Aeneas sails off and Dido dies (from poison in this production). And all that in 60 minutes at the very most. Which is, honestly, impossible to pull of credibly.

Dido, supported by Belinda and another woman, sings her lament and dies.

So it's all the more surprising that Deborah Warner actually pulled off a credible Dido and Aeneas: in this production, it is highlighted that, for Dido, it's all or nothing. Dido also seems to know beforehand that, if she gets involved with Aeneas, it's doomed to end badly. So, we get to really understand her, and sympathize with her. We see a Dido who is initially trying to protect herself from heartache, then - advised by her confidante Belinda - decides to give it her all, and then - when she learns that Aeneas really wants to leave her - harshly sends him off to sea and herself off to death by means of the bottle of poison she has been carrying around all along, 'just in case'. So, a lot of credit goes to the mezzo Malena Ernman, who proved herself an amazing singer and actress (and whose "When I am laid..." was thoroughly heartbreaking).

To the Hills and the Vales...

Praise should also be given to Luca Pisaroni (Aeneas), who's almost starting to become DNO's resident early music baritone (which is, by the way, a very good thing - artists of his calibre, reliability and acting abilities are hard to come by). Aeneas is a tiny role, but Pisaroni managed to fill it out as much as possible. Incredible though it may seem, we also got to understand a bit of Aeneas. Aeneas is utterly charming, tosses around alluring smiles everywhere, but for him the relationship with Dido is in the end just a summer love, a fling, not meant to go too deep and not meant to last. When he's called away, it doesn't bother him - the only thing he worries about is how to break the news to Dido. If anything, Aeneas wants to avoid problems.

Dido and Aeneas fiddling around

The witches, although intentionally incredibly over the top, were quite nice. In their case, the music was handled quite flexibly, probably in order to reinforce their almost fairy tale-like quality ("Look at me! I'm an evil witch! I want death and destruction!"). Belinda, Dido's confidante, was also well-sung and well-acted: she is portrayed as the type of woman who only reads trashy romance novels and gets excited when she can actually help Dido and Aeneas on their way to what she probably thinks will be their happy end. And to top it off, all this under the musical auspices of the beautifully-playing Les Arts Florrisants conducted by baroque guru William Christie - one would almost think things couldn't be done better.

The one point of criticism I have on this production, though, is the incorporation of the group of little schoolgirls that runs around, screams and dances in between the acts. Seriously - why? Okay, I get why: the opera was probably composed for an all-girls school, so it's nice to see that the performance history of the work is taken into account as well. Nevertheless, it didn't quite work out (perhaps due to lack of rehearsal time?) - the girls were kind of confused all the time as to what their next move was going to be, and had to be constantly guided on stage by a number of adults (which, to be quite honest, looked quite silly and unprofessional - like witnessing a ballet lesson, it's only fun for the parents of the children in question). But we'll let it slip as just a minor issue of this production.

Furthermore, as you can probably see, the sets and the dresses were absolutely lavish, and really helped to increase the impact of the opera. The set could, by just a slight adjustment in lighting and props, be made to complement the atmosphere completely - light and meadow-like when Dido and Aeneas are hunting and frolicking, desolate and cold when Dido is dying.

The production's trailer on Youtube

A last thing that slightly bothered me (and does not really relate directly to the production) was that this production was ousted from the Muziektheater by Michel van der Aa's After Life to the much smaller Stadsschouwburg (DNO could have figured that more people were going to want to see Dido and Aeneas than After Life, so it would have made more sense had they swapped venues - D&A sold out in mere days, while After Life needed incessant marketing in order to attract visitors). Well, live and learn, I guess (or perhaps they had a very good reason, one never knows). All in all, I had an amazing evening (although I still think it was a bit too short, and some sort of double bill - with, say, something else by Purcell, could have been pulled off).

Coming Early November: Lots of write-ups on lots of performances! (Renée Fleming's concert, L'Elisir d'Amore at DNO, Cecilia Bartoli's concert and Salomé at DNO - November is going to be a good month for Amsterdam!).

Monday, October 5, 2009

La Juive Revisited

Believe it or not, but I have been to La Juive at the Muziektheater again. Not because I bought tickets for another performance, but because I actually won two tickets (yes, I actually WON something - the last time I won something (a Victorian mansion, Playmobile style) was when I was ten years old). Instead of just giving away the tickets (which probably would have been the noble thing to do), I decided to go again myself and maybe get the chance to 'reconsider' some things.

And I did. Somehow (and I don't think it's just due to the amazing seats I got!), I got to appreciate the magnificent performance each and every single cast member delivered more. Because they did deliver! Even the weak link of the previous performance I attended, Dennis O'Neill, was in a very good vocal shape this evening, and provided a more credible Eléazar (of course within the limits of the character's credibility). I also got the feeling that some elements in the cast's acting had been adapted - it seemed that at least a bit of the rigidity of the tableaux vivants had been thrown out of the window.

Of course, the essential weaknesses of the opera and production remained: the story was still over the top (in a negative sense) - some characters, no matter how much the singers tried to enliven them, simply remain inexorably flat. The production - martians included - remained ineffective, and eerily strange.

So, all in all, I was glad to see the production again, and I have warmed to it somewhat. What I really hope is that Annick Massis has enjoyed her time and performances in Amsterdam enough to return in the near future for, say, the title role in Lucia - her extremely agile, beautiful and warm voice (and, of course, her prowess in the role) would make for an amazing reprisal of DNO's Lucia production.

Coming up soon: my review of DNO's Dido & Aeneas