La Scena Musicale

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rome: Four North Americans in Two Acts

By Giuseppe Pennisi

This article does do not deal with a Roman revival of Four Saints in Three Acts, the late 1920’s marvelous jewel by Virgil Thompso
n on a Gertrude Stein libretto. Neither does it review a two-act opera in any conventional sense. This December, four North American composers – three in their 70s and the “kid” about 55delighted Roman audiences with two different world premières: a 100-minute one-act children's opera by Philip Glass and a 60-minute tone poem by the MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva ensemble of live electronics, started in 1966 by Frederic Rzweski, Richard Teitelbaum and othersnow including also Alvin Curran). The Glass opera is titled Le Streghe di Venezia (The Witches of Venice) and will be a central feature of the Ravenna Festival next Summer; the opera may also travel to the US. The MEV tone poem is called Grande Raccordo Anulare (The Beltway) and will have concert performances in North America. The link between the opera and the tone poem is that they both mirror visions of Italy (as it was) by contemporary American composers.

Le Streghe di Venezia is based on a short novel by Beni Montresor, for several years a key figure of the New York City Opera. An opera-ballet version was presented at La Scala in December 1995, but the original composition was largely modified and not in line with Glass’ intentions. The Roman version is produced by Musica per Roma in the Parco della Musica and mirrors very closely what Glass wanted. The text can be read in several ways: an initiation process of two children to end up on Venice’s throne (e.g. a modern Mozart’s Magic Flute), a Christmas tale (such as Menotti’s Ahmal and the Night Visitors), the fatigue of an old king in a rapidly changing world (like in Berio’s Un Re in Ascolto), the intrigues of both the political and the performing arts’ environment (as in Strauss’ Capriccio). The final aria, by the chamber maid, is sad (La vita è difficile) but with glimmers of hope (un pò di vino rosso fa cantar): in short, life is difficult but a little red wine makes you sing happily. Le Streghe is quite interesting musically: Glass’ minimalism includes also quotations from Mozart and Rossini as well as a bit of live electronics.

The Roman production is also a joy for the eyes: in a small theatre for 700 seats, computerized projections, mimes, acrobats and glittering, colourful costumes make the audience feel that a feast is going on. The stage direction (Giorgio Barberio Corsetti) is fast: although the performance starts at 9 p.m. and ends at nearly 11 p.m., the many children in the audience followed the plot with interest and enjoyed the show. Among the voices, worth mentioning are Carmen Romeu, Anna Goryacheva and two children: Matteo Graziani and Francesco Passaretti alternate in the role of the boy and Maria Luisa Paglione and Daniela Sbrigoli in that of the girl. The Contemporanea Ensemble del Parco della Musica is of high quality.

MEV has a long history: the ensemble was begun one evening in the spring of 1966 by Alan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Jon Phetteplace, Carol Plantamura, Frederic Rzweski (pictured here), Richard Teitelbaum and Ivan Vandor in a room in Rome overlooking the Pantheon. At that time, the Italian capital was a major center for American musicians abroadmore important than Paris and London. To fully grasp the spirit of the time, it is useful to read Marjorie Whright's The Rise and Fall of a La Scala Diva (Janus Publishing Company Ltd, London 2007).

In 1971, when Frederic Rzweski moved into an apartment in New York, a box containing the MEV files was mistaken for trash and thrown into the incinerator chute. Though the group would never be able to play in this remarkable domed temple with a hole in its top, MEV's music right from the start was also totally open, allowing all and everything to come in and seek in every way to get out beyond the heartless conventions of contemporary music. Taking cue from Tudor and Cage, MEV began sticking contact mics to anything that sounded and amplified their raw sounds: bed springs, sheets of glass, tin cans, rubber bands, toy pianos, sex vibrators, and assorted metal junk; a crushed old trumpet, cello and tenor sax kept us within musical credibility, while a home-made synthesizer of some 48 oscillators along with the first Moog synthesizer in Europe gave our otherwise neo-primitive sound an inimitable edge. By 1969, MEV was known everywhere in the world's undergrounds and above ground, too. They had played hundreds of concerts in Europe, made two LPs and had collaborated with Jean-Jacques Lebel, The Living Theater, Pierre Clementi, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gianni Kounnelis, Simone Forti, members of the Chicago Art Ensemble, Cornelius Cardew's AMM group, the Scratch Orchestra, Nuova Consonanza, Vittorio Gelmetti, Giuseppe Chiari, Kosugi, Ashley, Behrman, Mumma and Lucier. MEV resists retirement and greatly enjoys its one gig a year. Its founding members have each gone on to develop very different but compatible music which in the anarchic MEV tradition stand in strong opposition to the aggressive demands of today's media and marketing moguls.

The initiators of MEV returned to Rome with this brand new Grande Raccordo Anulare – a live electronics tone poem full of nostalgia for Rome in the 60s, a heartfelt homage to the city where they started their unique adventure. It's generous and moving at the same time. It was performed in the auditorium of the Università “La Sapienza” to the enjoyment of young and not-so-young live electronics.

THE PLAY BILL of Le Streghe di Venezia
C. Romeo, A. Goraycheva, G. Bocchino, S. Alberti, M. Graziani, F. Passaretti, M.L. Paglione, D. Sbrigoli, Conductor Tonino Battista Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble, Stage direction and sets Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Costumes Marina Schindler, Lighting Gianluca Cappelletti, Choreography Julien Lambert, Video Angelo Longo Cantori del Coro Arcobaleno dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Libretto Beni Montresor , Acrobats. J.Lambert, E. Bettin, D. Sorisi, L. Trefiletti

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Cette semaine à Montréal (14 à 20 déc) / This Week in Montreal (Dec. 14 - 20)

Musique à Montréal cette semaine
Music in Montreal this week

Musique d’orchestre : One of the most renowned French conductors of the last century, Serge Baudo appears with the OSM on December 13 and 14, conducting Schubert’s Fifth Symphony and Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane. Violinist Corinne Chapelle, winner of the 2006 International Music Competition in Montreal, will join the orchestra to perform Dvorák’s stunningly lyrical Violin Concerto in A minor.

Musique de Noël / Musique vocale: Soprano Marie-Josée Lord sings Christmas songs with the orchestra on December 15 and 16 at the magnificent Notre Dame Basilica. Nathan Brock conducts.

Musique de chambre : Le 17 décembre, vous pourrez entendre l’Ensemble Magellan, musiciens résidents à la Chapelle, dans des œuvres de Bach, Reger et Schumann. L’ensemble est composé du violoniste Olivier Thouin, de l’altiste Yukari Cousineau, du violoncelliste Yégor Dyachkov et du pianiste Jean Saulnier. Concerts gratuits. Laissez-passer disponibles. 514-872-5338

Jazz : Ven. 18, sam. 19 » Trio Lorraine Desmarais. Upstairs Jazz Bar. (20 h 30) —Marc Chenard

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Conspirare Celebrates Thoughtful Christmas in Texas

I must confess that I have a soft spot for thematic concerts; for while I admire virtuosity and outstanding musicality as much as anyone, I also want to see that performers have taken the trouble to do their homework, and that they have considered the intellectual implications of what they are presenting to the public. Choral conductor Craig Hella Johnson has practically written the book on how this should be done and his Christmas at the Carillon program, 2009 edition, featuring the choral group known as Conspirare, was just the latest chapter.

Before I talk about the performance I heard, some clarification may be useful. This concert was not “at the Carillon”, but at the Long Centre for the Performing Arts - seating 2400 - in downtown Austin, Texas. The Carillon is a small chapel - seating approximately 150 - in west Austin where Conspirare regularly presents some of its Christmas concerts.

Interweaving of Familiar and Unfamiliar Constructs Message

If I tell you that this concert included some familiar Christmas carols, I would be giving you information that is almost beside the point. What made this concert memorable was not so much the familiar but the unfamiliar music presented, and even more importantly, the way in which music and text were woven together over the course of the evening.

Craig Hella Johnson (photo: right) had an overarching concept for this concert. It was basically quite simple in its message: souls losing their way, lost in darkness, finding the light and achieving happiness. This simple message, however, was carefully constructed and delivered in the most non-confrontational and non-denominational way possible; he let the words and the music speak for themselves.

While there was a certain low-key sameness about the pieces chosen, ennui was avoided by mixing musical and textual genres. The work of ‘classical’ composers like Stephen Paulus, Handel and John Rutter was mixed with pop music by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Stevie Wonder, Broadway music by Lerner and Loewe and gospel music - ancient and modern. Patrice Pike, a popular Texas rock star, was a featured guest artist on the program.

What I liked most about the pop music, was the way in which Johnson stripped these songs of their high decibels and ubiquitous guitars and percussion, and so revealed the beauty and meaning of the words and the originality of the melodies.

In all this music, the twenty-three members of Conspirare – from the Latin “con” and “spirare” rendered as “to breathe together” – demonstrated their extraordinary skills as both soloists and choral artists.

Speaking of Light...and Togetherness

Johnson had obviously been preparing this concert for a long time and had considered every detail. Well, almost every detail. It was a fine idea to present the concert not only without intermission, but also without any breaks for applause until the mid-point. It was also a fine idea to provide the audience with the complete text for every piece performed – that’s twenty pages of text! Much of the text is beautiful and thoughtful poetry that must be seen and not just heard to be appreciated, but somebody dropped the ball and in so doing undermined much of what Craig Hella Johnson had so carefully planned: the house lights were turned off for the entire concert! There was no way members of the audience could read the program.

There is another element that unfortunately limited the impact of Johnson’s vision on this occasion. This was an intimate program, featuring mostly quiet and thoughtful music. In the small but resonant confines of the Carillon chapel, my guess is that the audience would have felt enveloped by the music and the whole experience. The Long Center, on the other hand, is dry as a bone and its very nature is to distance performers and audience from each other.

Naturally, performers always want to reach larger audiences, but sometimes enlarging the space diminishes the experience. Christmas at the Carillon might work in a space as large as the Long Center, but Johnson will have to make some adjustments. Perhaps more amplification and perhaps more instrumentalists would help. In the larger space the meditative quality of text and music can be easily lost.

I also felt that at times the concert came perilously close to new age blandness. Again, this was largely a function of the large hall. In this space Johnson might consider adding some more rousing pieces, spoken readings and a touch of humor now and again.

A case in point: Johnson chose to end the concert with a dream sequence version of “I could have danced all night” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Bits of this familiar song were interwoven with Christmas words and music and elements of what had come before in the concert. It seemed to me, however, that what was needed was more like the original version of “I could have danced all night” with its ecstatic celebration of love and joy.

Johnson ended this concert with a sort of bittersweet smile when a joyous outburst might have sent the audience away feeling rejuvenated.

Conspirare CD Nominated for Grammy Award

Being the thoughtful and creative man that he is, I am sure Craig Hella Johnson has already begun processing the results of this year’s Christmas at the Carillon and that he will soon begin building an even deeper and more multi-faceted program for 2010.

Conspirare is already one of the finest and innovative choral ensembles in the country and with Johnson at the helm, its reputation can only continue to grow. Anyone wanting to know what the excitement is about, should investigate Conspirare’s most recent CD, Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907534), which was just nominated for a Grammy in the category “Best Classical Crossover Album”. This concert is also available on DVD (Harmonia Mundi HMD 9907535).

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Violinist cranks up boldness from cold to hot

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Italian violinist Stefano Montanari took some big risks with Tafelmusik while playing one of the most well known classical music repertoires at Toronto’s George Weston Recital Hall Tuesday night.

In an all-Italian program, guest soloist and conductor Montanari ventured his way through Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with choices of tempo, phrasing and articulation that were original and charismatic but at times bordering on odd.

Based on four sonnets to the seasons, The Four Seasons is programmatic music at its most extreme. The famous solo violin birdcall in the opening Spring, for example, was played by Montanari with such liberty that the “cheerful song” referenced in the sonnet sounded so refreshing and yet dreadfully fragmented at the same time.

That being said, Montanari worked like a magician on stage, making seamless and breathtaking linkage through the four seasons. His transformative and carefully thought-through interpretation was strikingly bold, complete with killer trills and shocking glissandi.

The other half of the program featured three little-known string sonatas by three of Vivaldi’s Venetian contemporaries — Baldassare Galuppi, Tomaso Albinoni, and Giuseppe Tartini. Here, Montanari displayed a masterful understanding of Baroque music and brought forward the pieces with oh so much charm, zing, and fun.

Tafelmusik’s playing was crisp and full of life. Under Montanari’s leadership, the orchestra produced some of its finest ensemble work ever heard live.

While Montanari was an entertainer whose untucked shirt and buckled boots provided him the flexibility to dance around in circles, Tafelmusik kept things grounded with its commanding presence.


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Monday, December 7, 2009

Elisabeth Soderstrom Remembered

An early portrait from 1957 of Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom

Remembering Elisabeth Soderstrom (May 7, 1927 - November 20, 2009)

Joseph K. So

With the recent passing of Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom, the opera world has lost one of the most beloved artists of the latter half of the 20th century, a singer celebrated for her beauty of voice, uncommon musicality, dramatic acuity and luminous stage presence, attributes she brought to all her performances spanning a remarkable 52 years.

Born Elisabeth Anna Soderstrom in Stockholm, she studied at the Swedish Royal Academy of Music and made her stage debut in 1947 at the Drottningholm Court Theatrre. She joined the Royal Swedish Opera two years later, and began appearing internationally in the 1950's, including the Metropolitan Opera where she debuted in 1959. From the mid 60's to the mid 70's, she restricted her appearances to opera houses and concert stages closer to her home in Sweden, where she raised her three sons with her husband Sverker Olow, a naval officer. She returned to North America in the mid 70's with a new repertoire, most notable for her portrayals of the Janacek heroines, often under the baton of conductor and Janacek specialist Charles Mackerras. Soderstrom also returned to the Met in 1983, singing Leonore, the Countess and the Marschallin, the last role many thought would be her farewell at the Met in 1987. But she surprised and delighted her fans when she came out of retirement in 1999 to appear as the Old Countess in Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame, her last complete operatic role. In the 1990's, Soderstrom focused on stage direction and frequently appeared on Swedish television. From 1993 to 1996, she served as the director of the Drottningholm Court Theatre where she made her debut almost fifty years earlier.

Soderstrom began her career as a light lyric soprano - an ideal Susanna, Adina, Marguerite, Musetta, Sophie, and Melisande. With the passage of time, the voice darkened and she took on full lyric roles such as the Countess and Butterfly. Her slim figure also made her highly believable in trouser roles and she was in demand as Octavian. In fact, she was one of the few sopranos who sang all three female principal roles in Der Rosenkavalier. By the mid 1970s, her venture into the Slavic roles was met with great acclaim. She became a celebrated Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, and Emilia Marty, all of these roles were committed to disc for Decca with conductor Mackerras. Soderstrom even took on Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio in the later years of her career. This role taxed her essentially lyric instrument, but the intensity and commitment of her portrayal was memorable.

On a personal level, I had the great good fortune of catching Soderstrom many times, including a wonderful concert Tatiana from Eugene Onegin, an alluring Hanna Glawari from Merry Widow for the Canadian Opera, and two recitals of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky songs. I remember vividly one time at a recital at St. Andrew's Church in Toronto, she forgot the words to one of the songs. Instead of getting flustered, she charmed the audience when she quipped - "the last time I sang this, I couldn't remember it either!" I also recall her Four Last Songs in Paris in 1986 - perhaps not note-perfect as she was past her best vocally, but her artistry remained intact. The most unforgettable Soderstrom experience was her Marschallin opposite the Octavian of Frederica von Stade and the Sophie of Kathleen Battle with the Met on tour in Cleveland. Her warm and highly nuanced portrayal as the Princess of Wurtemberg will remain forever be etched in memory. The last time I heard her was as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at the Met in 1987, when the voice was not what it used to be but I found her interpretation extremely moving. Soderstrom died on November 20 from complications following a stroke. She is survived by her husband Sverker Olow and their three sons.


Ensemble Caprice performs Bach’s Mass in B Minor

By Hannah Rahimi

On Thursday night, the old Darling Foundry was packed to the brim to see Ensemble Caprice perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor as part of the Montreal Bach Festival. An abandoned factory in Old Montreal, the Foundry was an innovative venue choice. With its exposed brick walls, the hall was resonant, perfectly suited to choral sonorities although at times muddying the solos and the period instruments. It is interesting to listen to such deeply religious works as the Mass in B Minor in a context entirely removed from the church; the secular modernity of the Darling Foundry highlighted this contrast between cathedral and concert hall.

Led by Matthias Maute, Ensemble Caprice gave a compelling performance. The opening Kyrie displayed the power and beauty of the evening’s highlight: the twenty-three piece chorus, who sang with passionate, exuberant conviction throughout the work. Impressive orchestral soloists included Scott Wevers (horn), Olivier Brault (violin), Matthew Jennejohn (oboe), and Sophie Larivière (flute). Tenor Michiel Schrey sang simply and sublimely in the Benedictus, a duet with flutist Larivière. The pure-voiced countertenor Pascal Bertin followed with a pleading and moving Agnus Dei.

An energetic conductor, Maute made some unusual tempo choices, starting slower than usual in the Kyrie and galloping through the Gloria. The faster tempos that scattered the mass seemed a bit frenzied, and the singers and orchestra struggled to keep it together. However, perhaps these tempos were meant to enliven and refresh the over 250-year-old work, along with some startling articulation and phrasing. Overall, Maute and his musicians conveyed the divine sounds of Bach with an original interpretation, reaching moments of sublime beauty.


Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin closes The Montreal Bach Festival

By Hannah Rahimi

The Montreal Bach Festival concluded on Saturday, December 5 with a concert featuring the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, one of the world's most highly regarded baroque ensembles.

The Notre Dame Basilica was an unfortunate choice acoustically, as the massive hall often swallowed up the sound of the small, thirteen-member ensemble. However, bad acoustics, a fidgety audience and the rumbling sounds of what appeared to be distant fireworks did little to detract from the impact of the Akademie’s performance. The orchestra presented works by Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi with evident love for the baroque repertoire, each instrumentalist moving to the music with joyful ease. The musicians played with a unity of vision and an elegant precision, as well as proving that it is possible for baroque instruments to play perfectly in tune.

Flutist Christoph Huntgeburth approached Telemann’s Concerto in D major with a delicate but assured sense of style, impressive articulation and a beautifully clear tone. Violinists Midori Seiler and Georg Kallweit performed Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, floating through the Largo ma non tanto in a simple, understated fashion that served to bring out the inherent beauty in the composition.

This was a memorable concert to close the Bach Festival, showing audiences what ensembles of the highest musicianship can achieve.


This Week in Toronto (December 7 - 13)

White Pine Pictures promotional image of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, a new documentary by Canadian filmmakers Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2009

In my haste to post last week's blog entry which was already late, I forgot to mention the Toronto screening of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, the new documentary on this most enigmatic of Canadian cultural icon by filmmakers Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont. I attended the second screening last Thursday at the Royal in downtown Toronto. The filmmakers were there to introduce the documentary, as was Professor Mark Kingwell, who penned the newest Glenn Gould book, as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series on Penguin Books. Gould has been an endless subject of scholarly and popular works, and this film goes a long way in answering some of the many questions about Gould the man, with all his complexities and eccentricities. The film was screened at the TIFF last September. The filmmaker Michele Hozer mentioned at last Thursday's screening that it will be shown on many arts channels, including Arte in Europe and PBS in the United States. The screenings in Toronto ended yesterday, but you can still catch it in Waterloo (Jan. 27-28), Ottawa (Feb. 3), Barrie (Feb. 6 - 8), and Collingwood (March 29). I understand the film is not yet available on DVD, but I imagine it will be at some point after its run of international screenings are completed. Highly recommended.

A main interest this week is the world premiere of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra's co-commissioned piece, The Four Seasons by composer Philip Glass. This intriguing new work is billed as Glass's re-imagining of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Also on the program is Beethoven Symphony No. 6, 'Pastoral'. Two performances on the 9th (8pm) and 12th (7:30pm). The Saturday 12th show is a "casual concert", without an intermission and with lobby entertainment after the show.

Of course the season of Christmas choral music is just beginning. There are multiple offerings on each day of the week, so I won't try to be comprehensive about this! On Wednesday December 9 at the Yorkminster Baptist Church on Yonge Street is Mendelssohn Choir's Ceremony of Carols, featuring Judy Loman (harp). On Thursday at the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York, it's the Toronto Philharmonia and their Carol for Christmas -rather clever play on words I thought - with jazz vocalist Carol Welsman. On Friday, December 11 (2 shows 4 and 8pm), you can catch the Moscow Boys Choir in Christmas Around the World at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts. Or you can choose to attend Oakville Choral Society's performance of Vivali's Gloria at the Glen Abbey United Church at 7:30 pm. There are at least two Messiahs this week, one presented by the Brott Musical Festival at the St. Christopher Anglican Church in Burlington on Saturday December 12 at 7:30 pm. The second one is The Dublin Messiah, presented in its "original version" by conductor Kevin Mallon and his Aradia Ensemble at the Glenn Gould Studio on Saturday, December 12 8 pm. Soloists are Laura Albino, Marion Newman, Nils Brown and Sean Watson.

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La Scala Opens with the Rape of Carmen

By Giuseppe Pennisi

La Scala traditionally inaugurates its season on December 7th, St. Ambrose’s Day (Patron of Milan, where he was Bishop in the Third Century C.E). It is a national affairs attended by the Head of State, several Cabinet Ministers, many industrialists and financiers in black ties and ladies showing their best evening dress and jewels. This year, tickets are set at € 2,400 in the orchestra section or in the central part of the tiers of boxes. They are often paid by companies sponsoring the event as well as by a few tourists (Americans and Germans) flown to Milan by opera travel companies. The performance starts at 6 p.m. (not the usual 8 p.m.) to allow for lavish after-theatre dinners. The most important takes place in Palazzo Marino (Milan City Hall, just across the street from La Scala) where only 600 fortunate people can be invited for an elegant sit-down affair. To make the performance accessible to a larger audience, there was a preview for young people “under 30” on December 4th; some 180 journalists were invited. Also, the December 7th première is shown live on an international pay-tv channel and in 100 movie theatres all over Europe (and some other continents).

Whilst many Italian opera houses open their seasons with either a new or rarely performed opera, La Scala’s St. Ambrose tradition is to offer a new production of a well-known opera. The expectation is that the production would be “extraordinary” and “exemplary.” In short, the intention is that this should not be an “ordinary” production as can be seen and listened to in other theatres, but that it should set a standard.

This year, Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most frequently performed operas all over the world, was chosen for the event. It was offered in the Robert Didion’s critical edition –viz., with spoken parts not rearranged and set to music by Ernest Guiraut (as it has been the tradition for nearly a century). In short, the production was etymologically “extraordinary”, but not “exemplary” (as discussed below).

Stage direction was entrusted to Emma Dante, a whiz kid of Italian experimental theatre. The stage sets were the responsibility of the more seasoned Richard Peduzzi (the author of the 1976 fabulous Bayreuth Chéreau-Boulez Ring). The action is set in a town resembling today’s distressed districts of Palermo rather than 19th Century Seville: for instance, in the Second Act, Lilla Pastia’s tavern looks like Palermo’s remains of the Chiesa della Madonna dello Spasimo. There is a large number of extras (mimes, dancers). The stage is also crowed by religious symbols (priests, nuns, choir boys and crosses are nearly always in the midst of the action). Emma Dante sees Carmen not as a tragedy of passion, sex and dissolution, but as a tale of violence against women. In Act I, even pregnant women workers of the cigar factory are brutally beaten up by the police. In Act IV, Carmen is raped on stage by Don José whilst the always present crowd of choir boys, priests, nuns and simple city people stand still watching the action and waiting for the corrida to end. Rape seems to be the trademark of this La Scala season. Including Carmen, nine of the 12 operas in the program will involve rape. The outcome of this violent Carmen is a passionless and sexless production.

Musically, the performance is much better, thanks mostly to Maestro Daniel Barenboim and to La Scala’s magnificent orchestra. Maestro Barenboim stretches the tempos (the performance lasts four hours with two intermissions) making for a round sound from the orchestra and leaves room to the single instrumentalists – memorable the flute in the introduction to the Third Act. Maestro Barenboim’s Carmen has the right musical tinta of a mythical Spain as perceived by a foreign musician. Also, the singers are kept under tight check. Erwin Schrott and Jonas Kaufmann are both experienced Escamillo and Don José. Before the opening night, in an interview Kaufmann expressed his reservations about the production and called sick in the December 4th preview; his 2006 DVD with Caterina Antonacci, under the baton of Maestro Antonio Pappano and with the stage direction of Francesca Zambello, shows what he is able to do within an appropriate production. In Milan his Carmen is Anita Rachvelishvili, just graduated from the Accademia della Scala (the opera house’s music school). She is attractive and has great acting abilities, but needs more vocal maturity; in the “Habanera”, the alternation between D minor and D major were colorless. However, she improved as the performance went on.

Adriana Damata (Micaela) is a recent graduate too; she is a lyric soprano with a clear timbre but a small voice. She struggles in her Act III aria with La Scala’s huge auditorium and poor acoustics. The rest of the cast is good (especially Michèle Losier and Adriana Kučerová). The French pronunciation of most of the singers is acceptable.

A final comment, Kaufmann is covered by Riccardo Massi, another young graduate from Accademia della Scala and engaged to marry Rachvelishvili. He sang the Don José role on December 4th. Couldn’t La Scala find a more experienced “cover” for a repertory opera like Carmen? Mr. Massi was burned-out by such an early exposure to the audience; he has a poor timbre and had difficulties in nearly all his arias. He might have a good career with more study and experience in easier roles; let’s forget and forgive this poor start.

Performances are scheduled until December 23th and from October 29 to November 18, 2010. Most likely, the same production will be seen in Berlin, at the Staatsoper unter den Linden.


4*, 7, 10, 13, 15, 18, 20, 23 dicembre 2009


Opéra-comique in quattro atti


su libretto di Henri Meilhac e Ludovic Halévy
dalla novella di Prosper Mérimée

Prima rappresentazione: Parigi, Opéra-Comique, 3 marzo 1875

(Edizione critica di Robert Didion - Copyright e edizione Schott Musik, Mainz;
Sub-Editore per l’Italia Casa Musicale Sonzogno di Piero Ostali, Milano)

Nuova produzione Teatro alla Scala

Regia e costumi EMMA DANTE



Personaggi e interpreti principali

Don José Jonas Kaufmann (Riccardo Massi on Dec 4th)

Escamillo Erwin Schrott

Le Dancaïre Francis Dudziac

Le Remendado Rodolphe Briand

Moralès Mathias Hausmann

Zuniga Gabor Bretz

Carmen Anita Rachvelishvili

Micaëla Adriana Damato

Frasquita Michèle Losier

Mercédès Adriana Kučerová

Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala

Maestro del Coro BRUNO CASONI

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14th Le Gala Delivers Vocal Delights

by Wah Keung Chan

It’s a credit to the depth of Canada’s vocal talent that Montreal Opera’s 14th annual Le Gala succeeded yesterday afternoon with an all-Canadian cast. Twenty-eight singers and full opera chorus treated the capacity crowd of 2800 to 35 operatic solos, ensembles and chorus lasting over four pleasure-filled hours (including a 35-minute intermission). With a predominantly local cast, there were no cancellations and only Lyne Fortin was announced as indisposed, but she still agreed to perform.

There were many high points starting with Gregory Dahl’s impressive and moving Rigoletto Act II aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.” Dahl’s baritone had previously impressed in Montreal Opera’s season opener where his double performance as Tonio in Pagliacci and Schicchi in Gianni Schicchi revealed in him Canada’s next great Verdian baritone. Ample tone and impeccable legato are the order for a great Verdian baritone, and Dahl’s performance of the Rigoletto aria and the famous “Te Deum” from Tosca did not disappoint. Soprano Marianne Fiset brought beautiful legato and heart felt feeling to Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. Montreal native mezzo-soprano Nora Sourouzian’s Act I aria from Carmen was sung with beautifully projected voice and professional presence; my only complaint is that she was only asked to sing this short aria. Let’s hope Sourouzian, who has been away from Montreal for ten years and now makes Switzerland home, would be brought back soon. The revelation of the evening was Layla Claire’s touching and vulnerable performance of “Adieu notre petite table” from Massenet’s Manon; her perfect technique allowed her voice to swell and bloom. Aaron St. Clair Nicholson’s engaging voice and presence (including a cell phone and juggling schtick) in the Barber of Seville aria “Largo al factotum” brought the house down. Soprano Aline Kutan’s performance of solo and duet from Lakmé proved again that she’s Canada’s top coloratura. Coloratura soprano Raphaëlle Paquette also acquitted herself well in an aria from Thomas’s Mignon.

The Gala also revealed that recent graduates of the Montreal Opera’s Apprenticeship program have matured and are ready to join the solo ranks. Baritone Etienne Dupuis showed a solid clear voice in his noble performance of Valentine’s aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Gounod’s Faust. Bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre’s rendition of “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser had a fine legato and evenness of tone. Baritone Phillip Addis demonstrated a well-projected voice in a boring aria from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. Top marks also for soprano Marianne Lambert, tenor Antoine Bélanger, who is showing an Italianated tenor voice, and current Atelier Lyrique member Caroline Bleau who exceeded expectations in her Traviata duet with veteran baritone Gaétan Laperrière. Other noteworthy veterans included Annamaria Popescu, Lyne Fortin and Marc Hervieux, who gave a preview of “Le vaisseau d’or” from the upcoming Spring performance of Nelligan. Conductor Alain Trudel and the Orchestre Métropolitain provided fine support throughout, and the chorus was excellent in their three pieces.

In the first half, Le Gala showcased the three winners of the Montreal Opera’s amateur competition Apéro à l’Opéra: mezzo Lise Brunelle, and sopranos Sophie Lemaire and Annie Sanschagrin. Based on the performances heard yesterday, there was no clear cut winner; after intermission, Montreal Opera artistic director Michel Beaulac announced Sanschagrin as the grand winner, with her prize, the performance of a duet (with tenor David Pomeroy) and Vissi d’arte at the end of the February 13 performance of Tosca.

The Gala began with a touching tribute to the late Father Lindsay who was inducted into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame. The homage would have been perfect had the organizers prepared a video presentation, an element sadly missing every year.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Disappointments include not hearing in solo mezzo Stephanie Marshall, another Canadian who has been making a name for herself in Europe, and why were Fiset and Addis not given arias different from the roles they just performed with the Montreal Opera. Also, missing this year were large female voices, as Canada seems to be following the world shortage in Verdian spinto sopranos. Otherwise, kudos to Beaulac for the fine programming.

Addendum: Le Gala was recorded by Espace musique and will be broadcast on Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. on the program l'Opéra du samedi hosted by Sylvia L'Écuyer, and will be issued on CD by ATMA Classique on January 30, 2010.

See also
> Earlier comments on the La SCENA Twitter Page
> Review in Montreal Gazette
> Review in La Presse (in French)
> Review in Resmusica (in French)

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