Rare Russian Opera Performed in Barcelona

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April 20, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun; (c) A. Bofill

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SpainSpain Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesz:, Liceu’s Orchestra and Chorus, Josep Pons (conductor), Liceu, Barcelona, 16.4.2014 (JMI)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is an important figure in the history of opera, both for his own works and for his orchestration of works by other composers. Rarely performed outside Russia, this opera retells the legend of the medieval city of Kitesz which escaped Tartar attack through the intervention of the Maiden Fevronia. With her prayers she ensured that God would make the city invisible to the invading Tartars. The plot hardly justifies three hours of music, and the few times I’ve seen the opera performed it has always seemed to me too long, especially the last scene in which Fevronia reaches celestial glory.To dedicate no less than twenty minutes of music to this scene is excessive and almost tiring.
Liceu has mounted a new production by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov, whose work here I found quite surprising, as if he had been converted to classicism after passing through what has been called the Regiekonzept and its excesses. He brings the action into modern times but narrates the story with huge respect for the libretto. In my opinion it is somewhat surprising that these modern Tartars have to resort to traitors to find the way to Kitesz. It’s not difficult to understand it in the Middle Ages, but today we all use GPS and mapping has advanced dramatically.
Mr. Tcherniakov is also responsible for the sets. The design is quite attractive in the first and final acts: a beautiful forest (greeted with spontaneous applause from the audience) that reflects Fevronia’s love for nature, and is the place where she will die. The sets in the other two acts are less attractive ? a bar in Act II and a kind of hospital in Act III. Mr. Tcherniakov confronts two opposite worlds here, the world of respect for nature, represented by Fevronia; and the world of human selfishness, represented by both Tartars and Russians. Apart from some incidental excess, there were no provocative details, and Mr. Tcherniakov did great work on stage with both chorus and extras.
I had no big expectations of Josep Pons at the podium since he has little experience in Russian opera, but his conducting was adequate and at times quite good, especially in the final act. The orchestra offered a solid performance, while the chorus was at their usual excellent level.
The cast featured a group of singers familiar with the opera. I missed hearing more important singers in the main roles, with the exception of Prince Yuri who was played by the only non-Russian in the main quartet of singers.
The protagonist, Fevronia, was sung by Svetlana Ignatovich, who offered a very convincing interpretation on stage though less so vocally. Her voice has a certain appeal in the center, not too big in volume, but it falls short on lower notes and is rather tight at the top where the timbre is unattractive.
The character of Grishka Kuterma is a real draw for any tenor, offering ample opportunities to act and to sing. Dmitry Golovnin did well on the acting, but vocally he offered a not particularly attractive and somewhat reduced voice.
Maxim Aksenov performed well as Prince Vsevolod. His voice is not very important although his vocal characteristics are well suited to the character. Eric Halfvarson as Prince Yuri offered the best voice in the cast, but he does not appear on stage until the third act of the opera.
The secondary characters were very well cast. One should note the presence of a sound Dimitris Tiliakos as Fiodor; Vladimir Ognovenko as an excellent Burandai; and Alexander Tsymbaliuk as a remarkable Bediai. Maria Gortsevskaya gave a strong performance as Prince Yuri’s page, and veteran Gennadi Bezzubenkov, Prince Yuri in the Mariinsky for many years, was a luxury as the Gusli Player. Of the two birds, the one announcing death (Alkonost), played by Margarita Nekrasova, was better than the bird anouncing eternity (Sirin), played by Larisa Yudina.

New Production:
Liceu with Nederlandse Opera and Teatro alla Scala
Direction and sets: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes: Elena Zaitseva and Dmitri Tcherniakov
Lighting: Gleb Filschtinsky
Cast:
Fevronia. Svetlana Ignatovich
Grischka: Dmitry Golovnin
Prince Yuri: Eric Halfvarson
Vsevolod: Maxim Aksenov
Fiodor: Dimitris Tiliakos
Burundai: Vladimir Ognovenko
Bedia: Alexander Tsymbaliuk
P.Yuri’s Page: Maria Gortsevskaya
Gusli Player: Gennadi Bezzubenkov
Sirin: Larisa Yudina
Alkonost: Margarita Nekrasova
Nobles: Josep Fadó and Alex Sanmartí

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Placido Domingo at His Most Convincing in Simon Boccanegra

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March 31, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun

SpainSpain Verdi: Simon Boccanegra, Orchestra Comunitat Valenciana, Chorus Generalitat Valenciana, Evelino Pidò (conductor), Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts, 27.3.2014 (JMI).

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Valencia’s regular opera season comes to an end with this Verdi opera. However, there is the upcoming Mediterranean Festival in June which will feature performances of La Forza del Destino and Turandot under the baton of Zubin Mehta. I will not miss the appointment.
This production of Simon Boccanegra premiered in March 2007 under Lluis Pascual. I could not see it at the time and therefore can’t tell whether it has aged well or not, but it is not an interesting production, much less a brilliant one. Everything takes place in dark environments with the somber sea aways present at the back of the stage. It’s a minimalist production with an almost bare stage except for some stands for the Council scene and some mirrors for the Grimaldi mansion in the first act. Costumes respond to the historical era of the action, but they’re not the best work that I have seen from Franca Squarciapino.
The stage direction is unconvincing. The chorus is static on stage and only a few extras occasionally make some movement. The direction of the actors is quite basic and characters like Paolo or Gabriele Adorno are rather colorless; obviously, Superman Domingo does not need to be told what to do in his character. The pivotal scene of the Council was too flat.
This opera in the revised 1881 version has always held great appeal for the top conductors, and there are good reasons for this. The scene of the Council, to which I referred above, and the last act are among the best by Verdi. A great conductor is needed to do justice to this score, and I’ll only refer to three of them. First, there’s the great Claudio Abbado, to whose memory these performances in Valencia are dedicated; through his version I discovered and learned to love this splendid opera. Then there is Riccardo Muti, a Verdi conductor par excellence in recent years, whose reading of Boccanegra reaches sublime heights. Finally, I would mention Christian Thielemann, who rarely conducts the Italian repertoire but has chosen to do this opera next June in Dresden.
Simon Boccanegra is more than an opera: it’s a fundamental work by Giuseppe Verdi and requires a top conductor. Evelino Pidò is one of the best specialists in the bel canto repertoire, but this opera, especially in the final version, falls clearly after that period and enters more deeply into what we can call drama in music. Mr. Pidò’s reading here was insufficient to the demands of the score. Everything was controlled, everything in its place, but there was no dramatic strength, and it seemed more Donizetti than Verdi. The first part of the opera was particularly bland; things improved in the second half, but his conducting never flew high. The orchestra gave a decent performance, but I have seen better work from this excellent group.
Doge Boccanegra was played by Plácido Domingo, who made his debut in the character four years ago. I was impressed then ? how could the 69-year-old singer offer such intensity as a performer and such an exceptional vocal freshness ?? and I now have to repeat myself. He is a true miracle of nature, difficult to understand and even more difficult to see repeated. Still, he’s a tenor, as he himself knows perfectly and at no point pretends otherwise, singing in a very natural way. I found his voice has darkened somewhat over the last years and the low notes now sound better than four years ago. What has not changed is the freshness of his timbre and the strength of his performance. Physically, he is in exceptional shape; I prefer not to think what might happen to me if I tried to emulate the death scene with that fall on stage.
One can’t really compare him with the great Simons from the past or with the very few outstanding performers today: Plácido Domingo creates his own interpretation and he is most convincing. Great singers have always been scarce and great artists even more so. He is one of the very few in opera history who is both.
Soprano Guanqun Yu was back in Valencia in the role of Amelia Grimaldi. As on previous occasions, she offered a large and atttractive voice but rather impersonal singing.
Bass Vitalij Kowaljow gave a solid interpretation of Jacopo Fiesco. The current panorama of bass singers is dreadful, so it is not surprising that he has become one of the most sought-after performers today. One missed here a more important voice and a more important lower register, but there are not many alternatives.
Tenor Ivan Magri as Gabriele Adorno exhibited both the positive qualities and the defects one has experienced in the past. His tenor is attractive, but his singing is somewhat expressionless and monotonous.
Gevork Hakobyan was Paolo Albiani, and he was no more than serviceable. Sergey Artamonov was a luxury in the part of Pietro.

Cast:
Simon Boccanegra: Plácido Domingo
Amelia Grimaldi. Guanqun Yu
Jacopo Fiesco: Vitalij Kowaljow
Gabriele Adorno: Ivan Magri
Paolo Albiani: Gevorg Hakobyan
Pietro: Serguei Artamonov
Captain: Valentino Buzza
Maid: Chiara Osella

Production: Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts
Direction: Lluis Pascual (original)
Leo Castaldi (revival)
Sets: Ezio Frigerio
Costumes: Franca Squarciapino
Lighting: Albert Faura

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Tosca Times 3 in Barcelona

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March 22, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun

SpainSpain Puccini: Tosca, Liceu’s Orchestra and Chorus, Paolo Carignani (conductor), Barcelona’s Liceu, 17,18 & 19.3.2014 (JMI)
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Tosca Barcelona (c) A Bofill

Barcelona’s Liceu has scheduled fifteen performances of Tosca with three different casts that have to be considered as alternatives since the price of seats is the same for all of them. Judging from this sales policy, it could be assumed that the main star is Tosca herself.
Ten years after the controversial production by Robert Carsen, Liceu has commissioned a new production from Paco Azorin, a well-known theater director in Spain, who has worked as an opera set designer for directors such as Mario Gas and Lluis Pasqual. Azorin does a fairly traditional job in terms of sets and costumes, but the aesthetic interest of the production decreases from act to act. There is an attractive scene of Sant’Andrea della Valle, featuring an altarpiece whose figures are video projections. Palazzo Farnese is just the back of that altarpiece with a pretty bare Scarpia’s office and the rather strange presence of a prison at the right of the stage. In the last act we move to the roof of the prison, where Cavaradossi wanders and where finally he will be executed.
Paco Azorin provides his personal touches, but they are not too successful. At the beginning of Acts I and III he includes a number of extras who accompany Angelotti and Tosca to the church and prison respectively. The first two acts are fairly traditional, although it’s odd that Tosca shakes hands with the prisoners after killing Scarpia, whom she kisses goodbye as well. The last act is the most confusing, with a change of dress by Tosca in prison and the action transferred to the roof of the building.
Paolo Carignani’s conducting was satisfying, with adequate tempos and good care taken of the sound coming from the pit. There was tension and dramatic sense and, overall, I found his reading rewarding. The orchestra continues to improve, which is good news.
Sondra Radvanovsky, the first Tosca, was quite convincing. Her dark timbre is very attractive, and the size of her voice is second to none. Her very important middle range is not an obstacle to a glorious top register. However, I found her low notes weaker than before. She got the biggest applause of the three performances at her “Vissi d’ Arte.”
Martina Serafin was a convincing Tosca on stage but less so vocally. She has no problems while the tessitura stays in the center, but her timbre changes color for the worse on the high notes.
I found Fiorenza Cedolins improved from the last time I saw her on stage. Her middle range is now richer with bigger volume and consistency, but her low notes are still insufficient and the upper area has not recovered the brightness she had in the past. She was a good Tosca, although not the exceptional Tosca of some twelve years ago.
Jorge De León was the first Cavaradossi. There is no doubt that his voice is very important and one of the most attractive today in the big repertoire, but he tends to sing mostly forte. If he seemed to me somewhat superficial, Alfred Kim was even more so with the difference that De León’s voice is more attractive. Alfred Kim has no problems of tessitura, and his high notes are like trumpet blasts and always in full voice. His interpretation of “E lucevan le stelle” was a real display of decibels. Finally, we had Italian tenor Andrea Caré in the third cast, and overall he made a good impression. His voice is suited to the character, but his biggest handicap is his forced top notes which give the impression he doesn’t feel safe up there.
Ambrogio Maestri was an excellent Scarpia on stage although I prefer a darker voice in this evil character. He is one of the best Scarpias around, but I prefer him in characters such as Falstaff or Dulcamara. Scott Hendricks was a convincing Scarpia on stage and very nuanced in his singing, but his baritone is not particularly attractive and the size of his voice is limited. Vittorio Vitelli was a very modest Scarpia; in fact, his voice was smaller than Sciarrone’s. I do not understand his presence in this house.
The secondary characters were rather mixed, with an excellent Sacristan from Valeriano Lanchas.

New Production: Gran Teatre del Liceu in co-production with Seville’s Maestranza
Direction: Paco Azorín
Sets: Paco Azorín
Costume: Isidro Prunés
Lighting: Pascal Mérat
Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky/ Martina Serafín/Fiorenza Cedolins
Cavaradossi: Jorge De León/Alfred Kim/Andrea Caré
Scarpia: Ambrogio Maestri/Scott Hendricks/Vittorio Vitelli
Angelotti: Vladimir Baykov/Alessandro Guerzoni
Sacristan: Valeriano Lanchas
Spoletta: Francisco Vas/José Manuel Zapata
Sciarrone: Manel Esteve
Jailer: Dimitar Darlev/Pierpaolo Palloni
Shepherd: Elena Copons

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