Archive for February, 2010

La Traviata – an Italian take on the early 70-ties

February 28, 2010

An example of a well-modernized Traviata is the production of Robert Carsen, Conductor: Lorin Maazel, Violetta: Patrizia Ciofi Alfredo: Roberto Sacca; Germont: Alfredo’s father: Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

It was staged in Venice, in the theatre La Fenice where this opera had its première. It is fitted into the late 60s or early 70s, which is consistently reflected in the decor, costumes, hairstyles, etc. A creative playground for any production of Traviata is to see what they have done out of the gypsy song and matador dance. This Traviata is a wonderful counterpart to the famous film La Dolce Vita. (This film should be a part of the mandatory curriculum in schools if we as a species intend to have art survive in the post-industrial era). Mr. Carsen gives us a superb Las Vegas-burlesque, unbuttoned, liberally choreographed show on stage as his rendition of the gypsy and matador songs. It is perhaps more liberal than what taste would permit on the American continent even a few decades later. (May we be reminded that the “Last Tango in Paris” was over the limits of permissible freedom for the North American censors). This of course does not matter a bit for the smooth flow of this effervescent gig. I read somewhere that the theme of this Traviata is money. It would be an unfair simplification. It is much more than that. It is a testimony of an era the main feature of which may be social and sexual liberation and a sobering truth that some other old underlying laws remain in full effect. This Violetta is not a prostitute in a vulgar sense; socially she may well be an upscale woman, a star on the rise in an artistic field, or simply an aspiring young woman who does escort service as a part-time boost to her otherwise slim revenues. Maybe she has to pay the rent to be able to have this big chance in her life, which only a big city can offer. While the prelude is playing she is semmi-dressed in her dark green boudoir taking, or rather, snatching money from the passing men who are handing it to her. This symbolic scene suggests that prejudice and hesitation are dispensed with, and the nexus between the money and negotiated sex is right there. Alfredo is a photographer, a paparazzo. This detail is very well matched to the story. Patrizia Ciofi delivers her singing with a visible strain which may be hard for closeups, such as made available on the video recording, but somehow this strain works excellently for the role for one who makes a living of her own flesh. Her voice is sharp and accurate.  A scene in which Violetta has to endure the raging jealousy of Alfredo is delivered here with the chilling effect of a pain absorbed as a murderous blow to her heart  and condensed in Violetta’s absent-minded look into nothingness while she is slowly walking away from the place where she was humiliated by her beloved. Brava Patrizia Ciofi! This scene just goes to say how much in emotional effect may be extracted with a good staging acting and singing. In the production of Willy Decker La Traviata (which to my delight will soon be posted, so keep visiting this little blog!) we see at this point a nasty explicit scene of a domestic assault and physical abuse when Alfredo (Villazón) is shoving the money into Violetta’s (Netrebko) mouth and décolleté.

Roberto Saccà as Alfredo is correct but unremarkable, coming across as an agitated superficial and cute toy-boy for this Violetta, a mere catalyst to the tale of a drama awaiting sooner or later any woman who strays, hoping that she can outsmart the devil. Seen as a whole, such an Alfredo is perhaps the best and wisely made choice.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who is very dear to me, sings as always superbly. He  is camouflaged behind a pair of spectacles. He does not act or exaggerate anything. He sings with the fraction of his larynx & lungs with such an ease equal to, for example, the second gear of a turbo high-acceleration engine. Only when he sings Russian songs do I hear Hvorostovsky open up a bit to his mind-spinning singing capacities. We are yet to see him unleash the energy he is gifted with. For a while I was disappointed by his rather bland acting, but on second thought that subdued delivery of Alfredo’s father works well in the entire concept, leaving the space for the beginning of Violetta’s neurotic breakdown.

For me personally the greatest visual achievement in depicting Violetta’s demise is the opening scene of Act III where Ciofi lies on the floor covered with a fur coat, the snowy screen of a malfunctioning  TV set on the floor, an open, half-empty industrial size bag of cement next to the scaffold wall, beside the open bathroom door. A masterpiece! This image should be given to the fine arts students as an assignment in still life.

Green banknotes bills with the image of Giuseppe instead of Benjamin falling as autumn leaves are a sweet touch adding to the set of metaphors in this coherent and powerful production.


La Traviata – Angela Gheorghiu a rising star

February 26, 2010

Of all the traditional Traviatas in my humble consumer’s rating this, the one with young Angela Gheorghiu seen at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in 1994, is the best. Georg Solti, who died few years later and who conducted La Traviata for the first time, gave the orchestra a crisp, somewhat militant tone, with precision and edge more suitable for Mozart perhaps rather than Verdi. Angela Gheorghiu was 28 at that time and a spectacular rising star. She sings with a volume and passion that dominates the scene. Yet it is evident that behind the sheer energy of a perfect, powerful, unrestrained, cultivated voice there is still a great potential waiting to unfold in the coming years.   The first act is set in an oval-shaped wood-paneled salon consisting of a huge two-wing door and–apart from the central floral arrangement–an empty space. The emptiness serves well to emphasize the focus on the gorgeous period costumes and the singing. It is a perfect example of successfully combining a minimalist simplicity while remaining true to the period costumes. It is well centred without the attention-distracting china glassware and cutlery so often seen as inevitable props in the first act.  

The emotional edge is reached in the second act when Violetta realizes in disbelief that Alfredo’s father has come to ask her to relinquish what is most dear to her –Alfredo. There are definite moments when you can feel goose bumps, chills and thrills up and down your spine thanks to Angela Gheorghiu’s youth, ambition, confident surrender to soar with her feelings and God’s gift of an extraordinary voice of diamond clarity with the power of a steam-engine. The set, portraying a country house, evokes the serenity and simplicity of Vermeer’s ambient. Violetta’s dresses are designed and made with subtlety, ranging from delicate pastel shades of yellow, pigeon blue and beige to the glamorous femme-fatale crimson red, black lace décolleté  and gloves. Regrettably, Frank Lopardo as Alfredo is not equal in charisma and character to such a Violetta. Apart from vocal correctness he does not offer more, remaining invisible in Gheorghiu’s shadow throughout. Old Germont, Alfredo’s father, is a believable character well suited for this role.

The night atmosphere is constant except for the second act where the daylight freshness is brought up as a refreshing contrast. Viewed today, this production a decade and a half later, still stands out head and shoulders above other traditional productions I have seen in every aspect.

A decade and a bit later…


In 2007, thirteen years after her 1994 Covent Garden success, we see a mature and confident diva, Angela Gheorghiu, perhaps with a hint of agitation concealing the boredom of routine singing yet another Traviata, this time in one of the oldest opera houses, La Scala, of Milan. I guess that everything may wear out in life. Even the effect of being showered with frantic applauses after a few hours of intensive singing.  For this special occasion a reputable film director’s name, Liliana Cavani’s, appears in the credits. And that is more or less where it stays. There is nothing in this staging which reveals that a hand of a master is pulling the strings together. Everything is ordinary, already seen and uninventive. In Act Two the scene is cluttered with furniture and on the right-hand side stands a couch located so close to a billiard table that it annoys the spectator who would try to imagine anyone playing pool. Or is this dysfunctional furnishing arrangement perhaps a staging hint of Violetta’s glorious days of fun forever gone now? Unclear.  At one point there seems to be a purpose in the billiard table on the stage but even the video editing was poor.  If the intention was to show the neglect and decay the message did not come through. Attention is given to the costumes and the intent that no cost would be spared to make a great conventional production is visible. The Alfredo is sung by Ramón Vargas and is an unfortunate choice beside the imposing diva, who is glowing in her mature beauty and exuding the spirit of a woman whose best years have just passed. Mr. Vargas also fails to connect with Ms. Gheorghiu in creating the mutual dynamics and directs his emotional lines into an empty air. The emotional effect is not produced and it feels unconvincing and lacking in energy. Maybe if we close our eyes we may get more out of this production, because they are, after all, great voices.

Weimar Ring – a neglected DVD production

February 10, 2010
A year ago, in January 2009, that is, The Ring in the production of Staatskapelle Weimar and the Deutsche National Theatre was released on a DVD by the “ArtHaus Musik”. The time of this release was somewhat unfortunate because the Copenhagen Ring, which was released about the same time, has been receiving rave reviews. The Copenhagen Ring is perhaps more fascinating with its theatrical devices and occasional shocking details, which left the Weimar Ring unjustly neglected.  By sharing my personal reflections I hope to bring some justice to this extraordinary production.   


This Ring is brought to life under conductor Carl St. Clair, who is a music director of the Pacific Symphony (I found it on Google maps to be near Los Angeles, California) where he has been for the last 20 years. Carl St. Clair is also a general music director and chief conductor of the German National Theatre and Staatskapelle Weimar. A student of Leonard Bernstein, he is also known as the first non-European to hold this position. The brochure declares the theme of this Ring to be the generational conflict, but to me the theme was more along the lines of esoteric exploration.    


The Rheingold   



The prologue of the prologue opera starts with three schoolgirls as Norns who tell the tale of the stolen ring. The quest for eternal gold starts with a con-men Alberich presenting himself to the Rheinmaidens as a dwarf. Alberich is “dwarfed” by making him walk on his knees, creating the visual and motion effects very believable. For this purpose a special pair of boots strapped to his knees is cleverly devised.
The Rheinmaidens, a specie, rather than only three of them, appear as hands and heads and with the occasional nymph tail here and there as a prop. They guard the planet Earth behind the elevated, no-frills, concrete-like panel which reminds me of the makeshift panels encasing the seats of the state & army leaders during military parades. When the gold is stolen, the concrete-like barrier is removed, revealing the huge image of the planet earth somehow unguarded and exposed, as if setting in motion its inevitable ill fate.

Wotan’s royal residence is more like a neglected rundown shelter in which the chairs are stacked, the carpets are rolled up in haste of leaving the place, and the paintings are removed, leaving behind them their pale shapes on the wallpaper. The leftovers of an abandoned meal are neglectfully scattered over the bare dining table. Doom looms. Froh is dressed as an Italian-American gigolo, and Loge is, according to the DVD brochure, a psychiatrist. They are deep asleep in a hypnotic oblivion desensitized against any disaster exuding a spirit similar to that of drunken and tired wedding guests in Breughel’s paintings. Donner is dressed as a pathetic ringmaster with his oversized hammer and misbuttoned jacket, desolate of his powers as if relying solely on the magic of his sharply curled mustache.                

Fasolt and Fafner are in dichotomy: labourer and manager, the former dressed in archetypal overalls and the latter in a two-piece suit and tie–an executive-like outfit.                  

It would be unfair to single out any of the artists in Das Rheingold: singers, musicians, masters of stage and costumes–they all blend in unison producing a coherent, strong performance.                  

The most remarkable singer I wish to mention here is Christine Hansmann. With her charismatic appearance and a voice of mauve and dark purple hue she stages Fricka with nobility and a manner equal to the first goddess of Walhalla. Another memorable artist is Frieder Aurich (more of him in Siegfried).                  



The Valkyrie brings the drama of singing and emotions to its peak. The set in Act I is a minimalist stage consisting of a slightly elevated runway that protrudes from the side to the middle of the stage. The background of a flat, white panel only occasionally slits into an opening, accentuating the dramatic arrival of Hunding and his guests. That is all. No ash tree, no props, no clutter. The drama of acting and singing has the entire stage for itself to develop and to densify with captivating, breathtaking power, as indeed it does. Willy Decker looms as an inspirational force, proving once again that the world of Rene Magritte is living a second round of life on the stages of European opera houses before the eyes of 21st century audience worldwide thanks to new DVD technology. Erin Caves as Siegmund and Kirsten Blanck as Sieglinde generate a genuine chemistry elevating the emotional drama to an electrifying peak.   Hidekazy Tsumaya as Hunding dominates the stage portraying this unpleasant character as a rigid abuser. Christine Hansmann shines again as noble Fricka, who is served by eunuch like smitten rams dressed in grey suits exuding in their body language (the stupor of their curled limbs) the submissive, obedient spirit of mid-managerial structures when in the presence of their superiors.                  

The opening of  Act III is always a curious moment, to see how a particular production manifests the mighty ride of the Valkyries. What you encounter here is a carefree pillow-fighting morning of schoolgirls waking up in bunk beds. Just as we are recognizing the scene as akin to the cheerful atmosphere in Norman Rockwell’s illustrations, we are suddenly anchored back to Wagner’s reality by witnessing a graphic, bloody head of a male corpse protruding from the coroner’s bag.                  



Catherine Foster sings Brünnhilde with all the rights tones in their right places but the role for some reason remains visually unfulfilled, which is even more noticable in Götterdämmerung.      


Sieglinde and her husband's dinner guests





The most striking feature of this Siegfried production is that it is brazenly confident. The stage is the archetype of a theatrical idea of a house. Its furnishing is reduced to a simple table with two chairs (my elementary school snackroom was furnished with such chairs and tables) a mop, a deep freezer with the control red light diligently turned on, and few “echte deutsche” Vileda cloths. As in any good staging each prop has its turn and its role. One couldn’t think of better props for Mime, dressed as a housewife in the bottom half of pajamas and a floral apron-dress, yet losing nothing of his masculinity. Remember the name of Frieder Aurich. He is the best Mime I have ever seen, approaching in dramatic enthusiasm the legendary cast of Heinz Zednik It is hard to say if he is a better actor or singer. His crisp pronunciation and reaching for an occasional deliberate falsetto infused this Mime with an emotion palpably invoking a sleazy, cunning, cowardly, manipulator such as Mime is. Frieder Aurich’s Mime is counterparted with a no less excellent Siegfried, brought to life here by  John van Hall. A young crude Siegfried goes through  forceful growing spells with each new entry to the scene which is cleverly accentuated by his outfit and the changes on his bear. The bear is depicted as an oversized toy-bear who in the adolescence of young Siegfried has protruding nipples and wears a bra. Fresh, original and daring. I have now watched this Siegfried at least 4 times and there is still more to absorb. Both Frieder Aurich and John van Hall are artists of the fine substance, well suited for their roles.  Wanderer is Tomas Möwes  (in Rheingold he is Alberich) whose voice of a somewhat longer wave length  and has a cylindrical and hollow quality that may not be appealing to every listener but compensates on the side of forcefulness. Erda is Nadine Weissmann a rather young singer with a bronze streak in her voice of marked clarity and depth. The aging Fafner is worth mentioning also for the excellent stuffed fabric sculpture-costume showing as an obese tired human. The forest-bird appears in this production here. It is Heike Porstein, who sings, dances and almost flies with grace and beauty equal to her role. Her ballerina-like body are complementing her role to full excellence. Regretfully, it is difficult to find any information about her.                  


Frieder Aurich as Mime and John van Hall as Siegfried




After two viewings, the Götterdämmerung unfortunately appears to be the least remarkable of the four, failing thereby to wrap up this magnificent production. It appears that in the making of the Twilight of the Gods there seemed to be a lack of orientation and guidance. Whereas in each of the previous three operas the drama escalates to a new level in powerful broad strokes, the Götterdämmerung fails to deliver the climax. It is reflected in all the aspects: scenography, choreography costumes and music. singing and orchestral performance alike. The costumes are conceptually incoherent, the scenography is lacking in final touches. It feels as if it was produced in haste, under some constraints, or with lack of communication among the production team. There are hints of concept but they are under-developed to convey the idea clearly with vocal and instrumental renditions falling short of interpretational courage and edge. Brünnhilde’s horse, Grane, is personified by an elderly lady with long grey hair, and given too much of a focus, leaving us to wonder why. The overall impression is that it is rather unfortunate, as if the brewing process was interrupted and the final outcome came without required maturity and character. If this production may be given a second round of fresh attention from all participants and a chance to finish up and glue together the parts and pieces into an integral piece and in a more coherent way, we at the receiving end may be able to say that a remarkable Ring has been made with the aid of stick and a rope alone.