Lunedi Lunacy

So it’s Leap Year day 2016 and another rare opportunity to say Happy Birthday to one of my favourite composers with tributes by one of my favourite artists.

Yes, 55 years ago today Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born in one of my favourite places in Italy, the lovely little seaside town of Pesaro. Well okay 224 years ago if you go by regular years but who’s counting?  The important thing is that we celebrate and I can’t think of anyone who visually captured the fun, whimsy and some of the darkness of Rossini  better than my beloved Emanuele (Lele) Luzzati.

Lele pays homage to Rossini as only he would – Punchinello says:  Auguri e buon compleanno Maestro.

Though it has now been uncovered that Rossini did not compose  the “Cat Duet” two of the three pieces that make up this amusing little Duetto buffo are from his 1816 hit Otello.  The third is the”Katte-Cavatine” by the Danish composer C.E.F. Weyse; and the whole was mushed together possibly by Robert Lucas de Pearsall, though even that is now open to question. Whoever it was that may have contrived this little pastiche knew what cats singers could be!


Long before Daphne Du Maurier wrote her short story The Birds and Alfred Hitchcock set a flock of avian predators loose to ruin Tippi Hedren’s beehive Rossini composed music in 1817 to La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).  It is the tale of a young girl who is almost executed for a theft that she didn’t commit – I assume that title is a bit of a spoiler.  It’s one of those operas that sits on the fence – it’s label opera semi-seria, not quite a comedy and not quite a tragedy.  Though it was once popular it is not produced all that often anymore; however the overture is one of the best known of the Swan of Pesaro’s musical beginnings.  Lele captures that semi-seria tone in his little fable of the hunters becoming the hunted.  This could be better titled La gazza vendicatore (The Avenging Magpie).



On this day in 1940:  Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African American to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

Mercoledi Musicale

One of the concerts I choose to give a miss this year at the Whitsun Festival was a piano recital by the young French pianist David Fray. Fray appeared on the music scene in 2004 winning the second grand prize at the Montreal International Piano Competition . He is a rather mannered player reminiscent of a long-haired Glen Gould – though he has voiced little admiration of Gould citing Wilhelm Kempff as his model. Unlike much of the performances scheduled last week he will not be concentrating on Rossini however he won’t be entirely neglecting the Man of the hour.

In 1820 Liszt transcribed La caritá (Charity), a short religious choral composition of Rossini’s, for piano. It was the last work of a triptych – I’ll let you figure out what the other two may have been called. Fray will be including it in his programme along with selections by Schubert, Bach and other works by Liszt.

I tried to upload a version by an Australian pianist who has recorded all the piano works of Liszt – 98 volumes – however YouTube banned it almost immediately despite the link to his website etc.  I will not name either the artist or the label because I was all set to give them free publicity .

Unfortunately the only piano version on YouTube is not a particularly good one but there are several lovely postings of the original choral piece (mostly by amateur choirs) and this one is particular favourite.

The soprano Jodie Devos was the second laureate in this year’s Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels. Should you wish to hear a bit more of this young soprano, her performance at the finale of the Competition is available here.

June 17 – 1631: Mumtaz Mahal dies during childbirth. Her husband, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan I, will spend the next 17 years building her mausoleum, the Taj Mahal.

Ehi, Gioachino! Son Qua!

Gioachino qua, Gioachino  là,
Gioachino  su, Gioachino giù

Okay I’m paraphrasing here, it should be:  Ehi Figaro!  But in a little under a week’s time it will be Gioachino Rossini who will be all over the place and in great demand.  Or at least all over the place and in great demand in and around Salzburg.

As we were leaving the final concert at last year’s Pfingstfestspeil we were given the prospectus for 2014.  And it was with some surprise that we saw it was proclaiming:

Now anyone who knows me knows that in my world Rossini is up there with Mozart and Verdi in the Holy Trinity of Opera.  One of the – oh so many –  pleasures of our time in Italy was the yearly excursions to Pesaro to celebrate her favourite son.  Pesaro and Rossini – well of course; Salzburg and Rossini – not so much.  Though as I write this I cast my mind back to an incredible  Barbiere in 1969 with Claudio Abbado at the start of his career as a Rossini specialist.  But still I never thought of going to Salzburg to hear Rossini.  I had forgotten one little detail: though I wouldn’t necessarily pair Salzburg-Rossini when playing word association on my psychiatrist’s couch I certainly would if the kindly doctor peered over his pince-nez, puffed on his pipe and mono-toned “Cecilia Bartoli!”

And of course La Ceci is the artistic director for the Pfingstfestspeil  so it would only stand to reason that in her programming she would, at some point, include the Swan of Pesaro.  As a sidebar  Bellini was often referred to as the Swan of Catania…. it would seem those early 19th century composers were a veritable wedge of swans!  And programme him she did for 2014:  there’s Rossini in the morning, Rossini in the evening and (for those that could afford it) Rossini at suppertime!

Jens Rassmussen’s cover for Pfingstfestpseil 2014 prospectus is rather busy but it does cover all the bases from Tornadoes Rossini to the Cathedral in Pesaro, the composer’s hometown.  And I must say includes a less than flattering caricature of the Festival’s artistic director.

As I mentioned almost a year ago we had no intention of going back to Salzburg for the 2014 festival tomorrow we’ll be heading to Frankfurt en-route to that lovely city on the Salzach to wallow in five days of Rossini, Rossini and more Rossini – with the odd bit of Hahn, Vivaldi and Faure thrown in just to keep me on an even keel.  And I must admit that the tickets were booked five days after they went on sale in May 2013 – talk about the eternal optimist!!!!

Unlike other years we are giving a few things a miss this year – that Whit Monday last year when we ran from Mozarteum to St Peter’s Church to Grosses Festspeilhaus with only a chance to grab a quick energy restoring cup of tea and a piece of Sacher Torte was just too much.  And there will be a few other changes this year:  an old – as in longtime not age – friend will be coming with us and we’ll be meeting a friend of her’s for a few days in Salzburg.  And hopefully we’ll be having a late evening cocktail with one of the inveterate contributors to Parterre Box.

But the big change is that for the first time in a long time we will not be occupying the Tuscan Suite at the Hotel Bristol. Though La Ceci’s tenure as artistic director has been an exciting one – witness last year’s programme – there has been a downside to it.  During the Muti tenure there was one “big” name – Muti; that’s not to say that we didn’t hear quality – we heard and saw quality in spades.  But with the advent of Bartoli there are some “big” names on the bill and the Festival now has a higher profile. And with a higher profile comes higher prices at hotels, restaurants and other venues in town.  Prices have almost reached Summer Festival levels and frankly I gave up on the Summer Festival years ago as being beyond my financial resources.  And sadly the beloved Bristol has reached that point where my pocketbook couldn’t justify paying the tariff being asked.  Sad because going there was always like going home – however I’m sure we’ll still be able to find a table at the Sketch Bar after a performance and see some of our old friends who are regulars there.

And there have been two changes to the Festival format this year:  we get not one but two operas, both staring Cecilia Bartoli.  And to accommodate that sort of scheduling the Festival begins one day earlier this year running from Thursday until Whit Monday.  And there is very little in the way of purely instrumental works this year – its almost all vocals!

But what vocals!  We get La Cenerentola with Cecilia, the amazing Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, who sent New Yorkers for a spin last month, and Nicola Alaimo; the Stabat Mater with Antonio Pappano and his Santa Cecilia forces, Krassimira Stoyanova, Elīna Garanča, Piotr Beczala and Erwin Schrott; the Petit Messe Solonnelle in the piano/harmonium scoring again with Maestro Pappano, his Santa Cecilia Chorus,  Eva Mei, Vesselina Kasarova, Lawrence Brownlee and Michele Pertusi; Joyce DiDonato in a recital of songs inspired by Venice; and finally Otello with  La Ceci and John Osborn. Not a bad gathering of the Rossini clans?????

And what are we missing?  Well Franco Fragioli, the countertenor, is singing Rossini and Myerbeer – but as beautifully as he sings Mr Fragioli’s stage mannerisms drive me up the wall so we’re giving it a pass for a dinner at Triangle.  And French pianist David Fray is bobbing and weaving, as is his wont, through a programme of Bach, Rossini and Liszt while we explore the Lake District.  But the big miss is the Rossini Gala followed by the Gala Dinner.  The list of singers is an incredible one – including some great names from the past – and the dinner is a Rossinian feast.  However impressive the list of performers for the gala might be the thought of my Teresa Berganaza, Montserrat Caballé and Jose Carreras singing anything at this stage does not fill me with pleasure – I prefer to stay with my memories and my old wind up Victrola at this point.  And the gala dinner afterwards sounded like a gourmand’s delight but I think we’ll just have a nice Bazaar Töst at Cafe Bazaar with a comforting glass of something white, wet and local.

In younger and slimmer days
– more hair, less weight.

There are a few interesting events arranged around the Festival that may be more than worthwhile catching in the two days we have free.  Das Kino, the local art cinema in Salzburg, is showing several Rossini-themed films including the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle opera productions and Mario Monicelli’s Rossini! Rossini! with Philippe Noiret and Jacqueline Bisset.  Apparently this was a film that Robert Altman gave up on and Monicelli took over.  I’ve always wanted to see it so this might well be my opportunity.  And this year even the Salzburg Marionettentheater has joined the Festival line-up with a revival of their puppet production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia but whereas in the old days they used the old Decca recording with Teresa Berganaza I understand the revival is voiced by… our Cecilia.

So its time to try on the trachen and see if it still fits – I have a sneaking suspicion there will be a problem there and no time to lose weight to solve it – bundle up the laptop, double check the tickets and hotels and start packing.

May 31 – 1669: Citing poor eyesight, Samuel Pepys records the last event in his diary.

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Mercoledi Musicale

Claudio Abbado: 1933-2014

It was August of 1969 and I was on my second trip across the Atlantic in three months and my first visit to Salzburg and the summer festival. I was there for a week – a very full week of operas and concerts. There was opera every night and lieder concerts most afternoons. It was meant to be a feast of music and I wasn’t going to miss a morsel. The cast lists were a roll call of many of the big names of the time: Adam, Alva, Zylis-Gara, King, Berry, Bjoner, Evans, Freni, Ludwig, Kraus, Ghiaurov, Stratas, Prey, Janowitz, Gedda et al. And on the podium: Karajan conducting Don Giovanni, Böhm conducting Fidelio, Ozawa, in his operatic debut, murdering Cosi and Claudio Abbado showing us how Il Barbiere di Siviglia was meant to sound.

He had debuted as an operatic conductor at Salzburg the year before with the same production and between him and director/designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle they had created a Barbiere that was, for its time, revolutionary.  It was to be the first Rossini opera in a collaboration that shed new light on La Cenerentola and L’Italiana in Algeri.  His work on the operas of Rossini culminated in the brilliant revival of  Il Viaggio a Rheims at Pesaro in 1984.  Previously I had posted that encore to end all encores, a moment of musical joy: Viaggo, Pesaro 1992.

Since his death on Monday much has been written in tribute to Claudio Abbado and many clips have been posted featuring his Mahler, Verdi, Schubert, Stravinsky and Mozart.  I thought I would remember him with the first piece of music I ever heard him conduct:  the Overture to Il Barbiere di Siviglia.   And from the looks of it this video may have been made around the same time I first saw him.

Unfortunately I missed the chance to see the legendary Boris Godunov at Covent Garden in 1983. I stood out on Bow St one April evening my five pound note discretely held but visible – a sign that you wanted a ticket. Sadly no one was in the mood or seemed to have the need to sell that evening. It was one of the few times I had been disappointed in my attempts to get a last minute seat at the Royal Opera. Though I had many of his recordings and had listen to many of his performances on radio I was not to see him conduct in person until April of 2008. After a period of illness and absence from the opera house he returned to the Teatro Valli in Reggio-Emilia, where his son Daniele was artistic director, to conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio. As I wrote at the time it was one of the most exciting evenings I have spent at the opera in many years – I was simply overwhelmed.

He appeared with his Orchestra Mozart during the concert season March 2010 at the Academia Santa Cecilia.  The programme was Mendelssohn and Mozart with a Mozart encore.  It was a glorious evening – perhaps not as emotional as his Mahler, Beethoven or Verdi  but he gave us the “Italian”, Violin Concerto K216 and the “Jupiter” as I had never heard them before.

After his bout of cancer and other health problems he seemed to have returned to a full and active schedule with his Mahler Youth Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Orchestra Mozart.  My dear friend David records so much of it in his blog post and in the wonderful obituary he wrote for the Guardian.

The man was loved, respected and revered but most of all loved.  And I’ll let David have the final words: Though we’ll hugely miss him, there’s nothing to regret: no-one lived a fuller life, one so much longer than illness would have led anyone to expect.

 REQUIEM aeternam dona ei, et lux perpetua luceat ei. 
Requiescat in pace.

January 22 – 1506: The first contingent of 150 Swiss Guards arrives at the Vatican.

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San Riccardo di Roma

This observation – I won’t call it a review because I am becoming more and more aware of my limitations as a reviewer – of the December 9th performance of this season’s opening work at the Opera here is long overdue. But finally here it is.

Perhaps it is no mistake that Riccardo Muti has found his way to a city known for its churches and priestly population. More and more in the past few years he has taken on an almost priest-like aura as he mounts the podium in opera houses and concert halls in Salzburg, Ravenna, New York or Chicago. Going to a Muti performance seems to have become an almost religious experience for his followers. A hush falls about the hall as he enters the pit and god help the person that interrupts the mysteries with unnecessary movements, coughing or applause before the final note has sounded – they are liable to be silenced by the horrified reaction of the devout or even worse a glare from the high priest himself.

Moïse (Ildar Abdrazakov) and the Hebrews hear the Mysterious voice issuing from the flames telling them to leave the yoke of Eygpt. The flaming pillars are an example of the effective use Pier’Alli made of projections in this production of Moïse et Pharaon at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.

Now I am a Muti follower and devotee myself – I have been since I first saw him conduct Don Pasquale in 1971 at Salzburg – what a year that was! Abbado with Rossini, Karajan Verdi, Boehm Berg and Mozart and Muti Donizetti! One of the great joys of the past few years is having the opportunity to see performances he has conducted both in Salzburg and here in Roma. However I am starting to question how far we can go with the hero worship and reverence – we are after all in the opera house or the concert hall not a church or a temple. Music was meant to be responded to and unless its Ambrosian Chant was not meant to be heard in a sepulchred vacuum.

Take in point last month’s Muti-led season opener at the Teatro dell’Opera: Moïse et Pharaon. This was Rossini’s reworking for the Parisian audience of his earlier Neapolitan work Mosé in Egitto. Many of the big numbers were carried over from the earlier work and others added to meet the requirements of the Opéra for spectacle, dance and the talents of the resident singers. Yes the subject is of a religious nature – though librettists Balocchi and de Jouy somehow work the Burning Bush into the Plagues on Egypt!!!! – but it also has good old fashioned operatic situations woven into the story. Oh sure Moses keeps saying “let my people go” and Pharaoh says “yes, no, maybe” but there’s also the forbidden love of Aménophis, Pharaoh’s son, for Anaï, Moses’ niece, and the conversion of Sinaïde, Pharaoh’s wife, to the faith of the Hebrews thrown in for good measure. It pretty much ends according to C. B. deMille – the Hebrews escape through the Red Sea and Pharaoh and the forces of Egypt are drowned but there’s a fair bit of digression along the way.

This photo doesn’t half catch the brilliant effect of the final scene as the sea parted and Moïse and the Children of Israel made their way through the cascading waters to the other side.

There are quite a few ensembles, chorale moments and the incredibly beautiful Des cieux où tu résides quartet with chorus – but a great deal of the music is Rossini writing for star singers to show off their vocal chops. The very beautifully produced programme – I really must do a posting on the remarkable programmes published here one day – included pictures of all the principle singers, both in costume and civilian dress, who sang at the primiére but search as I might I found no picture of the conductor nor even a mention of his name.

Such was not the case here in Roma in December, the name foremost on the posters was Muti. Though there was “names” among the singers they were secondary to the maestro and were not the reason we were making the journey to Piazza Beniamino Gigli. Not that the maestro in anyway failed us. This is the third time he has led this particular work and his love and familiarity showed. The forces in Roma may not have been as first rate as those at La Scala or Salzburg but the orchestra is constantly showing what can be achieved when working with a demanding taskmaster. However I am starting to wonder – given both that evening’s performance and the next evening at La Scala – if all Italian orchestras have problems with their brass sections? Riccardo Zanellato’s chorus did some of the finest work I’ve heard from them in the past four years – and Moïse is one of those works where the chorus is as important as the soloists.

Muti’s soloists were a variable and in one a case a questionable choice. Ildar Abdrazakov (above left) has sung Moïse in Muti’s two previous productions and his is a powerful, if not dominating, performance and in Nicola Alaimo’s Pharaon he had a worthy opponent.

I was expecting much of Sonia Ganassi (right) as Sinaïde but have noticed in the past few performances I’ve experience that her voice has taken on a very uncharacteristic harshness. Her duet with the equally rough sounding Eric Cutler (Aménophis) almost became a shouting match. Though it should be noted that Ganassi was cheered to the rafters while Cutler received a few jeers from the normally timid galleriste. Juan Francisco Gatell (Éliézer) and Barbara Di Castri (Maria) offered strong support in their few solo passages and to the ensembles. The one miscalculation was Anna Kasyan in the role of Anaï – her is a pleasant but thin voice and she seemed to lack both the breath control and the technique for her big scene. This music was written originally for the great Colbran and adapted for the equally admired Cinti-Damoreau, and no matter how brilliant the conductor requires a singer of equal brilliance.

Director/Designer Pier’Alli’s design for the opening of the Red Sea – a spectacular use of projections, lighting and a semi-permanent architectural set. The entire production was the best example I’ve seen of using modern technology as scenography.

I am not an admirer of Pier’Alli as a director and have yet to see anything staged by him where there has been any real solid characterizations or emotional core but this time I was overwhelmed with admiration for his designs – his use of architectural elements, lights and multiple projections were exceptional. For the first time in my opera going experience I saw modern technology used effectively and seamlessly to enhance and illuminate a production – as a sidebar it made the sloppy projections in the La Scala Die Walküre the following evening look like the work of amateurs. Highest praise to Alli for his designs, Guido Levi for his exceptional lighting and the technical staff at the Teatro for putting it all together.

Shen Wei’s modern choreography was an remarkable match for the extended dance sequences Rossini wrote for the original production in Paris.

Equally as praise worthy was the choreography of Shen Wei for the extended dance sequences that make up most of the third act of the opera. Dance was a must for any production at the Opéra in those days and Rossini met the requirement with 20 minutes of pleasant, highly dancable, if not memorable, music. I had read much about Wei in the translations I had done for Ballet2000 but wasn’t expecting the simple beauty of his dance patterns and movements. Like Alli’s designs his choreography reflected an innate sense of musicality.

And that might well be the watchword for the entire evening – musicality. That sensitivity to, knowledge of, and talent for music that is the mark of a Muti performance. But what was lacking, and frankly seems to now elude the maestro, was any feeling of spontaneity; less a feeling of awed worshipping at the altar of art and more of feeling of joyful participation in the art itself would have made a good evening more than that.

To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy Maestro Muti will be giving us Nabucco in March – another work with a religious theme and the added strong patriotic subtext. It is early Verdi, raw and a little rough around the edges a bit like the Risorgimento itself. I can only hope that the Maestro will give us more of the rough and raw and a little less of the religious.

Photos: Falsini for the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

17 gennaio – Santa Nadia