The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Radio Bayern: La Scala opener - auspicious debut by hot new Georgian mezzo - but otherwise was it Bizet's Carmen - or was it Sominex - or Sophocles?

This was indeed something preceded by much hype, but after all, Opening Night at La Scala - yet with embarrassed impresario – mostly by how disastrous his opener was last season - Don Carlo conducted by Daniele Gatti. The loggionisti have also shown that Daniel Barenboim has also slightly fallen out of favor with them, with recent Aida performances.

Administration appeared to see to it that notice get out, that more radical steps on Emma Dante’s part get softened or removed – even partly at Barenboim’s insistence, allegedly, for no better sake than just to animate, use the press, in covering so much about all this ahead of time. All it could have accomplished was just (further) muddying of the waters. I have even run onto a website or two to engage the loggionisti in some online dialogue, I suppose, as to expectations, when they have been reported as of late having become restless about this opener coming up. Giuseppe Pennesi (La Scena Musicale) has most meaningfully reported here ultimately a passionless, sexless Carmen. It indeed sounded very much like his description – even with the amount of sexual, of course to be socially correct all misogynistic violence to have occurred on stage.

There was also an ante-prima for the deemed highly respectful under-30 crowd Friday evening –for the press to milk for all its worth. The new Dante production indeed has its rebel youth chic, experimental appeal, but half-commercial look too. With what I have read, it seems she might have received more hospitable welcome at almost any smaller house in Italy, such as in Genoa, Parma, or Siena, instead of the big time in Milan. With the fully expected fischiato (booed) response she received Monday night, it was though Danny boy could have put up a lamb for slaughter. Perhaps with all the religious symbolism she layered on, she might have welcomed something of a heroic martyrdom of sorts –myopic as to what might work for the good of Emma Dante in the long run.

Before editorializing on this further, it is time to move on to what it was like just to hear this. To Emma Dante’s credit, there are perhaps two things – even without seeing this in action. For one, and for her quote about Carmen being ‘pure as a nun, but also animalistic’ – something along those lines – her Carmen, in Antia Rachvelishvili, somehow avoided turning in a heavy statuesque iconic tragedy queen of a Carmen – harmful for a lyric voice such as that of this new artist.. Complementing that was also heard a welcome amount of witty irony spun forth in especially spoken dialogue. Fortunately the spoken dialogue got chosen here, in place of the badly concocted Guiraud recitative that makes so much of Carmen come across contrived.

What confounded me more than anything long before this draggy Carmen came to an end, though avoiding very well some of the obvious Teutonic accents of a Karajan or Maazel, was still how stodgy it sounded under Barenboim – almost as though the recitative could have fit in just fine. He was certainly out of his fach here, whereas La Scala audiences can remember the passion with which he infused Tristan und Isolde for their opener two years ago. Barenboim’s scrupulous ear for textures, through which soloists in his orchestra emerged effortlessly, proved worthwhile however.

Tempi were often slow, apparently for sake of achieving pleasant quasi-Gallic dovetailing of many lines. Carmen though first and foremost should emerge as something living –as vibrant a piece of musical theater as possible. Jerking forward of the pulse once or twice during quarrel between Jose and Escamillo sounded cut and pasted - as way of managing dramatic pacing instead of it emerging organically from what has preceded the marked shift to allegro or two. Barenboim does not have it for conducting French opera at La Scala other than for some Berlioz – still inherent to Berlioz a sense of both internal and underpinning French rhythm as well. Such is certainly even so in attempting to disclose to us what multicultural influences from as afar as northern Africa or Cuba Barenboim - perhaps at behest of Emma Dante - now claims to hear in Carmen – many of us would find a novel insight indeed.

Numerous places in this Carmen actually sounded draggier than actually may have been the case, but Barenboim had singers who whether they asked for better or not had him upon whom to depend to provide some sense of pulsation to their lines. Especially in the Jose/Micaela duet in Act One, the Card Song, and in the final scene, it was obviously lacking, for what probably were some of the slowest tempos Monday evening. All preludes, entr’actes came off well - flute principal effective for one starting Act Three (and then back-phrasing moments later the smugglers’ chorus tune) – with enough snap and pizzazz for the Act One prelude and aragonaise starting Act Four as well. All that is fine, but with most interest of all in how Barenboim might aid, build dramatic interaction between his singers. Rachvelishvili sustained the Card Song very flexibly well; build-up to “Encore…toujours la mort” was ineffective, other than from her alone.

What indeed seems almost miraculous now was the La Scala debut of now quickly rising young Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. One heard her take command of the stage right away - fearlessly so. An entirely new name to most of us, she had auditioned for Frasquita, but with Marina Domashenko and one or two other mezzos unavailable for this run, Rachvelishvili found herself quickly catapulted into taking on the title role. Though compromised by some of the stage direction - clutter surrounding her with all that - there was apparently nothing to faze her in the least, or for that matter, to compel her to unsuitably force a lyric voice, even with it having its Slavic cutting edge. She used it always lightly and often most incisively to make the words of Carmen count, eventually defiantly. Mind you, it was the words alone, not having to spend principal on a voice to make it happen for this young singer.

One noticed right away a Carmen not the least bit in love with Don Jose, from Seguidilla on, but who could have Jose wrapped around her little finger at any point she might like or upon demand. The lower register smoldered, the upper register was always clear - all evenly connected the entire way. If Dante expected a free spirit of a Carmen on her stage, she got it; if she expected instead ‘Carmen-as-victim’- all heavily enveloped and back-phrased – better then for Dante to have looked elsewhere. Where amidst everything here Rachvelishvili got her impetus to deliver us the Carmen she did remains unclear; it appeared to have been from personal dramatic and musical instinct possibly more than anything else.

An occasional note may have gone sharp, she may have missed harmonic contrast as one picky critic quipped between minor and major mode in the Habanera. In this piece, the words, together with the music, one and both inherently the same in such a number were paramount and she always made the words speak. Rachvelishvili was the one singer among four principals with which the natural color of her instrument always clearly emerged, and shifting colors within - effortlessly at her command. The Slavic edge I mention she will want to avoid allowing to harden – especially under pressure of taking on parts dramatically beyond her scope. Most welcome here was her utter refusal to force anything for dramatic emphasis, with her getting it all practically with the words alone. Even in a vocal yet wordless passage as dance with castanets in Act Two to freshly entice a frequently moribund sounding Don Jose as that of Jonas Kaufmann, she could infuse it with concise swivel to its line and rhythm that could even entice a ground hog. How it failed to do more for the Jose on stage with her than it did was as confounding dramatically as anyone could have run across lately.

The Card Song had an air of being at once morose but casual as having to accept an imminently ominous fate. Rachvelishvili made all so alive, incisive at times, but never ostentatiously so – even in obbligato to Mercedes and Frasquita during smugglers’ ensemble in Act 3 – obbligato to which the ear could not help being directed. It is perhaps why she won the audition - for more than which she had bargained.

The greatest implausible in all of this was the Don Jose of Jonas Kaufmann. Could this really be one of the world’sleading Don Jose’s now? The voice certainly has plenty of heft, though of essentially a singer on the lyric end of the spectrum of dramatic tenors. All it seemed that Kaufmann was out to prove, with also his mildly coagulated French vowels, was how good a honk he indeed has, but such quickly became boring here. Should we be grateful that Kaufmann has enough goods vocally to supply the demand for doing the part of Don Jose alone? It has been said already that he has been more flexible in shaping his interpretation of this part other times; on parlando lines, yes, he did give some hint of that, but here that was not quite enough.

Other than for Kaufmann’s good looks, what might have ever turned Carmen’s head, especially a Carmen instead of being for instance in the hands of Jessye Norman in those of Rachvelishvili, must remain mysterious. One person writing in praised Kaufmann for lovely mezza voce he achieved on high B-Flat in the Flower Song – so back-phrased as to sound cowering before a Carmen of Rachvelishvili standing over with a whip - suggesting reverse interpretation from Emma Dante’s vision of all this - but what of the five notes building up to it? If he could have placed them farther back glottally, one might have started to hear grating noises – or indistinguishable from that.

In fact, for photo of more consensual Act Two scene I have seen, done riding the saddle style, than encounter in Act Four, Rachvelishvili as Carmen is clearly the one playing top. I could not hear, other than such heavily misdirected testosterone being put out - with things getting allocated the wrong way - how this Don Jose could have put out for such an encounter. Fortunately, Rachvelishvili did not attempt competing with Kaufmann on vocally putting out the hormones – regardless what was happening onstage. I am equally frankly surprised that Carmen, with a Don Jose of so little manliness as this one, would not have entirely cast him aside from joining the smuggling party for Act Three. As phoned in as finale to Act Two finale sounded, Carmen might’ve as well been merely thinking just 'been there, done that' to 'here we go again.'

Equally fine, dandy competition for the hand of Micaela, even that of Adriana Damato, was the Escamillo of Erwin Schrott. The dry start to "Votre toast" (‘Toreador Song’) was embarrassing. Schrott did intermittently evince bravado, macho here and there, but such coming only in fits and spurts – again not to excite the Micaela too much - constantly followed around by two priests. The one time Rachvelishvili sounded bored the entire evening was for Act Four Mozartean duetttino with Schrott.

Adriana Damato (Micaela) was equally dicey as Schrott in experimenting around as to good vocal placement. The two might have made a fine match indeed. When Rachvelishvili dropped scorn on the Don Jose about his obliging his mother, I then expected Rachvelishvili to meet her, Jose’s mother, in the mountain pass – during the following scene. Damato certainly sounded older than listed age for Micaela from just about the start. One had to admire a little valor on her part in attempts at long lines in her big aria in a single breath, but that and some of the high notes then became somewhat of the ‘hail Mary’ variety. Her best singing came for last several minutes of the slowly taken Act One duet with Don Jose.

Gabor Bretz’s Zuniga (Gabor Bretz) was strong, albeit with phlegmatic accent here and there, but with fine sense of humor and irony - understandable given what minor drawbacks he may have encountered. A young Morales (Mathias Hausmann) was also good, plus Carmen’s two animated companions (Michele Losier, Adriana Kucerova). Rodolphe Briand (Remendado) had some of the finest diction in this cast, but tone so thin that when things started to pick up a clip, it would tend to almost disappear. Francis Dudziac (Dancaire), accommodating him, had to sing softly, not to drown him out.

This was, plus being such a multicultural Carmen, one very internationally cast. I can imagine worse diction emerging from such, but can also imagine diction – coached well here – making it sound like everybody much more idiomatically understands each other than was apparent. So much clutter going on – many extra characters onstage – seemed to take place of more meaningful dramatic interaction.

The final ‘Tiens’ near the end from who was indeed smartest person in the class said it all - just as to such a wuss of a Don Jose standing right in front of her. One must look forward to future Carmens and also some Rossini from new Georgian bombshell having entered our midst – but in more sympathetic environment, even while still at La Scala. This project resembled most of all product of mutually supported, perpetuated insecurity between producer, impresario, and conductor – most naïve the producer – with what booing greeted them during curtain calls.

In this great re-telling of Sophocles by Georges Bizet, as all clarified to me by minion of La Cieca ( – no wonder that both Don Jose turned out to be way he is and that Emma Dante likes the music so much - and Danny’s slow tempos - pointed out already about Act One duet. I however would like to suggest some further changes.

Have Don Jose still rape Carmen at the end, but make it look half-consensual - that she might be enjoying or even egging it on. Have her start to exit stage as Escamillo re-enters – Carmen in exiting as to equally blow both guys off - and get shot to death by Don Jose. Escamillo, in retelling Carmen according to ancient legend, originally might have hitched up with Micaela - all it seems he might have been worth anyway - then making him eponymously Don Jose's father. Schrott already made Escamillo sound old. At least then it would all make perfect sense. There may be less bravado, esprit, swagger to it, but so little need for that has been implored much anywhere as of late.

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