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Posts Tagged ‘Dmitri Hvorostovsky’

молчание (Silence)

In BBC Proms, Classical Music on August 8, 2013 at 8:52 am

AMENDED – 11 August 2013.

I wasn’t going to write this blog. But the silence of Russian artists over Putin’s vile position on gay rights continues to unsettle me.

I cannot hope to be as eloquent as Stephen Fry and everyone should read his letter to the IOC and David Cameron.

It is inspiring.

Music and politics have always been fused together. From the medieval times, if not before, music was used to demonstrate wealth and power both by the aristocracy as well as the clergy.

Opera – the genre I love above all else – was originally an art form exclusively for the nobility.

By the Eighteenth Century composers, singers and instrumentalists were part of the aristocratic and royal households. Some of the music we all know and love – the quartets, symphonies and masses by Haydn, the early operas by Mozart as well as the music of JS Bach, Handel and countless others – was written specifically for the elevation of either the landed classes and government or priests.

As society changed – as revolutionary and then Romantic ideals swept across Europe – music also came to symbolise, and in some cases personify the great movements that wracked the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. Think of Rouget de Lisle’s Marseillaise, Beethoven’s original intention for the Eroica, the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary operas of France.

And after music itself had been totally liberated from a reliance on patronage, the relationship of power and music remained.

Of course there have been times when music and artists have been ‘appropriated’ – willingly or not – by regimes. Fascism is the example we all can think of. But in the midst of that darkness music also became the path of resistance for some. I think specifically of the music on the haunting recital disc, Terezin-Theresienstadt.

Therefore because of the relationship between power, politics and music, musicians are in a privileged position. Not only in terms of the patronage they received but also the power they themselves have to express on the widest platform their own feelings or the feelings of the wider audience and community.

So it stuns and depresses me that the Russian performers that many of us love and admire – from Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko to Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marina Poplavskaya – have been so stubbornly silent on the single issue of Vladamir Putin’s vicious, thuggish and – let’s face it – murderous homophobia.

I struggle to think what is stopping these educated people – and all their Russian colleagues and peers – from stepping forward and making their position known.

They cannot ignore the simple fact that Russia boasts some of the greatest artists whose work is still cherished and performed today – and who were gay.

There is an irony that the opening night opera at the Met is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and two of the world’s most eminent performers will be on stage and in the pit that very night.

Of course it could be fear of stepping forward that makes then unable to say anything. Putin is a thug. People have lost their lives opposing him.

Or it could be that they don’t want to lose Putin’s patronage which looking at Gergiev, is clearly munificent.

But what if – and it has to be considered – that the reason they haven’t said anything is because they actually agree with Putin – that they agree with – and support – his ignorant view?

I admit that this is – hopefully – not the case. But it is worth thinking about considering their silence.

And if this is the case, what then?

Surely one of the next questions has to be what are artistic institutions outside Russia prepared to do about it?

Will the Edinburgh Festival ask their Honorary President to clarify his position?

Will Peter Gelb ask Gergiev and Ms Netrebko for their view on LGBT rights in Russia ahead of his opening gala night?

Will the Board of Directors at the London Symphony ask Gergiev ahead of his Prom next Tuesday? Will Tony Hall or Roger Wright at the BBC?

Will Kasper Holten challenge Marina Poplavskaya?

Will their fellow artists – and their labels – also ask the question?

And finally, what will we – the audience – do?

Again it comes down to power. In the digital world we live in, none of us is powerless.

What if we were all to ask these people to clarify their position?

Andrew Rudin has started a petition in advance of the opening of the Met Season. Can they truly ignore everyone?

Stephen Fry puts it bluntly – [Putin] is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.

If Russia’s artists continue to remain silent, their silence is a sign of their complicity.

Amendment
Anna Netrebko has since issued the following statement:

“As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.”

Clearly written by her PR people it’s a meaningless and cowardly statement as it doesn’t address the issue of Putin’s thuggery.

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La Traviata – The Beauty & Brutality

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on April 16, 2012 at 8:40 am

Review – The Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast (Saturday 14 April)

Violetta Valéry – Natalie Dessay
Alfredo Germont – Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont – Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Flora Bervoix – Patricia Risley
Annina – Maria Zifchak

Production – Willy Decker
Set & Costume Designer – Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting Designer – Hans Toelstede
Choreographer – Athol Farmer

New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor- Fabio Luisi

According to Deborah Voigt I am one of millions who has experienced live performances from The Met via live HD simulcasts. My first was the final instalment of LePage’s Ring cycle Götterdämmerung, and while the production itself remains as flawed as it was for his Die Walküre, I couldn’t fault the high production values of the broadcast itself.

So with that in mind it wasn’t a hard decision to book a seat for Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata. Not only to see what all the original fuss was about when this pared down production debuted in Salzburg in 2005, but also to hear Natalie Dessay essay her Violetta.

And this was also my second Verdi production at The Met. My first was Il Trovatore during my visit to see Die Walküre live. It was not a good experience and at the time I did wonder if Peter Gelb and his management team allowed the lure of high box office returns overwhelm their good sense in casting the opera. The principals were poor and the conducting even worse. The evening was only salvaged by David McVicar’s production.

So after this production of La Traviata I found myself asking the same question. Had Gelb and his Finance Director fallen into the honey trap offered by Ms Dessay? She first sang the role at Santa Fé in 2009 but three years later in a bigger house I wonder if I was the only person left disappointed?

Do not misunderstand me. I am an admirer of Natalie Dessay in Handel, Mozart, the bel canto composers and even the CD of Strauss excerpts alongside Felicity Lott, Angelika Kirchschlager, Sophie Koch, Thomas Allen under Antonio Pappano and the players of Covent Garden.

But Verdi’s La Traviata is an unforgiving opera. Not only is the story harsh and brutal, but the music he wrote literally takes no prisoners and is similarly brutal as it exposes those who tackle it. Fortunately the sublime beauty of Verdi’s music is that even when the singing is mediocre his genius shines through. And this was very much the case in The Met’s production.

As an actress she was – at times – painfully convincing but for me her performance in the title role exposed her vocal vulnerabilities mercilessly. While Ms Dessay sang all the notes – and who really cares that she didn’t sing the top ‘e’ at the end of the first act – there was something that remained just out of her grasp throughout the evening. Quite simply she lacked a richness of tone and heft for the music that Verdi wrote for his consumptive courtesan. Her voice remained flat and one dimensional throughout and added to this it seemed that for significant parts of the opera she was either in front of or behind the beat coming from the pit.

In short, Natalie Dessay’s Violetta was as colourless and pale as we would presume to be the pallor of her skin due to her prognosis.

And while son and father, Alfredo and Giorgio – Matthew Polenzani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky – fared better in delivering heft, what they made up in volume they lacked in subtlety. Polenzani has a rich timbred voice and is a good actor but there was little finesse or delicacy in his singing when it was required. As for Hvorostovsky it seems that his volume button is forever jammed on ‘loud’ and finesse is simply out of the question. What should have been a seminal series of scenes in the second act simply reminded me of shouting matches in my own Italian family’s household in moments of crisis. Except my parents really could act.

Indeed the most refreshing performances of the evening were the brightly projected roles of Maria Zifchak as Annina and the Flora Bervoix of Patricia Risley.

And in the pit was Fabio Luisi. In my last blog regarding the Met it was pointed out to me that Maestro Luisi was conducting Wagner like Verdi. I am afraid to say that in La Traviata his conducting was less Verdi and as lacklustre as the vast majority of performances on the stage. Admittedly it might be a problem of hearing the orchestra once-removed via satellite but – giving modern digital technology the benefit of the doubt – Luisi seemed to be conducting by rote with a distinct lack of bite being coaxed from the orchestra. Clearly Luisi is a virtual shoo-in to replace Levine at some point in the future. It would be a shame if this happenstance was merely the result of being in the right room at the right time rather than on account of his ability.

Elsewhere on the stage the chorus was impressive. The ensemble singing was for the most part strong but all credit to choreographer Athol Farmer for marshalling them so effectively and tapping into a real sense of menace especially in the second act.

And that sense of menace and brutality was at the core of Willy Decker’s production. It takes a brave and talented theatre director to take a well-loved opera and pare it back. And pare it back Decker did to literally nothing. And it was incredibly effective and emotive.

The main set was completely empty bar a single clock face and a solitary figure. It wasn’t too hard to deduce this was Violetta’s doctor Grenvill (Luigi Roni) and together with the clock, he was a constant reminder of her impending death. Built into the wall was a bench on which the protagonists either sat or walked along as the drama unfolded. And above the bench was a space where the chorus appeared. At some point towards the end of the first act as the chorus leaned forward from above as voyeurs on Violetta and Alfredo it occurred to me that perhaps Decker had been inspired somewhat by ancient Greek theatre.

The opening of the second act literally bloomed with flowers. The protagonists were robed in floral patterns and the sofas were extravagantly draped in them. But again Decker never let us forget – however subtly – the transience of the relationship and Violetta’s own life. The poignancy for example of their innocent game of hide and seek or how Violetta herself pulled off the covers, literally stripping bare the veneer of her own life before she is forced to abandon her life of happiness in the country.

However it was Decker’s reinterpretation of the Spanish divertissement that was a master stoke that underlined the brutality and violence of their world. Dispensing with the normally expected flamenco dancers and matadors, in Decker’s mind the divertissement became a malicious and cruel critique of Violetta’s life.

Even Decker’s resolution of moving without break from the second to final act was inspired, with the chorus – Violetta’s former party people – leaving her to her demise only to return later to reclaim the clock face for their ‘new’ Violetta who is even dressed in the dying courtesan’s red dress.

It was only in the closing scenes – and more as a result of her acting skills than her vocal ability – that Dessay almost convinced me that she was an almost credible Violetta even if she remained vocally bland to the end.

So while not the most disappointing La Traviata I have ever seen, this production – where the director has stripped away all artifice – requires singing and conducting of the highest standard for all the elements to fuse together effectively.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. This could have marred the entire evening had it not been for Decker’s single-minded production and – as stated above – the fact that the genius and beauty of Verdi’s music can overcome even the most mediocre singing.

A Tale of Three Operas (In Two Acts)

In Classical Music, Opera on April 24, 2011 at 2:55 am

Listening To – Il Trovatore (Domingo/Plowright/Giulini)
I recently travelled to The Met and attended performances of three operas – Die Walkure in Lepage’s new production, Capriccio and Il Trovatore. Lepage’s Die Walkure will follow in a subsequent entry but for now to Capriccio and Il Trovatore.
First, the respective casting:
Capriccio – Renee Fleming, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Peter Rose, Morten Frank Larsen & Sarah Connolly. Production – John Cox. Conductor – Andrew Litton.

Il Trovatore – Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dolora Zajick. Production – David McVicar. Conductor – Marco Armiliato.

On paper similarly strong casts. Yet in reality how differently they turned out.

Capriccio had a superlative cast and with the exception of Andrew Litton, none of them were part of the original 1998 production which featured Kiri Te Kanawa. Naturally Fleming is today’s consummate Strauss interpreter, and while in places she had a tendency to overact – something she seems to do increasingly these days – hers was an almost definitive performance, superbly supported by an incredibly strong ensemble. Of course there is Sarah Connolly, but the Flamand of Kaiser and Braun’s Olivier were vividly brought to life, beautifully sung and provided perfect foils to Rose’s La Roche. The main cast was completed by Frank Larsen’s dashing and beautifully voiced Count.

Everyone’s diction and sense of ensemble was perfect. It reminded me precisely what a gem Capriccio was – a beautifully balanced scored, full of the achingly beautiful lines of Strauss’ final years. The final scene was just ravishing.

The production was simple yet effective, transplanted to 1920s Paris without any sense of loss in terms of the specific 18th century references to Gluck and the Guerre des Bouffons. The three and half hour performance – without an interval – flew by. Before the audience knew it, Litton was launching into the orchestral prelude before the Countess’ final monologue.

Litton’s conducting – he is simply underrated in the UK – was fluid and revealed a deep understanding and love for the luminosity of Strauss final opera. The Met’s orchestra achieved a real sense of warm glow, with the wind skittering brightly throughout the score.

The standing ovation – so common at the Met where the audience gives standing ovations to every production – was richly deserved. This was almost superlative Strauss.

I am so glad that I caught this – the final – performance. And one thing suddenly crossed my mind during the performance. Perhaps she chooses neither Flamand or Olivier. She ardently defends La Roche and subsequently commissions an opera for him to direct. Now La Roche is always portrayed as an older, slightly rotund figure. Almost a cultured Baron Ochs. Now what’s to say that in fact he isn’t Madeleine’s choice, bringing words and music together with his own skills of producer/director. And it is meant to be the 18th century when women married men older than themselves. Now that would make for an interesting denouement!

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Il Trovatore. This was my first ever production of this opera. It was at the Met. What could possibly go wrong?

It was obviously conceit on the Met’s part, and perhaps a fear of not shifting tickets for a commonly performed opera, that led them to cast the original quartet of principals.

In 2009 all four were probably – I imagine – at their peak and all are renowned Verdi performers. Sadly this just wasn’t the case on the evening I attended. From the start things went awry. In the opening scene Stefan Kocan’s Ferrando lagged behind the conductor, and Radvanovsky disappointed from the start. I have her singing Tacea la notte on CD and while I realise that a studio recording is vastly different from a performance on stage, at the Met her voice was unresponsive, bland and – dare I say it – forced to the point of being more suited to steering ships through the fog. Hvorostovsky fared no better. Il balen del suo sorriso was almost painful as he struggled to sing sotto voce and failed. His conceit at holding the final note – with no finesse – simply added insult to injury.

And Ms Zajick was simply a disaster. Her voice has seen better days and now her soprano is simply ravaged. Tonally it was all over the place, there was no sense of line and simply a desperation to get to the end, which the audience obviously took for passionate interpretation.

Poor Alvarez. Lumbered with such weak colleagues he too failed to shine. The end of the Second Act, combined with terrible ham acting, was almost the nadir.

Yet the final nail in the coffin was Armiliato’s completely lacklustre conducting. Uninspired. Dull. And simply failing to find the colours, sense of breadth or rhythm that Verdi so beautifully crafted into the score.

A shame as two things almost saved the evening for me. First the chorus provided the only sense of musicality on the stage. And McVicar’s production, inspired by Goya, was suitably brooding. As I said, almost saved the evening. It is an inexcusable conceit to cast as clumsily – or greedily – as this. There are other – and better – performers who should have had the opportunity to perform this production.

Strangely the audience seemed to love it and especially the principals. Clapping rapturously after every number even when it was clear – as in the case if Ms Zajick- that she had simply failed to hit the right notes, at the right volume or make any attempt to clear enunciate her words. As I mentioned above, the Met audience – or at least the Met’s Verdi audience – seem to think it is necessary to go wild for anything and everyone.

It was all I could do to get back to my hotel and immediately listen Domingo and Plowright under Giulini’s admirable baton.

Now that’s Il Trovatore as it should be performed.

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