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By Patricia Boccadoro

VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 12 AUGUST 2009 — For the past couple of years, people have been complaining that the quality of the concerts at the festival of Verbier in Switzerland is not what it used to be. Recitals of certain artists, such as Evgeny Kissin, may be as exciting and flawless as ever, but criticism is growing as regards chamber music, when musicians have been too summarily thrown together. False notes abound in programmes hurriedly assembled, where many "big-time" stars have not the time to rehearse, and where each musician seems intent on out-doing his colleagues rather than creating something together. Doing one's own thing seems to be replacing those wonderful musical conversations of the past.

However, nothing could have been further from the truth regarding the recital in concert of Mozart's masterpiece, Don Giovanni, one of the highlights of the festival. I took my seat, unaware of certain last minute changes of cast with the withdrawal of Susan Graham, Edita Gruberova and Matthew Polenzani, and simply enjoyed the entire evening. If the first part of the work could be considered a little shaky, then the second half - when Anna Samuil, Annette Dasch and Michael Schade, their replacements, shone in their roles - was positively stunning.

While the opening scene - wherein the Commendatore (Thomas Quasthoff) is killed in a swordfight by Giovanni (the jovial giant, Bryn Terfel) - did not convince, Terfel, a tubby Welshman, succeeded in imposing his own very nasty interpretation of the unpleasant Italian seducer. Although playing a murderer and womanizer devoid of any moral sense, he imposed as the hero of the opera by his larger-than-life personality, turning on his Welsh charm and humour with each woman his character met.

With only one grand aria, "La ci darem la mano," with Zerlina to his credit, Terfel dominated the stage until Giovanni comes up against divine justice and meets a bitter end. Not least, there was the splendid interpretation by the incomparable René Pape as Leporello. Voted "Voice of the Year" by the magazine Musical America in 2002, he was also the "Voice of Verbier," 2009. His presence in the cast of this opera lifted it into another sphere, as the loud and lengthy applause at the end acknowledged. He gave a superb performance.

René Pape
Photo: Aline Paley

However, the two great revelations of the evening were the young soprano, Sylvia Schwartz in the role of Zerlina and 24-year-old Robert Gleadow as Masseto. Schwartz, born in London, first came to Verbier four years ago to study with Thomas Quasthoff, gaining the Academy Voice Prize as well as the Thierry Mermod Prize. She was invited to sing the role of Zerlina at La Scala the following year, a role to which she is ideally suited. Small, dark, slender and very pretty, she has made the role her own.

The charismatic young Canadian baritone, Robert Gleadow, winner of the Jette Parker Programme for Young Artists at Covent Garden, gave a brilliant interpretation of the naïve, blundering Masseto, the inferior in every way to the seductive Don Giovanni. The Verbier Festival Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honeck, gave a commendable performance.

However, disappointment set in the following evening with the "Carte Blanche à Lang Lang," featuring a poor interpretation of Rachmaninov's Trio for piano, violin, and cello, a piece written in four days by the composer. Did the festival directors thus believe it could be played with perhaps four hours of rehearsal? It was followed by an even poorer interpretation of Tchaikovsky's, A la memoire d'un grand artiste, opus 50. The problem lay in the fact that the three musicians, Lang Lang, Vadim Repin and Misha Maisky, were vastly under-rehearsed. They were out of tune with each other, agitated, and possibly unhappy about being obliged to play pieces for which they were unprepared. Hopefully, audiences will get a second chance to hear these pieces played by these prestigious artists under better conditions in the future.

The evening did not improve with the arrival on stage of three of the world's most exceptional singers, Quasthoff, Pape and Terfel, in a pell-mell of popular songs from Broadway. One could have hoped for an evening comparable to those made famous by the three tenors, Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras, but no. It was dominated by the antics of Thomas Quasthoff, showing off and playing to the audience with his ridiculous grimaces and tasteless jokes. He ruined the evening with his embarrassing version of "There is Nothing Like a Dame", sung in a phony American accent. Why didn't the festival organizers suggest this performance might be better suited for an evening at his local pub?

Bryn Terfel, Thomas Quasthoff, René Pape
Photo: Aline Paley

Bryn Terfel, in an excellent take-off of Gordon MacRae, opened the proceedings with a lusty version of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from Oklahoma!. He, on the other hand, was entirely at home with a medley of songs from American musicals, working his way happily through many of the thigh-slapping tunes from Broadway's golden days. His colleagues were brought into the game by the ingenious, "Anything You Can Do," which proved funny for the first five minutes but which rapidly palled and became most irritating. Only René Pape, ill-at-ease in this amateur karaoke competition, emerged with any dignity, with a most beautiful rendering of "Some Enchanted Evening," from South Pacific. It, and the other two highly romantic songs he interpreted, including, "If Ever I Would Leave You," saved the evening from being a total disaster.

The Verbier Festival & Academy, with its clique of glamorous stars arriving by helicopter and staying in private chalets with Jacuzzis, seems to be turning into a glorified "Club Med" where musicians can put up their feet and where music is relegated to second place. It's time to re-invite the purer, less commercial artists of the caliber of Steven Isserlis, whose tribute to Schumann with Jeremy Denk remains a reference, to temper the excessive displays of conspicuous "bling" currently dogging events. Even the village of Verbier itself, with the jostling crowds, is losing its charm, becoming the Saint-Tropez of Switzerland. It was a relief to return to the quiet beauty of Paris.

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.com

BOOK TIP: All titles are chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

This positively ravishing addition to the Knopf series of Complete Lyrics is essential for anyone with a love of classic Broadway show writing or a serious interest in the history of American musical theatre.

The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II
By Oscar Hammerstein II

Edited by Amy Asch
Foreword by Alice Hammerstein Mathias
Introduction by Ted Chapin
Hardcover: 448 pages
Knopf (November 2008)
ISBN-10: 0375413588
ISBN-13: 978-0375413582

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