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2 August - Beaune

  • It is some time since I last heard Handel's Serse, an endearing work with its mixture of comic and serious elements and its refusal to follow conventional structural obligations. Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort, occasionally out of sorts, never lost track of the fact that this is theatrical music. Susan Bickley in the title role coped magnificently with the difficult music, expressive in lament, not forgetting the comic aspect of the opening "Largo", and showing control over a more than two-octave range of which the composer explores every corner. Brian Asawa, the heldencountertenor, left a large public open-mouthed in the role of Arsamenes as he outsang Hilary Summers's Amastre at every opportunity, her miniscule, colorless voice, sounding more like a countertenor than Asawa himself. Sandrine Piau and Alison Hagley as the rival sisters were nicely contrasted, but Piau would do us all a big favor if she were to relax just a tiny bit. Christopher Purves made the most of his comic opportunities, occasionally to the detriment of intonation, while Stephen Richardson held the fort in his two arias and the occasional ensemble. A worthy close to this year's Festival.



26 July - Montpellier

  • Occasionally critics are allowed to enjoy themselves, and it is for such occasions as the rediscovery of Ernest Bloch's Macbeth that we are almost prepared to forgive René Koering for his annual act of self-indulgence (see 16 July). Bloch's misfortune is that Verdi's opera, totally forgotten in 1910 when this version was premiered, has since taken over, and as we seem to find it difficult to put up with more than one opera on the same theme it has gone the way of Leoncavallo's Boheme, Paisiello's Barber of Seville, etc. Only Massenet and Puccini seem able to coexist. This is magnificent music by a 24-year-old composer, somewhat influenced by Debussy and Wagner but still capable of finding his own voice. Friedemann Layer and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier played at an adrenaline-inspired level, while Jean-Philippe Lafont and Markella Hatziano in the leading roles took advantage of every opportunity in parts written with little consideration for human capacity. Macbeth is almost constantly onstage, while Lady Macbeth's role is written over a wide range, from high notes that have to pop out of nowhere to contralto low notes. Both singers were totally engaged, and while Hatziano's French may not be perfect her comprehension is. A libretto by Edmond Fleg gives us the Porter's scene, here humorously (gallows sort) by Marcel Vanaud, while the three Witches are far more atmospheric than the generalized chorus used by Verdi.



21-24 July - Home

  • Listening to Richard Strauss's Guntram on the radio, live from Montpellier, I am struck by the apprenticelike traits of the piece: the tenor writing is ferociously and unremittingly heroic and Gary Lakes did more than his best to surmount the difficulties and the tessitura of the title role. Susan Anthony's laser-like soprano seemed to have little problem with a role written for the future Frau Strauss. Christoph Perick and the Orchestre National de France sail through the score, only occasionally at odds with one another. Rain prevents me from going to Fourvière for the Orchestre National de Lyon performing Mahler's 2nd under Eliahu Inbal. I decide to listen to the new Philips recording of Verdi's first opera, Oberto (454 472-2). Despite individual points of excellence in the first two recorded versions of the opera (Bergonzi on Orfeo, for example), Sir Neville Marriner leads what is now the version of choice. Far from subtle, Oberto benefits from a lighter Donizettian approach than is customary in Verdi performances. The major surprise is Maria Guleghina as the first of Verdi's Leonoras, her leather-lunged approach in live performances to the roles of Abigaille and Lady Macbeth leaving us totally unprepared for the almost delicate touch she applies here. Violeta Urmana offers more pleasure, her mezzo voice absolutely even over its entire range, never forced and always musical, yet finding sufficient means to create emotion when necessary. Samuel Ramey is still able to muster sufficient power for the title role, the only member of the cast to supply decorations for the second verse of his cabaletta. Only Stuart Neill's Riccardo disappoints in this company, his unsubtle approach detracting from his only acceptable vocalism. Placing us further in their debt, Philips includes three numbers Verdi placed in an appendix to his score, a duet for the two women, and a new aria for Cuniza (the mezzo) plus a much improved version of her duet with Riccardo. And thank you as well for having the courage to cast outside the usual channels for singers rather than obeying what is too often the automatic gesture of calling in Cheryl Studer. Once again Actes Sud has produced a fascinating monograph, Claude Debussy: La musique et le mouvant by Jean-François Gautier. The title is virtually untranslatable, "Music and self-transformation" being a possibility. Gautier takes pains to demonstrate Debussy's links to Palestrina, Bach and Couperin and at the same time points out that the modernists' adoption of Debussy may be misplaced. The discussion of Jeux is enlightening in this respect. Early on, we are told (in my own inadequate translation): "The only revolution initiated by Debussy in his lifetime consisted of a reversal of conventional points of view; to compose, certainly, not at a distance or hiding from technical aspects, but as a total person. All the rest, the harmonic and structural upsets that caused so much ink to flow, was nothing but the practical consequence of this essentially poetic stance." Highly recommended.



19-20 July - Beaune

  • The 15th annual Baroque Music Festival offers much of interest to lovers of vocal music, and also serves as testing grounds for recording projects. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques served up Traetta's Antigona, heard previously in the 20th century only in 1962. Antigona dates from 1772 and shows that Gluck was not the only reform composer of his time, Traetta offering major building blocks rather than single numbers. A well-chosen cast lived its way through the work, Maria Bayo in the title role projecting at 200 percent all evening. The soft-grained soprano of Anna-Maria Panzarella offered an interesting contrast while the luscious contralto of Laura Polverelli in the castrato role gave total pleasure. Gilles Ragon may occasionally be too emphatic in his utterances, but again the contrast with the more mellifluous Carlo Allemano was instructive. Oiseau-Lyre immediately set to work following the concert. Rousset's appearance last year at Beaune with Handel's Rinaldo was not recorded for reasons of contractual constraints (Bartoli and Hogwood have already reserved the work), but Mondonville's Fêtes de Paphos (Oiseau-Lyre 455 084-2, three cds) were given the honors of a recording. A performance at Versailles was followed by studio sessions with the same effective cast, but it is difficult to convince us of more than a surface interest, the music lacking the depth which the composer's contemporaries were able to supply. On its own terms, the work is charming and the talents of Sandrine Piau, Véronique Gens and Agnès Mellon (the last much helped by the microphones) are matched by the matchless Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. Olivier Lallouette outshines Peter Harvey in the baritone range, while Rousset is his usual ebullient self. Eduardo Lopez-Banzo and Al Ayre Español have been giving concerts since 1988 and are under contract to Deutsche Harmonia Mundi which has struck gold with all three recordings so far issued. Antonio de Literes, a prolific composer at the start of the 18th century, supplied much sacred and secular music for the court and the aristocracy. Los Elementos was receiving its first performance since its creation in 1704 or 5. An allegorical interlude, subtitled Opera armonica al estilo ytaliano, there are five soprano roles (here sung by four sopranos) plus a solo baritone and a countertenor for the ensemble sections. The music is long on charm if short on characterization but the foretaste of what the composer is capable - as demonstrated in excerpts from Azis y Galatea in Volume 2 of their series of recordings - whets the appetite for next summer.



17 July - Lyons

  • An all-Gershwin concert with the Orchestre National de Lyon under Emmanuel Krivine, featured Roberta Alexander in excerpts from Porgy and Bess and Leon Bates in Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra remains one of France's hidden treasures, playing with a cohesion that its Parisian rivals should envy. Ms. Alexander gave an object lesson in how this music should be sung, indicating but not stressing the ethnic roots. Bates, however, is an enigma - I haven't heard so many wrong notes from a professional in a long time, while his encore of the Variations on I Got Rhythm was anything but rhythmic. Encores were a Kosma arrangement of that old Glenn Miller favorite, In the Mood, and a rhapsodic version of Ravel's Bolero. A pleasant evening at the Roman Theater at Fourvières, made even more pleasant as a result of the acoustic shell which was especially efficacious.



16 July - Montpellier

  • Oscar Straus's Lustige Nibelungen fell victim this year to René Koering's annual act of self-indulgence. Koering translated, adapted and staged a piece called Ces Sacrés Nibelungen! in what was presumably meant to be an amusing fashion, but which forgot that in order for a parody to be funny the performers must be dead serious. It is interesting to note that while screaming for additional funds, Radio France finds the money to support such futilities each summer. Enrique Diemecke and the Orchestre de Montpellier tried to find the core but the lack of fusion with the onstage activities made this impossible. What a waste of the talents of Françoise Pollet and a much-slimmed-down Michèle Lagrange.



8-14 July - Home

  • Anne Sofie Von Otter scores again with her newest album of opera arias from the classical age - Gluck, Haydn, Mozart - conducted by Trevor Pinnock (Archiv 449 206-2). After other recent and equally flawless discs devoted to Mahler-Zemlinsky or Swedish songs, Von Otter returns to a period which also suits her to perfection. In the two longest selections on the disc - from Lucio Silla and Clemenza di Tito - it is the recitatives which are especially striking for the dramatic urgency conveyed, while the flawless musicality brought to the arias themselves is breathtaking. It is also in the recitative to Elvira's aria that all charges of coldness often attributed to this performer are laid to rest. But what a range of characters - Cherubino, Elvira, Zerlina, Vitellia and others by Mozart, Orfeo and Alceste by Gluck, not to mention Haydn - in this portrait gallery, only Haydn's Alcina is a bit over the top as Von Otter tries to bring out the humor in a role which does not really have any. But this is a minor flaw. Pinnock and The English Concert are as enthusiastic as the singer they accompany, offering stylish playing, especially in the many obbligato lines. Inva Mula's participation in The Fifth Element aroused my curiosity, so I went to the movies, not expecting much from Luc Besson, but I had a great time. The sheer excess, operatic if you will, immediately caught my attention, from the costumes to Bruce Willis's offhand reactions to the events around him. But what a surprise to hear the voice that emerged in a portion of Lucia's Mad Scene, confirming the impression of a few weeks ago in Colmar.



4-7 July - Colmar

  • Following a tradition of dedicating each year's festival to a performing artist, the 9th Festival International de Colmar was an Hommage to Pablo Casals, with no fewer than 13 cellists participating as soloists, not to mention various chamber music ensembles. The moving force behind the festival is violinist Vladimir Spivakov, directing a chamber orchestra, his Virtuoses de Moscou. The programs were fascinating, most of the cello playing superb, but Spivakov's talents as a conductor leave much to be desired - and one of my colleagues confided that Spivakov has improved significantly in the last few years. Unforgettable is the only word applicable to Mischa Maisky in Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto on the opening night of the festival, visibly experiencing his emotions, wearing an outfit which would not have looked out of place in Star Trek. But what playing. Sonia Wieder-Atherton and Raphaël Oleg's lunchtime chamber concert the next day featured what may be the only two works written for violin and cello, the Duos by Kodaly and Ravel. Stephen Isserlis may be devoted to the music of his contemporaries, but that seems little reason to inflict the inanities of John Tavener's Eternal Memory on an audience, particularly when followed by a useless orchestral transcription of Bloch's From Jewish Life. Antonio Meneses rescued the second evening with his pointed playing of Haydn's D major concerto, after the orchestra had gummed its way through Roussel's Sinfonietta and Haydn's 85th Symphony. Peter Wispelwey's renditions of two Vivaldi concerti on the third evening seemed totally out of sync with the orchestra's unstylish playing, while Mikhaïl Milman, first cellist of the orchestra, was clearly having an off night. And then Inva Mula arrived on stage to sing four Mozart arias, including one of my all-time favorites, K. 418, "Vorrei spiegarvi", elegantly dispatched despite one forgivably ungainly swoop over more than two octaves. And then I returned home, missing a great many concerts which were certainly enticing, including Casals' oratorio El Pessebre played by Michel Plasson and the Orchestre de Toulouse. The city of Colmar remains a marvel, with its lovingly maintained city center, its museum which houses the Isenheim altarpiece familiar to devotees of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler and the warm reception accorded to visitors.


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