Sunday, May 31, 2009

Whitsun 2009 - Saturday Night

Before he began the third encore of the evening Marco Beasley (left) shyly said "I'm no opera singer," and then accompanied by Guido Morini on the harpsichord, launched into a lovely, quiet and emotional O Sole Mio. I will quite readily admit I had tears in my eyes - there are people who claim to be opera singers who don't have half his voice or ability to communicate. And it concluded a concert that only confirmed in my mind the incredible talents of Beasley, Morini and their group Accordone.

Last year they celebrated the street music of Napoli, this year the programme was a short "opera" using the life of the extraordinary Don Raimondo de'Sangro, the 18th century Napoletano nobleman, inventor, alchemist, philosopher and polymath as its inspiration. Morini (right) created music to Beasley's libretto that reflected the 1700s but did not ignore modern sonics. Ranging from the liturgical to the lyrical Morini called on period instruments, Bearsley's emotive tenor and dancer/singer Vincenzo Capezzuto to pay tribute to a man often thought to be in league with the devil, thence the title La Tentazione del Male (The Temptations of Evil.) De'Sangro's writing were used as part of the text and as where musings on the works of art he had created for his family chapel - including the miraculous Veiled Christ picture below.
Giuseppe Sanmartino's Veiled Christ was created in 1753 for di Sangro's family chapel in Napoli. The delicacy and power is a miracle of the sculptor's art. One of the wonderful things to be seen in Napoli.

This was the premiere of the work and though there was much to enjoy I would like to have heard it in another venue before passing further judgment. Beasley comes more alive when freed from the constraints of a music stand and the design of the Mozarteum Grand Hall meant that much of Capezzuto's choreography was lost to anyone sitting on the ground level. But several sections stand out as exceptional - the lyrical call to the moon, the dance elegy to the Veiled Christ and two of the tarantella inspired pieces. And every piece was imbued with the two creators obvious admiration for their fellow Napoletano.

Frankly I thought it rather daring of Accordone to premiere this work here as the Salzburg audience can be very conservative but they are audience favorites at the Festival and the almost full house gave them a warm response and demanded three encores. I've already mentioned the final one but the second was a moment of pure inspiration. Beasley announced a lovely serenata La Bella Noeva as the encore, Capezzuto appeared and began dancing. Then he circled the small orchestra and took the hand of cellist Elisabetta De Mircovich and led her over to Beasley. He placed her hand in his and after a moment her voice joined his and gazing at each other they sang of love and the joys of life. It was pure musical magic. And if that wasn't enough to make the eyesight a little blurred then as I said the next encore did the trick.
Members of Accordone, Marco Beasley and Vincenzo Capezzuto respond to the applause of last night's audience at the premiere of La Tentazione del Male.

This was the third appearance for Accordone at the Whitsun Festival, sadly they won't be back next year and I can only hope to get to see them again in Italy in the near future. They have added a dimension to the Festival theme of Napoli, a City of Memories, showing that it is very much a city that is alive and treasures its memories and traditions.

Photos of Beasley and Morini from the Accordone website.

31 maggio - Pentecoste

Whitsun 2009 - Saturday Morning

About half way through the 15 minute ovation that greeted this morning's performance of Nicola Fago's Faraone sommerso conductor Fabio Biondi (above rehearsing with Europa Galante), having acknowledged his quartet of soloists and the members of Europa Galante, turned to the still cheering audience and held up the score. It wasn't just us that you're cheering he was saying - it was this glorious piece of forgotten music. And that was the great difference between last evening's performance of Jommelli's Demofoonte and the Saturday matinee. To my ears, at least, Fago's oratorio was far superior to Jommelli's opera seria and gave the festival a much needed impetus.

Though 60 odd years separate the two - as close as we can figure Faraone was written in 1709, Jommelli's 4th setting of Demofoonte in 1770 - their form is essentially the same. Oratorios were really only an attempt to get around the ban on operas during Lent - the action is moved along in recitative and then commented on in arias. Each part closes with a choral finale. The earlier work's libretto, by an unknown source, is the more concise of the two but still gives plenty of room for emotional outpourings and musical variety. And Fago - a composer of whom little is know - supplied an endless variety of music - menancing, contempletive and dramatic.

And there was more variety of voices - a soprano, contralto, tenor and bass assumed the roles of a Messenger, Aaron, Moses and Pharaoh respectively. And a remarkable quartet they were both vocally and dramatically. Though the performance was unstaged the four interacted with looks, gestures and reactions - and at the request of the performers we held our applause until the end which meant we erupted in wild, stomping applause at the conclusion of both parts.

Tenor James Gilchrist brought a clear ringing sound and some incredible colouratura to Moise's arias and his voice blended beautifully in duet with Marianne Beate Kielland's Aarone. Kielland had a sound that was at times almost that of a counter tenor, whither she did this intentionally I'm not sure but it gave extra depth to her character. Farone is perhaps the most interestingly of the roles and bass Havard Stensvold gave it a powerful reading filled with menace. With some of the most beautiful music in the oratorio Lucia Cirillo as the Messenger drew vivid musical pictures of God's wrath on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt as well as poignancy to her second act aria, though occasionally a touch of period singing "hoot" did creap in.

Biondi led the performance from the first violin desk and gave the score an affectionate if taut reading - it is a piece which he obviously loves. His group takes an obvious joy in playing this music and special praise should go to violist Stefano Marocchi, theorbo player Patxi Montero, harpsichordist Paola Poncet and organist Francesco Barone who supported the recitatives and many of the arias with elegance and virtuosity.

After the they had returned to the stage for the 8th or 9th time and in response to our stomping and clapping Biondi announced - rather delightfully beginning the sentence in Italian trying to continue in German and ending up in English - that they would encore the quartet that ended the first part. It was as delightful the second time and the cheering was renewed.

Damn this is what festival music is all about.

Photos above are from the Salzburg Festival website and are respectively Gilchrist, Kielland, Stensvold and Cirillo.

31 maggio - Visitazione della Beata Vergine

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Whitsun 2009 - Friday Night

Riccardo Muti, the singers and orchestra take their bows on opening night of Demofoonte.

My friend OC - the one who got me hooked on this Whitsun Festival thing - decided not to show up this year, another chance for a chat and an aperitivo missed. The reasons she gave were interesting and in many ways prophetic:
This year, though, she's staying home, because as yummy as Demel's Esterhazytorte, as historically informed Tomaselli's coffee is, between the fact that Jommelli's musical talent is not on the same level of Paisiello's absolute genius and that Demofoonte, no disrespect intended, is simply not as engaging as Calandrino's crazy antics, OC chose to sit this edition out.
I'm sorry to say she's right. Despite all the efforts that Riccardo Muti, his talented cast and Orchestra Giovanni Luigi Cherubini put into the performance there was not escaping the fact that Demofoonte just didn't do it for me.

For almost four hours we followed the story of the Thracen King and his family - through secret - and possibly incestuous - marriages, switched babies and immovable monarchs and frankly when everyone came down to the fore stage to sing about living happily ever after I was relieved that it was finally over.

Again it had nothing to do with the performance and everything to do with what was being performed. Only when he broke out of the mold of opera seria did Jommelli's score take wing - the trio that turns into a duet ending Act 1, the passages of accompanied recitative and the heartbreaking duet that ended Act 2 all had a power that was lacking in much of the rest of the music. And sadly all the love and work that Muti put into seemed like it could have been directed to something else.

Muti had gathered a cast of young singers - in the case of countertenor Antonio Giovannini too young to be convincing as the old nobleman - and coached them with loving care. Soprano Maria Grazia Shiavo (left with Lo Monaco), as the much put upon Dircea, was the obvious star of the evening closely followed by mezzo Jose Maria Lo Monaco in the travesty role of her husband Timante. In both arias and ensemble passages the two gave intense, dramatic performances and their performance of the fore mentioned duet was the dramatic high point of the evening. Tenor Dmitry Korchak was a ringing Demofoonte but again was unconvincing as a character - though that may have been as much Jommelli's fault as his.

Of the secondary singers Eleonora Buratto (right with Coladonato)as the foreign princess Creusa showed promise of something special on her initial entrance that unfortunately was unfulfilled. Valentina Coladonato sang her arias well but behaved like a young Cherubini with a clothing fetish. For some reason director Cesare Lievi had decided to treat these two as comic figures however most of it was either flat or in the case of Coladonato sniffing Creusa's clothing embarrassing.
Margaret Palli's stage set is strewn with obstacles for the singers.

Despite his lengthy programme note I did not find that Lievi brought anything original to the staging other than having the two singers en travesti behaving like Principal Boys from Christmas pantomine and the feeble attempts at humour. And frankly I am getting tired of settings that require singers to clamber over inclines and uneven platforms. Yes we know that the world is topsy turvey but singers need two feet planted firmly on the ground to give their best. And I'm sorry but if the damned surtitles say "I give you my hand as a pledge of my fidelity!" shouldn't the singer be doing exactly that not potting a plant?

Rather surprisingly the horn section of the Cherubini had a bit of trouble with the interlude March and were ragged in a few other spots. Otherwise Muti drew from them their normal high standard of playing - its just that what they were playing wasn't very interesting.

As a side note Muti has choosen a Jommelli oratorio Betulia liberta to end next year's Festival and it will be bookended by the young Mozart's setting of the same libretto. It will be interesting to see how the 15 year old genius from Salzburg compares to his older colleague.

Photographs by Sylvia Lelli - from Salzburg Festival Webside.

30 maggio - San Giovanna d'Arco

Friday, May 29, 2009

Whitsun 2009 - Pfingstfestspeile

This is the third year of Riccardo Muti’s 5 year tenure as Artistic Director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival and the programme again highlights music of the Napoletano school.Riccardo Muti - photo by Silvia LelliMuti is, of course, a native of Napoli and its been rumored that one of his favorite pass-times is to delve into dusty old scores from the various Napoletano conservatories that flooded the world with composers, musicians and singers during the 18th and 19th centuries. This year he unearthed an opera seria, Demofoonte, by a greatly admired and lauded composer of his period, Niccolo Jommelli. We’ll be hearing Jommelli’s third setting of one of Pietro Metastasio's most often set libretti. The great Roman born poet was the source of most opera seria of the period. It was said that his lines often sang themselves and his sense of drama and pacing was unparalleled. His subjects were often mythical, sometimes historical and always involved love unrequited or thwarted, identity mistaken and royal power as both a force of corruption and beneficence.

Opera seria had its conventions - recitative, most often only accompanied by harpsichord and bass continuo, moved the story along and arias allowed the characters to give vent to their reactions to what had just happened. At the end of an aria the singer always exited the stage whither it made dramatic sense or not. Duets where uncommon, trios even less so and choruses tended to be sung by the principals only at the conclusion as the clemency of Tito or glory of Caesar were praised by all and sundry - including often characters who had met a grizzly end but were resurrected because a bass or contralto line was needed to swell the ranks. The castrati ruled the stage - those “singing capons” who also were a product of both the barber’s knife and the music schools of Napoli. The Caesar who sang of “coming, seeing and conquering” did so in a contralto or soprano voice while holding a heroic pose center stage sporting a plume bedecked helmet. Giovanni Velutti (right), one of the last great castrati, had the height of the plumes stipulated in his contract - he also demanded a dramatic entrance on horseback whither justified by the action or not. Given that castration is frowned upon today - a good thing unless you're really looking for authenticity - these roles are often sung my women, though the sudden wealth of counter tenors these days has seen a return to men in the roles. Muti has chosen women for the main roles and counter tenors for the secondary characters.

But we will be hearing the popular French counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky in concert of heroic arias on Sunday morning - following the old tradition matinee at Salzburg means late morning. Saturday morning brings a matinee by Fabio Bondi and his Europa Galante - Farone Sommerso, an almost unknown cantata by Francesco Nicola Fago retelling the story of Pharaoh's swimming accident in the Red Sea. That evening Accordone, one of my favorite groups, will be presenting a new programme intriguingly called The Temptations of Evil and inspired by the Napoletano scholar, alchemist, arts patron and all-round eccentric Raimondo de'Sangro. The Festival concludes Monday morning with a performance of Paisiello’s Mass for the Dead conducted by Muti with a cast of young singers in the Felsenreitschole - most familiar as the place where Julie Andrews and the kids did their disappearing act from the nasty Nazis.And of course the maestro will, as he was for the opera, be leading his exceptional group of young musicians - the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini. This group of young musicians changes regularly as they serve an exceptional apprenticeship under Muti and then move on to the major orchestras of the world.

Its going to be a full weekend but then that’s what a Festival should be.

Photos: Riccardo Muti by Silvia Lelli; Philippe Jaroussky by Simon Fowler

30 maggio - Santa Giovanna d'Arco

Whitsun 2009 - A Room with A View

Last year we tried to live up to the ornate stucco ceiling of our room at the Hotel Stein - this year we're try to live up to a room that is just a bit - a whole big bit - larger and frankly a whole lot more splendid that some stucco donkey. Somehow or other we landed the Tuscany Room at the Hotel Bristol.

The Bristol is one of the few remaining family owned hotels in town and I've walked by it on many occasions during my visits to Salzburg but didn't really think I could afford to stay there. So imagine my surprise when I found a special deal while searching for a hotel on January past. I snapped it up immediately but was still thinking it was going to be some poky little room in the attic but that isn't the way the Bristol does things.

We were greeted at the front desk by a very pleasant young lady who simply asked for a signature, brushed aside the offer of our passports and escorted us to our room.

Through the double doors:

Into a hallway:

Thence (hey we're talking elegant here I can use "thence") the enormous bedroom. Look mom we got a sitting and a study area.

And the bathroom isn't too shabby either:
And I decided to see how their guest services worked - splendidly! I had my suit and dress shirt pressed and returned to the room within an hour. I could get use to all this!

29 maggio - Santa Restituta

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Holiday Snaps - Bolzano - Duomo Di Maria Assunta

The architectural masterpiece in Bolzano is the glorious Gothic Cathedral off the Piazza Walther von der Vogelweide (I'm using the Italian names but everything here is displayed in both Italian and German.) Built as a basilica in the days of early Christianity to was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in 1180 and again in the 14th century in its present Gothic form.
It is best viewed from the piazza as on all other sides it is hemmed in by buildings from a later time. A fair bit of damage was done to it during the fierce fighting at the end of the Second World War and there has been extensive restoration and reconstruction. The filigree steeple was completed in 1517 and was the work of Hans Lutz von Schussenriedand. It's said that when it was first built the locals where afraid to ring the bells for fear it would topple.

Strangely its best exterior features - such as the side entrance and the two frescoes above from the School of Giotto - face onto the piazza. The second fresco is said to represent a pilgrim - recognizable by his walking stick, bag and the large money pouch on his belt (cynics say that you always needed a large money bag to visit Bolzano). The main entrance is rather nondescript and is guarded by the traditional - weather beaten - lions.
I found the high altar just a bit too baroque for my tastes but then I do tend towards the Gothic. There is something refreshing about soaring gothic arches, particularly after the glut of gilt and glorioled cherubs of the churches of Roma.
But the four side altars have some of the finest examples of 17th century carving I've ever seen. The four triptych represent Christ the King, The Baptizing of Christ, The Founding of the Duomo and Mary, Queen of Heaven. A right click on any of them will expand the centre panel.
I wasn't sure who this Saint is on the 3rd triptych - part of his iconography is a deer with the crucifix between its antlers. Anyone got any ideas?

Prior to his work on the steeple von Schussenriedand created the sandstone pulpit; though the scenes of the Doctors of the Church with the Four Evangelists on the panels are interesting I found the small figures that adorne it the most intriguing.
I am always captivated by the woodworkers art and there are two wonderful examples from entirely different eras on display in the Duomo. The confessionals show a heavy influence of Art Nouveau, while this saucy lion with the long tongue graces an old choir pew from an earlier time.

28 maggio - Sant'Emilio

The Weekly GPP*

And did you honestly think that just because we have headed out on vacation there wouldn’t be a gratuitous puppy item this week?

Our Nora tends to get these soulful looks - as feisty as she appeared when I first saw her. She seems the more social of the two and loves to be cuddled.

On Tuesday morning Laurent took the kids back to the Casa di Orsi, where they were born - no we are not returning Nicky and Nora, the people there also operate a complete boarding service. When he arrived Signora Tiziana had their mothers waiting and strangely they both immediately ran to their respective dames! Laurent was a bit surprised but Emmanuela, who is looking after them, said that is not unusual as the scent is still familiar.

Our Nicky is turning into a little bugger - constantly bothering Nora and wanting to fight with her. He only wants to be cuddled when he wants it ... that is one hell of a look of defiance.

And surprise, surprise Nicky tried to play smart Alick with his mother. But Giverny was having none of that puppy play, for his pains he got a nip and a shake and suddenly became all subservient. As we are discovering he is the trouble maker in the household and is going to require a firm hand - or maybe a nip and a shake.

*Gratuitous Puppy Pictures

28 maggio - San Just

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Holiday Snaps - Bolzano

And this is what we see from our hotel room balcony!

And though its only at 836 ft, the air here in Bolzano has a sweet clean smell. And I haven't heard one ambulance or honking car horn since I arrived. Let's hope the weather holds tomorrow and that the forecast 13 degree high with rain for Salzburg on Friday is the weatherman's miscalculation. He's been wrong on so many occasions why would this be an exception?

27 maggio - Sant'Emilio