Thursday, May 23, 2013

Salzburger Zeitung 2013 - Third Edition

Dateline:  May 23, 2013:

After the Schiff concert on Saturday we headed to the Cafe Bazar for lunch.  It was sunny, warm and a long weekend so of course the terrace was full - not a table to be had.  Fortunately the terrace of the  Cafe Sacher is right next door - but, no surprise, the same held true there.  As we stood, no doubt looking a touch forlorn if not underfed, an older gentleman waved at us and motioned to the two empty chairs at his table.  I had forgotten that it is not unusual to share tables in Cafes here with total strangers - invasion of personal space being a very North American concern.  So we gratefully joined the gentleman and his wife at a table that was perfect - one seat in the sun for me, the other in the shade for Laurent.

 - Picture of Cafe Sacher, Salzburg
This photo of Cafe Sacher is courtesy of TripAdvisor

We tucked into a pleasant lunch and soon found ourselves in conversation with Herr and Frau Schmid.  Both were born in small towns in the region, moved to Salzburg over 40 years ago and have travelled extensively throughout the world.  We chatted excitedly about the Norma, exchanged anecdotes about earlier Festivals and Herr Schmid shared one of those stories that proves the world is small and seems to get smaller every day.

When he was in his teens there were still American forces in the Salzburg area where he and his family lived.  His father was a pianist in a small dance band that played at their local gasthaus on weekends.  His uncle played, if I recall, the clarinet and Herr Schmid  would fill in on the accordion from time to time.  They kept up with all the latest hits from America and where popular with the service men.

Many years later while their son Benjamin was studying at the Curtis Institute Herr Schmid paid him a visit him in Philadelphia.  He had a suitcase that needed repaired and took it into a shop where - and given the ease with which we entered into conversation I can believe this - he soon got into a lively conversation with the shop owner.  The usual pleasantries were exchanged - where are you from etc.  When he heard the name of Herr Schmid's home town he looked surprised.  The owner had serviced near there in the early 1950s and had fond memories of Saturday night dances when he and his buddies were allowed out on leave passes.  He then pointed to a photo on the wall behind his counter - there was a young GI learning against a piano, cigarette suspended from his lips, Herr Schmid's father at the piano, his uncle standing clarinet in hand and seated between them a young man playing the accordion.  There in a shop 5000 miles from home he had found a memory of his youth.  The world is indeed small.

Sunday May 19:  Biblesches Opfer
Grosser Saal - Mozarteum: 1100

To the best of my knowledge none of Jommelli's
90-odd operas have ever graced the stage of the
Palais Garnier but his person is represented on
the facade. Perhaps it is meant to commemorate
the reforms he brought to opera of the period.
Though I had heard of Nicolò Jommelli he was largely a name from the music history books; during the mid-1700s he was a composer of great renown in Northern Italy, Rome and at the court in Stuttgart before returning to his native Napoli. During the Muti years at the Whitsun Festival the maestro had featured two of Jommelli's works: Demofoonte, one of his opera seria and La Betulia liberata, perhaps his best known oratorio. In both cases, after hearing the works, I questioned the need for revival. True the opera had several fascinating passages of accompanied recitative and a trio that with some originality morphed into a duet, however I admit to remembering almost nothing about the oratorio.

Looking back to the baroque roots of the Festival and, perhaps even to the Muti years, another Jommelli oratorio had been programmed for this year: Isacco figura di Redentore. The Old Testament story of Abraham and Issac is the first great sacrifice myth of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and in this version by the great Pietro Metastasio is linked with the sacrifice of Christ in the purely Christian tradition. Each time I hear a work with a libretto by the prolific Italian I am struck by the beauty of his language and his sense of drama. In the style of the Greeks much of the action takes place off stage and then is narrated in language both vivid and poetic by the participants. The description of the death of Holoferness by Judith in Betulia liberata is truly one of the most horrifying descriptions of a murder written in any language. Strangely four years after the fact I still recall Alisa Kolosova in Mozart's setting of those words – but of the Jommelli from the same year I recall nothing.

On Saturday I was struck not by the arias – as fine as examples as they were of the AABAA format – but by the recitative including passages of accompanied recitative that built to dramatic climaxes. I grew up listening to opera when recitatives were delivered to the plucking of a harpsichord at a rattling pace – for god's sake let's get this over with – by singers who's command of the language was often just phonetic parroting.  Or often  those bothersome recitatives would be cut to the bare bones and the opera almost became nothing more than a live "greatest hits" compilation.   One of the joys of this past weekend was hearing, both in the Norma and the Isacco, recitatives being used  as they were intended – to drive the story along and give the works their dramatic form.

The Angel of the Lord (Nuria Rial) brings the Lord's message
of redemption through Abramo's willingness to sacrifice his son
At times Fasolis seemed to be singing along with the soloists.
Diego Fasolis and his ensemble did indeed bring a sense of drama to the events unfolding that made it more than pretty period music. Unfortunately the mood was frequently broken by the singers acknowledging the applause – particularly Franco Fagioli, a good counter tenor, who's stage mannerisms are excessive even for a HIP performer. Roberta Invernizzi has made a remarkable career as a singer of baroque music but her's has never been one of those cool, sexless period voices - her Sara was a woman of fire, passion and devotion. The accompanied recitative and aria that began the second part spoke of Sara's anguish, anger and deep love for her family and her God and Invernizzi  poured all of that into her performance. Bass Carlo Lepore was an effective Gamari, the faithful servant and Nuria Rial delivered the Angel's messages of horror and redemption with silvery purity – as with all the singers their use of the language was exceptional.

Roberta Invernizzi and Javier Camarena as
Abramo and his wife Sara ponder the wishes
of a God who has given them a son in their
old age only to demand he be sacrificed.
The young Mexican tenor Javier Camarena delivered an impassioned Abraham – confused by his God's unfeeling command, eventually bending to his will and finally rejoicing in his compassion. The final accompanied recitative and arrioso, where Metastasio links God's sacrifice of his son to the Abrahamic story, was delivered simply and with stunning clarity.

Of Fagioli I am of two minds: his countertenor is sweet, even and with only a slight break as he dips into the mezzo range but his stage manner is affected to the extreme. As with the other singers his Issaco was delivered with conviction and a sense of drama but I found myself closing my eyes so as not to be distracted by the contortions taking place on stage.

I Barocchisti are not one of those twee early music ensembles that play pretty music – they have real “fire in the belly”. And Fasolis is not a conductor to linger – he moved the piece along giving it both pace and grace. From my vantage point I was able to watch the work of the horn and trumpet players – I am always astounded by the sounds they are able to produce on valveless instruments. It also makes me wonder why French horn sections of many orchestras – particularly Italian ensembles – with their modern instruments seem to have so many problems.

Diego Fasolis, the soloists, I Barocchisti and Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera take their bows
at the end of Saturday morning's matinee of Jommelli's Isacco figura di Redentore.
I have now heard three of Jommelli's works – all three at Salzburg and all three in remarkable performances by remarkable performers. I do hope fans of early music fans will forgive me for misquoting Mr Bennet but:  thank you Signor Jommelli, you have contrived to delight me quite enough.

Sidebar:  We met Javier Camarena and his family at the hotel after the performance and congratulated him on his performance. We chatted briefly about this being his first “baroque” role and how coming from largely a bel canto repertoire he enjoyed the challenge and the importance of the recitatives. I was pleased to see that he will be returning next year on slightly more familiar ground as Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola.

All performance photographs are courtesy of the Salzburg Festival © Hans Jörg Michel

May 23 - 1829: Accordion patent granted to Cyrill Demian in Vienna.
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1 comment:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

It is indeed a small world -- love Herr Schmid's story!