Who is Carmen? A seething volcano of unfettered passions? An
independent woman with the courage to forge her own destiny? A projection of
male nympho fantasies? Or a whey-faced Berlin
housewife with the voice of an angel and two left feet?
Berliner Philharmoniker / Rattle - Grosses Festspielhaus Salzburg, 3 April 2010
Soloists - Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kožená, Mark Padmore, Topi Lehtipuu, Christian Gerhaher, Thomas Quasthoff, Axel Scheidig, Soren von Billerbeck, Jorg Schneider; Rundfunkchor Berlin, Salzburger Festspiele Kinderchor
Bach's St Matthew Passion is big enough to stand up to almost any kind of treatment - or mistreatment. Opera, theatre, ballet, historically-informed, conductorless - you name it. Even so, placing the direction in the hands of Peter Sellars, best known for his interventionist opera productions, might sound on paper a step too far. But it turned out his direction (or 'ritualization' as the programme has it) was understated and intelligent, an aid to understanding not only the text, but also the musical structure of the work.
Magdalena Kozená / András Schiff - Wigmore Hall, 4 February 2010
Janácek Selection of Songs Janácek In the Mists Dvorák Biblical Songs Op. 99 Musorgsky Detskaya (The Nursery) Bartók Falun (Village Scenes)
Musorgsky's Detskaya (Nursery) songs ought by rights to be a rare treat only rolled out occasionally at the Wigmore Hall. But, following Ewa Podleś's recital, Magdalena Kozená gave them their second outing in six weeks. Kozená's pure, open tone marries well with the songs' childish sentiments and her reading had an unforced charm whilst never descending to mere mimicry.
My Russian companion told me Kozená's grasp of the language in these was far from perfect, not that I noticed, but neither of us had a clue about the rest of her songs. Not even what language they were sung in. The programme was unhelpfully silent on this point, but we assumed Czech for the Janácek and Dvorák and (since they were Slovak tunes) Slovakian for the Bartók. Even with an English translation in front of me, I find it hard to get much out of music when I literally don't understand a word, so it's to Kozená's credit that she could communicate at least something of the underlying emotional flow in each. Her uninhibited whoops and hollers acknowledged the folk idiom to which the music is indebted without ever succumbing to it.
Her luxury accompanist András Schiff seemed most at home in the airy, percussive Bartók. Elsewhere there was a sense that he was feeling his way rather more than might be expected - not exactly sight-reading, but far from fully internalised either.
His solo moment, Janácek's In the Mists, was the exception, though these days Schiff's tendency to pick out and emphasise a single voice, whatever he's playing, seems an almost ideological trait. It lent an appropriately lyrical, flowing quality in some places, but elsewhere felt bullying and overdone. The overall result was contemplative, bordering on the ponderous, and somewhat out of tune with the impressionistic quality of the music.
Applause from the packed house was enthusiastic, though hardly rabid. Perhaps it acknowledged that despite the high quality of execution, the material was not always equally engaging. Kozená and Schiff were wise to whip out their encores speedily - another Janácek song and Dvorák's Songs my Mother Taught Me, its timeless beauty unfortunately highlighting the shortage of the same in the main part of the recital. And don't even get me started on her frock.
And there may be further congratulations in order. Speculation that she may be pregnant with the couple's third child is given weight by recently-announced cancellations in the new year.
* Though a bit of digging reveals a profile in Die Welt last November drops in casually "by the way, they got married three weeks ago" - a revelation that doesn't seem to have been followed up anywhere else.
Prom 61: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Jansons / Magdalena Kožená
Magdalena Kožená needs underwear advice and she needs it now. I don’t know if her gorgeous gold lace gown was a genuine Chanel or an inspired ‘tribute’. Whichever, I’m sure it would have looked better without a black sports bra showing through. Karl would die. And she so nearly got it Catherine Deneuve-right for once with her elegant pearl accessories and sleekly whipped-up hair.
She couldn’t quite get it together musically either. After an uneven and sometimes inaudible start to her five Duparc songs, her voice settled into that cool, otherworldly glow that lends a touch of magic to everything she does. But it was impossible to tell what language she was singing in, let alone any of the words, and her detached manner suggested commentary more than experience. Her encore, Debussy’s Ballade des Femmes de Paris, was more effective for being more relaxed. But it remained abundantly clear that French – at least the French of the exquisitely turned mélodie – is not her language or her idiom.
Ravel’s second Daphnis et Chloé Suite, a work so perfectly conceived it doesn’t leave a conductor much interpretive leeway, was the Concertgebouw’s follow-up. Mariss Jansons couldn’t find anything new, but a dazzling display of taut, responsive playing made it worthwhile.
The first symphony of Sibelius was the uneven opener to the upside-down programme. Beautifully played throughout, but after a fiery first movement, returns diminished. A tendency to drag was marked by a restless audience (surprisingly, far from capacity).
Two splendid encores – Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Elgar’s Wild Bears – were (as so often at the Proms) the highlight of the evening.
Oh Magdalena, Magdalena. How can such a naturally stunning beauty as Magdalena Kožena get it so consistently wrong? The organisers probably thought they'd covered all bases. Hair professionally curled and pinned, flattering barely-there makeup, diaphanous floral gown. In the semi-staged semi-darkness she embodied the fragile, elusive Julietta, who captivates the hero Michel with her haunting aria.
Then she stepped forward into the spotlight.
And 2,000 people saw her underwear.
Let me put it this way. If you're wearing a see-through dress, you need a slip that starts at the same place as the transparent fabric does. In this case, the bust. Not six inches below. If she'd hoicked her slip up and pinned it in place, we'd have been none the wiser. Instead, we were mesmerised by the sort of long white undergarment that might shield nuns' nun-bits from their habits. Oh dear. So near and yet.....
Besides offering a world first, and probably allowing more of the audience to appreciate it without the subtitles, this decision had a lot to commend it musically. Martinů was living in Paris when he wrote Julietta. And the opera reflects a very French sensibility in its ironic and sometimes cruel humour, its measured inconsequentiality and conscious eclecticism. Even the story - the man who pursues his love-object in a dream-world where everyone has amnesia - is quintessentially surrealist. There are hints of Janáček in there, but the more obvious comparisons are the Paris Stravinsky (Martinů even pops in a Sacre paraphrase), and particularly Poulenc.
Jiří Bělohlávek's studied insouciance and wit captured the flavour perfectly, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra sounded immaculately prepared. Some extended longueurs evaded even his sure touch - Martinů spread his treasures thinly over a vast opus, and this is one opera that could have done with some editing. But the deft solo passages and curious percussion sparkled. And he straightened his face and got serious for the last act's great dramatic moment as Michel decides to abandon real life forever and follow Juliette into a penumbral world of dreams.
The cast had worked hard to inject humour and variety into the long declamatory passages, though some coped better with the French than others. William Burden's language skills were more convincing in speech than in song, where he over-nasalised. But he was effective and sympathetic in the central part of Michel, and really put everything into it.
Magdalena Kožena, despite the, er, unfortunate slip, captured Juliette's ethereal other-worldly appeal perfectly. It's not a large part (despite the opera's title) but she was very much the dominant presence throughout.
The role experience of the Paris Opera's character tenor Andreas Jäggi showed in his detailed portrayals of the Police Chief, Postman and Clerk. Costumes and props differentiated the several roles most of the cast played, and Roderick Williams too was a standout, defining his characters neatly and projecting with power and assurance. Rosalind Plowright was a memorable fortune-teller in a swirling cloak. Even with the encumbrance of scores and stands, this was one 'semi-staging' that really worked, eliminating potential confusions and elevating the performance to a higher level.
Most importantly, it focussed attention on the music, which although this year is the fiftieth anniversary of Martinů's death, few have so far been prepared to do. Some news about Martinů's other great opera, The Greek Passion is anticipated soon though, and Bělohlávek and the BBCSO will be bringing a symphony cycle to the Barbican in the autumn. About time!
Next up is a new double bill of Dido and Aeneas with Acis and Galatea opening 31 March. Choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose work demonstrates little musical sensibility, is the odd choice of director. Sarah Connolly, Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies and Danielle de Niese make their ROH debuts.
On 13 March there's a one-off performance of Verdi's Messa da Requiem. Antonio Pappano conducts Barbara Frittoli, Olga Borodina, Piotr Beczala and Ildar Abdrazakov. Sold out, but check for returns towards the date.
At ENO, there's a revival of one of their better recent productions, David Alden's Jenùfa with Amanda Roocroft.
Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle - Philharmonie Berlin, 26 September 2008
The Berlin Philharmonic rarely sound like the world's greatest orchestra in the boomy Royal Albert Hall or the desiccated Barbican, but on their home patch, in the acoustically-engineered architecture of the Philharmonie, it's a different matter. Its strange angles seem to pinpoint every note. The precision tapestries of Ravel's Ma Mère l’oye and L’Enfant et les sortilèges< came alive.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were performing the same double bill
for three nights in a row (beneath a mic-draped ceiling, suggesting a recording is in the offing). It made for a short evening - 30 minutes one end, 45 the other - but like one of those incredibly dense, incredibly rich chocolate cakes, a little went a long way.
Ma Mère l’oye balanced complexity with weightlessness. Only the surprise volume of the sudden fortissimo a few bars from the end made me realise how quietly the rest had been played, and how subtly Rattle had delineated the crisp changes of texture. Like a series of dressage manoeuvres, it's partly a showcase for solo skills, and all were faultlessly handled.
I recall Simon Rattle, as he left England to take up the Berlin job, criticising modern British artists for being 'biographical'. Well, no composer could be less biographical than Ravel, so perhaps it was predictable that Rattle seemed in his element. He didn't search dig or embellish, simply presented it in crystal clear focus. A masterpiece of charm, taste and workmanship.
L’Enfant et les sortilèges is a difficult one. It doesn't get many fully-staged outings on account of its odd length and the physical demands of its fantasy storyline. In some ways it's more like a cartoon script than a theatrical text. But the same demands would make a totally straight concert performance confusing and inadequate. The choice here, a concert performance with indicative costume and movement, seemed a reasonable compromise, and the singers had enormous fun with it.
Magdalena Kožená made a wonderfully brattish, exasperating Child, even if thePudelkopf did her no favours. The other singers threw themselves into their multiple roles with great gusto, tiptoeing round Simon Rattle's podium for a bit of physical interaction where required. The miaow duet of Sophie Koch and François Le Roux was the go-for-broke highlight, but the flowing coloratura of Annick Massis as Princess and Nightingale, and Nathalie Stutzmann's carefully variegated Mother, Teacup and Dragonfly enriched the mix too.
Rattle kept the orchestra unassertive, but there was no loss of intensity or commitment, and it was clear they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The subject-matter and its glib treatment may suggest both pieces are 'children's music' (and I did love Andre Previn's classic LSO recording all those years ago) but there's enough wit, invention and plain old craftsmanship there to draw in the most demanding adult too. I can't say I was spiritually uplifted, but I was at least cheered up.
Yes, it really is her. And I don't think it's a wig either. Just mad tonging skillz and Elnett. Magdalena chose tonight's performance of L’Enfant et les sortilèges by Sir Simon and his Berliner Philharmoniker to unveil this 'interesting' tribute 'do.
Sir Simon, meanwhile, found another dame to channel:
La Cenerentola - Royal Opera House, 20 December 2007
I was privileged - or maybe not - for this performance to be seated right over the orchestra pit, at the side of the stage. So for once I could see not only what the orchestra was doing, but also what faces the conductor was pulling. It came of course at the expense of a clear view of the stage, and the orchestral sound was raw. But given that this production's action is concentrated centre stage, and the ensemble is small, these weren't huge disadvantages. I don't think I have ever seen a happier face on a podium than Evelino Pidò's. Even when orchestra and singers slipped momentarily apart, he maintained the manic joy of a cocker spaniel out for walkies, and was rewarded with a brisk and lively response from his players.
Although on this evidence Magdalena Kožená's acting skills hover somewhere around the Jessica Simpson mark, it's not clear to me why reviewers (example) have been so ruthlessly critical of her performance.
She certainly looked the part, all blonde curls and downcast glances. Her perpetual goggle eyed bafflement wasn't always the right fit dramatically, but at least it supplied the endearing charm that Cenerentola requires. And her singing was one liquid ribbon of exquisite silvery sound - too languid to be truly Italianate but beautiful all the same. Non piu mesta seemed like hard work, but she got through it cleanly, if rather coolly. She's told interviewers that Rossini is not a favourite of hers -- that much was obvious from the detachment of her performance -- but it was no disaster, and I suspect that supplied with more direction she could have delivered a more credible performance.
Toby Spence was more convincing as a rather earnest Don Ramiro. His voice has more muscle than flexibility, and the coloratura was effortful, but he did (just about) manage all the high C's in Si, ritrovarla io giuro.
Ranked against Covent Garden's last Don Ramiro, the phenomenal Juan Diego Flórez, of course he doesn't measure up, but then who would? The only part of Spence's performance which really didn't work was the opening to Zitto, zitto, piano, piano, taken so quietly that it was literally inaudible - and I was only a few feet away.
Simone Alberghini's Dandini, more of a confidant than a servant, was a splendid foil. His performance was all the more credible for the subtlety of distinction between his disguised and real personas. Considering he'd only joined as a late stand-in for the sickStéphane Degout he slotted in remarkably well with the tricky vocal ensembles and this production's fussy blocking.
Alessandro Corbelli displayed immaculate comic timing and technique as the grasping Don Magnifico, though at times so manically underlined it was as if he'd wandered in from a different production. Elena Xanthoudakis and Leah-Marian Jones were endearingly repulsive as his daughters, and served up some of the best singing of the night.
The production's updating of the action to the 1950's is not simply an excuse for lurid costumery and a splendid Bugatti to serve as Cenerentola's coach. The outmoded notion of social advancement through marriage took on a more modern economic emphasis in Don Magnifico's dilapidated home. Don Ramiro managed his staff rather than ruling them, and Dandini was his master's quick-witted equal.
Frustratingly, the more controversial ideas, when the otherwise amiable buffoon Don Magnifico physically beats Cenerentola, then feels up the two sisters later, formed odd and uncomfortable punctuations rather than properly explored themes. The sparsely furnished sets, too, seemed unfinished rather than intentionally spare. It was as if time, money and inspiration had all fizzled out in the home straight. Only the eternal and unrelenting vitality of the music papered over the cracks.
Opening her London Handel recital with a couple of arias in English was a brave move by Magdalena Kožená. Unfortunately it demonstrated that for all her keen grasp of the meaning underlying the text, she has less of a grip on the slippery basics of English diction than might be expected. With darkness deep from Theodora came off worse than O had I Jubal's lyre from Joshua, where the lavish (and precisely-executed) coloratura largely supplanted the details of the text anyway.
The remainder of her programme was all-Italian, starting with the twelve minute Scherza Infida from Ariodante. Here, there was no distraction from the ecstatic radiance of her seamless tone. She was secure and even from her porcelain soprano top to her fruity (and disturbingly baritonal) bottom.
With a voice and technique like Kožená's it must be tempting to sit back and luxuriate in 'beautiful' singing, but instead her interpretations are fearless dramatic statements, sometimes, debatably, to excess. Her recital presentation is I suppose what she'd deliver in a full opera. But on a bare stage, without the surrounding characters and the preceding drama, it's brave and challenging, and there's a temptation to view it simply as histrionic. It requires a degree of imagination (or a stupendous recollection of the opera) from the listener if it's to be taken at face value, something we're not often asked for in this context.
It was easier to appreciate the more reflective Cara speme from Giulio Cesare and the exuberant Dopo notte from Ariodante with its flowing sweeps of coloratura. Languid legato is perhaps her strongest suit, and the encore, an astonishingly beautiful Lascia Ch'io Pianga from Rinaldo, displayed Kozena at her melancholic best.
The 16-strong Venice Baroque Orchestra complemented Kožená's every mood sensitively (and it was a surprise to see the violins and violas standing throughout). In between the Handel arias they gave spritely readings of Vivaldi concertos. This combination sounds logical enough on paper - battle of the baroque maestri - but in reality, it was curiously unsatisfactory, like alternating bites of dinner with mouthfuls of dessert.
One of their aims, according to the programme, was to demonstrate the variety of Vivaldi's concertos -- something that would surely have been easier to appreciate had they been placed side by side. Alternating with the Handel, they inevitably paled by comparison. But they were elevated above mere filler status by the vitality of the performance, especially in the closing Concerto for two cellos.