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Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Gala Concerts of operatic music are often associated with a variety of sources. Commemoration of an event often plays a part, as on this occasion from the Vienna State Opera. Sometimes an anniversary offers an opportunity to pay homage to a great singer, composer or event as is the case with the Berlin concert conducted by Abbado. The latter was scheduled for the New Year’s Eve of the centenary of Verdi’s death. With the former musical director of Milan’s La Scala on the rostrum and some of the best singers of the day in the cast, very serious music-making was likely to be the name of the game. At the other end of the spectrum lie the selections from the annual Dresden Opera Nights for the years 1998, 1999 and 2000. These are distinctly less formal as occasions and more populist in the excerpts chosen. But the word ‘excerpt’ has many connotations. A popular aria is an excerpt, but so is a whole act of an opera. Both are to be found in this diverse collection from three different venues and five events, two in their entirety.

Some opera-lovers wouldn’t attend a gala concert even if you paid them. They are in it for opera-house performances; that’s their choice. I have attended multitudes of fully-staged operas over the last sixty or so years and have also attended gala events put on for a variety of reasons. The latter have provided me with opportunity to see artists singing arias from works I had not seen them perform on stage and have enjoyed the occasions and the opportunity; each to their own. All the genres of gala concert are present in this set and I hope my comments will help guide you through the virtues, or otherwise, of each.

DVD1: A Verdi Gala from Berlin
As I noted in my review of the Verdi concert when first issued Claudio Abbado is a conducting polymath. I questioned why we had come to perceive him as a great conductor of Verdi. The question arose because during Abbado’s near twenty-year stewardship as Musical Director at La Scala there was no production of Verdi’s great middle period trio: Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore. Indeed, to the present day, Abbado has never conducted those works complete. It seemed that he had only ever conducted seven of Verdi’s twenty-eight operas, these in performances at Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin and Milan. Unlike his successor at La Scala, Riccardo Muti, he has not ventured into what are often referred to as the composer’s early works. Abbado’s reputation in Verdi owes much to the La Scala productions of the revised Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra that were presented at that theatre in productions by Giorgio Strehler. Although not captured on disc these memorable performances and casts provided the basis for the DG audio recordings of January 1976 and 1977 respectively. Abbado went on to record Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera and the original French version of Don Carlos for DG before leaving La Scala to take the helm with the Berlin Philharmonic. Not until the mid-1990s did he tackle Otello and Falstaff. He recorded the latter with Bryn Terfel in the title role and the Berlin Philharmonic in the April following this gala (DG 471 194-2).

Given on the evening before the hundredth anniversary year of Verdi’s death the concert followed a similar pattern—but with different content—to that given four years earlier. In view of Abbado’s conducting history in Verdi, it is hardly surprising that the most substantial extracts from this concert are taken from Ballo (Chs. 2–5) and Falstaff (Chs. 11–13) with several of the singers in the latter also appearing in the audio recording. The Il Ballo extracts have Abbado’s characteristic rhythmic verve allied to his consideration and support for his singers. Ramon Vargas as Riccardo sings with good tone and phrasing. In the strict sense Andrea Rost has too full a voice to portray the vocal pertness of Oscar in Saper vorreste (Ch. 5). That caveat apart these scenes provide an excellent introduction to some of the singers and to Verdi’s most melodic music. Vargas is a vocally appealing Duke of Mantua, singing with verve in Questa o quella (Ch.7) and with élan in La donna e mobile (Ch.8). In the act one scene from La Traviata, he sings Alfredo with good tone whilst Andrea Rost essays her true fach with coloratura flexibility in Sempre libera (Chs.9–10). The Don Carlos extract (Ch.6) is the least convincing, mainly due to Stella Doufexis being somewhat over-parted as Eboli. She is far better as Meg Page in the Falstaff extracts, the role she sings on the recording. The Falstaff excerpts are acted out to the full, with the help of a couple of stage props in the form of a laundry basket and screen for Fenton and Nannetta, both roles superbly sung. It would have been great to have had Terfel present as Falstaff, but in the joy and exhilaration of these scintillatingly performed extracts, particularly of the last scene and its fugue, he was not missed unduly.

The picture quality has clarity and depth throughout. The video director lets us share the enjoyment of the orchestral players from time to time as well as that of the conductor and singers. The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is of the highest standard and their luxuriant sound is well caught. An excellent balance is maintained between them and the singers.

DVDs 2 and 3. Gala Concert from the Vienna State Opera
Austria was annexed by Hitler’s Germany 12 March 1938. On the night of 12 March 1945 the Austrian capital, Vienna, paid a very heavy price for its country’s involvement with Germany’s Fascist regime. The annexation—Anschluss—to make a Greater Germany was expressly forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles after the end of World War I. It followed a plebiscite with Austrians welcoming the German invasion. Vienna had been the home of some of the world’s greatest composers and was immensely proud of its musical heritage. The Allies sought to shorten the War by the blanket-bombing of cities much as Hitler bombers had done systematically to Britain in the 1940s. Among the great cultural centres to go was Dresden known for its pottery as well as its museums and other cultural institutions in February 1945. Given the feelings in Britain’s High Command after so many brave airmen had died in repulsing Hitler, as well as those, like me, who had seen their cities burn in 1940, the choice of date for the bombing of Vienna was not coincidental. That March night Vienna’s wonderful opera house went up in flames. The stage and auditorium were destroyed and only a few areas were left intact. Those still intact included the façade, the main entrance, great staircase and magnificent foyer with its frescoes.

Despite being faced with massive devastation at the end of the war, it was quickly announced that the State Opera would be rebuilt. No less than ten per cent of the budget for restoration of all Vienna’s public buildings would be allocated to the rebuilding. What was destroyed on that March night took ten years to replace with the rebuilt State Opera re-opening on 5 November 1955. The concert preserved on the present DVD was given fifty years later.

In the period after its reopening the Vienna State Opera rapidly built a reputation for importing the best singers in the world in traditional repertoire. There have only been five world premieres since the reopening among three hundred and seven new productions in the fifty year period. The policy was a different opera nearly every night in the week. Singers flew in, performed, and flew out again. I remember one British soprano recounting how she met her tenor on the stage as he introduced himself in the wings as the conductor’s baton started the overture. Such minimal rehearsal did not lead to great histrionic nights, but on the evidence of the vociferous applause the audience appreciation was phenomenal. In the leaflet to this double DVD, Domingo notes that he sang three different roles in ten days with the company early in his career. Matters have changed a little since those days. There is now a nucleus of artists based at the State Opera with stars now flying in, staying a little longer and benefiting from rehearsal time.

This Gala Night presents a mixture of company artists and international stars who have trod the boards over many of the fifty years since reopening. Seiji Ozawa opens proceedings with Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 (Disc 1 CH.2), often used to introduce the second act of Fidelio. He does so without a score, a practice I first saw adopted by Josef Krips (1912–70) at Covent Garden many years ago. The Vienna-born Krips was banned from conducting by the Nazis from 1939 to 1945. He did much to restore Vienna’s operatic reputation after the War. He re-opened the Salzburg Festival in 1946 conducting Don Giovanni but gets no mention in the leaflet. Ozawa’s interpretation is lacking in the dramatic impulse. That’s a pity because that tautness is needed if the overture is to introduce that vital last act of the composer’s revision of Leonore as Fidelio. Thankfully Ozawa’s conducting of the finale from act 2 (Disc 2 CHs. 16–18) is more appropriately dramatic and flowing. This allows his singing cast and chorus to do the music full justice with Deborah Polaski and Johan Botha giving excellent performances as Leonore and Florestan.

The music on the first DVD is wholly Germanic in origin, albeit the excerpts from Don Giovanni are sung, as composed by Mozart, in Italian. These start with solos involving Ferruccio Furlanetto singing The Catalogue Aria (CH.3) and Edita Gruberova Non mi dir (CH.4). It goes on to the scene involving Masetto, Zerlina and Giovanni to become the finale to Act One (CHs.5–11). These excerpts illustrate perfectly the strengths and weaknesses of the singing wrought by the occasion. It must be many years since Furlanetto and Gruberova sang these roles anywhere and neither brings vocal distinction to their interpretation. Thomas Hampson as Giovanni has the suave figure and vocal equipment for the role of the lecherous roué (CH.5) whilst the others, like Zubin Mehta on the rostrum, are adequate company members with only Soile Isokoski bringing distinction. It is the latter, as the Marschallin, together with Angelika Kirschlager as Octavian, who bring real vocal distinction to the proceedings for the final trio and duet from Act Three of Rosenkavalier (CHs.12–13).

The second half of the concert featured some Italian opera from Verdi with the whole of Act Three of Aida (CHs.3–6). That rare thing these days, genuine Verdi singing, is in evidence from Ferruccio Furlanetto as a sonorous Ramfis. Johan Botha and Violeta Urmana really fill the roles vocally as Radames and Aida. The duet from Act Four is sung by Placido Domingo as Radames and Agnes Baltsa as Amneris (CHs.7–8). It is nearly thirty years since Baltsa sang the role at the Salzburg Festival under Karajan, but looking imperious she can still muster vocal distinction as can the everlasting Domingo who made his first recording of Radames way back in 1969. Daniele Gatti provided some of the best conducting of the evening for the Verdi.

Christian Thielemann brought more drama and involvement to his contribution to the second half than was present in the first part with his accompaniment of orchestra, chorus and particularly Bryn Terfel in the excepts fromDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg (CHs. 9–11). The bass-baritone, at the peak of his powers, evinces real vocal distinction as did the chorus and orchestra even if it is somewhat lacking in young faces. If Gatti impressed me, so did Franz Welser-Möst in his handling of Richard Strauss’s often-neglected Die frau ohne schatten (CHS.12–15) alongside Deborah Polaski’s notable singing. The evening concluded with the finale of Act Two of Fidelio. Seiji Ozawa had really found form by this time and that most human yet dramatic scene really came alive driven by conductor, Botha and Polaski. The two singers rise to heights of excellence as husband and wife re-united after great adversity. It was a fitting end to something of a mixed blessing. Good in parts, less so in others.

The applause and credits at the end amount to nearly ten minutes of Disc 2. For those who like a little puzzle, some famous faces were on the seats on-stage when the singers enter and leave. Who is the grey-haired lady that many recognised and acknowledged as they left? A hint, she was an international artist on both stage and record. She was greatly admired by the likes of Karajan, Solti and others as well as by record producers.

DVD 4 Great Stars of Opera. Dresden Opera Nights—1998, 1999, 2000
To quote the leaflet blurb: “Dresden Opera Nights take place every year on a mild summer evening in front of as spectacular a backdrop as anyone could wish for. The grandiose architecture of the opera house Gottfried Semper designed for Dresden…stars of the world’s opera houses vie with one another to delight audiences of 4,000 people.”No mention of the Semperoper having to be rebuilt after the 1945 conflagration. Nor do any of the three orchestras featured appear to have any connection with the Sächsische Staatskapelle, the house band. And, just to put fact into the matter, in 2000 it was not a warm summer night. The audiences were dressed for autumn and the breath of the singers can be clearly seen.

As to the singers vying with one another, that is nearer the mark. The American Neil Schicoff dominates the tenor roles in 1998 and 1999. Soft singing and elegant phrasing are not his metier. He is more of the school of can belto than bel canto. Strong singing might be appropriate in C'est toi! C'est moi! (CH.6) from Carmen but Cavaradossi’s E lucevan le stele (CH. 14) deserves more gentility of phrasing and expression than he can find. Likewise I am sure Mimi would have preferred not being shouted at, preferring to be impressed by Rodolfo’s potted biography in Che gelida manina (CH. 15). A little more of fellow American Jerry Hadley in 1998 would have been welcome. He certainly knows and practises a honeyed mezza voce from time to time. Schicoff’s partner in the confrontation from Carmen is Agnes Baltsa. She can do drama, even now well past fifty, without resort to excessive chest notes and can also convey Carmen’s seductive capacity in the Habanera (CH. 5). Earlier in that 1998 programme she lacked the resonant depths for Rossini’s Italiana (CH. 2). What I wonder happened to Eva Marton in 1998. She appears only in a party rending of The Brindisi from La Traviata (CH.10) with each voice-part being doubled so that both Schicoff and Hadley sing Alfredo whilst she and Sandra Schwarzhaupt do the same for Violetta. If she sang any of Turandot, the omission from this selection is questionable.

On the more popular front, from the 1998 concert, Sandra Schwarzhaupt and Deborah Sasson were infinitely more successful in Die Fledermaus (CH.7)and Die lustige Witwe (CH.16) than Kurt Rydl in the song from Fiddler on the Roof that the British know as If I were a rich man (CH.9). The best singing in those first two years of this sequence is that from Anna Tomowa-Sintow in the aria from Adriana Lecouvreur (CH. 12) andPace, pace, mio Dio! from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (CH.13). In the Cilea she exhibits a slight vibrato but is vocally up to it for Verdi’s final act aria.

The colder night of 2000 might have been warmed for the audience by some distinctly better singing than in the two previous years. Daniella Barcellona might not try Carmen on stage, but her rich mezzo and attention to words and phrases is heard to good effect in Près des remparts de Séville (CH.18). Similarly her aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville is sung with richness of timbre, appropriate coloratura and welcome expressiveness (CH. 21). The Italian tenor Vincenzo La Scola is idiomatic in the inevitable tenor virility symbol, Nessun dorma (CH. 19). His tone is less open than that of Schicoff and he does reach the high notes if only to remind us of how Pavarotti did it so much better. With a hairstyle that defies description, Lucia Aliberti sings an excellent O mio babbino caro (CH. `22) finishing with a ravishing final note.

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5:49:24 PM, 31 August 2015
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