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Opera Orgy in Eastern Europe

Review by Ray Chowkwanyun
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  In October of 2002, I visited the Czech Republic and Hungary in search of cheap opera, where the sets are cheesy, but the singing is not. Prices were indeed cheap, no more than $25 for the best seat in the house.


National Theatre Praha (Prague): Sleeping Beauty

By a huge margin, the National Theatre in Praha (Prague) has the best acoustics of the five venues I sampled. I never thought I'd see these words in cold print but forget Vienna, forget Luzern, and especially forget the Met. This is it. I would be happy to sit here for hours' just listening to the orchestra tuning up, so gorgeous is the sound. The first thing I heard as I entered was the harps tuning up. Each note was a liquid drop of golden sound. There is such a bloom to the acoustic in this auditorium. It is as if each note were floating on its own acoustic pillow. This theatre treasures and coddles every note with perfect clarity. There is no muddiness at all. All the different threads in the music can be heard separately and yet in such full richness of tone.

When the bassoon started practicing it sounded as if he were playing an instrument the size of a young sequoia. What a huge tone… so loud and so woody. The only drawback of seeing a ballet is that I was unable to judge how singers would have projected from the stage. Oh well, guess I'll just have to come back and check it out. It's a tough assignment but someone's got to do it.

The ballet (Sleeping Beauty) was competent but nothing to keep the Bolshoi up nights. The big difference is in the arms. Any ballet company worth its salt can do the steps. But can you do the steps well enough that you can wave your arms about as if they were scarves (as the Bolshoi does)? The arm movements of the Czechs were abbreviated. It was like watching the shorthand version. And when the Princess does her scene en pointe where one suitor after another comes to take her hand, there was a severe case of the wobbles. This is the ultimate test for a ballerina. To stand on one toe securely enough that some guy can come along, take your hand and twirl you around, all the while with one foot sticking straight out in back and arm fully extended forwards. 

I really enjoyed the start of Act 1 that depicts the celebration of the Princess' coming of age. The entire company comes out to dance. The Czechs are a tall, slender people, a build that lends itself well to ballet. There was one little girl who was especially adorable. She looked about ten years old, but most of the children were older, about twelve or thirteen I would say. When the adults joined hands to form an arch for the children to walk under, the extra height of the dancers really paid off - plenty of headroom here!

Tchaikovsky's lush melodies are the perfect vehicle for showing off the acoustics of the National Theatre. The woodwinds sounded especially rich and loud. The strings were silken and the brass was golden. The climaxes where the entire orchestra plays were spectacular. It was quite loud and so rich with full-bodied tone that was simply gorgeous. I have never heard such good sound before. The orchestra was competent but not outstanding. To hear the Vienna Philharmonic play in this place would be a dream come true.


St. Nick's Praha: Organ and Soprano Recital

Pre Figaro I went to a one-hour concert at St. Nick's in the Old Town square. Anywhere else, people would regard this as their town's crown jewel, but in Praha it's just another run of the mill church. I was there mainly for the organ. There was a singer listed on the program, but I didn't think much of it. As it turned out she was the highlight of the show. You just never know what you'll stumble across when you travel.

The organ and the singer were in a loft behind us so we couldn't see them. Thus the music seemed to appear magically out of nowhere. It was a baby organ. He didn't have any of the really big pipes. Consequently the dynamics were flat and became quite monotonous after awhile. Beautiful sound, but monotonous. I began to nod off and wished the hour would soon be over. Then she started singing. Omig-d, it was like an angel's voice. Just one voice filling the entire church and it's so reverberant the voice sounds so rich and creamy that you feel you can almost reach out and touch it. I woke right up and wished the concert would never end. I didn't buy their CD afterwards. It's one of those wonderful experiences one should just experience and not try to cling to it.

The singer's name was Yvone Skvarova and she is a mezzo who sings at the State Opera.

Almost every church in Praha has a concert like this almost every night. It's an embarrassment of musical riches in this burg.


Estates Theatre Praha: Mozart's Figaro

To hear Mozart in Mozart's own hall is a music lover's dream. I call the Estates Theatre in Praha his hall because Don Giovanni was premiered there to resounding success. Afterwards, the Praguers put on a fireworks display in his honor. The Estates Theatre is in the heart of Old Town Praha that adds to the atmosphere and the feeling that you are on hallowed ground. After all, you could be sitting where old Gottlieb himself sat. The theatre is a tiny jewel box, about half the size of Covent Garden and maybe a quarter the size of the Met. It is taller than it is wide. The stage is about the size of our living room. This lends an intimacy to the performances that a huge barn like the Met simply cannot match.

Figaro is a difficult opera to produce because it requires no less than twelve excellent singers. Some of them are minor characters, yet within their scenes they are crucial and the whole opera would fall flat if one of these smaller roles were badly sung. Definitely a case of a chain only being as strong as it's weakest link. Here the intimacy of the Estates is a real advantage because it allows the use of singers whose voices would be too small for a big place like the Met. As a result the house was able to assemble a caste where every one of the singers fit the bill perfectly, or almost so.

You haven't really heard Figaro until you've heard it in a venue like the Estates. Only such a crystal clear acoustic can tease apart Mozart's multipart compositions so that each vocal line stands out distinctly - while at the same time being part of the whole. The vocal technique was fascinating. You could see them using their diaphragms to project their voices and the Suzanna would do this thing with her throat where it looked like she was massaging the sound up out of her windpipe.

As an added treat, they looked the part too. Figaro and Suzanna had the look of servants. The Count and Countess looked noble. The Countess especially who was tall and had a beautifully long graceful swanlike neck. In the many scenes Suzanna and the Countess share, the Countess' extra height visually conveys the difference in their stations. She was also skinnier while the Suzanna was dumpier, but still pretty. They looked like lady and maidservant. They had the body language down perfectly. The nobles moved with a certain air and grace while the lower classes were given to clumsier movements.


Grafin, Graf, and Suzanna

Don Bartolo was suitably pompous and his wife/housekeeper, Marcellina was played with surprising forcefulness. In Vienna she was much more retiring and a tool of Bartolo and the Count. Here she is a force in her own right, determined to catch Figaro for her husband. She was sung with strength (i.e. loud) and she moved with a quick confidence.

The Basilio was an oily delight. He was a dead wringer for an English teacher I had in high school. Doubtless some found his acting over the top. He was forever waving his hands about to show how scheming, Scheming, SCHEMING he was. But I found it completely in keeping with the character.

The Cherubino was simply adorable as sung by a very pale fresh-faced singer with chubby cheeks. There was a collective gasp when he first appeared in a powder blue suit, the color of which brought out the pale delicacy of the singer's face. My favorite aria is Voi Chi Chapete and it was brought off to perfection. She sang like an angel, floating the notes effortlessly over the audience. (Cherubino is a trouser role - male character sung by a female.)

If I have one quibble with the cast, the Figaro seemed overshadowed by the Count at times. The singer who played the Count had such a strong voice and such good projection. When he was angry, he seemed really angry. Now in the play, Figaro outwits the Count so it is a bit disconcerting to have the seemingly stronger singer in the lesser role. This is always a problem with the opera Figaro, balancing the Count and the character of Figaro. Sometimes you have the opposite problem, the Count seems too weak. His character, after all, is supposed to be a haughty and powerful nobleman. In Kleiber's recording, Poell is simply overwhelmed by Siepi. Perhaps the ideal balance (on records) is to be found in Solti's version where Ramey and Allen battle it out. Both played and recorded Don Giovanni. Our Count definitely had the potential to carry off the role of the Don, the Figaro did not.

Another quibble I have is with the cuts they made before the scene where Figaro discovers he is actually Marcellina's son. All that patter beforehand with the magistrate helps to build up the comic tension so that when the final release comes, the laughs are all the greater.

The overture was not promising. The orchestra sounded dry. Especially the strings that sounded raspy. The conductor also took it at a tremendous clip. And in the opening scene the Figaro's voice was on the small side. However, they warmed up as the performance progressed. The orchestra started to sound warmer and the Figaro projected more, although Terfel won't lose any sleep over this guy. 

I love the first half of Figaro. It is simply a perfect jewel of a comic opera. The comic (and musical) climaxes come one after another, each one greater than the last. I even like the start of the second half up until the end of the scene where Figaro discovers his true parentage. But after that I think Figaro can become heavy sledding. The problem is it becomes rather episodic in the last half of the second half. While there is certainly a dramatic link between the arias, the plot does not propel itself forwards with the same momentum as the first half. There is an unfortunate feeling of a set of showpiece arias that are somewhat disconnected. Here the brisk pace adopted by the conductor was a bonus in moving things along so the last quarter of the opera didn't fall apart, as it can in unskilled hands. By the end, I was completely won over.


State Opera Praha: Mozart's Zauberflote (Magic Flute)

Sie kommt! (Meine Könige)

The Praha State Opera House is a riot of rococco decoration that makes baroque looks restrained. The house sound is dry. Notes die, they don't linger. When the Prince started singing, I thought at first that we were going to be in for a long night. He just sounded so flat. But once he moved to the front of the stage, it became all right. There is something about the acoustic back there - it sucks all the life out of the voices. It is one of life's mysteries why one baroque pile will sound wonderful, while another is awful.

Zauberflote is a director's dream. The fantasy world in which Gottlieb's opera is set gives the artistic director free rein to unleash the imagination. The serpent in this production was portrayed by three serpents. Each actor wore a huge mask as big as himself in the shape of a serpent's head. The tongue of the snake was represented by the actor's arm that hung out of the mouth and was painted red - a most striking effect.

The three Ladies were expertly sung, but nothing especially memorable. This was followed by the Papageno who was the weak link in the cast. He did not have a strong voice and tried to compensate by clowning. Too much so for my taste, but it is a strong tradition in German operetta. Other than that, the rest of the cast was outstanding.

The Könige was, I would say, perfect. Her rendition of "O zittre nicht" had real force behind it. It made you feel that here was a powerful, willful woman. This sense of menace brings to life the epic nature of the struggle between the Könige and Sarastro that is the foundation on which the entire opera rests. She doesn't have the sheer purity of tone of a Sumi Jo, but her more mature voice is actually better suited to this role. The Könige is, after all, a mother so her voice should have a sense of maturity. This is not to say that her vocal skills were lacking. The trills were executed with tremendous panache.

The Pamina and Monastatos were both very strong. She had a big voice and he conveyed the evil and scheming nature of the character. The Speaker made a huge impression when he entered - so tall and with a booming voice to match. This really was very different from the LA Zauberflote. The sheer physical stature of the singer lends a weight to the role that a shorter man would not. He was topped by the Sarastro who was also tall but with an astonishingly deep rumbling voice that seemed to well up from the very depths of the earth. What authority that man had! This is, of course, what one mainly craves in a Sarastro.


I'm glad they used actual boys for the role of the three boys. In some productions, women are substituted for boys and they never quite achieve the same light, childish tone of real boys. The choruses of the three boys are some of the most ethereal music to come from the pen of Mozart. They came sliding in sideways suspended from wires. Quite fast so that when the sliding stopped, they did not, but continued swinging from the wires which effect was quite comical.

The Papagena was a delightful red haired minx who pranced lightly all over the stage, filling the hall with her energy.

The two-armed men were weak, but this was not a major flaw. The chorus, on the other hand, was magnificent. If there is one common theme to these Eastern European companies it is that the choruses are uniformly strong. I would love to hear them perform the Missa Solemnis.

In sum, an eye opening performance that really gave a fresh insight into the work. The immense strength of the Könige and the Sarastro and their titanic struggle were the twin pillars on which this production was based.


Zeneakademie Pest: Piano Recital Kocsis Zoltan

Kocsis Zoltan
Magyar Nemzeit Filharmonikus

Istvan Kiraly - nyitany, op. 117
G-Dur zongoraverseny, op. 58

Sazbadkomuves gyaszzene, K. 477
Esz-Dur szimfonia, K. 543

It was my first time sitting behind the orchestra. The sound was wonderful, if unbalanced. Still we were lucky they didn't put us behind a pillar. The woodwinds sounded so woody. The strings played with enthusiasm and the brass was a little quavery but still strong. They played Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. The pianist/conductor, Zoltan Kocsis, was wonderful. Better than Ashkenazy. More feeling. More heavily accented. At first I thought there was a problem with the piano because sometimes there would be this wooshing sound before I realized it was just Zoltan. Shades of Glenn Gould. Then I heard a loud wheezing sound. Turned out it was my neighbour from Portugal who had a bad cold. So it was Beethoven's Fourth with wheezing and whooshing. After the interval, my other neighbor swapped seats with a friend of his in the main hall and afterwards I asked him how the sound compared. Much better balanced he said, but still with the same startling immediacy.

The Mozart was heaven. Here, near the cradle, the old (proper) way of playing Mozart is still alive and well. They are musically blessed to be isolated from the ideas of period performance and authenticity that are all the rage in trendy Western musical circles. They still play with feeling. One moment strong and muscular, the next delicate and soft. He conducted in the style of Toscanini. Oftentimes his left hand would hang idle by his side or he would grasp the rail with it. In honor of Beethoven, he wore his hair in the same explosive style as the Master, leading some to remark that he looked like a woman.


The Budapest Opera House is both beautiful and beautiful sounding. I think it sounds better than either the Met in New York or the Vienna State Opera house. The sound is even more immediate than either of those two famous houses. When the drums roll in Budapest, it's like an earthquake. When the brass plays, it's the trump of G-d. All this volume adds drama and underlines the climaxes.


Mrs. Macbeth with some chic witches

We were treated to a fine cast with a truly tragic Macbeth played as a man of courage trapped by his circumstances. Lady Macbeth was equally well sung as a cunning woman of boundless ambition who would stick at nothing to gain power. There is a strong element of Adam and Eve in the Macbeth story with the woman leading the man astray until they both suffer the terrible consequences of their crimes. This in spite of the fact her top notes tended to quaver - a failing she shares with Callas. But like Callas, she overcame her technical shortcomings to deliver an emotionally charged performance. The Banquo and Macduff were also nobly sung. Verdi is our most noble composer and the cast fully brought out that aspect of his music. Finally, the chorus was simply astonishingly good. This is often the weak point of LA Opera production. 

The conductor was at home in this piece adopting an ideal unhurried pace that allowed the music and the singers to breathe and blossom. 

They don't have much money for sets in Budapest so ingenuity has to compensate. The "sets" consisted of sheets of rough wrinkled fabric hung at various heights. Slides appropriate to the scene being played are projected onto the fabric. So when the background is a castle, a rocky image is projected giving the fabric the convincing appearance of solid walls.


The costuming was avant-garde. The witches would have been at home on any fashion catwalk, sporting above the elbow gloves and wearing masks that looked eerily like the Muslim chador. Their dresses were of the trampy rag type so favored by some of our leading fashion houses. These were trendy witches, I tell you. Also, where Shakespeare and Verdi called for a mere trio of witches, this director gave us no less than three score and ten. This did prove distracting in Lady Macbeth's first aria when they surrounded her body with their writing arms, but other than that they were OK.

The Hungarians' grisly history doubtless led them to emphasize the macabre in the Immortal Bard's timeless story. Terrible deeds were done when the Turks ruled. Any who wouldn't convert to Mohammedism were executed on the spot and the victims' blood flowed like a river. All the performers performed in whiteface as if they were ghosts. With a dark background and their faces all lit up in white, this produced a most striking effect.


The murder of the King and the appearance of Banquo's ghost at the coronation banquet were also carried off brilliantly. Again, they used those hanging strips of cloth to good effect. The singers remained hidden behind the cloth until the climactic scene when they would be lit up and could be seen through the cloth.


In short, a production that any of the big international houses would have been proud to deliver. And all for $24 for the best seat in the house - center of Row 11.












































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