Friday, February 25, 2011

Dudamel and the Teatro alla Scala

Note from the publisher: With this review of La Scala's production of Carmen, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, we welcome Evan Baker to LA Opus. You may know Mr. Baker from his excellent program notes for the San Francisco Opera. With Maestro Dudamel back in Los Angeles after an interval concertizing abroad, it seemed a good time to share Mr. Baker's perspective on one of those music-making events of the popular new conductor of the LA Phil and most famous graduate of El Sistema, Venezuela's famed music education program.


Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Performance date: November 8, 2010

Gustavo! Sur tes pas nous nous pressons tous!
Gustavo! sois gentille, au mois réponds-nous!
Et dis-nous quel jour tu nous aimeras!
Gustavo ! dis-nous quel jour tu nous aimeras!

Gustavo! Here we all are close around you!
Gustavo! Be nice, just answer us!
And tell us what day you’ll love us!
Gustavo! Tell us what day you’ll love us!

With this slightly altered text from Georges Bizet’s Carmen before the opera’s namesake first entrance in Act One, one might apply this text to Gustavo Dudamel’s seemingly few appearances at Disney Hall as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

So might be the thinking of those grumblers at Dudamel’s extended absences from the Los Angeles concert scene. Gifted musicians including Dudamel are booked with orchestral and opera engagements many years in advance. An immediate cancellation of a large number of existing contracts simply to extend Dudamel’s presence in Los Angeles is, for artistic and business reasons as well as good form, not possible. Artistic development requires guest engagements, which includes conducting opera, and in Dudamel’s case, at one of the foremost opera houses of the world, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy.

Dudamel has in his short career to date conducted only three fully staged operas (not counting last year’s concert performance of Carmen at the Hollywood Bowl). All of them were at the Teatro alla Scala: Don Giovanni (2006), La Bohème (2008), and now Carmen. None were new productions, each being revivals. Carmen opened the 2009-2010 Scala season (conducted by Daniel Barenboim), also culminated the season itself in November. One must take into consideration that because each of the works was a revival, the opportunity to leave one’s own artistic imprimatur was limited. In general (based on my own experience of working in European opera houses), rehearsals for revivals receive small amounts of time; the opportunity of working with soloists on their interpretations may only be happenstance at best. Several musical ensemble rehearsals might occur. The schedule may permit some stage rehearsals, but these are primarily for singers to familiarize themselves with one another as well as the scenery. Dudamel may have received several rehearsals with the orchestra, including the Sitzprobe (a purely musical rehearsal for the singers alone with the orchestra) and a run through with the full production.

The production of the opera was a two-sided affair. Musically, it was a solid performance by the singers and the orchestra. Dudamel, when conducting the Overture, entr’actes, and the music that required no coordination with the stage, was lively, theatrical, and the orchestra sparkled. I had the sense, however, that when he concentrated on keeping the musical forces in cohesion with the stage action and his enormous energy and vitality was somewhat dampened.

La Scala’s production did not do complete justice to the house’s proud theatrical traditions. The set’s massive grey, movable brick walls with steps at the right gave no indication of the opera’s setting in Seville or the high mountain pass. Some semblance could be discerned, albeit only slight, of the entrance to bull-fighting arena in Act Four. Based on the revival, it is difficult to judge if respected Sicilian theater director Emma Dante, here making her first foray into opera, had any clear concept in mind. Presumably, a commentary on misogyny and the heavy presence of the Catholic Church was the prevalent theme. Reports emanating from the rehearsals for the premiere back in December, 2009, indicated that many of Dante’s ideas either were toned down or rejected outright.

With the exception of Anita Rachvelishvili (who recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the same role), the entire cast was new to the production. The staging seemed to suffer from the lack of rehearsal. Certainly, without the direct supervision of the original director, much of the original details were lost and the singers reduced to observing pre-determined traffic patterns.

One of the few directorial conceits seemed to have passed muster was the overweening and distracting presence of religious figures. One was the constant presence of a priest accompanied by acolytes bearing a large wooden cross whenever Micaëla (Alexia Voulgaridou) appeared. In turn, white, hooded, and crowned religious figures followed Escamillo (Gabor Bretz) who made his first appearance lowered on an “elevator” into Lillas Pastia’s tavern. During Bretz’s pièce de résistance with the Toreador aria, the hooded figures extended their robes in fan-like shapes as if to act as invisible “shields” for the toreador. Fortunately, in Act Three these characters remained far in the background as silent observers during Escamillo’s encounter with the smugglers and his well-executed knife fight with Josè.

Another of Dante’s ideas survived the cut, that of Josè’s attempt at the final moments of the opera to rape Carmen before he murders her. Such brutality, while a potentially truthful reflection of reality, is out of place with the music. If the singers are reasonably talented, then the music combined with Josè’s desperate words should be more than sufficient to create not only great drama, but also exhibit the heightened sexual tensions between the protagonists.

No simpering Micaëla for Voulgaridou; instead of the usual light lyric soubrette of the past, this was a person with a healthy voice and a strong, dramatic character that contrasted Josè’s infatuation with Carmen. The third act narrative of Josè’s mother on her sickbed with Micaëla inverting her costume from black to white; the religious acolytes lurking in the background came forward to extend her skirt down the stage representing an enormous bed sheet with Voulgaridou at its head, effectively mimicking the mother’s pleading in her despair for Josè.

The up and coming American tenor, Bryan Hymel had the unenviable task of following Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Josè from the premiere in December 2009. Hymel, however, acquitted himself well as both an actor and as a singer worth watching in the future.

Anita Rachvelishvili made her professional stage debut with the Scala production. Working with the director Dante, she eschewed s the portrayal of Carmen as the erotic vamp. Instead, her Carmen is a tough, down to earth woman, filled with joie de vivre. Yet at times, she revealed vulnerability, particularly in the scenes with the tarot cards and recognition of death during the smuggler’s scene in Act Three, as well as her final and fatal encounter with Josè. Rachvelishvili possesses a dark timbred mezzo-soprano and used s it well on this occasion.

As an opera conductor, Dudamel is not yet quite on the same level as in his symphonic repertoire. When presented with the opportunity of conducting a new production, Dudamel will undoubtedly exploit his substantial musical gifts and deliver memorable, invigorating, and exciting performances of opera. What say the Messieurs Domingo and Conlon to providing Dudamel precisely that opportunity?


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