Monday, 12 September 2011

Wiener Staatsoper & Teatro alla Scala: firm friends

Wiener Staatsoper, 9/9/2011
Violeta Urmana (soprano), Daniela Barcellona (mezzo-soprano), Rolando Villazón (tenor), Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
Daniel Barenboim, Orchestra e Coro della Scala (chorus master Bruno Casoni)

Verdi: Messa da Requiem

The Gastspiel tradition shared by Vienna and Milan dates back to 1893. A 1956 Gastspiel held during Karajan’s tenure as artistic director of the Wiener Staatsoper introduced Vienna to Maria Callas and led to controversial reforms, including operas in their original language and more international principals, while the most recent guest performance took place in Milan in 2001, after which relations between the two houses regressed to the sandpit in the wake of Scala GM Stéphane Lissner undiplomatically observing that Viennese rep can be woefully under-rehearsed. Holender took this all very personally and for the remainder of his Intendanz missed no opportunity to dismiss La Scala, most recently on account of Lissner’s musical illiteracy, because as we all know, the general manager being able to read music automatically makes for fabulous performances. But with Lissner’s fellow countryman Dominique Meyer now in Holender’s old job, it’s vive la différence. According to Meyer, the two met by chance on the street and put all the pettiness behind them faster than you can say solfeggio, and to prove it they resuscitated the old Gastspiel tradition, with both houses on an equal footing.

The Staatsoper’s concert performance of Fidelio (with Franz Welser-Möst and Nina Stemme) went ahead despite a threatened strike. Vienna got the Verdi Requiem with the Scala orchestra and chorus under Daniel Barenboim, and Rolando Villazón for added box office draw (his third Viennese comeback performance in less than 18 months, not that anybody’s counting).

The Scala orchestra impressed right from the start. Technically, these guys have the Staatsopernorchester (when it’s not the Wiener Philharmoniker) beat in every instrumental department. There was no sense of Verdian practice passed down through the generations, like Vienna’s Mozart and Strauss traditions, just assured, responsive and remarkably fresh playing, great ensemble, and an elasticity to the phrasing that seemed in equal parts intuitive and shaped through interpretation.

On that front, Barenboim proved that performing this work successfully needn’t involve sacrificing good taste on the altar of tension and drama. The Tuba mirum opening was less about in-your-face momentum than the antiphonal interplay of laser-like precision way up in the Gallerie and a wonderfully blended and unforced full brass texture on the stage. Soloists, chorus and orchestra were just as impeccably balanced in all the other movements.

The Scala chorus is a force to be reckoned with and while Barenboim handled them well, changes of mood lacked something of the responsiveness and clarity heard in the orchestral playing. Still, tenors and basses never sounded portentous (my biggest Verdi Requiem turn-off). Diction was exemplary, though I don’t understand why Barenboim insisted on some hammy rolled Rs, thankfully confined to the opening ‘Requiem’ and later, ‘Rex trrremendae’.

Bass Alexander Vinogradov was the only weak link in the solo line-up, declamatory to the point of shouting and prone to producing more breath than tone. Villazón didn’t have a bad evening: his voice has lost some of its power, but the tone is still there and delivery was generally secure. He faltered a bit in his solo number, cracking an E flat, but high notes elsewhere were well-supported and phrases passably legato. Violeta Urmana and Daniela Barcellona are formidable soloists who chalked up many strong moments between them. Urmana’s B flat and C in the Libera Me were placed like a pro, floating effortlessly above the orchestral and choral textures. 

I don’t have a great deal of tolerance for the Verdi Requiem, but this was a very strong performance that always felt something more than just a monumental choral spectacle. The audience seemed to agree, green-lighting the next Gastspiel with a long standing ovation.

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