Wednesday, December 1, 2010

We will barock you (5): Alcina at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Alcina (in concert),  TCE Paris, November 29 2010

Anja Karteros (Alcina) and Vesselina Kasarova (Ruggero) - photo Herwig Prammer

Marc Minkowski ..... conductor 

Anja Harteros ..... Alcina
Vesselina Kasarova ..... Ruggiero
Verónica Cangemi ..... Morgana
Kristina Hammarström ..... Bradamante
Luca Tittoto ..... Melisso
Benjamin Bruns ..... Oronte
Shintaro Nakajima Oberto .... a young boy

Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble 

A luxurious cast with magnificent orchestra and amazing conductor, in front of the packed Théâtre des Champs-Élysées -- everything was clicking for a special Monday evening. Trouble is that the day started with a sudden change of weather: it got very cold and we woke up with snow outside. With such a change and after a working day you cannot not feel tired and definitely not ready for 4 long hours of baroque with no stage action.

This is the same cast, same conductor and the same orchestra that performed in the first staged Alcina at the Staatsoper in Vienna past November, to a loud acclaim by both fans and critics.

I knew Alcina in concert would be tough to take, but I couldn't resist temptation knowing that Marc Minkowski and Anja Harteros would be performing. Now, when it's all over and they indeed were excellent, I can say that this long evening reminded me of why it took me so long to appreciate this music.

To me a baroque opera works when the stage director does a good job -- when he/she throws in a few clever ideas, adapts it to make the invariably far-fetched stories resonate with us [us - not overly superstitious post-modern folks.]

With short baroque operas in concert, I'm fine! But once the 3 hours barrier is crossed --in spite of the best possible musicians-- a tsunami of boredom is unstoppable, and swallows all the good I've enjoyed before.

Les Musiciens du Louvre must be the best orchestra around in Mozart and in this repertoire. They  were brilliant, played very lively, perfectly focused, and with Marc Minkowski particularly inspired and visibly enjoying himself.

I guess my mistake was to stay for the second part [first part was 2 hours long, and after 20mins of interval, you're in for 100 more minutes.] So to make this entry as positive as possible, I'll focus on that first part that ended wonderfully, by Anja Harteros singing "Ah mio cor!", which was probably the main reason why I felt I should stay for Part-Two. I simply love that woman! After Amelia, Mimi, Elsa, Desdemona, Violetta, it's the 6th role in little over a year that I listen to Anja perform in, and each time it was the best I've ever listened a singer in any of these roles. I give you all your past glories for this mighty --yet very kind and modest-- lady! ;)

Vesselina Kasarova has undeniably a beautiful voice. After her bad Idamante this year at Garnier, I didn't expect much from her Ruggiero. Even if her technical prowess deteriorated as the concert went on, I thought she was overall very good. In any case the crowd was very enthusiastic and loudly applauded after every of her arias. Verónica Cangemi sings beautifully too, although the timbre of her voice is not as pretty as of her costars. The other roles were also very well sung... but at some point you start wishing something to break the flow of invading dolceza, like a crazy diva, or a 'rock star' (if you get what I mean...)

That's baroque in concert for you: soothing sounds with a couple of same patterns being repeated over and over... and over again, with occasional touches of something different but nothing to disturb the overwhelming sclerosis invading your brain.

I believe a few cuts here and there would have been welcome if the result was to squeeze the concert (including intermission) to under 3 hours mark.

There was one great surprise though: a member of The Vienna Boys choir, Shintaro Nakajima Oberto, sang one (long!) aria but with such a disconcerting technique and confidence, that a crowd didn't let the orchestra finish before bursting into a huge applause.

In the end, I guess I learned that long baroque operas with "no theater" do not work for me, no matter how good musicians are. I prefer contemporary music and more 'destabilizing' sounds.
Having said that, I should add that when good theater is set up on stage the miracle can happen and I love baroque opera too. Since we're talking about Alcina, I would like to suggest you to try and see a fascinating production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito for the Stuttgart Opera released on DVD [ Fr, UK, US/Can, DE] :

It's a 'textbook example' of the force of theater: no opulent decors, and in spite of the far-fetched story, Jossi and Sergio make you love the core/essence of this opera (Isn't that what's Regie all about?!)

OK, let's finish this post on a good note: Here is a YT video of our fave Anja Harteros singing "Ah! mio cor" a few weeks ago in Vienna, with this same orchestra and maestro Minkowski conducting (listen to all of it to admire how the aria is progressing!)


  1. This is coming to London on Saturday provided that Eurostar is not halted by the snow.

    I agree that 4 hours is too long for a concert version. In the 18th C the audience would drink, flirt, gamble and chat during the duller bits so why should we should we sit in the dark for this long for a concert performance.

    Harteros should make it worthwhile though.

  2. Hi John! Exactly! That's what I keep repeating too.

    I guess they'll split the concert at Barbican the same way they did it in Paris. First 2 hours are actually enjoyable, and when you feel in a shadow of boredom, the last aria (Ah! mio cor) helps.

    It's during Part-Two that I started suffering, but since my seat was in the middle I couldn't just get up and leave...

    Well, maybe it's me and my attention span too short for Alcina in concert?!


  3. hi Opera Cake, thanks for your review! I attended 3 times the staged version in Vienna and found each time more wonderful than the last. I completely agree with you on Ah Mio Cor, just simply stunning. She left me floored, unable to move as intermission rolled in. I guess to listen to the concert version you need to know the entire opera by heart and arrive at the concert hall fresh and alert :-). Otherwise, 4 hours can be quite long.

  4. Hi thadieu! I guess you're more of "baroque-fan" than I am. Even when fresh and alert, I'm not sure 4 hours of baroque is what I could bear up with in concert. It's just too much for me (and I know quite well many arias in Alcina).

    Wagner operas are also long but they are rarely fully given in concert, even tho their musical and dramatic contents are much more vibrant than what you get from baroque (well for me at least). Usually you have Act-2 of Tristan, or Act-1 of Die Walküre...

    4 hours of Alcina with a clever stage action -- I'm all for it! But in concert, not any more :)

    Had I know it. I'd have left the concert during intermission; right after Anja Harteros' heart-throbbing "Ah! mio cor", and I'm sure I would have been much happier.

  5. One of these days I'm going to have to see a production directed by my namesake