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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Great Performances on PBS—Mozart’s 250th

Earlier this week the U.S. not-for-profit television network PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) aired broadcast TV’s first classical music concert of the season. The series is called “Great Performances,” which shows up several times annually and features well known musicians doing what they do best—singing, dancing or playing an instrument. In between musical selections the stars provide commentary on the pieces they’re about to perform. The programs are pleasingly arranged, offering just enough conversation to punctuate the music without overshadowing it. Earlier in 2006, a 90-minute retrospective featured highlights of the series’ many years on the air, including historical performances by Pablo Casals, Joan Sutherland, Rudolph Nureyev, and others of their ilk.

This particular program was recorded live at the 2006 Salzburg Festival and honored the 250th birthday of W.A. Mozart. It was primarily a showcase of operatic arias—all in Italian, by the way—although the program began with the overture to “Don Giovanni” and ended with the playing of all three movements of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”).

Leading a cut-down, Mozart-sized version of the Vienna Philharmonic was Daniel Harding. The orchestra was comprised of all male players, which seemed strange in this day and age, not to mention a bit off-putting. Perhaps they were aiming for historic authenticity, as I’m sure no woman ever graced the orchestra pit during Mozart’s day.

In addition to the two aforementioned orchestral works, eight arias performed by seven different singers made up the balance of the program. The three big names were (in order of vocal appearance) bass/baritone René Pape, baritone Thomas Hampson and, in the night’s most electrifying performance, soprano Anna Netrebko. More on that farther down the page. The also-rans included tenor Michael Schade, soprano Patricia Petitbon, mezzo Magdalena Kožená, and soprano Ekaterina Siurina.

It was a shame that the only person to sing more than one aria was the tenor. Judging from his selections—“Dalla sua pace” from “Don Giovanni” plus a rarely performed aria from “La Clemenza di Tito”—Schade has an adequate voice. But his presence only served to emphasize the fact that Mozart wrote poorly for the tenor voice. That could be because there were no decent tenors during his days in Salzburg, or perhaps one might credit it to some innate dislike of tenors. It’s even possible that a tenor had once attempted to seduce his wife. Whatever the reason, I don’t believe there’s a single tenor aria in all of Mozart’s œuvre that’s worth a damn—and Schade proved that in spades.

René Pape opened the vocal proceedings with Leporello’s “catalogue” aria from “Don Giovanni.” Pape is an up-and-coming presence on world opera stages—although he’s been around the block a few times, as they say—and his animated, expressive presentation captured perfectly the essence of a character who both despises his master and vicariously revels in the man’s conquests.

Thomas Hampson, on the other hand, appeared from his singular offering to be someone on his way down the ladder. While his voice has not declined nearly as much as that of fellow American Samuel Ramey, Hampson’s rendition of a baritone aria from “Così fan Tutte”—so much more an opera about women’s voices than men’s—was pedestrian, underpowered and dull. A more dynamic choice might have served him better, such as one of the Count’s arias from “Nozze.”

Magdalena Kožená did a fine job with “Parto, ma tu ben mio” from “Clemenza.” This is an oft-heard mezzo staple in vocal competitions; in that setting—performed by a young singer to mere piano accompaniment—it can be almost tedious. But with full orchestra and sung by a professional, it’s a dramatic piece where one can clearly imagine the male soprano voice for which it was originally composed—and I mean that in a good way. Mozart’s pairing of solo clarinet with the vocal line is a brilliant touch, presaging similar effects of soprano and solo violin in Meyerbeer’s “Margherita d’Anjou” and soprano and solo flute in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

French soprano Patricia Petitbon did a decent job with her selection from “Mitridate, re di Ponto.” It’s far from a challenging piece but shows off the soprano voice to good effect. The surprise, however, is the fact that this opera debuted when Mozart was only 14. The music seems far too sophisticated for having been written by a young teenager, no matter how precocious. I guess that just shows the man’s genius.

Ekaterina Siurina sang a soprano aria from “Idomeneo,” an opera seria composed when Mozart was 24. Totally forgettable, both the song and its performance.

The highlight of the evening clearly featured Anna Netrebko. She is the current hot female in the opera world—and not just because she’s got a marvelous voice. She also has immense stage presence, a flair for the dramatic that’s tempered with sensitivity, and a selection of starring roles that would make any soprano drool. Take a look at her 2006-07 schedule:

Manon (title role)—Los Angeles Opera and Vienna State Opera
La Sonnambula (title role)—Vienna State Opera
La Bohème (Mimi) and I Puritani (Elvira)—Metropolitan Opera
Don Giovanni (Donna Anna)—Covent Garden
Concerts with Rolando Villazon (three) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (one)

Closing out the vocal portion of the night’s performance, Netrebko offered “D’oreste, d’Ajace” from the opera “Idomeneo.” The strong ovation she received at the conclusion of her aria was directly appropriate to the fire she exhibited during her all-too-brief appearance on stage. For those of us seeing her for the first time, it was a validation of all the hype she’s received since setting the American opera scene on its ear last year with her appearances as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Looking at the breadth of her repertoire—Mozart, bel canto and Verdi, essentially every important operatic style except verismo—one wonders how long she can keep up this sort of pace.

Judging from the level of energy she displayed on Great Performances, I’m guessing we’re in for a long and delightful run.

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