Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Guest Posting: Vesselina Kasarova at the Whitsun Festival in Salzburg

Below is a guest posting courtesy of John Carnegie (who also supplied all the photos) after attending the Whitsun Festival in Salzburg on June 8th, 2014. Thanks very much, John!


Some people experience what is known as a “three Kleenex movie”. Vesselina Kasarova has just had a three frock evening in Salzburg.

Salzburg: that city with its curious concoction of culture and kitsch; in which the streets are paved with beggars studiously ignored by the penguin-suited culture vultures who stroll by them; in which (see below) the birthplace of its greatest son is situated above a Spar supermarket selling the ubiquitous over-priced Mozart Kugel sweets that typify the city’s avidity for art alongside its attempts to strip the tourist’s wallet of all its assets. Mozart famously couldn’t wait to flee the place. One wonders what his reaction would be to the contradictions on display there now.

For once though, Salzburg’s cultural focus was not on Mozart but a composer born a year after his death.  For the third year running, the city’s Pfingstfestspiele (Whitsun Festival) was being curated by Cecilia Bartoli and her chosen theme for 2014 was the music of Rossini. Packed houses were the order of the day as patrons stewed in the sweltering heat wave visited on the city. “Rossinissimo” (as the five day festival was called) covered a broad range of the composer’s oeuvre: comic and tragic opera, song, sacred music and not forgetting Rossini’s principal passion: food. The penultimate evening brought a host of stars to Salzburg – with two concerts at 5pm and 8pm including Frau Kasarova among the array.

The first of these was at the Mozarteum and featured Rossini’s final composition, the Petite Messe Solennelle, and the first of Frau Kasarova’s frocks for the evening: a demure dark brown number that allowed her to merge appropriately into the cast of this spare and sombre work in which individual talents are only occasionally allowed to emerge from the overall texture. Rossini gives his mezzo two stints in the sunlight and Kasarova seized these with aplomb. The first was a duet with the soprano in which Kasarova’s relish at being able to renew her alliance with her old sparring partner Eva Mei was evident. The second was the conclusion of the piece in which the mezzo rides over the chorus (in this case the superbly prepared Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia) in a celebratory Agnus Dei.

There were only two downsides to the concert. The first was the balance between the two pianos (the only instruments apart from a harmonium) and the voices. Although I was in the front row, I had the misfortune to be the pianos’ side and they at times overwhelmed the voices. (However, I think that the awkward balance was only emphasised by my particular seat. I sat further back in the same hall the next day for Joyce DiDonato’s recital and the way that the venue favours the instrument over the voice was still apparent.) The other downside was that one of the two pianists was also the conductor. Normally Antonio Pappano is one of the most considerate conductors to his soloists. Perhaps it was because of his over-exertions on a day on which he had already conducted Rossini’s Stabat mater but it was evident that Sir Tony had his head in the score rather than the score in his head. Oft times the soloists looked to him for guidance but they rarely got it. It was clearly a performance in which some of the individual parts (the chorus and the soloists) had done their own very careful preparation but the ensemble as a whole was under-rehearsed. Still, somehow it all came together reasonably well despite that.

After an hour’s break, it was time to move to the main venue of the Festival for its centrepiece: the Grosse Rossini-Gala. A galaxy of stars had been promised on the bill but a number of them (such as Agnes Baltsa, Teresa Berganza, Montserrat Caballé, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo and Erwin Schrott) didn’t turn up. Fortunately Juan Diego Flórez offered his services at the last minute and his duet from La Cenerentola with Cecilia Bartoli (the two of them appearing opposite each other for incredibly the first ever time) was one of the highlights of the evening. The desertion of so many singers meant that not only was the evening a soprano-free zone (not entirely inappropriate for Rossini) but there were in fact only two female singers onstage throughout the gala - being the two most famous Zurich-based mezzos. After a succession of male “opere buffe” pieces (which ranged from an excellently delivered and genuinely funny Don Magnifico from Carlos Chausson to an over-confident Ruggero Raimondi parting tempo from the orchestra throughout most of Basilio’s La calunnia despite the best efforts of the baton of the otherwise supreme Adam Fisher), the first half concluded with the Act I Finale from Il barbiere di Siviglia featuring Kasarova as Rosina in her second frock of the night: a sleek, silvery-cream number. As Bartoli was already dressed in jeans, apron and yellow “Marigold” washing-up gloves for Cenerentola, she took on the role of the servant Berta. Cue for much clowning between the two mezzos miming severe backache as they exited from their curtain calls.

So far, the programme had consisted entirely of such high jinks and this suited the majority of the audience who had obviously come just for a fun night out. At the astronomical ticket prices charged, only the financially unchallenged can afford most of the seats. Unfortunately, there is not necessarily a correlation between wealth and musical appreciation. The social snobbery on display did not have much to be snobbish about in regard to their cultural sensibility. The insensitive barrage of coughing throughout the purely orchestral numbers was only amplified by the excellent acoustics of the Grosses Festspielhaus; flash photography was taking place during the actual performances; most distracting of all was the woman in front of me who spent over half of the evening texting on her mobile phone. One wonders why she had bothered to come.

In this circus atmosphere, it was obvious that the minority of serious arias on show would prove a trial to this majority element in the audience. Frau Kasarova had the misfortune to be the purveyor of such a piece when – as the first aria after the interval – she delivered Arsace’s Eccomi al fine in Babilonia from Semiramide.  Entering in frock three of the night (a stunning scarlet number), she proceeded to surmount the varied vocal challenges of this virtuoso aria. My only criticism of her performance was that it featured more than usually a defect that has sadly become of late more evident in some of her performances: a very audible and distracting intake of breath between the musical phrases. That though was more than compensated by the accomplishment otherwise on display in this most demanding of musical showpieces. She received respectable applause afterwards but deserved much more.

Much more to the taste of this particular audience was the grandstanding of Javier Camarena. The new boy on the block of star tenors delivered Ramiro’s Si ritrovarlo io giusto from La Cenerentola with the kind of tooth-grinding vocal excesses that excited this audience into a standing ovation and a fulfilled demand for an even more excessive encore. The other standing ovation of the evening went to the veteran José Carreras – mostly, I suspect, occasioned by his fame. However, in his case, the standing ovation was richly deserved.  His voice may be slightly ragged round the edges compared to what it once was but his artistry is undiminished. He brought a laser-like focus to Giocondo’s aria from Rossini’s first opera La pietra del paragone.  It was a privilege to be present for this.

After that, all that remained was for the majority of the cast to wrap up the gala with the Act II Finale from Il barbiere di Siviglia with Kasarova and Bartoli back as Rosina and Berta accompanied by one Figaro, two Counts, two Bartolos and no less than three Basilios. It topped an evening that was mostly enjoyable but – with a different audience and perhaps with the presence of some of the no-show stars – might have been much more than that.

That’s Salzburg for you though. Its distinctly Disneyfied brand of tourism breeds an atmosphere in which a multiplicity of frocks seems more appreciated than artistry. Personally, I would have preferred the chance to employ more than one Kleenex."

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