In brief: There was some very good and dedicated music-making to be heard during this “Tito”. Currentzis makes a lot more sense when he is on a podium, working, and not not talking about it (or, God forbid, on a press photo shoot). There were some over-affectuated bits and some unnecessary theatrics (also looking at you, light crew), but it was a good and focused concert, and it offered lots of chances to reflect on the idea of authenticity, art as a space of the sacred, music-making and democracy, and the power of audience attitudes.
[Glocke Concert Hall, front façade detail. – Those Northerners sure have a thing for sobriety, even when it comes to art.]
In not so brief: First of all, I apologize for the title of this post, but I couldn’t resist (and at least no one will plagiarize it). Also, reasons. Specifially, Sesto and Annio reasons because Hot. Damn.
[Blurry greetings from the curtain calls (but I heard that latonella has actually relevant photos up): Anna Lucia Richter (Servilia), Willard White (Publio), Jeanine de Bique (Annio), Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Sesto), Karina Gauvin (Vitellia), Maximilian Schmitt (Tito), Teodor Currentzis]
— Okay have we lost anyone who is not a regular (or a copycat) over the “My Immortal” references and blurry audience shots? All right, then let’s get to it.
[The Currentzis Algorithm: a constant oscillation between the piousness on the left (the listener even looks like him) and the pose on the right. – Wilhelm Busch, The Virtuoso (1865).]
This was my first Currentzis live experience. And while I continue to object to his press image and the way he is being handled as ‘genius’, seeing him perform put some things into perspective for me.
It is easy to respect an uncompromising earnestness, also as an earnestness linked to the mechanics of the sacred, when it comes to art. I find that particularly logical when it is a reaction brought on by consumerist audience attitudes: digging deeper where entitled grubby hands cannot reach.
But the tipping point towards pretentious pose is quickly reached – if you start staging you (factual) earnestness, how much of it can remain? And if f you are living off the “I am the edge!” narrative, does it become only a tale of it?
Staging one’s earnestness, to a Lutheran, has a very simple simile: Catholicism. And perhaps it really boils down to that – to different attitudes towards the sacred, and trying to shield that space from being turned into something available for money.
And an audience that buys into the messianic hype and hierarchies of the genius cult, feeding off an idea of immersion: that is also consumerism. As I walked out of the concert, a middle-aged lady dressed within the codes of haute bourgeoisie turned to her companion and said “Now that was an event, wasn’t it?” It was said with all the entitlement of someone who has bought themselves a slice of the spectacular, and with it, the right to add it to their own self-staging. “I was there! It was important! Hence *I* am important!”
“There was also music,” I muttered.
There are different models of togetherness, reaching beyond music. Some come with an idea of hierarchy – also when it comes to concepts the sacred. I had to think of that when the MusicAeterna choir and band walked out and the choir – all aligned, all very straight in posture, all without a smile – stood for the tuning of the instruments. Large parts of the band stood for the performance, placed on steep podium scales.
It is immediately audible that a tremendous amount of work, far beyond a nine-to-five schedule, has gone into rehearsing hits: immediate reacticity, a sound balance between smooth structure and a bit of grainy hard shadow, with extreme break intervals and breakneck speed following one another seamlessly. This starts right with the overture, with Currentzis following the Mozart pattern also evident on his “Don Giovanni” recording: starting with a few extremly free-form chords, split up by wild grand pauses, only to be at an immediate 300mph (and leaving barely a skidmark).
His take remains remarkably precise throughout. There is a sense of transparence, though the different levels – of (at times overly pointdexterous) pianoforte commentary, of theorbo, of choir and of soloists – make it more of a stacked hierarchy with glass ceilings.
Currentzis conducts from a state more of high alert than of flow. His style is one of being on top of the beast, but having domesticated the beast (has it ever been a beast, even?) before he had it line up on the podium. His movements are large, taking up space, but they are never erratic or wildly passionate. They remain smooth, based on very flexible knees (as he was wearing skinny pants and a sort-of-billowing black shirt, that bit was obvious. – Notes say: #EmoMagpie). Quite often, he does turn to his singers, facing them in a dialog of sorts (is it a dialog when the power balance is not evened out? My notes read someplace, “He is making the whole show his bitch”, which is not really a term I tend to employ a lot, and, yes, conductors. But ostentatively so?), mouthing along phrases and moving into their space, but also offering a line – or a leash? – to hold onto.
Some of his grand pauses border on pretentious theatralics: I got the occasional impression of the band being paraded around like a circus horse, “Look, how neatly it reacts while it counts with its hooves!”. Same goes for a few of the subito piano effects in the choir (e.g. in the “Agnus Dei”). Yes, they are very impressive, utterly precise in execution, but these acrobatics did, for me, overshadow the intended expressiveness at times. A similar thing happened with the finely tuned dynamics in the pianissimo range – at times it did reach the point of mannerist overbreeding (and now that I think about it, there was no roaring on the other end of the scale – the one that would be harder to control?).
What Currentzis’ stunning level of control achieves, however, is a sound that readily accomodates the voices, giving the soloists space to work on expressiveness instead of having to battle volume with volume.
There has been a bit of back and forth in the press and in the audiences on Currentzis/Sellars having cut a lot of the secco recits, having moved some of them around, and, most of all, having inserted excerpts from Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Those parts – parts dealing with stark submission towards an entity of the sacred, parts driving on reverence, fear and devotion, parts dealing in the idea of handing oneself over to a higher authority beyond reason – were the ones I found the most convicing and suiting Currentzis’ style, which I find to draw on patterns of relating to the sacred, best. So I didn’t mind the insertions at all. I suspect that they make more sense within the scenic production, but since it is marvelous music either way, I was happy I got to hear Currentzis’ take here.
In his gestures – and I was watching closely – I couldn’t find anything affectated in coducting, only in the way he pushed back his hair if there was scene applause interrupting the performance (which might have been nerves, too). And, a small human gesture, he did knock over a water bottle on stage at some point, and then bent down to upright it again when he had a moment. He also helped out one of the signers (Tito, I think?) when they struggled with adjusting their music stand.
During one of the quieter moments of “Parto, parto”, with just voice and clarinet, a mobile phone went off with the Miss Marple ringtone. Loudly. For long seconds. Increasing in volume. I half expected Currentzis to storm off the stage (and I would have cheered him on. There is a special place in hell reserved for people who interrupt a cappella mezzo-ing with ringtones), but he carried on and brought the concentration back.
From the orchestral and choral take – those that don’t have as many spaces out there to make choices and leap, to fly or to struggle or to fall, as the soloists do – I went out, and it is a sensation I can pinpoint more clearly now with the days passing, missing a spark beyond the impressive command of their craft, and the level of control. It was so well executed that I could not find an edge of spontaneity, that kind of breathing where, when you start, you don’t know yet where exactly you will end up because that is humanness and not a perfect automaton. Would it have required longer leash, perhaps? – But that may just be my way of listening, and focusing on one aspect that has been going through my mind, yet not necessarily through the mind of anyone on stage. Coming together in music works differently for different people.
The mood during curtain calls, at least among the soloists, was remarkable: huge and joyous smiles among each other, even some botching of the bow line, as if the intensity of the evening – more pronounced on stage than in the hall – had equaled climbing a mountain together (the cutest moment was Jeanine de Bique hugging the flower boy in exuberance) and standing at its top, breathless with joy, with one’s limbs slowly adjusting to move without the strain again.
Onto the singers: what made me buy the ticket, beyond “it is two trouser mezzos, this is a no brainer, even if one of them is still listed as N.N.”, was Karina Gauvin, whom I had never heard live, either. And, yes, Gauvin, but the moment the singers walked out – N.N. had gratifyingly turned into Stéphanie d’Oustrac along the way – my thought process, though rational thought had little to do with it, went as follows: “Tank Top… TANK TOP… delts… asdfghjkl.”
For the remainder of this review, I shall refer to d’Oustrac as δ’Oustrac, who walked out basically in the same outfit she wore for her Aix Carmen, but in all black: a low-cut (back and front) tank top with thin straps, trousers, impressive heels (which did not impede a certain amount of swagger, which re: asdfghjkl above). There were dangling earrings involved and the tanktop sported some sequins, but if you can sell a Sesto and a Carmen in the same season wearing more or less the same outfit: chapeau. I think the only difference was having her hair tied back, and a broad bracelet, which had enough gauntlet factor to qualify for trouser role accessory. Also, did I mention the δelts? (yes, I will get to the singing in a bit, but in a concert world where I often have to squint past the frills when it comes to outfits, a singer walking out and looking like δ’Oustrac did on Friday was a very welcome sight. Also a reason to swoon even while seated, I am not going to lie. – And δ’Oustrac wasn’t the only apparition on that evening, wait until we make it to Jeanine de Bique whose abilites to rock a slim hipster suit with Converse high tops are likely to remain unsurpassed)
But back to Gauvin, who walked out in dramatic blue, and set fire to her recits right from the start. I was sitting far back, and although the Glocke is an accomodating hall for voices not drilled to volume, I was surprised at times that her tone didn’t come across as more sizely (she did turn it up to a 100% in the second part, though – perhaps this comes back to the question of control that I also pondered regarding her Donna Elvira under Currentzis). But it’s not as if Gauvin would need size to singe a hall. Her tone is light, but with a creamy, voluptous note, balanced by a nervous fire that results in the kind of dramatic crackle I have come to associate with her. She – along with her Sesto – displayed a broad dynamic range, and from the first recit and duet it was already obvious that she had no qualms about thinking from the spoken line, never shying away from consonants that interrupt a note.
Having worked with Currentzis before may have given Gauvin an advantage, too – the first duet was clearly thought from the orchestra, pushing it into a rhythm-based, mad accelerando race, but Gauvin adapted and held her own. She also moved with ease through the rubati-burdering-on-grand-pauses that Currentzis is so fond of, giving them an a spin or two on her own. Some of her small-scale piano work may have been borderline mannerist, but I loved it.
“Deh, se piacer mi vuoi” perfectly showcased her abilities – the very top has gained a sharper shadow, noticable mostly in longer scale runs, but she has gained more power to her chest notes. They are generous, seamlessly tied in, with an appealingly dark tinge, and without her ever having to push for them. I saw people around me straighten in their seats when Gauvin pounced on the repeat “alletta” and played with its potential like a cat with a mouse – the mouse being the score, Sesto and the audience all wrapped in one.
And even though this was a concert performance, there were some nice scenic moments Gauvin built up – as the beginning of the aria, where she keeps Sesto standing next to her, spellbound, and doesn’t even look at him until he moves back and sits down. In reaction to Vitellia’s singing, δ’Oustrac had her Sesto sit up straighter
(and if Kasarova gave trouser seating classes, she might have taken one) and stare at her, not turning into a listening colleague, but staying scenically in the moment as the dialog partner for Vitellia.
δ’Oustrac herself, whom I could not quite imagine as Sesto after the very recent exposure to her Carmen, comes with a dark color with a structured surface rather than with sheer polish, but her Mozartean singing is clean – evident for example in the balanced first trill on “farò” in “Parto, parto”. It is easily apparent that she counts with more power, though, particularly around her middle range: she does have the core to give Sesto a few Carmen moments. He wasn’t some hapless youth here, and when Sesto first faced Tito, I could hav sworn his recit lines were, “Oh, if you were my José (and not such a closet case), I’d bench you, and before coffee.”
“Parto, parto” dealt with some of the extremes Currentzis seems to be fond of, with a well-supplied, large and aggressive first “Parto!”, with Gauvin’s Vitellia still standing over Sesto’s shoulder like Lady Macbeth over her husband’s, and then there was a quick downscale to ppp. Likewise, the “Guardamis” played out: the first irate and demanding, out front, the second affectated, small and soft, turned towards Vitellia. For me, it was a bit too starkly chiaroscuro, rupturing the line, but that may be just me.
The larger section of “guardami, e tutto oblio” was a satisfying powerhouse moment, with another mad accelerando – the house was warned because Currentzis pushed his thin legs into the floor in a wider stance, and then took off, and δ’Oustrac easily matched the drive and took the final low-lying “donaste alla beltà”, in between the two long, florid “beltà” scales, entirely in chest register (there is nothing in my notes at this point that I could quote in public).
The Act I finale counted with some more sparks from Gauvin – the theatrics of the light show, with dunking the stage in a deep red, were completely unnecessary and came across as artificial – who tore through the trio entry with “Venga, aspettate”. That little sharper note in the top was very appealing here, and her attack was glorious.
Also, the end of the Sesto accompagnato, with “tardo è il pentimento” didn’t really help with rational thought processes regarding δ’Oustrac. That was another power moment with just the right amount of ping, never turning into an uncontrolled roar.
Another small moment showcasing the dramatic instinct of both δ’Oustrac and Gauvin and their reacting off each other was the small exchange before the a capella quintet bit – you could have put the undercurrents of that interaction right onto a Shakespere stage, also in their way of drawing the musical impulse from the word phrasing (singers who come from Early Music are wonderful).
There is an echo of that later, before Gauvin sinks her teeth and vocal chords into “Non più di fiori”: in a suffocated “ah, partite”, turned to the side, quick and organic, in reaction to Vitellia’s having been found crying.
“Non più di fiori” was a curious rendition, after a dramatic accopagnato going in: the first part had more the tone of a melancholy flashback, something reminiscent of the “Mi tradìi” rendition in her “Don Giovanni” recording with Currentzis: too even, too pretty, too removed from the moment – an odd choice to employ as a conductor with Gauvin at hand, who excels at drama. For the coda, set apart with another marked accelerando, Gauvin took reins (and reign), though, and turned Vitellia’s conflict into an immediate one.
The singers whose performances stood out to me were δ’Oustrac, Gauvin and de Bique, but before I get to her, let me touch upon the others, of whom Willard White as Publio seemed the most curious choice to me. He is the kind of heroic, regal bass-baritone, the voice now already a little smoky around the edges, a peaty Scotch, who does not get much of a chance to play to his strengths here. I thought of his Aix Wotan, and there is the kind of gentlemanly stance and calm to his bearing that can fit well for a Publio, but he didn’t have the line and warmth I would have associated with the score. His singing was at no point to blame technically, though: there was no overblended hoarseness and no unreeving. If I hadn’t know that he has sung Wotan before, I would never have guessed from the way he fit himself to the take.
Servilia is not a part of much spunk to begin with, but turned out to be subspunk in this “Tito” reading. Anna Lucia Richter couldn’t really make a different impression here, being at her most commanding instead in the Mass in c Minor excerpts. Already the initial ” Ah, perdono” duet was sweet, but very tame: there is no dizziness licking at it. The singing is neat and clean and bright throughout, and, in that, a little bland.
(Barbarina called, she wants her needle back) Scenically, it was readily apparent that Richter had also been part of the stage production, especially in her give-and-take with de Bique. When Servilia goes to tell Tito that she will marry him, if he orders her to, but that she cannot love him for she loves Annio, she does so holding hands with Annio, a pair of lovers standing up for themselves. Annio supporting Servilia here gave the his character a spin of more spine, I liked that. It was also the moment where Richter showed most scenic presence. But being the token lyric soprano, she may have been very firmly cast in the mold that Currentzis seems to favor for lyric sopranos: clean and sweet.
The Tito of Maximilian Schmitt, while sung without pressure, was a little on the light side, more Tamino than Tito. His timbre is clear and bright, at little monotonal in that, with an occasionally nasal seat balance. He threw himself into his more dramatic recit bits with gusto, despite not having that much weight to throw around, and paced himself well.
In this combination, the orchestra shone during his parts, weaving around him – the string upswing leading into “Ah, se fosse intorno al trono” stood out in particular, buttersmooth and with sparkling fairy dust on top. The aria then was sung light and beautifully, with unmarred clarity, but, again, very light to my ears – it wasn’t an emperor struggling with his office, it was a very private contemplation akin to Bostridge singing “Ich will meine Seele tauchen”, which is about the lightest and clearest thing ever done by a tenor.
Unsurprisingly, the most difficult Schmitt fit turned out to be “Se all’impero”, which sounded like a suit at least one size too big. Both him and Richter, I would like to hear in different repertory, with a different conductor at the helm, to see how their color range would fare then.
Richter had a decidedly difficult stance next to Jeanine de Bique, whose color range is downright orphic. She also was the person on stage who knew how to wear skinny hipster pants best, and her slim suit (barely this side of black, with a midnight blue shirt), complete with casual pochette and lapel chain (if I saw that correctly from all the way back where I was sitting) and combined with those high tops was a model way of looking fresh and sharp and dapper without looking pretentious or as if she were even trying. If the orchestral playing and the conducting would have had a bit more of this effortless style, I would have been over the moon.
I *was* pretty over the moon regarding de Bique’s singing. She is a soprano – showcased towards the end by a ringing acuto she gets in (I believe) “Tu fosti tradito”, unless it was in one of the Mass in c minor bits – but she easily extends downwards and has a timbre that is dark and lush enough to pass for a mezzo even beyond middle range. Her core piece, at the begining of Act II, is the “Kyrie” from the Mass in c minor, alone under a light cone (I did not mind the light show there. Just to be fair). It is perhaps the single biggest goosebump moment of the evening, and de Bique sings it beautifully, with stupendous techncial prowess and large phrase takes. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fantastic. But if there was one thing I would nag about, it is – thought hat may be less on de Bique than on Currentzis – the elaborate reading taking away a bit of the flow, and the voice has less of the organic ease here than it displays at other moments throughout the evening. It was rings upon rings on water into which someone had thrown a smooth stone, and those rings were more muted here.
Other moments were more spontaneous: the heartfelt “Mi perdo, s’io non parto, anima mia” before the duet with Servilia did already win me over, and also the heart-to-heart duet with Sesto at the beginning was – underneath the Currentzis polish – impossible not to sigh and smile at.
Time and again through the evening, the sonorous ease and the the wide array of colors to de Bique’s timbre reminded me of Jessye Norman.
It is a slippery slope to compare, in an industry dominated by white people, one black singer to another, and I talked about it with Agathe in the break – that I wanted to address the similarity in color, but that I did want to stay away from racial profiling of voices (at the same time, I don’t want to wash away color, but those are claims that I as a white person cannot make. Only a person of color can justifiedly do that).
Of course de Bique’s voice is smaller and lighter that Norman’s, but there is a ping to her timbre, a darker mezzo tint that then richly refracts color in an amplitude that brought me back to Norman more than once, especially over the “a” and “e” sounds. This Annio kept reminding me that Norman started out as a mezzo. I have no idea where de Bique is headed, but I would say that she will be going places. Perhaps one of them will be Didon?
Let me stay true to my overall blog focus and return to the actual mezzo and the tank top once more before I close this out. There were a few more moments by δ’Oustrac that deserve mention – the impetus of “rammenta a chi t’adora”, sung here without any whining, befitting for this somewhat brasher Sesto (it was the bracelet, I am telling you), but still with a thread of vulnerability that stood out. It was a balance δ’Oustrac kept in the exhcange with Tito before “Deh, per questo istante”, which she started into absolute silence: teh audience was spellbound. She built it up to a Carmen-reminder on the low phrases for “Pur saresti men severo / se vedessi questo cor” – not in turning the tone denser, but in the mood, something like Carmen’s “je ne dis-vous rien”, when she is talking half to herself, half seducing José. Is there an undercurrent of seduction here, not just blind appealing? An interesting twist on the power balance for this scene that I will have to think about some more. Also, I clearly need to find more δ’Oustrac to put onto the liveblog list.
The evening, after the Act II finale, closes out with Mozart’s “Maurische Trauermusik”, where both in light effects and musical affects, less dramatics would have been more, for me. It may be the nature of Currentzis style that his brand of immersive intensity comes with a an aftertaste of being a little high-strung. Still, I think I appreciate some of his choices on a more informed level after this concert.