Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Werther at the Palau

My first night in Valencia was spent at the opera. I've talked about the Palau Reina Sofía a lot. It is part of the City of Arts and Sciences complex, so let's start with the rest of my photo tour. Skipping over some minor items such as the radio-controlled model boat club that meets at the other end of that lagoon from the science museum, we finally come to the Palau. Notice that that huge curvy bit on top just hangs there, it is not supported by anything you can see from this angle:

Click to enlarge
That shiny white exterior is made up of millions of tiny tesserae. They are used to finish surfaces throughout the entire complex, as you can see in this photo of the edge of the lagoon:

Yes, little ceramic chips, as in mosaics. The interior walls of the hall are also finished with ceramic chips, tesserae, but in blue, not white. I think you can see the light reflecting off them in this photo:

Here is another photo of the exterior:

Sorry, for the angle, but I can't straighten it out without losing part of the photo. What you are seeing, starting from the bottom is a restaurant, then some meeting and classrooms (the complex includes a training centre for opera singers under the patronage of Plácido Domingo) and above that, the big window is to the lobby where opera-goers hang out at intermission. Here is a closer photo of the lower two levels:

And from the inside, looking out, during the intermission. What you are seeing, from left to right are, way in the distance, the towers of my hotel, then one end of the science museum, the Hemispheric (IMAX theatre), the suspension bridge, and on the far right, the roof garden on the parking garage. In the foreground is another bridge, for cars and pedestrians.

Here is a better photo of the folks gathered below.

As you can see, they are enjoying a wide assortment of snacks and champagne:

What are those ropes, guarded by black-clad ushers for, you ask? Ah, those delightful refreshments are only for the patrons of the opera! Quite different from the Teatro Real, where everyone had equal access, on payment, to the intermission refreshments.

But let me finish my photo-tour. Here is a look at the other end of the Palau which is on a higher level:

This is the entrance to the box office and to the hall and that big pylon has a guide on it:

And here is a photo from underneath the pylon which gives an interesting angle on the architecture:

Here is a nearby poster for upcoming events:

What troubled me about that poster was that there was nothing about the symphony concert the next night. So I asked around and it turns out that I have been confusing and conflating two different places! This Palau is only an opera house (and training centre). The symphony concert is in an entirely different Palau a couple of miles away:

Good thing I discovered that!

Now, about Werther: I don't know Massenet much and, apart from reading the Wikipedia article, I don't know the opera, though I have some acquaintance with the book, by Goethe, that it is based on. It is a late romantic opera, quite successful outside and inside France--the premiere was actually in Vienna. The performance was very well done; the orchestra were excellent and the leading singers quite good. The tenor, Jean-François Borras was very good. He is also scheduled to sing the role of Werther at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this year. Not sure of his age, but he seems a young artist as he only debuted in 2012. I was less impressed with the female lead, Anna Caterina Antonacci who, frankly, seemed too old for the role. I thought this in the performance itself and only just now looked her up to see that she is in her mid-50s. Her voice revealed that hooty wavering that sopranos seem to fall into as their voices age. If I am being indelicate, please forgive me! I'm only a guitarist, after all, and have no special expertise in understanding the voice. But, for me at least, there was a bit of a mis-match in the two leads.

The production was a bit disappointing: here we are in this ultra-modern opera house and the production seemed all too traditional. Apart from the largely ineffective use of a large video screen (made to look like a huge mirror) that dropped down from time to time, the production could have been from decades ago. Not that there is anything wrong with that! Perhaps we don't want to inflict a post-modern production on Massenet! The opera is interesting enough. One commentary talks about how the character was a huge revelation to the public when the novel appeared in the mid 1770s. It was an entirely new kind of person, one not defined by the church or the old class system, but one who creates himself out of romantic ideals--and then kills himself, of course! But while the production was certainly adequate, there was nothing in it that seemed particularly noteworthy. This is rather ironic, isn't it? The really dynamic and creative productions are at the 200-year-old Teatro Real in Madrid while the somewhat stogy ones are at the super-modern Palau de les Arts that opened in 2005!

Here, through the magic of YouTube is a 2010 production from the Opéra National de Paris with Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte:

UPDATE: I lightened up one of the interior photos as it was very dark.


Marc Puckett said...

Am unfortunately pressed for time this morning, but scanning the reviews it looks to me like they are ratifying your own impressions-- la Antonacci a sufficiently grand artist to be able 'to compensate for an incipient vocal decline', e.g. (decadencia vocal). The production, another critic wrote, has its 'hits and misses', and there was 'a considerable variety in the performances of the other artists', apart from Jean-François Borras's, he means.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hm, interesting. Thanks, Marc. I never look at the reviews before I write about a concert. This was opening night for the Werther, so I imagine there were a few. So they also noted that Ms Antonacci was not quite in vocal form?

Marc Puckett said...

My impression is that when any singer reaches a certain age after a lovely career on stage the critics tend to beat about the bush for even quite a long time before they will observe directly that so and so's voice is in serious decline.

Alberto Bosco at the Giornale della Musica made the point that Antonacci's singing, "sempre più frastagliato e tormentato" [ever more jagged and tormented/harried/afflicted], befitted a tragic heroine... sometimes 'at the limit of the voice [?]"-- I can't tell, my Italian isn't good enough to know, if he is intimating that she intended every last trill of that jaggedness and tormentedness or if he is alluding to the other fellow's decadencia vocal.

Gonzalo Alonso at Beckmesser (the 'vocal decay' critic) noted in the sentence following that "el caudal ha disminuido, los agudos [am presuming that this means 'higher notes'?] han perdido firmeza y el vibrato es patente" before observing that Antonacci does, to her credit, 'know how to make a coherent artistic characterisation'.

Rosa Solà at Valenciaplaza.com wrote that la Antonacci "lució un centro con molla, pero resultaron pobres los graves, estrangulados con frecuencia y muy poco audibles". Solà says the low notes were not so hot and frequently strangled and very often inaudible, Alonso was pained by the high notes-- hmm, perhaps my Spanish is too imperfect. Wouldn't be surprised. :-)

The Solà, here, seems to me to be the best of the lot. She goes on about the production's defects. Am not myself familiar with Werther, having listened to it only once years ago (and perhaps not to all it, even then).

Marc Puckett said...

Only the three reviews at theoperacritic.com.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, thanks so much for digging these out for us. Rosa Solà does have the most extensive review, much more so than mine. But she also has a lot of reservations about the production. And yes, I thought that the ending was weak. Not sure how to make a twenty minute death aria more, uh, vibrant?

Marc Puckett said...

Indeed, indeed; I wonder if there are producers and directors out there who have tried to make Massenet's Werther into something it's not; perhaps later on I'll go look. There is another Werther, by someone called Gaetano Pugnani (m 1798) but that's not the sort of thing I mean.

Bryan Townsend said...

The Wikipedia article on Pugnani, well-known violinist and composer, does not mention a Werther, though it does some eight other operas. He was certainly active in the years around when the Goethe novel was published.

Marc Puckett said...

You have to go to Italian Wiki in order to see mention of his Werther. Why that is, is probably fascinating in a minor sort of way. :-) Or perhaps not at all. One of the large music encyclopedias might provide an explanation.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, we want to go to Groves or a proper research library! One gets lazy using Wikipedia all the time.

Will Wilkin said...

Thanks especially for the pics of the Palau Reina Sofía and the detail of the tesserae. I tend to be conservative in my aesthetics but I do love the imagination and outlandishness of this structure, and, at the other end of the scale, the granularity of detail seen in these tesserae! Regarding opera, it is often criticized as a fossil collection, though my single experience of the Met Opera live in their Lincoln Center hall was of a John Adams opera ("Death of Klinghoffer"), which is a contemporary work. Opera in its heyday was often edited for the production or, for a traveling production, even for the venue or local audience. True "historically informed" performances ought to retain some of the spontaneity and contemporaneity (yes, that MUST be a word!) that is inherent to live music. I don't know much Rimsky-Korsakov but did buy an Orchestration textbook of his that I have only browsed. As for the 3 Octatonic scales, by chance I was just reading about it TODAY in a little book called "The Elements of Music" by Jason Martineau. He calls them "diminished scales," which fall into a repeating pattern of half-whole or whole-half. Each of the 3 has a weird set of accidentals. All in context of chromatically extending major intervals becomes an augmented interval (found in whole tone scales, which he implies are augmented scales) or chromatically contracting minor intervals yields diminished intervals, found in the octatonic (diminished) scales.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Will. Yes, the whole City of Arts and Sciences complex is impressive and delightful. Imagine growing up in that environment and visiting the science museum as a child! When I was six years old I remember we lived in a tiny hamlet in the far north of Canada where, literally, all I had to play with was moss. I kid you not. I wonder if the kids in Valencia realize how good they have it?

My sense of great artworks, which include many, if certainly not all, operas, is that they are, among many other things, a kind of time machine. When you read the Iliad and the Odyssey you are going back to inhabit the minds of people from nearly three thousand years ago. Listening to Werther you are getting a sense of the hopes, ideals and fears of the generation of Europeans who lived through the upheavals of the French Revolution and the early Romantic movement.

Yes, both the whole tone scales and the octatonic scales create interesting consequences in harmony. For example, the only triads available in whole tone music are augmented. I only know of two octatonic scales, though? One starts with the half-step and the other with the whole-step? Unless you are referring to transpositions?