Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Jiří Bělohlávek - New Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic (Hooray!)

The Ministry of Culture confirmed that the world-renown conductor Jiří Bělohlávek would become the Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The contract is to be signed later today (Dec 22 2010) and Maestro will take the position probably by autumn 2012.

Mr.Bělohlávek has already been the Chief Conductor of the CP - between 1990 and 1992, and his leaving is viewed as a major mistake on part of the philharmonics and a cause of the twenty-year crisis of the orchestra. He is currently the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with his contract ending in 2012. Some musicians of the CP are worried due to Maestro's notorious high demands, but most people assume that the orchestra needs a firm hand and that Bělohlávek's name will help the prestige of the orchestra abroad.


Monday, 20 December 2010

Director of Prague State Opera resigned, future of the house uncertain

Second economy-related post today. Oliver Dohnányi, the General Director of the Prague State Opera House, resigned today, after a "friendly agreement" with the Minister of Culture, Jiří Besser, M.D. According to the Minister, Mr. Donhányi is "more of a musician than a manager" and failed to pay off the debt inherited from the previous management (Dohnányi had been appointed by Riedlbauch in June this year). The opera house is, by words of the Minister's spokesman Brunclík, "in a state of despair" and in need of an extensive reconstruction. According to Mr.Dohnányi, the line was so low that there was nowhere to save up.

The opera is now 7,000,000 CZK ($370,000) in debt, while the reconstruction is about to cost tens of millions of Crowns. The length of the reconstruction hasn't been revealed by the Ministry. Even before there were concerns about the State Opera - it has been always losing the competition with the National Theatre. It has been suggested that it should merge with the National Theatre, so that there would be cooperation rather than the counter-productive competition. Some people argued that three opera stages are too many for Prague. As the plans of reconstruction emerged, many fear for the fate of the opera itself, including Mr. Dohnányi:

Oliver von Dohnányi
I'm not going to assist in the liquidation of the opera ensemble

Today at 11 o'clock, I resigned from the position of the General Director of the State Opera. It happened after a long pressure from the Ministry of Culture. At today's audience Culture Minister Jiří Besser informed me for the first time about the plan of the Ministry to have the Prague State Opera Prague comprehensively reconstructed, therefore to discontinue the art business - that in his opinion the post of the Director should not be occupied by an artist, but a manager. If I refused to resign, the Minister I was going to withdraw me on the spot. Minister didn't present me with another reason for the appeal he said that the State Opera has long been in a state of emergency, technically and economically, of which I do not bear the slightest guilt.

I regret that the Minister hadn't informed me of his intention earlier, while I was responsible for developing the project savings in 2011 and specifying the medium-term development concept of the State Opera. I presented to him both the documents. At the meeting on  November 22 the Culture Minister also announced that he intends to list as director of the State Opera tender, in accordance with the declared intent to tender for any directors of governmental organizations, who in his opinion haven't passed the selection procedure. At the same time he invited me to take part in the selection process.

I regret that I could not implement the plans that I declared, but I am not going to assist in the liquidation of the Prague State Opera.

Thank you for your cooperation to all who joined me in striving to restore the importance and prestige of the opera house.

Oliver Dohnanyi

(translation by frufruJ)

Czech Philharmonic must economize, Hvorostovsky cancelled

According to the Ministry of Culture, the Czech Philharmonic must "completely change its economy management". The audit doesn't report any fraudulent activities, rather incompetency of Mr.Riedlbauch and Mr.Darjanin. Mr.Riedlbauch was the Director General from 2001 to 2009, when he became the Minister of Culture of the caretaker government after the international embarrassment fall of the regular government during the EU presidency, and Mr.Darjanin took over.

Vladimír Darjanin

Václav Riedlbauch
However, ten months later, Riedlbauch dismissed Darjanin and appointed Václav Kasík - without a tender. After protests by the philharmonics, Kasík resigned at the end of August, and since then the director of the Czech Philharmonic is Radek Zdráhal, a deputy of the Minister of Culture.

Musicians protesting against Kasík in front of the Rudolfinum,
suggesting that he got the post out of acquaintanceship.
Mr.Darjanin had arranged a concert and workshop with the starry pianist Lang Lang, and the season was supposed to end with style, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky's concert in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle (it's the beautiful golden-white hall where Obama and Medvedev signed the New Start treaty). The philharmonic are arranging alternate dates for these two concerts, but it seems that it won't be before 2012.

Source of information and images: Czech TV

Monday, 22 November 2010

Le Nozze with Plachetka - Standing Ovations at the Estates Theatre

Adam Plachetka, Kateřina Kněžíková.
Photo: National Theatre
Tripple good luck: I'm subscribed to the National Theatre on Facebook, where they announced that Adam Plachetka, who's now singing in Vienna, would make a special appearance in Prague; and there were two seats left in the centre of the second row! Moreover, the places before us were empty for the first two acts, so we could admire the full stretch of the conductor, Mr. Jan Chalupecký, who not only did great job, but was also fun to watch.

I saw this production more than a year ago, and then I had a few objections - I didn't like the scene of "Non più andrai", the way how Figaro and others behave to Cherubino, and some actions of Rosina in Act II. (namely the obligatory rolling on the floor in a gown, which I find as one of the most annoying clichés in opera direction). HOWEVER this time, the Countess behaved more like a Countess, and what's more important, it was sensible how every singer was enjoying the performance. Even the end of Act I was palatable for me, and even the audience of the Estates Theatre - mostly tourists who take it as an attraction, especially at operas like this or Don Giovanni - was constantly cracking up. I don't know if it's just me having seen one too many eurotrash productions, or if the singers smoothed it up with performing it, or it was special because of the special guest, or all three, but it was a wonderful night for us.

Kateřina Kněžíková
Photo: National Theatre
What I love about Czech productions of Mozart, is that they are (more often than not) able to capture the fun, playfulness and lightheartedness of his work, that I can't find in many productions by renown directors. When you add the wonderful cast - Adam Plachetka as Figaro, Kateřina Kněžíková as Susanna (I'm told that they've separated... if the rumour that they were dating is true in the first place... well, who cares :-) ), Martin Bárta as Almaviva (you can also see him as a very good [and handsome] Don Giovanni here, with Kněžíková as Zerlina), Stanislava Jirků as Cherubino, Yvona Škvárová as Marcellina or Zdeněk Plech as Don Bartolo.

History (abbridged)

3050 B.C.- A Sumerian invents the wheel. Within the week, the idea is stolen and duplicated by other Sumerians, thereby establishing the business ethic for all times.
2900 B.C.-Wondering why the Egyptians call that new thing a Sphinx becomes the first of the world's Seven Great Wonders. 
1850 B.C.-Britons proclaim Operation Stonehenge a success. They've finally gotten those boulders arrange in a sufficiently meaningless pattern to confuse the hell out of scientists for centureis. 
1785 B.C.-The first calendar, composed of a year with 354 days, is introduced by Babylonian scientists. 
1768 B.C.-Babylonians realize something is wrong when winter begins in June. 
776 B.C.-The world's first known money appears in Persia, immediately causing the world's first known counterfeiter to appear in Persia the next day. 
525 B.C.-The first Olympics are held, and prove similar to the modern games, except that the Russians don't try to enter a six-footer with a mustache in the women's shot put. However, the Egyptians do! 
410 B.C.-Rome ends the pracitce of throwing debtors into slavery, thus removing the biggest single obstacle to the development of the credit card. 
404 B.C.-The Peloponnesian war has been going on for 27 years now because neither side can find a treaty writer who knows how to spell Peloponnesian. 
214 B.C.-Tens of thousands of Chinese labor for a generation to build the 1,500 mile long Great Wall of China. And after all that, it still doesn't keep the neighbor's dog out. 
1 B.C.-Calendar manufacturers find themselves in total disagreement over what to call next year.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Dmitri Hvorostovsky - Recital in Prague

Yesterday's recital of the starry baritone, accompanied by Ivari Ilja (the two have released two CDs and can be seen on many videos on YouTube), was without doubt one of the highlights of the very busy season. Hvorostovsky's intelligence of interpretation, depth of feeling, and indeed the sheer beauty of the voice, make him the interpret of this repertoire.

In the beginning it seemed to me that the singer was not in his best of moods - perhaps because of the cold he had, as he said on his Facebook. Not only no indisposition was noticeable, but the atmosphere in the hall was so wonderful that it even warmed up the singer, who seemed much more cheerful by the end. Also I've learnt from a source close to the performers that it was their last concert with this particular content, which might have added to the artists' feelings. The first half of the concert (Tchaikovsky) can be found in this playlist on my YouTube channel and at the bottom of this post, if indeed embedding works.

The program opened with my favourite Why?. Probably because it was the first song, it was a little bit inferior in expressiveness to its counterpart on the aforementioned CD, but that's normal, especially with sensitive performers; during the course of a couple of songs, the recital turned into an event that even Mr.Hvorostovsky can be proud of. The second half featured Medtner's expressive songs (three of them are on the Pushkin CD) and the evening closed with five songs by Rachmaninoff.

The only negative thing I can say is a marginal detail: in the second half of the recital Mr. Hvorostovsky, to my ears, overdid a couple of fortissimi a bit. It was awkward that there was just one encore, yet another art song. One would have thought that such an appreciative audience deserves better, but maybe Mr. Hvorostovsky was tired because of the cold.

Overall however, it was a very strong experience for both those who are familiar with this repertory and those who are not. Hvorostovsky's artistry almost hypnotized the audience. Even knowing these songs almost by heart from CDs, I often found myself completely lost within them, staring jaw-dropped at the singer. One couldn't not smile when he was singing the light Pimpinella or the Serenade Oh, Child. He naturally worked with the people, it almost seemed that he was singing the amorous parts to each woman in the audience. In dramatic or melancholic passages, 100% concentration could be seen in his face. All people I talked to agreed that they could be listening to this till the dawn. Mr. Ilja provided an ideal support. Not only is he an excellent pianist, but also is able to tune-in for the singer and co-ordinate with him - a quality that can't be taken for granted.

This is a playlist featuring the same Tchaikovsky songs at a different recital - this one took place at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and was aired in January 2010:

Photos from the concert, by Alice Bochňáková after the jump

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Antonín Dvořák's Devil and Kate, plus a Note on Devils

The Devil and Kate (Čert a Káča) is another not-so-often performed opera by Antonín Dvořák. It is based on a folk fairy-tale collected and written down by Božena Němcová about an energetic girl named Kate.

The opera opens in a tavern, where a village celebration is taking place. Music is playing and everybody is dancing, but Jirka, the shepherd, has to go to work, or his master would fire him. Before he leaves, Kate and her mother turn up. Kate would like to find a husband, but nobody wants to dance with her, because she's cheeky and sharp-tongued. She says that she would marry even a devil. At that moment, the devil Marbuel enters the tavern, disguised as a huntsman. He had been sent by the lord of hell Lucifer to investigate whether the princess and steward have committed enough sins to be taken to hell. He wants to tease Kate and punish her a little for her sharp tongue, so he asks her to dance and proposes her to leave with him. When she agrees, he takes her to hell. Then Jirka returns, saying that his master had sent him to hell. When he hears what happened, he decides to save Kate.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Farewell to Adam Plachetka

Today the last concert of the bass-baritone Adam Plachetka took place in Prague. Don't worry about his health, he's just starting next season at the Wiener Staatsoper. :-) Dear Wieners, take good care of him, don't make him appear in crazy productions, and let him get back to Prague as often as possible!

At mere 25 years of age, Mr.Plachetka has got an extremely beautiful voice, excellent technique, breathtaking expressiveness and an artistic approach of a middle-aged Met soloist. His artistic intelligence is way ahead of his age, and he is a wonderful actor, too.

His today recital with piano compiled of a selection of songs by Mozart, Sibelius, Ravel's Songs of Don Quijote, topped with four Schönberg's Cabaret Songs. Having heard Mr.Plachetka several times in full operas, never a concert, I must admit that I didn't expect he would make me laugh with Mozart's Warnung, or nearly shred a tear with Sibelius's Säf, Säf, Susa or Svarta Rosor. For the last four cabaret songs, he had a high chair brought on stage, changed his bow tie for a red one, put a red flower in his lapel and acted a cabaret singer. I still laugh when I remember it! The encores were my beloved Impossible Dream and On the Street Where You Live. The atmosphere was simply great. I can't remember the last time my hands hurt from applauding. The pianist, David Švec, had to ostentatiously close the piano keyboard to show that there would be no further encores (what a pity). Oh, yeah, and besides all the voice and acting and intelligence and sense of humour, he does look as good as on this photo *swoon*!

So, don't overuse him in Vienna, return him if possible, and if not, definitely go and see him. He might appear elsewhere in Austria, and in 2012 he's going to be doing Masetto at ROH. Quite a career ahead of him, let us enjoy him while we can. We are going to hear about this man.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Busy 2010/2011 Season of the Czech Philharmonic, Hvorostovsky Again!

Some time ago I pointed out Dmitri Hvorostovsky's recital in Prague in August, saying that you might want to connect a trip with a cultural event. Since it was well received, I decided to point out some more concerts.

Here is the program of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (booklet in .pdf frormat, mostly in Czech - but you can read the names). The ticket sale began this week, but when I asked at the box office today, I was told that the tickets for the last concert of the season are not on sale yet.

The best part is, the final concert is Dmitri Hvorostovsky! This time it will be opera arias with full orchestra in the beautiful Spanish Hall at the Prague Castle. Tickets will be sold probably in September or October. If there's any new info, I'll keep you updated.

The other huge names include conductors Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Charles Mackerras (gala for his 85th birthday! Great peaces by great Czech composers), Christoph Eschenbach, Eliahu Inbal, of course Manfred Honeck, the Principal guest Conductor of the CP, and of course Jiří Bělohlávek, singers Thomas Hampson or Eva Urbanová, the starry pianist Lang Lang, or the just-as-starry violinist Joshua Bell, the guy you might have seen fiddling in the Washington metro.

There are still few (very, very few) tickets for the festival Dvořák's Prague - even some for the launching concert, the final concert, even the one with Gardiner, the one with Daniele Gatti, and 142 seats are still free for Hvorostovsky's recital.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Once Again, All Alone - Videoclip with Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Russian romances (romansy) have nothing to do with "romantic" in the sense of romantic movies. They are art songs, typically on the words of a poem by one of the many great Russian poets. They are often sad or nostalgic, and yet you must keep listening to them from the beginning of a CD to the end. Not excepting Hvorostovsky's newest release of Tchaikovsky's romances, which has a total of 81 minutes.

Mentioning this release, I can not forget to say that it's in my book his best release in this genre. The voice is darker, fuller, his approach mature and Mr. Ilja's playing perfect. Be looking forward to another release that the Delos are planning. I have heard it, as it has been released in Russia, and it's just as good!

Nevertheless, Mr.Hvorostovsky has always been singing this genre, and he's surpassed by none. His very second CD he released in the West, a year after the very successful Tchaikovsky and Verdi Arias (1990), was Russian Romances (1991). It is my second favourite CD of romances (after the newest one, of course). The picture on the cover comes from this videoclip:

I don't know how famous or obscure this video was at the time, but I suppose videoclips by opera singers were not as common then as they are now, let alone would they comprise of hints of eroticism (mild for today's standards). One thing is for certain: it's an excellent video. In its mood and artistic approach, it's entirely loyal to Tchaikovsky's song, and shows how literally timeless these songs are.

Sheet music with Russian text and singable English translation (surprisingly loyal) in .pdf can be found here, on a site dedicated to everything Russian, including Russian music, including art song. All of it is only in Russian, unfortunately.

If you feel like you need a literal translation and transliteration, I've made one for you:

Important notes:
я - ya - I
ы - is like "i" in "bit", but more to the back of your mouth.
е - full pronunciation is "ye", but the "y" part is often ommitted, what is left is some sort of a softening of the preceeding sound.
Notice the vowel reduction in unstressed syllables. Difficult to transcribe :-)
More on Russian pronunciation here.
Notice that the word order is not strict. Where it would not be clear, I've marked the subject in bold.

Literal, almost word-by-word translation
Singable translation from the sheet

1. Снова, как прежде, один,
Snóva, kak prézhde, adyín,
Again, as before, alone,
Ah! Once again all alone,

Снова объят я тоской...
Snóva abyát ya taskóy...
Again I'm embraced by wistfulness
Racked once again by my grief...

Смотрится тополь в окно,
Smótritsya tópol' vaknó,
Staring is a poplar through (in) my window,
See where the poplar stands still,

Весь озаренный луной.
Vyés' azaryénniy lunóy.
It is lit by the moon.
Still with its silvery leaf.

2. Смотрится тополь в окно...
Smótritsya tópol' vaknó...
Staring is a poplar through (in) my window,
Now through my window it stares,

Шепчут о чём-то листы...
Shépchut a chómta listi...
Whispering about something are its leaves...
Softly it murmurs to me...

В звездах горят небеса...
Vzvyózdakh goryát nyebesá...
With stars are on fire the heavens...
Stars stud the heavens with their fire,

Где теперь, милая, ты?
Gdyé tyéper', mílaya, ti?
Where now, my love, are you?
Say, my love, where can you be?

3. Всё, что творится со мной,
Vsyó, shto tvarítsya sa mnóy,
All that has happened to me
All that has happened to me

Я передать не берусь...
Ya peredát' nyeberús'...
I cannot begin to tell.
Cannot begin to be told.

Друг! помолись за меня,
Druk! pamalís' za menyá,
Friend, say a prayer for me,
Friend, say a prayer now for me,

Я за тебя уж молюсь.
Yá za tyebyá uzh malyús'.
I for you am already praying.
Pray, as I pray now for you.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (!) in Prague (!)

On the 27th of August, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Ivari Ilja will perform Russian art songs at the festival Dvořák's Prague. Now, in March (!), only approximately 180 out of 1144 seats are left (!), so if you've been considering to visit the most beautiful city on Earth and maybe connect your trip with a cultural event, you should hurry up. If no circumstances beyond our control take place, FrufruJ will be the blonde girl in the fourth row centre (!). See you (t)here!

Tickets can be booked here.

PS: I might have one ticket left... ;-)

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Phenomenon of Rolando Villazón

Some time ago the fellow blogger Mostly Opera launched the poll entitled "Best Tenor of the Moment". To the surprise of many, Rolando Villazón was closely first with 37% (293 votes). I have stated my attitude towards charts of any sort in art, and this is one of the reasons why I think they're pointless - even though I voted for Flórez :-)

The so-called "connoisseurs" almost uniformly scorn Mr.Villazón. The fact that his technique is not perfect has been proven by the necessity of undergoing a surgery. He could have chosen his repertoire more wisely. However, what these critics forget is, Art is not just technique.

Mostly Opera's ironic tone in the title "The readers have spoken", announcing the results of the aforementioned poll, and especially some comments from people hidden behind the veil of the Internet anonymity ("There's no way Mr overacting clown is a better tenor than...", to quote but one), and their astonishment at the results, only show their lack of understanding of what is behind. Opera public is not a herd of sheep, praising the one who is presented to them as a big name. They mostly don't care whether somebody's technique is perfect, they care whether his or her voice is beautiful - which is often connected. However, voice is the instrument, the artist is the interpret.

Mr.Villazón has always put at least 100% of himself in a performance. His sincerity, humility and inner beauty are what makes him a favourite to many. Maybe he's put in it too much and has given himself away - that would be a reason to grieve, not to scorn. People as sensitive as some singers being exposed to ironical and sarcastic statements, and often even insulted, is not a normal state, it is something we all must aspire to improve.

It never ceases to amaze me -- and sadden me -- that people call him "a clown" and mean it as an insult. It is a great gift, to be able to bring smile to people's faces, no matter if with a beautiful voice in a beautiful opera, or with a red nose. I wasn't present at his comeback performance, and a Czech blogger, Villazón's fan, was not positively surprised (automatic translation) - in fact, is afraid that this might be the beginning of the end of his operatic career. Let us hope that she's wrong. However, end or no end, Villazón or another singer or musician, please let's not forget that life's too short to be cool and serious all the time, that sometimes it's good to be swept off your feet, forgetting what you know about the "correct way", and always remember to be a clown! :-)

Good luck to you, Mr.Villazón! You are a great artist.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Leoš Janáček: The Makropulos Affair

Věc [vyets] Makropulos at the National Theatre, Prague.

While Christopher Alden's production has been praised by the critics both here in Prague and in England, I am not so positive about it.

Janáček's opera, based on Karel Čapek's play, is about the last few days of Elina Makropulos. Thanks to a magic potion, she has lived for more than 300 years. She's grown cold and cynical, but the life experience gives her an aura which, together with her appearance, drives all men crazy - about her. The relatively short opera (1:30) is written in a modern fashion, close to expressivism; after all, it was composed in the 1920's. Only in the end, when E.M.'s vulnerability and despair is relieved, the music suddenly grows into a lyrical finale, strikingly contrasting with the rest.

Čapek's play is actually a philosophical comedy. However, I believe that the story is open to various approaches, and Janáček's opera with the added death of E.M. in the end is hardly a thigh-slapper. I suppose an absurd comedy (a genre typical for the Czech country) or a realistic, deep psychological study are the possible approaches.

Mr.Alden, on the other hand, chose to set it into a noir world of shades of gray, in which people behave without much restraint. His production is an example of the general tendency in today's opera world to "coolify" everything from Baroque. Everything must be cold and erotic, beauty and sensitivity are taboo.

This wouldn't have to be a problem in an absurd dramedy, but only to a degree. Mr.Alden had many interesting ideas, obviously understands the opera, his direction is very intelligent and I find the basic concept quite valid. So much for the good news.

Restraint isn't a word to be found in modern directors' vocabularies. Where a suggestion would have been just perfect, we get everything in the face (including one taking-off of a shirt - there must be one in every prod!). Even given the hyperbole and symbolism of the production, characters lacked a concept of personality, their behaviour being quite illogical. When the philosophy behind should have been stressed, it was overshadowed by the darkening and eroticizing. Even though this is just one paragraph in this review, it's a big problem with the production. The worst in this aspect was Act II, which was simply overdone.

My impression of Alden's production is 70%. The singers were good, especially Gun-Brit Barkmin in the title role was great, and the acting was excellent, so it's definitely worth seeing.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Follow me on Facebook

Hi all. If it would be more convenient for you to follow this blog via Facebook, scroll down to the tab "Follow me on Facebook" and hit the "Follow" button :-)

Thank you very much for your custom.


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Toccata and Fugue in D minor in Walt Disney's Fantasia

I really can't decide which Toccata movie is better. The original, where the orchestra is conducted by Stokowski, is very much a product of its time and to my ears sounds almost like a cross with a 1940's musical, but on the other hand, the sound is warmer and it's 100% synchronized with the picture. Musically I prefer the 1982 recording, but the movie is sound AND picture, so I can't decide even for myself. Let the readers decide for themselves, and maybe comment, please.

By all means, it was the golden age of the Disney studios.

1940, original, Stokowski conducting:

1982 re-recording

Monday, 4 January 2010

Somewhere over Joyce DiDonato

Somewhere over the Rainbow sung by Joyce DiDonato. This girl really IS from Kansas!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Opera in a Nutshell

Some time ago, Vancouver Opera started an animation contest OperaBot. The rule was to create an animated film between 0.5 and 4 minutes of any of the four operas performed this season in Vancouver - Norma, Nixon in China, The Marriage of Figaro and Madama Butterfly.

This was the winner in Chicago and was used for inspiration:

In Vancouver, 11 of the 16 contest shorts were dealing with Madama Butterfly, so it should not come as a surprise that this number included all winners. Only four featured Le Nozze and only one was about Norma. Here's Winner #3, focusing on the dramatic side of Puccini's masterpiece:

Winner #2, called "Fragile", on its beauty and is my personal favourite:

Winner #3, "Final OperaBot" on the fun (OperaBot, get it?):

This film is, too, Madame Butterfly, but frufru likes it even though it didn't win:

This is also a very beautiful and touching short of Madama Butterfly:

Finally, the one and only Norma:

Last but not least, a cute Marriage of Figaro:

More can be found in this YouTube playlist. Let's hope that more contests of this sort will be held via YouTube!