A journey to South America affords even the most seasoned traveler new and different experiences. For the last few weeks, I have had the pleasure of traveling through many cities in that incredible continent. And of all the memorable experiences I had these past weeks, none came close to the two performances I had attended at Buenos Aires’ famed Teatro Colón.
On Saturday, August 20th, the Teatro Colón presented a production of Puccini’s Tosca, based on a concept by Roberto Oswald, the late opera director and set designer, and conducted by Carlos Vieu. The great buzz of the production was that Argentinian tenor Marcelo Álvarez, was returning to sing the title role of Cavaradossi for a hometown crowd. Eva-Maria Westbroek sang the role of Floria Tosca, and Carlos Álvarez - no relation to the tenor - played a thoroughly and suitably evil Barón Scarpia.
The production itself was a traditional one. This was no “concept” production to show off the cleverness of the director. The set designer strived to recreate the locations of the three acts. At the end of the first act, when the Te Deum was being sung (with real incense!), the chorus of the Teatro Colón was truly magnificent. This was opera with a capital “O”.
I was therefore able to focus my attention entirely on the music, and I was not disappointed.
There is perhaps nothing more difficult than performing for those who know you best. Marcelo Álvarez, I thought, was most impressive from first note to last, and the audience roared its approval both during and after the performance. I felt that Eva-Maria Westbroek gave a very good portrayal of Tosca. I did think that her voice did not really blossom until the third act, where she gave an intensely theatrical as well as musical performance. I had a little trouble with her pacing in the famous Vissi d’arte, as I did not think that she builds the aria towards a real climax. Even though the vocal demands for the role of Scarpia are considerable, I believe the real challenge to the part is more theatrical than musical. Carlos Álvarez outdid himself as Scarpia, both musically and in his portrayal of this thoroughly evil character. His singing of the famous line from Act One, “Tosca, you make me forget God,” in the middle of the Te Deum, was most memorable.
Conductor Carlos Vieu was sensitive and supportive in his guidance of the orchestra. I thought that principal clarinetist Carlos Céspedes’ playing of the introduction to E lucevan le stelle was particularly memorable in both beauty of sound as well as in pacing. The “pit” orchestra was excellent, and I would rank it just slightly below the orchestras of Vienna and Covent Garden.
I was thankful to have experienced the fabled acoustics of the Teatro Colón, which was truly incredible. Every detail in both the singing and the orchestral playing was audible. Even though I had seats quite far up on the side, the sound was immediate and vibrant. This was an experience I would not soon forget.
I returned to the theatre the subsequent evening for a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, whose visit to South America, as I discovered with joy months ago, coincided with our stay in Buenos Aires.
Going to the same theatre two nights in a row, I was able to compare the acoustics of the venue for an operatic as well as a symphonic concert. Although the sound was just as vivid on both evenings, the acoustics of the Teatro Colón were even more immediate when the orchestra is on stage.
The concert began with Antonin Dvórak’s Carnaval Overture, Op. 92. I had heard Mehta conduct this very piece with the New York Philharmonic on August 28, 1980, at the Lucerne Festival. If memory serves, the New York orchestra had a brighter sound, and the Israel Philharmonic had a mellower, more Central European sound. At the beginning of the performance, I felt that the musicians were still getting used to the acoustics of the Teatro Colón, but the music gained much more vibrancy and lightness as the performance went along.
Mehta and the orchestra continued with Maurice Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé. Although being brought up musically in Vienna, Mehta has always been a convincing and idiomatic interpreter of the French repertoire, something he credited his father for. It was a great reading of the Ravel’s work, both in terms of how Mehta enabled the music to unfold naturally as well as in the beauty of the Israel Philharmonic’s sound. In the opening evocation of sunrise, I was bowed over by the beauty of orchestra’s strings. A work such as Daphnis et Chloé also allows the wind soloists to shine, which they did.
After the interval, the orchestra played Richard Strauss’ huge tone poem, Ein Heldenleben. Mehta is perhaps one of the great conductors of Richard Strauss today, and he had performed and recorded this work on numerous occasions. This intimate knowledge of the score was obvious from the first note to last, since he guided the musicians (and the audience) through this complex score with the sure hand of a master storyteller. As much as the many musical climaxes were overwhelming, it was the many intimate moments in the long work that was, for me, memorable, like the oboe solo in Des Helden Gefährtin, which was especially movingly played. The concertmaster’s playing of the work’s many solos was stunning. In Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung), Mehta managed to hold our interest in the extended ending, until the sublime ending of the work, which the orchestra played with a special sonic glow. Mehta’s total absorption of the score was borne out by the fact that there seemed to have been a connection between first note to last. There was a barely perceptible moment of silence before the tumultuous applause began, growing into the rhythmic applause that brought Mehta back for two encores.
Appropriately, Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic gave the audience Dvórak’s Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 8, another work that the conductor has conducted often. In this short work, I sensed the chemistry between conductor and orchestra, since Mehta seemed to be hardly “conducting” at all, but allowed the orchestra to let itself go with only an occasional prompting. With the urging of the audience, Mehta ended the concert with an overture, one to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, which the orchestra played with all the lightness and zest that the music calls for.
Comparing the two evenings’ performances, one thing was apparent – the work of a very good conductor and that of a great one. And Mehta is one of the great ones. Although only a spry 80-year old, the conductor is now very different from the fiery and energetic musician of his youth, I felt that in Ein Heldenleben, it was almost as if he was telling his story of his own storied life.
Looking at the calendar of the theatre, it appears that the venue is extremely well used, both by local companies as well as by major orchestras and musicians. It is nice to know that Buenos Aires remains one of the world’s great musical capitals. What a privilege it had been to experience one of the great theatres of the world, and to hear a great conductor and orchestra at work.