Thursday, April 1, 2010

Angels, ever bright and fair: Theodora at the Athens Megaron

By DerWanderer

On March 13, at the Trianti Hall of the Athens Megaron, we had the opportunity of enjoying a single performance of Handel’s well known but quite rarely presented oratorio “Theodora” (HWV 68), in a semi/fully (!) staged production, directed by Paris Mexis and conducted by Greece’s new wunderkind George Petrou and his fine and acclaimed equipe of singers.

Mo. Petrou was not conducting “his” Orchestra of Patras, but Megaron’s own “Camerata”, in one of its first attempts to play period instruments (and it seems that this good ensemble will continue to invest in this direction).

The event had created high expectations, especially after the Petrou-Antonacci-Kunde triumphant performances of Gluck’s Alceste in October 2009 and the new and truly impressive recording of Giulio Cesare that MDG has recently released to international acclaim.

For the occasion, Petrou has asked 3 of the singers of this recording to tackle the 3 principal parts of Theodora:
Italian soprano Emanuela Galli, Swedish mezzo Kristina Hammarström (listen to Hammarström in "Quel torrente che cade" from the Cesare recording) and Greek mezzo Irini Karaianni took up the parts of christian martyr Theodora, her lover, the brave Didymus, and Theodora’s companion Irene respectively. The cast also included tenor Jason Darnell as the passive Septimius and baritone Yannis Yanissis as the cruel roman governor Valens. The Mixed Municipal Chorus of Athens, under the direction of Stavros Beris, took up the choral parts.

To be honest, the oratorio, although much appreciated by expert Haendelians, is not one of my favourites, although its english libretto’s plot (the story of an antiochian christian aristocratic girl who, because of her faith, is condemned to serve as a prostitute in the army barracks of the cruel governor and who is joined in martyrdom by her, equally christian, lover, the soldier Didymus) is quite interesting and not as religious as one might expect. The characters, although as stereotyped as baroque conventions command, are remarkably etched, the many arias and the few duets and choruses have variety and pathos of operatic nature and the music is consistently inspiring, if not consistently overwhelming.

We have been told that the production, as the whole country indeed, had suffered very severe budget limitations. This is the reason that keeps me from deriding completely the mise en scène, uninspired, poorly made and quite ridiculous in conception and effects. I am certainly NOT asking for “traditional” approaches, but to be honest, I can’t help laughing when I see the christian bigot Theodora in a silky negligée and a breathtaking black collant, in her cell, waiting to be raped by the whole guard, while her friends are dressed as balkanic housemaids and the roman soldiers in full dinner jacket, using, instead of swords, their ...podiums as weapons. Passons. Suffice to say that the visual aspect, including the puerile projections on a screen, was NOT as intrusive as to prevent us from fully enjoying the musical treasures of the night. And there were many.

The leading female trio was, to put it mildly, EXCELLENT AND ADMIRABLE, throughout. I will not highlight this or that, her or her: all three have voices, techniques, trills and dramatic instincts to please even the most demanding listener and they were, truly, members of an obviously well trained and inspiring ensemble. It was obvious that Petrou and his team are HARD workers and the triumphs and prizes they collect worldwide are not stolen. The men were not really on the same level, although Darnell’s Septimius was touching and quite accurate and Yanissis, lacking a truly convincing voice in this repertoire, had the cruelty and the fugue that his part was asking from him.

Petrou’s conducting, as always, was sharp, to the point, inspiring and coherent, especially in the more serene and ecstatic parts. The dramatic impetus of his execution left nothing unvarnished or sketchy. Unfortunately, same can’t be said of the Orchestra's skills: Was it the “novelty” of the period instrument use? Was it the lack of rehearsals? Especially in the first part, before the first intermission, they often sounded untuned, with unpleasant sounds coming from the winds, lacking in precision and concentration. Very luckily, the progress made during the performance was audible and they ended the performance much better than they had started it. I can’t praise them enough for the courageous risk (the period instrument tournant) they are ready to take and I am pretty sure that, under Petrou’s expert command, they can improve greatly. We are eagerly anticipating their next collaboration, for the Athens Festival where they are to stun us with the very rare Haydn’s “L' Isola Disabitata”, on June the 15th (soloists to be announced later).

All in all, a very enjoyable night, with 3 exquisite singers in full bloom and handelian glory and a genial maestro in full command. Had the orchestra been better and had the stage direction been less puerile (but let’s not forget that there wasn’t much money available) this single (WHY single? The house was full and the audience more than happy!) performance could have been truly unforgettable.


Parsifal said...

And in order to avoid any kind of misunderstandings, the review was written by a kind reader after my request.

My point of view would focus less on the mise-en-scene that I didnt find that bad, given the budget these people had, however, the gun thingy that was repeating over and over again was a bit tiring.

Voice-wise, I will agree for the girls, but I wont agree about Darnell: i think he was great and he has the most impressive coloratura I have heard lately in a tenor. And -as always- I didnt like Yannisis, especially at the beginning he was absolutely inaudible.

The Orchestra will improve greatly till the Isola Disabitata, I'm sure (and for what it's worth we should mention that the lights of the left wing of the orchestra went out for about 5 minutes and they panicked).

OH! And 1 more thing: Karaianni was tremenda! And I'm not her biggest fan...

Anonymous said...

the review you posted sounds more like a suck up to Petrou and his recording success (and I like the man's work). I will agree with Parsifal that in some parts the stage direction was convincing, especially in the final duet and chorus - far more moving and interesting than the Glyndebourne crap under Christie.

Regarding the orchestra your reviewer states 'they often sounded untuned, with unpleasant sounds coming from the winds, lacking in precision and concentration' but raves about Petrou's conducting. Isn't a maestro's conducting judged according to what how the orchestra sounds? Shouldn't a maestro correct these things? The whole thing did get better as the evening went on though and there were plenty inspiring moments.

As for the singers, for me Darnell was by far the most accomplished. Besides his astonishing florid singing his English was crystal clear, one could understand the text every time. Hammarstrom was the best lady and her English diction was fine and clear. Galli sang well with only a few insecurities but I'm having a hard time understanding the fuss about her. And if this was Karaianni on a good night Parsifal I dread to think how she sounds on a bad night. I thought she was quite dissapointing, to say the least. Maybe the role is too low for her but the tone lacked support, projection and resonance and her English wasn't crisp enough. Only by the end did she manage some fine singing. For me, Petrou could have done with a better (even Greek) Theodora and Irene.

The biggest problem however was that the size of the Trianti hall is simply too big for this music. This isn't Wagner and a smaller hall would have made the whole thing sound more interesting with more nuances and details.