Vintage Donizetti


The new production of the Israeli Opera is La Fille du Regiment, a popular comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti. This is the first time this opera is being staged in Israel, and the cast includes fine international and Israeli singers. But the best news is probably that renowned Italian conductor Alberto Zedda, one of the world’s leading specialists in bel canto, returns to Tel Aviv.

During his long artistic career, Zedda has led major opera orchestras throughout the world and served as artistic director for several major opera houses such as La Scala, as well as many festivals.

He has recorded numerous albums of symphonic music, chamber music and opera, and his contribution as a musicologist and teacher is impossible to overestimate.

Local opera aficionados may well remember the lightness and elegance with which the maestro led the Israeli Opera musical forces through Rossini’s Cenerentola some 10 years ago, while others may recall his Israeli debut with the Israel Philharmonic.

At 8 p.m., after a long and tiring rehearsal day, the 83-year-old Zedda does not show any sign of fatigue. On the contrary: He sinks into his armchair in the conductor’s room at the Opera House with a serene smile and begins to talk about what he loves most – music.

“La Fille du Regiment is a very Rossinian opera – lucid, light, with joie de vivre written all over it,” he says.

“One should not look for great dramatic depth in Donizetti’s music, but as a comic he is at his best. As is well known, Donizetti was a good friend of Rossini’s and was strongly influenced by him. This is one of the last bel canto operas ever written, and it is like champagne.”

Zedda goes on to explain that singing Donizetti is far from simple and demands special experience from the singer. “For this repertoire, a singer needs not only an excellent vocal instrument and virtuosity but also a lot of intellect – to transform notes into images, emotions, sentiments. Bel canto is about playing with the voice, it’s about vocal colors, about freshness. A story is usually just a pretext to showcase a singer’s vocal abilities. That said, although there’s not much depth here, situations in which people find themselves today do not differ much from those of the past – the same problems.”

The conductor stresses that bel canto implies only the best performance.

“When you listen to, say, La Traviata, you will cry even if the performance is not fantastic because the musical drama carries you away. But in bel canto repertoire, the line between greatness and banality is very thin.”

Zedda has nothing but praise for Iride Martinez in the title role and Israeli soprano Hila Baggio in the supporting role. “Very beautiful voice, simply marvelous. And I believe that when the orchestra hears the singers, it will help them to grasp and to express the beauty of Donizetti’s music. The miracle happens – they play with joy. It does not stay on earth, it flies.”
And he goes on to speak about bel canto, raising his elegant conductor’s hands as if caressing with his flexible fingers the tender fabric of Donizetti’s hedonistic music, repeating with a smile: “Bello, bello, bello…”


The language of the heart


Austrian conductor Ernest Hoetzl leads the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble in an interesting program, which features works by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Veress, with the Silver-Garburg piano duo as soloists. Prior to the performance, the conductor talks about his career and the concert program.

He says that in his high school years, he had already made up his mind to become a musician. His parents didn’t object but wanted him to learn something “real” in addition. His choice of subjects was most practical.

“From a very young age I had an affinity for ancient cultures, so I opted for Latin, Greek and Sanskrit,” he says.

Over the years, Hoetzl has been pursuing two careers. In addition to his many degrees in piano performance, conducting, musicology and music education, he also acquired a PhD in philosophy and is fluent in nine languages.

“I picked up all these languages because I made it a habit when going to different countries to try to learn the local language. This provides access to the hearts and feelings of the people, to the very soul of the people. So I kept adding languages to my list,” he explains.

The list of languages includes Russian.

“Many years ago, when I started conducting in Armenia, I discovered that people there spoke only Armenian and Russian. Armenian is far too difficult and small in terms of population, so I picked up Russian, which was not easy either, but it paid off. On my recent visits to Israel, when I conducted the Rishon and Haifa symphony orchestras, I had a great time communicating in this language with many musicians who came from the former USSR,” he says.

But with all due respect for his love of languages, Hoetzl admits that for him, making music is a privilege.

“For me, music is a bridge to the people. As Pythagoras said, ‘Music is the language of the heart, the only language that enters the soul without having to pass through the filter of the brain first.’ I think that is a great quote. And if you know this language, you are able to communicate with your audience on a metaphoric level, which is a great blessing.”

Among his favorite conductors are Herbert von Karajan, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Daniel Barenboim.

“A good conductor is one who is able to explain his musical ideas to the orchestra and to project them to the audience,” he says.

And where is the borderline between the conductor’s interpretation and the composer’s concept of the piece? “That is one of the most difficult questions of musicology. I wrote a book about it, and it would take an entire semester to give an answer.

But in a nutshell, the question actually is about what the composer had in mind when he composed the piece and what kind of effect he wanted it to have on the audience. Naturally, the audience has changed over the past 300 years, so if you want to create the same effect as Mozart did on his audience, you have to use different means. So you have to put your interpretation between these two points. I think that as long as it has some meaning and you manage to move your audience, the job is done well,” he says.

Speaking about the concert program, the conductor finds it most interesting and stresses that he will have the privilege of performing with his two good musical friends, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg.

“In my eyes, they are two halves of a whole because when they play on two pianos, it sounds like one, and it’s amazing. The program features Homage to Paul Klee for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Sandor Veress; Bach’s Concerto for Two Pianos in C Minor; and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings,” he says.

The concerts take place on February 13 at Rappaport Hall in Haifa; and February 14 at the Israeli Conservatory in Tel Aviv. For tickets, call 054-693-4439.

Singing its praises


Ernani, Verdi’s little-known early opera, based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, is a seldom performed work. The improbable story of three men – a king, a nobleman and a bandit (Ernani) – who all fall in love with the lovely Elvira in 16th-century Spain is the next production of the Israeli Opera, directed by Michael Znaniecki. American conductor George Pehlivanian returns to the opera house podium after his successful debut last winter, passing the baton to Israeli maestro Yishai Steckler in a of the performances. The cast is phenomenal, featuring many familiar names of international soloists, such as Pierro Giuliacci and Hugh Smith in the title role, Michele Crider, Paata Burchuladze, Ramaz Chikviladze, Vitorrio Vitelli, as well as Israelis Efrat Ashkenazi, Yifat Weisskopf, Felix Livshitz and Noah Briger.

It’s an Israeli debut for prominent Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi, who will appear as Carlo, King of Spain. Guelfi performs regularly at La Scala, the Metropolitan, Covent Garden and the other major opera houses of the world. His repertoire includes leading roles in Tosca, Aida, Nabucco, Otello, La Traviata, La fanciulla del West, Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana and many others.

Late in the evening at the Israeli Opera cafeteria, after a tiring day of rehearsals, charismatic and elegant Guelfi speaks about his musical preferences. “Over the years, I have performed Verdi’s operas, as well as some verismo pieces, operas by Puccini, Mascagni – in other words, what is called great Italian repertoire.”

Guelfi’s debut was in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Straight after that, he was catapulted to perform the title role in Rigoletto. “I love that role, and it brought me a lot of luck.

Due to my physical size it was not easy to play it, especially in the first act, because a court jester is usually envisioned as somebody small. But vocally it went very well, and not only in Rigoletto; I did all Verdi’s major baritone parts. I love Donizetti, but the problem there is to find an appropriate partner for the role.”

He has nothing but praise for this little-known piece by Verdi. “Ernani is one of his early operas, but it is replete with amazingly beautiful music. The best elements of Verdi’s music are already there.”

On his first visit to Israel, Guelfi is already in love with Tel Aviv. “Israel is the cradle of the three major religions. You simply feel that here is the force that makes the world go round. But it’s Tel Aviv that I enjoy in many ways. For me, it’s the New York of this part of the world. The energy, you simply feel it. There are crowds of beautiful young people in the streets, I see a lot of young parents with lovely kids, pregnant women. For me, it says a lot because in many parts of the world, society has become egotistic; they live for the day and don’t think about tomorrow. People live for themselves and are already consuming their future – and they don’t want children. Here, it is different: People are very pleasant, and this is a great sign. Believe me, I’m not saying this to sound nice or to win favor. I now understand why Zubin Mehta, under whose baton I have performed numerous operas, says he feels at home here,” he says.

“I even asked my wife, ‘Maybe you would like to have a small apartment in Tel Aviv so we could spend two winter months here?’ The weather is simply wonderful, much better than in Rome.”

Signora Guelfi, who is sitting with us during the conversation, nods with a smile.

Drawn from the fire


Renowned American tenor Neil Shicoff rushed into the meeting room of the Israeli Opera, his eyes shining.   The interview took place a while back, when Shicoff appeared for the first time on the stage of the Israeli opera house as Don Jose in Bizet’s Carmen. But with all due respect to the broken heart of the soldier-turned-contrabandist, all Shicoff wanted to talk about was La Juive, by Jacques Fromental Halevy, the dramatic story of a Jewish goldsmith, Eleazar, his daughter Rachel, and Cardinal Brogni, set in medieval Switzerland. The role of Eleazar is especially important for Shicoff, but even before he spoke about it, he asks whether it was possible to open the interview with a sort of a statement. Sure, I said.

“I just want the Israelis to realize that in a country that which spends so much money on defense, this opera company is a jewel,” he said excitedly. “And Hanna Munitz, who has been heading it for 15 years, is one of the stars of the profession, because she took the limited funds and has utilized every shekel  to bring in the best people she can for this money and to convince people to come to Israel. 15 years without deficit – this is very rare in the world today. And don’t forget opera’s many educational programs, which are aimed to nurture the new generation of opera goers.”

Shicoff, who was born in the USA into the family of celebrated cantor Sidney Shicoff, first studied singing with his father. After his father’s untimely death, he continued on to cantorial school and to Juilliard.

“Everybody expected that I would continue the family tradition – my grandfather was a hazzan, too – but I wanted to be me, and my entire career is filled with controversy and turmoil, lots of good work and some bad work,” said the singer, who has known some ups and downs.

Shicoff made his professional debut in the title role of Ernani in 1975 and a year later made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi under James Levine. Since then he has performed scores of roles in all of the important opera houses around the world.

AT FIRST, though, Shicoff didn’t even plan to become a singer, but rather an attorney.

“I liked the idea of individual struggles and how to resolve them,” he said. “As an artist I am most associated with psychological struggles or political struggles. Political struggle is surely La Juive, and psychological struggle is Les Contes des Hoffmann, since Hoffmann has  problems with his creativity; while in Peter Grimesone could probably see both; it’s all about the character’s relationship with the community.”

However, Shicoff confided, La Juive has a special place in his repertoire.

“I will not be remembered for the roles with which my name is usually associated – those of Cavaradossi, or Ernani, or Rodolfo, or Rigoletto, or even Hoffmann – although I saw him in a very different light. But there is another part, and there probably will always be a little star next to my name – Eleazar in La Juive. We did it first in Vienna and then the production went to New York. [Director] David Pauntney created a stunning production.”

The singer emphasized that he is especially happy that the opera will be presented in Israel “during the Pessah period and Holocaust Remembrance day.”

“It is a piece about prejudice and intolerance, about the Cardinal and his daughter, rescued from his burning house by a Jewish goldsmith whose own sons were executed before his eyes as heretics. The conflict between Eleazar, the Christian Cardinal Brogni, and Rachel, who was raised Jewish, finally destroys everybody.”

SHICOFF EXPLAINED that “it was very important to make this opera in Vienna, because of the history of the Austrians with the Germans and the Nazis, and especially in 1999, when [far-right leader Jorg] Heider, who was totally xenophobic, came to power. The reaction in Austria was an explosion of feeling. Other key places are New York, where many Holocaust survivors and their families live, and, of course, Israel.”

“Now,” he continued, “the entire world suffers from intolerance, I see it as a wider issue in the world of today. And this is why La Juive is so important for me. Because it says that if you are not trying to figure out what the other side is trying to say, everybody is going to lose. I am not so naive – the other side could be really nasty – but you have to try and understand, otherwise you are going to kill each other, exactly like in this opera.”

Violin magic


‘I’ve been performing since I was 11. I’ve seen many countries, but I’ve decided to make Israel my home,” says Russian-born virtuoso violinist Marianna Vasileva, 28, who is counted among the leading musicians of her generation. “I first came to Israel at the age of 16 and immediately fell in love with the country. People are warm and open, and I feel secure and protected here,” she adds. Vasileva recently immigrated to Israel and obtained Israeli citizenship.

Born in Saint Petersburg into a musical family, she started her violin studies at the age of five with her father, later playing duos with her pianist mother. She studied with such prominent teachers as Vladimir Ovcharek (of the Vocational school and the St. Petersburg Conservatory), Dora Schwarzberg (of the High School of Music in Vienna), Zakhar Bron (of the High School of Music in Cologne). She currently serves as a professor of violin at the Music Academy in Madrid, in addition to her globe-trotting career.

Vasileva has won eight important international violin competitions, such as the most prestigious Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition and the Prague Spring International Music Competition. Dubbed by music critics, audiences and fellow musicians as an upcoming first lady of violin, Vasileva performs as a guest artist with internationally famed ensembles. She collaborates with talented young artists such as Tal-Haim Samnon, Miroslav Sekera, the Amernet String Quartet, as well as artists such as Shlomo Mintz, Krzysztof Penderezki, Itamar Golan, Paul Watkins, Yuri Bashmet, Saulius Sondeckis and Vladimir Spivakov.

Her repertoire includes more than 40 concertos for violin and orchestra, as well as chamber music and solo recitals. Vasileva has been performing in Israel in the framework of the Tel Aviv Museum Art chamber series since 2012.

On August 20 at the YMCA concert hall in Jerusalem, Vasileva will perform 24 caprices by Paganini. This is a rarely performed cycle, especially for female violinists, as it is challenging both technically and physically. The idea of performing the 24 caprices was inspired by maestro Shlomo Mintz, who presided over the jury at several music competitions, of which Vasileva was the winner.

“Indeed, this is a very difficult program. But after performing it maybe three or so times, I started to reveal new, and even more beautiful colors of the caprices. Despite being difficult to perform, it is easily perceived by the public. The reason is that Pagainin based his pieces on simple folk melodies. I first performed the caprices in Madrid in front of a simple, non-musical audience, and it was met with a standing ovation, even though I thought that it was not that easy to listen to a violin solo for an hour and a half. Caprices by Paganini are played at music competitions – one, two, maybe five in one take. But now I realize that this is wrong. The 24 caprices constitute a piece with its own dramaturgy and have to be performed as such. As we violinists say, while Bach is the Old Testament, Paganini is the New,” she says.

Speaking about Israel, Vasileva says, “I love this country. I like everything here – the people, the air, the atmosphere, the love of life, which is characteristic of Israelis. And yes, I know there are quite a few problems in this country, but I personally feel very good here. I can perform concerts all over the world, which, together with seeing new places and meeting new people is an immense pleasure. But I need a place where I can get relaxed, and this is Israel,” she says. Currently Vasileva is staying at kibbutz Revivim in the South. “The place is beautiful and quiet. I am learning Hebrew and am advancing well. I interrupt my studies from time to time, since I travel to perform abroad, but my tutors treat me with understanding!” she says.

The Matriarchs speak – or sing


David Sebba is a multifaceted and multi-talented artist – an opera singer, pianist, conductor, composer and translator. His latest creation is Mothers, an opera based on biblical themes.

“I’m aware that people expect another clownery from me, but this time I am very serious,” says Sebba, who is well known for his hilarious operatic parodies.

“For quite a long time I had thought about writing an opera about discrimination and preferences based on biblical stories,” he says. “There are many such stories: God preferred Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s; Abraham preferred Sarah to Hagar and her son Ishmael, and so forth. In this opera, I opted for female characters because theirs were the less considered opinions, and they were valued mainly for how many children they could bear. I also gave up the stories themselves and concentrated on situations, monologues and dialogues in which the emotional charge reaches a peak.”

The hour-long opera features four female characters and a male dancer (Eran Abukasis), who is silent, as a compensation for the reality of the Bible, where men speak and women are mute. The soloists are Yael Levita as God, and Daniela Skorka, Anat Charny and Shai Bloch, who sing several roles.

Biblical stories started to attract Sebba, who is not a religious person, when he was helping his children with their homework.

“When they went to bed, I just kept reading and then continued to read commentaries and other books,” he says. “After all, this is our Books of Books. Although I wrote the text, I didn’t change anything. I just treat them as human characters. I ask the women a question that nobody asks them in the Bible: ‘How do you feel?’” Sebba says he finds it difficult to define the musical style of his piece.

“True, I am sort of a romantic, and the music is neither aleatory [indeterminate] nor serial; the music is quite often polytonal but also atonal. But then again, many fragments are harmonic. It is not by chance that composers never like this question,” he laughs.

Sebba adds, “For us, working with director Shirit Lee Weiss is a true blessing. She is not only a director but also a professional musician, a singer.”

“It’s not that simple to talk about the directorial concept here,” says Lee Weiss, “because the piece is not a narrative. That is why we call it ‘operatic pictures.’ The piece is based on well-known stories, and it is the sense of discrimination and inequality that unites them.”

She elaborates, “We all grew up on these stories and probably know them so well that we relate to them and quote them almost automatically without really thinking that they are full of cruelty and violence, which brings more cruelty violence in return. My approach was to relate not to the narrative but to the emotions. I place the characters in a depressing claustrophobic space, which at the same time allows the actors a lot of possibilities of stage movement.

There are also physical symbols of basic concepts such as water, the womb and madness.”

Due to the small size of the Fringe stage, the performance will be accompanied only by a piano, played by David Sebba.

The performances take place at the Mandel Cultural Center in Jaffa within the framework of the Opera Fringe Project on December 29 at 9 p.m.; January 1 at 1 p.m.; and January 2 at 9 p.m.

Centuries of tradition


The young and vigorous Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble will host renowned British maestro Philip Pickett, who will lead his music forces through the second concert of the 2013-14 season. The program features Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, as well as sonatas and concerti grossi by Albinoni, Locatelli, Corelli and other Italian composers of the period.

Pickett is the artistic director of important British early music ensembles such as The New London Consort and Musicians of the Globe, who perform on period instruments. In addition, Pickett, who started his career playing the recorder, has been conducting major orchestras throughout the world in classical and early romantic repertoires.

He has recorded numerous discs conducting his two ensembles, and earlier he performed as a soloist with leading European orchestras.

On the eve of his Israeli performances, he confides that as a youngster, he played in a British electric folk rock group.

“You can’t imagine how many connections there are between various kinds of music, and I am happy that I perform them all.

As for the extra musical activities, I am fascinated by the fact that in the past, all the arts were far more combined. Symbols that you find in painting, sculpture and literature are similar to those that you find in music. For example, in mythology there is a character named La Fama, the Fame, which was depicted with trumpets. But aren’t these the trumpets that symbolize fame in Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto? While the recorder symbolizes Dante because this instrument was associated with love and passion. There are many such examples. I am very interested in symbolism, in rhetoric, because these things were a part of everyone’s education. So how can you interpret the music if you don’t know the symbols that inspired the composers of the time?” What does folk music have to do with all this? “Folk music is a survivor of early music, although many early music performers ignore the fact that the music they play has roots in folk music. Sometimes they are too affected, over-stylish and not robust enough,” he says.

In regard to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Pickett says, “Granted, the text was written in the Middle Ages, but the tradition of setting it to music survives. Many people know Pergolesi’s piece, but not so many know the Stabat Mater by Vivaldi. Pergolesi wrote his music to replace Vivaldi’s.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I spent a lot of time playing medieval music, and my advantage is that I know at least part of these earlier settings of the text. And what excites me most is that the rhythmic approach did not change between the 1300s and 1700s.

So my performance approach is informed by centuries of tradition. This and many other things that I know may give a different flavor to the music.”

Pickett describes his relationship with Israel as a “long and a very happy one.

Soprano Revital Raviv, who will perform with the Tel Aviv Soloists, was a member of my ensemble in England, where she studied. I also worked with her when she appeared with the Barocada Ensemble, and I will come back to work with Barocada later this season,” he says.

Among the other soloists in the concert are countertenor Alon Harari and trumpet player Yuval Shapira.