Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival – 29th March 2008

(from Al Arab Online)

«The first week of the 5th Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival had set a very high-standard of musical quality and pushed audience enthusiasm to frantic levels. Indeed, after the world class performances of the London Philharmonic, the powerful and soulful revival of Arabic Classics with Asmma Monaoar and Khaled Selim and the Bolshoi triumph, one might have wondered what this 5th Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival had in stock to keep up with such ground-breaking performances.

The challenge was met by ADMAF on the evening on the 29th of March at the Emirates Palace Auditorium. Indeed, the Bolshoi Orchestra was there again that evening, but not to play to the gravity-defying, ever so graceful dancers, but to a different type of other-worldly talents: opera singers.

In this Opera Gala, Anna Netrebko, the internationally acclaimed soprano performed with the graceful mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča and the no-less talented Erwin Schrott to a full house comprising His Excellency Khaldoon Mubarak, Chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority and CEO of Mubadala, His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent and many distinguished guests from the Emirati and foreign community. A detail was telling of the expectations raised by the sweeping international attention this 5th Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival has drawn: two Kuwaiti visitors confessed they had come specially from their home country to attend this evening’s performance.

The first half of this evening’s performance was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and began with Le Nozze de Figaro’s Overture: a fitting choice to debut this Opera Gala as the energetic, immensely pleasing opening statement of this famous W.A. Mozart masterpiece gave a sampler of how melodic, powerful and quite simply merely entertaining the rest of this evening would be. Alexander Vedernikov’s conducting was generous and energetic as he skilfully led the orchestra and the audience into this evening of opera.

Enter the divas! Netrebko and Garanča appeared on the stage in glittering dresses, looking stunning: if their appearance had anything to do with their performance, it promised to be stellar. And indeed it was. Their performance of the love duet “Ah perdona il primo affetto” was vibrant and engulfed the audience in all the emotion the Opera has to offer. The audience thundered in applause as the two singers left the stage.

Erwinn Schrott appeared, bringing his relaxed, friendly charm to the stage: his interpretation of the Don Giovanni extract “Madamina, il catalogo e questo” was extraordinary: in addition to the perfect singing, the audience simply saw a wonderful actor’s performance. Working the stage playfully; skilfully involving the audience and the orchestra in his rendition of the list of Don Giovanni’s many conquests across Europe, Schrott demonstrated how the Opera was not only about vocal skill but about emotion, acting and storytelling, making it an immensely elaborate and entertaining form of music. This was followed by another excerpt of “La Clemenza di Tito” in which Elina Garanča lent her commanding presence and her perfect performance to this piece, literally hypnotizing the audience.

Another of the many highlights of this first part of the Gala dedicated to Mozart was “D’Oreste D’Aiace” performed by Netrebko. Quite the opposite of the playful Don Giovanni excerpt, this tormented and anguished piece provided an extraordinary opportunity for Netrebko to propel the audience in another world, that of anger and madness of her character Electra. Netrebko’s mastery was such that her virtuosity never was the issue: it was simply and powerfully serving the notes of Mozart and this terribly expressive song that accelerates and stops, bursts in laughter of dementia and is absolutely unpredictable as can be anger and madness. The audience hit new heights of frenzy as it clapped on and on to salute Netrebko’s perfectly tormented performance.

The three singers returned to the stage after a March from Idomeneo in order to perform “Soave sia il vento”, one of the songs that sets the story of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in motion: Schrott’s Don Alfonso was acted perfectly as were Netrebko and Garanča playing the two fiancés wishing gentle winds to the men they love: Don Alfonso’s deceitful friendliness and both women’s shared concern for their loves was a powerful and very unique combination, based on moving individual performances, but just as much on an intricate chemistry between the performers. This perfect balance served Mozart and the audience superbly.

The audience avidly applauded, already missing Netrebko’s, Garanča’s and Schrott’s magic, be it only for a short intermission. The conversations amongst the festival-goers during the interval gave the clear impression that the audience that night was a mix of seasoned opera lovers and first-timers: an interesting, yet challenging mix, as the program and performance could easily loose one part of the audience, while catering to another part. Based on the enthusiastic applause in the auditorium moments earlier, but also on the very interesting conversations between opera fans and opera debutants, one could feel that the excellence of the performances that evening combined with the very smart programming made this Opera Gala directly speak to the heart and soul of all present. Quality has this equalizing effect: it simply elevates all those that it touches to the same levels of bliss. This was definitely the case in the Emirates Palace auditorium that evening, during the first part of the Opera Gala. It would be even more so moments later, when the audience regrouped for what would be one of the defining moments of the 5th Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival…

The Bolshoi orchestra did not leave anytime for pause for the audience: Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino’s” Overture masterfully cast a cloud of threat and power, those of destiny as the title indicates, over the auditorium. A very fitting introduction as the following piece was one from Verdi’s Macbeth. Demonstrating the range of his voice and his acting, Erwin Schrott returned to the stage to perform a riveting song over the course of which General Banco expresses his feelings that threat looms over him. The beginning of that song was particularly impressive on the part of Schrott as much as the orchestra: indeed, the singer’s a cappella performance was nothing less than perfect, engulfing the audience in the General’s sense of doom, while the orchestra responded ever so lightly, in both a moving performance and one that let Schrott’s acting and singing fill the auditorium. The audience could only salute such heights with powerful, spontaneous applause.

The program that evening simply would not let the audience enjoy one minute of respite, taking them from one emotion-filled performance to another. Seconds after Schrott left the stage, Anna Netrebko came back to the stage, resplendent in a red dress. It was time for the opera equivalent of a “hit”: “Casta Diva”, a fitting title to describe the opera legend standing onstage. Netrebko was in a trance: she let herself be carried by Bellini’s music, and engulfed in the emotion of the music, she passed it on to an audience simply overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. As the song ended with Netrebko’s perfect, soulful a capella ending, the orchestra could only respond subtly with the last few notes written by Bellini as a closing statement. The conductor Vedernikov did not break the spell cast by Netrebko’s voice, as he delivered those last notes with a very subtle touch, in order to leave the dumbstruck audience fully immersed in Netrebko’s soulful performance.

The applause continued relentlessly well after Netrebko left the stage. Garanča appeared, her too in a new dress, reminiscent of a flamenco dress. “Nacqui all affanno” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola is a paradoxical piece: indeed it is a recollection of hardships of the past at a moment of happiness of the present. Garanča’s interpretation managed to set both those elements in her performance, providing the audience with a prime example of how the opera is not an exercise of vocal power, but quite the contrary, one of subtlety both in voice and in acting.

This Opera Gala was truly voyage across Europe and its opera: after Mozart’s take on European classics such as Don Giovani or le Nozze de Figaro, the second part offered us Scottish Macbeth to the Italian tunes of Verdi, or as the musical transition would propose a “sinfonia” of “Il Viagio a Reims”, a regal piece, describing the convergence of European leaders to Reims for the coronation of Charles X.

Garanča was the one wearing the flamenco dress, but Netrebko would be the one leading the audience to Spain through the notes written by French composer L. Delibes and the words of French romantic poet Alfred de Musset. “The Girls from Cadiz” was a blissful description of Spain, Netrebko singing in a subtle, playful yet concentrated performance, her arms slowly and gracefully raised in a posture reminiscent of a flamenco dancer.

Spain seen through the inspiration of French composer remained onstage till the end of this second part of the Opera Gala, with Bizet’s Carmen, and more specifically Schrott performing a powerful, manly “Toreador” and Garanča playing masterfully with “La Chanson Boheme’s” high notes and expressive escalation. Bizet’s classics were both grounds for perfect performances and sheer entertainment, a combination that led the audience to an unstoppable thunderous applause, as the performers came to the stage to bow gracefully.

The audience responded by an enthusiastic standing ovation and continued its applause on and on. The performers disappeared and reappeared on the stage, as the applause unrelentingly went one for more than 5 unwavering minutes of grateful salute to the artists, as “bravos” and “encores” rang through the audience.

After this long, deserved salute, the performers graced the audience with an encore: “La Ci Darem la mano” from Don Giovanni. In a beautiful game of complicity between the singers, and with both the audience and the orchestra, Netrebko, Schrott and Garanča playfully performed this piece over which the male lead is playfully torn between two women… as the song and quite simply the fun escalated to a frenzy, Netrebko took the conductor Vedernikov with her, as the orchestra played on, the singers sang on, leaving the stage, and the audience simply sprang back to a standing ovation drowning the last notes in their irrepressible urge to salute the artists that had swept them off their feet.

Generosity was truly in the auditorium that night, as the performers seemed to greatly appreciate their audience, and the audience spared no efforts to express their recognition. The Opera Gala was a powerful, key moment for the 5th Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival as it demonstrated how an uncompromising quality driven approach to music and culture can be all inclusive, leaving room for all, be it seasoned music lovers or intrigued first timers. This evening was a shining example of what Abu Dhabi has to offer world performers –generous, appreciating, sophisticated yet spontaneous audiences- and what those performers can bring to Abu Dhabi.»

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