Rome Goes Viennese

ItalyItaly.  Johann Strauss Jr, Lehar, Brahms, Josef Strauss, Arditi, Tchaikovsky.  Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Conductor, Manfred Honeck with Sumi Jo (soprano)  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome.  05.01.2014 (JB)

When the Santa Cecilia Orchestra toured Germany last year the German audiences were rapturous at the Mediterranean sound the Italians brought to the Brahms violin concerto. Janine Jansen was the soloist.  They thoroughly approved of the Italianisation which Brahms had undergone: this lush, romantic approach really makes this music speak, they said.  And so said Ms Jansen, her only preoccupation was wondering whether she would be able to “keep up with them.”

Emboldened, the Orchestra thought it would give a 2014 New Year concert of Viennese waltzes, polkas and arias.  Georges Prêtre was booked to conduct.  All very promising.  But Maestro Prêtre is elderly and for health reasons was obliged to withdraw.  Manfred Honeck, the Austrian conductor who had led the Santa Cecilia orchestra in an evidently impressive performance of Dvorak’s eighth symphony (I didn’t hear this myself but all reports were positive last year) stepped in.

The Viennese, of course, maintain that they are the only musicians who can play this music.  And after witnessing Maestro Honeck’s guidance of the Rome Orchestra, I am beginning to believe the Viennese have a point.  He is Austrian by the way and started his career as an assistant to Claudio Abbado at the Vienna Philharmonic.  Both admirable “qualifications”.

However, we were not far into the concert when I began to feel doubly sorry that Maestro Prêtre was unwell.  Prêtre brings microscopic attention to his work as is famously evidenced in his recording of Carmen with Callas.  Bizet gives metronome markings for each of the many changes of tempo that the opera requires; Prêtre observes these meticulously.  You might think that conductors couldn’t go wrong.  But Prêtre was the first conductor to painstakingly heed the composer’s requests.  The difference is astonishing.  The whole opera comes into focus with brilliant clarity.  Callas helped, of course, as well as approved.

Comparison with Prêtre would probably be unfair, but if you indulge in that unfairness, Manfred Honeck comes across as sloppy in this Viennese programme.  One hears only too well what he is striving for but it is also audible that he is missing it.  Attempts at humour fell pretty flat.  Johann Strauss Jr’s sparkling wit can easily come across as crude.  Heavy-handedness massacres it.  And so it did here.  Especially in the Die Fledermaus  overture.  It is true that the humour casts a long dark shadow (beautifully realised in Carlos Kleiber’s recording).  But here, the long dark shadow took over the show: every forte on the strings was made to sound as though they were sawing their instruments in two.  Mr Honeck has clearly never heard of aiming off for wind.

Honeck got from the orchestra a fine performance of Tchaikovsky’s Valse of the Flowers from The Nutcracker, where the orchestra’s horns, led by Alessio Allegrini blazed in their full glory and Cinzia Maurizio’s harp cadenza was beautifully shaped.  But we had momentarily departed from Vienna here to find Honeck on happier ground.

The Korean soprano, Sumi Jo, was an unmitigated disaster.  Both the Lehar songs in the first half of the programme were very simply not for her voice, neither the delightfully frivolous number from Giuditta,  but in particular, Vilja, from The Merry Widow.  O Raina Kabaivanska where were you?  It seemed clear that Ms Jo had understood that these numbers were not for her, but she tried to compensate by turning herself into a show-woman.  That, of course, only provided further distraction.

She ought to have fared better in the second part and indeed, Arditi’s Bacio , though a little stiff, still had some of the right sparkle. But the second aria of Adele from Fledermaus –Spiel ich die Unschuld wom Lande –the moment we had all been waiting for- fell flat.  It seems that Sumi Jo’s once brilliant coloratura is no more.  It brought out more flashes of showmanship.  But the Rome public was not deceived.

Jack Buckley