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Take no prisoners: Martha Argerich.

Fire and Ice
By B.A. Nilsson

The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 8

The ideal is to serve the composerís musicóand thus the composerís intentionsóas well as possible. If this means subsuming yourself to an idea of what the composer might have wanted to hear, then Martha Argerich wouldnít be your pianist of choice. But her performance of Beethovenís Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC last week demonstrated that when a star soloist places her stamp of individuality on a work like this one, sparks fly. Good ones. The kind that revitalize a well-worn piece of music and remind us why the music became important in the first place.

Written in 1795 and revised over the next few years, the concerto is firmly in the classical form but with substantial bulges at the edges. Itís purposefully written to showcase the soloist, and Argerich put her fiery technique to good use. The opening movement has an air of classical delicacy about it, interrupted periodically by unexpected cascades of arpeggios from the soloist that the orchestra insisted on shepherding back into line.

Which added a nice edge of tension between pianist and orchestra, with Charles Dutoit exacting precise but flexible control over the group as Argerich rode the rhythm with surprising (and surprisingly effective) rubato. The slow movement revealed a level of lyrical drama Iíve never noticed before, and she charged into the finale with both guns blazing yet without sacrificing any of Beethovenís vaunted wit.

Weíve grown accustomed to a parade of cookie-cutter soloists who play well, with faultless technique, and take no chances. With Argerich, itís a refreshing case of take-no-prisoners. Beethoven was excellently served, confirming her reputation as one of the all-time greats.

Too bad the sound of the piano was poorly amplified (too bad it was amplified at all). With its midrange magnified and muddied, the all-important overtones were drowned out and the resultant sound was painfully unpleasant.

The second half of the program comprised Beethovenís Eroica symphony, which started with a bang (two bangs, if you want to get literal). A fleet, heated first movement, shorn of its repeat, got me expecting similar excitement for the rest of the pieceóbut it started to flag in the second movement, a funeral march that turned inappropriately funereal.

Sculpting a long symphony is a tough challenge, calling for an overall sense of the drama of the piece as a whole, as well as effective approaches to the individual components. The second movement was mired in its own heaviness, and the scherzo that followed still had some of that mud on its shoes. And thatís the climax of the piece: The final movement is a charming set of dance variations that needs to be propelled by what came before.

Playing, as usual, was breathtakingly preciseóthis orchestra seems incapable of delivering anything lessóbut it seemed as if Dutoit relaxed too much in the symphonyís middle. Eroica justifiably remains a benchmark of the literature, and thus invites the closest scrutiny both musicians and listeners can offer. In this case, it fell only marginally short, but it was a gap that really showed.

Classical Gas

Orlando Paladino
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug. 10

Joseph Haydn isnít remembered for his operas, and even when he was alive, his numerous works were overshadowed by his flashy young buddy Mozart. This doesnít mean his operas werenít good, it just meant that his stuff hasnít weathered as well as the work of Mozart, who readily admitted that Haydn was a major influence. As David Bowie said, it doesnít matter who does it first; it only matters who does it second.

Itís hard to know what to make of Orlando Paladino, Haydnís take on Orlando, the great fictional character of the 18th century. Everybody then wrote about Orlando; if there had been video games in 1780, Orlando games would have been ubiquitous. But Orlando Paladino, as a dramatic work, makes no sense at all. Now, operas in general arenít about story as much as they are about music, but thereís usually some thread in there somewhere. Not here! Orlando comes in and out, mad that Angelica doesnít like him. Rodomonte bursts in every 10 minutes looking to kick somebodyís ass on general principal. Other characters fall in love, die, etc. A sorceress causes people to do things, not do other things, and come back from the dead.

It may have been that Haydn was playing around with well-known characters of the time, and the whole thing was a big spoof, in-jokes about stories that everybody knew. Then again, maybe Haydn just wasnít a big story guy.

The folks at Glimmerglass had a blast with the improbable twists and turns and the complete ludicrousness of the libretto. The opera, as presented, looked back at itself and laughed. Which, other than leaving the audience to sit and scratch their heads, was the only way to go.

The play opened, to laughter and applause, with a lonely shepardess, dressed as Little Bo Peep, guarding over paper sheep that climbed straight up one wall. Both the acting and the lighting for much of the first act recalled overacted, badly lit early silent films, and maybe a little very, very bad community theater. Goofy props were shoved onstage in the middle of a song. It was initially hilarious and shocking, then it started to wear thin, and then the faux-cheesy affectation seemed to disappear. The set was, as usual for Glimmerglass, minimal and gorgeous, although the wall of tear-off paper upon which characters drew with Sharpies, and would occasionally rip, was ugly and distracting, and all the drawing and ripping didnít add a whole lot to the proceedings.

There were also repeated references to shadows and mirrors that may have meant to mean something about perception and reflection, or something.

The acting was all for laughs, and on that cartoonish level, wonderful. Especially John Tessierís Pasquale, who cluelessly stumbled and gaffed his way around the stage, a lovable loser who couldnít seem to get out of his own way.

Then there was the small matter of the music and the singing. Whatever drawback there was in the lack of a story was compensated by a weightless, exuberant score. Not for nothing did Mozart steal from Haydn. And everybody sang exquisitely, in spite of the constant mugging and zooming around. Lisa Safferís Angelina was given most of the fireworks, and she had the firepower to dazzle the room. The high points, though, were the act-closing ensemble pieces, where the entire cast sang in ethereal harmonies and delicious counterpoint.

-Paul Rap

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