Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Opera in Bilbao

Palacio Euskalduna (source)
Bilbao is know the world over for its iconic Frank Gehry building, the Guggenheim Modern Art Museum. But that’s not the only striking new building in the city, by any means. The Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall (Euskalduna Jauregia, in Basque), also called the Palacio Euskalduna, sits on the edge of the water in this northern industrial and port city like a great ship about to be launched -- which it is meant to resemble. In fact, when the building was opened it was “christened” with a magnum of champagne just like a ship being launched.

Although it’s deigned as a multi-purpose building, today it’s most important function - in my opinion! - is to house opera performances.  It was designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios. Work started in 1994, and the building was opened in February 1999. It functions as a conference center, opera house and concert hall. In 2003 it was declared by the International Congress Palace Association as the world's best congress centre. 

The official website tells us: 
Designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios as a vessel permanently under construction that stands in a dock on the site of the former Euskalduna Shipyard, the Conference Centre received the 2001 Enric Miralles award at the 6th Biennial of Spanish Architecture.
The auditorium itself is impressive. It’s lined in acoustically-friendly wood, with banks of seats angled towards the stage. The seating is some of the most pleasant I’ve experienced in an opera house (possibly because it’s actually a conference centre): plumply upholstered in red wool, with a wide space for people to walk in front of the seats, giving no bother at all when latecomers need to edge by. The auditorium has 2,164 seats, and they all looked like they had a great view. Eat your heart out, La Scala.

The stage seemed narrow to me, but perhaps that was in relation to the size of the auditorium - it’s the largest stage of any theatre in Europe with 1,770 sq. metres. There’s some nice video of the interior here.

Interior set up for the orchestra. The hall is also home to the Bilbao Symphony. (source)

Opera performances at this concert hall are presented by the ABAO-OLBE - the Association of Friends of the Opera in Bilbao. Like everyone else in this Verdi anniversary year, they were staging plenty of Verdi, including Rigoletto - my third this year, I think. Though my first opera ever where the surtitles were given in Spanish and Basque. Lucky I know the story!

Our Rigoletto was the Italian baritone Leo Nucci - known for being (a) 71 years old; and (b) having sung the role of Rigoletto more than 450 times. In fact, one review quotes him as saying: " “if not because of some cancellations, this would be my 500th Rigoletto.” Yikes!

He, along with the wonderful Gilda, Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc, provided another opera first for me: having completed their dramatic duo in Act II, they paused to receive enthusiastic applause. So enthusiastic was it, that Signor Nucci was moved to nod to the conductor and give us the dramatic duo one more time. Our Gilda could not help but follow his lead. This type of thing was quite the norm back in the day, when opera was opera and audiences were heavily into it; but I don’t recall having witnessed it myself before.

Leo Nucci as Rigoletto leads the cast. (source)
Perhaps it was something about the Bilbao audience. There were several incidents of sustained applause during the performance. One had Gilda rising from a pose of repose, from which she was about to be abducted, to come to the front of the stage to take a few more mid-performance bows. She then returned to her resting position and the abduction proceeded.

Gilda and Rigoletto. (source)
I’ve seen productions of Rigoletto that were more striking, and I’ve heard some good Gildas. But Ms Mosuc was especially impressive, holding the high notes just because she could, and looking suitably vulnerable (she’s very short). Signor Nucci started perhaps a little weakly - 71 years old! - but very much warmed up as the performance proceeded. His singing was impressive, and the drama of the last moments (when he finds Gilda dead in the sack, instead of the dastardly Duke), were very finely portrayed.

Here's a review (though excuse the poor translation to English). The review was enamoured of Signor Nucci:

Leo Nucci gave us a masterclass of singing and interpretation, by calculating every nuance, dominating every dynamic to perfection, from the pian√≠ssimo to the very strong season, as in the famous aria from the end of the second Act, “Cortiggiani…”. He sang with line and diction impeccable, delighting an audience delivered in advance. It has an enviable voice at age 71, with a resounding and uniform timbre. He makes some nasal sounds on purpose, to give a sarcastic tone to his Parliament, and to rest the “guttural”, why not say it, but it does so with the restraint that only grant mastery and experience.

The reviewer was there a few nights before me, but noted that "Elena Mosuc and Leo Nucci will have to encore the Duetto of the end of the second Act." Looks like that encore mid-opera was somewhat less spontaneous that I thought.

Still, a fine night at the opera.

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