Review: European culture at its best

Art, opera and concerts showcase classical and modern European talent.

THE SOPRANO Anna Netrebko as Manon in Puccini’s ‘Manon Lescaut’/THE PRIZE-WINNING pianist Grigory Sokolov.  (photo credit: STAATSOPER: MICHAEL POEHN/MARY SLEPKOVA - COURTESY DG)
THE SOPRANO Anna Netrebko as Manon in Puccini’s ‘Manon Lescaut’/THE PRIZE-WINNING pianist Grigory Sokolov.
Without question, the most impressive current museum exhibit in Europe is Bosch: The Centennial Exhibition at Madrid’s Prado Museum.
The artist was born as Hieronymus van Aken in 1450 in the then-prosperous town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (the Duke’s Wood), in present-day Holland. He lived there most of his life, traveled little and died in 1516.
He took the name, Hieronymus Bosch, from his home town. To honor the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, The Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch mounted an impressive Bosch exhibit earlier this year. The current Bosch extravaganza at the Prado was similar but more comprehensive. It was curated by the Prado’s Pilar Silva Maroto, who also edited the outstanding catalog.
The Prado possesses the largest collection of Bosch’s existing works. This was due to Spain’s King Philip II, an avid and savvy art collector. The exhibit was augmented by loans from major international collections around the world. According to experts, only between 24 to 27 paintings can be fully attributed to Bosch. Of these, 21 were on display at the Prado, including the recently authenticated The Temptation of St Anthony from the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
In total, 53 items were on view and this also included works from Bosch’s workshop and his followers as well as other related artists.
Bosch came from a family of artists, but there was no established painter’s guild in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
His early influences included van Eyck and van der Weyden. However Bosch rapidly broke away from their style and developed his own unique iconography.
Today he is regarded as the first surrealist.
Because art historians have found it almost impossible to establish a precise chronology of his works, the exhibit was divided into thematic sections which wound in a serpentine route giving the huge crowds the best possible chance to view the paintings.
Although religious themes dominate Bosch’s work, it is his imagery, especially those depicting hell, with its monstrous, grotesque, tormenting demons and weird creatures which are most characteristic of his work. They inflict their punishments on a sinful erring humanity. Owls, regarded as personifications of evil, are featured in many paintings. There are also representations of burning cities with bizarre landscapes. Bosch’s weird and fantastic creatures have enthralled viewers for half a millennium. From today’s perspective, many of Bosch’s images appear incomprehensible; to an educated person of the time, however, they were readily understood.
For Bosch, inherent evil remained the central problem for humankind. But it is not only simple sinning masses who are doomed. In his celebrated Haywain triptych, the emperor, pope and other important figures, as well as beggars and thieves all follow a cart loaded with yellow hay with two lovers on its summit.
The hay represents the worthlessness of worldly possessions.
The cart is drawn by devils, and unbeknown to the mob, they are on their way to hell where in the final panel of the triptych the damned meet up with devils, torturers and monsters who mete out punishment.
According to the artist, it is only the pious usually hermit saints, including St. Anthony and St.
Jerome among others, who are able to resist evil temptations. Indeed, St Anthony (the patron saint of Bosch) featured prominently in the exhibit with three paintings and one drawing by Bosch as well as a contribution from his workshop. In addition to the recently attributed painting from Kansas, the exhibit also included Bosch’s magnificent triptych The Temptations of Saint Anthony loaned from Lisbon.
The exhibit also showed eight of Bosch’s surviving drawings. One of the most famous is The Tree-man from Vienna, which depicts a monster with human head and a hollow body. Limbs are represented by trees supported by small boats. The hollow interior houses a scene from a tavern. An owl hovers overhead.
Even today, the precise symbolism remains enigmatic. A similar representation the Tree-man also appears in Bosch’s most famous triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, the pride of the Prado’s permanent collection.
This “not to be missed” exhibition is on view until September 11.
Of the operatic performances, the most interesting was a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Vienna State Opera. Robert Carsen’s production upstaged Puccini’s masterpiece from 18th century France to modern times. In Act 1, rather than the classical depiction in Amiens populated by regular townspeople, soldiers and students, Anthony McDonald’s unconventional staging featured an upscale mall with shapely models in exclusive store windows and fashionable women wearing high heels parading the sidewalk with their overfilled shopping bags. Geronte, who plans to abduct Manon, is portrayed as a pimp, always surrounded by unsavory henchmen in dark suits and paparazzi. A silver Lexus replaced the simple carriage in which Geronte intended to abduct Manon.
Act 2 reveals Geronte’s luxurious apartment. It is not local soldiers who come to arrest Manon, but members of Geronte’s mafioso. The act ends with Manon being brutally raped by Geronte. Liberties were also taken in Act 3. Instead of the usual deportation of the prostitutes to America, it is Geronte himself who sends off his women to the New World as sex slaves. Also, it is not a sympathetic ship captain, but Geronte himself who grants permission for Manon’s lover, Des Grieux to accompany her. In the final act, the hapless Manon dies in the now nearly deserted shopping mall. Although this updated production was interesting, it inevitably concealed to some extent Manon’s psychological crisis with her progressive degeneration and death.
Soprano Anna Netrebko made her State Opera debut as Manon. Recently she has been tackling with considerable success some of the heavier roles in the repertory.
She brought to the performance both her characteristic plush sound and haunting lyricism together with her usual alluring stage presence. She was particularly effective in her duets with Des Grieux, where every phrase was sung with urgency and emotion.
Marcello Giordani took on the role of Des Grieux.
Indeed, it is Des Grieux rather than Manon who has the dominant role in Puccini’s version of the opera. With his bright ringing voice, he gave a powerful rendering of the role, highlighting both the required passion and pathos. His voice carried well and was imbued with rich colors. As Manon’s brother, baritone David Pershall also gave a solid vocal performance and bass Wolfgang Bankl portrayed most effectively the sadistic and evil Geronte. Conductor Marco Armiliato drew vigorous playing from the outstanding Vienna State Opera Orchestra.
Of the concerts attended, the highlight was a piano recital in Madrid’s Auditorio Nacional de Música by that incomparable Russian Jewish pianist Grigory Sokolov, who was the youngest prizewinner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Now in his 60s, he is a well-known figure in concert halls around Europe, but appears infrequently in the US and to my knowledge has not performed in Israel. I cannot recall the last time I attended such an impressive recital. The attentive audience was absolutely mesmerized.
His program was devoted to the Romantic repertoire with incandescent performances of Schumann’s Arabesque, Op. 18 and Fantasía Op. 17, two Chopin nocturnes and a spellbinding rendition of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2. He brought magisterial elegance and deep profundity of the funeral march of this sonata and succeeded in capturing its narrative sweep. With his unsurpassed technique, he gave deep insight into all these works, which he imbued with a kaleidoscopic color palette and authoritative elegance. He is known to be very generous with encores and did not disappoint. On this occasion, they included a most elegant rendition of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, D 780 as well as several other contributions.
If only this consummate artist could be heard more often.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field.