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Archive for April, 2009

I have to confess I was eager to see August Everding’s 15-year old production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for the Staatsoper unter den Linden because of the attempt to reproduce sets and costumes from the famous 1816 Karl Friedrich Schnikel production for the Königlichen Schauspiele, as seen below.

In the booklet, Everding and his creative team explain what sort of adaptations had to be made to transform these set designs into three-dimension sceneries, but the truth is, unless you have an orchestral seat right in the middle of the auditorium, the experience is seriously impaired by the fact that the production seems depressingly two-dimensional: you can always see the end of backdrops and the wood-structures that keep everything in place, not to mention that nothing seems really symmetric. I have a serious problem with directors who disregard that opera houses have seats on the right and left sides and also on the other levels. We all know that XIXth century-sceneries tended to be flat, but once you’re adapting, this problem could have been seen to. I also dislike the shining black surface added to the stage floor – the sets do not seem to take advantage of the reflex and, otherwise, its modernity does not go with the cardboard scenic elements and painted backdrops. It might be only a detail, but it makes the whole thing look like the Epcot-center version of the Magic Flute. 

To make things even less atmospheric, conductor Julien Salemkour seemed to be really concerned about not being late for dinner. He tried to make things fast, but without any hint of animation or the energetic accents that would make phrases actually alive. To say the truth, the performance seemed underrehearsed – there was very little clarity in the orchestral playing, mismatches with soloists abounded and, at some moments, there seemed to be a struggle between singers and the conductor to set the pace, as in Bei Männer or, more seriously in Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen.

In the cast, the low voices stand out – Christof Fischesser has a natural and spacious low register and, although his voice could be a bit nobler, he compensated that by  sober, elegant phrasing. On the other hand, Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s dark-toned Papageno was always vivacious and keenly sung. Stephan Rügamer’s Mozartian singing still needs some work. The basic tonal quality is extremely pleasant, he is musicianly and stylish, but whenever he has to ascend through the passaggio in full voice, the tone acquires an intense nasality that robs his tenor of all pleasantness. As for Sylvia Schwartz, this is a technically accomplished singer with no hint of effort or discomfort, but the voice has a grainy quality that prevents it from sounding really lovely, young-sounding and ultimately seductive as a singer in her Fach should. If you can go beyond this minor drawback, hers was an exemplary account of the part of Pamina. Ana Durlovski has a strange voice for the Queen of the Night – the sound has the right impact… in the lower reaches. Her high register lacks cutting edge and she slides a bit in order to keep in tempo with her fioriture, but her high staccato notes are truly accurate.

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If we bear in mind that the Komische Oper is something like the temple of Regietheater, Andreas Homoki’s 2006 production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier would be something like Otto Schenk’s compared to the other stagings shown in that adventurous opera house. Although the director does interfere with the libretto, I would say that the layman could still follow the plot. As it is, Homoki considers that the story’s main element is the passing of time in the sense of transition of epochs. Thus, both the Feldmarschallin and the Baron Ochs would represent the old generation and its relationship with making way for a new generation represented by Octavian and Sophie – a situation Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal would themselves experience as late Romantics in the eve of a world profoundly transformed by WWI and WWII. In act I, the rococo atmosphere shows the Marschallin in wig, corset, panniers etc, but Octavian’s clothes makes us think rather of the early XXth century, a hint of what is going to happen on act II – Faninal’s house is shown in what seems to be the 30’s. Act III’s Wirthaus is replaced by the upside-down version of act I and act II’s sets and the tricks played on Ochs become air raids. In the meanwhile, the Marschallin and Ochs retain their XVIIIth century-style outfit to the end. Homoki’s ideas are generally sensible and proper to a small stage such as the Komische Oper’s, what makes it more upsetting when silliness creeps in – Sophie strips to her underwear in act II and presents herself at the Wirthaus in act III in her robe-de-chambre. Why?

Although I can remember more flawless Marschallins than Solveig Kringelborn, her performance is still extraordinarily touching. To start with, she has something like the voix-du-rôle. Her lyric soprano is still attractive in its creamy floating mezza voce, but it does no longer sound “young” and, whether it is art or nature I don’t know, but her not entirely ingratiating break into chest voice always go with the situations when the Marschallin should sound less charming. It is also refreshing to hear a singer who has evidently tried not to copy some success formulas and is very much trying to be herself in this role. Her Marie-Thérèse is more “carnal” than most, evidently an experienced woman who has seen it all and her appeal has a touch of lecherousness behind the chic. Brigitte Geller’s Sophie comes close to fulfill all the requirements – her voice is extremely pretty and, as with almost all the great exponents of this role, tends more to the lyric than to the soubrettish. However, there is still something missing – she has been in this production for so long that a great deal of the enthusiasm that lies in the core of what Sophie is about is long gone. Also, her voice is sometimes off focus, too often in the key moments for comfort. That is a problem not shared by Elisabeth Starzinger, whose tightly focused high mezzo is otherwise too light for Octavian. It seems she still has to mature in the role – sometimes I had the impression she was a last-minute replacement. No offense to her personal charm, but she looks convincingly boyish and is a supple, congenial actress. Last but not least, Jens Larsen was a most satisfying Ochs – he has the right voice for the role and is also a naturally funny fellow who does not need to overdo anything in order to extract laughs from the audience.

Although the house orchestra is perfectly acceptable, it is not truly world-class. Nonetheless, Friedemann Layer proved that a gifted conductor proves his talents when he is not conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. The maestro knows the art of finding the right tempo in which the minimal level of polish is achieved with no sacrifice to forward movement and theatrical expression, took profit of the less than exuberant string section to produce an entirely transparent sound picture in which the complex polyphonic writing could be understood without effort and never let anyone down in key moments. As a matter of fact, his final trio was exquisitely built, with fine contributions from every singer.

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Although it was Richard Wagner who supposedly nicknamed the Staatskapelle Dresden the Wunderharfe, nobody profited of the orchestra’s miraculous sound as Richard Strauss, who premièred some of his masterpieces, such as Salome and Elektra, in the Semperoper. This would be enough to make Dresden a peregrination place for Straussians. Unfortunately I could visit the Semperoper only once – but a whole Strauss program with the house orchestra was tempting enough for a second visit. And there I went.

I am not a great fan of Fabio Luisi and, if I had to single out a positive quality, that would be the fact that he has not interfered with the orchestra’s legendary deluxe sound. As a die-hard Karl-Böhm-fan, I have a problem with Luisi’s fondness for Karajanesque beautiful-at-the-expense-of-clarity sound. Maybe because of that his Till Eulenspiegel lacked lightness and sense of humor, exquisite as the orchestral sound was. Things would change with the Vier letzte Lieder, in which the conductor and the orchestra could produce the right contemplative quality without making things too ponderous, especially in Frühling, which tends to suffer from overkilling.

The concert’s soloist was soprano Anne Schwanewilms, who floated her instrumental soprano without any hint of effort (although some of her notes acquired a strange buzz above the actual sound) through Strauss’s fearsomely difficult phrases. Although she is still not the best friend of legato, her performance deserves the highest praise for its unaffectedness, accuracy, sense of style, beauty of tone and crisp delivery of the text. To this evening, I thought nobody would ever sing the last words of Beim Schlafgehen (…zu le-e-eben) as magically as Gundula Janowitz did in Karajan’s studio recording, but here it is: these notes alone, as sung by Schwanewilms, were worth the ticket’s price (and the expenses with hotel and train). Most deservedly, she received a warm ovation.

The second part of the program consisted of Strauss’s most famous tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, in which Luisi’s inclination for large, refulgent orchestral sounds found good use. Some complex passages still needed more structural transparence, but… what sounds have I heard there! Bathed in oceans of warm orchestral sound and caressed by shimmering floating violin pianissimi, one felt transported to another dimension. All I can say is that the Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the wonders of the world – especially in the ideal acoustics of the Semperoper. If you have the opportunity to make this peregrination, I guarantee that the miracle will happen right around your ears.

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Peter Mussbach’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth for the Staatsoper unter den Linden is almost 10 years old – and one can see that. It looks decidedly worn out, frumpy and quite depressing today. I wonder if it had looked really well in the past. It is a very geometrical/basic-colours production with a (very distant) flavour of Japanese theatre and a (self-defeating) touch of Wieland Wagner (I mean self-defeating, because W.W’s productions had no unnecessary gestures and features, as this one has in plenty).  More frustratingly, some attempts of creating an eerie atmosphere look just childishly funny.  Is it time for a new production?

In any case, the shortcomings of the theatrical aspects of this staging are more than compensated by the superb playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which offered absolute clarity, accuracy and richness of sound.  Conductor Julien Salemkour’s approach was a bit kapellmeisterlich and you felt that tempi sagged a bit, but the beauty of the orchestral sound did not make you impatient about the conductor’s lazy pace. By its final contribution, the Staatsoper’s chorus offered a solid performance, but – as often – the witches’ choirs seemed well-behaved and unidiomatic*.

The famous Verdian quote about Lady Macbeth needing a rasp, dark voice has been used as excuse for many inadequate performance. It is obvious that a pretty voice does not work for this role, but an ugly voice is no excuse for poor technique. Sylvie Valayre is all-right an intelligent singer, but her manipulations to produce a “dramatic” voice robs her phrasing of all spontaneity: her diction is very unclear, her gear changes are quite clumsy, her sense of pitch is not always reliable (although she generally hits her high notes correctly)… I was going to say that the sound is the opposite of pretty, but that could be intentional. She cunningly lightened her tone for the brindisi and, for the first time, her coloratura was more or less a tempo. What is beyond doubt is that she is a good actress. It is a pity that her long experience with the production had a perverse effect – the spirit behind the flash is gone and a great deal of the gestures blocked in rehearsals held loooong time ago seem pointless, especially in her opening aria. On the other hand, Vladimir Stoyanov has a truly full-toned Verdian baritone. Although the higher end of his range is not as forceful as the rest of his voice, his phrasing is so musicianly, spontaneous and pleasant that he cannot help sounding  convincing in this repertoire. Christof Fischesser’s rich and dark bass is taylor-made for the role of Banquo – I hope to hear him again in the future. Stephan Rügamer’s tenor, unfortunately, is not Italianate or flowing enough for La paterna mano – it was a reliable if not ingratiating performance nonetheless.

* I’ll be writing soon about the witches’ chorus in Macbeth.

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Director Dmitri Cherniakov has written that, for a long while, he had understood nothing in Verdi’s Macbeth.  Judging from his staging for the Opéra de Paris, I wonder how much progress he has made. It seems that the Opéra Bastille has a tradition of mixing opera and internet – always for dismal results.  This time the stage is covered by a screen on which we can see something like Google Earth showing a contemporary suburban neighbourhood where Macbeth seems to be some sort of mayor. Why does he wear an uniform therefore or why would he have an army at his disposal – those are questions left for our imagination. In any case, we are shown the same The Sims-like images of Macbeth’s house and of a square where poor people apparently live in what looks like dog houses.

It seems that the Macbeth plot has been reduced to a burgeoisie vs. proletariat (yes, I know – so last-century…), but setting the action in a bainlieu does not make any sense. First of all, high politics are rarely done in bainlieues. And Macbeth involves state ceremonies and a coup d’état. Second, proletaries and bourgeois rarely live at the same neighbourhood. In any case, low-income families in European urban areas tend to live in crowded apartment complexes and not in dog houses. Third, why  would the Macbeths kill people for… nothing? After Duncan’s death, they live at the same shabbily decorated house (they are not even allowed a dining room for their dinner-parties), wear the same frumpy clothes and have the same old and tacky guests. To make things worse, the supernatural elements of the plot are altogether deleted from the story – aparently the proletaries have a collective power of foreseeing things, for anytime Macbeth appears at their dog-house square, the chorus have always new forecasts to give.  Ah, I leave the worst for last – since the Macbeths’  living room is too small, there is no space left for choristers. But you can still hear their voices from… the beyond? I was waiting for the moments when Macduff would say Ihr Unsichtbaren saget mir, lebt denn Duncano noch? Also, when the presence of a soloist on stage does not go with the director’s designs, he or she is heard from backstage through a mircrophone…  It is said that, when a staging is really bad, we say good thing about the costumes and sets. But not here – Mr. Cherniakov has also created them and, if I were Lady Macbeth, I would kill him for making me look like a hag.

All in all, Violeta Urmana must be a very gracious person. She tried to hold her dignity together while doing magic tricks (this seems to be a new cliché in Regietheater) or singing her Sleepwalking Scene in untidy white pyjamas. Although she has dealt quite commendably with Lady Macbeth’s tricky fioriture, trills and dramatic high notes, the role is so distant to her personality that she cannot help sounding unconvincing.  Her best moment would be a high d-flat-less Sleepwalking Scene, sung without any hint of craziness but abounding in rich warm velvety phrasing. Stepping in for Carlos Álvarez, Greek baritone Dimitris Tiliakos has a plausible voice for Macbeth, with a hint of Renato Bruson but too often off-focus in its high register for comfort. As he had little operational space left, his performance tended to the monochrome. Unfortunately, the great Ferruccio Furlanetto was not in his best voice – but that did not prevent him from offering the most spontaneous rendition of the text (in his native language, an advantage not shared by the soprano and the baritone). The audience’s favourite was, however, Stefano Secco, whose bright tenor and ardent delivery made for a young-sounding Macduff.

It seems that conductor Teodor Curentzis has in Paris the reputation (or rather the notoriety) of being the poorman’s Sinopoli. Although his tempi are always faster than the ones adopted by the late controvesial Italian maestro, both do share the fondness for highlighting hidden niceties in the score at the expense of general coherence. I found his beat often whimsical but I tend to view Macbeth as a conductor’s score and it is always refreshing to have someone with ideas rather than a traffic cop on the podium. Nevertheless, all his curiosity did not help him to produce true excitement in the opera’s great ensembles if we are not speaking of sheer loudness.

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Performances of Handel’s most famous oratorio, The Messiah, pop up in England and in the USA like mushrooms – professional performances, amateur performances, Messiah sing-ins (you just have to bring your own score and try your for he shall purify-y-y-y-y-y…) – but they are becoming increasingly more popular in places usually not associated with choral oratorio traditions. If a Messiah performance should be called pan-Europan, the one held this evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées should be it – the soprano, the bass and the chorus were Austrian, the tenor was Finnish, the orchestra and the conductor were French – and Jennifer Larmore were the only native English speaker on stage.

I have an unhealthy curiosity for non-English Messiah recordings, which tend to file Handel oratorios and operas in the same case, bringing the theatrical aspects to the fore without any idea of the reverence sometimes found in performances supposed to be immerse in tradition (a tradition that is younger that those followed by Handel himself, it must be said). Although Jean-Cristophe Spinosi brought an unusual Vivaldian perfume to his Messiah, with some sensuous and passionate playing from his strings, dramatic accents and a vivid sense of narration, my first impression was that this was the poorman’s Les Musiciens du Louvre and Marc Minkowski (whose iconoclastic recording is always compelling in spite of the flaws): I don’t have the best set of ears around but I had the impression that pitch was too often treated in a cavalier manner especially by the upper strings, which could also develop a rasping sound. However, around the middle of part II, Spinosi’s palpable animation seemed to start to infect his musicians and the performance would eventually gain in stature and by Why do the nations, the experience could be counted as truly uplifting. At the end, the audience responded enthusiastically and, most unexpectedly, the hallelujah chorus was offered as an encore after an excited speech by the conductor about his love for it.

Soprano Cornelia Horak’s fleece-toned soprano floats beautifully in moments such as He shall feed his flock, but her lower register is not always 100% focused. Her coloratura is extremely accurate and she has an engaging personality and really means her text. Rarely has Rejoice greatly sounded so exhilarating as here, while she seemed almost transfigured in religious feeling in I know that my redeemer. Slimmer than last time I saw her, Jennifer Larmore similarly seemed eager to communicate and addressed the audience as if she was speaking to the congregation. It is a pity, though, that she was not really in good voice. The tone was often veiled, her low notes a bit recessed and the coloratura not truly impressive as usual. Although his singing was stylish, sensitive and accomplished, everytime Topi Lehtipuu opened his mouth, there came a different voice from him. When the tone was relaxed as in Behold and see, the results were warm and caressing, but most of the time the sound was a bit nasal and overbright in a Claes Ahnsjö-way. This is the first time I have ever heard Florian Bösch and all I can say that Ruthilde Bösch (Edita Gruberová’s teacher) has taught her grandson everything a singer should learn. If I say he stole the show, there is no exaggeration in that – his voice is extremely beautiful, flexible, firm in both top and low notes, perfectly focused throughout his range and, to make things better, he is not afraid to colour his text and tackles fast passagework with breathtaking precision. The Austrian contribution to the performance was crowned by the exquisite singing of the Arnold Schönberg Chor, the smooth sound of which is a joy to the ears. I was particularly impressed by the sweet-toned quality of their sopranos.

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No mistake here – I am not talking about Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, but a forgotten work Strauss himself  championed, which is Richard Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, staged by the first time in France in the Theatre du Châtelet.

The curious Wagnerian has probably got acquainted with the work in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s recording made live in Munich by Orfeo luxuriously cast with Linda Esther Gray, June Anderson, Cheryl Studer, John Alexander, Jan-Henrik Rootering et al. So has Marc Minkowski, who has dared not only to use his own Les Musiciens du Louvre but also to offer a far less excised edition. The immediately first instance of comparison between these conductors is that Minkowski’s orchestra cannot, for the obvious reasons, compete with the Bavarian State Orchestra’s lushness of sound. In order to create the necessary impact with a leaner orchestral sound, the French conductor proved to have the energy and pulse of very few conductors in order to keep his musicians playing as if their lives depended on that for more than three hours – his beat never failed, the orchestra’s attack was always strong, phrasing was always the leading element of the story telling. Even when one could rightly miss an orchestra like Sawallisch’s, Minkowski proved to be more coherent, more structured – every one of the three acts built inevitably to their powerful finali.

As a side comment, it is impossible not to notice that the score’s shining features are its ensembles with full chorus and soloists, something the composer would use more economically in his mature works. Even if the work is decidedly uneven, long stretches of music are irresistibly powerful, especially in act II, when one has a feeling that Bellini’s Norma, Weber’s Freischütz and Beethoven’s Fidelio have been mixed in a blender together with the house’s secret ingredient. I wonder what would have happened to the history of music if this work had been staged when it was composed. More seriously, what would have happened if Wagner had actually succeeded in the mainstream department? Would there be place for Tristan und Isolde if he had indeed reformed the genre of grand opéra? The truth is that no-other composer has a first stage work so brilliant as Wagner.

As in many early works by operatic composers, Die Feen suffers from its impossibly difficult casting. These roles are so difficult that you feel you owe these singers the cost of an extra ticket! In the Isolde-meets-Agathe role of Ada, Christiane Libor does not feature the show-stopping dramatic soprano of Linda Esther Gray (in her sadly short career), but the gentler sound of Minkowski’s orchestra allows her to exude far more vocal allure. She is the kind of singer who never ever produces an ugly sound even when things get really difficult. To say the truth, Ms. Libor has instantly made me a fan of hers. There has to be some problem in the world of opera if a singer of her outstanding level is not more famous. Her warm sizeable lyric soprano has something of the sexiness of the young pre-wobble Eva Marton blended with the coolness, elegance and poise of Margaret Price. I know this is not a good description – but that is the best way I can describe her. She also has a regal presence and, even if she is not really an electrifying actress, she is never less than convincing.

In spite of the performance’s seconda donna’s talents, the role of Lora was, in my opinion, miscast. It requires a Bellinian voice with a bright and spontaneous high register. Lina Tetruashvili is a reliable, velvety-toned soprano, but there is nothing Italianate about her voice – she was fazed about fast and high passages, her diction is not very clear and her German is not really convincing. It was no coincidence that Sawallisch invited June Anderson for his Munich performances.

William Joyner got the ingrateful task of singing the role of Arindal, a part that requires both heroic heft and Mozartian grace. He has no problem with offering dulcet head tones when required from him, but is tested by exposed dramatic high-lying passages. Considering the difficulties of the role, he proved to be unusually accurate and musicianly, but the cracked notes at the end of the evening only proved that this run of performances maybe was really demanding for him. Laurent Naouri not only is an excellent actor, but sang Gernot’s act 1 romanze in the grand manner. It is a pity that his bass was a bit off focus for the comic duet with Drolla in act 2. As Farzana and Zemina, both Salomé Haller and the beautiful Eduarda Melo left absolutely nothing to be desired. Minor roles were strongly cast.

I do not know if the pun was intended, but Emilio Sagi decided to stage the world of fairies with glittery colours, lots of pink tones and male choristers dressed in female clothes. To say the truth, mortals had also its share of glossy scenic elements, but, maybe because there is a war going on, there seems to be a limited share of spangle going on in Arindal’s kingdom. Sagi claims to find inspiration in Jeffrey Koons for his settings – a gigantic rose, a gigantic doll and a gigantic chandelier seemed to be it and, if the effect could be dramatic blank, it never failed to have an aesthetic impact. Justice be made, actors were extremely well directed and scenes never sag, keeping continuous interest, but a heroic opera needs a bit more craft. For instance, act III describes Arindal’s fighting earth spirits and bronze men, but this is all reduced to a curtain of blue strings and colourful boxes. One could thing that the budget was not enough for the three acts…!

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