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Archive for May, 2009

This year’s Baden-Baden Pfingfestspiele’s main feature is Bob Wilson’s staging of Weber’s Der Freischütz, to this day a favourite with German audiences (I mean, you have to put up with many a sing-along member of the audience in the next seat). As always, this opera is a favourite for interventionist stagings, but having an American director who has been applying the same “sucess formula” for decades could hardly be the answer to the search of novelty in such a well-loved and often-staged work. The truth is that Wilson’s highly stylized production sanitized the opera of all possibility of expression. Singers and chorus-members behaved like mechanical dolls, the stage action tempo was kept at very slow space and the geometrical sets were ingenious but rather blank. If I had to single out a very poor moment in the whole show, this would be the “black mass” presided by Samiel invented  to distract the audience while the sets were being changed for the Wolfschlucht scene, the merit of which was, at least, trying – for the one and only time in the whole concept – to depict the original stage instruction. In the rest of the opera, even dialogues were adapted to justify the director’s fancies.

Modern audiences, however, are used to be visually frustrated and have learnt to take refuge in the musical performance. Not here. The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden has particularly dry acoustics and having the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the pit was a self-defeating solution. The orchestral sound could never blossom, both higher and lower ends of the aural spectrum were very restricted, valveless brass instruments were tested by the circumstances and the much demanded French Horn players had the worst time of their lives.  To make things worse, conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has poor control of ensembles, is careless about polish, has a fancy for pointless rit. and acc. effects – he seems like the Bizarro’s world version of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The real world’s Harnoncourt has indeed recorded Freischütz with… the Berliner Philharmoniker, a hint Hengelbrock should have taken. No offense to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a praiseworthy ensemble when the circumstances allow. As a compensation, the Philharmonia Chor Wien offered clear and well-balanced sounds throughout.

The acoustics had also a negative effect on soloists, draining their voices of resonance. In order to accomodate that, the conductor had a second reason to turn down the orchestra’s volume. As a result, arias such as Leise, leise almost sounded a capella. Nevertheless, my guess is that Bob Wilson’s straightjacket-like stage direction made singers ill at ease and that sort of thing obviously has an influence in their vocal performance. One could almost feel the moment when they were starting to find some animation, but then they remembered that they should stand still or walk like an Egyptian. Having graduated to big lyric role, Juliane Banse never failed to produce firm and velvety tone. She handled her big aria most commendably, but failed to produce the mezza voce required by Agathe’s prayer. On the other hand, the lovely Julia Kleiter was an ideal Ännchen whose acknowledged stage talents was wasted in this production. Steve Davislim’s Max worked at his best in purely lyrical passages, where his ease to produce soft head tones were most helpful. Otherwise, the role seemed to low for his voice and the more dramatic passages tested him sorely. Although Clemens Bieber’s performance in Berlin was far less varied, he offered far more solid singing in comparison. As the director gave Dimitry Ivashchenko more freedom of movement, he accordinly seemed the most spontaneous singer in the cast. His ease with passagework helped him when Hengelbrock decided to play each couplet in his drinking son increasingly faster. For a singer who usually sings Sarastro, he deals with the higher tessitura with some comfort, but, in this hall, his voice could be a bit more forceful (or maybe I am spoiled by Theo Adam in Carlos Kleiber’s recording). When Paata Burchuladze opened his mouth and such a voluminous voice finally conquered the difficult acoustics, I felt I could oversee the wobble, but after some minutes I changed my mind.

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This was a night full of surprise. First, the première of Siegfried Matthus’s Konzert für fünf, for wind quintet and orchestra. The work begins and ends with the conductor’s solo on the timpani, and the piece fulfilled its promise of being structurally clear “conversations” for the soloists, the rhythmical alertness of which bordered on a bolero, but it was the tango offered as an encore by the soloists that got the warmest applauses.

After the intermission, the audience was treated to highlights from Wagner’s Göttedämmerung (Siefried’s Journey on the Rhine, Brünnhilde and Waltraute’s scene, Siegfried’s funeral march and the Immolation Scene). The performance took some time to take off – the first excerpt seemed built “from the outside”, as if the conductor did not find the inner truth of the piece and tried to force animation in the proceedings for awkward effects, but the soloists seemed to add some dramatic sense to the performance. The graphic effects of the magic fire, the flying horse, the Valkyries’  battle cry were thrillingly executed. From this moment on, the Berliner Philharmonic had more than the occasional moment of one could remember the big, powerful and exquisite sounds of its golden days.

Katarina Dalayman’s warm-toned dramatic soprano, noble phrasing and clear diction make her ideal for the womanly aspects of Brünnhilde, but the warrior goddess recalled in the opera’s closing scene tests her weaker lower register. On her favour, she seems to have a neverending supply of big firm top notes, but the unfavourable tessitura of the Immolation Scene tired her a bit. I have the impression that Die Walküre should not be her best moment in the Ring as a whole. As Waltraute, Karen Cargill proved to be a truly interesting artist. She is a most intelligent singer, with solid technique, dramatic imagination and crystal-clear German, but she seems to be more a contralto than a mezzo.

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Weber’s Der Freischütz is rightly considered the most German among German operas - maybe therefore a natural work for Regietheater directors. Considering the libretto’s elaborate scenic instructions, one can always claim that the only way to stage it at all is making a series of adaptations, provided one is able to keep the contrast with heimlich and unheimlich which lies in the core of what Der Freischütz is about. In this sense, Alexander von Pfeil’s 2007 staging for the Deutsche Oper piles up both natural and supernatural aspects of the work rather than setting them apart in contrasted atmospheres, an original idea. As devised by Mr. von Pfeil, the opera has only one set – a ballroom in something of a hunting club in the 50′s. There is an opposition of masculine elements – sexy posters with girls on the walls, guns all over the place and hunting trophies – and feminine ones: a series of huge crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, a praying corner. Everbody is completely drunk, frenetically dancing and acting sillily. Only the main characters seem to be sober: Agathe and Kuno are concerned about Max, Max is concerned about work, Ännchen is concerned about Agathe and Kaspar is concerned about his plan. Among the intoxicated men and women, three apes apear invisible to anyone but the audience.  Then a man in black t-shirt and jeans who acts in an animal-like way appear. Agathe seems to feel his evil presence, but no-one else. It is Samiel. While the forging of the bullets is supposed to happen in the Wolfschlucht, here the ballroom is transformed in a place of horror through lighting, a magic circle of empty wine bottles and smoke. Plus the apes. The bottles  would be later replaced by shoeboxes when Agathe sings her prayer among women who help her wedding ceremony.  Although nothing really impressive happens here, the permanent set looks interesting and a discrete but palpable ominous atmosphere is kept throughout. I would only wish that the Wolfschlucht scene had some surprises in reserve.

Ulrich Windfuhr’s lackadaisical conducting did not add the last ounce of excitement to make this colourful score sparkle - the overture did not receive the “symphonic” treatment is cries for and, during the performance, many instances of untidy playing occured. Again, the Deutsche Oper Orchester has a noble string section who kept its refulgence in the soft accompaniment of Agathe’s arias – but the blending of all sections did not always happen in a coherent manner.  Beside various displays of abilities from many of its members, the house chorus sang their famous hunters and bridemaids’ numbers con gusto.

In the difficult role of Agathe, Michaela Kaune sang with affection, tenderness and good taste. She seems to be in one of those moments in a singer’s career when one really does not know what lies ahead. Her lyric soprano has an attractive creamy quality and floats beautifully, but maybe some heavy usage has robbed her of any spontaneity above mezzo forte, when the voice looses focus and acquires a smoky and colourless quality. I hope she understands the message from nature and stays within the limits of lyric soprano repertoire in the future.  Martina Welschenbach’s bell-toned soprano is taylor-made for Ännchen – the voice is very pretty and flexible, her top notes are full-toned and she is extremely vivacious. When it comes to Clemens Bieber’s Max, his big aria was coldly received by the audience, mainly because of a recessed high register, unflowing and lacking resonance. That said, if one likes Peter Schreier’s (otherwise far more penetrating in his top notes) Max, one would find interest in Bieber’s boyish, pleasant-toned and ultimately Mozartian performance. Jörn Schümann had everything to be a very good Kaspar – the darkness of tone, the control over a long range, the intensity of utterance – but his voice is two sizes smaller than the role and  he had to work hard to cut through the orchestra. Ante Jerkunica’s bass was a bit too slim to produce the right paternal effect, but the production shows him rather like a TV preacher than a benign hermit anyway. Small roles were all cast from strength. The menace in Prodromos Antoniadis’s Samiel was reduced to his powerful and varied speaking voice – the whole ape-like coreography devised for the role was more curious than frightening. In the end, the invisible but omnipresent apes – far more circunspect than the humans in this production – were far more effective.

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If one had to create a production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 15 minutes, it would probably look like  Dieter Dorn’s 1994 production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Grey geometrical walls – check, sacrificial instruments – check, robes and veils – check. One could miss a damaged statue of Agamemnon, but it seems the budget was not rich enough for that.  After all these years, it is difficult to say anything about stage direction. It is clear that production veteran Deborah Polaski – and, to some extent, Jane Henschel – shows a certain  unity in her gestures. The others seem quite lost. I also know that the title role is really long and is permanently on stage and that a singer should feel thirsty at some point, but I am not entirely convinced that having a bucket of water and a cup as a stage prop is the good idea – no-one in the audience felt that this was connected to the action in any way, but rather a mere necessity one should bear with. Considering the work has completed one hundred years since its creation in Dresden (and its first performance in Berlin roughtly one month later), maybe a newstaging could have been produced.

In what regards horizontal clarity, Michael Boder offered an exemplary performance: complex harmonies were as easily perceived as if you had the score in front of you. However, no pun intended, the proceedings were rarely electrifying, although the orchestra was very responsive to Strauss’s descriptive effects. Sometimes, I had the impression that clarity was achieved at the expense of forward movement, as in Klytämnestra’s nightmare. Also, it is a pity that the brass section lacked finish in a general way.

It is something of a feat that Deborah Polaski is still regularly singing the role of Elektra at 60 (this performance was actually her birthday celebration). Provided you can put up with approximative pitch on exposed high notes, one could say it is still a most effective performance of this most difficult role. Hers is one of the less microphone-friendly voice I have ever heard – on recordings, it almost invariably sounds colourless, while live it is a voluminous stream of warm, rich sound. Above the stave, legato tends to disappear and the tone can become constricted. The extreme top notes were a matter of hit-or-miss, but her relative ease to float mezza voce rescues her from many a difficult passage. Unfortunately, the Recognition Scene, which should be her best moment, caught her bit out of steam.  What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, aided by very clear diction, and dramatic commitment. Although some might find the flaws difficult to overcome, there is one undeniable asset – this is a dramatic soprano with feeling for Straussian style who often beguiles the listener with creamy stretches of expressive singing. Of how many Elektras one could say something like that? But don’t check your recordings to prove me wrong – this time you’ll really have to listen to her yourself at the theatre.

Although Anne Schwanewilms is very popular here in Germany, I believe that Chrysothemis is a no-go for her. Her voice is light for the heavy orchestration, she has problems to pierce into the auditorium in her higher register, often pecks at notes when the score requires flowing legato and, when there is no fallback position and she really has to produce some acuti, the sound is often strained. Not to mention that the buzzing sound over her voice does not help her either.

Jane Henschel’s clear yet forceful mezzo soprano counted with a neverending range of tonal colouring and her clear intervals are a strong asset for the harmonic challenging passages. Although she has clear diction, she still has to work on her American “r”. Hanno Müller-Brachmann offered focused firm tone. I do not know for how long he has been singing the role – he did not seem in his element in terms of interpretation. Reiner Goldberg’s Heldentenor is still very healthy and he never cheated with Ägysth’s angular writing. I have to say something about Monika Riedler’s Aufseherin – she offered one of the most accurate performances of this tiny but critical role that I have ever heard, live or in recordings.

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In Berlin, there is no streetcar called Desire, but there is a streetcar’s stop called Freiheit. I would not call Australian director Benedict Andrews’ approach to Tennessee Williams’s A streetcar named Desire free – in spite of a series of internal trimming in the original text, the story is told more or less as written. The problem lies rather in the apparently intentional disfigurement of a dramatic play into dark comedy.

 As portrayed here, Blanche Dubois is a repellent, vulgar trollop who sprays fragrance in her intimate parts. Of course, there is something beastly in the bottom of what Blanche is – but bringing this upfront goes against the whole Tennessee Williams’ aesthetics. In many of his plays, the leading character is a typical product of colonial areas (such as Louisianna) – the lady of the plantation house brought up with all kind of refinements against a backdrop of violence and abandon (in the moral sense of the word). These little ladies were made from the same raw material their slave-owner and warlord fathers and brothers, but a misstep into the wild side of their natures rarely had a happy ending – sort of butterflies caught in spiderwebs covered with filth, living relics of a pallid paradise of genteelness lost in the strong colours of real world. Therefore, showing Blanche in such an ungracious way not only makes her a manipulating hyprocrite, but also unbalance the play, since Stella, in comparison, seems to be a paragon of dignity and politeness (even if her costumes suggest rather a hooker). This misconception is a fatal blow to the whole purpose of the play - reduced to a cynical display of dialogues with double meaning with regular intervals of prop destruction, beercan throwing, disgust-provoking episodes with food etc.  

In any case, one must always acknowledge that this is a play tricky to update – the concept has some interesting ideas – such as beginning on the bare stage, with all sorts of equipment visible to the audience, including the street door, through which enters Blanche. Her presence brings a black curtain, behind which props disappear and from which they appear, generally to be placed in a revolving circle on the center. The speed with which this circle spins varied according to the scene – a solution particularly effective for the scene before the birthday “party”. However, most scenic devices and displays were self-conscious and did not seem to stem from an effort to highlight anything in the text, but rather the production’s own “cleverness”.

Fortunately, the Schaubühne company has a group of gifted actor who know how to invest the concept with spirit and keep interest going even when one disagrees with everything else.  It is difficult to say anything about Jule Böwe’s approach to Blanche – she is faithful to the directorial choices, plunges in the grotesque required from her and is not afraid of going larger than life. Although she looks younger than role as written by Tennessee Williams, maybe she could work from small paintbrush and produce a subtler Blanche in the right context if that were required from her. I do not know either if Lea Dräger is properly cast as Stella – she looks like a teenager and I am not sure if the character is that young. At first, I had the impression that Lars Eidinger was too “elegant” for Stanley Kowalski. Later he proved capable of the required violence – but somehow the blutness seemed always rather studied, as if the role were a bit distant from his nature and the good results were rather a result of technique than of natural attitude (what is praiseworthy nonetheless). Maybe because the direction let the role of Mitch unbothered, Jörg Hartmann had more opportunity to build something believable. The closing scene is the play’s most famous one and, due to a series of miscalculations, it did not work and maybe the perfunctory acting (or casting) for the doctor and nurse parts have something to do with that.

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Why is that British opera stagings are all so beige? We all know that one week of Komische Oper makes one eager for some dreariness, but, really, what is the point of importing Peter Hall’s unimaginative production from Glyndenbourne? Take Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film with Frederica von Stade and replace all colours for pastels and you can tell everyone you had the pleasure of visiting the English countryside in your tuxedo while watching this most agreeable performance of Rossini’s masterpiece. The lack of imagination applies to the stage direction too – all the clichés of Rossini staging are unashamedly paraded in front of your eyes. As Morticia Adams once said, one can forgive everything but pastels. Maybe that is why Angelina has a full-golden wedding dress in the closing scene. Her revenge might be her forgiveness, but it seems she will do some redecorating in the Prince’s palace.

In terms of casting, some replacement has happened before the première. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni has fallen ill  and was replaced by Guillermo García Calvo, who could not resist the house orchestra’s richness of sound. Although that meant that singers would now and then be overshadowed by breathtaking vortices of string passagework, I have to confess that rarely have I paid so much attention to Rossini’s colourful orchestral writing. Maybe if the cast counted with larger-sized voices, this could have been an unforgettable Rossinian night. In any case, one will not forget the orchestral display – even in the conductor’s agile tempi, the sound was always full and flexible.

Sometimes one has the opportunity of hearing something so overwhelming that his or her future experience will be forever touched by that. And I could not help thinking of Olga Borodina’s Cenerentola at the Met in 2005, which was one of the most impressive vocal performances I have ever seen. That was a voice of real depth and volume flowing through Rossini’s fioriture with no hint of effort. That was a voice large enough to preside over ensembles and to create a truly regal effect in the rondo finale. I remember I wrote back then “rarely has the triumph of virtue sounded so triumphant as in Olga Borodina’s voice tonight”. I am sure that Ruxandra Donose’s lighter and smokier mezzo-soprano must work to perfection in Glyndenbourne. Although the Deutsche Oper is no Metropolitan Opera House,  it is a large theatre for European standards and she took a while to warm. Until then, she tended to disappear in ensembles. Once she adjusted to the hall’s size, she never failed to impress in clear coloratura and in her seductively dusky low and medium register. Her top notes tend to sound bleached out and the closing scene was more efficient than astonishing. But – and this is a big “but” – she won me over nonetheless. She is a skilled and intelligent actress who projects a lovely personality throughout and never forgets that hers is one of the “serious” characters in the opera. At the end, one remembers her performance as extremely touching and the less than deluxe vocal resources seem to be part of her Angelina’s modest sweetness.

She was ideally paired by Mario Zeffiri’s Don Ramiro. Nobody wants to be called tenorino today, but it seems Zeffiri is comfortable with being something like our day’s Luigi Alva. His voice has nothing of the metallic quality most Rossinian tenors have today – there is an easy, smiling quality in his tenor and his facility with mezza voce makes his lyric moments particularly effective. He has an amazingly long breath and often shows off his ability to fly above high c, sustain it and then go on singing without pause. His big aria was a showcase of ornamentation, including a perfect trill. His acting abilities are not in the level of his Angelina, but he seems comfortable with what is required from him and – being the prince charming – his more discrete manners made sense in comparison to Dandini and Don Magnifico.

One always speak of how difficult the mezzo and tenor parts are, but one must never forget that Dandini is hard work. I do not remember having ever heard live or in recordings an immaculate performance of this role. Simon Pauly has no reason to be ashamed – although the voice is rather dark, it is always well-focused. He works hard for passagework and, once his voice starts to move, the sound is not always really pleasant. In this sense, the contrast with Lorenzo Regazzo’s Magnifico was quite telling, since the Italian bass-baritone offered crystal-clear divisions. I have to say that this is probably Regazzo’s best role. I tend to find him hyperactive, but Magnifico requires that. As a result, he seems to have limitless supplies of energy and is never caught short in any of Magnifico’s hyperbolic arias. Although Wojetk Gierlach’s high notes are a bit woolly, he sang Alidoro’s big aria with real bravura. I tend to be picky about the role of Clorinda – if the voice does not shine in the ensembles, than the part is rather pointless. I do not believe Martina Welschenbach was properly cast – her voice is charming, but not glittering enough up there. On the other hand, Lucia Cirillo’s sexy and fruity mezzo-soprano shows some promise.

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Orlando Paladino is one of the operas Haydn wrote for the small opera house at the Esterháza Palace. It has been rarely performed and some might remember it as one of Elly Ameling’s rare operatic recording, conducted by Antal Dorati in his all-stars series for Phillips. It has also recently caught the attention of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who released a recording made live in Graz with some favourite singers in European stages: Patricia Petibon, Malin Hartelius, Werner Güra, Michael Schade and Christian Gerhaher.

As much as Harnoncourt, conductor René Jacobs made his own edition for his performances at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, involving basically the trimming of recitatives and the inclusion of one showpiece aria from Haydn’s Il mondo della Luna for the role of Alcina. As usual, Jacobs has a fancy for the decoration of repeats, what is less bothersome in an unfamiliar opera, for very active continuo (here beside a fortepiano, an alternating harpsichord plus a lute) and for writing over the composer’s work (the inclusion of loud percussion in the Eurilla/Pasquale duet Quel tuo visetto amabile and the inclusion of a part for Eurilla in Pasquale’s “catalogue” aria). But one would forgive Jacobs anything – his conducting was at one vital and spontaneous. Those used to Harnoncourt’s recording were certainly surprised by the flowing yet clear and forward-moving approach. With the help of the polished and animated playing from the Freiburger Barockorchester, ensembles were always transparent and the lyric moments, given all the time they needed, were particularly touching.

Even in such an excellent cast, one would have no doubt that Marlis Petersen’s is the prima donna role. Her golden-toned lyric soprano is extremely ductile and flexible  – the purity of line, accurate divisions, floating pianissimi and dramatic imagination are admirable – and, considering the light vocal quality, particularly penetrating. Also properly cast in the soubrette role, Sunhae Im not only sung with charm and instrumental poise, but also showed real talent for comedy. It is a voice that blossoms a bit high in the soprano range, though, and sometimes she disappears in her first octave. Although Haydn could not have said that Alcina is a mezzo soprano role, the notes speak for themselves. It is extremely gracious of Alexandrina Pendatchanska to take such a secondary role, but once again her wide spectrum of abilities did not build into a coherent performance. The role sits uncomfortably in her soprano – the lower end was dealt with with a somewhat overblown chest voice that did not seamlessly connect  to a recessed middle register and there was little opportunity for her forceful high register. She furiously decorated her part and I cannot see any other reason for her florid insertion aria in the somewhat pointless act III than Jacobs’s friendship with her. In any case, she seized the opportunity to offer a dazzling coloratura display.

 Magnus Staveland’s tenor lacks projection above the passaggio, but it is an extremely pleasant voice, rich-toned and flexible, what is essential for the role of the handsome Medoro (as clearly shown in the libretto, there is not really much beyond looks in Medoro). Tom Randle performs the “furious” aspects of Orlando to perfection, especially in a production that requires from him destroying sets with an axe à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. His tenor has a darker and more heroic colour than, for example, Michael Schade’s in Harnoncourt’s recording, but he lacks Schade’s floating mezza voce for the most meditative moments. Another favorable comparison with Harnoncourt’s recording is Pietro Spagnoli as Rodomonte, far more spontaneous both vocally and interpretatively (Italian is his native language, one must remember) than Gerhaher. The audience’s favorite, beyond any doubt, was Argentine baritone Victor Torres, who offered an all-round satisfying performance – velvety tonal quality, stylishness, solid technique, theatrical verve and, most of all, he is really funny.

The performance booklet makes a strong point for the Orlando Paladino’s semiserio style with many references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I would rather point to Così fan tutte – and I tend to believe that directors Nigel Lowery and Amir Hoisseinpour would agree with me. In Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and the Commendatore’s predicament are serious business and Mozart has a sympathetic eye for them, while Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Ferrando’s petty ordeals are made fun of and we only relate to them and finally care about them and suffer for them because we have first laughed at them. In Orlando Paladino, the serio roles, Angelica and Medoro, are so aloof that Haydn makes a series of musical jokes by abruptly changing the affetto for their neverending lamenting. Their arias are almost a parody of opera seria with their overwrought strette. Accordingly, Angelica is shown in this production as the demanding and needy beauty queen who is always upset by the less-than-glamorous circumstances – basically the passive-aggressive dyed-blond bitch who sings coloratura at every opportunity. In his text on the booklet, Jacobs also defends the idea that Alcina is a serious role, but I guess that again the directors agree with me that she would be mezzo carattere – here shown as a drunk hostess who never knows exactly when she should display her superpowers.

Normally, I would resent the excess of slapstick comedy, but one must acknowledge that the libretto demands so – and the cast is extremely comfortable with that. I am not sure about the bearded fairies performing distracting (but funny) subplots in the background amd definitely dislike the silly coreographies – but there are so many ingenious touches that one cannot help but having a great time.

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Some 50 years ago, a performance of Puccini’s Tosca as seen this evening in the Deutsche Oper would probably not be in italienische Sprache gesungen. With one notable exception, there was no Italian singer on stage. More than that, the leading soprano and tenor were born this side of the Alps. Not even when Deutsche Grammophon decided to record highlights in German (curiously in Rome), something like that could not be achieved, since James King had to be “imported” to sing the part of Kavalier Cavaradossi.

Nothing like that this evening, for the brightest star tenor in the world of opera these days is Jonas Kaufmann – and the Berliners were so eager to show their appreciation that he could barely finish Recondita armonia: before the aria’s last note, applause burst in the hall. Deserved applause, I rush to say. The German tenor sang with unfaltering elegance throughout, exploring softer dynamics more readily than most singers in this repertoire. The role poses him no difficulties, but his dark tonal quality sometimes prevents him from piercing through thick orchestral textures – a problem that never afflicts his ringing top notes, which acquire the necessary squillo to run to the last seat in the auditorium. If I had to produce some criticism, it would be that there is something calculated about his approach to Italian roles that stand between him and true excitement. In comparison, even the aristocratic Bergonzi sounds aflame in sacro fuoco. Maybe if he relaxed and just let himself go a bit more, he would find the emotionalism that lies in the core of Italianate tenor singing, especially in verismo works.

The dark-hued tonal quality is a feature shared by the evening’s prima donna, Nadja Michael. I have to confess that, after last week’s Tannhäuser, I was not really excited about her venture into Italian opera. To my surprise, the role of Tosca highlights her qualities more advantageously than jugendlich dramatisch ones. First of all, considering her indistinct pronunciation, cantabile serves her better than declamatory passages (not to mention that her intonation was greatly improved tonight). She still has problems with long lines and needs to butcher phrases to make space for breathing, sometimes between syllables of one word. In any case, I found more variety in her phrasing tonight – she even tried mezza voce and some well judged Italianate portamento. But do not mistake me – her voice is really foreign to Italian style. What is beyond doubt is her ability to produce powerful acuti, an asset for act II. If it were not for an all-over-the-place Vissi d’arte, I would even say that this was truly commendable. Her use of chest voice was rather natural too and helped her in many key moments. It is curious that her stage performance was rather muted, what confirms my first impression on her. Although she is a committed actress, she is no te de scène. Without the help of her stylized stage postures, she seemed devoid of natural charisma and lost in the proceedings. I suspect that the performance was underrehearsed – an evidence of that was her constant fight with the trail of Tosca’s hallmark “Empire” dress.

The one Italian in the cast, veteran Ruggero Raimondi is, as always, the most patrician of Scarpias. His voice is still solid and powerful, the occasional rusty moment rounded off with the expertise of someone who has been around on the greatest stages in the world for decades.

Considering the personalities on stage, the Deutsche Oper has probably decided that a conductor “with a personality” would be too much. Maestro Pier Giorgio Morandi offered a kapellmeisterlich performance – a score rich in possibilities somewhat reduced to a narrower expressive spectrum – with rich but less than perfect playing by the house orchestra.

Boleslaw Barlog’s old staging (with Filippo Sanjust’s sets and costumes) alternates moments of endearing souvenir of the stand-and-deliver days and others that look just sloppy – have these people ever visited the Palazzo Farnese? I am sure that Scarpia’s apartments there should have looked far more glamorous than the dungeon-like room showed there. Similarly, the Castel Sant’Angelo’s top-floor is so small here that Tosca had to be blind not to see the bullets piercing Cavaradossi’s chest… 

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Of course, everbody knows the Berliner Philharmoniker. It is one of the most famous orchestras in the world. In the days of Herbert von Karajan, it was regarded the embodiment of what every orchestra should be. But the Karajan days are long gone and, after a row of conductors who have taken for granted the orchestra’s sound (instead of building it), one asks himself if one should really see it as a primo inter pares among the world’s leading orchestras. I would dare say not. I would even dare say “not even in Berlin”.

Although the paring of Beethoven’s Piano concerto no. 4 to Shostakovich’s 11th symphony is like eating the dessert before the main dish, conductor Ingo Metzmacher produced a clear, forward moving performance that maybe required an approach less detached than the Chopin-ized style with which Nelson Freire played the solo piano part.

One always refer to the 1905 Symphony as film music without the film. Under Metzmacher, the DSO proved that images would only spoil the fun. Every musician in the orchestra played as a soloist, invested in the theatrical aspects of the work to produce a performance that was at once gripping and intense and millimetrically accurate. It was an orchestral tour de force as I have rarely seen in my life. I am not a connoiseur of Shostakovich music and cannot compare with hundreds of other performances – but I can say that the thunderous applauses for a not-entirely-popular work of around one hour of length is an evidence of how special this performance was.

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Elisabeth has the floor

As in many Romantic literary works, the leading male character is often the subject of  crucial decisions take by women – so is Tannhäuser. It is only fair that, for a change, in a production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser a woman takes all the big decisions. For illuminating results, I would say. In Kirsten Harms’s staging for the Deutsche Oper (premièred last year), girls also take the center stage. We have already seen productions in which Elisabeth and Venus are sung by one singer (most notably in Götz Friedrich’s staging for Bayreuth) since they would both represent the carnal and ideal aspects of love. But Harms goes a bit further – no unhappy ending here. Elisabeth acknowledges and sublimes the Venus in her, thus saving Tannhäuser from the psychological fracture that prevented him from being a complete person. Here, the superposition of heaven and hell is nothing but earth.

The concept is cleverly realized – the ideas are clear and unobtrusive, the symbols are deep and yet immediate and, even the revolutionary ending ultimately does no violence to the libretto. To make things better, Bernd Damovsky’s sets and costumes are exquisite. Some scenes show surpassing beauty, such as Tannhäuser floating in complete shinig armour to land on a see of sirens swimming on stage. In order to achieve that, every stage contraption a modern theatre has at its disposed is used, making for a truly grand show. If I had to be critical, although I find the idea of showing Elisabeth as caretaker of sick people (as apparently St. Elisabeth of Thuringia was), it took me some time to adjust for the modern hospital beds in a staging that turns around armours, knights, standards etc.

As one should expected in a Elisabeth+Venus combo, the Dresden version was used (which is a pity – I am an absolute partisan of the Paris edition), to little avail. Before I say anything about Nadja Michael, I must explain that I do not believe that one singer could sing both roles really well. On the video from Bayreuth, Gwyneth Jones is in great voice and does a terrific job, but is rarely convincing as the seductress or the ingénue. Maybe the young Régine Crespin would have pulled this out, but I am not really sure.

Nadja Michael-haters say that she is the poorman’s Waltraud Meier, but I would say her whole package is more ambitious and maybe therefore more frustrating. Let us start with the voice. It is difficult to say wether she is a soprano or a mezzo. I would guess she is a soprano who had been trained as a mezzo and was not able to understand that soprano singing has a different “method”. All her high notes have this edge as if you have asked a mezzo who has a high b and a high c to use them all the time. As her whole approach is heavy-handed, her voice never floats, soft dynamics are unfocused, high-lying phrases are chopped to accomodate (lots of) extra breathing pauses and pitch is really erratic. Contrarily to what I thought, her Venus worked really less well than her Elisabeth. Maybe because she thought Venus should require a fuller-throated approach, it all sounded colourless and unsubtle. For Elisabeth, we could see she had the right ideas about every phrase – she is an intelligent artist, there is no doubt about that – but they rarely really worked out in practice. If I had to say something positive about her vocal performance, is that she can conjure enough power to pierce through ensembles (it is a reasonably sizeable voice), at the expense of any sense of line and tonal beauty however. As for her stage performance, she is a truly beautiful woman and, considering  Venus is here shown as Boticelli painted it, this is a mandatory requirement. Her graceful figure and swan-like neckline gave her Elisabeth  graceful vulnerability. That said, as her whole acting method is overintellectualized, she is finally not a force-of-nature. She moves like a ballet-dancer, striking very expressive and beautiful poses one after the other. The final balance is still positive – she is a very good artist, but she ought to be a more accomplished singer.

The fact that the staging gives pride of place to Elisabeth/Venus was finally a blessing considering that the scheduled Tannhäuser, Scott McAllister, fell ill and had to be replaced (with a great share of difficulty, since the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring would have  “reserved” all possible replacements) by Ivar Gilhuus, a Norwegian Heldentenor whose complete lack of tonal allure was compensated by his determination to sing every note written by Wagner. Considering how strenuous the part it, the Deutsche Oper should be praised for finding such an efficient last-minute replacement for the title role. Tonal allure was not a problem for Markus Bürck, whose dulcet baritone is comfortable either in loud or soft dynamics. His performance was so uniformely perfect that it would survive microscopic examination. Bravissimo. Finally, Kurt Rydl’s instability has grown too evident for the role of the noble Landgraf.

Philippe Auguin presided over the whole performance with masterly precision – the Deutsche Oper Orchestra offered playing of unimaginable beauty throughout – wide-ranging, perfectly balanced, featuring ductile string section with scintillating passagework, but the chorus deserves my special congratulations. Rarely have I heard in an opera house (even at the Deutsche Oper itself) choral singing of such high quality. Every section homogeneous, all sections blended, crystal clear diction, no loss of tonal quality in pianissimo and, most of all, highly expressive quality – the Deutsche Oper Chorus scored this evening top marks in every possible requirement an opera house chorus should meet with.

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