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Archive for May, 2009

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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Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is considered an opera in which very little happens and that is true if one limits his or her observation to actions. When it comes to feelings, the whole spectre of sentiments is generously poured on stage. It is a very emotional score – and conductor Andris Nelsons decided to spare nothing: the orchestra played with real passion, an extremely supple use of dynamics and tempi guaranteed that the last ounce of expression were extracted, sometimes to frantic effects. The word “blandness” would never occur to anyone in the theatre, but I wish that passion were achieved with a bit more polish for the musicians on stage. Although the orchestra achived a remarklable degree of intensity, that rarely tampered with precision. Unfortunately, the chorus did not often seem to follow the same beat from the orchesta and ensembles with soloists were poorly balanced. I have Jiri Belohlavek’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera House fresh in my ears and the Straussian grace with which the Czech conductor made his distinguished cast (Mattila, Semenchuk, Beczala and Hampson) blend their voices was truly admirable in comparison.

Olga Guryakova was an engaged and touching Tatjana – her basic tonal quality has the necessary young-sounding tonal sheen, but a sour edge to her tone spoils part of the fun, especially when she is hard pressed in more dramatic moments. As Olga, Ewa Wolak’s contralto seemed too dark in a cast where the contralto parts were taken by higher voices: the veteran Karan Armstrong (Larina)’s still bright-toned considering her age and easy on the passaggio and Lieane Keegan (Filipjevna). In any case, Wolak has an impressively deep low register. Andrej Dunaev’s tenor is pleasant all the way. His top notes lack a brighter edge and he sometimes disappeared in ensembles, but, with the help of the conductor’s attentive accompaniment, he gave a sensitive account of his big aria. At first, I found Boje Skovhus’s Onegin a bit hectoring and uncharming, but it soon became clear that this was a theatrical effect. Later in the Moscow act, his singing was exemplary in its clarity, beauty of tone and forcefulness. In comparison with the impressive cast offered by the Met this year, I would say I prefer his performance to Thomas Hampson’s, who was caught a bit short by the more dramatic passages. As for Paata Burchuladze’s Gremin, his voice is powerful as always, but I could never warm to his unclear diction and suspect sense of pitch.

Götz Friedrich’s production, which premièred the opera at the Deutsche Oper in 1996 has its moments of cold aestheticism in its light colours and geometrical cleanliness, but some moments are particular effective, such as the duel between Onegin and Lensky. What is beyond doubt is that the recreation of this production was extremely attentive to stage direction. All singers and choristers acted with conviction – Guryakova and Wolak were particularly believable. Skovhus tends to be overemphatic, but Onegin is everything but a spontaneous fellow anyway.

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It seems that Riccardo Muti has decided to launch a campaign to make Italian concert repertoire more widely known by audiences throughout the world. I have seen an all-Italian-music concert in Japan and this evening half program was dedicated to Italian music – his calling card, the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and his fellow Neapolitan Martucci’s La Canzone dei Ricordi.

I have seen Muti play Verdi’s most famous overture more than once, but today’s performance featured truly intense playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker, scintillating strings and inspired solos by the woodwind soloists included. Martucci’s song cycle is a tougher cookie: one of those piece with immediately expressive atmosphere that seem nonetheless to be going nowhere. The orchestra offered exquisite sounds and Violeta Urmana was an ideal soloist – the tessitura is very favourable to her zwischenfach soprano, here at its creamiest, her Italian diction was crystal-clear and she added her customary elegance to these songs that really do not invite Puccinianisms. However, Berliners have already their opinion about what they like best and reserved their most enthusiastic applause for Schubert’s Symphony no.8, performed tonight at its most gutsy and exciting, with animated and astonishingly precise (if not necessarily apollonian) playing from the orchestra.

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25% of your ticket price? Every opera house states that there is no guarantee in what regards casting: you may pay a fortune to see a dream-team and ultimately have to put up with a second-rate assortment. In this sense, one should praise the Deutsche Opera for its policy of giving a 25% discount-voucher for those who purchased a pricier ticket to see Angela Gheorghiu and were finally surprised (?) by her cancellation, but the underlying question is – in an opera like Verdi’s La Traviata, how much is the prima donna worth? 

I have had the chance of seeing Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta Valéry and found her vocally and scenically compelling, but hardly electrifying. What is beyond doubt is that her stardom has to do with a generalized sense of glamour hard to explain but immediately palpable. Considering how difficult the role is, the Deutsche Oper has done a good job in finding Carmen Gianattasio for replacement.

At any rate, this Italian soprano has offered a praiseworthy performance – the animated applause at the end (especially by orchestra members) is an evidence of that. She seems to belong to the kind of Italian sopranos who are not really concerned about producing beautiful sounds but still respect the basic rules of bel canto somehow.  Although Gianattasio’s soprano has a somewhat veiled tonal quality, her squillante top notes can be quite forceful. She is not entirely adept in coloratura, but is rarely caught short in the key moments for she always finds a musicianly and/or dramatically effective way of dealing with them. Unfortunately, she does not count with mezza voce among her expressive tools, a liability for Addio del passato. As a matter of fact, her Violetta was more incisive and less touching than most. Contrarily to the libretto seems to suggest, she eschewed Germont’s patronizing in their long duet and, when she asks him to hold her as if she were his daughter, it seems more like a fleeting moment of weakness. In act I, there is not much room for loveliness either – her Violetta is more feisty than beguiling and one would not have a doubt about her line of business here. That said, intelligent as her portrait is, Violetta is a prima donna role and the last sparkle of charisma was not there – was it the lack of a more charming tonal quality? It is hard to say, specially when we are speaking of a last-minute replacement performance. But what happens to a Traviata when there is not a prima donna?

I do not believe an Alfredo could make a Traviata memorable, but it certainly helps to have a first-rate tenor in the role. That was not exactly the case this evening. My first impression of James Valenti was extremely positive – his voice is really pleasant – it s a truly dulcet sound, firm, a little dark and easy on the ear. However, it progressively became clear that his comfort zone seats a bit low for a tenor in the Italian repertoire. While his low register was very positive, his top notes were clearly less powerful than the rest of his voice. At first, this was not a problem; he is an elegant singer who is not afraid of softening his tone, but O mio rimorso was a complete misfire. His breath control did not resist his intent of producing a larger sound and, when he abandoned his lines to prepare for the interpolated final note, I feared the worst – and the worst materalised in the shape of a tiny, recessed, nasal and unfocused high c.  I wonder if he is not in the wrong repertoire. To make things worse, he did not seem very comfortable with the stage direction and looked quite goofy making big gestures with his kilometric arms.

Lado Ataneli was the single “important” voice in the role. Although his phrasing has too many cupo moments, his dark, firm, forward-placed baritone finds no difficulties in this role. No wonder he was clearly the audience’s favourite.

La Traviata is a score that tends to sameness and, in the hands of a bureaucratic conductor such as Marco Armiliato, it seems to last forever. To start with, the orchestral sound was kept in such recessed volume throughout that there were moments you could hardly hear it. Even in the preludes to act I and III, no concern about subtlety and variety seemed to exist. The ensemble in the end of act II was such a mess as I have never seen in an important opera house before.

Götz Friedrich’s production was premiered in 1999, in what seems to be the begin of the strange Berliner fashion of  mixing costumes of different decades in the same staging. Here garments that ranged from the 1900 to the 1990 were paraded in one only all-black set that shifted from Violetta’s house to her country villa and to Flora’s place with minimal changes (but for serious decay – in the end, it looks as if a typhoon had visited the place). Maybe that explains why everybody goes and comes back from Paris so fast in act II. Other than this,a hospital bed seems to be “the concept” – disguised as a divan in act I, as… a divan in act II… until you finally see it as a hospital bed in act III.  Do I need to say more?

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