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Archive for August, 2009

The Staatsoper unter den Linden’s prima does not have the glamour associated to La Scala’s season opening performance, but the event does involve the presence of the Bundespräsident and simultaneous broadcast to thousands of people at the adjoining Bebelplatz. For the 2009/2010 season, an old production has been chosen, Harry Kupfer’s Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2000.

Although the local press calls it legendary, it is actually quite unexceptional. The only set for the three acts shows a giant sculpture of an angel (inspired by a photo by Isolde Ohlbaum of a statue found in Rome) that doubles as a rocky landscape, which turns around to create different perspectives. On the background, some piece of furniture and people in XIXth century clothes (supposed to represent “society”) or a stylized sea landscape. Although the word “angel” does not appear at all in the libretto, if we are to believe that the composer’s feelings for  Mathilde Wesendonck were the early sparkles of inspiration for the opera, then we should remember that the first of her poems set to music by Wagner is… Der Engel. In any case, I really do not see any added insight to the understanding of the story or its interpretation. What one could clearly see was that walking on it was rather difficult and all singers had to watch their steps while trying to sing difficult music. I have not previously seen this staging, but I have the impression that the director’s original ideas might have faded since 2000. In many scenes, singers seemed a bit at a loss with their blocked gestures and tried to milk meaning from generalized stage attitudes. Even the charismatic Waltraud Meier had her clueless moments. If I had to single out someone, this would be Ian Storey, who knows how to scenically pull out act III better than almost anyone I have seen – live or on videos – in this role.

When it comes to the musical direction, Daniel Barenboim has no weak links in his monumental yet supple approach to the score. On his DVD from La Scala, a beautifully crafted act 1 would open the proceedings in the grand manner only to settle in less intense remaining acts. Not this evening. After a deep Furtwänglerian prelude when absolute structural clarity was paradoxically achieved in the context of sophisticated agogics, the first act took a while to take off – probably because the conductor had to accommodate his cast’s needs. From act II on, the performance gained in strength. The Staatskapelle Berlin was at its resplendent best, offering thick Wagnerian sound and breathtaking flexibility throughout. That meant that singers would now and then find themselves drowned in orchestral sound, but the trade-off paid itself – sometimes during the Liebesnacht one would feel that time stood still in sheer beauty of sound and clarity and dramatic purpose. But act III surpassed even these paramount levels. Never in my experience had it sounded as flowing as it did this evening – as it had been produced in one perfectly integrated arch from the first bars of the introduction to the Liebestod’s last chord.

Waltraud Meier has had an up-and-down experience with the role of Isolde. So far I’ve had bad luck live, but I cannot make my mind whether this evening was a lost opportunity. I would not say she was in bad voice, only that her voice was not willing to sing Isolde. It sounded lean and lyrical and resented the least dramatic turn of phrasing. A less experienced singer would have horribly failed. Not Waltraud, who husbanded her present resources with such shrewdness and imagination that she finally convinced me that she was experimenting with a Margaret Price-like approach to the role. On one hand, the lightness helped to create a more youthful and legato-ish sound that certainly brought about a more immediately romantic tonal palette to the role; on the other hand, she had many moments of inaudibility, pecked at high notes in an almost operetta-ish way and simply did not sing her act II high c’s. Later on, she would warm a bit and gather her strength to produce some loud Spitzentöne, some of them below true pitch. Some of these problems afflicted her Liebestod, but there she and Barenboim achieved such unity of phrasing that no-one could help but surrendering. In any case, that final scene was vastly superior to their studio recording in every sense.

As for Ian Storey, first of all, I must apologize for my opinion on his Tristan as heard at the Deutsche Oper a couple of months ago. Except from an extremely unfocused frenzy on hearing the news of Isolde’s arrival on act III, he sounded this time relatively comfortable with what he had to sing. His dark-toned tenor has a certain disconnected quality around the passaggio that brings about a marked flutter and loss of tonal quality, and his procedure to make his top notes incisive lets itself being noticed. But I don’t want to seem picky – his voice is big, warm and ductile and he has imagination, good taste and his general attitude fits the part. His Tristan finds the right balance between heroic and vulnerable, which is quite rare with Heldentenöre.

In spite of the soprano and the tenor’s achievements, the outstanding vocal performance this evening is beyond any doubt René Pape’s. This great bass sang with such richness, authority, sensitivity and sheer vocal glamour that one for once could feel that the act II monologue could be a bit longer!  In the performance booklet, Harry Kupfer suggests that King Marke and Tristan’s relationship goes beyond nephew/uncle and reaches an almost incestuous level. In this production, the similarity of age, the violence of feelings and the heartbreak in Pape’s voice almost make this bold assumption work.

Although Michelle DeYoung is not the subtlest Brangäne around, she was in very healthy voice and managed to pierce through the occasional thick and/or lound orchestral moment without forcing. I cannot say the same of Roman Trekel – the role of Kurwenal is on the heavy side for him and he sounded invariably rough and hard-pressed. He is an intelligent artist, however, and found space to add a discrete sense of humor to his lines.

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Once more with feeling

The Berlin International Music Festival is an attempt to fill in the Sommerloch’s blank by offering a series of masterclasses and concerts when basically nothing else is happening in the classical music scene in Germany’s capital city.

In its second edition, the main guest was soprano Cheryl Studer, who offered two concerts beside teaching classes. I could attend the second one of them, in which she sang Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder, a work she has recorded for DG with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Giuseppe Sinopoli 16 years ago.

Comparing this evening’s performance with the studio recording was a fascinating experience. To start with, although the soprano is 54 years old, she still retains the unique youthful bell-toned tonal quality that made her particularly convincing in Straussian and Wagnerian jugendlich dramatisch repertoire. Her mezza voce does not come easily as it used to, but her high g’s and a’s (truth be said, these Lieder’s tessitura is not very high) were evenly produced and also radiant and forceful, not to mention that her low register has a richer and warmer sound these days. After a bumpy Der Engel, she offered a stylish account of these songs. More than that – her interpretation showed far more depth, her legato was more spontaneous and she seemed to establish a more immediate emotional connection to the text at present than in the “ideal” studio conditions of her Dresden recording. And this is far more relevant than a couple of flat pianissimi. Michael Wendeberg offered sensitive accompaniment with the Festival’s pick-up orchestra, but – maybe because of the extremely warm acoustics – clarity was not orchestra’s strong feature.

Considering the controversies involving Ms. Studer’s later career, I know that my four or five readers are eager to ask if this was a veteran’s or a still-active singer’s performance. As said before, the Wesendonk Lieder are not exactly a tough piece of singing. In them, in spite of the minor glitches, her voice was in very good shape and particularly fresh-toned for a woman at her age; an “innocent listener” would have no reason to think of waning vocal resources. I have seen on the Cheryl Studer Society’s website that she has not been very active these days and more dedicated to her teaching career. In any case, she is not the first lyric soprano who had ventured into heavier repertoire to retire from the operatic stage to emerge as an occasional recitalist once they were 50. At 54, Lisa della Casa said farewell to opera houses. Gundula Janowitz, for example, was no longer “active” at this age. Kiri Te Kanawa can only be seen in recitals these days.

The Wesendonk Lieder were actually the second part of the program. Before the intermission, 19-year-old Korean pianist Sun Wook Kim displayed solid technique and the rare ability to catch the mood of a piece through tone colouring, but the whole approach seemed a bit too “Romantic” for the piece, which ideally requires a bit more sparkle and forward movement. The conductor should be praised nonetheless for the chamber music-like dialogue between pianist and the orchestra, the coherent performance of which is more remarkable considering this is no stable formation.

Update: I have just read an article on Tagesspiegel about the cancellation of Cheryl Studer’s recital on the Berlin International Music Festival. Yes, I had noticed that the event was a bit modest for someone with her reputation and far from “international” in standard, but in any case I am surprised to see a newspaper publish something so virulent about an artist for no reason at all. In any case,  I was there and saw nothing like “Cheryl Studer’s drama”, as the newspaper suggests. She was in good voice and sang the Wesendonck Lieder stylishly and expressively.

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Rossini’s Semiramide is such a monumental work that many an opera house would rather not bother to stage it. Of course, the libretto requires grandiose sets, but the real challenge is to cast four exceptional singers with absolute technical finish. It is rather curious then that Caramoor, a summer festival that takes place every year in a large estate in the State of New York, has jumped at the opportunity to stage such a fearsome opera.

Since 1997, the Festival has decided to concentrate on bel canto works – and Vivica Genaux has first established her reputation as a Rossinian there. Since then, she is a special guest and I imagine that the whole Semiramide venture has probably been created around her Arsace. Although her mezzo is not heroic as the writing suggests, her hallmark metallic chest register produces the necessary impact in this lower-seating role. Her impressive control of fast fioriture and her musical imagination enable her to decorate every repeat more extravagantly than before without ever trespassing the limits of style and good taste. She also has charisma and attitude to spare in this difficult male role.

Another guest of honor is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who debuted both his Idreno and Nemorino (in L’ Elisir d’ amore) in this year’s festival. He sung both excruciatingly demanding arias with technical abandon, solid middle and low registers and effortless high notes. He too has impeccable taste – I know that many consider him Juan Diego Florez’s official “second cast”, but I sincerely doubt that the celebrated Peruvian tenor could actually sing the role better than Brownlee.

Assur used to be Samuel Ramey’s signature part and his many recordings have set a performance standard for this role. Although Daniel Mobbs does not exactly reaches this standard, he is probably the singer who has come closer to it. His forceful bass is extremely flexible, well-focused, dark, generous in its lower reaches and firm in its top notes. The sound is a bit noble for this villain role, but that is something one could say of Ramey too.

Angela Meade is something like America’s hidden secret in the world of opera. I have read about her for a while; the usual comment is “wonderful material, but still not ready” – something I could never say after seeing her Semiramide. It is clear that she has the potential to do something even more amazing than tonight; she is a young singer who has chosen roles carefully, but what she is already doing is enough to procure her the rank of the very best in the market. I feel like using the label “golden age”. The voice itself is extremely appealing – hers is a legitimate lirico spinto, creamy toned in a Margaret Price-like way with added Italianate qualities such as squillante top notes and rock-solid bottom register. When she unleashes her voice, it can be quite voluminous and, in the next moment, she dazzles in perfectly articulated coloratura, easy trills, floated mezza voce. And she also has natural feeling for the Italian language – and clear diction. Although her temper is not flashing, she knows how to seize the occasion when a dramatic emphasis is required from her. I found her phrasing expressive, she produced real seduction in Serbami ognor, grandeur in her duet with Assur and finally she was really touching in her second duet with Arsace, when she also proved to master the art of blending her voice with fellow singers. I cannot wait to see and hear her again.

Will Crutchfield is an expert in bel canto repertoire – he keeps rhythm flowing, plays all the theatrical effects and has an excellent ear to find the right pace for his singers and to help them when they need an attentive beat. Ideally, the score needs a larger group than the Orchestra of St. Luke’ s, which at moments seemed a bit strained with the effort of having to play at 100% in a long opera, but considering the acoustics (the Venetian Theatre is an open-air stage covered with a large tent, under which the audience is also seated), a chamber-like orchestra was the best idea. And these musicians played with real gusto and very much shared the dramatic atmosphere with the soloists. The small Festival chorus has also done a commendable job. I hope someone has recorded this performance – I am sure that someday one would regard it as highly as that recorded in other Summer festival in France some years ago .

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