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Archive for September, 2009

Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most formidable works in the operatic repertoire – it is like performing Mahler’s 6th Symphony with the cast of Verdi’s Il Trovatore with stage requirements of Wagner’s Ring. These superhuman requirements demand the sympathetic ear of the audience and probably also some gratitude. It is such a monumental and unique masterpiece that being able to see it live at all is an unmissable opportunity. An opportunity we should probably thank the Deutsche Oper’s Intendantin, but she happens to be also the stage director.

If there is a subject in Operatic Stage Direction course called “how to stage act III”, Kirsten Harms probably missed it. As in her Tannhäuser, although her acts 1 and 2 are not the most amazing things on the face of Earth, they are quite acceptable –  what she really ruins is the end. Here she tries to relate the plot to the time of the work’s creation – although the costumes suggest rather WWII, the action is set during WWI and we see the Empress and the Emperor living in a palace that looks like a hall in the Pergammonmuseum, while the Baraks live in their rather large and airy shanty. Since the sets are quite good-looking and the idea is not bad per se, I had no problem with that – but I confess I find Harms’s idea of deleting the plot’s magic elements self-defeating. As it is, the Empress and the Nurse’s scheme to get a shadow seems to be work exclusively on money. And I am not sure that this is the idea. But that is a detail compared to the fact that the Emperor here wird nicht zu Stein. He is kidnapped at night in front of the Empress’s eyes, who has no dream at all about that. Have I forgotten that the Nurse is executed by the Spirit Messenger? And that all the complex imagery imagined by Hofmannsthal to act III is reduced to a setting who seemed to be a rest from the closing tableau of an old production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut? Because Harms believes that, after act II, “nothing exists anymore, no imperial palace, no shelter for the impoverished; all dreams, all mistakes are over”. I am sorry – but that is not what the libretto says and it sounds just an excuse to justify the fact that the budget was used up in acts I and II.

Considering the economy of means on stage, one would feel inclined to turn to the pit to find riches of expression, but the truth is that Ulf Schirmer was a bit economical himself. He is a stylish Straussian who never forgot to play it “as if it were Così fan tutte”, keeping thus the proceedings extremely clean, elegant and transparent, but one could expect a bit more abundance of sound in the purely orchestral passages and a bit more Schwung in the highly dramatic situations of act II, for example. Lyric moments such as the Emperor’s act II scenes seriously lacked affection and forward movement.

Manuela Uhl does not exactly possess the hoher dramatischer Sopran required in the score, but what she has does fine as well. Her jugendlich dramatisch voice has the necessary crystalline quality, she has easy top notes and knows how to spin a Straussian phrase, but exposed dramatic passages bring a touch of sourness and some flutter too. She is a committed actress, uttered a chilling “ich will nicht” and looks really well. Eva Johansson comes closer to the high dramatic soprano label and she can even floats high mezza voce, but her vocal production has many instable and insecure moments. Because of her technical glitches, she is often too busy with the notes to find operating space to express anything.  The difficult end of act II found her really out of sorts and often off pitch. When Robert Brubaker first opened his mouth, the words “James King” occurred to me, but soon it became clear that the role is too high for his voice and strained him beyond any possibility of smoothness. On the other hand, Johan Reuter’s dark and rich bass-baritone fills Straussian lines sensitively and elegantly. I leave the best for last: yes, it is true that bête de scène Doris Soffel is not a dramatic mezzo soprano, but she is the kind of artist who makes it happens, regardless of what “it” is. She is not afraid of going larger than life, knows how to create dramatic impact and has an endless supply of forceful top notes. Finally, the Deutsche Oper should be praised for the high quality of singers in small roles, particularly Hulkar Sabirova in a series of key high soprano parts.

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The Straussian credentials of the Philippe Jordan+Staatskapelle Berlin team have been more than sucessfully presented in this year’s season opening concert, when they treated the audience to an exemplary rendition of the Alpensinfonie.  Playing in the Lindenoper’s pit has not prevented them from offering a truly symphonic approach to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. From the  first bars, one could feel that this would be a special evening: faultless French horn solos, glistening string playing, vivid woodwind. More than that – a conductor in complete control of his forces who could therefore concentrate on expression and drama.

Although the score features beautiful and touching vocal parts, the audience would turn to the orchestra tonight to find the multilayered portrayal of the character’s emotions. Maestro Jordan did not need to play effects, he could give himself and his musicians the necessary time to let notes speak – during the Feldmarschallin’s famous act I monologue, one would invariably be distracted from Hofmannsthal’s text by the richly coloured chamber-like writing for wind instruments. Act III showed such thematic clarity that one would never consider it a long stretch of unmelodic music between act II and the final trio, which did not fail to be the emotional highlight of the evening in its perfectly calculated dynamic and tempo ebb-and-flow .

So why was this performance finally not unforgettable? I am afraid that the answer is simply that a symphonic approach needs voices large enough to cope with a large orchestral sound – and rather than adding to the ensemble, the largely light-voiced cast gathered here was overshadowed by it. Although Anne Schwanewilms often produces some exquisite sounds, her lyric soprano is also often too thinly produced to be really heard over the full orchestra. When she really tried too sing loud, the results were often pinched, unflowing or rather edgy, not to mention that her method to reach high notes is basically pecking at them. She is an intelligent singer who uses the text effectively, but I wonder how long her technique will allow her to sing roles that require true legato in the high register.

Katharina Kammerloher is usually billed as a mezzo-soprano, but at least this evening one would take her for a soprano. At some moments, her voice even sounded similar to her Marschallin’s, although her basic tone is creamier and her top notes richer. Even if her Octavian was rather on the light and feminine side, it was also beautifully and stylishly sung. I have previously written that I was curious to hear Sylvia Schwartz in a high-lying role – and I was right to suspect that they work particularly well for her. As Sophie, she could explore the best part of her voice and float effortlessly velvety top notes. It is true that her soprano is a bit small, but Sophie rarely has to deal with heavy orchestral writing – and she also has the looks and the right attitude for the role.

I had never been convinced by Alfred Muff, whom I knew from recordings, and I was doubly surprised by his Ochs tonight. First, because his voice is far darker and larger than the microphones suggest. Second, because the part really fits his voice. He finds no problem with the very low notes and the declamatory writing. He has some fondness for off-pitch effects, but the truth is he was the only member of the cast who could really project over the orchestra (I would also add Irmgard Vilsmaier’s quasi-dramatic soprano, rather too loud for the role of the duenna). Martin Gantner was an efficient Faninal, but he missed too many theatrical points to be really convincing and, in spite of the anounced sickness, Stephen Rügamer seemed at ease in the difficult tessitura of the Italian Tenor’s aria.

Nicolas Brieger’s 14-years old staging takes so many unnecessary and pointless liberties with the libretto (Mohammed is here a dwarf, the three orphan girls are here boys, naked maids run through Faninal’s palace, the act III inn is depicted as an outdoor place with a bed hidden behind bushes) that in the end you just believe that nobody bothered to read the libretto. To make things worse, Joachim Herzog’s costumes are erratic, mixing styles from different centuries with no apparent purpose.  It is decidedly provincial and unworthy of Germany’s capital city.

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Pelle autostrade del piacer!

A moment that lasts forever – that seems to be the what Peter Mussbach’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata (available in the video from Aix-en-Provence with Mireille Delunsch) wants to show.  Many people portray one’s final moment as a “flashback” and that seems to be the point here, reinforced by the fact that both act I and act III preludes start basically the same way (although the latter is one half-tone higher). The fact that the events depicted in libretto are shown as drops of remembrance against the setting of the dying scene is a clever idea, but why that scene has to be on a highway? The blond wig and costumes given to Violetta makes one think of Marilyn Monroe – but one could also consider Jayne Mansfield. She died in a car accident (and, for your information, she played the piano and the violin) – but the point of all that is still a mystery. The truth is that I tend to be soft on productions that, in spite of all silliness, look beautiful – and this one does create a sense of melancholy in its nightly atmosphere. One could almost imagine a soundtrack with Billie Holiday songs, but Verdi’s La Traviata will have to do.

Back to La Traviata. Although this is supposedly one of the pillars of the standard repertoire, I have increasingly met people who cannot stand a performance of it, especially among those who are not used to go the opera. I have to confess myself that I always brace myself and expect a long night at the opera when I am about to see La Traviata. And I’ll tell you why – 1) the title role is too difficult and generally there is a soprano fighting with it; 2) the whole aesthetics – both musical and theatrical – are on the edge of over-sentimentalized and this sort of thing only works when all performers show absolute conviction; 3) the score tends to monotony with its excess of triple tempo; 4) I cannot – I really cannot stand Germont’s Di provenza il mare; 5) it is not one of the pieces of music I dislike most, because there is always Non udrai rimproveri as number one. Anyway, this evening I had decided to try my luck because of Ailyn Perez. I had never seen her before, but a friend of mine had said so many good things about her that I felt I should check.

I am not entirely convinced that Violetta is a role for a lyric soprano (in the sense of someone who should be singing Mimì, the Countess Almaviva and Arabella) and, although Ms. Perez was far from immaculate in it, I did cherish the opportunity of getting to listen to her. If you put Renata Scotto and Kiri Te Kanawa in a blender, you’d probably get something like Ailyn Perez. The basic sound is creamy, but she can find a touch of chest resonance for the low-lying moments and a touch of metal for the more dramatic moments. Even if she knows to coarsen her voice, she never lets go tonal beauty and not only her diction is crystal-clear but she has mastered the art of colouring the text and infusing every little word with meaning. As many lyric sopranos, she found trouble in Sempre libera. Probably because the pace was really fast, she got breathless at some point and anyone who sings knows that, once you loose control of your breathing in the middle of an aria, trying to regain control of it is a lost battle. Many phrases were left unsung while she tried to get back to the saddle and she only got to the end of the aria because she must be a very stubborn woman. After that, nothing that problematic happened. She is a bit adventurous with breath control and would often leave some convenient Luftpausen go only to find herself a bit short of air later. Once past the act 1 catastrophe, she offered an impressively vivid and touching account of the duet with Germont and a fresh account of Addio del passato that balanced vocal (such as heavenly pianissimi) and theatrical aspects, with illuminating word-pointing. Also, her ideas of how to portray Violetta’s consumption were all musical and pertinent. To make things better, she is a committed actress, who embraced the difficult directorial choices (one must not forget, in this production Violetta stays on stage during the whole opera and the only intermission is in the end of act II). Finally, the reading of the letter was beautifully handled and her death scene showed expert blending of declamation and singing. I feel I should make a conclusion about Ms. Perez – although hers was one of the most impressively stylish and intelligent performance of an Italian role I have seen in some years, I would still like to see her in a role closer to her vocal nature. She certainly deserves more attention, for, when it comes to what an opera singer should do, she is the real thing – there is nothing routine about her, she does sheds her blood on stage while keeping musical values in high standard and that is a rarity today. 

Every tenor who sings all the “little” notes written by Verdi for Alfredo has my respect – and Daniil Shtoda showed commendable flexibility and dynamic variety. His voice is a bit on the light side for the role and some exposed high notes brought about some tension. I wish he did not tried the interpolated high c in the end of his act 2 cabaletta. When a tenor has to let all those laveròs before he tries it, that means he should not sing it full stop. I don’t know which is the general opinion, but for me the written laveròs are far more relevant than the unwritten note. I guess Verdi would agree with me. Finally, he is not much of an actor and trying to cope with Mussbach’s difficult requirements made he look a bit silly (and his hair-do already makes that for him). As for Alexander Marco-Buhrmester, considering his Wagnerian background, he has feeling for Verdian lines. His voice is certainly dark and imposing and he handles Italian legato quite adeptly, but he has too many fluttering and woolly moments for comfort.

Conductor Alexander Vitlin deserves praises for his willingness to read the score instead of reproducing cliché under the pretense of “tradition”. His orchestra was rich and clear, he tried to give variety and nobility to this music (sometimes, it is true, that meant that some numbers could be a bit more forward-moving) and one must mention that the backstage orchestra in act I did sound like background music to an animated party and not a vulgar brassy mess.

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Some performances are so unequal that they should be entitled to more than one review. This evening’s Così fan Tutte at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, for example. Musically speaking, Act I felt like a rehearsal (and I am not speaking of a Generalprobe) and the proceedings seemed only to warm after the intermission. But let’s begin with Act I. To start with, conductor Julien Salemkour seemed determined to make things frisky, but this determination seemed restricted to accent. Nothing wrong with tempi or balance or clarity, but the overall impression was roughness without animation, as if you told someone gloomy to be lively and, shown a simper, you thought “now he’s lively”. French horns cracked all the way, lightness and elegance were  kept away and chords heavily followed each other in an almost hysterical manner. 

If you need to judge a whole performance of Così fan Tutte by one number, you just need to listen to the sister’s first duet, Ah, guarda, sorella. In 95% of performances, it will sound basically disjointed, contrived and the sopranos will correspond to Don Alfonso’s description as cornacchie spennachiate. In any case, even if this duet is usually poorly sung and played, this evening you had the dictionary version of how wrong it can go. If Karine Babajanyan were a last-minute replacement for Miah Persson, many a fault could be forgiven. But that was not the case – this Umbesetzung had been anounced far in advance. Ms. Babajanyan is something of a trouper – she tried everything, but rarely fully achieved anything during act I. Come scoglio was rather a matter of determination. Her Dorabella, Maria Gortsevskaja also showed a thick-toned mezzo with more than a splash of ungainliness. Under these circumstances, rarely had the arrival of Despina had such a soothing effect on one’s ears: Adriane Queiroz was in particularly healthy voice, singing creamy, flexible and rich sounds and giving a lesson of how to portray earthiness without ever sounding coarse. The men were vocally more regular during the whole performance – Jeremy Ovenden is a stylish Mozartian afflicted by a strong nasality that robs his tenor of pleasantness, Arttu Kataja’s resonant bass-baritone could do with a little more spontaneity in his Italian and Roman Trekel, in spite of his congeniality, has become too rough-toned for Mozart. 

After the intermission, Maestro Salemkour’s drily a tempo approach finally acquired some purpose and many ensembles did sound lovely without any coyness in their transparence, forward-movement and expressive power. If the chorus had showed a bit more discipline, the wedding scene would have been almost ideal. Ms. Babajanyan seemed a whole new singer. In her act-II form, she displayed a charming and old-fashioned reedy soprano reminiscent of Teresa Berganza in its middle range and tasteful phrasing. She is the kind of singer who gets away with a difficult run or two, but who cannot really deal with really florid parts. As a result, while she really sounded affecting in Per pietà, the stretta had more to do with effort than resolve. Her duet with Ferrando would be the highlight of her performance, when both singers sang with genuine graciousness. Ms. Gortsevskaja would finally also show more focus and even reveal a pleasant warm quality, but she is not a Mozartian singer and even subtly decorated lines would drag her behind the beat, more seriously in the “toast” canon. 

As for the theatrical aspects, the performance was fare more successful. Although Doris Dörrie’s performance is already 8 years old, it has not lost its appeal. Better than this, roughly all the cast consist of ensemble members and regular guests, what means that these people are used to work with each other and, considering how much fun they seemed to be having, they probably like to work with each other. I would even say that that the acting this evening owes nothing to the cast preserved on video, especially Jeremy Ovenden’s, who seemed more comfortable with cheekiness than Werner Güra and, probably because of his more spontaneous Italian, made far more of the text.

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Although Bellini’s operas have been now and then disputed as old-fashioned, they have never failed to catch the heart of even those who recognize their touches of saccharine (especially in what regards the plots and simplistic orchestration), such as Richard Wagner himself, who was deeply impressed by the performance of the great Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Romeo.

Because of its connection with the legendary singer from Hamburg, this breeches-role is a favourite with mezzo-sopranos who tackle the bel canto repertoire. In many interviews, Elina Garanca has explained that bel canto is  just a phase in her career and that her voice cries for Romantic long lines rather than fioriture, but so far she has scored her greatest successes in her recordings of Bellini’s Norma (with Edita Gruberová) and I Capuletti e i Montecchi (with Anna Netrebko), not to mention her broadcast of Rossini’s La Cenerentola from the Metropolitan Opera. I witnessed her Rosina at the Met a couple of years ago and, if I agree that coloratura is not her strongest suit (although she is definitely accomplished), she has a charming voice, a good ear for tone colouring and personality to sell.

In its season opening performance, the Deutsche Oper was bold to cast Bellini’s take on the ill-fated lovers from Verona, but not brave enough to stage it. So, in this concert version, we have both Romeo and Giulietta en escarpins. That has not prevented these singers to produce the minimally required brushstrokes of acting to give life to the proceedings. The high heels had no influence on Garanca’s Romeo. Although the part ideally requires a more penetrating low register, this Latvian mezzo knows the role from inside out and is never caught short in it. Her ability to spin seamless legato is an asset in Bellini and she knows how to use the text to dramatic purpose, especially at her dying scene. This is a singer who goes to the heart of the matter in terms of dramatic and musical requirements and never cheats with expression. In this sense, she was ideally partnered by the lovely Ekaterina Siurina.

A stylish Mozartian, Ms. Siurina has a light silvery soprano that lacks at first Italianate morbidezza and in alts for the traditional puntature. But she has almost everything else – a very long breath, a positive low register, spontaneous Italian pronunciation, perfect trills, breathtakingly floated pianissimi and unfailing musicianship. However, her greatest talent is to evoke almost palpable emotions on stage. She does not express feelings, she lives them through as if the music and text were created by herself. Her stage presence is also mesmerizing. She has a doll-like charm, but her seductive eyes cast a powerful and irresistible spell on the audience. I do not know if Italian roles are her habitat (I have read that her Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto was highly appreciated at the Metropolitan Opera), but she is certainly one of those singers who work their way in whatever repertoire. I personally believe she still owes the world some Mozart.

The evening’s Tebaldo, Argentinian tenor Dario Schmunck, is also technically refined and theatrically engaged, but he often failed to pierce through the orchestra and had his tense moments when things get too high or fast. Ante Jerkunica was a resonant Capellio and, even if he had his over-Germanic moments, Reinhard Hagen’s voice is so noble and beutiful that one cannot help being convinced by his Lorenzo.

Conductor Karel Mark Chichon, Elina Garanca’s husband, takes his Bellini very seriously and invested each note with meaning, musical and theatrical purpose. Every hidden music-dramatic possibility in Bellini’s score have been unearthed this evening and many an audience member expecting a boîte de bonbons  has been surprised by the white-heat performance, in which the maestro’s enthusiasm contagiated the Deutsche Oper Orchestra members to engage into the drama. The occasional mismatch is a minor price for the extra sparkles.

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