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Archive for October, 2009

I have read a lot about Robert Carsen’s production of Wagner’s Tannhaeuser and regretted that I could not be in Paris to check it. So when I read that it would be restaged in Rome, I’ve decided to follow Elisabeth’s advice: Nach Rom! However, here I am in Rome, but not Carsen’s production… The Teatro dell’Opera had later on checked its pocket and realized that, oops, they couldn’t afford to bring it. I felt inclined to be upset, but since they took the decision to hire Riccardo Muti as musical director, I have been trying to keep my mind open to the Roman opera house’s decisions. But, as much as Tannhaeuser had to keep his eyes closed not to see Italy’s charming landscape, I felt I should do the same before Filippo Crivelli’s ad hoc production. OK, limited budget is always challenging etc, but what I have just seen vies with Cecilia Bartoli’s new CD’s cover for the title of human race’s ugliest creations. And the idea was to knock you out from moment one.

Venusberg is basically an archway made of pink fabric upon which imaged of naked women taken from famous paintings were projected. Ah, and there was a couch for Venus, whose costume is reminiscent  of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. When the mention of the Virgin Mary’s name transforms the whole thing in Thuringia, Crivelli must have thought of the DDR, since it basically consists of three sets of flat tree trunks with a catwalk on the background. Act II was more conventional – it looks like the Met’s production bar the money. To make things worse, the show was truly poorly lit and the costumes left a lot to be desired. I leave the worst for last – Gillian Whittingham’s coreography for the bacchanale. Some of my neighbours laughed, while I tried to look away out of compassion.  In a few words, the idea seemed to have some people running back and forth or giving hands to each other and circling. Seriously, if vice looks like that, one can perfectly understand why Tannhaeuser longs so much for the Virgin Mary.

As it was, Béatrice Uria-Monzon had to provide all the sexiness by herself. Her soft-grained yet spacious mezzo soprano does seduction without much ado, but the exposed dramatic high notes test her sorely. I do not know if the conductor tried to help her with very fast tempi in the Venusberg scene, but apparently only made her lag behind the beat at moments. Martina Serafin seemed to inhabit an entirely different theatrical and vocal universe. Although she is Viennese, her whole approach suggests the words soprano lirico spinto. She has a warm, large, rich soprano, approaches phrasing almost like a Verdian soprano, with portamento aplenty and a Renata Tebaldi-ian cantabile glamour. The comparison with Tebaldi is not accidental – although she is very expressive, it is some sort of generalized yet touching expressivity. Also, her whole stage attitude has an old-fashioned grandeur, hardly compatible with the virtuous Elisabeth. In any case, this is a voice of impressive resources albeit not entirely in control. Many loud top notes came off poorly focused or harsh, and her mezza voce is not really reliable. Dich teure Halle was rather solid than triumphant, but her act III prayer was sensitively done. I am not entirely convinced that Tannhaeuser is a good role for Stig Andersen. His voice is not truly large, but he produces some forceful top notes now and then, provided that there is not many of them in sequence, for they noticeably tax him. Because of the stress, his praising of Venus in act I was quite arthritic, but he finally pulled out act III out of the freshness of his approach. Whereas many a tenor in this repertoire would tell his pilgrimage to Rome as a stretch of heroic singing, Andersen sang it with restraint, savoring the words, creating the impression of a broken spirit, coloring the Pope’s wolds with real scorn. A flawed yet valid performance. Matthias Goerne also has problems with high notes – anything above mezzo forte is dealt with either strain or head voice. But the whole performance seemed to be conveyed to the Abendstern song, which was so exquisitely performed that one would forgive him anything. Finally, Christof Fischesser was a reliable Hermann in spite of the occasional curdled-toned moments.

After a bumpy act I, conductor Daniel Kawka settled into such a honest performance that he finally won me over with his transparent ensembles, natural pace and cleanliness. I particularly appreciate the way he embraced the orchestra’s sound – bright and flexible, as many Italian orchestras tend to produce – instead of trying to impose a Teutonic large and fat sound that would only vex them. And the house orchestra was in good shape – the brass section could be nobler, but was quite clean, the lean-sounding string sections produced liquid divisions and everybody kept animation to the last chord. It is a pity that the chorus was way below that level – the women are particularly problematic, including what regards intonation.

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For the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s season opening concert, musical director Antonio Pappano has chosen Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a work that this orchestra had the honour to premiere in Italy in 1924 (!). It is certainly the right choice to highlight the abilities of chorus and orchestra – and the Santa Cecilia acquited itself quite well in the test. The strings have a clear, bright sound and deal rather commendably with passagework and the brass are generally accurate and noble sounding. The chorus has a full-toned quality almost exclusively found in Italy – the tenors are particularly healthy-sounding. I found their energetic approach proper to Beethoven and maestro Norbert Balatsch has done a very good work to keep discipline within the animation. The sopranos had their edgy moments and some melisme could be clearer, but that are minor blemishes in a commendably large-scale and enthusiastic approach. At this point, my five or six readers may be puzzled by these words in relation to this post’s title – yes, the 1,000,000 dollar-question is: why has this performance ultimately failed to deliver the goods?

I have a friend who uses to say that you should always see the last in a series of concerts in Germany and the first of them in Italy. According to him, the last concert in Germany will have gained in experience from the previous ones and offer an improved experience, whereas in Italy the musicians will simply have lost steam before that. Is that a prejudiced notion? Probably. I haven’t seen the first concert out of these tree performances with Pappano, but the truth is that the last one seemed to have the flesh, but not the spirit. His phrasing was lively, even theatrical at times, but the sound picture lacked weight somehow and instead of momentum, one had the impression of edge, histery rather than vehemence. I do not know how much the acoustics are to blame, but I found many contrapuntal passages blurred also. The solo by the orchestra’s spalla in the heavenly Benedicuts was too sentimentalized in its generous vibrato to produce the right effect and the dona nobis pacem just failed to culminate into a sensation of conclusion.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is also hard work for the soloists, and Pappano’s choice of singers was almost invariably wrong for the approach and for the hall. To start with, larger voices were needed. It is not that these singers were almost always overshadowed by the chorus, they were sometimes difficult to hear when singing with the orchestra alone. The soprano part, for instance, is particularly difficult because of the periculously high tessitura. Emma Bell does master the art of floating high mezza voce, although one can now and then feel how strenuous this must be, but when the dynamic is other than piano, the sound is simply too unfocused to carry in the auditorium. Anna Larsson’s low register, dark as it is, is similarly too soft-edged for this piece. Considering the riches of choice of Italian mezzos and contraltos with a forceful sound down at the bottom of their range, this is particularly frustrating. If Roberto Saccà is technically accomplished, the tone is too metallic and unflowing for this music. Only German bass Georg Zeppenfeld produced the right effect in this music, especially in the second part, when he sang with classical poise, liquid phrasing and chocolate-y tonal quality.

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Rattling and humming

I have never convinced myself whether I like Cecilia Bartoli or not. Well, that is a lie. I am pretty sure if I had to choose between liking and disliking I would pick “disliking”. But I have been trying to like for ages. In any case, I did not want to make a decision before seeing her live. However, fate had carefully kept us apart before this evening, when I had a ticket and she did not cancel the concert in Berlin to promote her new CD (the hideous cover of it goes to the top of my shortlist of human race’s horridest creations).

As everyone knows, the CD is a tribute to castrati and the concert features arias written specifically for the voices of Farinelli, Caffarelli, Salimbeni et al. Of course, no-one has ever heard the voice of a castrato (with the exception of the bizarre recordings with Alessandro Moreschi), but every report insists on the point that the sound tended to be “metallic”, what makes perfect sense if you have a tenor’s voice (albeit in the alto or soprano register) in mind and remember that castrati tended to be large and often quite tall. Their voices should be particularly incisive - no wonder composers have written such over-the-top heroic music for them. I cannot help wondering, therefore, how wise is Bartoli’s idea to tackle this repertoire. Her vocal nature could not be farther from a castrato, apart from the fact that she can handle supernaturally fast coloratura – but is that all?

During the whole concert, my opinions grouped in pros and cons. I will start with the “pros”. Bartoli is, of course, an extraordinarily gifted musician – she has an impressive sense of rhythm, an almost unbelievable ear for pitch (it is amazing how accurate she is in her vertiginous fioriture), a sensitive and expressive artistry and star quality – and of course, even if one objects to her permanent spiccato approach to coloratura, she does that better than almost anyone. On the other hand, she has a Roberto Benigni-like attitude that verges on buffonry, with cute little gestures alternating with a Freddie Mercury-like rockstar frenetic routines. This evening, for example, she was not wearing a gown, but costumes. First, something which was supposed to be XVIIIth century’s man clothes, later adorned with a golden top, a trail and red feathers. I might be picky, but neither Vivica Genaux nor Magdalena Kozena need that sort of circus to deliver the goods.

And there is the problem of volume. It is not simply the fact that the voice has very limited volume. Many a small-voiced singer sing in big houses and you can still hear them, because their voices are evenly produced and focused. And Bartoli’s mezzo is probably one of the less focused voices I have ever heard in my entire life. Because she has such extraordinary flexibility, one tends to think that there is no technical problem with her. But what I heard tonight is a voice that barely pierces through a small period instrument band in heroic arias; the sound spreads a lot, shrinks into inaudibility in the higher reaches and rattles all the way. Lyric arias show her under a far more positive light. In them, her voice shifts into a colourless and disembodied sound which is nonetheless quite pleasing and floating. In these arie d’affetto, her ability to evoke a wide range of emotions come to the fore and one tends to forget all the mannerisms and glitches. However, in the end of the concert I only wished I have heard one moment of pure and simple healthy and uncomplicated vocal production.

My lack of enthusiasm might have something to do with the firework repertoire – one aria that encapsules all kind of vocal difficulties might add pepper to a program, but five or six of them just make it hard to diggest. The slow arias added the necessary contrast, but their degree of pathos seemed somehow reduced, especially in comparison to Handel’s Lascia la spina, presented as an encore. After that, one understands why one still sees the Caro Sassone’s works in the world’s most important opera houses, but not any opera by Leonardo Vinci or Porpora.

The Orchestra La Scintilla (from the Oper Zürich) played energetically under the direction of its concert master Ada Pesch. It is a pity, though, that the orchestral numbers were quite similar to each others and that baroque transversal flutes do not really work in big halls. But that was no obstacle to the evening’s main soloist.

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Ost-Lohengrin

Christine Mielitz’s production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Semperoper dates from 1983, i.e., like Trabants, it was made in the DDR.  To start with, it looks very old – as in those black and white photos from productions with Martha Fuchs, Max Lorenz et al. It also looks very old in the sense of “drab”, wobbly flats and mosaic-mirror swann included. Costumes are so stylistically chaotic that you could write a book about them. If the point were an ostalgie-oriented “revival”, all the bizarrerie could be seen as an endearing memento of an era, but that would require refurbishing and technical adjustment. As it is, it just seems that the theatre could not afford a new production. In any case, if I have to highlight something positive about the staging, it would be the stage direction. I do not mean it is revelatory, intelligent or even efficient, but it looks as if someone has really taken the time to rehearse everyone on stage. As a result, the level of acting among choristers and numeraries ended up particularly convincing. To make things better, the soloists were generally talented in that department as well.

Not only does Camilla Nylund have the physique du rôle for Elsa, but also she is a particularly sensitive actress. Her warm and velvety lyric soprano has an elegant and sensuous quality, but, even if she never forces, it does lacks the cutting edge of a jugendlich dramatisch voice. As a result, she would often be overshadowed by orchestra and partners, especially in her high register. In that sense, she was well contrasted to her Ortud,  Judit Németh, whose powerful acuti flashed through the opera house. It is true that she ran out stamina at some point in the last scene of act II, but she offered an intelligent performance, with crystal-clear diction and subtle word-pointing. Jukka Rasilainen’s dark-toned Telramund was more reliable than exciting, but he sang the difficult part with considerable ease. Georg Zeppenfeld’s noble, rich bass filled King Henry’s phrases with good taste and sensitivity.

I had seen Klaus-Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin before on April at the Lindenoper, but this evening he offered an even more exciting performance.  His legato was more functional than in Berlin, his heroic top notes more integrated in his otherwise more “unearthly” singing style. Maybe because the production left more space for his stage interpretation, his whole performance was more spontaneous and touching too, what is more commendable considering that conductor Christof Prick kept the Staatskapelle Dresden perceptibly louder throughout than Bareboim in his Berlin performances. That is almost forgivable, considering the richness and beauty of sound of the Wunderharfe, even if the orchestra was not at his top level this evening, especially the brass section, which was particularly erratic. To say the truth, the conducting was kapellmeisterlich at best and unkind to the singers when leading the orchestra to full volume in order to achieve (undeniable) excitement at the expense of the cast, especially the mezzo soprano, who had to fight mountains of decibels to pierce through in Ortrud’s fits of paganism.

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Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a challenge to any stage director – this is not an opera for children, but it certainly is a fairytale, the depths of which should rather be hinted at than fully explored. Günter Krämer’s 1991 staging for the Deutsche Oper tries to update things a bit, by having Monostatos talking pocket psychology while Pamina rests her head on his shoulder or the three ladies threatening Papageno with pistol guns. Some of the “creative” touches have their charm, especially the opening scene with the dragon operated by puppeteers who take part in the action, but some elements in the original plot are replaced by basically nothing and a couple of episodes are ultimately uneventful, such as the Queen of the Night’s arias.

To make things even more uneventful, conductor Matthias Foremny offered a lazy approach to the score, lacking forward-movement, energy and purpose. Notes followed each other without any spirit behind them as if the idea were to play safe. I just wonder how safe one has to be with a world-class orchestra and a reliable cast. I’ve chosen the word “reliable”, because the performances this evening rarely went beyond that. 

Heidi Stober, for example, has a pleasant creamy voice, but her phrasing is too often inert. Pamina is a gift-from-Heaven of a role for a lyric soprano – it offers every imaginable possible opportunities for a singer to show her sense of style and to use her expressive tools, but Ms. Stober let so many of them pass by that in the end no-one really cared about her performance. Unfortunately, Hulkar Sabirova was not in her best voice – she struggled a bit with high notes and only achieved Der Hölle Rache out of sheer technique. She has a rich voice and impressively clear divisions – I reckon she must be a very exciting Queen of the Night in a good day. Yosep Kang is a healthy-voiced and stylish Tamino, but tonal variety is not really within his possibilities. What has happened to Mozart tenors who could colour a Mozartian phrasing with true affection and genuine elegance? Reinhard Hagen’s noble-toned Sarastro is always an effective piece of casting, but the results were rather cold if one has in mind René Pape’s last Sarastros in the Lindenoper. Simon Pauly’s Papageno falls in a different slot – that was a truly endearing performance, beautifully sung, stylishly phrased and intelligently handled, also in the acting department. Last but not least, the three boys from the Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund were unusually musical and pleasant-voiced.

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