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Archive for November, 2009

Since the days of gramophone, Germany and Austria have created a noble lineage of glamourous, intelligent golden-toned lyric sopranos who have left their marks in Straussian, Mozartian and lighter Wagnerian roles such as Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Grümmer, Gundula Janowitz… But the truth is that one could believe that this tradition had been long lost to voices from places really far away from Vienna and Berlin. When we think of the most famous singers tackling this repertoire since the 80’s, we would rather think of Kiri Te Kanawa, Felicity Lott, Karita Mattila or Renée Fleming. But it seems that the old tradition has been reborn – Genia Kühmeier is making slow but firm steps into more-than-deserved stardom. I am sure we will hear a lot from and about her.

And there is Anja Harteros – whose relevance in the operatic world is now beyond any doubt. Although she has sung in the most prestigious theatres of the world and received some warm reviews, one still tends to think that the best is yet to come. Although the voice has immediate appeal, I have always found her frequent visitation of Italian repertoire not entirely inspiring beyond her appealing stage persona and her Julia Roberts-like looks and congeniality. But the tonal sheen of a true Italian soprano, the crispness of authentic delivery of the Italian text she has not. Moreover, although she has attitude to spare, it is still too German an attitude, in the first place. No problem about that – but why not use it in German roles? Since I have seen her as an ideal Elsa, I have been dreaming of her Marschallin, her Arabella, her Ariadne… but so far I’ve got only her Amelia in Simon Boccanegra.

However, I cannot complain. At least, I’ve got a glimpse of her Strauss this evening at the Konzerthaus, where she sang the Vier letzte Lieder with the Staatskapelle Berlin and Zubin Mehta. After hearing this orchestra in the Alpensinfonie, Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra and Salome, I am tempted to say that they are Berlin’s no. 1 Straussian orchestra. Their transparent sound picture and their good ear for those unearthly orchestral effects is everything a Straussian orchestra should have. Zubin Mehta seemed to avoid any languor and you would have to fill in the blanks for rubato effects in his forward-movement approach. In the end, this brought an objective approach to this often sentimentalized songs. But let’s speak of Anja Harteros. I have noticed that her voice definitely suffers from recordings. The plushness of her high notes and the warmth of her middle register do not seem to make it into the microphone.

Comparing her recording with Fabio Luisi and the Staatskapelle Dresden with what I heard live was realizing that these were too completely different experiences. While she is stylish and sensitive and finds no difficulties in the recording, live her voice is far rounder and richer in tone and yet lighter and more floating at the same time. Her mezza voce is particularly warmer live. Her interpretation has deepened also – the text is more sharply coloured and she finds simply more vocal glamour in the proceedings. Frühling is particularly improved. Now she sings the exposed extreme notes with such gentleness, what makes it easier to feel the sweetness of seeing springtime again, instead of the larger-scaled telluric performances we are often made to hear. The enthusiastic applause afterwards only proves that Germany is proud of her lyric sopranos again.

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In an age when opera stagings are permanently updated and discarded, the fact that Filippo Sanjust’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is still in use after 33 years is something of an archeological experience. For many a Straussian, it may feel like some sort of operatic eucharist- the recurrent resurrection of the mythic production on video featuring Karl Böhm’s conducting with Gundula Janowiz and René Kollo.

Those 30 years have been kind on the production, the unpretentious classical aesthetics of which are more or less immune to the change of fashion. The three decades have also been rather kind on its Zerbinetta too. But they are very much part of her performance now. Edita Gruberová’s stardom has begun in this very production in the Wiener Staatsoper back in 1976, when Böhm declared her the absolute Zerbinetta. She dazzled audiences for years in this role with the instrumental accuracy of her fioriture and her intelligent and sensitive interpretation. Now at 63, Gruberová cannot compete with her former self. First, the standard is too high. Then there are moments of incertain intonation, some excursions above high c are uncomfortable, her low register has become even less reliable. But Gruberová does not seem ashamed of her seniority. Although the tonal quality remains crystal-clear and her roulades, scales and staccato are still impressive, her Zerbinetta is clearly not a young woman, but rather a veteran seductress who can now and then still charm the occasional suitor. It is an evidence of the Slovak soprano’s rare artistry the way she transforms what could be a handicap in the special feature of her performance. The day when she says her farewell to Zerbinetta, we will have to wait long before we hear the role sung again with such spirit and Echtheit.

Adrianne Pieczonka’s big creamy lyric soprano is tailor-made for the role of Ariadne; she is certainly the best I have heard in a long while. That said, I cannot really class her among the great exponents of this part. Along  moments of surpassingly beautiful singing, there were too many examples of clumsy management of breath support. As a result, she forced many high notes, had her shallow-toned episodes, opted for odd Luftpausen and misfired a couple of pianissimi.

I can only understand that Michelle Breedt was not in a god day. Her voice did not really carry in the auditorium, the low register was not funcional and the ascents to high notes extremely strenuous. Her indisposition seemed to increase during the performance – and she only ended it out of sheer willpower. Although I dislike the overephatic non-legato-ish approach, one must acknowledge that she is a very convincing stage actress with illuminating word-pointing and imagination. I hope to see her Composer under better circumstances.

I have read a great deal about Lance Ryan and was extremely curious to hear him. I cannot deny, though, that the first impression was not really positive. His voice has an open raw nasal tonal quality that is the opposite of pleasing and the volume is not as generous as the Heldentenor repertoire might require. On the other hand, his vocal health and expert breath support are impressive. I have never, live or in recordings, heard a Bacchus who could sing those dangerously high-lying phrases with such ease. His ability to sing long stretches on the breath is truly amazing.

Ulf Schirmer is an experienced Straussian who knows how to balance vertical clarity with rich sonorities. The house band ‘s long history with this music is evident in the crystalline, ductile orchestral sound and the way the “theatrical” effects in the score were perfectly handled. Nevertheless, I have the impression that the performance was under-rehearsed. Ensemble was not truly polished and, with the exception of the leading tenor, the other main roles (including the Hausmeister) suffered from lapses of memory.

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Unfallen angel

In recent interviews, French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has said that he was willing to outgrow the angelic quality usually associated to his voice and take a walk on the wild side.  His new CD of castrato (yes, again…) arias by Johann Christian Bach could be understood as an attempt to prove that he has a bit of Cecilia Bartoli in him. However, even the Germans would hesitate before a whole J. C. Bach evening and his concerts in Berlin and in Hamburg were spiced up with a bit of Handel.

The CD is named after the aria d’affetto Cara, la dolce fiamma from Adriano in Siria. And this should be no coincidence, since this noble and touching melody happened to be the item in the program that fits his voice best. Jaroussky’s pure-toned floated countertenor, unfortunately, does not do heroics. And that is no surprise – even richter-toned (and larger-voiced) countertenors such as David Daniels and Bejun Mehta have to work a bit hard to emulate the clarion-quality of the castrato voice*. As it is, items like Vo solcando un mar crudele (from Ataserse) or Ma pensa che quando ristretto (from Temistocle) sound far from furious but rather slightly fazed in a voice whose low register is rather timid and whose high notes are variations of crystalline.

The Handel items have been chosen in the same spirit – and left the same impression. Other than Stille amare (from Tolomeo), where Jaroussky was entirely at ease to sculpt his way through Handelian phrasings with graciousness and expressivity, the other items left an impression rather of an attempt than that of an accomplishment. Sta nell’ircana was a competition won by the French horn and the repeat only proved to be more favourable thanks to upward decoration; Scherza, infida displayed some melancholy, but we are words apart from the intense despair in Lorraine Hunt’s famous recording –  his accusation of infida so placidly posed that one would take them for a compliment. Among the encore items, Rinaldo’s Venti turbini displayed all right breathtaking coloratura – but again nothing really warlike could be guessed from the singing. The impression was rather balletic.

Jaroussky was ideally partnered by the Concerto Köln led by its Konzertmeister, Markus Hoffmann, and by Brazilian harpsichordist Nicolau de Figueiredo. After a relatively well-behaved Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (from Handel’s Salomon), they would plug in for exciting accounts of the arie di bravura and sensitive accompaniment of the slower items. In J.C. Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord in F minor (W C63), Figueiredo proved to be an exuberant virtuoso, even if the Konzerthaus’s warm acoustics made things a bit difficult for him in the tutti passages.

*Of course, nobody has heard a castrato other than in the Moreschi recordings, but one can gauge that from the music composers wrote for them.

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Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo has been around for a long while. Although his voice sounds amazingly fresh, the kind of heroic high notes required by leading Italian tenor roles are now beyond realistic possibilities. Since low register has never been a problem for him, why not try baritone roles then? The title role in Simon Boccanegra is not Verdi’s heaviest baritone role and one could also argue that the fact that Verdian baritone parts are usually too high should not be a problem for a tenor, even one short of his high c’s and b’s. On paper, this is all true. Not only on paper – Domingo can sing all the notes Verdi wrote for Simon Boccanegra. He even sings them stylistically and expressively. But does he sound convincing in the role? I am afraid not.

First of all, although his tenor has a bronze-toned quality, he does not sound baritonal at all. His low notes, easy as they are, do not possess real depth and his ascents to high notes are free from the intense quality a true baritone has. As a result, the lighter and slightly nasal tonal quality, weird as it sounds, make the character seem younger than he should and many a climax moment do not blossom as they should. Of course, Domingo is a clever, experienced singer and profits of every opportunity to make it happen. This evening, for example, he was announced to be indisposed and took advantage of the occasional coughing and constriction to depict Boccanegra’s decaying health.

The tenor in a tenor role this evening was Fabio Sartori, whose voice has the raw material of a important singer: it has a most pleasant blend of richness and brightness and more than enough carrying power, he can produce elegant phrasing and, of course, he is idiomatic and Italianate. Some of his top notes are impressively focused and powerful. But he can be clumsy while handling all those things and, in the end, you are too often wishing that he could make this or that a little bit better. He should also try to loose some weight if he wants to take some leading man roles these days. I finally had the impression that roles like Adorno will be soon too light for him. It is not unusual for dramatic voices in the making to be difficult to handle before the whole “mechanism” find its optimal modus operandi. I am curious to see what follows.

Anja Harteros’s creamy soprano and its exquisite floating mezza voce are hard to resist and she is consistently musicianly and sensitive. She is a good Amelia, but when things get too Italianate, she could be caught a bit short. Although there is always pressure for a singer with her qualities to deal with Italian roles, I do believe she should explore more German repertoire, which shows her under the best possible light.

In spite of the odd woolly moments, Kwangchul Youn was admirably sensitive and tonally varied as Fiesco – and his low register was particularly deep and rich. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was similarly forceful and dark-toned as Paolo – and he lived up to the expectations of his role’s difficult high notes.

As for Daniel Barenboim, I am afraid that Verdian style is beyond his immense skills. The orchestral sound is too soft-centered, the proceedings generally lack forward-movement, emotionalism is kept in leash. In this sense, the conducting matched Federico Tiezzi’s entirely uneventful production. Maurizio Balò’s sets look cheap, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes look tacky and the stage direction is sketchy, artifficial and old-fashioned. The “choreographies” for chorus members is short of ridiculous. Considering that Italy is famous for design, I guess they bought this one in a highway outlet for operatic production.

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Volcanic diva

I have always had an interest in Simone Kermes. She has been some sort of puzzle I could not seem to complete: on one hand, the cool-toned baroque diva with impeccable divisions and impossibly effortless in alts; on the other hand, this soprano with leather outfit, crimson*-dyed hair and rock-band vocalist flamboyant attitude. What is hidden in the abyss that lies between both aspects is a mystery one can only solve live.

I have tried to see Kermes in the flesh many times in vain. Although she hails from Leipzig, she has made herself rare in Berlin and, when I saw that she would be here this week-end, I have sought a ticket everywhere. Despite the fact that there was little publicity about her appearance at the RBB’s Haus des Rundfunks, I could not get one of the entirely free tickets. My attempt to go to the Deutsche Oper gala concert in which she would sing just one aria was also frustrated – the few remaining tickets costed the price of six complete recordings of Wagner’s Ring cycle. When all hope was lost and I was trying to set my mind on something else while shopping at Dussman, there I saw that poster saying she would appear there on Tuesday evening – no tickets necessary. It seemed to good to be true – and I soon imagined that it would be only an interview. In any case, there I went.

It was far more than an interview. Actually, the moderator fell ill and Simone Kermes herself decided to play that role. As soon as I saw her entirely at ease with the microphone, interviewing her conductor, making insanely funny jokes and dealing with the audience face to face, one could see that although La Kermes is ultimately a “character”, this is a character she plays in real life. There is no pasteurized glamour neither cultivated intellectuality about her – she is 100% German in her heartiness. One second after she had finished to sing a heavenly lamento, noticing that some people were leaving the hall, she grabbed the microphone. “It is so disconcerting when one leaves the moment you finish a song. You feel as if you have sung really badly. Have I?”. It was not a rhetorical question, since it was put to someone seated on the first row, who timidly said something like “of course not!”.

The curious thing about Kermes’s directness is that it does not feel harsh at all. Behind the bandleader attitude that involves stamping her feet on stage, grimacing and dancing to the rhythm of her own fioriture, there is a genuine unbridled enthusiasm. The lady has tons of personality and is totally uninhibited about pouring all that on stage. Accompanied by a not entirely stylish Semjon Skigin on the piano, she offered the audience tidbits of her new CD of Neapolitan arias with Le Musiche Nove under conductor Claudio Osele.

The first item was Vinci’s Fra cento affani e cento from Ataserse, in which she was not afraid of producing some hoarse sounds while looking frantic about herself. Although the whole thing was doubtlessly over-the-top, it was the kind of over-the-top made with such gusto that you cannot help surrendering. When she later sang Porpora’s Morte amara from Lucio Papirio, she just needed a second to shift into an atmosphere of extreme melancholy and spiritual concentration. Nothing sounded affected or elaborated – the impression was heartfelt and intimate as one voice-and-guitar sad pop song, although no rule of baroque style has been overlooked. After one hour of intelligent and entertaining comments on subjects from vocal technique, baroque and classical performing styles to sexual ambiguity in XVIIIth century and Pink Floyd, she offered a coloratura display in Hasse’s Come nave in mezzo all’onde from Viriate. After all that speaking, I can understand that some gear changes were not entirely natural, but one cannot cease to marvel at her purity of tone, the naturalness of her high notes, the perfect trills, among other technical niceties. After the warm applauses, she treated the audience to two encores – a chilling account of Pergolesi’s Tu me da me dividi from L’Olimpiade, during which she became the dictionary definition of fury, and a heartbreaking, hushed Lascia ch’io pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo.

She would also sign audience members’ CDs while talking to them as if she long knew everyone, making all sort of comments and seeming to be having as much fun as her fans.

The question my five or six readers (you too, Roberto!) are dying to ask me is – why I seem to be positive about a concert which has so much in common with the one Cecilia Bartoli offered at the Philharmonie that I ultimately did not like? And I am ready to answer. First, I find Simone Kermes’s vocal technique more honest than Bartoli’s – her soprano is healthy, natural and very much hearable in its brightness which has nothing metallic about it (to be honest myself, the comparison is not fair – the Philharmonie is a big hall and there was an orchestra there). Second, although there is something theatrical about Kermes, it does not seem affected at all. She must be that way while taking her breakfast cereals at home with her family. With Bartoli, there is an uncomfortable mix of coyness and clownishness à la Roberto Benigni that might please others but that is very irritating to me. Third, there is this blend of German bluntness and love of detail and of Italianate generosity of feelings and larger-than-life quality that makes her somewhat unique. No wonder the Italian reviewers all raved about her recent concert in Rome.

One last comment: as many bright-toned singers, Kermes’s voice works far better live, when it has a lovely smooth radiance. Also, her plunges into low register sound far more natural and substantial in the theatre. Comparing her live performance with the ones available in the CD, I found that the recording made her voice less rich in colour and character. In any case, this is a release to cherish – especially for the exquisite renditions of lamenti and arie d’affetto.

*It would take me a while to realise that Kermes is basically the name of the vermicule that produces crimson dye (therfore vermillion).

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My five or six readers know that I have tried hard to get used to René Jacobs’s wayward Mozart. I have even showed some appreciation for his Idomeneo, but the truth is that it always requires from me an enormous effort of adaptation. This evening’s Zauberflöte, performed in concert version in the Philharmonie, tested my open-mindness from moment one. The orchestral sound was brassy, the tempo was too brisk for the string players and blurred divisions abounded.

Then there was the omnipresent odd sudden tempo shift. Although some of that seemed to be justified by the libretto, the libretto itself did not inspire the composer himself to write any of these in the score. It seems that the many cute liberties taken with what Mozart wrote did not annoy the audience: unwritten pauses, an intruding fortepiano “continuo” (also during dialogues), misplaced ornaments (does the folksong-like simplicity of Könnte jeder brave Mann call for decoration, for example?), soloists appearing in choral parts and chorus appearing in solo parts… Does Mozart need all that? One could surely make use of some theatricality, but Jacobs’s approach is so Schwarzkopf-ian in its various and self-conscious mannerisms that all possibility of immediacy and directness is lost; one would think that the work had been composed for a court theatre! If I had to find a positive side to all that, that would be finally listening to a conductor who had at least cared to read through the score, but I really wished he had not overwritten on it.

During this performance, I have started to think that it is a pity that all lyric voices today are probably singing Wagner and Verdi above their natural Fach. Long gone are the days where substantial-voiced singers appeared in Mozart.  Our generation has very rare or no singers like Gundula Janowitz, Margaret Price, Francisco Araiza or Fritz Wunderlich and listening to Die Zauberflöte in a big hall such as the Philharmonie finally involves singing without the last ounce of tonal freedom, as we heard today.

Lovely as Marlis Petersen’s light soprano is, it has no colour in its lower reaches and moments that require stronger dynamics are met with some strain. Of course, she is an intelligent and expressive singer and her clever handling of Jacobs’s genuine andante for Ach, ich fühl’s deserves praise. Anna Kristiina Kaappola is tonally shallow and only acquires hearability in its high register. She handles the specific challenges of the part of the Königin der Nacht really nimbly – and her in alts are bright and firm – but “ordinary” phrases are handled in such an indistinguished manner that one could take the role as she were practising her Vaccai in front of the audience. In any case, her intent to sing her staccato notes with the vowel of the text is admirable. Daniel Behle’s tenor sounds a bit bottled-up and straight-toned in its higher reaches. That said, it has been a while since I last heard the role of Tamino sung with such variety, good-taste and stylishness. Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno, on the other hand, was tonally unvaried and vocally small-scaled. He is a funny guy and finally beguiled the audience with his acting skills, but there should be more than an Austrian accent (a must for the role, according to the conductor’s words in the libretto) in Papageno. Marcos Fink has a beautiful voice and sings with affection, but hitting the low notes does not mean that one has the depth of voice required by it. As it is, his Sarastro was more a matter of elegance than of authority. In his sense, the evening’s Sprecher, Konstantin Wolff offered something more forceful than anyone else. The three ladies, Inga Kalna, Anna Gravelius and Isabelle Druet were extremely spirited, but I wished for a bit more focus from all of them. In that sense, the three St. Florian Sängerknaben offered a particularly clear sound.

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In order to fund the old house’s renovation, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has programmed a series of concerts to raise money. Taking profit of the opportunity of Plácido Domingo’s baritone venture in Simon Boccanegra, a Wagnerian evening with star soprano Nina Stemme and conductor Daniel Barenboim was organized in the Philharmonie. However, the Swedish soprano fell ill and was replaced at the last minute by a regular in the Lindenoper, mezzo Michaela Schuster, last seen as Ortrud in the première of the new production last April.

However, before these singers could open their mouths, Barenboim treated the audience to a sensational performance of  Tristan und Isolde’s Prelude and Liebestod. As in his last performance in the Staatsoper, the conductor indulged in a considerate tempo in order to showcase the orchestra’s sophisticated phrasing, tonal refulgence and clarity. The ensuing Liebestod offered an entirely contrasting approach, almost dance-like, in which the escalating chromatic figures spiralled in clearly defined alternate dynamic effects to breathtaking results.

After a white-heat start, The Valkyrie’s Act I would finally settle into something rather less impressive. Although the orchestra was in great shape, the need to adapt to the soloist’s necessities took its toil in what regards horizontal clarity and pace. Of course, Plácido Domingo’s vocal longevity is a marvel. The tone is certainly darker these days, but the sound is still fresh. However, the tenor needed some time to prepare for his ascent to top notes or for fast declamatory passages, forcing the conductor to step on the break pedal, for the loss of fluency sometimes. That said, he seemed far more comfortable than last time I heard him as Siegmund at the Gala concert in Munich with Waltraud Meier some two or three years ago.  A colleague from the Staatsoper’s Noccanegra, Kwangchul Youn was in great voice, producing some powerful sounds as Hunding.

Michaela Schuster deserves a paragraph for herself. I have seen her only twice as Ortrud, both in Berlin and Munich, and have found her vocally no more than efficient, but tonight, in this soprano role, I was able to understand more about her voice. Free from the burden of sounding formidable and dramatic, one can see the naturally lighter hue of her voice, which is surprisingly pleasant, soft and bright. I could imagine that she would be a touching in French roles such as Charlotte or Didon. In her more relaxed self, she floats lovely mezza voce and phrases with authentic legato. When things start to get too “Wagnerian”, the usual harsh quality comes unfortunately about. Of course, when the phrase is congenial she produces some firm big acuti, but generally she attacks them in a strangely backwards placement only to focus them a few seconds later. In order to accomodate her, the conductor had often to kept the orchestra’s enthusiasm on a leash.  But that is all secondary when one considers her highly expressive interpretation. Crystal-clear diction, the wide tonal palette of a Lieder singer and a highly alert and imaginative way of colouring the text. Some moments of her performance were original and illuminating even in comparison with some very famous Sieglindes. I really wish she would give her Ortruds and Kundrys a rest and made better use of her talent for subtlety for more than a change.

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