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Archive for December, 2009

Pursuing furies

I have Joyce DiDonato’s Handel recital Furore for a while and have been listening to it trying to form an opinion. She is a singer I like and, while I try to be objective about her, I am afraid I end on being rigorous. Anyway, a recital of arie di furie, especially live as she has done around the time of this CD’s release, is far from an easy task. The point of these arias is to be beyond oneself – and it is very difficult to do that for a long time span, especially in a repertoire that demands absolute technical abandon. That is precisely the challenge – how to reconcile the demands of technical control and emotional explosion. I believe that Joyce DiDonato has achieved an optimal compromise – every item displays thorough technical control and perfect understanding of dramatic situations. But how effective such a compromise could be in music that should show you beyond any kind of compromise?

For example, Where shall I fly? is a great improvement on her performance on DVD, in which she gets overwhelmed by the theatrical demands and sacrifices too often musical values – in the end she seems to be having far more fun than the audience. Not here – her portray is very detailed, extremely musical and expressive. If I am not entirely convinced, it is because the despair is conveyed from declamatory effects added upon rather than presented in her voice. This is probably why her Scherza, infida, beautifully and sensitively sung as it is, does not really move me when I compare her to Lorraine Hunt, who does not need to make any particular point: the voice alone expresses it all. The sound carries that intensity in itself. And Ariodante is not trying to convincing anyone about anything, he is just experimenting that pain by and for himself.

I can hardly blame DiDonato for the elegant quality of her voice that makes her too chic for the circumstances, but the portrait of fury requires something really wild and dangerous in the proceedings. I have recorded a CD of arie di furie for a friend and the first item that came to my mind was Voglio strage from Graun’s Cesare e Cleopatra, as sung by Iris Vermillion. It seems her voice is going to get out of track in the next moment – she sings some key words such as superbo and ingrato in raw chest voice, produces some rather strained high options, keeps a certain pressure in her voice  – it is all overblown, but it keeps you to the edge of your seats and you REALLY believe her character is truly freaking out right then. The problem about those performances is to discover the limits of exaggeration, going dangerously close but not trespassing them. But you have to throw some dishevelment in the procedures. If it sounds too proper, then it is not working. In her performance of Tu me da me divide from Pergolesi’s L’Olimpiade, Simone Kermes really throws protocol to the airs stressing key words through dynamics, spitting her text as if she was really frantic and no-one will ever doubt how enraged she is. Is this over-the-top? Yes – but when one looses one’s temper, one is not supposed to stay put. Of course, this is a difficult balance. Kermes herself, for example, went way beyond that line in her recent appearance at the AIDS Gala in Berlin, in which she got so overwhelmed by her own attitude that in the end the whole thing had little to do with Hasse. (I still like her customary “I’m-not-a-diva-with-a-fragance-with-my-name”-approach though…).

Back to DiDonato, I don’t feel that danger in her performances in this disc. Even Crude furie from Serse, which she sang really forcefully on French TV with Jean-Cristoph Spinosi, sounds here relatively tame, the important low notes not truly percutant as they should, the runs too poised…  No one can accuse her of not trying in Teseo’s Morirò ma vendicata, but she does not seem on top of the game as she should there, rather fazed with the difficult fast declamation than fully invested in it.

If I have to point out one item in Furore that really works for me, this would be Amadigi’s Desterò dall’empia dite.  Although Melissa feels spurned by Amadigi and revengeful towards Oriana, in this aria, she seems very much mistress of herself, while invoking the forces of hell to fight for her. In it, DiDonato sounds rightly formidable and the chic makes her sorceress particularly effective. It is also a soprano role, which seems to seat better in her voice in those arie di furie. You just have to listen to Alan Curtis’s Alcina, in which Joyce DiDonato dispels any doubt of her ability to portray fury in Ma quando tornerai. More Handelian soprano roles from her then? Time will tell.

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Christmas season for many of us means also Messiah season. Performances of Handel’s most famous oratorio pop up everywhere like mushrooms and one is always curious to hear something inspiring in this crowded field. My last experience with the work was quite unorthodox, when I had the opportunity to see the overactive Jean-Cristoph Spinosi lead his French musicians in this most typically English work.

This evening’s performance cannot be labeled typically English either – Hans-Cristoph Rademann, the RIAS-Kammerchor and the Akademie für alte Musik come indeed from Berlin, but they also happen to be Berlin’s most experienced team for Handel oratorios these days, as their Israel in Egypt has recently shown. That performance offered plenty of theatrical flair and I expected this evening something in the same level of animation. But that would not be the case.

Although there was nothing lethargic or dispirited about Rademann’s conducting, this evening’s performance sometimes suggested the benign efficiency of a Neville Marriner’s  rather than the revelatory dramatic experience of a René Jacobs’s Messiah. When I was loosing hope of hearing something different, there came a truly rustic danceable Pifa. But that was basically it. The Akademie für alte Musik offered lean, elegant sounds throughout (and Ute Hartwich’s natural trompet solo in The trumpet shall sound was really sensational), but the RIAS-Kammerchor was a bit below its usually good standards. The excellent soprano section was unfortunately was not well-integrated with the remaining voices – altos could be solider as well and basses had one or two perilous moments with their melisme.

Among the soloists, Roderick Williams stands out. His compact, firm-toned bass is entirely fluent with divisions and his delivery of the text is outstanding. Tenor Maximilian Schmitt’s tenor is richer usual in this repertoire and he sings with sense of style, but he should work a bit more in his English. Tim Mead has an authoritative delivery of the text and also a bit more heft than many countertenors, but his extreme low notes could be a bit denser. I also believe that He was despised would have benefited from having been sung by a contralto. Finally, I have to believe that Sandrine Piau was not in very good voice. Her soprano was quite unfocused, her high notes seemed to demand some effort to float and she had trouble with low notes, often throwing them in somewhat hoarse chest voice. Naturally, she dazzled the audience with her fast fioriture, but unfortunately her diction could be clearer and her interpretation less superficial.

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Puccini’s La Bohème is the kind of opera that does everything to please you – it is easy on the ear, everybody can relate to the plot (no gods or heros here – just ordinary people meeting each other and trying to make the best of it before death finally comes to put an end on it all) and it is also short enough for you to get a table in a restaurant afterwards. However, as much as people who try really hard to please you, operas like that will from some point on and then maybe forever make you sick with their docility. I have to confess that, although I still find Mimì’s dying process quite touching no matter how hard I try to snob it, I never feel like listening, let alone watching La Bohème.

You might be wondering why I am bothering to write all that about an opera I don’t really have patience to hear. The answer is that I have decided to give it a new try. Because I am in Berlin, a city where people are far from sentimental, I thought that maybe an objective approach to this opera could be possible. And that would be interesting – a staging that looks more like Ken Loach than like Franco Zeffirelli, I guessed, with a Straussian treatment to the orchestra and maybe some restraint regarding lachrimosity among singers. Well, I was wrong.

The Lindenoper’s staging of La Bohème looks like the destitute man’s Met production: it basically features the same ideas, but in their low-budget version. To make it worse, scenes involving chorus singers and extras are so poorly staged that you feel ashamed for whoever directed that. The cast, on the other hand, was able to pierce through the routine and try to offer something less mechanical. Anna Samuil clearly knows how a Puccini “little woman” should be portrayed and she is not afraid of trying, but her basic vocal and stage personality are heartily Russian. Her lyric soprano is sizeable enough and she has probably learnt with Mirella Freni’s recording how conversational passages should be handled in a natural middle register, but there is a Slavic metallic edge on her singing that makes her the opposite of vulnerable and her chest voice can be a bit brash. Her portrait was engaged, but not really spontaneous – and finally lacking affection. In spite of some top notes below true pitch, Adriane Queiroz’s Musetta was sung in sultry tone and with enough playfulness to build an almost three-dimensional coquette. One could tell that Charles Castronovo had a background in Mozart from his elegant phrasing, good taste and concern with the text. His high notes are not exuberant as many an Italian tenor’s, but he strangely seemed to benefit from that in order to integrate them in his legato approach. Alfredo Daza’s heaviness and graininess made him a particularly unfriendly Marcello. Christof Fischesser, on the other hand, was a rich-toned, straight-forward Colline. All involved were at least at ease with the acting demands – and the closing scene was particularly well-handled by the cast. It is a pity only that conductor Alexander Vitlin never went beyond surface, often offering indistinct orchestral sound and choosing effect instead of true musical expression.

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Imports from Sweden

Sweden has given the world one of the most exciting singers of all times, which is Birgit Nilsson. Since Nilsson’s retirement, the world has been waiting for the next great Swedish Wagnerian soprano – and I have read many and many times that someone should be the new Nilsson only to discover that Nilsson’s name has once again been taken in vain. In any case, Swedish sopranos seem again to be the hot stuff in the Wagnerian front. I have to confess that Iréne Theorin‘s superpowerful top notes almost made me profane the incomparable Birgit’s name, but, impressed as I was with her Turandot in Tokyo, her voice lacks tonal sheen and her phrasing could be more fluent. As for Katarina Dalayman, now that is a voice with unusual warmth and richness. It does have reasonable volume, but not enough carrying power, especially in her low register. There have been many good Brünnhildes under the same description – in her concert with Simon Rattle and the BPO in Berlin she was tested by the dramatic top notes, but she did survive commendably the heavy demands on her rather velvety voice. The only piece lacking in my puzzle was Nina Stemme – but now I have completed my collection of Swedish “dramatic” sopranos.

This evening, Ingo Metzmacher and the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin have offered a concert on the theme of temptation/seduction. After an austere, non-Gallic account of Debussy’s symphonic fragments from Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and a robust yet elegant “Mathis der Maler” Symphony (Hindemith), the audience was treated to a very special performance of the Dance of the Seven Veils from R. Strauss’s Salome. After a highly electrical beginning, the performance gravitated between a somewhat Prussian rigorousness with episodes of almost narcissitic languour. And yet the conductor never let horizontal clarity go – this is the kind of music-making that feels like reading the score in its absolute structuredness and transparency. But one could do with a bit more sensuousness.

However, the program’s focal point was Salome’s closing scene (in its usual adaptation without Herod and Herodias – and I wonder why… there are plenty of mezzos and tenors to do that in Berlin), featuring Stemme as a soloist. I won’t beat around the bush – she did not win me over from note one. Actually, I could barely hear note one… and two, three, four, five… I cannot pass judgement on a singer after one only hearing, but I regret that my first experience with her had to be with Salome, a role entirely inadequate for her vocal nature. While Salome requires a voice with a touch of metallic edge to pierce through the dense orchestration, Stemme’s mezzo-tinted soprano is all roundness and rather stays on stage than fills a hall. She has been singing Sieglinde – and that seems to be a role more proper to her talents. And probably Senta. Maybe Ariadne. But definitely not Salome or Brünnhilde and I hope she has never fancied to sing something like Elektra. I have read some people complain of Dalayman’s “restricted” volume as Isolde – and I can tell you that Dalayman’s voice was far more voluminous in the same hall. And Metzmacher was far more considerate with his soloist than Rattle was that evening.

Under those circumstances, it is very difficult to say anything of her performance. There was not much space for tonal colouring, although she could more or less soften her tone when Strauss required mezza voce from her. I cannot say much about interpretation – she was often covered by the orchestra and had to give her 100% to be hearable. In her favour, she is in very healthy shape. Even when things were really difficult for her, I could hear to no constriction, wobble, shrillnes or any kind of glitch. She did have the occasional under-the-note episodes, especially in exposed climatic passages, when the voice seemed to loose focus and power. Before you all start to think that I am being too negative, there was this moment in which she made it work for me. The first Was tut’s? was excitingly built and, when I thought she had no extra reserves, she launched the second one in a truly sensational gutsy crescendo. Then to the end of the scene she was truly shattering. Pity it was right at the end of it – I gauge that she must have more moments like that in her best days. That said, I still believe she should avoid hoch dramatisch roles – her voice is not high nor dramatic, and the frequentation of  heavy repertoire will only rob the all-too-important lyric qualities of her voice. But let us wait a second opportunity to hear her before I have a final opinion.

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David Alden’s 2008 staging of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia has become infamous out of Berlin as one tough regiequiz at parterre.com. Although guesses ranged from Johnny spielt auf to Salome, the truth is that the production is far less bizarre when seen live at the theatre. Without reading the program book, one easily recognizes the Fellinian atmosphere with its intentional splashes of kitsch from the 50′s. In this sense, Alden may be occasionally unfaithful to the libretto, but he is true to the spirit of Italian comedy. At any rate, the show is definitely fun – and the excellent level of acting from every member of the cast is its shining feature. One would even forgive therefore the less than ideal musical aspects this evening.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza never let pace sag, keeping excitement on during the whole evening, but the Staatskapelle Berlin’s hearty sonorities, beautiful as they are, may be too substantial for Rossini. Although the cast is far from modest in vocal heft, these singers often had to make an extra effort to pierce through the almost Beethovenian dense sounds that came from the pit.

In the key role of Fiorilla, Alexandrina Pendatchanska finally sounded convincing for the wrong reasons. Because of the shrill, curdled and unequal vocal production, no-one had any trouble to understand that she was playing the role of the shrew. She does have prima donna quality – breathtaking coloratura, a strong top register and personality to spare. However, I did not recognize hardly any bel canto quality in her performance – her diction is unclear, her legato is problematic and she seems to be incapable of producing a pure, clean cantabile line. She also tended to disappear in ensembles, what is curious for a high soprano. This is a singer who has been closely followed by many of us who saw an immense promise in her, but this promise has been taking a very long time to be fulfilled. In comparison, Katharina Kammerloher’s fruity high mezzo soprano sounded heavenly in the role of Zaida.

South African tenor Colin Lee offered a truly gracious performance as Don Narciso. He was probably the less gifted actor in the cast and that might explain the somewhat lukewarm applause, but one must acknowledge the pleasant tonal quality, the good taste, stylishness and solid technique. However, in a world where there are singers like Juan Diego Flórez and Lawrence Brownlee, one gets spoiled by more vocal exuberance, especially in high notes. I know many tenors tend to go for bel canto because of less competition and higher fees, but, considering the dire situation in Mozartian repertoire, Lee should give Tamino, Ferrando and Belmonte a second chance. Giovanni Furlanetto’s dark, forceful bass does have the right colour and size for Selim, but he is really tested by the fioriture. Almost every melisma was given the staccato treatment and, if the audience did not find fault in it, it is because he disguised that in the comedy-effect treatment. Alfredo Daza was an animated Prodoscimo, but his singing is so heavy that one felt fatigued just from hearing it. Among the basses, Andrea Concetti had the most spontaneous vocal quality, but his idea of singing buffo repertoire seems to be supporting only the high notes and being free about pitch.

When I read what I have written here, I feel that I might have given an overall negative impression. But that is not the case – this is the kind of performance in which the whole is more than the individual parts: the staging is genuinely funny and intelligent, everyone in the audience seemed to be having fun, the acting was truly admirable (Florian Hoffman’s Albazar was one of the best small-role stage performances I have ever seen) and singers had engaging personality and interesting voices.

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Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus is an operetta. It is the world’s favourite operetta – and a score so rich in niceties and invention that critics have finally decided to “promote” to the world of opera. But that promotion had a price – nobody who listens to Parsifal or Elektra would forgive him or herself if there were nothing really deep behind the duidus and lalalas. Thus Fledermaus had unwittingly become the symbol of the decadence of bourgeoisie, of the intoxication before downfall, a sort of dance of death in 3/4 time.

I won’t appeal to anyone’s common sense to read the libretto and realize that this is just another French vaudeville with duped husbands, characters in disguise, secrets behind doors and rivers of champagne. Claiming that it is some sort of expressionistic work just because it was created in troubled times would be the same as saying that a Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie is a political statement. Of course, one could say that the absence of the world outside in these films is something to be “read”, but if you really want to read it, you should look for other kinds of movies. You just have to listen to the score – and you won’t find any dark side in it. And that’s all for the best – after all, this is an operetta and you should have a great time while listening to its three-hour duration.

Christian Pade’s new staging for the Lindenoper is not entirely guilty of the above-described crime. While he is still dying to inoculate Berg’s Lulu into the proceedings, he never lets lightness entirely go. Because of that, many bad habits are finally redeemed by the light touch. For example, Pade has rewritten the dialogues, but that seems to have been done only to accommodate the updating of the plot to the 1980′s – and in the end many faded jokes have regained a bit of their colour. Nevertheless, some laziness involved recycling some old formulas.

Act 1 is set in the Eisenstein’s advertisement-like kitchen – why those rich people would frequent their kitchen so often as described here is a mystery to me. Why their maid has such a designer dress also eludes explanation. But all that takes second place to some alert stage direction with funny ideas, especially in the scenes in which Alfred takes part. Act 2 starts to pose problems. Orlofsky is portrayed as a punk young man with a high-tech penthouse and friends who look like extras in a David Bowie’s clip. I am still wondering why he would have such middle-aged acquaintances who show up in his cool party with suits and long formal dresses. Moreover, why he would be interested in Falke and Eisenstein’s almost-suburban problems when he and his friends are doing far hotter stuff. Having the David-Bowie-people streetdance to Johann Strauss’s waltzes and polkas, however, was a bad idea that finally paid up. Martin Stiefermann’s expert choreographies did not seem ridiculous or out-of-synch as this kind of stuff tends to be. In the end, they would be the best-realized idea in the whole production. I don’t know why stage directors in Berlin find it that having the sets of act 1 upside down in act 3 so interesting – in any case, whatsoever interest it might have had has already been lost out of repetition. It’s become as ordinary as Ampelmann stores or Maredo restaurants in the federal capital city.

In any case, if the idea was to be bold, a less gemütlich conductor as Zubin Mehta should have been hired. No problem with Mehta’s conducting – it would have fit a golden-staircase staging to perfection. As it was, tempi were a bit comfortable, the orchestra playing a bit lacking energy if abouding in clarity and precision, and the attempt to recreate Viennese rubato effects a bit awkward. However, maybe to help some singers, orchestral volume was frequently kept at very low levels.

Viennese soprano Silvana Dussmann could have added a bit of authentic charm to the proceedings, but her performance was rather Prussian in its heaviness. She is an experienced Rosalinde – one could tell that by the tricks she used to disguise the fact that her voice is no longer flexible enough for the role. Although the basic tonal quality is pleasant, the sound has become too metallic and/or harsh, her low register does not cut into the auditorium, pitch is a bit uncertain and her insistence to sing in alts was rather deafening than impressive in their overloud heartiness. Her pairing with Christine Schäfer’s pale-toned Adèle was ill-advised. This German soprano has become a favourite with many of us with her intelligent performances and uniquely bright and smoky soprano, but I believe it is time for a mechanical inspection in her singing. Her whole performance was so erratic that I feared she would not reach the end of the evening. She could not honestly handle fioriture, fast staccato passages, low notes, legato or even cut through the orchestra. She has been singing some heavy roles for her voice – and that seldom has a happy ending. Stella Grigorian offered a decent Orlofsky, but small-scaled and lost a bit around the passaggio.

The men would offer more consistent performances. Stephan Rügamer’s voice is not mellifluous as operetta tenors tend to have, but he sings with confidence and sense of style. And his acting was so superlative that one would forgive him anything. Martin Gantner’s high-lying nasal-toned baritone works really well for Eisenstein. This is the best I have ever heard from him – he sang with unforced projection, fearless approach to high notes (he took all the high options) and sense of humor. Jochen Schmeckenbecher also seemed to be having the time of his life, and his solid bass is in very good shape. Only Roman Trekel disappointed as Frank – his singing was effortful and unsubtle throughout. Michael Maertens’s Ostberliner FroSch was funnier than usual.

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