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Archive for April, 2010

Practice makes perfect and the extra rehearsal time since Wednesday proved most positive to the last item in the first cycle of the Deutsche Oper’s Ring. Although the Gibichungen scene in act I had its longueurs (always a tricky scene for the conductor), this evening’s performance had everything a Wagnerian should expect: the orchestral sound was exemplary, textures were clear yet dense and a palpable sense of theatre, particularly in the passages in which the orchestra has to tell the story alone, a kaleidoscopic account of Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt and a truly incisive  account of the Trauermarsch.

The revival of Götz Friedrich’s staging involves a rather shabby Gibichungenhalle and a poorly timed and unimaginative closing scene. The performance was particularly poorly lit, for catastrophic effects in the Hagen/Alberich scene. I am not sure if I like the idea of incestuous overtones for the Gibichungen either – although it could make sense, Wagner already explored this line of thought in Die Walküre and that should be enough.

This evening, Evelyn Herlitzius seemed determined to prove that she can shade her voice when necessary, but the success of this decision is debatable. She does not master the art of mezza voce and her attempt to soften the tone brought about an unfocused quality that disturbed even more her already unflowing phrasing. As in act II Brünnhilde has very little time for musing, Herlitzius could play her trump card and flash some really exciting Spitzennoten. Although she was in tiny little bit less exuberant form in the Immolation Scene, she still offered a healthy and powerful account of this difficult passage. In spite of all the shortcomings, these Nilssonian acuti are reason enough to reserve her some praise, especially in an age when few sopranos seem able to do something like that. And it does not hurt either the fact that she is a committed singing actress.

As a replacement for Manuela Uhl, Heidi Melton proved to be a most welcome surprise as Gutrune (and as the Third Norn, as originally planned). Her voice is large, bright, firm, focused and remarkably beautiful. If I write that she owes her notable talent a serious attempt to loose some weight, I do not do it out of pettiness. Although she is far from clumsy in the acting department, her overweight might be an obstacle for her casting as Elsa, Elisabeth or Eva, roles which would suit her to perfection. The remaining Norns, Liane Keegan and the fruity-toned Ulrike Helzel, were similarly cast from strength. Only Karen Cargill’s mezzo soprano lacks cutting power for the role of Waltraute and her handling of her registers could be a bit smoother too.

During act I, the evening’s Siegfried, Alfons Eberz, showed such warm tone, clarion top notes and sheer voluminousness that the words “golden age” came to mind. After the first intermission, a slight reduction in harmonics and amplitude would impose upon his performance. That said, I have rarely seen a Siegfried survive in such good shape to his death scene, let alone survive the test of miming the Waldvogel so adeptly as he did today. Any opera house would call itself lucky to secure such a reliable singer in this impossible role.

I had a most positive impression of Markus Brück in his performance as Wolfram last year in the Deutsche Oper, but since then I have to confess that his singing in the Wagner Wochen’s Meistersinger and in this Ring showed a rather unalluring vocal nature, very different from the smooth- and round-toned quality he displayed as Wolfram. To make things worse, his hamming, unaided by awful make-up and a costume unbecoming to his disadvantageous physique, simply ruined the role of Gunther for me. I cannot say how much the Spielleitung is to blame, but I understand that the character as written by Wagner is not supposed to be something of a ridiculous clown. Tomasz Komieczny’s last appearance in the Ring crowned a faultless performance. Any staging of the Ring that takes itself seriously these days must feature his Alberich in its cast. Pity that the role of Hagen has now become a bit of a stretch for Matti Salminen, whose performance in this role I had the pleasure to see at the Met in 1997. Back then no orchestra was too loud for him. Today he has to cheat a bit, but his charisma and experience finally pay off in his uniquely sinister and menacing approach to this complex role.

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Third time lucky – even if luck probably has little to do with that. The name of the trick is “more rehearsal time”, and the result is that Donald Runnicles could finally show his credentials in this cycle. The audience was treated to top class orchestral playing – strings zipped adeptly through passagework, brass offered noble playing, expressive woodwind solos and properly otherworldly sounds in Brünnhilde’s awakening. The richer orchestral sound, rhythmic alert cast and flowing tempi concurred to a most agile account of the score – one could barely feel how long is an opera where theatre often gives pride of place to musical values.

This feeling was certainly aided by the casting of singers in key roles with excellent stage performances: the leading tenor is energy itself, looks and acts convincingly boyishly and is so comfortable with his forging duties that I would not be surprised if someone told me he was actually a blacksmith for a while; his Mime is an all-round accomplished actor and the Alberich is, as in Rheingold, a true find. Pity that Spielleiter Søren Schumacher gave the Nibelungen some very silly movements abounding in hopping and flapping the arms. Other than this, the stage action was quite well-timed, especially in act I. It is a pity that the soprano seemed entirely clueless and marred the closing scene with meaningless antics. Although Act I’s scenery has more than a splash of high school pantomime, the blacksmith shop is so convincingly arranged that one tended to overlook the prevailing kitsch. Erda’s African tent in act III represents a woeful misfire, but the idea of a mechanic dragon for Fafner is well-done if entirely unrelated to the aesthetics here adopted. And when Wagner wrote “Stimme des Waldvogels” in the score he knew what he meant – no sopranos  ludicrously dressed as in a carnival parade hanging from a rope.

Stefan Vinke’s stage performance as Siegfried is so likable that one makes an effort to forgive the vocal glitches. Therefore, let us start with the positive aspects – he is certainly healthy, has stamina to sell and no problem with singing a tempo, even in the rather fast tempi chosen to exciting effects by Runnicles for the forging song. His basic sound (and a couple of mannerisms) makes me think of René Kollo, including his ability to pull back to mezza voce when necessary, albeit one  seriously misguided about vocal placement. The approach is extremely forward and nasal and above the passaggio everything is extremely tight, straight-toned, muscular and short in harmonics. It is indeed remarkable that he was able to sing forte high notes like that – and sustain them – in a manner so stressful for the vocal chords. Considering the difficulty and length of the role, he even showed himself relatively untired in the end of the evening.

If you are a partisan of the sugar-rush approach to Mime, then Burkhard Ulrich offered a varied and imaginative account of the role. I’ve grown up feeling relieved when Wolfgang Windgassen finally put an end to Gerhard Stolze and always wish that someone like Graham Clarke  (whom I had the pleasure to see in the Met’s Siegfried back in 1997) take this role.

Although Egils Sillins’s bass-baritone is a bit timid in the lower reaches and has its throaty moments, it is also spacious, firm and forceful enough for the Wanderer. Nevertheless, he was actually upstaged by the impressive Tomasz Konieczny in the opening of act II. The Polish bass-baritone is arguably the best Alberich on stage these days. It is a pity that Andrea Silvestrelli could not sing Fafner today – his voice is particularly well-suited to this role. That said, Ante Jerkunica offered a faultless performance of this small but important role. Ewa Wolak remains an impressive Erda, but Burcu Uyar’s unfocused singing spoiled a bit the fun in the part of the Waldvogel.

Unfortunately, Janice Baird was visibly uncomfortable in the part of Brünnhilde. She was often under the note, got lost now and then and fought with the tessitura. When she could relax, as in the Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich lyric moments, she showed welcome keenness for legato, but she rarely had the opportunity and, in the end, the impression was rather of tentativeness.

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I do not know if the Deutsche Oper used the bad-news-first strategy, but it seems that their Ring has finally found the right track. Regardless of how intrinsically good today’s Walküre was, it is a significant improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold. To start with, Götz Friedrich’s production here is far more efficient than in the tetralogy’s first installment. Peter Sykora’s sets are more functional and better looking and, with the exception of a bunch of pointless props in act II (plastic dolls?) and of an unsensational solution for the magic fire  (as you might remember, it is supposed to be extraordinarily frightening – and four isolated bonfires fifty-centimeter-tall are hardly that). Actually, the costumes shown here are far more frightening – the Valkyries outfit and make-up reminded me the rock band Kiss. However, the most notable positive development is Gerlinde Pelkowski’s Spielleitung: both leading sopranos and the tenor interacted most sensitively – act I was particularly convincing – and gestures were economic, coherent and contributed to the understanding of the story. I am not sure if I actually like the weepy Wotan, but I guess that the approach fits the rather uncharismatic singer taking the role.

Musically, the most immediate difference from yesterday is the larger orchestral sound. Although the brass section still leaves more than something to be desired, the general sound picture was adequate and, by act III, quite satisfactory. It was hardly an orchestral tour de force, but rather honest and acceptable piece of work. Maestro Runnicles showed an inclination for a tad slower tempi than he had adopted at the Met (if my memory does not betray me). Curiously, the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene in act II seemed somewhat fast. Maybe because the Wotan available is not really fluent with the text and has instead an almost Mozartian legato-ish approach, this tricky passage gained a flowing, conversational character which struck me as quite refreshing. Naturally, it would have worked far better if the text could be more expressively handled. The ensuing Todesverkündgung was, on the other hand, particularly slow, an approach that would require from singers far more nuanced phrasing and from the orchestra far more narrating quality (as Maazel produced in his Met’s Walküre in 2008). Act III proved to be more successful, chamber-like textures were provided when necessary, the Walkürenritt clear and well-balanced and the closing scene sensitively built.

It is a pity that Violeta Urmana’s Verdian ventures have been hold against her status of leading singer in our days. Her work in Wagner is of surpassing quality – it is a pleasant, rich-toned, large voice with firm, round top notes with a most musical and elegant quality of phrasing. Of how many Wagnerian singers one could say something like that? Her Sieglinde is a touching portrayal, passion and vulnerability perfectly balanced. No wonder she was the favorite of the audience this evening. Evelyn Herlitzius’s Brünnhilde is more controversial. First of all – and one must keep this in mind on assessing her artistry – she is a singer whose Fach is simply the one required by Wagner for this role: she has no problem with the tessitura, tosses bright, powerful, unconstricted acuti, handles her passaggio to chest voice adeptly and enunciates the text with great accuracy. In fact, her technical security is quite soothing for audiences who have been too often kept at the edge of their seats fearing for the health of the soprano taking this role. That said, it is difficult to warm to the flutter mid-range, the squally articulation and the faulty legato. She is an energetic woman – and this is very positive for her engaging and convincing stage presence – and I have the impression that the overemphasis and the absence of shading (a drawback in the long Wotan/Brünnhilde  scene in act III) are maybe a byproduct of her attitude.

In spite of a a quite unseductive tone, Clifton Forbis is a most efficient Siegmund, who produces some powerful and firm high g’s. His crescendo in the sustained Wälse! Wälse! passage in act I is as impressive as it was in New York. It is a pity that his tenor is growing rather juiceless for cantabile passages – and Winterstürme was probably his weakest moment. He and Urmana established a particularly convincing partnership in their scenes, both musically and scenically. Reinhard Hagen was extremely well cast as Hunding – an all-round most satisfying performance. Mark Delavan’s Wotan still gives me an impression of work-in-progress. He responds for the particular challenges quite successfully, but his performance does not make into a coherent whole, but rather as a collection of moments. He seems to brace for the every musical or theatrical challenge and then simmer down to recover instead of keeping a continuous musical and interpretative line. I have to confess I rather saw in him “the guy playing Wotan”. I understand that he must have James Morris’s smoothly, elegantly sung account of the role as a model, but the veteran singer had at once a more powerful and voluminous voice, more spontaneous musicianship and a far more imposing presence. If Delavan wants to fill his shoes, he should tie all these loose ends in his performance first. It is a pity that Judit Németh was not really in good voice today – her Fricka sounding shrewish above everything else. Among the Valkyries, the Helmwige, Heidi Melton, offered a particularly accomplished ho-jo-to-ho, trills included.

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After the Wagner Wochen, I have to confess my expectations about the Deutsche Oper Ring have been kept low. This is probably why I am not terribly upset by the frankly unsatisfactory Rheingold presented today as I was when I left the theatre after that dreadful Lohengrin.

To start with, Götz Friedrich’s 1984 production belongs to its age – it makes movies like Flashdance or Xanadu look like an example of timeless design. The basic set, although reminiscent of the Washington Metro, offers a large-scaled, interesting perspective. But that’s the only positive thing to say about the visual aspects of this staging. The scene under the Rhine was a matter of transparent fabrics that could have worked in a rather predictable way, if someone had decided to test the mechanism before the performance. The screens hanged rather loosely until one of them got caught somewhere. Then, it had to be ripped from its pipe lest the opera be interrupted for repairs. The whole episode in the Nibelheim is decidedly provincial (the complex stage contraption giving rather a contrived than awe-inspiring impression) and the scenes on Wotan’s mountaintop look depressively poor. Peter Sykora’s costumes are so ugly, drab and dirty that you feel like throwing a 5 cent coin on stage as a donation for the gods. To make things worse, Søren Schuhmacher’s Spielleitung basically consists of letting actors do whatever they seem fit, except for silly choreographies that make the ordinary opera silly choreographies look clever. Not to mention that scenes involving physical interaction seemed poorly rehearsed. I left the theatre wishing for a concert performance.

I had never seen Donald Runnicles conduct any Ring opera, but for the first two acts of a Walküre at the Met, of which I had a very positive impression, especially in what regards the quality of the orchestral sound. Not today. The performance started with the wrong foot – brass were so poorly pitched that I prayed that the strings begin soon. They did begin – albeit in very restricted volume, a situation which persisted through the whole length of the opera, with the exception of Alberich’s curse, in which the decision to drown the baritone seems to have been taken. I wish I could single out something positive – like tempi did not drag – but the sound picture was simply wrong for this music and Wagner’s multicoloured effect failed to work against the prevailing matte atmosphere.

Although the cast had no weak performance, only the Poles offered something to tell home about. Tomasz Konieczny’s forceful, dark-toned Alberich displayed the necessary intensity lacking almost everywhere else in this production and Ewa Wolak’s rich-toned, extremely concentrated Erda created alone the impact her scene has to offer. Although Judit Németh’s mezzo is a bit high for the Rheingold’s Fricka, she coloured her text knowingly. Burkhard Ulrich’s Loge was dexterous enough, handled his lines with clarity and found no problem in Loge’s sinuous writing. I prefer more heroic-sounding Loges, but there is nothing to fault, but instead much to praise in his performance. Andrea Silvestrelli’s cavernous Fafner, ideally partnered by Reinhard Hagen’s more focused Fasolt, is also worthy of mention. When it comes to Mark Delavan’s Wotan, it must be noted that his voice is noble sounding and reasonably large in its lower reaches. His bass-baritone has the proper sound for the role, but not necessarily the full impact. However, what might have disturbed a couple of members of the audience, who finally booed him in the curtain calls, is the undeniable lack of experience in the part. Although he was too clearly prompted, he still had some trouble with the text and, therefore, could not help but skating on the surface of the role. I hope that Die Walküre finds him a little bit more prepared!

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Berlioz’s Les Troyens is one of the largest-scale operas in the repertoire – it has five acts, two parts with only one large role in common, not to mention it requires a large orchestra, large-voiced soloists and grandiose settings. The change of mood between the Trojan and the Carthaginian settings is particularly tricky for conductor and stage director.

In what regards musical values, the Dutch Opera has made the right decision in inviting John Nelson. The American conductor is an experienced Berliozian who never forgets to comply with the composer’s stylized classicism and who masters the art of setting the tempo that makes the music flow while keeping the necessary grandeur. I really did not feel the four hours and twenty-five minutes as something long during this performance. It is a pity, though, that the Nederlands Philarmonisch Orkest is not entirely at ease with this music. It worked hard to achieve nimbleness – strings smeared passagework and brass were a bit quacky and imprecise. In spite of that, the maestro could produce the right atmosphere with the means available and never fall short of the theatrical demands.

Although Pierre Audi’s staging is not really memorable, it is generally successful in producing large-scale effects with a limited number of scenic elements – three transparent bridges decorated with friezes that turn into columns for Dido’s palace. His vision of Troy is more convincing that his Carthage, which features too many basic colours at once plus neon and silly coreographies by Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn. As for the golden folding chairs, they really look cheap beyond salvation.

This was Eva-Maria Westbroek’s debut as Cassandre. The first thing I should say is that it is really refreshing to see such gimmick-free, no-tricks approach to dramatic singing. This is a voice honestly and healthily produced by the gift of nature and by means of good old solid technique. As a result, nothing sounded strained or pushed or forced. Her top notes are particularly round. She also has an intense stage presence and eschewed exaggerations. Her French is not exactly idiomatic, though, but it is not careless either. Some might have wished for more variety, but the role itself is basically emphatic – and the world of opera would be a paradise if one could overlook the impressive resources of a singer such as Westbroek in this repertoire.

When I saw Yvonne Naef as Cassandre back in 2008, I had the impression that Dido was her role – and I am not mistaken. The Swiss mezzo gave a most praiseworthy performance of that part this evening. She masters the style, enunciates the French impeccably, her mezzo has a light yet rich and penetrating sound, she is extremely musical and colours the text sensitively. She does have regal enough an attitude and worked herself up to a powerful yet dignified frenzy in Act V. Considering these important qualities, the occasional edginess is more than forgivable.

There seems to be a heroic tenor in Bryan Hymel, but his voice is placed too forwardly and too nasally to allow him true dramatic singing. Because of the nasality, his French vowels sounded indistinct and there was very little tonal allure in his voice. He does have stamina, though, and managed to balance his resources wisely to produce a forceful account of Inutiles regrets.

Jean-François Lapointe was a most satisfying Chorèbe, singing with firm voice and handling the text expressively. Considering this is a live performance and not a studio recording, minor roles were cast quite glamorously. Although Charlotte Hellekant and Alastair Miles were neither of them in splendid voice and not entirely comfortable with the language, they do have charisma. Greg Warren’s Iopas could do with a more dulcet voice, but his top notes are indeed easy and full.

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I like Kiri Te Kanawa.  Those who do not say she lacks substance – for me, she embodies the ideal of spontaneous art, the beauty of which has nothing calculated and convinces in its sheer artlessness. She also embodies an ideal of Mozartian and Straussian operatic performance who involves not only exquisite tonal quality and elegant, almost instrumental phrasing, but also an aristocratic stage presence and a certain cool sexiness. She claims that Lisa della Casa was her model – and Lisa della Casa has recognised her influence on her.

However, since Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (and whoever has seen her on stage knows she deserves to be called “dame”) has started to make her operatic appearances rare, Straussian audiences have been left a bit orphan.  And I wonder why she has waited until 2010 to say her final good-bye to staged opera – I like to believe that it is no coincidence that Anja Harteros is singing (in concert, it is true) her first Marschallin (only a couple of scenes, it is also true) this very year. Straussians do not need to worry anymore, since the good tradition has finally found a worthy exponent.  In any case, it is impossible to be insensitive in an event that represents somehow the end of an era.

At 66, her voice no longer has the silkiness that made her famous, but the tone is unmistakably warm and smooth. She took a while to warm – and her middle register is now somewhat recessed – but one can still feel the magic when everything falls into place, such as in the end of act I, crowned by a velvety floating pianissimo. Her Marschallin has never been a detailed impersonation such as Régine Crespin’s (and the occasion lapse of memory is only an evidence of that) and gravitates around charm, which she still has in plenty. Her figure is graceful as ever and her bearing is majestic yet feminine.

Her Octavian is in the exactly opposite situation –  Claudia Mahnke is at her absolute vocal  prime. Her mezzo soprano is always fully, evenly and healthily produced, she floats mezza voce at will and has no problem with both ends of her range. She is indeed an exceptional singer and would be the best Octavian I have seen in the recent years if she had the physique du rôle. Alas, she has not – although the voice suggests boyishness in its impetuosity, she was not made for trouser roles at all. But you should keep her name. At first, Jutta Böhnert’s clear but not twittery soprano seems right for the role of Sophie. However, the tessitura finally proves to be high for her and her high mezza voce lacks some freedom. That said, she is a stylish singer with very clear diction and knows how to behave girlishly without seeming silly. Finally, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson has everything a great Ochs should have – a spacious, firm, dark bass with solid low notes, a most natural delivery of the text and he is really really funny. He tends to overdo it, though, and needed some guidance to fine his performance from a very interesting to a fully satisfying one.

The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln is not exactly a world-class ensemble – the brass section can be messy and the strings lack a distinctive sound – but conductor Patrik Ringborg lead it to produce a very clean and perfectly balanced performance, the structural transparency of it indeed admirable. However, there was very little soul inside the flesh – many theatrical effects in the score failed to hit the mark and there was a serious lack of atmosphere in key scenes.

Günter Krämer’s 2002 production, revived by Carsten Kochan, is seriously misguided. I would use the word “ludicrous”, but I have used it for Achim Freyer’s Onegin for the Staatsoper and therefore I have to use something lighter for this one, which is only bizarre. To start it, it has bamboos all over the place. Then people move about in a rather incoherent way that does not make sense with the libretto and within the stagings’s concept itself.

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The Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Festtage is one of the world’s most puzzling festivals in the world – basically you are offered the same operatic productions showed during the year with more or less the same casts, but with a far more expensive ticket price. One could say that this is an opportunity to see a showcase of the Lindenoper’s best productions – but that is not the case either. There is nothing special about their current Tristan und Isolde – and Achim Freyer’s Onegin is one of the most embarrassing  productions ever shown to an audience. It is ugly, pointless and confusing. The three-dimensionality of Puschkin’s characters as conveyed into music by Tschaikovsky is what makes this opera a masterpiece – and it is an offense to both writer and composer to see them reduced to semaphoric puppets. Pity – it is a beautiful opera. If someone had explained it to the director, he would probably like it.

As a compensation for the horrors shown on stage, Daniel Barenboim offered a grandiose, quasi-Wagnerian account of the score in its large orchestral sound, almost feverish intensity and flexibility of tempo. The Staatskapelle Berlin played it to the manner born – deep, rich, warm string sounds and expressive woodwind solos. The orchestra alone was a pleasure in itself. The cast here gathered had no weak link and it is doubly commendable that they could sing so expressively straight-jacked by the silliest stage direction in the galaxy.

Although Anna Samuil’s soprano tends to acidity in the most outspoken moments, she masters the art of evoking girlishness and innocent radiance elsewhere. She is particularly adept in conveying spontaneity in conversational passages in her natural middle register and avoidance of aggressive break into chest voice. She was probably the only soloist who has survived the ludicrous scenic choreographies with her expressive eyes and the concentration of her movements. She was ideally partnered by Maria Gortsevskaya’s Olga, who was able to produce warm sounds without suggesting a matron (a too usual mistake in the role). That said, Katharina Kammerloher’s mezzo still sounded too young in comparison to her daughters’ voices. Margarita Nekrasova’s spacious contralto, on the other hand, couldn’t be better suited to Filipjewna. She should be a great Erda – I hope that Barenboim remember her in his next performances of the Ring.

Artur Rucinski’s warm and dark baritone suggested a handsome and elegant Onegin. This Polish singer gave us a stylish and firm-toned performance. Some high-lying passages seemed a tiny bit tense, but he used it to good dramatic purposes. The glamourous casting of René Pape as the Prince Gremin was an extra treat to the audience in its outpouring of velvety sounds. All that said, I guess my four or five reads are probably curious about my impressions on Rolando Villazón’s Lensky. As I do not speak Russian, I cannot say how idiomatic he was. But I can certainly report on a most sensitive performance from this Mexican tenor. Although some high notes could be more strongly supported, he produced seamless legato, shaded his voice to touching effects and never sang with less than full commitment. And his tenor remains extremely pleasant, with a solid middle and low registers. His big aria was particularly heartfelt in its intimate melancholy. These purely lyric roles suit him and I hope that, after the ordeal he recently went through, he avoid heavy repertoire from now on.

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