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Archive for June, 2010

I had never previously seen Felicity Lott live and, since this was a singer whose artistry I tended to admire more than the voice itself, I thought that the fact that she is 63 would not interfere with her intelligence and musicianship, even if she showed herself too long past her prime. I know this all sounds really ungracious, but I am only writing it because what I heard and saw today could not be farther from a veteran singers’ performance. Other than a rusty low register (never the stronger feature of her voice), there is hardly anything to fault there. I know some young singers who would give their souls in exchange of those pianissimi!

The first item in the program was purely orchestral – Respighi’s Fontane di Roma exquisitely played by the Deutsche Oper Orchester, under Neville Marriner’s coloristic conducting. The string section proved a passionate accompanist in Britten’s Les Iluminations, when these musicians relished the English composer’s descriptive effects. The soloist herself displayed her now legendary interpretative intelligence: her French is idiomatic; her sense of story-telling is admirable; her legato, even in the trickiest intervals, is seamless, her floated mezza voce in Phrase is soaring; her breath is impressively generous and crowning long phrases with full top notes did not faze her at all.

After the intermission, Lott once again beguiled the audience with a sensitive and stylish account of Ravel’s Shéhérazade. The sound of her voice in the word “Asie” was itself an image of seduction and fantasy. I could not help noticinng that microphones do not justice to her voice, which has live a surprisingly rounded and full-toned quality in its higher reaches not available in her recordings. These songs brought about a sensuous, elegant quality in her singing, which aided by her expert word-pointing, reminded us of her Straussian credentials. This ability to see to detail without ever tampering the flow of legato – and the delicate yet rich tonal quality – are the hallmark of a singer who deserves praise not only for past achievements, but also for what she has been doing today.

Although I wished for an encore – maybe R. Strauss’s Morgen or Zueignung  – the program immediately continued with a strange account of the Rosenkavalier Suite. Although the orchestral sound was glowingly beautiful, Neville Marriner’s beat was so slow to the point of making Strauss’s exquisite writing awkward.

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After seeing Alexander von Pfeil’s production of R. Strauss’s Arabella for the Deutsche Oper Berlin, I’ve formed the opinion that staging Hofmannsthal’s last collaboration with R. Strauss in Berlin is something like reading a Chinese translation of a play by Shakespeare as provided by Google Translator. Yes, there is a context of decadence in Arabella – it is actually more than a context, it is right in front of one’s eyes when one reads the libretto. But, nota bene, this is about decadence, not decay. And the central element of that all is charm – if the proceedings do not ooze charm, then the whole thing is a tremendous loss of time. And Vienna’s decadent charm is something far more sophisticated and complex than arm, aber sexy. Lufthansa has a cheap flight for Vienna (one hour only) from Berlin on Saturday morning – I guess the Deutsche Oper could have spent EUR 100.00 and made some field research first. As it seems, Mr. von Pfeil thought of the decayed Michigan Movie Theatre in Detroit, the transformation of which into a parking space became some sort of symbol of the end of an era. What has that exactly to do with Hofmannsthal, I mean outside Mr. von Pfeil’s mind? Some people think of a nice glass of wine while listening to, say, Tosca – and that does not mean that one should stage it in a gigantic glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

In any case, this Arabella is set in the Michigan Theatre parking lot and lots of car drive through, including during the ball, where nobody dances. Actually, people refer to a staircase, to going up or down, to going into a room, to bellboys, to a chaperon… but that is replaced by… by cars, who obviously have a central role in Hofmannsthal’s symbology. Afer all, why would he call Arabella’s ball… the Fiakerball….? Clever, huh…

At least conductor Ulf Schirmer bothered to study the score to make an opinion about this opera. In his interview featured in the program, he explains that having conducted the opera in Vienna he learned to associate to a certain “morbid/smooth” tonal quality in the strings. Indeed, this effect was rightly achieved – the orchestral sound was often very beautiful and melancholically expressive. Lyric passages profited from this, especially when strings and woodwind intertwined sensitively. More feverish passages, such as the opening scene or the end of act II, however, lacked comfort in the conductor’s driven approach. During Mandryka’s intoxicated frenzy, this could have made sense if the overall effect counted with more clarity, particularly important in a moment in which countless motivic references are made. Other side-effect of the ripe string sounds was that the orchestra was often loud, making it doubly difficult for every singer in the cast to project into the hall. Maybe a brighter but less voluminous sound picture would have done the trick. Hence, the performance often suggested a pantomime and all singers clearly became increasingly tired during the length of the opera.

Adrianne Pieczonka is a puzzling and ultimately irritating Arabella. She has the right big lyric soprano for the part, but at least this evening she had a serious problem with the highest end of the tessitura, an area of her voice in which she seemed incapable of real legato. Her attempts to produce mezza voce often turned out off-placement and/or strained and, for each beautifully full top note, two unfocused ones would follow. What made her irritating, though, was the fact that, when the writing seemed congenial, she proved capable of echt Straussian style – nobility of tone, feeling for melody, a certain glamour and, most of all, the ability to make the text speak through tone coloring and very personal inflections that are the hallmark of the truly great Straussians. One example of that was her act II farewell to her three suitors, truly charmingly sung and probably the one moment when I believed that Pieczonka was Arabella instead of a woman in a fur coat fighting with difficult high notes. All that said, I make a strong appeal to Anja Harteros: you may like your Verdi, but it is R. Strauss who is in dire need of your talents!

My heart aches when I write that Julia Kleiter’s Zdenka was all in all disappointing. She was often overshadowed by the orchestra and it seems that her golden top notes needed a bit more silver in them to pierce through Ulf Schirmer’s morbid/smooth/loud strings. Aber der richtiger was the main victim of the lack of radiance in both sopranos’ high notes, which should dazzle the listener with gleaming rather than matte intervals. The production also sabotaged her – although the opera is called Arabella, the most important character in the plot is Zdenka – it is her twisted noble action that inspires Arabella and Mandryka to unconditional love. Incidentally, I am still to understand why the lines Zdenkerl, du bist die Beste von uns zweien etc are cut from the performing edition, such as today.

At first, the name of Martin Homrich for Matteo seemed a good choice – I had found his Tamino at the Staatsoper too robust. Indeed his voice seems more at ease in this kind of writing, but the loud orchestra brought about a permanently tense sound from him and it is no wonder that the testing tessitura in act III was rather dealt from willpower in the context of fatigue. Michael Volle had the most substantial voice in the cast and was at ease either in the most intimate or in the most outspoken moments, but even he suffered from the competition with the pit. He was clearly tired in the end of the opera and had to cheat a bit to get away with some tricky phrases. That should be considered a minor flaw in an evening when things were not really working well. His spacious, pleasant-toned voice should should sound comfortable in this part under better circumstances. When it comes to minor roles, it is understandable that the Deutsche Oper cannot offer glamourous casting in an opera so full of them, but the Waldners require more vocally vivid singers than Liane Keegan and Stephen Bronk, robbed by the production of any possibility of congeniality in their rotten-from-moment-one approach truth be said, and Elemer should definitely sound and look more dashing than the reliable Clemens Bieber.

Finally, the edition here adopted involves the Munich 1939 option of joining acts II and III with the deletion of the choral outbursts around Fiakermilli’s final yodeling. My memory might be failing me, but other than Arabella’s acknowledgement of Zdenka’s good nature, the coachmen’s cheering in the Fiakerball and the guest’s comments on the events in the hotel lobby have been trimmed too, probably to save the participation of the chorus (after all, they had to rent all those cars which, we must remember, are a key element for the understanding of the plot…).

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Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder is one of the most tantalizing pieces in the repertoire, in a certain way its ambiguous structure represents itself the longing that everyone has deep in his or her heart for a Romantic world for ever lost for modern (or post-modern) mentalities, an intoxication the charms of which are no less powerful in its unreality.  In order to illustrate that, Schönberg did not spare any weapon in late Romantic armory, not to mention those borrowed from a new aesthetic universe he himself  was then discovering. Encompassing all these music-dramatic demands means that a conductor and his forces can hold nothing back.

This evening, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin proved it has nothing to fear even in a city where competition for orchestras is formidably tough. Even in the most complex ensembles, their sound was consistently rich, warm and flexible. Some moments, such as Mit Toves Stimme in part III, were spellbinding in the beautiful and natural way how the orchestra handled the score’s effects. If clarity could be still improved on, I would blame conductor Lothar Zagrosek’s fondness for loudness. Naturally, this is a piece for large orchestra – but Schönberg’s writing does not need help in this department. The Gegrüßt, o König episode with the male chorus was particularly unclear, the good work of the Runfunkchor Berlin and the Estnischer Nationaler Männerchor barely hearable amidst the orchestral thunderstorm.

The second drawback in this evening’s performance is the choice of light-voiced soloists, especially in part 1, when tempi were really self-indulgent in their languidness. Melanie Diener’s velvety soprano is apt for the part of Tove, but the continuous descents into low register tested her a bit, while the exposed top notes of her last song did not pierce through in their plushness. A short glance in tenor Daniel Kirch’s biography shows that Mozart has been in the core of his repertoire – worrisome prospects for a part usually taken by singers who have the leading role in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in their resumés. As Leontyne Price would say, one cannot sing against the grain of one’s voice. I reckon Kirch can produce some pleasantly heroic sounds as Tamino or Max, but here he was basically covered by the orchestra in permanence. If he envisages a shift in his Fach, I would say the move is still premature. Tenor Daniel Ohlmann showed a brighter edge in his voice as Klaus-Narr, but it seems that the writing is quite high for him, while Ralf Lukas’s Peasant could do with a bit more volume too. Both sang with vigor and sense of “theatre”, it must be said. Actor Udo Samel seemed a bit fazed by having to follow the beat in the final narration. A clearer tonal quality would not be unwelcome either – in any case, it is better not think of Günther Reich’s paramount performance for Boulez on Sony (why is it again that nobody else comes close to that level?). I leave the best soloist for last – Claudia Mahnke’s finely focused, generously produced mezzo soprano, expertly and sensitively coloured in her account of the Wood-dove song.

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If this evening’s performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the Vienna State Opera could be counted as a success, this would be almost entirely Leif Segerstam’s doing. I have not heard from this Finnish conductor for a long while and last time I heard about him it was not really quite thrilling.  This evening, the word “thrilling”, however, is quite well-chosen. I have never heard the Vienna State Opera Orchestra produce sounds in this level of opulence, while retaining its hallmark crystalline pianissimi and clarity. Throughout the opera, the orchestra was placed in the center of events, including in dramatic aspects – rather than producing the atmosphere, it carried the story-telling. The Ortrud/Telramund scene in act II was exemplarily conducted in its motivic clarity and music-dramatic development  and the prelude to act III was one of the most exciting tours-de-force I have ever heard in an opera house.  Although the approach was rather aggressive, the virtuoso quality of the orchestral playing raised it to true distinction. The house chorus sang heartily and at moments one could believe that they would even overshadow an orchestral whose level of loudness was particularly high. It is only a pity that the right soloists have not been found to fit the concept. I am not saying that the casting was uninspired, but the fierce sounds coming from the pit demanded ample-voiced soloists with large personalities to galvanize the proceedings.

For example, Soile Isokoski’s Elsa was particularly touching. Her young-sounding delicate, almost virginal soprano floats rather than flashes. Based on a solid technique, this singer has the rare ability to focus instead of forcing her voice, which sounds invariably pleasant to the ears. Her phrasing is musicianly and sensitive and her sense of pitch is flawless. Her whole method fits the directorial choice of showing Elsa as a blind, meek woman whose fragility is quite touching. The ascent from object of compassion to object of grace is too much for a neglected woman who is no longer able to believe in miracles.  But Segerstam is telling another story – and the delicate colours of Isokoski’s Elsa are often dazzled by the formidable scale of his approach. Waltraud Meier does have the charisma to match the presiding intensity, but the fact is that she was clearly not in good voice. Although she cunningly disguised that in a demi-tintes interpretation, this was simply impossible in the context of this performance. As a result, she was often too small-scale, barely hearable or, when she really had to sing out, such as in Entweihte Götter, that was made with alarming strain. Ain Anger’s King Henry also suffered from too velvety a tonal quality to pierce through the orchestra, his noble-sounding bass failing to produce the necessary impact under these circumstances.

When it comes to Peter Seiffert, one has to acknowledge that heavy repertoire has not spoiled this German’s tenor ability to sing the role that made him famous more or less fifteen years ago. The tone is still appealing, his phrasing is mellifluous when necessary and, if he has to work harder to achieve lightness these days, heroic top notes come more easily to him than 11 years ago as I saw him in this role in Genoa with Antonio Pappano.  All in all, it was a commendable performance, and the fact that he got a bit tired by the very end of the performance is a minor incident in an otherwise satisfying piece of singing.  Wolfgang Koch’s Telramund also seems to have improved since last year in Munich – his high register proved to be better supported this evening, making for a warmer, rounder but also powerful sound in this role’s testing tessitura. The conductor did not make things easy for him, but he faced the challenge and offered an intense, almost wild performance, forcefully sung.

Except from the interesting idea of portraying Elsa as a blind woman, Barrie Kosky’s production is rather blank in its pointless symbolism, ugly sceneries and really poor solutions for key moments, such as the scenes involving the swann and Lohengrin and Telramund’s duel in act I.

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Die Zeit, sie ist ein sonderbag Ding…  Hugo von Hofmannsthal was not wrong about that, but since his days Vienna has lost a bit the touch in what regards timing, particularly when the matter is Falk Richter’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin’s for the Wiener Staatsoper. In his interview, Richter says his production is zeitlos, but I have the impression he should have checked the word in the dictionary before this statement. “Atemporal” means something that is connected to no particular time, while this staging makes references to different moments in time – from the 60’s to the present days – without any coherence or any discernable reason for that.  Tatjana, Larina, Filipyevna and Lensky (in spite of a very modern-style outfit) seem characters from Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the grass, while Onegin, Olga and the guests in Tatjana’s birthday could have appeared in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises - the peasants in act I remain quite Sovietic themselves though – and Monsieur Triquet’s old-style couplets make no sense in the videoclip approach.  To make things worse, characters behaved in a nonsensical way – Tatjana too grown-up for her “last-virgin-in-town”-attitude, not to mention that the vamp-looking Olga seemed quite mentally-challenged hopping around Lensky in girly (?) enthusiasm.

Kirill Petrenko’s conducting suggested agitation rather than intensity – the house orchestra’s beautifully transparent sonorities particularly different from the dense strings usually associated to Russian music. While the multicoloured impression is quite welcome, I am not sure if I prefer the zipping pace to the full bloom of a rich orchestral sound. In any case, the febrility worked really well for the closing scene, when both soloists responded accordingly in engagement and slancio. Although Olga Guryakova’s soprano has more than a splash of edginess and tends to the emphatic and unflowing when things get high and fast, it has an aptly youthful sound and, when you least expect, flashes up in some forceful acuti. Vocal aspects aside, Guryakova’s Tatjana is the work of a true artist. Every inflection, every gesture, every look has meaning and speaks directly to the heart.  In that sense, it is the opposite of the leading baritone’s performance, since Dmitri Hvorostovsky seemed to be posing for publicitary photos during the whole evening.  There were moments when I feared he would wink and wave to the audience. Fortunately, the voice was in very good shape and creates in its rich, velvety tonal quality the right impression of attractiveness and impetuosity. Pavol Breslik was a sensitive if small-scaled Lensky and Nadia Krasteva was a reliable if unexceptional Olga, but the audience’s favourite clearly was Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose dark, spacious and expressive bass filled the hall in a noble account of his aria. Both Zoryana Kushpler and Margaret Hintermeier deserve mention for their convincing accounts of the small roles of Larina and Filipyevna.

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In his explanation about his new production of Verdi’s Otello for the Deutsche Oper, director Andreas Kriegenburg says that his concept lies on three axes: updating the story to the present day, bringing to the fore the reality of war that encloses the love story and to portray characters with a realistic psychology. Again I have the impression that directors who stage opera either have no friends or they do have friends, but they hate opera.

First, updating Otello for the days of Internet and Iphone is a seriously risky business. The whole scale of fidelities – between spouses, between friends, between comrades, between citizen and state – seem odd in our contemporary Western individual-oriented societies. Desdemona becomes simply impossible – do the words “radiant”, “innocent”, “chaste” and “patrician” make any sense for modern sensibilities? This aristocratic, pious and lovely lady becomes a piece of ridicule in the XXIst century. Iago’s profession of bad-guy-faith sounds almost coy in the the world post WWI. And Otello’s wildness… well, who really cares about that in a world where self-possession is considered dull? In their own context, these characters still work in a powerfully symbolic way, but out of it, they ultimately loose their power to communicate anything.

Second, the war context. I don’t know about you, but I had the impression William Shakespeare’s geniality involves the fact that his judgment  is above the average artist’s when it comes to deciding how much attention war context  should get in his play about love and jealousy. Arrigo Boito, for example, who was a rather talented person (for example, instead of messing with other people’s operas, he decided to compose his own) opted for respecting the proportion established by Shakespeare when he wrote this libretto for Verdi. Mr. Kriegenburg, on the other hand, begs to differ. The story is set in some sort of refugee shelter, where Otello has distinguished himself in bravery by… by supervising displaced persons. And Iago envies this job to the point of making compatriots die. Gosh, that’s being really mean. The sceneries are literally the poor man’s version of a Tokyo capsule hotel. So basically we have lots of displaced persons living in these wallless capsules (with their individual tv sets, of course) in the middle of which Otello has an old-style solid wood desk and a set of leather chairs. Plus, they have lots of scotch whisky, which they drink before the eyes of the displaced persons. And there is this Desdemona woman with her party-dress and high heels who basically fondles other people’s children. When Otello throws her to the ground, these people who have no food, no medicine, no housing, no privacy are collectively flabbergasted with her marital problems. Do I need to write more? Do I need to comment on the third axis?

Replacing an ailing Paolo Carignani, Patrick Summers did not do much for helping the credibility issue. Although the house orchestra proved to be in very good shape, producing some wild sounds in the opening scene and expressive solos (including from brass instruments) throughout, the overall impression was of heaviness and dullness. The lack of structural and polyphonic clarity made the score purposeless and built up for no atmosphere. The Otello/Desdemona duet was quite unaffecting, Sì, pel ciel really tame, the complex in the end of act III awkward and the closing scene rather matter-of-fact.

The singers are not entirely innocent of the lack of affection. Outstanding in this cast, Anja Harteros produced the most ethereal high mezza voce in the market and never showed herself less than musicianly, but she did not seem to believe herself in her Desdemona. She did not master this special blend of angelic and glamourous that singers like Renata Tebaldi, Katia Ricciarelli and Mirella Freni could produce in this role by sheer tonal poise, eloquent diction and knowledge of inflection. I might be pressing the same key, but I really do not understand why Harteros is so keen on Italian repertoire, when her strengths are all of them in German roles. Zeljko Lucic is far more idiomatic and his voice is extremely pleasant and secure, if not really incisive as the dictionary definition of Verdi baritone’s. He is also too soft in personality for such a bad-guy role. In any case, it is always good to have someone in the right stylistic context. As for José Cura, after all these years, one must admit that he does have the elements of a tenore di forza in him. If they do not make into a coherent whole, that has probably to do with his technical irregularity. It seems that he has a different placement for every note determined exclusively by necessity of survival. In the process, note values and occasionally pitch are the main victims. Sometimes I could barely understand what he was singing. If I have to say something positive about him, it would be that his macho approach works well in this role and that, in spite of the irregularity, when he has operational space for that, he tries to inject some life in his lines, to soften his tone etc. Dio! mi potevi scagliar, for example, was one moment when everything seemed to concur to an expressive performance.

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