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Archive for August, 2010

In “Who betrays Elizabeth Bennet?”, Prof. John Sutherland (no relation to La Stupenda) dedicates himself to explain loose ends in the plot of famous books in English literature not by considering them small blunders in otherwise “perfect” works, but rather as puzzles to be solved and thus enriching the understanding of the story. Although Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is hardly considered a literary work of some depth, Così fan tutte is arguably his best collaboration with Mozart.

Many of those who dislike Mozart believe that his music is just cold divertissement, an illustration of vacuous grace and elegance. I don’t want to accuse these people of trying to find on stage the excitement lacking elsewhere in their lives, but a short glance in Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s biographies show that their own lives were far from angelic and often full with violent feelings and emotions. Mozart’s letters to his mother particularly emotionally mature for a boy of his age, rich with touching and sensitive remarks. Classical art intended to provide mankind with a balsam for the tempest of emotions and violence that plagues ordinary life by means of images of perfection provided by the balance of reason. And no other composer offered better than Mozart such idealized visions of perfect proportion, of l’art qui cache l’art so accurately conceived that one cannot see the hand of the artist in it. Some end on attributing its inscrutable beauty to divine inspiration or – worse – to mere chance. But don’t mistake my words – this is only a first impression. Actually, although Mozart was no revolutionary, the reason why we still listen to his music instead of that of Salieri or Paisiello is that he actually spent his whole creative life bending, distorting, adapting these conventions. I would dare to say that Mozart gradually ceased to believe in the artistic credo of Classical art, as his final works increasingly show – and Così fan tutte is the work in which he put his own convictions to test.

The whole concept of Così fan tutte turns around the Classical idea of “right proportion”. An old philosopher who sings no aria leads two couple of twittering, trilling love birds with unrealistic notions about love and shows them that reality is far more exciting if far less comfortable than their world of sentimentality. It is important to note that Don Alfonso does not promise Gugielmo and Ferrando happiness, only discernment. In order to illustrate this evolution, Mozart composed a score that parodies, that exaggerates, that overstates and gradually acquires a matter-of-fact quality that speaks in more truly emotional colours. You just have to compare Come Scoglio and Per pietà, Smanie implacabili and È amore un ladroncello and Un’aura amorosa and Tradito, schernito to see the remarkable maturing in every character (but for Guglielmo, who remains more or less immune to the lesson) – the early affectation is finally replaced by real contradictory feelings. In the end, devastated by these revelations, the four of them do not seem convinced that the trade-off was positive. Despina has never lived the sweet fantasy her mistresses used to live – she gets her commission in the end.

Back to puzzles, I have observed that a most important detail is overlooked by almost every commenter. Although Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not aristocrats (as Don Alfonso is), they seem to be eligible young unmarried women of some wealth. The strange thing about the situation is that the plot does not explain who is in charge of them. Two young ladies of some position would hardly travel alone as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, especially if two young suitors are involved. My first conclusion is that they probably lost their mother when they were very young. This would account for her absence and for their naiveté (Despina is actually quite puzzled about their ignorance of worldly matters). If there were a father, he would have probably entrusted them to a chaperon or some sort of relation to accompany them in their trip (as the libretto explains, the ladies come from Ferrara and are visiting Naples). I would understand such a situation as an emergency, they are probably on their way to encounter their guardian (in the case they have also lost their father, which could be the case since they do not feel they need his consent to marry the “Albanians”) or hosting relatives. Also, if Ferrando and Guglielmo are wooing these respectable ladies, they should have understood themselves that their irregular situation in Ferrara is ill-advised. Unless the person in charge of them is indeed there in Ferrara. And the only character on stage respectable enough for this position is no other than… Don Alfonso. This explains his freedom to appear in the girls’ apartments without any formality, his previous knowledge of Despina’s character and his right to speak of the girls’ behavior with their fiancés.

The hypothesis of seeing in Don Alfonso Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s guardian at first does not go with one line in the libretto: “Non son essi: è Don Alfonso, l’amico lor”. The girls are expecting their fiancés, but it is Don Alfonso who shows up. Dorabella says “Not them, but their friend Don Alfonso”. This does not mean that they know Don Alfonso via their fiancés, but only that instead of them, they are seeing their friend. My last assumption: the friend who probably introduced the young men to the two girls just a few days ago in Ferrara. That is why they have their miniatures in their first scene – they had probably first seen Guglielmo and Ferrando in these miniatures and now they have finaly seen them in person. This thesis accounts for their lack of familiarity with them and their difficulty to recognize them in disguise (I know, it is still hard to believe…) and for the fact that the young men cannot quite explain why they trust the girls in their opening scene.

The subtitle of Così Fan Tutte is “The School for Lovers” and it would be interesting that a cynic like Don Alfonso is charged to marry his two mystified wards to two impressionable young men. Foreseeing catastrophe in these young people’s high-flown sentimentality, he prefers to teach them a bit about life before they become husbands and wives. Is this too benign an explanation? Maybe, I am not entirely convinced myself, but the question remains – what were these girls doing alone in Naples? If you have ever been in Naples, you know that this is no rhetorical question!

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Two wishes…

1 – “I wish Claus Guth finds a sexy good-looking millionaire who loves him desperately to the point of not allowing him to leave their love nest for one second”  This is the only positive way I can find in my soul to wish that he NEVER AGAIN direct a Mozart opera in his life.

2 – Why , o why Abbado has not invited Anja Kampe to sing the Fidelio that he is finally recording… ?!

OK, now that I got this out of my chest, I can be a nice person again.

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If Takred Dorst’s unimaginative production of Der Ring des Nibelungen reached its most bureaucratic in the anachronistic and pointless staging of the Gibichungenhalle as a masked ball in a place that looks like an emergency exit in the Lincoln Center while the guests’ outfit suggests rather the 1930′s, Christian Thielemann seemed to sum up the best and the worst in his conducting in the three other installments of the Tetralogy: the first scene with the Gibichungen was particularly spineless and his reliance in Furtwänglerian-like grandiose perspectives could not make up for the absence of a clearer sense of structure and timing in slacker and more conversational passages. In other moments, when his instincts seemed to invite him to more impact, but the need to accommodate less voluminous-voiced soloists led him astray, one missed more profile and more drama, such as during Waltraute’s narration and, unfortunately, the immolation scene. On the other hand, Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s duet was excitingly and exquisitely handled, the soloists flexible enough not to thwart forward-movement. Even if singers lacked stamina for a truly thrilling act II, the conductor created atmosphere admirably with impressively theatrical effects in his orchestra. In any case, Siegfried’s funeral march was the unforgettable highlight of the whole performance – the powers of nature seem to emerge from the pit in the Festspielhaus. My final impression is that, although Thielemann is often very impressive and sometimes exemplary, he has not given his last word about Wagner’s Ring – what should be considered good news anyway, given the fact that he is a relatively young conductor. After Daniel Barenboim’s amazingly disappointing Rheingold in Milan, I wouldn’t like to establish definitive comparisons, but the Argentine conductor’s recording from Bayreuth shows a similar large-scaled, momentous approach, in which the dramatic gestures and the power to instill emotion in the proceedings are more readily available though.

Linda Watson’s performance as Brünnhilde started on a very positive note – she sang warmly and femininely her first scene. Later, she would ultimately seem too well-behaved for the circumstances. I suspect she is not the right soprano for Brünnhilde’s more outspoken scenes, her round top notes lack the necessary slancio and she is too often overshadowed by the orchestra in the bottom of her range. Edith Haller was a luminous Gutrune who sang touchingly her last scene, a rare achievement in a role that can seem almost intrusive. Although Lance Ryan’s singing is generally short of flowing cantabile, his ease with the murderous tessitura, his ability to shade his tone when necessary and his rhythmic accuracy are extremely welcome – his report of the woodbird’s lines were actually more fluent, more clear and more understandable that those sung by the soprano taking that role on Wednesday. And one must not forget – he is an excellent actor. His stage performance will probably be the one I will compare everyone else’s too from now on. Andrew Shore’s Alberich still suffered from opaque high notes replaced by unvaried emphasis and parlando effects and, if Eric Halfvarson could produce a powerful calling in act II, his voice seemed quite tired this evening. By the end of the opera, he was practically speaking his part. In any case, both were preferable to the seriously miscast Ralf Lukas as Gunther. If Christa Mayer sang sensitively, she still lacked projection as Waltraute. Although one could imagine more dramatic Norns, Christiane Kohl, the fruity-toned Ulrike Hetzel and Simone Schröder (better cast here than as 1rd norn) were excellent Rhinemaidens.

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Does Katharina Wagner’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg need another beating? There are directors who still believe that there is a burgeoisie to be epatée, but, even if you don’t understand why they are trying to shock you out of your salary-earning opera-ticket-buying life, at least they succeed to shock you (the name of Calixto Bieito comes to my mind), but Katharina Wagner disappointed me – I had understood that this was a shocking production, but it is only a boring production of someone who fancied she was saying something original. In her staging, all characters are reduced to cardboard complexity and what is supposed to be the trade-off, a discussion about about conformism/success vs originality/marginalization, even as shown here with inverted signs, has the depth and novelty of a raindrop. We know that Harry Kupfer has done some great productions in which the polarity between characters is changed, especially his Lohengrin for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, in which Ortrud had right to accuse the delusional Elsa for killing her brother, but that was a result of a careful effort to find dormant ambiguities in the libretto. The rebel-without-a-cause who never took seriously the idea of becoming a Meistersinger in order to get the girl and, on getting her, pays the price of his originality in order to be established is simply not Walther von Stolzing, the already established self-assured gentleman who happens to discover his own voice on condescending to a bourgeois milieu in order to get the girl. Even if this is a twisted manouvre , at least there is a character development of some sort to speak of – poor old Sachs is a nonentity here, a provincial poet who profits of helping his rival in love just to drain him of a supposed geniality he himself envies. Is that the character for whom Wagner wrote music of such depth and nobility? I won’t say more, for the DVD can be easily purchased on-line and in CD stores – not by me, I am afraid, for Ms. Wagner’s family issues should be dealt with exclusively in the privacy of her home.

Sebastian Weigle’s conducting is the opposite of Katharina Wagner’s production – his orchestra is noble in color, solemn almost to a fault, rich in expressive, considerate tempi that require a more expressive cast to match. As the score tends to be ponderous and intricate, I tend to prefer a more objective, forward-moving approach featuring also clearer articulation, but that is a only a matter of taste. I know I tend to mention the closing of act II when I write about a performance of this opera, but that is a crucial scene extremely difficult to organize – and Mr. Weigle has done an excellent job in it. The orderliness had nothing stiff about it, the result being a extraordinarily spontaneous, with excellent contribution from the Festival chorus.

As in the Deutsche Oper, Michaela Kaune is a stylish, musicianly Eva, but her voice was even less focused than back in Berlin, when she had had a particularly beautiful moment leading the quintet. Klaus Florian Vogt too seemed less comfortable than in Berlin – his high notes a bit constricted. I still have to accustom myself to his disembodied tenor in this role that requires a more fervent tonal quality, but there is no denying that his is an unusually pleasant and natural voice used with good taste and stylishness. I must add that, although I disagree to the approach to the role of Stolzing in this production, Vogt embraced it with great skill, offering excellent acting. Adrian Eröd too excelled in the acting department and arguably produced the most satisfying performance in the evening, also adeptly and spiritedly sung. Norbert Ernst was a nimble, intelligent David, but a voice a little bit more generous would have enabled him to more variety. James Rutherford’s grainy bass-baritone is short in tonal and dynamic variety and also a couple of sizes too small for the role of Hans Sachs.

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If this week’s Die Walküre from Bayreuth took some time to warm, this evening’s Siegfried did not hang fire. Christian Thielemann conducted a dense, large-scaled performance that did not need to rush to suggest intensity, but rather increased in tension steadily and progressively. Some conductors opt for raw excitement in this score’s percussive rhythmic effects, but Thielemann never tried any easy option. The forging song, for instance, achieved its effect rather through motivic clarity and rich almost weighty orchestral sound (which never drowned singers). The Neidhöhle scene benefited from dark menacing perspectives and the sort of harmonic transparence that makes one see in this music the hint of what would happen in the next century. The Brünnhilde/Siegfried scene benefited from otherworldly sounds and exploded in passionate, volatile full-toned orchestral playing under the maestro’s flexible beat.

Replacing an ailing Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in the last minute, Sabine Hogrefe offered a creamy-toned soprano with firm, big acuti, dynamic variety and a very decent trill. She bills herself as a dramatic soprano, but a limited lower range and a round rather than penetrating tonal quality would make one think rather of a jugendlich dramatisch voice. I am not sure if I would be tempted to see her Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, but I would certainly cherish the opportunity to sample her Elsa or Elisabeth. In any case, although she was understandably nervous, her singing was extremely accomplished, musicianly and sensitive. Lance Ryan’s tenor is not voluminous, but very well-focused and his high notes are easy and full. He is not afraid of shading his tone and is more accurate about rhythm than many a famous singer in the title role. He is also an excellent actor who knows how to portray innocence without looking silly. His interaction with Wolfgang Schmidt’s Mime is in the core of this evening’s success. I have written of Schmidt’s performance in Rheingold that I had the impression that he manipulated his voice to produce a Spieltenor sound. This evening he expertly managed this ambiguity of heroic and character Fächer to portray the alternating comic and evil sides of his role. He too offered top-level acting – the scene in which he tries to explain fear to Siegfried particularly well done. Andrew Shore still sounds unfocused and strained in his high register, but he is nonetheless a very convincing Alberich, while Albert Dohmen was in noticeably better voice today, offering spirited accounts of his scenes with Mime and Alberich. Again he has his throaty moments and a nobler tonal quality would make his scene with Erda more impressive, the latter role a bit on the low side for Christa Mayer. I mean it as a compliment when I say that Diógenes Randes’s voice is too beautiful for Fafner. As for Christiane Kohl’s Waldvogel, it lacked clearer vowels.

Tankred Dorst’s production still seems clueless about what to do with the plot – the schoolroom set for act I exclusively meant to add humor to the Wotan/Mime guessing game, but failing to respond to the needs of the forging scene. The set to act II looked indeed impressive, but the preparation to Fafner’s coming out of his cave was finally more impressive than his uneventful appearance as Fafner, the giant (rather than as Fafner, the dragon).  Act III was rather bureaucratically dealt with. In any case, the stage direction itself deserves praises for the successful characterizations of both Siegfried and Mime.

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Regietheater is a label too easily given to an alternative staging, but the truth is that it is not supposed to be some sort of liberating approach. On the contrary, the fact that the director’s reading of the work is what being staged means that the director has the greatest share of responsibility, i.e., the focal point of a staging is his reading of the play (and, in the case of opera, of the libretto plus his listening to the music). When one has the impression that director had not bothered to read the author, then this should not be called Regietheater, but simply misappropriation. Although I do not subscribe entirely to Stefan Herheim’s productions, I must concede that what one sees on stage is the result of the director’s thought-provoking personal effort to understand and relate to the works he is staging.

Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal for the Bayreuther Festspiele has become famous – or infamous, for some – for its historical approach to Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel. Its symbolism may be too obscure for comfort, its quotations too wide-ranging and his overwrought directing style short of rococo, but it is impossible to deny the clear development of his concept, which does not collide with the story telling once you make out the complexities of his first act.

As here staged, the story begins in the days of Kaiser Wilhelm, where Germany is no longer a cultural entity but a newly formed country, the process of materialization of which probably involved the loss of its spiritual dimension. I won’t try to explain act I, for the ambivalence of almost all characters involve a double symbology: the tenor singing Parsifal and a boy in a mute role share the same costume; there is the invisible Titurel, but a really visible vampiric mother figure to the boy/Parsifal on her omnipresent deathbed on which one can see her giving birth to a mystical baby. She shares the same costume with Amfortas, whose crown of thorns might evoke Jesus Christ (although he clearly represents the established power, being himself the king). If one resists the temptation of framing every detail and rather surrender to the shattering effects of the beautiful and sophisticated sets equipped with every imaginable theatrical contraption and the detailed Personsregie, the closing tableau where a nation bereft of meaning and obsessed with formal purity goes to World War I hints at what is going to happen next.

Act II is the most sharply defined and more coherent in Herheim’s concept. WWI is over and moral dissolution is the keynote in the Weimar Republic. A transvestite Klingsor presides over a cabaret that doubles as a hospital (a quotation from John Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion?) where Kundry first appears to Parsifal as Marlene Dietrich and then, after the young man’s insight about Amfortas, as the mother figure extremely reminiscent of Edith Clever in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s movie. The seduction scene, witnessed by families persecuted by the regime, reaches its climax when Kundry’s threats are portrayed by the rise of red banners with swastikas and police violence against the extras. It is not Klingsor who throws the spear against Parsifal, but his boy-doppelgänger fully dressed in nazi uniform. Act III is more univocal in its meaning – the sets show a post-war scenario, the redeemed Kundry and the anointed Parsifal, for the first time, interact with the extras, now a group of women busy with reconstructing the destroyed city, by embracing and helping them. When they march into the Reichstag to release Amfortas from his duties, a mirror in the shape of the planet reflect the audience into the stage while a dove shines above it. I know, “world peace” exactly as in beauty pageants. Considering the negative agenda dealt with by Herheim, he probably thought it wise to end on a positive note.

Musically, the performance never actually took off. Daniele Gatti seemed to have his mind elsewhere (in Salzburg for Elektra?). Although the orchestra often produced exquisite sounds, act I was long beyond salvation and lacking depth; act II was structurally unclear and poorly developed – even when some animation was brought in (as in the flowermaiden scene) the results were mechanical and inorganic; and act III proved to be uneventful and lacking atmosphere, the magic in the good friday magic left to imagination. Susan Maclean was a powerful, warm-toned and intense Kundry. Her acting is also top class. Cristopher Ventris’s tenor is large enough if technically not hearty and percussive as a Heldentenor’s, but he took profit of his bright and round high register to produce a vulnerable, sensitive performance. Detlef Roth’s baritone is firm but really light-toned for Amfortas, often tested by the lower tessitura. On the other hand, Thomas Jesatko was a quite dark-toned Klingsor, forcefully sung. Kwangchul Youn may lack the sense of story-telling so important for Gurnemanz, but his diction is very clear, his voice is noble, large and rich.

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After a musically outstanding Rheingold, expectations for this evening’s Walküre were high, but the event reserved a few surprises, not all of them positive. To start with, although the orchestral sound was consistently beautiful and rich, act I lacked, in the absence of a better word, passion. Often the buildup to a climax would be cut off too soon and one would rather hear particular successful moments (such as a lyric, touching Winterstürme, sensitively sung by the tenor) that did not merge into a continuous arch of musical-dramatic development. Act II suffered from tempi that did seem slow, particularly during Wotan’s run-through of previous events when this evening’s Wotan failed to give life to the text. The Todverkündung suffered from absence of atmosphere, a situation when forward-movement rather than lingering is recommended, especially when the Brünnhilde did not seem really inspired. Only the Sieglinde/Siegmund situations came through as improvement from act I, since both singers showed themselves even more connected to the dramatic situation, and also the conductor could warm to their performances and wrap them in sounds that offered more than sheer sonic beauty. Something might have happened during the second intermission, for act III redeemed the whole evening. After a structural clear Walkürenritt, Christian Thielemann treated the audience with a Golden Age Wagnerian performance – the orchestra’s luxuriantly beautiful sounds were also laden with meaning and emotion, not only commenting the theatrical action, but carrying it forward with almost unbearable intensity. Sieglinde’s farewell was not an isolated powerful moment, but rather the culmination of a truly poignant scene, but the final Brünnhilde/Wotan scene stood out as the highlight of the evening, both singers giving their very best and an orchestra that magnified their performance in admirable expressive power. When Wotan kissed Brünnhilde’s godhead away, the very sound of the Festival orchestra transpired grief. By then, if you were not crying, you probably don’t have a heart. In a word, although the first two acts had their moments, act three alone was worth the price of the ticket, plus transportation and hotel costs.

If anything in this performance was consistently excellent during the three acts, this has to be Edith Haller’s peerless performance as Sieglinde. I had never heard her before, but she joins today my list of favourite singers. Her youthful, exquisite and bright-toned soprano often made me think of Maria Müller’s vulnerable Sieglinde from the 1936 Festival (elegant portamenti included), but Haller’s top register is more corsé, flashing through the auditorium without any hint of strain or difficulty. Her qualities are, in any case, more than purely vocal – she is an extremely musical, sensitive and intelligent artist. Linda Watson took more time to grow into her Brünnhilde – although her ho-jo-to-ho had flat sustained high b’s, she was well at ease with the rest of her battle cry. Her long scene with Siegmund challenged her otherwise in the expressive department. As well as unvaried, her exposed high notes sounded squally sometimes. Although not a very good actress, she finally offered a beautiful account of the third act, when she proved capable of real nuance and legato, never forced her voice and seemed engaged enough to offer a touching interpretation. Moreover, the scene’s tessitura fits her rich and warm low register. Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre’s Fricka, but she is a shrewd singer who knows how to handle her resources to deliver the right effect in the right moment. Johan Botha’s voice is higher-lying than those of the tenors usually cast in this role. As a result, the raw excitement of dark, beefy high g’s was not really there. In exchange, a brighter tonal quality and more flowing legato throughout. When Innigkeit was required, such as in his contemplation of the sleeping Sieglinde in act II, the South-African tenor was particularly appealing. In spite of his heavy frame, he did not appear to be really awkward on stage, but rather quite convincing in his attraction to Sieglinde in act I. Albert Dohmen did not show any improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold until the opera’s last scene, when he conjured all his means to produce a sensitive and varied farewell to Brünnhilde. His invocation of Loge right before the end of the opera even brought about his first really Wotan-like powerful top notes. As for Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding, saying that he was less than perfect would be an unforgivable lie. Last but not least, the casting of the remaining eight valkyries is praiseworthy.

As for Tankred Dorst’s production, it still lacks purport – the sets are  not really original, the intrusive presence of contemporary bystanders is tautological, stage direction has too many careless moments, the ugly costumes often make it difficult for singers to move (Fricka’s specially). If I should be positive about this staging, I would mention that it is well crafted – the sets are flawlessly built, the lighting is sophisticated and there is very little silliness going on here (something that should be cherished considering the present state of operatic staging).

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Tankred Dorst’s 2006 production of the Ring des Nibelungen for the Bayreuther Festspiele, due to be released on DVD in the end of the year, seems to turn around the concept that myths do not belong in the past, but still linger in the darker corners of our daily lives. Although the Rhinemaidens and Alberich are shown in a stylized Rhine, Wotan and the other gods dwell on the top of a decayed building that could perfectly be on Leipziger Straße in Berlin. While Freia’s fate is being decided, a couple of tourists appear and takes a picture – in case someone had not noticed by then that the setting is contemporary. Nibelheim is an industrial plant (yes, nothing new about that) where an engineer passes by Wotan and Loge, who are invisible to his eyes, to check the pressure on a couple of pipes. During the opera’s last bars, a kid from our days finds a remain of Fafner’s treasure, but the curse seems to keep its effect. He soon gets a beating from his friends, who steal it from him. Considering the premise’s absence of originality, the scene who curiously seem to work is the first one, the only not to fit the concept. The stage direction has nothing new about it – some key scenes, such as Alberich’s curse, hang fire – the sets were uninspiring and the costumes are not only extremely ugly, but sometimes also impaired actors’ movements.

All that said, the production is nothing but a footnote in a Wagner performance in which Christian Thielemann is the conductor. Although his tempi were quite deliberate, the richness and clarity of orchestral sound and the purposefulness in phrasing filled these tempi in a way that simply sounded right. The Festival orchestra played with tremendous gusto, strings were full-toned yet extremely flexible, the texture was dense yet transparent, the various sections blended perfectly, brass instruments offered flawless playing. In spite of the venue’s famously difficult acoustics, one did not feel that the orchestral sound was recessed (the covered pit did make the sound less bright, but never small-scaled) and the conductor was very sensitive but also very sensible in deciding when it was possible to curb his formidable forces to help out singers.

Albert Dohmen, for example, did not seem to be in very good voice – on its higher reaches, his bass-baritone sounded bottled up and limited in volume. Truth be said, he was often covered by the orchestra and detached in the interpretation department. Back in 2004, I had the opportunity to see him as Amfortas in Munich and clearly remember a very large and powerful voice, but recently it seems to have shrunk in size. Let us hope that tomorrow will find him in better shape. Andrew Shore is a good actor and his voice has the right sound for Alberich, but his high notes were unfocused and often rough. After one has seen Tomasz Koniecny in this role, one tends to find fault in everyone else these days, but it seems that the British baritone was experimenting some sort of fatigue this evening. It has become customary for Kwangchul Youn to steal the show when he sings Fasolt in The Rhinegold – the Korean bass’s dark, incisive voice is taylor-made for Wagner. Brazilian bass Diógenes Randes’s is velvetier in sound, but his Fafner did not lack menace. Wolfgang Schmidt, whom I saw back in 1997 as an ill-at-ease Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera House, is now a powerful Mime who sometimes indulge in some Spieltenor mannerisms that do not really go with his basic tonal quality. Let us wait for Siegfried to say more about him. Clemends Bieber was a pleasant-toned Froh, but Ralk Lukas lacked slancio for his final and important contribution. Mihoko Fujimura is a light, efficient Fricka and Christa Meyer’s mezzo seemed a bit high for the role of Erda, even if she sang it quite commendably. Christiane Kohl, Ulrike Helzel and Simone Schröder were very well cast as the Rhinemaidens.

I will leave the best for last – Arnold Bezuyen’s impressively sung Loge and Edith Haller’s crystalline Freia. The Dutch tenor, in particular, deserves praises for his extremely musical phrasing, his intelligent word-pointing that never stands between him and true cantabile and his finely projected voice.

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There is nothing new in saying that recordings do not say everything about a live performance – but I have never experienced that sensations as strongly as I have today in Verbier. Before you jump to the conclusion that the unrecorded part of the event was the thrill, I tell you right away that the performance was particularly unexciting. The unrecordable part actually was the technical aspects of making a demanding score work in unideal circumstances.

To start with, although many like to say that Salome is a symphonic poem with voices, Richard Strauss composed this music to follow the theatrical action – its effects, its atmosphere, its tempo were conceived to create a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk experience, and that is why this it is seen as a masterpiece. Of course, the depth of R. Strauss’s writing can survive the absence of a staging, but then the conductor has to make the action take place in the orchestra and soloists have to make it happen in their voices. That was not the case today. But this does not mean that the performance was devoid of interest.

Valery Gergiev faced two problems – a festival orchestra (a fact that goes beyond the absence of cohesion that long-standing orchestras have, but most of all that involves having to build a sound culture for the particular piece – something one would not need to explain to the Vienna Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Dresden, for example) and extremely unfavourable acoustics. The Salle des Combins is a very large temporary structure with particularly dry acoustics. Warm orchestral sound is impossible in such a venue and singers had to work hard to be heard. What struck me as particularly commendable of Mr. Gergiev was the fact that, not only was he aware of that, but also that he adjusted his whole performance to these conditions. As a result, instead of sensuous, rich sounds, the audience was treated to an impressively structurally transparent performance of this opera: singers did not have to shout themselves out to pierce through a thick orchestra, R. Strauss’s sophisticated harmonic effects were clearly defined and each part of this multicoloured score formed a coherent whole. What was missing then? The sparkle of imagination to make this marvelous structure say something. From the Dance of the Seven Veils, the performance started to simmer down and, by the closing scene, when things should be running unleashed, they seemed quite well-behaved and lacking purpose.

I wonder how microphones caught Deborah Voigt’s formidably unsubtle performance. I had the impression that R. Strauss would have found it unforgivably vulgar if he heard something like that in, say, the Vienna State Opera. Considering the venue’s difficult acoustics, however, its unvariably loud quality was quite refreshing. After some shaky moments in the recent years, it seems this American soprano has regained her vocal health and stamina, for she really had no problem with producing a neverending series of big top notes. I know her high register has always been the strong feature of her voice, but they seemed very well integrated into a serviceable middle register, differently from what I’ve heard from her the last three times I saw her – in singer-friendlier theatres. Her interpretation turned around naughtiness, what is probably what one does when one has no tonal and dynamic variety, but more believable pronunciation of German would have made all the difference in the world. This evening, Salome did not want to kiss Jokanaan, but seemed to want from him an object that would be translated as a mouth-pillow. Although Evgeny Nikitin’s German needs improvement as well, his very Russian-sounding baritone is impressively powerful and firm-toned. He is also emphatic to the point of hamminess in the interpretation department, but at least he more or less fulfilled the character description more readily than anyone else this evening. Siegfried Jerusalem struggled with his top notes through the whole evening, but his voice retains its natural tonal quality and his diction is exemplary. As for the 74-year-old Dame Gwyneth Jones, although she flashed one or two incisive notes during the evening, one must understand this as a generous cameo appearance from one singer who deserves more than anyone else the title of World’s Living Treasure. Someone like me, who did not have the luck to see her before her official retirement, should cherish the opportunity just to watch her on stage.

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