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Archive for October, 2010

How local should be the staging of an opera? This is the question director Roland Schwab must have posed himself when the Deutsche Oper asked him for a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This is an opera named after one of the characters and although this generally means that this is the main character, that does not mean either that all other characters unimportant. I write that for it seems that a great deal of new staging of this opera has been so absorbed by Don Juan that all other characters are left to imagination, even if they sing a great deal more than the burlador de Sevilla himself. I find it particularly bothersome when this involves messing with the score, as in this case: recitatives have been trimmed to fit the director’s concept and the loss of Il mio tesoro and the final scene has nothing to do with the Viennese edition (no razor duet, to start with), but simply with the fact that Mozart and da Ponte supposedly did not know better.

As staged here, this could be a two-role opera with pauses for concert arias from high-voiced singers. Don Giovanni is some sort of mobster who lives la vida loca in Berlin’s clubbing scene, with a little help of his sidekick Leporello. Although Mozart and da Ponte wrote an opera that reaches its climax in the second act, here this is transferred to the first act finale: Don Giovanni’s party is some sort of night-life inferno with two spiraled neon hell-machines, a boar’s head stuck on a spear, a naked girl with a fixator around one leg, other naked girl hanging from the ceiling, a quotation from Dante and good old Jesus on a stationary bike. Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Don Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto seem to be extras from Mike Nichols’s “The Graduate” who have taken a bus to Berlin in the end of the movie. What they are doing there, what they feel, what they think, who they are – these are irrelevant question.

So, the production concentrates on the issues of the addiction to freedom that clubbers experiment only to drive them always to live in their limits, until the never-ending quest for new limits becomes a prison. Point taken. How does the giocoso part fits in the story? In some sort of slapstick broad black comedy that Germans appreciate, basically all turning around Leporello, who licks arms, nipples, face, feet etc of half the cast and some extras, strips to his underwear while doing Beyoncé-like choreographies surrounded by dancing skulls with mickey-mouse ears in the graveyard scene while tossing evil laughs whenever there is time for it. When there is not, no problem – the conductor agreed to press the pause button in the middle of recitatives.

If the idea was to shock or wow anyone who knows Berlin’s underground scene, I guess that the effort was self-defeating. It all looked cutely quirky. Sometimes embarrassingly so. There was nothing truly disturbing going on stage – maybe an ill-humored member of the audience would find the unfunny jokes about Christ offensive, but they are so pointless that I doubt that – and I do not really believe that Da Ponte and Mozart truly give raw material for something blatant. Especially when the conductor is Roberto Abbado, who offered the best-behaved performance of this opera I have ever seen in my life. Vigor, strong accents, contrasts – one should look for that anywhere else. Emptily elegant phrasing, sprightly rhythms and graciousness is all you would find here. I have once read that one shopping-center somewhere in USA has always Mozart pouring from the speakers, because they have observed that this discourages young people from indulging in vandalism. The musical performance this evening seems to prove that. If those on stage seemed ready to let it rip, this must have been because they were paid to pretend.

The saving grace in this evening was Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, who offered a Mozartian performance in the grand manner. I cannot think of anyone else who could tackle the role of Donna Anna these days as beautifully as she did. With the exception of some wrong entries in Non mi dir, she sang immaculately: unforced, round top notes, crystal-clear coloratura, pure intonation, instrumental phrasing, sense of style, an amazingly lovely tone, you name it, she has it. I have a message for mezzo-sopranos: Donna Elvira is not a role for you girls. Ruxandra Donose is only the next victim of this misconception – she sounded uncomfortable throughout and struggled perilously with a transposed Mi tradì. Her intervention in Don Giovanni’s feast had to do with the optional lower notes. On the other hand, Martina Welschenbach found the role of Zerlina too low, but her voice is so pleasant and her singing is so engaging that one can forgive her that. Yosep Kang was an unsubtle Don Ottavio who still needs to know the art of tonal coloring and dynamic shading. No-one missed Il mio tesoro tonight. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s big, firm bass lacks some variety too and he is not very strong in vocal seduction, but considering what an over-enthusiastic singer could do in this production, his austerity is quite welcome. At this point, I could write a master degree about Alex Esposito’s Leporello. Although his voice is not remarkable in any sense, it is nonetheless quite reliable and healthily produced. His interpretation is now plagued by the sort of mannerisms that appear when a singer sings for too long the same role. He has a Roberto Benigni-like restlessness and clownishness that, framed by a good director, can come through as vivaciousness and funniness. This evening, rambunctiousness and vexatiousness would describe it more faithfully. Finally, Ante Jerkunica did not find problems in the writing of the Commendatore, but having a lighter and clearer voice than Don Giovanni was a little confusing.

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Although Guy Cassiers’s Ring for La Scala/Deutsche Staatsoper is supposed to be a “ring of the ‘now'”, you would need a crystal ball to discover that, whereas Claus Guth’s Ring for the Hamburg Staatsoper definitely seems to address contemporary issues. I write “seems to”, for the new production of Götterdämmerung is the only one in the cycle I could see – now I am curious to see the rest.  Although Guth follows the cliché of architecture as a symbol of society, his symbology strikes home in a clear way. In the program, he explains that in the beginning of Rheingold, the world still had a clear “architecture” of power:  gods above, dwarfs beneath and mankind in the middle. When Alberich steals the rhinegold, he irrevocably subverts the structure. After that, nothing will be the same – Wotan betrays the principles by which he rules only to finally loose the ring to Fafner, who treasures it in the underground. So the question is – how one is supposed to understand his place in a world whose structures of power are unclear? In this sense, the Volsungs are the characters with whom we, in a very similar world, are supposed to identify with.

The opera starts in some sort of motel room, a place unconnected and far away where Brünnhilde and Siegfried are living their idyll until she realizes that he wants to see the world. He finds it in the Gibichungenhall, a Bauhaus-like structure inhabited by the bourgeois siblings plus Hagen and haunted by the weakened gods and by Alberich. Siegfried is seduced by wealth and also by Gutrune and, without the help of any magic potion, lets Brünnhilde go in order to find himself a place in society. This twist alone could seem contrived, but Guth’s efficient stage direction makes it believable – Siegfried sees in Brünnhilde a motherly figure and acts as a child who has his way knowing that in the end he is going to be forgiven. He will eventually learn by experience that, on letting Brünnhilde go, he had somehow sold his soul and, again without the help of any potion, betrays himself on purpose in the suicidal manouvre of someone who has gone astray and cannot find his way back. Accordingly, his death scene is portrayed in the motel room where he fancies to be in the moment of his death. The immolation scene follows the same structure and seems to explain that this is not the end of the world, but the end of that world. On returning the ring to the Rhine, Brünnhilde opens the path to a new world in a self-effacing attitude. The world she knew has been corrupted by absence of principles and she has made a difference by sticking to hers:  she refused to renounce to love,  for the private sphere had proved to be the only place where one can be at home in an incomprehensible society.

As you can see, plenty of food for thought. It is only a pity that episodes of silliness enfeeble somehow the concept. Siegfried trying to find his way through the Rhine with a city map, Brünnhilde having her corn flakes during Waltraute’s narration and a finally a Siegfried disguised as Gunther upset by the impossibility of having a beer while wearing the tarnhelm – all that is unnecessary and ultimately distracting. Without those cute touches, one could have perfectly understood that Siegfried is childish or that Brünnhilde no longer has anything in common with Waltraute. Other interesting resources are overdone – the ghost-like appearance of gods would be more effective if not repeated every time their names or ideas associated to them are mentioned. Also, the revolving set (Guth seems to have a fetish in this particular stage device) where something is always happening offers unnecessary competition to Wagner’s magnificent orchestral interludes.

Simone Young is a conductor of rare musical organization – textures are always clear, you don’t have to look for hidden woodwind phrases, for they are right there on your face, and, more than that, her sense of pulse is quite remarkable. Because of this unity of beat during a whole act, Wagner’s music sounds especially organic under her baton. The tricky first act was finally the most successful – I cannot recall a Gibichungenhalle scene so fluent and consequent as I have heard this evening. Unfortunately, the second act proved to be the negative side of the conductor’s qualities, since the orchestra was not comfortable following her a tempo-approach; the result was the occasional example of poor synchronicity, unpolished sound and a chorus ill-at-ease. Having to accommodate the needs of her soloists finally backfired in the last act, the sense of forward-movement largely lost and an Immolation Scene overcautious and unatmospheric. All that said, I would be curious of what she could do in this repertoire with a Vienna Philharmonic.

At 61 (but looking 15 years younger than her actual age), Deborah Polaski still commands regal tonal quality as Brünnhilde. She has never been comfortable in the upper reaches, but now she has to tread a bit cautiously up there, with variable results. In any case, the sensitivity, the warmth of her sound, the sheer size of her voice and her intelligence concur to a noble performance. It is only sad that the last scene caught her already too tired for the challenge. Anna Gabler’s soprano is a couple sizes too small for Wagner, but she has hold her own with dignity and is also a good actress. Although Petra Lang got generous applause for her Waltraute, it took me some time to recognize her in a singer with screechy high notes, sketchy low register and dubious intonation, her vehemence largely conveyed through strain. At some point in his career, Christian Franz might have had  one of those bright, natural tenor voices in a more lyric Fach. Today, his Siegfried  exists by means of constant manipulation of vocal resources, note values and pitch, plus a generous serving of parlando effects. Even if one does not like the comedy touches in this production, one cannot deny this tenor’s comedy skills. Robert Bork was a far more positive Gunther than usual, and his grainy, dark baritone can produce some welcome heroic top notes. In this point of his career, John Tomlinson’s  voice has lost the juice in its higher end. Around Siegfried’s entrance in their first common scene, the British bass-baritone had some dangerously patchy moments. Otherwise, his dark and forceful voice and knowledge of Wagnerian musikdrama are assets hard to overlook. Last but not least, the Hamburgische Staatsoper must be praised for the excellent choice of Norns and Rhinemaidens in their ensemble.

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As the optimistic person that I am, I have decided to give the Cassiers/Barenboim Rheingold a second chance; maybe last time at La Scala was just a collective bad day and I was curious about the new pieces of casting. In an impossibly positive scenario, Cassiers could have rethought his concept after the unanimous dislike he met with. But no – he is a man of conviction. I should admire that – if I had been given a free ticket maybe…

To make things worse, this time I could read dramaturg Michael Steinberg’s explanatory text about the production*. In it, he says that he and this production’s creative team are opening a new era in the staging of Wagner’s Ring: all stagings since the 1980’s represent a throwback from Chéreau’s revolutionary historical concept, while Cassiers would be basically “in the same line” as the French director. But, nota bene, Cassiers is  supposed to be a development from that concept: his Ring “will show how the globalized world of 2010 is still based on the Wagnerian vocabulary of 1870″. More than that, it “won’t begin in 1870 and move towards 1945, but rather develop from our days – it will take place in the ‘now'”. I know, I too was curious to see how they intended to do this: “these aesthetics work with the double meaning of  ‘projection’, as understood by Freud and others. On one hand, projection is the photographic and cinematographic technology – an image is projected from one source onto a surface. On the other hand, a projection has also psychic dynamic that comprehends the externalization of internal experience and (in symbolical sense) the ascription of emotional causes and attributes to a secondary, external source”. OK, now I got the cameras under the waters of the Rhine, but I guess Mr. Cassiers and his team should have rather learned with Chéreau the craft of true stage direction. I’ll make it easy for them: the art of knowing how to place actors on stage and give them meaningful attitudes, instead of having Friedrichstadt-Palast-like choreographies to portray that.

If I have to compare this evening with that in La Scala, the performance tonight seemed more technically finished (especially lighting), but the cast seemed less animated (particularly Stephan Rügamer). I cannot say if it is my imagination, but some scenes seemed cleaner, the Rhinemaidens less messy, Fasolt and Froh less lost in the context and, maybe it is because Berlin saw the thinner Wotan in the history of opera, his suit looked far less salvation-army-style than the one given to René Pape in Milan. On the other hand, Fricka has a kitschier gown to deal with.

Musically speaking, the dyspeptic approach to the score in Milan was unfortunately not accidental. Although the orchestra seemed more recessed here in Berlin (I don’t think that the mini Bayreuth-hood on the pit has any acoustic consequence), with a clear advantage for the singers, the extra sonic beauty of the Staatskapelle Berlin involve some exquisite orchestral effects, particularly in the rainbow bridge episode, what is always helpful in the context of slow tempi. In any case, the absence of rich orchestral sound will be for many Wagnerians (me included) a coup de grâce in Barenboim’s chamber-like (?) new approach.

Ekaterina Gubanova’s sensuous-toned if not completely incisive Fricka is an improvement from Milan. The other newcomer deserves more explanation: I don’t believe that Hanno Müller-Brachmann is going to add the role of Wotan to his repertoire, but is rather covering for René Pape, who has to sing Boris Godunov at the Met. His bass-baritone is impressively well-focused in the whole range; his technical security is such that he finds no problem in producing dark bottom notes and heroic top notes. The sound is, however, a bit slim and lacking weight, not to mention that the upper end of the tessitura may sound a bit clear. However, his main advantage over René Pape is his verbal specificity. Instead of painting with broad atmospheric paintbrushes, Brachmann delivers the text with crystal-clear diction and admirably precise declamatory abilities. The overall effect might not be the most grandiose around, but he does keep you interested in the proceedings. In any case, in a large hall with a powerful orchestra, I have the impression that Wolfram or maybe Beckmesser would be more appropriate for his voice.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was in far healthier voice here than in Milan. He is a vivid actor with a forceful voice, but his open-toned approach to top notes is a no-go for the more dramatic scenes. Stephan Rügamer was a bit less exuberant – also in the acting department – this evening. In any case, his Mozartian Loge is always interesting. It is a pity that he cannot do without the nasality that distorts his vowels. Again, Kwangchul Youn offered the most solid Wagnerian performance of the evening, but Anna Larsson proved to be here more convincing than in Italy. Maybe Ewa Wolak (at the Deutsche Oper) has spoilt the role for me, but the Swedish contralto still sounds too soft-grained for this role to my taste.

* It had been published at La Scala too, but I could not find it among thousands of pages of advertisement.

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Missing and Wanted 2

I would be extremely grateful for any information concerning the whereabouts of any copy of Klemperer’s old, old, old recording of Così Fan Tutte with Margaret Price and Yvonne Minton [of course...].

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I have nothing new to add to the discussion about the Met’s new Ring, but in any case I would like to join the general opinion about it, based on what I could see on the movie theatre. Has the Met spent its millions wisely? I would say no – Robert Lepage’s machine cannot help being interesting, but it’s hardly a deus ex machina in a production that has nothing to say and no stage direction other than rescuing singers from being smashed by the revolving structure. And there are the costumes – if a breastplate is everything Lepage and his creative team had to say, the Met should have spared the money and kept Otto Schenck’s old production. If I am allowed a question – I would be curious to hear why, amidst all those technological niceties, a decent transformation scene for Alberich and an impressive entrance for Erda could not be provided. Tell me about anti-climatic. I know: the Rhinemaidens scene is indeed visually striking and the God’s entrance in Walhalla is clever, but I certainly don’t understand why suspending singers from wires was thought to be a good replacement for true theatrical direction:  the puppeteered Loge making his cautious steps upwards on the ramp looked particularly uninspiring.

What is beyond doubt are James Levine’s Wagnerian credentials – I dare to say that his bold, clear, forward-moving and dramatic account of the score is more exciting than the one available on DVD from a couple of decades ago. The house orchestra also seemed to be in great shape. When it comes to singers, it is difficult to say the last word judging from the broadcast, for the Met’s mikes can make a Natalie Dessay sound like a Birgit Nilsson, but judging from my experience with those singers live in that venue, I guess I can have an idea. The female side of the cast was indeed uniformly strong: Stephanie Blythe’s grandly powerful Fricka is a Wagnerian classic of our days, Wendy Bryn Harmer’s golden-toned Freia was extremely satisfying (also in the acting department) and the three Rheinmaidens (especially Lisette Oropesa) were all spirited and pleasant on the ear. If Patricia Bardon was a bit small-scaled as Erda, her voice is still aptly dark and she is always a classy singer. Among the men, the evening’s Alberich deserves special mention. The reason why the whole episode involving Wotan, Alberich and Loge in Scene 4 was not a complete fiasco in terms of theatrical action was Eric Owens’s ample, dark-toned bass-baritone, intense delivery of the text and forceful stage presence. And I saw this as someone who had close-ups on the screen. I can only guess that someone in Family Circle was asking him or herself why nothing was happening on stage at that point. Both giants have been cast from strength with Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig, who relished the competition, offering both vehement, passionate performances. Gerhard Siegel’s powerful and characterful Mime is also worthy of mention. Musicianly and elegant as Richard Croft’s Loge was, he does sound out of his element here. He delivers his lines somewhat cautiously, is often underpowered by the orchestra and has too noble a voice for the role, not to mention that he lacks the necessary ebullience. As for Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, I must confess I have found him far more comfortable than I expected. My experience with the Welsh bass-baritone live has invariably shown him grey-toned, fatigued and lacking volume, but I must have had bad luck. In any case, here I have to mistrust the microphones, i.e. I wonder how voluminous he really sounded live. As heard here, although the voice is not rich nor particularly noble, it seemed quite vivid in the whole range. His acting was quite inexpressive, but he found space to color his text quite successfully. Let us see how he is going to deal with the far more testing part in Die Walküre.

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R. Strauss’s “bucolic tragedy” Daphne, written during the Second World War, has seldom been staged and, although some might blame the static libretto with its complex transformation scene at the end, I would rather mention the extremely difficult vocal parts and virtuosic writing for the orchestra. In any case, it is still a challenging story for a stage director and Torsten Fischer must be praised for his imaginative approach to the story that adds unusual depth to the plot without making violence to it.

Although the connection with the young anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl seems at first far-fetched, it ultimately pays off in the portrayal of a Daphne who refuses to blend in a world that has lost its innocence. The staging actually opens with the projection a touching quotation from one of her letters in which she praises the beauty of nature in comparison with the ugliness brought about by the work of mankind. The Dyonisian rites are here performed as pro-régime rallies with the deceptive appearance of Apollo as some sort of commanding officer that first promises the glory that Daphne dreams about and ultimately brings destruction by the killing of Leukippos. The closing scene alone is worth the price of the tickets – from her prison cell, Daphne dreams of walking out from it, climbs a long staircase and, by virtue of a long mirror hanging over the stage, we can see her joining her dead friend and all other members of the cast and chorus in a gigantic “human tree” of victims of the war. Has the director imposed his own view on the plot? If we have in mind the days when the opera was written, the idea behind the myth and the fact alone that this concept allows for a far more moving closing to the opera than awkward attempts of the title role’s transformation into a tree (you just have to write the words “Daphne” and “Strauss” on youtube.com to see my point), Torsten Fischer’s production goes far beyond the usual superficiality and narcissism of régietheater and offers far more than a traditional staging could propose. And it does not hurt either that costumes, sets and lighting are beautiful and well-judged.

Although Camilla Nylund’s soprano is a bit unfocused, she sang the impossibly strenuous title-role with poise and sensitiveness. Her warm tonal quality and clean phrasing are aptly Straussian and it is only a pity that exposed dramatic notes lack a brighter edge to shine in the auditorium. Her restrained and dignified acting are also praiseworthy. Ladislav Elgr’s firm and bright tenor proved to be up to the challenge of singing the role of Leukippos and could be said to steal the show, especially because Robert Dean Smith clearly was not in a good day. The role of Apollo is extremely testing and he seems to have an unending supply of high notes in his favor, but the voice lacked color and failed to pierce through. He is not dashing as the role ideally requires either. Christa Mayer seemed at ease with the contralto tessitura of Gaea and sang richly throughout, while Georg Zeppenfeld gave an ideal performance of the role of Peneios. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber took some time to warm – the first scenes lacked clarity and he did not seem to find an ideally transparent orchestral sound while trying to make singers’ lives easier. Fortunately, the tragic half of the story counted with dense sonorities of the Staatskapelle’s legendary strings in ideal balance with singers on stage and with the remaining sections of the orchestra.

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The Deutsche Oper’s concert performances of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (probably together with the Staatsoper’s upcoming Walküre with Irène Théorin and René Pape) are seen as the operatic event of this season. Although Cilea is hardly a “superstar” composer, what he might miss in “coolness” has been provided by the casting of Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann in the leading roles. There was not a free seat in the whole house and tickets were practically sold out a week after the box office opening a couple of months ago. I won’t deny that star casting has paid off this evening, but what really made it a special event was the effect of an extraordinary ensemble.

I saw Marco Armiliato conduct Adriana at the Met last year, and found it awkward and unatmospheric. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra, on the other hand, seemed to be having fun with a work that had not been performed in the house for decades. Even in comparison with James Levine’s famous CDs with the Philharmonia Orchestra (so far, probably the only serious “orchestral” performance of this work), the musicians from Berlin gave it the most beautifully rich-toned and full-blooded performance one could think of. Here the Italian conductor seemed at home to produce a most expressive performance that eschewed the kind of vulgarity usually taken for “verismo”.

Angela Gheorghiu is not the lirico spinto one would wish to hear in this part, but that is all I can find fault with in her performance. Her feeling for this music is admirable, her dramatic portrayal is vivid, her ability to evoke glamour is most important in this of all roles, and there still are her floating mezza voce and elegant use of portamento to round it off. A bit more clarity of enunciation would make her performance go beyond touching and stylish, but her declamation of spoken lines was expertly done. Since there is neither a new Renata Tebaldi to provide all the Italian soprano exuberance the role demands nor a new Renata Scotto to get you in the guts as it should, I would say that Gheorghiu could consider herself unrivaled as Adriana these days. In any case, it is most commendable that she could provide both vocal sophistication and variety of interpretation in this difficult role.

As her rival, Anna Smirnova received the most enthusiastic applause in the evening. Her mezzo is alright big and powerful and she proved to be less blunt than I had expected based on my previous experience of her singing. Yet her middle register is still unfocused and her vowels are unclear. Although the Slavonic metallic edge does not suggest patricianship, she had something grand about her and could find some sense of humor in her character.

As expected, Jonas Kaufmann has more than the measure of the role of Maurizio. I would even say that his singing had never sounded as Italianate as it did today. I had found his Cavaradossi too chic for the circumstances, but this evening one could really believe that he hails from somewhere further south than Monaco di Baviera, in spite of the dark tonal quality. The ardor did not stand between him and his customary sensitive use of mezza voce and attention to the text.

Even in such a starry cast, my favourite singer was one member of the ensemble: Markus Brück, who sang an infinitely subtle and intelligent performance as Michonnet. His voice really works beautifully in Italian repertoire, while his natural legato and ability for tonal coloring makes one think of a Mozartian singer. But not mistake my words – the voice is always large, rich and ringing. Minor roles were cast from strength, especially Burkhard Ulrich (the house’s Loge and Mime), here an intelligent and funny Abbé de Choizeul.

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