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Archive for December, 2010

Although what we use to call the ”Paris” version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is usually seen as stylistically uneven in comparison to a more homogeneous ”Dresden” version, I have no doubt in my preference for the ballet music and a more ambitious Venusberg scene. Does it makes some of act 2 seem too well-behaved? Well, it does – but this is too small a price to pay for the more sensuous and sophisticated music Wagner wrote later  – and the Royal Opera House made the right decision in opting for it.  The problem is that the more complex Venusberg scene requires a difficult choreography for the bacchanale and a more psychologally elaborate character development for both Venus and Tannhäuser. And I do not believe that the Royal Opera House could provide that in its new staging.

Tim Albery’s nondescript production probably tried not to displease anyone and ended on not pleasing anyone. The liberties taken with the libretto and its stylized visuals suggest a Regie staging, but it does not bring any kind of ”reading” to the story. The Royal Opera House program publishes some texts about artists and excesses and about ”gated communities”, but their relation to the staging is more hinted at then intimately related to it. The sets are basically variations on the theme of the Royal Opera House curtains. They are in perfect shape at the Venusberg,  are replaced by a tree to depict the fields where Tannhäuser sees the pilgrims, then they return as partially ruined for act 2 and are finally shown as entirely ruined in act 3.  I can remember these ideas from a couple of productions I have seen this year – Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal for Bayreuth, for example. However, if Albery found inspiration in Herheim, he limited it to the sceneries. I could not find a coherent approach in this Tannhäuser other than what clearly meant in Wagner’s libretto.  The shepherd as a projection of the young Tannhäuser – that could be  interesting, but it comes and goes without further development (and I guess I have seen that in Herheim’s Parsifal too…). Showing the Landgraf’s noble guests as a  ”gated community”-meeting of armed vigilantes seems a pointless inference when Venus is seen a vamp in a sexy gown purring on a white bed (both in acts 1 and 3), Elisabeth as a girl in white lace and a veil, Tannhäuser as a guy in a suit and Wolfram as… another guy in a suit. Someone should have explained the director that he could have chosen a traditional staging if he had no ideas to add to Wagner’s well-conceived ones.

Semyon Bychkov knows his Tannhäuser and was able to find the right atmosphere for every scene: the warm tonal palette and flexible tempo for the Venusberg scene, the large scale and depth of sound for the pilgrims, the quicksilvery excitement for the hunting party, the grandeur for the arrival of the guests, the Innigkeit for Elisabeth’s prayer and Wolfram’s song. The Royal Opera House’s hardly belongs to the world’s leading Wagnerian orchestras – more blunders in the brass section than one would expect, poorly synched chorus, some dangerously messy ensembles and  noticeably hard-working violins in fast divisions did not entirely spoil the show, but one wonders what the conductor would do with a truly world-class formation.

Although Eva Maria Westbroek is admirably full-toned, Elisabeth is definitely not her role. She sounds too mature, lacks purity of tone in lyrical episodes, is often tested when softer dynamics are required and is ill-at-ease handling delicate feelings (her prayer came through as rather gutsy than touching). Michaela Schuster surprised me with the warmth and sexiness she could inject in her singing, but the role – as often in this repertoire – takes her too her limits and many exposed high notes were cut short rather than rounded out.  I have enjoyed Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram less than probably everybody else. Although his voice is intrinsically beautiful, I find his phrasing lacking legato and often inclined almost to parlando, the tone too open and metallic now and then and the interpretation more studied than expressive. Compared to most baritones who tackle the role, it is of course an elegant performance – but I wouldn’t say that he was the shining feature of this performance. Christof Fischesser was a reliable Landgraf, producing focused low notes. Pity he seemed to be not really concentrated this evening.

Johan Botha’s physique and lack of stage presence may be for some too much to put up with, but if you like Wagnerian singing, you should listen to his healthily sung Tannhäuser. While most tenors in this role have a baritonal quality and become increasingly strained during the performance, this South-African tenor has an unending supply of powerful top notes and is entirely at ease with the somewhat angular writing. His voice has a spontaneous, bright-toned quality that flashes rather than climb through a Wagnerian phrasing. The results are unusually polished and musicianly. He is not an electrifying performer, but offered a particularly moving account of the Rome Narration and sounded really sincere in his sorrow on listening about Elisabeth’s death in the end of the opera.

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R. Strauss’s and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is a tour de force if there ever was one. It draws the line that separates men from boys and women from girls. If one has the intention to stage it or take part in a staging of this work, one must be more than prepared – one must be on the top of his or her game. Reading that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has decided to stage it in the opera house in Duisburg, I must confess that the idea only seemed promising because an international team has been assembled. This is the kind of opera that cannot be assigned without consideration to ensemble singers, resident director and conductor.

I had seen only one staging by Guy Joosten before – a Roméo et Juliette at the Met, which was hardly earth-shattering, but, with a little help from the Met’s cash flow, beautiful enough. Not this FroSch, it looked downright cheap, poorly built, second-hand. Although Guy Joosten and his dramaturg, who must be his brother or something, seemed to have given a thought of two about the work and stated that the historical context of Hofmannsthal writing his fable in the context of WWI played a great role in their concept, what one sees on stage is so all-over-the-place that it is difficult to say anything. The set is basically a rotating black stadium tier – the upper part with the steps has a salvation-army bed which stands for the Emperor’s stately palace. It is only curious that under the tier, where Barak and his wife are supposed to live, there are purple and blue Arabian-Nights curtains everywhere. OK, this goes more of the less with the libretto and Barak is a dyer. But why then he wears a suit, drinks Budweiser, brings metallic gas balloons home when he is drunk (this Barak has a drinking problem…) and his brothers have a) a Mickey Mouse hat; b) a Chucky Doll mask and c) a Scream mask? Then there are too many examples of characters saying things that they are not doing: Barak and his wife have a long scene about him complaining about a broken mortar after she has warned him of a trespasser. But here he breaks nothing or does nothing at all. Besides a shrew, this Färberin sees things that do not exist. Joosten has seen pictures of dead people in WWI and everything is replaced by extras with bloodstained costumes. Is that all that he’s got? Unless he has given this production free of cost, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has given away money of its limited budget for nothing. If Plato was right to say that necessity is the mother of invention, then she gave this production to adoption.

Although the Duisburger Philharmoniker (differently from the orchestra at La Scala) is a commited group of musicians, it is unfortunately not up to the herculean task imposed by Richard Strauss, especially the strings, which basically lacked tone throughout. When it has to produce a full sound, the result was often dry, sometimes awkward and often brassy. I was going to write that I would need to see Axel Kober conduct this work with a more seasoned orchestra before I said something, but then I’ve remembered that I did see him conduct FroSch last year in the Deutsche Oper. Although the results were far superior, they were not illuminating either. He does not master the sense of effect of a Karl Böhm and does not keep the proceedings going. The score finally seemed mechanical rather than complex.

Morenike Fadayomi has a rich-toned lyric soprano with some impressive resources: it is capable of heft, has easy top notes, floats adeptly in mezza voce and can keep a line with naturalness. Unfortunately these dramatic soprano (or even jugendlich dramatisch) emplois take her so often to her limits that one has some trouble to see how gifted she is. If she were singing Arabella or the Feldmarschallin rather than Salome or Aida, I bet she would be more of a household name, also because her acting skills are not negligible. As it is, although she acquitted herself quite well in the part trickiest moments, the sound was sometimes strained, sometimes squally, sometimes tremulous and hooty but for her rich-toned high notes. Although Linda Watson treaded carefully when the line took her above the stave and seemed entirely unconcerned in the interpretation department, she sang the role of the Färberin in her warm, spacious soprano without the stridence most singers display here. I would dare to say that her singing of the act 3 duet stands among the smoothest and most lyrical I have ever heard. Susan Maclean seemed not to be in her best voice and the comedy approach required from her robbed her performance of some of its incisiveness. That said, she has the measure of this role vocally and interpretatively. She finds no problem with the difficult writing, handles the text intelligently and produces both powerful chest notes and dramatic acuti at will. The semaphoric gestures, obvious in an almost childish way, chosen by the director are quite annoying, but Maclean showed her professionalism on performing them with miraculous conviction.

As in Zürich, Roberto Saccà’s tenor is far from ingratiating, but he sounds almost comfortable with the high-lying and exposed phrasing of the role of the Emperor. His flowing phrasing in the most strenuous passages is indeed praiseworthy. Tomasz Konieczny sang powerfully as Barak, but his metallic, tightly focused voice basically lacks the necessary warmth and roundness in this role. Maybe because the sound is so forward and driven, he found problem in softening when the composer required gentler dynamics. As I feared, the bad-guy voice that made his thrilling Alberich so intense was not his Alberich-voice, but basically his voice. As the director did not seem to know what to do with Barak (beside the drinking problem), Konieczny sometimes seemed a bit lost on stage too. Finally, James Bobby’s forceful, dark-toned Geisterbote deserves to be mentioned. A name to keep.

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According to the program of his staging of Das Rheingold, director Guy Cassiers believes his Ring is a Ring of the “present moment” as an opposition to a historical approach. Although his dramaturgs’ grandiloquent ideas hardly make into what one sees on stage, he might have  unintentionally achieved his aim by producing the first ever interactive staging of the Ring. First, he has done the unthinkable feat of creating consensus among Wagnerians. Yes, the ballet dancers are gone! La Scala’s bible-like program even shows photos of two green ones hanging from ropes, but it seem that the audience has had the last word and they were dispatched back to where they should have never left. The Corriere de la Sera has also published an article where Waltraud Meier says that the director does not help its cast and is more concentrated on his video projections. Although this kind of pre-première statement is usually considered ungentlemanly (or, in the case, unladylike…), readers seemed to have taken her side. Maybe that is why she (and, for that matter, neither Siegmund) are not wearing the elaborate costumes portrayed in the program.

In any case, Meier has a point – if there is any stage direction to speak of in this production, one probably has to wear 3-D glasses to see it… The approach to acting as seen this evening is basic the classical stand-and-deliver while remaining singers on stage basically watch it with generalized concerned expressions. Not Waltraud Meier, who tries to apply her famous histrionic skills when she finds space for that. It is true that her maneuvers may have become something of a routine by now, but they have actually rescued many scenes of complete boredom. I have to confess that I find her understanding of change of moods in the final act really masterly. Although stage direction is supposed to be the main element of a staging, there is more than that in a staging – and expertly devised sets, costumes and effects can ultimately deliver what is missing elsewhere. Not here, I am afraid. Mr. Cassiers’s philosophically and psychologically overcharged ideas are often scenically realized with the depth of a schoolboy’s drawing. As a result, the audience has to deal with very elementary imagery (and remember: clueless and cueless actors) in a long opera. The depthlessness of Hunding’s house is portrayed with… video projections showing a fireplace, just like those DVDs you can buy to pretend you have a fireplace. It made me afraid that they would use the fishbowl one in the next scene. And there are giant white toothpicks – I know they are supposed to be giant spears, but they look like giant toothpicks – landing on stage during Winterstürme. The toothpicks are such important stage devices that they become… tree trunks in the forest-landscape of act II. Images are, of course, projected on them – when singer sings about Glut, you have… flames, for example. After all, how the audience would understand the reference without it? During the Siegmund/Brünnhilde scene, the projection of a leaf-canopy becomes sequences of falling computer numbers. I thought it was just my imagination, but that is indeed a quote from Matrix. Remember – this is a Ring of the “present time”… In act III, the Walkürenritt is a group of ladies in stylized black Victorian dresses on top of wood-crates. And Brünnhilde’s magic fire is 10 or 11 red steaming lamps (two of them not working). Wotan’s costumes suggests that he was found in a dumpsite, that Brünnhilde is a regular at the party-scene in Berlin, that Fricka has just come from Paris Fashion Week and that Sieglinde and Siegmund are actually using the costumes borrowed from a normal staging of Die Walküre.

As you see, one had to concentrate on the musical side of the performance. And that also required some sort of commitment from the audience. The house orchestra clearly was not in the mood. Daniel Barenboim quickly understood that making energetic gestures did not elicit from these musicians any extra ounce of enthusiasm, so he started to make energetic noises. To very little avail. From some point on, I started to suspect that the noises were meant to show the audience that he was trying. If I have to be fair, a great share of responsibility for the act-1 debacle goes to the singers. Waltraud Meier was simply not in good voice. As always, she is such a cunning performer that she took any opportunity for quiet singing to score her interpretative points, but she could not really sing anything relatively high above mezzo forte. She was clearly saving for act III, where her understated and heartfelt account of the Redemption motive fitted her waning vocal resources*. Replacing Simon O’Neill, Frank van Aken was so visibly nervous that it is almost a miracle that something really bad did not happen. He lacked concentration, had a hit-or-miss approach to breathing (he often let go breathing pauses only to get breathless in the next ten seconds) and does not really seem to have a natural Siegmund voice. As heard here, the tonal quality was often curdled and the sound had a patch of nasality. I would really need to see him under other circumstances to say something. Next to John Tomlinson, tenor and soprano sounded mousy. But he was approximative with pitch and overcareful with the high end of his range. The lack of direction made his Hunding particularly short of menace. Having to deal with this situation, the conductor could do nothing but play down an orchestra that has no tonal refulgence in softer dynamics.

Act II took off more promisingly. The orchestra had a more positive, if not necessarily polished or exciting sound and some fresh-voiced singers left the maestro more operational space. I have often read about how Nina Stemme can be a special singers, but my only experience with her (a closing scene from R. Strauss’s Salome with Ingo Metzmacher and the DSO in the Philharmonie Berlin) was quite disappointing. I am glad to say that this evening I could finally have the complete Nina-Stemme-experience. First of all, she was in excellent voice and, although she does not have the bright-toned impact of Irène Théorin, she offers the modern version of the Helen-Traubel-approach to Brünnhilde, with her round, plush, extra warm soprano with impressively sensuous low notes and seamless legato. Although one can feel that the exposed top notes require some preparation from her, she offered very commendable Ho-jo-to-ho‘s and transported the audience to a state of grace with her exquisite account of the act 3 Wotan/Brünnhilde scene, when her command of dynamic effects and expressive, shapely phrasing could melt a Wagnerian heart. She has also a very positive stage presence and made the best of very little. To make things better, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova offered a Fricka in the grand manner. Her full-toned, rich singing was matched by her intense delivery of her demands to Wotan and by her regal bearing. Finally, Ukranian bass-baritone Vitalij Kowaljow is a name to keep. He still has to develop his performance and ran a bit out of steam by the end, but he is a legitimate Wagnerian Heldenbariton and offered a far more secure account of the role than both Mark Delavan in Berlin and Albert Dohmen in Bayreuth earlier this year. These singers added a new life to the performance and, around act 3, the atmosphere was entirely changed. La Scala’s orchestra never achieved true brio this evening, but at least the proceedings acquired a Wagnerian scale after the second intermission. If I had a question to Mr. Barenboim, this would be – why keeping such considerate tempi with an orchestra that cannot fill in the slow pace with a big, intense sound? If that contributed to beautiful chamber-like sonorities in Brünnhilde’s pleas to Wotan in their last scene, it robbed most of any other moment of nobility and profoundness.

* disclaimer: I really like Waltraud Meier’s more intimate O hehrstes Wunder! For me, it describes more effectively Sieglinde’s gratitude than the usual full-powers approach.

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John Eliot Gardiner has a long history with Bach, which has ultimately developed into his famous Cantata Pilgrimage, a marathon of non-stop performances all over Europe (and one concert in New York) following the liturgical calendar, his break-up with Deutsche Grammophon and the lauching of Soli Deo Gloria, a concert production venture plus label. The dramatic, vivid approach to the cantatas has won him a reputation as a Bach specialist (although some traditionalist and also some historically-informed-practice-radicals may disagree with his middle-of-the-way style) also in Germany, where he is a regular guest in Bach festivals.  For my part, although I acknowledge some of the critiques, I cannot resist his dramatic approach, in which one can really feel his love for this music. That is also why I could not miss one of his rare appearances in Berlin, in a program of advent cantatas.

First of all, Gardiner’s excellence as a chorus master is beyond dispute. His Monteverdi Choir is simply one of the best  in this repertoire (and in some others). Their clarity of enunciation, their precise articulation, homogeneity of tone and engagement are probably the main feature in Gardiner’s performance. For this concert, the English conductor decided not to invite soloists and use his own choristers for the solo numbers. Although this decision has given the performance a rare sense of unity and also a quite touching sense of congregation, the fact is that adaptations had to be made to accommodate these singers. If you compare  this evening’s rendition of these arias to those in his old DG CD (with Nancy Argenta, Petra Lang, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Olaf Bär), one will realize how more flowing his beat was and how more spontaneous the general impression. That said, Esther Brazil, besides a charming surname, has also a truly lovely voice and, if her low notes were more strongly supported, she could make a regular career as a Bach soloist, and Peter Davoren’s particularly smooth tenor shows promise.

The English Baroque Soloists has a warm and pleasant sound and, even if there was the occasional bumpy moment, these musicians are all of them in the same wavelength. Neil Brough’s polished playing of the valveless trumpet and Michael Niesemann’s incisive and expressive oboe deserve particular mention. He was joined by Kati Debtrezni, the orchestra’s “spalla” in animated account of  the “reconstructed” Concerto for oboe and violin BWV 1060. It is only a pity that the concert had not been given in the Kammermusiksaal, where the orchestra would have had a fuller sound and the oboe a richer sonority.

Cantata BWV 61 had a specially heartfelt moment in the recitative Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür, where the bass soloist sang it in such soft pianissimo and the accompaniment had such a sense of suspense that one could feel as if a voice from above has been calling you back there in your seat. The chorus showed real theatrical verve in the Zwing die Saiten chorus from cantata BWV 36, but I have to confess that I dislike Gardiner’s ultraslow tempo for the exquisite soprano aria Auch mit gedämpften, which sounded tentative and staid. Cantata BWV 70 had a shaky start and the demanding solo numbers found his soloists all wanting. His orchestra displayed some impressive accurate divisions in Bach’s graphic descriptions of the judgement day. As an encore, the opening number of the famous cantata BWV 140 found the orchestra a bit lacking concentration, but the marvelous Monteverdi Choir offered some chilling dynamic effects.

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I have sat through a couple of performances of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in the space of a week and cannot recall the sensation of exhaustion of hearing all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in one week, as I have now that I have “completed” the series of concerts of Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker in Berlin. Differently from the Ring, I don’t believe Beethoven ever intended to have them performed in sequence, as Wagner has intended his tetralogy to be. I have no basis to bet that the composer has probably understood each symphony as a step further rather than a completion to a whole set of works; some may dispute that by quoting the 8th, but I am no Beethoven specialist to engage into a discussion like that. At the contrary, I am so entirely convinced of Böhm’s and Abbado’s classical approach (rather than the proto-late-Romantic concept many conductors seem to follow) that I have never felt tempted to investigate further into the discography. As a result, I cannot boast to write a review (if I can really boast to write a review about anything), but rather my impressions, which are pretty much the consequence of my subscription of the above-mentioned conductor’s readings of these works.

If listening to these concerts was a demanding (and certainly gratifying!) experience, I wonder how exhausting it must have been for the musicians. These were no studio recording nor retouched broadcasts recorded in concerts months apart, but one more run of performances closely scheduled in a tour (and Berlin was not even the first destination). In view of that, the unfaltering energy, precision and virtuoso quality of the Vienna Philharmonic only show why this is one of the very best orchestras in the world. If the legendary French horn players had their small share of blunders, who can really blame them? This is difficult music performed consistently in such a large scale that only the best could survive. And they have really commendably.

As for the conductor, I have to say that if I am picky in some of my observations about Thielemann, the reason is that he is such a gifted musician that one is doubly upset to find fault in something. First of all, I must mention that his sense of balance is remarkable even among great conductors. Under his baton, all section of an orchestra are matched in perfect proportion, no matter how loud the sound is (and it is generally quite loud) and I still have to remember a performance of the 9th where soloists, chorus and orchestra were so perfectly combined as his. Also, he knows how to take profit of an orchestra’s particular strong feature; in this case, the Vienna Philharmonic’s hallmark crystalline pianissimo playing. Although some tempi could seem slow for some ears, the sense of rhythm is always remarkable and his punchy, precise accents are everything this music needs. That said, I do believe Thielemann is too much of a disciplinarian. His almost obsessive control of the orchestra too often straightjackets the proceedings, denying it emotional content (as I have noticed in his last Bayreuth Ring) and the last ounce of abandon that makes a performance really memorable. This slot for emotion is replaced by some kind of relentless intensity, which has its mechanical and spasmodic moments. Sometimes one had the impression that every little chord was so strongly highlighted, accented, forcefully played that the necessary chiaroscuro that produce the sense of development, contrast and climax was lost. Every moment seemed a climax and, in the end, one got finally used to that and started to find a sensation of sameness. If I could give, out of the depth of my insignificance, Thielemann some advice, it would be – make a trip somewhere warm, get some caipirinhas, make some Brazilian friends, listen to some Nina Simone and learn to relax. When he has done all that, I bet we all are going to see far more complex rather than formidable music-making of a conductor who has no technical fault and seems to be able to achieve anything.

For my taste, symphonies 1, 3 and 9 were this series’ best items. In the 1st symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic’s amazingly precise articulation in the context of a full-powers approach sold me the conductor’s Wagnerian approach (which I do not normally enjoy). In spite of the 3rd symphony’s rather rough finale, I found the massive, weighty marcia funebre strangely convincing. As for the 9th, one can see in his attitude on the podium alone that the conductor has a particular relationship with this piece. Its more visionary concept, its large scale and its inbuilt emotionalism and unbridled energy fit Thielemann’s talents as a glove. The French horns were not ideal, the chorus has its matte moments and, apart from an exemplary Mihoko Fujimura and an expressive Robert Holl, the solo singers were below standard – but the performance never failed to sound right.

On the other hand, the 2nd symphony lacked concentration and ultimately spirit to my ears. Apart from a brilliant allegro ma non troppo, the 4th symphony disappointed me in a mechanical adagio and no sense of humor and lightness in the remaining movements. This lack of grace, humor and variety deprived the 8th of its true charm. In the 5th, I found his statement of the “fate” motive (unstressed third note and weak emphasis on the last one) mannered and ineffective. The first movement lacked forward movement and contrast as a whole and the French horn interventions sounded a bit rushed and ultimately awkward, but the final allegro was truly uplifting. To say the truth, that evening’s encore, a powerful, profound Egmont was the best item in the whole series. The 6th symphony could use with a lighter-foot – the performance was helplessly heavy, the contrast of the storm and the last episode largely lost, especially because the Gedänke did not sound particularly froh here. As for the 7th, I am afraid that the allegretto lacked pathos and sense of mystery and the final allegro con brio was so heavily handled that one could only admire the Vienna Philharmonic to achieve some flexibility in this context.

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