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Archive for February, 2011

Michael Thalheimer’s non-staging of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Deutsche Staatsoper has an interesting strategy to prevent the audience from running away during the interval – it has no intervals. The good news is that the transmigration for the Schillertheater has the dubious advantage of allowing the whole audience to see the show (in the old Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the director carefully chose every blind spot of the stage to place a singer on it). As a result, now the audience knows that there is very little difference between seeing and not  seeing what does not happen in this production. Pity, for the cast here gathered could act.

Replacing an ailing Susan Gritton in the last minute, Cornelia Götz, scheduled to sing Blondchen later this year, jumped in for Konstanze, a role she has been singing for a while. I saw Ms. Götz only once, as an accurate but small-scale Queen of the Night at the Met a couple of years ago, something that accounts for the fact that I would not classify her as an “ambitious Blondchen”. Her soprano is creamier and fuller than many a Konstanze out there, but the easy and spontaneous top register resents a more “dramatic” approach and the low notes are only occasionally there. That said, what really matters is the fact that she is a natural Mozartian singer, with a truly lovely voice, almost perfect runs, a good trill and exquisite high mezza voce. She is also attentive to the words, adding some illuminating inflections here and there and reciting her dialogues with spontaneity and engagement. Since last year, Anna Prohaska’s Blondchen has become more natural, less heavily underlined and more seductive too, but she would have welcomed a less rapid tempo for Welche Wonne, welche Lust. Kenneth Tarver finds no difficulties in the role of Belmonte, pouring liquid coloratura throughout his entirely homogeneous voice. His tenore is a bit too leggero for Belmonte, but what may be bothersome after some time  is the monochromatic quality of his singing. Florian Hoffmann’s Spieltenor proved to be more substantial and he is definitely more comfortable with the heroics of Frisch zum Kampfe. As for Reinhard Dorn, it is true that he is a legitimate basso profondo, who could tackle the impossible low notes without much ado. That said, his singing is so poorly supported that he basically speaks everything above his low register. I have to understand that he was in one of those days in which the voice is not really responsive and praise his professionalism in showing up on stage for a role so difficult to replace*. Friedrich Haider knows his Mozart and offered a variegated, lively and clear performance. The orchestra responded with spirit, being a central part of the action in its faithful portrayal of the wide range of emotional atmospheres in this score. The chorus was not immune to the animation and sang with enthusiasm and accuracy.

* It must be said that the gratitude for Cornelia Götz’s last-minute replacement in such a difficult role did not inspire the Staatsoper either to print a small notice for the cast-lists sold in the foyer or even – until now – to credit her on their website.

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My three or four reader (I guess by now I can say five or six) may remember how much I disliked Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Verdi’s Otello for the Deutsche Oper, but I guess they would understand why I saw it again when they learn that Soile Isokoski was taking the role of Desdemona. Other than that, I would say this evening’s rather Wagnerian cast (it features a Siegmund, a Mime and a Wotan), if not sensational, is an improvement on the original one. My previous experience with Clifton Forbis was limited to the roles of Siegmund and Tristan, where a stentorian and very powerful high register finally compensated a rather curdled middle-register and the absence of seamless legato. Although Otello is a role for a dramatic tenor, it is one that occasionally requires sustained ascents to notes as a high b natural. In that sense, Forbis was no disappointment, he generally dispatched big high a’s and b flat’s with very little effort, but the the lack of flowing and tonal beauty is a problem difficult to overlook in this repertoire. He also has to work hard to scale down below mezzo forte and is not really specific about the Italian text. He seemed a bit at a loss in Kriegenburger’s staging in which the title role has less profile than some of the extras who have their own parallel plots.

I have often written that Mark Delavan’s strength in his Wagnerian roles lies in the noble quality of his bass-baritone. It is true that this is not necessarily advantage for Iago, but I have to confess that this was probably the best performance I have heard from him in a while. He was in very good voice and proved to be more comfortable with some awkwardly written high notes than some famous exponent of the roles, not to mention that he found no problem in the mezza voce and the clear articulation without which the role is helplessly generic. His stage performance turned around playing the bad-guy-and-loving-it, but the contrast with his velvety, “honest sounding” singing gave some depth to his Iago.

Soile Isokoski’s light-toned, fast-vibrato-ish, almost Mozartian Desdemona had an endearing old-style appeal about it. She sang with great affection, rock-solid technique, immaculate musicianship and is capable to produce her own version of Italianate chest voice for the most outspoken scenes. Her soprano is a couple of sizes smaller than the role, but this valuable Finnish singer masters the almost forgotten art of projecting without forcing or weighing the tone. Curiously, she seemed rather economic with her pianissimi and saved it for a haunting conclusion of her Ave Maria.  I owe Liane Keegan an apology: when I saw the première of this production, I could not help to notice that her Emilia was impressively sung and acted, but forgot to write about it. This time, I found her even more eloquent and expressive.

Donald Runnicles’s conducting is the opposite of Patrick Summers last year – the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered an almost Straussian performance, with clear, transparent textures and unfailing sense of establishing tempi that allowed perfect balance between forward-movement and polish, but all that did not prevent the performance from lacking punch: the result was often well-behaved and ultimately undramatic. In any case, the audience did not seem to be really into catharsis this evening – the symphony of coughs that presided over softer dynamics must have been testing for the poor musicians trying to produce lustrous pianissimo effects, not to mention that Desdemona’s “post-mortem” lines provoked a collective episode of hilarity. Since 1604, poor Desdemona has been saying “O, falsely, falsely murder’d!” after having been smothered by her jealous husband, but it seems literature is not a subject in German schools anymore.

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Die Lieber der Danae is probably the most notable rarity among the R. Strauss’s later operas. Although Hofmannsthal original ideas were already quite convoluted, Joseph Gregor’s nonsensical libretto has a great deal of share in the work’s unpopularity. The composer himself often complained that he couldn’t find inspiration in Gregor’s verses. And Strauss did not make it easier by composing a difficult score for a large orchestra with impossible leading roles (tenor and soprano are required to sing heroic high c#’s). As a result, it has been almost never performed – and the only existing recordings have been made live, often with unglamourous casts. But the music is far more interesting than one could expect – after an unfocused act I, act II features a beautiful long scene for tenor and soprano and the last act closes in the grand manner. I would have no problem on choosing it over Die Ägyptische Helena or Friedenstag.

The fact that the libretto is flawed to say the least requires from the stage director a great deal of imagination – and R. Strauss himself acknowledges Rudolf Hartmann’s contribution in this department as a key element in the Salzburg première. The Deutsche Oper Intendentin, Kirsten Harms, however, preferred to press the “easy solution”-key in permanence in this new (?) production. I wonder which is the purpose of doing something so outdated in its 1980’s gloss and superficiality when one has nothing to say. I would gladly have a highly aestheticized stylization instead anytime. As it is, as in Harms’s Frau ohne Schatten, Elektra etc etc, the action is set in some sort of elevator or staircase hall that crumbles down to act III. An upside-down piano hanging from the ceiling is supposed to be the unifying symbolism of it all. To make things worse, it does not look well. Considering the prima donna’s personal beauty and the fact that she should wear, according to the libretto, some stunning costumes, one has to use one’s imagination to see that.

As a compensation, conductor Andrew Litton is entirely at home in this repertoire. He did not spare effect, grandiosity, impact and forward movement. The immediate result is that the opera did not sound long or boring, even when R. Strauss’s creative power left something to be desired. The negative aspect of the 100%-approach is that his cast had to work hard for their money. None of these singers have the large, dramatic voices necessary to preside over the dense orchestral sound: in spite of their best efforts, they often sounded distant and effortful. And the house orchestra played heartily (even with this orchestra’s Straussian credentials, this evening’s performance sounded particularly successful) – the chorus understandably still needs some time to adjust to the rhythmically complex writing.

In the title role, Manuela Uhl (whose recording for CPO is probably the only uncut version available for sale) brings her silvery, full-toned soprano, clear diction and stylishness to the difficult part. Her voice, unfortunately, has seen better days and she took almost two acts to warm. The ascents above the stave were unfocused and/or brittle and limited in volume – and the score requires a lot from the soprano’s high register. In her long scene with Xanthe, the extremely well-cast Hulkar Sabirova often sounded richer and more hearable in comparison. In any case, Uhl would eventually gather her resources for a sensitively sung act III with some thrilling high mezza voce. If I may make her a suggestion, I guess she should follow Julia Varady’s advice and give the jugendlich dramatisch repertoire a pause, sing two or three Nozze di Figaro Countesses, settle a couple of things and only then return to the Straussian roles that used to show her so advantageously. Matthias Klink’s tenor is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of Midas, but – except for one glitch by the end of act II – held his own bravely. His tightly focused tenor pierces through without difficulties, but having to sing constantly at full-powers robs him of operating area for nuance. Mark Delavan is a puzzling Heldenbariton – the voice certainly has the color for this Wotan-like role, but he too sounded small-scaled and lacking volume. And he still lacks presence for those god-in-chief roles. Thomas Blondelle offered an all-round satisfying performance as Merkur, singing with imagination with his bright and firm tenor and proving to be entirely at ease with the acting requirements of this comic role. The four queens were also cast from strength from the Deutsche Oper ensemble with Hila Fahima, Martina Welschenbach, Julia Benziner and Katarina Bradic.

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For someone who has truly lost interest in La Traviata, I’ve been quite often in the opera house for it. To be more specific, the only reason why I went to the Deutsche Oper today was Anja Harteros – and maybe I was curious to see Simon Keenlyside after a while (last time, it was 1999) – but it was not to be, for he cancelled due to illness. In any case, an entirely non-Italian cast proved to be interesting. Götz Friedrich’s thoroughly outdated production was given an accidental freshen-up out of having a non-narcissistic tenor and a world-class diva in the title role.

Anja Harteros has sung the role of Violetta Valéry in the world’s leading opera houses and developed her stage performance with various directors, and I can only guessed that, faced with the prevailing shabbiness, she has brought her own stage direction as prime donne in the XVIIIth century would do with their arie di baule. Truth be said, the German soprano’s overall attitude is unfit for the role – she seems more voracious than seductive in act I, more regal than vulnerable in act II and more tragical than touching in act III – but her intent to inhabit the stage and react to what happens in it simply made the show more interesting. This does not mean that it was a gripping performance – theatrically speaking, it was not. It was rather an affair of craftiness than of emotional generosity. But then she needed a director to guide her through this process. In act III, when she decided to stumble around a bit to show Violetta’s declining health and yet her willingness to go on, the poor tenor probably did not get what was going on and kept to what has been blocked, leaving his ailing beloved to fall to the ground and get up by herself. One could say “of course, he is a tenor!”, but I have one good thing to say about Pavel Cernoch. As he seemed to be really doing what he was told to do, his Alfredo seemed particularly composed and naive, what makes far more sense with the libretto than the usual bravado displayed by most tenors. For once, his increasing childishness in his act II scene with his father (by the end, he was in fetal position on a couch) explained a lot his subsequent behavior.

Although Yves Abel conducting missed some important theatrical moments (particularly Alfredo’s “denunciation” of Violetta in Flora’s party), he did give time for his orchestra and singers to build their phrases in a musicianly and meaningful way. The orchestra, in spite of some blunders (especially in the overture), had a beautiful, full sound and the overall impression was of polish and elegance. With the help of his soprano and his baritone’s expressive performances, this approach has somehow paid off.

It is not only Anja Harteros’s attitude that seems distant to the role of Violetta, her big, creamy lyric soprano is not Italianate and lacks the brightness usually associated to it. But what she has works very well for the role – the voice fills the theatre without problem, her low notes are natural, her high notes never turn out shrill and she has enough flexibility for the fioriture. Actually, she seems in absolute command of what she has to do in this difficult part, what is already remarkable. I would guess that she has probably studied some of her famous predecessors’ performances; she seems in this role very keen on producing some hallmark “Italian” qualities, such as the tasteful use of portamento, knowing where to let the natural rhythm of Italian language to lead the way and some acting with the voice (that I am not too happy about). Her balance between portraying the deterioration of Violetta’s health and keeping a pure line in act III was extremely well-judged, and I will not be able to tell if the sudden choke that interrupted a sustained pianissimo was involuntary or not – it just worked perfectly in the situation.

Markus Brück proved to be more than a replacement for Keenlyside – I sincerely doubt that that the British baritone would have done better. As always in Italian roles, Brück sings with unfailing grace, almost Mozartian musicianship and with more than necessary volume and firmness of tone. I know I have written here that some of his Wagner performances were disappointing – especially Beckmesser and Gunther – but I would like to make clear that Brück is a first-rate singer who deserved more acknowledgment outside Berlin.

As for Pavel Cernoch, I am not sure if this repertoire is the best fit for him. At first, he sounds like the poor man’s Neil Shicoff, but unlike the American tenor he lacks brightness and slancio in his high register – and the problematic optional high c in O mio rimorso was reached by virtue of good, old falsettone. He seems to be a sensitive singer and avoided vulgarity throughout, but the voice is basically too tight and lacking roundness for Italian opera. The performance booklet says Steva in Janacek’s Jenufa is his calling-card role and I can bet he sounds far better in it.

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As a great admirer of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, I thought I should give his earlier serenata a chance live at the theatre. It was a busy day and unfortunately I was not in the right mood for it. It is not my favorite work of Handel’s Italian period – and the numbers that I like happened to be “recycled” in more consistent works such as Agrippina or Rinaldo. In any case, this disclaimer is important – maybe in more favourable circumstances I would have enjoyed the performance as much as everybody else in the audience did – applause was so generous that the musicians decided to reprise the last number.

I usually enjoy René Jacobs’s Handel, but I tend to find that his Mozart lacks sensuousness. If I had to define my problem about today’s all-right theatrical performance it would be its lack of sensuousness. The Akademie für alte Musik Berlin played it brilliantly, but the sound was far from warm and appealing. And the extremely fast tempi made the proceedings more formidable than beautiful. Although the work has no overture, if I am not mistaken, Jacobs played the overture of Handel’s Agrippina, a solution already tried before because the tonality and the scoring are compatible with the rest of the work.

Sunhae Im has a lovely personality and technical assurance and the right bell-toned soprano for Aci, but the tonal palette is very restricted and sometimes the tonal quality is sometimes similar to a boy soprano’s. Vivica Genaux did not have many opportunities to display her battle-horse amazingly fast divisions. Some arias were speeded up to make do, but the result made the non-coloratura passages uninteresting. The lovely Galatea ideally requires a more feminine and beguiling tonal quality even in such a low tessitura. When one compares these singers to Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo in Emmanuelle Haïm’s studio recording, the lack of sexiness and warmth this evening is impossible to over look. As for Marcos Fink, although he has the low notes, I don’t believe he is the basso profondo Jacobs usually tries to make him be. He took some time to warm and was caught short once or twice during Sibilar l’angui d’Aletto. To my ears, his voice is also too noble for this role, but he certainly dispatched the fioriture with aplomb.

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In an attempt to give a twist to the usual orchestral concert, the minds behind the Deutsche Oper had the preposterous idea of inviting a Patch-Adams-like physician to moderate in a Mozart/R. Strauss program. When Intendentin Kirsten Harms introduced him as a Glückspezialist, I could not help understanding he was some sort of expert in the music of Cristoph Willibald GLUCK. But I was wrong – he is indeed a specialist in happiness. And he is can be funny all right, but what is the point of inviting an ignoramus in music to introduce a concert. When someone in the audience shouted “Please let the music begin”, I found it rude at first, but when I realized the moderation only made the concert one hour longer with no added insight to my musical experience, I began to think that – although this person was still rude – he had a point.

As it was, the first part of the concert had weaknesses harder to overlook – I have rarely heard such a spineless performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 as this evening’s. Tempi dragged helplessly, strings had its scrawny moments and were often quite imprecise and Donald Runnicles’s lack of pulse made this congenial work sound finally boring. After the pause, back to his comfort zone, he would prove to be the  reliable Straussian he has always been and the house orchestra would respond with rich sonorities and clarity aplenty. He also showed a particularly good ear for producing the right balance between his soloist and the orchestra. And since the soloist was this concert’s main point of interest, I must praise him effusively for that.

I have been writing that, although Anja Harteros offers beautiful performances in Italian opera, her real strength is the German repertoire, especially Richard Strauss. But I’ve said that with the single experience of a performance of the Four Last Songs with Zubin Mehta and the Staatskapelle Berlin last year in the Konzerthaus. This evening she sang two key Straussian scenes and – I won’t keep my four or five readers in suspense – proved me right: this generation has found has in her its leading Strauss soprano. R. Strauss simply brings the best in her – the tone is creamy and floating as usual, she has reserves of strength for the occasional heavier passage, her diction is very clear and the text is, of course, idiomatically and imaginatively handled. The closing scene of Arabella’s act 1 was sung in the grand manner – nothing disturbed the velvetiness of her soprano and rarely has a singer handled the shift to lower register in it as seamlessly as she has done this evening. Capriccio’s closing scene did not lack imagination either. I am afraid, though, that she was not in her absolutely top form this evening and I bet she can sound a bit more comfortable in some high-lying moments where she had to keep dynamics low. But this is comparing her to herself – the warm tone, the sense of style, the no-nonsense interpretation are a reward in themselves. And it doesn’t hurt either that her looks and attitude are perfect for these roles.

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Although Tommaso Traetta was an important name among the Reform composers, whose influence on the young Mozart can be clearly felt not only in works like Mitridate or Lucio Silla, but also in Idomeneo, his operas are today all but forgotten. Before Cristophe Rousset recorded his Antigona for Decca a couple of years ago, most music lovers had probably never heard about it before. And yet one may find it now and then mentioned as one of the finest operas composed in Italy in its day, an opinion shared by conductor René Jacobs who conducts its Berlin première in the Deutsche Staatsoper in a staging by Vera Nemirova (the name behind the new Ring from Frankfurt).

It is true that Traetta is a most skilled composer, but the first act is a bit lacking the sort of sparkling imagination that makes audiences draw a direct line between Handel and Mozart when buying tickets and CDs. From act II on, however, the music increasingly gains expressive power and, by the end, if you are not touched, you probably don’t have a heart. What is beyond doubt is its dramatic effectiveness. Marco Coltellini’s libretto is unusually straight-to-the-matter for its time, but it is Traetta the master of theatrical timing who keeps the action flowing seamlessly to its surprising lieto fine.

Vera Nemirova’s clean staging matches the directness and, although it is sometimes too informal for its subject, it ultimately suggests classical elegance and is refreshingly respectful of the action. Her controversial decision of keeping to a tragic ending in spite of the text could be defended as a tribute to Sophocles over XVIIIth century operatic conventions. I am not only sure about portraying Creon as a petty tyrant, with distracting comedy touches involved. At lease for me, this had the effect of belittling the character’s convictions, which are far from superficial. Moreover, I suspect this had a perverse effect on the singer taking the role, who seemed to be feeling obliged to sing his recitatives in an arch way that made the role sometimes closer to an operetta villain than a stern ruler in a serious opera.

Conductor René Jacobs produced an intense, fast-paced and strong-accented performance that makes Rousset’s recording sound gentle (if structurally clearer) in comparison. His casting (curiously made exclusively of singers from the other side of the Atlantic) worked hard to keep with the intensity and sometimes (with one notable exception) would be overshadowed by the orchestra. I’ve had my doubts about hearing Verónica Cangemi in the prima donna role, for her fragile and un-Italianate soprano is hardly prima-donna material. Her creamy yet light-toned voice often sounded brittle and sometimes downright strained. In comparison, Rousset’s María Bayo sounds like a model of classical poise even in the most testing passages and also yet more vulnerable and appealing. That said, Cangemi proved to be, in spite of an unglamorous voice, a powerful singing actress. Her performance was utterly convincing, truly gripping and refreshingly impassionate. And, truth be said, her high mezza voce is exquisite, her trills are effective and, even when tested by the writing, she can keep her pace in very fast divisions (and Jacobs makes things far more difficult by opting for some zipping tempi). As her sister Ismene, Jennifer Rivera too tried the white-heat approach. Although the part has a relatively low tessitura, having a mezzo in this role making things a bit confuse (Rousset has a particularly well cast Anna Maria Panzarella) – the effect was usually nobler and more mature in comparison to Cangemi’s. Although she showed a healthy low register and sang stylishly and with commitment, I had the impression the role did not really showed the strong features of her voice. As Haemon, while Rousset chose a mezzo-soprano (Laura Polverelli), Jacobs hit the jackpot with the incomparable Bejun Mehta, who not only sang with unfailing projection, but also with unbelievable wide tone-colouring: a masterly performance. For some who has been singing Wagner and Janacek, Kurt Streit seemed ill-at-ease with piercing through the period-instrument orchestra in the pit. He would eventually warm for a sensitive account of his big aria Ah, no, non sono gli dei that gave Rousset’s Carlo Allemano a run for his money. Finally, Kenneth Tarver was a clear-toned Adastro, but the role really sits a bit low in his voice.

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