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Archive for March, 2011

Before Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker add Stefan Herheim’s production to their Salome, the audience in Berlin was treated to two concert previews in the Philharmonie, which – if I am not mistaken – also mark Emily Magee’s debut in the title role. I can only imagine that this is a favorite score for the members of the Philharmonic, for they played with the kind of engagement that only now and then seems to appear in “Rolls-Royce” orchestras.

If I had to declare which was my favorite concert with the BPO and Simon Rattle, this would probably be it. The Philharmonic denied its musical director nothing: the strings particularly protean in varying from the noblest, warmest and fullest glimmering sounds to the most colorful descriptive effects; inspired and dramatically aware solos from woodwind and brass and impressively kaleidoscopic collective effects,  especially in the closing scene. Rattle presided over the ensemble with a loving eye, bringing the lyricism to the fore, giving time for this music to breathe and relishing the harmonic complexity by highlighting every little tiny dissonance in the score, for illuminating results. However, there remains the problem of balancing soloists and the formidable orchestra, especially in concert version. Although I generally accuse the English conductor of being inattentive to his singers, I have to acknowledge that this time he really tried. He opted for the difficult compromise of finding the optimal point in which the orchestra could keep its refulgence without entirely covering singers’ voices. A risky choice that required permanent adjustment. It is true that he proved to have amazing control of his musicians, by demanding very precise dynamical up and down-scaling in volume while avoiding abruptness entirely. As always, this had a cost. First, a sense of cautiousness haunted the first half of the opera, with the extra effect of a certain “hysteria” in the moment when the instruments were alone at last. Although it was undeniably exciting to hear the Philharmonic unleashed, these moments require not only more “space” to grow but also depend on the Straussian hallmark chiaroscuro to come to life. As it was, things had to develop from 95% to 100% in moments like the passage which depicts Jochanaan being brought out of his cistern. On the other hand, the Dance of the Seven Veils lacked spirit – beautiful as the sound was, the orchestra seemed too ready to let it all out instead of relishing the art-nouveau filigree concocted by Strauss. In the closing scene, Rattle finally seemed to have chosen the orchestra over his soloists – and, although the poor singers had to work hard for the money, the orchestral performance was so dense, so multi-layered that one could not help surrendering. The composer himself referred to his opera as a “scherzo with a tragic ending” and the conductor proved this evening to have understood that. Probably never since Böhm’s CDs from Hamburg (alas, with a sub par orchestra) had I heard a performance in which the thematic material presented as “atmospheric” in the Jochanaan/Salome scene was so precisely restated in the final scene now under a quasi-grotesque coloration. I would be curious to know how this is going to work in the Grosses Festpielhaus.

Every time I write about this opera’s title role, I repeat that a natural Salome has a bright voice above all to allow her to pierce through the orchestra without having to switch to fifth gear every time things get difficult. But the likes of Ljuba Welitsch are unfortunately very rare. With her creamy-toned floating soprano, Emily Magee hardly fits the description. It is true that her voice is big enough, but its delicate hue is too often overshadowed by the orchestra and the low notes basically remain on stage. That said, among the almost invariably miscast singers I have seen in this part, she was probably the best. First of all, she has really solid technique and never, ever forces. As a result, her soprano is never less than round, easy and pleasant. Although one could see that this is a difficult role, she didn’t have to work herself up to deal with it, but rather manage her resources with shrewdness. By the moment when most Salomes are screaming themselves out, Magee still produced flowing Straussian lines, the occasional pianissimo and remained true to intonation, although you wouldn’t always hear that.  Second, she has no problem with high notes, what is always reassuring when one is about to hear a long piece of excruciatingly difficult singing. Finally, her Salome is refreshingly spontaneous. Although her voice does not have a virginal quality, she eschews vulgarity and affectation, suggesting quite appropriately rather a perverse child coveting a toy she cannot play with. Moreover, she handles the declamatory writing adeptly and has relatively clear diction.

Iain Paterson’s spacious, noble and ductile baritone works beautifully in the role of Jochanaan. He too suffered from the competition with the orchestra and seemed a bit tired by the end of his long scene with Salome, but this did not prevent him from offering an intelligent and theatrical performance. A name to keep. Stig Andersen did not seem to be in a good day – one would hardly guess that he has sung Wagnerian roles by what one heard this evening – but he did sing the part of Herod; even the most verbose moments never lacked a flowing singing line, not to mention that he colored the text with unusual intelligence. I don’t feel like being objective about Hanna Schwarz: she is great and that’s it. At this stage of her career, her voice is not exactly beautiful, but still impressively forceful and focused. If someone found no problem in a loud orchestra this evening, this would be her (and a powerfully dark-toned Rinat Shaham as the page of Herodias). And there is not an ounce of nonsense in that woman – she is simply mesmerizing. Last but not least, among the minor roles, Oliver Zwarg’s deserves mention as the First Soldier.

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R. Strauss’s experimental opera Ariadne auf Naxos’s complex creation is only an evidence of how difficult it is to encompass all the contrasting aspects of this work. And I am not speaking of the libretto – but of the many musical universes visited by the composer: operetta, Wagner, Italian opera, Strauss’s own symphonic language. He did not make it easy for singers either – but he had artists like Maria Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Margarethe Siems at his disposal. It is no wonder that the opera soon developed a tradition of stellar names identified with its leading roles. One speaks of Lisa della Casa’s, Gundula Janowitz’s, Jessye Norman’s Ariadne, of Rita Streich’s, Edita Gruberova’s Zerbinetta, Irmgard Seefried’s, Tatiana Troyanos’s Komponist, Rudolf Schock’s, Jess Thomas’s, James King’s Bacchus with some sort of awe. What I am trying to say is: thank God, the audience has been spoiled by the imprint of legendary singers in these roles – and the world’s most important opera houses generally try to cast performances of Ariadne auf Naxos accordingly. The Deutsche Oper could have done the same – but unfortunately it did not. And one cannot help but feeling disappointed. I know there were lots of people shouting bravo and repeated curtain calls, but let’s be frank: a great deal of the audience did not even know when one should applaud Zerbinetta after her aria… I am not trying to be snob – I am pleased to see that many are willing to give Richard Strauss a chance and all I can tell them: get any one of Karl Böhm’s recordings and you’ll REALLY see how much better this can be.

I have to make a proviso in what regard Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. She was announced ill, but sang nonetheless. The voice did sound as if she really had a bad cold (opaque and very restricted in volume) – so I’ll refrain from making comments. I will have to see her again to say something. I know Gruberova’s farewell to the role (at the age of 63) could not have showed her at her best, but once one sampled the sheer radiance and volume of that voice in that role, one is condemned to eternal disappointment after that.

I could have copy-pasted my comment on Michaela Kaune’s Ariadne from my previous writing about her: it has become some sort of sad experience to me. This is a singer who has all the right instincts about what she has to sing, but sabotaged by poor schooling it is always more about intentions than results. Although she had a high quote of false entries, unreliable intonation and even a note a bit lower than the one written by Strauss, this was nonetheless the best performance I have heard from her. She found a plausible solution for the very low notes, has a beautiful tonal quality and – again – knows Straussian style. But – and this is a big “but” – her high register is alarmingly unfocused, hollow-toned, un-legato-ish. It seems as if there were a very good singer up to a high e or f and than a clueless one above that note. After some while, the lack of focus prevailed and by the end, even the nymphs off-stage were covering her onstage. I hate to sound mean – but it is such a pity to witness a beautiful voice and natural musicianship wasted like that.

Ruxandra Donose’s composer did not fare really better – her mezzo always had a pleasant touch of smokiness, but now it is all about smokiness. She lacked tone, her low notes did not pierce through, her high notes were effortful and unconnected to the rest of the voice and she could not produce softer dynamics when required. Again, it was obvious that she knows how this part should sound and displayed very good diction and ease with the declamatory writing, but that is just the beginning.

With his round, free top notes, Roberto Saccà cannot help but being a convincing Bacchus. It is not the most beautiful voice of the world, but he clearly has the measure of this role and offered this evening’s best singing. The minor roles, on the other hand, have been quite well cast – a resonant, congenial Musiklehrer from Lenus Carlson, a fruity-toned Dryade from Katarina Bradic, a not entirely dulcet but awesome Harlekin from Simon Pauly, to name just a few.

This performance’s coup-de-grâce, however, was Jacques Lacombe’s awkward conducting. I don’t have a very good ear, but I found the strings in the opera’s “overture” poorly tuned. To make things worse, they produced a metallic, unvelvety sound throughout. Clarity did not make its entry this evening – it all sounded noisy, imprecise, unclear and reticent. For a while, Ariadne auf Naxos was my favourite opera by R. Strauss and it never ceased to move me. This evening, I kept my eyes on my watch.

Thank God Robert Carsen’s ingenuous production is unpretentious, efficient and entertaining for 75% of the opera. The idea of opening the auditorium to a rehearsal on stage and keeping the lights on while the prologue starts makes the mise-en-abyme of Hofmannsthal’s libretto comes strongly to the fore (and Matthias Bundschuh’s Haushofmeister was excellent). His handling of the comedy troupe is hilarious (wonderful acting from all involved, including Jane Archibald’s sexy Zerbinetta), but it seems he takes too much Zerbinetta’s point-of-view. Once she leaves the stage, ideas start to run short and the closing scene looks like school theatre.

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My six or seven readers know by now that I am not a fan of Simon Rattle and that I usually find his Wagner too bombastic and lacking depth, but I had never had the opportunity to hear Violeta Urmana’s Isolde live and decided to take my chance. I won’t keep you in suspense – it was more than worth the detour. Rattle’s Tristan (judging from his rendition of the second act alone) is still work-in-progress, but the “preview” made me curious for what is to come. I am tempted to say that the chemistry between the conductor and the Berliner Philharmoniker is not really positive for Wagner, but I would need a crystal ball to say that (moreover, it would be dishonest to do so, considering that my experience is reduced to one concert in the Philharmonie and one DVD from Aix), but the fact is that the presence of the Staatskapelle Berlin, an orchestra that has learned its Tristan to perfection with Daniel Barenboim, proved to have a very positive effect on Mr. Rattle. I would be lying if I said that the orchestral playing was less than ardent, passionate, inspired. It would be also a lie to say that the success is due to the orchestra’s quality alone, for Rattle’s approach to the score is very different from Barenboim’s.

Although the many facets of this evening’s performance do not really build into a coherent view of the score, they are really fascinating in themselves. First of all, Rattle’s choice of tempi belongs to a tradition (the absence of a tradition maybe?) entirely different from Furtwänglerian suppleness and gravitas. If it would be possible to say something like that of a Wagnerian performance, Rattle’s was quite a tempo, the sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word “focus” is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the “singing” line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity. This alone made it a special evening.

If my six or seven readers are still reading this paragraph, they might be wondering where the drawbacks are. So here they come. First, I wonder how wise it was to choose, in the context of this a tempo approach, such a fast “basic beat”. While it kept the more meditative moments particularly taut, it made the more urgent moments frantic: I would not say awkward, for the orchestra did a splendid job out of it, but the effect was a bit mechanical, the sense of transparency suffered a bit and singers were having the worst time of their lives spitting out things like habichdichwiederdarfichdichfassen [gasp]anmeinerbrust. Second, dynamics. Karajan must be smiling in his grave, for the playing with dynamics would made his EMI Tonmeister in his recording with Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers proud. I have just deleted the adjective “fussy”, for the score shows that Wagner has indeed written those dynamic markings and they do not sound so extreme in a less hectic pace. In that sense, a Furtwänglerian Luftpause now and then would have made miracles. Third, if Rattle could keep his audience in the edge of their seats with his faithful obedience of the many Sehr drängend in the score, the general atmosphere was already urgent enough and in the end nervousness had the edge on variety of expression. And Wagner wrote a lots of ausdrucksvoll in the score too. Finally, a true Wagnerian conductor knows that he cannot conduct against his singers, especially in the concert hall with the big orchestra just behind them. All this is only a matter of fine-tuning, and although it was a problematic evening (the audience, for instance, did not seem particularly enthusiastic* – I would guess that the problem with singers should be largely to blame), it was also an intriguing and ultimately refreshing performance.

Although Violeta Urmana sang quite commendably, I would guess that maybe she was not in her absolutely best voice this evening. She could be just be heard over the orchestral fortissimi, but her voice often acquired a metallic harshness in those moments. The more difficult high notes posed her no problem (she should be proud of her flashing high c’s, for instance), but as soon as the orchestra’s voluminousness reached comfortable levels, the warmth of her voice could be felt and she would finally feel at ease to do what makes her a particularly welcome Isolde: singing those sensuous phrases with absolute femininity in  her round, full middle and low registers and her rich, vibrant top notes and lovely soft attacks that make all the difference of the world. There are far more intense and exciting Isoldes out there, but I have a soft spot for Urmana’s musicianly, seductive account of this role – even in an evening when the circumstances were not really congenial. With her dark, round and creamy mezzo-soprano, Lioba Braun has surprisingly clear diction and, thank God, can float her Habet acht! soaring phrases without any difficulty. Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is really beautiful and he handles the text with the care of a Lieder singer; his König Marke is indeed touchingly sung. He showed some instability in high notes when he had to sing fully and loud, but that is only a detail. The casting of Hanno Müller-Brachmann for just a couple of notes as Kurwenal and of veteran Reiner Goldberg as Melot is almost a show-off.

Although Robert Dean Smith was supposed to sing Tristan this evening, he fell ill and was replaced by Ian Storey, who is in town for his Énée at the Deutsche Oper. Considering how difficult his role in Berlioz’s Les Troyens is, it was quite generous of him. But these things have a price. Storey has some very big heroic top notes, but I have the impression that a bar fades out in his battery-level display for each one of them. While he still has the energy to tackle them, it is quite impressive, but when he reaches low-level, then one can feel how strenuous it all is. This evening, his battery leaked out very fast – and the conductor probably is to blame. If you are a tenor and already had to sing the first part of the love duet as loud and as fast as he had to this evening, your heart must be aching for him right now (and remember that the concert naturally offers the uncut version of the duet). Around Heil dem Tranke, his voice was completely gray, he had to duck some notes, sang others in falsetto, I have the impression he even had to clear his throat at some point. He must be a very persistent man and deserves all my admiration, for, although he had to use all the tricks in his sleeves to keep singing, he never really gave up and never lost sight of interpretation, shading his tone when required and singing full out when maybe someone wiser would have thought about that twice.

*At least compared with the standing ovation reserved to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Barenboim as soloist. To my own shame, I have to confess that I’ve had such a busy day that I could not really concentrate to hear it and refrained from writing anything for that matter.

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Das Licht — wann löscht es aus? Wann wird es Nacht im Haus? In Richard Wagner’s libretto, Tristan’s view of the world turns around an opposition roughly summarized as light-day/world/society and night/house/individuality, probably divided by an axis in which his mother, Isolde and death are the main poles. This is not me trying to be clever; a superficial reading of the libretto shows that; so it hardly qualifies as an “insight”. But director Graham Vick begs to differ and probably believes that this has to be really un-der-lined so that the audience un-der-stand it. So, away with the ship, the tower, Kareol and here comes… a house. At first, I thought we were watching the first mafia-wedding production of Tristan und Isolde – a tacky nouveau-riche house, a coffin, Tristan in a black suit, Kurwenal has an apron over his, there are lots of ill-behaved men with a wide job description who harass Isolde in a way only a Neapolitan would care to do and there are drugs – the love potion comes in syringes here. But then I realized it was a surrealistic mafia-wedding production, for there is a naked girl walking around unmolested by the testosterone-high henchmen and… a gigantic floating spotlight that could pass as the und in Tristan und Isolde, for whenever they are together, it comes closer to them. But then I realized it was not a mafia-wedding Tristan, but a house/light Tristan. In any case, the audience had a big laugh when, in act III, the spotlight comes nearer Tristan and he says Die Leuchte, ha! Act II shows the house on a different angle, inside and outside are blurred, crags grow from nowhere, a naked guy digs a grave, the naked girl watches him – love/death, house/world, light/darkness. Of course, it all looks awful. Act III almost hits an interesting idea – Tristan is shown as a somewhat senile old man, his questions of “where am I?” etc and his streams of consciousness surprisingly fit the concept. Everyone is old in the house, Kurwenal, the shepherd. Tristan does not die, only that Tristan died, I thought, goes into the world and is haunted by his lost self in the shape of Isolde; I could live with that. But no – Brangäne appears as an old woman and Marke should be something of a walking Titurel by then, but he only needs a walking-stick to make his entrance and, to make things worse, an elderly Isolde comes very realistically on stage, sings her Liebestod for the coffin (a part of the decoration since act I) and the centenary Brangäne and Marke.

Have I mentioned that it was amazingly poorly directed? Awkward love-potion scene (if you think that this evening’s Tristan and Isolde are actually a married couple, you start to wonder why they take so much time to seem intimate), ludicrous Melot-Tristan scene, various scenes in which singers remain on stage without anything to do, just watching the often dramatic or delicate situations depicted by the libretto. It is no wonder that, at the end, the audience almost unanimously booed the director (almost, there were probably 50 people – me included – who just did not applaud and the guy who incessantly bravo-ed everything, even the extras).

God must have thought that a poor musical performance would have made the audience tear the Deutsche Oper to pieces and granted the guinea-pigs in the opening night most solid conducting from Donald Runnicles. The prelude could be a little be more inspired, more organic, a stronger sense of arch could have been achieved, the increasing dynamic less deliberate, but other than this the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered a structurally clean performance, very consequent in its phrasing, all elements (including soloists) perfectly balanced and the house orchestra responded with exemplary Wagnerian sounds throughout. If someone deserves bravo this evening, these should be the members of the orchestra. It is true that the performance lacked the profoundness of expression of Daniel Barenboim’s Tristans in the Staatsoper, but that is only a matter of difference of approach. Runnicles’s more cerebral transverse of the score is equally valid in its musical thoroughness and transparency.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is probably the lighter Isolde I have ever seen on stage. Margaret Price never sang the role live, but she proved to have had a far more positive middle register (and low notes) in her Verdian roles. The unsubstantial lower end of Schnitzer’s voice robbed many passages from their gravitas (the Liebesnacht, for example), but her ease with high notes (even dramatic high notes – quite full and forceful) could be counted as a compensation. She has a solid technique and never showed any sign of fatigue. For me, the young-sounding quality of her voice and its creaminess made her Isolde quite congenial, but after a while the lack of tonal and dynamic variety could be felt. It must also be said that she is a really accurate singer and her acting talents are not to be overlooked. She alone looked three-dimensional as a sensuous woman who would follow the man she loves in his own particular world without quite understanding it.

This was the first time I’ve seen Peter Seiffert as Tristan. His tonal quality is also a bit light for the role, but it is voluminous enough a voice with a bright sheen on it. In order to make for the tonal lightness, he pushes more often than he should and, as a result, his tenor sounds dangerously open-toned now and then, some notes oscillate in a René Kollo-esque manner and sometimes he sounds frankly strained. By now, he has learned where his strengths are in this role and saves when he can in order to give it all in act III, where he allows himself more legato than most tenors anyway.

At first, Jane Irwin’s light, yet incisive mezzo with a touch of Janet Baker seemed promising for Brangäne, but her calls from the tower were mostly flat and that is the moment when a Brangäne shows her skills. Eike Wilm Schulte is not my idea of a Kurwenal – his baritone is too high and he has neither the physique nor the attitude – and he was simply in a bad-voice day. In more outspoken moments, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s bass lacks the necessary nobility for the King Marke, but he knows how to scale down his spacious and dark voice, an important quality for his long monologue, which can sound monotone without proper tone colouring.


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The fact that Berlioz’s Les Troyens had been last performed in Berlin in 1930 with Frida Leider in the role of Dido (that must have been really something!) is no surprise. Other than the Metropolitan Opera’s fondness for it during the 1970’s and 80’s* or the occasional performance in France, this gigantic opera has been rarely staged full stop. However, the new century seems to have brought a change in this – last year, the Dutch Opera staged it with an international cast and almost one year later the Deutsche Oper has decided to give it its first production (F. Leider sang it at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden). Although the venture is praiseworthy in itself, I guess that, if you truly decide to undertake a difficult task, you should be above its difficulty level.

When I saw Pierre Audi’s production in Amsterdam, I found it unmemorable, but I was wrong, for I couldn’t help missing it while watching David Pountney’s awkward, inefficient and often quite ugly production. To be honest, I could live with the lackluster La Prise de Troie (and I confess I liked the literally larger-than-life Trojan horse), even if I still need to be enlightened about the reason why it was deemed important that Cassandre should die surrounded by rusty iron bed structures. When it comes to Les Troyens à Carthage, it is difficult to overlook the oceans of bad taste displayed before the audience’s eyes: plastic curtains, furniture reduced to cushions, unbelievably tacky yellow/green costumes and the less we speak of Renato Zanella’s choreography the better (suffice it to say that if you need to explain to your children how babies are made, you just have to show them the ballet invented for the Royal Hunt and Storm).  To make things worse, sets and costumes have been sloppily made (the “starry night projection” for Nuit d’Ivresse is frankly amateurish) and there are moments when the words “school pantomime” run through one’s thoughts. I am not sure either about the idea of showing Cassandre’s in the last scene singing Anna’s text for Didon.

As usual, one can always close his or her eyes and bask in the glorious sounds of the Deutsche Oper Orchestra, in truly great shape this evening. But I wonder how long one would take to notice that beautiful sounds alone do not say everything in a score like Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Conductor Donald Runnicles explains that it is unthinkable to perform the opera without cuts and mercilessly made excisions, of all things, in Chorèbe and Cassandre’s duet, not to mention that the role of Anna is reduced to comprimario. Not only the cuts in the part of Cassandra were an offense to the distinguished guest soloist, but they did not prevent the conductor to make the opera shorter. In Amsterdam, I can recall even an addition, the rarely recorded (let alone performed) episode with Sinon, the Greek spy, and the whole performance was roughly 30 minutes shorter than this evening’s. It is no coincidence that Amsterdam featured the great Berliozian conductor John Nelson, while the Deutsche Oper had good old Runnicles trying to make a Götterdämmerung out of it. The opening scene promised calamity: the chorus and the orchestra could not match to save their lives and it all sounded like chaotic noise. The Trojan part of the opera worked properly in bombastic moments, such as the end of Act II’s first tableau, but most of the rest hanged fire. However, the Carthaginian acts dragged and one could not help but noticing that Berlioz is one of those composers who need an expert to make it work: “…this music does not have the great organic momentum of a Wagner opera (…) it is not obvious that this piece is going to work: conductor and director always have to give it a push from time to time”. These are not my words, but Mr. Pountney’s. In Amsterdam, the pushes have been so masterly given that I could not even notice them – the score simply sounded consequent, intense and, by the end, quite gripping. It should be noted that John Nelson did not have an orchestra as impressive as the Deutsche Oper’s back then.

If you were at the Bismarckstraße opera house this evening, you would understand why everybody calls for Italy so often during this opera, for the Italian singers lent this performance its distinction. Although Anna Caterina Antonacci is not the dramatic soprano one would expect to find in this role, her voice is full and penetrating enough for it. And she sings in impeccable French, crystalline diction and admirable purpose. A committed stage actress, she did not allow a costume that made it difficult for her to move freely (apparently, nobody noticed it is too long for her) stand between her and dramatic engagement. She was ideally partnered by Markus Brück’s Chorèbe, who is at home in French music as he has proven to be both in German and Italian repertoires. His small contribution as a drunk Trojan soldier in the last act was also funny and idiomatic. However, it is Daniela Barcellona’s regally sung Didon who had the audience at her feet. The Italian mezzo’s luscious, spacious voice filled Berlioz’s music with classical poise and no lack of passion. At times, the name of Tatiana Troyanos came to my mind (and I mean it as the highest imaginable compliment). In the closing scene, she even allowed herself to use her strong chest register to depict the dying queen’s despair. It is only a pity that her French is not truly clear. In any case, a truly great performance that makes me think that Ms. Barcellona, who also looked gracious enough in this role, should be far more famous than she is.

Ian Storey’s Énée is controversial, but I would say that, if one has in mind that he is the wrong kind of tenor for this role, he has given a very decent performance. His voice is, as always, on the baritonal side and his middle register is a bit unfocused, but his ascent to his high notes are impressively powerful and warm-toned. The problem is that one can see that these high notes require lots of energy from him. While he can still cope with that demand, the results are undeniably exciting, but when he begins to tire, his singing cannot help but sounding efforful. It must be noted that he is a finer interpreter than he gets credits for and works hard for refinement in scenes like Nuits d’Ivresse. Finally, I must put in a word for Heidi Stober’s Ascagne, probably the best I have ever heard.

* In 2003, the Met launched a new production, in which Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang the role of Didon, recently released on CD.

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Bellini’s Norma has a singular mystique among opera-goers. Although fans of German repertoire dismiss it as insubstantial, Richard Wagner himself was an admirer of the work and acknowledged that a great deal of its power relies in its unhindered melodic flow that translate sentiments with unusual nobility. The fact that this simplicity that eludes explanation is capable of such expressive power is probably Norma’s mystery – and also its main difficulty for performers. A single mistake is enough to ruin a sublime moment – and it is not really difficult for a singer to make a mistake in a work that demands so much from its soloists. Nevertheless, even if it is true that this is not a challenging orchestral score, it is one entirely consistent of effects: if those arpeggi for strings do not display crystal-clear sound and intonation, if those sostenuto notes in the French horns do not appear unforced and blend with the framework of strings, if the plangent cello solos do not sound almost unbearably expressive, then one may have a good cast, but not a good Norma.

This evening, I came to the theatre with the expectation of a musically scrumptious performance. This is an orchestra used to Wagner and R. Strauss and, as much as some performances bel canto operas from the Bavarian State Opera, I hoped to find the ultimate level of refinement and polish. However, conductor Paolo Carignani and his musicians did not quite offer that. Maybe because of light-voiced singers, the maestro seemed to focus on the score’s, to use Felice Romani’s own words, molli affetti. In those moments, his good ear for balance and his attention to his singers’ needs payed off touchingly. In the remaining moments,  the orchestra basically lacked punch: accents were rather saggy, tempi somehow dragged, intense moments often sounded ultimately noisy. To make things worse, the chorus sang with surprising sluggishness. If the Gaul battle cry was supposed to be so languid, the only reason why Pollione’s army did not wipe them off the surface of the Earth in a couple of hours is because he was too busy fooling around with the local beauties.

However, if someone is to blame for the lack of backbone this evening, this should be Bob Wilson. You don’t really need to read anything I write here to know how it was – it was basically what he does everywhere in whatever he does. He says naturalistic theatre is a fraud, but I guess I would rather be defrauded than bored to death. I still have to be enlightened about how the attempt to recreate human feelings on stage should be less desirable than walking-like-an-Egyptian. All right, some images are beautiful, but some are kitsch too – like having pieces of Norma’s glittery pyramidal “temple” dancing around static actors in the first act’s finale. If there is something to be redeemed in this staging, this would be this evening’s soprano impressive embodiment of this anti-naturalistic approach as a means to increase (and not decrease, as in everything else) drama. Her face had the tragic quality of a mask, her figure the grandeur of a statue and even the slightest movement was filled with the emotional charge that gives sense to everything.

If you are not a soprano drammatico d’agilità, Norma will probably an ungrateful job. It is doubly sad then that practically nobody can claim herself this Fach. Certainly not Elena Mosuc, who would rather be classified as lyric coloratura soprano. Although she has a solid low register, she is no Norma by nature and I suspect we won’t hear her in that role other than in the Opernhaus Zürich. Her voice is extremely appealing in its creaminess and floated pianissimi, but it does resent the slightest attempt of producing a dramatic note. She treated carefully but stylishly through Casta Diva, was not really at ease with Bello, a me ritorna and only survived the second act because she rather adapted the role’s demand to her own means. This made her Norma unusually passive and vulnerable, but if this approach should constitute a valid view of this multifaceted role, she would first need to master the art of blending words and sounds in one single, inseparable unity in the way Giuditta Pasta probably did or a Callas or a Scotto used to do. The Rumanian soprano has clear diction and phrases with elegance, but in the end the results are excessively understated to be called anything else but a laudable attempt.

I have to confess I never expected to find a mezzo soprano like Michelle Breedt in the role of Adalgisa and yet she proved to be adept in the art of messa di voce and to have reasonable coloratura. Hers is still an unitalianate voice, its smoky, a tiny little bit thick sound does not convey any sense of youth and innocence, but this was really an intelligent and capable rendition of a difficult role – and it does not hurt that her top notes are so full and free.

Roberto Aronica is easily the larger voice in the case and probably the only name you would find in a cast list of this opera in normal circumstances. His extreme top notes are not really easy and he sings a bit stodgily, but the sound is always firm, full and echt. Although Giorgio Giuseppini did not seem to be in very good voice (the higher end of his range sounded unfocused), he offered a decent if not quite noble Oroveso with some spacious low notes.

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