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Archive for April, 2011

Guy Cassier’s “Ring of the present moment” does not belie its concept. Those who have seen it in Milan have now discovered an updated version in Berlin. If Cassier has reacted to some of the criticism of his La Scala première, then he deserves double praises for polishing his staging. Act 1 set looks less empty, the projections reflect changes of mood more sharply… and, most of all, there seems to be stage direction for his singers now. Siegmund and Sieglinde react to each other, Brünnhilde has a touching issue (as in expression affection by touching the person one loves) with her too formidable father later to be transferred to a passionate Siegmund and finally dealt with in the opera’s closing scene – it is still all too elementary, but it already makes all the difference in the world. In the end, if this production is too basic and overreliant in empty aesthetics, it definitely does not stand in the way when musicians are willing to add some emotion into the proceedings. And they certainly have.

As this is the last performance in the run, I have the impression that Daniel Barenboim has decided to give free rein to his impulses, sometimes to the surprise of his singers, what added an urgency and vividness of expression rarely caught so uniformly in a cast as this evening. Barenboim opted for very rich sonorities, with revelatory highlighting of woodwind, impressive sense of theatre and protean orchestral sound. Although he had a very good cast this evening, the orchestra stood in the very core of the events, a paragon of flexibility itself – in terms of tempo, tone coloring, accent – carrying drama forward by magnifying the expressive power of soloists or challenging them in expression. At moments, I almost jumped from my seat with the impact of what the Staatskapelle Berlin was doing. The occasional white-heat approach tested these musicians at times: a hectic closing scene to act I, a hard-edged magic fire music and a somewhat rushed, almost Mozartian Winterstürme. It would be difficult to describe the many interesting features of this evening’s performance – sometimes a performance just catches fire and this one certainly has.

Anja Kampe’s rich soprano is focused and young-sounding and yet aptly expands to warm, powerful climaxes when this is required. She achieves a perfect balance between vulnerability and earthiness, what makes her an ideal Sieglinde. Her ecstatic singing of the “redemption through love” was one of the highlights of the evening. Although Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was still more powerful in Milan, her performance this evening had power, class and engagement to spare. Mikhail Petrenko, unfortunately, had his hooty and/or throaty moments as Hunding, but his characteristically Russian bass fits the part. Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) is capable of some impressively loud notes, but the voice is distressingly nasal and his attempts at animation often sounded Mime-esque. He did sang solidly, but in a cast such as this evening’s, he sounded basically uninteresting.

This is my first experience with Irene Théorin’s Brünnhilde. Hers is not a phonogenic voice: it is very metallic, a little bit tremulous in the middle and a bit short in the bottom. But if there is one high dramatic soprano in activity these days, she is it. Her endless supply of effortless blasting acuti is something to marvel. For a change, a singer who tosses her ho-jo-to-ho’s as if she were having fun with it. And at the same time Théorin finds no problem in scaling down to mezza voce, even in some very tricky passages. Her Todverkündung and act III had many breathtaking moments when she just floated pianissimi in a touchingly intimate manner. But there is more than this in this invaluable Swedish soprano. I couldn’t help noticing how alert an actress she is, responding to events on stage in an immediate and convincing manner – and her facial expression in her long scene with Wotan in act III was exceptionally moving. That scene brought the audience to tears – and the partnership with René Pape’s Wotan has a great share of responsibility.

I know I myself had become skeptical about Pape as Wotan since his Milanese Rheingold, but this evening he made an important stab at it. At this point in his career, nobody doubts his ability to portray nobility and authority. It is an exceptionally rich, warm, dark and beautiful voice – the question being how he would survive the test of singing in the Heldenbariton tessitura. The answer is difficult. When the phrase is congenial, he produces some impressively round and forceful high notes. When it is not, the voice sounds a bit straight and devoid of color, but never ugly, one must say. This is the last show in the run and I cannot say how wisely he dealt with the role before, but today his long act II narrative seemed to tire him. After that, he had to manage his resources to get to the end, which he did with a little help from Barenboim’s fast tempi in the most testing passages. All that said, he can soften the tone adeptly and takes advantage of that to produce the sort of sensitively varied singing one expects from a Lieder singer.  Der Augen leuchtendes Paar, for example, was so touchingly sung that one felt ready to forgive the German bass everything. My 11 or 12 readers (I see that I have a few more these days…) might be asking themselves if Pape is bound to be the great Wotan of his generation. As I was telling a friend at the theatre today, there are two kinds of Wotan: those who fight with low notes and those who fight with high notes (and there used to be James Morris…). Not long ago, John Tomlinson too had to find a way through the high-lying passages in the role, as many others before him. Pape has the advantage of an excellent technique that allows him to scale down instead of up when he needs some variety and the voice is naturally big, what exonerates him from forcing. Judging from this evening’s really moving performance, I would say that it is definitely worth the effort!

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The second step in Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera House has few surprises for the audiences treated to his Rheingold a couple of months ago. All money, energy and creativity have been invested in the development of the structure called “the machine”. In act I, it represents, with the help of realistic projection, both tree trunks in a forest and then the ceiling of a wallless house plus the ash tree; in act II, it becomes a rocky landscape where Fricka arrives in her chariot; in act III, individual planks going up and down are supposed to be horses for Valkyries and, by the end, projections take care of the magic fire. Considering that costumes look almost exactly like those Amalie Materna wore in 1885, I cannot recall the point of making a new Otto Schenk production whose single novelty is a mechanical structure that makes singers afraid of falling down: Voigt was on scene for barely 2 minutes when she had her first accident. So far the director has not showed a single insight about the libretto. In an interview, his profound take on the role of Brünnhilde is “she has the wisdom she inherited from Erda and the personal sense of justice that comes from Wotan – these two things are in conflict and she’s trying to find a way to be faithful to both, which is typical of a tragic character, trying to reconcile two aspects of one’s own personality”. At this point, my 6 or 7 readers may have guessed that singers ran to and fro striking stock gestures while the machine turned and showed Lion-the-king-like “flashback” little films to add some spice to Wagner’s narrative episodes.

Maestro James Levine is, of course, an experienced Wagnerian, but at his age and afflicted by health problems, he is no longer able to provide the richness of sound necessary for a slow-paced performance. At times, a surge of energy seemed to come from the podium, such as in the closing of act I, with beautiful transparent sonorities, but the Walkürenritt was basically messy and, in the last scene, the orchestra seemed just tired – brass were variable from the beginning. It must be said that the conductor had to adapt for a very particular cast with various levels of difficulties and never failed to help them out in the many instances in which they found themselves in trouble.

For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s rich soprano started to hang fire after 30 minutes. In the end of act I, the voice was grey and unfocused. Before act II, she was announced indisposed but willing to go on, but was finally replaced by a powerful Margaret Jane Wray, who understandably seemed a bit short of breath in act II before a most-satisfying farewell to Brünnhilde in act III*. In her debut as Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt seemed to be in control of her resources and survived to the end of the opera, but what these resources are deserve consideration. Round, big top notes have always been her assets in this repertoire, but in a hoch dramatisch assignment one quickly realizes that bracing for every one of them does not make her the most comfortable Brünnhilde in the market. Also, her middle register is foggy and overgrainy and the basic tonal quality is extremely unattractive, shrewish and nasal, as if she were dubbing a Walt Disney character instead of evoking anything noble or heroic. One could adjust to that nonetheless if there were some interpretation going on. As far as I can remember, she sang everything in the basic mezzo forte, uninflected style, not to mention a not really idiomatic German. Although Stephanie Blythe barely moves in this production, her presence alone exposes the lack of true Wagnerian quality in almost everyone in this cast. This is a true dramatic, flashing voice in the whole range, with some intelligent and discrete word-pointing. If you want to sample a legitimate Wagnerian mezzo soprano, you really have to listen to Blythe.

Voigt’s was not the only role debut this evening: Jonas Kaufmann’s first Siegmund was probably the raison d’être of this evening. Although his tenor is adequately dark, the fact is that his voice is a bit more lyrical than the usual Siegmund’s. As a result, a great deal of low lying passages sounded a bit timid. He took sometime to understand how to make his voice work in the role and his attempts at intensity often ended in lachrymosity and lack of immediate impact. The intermission proved to be providential, for the German tenor seemed more at ease then, readier to try his hallmark soft singing and to convey stamina when necessary. I don’t think he will ever be a really powerful Siegmund, but I am convinced that a little bit more experience will focus his performance into something more in keeping with his reputation.

Bryn Terfel’s bass-baritone is more incisive than rich, but it is big and authoritative enough. I am not sure if I agree with his whimpering approach to the role, but one must acknowledge that his detailed delivery of the text brought it to life, even if this involved some hamming. Last but not least, Hans-Peter König was a strong, reliable Hunding.

*My original text read “I first thought that the problem was nerves, for she was in far better shape. The voice was then bright and clean, but one could see she needed a great deal of extra breath pauses to reach the end of phrases. The effort cost her act III, when she was replaced by a powerful and solid Margaret Jane Wray”. Although it seems that the Met has confirmed that Ms. Wray sang act II, she too sounded (and looked) different in act II and III. No conspiracy theory suggested, but the whole situation is somewhat strange.

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R. Strauss never made anyone’s lives easier with his complex and often almost unsingable operas – and that’s what makes them so interesting! – and would not change that in his farewell to the world of opera. Capriccio’s conversational style is a challenge to singers, conductor, director but most frequently… to the audience. Not this evening, I am glad to say. Underrated conductor Andrew Davis knows and loves this score and never fails to show how beautiful and expressive it is. His judgment in what regards the balance between orchestra and soloists is ideal. To say the truth, under his bâton singers and orchestra were one organic unity that breathed together and complemented each other in one coherent musical statement. His tempi were often animated, and the cleanliness in the complex ensemble with the Italian singers deserves double praise therefore.

The Countess is probably Renée Fleming’s most interesting role. Her mannered delivery of the text fits the role’s “phraseology” and ultimately makes it more varied and interesting than it normally is. Her creamy soprano, of course, is taylor-made for the part. I can imagine that she is able to deliver a smoother closing scene than this evening’s, which was nonetheless quite satisfactory. If I have one criticism is that, although Fleming brings the necessary glamour to the role, this is not exactly the aristocratic glamour one would expect to find in it. Lets say it was rather Lana Turner than Deborah Kerr.

Next to her, only Peter Rose’s La Roche managed to create a convincing performance. The English bass’s large and dark voice retains its quality even in fast declamation passages. It is only a pity that his great solo caught him a bit off steam. The remaining singers did not spoil the show and proved to have great spirit of ensemble. I realize that I am maybe mean with Sarah Connoly, who delivered a fruity, charming Clairon, but memories of Tatiana Troyanos makes one demanding. Joseph Kaiser’s grainy tenor does not suggest a passionate or persuasive Flamand, but he sang sensitively. Russel Braun’s Oliver also wants a more appealing tonal quality. Morten Frank Larsen is even less vocally seductive as the Count, but he is vivid enough an actor. Both Olga Makarina and especially Barry Banks almost stole the show with their funny and well sung Italian singers.

John Cox’s 1998 production updates the action to pre-WWII XXth century, but the XVIIIth century château has only a telephone to show that. Regietheater-lovers would probably prefer to see it staged in a bunker, but I found that this choice allowed the director to concentrate on the acting – and I would say it proved to be a wise choice, for the whole cast responded adeptly for his detailed and subtly funny guidance

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Wozzeck is no Rosenkavalier, but the lush, late Romantic sonorities James Levine brings to Alban Berg’s masterpiece suggested a wide emotional spectrum that ultimately failed to deliver any particular thrill. The rich strings, the smooth brass sonorities, they seemed to serve no particular objective other than making a “difficult” work user-friendlier. However, the Karajanesque sonic narcissism turned out as somewhat monotonous, especially because of fulness of sound had a big advantage on clarity.

Although Waltraud Meier’s unglamourously sexy tonal quality works well for Marie. She had to negotiate her high notes very carefully and what she could do was often thin and sometimes below true pitch. Alan Held deserves praise for for his hard work and involvment but there is a difference between a carefully rehearsed and a powerful, legitimate interpretation. Among the difficult minor roles, Gerhard Siegel proved to be the more reliable. His tenor is firm and forceful and his diction is very clear. Stuart Skelton seemed to find the role of the Drum Major too high and Walter Fink sounded basically unfocused.

Mark Lamos’s 1997 production for the Met does not seem to have any purpose other than providing images in elegant colors as background to the music. I could not find any insight from the director in this rather sterile staging.

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I have previously called Filippo Sanjust’s arthritic production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor dreadful in my only experience with it and never thought I would really see it again, but then I had never seen Joseph Calleja live -  and Elena Mosuc in the title role seemed enticing enough. All I have to say is that, although the staging still seems to have been spirited away from a XIXth century provincial theater, hearing the Maltese tenor sing his last aria surrounded by cardboard sets lit by golden footlights seemed to take us back to the days of Donizetti himself.

Yes, Calleja’s voice has been called old-fashioned in a positive sense mainly because of its characteristic vibratello. But there is more to it – his is an exquisite yet very strange voice. The tone has a Björling-like plangency, probably suggested by its discretely nasal quality on the passaggio and its heady tonal quality. Differently from Björling, however, his high notes do not acquire the laser-sharp concentration to make it flash through the auditorium. I don’t mean it is a small voice, it is rather big for a lyric tenor, but it is remarkable how his high register does not sound fully “settled” yet surprisingly easily produced. In other words, for an Italian tenor, his high notes lack squillo but rather acquire instead a smooth, reedy quality. It is only surprising that it works out so comfortably for him. For myself, I can say that, among all new tenors in the Italian repertoire, he is by far the most interesting so far. Although his phrasing is occasionally a bit too cupo, he sang with instrumental quality, unfailing good taste a good ear for tone colouring and idiomatic quality.

Elena Mosuc took some time to warm – her Regnava nel silenzio was uncomfortable, she lacked concentration in the confrontation with her brother, but seemed to gather her resources to produce an extremely musical, accurate and beautifully sung mad scene. It was hardly illuminating, intense or really touching, but beguilingly done in her bright-toned soprano clean of metallic quality and rich in breathtaking mezza voce effects and accurate passagework. She found no trouble in producing in alts and never missed an opportunity.

South-African baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa has a rich, dark voice and admirable stamina to hold high notes for ever, but bel canto apparently is not his repertoire. Instead of really dealing with Donizetti’s decorated lines, he seemed impatient to get through anything slightly embellished and go straight to the gutsiest passages. Katarina Bradic was a refreshingly young sounding Alisa. I would say that the part of Raimondo is far from comprimario and requires more solid casting. Among the basses in the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper, there are some who could take it in more acceptable a manner.

Guillermo García Calvo’s primary concern was to be there for his singers whenever they needed – and he never failed to do so this evening. Many would say that Donizetti requires nothing further – I beg to differ. Here in Berlin, none less than Herbert von Karajan proved that – and his soprano was only Maria Callas. It must be said that the edition here adopted follows the same cuts of last year performance’s.

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The audiences in Berlin are almost uniquely spoiled – besides two major opera houses (and an adventurous third one), the city counts with a a couple of world-class orchestras. I have to understand that as the reason for the way Marek Janowski and his RSB Orchestra are usually overlooked. I particularly value Mr. Janowski for his complete recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a paragon of structural clarity if a bit short on drama (and a more natural recorded sound…). When I had the opportunity of asking him years ago what is his objective as a Wagnerian conductor, his answer was: “clarity, clarity, clarity!”. And he is still faithful to his creed, as he proved this evening.

Janowski and the RSB have launched a very ambitious project of performing all Wagner’s mature works (in the sense of “from Der fliegende Holländer on”) in concert with international casts. Unfortunately, I have missed the first installment, but couldn’t let the second one pass. And it has been certainly worth the detour. Although the RSB does not have the glamorous sound of the Berlin Philharmonic (it is particularly unvaried in color and maybe short in dynamics), it is an extremely capable Wagnerian orchestra, ready to give its conductor all it can do. And I suspect purely beautiful and big sounds are not what Janowski is looking for anyway. Although they might have been helpful in the Karfreitagszauber passage and other key moments, one would find more than compensation in a performance where one could feel as if reading the score. Really, everything Wagner wrote would come clearly and naturally to you in transparent orchestral sound, perfectly balanced and intelligently set together and consequent tempi that made phrasing sharp as blue-ray image. That said, life is never so simple – although I had the second act of my dreams this evening, the outer acts, clear and musical as they were, seem to cry for… overwhelmingly rich orchestral sound, even at the expense of some transparency. Especially in a concert performance. But then these acts depend very much on the casting for Gurnemanz.

That Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is outstandingly beautiful is no matter of dispute. Its voluminous velvetiness and the ductility that allows it touching soft tones made his Sarastro famous. One can feel a “but” coming and here it comes – since some time, his high register has been sounding tense and discolored unless he sings it piano. As it is, his fondness for low dynamics and his elegant phrasing makes his Gurnemanz convincingly benign and sensitive, but recently he sounds too often uncomfortable when required to sing full out in his high register. As a result, many Wagnerian climaxes hang fire – particularly in the Philharmonie, which is not the user-friendliest place for singers.

Christian Elsner’s lyric yet warm-toned tenor made Parsifal sound young as he should, but he is not really impetuous as an interpreter and his high notes lack the necessary brightness to pierce through when he has a big orchestra behind him. In any case, he sang elegantly and let Michelle DeYoung’s feline Kundry take center stage. I’ve seen this American mezzo-soprano a couple of times and have always found her good, but this evening she really wowed me. Other than bringing sexy back to Kundry with her fruity, rich voice that takes very easily to mezza voce, she masters as very few mezzos either live or in recordings the ability of producing big dramatic high notes. The closing of second act found her entirely in control – and that was something new for me in the theater. Moreover, she is an intelligent, charismatic performer who knows how to produce the thrill of the stage in a concert performance. In that sense, she was finely matched by Evgeny Nikitin’s intense Amfortas. There have been more varied performers of this role, but the Russian bass-baritone brings out the tormented side of this character quite vividly. In a couple of moments, he forced his high notes a bit, but even that worked out in his intense approach to the role. And it doesn’t hurt that his voice flashes out in the auditorium. The other Russian in the cast, Dimitry Ivaschenko, sang the part of Titurel and proved to have an unbelievably big voice. In particularly strong voice this evening, Eike Wilm Schulte was a venomous Klingsor. Small roles were cast from strength with the likes of Clemens Bieber and Tuomas Pursio, but it was the Rundfunkchor Berlin who got the biggest applause of the evening.

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