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Archive for August, 2011

I know Christoph Marthaler’s Tristan und Isolde from DVD and was not really excited about seeing it live. Maybe low expectations have done the trick for me. I still dislike the production – it is so minimalistic than it is even difficult to hate it. If the director could have stripped the staging from every superfluous detail and concentrated on powerful symbols, maybe the emptiness could have meant something. As it is, we have a DDR-style building that goes one floor lower for each act. All effects are restricted to fluorescent lamps (actually neon lamps) that are turned on and off or twinkle or whatever a regular lamp can do, which is not much. Costumes end on having a very important role – other than chairs and then a quite fancy hospital bed, there is nothing on stage. In act I, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne are dressed like old people; in act II, they are dressed like middle-age people in the style of the 60’s; and in act III, they have younger people’s clothes in a quite contemporary taste. Kurwenal’s only “costume” involves a kilt and the King Marke has a suit and an overcoat. Why? It must be important, but I don’t feel like investigating. What I was curious to know is why the stage action is so awkward and why the director felt it important to have his cast often act in a way that evidently does not fit their personalities. With her attitude and voice, Irène Théorin looks often unintentionally funny in her coy manners, while Robert Dean Smith is not naturally heroic either in voice or in attitude.

In any case, veteran Peter Schneider proved that experience counts when you are conducting in Bayreuth. I won’t make a suspense – this was certainly one of the best performances I have listened to on the Green Hill and one of the best in my experience with this opera. Schneider is rather a Kapellmeister than a “creative” conductor, but today he has proved that faithfulness, if allied to virtuoso quality, does pay off. This evening Tristan sounded exactly as it should: the orchestral sound generously filled the hall without any loss in transparency and an extra serving of depth and beauty, truly deluxe sound; Schneider’s beat proved to be extremely flexible, taking its time when gravitas was required and flashing along where excitement was the keyword; and, to make things better, transitions were naturally and consequently handled. Although he did not spare his singers, Schneider knew the best way to balance stage and pit without ever damaging the building of climax. This was truly honest, efficient and truthful music-making.

Irène Théorin is evidently not a vulnerable Isolde, but rather ranks along Birgit Nilsson among the imperious Irish princesses who are more comfortable giving vent to their fury than mellowing in tenderness. Unlike Nilsson’s, her middle range might be a bit grainy and tremulous, but is always ready to shift into mezza voce. Predictably, act I was her strongest, in spite of a lapse or two during her Narration. Act II showed her first quite unfocused, but then she sang her Liebesnacht entirely in demi-tintes and blending perfectly to her Tristan. Unfortunately, act III was not a development from that. I suspect this was not one of her good-voice days, but still lots of very impressive moments. Michelle Breedt is a light Brangäne with firm, bright top notes and tonal variety. Robert Dean Smith is a sui generis Tristan – rather jugendlich dramatisch than dramatic, 100% musicianly, subtly phrasing in pleasant legato in an almost bel canto manner. Although the role takes him to his limits, he never indulges in forcing his tone, but rather lets his voice spin and acquire momentum in the trickiest passages. Naturally, act III exposes his lightness, but one must never forget: he sang it to the end without ever showing fatigue or any ugliness. He won’t probably ever sing the role in a theatre like the Met, but he is certainly worth the detour if you want to hear a fresh-sounding tenor as Tristan. Jukka Rasilainen was a most solid Kurwenal, but Robert Holl – in spite of a beautiful voice and sensitive phrasing – had his rusty moments as King Marke. I must mention Arnold Bezuyen’s Shepherd too, truly beautifully sung.

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I have to confess: Stefan Herheim’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal was one of the toughest cookies I had to deal with. Although, on a purely aesthetic level, he had won me over with his exquisite and complex visual concept, he set my brain to work throughout the opera and for some hours after that. Then I have noticed that his take on the crucial historical/cultural/philosophical problem of institutionalization, in the sense of how a vision is transformed into social reality and how this process eventually taints it to the point where it needs to be restored by a daring plunge into the principle in its purest form, is something that links the plot of Parsifal, the story of Wagner’s work made concrete by the foundation of a Festival later to become a symbol of a perverse regime and of Germany itself, the land of poets and thinkers that, once transformed in a country, inexorably marched to this very regime. To understand this process is to understand Parsifal, Wagner and Germany; on intertwining these parallel stories, Herheim was faithful to the idea of the Festival: making Germany look at and think about itself in a constructive environment. Watching it for the second time proved to be a more powerful experience: once you understand what lies behind the sophisticated imagery, you feel freer to let yourself be drawn to it and find many layers of meaning that go even beyond Germany and reach the status of universality. It is indeed very sad that the Festival did not find it important to tape this most powerful of its recent productions.

It is also sad that a more suitable conductor than Daniele Gatti had not been found. If I have to say something positive about it, it would be the full-toned quality of the orchestral sound, more in keeping with the reputation of Bayreuth than what I’ve previously seen here this year. But that would be it. The performance is ponderous, spineless and lacking purpose. Reading what I wrote about his conducting last year, the results are unfortunately quite consistent. It is also sad that the whole cast is in poorer shape in comparison to 2010. Susan Maclean is still a most impressive Kundry, both in her understanding of the role and in her flashing dramatic mezzo soprano, but her voice sometimes lacked finish and the closing of act II tested her sorely this evening. The role of Amfortas has always been a stretch for Detlef Roth, but today he sounded rough and strained from moment one, while Thomas Jesatko’s Klingsor was more forceful last year. Alas, Kwangchul Youn too was not in his best voice this evening and couldn’t sound as varied and ductile as in 2010. Finally, Simon O’Neill has a nasal basic tonal quality and an unbecoming physique against him (especially in comparison to a vulnerable and convincing Christopher Ventris last time), but he was never less than engaged and could produce some very loud and secure top notes in his confrontation with Kundry in act II.

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Hans Neuenfels would be disappointed to discover that, instead of feeling provoked by his staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin (as he says to fear in the program), the audience in Bayreuth would welcome it effusively. It is also true that the enthusiasm gave the impression of a statement: I wouldn’t say that everyone in the theater was delighted by what they have just seen, but it seems that it was important to show approval for a production of a clearly more professional level than that of those of Meistersinger and Tannhäuser performed in the previous days. I myself have seen more thought-provoking and more consistent Lohengrins than this one, but I too found it important to acknowledge that Neuenfels’s satisfies (or rather more than satisfies) the expected standard of quality expected from the Bayreuth Festival. Some may call it a bourgeois demand from a paying audience, I would call it the necessary requirement of talent in order to deal with the work of a great genius.

The first thing one notices about Bayreuth’s 2010 production of Lohengrin is its elegant, cold stage design: some sort of tomography lab aesthetics which are in the core of the concept here developed. Having to deal with a world where we are nothing but laboratory rats of a random, pointless experiment, we choose to believe in some sort of fiction – love, religion etc – to give it some sense of consequence and order. This consciousness – this understanding of nothingness and the choice of an imaginary sense to frame it – is what tells man from animal. Elsa produces a vision of a swan knight and provokes a collective religious experience that inspires people around her to a development into order through belief. But Lohengrin too indulges into the self-delusion of having found unconditional love in Elsa and agrees to abandon the glory of the knights of the Grail. Ortrud is some sort of skeptical soul who does not content with the shadows and would rather see objects themselves, even if this means disrupting any attempt of order. Her Erfahrt wie sich die Götter rächen has the effect of a pragmatic conclusion to an experiment: if you want to seek the ultimate truth, be ready to find chaos as an answer.

The question is how literal it is to portray the chorus in rat costumes in order to depict the concept above. I tend to believe that this was an easy choice – and I frankly dislike the little “mouse-comedy” numbers in orchestral interludes. Neuenfels could have suggested the “lab rat” impression in subtler ways, but he has a point that Lohengrin is some sort of fairy-tale, an aesthetic environment in which men and animal naturally interact. It is not the first staging either to show the evolutionary process set about by the arrival of Lohengrin. In Stefan Herheim’s Lindenoper production, Lohengrin leads the whole society to a Rousseaunian state-of-nature that would dissolve with the revelation that Lohengrin is nothing but a puppet; in Richard Jones’s Munich production, society organizes into some sort of Lohengrinic religion that endorses Elsa’s edificial project. Here, rats gradually become people as they embrace Lohengrin’s command. Curiously, if you abstract the rodent costumes, the production is quite coherent and well-conceived, in the sense that symbols are added to rather than replace the original storyline, making it richer by association and more fantastic by the unusual twist. In any case, the beauty of costumes and sets, the meticulous direction of actors and choristers, the mathematically calculated light-effects, the visually striking scenes – this all pleases the eyes in a way that even a nay-sayer would let himself be seduced by the approach.

It is also curious that the original reviews stressed Andris Nelsons’ conducting as impressive and revelatory. Maybe he was not inspired this evening, but I am at a loss of words to define my neutral impression. The orchestral sound didn’t persuade you either for richness or for clarity, but other than this there was nothing particularly bothering or pleasing going on. If I have to make an effort of finding a distinctive trait in him this evening, it would be his attention to his singers, particularly knowing how loud he could be in every moment (in what regards giving his cast enough time to breath in tricky moments, Nelsons wasn’t always very friendly though). The chorus sang heartily and acted keenly, but the otherworldly effect in passages such as Lohengrin’s first arrival was not really achieved.

Although I am surprised by Annette Dasch’s ability to spin jugendlich dramatisch top notes when you least expected it, her soprano remains limited in terms of volume and color in this repertoire. She has sense of style and sings sensitively, but one is constantly left wanted – especially in comparison with the more properly Wagnerian voices of her colleagues. I am not a fan of Petra Lang –  overmetallic and rasping are words that come to my mind – but her absolute control of dramatic top notes is really very impressive. Even if she failed in contrast, variety and subtlety, her Entweihte Götter (act II) and Fahr heim, du stolzer Helde (act III) correspond to everyone’s fantasy: she pierced through the loud orchestra with impressive power and security, often making very high notes even longer in admirable abandon. Lohengrin is Klaus Florian Vogt’s signature role, his uncanny boyish yet forcerful sound is the aural picture of the role and this alone makes for the occasional deficit in legato. Moreover, at moments, he is now even more sensitive and elegant in his high mezza voce than before. No wonder he received a standing ovation such as I have rarely witnessed in an opera house. Tómas Tómasson seems to have the right voice for Telramund, but evidently fell victim to a vocal glitch by the middle of act I that robbed him of any possibility of singing full out in his high register, being obliged therefore to resort to falsetto and transposition whenever he could. I know it is a difficult role, but it was rather insensitive of the Festival administration to let him carry on under those circumstances. Last but not least, Georg Zeppenfeld offered an immaculate performance as King Henry, as much as Samuel Youn was an exemplary Herald.

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Jim Davis’s Garfield once said “if you want to look thinner, hang around people fatter than you”. Now I understand Katharina Wagner’s smirk while being booed after yesterday’s performance of her production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This evening, deafened by the thunderous Boo-fest reserved to Sebastian Baumgarten for his production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, I could not help thinking that you can go far worse than Miss Wagner. At least, she had a couple of insights about the libretto and staged them. Well, she did not stage it very well – but she tried. Baumgarten believes he has had an insight too. Let’s read it: “The question we are faced with on a daily basis is: how are we to reconcile our pre-subjective drives and impulses, the asocial, with our subjective plans and dreams (in social and communicative contexts)? And time after time the answer is: quite simply we can’t. That is because this antithesis lies at the very heart of life. Only in art and especially in music is this antithesis abolished*. Is it only me or this is the most obvious observation one could make about Tannhäuser’s libretto?! But there is also set designer Joep van Lieshout’s take on the story “The battle of Tannhäuser is about choosing between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. At the end Tannhäuser is not able to find either of them.

If you are not dazzled by the profoundness of this analysis, you will probably be curious about how these platitudes have been staged. Here is my serious but not very enthusiastic attempt of making sense of what I have just seen: the concept of sublimation lies in the core of this staging, understood as the struggle for converting bodily impulses into nobler/spiritual values. This is macrocosmically represented by an installation called “The Technocrat”, an industrial plant that transforms human excrement into fuel gas and (most surprisingly, if my Chemistry classes are still valid) spirit (i.e., alcohol). In the social level, this is shown as an Orwellian group of workers who are cued by an invisible administration through motivational slogans. From the spiritual (i.e., mental) point-of-view, this takes place through channeling erotic impulse into art. During the overture, a film is shown in which one can see sonograms and x-rays depicting a rib-cage,  a heart, a stomach superposed with images of machines. Tannhäuser is held in a cage with ape-like creatures, someone in a leopard-costume and two rays (as in stingray). Venus is a pregnant hag without any allure. Tannhäuser gets sick of all that and presses a button: the cage named Venusberg slides into the floor and he then finds a drunk young man (the shepherd) and some people in red robes. He is delighted, especially when a bunch of guys dressed as members of a Scottish Glam rock band show up (the Landgraf and the other singer knights).

In act II, we see Elisabeth in a red robe excited about Tannhäuser’s imminent arrival while trying ugly jewelry. Wolfram is jealous, but understands that two is company and, once alone with her, Tannhaüser gives her a brief incursion into the Venusberg (remember: it is just one floor down). She is flushed, he disappears. Then the Landgraf invites the people with robes, some girls with swimsuits and swords and a bunch of women in bridesmaids’ frocks and a priest to the little singing competition in the facilities. Venus takes the ladder to the gathering place and joins the group, although the priest does not seem happy to see her. Everybody sings, but Tannhäuser sings and pour water on his rivals from the second floor. Then he grabs Venus from the audience and sings her hymn to her. The very colourful group of factory workers who convert feces into biogas is shocked and try to kill him with some knives that happened to be hanging nearby. Elisabeth threatens to kill herself and they let her have her way. But she is not convinced of the effect and gets some red paint and makes her little scene a little bit bloodier. She assures Tannhäuser that Heaven will forgive him, but he seems either too stupid to understand or unwilling to do so, but it is too late to change thngs and he goes inside a container with the words “Rome 4501″.

Provided you forget that there is an industrial plant etc etc, act III is actually quite conventional almost until the very end. Elisabeth is sad – check; Wolfram is melancholic – check; Elisabeth dies away (here with a little help from Wolfram); Tannhäuser gets out of the container bald and beardless and explains how the Pope was mean to him (if you really believed the whole gas plant thing, you probably asked yourself ‘Pope?!” at this moment); Venus (who was basically there all the time) appears and then disappears – check; Elisabeth is shown as a saint – check. Then Venusberg is lifted to the ground, the ape-like figures bounce a lot, the rays contort themselves and….ah, Venus has her baby. Curtains.

Yes, I’ve got that Baumgarten probably wanted to show that, although basic instincts are considered vile and spiritual values noble, the only miracle of everyday life – birth – is produced by the body and its impulses: no spirit produces flesh, but flesh does produce spirit. You will find many passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses about the classic discussion of transcendence/immanence, especially related to the body and Catholic values. But there is a big difference there: Joyce is a genius, while Baumgarten doesn’t go beyond Friedrichshain’s Weltanschauung: The Werkstatt Bayreuth should not therefore content itself with simply serving up Tannhäuser as a refined entertainment for festival audiences or We wanted to make one very dense continuous peformance of two and a half hour instead of the traditional one but the caterer forced us to keep the pauses… I really wonder if Mr. Baumgarten does have the moral stature out of his heavily subsidized professional activity to sneer at people like me who have to work to pay for expensive festival tickets. When he chooses, for example, to engage in a social project of integration for children of foreign descent in working-class neighborhoods of Berlin instead of collecting his fee for making poor stagings of an art form he himself considers decadent, maybe he would be able to start pointing fingers around him. Until then, he should study a bit more and give up trying to shock people with extras dressed in costumes from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats for his view of Venusberg. We read newspapers, we watch CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera – we are well-informed about the REALLY shocking things in the world. Only a very ignorant person would try to enlighten anyone well-informed (as the audience of Wagner operas tend to be) with subpar, pseudo-intellectual stagings.

But there is always Wagner’s music. Tannhäuser is something of an uncompleted opera, in the sense that the composer never found a final edition for it. This evening, the usually called Dresden version was used, even if I have the impression that something different happened between the end of the overture and Venus’s first line, but I cannot really say it. There might have been some unusual cuts in the closing scenes of act II, but I would need a score to say something more precise about that. Maestro Thomas Hengelbrock would have liked to follow some cuts made by Wagner himself after the premiere in Dresden, but it seems that the Festival did not subscribe to the idea. In any case, Hengelbrock can be counted as the responsible for the interest of this evening’s performance. Some might find his Tannhäuser too unconventional in its fast pace, clean-cut phrasing and taste for orchestral effects (with the occasional sudden accelerando or ritardando), but the fact is that it sheds a new light on the score. He is a conductor new to the Festival pit and could be found wanting in sound (especially when the chorus was singing) and I am sure that, in a regular opera house, with an orchestra as good as this one, he could have been even more eloquent. Although singers sometimes found it hard to follow his beat, ensembles were generally clear and consequent – and the orchestra never failed in clarity and played with animation.

Camilla Nylund was a reliable Elisabeth in her warm, round and homogeneous soprano. She sang with good taste and sensitivity, but lacks the necessary radiance to pierce through thick orchestration in roles like this. Stephanie Friede has the elements of an important dramatic soprano voice in her – but they are so chaotically handled that the results are generally disappointing, especially in what regards intonation. I know I have been spoiled by Stephen Gould’s and Johan Botha’s Tannhäusers and I had to remind myself that generally the tenor in the title role sings like Lars Cleveman. As it is, the part lies very close to his limits and he pushes a lot in order to get through. As a consequence, there is not really much legato to speak of. Forcing high notes and beefing-up the tone rarely work for long and the result is that the effort became more and more evident as the opera goes on. By the third act, he was exhausted and just trying to survive. Michael Nagy could be a very good Wolfram – he knows exactly what kind of singing this role requires, but his voice is too often on the verge of throatiness for comfort. Günther Groissböck was a very positive Landgraf, singing firmly and incisively. Considering the general shortcomings, it wouldn’t be correct to call him “the best in the cast”, for he was far superior from his colleagues this evening. Katja Stuber deserves mention for her cleanly sung Shepherd too. Last but not least, the Festival should be praised by a strong group of singers for the competitors at the Wartburg.


*Hegemann, Carl. A fearful misdeed has been committed. Notes on the Bayreuth Tannhäuser 2011. In: 100. Bayreuther Festspiele (187202911): Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg. Program to the performance of the opera.

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Never say “never”. I clearly remember saying that I would never see Katharina Wagner’s staging of her great-grandfather’s Meistersinger, but here I am to witness its last performance before it is finally discarded for good. As in previous runs, the stage direction has been retouched and, if I may say something positive, I would acknowledge that it has now become more clearly a comedy – funny moments are better timed and there was more laughter from the audience this year than last time. That did not prevent, however, the director from being massively booed in the end. Don’t feel sorry for her – she seems to receive disapproval as a confirmation of her foresight unshared by her bourgeois audience. Naturally, she doesn’t mind cashing the money from ticket sales. In any case, I don’t think that the production was devoid of insight – there is some insight there that could be made into something truly thought-provoking and scenically efficient in the hands of a talented director. For instance, although the composer shows in his score that Beckmesser was rejected by the audience because he is not really talented, the fact remains that he was good enough to be accepted as a Meistersinger. If baritones resist the temptation of caricature, one can hear that he can handle, for example, florid singing. His sin could have been nothing but having indulged into the false glamor of French/Italian style (if we use Sachs’s final speech as a reference) – and therefore he would not conformed to the accepted standard, not because he was avant-garde (the concept probably does not apply here), but simply because his aesthetic approach was not… popular (and therefore inauthentic and bad, according to traditional principles of German cultural identity). This is not an uninteresting discussion, but Katharina Wagner does not have the stature to tackle it, both as a director and as an intellectual.

The fact that the musical side of the performance was below standard made the evening doubly testing for the audience. Last year, I found Sebastian Weigle’s conducting unclear yet rich-toned and structurally coherent. This evening, it was basically unclear. Although the sound is still irresistible in its warm tonal quality and blended sections, strings often failed to offer clean passagework, the level of mismatch with the stage was alarming and many passages were almost pointless in terms of horizontal clarity. The cast remains the same of last year with one notable exception. I have found Adrian Eröd a bit more consistent last time, but still very clean-toned and dramatically purposeful; Norbert Ernst is far more forceful, especially in his high notes, as David, but stills works hard for tonal and dynamic variety; James Rutherford’s grainy and often woolly bass-baritone does not suggest nobility, but he is a little bit more expressive this year. If I have to choose a favorite singer this evening, this would Georg Zeppenfeld, an ideal Pogner.

And there is Burkhard Fritz as Walther von Stolzing. I disagree with the opinion that his tenor is too light for this music – I have seen him previously in Schrecker’s Der ferne Klang in Berlin and found then that maybe there was a little more than Walther and Lohengrin in him. This evening, the voice sounded so poorly supported in acts 1 and 2 that one could almost guess that he would be announced indisposed, what proved to be true. Curiously, his illness was explained as “circulatory problems” and the he would try to go further. If he could not, Simon O’Neill would sing instead. But for a broken high g (or a), he sang to the end of the performance, probably better after the announce. Of course, the tougher part of the role comes in the first two acts – but then everything above a high e was basically pushed, unfocused and (therefore) strained. Once he began to sing more cautiously, softer attack made his voice brighter (yet lighter if ultimately audible) and even more pleasant. But legato was still faulty and pitch, eccentric. But, given the announced indisposition, one cannot tell if he needs to rethink his technique or just take care of his health.

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R. Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten’s first studio recording has a legendary status – Karl Böhm tried to convince Decca’s Moritz Rosengarten to take profit of his excellent Vienna State Opera cast and record the opera for the first time. Rosengarten agreed to the proposal but offered him such a limited budget that the cast was obliged to sing for free in an unheated studio. The result, in experimental stereo sound, is the performance by which every other is judged. Including the one presented by the Salzburg Festival this evening. Why am I telling all this? Well, because director Christof Loy supposes that everyone in the audience knows that, even if it actually has intrinsically  nothing to do with the opera composed by Richard Strauss and written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

The plot of Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most complex in the whole repertoire, based on a wide-ranging and hermetic symbolism that addressed nonetheless some of the most important issues both in psychological and sociological levels at the time of its creation. If there is an opera that still needs a director to guide the audience through it, this is Frau ohne Schatten. It is a formidable task – those who are brave enough, such as David Pountney, have made a stab at it, most hide behind vague stylization, but Loy is the first director I have heard of who has given up before he tried. When Mary Zimmerman staged Bellini’s La Sonnambula as a rehearsal and portrayed all characters as singers et al, she met with harsh criticism, but I have to say that a) although Zimmerman did not really get the plot of La Sonnambula, it is a story a five-year-old kid would understand; and b) although Zimmerman’s concept was poorly developed, her stage direction itself was quite efficiently done, in the sense that there were well-defined characters, an imaginative use of the scenic space and actors acted well. I cannot say the same of this evening’s performance – the beautifully built scenery shows the Sofiensaal (where Solti’s Ring and not Böhm’s Frau ohne Schatten was recorded) prepared for recording sessions. Even if Loy explains very clearly his concept in the booklet – the Empress is a young singer who has to deal with her inner conflicts and mature as an artist through the experience of seeing a bitter aging diva (the Amme) trying to ruin the marriage of a younger colleague (Barak’s Wife) with prospects of success – what one basically sees is: singers with a score on a music stand while an engineer records it. The funny thing is that it is far less interesting than The Golden Ring documentary, where Birgit Nilsson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Georg Solti are far more fascinating characters under God’s direction. Unlike some other members of the audience, I did not feel that I had to close my eyes to concentrate on the music, but – considering that the future of the euro is a bit uncertain right now – I feel sorry that so much money has been spent for exchange of insights below soap-opera level.

Under these circumstances, the audience certainly turned its attention to the musical side of the performance, and Christian Thielemann more than met the challenge. His performances of FroSch in the Deutsche Oper have left a very positive memory in Berlin and, if there is a composer in whose work the German conductor’s skills are not doubted, this is Richard Strauss. And this opera’s original orchestra is the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (both in the first performance and in the Böhm recording*). Therefore, hearing him conduct it with the Vienna Philharmonic has a special meaning. As he explained in the booklet, Richard Strauss’s music is so multilayered and dramatic that it requires from conductors the discipline to restrain themselves and let the music speak by itself. On listening to this evening’s performance, one could see that Thielemann really meant it. His approach is extremely respectful to the score, performed without cuts. It is at once full-toned (without being simply loud) and structurally transparent. He never forces the flow of this music and masterly knows how to build a climax. This evening, I have discovered many niceties in this work that I had previously never noticed. And it is doubly praiseworthy that one never felt a pedantic effort to highlight details, this happened quite naturally. To make things better, the orchestra was at its resplendent best, expressive solo passages, amazingly warm and rich sound picture and real commitment from the musicians. If Thielemann lacks Böhm extraordinary sense of “special effect”, it is probably because Böhm never felt he had to “respect” a score that he felt as his very own.

Considering the sense of care that the conductor obviously have with every little aspect of the score, it is most curious that he did not always care to follow the composer’s description of what kind of voice goes for each role.  For example, the Kaiserin is supposed to be a hoch dramatisch soprano and the Amme, a dramatic mezzo soprano. Anne Schwanewilms is probably the less dramatic soprano who ever sang the role of the Empress. Although her voice has a cutting edge, it just does not work here: her high register is pinched, fluttery and often thin; her low register is mostly left to imagination and she has the habit of pecking at notes or finishing them by a downwards portamento that I find quite unsettling. I understand that one wishes to hear a crystalline sound in this role – and Schwanewilms has it and is obviously a sensitive singer and also a good actress – but, overparted as she is here, every advantage can only be counted as such if you take too many things in consideration. I frankly thought Manuela Uhl in Berlin far more consistent (although she isn’t either a hoch dramatisch sopran, at least she is a jugendlich dramatisch soprano with properly supported flashing top notes). Other than this, I am not being ironic when I say that, this evening, she offered one of the most exciting accounts of the melodrama I have ever heard. As for Michaela Schuster, even if one can see she has all the right ideas about the role of the Amme, her voice is too light for it. If Strauss gave the Kaiserin a lighter orchestral texture to pierce through, such is not the case of the mezzo soprano part. It does require a hefty, bright, exciting voice. This evening, I too often had to add in my mind Grace Hofmann from Karajan’s recording to fill in the blanks of an overshadowed if charismatic singer. I must say, though, that friends who saw her in previous performances told me that today was below her standard in this run.

I have to confess I found Stephen Gould’s name in the cast list with some surprise. Although he is a singer who definitely finds no problems in being heard over a large orchestra, the role of the Kaiser requires a brighter and higher voice than his. It is also true that many a Siegmund-esque Heldentenor has tried it, usually with little success. Gould did sing better than most – he can keep a line in some unsingable parts (and he even sang “es ist anstatt ihrer” instead of the usual replacement “es ist für die Herrin”) – but he often had to operate carefully and couldn’t avoid the strain in the end of his second “aria”. Wolfgang Koch was a reliable Barak who lacked a tiny little bit velvetier and a nobler tone, as Johan Reuter’s in Berlin and Michael Volle’s in Zürich (to keep within recent performances). With the exception of a Thomas Johanns Mayer’s Messenger Spirit (clearly in a bad-voice day), minor roles were uniformly strongly cast: Rachel Frenkel was a very accurate Voice of the Falcon, Peter Sonn sang the “young man”‘s long lines without effort and Markus Brück, Steven Humes and Andreas Conrad were the best trio of Barak’s brothers I have ever heard. I leave the best for last – an incandescent Evelyn Herlitzius in the best performance of her life. Since the bad press she got in Bayreuth for Ortrud, I notice she has done a very serious effort of re-thinking her singing and the result is a far more relaxed tonal quality, a cleaner attack in softer dynamics and a warmer sound. Here all of them used to great effect – without any loss in her Nilson-esque missile-like acuti that could fill a hall twice larger than the Grossesfestspielhaus. She also acted with great sincerity and commitment.

*The Vienna Philharmonic, which comprised of members of the Opera orchestra, appears in some of Karl Böhm’s live recording’s (including the one released by DGG with Birgit Nilsson), Herbert von Karajan’s live recordings and both Georg Solti’s live and studio recording).

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Janacek’s fantastic opera Vec Makropulos is a favorite with intense singing actresses and has appeared more and more in the seasons of opera houses around the world – but it is not yet a regular item. For instance, this is the first time I have ever seen this opera in the theater. As almost everyone, I first met this very unique work in Charles Mackerras’s recording with a mesmerizing Elisabeth Söderström (probably my favorite performance with the Swedish soprano in this series).

It is a very difficult work – it has a very Protean musical quality that follows the rhythm of dialogues in kaleidoscopic orchestral effects, while the balance between cynical and philosophical comedy is hard to find. Cristoph Marthaler’s new staging does not try to interfere with the already tangled plot, but rather frames it into a theatrical concept of recurrent and repetitive actions carried out by actors. Every act is preceded by some sort of pantomime with the extras that finally outstay their welcome in a performance without intermission. Anna Viebrock’s single sets depict a courtroom with adjoining waiting-room, corridors. Characters of an unrelated (or maybe not) trial pop out until the room is packed with actors in the last act. Because the libretto is very clear, one could understand that none of those scenes actually take place in a courtroom, even if the courtroom did not seem to bring any particular atmosphere to any scene, especially the last one.

In comparison to Mackerras, Esa-Pekka Salonen adopted an almost Karajanesque large and rich orchestral sound in which hard-edges sometimes were a bit rounded out, but – with the help of deluxe playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, this score has probably never sounded so expressive and immediately approachable. Last time I saw Angela Denoka, it was an opera by Janacek too. She was not then in good voice and I feared that she had undergone some vocal decline, but this evening she showed herself in very good shape. Those used to Söderström’s recording might find her a bit generalized, but Denoke’s pure-toned yet large soprano had a slightly eerie effect that fits the role. She sounds like no-one else in the cast, and her almost Mozartian take on Janacek makes sense to the role of an opera singer “with perfect technique” and ice-cold allure. Raymond Very (Gregor), Peter Hoare (Vitek) and Ales Briscein (Janek) dealt commendably with Janacek’s difficult writing for the tenor voice. Both Johan Reuter (Prus) and Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Kolenaty) offered rich and surprisingly smooth-toned accounts of these key bass roles. Finally, I don’t have the faintest idea of how idiomatic or verbally specific these singers sound in Czech in an almost non-Czech cast (Briscein alone is a fellow countryman of the composer).

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