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Archive for September, 2011

It seems that fortunes favors the bold. Although the weather was far from good, I had decided not to see today’s Götterdämmerung and only changed my mind in the last minute. I am glad I did change my mind, for not only was it the best performance by far in this cycle, but also a good performance for any standard. First of all, the orchestra seemed to find its lost affection for Wagner’s music and played with full commitment – and Donald Runnicles did not miss the opportunity to offer an alert and dramatic account of the score. This evening – as it should – the orchestra was very much in the center of the events, eagerly commenting the recapitulation of Leitmotive in the Prologue, heightening the atmosphere in Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s duet, relishing the effects in Siegfried’s journey through the Rhine and so on. It is curious that, last year, the Gibichungenhalle scene didn’t seem to start off, while this evening it was particularly effective in its supple organicity. Although the Waltraute scene did not keep up with the overall animation and the ensuing scene with Brünnhilde and Siegfried could be a little bit more intense, act II regained some of the excitement in spite of some mismatches between chorus and orchestra. The conductor deserves credit for his ability to balance singers’ needs and the intent to maintain a large orchestral sound, especially in the Immolation Scene, soon after an impacting Trauermarsch the climax of which was very coherently built. In a nutshell, this was not the last word in Götterdämmerung, but it was nonetheless a very competently done performance with one or two truly interesting scenes. It is only a pity that the remaining operas in the tetralogy did not show the same level of care and involvement.

After getting off on the wrong foot in Siegfried, Janice Baird seemed ready to clean her records this evening. Although her middle and especially her low registers lack volume, she was well in command of her high notes and produced required dramatic acuti whenever this was necessary. More than this, her phrasing was often clean and consequent (provided there were no low notes on the way). Even if she is not a very specific interpreter, she was not sleepwalking either. A very decent job, considering what one hears around. With her focused, pleasant-toned soprano, Heidi Melton is almost luxurious casting as Gutrune. I couldn’t help noticing she has lost some weight too, the right decision in order to build a career as important as she deserves. Replacing Karen Cargill, Christa Mayer offered a very subtle and expressive if a bit underpowered Waltraute. The Norns (especially Liane Keegan) and the Rhinemaids (I feel badly for singling Clémentine Margaine out, since the three of them were excellent, but a contralto dark-toned and focused as hers calls attention) were all cast from strength from the ensemble.

Siegfried is a role a little bit on the high side for Stephen Gould and yet he can pull it off almost without accidents. Although his tone becomes taut when things get high and fast, he managed his resources expertly reaching his last scene in better shape than most. His voice is refreshingly big and firm, his diction is very clean and, considering the baritonal sound of his voice and his physical frame, he was able to suggest boyishness without looking silly. It was very rewarding to realize how Markus Brück’s Gunther improved since last year – his performance is free now free from the blustering and hamming that disfigured it last time and one could sample the richness and forcefulness of his singing the way it should be. I was also surprised to notice that Matti Salminen, at 66, can still be an effective Hagen, actually really better than he was last year. Only those who knew his younger self could notice the effects of time in a voice still powerful, firm and incisive enough for this key role. Actually, his scene with Alberich had the effect of exposing Gordon Hawkins’s lack of charisma in the role of Alberich.

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Although Götz Friedrich’s Siegfried has more many splashes of kitsch, it remains my favorite production in his 1984 Ring for the Deutsche Oper – the blacksmith’s shop in act I is just irresistible (I like to believe that I have learned to forge a sword only by watching it). Jasmin Solfaghari’s Spielleitung could not avoid to follow some instructions that did not work very well for this cast, but I have found many scenes more spontaneous this year than last time. That said, there were too many examples of stage management amateurism this evening for comfort (especially an inextinguishable magic fire that required many visible stagehands).

I cannot tell if this performance’s more positive orchestral sound is the result of extra effort from Donald Runnicles or his orchestra – or simply a natural consequence of Wagner’s more rhythmic, brassy and percussive score. This fact alone – even if singers had to struggle to be heard – made this Siegfried more classically Wagnerian, but the bureaucratic feeling was still there. Although some moments sounded indeed agitated, the results were more mechanical than lively. In my memory, the also better cast performance I saw last year feature music-making of superior quality. During this performance, I couldn’t help wondering why the Deutsche Oper deemed it important to revive this Ring at all – the production is helplessly old, the conductor’s heart seems to be somewhere else and the orchestra is not really in the mood. And the casting is problematic. If there is good weather on Sunday, I might not even come for Götterdämmerung.

The congenial and convincingly boyish Torsten Kerl is very much a son of Robert Dean Smith’s Siegmund. As his “father”, he has a pleasant, natural voice, finds no problem in flowing legato and his tenor is two sizes smaller than it should. He sang with crystalline diction, good taste and sensitivity in a way that made the role of Siegfried surprisingly cantabile, but was often hard to hear, even in his top register, which is rather soft-centered and does not quite pierce through. His Mime, Burkhard Ulrich, as it often happens, was quite more forceful than him (probably the most hearable voice in this cast). Although I prefer a less hyperactive approach to the role, Ulrich deserves unreserved praise for his full commitment, acting skills and vocal security.

Last year, Mark Delavan had not sung the role of the Wanderer and decided to give it a try in Berlin for the first time this evening. I have the impression that he was not in very good shape – the voice sounded even more reduced in volume than usual and he was quite tired by the end. He had his share of problems with the text too, but I would risk to say that he is finding a Wotan inside him somehow. His stage attitude is more appropriate and his singing more integrated (instead of long undistinguished passages with occasional big important notes). In comparison, Gordon Hawkins sounded richer-toned and more forceful, but even less at ease in terms of personality in his role than on Rheingold. Ewa Wolak remains an impressive Erda, Ante Jerunica is again a most efficient Fafner and Hila Fahima is an ideal Waldvogel. When it comes to Janice Baird’s Brünnhilde, I am afraid that her performance is even more problematic than last year. She seemed so concentrated on trying to produce the notes that there is no interpretation to write about – and even the notes themselves left more than something to be desired. By the end of the opera, she was just trying to survive. I wonder how she is going to manage to sing the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, which has far more than one difficult duet with Siegfried.

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Last year, the first Ring Cycle in the Deutsche Oper clearly showed progressive improvement and accordingly the Walküre was an altogether more satisfying experience than the Rheingold. This time, the development is far more difficult to understand. First of all, the issue of orchestral sound volume is more complex this year. The cast last time was made of substantially larger voices (with one exception), what made it easier for the conductor to give freer rein to his orchestra. Before someone points out that I have been pressing the same key: even if a large orchestral sound is not essential for Wagner, it is nonetheless the safer way of producing the right effect. Herbert von Karajan, for instance, opted for chamber-like sonorities for his Salzburg Ring – and one easily realizes that the level of craftsmanship required is far above average. One needs only a top-tier orchestra exhaustively rehearsed to draw on tonal colouring and accent. And some still find it a bit undramatic. Is it fair to expect that every Wagner performance in the theatre to be thrilling? Maybe not – but a Ring Cycle is supposed to be a special occasion and, if I have to be honest about this evening’s performance, the adjective is “boring”. I was afraid to use this word, but then a singer friend who was there agreed sotto voce  “I was so afraid to call it boring, but that is what it was”. So, we both encouraged each other to express our feelings and the result is that I am writing it here. From the first bureaucratic bars, one could know what was coming. Not the last word in clarity, no tingle factor out of momentous orchestral sound, only occasional sense of forward movement: wherever you ran to, disappointment was waiting. Act II felt like as long as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the most uninteresting Todesverkündung scene ever shown to an audience included). After a messy Walkürenritt, only halfway act III seemed to catch some fire – the Deutsche Oper’s shining feature as a Wagnerian orchestra, its almost unique blend of brass and string sounds, was finally conjured, some emotion was put into the proceedings and, with the big-voiced singer in the evening alone on stage, Musikdrama made a fast but somewhat late appearance.

Jennifer Wilson seems to be one of those singers cursed with an exceptional vocal nature. God has really wanted her to be a dramatic soprano, but she has received very little help from her teachers. Basically, I don’t really think that the way she sings now is everything she can do. It is all right a big, bright, easy voice, but imperfectly supported. To start with, I know that the ho-jo-to-ho’s are assignments from hell, but she was audibly breathless in her first appearance and breathless she often was, chopping phrases more often than I am used to hear. Problematic breath support has many consequences – faulty legato, instances of dubious pitch, tonal meagerness, patches of reduced audibility (especially middle and low register), hootiness, lack of finish in long notes. This evening, there were examples of all that. Sometimes, seeing that an exposed high note would come, an extra effort would be made and a legitimate rich, full, vibrant note would be produced and one could see how exciting everything could be.  It is clear that she has the right instincts but, if she was not in a very bad day, she should look into her technique, for her voice is really worth while the effort.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is almost the perfect opposite of her Brünnhilde: she is a lyric soprano with solid schooling who knows all the tricks to deal with dramatic roles without damaging her voice. Although she was not in any way exceptional , she was still a touching Sieglinde. Her voice is not very distinctive, but it is pleasant, round and healthily produced. As a result, it has a youthful appeal that, aided by unfailing sense of style and a very likable personality, puts you on her side. Predictably, the lower end of the tessitura proved to be more challenging than the high notes – and probably only in Der Männer Sippe one could feel some discomfort. Daniela Sindram is the Octavian/Komponist kind of mezzo and not someone would expect to find as Fricka. She knows that she is no Christa Ludwig and fortunately did not try to be that. With her focused, round mezzo she produced an elegant performance with some forceful high notes and a discrete use of chest register to pierce through in her low notes. She is also a very intelligent and charismatic singer. It is always a pleasure to see and hear her – even in a role not really meant for her.

Yes, Robert Dean Smith has sung Tristan – and, as our good friend Cavalier has reminded me – even at the Met – but Siegmund has a very special kind of difficulty. He is not the first lighter-toned singer in this role – Jonas Kaufmann at the Met is another example – and the comparison with Kaufmann is interesting. Vocally speaking, I find the JK basically more “interesting” than RDS – the voice is more immediately recognisable, the high notes are more incisive and he is more dramatically connected. But Dean Smith has one great advantage – he is more experienced and only steps on firm soil. His Siegmund was beautifully sung in flowing legato and – this is the first time I use Leontyne Price’s little concept for a singer in Wagnerian repertoire – joie de chant: one can feel he is enjoying himself there and, to keep quoting Price, if he were not, neither would we. I’ve seen that many members of the audience were truly satisfied with his performance – I was to a certain point. Beautiful as it was, it lacked some thrill, and the lack of volume was only part of it.

Greer Grimsley’s curdled and slightly unwieldy bass-baritone is not very seductive – and his emphatic and often rough approach to phrasing and unclear vowels don’t make it more appealing, but – and this evening this is a big “but” – he has a voice of truly Wagnerian proportions. When I was ready not to like him, I noticed that, whenever he was singing, the maestro could really relax and let his orchestra hit home. Then I remembered how uneventful last year’s otherwise more pleasant-toned Wotan had been and Grimsley’s performance began to have some interest. When he proved capable of some nuance in the closing scene, I’ve decided to consider him an asset in this performance. Finally, Reinhard Hagen was, as always, a most reliable Hagen.

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Here we go again with Götz Friedrich’s old, old, old production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. I understand that producing a new Ring could be too expensive for the Deutsche Oper Berlin and it’s sure better to have an old Ring than none, but I don’t believe that these reprises are doing justice to Götz Friedrich: this Ring looks its age and those who are sampling it for the first time in the XXIst century won’t leave the theatre understanding why Friedrich was such an important director. Paraphrasing Christa Ludwig’s famous quote about time to retiring, it is always better to say “pity it’s no longer there” than “pity it still still there”. The good news is that Jasmin Solfaghari’s Spielleitung looks more like “stage direction” than Søren Schumacher’s last year. This doesn’t mean that it looks effective – it does not – but again, it is better some than none. There is now an attempt of making comedy that I find quite distracting and blocking is still awkward, especially when singers have close interaction.

As for the musical aspects of this evening’s performance, I have to confess that last year’s was so disappointing that it was not really a great challenge to offer something better this evening. First of all, the orchestra was in far better shape tonight. One could feel that conductor Donald Runnicles had to scale down for his mostly light-voiced cast, but at least the orchestra had some sound even in those moments. That said, I still find it unconvincing – if the conductor is not going to offer hallmark lush Wagnerian sound, why not opting for clean accents, forward movement, clarity and excitement? As it was, many moments sounded dull and one could often feel time pass. Last year, the Deutsche Oper had a trump card that made the evening memorable, Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich for the ages. Having to live up to this standard is an unfair demand on Gordon Hawkins, whose weighty, dark and grainy bass-baritone cannot produce the same kind of impact. He does not seem to have the proper personality to the role – and sometimes his more self-contained attitude and rich tonal quality made me think that Wotan could have been his role if he had clearer consonants and more variety as a whole. As it was, his Alberich was rather well-behaved than gripping. Although Mark Delavan’s voice was a tiny little bit opaque in its higher reaches this evening, his Wotan has clearly developed since last year. He is more comfortable on stage, his text is somewhat crispier and his heroic top notes more integrated. But there is still a lot of road before him until he achieves true musical and dramatic impact. Daniela Sindram’s light but well-focused Fricka was sensitively sung and she has enough presence to bring her role off the background. Let’s see what she is going to do tomorrow. Burkhard Ulrich’s vivacious Loge is consistent with last year’s performance, but it is Ewa Wolak’s excellent Erda who deserves the “special mention” in this cast, an exemplary performance.

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