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Archive for October, 2011

It is said that it is the eye of the owner that keeps cattle fat. Kirsten Harms has barely left the direction of the Deutsche Oper and her production of Tannhäuser starts to decay – the relatively silent stage contraptions are now quite noisy, lighting was erratic, stage elevators were poorly used and  those who were operating the stage ropes were not really sure which props should be lowered on stage (at a certain point, the safety curtain was lowered by mistake…). Maybe it was just an impression, but the second act’s singing competition has now a great deal of gags.

In any case, although the musical performance had its share of tiny glitches, Donald Runnicles offered a commendable account of the score. Conducting Wagner with small-scaled singers is a challenging affair – one the Deutsche Oper’s Musical Director has often failed to meet – but not this evening. The house orchestra played with fine focus and a lighter sound bright enough to have presence, and the maestro never missed the right opportunities to unleash his musicians when this should and could be done. Moreover, Tannhäuser is a specialty of the Deutsche Oper chorus – their singing alone is worth the trip to Charlottenburg. This is the third time I’ve heard them in this opera and it has been consistently excellent.  The choristers were not alone in providing great singing this evening – Markus Brück is probably the finest Wolfram in the market these days. I have recently seen Goerne and Gerhaher in this role and, sensitively as they both sing the Abendstern song, Brück provides richness and roundness of tone without loss of ductility and flexibility and still avoids any hint of affectation. To make things better, he has a sizable voice and can hold his own against any Heldentenor. Not that this was necessary this evening.

The first time I have heard of Robert Gambill was in Bruno Weil’s recording of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in which he sang Pedrillo. He could be seen next as Lindoro in Gelmetti’s DVD of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. Then, in 1999, he was singing Tannhäuser with Barenboim in the Staatsoper. Before he was billed as Siegmund and Tristan, he could record Graun’s Cesare and Cleopatra with René Jacobs  – he even did a very good job with trills back then. I had tried to see his Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper, but he canceled twice. I had never seen him live before this evening, but I like the sound of his voice and his Mozartian background made me curious. Yes – it is a beautiful voice, not a dramatic one yet large enough, he can phrase with Mozartian poise and has excellent diction. All that below a high f. From that note upwards, he suffers from some sort of misconception that involves too backwards a placement, resulting an opaque and unstable sound that fails to pierce through. He has admirable stamina and by virtue of a steely breath support pushes his way through – but he predictably soon got tired. Things got so perilous that I was expecting for a replacement, but one has to concede Gambill something: he never gives up and very rarely cheats. I have seen healthier Tannhäusers who “forget” to sing some impossible notes during the concertati in the ends of act I and II, but not Gambill. Although he sounded tired, had to chop his phrases to get an extra helping of air, pecked at high notes mid-phrase, could be below true pitch in exposed acuti and finally employed a lot of acting with the voice, this tenor did sing more or less everything Wagner wrote. I just wonder if he enjoys this experience – not even Jon Vickers tried Tannhäuser (does anyone believe that whole “immorality” story?!). Why not Lohengrin? Walther?

I am not sure if Wagner is Manuela Uhl’s repertoire either. Her voice is too high for Elisabeth and, hard-pressed by having to produce a Wagnerian sound, it comes across as acidulous and fluttery. She could not find dynamic variety and sang a quite insensitive prayer in the last act. You can imagine by yourselves how her Venus was. Reinhard Hagen is always a reliable Landgraf and Thomas Blondelle’s Walther had no problem in presiding over ensembles, a lesson to his Tannhäuser: beefing up high notes is a very poor replacement for natural tonal brightness.

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If Edita Gruberová were Japanese, she would be a Living National Treasure – she is 65 and sings one of the most difficult roles in the repertoire, Bellini’s Norma, quite often. She is a singer of legendary technique, musicianship, expressiveness and dramatic commitment – but, even if her tonal quality is extremely youthful, she is no longer in her prime. That does not mean that she should retire – God forbids! – but I wonder why a singer used to immaculateness could content herself with being indulged. Is it because her artistic generosity is such that she feels that she should give her all even risking her reputation? I tend to believe that: “generosity” was precisely the word on my mind during this evening’s performance, which required from her an immense effort in adaptation to overcome many glitches. A poorly tuned Casta diva followed by a Bello, a me ritorna a bit all over the place did not promise a gratifying experience, but then Ah, rimembranza had many breathtaking examples of lovely high mezza voce and the end of act I developed into something truly exciting (with some interesting interpretative touches, quite different from what she has done both in her video and audio recordings). In act II, her problems with the lower end of the tessitura brought about unconvincing examples of “acting with the voice” (especially in In mia man, when things got a bit out of control), but she more than compensated in a truly heartbreaking plea for her children in the closing scene. While I still believe it was a rewarding experience, I would have truly preferred to see an artist of Gruberová’s level in a repertoire when one doesn’t need to forgive her anything but rather appreciate her immense talents under the proper light.

Sonia Ganassi does not need to fear comparison in what regards artistic generosity – her Adalgisa is exquisitely conceived, the text is expressively and intelligently used, she masters the difficulties of that role and has an engaging personality. And she was in very good voice, better than last time I saw her in this opera.  As his Norma, Johan Botha found problems in his opening aria – the high notes were tense and edgy. That did not prevent him from trying high options in the cabaletta, but the problem persisted. That said, he sang with such elegance, nuance and imagination as I haven’t heard before in this role. Alexander Vingradov’s full-toned and finely focused bass worked beautifully in the role of Oroveso. This is a singer I would like to hear again. Kyungho Kim too deserves mention for his Flavio – far more positive and pleasant-toned than we are used to hear in this role.

Although Andriy Yurkevich has his kapellmeisterlich moments, he has a good grasp of bel canto style and some surprises in reserve, especially a good sense of balancing, of bringing endearing instrumental details to the fore without interrupting the rhythmic flow – even when giving his singers some freedom to phrase. The Staatskapelle Berlin was in excellent shape – the string section adopted a bright, Italianate sound and tackled passagework  with virtuoso quality. If it were not for the Schiller Theater dry acoustics (that robbed brass and drums roundness of tone), this would have been ideal.

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I would have liked to start this without repeating “Verdi’s Don Carlo” is one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire”, but again if any of you has seen a perfect performance of this opera, please let me know. Not even Georg Solti’s studio recording with Renata Tebaldi, Grace Bumbry, Carlo Bergonzi, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela is considered perfect – and I bet any of my 11 or 12 (it seems that I have more readers now) would have died to see this cast live. What I mean to say is that a “disappointing” Don Carlo is the most natural thing in this world – but I still believe that it is important for opera houses to try to keep the level of disappointment low. This is not an opera that works its charm almost per se (such as Carmen or Le Nozze di Figaro) – if creative minds are not making it work, it just does not work. This evening, for example, it did not. If I were paid to do what I do, I would probably ask my publisher to get me a ticket to another performance, for this one was – and anyone who has worked with theatre knows what I am talking about – one of those evenings when the “energy’ is just not there. I say this because I would perfectly believe in anyone who said “you know what, Saturday it was actually good”. I wouldn’t believe, though, if this person told me that it was “great”.

To start with, Marco Arturo Marelli’s new production is new because it has never been done before, but it has no freshness about it. Although he says that his concept turns around people whose lives are made so unlivable because of religious oppression that death is very much present as a satisfying “option”, his approach is essentially “decorative” – the sets are quite elegant in their concrete-like blocks constantly rearranged while preserving the outline of a cross… and the lighting is quite efficient. There are some isolated ideas: there are no soldiers here and priests do themselves the dirty work, the voce dal cielo is a just an ordinary woman soon to be sent to the stake; Charles V appears as the grim reaper in the last scene. But don’t expect much filling in the blanks: the stage direction is extremely conventional: stand-and-deliver is the less annoying problem here. In the first scene, Elisabetta could have stepped on Don Carlo, for she “doesn’t notice him” lying on the floor 30 cm from where she is standing; Rodrigo is shot to death but other than scratching his belly to produce artificial blood that never actually appeared, stood quite upright there singing as if he had all the time of the world until he drops dead to the ground from one second to the other; the Great Inquisitor finds it really ok to sit on the bed the Queen had just slept in (by bed I mean a mattress with cushions and duvet bought at KadeWe). The auto-da-fé is particularly confusing: although the production is stylized, ladies still have big dresses, guys have their swords with them etc. So it’s supposed to be “once upon a time” – but when Philip II says that Spain was doing really well then, I have to believe him, for common people carry a rich supply of printed books with them. Actually, the auto-da-fé has to do with burning books, lots of them, the priests confiscate them themselves among the crowd, who are allowed free access to the Queen, to the King and to the Infante. To be more specific, while these very literate people in dirty rags are being harassed and tortured by the priests a few centimeters from the royal family (no gentry invited), they sing “The day of rejoicing has dawned, all honor to the greatest of Kings! The peoples have confidence in him, the world is prostrate at his feet” – curiously, they first sing this to Carlo (who is not the king – but you could say “they consider him to be his king” – why? this is a good question). Then, Philip comes in and they sing the same lines to him… At least in Regietheater, even if things do not always make sense with the text, they make sense in the concept.

OK, one can always close his eyes, one could say. Not here – the sets and costumes were not ugly, sometimes beautiful and the musical performance was hardly inspiring. Donald Runnicles and Italian opera: I have seen his Otello in the Deutsche Oper, beautiful Straussian sonorities but very little drama. This evening, Verdi’s little theatrical tricks were basically left to imagination. The light-voiced cast probably had something to do with that – and the conductor was always extremely helpful to his singers on producing breath-pauses in rich supply – but the basic sound was quite tame, sudden crescendo effects very restricted, full strings sonorities rarely used, suspense rarely produced with shift of tempo… Let’s use as example, the introduction to Elisabetta’s big aria in the last act – if there is an opportunity for the orchestra to fill the hall and get you on your throat, this is it. An orchestra used to play Wagner would have no problem with that – but it did.

The main reason of interest for me in this Don Carlo was Anja Harteros’s Elisabetta. Yes, I know I always write that I prefer to hear her in German roles, but she is such a special singer that I always want to hear her. Unfortunately, she had family problems and was replaced by Venezuelan soprano Lucrezia Garcia, whose break-through apparently was an Odabella at La Scala.  It is very difficult to explain Ms. Garcia’s performance – but don’t believe for a minute that it was not an important one. In the last…ten years?… a performance of a Verdi opera invariably elicited the comment “ah, pity that a legitimate Verdian soprano lirico spinto couldn’t be found for the role of ________”. Not this evening – Lucrezia Garcia has it. Full stop. It is a very rich, full, creamy sound – with a touch of Leontyne Price’s sexiness and a touch of Aprile Millo’s focus and strong low register – with well-blended registers, easy top notes and truly exciting high mezza voce. She is not a dramatic soprano, but it is a big voice for a lyric soprano, which – most importantly – has slancio in its extreme top notes, when it can sound thrice bigger.  At many moments, she was really Golden Age-thrilling. But only intermittently. To start with, although the voice is always exciting, the singer is quite helplessly unexciting. She does not seem to have a special connection with the text or dramatic situations and, if she never shows any lapse of taste, many turns of phrase are prosaic. I am not sure if one can acquire those qualities, but, if I were a conductor specialized in Italian repertoire, I would certainly try to Karajan-ize her.  Anna Smirnova, on the other hand, has no problem with eventfulness – in terms of character building, her Eboli was quite insightfully developed. Instead of letting it rip from bar one, she first showed her Eboli light-hearted and light-voice and only after Carlo’s rejection started to Souliotisize her singing. I have always heard Smirnova at 100% (as Amneris and Principessa di Bouillon) and was surprised by her control – but from a certain point on, I’ve started to have the impression that she was just not in a good-voice day. Her usually percussive low register failed to pierce-through, she fought pitch in the veil song and her dramatic top notes elsewhere were often unfocused and, even if quite forceful, a bit harsh.

Last time I wrote about this evening’s tenor, I’ve started to receive hate-mails in Italianate English threatening to sue me for not liking him. As I am busy and have other things to do other than dealing with postal blackmailing, I will just write what I found positive: he has beautiful tonal quality. Boaz Daniel too is light-voiced for the role of Rodrigo and was sometimes at the limit of his possibilities, but he is a singer with natural feeling for phrasing, good diction and sense of style, not to mention that his baritone is pleasant on the ear. Roberto Scandiuzzi has seen better days and took a long time to warm up – until his big aria, the sound was a bit woolly and greyish, but from Ella giammai m’amò, it gained its full colors, but not the generosity of some years ago. Ante Jerkunica caused at first a more striking impression, but he seems to find the part too high sometimes. Finally, Kathryn Lewek’s heavenly soprano was really properly cast as the “voice from above”.

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“Leicht muss man sein” was the advice Richard Strauss borrowed from the Feldmarschallin when he had to explain how Der Rosenkavalier should be conducted. It is a wide ranging score in which the composer tried to go a step further from Wagner’s Meistersinger and Verdi’s Falstaff and ended on producing a formidable patchwork of Musikdrama, operetta and tone poem. But the advice remains – it is supposed to be a comedy and the serious episodes should be played “with one eye wet and the other one dry”. Back in 2005 at the Met, Donald Runnicles followed this advice and produce a performance of great musical integrity. This evening he still followed the advice, but in its most superficial level. The orchestral playing was never heavy, but often unclear and only intermittently expressive. As with every musical comedy with a large orchestra, adjusting the sounds from the pit to lighter voices is always difficult and the usual victim is atmosphere. This evening, the general impression was of coldness – even in the orchestral episodes, when the conductor should be finally free to firework, the proceedings remained recessed and uneventful. The Sophie/Octavian “love duet” was an exception – exquisitely crafted by soloists, musicians and conductor, it gleamed in the middle of the prevailing lukewarmth. The other exception proved to be truly exceptional – this evening’s final trio was so faultless in its spontaneous flow, so free of artifice that it struck powerfully home: lots of wet eyes in the audience. This passage alone made the performance cherishable, in spite of all its flaws.

Götz Friedrich’s 1993 production for the Deutsche Oper looks older than its age: I could have guessed 1983 in its many splashes of bad taste in purple/red/mirror sets. As many productions in Germany, directors are obsessed with the work’s anachronism and make everything turn around schizophrenic aesthetics. Since Friedrich’s original direction is lost in the dust of time, I can only talk about what I saw: a kitsch staging in which singers are supposed to do what they deem better to do. It was quite lucky that this evening the cast had the more or less the right instincts about what that should be.

Replacing Petra Maria Schnitzer’s for the Feldmarschallin, the name of Lioba Braun made me worried and curious. If Christa Ludwig wasn’t an indisputable success in it, what hope should there be for other mezzos in that role? Well, Braun seemed determined to prove me wrong. She was not an indisputable success either, but she really can sing this part and has something to say about it. At first, her voice does not sound the role: it is a bit smoky, distinctively vibrant and a tiny little bit matronly. In its higher reaches, it doesn’t always produce seamless legato and sometimes variety is achieved rather from a very clear diction and spontaneous inflection than through tone-colouring, but she is certainly a technically secure singer who floats high mezza voce more effortlessly as many a lyric soprano. Her Hab’ mir’s gelobt really gave me goosebumps. If her singing is not always aristocratically poised, her whole attitude turns rather around decisiveness than musing. Even if the cool elegance of a Lisa della Casa or a Kiri Te Kanawa corresponds more to everyone’s idea of this role, I wonder if a XVIIIth century grande dame’s attitude was not closer to Lioba Braun’s commanding rather than charming approach. Considering it is only the second time she takes this role (her debut in it took place a couple of months ago in Leipzig), one can only wonder what she will be doing in it once she matures in it.

Daniela Sindram was born to sing the role of Octavian – her creamy mezzo soprano floats through Straussian phrases and, as her Marschallin, she readily takes to mezza voce. To make it better, she cuts a convincingly boyish figure on stage while keeping a patrician bearing and relishes the Mariandl episodes without excess of caricature (properly directed, she could be indeed perfect in it). Julia Kleiter, the tallest Sophie I have ever seen, unfortunately doesn’t share with these singers the ability to spin soft, floated high notes – a requirement in this part – but her high pianissimi, occasionally tight, are never hard on the ear. As a matter of fact, her greatest asset is the irresistible beauty of her voice. And the fact that she is an elegant, musicianly singer doesn’t hurt either.

At 64, Kurt Rydl is still a commendable Baron Ochs. Actually, he was in far better voice than last time I saw him (2009) in a Tannhäuser also in the Deutsche Oper. His voice only rarely sounded rusty and, if he did not always follow dynamic instructions, he had not followed them either in his studio recording in Dresden many years ago. An uninformed listener would find a large, rich, dark voice, very clear diction and echt Viennese quality (after all, he was born there). He is also a skilled comedy actor with almost perfect timing who could make us believe that Ochs is a nobleman (something many basses forget to do). Minor roles were very well cast, especially Yosep Kang’s faultless Italian Tenor, Burkhard Ulrich’s subtle Valzacchi and Ulrike Helzel’s bright, well-focused Annina.

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