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Archive for November, 2011

Handel’s Giulio Cesare was first performed in Braunschweig in 1725. The Caro Sassone would probably be happy to see that he still draws the audiences in Lower Saxony. In co-operation with the Staatstheater Braunschweig, Alan Curtis and his Complesso Barocco are offering there a series of three operas by the composer: Giulio Cesare, Deidamia and Ariodante. Curtis and his international cast have already performed Giulio Cesare in Vienna and Paris and Lyon is their next and last station. This is the first time I have heard Curtis and his ensemble, but I probably have all his recordings of Handel operas, of which he is an uncontested advocate. His orchestra has a pleasant warm, polished sound, but his recordings tend to skate in the surface of the drama. That was not my first impression this evening – the overture displayed some raw energy, Cesare had exhilaritingly fast tempi for his entrance aria and his public display of reproof on seeing Pompey’s severed head. I have also found interesting his flowing choice of pace for Non è si vago, here made to sound more flirtatious than lovesick, but the thrill was soon gone. One would never guess from the well-behaved orchestral playing that Sesto is speaking of revenge in L’angue offeso or that Cleopatra erupted from resignation towards death to gleeful triumph in Da tempeste. Although singers arguably have the greatest share of responsibility in theatrical expression in baroque opera, the orchestra is nonetheless vital to create the atmosphere, especially in Handel – and you just had to look at those musicians to see that sometimes they were not in the same wavelength of their soloists, beautifully as they played – and the obligato parts in Se in fiorito and Va tacito e nascosto were indeed superbly played.

The edition adopted this evening required many adjustments – the harp solo in “Lydia”‘s seduction scene was given to the harpsichord, I haven’t seen four horns for the opening choir, Curio does not exist and, quite understandably, some arias have been cut (Sesto’s La giustizia, Tolomeo’s Belle dee and Sì, spietata, Cesare’s Qual torrente, Achilla’s Se a me non sei and Nireno’s Chi perde un momento) and some were shorn of their B sections (Cleopatra’s Venere bella, Cornelia’s Non ha più che temere and maybe Sesto’s L’aura che spira).

Karina Gauvin has been called “the Renée Fleming of baroque music”, and the nickname is apt enough given the roundness and fullness of her soprano, far richer in nuance than most singers in this repertoire. She achieved the feat of producing a particular tone colouring for each aria – lightly provocative in Non disperar, weightily tragic in Se pietà, contrastingly resignated and desperate in Piangerò and exuberantly imperious in Da tempeste (an unforgettable display of technical abandon). Curiously, the more teasing Tutto può and V’adoro, pupille were quite short in charm. She is one of those singers who always sings on the interest and not on the capital, especially in her high register, what is healthy for her, but a bit frustrating for the audience, considering what her amazing resources might be in their full powers. In any case, a must hear.

Emöke Barath’s voice is a bit high for the role of Sesto, but the singer is irreproachable.  Her tonal quality is pure and pleasant, her coloratura is fluent, she is a vivid performer, has a good ear for ornamentation and, considering her natural Fach, could aptly play her registers for a more “boyish” effect in key moments. I’m curious to hear more from her. Romina Basso too was an impressive Cornelia, her contralto natural and flexible and her use of the text very expressive. Sometimes, her ornamentation is too flamboyant for Cornelia’s lamenti and she could relax a bit more on stage (her whole posture is often too tense), but make no mistake: she is a very special singer.

I wonder if Marie-Nicole Lemieux shouldn’t trade roles with Romina Basso. Her voice is quite soft-grained in its middle register and sometimes unfocused out of her effort to produce incisiveness in it – and her register break is abrupt. The excruciatingly difficult arie di bravure had their labored moments and her interpretation involves highlighting the text to the expense of melodic flow in a rather Fischer Dieskau-ian manner. When the circumstances were favourable, she could be really touching, such as in Aure, deh pietà. All in all, she has an irresistible personality and is never less than fully committed and by the end the sum its greater than the parts.

Countertenor Filippo Mineccia has a strong high register, stamina and flexibility, but his passaggio is a bit problematic. Johanes Weisser (Achilla) has developed a lot since I last heard him. Now he consistently sounds like a baritone and he sang with panache and very clear divisions in forceful voice. There was something tense in his presence, but he channeled that efficiently into his arias. Last but not least, I was sorry for the loss of Nireno’s aria, for Milena Storti was really, really great in her crisply delivered recitatives in a dark yet focused contralto.

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In an interview for Gramophone, Marek Janowski said that his idea for his Wagner’s opera omnia series with the RSB was his dissatisfaction with contemporary German opera directors, who don’t understand the master’s work. Thus, in concert version, his operas could shine at their brightest without any “interference” from the theatrical überall Wahn. Curiously, the conductor did not explain what kind of theatrical direction would be, in his opinion, ideal for Wagner operas. This introduction might seem irrelevant, but it made me remember that one of my eight or nine readers, Stefan, on explaining why he did not stay for the second act of Janowski’s Meistersinger because “the conductor obviously did not care about the drama of the piece”. I wonder what Wagner himself would think of this dichotomy between music and drama in the context of Musikdrama – is it legitimate to say that a performance of a Wagner opera gains in musical values for not being disturbed by being staged? One might said that it depends of the director. I would add then that the advantage of a concert performance depends of the conductor as well.

I have seen staged performances of Wagner operas that were musically uninteresting but theatrically compelling, staged performances who were dull in terms of theatre but musically illuminating – and Wagner operas performed in concert version that were actually “dramatic” and some that were neither dramatic nor musically interesting. In other words, although there is no golden rule here, in view of Maestro Janowski’s opinions, I was ready to be overwhelmed by something revelatory in terms of conducting this evening. I haven’t – Daniel Barenboim “accompanying” either Harry Kupfer’s or Stefan Herheim’s stagings actually offered me something far more overwhelming. I do not mean that this evening’s was a bad performance – it was certainly not – but it hadn’t been special either. If one has in mind that it has been organized with the purpose of being recorded, it was supposed to be memorable – otherwise why release a CD of it, isn’t it? As it was, this was an outstandingly clear reading of the score with rhythmically accurate ensembles. If there is one opera the prelude of which is supposed to set the mood for what lies ahead, this is Lohengrin – not this evening, I am afraid: violins lacked floating quality in their pianissimo playing and the climax was so deliberately built that it actually hang fire. To tell the truth, strings lacked volume throughout, violins sounding particularly thin. Since brass were in healthy shape, this could be often problematic. Act II had a better start, the dark side of the opera apparently has more appeal to the conductor – the Ortrud/Telramund scene displayed superior structural coherence and the orchestra commented with some passion, when not reined in to spare singers in difficulty. The Rundfunkchor Berlin proved to be the trump card of today’s Lohengrin – no wonder that the ensembles were invariably the most exciting moments this evening. Lohengrin’s arrival in act I was particularly praiseworthy, one of the best I have heard either live or in recordings. By the third act, things seemed to gain somewhat in interest – the prelude to act III is one of Janowski’s specialties, but I have heard him conduct it more excitingly with this same orchestra in other occasion (here again strings lacked volume). In all honesty, one cannot blame the conductor alone for the lack of excitement. It is very generous of these singers to perform pro bono and I respect all of them for that, but this was no dream team for this opera – and one could see that Janowski had to make them many concessions that ended on impairing some key dramatic moments. A good example was Ortrud’s last intervention – the orchestra, for once, was ready to give it all, but the conductor had to scale things down and he deserves high praise for being able to keep some excitement there through articulation and accent alone.

Pregnancy seems to become Annette Dasch – although the role of Elsa requires a larger voice than hers, she sang it this evening really better than when I saw her in Bayreuth. Today I found her middle and low register particularly fruity and appealing and her attempts to produce pianissimo more effective. Her interpretation has deepened too and, even if her Elsa has more than a splash of “Gossip Girl”, it is also theatrically alert and attentive to the text. Susanne Resmark too knows everything she should know about Ortrud, but the role is impossibly high for her voice, making her sound hooty, breathy and sometimes off-pitch. I have seen Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin in various occasions and so far this has been his best performance in this role and I am glad that it has been recorded. His strangely ethereal yet forceful tenor fits the “role description” and he sang it particularly mellifluously this evening, while almost avoiding the abrupt ending of phrases that sometimes disfigure his singing. Gerd Grochowski masters the crispy declamation necessary to sing Telramund but, as his Ortrud, finds the role high for his voice, sounding often gray toned and limited in volume in the higher reaches. Together with this evening’s tenor and the chorus, the shining features of this performance are the outstanding Günther Groissböck, an exemplary Wagnerian voice, as King Henry and Markus Brück’s powerful Herald.

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