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Archive for January, 2012

While it is still discussed if Handel’s Semele or Hercules are operas or oratorios, this is not the case of Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, premièred in Rome in 1707, where there was a ban on operatic performances. On writing the libretto for something closer to a cantata than to an oratorio, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili could hardly have any concern about dramatic action, so it is not Jürgen Flimm’s fault if his old staging for the Opernhaus Zürich cannot make much of an allegory on the development of physical beauty into spiritual beauty. The word “development” is intentionally used here: the parts of Beauty and Pleasure do show some evolution, while Time and Truth are rather cardboard “characters”. Considering this essential problem, Flimm’s concept is a priori interesting: the “action” is set on something of a 1940’s hotel bar. Beauty is some sort of demi-mondaine and protegée of some sort of Countess Geschwitz (Pleasure) – Truth and Time have some sort of mission, which is to “rescue” Beauty and show her the precariousness of her situation and open her eyes to reality. In keeping with the allegorical nature of the work, the whole atmosphere is Fellini-esque with many surrealistic extras with semi-parallel plots. As far as this goes, the idea seems to work – but, alas, there is some silliness going on here: Time is clownish; Truth is a bit lesbian-chic (and, yes, Pleasure too…); literal associations are often made (when the word “boat” is quoted, sailors appear… for no specific purpose) and, in the end, Beauty becomes a nun (?!). Why doesn’t she simply get a regular job? Handel’s sublime music does not deserve either a simplistic or a mock solution…

Marc Minkowski knows this score for a long while: he recorded it in 1988 and was one of the conductors associated with performances of this very production in Zürich. Comparing this evening with his old recording is a fascinating experience – the Musiciens du Louvre have a warmer sound today, the accents are more theatrical, but his choice of tempi is adapted by the needs of the production and, most of all, his present cast – far less ideal than the one in studio. This seems to have had an effect of weakening the conductor’s expressive purposes. The first part had its lackadaisical moments – the orchestra had to be reined-in for some singers, arias that required soloists with more tonal coloring abilities were left wanting – but it gained in purpose in the second part and finally paid off in a truly otherworldly Tu del ciel ministro (a desert-island number for ever Handelian)

Sylvia Schwartz’s grainy pellucid soprano does not suggest any sensuousness at the first part of the work or any angelical clarity of tone for the second one, but she showed herself never than fully committed – tackling her divisions with gusto (maybe because Cecilia Bartoli sang the role of Pleasure in Zürich, the difficult aria Un pensiero nemico is transferred to Pleasure here), never shying away from trills and finding true Innigkeit in Io sperai and, although less than vocally pure for the last aria, her spiritual concentration in it offered more than compensation. Inga Kalna’s voice too is devoid of sensuousness and rather harsh and blowsy – sometimes I had the impression that she was trying to channel Bartoli, what could be considered an advantage in terms of panache and crispy delivery of the text and a disadvantage in what regards lack of focus, legato and straightforward vocal production. What she does have is impressively clear coloratura and a very long breath. She could find a way to soften her tone for Lascia la spina and charm the audience there. I still have memories of Ann Hallenberg, but what Kalna could offer there was sincere and ultimately convincing – she is also a very good actress. Delphine Galou (Disinganno) is a stylish Handelian who offered some of the most satisfying singing this evening, but she is no Nathalie Stutzmann. This is the first time I see her live and cannot say if this was a bad-voice day, but her low register this evening did not have the impact and solidity of a Stutzmann, of a Sara Mingardo, of a Sonia Prina. Charles Workman’s singing has many hard angles and his Italian is not truly idiomatic, but his voice was refreshingly hearable in comparison to his colleagues.

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I was not going to write a third review of a performance of August Everding’s production of Die Zauberflöte for the Berlin Staatsoper (no1 and no2), but then the experience of seeing it in the Schiller Theater was new for me. It works surprisingly well in the more “modern” auditorium, where everybody can see the sets from the right perspective. I don’t know if they have been “retouched”, but this time I did not have the impression of decay that I had last time.

It is impossible to compare from memory Julien Salemkour’s conducting back in 2009 and this evening’s performance. Back then the I wrote of egg-timer approach; this evening, the fast speeds seem more coherent, even if some numbers seemed entirely devoid of charm in the oversprightly beat (Bei Männer, for example). Although she still has the occasional intonation lapse, this was the best Pamina I have ever heard from Adriane Queiroz. Her voice is still on the rich side for Pamina, but she was able to keep it focused and light throughout, sounding unusually creamy-, fruity-toned and youthful. Anna Siminska’s soprano was so shallow in her first aria that I feared for the worst in her second one. As with every “professional” Queen of the Night, she could probably sing Der Hölle Rache in her sleep – and it sounded like that. Joel Prieto was almost ideally cast, ardently sung in his firm, spontaneous tenor. He did have some excessively open-toned moments in an almost Neapolitan way, but all in all he was one of the best Taminos I have recently seen. Even if Roman Trekel’s Papageno sounds even rougher these days, I cannot resist his boorish approach for the role – I am afraid I would trade a smoother tone for his truly funny performance. Alexander Vinogradov is an ample-voiced, stylish Sarastro. His extreme low notes were reliable if lacking a bit of space and he lacks the nobility of tone of a René Pape – a very commendable performance in any case.

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