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Archive for February, 2012

In order to raise funds for the renovation of the Lindenoper, Daniel Barenboim invited star soprano Anna Netrebko for a concert with the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Philharmonie. They have worked together before – the result is a disc of Russian songs with the Argentinian conductor as accompanist on the piano.

The first part of the program was devoted to Richard Strauss, and the audience was treated to a very theatrical account of Till Eulenspiegel, in which his musicians could invest their solos with almost graphic narrative purpose. However, Barenboim might be a heavy-handed Straussian and some tutti could have been a bit more smoothly balanced. I had never heard Netrebko sing any music by Richard Strauss and was curious for her rendition of three of his most famous songs. I have to say that I had seen her live only twice – a Puritani at the Met and half a Don Giovanni at the Covent Garden. Since then, she sang Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, had a baby and announced she is going to sing the title role in Bellini’s Norma. Her voice has gained depth in the meanwhile – in the first notes of Wiegenlied, her voice sounded so dark that one could mistake her for a mezzo soprano, but then she floated truly exquisite mezza voce so effortlessly in a way only a full lyric soprano would do. I remembered she had a substantial voice for her Fach, but now I would say that her voice is substantial full stop; Renée Fleming sang the same repertoire with the Berlin Philharmonic and Thielemann a while ago, and her voice sounded somewhat less generous in comparison. Not everything was perfect here – the Russian soprano was not very sure of her breathing points and could be caught short in the end of some long phrases in which she did have an opportunity for an extra breath. Intonation had its dubious moments too, especially around the break into her low register, which sounded a bit throaty and puffy. This would pose more problems in Morgen!, and Cäcilie would finally prove to be the most interesting among the German items. There, she sang with unfailing richness even in climactic high notes. I must say that I am curious to hear more German repertoire from her – it seems that she once approached the Bayreuth Festival to check if they would be interested in her Elsa, but I reckon her glamor would probably overshadow the iffy productions they were showing then. Being a singer who often sings Mozart, she knows how to keep a pure line in “German style”, but more than that: she can make it in a grand scale, and even when not in her absolutely best voice (as probably this evening) always knows the moment to display her “special effects”. In these songs, she never let down in the key moments and easily got the audience on her side; she is entirely at ease on stage and, relying on her healthy vocal production, can sing for those seated behind the orchestra – the fact that she had her back towards the seats in front made very little difference in terms of volume and colour.

After the intermission, Barenboim offered some Faust-related items: a very punchy and here aptly brassy Marche hongroise from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and, with Netrebko, Margherita’s L’altra notte from Boito’s Mefistofele. In this item, she still had some issues with passaggio and some low-lying stretches sounded hollow. She was cunning to adapt that into some sort of hushed expressive effect. True abandon was not there, though, and substantial as her voice is, I wouldn’t call it – at least not now – a lirico spinto. The next two items were highlights from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes.  In the overture, the Staatskapelle Berlin gave a tour de force, a true technical display from the string section. It is still a full-toned German sound that allied to Barenboim’s heavy-footed approach in which every little note was milked as if they had been composed by Mahler, offered little buoyancy and  grace (even grace in its athletic guise, as one can hear in Riccardo Muti’s EMI recording, less richness of sound notwithstanding). Elena’s bolero (Mercè, dilette amiche) takes some courage – and, with the help of a slightly slower tempo, Netrebko pulled it off better than most. In this item, her voice was noticeably lighter and, although some of the fioriture were on the careful side, she worked her charm in it and offered a couple of commendable trills.

For the encores, a piano has been brought and Netrebko sang two songs – if I understood it right by Tchaikovsky. Barenboim had to read his notes and look at his fingers in some very flowery piano parts for which he had not probably rehearsed. I had never agreed with those who say that one sings better in one’s native language (it depends of which is one’s native language, I would say…), but this seemed true this evening. Only in these songs I really recognized Netrebko’s voice as I heard it a couple of years ago. Here it sounded truly radiant and spontaneous. This is not “my” repertoire and I cannot tell you how they should sound – they certainly sounded gorgeous to my unaccustomed ears.

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I wrote only yesterday about the redeeming powers of an exceptional musical experience in the context of a shabby old production. Thomas Langhoff’s 1999 staging for the Berlin Staatsoper is as provincial looking as can be (it is very similar to the one shown in the Estates Theatre in Prague – and I don’t mean this as a compliment) – sets and costumes are anachronistic and display very poor taste, when they don’t look downright cheap, but differently from what I saw in the Deutsche Oper yesterday, the Spielleitung is very efficient and the sense of comedy timing is never lost. More than this, these singers natural abilities are well taken profit of and some scenes seemed almost spontaneous (something remarkable in a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, an opera in which things tends to be a little bit look-how-I’ll-do-this-and-how-I’ll-do-that).

However, the acting is hardly the reason why this evening’s performance was remarkable – here the laurels go to Daniel Barenboim. I have both his recordings (English Chamber Orchestra with Heather Harper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Berlin Philharmonic with Lella Cuberli and Andreas Schmidt) and find them ponderous and poorly acquainted with Mozartian style and I was bracing myself for a long evening. But fortune favors the bold – although the conductor does not care very much for clearly articulated phrasing, the Staatskapelle Berlin in top form could find clarity in its rather legato-ish approach to fast passagework in the overture, which counted with clean attacks and a flowing but not hectic pace. During the whole evening, the maestro seemed to ponder how fast every number should be by the criteria of expressiveness and polish. He proved this evening to have understood the way Mozart operas benefits from a “concertante” approach, in the sense that soloists and orchestra were always presented in the same perspective, with singers and woodwind responding to each other in structurally commendable and exquisite sounding organicity. If singers needed a bit more intimacy, the orchestra would shift together with them to a softer yet positive sound. Voi che sapete, for example, sounded wholly fresh to my ears – every shift of mood perfectly rendered, oboes and clarinets increasingly seductive during the arietta.  The conductor never lost from sight that great comedy always operates on the thin line that separates the funny from the touching, and, while avoiding cuteness, these characters’ feelings were never made fun of. Riconosci in questo amplesso, for instance, has its moments of physical comedy, but it also portrays a mother finding a long lost son – and, as R. Strauss would say of Der Rosenkavalier, one should have one eye dry and the other one wet here. And so we had this evening. My hat for Barenboim – this was Mozart playing of top level, and that he has achieved that relatively late in his successful career only confirms that he is truly a great musician.

Mozart operas tend to be cast from the ensemble in German and Austrian opera houses – and it is relatively lucky that the Staatsoper has so many great singers under permanent contract. Dorothea Röschmann is the Susanna in the video from this very production (with Emily Magee and René Pape) and has since then developed into big lyric roles and had to pay some price for it (she had cancelled some performances and her recent Donna Elviras involved sometimes a Mi tradì transposed down). I am, however, glad to report that this invaluable singer is finding her way back to the top of the game. Her Countess is featured both in a video from London (with Miah Persson and Gerald Finley) and from Salzburg (with Anna Netrebko and Bo Skovhus), but her performance this evening was clearly better than in both these recordings. Although she comes close to holding to dear life by the end of the stretta of Dove Sono (the high a’s were there all right, but they felt like high c# sharps in her physical effort, and the high c’s in Susanna or via sortite were abandoned for the ossia*), this evening she sang with more seamless sense of legato and scaled down more willingly (and comfortably) to piano when necessary. In terms of interpretation, she is a singer who always gets to the heart of the matter – and if one will recall smoother renditions of Porgi, amor, this one unmistakably had a broken heart.

This evening’s Susanna was both enchanting and disappointing. Anna Prohaska is a highly intelligent singer, with stupendous Italian pronunciation, REAL understanding of the text (I had to write that in capital letters, for she found more original and insightful turns of phrasing than almost anyone else since Lucia Popp), sense of style, acting skills and personal charm, but the voice itself is simply too small-scaled for Susanna. It comes in one basic silvery color, but not “silvery” enough to pierce through in ensembles, and her low notes – the fact that you could hear them is commendable in itself – were produced in something very close to Broadway belting. I am not saying that she should never sing Susanna – but I am not sure if she should sing this role now. One could say that Popp, Cotrubas, Freni et al sang this role when they were very young. But those were very different voices, I am afraid. I hope Christine Schäfer has some good and honest friends kind enough to tell her that she should take a break and think about what she has been doing. In the last three years, I have only seen her in bad shape, but this evening it was a bit more serious than this. Considering that the role is Cherubino – and that this singer has ventured into singing Violetta Valéry in La Traviata a few years ago – and that she could barely make it this evening, this cannot be seen as normal. She is a singer I had known and liked from recordings (the Mozart/Strauss CD with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado was a favorite of mine for a while) – and it would be sad to see her going down so soon.

Artur Rucinski was a clean and poised Count Almaviva. He lost a bit steam for his big aria, but that did not prevent him from offering clear divisions and a good trill even then. Vito Priante was a most likeable Figaro, in his spontaneous, resonant voice, crystal-clear diction, rhythmic buoyancy and sense of comedy. He does belong in this repertoire and I hope to hear more from him (so far, I knew him from baroque opera recordings). Finally, Maurizio Muraro was an excellent Basilio and Katherina Kammerloher, shorn of her aria, was a fresh-toned Marcellina.

* This may sound picky, but I firmly believe that the Countess should sing her high c’s in this scene. If one remembers Kathleen Battle’s claims for the prima donna dressing room in the Met in the 1980′s, the answer should be clear: “the prima donna is the one with the high c’s, the trills… and the big aria”.

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It is no surprise that a repertory opera company is supposed to have a great share of unmemorable performances (sometimes the same is said of some opera houses running stagioni) – and as I do not want to make this long, I’ll go straight to the question – considering budget, the shortage of soloists for many roles etc etc, even if one has to pull off a performance for almost every day of the year, why make some evenings a self-defeating experience from the start? I may be accused of being too particular (especially considering that the Deutsche Oper had a full house this evening and has probably made for the money spent on staging a new Jenufa or a new Liebe der Danae), but I wonder why one would wish to exhume Götz Friedrich’s helplessly kitsch production before the eyes of an audience? I don’t know how it looked in 1993 (?), but this evening it seemed ugly, decayed, drab and the set changes took ages to be completed. Maybe there was some interesting Personenregie back then, but now it has been completely lost.

Now, if one had a dream-team of Verdian singers willing to sing Un Ballo in Maschera, then, I agree, it would be a pity to miss the opportunity because there isn’t enough money to build an entirely new staging – but that was hardly the case this evening. The originally announced cast had Yonghoon Lee as Gustavo and Thomas Hampson as Renato, what was already some degrees below golden age. This evening’s was a quite decent cast, but the lackluster staging needed something exceptional in terms of singing. I have to make some considerations on the prima donna’s case. Although Tatjana Serjan’s soprano lacks Italianate sheen and may sound shrewish mid-range, it really is a voice of more than enough heft for the lirico spinto repertoire. Moreover, she has very solid low notes and her mezza voce is truly angelic. She is the kind of singer that pulls off an outstanding phrase, sometimes better than in your recording with Leontyne Price or Renata Tebaldi, just to spoil the effect by something clumsy in the next minute.  When everything works at optimal level, it can be very thrilling – especially in her full, round and easy high notes. Heidi Stober’s soprano is a bit too blond for Oscar, but she offered the evening’s all-round best performance. To start with, she was the one person on stage who seemed to be having fun, singing with unfailing sense of style, firm, bright top notes and accuracy, even while jumping and running in a convincingly boyish manner. Maybe the Deutsche Oper should think of casting her as Zdenka when they revive their Arabella. Ewa Wolak treads carefully in the higher end of Ulrica’s tessitura, but flashes gigantic low notes in the auditorium.

As far as I understand, this was Korean tenor Jung Il Kim’s debut in the Deutsche Oper and probably the first time he has sung in a big traditional opera house (please correct me if I am wrong; when one googles his name, one gets North Korea’s “dear leader”). He could have been nervous and it is difficult to say something definitive about him.  He was trained in Rome and sings in Italian style (albeit with a Bergonzian cleanliness of line), but his tenor does not sound Italianate at all. It is a very peculiar voice, and it took me some time to get used to it – it is a warm and velvety voice, sizeable enough but, with very little squillo, it tends to disappear in ensembles or when singing with the soprano. The passaggio is smooth, but his high notes take one second to develop its harmonics and, when this happens, they turn out fluttery and occasionally curdled.  The lack of focus makes his low notes very dim too. This evening, he would tire very easily, sometimes singing with dangerously very slack breath support. I have to confess that, once I’ve got used to his gentle, almost old-fashioned singing, I couldn’t help seeing the potential there. But I am not sure if Gustavo/Riccardo is the right role and the Deutsche Oper the right place to study it. Dalibor Jenis was a forceful, committed Renato with more than enough temper (and stamina) for Eri tu. He had some trouble with his low notes and could sound tremulous now and then – in any case, he had the audience on his side. Among the small roles, Tobias Kehrer’s (Count Horn) well focused bass deserves mention.

Maestro Jacques Lacombe had a difficult time in his traffic cop duties this evening – the orchestra had to be reined-in in permanence, the chorus was a bit disobedient in what regards following his beat. Clearly the aim was nothing but survival. It is a pity, the house orchestra could relish one or other orchestral effect, but the performance was turn on really occasionally (the closing concertato, for example – with beautiful singing from both sopranos and the night’s only unleashed orchestral playing).

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Rossini’s first masterpiece and one of his two best serious operas (the other being Semiramide – both his first and last commission for Venice’s La Fenice) had never been previously heard in the Deutsche Oper before this run of performances conducted by the world’s leading Rossini specialist Alberto Zedda in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 1999 Pesaro production. It would not be proper to say that the house’s rather Wagnerian orchestra had limited experience with Rossini, since his comic works are regularly performed there – but one couldn’t help noticing a “German” richer and fuller sound coming from the pit. The experienced maestro wisely did not try to Italianize his musicians by force, but rather surrendered to the Beethovenian surroundings: this score sounded at its noble and warmer, with beautifully blending of strings and wind instruments. Comparisons with Zedda’s top-recommendation recording for Naxos (with Collegium Instrumentale Brugense) shows what was missing this evening: buoyancy. While the Deutsche Oper performance operated on dignified, warm sounds and Mozartian poise, the CD recording springs into life in its bright Italian-style orchestral sound, clearly articulated phrasing and energetic rhythms. I praise the conductor for finding some sense in what the circumstances presented him and I, for myself, deemed the experience as interesting as listening to Elisabeth Grümmer sing Verdi – it might not be what it was supposed to be, but it still has something to say. The Deutsche Oper Chorus, though, basically struggled with the Italian language.

Patrizia Ciofi was not an immaculate Amenaide – some top notes flapped, the low register is unsettled and sometimes you could feel that this role is a hard piece of singing – but her performance had such musical intelligence, sense of style, gracious phrasing, dramatic awareness and sensitivity that one would need a heart of stone to resist her. Moreover, she was in very healthy voice – her usually watercoloristic tonal quality had this evening such radiance that it just flowed effortlessly in the auditorium. The conductor helped her in every tricky passage and she found a virtue in the less brisk tempi to sculpt her fioriture with expressive Mozartian quality.  When it comes to the role of Tancredi, one really missed the sensational Ewa Podles in Zedda’s CDs. I have never previously heard or seen Haidar Halévy and cannot say if she was in a bad-voice day, but her performance failed to please me except in the passages in which she could sing softly, what she does adeptly (as in the closing scene – here the Ferrara “sad” ending). When she sang above piano, I couldn’t overlook the the backward placement, the lack of focus, the bleached-out sound over the passaggio and the unclear phrasing. To make things more difficult, her figure and her whole attitude do not really work for breeches-roles. When promising contralto Clémentine Margaine sang Isaura’s aria with firm, clearly produced and deliciously dark tonal quality, I really wished she had been invited for the title role. My first impression of Alexey Dolgov’s Argirio was that he was in an off-evening*, but he would eventually settle into a very brave performance of this difficult role. If his tenor fortunately has nothing of the usual nasality and brittleness of tenorini in it, it also lacks true comfort in this repertoire (especially in the higher end of the tessitura). I wonder if he should not sing Mozart more often for a while and develop a little bit more warmth and sense of expressive phrasing instead of opting so soon for a second-choice bel canto tenor career. Orbazzano is not really a big role, but it is an important one – Krysztof Szumanski could not make much of it, the voice does not really bloom and the whole performance turned around a bad-guy impersonation.

Do I need to write something about Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production? Well, if one of my eleven or twelve readers have never seen one of his stagings, I owe him or her a brief description – take one architectural background in a painting by de Chirico, costumes from Xanadu (yes, the movie with Olivia Newton-John) and the Personenregie of a Mexican telenovela and you’ll get the picture.

* Here again Zedda has a brilliant piece of casting in the sadly too-soon-retired Stanford Olsen, one of my favorite examples of Rossinian singing from a tenor.

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