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Archive for March, 2012

Marek Janowski’s Wagner series with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is connected to recordings to be released by the label PentaTone, but the truth is that, until this evening, good as every performance has been, none of them has resulted a CD that has taken the discography by storm. Although it is impossible to predict how the recording made this evening is going to be, I cannot wait to buy it, for it is a Tristan und Isolde that I have always wanted to hear.

The very nature of Wagner’s most famous work calls for ponderousness, for an intensity cooked at low fire, for an approach to unending melody that almost invariably involves a very special tempo in which time seems to stand still. But the work is about passion – even at its most metaphysical – and passion is still the keynote here. And I like the way Maestro Janowski takes it at face value – I was tempted to write “in almost Verdian agitation”, but I have the impression that most Wagnerians would frown at it.  The feverish pulse, clearly articulated accompanying figures, the impacting accents, the brisk pace, the almost relentless forward movement – one would never mistake it for La Forza del Destino, but one could think of it at times. The first act benefited particularly from this concept – the drama developed without repose, as a single theatrical gesture wrapped in brilliant, angular, aptly raw orchestral playing. In act II, the conductor softened his orchestra for a more intimate perspective and one missed now and then the tonal focus in lower dynamics that only the top orchestras of the world have. It goes without saying that the level of clarity was short of sensational – I have discovered many novelties in this score (that I have last heard live only Saturday). Act III seemed entirely original to my ears – Tristan’s physical languor took second place to his spiritual turbulence and Janowski grew from intensity to downright frenzy in vortices of string playing that would have made it impossible for almost any tenor to survive the experience.

If Janowski’s vibrant conducting were not reason enough to single this performance out, Stephen Gould would alone be worth the detour. It is not difficult to say that he has no rivals in this role these days, but I also tend to think that he stands comparison with the best Tristans in recordings too. His voice is naturally powerful, firm and unproblematic – and Janowski did not spare him even in his most difficult monologues, in which he had to provide very fast declamation over the passaggio with a really loud orchestra on stage. It is doubly amazing that he was able to do this almost entirely within the rules of cantabile: Gould phrased with unusual elegance, sang long phrases on the breath, interpreted with imagination and tonal variety, shifted to softer dynamics more often than most. I have to confess that I have barely recognized some passages, so cleanly and musicianly as they sounded. Naturally, the task is inhuman and there were (rare) moments of tension and tightness – I can only wonder that, in the studio, he would be, well, unrealistically perfect. Bravissimo.

I took almost the whole first act to get used to Nina Stemme’s Isolde. It is a voluminous, weighty voice but very short on cutting edge. If her smoky, velvety tonal quality makes her immediately unique among dramatic sopranos, it is also true that she is often overshadowed by the orchestra, except above a high g, when she produces a truly exciting sound, even more so for its roundness and firmness (the high c’s were truly amazing). It is only when you get to the second act that you understand why Stemme’s Isolde is so highly appreciated – her warm tonal quality, her floating mezza voce, her generous flow of velvety tone makes her an outstandingly sensuous Isolde. And her Liebestod is certified top-quality too. It is curious that she seemed somewhat nervous this evening, especially in the first act, when she made some false entries and other minor blunders.

Michelle Breedt was an interesting choice for Brangäne – her forceful, finely focused mezzo sounded lighter and more penetrating than her Isolde’s voice. She seemed to miss stage action and tried to infuse meaning in every little syllable. Sometimes the result could seem a bit fussy, but her intent was always clear and aptly conveyed. The gigantic orchestral proved to be challenging to Johan Reuter (Kurwenal), who had to work hard to be heard and often without success. As King Marke, Kwangchul Youn did not have to struggle – he sang generously and sensitively, but his bass was unfortunately not at its firmest this evening.

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Norway’s greatest contribution to the world of opera probably is Kirsten Flagstad, for many the ideal Isolde in her monumental warm dramatic soprano. It is only fitting then that the opera featured in my first visit to the National Opera in Oslo happened to be Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Even if only the baritone and the bass were born in Norway in this evening’s cast.

In the warm acoustics of the modern auditorium, the house orchestra played with an apt Wagnerian sound, rich, supple and expressive, and at moments suggested ensembles of far greater reputation. Conductor John Fiore never pushed his musicians beyond their limits and, within their zone of comfort, produced the right dramatic effects rather from accent and tone colouring. During the evening, there were moments in which one would wish for a more flexible beat or a more imaginative turn of phrase, but the overall impression was so consistently solid, coherent and atmospheric that in the end one couldn’t help finding it a very satisfying performance. It is only sad that a likewise consistent cast had not been found.

I had never previously heard or seen Karen Foster before, and I really cannot understand why. There aren’t many true Wagnerian sopranos around, and Ms. Foster is one such rare specimen. Her soprano is not rich-toned and ample as Flagstad’s – hers is a steely, bright-toned, laser-like voice that hits home in impressively secure and powerful acuti (I had never seen someone nail live the high c’s as effortlessly as this evening – and, yes, I am too young to have witnessed Birgit Nilsson or Gwyneth Jones). Although there is something of Caterina Ligendza’s icy, light but penetrating quality in her singing, the tonal quality is far more pleasant and young-sounding. She cannot really scale down to mezza voce, but is able to adopt a very clean and lyrical line when she needs to mellow. Sometimes, her vocal exuberance leads her to overkill and, in these moments, her voice may sound a bit hard or a bit sharp, but that’s a very small price to play for the pleasure of hearing a singer who can really withstand an orchestral fortissimo. She is a large woman, but that does not prevent her from moving with naturalness and I would say she is a very decent actress too. Her Brangaene was Finnish mezzo Tuija Knihtilae (no Umlaut in this computer), whose fruity, evenly produced mezzo is so charming that I easily forgive her inability to float her warnings in act II. Alas, tenor John Uhlenhopp does not master the art of breath support to sing a role like Tristan. Already in act I, everything above an e flat was unstable and bottled-up – a bad sign. In act II, what he sang and what Wagner wrote only occasionally coincided. Act III was truly embarrassing. I really wonder how a singer can volunteer to ruin his voice like this. In comparison, Ole Joergen Kristiansen’s couldn’t help sounding healthy in comparison, even if he does not really have the measure of the role. Magne Fremmerlid was big-voiced if woolly Marke.

Daniel Slater’s production is a collection of incomplete and unrelated ideas. Robert Innes Hopkins’s sets are beautiful and adapt themselves efficiently to each act, but the concept is too slack and one soon gives up before trying to make sense of the whole thing. In act I, it seems that we see a ship, but Brangaene is a nurse and there are three hospital beds, two patients are Adam and Eve figures whose blood in a syringe is the love’s potion.  The third is a boy, who would play with his toy during the Liebesnacht. In act II, there is a garden, Tristan, Isolde, Adam and Eve cuddle (this is a bit embarrassing), while Tristan’s sword is stuck to the last crate in a pile. In act III, Tristan is the patient in his hospital bed, and Eve is a pregnant lady who fondles him when he is exhausted in his effort to sing what Wagner wrote. Do I need to write further?

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The late Götz Friedrich is a director of almost legendary status in Berlin, and I wonder when the Deutsche Oper is going to show him respect by avoiding substandard revivals of his productions. A director of his reputation would never allow an old production to be shown to an audience only to be laughed at, as it often happens – and it certainly did today. If I had taken someone who had never been to an opera house before this evening, I would have apologize at the end. The sets are depressingly provincial; costumes are banal and nonsensical; the Spielleitung is so bad that you feel sorry for these people on stage trying to deal with props that they don’t know how to work or not to knock each other out in their poorly blocked interaction scenes; and I still wonder why someone would use some funny commedia dell’arte stage-hands who jump and flaunter on stage in the middle of Verdi’s Luisa Miller – a story in which an innocent girl and a decent old man are abused before she is finally killed by someone who was supposed to love her. Acting is, but for two singers, not this cast’s strong suit, but the Spielleiter just let them embarrass themselves without caring to know if this was working or not. Lamentable.

I understand that Verdi’s score is not of great help when one needs inspiration here, but the singers playing the roles in the Miller family have proved that true artistry transcends even the most hopeless circumstances. I don’t believe that the title role is meant for purely lyric sopranos, but Krassimira Stoyanova’s emotional sincerity, excellent technique, sense of style and commitment triumphed over her limitations in volume and cutting edge (especially in her high register). In the last act, she really transported me away from the prevailing shabbiness into the predicaments of poor Luisa Miller. She interacted beautifully with Gabriele Viviani, who replaced Leo Nucci, as Miller. He has a rather steely, slightly rough voice à la Paolo Coni, but his singing is so authentically Italian, his diction clear, his involvement so palpable that their last duet couldn’t help being hundreds of levels above the rest of this performance. Clémentine Margaine’s rich contralto is always a pleasure to the ears, but she had no direction to speak of and couldn’t find her way into the role of Federica. It is an ingrate part, often too low-lying, but I would say nonetheless that a mezzo with a solid low register is probably better suited to it. As it is, although one could still hear this French singer’s high notes, they did not have much color. Belonging to an ensemble is always a safe choice, but Margaine has true potential for a free-standing career in bel canto and baroque music, in which many a more famous contralto lack volume and heroic quality.

Zurab Zurabishvili was almost a late-minute replacement for Marcelo Álvarez. The Georgian tenor is not a beginner, but the voice is still fresh, spontaneous and resonant. Unfortunately, his sounds turn around different degrees of nasality and his high notes, if big, are tense and pushed, what made him more and more tired during the evening. More disturbing is his cupo phrasing, without much flowing quality and variety. Arutjun Kochinian voice might be large, but it is distressingly throaty. Orlin Anastassov’s bass is warm and dark enough, if distinctively Slavic. My neighbour this evening asked me why he does not have a bigger name – I guess there some lack of imagination, but mainly the voice lacks bulk for the great bass roles in operas like Don Carlo or Simon Boccanegra.

If I had not seen yesterday’s Macbeth, I would probably say that Paolo Arrivabeni’s conducting was all right, but I did hear the same orchestra under Ivan Repusic and, good as it was tonight, it was only a shadow of it was the night before. It is true that Macbeth had bigger-voiced singers (and a far superior score, one cannot forget), but one wants a nobler tonal quality here. Justice be made, the maestro did not linger and strove for excitement, but things often sounded just brisk. Not in the beautiful closing act, when the orchestra seemed gradually to plug in and, by the last scene, the effect was quite colourful and vibrant.

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I have to confess: this is not the first time I have seen Robert Carsen’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Last time, the experience was so uninspiring that I simply did not feel like writing about it. A little bit less so this time. The staging, of course, remains the same: Scotland is here a military dictatorship, the witches are cleaning women (with brooms of course…), Lady Macbeth is murdered execution-style and, in the end, a new dictatorship is established. The approach itself is interesting if not original, but sometimes one feel that the stock of ideas was a bit low. Lady Macbeth paces up and down and fidgets with bedclothes while singing her opening arias; the king’s murder is shown onstage, making the Macbeths discussion about going inside and outside his room difficult to follow, and the director finds it important that we watch Lady Macbeth dress and undress on stage. Something similar happens with the scenery, when pieces of furniture move about by themselves through the stage for some clumsy effects (choristers checking to see if they are on their way, props that land on the wrong place – this evening the baritone had to kick his bed in order to make way). All this might sound picky, but the point is – if this is going to be a “traditional” staging, one expects realism; if this is going to be a revisionist staging, one expects a concept. Here one would be left wanting for either of them.

Conductor Ivan Repusic compensated for the blankness on stage by a most powerful account of the score. To write that the house orchestra was in great shape is only telling part of the story – these musicians could find really harsh, dark, menacing sonorities, followed the conductor’s forward-moving beat with animation, everything projected drama and intensity. It is most commendable that the young conductor knows the art of balancing the sounds from stage and the pit so adeptly:the orchestra commented the action powerfully and produced full sonorities without saturating the aural picture in which singers’ voices would fit in rather than run over. Repusic knows singers’ necessities and could attend to them in a musically coherent way. For example, in order to help the soprano in her florid toast song, he gradually slowed down the pace while making accents more incisive only to pick the tempo giusto with renewed energy – no one would think of it as other than a Sinopoli-like expressive gesture.

I am not sure if Liudmyla Monastyrska is the Lady Macbeth of my dreams – but I would blame rather Verdi’s impossible writing than this valuable Ukrainian soprano’s abilities. Her big dramatic soprano develops from a solid low register, well-knit into a warm middle register that blossoms in a truly flashing high register, with acuti that pierce through the auditorium and probably further away in the Bismarckstraße. Her coloratura is only decent (she tackles her brindisi with a generous use of staccato) and her mezza voce may sound bleached and smoky, but let’s be frank: how many dramatic sopranos actually do all this?! Anyway, I am curious to hear her in other roles – Aida? – probably more suited to her temper. Here she seems a bit trying too hard to be formidable and bossy – and the evil laughs are a no-go.

Thomas J. Mayer, on the other hand, has no problem with “letting it rip” – he is always ready to let it all out, even when he is way beyond his vocal limits. His is a more forceful than voluminous voice and probably a bit on the low side for Verdian roles. In order to keep with the demands of the part of Macbeth, he has to sing on his 100% most of the time and sometimes is off steam. When this happens, one can feel the effort in emphatic phrasing, short on legato and tonal sheen and alarming limits of “acting with the voice” to avoid some testing passages. However, when he is able to gather his resources, as in Pietà, rispetto, amore, he offers truly exciting singing of impressively dark hue up to his extreme top notes. It is a pity that the role of Banquo lies too high for Ante Jerkunica, for, barred the colourless high notes, his singing is simply faultless in richness, volume and musicianship. I am glad to see how Thomas Blondelle, a member of the ensemble, is developing into big roles. The tone lacks Italianate squillo, but his tenor is proving to be beefy enough and one must praise this Belgian singer for his understanding of Italian style. Finally, the chorus must be praised – especially the women. The Italian text in the witches’ choruses are always difficult for foreign singers (as one could hear tonight), but they certainly got the spirit and sang with raw energy – and acted very well too.

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Leonard Bernstein’s Candide’s hybrid nature – is it a musical? is it an operette?  Trying to determine which can make the experience of watching it particularly difficult for those who are not used to the musical theater.  I must confess it for musicals are not my cup of tea. But I have made my acquaintance with Candide through the video in which Bernstein himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with a team of soloists that are apt enough for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda or Verdi’s Luisa Miller, even though many of the participants were barely recovered from a severe case of flu.

In the version performed in the Deutsche Oper, Bernstein’s colorful orchestration has its Richard Straussian-ian (and its Johann Straussi-ian) moments – and it makes perfect sense that a good orchestra would want to try it. In any case, these two concert performances were dedicated to Loriot, whose German texts were used to link the musical numbers sung in the original language. The German humorist wrote that Candide is a unique musical, in the sense that the story outline, briefly described, takes as long as the musical itself to be told.

The very circumstance of having a Wagnerian orchestra such as the Deutsche Oper’s, under the baton of its musical director Donald Runnicles, made the performance interesting even for those – such as me – not really attuned to the musical idiom. Although the composer himself found an inimitable intensity of expression he could at the same time conjure tongue-in-cheek playing from his musicians. Runnicles cannot be accused of lack of enthusiasm. The orchestra offered brilliant playing and, in its relatively better-behaved approach, offered truly Mahlerian grandeur in many moments. If I am less enthusiastic about the chorus, it is because I could barely understand their English.

Toby Spence was supposed to sing the title role, but was replaced in the last minute by Stephen Chaundy, who did a very decent but hardly inspiring job in it. His Cunegonde couldn’t help being more flashy in comparison. Simone Kermes’s soprano is a couple of sizes lighter and smaller than June Anderson’s in Bernstein’s video – and her low notes were often overshadowed by the orchestra. She also missed Anderson’s native-speaker verbal fluency.  (For example, I cannot help finding it funny when the American soprano sings apparently unimportant things such as  “Paris, France” in her aria), but Kermes knows how “to carry a tune”, in the sense that even the most angular passages sounded singable and easy on the ear. Maybe there was more than a splash of Berlin-style cabaret in her “Glitter and Be Gay”, but only a purist would feel disturbed, and her ease with staccato and in alts is always impressive.

Casting for Grace Bumbry the Old Lady is, I suppose, a tribute to the mezzo-soprano-cum-soprano. (Christa Ludwig sings the role in the Bernstein video.)  Bumbry is now 75 and, of course,  there are many rusty patches in her voice, but one cannot cease to wonder nonetheless how healthy it still is, especially a fruity chesty low register that she understandably stretches up higher than she used to do. What I can say is she still can pull out a very seductive “I Am Easily Assimilated”. The other soloists did a splendid job, especially the charismatic and forceful Burkhard Ulrich (which role did he perform) and the funny and technically adept Simon Pauly as Dr. Pangloss and Martin.

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Even if one dislikes Regietheater, one must acknowledge that Dvorak’s Rusalka has been recently well served by thought-provoking and beautiful stagings, most notably Martin Kusej’s poignant production for the Bavarian State Opera, available on DVD, but also Stefan Herheim’s for La Monnaie and the Oper Graz, presently being revived in Brussels. As always with the Norwegian director, the audience is supposed to be familiar with the libretto to follow his x-ray incursion into the inner structure of an opera and its psychological, symbolic, historical, you name it associations. As much as I find all his points valid and insightful, I am afraid one has to overlook some heavy-handedness now and then, especially the suppression of the act III scene with the gamekeeper and the kitchen boy* to fit the director’s superimposed plot, the constant manipulation of dialogues (a great part of lines are said to the benefit of a character other than the one specified by the author, what requires some mind-boggling two-level action on stage) and most of all artificial references to the aquatic nature of the fairytale that seem rather an after-thought than something in the core of his concept.

As it is, Herheim’s Rusalka is a study of the violence and abuse inflicted on woman by the way men expect them to conform to their fantasies about them. In order to show this, the Prince becomes the image of the Water Sprite as a young man and Rusalka, the Foreign Princess and Jezibaba the projections he makes on two real women: his wife and a prostitute he fantasizes about. Thus, a middle-aged man sees this young hooker who teases him as he is about to get into his house, but his wife sees it, believes that he was after her and locks him out. Indignant, he attacks the young woman and, under the shock of the situation, blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. In his vision, he is haunted by his desire as a young man for an innocent bride in a white gown, by his frustration as married man with a distant wife, by the dream of a woman as entirely conceived by a man’s mind (materialized as a female character in an opera – here the Queen of the Night from Schinkel’s 1816 Berlin production) and by apparitions of women undesired by men (old hags, nuns, witches…) before he actually kills his wife and handles her as a puppet. At the end, the prostitute sings Rusalka’s last lines to the corpse of the murdered woman. One may ask what the mermaid and her prince have to do with it, but I would say that probably everything. Herheim’s view of the incompatibility of what women are and what men want them to be probably in the bottom of the myth of dangerously seductive mermaids confined in their waterworld in comparison to the safety of dry land. I wonder if one really needs such a convoluted scheme to make the audience see that, but Herheim does know how to make his complex ideas work on stage, by virtue of beautiful and imaginative sets, many coups de théâtre and his keen understanding of the score.

“Keen understanding of the score” are words one could use about conductor Adám Fischer, who offered an ideal account of Dvorak’s music this evening. His orchestra played warmly and richly in dense Romantic style and absolute structural clarity and even the comparatively kitsch episodes with the water nymphs sounded vigorous and colorful rather than cute and sprightly. This score has many shifts of mood and Fischer could find unusual coherence and organicity in it. He had a very good cast, crowned by an admirable performance from Myrto Papatanasiu in he title role. The Greek soprano has the perfect voice for it – her fruity full lyric soprano can scale down to floating pianissimo or build up to exciting acuti most naturally. She gave me the impression of being in absolute control of her resources and commands a great range of tonal coloring and does it in the service of drama. She is also a good actress and has a beautiful figure for this role. Annalenna Persson makes an interesting contrast as the Foreign Princess in her steely soprano that lacks however some warmth and roundness. Maybe it is Dolora Zajick’s fault that after seeing her as Jezibaba, I always dream of a dramatic mezzo in that role. Renée Morloc is not exactly that, but she does have big low and high notes and negotiates her passaggio quite efficiently. She is an intense singing actress who knows how to keep you interested in what she is doing. Pavel Cernoch’s typically tight Slavic tenor predictably makes more sense here than in Italian repertoire. He still finds the role of the prince a bit heavy, but sings cleanly and with very clear diction. Although Willard White’s bass baritone is a bit rusty, it is still commanding in its richness and darkness. The production demands a lot from him and it is most welcome that he would avoid hamming and prefer a more self-contained approach that comes more naturally for him. Small roles were all of them very well sung.

* I have to confess that the distribution of the gamekeeper and kitchen boy’s lines in act II to a variety of characters invented by Herheim actually made the scene more interesting than I usually find it.

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Ariodante is the last item in the Handel opera series presented in Braunschweig (among other stations in Europe) with Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis. With Joyce DiDonato in the title role, this was probably its most sought-after concert – and one can easily imagine how disappointed the audience felt when they learned the news of her cancelling the whole tournée. In her place, it was announced the name of Caitlin Hulcup, whom I had previously seen as a charming Meg in Verdi’s Falstaff – I know, hardly information enough to gauge how efficient she could be in one of Handel’s most difficult primo uomo roles.  In retrospect, I can say that I am almost happy that I had the opportunity of hearing a bit more from this Australian mezzo-soprano. To start with, her tone can be so reminiscent of Lorraine Hunt’s that one cannot help but developing a favorable disposition, especially in this role in which this late Handelian singer was something of a reference. Even if Hulcup has a less consistently solid low register, her clear and fluent coloratura, crystalline diction, stylish phrasing and dramatic commitment procure her a prominent place in this repertoire. I would say her direct, dense and noble Scherza, infida is one of the best I have ever heard, live or in recordings. She was ideally matched by Karina Gauvin’s rich-toned, fluent, expressive and regal Ginevra. Sabina Puértolas has a pleasant, sensuous voice, but her high register is somewhat taut and her diction can be improved (her Italian has a touch of the other Mediterranean peninsula), but she could make something more interesting of Dalinda than what I am used to see. Nicholas Phan finds Lurcanio’s tessitura a bit uncongenial and would have to wait for his duet with the soprano to shine in his dulcet mezza voce. The role of the King of Scotland is a bit low for Matthew Brook too and yet he sang nobly and expressively. Then there is Marie-Nicole Lemieux. While I admire her spirit and energy, this is no replacement for proper technique. The plethora of antics, register inconsistencies and approximative fioritura often veered in the grotesque, and this is not what Handel wanted in this role.

I often find Alan Curtis a conductor more concerned about warm, beautiful orchestral sound and gracious rhythms – and so he showed himself in the first part of the evening. After the intermission, though, the proceedings increasingly gained in impetus, in theatricality and in panache. By the end, it was quite a gripping performance. The orchestra had no small share of responsibility there – they often reacted to the singers in a very organic and effective way. I would say that this was more compelling than the recording released by Virgin Classics (if not as exciting as Marc Minkowski’s for Deutsche Grammophon). The edition performed tonight was sadly heavily cut – not so much in the sense of deleted numbers (Dalinda’s Il primo ardor, maybe the King’s Al sen ti stringo…), but in the deletion of the B section and repeats in a great deal of numbers – most unforgivably the lovely duet Bramo aver mille vite. It may be my imagination, but I had the impression that Ariodante’s Con l’ali di costanza showed some discrepancies to what I am used to hear.

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