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Archive for May, 2012

In the context of a program called “Festival Mozart”, which featured an Idomeneo last year, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invited French conductor Jérémie Rhorer for a Così Fan Tutte staged by Eric Génovèse, a member of the Comédie-Française. This last information is of some relevance if someone has seen any staging of classical plays in the venerable institution in Paris. Sets and costumes are elegant and functional in an almost neutral manner – actors take pride of place in order to show their almost formulaic impeccable technique and even the more relaxed moments seem somehow calculated. So it was this evening. This description may suggest boredom, but no – its charms might be a tad bureaucratic, yet pleasing in an undemanding way. Especially with a cast so adept in the acting department.

The conductor has an important share in this performance’s effectiveness. Rhorer is an alert Mozartian, keen on athletic yet spontaneous rhythms, clarity and expressive phrasing. It is just a pity that his orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie lacks a more rounded sound – violins were particularly recessed (even for someone in a seat close to first violins, such as I had this evening). This alone has spoiled a great deal of the fun for me, and my mind was often busy filling in the blanks left by the orchestra. That said, I couldn’t help imagining how this would sound with, say, the Vienna Philharmonic. Even under those circumstances, some moments sounded truly original. Despina disguised as the notary read her contract in fascinating interplay with the orchestra, such as I had never heard before, for instance.

I had seen Camilla Tilling only once as Susanna in Munich. Then I found her rather small-scale and have read that she would be this evening’s Fiordiligi with misgivings. Soon to be dispelled. Although the voice is light for the role, she sang it with dexterity – creamy tone, crystal-clear divisions and plausible low notes. She has natural feeling for Mozartian phrasing, and only a reluctance to float mezza voce, a difficulty with trills and some effort that passed for emphasis when her voice could not supply more volume stood between her and success. Michèle Losier is a gifted actress, but her voice lacks a distinctive quality necessary to bring Dorabella to the fore. Claire Debono was a vivacious Despina, a metallic edge in her voice notwithstanding.

Bernard Richter has a pleasing natural voice, more German in style than what we tend to hear in this role these days. He can sound a bit nasal now and then. He certainly knows Mozartian style, but wasn’t truly at ease in Un aura amorosa. Markus Werba was a solid, not very mellifluous Guglielmo and Pietro Spagnoli was a firm-toned, funny yet menacing Don Alfonso.

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Maybe because im mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz, the Deutsche Oper thought that two isolated performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre would be a nice springtime offering, although Götz Friedrich’s staging is rather in the winter of its existence. Martina Serafin was originally listed as Sieglinde, but was replaced by Heidi Melton, the Deutsche Oper’s official Gutrune. The American soprano has sung the role before in San Francisco, in Runnicles’ Grand Teton Festival and in a concert in Edimburgh- and had the opportunity to “visit” this production as Helmwige. Sieglinde is a tricky role and three times is hardly a lifetime – and the good news are that what lies ahead promises to be very exciting. This evening, there were many exciting moments – but they still need to develop into a whole, coherent performance. There are uncertain moments, some miscalculations (for instance, sometimes she unnecessarily feels that she has to give more and ends on pushing a bit) and some nervousness when soft dynamics are required. That said, for someone relatively new in the role, what she has offered is more than praiseworthy. First, her jugendlich dramatisch soprano is extremely pleasant on the ear, well-focused and rich in its lower reaches. Second, she is an elegant, musicianly singer. Third, she has a radiant stage presence and proved to be a particularly alert and engaged actress. Moreover, she could find the right note of vulnerability in her Sieglinde – and her expression of gratitude to Brünnhilde in act III was powerfully, richly and most sensitively sung.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde has one of those lean, cold-toned voices that flash high notes without much effort à la Catherina Ligendza. Although it is refreshing to see that she really does not find it exhausting to sing this difficult role – and she can be surprising adept in key moments, especially the long crescendo in ihm innig vertraut -trotzt’ ich deinem Gebot – one has the feeling that there are still harmonics waiting to be used in her voice. Her middle register sometimes fails to pierce, there is some sharpness going on and her projection is sometimes unidirectional (in the sense that when she is not singing in your direction, you hear noticeably less). She has an interesting approach to her role – although she is very convincingly tomboyish, Brünnhilde’s more tender side is always at a hand’s reach. And she can shift into these two keys very precisely and effectively.

Daniela Sindram’s voice is still on the light side for Fricka, but her performance is a lesson of how to produce impact through inflection, rhythmic propulsion and clear attack. She is a remarkably intelligent singer, who knows every little nuance in her scene. No wonder she was so warmly applauded.

Torsten Kerl has a very likeable personality and voice – although neither are truly Siegmund material, one still feels inclined to like him. For instance, his Siegmund is far more buoyant and boyish than what one usually sees, but the perkiness is often overdone and ultimately looks hammy. As for the voice, it is round, spontaneous, very keen on cantabile and the low notes are usually rich – and yet a couple of sizes smaller than what one needs to ride a Wagnerian orchestra. He is also a bit free with notes – and, although he was not alone in what regards false entries, he had probably the largest share this evening. Last time, I wrote that Greer Grimsley’s quality as Wotan was basically his big voice. This evening, I would say that he offered really more than that. First of all, even if there still are rough edges, this evening he was in good voice, far firmer than last year. There are more sensitive, more specific, nobler-toned Wotans – but Grimsley is never less than committed and is particularly effective when Wotan looses his temper. That said, he was surprisingly self-contained and illustrative in his long act-II narration. Only in Wotan’s last scene, one felt that he could relax a bit more. But all in all, a raw, powerful performance. Attila Jun is a dark-voiced, forceful Hunding – he is sometimes unintentionally funny on stage and, if he worked on that, he could offer an even more compelling performance.

I still haven’t seen a really satisfying Walküre from Donald Runnicles in the Deutsche Oper – and this evening was no exception. I have noticed that I often write that a performance of Die Walküre often takes off from act II on, and, yes, it does make sense: it is the more “romantic” act and one wants softer tonal quality, a more flexible tempo, a bit more Innigkeit, but at the same time, this is still a big echt Wagnerian orchestra. If the conductor and his orchestra cannot achieve this lightness without loosing focus (both in the sense of clean articulation and of a distinctive tonal quality), then the sound picture becomes often matte and shapeless – as this evening. If act II worked better, it is because the dark, weighty sound are more appropriate for the prevailing gloom. But still, at some moments, one could feel how long act II is. I know, most people are sick of the Walkürenritt – not me, I always like it as if it were the first time. This evening, it started most commendably – absolute structural clarity until the valkyries started to sing. Not only the conductor could not find the right balance between singers and orchestra, but also the singers were not truly well adjusted between themselves. After that, the performance settled in a comfortable, often convincingly rich-toned but hardly unforgettable frame.

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If anyone know of someone who has a ticket for the Staatsoper’s Don Giovanni June 30th (i.e., WITHOUT Anna Netrebko) and would be willing to sell it (or exchange for a ticket for June 27th), I would be extremely grateful for this information.

Update: problem solved.

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The Berlin Philharmonic has its name inscribed in the discography of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Although the Austrian conductor was usually associated with large orchestral sound built around a thick string section, he took the world by surprise with what his detractors called “chamber music” sonorities for his tetralogy in Salzburg (and in the studio). The casting of a “Mozartian” Sieglinde was also unexpected. In any case, the results were distinctive enough – some people cannot live without Karajan’s Die Walküre, in which the most “intimate” opera in the cycle is performed “in human scale”.

I have become used to Barenboim’s “force of nature”-approach to the Introduction to act I and Rattle’s subdued take on it puzzled me a bit. When his “Mozartian” Siegmund began to sing surrounded by the gentlest version of the Berliner Philharmonic sound, graced by Rattle’s often admirable sense of detail and tonal colouring, one could think of Karajan’s recording. But then the evening’s Sieglinde had a far more substantial voice – and one couldn’t help noticing that when she was singing, the Karajanesque smoother sounds would develop into something more traditionally “Wagnerian”. This incongruousness would rob the whole act of a backbone – there were moments, many of them effective, but they vied with each other for a concept. The orchestra proved to be impressively Protean under these circumstances – clear and flexible either in capital or small-letter.  Act II had no such ambiguities – it had the appearance, but only intermittently the spirit of a traditional Wagner performance, while act III was probably started with a caricature of a “traditional” Wagner performance in a very brassy and unsubtle Walkürenritt. Towards the closing scene, the performance would regain purpose – in spite of the increasing blunders in the brass section – in a wide-ranging account of Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde – the first orchestral “interlude” a breathtaking example of gradual crescendo, the second expressively hushed and unhurried. My “in a nutshell” would be “a wonderful torso”. I have the impression that the last performance, which is going to be broadcast live in the Digital Concert Hall (this evening’s could be heard live in the Radio Berlin-Brandenburg) will be more consistent.

Although our good friend Jerold doesn’t buy the idea that good singers are in constant development, I am happy to report that the invaluable Evelyn Herlitzius seems to be proving my point. Compared to her performance in the Deutsche Oper’s Ring two years ago, this evening’s Brünnhilde was a complete improvement and consistent to her last Straussian performances both in the Berlin Staatsoper and in the Salzburg Festival. Although one can see that singing at full powers is still her strong feature, she is now readier and more comfortable with holding back and producing legato and shaded dynamics when necessary – with no loss of security and sheer power in her acuti (as her daredevil ho-jo-to-ho’s showed) Sometimes she even ventured out of her comfort zone in trying softer singing in some very tricky spots. This, allied to her customary rhythmic accuracy, clear diction and complete emotional involvement, made her act III really vivid and gripping (even if one will recall other singers who have offered something more touching).

I had seen Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde only once, in a very atypical day. This evening, in healthy voice, she showed herself rich-toned and even through the whole range, especially in unforced, big high notes that blossomed from the heart of the orchestra. Her experience in this role shows in her thorough understanding of dramatic situations and keen verbal pointing. One can see that she knows where a bit more tonal variety would make some difference, but her attempts in mezza voce were often colorless. I am not sure what to say about Lilli Paasikivi  – her middle-size mezzo achieves its goal in Wagner by means of a metallic edge (especially in its almost spoken low register) that makes it sounds curiously shrewish. As a result, her Fricka was particularly waspish.

Then there is Christian Elsner. Has there been any other Siegmund in the last decades with a discography as a Lieder singer? I am not saying that there is not a Siegmund somewhere in Christian Elsner – one can take a glimpse of it in his rich, natural low notes – but what one hears could be described as if the mind of Christoph Prégardien has been transplanted into the body of Johan Botha. When the line is lyrical and undemanding, Elsner’s voice has a boyish, reedy quality reminiscent of Siegfried Jerusalem’s in his old studio recording of Die Walküre with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Janowski, with an extra Schubertian poise. However, when things become really Wagnerian, he basically lacks the technical resources – his high register wants slancio and sounds bottled up, legato evaporates, a nasal quality creeps in and he is often covered by the orchestra.

Although Terje Stensvold is by now a veteran singer (he is 68), his voice sounds as a man’s half his age. I had never seen him before and I wonder why he isn’t more of a household name. At least among Wagnerians – he is the kind of Heldenbariton more comfortable in the baritone than in the bass end of his voice, but his sound is so focused, big and bright that you can always hear him, even in his lower range, which sometimes acquires a yawny mature-Hotter sound. He is not very specific in his declamation (what can be a problem in act II), but has very clear diction and phrasing. All in all, an impressively reliable performance in a very difficult role. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding is becoming a bit mannered, but it is still a dark, big voice that works very well in the Philharmonie. Although Rattle drawned his valkyries in brass, one could still catch some interesting voices there, particularly Andrea Baker and Susan Foster.

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Even among Verdi’s early works, his sixth opera, I Due Foscari, is a rarity. Compared to Nabucco or Ernani, it takes a long while to launch – I would say it actually does it in a powerful closing scene. Some (Verdi included) blame the libretto inspired in Lord Byron’s dramatically tame play. Although Piave basically repeats the same structure for every scene – someone interrupts something that eventually happens anyway – the historical events around Venice’s Doge Francesco Foscari are indeed operatic material. I would rather blame Verdi himself, who was not at his more melodically inspired and not really able to depict the dramatic situations – the first performances in Vienna had the audience laughing at a waltz reminiscent of Johann Strauss in one very depressing scene.

In any case, when you have a cast up to the challenging vocal parts, it can be a rewarding experience. The Deutsche Oper should be praised by its serious attempt of resurrecting the opera. Conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, for instance, seemed to be determined to prove that there is drama from bar one in the score. With the help of of a fully engaged orchestra and top-class choral singing, he certainly fared better than the bureaucratic Lamberto Gardelli in his studio recording with the ORF orchestra. However, there was a price to pay for the intensity, which was loudness. Without that, the distinguished cast here gathered could be even more convincing.

American soprano Angela Meade, who has made me an admirer since an impressively sung Semiramide a couple of years ago, showed Berlin what golden age is about. Her lyric soprano has gained richness and power without any loss of clarity, offering round, creamy, unforced tones throughout. Although Katia Ricciarelli’s soprano is more immediately seductive in the studio recording, Meade is simply more at ease with the demands and excitingly coped with faster tempi. She could not restrain herself from wowing the audience with an extra in-alt, Caballé-ian high pianissimi and kilometrically long phrases without breathing pauses. The way she presided over ensembles was particularly chilling. Although she is not the sacro-fuoco kind of singer, she is far from musically bland either – and sang the role of Lucrezia Conterini with the necessary passion. Exhilarating as her performance was, I wish that she and the conductor could relax a bit more for her to sculpt a bit more her phrasing, as Ricciarelli often could do – in other words, giving the music and the text a bit more time. But that’s me trying to make something truly exceptional a bit more believable for my 12 or 13 readers. In Gardelli’s CDs José Carreras takes the role of Jacopo Foscari, singing with unbridled impetuosity. Healthy in its exuberant high notes as the Spanish tenor’s recording is, I am afraid I prefer Ramón Vargas’s more sensitive and restrained approach. His voice is on the light side for this role, but the tonal quality is so pleasing and he phrases with such good taste that the trade-off is more than worthwhile. It is amazing that the 70-year-old Leo Nucci still sings with such firmness and power, but – even in his prime his singing was never warm, noble and smooth as Piero Cappuccilli’s (again in Gardelli’s CDs). What made his Foscari interesting was his high theatrical voltage – and that he’s still got. The dramatic solo when the Doge is asked to resign in act III was delivered with formidable intensity, bringing the house down with shouts of bravo and applause. I cannot say how complete this performance was, but I have missed the arioso Oh, morte fossi allora for the baritone in the scene that opens the second part of act III. I might be wrong – I don’t intend to seem a connoisseur of early Verdi… Last but not least, Tobias Kehrer deserves special mention – his rock-solid, forceful, dark bass will procure him a great career. Although his Italian is good enough, if he could be a little bit more idiomatic, he could certainly navigate the Italian repertoire, as René Pape has done.

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Tannhäuser is the last Wagner opera that Marek Janowski and the RSB are presenting in the Philharmonie before they tackle the Ring. Other than the Ring, it was probably also the only non-Ring opera that Janowski recorded on studio (albeit incomplete, as the soundtrack for Istvan Szabo’s movie Meeting Venus – Kiri Te Kanawa’s only Wagner recording, if you don’t count the Waldvogel in Haitink’s Siegfried or one Blumenmädchen in Solti’s Parsifal). It has been a while since then, which now is going to be an interesting pendant to the live recording  made this evening – while the 1993 release (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) presented the point of view of “Tannhäuser as fully mature Wagner”, the concert this evening showed it still enveloped in a post-Weberian atmosphere (or maybe it it is because I have seen Das Liebesverbot only this week…) – with lean, bright orchestral sonorities, cleanly articulated strings, an a tempo-approach to rhythms and an almost objective interpretation: no manipulation of dynamics, tempi or phrasing to create momentum. Each act developed spontaneously and naturally to their climactic final ensembles. These choices fit the RSB’s natural sound (which is not German-style beefy in itself). It is a pity, though, that the French horns were not in their best shape this evening. The Rundfunkchor Berlin was a strong feature this evening, especially the men. I just wonder why nobody wants to perform the “Paris” version anymore – I really don’t care if it does not really “matches” the rest of the opera. It is MARVELOUS music and I cannot understand why a conductor wouldn’t want to perform it.

Although Nina Stemme’s voice is a bit too mature for the virginal Elisabeth, she proved to master the ability of producing large-scaled Innigkeit, suggesting the necessary vulnerability in clean phrasing and aptly controlled fervor. She was also in splendid voice – full, warm and naturally voluminous. It is doubly regrettable that the “Paris” version was not used this evening, for Marina Prudenskaya would certainly be more than capable of tacking the extra challenge. I have heard her before only in small roles – and did not know the full extension of her voice. Her big, dark yet focused and ductile mezzo is entirely at home in Wagner – she does not need to force and phrases with homogeneity and elegance. If her interpretation is still a bit unspecific, this is only because she needs a bit more experience in the repertoire. And I am sure that there won’t be lack of opportunities for that – I cannot think of anyone else around closer to the physique du rôle in the operatic stages . The third female singer in the cast did not let down either – Bianca Reim has the ideal voice for the Shepherd, clear, pure and almost boyish.

Replacing an indisposed Torsten Kerl (who isn’t these days?!), Robert Dean Smith displayed amazing technical security and musicianship. It is a pity that his tenor lacks squillo in its higher register (what made him a bit inaudible in ensembles), but that it is the only thing one could complain about this evening. He  sang with unfailing good taste, flowing quality, crystalline diction and breathtakingly long breath. The fact that the role is not very close to his personality – I am afraid that there is not an ounce of wildness in someone one would rather describe as debonair – even made me rethink the role of Tannhäuser. This evening, there was no revolutionary artist trying fighting the establishment, but rather a harmless, heart-on-sleeve fellow who is suddenly told he is a sinner even without understanding exactly why. In this sense, the contrast to Christian Gerhaher’s extremely mannered Wolfram also worked as a dramatic point. This German baritone has a very beautiful voice and I know that I am alone in my opinion here, but I find annoying the way he sings without any legato, stressing this and that syllable, singing some notes unsupported and white toned or, when more energy is required, hectoring his way along in end-of-career Fischer-Dieskau-ian style. Fortunately, the Abendstern song prompted him to let the music speak for itself, and the result couldn’t be better: this was one of the highlights of this evening. Although there were rusty patches in Albert Dohmen’s singing, he was in far better voice than last time I saw him in Lohengrin and offered a very commendable voice. Finally, Peter Sonn was a very secure and forceful Walther. His is an interesting voice – but he could benefit from a more liquid, round-toned, natural phrasing.

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A classic example of German heavy-handedness is the fact that Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is supposed to be a comedy, but few people know that Wagner composed other comic opera, his second opera actually (after Die Feen), Das Liebesverbot, inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The action takes place, in the libretto, in Palermo (whereas the play is set in Vienna, and one can see the young composer’s intent of producing an Italianate atmosphere here). This fact alone makes the opera an interesting experience – although Wagner proved to have understood the formulae of opera buffa, he struggled a bit with bel canto (his attempts at writing florid lines often sound awkward) and with strophic stucture (the repeats often give the impression of overstaying their welcome). However, the quality of the music is impressive. Sometimes, it seems like the upgraded version of Donizetti minus the spontaneous melodic invention and the comic timing. At its best, such as in the Isabella/Dorella/Luzio act II trio, it is truly funny and musically effective. And you still gets to find some ideas later recycled in Tannhäuser! Why is it not more often staged then? As with Die Feen, Wagner requires for Das Liebesverbot impossible voices – Bellinian voices in singers who can also tackle German declamatory style (can we really blame Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient for that?).

As almost everybody, I know this opera from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s live recording from Munich. There one can already hear how exhausting it is to sing these roles and how the German cast is uncomfortable with the virtuosistic writing. They sing with utmost conviction nonetheless under Sawallisch’s galvanic conducting – an orchestral tour de force from the Bayerische Staatsoper orchestra.

The fact that the concert performance heard this evening in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper is going to be commercially released is something of a mystery to me. The exceptional cast, essential to make this music work (think of Bellini’s Norma with a so-so cast…), has not been gathered here – actually, some singers were rather below standard. That was a pity, for the Frankfurter Opernorchester played very well, offering aptly bright, lean sonorities under Sebastian Weigle’s agile, balanced and stylish conducting. I had never before been in the Alte Oper and maybe had a bad seat, but I found the acoustic awful: the orchestral sound could not bloom and louder dynamics brought about a noisy, brassy quality. Singers’ voices too suffered in the unflattering hall. Maybe because of that Weigle seemed a bit too self-controlled, too well-behaved in comparison to Sawallisch – in an opera about carnival, passion and fun!

In the impossibly difficult role of Isabella, the invaluable Christiane Libor, a champion of early Wagner operas, offered an exciting performance. Her big creamy flexible lyric soprano has the necessary heft for the occasional exposed dramatic acuti, and she sang with unfailing good taste, imagination and sense of humor. She would sometimes understandably sound off-steam (far less than Sabine Hass in the Munich recording), but if my memory doesn’t fail me, she was in more exuberant shape as Ada in Minkowski’s Die Feen in Paris in 2009. In any case, I still don’t understand why her career has been relatively modest so far.

As Mariana, Anna Gabler sang with poise and sensitiveness with her mezzo-ish soprano that opens up in floaty tones in the high notes. If Pamela Coburn had not been so ideally cast in Munich, I would have been more impressed. The role of Dorella requires a  brighter toned soprano than Anna Ryberg, who was too often inaudible. When it comes to these almost unsingable tenor roles, one would need a Gedda and a Wunderlich to do them justice. There are no new Geddas nor new Wunderlichs, but there are more acceptable options around. In the romantic leading-man role of Luzio, Peter Bronder was at least loud enough, but one did not need to read the program to see that Mime is his usual role. As Claudio, Charles Reid aptly sang in Italianate style, but seemed nervous, showed limited volume and fought with his high notes. Julian Prégardien (Pilato) was the one tenor in the cast with a natural, pleasant voice, but the high register is still a bit stiff. Simon Bode (Antonio) has a curiously boyish voice – if he can master tonal colouring, he might be a firm-toned Evangelist in Bach’s Passionen. Here it all lacks body and roundness.

In the key role of Friedrich, Michael Nagy sang with richness and musicianship. As much as with Hermann Prey in Munich, one feels that a voice a tad more heroic would make the role far more interesting. Last but not least  Thorsten Grümbel was a brilliant Brighella. He is a singer I would like to hear again.

Considering the opera’s length and the strenuous roles, I understand that it has probably never been performed without cuts. This evening a bit more generous than in Sawallisch’s live recording (of a staged performance).

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