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When a theatre has the name of Constantin Stanislavsky, one expects to find acting of a certain level in any of its performances – and I have not been disappointed this evening. Although sets and costumes in Alexander Titel new production makes one think of stagings as one would find in European theatres in the 1970′s, the approach sounds fresh in the detailed Personenregie and the attention to Lorenzo da Ponte’s text rendered in a way that makes complete sense for audiences nowadays. Although I dislike the idea of Donna Anna as a hypocrite who would overlook the murder of her own father for a fatal attraction, this has been shown in a way that at least makes some sense. It is also very courageous to show Donna Elvira as the mezzo carattere role she really is, even if the seriousness in Mi tradì felt somewhat contrived. I have never seen such an all-round convincing  portrait of Zerlina as today: here she is definitely earthy, ready to have fun and streetwise: she plays the victim to Don Giovanni as long as she believes that she can profit from that. Even Don Ottavio has some nuance here, his lack of alpha-male quality combined with a repressed aggressiveness when his fiancée refuses him his intent to marry her as soon as possible. All this is made possible in a staging that focus the actors – the single set is a structure that shows a staircase covered by grapevine on one side and a wall of upright pianos on the other side. Don Giovanni’s final feast is a bit overdone with all those plastic grapes, but the effect of the Commendatore dragging his prey inside the wall was very striking and original.

This performance has been conducted by the assistant director, Timur Zangiev, who showed a very good grasp of rhythmic flow in his forward-moving beat dictated by needs of structural clarity and a good ear for matching the Hauptstimme in the orchestra with his soloists on stage. I wonder how the results would be with a truly adept orchestra.

My main source of interest this evening was the Donna Anna of Hibla Gerzmava, a soprano I have first heard in the solo of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore. Her singing in this recording impressed me so much that I decided that I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear her live. It is a voice of unusual creaminess and homogeneity used with seamless legato, but either she was not in a very good day or she has become a little careless since that Laudate dominum. Whenever things got high or fast or loud or all those, her soprano would acquire a metallic edginess that jars with her usual smooth vocal delivery. It is praiseworthy that she had tackled the stretta of Non mi dir a tempo in a fast pace, but the sound could be a bit Mara Zampieri-esque. In terms of interpretation too, although her Italian is very clear and well-pronounced, the impression was rather generalized, especially in a very tame Or sai chi l’onore. In any case, she sounded like a paragon of Mozartian singing in comparison with the sour-toned and gusty Donna Elvira. Although Inna Klochko had her unfocused moments, her bell-toned soprano is tailor-made for Zerlina. Vedrai carino was particularly lovely, graceful and sexy. She is a very good actress and knows who to use music and text to create a complete performance.

When it comes to Artem Safronov’s Don Ottavio, one must praise his extraordinarily long breath and flexibility, but his voice has very strange placement, his high register matte and bottled-up. Dmitry Zuev (Don Giovanni) too has long breath, but the tonal quality is too open, metallic and unvaried. His idea of interpretation was basically keeping you on the edge of your seat while he spitted out long stretches of text without breathing pauses in uninflected Italian. Although Denis Makarov’s Italian is very poor too, that is all I can fault in his Leporello – the voice is warm and pleasant and he is funny without exaggeration. Maksim Okosin too was a pleasant Masetto, richer toned than unsual. Finally, Dmitry Stepanovich was a very powerful Commendatore, a bit eerie in his straight-toned vocal production and weird vowels.

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In the bunraku play adapted for kabuki Kokusen’ya Kassen (The Battles of Coxinga), the warrior Watounai and his mother Nagisa are sent to China in order to offer General Kanki alliance in their common purpose of restoring the Ming Dinasty. When they arrive at the gates of Shishigajou Castle, there is a problem: according to the law, foreigners are not allowed inside. Since they have military secrets to discuss, the Chinese propose a compromise: the old lady can come if she agrees to have her arms bound. They are both outraged and Watounai threatens to draw his sword, but Nagisa – “as a Japanese person would do” – smiles. As you can see, it is not from today that the Japanese have disliked public display of emotions. Now imagine the effect of Italian opera on people who work hard to be collected even among friends: Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco claiming vendetta and confessing amore in full stentorian voice as if their lives depended on that in front of thousands of people. At this point you can see the appeal of becoming an opera singer in this country: your job being letting it all out in the name of art. This may sound like wild generalization, but I ask my eight or nine readers – have you heard of a Japanese singer who has distinguished him or herself internationally as a Mozart singer, in the way… someone like Sumi Jo has done?

As it seems, the majority of domestically trained Japanese singers are irresistibly attracted to Verismo and some Verdi… with the possible exception of those who sing with the Bach Collegium Japan. Even when they do sing other repertoire, the pamphlets advertising solo recitals almost invariably show people extravagantly dressed to sing Puccini and Verdi. Displaying feeling through the mastery of immaculate technique, sense of style and absolute grace could be a summary of the art of Kabuki actors, but it is also how a Mozartian singer could be described – this seems, however, to be less appealing a task for someone who could be ultimately letting it rip as Nedda or Canio. I have seen Japanese singers in Mozartian roles in the New National Theatre and I am afraid that it has never been a pleasure (I have discovered some very impressive Wagnerians born in this country nonetheless). I have refrained from posting a review on a Magic Flute without International guest singers from that theater and even more so because I couldn’t make myself stay for the second act.

The reason why I’ve decided to attend to the Idomeneo offered by the Nikikai Opera Company with an all Japanese cast is the fact that I was curious to see Damiano Michieletto’s 2013 production for the Theater an der Wien. As it seems, the genial atmosphere of the Da Ponte opera seems to inspire the Venetian director more positively than opera seria. The single set shows a sand box surrounded by white curtains. In it, we can see remains of war: shoes, suitcases, pieces of furniture. Nobody seems to be particularly happy about Greece’s victory over Troy, but rather gloomy in all shades of grey. This has an effect of having the cast throw things around – while poor Arbace’s job seems to be getting the trash out of the way for the next scene while he sings his long recitatives. When the second tenor finally got to sing one aria, he had already tossed aside 100 pieces of luggage and seemed so exhausted that he could barely get to the end of his phrases. This unimaginative and bizarrely awkward concept (have I told you that Ilia gives birth to a baby on stage during the ballet music in the end of the opera?) involves Elettra shown as a brainless bimbo obsessed with glittery dresses and high heels (to be used in the sandbox…). This meant that her sensuously expressive aria d’affetto would be transformed into operetta-ish couplets sung off-pitch amidst capers. If the director really wanted to use his imagination, he could have thought of something convincing for Idomeneo, Idamante and Ilia to do during D’Oreste, d’Ajacce.

If there was something positive about this performance, this was Jun Märkl’s conducting. His structural understanding of the score informed an ideal orchestral balance, an absolute control of rhythmic flow, even when he indulged in some well-judged playing with tempo… I feel tempted to write “sense of theatre”, but the truth is that a problematic cast and a not truly virtuosistic orchestra did not allow him real impact. In any case, the Tokyo Symphony gave the maestro its best and occasionally played with gusto. I cannot say something similar of the Nikikai Chorus, who lacked discipline and couldn’t cope with the solo demands (here given to a reduced group of choristers). The edition adopted today involved none of the arias cut in the Munich première (but for the above mentioned D’Oreste, d’Ajacce), the excision of Arbace’s Se il tuo duol and a large chunk of the scene with the High Priest, the use of one of the longer versions of the utterance of the Oracle and a reduced ballet music.

Now the singers. I have to assume that Yukiko Aragaki (Ilia) must have been seriously indisposed this afternoon. Her soprano is produced with a piercing metallic edge with occasional saccharine off-focused almost white-voiced moments (which I suppose to be attempts at shaded dynamics). Pitch and note values were too often imprecisely handled and, judging the effort to produce what Mozart wrote, the misguided exercise in ornamentation should have been duly avoided. Chikako Ohsumi’s Elettra was an alternately admirable and infuriating experience. Nature gave her an echt Mozartian soprano drammatico: it is bright, but not light; rich but well-focused; and it runs to its high notes without any effort. One can see that there is a Donna Anna hidden somewhere there, but there are problems with technique (unsupported low registered, her natural high notes become tight with pressure, there is a lot of sharpness going on there…), with style (problematic legato, tendency to peck at notes and truly ill-advised fondness for upward transposition…) and with discipline. There were moments where everything was in the right place and the effect was indeed amazing, but those were unfortunately always short-lived. It made me sad to see such potential going awry. Takumi Yogi (Idomeneo) is in comparison technically more finished: he has very long breath and, even if the coloratura was smeared here and there, he tackled the florid version of Fuor del mar less perilously than some famous tenors. However, he is not an elegant singer and very poorly acquainted with classical style, singing emphatically and stolidly most of the time. In his invocation to Neptune, where I can guess that the conductor had said something like “please attack the notes CLEANLY”, he showed how better the whole performance could have been if the same care had been used elsewhere.

I leave the best for last. I have seen Makiko Yamashita sing small roles in the New National Theatre for a while and have always enjoyed her warm, fruity mezzo and wished to hear her in a major role. Idamante is a tough piece of singing and although her Italian is a bit lifeless, she inhabits a different stylistic and expressive world from the rest of this cast. She is a natural Mozartian singer who phrases with poise and musicianship, only challenged by the high tessitura. As it was, both arias tested her sorely and she only made it to the end out of diligence and knowledge of her own limitations. I am not convinced that she doesn’t really have the high notes – they are there begging to be used, but it seems that she should work on her breath support to accomplish that. In any case, the artistry and the loveliness of tone are already there.

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The Salzburg Festival has been for decades a reference for Mozartian singing – here the world’s greatest conductors had some of the most famous singers of their days performing for an audience paying very expensive tickets without complaining, for they knew that they were seeing the truly best. Here Ljuba Welitsch, Elisabeth Grümmer, Leontyne Price, Gundula Janowitz, Edita Gruberová sang Donna Anna; here Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Julia Varady, Carol Vaness  sang Donna Elvira; here Irmgard Seefried, Mirella Freni, Kathleen Battle sang Zerlina, Cesare Valetti, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus, Gösta Winbergh sang Don Ottavio… and this makes me realize that this is probably the first Festival’s performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni half cast with singers of provincial level. With no reduction of price tickets. I hope that this is not a sign of times of decadence here.

Lenneke Ruiten’s acidulous and raspish Donna Anna operates very close to the edge. The fact that she can now and then soften her tone and her fluent coloratura in Non mi dir redeem a performance otherwise quite disappointing. Anett Frisch (Elvira) has a basically warm and pleasant tonal quality, but it all sounds a little bit immature vocally speaking. She is a musicainly and stylish singer, but Mi tradì for instance was all over the place. Valentina Lafornita (Zerlina) is the only soprano in the cast with a distinctive color, more than enough volume and the necessary variety to build an interpretation. She has her metallic patches and moments of dubious intonation or awkward breath control, but she sang Vedrai, carino with real seduction. Andrew Staples’s Don Ottavio is a series of variations of nasality and unintentional buffoonery. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Don Giovanni is so lugubriously and charmlessly sung that you could take him for the Commendatore. Well, actually not: as soon as Tomasz Konieczny produced his first sound, the sheer power and volume were so extraordinary that you couldn’t help feeling that you were listening from someone not from this world. Luca Pisaroni stands out in this cast as a 100% stylish and engaging Leporello. Although he has been singing this role for a while, his performance has not still lost its naturalness and sense of fun.

Christoph Eschenbach seemed to concentrate in purely musical aspects of this performance – eliciting beautiful sounds from an ideal Vienna Philharmonic, elegant phrasing, clarity and transparence. Some of his tempi were utterly undramatic and uncomfortable for his singers (Zerlina’s Batti, batti or Donna Anna’s Or sai chi l’onore). In other moments, he would unexpectedly accelerate to egg-timer pace for apparently no purpose. With rare exceptions (fortunately, the appearance of the ghost of the Commendatore being one of them), one could take this for a series of concert arias.

Sven-Erich Berchtolf stages this Don Giovanni in a hotel. The Commendatore seems to be a military prominent figure staying there. This seems to justify some parallel actions involving some secret police agents invading rooms, molesting women in underwear and throwing bedclothes in the staircase. There is also the devil who doubles here as a bartender. Some of it is nonsensical and silly, but with the help of Rolf Glittenberg’s sets and a detailed Personenregie, much of this actually works, if not really memorably.

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This time I won’t reproduce Caruso’s quote, but only mention that the Salzburger Festspiele presented Verdi’s Il Trovatore only once in 1962 when Karajan had Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini (and the next year, without Corelli). Some would say that you will never have a cast like that again, but the Festival has decided that you can always try something different when you cannot offer the traditional choice. Their bold move has paid off – this was a performance that showed the audience many interesting possibilities about staging an opera by Giuseppe Verdi in our days. But let’s start with the cast.

Since she has become a mother, Anna Netrebko’s voice has developed in an interesting direction – her middle and low registers have become truly luxuriant and, if her extreme top notes have become less reliable, how many sopranos in lirico spinto repertoire actually venture above a high c these days? I am not sure if Lady Macbeth is her repertoire, but – if you have in mind that probably only Zinka Milanov or Maria Callas were truly beyond reproach as Leonora – Netrebko is a Leonora to be reckoned with. First, the voice as it is now is extra rich, surprisingly voluminous and still flexible enough. The velvety tonal quality, especially in her mezzo-ish, well-connected low register is particularly appealing. She has tried all trills and was successful more often than not, her mezza voce is a bit smoky, but in a good way and, even if one can notice that florid passages require her full attention, she tackles them if not with poise, certainly with diligence. If something requires some extra work, this would be staccato, which could have been tackled with a little bit more roundness and spontaneity. Maybe breath control too – even if she disguises it expertly, some phrases were too often chopped for extra intakes of air. In terms of interpretation, things are rather generalized, but there is passion and animation. In moments such as D’amor sull’ali rosee, one feels that spiritual concentration was secondary to getting the notes done. All that said, the glamor is there, and this is an underrated requirement in this repertoire.

I’ve read the name of Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Azucena with skepticism. I had seen her in Verdi only once as Ms. Quickly and found her light-toned for this repertoire, but today she has shown some unexpected possibilities of her voice. Although her middle register is soft-grained, she opens up in some very rich and forceful mezzo soprano top notes, while still retaining her dark contralto bottom register. Her voice is not Italianate either, but this gave her Azucena a very particular color. Her performance never had a dull moment – she is an experienced Lieder singer and never sang a word without considering its musical-dramatic weight, but did not succumb to the trap of making it fussy and too subtle: she managed Italian emotionalism very well. Actually, I have found many of her Handel roles exaggerated in an almost expressionistic way – but this was put to good use in this role. A compelling and intelligent performance.

Francesco Meli too is light-voiced for the role of Manrico. He is what one calls “a natural tenor”, his voice is spontaneous and appealing and has a good volume for a lyric tenor. He beefs it up a bit for this repertoire, and his high notes sound a bit straight sometimes. However, there is no hint of ugliness here. He is an elegant singer, capable of tone coloring and dynamic variety, what made his Manrico more vulnerable and sensitive than usual. Di quella pira, as predicted, even with adaptations to accommodate the unwritten top note, does not really come in the package, even if he cannot be accused of disgracing himself in it.

Replacing an ailing Plácido Domingo, Artur Rucinski too proved to have had interesting developments since I last saw him as the Count Almaviva in the Schiller-Theater. As the Count di Luna, he sounded like a lighter version of Giorgio Zancanaro, singing with unfailingly firm-tone and bel canto-ish poise. His extremely long breath is particularly amazing. He deservedly received thunderous applause this afternoon. Riccardo Zanellato offered a vivid account of Ferrando’s aria, and Diane Haller was a bright-toned and well-focused Ines.

Daniele Gatti found a good balance between a musically detailed approach, bringing to the fore many hidden niceties in the score, and the need for raw energy in strong accents, animated tempi and richness of sound. In this, he had the world’s ideal orchestra for this music: the Vienna Philharmonic at its most crystalline and flexible, singing together with singers on stage. This was Verdian music-making of the highest level.

Il Trovatore is an opera that resents the “régie”-treatment, but Alvis Hermanis has found a very particular niche where this works: the opera opera is staged in a museum in which museum guides and guards mix fantasy and reality under the influence of the paintings they “live” with. Not only these paintings in their red wallpaper museum walls are very atmospheric, but Hermanis has studied the score to find the right moments to shift from present to the past. For instance, Azucena is first seen in modern clothes leading a group of art students when she sings the more “conventional” verses of Stride la vampa, but is transformed in a gipsy woman when telling the more “realistic” and modern music of Condotta ell’era in ceppi.

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Der Rosenkavalier is an opera intimately related to the Salzburger Festspiele – not only has it seen some of the key names perform on its stage (from Lotte Lehmann to Kurt Moll, by way of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Tatiana Troyanos and Lucia Popp…), but some absolute standards have been established here (especially Karajan 1960 and Böhm 1969). In this Straussian 150th anniversary, it is only fitting that this work has been chosen to be performed in the Großes Festspielhaus. In the old days, however, you would see the crème de la crème of the operatic world in a Strauss performance in Salzburg – I don’t know if I could say that the audience had something like that this evening.

Franz Welser-Möst does have indisputable Straussian credentials – his performances in Vienna and Zurich have met with critical acclaim and, with the help of the Vienna Philharmonic, one can expect nothing but perfection. The high expectations might have something to do with the disappointment, but a serious attempt to be objective makes me say that this was a lukewarm performance, graced by an orchestra capable of producing exquisite sounds but often poorly balanced, unsubtle brass throughout. Although one could hear vertical clarity, there was not really the sense of a presiding intelligence that makes every element in the score live up to a coherent and meaningful “arch” in every act, let alone through the whole opera. The fact that the cast was vocally underpowered posed a serious challenge to the conductor, who deserves praises for trying to accommodate his soloists, by keeping the orchestral sound light and transparent. Nevertheless, the final effect seemed ill-at-ease, meager and sometimes awkward. In any case, purely orchestral moments too had variable results – the introduction to act I sounded a bit rough-edged and humorless, for instance. On the other hand, act III opened in the grand manner, an example of structural transparency.

Krassimira Stoyanova’s lyric soprano has seen better days – a consistent diet of heavy roles has robbed her voice of focus in its upper register. The most immediate result is that it is often difficult to hear her, unless when Strauss requires chamber-size sounds from his orchestra. Until her act I monologue, this was a very frustrating experience, but once she reached that key moment, she soon redeemed herself by offering a stylish, musicianly and elegant account of the part of the Marschallin. She masters the art of expressive mezza voce and uses portamento tastefully. More than that: her approach is truly personal, freshly conceived and inspired by none of her famous predecessors. As performed by Ms. Stoyanova, the Marschallin is a savvy woman who sees her glass half-full. Although she knows that this won’t last forever, she will enjoy it until then. Sophie Koch is one of the best Octavians in the market these days. She too could be hard to hear in her middle and low registers this evening, but consistently produced rich and full top notes. Mojca Erdmann struggled with the part of Sophie during the whole evening – her voice sounds microscopic in this music, comes in one only saccharine color and she cannot float high mezza voce to save her life. Also, she seems clueless about what to do with the role. Fortunately, Günther Groissböck is a vivacious, fully idiomatic Ochs, a young man in the role for a change. He sang his long act I scene uncut and produced his showpiece low notes securely. There could be a little bit more volume and tonal variety and he lost steam at some point in act III, but still it was a refreshingly convincing take on this role so prone to exaggeration and musical imprecision. As much as his Maschallin, he would have been better appreciated in a less large auditorium. Adrian Eröd’s Faninal too seemed to resent the acoustics and sounded on the grey-toned side during the whole evening. Curiously, given the Festival’s tradition, all minor roles have been unspectacularly cast, Annina and Valzacchi barely noticeable and the Italian tenor labored and hard on the ear. Exceptions should be made to a forceful Leitmetzerin of Silvana Dussmann and a powerful and rich-toned Polizeikomissar of Tobias Kehrer.

Harry Kupfer’s insight-free production is inoffensive to a fault and staged Hofmannsthal’s libretto in an almost exclusively design approach – the sets were dominated by projection of photographs from Vienna, props reduced to a minimum and costumes in a strict chromatic palette. It could have been a concert version, but I guess that these singers would rather have the orchestra in the pit.

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It is said that a writer is supposed to write about what he knows from experience – and one could think that stage directors seem to follow that rule too. In its big picture, Frank Castorf’s Ring is very well organized – Rheingold takes place in the US, Die Walküre in the USSR until we finally reach Berlin, where both worlds meet and where Siegfried and Götterdämmerung take place. Castorf is from Berlin and it is no wonder that the last two installments in the Ring are far more consistent than the early two operas. Once we reach the Berlin part of the Ring, the whole concept becomes clear and you are ready to see where this is heading to – and there are many possible, valid and interesting directions to go to – but then the staging just looses steam and it basically goes nowhere. One might say that the whole idea was an open staging etc, but, really, here this just sounds like an excuse. Since Germany is shown here as a passive actor in a scenario where the Cold War superpowers are exclusively to blame for Germany’s absence of a national project, the Berlin characters of the story cannot take the lead in the big-picture events in the Ring’s original plot: whereas Wotan and Alberich are shown as characters involved in some big picture geopolitical events around global energy security etc, Siegfried and Hagen are just small-time crooks in Kreuzberg. When Brünnhilde is supposed to do something, we discover that the structure wrapped as an intervention by Bulgarian artist Christo is not the Reichstag, but the New York Stock Exchange. So, basically: blame someone else and plead innocence. No wonder this Brünnhilde doesn’t jump into the fire. Why should she?

Although Götterdämmerung is by far the most coherent staging in this Ring, it still has many structural problems, such as “why Brünnhilde is obliged to marry Gunther”?  or “Why does Hagen is powerless to take the ring from the Rhinemaidens?”. All that is secondary to the fact that Castorf had so far deleted all reference to magic or supernatural from the plot: there is no Magic Fire, no dragon, no Grane, no woodbird. However, when he reached Götterdämmerung, he decided that he likes witchcraft and, voilà, santeria is imported from South America and, suddenly, you have people doing voodoo in East Berlin. Hmm. My final comment: this could have been an important Ring, as much as Herheim’s Parsifal was a key staging for the Festival, but silliness, pretentiousness, superficiality and conceptual dishonesty made it just a peculiar footnote in the history of Wagnerian staging. Maybe it is going to be remembered by Aleksandar Denic’s truly amazing scenery and Rainer Casper’s lighting.

When it comes to Kirill Petrenko, Götterdämmerung is a baby step further from Siegfried: if he had indeed intended to produce Karajanesque chamber-like sonorities, he gave that up for a very brassy sound picture with finally present strings, the articulation of which remained foggy and imprecise. Tempi stayed on the fast side, what, in principle, is a fine idea: the opening scene sounded unusually intense and forward-moving; Siegfried and Brünnhilde parted in athletic disposition and the Gibichungenhalle brought about restless, coloristic sounds. But the impression remained faceless and unfinished. This would develop into an act II without the necessary crescendo in intensity and drama, before an act III without chiaroscuro, as heard in an unsubtle and inexpressive Treuermarsch and the most lackadaisical Immolation Scene ever performed in an important theatre. Of course, the subpar cast shares a great deal of the responsibility for this debacle. Although Catherin Foster has a beautiful voice, her technique is erratic and she cannot operate when things get too low or too high – and they often do. She has a placid natural disposition and responds a bit stolidly to the great interpretational challenges of the role of Brünnhilde. Intonation too is very problematic. I have found it extremely unfair that Lance Ryan alone was booed, for he was not below the level of any other singer seen this evening. It is an ugly and unwieldy voice, with little sense of line or purity of pitch, but he has enviable stamina and worked hard to offer a varied death scene. Moreover, he does produce once in a while some excitingly powerful top notes. And he is a good actor. To say the truth, Oleg Bryjak would be an exception to this rule – his bass-baritone is very powerful, well-focused and has a raw edge that fits the part. I have seen Attila Jun in better shape in other occasions. This evening, his Hagen sounded a bit soft-grained and lacking menace. In any case, he was really superior to the ill-focused and barely hearable Gunther and the frankly miscast Gutrune. Claudia Mahnke again is light-toned for Waltraute, but again she sang with animation and good diction. Okka von der Damerau, here seen both as the First Norn and as Flosshilde deserves praise – she offered immaculate performances since Rheingold. The fact that she has been careful and is giving herself time to develop in secondary roles is only an evidence of her good judgment. I am sure we are going to hear even more exciting performances from her in the future.

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Trying to find coherence in Frank Castorf’s Ring is one exercise in imagination. So far, the main axis of symbolism seemed to turn around the idea of oil industry as an element of degradation of nature AND of culture, in the sense that the project of hegemony of the gods obliged them to strike deals with less developed creatures who could provide them with the physical means extracted from nature and these interchange finally debased Wotan and Fricka’s world so much that it finally dies out. I will overlook the fact that this agenda is morally debatable, historically dishonest and politically self-interested. So, if we keep to what we have seen so far, the scum of the world has monopolized energy supply, and this has enabled them to change the configuration of world power around the US and the former USSR and their allies. You can fill in the blanks to discover the role of Europe in all this. Anyway, even if the staging is chaotic, clumsy and unfocused, one can always try to discover by him or herself where Wagner’s ideas would fit in.

When the curtains opened to reveal the socialist version of Mt. Rushmore (which stands for the forest where Mime and Siegfried live) and the Alexanderplatz as the Neidhöhle, we can see where we are heading to: Berlin as the place where East and West meet and where the values of shared property have been finally obliterated in favor of profit-oriented mode of production. Siegfried, the most glorious hero of the world, was “kidnapped” by a money-and-power-seeker Nibelung and will kill a Russian-mobster-like Fafner with a machine-gun. So far so good. The staging has uncountable examples of silliness, of hyperactivity and lazy disregard of the libretto – but it still had a conceptual backbone. Actually, when you see Wotan and Alberich side by side, you cannot really tell one from the other, and this has been portrayed better than in any stage of the Ring that I have ever seen. But then Siegfried gets involved with one of Fafner’s businesses (i.e., prostitution), has sex with the samba-school girl a.k.a. the woodbird, is exempted of having to deal with the magic fire and dates a Russian-bride Brünnhilde while gigantic alligators play around them. The fact that all this happen in Alexanderplatz is a very good pretext – for nothing is too bizarre that can’t have taken place in Alexanderplatz. I know I still have to see Götterdämmerung to say something conclusive, but I have the impression that, as much as the director, I will be giving up before that. At least, this time the stage action had more to offer than Aleksandar Denic’s impressive sets:  one could see that singers had been directed for purposes other than being caught on video by the film crew.

If I say that this has been so far Kirill Petrenko’s highest achievement in this Ring cycle, I might be suggesting that it was praiseworthy. That is not what I mean – we have had a development from “awful” to “merely bad”. Although the orchestral sound was far more present than previously, we are still speaking of matte sonorities, tangled textures, and fast tempi as the single (and unsuccessful) method of attempt in structural coherence.

Catherine Foster’s struggle with the Siegrfried’s Brünnhilde was no surprise to me, but the perpetual random intonation surpassed my imagination. The fact that she was partnered by Lance Ryan, whose stentorian ill-pitched yowling is admirable exclusively as an example of endurance, made the final scene particularly testing to someone who likes music. To make things worse, Burkhard Ulrich, whose Gerhard Stolze’s sound-alike Mime was never my cup of tea, was in poor voice and screamed his high notes most distressingly. Wolfgang Koch sang a solid Wanderer with exciting high notes, but operating very close to his limits, he had very little variety and relied exclusively on emphasis to add some flavor to his text.  Oleg Bryjak seemed to be the only true Wagnerian voice in the cast, even if the part of Alberich is a bit on the high side for him. I have found both Sorin Coliban (Fafner) and Nadine Weissmann (Erda) too soft-grained for their roles.

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