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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 related to this work (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 received 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, showing unsubtle brass. Although there was vertical clarity throughout, 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, meagre 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 transparence.

Krassimira Stoyanova’s lyric soprano has seen better days – a consistent diet of heavy roles have robber 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 through 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 by Silvana Dussmann and a powerful and rich-toned Polizeikomissar by 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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I am not sure that I will be able to be objective about today’s performance: after two Wagner performances marred by disappointing orchestral playing and conducting, the very sensation of hearing beautiful, rich and powerful sounds from the pit had the effect of opening the windows in a room where the air is stale. I saw this production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser back in 2011, when Thomas Hengelbrock offered an unusual reading to the score, but this evening Axel Kober proved that being faithful to the composer always pays off. If this performance could hardly been described as visionary, it would hardly disappoint anyone in its all-round efficiency: beside the rich orchestral sound, the audience was gratified by absolute clarity, even in the most complex ensembles, natural and flowing tempi, superlative choral singing and a compelling cast. The fact that Maestro Kober’s work has been taken for granted in applause less enthusiastic than those undeservedly received by Mr. Petrenko is an instance of great injustice.

Camilla Nylund has developed her Elisabeth since 2011 and sang with great fervor and cleanliness of line. Her act III prayer showed real Innigkeit and poise. Michelle Breedt’s mezzo is on the light side for Venus. If her medium and low register could sound colorless, she produced some compelling acuti throughout. After a breathless start, Torsten Kerl’s Tannhäuser steadily and quickly gained in strength up to a gripping Romerzählung. The fact that he sometimes squeezes his high notes does not spoil the fun at all – he sang ALL his notes, never cheating in ensembles, has crystal-clear diction and makes complete sense of his text. And we can never forget that we are speaking of the part of Tannhäuser. Markus Eiche’s Wolfram was sensitively sung in his dulcet high baritone with cultivated phrasing and no affectation. Kwangchul Young was ideally cast as the Landgraf. All minor roles were very well cast.

I have already written everything I had to say about this production, but it must be mentioned that it seems more coherently staged now than as of the première. Now there is  clearly defined burlesque approach, more homogeneously employed by all members of the cast (and greatly aided by the tenor and the mezzo’s comedy skills), some excesses have been polished and there is more conviction from all involved. The fact that it was been taped for a videocast may have something to do with this.

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The second installment of Frank Castorf’s staging of the Ring takes us to an oil drilling station in Azerbaijan. As in Das Rheingold, Aleksandar Denic’s complex revolving set does not admit changes. Therefore, Sieglinde and Hunding live in it, and Wotan and Brünnhilde just need to cross one door to find them, while a bunch of extras are drilling and a group of women in ethnic costumes sing ho-jo-to-ho amid the convolutions of the establishment of the Azerbaijan SSR and its oil industry (the Berlin clubber costumes wouldn’t help you to get that right). At this point, it is clear that the fact that this production has realistic scenery does not mean that the action taking place in it is realistic too. The question involving the reason why Wotan and Fricka were transferred from Texas to the Caucasus is also an idle exercise – one could say that this Wotan and this Fricka are not the same Wotan and Fricka from the Rheingold, they are just ideal types in this study. One can realize by now too that the videos projected on stage do not happen to be distracting, but were rather conceived to the very purpose of being distracting: whenever the composer appeals to the emotions of the audience, you can be sure that Mr. Castorf is going to find a way to prevent you from this annoying mistake committed by Romantic artists such as Richard Wagner: while Siegmund and Sieglinde confess their love for each other, we are shown comic gags involving Wotan and one of his many lovers; when Wotan describes his disgust about the world and his secret desire for the end of it all, one extra places a cart full of explosives exactly in front of him. I am sure that my 7 or 9 readers may imagine how much this approach contributed to boost the level of expression in the musical performance.

It seems that Kirill Petrenko intended to create a Karajan-like chamber-music atmosphere for act I, but the results could be described rather as extremely recessed strings, lack of pulse and blurred articulation – plus a high level of mismatch between soloists and orchestra. I used these same words yesterday, I know. Sad, isn’t it? The good news is that act II brought about more orchestral sound, even if that involved squawky, erratic brass. At first, I had the impression that the conductor had finally achieved firmness of accent and beat, but it soon became clear that fast tempi were the only context in which he could exert some pulse. When this music required a slower pace, things would invariably sound pointless and disjoint. After an awkward Walkürenritt, the third act did feature some efficient moments – and yet true coherence has never been achieved.

One great difference in this Walküre (compared to yesterday’s Rheingold) is the fact that the cast could improve the level of interest with their contribution. For instance, a Johan Botha in great form sang with such ease, sense of line and vocal poise that the fact that he had very little backing from the pit in Act I only seemed an opportunity for the audience to concentrate on his singing alone. Since 2011, his tenor has gained in volume and color in its lower reaches. The part of Siegmund now finds no uncongenial spot in his whole range. Anja Kampe’s soprano too seemed to have a lower Schwerpunkt these days. At moments, she sounded more mezzo-ish than these evening’s Fricka. This could have meant that her high notes would sound a bit pushed, but singing over a matte orchestral soundscape gave her more than enough leeway to spin her high notes and gain momentum, what made her Sieglinde more lyric and vulnerable than usual. Although it seems that are still some overtones to be discovered in Catherine Foster’s voice, once past a bumpy ho-jo-to-ho, the British soprano sang with restraint and some poise. Low notes were often left to imagination and her acuti lacked the ideal focus, but her middle register is pleasant and spontaneous. Her Todverkündung was sensitively and appealingly sung. Claudia Mahnke’s voice is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of Fricka, but she deserves a C-plus for effort: she sang her scene with purpose, clear diction and passion. Kwangchul Youn is, as always, an ideal Hunding.

When it comes to Wolfgang Koch, the tonal lightness was a liability in act II. He lacked the resources for his long recapitulation scene, where the lack of volume, faulty intonation and restricted tonal palette made it sound as if he was speaking rather than singing. Act III showed him in great shape, producing heroic high notes and delivering a firm-toned farewell to Brünnhilde, even if a rather monochromatic one.

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