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When the curtains opened this afternoon for Damiano Michieletto’s 2011 production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte for the New National Opera, the revolving set with a realistic forest gave me a feeling of déjà vu from Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni from Salzburg. But then I’ve remembered that Guth’s awful production was set inside a house where Don Alfonso had some sort of mesmeric power over the two young couples. The déjà vu happened again when this evening Don Alfonso had a similar episode of telekinesis by the end of the opera. Thank God the similarities ended there. Here we are in some sort of camping resort: Don Alfonso is the supervisor, Despina is the waitress, everybody else is a guest. Are you thinking of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s Youth Hostel production from Amsterdam? Me too, but in the Nederlandse Opera, the sisters and her boyfriends were shown as teenagers whose inexperience accounted for many hard-to-believe plot twists.

Here, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are probably the most down-to-earth people on stage – they take good care of themselves, clean their own camper truck, hold well their liquor and drive themselves the “Albanian” (i.e., “biker gang”) fellows away, when they first “show up”. Why do they behave just like the précieuses imagined by Lorenzo da Ponte? Good question… I have tried hard to see the point behind setting the action in the camping resort, but I could find none other than the fact that Paolo Fantin’s sets and costumes are nice to look at. In his Don Giovanni for La Fenice, Michieletto offered many insights into Da Ponte’s characters in a psychological whirlwind of desire, repression and excess. Here the psychology is cardboard level. Some would say “better so – now he can just tell the story”. Really? Fiordiligi and Dorabella refer to portraits, uniforms, drinking glasses that exist only in their imagination (and in the libretto, but not on stage), Despina’s disguise as a notary would fool only a blind person, among many loose ends. When Don Alfonso starts to use magic powers to hypnotize the group of young people only to end the opera with evil laughs, the audience has already given up to find some sense in all this. To make things worse, in order to accommodate the directorial choices, both finali were trimmed of some good music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (I won’t mention Fernando’s “difficult” opera, for this is an usual sin…).

Yves Abel is a theatrical conductor and also very kind to his cast – even when the tenor tried a tenuto on a high note, impairing the accompanying figures in the orchestra. His tempi were well chosen, vivid and coherent with the stage action, but the orchestra – kept on a leash to make these singers’ lives easier – could phrase with more clarity. A less pellucid tone would add a little bit more spark to the proceedings as well.

Miah Persson’s soprano too has seen brighter days. Now it can sound a bit tight, fluttery and metallic in its higher reaches, but – and considering the role’s formidable difficulties, this is a bit “but” – she does not cheat in florid passages, can sing piano when this is necessary (“mezza voce” would not be the right way to describe it though) and deals very commendable with the lower tessitura. She has very good sense of Mozartian style and is never careless with the text, but the voice itself has very little variety and, even if one hears her well, the results are small-scaled. Her Dorabella, Jennifer Holloway, took a while to warm, but once she reached performance level, offered a fruity mezzo, reasonable flexibility and a winning personality. If she really wants to sing Mozart, she still has to learn Italian and how to sing softer dynamics. Akie Amou has the attitude and the right Fach for Despina, but it seems that the days when the likes of Lucia Popp and Ileana Cotrubas were cast in this role are definitely over.

It is truly refreshing to find in Paolo Fanale a Ferrando with a thoroughly uncomplicated high register and whose vocal healthiness almost never stands between him and proper Mozart style, even if the tonal quality itself has more than a splash of Spieltenor in it. There is a great deal of harmonics in Dominik Köninger’s voice still to be discovered. So far, the sound is still pleasant but rather generic and unmemorable. Maurizio Muraro is a resonant, characterful but unexaggerated Don Alfonso. The cast has no weak link in what regards acting.

PS – On a second thought, there seem to be one development in terms of Personenregie in this staging – Ferrando and Guglielmo seem particularly coy but under the pretext of acting like the biker-gang Tizio and Sempronio, let loose their wild sides (including a homoerotic episode in their post-poisoning “mad scene”), what seems to have made them more sexually persuasive for the Fiordiligi and Dorabella. This could have had interesting results if we could see more clearly the effect of this transformation in their girlfriends. In any case, in order for the girls to have any sort of development (showing Dorabella in high heels… among the ferns of the camping resort is a very awkward solution), they should have had a very different starting point. At least, one that shouldn’t show them so self-aware in the first place. 

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In a program named “Early Cantatas for Easter and Pentecost”, the Bach Collegium Japan offered this evening three cantatas – Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4 – Mühlhausen, 1707 or 1708), Die Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret! (BWV 31 – Weimar, 1715) and Erschallet, ihr Lieder (BWV 172 – Weimar, 1714, this one being the Pentecost item), preceded by three organ pieces BWV 531, 618 and 667) and by Pachelbel’s take on the Christ lag in Todes Banden text.

The program was exuberantly opened by Masato Suzuki’s playing of the Lüneburg Prelude and Fugue in C, the pedal opening played with more gusto than elegance, something we would miss when the choral pieces would finally begin. To start with, the Pachelbel item is not the most varied or inspired piece in the world and I would rather believe that it was chosen to highlight Bach’s superior imagination and abilities. In any case, it was a rare opportunity to sample it, aptly performed by the BCJ from a very introspective point of view. BWV 4 itself can be a rather atmospheric piece, as one can sample in John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording from Eisenach, a poignant sinfonia paving the way to an opening chorus that steadily grows in intensity. This evening, “intensity” is not the word I would use to describe it, but rather a cold elegance that made some of the more buoyant passages almost lighthearted. Yet it paid off in an exquisite soprano/alto duet, abstract in an almost otherworldly manner. While Gardiner avoided solo singing, Masaaki Suzuki, as much as Harnoncourt, had the choir singing the “coro” items. Soprano Hana Blazikova’s and countertenor Hiroya Aoki’s voices were perfectly blended in ethereal mezza voce.

BWV 31 had a very bump start. Natural trumpets can be testing for the musicians but this evening they proved to be difficult for the audience too. In BWV 4, the reduced orchestra sounded – in the Tokyo Opera City acoustics – quite scrawny and overshadowed by the choir. And the trumpets only made things more difficult. Moreover, BWV 31′s opening chorus is a tough cookie in what regards balance. I’m afraid that this evening “clarity” was not part of the recipe. Among the soloists, Makoto Sakurada showed himself as an almost ideal Bach tenor, exceptionally firm-toned, flexible and clear in enunciation. He handles the recitatives very adeptly, but could relax a bit and just “carry the tune” in a more spontaneous way in the arias. In any case, in comparison, to Dominik Wörner, he would could be taken as a model of legato. The German bass sings in an almost parlando style in a voice so poor in harmonics that sometimes you could take him for a tenor. Here Hana Blazikova too had her edgy moments and lacked tone in her lower register. In Gardiner’s recording, Gillian Keith sounds warmer and more engaging in comparison. Those allergic to vibrato, even used in a very sensible way, would not agree with me, I am afraid. De gustibus.

The final item, BWV 172, happens to be my very favorite Bach cantata and the BCJ choir did not disappoint me, singing with animation and clarity in an ideal pace set by Maestro Suzuki for the opening (and closing) chorus. Unfortunately, the reduced strings still proved to be problematic for balance. In spite of the meager tonal quality, Wörner dealt commendably with the low tessitura and the florid writing – sometimes better than some more famous singers. Moreover, he must have a very good sense of pitch to keep his line singing together with a very wayward “holy trinity” of trumpets. Again, Sakurada proved to have no technical problems in this writing, but found very little sensuousness in his depiction of spiritual paradise. A shortcoming also found in Blazikova’s countribution for the ecstatic duet in which she failed to float high notes and produce really clear trills. Aoki, on the other hand, was admirably sensitive and HEARABLE (I have many recordings of this cantata and the countertenor is usually eclipsed by the soprano here – not this evening, I am glad to report).

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The first word I could hear while on entering the auditorium of the New National Theatre today was “escalator” and I thought that those ladies were referring to the new ones in the lobby, but then I saw a couple of them on stage.  “Aren’t you performing Nabucco today?”, a man asked one of the ushers. “Yes, sir”, she answered in a very professional tone. “But why there is a department store on stage?!” “It seems that this is the modern way of staging an opera”, she repressed a smirk. “Aaah…”.

The New National Theatre has had its share of stylized stagings, but it seems today many members of the audience are going to google the word “Regietheater” for the first time. In any case, the program had an explanatory text in which you could see side by side pictures of Zeffirelli’s and Calixto Bieito’s stagings of Verdi’s Aida. I am not sure if I truly like Graham Vick’s new production of Verdi’s Nabucco, but I am grateful for not seeing choristers in Life-of-Bryan costumes trying to walk like a Babylonian. Most of all, I am glad that Mr. Vick had intended his production to the Japanese audience. I am not sure if he understands it or even really had something to say, but he did get it right that many of those in the the National Theatre watch and listen to opera as if it had nothing to do with their lives, but rather as a a) traditional, b) foreign; c) respectable entertainment. I am no sociologist, but I would rather believe that in many points, audiences in Japan could relate more directly to it than those in Milan or in Munich. You’ll only need to read Japanese newspapers to see my point.

In any case, there is a shopping mall on stage. Well-dressed people are drinking their cappuccini, fidgeting with their Iphones and buying Italian designer items. There is a beggar with a “the end is near”-sign, but nobody seems to notice him, until he grabs a passer-by, strip her from her overcoat to reveal her funkier clothes. She is Fenena. Later a gang of terrorists in pig masks would invade the mall led by some sort of Tracy-Turnblad-meets-the-bride-of-Chucky (Abigaille). Then you realize that: a) the Hebrews are the consumerists; b) the shopping mall is their temple; c) the Babylonians are the Die-fette-Jahren-sind-vorbei terrorists (they basically mess things around and place them in funny places) who put them in a hostage situation. As much as the no-fourth-wall approach could be interesting, this scenario does not really go with the plot. In Verdi’s Nabucco, the Babylonians are the established power with an army, the power to pass laws etc etc, while the Hebrews are the oppressed “nation without a state” that  has no one to protect them but their invisible and very abstract God (as the Babylonians more or less would describe it). I can see that Mr. Vick wishes us to have a fresh look into the situation – and I would guess that he finds the Hebrews as portrayed in this story some sort of uncongenial conservative bunch – but his reversal of values requires so much suspension of disbelief that in the end you just give it up: if the Hebrews are here the bourgeois clientele of the shopping mall and the Babylonians are the terrorists, where is the police? I mean – the terrorists are not the State and therefore have no right to resort to violence. So they are criminals, right? So, where is the police? Also, how come Zaccaria the beggar “belongs with” the mall clientele? Why would the clientele follow his lead in the first place instead of just calling security to escort him out? Finally, since we are adapting the story to give it a second layer of meaning, why God’s lightning is just good, old meteorological lightning? I mean, the anarchistic terrorist leader would loose his sanity because the shopping mall was struck by lightning? Well, that was enough for  the biblical Nebuchadnezzar , but he really meant it when he declared that he was God when that happened… Also, the option for  literal lightning makes the collective conversion in the end of the opera hard to take. In the libretto, Nabucco regains his sanity as a miracle once he accepted God in his heart. Is it what happens here? Seriously?! Once you stop caring about these “details”, there are somethings to enjoy here: Paul Brown’s realistic sets are extremely convincing, the underage offender Abigaille is an interesting take on the role and the choristers are very well directed.

This is my second Nabucco conducted by Paolo Carignani (the first one was in Munich) and, if my memory does not play me a trick, I find this performance superior. I was going to write that the orchestra this afternoon sounded as an orchestra entirely different from the one that played in the New National Theatre’s Aida and Tannhäuser – and the reason is very simple: this is the Tokyo Philharmonic  while Aida and Tannhäuser had the Tokyo Symphonic. This seems to be an evidence that larger-scale works should always get the Philharmonic. Today, the orchestra basically had SOUND. And that made all the difference in the world, especially when those musicians proved to be engaged in the drama, keeping up with some fast tempi. While Carignani cared for beautiful sounds first in Munich, here he seemed primarily concerned in keeping things exciting and animated, which is always a safe option in this repertoire. When one listens to Riccardo Muti’s studio recording, one finds that there are moments when one can find some dramatic depth in nobler phrasing in key moments and attention to detail, but that would be an unfair comparison anyway.

Abigaille is such an impossible role that pointing out this or that shortcoming in a singer is an entirely futile exercise. Does Marianne Cornetti make something of Verdi’s excruciating demands? Yes, with great distinction, I would add. Her voice is not the kind of flashy Italian soprano with big chest notes and piercing acuti one would expect to find here. Moreover, she is sometimes caught short when things get too Semiramide-esque but, except for a rather breathless Salgo già del trono aurato, she proved to be very much mistress of her resources, singing with unfailingly big, round and warm tones, admirably homogeneous throughout her range. One could observe that her singing lacked verbal specificity (especially in comparison to Renata Scotto in Muti’s recording), but her almost Mozartian poise in some fiendishly passages made her Abigaille more “human” than what I am used to hear (Anch’io dischiuso un giurno particularly touching without ever being schmaltzy). This very generous artist showed great abandon in her stage performance too – costumes and blocking showed her in her less glamorous (to put it mildly) but she seemed to relish the opportunity to give herself entirely to the experience of performing this role in such an approachable way.

As Fenena, Mutsumi Taniguchi proved to have a very interesting mezzo – the sound is dark and has a slightly veiled quality until it opens up in a gleaming and very firm top register. Oh dischiuso è il firmamento was beautifully and sensitively sung. Tatsuya Higuchi (Ismaele) has an attractively hued tenor with some piercing top notes, but he is over-emphatic in his phrasing and, as many Japanese tenors, operate in a very taut – but not thin – high register. This was a good afternoon for Lucio Gallo too, probably the best performance I have ever heard from him. He was in very firm and rich voice and, although his baritone is not as voluminous as those of many famous Verdian household names, it projected easily in the auditorium. He alone could highlight Verdi’s parole sceniche as singers in this repertoire are supposed to do and often ventured in soft singing that verged on falsetto sometimes. As his Abigaille, he seemed very comfortable with the stage direction – their scenes invariably being this performance’s best moments. I am afraid, though, that Zaccaria is not Konstantin Gorny’s role – it is indeed a very difficult role, but he found it hard to pierce through the orchestra and, when he did, the sound was often fluttery and curdled. He never cheated, though, and never showed himself less than fully engaged, but the part requires a nobler and ampler sound.

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David McVicar’s production for the Glyndebourne Festival can be seen on DVD in what may be the best seller in Handel’s Giulio Cesare’s videography. It is an imaginative, funny production that made Danielle de Niese (“the dancing Cleopatra”) a household name. The fact that it has been revived at the Met without this soprano, who has appeared in the old John Copley production (premièred in 1988 with Kathleen Battle, Tatiana Troyanos and Trevor Pinnock), seems to be explained by the fact that Cleopatra is the kind of leading role in a scenically interesting production safe enough for Natalie Dessay after her problematic Traviatas at the Met.

I have to confess that I was not eager to see the French diva in this opera at this point of her career. In the video from Paris, her performance did not strike me as really convincing.  First, the role sits a bit low in the soprano range (Troyanos herself recorded it for Karl Richter and also Magdalena Kozena for Minkowski), an area of Dessay’s voice in which she hardly sounds seductive or regal. Second, the kind of clear vocal production one expects from a singer in the baroque repertoire did not really come to her anymore as spontaneously as it used to do before. Actually “third” is more related to the way Laurent Pelly chose to portray Cleopatra than to the way Dessay embodied the concept. However, the fact is that her Cleopatra is the shining feature of the Met’s revival (technically a new production this side of the Atlantic).

Although she is less skilled a dancer than De Niese, this seems less important in the way Dessay re-invented the role. Here Cleopatra is more Claudette Colbert than Beyoncé, shrewd rather than alluring, overwhelming rather than persuasive – and you takes her side far more easily rather because of this. She was in also in exceptionally good voice this evening. Her high register particularly fresh and more ductile than it has been in a while. She has always had a fancy for over-decoration in repeats and some numbers – Tu la mia stella sei - for instance, sounded a bit deformed rather than embellished. She deserves high praises for capturing the character development and creating a new vocal and expressive “personality” for the moment Cleopatra stops being “Lydia”. As a matter of fact, her Se pietà, which I had already heard in the concert for the 10th Anniversary of Le Concert d’Astrée, was an example of how to build up intensity. That was truly the highlight of the evening. One could say that my positive impression might have something to do with low expectation, but I would disagree. All in all, she was simply the most interesting Cleopatra I have seen live in a theatre.

Alice Coote’s is an interesting choice for the role of Sesto – her mezzo has a warm yet light sound but is based upon a a very strong and positive low register. I am not sure if hers is an ideal voice for trouser roles in Handel operas, but I would gladly hear her in roles like Leocasta (Giustino) or Elmira (Floridante), for the appealing, vulnerable quality of her singing. Her Cara speme was exquisitely sung – and she teamed with Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) for an ideal Son nata a lagrimar. Unfortunately, the Irish contralto could not stand the comparison with herself on the DVD. This evening, her middle register lacked color, the vibrato could be problematic and some excursion upwards quite gusty.

Among these evening’s countertenors, Cristophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) took pride of place for evenness, precise divisions and panache. One could say that David Daniels (Cesare) had a bad start, but the fact is that the two opening numbers are very tough singing. The American countertenor has now a very recessed low register and gets tired in long florid phrases. When the affetto is gentler, his legato and warm tone are most effective, especially in Aure, deh, per pietà. Guido Loconsolo tackles fioriture quite commendably and has a pleasant voice, not exactly dark, but that seems to be the rule in this part.

When John Nelson conducted Giulio Cesare in the Met, he did not try to make any adaptation in the sound of the house orchestra. He just made them create the required effect within these musicians’ possibilities albeit with a clear view of what Handel wanted. In the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, there is no absence of drama, forward movement and excitement. This evening, although Harry Bicket took pains to keep things within the limits of Handelian style, this was achieved with a severe loss in expression. The orchestra sounded monochrome, uninvolved and entirely devoid of any sense of drama. Battle scenes, oaths of revenge, utterances of despair had only pretty, pellucid and not entirely clear sound in the background. I have seen Maestro Bicket conduct Handel in Munich – and the results were very different from what I’ve heard this evening.

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Although Die Walküre is the most human-scale work in the tetralogy, it is strange how elusive it is to stage directors, who seem to be more comfortable among the gods: how often does one sees how lonely and unhappy Sieglinde is, how vulnerable and desperate (and therefore capable of some very dangerous deeds) Siegmund is, how the fact that they are siblings in a family “hated by everyone” (Hunding’s words) makes them a couple? Certainly not this evening. Andreas Kriegenburg considers that Die Walküre is crossed by two axes – war/love, male/female – the impossibility of love in a world of violence makes it possible for an impossible love to exist. Well, this is a clever thing to say – but Kriegenburg was hired to stage and not to say clever things. In his staging, Sieglinde lives in some sort of female community (plus Hunding) that collects dead men’s bodies to be buried. They don’t have to go very far to find them – most of them are hanging from the ash-tree just above the table where they eat (this does not seem to bother them). There are some girls with lanterns on the palms of their hands who work as some sort of collective searchlight or sometimes as some sort of kurogo “invisible” stage-hands. From the point-of-view of the audience, it basically looks as if Sieglinde had 20 servants that make all the hard work while she makes sad expression for a Siegmund on the other side of the stage. Later their purpose would be something like a human-screen for Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love-making. Apparently, two is company and 22 is voyeurism.

If act II is a bit all over the place, at least it has some interesting ideas. Wotan’s “new position in the world” means that he no longer has time for being a warrior and has to perform executive duties. The set shows an audience hall more or less 1940’s in style with a large Romantic painting showing a forest scene on the rear wall. There is a desk too. Fricka, some sort of Jackie O-like first lady in a party gown, and Wotan do not need armchairs, they have each 10 waiters who double as furniture when they need to sit down. These godly couple likes to break glasses with their own hands during their discussions, but none of the 20 servants care to clean anything. Kriegenburg loves his stage machinery, and walls and ceiling go back and forth, up and down throughout. While Wotan is about to end his scene with Brünnhilde, lots of war survivors appear on stage, but with an impatient sign of his hand, they drop dead. The rest of the act takes place among the dead bodies and extensive usage of stage lift.

I had written that Zenta Haerter’s choreographies were effective in Das Rheingold. Not this evening, I’m afraid. Wagner’s music for act III had to wait for more or less 8 minutes while 14 girls in nightgowns played horsy. Yes, we’d got it on the first 30 seconds “ride of the valkyries – the girls are the horses”, but then the audience lost its patience around the fifth minute and started to boo and shout angrily. Then the act began – the horse girls went somewhere upstage, while the valkyries had long leather reins to play with. After heavy usage of stage lift, Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone. In the end, she is raised on a round platform while the no-longer-horse girls come with some sort of flammable cable and gather around Brünnhilde. Yes, Siegfried wouldn’t be afraid of that – probably of the girls (as you remember – he had never seen any girl before getting to Brünnhilde’s rock) – so image of fire is projected everywhere to make it more formidable. Final curtain.

Does this sound uneventful? Now think of it with Kent Nagano’s conducting on the background. “On the background” is an apt description of the musical performance. Regardless of tempo, this conductor’s more evident feature is flaccid accent. When the music requires a more considerate tempo, as in the final scene of act I, the warmth of the Bavarian State Orchestra’s strings and the fact that singers could whisper over the recessed orchestral sound made for some sense of Innigkeit. Under the baton of other conductor, one could go for chamber-music like transparency, but although one could always hear woodwind, the articulation was so lazy, the structural coherence left to imagination, that the results couldn’t help being dyspeptic. When energy was required, you got drums and brass louder than the rest of the orchestra but without much consequence. Even then, the impression was of flabbiness – one felt like throwing a box of Viagra in the orchestral pit.

Even if Anja Kampe seemed to be in more flexible voice both times I saw her in Berlin (in a smaller hall, truth be said), she is still a radiant, ideally cast Sieglinde. I felt sorry for her in her farewell to Brünnhilde – she was about to launch the “redemption”-motive and she took three seconds to realize that she was alone there, the orchestra was still playing Debussy. It felt uncomfortable trying to carry all the hope of the world alone. Katarina Dalayman has everything to be an ideal Brünnhilde – the voice is big, warm and full and she phrases with unusual elegance, but the high notes do not come naturally to her. Or rather: she can hit some impressive percutant acuti provided they do not come too close to each other. When they do (as in the ho-jo-to-ho’s), she gets tired dangerously fast. In order to prevent that, she shortens note values without much ado.  It seems that she took the decision of saving steam in act II, but then the tenor and the conductor made the Todverkündung so uninteresting that she suddenly decided to plug in and save not only Siegmund but the whole scene (too late unfortunately). I have the clear impression that Sophie Koch has carefully listened to Christa Ludwig’s recording for Georg Solti – and right she did, for it is with the masters that one is supposed to learn. Her voice, of course, is lighter than the legendary German mezzo soprano’s, but she is a cunning singer and made it work in her voice – actually, Nagano could learn from her how to produce impact in restricted dynamics.

When Sieglinde says that the echo of her own voice sounds similar to Siegmund’s, this generally sounds as something only a Romantic character would say. Well, this evening, it sounded less impossible than usual, for I cannot think of a tenor as light in tone as Klaus Florian Vogt in the part of Siegmund. The low tessitura generally involves a baritonal voice in the role – and hearing a voice far from virile in it was a puzzling experience for me. Although his tenor is definitely not heroic, it is curious how hearable it is. When the tessitura was congenial, such as in Winterstürme, this brought about a fresh lyricism to the role – but the role requires more than that. In exposed heroic moments, such as the Wälse sustained notes, he sounded nasal and strained and you could hear that (his voice is very projecting and there was very little orchestral sound to speak of). The Todverkündung scene simply did not work – he cannot properly support low notes, some of them were barely sung, he often seemed to be speaking and not singing the text and he produced far more breathing pauses than any other  Siegmund I have ever seen. As usual, he was hugely applauded – so I guess that James King must have done everything wrongly in his performances.

When describing a particular singer, a friend of mine said, “her voice was more vertical than horizontal, if you can get my meaning”. These words describe Thomas J. Meyer’s voice very aptly. It is a truly forceful voice, but not really voluminous. When he has to operate on the lower end of his range, the sound is rather juiceless and unflowing. On the other hand, when the phrase is congenial, he can produce some big top notes. In heroic moments, he is often harsh of tone and pushes more often than he should – but he has a big personality and makes it part of a bully-approach to the role. And he pulls it out somehow. It is surprising that he could soften his tone for the closing scene and find a tonal palette that he could not count with in his long act II narration, where he successfully compensated by emphasis and clear declamation. I cannot help thinking that he is doing too much too soon – John Tomlinson made many Handel and Mozart recordings before tackling Wagner. James Morris, for example, had his share of Rossinis and Mozarts too – and, differently from Mayer, sang Banquo and not the title role in Macbeth (if you think that Morris’s Wotan had easier and more spacious high notes than Mayer’s, this seems something to be taken in consideration). Ain Anger was a very good Hunding, dark-toned, comfortable with the low notes and really menacing. Finally, I thought that the Bavarian State Opera could find a more efficient team of valkyries. Something was really wrong this

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René Jacobs’ collaboration with the Berlin Staatsoper has gives the audiences in the German capital the opportunity to discover many rarely staged operas, but none so unusual as Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s proto-opera (if it is correct to call it thus) Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, premiered in Rome in 1600 (yes, 412 years ago). The truth is that, since it has been “unearthed” in 1912, it has had its moment – a staging in the Salzburg Festival (1968-1972) with José van Dam in various bass roles and a surprisingly historically informed 1970 recording conducted by Charles Mackerras and gloriously cast with Tatiana Troyanos (Anima), Hermann Prey (Corpo) plus Arleen Augér, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Edda Moser, Kurt Equiluz, Theo Adam et al.

As René Jacobs explains in the program, his choices for the Berlin performances were based in Cavalieri’s description of instrumentation plus some information gathered in contemporary treaties, but the keyword is tonal variety. Think of a plucked-string instrument – it was there. If you haven’t though of a ceterone, you don’t have to feel badly about this: a copy from the only extant original instrument has been ordered just for the occasion. Jacobs composed as well added parts for strings and woodwind in order to enrich the texture, as it would have been the case back in the 17th century. I am not a specialist, but I found the results very refreshing, especially because after 30 min one has the impression that the same melody is being played again and again. Maybe for the same reasons, Jacobs followed Mackerras’ example and invited operatic soloists (even if they are the kind of opera singer you would not find in an opera composed after 1790). Marie-Claude Chappuis was a delightfully sweet-toned Anima and Johannes Weisser sang with ideal balance between richness of tone and clarity. Both basses, Gyula Orendt and Marcos Fink, sang warmly and expressively and the two choirboys – Thoma Wutz and Raphael Zinser – sang very well and are very good actors.

I have had bad experiences with Achim Freyer, especially the fact that his personenregie usually has to do with making people move like robots in nonsensical circumstances. But, well, Rappresentatione… does not really have stage action, character development etc – and the director proved to be the man for the role. His staging is a feast for the eyes – not in the sense that it is beautiful (in the sense of pleasant), but in its imaginative, fresh-eyed playing with symbolism without ever falling on the trap of laughing at Agostino Manni’s libretto, but rather laughing with it – for all involved, musicians, actors, the audience, everyone were having a great time while taking part in it. It made me think of the stagings of mystery plays by members of the congregation of catholic churches in the northeast of Brazil – non-actors, improvised props and costumes, the mixture of sacred and profane, old and new, serious and comic, popular and erudite references and, most of all, a disarming sincerity in its heterogeneity. Maybe that is why it had such an appeal for me – in any case,  I had the impression that I was not alone in my appreciation this evening.

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Bach’s Matthäus-Passion was probably first performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig almost three hundred years ago – and I guess it must feel like a great responsibility to perform it in a church where the name of Johann Sebastian Bach is a sacred thing. The main item of this years Bachfest Leipzig was precisely a performance of this work’s early version – with the Bach Collegium Japan under its conductor Masaaki Suzuki, whose ongoing series of recording of Bach cantatas is rated among the best.

Differently from many concerts held in church, the musicians were not placed towards the altar, but in the choir loft, where they are supposed to be during services in the church. This made for a neck-challenging experience for almost everyone in the church, other those who payed for very expensive tickets… in the choir loft. From my place, I could see some soloists, the conductor, one or two violinists and the Thomaner boys who sang the “soprano in ripieno” in the opening number. In aural terms, truth be said, it all made very little difference – I could hear everything with immediacy. I have never heard any concert in the Thomaskirche before and cannot say where the conductor choices end and where the peculiarities of the building’s acoustics begin. As it was, the sound was extremely warm – with all its advantages (a golden enveloping orchestral sound) and disadvantages (ensembles could become a bit tangled). At first I thought that the conductor rather considerate tempo for the opening number, for instance, was his adaptation to the church’s acoustic, but then I’ve checked his recording – and it was basically the same pulse, which evokes rather a reverential than dance-like approach to the triple-tempo (I can see some of my 15 or 16 readers, “as it should be”).  As a matter of fact, the whole performance suggested a preference for smooth rather than sharply defined articulation. If that had been related to a fervid rather than detached approach to interpretation, that could have concurred to an intense interpretation à la Gardiner, but, no, the impression here was of a non-approach.

I may be wrong, but some nervousness might explain all that. The difficult obligato in Gibt mir meinen Jesum wieder was not immaculate in tuning, the whole of Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand was a bit untidy, woodwind in Mache dich was not really precise (the tempo was a bit on the fast side too). The second part is indeed more “dramatic” than the first one, but I did believe that everybody seemed to be more engaged in it. In the tenor aria Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen, the gamba and the theorbo did produce “stinging” sounds, Erbarme dich had an almost “Romantic” atmosphere (the solo violin sometimes could sound a bit Tchaikovskian for some tastes). Speaking of theorbo, I had the impression that the theorbo was so loud that it made us difficult to hear the gamba in the tenor aria, for example . There is a passionate discussion about the theorbo in the continuo in Bach’s religious works and I really am not knowledgeable enough to take part in it, but, well, I don’t like it. I’ve checked Harnoncourt’s last recording, Leonhardt’s and McCreesh’s and none of them seem to buy the idea. Maybe because they are not using the early edition – so I’ve checked Müller-Brühl (who’s supposed to use it) and the theorbo doesn’t appear with the same assiduity as last evening. In Erbarme dich, I found it even distracting – to my taste, it brought a certain gentleness, the wrong sort of intimacy (the one you’d find in Handel’s O sleep, why dost thou leave me? from Semele). But, de gustibus. Mr. Suzuki certainly knows better.

If I found some gauche moments in the orchestra, I found none in the chorus, who sang with amazing clarity and purpose. My impression of nervousness applies to some of this evening’s singers too. Not the sopranos – Johanette Zomer’s boyish soprano is exactly what a period-practice radical would want in this music. I particularly prefer Hana Blazikova’s bell-toned voice, which sustained Aus Liebe with real purity of line. Robin Blaze has a very clear high register too, but he was a bit lost around the break and the problem seemed to get worse during the evening. Japanese countertenor Hiroya Aoki was clearly uneasy and uncertain of pitch. Gerd Türk is a vivid narrator and guided the audience as the Evangelist with amazing engagement and absolute sense of style. It is not an easy task to tackle the arias too – his Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen was a bit strained, while Satoshi Mizukoshi – even if the result was a bit stiff – displayed a far freer and more dulcet tenor in Geduld. The now veteran Bachian Peter Kooij (who sang Jesus and some of the arias) sounds a bit rusty now and was not very comfortable with his low notes either, but in any case sang with more authority than Dominik Wörner, who does have the right voice for this music, but left something to be desired in intonation and warmth.

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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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The last time Bizet’s Carmen was performed in the Berliner Philharmonie was under Herbert von Karajan in 1985 – Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, Janet Perry and José Van Dam in the leading roles, exactly as in Salzburg a couple of months later, albeit with the Vienna Philharmonic. This recording is one of the references in the discography, not exactly as a paragon of French style, but as a breathtaking tour de force from the Berliner Philharmoniker. This evening, the memory of Karajan seemed to be haunting the place. There we were – a concert performance from Carmen, as in Salzburg, with the venerable orchestra and star-studded cast, as in the old days. As much as Karajan, Simon Rattle seemed determined to inscribe his name in the history of performance of this opera. This was very much a symphonic performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic as the main soloist, dazzling the audience with the most exciting orchestral playing one will probably witness in his or her lifetime under the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found. As much as I like Karajan’s recordings (all of them – the old ones with Giulietta Simionato and Nicolai Gedda, the film with the invincible Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers and the above-mentioned Baltsa/Carreras), I am afraid that Rattle has gone even deeper in his understanding of this opera. The tempi are excitingly fast, except when singers need a bit more space for expression, the rhythms are irresistible, the tonal palette is surprisingly wide (some really earthy sounds from the Berliners), the passages supposed to be merely “exotic” seemed to spring from a performance of a zarzuela and some some moments were truly revelatory – for instance, the usually superficial quintette Nous avons en tête une affaire sounded almost Stravinskian in its kaleidoscopic instrumental effects and sharp rhythms, the entr’acte before act III refreshingly devoid of sentimentality and, in the “flower song”, there was nothing like a soloist and orchestral accompaniment: it was a collective musical statement, of surpassing beauty. I guess everyone in the Philharmonie will never have again the same pleasure on hearing Bizet’s most famous opera. If one does not concentrate too much in the singers.

Well, I actually wrote the last sentence to make some suspense. There is no tragedy to report here, but there was nonetheless room for improvement. When Carmen is referred to in the libretto as a bohémienne, I am sure that the idea was not the Czech Republic. All right, Magdalena Kozena is from Moravia and wouldn’t qualify anyway, but I am sure that my 12 or 13 readers are probably curious to know how she fared in this role. The fact that hers is a light and not big voice is not a novelty – Teresa Berganza, for instance, was a famous Carmen, and her repertoire was Rossini; Anne Sofie von Otter’s Carmens were not truly famous, but she did sing it, more than once etc etc. It must be said that Kozena has experience in French repertoire – I have seen her sing mélodies very commendably, she has sung Mélisande, Lazuli in  Chabrier’s L’Étoile, French baroque music, she even recorded a CD with Marc Minkowski in which she sings one scene from Carmen. So, in a nutshell, she knows the style, the language and her voice has indeed gained in weight and size. Her middle-register was far more solid than I could have predicted and the low notes were almost all of them there, practically without the help of breaking into chest voice (what the French would probably consider “authentic”) and, differently from the last time I saw her (the above-mentioned L’Etoile), I didn’t hear the sort of constriction and brittleness that sometimes affected her singing when things got high and loud. It remains the fact that her voice in both ends of her range lack impact – she would often disappear in ensembles (the repeated “la mort” in the card scene would be overshadowed by Frasquita and Mercédès), and although she could hit exposed high notes all-right, maintaining them cost her a big effort. So she generally just touched them and either cut them short or filled-in the note value with downward portamento. The last scene had to be dealt with with some “acting with the voice”, but there weren’t any ugly sounds. So the question is – has the effort paid off? Well, she was a musicianly Carmen, her phrasing unusually elegant and truly rooted in French style (I mean – I guess, one would need a crystal ball to understand what the French consider “French style”), she has really given great deal of thought about the text and the music and, although her personality is not really close to what Carmen is, she tried to emulate a Carmen personality: hand on the hip, barefoot, throwing her chin up, swinging her hair, you name it. Berganza, for instance, who was really Spanish, never tried any of that – and her more libertarian than libertine Carmen fitted her bright, light elegant voice. But, to sum it up, yes, it was musicianly and the voice is beautiful – but, again, Tatiana Troyanos, for example, had all that – and the voice too. If you want a blond Carmen today, Elina Garanca, for instance, gets the job done far more easily. But it seems that if you are a mezzo, you basically cannot die without singing this role…

Jonas Kaufmann is a famous Don José – probably the finest today. He was not in excellent voice and his once fine attack of notes now is marred by pushing and the lacrhymosity is getting more and more pronounced. That did not prevent him from producing some big heroic acuti and also from singing with nuance, offering floating mezza voce in his duet with Micaela and, if his pianissimo on the high b flat was not smooth as it used to be, he does sing it (who else does these days?!). I have the impression that the frequentation of heavier roles is making the experience of singing roles like this less fun than it used to be – no wonder he couldn’t resist to sing his “Ma Carmen adorée” “before the time” and call it a day…

Baritone Kostas Smoriginas too produced some big heroic high notes and, almost as everyone else, found the role at times too low-lying. I only found it puzzling that his was the less “attractive” voice among the pleasant-toned (and very good) low-voice singers this evening – Christian van Horn (Zuniga), Andrè Schuen (Moralès) and Simone del Savio (Dancaïro). His French is perfectible too (Rattle used the Oeser edition – although Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was the only native speaker in the cast, the level of pronunciation was generally high, especially Kaufmann’s).

In Karajan’s 1985 performance the chorus from the Opéra was imported from Paris, and it was a wise choice, for the chorus of the Deutsche Staatsoper struggled a bit, especially with the conductor’s fast tempi and loud orchestra. The Staatsoper’s child chorus must be mentioned for their amazingly clean performance – the best I have ever heard.

I leave the best for last – the lovely Genia Kühmeier, a radiant Micaëla. What a special singer she is – and to think that there are so few recordings with her… It’s a shame!

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The fact that the Komische Oper has the whole repertoire sung in German often makes it overlooked in comparison with the other two famous opera houses in Berlin, where one is treated to international casts, famous conductors and world-class orchestras. But when it comes to Der Rosenkavalier, I am afraid that the house at the Behrenstraße gets pride of place. Andreas Homoki’s production is the opposite of a revelation, but proves to be far more consistent and incredibly better directed than what remains from Götz Friedrich’s for the Deutsche Oper and from Nicolas Brieger’s for the Staatsoper.

When it comes to casting, of course, the Komische Oper cannot feature blockbuster names, but the ensemble has solid singers – in the case of Jens Larsen, I would say that top-class ones. He must be one these happy few people with very little ambition, for his Ochs is better than some seen and heard in many a big opera house. Even the occasional rough patch makes sense in a truly funny characterization, in which voice (big basso profondo notes involved) and acting are perfectly united. The lovely Stella Doufexis has everything to be an exemplary Octavian but scale – hers is a small voice for the ensembles and her Rosenkavalier sounds a bit too elegant and feminine for the circumstances. Nevertheless, she is such a classy singer and such a convincing actress that one tends to take her side, even when things are not really easy for her. I have the impression that Brigitte Geller has already grown away from the role of Sophie. Two years ago, she seemed a bit unenthusiastic about it. Now she seems almost bureaucratic. She is a very musicianly singer, with touching turns of phrase, but the high mezza voce comes now a bit more difficultly and there are many moments just off-focus – not only vocally. The small roles are predictably tentative – for the exception of two very good tenors, Christoph Späth, an alert, bright-toned Valzacchi, and Timothy Richards, an extraordinarily heroic Italian tenor with easy high notes.

It is difficult to believe that these performances in Berlin are Geraldine McGreevy’s debut in the role of the Marschallin, for only a slight hesitation when mezza voce is involved and one or two false entries expose a certain inexperience in it.  Her soprano is ideally creamy, a solid middle and low register particularly helpful in this part; her diction is perfect, she phrases with utmost sensitivity and purpose and, best of all, the feeling is genuine. There were moments in which the emotions were so palpable that I feared she would just cry on stage. Well, in the audience, many of us have. She is too a competent actress and, even if there are more alluring Marschallins around, she can be very convincingly aristocratic. A beautiful performance.

The house orchestra lack a certain refulgence in the string section, but Patrick Lange could nonetheless produce a very intense yet clear view of the score, sometimes too hard-pressed and slightly superficial in its bright colors. In all key moments, when a little bit more patience would have allowed him to build up the atmosphere (especially in the final trio), things escalated too fast and the result was sometimes noisy and unhelpful for his cast. I have to grant him something, the violins in the end of act I (a favorite passage of mine) were marvelous, exactly as I would wish for. This alone was worth the ticket price.

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