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While there is no official entry for Simon Boccanegra in Riccardo Muti’s discography, the same cannot be said of Nabucco; there are the EMI CDs with Renata Scotto and Matteo Manuguerra and the DVD from Milan with Ghena Dmitrova and Renato Bruson. This afternoon’s performance unfortunately could not count with glamorous forces as those. While listening to the studio recording, I see that in the outline his approach has not really changed. The score still sounds like Rossini’s Semiramide on steroids (an entirely legitimate concept) – but if in London this seemed dazzling and intense, today “loud, brassy and unsubtle” would be more like it. The Rome Opera has a long history with this work, but its orchestra sounded on the bureaucratic side this afternoon. But for the percussionists, who seemed ready to drown everybody else in their enthusiasm. Maybe everybody was tired and jet-lagged. Maybe these Japanese tours seem like easy cash in the context of an audience overindulgent both in showing appreciation and in readiness to pay VERY expensive tickets. To make things worse, almost every soloist sounded heavily overparted. If the chorus’s hearty singing was an oasis of animation against a monochrome of band-like sounds, this made singers’  lives even more difficult in the many concertati.

It seems that a prospect of a trip to Tokyo had an unhealthy effect in the prime donne from the Teatro dell’Opera, for Tatiana Serjan too turned out indisposed. Her replacement, Raffaella Angeletti, deserves a C+ for effort, but her limitation in volume and in projection (add a veiled tonal quality to that) makes Abigaille a no-go for her. In this role that requires a flashing personality, getting the notes sung seemed to be her single purpose. I would have to see her in a role within her powers to really say something about this singer. Sonia Ganassi’s Fenena had more purpose (at least, we could understand which words she was singing), but I have seen this role more expressively sung before. Antonio Poli is a tenor of unusual good taste and the voice is a pleasant in an almost Mozartian way, but Ismaele is not his role. I wouldn’t say that Nabucco is Luca Salsi’s role either – his baritone is a couple of sizes smaller than his part and the heavy demand makes him sound dry and emphatic. The fact alone that Dmitry Beloselskiy (Zaccaria) was the one singer on stage who could be easily heard today made everyone forgive a curdled tonal quality. One should also remember that he is the only soloist featured in both casts for this tour and it is even remarkable that he sounded better today than yesterday.

Jean-Paul Scarpitta’s production turns around empty aesthetics, extremely sketchy Personenregie (something like “Abigaille is the girl with the arms crossed; and Zaccaria is the guy with raised arms”) and someone must have forgotten to explain him that the meaning of “Un fulmine scoppia sul capo del Re. Nabucco, aterrito, sente strapparsi la corona da una forza sopranaturale” is not “nothing happens – action goes on as previously”. The percussionist evidently knew that.

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I have a soft spot for the Teatro dell’Opera. Maybe the reason is the fact that everybody speaks about La Scala when one Italian opera house must be mentioned. But no. The experience of going to the opera in Rome has nothing to do with showing off costumes and sipping expensive cocktails as in Milan: it is rather the casual experience of spotting members of the orchestra and choristers having a cigarette near the entrance on one’s way to the Enoteca Chirra for an espresso and a tramezzino. I have also had the luck of seeing good performances there – but this evening it is the first time I have seen them in an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Also, this is the first time I see them with Riccardo Muti. To be completely frank, this is the first time I’ve seen Maestro Muti conduct an opera live at the theatre. So my 9 or 10 readers must imagine that my expectations were very high. And this is the sort of thing that usually leads to some frustration.

Maestro Muti has become famous with his Toscaninian white-heat performances of Italian opera in the first place. His recording of Verdi’s Macbeth for EMI should appear in the dictionary definition of “exciting”. That is maybe why I have taken some time do adapt to this afternoon’s performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. One could feel that a great conductor was in charge only by the prominence of the orchestra in the aural picture, although one could still hear singers in perfect balance throughout. If you have to gauge the abilities of a conductor, the prelude to act I and the ensuing aria are probably one very good test: the undulating woodwind phrasing usually come off as mechanical and lifeless and the accompaniment and the singing often seem entirely unrelated. Not today: Muti expertly oiled the perilous repeated woodwind phrases with an extra serving of the often neglected string parts and the result was smoother and more gracious than I had ever heard. Yet it still lacked true spontaneity. And this sensation would pervade the whole performance – the orchestra was able to narrate the story in an almost Schubertianly detached way, but rarely seemed to be pulsating with it. Beautiful moments followed each other, but the sense that dramatic tension was building up was not really achieved. For instance, the Council Chamber scene was exemplary in power and clarity, but short in tension and emotion. Sometimes one had the impression that the conductor was trying to make things comfortable for his orchestra and that sense of abandon that make a Verdian performance really thrilling was the price for polish and finish. If this were not Muti conducting Verdi, I would have probably found it “elegant and composed”. This is Simon Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s subtlest scores, and one could argue that this is indeed a valid approach.

In any case, a very good cast has been assembled for this afternoon. Although it was not really surprising that Barbara Frittoli would not sing today, getting to hear Eleonora Buratto proved to be more than a good surprise. It has been a while since I’ve heard such morbidezza in a soprano voice as in Ms. Buratto’s: although the voice is light in grain, it is always rich in overtones, spinning naturally to acquire slancio in exposed high notes and taking naturally to soaring mezza voce when necessary. Sometimes she made me think of the young Mirella Freni – and it was not a surprise that she was a student in the great Italian soprano’s academy in Modena for a while. A touching, sensitive and beautiful performance. Francesco Meli too proved capable of sensitive singing as Gabriele Adorno, blending capably with the prima donna’s pianissimo notes without effort. He sometimes beefs up unnecessarily his voice and the results can be emphatic and lacking naturalness – the warm tonal quality and the full-throated high notes are more than compensation. George Petean’s voluminous and warm baritone is tailor-made for the role of Boccanegra. He sang with musicianship, sense of style and commitment. By the end of the opera, he sounded just a bit tired and some high notes could be better focused, but even then the tonal quality was noble and his phrasing remained noble and expressive. As Paolo, Marco Caria sang forcefully in a dark, rich tone. Dmitry Beloselskiy’s grainy, guttural and metallic (I was trying to avoid the use the word “Slavic”*…) lacked the necessary patricianship for the role of Fiesco – and his diction is a bit cloudy.

Adrian Noble’s production is merely functional – costumes and sets are pleasant to look at – but everything seemed like empty gesturing. Some elementary faults could easily be corrected (singers too often took too much time to leave in moments when they should not be there or to get to the spotwhere they were supposed to do something).

* Reviewers tend to use the word “Slavic” as some sort of flaw, what makes little sense if one thinks of the many and many excellent Slavic singers who even sometimes do not sound “Slavic-in-the-bad-sense-given-to-this-word”. However, it is a shortcut to describe a singer with guttural/vibrant/metallic voice when he or she comes from that part of the world.

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In Gilbert Deflo’s new production of the Cav&Pag combo for the New National Theatre, one single set has been chosen: the ruins of a Roman theatre. While this goes immediately well with for the comedy troupe in I Pagliacci, it gives some sort of unexpected tragic dignity for Cavalleria’s small-village drama. As usual with single sets (especially here, when two unrelated plots are involved), lots of awkward solutions had to be found. In Cavalleria, this involves the procession to the church having to make some funny manoeuvres in the middle of nowhere; in Pagliacci, Canio would really need to be deaf and blind not to notice Nedda and Silvio making out two meters from his window. In any case, Cavalleria needed a little bit more skill in what regards direction. Santuzza has been excommunicated and this means that she could not take a prominent part during Easter celebrations, but here she is placed on stage as if she were some sort of priestess around whom the whole event turns around. If this is some sort of dramatic point, it is a poorly developed one. Pagliacci fares noticeably better – the plot offers more material to the director and the props and costumes add some sort of naif charm to the scenery. I only wished that a more climactic solution had been found for the closing line. Here it just seemed as if someone was counting to 15 to say that the play was over. I did not see the previous production – and I can bet this it was something very similar to this one. Although I now more or less see that the Japanese audiences like to watch opera from the safe distance provided by the “exotic and picturesque”, I will probably never understand why they prefer not to appropriate something that has to do with them, because it has to do with everybody. This is a country where people are still sentenced to death by crimes committed in circumstances very similar to those of Canio and Alfio.

I’ve had to read the program to really believe that this orchestra is the same one that played in Friday’s Arabella. These scores are no Richard Strauss, for sure, but it is amazing anyway that they were able to sound three times louder accompanying Santuzza and Nedda than taking pride of place right beside Arabella and Zdenka. Conductor Renato Palumbo did a very good job in engaging his musicians, even if he tended to drain the music of some guts in an approach that could be described as “let’s pretend it’s Mahler”. I had seen Lucrecia Garcia (Santuzza) only once, as Don Carlo’s Elisabetta and I would say that crime-and-jealousy ignites her more than palatial intrigue. Although her acting abilities are scarce, one could see that she established some sort of connection with the dramatic situations in a way I did not see in Berlin. Her singing too sounded more expressive – she meant her lines, played her registers adeptly to utter some key words (her curse was particularly believable) and presided over the orchestral sound with ease. It is an irresistible voice, but there were clumsy moments and she unnecessarily forces some notes as if she was trying to shift from lirico spinto into dramatic soprano out of will power. Rachele Stanisci (Nedda), on the other hand, is supposed to be some sort of singing actress. As some lyric sopranos before her, at some point she must have had a sound voice, for one can still hear that she manages trills or mezza voce, but most of what you hear is  matte tonal quality, a harsh middle register, nonexisting low notes and piercing acuti (or a flat version of them). But she is a good actress and has a good figure for the role. Walter Fraccaro is not musical refinement’s best friend and Turiddù’s siciliana (on stage) seemed as if he were very angry with Lola (very well cast with the lovely-toned Mutsumi Taniguchi), but then he is going to be angry with Santuzza and you adjusts to his invariably vehement style. The sheer volume and natural feeling for the text in his native language are, of course, most welcome. As Canio, Argentinian tenor Gustavo Porta offered a rather glaring, not truly appealing tonal quality and some squeezing into top notes, but he has impressively long breath. One could see he is fully committed, but the lack of variety made it all seem just consistently loud. While Hiroyuki Narita was overparted as Alfio, Vittorio Vitelli offered a rich-toned, Renato Bruson-like baritone in a powerful account of the Prologue from I Pagliacci, with exciting high notes and expert tonal shading. That alone was worth the ticket price.

 

 

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The problem of staging decadence is that the audience has to understand that there have been upper standards at some point. When you are shown something that looks like the dictionary example of “tawdry”, one might wonder why Arabella finds it important to explain Mandryka that the Waldners lead a dubious existence there. In Philippe Arlaud’s obscenely ugly, blunt and superficial staging, even Mandryka’s untrained eyes would not need more than a glimpse of the whole thing to feel that he might be somewhere unashamedly second-rate. In it,  you could take Baron Waldner for a waiter, the Baroness for the owner of a brothel and Arabella for the cashier with the messy coiffure. If someone like Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa had the bad luck to show up in a place like that, a sensible bouncer would escort her out and find her a cab.

Although there is not vulgarity in Anna Gabler’s Arabella, she ultimately fits her surroundings by the absence of any charisma and glamor, both in stage presence and singing. Her mezzo-ish soprano lacks radiance, does not project very well, has a hint of throatiness and sounds bottled up in its high notes. Her legato too can be problematic and the end of phrases are often undersupported and there is a problem of intonation (in the act II duet with Mandryka things went particularly astray). In those circumstances, interpretation here has fallen behind the intent to survive the high tessitura and the heavy orchestration. Anja Nina Barhmann’s Zdenka wouldn’t normally offer strong competition (as every good Zdenka should), but the natural brightness of her voice and her comparatively clear diction put the audience on her side, even if the ability of floating mezza voce eludes her entirely. As a matter of fact, the most testing passages brought upon a piercing and grainy sound that made her Zdenka more hysterical than exalted. Replacing Steve Davislim, Martin Nyvall was truly unfazed by the high notes in the part of Matteo. His medium and low registers, however, lack focus. The tonal quality, truth be said, is far from unpleasant. Even if Wolfgang Koch’s Mandryka is really devoid of charm, his glitch-free, firm-toned singing placed him far above of every other element in this performance. I would even say that his first act was top-notch in richness, volume and sense of line. As almost every other singer in this role, he would get a bit tired in act II, but even then he invariably produced exemplary heroic top notes – yet he seemed increasingly unengaged. If I had to appear in front of an audience with such ridiculous and unbecoming clothes, maybe I would feel that way too. Hidekazu Tsumaya worked a bit too hard for his Viennese accent as Waldner, but acted and sang famously, embracing the misguided directorial choices with gusto.

Although this evening’s drawbacks were various, Bertrand de Billy’s spineless conducting of a Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra matte in sound, unclear in articulation and often clumsy was the ultimate deathblow in Richard Strauss’s beautiful score. And saggy tempi only gave the audience plenty of time to realize the extent to which the composer has been ill-treated in his 150th jubilee.

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La Gazza Ladra is considered by many Rossini’s most original opera, the one in which comedy and tragedy are most perfectly connected and theatrical conventions then in force were most frontally and effectively challenged. Then the question is: why is it so rarely staged? And the answer is very simple: the vocal parts are so difficult and the acting requirements are so considerable that opera houses usually find it safer simply to refrain from staging it at all. For instance, for a long while, the only available recording had been made live with Katia Ricciarelli as Ninetta, Luciana d’Intino as Lucia, Bernadette Manca di Nissa as Pippo, William Matteuzzi as Gianetto, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fernando and Samuel Ramey as the Podestà. Although one would kill to see a cast like this, reviewers had called it a hands off because the romantic couple is sung by singers past their prime. Let’s consider it a tribute to their artistries that they still hold their own quite easily considering the competition.

For instance, this evening’s Ninetta, Sophie Bevan, shares with Ricciarelli a creamy tonal quality and a natural feeling for classical style, but, although she is far younger than Ricciarelli at then time of the recording, she too sounds strained when things get high – and also often unfocused and sometimes hooty. If her coloratura is nimbler than her predecessor’s, the Italian soprano had a far more substantial voice, a quality much missed this evening. In any case, Bevan has a congenial stage presence and is dramatically fully committed. As much as Matteuzzi’s, Francisco Brito’s tenor has a quite nasal sound. However, that does not ensure him the kind of brightness usually associated to it: the voice does not pierce through easily and his high notes come through as effortful.

Katarina Leoson (Lucia) is no Luciana d’Intino, but her voice has enough volume and flexibility, if not an individual tonal quality. Alexandra Kadurina sang her act II duet with Ninetta most sensitively, but sounded small-scaled elsewhere. Although Jonathan Lemalu had his woolly moments, he sang with imagination and sense of style, his overgenerous vibrato here less bothersome than usual. I leave the best for last: even if one can hear that there still room for development in Kihwan Sim’s singing, what he is doing now (as we could hear in his performance of the role of the Podestà) is already quite impressive. His forceful bass voice is extremely flexible, the sound is firm, dark and pleasant and he has attitude. He can certainly go places.

Conductor Henrik Nánási likes his Rossini fast and intense, and the fact that his orchestra was working noticeably hard to follow him did not seem a sign that maybe he should give his musicians a little bit more leeway. As it was, although the intentions were honorable, the results were often jagged and sometimes messy, what prevented some of the numbers with softer affetti to achieve true touchingness. This was made even more difficult by director David Alden’s refuse to take these characters seriously and to go for the slapstick approach, even in the serious passages. As a matter of fact, seriousness has been replaced by some sort of political agenda involving  Jewish question. The libretto has one rather stereotyped Jewish character, who is shown as amiable by the librettist, while Alden makes him someone quite nasty. Why then making all involved with Ninetta’s trial Jewish? While making little of Ninetta’s predicament? Is it really La Gazza Ladra’s story?! In the end, it all sounded excuse for some empty stylization. For me, it was only noise to Rossini’s music.

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La Fanciulla del West is probably no one’s favorite opera; although Puccini’s imaginative writing for the orchestra and harmonic adventurousness are often mentioned, the whole spaghetti western impression comes across are unforgivably kitsch for most opera goers. This is why the fact that director Christof Loy had not decided to rescue it from its innocence is what makes his staging particularly effective. His Golden West is a place of need for affection – almost every character yearn for their moms and behave in a childlike way. If you don’t take this in face value, the whole story seems awkward and silly. In this staging, this emotional need takes pride of place and even if the production could be described as “traditional”, it ultimately does not look traditional because it feels realistic in its almost Scandinavian movie restraint (it happens to be a coproduction with Stockholm’s Kungliga Operan). Under Loy’s direction, almost every one on stage offer convincing acting.

With her Claudette Colbert-like cheekbones, Barbara Haveman could have been a realistic leading actress in a Western movies if she had been born some decades earlier. Actually, she is at any rate a very accomplished actress full stop. Whenever she is on stage, it is very difficult to look away. And she happens to be a very compelling singer too. Her lyric soprano is not very distinctive in itself but for the fact that it always sounds natural, feminine and unforced. Naturally, the role of Minnie is on the heavy side for her, but her good technique makes it entirely functional in a small house such as the Oper Frankfurt: she masters the art of exploring her chest register as few transalpine sopranos and deals with exposed dramatic acuti rather by letting her voice spin in its natural brightness than beefing it up or pushing. However, what makes her performance remarkable is her complete understanding of the relation between music and text. Her Johnson/Ramerrez unfortunately doesn’t share her musical-dramatic intelligence. In any case, his unexaggerated acting under a good director places him above the regular standard as far as tenori di forza go. Although his voice sounds a bit breathy and worn in its middle register, his top notes are always impressively full and powerful, if not remotely nuanced. Marco Vratogna has the perfect attitude for the role of Jack Rance and, if his baritone is generally soft-centered and velvety, it produces the right effect in outspoken moments by sheer volume.

The Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester seemed fully engaged in the dramatic action, relishing the coloristic orchestration and boosting the effect of what was happening on stage. Conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi’s symphonic approach in this score paid off in the sense that one could feel the gradual increase in tension through the three acts. He did not spare his cast and unleashed quite often his orchestra, fortunately not very Teutonic in its rather leaner sound. Although he is not the conductor in the première (as well as soprano and baritone), it is impressive how the whole performance seemed coherent in its overall concept.

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Although Die tote Stadt is considered Korngold’s best opera, it had fallen of grace since the days when divas like Maria Jeritza appeared in it in opera houses like the Met. Until the 1980’s, when the Deutsche Oper (with Karan Armstrong and James King) gave it a try and performances occasionally but increasingly pop up here and there. I had never seen it live and know it from Erich Leinsdorf’s recording with Carol Neblett, René Kollo and Hermann Prey. I have to say that I still have to learn to like Korngold, but it is also true that I’ve never tried really hard. In any case, I had very low expectations, and this is always helpful in these situations.

On listening again to the Leinsdorf CDs, I’ve almost changed my mind about actually going to the New National Theatre today: the plot is bizarre, the demands on singers and orchestra are extreme, the music rarely takes off and, when it does, it turns out quite kitsch. Fortunately, the forces involved in this production – developed for the Finnish National Opera as seen on video with Camilla Nylund and Klaus Florian Vogt – took the challenge seriously. I cannot blame director Kasper Holten for sanitizing the staging of its pierrots, nuns, orgiastic dance numbers and gondolas. He has also found a not unwelcome comedy touch in serious scenes that helped the audience to indulge into something suspension of disbelief. However, the grotesque is a bit part of the story and this opera loses some of its flavor when rescued from its cheesiness. Conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink too has decided to deny it its operetta-ish undertones and go for the Frau-ohne-Schatten approach. And for someone like me who hasn’t yet acquired the taste for this opera, this seemed the right decision. The performance moved forward without indulgence, highlighting the coloristic orchestration and preferring objectivity to sentimentality. Of course, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is not Leinsdorf’s Müncher Rundfunkorchester, but – even if its strings like warmth and weight – these musicians played with great animation. Unfortunately, the effort would become more noticeable during the opera. The prelude to the third act was everything but polished. But the animation was still there – and that the conductor could keep it throughout is really praiseworthy.

I had seen Meagan Miller just once before – as Elisabeth here in the New National Theatre. It seems that bad girls bring the best in her. Although the voice lacks a distinctive color, has many tremulous moment and phrasing can be bumpy, she gave an exciting performance in the role of Marietta. First, her big lyric soprano is the voice for the role. Second, the high tessitura shows her best qualities (round, effortless top notes and endless stamina). Third, the provocative character suits her vocal nature better than the spiritual subtlety of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Also, although she wouldn’t convince anyone that she could be a dancer, she seemed to be having the time of her life playing the femme fatale. It is hardly her fault if Torsten Kerl was this afternoon’s shining star. His spontaneous, glitch-free tenor gleams in this demanding part. And he sings elegantly and musicianly too. Under a conductor who never forgot his singers, his jugendlich dramatisch voice could be heard without problem. Moreover, if René Kollo sounds more tormented in the CDs, it is Kerl who makes this music sound singable and expressive in his tasteful legato and almost classical poise. I would say that the director did not seem to demand from him any sort of spiritual torment, the approach being rather detached and caricatured rather than internalized or intense. I had previously seen Anton Keremidtchev as Macbeth in Berlin and was positively surprised by the German side of his repertoire. His rich, sizable voice worked very well both in Frank’s conversational phrasing and in Fritz’s aria, in which I curiously didn’t miss Hermann Prey’s sophistication and variety. Although Makiko Yamashita (Brigitta) was not very clear in diction, her voice is extremely pleasant and the singer is stylish. All minor roles were well cast too.

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Once when I showed a video of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Madama Butterfly to a Japanese friend, she would say “eeeh… that’s so strange” every 30 seconds. As I had never seen any Japanese production of Puccini’s Japanese opera, I thought that Tamiya Kuriyama’s 2005 staging for the New National Theatre could be a good opportunity to check if the Western stagings I had previously seen would look so different in comparison. Well, I am glad to see that European directors are not terribly off the mark. The big picture this evening was quite similar to what I had previously experienced in New York and in Berlin. Of course, there was a plethora of tiny details that made an important cumulative effect, but I guess those are only noticeable once you’ve lived in Japan. As it is, Kuriyama does not try to relate this to any form of Japanese theatre or any other Japanese traditional art. The scenery is stylized in an almost detached way – Butterfly’s house has no walls but for some shouji upstage, you know that her wedding takes place in autumn for the kouyou leaves on the floor and that Pinkerton comes back in spring for the sakura that replaces them. Other than this, costumes and props are quite “Japanese”.

If someone is responsible for some atmosphere here this is conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who has done a splendid job in her symphonic approach, good ear for color effects, eschewal of sentimentality and a sense of theatre that has nothing to do with gimmickry. The Tokyo Symphony showed itself at its most engaged and the always excellent choristers offered a haunting humming chorus. Ms. Wilson is a conductor I would like to hear again in an opera house. She was lucky to have Alexia Voulgaridou in the title role. Although the part is a bit on the heavy side for her  (the first part of act II found her a bit tired and she went off steam in her big aria, for instance), her velvety, floating soprano, incapable of a shrill sound, has the necessary youthful tone and morbidezza for this role. She has obviously studied Mirella Freni’s recording for Karajan and was able to produce on stage the famous Italian soprano’s vulnerability, congeniality and sincerity. In spite of the occasional awkward turn of phrase, this was an inspired and touching performance, helped by the Bulgarian soprano’s ideal physique and reasonable acting abilities. It is sad that a more persuasive Pinkerton could not be found: Mikhail Agafonov squeezes his high notes and is not intonation’s best friend. Tomoko Obayashi’s dark-toned and well-focused mezzo was ideally employed for Suzuki. Furthermore, she could produce a less two-dimensional characterization of a role often restricted to cardboard level. Eijiro Kai too was an above-average Sharpless. His tone has a pleasant, warm sound and he is capable of nuance.

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When you have an impressively supple orchestra such as the one in the Vienna State Opera, a conductor must feel tempted to pull all the stops. Therefore, I understand Michael Güttler’s inclination to make it fast and loud and exciting – and the outpouring of glittering, transparent and clear sounds from the pit were indeed a pleasure in itself. I doubt that someone might be able to listen to Rossini’s score more adeptly played than this evening. But then there are singers on stage too – and we must certainly consider them in bel canto repertoire. In the program book, we read that, when the new opera house by the Kärntner Straße was opened in 1869, there were doubts if works like La Cenerentola could be performed there, because “only a few singers were able to fill the large hall with their voices”. Precisely. Although the Vienna State Opera does not have a huge auditorium for today’s standards, it is still large enough and the orchestral sound can be overwhelming, as this evening. The first time I’ve heard La Cenerentola live, Olga Borodina sang the title role in the Metropolitan Opera House. Then I wrote ” Although her manners are a bit grand for poor-thing Cinderella, listening to such an exquisite opulent voice move so gracefully through Rossinian phrases is something every admirer of bel canto should do. Rarely has the triumph of goodness sounded as triumphant as in the crowning glory of the Russian mezzo’s rendition of the closing scene”. I could not help thinking of that performance this evening, when singers were in such disadvantage. Part of me wished that the orchestra could be a little bit more discrete to accommodate the cast, but ultimately I wished that singers such as the young Borodina could be found to make it all really exciting.

Vivica Genaux is no Borodina. Her lean mezzo soprano has limited volume, but a bright edge makes it hearable, especially in its lower end. The problem is that the part of Angelina often confines her to areas of her voice when she could not really pierce through a formidable orchestra. To make things a little bit more problematic, her high notes were not truly there this evening. Her impressive control of fast divisions helped her to distract the audience from that problem, but the variations offered in the final scene could not replace the climactic high notes Rossini expected his audiences to hear. In any case, her coloratura is indeed very exciting and could keep you in the edge of your seat in the prevailing fast tempi. Her Prince Charming, Dmitry Korchak, couldn’t help smearing a bit his runs under the circumstances. His voice is rounder, more natural and stronger-centered than most tenors in this repertoire – and his high notes are refreshingly forceful and firm. One could see that producing graceful, gentle phrasing requires great concentration from him, and I wonder how long he will resist moving to lighter lyric roles (and eventually to full lyric parts). If Nicolay Borchev’s baritone is a bit thick and dark for Italian roles, he is more faithful to his fioriture than many a singer in the role of Dandini. He is unexaggeratedly funny and has good pronunciation. The only Italian in the cast, Paolo Rumetz, offered an unexaggerated performance as well as Don Magnifico, but there were too many moments of inaudibility for comfort. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s voice is a bit light for Alidoro, he sang forcefully and stylishly. Both singers cast as Tisbe and Clorinda needed more focused voice to be heard in ensembles.

Sven-Eric Bechtholf sets the action in the 1950’s and keeps everything extremely busy and frantic. Sometimes, during important arias, parallel action takes place in the background for laughs, what is a bit disrespectful both for the composer and the musicians performing his music. At first, the action suggested something Fellini-ian and that seemed promising, but then the whole thing started to get frankly silly à la Roberto Benigni: Alidoro is here some sort of flirtatious Don Alfonso with some supernatural powers (whereas Rossini precisely asks the opposite of that), the Prince has a Freudian thing with sport cars and all the scenes in the palace take place in his garage – banquet and wedding included. Characters who are supposed not to hear something are often in places where they would have to be deaf not to hear that; sometimes they are placed in a way that collides with the situation described in the libretto, making for awkward maneuvers to get character X quickly in position B etc. In the end, I had the impression that the director does not truly believe in this opera and decided that his helping hand would make it better. Well, the long change of sets certainly made it lenghtier.

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Christmas was yesterday, and the ingestion of Gänsebraten and Sekt is usually high this time of the year. For singers who had to appear in Beethoven’s Fidelio the next day, this must have required tremendous willpower. Anyway, one member of the cast – the Leonore, Ricarda Merbeth, did not even make it. Anja Kampe had to be flown in to take the title role. As almost everyone else, the German soprano was not in a good-voice day, but, as much as Leonore, sie hat Mut and has risked her vocal folds (as many singers before her) for the love of Beethoven. Some would say that Ms. Kampe does not have the high notes for the role, but my impression is that the notes are indeed there – the technique to handle them not really. She has a beautiful, warm voice, a sensitive and musicianly way of building her phrases and is always dramatically on, but one could see that she knew beforehand that some passages would simply not work as written and that the make-do solutions are rather part of her performance than accidents in it. As it was, whenever things got high and loud (and they often do), the options were crooning or shouting. She is an intelligent singing actress and would invariably found a plausible theatrical attitude to justify this, except in her big aria, when things really went astray. Because of her generosity as an artist, she had the audience on her side, but it would be sad to see her eventually pay the price of such hazardous use of her voice.

Peter Seiffert seemed to have avoided the effects of Christmas supper and was really keen on preferring heroic to lyrical singing, although the latter usually suits his vocal nature better. In any case, this evening, his voice sounded at once large, focused, flexible and dulcet, even in the trickiest passages. Maybe as a tribute to René Kollo (who appears in this same production on video), he tried the messa di voce in his first note, which, as much as with Kollo, did not work very well. But other than this, he offered a truly satisfying performance.

Tomasz Konieczny, on the other hand, must have had a hell of a Christmas, for his entrance made me worry for him. He, basically, looked very ill: his hands shaking, his breathing very loud and labored, his face flushed, he missed one entry, then the text and his voice seemed to be all over the place. Either he is an excellent actor with a wildly misguided concept of the role or he was a hero to sing the part of Pizarro in that condition. Fortunately, he gradually recovered and, in the second act, peeled the paint off the walls with truly stentorian singing in his confrontation with Mr. and Ms. Florestan. I confess I was surprised to see the name of the more-than-veteran Matti Salminen in the important role of Rocco. Although his voice is still admirably firm and characterful, it now is essentially very rough, with some grey-toned patches in his range. He is a bête-de-scène and has no problem in making this work; however,  in an evening where almost every soloist required some adjustment, I only hoped during the first act that I would hear a reliable and unproblematic piece of singing.

Ildiko Raimondi’s soprano is a bit juiceless and intonation has its dodgy moments, but she does not spoil the fun at all. Her Jaquino, Sebastian Kohlhepp, proved to be in far better shape, but his singing lacked variety and imagination. Finally, the role of Don Fernando requires a voice completely different from that of Boaz Daniel.

If this performance proved to be something special, we owe this to the impressive playing of the Vienna State Orchestra under the wide-ranging conducting of Franz Welser-Möst. The State Opera’s General Musical Director was at his most Toscanini-an, pressing forward with ruthless rhythmic precision and extracting excitingly accurate playing from his musicians even in extremely fast tempi. For instance, this was the fastest O welche Lust that I have ever heard, more nervous and ominous than touching and hopeful. All concertati challenged soloists and choristers in their fast pace, but not the orchestra, which could not only cope with the technical demands, but also comment the action with wide tonal variety and produce rather than respond to the different shifts of mood in the score and the libretto. The maestro would make an exception for Pizarro’s scene in the dungeon in act II – there he opted to produce excitement rather from accent and accuracy, what made his soloists more comfortable and allowed him enough leeway to build into a powerful Es schlägt der Rache Stunde. Since the Mahlerian tradition of playing the Leonore no.3 before the closing tableau is still very much respected in Vienna, the audience received a Christmas gift in an orchestral tour de force to make you forget that there are other orchestras in the world. Few conductors would risk to take an opera house orchestra to its limits of dynamic possibilities, articulation and balance as successfully as we heard it today – the level of power, precision and transparence achieved by Mr. Welser-Möst and his musicians was something one could tell his or her grandchildren. Truly uplifting.

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