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The more I think about the Deutsche Oper’s marketing strategy for this concert performance of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, the less I like it. To say the truth, I haven’t resisted its appeal: the title role is usually poorly sung and the opportunity to hear the leading Straussian soprano of our days in it was beyond my powers of resistance. I did take in consideration the fact that Anja Harteros is very close to become the world’s most cancellation-prone singer (pop music included), but I clung to the idea that it was ONLY ONE CONCERT PERFORMANCE and that she would only disappoint her admirers in these circumstances if she were on the brink of death. This line of reasoning generally leads to an impression of delusion, so let us speak about the fact that the city of Berlin is covered with posters of Anja Harteros, as if all one needs to perform Ariadne auf Naxos were a prima donna. I don’t remember anyone mentioning the other singers: you would have to go to the website and press “Besetzung” to discover that. Then, the apparent raison d’être of this evening is announced indisposed one week before the concert. E-mails have been sent: sorry, folks, no Anja Harteros for you. The last time I received a communication like that from the Deutsche Opera, Angela Gheorghiu (who else?) had a similar indisposition, but a 10 EUR bonus was offered as consolation. Anyway, if the whole point of this evening was having a famous singer in the leading role, why exactly wasn’t she replaced by another famous singer? I happen to know who Meagan Miller is, but the Deutsche Oper seemed unsure about her fame: a text explaining who she is was attached to the cancellation note.  In any case, it is not always possible to find a world-class diva in short notice, but then I understand that you should find an unknown name with tremendous talent so that the audience develop the notion that they have witnessed the birth of a star, such as when an unknown Astrid Varnay replaced Lotte Lehmann, or an unknown Montserrat Caballé replaced Marilyn Horne or an unknown Margaret Price replaced Teresa Berganza.

As it is, Meagan Miller is a very courageous woman. Her task this evening was extremely ingrate, and I’ve prepared myself to have an open mind about it, all the more because Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble opera, with three important soprano roles, one challenging tenor role and a series of interesting shorter characters. It also requires a very good orchestra and a conductor with a very flexible beat and sense of tonal coloring. And I am glad I have done that effort. I have seen Ms. Miller as Elisabeth and Marietta (Die tote Stadt) and wasn’t truly beguiled by the mushy vocal production, the gustiness and the instability. This evening, however, I could see the artist behind the singer: she showed clear diction, real understand of the text and dramatic situations and proved to be aware of the demands of Straussian singing. In the beginning of the opera (i.e, after the intermission), the whole venture seemed to be something like c+ for effort. The tremulousness disfigured many key phrases, the middle register had no color and she had to adopt the “Maria Reining” alternative for the neverending beginning of Ein Schönes war. And yet she was entirely absorbed by the predicament of Ariadne, with complete understanding of the shifts of mood and very alert to the right inflections to the text – and the very difficult low notes were adeptly dispatched. Once she reached Es gibt ein Reich, the voice began to acquire a creamier, more luminous quality and her mezza voce started to develop from the level of acceptability to that of truly expressive beauty. Exemplary phrases would alternate with some wobbly, curdled-toned ones, but from Gibt es kein Hinüber? to the end her singing left nothing to be desired. In conclusion, although Meagan Miller’s performance has plenty of room for development, she tackled some very difficult passages in the grand manner and never failed in commitment. The elements for an important Straussian voice are there, but, if she wants to be more than the replacement of a Straussian diva, she must first round off many sharp angles. It would be a pity if she didn’t try.

Regardless of who was Ariadne, Daniela Sindram sang the role of the Composer. And that could be the raison d’être of this concert. This was superb Straussian singing and definitely one of the best accounts of this part that I have heard live or in recordings. I am really happy I was able to listen to it. Generally, it is the Zerbinetta the singer who gets more attention in a performance of this opera. I am afraid that this was not the case this evening. Susanne Elmark has a lovely personality and her high notes are not metallic as one would expect in this role, but the voice lacks substance, tonal variety and, if she tackles some of the trills commendably, her coloratura is unacceptably imprecise.  Stefan Vinke’s tenor has more than a patch of nasality and many notes are finished in an abrupt manner, and yet he sang the part surprisingly easily and cleanly, flashing some very powerful acuti now and then.

I never cease to admire the level of quality of the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper.  This evening, all roles were taken not only by great voices, but also by artists of great sophistication. The three nymphs were ideally cast with the lovely-toned Siobhan Stagg, the crystal-clear Elena Tsallagova and the truly rich-toned Ronnita Miller, whose mezzo has a welcome Grace Bumbry-ish quality and some very dark low notes. Thomas Blondelle and Markus Brück offered forceful and spirited performances as the Dance Master and the Music Teacher. Carlton Ford was a strong, firm-toned Harlequin, ideally partnered by Jörg Schörner, Paul Kaufmann and a phenomenal Tobias Kehrer. Franz Mazura was an endearing and terrific piece of casting as the Haushofmeister.

Ulf Schirmer gave his cast all the time of the world in an unhurried performance without much profile. Only by the end of the opera, the proceedings gained momentum, but by then his tenor had gotten used to the lack of forward movement and took some time to adjust. I don’t know if the effect of having brass and percussion downstage is to blame, but the strings were on the recessed side throughout and the end of the opera could be described as rather noisy. The lack of an ideal balance robbed many important passages of the necessary clarity. If this performance finally hit home, it was rather by the fact that the conductor allowed individual personalities to shine through rather than led the way himself.

Director Guy Joosten believes that the Egyptian setting is almost irrelevant to the story of Aida: there was very little knowledge about pharaonic Egypt in Verdi’s days and Verdi and his librettists were rather interested in the public/private conflicts in times of war. Although this was my first non-Egyptian Aida, I believe Mr. Joosten has a point. I did not miss the elephants and pyramids, but that’s basically where my agreement with the director ends. Everything else in this staging is kitsch, superficial, scenically messy and devoid of expression. Considering that Aida and Radames are buried alive, the giant ants are in very poor taste. Even if this was a joke (?!).

The fact that Stefan Soltesz kept the whole performance under a very tight rein – metronomic beat whenever his singers did not insist very much in rubato, dry sound palette and an emphasis rather in discipline than in interpretation – gave the performance as a whole a very cold impression.

I had seen Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth and thought that, although she sang impressively, her personality would work for better effect in a less formidable character. That was not off the mark. I am indeed surprised that this soprano was able to found an almost ideal morbidezza, truly exquisite mezza voce and a commendable sense of legato. I have the impression that Montserrat Caballé is her model for this role and her whole performance was built around vulnerability, loveliness and emotional generosity. Good as this was, it would benefit from the guidance of a truly experienced conductor and maybe director to refine her choices in terms of interpretation and some stylistic and also technical aspects (poorly supported low register, especially) to make it really special. It is definitely worth the while – in terms of facility, volume and commitment it is already top level.

There has been a great deal of replacement this afternoon. Michaela Schuster was supposed to sing Amneris, but had to be replaced by Marina Prudenskaya in the last minute. This Russian mezzo is extremely gifted in the acting department, but hers is not an Italian dramatic mezzo: volume was insufficient and there was not enough slancio to help her out. She made it – securely, it is true – by virtue of sheer physical force and technical security. As it is, praiseworthy as the effort is, it is not really more than this. The other replacement, previously announced, was Carlo Ventre, who jumped in for Roberto Alagna. Mr Ventre’s tenor is still smokier than last time and his glottal gulps and the habit of starting phrases with mm are becoming quite annoying. He still has very powerful high notes, but there is little art elsewhere. It was endearing to find Franz Grundheber as Amonaaro – his baritone still firm and pleasant, if understandably a little dry.

Daniel Barenboim’s Wagnerian credentials are unanimously acknowledged, and his Wagner performances with the Staatskapelle Berlin are seen by many as reference in this repertoire. Even if I had my share of below-average performances with this Argentinian conductor in this repertoire, I have never heard a performance of Tristan und Isolde conducted by him that seemed less than excellent. This is the work by Wagner best served by his abilities as a conductor, and the fact that it sounds different every time I hear him conduct it makes the experience even more compelling. Today, in the Schiller-Theater, I have come to the conclusion that his understanding of this score’s structure is so complete that he is entirely at ease to test its limits: he can make it extremely slow, sometimes a little bit faster, usually very rich in orchestral sound, but sometimes chamber-like in lean sonoroties – it does not matter, it always sounds coherent, clear, meaningful… and usually very intense. Today’s performance started off with a dense, almost heavy prelude, yet transparent in a way that makes one particularly alert for Wagner’s shifts of instrumental color. After that, his main concern seemed to be helping his soloists out, turning around a very transparent yet rich sound that could instantly become more classically  “Wagnerian” whenever his singers would benefit from being “drowned”. Also, the need for many extra breathing points involved a basically slow beat, with the many “col canto” episodes where singers were adapting their lines to get to the end of a phrase in truly adventurous manner. In any case, before I can speak of the overall impression of this performance, I have to speak of the singers in the title roles.

Waltraud Meier is something of Barenboim’s “official” Isolde for more than 20 years. When she shifted from mezzo and made it her parade role, she could indeed sing it better than some singers whose natural voice is indeed that of a soprano. But that did not last as long as she could have wished. Soon, she became notably variable in this part, in a good day still sounding her youthful best, until it has finally settled into a business of adaptation of the vocal lines as written by Wagner. At this point of her career, the audience is suppose to make a trade off between insight and faithfulness. I would say that, this evening, considering her real Fach and her age, she was in good voice: middle and low register sounded clean, firm and well focused, but high notes existed by means of various degrees of squeezing, many of which landing below true pitch. Then there were many notes shortened, hinted at, spoken or left unsung. She is an extraordinarily persuasive artist with illuminating ideas and most often than not got away with her make-do, but her interpretation now is so heavily underlined that it involves very little legato and a pecking-at-notes phrasing that could pass for Sprechgesang at moments. This had a very curious effect: the very lean vocal production, the avoidance of forte and fortissimo, the self-explanatory phrasing (and her miraculous young-looking appearance) made her Isolde believably adolescent in attitude. The fact that Barenboim gave her a lighter orchestra also had the effect of turning down the profoundness and ponderousness. Since her Tristan too is fond of an almost operetta-hero lyric style, portamento included, and can produce a boyish tonal quality, their act I sounded unusually matter-of-fact, both singers native speakers delivering quite provocatively their dialogues. Some might dislike the Pride and Prejudice approach, but I am increasingly convinced that this opera doesn’t need the extra servings of seriousness usually applied to it, which have only the dubious benefit of making it less believable and more obscure. In this atmosphere, act II had its splashes of Romeo and Juliet, when Isolde smilingly teases Brangäne for feeling guilty for using the love potion instead poison in the end of the previous act.

In the last twelve months I’ve seen Peter Seiffert twice – and in very good shape – as Florestan and Bacchus. This seems to confirm that Tristan is not really his role. To deal with the heavy vocal lines, he often resorts to an almost open-toned approach to high high f’s and g’s and pushes a lot. Before he got tired (some 10 minutes before O sink hernieder), one would say impetuosity or fervor instead of laboriousness and despair. Act III tested him sorely, Tristan’s predicament secondary to the fact that this was this tenor on stage making violence against his vocal folds.

Ekaterina Gubanova is, as always, a reliable Brangäne, today not in her best voice, though. Roman Trekel is a boorish Kurwenal, which is a valid approach, but he too gets tired in act III. Stephen Milling finds the role of King Marke a bit high and heavy, and yet he showed ability to create Innigkeit when necessary.

Harry Kupfer’s 2000 production is prone to generalization and can be challenging to singers not in their youthful prime. The tenor was visibly uncomfortable with it. Some moments, especially those who involve singers crawling, are particularly awkward.

In his new production of Wagner’s Parsifal for the New National Theatre, Harry Kupfer has decided to go beyond the Christian context of the work and draw parallels with Buddhism: he mentions the strife for knowledge through compassion as related to the quest for enlightenment with the communion with all things or the idea of Kundry expiating her fault through many reincarnations. Richard Wagner himself has read about Buddhism and it is indeed an interesting idea to bring this connection to the fore, especially when you are in Asia. That said, I wonder if the Japanese audience noticed any reference beyond the three extras dressed as Buddhist monks who help Parsifal to find his way back to Montsalvat. Other than this, the staging looks pretty much like a Kupfer staging as you would see in Germany. The single set shows a lightning-shaped walkway that, with the help of elevators and projections, transforms itself according to themes mainly related to the four elements. For the Gralshalle, screens with Gothic architectural stonework are used. It all looks a bit abstract almost as a digital-era version of an Adolphe Appia production, but for the final twist: Parsifal doesn’t replace Amfortas, but rather replaces the idea that there should be a Montsalvat. He wraps himself in an orange mantle and walks away with Kundry and Gurnemanz, while the Gralsritter look bemused by having to find their own way of finding enlightenment.

This is the second Parsifal I happen to hear under the baton of Tajirou Iimori. Last time I wrote that Mr. Iimori is an experienced Wagnerian who concentrates rather on detail. This impression was confirmed today, if you overlook the fact that strings in the Tokyo Philharmonic lack volume and are unclear in passagework. Although woodwind and brass instruments had pride of place and played with admirable clarity, the conductor managed to avoid a brassy, unsubtle orchestral sound. One could guess that the idea had a Furtwänglerian inspiration, but in order to achieve this one really needs a truly rich-toned string section and phrasing of real expressive power. As it was, every minute seemed to last twice its length, especially in the second act, when the proceedings seemed to go dangerously close to a halt. A cast of unusual subtlety could have benefited from the approach, but this was not always the case here, especially in the key role of Gurnemanz.

John Tomlinson is a veteran Wagnerian singer, with a voice of gigantic proportions, still attractively dark and cleanly projected, except at the top, when it sounds dry, unstable and effortful. His Wotan used to be energetic and incisive rather than noble and nuanced and it is quite admirable that he could create today a believable performance without the Lieder singing qualities usually associated to this difficult role. If this opera were La Forza del Destino, he would have Melitonized his Padre Guardiano: this Gurnemanz had a rather cheerful disposition, a rough-edged directness that made his dismissal of Parsifal in the end of act I quite “predictable”. In act III, his acknowledgment of Parsifal seems informed rather by a simple and good-hearted nature than by wisdom or spiritual awareness, what is new to me, but surprisingly effective. This blunter approach needed a more enveloping orchestral sound to produce the right effect, though. Egils Silins’s Amfortas too lacked a softer touch. His whole approach seemed to be 100% to 150%, what made his act I monologue an overkill from moment one. Also, his bass baritone has developed a wobble that made the whole experience even less appealing. A Titurel with a wayward sense of pitch did not help things.

If there was a singer who benefited from the circumstances, this was Evelyn Herlitzius. This very industrious singer with a powerful voice – yet not easy on the ear – kept you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. First, her dramatic soprano is in excellent shape. Her lower notes were richly and warmly sung and she seemed decided to explore the very limits of her tonal palette, trying shades of mezza voce that I didn’t even know she could produce, delivering her text with crispy diction and sense of story-telling and darting her high notes with complete ease. I particularly cherish the fact that she waited until the end of act II to resort to her full powers, and this worked as an interesting theatrical effect. Her acting was also fully committed and effective. It is not the world’s most sensuous voice, but all in all hers was one of the most interesting Kundrys I have seen and heard in the theatre. Her Parsifal, Christian Frantz, is very clumsy in the acting department and, when a Heldentenor is really required, he can sound a bit tense and metallic. Yet he could often produce an impression of innocence and youth in an almost Mozartian sound and then shift to a René Kollo-like snarl in the next moment. Even if one can imagine this role more aptly cast, this German tenor offered some interesting possibilities in terms of interpretation. Robert Bork (Klingsor) was a firm-toned, unexaggerated Klingsor. One must praise the New National Theatre for a team of unusually sensuous-toned Blumenmädchen and for the very clean choral singing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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