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The second item in the Teatro Regio di Torino’s Japanese tour was Puccini’s Tosca, here shown in a low-budget but refreshingly unpretentious staging by Jean-Louis Grinda. While the sets to act I could have been a little less lazily designed, the remaining acts were quite efficient in their straightforwardness, except for Tosca’s costumes, which were all of them excessively plain and unbecoming. The Personenregie was discrete to the point of seeming non-existent, but that proved to be a blessing in disguise: the three leading singers are very experienced in their roles and felt at ease to add their personal contributions. Some details were particularly successful: Scarpia’s look when Tosca unintentionally touches his hand to grab a fan; Tosca’s regained sense of being in control when she tries to bribe Scarpia; Cavaradossi’s utter disbelief in Tosca’s plan in act III. The relative cleanliness of the staging made every little gesture count – and these singers seemed to be aware of that. One particularly welcome idea from the director: I don’t know about you, but I never liked that whole business with the cross and the candle-holders. I know it is there in the libretto, but maybe in the play this makes more sense. In the opera, it has always bothered me as nonsensical*. Here Tosca nervously prays, looks for the safe-conduct, finds it in Scarpia’s hand, takes it with disgust and, when preparing to leave, realizes that he lies dead over her cloak, struggles to get it back but is finally unable to do it. The curtain falls while she is about to exit without it.

Gianandrea Noseda’s affinity with Puccini apparently is greater than with Verdi. He is more at ease with the flexibility of beat required by this music and his primarily symphonic point-of-view, achieved by a very risky but ultimately successful balance with his soloists, paid off in its eschewal from empty effect and his intent of clarity and richness of sound. Although his singers had to work hard for their money this afternoon, he was not indifferent to their needs, as one could hear in Recondita armonia, when the tenor’s indication that he needed a slower pace was promptly understood.

I had previously seen Patricia Racette only once in 2005 as Alice Ford at the Met and had found her a fine musician with a monochrome voice. Although her voice is still indistinctive in tone and a little bit workmanlike, the brain behind it is truly admirable. First of all, she knows her voice, has solid technique and responds most adeptly to the big challenges in the part: as a lyric soprano, she could produce beautiful legato and achieve a blond-toned lightness in her act I scene with Cavaradossi; in act II, she never failed in offering powerful acuti over a big orchestra and could manage an ersatz for chest voice when this was necessary. She could even fake sacro fuoco when this was necessary. Most of all, she has REALLY read the score and cared for the meaning of the notes and the words there, even in seemingly unimportant moments. She has even resisted the forgivable temptation of making Vissi d’arte a moment of beauty (a sensible way of disguising some bumpy turns of phrasing anyway). In any case, although her performance was not dramatically gripping as with many famous exponents of this role, it was in some ways revelatory in the way it gravitated around Tosca’s vulnerability, around the frailty behind the prima donna’s bossy attitude, around her need to be in control deeply damaged by Scarpia’s ruthless attack on her and her world.**.

Racette had an ideal partner in Marcelo Álvarez, who sang with consistent beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, making this music sound spontaneous and expressive as it always should. Except for an unnecessarily overemphatic ending, his E lucevan le stelle was extremely elegant and heartfelt. I am happy to hear that the frequentation of heavy repertoire has not touched his voice. There are more powerful and dark-voiced Scarpias than Lado Ataneli, but few are so sharply focused and dangerously self-contained as he is. He never forgets that, although he is something of a brutal police chief, he is also a nobleman at home in fine society. His poised self-assurance made an interesting contrast with Tosca’s increasing despair in act II.

* When I first listened to Tosca, I understood that she said “È morto! Dio mi perdoni”. I would be later very disappointed on reading that she actually says “Or gli perdono!”.

** If you think about the words in Vissi d’arte, she is basically saying “God, you’re not doing your part in our agreement”, the bottom-line being “she believed that everything would always be right by doing things rightly”.  The other moments when she addresses God in the opera is when she curses inside the church and, being reminded that this is a sin, she says that He will turn a blind eye on this, because “He knows that she is suffering”.

Since Les Contes d’Hoffmann is technically the only opera of a composer of operettas, one forgets how it is theatrically and musically difficult. The fact that Offenbach could not prepare a definitive score has a great deal to do with it. As it is, although the various editions around offer different solutions, they all basically try to make it sound less of the patchwork it essentially is: style changes a lot during the opera; the idea of one soprano and one bass-baritone for various roles is as unpractical as having a crowded cast; and the title role is a very tough piece of singing (to say the truth, every role here is far from easy, but the tenor sings far longer than anyone else). The New National Theatre’s present staging, premièred in 2003, uses a composite version – it is basically a generously cut Oeser edition colored by borrowings from the Choudens version (especially in the Giulietta act, where one – most fortunately – can listen to the “inauthentic” diamond aria and the sextet).

Philippe Arlaud’s production has many splashes of kitsch in its acid colors, fake perspectives and cute choreographies. Its overbusyness makes for very little atmosphere and the main characters are often surrounded by dozens of extras. There are some very striking images now and then, but curiously none of them involve the supernatural episodes in the plot, which are very uninterestingly conceived by the creative team. Conductor Frédéric Chaslin too believes in overbusyness – everything here sounded fast and furious. At first, I wished for a little bit more charm and detailed expression, but considering the cast’s limitations, this proved to be a wise decision in a long opera (prologue and epilogue included). There were many moments where singers would be drowned by the orchestra, but judging from what you could still hear from them most of the time, the big orchestral sound was a good trade off.

I had never heard Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz before and I cannot tell if his voice usually sounds as colorless and devoid of squillo as this afternoon. I hope not. In order to send some sound into the auditorium he had to work really hard. Fortunately, he has enough stamina to run a marathon. In the Giulietta act, his middle register was raspish and grey-toned and the low notes were long gone, but he could still muscle up for his high notes without any hesitation. His French is quite passable and he tried to avoid excessive Italianate-ness. It must be said that he has charisma and the perfect attitude for the role, acting with true abandon.

His three love interests were cast with Japanese singers. Hiroko Kouda (Olympia) is the only survivor from the 2003 cast. Her voice is a a little bit richer than one usually hears in this role, but she tried – not without some strain – some very high options. There have been more coruscating Olympias on stage and in records, but Ms. Kouda deserves praise for the intelligent way she portrayed her character’s mechanical nature without tampering with musical values. Keiko Yokoyama (Giulietta)’s soprano has a basically interesting color, but her method involves too much pressure and, even if it seems voluminous enough a voice, imperfect focus does not grant it enough carrying power. Moreover, the role does not fit her placid personality. Although the part of Antonia is on the high side (and the trills off limits) for Rie Hamada, her complex, extra-rich soprano with a touch of Martina Arroyo and sensitive, musicianly phrasing made her the most interesting singer this afternoon.

The Nicklausse, Angela Brower, has a soprano-like mezzo, modest in size but bright enough to pierce through. She is at ease with French style and has good pronunciation of Racine’s language. Hers was a congenial, pleasant performance. Mark S. Doss’s voice is one size smaller than required for the bad-guy roles and a bit curdled in tone, but he is an intelligent singer who offered the best French in the cast, athletic divisions as Dr. Miracle and even managed a smooth Scintille, diamant.  This is an opera without unimportant roles and one could have had some imports from France to add some spice. In any case, someone minimally acceptable for the role of Crespel.

Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera is something of a tough cookie. Verdi seemed keen on trying superposition of “affetti”, not only by mixing comedy and tragedy, but by exploring situations in which characters in highly contrasting state of mind sing together. From the overture on, the shifts of mood can be sudden and difficult to manage – and the vocal parts are extremely challenging, especially the prima donna role. Gianandrea Noseda is a conductor who reads his scores with an open mind and is ready to discover new things in them. However, he is no Karajan. This investigation is often made on the expense of musical flow, dramatic intensity and a beautiful orchestral sound. This evening, for instance, Riccardo and his courtiers seemed more mechanical than lithe in the opening scene, Ulrica’s conversations with darker forces anything but dangerous – the orchestra displayed an extremely dry, brassy and common sound throughout, some singers had light voices for their roles and, having a colorless accompaniment kept on leash to help them, brought about the extra challenge of giving them the whole burden of producing any expression, something that they did very occasionally. After the intermission, act III seemed to benefit from the increase in raw energy demanded by Verdi and the performance finally took off. There is a chorus by the end of the opera (Cor si grande e generoso) which is the key moment of this opera. A performance that has succeeded in everything but failed here has ultimately failed. So the beautiful increase in tension built this evening in this passage has redeemed a mostly uneventful afternoon.

A great share of the uneventfulness has to do with Lorenzo Mariani’s disgraceful production, a blend of the kitsch, the superficial, the inefficient and the sloppy. To make things worse, singers have sung the “American” version of the libretto, while the extremely incoherent and anachronistic staging shows something more in keeping with the “Swedish” alternative. A country with such fame for design and theatrical tradition such as Italy should not render its reputation such bad service by exporting something like this to an audience that has paid extremely expensive tickets.

When I left the theatre this evening, I did not know what to say about Oksana Dyka’s Amelia. Listening to her singing this evening was something similar to witnessing a brain surgery: it is not beautiful, there are moments when one would rather go out, but at the end one is relieved to know that there is someone who can perform something as difficult as this when one needs it. Her steely, voluminous and invariably loud soprano opens up in ear-splitting high notes without much effort. I was going to write that she can hold very long lines, but there is very little sense of phrasing in what she does, except when things become very high and very loud. In these moments, her solidity is truly impressive. This all has very little to do with Verdian singing – and one just needs to listen to his or her recordings with Callas, Tebaldi, Stella, you name it, to confirm that – but there is something very honest about her bluntness nonetheless. There is nothing elegant or stylish about her (if you have SEEN her onstage, you know what I mean) and she does not try to be. What she has to offer is consistent loudness – and she does that. I wonder if she has tried Turandot. It might work in a fascinatingly scary way.

Although Marianne Cornetti is moving towards dramatic soprano roles, she still finds time and energy for such a low-lying role such as Ulrica. She does still have her low notes, but her voice now sounds soft-grained for the part. That did not prevent from offering a very commendable performance with feeling for Verdian lines. Ai Ichihara (Oscar) has the necessary ebullience, but the volume is what the French call “confidential” and the high notes were sour rather than silvery.

The role of Riccardo is a bit heavy for Ramón Vargas, who took one whole act to warm up. His low notes are undersupported and there is some flutter in his basic sound, but his is an essentially pleasant voice used with good taste and sense of line. His act III aria was generously sung. If Gabriele Viviani too is on the light side for Renato, he knows how to produce the right effect in this repertoire in his firm-toned, slightly dark baritone.

 

 

For performances at the Musikfest Bremen and the Beethovenfest Bonn, conductor Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie have prepared semi-staged performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio with dialogues replaced by Roccos Erzählung, a text written by literature historian Walter Jens for concerts conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (with Julia Varady, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) in Hohenems in 1986, here spoken by German actor Wolf Kahler. Although the story as seen by Rocco’s point-of-view, with fine imagery and some political content, is interesting in itself, it is far less scenically efficient than the libretto’s own dialogues. Moreover, the fact that scenes were interrupted so that Mr. Kahler could read the text had the unwelcome effect of preventing singers from steadily developing into the theatrical action, here reduced to basic movements, no costumes and no props other than the chairs reserved for the cast. It must be mentioned that, even if there were subtitles for Jens’s text, hearing it spoken in German for foreign audiences has far less impact than for Germans, who are able to enjoy Mr. Kahler’s talents. If one has in mind he did not use a microphone, there is much to praise there in any case.

I don’t have the impression that Maestro Järvi has an extensive experience as an opera conductor, having focused his career rather in symphonic repertoire. The fact that his tempi, accents and interpretative choices were almost invariably counter-intuitive for any singer would confirm my impression. This afternoon, his conducting of Beethoven’s masterpiece was bombastic, unsubtle, unclear, messy in ensembles, problematic for his soloists and not really flattering for his rough-sounding orchestra. It was basically overfast in a very awkward manner and occasionally made slow when things got really tangled (as in Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen). As a result, the excitement was generally built from outside and did not seem an expressive feature but rather a byproduct. Truth be said, thanks also to the very commendable contribution of the chorus of the Tokyo College of Music, an exhilarating closing scene did finally pay off, earning these musicians enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The performances in Germany were supposed to have Emily Magee as Leonore, but she cancelled and was replaced by Cécile Perrin. I assume that these concerts in Yokohama might be her debut in this role. The fact that she was the only singer in the cast with her score (and the absence of any previous performance in Fidelio in her website) seem to confirm this assumption. This American soprano usually appears in jugendlich dramatisch roles, but has been flirting with heavier assignments these days. Although the percussive acuti and low notes of a legitimate dramatic soprano are really not within her possibilities, what she offers is reliable and perfectly acceptable (if not really exciting). Her asset in this role is her ability to spin clean, creamy lyrical phrasing when this is required, to excellent results in the canon quartet, for instance. Still, she needs to mature in the role. Even with her notes in hand, there were some wayward moments, most notably in her difficult aria. The role of Marzelline too had a different singer in Germany, Mojca Erdmann. For the Japanese tour, Christina Landshammer was originally announced, but finally and most felicitously replaced by South African soprano Golda Schultz. Ms. Schultz is a name to keep – she has a truly lovely velvety voice with soaring high notes on top of an irresistibly warm middle register, unfailing musicianship and sense of style and a winning personality. She was an ideal Marzelline and I hope to hear her again – and soon!

This is the first time I was able to listen to Burkhard Fritz in perfect health. When I first saw him,   being indisposed didn’t prevent him from singing quite impressively. I cannot say something similar of the second time. In any case, his performance this afternoon deserves nothing but praise. He sang with good taste and sensitivity, judiciously avoided excessive heroic quality finding the right touch of vulnerability and dealt with the intricacies of the testing part of Florestan without any hint of effort. Julian Prégardien too was very well cast as Jaquino. The role of Pizarro was originally cast in Germany with Evgeny Nikitin, who must have offered a powerful performance, but would be replaced in Japan by Falk Struckmann until the name Tom Fox was finally announced.  At this point in his career, the rust in his singing was entirely predictable. He still manages forceful top notes, but not really much beyond that. He is a clever singer, however, and knew to play his liabilities as characterization.  Dmitri Ivaschenko (Rocco) took some time to warm up, but even then his voice sounded a bit less focused than what I used to hear from him. But that’s comparing him to himself. The tone quality was never less than pleasant and dark and he was stylish and strong in articulation as always. Finally, Detlef Roth’s baritone is a bit on the high side for the role of Don Fernando.

Kita-ku is not one of Tokyo’s fashionable neighborhoods and most tourists never go there. It’s district hall has a 1,300-seat theatre called Sakura Hall, where a collaboration with the Japanese period-instrument orchestra Les Boréades has brought about a yearly concert since 1995 with foreign guest musicians, featuring works ranging from Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie to Gluck’s Les Pèlerins de la Mecque. This year, they return to Mozart with Le Nozze di Figaro (in 2011, there was Così fan Tutte and, in 2004, there was Idomeneo with tenor John Elwes, a CD of which has been released).

Conductor and violinist Ryo Terakado is a key name in the Japanese HIP scene and has performed with every Japanese artist in this repertoire you can think of. I have, for instance, recognized some members of Masaato Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan on stage today. His approach to Mozart is hardly meant to cause any revolutionary impression. On the contrary, it seems exclusively informed with the intent of making this score clear, spontaneous and theatrical. Tempi were flowing, but not rushed, accents sounded natural and harsh sonorities were not seen as an expressive tool. Although Les Boréades is a very decent orchestra, it is no Les Musiciens du Louvre: strings are a bit on the thin side, the brass section is bumpy and woodwind could be little bit more in the foreground. I don’t know the hall acoustics, but I have the impression that singers had too much advantage on the orchestra too. And we’re speaking of a semi-staged performance with instruments on stage. In any case, I would be curious to see what Terakado could do with a more technically adept team.

I have the impression that Mozart would expect someone closer to Klara Ek than Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Countess Almaviva. Hers is a light, dulcet voice incapable of an ugly sound throughout its range. I had seen her before as a thoroughly lovely Romilda in a production of Handel’s Serse in Kopenhagen. Today, her Porgi, amor was sung with the spontaneity of a song one would sing to oneself, but I guess we’ve become too used to hear some like Te Kanawa making it an example of sublime. She was happier when the role’s tessitura was higher and offered an exemplary Dove sono, in which she proved capable of some shading. Roberta Mameli is the prove that a great Susanna has to have brains first – and then a good voice. Her voice is not devoid of charm – it comes in one pleasant bell-toned quality with enough body but very little tonal variety. If she could produce true mezza voce and allow her low notes to blossom properly, she could have a career as a Mozart singer, for she masters the style and is musicianship incarnated. What makes her Susanna so special, however, is her understanding of the art of Italian declamation. Whoever had the opportunity to attend a theatre performance in Italy knows that this country has a highly formalized theatrical tradition. You can close your eyes and guess who’s the damsel in distress, who’s prince charming, who’s the bad guy, who’s the damsel’s father et al only by the way they speak. Ms. Mameli’s Susanna is deeply imbued of buffo tradition and her recitatives are an exquisite concoction in which you can find thousands of information about who is Susanna and what she is doing at that precise moment. Better – she can retain this ability in her arias and ensembles without any sacrifice to vocal line. Even better – she is an excellent actress with a three-dimensional view of her role. This Susanna is clearly a servant, she obviously is in love with her fiancé, she evidently resists the Count and enjoys the distinction of being allowed in the Countess’s privacy. Most of all, she likes to think she is cleverer than everyone else. In the act II finale, she makes it clear that her greatest surprise there was not that Figaro could prefer an older woman, but simply the fact that someone could have finally fooled her. Later on, she used every little word in Deh vieni, non tardar to allure, to seduce not only Figaro, but everyone in that theatre. I have seen and heard great singers as Susanna, some of them had superior voices, but Roberta Mameli simply offered me the most completely interesting performance in this role in my experience. Bravissima.

As Mutsumi Hatano (Cherubino) has fallen unexpectedly ill and become completely hoarse, our Marcellina, Yuko Anazawa, had to dub her from behind the orchestra. Ms. Anazawa has a lovely, fruity voice and, nervous as she was by having to deal with previously unrehearsed recitatives, offered charming accounts of both Cherubino arias and a quite impressive rendition of her own aria, with extremely clear divisions. If she solves the lack of focus around the passaggio (and improves her Italian), she could have an important career.

Fulvio Bertini is a very funny actor, but his light and clear baritone is often too discrete for the role of the Count. Jun Hagiwara’s baritone too is light, but richer in harmonics (except in his high notes, when it is well focused nonetheless). His is an ideal voice for baroque music, but his Figaro was pleasant in its agreeable tonal quality and congeniality (his Italian too deserves some improvement). Makoto Sakurada has an international career in baroque repertoire and his cameo appearance here meant that we could hear Don Basilio’s aria, probably the best rendition I have ever heard (ok, the competition is generally a tenor near retirement…).

Considering this was only semi-staged with improvised costumes and props, it was amazing how much depth some singers were able to find here. Other than the above mentioned Mameli and Bertini, Ek never forgot that the Countess is a very young woman and portrayed her role’s essential dilemma: she fell in love with the Lindoro from Il Barbiere di Seviglia and ended up married to the Count Almaviva from Le Nozze di Figaro. I like too the fact that she doesn’t act as if she would become the title role in La Mère Coupable, because this is not the character portrayed by Mozart.

In his days in the Opéra de Paris, Myung-Whun Chung seemed to had made to the short list of conductors who get the best orchestra, soloists and recordings – I can remember the Samson et Dalila with Waltraud Meier and Plácido Domingo, the Otello with Cheryl Studer and Domingo, La Damnation de Faust with Anne Sofie von Otter and Bryn Terfel. He would later appear more often in Italy, where his appeal for the musical establishment has declined a bit (a Carmen with Andrea Boccelli sounds desperate to you?). However, the Italian years have revealed a most positively surprising facet of the Korean conductor – his  Wagnerian credentials. I particularly remember a Tristan and Isolde from Rome with Violeta Urmana, which seemed then quite fresh-sounding and compelling. That is why I have decided not to let go the opportunity of seeing Maestro Chung conduct this very work here in Tokyo (only three hours after my arrival from Germany).

Chung is Honorary Conductor Laureate of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2001 and has decided to give the orchestra an opportunity to celebrate the Wagnerian jubilee in the grand manner – a concert performance of Wagner’s masterpiece with international soloists. As much as I admire Furtwänglerian depth, deluxe strings and stately tempi, I cannot help believing that this score is about passion and works particularly well when done urgently, intensely and dramatically. And that’s Maestro Chung’s point of view. From the overture on, this music runs inevitably and unbridedly to its Liebestod. Of course, this is also the sensible choice when you don’t have an orchestra the sound of which is alone an expressive tool such as the Staatskapelle Dresden*. The Tokyo Philharmonic has done a very good job this evening, keeping up with the conductor continuous demand for forward movement and engagement in the drama, but the strings still lack a distinctive sound and there were some near problematic moments with the French horns, for instance. As in Rome, the highlight of this performance was act III, thanks to an exceptionally successful partnership with the tenor in the title role.

Replacing John MacMaster, Daniel Barenboim’s most recent discovery, Austrian tenor Andreas Schager has simply offered one of the most impressive renditions of this impossibly difficult role I have ever heard, in some ways revelatory. First, he sounds like a tenor, you know, trumpet-like brightness and that feeling of “please let me show you my next AMAZING high note”. Better, although the sound is leaner than, say, Ludwig Suthaus’s, it is beyond any doubt a heroic voice, with a positive low register and the ability of riding orchestral tutti almost effortlessly. Second, the man has solid technique. His method is very visible – you can see how he uses his body to propel his clarion Spitzentöne in a way that would probably be difficult (or not?) if he had to act moribundly in act III  – and he evidently knows exactly what he has to do to produce the precise effect he is looking for. Here, liquid, almost Italianate phrasing, even in the most unsingable passages (how about an almost Bellinian “Heia, mein Blut! Lustig nun fliesse!”?), aided by perfect diction and the ability of softening or coloring the tone. Third, this is a singer with intelligent and sensitive phrasing and sense of style. Given the tenor’s facility, the conductor felt free to let his orchestra loose and intensify the pace in climactic moments, for truly impressive effects. I definitely want to hear more from him.

This is the first time I see Irmgard Vilsmaier in a big role. It is indeed a big voice with a pleasant reedy quality, unusually young-sounding for a soprano in this repertoire. It is just a pity that her breath support is erratic to the extent of impairing her impressive natural vocal qualities. This evening, her whole method seemed to involve working exclusively from tension, as if her sole purpose was attacking the first note after her intake of air. After that, she seemed to have nowhere to develop too – long notes would acquire an impossible edge (they were often cut short for an extra breath soon afterwards) and phrases would often be chopped not because there was lack of breath, but because of lack of space to work with. As a result, she would fall back on even more tension, using her fists as a boxer and looking as if she would die on exposed high notes, which were often not only shorter but flatter than written. I have read that she intends to sing Elektra soon. She should think seriously about her technique before she compromises a voice still intact by abuse. This all sounded harder to overlook in comparison to Ekaterina Gubanova’s healthy, homogeneous and creamy singing as Brangäne. An exemplary performance.

Baritone Christopher Maltman seemed to find the part of Kurwenal a bit heavy and would sound a bit tired halfway in act III. That did not prevent him from offering a rich-toned, spirited performance, subtler than what one usually hears in this role. Although Mikhail Petrenko’s voice still tends to become unfocused, especially in its higher reaches, the part of King Mark is more congenial to his vocal nature than that of Hagen. I particularly liked his more energetic and emotional approach to the role, which here seemed a younger uncle to Tristan, rather paralyzed by than devoid of passion. Having Tetsuya Mochizuki (a Siegmund) as the Seamen and the Shepherd is an example a luxurious cast, which has paid off.

 

 

* Chung has been appointed its first Principal Guest Conductor since this year. I have the impression that Christian Thielemann will still get the A-team Wagner performances.

Is there any other opera that inspires so much tolerance in the audience as Die Frau ohne Schatten? Everything is so impossibly difficult that one feels even grateful that singers, conductor, director, members of the orchestra et al have agreed to do this possibly for the same fee they would receive for, say, Carmen…  In any case, the Bavarian State Opera can certainly boast to have a new production against which there could be little competition this day. Of course, there are shortcomings – even Karajan’s 1964 recording from the Vienna State Opera has shortcomings (nota bene - he had Fritz Wunderlich for the Erscheinung eines Jünglings and Lucia Popp for the Stimme des Falken) – but the level of success of individual contribution is so high that you feel inclined to overlook that the sum of the parts is noticeably less impressive.

I have seen Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne, Arabella and the Marschallin and found her Straussian performances so far only intermittently satisfying. Her Kaiserin this evening was in an entirely other level: golden tone, noble phrasing, unfailing musicianship and the necessary mysterious glamor, you would find all these qualities in her singing this evening. Elena Pankratova is one of the most interesting Färberinen that I have ever heard (I’m including recordings here). Her voice has a cold, slightly metallic quality one would rather expect to find in the role of the Kaiserin. At first, one feels that her voice is two sizes smaller than the required dramatic soprano, but she is the kind of singer who doesn’t show all her trump cards right away; when you’d least expect, there would come solid low notes, powerful acuti, mezza voce and even commendable legato for lyric passages. She has no problem with high notes, but the composer’s unrealistic demands in act III understandably brought about some screechy moments. In any case, the way she could musically show the character’s development during the opera is the reason why she goes to my shortlist, presided by Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her career, it is very bold of Deborah Polaski to sing a role as demanding as the Amme, especially in its complete version. Although her soprano has always had a dark color and she always had to push a bit for her high b’s and c’s, that does not mean that she was a pushed-up mezzo – and one could hear that this evening. The lack of weight in the bottom of her range was compensated by a noticeable ease around the area where mezzos have their passaggio, what allowed her to be particularly smooth and clean. I don’t believe she was in a very good day though: the voice lacked focus and she had to go full powers to pierce through, what eventually tired her. And her last scene is probably the most demanding of all.

Johan Botha showed no difficulties in the role of the Emperor, producing consistently beefy, clarion sounds, but little variety. As it usually happens, nobody seemed to know what to do with this role. And I can only imagine that a singer needs some coaxing to care for giving that little extra that makes all the difference of the world in a role as ingrate as this one. When I first saw Wolfgang Koch’s Barak in Salzburg, I thought that he could be subtler. But then Barak was not subtle in that production. Now I see that, in normal circumstances, his performance in this role can be as benign as the composer and librettist conceived it. Considering his recent Wotans in Bayreuth, I expected his voice to sound a little bit more voluminous than this evening.  Last but not least, Sebastin Holecek was a very powerful Spirit Messenger.

Richard Strauss would be proud of his hometown opera’s orchestra. The Bayerische Staatsorchester offered this evening the dictionary definition of Straussian orchestral playing, offering crystalline, almost fairytale like sonorities and expressive solos throughout. Conductor Kirill Petrenko has followed Strauss’s conduct-it-as-if-it-were-Cosi-fan-tutte advice as a religious credo. He rarely unleashed a true orchestral forte, worked rather from tonal coloring and and brightness, never drowned his singers and offered the kind of clarity that would make following it with the score in hands really unnecessary. It was a performance of unusual musical elegance and intelligence. If I had not seen Thielemann conduct this opera in Salzburg as transparently as today and far more excitingly with a force-of-nature Vienna Philarmonic, I would have considered this evening the best FroSch live in the theatre in my experience. It is very important to stress that the disfiguring cuts that reduce the role of the Amme and make the long scene with the Empress in act III a bit abrupt have been opened out here. This involved a sizeable monologue very commendably dispatched by the non-native-speaker soprano. It was a long evening in a busy trip and I may have missed something, but I have the impression that a couple of tiny cosmetic cuts have made to accommodate the staging.

Well, if this evening had an advantage over the Salzburg Festspiel , this has to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. This came as a surprise for me. I have bad memories of his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, but here he offered more than compensation. This was probably the best staging of this acknowledgedly unstageable opera I have ever seen. Warlikowski proved depth of understanding of the libretto and, if the Freudian approach has been already tried by Robert Carsen in the Vienna State Opera, the consistent way with which the director used all scenic resources to portray the complex situations in the plot - especially the awkward changes in act II – was all but masterly. I am sorry to disappoint those who were expecting a concept too distant from the original story, for this was truly understandable (I mean, until act III, where at least he keeps interest going when every other director more or less gives up). Inspired by Alain Resnais’s L’Année Passée à Marienbad, the story is set in a cure resort where a rich woman (the Empress) traumatized by some sort of dramatic incident with her husband and in strong oblivion and denial of her life is put under the responsibility of a psychiatrist (the Amme) who has developed an unhealthy attachment to her patient. As some sort of therapeutic experiment, she is put in contact with the janitor’s wife – possibly an Internet bride from the East who has found her “looser” husband and new low-life life far below her expectations – whose marriage is getting dangerously close to a violent episode as the one we assume to have happened with the Empress. Once you understand that, Warlikowski does not try to bend the symbology - when the characters talk about a shadow, it’s really a shadow they are talking about. This eventually makes act III difficult – there is an elderly gentleman who is supposed to be Keikobad whose connections with the cure resort is hard to understand. The water of life is indeed a glass of water, but it is hard to make something out of that – especially because the whole “having babies”-moral is more or less it. I have noticed that lots of people have a problem with the “having babies”-issue. If you are interested in my opinion, I don’t believe that this is what Hofmannsthal was trying to say here – although “having babies” is the most elementary way of exerting the selflessness HvH was talking about.

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