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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regietheater is supposed to be an exercise in extracting the underlying truth in a libretto and bringing it to the fore by a radical revaluation or re-appropriation of its symbolic framework. In the big picture, Frank Castorf’s staging of Wagner’s Das Rheingold for the Bayreuth Festival does that – it claims to propose a discussion on politics, its manipulation of the natural (both in the sense of Nature and in the sense of what is true) and of irony as a means of resistance. All that has been tried before, but maybe not all those elements together. In any case, as the Feldmarschallin would say, “und in dem Wie, da liegt der ganze Unterschied”. And that’s exactly what happens when you want to stage concepts – even if you have very profound and revelatory ideas to share in a staging, if it just doesn’t work on stage, then all the exciting concepts are just noise to the communication.

If I had to use one word for Castorf’s Rheingold, it would be “messy”. If I had to use two, then I would add “pretentious”. First, it updates the action to something  somewhere in Texas. In hindsight, I see this must have to do with the beginning of the oil business in America, but costumes and sets are so anachronistic that it is really impossible to say anything. We can infer that from the scenery, but not from the costumes and the Personenregie – for the characters look and behave in a way that probably someone from Berlin would imagine as being “Texan”. For me, they could be Russian mobsters in a movie by Quentin Tarantino. This alone makes all the references very confusing.

Second, the staging involves cameramen who film the cast (especially in parallel actions) and project the images on a big screen on top of the set. While it is praiseworthy that the very complex blocking involving all singers and extras is perfectly timed and everybody acts extremely convincing, it generally has the consequence of sardine-boxing the whole cast in one very small area of the set in a huge stage. More than that, while the parallel action involves detailed acting, those who are singing basically stand and deliver facing the audience. It is often basically very distracting.

Third, the concept of irony here turns around adding an Almodovar-esque vertiginous subplots with lots of German heavy-handed humor about clichés that require that Wagner’s original characters adapt to them rather than having them adapted or fit to what Wagner intended. When the plot or the characters don’t go along with the cliché, then the libretto is just overlooked. This brings about lots of poorly staged important parts of the plot. The first scene would only make sense if Alberich had some sort of paralysis given his inability to deal with Rhinemaidens who are just ordinary girls. The whole episode at the Nibelheim makes absolutely no sense: Alberich and Mime just show up in Wotan’s Motel in a trailer; then they are tied to poles; Alberich is tied just next to Mime, but the latter says that the former has disappeared and is beating him; then Mime takes the gold from Wotan’s home and brings to the trailer and, when Wotan demands the gold, he just returns it – Alberich’s transformations are here the very definition of underwhelming. The final scene shows the gods’ evolution in status by making everybody sing standing in different points of the roof. Maybe all this is going to develop into something in the next installments of the Ring, but the director will have to run the extra mile to compensate the lack of structure, coherence and purpose that plagues this introductory opera the idea of which basically is providing you with key ideas to understand what comes next.

Even if the “energy”-approach has already been seen in Bayreuth when Harry Kupfer had it standing for nuclear power, the idea of relating the Rhinegold to oil is powerful if you bear in mind the complex and ambivalent events in international politics around this theme. However, as far as this staging of Das Rheingold goes, you would need divinatory powers to see this: there is a swimming pool with small golden squares and a golden blanket on it. OK, the pool is in a motel with a gas station… Do I need to say more?

This is my third season in Bayreuth and I was able to see Christian Thielemann conduct the Ring here. It was an unforeseeable disappointment this time for me to hear undernourished strings, unclear articulation throughout, imbalance between sections, inability to build up tension out of lack of pulse. I have seen Kirill Petrenko conduct before too and I could only guess that he lacks experience with the peculiarities of the pit in Bayreuth or that he fell asleep in the first three minutes of the performance. This alone made the whole evening pointless to me.

When it comes to the cast, none of these singers offered anything to write home about. If I had to single someone out, this would be Wolfgang Koch. His bass baritone is light for Wotan and he took a while to warm his middle and low registers, but the voice is big and noble and the high notes are exciting. However, what makes his Wotan interesting is the way he inhabits the texts and relates it to the dramatic acting IN THIS STAGING. Oleg Byjak has the right voice for Alberich, but – without the help of his conductor – in order to create the necessary impact, he forced it, with different levels of distortion of tonal quality, intonation and clarity of phrasing. Claudia Mahnke sang a glitch-free but anonymous Fricka and if Norbert Ernst’s Loge was fluent, it was also basically monochrome and faceless. Nadine Weissmann is no contralto, but her good technique and beauty of tone clearly made her the favorite of the audience. Among the other roles, Okka von der Damerau deserves again praises for her firm-toned and voluminous singing as Floßhilde.

Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann is the single presentation of the Opéra National de Lyon in their Japanese tour. Quite understandably, if one has in mind that Laurent Pelly’s production involves ever-changing scenery and many special effects, as one can see in the DVD with Natalie Dessay and Michael Spyres. It is a refreshingly dramaturgically unobtrusive staging that concentrates on atmosphere and Personenregie, making good use of the acting skills of a talented cast. As usual, the Giulietta-act turns out less inspired than usual, but some editorial choices share some of the blame here.

The idea of having one soprano and one bass-baritone for all of Hoffmann’s romantic interests and enemies is never bump-free, but I would say that today the sum was greater than the parts. From an objective point-of-view, Patrizia Ciofi’s soprano, in its present condition, is not ideally suited for any of these roles: her coloratura was rather cautious and the high notes a bit tense as Olympia; Antonia could have benefited from a bit more volume and Giulietta’s lower tessitura made for awkward results. And yet her musicianship, good diction, dramatic involvement and sheer imagination made all this seem almost irrelevant:  the shadow dynamic effects in Olympia’s aria were exquisitely handled, Antonia’s testing high-lying phrases were dispatched with abandon and sensitivity… Truth be said, Giulietta was just not a good idea, but rather something like once-you’re-singing-all-the-rest… Michèle Losier, who got to sing Vois sous l’archet frémissant, for instance, is actually better cast as Nicklausse/The Muse, but far less inspiring, her all-purpose tonal quality not appealing enough. Although John Osborn tenor is not truly very ingratiating, his ease with high tessitura, his ability to shift to mezza voce, his idiomatic French and, most of all, his understanding of French style made me listen to this music under a new light. He is also a singer incapable of vulgarity or nonsense. Laurent Alvaro’s forward-produced bass-baritone, absolutely crystalline pronunciation and wide tonal palette could appear in a sound dictionary of “French style” – and he is also a charismatic and intelligent singer who could always found a viable alternative when things got either too high or too low or just too loud.

The light-voiced cast had the luck of having in Kazushi Ono a conductor who did not try to make it the Wagnerian way: the orchestra kept a very light and bright sound, not particularly pleasant or smooth, but very well-balanced with singers on stage. I would say that Mr. Ono has concentrated his performance on tempi, which were invariably right for this music: forward-moving, bouncy in a theatrical way and respective of the natural flow of French language.

When it comes to the edition adopted by the Lyon Opera, it seems to be Jean-Christophe Keck’s 2003 Lausanne version, but I wouldn’t really be able to tell if there is something different, especially in the Giulietta act, which had some awkward turns.

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.

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.

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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