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Posts Tagged ‘Anja Harteros’

When the Deutsche Oper premièred Marco Arturo Marelli’s production of Don Carlo back in 2011, Anja Harteros was its selling feature and her cancelling would have made me very disappointed if it did not mean hearing Lucrezia Garcia for the first time. This evening, however, La Harteros not only did not cancel but also volunteered to cover for Barbara Frittoli next week. This has also been an opportunity to make sure that, good as Ms Garcia was, Harteros is in altogether another level. First, she can act. Second, she has a wonderful attitude for aristocratic roles. Third, she has this uniqueness only great singers have. I have often discussed with my fried Cavalier here about German singers in Italian roles – and I have often said that Anja Harteros should concentrate more on German roles, which highlight her best qualities. Although her voice still lacks that typical Italian brightness, she brings undeniable assets to the role of Elisabetta – a substantial lyric soprano with solid low notes, powerful acuti, soaring mezza voce and elegant phrasing. Experience in this repertoire has helped her to find a more authentic Verdian style – she is learning to play her chest notes, to build interpretation from atmosphere rather than word-to-word tonal coloring (“German style”) and even knowing how to utter her parole sceniche to thrill the audience in key moments. As she was in very good voice, her performance grew steadily in strength to a Tu che le vanità wide ranging in expression and a ideal rendition of the final duet.

I saw Violeta Urmana sing the role of Eboli back in 2005. Then I praised her absolute homogeneity and pondered that, if her poise was welcome, it was ultimately dull in this repertoire. But that was eight years ago – she was a mezzo with impressively easy high notes back then. Now that she is billed as a soprano, her high notes have lost the exuberance  (and homogeneity is not always there either) . I have noticed that in her Parsifal in Berlin last March and it seems that this is the moment for an engine check. Seriously. Basically, every high note sounded strained, tense and effortful this evening. O don fatale had a perilous start until the stretta, when she surprised me with a very powerful and accurate ending.  

I had never heard Russell Thomas’s name before this evening and I am still not sure of the right way to describe his performance as Carlo this evening. This American tenor has an appealing vocal quality - his voice is rich, large and dark, but irregularly supported in the middle and (especially) in his low register. He squeezed too often his high notes (especially in the beginning) and his mezza voce was often poorly focused. That said, he has very good Italian, an instinctive grasp of Verdian style and, if he was not always subtle, he was never vulgar either. He showed great sensitiveness in his final duet with Anja Harteros, shading his voice to match the German soprano’s now legendary ductility.

Dalibor Jenis was an emotional Rodrigo in his warm and vibrant baritone, in great shape this evening. The role is a little bit on the heavy side for him and he had some patches of fatigue (especially in his big scene with the king). His death scene was generously and convincingly sung.

Hans-Peter König’s Filippo is an interesting chapter in the above-mentioned “German singers in Italian roles”-debate. This Wagnerian bass has a big, solid voice, exceptionally powerful in its lower reaches, but rather clear and slightly straight in its higher reaches. Although the tonal quality is very German, his approach is legitimately Italian (his pronunciation is only occasionally very lightly accented). Because of the lack of vibrancy and darkness in exposed high notes and also of a somewhat placid temper, some key moments in the opera sounded rather discrete than imperious, but this very self-restraint helped him to build an intimate and direct Ella giammai m’amò. Albert Pesendorfer too was a powerful Inquisitor, but the low register could be a little bit more percussive. Last but not least, Tobias Kehrer was a strong and incisive Monk.

Compared to last time, Donald Runnicles performance was far more compelling this evening – the orchestral sound was consistently big and rich (what proved to be testing to some members of this cast), but he still has not learned to produce cumulative tension in this repertoire. For instance, the introduction to Elisabetta’s big aria, a moment in which a German orchestra’s beefy sound always produces the right effect, failed to develop in strength and the soprano had to create the necessary momentum basically by herself.

I have written about the production last time and I would only observe that it seems that there has been some welcome cleansing in the direction and that it had seemed somewhat more effective this evening (a better acting cast has helped that impression too).

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If someone actually paid me to write in this blog, I would say that the text I am about to write was written for the money. On writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore, everybody quotes Caruso’s famous line that says that all you need are the four greatest singers in the world. And I won’t make an exception – I have just quoted it!  – and that is why I feel it is somehow unfair to say that this tenor or that soprano had their share of shortcomings in a work in which almost everybody – even the greatest ones – has their shares of shortcomings. But I thought that Cavalier is such a faithful reader and that he would like to read it – so here it goes. This evening, the Deutsche Oper offered the first of two concerts featuring Verdi’s rawest and earthiest opera. Although the score is often laughed at as simplistic (“big guitar” is the expression often used), it is quite puzzling how the results are rarely effective live. It is raw music, with violent percussive use of the orchestra, vertiginous rhythms and exciting ensembles with glittering effects, especially in the violins. The use of the word “glittering” is not accidental – you just need to listen to the last scene in act I in Karajan’s eccentric 1977 studio recording to see how the Berliner Philharmonic is at its brightest-sounding, its violins gleaming upfront along with singers, exactly as La Scala’s orchestra had in Karajan’s 1956 mono recording with Maria Callas. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra is, of course, typically German in sound and is always at its best in Wagner. But under the right guidance, these musicians can get into cisalpine mood with the extra richness and roundness reserved for key moments. Not this evening, I am afraid. Although young conductor Andrea Battistoni is indeed Italian, he certainly did not inspire his musicians to make the southbound “spiritual” journey. I have to confess that I have never heard this orchestra so colorless in sound as this evening. The maestro jumped, gesticulated, moved about his arms and I could see no difference in animation, dynamic or intensity as a result. The powerful climaxes sounded just loud, the fast tempi mechanical, the frisson left to imagination. Battistoni is keen on keeping things a tempo – which is probably the right choice for this music – but if you are not breathing with your singers, the effect is just straight-laced and spasmodic. The chorus had sometimes problem with following his beat in tricky passages (the stretta of the opening bass aria, for example) and his soloists often had a could-you-please-give-me-some-time? expression on their faces. It had been a while since I last saw a conductor booed at the Bismarckstraße (differently from directors, who are almost always booed there), but this evening those were not isolated manifestations of displeasure.

This evening’s selling feature was probably Anja Harteros’s Leonora. Like everybody who has ears, I am an admirer of this German soprano – especially when she is singing German repertoire. The fact that hers is not an Italianate voice could be called secondary in a role where one is just happy to find someone who can actually do this music justice. Would you call Leontyne Price’s tonal quality Italianate, for example?  If I had to say “yes” or “no”, I would say that Harteros was a successful Leonora – her voice is big, warm and homogeneous, she can trill, phrases with utmost sensitivity and good taste, has listened to her Callas CDs and did not seem desperate with what she has to do. But still the style doesn’t come very naturally to her. Her interpretation is often too “intellectual” in approach (as opposed to “emotional”), her “Italianate” effects sound a bit calculated and she doesn’t do low register Italian way.  Moreover, I would say she was not at her best this evening: she worked hard for mezza voce and was sometimes a bit flat. Writing all this is a bit embarrassing – she was probably better than any other Leonora one would find in big opera houses today, but still a singer of her caliber should always be compared with the very best. And I mean it as a sign of respect. If I have to keep a souvenir of her performance this evening, this would be her direct, touching, heartfelt Miserere – her Mozartian background used to the best effect in purity of line and sincerity of expression.

Stephanie Blythe had been originally announced as this evening’s Azucena, but was later replaced by Dolora Zajick. It was very heartwarming to see how Harteros made a point on showing deference to this almost legendary Verdian mezzo-soprano (and how gracefully Zajick received it and made a point of acting likewise). If you think of how long she has been singing these impossibly difficult Verdi roles in some of the world’s leading opera houses, one must acknowledge her abilities. At this point of her career, her voice is “merely” very, very big (compared as to how gigantic it used to be, say, 10 years ago), her middle-register has recessed a bit and become sometimes rather nasal and her vowels are now and then unclear. But, whenever things become really testing, she is still admirable – she tries every trill, never recoils from singing piano, ventured into her optional high note in the act II duet with Manrico, you name it. I had seen her sing this role at the Met in a day in which she was not truly in the mood, but this evening – without costumes and scenery – she simply lived through Azucena’s predicaments, the character’s conflicts all clearly presented. And, God, her “sei vendicata, o Madre!” was dramatically, vocally, spiritually (choose an adverb and fill in the blanks here) thrilling. She alone brought the edge to a blunt performance of an opera that is about edge.

I had seen Stuart Neill before only once ages ago in a Verdi Requiem with Denyce Graves in Rio (don’t ask me when was that – I have no idea). My distant memory of the event tells me of a voice big enough and right in style in a not really musically elegant singer. This evening, in the context of his competition, I would say that – in a concert version where his bulk is not a hindrance – he is fairly viable choice for the role. His voice was built around an Italian sound, his pronunciation is extremely convincing, he sounds believably “rustic” and even has functional mezza voce. It is also true that his phrasing is a bit emphatic and not very keen on legato and his notes too often crudely finished off. Ah, sì, ben mio was not graceful or heartfelt, but Di quella pira – highly adapted, as it often is, to the necessities of the final acuto – put across its “message” (in the sense that it sounded all-right heroic and athletic rather than desperate and arthritic). If I had to be really honest, I found Dalibor Jenis’s Count di Luna the all-round most reliable performance this evening. When I saw him in Un Ballo in Maschera, I couldn’t see all the qualities he displayed this evening – a forceful, dark voice with the right touch of harshness, but also supple enough for a sensitively sung Il balen. Finally, Marko Mimika was a decent Ferrando who could do with a tiny little bit less wooliness.

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Otto Schenk’s production of R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier is probably by now listed in Frommer’s and TimeOut as one of Munich’s historical attractions: it was first shown in 1972 and made famous in Carlos Kleiber’s DVD with Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp. I can understand the Bavarian Opera’s unwillingness to part with it – it is an expensive staging that is still very popular. The sets to the second act were received by applause, something I had never seen in Germany before.  In any case, having seen the DVD does not mean that you’ll know beforehand what you are going to see. The new cast has brought it’s own contribution under a Spielleitung that responds to contemporary tastes rather than those of 1972.

Anja Harteros, for example, is a far more sensuous and less pensive Marschallin then Gwyneth Jones in the video. Her lighter approach is coherent with what Strauss himself expected in this role. She was, of course, born to sing it: she has the looks, the attitude and the voice. Her rich soprano finds no difficulties in the often low-lying declamatory passages, expands effortlessly in its higher reaches (exemplary contribution to the closing trio) and takes easily to mezza voce. She took a while to warm and only sounded her full-toned self by the beginning of her monologue. Although her diction is very, very clear and, being herself German, is usually spontaneous in her delivery of the text, I had the impression that she – very understandably – is still finding her way in this role. In many a key moment, she would opt for a studied, ready-made inflection borrowed from her famous predecessors in the role rather than trusting her own instincts. In these moments, her Marschallin invariably sounded uninvolved. But don’t mistake my words: if I make these observations, it is precisely because Harteros is on her way to becoming the leading Marschallin of her generation. If she is not that yet, the good news are that she is going to be even better in the future!

On the other hand, Sophie Koch is by now an experienced Octavian who knows exactly where her strengths are. Her creamy mezzo has the necessary brightness to pierce through, her passaggio is very smooth, she avoids pushing and can spin some forceful high notes and beautiful pianissimo. She is only tested when the tessitura remains too long in the soprano area. Even then, she acquits herself quite commendably. I like her stage performance as well; she knows how to play boyishness without making a charicature of it and how to seem aristocratic without seeming mature. She handles the physical comedy without overindulging herself too.

Lucy Crowe too is a convincing Sophie – she has the physique and finds the right balance between darlingness and purpose. Her soprano is a bit more substantial than usual in this part, but she can sound edgy and her cleanly attacked and floating high pianissimi sometimes develop a light, but noticeable beat. The other Briton in the cast, Peter Rose has the required low notes and clear articulation for the Baron Ochs. He is an excellent comedy actor too and can find a patrician note in an otherwise rustic character. I saw him in this role in 2003 at the Met, when he was more restrained with his ad libs and funny touches. At any rate, he has enough charisma to pull this out and certainly is one of the best exponents of this role in our days.

Conductor Constantin Trinks drew rich, warm sounds from the Bavarian State Orchestra without forgetting structural clarity; the prelude to act III was particularly clean – but had problems to find the right balance between pit and stage, often drowning his singers. In the more intimate passages, he gave the impression of being reined in and without ideas, while complex ensembles, especially those involving Ochs, were often messy.

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For someone who has truly lost interest in La Traviata, I’ve been quite often in the opera house for it. To be more specific, the only reason why I went to the Deutsche Oper today was Anja Harteros – and maybe I was curious to see Simon Keenlyside after a while (last time, it was 1999) – but it was not to be, for he cancelled due to illness. In any case, an entirely non-Italian cast proved to be interesting. Götz Friedrich’s thoroughly outdated production was given an accidental freshen-up out of having a non-narcissistic tenor and a world-class diva in the title role.

Anja Harteros has sung the role of Violetta Valéry in the world’s leading opera houses and developed her stage performance with various directors, and I can only guessed that, faced with the prevailing shabbiness, she has brought her own stage direction as prime donne in the XVIIIth century would do with their arie di baule. Truth be said, the German soprano’s overall attitude is unfit for the role – she seems more voracious than seductive in act I, more regal than vulnerable in act II and more tragical than touching in act III – but her intent to inhabit the stage and react to what happens in it simply made the show more interesting. This does not mean that it was a gripping performance – theatrically speaking, it was not. It was rather an affair of craftiness than of emotional generosity. But then she needed a director to guide her through this process. In act III, when she decided to stumble around a bit to show Violetta’s declining health and yet her willingness to go on, the poor tenor probably did not get what was going on and kept to what has been blocked, leaving his ailing beloved to fall to the ground and get up by herself. One could say “of course, he is a tenor!”, but I have one good thing to say about Pavel Cernoch. As he seemed to be really doing what he was told to do, his Alfredo seemed particularly composed and naive, what makes far more sense with the libretto than the usual bravado displayed by most tenors. For once, his increasing childishness in his act II scene with his father (by the end, he was in fetal position on a couch) explained a lot his subsequent behavior.

Although Yves Abel conducting missed some important theatrical moments (particularly Alfredo’s “denunciation” of Violetta in Flora’s party), he did give time for his orchestra and singers to build their phrases in a musicianly and meaningful way. The orchestra, in spite of some blunders (especially in the overture), had a beautiful, full sound and the overall impression was of polish and elegance. With the help of his soprano and his baritone’s expressive performances, this approach has somehow paid off.

It is not only Anja Harteros’s attitude that seems distant to the role of Violetta, her big, creamy lyric soprano is not Italianate and lacks the brightness usually associated to it. But what she has works very well for the role – the voice fills the theatre without problem, her low notes are natural, her high notes never turn out shrill and she has enough flexibility for the fioriture. Actually, she seems in absolute command of what she has to do in this difficult part, what is already remarkable. I would guess that she has probably studied some of her famous predecessors’ performances; she seems in this role very keen on producing some hallmark “Italian” qualities, such as the tasteful use of portamento, knowing where to let the natural rhythm of Italian language to lead the way and some acting with the voice (that I am not too happy about). Her balance between portraying the deterioration of Violetta’s health and keeping a pure line in act III was extremely well-judged, and I will not be able to tell if the sudden choke that interrupted a sustained pianissimo was involuntary or not – it just worked perfectly in the situation.

Markus Brück proved to be more than a replacement for Keenlyside – I sincerely doubt that that the British baritone would have done better. As always in Italian roles, Brück sings with unfailing grace, almost Mozartian musicianship and with more than necessary volume and firmness of tone. I know I have written here that some of his Wagner performances were disappointing – especially Beckmesser and Gunther – but I would like to make clear that Brück is a first-rate singer who deserved more acknowledgment outside Berlin.

As for Pavel Cernoch, I am not sure if this repertoire is the best fit for him. At first, he sounds like the poor man’s Neil Shicoff, but unlike the American tenor he lacks brightness and slancio in his high register – and the problematic optional high c in O mio rimorso was reached by virtue of good, old falsettone. He seems to be a sensitive singer and avoided vulgarity throughout, but the voice is basically too tight and lacking roundness for Italian opera. The performance booklet says Steva in Janacek’s Jenufa is his calling-card role and I can bet he sounds far better in it.

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In an attempt to give a twist to the usual orchestral concert, the minds behind the Deutsche Oper had the preposterous idea of inviting a Patch-Adams-like physician to moderate in a Mozart/R. Strauss program. When Intendentin Kirsten Harms introduced him as a Glückspezialist, I could not help understanding he was some sort of expert in the music of Cristoph Willibald GLUCK. But I was wrong – he is indeed a specialist in happiness. And he is can be funny all right, but what is the point of inviting an ignoramus in music to introduce a concert. When someone in the audience shouted “Please let the music begin”, I found it rude at first, but when I realized the moderation only made the concert one hour longer with no added insight to my musical experience, I began to think that – although this person was still rude – he had a point.

As it was, the first part of the concert had weaknesses harder to overlook – I have rarely heard such a spineless performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 as this evening’s. Tempi dragged helplessly, strings had its scrawny moments and were often quite imprecise and Donald Runnicles’s lack of pulse made this congenial work sound finally boring. After the pause, back to his comfort zone, he would prove to be the  reliable Straussian he has always been and the house orchestra would respond with rich sonorities and clarity aplenty. He also showed a particularly good ear for producing the right balance between his soloist and the orchestra. And since the soloist was this concert’s main point of interest, I must praise him effusively for that.

I have been writing that, although Anja Harteros offers beautiful performances in Italian opera, her real strength is the German repertoire, especially Richard Strauss. But I’ve said that with the single experience of a performance of the Four Last Songs with Zubin Mehta and the Staatskapelle Berlin last year in the Konzerthaus. This evening she sang two key Straussian scenes and – I won’t keep my four or five readers in suspense – proved me right: this generation has found has in her its leading Strauss soprano. R. Strauss simply brings the best in her – the tone is creamy and floating as usual, she has reserves of strength for the occasional heavier passage, her diction is very clear and the text is, of course, idiomatically and imaginatively handled. The closing scene of Arabella’s act 1 was sung in the grand manner – nothing disturbed the velvetiness of her soprano and rarely has a singer handled the shift to lower register in it as seamlessly as she has done this evening. Capriccio’s closing scene did not lack imagination either. I am afraid, though, that she was not in her absolutely top form this evening and I bet she can sound a bit more comfortable in some high-lying moments where she had to keep dynamics low. But this is comparing her to herself – the warm tone, the sense of style, the no-nonsense interpretation are a reward in themselves. And it doesn’t hurt either that her looks and attitude are perfect for these roles.

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In his explanation about his new production of Verdi’s Otello for the Deutsche Oper, director Andreas Kriegenburg says that his concept lies on three axes: updating the story to the present day, bringing to the fore the reality of war that encloses the love story and to portray characters with a realistic psychology. Again I have the impression that directors who stage opera either have no friends or they do have friends, but they hate opera.

First, updating Otello for the days of Internet and Iphone is a seriously risky business. The whole scale of fidelities – between spouses, between friends, between comrades, between citizen and state – seem odd in our contemporary Western individual-oriented societies. Desdemona becomes simply impossible – do the words “radiant”, “innocent”, “chaste” and “patrician” make any sense for modern sensibilities? This aristocratic, pious and lovely lady becomes a piece of ridicule in the XXIst century. Iago’s profession of bad-guy-faith sounds almost coy in the the world post WWI. And Otello’s wildness… well, who really cares about that in a world where self-possession is considered dull? In their own context, these characters still work in a powerfully symbolic way, but out of it, they ultimately loose their power to communicate anything.

Second, the war context. I don’t know about you, but I had the impression William Shakespeare’s geniality involves the fact that his judgment  is above the average artist’s when it comes to deciding how much attention war context  should get in his play about love and jealousy. Arrigo Boito, for example, who was a rather talented person (for example, instead of messing with other people’s operas, he decided to compose his own) opted for respecting the proportion established by Shakespeare when he wrote this libretto for Verdi. Mr. Kriegenburg, on the other hand, begs to differ. The story is set in some sort of refugee shelter, where Otello has distinguished himself in bravery by… by supervising displaced persons. And Iago envies this job to the point of making compatriots die. Gosh, that’s being really mean. The sceneries are literally the poor man’s version of a Tokyo capsule hotel. So basically we have lots of displaced persons living in these wallless capsules (with their individual tv sets, of course) in the middle of which Otello has an old-style solid wood desk and a set of leather chairs. Plus, they have lots of scotch whisky, which they drink before the eyes of the displaced persons. And there is this Desdemona woman with her party-dress and high heels who basically fondles other people’s children. When Otello throws her to the ground, these people who have no food, no medicine, no housing, no privacy are collectively flabbergasted with her marital problems. Do I need to write more? Do I need to comment on the third axis?

Replacing an ailing Paolo Carignani, Patrick Summers did not do much for helping the credibility issue. Although the house orchestra proved to be in very good shape, producing some wild sounds in the opening scene and expressive solos (including from brass instruments) throughout, the overall impression was of heaviness and dullness. The lack of structural and polyphonic clarity made the score purposeless and built up for no atmosphere. The Otello/Desdemona duet was quite unaffecting, Sì, pel ciel really tame, the complex in the end of act III awkward and the closing scene rather matter-of-fact.

The singers are not entirely innocent of the lack of affection. Outstanding in this cast, Anja Harteros produced the most ethereal high mezza voce in the market and never showed herself less than musicianly, but she did not seem to believe herself in her Desdemona. She did not master this special blend of angelic and glamourous that singers like Renata Tebaldi, Katia Ricciarelli and Mirella Freni could produce in this role by sheer tonal poise, eloquent diction and knowledge of inflection. I might be pressing the same key, but I really do not understand why Harteros is so keen on Italian repertoire, when her strengths are all of them in German roles. Zeljko Lucic is far more idiomatic and his voice is extremely pleasant and secure, if not really incisive as the dictionary definition of Verdi baritone’s. He is also too soft in personality for such a bad-guy role. In any case, it is always good to have someone in the right stylistic context. As for José Cura, after all these years, one must admit that he does have the elements of a tenore di forza in him. If they do not make into a coherent whole, that has probably to do with his technical irregularity. It seems that he has a different placement for every note determined exclusively by necessity of survival. In the process, note values and occasionally pitch are the main victims. Sometimes I could barely understand what he was singing. If I have to say something positive about him, it would be that his macho approach works well in this role and that, in spite of the irregularity, when he has operational space for that, he tries to inject some life in his lines, to soften his tone etc. Dio! mi potevi scagliar, for example, was one moment when everything seemed to concur to an expressive performance.

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Since the days of gramophone, Germany and Austria have created a noble lineage of glamourous, intelligent golden-toned lyric sopranos who have left their marks in Straussian, Mozartian and lighter Wagnerian roles such as Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Grümmer, Gundula Janowitz… But the truth is that one could believe that this tradition had been long lost to voices from places really far away from Vienna and Berlin. When we think of the most famous singers tackling this repertoire since the 80′s, we would rather think of Kiri Te Kanawa, Felicity Lott, Karita Mattila or Renée Fleming. But it seems that the old tradition has been reborn – Genia Kühmeier is making slow but firm steps into more-than-deserved stardom. I am sure we will hear a lot from and about her.

And there is Anja Harteros – whose relevance in the operatic world is now beyond any doubt. Although she has sung in the most prestigious theatres of the world and received some warm reviews, one still tends to think that the best is yet to come. Although the voice has immediate appeal, I have always found her frequent visitation of Italian repertoire not entirely inspiring beyond her appealing stage persona and her Julia Roberts-like looks and congeniality. But the tonal sheen of a true Italian soprano, the crispness of authentic delivery of the Italian text she has not. Moreover, although she has attitude to spare, it is still too German an attitude, in the first place. No problem about that – but why not use it in German roles? Since I have seen her as an ideal Elsa, I have been dreaming of her Marschallin, her Arabella, her Ariadne… but so far I’ve got only her Amelia in Simon Boccanegra.

However, I cannot complain. At least, I’ve got a glimpse of her Strauss this evening at the Konzerthaus, where she sang the Vier letzte Lieder with the Staatskapelle Berlin and Zubin Mehta. After hearing this orchestra in the Alpensinfonie, Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra and Salome, I am tempted to say that they are Berlin’s no. 1 Straussian orchestra. Their transparent sound picture and their good ear for those unearthly orchestral effects is everything a Straussian orchestra should have. Zubin Mehta seemed to avoid any languor and you would have to fill in the blanks for rubato effects in his forward-movement approach. In the end, this brought an objective approach to this often sentimentalized songs. But let’s speak of Anja Harteros. I have noticed that her voice definitely suffers from recordings. The plushness of her high notes and the warmth of her middle register do not seem to make it into the microphone.

Comparing her recording with Fabio Luisi and the Staatskapelle Dresden with what I heard live was realizing that these were too completely different experiences. While she is stylish and sensitive and finds no difficulties in the recording, live her voice is far rounder and richer in tone and yet lighter and more floating at the same time. Her mezza voce is particularly warmer live. Her interpretation has deepened also – the text is more sharply coloured and she finds simply more vocal glamour in the proceedings. Frühling is particularly improved. Now she sings the exposed extreme notes with such gentleness, what makes it easier to feel the sweetness of seeing springtime again, instead of the larger-scaled telluric performances we are often made to hear. The enthusiastic applause afterwards only proves that Germany is proud of her lyric sopranos again.

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Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo has been around for a long while. Although his voice sounds amazingly fresh, the kind of heroic high notes required by leading Italian tenor roles are now beyond realistic possibilities. Since low register has never been a problem for him, why not try baritone roles then? The title role in Simon Boccanegra is not Verdi’s heaviest baritone role and one could also argue that the fact that Verdian baritone parts are usually too high should not be a problem for a tenor, even one short of his high c’s and b’s. On paper, this is all true. Not only on paper – Domingo can sing all the notes Verdi wrote for Simon Boccanegra. He even sings them stylistically and expressively. But does he sound convincing in the role? I am afraid not.

First of all, although his tenor has a bronze-toned quality, he does not sound baritonal at all. His low notes, easy as they are, do not possess real depth and his ascents to high notes are free from the intense quality a true baritone has. As a result, the lighter and slightly nasal tonal quality, weird as it sounds, make the character seem younger than he should and many a climax moment do not blossom as they should. Of course, Domingo is a clever, experienced singer and profits of every opportunity to make it happen. This evening, for example, he was announced to be indisposed and took advantage of the occasional coughing and constriction to depict Boccanegra’s decaying health.

The tenor in a tenor role this evening was Fabio Sartori, whose voice has the raw material of a important singer: it has a most pleasant blend of richness and brightness and more than enough carrying power, he can produce elegant phrasing and, of course, he is idiomatic and Italianate. Some of his top notes are impressively focused and powerful. But he can be clumsy while handling all those things and, in the end, you are too often wishing that he could make this or that a little bit better. He should also try to loose some weight if he wants to take some leading man roles these days. I finally had the impression that roles like Adorno will be soon too light for him. It is not unusual for dramatic voices in the making to be difficult to handle before the whole “mechanism” find its optimal modus operandi. I am curious to see what follows.

Anja Harteros’s creamy soprano and its exquisite floating mezza voce are hard to resist and she is consistently musicianly and sensitive. She is a good Amelia, but when things get too Italianate, she could be caught a bit short. Although there is always pressure for a singer with her qualities to deal with Italian roles, I do believe she should explore more German repertoire, which shows her under the best possible light.

In spite of the odd woolly moments, Kwangchul Youn was admirably sensitive and tonally varied as Fiesco – and his low register was particularly deep and rich. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was similarly forceful and dark-toned as Paolo - and he lived up to the expectations of his role’s difficult high notes.

As for Daniel Barenboim, I am afraid that Verdian style is beyond his immense skills. The orchestral sound is too soft-centered, the proceedings generally lack forward-movement, emotionalism is kept in leash. In this sense, the conducting matched Federico Tiezzi’s entirely uneventful production. Maurizio Balò’s sets look cheap, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes look tacky and the stage direction is sketchy, artifficial and old-fashioned. The “choreographies” for chorus members is short of ridiculous. Considering that Italy is famous for design, I guess they bought this one in a highway outlet for operatic production.

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Let’s be frank – everbody should guess that Lohengrin could represent the process of civilization and Ortrud nature’s underlying instinctive forces. Actually, you don’t have to guess that, the libretto clearly tells you that Ortrud is pagan and Lohengrin is a force of Christianity. Director Richard Jones is probably the only person in the world who did not know that, for he was so enthusiastic about it that he chose to underline it as heavily as he could. So architecture was chosen as a symbol of civilization. Again you don’t have to be a genius to make that one out. When Tamino gets to the supposedly evil Sarastro’s temple, he recognizes from the buildings that some decent people should live there. The point is – making all the plot of Lohengrin turn around the building of a house for Elsa does not make the understanding of the story of Lohengrin deeper, but actually shallower. It makes it twice more complicate the fact that Lohengrin, first shows in jeans and a blue t-shirt develops into some sort of a Quaker leader of a blue t-shirt sect. I cannot deny that following the building of the house is interesting – I often felt distracted from everything else seeing if the roof would fit or the windows being set – but building it is something too difficult for chorus members to perform while singing. So choristers basically did nothing while supernumerary Handy Andies kept doing the hardwork. I wonder if there is someone left in Munich to repair your window during these performances of Lohengrin.

One might ask me how I could be distracted by bricks and cement while listening to Lohengrin. That is explained by Kent Nagano’s entirely uneventful conducting. To start with, his reputation as a “colorist”  here meant that the orchestra was kept at low volume throughout. The problem is that the gain of clarity was minimal and the considerate tempi left people wishing for more SOUND. If I have to make one harsh criticism is that both Richard Jones and Kent Nagano left no space for Ortrud and Telramund in their view of this opera – and God knows every Wagnerian sings Entweihte Götter in the shower! So back to the staging – since the action was transposed to the 50′s or something, Ortrud cannot be “pagan”. Actually, one cannot understand what she opposes to. In Nagano’s 100% gentle approach, their music lacks any trace of violence. The fierce repetition of their themes could barely heard in the famous declamatory passages of act II, scene 1. When the conductor was finally forced to plug in his performance (prelude to act III), the result was so messy that I felt sorry for him.

To make things worse, casting (alas, again…) was plagued by problems. To start with, the star of the show, Jonas Kaufmann, felt ill. Although he had high fever, he agreed to sing until the arrival of his replacement, who was flown in from London. All that said, I found he was an admirable Lohengrin. Although it is unwise to give a final opinion without act III (when he was replaced by an understandably unprepared Ivar Gilhuus), I am sure he should be fine there. From what I could hear, he unites the best from two different approaches to Lohengrin.  He has all the mezza-voce refinements of the young René Kollo and also the dark-hued tone and intensity of a James King. His tenor is not voluminous as some would wish, but he can pierce all right through the orchestra. In any case, if you find Klaus Florian Vogt too ethereal, Kaufmann should be your Lohengrin. And I wonder how better he should be when in good health!

Regardless of how good Kaufmann is, I am afraid that the best performance of the evening was Anja Harteros as Elsa. Even compared to the great sopranos who recorded the role, she goes to my shortlist of the really great Elsas. Her big lyric soprano is always warm, even, solid in its acuti and liquid in its velvety floating mezza voce. Her understanding of the text is exemplary, her imagination is neverending, her good taste is beyond reproach and she looks regal, in spite of the ugly costumes given to her. I know that her Traviatas both here and in New York have deserved warm reviews, but it is clear that her locus are Straussian and Wagnerian jugendlich dramatisch roles.

When it comes to Micaela Schuster’s Ortrud, I am afraid I found it less satisfying than at the Lindenoper. In the Bayerische Staatsoper’s largest auditorium, her voice sounds less rich and the dramatic high notes rather screechy. Worse than that, probably because she was worried about making big sounds, she was often out of steam in the end of phrases, exactly where verbs can be in German. Because of that, many a parola scenica would be lost in inaudibility. Her Telramund, Wolfgang Koch, did fare better in the declamation department, but his is the kind of Heldenbariton whose sound is often tense and raw – and a nobleman like Telramund deserves a bit more tone. King Henry is also a difficult role for Cristof Fischesser’s low-lying bass. Although he sang well, he was too often away from his comfort zone. Finally, Evgeny Nikitin’s herald was softer (and yet spacious) in grain than I am used to hear.

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I have added to the  discography of R. Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder comments about the Adrianne Pieczonka/Friedrich Haider, Michaela Kaune/Eiji Oue, Ricarda Merbeth/Michael Halász and Anja Harteros/Fabio Luisi recordings.

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