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Posts Tagged ‘Bayerische Staatsoper’

Staging a Ring cycle is probably a director’s most challenging enterprise: the plot is contrived; there obviously is a “message” to deliver, a message not restricted to a specific moment in time, but originally intended to a specific audience (i.e., the Germans); and an added insight, an opinion, a point-of-view is expected. But the philosophic side does not replace the scenic side of the task: you may read all the books or – easier – surround yourself with those very clever people who write the cryptic texts in the program, but if these ideas don’t make into the stage action – and they rarely do, for stage gestures have to be immediate to be effective* – then all that has been in vain.

I am sure that Andreas Kriegenburg has a plethora of ideas about the Ring – and he definitely has lots of ideas (and experience) about theatre in general, but I have the impression that “in general” is the keyword here. For instance, this is a production centered on people: the stagehands are visible, the stage effects consist of choreographies, in the end (I mean in the Götterdämmerung) the world as we know ends because it is not anymore about people and the “redemption through love” music is represented by the seid-umschlungen-Millionen white-clad group from the Rheingold in a collective hug on poor Gutrune. But the problem is that all this seems to follow its own plot while the singers playing Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich et al seem to be a burden the director had to bear in order to tell his story rather then being the story.

This has been more evident in Götterdämmerung than in the other operas: here the action seems to be set in Frankfurt – after all, the Rhine is nearby and the big euro-symbols (very much in evidence – Gutrune is usually seen riding one) in  a bank headquarters’ lobby (the Gibichungenhall) seem to corroborate the hypothesis – not very far-fetched if you bear in mind that the Bundeskanzlerin couldn’t find time to go to the UN environment conference in Rio because the Euro was considered a priority over mother nature. Back to Wagner: as usual, the Gibichungen are shown as new money with ostentatious habits. Their corporative lobby is made of steel and glass, nature is reduced to a Damien-Hirst-style horse sculpture and a Patrick-Blanc-style vertical garden, there are many cleaning ladies in uniform sadistically molested by Gunther (Strauss-Kahn references?), while Gutrune plays the vamp to the executives who respond to Hagen’s calls to arms with mobile phones. However, nobody finds it strange when Hagen has a spear at arm’s length when one is “needed” or when Brünnhilde decides to burn Siegfried’s dead body just outside. What I mean is, the action is updated when the director has an idea about it. When he does not, things are carried out as in the libretto, regardless of how nonsensical it looks on stage.

There are staging problems too. The sets for the bank lobby are too complex to be dismantled and put together; therefore, a structure very similar to a barn was concocted downstage for all the other scenes. Forget about Brünnhilde’s rock – she has to make do with a bench in there. The norns too were transferred to the barn – plus a whole bunch of refugees from Fukushima (these sisters learn their never-ending wisdom from CNN here). The scenes that are too complex for the barn are basically set in the lobby – the Rhinemaidens make a short walk from the Rhine and “swim” on a gigantic Euro symbol.  The end of the world too has not much room to happen: it is shown very far away upstage behind the lobby’s walls in a very believable pyre that does not affect much of the structure however. Hagen basically watches to the whole thing from one corner until he decides, for no specific reason, to shout, “hands off the ring!”, even if the ring had not been there for a while.

In musical terms, the performance is an improvement from the previous installments. First of all, the orchestra had a more immediately Wagnerian sound, in the sense that it was big, rich and very much in the center of events. Second, many of the atmospheric orchestral effects that misfired in the previous evenings here seemed more successfully achieved. Third, the pace tended to be more agile. Actually, when the score has a propulsive rhythmic figure to support it, Kent Nagano would respond to it more or less effectively, but as soon as the structure becomes more fluid, depending on the maestro’s beat to move forward, things tended to sag. But this is a fault one can find in many a conductor who ventures into Wagnerian territory. Although the orchestral sound was usually very beautiful, there were mismatches and the occasional blunder in the brass section too.

When Nina Stemme began to sing, she seemed to be in the Helen Traubel-ian shape she showed in Barenboim’s Valkyrie at La Scala: her middle register was at its most focused and even the low notes were rich and integrated, not to mention that she were handling her lines with almost Straussian fluidity. But – and that was a problem for Traubel too – as soon as things started to get perilously high, this warm-toned Swedish soprano had to push, a bad sign. In her second appearance, she seemed to have recovered and sang with amazing abandon. Act II is a tough piece of singing – and exposed high notes come in plenty. Pushing is something that works once, twice, but not three times in this kind of writing without evident loss of quality. At this point, many low passages were just hinted at, some consonants had been left to imagination, breath pauses started to grow in number and a couple of high notes were shortened. Although she was evidently unhappy about that (she appeared at curtain calls puffing in relief), she was able to keep up with the dramatic demands of the scene. Fortunately, Wagner gives the soprano some time to rest before the Immolation Scene, which she negotiated expertly until things became high and fast again. Then she proved to have nerves of steel and managed out of technique and willpower, for she was reaching the very end of her resources. This is the first time I see her in this opera and don’t know if she was below her usual form – it seemed her voice was dying to sing Sieglinde, so velvety and voluminous were his middle and low registers – but if the role’s high tessitura is usually that demanding for her, I ask myself if it is wise to sacrifice herself in the name of Wagner as she did today. Of course, I have seen sopranos who in their best voice weren’t able to offer something as appealing as Stemme did today, but a hard-day work it was and one could hear that. My respect for her commitment and professionalism – but I wonder if she had found any fun in it.

The role of Siegfried is basically too high for Stephen Gould. This tenor is a shrewd singer with a very solid technique and an untiring voice and thus he sang his part without any serious accidents. This is a basically unsingable role and the fact that a singer has sung it more or less like Wagner wrote it without giving the impression of being about to collapse is already something to be praised, but one who had heard Gould as Siegmund or Tristan wouldn’t recognize in the rather taut vocalism and pinched high notes his customary warm tonal color and poise in strenuous passages. As he was more occupied with getting the job done, his interpretation was restricted this evening mostly to stage action – he has a congenial stage presence and could follow the director’s comedy touches without making them extraneous.

Attila Jun was a very dark-toned Hagen who relished the bad-guy routine with some very earthy singing, but who could be tremulous in some moments. Although Wolfgang Koch could do with less off-pitch effects, his Alberich is sung with such conviction and richness of voice that he can’t help sounding convincing. Iain Paterson was a cleanly sung Gunther – the voice has a restricted tonal palette in this repertoire, but he uses the text expertly and is a very good actor, with a Michael Caine-ian attitude that made the role more interesting than usual. Anna Gabler has developed since I last saw in this role – the voice sounds bigger without any loss of roundness. The direction made the role rather incongruent, but she embraced the directorial choices, relishing the vamp-ish moments. Michaela Schuster was an expressionistic Waltraute, very wide-ranging in interpretation, her mezzo easily projecting in the hall. The Rhinemaidens were exemplarily sung (again Okka von der Damerau is a name to keep in mind), the norns not particularly so (Jamie Barton excepted – a truly beautiful, interesting voice). Since the promising Irmgard Vilsmaier (3rd norn) is being upgraded to the role of Brünnhilde in some quarters and had a bad time with her high notes this evening, I wonder if she shouldn’t make a complete check-up in her technique while it is still time. As Julia Varady once said, a soprano should always sing something like Donna Elvira’s Mi tradì now and then and she’ll see if something is not working properly. Finally, the Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera offered aptly sung with raw energy and commitment.

* I don’t mean that the concept has to be simple – it might be complex as you wish, but what you see on a stage is only what you see on a stage. There are not footnotes on the supertitles.

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I have a friend who says you cannot ruin a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the cast may be awful, the director may be an imbecile, but the Bard’s text will shine through nonetheless. Is it Wagner’s Siegfried something similar? I don’t know, but I have realized that, in many performances of the tetralogy in my recollection, it was Siegfried the most effective in the lot (before my 13 or 14 readers ask me which one tends to be the worse, this is Die Walküre). Is it the propulsive rhythms, the inescapable necessity of crisply declaimed texts teaching where the right tempo is, the vertiginous action? This evening, for example, the energetic nature of the music has certainly led Kent Nagano into the right direction. Of course, the score did not give him the pulse and the precision he ideally should have, but the tension between a score that almost ran ahead by itself and a conductor who wanted to round off its sharp angles brought about the dynamic lacking in the previous evenings. Act I was particularly interesting – its raw energy transformed into “classical” buoyance with an important help of the Bavarian State Orchestra deluxe strings. Act II proved that the physicality of Mime and Siegfried’s interaction was probably the antidote to the other evenings’ flabbiness – once Mime was killed, the rhythmic backbone seemed to disappear and some awkwardness and disjointedness seemed to prevail again. The real clarity that was never really there became more evident. This afflicted act III especially:  the opening scene sounded arthritic and purposeless, the Siegfried/Wanderer passage lacked tension and, when I feared for the worst, Brünnhilde’s awakening reserved the audience some surprises. The lyrical episodes sounded truly lyric, Nagano’s lack of propulsion almost passed for a Furtwänglerian suspension of time (again – exquisite sounds from the orchestra, even if French horns had their bumpy moments), but then Siegfried wanted some action and things turned out rather messy than exciting.

Once one adjusts to Catherine Naglestad’s somewhat shrewish middle register and recessed low notes, there was plenty to delight in her unforced high notes. Her smooth attack, development and finish in exposed acuti were often revelatory, particularly in Ewig war ich, lovingly sung. When things would develop into something more properly heroic, one could see that this is not really her repertoire, but I cherish the way she caressed – as I have almost never heard it – these difficult Wagnerian phrases. Although Jill Grove is a bit on the light side for Erda, it is always a treat to find a true contralto in the role, especially a fruity, firm-toned one. Anna Virovlansky was also an ideal woodbird – her diction clear, the tone fresh and lovely and the high notes rich and easy.

Lance Ryan’s forte has never been legato, tone colouring and the kind of subtlety that lies behind the word “cantabile” –unfailing stamina, clear diction a naturally animated stage attitude are in the core of her performance as Siegfried. One is truly amazed of how in control of his resources he is, particularly in the most demanding passages (the forging song being the showcase of his abilities). Nevertheless, my memory may betray me, but I have the impression he was truer to pitch in Bayreuth two years ago. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime shows no surprises – he builds his performance around the distorting vocal effects character-tenors seem to find inevitable in this role. Wolfgang Koch was in strong voice and offered the most dramatically gripping performance this evening. He is definitely one of the best Alberichs of our days. I have seen Alan Held a couple of times and my first impression this evening was that he has reached the peak of his abilities. His Wanderer fulfilled all the basic vocal requirements of the role – his bass-baritone was firm, rich and homogeneous – and he sang with authority and animation, but he would soon start to tire, his high notes gradually became colorless and by the end he was basically grey-toned. Rafal Siwek was a very dark-toned Fafner.

Andreas Kriegenburg’s production started off full of ideas – this was very much a Siegfried from the point-of-view of a child. Act I sets seemed to have sprung from a schoolchild’s drawing, with the kurogo stagehands (actually, the should be called shirogo, for they were all dressed in white…) carrying cotton clouds on stick, hidden under a green carpet through which their hands carried daisies etc. There were many clever ideas going on – and the 40 extras on stage were a helpful device to operate vertiginously fast set changes, but they were often really distracting with their little slapstick parallel actions, particularly during the forging scene. Act II turned around a striking-looking dragon consisting of the actors under a red lighting plus eyes and fangs. Unfortunately, the device was not truly agile, making for a particularly frustrating scene with Siegfried. The final act seemed to be the victim of short budget – using the extras as sets and props were rarely an illuminating resource (with the possible exception of the Erda/Wanderer scene), but seemed rather a necessity to wave plastic and fabric into “oceans of fire”, both literally and metaphorically (the closing scene, when the comic touches elicited too many laughs while Brünnhilde and Siegfried are sealing the fate of the universe, among other things).

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Although Die Walküre is the most human-scale work in the tetralogy, it is strange how elusive it is to stage directors, who seem to be more comfortable among the gods: how often does one sees how lonely and unhappy Sieglinde is, how vulnerable and desperate (and therefore capable of some very dangerous deeds) Siegmund is, how the fact that they are siblings in a family “hated by everyone” (Hunding’s words) makes them a couple? Certainly not this evening. Andreas Kriegenburg considers that Die Walküre is crossed by two axes – war/love, male/female – the impossibility of love in a world of violence makes it possible for an impossible love to exist. Well, this is a clever thing to say – but Kriegenburg was hired to stage and not to say clever things. In his staging, Sieglinde lives in some sort of female community (plus Hunding) that collects dead men’s bodies to be buried. They don’t have to go very far to find them – most of them are hanging from the ash-tree just above the table where they eat (this does not seem to bother them). There are some girls with lanterns on the palms of their hands who work as some sort of collective searchlight or sometimes as some sort of kurogo “invisible” stage-hands. From the point-of-view of the audience, it basically looks as if Sieglinde had 20 servants that make all the hard work while she makes sad expression for a Siegmund on the other side of the stage. Later their purpose would be something like a human-screen for Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love-making. Apparently, two is company and 22 is voyeurism.

If act II is a bit all over the place, at least it has some interesting ideas. Wotan’s “new position in the world” means that he no longer has time for being a warrior and has to perform executive duties. The set shows an audience hall more or less 1940’s in style with a large Romantic painting showing a forest scene on the rear wall. There is a desk too. Fricka, some sort of Jackie O-like first lady in a party gown, and Wotan do not need armchairs, they have each 10 waiters who double as furniture when they need to sit down. These godly couple likes to break glasses with their own hands during their discussions, but none of the 20 servants care to clean anything. Kriegenburg loves his stage machinery, and walls and ceiling go back and forth, up and down throughout. While Wotan is about to end his scene with Brünnhilde, lots of war survivors appear on stage, but with an impatient sign of his hand, they drop dead. The rest of the act takes place among the dead bodies and extensive usage of stage lift.

I had written that Zenta Haerter’s choreographies were effective in Das Rheingold. Not this evening, I’m afraid. Wagner’s music for act III had to wait for more or less 8 minutes while 14 girls in nightgowns played horsy. Yes, we’d got it on the first 30 seconds “ride of the valkyries – the girls are the horses”, but then the audience lost its patience around the fifth minute and started to boo and shout angrily. Then the act began – the horse girls went somewhere upstage, while the valkyries had long leather reins to play with. After heavy usage of stage lift, Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone. In the end, she is raised on a round platform while the no-longer-horse girls come with some sort of flammable cable and gather around Brünnhilde. Yes, Siegfried wouldn’t be afraid of that – probably of the girls (as you remember – he had never seen any girl before getting to Brünnhilde’s rock) – so image of fire is projected everywhere to make it more formidable. Final curtain.

Does this sound uneventful? Now think of it with Kent Nagano’s conducting on the background. “On the background” is an apt description of the musical performance. Regardless of tempo, this conductor’s more evident feature is flaccid accent. When the music requires a more considerate tempo, as in the final scene of act I, the warmth of the Bavarian State Orchestra’s strings and the fact that singers could whisper over the recessed orchestral sound made for some sense of Innigkeit. Under the baton of other conductor, one could go for chamber-music like transparency, but although one could always hear woodwind, the articulation was so lazy, the structural coherence left to imagination, that the results couldn’t help being dyspeptic. When energy was required, you got drums and brass louder than the rest of the orchestra but without much consequence. Even then, the impression was of flabbiness – one felt like throwing a box of Viagra in the orchestral pit.

Even if Anja Kampe seemed to be in more flexible voice both times I saw her in Berlin (in a smaller hall, truth be said), she is still a radiant, ideally cast Sieglinde. I felt sorry for her in her farewell to Brünnhilde – she was about to launch the “redemption”-motive and she took three seconds to realize that she was alone there, the orchestra was still playing Debussy. It felt uncomfortable trying to carry all the hope of the world alone. Katarina Dalayman has everything to be an ideal Brünnhilde – the voice is big, warm and full and she phrases with unusual elegance, but the high notes do not come naturally to her. Or rather: she can hit some impressive percutant acuti provided they do not come too close to each other. When they do (as in the ho-jo-to-ho’s), she gets tired dangerously fast. In order to prevent that, she shortens note values without much ado.  It seems that she took the decision of saving steam in act II, but then the tenor and the conductor made the Todverkündung so uninteresting that she suddenly decided to plug in and save not only Siegmund but the whole scene (too late unfortunately). I have the clear impression that Sophie Koch has carefully listened to Christa Ludwig’s recording for Georg Solti – and right she did, for it is with the masters that one is supposed to learn. Her voice, of course, is lighter than the legendary German mezzo soprano’s, but she is a cunning singer and made it work in her voice – actually, Nagano could learn from her how to produce impact in restricted dynamics.

When Sieglinde says that the echo of her own voice sounds similar to Siegmund’s, this generally sounds as something only a Romantic character would say. Well, this evening, it sounded less impossible than usual, for I cannot think of a tenor as light in tone as Klaus Florian Vogt in the part of Siegmund. The low tessitura generally involves a baritonal voice in the role – and hearing a voice far from virile in it was a puzzling experience for me. Although his tenor is definitely not heroic, it is curious how hearable it is. When the tessitura was congenial, such as in Winterstürme, this brought about a fresh lyricism to the role – but the role requires more than that. In exposed heroic moments, such as the Wälse sustained notes, he sounded nasal and strained and you could hear that (his voice is very projecting and there was very little orchestral sound to speak of). The Todverkündung scene simply did not work – he cannot properly support low notes, some of them were barely sung, he often seemed to be speaking and not singing the text and he produced far more breathing pauses than any other  Siegmund I have ever seen. As usual, he was hugely applauded – so I guess that James King must have done everything wrongly in his performances.

When describing a particular singer, a friend of mine said, “her voice was more vertical than horizontal, if you can get my meaning”. These words describe Thomas J. Meyer’s voice very aptly. It is a truly forceful voice, but not really voluminous. When he has to operate on the lower end of his range, the sound is rather juiceless and unflowing. On the other hand, when the phrase is congenial, he can produce some big top notes. In heroic moments, he is often harsh of tone and pushes more often than he should – but he has a big personality and makes it part of a bully-approach to the role. And he pulls it out somehow. It is surprising that he could soften his tone for the closing scene and find a tonal palette that he could not count with in his long act II narration, where he successfully compensated by emphasis and clear declamation. I cannot help thinking that he is doing too much too soon – John Tomlinson made many Handel and Mozart recordings before tackling Wagner. James Morris, for example, had his share of Rossinis and Mozarts too – and, differently from Mayer, sang Banquo and not the title role in Macbeth (if you think that Morris’s Wotan had easier and more spacious high notes than Mayer’s, this seems something to be taken in consideration). Ain Anger was a very good Hunding, dark-toned, comfortable with the low notes and really menacing. Finally, I thought that the Bavarian State Opera could find a more efficient team of valkyries. Something was really wrong this

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As one enters the auditorium of the Bavarian State Opera in order to find his or her seat for Wagner’s Rheingold, some hundred people dressed in white are hanging around on stage.  One can see three women in green among them and you can guess that they are the Rhinemaidens. There is not a set properly speaking – the stage floor, the walls and the ceiling are covered in wood parquet-style. Suddenly, lights dim, the sound of flowing water is heard from the speakers, the extras undress to their underwear, paint their bodies blue and… “oh, no!”, think the traumatized Wagnerian who has seen Rheingold at La Scala, “they are going to dance!!!”. Yes, they are. The dancers are actually the waters of Rhine river. But choreographer Zenta Haerter really does something out of it: the movements of the dancers do form a coherent mass that create the atmosphere rather than divert from it – sensuousness, playfulness, suspense and terror are convincingly portrayed in a way that, truth be said, could not exactly be described as “dance” and, maybe because of that, work far better than the Broadway-like steps devised by Sidi Libi Cherkaoui for Guy Cassiers.

In Andreas Kriegenburg’s Rheingold, the audience is not supposed to be tricked by effects: a guy with a fog machine appears on stage whenever smoke has to be produced; the giants are first seen as regular-size men only later to be made larger by props and (probably the less creative idea in the whole staging) Wotan and Loge’s journey into the Nibelheim is nothing but Wagner’s instructions projected on stage, while the two singers pretend to be walking. Nibelheim itself is very atmospheric – the Bauhaus version of one of those gold mines in an Indiana Jones movie in which slaves are flogged and burned alive when they collapse in exhaustion. The dragon/frog transformations are almost a practical joke on the audience – but, yes, it is a clever idea. As you have probably guessed, I found it far more interesting than what I expected, even if it must be acknowledged that much of what Kriegenburg and his team have devised work far better in the smaller hall of the Deutsches Theater and in the more “realistic” tempo of straight theater. As shown here, some major scenes seemed somehow empty – Alberich’s curse, the gods’ ascent into the Walhalla seriously lacked impact, for instance. In any case, not only was the cast well directed, but even smaller roles had some sort of three-dimensionality – Erda is ambivalent in her reaction to Fasolt’s death, Froh and Donner have a very conflicting relationship with Wotan, who himself is far more vulnerable than usual.

To say the truth, maybe Kriegenburg’s “clean” approach would have worked if the musical performance could offer him something to work with. Although the Bavarian State Opera has a very fine orchestra – a particularly beautiful, smooth string section – musical director Kent Nagano could not let them do what they are able to do (as one can hear in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Ring, hardly a reference, but a paragon of efficiency in comparison). If I had to make it short, I would call this the most boring piece of Wagnerian conducting I have ever sampled in my life. The performance lacked a backbone in every aspect – it was rhythmically indistinct; tempi were sluggish, the orchestra lacked tone, and when it had to make some sound, it turned out noisy and poorly balanced; one would have to wait in vain for clear, precise, forceful attacks. Basically it could be used as an example of how NOT to conduct Wagner. The Rhinegold was premiered in Munich – and it deserved better in this of all stages.

Sophie Koch was announced indisposed and took a while to warm up, but would develop into a light but warm-toned Fricka. The other female singers proved a bit lackadaisical, but for three interesting Rhinemaidens, particularly Okka von der Damerau, a voice of Wagnerian proportions. Stefan Margita sounds as the Spieltenor-version of Klaus Florian Vogt in the role of Loge. The German audience likes these natural tenor voices and he got the largest share of applause this evening. Indeed, he sang spontaneously without ever forcing and with a very clear line. If Johan Reuter has the nobility of tone and the technical skills for Wotan, it is still a voice two couple of sides too small for the role. And this is the Rhinegold Wotan. Because of the very limited leeway, his singing was not really varied or illuminated by powerful declamation either. At first, Wolfgang Koch sounded like the kind of Alberich who gets away with an important amount of acting with the voice. Eventually I have noticed that, in fact, Koch denied his Alberich nothing: the tonal palette was wide and the physical engagement was intense. He lacked some steam now and then – and maybe a more “Wagnerian” conductor could have put him in difficulty, but he was the singer who – in purely vocal terms – brought the drama that was otherwise so scarce this evening. Finally, both Thorsten Grümbel and Phillip Ens were too soft-grained for the giants.

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Although Mozart was only 14 when he composed Mitridate – and numbers tend to be formally straight-jacketed – his imagination, sense of drama and expressive power already placed him among the best opera composers of his days. The original audiences in Milan did not fail to notice that and the opera was reprised 21 times in its original run, what is noteworthy. I say all this because directors sometimes are overwhelmed by the fact that the composer was so young and cannot see much beyond that. This is definitely the case of David Bösch, who found it important to feature on stage  projections of  the young composer as a contemporary kid forced by his father to write an opera that would eventually feature a stern father oppressing his children. If Mozart really had had any power to interfere with the choice of subject, this could have made sense – but the truth is that he tried to respond to the situations in the libretto as adeptly as he could (and he certainly could). As he had to work since his early childhood, had traveled around Europe and had the opportunity to meet some of the most notable people in the whole continent, Mozart was far more experienced and open-minded than most adults those days (I avoid the use of the word “mature” because of his notoriously eccentric behavior). Most problematic than that is the director’s choice of portraying all characters (but Mitridate) as teenagers with diaries and toys, what does not go with the opera seria-style music and the intensity of the situations concocted by none other than Jean Racine, who was far from immature when he wrote his tragedy.

All that said, in spite of this misconception hard to overlook, David Bösch did not try to impose any private agenda on the plot, but rather tried to make sense of the complex family relations, building the stage action on sharply defined characters with simple and therefore effective gestures and attitudes. He confessedly avoided the public level of the plot, refurbishing characters like Ismene (and especially Arbate, who is not really much of a character anyway) with very silly motivations. In this sense, Günter Krämer’s Salzburg staging was far more successful (and far more visually striking) in giving characters more “modern” personalities. If Patrick Bannwart’s sets and Falko Herold’s costumes were (probably on purpose) hideous, the staging was nonetheless able to catch the right ebb and flow of dramatic situations and never failed to deliver when a theatrical climax was expected on stage.

Maestro Ivor Bolton was rather respectful in a clean, well-behaved and forward-moving account of the score. The members of the Bavarian State Orchestra played with great polish (even Zoltán Mácsai’s natural French horn solo in Lungi da te was accurate and pleasant in tone), but I wonder if some less extreme fast tempi would not have helped the cast to respond in a similarly polished way. As it was, they had to create the drama a bit by themselves. One might object to Minkowski’s more “theatrical” approach, but it does make a long opera a bit more seductive in live performance. The edition here adopted retained, as far as I could identify, all original numbers, but curiously has the original version of Se viver non degg’io, a pretty and entirely undramatic duet that helped me to understand why Mozart found it better to compose it again. Bolton should have followed his judgment.

When it come to the cast, it made me wonder where are the Arleen Augérs, the Edita Gruberovás, the Lucia Popps, the Teresa Berganzas of our days. Probably ruining their voices singing Wagner and Verdi. It seems that singers who would be singing Monteverdi in the days of Fritz Wunderlich and Gundula Janowitz are now the Fiordiligis and Idomeneos of the world’s leading opera houses. For example, Aspasia is a prima donna role, i.e., for singers who are capable of singing Donna Anna or Konstanzes. In any serious staging of Don Giovanni or Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Patricia Petibon would be Zerlina or Blondchen. It is no wonder that she sounds rather out of her element here. She is all-right a musicianly singer with excellent coloratura, but the voice lacks substance in this repertoire, is often inaudible in its lower reaches and sounds tense in a very un-Mozartian way when she really has to make it “dramatic”. The puffs of air she sang where forceful staccato notes should depict Aspasia’s predicaments in Nel grave tormento show that singing against the grain of one’s voice  is never effective – not to mention parlando antics the effect of which was only showing how the voice alone could not produce the dramatic impression that the music cries for. Just check Edda Moser live in Salzburg to hear what it means to flash dramatic acuti without having to distort Mozart phrases. Next to Petibon, Anna Bonitatibus sounded like Mozartian poise and good taste incarnated in the role of Sifare. The Italian mezzo’s sense of line, even in the most breathtakingly fast melisme, is admirable, but, alas, she finds this soprano role on the high side and had to disguise the fact that she was operating very close to her limits by singing her high notes very lightly, even when music and text demanded something very different. Lisette Oropesa, a charming Susanna at the Met, brings a more naturally bright yet round voice to Ismene, but seemed a bit nervous with the fast tempi chosen to her aria and failed to produce the right effect of loveliness. Eri Nakamura too found the role of Arbate uncomfortable, especially in her lower register. Lawrence Zazzo gave scenic tour de force as Farnace, but – again! – he found the part a bit low and couldn’t vocally depict his role’s bad-guy attitude – but I won’t pretend that I don’t REALLY prefer a contralto in this role (how about the amazing Romina Basso?!). In the fearsome role of Mitridate, Barry Banks gave an efficient if hardly impressive performance. It is also true that most tenors are usually less good than that live. The role has very little nuance, but one can always dream to hear it sung with all the niceties of true Mozartian style (as Gösta Winbergh did in Harnoncourt’s studio recording that serves as soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film with the best performance in Ann Murray’s career as Sifare).

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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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Janacek’s Jenufa is no longer a hidden gem in the repertoire, but it is neither a household name. Curiously, for its increase dramatic tension, realistic situations and intense musical characterization make it a quasi-cinematographic opera in its screenplay-like libretto and sensitive, complex yet straight-to-the-point depiction of a family tragedy. And there are also three challenging big roles for soprano, mezzo and tenor – and plenty of opportunity for a good orchestra. Maybe the Czech language accounts for its relative rarity. In any case, the Bayerische Staatsoper risked to stage it with an international cast in a new production last year. Barbara Frey’s updating of the action at some point in the 50′s or 60′s does not make violence to the plot*, but – even if stage direction itself is very sensitive and effective – the concept is rather blank. One could say that a naturalistic approach is the keynote, but stylized costumes for choristers and a house for Jenufa and Konstelnicka without walls in act III seem to dismiss that idea.

The original production featured Eva-Maria Westbroek and Deborah Polaski and I can only imagine subtler and more smoothly sung performances than those offered by this evening’s Angela Denoke and Gabriele Schnaut. With her round, golden and youthful sound, Denoke could be a good Jenufa, but the frequentation of heavy repertoire is taking its toll very fast. Legato is largely gone, the high register is now tense and constricted and exposed dramatic notes are unstable and poorly supported, not to mention that mezza voce is no longer available. She is still a very good actress, particularly touching in the second act, but I wonder if it is not time to take a break and seriously rethink what she has been doing. When it comes to Gabriele Schnaut, it’s been a while since her once impressive resources have declined. That said, although her voice is now disturbingly metallic and quite wobbly, she still can produce the right effect when she finds room to operate. Key moments were served all right deafening acuti, telluric chest notes and even quite decent pianissimi.  But do not mistake me – her manners are rather stiff and her phrasing too unflowing for comfort. One just needs to listen to Eva Randová in Decca’s studio recording to hear everything that is missing. Stefan Margita has a pleasant, rather large voice, but his open-toned, poorly supported approach to high notes is quite disturbing. During the scene in act III where the corpse of Jenufa’s baby is found, he produced some very strange sounds, while his Jenufa could barely hit her notes. In any case, quite confusingly for this opera, he was a quite more dominant figure than the Steva of Joseph Kaiser, who seemed amazingly overparted. His tenor sounded overgrainy and barely pierced through. Among the minor roles, Diane Pilcher offered a firm-toned Grandmother Buryja and Christoph Stephinger was a forceful village mayor.

Although the Bavarian State Orchestra produced some exquisite sounds throughout, I have the impression that conductor Tomas Hanus tried to make it easy for his singers by keeping his musicians in leash. The kind of excitement, richness of sound and forward-movement found in Charles Mackerras’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic was hardly what one found here this evening.

* I am not sure about the modern wind turbines. I am no specialist, but they seem anachronistic.

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Inutilia truncat is one of the most representative “slogans” of Classical art, one Dieter Dorn could have claim to follow when creating his 1997 production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro for the Bavarian State Opera. There is no lack of action in Beaumarchais’s story as told by Lorenzo da Ponte, but the truth is that you should take good care of what you are showing on stage when you are showing basically very little. Jürgen Rose’s sets never suggest anything clean and elegant, but rather lack of imagination and limited budget. As if saggy white fabric walls were not disappointing enough, the Countess is denied furniture but only a couple of blue chairs on a blue linoleum (Susanna has to write her letter to the Count on the floor with an instrument the handiness of which can only suggest a ball pen miraculously sent from the future) and the whole garden scene is reduced to three large pieces of white cloth under the most glaring lighting one can think of. If the Count does not recognize his wife as thoroughly lit as she was there, it was probably because he was dazzled by followspots. After 13 years, it is impossible to speak of the director’s original ideas for his actors, but the most positive aspect of this performance was the overall very good stage performances from all involved. Although there is probably nothing original going on here, this was nimbly performed by the cast.

The only character who seems to have deserved special consideration seems to be the Countess, here shown as the mistress of her own household ready to use Susanna and Figaro for her purposes (i.e., winning her husband back) almost as selfishly as the Count. It was most fortunate that Barbara Frittoli could perform the concept as believably as she has done this evening. Although her attitude towards her servants was quite liberal, this tampered nothing with the fact that they were supposed to obey her orders. Also, even if she longed for her husband attentions, this did not prevent her from loosing her temper at him whenever an instance of his misbehavior had been found out. The Milanese soprano’s vibrant soprano has always required some time for a demanding ear to adjust it to the needs of Mozartian instrumental purity and, even if these days it is running dangerously close to unacceptability, it still remains inside the realm of admissibility. Once you get used to it, you will find a stylish singer able to very clean attack in testing moments such as Porgi, amor, easy ascent to her high register (she sang her own high notes as written by Mozart, instead of delegating them to her Susanna) and a very homogenous tonal quality throughout her range. More than that, a singer who handles the text intelligently and whose soprano is large enough to tackle a lyric role in a larger house without forcing and capable of shading without holding back. Although her singing this evening was hardly immaculate, it was nonetheless engaging, expressive and spirited.

Camilla Tilling is the owner of  a pretty voice and has a strong sense of Mozartian style, but lacks projection and tends to be overshadowed by the orchestra and other singers. She was also an austere, rather charmless Susanna, but still spontaneous and surprisingly quite realistic. In the end, even if I missed some vivaciousness, I could not help thinking that the trade-off for the usual commandingness and cuteness was somehow positive. As Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus was, on the other hand, vivaciousness itself. Hers is an irresistibly warm voice and she has temper to spare. After some problems during Non so più , she offered a memorable Voi che sapete, desire, anxiety and seduction perfectly balanced. The Almaviva family was quite well represented this evening, for Mariusz Kwiecien proved to be an exemplary Count. His strong baritone finds no difficulty in this writing and he knows how to convey bossiness while keeping some charm. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo proved to be less creative as Figaro, his is a firm, generously and vigorously produced voice and, as Frittoli and Bonitatibus, could make recitatives sparkle in the idiomatic usage of their native language.

Juraj Valcuha seems to have a good idea of how this opera should be performed within the limits of Mozartian style and the house orchestra is adeptly flexible and clear, even if the sound was not terribly beautiful, but the idea behind the gesture was not always there. Too often, the proceedings suggested the mechanical rather than the spirited. To make things worse, now and then one would suspect that a couple of extra rehearsals could have been helpful – ensembles were often poorly timed and every member of the cast, in various degrees, would occasionally experiment some trouble in following the conductor’s beat.

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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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Nabucco is a difficult opera to pull out. Although it is considered to be Verdi’s first truly “Verdian” opera, it is rather a torso of a Verdian opera. Without a truly commited approach from all involved, its many uneffective passages drain the dramatic power of the whole performance. The Bavarian State Opera has a good start – its orchestra has a truly rich and beautiful sound, with individual instrumental solos expressively performed. Conductor Paolo Carignani knows the value of forward movement, of theatrical atmosphere and structural clarity. It is truly a pity that he often gets overemphatic when percussion is involved, thus disfiguring his otherwise masterly balance. This prestigious opera house also has a very good chorus. Unfortunately, it took a while to warm from a messy opening number. It would eventually offer a sensitive account of the opera’s signature number, the choir Va pensiero, with perfectly blended voices and delicate accompaniment by the orchestra.

When it comes to the cast, we should speak rather of miscasting than casting. The performance’s prima donna, for example. Alessandra Rezza has truly interesting material – her voice is well focused, spontaneously bright-toned as only Italian sopranos can be, her divisions are really accurate, she has excellent diction, knows how to make use of the text and also has some charisma. However, Abigaille is such a heavy role for her voice that all those assets could not make into something really acceptable. Although her low notes are focused and not thrown on chest voice, she had hard time trying to make them run into the auditorium; some of her acuti were not truly on pitch and she had to chop her phrasing to make to the end of many a testing passage. I understand that maybe because of her weight, it might be difficult to cast her as something like Violetta or Donna Anna, but that is what she should be singing for a while before she tried Abigaille. When it comes to Stefan Kocán’s Zaccaria, I can only say that the role shows him in such disadvantage that it seems as if a comprimario had stood in for an ailing soloist. Finally, Aleksandr Antonenko does not have a problem with heaviness, but with lightness. Although his tenor is not as beefy as his recent casting as Otello might suggest, his is a big, penetrating quality – it only lacks Italian mellow legato and the role did not sound congenial as it should.

As it is, the really valid performance of this evening was Paolo Gavanelli’s Nabucco. Although his baritone has its squeezed-up and throaty moments, it is a spacious voice with considerable tonal variety. Lyric passages are expressively handled and his high mezza voce is a real treasure in his vulnerable approach to Nabucco. The lovely Daniela Sindram was also positively cast as Fenena. Although her mezzo has this German plushness, she has solid low notes and charm to spare.

I have been writing a lot about production in my recent reviews, but Yannis Kokkos is so inoffensive in its geometrical uneventfulness that it is not really worth writing about it. I know I am picky sometimes – but I am convinced that a staging has to make sense, even if one finally does not agree with that sense. Here we have the Jewish people represented as if during World War II, but the babylonians are dressed as characters from Die Zauberflöte. The coup-de-grâce: while singing Va, pensiero, the chorus is behind a barbed-wire fence, while Zaccaria is on the other side. Suddenly, he has an inspiration and finds a way to get in. The 1,000,000 question – if there is an unguarded way in to get behind the fence, why don’t they just get out?!

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