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Posts Tagged ‘Bayreuther Festspiele’

I know Christoph Marthaler’s Tristan und Isolde from DVD and was not really excited about seeing it live. Maybe low expectations have done the trick for me. I still dislike the production – it is so minimalistic than it is even difficult to hate it. If the director could have stripped the staging from every superfluous detail and concentrated on powerful symbols, maybe the emptiness could have meant something. As it is, we have a DDR-style building that goes one floor lower for each act. All effects are restricted to fluorescent lamps (actually neon lamps) that are turned on and off or twinkle or whatever a regular lamp can do, which is not much. Costumes end on having a very important role – other than chairs and then a quite fancy hospital bed, there is nothing on stage. In act I, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne are dressed like old people; in act II, they are dressed like middle-age people in the style of the 60’s; and in act III, they have younger people’s clothes in a quite contemporary taste. Kurwenal’s only “costume” involves a kilt and the King Marke has a suit and an overcoat. Why? It must be important, but I don’t feel like investigating. What I was curious to know is why the stage action is so awkward and why the director felt it important to have his cast often act in a way that evidently does not fit their personalities. With her attitude and voice, Irène Théorin looks often unintentionally funny in her coy manners, while Robert Dean Smith is not naturally heroic either in voice or in attitude.

In any case, veteran Peter Schneider proved that experience counts when you are conducting in Bayreuth. I won’t make a suspense – this was certainly one of the best performances I have listened to on the Green Hill and one of the best in my experience with this opera. Schneider is rather a Kapellmeister than a “creative” conductor, but today he has proved that faithfulness, if allied to virtuoso quality, does pay off. This evening Tristan sounded exactly as it should: the orchestral sound generously filled the hall without any loss in transparency and an extra serving of depth and beauty, truly deluxe sound; Schneider’s beat proved to be extremely flexible, taking its time when gravitas was required and flashing along where excitement was the keyword; and, to make things better, transitions were naturally and consequently handled. Although he did not spare his singers, Schneider knew the best way to balance stage and pit without ever damaging the building of climax. This was truly honest, efficient and truthful music-making.

Irène Théorin is evidently not a vulnerable Isolde, but rather ranks along Birgit Nilsson among the imperious Irish princesses who are more comfortable giving vent to their fury than mellowing in tenderness. Unlike Nilsson’s, her middle range might be a bit grainy and tremulous, but is always ready to shift into mezza voce. Predictably, act I was her strongest, in spite of a lapse or two during her Narration. Act II showed her first quite unfocused, but then she sang her Liebesnacht entirely in demi-tintes and blending perfectly to her Tristan. Unfortunately, act III was not a development from that. I suspect this was not one of her good-voice days, but still lots of very impressive moments. Michelle Breedt is a light Brangäne with firm, bright top notes and tonal variety. Robert Dean Smith is a sui generis Tristan – rather jugendlich dramatisch than dramatic, 100% musicianly, subtly phrasing in pleasant legato in an almost bel canto manner. Although the role takes him to his limits, he never indulges in forcing his tone, but rather lets his voice spin and acquire momentum in the trickiest passages. Naturally, act III exposes his lightness, but one must never forget: he sang it to the end without ever showing fatigue or any ugliness. He won’t probably ever sing the role in a theatre like the Met, but he is certainly worth the detour if you want to hear a fresh-sounding tenor as Tristan. Jukka Rasilainen was a most solid Kurwenal, but Robert Holl – in spite of a beautiful voice and sensitive phrasing – had his rusty moments as King Marke. I must mention Arnold Bezuyen’s Shepherd too, truly beautifully sung.

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I have to confess: Stefan Herheim’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal was one of the toughest cookies I had to deal with. Although, on a purely aesthetic level, he had won me over with his exquisite and complex visual concept, he set my brain to work throughout the opera and for some hours after that. Then I have noticed that his take on the crucial historical/cultural/philosophical problem of institutionalization, in the sense of how a vision is transformed into social reality and how this process eventually taints it to the point where it needs to be restored by a daring plunge into the principle in its purest form, is something that links the plot of Parsifal, the story of Wagner’s work made concrete by the foundation of a Festival later to become a symbol of a perverse regime and of Germany itself, the land of poets and thinkers that, once transformed in a country, inexorably marched to this very regime. To understand this process is to understand Parsifal, Wagner and Germany; on intertwining these parallel stories, Herheim was faithful to the idea of the Festival: making Germany look at and think about itself in a constructive environment. Watching it for the second time proved to be a more powerful experience: once you understand what lies behind the sophisticated imagery, you feel freer to let yourself be drawn to it and find many layers of meaning that go even beyond Germany and reach the status of universality. It is indeed very sad that the Festival did not find it important to tape this most powerful of its recent productions.

It is also sad that a more suitable conductor than Daniele Gatti had not been found. If I have to say something positive about it, it would be the full-toned quality of the orchestral sound, more in keeping with the reputation of Bayreuth than what I’ve previously seen here this year. But that would be it. The performance is ponderous, spineless and lacking purpose. Reading what I wrote about his conducting last year, the results are unfortunately quite consistent. It is also sad that the whole cast is in poorer shape in comparison to 2010. Susan Maclean is still a most impressive Kundry, both in her understanding of the role and in her flashing dramatic mezzo soprano, but her voice sometimes lacked finish and the closing of act II tested her sorely this evening. The role of Amfortas has always been a stretch for Detlef Roth, but today he sounded rough and strained from moment one, while Thomas Jesatko’s Klingsor was more forceful last year. Alas, Kwangchul Youn too was not in his best voice this evening and couldn’t sound as varied and ductile as in 2010. Finally, Simon O’Neill has a nasal basic tonal quality and an unbecoming physique against him (especially in comparison to a vulnerable and convincing Christopher Ventris last time), but he was never less than engaged and could produce some very loud and secure top notes in his confrontation with Kundry in act II.

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Hans Neuenfels would be disappointed to discover that, instead of feeling provoked by his staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin (as he says to fear in the program), the audience in Bayreuth would welcome it effusively. It is also true that the enthusiasm gave the impression of a statement: I wouldn’t say that everyone in the theater was delighted by what they have just seen, but it seems that it was important to show approval for a production of a clearly more professional level than that of those of Meistersinger and Tannhäuser performed in the previous days. I myself have seen more thought-provoking and more consistent Lohengrins than this one, but I too found it important to acknowledge that Neuenfels’s satisfies (or rather more than satisfies) the expected standard of quality expected from the Bayreuth Festival. Some may call it a bourgeois demand from a paying audience, I would call it the necessary requirement of talent in order to deal with the work of a great genius.

The first thing one notices about Bayreuth’s 2010 production of Lohengrin is its elegant, cold stage design: some sort of tomography lab aesthetics which are in the core of the concept here developed. Having to deal with a world where we are nothing but laboratory rats of a random, pointless experiment, we choose to believe in some sort of fiction – love, religion etc – to give it some sense of consequence and order. This consciousness – this understanding of nothingness and the choice of an imaginary sense to frame it – is what tells man from animal. Elsa produces a vision of a swan knight and provokes a collective religious experience that inspires people around her to a development into order through belief. But Lohengrin too indulges into the self-delusion of having found unconditional love in Elsa and agrees to abandon the glory of the knights of the Grail. Ortrud is some sort of skeptical soul who does not content with the shadows and would rather see objects themselves, even if this means disrupting any attempt of order. Her Erfahrt wie sich die Götter rächen has the effect of a pragmatic conclusion to an experiment: if you want to seek the ultimate truth, be ready to find chaos as an answer.

The question is how literal it is to portray the chorus in rat costumes in order to depict the concept above. I tend to believe that this was an easy choice – and I frankly dislike the little “mouse-comedy” numbers in orchestral interludes. Neuenfels could have suggested the “lab rat” impression in subtler ways, but he has a point that Lohengrin is some sort of fairy-tale, an aesthetic environment in which men and animal naturally interact. It is not the first staging either to show the evolutionary process set about by the arrival of Lohengrin. In Stefan Herheim’s Lindenoper production, Lohengrin leads the whole society to a Rousseaunian state-of-nature that would dissolve with the revelation that Lohengrin is nothing but a puppet; in Richard Jones’s Munich production, society organizes into some sort of Lohengrinic religion that endorses Elsa’s edificial project. Here, rats gradually become people as they embrace Lohengrin’s command. Curiously, if you abstract the rodent costumes, the production is quite coherent and well-conceived, in the sense that symbols are added to rather than replace the original storyline, making it richer by association and more fantastic by the unusual twist. In any case, the beauty of costumes and sets, the meticulous direction of actors and choristers, the mathematically calculated light-effects, the visually striking scenes – this all pleases the eyes in a way that even a nay-sayer would let himself be seduced by the approach.

It is also curious that the original reviews stressed Andris Nelsons’ conducting as impressive and revelatory. Maybe he was not inspired this evening, but I am at a loss of words to define my neutral impression. The orchestral sound didn’t persuade you either for richness or for clarity, but other than this there was nothing particularly bothering or pleasing going on. If I have to make an effort of finding a distinctive trait in him this evening, it would be his attention to his singers, particularly knowing how loud he could be in every moment (in what regards giving his cast enough time to breath in tricky moments, Nelsons wasn’t always very friendly though). The chorus sang heartily and acted keenly, but the otherworldly effect in passages such as Lohengrin’s first arrival was not really achieved.

Although I am surprised by Annette Dasch’s ability to spin jugendlich dramatisch top notes when you least expected it, her soprano remains limited in terms of volume and color in this repertoire. She has sense of style and sings sensitively, but one is constantly left wanted – especially in comparison with the more properly Wagnerian voices of her colleagues. I am not a fan of Petra Lang –  overmetallic and rasping are words that come to my mind – but her absolute control of dramatic top notes is really very impressive. Even if she failed in contrast, variety and subtlety, her Entweihte Götter (act II) and Fahr heim, du stolzer Helde (act III) correspond to everyone’s fantasy: she pierced through the loud orchestra with impressive power and security, often making very high notes even longer in admirable abandon. Lohengrin is Klaus Florian Vogt’s signature role, his uncanny boyish yet forcerful sound is the aural picture of the role and this alone makes for the occasional deficit in legato. Moreover, at moments, he is now even more sensitive and elegant in his high mezza voce than before. No wonder he received a standing ovation such as I have rarely witnessed in an opera house. Tómas Tómasson seems to have the right voice for Telramund, but evidently fell victim to a vocal glitch by the middle of act I that robbed him of any possibility of singing full out in his high register, being obliged therefore to resort to falsetto and transposition whenever he could. I know it is a difficult role, but it was rather insensitive of the Festival administration to let him carry on under those circumstances. Last but not least, Georg Zeppenfeld offered an immaculate performance as King Henry, as much as Samuel Youn was an exemplary Herald.

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Jim Davis’s Garfield once said “if you want to look thinner, hang around people fatter than you”. Now I understand Katharina Wagner’s smirk while being booed after yesterday’s performance of her production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This evening, deafened by the thunderous Boo-fest reserved to Sebastian Baumgarten for his production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, I could not help thinking that you can go far worse than Miss Wagner. At least, she had a couple of insights about the libretto and staged them. Well, she did not stage it very well – but she tried. Baumgarten believes he has had an insight too. Let’s read it: “The question we are faced with on a daily basis is: how are we to reconcile our pre-subjective drives and impulses, the asocial, with our subjective plans and dreams (in social and communicative contexts)? And time after time the answer is: quite simply we can’t. That is because this antithesis lies at the very heart of life. Only in art and especially in music is this antithesis abolished*. Is it only me or this is the most obvious observation one could make about Tannhäuser’s libretto?! But there is also set designer Joep van Lieshout’s take on the story “The battle of Tannhäuser is about choosing between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. At the end Tannhäuser is not able to find either of them.

If you are not dazzled by the profoundness of this analysis, you will probably be curious about how these platitudes have been staged. Here is my serious but not very enthusiastic attempt of making sense of what I have just seen: the concept of sublimation lies in the core of this staging, understood as the struggle for converting bodily impulses into nobler/spiritual values. This is macrocosmically represented by an installation called “The Technocrat”, an industrial plant that transforms human excrement into fuel gas and (most surprisingly, if my Chemistry classes are still valid) spirit (i.e., alcohol). In the social level, this is shown as an Orwellian group of workers who are cued by an invisible administration through motivational slogans. From the spiritual (i.e., mental) point-of-view, this takes place through channeling erotic impulse into art. During the overture, a film is shown in which one can see sonograms and x-rays depicting a rib-cage,  a heart, a stomach superposed with images of machines. Tannhäuser is held in a cage with ape-like creatures, someone in a leopard-costume and two rays (as in stingray). Venus is a pregnant hag without any allure. Tannhäuser gets sick of all that and presses a button: the cage named Venusberg slides into the floor and he then finds a drunk young man (the shepherd) and some people in red robes. He is delighted, especially when a bunch of guys dressed as members of a Scottish Glam rock band show up (the Landgraf and the other singer knights).

In act II, we see Elisabeth in a red robe excited about Tannhäuser’s imminent arrival while trying ugly jewelry. Wolfram is jealous, but understands that two is company and, once alone with her, Tannhaüser gives her a brief incursion into the Venusberg (remember: it is just one floor down). She is flushed, he disappears. Then the Landgraf invites the people with robes, some girls with swimsuits and swords and a bunch of women in bridesmaids’ frocks and a priest to the little singing competition in the facilities. Venus takes the ladder to the gathering place and joins the group, although the priest does not seem happy to see her. Everybody sings, but Tannhäuser sings and pour water on his rivals from the second floor. Then he grabs Venus from the audience and sings her hymn to her. The very colourful group of factory workers who convert feces into biogas is shocked and try to kill him with some knives that happened to be hanging nearby. Elisabeth threatens to kill herself and they let her have her way. But she is not convinced of the effect and gets some red paint and makes her little scene a little bit bloodier. She assures Tannhäuser that Heaven will forgive him, but he seems either too stupid to understand or unwilling to do so, but it is too late to change thngs and he goes inside a container with the words “Rome 4501″.

Provided you forget that there is an industrial plant etc etc, act III is actually quite conventional almost until the very end. Elisabeth is sad – check; Wolfram is melancholic – check; Elisabeth dies away (here with a little help from Wolfram); Tannhäuser gets out of the container bald and beardless and explains how the Pope was mean to him (if you really believed the whole gas plant thing, you probably asked yourself ‘Pope?!” at this moment); Venus (who was basically there all the time) appears and then disappears – check; Elisabeth is shown as a saint – check. Then Venusberg is lifted to the ground, the ape-like figures bounce a lot, the rays contort themselves and….ah, Venus has her baby. Curtains.

Yes, I’ve got that Baumgarten probably wanted to show that, although basic instincts are considered vile and spiritual values noble, the only miracle of everyday life – birth – is produced by the body and its impulses: no spirit produces flesh, but flesh does produce spirit. You will find many passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses about the classic discussion of transcendence/immanence, especially related to the body and Catholic values. But there is a big difference there: Joyce is a genius, while Baumgarten doesn’t go beyond Friedrichshain’s Weltanschauung: The Werkstatt Bayreuth should not therefore content itself with simply serving up Tannhäuser as a refined entertainment for festival audiences or We wanted to make one very dense continuous peformance of two and a half hour instead of the traditional one but the caterer forced us to keep the pauses… I really wonder if Mr. Baumgarten does have the moral stature out of his heavily subsidized professional activity to sneer at people like me who have to work to pay for expensive festival tickets. When he chooses, for example, to engage in a social project of integration for children of foreign descent in working-class neighborhoods of Berlin instead of collecting his fee for making poor stagings of an art form he himself considers decadent, maybe he would be able to start pointing fingers around him. Until then, he should study a bit more and give up trying to shock people with extras dressed in costumes from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats for his view of Venusberg. We read newspapers, we watch CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera – we are well-informed about the REALLY shocking things in the world. Only a very ignorant person would try to enlighten anyone well-informed (as the audience of Wagner operas tend to be) with subpar, pseudo-intellectual stagings.

But there is always Wagner’s music. Tannhäuser is something of an uncompleted opera, in the sense that the composer never found a final edition for it. This evening, the usually called Dresden version was used, even if I have the impression that something different happened between the end of the overture and Venus’s first line, but I cannot really say it. There might have been some unusual cuts in the closing scenes of act II, but I would need a score to say something more precise about that. Maestro Thomas Hengelbrock would have liked to follow some cuts made by Wagner himself after the premiere in Dresden, but it seems that the Festival did not subscribe to the idea. In any case, Hengelbrock can be counted as the responsible for the interest of this evening’s performance. Some might find his Tannhäuser too unconventional in its fast pace, clean-cut phrasing and taste for orchestral effects (with the occasional sudden accelerando or ritardando), but the fact is that it sheds a new light on the score. He is a conductor new to the Festival pit and could be found wanting in sound (especially when the chorus was singing) and I am sure that, in a regular opera house, with an orchestra as good as this one, he could have been even more eloquent. Although singers sometimes found it hard to follow his beat, ensembles were generally clear and consequent – and the orchestra never failed in clarity and played with animation.

Camilla Nylund was a reliable Elisabeth in her warm, round and homogeneous soprano. She sang with good taste and sensitivity, but lacks the necessary radiance to pierce through thick orchestration in roles like this. Stephanie Friede has the elements of an important dramatic soprano voice in her – but they are so chaotically handled that the results are generally disappointing, especially in what regards intonation. I know I have been spoiled by Stephen Gould’s and Johan Botha’s Tannhäusers and I had to remind myself that generally the tenor in the title role sings like Lars Cleveman. As it is, the part lies very close to his limits and he pushes a lot in order to get through. As a consequence, there is not really much legato to speak of. Forcing high notes and beefing-up the tone rarely work for long and the result is that the effort became more and more evident as the opera goes on. By the third act, he was exhausted and just trying to survive. Michael Nagy could be a very good Wolfram – he knows exactly what kind of singing this role requires, but his voice is too often on the verge of throatiness for comfort. Günther Groissböck was a very positive Landgraf, singing firmly and incisively. Considering the general shortcomings, it wouldn’t be correct to call him “the best in the cast”, for he was far superior from his colleagues this evening. Katja Stuber deserves mention for her cleanly sung Shepherd too. Last but not least, the Festival should be praised by a strong group of singers for the competitors at the Wartburg.


*Hegemann, Carl. A fearful misdeed has been committed. Notes on the Bayreuth Tannhäuser 2011. In: 100. Bayreuther Festspiele (187202911): Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg. Program to the performance of the opera.

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Never say “never”. I clearly remember saying that I would never see Katharina Wagner’s staging of her great-grandfather’s Meistersinger, but here I am to witness its last performance before it is finally discarded for good. As in previous runs, the stage direction has been retouched and, if I may say something positive, I would acknowledge that it has now become more clearly a comedy – funny moments are better timed and there was more laughter from the audience this year than last time. That did not prevent, however, the director from being massively booed in the end. Don’t feel sorry for her – she seems to receive disapproval as a confirmation of her foresight unshared by her bourgeois audience. Naturally, she doesn’t mind cashing the money from ticket sales. In any case, I don’t think that the production was devoid of insight – there is some insight there that could be made into something truly thought-provoking and scenically efficient in the hands of a talented director. For instance, although the composer shows in his score that Beckmesser was rejected by the audience because he is not really talented, the fact remains that he was good enough to be accepted as a Meistersinger. If baritones resist the temptation of caricature, one can hear that he can handle, for example, florid singing. His sin could have been nothing but having indulged into the false glamor of French/Italian style (if we use Sachs’s final speech as a reference) – and therefore he would not conformed to the accepted standard, not because he was avant-garde (the concept probably does not apply here), but simply because his aesthetic approach was not… popular (and therefore inauthentic and bad, according to traditional principles of German cultural identity). This is not an uninteresting discussion, but Katharina Wagner does not have the stature to tackle it, both as a director and as an intellectual.

The fact that the musical side of the performance was below standard made the evening doubly testing for the audience. Last year, I found Sebastian Weigle’s conducting unclear yet rich-toned and structurally coherent. This evening, it was basically unclear. Although the sound is still irresistible in its warm tonal quality and blended sections, strings often failed to offer clean passagework, the level of mismatch with the stage was alarming and many passages were almost pointless in terms of horizontal clarity. The cast remains the same of last year with one notable exception. I have found Adrian Eröd a bit more consistent last time, but still very clean-toned and dramatically purposeful; Norbert Ernst is far more forceful, especially in his high notes, as David, but stills works hard for tonal and dynamic variety; James Rutherford’s grainy and often woolly bass-baritone does not suggest nobility, but he is a little bit more expressive this year. If I have to choose a favorite singer this evening, this would Georg Zeppenfeld, an ideal Pogner.

And there is Burkhard Fritz as Walther von Stolzing. I disagree with the opinion that his tenor is too light for this music – I have seen him previously in Schrecker’s Der ferne Klang in Berlin and found then that maybe there was a little more than Walther and Lohengrin in him. This evening, the voice sounded so poorly supported in acts 1 and 2 that one could almost guess that he would be announced indisposed, what proved to be true. Curiously, his illness was explained as “circulatory problems” and the he would try to go further. If he could not, Simon O’Neill would sing instead. But for a broken high g (or a), he sang to the end of the performance, probably better after the announce. Of course, the tougher part of the role comes in the first two acts – but then everything above a high e was basically pushed, unfocused and (therefore) strained. Once he began to sing more cautiously, softer attack made his voice brighter (yet lighter if ultimately audible) and even more pleasant. But legato was still faulty and pitch, eccentric. But, given the announced indisposition, one cannot tell if he needs to rethink his technique or just take care of his health.

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If Takred Dorst’s unimaginative production of Der Ring des Nibelungen reached its most bureaucratic in the anachronistic and pointless staging of the Gibichungenhalle as a masked ball in a place that looks like an emergency exit in the Lincoln Center while the guests’ outfit suggests rather the 1930’s, Christian Thielemann seemed to sum up the best and the worst in his conducting in the three other installments of the Tetralogy: the first scene with the Gibichungen was particularly spineless and his reliance in Furtwänglerian-like grandiose perspectives could not make up for the absence of a clearer sense of structure and timing in slacker and more conversational passages. In other moments, when his instincts seemed to invite him to more impact, but the need to accommodate less voluminous-voiced soloists led him astray, one missed more profile and more drama, such as during Waltraute’s narration and, unfortunately, the immolation scene. On the other hand, Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s duet was excitingly and exquisitely handled, the soloists flexible enough not to thwart forward-movement. Even if singers lacked stamina for a truly thrilling act II, the conductor created atmosphere admirably with impressively theatrical effects in his orchestra. In any case, Siegfried’s funeral march was the unforgettable highlight of the whole performance – the powers of nature seem to emerge from the pit in the Festspielhaus. My final impression is that, although Thielemann is often very impressive and sometimes exemplary, he has not given his last word about Wagner’s Ring – what should be considered good news anyway, given the fact that he is a relatively young conductor. After Daniel Barenboim’s amazingly disappointing Rheingold in Milan, I wouldn’t like to establish definitive comparisons, but the Argentine conductor’s recording from Bayreuth shows a similar large-scaled, momentous approach, in which the dramatic gestures and the power to instill emotion in the proceedings are more readily available though.

Linda Watson’s performance as Brünnhilde started on a very positive note – she sang warmly and femininely her first scene. Later, she would ultimately seem too well-behaved for the circumstances. I suspect she is not the right soprano for Brünnhilde’s more outspoken scenes, her round top notes lack the necessary slancio and she is too often overshadowed by the orchestra in the bottom of her range. Edith Haller was a luminous Gutrune who sang touchingly her last scene, a rare achievement in a role that can seem almost intrusive. Although Lance Ryan’s singing is generally short of flowing cantabile, his ease with the murderous tessitura, his ability to shade his tone when necessary and his rhythmic accuracy are extremely welcome – his report of the woodbird’s lines were actually more fluent, more clear and more understandable that those sung by the soprano taking that role on Wednesday. And one must not forget – he is an excellent actor. His stage performance will probably be the one I will compare everyone else’s too from now on. Andrew Shore’s Alberich still suffered from opaque high notes replaced by unvaried emphasis and parlando effects and, if Eric Halfvarson could produce a powerful calling in act II, his voice seemed quite tired this evening. By the end of the opera, he was practically speaking his part. In any case, both were preferable to the seriously miscast Ralf Lukas as Gunther. If Christa Mayer sang sensitively, she still lacked projection as Waltraute. Although one could imagine more dramatic Norns, Christiane Kohl, the fruity-toned Ulrike Hetzel and Simone Schröder (better cast here than as 1rd norn) were excellent Rhinemaidens.

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Does Katharina Wagner’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg need another beating? There are directors who still believe that there is a burgeoisie to be epatée, but, even if you don’t understand why they are trying to shock you out of your salary-earning opera-ticket-buying life, at least they succeed to shock you (the name of Calixto Bieito comes to my mind), but Katharina Wagner disappointed me – I had understood that this was a shocking production, but it is only a boring production of someone who fancied she was saying something original. In her staging, all characters are reduced to cardboard complexity and what is supposed to be the trade-off, a discussion about about conformism/success vs originality/marginalization, even as shown here with inverted signs, has the depth and novelty of a raindrop. We know that Harry Kupfer has done some great productions in which the polarity between characters is changed, especially his Lohengrin for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, in which Ortrud had right to accuse the delusional Elsa for killing her brother, but that was a result of a careful effort to find dormant ambiguities in the libretto. The rebel-without-a-cause who never took seriously the idea of becoming a Meistersinger in order to get the girl and, on getting her, pays the price of his originality in order to be established is simply not Walther von Stolzing, the already established self-assured gentleman who happens to discover his own voice on condescending to a bourgeois milieu in order to get the girl. Even if this is a twisted manouvre , at least there is a character development of some sort to speak of – poor old Sachs is a nonentity here, a provincial poet who profits of helping his rival in love just to drain him of a supposed geniality he himself envies. Is that the character for whom Wagner wrote music of such depth and nobility? I won’t say more, for the DVD can be easily purchased on-line and in CD stores – not by me, I am afraid, for Ms. Wagner’s family issues should be dealt with exclusively in the privacy of her home.

Sebastian Weigle’s conducting is the opposite of Katharina Wagner’s production – his orchestra is noble in color, solemn almost to a fault, rich in expressive, considerate tempi that require a more expressive cast to match. As the score tends to be ponderous and intricate, I tend to prefer a more objective, forward-moving approach featuring also clearer articulation, but that is a only a matter of taste. I know I tend to mention the closing of act II when I write about a performance of this opera, but that is a crucial scene extremely difficult to organize – and Mr. Weigle has done an excellent job in it. The orderliness had nothing stiff about it, the result being a extraordinarily spontaneous, with excellent contribution from the Festival chorus.

As in the Deutsche Oper, Michaela Kaune is a stylish, musicianly Eva, but her voice was even less focused than back in Berlin, when she had had a particularly beautiful moment leading the quintet. Klaus Florian Vogt too seemed less comfortable than in Berlin – his high notes a bit constricted. I still have to accustom myself to his disembodied tenor in this role that requires a more fervent tonal quality, but there is no denying that his is an unusually pleasant and natural voice used with good taste and stylishness. I must add that, although I disagree to the approach to the role of Stolzing in this production, Vogt embraced it with great skill, offering excellent acting. Adrian Eröd too excelled in the acting department and arguably produced the most satisfying performance in the evening, also adeptly and spiritedly sung. Norbert Ernst was a nimble, intelligent David, but a voice a little bit more generous would have enabled him to more variety. James Rutherford’s grainy bass-baritone is short in tonal and dynamic variety and also a couple of sizes too small for the role of Hans Sachs.

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If this week’s Die Walküre from Bayreuth took some time to warm, this evening’s Siegfried did not hang fire. Christian Thielemann conducted a dense, large-scaled performance that did not need to rush to suggest intensity, but rather increased in tension steadily and progressively. Some conductors opt for raw excitement in this score’s percussive rhythmic effects, but Thielemann never tried any easy option. The forging song, for instance, achieved its effect rather through motivic clarity and rich almost weighty orchestral sound (which never drowned singers). The Neidhöhle scene benefited from dark menacing perspectives and the sort of harmonic transparence that makes one see in this music the hint of what would happen in the next century. The Brünnhilde/Siegfried scene benefited from otherworldly sounds and exploded in passionate, volatile full-toned orchestral playing under the maestro’s flexible beat.

Replacing an ailing Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in the last minute, Sabine Hogrefe offered a creamy-toned soprano with firm, big acuti, dynamic variety and a very decent trill. She bills herself as a dramatic soprano, but a limited lower range and a round rather than penetrating tonal quality would make one think rather of a jugendlich dramatisch voice. I am not sure if I would be tempted to see her Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, but I would certainly cherish the opportunity to sample her Elsa or Elisabeth. In any case, although she was understandably nervous, her singing was extremely accomplished, musicianly and sensitive. Lance Ryan’s tenor is not voluminous, but very well-focused and his high notes are easy and full. He is not afraid of shading his tone and is more accurate about rhythm than many a famous singer in the title role. He is also an excellent actor who knows how to portray innocence without looking silly. His interaction with Wolfgang Schmidt’s Mime is in the core of this evening’s success. I have written of Schmidt’s performance in Rheingold that I had the impression that he manipulated his voice to produce a Spieltenor sound. This evening he expertly managed this ambiguity of heroic and character Fächer to portray the alternating comic and evil sides of his role. He too offered top-level acting – the scene in which he tries to explain fear to Siegfried particularly well done. Andrew Shore still sounds unfocused and strained in his high register, but he is nonetheless a very convincing Alberich, while Albert Dohmen was in noticeably better voice today, offering spirited accounts of his scenes with Mime and Alberich. Again he has his throaty moments and a nobler tonal quality would make his scene with Erda more impressive, the latter role a bit on the low side for Christa Mayer. I mean it as a compliment when I say that Diógenes Randes’s voice is too beautiful for Fafner. As for Christiane Kohl’s Waldvogel, it lacked clearer vowels.

Tankred Dorst’s production still seems clueless about what to do with the plot – the schoolroom set for act I exclusively meant to add humor to the Wotan/Mime guessing game, but failing to respond to the needs of the forging scene. The set to act II looked indeed impressive, but the preparation to Fafner’s coming out of his cave was finally more impressive than his uneventful appearance as Fafner, the giant (rather than as Fafner, the dragon).  Act III was rather bureaucratically dealt with. In any case, the stage direction itself deserves praises for the successful characterizations of both Siegfried and Mime.

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After a musically outstanding Rheingold, expectations for this evening’s Walküre were high, but the event reserved a few surprises, not all of them positive. To start with, although the orchestral sound was consistently beautiful and rich, act I lacked, in the absence of a better word, passion. Often the buildup to a climax would be cut off too soon and one would rather hear particular successful moments (such as a lyric, touching Winterstürme, sensitively sung by the tenor) that did not merge into a continuous arch of musical-dramatic development. Act II suffered from tempi that did seem slow, particularly during Wotan’s run-through of previous events when this evening’s Wotan failed to give life to the text. The Todverkündung suffered from absence of atmosphere, a situation when forward-movement rather than lingering is recommended, especially when the Brünnhilde did not seem really inspired. Only the Sieglinde/Siegmund situations came through as improvement from act I, since both singers showed themselves even more connected to the dramatic situation, and also the conductor could warm to their performances and wrap them in sounds that offered more than sheer sonic beauty. Something might have happened during the second intermission, for act III redeemed the whole evening. After a structural clear Walkürenritt, Christian Thielemann treated the audience with a Golden Age Wagnerian performance – the orchestra’s luxuriantly beautiful sounds were also laden with meaning and emotion, not only commenting the theatrical action, but carrying it forward with almost unbearable intensity. Sieglinde’s farewell was not an isolated powerful moment, but rather the culmination of a truly poignant scene, but the final Brünnhilde/Wotan scene stood out as the highlight of the evening, both singers giving their very best and an orchestra that magnified their performance in admirable expressive power. When Wotan kissed Brünnhilde’s godhead away, the very sound of the Festival orchestra transpired grief. By then, if you were not crying, you probably don’t have a heart. In a word, although the first two acts had their moments, act three alone was worth the price of the ticket, plus transportation and hotel costs.

If anything in this performance was consistently excellent during the three acts, this has to be Edith Haller’s peerless performance as Sieglinde. I had never heard her before, but she joins today my list of favourite singers. Her youthful, exquisite and bright-toned soprano often made me think of Maria Müller’s vulnerable Sieglinde from the 1936 Festival (elegant portamenti included), but Haller’s top register is more corsé, flashing through the auditorium without any hint of strain or difficulty. Her qualities are, in any case, more than purely vocal – she is an extremely musical, sensitive and intelligent artist. Linda Watson took more time to grow into her Brünnhilde – although her ho-jo-to-ho had flat sustained high b’s, she was well at ease with the rest of her battle cry. Her long scene with Siegmund challenged her otherwise in the expressive department. As well as unvaried, her exposed high notes sounded squally sometimes. Although not a very good actress, she finally offered a beautiful account of the third act, when she proved capable of real nuance and legato, never forced her voice and seemed engaged enough to offer a touching interpretation. Moreover, the scene’s tessitura fits her rich and warm low register. Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre’s Fricka, but she is a shrewd singer who knows how to handle her resources to deliver the right effect in the right moment. Johan Botha’s voice is higher-lying than those of the tenors usually cast in this role. As a result, the raw excitement of dark, beefy high g’s was not really there. In exchange, a brighter tonal quality and more flowing legato throughout. When Innigkeit was required, such as in his contemplation of the sleeping Sieglinde in act II, the South-African tenor was particularly appealing. In spite of his heavy frame, he did not appear to be really awkward on stage, but rather quite convincing in his attraction to Sieglinde in act I. Albert Dohmen did not show any improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold until the opera’s last scene, when he conjured all his means to produce a sensitive and varied farewell to Brünnhilde. His invocation of Loge right before the end of the opera even brought about his first really Wotan-like powerful top notes. As for Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding, saying that he was less than perfect would be an unforgivable lie. Last but not least, the casting of the remaining eight valkyries is praiseworthy.

As for Tankred Dorst’s production, it still lacks purport – the sets are  not really original, the intrusive presence of contemporary bystanders is tautological, stage direction has too many careless moments, the ugly costumes often make it difficult for singers to move (Fricka’s specially). If I should be positive about this staging, I would mention that it is well crafted – the sets are flawlessly built, the lighting is sophisticated and there is very little silliness going on here (something that should be cherished considering the present state of operatic staging).

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Tankred Dorst’s 2006 production of the Ring des Nibelungen for the Bayreuther Festspiele, due to be released on DVD in the end of the year, seems to turn around the concept that myths do not belong in the past, but still linger in the darker corners of our daily lives. Although the Rhinemaidens and Alberich are shown in a stylized Rhine, Wotan and the other gods dwell on the top of a decayed building that could perfectly be on Leipziger Straße in Berlin. While Freia’s fate is being decided, a couple of tourists appear and takes a picture – in case someone had not noticed by then that the setting is contemporary. Nibelheim is an industrial plant (yes, nothing new about that) where an engineer passes by Wotan and Loge, who are invisible to his eyes, to check the pressure on a couple of pipes. During the opera’s last bars, a kid from our days finds a remain of Fafner’s treasure, but the curse seems to keep its effect. He soon gets a beating from his friends, who steal it from him. Considering the premise’s absence of originality, the scene who curiously seem to work is the first one, the only not to fit the concept. The stage direction has nothing new about it – some key scenes, such as Alberich’s curse, hang fire – the sets were uninspiring and the costumes are not only extremely ugly, but sometimes also impaired actors’ movements.

All that said, the production is nothing but a footnote in a Wagner performance in which Christian Thielemann is the conductor. Although his tempi were quite deliberate, the richness and clarity of orchestral sound and the purposefulness in phrasing filled these tempi in a way that simply sounded right. The Festival orchestra played with tremendous gusto, strings were full-toned yet extremely flexible, the texture was dense yet transparent, the various sections blended perfectly, brass instruments offered flawless playing. In spite of the venue’s famously difficult acoustics, one did not feel that the orchestral sound was recessed (the covered pit did make the sound less bright, but never small-scaled) and the conductor was very sensitive but also very sensible in deciding when it was possible to curb his formidable forces to help out singers.

Albert Dohmen, for example, did not seem to be in very good voice – on its higher reaches, his bass-baritone sounded bottled up and limited in volume. Truth be said, he was often covered by the orchestra and detached in the interpretation department. Back in 2004, I had the opportunity to see him as Amfortas in Munich and clearly remember a very large and powerful voice, but recently it seems to have shrunk in size. Let us hope that tomorrow will find him in better shape. Andrew Shore is a good actor and his voice has the right sound for Alberich, but his high notes were unfocused and often rough. After one has seen Tomasz Koniecny in this role, one tends to find fault in everyone else these days, but it seems that the British baritone was experimenting some sort of fatigue this evening. It has become customary for Kwangchul Youn to steal the show when he sings Fasolt in The Rhinegold – the Korean bass’s dark, incisive voice is taylor-made for Wagner. Brazilian bass Diógenes Randes’s is velvetier in sound, but his Fafner did not lack menace. Wolfgang Schmidt, whom I saw back in 1997 as an ill-at-ease Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera House, is now a powerful Mime who sometimes indulge in some Spieltenor mannerisms that do not really go with his basic tonal quality. Let us wait for Siegfried to say more about him. Clemends Bieber was a pleasant-toned Froh, but Ralk Lukas lacked slancio for his final and important contribution. Mihoko Fujimura is a light, efficient Fricka and Christa Meyer’s mezzo seemed a bit high for the role of Erda, even if she sang it quite commendably. Christiane Kohl, Ulrike Helzel and Simone Schröder were very well cast as the Rhinemaidens.

I will leave the best for last – Arnold Bezuyen’s impressively sung Loge and Edith Haller’s crystalline Freia. The Dutch tenor, in particular, deserves praises for his extremely musical phrasing, his intelligent word-pointing that never stands between him and true cantabile and his finely projected voice.

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