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Posts Tagged ‘Christiane Libor’

A classic example of German heavy-handedness is the fact that Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is supposed to be a comedy, but few people know that Wagner composed other comic opera, his second opera actually (after Die Feen), Das Liebesverbot, inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The action takes place, in the libretto, in Palermo (whereas the play is set in Vienna, and one can see the young composer’s intent of producing an Italianate atmosphere here). This fact alone makes the opera an interesting experience – although Wagner proved to have understood the formulae of opera buffa, he struggled a bit with bel canto (his attempts at writing florid lines often sound awkward) and with strophic stucture (the repeats often give the impression of overstaying their welcome). However, the quality of the music is impressive. Sometimes, it seems like the upgraded version of Donizetti minus the spontaneous melodic invention and the comic timing. At its best, such as in the Isabella/Dorella/Luzio act II trio, it is truly funny and musically effective. And you still gets to find some ideas later recycled in Tannhäuser! Why is it not more often staged then? As with Die Feen, Wagner requires for Das Liebesverbot impossible voices – Bellinian voices in singers who can also tackle German declamatory style (can we really blame Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient for that?).

As almost everybody, I know this opera from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s live recording from Munich. There one can already hear how exhausting it is to sing these roles and how the German cast is uncomfortable with the virtuosistic writing. They sing with utmost conviction nonetheless under Sawallisch’s galvanic conducting – an orchestral tour de force from the Bayerische Staatsoper orchestra.

The fact that the concert performance heard this evening in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper is going to be commercially released is something of a mystery to me. The exceptional cast, essential to make this music work (think of Bellini’s Norma with a so-so cast…), has not been gathered here – actually, some singers were rather below standard. That was a pity, for the Frankfurter Opernorchester played very well, offering aptly bright, lean sonorities under Sebastian Weigle’s agile, balanced and stylish conducting. I had never before been in the Alte Oper and maybe had a bad seat, but I found the acoustic awful: the orchestral sound could not bloom and louder dynamics brought about a noisy, brassy quality. Singers’ voices too suffered in the unflattering hall. Maybe because of that Weigle seemed a bit too self-controlled, too well-behaved in comparison to Sawallisch – in an opera about carnival, passion and fun!

In the impossibly difficult role of Isabella, the invaluable Christiane Libor, a champion of early Wagner operas, offered an exciting performance. Her big creamy flexible lyric soprano has the necessary heft for the occasional exposed dramatic acuti, and she sang with unfailing good taste, imagination and sense of humor. She would sometimes understandably sound off-steam (far less than Sabine Hass in the Munich recording), but if my memory doesn’t fail me, she was in more exuberant shape as Ada in Minkowski’s Die Feen in Paris in 2009. In any case, I still don’t understand why her career has been relatively modest so far.

As Mariana, Anna Gabler sang with poise and sensitiveness with her mezzo-ish soprano that opens up in floaty tones in the high notes. If Pamela Coburn had not been so ideally cast in Munich, I would have been more impressed. The role of Dorella requires a  brighter toned soprano than Anna Ryberg, who was too often inaudible. When it comes to these almost unsingable tenor roles, one would need a Gedda and a Wunderlich to do them justice. There are no new Geddas nor new Wunderlichs, but there are more acceptable options around. In the romantic leading-man role of Luzio, Peter Bronder was at least loud enough, but one did not need to read the program to see that Mime is his usual role. As Claudio, Charles Reid aptly sang in Italianate style, but seemed nervous, showed limited volume and fought with his high notes. Julian Prégardien (Pilato) was the one tenor in the cast with a natural, pleasant voice, but the high register is still a bit stiff. Simon Bode (Antonio) has a curiously boyish voice – if he can master tonal colouring, he might be a firm-toned Evangelist in Bach’s Passionen. Here it all lacks body and roundness.

In the key role of Friedrich, Michael Nagy sang with richness and musicianship. As much as with Hermann Prey in Munich, one feels that a voice a tad more heroic would make the role far more interesting. Last but not least  Thorsten Grümbel was a brilliant Brighella. He is a singer I would like to hear again.

Considering the opera’s length and the strenuous roles, I understand that it has probably never been performed without cuts. This evening a bit more generous than in Sawallisch’s live recording (of a staged performance).

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No mistake here – I am not talking about Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, but a forgotten work Strauss himself  championed, which is Richard Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, staged by the first time in France in the Theatre du Châtelet.

The curious Wagnerian has probably got acquainted with the work in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s recording made live in Munich by Orfeo luxuriously cast with Linda Esther Gray, June Anderson, Cheryl Studer, John Alexander, Jan-Henrik Rootering et al. So has Marc Minkowski, who has dared not only to use his own Les Musiciens du Louvre but also to offer a far less excised edition. The immediately first instance of comparison between these conductors is that Minkowski’s orchestra cannot, for the obvious reasons, compete with the Bavarian State Orchestra’s lushness of sound. In order to create the necessary impact with a leaner orchestral sound, the French conductor proved to have the energy and pulse of very few conductors in order to keep his musicians playing as if their lives depended on that for more than three hours – his beat never failed, the orchestra’s attack was always strong, phrasing was always the leading element of the story telling. Even when one could rightly miss an orchestra like Sawallisch’s, Minkowski proved to be more coherent, more structured – every one of the three acts built inevitably to their powerful finali.

As a side comment, it is impossible not to notice that the score’s shining features are its ensembles with full chorus and soloists, something the composer would use more economically in his mature works. Even if the work is decidedly uneven, long stretches of music are irresistibly powerful, especially in act II, when one has a feeling that Bellini’s Norma, Weber’s Freischütz and Beethoven’s Fidelio have been mixed in a blender together with the house’s secret ingredient. I wonder what would have happened to the history of music if this work had been staged when it was composed. More seriously, what would have happened if Wagner had actually succeeded in the mainstream department? Would there be place for Tristan und Isolde if he had indeed reformed the genre of grand opéra? The truth is that no-other composer has a first stage work so brilliant as Wagner.

As in many early works by operatic composers, Die Feen suffers from its impossibly difficult casting. These roles are so difficult that you feel you owe these singers the cost of an extra ticket! In the Isolde-meets-Agathe role of Ada, Christiane Libor does not feature the show-stopping dramatic soprano of Linda Esther Gray (in her sadly short career), but the gentler sound of Minkowski’s orchestra allows her to exude far more vocal allure. She is the kind of singer who never ever produces an ugly sound even when things get really difficult. To say the truth, Ms. Libor has instantly made me a fan of hers. There has to be some problem in the world of opera if a singer of her outstanding level is not more famous. Her warm sizeable lyric soprano has something of the sexiness of the young pre-wobble Eva Marton blended with the coolness, elegance and poise of Margaret Price. I know this is not a good description – but that is the best way I can describe her. She also has a regal presence and, even if she is not really an electrifying actress, she is never less than convincing.

In spite of the performance’s seconda donna’s talents, the role of Lora was, in my opinion, miscast. It requires a Bellinian voice with a bright and spontaneous high register. Lina Tetruashvili is a reliable, velvety-toned soprano, but there is nothing Italianate about her voice – she was fazed about fast and high passages, her diction is not very clear and her German is not really convincing. It was no coincidence that Sawallisch invited June Anderson for his Munich performances.

William Joyner got the ingrateful task of singing the role of Arindal, a part that requires both heroic heft and Mozartian grace. He has no problem with offering dulcet head tones when required from him, but is tested by exposed dramatic high-lying passages. Considering the difficulties of the role, he proved to be unusually accurate and musicianly, but the cracked notes at the end of the evening only proved that this run of performances maybe was really demanding for him. Laurent Naouri not only is an excellent actor, but sang Gernot’s act 1 romanze in the grand manner. It is a pity that his bass was a bit off focus for the comic duet with Drolla in act 2. As Farzana and Zemina, both Salomé Haller and the beautiful Eduarda Melo left absolutely nothing to be desired. Minor roles were strongly cast.

I do not know if the pun was intended, but Emilio Sagi decided to stage the world of fairies with glittery colours, lots of pink tones and male choristers dressed in female clothes. To say the truth, mortals had also its share of glossy scenic elements, but, maybe because there is a war going on, there seems to be a limited share of spangle going on in Arindal’s kingdom. Sagi claims to find inspiration in Jeffrey Koons for his settings – a gigantic rose, a gigantic doll and a gigantic chandelier seemed to be it and, if the effect could be dramatic blank, it never failed to have an aesthetic impact. Justice be made, actors were extremely well directed and scenes never sag, keeping continuous interest, but a heroic opera needs a bit more craft. For instance, act III describes Arindal’s fighting earth spirits and bronze men, but this is all reduced to a curtain of blue strings and colourful boxes. One could thing that the budget was not enough for the three acts…!

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