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Posts Tagged ‘Christof Fischesser’

Puccini’s La Bohème is the kind of opera that does everything to please you – it is easy on the ear, everybody can relate to the plot (no gods or heros here – just ordinary people meeting each other and trying to make the best of it before death finally comes to put an end on it all) and it is also short enough for you to get a table in a restaurant afterwards. However, as much as people who try really hard to please you, operas like that will from some point on and then maybe forever make you sick with their docility. I have to confess that, although I still find Mimì’s dying process quite touching no matter how hard I try to snob it, I never feel like listening, let alone watching La Bohème.

You might be wondering why I am bothering to write all that about an opera I don’t really have patience to hear. The answer is that I have decided to give it a new try. Because I am in Berlin, a city where people are far from sentimental, I thought that maybe an objective approach to this opera could be possible. And that would be interesting – a staging that looks more like Ken Loach than like Franco Zeffirelli, I guessed, with a Straussian treatment to the orchestra and maybe some restraint regarding lachrimosity among singers. Well, I was wrong.

The Lindenoper’s staging of La Bohème looks like the destitute man’s Met production: it basically features the same ideas, but in their low-budget version. To make it worse, scenes involving chorus singers and extras are so poorly staged that you feel ashamed for whoever directed that. The cast, on the other hand, was able to pierce through the routine and try to offer something less mechanical. Anna Samuil clearly knows how a Puccini “little woman” should be portrayed and she is not afraid of trying, but her basic vocal and stage personality are heartily Russian. Her lyric soprano is sizeable enough and she has probably learnt with Mirella Freni’s recording how conversational passages should be handled in a natural middle register, but there is a Slavic metallic edge on her singing that makes her the opposite of vulnerable and her chest voice can be a bit brash. Her portrait was engaged, but not really spontaneous – and finally lacking affection. In spite of some top notes below true pitch, Adriane Queiroz’s Musetta was sung in sultry tone and with enough playfulness to build an almost three-dimensional coquette. One could tell that Charles Castronovo had a background in Mozart from his elegant phrasing, good taste and concern with the text. His high notes are not exuberant as many an Italian tenor’s, but he strangely seemed to benefit from that in order to integrate them in his legato approach. Alfredo Daza’s heaviness and graininess made him a particularly unfriendly Marcello. Christof Fischesser, on the other hand, was a rich-toned, straight-forward Colline. All involved were at least at ease with the acting demands – and the closing scene was particularly well-handled by the cast. It is a pity only that conductor Alexander Vitlin never went beyond surface, often offering indistinct orchestral sound and choosing effect instead of true musical expression.

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I have read a lot about Robert Carsen’s production of Wagner’s Tannhaeuser and regretted that I could not be in Paris to check it. So when I read that it would be restaged in Rome, I’ve decided to follow Elisabeth’s advice: Nach Rom! However, here I am in Rome, but not Carsen’s production… The Teatro dell’Opera had later on checked its pocket and realized that, oops, they couldn’t afford to bring it. I felt inclined to be upset, but since they took the decision to hire Riccardo Muti as musical director, I have been trying to keep my mind open to the Roman opera house’s decisions. But, as much as Tannhaeuser had to keep his eyes closed not to see Italy’s charming landscape, I felt I should do the same before Filippo Crivelli’s ad hoc production. OK, limited budget is always challenging etc, but what I have just seen vies with Cecilia Bartoli’s new CD’s cover for the title of human race’s ugliest creations. And the idea was to knock you out from moment one.

Venusberg is basically an archway made of pink fabric upon which imaged of naked women taken from famous paintings were projected. Ah, and there was a couch for Venus, whose costume is reminiscent  of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. When the mention of the Virgin Mary’s name transforms the whole thing in Thuringia, Crivelli must have thought of the DDR, since it basically consists of three sets of flat tree trunks with a catwalk on the background. Act II was more conventional – it looks like the Met’s production bar the money. To make things worse, the show was truly poorly lit and the costumes left a lot to be desired. I leave the worst for last – Gillian Whittingham’s coreography for the bacchanale. Some of my neighbours laughed, while I tried to look away out of compassion.  In a few words, the idea seemed to have some people running back and forth or giving hands to each other and circling. Seriously, if vice looks like that, one can perfectly understand why Tannhaeuser longs so much for the Virgin Mary.

As it was, Béatrice Uria-Monzon had to provide all the sexiness by herself. Her soft-grained yet spacious mezzo soprano does seduction without much ado, but the exposed dramatic high notes test her sorely. I do not know if the conductor tried to help her with very fast tempi in the Venusberg scene, but apparently only made her lag behind the beat at moments. Martina Serafin seemed to inhabit an entirely different theatrical and vocal universe. Although she is Viennese, her whole approach suggests the words soprano lirico spinto. She has a warm, large, rich soprano, approaches phrasing almost like a Verdian soprano, with portamento aplenty and a Renata Tebaldi-ian cantabile glamour. The comparison with Tebaldi is not accidental – although she is very expressive, it is some sort of generalized yet touching expressivity. Also, her whole stage attitude has an old-fashioned grandeur, hardly compatible with the virtuous Elisabeth. In any case, this is a voice of impressive resources albeit not entirely in control. Many loud top notes came off poorly focused or harsh, and her mezza voce is not really reliable. Dich teure Halle was rather solid than triumphant, but her act III prayer was sensitively done. I am not entirely convinced that Tannhaeuser is a good role for Stig Andersen. His voice is not truly large, but he produces some forceful top notes now and then, provided that there is not many of them in sequence, for they noticeably tax him. Because of the stress, his praising of Venus in act I was quite arthritic, but he finally pulled out act III out of the freshness of his approach. Whereas many a tenor in this repertoire would tell his pilgrimage to Rome as a stretch of heroic singing, Andersen sang it with restraint, savoring the words, creating the impression of a broken spirit, coloring the Pope’s wolds with real scorn. A flawed yet valid performance. Matthias Goerne also has problems with high notes – anything above mezzo forte is dealt with either strain or head voice. But the whole performance seemed to be conveyed to the Abendstern song, which was so exquisitely performed that one would forgive him anything. Finally, Christof Fischesser was a reliable Hermann in spite of the occasional curdled-toned moments.

After a bumpy act I, conductor Daniel Kawka settled into such a honest performance that he finally won me over with his transparent ensembles, natural pace and cleanliness. I particularly appreciate the way he embraced the orchestra’s sound – bright and flexible, as many Italian orchestras tend to produce – instead of trying to impose a Teutonic large and fat sound that would only vex them. And the house orchestra was in good shape – the brass section could be nobler, but was quite clean, the lean-sounding string sections produced liquid divisions and everybody kept animation to the last chord. It is a pity that the chorus was way below that level – the women are particularly problematic, including what regards intonation.

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I have to confess I was eager to see August Everding’s 15-year old production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for the Staatsoper unter den Linden because of the attempt to reproduce sets and costumes from the famous 1816 Karl Friedrich Schnikel production for the Königlichen Schauspiele, as seen below.

In the booklet, Everding and his creative team explain what sort of adaptations had to be made to transform these set designs into three-dimension sceneries, but the truth is, unless you have an orchestral seat right in the middle of the auditorium, the experience is seriously impaired by the fact that the production seems depressingly two-dimensional: you can always see the end of backdrops and the wood-structures that keep everything in place, not to mention that nothing seems really symmetric. I have a serious problem with directors who disregard that opera houses have seats on the right and left sides and also on the other levels. We all know that XIXth century-sceneries tended to be flat, but once you’re adapting, this problem could have been seen to. I also dislike the shining black surface added to the stage floor – the sets do not seem to take advantage of the reflex and, otherwise, its modernity does not go with the cardboard scenic elements and painted backdrops. It might be only a detail, but it makes the whole thing look like the Epcot-center version of the Magic Flute. 

To make things even less atmospheric, conductor Julien Salemkour seemed to be really concerned about not being late for dinner. He tried to make things fast, but without any hint of animation or the energetic accents that would make phrases actually alive. To say the truth, the performance seemed underrehearsed – there was very little clarity in the orchestral playing, mismatches with soloists abounded and, at some moments, there seemed to be a struggle between singers and the conductor to set the pace, as in Bei Männer or, more seriously in Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen.

In the cast, the low voices stand out – Christof Fischesser has a natural and spacious low register and, although his voice could be a bit nobler, he compensated that by  sober, elegant phrasing. On the other hand, Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s dark-toned Papageno was always vivacious and keenly sung. Stephan Rügamer’s Mozartian singing still needs some work. The basic tonal quality is extremely pleasant, he is musicianly and stylish, but whenever he has to ascend through the passaggio in full voice, the tone acquires an intense nasality that robs his tenor of all pleasantness. As for Sylvia Schwartz, this is a technically accomplished singer with no hint of effort or discomfort, but the voice has a grainy quality that prevents it from sounding really lovely, young-sounding and ultimately seductive as a singer in her Fach should. If you can go beyond this minor drawback, hers was an exemplary account of the part of Pamina. Ana Durlovski has a strange voice for the Queen of the Night – the sound has the right impact… in the lower reaches. Her high register lacks cutting edge and she slides a bit in order to keep in tempo with her fioriture, but her high staccato notes are truly accurate.

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Peter Mussbach’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth for the Staatsoper unter den Linden is almost 10 years old – and one can see that. It looks decidedly worn out, frumpy and quite depressing today. I wonder if it had looked really well in the past. It is a very geometrical/basic-colours production with a (very distant) flavour of Japanese theatre and a (self-defeating) touch of Wieland Wagner (I mean self-defeating, because W.W’s productions had no unnecessary gestures and features, as this one has in plenty).  More frustratingly, some attempts of creating an eerie atmosphere look just childishly funny.  Is it time for a new production?

In any case, the shortcomings of the theatrical aspects of this staging are more than compensated by the superb playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which offered absolute clarity, accuracy and richness of sound.  Conductor Julien Salemkour’s approach was a bit kapellmeisterlich and you felt that tempi sagged a bit, but the beauty of the orchestral sound did not make you impatient about the conductor’s lazy pace. By its final contribution, the Staatsoper’s chorus offered a solid performance, but – as often – the witches’ choirs seemed well-behaved and unidiomatic*.

The famous Verdian quote about Lady Macbeth needing a rasp, dark voice has been used as excuse for many inadequate performance. It is obvious that a pretty voice does not work for this role, but an ugly voice is no excuse for poor technique. Sylvie Valayre is all-right an intelligent singer, but her manipulations to produce a “dramatic” voice robs her phrasing of all spontaneity: her diction is very unclear, her gear changes are quite clumsy, her sense of pitch is not always reliable (although she generally hits her high notes correctly)… I was going to say that the sound is the opposite of pretty, but that could be intentional. She cunningly lightened her tone for the brindisi and, for the first time, her coloratura was more or less a tempo. What is beyond doubt is that she is a good actress. It is a pity that her long experience with the production had a perverse effect – the spirit behind the flash is gone and a great deal of the gestures blocked in rehearsals held loooong time ago seem pointless, especially in her opening aria. On the other hand, Vladimir Stoyanov has a truly full-toned Verdian baritone. Although the higher end of his range is not as forceful as the rest of his voice, his phrasing is so musicianly, spontaneous and pleasant that he cannot help sounding  convincing in this repertoire. Christof Fischesser’s rich and dark bass is taylor-made for the role of Banquo – I hope to hear him again in the future. Stephan Rügamer’s tenor, unfortunately, is not Italianate or flowing enough for La paterna mano – it was a reliable if not ingratiating performance nonetheless.

* I’ll be writing soon about the witches’ chorus in Macbeth.

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