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Posts Tagged ‘Deutsche Oper’

It is no surprise that a repertory opera company is supposed to have a great share of unmemorable performances (sometimes the same is said of some opera houses running stagioni) – and as I do not want to make this long, I’ll go straight to the question – considering budget, the shortage of soloists for many roles etc etc, even if one has to pull off a performance for almost every day of the year, why make some evenings a self-defeating experience from the start? I may be accused of being too particular (especially considering that the Deutsche Oper had a full house this evening and has probably made for the money spent on staging a new Jenufa or a new Liebe der Danae), but I wonder why one would wish to exhume Götz Friedrich’s helplessly kitsch production before the eyes of an audience? I don’t know how it looked in 1993 (?), but this evening it seemed ugly, decayed, drab and the set changes took ages to be completed. Maybe there was some interesting Personenregie back then, but now it has been completely lost.

Now, if one had a dream-team of Verdian singers willing to sing Un Ballo in Maschera, then, I agree, it would be a pity to miss the opportunity because there isn’t enough money to build an entirely new staging – but that was hardly the case this evening. The originally announced cast had Yonghoon Lee as Gustavo and Thomas Hampson as Renato, what was already some degrees below golden age. This evening’s was a quite decent cast, but the lackluster staging needed something exceptional in terms of singing. I have to make some considerations on the prima donna’s case. Although Tatjana Serjan’s soprano lacks Italianate sheen and may sound shrewish mid-range, it really is a voice of more than enough heft for the lirico spinto repertoire. Moreover, she has very solid low notes and her mezza voce is truly angelic. She is the kind of singer that pulls off an outstanding phrase, sometimes better than in your recording with Leontyne Price or Renata Tebaldi, just to spoil the effect by something clumsy in the next minute.  When everything works at optimal level, it can be very thrilling – especially in her full, round and easy high notes. Heidi Stober’s soprano is a bit too blond for Oscar, but she offered the evening’s all-round best performance. To start with, she was the one person on stage who seemed to be having fun, singing with unfailing sense of style, firm, bright top notes and accuracy, even while jumping and running in a convincingly boyish manner. Maybe the Deutsche Oper should think of casting her as Zdenka when they revive their Arabella. Ewa Wolak treads carefully in the higher end of Ulrica’s tessitura, but flashes gigantic low notes in the auditorium.

As far as I understand, this was Korean tenor Jung Il Kim’s debut in the Deutsche Oper and probably the first time he has sung in a big traditional opera house (please correct me if I am wrong; when one googles his name, one gets North Korea’s “dear leader”). He could have been nervous and it is difficult to say something definitive about him.  He was trained in Rome and sings in Italian style (albeit with a Bergonzian cleanliness of line), but his tenor does not sound Italianate at all. It is a very peculiar voice, and it took me some time to get used to it – it is a warm and velvety voice, sizeable enough but, with very little squillo, it tends to disappear in ensembles or when singing with the soprano. The passaggio is smooth, but his high notes take one second to develop its harmonics and, when this happens, they turn out fluttery and occasionally curdled.  The lack of focus makes his low notes very dim too. This evening, he would tire very easily, sometimes singing with dangerously very slack breath support. I have to confess that, once I’ve got used to his gentle, almost old-fashioned singing, I couldn’t help seeing the potential there. But I am not sure if Gustavo/Riccardo is the right role and the Deutsche Oper the right place to study it. Dalibor Jenis was a forceful, committed Renato with more than enough temper (and stamina) for Eri tu. He had some trouble with his low notes and could sound tremulous now and then – in any case, he had the audience on his side. Among the small roles, Tobias Kehrer’s (Count Horn) well focused bass deserves mention.

Maestro Jacques Lacombe had a difficult time in his traffic cop duties this evening – the orchestra had to be reined-in in permanence, the chorus was a bit disobedient in what regards following his beat. Clearly the aim was nothing but survival. It is a pity, the house orchestra could relish one or other orchestral effect, but the performance was turn on really occasionally (the closing concertato, for example – with beautiful singing from both sopranos and the night’s only unleashed orchestral playing).

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I have previously called Filippo Sanjust’s arthritic production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor dreadful in my only experience with it and never thought I would really see it again, but then I had never seen Joseph Calleja live –  and Elena Mosuc in the title role seemed enticing enough. All I have to say is that, although the staging still seems to have been spirited away from a XIXth century provincial theater, hearing the Maltese tenor sing his last aria surrounded by cardboard sets lit by golden footlights seemed to take us back to the days of Donizetti himself.

Yes, Calleja’s voice has been called old-fashioned in a positive sense mainly because of its characteristic vibratello. But there is more to it – his is an exquisite yet very strange voice. The tone has a Björling-like plangency, probably suggested by its discretely nasal quality on the passaggio and its heady tonal quality. Differently from Björling, however, his high notes do not acquire the laser-sharp concentration to make it flash through the auditorium. I don’t mean it is a small voice, it is rather big for a lyric tenor, but it is remarkable how his high register does not sound fully “settled” yet surprisingly easily produced. In other words, for an Italian tenor, his high notes lack squillo but rather acquire instead a smooth, reedy quality. It is only surprising that it works out so comfortably for him. For myself, I can say that, among all new tenors in the Italian repertoire, he is by far the most interesting so far. Although his phrasing is occasionally a bit too cupo, he sang with instrumental quality, unfailing good taste a good ear for tone colouring and idiomatic quality.

Elena Mosuc took some time to warm – her Regnava nel silenzio was uncomfortable, she lacked concentration in the confrontation with her brother, but seemed to gather her resources to produce an extremely musical, accurate and beautifully sung mad scene. It was hardly illuminating, intense or really touching, but beguilingly done in her bright-toned soprano clean of metallic quality and rich in breathtaking mezza voce effects and accurate passagework. She found no trouble in producing in alts and never missed an opportunity.

South-African baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa has a rich, dark voice and admirable stamina to hold high notes for ever, but bel canto apparently is not his repertoire. Instead of really dealing with Donizetti’s decorated lines, he seemed impatient to get through anything slightly embellished and go straight to the gutsiest passages. Katarina Bradic was a refreshingly young sounding Alisa. I would say that the part of Raimondo is far from comprimario and requires more solid casting. Among the basses in the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper, there are some who could take it in more acceptable a manner.

Guillermo García Calvo’s primary concern was to be there for his singers whenever they needed – and he never failed to do so this evening. Many would say that Donizetti requires nothing further – I beg to differ. Here in Berlin, none less than Herbert von Karajan proved that – and his soprano was only Maria Callas. It must be said that the edition here adopted follows the same cuts of last year performance’s.

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When I say that one should not even bother to stage Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor if one has not a brilliant soprano for the title role, I do not mean that everything else in a staging of that opera is irrelevant. For a long while, it has been considered a tenor vehicle, for example. The problem is that the whole dramatic and musical impact of this very particular work depends on how touching the main character appears to the eyes and ears of the audience. If you do not care about her, it is all about a very silly girl in a very high tessitura.  And you will only care about her, if she is not fighting with what she has to sing.

The cancellationfest still goes on in Berlin. Diana Damrau was supposed to be the Bride of the Lammermoor – and I confess I was not really excited about that. Although she is an excellent actress and an intelligent musician, her morbidezza-less soprano is entirely unfit for the Italian repertoire. My recollection of her Lucia at the Met was frankly disappointing in all accounts, but for her ease with runs and staccato effects. Therefore, the announcement of her replacement by Eglise Gutiérrez placed an extra interest in the performance. I had seen Gutiérrez back in 2005 as Lakmé in the Carnegie Hall, where she gave a lovely and technically adept performance. It makes me particularly sad to report that these five years have not been kind to her voice:  her vowels have become excessively covered, the tone lacks brightness overall, her mezza voce is breathy, her high register is a bit effortful and her in alts are quite fragile if mostly true in pitch. Her coloratura has also lost its agility and, if she gathered her resources to a minimally decent Mad Scene, many fioriture were given the rittardando treatment. This disfigured the music’s flow and made many passages void of pathos. Although she cuts a quite romantic figure on stage, her basic acting toolkit has no “mentally fragile virgin”-option.

The Lammermoor family seemed doomed to inaudibility this evening – baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, whom I have seen under a very positive light in the Staatsoper’s Macbeth last year, could not focus his voice and pierce through into the auditorium. Hyung-Wook Lee’s Raimondo seemed more interesting in size and tonal quality, but he would gradually loose steam to the point in which things went really badly in his last contributions. If you wondered what Alisa actually sings during the sextett, this was your Lucia – Katherine Tier’s mezzo was quite hearable throughout.

In these circumstances, although Roberto Alagna’s tenor now sounds quite juiceless, it most definitely sounds in the theatre, what had a very soothing effect in an audience who had to struggle to follow the other main soloist’s lines. His usual lachrymose interpretative style has become quite vulgar, but again it was a relief to hear one singer who had operating space to interpret at all.

Stefano Ranzani’s contribution to the performance as a conductor limited itself to the traffic cop activity. In his defence, one must always point out that he had to keep orchestra down during the whole performance and there was very little to hear from the pit. Since his soloists were quite free about note values, he had to concentrate on following them rather than on establishing a musical interpretation. The edition here adopted was also heavily cut – no Lucia/Raimondo scene, no Enrico/Edgardo scene, not to mention internal trimming to make Lucia’s part easier.

When it comes to the unearthing of Filippo Sanjust’s old production, I was tempted to use the word “amateurish”, but  Etymology shows us that it comes from the word “love” – and whoever is responsible for that dreadful staging has no love for his or her work.

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A series of Wagner operas presented in a relatively short time span is a challenge to any opera house. It is impossible to have new productions for every title and I wonder how much time for rehearsal the orchestra is actually getting. In circumstances like that, the choice of conductors is the key element for success. Those are difficult works and, when things are uncertain, the musicians should know that there is someone in charge able to give clear directions to keep things minimally functional. Now an opera house of the reputation of the Deutsche Oper should want to show its audience something far more ambitious than “functional”. In order to do that in circumstances of insufficient rehearsal time (as seems to be the case), this someone should be more than clear – he has to be a genius. Yesterday’s Meistersinger was a patient with a serious disease, and its doctor, Maestro Donald Runnicles, had to use all his abilities to save its life. The convalescent could hardly say anything – but one has to acknowledge the doctor’s ability in keeping it breathing.

This evening’s Lohengrin was less lucky. Although this is a less formidable score, it requires a stronger pulse to rescue it from the sameness that afflicts performances led by unimaginative conductors. The issue of Michael Schønwandt’s imagination is secondary in the context of subpar music-making. I have rarely heard the Deutsche Oper orchestra in such poor state. From the first bars, one could guess that this would be a long night. Violins could not float the necessary pianissimo, while the whole string section failed to produce legato during the prelude. I have been pressing too often the key of “poor brass playing”, but today the results were particularly faulty. The orchestral sound was rather recessed and could be surprisingly messy, especially in the prelude to act III. If I had to say something positive, the large ensembles in the end of act I and II had well-balanced soloists and chorus. I could even hear Ortrud – and this is something worthy of mention.

Although Ricarda Merbeth’s lyric soprano is large enough for the role of Elisabeth, it lacks slancio for the more dramatic passages. As a result, her voice was often hard-pressed, afflicted by an unpleasant metallic, almost Slavic vibrato. She was also ill at ease when required to produce mezza voce. Although she did not spoil the fun, it was one of the less endearing performances of this role in my experience. Waltraud Meier’s voice has seen better days, but she remains a compelling Ortrud. Her expert tone coloring makes her particularly subtle and seductive in this role too often reduced to bitchiness. Even if volume is not exactly generous, she can focus her voice and flash some penetrating top notes, as in her invocation of the Wodan and Freia in act II. Ben Heppner started his performance with the wrong foot – his farewell to the swan was poorly tuned and he cracked a couple of notes, problems he would display whenever he tried to produce softer dynamics. His tenor would often acquire a pronounced nasality, but all in all this is a role taylor-made for his voice, whose pleasantness and ringing top notes are hard to overlook. Pity that his interpretation was rather blank. Eike Wilm Schulte first seemed well cast as Telramund – his baritone is forceful and firm – but he tired too soon in act II to create the right effect in this role. With his dark, spacious bass, Hans-Peter König was properly cast for King Henry, even if the role is a bit high for him. Finally, Anton Keremidtchiev was a very good Herald.

Götz Friedrich’s 1990 production is beyond salvation. To start with, the sets are appallingly ugly. For one moment, I had the impression that the action was set somewhere in a crumbling bus station in Albania. Then there were dingy costumes – Lohengrin and particularly Telramund were unflatteringly dressed. Then it was clearly that there was no staging direction to speak of – I wonder what exactly the person responsible for “Spielleitung” did other than say “enter from here and exit through there”. All the male singers can hardly be described as natural actors and moved awkwardly on stage. The act I duel was truly embarrassing. Both women were far more gifted in this department, but were left alone to do their thing. Ricarda Merbeth worked hard for intensity and ended on the semaphoric. I felt sorry for Waltraud Meier, who is used to collaborate with famous directors in conceptual stagings. She must be a very serious professional – she never gave up trying to make something of very little. Her attempts to interact with her Telramund on act II seemed to have the effect of frightening the baritone, what served as a good dramatic effect anyway. But it is difficult to do the trick all alone. One very interesting feature if unfaithful to the libretto – and I would be curious to know if this was her idea – was to show a surrendering Ortrud in the last bars of the opera, obliged to recognize the force of Christianity while bowing before the Duke of Brabant.

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Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is one of the the toughest cookies in the operatic repertoire. Technically, it is a comedy – but if you get ten instances of laughing during its almost five-hour length, this was a hilarious staging. Then the score involves impossibly complex ensembles with intricate counterpoint for soloists and chorus. To make things worse, the main roles require the subtlety of a Lieder singer and the dexterity of a bel canto specialist. In other words, if you want to listen to this opera, you have to be prepared to take the wheat AND the chaff – moreover because they are generally parts of the same thing.

The fact that Stefan Anton Reck was unable to conduct the whole run of performances finally proved to be a minor hazard, since Donald Runnicles, whose Wagnerian credentials are beyond any doubt, has taken over the baton. I haven’t had the luck of seeing Mr. Runnicles as often as I would like, but I have very good memories of a Rosenkavalier and a Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that this evening’s performance was clearly below that level rather puzzled me, especially if one bears in mind that the Deutsche Oper orchestra is a more seasoned Wagnerian ensemble than the Met’s orchestra. I could imagine that limited number of rehearsals may be to blame. The famous overture did not highlight any of the house orchestra’s qualities – the color was unusually opaque, the brass section (particularly poor today) produced some unsubtle sounds and there was little sense of exuberance. The remaining act I lacked purpose and the fact that the scenery brought about disfiguring echo for anyone singing on stage right did not help much. Considering the monumental difficulties of act II, the level of mismatch was relatively reduced – and it must be pointed out that the conductor fortunately did not hold tempo back in order to make things easier. The sounds from the pit remained transparent, but kept on a level of volume comfortable for the singers and rather meagre for the audience. Pity that the chorus was not in its best shape either. Things tended to get into focus in act III, its pensive introduction particularly haunting, the whole Sachs/Walther/Eva was episode expressively handled and the quintet was sensitively conducted.

Having to write about Michaela Kaune always proves to be a difficult task for me. She is such a tasteful musician and her vocal nature is so lovely that it makes one doubly upset that the results are ultimately frustrating. The role of Eva should not pose her any difficulties – she is a lyric soprano who has the extra 5% to deal with the only stretch of jugendlich dramatisch singing in the whole part (i.e., O Sachs, mein Freund, du teurer Mann). However, she treats her creamy soprano rather heavily and the result is that either high-lying or more conversational passages sound rather colorless and unfocused.  Although her voice spread a bit during this difficult scene, something might have happened after that, for she launched Selig wie die Sonne in the grand manner. From this moment on, her voice sounded brighter, lighter, more concentrated and younger-sounding. If she consistently sang like that, she would belong to the great German lyric sopranos of our days.

I have previously seen Klaus Florian Vogt solely in the role of Lohengrin, in which his strangely boyish yet penetrating vocal quality underlines the character’s unearthliness. Walther is a rather more romantic leading man role – and his permanent mixed-tone approach to his top register and a lack of flowing legato in high-lying passages make the character less impetuous and ardent than one expects. The beauty and spontaneity of tone and his almost instrumental phrasing certainly make the character noble and touching, but I confess I wished for rich, full, vibrant top notes to crown the climaxes of the Preislied, for example.

I do not subscribe to the idea of showing Beckmesser as a ridiculous character and I regret the fact that the excellent Markus Brück has embraced the directorial choice with such passion to the point of nasalizing his dulcet baritone as he did. Beckmesser is a Meistersinger – and one who prizes his vocal abilities above his poetic imagination. His heavily decorated serenading probably means that he should sing with Bellinian poise. Maybe it is just a matter of taste, but I find that the plot gains more from a Beckmesser that offers some real competition than one portrayed like a manic goblin.

Kristinn Sigmundsson’s indisposition involved the last-minute replacement by Frank van Hove from Mannheim. As much as I like the Icelandic bass, van Hove’s spacious velvety bass was a pleasant surprise. If I have to fault Ulrike Helzel’s Magdalene, it would be because of her appealing and seductive high mezzo that made her often sound younger than Eva, what goes against the libretto. In the tiny role of the Nachtwächter, Krysztof Szumanski seized the occasion to display his firm voluminous bass. No wonder he received so warm applause.

I am afraid that James Johnson’s Sachs is a serious piece of miscast. Although he has very clear German and tackles declamatory passages very well, his bass-baritone has a rusty, curdled quality that robs the character of all spiritual nobility and likability. And that is something Hans Sachs cannot part with. David is a difficult and important role, who has a challenging aria that catalogues every kind of vocal difficulty. It requires A-casting – Herbert von Karajan, for example, had Peter Schreier both in his Dresden studio recording and in his live Salzburg performances in 1974 (where he gave René Kollo a run for his money). Paul Kaufmann is a congenial actor and has the right ideas about the role, but the voice is a bit small for the theatre.

Although Götz Friedrich’s production was premièred in 1993, it is impregnated with the aesthetic of the 1980’s. The sets serve a pointless aesthetic concept turning around a circumscribed square, costumes follow disparate styles and the direction of actors (under Gerlinde Pelkowski’s responsibility) involve the heavy utilization of cliché and awkward slapstick comedy.

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In the context of the Wagnerian Wochen, Kirtsten Harms’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser has been revived with a different cast and conductor, but the concept of having one singer for both Venus and Elisabeth, central to the production’s “message”, persists. In the original production, Nadja Michael proved to be miscast in both roles. Not the case this evening. Although Petra Maria Schnitzer is rather short on tonal richness, low notes and sexiness for Venus, she proved to be a most efficient Elisabeth. I refrain from the word “illuminating”, for Schnitzer is the kind of reliable singer who is sufficiently satisfying in every single department, but rarely takes you by surprise in anything. Her large lyric soprano has no glitches – her tonal quality is golden, she produces big top notes when this is required from her, she can fine her voice down to pianissimo and sings with good taste throughout – she even produced an intimate touching prayer in act III. Pity that Dietrich Henschel no longer possesses the nobility of tone for Wolfram. His vocal production was either rasp, throaty, fluttery, poorly supported, nasal or a combination of these. Where is Markus Brück when we need him? Pity also that the reliable Reinhard Hagen found some difficulties with the higher end of tessitura in the role of the Landgraf.

Conductor Ulf Schirmer offered transparent orchestral sound, with some exciting fast passagework from strings. I have missed the sheer voluminousness that Philippe Auguin could conjure last time – and some scenes dragged a bit: this was hardly the most sensuous Venusberg in the market. If things happen there in such low pace, I perfectly understand why Tannhäuser longed for green fields, nightingales and other rural articles. As usual, the Deutsche Oper Chorus did a terrific job.

I leave the best for last. I have always believed that Tannhäuser was a role condemned to be poorly sung. Today I was gladly proved wrong – Stephen Gould’s performance this evening should appear in the dictionary next to the entry “Tannhäuser”. His voice is at once big, firm, easy and pleasant. He phrases with musicality, has perfect diction, knows how to tackle declamatory passages with the dexterity of an Astrid Varnay, snarls when one wishes him to do so and even reserves unconstricted mezza voce for some key moments. Have I mentioned that he ended the opera almost as fresh-toned as in the beginning? There was no moment when the audience had to worry about the next dramatic top note. This is a singer in the top of his game in Wagnerian heroic repertoire.

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Even some die-hard Wagnerian would rarely or ever care to listen to anything before Der Fliegende Holländer – and Rienzi’s grand-opéra style and Italian setting might be rather unsettling for those used to valkyries riding flying horses. That said, in spite of its gigantic length, the opera reserves many hidden treasures in its event eventful plot and full-power score with its large-scale ensembles and vocally challenging main roles. It is only fitting that this work deserved a whole new production in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Wagner Wochen.

Adolf Hitler had a fancy for Rienzi – he even had a manuscript score in his bunker. This historical fact might have given director Philipp Stölzl the idea of relating the demagogic and equivocal Tribune Cola di Rienzi to the Führer and, to a certain extent, to the Duce. The connection is not unfounded – Rienzi seduced the people of a dilapidated nation and promised the restoration of its imperial status by the glorification of an idealized past and belligerence. However, it does not seem that Rienzi was a lunatic, but would rather deem himself well-meaning in his intent to raise a Rome ravaged by a self-interested elite and revive the rule of law. Portraying him as a childish deranged mind, with the excuse of quoting Charles Chaplin, is ultimately reducing the discussion to the simplistic explanation of insanity. In other words, making Rienzi a comical figure has the effect of belittling the social and historical phenomenon as mere folly, while History shows that the likes of Hitler or Stalin were not joking. And if the director is not ready to make a valid parallel, why making it in the first place? Better leave poor Rienzi in his XIVth century.

All that said, Stölzl’s staging has its qualities. First of all, it looks grandiose enough and that is something grand opéra cannot part with. The two-level set depicting Rienzi’s bunker and a public space dominated by a large screen on which Rienzi’s speeches are exhibited is visually striking. The use of film is aesthetically effective and benefits from the leading tenor’s histrionic talents. Although there is a bit too much clownishness in the approach, Torsten Kerl embraces the direction with gusto. It is a pity though that tiny wrong decisions finally undermine the interesting concept – the staged overture (should we stress again that this rarely is a good idea?) showing a stupid choreography (and again?) for Rienzi (!), wobbly and wrinkled flats, poorly synchronized slow-motion scenes and an Adriano portrayed as an awkward boy (let’s not forget that this was Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s role). Worst of all, we all know that the score is invariably cut for performances – but those should be determined by musical values. Here Wagner’s music is ruthlessly cut in order to help the director force his ideas on the plot. Act 5 is pared in such uneconomical way that one could hardly understand what was going on – Rienzi’s excommunication is almost left to imagination and Irene and Adriano’s relationship is reduced to kindergarten complexity.

The title role is a challenge to casting – it requires a heroic voice that should preside above very large ensembles and that should work in some low-lying declamatory passages and also almost classical poise to deal with the grupetti and legato demands of moments such Almächt’ger Vater. Torsten Kerl may lack the volume of a true Heldentenor, but his focused, forceful tenor finds no difficulties in this writing and the tonal quality is healthy and pleasant. He phrases with imagination and has crystalline diction. He should be an ideal Lohengrin and I would be curious to see his Kaiser in the Florentine production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in May. But I wonder how wise it is to tackle Siegfried (Paris, 2011).

Although the role of Adriano is in the limits of Kate Aldrich’s resources, she did not seem fazed by the role’s difficult demands. She sang with affection, offered a stylish account of her act III aria (shorn of the difficult passage that stands in for a cabaletta soon after) and acquitted herself rather neatly in high-lying dramatic passages. Camilla Nylund found less comfort in the role of Irene, which is too high for her voice in the first place. Her opaque high register would gain the minimally necessary brightness and roundness during the opera. In her last interventions, she would even produce some rich acuti. Among the minor roles, Ante Jerkunica proved to be a convincing Stefano.

Replacing an ailing Vladimir Jurovsky, maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing offered an urgent account of the score, generating energy rather from bright-toned orchestral sound and clear articulation, for he wisely avoided heaviness and thickness, helping his light-voiced cast in many key passages. The orchestra had, however, its untidy moments, especially with brass instruments, but never showed itself less than animated. However, the excellent house chorus takes pride of place for its truly exciting performance – musical and dramatic values taken with same engagement and precision.

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