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Posts Tagged ‘Emily Magee’

Before Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker add Stefan Herheim’s production to their Salome, the audience in Berlin was treated to two concert previews in the Philharmonie, which – if I am not mistaken – also mark Emily Magee’s debut in the title role. I can only imagine that this is a favorite score for the members of the Philharmonic, for they played with the kind of engagement that only now and then seems to appear in “Rolls-Royce” orchestras.

If I had to declare which was my favorite concert with the BPO and Simon Rattle, this would probably be it. The Philharmonic denied its musical director nothing: the strings particularly protean in varying from the noblest, warmest and fullest glimmering sounds to the most colorful descriptive effects; inspired and dramatically aware solos from woodwind and brass and impressively kaleidoscopic collective effects,  especially in the closing scene. Rattle presided over the ensemble with a loving eye, bringing the lyricism to the fore, giving time for this music to breathe and relishing the harmonic complexity by highlighting every little tiny dissonance in the score, for illuminating results. However, there remains the problem of balancing soloists and the formidable orchestra, especially in concert version. Although I generally accuse the English conductor of being inattentive to his singers, I have to acknowledge that this time he really tried. He opted for the difficult compromise of finding the optimal point in which the orchestra could keep its refulgence without entirely covering singers’ voices. A risky choice that required permanent adjustment. It is true that he proved to have amazing control of his musicians, by demanding very precise dynamical up and down-scaling in volume while avoiding abruptness entirely. As always, this had a cost. First, a sense of cautiousness haunted the first half of the opera, with the extra effect of a certain “hysteria” in the moment when the instruments were alone at last. Although it was undeniably exciting to hear the Philharmonic unleashed, these moments require not only more “space” to grow but also depend on the Straussian hallmark chiaroscuro to come to life. As it was, things had to develop from 95% to 100% in moments like the passage which depicts Jochanaan being brought out of his cistern. On the other hand, the Dance of the Seven Veils lacked spirit – beautiful as the sound was, the orchestra seemed too ready to let it all out instead of relishing the art-nouveau filigree concocted by Strauss. In the closing scene, Rattle finally seemed to have chosen the orchestra over his soloists – and, although the poor singers had to work hard for the money, the orchestral performance was so dense, so multi-layered that one could not help surrendering. The composer himself referred to his opera as a “scherzo with a tragic ending” and the conductor proved this evening to have understood that. Probably never since Böhm’s CDs from Hamburg (alas, with a sub par orchestra) had I heard a performance in which the thematic material presented as “atmospheric” in the Jochanaan/Salome scene was so precisely restated in the final scene now under a quasi-grotesque coloration. I would be curious to know how this is going to work in the Grosses Festpielhaus.

Every time I write about this opera’s title role, I repeat that a natural Salome has a bright voice above all to allow her to pierce through the orchestra without having to switch to fifth gear every time things get difficult. But the likes of Ljuba Welitsch are unfortunately very rare. With her creamy-toned floating soprano, Emily Magee hardly fits the description. It is true that her voice is big enough, but its delicate hue is too often overshadowed by the orchestra and the low notes basically remain on stage. That said, among the almost invariably miscast singers I have seen in this part, she was probably the best. First of all, she has really solid technique and never, ever forces. As a result, her soprano is never less than round, easy and pleasant. Although one could see that this is a difficult role, she didn’t have to work herself up to deal with it, but rather manage her resources with shrewdness. By the moment when most Salomes are screaming themselves out, Magee still produced flowing Straussian lines, the occasional pianissimo and remained true to intonation, although you wouldn’t always hear that.  Second, she has no problem with high notes, what is always reassuring when one is about to hear a long piece of excruciatingly difficult singing. Finally, her Salome is refreshingly spontaneous. Although her voice does not have a virginal quality, she eschews vulgarity and affectation, suggesting quite appropriately rather a perverse child coveting a toy she cannot play with. Moreover, she handles the declamatory writing adeptly and has relatively clear diction.

Iain Paterson’s spacious, noble and ductile baritone works beautifully in the role of Jochanaan. He too suffered from the competition with the orchestra and seemed a bit tired by the end of his long scene with Salome, but this did not prevent him from offering an intelligent and theatrical performance. A name to keep. Stig Andersen did not seem to be in a good day – one would hardly guess that he has sung Wagnerian roles by what one heard this evening – but he did sing the part of Herod; even the most verbose moments never lacked a flowing singing line, not to mention that he colored the text with unusual intelligence. I don’t feel like being objective about Hanna Schwarz: she is great and that’s it. At this stage of her career, her voice is not exactly beautiful, but still impressively forceful and focused. If someone found no problem in a loud orchestra this evening, this would be her (and a powerfully dark-toned Rinat Shaham as the page of Herodias). And there is not an ounce of nonsense in that woman – she is simply mesmerizing. Last but not least, among the minor roles, Oliver Zwarg’s deserves mention as the First Soldier.

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Die Frau ohne Schatten is arguably Richard Strauss’s most formidable score, composed to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s most complex libretto, the symbolism of which is almost awkward in its multiple levels. Magic opera, psychological drama, myth, social analysis… there is plenty to choose in it. To make things more difficult, the music is some sort of Straussian showcase – from the multicolored chamber music atmosphere of Ariadne auf Naxos to the all-together-now hysteria of Elektra. That operatic Goliath does not seem to have intimidated Zürich’s small but brave opera house, though.

Although director David Pountney believes that the work is about the discovery of one’s own humanity, he seems to focus his staging on the social disintegration caused by the exploitation of working class in the early day of capitalism, more of less Hofmannsthal’s lifetime. Thus, the story is set on the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. While the Emperor and the Empress are here shown as k. u. k. aristocrats, Barak and his wife are proletarians in a sewing workshop. The Nurse is a key  figure in this context, since she is portrayed as something like a less fortunate relative who depends on her patrons’ favors (therefore, her interest in the Empress comes through more like self-interest than in other stagings). The magic elements of the plot are not abandoned, however. The surrealistic aesthetics of Max Ernst serve as inspiration to dream-like costumes and sets. Many ideas come through quite effectively, such s the play-in-the-play seduction of the Dyer’s Wife, where the Amme literally stages the poor woman’s romanesque fantasies (it is truly amazing how the music fits this concept), but many a detail ultimately seem unintentionally comical, such as the ballet-dancer falcon (why people feel that they have to bring the “voice of the falcon” to the stage?) or the walking dolls cloaked in white who are supposed to be the Ungeborene… If the many imaginative touches do not make an unforgettable experience, poor direction of actors is to blame. The cast did not seem comfortable with what they had to do and most scenes gave the impression of a routine followed with little conviction and almost no coherence: the tenor’s approach was stand-and-deliver, the baritone offered naturalistic acting and both sopranos seemed entirely lost. Only the mezzo seemed to invest the stylized acting required from her.

Franz Welser-Möst similarly eschewed any larger-than-life quality in his reading. The Opernhaus Zürich has a small auditorium and its orchestra is used to produce leaner sounds. Moreover, the conductor professes that Straussian style should involve lighter textures over which the text can still be easily followed by the audience. Let’s call it the “Cosi-fan-tutte golden rule”. I have to confess that I took some time to adjust to the undernourished orchestral sound, especially in what regards the string section. There was transparence in plenty, but the fact that the sound never ever blossomed even in the orchestral interludes finally robbed the music of a great deal of its impact. The end of act I sounded particularly deprived of substance. That could be overseen, if volume had been replaced by accent (as Marc Minkowski has showed us in his performance of R. Wagner’s Die Feen at the Théâtre du Châtelet), but, alas, the lack of forward movement and a sameness in what regard phrasing all in favor of orchestral polish finally suggested overcautiousness. The Mozartian poise had its advantages – a particularly clean ensemble in the difficult act II closing scene – but I am not really sure if this is how FroSch should sound.

The role of the Kaiserin is a bit high for Emily Magee, who had to chop her phrases too often to prepare for the next dramatic high note. However, her creamy soprano is a Straussian instrument by nature and, even when tested, she never produced a sour note during the whole opera. Jenice Baird was a puzzling Färberin. I have never heard her in such good voice – she really sang the part in her rich vibrant dramatic soprano, but seemed to be sleepwalking in the interpretative and dramatic departments. Her rather slow delivery of the text drained the Färberin music of all its bite. Although Birgit Remmert was quite overparted as the Amme, the size of the hall helped her to produce the right effect in this role. She has spacious low notes, clear declamation and, even if her top register is a bit strained, that did not prevent to produce some firm acuti. I know: Roberto Saccà’s voice is ugly, but I must say that I have never listened to anyone sing this part with such flowing lyricism, nuance and ringing top notes before. He almost convinced me that the role should be cast with jugendlich dramatisch voices. Michael Volle was extremely well cast as Barak – his spacious baritone is extremely pleasant on the ear and he sang sensitively throughout.

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