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Posts Tagged ‘Eva-Maria Westbroek’

The Berlin Philharmonic has its name inscribed in the discography of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Although the Austrian conductor was usually associated with large orchestral sound built around a thick string section, he took the world by surprise with what his detractors called “chamber music” sonorities for his tetralogy in Salzburg (and in the studio). The casting of a “Mozartian” Sieglinde was also unexpected. In any case, the results were distinctive enough – some people cannot live without Karajan’s Die Walküre, in which the most “intimate” opera in the cycle is performed “in human scale”.

I have become used to Barenboim’s “force of nature”-approach to the Introduction to act I and Rattle’s subdued take on it puzzled me a bit. When his “Mozartian” Siegmund began to sing surrounded by the gentlest version of the Berliner Philharmonic sound, graced by Rattle’s often admirable sense of detail and tonal colouring, one could think of Karajan’s recording. But then the evening’s Sieglinde had a far more substantial voice – and one couldn’t help noticing that when she was singing, the Karajanesque smoother sounds would develop into something more traditionally “Wagnerian”. This incongruousness would rob the whole act of a backbone – there were moments, many of them effective, but they vied with each other for a concept. The orchestra proved to be impressively Protean under these circumstances – clear and flexible either in capital or small-letter.  Act II had no such ambiguities – it had the appearance, but only intermittently the spirit of a traditional Wagner performance, while act III was probably started with a caricature of a “traditional” Wagner performance in a very brassy and unsubtle Walkürenritt. Towards the closing scene, the performance would regain purpose – in spite of the increasing blunders in the brass section – in a wide-ranging account of Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde – the first orchestral “interlude” a breathtaking example of gradual crescendo, the second expressively hushed and unhurried. My “in a nutshell” would be “a wonderful torso”. I have the impression that the last performance, which is going to be broadcast live in the Digital Concert Hall (this evening’s could be heard live in the Radio Berlin-Brandenburg) will be more consistent.

Although our good friend Jerold doesn’t buy the idea that good singers are in constant development, I am happy to report that the invaluable Evelyn Herlitzius seems to be proving my point. Compared to her performance in the Deutsche Oper’s Ring two years ago, this evening’s Brünnhilde was a complete improvement and consistent to her last Straussian performances both in the Berlin Staatsoper and in the Salzburg Festival. Although one can see that singing at full powers is still her strong feature, she is now readier and more comfortable with holding back and producing legato and shaded dynamics when necessary – with no loss of security and sheer power in her acuti (as her daredevil ho-jo-to-ho’s showed) Sometimes she even ventured out of her comfort zone in trying softer singing in some very tricky spots. This, allied to her customary rhythmic accuracy, clear diction and complete emotional involvement, made her act III really vivid and gripping (even if one will recall other singers who have offered something more touching).

I had seen Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde only once, in a very atypical day. This evening, in healthy voice, she showed herself rich-toned and even through the whole range, especially in unforced, big high notes that blossomed from the heart of the orchestra. Her experience in this role shows in her thorough understanding of dramatic situations and keen verbal pointing. One can see that she knows where a bit more tonal variety would make some difference, but her attempts in mezza voce were often colorless. I am not sure what to say about Lilli Paasikivi  – her middle-size mezzo achieves its goal in Wagner by means of a metallic edge (especially in its almost spoken low register) that makes it sounds curiously shrewish. As a result, her Fricka was particularly waspish.

Then there is Christian Elsner. Has there been any other Siegmund in the last decades with a discography as a Lieder singer? I am not saying that there is not a Siegmund somewhere in Christian Elsner – one can take a glimpse of it in his rich, natural low notes – but what one hears could be described as if the mind of Christoph Prégardien has been transplanted into the body of Johan Botha. When the line is lyrical and undemanding, Elsner’s voice has a boyish, reedy quality reminiscent of Siegfried Jerusalem’s in his old studio recording of Die Walküre with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Janowski, with an extra Schubertian poise. However, when things become really Wagnerian, he basically lacks the technical resources – his high register wants slancio and sounds bottled up, legato evaporates, a nasal quality creeps in and he is often covered by the orchestra.

Although Terje Stensvold is by now a veteran singer (he is 68), his voice sounds as a man’s half his age. I had never seen him before and I wonder why he isn’t more of a household name. At least among Wagnerians – he is the kind of Heldenbariton more comfortable in the baritone than in the bass end of his voice, but his sound is so focused, big and bright that you can always hear him, even in his lower range, which sometimes acquires a yawny mature-Hotter sound. He is not very specific in his declamation (what can be a problem in act II), but has very clear diction and phrasing. All in all, an impressively reliable performance in a very difficult role. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding is becoming a bit mannered, but it is still a dark, big voice that works very well in the Philharmonie. Although Rattle drawned his valkyries in brass, one could still catch some interesting voices there, particularly Andrea Baker and Susan Foster.

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The second step in Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera House has few surprises for the audiences treated to his Rheingold a couple of months ago. All money, energy and creativity have been invested in the development of the structure called “the machine”. In act I, it represents, with the help of realistic projection, both tree trunks in a forest and then the ceiling of a wallless house plus the ash tree; in act II, it becomes a rocky landscape where Fricka arrives in her chariot; in act III, individual planks going up and down are supposed to be horses for Valkyries and, by the end, projections take care of the magic fire. Considering that costumes look almost exactly like those Amalie Materna wore in 1885, I cannot recall the point of making a new Otto Schenk production whose single novelty is a mechanical structure that makes singers afraid of falling down: Voigt was on scene for barely 2 minutes when she had her first accident. So far the director has not showed a single insight about the libretto. In an interview, his profound take on the role of Brünnhilde is “she has the wisdom she inherited from Erda and the personal sense of justice that comes from Wotan – these two things are in conflict and she’s trying to find a way to be faithful to both, which is typical of a tragic character, trying to reconcile two aspects of one’s own personality”. At this point, my 6 or 7 readers may have guessed that singers ran to and fro striking stock gestures while the machine turned and showed Lion-the-king-like “flashback” little films to add some spice to Wagner’s narrative episodes.

Maestro James Levine is, of course, an experienced Wagnerian, but at his age and afflicted by health problems, he is no longer able to provide the richness of sound necessary for a slow-paced performance. At times, a surge of energy seemed to come from the podium, such as in the closing of act I, with beautiful transparent sonorities, but the Walkürenritt was basically messy and, in the last scene, the orchestra seemed just tired – brass were variable from the beginning. It must be said that the conductor had to adapt for a very particular cast with various levels of difficulties and never failed to help them out in the many instances in which they found themselves in trouble.

For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s rich soprano started to hang fire after 30 minutes. In the end of act I, the voice was grey and unfocused. Before act II, she was announced indisposed but willing to go on, but was finally replaced by a powerful Margaret Jane Wray, who understandably seemed a bit short of breath in act II before a most-satisfying farewell to Brünnhilde in act III*. In her debut as Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt seemed to be in control of her resources and survived to the end of the opera, but what these resources are deserve consideration. Round, big top notes have always been her assets in this repertoire, but in a hoch dramatisch assignment one quickly realizes that bracing for every one of them does not make her the most comfortable Brünnhilde in the market. Also, her middle register is foggy and overgrainy and the basic tonal quality is extremely unattractive, shrewish and nasal, as if she were dubbing a Walt Disney character instead of evoking anything noble or heroic. One could adjust to that nonetheless if there were some interpretation going on. As far as I can remember, she sang everything in the basic mezzo forte, uninflected style, not to mention a not really idiomatic German. Although Stephanie Blythe barely moves in this production, her presence alone exposes the lack of true Wagnerian quality in almost everyone in this cast. This is a true dramatic, flashing voice in the whole range, with some intelligent and discrete word-pointing. If you want to sample a legitimate Wagnerian mezzo soprano, you really have to listen to Blythe.

Voigt’s was not the only role debut this evening: Jonas Kaufmann’s first Siegmund was probably the raison d’être of this evening. Although his tenor is adequately dark, the fact is that his voice is a bit more lyrical than the usual Siegmund’s. As a result, a great deal of low lying passages sounded a bit timid. He took sometime to understand how to make his voice work in the role and his attempts at intensity often ended in lachrymosity and lack of immediate impact. The intermission proved to be providential, for the German tenor seemed more at ease then, readier to try his hallmark soft singing and to convey stamina when necessary. I don’t think he will ever be a really powerful Siegmund, but I am convinced that a little bit more experience will focus his performance into something more in keeping with his reputation.

Bryn Terfel’s bass-baritone is more incisive than rich, but it is big and authoritative enough. I am not sure if I agree with his whimpering approach to the role, but one must acknowledge that his detailed delivery of the text brought it to life, even if this involved some hamming. Last but not least, Hans-Peter König was a strong, reliable Hunding.

*My original text read “I first thought that the problem was nerves, for she was in far better shape. The voice was then bright and clean, but one could see she needed a great deal of extra breath pauses to reach the end of phrases. The effort cost her act III, when she was replaced by a powerful and solid Margaret Jane Wray”. Although it seems that the Met has confirmed that Ms. Wray sang act II, she too sounded (and looked) different in act II and III. No conspiracy theory suggested, but the whole situation is somewhat strange.

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Berlioz’s Les Troyens is one of the largest-scale operas in the repertoire – it has five acts, two parts with only one large role in common, not to mention it requires a large orchestra, large-voiced soloists and grandiose settings. The change of mood between the Trojan and the Carthaginian settings is particularly tricky for conductor and stage director.

In what regards musical values, the Dutch Opera has made the right decision in inviting John Nelson. The American conductor is an experienced Berliozian who never forgets to comply with the composer’s stylized classicism and who masters the art of setting the tempo that makes the music flow while keeping the necessary grandeur. I really did not feel the four hours and twenty-five minutes as something long during this performance. It is a pity, though, that the Nederlands Philarmonisch Orkest is not entirely at ease with this music. It worked hard to achieve nimbleness – strings smeared passagework and brass were a bit quacky and imprecise. In spite of that, the maestro could produce the right atmosphere with the means available and never fall short of the theatrical demands.

Although Pierre Audi’s staging is not really memorable, it is generally successful in producing large-scale effects with a limited number of scenic elements – three transparent bridges decorated with friezes that turn into columns for Dido’s palace. His vision of Troy is more convincing that his Carthage, which features too many basic colours at once plus neon and silly coreographies by Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn. As for the golden folding chairs, they really look cheap beyond salvation.

This was Eva-Maria Westbroek’s debut as Cassandre. The first thing I should say is that it is really refreshing to see such gimmick-free, no-tricks approach to dramatic singing. This is a voice honestly and healthily produced by the gift of nature and by means of good old solid technique. As a result, nothing sounded strained or pushed or forced. Her top notes are particularly round. She also has an intense stage presence and eschewed exaggerations. Her French is not exactly idiomatic, though, but it is not careless either. Some might have wished for more variety, but the role itself is basically emphatic – and the world of opera would be a paradise if one could overlook the impressive resources of a singer such as Westbroek in this repertoire.

When I saw Yvonne Naef as Cassandre back in 2008, I had the impression that Dido was her role – and I am not mistaken. The Swiss mezzo gave a most praiseworthy performance of that part this evening. She masters the style, enunciates the French impeccably, her mezzo has a light yet rich and penetrating sound, she is extremely musical and colours the text sensitively. She does have regal enough an attitude and worked herself up to a powerful yet dignified frenzy in Act V. Considering these important qualities, the occasional edginess is more than forgivable.

There seems to be a heroic tenor in Bryan Hymel, but his voice is placed too forwardly and too nasally to allow him true dramatic singing. Because of the nasality, his French vowels sounded indistinct and there was very little tonal allure in his voice. He does have stamina, though, and managed to balance his resources wisely to produce a forceful account of Inutiles regrets.

Jean-François Lapointe was a most satisfying Chorèbe, singing with firm voice and handling the text expressively. Considering this is a live performance and not a studio recording, minor roles were cast quite glamorously. Although Charlotte Hellekant and Alastair Miles were neither of them in splendid voice and not entirely comfortable with the language, they do have charisma. Greg Warren’s Iopas could do with a more dulcet voice, but his top notes are indeed easy and full.

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