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Posts Tagged ‘Georg Zeppenfeld’

Hans Neuenfels would be disappointed to discover that, instead of feeling provoked by his staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin (as he says to fear in the program), the audience in Bayreuth would welcome it effusively. It is also true that the enthusiasm gave the impression of a statement: I wouldn’t say that everyone in the theater was delighted by what they have just seen, but it seems that it was important to show approval for a production of a clearly more professional level than that of those of Meistersinger and Tannhäuser performed in the previous days. I myself have seen more thought-provoking and more consistent Lohengrins than this one, but I too found it important to acknowledge that Neuenfels’s satisfies (or rather more than satisfies) the expected standard of quality expected from the Bayreuth Festival. Some may call it a bourgeois demand from a paying audience, I would call it the necessary requirement of talent in order to deal with the work of a great genius.

The first thing one notices about Bayreuth’s 2010 production of Lohengrin is its elegant, cold stage design: some sort of tomography lab aesthetics which are in the core of the concept here developed. Having to deal with a world where we are nothing but laboratory rats of a random, pointless experiment, we choose to believe in some sort of fiction – love, religion etc – to give it some sense of consequence and order. This consciousness – this understanding of nothingness and the choice of an imaginary sense to frame it – is what tells man from animal. Elsa produces a vision of a swan knight and provokes a collective religious experience that inspires people around her to a development into order through belief. But Lohengrin too indulges into the self-delusion of having found unconditional love in Elsa and agrees to abandon the glory of the knights of the Grail. Ortrud is some sort of skeptical soul who does not content with the shadows and would rather see objects themselves, even if this means disrupting any attempt of order. Her Erfahrt wie sich die Götter rächen has the effect of a pragmatic conclusion to an experiment: if you want to seek the ultimate truth, be ready to find chaos as an answer.

The question is how literal it is to portray the chorus in rat costumes in order to depict the concept above. I tend to believe that this was an easy choice – and I frankly dislike the little “mouse-comedy” numbers in orchestral interludes. Neuenfels could have suggested the “lab rat” impression in subtler ways, but he has a point that Lohengrin is some sort of fairy-tale, an aesthetic environment in which men and animal naturally interact. It is not the first staging either to show the evolutionary process set about by the arrival of Lohengrin. In Stefan Herheim’s Lindenoper production, Lohengrin leads the whole society to a Rousseaunian state-of-nature that would dissolve with the revelation that Lohengrin is nothing but a puppet; in Richard Jones’s Munich production, society organizes into some sort of Lohengrinic religion that endorses Elsa’s edificial project. Here, rats gradually become people as they embrace Lohengrin’s command. Curiously, if you abstract the rodent costumes, the production is quite coherent and well-conceived, in the sense that symbols are added to rather than replace the original storyline, making it richer by association and more fantastic by the unusual twist. In any case, the beauty of costumes and sets, the meticulous direction of actors and choristers, the mathematically calculated light-effects, the visually striking scenes – this all pleases the eyes in a way that even a nay-sayer would let himself be seduced by the approach.

It is also curious that the original reviews stressed Andris Nelsons’ conducting as impressive and revelatory. Maybe he was not inspired this evening, but I am at a loss of words to define my neutral impression. The orchestral sound didn’t persuade you either for richness or for clarity, but other than this there was nothing particularly bothering or pleasing going on. If I have to make an effort of finding a distinctive trait in him this evening, it would be his attention to his singers, particularly knowing how loud he could be in every moment (in what regards giving his cast enough time to breath in tricky moments, Nelsons wasn’t always very friendly though). The chorus sang heartily and acted keenly, but the otherworldly effect in passages such as Lohengrin’s first arrival was not really achieved.

Although I am surprised by Annette Dasch’s ability to spin jugendlich dramatisch top notes when you least expected it, her soprano remains limited in terms of volume and color in this repertoire. She has sense of style and sings sensitively, but one is constantly left wanted – especially in comparison with the more properly Wagnerian voices of her colleagues. I am not a fan of Petra Lang –  overmetallic and rasping are words that come to my mind – but her absolute control of dramatic top notes is really very impressive. Even if she failed in contrast, variety and subtlety, her Entweihte Götter (act II) and Fahr heim, du stolzer Helde (act III) correspond to everyone’s fantasy: she pierced through the loud orchestra with impressive power and security, often making very high notes even longer in admirable abandon. Lohengrin is Klaus Florian Vogt’s signature role, his uncanny boyish yet forcerful sound is the aural picture of the role and this alone makes for the occasional deficit in legato. Moreover, at moments, he is now even more sensitive and elegant in his high mezza voce than before. No wonder he received a standing ovation such as I have rarely witnessed in an opera house. Tómas Tómasson seems to have the right voice for Telramund, but evidently fell victim to a vocal glitch by the middle of act I that robbed him of any possibility of singing full out in his high register, being obliged therefore to resort to falsetto and transposition whenever he could. I know it is a difficult role, but it was rather insensitive of the Festival administration to let him carry on under those circumstances. Last but not least, Georg Zeppenfeld offered an immaculate performance as King Henry, as much as Samuel Youn was an exemplary Herald.

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Never say “never”. I clearly remember saying that I would never see Katharina Wagner’s staging of her great-grandfather’s Meistersinger, but here I am to witness its last performance before it is finally discarded for good. As in previous runs, the stage direction has been retouched and, if I may say something positive, I would acknowledge that it has now become more clearly a comedy – funny moments are better timed and there was more laughter from the audience this year than last time. That did not prevent, however, the director from being massively booed in the end. Don’t feel sorry for her – she seems to receive disapproval as a confirmation of her foresight unshared by her bourgeois audience. Naturally, she doesn’t mind cashing the money from ticket sales. In any case, I don’t think that the production was devoid of insight – there is some insight there that could be made into something truly thought-provoking and scenically efficient in the hands of a talented director. For instance, although the composer shows in his score that Beckmesser was rejected by the audience because he is not really talented, the fact remains that he was good enough to be accepted as a Meistersinger. If baritones resist the temptation of caricature, one can hear that he can handle, for example, florid singing. His sin could have been nothing but having indulged into the false glamor of French/Italian style (if we use Sachs’s final speech as a reference) – and therefore he would not conformed to the accepted standard, not because he was avant-garde (the concept probably does not apply here), but simply because his aesthetic approach was not… popular (and therefore inauthentic and bad, according to traditional principles of German cultural identity). This is not an uninteresting discussion, but Katharina Wagner does not have the stature to tackle it, both as a director and as an intellectual.

The fact that the musical side of the performance was below standard made the evening doubly testing for the audience. Last year, I found Sebastian Weigle’s conducting unclear yet rich-toned and structurally coherent. This evening, it was basically unclear. Although the sound is still irresistible in its warm tonal quality and blended sections, strings often failed to offer clean passagework, the level of mismatch with the stage was alarming and many passages were almost pointless in terms of horizontal clarity. The cast remains the same of last year with one notable exception. I have found Adrian Eröd a bit more consistent last time, but still very clean-toned and dramatically purposeful; Norbert Ernst is far more forceful, especially in his high notes, as David, but stills works hard for tonal and dynamic variety; James Rutherford’s grainy and often woolly bass-baritone does not suggest nobility, but he is a little bit more expressive this year. If I have to choose a favorite singer this evening, this would Georg Zeppenfeld, an ideal Pogner.

And there is Burkhard Fritz as Walther von Stolzing. I disagree with the opinion that his tenor is too light for this music – I have seen him previously in Schrecker’s Der ferne Klang in Berlin and found then that maybe there was a little more than Walther and Lohengrin in him. This evening, the voice sounded so poorly supported in acts 1 and 2 that one could almost guess that he would be announced indisposed, what proved to be true. Curiously, his illness was explained as “circulatory problems” and the he would try to go further. If he could not, Simon O’Neill would sing instead. But for a broken high g (or a), he sang to the end of the performance, probably better after the announce. Of course, the tougher part of the role comes in the first two acts – but then everything above a high e was basically pushed, unfocused and (therefore) strained. Once he began to sing more cautiously, softer attack made his voice brighter (yet lighter if ultimately audible) and even more pleasant. But legato was still faulty and pitch, eccentric. But, given the announced indisposition, one cannot tell if he needs to rethink his technique or just take care of his health.

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R. Strauss’s “bucolic tragedy” Daphne, written during the Second World War, has seldom been staged and, although some might blame the static libretto with its complex transformation scene at the end, I would rather mention the extremely difficult vocal parts and virtuosic writing for the orchestra. In any case, it is still a challenging story for a stage director and Torsten Fischer must be praised for his imaginative approach to the story that adds unusual depth to the plot without making violence to it.

Although the connection with the young anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl seems at first far-fetched, it ultimately pays off in the portrayal of a Daphne who refuses to blend in a world that has lost its innocence. The staging actually opens with the projection a touching quotation from one of her letters in which she praises the beauty of nature in comparison with the ugliness brought about by the work of mankind. The Dyonisian rites are here performed as pro-régime rallies with the deceptive appearance of Apollo as some sort of commanding officer that first promises the glory that Daphne dreams about and ultimately brings destruction by the killing of Leukippos. The closing scene alone is worth the price of the tickets – from her prison cell, Daphne dreams of walking out from it, climbs a long staircase and, by virtue of a long mirror hanging over the stage, we can see her joining her dead friend and all other members of the cast and chorus in a gigantic “human tree” of victims of the war. Has the director imposed his own view on the plot? If we have in mind the days when the opera was written, the idea behind the myth and the fact alone that this concept allows for a far more moving closing to the opera than awkward attempts of the title role’s transformation into a tree (you just have to write the words “Daphne” and “Strauss” on youtube.com to see my point), Torsten Fischer’s production goes far beyond the usual superficiality and narcissism of régietheater and offers far more than a traditional staging could propose. And it does not hurt either that costumes, sets and lighting are beautiful and well-judged.

Although Camilla Nylund’s soprano is a bit unfocused, she sang the impossibly strenuous title-role with poise and sensitiveness. Her warm tonal quality and clean phrasing are aptly Straussian and it is only a pity that exposed dramatic notes lack a brighter edge to shine in the auditorium. Her restrained and dignified acting are also praiseworthy. Ladislav Elgr’s firm and bright tenor proved to be up to the challenge of singing the role of Leukippos and could be said to steal the show, especially because Robert Dean Smith clearly was not in a good day. The role of Apollo is extremely testing and he seems to have an unending supply of high notes in his favor, but the voice lacked color and failed to pierce through. He is not dashing as the role ideally requires either. Christa Mayer seemed at ease with the contralto tessitura of Gaea and sang richly throughout, while Georg Zeppenfeld gave an ideal performance of the role of Peneios. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber took some time to warm – the first scenes lacked clarity and he did not seem to find an ideally transparent orchestral sound while trying to make singers’ lives easier. Fortunately, the tragic half of the story counted with dense sonorities of the Staatskapelle’s legendary strings in ideal balance with singers on stage and with the remaining sections of the orchestra.

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For the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s season opening concert, musical director Antonio Pappano has chosen Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a work that this orchestra had the honour to premiere in Italy in 1924 (!). It is certainly the right choice to highlight the abilities of chorus and orchestra – and the Santa Cecilia acquited itself quite well in the test. The strings have a clear, bright sound and deal rather commendably with passagework and the brass are generally accurate and noble sounding. The chorus has a full-toned quality almost exclusively found in Italy – the tenors are particularly healthy-sounding. I found their energetic approach proper to Beethoven and maestro Norbert Balatsch has done a very good work to keep discipline within the animation. The sopranos had their edgy moments and some melisme could be clearer, but that are minor blemishes in a commendably large-scale and enthusiastic approach. At this point, my five or six readers may be puzzled by these words in relation to this post’s title – yes, the 1,000,000 dollar-question is: why has this performance ultimately failed to deliver the goods?

I have a friend who uses to say that you should always see the last in a series of concerts in Germany and the first of them in Italy. According to him, the last concert in Germany will have gained in experience from the previous ones and offer an improved experience, whereas in Italy the musicians will simply have lost steam before that. Is that a prejudiced notion? Probably. I haven’t seen the first concert out of these tree performances with Pappano, but the truth is that the last one seemed to have the flesh, but not the spirit. His phrasing was lively, even theatrical at times, but the sound picture lacked weight somehow and instead of momentum, one had the impression of edge, histery rather than vehemence. I do not know how much the acoustics are to blame, but I found many contrapuntal passages blurred also. The solo by the orchestra’s spalla in the heavenly Benedicuts was too sentimentalized in its generous vibrato to produce the right effect and the dona nobis pacem just failed to culminate into a sensation of conclusion.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is also hard work for the soloists, and Pappano’s choice of singers was almost invariably wrong for the approach and for the hall. To start with, larger voices were needed. It is not that these singers were almost always overshadowed by the chorus, they were sometimes difficult to hear when singing with the orchestra alone. The soprano part, for instance, is particularly difficult because of the periculously high tessitura. Emma Bell does master the art of floating high mezza voce, although one can now and then feel how strenuous this must be, but when the dynamic is other than piano, the sound is simply too unfocused to carry in the auditorium. Anna Larsson’s low register, dark as it is, is similarly too soft-edged for this piece. Considering the riches of choice of Italian mezzos and contraltos with a forceful sound down at the bottom of their range, this is particularly frustrating. If Roberto Saccà is technically accomplished, the tone is too metallic and unflowing for this music. Only German bass Georg Zeppenfeld produced the right effect in this music, especially in the second part, when he sang with classical poise, liquid phrasing and chocolate-y tonal quality.

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