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Posts Tagged ‘Ian Storey’

My six or seven readers know by now that I am not a fan of Simon Rattle and that I usually find his Wagner too bombastic and lacking depth, but I had never had the opportunity to hear Violeta Urmana’s Isolde live and decided to take my chance. I won’t keep you in suspense – it was more than worth the detour. Rattle’s Tristan (judging from his rendition of the second act alone) is still work-in-progress, but the “preview” made me curious for what is to come. I am tempted to say that the chemistry between the conductor and the Berliner Philharmoniker is not really positive for Wagner, but I would need a crystal ball to say that (moreover, it would be dishonest to do so, considering that my experience is reduced to one concert in the Philharmonie and one DVD from Aix), but the fact is that the presence of the Staatskapelle Berlin, an orchestra that has learned its Tristan to perfection with Daniel Barenboim, proved to have a very positive effect on Mr. Rattle. I would be lying if I said that the orchestral playing was less than ardent, passionate, inspired. It would be also a lie to say that the success is due to the orchestra’s quality alone, for Rattle’s approach to the score is very different from Barenboim’s.

Although the many facets of this evening’s performance do not really build into a coherent view of the score, they are really fascinating in themselves. First of all, Rattle’s choice of tempi belongs to a tradition (the absence of a tradition maybe?) entirely different from Furtwänglerian suppleness and gravitas. If it would be possible to say something like that of a Wagnerian performance, Rattle’s was quite a tempo, the sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word “focus” is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the “singing” line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity. This alone made it a special evening.

If my six or seven readers are still reading this paragraph, they might be wondering where the drawbacks are. So here they come. First, I wonder how wise it was to choose, in the context of this a tempo approach, such a fast “basic beat”. While it kept the more meditative moments particularly taut, it made the more urgent moments frantic: I would not say awkward, for the orchestra did a splendid job out of it, but the effect was a bit mechanical, the sense of transparency suffered a bit and singers were having the worst time of their lives spitting out things like habichdichwiederdarfichdichfassen [gasp]anmeinerbrust. Second, dynamics. Karajan must be smiling in his grave, for the playing with dynamics would made his EMI Tonmeister in his recording with Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers proud. I have just deleted the adjective “fussy”, for the score shows that Wagner has indeed written those dynamic markings and they do not sound so extreme in a less hectic pace. In that sense, a Furtwänglerian Luftpause now and then would have made miracles. Third, if Rattle could keep his audience in the edge of their seats with his faithful obedience of the many Sehr drängend in the score, the general atmosphere was already urgent enough and in the end nervousness had the edge on variety of expression. And Wagner wrote a lots of ausdrucksvoll in the score too. Finally, a true Wagnerian conductor knows that he cannot conduct against his singers, especially in the concert hall with the big orchestra just behind them. All this is only a matter of fine-tuning, and although it was a problematic evening (the audience, for instance, did not seem particularly enthusiastic* – I would guess that the problem with singers should be largely to blame), it was also an intriguing and ultimately refreshing performance.

Although Violeta Urmana sang quite commendably, I would guess that maybe she was not in her absolutely best voice this evening. She could be just be heard over the orchestral fortissimi, but her voice often acquired a metallic harshness in those moments. The more difficult high notes posed her no problem (she should be proud of her flashing high c’s, for instance), but as soon as the orchestra’s voluminousness reached comfortable levels, the warmth of her voice could be felt and she would finally feel at ease to do what makes her a particularly welcome Isolde: singing those sensuous phrases with absolute femininity in  her round, full middle and low registers and her rich, vibrant top notes and lovely soft attacks that make all the difference of the world. There are far more intense and exciting Isoldes out there, but I have a soft spot for Urmana’s musicianly, seductive account of this role – even in an evening when the circumstances were not really congenial. With her dark, round and creamy mezzo-soprano, Lioba Braun has surprisingly clear diction and, thank God, can float her Habet acht! soaring phrases without any difficulty. Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is really beautiful and he handles the text with the care of a Lieder singer; his König Marke is indeed touchingly sung. He showed some instability in high notes when he had to sing fully and loud, but that is only a detail. The casting of Hanno Müller-Brachmann for just a couple of notes as Kurwenal and of veteran Reiner Goldberg as Melot is almost a show-off.

Although Robert Dean Smith was supposed to sing Tristan this evening, he fell ill and was replaced by Ian Storey, who is in town for his Énée at the Deutsche Oper. Considering how difficult his role in Berlioz’s Les Troyens is, it was quite generous of him. But these things have a price. Storey has some very big heroic top notes, but I have the impression that a bar fades out in his battery-level display for each one of them. While he still has the energy to tackle them, it is quite impressive, but when he reaches low-level, then one can feel how strenuous it all is. This evening, his battery leaked out very fast – and the conductor probably is to blame. If you are a tenor and already had to sing the first part of the love duet as loud and as fast as he had to this evening, your heart must be aching for him right now (and remember that the concert naturally offers the uncut version of the duet). Around Heil dem Tranke, his voice was completely gray, he had to duck some notes, sang others in falsetto, I have the impression he even had to clear his throat at some point. He must be a very persistent man and deserves all my admiration, for, although he had to use all the tricks in his sleeves to keep singing, he never really gave up and never lost sight of interpretation, shading his tone when required and singing full out when maybe someone wiser would have thought about that twice.

*At least compared with the standing ovation reserved to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Barenboim as soloist. To my own shame, I have to confess that I’ve had such a busy day that I could not really concentrate to hear it and refrained from writing anything for that matter.

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The fact that Berlioz’s Les Troyens had been last performed in Berlin in 1930 with Frida Leider in the role of Dido (that must have been really something!) is no surprise. Other than the Metropolitan Opera’s fondness for it during the 1970’s and 80’s* or the occasional performance in France, this gigantic opera has been rarely staged full stop. However, the new century seems to have brought a change in this – last year, the Dutch Opera staged it with an international cast and almost one year later the Deutsche Oper has decided to give it its first production (F. Leider sang it at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden). Although the venture is praiseworthy in itself, I guess that, if you truly decide to undertake a difficult task, you should be above its difficulty level.

When I saw Pierre Audi’s production in Amsterdam, I found it unmemorable, but I was wrong, for I couldn’t help missing it while watching David Pountney’s awkward, inefficient and often quite ugly production. To be honest, I could live with the lackluster La Prise de Troie (and I confess I liked the literally larger-than-life Trojan horse), even if I still need to be enlightened about the reason why it was deemed important that Cassandre should die surrounded by rusty iron bed structures. When it comes to Les Troyens à Carthage, it is difficult to overlook the oceans of bad taste displayed before the audience’s eyes: plastic curtains, furniture reduced to cushions, unbelievably tacky yellow/green costumes and the less we speak of Renato Zanella’s choreography the better (suffice it to say that if you need to explain to your children how babies are made, you just have to show them the ballet invented for the Royal Hunt and Storm).  To make things worse, sets and costumes have been sloppily made (the “starry night projection” for Nuit d’Ivresse is frankly amateurish) and there are moments when the words “school pantomime” run through one’s thoughts. I am not sure either about the idea of showing Cassandre’s in the last scene singing Anna’s text for Didon.

As usual, one can always close his or her eyes and bask in the glorious sounds of the Deutsche Oper Orchestra, in truly great shape this evening. But I wonder how long one would take to notice that beautiful sounds alone do not say everything in a score like Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Conductor Donald Runnicles explains that it is unthinkable to perform the opera without cuts and mercilessly made excisions, of all things, in Chorèbe and Cassandre’s duet, not to mention that the role of Anna is reduced to comprimario. Not only the cuts in the part of Cassandra were an offense to the distinguished guest soloist, but they did not prevent the conductor to make the opera shorter. In Amsterdam, I can recall even an addition, the rarely recorded (let alone performed) episode with Sinon, the Greek spy, and the whole performance was roughly 30 minutes shorter than this evening’s. It is no coincidence that Amsterdam featured the great Berliozian conductor John Nelson, while the Deutsche Oper had good old Runnicles trying to make a Götterdämmerung out of it. The opening scene promised calamity: the chorus and the orchestra could not match to save their lives and it all sounded like chaotic noise. The Trojan part of the opera worked properly in bombastic moments, such as the end of Act II’s first tableau, but most of the rest hanged fire. However, the Carthaginian acts dragged and one could not help but noticing that Berlioz is one of those composers who need an expert to make it work: “…this music does not have the great organic momentum of a Wagner opera (…) it is not obvious that this piece is going to work: conductor and director always have to give it a push from time to time”. These are not my words, but Mr. Pountney’s. In Amsterdam, the pushes have been so masterly given that I could not even notice them – the score simply sounded consequent, intense and, by the end, quite gripping. It should be noted that John Nelson did not have an orchestra as impressive as the Deutsche Oper’s back then.

If you were at the Bismarckstraße opera house this evening, you would understand why everybody calls for Italy so often during this opera, for the Italian singers lent this performance its distinction. Although Anna Caterina Antonacci is not the dramatic soprano one would expect to find in this role, her voice is full and penetrating enough for it. And she sings in impeccable French, crystalline diction and admirable purpose. A committed stage actress, she did not allow a costume that made it difficult for her to move freely (apparently, nobody noticed it is too long for her) stand between her and dramatic engagement. She was ideally partnered by Markus Brück’s Chorèbe, who is at home in French music as he has proven to be both in German and Italian repertoires. His small contribution as a drunk Trojan soldier in the last act was also funny and idiomatic. However, it is Daniela Barcellona’s regally sung Didon who had the audience at her feet. The Italian mezzo’s luscious, spacious voice filled Berlioz’s music with classical poise and no lack of passion. At times, the name of Tatiana Troyanos came to my mind (and I mean it as the highest imaginable compliment). In the closing scene, she even allowed herself to use her strong chest register to depict the dying queen’s despair. It is only a pity that her French is not truly clear. In any case, a truly great performance that makes me think that Ms. Barcellona, who also looked gracious enough in this role, should be far more famous than she is.

Ian Storey’s Énée is controversial, but I would say that, if one has in mind that he is the wrong kind of tenor for this role, he has given a very decent performance. His voice is, as always, on the baritonal side and his middle register is a bit unfocused, but his ascent to his high notes are impressively powerful and warm-toned. The problem is that one can see that these high notes require lots of energy from him. While he can still cope with that demand, the results are undeniably exciting, but when he begins to tire, his singing cannot help but sounding efforful. It must be noted that he is a finer interpreter than he gets credits for and works hard for refinement in scenes like Nuits d’Ivresse. Finally, I must put in a word for Heidi Stober’s Ascagne, probably the best I have ever heard.

* In 2003, the Met launched a new production, in which Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang the role of Didon, recently released on CD.

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The Staatsoper unter den Linden’s prima does not have the glamour associated to La Scala’s season opening performance, but the event does involve the presence of the Bundespräsident and simultaneous broadcast to thousands of people at the adjoining Bebelplatz. For the 2009/2010 season, an old production has been chosen, Harry Kupfer’s Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2000.

Although the local press calls it legendary, it is actually quite unexceptional. The only set for the three acts shows a giant sculpture of an angel (inspired by a photo by Isolde Ohlbaum of a statue found in Rome) that doubles as a rocky landscape, which turns around to create different perspectives. On the background, some piece of furniture and people in XIXth century clothes (supposed to represent “society”) or a stylized sea landscape. Although the word “angel” does not appear at all in the libretto, if we are to believe that the composer’s feelings for  Mathilde Wesendonck were the early sparkles of inspiration for the opera, then we should remember that the first of her poems set to music by Wagner is… Der Engel. In any case, I really do not see any added insight to the understanding of the story or its interpretation. What one could clearly see was that walking on it was rather difficult and all singers had to watch their steps while trying to sing difficult music. I have not previously seen this staging, but I have the impression that the director’s original ideas might have faded since 2000. In many scenes, singers seemed a bit at a loss with their blocked gestures and tried to milk meaning from generalized stage attitudes. Even the charismatic Waltraud Meier had her clueless moments. If I had to single out someone, this would be Ian Storey, who knows how to scenically pull out act III better than almost anyone I have seen – live or on videos – in this role.

When it comes to the musical direction, Daniel Barenboim has no weak links in his monumental yet supple approach to the score. On his DVD from La Scala, a beautifully crafted act 1 would open the proceedings in the grand manner only to settle in less intense remaining acts. Not this evening. After a deep Furtwänglerian prelude when absolute structural clarity was paradoxically achieved in the context of sophisticated agogics, the first act took a while to take off – probably because the conductor had to accommodate his cast’s needs. From act II on, the performance gained in strength. The Staatskapelle Berlin was at its resplendent best, offering thick Wagnerian sound and breathtaking flexibility throughout. That meant that singers would now and then find themselves drowned in orchestral sound, but the trade-off paid itself – sometimes during the Liebesnacht one would feel that time stood still in sheer beauty of sound and clarity and dramatic purpose. But act III surpassed even these paramount levels. Never in my experience had it sounded as flowing as it did this evening – as it had been produced in one perfectly integrated arch from the first bars of the introduction to the Liebestod’s last chord.

Waltraud Meier has had an up-and-down experience with the role of Isolde. So far I’ve had bad luck live, but I cannot make my mind whether this evening was a lost opportunity. I would not say she was in bad voice, only that her voice was not willing to sing Isolde. It sounded lean and lyrical and resented the least dramatic turn of phrasing. A less experienced singer would have horribly failed. Not Waltraud, who husbanded her present resources with such shrewdness and imagination that she finally convinced me that she was experimenting with a Margaret Price-like approach to the role. On one hand, the lightness helped to create a more youthful and legato-ish sound that certainly brought about a more immediately romantic tonal palette to the role; on the other hand, she had many moments of inaudibility, pecked at high notes in an almost operetta-ish way and simply did not sing her act II high c’s. Later on, she would warm a bit and gather her strength to produce some loud Spitzentöne, some of them below true pitch. Some of these problems afflicted her Liebestod, but there she and Barenboim achieved such unity of phrasing that no-one could help but surrendering. In any case, that final scene was vastly superior to their studio recording in every sense.

As for Ian Storey, first of all, I must apologize for my opinion on his Tristan as heard at the Deutsche Oper a couple of months ago. Except from an extremely unfocused frenzy on hearing the news of Isolde’s arrival on act III, he sounded this time relatively comfortable with what he had to sing. His dark-toned tenor has a certain disconnected quality around the passaggio that brings about a marked flutter and loss of tonal quality, and his procedure to make his top notes incisive lets itself being noticed. But I don’t want to seem picky – his voice is big, warm and ductile and he has imagination, good taste and his general attitude fits the part. His Tristan finds the right balance between heroic and vulnerable, which is quite rare with Heldentenöre.

In spite of the soprano and the tenor’s achievements, the outstanding vocal performance this evening is beyond any doubt René Pape’s. This great bass sang with such richness, authority, sensitivity and sheer vocal glamour that one for once could feel that the act II monologue could be a bit longer!  In the performance booklet, Harry Kupfer suggests that King Marke and Tristan’s relationship goes beyond nephew/uncle and reaches an almost incestuous level. In this production, the similarity of age, the violence of feelings and the heartbreak in Pape’s voice almost make this bold assumption work.

Although Michelle DeYoung is not the subtlest Brangäne around, she was in very healthy voice and managed to pierce through the occasional thick and/or lound orchestral moment without forcing. I cannot say the same of Roman Trekel – the role of Kurwenal is on the heavy side for him and he sounded invariably rough and hard-pressed. He is an intelligent artist, however, and found space to add a discrete sense of humor to his lines.

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The Deutsche Oper’s revival of the 1980 Götz Friedrich production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was plagued by the same Tristanlosigkeit that has afflicted the Metropolitan Opera House’s last attempt on Wagner’s masterpiece. The original cast featured Robert Gambill, but one week before the performance the name of Peter Seiffert appeared as a replacement, but it was Ian Storey who finally showed up on stage. He is a singer I had previously seen as Ägysth in São Paulo and his performance left me wondering how he could possibly sing this fearsome role in the famous opening night at La Scala in the Barenboim/Chéreau production. The broadcast showed that my doubts were not entirely misplaced – but then the press wrote he was afflicted by understandable nervousness in the event.

 But the event is now in the past – and the role is still impossible for him. The baritonal tonal quality is certainly welcome and he phrases with good taste, but I am afraid his voice is rather backward placed, lacking therefore the necessary metal to pierce through. When he has to sing out around the passaggio and above, one feels that he has to give his 100% – the problem is that he still had to sing act III. I have to confess it was very painful wondering whether he would survive or not – he voice cracked at one point, he was inaudible for long stretches and tonal quality was something that did not make it to the final act. In lower dynamics, his voice has an instable quality, giving him practically no leeway. One must still acknowledge that it was gracious of him to perform such a difficult role on such short notice, but for his own sake he should not keep the role in his repertoire. It must not be healthy to undergo such an ordeal in a regular basis. On a positive note, although he had very little opportunity to block this production’s stage movements, he seemed quite convincing throughout.

 The evening’s Isolde, Evelyn Herlitzius, is the typical German dramatic soprano who sings the Färberin in R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. The voice itself is not attractive, but healthy, big and solid and she is a compelling singer actress. A name that came to my mind during the performance was Christel Goltz’s. The overall impression is not very sensuous, in spite of a rich low register, but clear diction, powerful top notes and relatively accurate phrasing are always an asset. The absence of softer dynamics was a liability for act II and III. Her inspiration seemed to be Birgit Nilsson in the sense that indignation and rage suited her better than longing and passion. The sad truth is that act II taxed her a bit and her voice sounded a bit juiceless in the Liebestod. In any case, it is always good to hear a really big voice in this repertoire – especially in a singer with such dramatic imagination.

 Another last-minute replacement, Daniela Sindram left a very positive impression. Her mezzo soprano may be light for the role, but her voice is so beautiful, her floated mezza voce so beguiling and her musical and theatrical instincts so right that in the end she was one of the most congenial Brangänes I have recently seen (and heard). Tristan was also well served by his Kurwenal. Samuel Youn’s forceful, focused baritone made him a young-sounding faithful friend. The youthfulness made his act III behavior particularly believable. Although Hans-Peter König was not in his best shape – he seemed to be experiencing some sort of glitch that impaired his ascent to top notes (and he looked quite upset about that too) – it is an imposing, dark and big voice with touch of Kurt Moll in it.

 Pinchas Steinberg’s conducting had its on and off moments. Act I seemed to be his best moment – singers were still in fresh voice and he could unleash the orchestra now and then. Act II, however, found the orchestra wanting color and clarity (the brass section did not seem to be in a good day either). The conductor’s priority seemed to help an understandably underrehearsed tenor to make through the Liebesnacht. In one or two moments of the final act, one could see an authentic large and rich Wagnerian sound, but the need to help singers out or simply the lack of inspiration resulted in a very cold Liebestod.

 Götz Friedrich’s production (as restaged by Gerlinde Pelkowski) has some interesting ideas, especially a particularly physical approach to Tristan and Isolde, but the staging’s 28 years of age start to show in many examples of carelessness. For example, Günther Scheinder-Siemssen’s set for act I has no separation between cabin and deck, but wood platforms in different levels to show the ship’s different areas. At some points, there seem to be “imaginary” walls, what explains the fact that Isolde cannot hear what Tristan says to Brangäne three meters away, but in the next moment people can see, hear and even pass through them. Some backdrops look now drab, the lighting in act II and III do not reflect the dramatic action and at some point during one of Tristan’s monologues they simply gave out as if an eclipse had happened while Isolde’s ship followed its course.

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John Neschling, artistic director of the OSESP, explains he chose to present Elektra in concert version because the combination of Hofmannsthal’s text and Richard Strauss’s music is powerful enough to produce a theatrical experience even out of the context of a staging. On reading these words, one could expect the sort of bombastic performance that follows statements like that, although there is nothing false about saying that. The point is that many a conductor who believes Elektra to be powerful music actually feels it important to help a bit the composer by an extra amount of brutality not exactly prescribed by the score. That was not Neschling’s case. He could find the right balance between rich orchestral sounds and the necessity of accomodating the needs of soloists, what is a key for the sucess of any performance of this work. Those nurtured in Solti’s recording with Birgit Nilsson might want a more incisive approach but Neschling could find optimal vertical clarity and reserved the full powers of his orchestra for the climactic moments. The OSESP was in top form, abounding in crystalline string sounds and offering accurate playing from the brass section.

The OSESP’s Elektra, Susan Bullock, is not exactly a dramatic soprano – she produces big top notes all right and has a large voice, but one sees she has to shift for another gear for the most exposed passages, when her soprano could sound rather colourless and gusty. In these circumstances, her stamina is truly admirable: I could say she ended the opera without any sign of fatigue – already something of a feat. What is beyond doubt is her musical intelligence – she has very clear diction (a rarity in this repertoire), expert word pointing and tone colouring and – when not hard pressed – her voice has a rather feminine and young (although not immediately pleasant) sound. Because of that, the long scene with Orest showed her particularly vulnerable and touching. Although the concert featured only a hint of stage movements, Bullock proved that she needs no costumes and sceneries to produce the complete experience – her dramatic commitment and sheer charisma worked the magic alone.

Silvana Dussman’s bright focused almost instrumental soprano produced the right kind of contrast in the role of Chrysothemis. Although her voice is some five inches below the the required jugendlich dramatisch soprano fach, her gleaming top notes did provide the necessary thrill. A beautiful performance. Jadwiga Rappé’s mezzo soprano similarly was a couple of sizes too small for Klytämnestra – she understands the role and deals with the difficult declamatory passages to the manner born, but both her extreme top and low notes were too modest for the occasion. As usual, Stephen Bronk was an exemplary Orest in his rock-solid Heldenbariton. Ian Storey´s tenor is heartier than we are used to hear in this part, but the angular writing of the part of Ägysth showed him a bit unfocused and uninteresting. Among the minor roles, mezzo soprano Adriana Clis caused a great impression with her sizeable dark mezzo soprano as the First Maid.

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