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Posts Tagged ‘Jens Larsen’

The fact that the Komische Oper has the whole repertoire sung in German often makes it overlooked in comparison with the other two famous opera houses in Berlin, where one is treated to international casts, famous conductors and world-class orchestras. But when it comes to Der Rosenkavalier, I am afraid that the house at the Behrenstraße gets pride of place. Andreas Homoki’s production is the opposite of a revelation, but proves to be far more consistent and incredibly better directed than what remains from Götz Friedrich’s for the Deutsche Oper and from Nicolas Brieger’s for the Staatsoper.

When it comes to casting, of course, the Komische Oper cannot feature blockbuster names, but the ensemble has solid singers – in the case of Jens Larsen, I would say that top-class ones. He must be one these happy few people with very little ambition, for his Ochs is better than some seen and heard in many a big opera house. Even the occasional rough patch makes sense in a truly funny characterization, in which voice (big basso profondo notes involved) and acting are perfectly united. The lovely Stella Doufexis has everything to be an exemplary Octavian but scale – hers is a small voice for the ensembles and her Rosenkavalier sounds a bit too elegant and feminine for the circumstances. Nevertheless, she is such a classy singer and such a convincing actress that one tends to take her side, even when things are not really easy for her. I have the impression that Brigitte Geller has already grown away from the role of Sophie. Two years ago, she seemed a bit unenthusiastic about it. Now she seems almost bureaucratic. She is a very musicianly singer, with touching turns of phrase, but the high mezza voce comes now a bit more difficultly and there are many moments just off-focus – not only vocally. The small roles are predictably tentative – for the exception of two very good tenors, Christoph Späth, an alert, bright-toned Valzacchi, and Timothy Richards, an extraordinarily heroic Italian tenor with easy high notes.

It is difficult to believe that these performances in Berlin are Geraldine McGreevy’s debut in the role of the Marschallin, for only a slight hesitation when mezza voce is involved and one or two false entries expose a certain inexperience in it.  Her soprano is ideally creamy, a solid middle and low register particularly helpful in this part; her diction is perfect, she phrases with utmost sensitivity and purpose and, best of all, the feeling is genuine. There were moments in which the emotions were so palpable that I feared she would just cry on stage. Well, in the audience, many of us have. She is too a competent actress and, even if there are more alluring Marschallins around, she can be very convincingly aristocratic. A beautiful performance.

The house orchestra lack a certain refulgence in the string section, but Patrick Lange could nonetheless produce a very intense yet clear view of the score, sometimes too hard-pressed and slightly superficial in its bright colors. In all key moments, when a little bit more patience would have allowed him to build up the atmosphere (especially in the final trio), things escalated too fast and the result was sometimes noisy and unhelpful for his cast. I have to grant him something, the violins in the end of act I (a favorite passage of mine) were marvelous, exactly as I would wish for. This alone was worth the ticket price.

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Calixto Bieito’s 2004 infamous production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Komische Oper is sometimes referred to as “the-naked-Osmin-Entführung” and my only surprise, if we have in mind the Catalan director’s reputation, is that the bass was actually the only naked singer on stage (don’t worry – there are plenty of other naked people on stage, only they do not sing). Considering that the show is forbidden for those younger than 18, I wonder who Bieito wanted to shock. I suppose adults (and unfortunately sometimes children) in the XXIth century just have to turn the TV on to see everything Bieito wanted to share with us in his staging of Mozart’s Turkish Singspiel. Ah, my mistake!, the concept is “no Turkey for you!”. In the performance booklet, Bieito explains that the whole East/West thing is secondary to the fact that this is a work about the war between sexes. He adds that in Spain 20 (twenty) women die every year in crimes of passion. Considering that the 2004 Madrid train bombings alone killed 191 and wounded 1,800, I guess that the real naive person here is Bieito himself.  Although Mozart himself found the libretto poorly written, he seemed to have taken a fancy to a story in which the conflicts between Christians and Muslims is solved by a precedent of good behavior, a lesson which we could certainly still use today – and we can say that because he composed a great deal of noble music for his serious character and inserts a particularly touching note in his formulaic Vaudeville in the end of the opera. The fact that Bieito has entirely let this go to make way for his private fancies is the main reason why his staging is ultimately a failure. That said, there are things to cherish there too. For example, the edge.

Although Die Entführung aus dem Serail is often staged as a cute fairy-tale, this is a story of violence, kidnapping, imprisonment and discrimination. In this sense, Bieito’s setting the story in a brothel is far from a misfire. That this brothel has an Almodovarian atmosphere is actually a good idea too – it is a pity that he has not learnt from Almodovar his trademark blended of tragedy and comedy, for this is a Singspiel and semiserio conventions cannot simply be overlooked to make for a contrived scandal-news ending. Although the production is six-years-old, the new cast acts convincingly in a coherent way and, if I have to retain something positive, is that for once the threatening atmosphere does come through in a vivid way. When Konstanze sings Traurigkeit, her words do not sound like cheap sentimentalism, but really like lamenting happiness and freedom hopelessly lost. It is indeed a pity that all that has been used to convey Bieito’s own agenda rather than Mozart’s.

Conductor Simon Hewett has a good grasp of Mozartian style, but his approach is too soft-centered for this staging. Harnoncourt, Minkowski – even the late Georg Solti – could dig up the dark sides of the score in a more effective way. With two notable exceptions, the cast is below standard. Many an important opera house waits to gather a team of truly technically fluent singers to stage this opera – the Komische Oper should do the same. Announcements of indisposition have become current these days and the audience is often puzzled trying to figure if the “indisposed” singer actually had some sort of illness. Unfortunately, that was not the case with Agneta Eichenholz, who evidently had a bad cold which tampered with her in alts in Ach, ich liebte and posed extra difficulty in some key moments. Other than this, she does not really have a true Konstanze voice – I would rather say a perfect Blondchen for a big theatre. But real Konstanzes are a rare breed and, among many sopranos not naturally cut for the role (Diana Damrau included, I am afraid), Eichenholz is probably one of the best I have ever seen. Her high-lying soprano is extremely pleasing in its creaminess and floating quality, her coloratura is fluent, her mezza voce is delicate and natural and she phrases knowingly. In spite of her illness, Martern aller arten was quite accomplished, if we overlook a non projecting low register and some extra breath pauses. Although Jens Larsen is always mentioned for his full-monty exposure, the real interest about his Osmin should be his true basso profondo and declamatory skills, even in difficult patter passages. If he had a little bit more discipline to produce more homogeneous Mozartian phrasing, he could be a reference for this role.

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If we bear in mind that the Komische Oper is something like the temple of Regietheater, Andreas Homoki’s 2006 production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier would be something like Otto Schenk’s compared to the other stagings shown in that adventurous opera house. Although the director does interfere with the libretto, I would say that the layman could still follow the plot. As it is, Homoki considers that the story’s main element is the passing of time in the sense of transition of epochs. Thus, both the Feldmarschallin and the Baron Ochs would represent the old generation and its relationship with making way for a new generation represented by Octavian and Sophie – a situation Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal would themselves experience as late Romantics in the eve of a world profoundly transformed by WWI and WWII. In act I, the rococo atmosphere shows the Marschallin in wig, corset, panniers etc, but Octavian’s clothes makes us think rather of the early XXth century, a hint of what is going to happen on act II – Faninal’s house is shown in what seems to be the 30’s. Act III’s Wirthaus is replaced by the upside-down version of act I and act II’s sets and the tricks played on Ochs become air raids. In the meanwhile, the Marschallin and Ochs retain their XVIIIth century-style outfit to the end. Homoki’s ideas are generally sensible and proper to a small stage such as the Komische Oper’s, what makes it more upsetting when silliness creeps in – Sophie strips to her underwear in act II and presents herself at the Wirthaus in act III in her robe-de-chambre. Why?

Although I can remember more flawless Marschallins than Solveig Kringelborn, her performance is still extraordinarily touching. To start with, she has something like the voix-du-rôle. Her lyric soprano is still attractive in its creamy floating mezza voce, but it does no longer sound “young” and, whether it is art or nature I don’t know, but her not entirely ingratiating break into chest voice always go with the situations when the Marschallin should sound less charming. It is also refreshing to hear a singer who has evidently tried not to copy some success formulas and is very much trying to be herself in this role. Her Marie-Thérèse is more “carnal” than most, evidently an experienced woman who has seen it all and her appeal has a touch of lecherousness behind the chic. Brigitte Geller’s Sophie comes close to fulfill all the requirements – her voice is extremely pretty and, as with almost all the great exponents of this role, tends more to the lyric than to the soubrettish. However, there is still something missing – she has been in this production for so long that a great deal of the enthusiasm that lies in the core of what Sophie is about is long gone. Also, her voice is sometimes off focus, too often in the key moments for comfort. That is a problem not shared by Elisabeth Starzinger, whose tightly focused high mezzo is otherwise too light for Octavian. It seems she still has to mature in the role – sometimes I had the impression she was a last-minute replacement. No offense to her personal charm, but she looks convincingly boyish and is a supple, congenial actress. Last but not least, Jens Larsen was a most satisfying Ochs – he has the right voice for the role and is also a naturally funny fellow who does not need to overdo anything in order to extract laughs from the audience.

Although the house orchestra is perfectly acceptable, it is not truly world-class. Nonetheless, Friedemann Layer proved that a gifted conductor proves his talents when he is not conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. The maestro knows the art of finding the right tempo in which the minimal level of polish is achieved with no sacrifice to forward movement and theatrical expression, took profit of the less than exuberant string section to produce an entirely transparent sound picture in which the complex polyphonic writing could be understood without effort and never let anyone down in key moments. As a matter of fact, his final trio was exquisitely built, with fine contributions from every singer.

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