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Posts Tagged ‘Julia Kleiter’

“Leicht muss man sein” was the advice Richard Strauss borrowed from the Feldmarschallin when he had to explain how Der Rosenkavalier should be conducted. It is a wide ranging score in which the composer tried to go a step further from Wagner’s Meistersinger and Verdi’s Falstaff and ended on producing a formidable patchwork of Musikdrama, operetta and tone poem. But the advice remains – it is supposed to be a comedy and the serious episodes should be played “with one eye wet and the other one dry”. Back in 2005 at the Met, Donald Runnicles followed this advice and produce a performance of great musical integrity. This evening he still followed the advice, but in its most superficial level. The orchestral playing was never heavy, but often unclear and only intermittently expressive. As with every musical comedy with a large orchestra, adjusting the sounds from the pit to lighter voices is always difficult and the usual victim is atmosphere. This evening, the general impression was of coldness – even in the orchestral episodes, when the conductor should be finally free to firework, the proceedings remained recessed and uneventful. The Sophie/Octavian “love duet” was an exception – exquisitely crafted by soloists, musicians and conductor, it gleamed in the middle of the prevailing lukewarmth. The other exception proved to be truly exceptional – this evening’s final trio was so faultless in its spontaneous flow, so free of artifice that it struck powerfully home: lots of wet eyes in the audience. This passage alone made the performance cherishable, in spite of all its flaws.

Götz Friedrich’s 1993 production for the Deutsche Oper looks older than its age: I could have guessed 1983 in its many splashes of bad taste in purple/red/mirror sets. As many productions in Germany, directors are obsessed with the work’s anachronism and make everything turn around schizophrenic aesthetics. Since Friedrich’s original direction is lost in the dust of time, I can only talk about what I saw: a kitsch staging in which singers are supposed to do what they deem better to do. It was quite lucky that this evening the cast had the more or less the right instincts about what that should be.

Replacing Petra Maria Schnitzer’s for the Feldmarschallin, the name of Lioba Braun made me worried and curious. If Christa Ludwig wasn’t an indisputable success in it, what hope should there be for other mezzos in that role? Well, Braun seemed determined to prove me wrong. She was not an indisputable success either, but she really can sing this part and has something to say about it. At first, her voice does not sound the role: it is a bit smoky, distinctively vibrant and a tiny little bit matronly. In its higher reaches, it doesn’t always produce seamless legato and sometimes variety is achieved rather from a very clear diction and spontaneous inflection than through tone-colouring, but she is certainly a technically secure singer who floats high mezza voce more effortlessly as many a lyric soprano. Her Hab’ mir’s gelobt really gave me goosebumps. If her singing is not always aristocratically poised, her whole attitude turns rather around decisiveness than musing. Even if the cool elegance of a Lisa della Casa or a Kiri Te Kanawa corresponds more to everyone’s idea of this role, I wonder if a XVIIIth century grande dame’s attitude was not closer to Lioba Braun’s commanding rather than charming approach. Considering it is only the second time she takes this role (her debut in it took place a couple of months ago in Leipzig), one can only wonder what she will be doing in it once she matures in it.

Daniela Sindram was born to sing the role of Octavian – her creamy mezzo soprano floats through Straussian phrases and, as her Marschallin, she readily takes to mezza voce. To make it better, she cuts a convincingly boyish figure on stage while keeping a patrician bearing and relishes the Mariandl episodes without excess of caricature (properly directed, she could be indeed perfect in it). Julia Kleiter, the tallest Sophie I have ever seen, unfortunately doesn’t share with these singers the ability to spin soft, floated high notes – a requirement in this part – but her high pianissimi, occasionally tight, are never hard on the ear. As a matter of fact, her greatest asset is the irresistible beauty of her voice. And the fact that she is an elegant, musicianly singer doesn’t hurt either.

At 64, Kurt Rydl is still a commendable Baron Ochs. Actually, he was in far better voice than last time I saw him (2009) in a Tannhäuser also in the Deutsche Oper. His voice only rarely sounded rusty and, if he did not always follow dynamic instructions, he had not followed them either in his studio recording in Dresden many years ago. An uninformed listener would find a large, rich, dark voice, very clear diction and echt Viennese quality (after all, he was born there). He is also a skilled comedy actor with almost perfect timing who could make us believe that Ochs is a nobleman (something many basses forget to do). Minor roles were very well cast, especially Yosep Kang’s faultless Italian Tenor, Burkhard Ulrich’s subtle Valzacchi and Ulrike Helzel’s bright, well-focused Annina.

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While Idomeneo and Idamante had to work on their father-son relationship, Nikolaus and Philipp Harnoncourt are doing really well in that department – it is their collaboration that maybe needs some rethinking. Their teamwork has resulted the production of Mozart’s Idomeno first seen in Graz in 2008 and now reprised in the Opernhaus Zürich. Harnoncourt, Sr., claims that the idea of sharing responsibility in this staging is due to the fact that he had never seen any director who really understands that Idomeneo is rather a tragédie lyrique than an opera seria. Therefore, ballet should play a key role in it, especially in what regards showing the supernatural elements of the plot. I could agree with that on paper, but what has been finally shown on stage is only a low-budget production with unimaginative sets of dubious taste, unbelievably ugly costumes and a detailed if clichéd stage direction that reduces Idomeneo to mania, Elettra to coquetry, Ilia to childishness and Idamante to neediness. Then there is the ballet – I am not sure if classical ballet pirouettes are the right idea to portray sea monsters and menacing deities. I found it quite distracting, especially during the staged overture (yes, I know…). The complete ballet music in the end of the opera has been retained and, as much as Heinz Spoerli’s graceful choreography was expertly performed by the Zürcher Ballet, it added absolutely nothing to the understanding of the plot. One could actually take it for the second item on a double bill with the opera until Ilia and Idamante are finally brought in the last minute to justify the whole idea. To make things worse, with the excuse of the original Munich première version, the most exciting aria in the score (D’Oreste, d’Ajacce, of course) did not make it into this evening’s performing edition. The reason why Mozart cut it back then was the interruption of the dramatic flow caused by it. In the Harnoncourts’ staging, Elettra’s surviving recitative was an oasis of excitement in a rather uneventful closing scene… If I had to point out an advantage in the father-son teamwork, this would be the way the conductor’s fanciful playing with tempo found support in the dramatic action.

Compared to Harnoncourt’s Teldec recording with more or less the same orchestra (then under a different name), this evening’s performance is noticeably less coherent in its theatrical intent. Although Harnoncourt’s microscopic attention to details is often revelatory, pressing the break pedal to highlight every little one of them is finally an aim in itself, rather than a means to express anything. Moreover, the orchestral playing left something to be desired in its extremely dry sound, not to mention the occasional instance of poor tuning and lack of rhythmic precision. Although the choral singing was not bad, it lacked the necessary clarity to blend with the period instrument orchestra.

All that said, Harnoncourt masters the art of accentuation and produced some amazing results, for example, in recitativi accompagnati –  some chords were so sudden and intense that I almost jumped off my seat at moments! The scene when Idamante first sees his father was worth alone the (high) price of the ticket.

Julia Kleiter is an ideal Mozartian soprano and apart from one blunder during Se il padre perdei*, offered an exemplary account of the role if Ilia. If she ultimately could be  somewhat more affecting, I would rather blame the directors’ superficial view of the role, which left her little space to focus. Eva Mei’s bright soprano is a bit light for Elletra. Without her final aria, it is difficult to say anything definitive about her take on this role. As it was, she found the tessitura of Tutte nel cor uncongenial and failed to caress her lines in Idol’ mio, even if she found no difficulty with the high-lying writing. She is a seasoned Mozartian and made some beautiful sounds and used the text knowingly, but the  final impression was rather blank. She is not usually considered a magnetic actress, but was was certainly the singer who offered the bast acting in this cast. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s mezzo is similarly light for Idamante, but once she overcame the problems that thwarted her high register during Non ho colpa, this singer would win the audience over with her beauty of tone, elegant phrasing, exquisite pianissimi and engagement.

Saimir Pirgu’s italianate dulcet tenor is on the light side for Idomeneo. He was not entirely comfortable in a part that sits low in his voice and tended to be emphatic in a way that tampers with legato, but produced reasonably effortless divisions in Fuor del mare. He still needs to mature in the role in order to transcend correctness and achieve something really moving. Cristroph Strehl was a strenous Arbace who got to sing one of his arias (Se colà ne’ fati).

* This is the first time I have heard Ilia sing her complete recitative in which she speaks of Hecuba and Priam in a staged production. Harnoncourt recording has the usual shorter version, while, as far as I can immediately remember, Jacobs’s recording for Harmonia Mundi is the only one to feature the longer text.

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This year’s Baden-Baden Pfingfestspiele’s main feature is Bob Wilson’s staging of Weber’s Der Freischütz, to this day a favourite with German audiences (I mean, you have to put up with many a sing-along member of the audience in the next seat). As always, this opera is a favourite for interventionist stagings, but having an American director who has been applying the same “sucess formula” for decades could hardly be the answer to the search of novelty in such a well-loved and often-staged work. The truth is that Wilson’s highly stylized production sanitized the opera of all possibility of expression. Singers and chorus-members behaved like mechanical dolls, the stage action tempo was kept at very slow space and the geometrical sets were ingenious but rather blank. If I had to single out a very poor moment in the whole show, this would be the “black mass” presided by Samiel invented  to distract the audience while the sets were being changed for the Wolfschlucht scene, the merit of which was, at least, trying – for the one and only time in the whole concept – to depict the original stage instruction. In the rest of the opera, even dialogues were adapted to justify the director’s fancies.

Modern audiences, however, are used to be visually frustrated and have learnt to take refuge in the musical performance. Not here. The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden has particularly dry acoustics and having the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the pit was a self-defeating solution. The orchestral sound could never blossom, both higher and lower ends of the aural spectrum were very restricted, valveless brass instruments were tested by the circumstances and the much demanded French Horn players had the worst time of their lives.  To make things worse, conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has poor control of ensembles, is careless about polish, has a fancy for pointless rit. and acc. effects – he seems like the Bizarro’s world version of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The real world’s Harnoncourt has indeed recorded Freischütz with… the Berliner Philharmoniker, a hint Hengelbrock should have taken. No offense to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a praiseworthy ensemble when the circumstances allow. As a compensation, the Philharmonia Chor Wien offered clear and well-balanced sounds throughout.

The acoustics had also a negative effect on soloists, draining their voices of resonance. In order to accomodate that, the conductor had a second reason to turn down the orchestra’s volume. As a result, arias such as Leise, leise almost sounded a capella. Nevertheless, my guess is that Bob Wilson’s straightjacket-like stage direction made singers ill at ease and that sort of thing obviously has an influence in their vocal performance. One could almost feel the moment when they were starting to find some animation, but then they remembered that they should stand still or walk like an Egyptian. Having graduated to big lyric role, Juliane Banse never failed to produce firm and velvety tone. She handled her big aria most commendably, but failed to produce the mezza voce required by Agathe’s prayer. On the other hand, the lovely Julia Kleiter was an ideal Ännchen whose acknowledged stage talents was wasted in this production. Steve Davislim’s Max worked at his best in purely lyrical passages, where his ease to produce soft head tones were most helpful. Otherwise, the role seemed to low for his voice and the more dramatic passages tested him sorely. Although Clemens Bieber’s performance in Berlin was far less varied, he offered far more solid singing in comparison. As the director gave Dimitry Ivashchenko more freedom of movement, he accordinly seemed the most spontaneous singer in the cast. His ease with passagework helped him when Hengelbrock decided to play each couplet in his drinking son increasingly faster. For a singer who usually sings Sarastro, he deals with the higher tessitura with some comfort, but, in this hall, his voice could be a bit more forceful (or maybe I am spoiled by Theo Adam in Carlos Kleiber’s recording). When Paata Burchuladze opened his mouth and such a voluminous voice finally conquered the difficult acoustics, I felt I could oversee the wobble, but after some minutes I changed my mind.

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In the booklet to his performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio for the Paris National Opera, Sylvain Cambreling explains why he believes that some ideas in early versions of this work (usually referred to as Leonore) are, in his opinion, more effective than the definitive alternatives settled in the composer’s final 1814 version. Naturally, Beethoven’s own ideas of what is more effective are irrelevant compared to Cambreling’s, but let’s not talk about that. The edition performed at the Palais Garnier this evening featured the graceful Leonore I instead of the much loved and highly dramatic Fidelio overture. Also, Marzelline’s aria comes before the duet with Jaquino, which is followed by the trio Ein Mann ist bald genommen. In any case, replacing Beethoven by Beethoven might be debatable, but hardly matter for disappointment. The problem involves the replacement of the original functional if (refreshingly) self-effacing spoken lines by Martin Mosebach’s foolish dialogues which are supposed to connect every loose end in the plot by pseudo-smart explanations full of pocket philosophy and over-the-bar-table psychology.

 

One could say that these replacements could limit the musical and dramatic strength of Beethoven’s Fidelio, but lightness seemed to be the bottomline here – Cambreling ensured that the house orchestra offered clear, warm sounds in the context of a well-balanced and behaved performance. Although accents were firm and rhythms tended to be forward-moving (with the exception of a whimsical beat for Rocco’s “gold” aria), pride of place seemed to be given to shapeliness and correctness. The quartett Er sterbe, for example, never suggested anything wild or dangerous, but rather a certain orderliness. Accordingly, Johan Simons’s production offers us the pasteurized version of this prison drama – sceneries are aseptically white, inmates are dressed in pastels, Florestan is monitored by surveillance cameras. It takes some time to adjust to this Biedermeier version of Beethoven’s humanist drama in which blood and guts are replaced by the political correctness featured in Marie Claire magazine, but once you do that, it does fit one’s general ideas about classical elegance and balance. If you really don’t get my meaning, do yourself a favour by buying Karl Böhm’s CDs with Gwyneth Jones, James King, Theo Adam and the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Above any discussion about stylistic approach is the paramount quality of the cast gathered here. Angela Denoke has received some harsh criticism on her Leonore in Simon Rattle’s recording for EMI some years ago for excessive detachment and undernourished vocalism. Even if her Fidelio is still rather cool, it does feature the kind of Gundula Janowitz-like shapely sculpted phrasing even in the most hair-raisingly difficult moments that matches to perfection Florestan’s idealized vision of an angelic Leonore. Her voice is at once firm, radiant, pure-toned and surprisingly forceful – I sincerely doubt that there are many other singers around who can sing the role as musicianly as she does these days. Moreover, she looks believably boyish and offers acting of disarming sincerity. It is always difficult to find the right Marzelline when the singer taking the title role has such a beautiful voice – and casting Julia Kleiter is an evidence of good judgment. Not only does she have one of the loveliest lyric soprano voices in our days, but also boasts an engaging and charming stage presence.

Jonas Kaufmann is also a skilled actor. He convincingly portrayed Florestan’s physical debilitation even when this involved singing difficult music in very uncomfortable positions. His opening aria, for example: he risked to attack his initial high g on almost falsetto-like mezza voce only to slowly develop it into a very dark fff lying on the floor with his legs crossed in a truly disturbing manner. In the ensuing aria, he sang with sensitivity and imagination and negotiated its difficult second section with unusual accuracy. At this point, any doubts about his ability to sing heroic repertoire should be dispelled. I have seen Alan Held sing the role of Pizarro many years ago and again in Rattle’s EMI recording, but never better than this evening. His voice has acquired a darker hue but still has the necessary concentration to pierce through the orchestra, especially in high higher register. Ideally, the part requires a heavier and larger voice, but operating close to the limits does not prevent this singer from offering a satisfying and reliable performance. Franz-Josef Selig is again a most sensitive and rich-toned singer – only poor focus on high higher notes stands between him and complete success. Ales Briscein is a most pleasant Jaquino, while Paul Gay is a bit modest in sound and attitude for Don Fernando. Last but not least, although the Paris National Opera chorus still lacks some discipline, the final scene was effectively grand in sound and animated.

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A review of the new DVD from Zürich with the Harnoncourt/Kusej Zauberflöte has been added to the discography in re:opera (look right for the link). It is a pity that the talent of the marvelous Mozartian soprano Julia Kleiter has been wasted in such a lamentable production. She is indeed an underrated singer who deserves more attention. She would have been an immense improvement in the Met’s last Clemenza di Tito (in which Heidi Grant Murphy was Servilia) or, for instance, in their Zauberflöte (in which Lisa Milne was the most frequent Pamina). Think about it. (I mention the Met, because it was precisely in New York the only time I saw Kleiter live, in a secondary role in Bychkov’s performance of R. Strauss’s Daphne at the Carnegie Hall).

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Daphne has always been, in my opinion, the hidden jewel among the unknown late Strauss operas and I guess that Renée Fleming has applied to a membership to the selected club of Straussian sopranos by championing it. Leonie Rysanek has done so with Frau ohne Schatten, Lisa della Casa with Arabella, Gundula Janowitz with Ariadne, Kiri Te Kanawa with Capriccio and Lucia Popp with basically all of it. As it is, this example of artistic generosity is most welcome and concert performances following the studio recordings with such a mediated diva will certainly help to place Daphne in the repertoire. As it is, although the part requires a more spacious soprano, such as Maria Reining’s, the truth is that the most famous exponents of the part, at least in recordings, tend to be lyric soprano tout court. In that sense, Fleming has the advantage of an absolutely creamy rounded tone, comfortable with the fast articulation for declamatory passages and readily taking to legato in the high-lying melodic moments. It is praiseworthy that she has really decided to delve into Straussian style and eschew the jazzy mannerisms displayed in her Arabellas and Marschallins. Here she is ready to take a pure line while still keeping some spirit. Compared to the recording, though, the voice tends to lose some colour in the more dramatic passages. The middle register does not come across as clearly as it should either, compromising some of the understanding of the text. That said, her performance is generally lovely and charming. If one has Hilde Güden in mind, a certain bright quality allowing for a more positive delivery of the text may be missed. Now if one has Lucia Popp in mind, one will miss an interpretation more verbally intense and a wider resource to tone-colouring, not to mention the important girlish impression in this role about chastity and innocence. All in all, this is an important step in Fleming’s career, in the sense that she is on her way to find the right balance between stylishness and expression in a repertoire close to her vocal nature.

As Apollo, Johann Botha is probably one of the most easily produced tenors visiting the part. As much as in the recordings, his top notes do not blossom as one might expect, but he knows how to keep legato and tries to play with dynamics. Those who know Böhm’s recording will be forever spoiled by the sheer charisma of James King, not to mention the vocal lushness of Fritz Wunderlich. That said, Roberto Saccà offered his best performance so far. Here, his focused tone and fearless approach to the role were all for the best. A thoroughly beautiful performance. As much as the excellent Michael Schade in the studio recording, he is no Wunderlich, but who else is? Robert Holl has not the dark sound required by the role, but was able to pull out a plausible performance out of his soft-grained yet forceful bass. The other roles were splendidly cast. The statuesque Anna Larsson’s deep contralto is impressive in itself, Julia Kleiter’s First Maid is the evidence that there is no small role, only small singers. I am eager to listen to her Mozart. There is no need to say Eike Wilm Schulte as First Shepherd is an example of embarras de richesse.

Nevertheless, the reason why this was above all a beautiful performance is Semyon Bychkov’s exemplary conducting of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. His vision is grander in manner than both Böhm and Haitink, but still keeping the necessary clarity enveloped in exquisite orchestral sound, positively indulgent in sensuous slow tempi in the most romantic passages.

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