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Posts Tagged ‘Kwangchul Youn’

Kwangchul Youn has established a reputation as a Wagner singer in Bayreuth and the most important opera houses around the world. He is particularly noted for his performances in the role of Gurnemanz, a role he never sang before in his native South Korea until this week. As far as I understand, one of the reasons is that this was the Korean premiere of Wagner’s last masterpiece here.

For this performances, the Korea National Opera has ordered a new production by Philippe Arlaud, a director who worked with Christian Thielemann both in Berlin and in Bayreuth. Those used to Regietheater productions on the Green Hill would probably find this staging unchallenging in its straightforwardness – I would say that it was a sensible idea to focus on telling the story to an audience who is seeing the work for the first time. Also, it is refreshing that a stylized, minimalistic approach (rather than a traditional approach in a country where this tradition means very little) has been chosen. Act I shows one tree trunk surrounded by an iceberg borrowed from Caspar David Friedrich – a symbol for a social order whose propelling energy is gone (a red glowing grail being the only warm color on stage); act II has no sets, Klingsor’s world being just make-believe; act III predictably has the decayed version of  act I. As one can see, nothing new here, but one should not underestimate the the fact that the cast showed great conviction under the coherent guidance of a director who took the pains of sharing his visions with his singers in a way that also made sense for the audience.

Saying that Lothar Zagrosek opted for comfortable tempi that made it possible for his musicians to produce adequate results would be oversimplifying it. His orchestra played with enthusiasm and was able to fill the hall with sound when this was necessary. Brass was less accident-prone than I would have imagined and strings would sound pale only in fast or soft passages. What is important is that the right gravitas has been achieved – and singers could find the necessary time to let Wagner’s text and music “speak” for itself. You might be thinking that this is no guarantee of success for act II. Indeed, a while after the exit of the flower-maidens, things tended to get a bit pointless. Orchestral passages missed denser strings – act III having a couple of problematic moments.

Although Yvonne Naef has her taut/narrow moments, her Kundry is dramatically alert, tonally varied and seductive in a Crespin-esque way. In actIII, her acting alone was effective as her singing. Christopher Ventris is less gripping, but subtle and youthful-toned. Also, he sings with unfailing technique and musicianship. Gerard Kim (Amfortas) has an interesting voice – dark with a cutting edge – and he is the kind of singer who knows how to test his limits in a positive way. Moreover, he has a very expressive face. Antonio Yang (Klingsor) too has an intense stage presence.  His dark and forceful baritone very much at home in this repertoire.

Kwangchul Youn does not need introduction in this part. He was also in superb voice and colored the text with the sure hand of a master.

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As the optimistic person that I am, I have decided to give the Cassiers/Barenboim Rheingold a second chance; maybe last time at La Scala was just a collective bad day and I was curious about the new pieces of casting. In an impossibly positive scenario, Cassiers could have rethought his concept after the unanimous dislike he met with. But no – he is a man of conviction. I should admire that – if I had been given a free ticket maybe…

To make things worse, this time I could read dramaturg Michael Steinberg’s explanatory text about the production*. In it, he says that he and this production’s creative team are opening a new era in the staging of Wagner’s Ring: all stagings since the 1980’s represent a throwback from Chéreau’s revolutionary historical concept, while Cassiers would be basically “in the same line” as the French director. But, nota bene, Cassiers is  supposed to be a development from that concept: his Ring “will show how the globalized world of 2010 is still based on the Wagnerian vocabulary of 1870″. More than that, it “won’t begin in 1870 and move towards 1945, but rather develop from our days – it will take place in the ‘now'”. I know, I too was curious to see how they intended to do this: “these aesthetics work with the double meaning of  ‘projection’, as understood by Freud and others. On one hand, projection is the photographic and cinematographic technology – an image is projected from one source onto a surface. On the other hand, a projection has also psychic dynamic that comprehends the externalization of internal experience and (in symbolical sense) the ascription of emotional causes and attributes to a secondary, external source”. OK, now I got the cameras under the waters of the Rhine, but I guess Mr. Cassiers and his team should have rather learned with Chéreau the craft of true stage direction. I’ll make it easy for them: the art of knowing how to place actors on stage and give them meaningful attitudes, instead of having Friedrichstadt-Palast-like choreographies to portray that.

If I have to compare this evening with that in La Scala, the performance tonight seemed more technically finished (especially lighting), but the cast seemed less animated (particularly Stephan Rügamer). I cannot say if it is my imagination, but some scenes seemed cleaner, the Rhinemaidens less messy, Fasolt and Froh less lost in the context and, maybe it is because Berlin saw the thinner Wotan in the history of opera, his suit looked far less salvation-army-style than the one given to René Pape in Milan. On the other hand, Fricka has a kitschier gown to deal with.

Musically speaking, the dyspeptic approach to the score in Milan was unfortunately not accidental. Although the orchestra seemed more recessed here in Berlin (I don’t think that the mini Bayreuth-hood on the pit has any acoustic consequence), with a clear advantage for the singers, the extra sonic beauty of the Staatskapelle Berlin involve some exquisite orchestral effects, particularly in the rainbow bridge episode, what is always helpful in the context of slow tempi. In any case, the absence of rich orchestral sound will be for many Wagnerians (me included) a coup de grâce in Barenboim’s chamber-like (?) new approach.

Ekaterina Gubanova’s sensuous-toned if not completely incisive Fricka is an improvement from Milan. The other newcomer deserves more explanation: I don’t believe that Hanno Müller-Brachmann is going to add the role of Wotan to his repertoire, but is rather covering for René Pape, who has to sing Boris Godunov at the Met. His bass-baritone is impressively well-focused in the whole range; his technical security is such that he finds no problem in producing dark bottom notes and heroic top notes. The sound is, however, a bit slim and lacking weight, not to mention that the upper end of the tessitura may sound a bit clear. However, his main advantage over René Pape is his verbal specificity. Instead of painting with broad atmospheric paintbrushes, Brachmann delivers the text with crystal-clear diction and admirably precise declamatory abilities. The overall effect might not be the most grandiose around, but he does keep you interested in the proceedings. In any case, in a large hall with a powerful orchestra, I have the impression that Wolfram or maybe Beckmesser would be more appropriate for his voice.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was in far healthier voice here than in Milan. He is a vivid actor with a forceful voice, but his open-toned approach to top notes is a no-go for the more dramatic scenes. Stephan Rügamer was a bit less exuberant – also in the acting department – this evening. In any case, his Mozartian Loge is always interesting. It is a pity that he cannot do without the nasality that distorts his vowels. Again, Kwangchul Youn offered the most solid Wagnerian performance of the evening, but Anna Larsson proved to be here more convincing than in Italy. Maybe Ewa Wolak (at the Deutsche Oper) has spoilt the role for me, but the Swedish contralto still sounds too soft-grained for this role to my taste.

* It had been published at La Scala too, but I could not find it among thousands of pages of advertisement.

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Regietheater is a label too easily given to an alternative staging, but the truth is that it is not supposed to be some sort of liberating approach. On the contrary, the fact that the director’s reading of the work is what being staged means that the director has the greatest share of responsibility, i.e., the focal point of a staging is his reading of the play (and, in the case of opera, of the libretto plus his listening to the music). When one has the impression that director had not bothered to read the author, then this should not be called Regietheater, but simply misappropriation. Although I do not subscribe entirely to Stefan Herheim’s productions, I must concede that what one sees on stage is the result of the director’s thought-provoking personal effort to understand and relate to the works he is staging.

Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal for the Bayreuther Festspiele has become famous – or infamous, for some – for its historical approach to Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel. Its symbolism may be too obscure for comfort, its quotations too wide-ranging and his overwrought directing style short of rococo, but it is impossible to deny the clear development of his concept, which does not collide with the story telling once you make out the complexities of his first act.

As here staged, the story begins in the days of Kaiser Wilhelm, where Germany is no longer a cultural entity but a newly formed country, the process of materialization of which probably involved the loss of its spiritual dimension. I won’t try to explain act I, for the ambivalence of almost all characters involve a double symbology: the tenor singing Parsifal and a boy in a mute role share the same costume; there is the invisible Titurel, but a really visible vampiric mother figure to the boy/Parsifal on her omnipresent deathbed on which one can see her giving birth to a mystical baby. She shares the same costume with Amfortas, whose crown of thorns might evoke Jesus Christ (although he clearly represents the established power, being himself the king). If one resists the temptation of framing every detail and rather surrender to the shattering effects of the beautiful and sophisticated sets equipped with every imaginable theatrical contraption and the detailed Personsregie, the closing tableau where a nation bereft of meaning and obsessed with formal purity goes to World War I hints at what is going to happen next.

Act II is the most sharply defined and more coherent in Herheim’s concept. WWI is over and moral dissolution is the keynote in the Weimar Republic. A transvestite Klingsor presides over a cabaret that doubles as a hospital (a quotation from John Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion?) where Kundry first appears to Parsifal as Marlene Dietrich and then, after the young man’s insight about Amfortas, as the mother figure extremely reminiscent of Edith Clever in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s movie. The seduction scene, witnessed by families persecuted by the regime, reaches its climax when Kundry’s threats are portrayed by the rise of red banners with swastikas and police violence against the extras. It is not Klingsor who throws the spear against Parsifal, but his boy-doppelgänger fully dressed in nazi uniform. Act III is more univocal in its meaning – the sets show a post-war scenario, the redeemed Kundry and the anointed Parsifal, for the first time, interact with the extras, now a group of women busy with reconstructing the destroyed city, by embracing and helping them. When they march into the Reichstag to release Amfortas from his duties, a mirror in the shape of the planet reflect the audience into the stage while a dove shines above it. I know, “world peace” exactly as in beauty pageants. Considering the negative agenda dealt with by Herheim, he probably thought it wise to end on a positive note.

Musically, the performance never actually took off. Daniele Gatti seemed to have his mind elsewhere (in Salzburg for Elektra?). Although the orchestra often produced exquisite sounds, act I was long beyond salvation and lacking depth; act II was structurally unclear and poorly developed – even when some animation was brought in (as in the flowermaiden scene) the results were mechanical and inorganic; and act III proved to be uneventful and lacking atmosphere, the magic in the good friday magic left to imagination. Susan Maclean was a powerful, warm-toned and intense Kundry. Her acting is also top class. Cristopher Ventris’s tenor is large enough if technically not hearty and percussive as a Heldentenor’s, but he took profit of his bright and round high register to produce a vulnerable, sensitive performance. Detlef Roth’s baritone is firm but really light-toned for Amfortas, often tested by the lower tessitura. On the other hand, Thomas Jesatko was a quite dark-toned Klingsor, forcefully sung. Kwangchul Youn may lack the sense of story-telling so important for Gurnemanz, but his diction is very clear, his voice is noble, large and rich.

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Tankred Dorst’s 2006 production of the Ring des Nibelungen for the Bayreuther Festspiele, due to be released on DVD in the end of the year, seems to turn around the concept that myths do not belong in the past, but still linger in the darker corners of our daily lives. Although the Rhinemaidens and Alberich are shown in a stylized Rhine, Wotan and the other gods dwell on the top of a decayed building that could perfectly be on Leipziger Straße in Berlin. While Freia’s fate is being decided, a couple of tourists appear and takes a picture – in case someone had not noticed by then that the setting is contemporary. Nibelheim is an industrial plant (yes, nothing new about that) where an engineer passes by Wotan and Loge, who are invisible to his eyes, to check the pressure on a couple of pipes. During the opera’s last bars, a kid from our days finds a remain of Fafner’s treasure, but the curse seems to keep its effect. He soon gets a beating from his friends, who steal it from him. Considering the premise’s absence of originality, the scene who curiously seem to work is the first one, the only not to fit the concept. The stage direction has nothing new about it – some key scenes, such as Alberich’s curse, hang fire – the sets were uninspiring and the costumes are not only extremely ugly, but sometimes also impaired actors’ movements.

All that said, the production is nothing but a footnote in a Wagner performance in which Christian Thielemann is the conductor. Although his tempi were quite deliberate, the richness and clarity of orchestral sound and the purposefulness in phrasing filled these tempi in a way that simply sounded right. The Festival orchestra played with tremendous gusto, strings were full-toned yet extremely flexible, the texture was dense yet transparent, the various sections blended perfectly, brass instruments offered flawless playing. In spite of the venue’s famously difficult acoustics, one did not feel that the orchestral sound was recessed (the covered pit did make the sound less bright, but never small-scaled) and the conductor was very sensitive but also very sensible in deciding when it was possible to curb his formidable forces to help out singers.

Albert Dohmen, for example, did not seem to be in very good voice – on its higher reaches, his bass-baritone sounded bottled up and limited in volume. Truth be said, he was often covered by the orchestra and detached in the interpretation department. Back in 2004, I had the opportunity to see him as Amfortas in Munich and clearly remember a very large and powerful voice, but recently it seems to have shrunk in size. Let us hope that tomorrow will find him in better shape. Andrew Shore is a good actor and his voice has the right sound for Alberich, but his high notes were unfocused and often rough. After one has seen Tomasz Koniecny in this role, one tends to find fault in everyone else these days, but it seems that the British baritone was experimenting some sort of fatigue this evening. It has become customary for Kwangchul Youn to steal the show when he sings Fasolt in The Rhinegold – the Korean bass’s dark, incisive voice is taylor-made for Wagner. Brazilian bass Diógenes Randes’s is velvetier in sound, but his Fafner did not lack menace. Wolfgang Schmidt, whom I saw back in 1997 as an ill-at-ease Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera House, is now a powerful Mime who sometimes indulge in some Spieltenor mannerisms that do not really go with his basic tonal quality. Let us wait for Siegfried to say more about him. Clemends Bieber was a pleasant-toned Froh, but Ralk Lukas lacked slancio for his final and important contribution. Mihoko Fujimura is a light, efficient Fricka and Christa Meyer’s mezzo seemed a bit high for the role of Erda, even if she sang it quite commendably. Christiane Kohl, Ulrike Helzel and Simone Schröder were very well cast as the Rhinemaidens.

I will leave the best for last – Arnold Bezuyen’s impressively sung Loge and Edith Haller’s crystalline Freia. The Dutch tenor, in particular, deserves praises for his extremely musical phrasing, his intelligent word-pointing that never stands between him and true cantabile and his finely projected voice.

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Daniel Barenboim’s close collaboration with both La Scala and Staatsoper Unter den Linden has resulted a joint venture, which is a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, apparently at the rate of one opera every season both in Milan and at the Schiller Theater. Although the production is going to be one for both theatres, casting differs. For example, Nina Stemme and Waltraud Meier sing Bruennhilde and Sieglinde in Die Walkuere in Milan, while Berlin will feature Irene Théorin and Anja Kampe.

Barenboim’s almost Furtwaenglerian large-scaled approach to the Ring is known through his Bayreuth performances released both in CD and DVD and it seems that the conductor tried to justify his second visit to the Nibelungs with a whole new different approach. Although Furtwängler himself has conducted a Ring at La Scala, one would believe that the maestro inspired himself in another German who has also tried his tetralogy there: Wolfgang Sawallisch (1973).  This time, large scale are hardly the words that come to mind – the orchestral sound is rather chamber-like and clear, with beautiful textures and rather detailed phrasing in more lyric moments, especially when soft dynamics are involved. In more purely “Wagnerian” passages, things tend to lack some finish. Curiously, the performance is dramatically rather blank and, in spite of the lightness, tempi rarely flow. Probably because of the light-voiced cast, restrain seems to be the keyword, what impared many of the opera climaxes, especially Alberich’s curse, which really misfired here.

The main source of curiosity in this performance is René Pape’s first Wotan. The Dresdener bass has made a reputation out of Wagnerian roles such as King Marke in Lohengrin and the King Heinrich in Lohengrin, but, if I am not mistaken, this is his first Wagnerian Heldenbariton emploi. Although the tonal quality is noble and the attitude is stylish and knowing, Pape’s velvety voice does not seem really cut for the part. In this tessitura, his voice does not really sound large and his high register sounds a bit bleached, what gives a more tentative than commanding impression. His Alberich, Johannes Martin Kraenzle, is similarly out of his sort. He seems to know what Alberich should be like and is also a good actor (even if he looks old for the part), but he cheats in every high note and is often overwhelmed by the orchestra, even in its light-toned version. Stephan Rügamer is also light-toned for Loge – and his nasality is often bothersome – but this imaginative tenor sings with amazing  tonal variety and an almost Mozartian dulcet quality that makes his character particularly insinuating. As always, he is a most gifted actor – certainly the singer who made most of the mechanical stage direction. Curiously, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s voice proved to be more penetrating than his in the role of Mime. Maybe it is a bit late for Doris Soffel to tackle the role of Fricka – her vocal production is now a bit raspish. She is a subtle artist with intelligent word-pointing and some effective use of mezza voce, but one wants more vocal comfort. Anna Larsson lacked firmness as Erda and Anna Samuil (Freia) was rather metallic in tone if quite hearable in her flashy Slavic voice. The remaining minor roles were all ineffectively taken. Truth be said, the only singer truly at ease in this performance was Kwangchul Youn, whose Fasolt outclassed the remaining members of the cast.

To make things even less exciting, Guy Cassiers’s production is a series of misconceptions. The omnipresent ballet dancers making their distracting steps all over the place would make Wagner turn in his tomb. In any case, it made me feel like kicking them and their clueless choreographies off the stage. From a certain point on, all effects described in the libretto were replaced in a most unconvincing way by dancers doing their routines.  Enrico Bagnoli’s sets are quite unsensational and oversimple. The whole concept turned around the use of water in the first scene, for a rather awkward impression, and, since it is not simple to dry the whole set, it remained wet to the end, the attempts to make that make sense even more pointless. The audience’s reaction was quite cold and it made me wonder if some things are going to be changed for next season’s prima, Die Walküre, which is going to need something more consistent than this.

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Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo has been around for a long while. Although his voice sounds amazingly fresh, the kind of heroic high notes required by leading Italian tenor roles are now beyond realistic possibilities. Since low register has never been a problem for him, why not try baritone roles then? The title role in Simon Boccanegra is not Verdi’s heaviest baritone role and one could also argue that the fact that Verdian baritone parts are usually too high should not be a problem for a tenor, even one short of his high c’s and b’s. On paper, this is all true. Not only on paper – Domingo can sing all the notes Verdi wrote for Simon Boccanegra. He even sings them stylistically and expressively. But does he sound convincing in the role? I am afraid not.

First of all, although his tenor has a bronze-toned quality, he does not sound baritonal at all. His low notes, easy as they are, do not possess real depth and his ascents to high notes are free from the intense quality a true baritone has. As a result, the lighter and slightly nasal tonal quality, weird as it sounds, make the character seem younger than he should and many a climax moment do not blossom as they should. Of course, Domingo is a clever, experienced singer and profits of every opportunity to make it happen. This evening, for example, he was announced to be indisposed and took advantage of the occasional coughing and constriction to depict Boccanegra’s decaying health.

The tenor in a tenor role this evening was Fabio Sartori, whose voice has the raw material of a important singer: it has a most pleasant blend of richness and brightness and more than enough carrying power, he can produce elegant phrasing and, of course, he is idiomatic and Italianate. Some of his top notes are impressively focused and powerful. But he can be clumsy while handling all those things and, in the end, you are too often wishing that he could make this or that a little bit better. He should also try to loose some weight if he wants to take some leading man roles these days. I finally had the impression that roles like Adorno will be soon too light for him. It is not unusual for dramatic voices in the making to be difficult to handle before the whole “mechanism” find its optimal modus operandi. I am curious to see what follows.

Anja Harteros’s creamy soprano and its exquisite floating mezza voce are hard to resist and she is consistently musicianly and sensitive. She is a good Amelia, but when things get too Italianate, she could be caught a bit short. Although there is always pressure for a singer with her qualities to deal with Italian roles, I do believe she should explore more German repertoire, which shows her under the best possible light.

In spite of the odd woolly moments, Kwangchul Youn was admirably sensitive and tonally varied as Fiesco – and his low register was particularly deep and rich. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was similarly forceful and dark-toned as Paolo – and he lived up to the expectations of his role’s difficult high notes.

As for Daniel Barenboim, I am afraid that Verdian style is beyond his immense skills. The orchestral sound is too soft-centered, the proceedings generally lack forward-movement, emotionalism is kept in leash. In this sense, the conducting matched Federico Tiezzi’s entirely uneventful production. Maurizio Balò’s sets look cheap, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes look tacky and the stage direction is sketchy, artifficial and old-fashioned. The “choreographies” for chorus members is short of ridiculous. Considering that Italy is famous for design, I guess they bought this one in a highway outlet for operatic production.

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In order to fund the old house’s renovation, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has programmed a series of concerts to raise money. Taking profit of the opportunity of Plácido Domingo’s baritone venture in Simon Boccanegra, a Wagnerian evening with star soprano Nina Stemme and conductor Daniel Barenboim was organized in the Philharmonie. However, the Swedish soprano fell ill and was replaced at the last minute by a regular in the Lindenoper, mezzo Michaela Schuster, last seen as Ortrud in the première of the new production last April.

However, before these singers could open their mouths, Barenboim treated the audience to a sensational performance of  Tristan und Isolde’s Prelude and Liebestod. As in his last performance in the Staatsoper, the conductor indulged in a considerate tempo in order to showcase the orchestra’s sophisticated phrasing, tonal refulgence and clarity. The ensuing Liebestod offered an entirely contrasting approach, almost dance-like, in which the escalating chromatic figures spiralled in clearly defined alternate dynamic effects to breathtaking results.

After a white-heat start, The Valkyrie’s Act I would finally settle into something rather less impressive. Although the orchestra was in great shape, the need to adapt to the soloist’s necessities took its toil in what regards horizontal clarity and pace. Of course, Plácido Domingo’s vocal longevity is a marvel. The tone is certainly darker these days, but the sound is still fresh. However, the tenor needed some time to prepare for his ascent to top notes or for fast declamatory passages, forcing the conductor to step on the break pedal, for the loss of fluency sometimes. That said, he seemed far more comfortable than last time I heard him as Siegmund at the Gala concert in Munich with Waltraud Meier some two or three years ago.  A colleague from the Staatsoper’s Noccanegra, Kwangchul Youn was in great voice, producing some powerful sounds as Hunding.

Michaela Schuster deserves a paragraph for herself. I have seen her only twice as Ortrud, both in Berlin and Munich, and have found her vocally no more than efficient, but tonight, in this soprano role, I was able to understand more about her voice. Free from the burden of sounding formidable and dramatic, one can see the naturally lighter hue of her voice, which is surprisingly pleasant, soft and bright. I could imagine that she would be a touching in French roles such as Charlotte or Didon. In her more relaxed self, she floats lovely mezza voce and phrases with authentic legato. When things start to get too “Wagnerian”, the usual harsh quality comes unfortunately about. Of course, when the phrase is congenial she produces some firm big acuti, but generally she attacks them in a strangely backwards placement only to focus them a few seconds later. In order to accomodate her, the conductor had often to kept the orchestra’s enthusiasm on a leash.  But that is all secondary when one considers her highly expressive interpretation. Crystal-clear diction, the wide tonal palette of a Lieder singer and a highly alert and imaginative way of colouring the text. Some moments of her performance were original and illuminating even in comparison with some very famous Sieglindes. I really wish she would give her Ortruds and Kundrys a rest and made better use of her talent for subtlety for more than a change.

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Stefan Herheim must be the most irritating among living stage directors working for an opera house in the whole world. His production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Staatsoper unter den Linden has an ambitious agenda – to discuss the relationship between religion, myth and politics through the idea of Lohengrin as a messianic leader who would restore purity inside everyone of us before we are confronted with the fact that an imperfect world cannot be redeemed by perfect solutions. Here Lohengrin does not bring back the Duke of Brabant before he flies away in his giant white feather (apparently, the swann itself does not stop at Bebelplatz): he actually collapses on the ground a few moments later – he was nothing but a fantasy, a human-sized marionette. Accordingly, the “creator” itself,  Richard Wagner is shown as a bouncing marionette during the overture.

Although there is plenty of intelligent ideas going on here (I do not know if I could say the same of Herheim’s Entführung aus dem Serail for the Salzburg Festival), there are way too many of them to start with. Herheim’s staging begins as the cheapest example of Regietheater with soloists and chorus members in casual clothes, carrying string puppets and posters with the words “State”, “Comic”, “German”, “Opera” etc, then develops to something like a mix of Broadway shows Hair and Spamalot until it finally takes off on Act III in a sensitively staged bridal chamber scene, with fine acting from the cast’s Lohengrin and Elsa. I was determined to close my eyes and let myself enjoy the music, but the truth is that – in spite of the high levels of sheer silliness – it does set one’s mind going once you start to consider the many perceptive points about the interrelation of private and public affairs in the libretto. But that’s a virtue of such an acknowledgedly masterly libretto, which not deserves to be made fun of.

If I really had decided to close my eyes and enjoy the music, the balance would definitely be positive. The first chords in the overture revealed such crystalline pianissimo string playing that one could legitimately felt transported to paradise. However, while Daniel Barenboim could extract the last ounce of beauty in lyric passages in grand yet clear orchestra sounds with an expert’s ear for tempi that let musical effects work in the right way, more complex scenes brought about an unsubtle brassy orchestral sound, as in the introduction to act III, for example.While the chorus was unusually accurate in Lohengrin’s arrival and particularly smooth-toned in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, the orchestra failed to produce either the kaleidoscopic impression in the former or the increasing tension in the later. My memory may betray me, but I have the impression that Barenboim was more substantial and less bombastic when I saw him conduct  this work in the Lindenoper back in 1999.

In what I believe to be her debut in the role of Elsa von Brabant, Dorothea Röschmann not only dispelled my doubts about her venture in jugendlich dramatisch repertoire, but indeed impressed me with her continuous flow of creamy, rich tone and her intelligent and emotional interpretation. Although the voice is still light for the role, her technical control steered her through the perilous exposed moments in ensembles and especialy in the act III duet with Lohengrin. She has mastered the art of projecting Spitzentöne in the hall without forcing her lyric voice, and her ability to produce strong chest notes is of great help in declamatory passages. All I can say is that, although I have immensely enjoyed her Mozart performances, this is the definitely the best I have seen from this very special singer.

Michaela Schuster fulfils the basic vocal requirement for Ortrud, but small miscalculations around the passaggio spoiled some key moments. She relishes the Cruella DeVille approach and handles the text in an unusual yet refreshing sort of evil-and-loving-it manner. Gerd Grochowski’s light but forceful bass-baritone is often drowned by the orchestra, and his very clear articulation of the text helped he out in the last minute. I guess no-one really missed René Pape, who was unable to sing the role of King Henry, since Kwangchul Youn, his replacement, offered an exemplary performance. He was at his most Karl Ridderbusch-ish while offering his own kind of sensitive verbal nuance.

I leave Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin for last. It is difficult to descibe such an extraordinary voice. His high-placed, straight-toned voice is so devoid of the corsé quality which is the hallmark of a tenor that it almost has an almost infantile colour. His ability to produce effortless floating mezza voce is impressive and, at the same time, he can pierce through dense orchestration with very little strain. I could not help thinking that it almost resembled a pop singing style. I say “almost” because a) he did not need a microphone to achieve that and b)  sometimes his phrasing could be more flowing and have less of that sensation of one-note-after-the-other, especially when he had to plunge to the lower end of his range. In any case, if Lohengrin should have an unearthy, angelic feeling about him,  Klaus Florian Vogt is hors concours. He is almost like the tenor answer to Gundula Janowitz’s Elsa – the sound of his voice says everything you need to know about the role and you tend to part with the demand for a collection of interpretative gestures that would only imitate what nature itself has somehow produced.

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Il Trovatore is widely acknowledged as opera’s most ridiculous libretto – an opinion I do not share. If you know something about Spanish theatre, you happen to know that the idea is really going over the top – especially during the days of Romanticism. And I tell you – Spanish language does make the 100% emotionalism believable. Verdi was well aware of this – and denied no expressive tools to produce raw, gutsy depiction of strong feelings on the stage. If you try to polish the proceedings, then your Trovatore is a lost case.

I would not say that the Met’s new Trovatore is a lost case – there is a lot to be cherished there, but the overall impression is of misfiring. A new production has been ordered from David McVicar, who claims to have found inspiration in the paintings of Goya. I am sure he is telling the truth, but the staging looked just like every other Trovatore you have seen in your life. And this may mean that he was respectful to the libretto (a rare quality these days), but the politeness we could witness at the Met – that, I am sure, does not come from Goya.  One must recognise that McVicar tries to throw in some spice by adding some prostitutes to the Soldiers Chorus and by having his prima donna throwing herself on the ground, crawling and panting at the least opportunity – but everybody seemed to be working hard for intensity and also a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. Intensity is something you cannot fake – if you do not have it, better go for dignity, something Italian operatic directors are well aware of.

As much as Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting showed a loving eye for the score, trying to highlight accompanying figures, to keep rhythms precise and flowing and to highlight dramatic gestures, the orchestral sound was too recessed to produce any kind of true excitement. Noseda was an attentive conductor for his singers, helping them in every moment of need – and keeping the orchestra in medium volume levels was essencial for a cast almost devoid of dramatic voices, but other maestros have been able to keep a brighter edge to their orchestral sound that keeps the sparkles going when sheer volume is impossible. I would mention Riccardo Muti’s live from La Scala, where a similar lighter-voiced casting was employed.

Sondra Radvanosky’s abilities as a Verdian soprano have always been an object of dispute.  It is undeniable that she fulfils some key requirement – it is a sizeable voice, capable of morbidezza (even if the tone is too veiled for this repertoire), flexibility, mezza voce and some stunning high notes (she took every optional in alt available and some more). However, her low register is not positive and projecting as the role requires, she is a bit challenged by trills (a fault shared by many a soprano tackling this role) and her soft singing is not always true on pitch. Her Tacea la notte was a bit uneventful and its cabaletta (reduced to one verse) was uncomfortable. On the other hand, she achieved some soaring efects in D’ amor sul’ ali rosee (although true abandon was not really there), showed real purpose in the Miserere and, a few notes barred, was quite impressive in Tu vedrai. What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, she has a good ear to find musical-dramatic effects in the writing of the role of Leonora, to chilling effects in her dying scene.

Dolora Zajick is an acknowledged Azucena and, although she was not in her best voice (the basic tonal quality seemed too nasal and somewhat recessed), she did not pull away from any challenge thrown by Verdi – she tried every trill in Stride la vampa, offered some big chest voice low notes and some really powerful top notes (she even tried a not entirely successful high c in her big scene with Manrico). Although her diction was a bit cloudy, she never refused her phrasing the necessary tone colouring and showed no problem with high mezza voce.  If I have some remark about her Azucena, it would be that, although her anguish was palpable, her madness seemed a bit artifficial and there was no sense of danger in her.

I had doubts about Marcelo Alvarez’s Manrico, soon dispelled. His medium volume lyric tenor has enough projecting quality for a big house and he phrases with such musicianship and good taste that you cannot resist him. One feels he is a bit cautious with the heroic moments, but he never produces an ugly or unmusical sound. I doubt there are many tenors around who can offer such a sensitive and dulcet-toned Ah, si ben mio these days. The problem is that Di quella pira does not come in the combo – even if the aria is transposed down a half-tone, he still feels uncomfortable about it. He commendably dealt with articulating the tricky divisions most tenor just glide through, but in order to achieve his matte high b, he had to let his interventions with the chorus unsung and the repeat was avoided. It is true that he was announced to be indisposed, but his problems with this fearsome aria seemed to be more an issue of Fach than of health.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s velvety baritone is still a treat to the ears – his stylish Il balen is an example of that – but his ease with big high notes is not entirely here anymore. He has charisma and gets away with some awkward moments – he is also the person with more panache on stage (although the stage direction reduced much of his menacing attitude).  Finally, Kwangchul Youn is glamourous piece of casting in the role of Ferrando.

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