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Posts Tagged ‘Lioba Braun’

What do Puccini and Hindemith have in common? Exactly – they’ve composed operas about nuns. That is more or less the spirit of the concert offered this evening by conductor Hans Graf and the DSO Berlin. Although the one-acters couldn’t be more different from each other, the very contrast made this evening interesting: while Suor Angelica is about daylight, compliance and forgiveness, Sancta Susanna is nocturnal, transgressive and unforgiving. Both are richly orchestrated, in spite of the “intimate” atmosphere, and feature big roles for soprano and mezzo.

Barbara Frittoli was supposed to sing the title role in the Puccini opera, but fell ill and was replaced in the last minute by Maria Luigia Borsi. I had never heard this Italian soprano before and the clips on Youtube did not sound promising. Her voice has a bright, immediate, almost conversational tonal quality in its middle register reminiscent of some great Italian sopranos from the past; her high register lacks roundness, though, even if she has stamina enough for exposed acuti and there are bumpy moments now and then (the high pianissimi were not really there, for example). Although she acted (the concert performance was semi-staged) with passionate conviction, she had the score on her hands and I suppose that, should she have had more time to prepare herself for an unexpected debut in the Philharmonie in Berlin, maybe these minor flaws could have been dealt with. What matters is that, even if one has famous recordings in mind (Tebaldi, de los Angeles, Ricciarelli, Scotto, Popp – as you see, the discography is extremely glamorous), Borsi could nonetheless offer an extremely touching performance. In spite of a disappointing final note, Senza mamma was phrased with extreme musical sensitivity and feeling. She has a lovely personality, very akin to the role in its sincerity and fervor – and was received in similar mood by the audience. Her Zia Principessa was the versatile Lioba Braun, whose creamy mezzo, blossoming in rich low notes, and dramatic intelligence and concentration made her performance three-dimensional and almost congenial. The remaining roles were well cast, especially with soloists from the Deutsche Oper: Heidi Stober as a youthful, innoncent-sounding Suor Genovieffa; Jana Kurucová as a clear, firm-toned Suora Zelatrice; Ewa Wolak rock-solid as the Maestra delle novizie and Liane Keegan as the Abbess. Although choral singing from Cantus Domus and Ensemberlino Vocale sounded a bit on the white-toned side for Puccini, it was, maybe because of that, particularly clear harmonically speaking and ultimately “realistic” (I mean, there is no Monteverdi Choir in a regular Abbey). The richness of the DSO playing, guided by Hans Graf’s simultaneous respect for the style and his eagerness to show the score in its more “modern” guise just demonstrated why Puccini was so proud of what he did here.

I confess: I have never heard Sancta Susanna before. It is rarely staged (well, I can guess that particularly not in catholic countries…) and its 25-minute length makes it even difficult to stage it as a double-bill. In any case, it is a very interesting piece, with a mysterious atmosphere and two really well-written leading parts. Melanie Diener was utterly compelling in the title role, a great performance, unfailingly rich and sensuous toned, even in its most exposed moments, full of insight and magnetism. Lioba Braun was again an alert, fruity-toned partner as Klementia, and Ewa Wolak made a strong impact in her short contribution as the Old Nun.

The program would also feature Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, which is the right kind of piece for the lush sonorities of the DSO, one of Germany’s greatest orchestras, the massive sound produced by its strings never overshadowed by the brass being its hallmark, here featured to grandiose effect.

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“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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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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