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Posts Tagged ‘Markus Brück’

In an interview for Gramophone, Marek Janowski said that his idea for his Wagner’s opera omnia series with the RSB was his dissatisfaction with contemporary German opera directors, who don’t understand the master’s work. Thus, in concert version, his operas could shine at their brightest without any “interference” from the theatrical überall Wahn. Curiously, the conductor did not explain what kind of theatrical direction would be, in his opinion, ideal for Wagner operas. This introduction might seem irrelevant, but it made me remember that one of my eight or nine readers, Stefan, on explaining why he did not stay for the second act of Janowski’s Meistersinger because “the conductor obviously did not care about the drama of the piece”. I wonder what Wagner himself would think of this dichotomy between music and drama in the context of Musikdrama – is it legitimate to say that a performance of a Wagner opera gains in musical values for not being disturbed by being staged? One might said that it depends of the director. I would add then that the advantage of a concert performance depends of the conductor as well.

I have seen staged performances of Wagner operas that were musically uninteresting but theatrically compelling, staged performances who were dull in terms of theatre but musically illuminating – and Wagner operas performed in concert version that were actually “dramatic” and some that were neither dramatic nor musically interesting. In other words, although there is no golden rule here, in view of Maestro Janowski’s opinions, I was ready to be overwhelmed by something revelatory in terms of conducting this evening. I haven’t – Daniel Barenboim “accompanying” either Harry Kupfer’s or Stefan Herheim’s stagings actually offered me something far more overwhelming. I do not mean that this evening’s was a bad performance – it was certainly not – but it hadn’t been special either. If one has in mind that it has been organized with the purpose of being recorded, it was supposed to be memorable – otherwise why release a CD of it, isn’t it? As it was, this was an outstandingly clear reading of the score with rhythmically accurate ensembles. If there is one opera the prelude of which is supposed to set the mood for what lies ahead, this is Lohengrin – not this evening, I am afraid: violins lacked floating quality in their pianissimo playing and the climax was so deliberately built that it actually hang fire. To tell the truth, strings lacked volume throughout, violins sounding particularly thin. Since brass were in healthy shape, this could be often problematic. Act II had a better start, the dark side of the opera apparently has more appeal to the conductor – the Ortrud/Telramund scene displayed superior structural coherence and the orchestra commented with some passion, when not reined in to spare singers in difficulty. The Rundfunkchor Berlin proved to be the trump card of today’s Lohengrin – no wonder that the ensembles were invariably the most exciting moments this evening. Lohengrin’s arrival in act I was particularly praiseworthy, one of the best I have heard either live or in recordings. By the third act, things seemed to gain somewhat in interest – the prelude to act III is one of Janowski’s specialties, but I have heard him conduct it more excitingly with this same orchestra in other occasion (here again strings lacked volume). In all honesty, one cannot blame the conductor alone for the lack of excitement. It is very generous of these singers to perform pro bono and I respect all of them for that, but this was no dream team for this opera – and one could see that Janowski had to make them many concessions that ended on impairing some key dramatic moments. A good example was Ortrud’s last intervention – the orchestra, for once, was ready to give it all, but the conductor had to scale things down and he deserves high praise for being able to keep some excitement there through articulation and accent alone.

Pregnancy seems to become Annette Dasch – although the role of Elsa requires a larger voice than hers, she sang it this evening really better than when I saw her in Bayreuth. Today I found her middle and low register particularly fruity and appealing and her attempts to produce pianissimo more effective. Her interpretation has deepened too and, even if her Elsa has more than a splash of “Gossip Girl”, it is also theatrically alert and attentive to the text. Susanne Resmark too knows everything she should know about Ortrud, but the role is impossibly high for her voice, making her sound hooty, breathy and sometimes off-pitch. I have seen Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin in various occasions and so far this has been his best performance in this role and I am glad that it has been recorded. His strangely ethereal yet forceful tenor fits the “role description” and he sang it particularly mellifluously this evening, while almost avoiding the abrupt ending of phrases that sometimes disfigure his singing. Gerd Grochowski masters the crispy declamation necessary to sing Telramund but, as his Ortrud, finds the role high for his voice, sounding often gray toned and limited in volume in the higher reaches. Together with this evening’s tenor and the chorus, the shining features of this performance are the outstanding Günther Groissböck, an exemplary Wagnerian voice, as King Henry and Markus Brück’s powerful Herald.

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It is said that it is the eye of the owner that keeps cattle fat. Kirsten Harms has barely left the direction of the Deutsche Oper and her production of Tannhäuser starts to decay – the relatively silent stage contraptions are now quite noisy, lighting was erratic, stage elevators were poorly used and  those who were operating the stage ropes were not really sure which props should be lowered on stage (at a certain point, the safety curtain was lowered by mistake…). Maybe it was just an impression, but the second act’s singing competition has now a great deal of gags.

In any case, although the musical performance had its share of tiny glitches, Donald Runnicles offered a commendable account of the score. Conducting Wagner with small-scaled singers is a challenging affair – one the Deutsche Oper’s Musical Director has often failed to meet – but not this evening. The house orchestra played with fine focus and a lighter sound bright enough to have presence, and the maestro never missed the right opportunities to unleash his musicians when this should and could be done. Moreover, Tannhäuser is a specialty of the Deutsche Oper chorus – their singing alone is worth the trip to Charlottenburg. This is the third time I’ve heard them in this opera and it has been consistently excellent.  The choristers were not alone in providing great singing this evening – Markus Brück is probably the finest Wolfram in the market these days. I have recently seen Goerne and Gerhaher in this role and, sensitively as they both sing the Abendstern song, Brück provides richness and roundness of tone without loss of ductility and flexibility and still avoids any hint of affectation. To make things better, he has a sizable voice and can hold his own against any Heldentenor. Not that this was necessary this evening.

The first time I have heard of Robert Gambill was in Bruno Weil’s recording of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in which he sang Pedrillo. He could be seen next as Lindoro in Gelmetti’s DVD of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. Then, in 1999, he was singing Tannhäuser with Barenboim in the Staatsoper. Before he was billed as Siegmund and Tristan, he could record Graun’s Cesare and Cleopatra with René Jacobs  – he even did a very good job with trills back then. I had tried to see his Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper, but he canceled twice. I had never seen him live before this evening, but I like the sound of his voice and his Mozartian background made me curious. Yes – it is a beautiful voice, not a dramatic one yet large enough, he can phrase with Mozartian poise and has excellent diction. All that below a high f. From that note upwards, he suffers from some sort of misconception that involves too backwards a placement, resulting an opaque and unstable sound that fails to pierce through. He has admirable stamina and by virtue of a steely breath support pushes his way through – but he predictably soon got tired. Things got so perilous that I was expecting for a replacement, but one has to concede Gambill something: he never gives up and very rarely cheats. I have seen healthier Tannhäusers who “forget” to sing some impossible notes during the concertati in the ends of act I and II, but not Gambill. Although he sounded tired, had to chop his phrases to get an extra helping of air, pecked at high notes mid-phrase, could be below true pitch in exposed acuti and finally employed a lot of acting with the voice, this tenor did sing more or less everything Wagner wrote. I just wonder if he enjoys this experience – not even Jon Vickers tried Tannhäuser (does anyone believe that whole “immorality” story?!). Why not Lohengrin? Walther?

I am not sure if Wagner is Manuela Uhl’s repertoire either. Her voice is too high for Elisabeth and, hard-pressed by having to produce a Wagnerian sound, it comes across as acidulous and fluttery. She could not find dynamic variety and sang a quite insensitive prayer in the last act. You can imagine by yourselves how her Venus was. Reinhard Hagen is always a reliable Landgraf and Thomas Blondelle’s Walther had no problem in presiding over ensembles, a lesson to his Tannhäuser: beefing up high notes is a very poor replacement for natural tonal brightness.

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It seems that fortunes favors the bold. Although the weather was far from good, I had decided not to see today’s Götterdämmerung and only changed my mind in the last minute. I am glad I did change my mind, for not only was it the best performance by far in this cycle, but also a good performance for any standard. First of all, the orchestra seemed to find its lost affection for Wagner’s music and played with full commitment – and Donald Runnicles did not miss the opportunity to offer an alert and dramatic account of the score. This evening – as it should – the orchestra was very much in the center of the events, eagerly commenting the recapitulation of Leitmotive in the Prologue, heightening the atmosphere in Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s duet, relishing the effects in Siegfried’s journey through the Rhine and so on. It is curious that, last year, the Gibichungenhalle scene didn’t seem to start off, while this evening it was particularly effective in its supple organicity. Although the Waltraute scene did not keep up with the overall animation and the ensuing scene with Brünnhilde and Siegfried could be a little bit more intense, act II regained some of the excitement in spite of some mismatches between chorus and orchestra. The conductor deserves credit for his ability to balance singers’ needs and the intent to maintain a large orchestral sound, especially in the Immolation Scene, soon after an impacting Trauermarsch the climax of which was very coherently built. In a nutshell, this was not the last word in Götterdämmerung, but it was nonetheless a very competently done performance with one or two truly interesting scenes. It is only a pity that the remaining operas in the tetralogy did not show the same level of care and involvement.

After getting off on the wrong foot in Siegfried, Janice Baird seemed ready to clean her records this evening. Although her middle and especially her low registers lack volume, she was well in command of her high notes and produced required dramatic acuti whenever this was necessary. More than this, her phrasing was often clean and consequent (provided there were no low notes on the way). Even if she is not a very specific interpreter, she was not sleepwalking either. A very decent job, considering what one hears around. With her focused, pleasant-toned soprano, Heidi Melton is almost luxurious casting as Gutrune. I couldn’t help noticing she has lost some weight too, the right decision in order to build a career as important as she deserves. Replacing Karen Cargill, Christa Mayer offered a very subtle and expressive if a bit underpowered Waltraute. The Norns (especially Liane Keegan) and the Rhinemaids (I feel badly for singling Clémentine Margaine out, since the three of them were excellent, but a contralto dark-toned and focused as hers calls attention) were all cast from strength from the ensemble.

Siegfried is a role a little bit on the high side for Stephen Gould and yet he can pull it off almost without accidents. Although his tone becomes taut when things get high and fast, he managed his resources expertly reaching his last scene in better shape than most. His voice is refreshingly big and firm, his diction is very clean and, considering the baritonal sound of his voice and his physical frame, he was able to suggest boyishness without looking silly. It was very rewarding to realize how Markus Brück’s Gunther improved since last year – his performance is free now free from the blustering and hamming that disfigured it last time and one could sample the richness and forcefulness of his singing the way it should be. I was also surprised to notice that Matti Salminen, at 66, can still be an effective Hagen, actually really better than he was last year. Only those who knew his younger self could notice the effects of time in a voice still powerful, firm and incisive enough for this key role. Actually, his scene with Alberich had the effect of exposing Gordon Hawkins’s lack of charisma in the role of Alberich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For someone who has truly lost interest in La Traviata, I’ve been quite often in the opera house for it. To be more specific, the only reason why I went to the Deutsche Oper today was Anja Harteros – and maybe I was curious to see Simon Keenlyside after a while (last time, it was 1999) – but it was not to be, for he cancelled due to illness. In any case, an entirely non-Italian cast proved to be interesting. Götz Friedrich’s thoroughly outdated production was given an accidental freshen-up out of having a non-narcissistic tenor and a world-class diva in the title role.

Anja Harteros has sung the role of Violetta Valéry in the world’s leading opera houses and developed her stage performance with various directors, and I can only guessed that, faced with the prevailing shabbiness, she has brought her own stage direction as prime donne in the XVIIIth century would do with their arie di baule. Truth be said, the German soprano’s overall attitude is unfit for the role – she seems more voracious than seductive in act I, more regal than vulnerable in act II and more tragical than touching in act III – but her intent to inhabit the stage and react to what happens in it simply made the show more interesting. This does not mean that it was a gripping performance – theatrically speaking, it was not. It was rather an affair of craftiness than of emotional generosity. But then she needed a director to guide her through this process. In act III, when she decided to stumble around a bit to show Violetta’s declining health and yet her willingness to go on, the poor tenor probably did not get what was going on and kept to what has been blocked, leaving his ailing beloved to fall to the ground and get up by herself. One could say “of course, he is a tenor!”, but I have one good thing to say about Pavel Cernoch. As he seemed to be really doing what he was told to do, his Alfredo seemed particularly composed and naive, what makes far more sense with the libretto than the usual bravado displayed by most tenors. For once, his increasing childishness in his act II scene with his father (by the end, he was in fetal position on a couch) explained a lot his subsequent behavior.

Although Yves Abel conducting missed some important theatrical moments (particularly Alfredo’s “denunciation” of Violetta in Flora’s party), he did give time for his orchestra and singers to build their phrases in a musicianly and meaningful way. The orchestra, in spite of some blunders (especially in the overture), had a beautiful, full sound and the overall impression was of polish and elegance. With the help of his soprano and his baritone’s expressive performances, this approach has somehow paid off.

It is not only Anja Harteros’s attitude that seems distant to the role of Violetta, her big, creamy lyric soprano is not Italianate and lacks the brightness usually associated to it. But what she has works very well for the role – the voice fills the theatre without problem, her low notes are natural, her high notes never turn out shrill and she has enough flexibility for the fioriture. Actually, she seems in absolute command of what she has to do in this difficult part, what is already remarkable. I would guess that she has probably studied some of her famous predecessors’ performances; she seems in this role very keen on producing some hallmark “Italian” qualities, such as the tasteful use of portamento, knowing where to let the natural rhythm of Italian language to lead the way and some acting with the voice (that I am not too happy about). Her balance between portraying the deterioration of Violetta’s health and keeping a pure line in act III was extremely well-judged, and I will not be able to tell if the sudden choke that interrupted a sustained pianissimo was involuntary or not – it just worked perfectly in the situation.

Markus Brück proved to be more than a replacement for Keenlyside – I sincerely doubt that that the British baritone would have done better. As always in Italian roles, Brück sings with unfailing grace, almost Mozartian musicianship and with more than necessary volume and firmness of tone. I know I have written here that some of his Wagner performances were disappointing – especially Beckmesser and Gunther – but I would like to make clear that Brück is a first-rate singer who deserved more acknowledgment outside Berlin.

As for Pavel Cernoch, I am not sure if this repertoire is the best fit for him. At first, he sounds like the poor man’s Neil Shicoff, but unlike the American tenor he lacks brightness and slancio in his high register – and the problematic optional high c in O mio rimorso was reached by virtue of good, old falsettone. He seems to be a sensitive singer and avoided vulgarity throughout, but the voice is basically too tight and lacking roundness for Italian opera. The performance booklet says Steva in Janacek’s Jenufa is his calling-card role and I can bet he sounds far better in it.

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The Deutsche Oper’s concert performances of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (probably together with the Staatsoper’s upcoming Walküre with Irène Théorin and René Pape) are seen as the operatic event of this season. Although Cilea is hardly a “superstar” composer, what he might miss in “coolness” has been provided by the casting of Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann in the leading roles. There was not a free seat in the whole house and tickets were practically sold out a week after the box office opening a couple of months ago. I won’t deny that star casting has paid off this evening, but what really made it a special event was the effect of an extraordinary ensemble.

I saw Marco Armiliato conduct Adriana at the Met last year, and found it awkward and unatmospheric. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra, on the other hand, seemed to be having fun with a work that had not been performed in the house for decades. Even in comparison with James Levine’s famous CDs with the Philharmonia Orchestra (so far, probably the only serious “orchestral” performance of this work), the musicians from Berlin gave it the most beautifully rich-toned and full-blooded performance one could think of. Here the Italian conductor seemed at home to produce a most expressive performance that eschewed the kind of vulgarity usually taken for “verismo”.

Angela Gheorghiu is not the lirico spinto one would wish to hear in this part, but that is all I can find fault with in her performance. Her feeling for this music is admirable, her dramatic portrayal is vivid, her ability to evoke glamour is most important in this of all roles, and there still are her floating mezza voce and elegant use of portamento to round it off. A bit more clarity of enunciation would make her performance go beyond touching and stylish, but her declamation of spoken lines was expertly done. Since there is neither a new Renata Tebaldi to provide all the Italian soprano exuberance the role demands nor a new Renata Scotto to get you in the guts as it should, I would say that Gheorghiu could consider herself unrivaled as Adriana these days. In any case, it is most commendable that she could provide both vocal sophistication and variety of interpretation in this difficult role.

As her rival, Anna Smirnova received the most enthusiastic applause in the evening. Her mezzo is alright big and powerful and she proved to be less blunt than I had expected based on my previous experience of her singing. Yet her middle register is still unfocused and her vowels are unclear. Although the Slavonic metallic edge does not suggest patricianship, she had something grand about her and could find some sense of humor in her character.

As expected, Jonas Kaufmann has more than the measure of the role of Maurizio. I would even say that his singing had never sounded as Italianate as it did today. I had found his Cavaradossi too chic for the circumstances, but this evening one could really believe that he hails from somewhere further south than Monaco di Baviera, in spite of the dark tonal quality. The ardor did not stand between him and his customary sensitive use of mezza voce and attention to the text.

Even in such a starry cast, my favourite singer was one member of the ensemble: Markus Brück, who sang an infinitely subtle and intelligent performance as Michonnet. His voice really works beautifully in Italian repertoire, while his natural legato and ability for tonal coloring makes one think of a Mozartian singer. But not mistake my words – the voice is always large, rich and ringing. Minor roles were cast from strength, especially Burkhard Ulrich (the house’s Loge and Mime), here an intelligent and funny Abbé de Choizeul.

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If Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra does ring a bell in your mind, it is because of the famous article Telepatia musicale in which Giovanni Tebaldini suggests by means of musical examples that Richard Strauss either copied or had a transalpine case of coincidental inspiration with the Italian composer who premièred his opera a couple of years before the première of Elektra in Dresden. I had never heard Cassandra before this evening and the first bar already shows the famous motive associated to Agamemnon in Strauss’s opera. And this is only the first of a series of similarities. In any case, comparison between the two works only show that, if Strauss indeed “borrowed” some motives from Gnecchi, the Bavarian composer’s superior usage of them should have been reason for Gnecchi to be proud. As it is, Cassandra sounds like Turandot with a bold harmonic twist. The canzonetta-style of its melodies sandwiched between dissonant chords is something that requires some adaptation, but the work is certainly atmospheric and the orchestration is imaginative. It is curious, however, that the title role is more or less unimportant in the plot, even if it has a big scene before the opera abruptly ends.

Donald Runnicles could find the right balance between Italianate and German qualities in the work and provided beautiful sounds throughout. In the cast, Markus Brück stands out in a powerfully and richly sung account not only of the role of Egisto but also in the prologue (replacing an ailing Nathan De’Shon Myers). Takesha Meshé Kizart’s smoky soprano is a bit on the light side for Clitennestra, but she certainly did not seem fazed by what is required from her, producing some exciting chest voice in her low register throughout. Gaston Rivero is too light-toned for Agamennone, but sang firmly and securely in a tricky tessitura. Julia Benzinger could also do with a more dramatic voice. These singers suggested rather efficiency than thrill, and the results were finally quite unexciting, but I am afraid that the score itself is also to blame.

After the intermission, Donald Runnicles proved again that he is a most reliable Straussian, ensuring ideal balance in his orchestra and helping his singers by keeping his forces under the leash without losing tonal quality. The transparent reading was musically extremely rewarding and, if the cast allowed him a bit more power, it could be a quite gripping experience. As it was, the final impression was of sensitivity and stylishness. And the house orchestra followed the conductor in an exemplary account of this difficult music.

In the title role Eva Johansson could figure as an example of a long list of what-not-to-do in a voice lesson – her soprano lacks harmonics in her entire range, her intonation is erratic, there is no legato to speak of, the low register is unsupported, the high notes are pushed – but still I have to confess I found her flawed performance quite touching. If I may borrow a concept from La Cieca’s Parterre Box, this would be  “emotional journey”. Her underwhelming Elektra seemed more humane in her faltering expression of rage, a more believable sister to Chrysothemis. Her Recognition Scene finally produced the right effect for the wrong reasons – the imperfect attempt to produce a lyric line (topped by a praiseworthy intent to produce mezza voce whenever this was required) was itself the sound image of Elektra’s ruined beauty. All this aided by an engaged stage performance made me forgive the never-ending list of drawbacks, but I wonder how long she will be able to tackle this repertoire in such a reckless manner. Manuela Uhl seemed to be in an off day – the voice refused to flow, sounded shrill in its higher reaches and failed to pierce elsewhere. Julia Juon is an experienced Klytämnestra, her mezzo still pleasant and rich, but spacious low notes were not really there. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was in her prime when she sang the role in the Dresden première and I wonder why opera houses believe that this role should be cast exclusively by veterans. I really dream of listening to it by a large, full, warm voice. Burkhard Ulrich was a firm-toned Aegisth, but Stephen Bronk lost a bit steam in the middle of his performance. Katarina Bradic’s First Maid and Ulrike Helzel’s Third Maid are worthy of mention.

Director Kirsten Harms uses the same set for both operas – and I don’t need to describe it, for it looks like almost every set designed for R. Strauss’s Elektra. The same goes for costumes. It seems that the axe is very important for her, because Klytämnestra had to carry it throughout both operas. It is unintentionally funny when Cassandra says that she foresees a murder that very day as Clitennestra makes a what-is-she-talking-about?-face while greeting her husband with that enormous axe in her hand. As I use to say, Mrs. Harms has a problem with third acts and I thought that, since there was no third act today, she could feel a bit more confident about her directing. But there is always a last scene – in Elektra, for example, she found it important to have some ghost girls perform a ballet around Elektra. Maybe they were remains of a production of an old staging of Adam’s Giselle who were still bound by contract to the Deutsche Oper.

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Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is one of the the toughest cookies in the operatic repertoire. Technically, it is a comedy – but if you get ten instances of laughing during its almost five-hour length, this was a hilarious staging. Then the score involves impossibly complex ensembles with intricate counterpoint for soloists and chorus. To make things worse, the main roles require the subtlety of a Lieder singer and the dexterity of a bel canto specialist. In other words, if you want to listen to this opera, you have to be prepared to take the wheat AND the chaff – moreover because they are generally parts of the same thing.

The fact that Stefan Anton Reck was unable to conduct the whole run of performances finally proved to be a minor hazard, since Donald Runnicles, whose Wagnerian credentials are beyond any doubt, has taken over the baton. I haven’t had the luck of seeing Mr. Runnicles as often as I would like, but I have very good memories of a Rosenkavalier and a Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that this evening’s performance was clearly below that level rather puzzled me, especially if one bears in mind that the Deutsche Oper orchestra is a more seasoned Wagnerian ensemble than the Met’s orchestra. I could imagine that limited number of rehearsals may be to blame. The famous overture did not highlight any of the house orchestra’s qualities – the color was unusually opaque, the brass section (particularly poor today) produced some unsubtle sounds and there was little sense of exuberance. The remaining act I lacked purpose and the fact that the scenery brought about disfiguring echo for anyone singing on stage right did not help much. Considering the monumental difficulties of act II, the level of mismatch was relatively reduced – and it must be pointed out that the conductor fortunately did not hold tempo back in order to make things easier. The sounds from the pit remained transparent, but kept on a level of volume comfortable for the singers and rather meagre for the audience. Pity that the chorus was not in its best shape either. Things tended to get into focus in act III, its pensive introduction particularly haunting, the whole Sachs/Walther/Eva was episode expressively handled and the quintet was sensitively conducted.

Having to write about Michaela Kaune always proves to be a difficult task for me. She is such a tasteful musician and her vocal nature is so lovely that it makes one doubly upset that the results are ultimately frustrating. The role of Eva should not pose her any difficulties – she is a lyric soprano who has the extra 5% to deal with the only stretch of jugendlich dramatisch singing in the whole part (i.e., O Sachs, mein Freund, du teurer Mann). However, she treats her creamy soprano rather heavily and the result is that either high-lying or more conversational passages sound rather colorless and unfocused.  Although her voice spread a bit during this difficult scene, something might have happened after that, for she launched Selig wie die Sonne in the grand manner. From this moment on, her voice sounded brighter, lighter, more concentrated and younger-sounding. If she consistently sang like that, she would belong to the great German lyric sopranos of our days.

I have previously seen Klaus Florian Vogt solely in the role of Lohengrin, in which his strangely boyish yet penetrating vocal quality underlines the character’s unearthliness. Walther is a rather more romantic leading man role – and his permanent mixed-tone approach to his top register and a lack of flowing legato in high-lying passages make the character less impetuous and ardent than one expects. The beauty and spontaneity of tone and his almost instrumental phrasing certainly make the character noble and touching, but I confess I wished for rich, full, vibrant top notes to crown the climaxes of the Preislied, for example.

I do not subscribe to the idea of showing Beckmesser as a ridiculous character and I regret the fact that the excellent Markus Brück has embraced the directorial choice with such passion to the point of nasalizing his dulcet baritone as he did. Beckmesser is a Meistersinger – and one who prizes his vocal abilities above his poetic imagination. His heavily decorated serenading probably means that he should sing with Bellinian poise. Maybe it is just a matter of taste, but I find that the plot gains more from a Beckmesser that offers some real competition than one portrayed like a manic goblin.

Kristinn Sigmundsson’s indisposition involved the last-minute replacement by Frank van Hove from Mannheim. As much as I like the Icelandic bass, van Hove’s spacious velvety bass was a pleasant surprise. If I have to fault Ulrike Helzel’s Magdalene, it would be because of her appealing and seductive high mezzo that made her often sound younger than Eva, what goes against the libretto. In the tiny role of the Nachtwächter, Krysztof Szumanski seized the occasion to display his firm voluminous bass. No wonder he received so warm applause.

I am afraid that James Johnson’s Sachs is a serious piece of miscast. Although he has very clear German and tackles declamatory passages very well, his bass-baritone has a rusty, curdled quality that robs the character of all spiritual nobility and likability. And that is something Hans Sachs cannot part with. David is a difficult and important role, who has a challenging aria that catalogues every kind of vocal difficulty. It requires A-casting – Herbert von Karajan, for example, had Peter Schreier both in his Dresden studio recording and in his live Salzburg performances in 1974 (where he gave René Kollo a run for his money). Paul Kaufmann is a congenial actor and has the right ideas about the role, but the voice is a bit small for the theatre.

Although Götz Friedrich’s production was premièred in 1993, it is impregnated with the aesthetic of the 1980′s. The sets serve a pointless aesthetic concept turning around a circumscribed square, costumes follow disparate styles and the direction of actors (under Gerlinde Pelkowski’s responsibility) involve the heavy utilization of cliché and awkward slapstick comedy.

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