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Posts Tagged ‘Michaela Kaune’

What a difference a director makes! Although I don’t subscribe to everything Christof Loy does here – the atmosphere is somehow too urbane, costumes are anachronistic and nonsensical (the grandmother in high heels?), everything is too white, clean and bright – these singers are really acting and what they do on stage strikes home in a convincing manner. The rather cheap-looking white set the sliding rear wall of which sometimes reveal an Andrew Wyatt-like landscape cannot help but focusing the audience’s attention in every gesture, every expression – a risky enterprise with opera singers that proved to pay off beautifully, even with the members of the cast less gifted in the acting department.

Of course, the blank sets pose an extra demand of atmosphere in the music-making. It is curious that Donald Runnicles says, in the program, that the great challenge with this score is not too round off the hard angles – and that was precisely my problem with act I. With Janacek, one expects a sharply-defined, rather bright, precise sound from the orchestra, which sounded puzzlingly Wagnerian instead in its rich, large, warm sonorities. After the intermission, the conductor could finally sell his concept – the warm, dense orchestral sound would envelope singers’ voices in an organic and expressive way, the overwhelming beauty of the string section transport the audience right to the core of the drama. By the end of the opera, if you haven’t shed a tear or two, you probably don’t have a heart.

Listening to Michaela Kaune is a frustrating experience to me – the natural tone quality is pleasant, the volume is quite generous for a lyric soprano, the musicianship and sensitivity are foolproof and she is an adept actress, but the technique is faulty and the high register is increasingly unfocused and smoky. This evening, though, what she offered the audience was so so heartfelt and so sincere that lack of focus ultimately had no importance. In her singing and in her acting she was Jenufa, and I will always remember her for this performance. I would have never expected to see Jennifer Larmore in the role of Kostelnicka; some of the most famous exponents of this role are Wagnerian singers, while Larmore has made her name in Rossini and Handel. The first impression is that the voice indeed lacks power in this part, but she tackles it with utmost conviction and does not cheat: her singing was full-toned, vibrant, rich, strongly supported and never less than committed. She works hard for intensity (she is no force of nature à la Anja Silja) and follows the stage direction thoroughly. If one wants indeed something more formidable, one cannot do but praise this American mezzo for being true to her personality and voice and still offering an interesting performance. If Joseph Kaiser’s tenor sounded more solid this evening than in Munich last year, he is still vocally out of his element here. Fortunately, he acts his role most efficiently and with more depth than most. On the other hand, Will Hartmann displayed a firm, bright, forceful tenor in the role of Laca. For a change, it was good to hear someone in this role that does not sound like Mime.

The part of the grandmother is low-lying for Hanna Schwarz’s voice and, with her flashing projection and charisma, one keepy wondering how she would have fared as Kostelnicka (I don’t know if she has ever sung the role). Martina Welschenbach was an exemplary Karolka (it is Lucia Popp’s role in Charles Mackerras’ iconic recording) and Simon Pauly, as always, made an impression in his short interventions as the Mill Foreman. Don’t ask me about Czech pronunciation – if they sang it in Slovakian, I wouldn’t know the difference…

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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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Weber’s Der Freischütz is rightly considered the most German among German operas - maybe therefore a natural work for Regietheater directors. Considering the libretto’s elaborate scenic instructions, one can always claim that the only way to stage it at all is making a series of adaptations, provided one is able to keep the contrast with heimlich and unheimlich which lies in the core of what Der Freischütz is about. In this sense, Alexander von Pfeil’s 2007 staging for the Deutsche Oper piles up both natural and supernatural aspects of the work rather than setting them apart in contrasted atmospheres, an original idea. As devised by Mr. von Pfeil, the opera has only one set – a ballroom in something of a hunting club in the 50′s. There is an opposition of masculine elements – sexy posters with girls on the walls, guns all over the place and hunting trophies – and feminine ones: a series of huge crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, a praying corner. Everbody is completely drunk, frenetically dancing and acting sillily. Only the main characters seem to be sober: Agathe and Kuno are concerned about Max, Max is concerned about work, Ännchen is concerned about Agathe and Kaspar is concerned about his plan. Among the intoxicated men and women, three apes apear invisible to anyone but the audience.  Then a man in black t-shirt and jeans who acts in an animal-like way appear. Agathe seems to feel his evil presence, but no-one else. It is Samiel. While the forging of the bullets is supposed to happen in the Wolfschlucht, here the ballroom is transformed in a place of horror through lighting, a magic circle of empty wine bottles and smoke. Plus the apes. The bottles  would be later replaced by shoeboxes when Agathe sings her prayer among women who help her wedding ceremony.  Although nothing really impressive happens here, the permanent set looks interesting and a discrete but palpable ominous atmosphere is kept throughout. I would only wish that the Wolfschlucht scene had some surprises in reserve.

Ulrich Windfuhr’s lackadaisical conducting did not add the last ounce of excitement to make this colourful score sparkle - the overture did not receive the “symphonic” treatment is cries for and, during the performance, many instances of untidy playing occured. Again, the Deutsche Oper Orchester has a noble string section who kept its refulgence in the soft accompaniment of Agathe’s arias – but the blending of all sections did not always happen in a coherent manner.  Beside various displays of abilities from many of its members, the house chorus sang their famous hunters and bridemaids’ numbers con gusto.

In the difficult role of Agathe, Michaela Kaune sang with affection, tenderness and good taste. She seems to be in one of those moments in a singer’s career when one really does not know what lies ahead. Her lyric soprano has an attractive creamy quality and floats beautifully, but maybe some heavy usage has robbed her of any spontaneity above mezzo forte, when the voice looses focus and acquires a smoky and colourless quality. I hope she understands the message from nature and stays within the limits of lyric soprano repertoire in the future.  Martina Welschenbach’s bell-toned soprano is taylor-made for Ännchen – the voice is very pretty and flexible, her top notes are full-toned and she is extremely vivacious. When it comes to Clemens Bieber’s Max, his big aria was coldly received by the audience, mainly because of a recessed high register, unflowing and lacking resonance. That said, if one likes Peter Schreier’s (otherwise far more penetrating in his top notes) Max, one would find interest in Bieber’s boyish, pleasant-toned and ultimately Mozartian performance. Jörn Schümann had everything to be a very good Kaspar – the darkness of tone, the control over a long range, the intensity of utterance – but his voice is two sizes smaller than the role and  he had to work hard to cut through the orchestra. Ante Jerkunica’s bass was a bit too slim to produce the right paternal effect, but the production shows him rather like a TV preacher than a benign hermit anyway. Small roles were all cast from strength. The menace in Prodromos Antoniadis’s Samiel was reduced to his powerful and varied speaking voice – the whole ape-like coreography devised for the role was more curious than frightening. In the end, the invisible but omnipresent apes – far more circunspect than the humans in this production – were far more effective.

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I have added to the  discography of R. Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder comments about the Adrianne Pieczonka/Friedrich Haider, Michaela Kaune/Eiji Oue, Ricarda Merbeth/Michael Halász and Anja Harteros/Fabio Luisi recordings.

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