The audiences in Berlin are almost uniquely spoiled – besides two major opera houses (and an adventurous third one), the city counts with a a couple of world-class orchestras. I have to understand that as the reason for the way Marek Janowski and his RSB Orchestra are usually overlooked. I particularly value Mr. Janowski for his complete recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a paragon of structural clarity if a bit short on drama (and a more natural recorded sound…). When I had the opportunity of asking him years ago what is his objective as a Wagnerian conductor, his answer was: “clarity, clarity, clarity!”. And he is still faithful to his creed, as he proved this evening.
Janowski and the RSB have launched a very ambitious project of performing all Wagner’s mature works (in the sense of “from Der fliegende Holländer on”) in concert with international casts. Unfortunately, I have missed the first installment, but couldn’t let the second one pass. And it has been certainly worth the detour. Although the RSB does not have the glamorous sound of the Berlin Philharmonic (it is particularly unvaried in color and maybe short in dynamics), it is an extremely capable Wagnerian orchestra, ready to give its conductor all it can do. And I suspect purely beautiful and big sounds are not what Janowski is looking for anyway. Although they might have been helpful in the Karfreitagszauber passage and other key moments, one would find more than compensation in a performance where one could feel as if reading the score. Really, everything Wagner wrote would come clearly and naturally to you in transparent orchestral sound, perfectly balanced and intelligently set together and consequent tempi that made phrasing sharp as blue-ray image. That said, life is never so simple – although I had the second act of my dreams this evening, the outer acts, clear and musical as they were, seem to cry for… overwhelmingly rich orchestral sound, even at the expense of some transparency. Especially in a concert performance. But then these acts depend very much on the casting for Gurnemanz.
That Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is outstandingly beautiful is no matter of dispute. Its voluminous velvetiness and the ductility that allows it touching soft tones made his Sarastro famous. One can feel a “but” coming and here it comes – since some time, his high register has been sounding tense and discolored unless he sings it piano. As it is, his fondness for low dynamics and his elegant phrasing makes his Gurnemanz convincingly benign and sensitive, but recently he sounds too often uncomfortable when required to sing full out in his high register. As a result, many Wagnerian climaxes hang fire – particularly in the Philharmonie, which is not the user-friendliest place for singers.
Christian Elsner’s lyric yet warm-toned tenor made Parsifal sound young as he should, but he is not really impetuous as an interpreter and his high notes lack the necessary brightness to pierce through when he has a big orchestra behind him. In any case, he sang elegantly and let Michelle DeYoung’s feline Kundry take center stage. I’ve seen this American mezzo-soprano a couple of times and have always found her good, but this evening she really wowed me. Other than bringing sexy back to Kundry with her fruity, rich voice that takes very easily to mezza voce, she masters as very few mezzos either live or in recordings the ability of producing big dramatic high notes. The closing of second act found her entirely in control – and that was something new for me in the theater. Moreover, she is an intelligent, charismatic performer who knows how to produce the thrill of the stage in a concert performance. In that sense, she was finely matched by Evgeny Nikitin’s intense Amfortas. There have been more varied performers of this role, but the Russian bass-baritone brings out the tormented side of this character quite vividly. In a couple of moments, he forced his high notes a bit, but even that worked out in his intense approach to the role. And it doesn’t hurt that his voice flashes out in the auditorium. The other Russian in the cast, Dimitry Ivaschenko, sang the part of Titurel and proved to have an unbelievably big voice. In particularly strong voice this evening, Eike Wilm Schulte was a venomous Klingsor. Small roles were cast from strength with the likes of Clemens Bieber and Tuomas Pursio, but it was the Rundfunkchor Berlin who got the biggest applause of the evening.