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Posts Tagged ‘Mihoko Fujimura’

Mihoko Fujimura is probably today’s most successful Japanese singer in activity in Europe. She has studied in Munich and, thanks to the Bayreuth Festival, has earned a name as Wagnerian mezzo. I have seen her there as Fricka – it is a warm yet bright voice that relies more on projection than on sheer size with an interesting fruity tonal quality. She has recently developed a career as a Lieder singer and is releasing her second CD in this repertoire.

For this CD and this evening’s concert, she has a brilliant accompanist in Wolfram Rieger. He seemed a different pianist for each composer – nimble and bright-toned for Schubert, orchestral and coloristic for Mahler, deep-toned, evocative for Hugo Wolf and very descriptive, with a good ear for effects in Richard Strauss.

I wonder if Schubert is a good idea for Ms. Fujimura. Although her German is very good, she is not the kind of singer who illuminates the meaning of words but rather one of those who draws from large vocal paintbrushes. To make things more difficult, she chose some pieces that ideally require a lighter voice. The program opened with Am See, in which she couldn’t help sounding a bit heavy. It is curious that she tackled the melisma in the end of the song (gar viele) more gracefully than most singers. Her rhythmic precision and flowing quality in Auf dem Wasse zu singer too was most praiseworthy and she could build the right atmosphere in Der Gondelfahrer, but Auf dem See lacked contrast and any development and Der Fluß tested her legato and did not sound particularly elegiac.

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder showed her, on the other hand, on the top of her game. First of all, her velvety, deep tonal quality are very appropriate to Mahler’s writing. But more than that: she lived through every note in these cycle in a very unusual way. Most singers tend to tackle these songs with some kind of retrospection and depressive melancholia. Not Fujimura, who sang them as if in the very peak of her morning, the despair palpable, the pain immediate, the attempt to find some solace secondary to a strong indignation. Some could find it a bit operatic, but it does fit her voice and comes very naturally to her.

I am not sure if Hugo Wolf is the best composer for her, more or less for the same reasons Schubert is not either. Ms Fujimura is not a diseuse and, although she can scale down her “Wagnerian” projection, the shifts of mood in the Mignon Lieder require a wider tonal palette. The final item in the program, a collection of famous Lieder by Richard Strauss should fit her more “operatic” manners, but Strauss is a composer who requires radiance from his singers, and Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is often too velvety to produce the right effect in its upper reaches. I have the impression that she was not in one of her best days either, around the passaggio her voice sounded a bit colourless in comparison to herself in the CD.

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After a musically outstanding Rheingold, expectations for this evening’s Walküre were high, but the event reserved a few surprises, not all of them positive. To start with, although the orchestral sound was consistently beautiful and rich, act I lacked, in the absence of a better word, passion. Often the buildup to a climax would be cut off too soon and one would rather hear particular successful moments (such as a lyric, touching Winterstürme, sensitively sung by the tenor) that did not merge into a continuous arch of musical-dramatic development. Act II suffered from tempi that did seem slow, particularly during Wotan’s run-through of previous events when this evening’s Wotan failed to give life to the text. The Todverkündung suffered from absence of atmosphere, a situation when forward-movement rather than lingering is recommended, especially when the Brünnhilde did not seem really inspired. Only the Sieglinde/Siegmund situations came through as improvement from act I, since both singers showed themselves even more connected to the dramatic situation, and also the conductor could warm to their performances and wrap them in sounds that offered more than sheer sonic beauty. Something might have happened during the second intermission, for act III redeemed the whole evening. After a structural clear Walkürenritt, Christian Thielemann treated the audience with a Golden Age Wagnerian performance – the orchestra’s luxuriantly beautiful sounds were also laden with meaning and emotion, not only commenting the theatrical action, but carrying it forward with almost unbearable intensity. Sieglinde’s farewell was not an isolated powerful moment, but rather the culmination of a truly poignant scene, but the final Brünnhilde/Wotan scene stood out as the highlight of the evening, both singers giving their very best and an orchestra that magnified their performance in admirable expressive power. When Wotan kissed Brünnhilde’s godhead away, the very sound of the Festival orchestra transpired grief. By then, if you were not crying, you probably don’t have a heart. In a word, although the first two acts had their moments, act three alone was worth the price of the ticket, plus transportation and hotel costs.

If anything in this performance was consistently excellent during the three acts, this has to be Edith Haller’s peerless performance as Sieglinde. I had never heard her before, but she joins today my list of favourite singers. Her youthful, exquisite and bright-toned soprano often made me think of Maria Müller’s vulnerable Sieglinde from the 1936 Festival (elegant portamenti included), but Haller’s top register is more corsé, flashing through the auditorium without any hint of strain or difficulty. Her qualities are, in any case, more than purely vocal – she is an extremely musical, sensitive and intelligent artist. Linda Watson took more time to grow into her Brünnhilde – although her ho-jo-to-ho had flat sustained high b’s, she was well at ease with the rest of her battle cry. Her long scene with Siegmund challenged her otherwise in the expressive department. As well as unvaried, her exposed high notes sounded squally sometimes. Although not a very good actress, she finally offered a beautiful account of the third act, when she proved capable of real nuance and legato, never forced her voice and seemed engaged enough to offer a touching interpretation. Moreover, the scene’s tessitura fits her rich and warm low register. Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre’s Fricka, but she is a shrewd singer who knows how to handle her resources to deliver the right effect in the right moment. Johan Botha’s voice is higher-lying than those of the tenors usually cast in this role. As a result, the raw excitement of dark, beefy high g’s was not really there. In exchange, a brighter tonal quality and more flowing legato throughout. When Innigkeit was required, such as in his contemplation of the sleeping Sieglinde in act II, the South-African tenor was particularly appealing. In spite of his heavy frame, he did not appear to be really awkward on stage, but rather quite convincing in his attraction to Sieglinde in act I. Albert Dohmen did not show any improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold until the opera’s last scene, when he conjured all his means to produce a sensitive and varied farewell to Brünnhilde. His invocation of Loge right before the end of the opera even brought about his first really Wotan-like powerful top notes. As for Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding, saying that he was less than perfect would be an unforgivable lie. Last but not least, the casting of the remaining eight valkyries is praiseworthy.

As for Tankred Dorst’s production, it still lacks purport – the sets are  not really original, the intrusive presence of contemporary bystanders is tautological, stage direction has too many careless moments, the ugly costumes often make it difficult for singers to move (Fricka’s specially). If I should be positive about this staging, I would mention that it is well crafted – the sets are flawlessly built, the lighting is sophisticated and there is very little silliness going on here (something that should be cherished considering the present state of operatic staging).

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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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