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Posts Tagged ‘Opernhaus Zürich’

I would be in Zürich for the Fliegende Holländer. So why not checking this new staging of Bellini’s rarely staged La Straniera? I’ve got the last ticket available and then Opera Rara’s recording to prepare myself. I had never listened to this work before, but had read ages ago a report on Diapason that made me feel curious: the black pearl among Bellini operas or something like that. I won’t lie – I couldn’t make it to the second CD. I almost brought it with me in case jet lag prevented me from sleeping at night.

Maybe (very) low expectations have done the trick, but live at the theatre I kept wondering why I had found the CDs so boring. I have some theories:

1) although it has been often performed in concert, this is an opera that has to be experienced staged. The fact that there are no big arias (the tenor doesn’t even have an aria to speak of) and that numbers are so unorthodoxly structured is explained by the fact that the composer really wanted his audience to concentrate in the drama;

2) although the Opera Rara CDs has superior orchestral playing and a conductor who is a specialist in this repertoire, the cast is problematic and “thrilling” is not the word that comes to my mind when I think of it.

Why has this evening made me change my mind on Bellini’s bleak-pearl opera? To start with, Fabio Luisi proved to have made the right decision when he decided not to make little of Bellini’s score (there are many niceties, including an aria accompanied by flute arpeggi). As the orchestra has received a “Beethovenian” treatment, singers were obliged to take the cue from the pit and that basically keep them together in an unified musical concept instead of the usual coincidence of individual ego trips. The house orchestra is far from ideal, but the fact that it was there in the center of the event made everything sound different – rare indulgent tenuti or puntature to start with. Considering that this score has many interesting harmonic twists, it is particularly good to be able to hear more than a soloist andsomeguysaccompanyinghimorher. Especially when the soloists are that good!

Edita Gruberová first sang the part of Alaide last year. I am glad that, at this point of her career, she is still willing to add a new role to her repertoire, but I am sorry that she has not done that before, for this is indeed a role that fits her voice and personality like a glove. First, the high tessitura and the long-sustained-phrase writing highlight the Slovakian soprano’s best vocal abilities. Second, the role has a dreamy, otherworldly quality that agree to her dramatic instincts. We first hear Alaide off-stage singing a sequence of ascending trills and we are supposed to be in awe – so it must be a voice with inbuilt magic, and that was we got this evening. Gruberová was in amazingly good shape – her soprano was at its luminous best, she trilled with complete abandon and was at her less fussy. I understand that, if you compare her performance with Renata Scotto’s for instance, there is going to be more than a splash of Zerbinetta in it (as she has often been accused of), but – seriously – this is a small price to pay for her technical excellence and textual clarity and theatrical imagination.

As much as in the Opera Rara CDs, the Isoletta here lacks a youthful, truly agreeable tone. At least, Veronica Simeoni, being Italian, brings an idiomatic quality that, aided by crystalline diction, made the role less a cipher than it can be. The tenor between these two ladies is the same from the CDs – Dario Schmunk, whose emphatic singing style fits his the exalted personality of his role. His voice is more pleasant heard live, when the squeezed high notes sound less edgy and the off-focus mezza voce is not devoid of charm.  A convincing performance. Franco Vassallo has developed a lot as a Bellini singer since last time I saw him – this evening, he sung with poise, elegance and sensitivity and still offered his hallmark big, firm top notes. The ensemble singers too were extremely well cast here – Benjamin Bernheim (Osburgo) sang with round tone, focused low notes and perfect Italian style and Reinhard Mayer’s rich, dark bass was shown to advantage in the role of the Prior.

Christof Loy’s staging could be called minimalistic – there is only one set, which is indeed a “stage set”, you can see the mechanisms and that this is nothing but a piece of scenery. Characters operate the ropes themselves. Costumes are stylized 19th century and everything turns around a very sharp symbology – stage ropes that double as hangman’s halters, a Romantic painting of a lake that represents Arturo’s fantasy of happiness with Alaide, black and white veils and costumes to show the parallels between the fantasized woman (Alaide, as perceived by Arturo) and the real one (Isoletta). It is not a staging that reveals any hidden angle, but that makes the story itself clear and immediate. Considering that this is a very convoluted plot, this is no small feat.

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Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer is a key work to understand German Romanticism, a richly orchestrated score of sophisticated musical invention and dramatic impact. Yet, it is not staged as often as one would guess. Why? The immediate answer is that the two main roles are impossibly difficult. It is also quite testing for the orchestra – but one could make similar observations of operas like Tristan und Isolde or Götterdämmerung, which are nonetheless more frequent in opera houses’ seasons.

I would add that Der Fliegende Holländer is also difficult to stage. Even if you have a low budget and go Regie, if you don’t provide any kind of “special effect”, then it’s going to be a colossal debacle anyway. In his 2012 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, Andreas Homoki never forgets that. He has throwed ships, spinning wheels, fjords etc away, but there are plenty of spooky tricks to keep up with Wagner’s diminished seventh chords. Homoki explains he decided to stage his Holländer onshore – and so he does. Daland has a trading company and his instructions to his crew are here translated into telephonic communication with his ships at sea. However, whenever Wagner’s orchestra suggests sea tempests, everybody on stage falls to the ground as in they were on a ship. So, again, could we make a decision here? Aboard or onshore? Later I understood that the chorus has to remain onstage longer than what Wagner intended because they are supposed to screen the Holländer’s “magical” appearances and disappearances. So it is rather a convenience than an aim in itself. And one can see that. Also, the pre-war English setting is atmospheric and goes well with the story, but the association with the burdens of colonial system is a bit far-fetched. We see maps of Africa, Daland has an African servant and, when the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly crews is supposed to appear, the African servant is turned in a warrior and mysterious arrows kill Daland’s employees. This could be an interesting approach – Daland is in Europe and sees only the profits of colonial enterprise, while the Dutchman could be someone plagued by the actual heart-of-darkness experience of colonial oppression who cannot redeem himself. He does not fit anymore in the blood-stained welfare of his civilized surroundings. But this is not the story we see here – the Dutchman is pretty much concerned about himself and the African qualms are just added upon his plot.

The Opernhaus Zürich made a point, in this production, of trying to revive “the original version” of the score. In the program book, they acknowledge that Wagner has done so much retouching in so many instances that it is actually impossible to speak of one “original” version, but roughly speaking we had no intermission, the acts linked to each other by interludes and no redemption music in the end. Orchestration issues has been dealt with case by case. Maestro Alain Altinoglu seemed concerned with the large orchestral sound prescribed by Wagner and made a point in keeping his musicians in leash.  As a result, strings were often on the thin side and crescendo passages had very little development. The sound picture was often band-like, robbing this music of momentum and nobility. In terms of tempo,  the conductor made it fast and animated (sometimes making it difficult for the chorus to articulate the text) – but without weight of sound, the final impression had more to do with bounciness than suspense.

Although Anja Kampe was severely tested by high-lying passages (especially in the end of the first part of her duet with the Dutchman), her Senta was richly, sensitively and touchingly sung. It is a hard piece of singing – and there is no perfect Senta, even in recordings – but that did not prevent this German soprano of making this music hers. In what regard tenors, Marco Jentzsch’s singing is the opposite of ingratiating and the Steersman was too light-toned for his role. It is almost a miracle that Matti Salminen still holds his own as Daland. Now many passages are more spoken than sung, but he does it with such naturalness and conviction that you almost believes that this is supposed to be done that way. Last but not least, Bryn Terfel may not be the most voluminous or dark-toned (his high notes often sounded strangely bright in an almost tenor-ish way) Holländer in one’s experience, but he sings it with such commitment, tonal variety, clarity of diction and imagination that you can’t help taking his side. Even in the end, when his voice started to grate a bit, such was his engagement that you felt ready to see in it the Holländer’s and not the singer’s exhaustion. Thanks to him and Anja Kampe, this performance would intermittently rise above routine into something truly exciting and special.

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Even compared to Mozart early works such as Mitridate and Lucio Silla, his delightful stage serenata Il Re Pastore is a rarity. There is not much of a plot to speak of (basically a couple of connected misunderstandings involving unusually good-intentioned people) and fiendishly difficult vocal parts, but the lack of appeal of a pastoral setting might ultimately be to blame for that. Director Grischa Asagaroff considered a great challenge to respect the original atmosphere and yet to bring some fresh air into it. As an inspiration, he looked up to Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s stagings of Mozart operas. As a result, the story is told without much interference from superimposed concepts other than having it set in a baroque garden stravaganza from which these characters spring into life when unobserved by visitors from our days.  The concept – particularly the closing scene – made me think of Tankred Dorst’s staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (without the pretentiousness, of course). In terms of stage direction, the director transformed the libretto’s “awkward” naivete into almost sitcom-like physical comedy. While his primo “uomo” and his primo tenore have a natural instinct for it, the remaining members of the cast looked a bit lost on stage. If everything looks like polite entertainment, one can never blame him for doing exactly what Metastasio probably had in mind. In any case, without cute gestures and green fauns and with a little bit more imagination, the concept might have come to life.

Although William Christie says that Il Re Pastore is a hidden gem among Mozart’s early work, his conducting did not show great affection for the music. Abrasiveness seemed to be the keynote – the overture sounded rough and uncomfortable, arie di bravura received the egg-timer approach and lyrical moments sounded devoid of feeling, especially the Aminta/Elisa duet, which should be the opera’s centerpiece. The exception was – not surprisingly – a L’amerò a tad slow for my ears (I am used to Margaret Price and James Lockhart’s recording when everything sounds flowing and spontaneous). Under these circumstances, singers (with one notable exception) couldn’t help by sounding nervous and often imprecise – the orchestral sound was unpolished and rather cacophonic. Justice be made to concertmaster Ada Pesch, who played the solo part in Aminta’s famous aria expressively. In his recording with a period instrument orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a far more persuasive advocate of the hidden gem, finding far more variety and dept in it.

Aminta is a role generally taken by lyric sopranos, who can benefit from a serviceable lower register and creamy top notes. In Neville Marriner’s recording, there is Angela Maria Blasi, whose voice was substantial enough to sing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and in Thomas Hengelbrock’s DVD, we find Anette Dasch, Bayreuth’s current Elsa in Lohengrin. Martina Jankova is the Opernhaus Zürich’s resident -ina and couldn’t help finding the tessitura uncomfortable. Although she sang stylishly and often beautifully, her usually bell-toned soprano seemed opaque in its higher reaches and sometimes sharp. Her voice is very agile, but she would sound even more convincing in Aer tranquillo if the conductor had given her a little bit more leeway. Malin Hartelius’s last Mozartian role in Zürich was Fiordiligi and the next is going to be Konstanze. Elisa’s breathtakingly high tessitura accordingly suggests a bright-toned soprano “happier” in its higher reaches: an Arleen Augér role. Hartelius’s voice sits a bit lower than this. At any rate, if she is going to sing Martern aller Arten  in the near future, I have to believe she was really not in very good voice this evening. Her high notes were recessed and often unfocused. Only solid technique saved her in her act II aria. Her coloratura was generally precise and fluent, but she too strayed from what Mozart wrote in a couple of tricky notes. In any case, both ladies were far better cast than Sandra Trattnigg, who fought pitch, fioriture and low notes as Tamiri. It could have been nerves, but I suspect this is not her repertoire.

The men proved to be  far more commendable – Benjamin Bernheim has a firm, substantial and pleasant tenor. His voice is not very flexible and sometimes his phrasing is too cupo. But he has great potential, which he has yet to fulfill. Rolando Villazón had his hard edges in a role in which everybody else is basically  all hard edges. In other words, although the approach was sometimes too broad for Mozart, I have never heard it so beautifully sung as this evening: the tone is warm, natural and dulcet, his control of divisions is impressive and he even found variety, feeling and sense of humor in the role. He could also build a very funny yet unexaggerated character – the ad libs appropriate and sometimes hilarious. I am glad he has decided to explore lighter roles, in which had proved to more than fulfill the technical and musical requirements.

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Bellini’s Norma has a singular mystique among opera-goers. Although fans of German repertoire dismiss it as insubstantial, Richard Wagner himself was an admirer of the work and acknowledged that a great deal of its power relies in its unhindered melodic flow that translate sentiments with unusual nobility. The fact that this simplicity that eludes explanation is capable of such expressive power is probably Norma’s mystery – and also its main difficulty for performers. A single mistake is enough to ruin a sublime moment – and it is not really difficult for a singer to make a mistake in a work that demands so much from its soloists. Nevertheless, even if it is true that this is not a challenging orchestral score, it is one entirely consistent of effects: if those arpeggi for strings do not display crystal-clear sound and intonation, if those sostenuto notes in the French horns do not appear unforced and blend with the framework of strings, if the plangent cello solos do not sound almost unbearably expressive, then one may have a good cast, but not a good Norma.

This evening, I came to the theatre with the expectation of a musically scrumptious performance. This is an orchestra used to Wagner and R. Strauss and, as much as some performances bel canto operas from the Bavarian State Opera, I hoped to find the ultimate level of refinement and polish. However, conductor Paolo Carignani and his musicians did not quite offer that. Maybe because of light-voiced singers, the maestro seemed to focus on the score’s, to use Felice Romani’s own words, molli affetti. In those moments, his good ear for balance and his attention to his singers’ needs payed off touchingly. In the remaining moments,  the orchestra basically lacked punch: accents were rather saggy, tempi somehow dragged, intense moments often sounded ultimately noisy. To make things worse, the chorus sang with surprising sluggishness. If the Gaul battle cry was supposed to be so languid, the only reason why Pollione’s army did not wipe them off the surface of the Earth in a couple of hours is because he was too busy fooling around with the local beauties.

However, if someone is to blame for the lack of backbone this evening, this should be Bob Wilson. You don’t really need to read anything I write here to know how it was – it was basically what he does everywhere in whatever he does. He says naturalistic theatre is a fraud, but I guess I would rather be defrauded than bored to death. I still have to be enlightened about how the attempt to recreate human feelings on stage should be less desirable than walking-like-an-Egyptian. All right, some images are beautiful, but some are kitsch too – like having pieces of Norma’s glittery pyramidal “temple” dancing around static actors in the first act’s finale. If there is something to be redeemed in this staging, this would be this evening’s soprano impressive embodiment of this anti-naturalistic approach as a means to increase (and not decrease, as in everything else) drama. Her face had the tragic quality of a mask, her figure the grandeur of a statue and even the slightest movement was filled with the emotional charge that gives sense to everything.

If you are not a soprano drammatico d’agilità, Norma will probably an ungrateful job. It is doubly sad then that practically nobody can claim herself this Fach. Certainly not Elena Mosuc, who would rather be classified as lyric coloratura soprano. Although she has a solid low register, she is no Norma by nature and I suspect we won’t hear her in that role other than in the Opernhaus Zürich. Her voice is extremely appealing in its creaminess and floated pianissimi, but it does resent the slightest attempt of producing a dramatic note. She treated carefully but stylishly through Casta Diva, was not really at ease with Bello, a me ritorna and only survived the second act because she rather adapted the role’s demand to her own means. This made her Norma unusually passive and vulnerable, but if this approach should constitute a valid view of this multifaceted role, she would first need to master the art of blending words and sounds in one single, inseparable unity in the way Giuditta Pasta probably did or a Callas or a Scotto used to do. The Rumanian soprano has clear diction and phrases with elegance, but in the end the results are excessively understated to be called anything else but a laudable attempt.

I have to confess I never expected to find a mezzo soprano like Michelle Breedt in the role of Adalgisa and yet she proved to be adept in the art of messa di voce and to have reasonable coloratura. Hers is still an unitalianate voice, its smoky, a tiny little bit thick sound does not convey any sense of youth and innocence, but this was really an intelligent and capable rendition of a difficult role – and it does not hurt that her top notes are so full and free.

Roberto Aronica is easily the larger voice in the case and probably the only name you would find in a cast list of this opera in normal circumstances. His extreme top notes are not really easy and he sings a bit stodgily, but the sound is always firm, full and echt. Although Giorgio Giuseppini did not seem to be in very good voice (the higher end of his range sounded unfocused), he offered a decent if not quite noble Oroveso with some spacious low notes.

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Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is one of the best loved works in German language in the operatic repertoire. It is only curious that few opera-goers fancy to discover the composer’s other opera, Königskinder. The ready-made opinion about it is that this is a failed Märchenoper, but the truth is that Königskinder is a far more ambitious work that eschews any classification. It does indeed have elements of fairytale – a witch who keeps a beautiful girl as her prisoner out of a spell, to start with. But the remaining aspects of this complex libretto have more to do with the Anderson of The Little Match Girl and She was Good for Nothing than with the Brothers Grimm, plus a touch of symbolism to round off.

Accordingly, Humperdinck’s score is musically more challenging than that of his previous opera – the Goose Girl and the King’s Son’s scenes suggesting rather Gurrelieder, part one, than Der Rosenkavalier. In that sense, I cannot think of a better conductor for this score than Ingo Metzmacher, who took even the more folkloric passages in a serious, large-scaled manner, abounding in dense orchestral sound with breathtaking instrumental effect. I wonder what he would have done if he had conducted R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten last month in the same venue.

Metzmacher had splendid soloists at his disposal, particularly Jonas Kaufmann, who sang the role of the King’s Son with unfailing dark yet ductile sound and admirable variety, savouring the text and producing the necessary boyish impression rather from the freshness of his interpretation than from a voice whose tonal quality a tiny bit more heroic than what is required. He also possesses a most likable stage presence and the talent of being funny without resorting to clownishness, as he proved to be during act II. Although Isabel Rey’s soprano does not display any inbuilt charm in this role (particularly if one has Helen Donath in EMI’s studio recording in his memory), she does a very clean and unproblematic job out of it. However, this is an instance when the vocal side of an operatic performance is just one part of an otherwise far more attractive package. The Spanish soprano achieves here the rare deed in operatic stages of making the audience forget that she is performing at all – when Isabel Rey was on stage this evening, she simply was the Goose Girl in her disarming innocent radiance. An example of great artistry.

The role of the Minstrel is a bit heavy for Oliver Widmer.  He produced round forceful top notes, but a larger voice would have allowed him a mellower, more congenial singing, as the role requires. On the other hand, Liliana Nikiteanu was an excellent Witch, a rich-toned, intelligent performance. All minor role were ideally cast with house values, such as Reinhard Mayr and Boguslaw Bidzinski.

I have said that director Jens-Daniel Herzog lacked friends to tell him when things were going wrong when I saw his erratic staging of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Dresden, but it seems that his friends only were unwilling to go to Dresden. In his beautiful and creative staging of Königskinder, he decided to set the story at some point between the 50′s and 60′s, in which middle classes were convinced to trade traditional values for a business-oriented concept of success measured in money, a world that leaves very little space to independent thinking. Thus, the Goose Girl is shown as an orphan tutored (in vain) to hate mankind by a crazy-scientist-like Witch in her secluded laboratory; the King’s Son is an almost beatnik character in his on-the-road search for his own identity outside the role society has reserved him; and Hellastadt is shown as countryside smallville in which everybody would sell their souls for Burger King. Although this seems to be excessively brainstormy, the concept runs quite smoothly in its simplicity and elegance, not to mention that the direction of actors in exemplary in its spontaneity, meaningfulness and relation to the score. This certainly deserves to be released on DVD.

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While Idomeneo and Idamante had to work on their father-son relationship, Nikolaus and Philipp Harnoncourt are doing really well in that department – it is their collaboration that maybe needs some rethinking. Their teamwork has resulted the production of Mozart’s Idomeno first seen in Graz in 2008 and now reprised in the Opernhaus Zürich. Harnoncourt, Sr., claims that the idea of sharing responsibility in this staging is due to the fact that he had never seen any director who really understands that Idomeneo is rather a tragédie lyrique than an opera seria. Therefore, ballet should play a key role in it, especially in what regards showing the supernatural elements of the plot. I could agree with that on paper, but what has been finally shown on stage is only a low-budget production with unimaginative sets of dubious taste, unbelievably ugly costumes and a detailed if clichéd stage direction that reduces Idomeneo to mania, Elettra to coquetry, Ilia to childishness and Idamante to neediness. Then there is the ballet – I am not sure if classical ballet pirouettes are the right idea to portray sea monsters and menacing deities. I found it quite distracting, especially during the staged overture (yes, I know…). The complete ballet music in the end of the opera has been retained and, as much as Heinz Spoerli’s graceful choreography was expertly performed by the Zürcher Ballet, it added absolutely nothing to the understanding of the plot. One could actually take it for the second item on a double bill with the opera until Ilia and Idamante are finally brought in the last minute to justify the whole idea. To make things worse, with the excuse of the original Munich première version, the most exciting aria in the score (D’Oreste, d’Ajacce, of course) did not make it into this evening’s performing edition. The reason why Mozart cut it back then was the interruption of the dramatic flow caused by it. In the Harnoncourts’ staging, Elettra’s surviving recitative was an oasis of excitement in a rather uneventful closing scene… If I had to point out an advantage in the father-son teamwork, this would be the way the conductor’s fanciful playing with tempo found support in the dramatic action.

Compared to Harnoncourt’s Teldec recording with more or less the same orchestra (then under a different name), this evening’s performance is noticeably less coherent in its theatrical intent. Although Harnoncourt’s microscopic attention to details is often revelatory, pressing the break pedal to highlight every little one of them is finally an aim in itself, rather than a means to express anything. Moreover, the orchestral playing left something to be desired in its extremely dry sound, not to mention the occasional instance of poor tuning and lack of rhythmic precision. Although the choral singing was not bad, it lacked the necessary clarity to blend with the period instrument orchestra.

All that said, Harnoncourt masters the art of accentuation and produced some amazing results, for example, in recitativi accompagnati –  some chords were so sudden and intense that I almost jumped off my seat at moments! The scene when Idamante first sees his father was worth alone the (high) price of the ticket.

Julia Kleiter is an ideal Mozartian soprano and apart from one blunder during Se il padre perdei*, offered an exemplary account of the role if Ilia. If she ultimately could be  somewhat more affecting, I would rather blame the directors’ superficial view of the role, which left her little space to focus. Eva Mei’s bright soprano is a bit light for Elletra. Without her final aria, it is difficult to say anything definitive about her take on this role. As it was, she found the tessitura of Tutte nel cor uncongenial and failed to caress her lines in Idol’ mio, even if she found no difficulty with the high-lying writing. She is a seasoned Mozartian and made some beautiful sounds and used the text knowingly, but the  final impression was rather blank. She is not usually considered a magnetic actress, but was was certainly the singer who offered the bast acting in this cast. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s mezzo is similarly light for Idamante, but once she overcame the problems that thwarted her high register during Non ho colpa, this singer would win the audience over with her beauty of tone, elegant phrasing, exquisite pianissimi and engagement.

Saimir Pirgu’s italianate dulcet tenor is on the light side for Idomeneo. He was not entirely comfortable in a part that sits low in his voice and tended to be emphatic in a way that tampers with legato, but produced reasonably effortless divisions in Fuor del mare. He still needs to mature in the role in order to transcend correctness and achieve something really moving. Cristroph Strehl was a strenous Arbace who got to sing one of his arias (Se colà ne’ fati).

* This is the first time I have heard Ilia sing her complete recitative in which she speaks of Hecuba and Priam in a staged production. Harnoncourt recording has the usual shorter version, while, as far as I can immediately remember, Jacobs’s recording for Harmonia Mundi is the only one to feature the longer text.

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Die Frau ohne Schatten is arguably Richard Strauss’s most formidable score, composed to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s most complex libretto, the symbolism of which is almost awkward in its multiple levels. Magic opera, psychological drama, myth, social analysis… there is plenty to choose in it. To make things more difficult, the music is some sort of Straussian showcase – from the multicolored chamber music atmosphere of Ariadne auf Naxos to the all-together-now hysteria of Elektra. That operatic Goliath does not seem to have intimidated Zürich’s small but brave opera house, though.

Although director David Pountney believes that the work is about the discovery of one’s own humanity, he seems to focus his staging on the social disintegration caused by the exploitation of working class in the early day of capitalism, more of less Hofmannsthal’s lifetime. Thus, the story is set on the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. While the Emperor and the Empress are here shown as k. u. k. aristocrats, Barak and his wife are proletarians in a sewing workshop. The Nurse is a key  figure in this context, since she is portrayed as something like a less fortunate relative who depends on her patrons’ favors (therefore, her interest in the Empress comes through more like self-interest than in other stagings). The magic elements of the plot are not abandoned, however. The surrealistic aesthetics of Max Ernst serve as inspiration to dream-like costumes and sets. Many ideas come through quite effectively, such s the play-in-the-play seduction of the Dyer’s Wife, where the Amme literally stages the poor woman’s romanesque fantasies (it is truly amazing how the music fits this concept), but many a detail ultimately seem unintentionally comical, such as the ballet-dancer falcon (why people feel that they have to bring the “voice of the falcon” to the stage?) or the walking dolls cloaked in white who are supposed to be the Ungeborene… If the many imaginative touches do not make an unforgettable experience, poor direction of actors is to blame. The cast did not seem comfortable with what they had to do and most scenes gave the impression of a routine followed with little conviction and almost no coherence: the tenor’s approach was stand-and-deliver, the baritone offered naturalistic acting and both sopranos seemed entirely lost. Only the mezzo seemed to invest the stylized acting required from her.

Franz Welser-Möst similarly eschewed any larger-than-life quality in his reading. The Opernhaus Zürich has a small auditorium and its orchestra is used to produce leaner sounds. Moreover, the conductor professes that Straussian style should involve lighter textures over which the text can still be easily followed by the audience. Let’s call it the “Cosi-fan-tutte golden rule”. I have to confess that I took some time to adjust to the undernourished orchestral sound, especially in what regards the string section. There was transparence in plenty, but the fact that the sound never ever blossomed even in the orchestral interludes finally robbed the music of a great deal of its impact. The end of act I sounded particularly deprived of substance. That could be overseen, if volume had been replaced by accent (as Marc Minkowski has showed us in his performance of R. Wagner’s Die Feen at the Théâtre du Châtelet), but, alas, the lack of forward movement and a sameness in what regard phrasing all in favor of orchestral polish finally suggested overcautiousness. The Mozartian poise had its advantages – a particularly clean ensemble in the difficult act II closing scene – but I am not really sure if this is how FroSch should sound.

The role of the Kaiserin is a bit high for Emily Magee, who had to chop her phrases too often to prepare for the next dramatic high note. However, her creamy soprano is a Straussian instrument by nature and, even when tested, she never produced a sour note during the whole opera. Jenice Baird was a puzzling Färberin. I have never heard her in such good voice – she really sang the part in her rich vibrant dramatic soprano, but seemed to be sleepwalking in the interpretative and dramatic departments. Her rather slow delivery of the text drained the Färberin music of all its bite. Although Birgit Remmert was quite overparted as the Amme, the size of the hall helped her to produce the right effect in this role. She has spacious low notes, clear declamation and, even if her top register is a bit strained, that did not prevent to produce some firm acuti. I know: Roberto Saccà’s voice is ugly, but I must say that I have never listened to anyone sing this part with such flowing lyricism, nuance and ringing top notes before. He almost convinced me that the role should be cast with jugendlich dramatisch voices. Michael Volle was extremely well cast as Barak – his spacious baritone is extremely pleasant on the ear and he sang sensitively throughout.

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