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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Pauly’

Leonard Bernstein’s Candide’s hybrid nature – is it a musical? is it an operette?  Trying to determine which can make the experience of watching it particularly difficult for those who are not used to the musical theater.  I must confess it for musicals are not my cup of tea. But I have made my acquaintance with Candide through the video in which Bernstein himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with a team of soloists that are apt enough for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda or Verdi’s Luisa Miller, even though many of the participants were barely recovered from a severe case of flu.

In the version performed in the Deutsche Oper, Bernstein’s colorful orchestration has its Richard Straussian-ian (and its Johann Straussi-ian) moments – and it makes perfect sense that a good orchestra would want to try it. In any case, these two concert performances were dedicated to Loriot, whose German texts were used to link the musical numbers sung in the original language. The German humorist wrote that Candide is a unique musical, in the sense that the story outline, briefly described, takes as long as the musical itself to be told.

The very circumstance of having a Wagnerian orchestra such as the Deutsche Oper’s, under the baton of its musical director Donald Runnicles, made the performance interesting even for those – such as me – not really attuned to the musical idiom. Although the composer himself found an inimitable intensity of expression he could at the same time conjure tongue-in-cheek playing from his musicians. Runnicles cannot be accused of lack of enthusiasm. The orchestra offered brilliant playing and, in its relatively better-behaved approach, offered truly Mahlerian grandeur in many moments. If I am less enthusiastic about the chorus, it is because I could barely understand their English.

Toby Spence was supposed to sing the title role, but was replaced in the last minute by Stephen Chaundy, who did a very decent but hardly inspiring job in it. His Cunegonde couldn’t help being more flashy in comparison. Simone Kermes’s soprano is a couple of sizes lighter and smaller than June Anderson’s in Bernstein’s video – and her low notes were often overshadowed by the orchestra. She also missed Anderson’s native-speaker verbal fluency.  (For example, I cannot help finding it funny when the American soprano sings apparently unimportant things such as  “Paris, France” in her aria), but Kermes knows how “to carry a tune”, in the sense that even the most angular passages sounded singable and easy on the ear. Maybe there was more than a splash of Berlin-style cabaret in her “Glitter and Be Gay”, but only a purist would feel disturbed, and her ease with staccato and in alts is always impressive.

Casting for Grace Bumbry the Old Lady is, I suppose, a tribute to the mezzo-soprano-cum-soprano. (Christa Ludwig sings the role in the Bernstein video.)  Bumbry is now 75 and, of course,  there are many rusty patches in her voice, but one cannot cease to wonder nonetheless how healthy it still is, especially a fruity chesty low register that she understandably stretches up higher than she used to do. What I can say is she still can pull out a very seductive “I Am Easily Assimilated”. The other soloists did a splendid job, especially the charismatic and forceful Burkhard Ulrich (which role did he perform) and the funny and technically adept Simon Pauly as Dr. Pangloss and Martin.

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Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a challenge to any stage director – this is not an opera for children, but it certainly is a fairytale, the depths of which should rather be hinted at than fully explored. Günter Krämer’s 1991 staging for the Deutsche Oper tries to update things a bit, by having Monostatos talking pocket psychology while Pamina rests her head on his shoulder or the three ladies threatening Papageno with pistol guns. Some of the “creative” touches have their charm, especially the opening scene with the dragon operated by puppeteers who take part in the action, but some elements in the original plot are replaced by basically nothing and a couple of episodes are ultimately uneventful, such as the Queen of the Night’s arias.

To make things even more uneventful, conductor Matthias Foremny offered a lazy approach to the score, lacking forward-movement, energy and purpose. Notes followed each other without any spirit behind them as if the idea were to play safe. I just wonder how safe one has to be with a world-class orchestra and a reliable cast. I’ve chosen the word “reliable”, because the performances this evening rarely went beyond that. 

Heidi Stober, for example, has a pleasant creamy voice, but her phrasing is too often inert. Pamina is a gift-from-Heaven of a role for a lyric soprano – it offers every imaginable possible opportunities for a singer to show her sense of style and to use her expressive tools, but Ms. Stober let so many of them pass by that in the end no-one really cared about her performance. Unfortunately, Hulkar Sabirova was not in her best voice – she struggled a bit with high notes and only achieved Der Hölle Rache out of sheer technique. She has a rich voice and impressively clear divisions – I reckon she must be a very exciting Queen of the Night in a good day. Yosep Kang is a healthy-voiced and stylish Tamino, but tonal variety is not really within his possibilities. What has happened to Mozart tenors who could colour a Mozartian phrasing with true affection and genuine elegance? Reinhard Hagen’s noble-toned Sarastro is always an effective piece of casting, but the results were rather cold if one has in mind René Pape’s last Sarastros in the Lindenoper. Simon Pauly’s Papageno falls in a different slot – that was a truly endearing performance, beautifully sung, stylishly phrased and intelligently handled, also in the acting department. Last but not least, the three boys from the Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund were unusually musical and pleasant-voiced.

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Why is that British opera stagings are all so beige? We all know that one week of Komische Oper makes one eager for some dreariness, but, really, what is the point of importing Peter Hall’s unimaginative production from Glyndenbourne? Take Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film with Frederica von Stade and replace all colours for pastels and you can tell everyone you had the pleasure of visiting the English countryside in your tuxedo while watching this most agreeable performance of Rossini’s masterpiece. The lack of imagination applies to the stage direction too – all the clichés of Rossini staging are unashamedly paraded in front of your eyes. As Morticia Adams once said, one can forgive everything but pastels. Maybe that is why Angelina has a full-golden wedding dress in the closing scene. Her revenge might be her forgiveness, but it seems she will do some redecorating in the Prince’s palace.

In terms of casting, some replacement has happened before the première. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni has fallen ill  and was replaced by Guillermo García Calvo, who could not resist the house orchestra’s richness of sound. Although that meant that singers would now and then be overshadowed by breathtaking vortices of string passagework, I have to confess that rarely have I paid so much attention to Rossini’s colourful orchestral writing. Maybe if the cast counted with larger-sized voices, this could have been an unforgettable Rossinian night. In any case, one will not forget the orchestral display – even in the conductor’s agile tempi, the sound was always full and flexible.

Sometimes one has the opportunity of hearing something so overwhelming that his or her future experience will be forever touched by that. And I could not help thinking of Olga Borodina’s Cenerentola at the Met in 2005, which was one of the most impressive vocal performances I have ever seen. That was a voice of real depth and volume flowing through Rossini’s fioriture with no hint of effort. That was a voice large enough to preside over ensembles and to create a truly regal effect in the rondo finale. I remember I wrote back then “rarely has the triumph of virtue sounded so triumphant as in Olga Borodina’s voice tonight”. I am sure that Ruxandra Donose’s lighter and smokier mezzo-soprano must work to perfection in Glyndenbourne. Although the Deutsche Oper is no Metropolitan Opera House,  it is a large theatre for European standards and she took a while to warm. Until then, she tended to disappear in ensembles. Once she adjusted to the hall’s size, she never failed to impress in clear coloratura and in her seductively dusky low and medium register. Her top notes tend to sound bleached out and the closing scene was more efficient than astonishing. But – and this is a big “but” – she won me over nonetheless. She is a skilled and intelligent actress who projects a lovely personality throughout and never forgets that hers is one of the “serious” characters in the opera. At the end, one remembers her performance as extremely touching and the less than deluxe vocal resources seem to be part of her Angelina’s modest sweetness.

She was ideally paired by Mario Zeffiri’s Don Ramiro. Nobody wants to be called tenorino today, but it seems Zeffiri is comfortable with being something like our day’s Luigi Alva. His voice has nothing of the metallic quality most Rossinian tenors have today – there is an easy, smiling quality in his tenor and his facility with mezza voce makes his lyric moments particularly effective. He has an amazingly long breath and often shows off his ability to fly above high c, sustain it and then go on singing without pause. His big aria was a showcase of ornamentation, including a perfect trill. His acting abilities are not in the level of his Angelina, but he seems comfortable with what is required from him and – being the prince charming – his more discrete manners made sense in comparison to Dandini and Don Magnifico.

One always speak of how difficult the mezzo and tenor parts are, but one must never forget that Dandini is hard work. I do not remember having ever heard live or in recordings an immaculate performance of this role. Simon Pauly has no reason to be ashamed – although the voice is rather dark, it is always well-focused. He works hard for passagework and, once his voice starts to move, the sound is not always really pleasant. In this sense, the contrast with Lorenzo Regazzo’s Magnifico was quite telling, since the Italian bass-baritone offered crystal-clear divisions. I have to say that this is probably Regazzo’s best role. I tend to find him hyperactive, but Magnifico requires that. As a result, he seems to have limitless supplies of energy and is never caught short in any of Magnifico’s hyperbolic arias. Although Wojetk Gierlach’s high notes are a bit woolly, he sang Alidoro’s big aria with real bravura. I tend to be picky about the role of Clorinda – if the voice does not shine in the ensembles, than the part is rather pointless. I do not believe Martina Welschenbach was properly cast – her voice is charming, but not glittering enough up there. On the other hand, Lucia Cirillo’s sexy and fruity mezzo-soprano shows some promise.

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