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Posts Tagged ‘Stephan Rügamer’

Staging an incomplete work – be it Puccini’s Turandot or Berg’s Lulu – is always tricky. One never knows how much of the torso would remain if the composer could have had the time to behold the complete work and make his final touches. In the case of Lulu, one could actually write an opera about it – when Berg died, he had written acts I and II. For act III, there were the vocal parts and a couple of scenes fully composed (basically those appearing in the Lulu suite) – the particella would show more or less what he envisaged for the rest of it. Although Berg’s widow first showed an interest in commissioning the completion of the opera, she would  later mysteriously change her mind and finally forbid anyone to see the material left by her husband, let alone do anything about it. The editors, however, smuggled copies to Friedrich Cerha, whose final edition would only be performed in Paris in 1976 (as we can listen in the live recording with Teresa Stratas conducted by Pierre Boulez). This year, the Deutsche Staatsoper decided to write a postlude to this story. Based on the opinion that the Prologue was composed to appease eventual censorship, it was decided that it should be cut off. You notice that I did not produce the name of who made this decision – it must be someone far more authoritative than Berg himself, who took the pains to compose the music for it. The second big decision was to have act III beginning right from the London scene. This time the reason was that it is dramatically flawed and musically inconsistent. That is why English composer David Robert Coleman was invited to re-orchestrate what remains of the controversial last act. I am no specialist in Berg’s music and have listened to Lulu only a couple of times in my life, but – even if I mistrust people who find themselves more clever than the original composers themselves – I have to confess that I found Coleman’s intentionally “more intimate” orchestration effective, rich in atmospheric effects and aptly uncanny.

I am hardly the best person to assess how successful Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is in this repertoire. I have listened to his recording of Wozzeck and found it a bit dull, but this evening, even if an expert tries to convince me of the contrary, I would stick to my very positive impression. I have written here that I found Levine’s last Wozzeck at the Met “Straussian” in its beautiful orchestral sound – but this evening’s Lulu was almost Tristan-esque in its rich-toned, dense, dark, intense, passionate conducting. When I write “passionate”, I can see some people raising their eyebrows – and I answer that I don’t mean by it that it was loud and full of contrasting tempi. No, the performance flowed naturally and the orchestra had a Bayreuth-ian “full but not loud” aural picture, with amazing effects in wind instruments in truly concertante writing with singers on stage. I would say that those who left the theatre this evening still disliking this opera should probably loose hope of ever liking it.

The cast here assembled could also hardly be bettered. First of all, the casting of Mojca Erdmann in the title role couldn’t be more interesting. Her sweet, almost edulcorated soprano is not really expressive in itself – it does not suggest seduction, raw energy, rapaciousness, you name it. It’s almost virginal purity, allied to her almost abstract interpretation, made her Lulu more puzzling than any other singer I have seen in this role. Some say that Lulu is nothing but a projection of the desires of those surrounding her, and that is how she sounded this evening, some sort of perverted Olympia (yes, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann). She sang with great accuracy, Mozartian poise and very clean high notes. In other repertoire, some could find her in alts a bit underwhelming, here I found them instrumental and musically elegant, in the sense that they never saturated the picture, but rather blended into it. She must be praised too by her willingness to sing this impossibly difficult music in the most difficult positions, being carried by other actors and even almost upside down at one point.

Deborah Polaski was similarly an elegantly understated Countess Geschwitz, her sizable dramatic voice giving her enough leeway to deliver her text in a most musically spontaneous way. The Staatsoper must be praised by the impressive group of tenors featured this evening. Stephan Rügamer caressed Berg’s lines as if they had been composed by Mozart in the role of the Painter and nimbly executed a complex choreography as the Negro while singing with the right sense of humor. Thomas Pifka proved to be a more heroic Alwa than often, less smooth than, say, Peter Straka (in Jeffrey Tate’s recording) but more positive and varied, while Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke displayed a more metallic and verbally specific approach to the Prince. Among the low voices, Michael Volle (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper) called attention in its velvety richness and volume, but he would tire a bit by the end of act II. In comparison, Thomas J. Mayer(the Athlete) sounded recessed and rough-toned, but he is an excellent actor and used the text very convincingly. Jürgen Linn’s pitch-dark Schigolch had too much off-pitch expressive effects, but this seems to be the rule in this role. Anna Lapkovskaja (dresser/high-school boy) deserves mentions too for her forceful, fruity voice.

As for Andrea Breth’s production, although I quite like the decadent atmosphere she was able to produce and her very precise Personenregie, I cannot stand stagings in which people behave like puppets. The fun of watching opera is seeing PEOPLE on stage and the richness of expression they can convey with their faces and gestures. If they are supposed to walk like a robot, then I would rather see the concert version – especially in a concept in which the libretto is very loosely followed in a plot that demands a little bit more attention (too many characters, too many unconventional reactions, too many different settings…) from the audience. To make things more problematic, from act II on, the robot-walking is replaced by somewhat more realistic acting, but then one has already given up. I am sure that, in straight theatre, where the dialogues are more specific, this may work (or not?) – but here it was just “noise” to the music.

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As the optimistic person that I am, I have decided to give the Cassiers/Barenboim Rheingold a second chance; maybe last time at La Scala was just a collective bad day and I was curious about the new pieces of casting. In an impossibly positive scenario, Cassiers could have rethought his concept after the unanimous dislike he met with. But no – he is a man of conviction. I should admire that – if I had been given a free ticket maybe…

To make things worse, this time I could read dramaturg Michael Steinberg’s explanatory text about the production*. In it, he says that he and this production’s creative team are opening a new era in the staging of Wagner’s Ring: all stagings since the 1980’s represent a throwback from Chéreau’s revolutionary historical concept, while Cassiers would be basically “in the same line” as the French director. But, nota bene, Cassiers is  supposed to be a development from that concept: his Ring “will show how the globalized world of 2010 is still based on the Wagnerian vocabulary of 1870″. More than that, it “won’t begin in 1870 and move towards 1945, but rather develop from our days – it will take place in the ‘now'”. I know, I too was curious to see how they intended to do this: “these aesthetics work with the double meaning of  ‘projection’, as understood by Freud and others. On one hand, projection is the photographic and cinematographic technology – an image is projected from one source onto a surface. On the other hand, a projection has also psychic dynamic that comprehends the externalization of internal experience and (in symbolical sense) the ascription of emotional causes and attributes to a secondary, external source”. OK, now I got the cameras under the waters of the Rhine, but I guess Mr. Cassiers and his team should have rather learned with Chéreau the craft of true stage direction. I’ll make it easy for them: the art of knowing how to place actors on stage and give them meaningful attitudes, instead of having Friedrichstadt-Palast-like choreographies to portray that.

If I have to compare this evening with that in La Scala, the performance tonight seemed more technically finished (especially lighting), but the cast seemed less animated (particularly Stephan Rügamer). I cannot say if it is my imagination, but some scenes seemed cleaner, the Rhinemaidens less messy, Fasolt and Froh less lost in the context and, maybe it is because Berlin saw the thinner Wotan in the history of opera, his suit looked far less salvation-army-style than the one given to René Pape in Milan. On the other hand, Fricka has a kitschier gown to deal with.

Musically speaking, the dyspeptic approach to the score in Milan was unfortunately not accidental. Although the orchestra seemed more recessed here in Berlin (I don’t think that the mini Bayreuth-hood on the pit has any acoustic consequence), with a clear advantage for the singers, the extra sonic beauty of the Staatskapelle Berlin involve some exquisite orchestral effects, particularly in the rainbow bridge episode, what is always helpful in the context of slow tempi. In any case, the absence of rich orchestral sound will be for many Wagnerians (me included) a coup de grâce in Barenboim’s chamber-like (?) new approach.

Ekaterina Gubanova’s sensuous-toned if not completely incisive Fricka is an improvement from Milan. The other newcomer deserves more explanation: I don’t believe that Hanno Müller-Brachmann is going to add the role of Wotan to his repertoire, but is rather covering for René Pape, who has to sing Boris Godunov at the Met. His bass-baritone is impressively well-focused in the whole range; his technical security is such that he finds no problem in producing dark bottom notes and heroic top notes. The sound is, however, a bit slim and lacking weight, not to mention that the upper end of the tessitura may sound a bit clear. However, his main advantage over René Pape is his verbal specificity. Instead of painting with broad atmospheric paintbrushes, Brachmann delivers the text with crystal-clear diction and admirably precise declamatory abilities. The overall effect might not be the most grandiose around, but he does keep you interested in the proceedings. In any case, in a large hall with a powerful orchestra, I have the impression that Wolfram or maybe Beckmesser would be more appropriate for his voice.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was in far healthier voice here than in Milan. He is a vivid actor with a forceful voice, but his open-toned approach to top notes is a no-go for the more dramatic scenes. Stephan Rügamer was a bit less exuberant – also in the acting department – this evening. In any case, his Mozartian Loge is always interesting. It is a pity that he cannot do without the nasality that distorts his vowels. Again, Kwangchul Youn offered the most solid Wagnerian performance of the evening, but Anna Larsson proved to be here more convincing than in Italy. Maybe Ewa Wolak (at the Deutsche Oper) has spoilt the role for me, but the Swedish contralto still sounds too soft-grained for this role to my taste.

* It had been published at La Scala too, but I could not find it among thousands of pages of advertisement.

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Daniel Barenboim’s close collaboration with both La Scala and Staatsoper Unter den Linden has resulted a joint venture, which is a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, apparently at the rate of one opera every season both in Milan and at the Schiller Theater. Although the production is going to be one for both theatres, casting differs. For example, Nina Stemme and Waltraud Meier sing Bruennhilde and Sieglinde in Die Walkuere in Milan, while Berlin will feature Irene Théorin and Anja Kampe.

Barenboim’s almost Furtwaenglerian large-scaled approach to the Ring is known through his Bayreuth performances released both in CD and DVD and it seems that the conductor tried to justify his second visit to the Nibelungs with a whole new different approach. Although Furtwängler himself has conducted a Ring at La Scala, one would believe that the maestro inspired himself in another German who has also tried his tetralogy there: Wolfgang Sawallisch (1973).  This time, large scale are hardly the words that come to mind – the orchestral sound is rather chamber-like and clear, with beautiful textures and rather detailed phrasing in more lyric moments, especially when soft dynamics are involved. In more purely “Wagnerian” passages, things tend to lack some finish. Curiously, the performance is dramatically rather blank and, in spite of the lightness, tempi rarely flow. Probably because of the light-voiced cast, restrain seems to be the keyword, what impared many of the opera climaxes, especially Alberich’s curse, which really misfired here.

The main source of curiosity in this performance is René Pape’s first Wotan. The Dresdener bass has made a reputation out of Wagnerian roles such as King Marke in Lohengrin and the King Heinrich in Lohengrin, but, if I am not mistaken, this is his first Wagnerian Heldenbariton emploi. Although the tonal quality is noble and the attitude is stylish and knowing, Pape’s velvety voice does not seem really cut for the part. In this tessitura, his voice does not really sound large and his high register sounds a bit bleached, what gives a more tentative than commanding impression. His Alberich, Johannes Martin Kraenzle, is similarly out of his sort. He seems to know what Alberich should be like and is also a good actor (even if he looks old for the part), but he cheats in every high note and is often overwhelmed by the orchestra, even in its light-toned version. Stephan Rügamer is also light-toned for Loge – and his nasality is often bothersome – but this imaginative tenor sings with amazing  tonal variety and an almost Mozartian dulcet quality that makes his character particularly insinuating. As always, he is a most gifted actor – certainly the singer who made most of the mechanical stage direction. Curiously, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s voice proved to be more penetrating than his in the role of Mime. Maybe it is a bit late for Doris Soffel to tackle the role of Fricka – her vocal production is now a bit raspish. She is a subtle artist with intelligent word-pointing and some effective use of mezza voce, but one wants more vocal comfort. Anna Larsson lacked firmness as Erda and Anna Samuil (Freia) was rather metallic in tone if quite hearable in her flashy Slavic voice. The remaining minor roles were all ineffectively taken. Truth be said, the only singer truly at ease in this performance was Kwangchul Youn, whose Fasolt outclassed the remaining members of the cast.

To make things even less exciting, Guy Cassiers’s production is a series of misconceptions. The omnipresent ballet dancers making their distracting steps all over the place would make Wagner turn in his tomb. In any case, it made me feel like kicking them and their clueless choreographies off the stage. From a certain point on, all effects described in the libretto were replaced in a most unconvincing way by dancers doing their routines.  Enrico Bagnoli’s sets are quite unsensational and oversimple. The whole concept turned around the use of water in the first scene, for a rather awkward impression, and, since it is not simple to dry the whole set, it remained wet to the end, the attempts to make that make sense even more pointless. The audience’s reaction was quite cold and it made me wonder if some things are going to be changed for next season’s prima, Die Walküre, which is going to need something more consistent than this.

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Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus is an operetta. It is the world’s favourite operetta – and a score so rich in niceties and invention that critics have finally decided to “promote” to the world of opera. But that promotion had a price – nobody who listens to Parsifal or Elektra would forgive him or herself if there were nothing really deep behind the duidus and lalalas. Thus Fledermaus had unwittingly become the symbol of the decadence of bourgeoisie, of the intoxication before downfall, a sort of dance of death in 3/4 time.

I won’t appeal to anyone’s common sense to read the libretto and realize that this is just another French vaudeville with duped husbands, characters in disguise, secrets behind doors and rivers of champagne. Claiming that it is some sort of expressionistic work just because it was created in troubled times would be the same as saying that a Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie is a political statement. Of course, one could say that the absence of the world outside in these films is something to be “read”, but if you really want to read it, you should look for other kinds of movies. You just have to listen to the score – and you won’t find any dark side in it. And that’s all for the best – after all, this is an operetta and you should have a great time while listening to its three-hour duration.

Christian Pade’s new staging for the Lindenoper is not entirely guilty of the above-described crime. While he is still dying to inoculate Berg’s Lulu into the proceedings, he never lets lightness entirely go. Because of that, many bad habits are finally redeemed by the light touch. For example, Pade has rewritten the dialogues, but that seems to have been done only to accommodate the updating of the plot to the 1980’s – and in the end many faded jokes have regained a bit of their colour. Nevertheless, some laziness involved recycling some old formulas.

Act 1 is set in the Eisenstein’s advertisement-like kitchen – why those rich people would frequent their kitchen so often as described here is a mystery to me. Why their maid has such a designer dress also eludes explanation. But all that takes second place to some alert stage direction with funny ideas, especially in the scenes in which Alfred takes part. Act 2 starts to pose problems. Orlofsky is portrayed as a punk young man with a high-tech penthouse and friends who look like extras in a David Bowie’s clip. I am still wondering why he would have such middle-aged acquaintances who show up in his cool party with suits and long formal dresses. Moreover, why he would be interested in Falke and Eisenstein’s almost-suburban problems when he and his friends are doing far hotter stuff. Having the David-Bowie-people streetdance to Johann Strauss’s waltzes and polkas, however, was a bad idea that finally paid up. Martin Stiefermann’s expert choreographies did not seem ridiculous or out-of-synch as this kind of stuff tends to be. In the end, they would be the best-realized idea in the whole production. I don’t know why stage directors in Berlin find it that having the sets of act 1 upside down in act 3 so interesting – in any case, whatsoever interest it might have had has already been lost out of repetition. It’s become as ordinary as Ampelmann stores or Maredo restaurants in the federal capital city.

In any case, if the idea was to be bold, a less gemütlich conductor as Zubin Mehta should have been hired. No problem with Mehta’s conducting – it would have fit a golden-staircase staging to perfection. As it was, tempi were a bit comfortable, the orchestra playing a bit lacking energy if abouding in clarity and precision, and the attempt to recreate Viennese rubato effects a bit awkward. However, maybe to help some singers, orchestral volume was frequently kept at very low levels.

Viennese soprano Silvana Dussmann could have added a bit of authentic charm to the proceedings, but her performance was rather Prussian in its heaviness. She is an experienced Rosalinde – one could tell that by the tricks she used to disguise the fact that her voice is no longer flexible enough for the role. Although the basic tonal quality is pleasant, the sound has become too metallic and/or harsh, her low register does not cut into the auditorium, pitch is a bit uncertain and her insistence to sing in alts was rather deafening than impressive in their overloud heartiness. Her pairing with Christine Schäfer’s pale-toned Adèle was ill-advised. This German soprano has become a favourite with many of us with her intelligent performances and uniquely bright and smoky soprano, but I believe it is time for a mechanical inspection in her singing. Her whole performance was so erratic that I feared she would not reach the end of the evening. She could not honestly handle fioriture, fast staccato passages, low notes, legato or even cut through the orchestra. She has been singing some heavy roles for her voice – and that seldom has a happy ending. Stella Grigorian offered a decent Orlofsky, but small-scaled and lost a bit around the passaggio.

The men would offer more consistent performances. Stephan Rügamer’s voice is not mellifluous as operetta tenors tend to have, but he sings with confidence and sense of style. And his acting was so superlative that one would forgive him anything. Martin Gantner’s high-lying nasal-toned baritone works really well for Eisenstein. This is the best I have ever heard from him – he sang with unforced projection, fearless approach to high notes (he took all the high options) and sense of humor. Jochen Schmeckenbecher also seemed to be having the time of his life, and his solid bass is in very good shape. Only Roman Trekel disappointed as Frank – his singing was effortful and unsubtle throughout. Michael Maertens’s Ostberliner FroSch was funnier than usual.

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In Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome comes to a terrace in Herod’s palace where she would eventually hear the voice of Iokanaan coming from a cistern. It must be terrible to be in so black a hole. It is like a tomb, she says. But in Harry Kupfer’s ooooold production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden, one may wonder if the cistern is worse than the prison-like setting where the Herod entertains his guests. I mean, it is not a prison-like setting – it is a prison in the 1970’s. Why women are allowed there at all, it is a question one might ask oneself. The page of Herodias, for instance, is here shown as a woman too – with a bizarre wig. Why is there a party in the facilities? And what these orthodox Jewish guys are doing there? These seem to be picky question in the context of these production, but once you are there in the theatre, you cannot help seeing the whole thing and making questions. In any case, it seems that a new head could not be produced to fit James Rutherford’s looks. The one Salome had did not look like him at all. By the way, probably because the head “belonged” to other Jochanaan, Salome could not do with it everything she said she would.

In any case, the Lindenoper is the right place to hear to this opera – the hall’s relatively small size gives the cast the opportunity to reserve their full-power singing to the key moments, what is essential in such a difficult score. In that department, maestro Pedro Halffter Caro deserves praises for finding the right volume of sound not to cover singers on stage and to uncover the complex writing for woodwind. However, the recessed string sound involved also a great loss of clarity.

Angela Denoke’s Straussian credentials are beyond suspicion – her sizeable creamy lyric soprano floats through Straussian lines to the manner born. It is also a voice that sounds lovely and young as Strauss would have wanted the role to sound. However, although this is a singer who has Sieglinde and Fidelio in her repertoire, Salome does require a very special kind of voice – those high-lying voices the glimmer of which pierce through an orchestra without much effort (such as Ljuba Welitsch’s or Hildegard Behrens’s). Denoke’s impressive technical control allowed her to prevent any loss of creaminess and roundness throughout, but that was achieved at the expense of carrying power in climactic high notes, in which wavering in pitch would also afflict her line. As a result, the closing scene would be her less successful moment and she seemed finally tired at the end of it. She is also a powerful stage actress, but her whole method is too intellectualized for a teenager. As a result, one would think rather of an experienced vamp trying her seductive powers on a new object. And that is not the story Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss’s story. Also her dancer-like movements throughout the opera preempted the effect of her not-really-danced dance. I do not want to give the impression that Angela Denoke’s Salome is not worth while the visit to the theatre – one the contrary, this is a Salome with an exquisite voice, who can act and who can let the seventh veil drop without embarassing herself. But the sum of these exceptional parts do not add to a truly overwhelming performance.

James Rutherford’s Jochanaan similarly benefits from the hall’s small auditorium. It is not a huge voice, but forceful enough and he sings with commitment.  Although Reiner Goldberg’s approach is sometimes too over-the-top, his heldentenor is still impressive for a Charaktertenor role and he has the necessary charisma. Stephan Rügamer sang Narraboth with ardour and elegance, but the theatre should have announced Rosemarie Lang’s indisposition before letting her step on stage in such dire vocal condition. It is a small role, but the likes of Grace Hoffman, Agnes Baltsa and Leonie Rysanek have not refused the opportunity to sing it.

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