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Posts Tagged ‘Wiener Staatsoper’

When you have an impressively supple orchestra such as the one in the Vienna State Opera, a conductor must feel tempted to pull all the stops. Therefore, I understand Michael Güttler’s inclination to make it fast and loud and exciting – and the outpouring of glittering, transparent and clear sounds from the pit were indeed a pleasure in itself. I doubt that someone might be able to listen to Rossini’s score more adeptly played than this evening. But then there are singers on stage too – and we must certainly consider them in bel canto repertoire. In the program book, we read that, when the new opera house by the Kärntner Straße was opened in 1869, there were doubts if works like La Cenerentola could be performed there, because “only a few singers were able to fill the large hall with their voices”. Precisely. Although the Vienna State Opera does not have a huge auditorium for today’s standards, it is still large enough and the orchestral sound can be overwhelming, as this evening. The first time I’ve heard La Cenerentola live, Olga Borodina sang the title role in the Metropolitan Opera House. Then I wrote ” Although her manners are a bit grand for poor-thing Cinderella, listening to such an exquisite opulent voice move so gracefully through Rossinian phrases is something every admirer of bel canto should do. Rarely has the triumph of goodness sounded as triumphant as in the crowning glory of the Russian mezzo’s rendition of the closing scene”. I could not help thinking of that performance this evening, when singers were in such disadvantage. Part of me wished that the orchestra could be a little bit more discrete to accommodate the cast, but ultimately I wished that singers such as the young Borodina could be found to make it all really exciting.

Vivica Genaux is no Borodina. Her lean mezzo soprano has limited volume, but a bright edge makes it hearable, especially in its lower end. The problem is that the part of Angelina often confines her to areas of her voice when she could not really pierce through a formidable orchestra. To make things a little bit more problematic, her high notes were not truly there this evening. Her impressive control of fast divisions helped her to distract the audience from that problem, but the variations offered in the final scene could not replace the climactic high notes Rossini expected his audiences to hear. In any case, her coloratura is indeed very exciting and could keep you in the edge of your seat in the prevailing fast tempi. Her Prince Charming, Dmitry Korchak, couldn’t help smearing a bit his runs under the circumstances. His voice is rounder, more natural and stronger-centered than most tenors in this repertoire – and his high notes are refreshingly forceful and firm. One could see that producing graceful, gentle phrasing requires great concentration from him, and I wonder how long he will resist moving to lighter lyric roles (and eventually to full lyric parts). If Nicolay Borchev’s baritone is a bit thick and dark for Italian roles, he is more faithful to his fioriture than many a singer in the role of Dandini. He is unexaggeratedly funny and has good pronunciation. The only Italian in the cast, Paolo Rumetz, offered an unexaggerated performance as well as Don Magnifico, but there were too many moments of inaudibility for comfort. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s voice is a bit light for Alidoro, he sang forcefully and stylishly. Both singers cast as Tisbe and Clorinda needed more focused voice to be heard in ensembles.

Sven-Eric Bechtholf sets the action in the 1950’s and keeps everything extremely busy and frantic. Sometimes, during important arias, parallel action takes place in the background for laughs, what is a bit disrespectful both for the composer and the musicians performing his music. At first, the action suggested something Fellini-ian and that seemed promising, but then the whole thing started to get frankly silly à la Roberto Benigni: Alidoro is here some sort of flirtatious Don Alfonso with some supernatural powers (whereas Rossini precisely asks the opposite of that), the Prince has a Freudian thing with sport cars and all the scenes in the palace take place in his garage – banquet and wedding included. Characters who are supposed not to hear something are often in places where they would have to be deaf not to hear that; sometimes they are placed in a way that collides with the situation described in the libretto, making for awkward maneuvers to get character X quickly in position B etc. In the end, I had the impression that the director does not truly believe in this opera and decided that his helping hand would make it better. Well, the long change of sets certainly made it lenghtier.

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Christmas was yesterday, and the ingestion of Gänsebraten and Sekt is usually high this time of the year. For singers who had to appear in Beethoven’s Fidelio the next day, this must have required tremendous willpower. Anyway, one member of the cast – the Leonore, Ricarda Merbeth, did not even make it. Anja Kampe had to be flown in to take the title role. As almost everyone else, the German soprano was not in a good-voice day, but, as much as Leonore, sie hat Mut and has risked her vocal folds (as many singers before her) for the love of Beethoven. Some would say that Ms. Kampe does not have the high notes for the role, but my impression is that the notes are indeed there – the technique to handle them not really. She has a beautiful, warm voice, a sensitive and musicianly way of building her phrases and is always dramatically on, but one could see that she knew beforehand that some passages would simply not work as written and that the make-do solutions are rather part of her performance than accidents in it. As it was, whenever things got high and loud (and they often do), the options were crooning or shouting. She is an intelligent singing actress and would invariably found a plausible theatrical attitude to justify this, except in her big aria, when things really went astray. Because of her generosity as an artist, she had the audience on her side, but it would be sad to see her eventually pay the price of such hazardous use of her voice.

Peter Seiffert seemed to have avoided the effects of Christmas supper and was really keen on preferring heroic to lyrical singing, although the latter usually suits his vocal nature better. In any case, this evening, his voice sounded at once large, focused, flexible and dulcet, even in the trickiest passages. Maybe as a tribute to René Kollo (who appears in this same production on video), he tried the messa di voce in his first note, which, as much as with Kollo, did not work very well. But other than this, he offered a truly satisfying performance.

Tomasz Konieczny, on the other hand, must have had a hell of a Christmas, for his entrance made me worry for him. He, basically, looked very ill: his hands shaking, his breathing very loud and labored, his face flushed, he missed one entry, then the text and his voice seemed to be all over the place. Either he is an excellent actor with a wildly misguided concept of the role or he was a hero to sing the part of Pizarro in that condition. Fortunately, he gradually recovered and, in the second act, peeled the paint off the walls with truly stentorian singing in his confrontation with Mr. and Ms. Florestan. I confess I was surprised to see the name of the more-than-veteran Matti Salminen in the important role of Rocco. Although his voice is still admirably firm and characterful, it now is essentially very rough, with some grey-toned patches in his range. He is a bête-de-scène and has no problem in making this work; however,  in an evening where almost every soloist required some adjustment, I only hoped during the first act that I would hear a reliable and unproblematic piece of singing.

Ildiko Raimondi’s soprano is a bit juiceless and intonation has its dodgy moments, but she does not spoil the fun at all. Her Jaquino, Sebastian Kohlhepp, proved to be in far better shape, but his singing lacked variety and imagination. Finally, the role of Don Fernando requires a voice completely different from that of Boaz Daniel.

If this performance proved to be something special, we owe this to the impressive playing of the Vienna State Orchestra under the wide-ranging conducting of Franz Welser-Möst. The State Opera’s General Musical Director was at his most Toscanini-an, pressing forward with ruthless rhythmic precision and extracting excitingly accurate playing from his musicians even in extremely fast tempi. For instance, this was the fastest O welche Lust that I have ever heard, more nervous and ominous than touching and hopeful. All concertati challenged soloists and choristers in their fast pace, but not the orchestra, which could not only cope with the technical demands, but also comment the action with wide tonal variety and produce rather than respond to the different shifts of mood in the score and the libretto. The maestro would make an exception for Pizarro’s scene in the dungeon in act II – there he opted to produce excitement rather from accent and accuracy, what made his soloists more comfortable and allowed him enough leeway to build into a powerful Es schlägt der Rache Stunde. Since the Mahlerian tradition of playing the Leonore no.3 before the closing tableau is still very much respected in Vienna, the audience received a Christmas gift in an orchestral tour de force to make you forget that there are other orchestras in the world. Few conductors would risk to take an opera house orchestra to its limits of dynamic possibilities, articulation and balance as successfully as we heard it today – the level of power, precision and transparence achieved by Mr. Welser-Möst and his musicians was something one could tell his or her grandchildren. Truly uplifting.

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Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is an opera often described as metaphysical, profound, transcendental and musicians and members of the audience often approach it with extreme reverence, often trying to frame their experience of the opera itself by a priori concepts rather than by the experience itself. Not today – my neighbours this evening behaved as if they were watching an adventure film in the movie theatre. A couple next to me seemed to have found it highly entertaining – they even laughed of the Liebestod. When I was going to get angry, I realized that the fact that they were watching it under a completely different light (even if bothersome and disrespectful one) made me realize that someone else – and a very important one – seemed to be seeing the whole thing with fresh eyes and ears. And this was veteran conductor Peter Schneider.

I had seen Maestro Schneider conduct this work in Bayreuth and praised his flexible beat and the beauty of the orchestral sound. On reading what I wrote then, I cannot help noticing that it has nothing to do with this evening, when the conductor seemed to have taken everything at face value: there was no concerns of producing important sounds, of manipulating tempo to produce gravitas or of adding any kind of profoundness. On the contrary, he kept a very regular beat that could give the impression that he could relax more either in exciting or meditative moments, his orchestra produced distinctively bright sounds in the string section and never overshadowed the other sections, his approach was built towards very clean, singing lines of accompanying figures that shared with the soloists the same degree of importance. Since we are talking about Wagner, the accompanying figures – although played with nearly Donizetti-ian flavor – are almost invariably Leitmotive and their variation. That made this evening revelatory in terms of structural clarity. Also, the house orchestra’s playing had an urgency that sometimes tampered with polish, but kept you in the edge of your seat in a Marth Argerich-ian way, especially in passages where the violins were able to showcase outstanding flexibility. As a result, the performance – in its lack of austerity – often seemed blunt in its obstinate forward-movement, its Verdian glittery passageworks, its almost bombastic succession of chords attacked straight-to-the-matter. As the soloists too seemed determined to avoid venerability and had almost all of them very clear diction, many scenes sounded quite new to me shorn of their dignified grandeur. This evening, Isolde’s indignation in act I had more than a splash of whim and Brangäne’s selflessness something of meddling for her own amusement; Tristan’s obscure musings in act II sound less philosophical than testosterone-ridden. If I give the impression that this made the story more superficial, do not mistake my words: I’ve found it quite refreshing to see these characters more realistic in their motivations in a storyline almost devoid of action.

This is the first time I could see Violeta Urmana in a complete performance as Isolde. I’ve heard a broadcast from Rome long ago and saw her sing act II in a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and have found her one of the most interesting singers in this role these days. She was announced indisposed and took almost the entire first act to warm up and, even after that, had to carefully negotiate some high-and-loud passages, but she hasn’t disappointed me. First, there is some almost Italianate vocal glamour in her performance: the low and medium registers are warm and fruity, she is capable of legato and soft attack in lyric passages and the edge on her acuti (which can be bothersome in recordings) do help her to pierce through when the orchestra is really loud. Second, although she is not a terrific actress, she has studied this role with unusual attentiveness – she clearly knows her words, has an opinion about her character and portrays all that with both the verbal specificity of a Lieder singer and the attitude of someone who has sung roles like Norma or Aida. Third, she is bien deans sa peau in this role, which she portrays with sensuousness and femininity. This is really more than we can say about most Isoldas.

Her Tristan was Robert Dean Smith, whom I had seen in this part in Bayreuth, also with Peter Schneider. There, the acoustics helped him a lot. This evening, the lack of squillo in his high register sometimes made him inaudible amidst an unleashed Vienna State Orchestra. The role is still very distant to his personality, but this production makes his work harder to see to this problem. The results are not entirely convincing, but – in the context of this performance – this vulnerable, young-sounding Tristan makes particular sense. Especially when he sings so musically and with absolute technical security (his breath is impressively long, to start with).

The role of Brangäne is on the heavy side for Elisabeth Kulman, but she is a smart singer with solid technique and by unfailing focus, crystalline diction and dramatic imagination produced a compelling performance. Matthias Goerne too finds the role of Kurwenal heavy for his voice. However, differently from Ms. Kulman, his whole method is incompatible with Wagnerian singing. In the rare lyrical moments in the part, he provides beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, but he is often hectoring and producing white-toned high notes. Last but not least, Albert Dohmen – in spite of a rusty tonal quality – produced a far more varied and touching performance as King Marke than I could have expected, considering the last times I saw him.

There is not much to speak of David McVicar’s highly stylized and very superficial staging. I dislike the choreographed seamen but find the rest quite harmless in their basic colors and unobtrusiveness. However, although the production dates from 2013, it seems that the Personenregie is sometimes already lost. There were moments when these singers had not much idea of why they were doing what they were supposed to do and felt therefore free to do their thing. Fortunately, their “thing” often worked well this evening

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The third and last installment of the Vienna State Opera’s Japanese tour is Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as seen on video with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. Eric Génovèse’s is the most recent and most complex production from Vienna in the series brought to the Japanese audience – and considering the improved quality of the choral singing – probably the “premium” item (it looks also better live than on DVD). The reason is the long and faithful appreciation for Edita Gruberová’s artistry in Japan. Although this has been announced as the Slovakian diva’s farewell operatic performance in Japan, the truth is that her later appearances in Tokyo have all of them been marketed as such. I have to confess that the last time I saw her (as Norma, in Berlin) left me a bitter aftertaste – that evening showed her below her usual standards and I wondered if she should not consider preserving her reputation by leaving the stage while still remembered by her qualities, not her flaws. In that sense, this afternoon proved that either she was in a very bad day that day or that she was in an exceptionally good day today.

Before the nay-sayers say anything, I will acknowledge that Anna Bolena requires a voice different from Gruberová’s – and her approach arguably is not what a bel canto specialist would consider “authentic”. But, even in her present vocal condition (i.e., although the tonal quality is still crystal-clear and young-sounding, legato is now imperfect, some runs are imprecise and intonation has its dodgy moments), she has practically no rivals these days in some very tricky passages, especially those involving trills and high mezza voce. What many critics overlook too is the fact that hers are fully-engaged performances, dramatically committed and intelligent: if her approach to interpretation is often more Straussian than Donizettian, at least she is truly investing the text with a wide tonal palette (and very clear diction), what is a sine qua non condition for true bel canto phrasing. I only wished that she did not try to prove herself with some showy embellishment and laborious in alts (why?) – when the matter is technique and insight, hers is still a convincing performance – at some moments, (such as Cielo, a’miei lunghi spasimi) even haunting.

Sonia Ganassi (Giovanna Seymour) was not at her most focused and took some time to warm. I am not sure if this is a good role for her, but that did not prevent her to offer her customary intensity of expression, attention to the text and sense of style. In any case, her contribution in her big duet with Anna was sensitively handled and she coped with the fast tempo in Ah, pensate che rivolti with aplomb. Although Elisabeth Kulman was in more incisive voice in the video, she still sang with irresistible charm – hers is a truly lovely voice. I would really like to hear her in Der Rosenkavalier (unfortunately not in her repertoire). As Percy, Shalva Mukeria proved to be something like the poorman’s Josep Bros – and that’s being really, really poor. I have to believe that he was indisposed or something like that. As much as with  Sonia Ganassi, I do not believe that Enrico is really Luca Pisaroni’s role and yet he sang very well. The necessary weight and menace were not really there, but what he offered was elegant, technically accomplished and connected to the drama.

Evelino Pidò is an ideal Donizettian conductor – the Vienna State Opera Orchestra offered him its most Italian sound and the extra polish of an orchestra used to Mozart and R. Strauss. He produced the ideal balance between orchestra and singers, never let rhythms sag, found excitement in buoyancy rather than in weight (as this repertoire demands) and made his musicians sing with the singers, not only in solo passages. This alone would have made this performance worth the while.

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The guest performances of European opera companies are an important part of Japanese musical scene – when prestigious opera houses and famous soloists are involved, unbelievably expensive tickets are sold out in a couple of hours and a sense of occasion can be felt in the days of these performances. The Vienna State Opera has visited Japan eight times since 1980 and has a policy of playing safe for their Japanese tours – mainstream repertoire, traditional productions and rather than the crème de la crème in their roster (as in the past), solid ensemble singers with two or three celebrities in the overall package to make it more appealing.

This time, Richard Strauss’s Salome has been chosen to open their Japanese agenda. On reading that we were going to see Boleslaw Barlog’s 1972 production (yes, you’ve read it correctly – 1972), I braced for an unpleasant but necessary exhumation, but – kitsch as it is (think of Aubrey Beardsley in Benetton colors) – the Spielleitung embraced the concept’s out-of-dateness and convinced the cast to find the Sarah Bernhardt hidden in the recesses of their souls. Although I find it sensible to provide a very simple choreography for someone who still has to tackle a very tough piece of singing, the climax (i.e., the seventh veil) was truly poorly timed. Similarly, the closing scene woefully misfired – there was no change in atmosphere (lighting? anyone?) and – as usual – the last two minutes were just embarrassing.

The performance was supposed to be conducted by General Musical Director Franz Welser-Möst, but, for some reason, he could not make it and good old Peter Schneider, who is here for next week’s Nozze di Figaro, took over. As we were explained, he conducted this very work back in Vienna only last year. I have seen very good performances with Maestro Schneider and he is indeed reliable, but has never been electrifying. When the opera began, the prospects did not seem very positive – Narraboth and Herodias’ page conversed in such a leisured pace that you could “hear” the punctuation. Salome’s entrance livened things a bit and little by little the proceedings acquired momentum. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra was (predictably) not always in its better shape, but could be uniquely persuasive in key moments. The way these musicians understand Strauss’s hallmark theatrical  orchestral effects is a reward in itself. By the end, the performance seemed echt and quite convincing. For a difficult opera as this one, this is already something to be cherished. And there was a good cast too.

Although Gun-Brit Barkmin is a member of Berlin’s Komische Oper, this is the first time I have ever seen her. Her bright, slightly acidulous, but very firm soprano is hardly the most mellifluous Straussian instrument in the world, but, for a change, it is the right voice for this part: light, focused and very penetrating. Her phrasing – again most fortunate in the context of this production -is almost endearingly old-fashioned, with a conversational, coquette-ish style in its occasional almost operetta-ish portamento and slightly sharp exposed high notes. There could be a little more legato – especially when Salome describes her infatuation with Jochanaan in the first part of the opera – but one cannot overlook the fact that she did not seem to become tired towards the end of the opera. Some difficult high-lying passages could sound pinched, but that was all. Ms. Barkmin has also an interesting approach for the role – it turns around some sort of childish perversity without any hint of lechery (this should be obvious, but most singers behave here as high-mileage vamps, even though Strauss himself discouraged that). She was well matched by the rich-toned Markus Marquardt, whose heroic high notes rang out freely in the auditorium without any loss in textual clarity. Rudolf Schasching has the necessary verve for Herod, but his singing is undersupported and did not come through as clearly as one would desire. Herbert Lippert (Narraboth) sounded more natural and more positive in comparison. Although Iris Vermillion has the measure of the role of Herodias, it lies a bit high for her and, as a result, she sounded too often unfocused.  On the other hand, the role of the Page is on the low side for the always reliable Ulrike Helzel.

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If this evening’s performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the Vienna State Opera could be counted as a success, this would be almost entirely Leif Segerstam’s doing. I have not heard from this Finnish conductor for a long while and last time I heard about him it was not really quite thrilling.  This evening, the word “thrilling”, however, is quite well-chosen. I have never heard the Vienna State Opera Orchestra produce sounds in this level of opulence, while retaining its hallmark crystalline pianissimi and clarity. Throughout the opera, the orchestra was placed in the center of events, including in dramatic aspects – rather than producing the atmosphere, it carried the story-telling. The Ortrud/Telramund scene in act II was exemplarily conducted in its motivic clarity and music-dramatic development  and the prelude to act III was one of the most exciting tours-de-force I have ever heard in an opera house.  Although the approach was rather aggressive, the virtuoso quality of the orchestral playing raised it to true distinction. The house chorus sang heartily and at moments one could believe that they would even overshadow an orchestral whose level of loudness was particularly high. It is only a pity that the right soloists have not been found to fit the concept. I am not saying that the casting was uninspired, but the fierce sounds coming from the pit demanded ample-voiced soloists with large personalities to galvanize the proceedings.

For example, Soile Isokoski’s Elsa was particularly touching. Her young-sounding delicate, almost virginal soprano floats rather than flashes. Based on a solid technique, this singer has the rare ability to focus instead of forcing her voice, which sounds invariably pleasant to the ears. Her phrasing is musicianly and sensitive and her sense of pitch is flawless. Her whole method fits the directorial choice of showing Elsa as a blind, meek woman whose fragility is quite touching. The ascent from object of compassion to object of grace is too much for a neglected woman who is no longer able to believe in miracles.  But Segerstam is telling another story – and the delicate colours of Isokoski’s Elsa are often dazzled by the formidable scale of his approach. Waltraud Meier does have the charisma to match the presiding intensity, but the fact is that she was clearly not in good voice. Although she cunningly disguised that in a demi-tintes interpretation, this was simply impossible in the context of this performance. As a result, she was often too small-scale, barely hearable or, when she really had to sing out, such as in Entweihte Götter, that was made with alarming strain. Ain Anger’s King Henry also suffered from too velvety a tonal quality to pierce through the orchestra, his noble-sounding bass failing to produce the necessary impact under these circumstances.

When it comes to Peter Seiffert, one has to acknowledge that heavy repertoire has not spoiled this German’s tenor ability to sing the role that made him famous more or less fifteen years ago. The tone is still appealing, his phrasing is mellifluous when necessary and, if he has to work harder to achieve lightness these days, heroic top notes come more easily to him than 11 years ago as I saw him in this role in Genoa with Antonio Pappano.  All in all, it was a commendable performance, and the fact that he got a bit tired by the very end of the performance is a minor incident in an otherwise satisfying piece of singing.  Wolfgang Koch’s Telramund also seems to have improved since last year in Munich – his high register proved to be better supported this evening, making for a warmer, rounder but also powerful sound in this role’s testing tessitura. The conductor did not make things easy for him, but he faced the challenge and offered an intense, almost wild performance, forcefully sung.

Except from the interesting idea of portraying Elsa as a blind woman, Barrie Kosky’s production is rather blank in its pointless symbolism, ugly sceneries and really poor solutions for key moments, such as the scenes involving the swann and Lohengrin and Telramund’s duel in act I.

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Die Zeit, sie ist ein sonderbag Ding…  Hugo von Hofmannsthal was not wrong about that, but since his days Vienna has lost a bit the touch in what regards timing, particularly when the matter is Falk Richter’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin’s for the Wiener Staatsoper. In his interview, Richter says his production is zeitlos, but I have the impression he should have checked the word in the dictionary before this statement. “Atemporal” means something that is connected to no particular time, while this staging makes references to different moments in time – from the 60’s to the present days – without any coherence or any discernable reason for that.  Tatjana, Larina, Filipyevna and Lensky (in spite of a very modern-style outfit) seem characters from Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the grass, while Onegin, Olga and the guests in Tatjana’s birthday could have appeared in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises - the peasants in act I remain quite Sovietic themselves though – and Monsieur Triquet’s old-style couplets make no sense in the videoclip approach.  To make things worse, characters behaved in a nonsensical way – Tatjana too grown-up for her “last-virgin-in-town”-attitude, not to mention that the vamp-looking Olga seemed quite mentally-challenged hopping around Lensky in girly (?) enthusiasm.

Kirill Petrenko’s conducting suggested agitation rather than intensity – the house orchestra’s beautifully transparent sonorities particularly different from the dense strings usually associated to Russian music. While the multicoloured impression is quite welcome, I am not sure if I prefer the zipping pace to the full bloom of a rich orchestral sound. In any case, the febrility worked really well for the closing scene, when both soloists responded accordingly in engagement and slancio. Although Olga Guryakova’s soprano has more than a splash of edginess and tends to the emphatic and unflowing when things get high and fast, it has an aptly youthful sound and, when you least expect, flashes up in some forceful acuti. Vocal aspects aside, Guryakova’s Tatjana is the work of a true artist. Every inflection, every gesture, every look has meaning and speaks directly to the heart.  In that sense, it is the opposite of the leading baritone’s performance, since Dmitri Hvorostovsky seemed to be posing for publicitary photos during the whole evening.  There were moments when I feared he would wink and wave to the audience. Fortunately, the voice was in very good shape and creates in its rich, velvety tonal quality the right impression of attractiveness and impetuosity. Pavol Breslik was a sensitive if small-scaled Lensky and Nadia Krasteva was a reliable if unexceptional Olga, but the audience’s favourite clearly was Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose dark, spacious and expressive bass filled the hall in a noble account of his aria. Both Zoryana Kushpler and Margaret Hintermeier deserve mention for their convincing accounts of the small roles of Larina and Filipyevna.

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