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Posts Tagged ‘Wolfgang Koch’

The problem of staging decadence is that the audience has to understand that there have been upper standards at some point. When you are shown something that looks like the dictionary example of “tawdry”, one might wonder why Arabella finds it important to explain Mandryka that the Waldners lead a dubious existence there. In Philippe Arlaud’s obscenely ugly, blunt and superficial staging, even Mandryka’s untrained eyes would not need more than a glimpse of the whole thing to feel that he might be somewhere unashamedly second-rate. In it,  you could take Baron Waldner for a waiter, the Baroness for the owner of a brothel and Arabella for the cashier with the messy coiffure. If someone like Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa had the bad luck to show up in a place like that, a sensible bouncer would escort her out and find her a cab.

Although there is not vulgarity in Anna Gabler’s Arabella, she ultimately fits her surroundings by the absence of any charisma and glamor, both in stage presence and singing. Her mezzo-ish soprano lacks radiance, does not project very well, has a hint of throatiness and sounds bottled up in its high notes. Her legato too can be problematic and the end of phrases are often undersupported and there is a problem of intonation (in the act II duet with Mandryka things went particularly astray). In those circumstances, interpretation here has fallen behind the intent to survive the high tessitura and the heavy orchestration. Anja Nina Barhmann’s Zdenka wouldn’t normally offer strong competition (as every good Zdenka should), but the natural brightness of her voice and her comparatively clear diction put the audience on her side, even if the ability of floating mezza voce eludes her entirely. As a matter of fact, the most testing passages brought upon a piercing and grainy sound that made her Zdenka more hysterical than exalted. Replacing Steve Davislim, Martin Nyvall was truly unfazed by the high notes in the part of Matteo. His medium and low registers, however, lack focus. The tonal quality, truth be said, is far from unpleasant. Even if Wolfgang Koch’s Mandryka is really devoid of charm, his glitch-free, firm-toned singing placed him far above of every other element in this performance. I would even say that his first act was top-notch in richness, volume and sense of line. As almost every other singer in this role, he would get a bit tired in act II, but even then he invariably produced exemplary heroic top notes – yet he seemed increasingly unengaged. If I had to appear in front of an audience with such ridiculous and unbecoming clothes, maybe I would feel that way too. Hidekazu Tsumaya worked a bit too hard for his Viennese accent as Waldner, but acted and sang famously, embracing the misguided directorial choices with gusto.

Although this evening’s drawbacks were various, Bertrand de Billy’s spineless conducting of a Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra matte in sound, unclear in articulation and often clumsy was the ultimate deathblow in Richard Strauss’s beautiful score. And saggy tempi only gave the audience plenty of time to realize the extent to which the composer has been ill-treated in his 150th jubilee.

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Is there any other opera that inspires so much tolerance in the audience as Die Frau ohne Schatten? Everything is so impossibly difficult that one feels even grateful that singers, conductor, director, members of the orchestra et al have agreed to do this possibly for the same fee they would receive for, say, Carmen…  In any case, the Bavarian State Opera can certainly boast to have a new production against which there could be little competition this day. Of course, there are shortcomings – even Karajan’s 1964 recording from the Vienna State Opera has shortcomings (nota bene – he had Fritz Wunderlich for the Erscheinung eines Jünglings and Lucia Popp for the Stimme des Falken) – but the level of success of individual contribution is so high that you feel inclined to overlook that the sum of the parts is noticeably less impressive.

I have seen Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne, Arabella and the Marschallin and found her Straussian performances so far only intermittently satisfying. Her Kaiserin this evening was in an entirely other level: golden tone, noble phrasing, unfailing musicianship and the necessary mysterious glamor, you would find all these qualities in her singing this evening. Elena Pankratova is one of the most interesting Färberinen that I have ever heard (I’m including recordings here). Her voice has a cold, slightly metallic quality one would rather expect to find in the role of the Kaiserin. At first, one feels that her voice is two sizes smaller than the required dramatic soprano, but she is the kind of singer who doesn’t show all her trump cards right away; when you’d least expect, there would come solid low notes, powerful acuti, mezza voce and even commendable legato for lyric passages. She has no problem with high notes, but the composer’s unrealistic demands in act III understandably brought about some screechy moments. In any case, the way she could musically show the character’s development during the opera is the reason why she goes to my shortlist, presided by Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her career, it is very bold of Deborah Polaski to sing a role as demanding as the Amme, especially in its complete version. Although her soprano has always had a dark color and she always had to push a bit for her high b’s and c’s, that does not mean that she was a pushed-up mezzo – and one could hear that this evening. The lack of weight in the bottom of her range was compensated by a noticeable ease around the area where mezzos have their passaggio, what allowed her to be particularly smooth and clean. I don’t believe she was in a very good day though: the voice lacked focus and she had to go full powers to pierce through, what eventually tired her. And her last scene is probably the most demanding of all.

Johan Botha showed no difficulties in the role of the Emperor, producing consistently beefy, clarion sounds, but little variety. As it usually happens, nobody seemed to know what to do with this role. And I can only imagine that a singer needs some coaxing to care for giving that little extra that makes all the difference of the world in a role as ingrate as this one. When I first saw Wolfgang Koch’s Barak in Salzburg, I thought that he could be subtler. But then Barak was not subtle in that production. Now I see that, in normal circumstances, his performance in this role can be as benign as the composer and librettist conceived it. Considering his recent Wotans in Bayreuth, I expected his voice to sound a little bit more voluminous than this evening.  Last but not least, Sebastin Holecek was a very powerful Spirit Messenger.

Richard Strauss would be proud of his hometown opera’s orchestra. The Bayerische Staatsorchester offered this evening the dictionary definition of Straussian orchestral playing, offering crystalline, almost fairytale like sonorities and expressive solos throughout. Conductor Kirill Petrenko has followed Strauss’s conduct-it-as-if-it-were-Cosi-fan-tutte advice as a religious credo. He rarely unleashed a true orchestral forte, worked rather from tonal coloring and and brightness, never drowned his singers and offered the kind of clarity that would make following it with the score in hands really unnecessary. It was a performance of unusual musical elegance and intelligence. If I had not seen Thielemann conduct this opera in Salzburg as transparently as today and far more excitingly with a force-of-nature Vienna Philarmonic, I would have considered this evening the best FroSch live in the theatre in my experience. It is very important to stress that the disfiguring cuts that reduce the role of the Amme and make the long scene with the Empress in act III a bit abrupt have been opened out here. This involved a sizeable monologue very commendably dispatched by the non-native-speaker soprano. It was a long evening in a busy trip and I may have missed something, but I have the impression that a couple of tiny cosmetic cuts have made to accommodate the staging.

Well, if this evening had an advantage over the Salzburg Festspiel , this has to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. This came as a surprise for me. I have bad memories of his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, but here he offered more than compensation. This was probably the best staging of this acknowledgedly unstageable opera I have ever seen. Warlikowski proved depth of understanding of the libretto and, if the Freudian approach has been already tried by Robert Carsen in the Vienna State Opera, the consistent way with which the director used all scenic resources to portray the complex situations in the plot – especially the awkward changes in act II – was all but masterly. I am sorry to disappoint those who were expecting a concept too distant from the original story, for this was truly understandable (I mean, until act III, where at least he keeps interest going when every other director more or less gives up). Inspired by Alain Resnais’s L’Année Passée à Marienbad, the story is set in a cure resort where a rich woman (the Empress) traumatized by some sort of dramatic incident with her husband and in strong oblivion and denial of her life is put under the responsibility of a psychiatrist (the Amme) who has developed an unhealthy attachment to her patient. As some sort of therapeutic experiment, she is put in contact with the janitor’s wife – possibly an Internet bride from the East who has found her “looser” husband and new low-life life far below her expectations – whose marriage is getting dangerously close to a violent episode as the one we assume to have happened with the Empress. Once you understand that, Warlikowski does not try to bend the symbology – when the characters talk about a shadow, it’s really a shadow they are talking about. This eventually makes act III difficult – there is an elderly gentleman who is supposed to be Keikobad whose connections with the cure resort is hard to understand. The water of life is indeed a glass of water, but it is hard to make something out of that – especially because the whole “having babies”-moral is more or less it. I have noticed that lots of people have a problem with the “having babies”-issue. If you are interested in my opinion, I don’t believe that this is what Hofmannsthal was trying to say here – although “having babies” is the most elementary way of exerting the selflessness HvH was talking about.

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Staging a Ring cycle is probably a director’s most challenging enterprise: the plot is contrived; there obviously is a “message” to deliver, a message not restricted to a specific moment in time, but originally intended to a specific audience (i.e., the Germans); and an added insight, an opinion, a point-of-view is expected. But the philosophic side does not replace the scenic side of the task: you may read all the books or – easier – surround yourself with those very clever people who write the cryptic texts in the program, but if these ideas don’t make into the stage action – and they rarely do, for stage gestures have to be immediate to be effective* – then all that has been in vain.

I am sure that Andreas Kriegenburg has a plethora of ideas about the Ring – and he definitely has lots of ideas (and experience) about theatre in general, but I have the impression that “in general” is the keyword here. For instance, this is a production centered on people: the stagehands are visible, the stage effects consist of choreographies, in the end (I mean in the Götterdämmerung) the world as we know ends because it is not anymore about people and the “redemption through love” music is represented by the seid-umschlungen-Millionen white-clad group from the Rheingold in a collective hug on poor Gutrune. But the problem is that all this seems to follow its own plot while the singers playing Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich et al seem to be a burden the director had to bear in order to tell his story rather then being the story.

This has been more evident in Götterdämmerung than in the other operas: here the action seems to be set in Frankfurt – after all, the Rhine is nearby and the big euro-symbols (very much in evidence – Gutrune is usually seen riding one) in  a bank headquarters’ lobby (the Gibichungenhall) seem to corroborate the hypothesis – not very far-fetched if you bear in mind that the Bundeskanzlerin couldn’t find time to go to the UN environment conference in Rio because the Euro was considered a priority over mother nature. Back to Wagner: as usual, the Gibichungen are shown as new money with ostentatious habits. Their corporative lobby is made of steel and glass, nature is reduced to a Damien-Hirst-style horse sculpture and a Patrick-Blanc-style vertical garden, there are many cleaning ladies in uniform sadistically molested by Gunther (Strauss-Kahn references?), while Gutrune plays the vamp to the executives who respond to Hagen’s calls to arms with mobile phones. However, nobody finds it strange when Hagen has a spear at arm’s length when one is “needed” or when Brünnhilde decides to burn Siegfried’s dead body just outside. What I mean is, the action is updated when the director has an idea about it. When he does not, things are carried out as in the libretto, regardless of how nonsensical it looks on stage.

There are staging problems too. The sets for the bank lobby are too complex to be dismantled and put together; therefore, a structure very similar to a barn was concocted downstage for all the other scenes. Forget about Brünnhilde’s rock – she has to make do with a bench in there. The norns too were transferred to the barn – plus a whole bunch of refugees from Fukushima (these sisters learn their never-ending wisdom from CNN here). The scenes that are too complex for the barn are basically set in the lobby – the Rhinemaidens make a short walk from the Rhine and “swim” on a gigantic Euro symbol.  The end of the world too has not much room to happen: it is shown very far away upstage behind the lobby’s walls in a very believable pyre that does not affect much of the structure however. Hagen basically watches to the whole thing from one corner until he decides, for no specific reason, to shout, “hands off the ring!”, even if the ring had not been there for a while.

In musical terms, the performance is an improvement from the previous installments. First of all, the orchestra had a more immediately Wagnerian sound, in the sense that it was big, rich and very much in the center of events. Second, many of the atmospheric orchestral effects that misfired in the previous evenings here seemed more successfully achieved. Third, the pace tended to be more agile. Actually, when the score has a propulsive rhythmic figure to support it, Kent Nagano would respond to it more or less effectively, but as soon as the structure becomes more fluid, depending on the maestro’s beat to move forward, things tended to sag. But this is a fault one can find in many a conductor who ventures into Wagnerian territory. Although the orchestral sound was usually very beautiful, there were mismatches and the occasional blunder in the brass section too.

When Nina Stemme began to sing, she seemed to be in the Helen Traubel-ian shape she showed in Barenboim’s Valkyrie at La Scala: her middle register was at its most focused and even the low notes were rich and integrated, not to mention that she were handling her lines with almost Straussian fluidity. But – and that was a problem for Traubel too – as soon as things started to get perilously high, this warm-toned Swedish soprano had to push, a bad sign. In her second appearance, she seemed to have recovered and sang with amazing abandon. Act II is a tough piece of singing – and exposed high notes come in plenty. Pushing is something that works once, twice, but not three times in this kind of writing without evident loss of quality. At this point, many low passages were just hinted at, some consonants had been left to imagination, breath pauses started to grow in number and a couple of high notes were shortened. Although she was evidently unhappy about that (she appeared at curtain calls puffing in relief), she was able to keep up with the dramatic demands of the scene. Fortunately, Wagner gives the soprano some time to rest before the Immolation Scene, which she negotiated expertly until things became high and fast again. Then she proved to have nerves of steel and managed out of technique and willpower, for she was reaching the very end of her resources. This is the first time I see her in this opera and don’t know if she was below her usual form – it seemed her voice was dying to sing Sieglinde, so velvety and voluminous were his middle and low registers – but if the role’s high tessitura is usually that demanding for her, I ask myself if it is wise to sacrifice herself in the name of Wagner as she did today. Of course, I have seen sopranos who in their best voice weren’t able to offer something as appealing as Stemme did today, but a hard-day work it was and one could hear that. My respect for her commitment and professionalism – but I wonder if she had found any fun in it.

The role of Siegfried is basically too high for Stephen Gould. This tenor is a shrewd singer with a very solid technique and an untiring voice and thus he sang his part without any serious accidents. This is a basically unsingable role and the fact that a singer has sung it more or less like Wagner wrote it without giving the impression of being about to collapse is already something to be praised, but one who had heard Gould as Siegmund or Tristan wouldn’t recognize in the rather taut vocalism and pinched high notes his customary warm tonal color and poise in strenuous passages. As he was more occupied with getting the job done, his interpretation was restricted this evening mostly to stage action – he has a congenial stage presence and could follow the director’s comedy touches without making them extraneous.

Attila Jun was a very dark-toned Hagen who relished the bad-guy routine with some very earthy singing, but who could be tremulous in some moments. Although Wolfgang Koch could do with less off-pitch effects, his Alberich is sung with such conviction and richness of voice that he can’t help sounding convincing. Iain Paterson was a cleanly sung Gunther – the voice has a restricted tonal palette in this repertoire, but he uses the text expertly and is a very good actor, with a Michael Caine-ian attitude that made the role more interesting than usual. Anna Gabler has developed since I last saw in this role – the voice sounds bigger without any loss of roundness. The direction made the role rather incongruent, but she embraced the directorial choices, relishing the vamp-ish moments. Michaela Schuster was an expressionistic Waltraute, very wide-ranging in interpretation, her mezzo easily projecting in the hall. The Rhinemaidens were exemplarily sung (again Okka von der Damerau is a name to keep in mind), the norns not particularly so (Jamie Barton excepted – a truly beautiful, interesting voice). Since the promising Irmgard Vilsmaier (3rd norn) is being upgraded to the role of Brünnhilde in some quarters and had a bad time with her high notes this evening, I wonder if she shouldn’t make a complete check-up in her technique while it is still time. As Julia Varady once said, a soprano should always sing something like Donna Elvira’s Mi tradì now and then and she’ll see if something is not working properly. Finally, the Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera offered aptly sung with raw energy and commitment.

* I don’t mean that the concept has to be simple – it might be complex as you wish, but what you see on a stage is only what you see on a stage. There are not footnotes on the supertitles.

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I have a friend who says you cannot ruin a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the cast may be awful, the director may be an imbecile, but the Bard’s text will shine through nonetheless. Is it Wagner’s Siegfried something similar? I don’t know, but I have realized that, in many performances of the tetralogy in my recollection, it was Siegfried the most effective in the lot (before my 13 or 14 readers ask me which one tends to be the worse, this is Die Walküre). Is it the propulsive rhythms, the inescapable necessity of crisply declaimed texts teaching where the right tempo is, the vertiginous action? This evening, for example, the energetic nature of the music has certainly led Kent Nagano into the right direction. Of course, the score did not give him the pulse and the precision he ideally should have, but the tension between a score that almost ran ahead by itself and a conductor who wanted to round off its sharp angles brought about the dynamic lacking in the previous evenings. Act I was particularly interesting – its raw energy transformed into “classical” buoyance with an important help of the Bavarian State Orchestra deluxe strings. Act II proved that the physicality of Mime and Siegfried’s interaction was probably the antidote to the other evenings’ flabbiness – once Mime was killed, the rhythmic backbone seemed to disappear and some awkwardness and disjointedness seemed to prevail again. The real clarity that was never really there became more evident. This afflicted act III especially:  the opening scene sounded arthritic and purposeless, the Siegfried/Wanderer passage lacked tension and, when I feared for the worst, Brünnhilde’s awakening reserved the audience some surprises. The lyrical episodes sounded truly lyric, Nagano’s lack of propulsion almost passed for a Furtwänglerian suspension of time (again – exquisite sounds from the orchestra, even if French horns had their bumpy moments), but then Siegfried wanted some action and things turned out rather messy than exciting.

Once one adjusts to Catherine Naglestad’s somewhat shrewish middle register and recessed low notes, there was plenty to delight in her unforced high notes. Her smooth attack, development and finish in exposed acuti were often revelatory, particularly in Ewig war ich, lovingly sung. When things would develop into something more properly heroic, one could see that this is not really her repertoire, but I cherish the way she caressed – as I have almost never heard it – these difficult Wagnerian phrases. Although Jill Grove is a bit on the light side for Erda, it is always a treat to find a true contralto in the role, especially a fruity, firm-toned one. Anna Virovlansky was also an ideal woodbird – her diction clear, the tone fresh and lovely and the high notes rich and easy.

Lance Ryan’s forte has never been legato, tone colouring and the kind of subtlety that lies behind the word “cantabile” –unfailing stamina, clear diction a naturally animated stage attitude are in the core of her performance as Siegfried. One is truly amazed of how in control of his resources he is, particularly in the most demanding passages (the forging song being the showcase of his abilities). Nevertheless, my memory may betray me, but I have the impression he was truer to pitch in Bayreuth two years ago. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime shows no surprises – he builds his performance around the distorting vocal effects character-tenors seem to find inevitable in this role. Wolfgang Koch was in strong voice and offered the most dramatically gripping performance this evening. He is definitely one of the best Alberichs of our days. I have seen Alan Held a couple of times and my first impression this evening was that he has reached the peak of his abilities. His Wanderer fulfilled all the basic vocal requirements of the role – his bass-baritone was firm, rich and homogeneous – and he sang with authority and animation, but he would soon start to tire, his high notes gradually became colorless and by the end he was basically grey-toned. Rafal Siwek was a very dark-toned Fafner.

Andreas Kriegenburg’s production started off full of ideas – this was very much a Siegfried from the point-of-view of a child. Act I sets seemed to have sprung from a schoolchild’s drawing, with the kurogo stagehands (actually, the should be called shirogo, for they were all dressed in white…) carrying cotton clouds on stick, hidden under a green carpet through which their hands carried daisies etc. There were many clever ideas going on – and the 40 extras on stage were a helpful device to operate vertiginously fast set changes, but they were often really distracting with their little slapstick parallel actions, particularly during the forging scene. Act II turned around a striking-looking dragon consisting of the actors under a red lighting plus eyes and fangs. Unfortunately, the device was not truly agile, making for a particularly frustrating scene with Siegfried. The final act seemed to be the victim of short budget – using the extras as sets and props were rarely an illuminating resource (with the possible exception of the Erda/Wanderer scene), but seemed rather a necessity to wave plastic and fabric into “oceans of fire”, both literally and metaphorically (the closing scene, when the comic touches elicited too many laughs while Brünnhilde and Siegfried are sealing the fate of the universe, among other things).

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As one enters the auditorium of the Bavarian State Opera in order to find his or her seat for Wagner’s Rheingold, some hundred people dressed in white are hanging around on stage.  One can see three women in green among them and you can guess that they are the Rhinemaidens. There is not a set properly speaking – the stage floor, the walls and the ceiling are covered in wood parquet-style. Suddenly, lights dim, the sound of flowing water is heard from the speakers, the extras undress to their underwear, paint their bodies blue and… “oh, no!”, think the traumatized Wagnerian who has seen Rheingold at La Scala, “they are going to dance!!!”. Yes, they are. The dancers are actually the waters of Rhine river. But choreographer Zenta Haerter really does something out of it: the movements of the dancers do form a coherent mass that create the atmosphere rather than divert from it – sensuousness, playfulness, suspense and terror are convincingly portrayed in a way that, truth be said, could not exactly be described as “dance” and, maybe because of that, work far better than the Broadway-like steps devised by Sidi Libi Cherkaoui for Guy Cassiers.

In Andreas Kriegenburg’s Rheingold, the audience is not supposed to be tricked by effects: a guy with a fog machine appears on stage whenever smoke has to be produced; the giants are first seen as regular-size men only later to be made larger by props and (probably the less creative idea in the whole staging) Wotan and Loge’s journey into the Nibelheim is nothing but Wagner’s instructions projected on stage, while the two singers pretend to be walking. Nibelheim itself is very atmospheric – the Bauhaus version of one of those gold mines in an Indiana Jones movie in which slaves are flogged and burned alive when they collapse in exhaustion. The dragon/frog transformations are almost a practical joke on the audience – but, yes, it is a clever idea. As you have probably guessed, I found it far more interesting than what I expected, even if it must be acknowledged that much of what Kriegenburg and his team have devised work far better in the smaller hall of the Deutsches Theater and in the more “realistic” tempo of straight theater. As shown here, some major scenes seemed somehow empty – Alberich’s curse, the gods’ ascent into the Walhalla seriously lacked impact, for instance. In any case, not only was the cast well directed, but even smaller roles had some sort of three-dimensionality – Erda is ambivalent in her reaction to Fasolt’s death, Froh and Donner have a very conflicting relationship with Wotan, who himself is far more vulnerable than usual.

To say the truth, maybe Kriegenburg’s “clean” approach would have worked if the musical performance could offer him something to work with. Although the Bavarian State Opera has a very fine orchestra – a particularly beautiful, smooth string section – musical director Kent Nagano could not let them do what they are able to do (as one can hear in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Ring, hardly a reference, but a paragon of efficiency in comparison). If I had to make it short, I would call this the most boring piece of Wagnerian conducting I have ever sampled in my life. The performance lacked a backbone in every aspect – it was rhythmically indistinct; tempi were sluggish, the orchestra lacked tone, and when it had to make some sound, it turned out noisy and poorly balanced; one would have to wait in vain for clear, precise, forceful attacks. Basically it could be used as an example of how NOT to conduct Wagner. The Rhinegold was premiered in Munich – and it deserved better in this of all stages.

Sophie Koch was announced indisposed and took a while to warm up, but would develop into a light but warm-toned Fricka. The other female singers proved a bit lackadaisical, but for three interesting Rhinemaidens, particularly Okka von der Damerau, a voice of Wagnerian proportions. Stefan Margita sounds as the Spieltenor-version of Klaus Florian Vogt in the role of Loge. The German audience likes these natural tenor voices and he got the largest share of applause this evening. Indeed, he sang spontaneously without ever forcing and with a very clear line. If Johan Reuter has the nobility of tone and the technical skills for Wotan, it is still a voice two couple of sides too small for the role. And this is the Rhinegold Wotan. Because of the very limited leeway, his singing was not really varied or illuminated by powerful declamation either. At first, Wolfgang Koch sounded like the kind of Alberich who gets away with an important amount of acting with the voice. Eventually I have noticed that, in fact, Koch denied his Alberich nothing: the tonal palette was wide and the physical engagement was intense. He lacked some steam now and then – and maybe a more “Wagnerian” conductor could have put him in difficulty, but he was the singer who – in purely vocal terms – brought the drama that was otherwise so scarce this evening. Finally, both Thorsten Grümbel and Phillip Ens were too soft-grained for the giants.

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R. Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten’s first studio recording has a legendary status – Karl Böhm tried to convince Decca’s Moritz Rosengarten to take profit of his excellent Vienna State Opera cast and record the opera for the first time. Rosengarten agreed to the proposal but offered him such a limited budget that the cast was obliged to sing for free in an unheated studio. The result, in experimental stereo sound, is the performance by which every other is judged. Including the one presented by the Salzburg Festival this evening. Why am I telling all this? Well, because director Christof Loy supposes that everyone in the audience knows that, even if it actually has intrinsically  nothing to do with the opera composed by Richard Strauss and written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

The plot of Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most complex in the whole repertoire, based on a wide-ranging and hermetic symbolism that addressed nonetheless some of the most important issues both in psychological and sociological levels at the time of its creation. If there is an opera that still needs a director to guide the audience through it, this is Frau ohne Schatten. It is a formidable task – those who are brave enough, such as David Pountney, have made a stab at it, most hide behind vague stylization, but Loy is the first director I have heard of who has given up before he tried. When Mary Zimmerman staged Bellini’s La Sonnambula as a rehearsal and portrayed all characters as singers et al, she met with harsh criticism, but I have to say that a) although Zimmerman did not really get the plot of La Sonnambula, it is a story a five-year-old kid would understand; and b) although Zimmerman’s concept was poorly developed, her stage direction itself was quite efficiently done, in the sense that there were well-defined characters, an imaginative use of the scenic space and actors acted well. I cannot say the same of this evening’s performance – the beautifully built scenery shows the Sofiensaal (where Solti’s Ring and not Böhm’s Frau ohne Schatten was recorded) prepared for recording sessions. Even if Loy explains very clearly his concept in the booklet – the Empress is a young singer who has to deal with her inner conflicts and mature as an artist through the experience of seeing a bitter aging diva (the Amme) trying to ruin the marriage of a younger colleague (Barak’s Wife) with prospects of success – what one basically sees is: singers with a score on a music stand while an engineer records it. The funny thing is that it is far less interesting than The Golden Ring documentary, where Birgit Nilsson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Georg Solti are far more fascinating characters under God’s direction. Unlike some other members of the audience, I did not feel that I had to close my eyes to concentrate on the music, but – considering that the future of the euro is a bit uncertain right now – I feel sorry that so much money has been spent for exchange of insights below soap-opera level.

Under these circumstances, the audience certainly turned its attention to the musical side of the performance, and Christian Thielemann more than met the challenge. His performances of FroSch in the Deutsche Oper have left a very positive memory in Berlin and, if there is a composer in whose work the German conductor’s skills are not doubted, this is Richard Strauss. And this opera’s original orchestra is the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (both in the first performance and in the Böhm recording*). Therefore, hearing him conduct it with the Vienna Philharmonic has a special meaning. As he explained in the booklet, Richard Strauss’s music is so multilayered and dramatic that it requires from conductors the discipline to restrain themselves and let the music speak by itself. On listening to this evening’s performance, one could see that Thielemann really meant it. His approach is extremely respectful to the score, performed without cuts. It is at once full-toned (without being simply loud) and structurally transparent. He never forces the flow of this music and masterly knows how to build a climax. This evening, I have discovered many niceties in this work that I had previously never noticed. And it is doubly praiseworthy that one never felt a pedantic effort to highlight details, this happened quite naturally. To make things better, the orchestra was at its resplendent best, expressive solo passages, amazingly warm and rich sound picture and real commitment from the musicians. If Thielemann lacks Böhm extraordinary sense of “special effect”, it is probably because Böhm never felt he had to “respect” a score that he felt as his very own.

Considering the sense of care that the conductor obviously have with every little aspect of the score, it is most curious that he did not always care to follow the composer’s description of what kind of voice goes for each role.  For example, the Kaiserin is supposed to be a hoch dramatisch soprano and the Amme, a dramatic mezzo soprano. Anne Schwanewilms is probably the less dramatic soprano who ever sang the role of the Empress. Although her voice has a cutting edge, it just does not work here: her high register is pinched, fluttery and often thin; her low register is mostly left to imagination and she has the habit of pecking at notes or finishing them by a downwards portamento that I find quite unsettling. I understand that one wishes to hear a crystalline sound in this role – and Schwanewilms has it and is obviously a sensitive singer and also a good actress – but, overparted as she is here, every advantage can only be counted as such if you take too many things in consideration. I frankly thought Manuela Uhl in Berlin far more consistent (although she isn’t either a hoch dramatisch sopran, at least she is a jugendlich dramatisch soprano with properly supported flashing top notes). Other than this, I am not being ironic when I say that, this evening, she offered one of the most exciting accounts of the melodrama I have ever heard. As for Michaela Schuster, even if one can see she has all the right ideas about the role of the Amme, her voice is too light for it. If Strauss gave the Kaiserin a lighter orchestral texture to pierce through, such is not the case of the mezzo soprano part. It does require a hefty, bright, exciting voice. This evening, I too often had to add in my mind Grace Hofmann from Karajan’s recording to fill in the blanks of an overshadowed if charismatic singer. I must say, though, that friends who saw her in previous performances told me that today was below her standard in this run.

I have to confess I found Stephen Gould’s name in the cast list with some surprise. Although he is a singer who definitely finds no problems in being heard over a large orchestra, the role of the Kaiser requires a brighter and higher voice than his. It is also true that many a Siegmund-esque Heldentenor has tried it, usually with little success. Gould did sing better than most – he can keep a line in some unsingable parts (and he even sang “es ist anstatt ihrer” instead of the usual replacement “es ist für die Herrin”) – but he often had to operate carefully and couldn’t avoid the strain in the end of his second “aria”. Wolfgang Koch was a reliable Barak who lacked a tiny little bit velvetier and a nobler tone, as Johan Reuter’s in Berlin and Michael Volle’s in Zürich (to keep within recent performances). With the exception of a Thomas Johanns Mayer’s Messenger Spirit (clearly in a bad-voice day), minor roles were uniformly strongly cast: Rachel Frenkel was a very accurate Voice of the Falcon, Peter Sonn sang the “young man”‘s long lines without effort and Markus Brück, Steven Humes and Andreas Conrad were the best trio of Barak’s brothers I have ever heard. I leave the best for last – an incandescent Evelyn Herlitzius in the best performance of her life. Since the bad press she got in Bayreuth for Ortrud, I notice she has done a very serious effort of re-thinking her singing and the result is a far more relaxed tonal quality, a cleaner attack in softer dynamics and a warmer sound. Here all of them used to great effect – without any loss in her Nilson-esque missile-like acuti that could fill a hall twice larger than the Grossesfestspielhaus. She also acted with great sincerity and commitment.

*The Vienna Philharmonic, which comprised of members of the Opera orchestra, appears in some of Karl Böhm’s live recording’s (including the one released by DGG with Birgit Nilsson), Herbert von Karajan’s live recordings and both Georg Solti’s live and studio recording).

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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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