Reviews of Italian opera tends to speak about the singers first – and that makes sense. I at least won’t see an opera like Puccini’s Tosca if I am not interested in the cast, whereas I would go for Frau ohne Schatten or Lohengrin even if the cast were lacklustre. The revival of Robert Carsen’s 2009 production, for instance, would hardly be a reason for me to buy a ticket. First, it was released with the original cast (Magee, Kaufmann, Hampson) on DVD. Generically beautiful as it is, it is hardly illuminating. Twelve years later, it feels even more generic, and one had the impression that the current cast was rather imposing their own game in the outline of what Carsen actually devised as stage direction. For instance, Tosca is a woman who has to be on top of situations – and that is why she is a diva. Everything is supposed to happen the way she wants – and, when things run out of control, she throws a tantrum. Here, Carsen seems to want to show that this is a defense mechanism rather than an attack mechanism – and when things really go south, it doesn’t even work. In that sense, Tosca is doomed from the start. She only has the upper hand when she is acting – and that is why she acts a lot during the plot. She even tries acting for Scarpia, who couldn’t care less. From that point of view, Vissi d’arte, usually regarded as an interruption to the plot, is actually central to the stage action. This is what Tosca is about – it is almost a multiple personality disorder. When things are too real-word for poor Floria, then La Tosca comes on stage. The problem is that, in the current incarnation of this old production, this is performed in a rather self-explanatory way, almost like in a play for small children. The evening prima donna would raise her arm and open wide her eyes – and we were supposed to think “ah, this is one of those moments”.

The conductor in charge this evening is also the one in the original run back in 2009, Paolo Carignani. He deserves praises for demanding from the house band a truly late Romantic sound – this was probably the thickest and loudest I have ever heard this orchestra. I cannot really say it was a Dresden or Berlin “thick and loud” – it felt a bit edgy and almost on the verge of derailing, but it was exciting in an almost over the top way. On the other hand, there was a clear disagreement between singers and the conductor. The tenor was desperate with the sluggish tempo for Recondita armonia, the soprano rushed forward without looking back throughout the whole first act. And they were right – Puccinian melody works better when the Italian text sounds crisp. The Wagnerian approach just make things sound a bit silly when character are speaking about how they are going to make out in the garden later that night. I am someone who watches Tosca for the second act. As this evening, it was clearly the Schwerpunkt of the performance – it just played for the strengths of everyone involved – I could forget how little atmosphere and charm the first act had.

When Sonya Yoncheva sung her first Tosca a couple of years ago, I thought it was a bad idea. I had seen her as Mimì in La Bohème at the Met, and the way her high notes flapped jarred with a voice still capable of loveliness and legato. Now her Mozart days are definitely behind her. It is a voice that has gotten over loveliness. It is like the garden variety of Marias Callas’s voice – the low notes are chesty, the middle has a bottled-up sound and the high notes are metallic and vibrant in an almost piercing way. In her first scene, she was rarely appealing. She didn’t even try mezza voce and her attempts at piano were often wiry and lacking floating quality. The overall impression was rather bossy. In act 2, her singing of the cantata was a bit wild, but once in the presence of Scarpia, Ms. Yoncheva seemed to be in her element, flashing big, bright high notes without flinching and using the text with sense of theatre and almost without any exaggeration. It also involved her best acting during the whole evening. She looked almost scary when she killed Scarpia and then shifted between vulnerability and panic and a bit craziness, adding some three-dimensionality to a scene that is almost a little hard to believe.

I had not seen Joseph Calleja for a while and considering my experiences with him in more heroic roles, I was wondering how he would fare as Cavaradossi. The fact is his voice has developed since I last saw him. First, now he has acquired the right metal for exposed acuti. They are still a bit tight, but now firm and bright and a bit denser than in the past. His hallmark vibratello, however, is now something like a rattling sound around the passaggio and sometimes the tone lacks a bit color too. He has also acquired some Caballé-ian mannerisms – abandoning consonants to reach high notes and shifting for mezza voce whenever things are difficult to handle. In any case, it is still a dulcet sound and he is congenial as always. He felt a little bit more inclined to act this time, even comfortable in his matinée leading man approach.

I was a bit surprised to discover that Thomas Johannes Meyer was our Scarpia this evening. He is a singer who used to go for broke in very heavy roles and I wondered how long he would survive like that. The voice now is basically rough and lacking focus. I had never found it voluminous but rather forceful – and yet this evening he sang in a very muscular way and proved to have plenty of stamina to tackle a big role like that. There was very little room for nuance and textual clarity, though.

Pelléas et Mélisande is an opera I’ve seen more often in concert version than staged – and I wonder if it was not better this way. Of course, this is a libretto adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s play and therefore conceived for the stage, but I have the impression that the blanks left by the text’s elusiveness are better filled by the tempo of straight theatre than by that of opera. I don’t have an answer for that – Eric Ruf’s new staging for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées surely did not proved my suspicion wrong.

Yes, this opera is supposed to have a shadowy atmosphere, but there is so much color in the music and it is a bit frustrating to sense the existence of forests, towers, caves, beaches in the music and having to watch an uninspiring (also uninspired) single set (a dam or something like that) that moves noisily and – differently from what the director expected – does not create an atmosphere of repressed emotions. And I’d blame the Personenregie for that. Yes, P et M requires a certain stillness (as much as Tristan und Isolde) but you have to perceive a certain tension – erotic in particular – in that stillness. Otherwise, these characters look just bored. In the important scene in which Mélisande looses her wedding ring, the director makes both her and Pelléas move around with their arms open as if they were trying not to fall on the slippery grounds. After 20 seconds, it just looked silly and distracting. Mélisande’s costumes were to big for her and she slouched so much when she walked that it was difficult to understand the fascination she exerted on every man on stage. Pelléas lacked any introspection and had an almost alpha-male confidence, while Golaud displayed  a miserable, boorish attitude from his first appearance that made one hardly realize when he is finally being downright abusive. I wonder if anyone found any new insight in this joyless production.

Fortunately, the musical side of the performance had enough compensation for the theatrical dreariness. Conductor François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles have the mission of finding the right color for every work by researching the instruments used by the conductor at the time of each piece’s creation. So here we have Érard harps, older style flutes with smaller bore etc with the purpose of creating a subtler and more varied tonal palette. As a matter of fact, the orchestral sound was this evenings’s greatest asset. The way woodwind and strings would blend during the whole performance created atmosphere with immediacy, and even if the sound picture was dense it was never overwhelming in terms of volume. Actually, those used to Karajan’s or Rattle’s recordings may have found it lacking impact in scenes such as the end of act 4. 

Unable to sing because of a sudden illness, Patricia Petibon acted – in an almost zombiesque way – the role of Mélisande, while Vannina Santoni sang the part for her from one side of the stage. Ms. Santoni has a light Mozartian soprano with lovely floated mezza voce and crystalline diction. She is a sensitive, musicianly singer and deserves praise for her beautiful performance. I personally prefer a mezzo-ish, sexier tonal quality for the role, but Ms. Vanoni is probably the voice Debussy expected to hear in it. Her pairing to the robust-toned Stanislas de Barbeyrac offered an interesting contrast. One always expects something Mozartian of a tenor Pelléas, but Mr. de Barbeyrac sounded darker than some baritones in it and handled the part with almost Puccinian slancio (yet not Puccinian power). As a result, he seemed less in love with love than every singer I have ever heard in the role, but rather hot-headed and testosterone high. I don’t know if this is the approach I’d like to hear as a rule, but it was refreshing to hear it sung differently.

Simon Keenlyside’s white-heat Golaud might have worked better some years ago. As it is, his voice now has a touch of rust that made his singing almost uniformly rough. Here the example of José Van Dam – who kept the role until late in his career – would have been helpful, for this Belgian bass baritone was able to create a chiaroscuro of warm tonal quality and smooth phrasing when we first hear Golaud that made for a more three-dimensional character. In any case, Mr Keenlyside deserves praise for his commitment and also very clear French.
In the role of Géneviève, Lucille Richardot sang with lightness of tone and homogeneity rare in a contralto these days. Jean Teitgen has the right gentleness of tone for Arkel and Claire Briot was an unusually rich-toned and characterful Yniold.

Although one rarely hears about Radamisto, it was one of Handel’s big hits at the Royal Academy of Music. The first run of performances was so successful that the composer could present it again a couple of months later with a different cast, for which he made adaptations, such as rewriting or even adding new numbers. The new group of singers was an all-stars affair, with the great castrato Senesino in the title role and Margherita Durastanti as his wife Zenobia. This certainly had a lot to do with the original popularity of this now rarely performed work, and this is also why the A-team gathered this evening for a concert performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées made this an opportunity to sample the thrill of the London première in 1720.

Predictably, the Senesino edition has been chosen for the concert, since Philippe Jaroussky was featured in the primo uomo part (the work’s première had a soprano Durastanti as Radamisto). Jaroussky’s “angelic” countertenor does not come to mind when one thinks of the parts Handel wrote for Senesino, I’d say. My experience is that he tends to shine in arie d’affetto rather than heroic numbers, in which he lacks a stronger low register and some punch too. However, this evening Jaroussky sang in what one could call the autumnal phase of a countertenor’s voice (which can come earlier as one would want sometimes). The effortless legato and soprano-like high notes were not entirely there, yet the voice has acquired an edge which makes it less beautiful but rather a little bit more metallic in color. This means that, if his singing did not sound immaculate, it did sound more convincing as a castrato sound. At some point he did become tired and had to force some high notes. Fortunately he was able to recover for a refined version of Qual nave smarrita, far smoother than his Ombra cara.

This evening’s Zenobia was Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who can be a controversial Handelian. When I saw her as Polinesso (Ariodante) and in the title role in Giulio Cesare in Egitto (with Alan Curtis), the heroic music had more than a splash of grotesque. Ms. Lemieux loves her chest notes and takes no prisoners when she wants to produce cavernous sounds, even if this means a mushy passaggio to a somewhat overcovered high register. In those roles, her coloratura could sound rather labored too. That said, the part of Zenobia plays for all her strengths. She is a very expressive singer and the character’s many lamenti were all of them sung with unrestrained emotion and a natural ear for Handelian melody. It is also a part with some very peculiar arias with contrasting moods in highly dramatic situations. In these moments, Ms. Lemieux went for larger than life and close to the limits of baroque style. And yet she did that with such gusto and imagination that one couldn’t help surrendering to her artistry.

Radamisto is an opera with two queens – Zenobia and Polissena. In the latter, Emöke Baráth sang with remarkable passion too. Her voice has developed since I last saw her as Sesto (with Lemieux as Cesare). Then it had an almost boy soprano sound, while now it offers a Mozartian roundness of tone and a very solid low register too. In the role of Tigrane, Anna Bonitatibus sang with such nimble coloratura, firmness of tone and feeling for the text that I felt sorry that the part was – understandably- shortened. Alicia Amo, as Fraarte, wasn’t particularly appealing in sound, but handled the coloratura with more aplomb than poise, what is a valid approach for a breeches role with heroic arias.

After having seen a series of throaty tenors in all kinds of repertoire, I couldn’t help finding Zachary Wilde refreshingly bright and free, if not truly dulcet as Tiridate. As he was playing a psycho anyway, Mr. Wilde relished his bad guy routine, snarling when necessary and producing some very long phrases on the breath. Last but definitely not least, baritone Renato Dolcini left absolutely nothing to be desired as Farasmane. I can’t wait to hear more from him.

With the Il Pomo d’Oro orchestra, conductor Francesco Corti did not seem concerned about making this score grander or more exciting as some conductors in this repertoire like to do these days. He rather let it speak for itself in natural tempi and a light orchestral sound that acquired variety though color and accent rather than volume or power. Considering his cast’s intensity of expression, I can’t say this was an ineffective choice.

When one watches works like Die Feen or Das Liebesverbot, it is obvious that the young Richard Wagner still had to learn the actual limits of live performance, especially in what relates to singers. Although Der fliegende Holländer is not included in the “early Wagner” set, I am not sure if I wouldn’t consider it impractical as the “early” ones. I haven’t seen it as often as I’d like – and maybe I’ve just had bad luck – but I have never sat through a performance of it remotely close to being really satisfying. None as unsatisfying as the one that took place in the Opéra Bastille this evening.

Willy Decker’s 2000 production could hardly be considered problematic in the context of everything that went awry tonight. I can’t say if it was the first one to replace all seashore atmosphere by a big seascape painting (I’ve seen a couple of them) but the truth is that it is difficult to say if anything remains from the original Personenregie. As it is today, it involves the main actors walking like zombies, throwing objects they profess to adore to the floor – and, when they are empty-handed, throwing themselves to the ground.

Even if this is the first time I hear Hannu Lintu conduct, I feel I can understand what was going on his mind. When you have an unreliable orchestra in a formidable score such as this, you won’t try to make it sound like Tristan und Isolde (as Thielemann did in Bayreuth with forces very different from those available in Paris): you just try to go for the Weberian approach and pray to God that singers won’t ruin the whole thing. In the overture, it seemed like a viable option – he kept strings as light and bright as possible, went for the egg-timer tempo and there was some excitement in hearing the orchestra barely cope. However the effort could increasingly be heard – the violins became less and less precise during the evening, brass instruments more and more erratic and the overall impression finally band-like. The chorus was a bit unruly and mismatches abounded – but the subpar singing of sopranos and altos is something that requires serious attention from the chorus master. Really.

My Wagnerian friend C. never refers to Tomasz Konieczny by his name but rather as “the Alberich guy”, because we were truly amazed by his performance in Das Rheingold at the Deutsche Oper Berlin a couple of years ago. This involves her saying things like “but the Mandryka is the Alberich guy?”. When I told her I was going to see this performance, she obviously said “the Alberich guy as the Holländer….?” Actually, that was the one million dollar question. Whenever the Holländer was in a “cursing” mood, then the Alberich guy was very convincing, unleashing his powerful, big and a bit weird-sounding Heldenbariton in the auditorium. But when the Holländer was rather in the “cursed”, Angst-y mood then Mr.Konieczny audibly struggled with mezza voce, pitch, phrasing. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more effective if he forgot José Van Dam in the Karajan recording and really went for 100% tormented/demonic. In any case, his really big-scale vocalism is an undeniable asset in a role where most singers have a bad tine being heard at all.

The other relevant performance this evening is also in the low-voice department. Even if Günther Groissböck’s bass has lost a bit of its original exuberance (high notes are now all of them a bit raw), he was the single person on stage who operated on consistent legato, clear diction and some nuance.

I had never heard tenor Michael Weinius before, but I have to believe he was seriously indisposed tonight. His singing as Erik was short-breathed, barely supported in very uncomfortable high notes. If he was ill – and he must have been – the theatre should have made that clear for the audience before the performance. I’ll have to hear him again before I form an opinion.

I can’t say I had never seen Ricarda Merbeth before: this is actually the third time I hear her as Senta. Not even when she was in her prime I would consider that she is my kind of singer. It is a difficult role and one must always keep that in mind, but tonight it was difficult to find anything remotely musical behind the screechiness, the random intonation, the quavery vocal production, the blowsiness.

Finally, I would like to know why the role of Mary has to be cast with singers without any functional note in their middle register.

Attending a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Opéra Comique has something special about. Other than the connections between the genre opéra comique and the Singspiel (and the libretto’s French source), it is exactly the kind of theatre where this work would be staged in Beethoven’s time both in terms of size and acoustics. Conductor Raphaël Pichon himself shares in an interview how the venue made him look for an early 19th century rather than a late 19th century perspective for his take on it, a work “between Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Weber’s Der Freischütz”. In other words, performing it as Beethoven might have “heard” it. The inverted commas are not facetious. It is irrelevant whether Beethoven was able to clearly hear or not a performance of his Fidelio. The composer increasingly conceived music that challenged the technical possibilities of both instruments and voices at the time. That is why I’m always worried when I hear about a historically informed approach in Beethoven. To be honest, I don’t think that hearing a work “the way the composer is supposed to have heard” is something valid in itself. What I personally care is hearing the work at its structurally clearest and most expressive. If that isn’t the way the composer was able to hear it, too bad for him…  Anyway, I seriously doubt that Beethoven would have chosen this afternoon’s performance over, say, Karl Böhm’s Dresden recording. Does the DG set with the Staatskapelle seem a bit Wagnerian? Yes, but I guess if you asked Wagner, he’d say without Fidelio he wouldn’t have become the composer he became in the first place.

Does that mean I disliked Mr. Pichon’s conducting? Not at all. I actually believe he has all right the measure of the work. I probably never heard the quartet Es schlägt der Rache Stunde in a live performance as clearly as I have today. If I have to say something about Mr. Pichon’s view of the work is that he could give it a bit more time to produce the right emotional effect rather than sticking that much to the metronome. For instance, in the Leonore/Florestan/Rocco trio, when Leonore gives her husband a piece of bread, it’s the first time she goes near him in years. It is the moment she dreamed about night after night, the music is crying for some flexibility there. Today it sounded extremely matter of fact. And that happened elsewhere too often this afternoon. 

I also wonder if Pygmalion is the right orchestra for this work. Again I’ll be honest – I don’t think Fidelio gains anything in being perform with period instruments. On the contrary. There is no increased clarity or even tonal variety. This afternoon the orchestra sounded mostly edgy, its strings’ clarity of articulation mostly lost in a brassy overall impression. Maybe I’m too used for hearing strings enveloping singers’ voices rather than obscuring it, but sometimes it felt like noise to the singing line. And maybe I’m too used to noble sounding rather than squawking French horn in Leonore’s aria. This might work in a period performance of Così fan tutte, where Fiordiligi’s Per pietà is about the kind of fidelity that does survive one day of absence (and that’s why the horns are there, as a traditional expression of INfidelity in romance languages). But that’s not what Leonore is talking about here.

Mr. Pichon also disagrees with the opinion that Beethoven did not know how to write for the human voice and decided to invite a lyric rather than a dramatic soprano for the title role. The problem is that there are all kinds of lyric sopranos. When summoned by Herbert von Karajan to sing the role, Gundula Janowitz asked some time to think and finally decided she wasn’t ready. And yet this legendary German soprano had already sung Elisabeth, Elsa, Eva, the Empress in Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten, Odabella in Verdi’s Attila and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème when she finally sang it in the Vienna State Opera for Leonard Bernstein, who wanted instead Gwyneth Jones in her place. Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg felt ready for it after having tackled Agathe in Freischütz. 

I saw Ms. Stagg sing Mozart’s concert aria Bella mia fiamma (for Mr. Pichon in Salzburg), and I thought it was too heavy for her (you’ll find it sung by the likes of Margaret Price and Julia Varady in recordings). Even in an auditorium as small as the one at Salle Favart, she sounds mousy in face of the formidable challenges in the part. Nobody can say she did not sing correctly – she did. But who cares? The tonal quality was matte, the high notes lacked radiance, her Marzelline overshadowed her in ensembles. At least at this point of her career, it is simply not a role for her voice. What she lacked in vocal exuberance, she almost compensated by subtle and efficient acting – and the video close-ups only highlighted her abilities.

Although Mari Eriksmoen’s soprano is on the monochromatic side, her high notes – as mentioned – blossomed and ran in the hall. She is comfortable with the style and came across as a competent if rather cold Marzelline.

On paper, Michael Spyres’s voice is also light for the role of Florestan. Yet his tenor has enough color for it and he masters the art of focusing the tone and piercing the orchestra. He is also very cunning and used every opportunity in his aria to relax and offered a far more varied interpretation than I am used to hear in it. It’s still a big sing for him, but he made it work. In the end of the afternoon, one would consider his the most expressive performance in this Fidelio. He couldn’t be more contrasted with the Jacquino, Linard Vrielink, whose tenor is a tad artificial darkened and a bit short of overtones (what seems to be a tendency these days).

Bass baritone Gabor Bretz, on the other hand, has the right color for the role of Pizarro, but at least this afternoon not the weight or the volume, his voice mostly staying on stage and lacking therefore menace. Veteran Albert Dohmen seemed to be there to prove that a large voice makes all the difference of the world in this repertoire. He sounded less rusty than last time I saw him and, other than some shortness of legato in his upper reaches, offered an exemplary account of the part of Rocco. Last but no lease, Christian Immler was as noble toned as the part of Don Fernando requires.Even if the Pygmalion chorus looked understaffed for this work, their singing was effective enough, clear and well balanced.

At first, Cyril Teste’s staging could make you think Florestan had been arrested in Switzerland: there are very few prisoners, everything looks shining new and the wardens have Eames office chairs. But then you realize that the prisoners are tortured and there’s lethal injection there, so the whole thing is rather related to the stage designer’s intent of making it a stylish place of violation of human rights. As cameras making close up of actors seems to be pretty much the trendy thing to do in terms of staging these days (you just need to see Guy Cassiers’s adaptation of Dostoievski’s The Demons at the Comédie Française for another example), there is a cameraman on stage as if a documentary were being made. The images are projected on screens mounted on wheeled frames. As written above, the director took advantage of his leading lady’s acting abilities for some touching effects. When Leonore looses her gun in the confrontation scene, she grabs the camera, which seems to frighten Pizarro more than the pistol. Unfortunately, there are moments when one feels that director is a bit at a loss for ideas and then there is no economy of clichés. In the end – and this seems to have been made on purpose – it all looks crafty yet emotionally cold.

Finally, I must make a disclaimer. I am so fond of Beethoven’s final version of Fidelio that I can’t repress my irritation when I have to hear any replacement of the 1814 music by any of the composer’s early ideas. And the final O Gott, welch ein Augenblick is one of my favorite pieces of music. I felt shortchanged by having to hear the version Beethoven himself though it better to rewrite. But that’s me. End of rant.

I have just realized my first encounter with Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges took place under the baton of Lorin Maazel in a New York Philharmonic concert with Suzanne Mentzer and Patrizia Ciofi. I wouldn’t think about the again until I first saw it staged in the Saito Kinen Festival in a starry cast under Seiji Ozawa. Then I realized how special a work it is, probably the chicest peace of music ever written for children. Anyway, I really regret I wasn’t ready to appreciate Maazel’s concert, for now I understand why his recording is considered in France the absolute reference in the discography. I gave it a listen to establish a comparison with Mikko Franck’s recording with the same forces of this evening’s concert. 
As much as I acknowledge Mr Franck’s symphonic approach in which the music sound its most modern, I can’t help missing Maazel’s “music hall” approach, with its marked rhythms, slim sonorities and sense of humor. I have to be honest: I don’t know if it would be a good choice for the very, very warm acoustics in the Philharmonie de Paris. The rich orchestral sound was definitely challenging singers this evening. And that’s almost a pity – for a case made entirely of native speakers was a pleasure in itself. Although the recording has a most glamorous cast, the key piece of casting there could be heard tonight too: Chloé Briot’s fruity toned, vital Child, characterful without ever sacrificing musical values. And even in a non staged performance, one can see she is a good actress. I was curious about Jodie Devos’s as the fire, the princess and the nightingale. Since I find Arleen Augér in André Previn’s recording just perfect, I tend to be disappointed while hearing anyone else. Ms. Devos has crystal-clear divisions, transparent diction and easy high notes, but her staccato – at least tonight – failed to project. The rest of the cast compensated lack of star quality with engagement and clear love for the piece. The Radio France Chorus sang with ideal purity of tone (and they’re French, let’s not forget that. 
The Radio France orchestra can’t help feeling at home in this repertoire. In the first part of the programe, they just offered the most sensuous, warm-sounding account of Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The flute solos alone were worth the price if the ticket.

I have been following the Bach Cantata series with St. Gallen’s J.S. Bach-Stiftung since the beginning of the project, not only on their praiseworthy YouTube channel, but also with their DVD series, and was curious about hearing them live. I knew from YouTube that their concerts are preceded by musical and theological walk-throughs offered by conductor Rudolf Lutz and a guest preacher, but I was unaware of the structure of the concert itself.

We first heard the complete Cantata BWV 77 (Du sollst Gott, deinen Herren, lieben), which is a short item anyway. Then Swiss journalist Iren Meier took the floor to share her thoughts about the theme of the cantata – Matthew 22:37-39, i.e., Jesus’s answer to the question of which is the most important commandment (“love god first and then love your neighbor as much as you love yourself”). The guest speaker started by saying that once the cantata was over, the music should resonate within everyone in the audience. This was a rare opportunity to understand the power of Bach’s music in the context of its intent of communication with the congregation. 

Ms. Meier first discussed the idea of love being the absence of separation, the confirmation of one’s own existence through the communion with all other beings. And this is a central concept in the musical structure of the opening chorus. Then she quoted the text of the tenor recitative “give me, my God, a heart like that of the good Samaritan”.  As the cantata hints at, one tends to justify one’s inability to help others because one is not “good enough”. Ms. Meier stressed that the text of BWV 77 particularly addresses the issue; in her view, one is never too incapable of offering help, for the simple fact of not being indifferent means a lot to those who are suffering. And that is an important concept to understand the expressive features of both arias in the cantata. 

As it is, the opening chorus of the BWV 77 is one of the most complex polyphonic numbers in any cantata written by Bach. As much as Jesus himself develops the concept of the Ten Commandments in that passage of the Bible, Bach develops the concept of one of Martin Luther’s hymns, Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (“These are the holy Ten Commandments”) and created here one of his hallmark mathematically sophisticated structures. While the chorus sing in fugal style a subject developed from material traceable to Luther’s hymn, we have the hymn itself quoted in canon between the slide trumpet and the double bass (in longer note values). The trumpet offers, predictably, 10 quotations from the hymn, first parts if it and then the whole melody. In other words, we’re hearing basically the musical representation of identity established by unity. Every element in this chorus is a part of one single entity, and you only understand their singleness (i.e., of the derivations) if you refer back to the hymn’s melody (their source).The two arias in the cantata explore the fact that imperfection is not an impediment to express the love of God (and your neighbor, of course). In the first cantata, a pair of oboes offer wavering lines around a vocal part that may sound simple at first hearing, but has the soprano work hard for her money in the less congenial parts of her range in impossibly long lines. So you’ll basically hear her get hard to hear or red in her face before she is forced to stop for quick stolen breathing pauses. The second aria is even more challenging, you have the slide trumpet fighting with an ornamented part completely unfit for a natural trumpet and an alto (male or female) in a difficult negotiation with their passaggio. And – in spite of all that – it all sounds exquisite. 

I have a routine before I go to a Bach cantata concert: I listen to John Eliot Gardiner and then to Ton Koopman, because these conductors tend to offer opposite visions of how one performs Bach in the context of historically informed recordings. While Gardiner seems to be trying to prove that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are a Dreieinigkeit, Koopman is entirely circumscribed in Bach’s own musical universe, as church music from the 18th century. There is no right answer here, of course. One could almost guess how Gardiner conducts the opening chorus – with large brushstrokes of phrasing, rich orchestral sound and a sense of grandiosity. You feel as if you were witnessing Moses receive the Ten Commandments on the Mount Sinai. I’ll repeat myself here when I talk about Koopman’s performance. The congregation at St. Thomas’s was hardly philosophical and the Dutch conductor always seem to have that in mind, by choosing a very immediate and direct way of advertising the advantages of the Christian faith. He takes almost virtually half the time of Gardiner’s recording and the sensation is that of an explosion of fraternal love, with extra clear polyphony but the text spat in high velocity by the chorus. Mr. Lutz tends to see this number rather in Gardiner’s way, but in a zero calorie version. His tempo is slow but not super slow, the orchestra is rich but not super rich and the overall impression is less of “sei umschlungen, Millionen” but rather of warmth and affection. In acoustics that were almost too bass-friendly, we could definitely hear the double bass respond to the trumpet, which could have been placed a little bit more to the fore. As it was, sometimes it seemed in equal league with the oboes. Because of the pandemic, the Bach-Stiftung decided not choose its usual church for this concert, but rather a larger space in an exhibition hall. Although it proved to be less problematic in terms of acoustics than I imagined, it still tended to the overwarm. As a result, the double bass boomed in an almost unrealistic way – and the choral singing lacked definition. In other words, in a faster tempo, the texture would have probably sounded tangled.

Another side effect of the hall’s acoustics could be noticed in the way both female soloists’ voices failed to project in the auditorium. Both tenor and bass did not seem to have particularly larger voices, but the difference in audibility was evident. In any case, Miriam Feuersinger offered a truly musicianly account of the soprano aria, tackling the serpentine lines with the right lilt that prevents them from sounding mechanic. Her pellucid soprano has just the necessary amount of brightness, what makes her pleasantly pearly in tonal quality. It is hardly her fault that she was really hard to hear in the lower end of the tessitura. In that sense, Koopman has an unusually well chosen soloist in Dorothea Röschmann, whose rich lower register places her ahead of the competition. I am not sure if Michaela Selinger is the right choice for the alto aria. She is clearly a mezzo soprano lost in contraltoland. In the circumstances of that concert she was the aural image of trying to make the best of what you have (which is what the aria is about anyway). She worked really hard to focus her low notes while keeping homogeneity – and she deserves praise for that. But if you listen to Nathalie Stutzmann with Gardiner, you’ll see what I am talking about.

Tenor Raphael Höhn’s tone has more than a splash of nasality, but he is comfortable with Bachian style and delivers the text knowingly. Also bass Jonathan Sells offered a particularly sensitive account of his important recitative. Probably because the video is made on one single concert, after Ms. Meier’s speech, I was positively surprised to discover that the whole cantata would be performed again, probably to patch any mishap in the first performance. That said, I am not sure if the second performance could be considered – in the big picture – an improvement of the first one. In the opening chorus, yes, the double bass seemed more integrated in the texture. But the trumpet became more and more hazardous. I feel bad for writing that – natural trumpets are extremely difficult and famously unruly and one cannot have people like good old Crispian Steele-Perkins for every period instrument performance all over the world, but, well, things went really awry in the second performance, especially in the alto aria. On the other hand, my first impression of the oboes was a bit bumpy, while in the repeat the results were clearly more polished. To make the editor’s life harder, Ms. Feuersinger actually sang more precisely in the first performance. For that matter, Ms. Seelinger too sounded more comfortable with her low notes in the second time. I have no doubt about choosing Mr Sell’s first recitative. For some reason, the second time lacked the Innigkeit of his first appearance.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi is rarely included among Bellini’s must-see works, and the interest of the more curious opera-goers is probably due to Richard Wagner’s impressions of Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s interpretation in the role of Romeo. Even the discography is less generous than those of operas like Norma or I Puritani, and I guess that the reason is: there is no big coloratura role in it and you won’t find either Callas or Sutherland in it. I myself have only seen it once in concert in Berlin. It should not be a surprise that I finally see it staged in the Opernhaus Zürich, a theatre with an unusually high record of Bellini operas in their seasons (probably due to the long-lasting association with Edita Gruberová). It is no coincidence that I have indeed seen another Bellini rarity there (La Straniera, with the Slovakian diva), not to mention the Bob Wilson Norma.

La Straniera had the same stage director as in this 2015 production: Christof Loy, a director whose stagings I tend to like primarily for visual reasons – they are always beautiful to look at. This C&I is no exception – in its mafia movie setting, it exudes a certain old-Hollywood glamour. More than that, the director’s angle of showing Juliet as victim of child abuse (yes, it’s becoming a cliché with stage directors) pays off in a plot where everybody is involved in some sort of violent act. However, if I had to single out one strong point in Mr. Loy’s work here is the fact that he makes space for the emotional content in Bellini’s music. There is a big difference between making singers move about and gesticulate to illustrate what the music is supposed to express and allowing them to be on stage and experience and share the expressive power of a score. In order to freshen up my memory of it, I have listened to Riccardo Muti’s EMI recording, an orchestral tour de force in a work not usually remembered for orchestral writing, and yet I would say that in comparison to this evening’s performance it came across as rather blunt.

Conductor Fabio Biondi (whom I have primarily seen as performer and conductor of Antonio Vivaldi’s music) has become a specialist in Bellini, a fellow Sicilian. He does share with Muti a sense that the orchestra plays an important part in the performance of a Bellini opera. With the help of a bright, light, Italianate sound, which the house orchestra adopted with gusto, he was able to make it sing together with his cast without drowning it. As much as Muti in the EMI recording, the ensembles sparkled like fireworks and bubbled like champagne in vital tempi and clear articulation (even if one might miss the volume or orchestral sound in the Neapolitan conductor’s recording in both act’s finali).

I have always had a good opinion of Jana Kurucová, a singer I often saw in secondary roles in Berlin. I actually wished to hear her in a major assignment – and here I find her in the difficult part of Romeo, which was taken back in 2015 by Joyce DiDonato. The way Bellini wrote it, it alternately sounds too low and too high for the mezzo soprano voice. To be honest, Ms. Kurucová’s mezzo is a tad light for it, and one particularly noticed that when the line was too central in tessitura. In these moments, her voice tended to sound a bit colorless. She mostly wowed the audience with very forceful acuti (she was often the loudest singer on stage whenever she sang in her high register), but she mostly knew how to shift into her chest registers for the testing low notes. Her control of the passaggio is indeed impressive. At moments, the most outspoken passages brought an edge to her tone, but somehow that fits the personality of this libretto’s Romeo, who rarely is the lovebird as seen in Shakespeare’s play. At any rate, she is – and I’ll repeat a word I once used to describe her – an efficient singer. You might find someone else whose voice might be darker, more flexible, more beautiful – but I’m not sure it would be easy to find someone who responds to every little challenge in the vocal part as effectively as she does in such a consistent way.

Her Giulietta was Italian soprano Rosa Feola, a singer highly praised everywhere whom I saw only once in Salzburg in Cherubini’s Medée as Dircé. I wasn’t particularly impressed then – and I understand why now. When we look at the discography of C&I, we generally find high coloratura sopranos in the part of Giulietta – Sills, Gruberová, Mei. Ms. Feola’s glory is not her high notes, although they are all right big and firm and round. I would call her rather a lyric soprano, with a warm, positive middle register and even, well-focused low notes. Hearing a singer with such creaminess of tone as Giulietta actually made me like the part more. With her Cotrubas-like shimmer, phrasing of Mozartian pose and a natural feeling for tonal colouring on the text (the true quality of a bel canto singer), Ms. Feola couldn’t help but touching every heart in the auditorium – also in terms of acting. It was a sensitive, beautiful performance.

At first, Omer Kobiljak’s tenor seemed a bit too robust for the role of Tebaldo. His high register, however, is made to sound darkened and, therefore, fails to project with the same intensity of the rest of his voice. On the plus side, he had no problem in scaling down for mezza voce and showed the necessary flexibility. Brent Michael Smith’s basic tonal color is noble as the role of Lorenzo requires, but he could have been even more convincing without the occasional woolliness. As Capellio, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev showed a more imposing voice, a bit grainy in the low reaches. All these singers are debuting in a way or another in this run of performances: everyone is singing their roles for the first time, but for Ms. Kurucová, who is singing for the first time in Zurich.

My first impression of Andreas Homoki’s new production of R. Strauss’s Salome for the Opernhaus Zürich was that there was nothing new about it. It looks basically like his other productions: to start with, the neon tonal palette, the block set sceneries. This impression wouldn’t last long – the fact that I did not like any of this production’s novelties, however, doesn’t make them less new. First, yes, everybody probably since the première of Oscar Wilde’s play has noticed that Jochanaan is not entirely above the possibility of temptation. It is in the text – there is a reason why he refuses to look at Salome. The fact that he chose not to be tempted – just like when we go to the supermarket and say “better not buy chocolate” – proves his fortitude of character rather than if he was incapable of being seduced. Then there would be no merit in his behaviour, right? That is precisely why Salome is so upset with that – she knew he would be hers if only he allowed himself. That is why watching him having sex (or something like that) with Salome on stage did nothing but spoil the beauty of Wilde’s suggestion. In the closing scene, we hear Salome saying “only if” for ten minutes and, considering what we’ve seen, she seems just amnesiac. Another strong element of the play’s structure is that we are allowed to see Jochanaan in only one scene. The next time we encounter him, there’s only the head. And that’s, at least to me, essential for the understanding of the story. Salome is incapable of comprehending the whole scope of Jochanaan’s existence; so she breaks him into an object that fits her capacity of understanding. Wilde had experienced something similar in his own life and knew what he was talking about. That is why the fact that Jochanaan is let loose and is free to stroll through Herod’s palace as he pleases was almost unintentionally funny. Even after he was beheaded, there he was, walking to and fro (and the fact that the singer in the part did not have a magnetic stage presence made it even more frustrating). And call me conservative, but the fact that this evening Salome did not kiss the severed head but the omnipresent Jochanaan was a totally turn off for me. It’s like ordering carbonara and hear the waiter explain that they thought it better not to use eggs.

The sense of frustration was only enhanced by Simone Young’s musical direction. We could hear that she had to make many practical decisions here – helping singers in music that comes close to unsingable, helping an orchestra not truly comfortable with the writing – and, well, good for them. But the élan, the thrill, the overwhelmingness were not there. There are orchestras that are capable of keeping tonal color in reduced dynamics – their strings usually have a bright sound still present above the kaleidoscopic interaction of woodwind and brass. That is not the cast of the house band, the sonorities of which could be indeed described this evening as “band like” in the context of a pale string section. Also, articulation left more than something to be desired, what made the word “blur” come to mind more than once. Of course, we can’t have the Vienna Philharmonic on duty for every performance of Salome, and we could have adapted our expectation if some sense of drama had been produced. Strauss is a composer of effect – there are successive theatrical little tricks that keep the excitement on. Not this evening, I’m afraid.

I leave the best for last. At any rate, this evening’s was a solid cast. Elena Stikhina’s Salome was object of discussion in the pandemic season in the context of the videocast from La Scala. At the time, it was noted that hers was a refreshingly unproblematic take on a role that is essentially problematic, but there was an almost obtrusive problem of pronunciation of the German language. Ms. Stikhina deserves praise for her hard work – this was not an issue at all this evening. More than that, she showed a deepened understanding of the text, her word-pointing apt and some choices untraceable to the example of famous exponents of the role. Ms. Stikhina evidently understands that the nature of her voice demands an approach that puts girlishness in the first place. Hers is not a dramatic soprano, but her radiant high notes just flash in the auditorium. It is most clever of her not trying to beef up or darken the tone – she knows that her superpower is the brightness. This means lower-lying passages might sound close to spoken voice, but I’m ok with that. I’m also ok with her occasional pecking at notes and a rather “Mozartian” approach whenever the phrase is more immediately melodic. It works for her voice, it works for the role – and an important part of Ms. Stikhina’s performance is the sensation that she is in control of it. At no moment, I had the impression she would not make it (as it often happens). Yes, when the writing comes close to dramatic, her voice may lack some color, but that’s a very small price for hearing the part sound as music. Her Jochanaan, Kostas Smoriginas, does not fall in the Wotan/Alberich kind of singer we hear in the part, and yet his voice is at once focused and dark enough and pierces well the orchestral sound – at least in Zurich. He could have made a little bit more the text, though. In a part like Herodias, a charismatic singer like Michaela Schuster is always an advantage. Even if her voice is a bit past its prime, she still commands big high notes. I am less convinced by Wolfang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Herod. This was Karl Burian’s (i.e., the Czech Caruso) part in the première, and I always find it better when the tenor really sings it rather than go for the Spieltenor spiel. I was actually curious to see what Mauro Peter would do with the part of Narraboth – in Mozart, his unfocused high notes pass as “elegance”, but here there is a big orchestra to sing against. His high register might still lack overtones, but he muscled up all right for his high notes and, yes, sang with his customary good taste.

A final note – there are far more singers than you would expect for the “disputation fugue”. According to the stage director, Strauss himself had considered the possibility for one performance. So why not try? Musically, it is not a bad idea, I would say. Often the imbalance between solo voices make it less clear. There is also a dramatic point in having more singers on stage, especially in the closing scene – probably the single new idea that worked for me. I won’t even describe it not to spoil the fun of those who still intend to see it in the theatre.

Although L’Incoronazione di Poppea was premiered in 1643, director Calixto Bieito believes it speaks more directly to audiences today than many a more famous title in the repertoire. Together with conductor Ottavio Dantone, he could boast he proved his theory; his production for the Opernhaus Zürich is thoroughly entertaining – I overheard members of the audience thanking friends for having brought them for the opera and saying that it was far more interesting than they could have imagined. Mr. Bieito’s premise for his staging is that the level of egocentrism, confusion of private and public interest and evasion of privacy of the likes of Nero and Poppea are only comparable to the 21st century’s everyman. As it is, the auditorium of the Opernhaus was transformed in the set of a TV show. The action takes place in a circular catwalk around the orchestra and video displays around it show us either images captured live or stylized version of scenes performed by the cast. Not unlike a stage adaptation by Mr. Bieito of the 15th century’s chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanc I happened to see in Barcelona a couple of years ago, the catwalk involves a lot of interaction with the audience, which is very much part of the action as the audience in the TV show. Here, the gender ambiguities are explored with a splash of Almodóvar – especially in the scenes around the attempted murder of Poppea by Ottone. It is not unusual to see tenors in the role of Arnalta and the Ottavia’s nurse, but here they are shown as men and the drinking scene with Nero and Lucano becomes a sex/domination/death game between the two guys. As the Personenregie is accurate, these singers can really act and the concept is coherent and efficient as theatre, the action doesn’t have a feeling of ancient history at all.

As the score of L’Incoronazione di Poppea is famously sketchy – there are basically the vocal parts and the continuo – Mr. Dantone too had enough leeway to concoct his own concept for this performance. As he explains in the performance booklet, he chose the Venice score and borrowed some pages of the Naples “edition” when he thought it would add flavor. His instrumentation was guided by tone colouring rather than strict historical acuity. He admits that he had the full La Scintilla orchestra at his disposal, so he felt free to shift from various forms of continuo to a more string-centered orchestra whenever he felt that the theatrical action required. The everchanging sonorities from the orchestra added an extra dimension to the performance and, yes, it made it sound curiously more “modern” compared to what someone new to opera would expect (i.e., a more homogeneously violin-led orchestral sound). There were moments when, in the middle of a number, an extra layer of feeling was highlighted by a change of the sound – and the effect was often thrilling.

I’ve already mentioned that the singers who performed this evening were all of them good actors, but they also proved to be effective in purely musical terms. French soprano Julie Fuchs charmed the audience in an all-round immaculate account of the title role. She sang in creamy, golden tone, masters the art of tonal colouring in her delivery of the text, had no problem with the part’s relatively low tessitura and radiated real sex appeal. I am always curious by what Ms. Fuchs is doing – she is one of the most interesting lyric sopranos these days. I have heard her sing Mozart, Rossini and Handel, always with excellence. Now I am glad to add her Monteverdi credentials to her accomplishments. This is the first time I hear Emily D’Angelo live. She has been very active in videocasts during the pandemic “season” and, although her talent is evident, her Cherubino and Dorabella sounded wrong to my ears – her mezzo as recorded had a metallic edge and a lack of roundness in her high notes that jars a bit with the instrumental poise one expects in a Mozart singer. Her Ottavia this evening, however, offered me the complete spectrum of her possibilities. It is a voice with undeniable presence, distinctive and colourful in every register (her low notes are particularly solid). It has indeed too exotic a color for Mozart, but it encompassed all aspects of the role of Ottavia. She displayed the regal, the tragic, the heartbroken and the underlying fragile aspects of her role. She also has very clear diction. I wonder if Ms. D’Angelo has considered singing Gluck, for instance. Hungarian bass Miklós Sebestyén, a name knew to me, offered an extremely convincing account of the part of Seneca. His is a beautiful voice above all, double chocolate and extra cream to the extreme low notes. And he learned a thing or two with his teacher Lászlo Polgár about legato, phrasing and colouring. I can only imagine he must be a good Lieder singer. An exquisite performance.

The part of Nero is infamously hard to cast – few sopranos (or mezzos) feel comfortable with the passaggio and is too high for a countertenor. But David Hansen begs to differ. Apparently, it is the Australian countertenor’s signature role. Indeed, he produces some big, forceful acuti and seems to have unending stamina (and vocal folds of steel). Yet one could hear how difficult the whole thing was. As often with countertenors like him, the lower end of his range can sound puffy and hollow. In the context of a stage performance, his performance deserves praise, but in the end of the day I’d rather hear a female singer in the part. Both tenors technically in drag had the measure of their roles: Manuel Nuñez Comelino’s brighter and edgier sound matched his angular acting as Ottavia’s Nurse, while Emiliano Gonzales Toro’s more dulcet sound worked wonders in Arnalta’s lullaby to Poppea. I am less enthusiastic about Delphine Galou as Ottone – the voice lacks color and volume, even if one must concede that she is unfazed by the difficult tessitura. All minor roles were taken by singers with interesting voices – South African tenor Thomas Erlank (Lucano, first soldier etc) has a particularly promising voice with some heroic potential.

In the first bars of the score, the Orchestra La Scintilla sounded a bit rough in the edges, but one soon realized it was a good approach for this score – it is not a story for “flattering” sonorities. During the evening, under the conductor’s guidance, these musicians’ willingness to explore different possibilities was praiseworthy.