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René Jacobs and the Staatsoper in Berlin have a long history in reviving long-forgotten operas, such as Graun’s Cesare e Cleopatra, Haydn’s Orlando Paladino or Traetta’s Antigona. The most recent re-discovery is Georg Philipp Telemann’s Emma und Eginhard, first performed in Hamburg in 1728 in a gala event. This explains the original length of the opera (over four hours) and a cast list as long as R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Even if René Jacobs professed an unbridled enthusiasm for this score, he himself found it safer to cut it to fit the three-hour limit. I thank him for this decision. Although the opera is almost entirely made of short arias on the fast-and-bright side, we are miles behind of the inspiration and insight of Handel’s Serse. Telemann did not master the art of giving any meaning to coloratura or of finding any depth of expression – he seemed to be contented to stay within the limits of prettiness. Actually, this is not true – by the end of the opera, when the plot acquires some seriousness and characters have to express their grief in a more direct manner, Telemann’s music can be quite touching, especially in the duet for sopranos or in Hildegard’s lament on her friend’s death sentence. If you left the theatre unimpressed, then it’s entirely Telemann’s fault. René Jacobs conducted a spirited and sensitive performance, with top-quality playing from the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, including excellent French horn obligato in the best aria of the entire opera. Although director Eva-Maria Höckmayr tries too hard to add some political/historical/philosophical depth to a story perfectly effective in its cuteness, she does it without spoiling the fun: the staging is animated without being hectic, the Personenregie is detailed but not fussy and Julia Rösler’s costumes and Nina von Essen’s sceneries are exquisite and intelligent. Olaf Freese’s lighting is particularly effective too.

If something could be developed upon this would be the cast. Although these singers are all of them very reliable, only one or two truly master the style and use the writing to express an idea rather than dealing with it as a difficult task to get done with. The most important part is the role of Emma, which invariably gets the best arias in the score. As soprano Robin Johannsen sings it with complete sense of style, technical abandon and charm, the audience couldn’t help preferring her to her colleagues on stage. As the object of her affection, Nikolay Borchev proved to be truly adept with fioriture and other technical difficulties, but the tone is not intrinsically appealing and he is not truly at ease with baroque aesthetics. Although his German is accented, he makes sense of the text and is dramatically engaged. Stephanie Atanasov has a fruity, appealing mezzo and sang with some affection, but again this does not seem to be her repertoire. Baritone Gyula Orendt, on the other hand, has experience with baroque composers, and yet he seemed to be in a bad-voice day. Jan Martiník proved to have a comedy vein in his mock military aria and sang the final solo beautifully. Stephan Rügamer did not have much to sing, but the little we could hear makes me think that maybe he should have considered a career as a Bach tenor.

The second item in the RSB’s Strauss opera program this week, a concert performance of Elektra, showed Marek Janowski in his element: absolute structural clarity, understanding of the score’s graphic orchestral effects, a forward-moving approach to tempo that avoided unnecessary ponderousness and the right decision making in what regarded balance between singers and orchestra. This could only work because of the RBS’s extreme affinity with this piece: all musicians were fully integrated in the dramatic action and were ready to try different sounds, not to mention that the harsh and aggressive sound picture of Elektra comes more readily to this orchestra than the crystalline kaleidoscope in Daphne.

Casting too proved to be very effective, even when it was not ideal. Catherine Foster’s performance in the title role has to be considered with the fact that she has agreed to sing her part having an orchestra on stage and without cuts usually adopted to help singers in the most demanding passages. There has only been one perfect Elektra – and that was Birgit Nilsson – all the other singers fall in two groups: those who manage to get to the end of the opera singing something similar to what Strauss wrote and those who don’t. Ms. Foster fits in the first group. She has clear advantages: her basic tone is clear, youthful and spontaneous, she can lighten her voice for curvier phrases and to float mezza voce now and then and she proved capable of producing some very loud acuti in climactic passages. Although she manages her resources relatively well, there are moments when she is understandably tired, most notably in the final scene. Then she can sound fluttery, strained and brittle. But there is never the feeling that she “is not going to make it”. Watching her performance, I had the impression that she saw Kristin Scott Thomas at the Old Vic’s staging of Sophocles’ tragedy last year. Her approach had a similar irony, intelligence, vulnerability and a certain provocativeness. When this Elektra shows her soft side (as in the Recognition Scene), this sounds like a natural consequence. The problem remains that Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is doomed from the start – there cannot be a sense that she is going to survive this. And Catherine Foster is somehow too self-possessed and too ready to soften to ultimately deal with the escalating paroxysms leading to the final exhaustion in the end of the opera. If I had to point out a drawback in this performance, however, this would be less than crispy declamation, making some of Elektra’s vituperation generalized and unvaried.

Camilla Nylund’s velvety soprano offered a nice contrast for Chrysothemis. She dealt with the testingly high tessitura without saturating the picture with strident high notes and blended well with her Elektra towards the end of the opera. A beautiful performance. I have never warmed to Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra and hearing her live only confirmed my impression that she lacks resonance in this lower role, often resorts to speaking voice and is sometimes inaudible. Her understanding of the psychology of this role is very keen and more believable than the caricature put on by some exponents of this part. Günther Groissöck was a dark-toned, resonant Orest, and the role of Ägysth was glamorously cast with Stephen Gould, who could sing all his notes over a loud orchestra. Small roles were all of them well taken, but Gala El Hadidi (Second Maid) and Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Third Maid) deserve special mention.

Why cannot Max hit his mark anymore? The explanation in the libretto is that Kaspar had him on a spell. OK. Next question: why cannot Kaspar suffer Max and Agathe’s prospects of happiness? Countertenor-turned-stage-director Axel Köhler gives us the obvious answer: post-traumatic stress disorder. Max and Kaspar fought at the Thirty Years’ War, a particularly gruesome conflict that led to devastation, famine and disease. While Max had found hope in his love for Agathe and is understandably uncomfortable with a gun in his hand, Kaspar is a prisoner of battlefield terror and is resentful of having his ex-comrade in arm’s possibility of redemption. In this staging, the war is just over: all sets are ruins, people are clearly edgy and the Wolfschlucht scene does not need supernatural horrors: the memory of what had just happened is far more frightening. The concept is all right coherent, clear and often revelatory, but it is somewhat superficially represented in the Personenregie. Moreover, the anachronistic costumes jar against the Rolf-Liebermann-opera-movie sceneries. Those who have first discovered this opera in Carlos Kleiber’s DGG studio recording would have some trouble in recognizing the same orchestra this evening under the baton of Christian Thielemann. While Kleiber, Jr., had the Staatskapelle Dresden sizzle in bright sonorities and fast tempi, Thielemann works on a dense orchestral sound, his interpretation made from large brushstrokes and focused on contrast of atmosphere, with transitions heavily underlined. With the glamorous help of the Staatskapelle, success was guaranteed: the Wunderharfe’s rich velvety strings enveloped the vigorous brass-and-drums approach, the Semperoper’s uniquely warm acoustics offered an almost Bayreuthian glow and the Sächsische Staatsopernchor sang heartily. The conductor proved to be very kind to his singers, cushioning their voices in rich yet not overwhelming accompaniment in their arias – in return he kept them in tight rein in more rhythmically exacting passages. In her Kiri-Te-Kanawa-like plush lyric soprano, Sara Jakubiak has an ideally appealing voice for the role of Agathe. She sang with affection, sensitivity and good taste. If she wasn’t completely successful, this has to do with perfectible German (and I am not talking about the dialogues) and the fact that she sounds fazed when the least flexibility is required from her (as in the end of Leise, leise). In long, poised lines, she was always in her element and offered a touching Und ob die Wolke. I would be curious to hear her as Arabella. Christina Landshamer (Ännchen) sounds a bit out of sorts in both ends of her range, but other than this sang with charm, spirit and spontaneity. Michael König took a while to warm and could not make much of his aria. He made some beautiful tonal shading in his trio with Agathe and Ännchen, but the tone was too often too open and a bit nasal. It must be challenging to sing Kaspar in the theatre where Theo Adam built the “golden standard” for this role, but Georg Zeppenfeld, maybe as a preparation for his upcoming ambitious Heldenbariton venture (yes, Wotan…), more than met the challenge. This was a truly exciting performance: the voice firm and dark over the complete range, the text crispy and clear, the dramatic intentions perfectly understood and rendered, the dialogues exemplarily handled, the acting fully mastered. Bravo. In comparison, Andreas Bauer’s Hermit sounded quite woolly and prosaic. Adrian Eröd had no problem with the high tessitura of the role of Prince Ottakar, Albert Dohmen was an imposing Kuno, Sebastian Wartig took the limited opportunity offered by the role of Killian to show an interesting voice and real acting talent and all bridesmaids were competently cast.

The fact that Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin are presenting two operas by Richard Strauss (in the same week) might suggest that a Strauss series is following the Wagner opera omnia finished two years ago, but this does not seem to be the case. As far as the program explains, Daphne and Elektra are indeed the only two items in a series involving R. Strauss and Greek mythology (curiously, no mention to Ariadne here). In any case, Daphne is a rare item and it is always a pleasure to listen to this neglected masterpiece. It is not, one must acknowledge, a listener-friendly masterpiece: although the orchestral writing and structural understanding are the work of a superior composer, it is also true that inspiration is not there all the time. It is clear that Maestro Janowski’s mission with this performance was to make this score sound at its most congenial. Tempi were fast, orchestral effects theatrically informed, the intent of having a great arch of unending “melody” carried out by the orchestra meant as a means to combat the fragmentary impression often mentioned by those not fully convinced by this bucolic drama. In this sense, the performance can be counted as a success. For those already convinced of Daphne’s qualities, the impression was a little bit tamer. The sense of chamber music in large scale, which lies in the core of this opera’s tone palette, seemed to run a bit lost in a “big-sound” late Romantic approach; the RSB, in spite of its engagement and animation, lacks the transparent strings of a Vienna Philharmonic to try this approach without saturating the aural picture; and some of the rustic sounds tried by the brass section verged on roughness. As in his Wagner series, the idea of placing singers in the sitting area of the auditorium brings about problematic balance. When the RBS first revealed its 2014/2015 program, the name of Christine Schäfer was most puzzlingly announced for the title role and finally replaced by that of  Regine Hangler. The young Austrian soprano has one of those bell-toned, unfailingly focused voices blessed by absolute facility. Aided by virginal tonal quality and the most artless of personalities (one had the sensation of hearing a grown-up Von Trapp girl tackling a very difficult part with absolute ardor), she could not help being entirely convincing in the part. By the way she cleanly attacked her high notes without much of a blossom but rather with steely radiance, one could tell she was a pupil of Mara Zampieri, but differently from her teacher, the sound generally retains its natural sweetness even in exposed passages. Predictably, the mezza voce in the closing scene tested her and one or two notes sounded flat. All in all, a pleasant performance from a singer with great musicianship and crystalline diction. Stefan Vinke’s nasal middle register and wooden high notes are not persuasive per se, but he has amazing stamina and is rhythmically alert. The role of Apollo is extremely demanding, and yet he sounded immune from exhaustion. That was not the case of Daniel Behle, who seemed taxed by the more heroic writing in Leukippos and Apollo’s confrontation scene. He sang, however, with great charm, imagination and pleasant tone (when not hard-pressed). Daniela Denschlag was a light yet warm and dark-toned Gaea and Sorin Coliban was a resonant, voluminous Peneios.

I myself find it hard to believe, but this evening’s performance of Aida in Rome is the first performance of an Italian opera I gave ever seen in Italy. It is not, however, my first performance of an Italian opera by an Italian opera company, thanks to the visits of La Scala, La Fenice and even the Rome Opera to Tokyo. In any case, I did not have high expectations. An Italian friend even told me that I was a fool to buy a ticket for a performance of an opera company that could cease to exist amidst financial problems. In any case, the performance happened without any surprises. And this could unfortunately describe the performance itself.

Although Micha van Hoecke has explained that his intension was to avoid grandiosity, he did not seem to mind kitsch: the audience was treated to generose doses of stock gestures, cute ballet numbers, technicolor costumes plus absence of insight. It seems that this production was first seen in the Arena di Verona, where the setting was supposed to add the atmosphere sorely missing this evening. Conductor Jader Bignamini evidently took pains for keeping the proceedings clean and correct, and that basically involved refraining everyone’s enthusiasm (except in what regarded the drummer). The result was a recessed string section, low dramatic tension and no sense of building climax, probably as a side effect of having to help out a light-voiced cast who did not have much to say about their roles.

Csilla Boross is not a dramatic soprano. I wouldn’t call her a soprano lirico spinto ither, but rather a lyric soprano in the sense of someone who should be singing the Countess Almaviva but who is not of afraid of distorting her already edgy high register into something piercingly metallic to cope with dramatic passages. Although she seemed to have an emotional connection with Aida’s predicaments and the tonal quality per se is youthful, the lack of morbidezza and the bottled-up high notes and increasing strain did not help her in lyric passages wither. I am not sure if Radamès is a role for Fabio Sartori either, especially this evening, when his tenor sounded unfocused and somewhat rasping. He could phrase cleanly as usual and produce some big high notes, but they sounded pushed and wooden too. I do not think he was in his best shape and an uncongenial part only showed that more clearly. Both basses were also on the light side for their roles. Giovanni Meoni’s baritone is a bit hard and his manners are a bit boorish, but that goes well for Amonasro. The fact that he was the only singer not overparted on stage sounded particularly refreshed this evening.

Anita Rachvelishvili’s Amneris deserves a paragraph for herself. I had not seen her live before and was positively impressed by the plushness and warmth of her mezzo soprano, qualities used with great skill to produce a feminine and seductive impression. As a matter of fact, this Amneris scored every point in what regards subtlety and was never afraid of floating mezza voce and keeping a pure legato line. In many moments, her approach made the role sound entirely new to me, also because of her fine word pointing and clear diction. But the fact remains that this is a part for a dramatic mezzo soprano. Rachvelishvili can flash a dramatic high note now and then, but too many of them in sequence clearly tax her. The fact that she generally is honest about her passaggio often collides with her intention of producing impact around her gear change, what makes the whole proceedings even more exhausting to her. She does have the fiery temper for the Judgment Scene, but I have an impression that a cool head there would be more effective in keeping her from going beyond her limits and exposing the limitation itself – a lesson she could learn from Daniela Barcellona, who gave her 100% in a concert performance of the Teatro alla Scala with Gustavo Dudamel in Tokyo, but never more than that. Or, if she is not that kind of person, then throwing caution to the winds should be more exciting than frustrating (cf Agnes Baltsa or Brigitte Fassbaender). All that said, she was the reason why I didn’t leave in the intermission.

In its yearly Wagner offering, the Tokyo Spring Festival goes a step further in its Ring cycle conducted by Marek Janowski featuring international casts (some singers from Janowski’s Wagner series recorded live in the Philharmonie in Berlin appear here too) with two concert performances of Die Walküre. In order to add some theatrical flavor to the proceedings, video projections depicting the sets for each act are shown, although none of these images are remotely as expressive as Waltraud Meier’s face.

The German mezzo, in excellent voice this afternoon, has adapted her Sieglinde to her present lighter-voiced self, building a particularly vulnerable and touching character, especially in act III when she thanks Brünnhilde for saving her life with palpable sense of awe and fervor. Without any doubt, I would call this the best Sieglinde I’ve heard from her in recent years. It was also fortunate that Catherine Foster too was in great shape, offering here a Brünnhilde more smoothly and sensitively sung rather than either in Bayreuth or in Berlin. Elisabeth Kulman’s Fricka is a lesson in how building a dramatic performance with a lyric voice: her mezzo is ideally focused in every register; the crystal-clear diction and the rhythmic accuracy make for unfailing incisiveness; and she handles the text with imagination and intelligence. Robert Dean Smith is, as always, a light Siegmund, with ideal legato and dynamic variety, but some might miss some radiance in his high notes. Egils Silins is a vocally unproblematic yet monochromatic and not truly subtle Wotan. In Sung Sim is a powerful and dark-toned Hunding. The team of Japanese valkyries was rather irregular, especially among the lower-voiced singers.

Maestro Janowski led a forward-moving and rhythmic alert performance that responded competently to some practical problems: a fast account of Wotan’s big act II monologue to compensate for a not particularly expressive soloist, for example. He demanded everything from the NHK Symphony Orchestra, which, inspired by Rainer Küchl’s ad hoc activity as spalla, worked hard for a bright, focused sound à la Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians produced some praiseworthy passagework in the end of act I, but the strife for clarity in the Walkürenritt ultimately brought about an impression of disjointedness. At some point, one could feel a sense of exhaustion, but giving up was fortunately never an option this afternoon. This performance only confirms the NHK SO’s Wagnerian potential still to yield interesting results as this ring cycle progresses.

Gilbert Deflo’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut  (a co-production with the Deutsche Oper Berlin actually) is entirely free of any Regie approach – it just tells the story in some sort of foolproof way and the old minimalistic sets/elaborate costumes combo. There is not much of a Personenregie either, but I would rather say that this wise choice under the circumstances. In any case, some things could be refined: for instance, when Des Grieux comes to prevent Manon to board the ship to Louisiana, the other deportees act as nothing were happening (what is VERY unlikely). Also, Geronte has the gait of an elderly man, but has no problem in reaching things on the floor and then getting up.

Pier Giorgio is usually a reliable conductor in this repertoire – and he did get things moving on, but “passion” is not the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra’s specialty. The score requires plenty of that, but here the replacement was “brassiness”. As a result, the overall impression was of bureaucratic noisiness. At least, singers were given enough leeway to take care of the interpretation department.

Svetla Vassileva is something of a director’s dream casting for the role of Manon: she has the looks and – although her Manon is too much of a good girl (at least in this production) – the attitude. I would not say she truly has the voice for it, but her lyric soprano can deal with it without much problem. Her soprano has a Freni-like shimmering quality that can get quite vibrant at times, but a very warm and velvety tonal quality eschews hints of what some call “Slavic” vibrato. She manages the passaggio very adeptly and deals with the low tessitura seamlessly and without any vulgarity. She can still be overshadowed by the orchestra down there (as in Sola, perduta, abbandonata), but compensates with sensitive shading and beautiful mezza voce now and then, not to mention flexibility and charm in the act II gavotte. The natural feeling for Italian style and the fact that she seems to inhabit her text and notes adds up to a pleasing if not truly moving performance. I have the impression that purely lyric roles would show her more advantageously. After seeing Gustavo Porta as an unsubtle Canio some months ago, I was not really looking forward for his Des Grieux. I am glad to report that his Des Grieux was a different story. I found the voice stronger-centered and a bit darker in sound. As in the NNT’s Pagliacci, he deals with heroic high notes without effort, but proved to be capable of some nuance too: he scaled down for piano quite often and even floated mezza voce once or twice. His line was also clean of some vulgarities some tenors sell as “verismo style”, but calling it “elegant” would be a stretch. There are moments of flutter and he seemed a bit tired in No, pazzo son. Dalibor Jenis was a congenial Lescaut, in particularly good voice today.

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