Camilla Nylund is the Opernhaus Zürich’s next Isolde and Brünnhilde. That is probably why I took a while to decide if a Liederabend at this point was a good idea for someone just about to go for broke in hoch dramatisch repertoire. A less than half full auditorium seemed to show that I was not the only one to have doubts about this evening. All I can say I am glad I finally bought this ticket, for this was a truly enjoyable recital. First of all, Ms. Nylund’s voice does not show any sign that she has been singing really heavy repertoire for a long while. It now sounds its absolute best – a combination of full warmth and focus as one could hear in some Golden Age Italian prime donne. She plunged into her low register with absolute naturalness, the middle is velvety yet clear and the high notes are full and rich.

But that’s not all – differently from many singers who deal with Wagnerian repertoire, she does not sound eager to prove that she deserves to be there. She sings with her own voice throughout; she does not try to make it sound darker, bigger, stronger or more penetrating. It is voluminous enough and she knows that. Plus her technique is rock-solid. All that enabled her to produce immaculate legato, deliver the text with crystalline diction and to offer singing of disarming emotional honesty. Even if you prefer someone else singing any of these songs, you would not feel inclined to compare her with anyone else, because she was being truly herself there. She addressed the public and shared her feelings about the Sibelius items in the program. Twice she got the wrong stanza of the text and had to stop, and yet she seemed so at ease that the audience felt almost in a private concert when she excused herself, showed a congenial smile and picked up where she left with unchanged commitment.

Other than “Black roses”, I was not familiar with the other Sibelius songs performed this evening, but as much as I can judge without speaking Swedish (and Finnish for one of the songs), she sang with ardor and yet a very clean line. Jubal op.35, no.1, for instance, was phrased with almost Mozartian grace without any loss of passion. The Mahler part of the program was an odd assortment of songs. Nylund negotiated well the melisme in Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? and sang the “dialect” heartily. Ten seconds later, she showed Innigkeit and dynamic variety in Wo die schöne Trompeten blasen. Das irdische Leben was fully operatic, her middle register delivered with a splash of the spoken voice. And back we were to the spiritual concentration of Urlicht, only to return to the operetta-ish word of Verlorne Müh’ and Scheiden und Meiden. If sometimes we had the impression that, nimbly as she lightened her voice, that the operation required the ability of someone on a tightrope. Therefore, the most outspoken numbers felt a little bit more relaxed. And it is never enough to repeat: she handled the text really adeptly, if often with a touch of the operatic.

After the intermission, she offered – for the first time with piano accompaniment in her career, as she explained – Alban Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder. She had the score with her “just to make sure everything would be fine” and one could sense a little bit of loss in personality there. That said, these songs gain a lot with a richer voice, especially one that manage some dynamic variety in high notes. Although one cannot speak of true mezza voce, Nylund’s voice has a natural float that does the trick. As expected, the Strauss items were the highlights of this recital. I don’t think anyone today can sing these pieces better than her. Songs like Cäcilie and Ruhe, meine Seele benefit from a round big, voice of course (and her climactic high notes really filled the hall with a satined glow), but I don’t think I had ever enjoyed Malven as much as I have this evening for the very same reasons. And her almost hushed Morgen was effective too.

The combination of Ms. Nylund’s creamy, impassionate singing with Joonas Ahonen’s almost detached pianism, keen on very precise and economic pedalling, could seem odd at first, but I thought it really added an extra dimension to this recital in his musical clarity and objectivity and ear for tonal coloring. It complemented rather than reinforced the singing. And he handled the most athletic items with gusto.

Ms. Nylund found it important to sing the Wesendonk Lieder in Zurich – and offered as encores Schmerzen and Träume, both truly richly and sensitively sung. And yet I really enjoyed the extra Sibelius item too – an exquisite song called “Was it a dream?”.

I don’t think I am alone in considering Arabella a masterpiece, and I have often wondered why it is so rarely staged. This evening the answer was evident to me – the forces required are above what an opera house is able to offer in regular circumstances. It is obvious that all main roles are hard to sing, but sometimes one forgets that the small parts are also very tough to sing, not only the Fiakermilli – Elemer is pretty hard and the fortune-reader is tricky, just to name two. To make things worse, the score doesn’t spare the orchestra one second. And we cannot forget – it is also hard to stage. If you are going for a traditional staging, then you need the full glamour (and it is not going to be low-budget). On the other hand, the libretto is so deeply connect to the Viennese setting that it is very difficult to stylize, update or adapt. So let’s talk about the staging first.

As much as in his production of Rosenkavalier for Salzburg and New York, Robert Carsen finds it important to show this in the context of its creation. As the plot doesn’t go as far as the 18th century as in the case of the Marschallin, the Count Octavian and the Baron Ochs, having it played in the 1930’s makes far more sense for the Waldners. It is bold – and probably only approved by the Intendant because we’re in Switzerland – to have swastikas all over the place – and it makes sense in a the-sound-of-music point-of-view. Mandryka comes from a Romantic context of castles and forests and rescues Arabella from a corrupt and perverted society. God knows the world is sorely in need to be reminded of the dangers of evil and extremism, but I guess the point would have been more efficiently taken if the approach were less heavy-handed. You know, when we slowly take in and suddenly realize “Good Lord, they’re nazis!” For instance, the ballet in the interlude between act 2 and 3 with the yodellers being “assaulted” by the SS troopers was the dictionary example of overkill – and it was noisy and I’d rather hear Strauss music without it. Anyway, unsubtle as the whole thing was, I could live with it. I could live with the unimaginative Personenregie too, even if it tended to the overbusy and the emphatic. What really turned me off was the scenery. I don’t think any grand hotel in Vienna in the 1930’s would look so ugly and common as in this staging. I guess managers of less grand hotels would have lost their jobs if they let the carpet in the main lobby as rippled as the one seen on stage this evening. Call me conservative, but I missed a staircase too. Its absence involved lots of character vanishing backstage and appearing on the second floor and then screaming their lines for someone on ground level.

I guess that maybe three or four opera houses in the world have an orchestra capable to perform the score of Arabella with paramount standards of excellence. And the Opernhaus Zürich is not one of them. I don’t write this as nay-sayer, but it is important to establish this fact to explain this particular performance. Conductor Markus Poschner offered a formidable account of the score, one that would have left audiences in the Vienna State Opera or in the Semperoper in absolute awe. The orchestral sound was full and rich and well blended, the tempi were dramatic, flexible in keeping with the dramatic situations with swift accents and some vertiginous passagework from the strings. A more cautious conductor would have noticed that the forces available were sorely tested by the fireworks-like conducting and would have probably adapt the concept to something more foolproof. To be honest, in most of Arabella’s and Zdenka’s music, it worked. It felt grand and emotional. Not really so in Mandryka’s music, when the impression could be of lack of polish and sometimes awkwardness. In all honesty, nobody could say it was not exciting, and these musicians gave their all this evening. Let’s say it just isn’t one for the records. You’d have to be there to get the picture.

When the 2021/2022 season was announced, the name of Anja Harteros appeared in the cast list. I don’t think that, at this point, anybody believed she would actually sing. So the big suspense here was to guess who would replace her. A couple of months ago, this German soprano was supposed to sing R. Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Marek Janowski at the Tonhalle until we heard that she would be replaced by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, a singer I had seen only once in the part of Zdenka when Harteros herself was singing Arabella. Ms. Müller’s voice has developed since then and, although there is little tonal glamour, she managed to do a more than decent job in that concert. The problem is that “tonal glamour” is a requirement for Arabella, and I was curious of how she would fare in a Lotte Lehmann role. Well, it seems I’ll still have to discover, since she was replaced in the last minute by Jacquelyn Wagner. I am not sure that Ms. Wagner has a Lotte Lehmann voice either – but neither Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa could be described in those terms – and Ms. Wagner comes fresh from her Elsa in Salzburg and has one recording of Arabella to her credit. When I heard her live many years ago as Micaela in Berlin, I recall a Mozartian voice of some purity and creaminess of tone. Her incursions in heavier repertoire have since then brought about a certain graininess à la Deborah Voigt (without the heft) that is not immediately appealing. It is still a lyric soprano’s voice, one without the last ounce of volume necessary for us to hear everything she sings in her middle register. Yet it is a very healthy voice, one that goes up and down through her registers without any visible shift or hesitation. She took the whole first act to warm – what is understandable, considered she was flown in only yesterday for this performance – and at moments seemed overshadowed by her Zdenka. In act 2, her soprano showed its full bloom, she seemed more at ease and sang effortlessly the high-lying phrases of her duet with Mandryka. Most importantly, she proved to be able to let the exposed high notes spin and gain projection without forcing, especially in the last scene, which she sang really richly. She is a singer incapable of bad taste and, being tall and blond, is just convincing enough in the part. If she doesn’t look and sound truly seductive, at least there is some patrician restraint in her, which is more than I can say of some Arabellas I have seen.

I wonder how the pairing of Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (as Arabella) and Anett Fritsch (as Zdenka) might have sounded, because these are singers of similar Fach and repertoire. Ms. Fritsch is one of those sopranos whose glory is rather the middle than the high register, what maybe at odds with the tessitura of the role of Zdenka. As it was, she was often the most hearable person on stage. As she used the text with unusual intelligence, there was always an interesting turn of phrase (also in terms of tone colouring) to entertain the audience. But the hallmark of a good Zdenka is how she handles her high notes, especially if she can float mezza voce in the duet with Arabella. Predictably, that was not the case here. Ms. Fritsch worked hard and didn’t disgrace herself at all, but her high register could be piercing and was never smooth. That said, she shone in all conversational passages, especially in her scenes with Matteo, when she could provide the necessary intensity without tampering with a bright, feminine basic sound. I took a while to recognize Pavol Breslik in the latter role. I had not heard him in a long while and the voice has now a darker quality and a little bit less projection than I remembered. He handles the high notes famously and has the right personality for the part. This performance had more than one Wagner in the cast, as Josef Wagner (as in the première) takes the role of Mandryka. His is a curiously smoky voice, what makes him work hard to pierce through the orchestra, except in high notes, which are tightly focused and big. We can see he knows when he needs to scale down for the more lyrical passages, but his tonal palette is not very wide. To his favor, he has the right attitude and looks for the part and is comfortable with both comedy and romance.

There is no accounting for taste, but you can always write an account of your experience with something. A commission from the Opernhaus Zürich to Swiss composer Stefan Wirth, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is not a work to my taste. And this is pretty much my problem, not the composer’s, of course. That said, I’ll try to explain why I don’t like it as a member of the audience. I.e., I won’t speak of composition technique etc, because that’s above my depth.

First, I don’t feel that Tracy Chevalier’s book is a good source for an opera libretto. I didn’t even like the film beyond the historical reconstitution and maybe the cinematography as an experiment. Second, Philip Litell’s libretto is inept in its total aloofness. Characters narrate event rather than live through it and exchange platitudes instead of expressing any feeling. So you have long stretches of dialogues that sound like “I separate vegetables by colour”. “Is an onion the same white as a radish?” Third, I guess not even Mozart would have been able to inject some life in a libretto like that – and one can hear that in the music. Mr. Writh’s writing for the orchestra is rich in unusual colors and the recurring “motives” are identifiable etc, but they are telling a story totally unrelated to the “plot”. And we know why – there is no plot and there is nothing to express. I mean, one could dig up and make something about “growing up”, “discovery of new emotions” etc, but that is not what the librettist did here. Girl with a Pearl Earring is not the first opera whose main character is not a person, but a work of art or rather its creation. Yes, I am speaking of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. Some will point out Capriccio is arguably Strauss’s most “boring” opera (I don’t agree) – and yet Strauss had a better libretto. It’s witty and the whole affair with the creation of the opera is directly related to these character’s feelings. “Music or literature?” is not a rhetorical question there, it is a matter of feelings, a mater of love.

Strauss has also two clear advantages over Mr. Wirth. The first of them is that good old Richard knew how to write for voices, while the Swiss composer basically have them repeating notes or note patterns in uncongenial part of their voices in a way that make it impossible for them to put any personal content in their singing. You don’t actually need to write catchy melodies (as Strauss could when he needed) to write an opera. There is only one “song” in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and it is not even very catchy, but it is extremely suggestive and atmospheric. How many catchy tunes are there in Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites? Or in Janacek’s Vec Mackropulos? And yet they catch our attention in a way some melodic operas fail to do because these composers really knew how to catch the “pattern” (and I am using the concept of Japanese art here, as mastering the framework of a natural object in a way that allows you to stylize it as a thing of beauty) of spoken language and to make its inner aesthetic quality blossom. This allows the singer to relate, the audience to relate in a way that goes beyond “a lovely tune”. But again – I liked the writing for the orchestra and I would have enjoyed this as an “orchestral suite” no longer than 25 minutes in a concert.

Director Ted Huffman had to work hard with a libretto devoid of drama, burdened by flashbacks (never a good idea in opera) and sequences of short scenes in different locations. It felt a bit rushed, but it worked with very simple stage elements, although costumes could have been a little bit more convincing. I mean, they looked a bit like the budget was short. I can’t speak about the conducting, since I have no elements of comparison.

In the title role (Griet), Lauren Snouffer had a thankless job, something like singing two hours of Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder in English translation. It must have been exhausting to sing so much high-lying music with so little vibrato with very clear diction. Not to mention it must requires a prodigious musical memory. I can’t say she made it all sound “expressive” because I don’t think this is possible, but it did sound tasteful. And her sound is apt for the role and there was enough tonal roundness to make it palatable. I hadn’t seen Laura Aikin in a very long while, and yet I found her remarkable fresh of tone as Ms. Vermeer. Her character had a little bit more to work with in terms of basic emotions, and she could make it very clear that she wasn’t happy about what was going on there. Embodying the voice of the Vermeer children, Lisa Tatin sang a part that makes Mozart’s Popoli di Tessaglia sound like something written for a low voice. And she seemed curiously very enthusiastic about it. The three low-voice female singers – Liliana Nikiteanu, Irène Friedli and Sarah Castle – had the advantage of singing music more central in tessitura and, therefore, could make a little bit more of the text than the sopranos. Tenor Andrew Owens deserves a medal for learning the part of Van Ruijven in a couple of days because the originally cast singer fell ill. And there’s Thomas Hampson as the man himself, Vermeer. The libretto has very little material for acting in the role – and Hampson makes it happen by virtue of charisma. What he did – and this is truly remarkable – and that he was able to create the illusion that this music is actually singable. Bravo.

It is almost a surprise to myself how much I enjoy every performance of Janacek’s Jenufa, regardless of how good it actually is. No other opera in the repertoire speaks so readily to the heart. This means that it is actually hard to have an objective view, but I’ll try. 

This is only the second time I see a staging by Tatiana Gürbaca, and I have to say she has a very organized mind. Every scenic element on stage is there for a reason and everything relates to the main concept in an almost mathematical way. This also means that they tend to the cerebral – and Jenufa is a work supposed to speak directly to the heart. My first impression this evening was that the single set was too Scandinavian, too conceptual and too designed. Gradually it made sense in its claustrophobic atmosphere, in the way it highlighted the acting and, most of all, how efficiently it worked for every scene, regardless of outdoor or indoor circumstances or of how many people were involved. All that means that you had no distractions; the director made you look at the actors in an almost microscopic way. The problem is that you need real actors in circumstances like that. 

I cannot put my finger on what was wrong with Corinne Winters’s Jenufa -or even if what was wrong was a directorial choice. At least for me, a key element of the role is the vulnerability and how in the end it turns out to be a strength rather than a weakness. And to my eyes, Ms. Winters looked puzzlingly self-possessed and in charge throughout the opera. She seemed piqued rather than desperate with the prospect of being a single mother in act 1, she delivered the text about death being the best thing for the baby as if she actually believed that, she smiled too much and too openly when Laca appears to propose and, in act 3, she looked almost happy in preparation for her wedding. And then in the end, when she should behave as if she had an epiphany or something like that, there is very little contrast for one to notice the transformation. In a sense, it seemed that the opera was being performed around her rather than with her. Vocally, I must say that hers is not the voice I expect in the role. It lacks naturalness in its constructed tonal plushness that prevents her high notes to generate any radiance (or dynamic contrast). This only reinforced this sense of self-containment and discretion. This does not mean she did not sing well – she is a musicianly singer who does nothing wrong, but it felt like listening to music for the violin played in a viola. 

Sharing the stage with Evelyn Herlitzius did not make it easier for her. This German soprano is used to dramatic roles and has no problem in living up to the intensity of a scene. And she does it quite naturally. Her big act 2 monologue, for instance, felt especially disturbing. The way this Kostelnicka spoke of killing a baby was almost like the way a farmer explains why one put a calf “to sleep”. For some reason, this is a role often cast with a singer no longer in her prime. On paper, that’s the case of Ms. Herlitzius. That said, it sits in all the sweet spots of her voice – and this is probably the healthiest singing I have heard from her in a while. It has always been an odd voice – and you’ll find all its hallmark peculiarities here. But – once you’re not hearing a “normal voice” in the part (I mean – and I’m repeating myself here – like Eva Randová’s in the MacKerraa studio recording) – Herlitzius’s “oddity” makes sense.  

An important part of the success of a performance of Jenufa has to do with the contrast between the tenors cast as Laca and Steva. Traditionally, Steva’s handsomeness is portrayed by an Italianate tone, while Laca’s inaptitude gets a more typicality tight “Slavic” sound. This evening, the contrast was alright there, but in a rather surprising way. Our Laca, American Heldentenor Daniel Brenna, sang with stentorian power, flashing Siegfried-ian big high notes in the auditorium with no effort. I can’t say how good an actor he is, but he looked convincing in his naturalness. Sometimes when Laca is made to sound like Mime, it is difficult to understand Jenufa’s change of opinion of him. It has been a while since I last heard Ladislav Elgr. I had the memory of a lyric, rather dulcet voice. This evening his sing was more angular and metallic, what made the character’s less appealing side more evident. All minor roles were well cast – both in terms of singing and acting. 

This is the second time I hear Tomáš Hanus conduct Jenufa. Last time I wrote about an apparent attempt of reining the orchestra to help the cast. That was not the case this evening. The hall has rather dry acoustic, but one could feel nonetheless the volume of orchestral sound. Mr. Hanus has a long experience with the work, and one can hear it in the way each scene got its precise color and pace while at the same time it all connected in an organic and coherent way. 

Almost everybody says that the Decca/Culshaw Ring is the most important release of the golden age in which opera was recorded in studio. I beg to differ. Paramount as the Solti Ring was, no other project was so decisive for the diffusion of the works recorded as the Philips series of Haydn’s Esterházy operas. First, these were recording premières. Second, although those were unknown works (and still are), they were extravagantly cast with some of the most legendary singers of the age: Norman, Cotrubas, Augér, Ameling (!), Prey, Bruson, Ramey et al. This is something nobody would be able to do today. It is like visiting Versailles and wondering why there are not buildings like that anymore. Third, they were all superbly conducted by Antal Doráti. And where? Here in Switzerland, with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. That is why I took the train to see this performance of Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, involving singers from the Opernhaus Zürich’s International Opera Studio plus the forces of the Musikkollegium Winterthur in the Theater Winterthur.

As it is, this is a performance involving young names – and comparisons with the formidable names in the Doráti recording are out of place. That said, some of these singers this evening acquitted themselves quite well, two of them even lived up to the competition. Even sabotaged by a director who made her fidget around and bounce and jump and God knows what during extremely difficult coloratura in her first aria, Chinese soprano Ziyi Dai, once recovered from an understandably bumpy account of the said number, offered singing of classical poise, tasteful phrasing, real trills and soaring, exquisite high notes. In the case of Mexican tenor Leonardo Sánchez, even if he couldn’t help Donizetti-sizing his Haydn whenever he could include an extra high note, I would say I prefer him to Luigi Alva in the recording. His voice is more beautiful than Alva’s, warm and round in the tradition of Francisco Araiza and Ramón Vargas, his phrasing is cleaner and he was the only person on stage who really used the Italian language in his favor. He has an exuberant personality – boosted by the director’s fondness for overacting – and probably wouldn’t like to hear that he could be a superlative Mozart tenor (we all knows, this has become something of an offence these days). Venezuelan tenor Luís Magallanes deserves to be mentioned too – the role of Cecco is a bit tricky, the tessitura is high, and yet he sang it with unusual poise and cleanliness. It is a pity he had an accident before the performance and wasn’t able to act. I have seen him in small roles in Zurich – and he can be a very efficient actor. I am not fully convinced that Chelsea Zurflüh is really a soprano, although she has all her high notes. Her low register is warm and round, but her incursions in sopranoland involve some constriction, just like a high mezzo à la Magdalena Kozená cast in soprano parts. She has here the responsability of taking the role Swiss soprano Edith Mathis sang in the Doráti recording – and constriction apart – she has a natural instinct for classical style (as in Mozart and Haydn). She sculpts her phrases with instrumental poise – and raised to the challenge of the opera’s most beautiful number, the act 2 love duet with the tenor.

When Haydn wrote Il Mondo della Luna, he noticed that there is one single role that could be called “serious”, which is the role of Ernesto. That is why he composed it for the castrato voice. I mean, the 18th century public would immediately understand that the role for the castrato is the serious role. And that was also part of the fun of the story – Ernesto is supposed to be the non-funny guy having to take part in this comedy for a serious reason: he is in love and that is the only way of getting to marry his beloved Flaminia. Hence I find it difficult to accept the idea of hearing the part transposed to the tenor voice, what involves having a singer permanently in the less appealing part of his range and with serious difficulty of producing legato in some of the noble music Haydn wrote. As the stage direction seemed incapable of understanding any kind of nuance, Ernesto seemed rather like a buffoon in a serious sugar rush – and it was hard to understand why the “serious” sister (Flaminia) would have any interest in him.

I am trying not to write too much about the production, but its shortcomings had so many negative effects in the musical side of the performance that it’s been difficult to avoid the topic. I understand that the opera is very long and cuts had to be made, but – in order to accommodate the director’s restlessness – almost every number of a gentler nature (all of them exquisite) were deleted, while a great some unimportant chunks of recitative (rarely delivered in idiomatic Italian, one of the official languages of this country) were left untouched. I might sound here crankier than what I really felt these evening – that is why I must say that I like director Tomo Sugao’s concept. He didn’t try to make the story more politically correct than it is (it verges on the unacceptable), but showed it in a context (a home for elderly people) that makes we understand why Bonafede (the detestable father) behaves like he does, what is an undeniable plus. The fact that the whole “voyage to the moon” is fuelled on drugs is also an effective way of telling this story – and Michaela Barth’s costume are terrific in showing the shift to the ”lunar” setting – but everything is so exaggerated, noisy, anti-musical, gratuitous that it all felt like high school theatre. I guess now that it’s out of my chest, I can praise Joseph Bastian’s stylish conducting, the ensembles – even amid that overacting-fest – were amazingly precise, the orchestra had the right touch of roughness, he was always there to help his singers, who also took some risks in fast tempi.

Wagner wrote most of Das Rheingold in Zurich. Is that relevant to a performance of the first instalment of the Opernhaus’s new productin of the Ring? In interviews, both director Andreas Homoki and conductor Gianandrea Noseda are confronted with the question. None were able to produce an answer, but Noseda says that he is glad to be conducting the Ring in a German speaking place outside Germany, because he would feel intimidated as an Italian musician to do this in Munich or Berlin. Before listening to the performance, this seemed like the kind of platitude one says in interviews for opera programs. But it took me 15 minutes into the performance to realize that the maestro really indulged himself in conducting this opera from his own perspective. And that perspective can’t help being Italian. I have to be honest – I have never been wowed by Mr. Noseda’s conducting. I have just reread what I wrote about his work Verdi and Puccini operas, and I notice I called it excessively analytic and the word “Wagnerian” appeared once. Therefore, I myself find it funny that now I am using the word “Verdian” for this Rheingold. Nevertheless, I am using it, for I mean it as a compliment here. Although one or two people booed the conductor this evening, I have to say that I really enjoyed this performance. Basically, it was the Rheingold I would have liked to hear here in Zurich. I don’t think that the opera house – considering the quality of its orchestra, the hall’s acoustic and the size of the theatre – would be the best venue for a Furtwänglerian performance. What Mr. Noseda offered this evening flattered every element at his disposal. He calls the house “a boutique opera”, and I believe his boutique Rheingold was also a good choice for Andreas Homoki’s production, but we’ll talk later about the staging.

This was probably the most transparent performance of Das Rheingold I have ever heard, the slim, bright strings offered immaculate articulation. Even when one felt that a little bit more atmosphere would be welcome, you could hear every 16th note just like in a Krystian Zimerman playing a fiendishly difficult Beethoven piano sonata. The balance with the brass section was ideal throughout – the burnished orchestral sound just projected in the hall without any need of huge volume. That does not mean that Mr. Noseda did not use the orchestra’s full power for effects, and whenever that happened, the effect was thrilling. I guess the booers were probably unhappy by another very Italian feature of the performance – it moved forward in an a tempo approach that rarely relaxed but eventually zipped forward with exciting passagework vignette from the violins, very much like in a performance of Macbeth. This means that the orchestra was commenting the action rather than adding a philosophical depth to the proceedings. And that’s all for the better: this is an exciting work with vertiginous plot, and I bet Wagner would rather expect to keep his public on the edge of their seats rather than lost in meditation in this first episode of the tetralogy. I have already implied that the orchestra played with gusto. Sometimes I forget that they can offer something of that level. Bravi.

In terms of singing, this cast is a curious assortment of singers, one that ultimately worked in spite of the oddities. I was frankly surprised to see two distinguished Handelian singers lost in the Walhalla. Actually, it is unfair to say that Irish contralto Patricia Bardon is a newcomer, since she has sung at least the role of Erda, most notably at the Met. Even in her natural tessitura, it is not a booming voice, but she would do fine (especially in Das Rheingold). In a mezzo soprano part, I would not describe it the way. Her high register lacks a piercing edge (and there is not the necessary volume to make for it). It all sounded a bit pale, and I am afraid that this will be even more evident in Die Walküre. I’ve heard Christopher Purves live only once singing a low b flat (one half-tone lower than the lowest note in Der Rosenkavalier, and it was a performance with baroque tuning…). As you can see, he is that kind of bass. I mean, the one who sings Fasolt or Fafner rather than Alberich. In the latter role, he brought his outstanding acting skills to the part – and he can really deliver the text knowingly, This is not his first Alberich (he sang the role in Munich at least), but he seemed ill at ease at times. There was a mix up with the text in the curse scene, when he was really tired and was mostly acting with his voice. It is just too high for him. He has panache and made it work – and I’ve seen singers in the right Fach far more disappointing, but I personally have a problem with the role of Alberich: having seen the young Tomasz Konieczny sing (and act) the hell out of it in Berlin ruined the whole thing for me. To make things worse, Konieczny was our Wotan today, only to remind me how he famously cursed that ring. It’s probably still echoing in the Deutsche Oper’s auditorium to this very day. Before I learned to pronounce his name, I called Konieczny “the Alberich guy”, and I have always been wary of hearing him as the Licht-Alberich. I shouldn’t have. Yes, he is not noble-toned as most Wotans are, but he brings a high-octane intensity to the table that just suits the dramatic situations in Das Rheingold. This is the voice of a man who put everything on stake in order to have the upper hand and is seeing everything going out of control. Konieczny knows his voice is big, and sometimes I have the impression he relies too much on it (as in his Holländer in Paris last year), but this evening he seemed keen on exploring all levels of dynamic and was unusually conversational. His vowels can be a bit overdark, and that was a daring bet, that payed off. When he unleashed the whole scope of his voice, the sound was just massive. And it was really exciting.

I heard Matthias Klink sing the part of Loge as recently as January in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new Ring. He was a last-second replacement and only sang from the side of the stage. But his facial expressions were so convincing that I kept looking at him. Here, allowed to act too, he proved that this is a role he knows from inside out. He is a lyric tenor – he used to sing Mozart roles – in a part that requires something a bit more heroic, which he accomplishes by tiny adjustments and distortions. He knows how to do the trick – and he has a legitimate card on his sleeve, which is the natural pleasant tonal quality of his voice. As a matter of fact, the performance was all strong in the tenor front – Omer Kobilijak showed some exciting heroic high notes as Froh and may develop into heavier Wagnerian parts in the future, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime is now something of a classic. It is praiseworthy that he always sings it as if it were the first time. I was less impressed by both basses cast as Fafner and Fasolt, rather throaty and/or woolly in tone, less dark in tone than their Wotan, what sounds a bit confusing to me. Our Erda too, sounded more Fricka-material than our Fricka, her low notes less earthy than one should expect, but her middle register firm and projecting. Last but not least, the Rhinemaidens were very well cast, especially Uliana Alexyuk, whose high notes are entirely spontaneous and trouble-free.

It is difficult to write about a staging of any part of the Ring without having seen the whole cycle – and we’ll have to wait a couple of months for Die Walküre. I am not usually a Homoki-person – I find his stagings generalized (this one looks a lot like his Rosenkavalier for the Komische Oper… and maybe the Simon Boccanegra here in Zurich too). As it is, we have a rotating set with… guess what?…. rooms with white boiserie and elements of furniture that are recombined to show we are not in the same place anymore. It is staged to look like the time the opera was written (in Zurich, remember?). Wotan and Fricka are dressed like rich people, Froh and Donner are in their cricket uniforms, Fasolt and Fafner seem like people from the countryside in their hunting hats and Loge has a Jack Sparrow costume but no shoes. All scenes are indoors, and the Valhalla is just a big painting in a golden frame. I don’t know who said that the main character in Feydeau’s comedies are the doors – but it seems this goes for this Rheingold too, for characters keep opening and closing doors and many scenes involve crossing many rooms (and opening and closing doors, of course). As this is a rotating set, this means that they could do it forever, but there is the advantage of allowing a specific set to be changed very quickly. For instance, when the gods start to pile up the gold, it’s still tiny, but one spin around the axis is enough to make it the biggest heap of gold I’ve ever seen in a Rheingold. There is also a magic wardrobe as in The Chronicles of Narnia, serving as an elevator to the Nibelheim and as Alberich’s “transformation chamber”. I don’t know about you, but I actually find it refreshing to see a dragon that looks like a dragon for a change. As you can see, I can’t say much about the Dramaturgie, but it was well-directed, well-rehearsed, all singers act well and their interactions are credible. As of Das Rheingold, it is a staging more fun to watch than to write about.

Compared to the BWV 31, performed yesterday in the Kirche Trogen, the BWV 41, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, is the dictionary definition of “feel-good cantata”. It’s a New Year cantata, and its theme could be summarized as such: “Jesus, thanks for a good year – we’ll promise to behave in the new one, so that we deserve 12 months as good as those were”. In order to help the congregation feel in their “safe place”, Bach used as raw material  a new-year hymn well-loved in Leipzig (“Jesu, num sei…”) from 1593 by Johannes Herman. Bach being Bach, the hymn melody first appears draped in complex thematically independent counterpoint as cantus firmus in the soprano voice in augmentation, only to appear in its regular note values later, still in the unusually long opening chorus. The cantata goes further in a rather “cute” soprano aria with three oboes and an exquisite tenor aria with cello solo surrounded by two recitatives before a final chorale in which the trio of trumpets from the opening number bring back their uplifting theme. In many cunning ways, Bach made this a cantata about beginning again. Even the material from each aria is unusually repetitive (never a problem when Bach is involved). 

This evening’s performance couldn’t be more contrasted to yesterday’s account of the BWV 31, when a feeling of unease seemed to hover around. Here the opening chorus bursted into life with irresistible animation, but without the sense of yesterday’s untidiness. Even the trumpets offered playing of superior quality.

I confess I used to find the soprano aria a bit bureaucratic, and yet conductor Rolf Lutz enveloped it in such warm sonorities and chose a more considerate tempo that made it sound welcoming and comforting. Julia Doyle again proved to be an ideal soloist, bell-toned in her high notes and sensuous in tone in her middle register. Furthermore, she sings with genuine joie de chant. Florian Sievert too sang his aria with absolute elegance, none of the strained nasality one usual finds in tenor in this repertoire and a truly dulcet voix mixte. I hope he is invited again in the J.S. Bach-Stiftung’s concerts. Stephan McLeod sounded like an entirely different singer today – his velvety bass now ideally focused and resonant. Last but not least, mezzo soprano Antonia Frey sang her recitative in an ideal boy-alto-ish tone.

The BWV 31, Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubiliert is one of Bach’s most puzzling cantatas. It is an Easter cantata and, as such, is supposed to be festive. And it does sound so at the beginning. First we have a truly uplifting sonata with the trinity trio of trumpets plus drums, followed by a grandiose chorus in the same spirit with exuberant fugal passages and laugh-like melisme on the word “lacht” (laughs) and giggling-like divisions on “jubiliert” (celebrates). The text vaunts Christ’s triumph over death. In a recitative with an almost graphic text (blood spatters included), the bass speaks of Jesus as a hero, a prince in reverential dotted rhythm. And suddenly the mood changes. The tenor tells us in a lilting melody accompanied by strings only that we must let the old man in ourselves, marked by the original sin, die and let the man of the new covenant be born in us. And then the soprano comes in an ecstatic high-lying aria with oboe obligato (in what is supposed to be Bach’s last version arranged in his Leipzig years) to share with us that she cannot wait for the moment of her death in order for her to join Christ in his glory. The trumpets in the serene closing chorale about the joys of eternal life almost sound like an afterthought. 

Tô be honest, I had never quite really “gotten” that cantata until this evening, when guest speaker Christine Blanken, a musicologist and researcher in the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, reminded the audience that the cantata was premiered in Weimar in 1715 in very particular circumstances. Although the occasion demanded a joyous cantata, the young Prince Johann Ernst, a composer himself who even played with Bach in court concerts, had been seriously ill for a long while. At that point, it was clear he wouldn’t live long, although nobody, especially his mother, was ready to accept the fact, probably not even Bach himself. This means that it was probably difficult to get in full celebratory mode then. The prince did die a couple of months later. Music was then banned from the court, and Bach wouldn’t be allowed to complete his series of cantata for the year. 

Because of its ambiguous nature, this cantata is especially challenging for performers. I’ve listened to Suzuki, Gardiner and Koopman, and I don’t think that any of them was capable to render all facets of this score with consistent success. Then I discovered Raphaël Pichon’s video from Paris with his Ensemble Pygmalion. I still find his chorus below the competition in terms of clarity of enunciation, but a conductor raised in the tradition of the concert spirituel has an instinctive and immediate grasp of music making at once solemn, profound… and graceful. 

For instance, even if conductor Rudolf Lutz and the J.S Bach Stiftung orchestra did manage to produce a palpable sense of animation in the opening numbers, they also sounded quite rough, even awkward in the case of the sonata. In the first performance, it sounded downright poorly synched. The repeat after Mrs. Blanken’s speech fared far better, but the problem of wayward trumpets remained. Although the chorus sounded a bit unbalanced towards soprano and altos (who also outnumbered the tenors and basses) , its singing of the “laughing” chorus was simply ideal in its clear articulation. Most important, the number has moments when the chorus has to underline the key slogan-like verses of the text almost as in a TV advertisement: “the creator lives!”, “heaven laughs!” – and these singers couldn’t have done it better. 

The single number I don’t really like in Pichon’s video is the bass aria, for the organ’s decoration are a bit overdone for my taste. Here Mr. Lutz and his organist offered something more effective and sober. The “solemn” continuo is always a bit tough, for it usually sounds rather heavy and ungainly. This evening it created a somewhat “athletic” impression that fits the text description of Christ as a hero. In it, Stephan McLeod lacked the last ounce of focus and at times simply lacked tone. He managed the florid writing smoothly. However, if you had Peter Kooij’s full- and dark-toned singing in Suzuki’s recording in your memory, you’d have missed the true impact this aria can produce. 

I was anxious to see tenor Bernhard Berchtold, whose singing in the J.S. Bach-Stiftung videos is just awesome. So you can imagine how frustrated I was on hearing that he was replaced in the last minute. In any case, Florian Siever, lighter yet sweeter in tone, sang very well, caressing his lines ideally. Although she made a mistake in the second time, Julia Doyle’s first account of the aria was absolutely lovely. I don’t recall having heard the aria sung with such smooth legato, the difficult intervals handled with absolute homogeneity, her middle register appealing and the overall interpretation convincing in its longing. It’s just a pity that the oboist’s solo was more expressive the second time (which probably won’t be make into the final video). 

It is difficult to write about something that does not agree to your taste. You may even acknowledge that there are many qualities in something that you do not really like, but the heart remains indifferent to everything the mind proposes. I am afraid that is my situation with Christian Gerhaher, a singer I had read a lot about before I had the opportunity to hear him in recital as early as 2007 (a Schöne Müllerin at the Carnegie Hall). Back then I wrote that the musicianship, the intelligence and the sensitivity were undeniable, but I couldn’t go beyond the chopped legato, the fussiness, the unsupported ending of phrases, the almost parlando not truly on pitch effects. And I am afraid I still can’t. This has nothing to do with Mr. Gerhaher’s talent – it’s just my personal taste to expect keenness on legato on items that really need it to produce its real effect and, most of all, some generosity of emotion. Singing Schubert and singing Brahms are two entirely different arts – here the description of feeling does not replace the feeling itself.

All that said, I have enjoyed this recital in an almost purely “intellectual” way. First, the all-Brahms program is extremely well chosen, showing all kinds of songs by a composer particularly wide-ranging in his approach to Lieder writing. Second, Mr. Gerhaher’s clarity of diction – more than that, his crispness of textual delivery – is exemplary. You can feel his love for declamation in the German language, and while I don’t believe this is an Ersatz for the true love of musical phrasing, this is still something that deserves and inspires love. Third, pianist Gerold Hubor almost makes for the singer’s fastidiousness in his round, warm-toned, fully-engaged playing. I wouldn’t want to hear Mr. Gerhaher accompanied by anyone else.

The first part of the program, the 9 Lieder und Gesänge op. 32 – to my taste – require a little bit more of flowing cantabile and sense of unity to evoke the right kind of atmosphere – as one can hear in Thomas Quasthoff’s recording with Justus Zeyen for Deutsche Grammophon. The Vier ernste Gesänge seems to me a more appropriate choice for Mr. Gerhaher’s talents. While I still believe these songs sound more “serious” and imbued of spiritual wisdom with a singer more direct in style, this German baritone’s crispness of delivery and oratorical approach aptly brings a splash of the sermon for the congregation to the concert hall. There is also something refreshing in the large dynamic range employed by Mr. Gerhaher – he is not afraid of going 100%, and his well-focused projection make for real presence in his burnished high notes.

After the intermission, the baritone offered some of his best singing – again – for my taste. Items that require some sensuousness invariable hang fire, but those who require real introspection and a sense of dejection and world-weariness such as Regentropfen aus den Bäumen (from the “Regenlied-Zyklus”) and Herbstgefühl met entirely my expectations. In any case, if someone like me who does not have a natural affinity for this singer found this Liederabend worth the while, I can only imagine that those who enjoy his artistry more readily must have really cherished the experience.

Although Rigoletto was one of the first operas I have ever heard in my life, it is a title I have rarely seen in the theatre. No particular reason, just bad luck. Or maybe just luck, for I’ve never seen any performance of it I have truly enjoyed. Why am I writing this? Because this afternoon’s performance may be the best Rigoletto I have ever seen, although there was plenty of room for improvement. To start with, all in all, Tatjana Gürbaca’s production – available on video with Aleksandra Kurzak and Saimir Pirgu – is extremely clever in reducing the story to its most important features and avoiding all the tiny details that have become either pointless or hard to deliver. Through her perspective, this is a story about the exploration of innocence by those either with good or bad intentions. And, of course, this is a story about power – because ignorance is by definition a state of vulnerability. The way the back-to-basics approach relates to minimal and powerful stage elements is the key of this staging’s success, and this was probably the best assassination scene I have ever seen in any Rigoletto in video or in the theatre.

Sardinian conductor Leonardo Sini’s contribution to this performance’s success is not to be overlooked either. First of all, the Opernhaus orchestra sounded like bona fide Italians this afternoon. The quicksilvery strings, the punchy brass, the clarity of articulation, it was all there. At moments, I even had to make myself pay attention to the singers, so right in style the orchestral playing sounded this afternoon. And he knows how to balance singers’ needs and what the overall effect should be. Bravo.

And these singers were all of them a bit tricky to handle, although nobody could say this was a bad cast. Let’s start with the Gilda. I can understand why Sandra Hamaoui would accept an invitation like that – maybe it would be a good part to sing with her husband (Bernjamin Bernheim) – and even if she is a solid singer, hers is not a voice for Italian opera. It is too light, a bit opaque in color, short in radiance. She lacked tonal variety, was hard to hear in the middle and low register, her in alts were breathy, she needs lots of breath pauses when things get difficult – and her legato is challenged by a clear sense of full stop every time she needs to breathe or the phrase ends. Although this is something of a turn off, she is a musicianly singer and in the right repertoire a valuable one. Nobody wants to hear me say this, but considering the dismal casting of the -ina parts this season in Zurich, why wasn’t she chosen for Despina or Zerlina? Those would be parts that would play for all her strengths and I can bet she would be pretty good or even great in them. That said, she did not spoil the fun at all. She had the right looks for the part in this production and never offered something unacceptable during the whole performance.

Fresh from his short excursion in Baden Baden, Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan proves he can play bad guys too. Although he is too short for a leading man role, he seemed determined to prove that short is the new tall. He acted with nonchalance and self-absorbed charm. As in yesterday’s Iolanta, he has a strong asset for a part like this: his unending supply of big high notes. Nota bene: his is not a big voice, but he loves his high notes and they just flash into the auditorium. I have the impression that they would sound even better if he did not try to make them so big and I would even dare to bet that, if he kept it all lighter, he would have amazing in alts too. For instance, his acuti in La Donna è mobile (whose atmosphere is lighter and more teasing) sounded really better than Parmi veder le lagrime. Anyway, his is a voice with tonal appeal and, if he is too fond of some di Stefano-esque mannerisms, he does it with conviction and the text is always crisp. I would like to hear him as Nemorino one of these days. When it comes to Quinn Kelsey, things are a little bit harder to describe. He does have the voice for the part – it is big, warm and easy on the ear. His Italian is very clear too. There are two levels of interference in what essentially was a good performance. First, his acting is simply below the minimal level acceptable for such a difficult part – and that is very problematic in Cortigiani, vil razza and everything after that. One does not feel the despair, the spiritual exhaustion, the humiliation and most of all, that visceral need of having Gilda for himself. The key scene in this opera is when he gets his daughter back, first pretends nothing happened and then – and that’s a big “then” – he realizes that his toy is broken, but it is the only toy he has to play and he’ll show his love for it even more now that it doesn’t really DESERVES his affection. That never happened this afternoon. The second problematic level – and this has to do with the acting problem – is that there is a permanent sense of calculation in Mr. Kelsey’s singing – he is always trying to save his voice, which is a clever thing, I would probably do the same thing if I were to sing Rigoletto live in an important theatre. But I am not a good actor. And this is a part that requires that the audience feels that the singer is giving everything he’s got. The last pietà in the scene with the Duke’s entourage when he’s pleading for Gilda, you have to feel that there there is nothing let inside the singer, not one molecule of oxygen, not one teardrop in the eye, not a drop of blood in his eye. It’s all over for him there. If you feel that that note is being managed for optimal control, then it’s not Rigoletto.

The minor parts were almost all of them cast from strength. Brent Michael Smith’s very dark, almost lugubrious-sounding bass is perfect for Sparafucile, Nadezhda Karyazina was a super glamorous piece of casting as Maddalena, Ziaomeng Zhang was simply awesome as Marullo, Grace Durham was a spirited, strong-voiced Giovanna and even Bozena Bujicka sang the tiny parts of the Countess of Ceprano and the page with a burnished, attractive voice color.