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Nina Stemme’s Elektra has become something of a classic of our days. As in her performances at the Met, it is an unconventially vulnerable take on the role, built on velvetiness of tone, cleanliness of phrasing and restraint rather than flashiness. In the favorable acoustics of the Philharmonie de Paris, it is even more cherishable. The warmth of her low register is more immediately felt, she does not have to force and the clarity of the text is not lost. To make things better, she was in excellent voice, at moments even reminiscent of that of Astrid Varnay so focused and clear it sounded this evening. She has to brace for the extreme high notes (as she did at the Met), but they all sounded big. This was a musicianly and sensitive accounf of this difficult role, even if one is entitled to find it un-Elektra-ish in its soft core. The contrast to Gun-Brit Barkmin’s bright- and metallic-toned Chrysothemis was this performance’s Schwerpunkt. Even if one can find a hint of a flutter in some of her singing, this was the most compelling performance of this role in my experience. First, her voice rides the big orchestra effortlessly. Second, her crispy diction and understanding of the dramatic situations are exemplary. Most important of all: this evening, a role that tends to fall in the background was shown in its full scale. In Ms. Barkmin’s interpretation, the part is particularly touching in an approach in which one clearly seas that Chrysothemis is not the younger sister as usually shown, but the other sister, the one who has not understood that it is too late for her. I have written a great about Waltraud Meier’s Klytaemnestra and I will only add that, if her voice is showing the singer’s age, it did sound more comfortable wit the tessitura than ever. Norbert Ernst was a reliable Aegysth, but Mathias Goerne was not comfortable in the role of Orest, failing to project in the auditorium as he should. Minor roles were very well cast, particularly Lauren Michelle as a fruity-toned Fourth Maid and Valentine Lemercier’s incisive Third Maid.

Mikko Franck’s controle over his forces is truly praiseworthy. The balance achieved both between the orchestral sections and with the soloists could be used as a lesson for many conductors. Not only did it allowed for absolute transparency but this also gave singers enough leeway to make music. I am not sure if his attempt to produce a permanent crescendo in intensity is the safest plan for this score. In order to make it happen, the first part of the opera was kept really low in excitement and the result could be undramatic in the gentleness of attack and ponderousness of tempo. Klytaemnestra was the main victim of this approach. The whole scene lacked tension and one could hear the space between one note and the next. It is hard to blame Waltraud Meier for trying to push things ahead and ending up one bar earlier than the conductor. From the next scene on, the proceedings reacher optimal leven and the Recognition Scene was admirably subtle and large-scaled at once. After Aegysth’s death, things turned up overcooked and, for once in the evening, the orchestra had its lound and unsubtle moments. In any case, this was a smal price to pay in an evening rich in new insights and perspectives.

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My final impression of Frank Castorf’s Ring is more positive than I could have imagined when I saw it for the first time in 2014. It is still has its patches of silliness, conceptual laziness and pretentiousness, but it is very well directed and has many important insights. Even if most of them are underveloped, they are still valid and thought-provoking. Götterdämmerung not only seems better now, it has indeed been refined since 2014 too. The scenes in the Gibichungenhalle are all more tightly knit in terms of characterization, acting and timing, to start with. This time, the idea of Hagen as a figure between two worlds represented by his ability to cross the Berlin Wall made the concept even sharper than when I just saw him as a small time crook in Kreuzberg. On the other hand, the closing scene seemed to me less effective. I might be mistaken too, but it seemed edited too. I don’t remember Gutrune saying “Brünhilde, du Neiderboste!”, then Brünnhilde answer “Armselige, schweig!” and finally Gutrune’s final “Verfluchter Hagen!” lines. I don’t know if this has something to do with the accident that made it impossible for this evening’s Brünnhilde to stand up without crutches after act 1. After that, the role was played by the director’s assistant (a man) while the soprano sang from her wheelchair downstage.

Marek Janowski might have noticed that he and his orchestra fare better when unleashed and did give his singers a hard time. No complaints here – the orchestra played richly and the cast could cope with it most of the time. Not in Siegfried’s and Brünnhilde’s duet, when both singers seemed to be saving their resources for what lied ahead nor in the Waltraute scene, when things lost steam from all sides. The chorus sang excitingly and earthly, but act 3 failed to be the climax of this evening. The conductor seemed to have lost a bit of his pulse around Siegfried’s death. The funeral march was well done if a bit coldly and the Immolation scene hanged some fire. One can understand that the soloist had to deal with the difficulty of the scene and a calf sprain, but the fact is that the final orchestral bars were dispatched  rather bureaucratically. In terms of expression, the performance was already over by then.

Catherine Foster started cautiously and had some trouble with pitch when saying farewell to Siegfried, but warmed up to her top form in the scene with Waltraute. Singing on a wheelchair and standing up with the help of crutches tested her concentration, but did not prevent her from dealing athletically with her many high notes in act 2. The Immolation scene was sung musicianly and sensitively and her final phrases were flashed with complete abandon and power. Her achievement in this cycle will certainly reserve her a place in the pantheon of the great Wagnerian soprano of our days. If Allison Oaks (Gutrune) did not cause a lasting impression in 2014, today she offered full-toned singing and dramatic commitment. Unfortunately, Marina Prudenskaya (Waltraute) seemed a bit lost around the passaggio and could not make much of an unhelpful slow tempo in her scene. I don’t know what Stefan Vinke took before this performance, but the effect was both impressive and frightening. In the course of the performance, he became gradually more and more hyper while counting with vocal resources to match. By act III, he seemed basically mucho loco, tossing stentorian high notes in sequence and making some of them even longer than written . He tackled the woodbird narration as if he could start the opera all over again. Of course, there was not very much space to poise or finish there, but I guess good old Siegfried does not need that anyway. Markus Eiche was a firm-toned almost congenial Gunther, while Stephen Milling was a dark, threatening Hagen, unfortunately short of resonance in his high notes, as if he had a cold or something like that. Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Stephanie Houtzeel and Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde) and Christine Kohl (3. Norn) were fresh-toned and expressive Norns and Rheintöchter.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is probably the least funny comedy you’ll ever see. The dialogues are overwrought, the scenes are long, the whole affair around the mastersingers is obscure, the leading man is not very friendly and there is more than a splash of xenophobia in its agenda. It also has some glorious music and that is the reason why we sit there for hours of joyless theatre. As I am a half-full-glass person, I tend to expect that one day a director will be able to dig out the humor in it and put some of the nasty stuff in perspective at the same time. I mean, at this point, everybody knows that Richard Wagner was not a nice guy – and his personal credo is not what we want to celebrate here, as much as we don’t want to listen to Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village because he wrote the Discourse on Inequality. In other words, the discussion on Wagner’s deplorable political thinking won’t be less important if directors finally overcome the guilt complex of making this comedy entertaining, while proposing (rather than superimposing) some kind of discussion.

Barry Kosky, for instance, clearly feels that comedy shouldn’t be about laughing at the expense of someone. And he is right – Beckmesser is here bullied, ridiculed and outcast by an unforgiven society of which he believed to be a part of. I don’t believe I am going to say something positive about Katharina Wagner’s production for the festival, but here it goes. Instead of focusing on Beckmesser as the victim of exclusion, she tackled the conservative forces that operate exclusion under the banner of protection of culture and national values. Mr. Kosky, instead, is a victimologist and offers a case study of how Wagner’s antisemitism pervades Meistersinger, although the libretto itself doesn’t make any direct statement of the kind. As far as the story as told goes, Beckmesser is a master singer in Nuremberg just like Pogner and Sachs. But not in this production.

Act 1 is staged in Villa Wahnfried. Eva is Cosima, Pogner is Liszt, Beckmesser is Hermann Levi (Parsifal’s original conductor, who was abused by Wagner for being Jewish) and both Sachs and Walther (and even David) are Richard Wagner. The idea is illuminating, but the staging was very difficult to understand with all those Wagners (dressed with the same costume) running to and fro. Also, the episodes with Eva and Walther seemed completely nonsensical in those circumstances. Act 2 is set in Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice (where the Nuremberg Trials took place) covered in green grass, a representation of a Germanic paradise for Germans only. Gradually all characters appear with their proper costumes (but for Cosima), until Beckmesser is finally shown as a caricature Jew. The concept here had the upper hand: Eva and Walther’s romance against the background of Beckmesser’s serenade frustrated by Sachs leading to the confusion with David and the apprentices is here something almost entirely reduced to the lynching of Beckmesser. Act 3 too is staged in Courtroom 600, but only Wagner is judged here. The good people of Nuremberg get a pass: they are after all portrayed here as innocent puppets. I don’t have to say that this overambitious program impact the romantic plot, comedy timing and the portrayal of these characters. Everything became secondary to Mr. Kosky’s construction, which added very little insight about the characters. His dicussion about the composer is no novelty in itself. In any case, there were clever and beautiful stage solutions, the sets and costumes were creative and extremely well built.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search for the late-Karajan ideal of rich orchestral conveyed through the turbo version of legato, allied to a clear sense of forward movement, made this a very pleasing performance, with the exception of an extremely messy act 2. I am not sure if I find this the best approach to this opera, the complex score of which can always benefit of clear articulation and well-defined rhythms, but it seems that these performances are not about giving Meistersinger what it needs. In any case, they would have benefited from a cast more vocally impressive than this one.

Anne Schwanewilms, to start with, offered an inacceptable performance. It was barely hearable and, whenever she had to sing out, it was raspish, wiry and her breath wouldn’t last for more than three notes in a row. This is not Brünnhilde, and Germany has plenty of good lyric sopranos able to sing the role of Eva. Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther), on the other hand, sang very smoothly. Too smoothly, I would say. His high a’s needed a little bit more support to ring freely as they should, but, in the context of this evening, this was elegant and spontaneous. Daniel Behle was a musicianly and sensitive David who lacked projection in his high notes and relied too much on falsetto. Michael Volle’s baritone is two sizes smaller than the part of Sachs, but made the best of what he had with his intelligent delivery of the text and his stage charisma. Unfortunately, he was evidently tired in act 3 and had to cheat a bit to get to the end. His scene with Beckmesser was a bit bothersome, for both singers abused off-pitch effects, making it testing to the audience. Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) proved to be capable of some smooth singing. Yet too often preferred “acting with the voice”. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was a light, fruity Magdalene and Günther Groissböck an exemplary Pogner.

Siegfried is the toughest cookie in Frank Castorf’s Ring. I have just read what I wrote in 2014 and realize that I haven’t made my mind about it yet. I have less sense of humor than the director and would more often than not look at just the part of the stage where the original plot was taking place to avoid being distracted by the funny/cute parallel actions. In any case, as much as in 2014, I could have fun with this Siegfried many options of which I don’t endorse. It is well directed and executed – and it isn’t short of ideas.

The musical performance is a very different story. After a bumpy start with problems of synchrony, the proceedings were gaining in strength, especially after an unfocused Mime/Wanderer scene. Whenever the conductor had a large-voiced soloist, one could feel that the performance came to life not only in volume and intensity, but also in purpose and precision. When that happened, this was a very satisfying Siegfried, large-scaled but not brutal. Fortunately, the cast featured many voices sizable enough to let Maestro Janowski unleash his orchestra. The pride of place goes to Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde). In 2014, one could see that she has a beautiful voice of Wagnerian proportions, but now her singing has acquired almost Frida Leider-ish freshness, poise and radiance. She sang with unforced clarity either in lyric passages, where she offered mezza voce, legato and trills worthy of a Verdian soprano, or in exposed acuti that darted across the auditorium. Stefan Vinke’s task is far more difficult, what makes his endurance even more praiseworthy. He showed signs of fatigue towards the end of act 2 and in his scene with the Wanderer, but seemed to count with reserves of energy for his final scene, when he even managed to soften his tone now and then. Mr. Vinke’s singing is not to everyone’s taste – its middle register is nasal, his phrasing is extremelly cupo and he is not always in the centre of pitch, but he is a marathon runner and seems to be happier when flashing huge Spitzentöne in the hall. I would say that he sang better than last time I heard him in this role in the Deutsche Oper Berlin: his high notes are less constricted and therefore richer in overtones. He is also a very likable Siegfried, his boyish manners quite apt for this role. He was extremely well partnered by Andreas Conrad (Mime), a Charaktertenor with a forceful high register and a crisp and intelligent delivery of the role, not to mention that he is a stage animal. Although Albert Dohmen seemed a bit too detached as Alberich in Rheingold, here he was particularly efficient in that role, his voluminous bass baritone riding over a Wagnerian orchestra to chilling effects.

Thomas Johannes Mayer, unfortunately, was not in good voice. It lacked color and projection and his singing came across as effortful and rough. He has been pushing and forcing his tone for a wile and I am afraid that this is starting to take its toll. It is also a pity that Nadine Weissmann too was not in good shape, sounding ill at ease and greyish as Erda. Finally, Ana Durlovsky was an intelligent and crystalline Woodbird, producing some truly birdlike effects in her singing.

The fact that a DVD of the Bayreuth Festival’s current production of Wagner’s Parsifal has been released, while the previous one, staged by Stefan Herheim, never was will remain a mystery to me. I was lucky to see Herheim’s Parsifal twice and it will remain of the most fascinating theatrical experiences in my life. I don’t believe I’ll remember Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production in two weeks. It is a collection of clichés based on a superficial premise and very poorly directed.

As it is, Mr. Laufenberg’s production sets Parsifal in the context of the clash of religions in the Middle East. Montsalvat is a Christian community threatened by the advance of Islam. There are soldiers everywhere and, probably because they are isolated and disconnected from Rome, their liturgy has taken a radical charismatic turn, which involves a very literal staging of the eucharist (yes, this is one of those Parsifals in which everyone drinks Amfortas’s blood). Titurel is very much alive and kicking and has the control over his congregation by offering this very special ritual. Parsifal is a soldier who finds the whole thing gruesome and goes away until he ends up in some sort of public bath where he is entertained by girls in burkas who finally decided to strip to their odalisque bikinis. The host, of course, is Klingsor, who seems to be trying to become Muslim, although he has a fetiche in crosses, of which he has a big collection. Kundry shows up to a naked Parsifal, whom she decides to dress up before she tries her seduction. Once he has put on some clothes, she tells him about his mother and using her mother-figure routine, she kisses him. But he doesn’t need to have any insight there: Amfortas shows up there too, what makes it puzzling when he later demands to be taken to… Amfortas.  Kundry sees that she has to try another technique and decides to play vulnerable and tells him about the hideous sin she has committed and the spiritual torment she has lived in her many incarnations since then. However, Parsifal did not care to hear. He went inside to change back in his soldier’s uniform. When he comes back, he promises to redeem her although he has no idea of what she should be redeemed of because he wasn’t even there. Anyway, he has superpowers now: Klingsor appears with the holy spear but is frozen by a Jedi gesture of Parsifal, who gets this object of venerations and breaks it in two parts, making a cross with it. Although the place is full of crosses, that one seems to be particularly powerful.

Years later, Parsifal shows up again in Montsalvat. Although he was a soldier and has maps, he couldn’t find it because of Kundry’s curse. This is supposed to be the Middle East, but the place was overgrown with gigantic tropical plants – one particular leaf is 15-meter long. But those are not regular plants – those plants represent the return to Eden. This means that the website of the Foreign Office must have deleted their warning about travelling in war zones, for a group of female tourists show up out of nowhere and decide to strip to their underwear and bathe into a tropical storm. They even decide to socialize with a funny-looking old lady who happens to be Kundry. That’s the moment when Parsifal feels ready to become king. Christians, Jews and Muslims surround Amfortas and demand explanations about Titurel’s death. It seems that they want him to perform the eucharist too, but that – even in these circumstances – is too absurd, I must have misunderstood it. At this point, Parsifal comes with the holy spear/improvised cross, which he throws away in Titurel’s coffin. Then everybody realize that they can dispose of their holy symbols there too. Now that they have seen that their religions were not that important, Parsifal says “open the shrine”. Here this means that the whole church had to be open, so the sceneries are dismantled and the lights of the Festspielhaus are turned on, so that the audience realize that… art should be the universal, all-embracing religion. You have seen that in other productions too, I suppose. Now imagine this with the level of acting of having people open their arms whenever they say something that is supposed to be important.

If you have found this all over the place, you would be twice disappointed to discover that Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting was in the same spirit. Mr. Haenchen was keen on proving that he could conduct this almost as fast as Pierre Boulez – and he did keep it in less than four hours. During the prelude, things seemed promising – it was unusually clear and organized, but as soon as poor Gurnemanz started to speak, things seemed to turn around micro-objectives, all of them related to getting over to the next point. Never any act seemed to be a coherent unit, but rather a collection of moments that had their own little climax and that would die away at zero tension. Even if the second act was particularly frustrating  in its emulation of Boulez’s beat without the French conductor’s sense of building tension, the Karfreitagzauber was the main victim of the micromanagement – when the orchestra started to feel something for it, there were only two minutes left.

I was curious about Elena Pankratova’s Kundry. I had seen has as the Färberin in Munich and was very well impressed. Therefore, I have to believe she was not in good voice this evening. Her singing today was mostly colorless and sometimes hooty, the high notes were forced and her attempt of dynamic refinement was not guided by a deep understanding of the text, which was not clearly articulated anyway. I would have to see her in this role again before I can say something. Last time I saw Parsifal, Andreas Schager took the title role. This was at the Berlin Staatsoper, and Daniel Barenboim must have been a positive influence on him, because he offered then a subtler performance. Today, it was a bit emphatic, but it is still an untiring voice of true heroic possibilities. The third act was a showcase of his possibilities, some phrases sung sensitively and musicianly. Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas is no news to me. He is another example of the rule – the vocal quality of an Amfortas is inversely proportional to the amount of skin he shows on stage. As in Buenos Aires, his grainy and greyish baritone did not pierce through the orchestra without effort. Derek Welton’s Klingsor fared better – the voice has an attractive color, even if it looses focus in its higher reaches. On the other hand, Georg Zeppenfeld’s voluminous and rich-toned bass filled the auditorium. His Gurnemanz benefited from very clear diction and, if I don’t call if fully satisfying, it is because it lacks the last ounce of the benign authority (and the glorious fullness of high notes) of a René Pape.

My review of the Frank Castorf’s Walküre back in 2014 shows my attempt to make sense of the various and not smoothly integrated elements in his Dramaturgie. Watching it again knowing what comes next is an entirely different experience: many of the gaps left open by a messy concept are now filled by the geopolitic frame offered by the Berlin setting of both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The representation of the Rhinegold as oil (we have already seen it pictured as atomic energy in Harry Kupfer’s staging on the Green Hill) is revelatory in its associations between Gods, Nibelungs etc and the various alliances built around the oil business to these days. The way it is dealt with in the various installments of the Ring is irregular (especially in Götterdämmerung), but it makes particular sense in Die Walküre, even if the Sieglide/Siegmund affair seems a bit lost in it. Here too, it seems that the staging has been refined to achieve more coherence, even if it remains a bit all over the place.

Marek Janowski took a while to find his way in this evening’s performance. Act I alternated moments of great clarity with surprisingly messy passages. The final did not build up in continuous intensity, in spite of beautiful isolated passages, such as a light-footed Winterstürme aided by a well-chosen soloist. The second act showed the orchestra in greater form and, after a bumpy Fricka/Wotan scene, things settled in rich sonoroties and some urgence, something that would reach a peak in the last act, in which Wotan’s entrance was the highlight of the whole evening, a truly exciting moment of great power and amazing playing of the string section, in perfect balance with the bass.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde has greatly developed since 2014. With the exception of her first scene in act III, when she sounded a bit tired and quite wayward with intonation in her high notes, she sang with naturalness and youthfulness of tone, praiseworthy lyricism, variety and elegance. Camilla Nylund’s Sieglinde was intelligently conceived and smoothly sung, but the lack of cutting edge in her soprano had her consistently on 100% and therefore rather monochrome. Nonetheless, she still found it difficult to pierce through, leaving the conductor two options: reining in the orchestra to adjust or drowning her. In her climactic act III solo, the second solution was chosen, a sensible if still a bit disappointing choice. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre Fricka. She sounded out of sorts and was not very precise with her notes either. Christopher Ventris was a lyric, fresh-toned Siegmund, without any hint of baritonal quality in his singing. John Lundgren’s basic tonal quality is apt for the role of Wotan, even if the sound could be overly nasal and both ends of his range could sound short of overtones and a bit forced. Fortunately, he could gather his resources for the closing scene. Although the mezza voce was unfocused, he did not refrain from trying to soften his tone and reached the end of the opera in healthy voice. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding was really more convincing here compared to his performance in Salzburg, where he sounded a bit well-behaved and not truly menacing. As for the Valkyries, there was some problem of intonation in an otherwise forceful and characterful group of singers.

Having seen Frank Castorf’s staging of the Ring for the Bayreuth Festival in its second season , I cannot help comparing the experience of watching it again in its final run with my impressions from 2014. “Puzzling” is a word I could use to describe the whole affair back then: the staging seemed incoherent and the musical performance was extremely disappointing, especially in what regarded Kyrill Petrenko’s conducting. Today, when my neighbor asked me why on Earth Marek Janowski was being booed (by a small group of people, truth be said), I answered him “These people definitely weren’t here in 2014”.

Today’s was hardly unforgettable, but was quite satisfying. At least today there was a sonorous orchestral on duty. It has not started very well, though. The prelude was a bit imprecise and the opening scene was rather messy, but it would gradually gain purpose. It was very occasionally exciting and it would invariably offer more satisfaction when lyricism was called for. This would steadily develop into a noble sounding, well-balanced and clear closing scene, when one could hear the hallmark full-toned yet not aggressive echt Bayreuther Klang. This was actually my first Rheingold with Maestro Janowski. Although I had seen all the non-Ring operas (but for the Holländer) in his cycle at the Philharmonie with the Berlin RSO, the only installment of the Ring under his baton I could see was the Walküre at the Tokyo Harusai , a performance where forward-movement and clarity seemed to be the priority (qualities that could be used to describe his studio recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden). I cannot say that today’s Rhinegold is consistent with these words, but I am curious to hear the Walküre tomorrow before I say anything else.

Now that I know what is going to happen next in Mr. Castorf’s production, I confess that I have just watched his Rhinegold without any intent of finding meaning in it, but let myself follow it and ultimately find it more satisfying (even if still incoherent and eventually pointless). It is very well directed in terms of Personenregie and yhe Fassbinder-ian atmosphere adds some dimension (not a truly Wagnerian one, but anyway) to these characters. Also, three years later, blocking looks sharper, many ineffective details have been deleted and there is more a sense of ensemble. I would only say that the episodes involving Alberich are marginally less satisfying, but that involves the choice of a veteran singer in this key role.

Although Albert Dohmen (whom I saw as Wotan in Bayreuth in Tankred Dorst’s production) is still in resonant and firm voice, his stage persona just lack the drive and the intensity necessary for this force-of-nature role. In 2014, Oleg Bryjak sounded far less polished, but the rawness and the drive were there. This evening’s Wotan, however, offered something more focused than Wolfgang Koch three years ago. Iain Paterson’s bass baritone is less incisive than Koch’s, but nobler in tone and richer in its middle register. While Koch’s Wotan was vulgar-and-loving-it, Paterson was cynical and self-involved and even funnier in Castorf’s dark screwball approach. I am not so enthusiastic about this year’s tenors, however. Daniel Behle was ill-at-ease as Froh, unsure about his lines and constricted of tone, and Roberto Saccà’s squally and grainy Loge lacked varied and projection. Among male singers, none was as exciting as the basses cast as the giants – a powerful, itense Günther Groissböck (Fasolt) and a firm-toned, dark Karl-Heinz Lehner as Fafner.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was a light, fruity Fricka, a bit upstaged by Nadine Weissmann, whose Erda developed a lot since 2014. It is now deeper in tone, smoother in legato and even more expressive.