Singing Schubert is an absolute exercise of discipline. It stems directly from the art of singing Bach. It requires instrumental poise, as if the production of the voice itself meant nothing. It requires full understanding of the text, not only in the sense of meaning, but mostly in the sense of declamation. In other words, how someone – a native speaker, for those singers who are not – would SAY this sentence. It requires an emotional connection to the poet and the composer that cannot be added upon the interpretation. It must be real – in his or her heart, the singer must know what every word is about. It requires a communication with the audience – this is an art of communion.

In her recital with Yannick Nézet-Séguin as accompanist, Joyce DiDonato did not truly fulfill any of these requirements. First, the voice – pure-toned and well-projecting as it is – was only occasionally made to sound natural. Her lower notes sounded either muted or puffed up for effect. For effect too, she forced some of her high notes and acquired the hint of a strain. There was not much in terms of vocal coloring, but dynamic variety was alright there, even if some piano notes sounded fixed and disconnected.

Second, although the use of perfect legato is not forbidden in Schubert (just check Janowitz or Prey), it cannot stand in the way of textual crispness. Ms. DiDonato has excellent diction, but the German text often sounded abstract, especially when the line is wordy. Her “unit of interpretation” is rather the phrase rather than the word – but in Schubert often the change of atmosphere happens mid phrase and one often missed that this afternoon.

Third, maybe I wasn’t drawn in by Ms. DiDonato approach, but I can’t say I felt an emotional connection in her singing. I did acknowledge the effects she selected to produce an impression, but mainly this seemed to be about her and her intention to expand her repertoire and show it to her fan base.

Finally, the recital seems to have been staged. The singer has a costume that suggests the XIXth century, lights were dimmed, she has a notebook that stands for a diary of the poet from which she barely took off her eyes. There was a chair and a table – and she often sat there with her diary. I couldn’t help the feeling that she was refusing to establish a direct connection with the audience. A friend was convinced she was reading the text and felt relieved when she – in Der Leiermann (i.e., the last song) – put it down. That was also the moment where her involvement took an operatic turn kept at an arm’s length during the role evening.

Some may say that the idea was giving a context for new audiences or showing these songs from a new perspective, but I’ll quote two female singers who achieved that _musically_ without the whole mambo jambo: Brigitte Fassbaender expressionistic take with composer Aribert Reimann and especially Christine Schäfer with Eric Schneider, who together add an indie/alternative feel to these songs without crossing any rule of Schubertian style.

At first, I thought that Nézet-Séguin still had his conductor hat on him when he started producing extra rich sounds that more than enveloped the singer. He would often give the cavalier treatment to Schubert’s delicate descriptive phrases in favor of a grand, almost orchestral playing. I tried to keep an open mind, but I cannot say I found any added insight in it. On the contrary, the end of Das Wirthaus sounded downright vulgar to my ears.

It seems that the world of opera will never have enough of Figaro. Mozart tells us how he got married, then Rossini how he came to work with the Almavivas. And Saverio Mercadante, with no help from Beaumarchais, shows us come tutto si cangiò two decades later. The Countess has given up being loved by the Count, but she wishes her daughter, Ines, has a different kind of marriage. Figaro and Susanna can’t wait to get rid of each other, and maybe she has a point, for his schemes have developed at this point to outright crime. And Cherubino now is colonel – and plans to marry Ines. Since the opera is called “The Two Figaros”, one wonders who is the second one – it is none other than Cherubino, who assumes the name of Figaro while he tries to figure out how he can win the Count’s consent for the wedding.

Mercadante is no Mozart and, if he comes closer to Rossini, the difference is no abysm, but a whole world. At least in this opera, he does not show a great talent for invention – melodies take for ever to take flight and, when they do, it is really earthbound. But he knows how to keep things buoyant and it’s all entertaining if very forgettable. Actually, the whole opera had been entirely forgotten after the intended first performance in Madrid in 1826, when the prima donna Letizia Cortesi proved to be more schemy than Figaro, Susanna or Cherubino and used her connections to have the performances cancelled after a couple of tantrums. The only extant complete score was found again no sooner than 2009, when it came to the attention of Riccardo Muti, who conducted it in Ravenna and Salzburg, producing a recording with a stellar cast: Eleonora Buratto, Rosa Feola, Antonio Poli et al.

The Manhattan School of Music’s production is the opposite of stellar – the cast is mainly composed of advanced students and some of the fun of it has to do with this not being another professional engagement for A-listers. Everyone involved seemed to be having fun and so the audience. Conductor Stefano Sarzani was able to serve this music all the energy it needed without putting too much pressure in his young singers and his small orchestra. As a result, nobody was caught short and the whole evening had a sense of spontaneity and team spirit. The chorus was keenly rehearsed as well. Director Dona D. Vaughn too proved to be very shrewd in choosing the right farsical approach that does not require true acting abilities, even if some of her singers did act well. The colorful sets were simple yet functional, as much as the costumes were appealing.

I was ready to write that having learned the work in Muti’s recording, it would be unfair to make comparisons with this evening’s cast, but that proved to be not entirely fair. For instance, today’s Cherubino, Joanne Evans was far preferable to the one in the recorded performance. Ms. Evans has a slim, flexible and fruity mezzo, sings with perfect sense of style and is a bête de scène. Under the guidance of the right conductor, she could be a perfect Ariodante or Serse. Although Carolina López Moreno (Susanna) doesn’t efface memories of Eleonora Buratto, the morbidezza of her Mozartian soprano is hard to overlook. And she has a charming stage presence too. The other singers in the cast all had promising voices and relished the opportunity of introducing this piece of operatic curiosity to the public in New York.

I have a friend who likes Richard Strauss but dislikes Der Rosenkavalier. He says it is Strauss’s most overrated work. The first time he told me that, I asked him what about the Marschallin’s monologue, the delivery of the silver rose and the final trio? His answer was “Precisely: you have to endure two hours of cacophony to get 45 minutes of beautiful music”. Of course, I disagree with him, but I understand that he has a point. The great challenge of conducting this score is to integrate both tingle-factor highlights and the Falstaff-like comedy scenes, exactly as the Leitmotiv structure concocted by Richard Strauss and also the mirrored Marschallin/Octavian and Ochs/Sophie situations devised by Hofmannsthal demand. Some conductors achieve that by Marschallinizing the whole opera, most notably Herbert von Karajan in his glamorized melancholy performances with Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Kurt Moll in Salzburg. Others Ochsify the three acts, by keeping things objective and kaleidoscopic as Karl Böhm, most notably in his formidable performances with Christa Ludwig and Tatiana Troyanos also in Salzburg. Both share the same secret ingredient: the Vienna Philharmonic. Some will say Carlos Kleiber could get the best of both worlds, especially in his last recording with Felicity Lott and Kurt Moll. He had the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (i.e., the Vienna Philharmonic’s day job) then.

I don’t know if Simon Rattle shares Karajan’s or Böhm’s credo, but he definitely does not fall into the Carlos Kleiber slot. At the end of act 2, I was about to say that he had to be classified in the Karajan group, for the complex counterpoint of the ensembles in Faninal’s Stadtpalais proved to be beyond his possibilities. And the fact that he does not have the Vienna Philharmonic made it more difficult for him. The Met Orchestra is not the nec plus ultra in terms of clarity of articulation, and its brass section has its bumpy moments. Sir Simon chose forward movement as his Ariadne’s thread in this labyrinthic score, but that often involved blurred orchestral playing, clouded phrasing and unsubtleness. If I could mention a composer in which Simon Rattle is at home this would be Gustav Mahler, whose music – if contemporary to that of R. Strauss (they knew each other, as a matter of fact) – requires an entirely different approach. Here I noticed that Rattle tended to look for a Hauptstimme, invested everything in it and let the myriad of secondary voices fall into place by themselves. That might work in the Lied von der Erde, but unfortunately not here. This is a score that has to be built brick by brick and not by assembling components. On the other hand, act 1 seemed more successful at first – the conductor was able to keep the aural image symphonic, with beautiful interplay between woodwinds and singers, but he had light-voiced soloists (or something like that) and refrained from pressing the turbo button when the music cried for more intensity. A similar effect could have been achieved by a flexible beat, but his one trick was rhythmic regularity. I wondered how the final trio could deliver its full emotional content under these circumstances. It did not. It showed no development in terms of dynamics, tempo or intensity. And then there was the problem with the cast.

It is a tradition to start with the leading soprano and so I’ll speak first of Camilla Nylund, who happened to be the most successful singer this evening. Ms. Nylund’s big lyric soprano, even in its prime, lacked radiance in its high notes. Above the passaggio, it acquires a velvety, floated quality that tends to stay on stage rather than pierce into the auditorium. In the role of the Marschallin, this natural float helped her all the way. Instead of shifting into mezza voce every time she needed to suggest pensiveness, she just had to keep doing her thing. And her middle register has the necessary warmth and plushness to suggest the chic the role really needs. There were moments when one wanted a little bit more pointedness of delivery or presence (the final trio, for instance), but her naturalness had a patrician glow to it and that made do. This Marschallin was above trying to make an impression. This woman was the measure of all things in her world.

I once bought a ticket to see Magdalena Kozena’s Octavian in Berlin but couldn’t make it and had never overcome the feeling of unfinished business until this evening. I feared that the Met might be too big an auditorium for her reedy Mozartian mezzo and my intuition proved to be right. Ms. Kozena is a singer incapable of carelessness – she sings every note and utter every word as if they were the most important thing in the world, but I am not sure if the audience in Family Circle could hear that. When Strauss requires the full orchestra, her low notes were inaudible and her high notes could be hooty or fluttery. When surrounded by chamber-like sonorities, however, she relished in poised phrasing and sounds of instrumental purity. In terms of stage presence, her Octavian was convincingly boyish and aristocratic. Her Mariandl, nevertheless, lacked the necessary tomboy quality. As shown here, the Count Rofrano had a natural talent to walk on high heels.

As Sophie, Golda Schultz displayed absolute ease throughout her whole range. She was hands down the singer with best low notes in the role in my experience live in the theatre. At the same time, she did not have to change any gears to float her high notes in the delivery of the silver rose. She sang from beginning to end with musicianship, abandon and charm. And yet the absence of silvery quality in her voice made her small-scaled and excessively discreet. With such a self-contained Sophie, the final trio sounded like a sundae without the cherry on top. I don’t think either that the role is close to this singer’s personality – although she worked hard to be the damsel in distress, the acting seemed to be build from the outside in rather than inside out.

When Günther Groissböck appeared on stage, I had to adjust my ears to the fact that, even if his voice was firm and solid to the super low notes, it sounded bottled up and lacking resonance. When I saw him sing this role in the Grosses Festspielhouse, it hardly sounded gigantesque, but here it made me wonder if the whole process of becoming a Wotan is really working. Back in Bayreuth in August, my impression was very different. So I would rather consider that he was not in his best night. Curiously, Markus Eiche, who in Bayreuth would never be counted as a forceful baritone, here – through clarity of emission and precision of focus – was the most hearable person on stage.

Der Rosenkavalier is an opera difficult to cast – the many small roles require important voices and I cannot say that I heard something close to efficient this evening. Matthew Polenzani’s Italian Tenor came close – he sang richly and showed amazing breath control, but the tone was far from ingratiating.

I had not seen before this evening Robert Carsen’s 2017 production for the Met, but it looks and sound as the watered down version of his 2004 production for Salzburg, where lots of ideas just hinted at here were fully developed. There, Ochs’s philandering is a façade for a mix of some sort of erectile and moral dysfunction, the Marschallin is a regular of the demimonde shown in act 3 and the ghost of World War I hovers around the opera rather than decorates the last scene. I cannot say I liked Carsen’s first attempt – I found it incoherent and kitsch – but it made sense somehow. The version “for all audiences” is incoherent, kitsch and silly.

It is almost unfair as a good performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is usually taken for granted. Asked about the starry casts she used to be part of in the Vienna State Opera, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once said that those were singers who matured together under the supervision of knowledgeable conductors through a heavy rehearsal schedule and that it was only natural that they responded so immediately to each other and to the music. In other words, you cannot produce an ensemble out of thin air in two weeks. And if there is an ensemble opera in the repertoire, this is Le Nozze di Figaro. For this score to work, the sections of the orchestra and every singer in the cast must be well-integrated the same way the registers of a Mozartian singer’s voice should be. Nothing can stand out, it’s either perfect balance or fiasco. That is why I keep my expectations very low whenever I go to the theatre to visit the Almavivas, Figaro and Susanna. I am thankful for what can be salvaged and deem myself satisfied if I can remember two or three numbers that went really well.

Even in my low expectation policy, I expected very little of this evening’s performance. To start with, the sheer size of the Metropolitan Opera auditorium is a challenge in itself for a conductor to achieve ideal balance in scores meant for theatres smaller than the Met’s bar. Ideally, one would need singers of surpassing means and immaculate technique, an orchestra with extraordinarily flexible strings and a chorus of unusual clarity. Th problem is: the house orchestra is not famous for clarity of articulation and the chorus is famously unwieldy. Conductor Antonello Manacorda had the difficult task of trying to make something really delicate out of inadequate raw material. Without considering the circumstances, the performance could be described as dull, unclear and inert. There was a high level of mismatches between singers and the orchestra, the playing of which was often poor in articulation and limited in color and dynamic. And things tended to be even stodgier when Mozart makes texture more complex, as in both act 2 finale and the finale ultimo. Now, if one considers the circumstances, if the musical side of the evening did not add much in terms of expression, it didn’t stand in the way of the stage performance.

Richard Eyre’s staging is hardly illuminating – I took a while to understand it was not Michael Grandage’s Glyndebourne production. There is nothing new or coherent or deeper than superficial in the Personenregie either, but – and this is not a small “but” -it was truly efficient. You may call it cute, unimaginative, slapstick, plagiarized (and it often was all of that), but the comedy timing never failed. All members of the cast seemed comfortable with each other, with what they had to do and they seemed to be having fun, what is a must for a comedy. I laughed, everybody laughed.

I have to be honest: I wasn’t eager to see Susanna Phillips’s Countess. Everything I had heard from her would not make me foresee anything of interest this evening. Porgi, amor has plainly defeated many a famous soprano and I braced for the worst, but Ms. Phillips – even if she and the conductor couldn’t agree about the beat – attacked her notes with surprising purity. The tone was a bit whimpery, intonation had its dubious moments, but she really tried to do the right thing. She developed steadily from her entrance. I am bit cranky about Countesses who don’t sing their high notes in the trio with Susanna and the Count, but the voice warmed to a round, creamy sound and, other than a wiry last phrase, her Dove sono was ideally sung. Again, she got a bit nervous with having to produce 100% pure tone when she forgave the Count for his bad behavior, but in the end I enjoyed her singing. Under the right conductor, she could really nail it. As it was, it was interesting and occasionally satisfying. Her Susanna, Nadine Sierra, was really in charge of keeping the plot moving and, if her acting was too pointed, she showed herself never less than fully committed. Her voice is not what one expects in this role – it never sparkles or gleams and she has the habit of stressing the last syllable of every phrase, even when it should go unstressed, but her Italian is usually believable, she can float mezza voce when she needs and her low notes are better than what one hears in the role. Even announced as indisposed, Gaëlle Arquez was a dulcet, stylish Cherubino, really at home in this repertoire. The three ladies indulged in discrete ornamentation.

Adam Plachetka had no problem in portraying the Count as a nasty, irascible master. Yet his grainy bass baritone seems to have lost some volume since I last saw him. And his singing tended to the emphatic in a way that tampered with legato. The stretta of his big aria was almost unmusical and his variations of what Mozart wrote felt as plainly wrong. Luca Pisaroni’s voice too sounded less spacious than what I was used to hear. Some of his high notes grated too and I would have mistaken him as the one with the flu. At this point, his Figaro runs dangerously close to sounding artsy,  and yet he is an alert actor and keeps the audience on his side. Brindley Sherratt was a forceful, firm-toned Bartolo, Meigui Zhang displayed a warm soprano as Barbarina and it was surprising to find Giuseppe Filianoti as Basilio.

Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades was the first opera I have ever seen. Those were the days I did not care much for vocal music, but it must have worked it charm for here I am. Curiously I had forgotten about that until I got myself a ticket for today’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera. Until this afternoon, I had never seen it again – and the truth is that I can’t say I really like it. I find it a bit all over the place with its multitude of secondary characters who get to sing an aria, some of them longer than Basilio’s In quegli anni in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and its cute atmospheric scenes (not to mention the intermezzo) that only let the steam of dramatic tension off. And yet listening to Rostropovich’s recording to renew my acquaintance with this work there was this moment during Lisa and Hermann’s first duet that did the trick for me. Lisa does not resist her emotions and cannot help crying. When Hermann sees that a woman he thought to be entirely unaware of his existence returns his feelings, he is so overwhelmed that he cannot even form a sentence. He says “My beauty… my goddess… angel”. Unlike the character in Pushkin’s short story, Tchaikovsky’s Hermann longed not for the money but for the girl. As the girl happened to be rich, the money was something he needed to get to her, but then the prodigy happened: he managed to won her heart in spite of his lack of wealth. She had fallen for his tormented eyes. Therefore, the torment had to go on – it was more than the bond between them, it was his very essence. He would perish without it – and so he does. And this kind of feeling, this is exactly what Tchaikovsky knew how to put into music.

If conductor Vasily Petrenko did not offer his audience that, one must take in account the forces available to him this afternoon. From the first bars, I realized that this performance would be very different from what one hears in Rostropovich’s Paris recording, where every chord is driven by some sort of force. From bar one and even through the children chorus and the ball scene, one hears that this is not going to end well. And Rostropovich did that with a subpar orchestra and a colorful cast. But that was a studio recording. Mr. Petrenko, on the other hand, is debuting at the Met and has a show to carry on. And he does it with a soprano new to the role, a tenor light for the part, a chorus not entirely at ease and an orchestra with limited availability for rehearsals. And in spite of all that, he offered a polished account of the score, the house orchestra particularly warm and smooth in sound, all singers taken care of and in the hands of a conductor sensitive to their needs, and one who knows the music from inside out, as the audience could hear in the absolute clarity and structural coherence of this afternoon’s music making. But the white heat, the paroxysm, the Angst, one would have to look elsewhere for all that.

Much has been written about Lise Davidsen’s first Lisa. She had been accused of not being Nilsson or Flagstad and now she is blamed for not being Vishnevskaya nor Milashkina. The problem with Ms. Davidsen is simple: music lovers have been waiting  so long for someone like her to show up on operatic stages that now that she is here it has been difficult for everyone to accept that her job is not fulfilling the fantasies of every member in the audience simultaneously, but rather serving music and text with her own voice and imagination. And I am happy to see she has been true to herself and is building her own career in her very own terms. Yes, Ms. Davidsen’s Lisa lacks the vibrancy and intensity of a Vishnevskaya or the plangency and roundness of tone of a Milashkina. To say the truth, she does not sound at all as a Russian soprano. Her Lisa turns around restraint – her sizable soprano kept in strict control throughout the opera. Both her big arias are sung with Schubertian discipline, her high notes effortlessly hit without showiness. It is almost a performance about what you don’t hear: the luxuriant mezzo-ish depth in the low register and the Valkyrian power in its top notes are at an arm’s reach, but kept under leash, exactly as the character in the opera, the girl who was supposed to go straight from the strict supervision of her grandmother to the suffocating affection of a husband she knows very little about until she finally succumbs to the vortex of passion and obsession of a foreigner in a world where she feels foreign too, although she was born in it. Yes, this is not what one usually hears in the role – and maybe the way it has always been done is ultimately more efficient – but in the context of this performance, Lise Davidsen’s subtle glow worked wonders. In terms of acting, she showed the same economy of means and would have been far more efficient if the Spielleitung had not insisted in some sort of fidgety blocking with no added insight. Her best scene was therefore the ball, where she moved with aristocratic poise, but oozed anxiety in every gesture.

Yusif Eyvazov’s Hermann is a whole different story. He displayed acquaintance with the style, crispness of textual delivery and even more than that – awareness not only of the dramatic situations, but also of the words in the libretto. In the onstage discussion after the performance, he joked about how his wife, Anna Netrebko, told him that his problem in this opera wouldn’t be what he had to sing, but what he had to act. Mr. Eyvazov is hardly a force of nature in terms of acting, it is true, but he knows what he can do and, within his possibilities, offered a vulnerable take on the role that makes sense to the text, but not necessarily to the music. When one listens to Vladimir Atlantov sing this part, there is not much room for subtlety, but the weight of a voice like that and the intensity of every utterance sounds simply right. Mr. Eyvazov is no dramatic tenor. He copes alright with the heroic writing, but the voice lacks volume and slancio to fully pierce through thick orchestration and, at the same time, is short on roundness of tone and fluidity for him to be called a “lyric tenor”. Although he has no problem with high notes, the voice lacks squillo. One feels something is missing, high overtones I would say.

Both Igor Golovatenko’s Yeletsky and Alexey Markov’s Tomsky benefited from firm, velvety voices, but Elena Maximova’s Pauline could have done without the harshness in her high register. Larissa Diadkova has stage presence and her low register is still imposing and fruity. Her approach to the Countess, however, lacked mystery. Normally, this is a character that seems to be made of a different substance from the other people on stage, but here she seemed very much like everyone else. It was also a good surprise to find Paul Groves as a firm-toned Tchekalinsky and Jill Grove relishing the competiton for darkness of tone with Russian altos in her short appearance as the governess. I cannot say how proficient the cast is in the language of Pushkin, though.

I won’t write much about Elijah Moshinski’s production. I would say that a traditional staging oughts to offer far more in terms of characterization than the pointless running to and fro seen here, but 1) one could say that this is not truly traditional, considering the stylized sets and costumes, but, anyway, it is lackadaisical and vacuous to a fault; 2) it was first seen at the Met in 1995 and it is difficult now to say what the director really accomplished back then.

My first encounter with Lisette Oropesa took place in her Met debut as Susanna, replacing Dorothea Röschmann. Her singing was fresh and charming and I knew she would go places. Mozart was there again for the second time I saw her as Ismene in a Mitridate in Munich. There my impression was a bit tamer. She seemed busy with the notes and sparkled only intermittently. As I last met her as Gilda at the Met she was fully in control of the coloratura and other technical challenges but rather self-contained and detached in terms of interpretation . Then the news of her success in Les Huguenots in Paris, the Richard Tucker Award and leading roles in Europe and back in New York made me seize the opportunity to see her recital at the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.

She offered an ambitious bel canto and French Romantic arias concert, a showcase of her later roles. She started off with the entrance aria of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, in which she proved alert to the text and nimble in her fioriture sung in perfect legato. As in other items of the program, she treads lightly in extreme high notes but provides athletically supported in alts in her puntature. And the trills are beyond reproach. Her second aria was Adieu, notre petite table from Massenet’s Manon, a number that let her show the clarity and the idiomatic quality of her French, a serviceable low register and an innate grasp of French style. Actually, the old-fashioned grain of her velvety soprano is tailor-made for that repertoire, where the absence of flashiness in her high notes is less of a liability than in bel canto roles (especially in big theatres). The first part of the evening was rounded off with the entrance aria of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Actually, Bellini flatters Ms. Oropesa’s ease with long lines, her flickering vocal production keeping those elegiac phrases alive. Also, her whole attitude is extremely proper to ingénue roles, which benefit from her warm, feminine personality. And again – the coloratura was accurately and joyfully dispatched.

After the interval, her open-eyed youthfulness made her Marguérite credible and less of a Dummkopf in Ah, je ris from Gounod’s Faust. The next item in the program, musicianly sung as it was, showed that Verdi and Puccini should not be – at least at this point – her core repertoire. There is no sense of radiance and liberation in Magda’s high notes in Ch’il bel sogno from La Rondinelli, even if she sang them with abandon. Back to Bellini, she was again in her safe place as Elvira in a heartfelt mad scene from I Puritani, crowned by lovely pianissimi. The encore – Juliette’s waltz from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette only confirmed that French opera is probably where she is going to make a difference.

The house orchestra might keep you on the edge of your seat in its unreliability and the overture to Rossini’s Guillaume Tell was a bumpy ride. Conductor Yuval Zorn slowly regained his pace in the Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs. The spalla may not have the world’s most glamorous tone but floated his tone and provided tasteful portamento comme il  faut. After the pause, the orchestra seemed to have warmed and, in spite of some blunders in the brass section, displayed richer sounds in its strings, especially in the nocturne from Carlos Gomes’s Condor.

Tobias Kratzer’s new production of Tannhäuser for the Bayreuth Festival provoked curiosity even before the premiere: the cast list featured two extra characters, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat. There has been some rant about the inclusion of a drag performer in a Großer romantische Oper by Richard Wagner and that the end of the world is nigh etc etc, but it seems that everybody has forgotten Sebastian Baumgarten’s excrement processing production. If there is something positive about it is that it was an absolute low. Anyone can stage anything in Bayreuth knowing that they won’t ever be responsible for the worst staging in the history of the festival. That is why I had my mind open to what I would find today – and being open-minded always pays.

Tobias Kratzer’s new production is worlds apart from empty provocation. Although the sight of a caravan and a tenor in a clown suit might make one think that he or she ended up in the wrong opera, this is indeed Tannhäuser and the director explores its libretto from an unusual point of view. As he says in an interview, everybody makes it about sex, but there’s a lot more to it. In purely structural terms, this is an opera about exclusion. Tannhäuser abandons society for for a forbidden lifestyle he finally leaves behind with the hope of finding salvation. Then he is banned and sent to a superior spiritual authority in seek of forgiveness and ends up excommunicated. Then he is informed that God’s grace does not exclude anyone. Mr. Kratzer sees a caveat in all that: if you are excluded and is able to make your way back, then you have never truly been an outsider. Here we first see Tannhäuser in a group of anti-establishment street intervention artists. The thrill seems to have been gone for him and his score of Wagner’s Tannhäuser seems to tempt him back to his former life. He jumps off the car and finds himself in the Festspielhaus where the pilgrims are the Wagnerian crowds. His fellow singers recognize him and invite him back, but Elisabeth is not excited about that.

The second act shows the stage of the Festspielhaus where the second act of Tannhäuser is being presented in a traditional production the sets of which look very much like the Wartburg. But there is mise-en-abîme here – the Elisabeth/singer playing Elisabeth is not happy in Wagnerian paradise either. After Tannhäuser left, she felt left behind and tried to kill her self, for unlike him she knows no other world to escape to. The disruption of the singing competition is caused here by the trespassing of Tannhäuser’s troupe – Venus, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat, who make an intervention in the façade of the theater (actually, their words of order are a revolutionary motto by Richard Wagner himself). The police is called, but Elisabeth pleads here not for Tannhäuser’s salvation, but for her own. Venus is disappointed to see that he has never been really disconnected from the high art establishment and watches him being arrested by the police.

In the final act, Elisabeth looks for Tannhäuser in outcasts’ dens and finally find some solace in the company of Oskar. Wolfram tries to bring her back to their “safe” environment, but only catches her attention when he uses Tannhäuser’s old clown costume. Then they have sex, but this only shows him that he has lost her forever – and shows her that she is irreversibly lost. After hearing himself being condemned not by the pope, but by the text in the score he has carried with himself all the way,  Tannhäuser tries to join Venus again, but discovers that the troupe is not the same anymore and that Elisabeth has just killed herself. In the final chorus, he pictures the vagabond life he could never share with her.

This description may make the concept seem a bit all over the place, but that was not the case, Mr. Kratzer’s reading follows the dialogues very closely and creates atmosphere admirably. The Venusberg scene in the caravan had unusual tension, all characters confined in the front seat, Venus driving in an Autobahn under the moonlight. The two extra characters were made to seem integrated in the action and added lots of character to the depiction of the alternative scene Tannhäuser inhabits. The challenges in act 2 were harder to surmount. Mr Kratzer’s video projections did bring about some zest to a scene that tends towards the repetitive and the static, but the comedy touches – well executed and timed as they were – ultimately had an alienating effect. Not only did they make the weight of exclusion over the outsider characters lighter, but also diverted attention from the predicament of the characters who belonged to the establishment but did not feel comfortable in it. As this was supposed to be the issue addressed by this production, the very fact that it was belittled drenched the whole affair of its dramatic power. I myself left the hall saying “oh, it was fun…” and it took me a while before I realized that this was not supposed to be made fun of. Act 3 redeems part of it by focusing on Elisabeth’s depression and suicide. The director was able to express the sadness and desperation of the situation, but the extra/outsider characters remained pretty much outside. Tannhäuser himself seemed secondary in the context. All in all, this was more than worth the detour: Mr Kratzer uses scenic elements with skill, knows how to direct actors and offered visually seductive imagery throughout.

I saw Lise Davidsen and Stephen Gould sing Elisabeth and Tannhäuser some months ago in Zurich, and both offered superior performances today. Ms. Davidsen made a point of lightening her tone to human proportions and phrased almost exclusively in demi-tintes, relying on the sheer size of her voice to sing with disarming directness. Her acting was also unaffected and convincing. Mr. Gould was in very good voice and, if he does not have anymore the vocal insolence of his better years, his singing has gained even more in sensitivity and musical finesse. The sincerity of his acting and the way he embraced the directorial choices showed me new dimensions in his scenic abilities. Elena Zhidkova, live and on video, showed admirable acting skills too, but her voice has developed an instability that tampers with intonation. I had seen her as Venus in Tokyo some years ago (in the Paris version) and had a very different impression back then. Markus Eiche’s voice too has lost a bit of juice and now sounds merely efficient in the role of Wolfram. Stephen Milling was unfortunately not in very good shapes, his bass sounding a bit rusty and his breath a bit short. Last but not least, Katharina Konradi was an ideal shepherd, one of the best in my experience both live and in recordings.

I had read that Valery Gergiev was having trouble with the peculiarities of the orchestral pit in the Festspielhaus, but after seeing a triumphant Simon Boccanegra with him in Salzburg, I did not expect something as unsatisfactory as I’ve heard today. The recessed orchestral sound, the imprecise beat, the sagging tempi, the really messy ensembles, singers left to fend for themselves, all that made an impression of sloppiness hard to believe. I would have not believed if I had not heard it myself.