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Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in the repertoire – and I have often asked myself why. I don’t mean that as a snob, I like Carmen. What I mean is: what in it that makes it so appealing? Unlike Nietzsche, I don’t feel driven to life after watching to hour of abuse and murder of a woman just because there are Mediterranean rhythms around it. But Nietzsche was not really off the mark. My father, for instance, disliked opera in general because he found it “gloomy”. So when he asked me to make an opera playlist for him, he said “please nothing sad or somber – choose something from Carmen!” As a matter of fact, even Carmen’s murder scene isn’t gloomy at all – she dies triumphantly, we hear the cheering from the corrida de toros on the background. Then there is the reinstatement of the grand fateful musical motive of Carmen and Don José’s first scene before Bizet quickly ends it.

A great share of the reason why the audience sees Carmen as “uplifting” is its “Spanish” setting – the reason for the inverter commas is the fact that there is not one Spanish artist involved in the creation of Carmen. Merimée, Meilhac, Halévy and Bizet are very much French. So how Spanish Carmen really is? I guess Spaniards may consider it convincing enough, if a bit on the folkloric side. And this is why I was curious about Calixto Bieito’s 1999 production, since 2017 in use in the Paris Opera. Bieito is Spanish – and seems to have made a point of cleaning the story of mantillas, peinetas and fans by placing it at the 1970’s or 1980’s. It is an old production and it is therefore difficult to know what remains from the director’s original ideas, but I have to say that I was disappointed by what I saw. As far as I can tell, this is a traditional production of Carmen without the mantillas, the peinetas and the fans. I don’t know, considering Bieito’s reputation of shaking the audience from their bourgeois sensibilities, this came dangerously close to a show for tourists. Maybe we’ll still have to wait for a Spanish woman director to bring us closer to the work’s Spanish-ness (or lack thereof),

I find it impossible to assess a musical performance in the Opéra Bastille’s horrendous acoustics. I dream that his building – an architectonic eyesore, to make things even worse – share the fate of the building that stood at the same location until 1789. As it is, all I can say about Fabien Gabel’s conducting is that he made all the sensible choices in circumstances like that: in a hall where the orchestral sound never blooms, what’s the point of lingering? He pressed forward in a way that did not make his singers’ lives difficult, helped his light-voiced cast as much as he could and tried to cope with a rather unruly chorus. In the end, it felt like a glittery, superficial and not truly moving account of this story and this music. Maybe I have been spoiled by too many performances of Carmen with German orchestras in decent acoustics, and it makes a hell of a difference!

It is unthinkable that a French mezzo soprano with Gaëlle Arquez’s voice, acting skills and physique do not sing the title role in Carmen. Indeed, her voice is warm and appealing and she phrases with unfailing elegance. What she does goes beyond good diction; she colors the text, stresses the right syllables in a way that makes it crispy and meaningful, always in exemplary style. This alone made this performance worth the detour, even if in the end of the day, one cannot really say that the role is close to her personality. There is something vulnerable and poised in Ms. Arquez’s vocal and stage presence that suggests rather a Werther’s Charlotte than a factory girl who’s not afraid to use her knife. In a way, Adriana Gonzalez’s Micaela sounded less fragile in comparison. She has an Angela Gheorghiu-like veiled soprano with exquisite floated high mezza voce, a strong lower register and some full high notes. There were tiny glitches here and there: unfocused patches and some miscalculation with breath support. Yet this did not spoiled the audience’s good impression of her.

Michael Spyres started off as Don José at his most Gedda-ish, but curiously from his aria on.adopted a darkened barítonas tone that projected less efficiently. Only in the last scene – the most difficult for a lighter tenor – he sensibly shifted to a brighter sound for exposed high notes. Predictably, his was a stylish performance, sung in excellent French, if a bit short in slancio. Lucas Meachum falls the slot of singers who find the part of Escamillo a tad low-lying and somehow lacks a bit alpha male exuberance, but other than this offered a commendable performance. Among the small roles, I must single out Andrea Cueva Molnar as one of the best Frasquitas I have ever heard,

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It is difficult to establish if Franz Schreker’s falling from grace is a result of historical circumstances or an intrinsic failure in pleasing post-war audiences (or a combination of both). The very fact that his operas are rarely staged makes it impossible to form an opinion if you don’t resort to recordings. I saw Der ferne Klang once at the Berlin Staatsoper some years ago and now I’ve seen Der Schatzgräber in one of the performances of the work’s premiere run in France, a production imported from the Deutsche Oper Berlin.   

When I read what I wrote about Der ferne Klang, I realize that back then I must have felt that its unpopularity was self-explainable. On leaving the theatre today, I wonder if Der Schatzgräber is a superior work or if the performance in Berlin of the earlier work just hang fire. Even while listening to Gerd Albrechts (and Marc Albrecht’s) CDs, I couldn’t help thinking how efficient the work is, in spite of its convoluted and weird libretto (as usual in Schreker’s works). And this afternoon’s live performance just confirmed my impression. I mean, if you ask me “La Traviata” or “Der Schatzgräber”, the answer is two thumbs up for Schreker!

It is a very tricky work for a conductor, more or less for the same reasons it is difficult to conduct R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. There is a very big orchestra, the texture is rich, it requires voices with some lyric quality (soprano and leading tenor are often required to produce piano and pianissimo) albeit big enough to pierce through. It is also a bit kitscher than Strauss – this is probably the hardest day of work for a harpist in the complete operatic repertoire – and also a bit wordier in the sense that dialogues are often handled as in straight theatre. Normally when it feels like an aria, the characters are indeed singing in the plot. 

Conductor Marko Letonja is – considering the rarity of Schreker performances – something of a specialist. His mission seems to be luring the audience to join the Schreker-team by offering Karajan-esque deluxe orchestral sound rather than a blueprint of the score’s complex structure. The approach is intense, emotional yet carefully balanced in order to make it possible for the singers to put the text across or at least be heard at all. The Strassbourg Philharmonic responded accordingly in full yet round and soft-woven sonorities  In the acoustics of Mulhouse’s La Filature, one never felt any want of orchestral sound (specially in what regards the string section) yet it never felt too loud. Considering the light-voiced cast, this was essencial for the success of this performance. 

The two leading roles in the opera fall in the grey zone between dramatic and lyric voices. You can’t have Brünnhilde/Siegfried singers here, yet a Pamina and a Tamino would probably suffer yoo. Helena Juntunen, for instance, is someone who still sings Mozart roles. And one can see why – her blond soprano is glitch-free and her high notes just blossom spontaneously. As Els, she showed nerves of steel in her self-discipline. While most singers would just force the tone and pray to God, she would just let the voice spin and gain momentum à la Soile Isokoski. Yet her voice is lighter than Isokoski’s was. Twice or thrice she has to disguise it with acting with the voice. I mean no criticism here –  she did it expertly, sang with reliable intonation and she is also a good actress too. When I first saw Thomas Blondelle, he used to sing roles like Tamino and David at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Then last year there he was as Parsifal. On writing about his performance then, I noticed he manages to emulate a more important sound by darkening the tone above the passaggio, with noticeable loss of projection. As Parsifal, the tessitura was more congenial and he could shift to the fifth gear with less risk of burning his oil before the end of the run. Here things are a bit higher and stay higher for longer. As a result, one could hear the voice turning grey in exposed moments. On the other hand, his natural assets as a lyric tenor were well employed in terms of tonal shading and cantabile. I have always found him a too studied as an actor, but here it all made sense in a character who wants to be seen as something different from his original status in society. For the context of this performance, he and Ms. Juntunen lived up to the demands of expression within their possibilities. These pieces of casting, however, involved a difficult decision in the choice of singers for the other parts. For instance, the Fool is supposed to go for a tenor lighter than that in the role of Elis. Paul Schweinester’s voice is indeed lighter in than Mr. Blondelle’s. As it is, it is almost a Bach tenor voice. Yet one bright enough to make it into the auditorium, and his diction is very clear. He doesn’t seem to have a naturally flamboyant personality, and this was a blessing in disguise for a part that can veer into the overdone (as in the G. Albrecht recording). Derek Welton’s bass baritone is compatible in volume and size with tenor and soprano in this cast, and his performance as the King was effective and characterful. After hearing Heinz Kruse as Albi in G. Albrecht’s recording made me see how a heroic voice there can make bring out the dangerous side of the part – but I understand that this wouldn’t make sense in this cast. All other minor roles were well cast, also in terms of acting.

Christof Loy’s production is apt in what regards having to stage an eventual and colorful story in a single set with contemporary costumes. The idea of making it all happen in the act 4 party makes sense in an atmosphere à la Règle du Jeu. That said, if one thinks of Schreker’s source of inspiration for this opera – hearing a singer in medieval costume sings ballads accompanying herself on the lute in a small inn in the alps – one misses the quaintness, the oddity, the sincerity of it all. Although Els is seducing all those men around her, it all really remains in the level of “promise”. Act 3 is indeed a new experience to her – and to Ellis. The libretto is so descriptive of his impression of the whole experience as otherworldly. There is no one else in the world – Schreker has a chorus singing “ah”. It is not a collective experience at all. Elis says that they are “in Eden”. The only third character there, as we know, is the snake – not the rest of the cast and some extras in a highly choreographed orgy. I don’t know why directors now feel that all sensuous experience in an operatic stage has to be collective. In the age of internet porn, it doesn’t even look risqué or effective. It’s just embarrassing and distracting. It elicited giggling the row behind mine from two ladies born not long after Schreker’s death.

This concert with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is part of a long run beginning in Salzburg, of which I could one performance in Lucerne. For the performance in Zurich, there were two new singers in the cast – French soprano Alexandra Marcellier and American tenor John Osborn. Ms. Marcellier is something of the pocket version of an ideal Vitellia – a complex, unsweet tonal quality, the low notes, the high notes, more than reasonable flexibility, the attitude. It is all there provided the hall is not too big. As many Vitellias, she is not truly a Mozart soprano in the sense of poise, purity, accuracy and instrumental quality. Mr. Osborn’s tenor is dulcet and projects famously. I mean, he could sing this role at the Met, but even if he has the voice for it, it’s not his repertoire. There is portamento galore, note values are a bit free, he simplifies some lines and he did everything he could not to sing a high note on the vowel “ee”. He did not hide that he is not truly familiar with the part; in the encore of the final chorus, without the score in hand, he was entirely at a loss about what he had to sing. Still, his Italian is crispier than you’d find with Mozart tenors and he has the right likability for the part.

When writing about the Lucerne performance, I reported that Cecilia Bartoli was in good voice, but this evening she was actually even in better shape. The middle register was more solid, the coloratura in the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio more spontaneous, the expression even more refined. Lea Desandre, Mélissa Petit and Péter Kálmán lived entirely up to the very high standards of their performances in Lucerne. Again, the duettino (as well as Annio’s and Servilia’s arias) an example of Mozartian style.

Gianluca Capuano and the Musiciens du Prince again offered a theatrical, exciting account of this tricky score. It never hang fire, and the first finale was the very definition of thrilling. Back in Lucerne, I didn’t have the impression that the continuo was so busy in the recitatives as this evening, even if I can’t say it felt intrinsically different. To be honest, Malin Hartelius’s Vitellia (even reading from the score) showed then a bit more imagination (and stronger diction), and Charles Workman’s lifelong experience with the part makes more than some difference. Maybe that was it. Anyway, I am glad to have seen this concert again. La Clemenza di Tito is a favorite of mine, and I doubt one could find a performance – even a staged one – more convincing than the this evening these days.

The Cantata BWV 101, Nimm von uns, Herr, Du treuer Gott (Take from us, Lord, faithful God), first performed in 1724, turns around the lutheran hymn “Turn away, God, your immense wrath”, written in the context of an outbreak of the plague in 1584, understood as a punishment from Heaven. Bach composed his work for the 10th Sunday after Trinity, a date when the sermon addresses the passage in which Jesus laments the fate of Jerusalem and prophecies about its destruction. The opening chorus has a strangely solemn atmosphere. As usual, the hymn goes for the soprano voice, but around it a complex choral counterpoint is built inside an independent orchestral polyphonic framework. In it, the listener finds is a dance-like repeated-note subject in the opening bars, rounded off by an almost balletic hiccup-like three-note figure with an accent on the second note (a “sighing” motive), not to mention colourful harmonic twists, all that in contrast with the hymn’s rather plaintive tone. At first, it may sound rather cerimonial, rather “catholic” in its liturgical atmosphere, as something that you’re witnessing rather than taking part in. It is almost as if Bach had kept to his own lofty jaw-dropping standards, and it was for the congregation to rise to it. Of course, there is a dramatic point there. The text basically says “we no longer need to be punished – we have risen from our previous state of ungodliness and we have learned our lesson”. And the lesson is the hymn.

This is a cantata where the development from the melody of the hymn is almost didactically spelled out throughout the whole work. The tenor aria, originally composed with an odd sprightly (and virtuosistic) solo for the flute (Bach would later replace it for the violin), sounds like an unconvincing piece of contrition. This spiritual journey is just in the beginning. It is followed by a soprano recitative where the freer rhythm typical of recitation stems directly from the hymn’s lines. The bass aria goes even further in even having an abrupt tempo change between the hymn melody (the original “lesson”) and the florid development of the subject (the “improvement” derived from learning the lesson). A second recitative, this time for the tenor voice, follows more or less the same lines of the second movement – and this is when we find the emotional core of the cantata: the soprano/alto duet. I use the word “emotional” because it is the item in which the quotations from the hymn are less “for show”. There they are so integrated in the musical discourse and the affetto is so intimate and sincere that it doesn’t feel like a demonstration of any kind. During the earlier parts of the cantata, the text turns around “I’m suffering too much”, “I’ve paid enough”, but here it goes rather for “Think of Jesus and how HE suffered bitterly for all of us”. Somehow, the duet is the moment when one really sees the development. It is simply more mature in tone, and I find it is no wonder that it receives the more “spiritual” music in the whole work. It is the spiritual destination of our cantata.

I was curious to know how conductor Rudolf Lutz would approach the opening chorus. Most recordings go for a rather somber atmosphere, with a slower tempo to match, the notable exception being John Eliot Gardiner. And I had the intuition Mr. Lutz would go in that direction. It is what the music demands in purely sensorial terms – and my joke about its “catholicity” made me feel that the “Vivaldian” exuberance would make sense here. And it did – it sounded grand, theatrical and intense, and this also is fitting for it as the first station of a journey that ends in the simplicity and honesty of the final chorale. Although the solo flute better evokes the “insincerity” in the tenor’s aria, I am glad Mr Lutz followed Gardiner’s example and chose the violin instead. I can’t say if tenor Daniel Johannsen chose the open-toned, “air quote”-like Charaktertenor tone for words like Sündenknechte or Flehen on purpose. In comparison, Gerd Türk (in Suzuki’s recording) and Christoph Genz (in Gardiner’s) sound more consistently dulcet, but the impression of the superficiality of the regret and the repentance are more powerfully conveyed the way it was sung this evening. As Mr. Johannsen sang his recitative in altogether sweeter voice, I can only believe it was an interpretative decision – and a very intelligent one. Although Miriam Feuersinger found her recitative a bit low for her voice, her pellucid soprano was ideally matched to Margot Oitzinger’s absolutely natural contralto. They sang their duet with such disarming artlessness and honesty that I doubt that I have ever heard it better sung as this evening. The single non- Austrian soloist this evening, German bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich displayed admirable control of his divisions, but in comparison seemed a bit Schwarzkopf-ian in his finicky phrasing. The chorus – and I can’t say this enough – sang splendidly. The orchestra too offered ideally warm sounds in the glorious acoustics of the Kirche Trogen, the second performance a bit more polished in what regards the oboes in the bass aria.

It is strange that every time I hear Gounod’s Faust, I am surprised by how beautiful this music is. I mean, the weird thing is that I always forget it. Yes, everybody likes to say that it was extremely popular in the 19th century and then it has fallen out of favor with the audiences. I can see why – the opera is foreign to the philosophical ambition of Goethe’s concept, the story as told by Jules Barbier et Michel Carré sounds almost nonsensical in the 21th century and the score’s beauty is on the syrupy side. I write this with no prejudice; it’s like Canada’s prime maple syrup, who can resist it? Yet it requires a lot of imagination for musicians and the audience to embrace this universe of sentimentality and bask in its beauty. This is probably why some of us loose the connection withit as soon as the opera ends. Curiously, stage directors seem to get there more easily than singers and conductors, probably because you can always adopt a cynical point of view when staging it. I mean, you cannot sing Ah, je ris or Salut, demeure from a cynical point of view.

Jan Philipp Gloger’s production is not cynical in detail. Here Faust is not an old man, but only a bored married privileged guy who cannot stop fantasizing about living la vida loca, while Marguerite is genuinely tired of waiting for something to happen in her proletarian life. So why not taking advantage of her? Everything is made to look chic and grand and exciting, even when a little bit more of repose would be helpful. For instance, the first Faust/Marguerite duet with couples in public display of sensuality everywhere felt embarrassing rather than sexy. I only feel that Marguerite’s redemption in the end might be only in her imagination, but it means something to her, and it is her way out of the abuses she suffer from basically every single character in the plot but for Siébel. So, even if it only exists in her mind, her mind is her whole world and, therefore, it is real for her – and that is what the music is telling us. It is taking her point of view.

Conductor Ryan McAdams deserves praise for taking the music at face value. It is a grand Romantic opera, and he has produced a grand Romantic orchestral sound for it. He didn’t try to save its reputation by making it profounder, but let the music flow, even if this meant some messy ensembles. It felt like genuine excitement in the scenes with the chorus. He didn’t try to make it sound fussy either as an Ersatz for “French” style either. I guess it is always best to leave the French decide what “French” means, because it is always a bit hard to understand what they mean by it. Anita Hartig deserves praise for the way she incorporated the little-woman-ness of the part of Marguerite. In acts 2 and 3, not only did she manage to act it with absolute naturalness, but also sing it with utter sincerity. She sounded aptly young and bright-toned, while her middle register had enough warmth and sensuousness. Most importantly, she phrased with the kind of immediate emotional vividness Ileana Cotrubas could produce at her best. From act 4 on, the tightness, the droopiness and the strain in her high register crept in, disfiguring Il ne revient pas and mostly her final scene. Saimir Pirgu has the right voice for the part, once you get used to the not truly attractive sound of his first octave. The high notes are easy, firm, well-focused and the tone is clear as one would want in this repertoire. He can be a bit emphatic as a Puccini tenor sometimes, and was at his best in act 3, where he showed his ability with tone colouring and dynamic finesse. I am not sure that Mephistophelès is a role close to Roberto Tagliavini’s vocalità and personality. He exudes likability and has a noble, velvety, uncomplicated voice. He worked hard to show some mojo – as much as José Van Dam in the Plasson recording – but when one hears someone really going for broke and offering some danger in it (René Pape, when I last saw this opera, for example), then the part really comes to life. The fact that this evening’s Wagner, Jungrae Noah Kim, had a darker and earthier voice made things a tad more problematic. Alexandra Kadurina was a Siébel with a little bit more testosterone than usual – and that’s for the best. Finally, Liliana Nikiteanu as Marthe proved again that there really aren’t small roles.

This evening’s performance of R. Strauss’s Salome at the Theater Basel was so peculiar that it is difficult to describe it. While ideally one wishes to hear a score (and see a staging) in its full potential as the text and the notes suggest it, in real life there are uncountable elements that make a successful performance, regardless of how important singers, orchestra, conductor, director and the theatre individually are. This evening, for instance, won’t be remembered as the ultimate Salome in anyone’s experience, but I am sure that everyone who saw it won’t forget it. It featured an ideal combination of forces ideally matched to each other, making an unusually coherent whole. 

The auditorium in the Theater Basel is not big, and the Sinfonieorchester Basel is hardly amazing in volume, refulgence and glamor. Yet Salome is an opera where a big hall and a superpowerful orchestra can make it impossible for a conductor to find the desirable balance with singers on stage. And when you do find singers able to stand the competition, they rarely sound or look their parts. Strauss himself struggled with the issue, looking for a light yet bearable soprano, recommending that conductors kept the orchestra under leash and even toying with revising the score. Although I am not sure that what we heard today was really on purpose, it worked in a way Strauss himself would have approved. As it is, the “reduced” version of the score has been used, and although it is markedly less exciting than the full version and its punchy effects, it felt less empty than in a big theater, as one could sometimes feel in Aix last summer. It also allows for unusual harmonic clarity and transparency. Although conductor Clemens Hell could have let himself go a little bit more in the interludes and give a little bit more time for key moments to produce their complete effect, the structural clarity in this performance was praiseworthy. As usual with Salomes made in these circumstances, one miss a bit of raw excitement. Yet after many exciting and wildly uneven large-scaled performances, this was really refreshing. 

In a way, Herbert Fritsch’s production is also surprisingly faithful to the aesthetics Strauss had in mind when he composed it. This staging is entirely free of vulgarity, exaggeration, overstatement. It delivers the highly stylized atmosphere of the play, almost as in a 1970’s disco version of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations. This means that the kitsch is there – and this is a central part of Strauss’s music. It is like pepper in Indian food. All singers act in millimetrically choreographed movements and facial gestures, often with a wink to comedy. Even if one may find it too close to children’s theatre, it is well done, all singers well directed, aware of the purpose of it and comfortable with what they are doing – and it makes sense for the audience too after while. For instance, this was probably my favorite dance of the seven veils. Here Salome can’t really dance, it’s just like when your 12 years old daughter says “daddy, I’m a ballerina” and does what she imagines to be ballet. 

Central to the concept is the presence of American soprano Heather Engebretson in the title role. She looks so childlike that it feels almost disturbing to watch her with Jokanaan. I had never seen a singer like her in the part. On trying to establish a comparison, I can only think of Teresa Stratas in the film with Karl Böhm. Ms. Engebretson’s high notes are rather golden and fuller, though. Although she labels herself a lirico spinto, I hear a lyric voice expertly handled, with unusual ease in the higher reaches The middle and medium registers are a bit puffed up to cope, but she never carries the trick to her top register, where her money notes are. She has ideal breath support, enviable stamina, and a sense of line not always available in this kind of adaptation. In a heavy role as this, she doesn’t have much leeway for tone coloring and dynamic variety (no mezza voce à la Caballé or Behrens, for instance), but she makes do with word-pointing. The way she handled the music, the technical aspects of the singing, the complex and very much physical acting demands was fascinating – and yet she felt very much like the Salome of this performance, in the sense that there she was evidently in control in a play about someone loosing control. The obsession, the fixation, the despair were not truly there – but again it made sense in this staging. It felt really childlike in its directness.

Jason Cox’s baritone too is on the light side for Jochanaan. He made for the absence of vocal impact with intensity of delivery and he is probably the singer who comes closer to the description of the character in the play I have probably ever seen. And the head was very realistic, although the director probably doesn’t know the story of Olive Fremstad with the it, by the way everybody carried it as though it wasn’t heavy at all. There was a remarkable dulcet-toned Narraboth in Ronan Caillet. I would be curious to hear him sing Mozart. It was nice, for a change too, to hear a singer in her prime as Herodias, as Jasmin Etezadzadeh found no problem with the exposed high notes. Some singers in the cast were announced ill, but that did not spoil the fun. All minor roles were well taken.

I had seen Swiss bass Stephan MacLeod in the context of his appearances in the concerts of the J.S. Bach Stiftung St. Gallen before I discovered that he too is recording live as soloist and conductor his own complete series of Bach cantatas in his hometown with his ensemble Gli Angeli Genève. Out of curiosity I have decided to attend one of their concerts in the Temple de Saint-Gervais in Geneva. 

The venue has quite resonant acoustics, and I reckon that a conductor less familiar with it would have had trouble making the right decisions in terms of forces, placement of musicians in the hall and choice of soloists. I cannot really say if the issue of style and interpretation and the hall is an egg and chicken situation. As it is, what the conductor does there makes sense in that space. He used a two voice per part chorus (one of which was the soloist) placed in front of the orchestra. When the sopranos carried the cantus firmus, they would step ahead of anyone else. Solo instruments played from the extreme left side of the “stage” (the concert master was already placed far right when she played an obligato part). Mr. MacLeod seems to prefer a warm orchestral sound and a markedly expressive approach to phrasing, where everybody is given enough time to highlight every little turn of phrase. There is enough time to breathe, to let sounds develop in the room without getting tangled, a no-no in this repertoire. One would hardly use the word “brilliant”, but most definitely “affectionate”.  

The program this evening featured three “chorale” cantatas, i.e., based on traditional Lutheran hymns immediately recognized by a congregation used to sing them: BWV 3, Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (1725), BWV 124, Meinem Jesu lass ich nicht (1725) and BWV 177, Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ (1732)

The cantata BWV 3, arguable the most unusual item this evening, opens with a grandl noble yet not gloomy chorus embellished by the oboes d’amore, the text of which turns around how hard is the way to heaven, a theme recurrent in the two other works It follows a pattern often employed by Bach in “chorale” cantatas: one voice (here surprisingly the bass) carries the good old tune, while the others enrich the texture with derivations of the chorale material or even independent subject,  here related to the music introduced by the oboes. The first movement is followed by a recitative/chorale marriage, where the chorus presents the chorale text, “freely” commented by each solo voice in Q&A style. The chorus still complains how tough it is to lead a devout life, while the soloists boost their motivation with catch phrases until the bass gives a longer tip: you’re never alone, for Jesus is always there to help you out. No wonder the bass is the first to get an aria in order to develop his thoughts a little bit further. It is a continuo-only movement with hallmark baroque contrasting imagery, which the singer is supposed to illustrate with the corresponding juxtaposition of sharply rhythmic phrases with occasional dissonances to depict the fear of hell and flowing coloratura as an example of heavenly joy. The confidence in Jesus is reinforced in the tenor recitative that leads to the cantata’s most famous number, the soprano/alto duet with oboes d’amore and violin, intertwining coloratura and noble harmony. It is the perfect soundtrack to cheerful spiritual serenity.

The BWV 124 shows Bach at his most straightforward. Right from the opening chorus,  textual clarity takes pride of place, most of the complexity coming from the accompanying oboe d’amore, the ever flowing line of which maybe suggesting the idea that the faithful soul will never let go of the faith in Christ. This is again one of the cantatas around the idea that, even if one is willing to believe and lead a pious life, it is not as easy as it sounds. The tenor aria is about the fear of death (and what happens afterwards). Here Bach uses concitato-like repeated chords to show the fear and trembling and the whole atmosphere is rather tense. Release comes in the soprano/alto duet, in passepied rhythm and catching melisme. Everything is light and sprightly and uncomplicated. You don’t have to be particularly perceptive to realize that this is an advertisement of the joys of heaven.

The opening chorus of the BWV 177 is about asking God the strength to believe and to do good. That’s the pep talk. Without the motivational chorus, the story is a bit different in real life. In the alto aria, confidence is not the Schwerpunkt. The singer, accompanied by continuo only, has to deal with exposed and very long phrases, while saying “please don’t let me be mocked” and “if I depend only on my effort, I’ll end up regretting the whole thing”. The soprano aria shows improvement – God sends an oboe da caccia to boost enthusiasm. Now the tempo is dance-like, the atmosphere is soothing, the text goes for “help me keep in the good way if misfortune tries to lead me astray”. Bottom line – we’re on the right track. So far. The third and final aria, when the tenor is assisted not only by a violin but also by a bassoon (!), shows a cheerful atmosphere: God’s grace is not a reward for good behavior, you only have to believe in it and it will be there for you. The final chorale can sometimes feel a bit formulaic, but not here. The full orchestra and chorus come to affirm “I know you won’t abandon me”.

We first heard BWV 124. Here the atmosphere very different from what one hears in Masaaki Suzuki’s recording, in which everything is shown in almost surgical clarity, but rather in the mood of John Eliot Gardiner’s recording, albeit with lighter choral sound. I missed both Gardiner and Suzuki’s more theatrical depiction of the “trembling” chords in the tenor aria, though. BWV 3 opened to an emotional yet gracious almost in French style opening chorus. Here the mismatch between solo soprano and alto voices more evident than in the first item.. 

Right before the last item, Mr. MacLeod, together with his solo alto and both tenors, offered an exquisite a cappella rendition of the hymn related to Bach’s BWV 177. Here again the warm expressive performance may have lacked the last ounce of clarity, but again it made sense for the venue and played for the strengths of these musicians. 

I had never heard soprano Alexandra Lewandowska before, and therefore I cannot tell if the idea was to emulate a boy soprano sound. If so, she did it quite well. However, when one hears a Magdalena Kozená sing the aria from the BWV 177 (in John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording) with superior intonation, ideal focus and core in her middle and lower registers, one tends to get spoiled. Alex Potter’s countertenor can be surprising rich and projecting, and – as much as in St. Gallen’s cathedral with the J. S. Bach Stiftung – carries very well in resonant rooms. He sang his coloratura with poise and delivered the text with clarity. Tenor Thomas Hobbs’s dulcet tenor is less angular and piercing than what you’d hear from a German tenor in this repertoire. The acoustics did not help him very much, yet he sang his arias with elegance and tonal variety. In his duties as the bass soloist. Mr. MacLeod sang richly and expressively, his voice only occasionally discoloring in its higher reaches. 

Almost everybody outside the Czech Republic, at least until the 2000’s, has probably discovered Janacek’s operas in the Decca series of studio recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and Charles Mackerras, whose lifetime experience and study of the original scores are acknowledged even in the composer’s homeland. I myself first listened to the Decca Katja Kabanova in preparation for the live performance at the Covent Garden under the baton of Charles Mackerras himself.

In the CD’s booklet, Mackerras explains a dual tradition in the Czech Republic for the performance of Janacek’s score – while in Brno Janacek’s music would be performed with all the sharp angles in the composer’s orchestration, in Prague one would tend to round them off and present a more Romanticized approach. I can’t even dream of offering a deep analysis of Tomas Netopil’s position in that regard, but I would bet he doesn’t belong to the sharp-angle party. Yes, The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is hardly the right vehicle for the punchy or the tangy, but still, as performed today, Katja Kabanova sounded the Czech answer to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Beautiful and subdued as it was, I’m not sure that this is the idea, unless it is luring new audiences with the garden variety of a big, exotic palm tree. 

In terms of singing, this was a strong cast. I was not truly wowed by Corinne Winters’ Jenufa last season, but her Katja was richly sung in round, homogeneous, warm sounds. One can almost say that she has used Elisabeth Söderström in the studio recording as a reference, and if she did, that was a wise idea. I am less convinced by Elena Zhidkova’s Kabanicha. Maybe I’m too used to Nadezhda Kniplová’s icy, incisive singing, and it took me a while to get used to the velvetier sound and less than dead-on-the note phrasing. 

Although the three tenors in the cast sang well and were alright contrasted, I can’t again avoid the comparison with the Decca recording, where Petr Dvorsky offers a full-throated Italianate quality as Boris that makes one understand why Katja found him hard to resist. Here Ales Briscsein did sound a tad more focused and brighter in his high notes than this evening’s Tichon, Magnus Vigilus. Yet compared to Dvorsky, both sound rather on the Spieltenor end of the spectrum. Sam Furness (Kudrjas), on the other hand, offered a darker, grainier sound and a more cantabile approach to phrasing. 

Finally, Erna Pomgrac’s fruity, youthful mezzo is the right voice for the part of Varvara, and Tómas Tómasson’s straightforward approach to the role of Dikoj proved to be quite refreshing too. 

“Puzzling” is the word I’d use to describe Tatjana Gürbaca’s staging. When one sees the architectural model-like sets, one could imagine that the idea was to put on a clean view of an opera that turns around the paroxysmal. My question is – isn’t it like trying to make a non sour key lime pie or a non bitter bar of dark chocolate? As it was, the staging felt emotionally insipid and ultimately nonsensical. Ms. Winters is hardly the sacro fuoco kind of singing actress, but here she was made to look studied and self-possessed as if she were a character in an operetta. Similarly, the bespectacled Boris with a goofy attitude makes it seem as if there were two Tichons in the story. Could you stage it as if Katja falls for him just because he’s there regardless of his attractiveness? Maybe, but the director didn’t sell me this concept, if this was the idea at all. The whole half-drunk/half-skank approach to the role of Kabanicha made sense in an unexpected way. The nature of her relationship with Dikoj leaves no room for doubt), and one almost understand why she is so mean to Katja. Even if one could argue that this is not officially the story in the libretto, one must concede that here (and maybe only here) the Personenregie could put across the message. I have to say that the last act was for me a turn off – the omnipresent of every member of the cast repeating ad nauseam little pointless routines voided Katja’s feeling of alienation, which is central to these scenes. The final impression was a caricature of East German theatre in the 80’s in its low budget stylization and pseudo-intellectualism. 

I wish I could do as Brünnhilde by the end of the Ring and say that I know everything and that all has been revealed to me. And yet I’ll allow myself my own little insight about Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of the Ring for the Lindenoper. In Siegfried, an elderly Wotan calls an Erda also in her old age to ask for advice. She realizes that he has not understood what she had told him when she warned him about the ring’s curse (namely, that the whole problem is the idea of power). In this production, this is the 1970’s, women have still very little say in the world’s affairs. And yet this time Wotan hears Erda, and surrounds himself with a group of female warriors whose job is to execute his intents as lord of the battles, among them Brünnhilde. This is why,, Erda is now surprised when she hears that Wotan did not turn to the Valkyrie when he needed advice (i.e., in the episode with the Wälsungen), but also silenced her and persisted in his projected of somehow getting the supreme power over the world (although he himself claims to be disgusted with it). His reaction to Erda’s assessment of the situation is accusing her of not understanding anything and getting abusive with her (in this staging, even physically abusive). I guess most women would tell us that this is basically everyday at the office. 

Now let’s talk about this Götterdämmerung. Here we have the most readable concept in the whole production. Although there is no magic fire, no magic potion, no tarnhelm, no sword (or replacements for them), the story is being basically told “as it is”, and those are invariably the moments when Tcherniakov’s Personenregie shines. I was still trying to look for the whole mind controlling/scientific experiment thing, and the fact that it only surfaced very superficially (the Rhinemaids as lab researchers, for instance) made me realize that maybe that was it: the all-male power-seeking project from the 1970’s had simply lost its point. It is dysfunctional and, as Erda told us back in the 1970’s, it was to end. It took a while for Brünnhilde to realize that as long as she acted inside this project, as a sidekick of either Wotan or Siegfried, regardless of how much she loves or was loved by them, it would never END. There must be a new project, conceived from the beginning with a feminine voice. Here we see the whole production vanish in the end. In the open stage Brünnhilde sees Erda while the text of the “Schopenhauer ending” is projected on the wall: “Grieving love’s profoundest suffering opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end”.  

When we think of Tcherniakov’s own Holländer in Bayreuth (Mary kills the Holländer before Senta sacrifices her own life for him), the point is even clearer. It is only sad that Tcherniakov’s concept in terms of staging is so messy and all over the place. For instance, the first Gibichungen scene. Every element of the plot the director could not make something of was giggled at by Gunther, Gutrune and Hagen, as if they were permanently doing air quotes. After five minutes, even the singers felt self-conscious and unconvincing. It is also contradictory that all expression of emotion is made fun of and ridiculed – I guess that this goes against to what the libretto, the aesthetics, the philosophy behind it is about. But maybe I’m being bourgeois and sentimental. 

Musically, this was the best item in the cycle. Although the brass section was in erratic mood throughout, the orchestra first sounded full and rich as one expects in a score like this, The prologue and the opening duet probably the better accomplished moments in the whole cycle. Then the Gibichungen scene succumbed to the pointlessness these performances tended to present whenever Wagner doesn’t help the conductor with a clear driving element for the music to move forward. Still the scene with Waltraute would prove to be the low point in the evening. There, the conjunction of light voices and the acoustically unfavorable set got the best over Thomas Guggeis: back we went to recessed orchestral sound and a rather square management of tempo. In moments like Siegfried’s Journey through the Rhine or the funeral march, the sound picture could be brassy and the phrasing a bit impatient. 

In spite of her ability to find a lyric note in the role of Brünnhilde and to muster her strengths to produce some big acuti, the part does not truly flatters Anja Kampe’s voice. She was often edgy, greyish in tone in her middle register and sometimes naughty with the way she handled her chest voice. Andreas Schager, on the other hand, is everything one could expect from a Siegfried. His voice is s bit darker than when I heard him in the same part in Hamburg, yet he still produces big high notes at will. Johannes Martin Kränzle again acted and sang famously as Alberich. Mika Kares unfortunately was not in his best voice and had his woolly moments, but he still has an ideal attitude for the role, and his bass is more than big enough. Both Gutrune and Gunther were too light-voiced for their parts, while the Rhinemaidens and especially the Norns were strongly cast. 

Although Semiramide is regarded as a masterpiece in Italian Romantic operatic repertoire, it has enjoyed a relatively short period of popularity, having become a rarity since the end of the 19th century. It has mostly been revived as a prima donna’s show. Indeed, you can find recordings (mostly made live) with Sutherland, Caballé, Ricciarelli, Devia, Anderson, Gruberová and recently DiDonato. However, it is everything but a prima donna vehicle – and this may account for its rarity. It is a score that needs an all-star cast, a large chorus, a big orchestra and, at least as devised by the librettist, a complex production. Its demands verge on the monumental – and maybe this is why most members of the audience find it hard to relate. For instance, when I saw the revival of the John Copley production from the Met, the audience’s reaction was similar to what you feel while watching the documentary channel on TV.

This is probably why the Deutsche Oper’s decision to present it semi-staged in a regular theatre, the orchestra downstage and singers upstage (on a platform) with a contemporary scenario seemed to make it somehow more approachable  – and not only for the fact that we were watching musicians from so close. In director Philine Tiezel’s concept, Semiramide is the owner of a world-famous gallery who intends to step down in favor of one of her artists – the media darling and bad boy Assur, the performer Idreno or the newcomer Arsace. We are supposed to be attending this great event. On reading it, you might feel that it was a silly-fest, but the very fact that the whole thing was very superficial allowed the audience to follow the story as if it was just Semiramide and, in spite of the occasional misfiring from the direction, it worked its trick. The theatre was less than half full, but everybody who was there seemed to be fully involved. 

All roles in Semiramide but one are challenging, and the Deutsche Oper made an effort of mixing some top level ensemble members with guest singers. None of them in the Caballé/Horne/Ramey league, and for some reason, this also seemed to help the opera to step down from its pedestal. In the title role, there was Georgian soprano Salome Jicia, a singer I knew only from reviews. After five minutes into her performance, I could understand why she raises controversy. It is not a voice that flatters the ears. The middle register is mushy and sometimes hard to hear, her coloratura has its yugga-yugga moments and some acuti tend to the screechy, but she is one of the rare singers today who make the jump without the net. Even when you’d prefer polish and focus, her singing felt truthful in its imperfection, at least live in the theatre. The contrast to Scottish contralto Beth Taylor’s Arsace was very much central to this performance. Ms. Taylor’s beauty and richness of tone down to the bottom of her range, sculpted phrasing and natural flexibility won the audience from her first note. She sounds like an ideal Handel singer, but in a theatre like the Haus der Berliner Fesrspiele can still manage to face a larger orchestra when things run towards the mezzo soprano tessitura. 

Levy Sekgapane’s light, round tenor found no difficulties in the part of Idreno (here shortened to include only his first aria, replanted in the second act). Riccardo Fassi’s bass is one size smaller than the part of Assur (here shorn of his big final aria), and yet he sang firmly, with excellent coloratura and crispy pronunciation of his native Italian. Bogdan Taloe’s voluminous bass caused a grand impression in the part of Oroe, and Patrick Guetti completed the low-voice trio with a powerful rendition of Nino’s ghost’s “appearance”. There are few sopranos these days who project purity of tone with enough volume to deliver a Mozart prima donna role – and I have the impression Maria Motiligyna is one of those rare specimens. Although she had just a few phrases to sing as Azema, the golden purity of her voice made me really eager for more. 

Conductor Corrado Rovaris offered a rather “classical” account of the score – no bombastic accents, theatrical accelerando effects, but rather balanced sections and very subtle fluctuation of tempi. If the chorus sang heartily, the orchestra sounded at its most Italian with slim, bright-ish violins. This might have also helped to make the work less monumental and it was the right choice for this cast, even if one could at times wish for a tad more punch in big ensembles and confrontation scenes.