Archive for June, 2009

The Deutsche Oper’s present Carmen is the refurbishment of Pier Luigi Samaritani’s 1979 production re-directed by Soeren Schuhmacher. It is a traditional, not really imaginative but not unpleasant staging, which has its moments of restricted budget, such as the invisible parade of a bullfighting team which should show up on stage (as shown here, only Escamillo and two other guys appear to the audience). Being traditional, however, is not the problem here: the moments when something “new” was tried were precisely the most disappointing, unfortunately concentrated on the last act, when Frasquita and Mercedes appear as black-clad angels and Carmen is shown in an extremely unbecoming and unexplainable bullfighter outfit.

Fortunately, the bad news are restricted to the stage – Yves Abel’s vital, energetic and theatrical conducting kept excitement at high levels throughout. The Deutsche Oper responded with animation and precision. To some extent, the orchestra would remain the most expressive soloist on stage. In the title role, Kate Aldrich has a fruity, seductive mezzo soprano with reserves of chest resonance that resented loud dynamics though. At the end of the Lilas Pastia scene, her appealing tone sounded bleached and even rasping sometimes. The single intermission proved healthy, for she could regain tonal quality for the final scene. She has the physique du rôle and, although her seduction looks a bit calculated, it does also look effective. Nicole Cabell’s velvety soprano lacks carrying power and her breath could be more generous, but the voice is extremely charming and she phrases with good taste and sensitiveness. Although no-one in the cast has really idiomatic French, hers came closer to the mark. Tenor Massimo Giordano also has a most appealing tone, but his whole method was too Italianate to this role and the amount of scooping and uncertain intonation was a bit dangerous. He must be praised for his attempt of producing mezza voce in the end of his aria, but things did not work really smoothly there. Most unfortunately was the fact that the usually reliable Stephen Bronk was in very poor voice as Escamillo – and he looks quite older than the role. Minor roles could be better cast too.


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Back to the Lindenoper’s recreation of the historic (and historical) Schinkel production, I can now report a little bit more enchantment because this time I had a parterre ticket. When you have a frontal view of the stage, the cardboard sets do work to the right effect and the fun is not spoilt by the view of poles, sticks and ropes behind the scene by those seated in upper levels or on the side. Still, the production is already old and desperately cries for a new process of stage rehearsals. Some scenes look messy, some change of sets verge on catastrophical. Worse: since gestures and movements were blocked looong time ago (with other singers), many scenes look either mechanical or, when they are not, it is because singers are indulging in a series of ad libs (that finally bring some freshness to the proceedings, it must be said).

The messy impression is not only a result of what one saw on stage, but also of what one heard from the pit. After an overture from hell, when everything was poorly synchronized, blurred and noisy, conductor Dan Ettinger tried during the whole evening to set pace, without really ever succeeding. Some serious mismatches in key moments abounded and attempts to generate some energy finally resulted in loud orchestra covering soloists. The side effect was some stretches of unsubtle singing by some members of the cast.

Adriane Queiroz was an unusually rich-toned Pamina whose approach has its heavy-footed moments, but who finally beguiled the audience with an expressive account of Ach, ich fühl’s in which she proved her ability to spin seamless legato. Her Pamina has also more attitude than we are used to see – and that worked to good effect in her “attempted suicide” scene. Sen Guo has no problem with high staccato and in alt notes, but she was ill at ease with everything else. Her first aria displayed rather arthritic coloratura and unfocused low register, problems less evident in Der Hölle Rache. She has clear German, but must work on her body expression, which is rather mute. I wonder if Martin Homrich should sing Mozart – one can see he knows what Mozartian singing should be, but it comes so unnaturally to him that his singing sounded constantly graceless, laborious and not truly on pitch. When it comes to Roman Trekel’s Papageno, it is true that his phrasing was almost unvariably rough, but the roughness was part of his overall concept of a boorish yet likeable Papageno. In the end, even if Mozartian grace should take some part in it, he was probably one of the less nonsensical Papagenos I have ever seen. I have saved the best for last – I have seen René Pape’s Sarastro in different occasions at the Metropolitan Opera House, but somehow found him too chic for the circumstances. Not this evening – he sang with such depth of expression, naturalness and intelligence that the role of Sarastro acquired a rarely seen three-dimensionality. His In diesen heil’gen Hallen was full of unforced emotion and one could have the sensation that time stood still while he sang it.

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The Hamburgishe Staatsoper’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (a revival from the 1976 Deflo/Frigerio staging) has become today something like the generic version of Barbiere di Siviglia. You have seen bits of that kind of stage direction, of those sets, of those costumes, of the physical comedy touches in some Barbiere somewhere at some point. I am unable to tell how original the whole thing was in 1976, but I will not deny that it has some sort of outdated charm, especially if you want to take someone to the opera for the first time in their lives.  The two children seated next to me, for example, were having the time of their life (of course, we are talking about German children).

Alexander Winterson’s conducting had the right degree of animation, forward movement, lightness and theatricality. At first, one feels that a bit more volume would make the experience more vivid, but later it became clear that this was probably a decision to accommodate some very light voices in the cast. Sometimes, things were a bit untidy in ensembles and less fast tempi could have done the trick.

Silvia Tro Santafé’s tangy mezzo soprano sounds too formidable for Rosina. It is a sizeable, colourful voice and flexible enough (although intonation in a couple of runs were a bit approximative) for Rossini’s difficult coloratura demands. Her method involves an intrinsical use of chest voice that, although generally well knit to upper parts of her range, seems more suitable to masculine roles. Lawrence Brownlee’s light and high tenor is more velvety than most tenorini’s and his ease with fioriture is very commendable. It is still a small voice that could use with a bit more tone colouring to make a difference, especially for someone whose short height makes his casting in leading roles a bit difficult. Wilhelm Schinghammer’s resonant bass is properly cast for Basilio, but his diction could be clear. In this aspect, the casting of Renato Girolami as Bartolo somehow exposes the whole cast. Of course, he has the advantage of singing his own language – in any case, his diction is remarkably crystalline. His voice is forceful if a bit raw and, as almost every buffo since immemorial times, his vocal production is very irregular, as if he saved his full harmonics only for the key moments. All in all, this is a singer immerse in the right tradition of Italian comedy. Unfortunately, Oleg Romashyn was clearly below the leves of his colleagues – and he took the opera’s title role. His pronunciation of Italian language is unacceptably sketchy – overdark vowels largely to blame – and he tended to be drowned by the (light) orchestra too often for comfort. He has some rich top notes and commendable flexibility – but this is simply not the right voice for this repertoire.

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In Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome comes to a terrace in Herod’s palace where she would eventually hear the voice of Iokanaan coming from a cistern. It must be terrible to be in so black a hole. It is like a tomb, she says. But in Harry Kupfer’s ooooold production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden, one may wonder if the cistern is worse than the prison-like setting where the Herod entertains his guests. I mean, it is not a prison-like setting – it is a prison in the 1970’s. Why women are allowed there at all, it is a question one might ask oneself. The page of Herodias, for instance, is here shown as a woman too – with a bizarre wig. Why is there a party in the facilities? And what these orthodox Jewish guys are doing there? These seem to be picky question in the context of these production, but once you are there in the theatre, you cannot help seeing the whole thing and making questions. In any case, it seems that a new head could not be produced to fit James Rutherford’s looks. The one Salome had did not look like him at all. By the way, probably because the head “belonged” to other Jochanaan, Salome could not do with it everything she said she would.

In any case, the Lindenoper is the right place to hear to this opera – the hall’s relatively small size gives the cast the opportunity to reserve their full-power singing to the key moments, what is essential in such a difficult score. In that department, maestro Pedro Halffter Caro deserves praises for finding the right volume of sound not to cover singers on stage and to uncover the complex writing for woodwind. However, the recessed string sound involved also a great loss of clarity.

Angela Denoke’s Straussian credentials are beyond suspicion – her sizeable creamy lyric soprano floats through Straussian lines to the manner born. It is also a voice that sounds lovely and young as Strauss would have wanted the role to sound. However, although this is a singer who has Sieglinde and Fidelio in her repertoire, Salome does require a very special kind of voice – those high-lying voices the glimmer of which pierce through an orchestra without much effort (such as Ljuba Welitsch’s or Hildegard Behrens’s). Denoke’s impressive technical control allowed her to prevent any loss of creaminess and roundness throughout, but that was achieved at the expense of carrying power in climactic high notes, in which wavering in pitch would also afflict her line. As a result, the closing scene would be her less successful moment and she seemed finally tired at the end of it. She is also a powerful stage actress, but her whole method is too intellectualized for a teenager. As a result, one would think rather of an experienced vamp trying her seductive powers on a new object. And that is not the story Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss’s story. Also her dancer-like movements throughout the opera preempted the effect of her not-really-danced dance. I do not want to give the impression that Angela Denoke’s Salome is not worth while the visit to the theatre – one the contrary, this is a Salome with an exquisite voice, who can act and who can let the seventh veil drop without embarassing herself. But the sum of these exceptional parts do not add to a truly overwhelming performance.

James Rutherford’s Jochanaan similarly benefits from the hall’s small auditorium. It is not a huge voice, but forceful enough and he sings with commitment.  Although Reiner Goldberg’s approach is sometimes too over-the-top, his heldentenor is still impressive for a Charaktertenor role and he has the necessary charisma. Stephan Rügamer sang Narraboth with ardour and elegance, but the theatre should have announced Rosemarie Lang’s indisposition before letting her step on stage in such dire vocal condition. It is a small role, but the likes of Grace Hoffman, Agnes Baltsa and Leonie Rysanek have not refused the opportunity to sing it.

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The Deutsche Oper’s revival of the 1980 Götz Friedrich production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was plagued by the same Tristanlosigkeit that has afflicted the Metropolitan Opera House’s last attempt on Wagner’s masterpiece. The original cast featured Robert Gambill, but one week before the performance the name of Peter Seiffert appeared as a replacement, but it was Ian Storey who finally showed up on stage. He is a singer I had previously seen as Ägysth in São Paulo and his performance left me wondering how he could possibly sing this fearsome role in the famous opening night at La Scala in the Barenboim/Chéreau production. The broadcast showed that my doubts were not entirely misplaced – but then the press wrote he was afflicted by understandable nervousness in the event.

 But the event is now in the past – and the role is still impossible for him. The baritonal tonal quality is certainly welcome and he phrases with good taste, but I am afraid his voice is rather backward placed, lacking therefore the necessary metal to pierce through. When he has to sing out around the passaggio and above, one feels that he has to give his 100% – the problem is that he still had to sing act III. I have to confess it was very painful wondering whether he would survive or not – he voice cracked at one point, he was inaudible for long stretches and tonal quality was something that did not make it to the final act. In lower dynamics, his voice has an instable quality, giving him practically no leeway. One must still acknowledge that it was gracious of him to perform such a difficult role on such short notice, but for his own sake he should not keep the role in his repertoire. It must not be healthy to undergo such an ordeal in a regular basis. On a positive note, although he had very little opportunity to block this production’s stage movements, he seemed quite convincing throughout.

 The evening’s Isolde, Evelyn Herlitzius, is the typical German dramatic soprano who sings the Färberin in R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. The voice itself is not attractive, but healthy, big and solid and she is a compelling singer actress. A name that came to my mind during the performance was Christel Goltz’s. The overall impression is not very sensuous, in spite of a rich low register, but clear diction, powerful top notes and relatively accurate phrasing are always an asset. The absence of softer dynamics was a liability for act II and III. Her inspiration seemed to be Birgit Nilsson in the sense that indignation and rage suited her better than longing and passion. The sad truth is that act II taxed her a bit and her voice sounded a bit juiceless in the Liebestod. In any case, it is always good to hear a really big voice in this repertoire – especially in a singer with such dramatic imagination.

 Another last-minute replacement, Daniela Sindram left a very positive impression. Her mezzo soprano may be light for the role, but her voice is so beautiful, her floated mezza voce so beguiling and her musical and theatrical instincts so right that in the end she was one of the most congenial Brangänes I have recently seen (and heard). Tristan was also well served by his Kurwenal. Samuel Youn’s forceful, focused baritone made him a young-sounding faithful friend. The youthfulness made his act III behavior particularly believable. Although Hans-Peter König was not in his best shape – he seemed to be experiencing some sort of glitch that impaired his ascent to top notes (and he looked quite upset about that too) – it is an imposing, dark and big voice with touch of Kurt Moll in it.

 Pinchas Steinberg’s conducting had its on and off moments. Act I seemed to be his best moment – singers were still in fresh voice and he could unleash the orchestra now and then. Act II, however, found the orchestra wanting color and clarity (the brass section did not seem to be in a good day either). The conductor’s priority seemed to help an understandably underrehearsed tenor to make through the Liebesnacht. In one or two moments of the final act, one could see an authentic large and rich Wagnerian sound, but the need to help singers out or simply the lack of inspiration resulted in a very cold Liebestod.

 Götz Friedrich’s production (as restaged by Gerlinde Pelkowski) has some interesting ideas, especially a particularly physical approach to Tristan and Isolde, but the staging’s 28 years of age start to show in many examples of carelessness. For example, Günther Scheinder-Siemssen’s set for act I has no separation between cabin and deck, but wood platforms in different levels to show the ship’s different areas. At some points, there seem to be “imaginary” walls, what explains the fact that Isolde cannot hear what Tristan says to Brangäne three meters away, but in the next moment people can see, hear and even pass through them. Some backdrops look now drab, the lighting in act II and III do not reflect the dramatic action and at some point during one of Tristan’s monologues they simply gave out as if an eclipse had happened while Isolde’s ship followed its course.

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Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for the Schaubühne updates the plot to our days and shows the Tesman’s house as a posh town house with a Ligne Roset couch and stylish French windows to the garden. Jan Pappelbaum’s sets are indeed beautiful and intelligent – on a revolving stage we can see either the living room from the garden or the garden from the living room plus some sort of hall to the interior of the house. The French windows are almost always wet with raindrops, images are projected on the concrete wall separating hall and living room for the changes of act (the play is performed without intermissions) and a huge inclined mirror above allows the audience to see the whole stage at the same time.

 In order to fit the concept, the dramaturg found it convenient to adapt the text not only to include references to computers, AIDS or cell phones, but also a great deal of internal trimming or re-ordering of dialogues and scenes have been done. Not to mention that some lines were just altered to fit the concept. For example, the last dialogue is originally written:

(A shot. The three rise to their feet.)

TESMAN – Oh, my God – what is she –

(Runs in, open curtains. Mrs. Elvsted follows. Scream, confusion. Berte enters through the dining room door.)

TESMAN – Shot herself! In the temple!

BRACK – God – people – people don’t do things like that.

 [quoted from Nicholas Rudall’s translation]

 But was performed this evening as:

 (A shot. All look towards the hall.)

TESMAN – Here she goes again with her pistols…

(All smile and resume what they were doing).

TESMAN, wrily – Maybe she shot herself this time!

(All laugh).

BRACK, still laughing – That would be a nasty thing to do!

 When a dramaturg is able to change the concept of a scene by finding a second layer of meaning in the original lines, that is often illuminating, but when one just cuts what does not fit or alters that to fit the concept, then there is nothing to praise in that. I would even add that the audience should be previously warned that they are supposed to see an adaptation.

 In any case, even if I do not like the dramaturgie, Ostermeier’s stage direction is often very perceptive and sensitive. It is hard to say who is to blame for the loss of dramatic tension caused by the adaptation – the audience tended to see the play as a comedy and the amount of laughing did not decline even when the tragic events start to take pride of place in the plot. For example, a key scene – Hedda burning Lovborg’s manuscript – here was reduced to crazy comedy, no reference was made to Thea’s hair because, in this production, she just has it short (why?!). Those who have seen this scene done for real with a great actress (as I have with Cate Blanchett at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) know how unpleasant and almost disgusting it can be.

 The loss of increasing tension involve a second casualty – the sense that Hedda is increasingly being confined and deprived of freedom and becoming more and more manic to the point of committing suicide is entirely lost. Although we are made to see Hedda covered in blood, one almost expects her to get up and laugh of everyone’s surprise with yet another practical joke of hers.

 What makes it all more regrettable is that a truly excellent cast has been gathered here. It takes some time to get used to Katharina Schüttler’s Hedda, the kind of casting the French call contre-emploi. She looks 18 years old, what goes against the timeline in the story (unless we understand that her early relationship with Lovborg happened when she was 13), and is too short to look as formidable as everyone describes Hedda. However, her thorough understanding of the multiple levels of meaning in her lines make her seem more mature than she looks. She also has a great voice and is extremely charming. The scheming and seductive aspects of her character were ideally portrayed – only the desperation, the sense of being lost in one’s own labyrinth is rather muted. Maybe other director would steer her into the optimal point.

 On the other hand, Lars Eidinger was an ideal Tesman. In this production, the interesting decision of having a better-looking actor for Tesman (whereas the “leading man” role usually goes for Lovborg) proved to be particularly sensible. As performed by Eidinger, Tesman has a certain clumsy charm that makes us understand why Hedda would have married him at all. He is no genius, but there really should be something pleasant about him that explains why so many intelligent people put up with his second-rate standard. On the other hand, Kay Bartholomäus Schulze’s Lovborg is quite uncongenial – he also looks older than I am used to see (what makes sense considering his lifestyle). He is first seen as a boorish snob who even aggresses Thea in front of Hedda. After his falling from grace, he appears covered in blood and behaving like a teenager, what makes it difficult for us to see why anyone would want him to have a “beautiful” end or something like that.

 Annedore Bauer also offered an interesting approach to Thea, a role generally shown as awkward and quite irritating, but here rather quieter in her plainness and likable in her vulnerability. Last but not least, Jörg Hartmann is an ideal Brack – as in the Schaubühne’s production of A Streetcar named Desire, this actor seems to have a natural talent to making sense of whatever directorial choice.

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One of Handel’s most massive oratorios, Israel in Egypt is a tour de force for the chorus – the solo numbers are very scarce and, in the contrasting three parts (the original version was adopted for this performance), a showcase of choral writing possibilities are displayed – from anthem-like parallel structures to complex fugal episodes. The challenge was taken by the RIAS-Kammerchor with relish. This ensemble excels in transparent textures and crystal-clear divisions, but their trump card is their dramatic commitment. The approach here was fortunately remote from the venerable tradition found in some old English recordings, but almost operatic in its graphic description of the predicaments of the Israelite people in its way out of bondage through the Red Sea and its special effects.

 “Special effects” is an expression one could easily use to define Handel’s imaginative writing for the orchestra, with its graphic descriptions of frogs, flies, locusts, fire vortices and the torrents in the Red Sea. All that was intensely brought to life by the Concerto Köln under Hans-Christoph Rademann’s baton. The quasi-operatic approach paid its dividends in this homogeneously wie-ein-Kondukt intense performance, fortunately recorded by Deutschlandradio Kultur (to be broadcast on July 2nd). Despite the occasional (if unobtrusive) German accent, it also deserved a CD release.

 The fact that there is only a few solo numbers – none of them famous as Joshua’s O had I Jubal’s lyre or Samson’s Let the bright seraphim – does not mean that the task is easy. The alto solo is featured in some key moments and both duets for basses and sopranos are not only exciting but also very difficult to sing. Ditte Andersen’s exquisite golden tone was ideally contrasted to Anna Prohaska’s more silvery sound, but it is Tim Mead (replacing Marjana Mijanovic) who deserves special mention for his eloquent account of his arias. His velvety angelic countertenor is ideal for oratorio. Tenor Andreas Karasiak has accurate divisions, but the sound is not truly ingratiating and his English needs some work. Bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer offered rich, focused and flexible singing, also beautifully contrasted to Jonathan de la Paz Zaens’s leaner and straighter sound in their duet.

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What is wrong with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to inspire some of the worst operatic stagings in the history of opera? Michael Thalheimer’s new production for the Statsoper unter den Linden is one of the most pretentious pieces of stage direction ever shown to an audience. One might wonder why I am surprised considering the Lindenoper’s record with Regietheater. But make no mistake – Thalheimer’s Entführung is no Regietheater, it is rather a non-Regie. The whole plot is reduced to basically nothing. In most épatons-la-bourgeosie productions, an innocent bystander would believe he understood the plot, although what he understood has nothing to do with the actual story. For example, if someone who had never seen this most genial among Singspiele were invited to see Stefan Herheim’s production in Salzburg, he would later tell he saw something like the operatic adaptation of feature movie Beetlejuice. But if you took this same fellow to the Staatsoper this evening, he would ask you what the orchestra and the audience were doing in a preliminary rehearsal.

 To start with, the German taxpayer should claim Olaf Altmann’s fee back – he is billed as set designer, but all he did was to install a suspended cat downstage. And that’s it. Most singing and acting take place outside the stage or very near to the edge of it. As a result, the German taxpayer who could not afford a parterre ticket actually missed most of the show. Basically he paid twice for nothing. Katrin Lea Tag’s creative process as a costume designer seems to be: she took a flight to Tokyo, got to Shibuya Subway station and lured the six first people who appeared in front of her into selling her their clothes. I took a while to understand if Pedrillo was a boy or a girl. As for the choristers, she probably went to the Galeries Lafayette and said “give me some 80 black garments”. The guinea pig of our “Regie-experience” is asking himself to this moment why this minimalist fashion show had Turkish-flavoured music.

 If you bought the performance’s booklet, then you will understand that the director was really fascinated with the “language issue” – that there are Spanish characters dealing with Turkish characters while speaking and singing German. “Food for thought”, he might have thought. And this to this moment irrelevant aspect of the work took pride of place – so basically a) the plot; b) the sets; c) the costumes and d) common sense were replaced by dialogues spoken 75% in German and 5% in Italian (there is one Italian singer in the cast) and 20% in English. One may ask himself – considering that the plot is set in Turkey and that Berlin is one of the largest “Turkish” cities in the world – why nobody decided to add a bit of Turkish in this melting pot. I mean all this if you REALLY believe that there is a language issue in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In New York, where all these languages are entirely foreign, the Metropolitan Opera House had all dialogues spoken in German.

 The nonsense-fest on stage did not affect the pit – Philippe Jordan offered a wide-eyed, alert reading of the score. His beat was flexibility itself and he always found the right balance between animation, lyricism, theatricality and elegance. The house orchestra responded accordingly, offering transparent sounds and clearly articulated phrasing. The edition here adopted opened the cuts in Martern aller Artern und Wenn der Freude. I wonder, however, how a serious conductor such as Jordan accepted the idea of interrupting Mozart’s arias in order to accommodate the director’s wishes. Mozart has not written such pauses and allowing them is insulting a genius to comply with the wishes of a nobody.

 William Christie’s recording (and Marc Minkowski’s video) show that Konstanze is a hard-day work for Christine Schäfer – and the passing of time does not made the task easier for her. I do not mean that the voice has suffered any decline. It has not – it still has a unique blending of luster, roundness and metal that makes it soft yet penetrating at the same time. However, the impossible filigree written by Mozart to Caterina Cavalieri is a continuous test to her abilities – many a coloratura passage is smudged, some long phrases are butchered for breath pauses and the lower end of the tessitura is often drowned in inaudibility. Because of that, Ach, ich liebte sounded frankly awkward, Traurigkeit a bit tentative and she seemed to connect only from Martern aller Arten on, rounded off rather from panache than from polish. Most disturbing was her unconvincing parlando and off-pitch effects. I know it has worked for her in contemporary repertoire – but really here it just sounds a trick to get away with difficult passages.

 Although Anna Prohaska sometimes underlines her phrasing too heavily, she has a contagious personality and often sings with instrumental accuracy. In this production, both Blondchen and Pedrillo are very, very gloomy, but she seems to have found a way to make it work for her. I cannot say the same of Florian Hoffmann. Without the animation, there is nothing left in Pedrillo and the heroic ascending phrases of Frisch zum Kampfe took him to his limits. Maurizio Muraro is my first Italian Osmin. Me may have a light accent, both in song and in dialogue and yet he produces flowing and meaningful German. As almost every Osmin, he does not really have the impossible low notes required by Mozart, but he has everything else. The voice is powerful, dark, firm and flexible and he sings stylishly. I save the best for last – Pavol Breslik is simply the best Mozart tenor of our days. I have found him more spontaneous in Italian, but still he is one of the best Belmontes I have seen both live or in recordings. Although he is a light lyric tenor, the sound is what the French call corsé – firm and incisive, yet ductile enough for mezza voce and flexible enough for breathtakingly accurate fioriture. When I mean breathtaking, I mean also that he has very long breath and produces some very fast and lengthy melisme a tempo without any hint of blurring. To make things better, the tone is extremely pleasant, something like a lighter Gösta Winbergh.

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Although Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is said to be one of those operas in which everything depends on the singer taking the title role, the truth is that most of us have almost invariably seen sopranos who are not ideally cast from one reason or another. However, if the production is interesting, the conductor knows how to play the right effects in the score, the tenor is congenial and the soprano is a good actress, has lovely enough a voice and is intelligent enough to build an interpretation, one calls it a successful Butterfly. But what if you finally have a singer born to sing this role, but nothing else – can you call this success?


Chinese soprano Hui He is the real thing. Since the days of Mirella Freni, no other soprano in my experience evokes such girlishness, such naiveté and such loveliness while filling the hall with streams of bright and creamy sounds. The comparison with Freni is no coincidence – as the great Italian soprano, Hui He has an exemplary control of passaggio offering an ideal focused, crystalline and spontaneous sound in her middle and low registers. However, rich and true as her acuti are, they could be a little bit easier and forwarder. This does not affect her ability to spin exquisite shimmering mezza voce at will. When it comes to interpretation, sometimes one feels that efficiency rather than dramatic engagement is the keyword. I would have to see her in another role to make my opinion – for Butterfly, the reserve sounds authentically “Japanese” somehow. Something that deserved a bit more work is her Italian pronunciation. Although it is clear that she understands the text and offers now and then clever word-pointing, her enunciation should be crisper and more idiomatic. Some will point out that she does not look a 15-year-old girl – a problem shared by many sopranos in this repertoire. Although overweight teenagers are growing in number, audiences are only convinced by the sylphlike variety. To make things worse, kimonos are unkind to curves. Nevertheless, Hui He knows how to move graciously and, in her understated way, is quite acceptable in the acting department.


The rest of the cast does not reach these standards. Dmytro Popov’s baritonal tenor is desperately in need of high harmonics. His voice sounds bottled up and his high register simply does not flow or project into the hall. The tone itself is pleasant and rich, but do not expect nothing new during the performance – note one sounds exactly like all the others until the end of the opera. Ulrike Helzel’s mezzo soprano is extremely pleasant and she sings with good taste and imagination, but the role requires a voice a bit larger than hers. Veteran Georg Tichy is an engaged Sharpless, but his baritone sounds a bit worn these days.


In any case, even if the cast were really bad – or even if it were excellent – one would never be able to redeem this Butterfly from Juraj Valcuha’s indigent conducting. The catastrophe did not take long to be noticed – it would be impossible to realize Puccini’s creative use of counterpoint in the opening bars, so tangled and grayish the orchestra sounded there. When no famous tune was in sight, everything seemed shabby, uninteresting, lacking forward movement. The performance was decidedly below the level of the Deutsche Oper. In some sense, it was perfectly matched to Pier Luigi Samaritani’s 1987 production. Two short moments of inspiration apart, it just looked like the high-school-pantomime-version of Madama Butterfly. I know that the plot does not allow much creativity – but, once you decide to be “traditional”, please focus on detail. My advice – get a flight to Tokyo and visit the Kabuki Theatre. They know everything about doing a great job without breaking with very old and complex traditions.

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Think of pale pink and blue, and bright red and silver and the 60’s and a grand hotel somewhere in Alabama and the State’s governor political campaign – and segregation, witchcraft and murder. No, it is not a movie with Jane Fonda and Paul Newman. It is the Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Although it takes a while to get used to the glitter, the idea is not bad per se. After all, when Verdi  had to adapt his plot because of censorship, he himself chose the United States as alternative set. I might be thrown stones at, but I have always found something Broadway-like in Un Ballo in Maschera – take David Parry’s recording in English, look for We can all go and see her together (i.e., Dunque signori aspettovi), close your eyes and tell me, if you can, that you do not feel at Broadway. In any case, although the concept has plenty to offer, it requires a far more complex production.

To start with, the pink ballroom simply does not work as an all-purpose set. Riccardo says that they have to go somewhere else to see Ulrica, but here they do not have to move to see her. Second, Ulrica tells Amelia she has to go to yet another place to find the herbs for the incantation she is looking for. Here, it is again the ballroom and having a bunch of ferns inside the columns sounds like a cheap solution. Third, Riccardo asks Renato to escort Amelia back to her place in town. Here, Amelia just needed to take the same corridor she had taken to get to her room in the same hotel. Finally, none of the main characters but Amelia uses a mask in the closing scene. They are actually seated side by side and unconvincingly seem not to realize each other’s presence. I mean, when you have to “accept” all that, it just looks like sloppy work. Couldn’t they stage the scene by the gallows in some sort of parking place? That would not be a set so difficult or expensive to build. Ulrica’s scene could take place in a storage room at the hotel – an even cheaper set. With some patience, that sort of thing could be done. At least, when some bad seats with limited views are sold for almost 50 euros, one could show a bit more consideration to the audience. Just having ideas is the easy part of the job – making them work is the hard part.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search of elegance and symphonic quality is always an advantage in Verdi. The love duet’s closing section, for example, may sound like band music when not properly handled, but animation can live with polish. Otherwise, uneventfulness may creep into the proceedings and finally turn the whole performance unmemorable.

Catherine Naglestad is no Verdian soprano – in a part often recorded by non-Verdian soprano such as Margaret Price or Josephine Barstow. Although her voice is not intrinsically exquisite, she sings with good taste and imagination and floats beautiful pianissimi. She is also a good actress, but her lower register not always works properly, she invariably blurs crotchets and the extreme top notes in act II eluded her entirely.

Un ballo in maschera is considered a tenor opera – and having the uprising Piotr Beczala as Riccardo places an immediate interest in the performance. There is no doubt about his beauty of tone, sense of style and animation – this is a voice always pleasant in the ears. He also know how to place a smile in his singing – and this is important for such a debonair character. The question is – should he really advance further in Verdian territory?  In a small opera house such as the Lindenoper, the role ultimately works well for him, but one can see that he has to brace himself for the heroic moments, especially in act II, when he was often overshadowed by the soprano – except at the duet’s last note, when both were covered by the orchestra.

Alfredo Daza has the measure of the role of Renato and he plunges in the part with body and soul. Sometimes the results are dramatically over the top and the curdled sound his baritone acquires above mezzo forte does not suggests much nobility to this non-villain character. Mariana Pentcheva knows how to play her voice’s unequal registers to the right effect for Ulrica – and she has the necessary charisma for the role. Announced indisposed, Sylvia Schwartz only sang the first verse of her two arias. Nonetheless, this was the best performance I have seen with this singer – her absolutely free top register floats beautifully in this higher-lying roles. Maybe she should explore this repertoire more often than the purely lyric roles I have often seen her sing. As a curiosity, Oscar here is a girl – her act I costumes are a bit at odds with the surroundings. She looks like a dominatrix, but she is only Riccardo’s secretary – but I wonder if a woman in that position in the 60’s would dress like that.

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