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Archive for June, 2009

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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