Archive for February, 2010

Before I say anything about this evening’s performance, I must warn you that I cannot say that I really like Verdi’s Falstaff. I acknowledge the ingeniousness and creativity, but the music does not really pluck any string in my heart. The last time I have seen it live in 2005 at the Met, I remember I wrote that, if James Levine’s irreproachable performance had not convinced me to like it, I would probably never do it.  Although that performance has many similarities to the one I have seen today at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, I can say I am getting closer to enjoy the work than I thought.

First of all, as much as James Levine, Daniele Gatti is a conductor with a symphonic approach to this work. If my memory does not fail me, there is one crucial difference – while Levine’s rich-toned almost-Straussian performance gave pride of place to musical values, setting the orchestra as the real “soloist”, Gatti achieved the right balance between dramatic and musical values, rendering the graphic effects in the score with almost unfailing precision and taking care never to drawn his singers in thick orchestral sound – and yet the Orchestre Nationale de France produced multicoloured, translucent, expressive sounds.

As much as in the Met performance, a British singer took the title role. Curiously, back in 2005, Bryn Terfel was indisposed and could barely sing the final act. Unfortunately, Anthony Michaels-Moore also happened to be sick today, but agreed to sing nonetheless. The similarities between these singers end here. While Terfel was an extremely affected and heavy-handed Falstaff, Michaels-Moore scores all his interpretative points in subtlety. Even if the flu has robbed his velvety baritone of colour and overtones, one can see it is a round, rich and pleasant voice with a varied tonal palette, keen on fluent legato. Because he never overdid any comic effect, his Falstaff always sounded convincing in his aristocratic self-delusion and particularly funny because of that. To make things better, he possesses natural talent for comedy and had the audience on his side at every moment. Baritone Jean-François Lapointe too was announced indisposed. Although his low register was not really functional, he had no problem with the high end of his range and produced some firm top notes. Paolo Fanale’s tenor is rather open and lacking roundness, what made him a not entirely seductive Fenton, but he proved he could effectively soften his tone in his big solo.

This was my first experience with Anna Caterina Antonacci in the theatre – and all I can say is that she more than fulfilled my expectations. Her voice is both richer and smoother live than in recordings and the way how she inhabits the text, colouring each word as if she herself was speaking her own lines made her a particularly spirited Alice. This is a role that tends to take second place in most performances of this opera – not this evening. She was ideally matched by the fruity-toned Meg of Caitlin Hulcup and the not entirely Italianate, but ideally delicate Nannetta of Chen Reiss, who floated haunting pianissimi as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If Marie-Nicole Lemieux lacks the solid middle register of an Italian mezzo, she does have impressive low notes and a really engaging stage presence. Minor roles were cast from strength in the veteran butstill  fresh-toned Raúl Gimenéz (Dr. Cajus), Patrizio Saudella (Bardolfo) and Federico Sacchi (Pistola).

Mario Martone’s Victorian staging could not be less imaginative – although Ursula Patzak’s costumes were quite beautiful (if conventional), Sergio Tramonti’s sets were particularly unconvincing in the use of a fire-escape-like staircase as a fixed element around which props were added for every scene.  The closing scene especially gave an impression of carelessness and limited budget. That said, the direction of actors itself was refreshingly up-to-the-point and spontaneously yet precisely rendered by this gifted group of singers.


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Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is one of the best loved works in German language in the operatic repertoire. It is only curious that few opera-goers fancy to discover the composer’s other opera, Königskinder. The ready-made opinion about it is that this is a failed Märchenoper, but the truth is that Königskinder is a far more ambitious work that eschews any classification. It does indeed have elements of fairytale – a witch who keeps a beautiful girl as her prisoner out of a spell, to start with. But the remaining aspects of this complex libretto have more to do with the Anderson of The Little Match Girl and She was Good for Nothing than with the Brothers Grimm, plus a touch of symbolism to round off.

Accordingly, Humperdinck’s score is musically more challenging than that of his previous opera – the Goose Girl and the King’s Son’s scenes suggesting rather Gurrelieder, part one, than Der Rosenkavalier. In that sense, I cannot think of a better conductor for this score than Ingo Metzmacher, who took even the more folkloric passages in a serious, large-scaled manner, abounding in dense orchestral sound with breathtaking instrumental effect. I wonder what he would have done if he had conducted R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten last month in the same venue.

Metzmacher had splendid soloists at his disposal, particularly Jonas Kaufmann, who sang the role of the King’s Son with unfailing dark yet ductile sound and admirable variety, savouring the text and producing the necessary boyish impression rather from the freshness of his interpretation than from a voice whose tonal quality a tiny bit more heroic than what is required. He also possesses a most likable stage presence and the talent of being funny without resorting to clownishness, as he proved to be during act II. Although Isabel Rey’s soprano does not display any inbuilt charm in this role (particularly if one has Helen Donath in EMI’s studio recording in his memory), she does a very clean and unproblematic job out of it. However, this is an instance when the vocal side of an operatic performance is just one part of an otherwise far more attractive package. The Spanish soprano achieves here the rare deed in operatic stages of making the audience forget that she is performing at all – when Isabel Rey was on stage this evening, she simply was the Goose Girl in her disarming innocent radiance. An example of great artistry.

The role of the Minstrel is a bit heavy for Oliver Widmer.  He produced round forceful top notes, but a larger voice would have allowed him a mellower, more congenial singing, as the role requires. On the other hand, Liliana Nikiteanu was an excellent Witch, a rich-toned, intelligent performance. All minor role were ideally cast with house values, such as Reinhard Mayr and Boguslaw Bidzinski.

I have said that director Jens-Daniel Herzog lacked friends to tell him when things were going wrong when I saw his erratic staging of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Dresden, but it seems that his friends only were unwilling to go to Dresden. In his beautiful and creative staging of Königskinder, he decided to set the story at some point between the 50’s and 60’s, in which middle classes were convinced to trade traditional values for a business-oriented concept of success measured in money, a world that leaves very little space to independent thinking. Thus, the Goose Girl is shown as an orphan tutored (in vain) to hate mankind by a crazy-scientist-like Witch in her secluded laboratory; the King’s Son is an almost beatnik character in his on-the-road search for his own identity outside the role society has reserved him; and Hellastadt is shown as countryside smallville in which everybody would sell their souls for Burger King. Although this seems to be excessively brainstormy, the concept runs quite smoothly in its simplicity and elegance, not to mention that the direction of actors in exemplary in its spontaneity, meaningfulness and relation to the score. This certainly deserves to be released on DVD.

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While Idomeneo and Idamante had to work on their father-son relationship, Nikolaus and Philipp Harnoncourt are doing really well in that department – it is their collaboration that maybe needs some rethinking. Their teamwork has resulted the production of Mozart’s Idomeno first seen in Graz in 2008 and now reprised in the Opernhaus Zürich. Harnoncourt, Sr., claims that the idea of sharing responsibility in this staging is due to the fact that he had never seen any director who really understands that Idomeneo is rather a tragédie lyrique than an opera seria. Therefore, ballet should play a key role in it, especially in what regards showing the supernatural elements of the plot. I could agree with that on paper, but what has been finally shown on stage is only a low-budget production with unimaginative sets of dubious taste, unbelievably ugly costumes and a detailed if clichéd stage direction that reduces Idomeneo to mania, Elettra to coquetry, Ilia to childishness and Idamante to neediness. Then there is the ballet – I am not sure if classical ballet pirouettes are the right idea to portray sea monsters and menacing deities. I found it quite distracting, especially during the staged overture (yes, I know…). The complete ballet music in the end of the opera has been retained and, as much as Heinz Spoerli’s graceful choreography was expertly performed by the Zürcher Ballet, it added absolutely nothing to the understanding of the plot. One could actually take it for the second item on a double bill with the opera until Ilia and Idamante are finally brought in the last minute to justify the whole idea. To make things worse, with the excuse of the original Munich première version, the most exciting aria in the score (D’Oreste, d’Ajacce, of course) did not make it into this evening’s performing edition. The reason why Mozart cut it back then was the interruption of the dramatic flow caused by it. In the Harnoncourts’ staging, Elettra’s surviving recitative was an oasis of excitement in a rather uneventful closing scene… If I had to point out an advantage in the father-son teamwork, this would be the way the conductor’s fanciful playing with tempo found support in the dramatic action.

Compared to Harnoncourt’s Teldec recording with more or less the same orchestra (then under a different name), this evening’s performance is noticeably less coherent in its theatrical intent. Although Harnoncourt’s microscopic attention to details is often revelatory, pressing the break pedal to highlight every little one of them is finally an aim in itself, rather than a means to express anything. Moreover, the orchestral playing left something to be desired in its extremely dry sound, not to mention the occasional instance of poor tuning and lack of rhythmic precision. Although the choral singing was not bad, it lacked the necessary clarity to blend with the period instrument orchestra.

All that said, Harnoncourt masters the art of accentuation and produced some amazing results, for example, in recitativi accompagnati –  some chords were so sudden and intense that I almost jumped off my seat at moments! The scene when Idamante first sees his father was worth alone the (high) price of the ticket.

Julia Kleiter is an ideal Mozartian soprano and apart from one blunder during Se il padre perdei*, offered an exemplary account of the role if Ilia. If she ultimately could be  somewhat more affecting, I would rather blame the directors’ superficial view of the role, which left her little space to focus. Eva Mei’s bright soprano is a bit light for Elletra. Without her final aria, it is difficult to say anything definitive about her take on this role. As it was, she found the tessitura of Tutte nel cor uncongenial and failed to caress her lines in Idol’ mio, even if she found no difficulty with the high-lying writing. She is a seasoned Mozartian and made some beautiful sounds and used the text knowingly, but the  final impression was rather blank. She is not usually considered a magnetic actress, but was was certainly the singer who offered the bast acting in this cast. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s mezzo is similarly light for Idamante, but once she overcame the problems that thwarted her high register during Non ho colpa, this singer would win the audience over with her beauty of tone, elegant phrasing, exquisite pianissimi and engagement.

Saimir Pirgu’s italianate dulcet tenor is on the light side for Idomeneo. He was not entirely comfortable in a part that sits low in his voice and tended to be emphatic in a way that tampers with legato, but produced reasonably effortless divisions in Fuor del mare. He still needs to mature in the role in order to transcend correctness and achieve something really moving. Cristroph Strehl was a strenous Arbace who got to sing one of his arias (Se colà ne’ fati).

* This is the first time I have heard Ilia sing her complete recitative in which she speaks of Hecuba and Priam in a staged production. Harnoncourt recording has the usual shorter version, while, as far as I can immediately remember, Jacobs’s recording for Harmonia Mundi is the only one to feature the longer text.

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Martin Crimp’s version of Molière’s The Misanthrope is a curious experiment. Not satisfied to update the text to contemporary style, he also updated the plot to the present day. As one could expect, all sorts of adjustments had to be made – Alceste becomes a playwright, Célimène becomes the American movie actress Jennifer, her friends Éliante and Arsinoé are shown as a journalist and a teacher of acting. Do not expect a word-by-word adaptation – many dialogues are simplified, others are extended, the spirit of some scenes is slightly altered and the closing scene gains an “explanation” that Molière preferred to leave to the audience’s imagination. I have to confess that this scene did seem artificial to me in its new guise. In Molière’s courtly atmosphere, the rather schematic denouement simply fits in its precious eloquence, while here these characters’ behavior seems a bit silly in its self-explanatory simplification.

That said, Crimp’s version is strangely faithful to Molière in the sense that Classical French theatre is essentially about THE TEXT. There is a narcissistic approach to the poetic writing and the wit, the charm and the subtlety belong rather the author’s elegant verses’ than  any individual characters, regardless of how sharply defined they might be. In this sense, Martin Crimp never fails to seduce the audience with his virtuosic quality of his versification, the fluidity of his language and the imagination of his rhymes. Thus, although the content may be informal, the structure is rigorously formal. And that’s what make this version worth while the visit to the theatre. As an example, Molière’s “Morbleu! c’est une chose indigne, lâche, infame,/ de s’abaisser ainsi jusqu’à trahir son âme; et si, par un malheur, j’en avais fait autant,/ je m’irais, de regret, pendre tout à instant” becomes “If I was that compromised, Christ knows/I think I’d take a fucking overdose“.

The idea of showing these coquettes, poets and philosophers as movie/theatre people is also most fortunate, since the inspiration from the play comes from Molière’s personal life and his marital problems with actress Armande Béjart. In her staging at the Comedy Theatre, Thea Sharrock plays even further with the whole updating situation by having a masked ball in act V where all characters (but Alceste) dressed in XVIIIth century costumes. The same mirror game is made by the soundtrack. If Sharrock could not properly deal with the artificiality of Crimp’s closing scene, she ensured that the dialogues were delivered in the most natural way and, in some understated sort of way, recognized that the text is actually the main character of the play. Hildegard Bechler’s sets similarly show a hotel room with a classically inspired decoration.

The cast is dominated by Damian Lewis’s absolute tour de force as Alceste. He says his lines with crystalline clarity and yet with amazing energy and his stage presence is never less than magnetic. In a similar level, Tara Fitzgerald gives her Marcia/Arsinoé a strong voice and the sort of radiant personality that only true theatre actresses possess. On avoiding clownishness, Tim McMullan makes a brilliantly funny Covington/Oronte. The key role of Jennifer/Célimène is taken by Keira Knightley, whose extremely gracious figure works beautifully for the irresistible coquette Célimène. Although she acts with sincerity and engagement, hers is still a movie actress’s performance, especially in what regards declamation. She is sabotaged by an American accent with which she is curiously not entirely comfort (she has played American characters in a couple of films, but that seems to be less of a problem in that media).

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If you regret that HBO series “Rome” did not have a third season and if you happen to like baroque music, then Handel’s Agrippina is your opera. If someone deserved to have an opera for herself, a woman who was the great-granddaughter of both Augustus and Mark Anthony, sister to Caligula and mother of Nero should be it. Cardinal Vincenzo Grimiani’s libretto is a masterpiece, an intelligent political comedy with subtly risqué elements, that inspired Handel to write a smart sequence of concise and straight-to-the-point arias and fluent recitatives.

One can say that René Jacobs has been an advocate of this work – his Paris performances with Anna Catarina Antonacci, Malena Ernman and Miah Persson are still fresh in the memory of French opera-goers*. For the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Belgian conductor has decided to offer Berlin something at least of the same level of what he has showed in Paris.

Since Agrippina involves some chic, the wise decision of leaving the visual elements to the French has been made. Vincent Boussard’s production is all about chic – Vincent Lemaire’s minimalist silvery set divided by white-pearl beaded curtains is visually striking and Christian Lacroix’s costumes are everything you would expect from a famous couturier whose creations has often been called “baroque”. Since props are sparsely used, the extravagant and exquisite clothing successfully supply the necessary variety. I only object to dressing Nerone in tights and scarpins  – having a mezzo soprano taking the role is already confusing enough for most opera-goers. I just wished that a less minimalist approach had been adopted, since the director felt that he had to make for the cleanliness by keeping his actors overbusy. All in all, the staging is so beautiful and creative that one is inclined to like it from moment one. Let’s have more of that instead of the imposture usually shown in the Lindenoper as “avant-garde”.

OK – if I had a boss, I would probably risk loosing the job… I did not have a pen and a moleskine with me and have to rely on my memory to talk about the edition adopted. First, one must praise Jacobs for refraining from making too many cuts in the score. I don’t recall having heard Agrippina’s Ho un non so che ne cor (although I like it, I admit it is not a great loss), Nerone’s Col ardore del tuo bel core (pity – Jennifer Rivera has sang it nimbly in the New York City Opera). I am less sure about Claudio’s Basta che sol tu chieda and Ottone’s Tacerò pur che fedele, not performed in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées. As in the Paris performances, Ottone and Poppea were wisely given back their reconciliation duet No, no, ch’io non apprezzo, inexplicably cut by Handel himself, since it is an exquisite stretch of music. That means that, when Jacobs’s recording of this production reaches the market, this will probably be a first recording on CD  After the coro finale, an extract of the ballo (the bourrées?) was used for a final pantomime with Agrippina, Nerone and Claudio.

I have to confess I was not excited to hear Alexandrina Pendatchanska sing Handel. I owe her apologies, for her Agrippina is an admirable achievement. Not only one of the best in my experience, but certainly the best I have heard from her. Her voice was more homogenous than it uses to be and, when she decided to play with her registers, this has been precisely done to highlight the text. She also has the right tonal quality for the role – this is definitely not a part for sweet-toned girls and her metallic yet dark soprano suggests formidability. I do not need to report on her amazing flexibility – this is a known fact, used to great purpose here. She is also an excellent actress and her spontaneous Italian is remarkable for anyone whose mother language is something very different from that.

Although Agrippina is the prima donna role, the greater share of arias in the score goes for Poppea, which is a seconda donna role only on paper. Instead of looking for a guest star, Jacobs has cast from home values by choosing soprano Anna Prohaska. She is a singer I have often seen in Berlin and whose silvery soprano has always pleased me, but never before this evening could I experience the whole compass of her talents. Her Poppea was, how can I say it?, perfect. Although the voice is light and bright, the top register is always round and creamy, while her low notes are always focused and integrated into her middle register. Her coloratura is peerless, her mezza voce is lovely and, although her Italian could be 5% more natural, she makes good use of the text. She also happens to be a good actress and extremely pleasant to the eyes. She only has a strange habit of standing with one leg turned inwards.

Jennifer Rivera was the first Nerone I have ever seen in the New York City production, when I found her voice a bit more incisive and when she had more space to show her acting talents. In Boussard’s concept, Nerone seems to be a secondary role, reduced to languid sexiness. The whole episode in Poppea’s chambers had little place for that character in this production. Pity, for Rivera is a talented actress who is vocally and physically well cast in these androgynous roles. Her coloratura in Come nube was also very exciting. The amazing Bejun Mehta offered an intense performance as Ottone – his Voi che udite would make a stone shed tears. Marcos Fink’s resonant, noble-toned bass is proper to the role of Claudio and, in spite of the nobility of his voice, he relished the comedy approach and, together with the funny Daniel Schmutzhard (Lesbo), ensured the best laughs of the evening. Neil Davies was a capable Pallante and Dominique Visse’s eerie countertenor, for some reason, works for the role of Narciso.

René Jacobs invited the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin to produce warm sounds throughout and to color their tone to follow dramatic situations. Tempi tended to be fast, a bit too fast. Although Gardiner is less theatrical in his recording for Deutsche Grammophon, he lets the music breath and the result is finally more elegant and coherent. Jacobs has this habit of wanting to help the score – by adding parts not written by the composer or changing the original instrumentation or creating unwritten pauses. It might seem to him that he is bringing something to the experience, but my feeling is that this is only interfering with the composer’s own (and usually effective) ideas. In any case, do not mistake my words: this Agrippina is one of the great Handelian events of this year and you should grab the recording as soon as it is released.

* Although a telecast has been made, it remains a mystery why it has never been released.

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A series of Wagner operas presented in a relatively short time span is a challenge to any opera house. It is impossible to have new productions for every title and I wonder how much time for rehearsal the orchestra is actually getting. In circumstances like that, the choice of conductors is the key element for success. Those are difficult works and, when things are uncertain, the musicians should know that there is someone in charge able to give clear directions to keep things minimally functional. Now an opera house of the reputation of the Deutsche Oper should want to show its audience something far more ambitious than “functional”. In order to do that in circumstances of insufficient rehearsal time (as seems to be the case), this someone should be more than clear – he has to be a genius. Yesterday’s Meistersinger was a patient with a serious disease, and its doctor, Maestro Donald Runnicles, had to use all his abilities to save its life. The convalescent could hardly say anything – but one has to acknowledge the doctor’s ability in keeping it breathing.

This evening’s Lohengrin was less lucky. Although this is a less formidable score, it requires a stronger pulse to rescue it from the sameness that afflicts performances led by unimaginative conductors. The issue of Michael Schønwandt’s imagination is secondary in the context of subpar music-making. I have rarely heard the Deutsche Oper orchestra in such poor state. From the first bars, one could guess that this would be a long night. Violins could not float the necessary pianissimo, while the whole string section failed to produce legato during the prelude. I have been pressing too often the key of “poor brass playing”, but today the results were particularly faulty. The orchestral sound was rather recessed and could be surprisingly messy, especially in the prelude to act III. If I had to say something positive, the large ensembles in the end of act I and II had well-balanced soloists and chorus. I could even hear Ortrud – and this is something worthy of mention.

Although Ricarda Merbeth’s lyric soprano is large enough for the role of Elisabeth, it lacks slancio for the more dramatic passages. As a result, her voice was often hard-pressed, afflicted by an unpleasant metallic, almost Slavic vibrato. She was also ill at ease when required to produce mezza voce. Although she did not spoil the fun, it was one of the less endearing performances of this role in my experience. Waltraud Meier’s voice has seen better days, but she remains a compelling Ortrud. Her expert tone coloring makes her particularly subtle and seductive in this role too often reduced to bitchiness. Even if volume is not exactly generous, she can focus her voice and flash some penetrating top notes, as in her invocation of the Wodan and Freia in act II. Ben Heppner started his performance with the wrong foot – his farewell to the swan was poorly tuned and he cracked a couple of notes, problems he would display whenever he tried to produce softer dynamics. His tenor would often acquire a pronounced nasality, but all in all this is a role taylor-made for his voice, whose pleasantness and ringing top notes are hard to overlook. Pity that his interpretation was rather blank. Eike Wilm Schulte first seemed well cast as Telramund – his baritone is forceful and firm – but he tired too soon in act II to create the right effect in this role. With his dark, spacious bass, Hans-Peter König was properly cast for King Henry, even if the role is a bit high for him. Finally, Anton Keremidtchiev was a very good Herald.

Götz Friedrich’s 1990 production is beyond salvation. To start with, the sets are appallingly ugly. For one moment, I had the impression that the action was set somewhere in a crumbling bus station in Albania. Then there were dingy costumes – Lohengrin and particularly Telramund were unflatteringly dressed. Then it was clearly that there was no staging direction to speak of – I wonder what exactly the person responsible for “Spielleitung” did other than say “enter from here and exit through there”. All the male singers can hardly be described as natural actors and moved awkwardly on stage. The act I duel was truly embarrassing. Both women were far more gifted in this department, but were left alone to do their thing. Ricarda Merbeth worked hard for intensity and ended on the semaphoric. I felt sorry for Waltraud Meier, who is used to collaborate with famous directors in conceptual stagings. She must be a very serious professional – she never gave up trying to make something of very little. Her attempts to interact with her Telramund on act II seemed to have the effect of frightening the baritone, what served as a good dramatic effect anyway. But it is difficult to do the trick all alone. One very interesting feature if unfaithful to the libretto – and I would be curious to know if this was her idea – was to show a surrendering Ortrud in the last bars of the opera, obliged to recognize the force of Christianity while bowing before the Duke of Brabant.

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Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is one of the the toughest cookies in the operatic repertoire. Technically, it is a comedy – but if you get ten instances of laughing during its almost five-hour length, this was a hilarious staging. Then the score involves impossibly complex ensembles with intricate counterpoint for soloists and chorus. To make things worse, the main roles require the subtlety of a Lieder singer and the dexterity of a bel canto specialist. In other words, if you want to listen to this opera, you have to be prepared to take the wheat AND the chaff – moreover because they are generally parts of the same thing.

The fact that Stefan Anton Reck was unable to conduct the whole run of performances finally proved to be a minor hazard, since Donald Runnicles, whose Wagnerian credentials are beyond any doubt, has taken over the baton. I haven’t had the luck of seeing Mr. Runnicles as often as I would like, but I have very good memories of a Rosenkavalier and a Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that this evening’s performance was clearly below that level rather puzzled me, especially if one bears in mind that the Deutsche Oper orchestra is a more seasoned Wagnerian ensemble than the Met’s orchestra. I could imagine that limited number of rehearsals may be to blame. The famous overture did not highlight any of the house orchestra’s qualities – the color was unusually opaque, the brass section (particularly poor today) produced some unsubtle sounds and there was little sense of exuberance. The remaining act I lacked purpose and the fact that the scenery brought about disfiguring echo for anyone singing on stage right did not help much. Considering the monumental difficulties of act II, the level of mismatch was relatively reduced – and it must be pointed out that the conductor fortunately did not hold tempo back in order to make things easier. The sounds from the pit remained transparent, but kept on a level of volume comfortable for the singers and rather meagre for the audience. Pity that the chorus was not in its best shape either. Things tended to get into focus in act III, its pensive introduction particularly haunting, the whole Sachs/Walther/Eva was episode expressively handled and the quintet was sensitively conducted.

Having to write about Michaela Kaune always proves to be a difficult task for me. She is such a tasteful musician and her vocal nature is so lovely that it makes one doubly upset that the results are ultimately frustrating. The role of Eva should not pose her any difficulties – she is a lyric soprano who has the extra 5% to deal with the only stretch of jugendlich dramatisch singing in the whole part (i.e., O Sachs, mein Freund, du teurer Mann). However, she treats her creamy soprano rather heavily and the result is that either high-lying or more conversational passages sound rather colorless and unfocused.  Although her voice spread a bit during this difficult scene, something might have happened after that, for she launched Selig wie die Sonne in the grand manner. From this moment on, her voice sounded brighter, lighter, more concentrated and younger-sounding. If she consistently sang like that, she would belong to the great German lyric sopranos of our days.

I have previously seen Klaus Florian Vogt solely in the role of Lohengrin, in which his strangely boyish yet penetrating vocal quality underlines the character’s unearthliness. Walther is a rather more romantic leading man role – and his permanent mixed-tone approach to his top register and a lack of flowing legato in high-lying passages make the character less impetuous and ardent than one expects. The beauty and spontaneity of tone and his almost instrumental phrasing certainly make the character noble and touching, but I confess I wished for rich, full, vibrant top notes to crown the climaxes of the Preislied, for example.

I do not subscribe to the idea of showing Beckmesser as a ridiculous character and I regret the fact that the excellent Markus Brück has embraced the directorial choice with such passion to the point of nasalizing his dulcet baritone as he did. Beckmesser is a Meistersinger – and one who prizes his vocal abilities above his poetic imagination. His heavily decorated serenading probably means that he should sing with Bellinian poise. Maybe it is just a matter of taste, but I find that the plot gains more from a Beckmesser that offers some real competition than one portrayed like a manic goblin.

Kristinn Sigmundsson’s indisposition involved the last-minute replacement by Frank van Hove from Mannheim. As much as I like the Icelandic bass, van Hove’s spacious velvety bass was a pleasant surprise. If I have to fault Ulrike Helzel’s Magdalene, it would be because of her appealing and seductive high mezzo that made her often sound younger than Eva, what goes against the libretto. In the tiny role of the Nachtwächter, Krysztof Szumanski seized the occasion to display his firm voluminous bass. No wonder he received so warm applause.

I am afraid that James Johnson’s Sachs is a serious piece of miscast. Although he has very clear German and tackles declamatory passages very well, his bass-baritone has a rusty, curdled quality that robs the character of all spiritual nobility and likability. And that is something Hans Sachs cannot part with. David is a difficult and important role, who has a challenging aria that catalogues every kind of vocal difficulty. It requires A-casting – Herbert von Karajan, for example, had Peter Schreier both in his Dresden studio recording and in his live Salzburg performances in 1974 (where he gave René Kollo a run for his money). Paul Kaufmann is a congenial actor and has the right ideas about the role, but the voice is a bit small for the theatre.

Although Götz Friedrich’s production was premièred in 1993, it is impregnated with the aesthetic of the 1980’s. The sets serve a pointless aesthetic concept turning around a circumscribed square, costumes follow disparate styles and the direction of actors (under Gerlinde Pelkowski’s responsibility) involve the heavy utilization of cliché and awkward slapstick comedy.

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Although it seems I was fishing for compliments, the truth is that re:opera needed revampment. It still does; that is why I have opted for a soft opening. It has a new name, a new address, it has lost weight and is supposed to be user-friendlier, but it wasn’t born ready. In order to mark its return to life, I have published the revised discography of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

I am working on the revision of the discography of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. I am still learning how to deal with it – so things will be chaotic for a while. I ask for your understanding therefore.

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In the context of the Wagnerian Wochen, Kirtsten Harms’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser has been revived with a different cast and conductor, but the concept of having one singer for both Venus and Elisabeth, central to the production’s “message”, persists. In the original production, Nadja Michael proved to be miscast in both roles. Not the case this evening. Although Petra Maria Schnitzer is rather short on tonal richness, low notes and sexiness for Venus, she proved to be a most efficient Elisabeth. I refrain from the word “illuminating”, for Schnitzer is the kind of reliable singer who is sufficiently satisfying in every single department, but rarely takes you by surprise in anything. Her large lyric soprano has no glitches – her tonal quality is golden, she produces big top notes when this is required from her, she can fine her voice down to pianissimo and sings with good taste throughout – she even produced an intimate touching prayer in act III. Pity that Dietrich Henschel no longer possesses the nobility of tone for Wolfram. His vocal production was either rasp, throaty, fluttery, poorly supported, nasal or a combination of these. Where is Markus Brück when we need him? Pity also that the reliable Reinhard Hagen found some difficulties with the higher end of tessitura in the role of the Landgraf.

Conductor Ulf Schirmer offered transparent orchestral sound, with some exciting fast passagework from strings. I have missed the sheer voluminousness that Philippe Auguin could conjure last time – and some scenes dragged a bit: this was hardly the most sensuous Venusberg in the market. If things happen there in such low pace, I perfectly understand why Tannhäuser longed for green fields, nightingales and other rural articles. As usual, the Deutsche Oper Chorus did a terrific job.

I leave the best for last. I have always believed that Tannhäuser was a role condemned to be poorly sung. Today I was gladly proved wrong – Stephen Gould’s performance this evening should appear in the dictionary next to the entry “Tannhäuser”. His voice is at once big, firm, easy and pleasant. He phrases with musicality, has perfect diction, knows how to tackle declamatory passages with the dexterity of an Astrid Varnay, snarls when one wishes him to do so and even reserves unconstricted mezza voce for some key moments. Have I mentioned that he ended the opera almost as fresh-toned as in the beginning? There was no moment when the audience had to worry about the next dramatic top note. This is a singer in the top of his game in Wagnerian heroic repertoire.

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