Archive for May, 2011

Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Frank Miller? Director Kasper Holt seems to find a connection between the philosophical fairy-tale world of Die Frau ohne Schatten and neo-noir comics in his new production of R. Strauss’s opera for Copenhagen’s Royal Theater. Even if one finds hard to see that, one must acknowledge that using projections over a black screen and limiting the scenic action to individual spaces that work as panels on a page is a clever ideal when one does not really have the means to deal with the impossible special effects in the libretto. I just don’t see why the stage design should have a “Sin City” atmosphere that does not go with the plot. Images of Keikobad show him as some sort of mob big shot, while the Emperor and the Empress have golden crowns (they even sleep with it) and Barak’s Wife has a regular “Frau ohne Schatten”-costume. The incoherence involves acting styles too – the Empress acts as if she were playing children’s theatre, the Nurse goes for the Bette-Davis approach, Barak acts naturalistically, while the Emperor doesn’t act at all. I have the impression that the director really wanted to make a Frank Miller staging, then someone offered him Frau ohne Schatten and it had to do. It he had really tried, it could have been interesting. Some moments – such as the Empress’s nightmare or a particularly insightful and aesthetically compelling judgment scene – offered intelligent solutions where normally one is usually let down by unconvincing imagery.

I had never been in the new Copenhagen opera house before and cannot tell if the acoustics or if Michael Schønwandt were to blame for the strange sound picture: when playing alone, strings had a bright, pleasant sound, but the full orchestra sounded brassy and poorly blended. Singers’ voices could seem a bit drained of bloom (in Duisburg, Linda Watson sounded quite richer-toned in comparison). Woodwind had also no problem to preside over textures, but – even if the result was unusually structurally clean – the overall impression was of disjointedness. Lyric scenes worked very finely, though, for Schønwandt has a very particular way of producing flowing “cantabile” in his string section. In fact, after an excitingly well-shaped closing scene to act II, the whole performance seemed to find its focus. Act III was truly praiseworthy – the orchestral playing in the difficult melodrama was really thrilling and if around the end there were still some episodes of brassiness (and overloud percussion), the conductor had already sold you the concept.

I haven’t seen Sylvia Valayre in a while. Last time, I had the impression that she artificially darkened her voice to sound “dramatic”, but I don’t recall the worn out tone she had this evening. But for some Rysanek-like loud, full yet floating notes (high c’s and above were pretty solid), her soprano did not flow, often flapped in a bothersome way, shredded in her attempts at mezza voce, sounded hooty in the middle register and showed a bumpy break into unsubtle chest voice in the lower end of her range. Although there was no interpretation to speak of and the results were often unpleasant, it must be said that some tricky high-and-loud passages were adeptly handled. Maybe if she had tried the role earlier in her career, it could have worked better. Linda Watson’s performance was consistent with that of Duisburg: she is hardly electrifying, but sings the part with unusual finish and musicianship. In this production, the Dyer Wife is more vulnerable and almost regrets her fits of bitchiness soon after she had them – the approach works well for her temper and voice. Again, she was the best singer in the cast. Ildiko Szönyi has the elements of the part of the Nurse in her mezzo – she has a quick, clear delivery of the text, is capable of strong, focused low notes and can produce some piercing acuti when this is necessary. Unfortunately, all this is a bit chaotically handled and the final impression is of tentativeness. Pity – she is an intelligent performer and has something to say in this role.

I understand that Johnny van Hal frequently sings Heldentenor roles – he has a large voice all right – but I wonder if he was properly trained to deal with them. His tenor has a glaringly open quality and his high notes sound squeezed and disconnected. His first appearance was hardly heroic or ardent. “Effortful” would be a good description. But then, the scene in the falconry showed an entirely different singer, phrasing with heady tones in an almost Mozartian way. Although nature probably gave him a Wagnerian voice, I couldn’t help noticing that he just feels more comfortable singing this lighter way. John Lundgren was a sensitive  and stylish Barak. He has a surprisingly dark and round bass-baritone and is able to retain this quality even in his high notes. Although the sound is not throaty, it is a tiny little bit muffled, what prevents him from piercing through when the orchestra is too loud or when singing with a dramatic soprano like Linda Watson.


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Patrick Kinmonth has read a lot before he started to work on his production of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila for the Deutsche Oper: Freud, Hobsbawm, probably Marie-Claire. He explains his concept with unusual clarity in the performance booklet – and you’d better read it – because I am not sure if he really read Ferdinand Lemaire’s libretto. I am not denying the validity of Kinmonth’s ideas, but I don’t know if he understood that the point on which all these ideas should hang is, after all, the libretto. For example, trains. Even if relating the work to the historical circumstances of its creation is far from being the most original idea in the world, ok, Franco-Prussian war/industrialization/clash-of-values/moral decadence are well represented by the idea of trains for progress that become trains for death. But Samson et Dalila cannot be about trains. When you delete the difference between Philistine and Hebrew and replace by… by nothing, the whole structure of of the story is thorn asunder as the pillars of the temple that never was shown on stage this evening. For example, here Dalila is a long-time mistress of Samson, who lives… in a train. But his illicit relationship (which brought him a son) does not represent a moral problem for him at this point. Then there are soldiers in conflict with a group of people, who look and act basically just like them. A civil war maybe. Then the oppressed people offer a dinner party on the train tracks. Dalila is on the guest lists – she is one of them (don’t ask me!) – and sings about spring.  In act II, she is all in virginal white with an umbrella and her son on a cart by the… train tracks. Dalila tells one officer in an uniform (the high-priest) that she wants revenge against her father’s son and not his money. But you’ll never know why – because Dalila is of secondary importance in this story. Let’s say she is upset because he doesn’t know his “secret”. Samson arrives. Dalila steps up the prompter box and sings for the audience, while Samson wanders around everywhere in the stage but near her. Then, out of this placidity, things escalate in two seconds and Dalila says he’d better go somewhere else for fun that evening. But Samson freaks out, strangles her until she is unconscious and rapes her. But then the “oppressed” people show out of nowhere and witness the misdeed. He is embarrassed, she slaps her son’s face. You’ll have probably noticed that the secret everybody speaks about is not mentioned… but, whatever, he does not have any superpower here anyway… Act III shows Samson upset. He paints a clown face on his son – and the sons paints the father’s face too. The Bacchanale is their background music*. Then there is a huge party where basically people tease Samson, who has a clown-face and a martini. Although he is supposed to be made fun of because… he raped Dalila?… people are just finding it mildly funny. Some girls even press her breasts against… the rapist. At this point, you don’t know who are the guests – common sense tells you they cannot be the “oppressed” people. They begin to undress and mysterious trains appear. OK, so the not-“oppressed” people are going to concentration camps? What happen to Franco-Prussian War? Are we already in WWII? And when exactly was WWI? I didn’t join the massive booing for a matter of principle, but I have to ask: does Mr. Kinmonth REALLY believes that this production was ready to be shown to an audience?! OK, the man has “a concept”, but someone should have told him that this is not enough: you have to make it work. This is in the job description.

There seems to be a strange pattern involving iffy new productions and dull conducting in the Deutsche Oper. Maybe Alain Altinoglu had to deal with less than powerful singers and had to scale down his orchestra, but that does not explain the poor synchrony in act I, followed by unclear phrasing throughout. The closing scene to act II did have forward movement; yet it was hardly exciting – and the ballet music sounded as if the conductor were ashamed for its kitsch**.  As far as I understand, this is Vesselina Kasarova’s first Dalila, and it seems only half of it made into the performance: mid-range upwards, where the voice sounded fruity, warm and large enough for this music. The other half barely pierced through, so I cannot speak much about it. Her attack brings about a strange distortion of vowels. As a result, her French is only intermittently understandable. Although I believe she might still develop into the role, the unfocused inaudible low notes must be dealt with if she still wants to sing it. Endrik Wottrich, on the other hand, has excellent diction and good French pronunciation (I know French people never believe that any foreigner but Nicolai Gedda and Felicity Lott have it, but Wottrich’s is very convincing for a non-native speaker such as I am).  His tenor is hard-edged and muscular and one feels a bit apprehensive about his making to the end, what he did barred one or two cracks. Maybe this is not a good role for him – he sounds like someone singing above his Fach, but it seems he traded his voice’s natural roundness for a cutting-edge. Therefore, more lyric roles might be problematic too these days. If someone here is miscast, this is Laurent Naouri. As the High-Priest, he sounds hooty, throaty and effortful. Although he is French, the voice is so weirdly placed and vowels so indistinct that you cannot really hear his idiomatic pronunciation. To be honest, Ante Jerkunica’s Old Hebrew was the best performance in the evening. I was glad when he received loud and warm applause this evening. He certainly deserved it.

* and ** – Kinmonth explains that Saint-Saëns never takes sides in his scores and that Philistines and Hebrews receive equally sophisticated music. However, the Hebrews’ gathering is depicted by a choral fugue, while the Philistines get the Bacchanale. The fact that the director did not stage the ballet music, which sounds so unlike the rest of the score, probably explains why he believes that.

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Although some may dislike Georg Solti’s overkilling conducting in his studio recording of R. Strauss’s Elektra, every Straussian cherishes Birgit Nilsson’s superpowerful performance in the title role, in which she sounds unfazed by the role’s  impossible demands. Live in the theater, however, the experience is usually quite different: one is often more concerned with the singer’s survival rather than with Musikdrama. I am glad to report that this is not the case with Evelyn Herlitzius. I know this German soprano awakens controversy whenever it appears in a cast list: it is a hoch dramatisch voice, but prone to squalliness and not entirely adept in flowing legato and shading. However, few other singers these days (the name of Irene Théorin comes to my mind when I have to think of someone else) are able to supply the excitement of a truly big voice over a very loud orchestra without effort as she does. After some very negative reviews of her Ortrud in Bayreuth, I am glad to see that this Elektra means a step ahead in her career.

First of all, although tone-colouring and shading is not Herlitzius’s main asset, in a role in which most singers are just trying to cope with,  she has enough leeway to make something out of it. And in comparison, she can’t help sounding more interesting than most. Her clear diction, her expert understanding of the text and the instinct for the right inflection makes her particularly convincing in the most difficult declamatory passages. One can really hear in her voice when she is being ironic, vulnerable or just rightaway aggressive. It is even more praiseworthy that she has been working hard on her technique – I found her more willing to keep a melodic line when necessary, more keen on shading her tone or trying softer sounds than ever. She still works really hard for that – and one can hear it – but she is really a trouper here:  she never refused to give each particular moment its right “atmosphere”. In the Recognition Scene, for example, although the tone could seem a bit grey, she did scale down, never attacked any note too strongly and now and then achieved something of a mezza voce. Was it perfect? Probably not – but it was effective. And other than Nilsson, who could be called “perfect” in this role? To make things better, her stage presence was magnetic, even more telling for her looking (and also sounding) young in a role usually made to sound more mature in dramatic sopranos’ voices and bulk. And, last but not last, Herlitzius knows how to play her trump card – when she unleashed her stentorian acuti, the physical “presence” of these notes in the auditorium was an exciting experience in itself.

Emma Vetter’s Chrysothemis too is an improvement from what I’ve heard from her in Stockholm. She still needs to work on her projection in her middle and low register, but she seems less coy and a bit more able to keep intensity in her phrasing. I wonder if the role is proper to her temper at all, but she is definitely finding her way in this jugendlich dramatisch role.  Although Renate Behle had been often called a pushed-up mezzo while she sang Wagnerian soprano roles, I wonder how much of a mezzo she actually is.  For a veteran, her voice is still finely focused and even young sounding in its brightness. She only betrays her maturity in failing to support her sustained high g’s.  While she is able to keep focus down to the lower end of her range, she does not have by nature lots of resonance there, what is always frustrating when the role is Klytämnestra. It is most curious that, even if one could hear the souffleur cueing her, her performance was spontaneous yet subtly shaded. It just did not match Herlitzius’s larger-scaled contribution. Both men were properly cast – Reiner Goldberg, as always, is a efficient, firm-toned Ägysth and, although Hanno Müller-Brachmann hams a lot as Orest, his uniquely dark and bright bass-baritone is taylor-made for the role.

Conductor Johannes Debus has a very clear notion of what a Straussian orchestral sound is – the Staatskapelle Berlin produced gleaming, rich sounds that never overwhelmed singers on stage. The way woodwind had pride of place and blended with brass in Straussian kaleidoscopic orchestration deserves mention too.  However, the beautifully transparent sonic frame failed to produce a coherent structural image. Although one could hear everything, the individual elements of Richard Strauss’s complex score did not seem to have a lot of… individuality, as if one still need to press the “sharpness” button on a TV set.

As for Dieter Dorn’s old, old, old staging, there is nothing else to be said. Herlitzius seemed to find a new life in it and interacted very precisely with Renate Behle in their scene, while Emma Vetter did not seem really comfortable with playing intensity – as mentioned-above, Müller-Brachmann desperately needs the director here. And, if I may suggest something as disrespectful as that, if the Staatsoper really wants to use this production again, do we really have to live with the Life-of-Brian costumes? Especially when the men had modern shoes on their feet?!

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Massenet’s Werther is hardly anyone’s favorite opera. Many dismiss it with the label “tacky” – and truth is that, were it not for the fancy of some star tenors, it would not be produced at all. All that said, the whole French repertoire has been rediscovered – even in France – and Werther, thanks to the advocacy of tenors like Roberto Alagna, Ramón Vargas, Marcelo Álvarez and Jonas Kaufmann, has mushroomed in the seasons of many opera houses.

This does not mean these tenors had to start over from a forgotten tradition. On the contrary, almost every important French tenor has left a recording – and even a secondary tradition of Spanish tenors such as Kraus, Carreras and Domingo may be traced back in the discography. Although Rolando Villazón’s French is quite more realistic than many Spanish-speaking Werthers, I would have no doubt in placing him among the Spaniards, for his emotionalism and fervor. I had seen Villazón only once as Lensky in the Lindenoper in Achim Freyer’s infamous production that makes any possibility of acting impossible. This evening, I could understand the Mexican tenor’s artistry. Guided by unbridled emotional generosity, he plunged into the predicaments of the young Werther with almost ferocious intensity. What in less sincere hands could sound and look exaggerated seems vehement, intense and very moving. He drives his lightweight yet rich and dark-hued tenor dangerously hardly, but the tonal quality is dulcet, the coloring is varied, the inflections are expressively drawn and the commitment is enormous. By the end, few eyes were still dry. Indeed, Villazón is a very special singer.

His Charlotte, Sophie Koch, has an ideal voice for the role. It is vibrant, full-toned and large enough, but still light enough to suggest youth. Act III maybe took her to her limits, but her adeptly focused high notes survived the test. Although she started the evening a bit too cool for the circumstances, she increasingly gained in pathos during the evening and almost matched the tenor in intensity by act III. Audun Iversen (Albert) has a noble and large voice, a little bit wooden in the end of the range, but even that worked out well for the role. He only seemed uncomfortable on stage. On the other hand, the bell-toned Eri Nakamura wad a vivacious and sensitive Sophie. Last but not least, Alain Vernhes was a congenial Bailli.

I am hardly a specialist in Massenet’s music, but I have found Antonio Pappano’s conducting very convincing in its large, late Romantic gestures. Act III sounded almost Tristanesque in its richness of sound, flexibility of beat and forcefulness of accent.

In the days of Regietheater, Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production might seem unimaginative in its historical propriety and unobstructive concept, but his meticulous direction of actors (as revived by Andrew Sinclair) is immensely refreshing; the level of dramatic engagement achieved here unfortunately rarely found in operatic stages. Although acts I and II could feature more interesting sets, acts III and IV found inspiration in Hammershøi and looked beautiful and expressive. I just wished each character had been allowed more than one costume during the whole opera.

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In less than an hour, tickets to Claudio Abbado’s three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, Maurizio Pollini and Anna Prohaska had been sold out.  Me and many other concert-goers would have been deeply frustrated, if the maestro and the Philharmonic had not offered more than a consolation prize: an extra concert as a tribute to Gustav Mahler, who died exactly 100 years ago in Vienna. Famous soloists were invited and the hall was almost completely packed.

The program’s first item was the adagio to the 10th Symphony (in Deryck Cooke’s edition), which is rightly regarded as Mahler’s visionary swansong. I cannot think of a more ideal interpreter of this music than Claudio Abbado – not only has he a vast experience with XXth century music and offered an impressively clear and consequent view of the score, but he did not fail to bring his heart to it. The various moods of this expressively wide-ranging piece were intensely shown to an audience mesmerized by the otherworldly sounds of a transfigured Berliner Philharmoniker. What glorious sounds! Being there is something one could tell his grandchildren about.

After a superlative experience such as this, the stakes were very high, even for Abbado himself. I am not saying that he would not be able to outdo himself in the Lied von der Erde, but the fact is that I am not sure if his choice of soloists, distinguished as they are, was right for this music in that venue. Well, this is not exactly right: Jonas Kaufmann is, of course, a very good choice for the tenor part. Although he was not in his absolutely best day (the lachrymose attacks inexistent before the Met’s Siegmunds persist and his attempts of mezza voce were more into the falsetto field), the liquid quality of his high register is praiseworthy. The excruciatingly demand of heroic acuti was supplied roundly, richly and forcefully. I have very good and fond memories of Johan Botha in Munich back in 2007 (with James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic) and I still think that this music ideally requires a more dramatic and brighter voice in order to allow the conductor to really unleash his orchestra. But Kaufmann’s sense of line and cleanliness of phrasing are worth the trade-off.

Back in 2007 in Munich, I also had the opportunity to see Anne Sofie von Otter in that piece. Back then I had already found her unsuited to this piece. Four years haven’t made the situation better – hers is a helplessly light voice for it. Of course, her good taste, clear diction, exquisite pianissimi are welcome, but she was often overshadowed by the orchestra, sounded uncomfortable in her low register and caused the conductor to reign in his orchestra. This fact alone made the performance sound restrained and a bit cold as a whole. A conductor as Abbado knows how to play things to his advantage – with very clear but restricted sound from the strings, pride of place was given to exquisite solos from his woodwind section (Emmanuel Pahud deserves particular mention) and French Horn players, a sense of chamber music was achieved. However, Abschied  requires far more emotional generosity, more contrast, more sense of an all-embracing orchestral picture in the “tutti”.  Beautiful as it all was, this should not be Abbado’s and maybe also Jonas Kaufmann’s last “word” about it.

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Although I have already seen live transmissions from the Met of productions I had actually seen live, I don’t remember having ever watched one so close after seeing it there at the Met before this evening. The opening night, as reported below was eventful to say the least – Kaufmann was nervous, Westbroek was in very poor voice and nervous (or ill, as officially announced), Voigt had an accident with “the machine” in the day she decided to sing Brünnhilde for the very first time… Of course, in the last performance of the run most of this initial problems have been dealt with and my impression is that the audience this evening had a far better show than I had last month. I am not only sure if those who saw only the transmission really got a faithful idea of what happened live.

To start with, the way microphones have recorded it all voices sound more or less the same size. And this is somehow unfair to Stephanie Blythe and Hans-Peter König, for the volume and power of those voices were very much an important part of the thrill of their singing. Today in the movie theatre Kaufmann sounded as loud as Blythe – while my recollection is that even the ailing Westbroek was substantially louder than him. In any case, although Siegmund still sounds a bit low for him, free from the pressure of a role debut, he sang more spontaneously today and far more smoothly in act I. As for Westbroek, will it sound mean if I say that I preferred Margaret Jane Wray’s 3rd act? She is a good, solid singer – but considering that she is not a dramatic soprano and that, as a lyric soprano, she lacks flexibility and dynamic variety, I wonder what kinds of roles she intends to sing in the future. Her Elisabeth at the Covent Garden was more about vigor than subtlety.

In my original post, I have already praised Bryn Terfel’s detailed interpretation, but during the run it has developed into something sharper and even more perceptive. Although I can think of a couple of richer-voiced Wotans these days, none of them really offer something as complex and so revelatory in terms of comprehension of the text. I still dislike Deborah Voigt’s unappealing tonal quality in the middle register, absolute lack of variety and imagination, but I must acknowledge that she too is now more comfortable than in the opening night, when she often had to brace for her high notes. That said, this evening, with the help of close up, one could feel how emotionally engaged she was in her last scene and how efficient her chemistry with Terfel is. Their father/daughter relationship was particularly palpable – and that is quite rare.

Although James Levine’s has his disturbingly slow moments (Todverkündung will probably end next week…), the orchestra – at least with the help of microphones – produced a more positive sound. I confess I found that, while the live performance mostly left me cold, the transmission had a couple of beautiful moments. On the other hand, the camerawork was fussy, we were often showed unnecessary things (Kaufmann fighting to untie his hair* or slobbering, stagehands etc), close ups in moments when a larger angle would show the scenery more advantageously etc.

* I know it is silly, but why is it not Sieglinde who unties his hair? This would make more sense while she says that he is like spring for her etc than having Siegmund worried about his hairstyle while someone says all this to him.

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In a program entirely dedicated to French baroque music, Gotfried von der Goltz and his Freiburger Barockorchester invited French soprano Véronique Gens to add some authentic flavour to the proceedings. A wise choice, for this repertoire is not really known this side of the Rhine and it is good to have a regular of William Christie’s and Marc Minkowski’s recordings to run to in case of doubt. In any case, Gens must have adopted the famous “In Rome do as Romans do”, for the final results were a bit Germanic – albeit in a very positive way. For example, the comparison with Cristophe Rousset’s recording of Lully’s Roland shows the French conductor far more dance-like and varied, while the Freiburgers added a straightforward and propulsive quality that made the orchestral “highlights” rather coherent somehow. One could not avoid the same impression that the German musicians were gutsier and more incisive in the excerpts from Rameau’s Dardanus when comparing it to Minkowski’s more flexible and sensuous recording (with Véronique Gens as well). Curiously, the tambourin twinset is surprisingly more exciting in Minkowski’s exhilaratingly fast account. Unfortunately, I cannot compare both conductors in Rebel’s Les caractères de la danse, for Minkowski’s CD is deleted from the catalogue, but I suspect that the French conductor would have stressed the contrasts between the dances more vividly. In any case, Goltz was a clear-toned and vivid soloist in Leclair’s Concerto for violin op 7 no. 5.

Véronique Gens sang two items in the program – Montéclair’s cantata “Le dépit généreux” and the arias from Dardanus. In the cantata, her irresistibly sensuous and velvety tone, immaculate sense of style and crystal-clear diction worked to perfection, the “emotional journey” – from despair to peace of mind – well characterized. If Julia Gooding is far less impressive in Florilegium’s recording, their accompaniment is warmer and more colourful in compensation. In the Rameau items, she sang even more beguilingly in a tessitura that allowed her more creamy top notes in  more intense a context too. As an encore, the audience was treated to Lully’s Venez, haine implacable from Armide, where the Freiburgers proved to be far more exciting than Rousset in his video from Versailles (with Gens too, an omnipresence about which nobody feels like complaining).

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It is amazing that Edita Gruberová, at 65, is able to pull out a recital in which the Mad Scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is only the last item before the pause. Some young sopranos would think twice before doing that, but Gruberová is probably the most fearless person I have ever seen. Not only did she program some very difficult arias in a row, but also made a point of taking all the optional embellishment and high notes, not to mention those she invented herself. In a world where bel canto specialists cannot really trill, produce a legitimate messa di voce, tackle mezza voce in very high notes and still be heard over a big orchestra, Gruberová is a wonder of nature, but – and I say this as a great fan of hers – I begin to wonder if she is doing herself a favor by being so obstinate about not moving on. I mean, the comparison to most singers in this repertoire might still be favorable for the legendary Slovakian soprano, but is it really favorable to her former self? As Christa Ludwig said about her retirement, it is better to be remembered for your very best. For example, in alts. Nobody expects a veteran – even one whose tone is so absolutely youthful as hers – to sing all those high e and e flat in alt in a concert. Twenty years ago, she would have done it without any effort. Now, they sound exactly what they cost to be produced – shrill, piercing and not really truly in pitch. Music is no circus and I am sure Gruberova’s many fans do not go to the theatre to see if the old girl can still do it, but to savor her consummate artistry, her perfect technique and her expressive powers. And she has still got all that – and all that could be put to better service in repertoire appropriate to her present voice.

For instance, Com’è bello from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia has always sat too low for her voice. The necessary warmth and immaculate legato to make this aria come to life were not there – and will never be. So why singing it? Amina’s closing aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula showed an entirely different singer. In any case, a role written for Giuditta Pasta will always require adjustment for a voice as high as Gruberová. She sang it sensitively – more than in her official recordings a couple of years ago, but again she does not sound really spontaneous in the lower end of her voice – and the fioriture in the cabaletta were quite savonné. Lucia’s Mad Scene – barred the unwritten final in alts – remains well-fit to her voice and allowed her to use her crystalline soprano with breathtakingly pure pianissimi to portray Lucia’s predicaments. There were moments when things got a bit astray, but she never lost sight of the drama.  After the intermission, Elvira’s Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani showed the singer a bit short of legato and more comfortable in a touchingly performed recitative before a cautious cabaletta. All my reserves were dispelled by the closing scene from Roberto Devereux (when she was ably partnered by Rachel Frenkel, Abdellah Lasri and James Homann), a scene she has made her own in her musical-dramatic understanding and complete abandon. There even the unsettled low notes are used for theatrical purposes – and she could ably hold, as she has always done, her final optional note for ever. The encore items were a charming O luce di quest’anima (from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix) and a hilarious Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande from J. Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

Conductor Andriy Yurkevych was probably hired because he comes in the combo with his soloist, but proved to know the ins and outs of bel canto repertoire – he relished the proto-Johann Straussian elements in Ponchielli’s Danza delle ore from La Gioconda and made brilliant effects in the Pas de six from Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell, but couldn’t find the right degree of tension in the overture of Bellini’s Norma. In any case, listening to the Staatskapelle Berlin in this repertoire is a gift from Heaven.

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Christian Thielemann’s reputation as a Straussian conductor is somewhat older than his as a Wagnerian, and I would dare to say that, although he is often mentioned as some sort of Bayreuth’s great hope, R. Strauss’s music is still the repertoire where all his strengths lie. His instincts are basically almost invariably right in this music, his ability to produce perfectly transparent textures in large scale is admirable, and the sense of forward movement and objectivity that make his Wagner sometimes insensitive drain his Strauss of all hint of sentimentality.

This evening, the conductor decided to explore some rare Straussian pieces with famous soloists to draw a larger audience. The orchestral numbers were composed in circumstances that explain their almost complete oblivion today: the Festmusik for the city of Vienna was a 1942 official command and, although the Festliches Präludium was composed in 1913, it was performed in the celebration of the German chancellor’s birthday in 1943. While the former is a quite uninteresting piece for brass instruments and timpani, the later is an impressive (if rather shallow) tour-de-force for organ and great orchestra expertly calculated to produce a standing ovation (as in this evening). Thielemann resisted the temptation of overdoing the effect and gave a sober yet powerful rendition of this exuberant score.

The conductor’s sense of balance proved providential for his soloists – Renée Fleming offered a gorgeously and stylishly sung Traum durch die Dämmerung over a delicate carpet of orchestral sound. Winterliebe requires a lighter touch for its upwards melisme that made it a bit difficult for her to pierce through, but she still then eschewed any vulgarity. The Gesang der Apollopriesterin (op. 33-2) showed the soprano in her best form and behavior – savoring the text, coloring it with imagination and producing beautiful round top notes throughout. In Waldseligkeit, she could not find the necessary ethereal mezza voce, but her voice has inbuilt floating quality and she handled the lower end of the tessitura better then most. Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a bit higher than almost everything he sang this evening requires; he could barely be heard in the bottom of his range and exposed high notes were a bit rough. Nonetheless, he showed himself as an ideal interpreter for the somber declamation of both the Hymnus (op.33-3) and the Notturno (op. 44-1) and still produce the right hearty enthusiasm for the Pilgers Morgenlied (op.33-4). Thielemann provided kaleidoscopic sounds, perfectly blended to his singers, knowing the right moment when he should and could boost his orchestra and when to scale it down to give pride of place to vocal effects.

Both singers would appear again in the big romantic scene in the second act of Arabella. Fleming’s clear diction and creamy tones worked to perfection. When she decides to put her jazzy mannerisms aside (as in this evening), one can really understand why she is considered the leading Straussian of her generation. Hampson had to work hard for impact, but blended exquisitely in Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein. The audience would also be treated to the prelude to act III, where Thielemann proved not only to have a superior understanding of the structure of this passage, but also to make it sound consequent, polished, animated and surprisingly beautiful. The Berliner Philharmoniker responded in the great manner during the whole evening. I really can’t wait to hear his Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg this Summer.

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I was going to write a review, but then I read an old one – and noticed that there is nothing to add to it. Actually, this is not true – the new program, Handel soprano arias, is far more enticing. I hold a grudge against the choice of the Philharmonie’s bigger hall for a singer not really adept in projecting into a large auditorium. In any case, yes, she still can sing fast coloratura, impressively in Agilea’s M’adora l’idol mio from Teseo, when she rivaled the excellent oboist in accuracy. I was less impressed by Cleopatra’s Da tempeste. In order to adapt it into her voice, she adopted an extremely light tone that sounded rather girly than victorious.

A far more serious problem has to do with the fact that the Orchestra La Scintilla operated in a rather dim dynamic range.. It is most commendable that La Scintilla, led by spalla Ada Pesch, was still able to keep a bright and natural tonal quality and to create animation exclusively through accent and precise articulation. The orchestral numbers – Porpora, Scarlatti and Handel – were excitingly played, with impressive solos from oboe, flute and natural trumpet. But restricted to almost silence, they could have never produced the right kind of sparkle that arias like Da tempeste or Armida’s Furie terribil require. If I have to single out a moment that showed the singer’s best quality – her emotional generosity – this was Alcina’s Ah, mio cor, when she could take refuge in her pop-like mezza voce, concentrate on the text and finally allow the orchestra to play. I must say that Ada Pesch and La Scintilla made a terrific job out of it – the various shades of desolation and despair in the aria depicted in many possibilities of accents, dynamics and coloring. In the final item (Melissa’s Desterò dall’empia dite), singer, oboe and trumpet offered exciting combinations of sound in really fast tempi. Unfortunately, I could listen to only one encore, Almirena’s Bel godere, an old speciality from Bartoli.

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