I wrote only yesterday about the redeeming powers of an exceptional musical experience in the context of a shabby old production. Thomas Langhoff’s 1999 staging for the Berlin Staatsoper is as provincial looking as can be (it is very similar to the one shown in the Estates Theatre in Prague – and I don’t mean this as a compliment) – sets and costumes are anachronistic and display very poor taste, when they don’t look downright cheap, but differently from what I saw in the Deutsche Oper yesterday, the Spielleitung is very efficient and the sense of comedy timing is never lost. More than this, these singers natural abilities are well taken profit of and some scenes seemed almost spontaneous (something remarkable in a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, an opera in which things tends to be a little bit look-how-I’ll-do-this-and-how-I’ll-do-that).
However, the acting is hardly the reason why this evening’s performance was remarkable – here the laurels go to Daniel Barenboim. I have both his recordings (English Chamber Orchestra with Heather Harper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Berlin Philharmonic with Lella Cuberli and Andreas Schmidt) and find them ponderous and poorly acquainted with Mozartian style and I was bracing myself for a long evening. But fortune favors the bold – although the conductor does not care very much for clearly articulated phrasing, the Staatskapelle Berlin in top form could find clarity in its rather legato-ish approach to fast passagework in the overture, which counted with clean attacks and a flowing but not hectic pace. During the whole evening, the maestro seemed to ponder how fast every number should be by the criteria of expressiveness and polish. He proved this evening to have understood the way Mozart operas benefits from a “concertante” approach, in the sense that soloists and orchestra were always presented in the same perspective, with singers and woodwind responding to each other in structurally commendable and exquisite sounding organicity. If singers needed a bit more intimacy, the orchestra would shift together with them to a softer yet positive sound. Voi che sapete, for example, sounded wholly fresh to my ears – every shift of mood perfectly rendered, oboes and clarinets increasingly seductive during the arietta. The conductor never lost from sight that great comedy always operates on the thin line that separates the funny from the touching, and, while avoiding cuteness, these characters’ feelings were never made fun of. Riconosci in questo amplesso, for instance, has its moments of physical comedy, but it also portrays a mother finding a long lost son – and, as R. Strauss would say of Der Rosenkavalier, one should have one eye dry and the other one wet here. And so we had this evening. My hat for Barenboim – this was Mozart playing of top level, and that he has achieved that relatively late in his successful career only confirms that he is truly a great musician.
Mozart operas tend to be cast from the ensemble in German and Austrian opera houses – and it is relatively lucky that the Staatsoper has so many great singers under permanent contract. Dorothea Röschmann is the Susanna in the video from this very production (with Emily Magee and René Pape) and has since then developed into big lyric roles and had to pay some price for it (she had cancelled some performances and her recent Donna Elviras involved sometimes a Mi tradì transposed down). I am, however, glad to report that this invaluable singer is finding her way back to the top of the game. Her Countess is featured both in a video from London (with Miah Persson and Gerald Finley) and from Salzburg (with Anna Netrebko and Bo Skovhus), but her performance this evening was clearly better than in both these recordings. Although she comes close to holding to dear life by the end of the stretta of Dove Sono (the high a’s were there all right, but they felt like high c# sharps in her physical effort, and the high c’s in Susanna or via sortite were abandoned for the ossia*), this evening she sang with more seamless sense of legato and scaled down more willingly (and comfortably) to piano when necessary. In terms of interpretation, she is a singer who always gets to the heart of the matter – and if one will recall smoother renditions of Porgi, amor, this one unmistakably had a broken heart.
This evening’s Susanna was both enchanting and disappointing. Anna Prohaska is a highly intelligent singer, with stupendous Italian pronunciation, REAL understanding of the text (I had to write that in capital letters, for she found more original and insightful turns of phrasing than almost anyone else since Lucia Popp), sense of style, acting skills and personal charm, but the voice itself is simply too small-scaled for Susanna. It comes in one basic silvery color, but not “silvery” enough to pierce through in ensembles, and her low notes – the fact that you could hear them is commendable in itself – were produced in something very close to Broadway belting. I am not saying that she should never sing Susanna – but I am not sure if she should sing this role now. One could say that Popp, Cotrubas, Freni et al sang this role when they were very young. But those were very different voices, I am afraid. I hope Christine Schäfer has some good and honest friends kind enough to tell her that she should take a break and think about what she has been doing. In the last three years, I have only seen her in bad shape, but this evening it was a bit more serious than this. Considering that the role is Cherubino – and that this singer has ventured into singing Violetta Valéry in La Traviata a few years ago – and that she could barely make it this evening, this cannot be seen as normal. She is a singer I had known and liked from recordings (the Mozart/Strauss CD with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado was a favorite of mine for a while) – and it would be sad to see her going down so soon.
Artur Rucinski was a clean and poised Count Almaviva. He lost a bit steam for his big aria, but that did not prevent him from offering clear divisions and a good trill even then. Vito Priante was a most likeable Figaro, in his spontaneous, resonant voice, crystal-clear diction, rhythmic buoyancy and sense of comedy. He does belong in this repertoire and I hope to hear more from him (so far, I knew him from baroque opera recordings). Finally, Maurizio Muraro was an excellent Basilio and Katherina Kammerloher, shorn of her aria, was a fresh-toned Marcellina.
* This may sound picky, but I firmly believe that the Countess should sing her high c’s in this scene. If one remembers Kathleen Battle’s claims for the prima donna dressing room in the Met in the 1980’s, the answer should be clear: “the prima donna is the one with the high c’s, the trills… and the big aria”.