Archive for April, 2012

What do Puccini and Hindemith have in common? Exactly – they’ve composed operas about nuns. That is more or less the spirit of the concert offered this evening by conductor Hans Graf and the DSO Berlin. Although the one-acters couldn’t be more different from each other, the very contrast made this evening interesting: while Suor Angelica is about daylight, compliance and forgiveness, Sancta Susanna is nocturnal, transgressive and unforgiving. Both are richly orchestrated, in spite of the “intimate” atmosphere, and feature big roles for soprano and mezzo.

Barbara Frittoli was supposed to sing the title role in the Puccini opera, but fell ill and was replaced in the last minute by Maria Luigia Borsi. I had never heard this Italian soprano before and the clips on Youtube did not sound promising. Her voice has a bright, immediate, almost conversational tonal quality in its middle register reminiscent of some great Italian sopranos from the past; her high register lacks roundness, though, even if she has stamina enough for exposed acuti and there are bumpy moments now and then (the high pianissimi were not really there, for example). Although she acted (the concert performance was semi-staged) with passionate conviction, she had the score on her hands and I suppose that, should she have had more time to prepare herself for an unexpected debut in the Philharmonie in Berlin, maybe these minor flaws could have been dealt with. What matters is that, even if one has famous recordings in mind (Tebaldi, de los Angeles, Ricciarelli, Scotto, Popp – as you see, the discography is extremely glamorous), Borsi could nonetheless offer an extremely touching performance. In spite of a disappointing final note, Senza mamma was phrased with extreme musical sensitivity and feeling. She has a lovely personality, very akin to the role in its sincerity and fervor – and was received in similar mood by the audience. Her Zia Principessa was the versatile Lioba Braun, whose creamy mezzo, blossoming in rich low notes, and dramatic intelligence and concentration made her performance three-dimensional and almost congenial. The remaining roles were well cast, especially with soloists from the Deutsche Oper: Heidi Stober as a youthful, innoncent-sounding Suor Genovieffa; Jana Kurucová as a clear, firm-toned Suora Zelatrice; Ewa Wolak rock-solid as the Maestra delle novizie and Liane Keegan as the Abbess. Although choral singing from Cantus Domus and Ensemberlino Vocale sounded a bit on the white-toned side for Puccini, it was, maybe because of that, particularly clear harmonically speaking and ultimately “realistic” (I mean, there is no Monteverdi Choir in a regular Abbey). The richness of the DSO playing, guided by Hans Graf’s simultaneous respect for the style and his eagerness to show the score in its more “modern” guise just demonstrated why Puccini was so proud of what he did here.

I confess: I had never heard Sancta Susanna before. It is rarely staged (well, I can guess that particularly not in catholic countries…) and its 25-minute length makes it even difficult to stage it as a double-bill. In any case, it is a very interesting piece, with a mysterious atmosphere and two really well-written leading parts. Melanie Diener was utterly compelling in the title role, a great performance, unfailingly rich and sensuous toned, even in its most exposed moments, full of insight and magnetism. Lioba Braun was again an alert, fruity-toned partner as Klementia, and Ewa Wolak made a strong impact in her short contribution as the Old Nun.

The program would also feature Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, which is the right kind of piece for the lush sonorities of the DSO, one of Germany’s greatest orchestras, the massive sound produced by its strings never overshadowed by the brass being its hallmark, here featured to grandiose effect.


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The last time Bizet’s Carmen was performed in the Berliner Philharmonie was under Herbert von Karajan in 1985 – Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, Janet Perry and José Van Dam in the leading roles, exactly as in Salzburg a couple of months later, albeit with the Vienna Philharmonic. This recording is one of the references in the discography, not exactly as a paragon of French style, but as a breathtaking tour de force from the Berliner Philharmoniker. This evening, the memory of Karajan seemed to be haunting the place. There we were – a concert performance from Carmen, as in Salzburg, with the venerable orchestra and star-studded cast, as in the old days. As much as Karajan, Simon Rattle seemed determined to inscribe his name in the history of performance of this opera. This was very much a symphonic performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic as the main soloist, dazzling the audience with the most exciting orchestral playing one will probably witness in his or her lifetime under the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found. As much as I like Karajan’s recordings (all of them – the old ones with Giulietta Simionato and Nicolai Gedda, the film with the invincible Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers and the above-mentioned Baltsa/Carreras), I am afraid that Rattle has gone even deeper in his understanding of this opera. The tempi are excitingly fast, except when singers need a bit more space for expression, the rhythms are irresistible, the tonal palette is surprisingly wide (some really earthy sounds from the Berliners), the passages supposed to be merely “exotic” seemed to spring from a performance of a zarzuela and some some moments were truly revelatory – for instance, the usually superficial quintette Nous avons en tête une affaire sounded almost Stravinskian in its kaleidoscopic instrumental effects and sharp rhythms, the entr’acte before act III refreshingly devoid of sentimentality and, in the “flower song”, there was nothing like a soloist and orchestral accompaniment: it was a collective musical statement, of surpassing beauty. I guess everyone in the Philharmonie will never have again the same pleasure on hearing Bizet’s most famous opera. If one does not concentrate too much in the singers.

Well, I actually wrote the last sentence to make some suspense. There is no tragedy to report here, but there was nonetheless room for improvement. When Carmen is referred to in the libretto as a bohémienne, I am sure that the idea was not the Czech Republic. All right, Magdalena Kozena is from Moravia and wouldn’t qualify anyway, but I am sure that my 12 or 13 readers are probably curious to know how she fared in this role. The fact that hers is a light and not big voice is not a novelty – Teresa Berganza, for instance, was a famous Carmen, and her repertoire was Rossini; Anne Sofie von Otter’s Carmens were not truly famous, but she did sing it, more than once etc etc. It must be said that Kozena has experience in French repertoire – I have seen her sing mélodies very commendably, she has sung Mélisande, Lazuli in  Chabrier’s L’Étoile, French baroque music, she even recorded a CD with Marc Minkowski in which she sings one scene from Carmen. So, in a nutshell, she knows the style, the language and her voice has indeed gained in weight and size. Her middle-register was far more solid than I could have predicted and the low notes were almost all of them there, practically without the help of breaking into chest voice (what the French would probably consider “authentic”) and, differently from the last time I saw her (the above-mentioned L’Etoile), I didn’t hear the sort of constriction and brittleness that sometimes affected her singing when things got high and loud. It remains the fact that her voice in both ends of her range lack impact – she would often disappear in ensembles (the repeated “la mort” in the card scene would be overshadowed by Frasquita and Mercédès), and although she could hit exposed high notes all-right, maintaining them cost her a big effort. So she generally just touched them and either cut them short or filled-in the note value with downward portamento. The last scene had to be dealt with with some “acting with the voice”, but there weren’t any ugly sounds. So the question is – has the effort paid off? Well, she was a musicianly Carmen, her phrasing unusually elegant and truly rooted in French style (I mean – I guess, one would need a crystal ball to understand what the French consider “French style”), she has really given great deal of thought about the text and the music and, although her personality is not really close to what Carmen is, she tried to emulate a Carmen personality: hand on the hip, barefoot, throwing her chin up, swinging her hair, you name it. Berganza, for instance, who was really Spanish, never tried any of that – and her more libertarian than libertine Carmen fitted her bright, light elegant voice. But, to sum it up, yes, it was musicianly and the voice is beautiful – but, again, Tatiana Troyanos, for example, had all that – and the voice too. If you want a blond Carmen today, Elina Garanca, for instance, gets the job done far more easily. But it seems that if you are a mezzo, you basically cannot die without singing this role…

Jonas Kaufmann is a famous Don José – probably the finest today. He was not in excellent voice and his once fine attack of notes now is marred by pushing and the lacrhymosity is getting more and more pronounced. That did not prevent him from producing some big heroic acuti and also from singing with nuance, offering floating mezza voce in his duet with Micaela and, if his pianissimo on the high b flat was not smooth as it used to be, he does sing it (who else does these days?!). I have the impression that the frequentation of heavier roles is making the experience of singing roles like this less fun than it used to be – no wonder he couldn’t resist to sing his “Ma Carmen adorée” “before the time” and call it a day…

Baritone Kostas Smoriginas too produced some big heroic high notes and, almost as everyone else, found the role at times too low-lying. I only found it puzzling that his was the less “attractive” voice among the pleasant-toned (and very good) low-voice singers this evening – Christian van Horn (Zuniga), Andrè Schuen (Moralès) and Simone del Savio (Dancaïro). His French is perfectible too (Rattle used the Oeser edition – although Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was the only native speaker in the cast, the level of pronunciation was generally high, especially Kaufmann’s).

In Karajan’s 1985 performance the chorus from the Opéra was imported from Paris, and it was a wise choice, for the chorus of the Deutsche Staatsoper struggled a bit, especially with the conductor’s fast tempi and loud orchestra. The Staatsoper’s child chorus must be mentioned for their amazingly clean performance – the best I have ever heard.

I leave the best for last – the lovely Genia Kühmeier, a radiant Micaëla. What a special singer she is – and to think that there are so few recordings with her… It’s a shame!

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What a difference a director makes! Although I don’t subscribe to everything Christof Loy does here – the atmosphere is somehow too urbane, costumes are anachronistic and nonsensical (the grandmother in high heels?), everything is too white, clean and bright – these singers are really acting and what they do on stage strikes home in a convincing manner. The rather cheap-looking white set the sliding rear wall of which sometimes reveal an Andrew Wyatt-like landscape cannot help but focusing the audience’s attention in every gesture, every expression – a risky enterprise with opera singers that proved to pay off beautifully, even with the members of the cast less gifted in the acting department.

Of course, the blank sets pose an extra demand of atmosphere in the music-making. It is curious that Donald Runnicles says, in the program, that the great challenge with this score is not too round off the hard angles – and that was precisely my problem with act I. With Janacek, one expects a sharply-defined, rather bright, precise sound from the orchestra, which sounded puzzlingly Wagnerian instead in its rich, large, warm sonorities. After the intermission, the conductor could finally sell his concept – the warm, dense orchestral sound would envelope singers’ voices in an organic and expressive way, the overwhelming beauty of the string section transport the audience right to the core of the drama. By the end of the opera, if you haven’t shed a tear or two, you probably don’t have a heart.

Listening to Michaela Kaune is a frustrating experience to me – the natural tone quality is pleasant, the volume is quite generous for a lyric soprano, the musicianship and sensitivity are foolproof and she is an adept actress, but the technique is faulty and the high register is increasingly unfocused and smoky. This evening, though, what she offered the audience was so so heartfelt and so sincere that lack of focus ultimately had no importance. In her singing and in her acting she was Jenufa, and I will always remember her for this performance. I would have never expected to see Jennifer Larmore in the role of Kostelnicka; some of the most famous exponents of this role are Wagnerian singers, while Larmore has made her name in Rossini and Handel. The first impression is that the voice indeed lacks power in this part, but she tackles it with utmost conviction and does not cheat: her singing was full-toned, vibrant, rich, strongly supported and never less than committed. She works hard for intensity (she is no force of nature à la Anja Silja) and follows the stage direction thoroughly. If one wants indeed something more formidable, one cannot do but praise this American mezzo for being true to her personality and voice and still offering an interesting performance. If Joseph Kaiser’s tenor sounded more solid this evening than in Munich last year, he is still vocally out of his element here. Fortunately, he acts his role most efficiently and with more depth than most. On the other hand, Will Hartmann displayed a firm, bright, forceful tenor in the role of Laca. For a change, it was good to hear someone in this role that does not sound like Mime.

The part of the grandmother is low-lying for Hanna Schwarz’s voice and, with her flashing projection and charisma, one keepy wondering how she would have fared as Kostelnicka (I don’t know if she has ever sung the role). Martina Welschenbach was an exemplary Karolka (it is Lucia Popp’s role in Charles Mackerras’ iconic recording) and Simon Pauly, as always, made an impression in his short interventions as the Mill Foreman. Don’t ask me about Czech pronunciation – if they sang it in Slovakian, I wouldn’t know the difference…

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When I left the theatre this evening, I was inclined to start this by saying “be careful what you wish for – I have often written that it was high time the Deutsche Oper replaced Götz Friedrich’s old production – and now I see that they would have done better by keeping the old one”. Well, on my way back home, I’ve changed my mind: first, I eventually remembered that the old production had become something really painful to watch; second, Kasper Holten has many interesting new ideas in his new production. I just wonder why he wasn’t really in the mood for properly staging them. My first impression is that the Deutsche Oper had bought this stating on eBay – one could see where every detail came from and, in an interview in the program, it is suggested that, after a relatively recent staging in Moscow, the director might have used up his imagination for this opera (he, of course, denies it). As it is, Holten finds some very reasonable starting-points for his concept:

a) Although Elsa is very much relieved to be rescued by Lohengrin etc, she has not exactly CHOSEN him. Let’s us say that, if she did not really like him, she would have been sentenced to death. This makes him something of a convenience, glamorous as it is. The same applies for the three forbidden questions.

b) Although Lohengrin says he does not need to justify himself, for “everyone has seen his good deeds”, the fact is that Lohengrin has done nothing but beat in a duel (which he could not loose) someone who was well-intentioned and far from being a bad guy (my contribution to this point: Telramund could have forced Elsa to marry him, for instance – after all, he was the regent and had the whole structure to work up against her). Actually, he makes lots of promises – but that’s it.

c) The only confession Ortrud makes is that she has always known that Gottfried was the swan (nota bene: putting a chain around the boy’s neck is not technically a crime). When she is accused of inventing the whole story about Elsa, she answers “Who lied?!”

From these starting points, Holten proposes something very unusual – who said that Lohengrin is the good guy? Good question. We tend to believe it because of the heavenly music Wagner composed for him – and, well, he says he is the son of Parsifal and Parsifal is a good guy. But there is no one to confirm that information there. Based on that – and on the fact that in times of war, people tend not to make lots of question when someone promises them victory – the production shows Lohengrin as a populist who tricks the people of Brabant in electing them as their leader. More than that: he uses Elsa for his purposes. Aha – more than that – who said it wasn’t him the one who kidnapped Gottfried in the first place?! It sounds quite Richard-III-esque, but interesting it is. I wonder again why it was deemed right to stage such an original approach with: a) Roger Corman-like costumes; b) anodyne sets; c) stock gestures; d) long moments of boredom. For example, why is Ortrud portrayed as a witch with Cruella DeVil-facial expressions who spends a great part of act II worshiping a green neon light? If Lohengrin is really using everybody as it seems to be the premiss here, one could say that, manipulative as Ortrud also is, she has given Elsa some valuable piece of advice. Actually, the most all-round Personregie here goes to Elsa – here she is not a silly-goose, but a woman pushed into a reckless wedding until she realizes that it was not reasonable to be expected from her to accept this situation under those circumstances.

It was most fortunate that this evening’s soprano has enacted this concept so convincingly. Ricarda Merbeth was the last singer to sing Elsa in Götz Friedrich’s production. Then, I had found her soprano big and metallic. This evening the description would rather be acidulous and fluttery – although she did not spoil the fun at all as a singer, she did not add to it in any aspect. When it comes to Petra Lang, I would say that this Ortrud is a great improvement from her performance in Bayreuth last year. If the voice still lacks roundness, it was nonetheless very firm and clear, her low notes were particularly focused, her high notes remain admirably percussive and effortless. Maybe under the influence of Runnicles, she showed herself more inclined to produce smoother phrasing and to extend her acuti only for a couple of seconds (and not for ever, as in Bayreuth). She is a charismatic singer and it is doubly regretful that the director did not seem to know what to make of her.

As originally announced, the tenor in the title role was supposed to be Marco Jentzsch, who mysteriously disappeared two weeks before the opening night to be replaced by… Klaus Florian Vogt. As much as I admire his Lohengrin, I guess I have already got it – and was dying to move on, see new people, you know. That is why I was probably the only person in the theatre not depressed because of his cancellation (due to a sudden illness). Well, considering that his replacement Martin Homrich is moving into the jugendlich Fach… probably this evening, did not have time to rehearse and sang from the corner of the stage to an actor playing his part, I see now that I could have seen and heard Vogt one more time. That said, it was very brave of him to show his Lohengrin so prematurely for the audience in order to save the day. If Gordon Hawkins did not elicit enthusiastic applause, it must be said that he sang the role of Telramund more smoothly than most. The fact remains that his is not the voix du rôle – it lacks impact (although it is certainly voluminous), the sound is on the noble sound and he seems to be regretting deep inside that he is not in a good-guy role. I don’t know how experienced he is as Telramund (at some point, he got lost, for instance), but – again all that said – in terms of pure singing, he did a very decent job in a part in which lots of people get burnt very easily. Albert Dohmen sounded very rusty and sometimes ill-at-ease as the King, but Bastiaan Everink almost stole the show as a very powerful Herald.

Truth be said, this performance wouldn’t have been special but for the excellent contributions from the chorus and the orchestra, under a very efficient conducting from Donald Runnicles. If this performance had been recorded, listening to the CD would tell just half the story. The way the Deutsche Oper’s Musical Director mastered the sound perspectives in the hall is something only a seasoned Wagnerian could do: ideal balance pit/stage, absolute clarity (impressive prelude to act III), an exciting sense of forward movement (particularly telling in act II, scene 1) and truly theatrical accents. The reputation of the Deutsche Oper as a Wagnerian house is – at least from the musical point of view – in safe hands.

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The fact that the Komische Oper has the whole repertoire sung in German often makes it overlooked in comparison with the other two famous opera houses in Berlin, where one is treated to international casts, famous conductors and world-class orchestras. But when it comes to Der Rosenkavalier, I am afraid that the house at the Behrenstraße gets pride of place. Andreas Homoki’s production is the opposite of a revelation, but proves to be far more consistent and incredibly better directed than what remains from Götz Friedrich’s for the Deutsche Oper and from Nicolas Brieger’s for the Staatsoper.

When it comes to casting, of course, the Komische Oper cannot feature blockbuster names, but the ensemble has solid singers – in the case of Jens Larsen, I would say that top-class ones. He must be one these happy few people with very little ambition, for his Ochs is better than some seen and heard in many a big opera house. Even the occasional rough patch makes sense in a truly funny characterization, in which voice (big basso profondo notes involved) and acting are perfectly united. The lovely Stella Doufexis has everything to be an exemplary Octavian but scale – hers is a small voice for the ensembles and her Rosenkavalier sounds a bit too elegant and feminine for the circumstances. Nevertheless, she is such a classy singer and such a convincing actress that one tends to take her side, even when things are not really easy for her. I have the impression that Brigitte Geller has already grown away from the role of Sophie. Two years ago, she seemed a bit unenthusiastic about it. Now she seems almost bureaucratic. She is a very musicianly singer, with touching turns of phrase, but the high mezza voce comes now a bit more difficultly and there are many moments just off-focus – not only vocally. The small roles are predictably tentative – for the exception of two very good tenors, Christoph Späth, an alert, bright-toned Valzacchi, and Timothy Richards, an extraordinarily heroic Italian tenor with easy high notes.

It is difficult to believe that these performances in Berlin are Geraldine McGreevy’s debut in the role of the Marschallin, for only a slight hesitation when mezza voce is involved and one or two false entries expose a certain inexperience in it.  Her soprano is ideally creamy, a solid middle and low register particularly helpful in this part; her diction is perfect, she phrases with utmost sensitivity and purpose and, best of all, the feeling is genuine. There were moments in which the emotions were so palpable that I feared she would just cry on stage. Well, in the audience, many of us have. She is too a competent actress and, even if there are more alluring Marschallins around, she can be very convincingly aristocratic. A beautiful performance.

The house orchestra lack a certain refulgence in the string section, but Patrick Lange could nonetheless produce a very intense yet clear view of the score, sometimes too hard-pressed and slightly superficial in its bright colors. In all key moments, when a little bit more patience would have allowed him to build up the atmosphere (especially in the final trio), things escalated too fast and the result was sometimes noisy and unhelpful for his cast. I have to grant him something, the violins in the end of act I (a favorite passage of mine) were marvelous, exactly as I would wish for. This alone was worth the ticket price.

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Staging an incomplete work – be it Puccini’s Turandot or Berg’s Lulu – is always tricky. One never knows how much of the torso would remain if the composer could have had the time to behold the complete work and make his final touches. In the case of Lulu, one could actually write an opera about it – when Berg died, he had written acts I and II. For act III, there were the vocal parts and a couple of scenes fully composed (basically those appearing in the Lulu suite) – the particella would show more or less what he envisaged for the rest of it. Although Berg’s widow first showed an interest in commissioning the completion of the opera, she would  later mysteriously change her mind and finally forbid anyone to see the material left by her husband, let alone do anything about it. The editors, however, smuggled copies to Friedrich Cerha, whose final edition would only be performed in Paris in 1976 (as we can listen in the live recording with Teresa Stratas conducted by Pierre Boulez). This year, the Deutsche Staatsoper decided to write a postlude to this story. Based on the opinion that the Prologue was composed to appease eventual censorship, it was decided that it should be cut off. You notice that I did not produce the name of who made this decision – it must be someone far more authoritative than Berg himself, who took the pains to compose the music for it. The second big decision was to have act III beginning right from the London scene. This time the reason was that it is dramatically flawed and musically inconsistent. That is why English composer David Robert Coleman was invited to re-orchestrate what remains of the controversial last act. I am no specialist in Berg’s music and have listened to Lulu only a couple of times in my life, but – even if I mistrust people who find themselves more clever than the original composers themselves – I have to confess that I found Coleman’s intentionally “more intimate” orchestration effective, rich in atmospheric effects and aptly uncanny.

I am hardly the best person to assess how successful Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is in this repertoire. I have listened to his recording of Wozzeck and found it a bit dull, but this evening, even if an expert tries to convince me of the contrary, I would stick to my very positive impression. I have written here that I found Levine’s last Wozzeck at the Met “Straussian” in its beautiful orchestral sound – but this evening’s Lulu was almost Tristan-esque in its rich-toned, dense, dark, intense, passionate conducting. When I write “passionate”, I can see some people raising their eyebrows – and I answer that I don’t mean by it that it was loud and full of contrasting tempi. No, the performance flowed naturally and the orchestra had a Bayreuth-ian “full but not loud” aural picture, with amazing effects in wind instruments in truly concertante writing with singers on stage. I would say that those who left the theatre this evening still disliking this opera should probably loose hope of ever liking it.

The cast here assembled could also hardly be bettered. First of all, the casting of Mojca Erdmann in the title role couldn’t be more interesting. Her sweet, almost edulcorated soprano is not really expressive in itself – it does not suggest seduction, raw energy, rapaciousness, you name it. It’s almost virginal purity, allied to her almost abstract interpretation, made her Lulu more puzzling than any other singer I have seen in this role. Some say that Lulu is nothing but a projection of the desires of those surrounding her, and that is how she sounded this evening, some sort of perverted Olympia (yes, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann). She sang with great accuracy, Mozartian poise and very clean high notes. In other repertoire, some could find her in alts a bit underwhelming, here I found them instrumental and musically elegant, in the sense that they never saturated the picture, but rather blended into it. She must be praised too by her willingness to sing this impossibly difficult music in the most difficult positions, being carried by other actors and even almost upside down at one point.

Deborah Polaski was similarly an elegantly understated Countess Geschwitz, her sizable dramatic voice giving her enough leeway to deliver her text in a most musically spontaneous way. The Staatsoper must be praised by the impressive group of tenors featured this evening. Stephan Rügamer caressed Berg’s lines as if they had been composed by Mozart in the role of the Painter and nimbly executed a complex choreography as the Negro while singing with the right sense of humor. Thomas Pifka proved to be a more heroic Alwa than often, less smooth than, say, Peter Straka (in Jeffrey Tate’s recording) but more positive and varied, while Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke displayed a more metallic and verbally specific approach to the Prince. Among the low voices, Michael Volle (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper) called attention in its velvety richness and volume, but he would tire a bit by the end of act II. In comparison, Thomas J. Mayer(the Athlete) sounded recessed and rough-toned, but he is an excellent actor and used the text very convincingly. Jürgen Linn’s pitch-dark Schigolch had too much off-pitch expressive effects, but this seems to be the rule in this role. Anna Lapkovskaja (dresser/high-school boy) deserves mentions too for her forceful, fruity voice.

As for Andrea Breth’s production, although I quite like the decadent atmosphere she was able to produce and her very precise Personenregie, I cannot stand stagings in which people behave like puppets. The fun of watching opera is seeing PEOPLE on stage and the richness of expression they can convey with their faces and gestures. If they are supposed to walk like a robot, then I would rather see the concert version – especially in a concept in which the libretto is very loosely followed in a plot that demands a little bit more attention (too many characters, too many unconventional reactions, too many different settings…) from the audience. To make things more problematic, from act II on, the robot-walking is replaced by somewhat more realistic acting, but then one has already given up. I am sure that, in straight theatre, where the dialogues are more specific, this may work (or not?) – but here it was just “noise” to the music.

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David McVicar’s 2002 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto was premiered and has been revived with starred casts, such as the one featured on DVD. The staging is about a revolving set that suggests rather the Bronx than Mantua, while failing to portray the Duke’s palace, Rigoletto’s house and Sparafucile’s lair. It works better framed by the cameras. It has called some attention by the somewhat graphic orgy in the opening scene, but the only shocking thing about it is the way it interferes with synchrony in ensembles.

This is my first time in an amphitheatre seat; I cannot tell therefore if what I heard was only the effect of the hall’s acoustics: voices sounded unnaturally loud as if they were miked and the orchestra seemed brassy, recessed and dry. The fact that John Eliot Gardiner was the conductor was the main source of interest this evening to me, but under these circumstances it is hard to say much. I had the impression that the conductor wanted a lean orchestral sound, clear articulation and propulsive, agile tempi. If this was indeed the case, it proved to be an a priori approach: the house orchestra is no Vienna Philharmonic and failed to fill the auditorium and his leading soprano and tenor struggled with the maestro’s fondness for a tempo phrasing. Lucy Crowe at least has an excuse – this is her first Gilda and a replacement for Ekaterina Siurina.

I confess that I was at first disappointed to learn that I would miss the lovely Russian soprano, but retrospectively this proved to be quite rewarding. Crowe does not have an Italianate voice, lacking brightness above all; however, her lyric soprano is developing into something really interesting – the tone is rich, the low register is solid, the volume is quite generous for her Fach and she can yet trill and produce high mezza voce. Sometimes one feels an irregular support, what brings about grey-toned patches, unfocused notes and some tension. One tends to forget all this, given her musicianship, good taste and commitment. That said, what I could “read” in her singing this evening is an eventual shift into a Countess/Fiordiligi and maybe, who knows?, Agathe/Arabella in a couple of years, if she does not get carried away with the prospects and burn herself out before that.

I must confess as well that I was hoping to see Francesco Meli as the Duke, since Vittorio Grigolo’s Alfredo in the Deutsche Oper Traviata last year gave me mixed feelings. Well, I am glad I could see him in a role – and I don’t mean this as a compliment –  closer to his personality. Although this tenor gave many examples of his skill this evening – mezza voce, tone coloring, clear divisions, firm high notes – these things seemed less related to the demands prescribed by Verdi than by his whimsical intent of making an impression. The fact is that he is unacceptably free with note values, making Gardiner’s life very difficult and putting his debuting Gilda in a very dangerous situation in their duet, when nobody got an entrance rightly.

I had never heard the name of Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias before, but I will hardly forget it now. It is a very powerful voice, hard-edged in a Gobbi-esque manner, the kind that seems almost even more exciting when on its limits. Although he is not an electrifying stage presence, his singing is always gripping in its raw energy and vivid declaratory phrasing. It is curious that, in a cast where the high voices were very economical with optional high notes, the baritone seemed eager to take every one available, most excitingly in the closing scene.

Christine Rice was a fruity, strong Maddalena and Matthew Rose a firm, dark-toned Sparafucile.

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Before the Deutsche Staatsoper shows its complete Ring (made in collaboration with Milan’s La Scala) in 2013, a recapitulation of the previous two installments has been offered during the Festtage 2012. While Das Rheingold had cast changes (most notably René Pape as Wotan), Die Walküre has the same cast from last year, when I could catch the last performance, conducted at white heat by Barenboim and sung in the grand manner by almost everyone in the cast. This evening, the circumstances proved to be somewhat less exciting. After an aptly raw introduction, Barenboim took some time to switch full powers and, even when he did, one had the sensation that, instead of continuous development, one would rather see moments when things seem to connect and build up in momentum only to sag back to slimmer orchestral sound and less exciting music-making. Friday he conducted Rheingold; Saturday, Lulu; this evening, Walküre – maybe this explains his variable level of energy. In any case, when all elements actually converged – as in the Fricka/Wotan scene and especially in the Sieglinde/Brünnhilde act III scene – memories of last year came back very vividly.

In terms of casting, all women deserve high compliments this evening. Iréne Theorin displayed a particularly strong middle register this evening without any loss of power in her high notes. Some may find her voice overmetallic now and then, but her artistry is beyond minor snags. Everything about her performance is generous: her powerful voice, her keenness on tonal and dynamic variety (exquisite pianissimi throughout), her fully committed stage persona. It is hardly her fault that Anja Kampe could sometimes be even more touching – she was born to sing Sieglinde and has inscribed her name along the great exponents of this role. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka has only grown in strength since last year – she offers a perfect blended of warmth and focus in her rich mezzo-soprano.

Although Simon O’Neill has received warm applause, I have to say that his singing this evening got on my nerves. If you are curious to know how Gerhard Stolze would have sounded as Siegmund, you just needed to be in the Schiller Theater today. In any case, Stolze was a better actor (and a singer of more nuance) than O’Neill, who hams as if his life depended on it. Mikhail Petrenko’s bass sounded throaty and unsupported and offered very little impact as Hunding.  As we have often discussed here, the part of Wotan is on the high side for René Pape, but – in one of these six days in the year when one’s voice is just perfect – he has no rivals in depth, nobility and musicianship. Alas, this was not one of these six days, and his high register was basically non-functional. In the second act, he struggled a lot with it and had to resort to every trick available to get away with high-lying passages. Fortunately, he excelled in rounded, rich, voluminous tones in his long recap of Rheingold, in which he used all his Lieder singer abilities. The problem remained that he still had act III to sing. The fact that he saved his voice for the closing scene would be more disturbing, if Pape had not cunningly found a dramatic excuse for that: I have never seen such a world-weary, depressed Wotan as this evening. When he sang Nicht send’ ich dich mehr aus Walhall, it sounded as if he was describing all the torments of HIS life without Brünnhilde. When he finally had to sing out, the voice was still tense and unflowing in its upper reaches, but he still could make it to the end commendably. During the curtain calls he seemed at first a bit apologetic and then legitimately touched by the audience’s recognition. I just wonder how rewarding the experience is for him – and I have to believe that his intent to expose his reputation as an immaculate singer in such a strenuous part must come from his unreserved love for Wagner music. And I respect that.

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