Archive for June, 2012

Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Salzburg Festival can be seen on DVD – and I have written about it in operadiscographies.com. As much as I find Christian Schmidt’s hyper-realistic sets exquisite and truly atmospheric and Guth’s Personenregie most efficient, I dislike on principle productions in which what characters say makes no sense with what they are doing – like talking to people who do not exist or referring to going outside when they are already outside or going up where there is no upstairs. I find it even cheaper when the nonsense is explained as a regular basis with the fact that the characters are intoxicated; ad absurdum, if your premise is that characters are really delirious, you don’t even have to stage it at all.  Call me fastidious, but I also dislike the idea that Donna Anna – and I have already written about that – is a double-faced scheming bitch.

In any case, this evening’s Don Giovanni was a different experience from the Salzburg Don Giovanni. First, it uses a different edition. While in the Festival, we basically had the Vienna edition without the closing scene, here we have the “standard” edition without the closing scene. Second, the audiences in Salzburg had Bertrand de Billy’s well-behaved conducting, while Berliners had a more appropriately ebullient Daniel Barenboim. Third, the cast changes gave the show a somehow different atmosphere – this evening’s Donna Anna, for instance, seemed more depressed than predatory, and her Don Ottavio more unconcerned than bitter.

But let’s talk about Barenboim first. Since his last Nozze di Figaro in the Schiller Theater, I have developed a new interest in what this conductor has to offer in this repertoire. Although Figaro was an all-round more satisfying experience, this Don Giovanni was no less interesting. This evening, the maestro tried to reconcile two traditions of Mozart performance: on one side, absolute transparency achieved through optimal balance between singers and the orchestral lines, especially woodwind (violins could have been a tad more clearly articulated); on the other, the intent to infuse phrasing with drama through accent, tone-coloring and dynamics. These two objectives some time collided in the occasional lack of polish, but I would say that, on the frame of very carefully picked tempi, they generally cohabited with interesting results. La ci darem la mano, for instance, sounded truly fresh in its rhythmic alertness; Dalla sua pace had lovely hushed strings (in spite of a tenor who could not blend in), both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira had intense, psychologically-aware accompagnati before their arias; and the supper scene (here the last one) was truly powerful without ever loosing forward-movement. The fact that Barenboim could provide the necessary punch (seriously lacking in Salzburg) made Guth’s staging sharper – to say the truth, there were many moments in which the drama was really happening in the orchestral pit rather than on stage.

I reckon that gathering an all-star Mozartian cast for Don Giovanni must be quite challenging these days: singers who sang Mozart in the days of Gundula Janowitz and Fritz Wunderlich now are basically Wagner/Verdi singers and the Donna Annas of our days would have had a career as Blondchen or Barbarina back then. In this context, this evening’s was an effective cast. In any case, those disappointed by Anna Netrebko’s cancelling had a most positive surprise in Maria Bengtsson. If her voice is not truly distinctive in tone (I had seen her as Pamina and was not particularly impressed), it is rich and creamy for a high soprano. The fact that it seemed to blossom and feel really comfortable in the upper reaches made for a smoothly sung Donna Anna (maybe a bit too smooth in Or sai chi l’onore), and the large supplies of legato and mezza voce (plus reliable if not breathtaking fioriture) made her an example of Mozartian poise today. From now on, I am curious to see what she is doing next.

Compared to her performance on video, Dorothea Röschmann sounded far healthier this evening. Her voice flashed in the hall, the low register particularly rich, and she sings every moment as if it were the last one, what is almost a requirement for a Donna Elvira. That said, her high register does sound labored these days: everything above a high g (high g included) is sung with an important amount of pressure. When urgency is involved, it works somehow; when poise is required, one is consistently left wanting. Anna Prohaska is better cast as Zerlina than as Susanna – her soprano comes in one very bright color and she is not particularly seductive in sound and in attitude, but she is admirably intelligent in what regards making use of the text.

I had seen Giuseppe Filianoti only once a long while ago in a Lucia at the Met. Then I had found him an elegant singer, but it seems that the years have not been kind on his voice. It is still substantial for a Mozart tenor and he has very long breath (as one could particularly see in his runs in Il mio tesoro), but he now sounds tout and hard above the passaggio. Tonal variety is gone, pitch goes awry now and then and the results are simply not truly ingratiating. In this cast, he was also the less interesting actor – one had the impression that he was truly annoyed by being there. Since Don Giovanni is in death agony in this staging, it is difficult to say if Christopher Maltman is actually portraying his character’s declining vigor or if he does get actually tired with everything he has to do (it is a very “physical” approach to the role), but I’ll take the first option and add that his well-focused baritone has both the necessary Mozartian sheen and the hint of rawness to make his Burlador de Sevilla three-dimensional. Erwin Schrott’s Leporello was not really subtly sung, but he did sing it forcefully and his acquaintance with the Italian text and his imagination to play with it always work miracles. Stefan Kocan’s Slavic-toned bass sounded somehow too important for Masetto, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore is more than resonant enough. One could wish for a bit more menace in his singing, but solidly sung it was.


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A baroque Muppet Show, that is how Stefan Herheim defines his production of Handel’s Serse for Berlin’s Komische Oper. It does sound self-indulgent, I know, but it is actually a very precise definition. First of all, differently from most modern stagings of baroque operas, it is indeed baroque – the aesthetics, the approach, the acting style, the scenery, costumes, all these elements borrowed from their original XVIIIth century contest and reshuffled by a contemporary hand, which does not mock them, but rather shows them under a light in which meaning, rather than fidelity takes pride of place. Theater is the most baroque of arts – the one in which the idea of simulacrum is more evident, in which everything is fake and yet real, in which gods spring from hard-to-disguise machinery, in which fantasy and real world are separated by a mere  convention called “fourth wall”. And Herheim gave this paradox pride of place in his production. As always, there is a revolving stage in which you can alternately see stage and backstage – and characters move between these two worlds without barriers. The curtains open to Serse singing his Ombra mai fu in Italian language to a cardboard tree – but the set revolves and Atalanta, Arsamene and Elviro jump from backstage singing a German text (one must remember that Serse was first shown to an audience who most certainly couldn’t understand the Italian text). Characters begin their scenes in a XVIIIthe century dressing room just to make their appearances in full theatrical-contraption glory. This stage/backstage shift is real in this staging – the play is the only reality in this play. The final chorus is sang by choristers wearing their own clothes, to the puzzlement of Serse and co.

Of course, the plot of Serse has to do with “play within the play” – Amastre pretends to be a man, Elviro pretends to be a woman, Atalanta acts as if Arsamene loved her… and Serse is all about show business. Herheim takes advantage of this mise-en-abîme to give some characters a more dense profile. For instance, Atalanta is usually shown as either crazy or stupid – here her obsession for Arsamene is rather an obsession about her own sister – she loves herself when she is a copycatting Romilda and hates herself when the imitation is exposed. There is always a small content of silliness in every Herheim production, and I find the fact that she is gang-raped by the end of Un cenno leggiadretto a misfire (it is not shocking, it is not funny and it does not really build into anything – yes, it is another example of how reality and fantasy intertwine, but…). I was rather intrigued by the fact that the director did not really try to do anything with the role of Arsamene – I confess I’ve found it difficult to take account of how many arias have been deleted because of the German version, but I have the impression that Arsamene has the record in it. As much as Amastre is always swearing that she’ll get revenge, Arsamene is always whining. But, whereas the role of Amastre had been cut to concentrate on her virago-profile, Arsamene was more or less denied the right to be the whiny fellow he is (what is probably what makes him attractive to both sopranos in the plot).

The Komische Oper is an ensemble company that rarely has famous guest singers… or guest singers tout court, and Handel is not really this house’s repertoire. Its raison d’être in Berlin is being the opera house in which theatre has pride of place, in which directors are free to experiment and, therefore, in which singers are expected to be good actors in the first place. This evening was only an evidence of that – every singer in this cast leaves nothing to be desired in the acting department – especially those in the roles of Serse, Atalanta and Elviro.

What I very ungraciously am trying to say is that the musical side of this performance was far less ambitious and accomplished than the theatrical side of it. Maestro Konrad Junghänel knows his Handel and likes it fast and exciting, but his orchestra was rather coping with it than shining in exuberance, as one is used to hear with famous baroque ensembles who have tackle this piece. The house orchestra is, of course, no baroque ensemble – and it sounded a bit uncomfortable trying to emulate one. This tends to be the case with opera house orchestras in this repertoire – but some conductors prefer to find a compromise in which the orchestra can still “be itself” in the context. In a staging about taking baroque concepts not at face value, but as their real meaning for modern audiences, this could have been an issue. Similarly, the singers here gathered are not baroque specialists, what is – for a non-radical followed of HIP-practices – irrelevant, if the non-specialist cast goes beyond that (William Christie’s cast for Alcina in Paris could be an example). But here I had the impression that these singers went somehow astray midway.

Although Brigitte Geller (Romilda) is no newcomer to baroque music (she has at least recorded Bach with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists), she – at least at this point in her career – makes do in what regards Handelian style. She can produces some stunning mezza voce effects, but is mostly unfocused and rarely finds some meaning in her coloratura (as a true Handelian is supposed to do). At some points, she is expected to go for dramatic effects – and she has stamina for that – but it can sound really coarse. Julia Giebel (Atalanta) has a more appropriate voice for this repertoire and can sing with purity of line, but not as often as she should. She is not the first Atalanta who lacks presence in her middle and low registers, but her upwards excursions sound sometimes blowsy. Stella Doufexis (Serse) has a clear, flexible and firm voice that works very well for baroque music, but it is entirely unheroic for a primo uomo role and she sometimes looses steam and sounds edgy. It must be said that she was the member of this cast who made more of the German text (and the occasional Italian lines), singing with crystalline diction, intelligent inflection and spontaneity. Karolina Gumos (Arsamene) has the most interesting among the “high” voices here – her fruity, supple mezzo projects very naturally in the hall. Katarina Bradic (Amastre)’s contralto has a very pleasant color, but it is very recessed in sound, surprisingly even in its low register. Hagen Matzeit was a very interesting Elviro, very fluent both in his natural voice and in falsetto – a praiseworthy performance – and Dimitry Ivaschenko (Ariodate) tackles his divisions most adeptly.

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René Jacobs’ collaboration with the Berlin Staatsoper has gives the audiences in the German capital the opportunity to discover many rarely staged operas, but none so unusual as Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s proto-opera (if it is correct to call it thus) Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, premiered in Rome in 1600 (yes, 412 years ago). The truth is that, since it has been “unearthed” in 1912, it has had its moment – a staging in the Salzburg Festival (1968-1972) with José van Dam in various bass roles and a surprisingly historically informed 1970 recording conducted by Charles Mackerras and gloriously cast with Tatiana Troyanos (Anima), Hermann Prey (Corpo) plus Arleen Augér, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Edda Moser, Kurt Equiluz, Theo Adam et al.

As René Jacobs explains in the program, his choices for the Berlin performances were based in Cavalieri’s description of instrumentation plus some information gathered in contemporary treaties, but the keyword is tonal variety. Think of a plucked-string instrument – it was there. If you haven’t though of a ceterone, you don’t have to feel badly about this: a copy from the only extant original instrument has been ordered just for the occasion. Jacobs composed as well added parts for strings and woodwind in order to enrich the texture, as it would have been the case back in the 17th century. I am not a specialist, but I found the results very refreshing, especially because after 30 min one has the impression that the same melody is being played again and again. Maybe for the same reasons, Jacobs followed Mackerras’ example and invited operatic soloists (even if they are the kind of opera singer you would not find in an opera composed after 1790). Marie-Claude Chappuis was a delightfully sweet-toned Anima and Johannes Weisser sang with ideal balance between richness of tone and clarity. Both basses, Gyula Orendt and Marcos Fink, sang warmly and expressively and the two choirboys – Thoma Wutz and Raphael Zinser – sang very well and are very good actors.

I have had bad experiences with Achim Freyer, especially the fact that his personenregie usually has to do with making people move like robots in nonsensical circumstances. But, well, Rappresentatione… does not really have stage action, character development etc – and the director proved to be the man for the role. His staging is a feast for the eyes – not in the sense that it is beautiful (in the sense of pleasant), but in its imaginative, fresh-eyed playing with symbolism without ever falling on the trap of laughing at Agostino Manni’s libretto, but rather laughing with it – for all involved, musicians, actors, the audience, everyone were having a great time while taking part in it. It made me think of the stagings of mystery plays by members of the congregation of catholic churches in the northeast of Brazil – non-actors, improvised props and costumes, the mixture of sacred and profane, old and new, serious and comic, popular and erudite references and, most of all, a disarming sincerity in its heterogeneity. Maybe that is why it had such an appeal for me – in any case,  I had the impression that I was not alone in my appreciation this evening.

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My six or seven old readers might remember that I had first found  Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in the Deutsche Oper  dreadful and then old-fashioned. Today, I could even imagine that it could actually become interesting if a stage director could be found to make its seediness purposeful. The fact is that, in this worn-out production, Olga Peretyatko seemed somehow too brand-new. She has many and many ideas about Lucia and she diligently tried them out – in the Mad Scene, she cared to try sexiness, crudeness and even grotesque – but without the help of a director, coherence was not really there. The effort is nonetheless more than welcome. Moreover, she has physique de rôle for romantic heroines and moves gracefully (albeit in a very standardized way) on stage.

The musical side of her performance similarly shows a serious intent of making sense of everything, in the way an important singer should do. I am not only sure that, at this stage of her career, she has the “important” voice to put her ideas into practice. To start with, her soprano is a couple of sizes too small for Lucia; Donizetti’s orchestration can hardly be called “heavy”, but Peretyatko was often inaudible – not in her high register, it must be said, which is always clear, round and pleasant. She has very good trills, very smooth (but not athletic à la Sutherland) coloratura and beautiful staccato. Her in alts are a bit fragile, but very reliable, and her low notes are particularly solid for such light a voice. She understands the dramatic situations, but – having to operate at 100% most of the time – she does not really have leeway for tonal colouring “on the text” as true bel canto style demands. I had the impression that, in a lighter role, one could sample her artistry (and not merely her technique or loveliness) more properly.

The announcement of Joseph Calleja’s cancellation was received with booing – and his replacement by an ensemble singer was not really encouraging. I had seen Yosep Kang before as Tamino and Don Ottavio and had nothing to write home about both times. This evening, however, he really showed what he can do. Although the voice has no inbuilt charm in it, the Korean tenor has very easy high notes and can pierce through the orchestra, although his voice too is a bit on the light side for Edgardo. That very lightness, though, made his Edgardo  sound young and vulnerable, his very clear phrasing (sometimes a bit short on legato) and diction made everything he sang sound sincere and – even if the libretto does not give him much to work on – he could find the right note of melancholy, of helplessness in his role. One could almost see the suicidal element lurking on from the beginning. I have to confess that I found his hardly-for-the-ages but truly fresh performance the most interesting thing this evening.

I had seen Luca Salsi long ago at the Met as Sharpless and my impression then was of a spontaneous voice. Not this evening, I am afraid. His baritone lacked projection and his performance was a bit faceless. As always, nobody really gave the rest of the cast lots of thought – and one could hear that. Roberto Rizzi Brignoli could help his under-rehearsed cast out, but not his under-rehearsed orchestra. The opening scene was embarrassingly messy – and, even if things got a bit better afterwards, these musicians did not seem to be “into” this performance.

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Bach’s Matthäus-Passion was probably first performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig almost three hundred years ago – and I guess it must feel like a great responsibility to perform it in a church where the name of Johann Sebastian Bach is a sacred thing. The main item of this years Bachfest Leipzig was precisely a performance of this work’s early version – with the Bach Collegium Japan under its conductor Masaaki Suzuki, whose ongoing series of recording of Bach cantatas is rated among the best.

Differently from many concerts held in church, the musicians were not placed towards the altar, but in the choir loft, where they are supposed to be during services in the church. This made for a neck-challenging experience for almost everyone in the church, other those who payed for very expensive tickets… in the choir loft. From my place, I could see some soloists, the conductor, one or two violinists and the Thomaner boys who sang the “soprano in ripieno” in the opening number. In aural terms, truth be said, it all made very little difference – I could hear everything with immediacy. I have never heard any concert in the Thomaskirche before and cannot say where the conductor choices end and where the peculiarities of the building’s acoustics begin. As it was, the sound was extremely warm – with all its advantages (a golden enveloping orchestral sound) and disadvantages (ensembles could become a bit tangled). At first I thought that the conductor rather considerate tempo for the opening number, for instance, was his adaptation to the church’s acoustic, but then I’ve checked his recording – and it was basically the same pulse, which evokes rather a reverential than dance-like approach to the triple-tempo (I can see some of my 15 or 16 readers, “as it should be”).  As a matter of fact, the whole performance suggested a preference for smooth rather than sharply defined articulation. If that had been related to a fervid rather than detached approach to interpretation, that could have concurred to an intense interpretation à la Gardiner, but, no, the impression here was of a non-approach.

I may be wrong, but some nervousness might explain all that. The difficult obligato in Gibt mir meinen Jesum wieder was not immaculate in tuning, the whole of Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand was a bit untidy, woodwind in Mache dich was not really precise (the tempo was a bit on the fast side too). The second part is indeed more “dramatic” than the first one, but I did believe that everybody seemed to be more engaged in it. In the tenor aria Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen, the gamba and the theorbo did produce “stinging” sounds, Erbarme dich had an almost “Romantic” atmosphere (the solo violin sometimes could sound a bit Tchaikovskian for some tastes). Speaking of theorbo, I had the impression that the theorbo was so loud that it made us difficult to hear the gamba in the tenor aria, for example . There is a passionate discussion about the theorbo in the continuo in Bach’s religious works and I really am not knowledgeable enough to take part in it, but, well, I don’t like it. I’ve checked Harnoncourt’s last recording, Leonhardt’s and McCreesh’s and none of them seem to buy the idea. Maybe because they are not using the early edition – so I’ve checked Müller-Brühl (who’s supposed to use it) and the theorbo doesn’t appear with the same assiduity as last evening. In Erbarme dich, I found it even distracting – to my taste, it brought a certain gentleness, the wrong sort of intimacy (the one you’d find in Handel’s O sleep, why dost thou leave me? from Semele). But, de gustibus. Mr. Suzuki certainly knows better.

If I found some gauche moments in the orchestra, I found none in the chorus, who sang with amazing clarity and purpose. My impression of nervousness applies to some of this evening’s singers too. Not the sopranos – Johanette Zomer’s boyish soprano is exactly what a period-practice radical would want in this music. I particularly prefer Hana Blazikova’s bell-toned voice, which sustained Aus Liebe with real purity of line. Robin Blaze has a very clear high register too, but he was a bit lost around the break and the problem seemed to get worse during the evening. Japanese countertenor Hiroya Aoki was clearly uneasy and uncertain of pitch. Gerd Türk is a vivid narrator and guided the audience as the Evangelist with amazing engagement and absolute sense of style. It is not an easy task to tackle the arias too – his Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen was a bit strained, while Satoshi Mizukoshi – even if the result was a bit stiff – displayed a far freer and more dulcet tenor in Geduld. The now veteran Bachian Peter Kooij (who sang Jesus and some of the arias) sounds a bit rusty now and was not very comfortable with his low notes either, but in any case sang with more authority than Dominik Wörner, who does have the right voice for this music, but left something to be desired in intonation and warmth.

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If someone actually paid me to write in this blog, I would say that the text I am about to write was written for the money. On writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore, everybody quotes Caruso’s famous line that says that all you need are the four greatest singers in the world. And I won’t make an exception – I have just quoted it!  – and that is why I feel it is somehow unfair to say that this tenor or that soprano had their share of shortcomings in a work in which almost everybody – even the greatest ones – has their shares of shortcomings. But I thought that Cavalier is such a faithful reader and that he would like to read it – so here it goes. This evening, the Deutsche Oper offered the first of two concerts featuring Verdi’s rawest and earthiest opera. Although the score is often laughed at as simplistic (“big guitar” is the expression often used), it is quite puzzling how the results are rarely effective live. It is raw music, with violent percussive use of the orchestra, vertiginous rhythms and exciting ensembles with glittering effects, especially in the violins. The use of the word “glittering” is not accidental – you just need to listen to the last scene in act I in Karajan’s eccentric 1977 studio recording to see how the Berliner Philharmonic is at its brightest-sounding, its violins gleaming upfront along with singers, exactly as La Scala’s orchestra had in Karajan’s 1956 mono recording with Maria Callas. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra is, of course, typically German in sound and is always at its best in Wagner. But under the right guidance, these musicians can get into cisalpine mood with the extra richness and roundness reserved for key moments. Not this evening, I am afraid. Although young conductor Andrea Battistoni is indeed Italian, he certainly did not inspire his musicians to make the southbound “spiritual” journey. I have to confess that I have never heard this orchestra so colorless in sound as this evening. The maestro jumped, gesticulated, moved about his arms and I could see no difference in animation, dynamic or intensity as a result. The powerful climaxes sounded just loud, the fast tempi mechanical, the frisson left to imagination. Battistoni is keen on keeping things a tempo – which is probably the right choice for this music – but if you are not breathing with your singers, the effect is just straight-laced and spasmodic. The chorus had sometimes problem with following his beat in tricky passages (the stretta of the opening bass aria, for example) and his soloists often had a could-you-please-give-me-some-time? expression on their faces. It had been a while since I last saw a conductor booed at the Bismarckstraße (differently from directors, who are almost always booed there), but this evening those were not isolated manifestations of displeasure.

This evening’s selling feature was probably Anja Harteros’s Leonora. Like everybody who has ears, I am an admirer of this German soprano – especially when she is singing German repertoire. The fact that hers is not an Italianate voice could be called secondary in a role where one is just happy to find someone who can actually do this music justice. Would you call Leontyne Price’s tonal quality Italianate, for example?  If I had to say “yes” or “no”, I would say that Harteros was a successful Leonora – her voice is big, warm and homogeneous, she can trill, phrases with utmost sensitivity and good taste, has listened to her Callas CDs and did not seem desperate with what she has to do. But still the style doesn’t come very naturally to her. Her interpretation is often too “intellectual” in approach (as opposed to “emotional”), her “Italianate” effects sound a bit calculated and she doesn’t do low register Italian way.  Moreover, I would say she was not at her best this evening: she worked hard for mezza voce and was sometimes a bit flat. Writing all this is a bit embarrassing – she was probably better than any other Leonora one would find in big opera houses today, but still a singer of her caliber should always be compared with the very best. And I mean it as a sign of respect. If I have to keep a souvenir of her performance this evening, this would be her direct, touching, heartfelt Miserere – her Mozartian background used to the best effect in purity of line and sincerity of expression.

Stephanie Blythe had been originally announced as this evening’s Azucena, but was later replaced by Dolora Zajick. It was very heartwarming to see how Harteros made a point on showing deference to this almost legendary Verdian mezzo-soprano (and how gracefully Zajick received it and made a point of acting likewise). If you think of how long she has been singing these impossibly difficult Verdi roles in some of the world’s leading opera houses, one must acknowledge her abilities. At this point of her career, her voice is “merely” very, very big (compared as to how gigantic it used to be, say, 10 years ago), her middle-register has recessed a bit and become sometimes rather nasal and her vowels are now and then unclear. But, whenever things become really testing, she is still admirable – she tries every trill, never recoils from singing piano, ventured into her optional high note in the act II duet with Manrico, you name it. I had seen her sing this role at the Met in a day in which she was not truly in the mood, but this evening – without costumes and scenery – she simply lived through Azucena’s predicaments, the character’s conflicts all clearly presented. And, God, her “sei vendicata, o Madre!” was dramatically, vocally, spiritually (choose an adverb and fill in the blanks here) thrilling. She alone brought the edge to a blunt performance of an opera that is about edge.

I had seen Stuart Neill before only once ages ago in a Verdi Requiem with Denyce Graves in Rio (don’t ask me when was that – I have no idea). My distant memory of the event tells me of a voice big enough and right in style in a not really musically elegant singer. This evening, in the context of his competition, I would say that – in a concert version where his bulk is not a hindrance – he is fairly viable choice for the role. His voice was built around an Italian sound, his pronunciation is extremely convincing, he sounds believably “rustic” and even has functional mezza voce. It is also true that his phrasing is a bit emphatic and not very keen on legato and his notes too often crudely finished off. Ah, sì, ben mio was not graceful or heartfelt, but Di quella pira – highly adapted, as it often is, to the necessities of the final acuto – put across its “message” (in the sense that it sounded all-right heroic and athletic rather than desperate and arthritic). If I had to be really honest, I found Dalibor Jenis’s Count di Luna the all-round most reliable performance this evening. When I saw him in Un Ballo in Maschera, I couldn’t see all the qualities he displayed this evening – a forceful, dark voice with the right touch of harshness, but also supple enough for a sensitively sung Il balen. Finally, Marko Mimika was a decent Ferrando who could do with a tiny little bit less wooliness.

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I have noticed only this evening in the Philharmonie that I had never listened to a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Germany before! Because of its tremendous difficulties, it is not that ubiquitous, but I am glad I could finally get to hear it with the Berlin Philharmonic, which was this evening’s brightest feature. I personally dislike performances of this work that veer into the hysterical or the overstated – and the Berliners’ golden sound and unforced volume is the aural definition of “solemn”. Although the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio is not the clearest in articulation that I have heard, it is certainly one of the smoothest sounding – especially the sopranos – and that too concurred to the poise and scale of this performance. I know that Herbert Blomstedt has an extensive Beethovenian discography, but I am not acquainted with it and have never heard him conduct live before. If the conductor is to be congratulated when the orchestra – even an acknowledgedly excellent one – produces such powerful and exquisite sounds, then Blomstedt is to be praised. Other than this, I have found nothing truly impressive. If clarity means you can hear what every instrument is doing, then the performance was clear. But if by clarity you mean the ability to show where what every instrument is playing fits in the big structure, then it was not. In the hall, I felt that the performance lacked animation, that the accents were not truly incisive and that the level of ideas about this music was low. At home, I’ve listened to five minutes of my old Karl Böhm DG recording and the sensation was that of looking through spectacles at something you had previously seen without them.

Finding the right soloists can be an almost impossible task in any of Beethoven’s vocal pieces, but here he truly outdid himself. The choral parts are almost unsingable – and the solo ones require something similar to the Trovatore quartet (check Toscanini’s NBC live recording). This evening, for instance, a fine group of singers was gathered, but they still proved – as it usually happens –  small-scaled in the hall. The counterpoint in the solo contributions in the final section of the Gloria (in gloria dei patris – amen” was very difficult to make out. In the Sanctus, you could clearly understand why some conductors prefer to use the chorus in passages such as the Pleni sunt coeli. This evening you had to guess 95% of it. Replacing Elza van den Heever, Ruth Ziesak has no problem with the high tessitura and floats mezza voce in the top of her range without effort. Hers is a light but very bright voice that runs in the hall when not under pressure. I had never heard Gerhild Romberger before and was immediately attracted to her fruity, dense voice. She is billed as a mezzo soprano, but “contralto” may be a more accurate description. She had to work hard for lightness in the upper part of her range and was a bit flat in the amen section of the Credo. For a dark voice, it is a particularly forceful one (she often overshadowed the tenor, which is most extraordinary). Richard Croft sang with extreme good taste, tackling fioriture and softer dynamics adeptly, but his voice is either too small and/or too velvety to pierce through the Berliner Philharmoniker. I have already seen Georg Zeppenfeld sing the bass part in this work – and my conclusion is that he was not in his best voice this evening. It  lacked focus throughout and he seemed to be saving for the Agnus Dei, where he has a bit more to sing alone. Finally, I must mention Guy Braunstein’s full-toned yet crystal-clear solo violin in the Benedictus.

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