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Archive for March, 2013

Guy Cassiers’s Ring for La Scala/Lindenoper could hardly be described as a story of success. The première of Das Rheingold was able to create the rare event of an almost consensus among Wagnerians (against the omnipresent dancers); Die Walküre hit the news of Corriere della Sera when Waltraud Meier voiced what everybody had already noticed (no Personenregie); then nobody bothered to comment Siegfried, for at that point it seemed like beating a dead horse.

I would dare to say that there was actually some evolution between the first and the second day of the tetralogy: Siegfried is aesthetically superior to these production’s two previous stations. I would even say that Götterdämmerung is a further step from Siegfried. Although the team of dramaturges display an almost psychedelic imagination  and a colorful bibliography in the performance books’ texts, the issues raised by them do not make into the staging (except for a 1889 frieze from a building in Brussels not even remotely connected to anything Wagnerian but used as some sort of centerpiece in the sets); here the story is told with literalness and stand-and-delivery is the sort of acting one would find here. The insight is entirely delegated to Arjen Klerkx and Kurt d’Haeseleer’s aptly atmospheric yet often overbusy videos. All that said, apart from horrendous costumes, the production is more often than not visually striking, coherent and unobtrusive. This hardly sounds positive, I know, but I wonder how much the pressure of being original did not prevent this creative team of doing the most basic task of staging an opera, which is telling the story. Insights are like melodies – you cannot produce them out of willpower. They are either there or not. When one thinks that almost every production of the Ring – traditional or revolutionary – never solve basic scenic problems such as “what should everybody, Hagen particularly, be doing while Brünnhilde sings the Immolation Scene?”, one should think twice before dismissing directors who are just willing to tell the story in a CONVINCING way. For instance, although I still dislike the idea of the Tarnhelm represented as FOUR dancers (Brünnhilde must have thought very confusing that these FIVE people were actually just one man and not a Big-Love sort of group-marriage), the fact is that the Siegfried-disguised-as-Gunther scene is supposed to be violent. Generally, Brünnhilde looks like a very formidable lady overreacting to a clueless guy with a piece of cloth on his head. This evening, even if the whole concept could be refined, the helpless Brünnhilde was practically violated right before the audience’s eyes.

The Staatskapelle Berlin, as in Siegfried, produced exquisite sounds, but Daniel Barenboim would only intermittently delve into the heart of this score. The Festtage is an athletic task for someone in his 70’s and one can see that the marathon of daily conducting big works has its consequences. This evening, his supply of energy proved insufficient in many key moments – a egg-timer approach to Siegfried’s journey through the Rhine made for a rather lifeless Gibichungenhalle scene; act II had a labored and noisy ending, while act III featured an exhausted, superficial funeral march for Siegfried and a Immolation Scene that never beyond correct in spite of a brilliant soloist. In other moments, though, one would feel as in Wagnerian paradise, surrounded by rich, clear and warm sounds used in the service of the drama.

This evening, Irene Theorin was the very example of artistic generosity. She carried on her shoulders the task of generating the expressive impulse of this performance – and she relished the opportunity. She proved again to be particularly warm-toned in her middle-register and in ductile voice, exploring both ends of dynamic range with naturalness. She produced a rare display of dramatic and musical unity, galvanizing every note and every word in the score with her sensitive and intelligent singing and acting. The Waltraute/Brünnhilde scene, for instance, where Waltraud Meier (who should give her long-abandoned mezzo roles a try again) and Theorin showed you everything you should know about Musikdrama, was an experience to cherish. Although she was not as ideally partnered in act II, she offered the ideal balance of power and subtlety Wagnerians dream about.

Again, Waltraud Meier was in very good voice and offered a deep, intense performance both of Waltraute and the 2nd Norn, where she was well partnered by Margarita Nekrasova and Anna Samuil (unfortunately, far less successful as a very metallic and blunt Gutrune). The Rheinmaidens were also very well-matched in spirited performances.

Among the men, Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich) proved to be the most convincing, even if his voice is not as dark as one would wish for.  His crisp delivery of the text and dramatic intensity were a contrast to Mikhail Petrenko’s disappointing Hagen. Seeing a young singer in this role – one who has the necessary attitude for it moreover – promised new perspectives, but this singer should take some time for an “engine check”. As heard this week, his singing seems drained of overtones, throaty and constricted, entirely different from what I heard from him in a not distant past. Ian Storey (Siegfried) seemed to be making a tremendous effort that brought about very little sound until he was announced indisposed but willing to go just before act III. After that, although one could hear that he was not well, he could find very intelligent and sensitive solutions to make it to the end. Finally, Gerd Grochowski was a boorish and somewhat rough Gunther.

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How much metalanguage there is  Philipp Stölzl’s 2012 production of Wagner’s Parsifal is a matter for discussion. The staging turns around the idea of the power of symbolism in two levels: first in what related to objects of worship as in the case of relics; second in the idea of recreation of religious episodes in the shape of mystery plays, more specifically tableaux vivants. The staging of passion of Christ is a very much alive tradition in many countries, and they tend to develop a mystique around themselves – who is going to play Christ this year, for instance? A famous TV actor? Back to our Parsifal, Stölzl’s makes clear that what you see is a representation – the rocky landscape where you see the crucifixion as witnessed by Kundry is clearly set in a large hall lit by cold lamps. At first, I was shocked by how kitsch everything looked – but then it is hard to tell if the concept is kitsch or if the “play within the play” was kitsch (i.e., made to look kitsch on purpose). In any case, the very concept of kitsch involves objects whose practical purpose and aesthetic concept are ill-matched.

As it is, the first act shows us a rocky landscape that confines the stage action downstage, making many scenes unnecessarily crowded or awkward. There is a castle in very poor perspective in the background. Costumes are in Life-of-Brian-style but for Parsifal, who wears a suit. Here time and space are indeed the same thing, for the Verwandlungsmusik accompanies no Verwandlung. Parsifal and Gurnemanz exit, a bunch of self-flogging guys show up and Parsifal, Gurnemanz, Amfortas and a very perky Titurel make their entrance to a ceremony involving Amfortas’s stigmata dripping blood over the crowd. During the many narrative passages, we are offered small tautological flash-black tableaux in top of either of the rocky formations.

Act II looks as if the director visited the Fundusverkauf in Behrenstraße to shop for old productions – the sets could have been borrowed from Götz Friedrich’s Elektra (as on DVD). So, Klingsor has an African-style outfit and is followed by a cult of zombie-likes Flowermaids. Kundry keeps her shabby dress from act I to the end of the opera. The scene itself is very conventional, but Parsifal doesn’t make the sign of the cross. He just kills Klingsor with the holy spear. The closing act shows us the ruined version of the rocky landscape with some people with Lacoste outfits who seem to be in some sort of religious pilgrimage. Among them, Gurnemanz too seems to have had a fashion makeover in Friedrichstraße. Kundry makes her appearance, the Lacoste people are a bit shocked, but the Gurnemanz-guy (what exactly he is to these people is not clear…) tells her that spring has already come (not really…). Parsifal shows up, the Lacoste people anoint him, while Kundry prefers not to join in. In the meanwhile, Amfortas is in his via crucis (literally), Kundry tries to be helpful this time and offers him water, but people keep flogging him. Parsifal shows up and, again!, kills some one with his spear. Actually, this time it was not his fault – Amfortas jumps into it. Everybody knees down and prays, while Kundry stays back and seem unconvinced.

At this point, you probably have guessed that I share Kundry’s disbelief. The concept is at the same time superficial and all over the place, the sets and costumes suggest rather  Night in the Museum than Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia (as the performance book seems to suggest) and the fact that religion is here taken in face value makes it almost a traditional production in disguise. A labored and unclear one.

When it comes to the musical aspects, this evening was quite successful. After a prelude where the violins could be a little bit more refulgent, Donald Runnicles settled for a no-nonsense performance, with ideally Wagnerian full but not overloud orchestral sound, forward-movement and clarity. Act II was particularly coherently conceived – the Parsifal/Kundry scene well-structured and intense. The cast had its ups and downs. Both soprano and tenor were clearly not in a good-voice day. I saw Violeta Urmana’s Kundry in a concert performance in Munich with James Levine back in 2004 and she was note-perfect then. This evening, even if she has showed a deepened understanding of the text and an engaged stage presence, her high register was unwieldy and harsh. By the end of act II, she was clearly tired. Stephen Gould and Parsifal are not a match made in heaven –  his voice and physique do not suggest any boyishness and he himself seemed detached throughout. Moreover, his high notes were tight and his phrasing a bit stiff. By the 3rd act, he seemed to have warmed and produced some beautiful turns of phrase. Replacing Thomas J Meyer in the last minute after singing Amfortas yesterday in Zürich, Detlef Roth still finds this role on the heavy side for his voice, but shows absolute commitment. Liang Li is an imposing-voiced Gurnemanz with very clear diction and some charisma. His bass is sometimes a bit grainy and there is not this irresistible sense of story-telling that the very great Gurnemanzes provide. But this is definitely a name to keep in mind (he would have been a forceful Hunding or Fafner, since we have been talking about that). Last but definitely not least, Samuel Youn’s powerful, cleanly-focused singing in the role of Klingsor is beyond any criticism. An exemplary performance.

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“I have a friend who says you cannot ruin a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the cast may be awful, the director may be an imbecile, but the Bard’s text will shine through nonetheless. Is it Wagner’s Siegfried something similar? I don’t know, but I have realized that, in many performances of the tetralogy in my recollection, it was Siegfried the most effective in the lot (before my 13 or 14 readers ask me which one tends to be the worse, this is Die Walküre). Is it the propulsive rhythms, the inescapable necessity of crisply declaimed texts teaching where the right tempo is, the vertiginous action?”. It sounds utterly unimaginative to quote oneself, but I have to register another occurrence of the Siegfried-phenomenon.

It is hard to believe that this is the same orchestra and conductor from last Sunday’s Walküre. Then I have said that, from the opening bars, one could see that the performance would not take off. This evening, from the onset, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin caught my attention. The variety of tonal possibilities explored by this orchestra this evening – ranging from the raucous to the crystalline – could tell alone everything you have to know about this opera. Even in the infamously dry acoustics of the Schiller Theater, the fulness of sound was often surprising. Clarity and coloring were the means chosen by the conductor to build his interpretation this evening – and the fact that the cast involved some big voices was reason enough for satisfaction. It was the orchestra the story-teller this evening – and the fact that these singers could be heard over it allowed Barenboim to fill the hall with sound and give his musicians leeway to produce some very interesting effects. Instead of going for excitement and fast tempi in the forging song, for instance, he allowed his tenor to articulate the text, while a kaleidoscopic sound picture unfolded itself around him. Later, when Siegfried longed for the mother his never knew, one could feel the presence of the forest around him in the vividness and warmth of the Staatskapelle’s string section’s playing. If I have to be picky, act III had a less impressive start, with a noisy and unsubtle Erda/Wotan scene; one could also imagine a more otherworldly awakening for Brünnhilde, but this difficult last scene developed very naturally and organically.

I have seen Lance Ryan as the Siegfried in Siegfried both in Bayreuth and Munich – and I have the impression that this evening’s was his most convincing performance. His singing still turns around clear diction, power and stamina rather than legato, sense of line and a truly pleasant voice, but he was both in better shape than in Munich and offered some very impressive full high notes such as I cannot recall to have heard in the Green Hill. I have the impression that he will never do justice to the grandiosely romantic lines of the final scene, but this evening he evidently did his best to sound smoother there.

Peter Bronder is a gifted actor with crisp articulation of the text, but his Mime has very little tonal variety. His very metallic tenor sometimes spreads in the higher ranges and is not really comfortable when things get low. By the end of act II, he sounded a bit tired too. I never cease to be amazed with Terje Stensvold’s vocal health at this stage of his career. His Wotan lacks variety and charisma (and has a patch of nasality in the middle range), but it is an uncomplicated and  very powerful voice, especially in the baritone area of his bass-baritone. The contrast with Johannes Martin Kränzle’s intense, detailed performance as Alberich is quite telling. I was not very impressed when I saw him in Rheingold both in Milan and in Berlin, but this evening he was in very good voice, singing clearly and forcefully. Anna Larson is a soft-centered Erda with rich low notes, Rinnat Moriah was a somewhat edgy Waldvogel, and Mikhail Petrenko’s Fafner was a little better than his Hunding.

Anyone who expects perfection in the singing of Brünnhilde in this opera is bound to be disappointed. The role requires lyrical qualities that no dramatic soprano is able to offer in a tessitura as high as this one – and lyric sopranos find the part basically very strenuous. Irene Théorin trod carefully this evening, switching to mezza voce to produce a flowing line in high-lying passages, never letting go a convenient breathing point and keeping things as light as possible. This had the benefit of making her Brünnhilde sound particularly vulnerable and appealing. The transition to sheer Wagnerian voluminousness in climactic high notes were sometimes a bit abrupt, but she never failed to respond to these requirements. All in all, a very commendable performance.

As for Guy Cassiers’s production, I cannot see any concept behind the proceedings, which basically tell the story in a very generalized way, the Personenregie often very blank. Since there is a lot of physical action in Siegfried, one feels that less when the title role and Mime are involved. The projections are very effectively use in the forging scene, but generally sets, costumes and props are used for purely visual aesthetics. The bad news is that the dancers are back. This time they have swords and they use them to form patterns (like stars, hexagons and other completely irrelevant and distracting things). They also animate a very primitive dragon, made with a white blanket and projections.

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My story with Guy Cassiers’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre is everything but uneventful: it had a very bumpy start in Milan (with one important compensation); than it became something truly impressive in its first season in Berlin, only to become something notably less spectacular one year later. In the fourth chapter of our chronicle, a trend seems to be confirmed – this evening’s performance proved to be even less compelling than last year. From the opening bars, one could see that the energy of previous years could not be reproduced this evening. Although the conductor could elicit some excitement from his musicians now and then, a sense of structure could not be produced, pace seemed to sag, the orchestral sound tended to be heavy and brassy and occasionally messy (the Walkürenritt was downright bad, a disappointing group of valkyries and the orchestra really poorly integrated). There were moments when the performance seemed to be on, but in a very incoherent way.  Whenever Sieglinde and Siegmund entered in Tristan-esque mood, Barenboim would press the brake predal and opt for a dense string-based sound and heavily expressive style that maybe could have build into a Furtwänglerian experience if this could be sustained for more than two minutes.

His Sieglinde seemed to suffer from the same problem. In the first act, Waltraud Meier seemed out of sorts – low notes left to imagination, faulty legato, approximative pitch and very tense high notes. Later her voice would improve and produce some edgy but powerful dramatic high notes. She seemed particularly adept when she got a moment of Innigkeit and lyricism. Then she would remind us of her younger self, offering sensuous and exquisite turn of phrases, with beautiful hushed moments.. As much of everything else in her performance, these moments too seemed calculated. There was no spontaneity in this Sieglinde, who behaved rather as if the Feldmarschallin had been kidnapped and held hostage by Hunding. That said, one cannot cease to wonder of how intelligent and perceptive her scenario is.  For example, the way she sang So lass mich dich heißen, wie ich dich liebe: Siegmund – so nenn’ich dich convinced me that all other singers did not truly get what Sieglinde meant there. There is a lot to be learned from a performance with so many instances of superior understanding of the text like this, even if the results were undeniably vocally flawed.

I have seen Irene Théorin produce more exuberant top notes than this evening, but otherwise I have particularly enjoyed what she has done today. First of all, her voice was overall warmer – especially in the middle register – and rounder this evening than what I can remember. Although she usually finds no trouble in singing softer dynamics, today her mezza voce was particularly exquisite and effortless. She reserved her truly scintillating acuti for key moments and, as a result, her Brünnhilde sounded particularly youthful and touching. And she deals with act III as few other singers – it is truly an emotional journey, done with a very wide-ranging tonal palette and artistic generosity. If I sound mean by saying that Ekaterina Gubanova too seemed not to be in her absolutely best day, the explanation is that she was even richer-toned and more forceful last year.

Christopher Ventris is a great improvement in terms of casting in this production. He is the lest hammy Siegmund here since 2010 to start with. His is not a memorable voice, but one used with fine technique and good taste. His lyric approach to the role pays off in moments like Winterstürme and he can produce some powerful notes now and then. There are some underwhelming moments and some instances of indifferent delivery of the text, but I cannot help finding his singing refreshing in comparison to his competition both in the Schiller Theater and at La Scala. René Pape still struggles with the high tessitura, but he was in a better day this evening than last year. Although most of his upwards excursions were constricted or tense, his voice is naturally big and noble enough to offset this most of the time. In any case, he sails through the role in grand style, tackling Wotan’s act II big monologue with crystal-clear diction, sensitive delivery of the text and tonal variety. As for Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding), his bass was often poorly focused and sometimes hooty. In order to make for that, he often “acted with the voice” in a distracting manner.

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… who is willing to sell a ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Zauberflöte in the Philharmonie 05.04, please let me know… !

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I don’t know how people managed their private affairs in the days of Ancient Egypt, but whenever I see Verdi’s Aida I have the impression that even Anne Baxter and Yul Brynner in Cecil B. DeMIlle’s The Ten Commandments seem more believable in comparison. By saying that I don’t mean that there is anything wrong in Aida, but I usually have the impression that a less “museological” approach tends to give all characters a more three-dimensional profile. When you drown them in pyramids, horses, obelisks etc, they tend to disappear in the context and their predicaments end up seeming very small in the context. For instance, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1998 production for the New National Theatre is basically the pocket version of the Met’s production, with the further disadvantage that the awkward Spielleitung makes it all even less convincing – Aida and Radames barely look at each other in their scenes; Amonasro conspires with his daughter 60 cm away from the Egyptian king etc etc.

The grandiosity is, unfortunately, reduced to the sets and costumes. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra sounded rather thin throughout, brass largely dominating the ensembles. Conductor Michael Güttler should be praised by the way he kept ensemble clear, opted for an a tempo-approach and built his interpretation even with a matte orchestral sound. I have the impression that the reduced volume was found to be a convenience for the cast too and, unexciting as things tended to be, they were often clean and well organized.

Latonia Moore has an interesting voice -big, rich, creamy, homogeneous and well-focused. She has a good grasp of Verdian style and is congenial and engaged. She managed to float her mezza voce in key moments, but one noticed that this tested her breath support. Until the Nile Scene, her performance was actually very compelling, but O patria mia showed her nervous and a bit out of sorts. She did found her way back after that but one could see that she was tired. She never gave up on her Aida, but the spontaneity never really came back.

I had seen Marianne Cornetti only once as Brangäne and have read that she has since then increasingly tackled soprano roles. One can hear that in her Amneris. Although her voice has an undeniable mezzo quality, it does sound these days a bit lighter and higher than what Amneris requires. As a result, she was often underpowered in key moments and, when she should unleash powerful acuti, they ultimately sounded rather creamy than percussive. In any case, she did not go for the virago approach, husbanding her resources in a more subdued and even subtle performance. She did get away with that until the Judgment Scene.

Carlo Ventre has a pleasant voice, warmer than most tenors in this repertoire. He did not seem to be in a good day – sounding tired from moment one. Legato was not the keyword here and everything seemed a bit emphatic and sometimes blunt. When he found a congenial phrase, he could produce some very powerful high notes. Yasuo Horiuchi offered a fiery performance as Amonasro, too often rough-toned for comfort, but exciting in an old-fashioned way anyway.

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