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Archive for April, 2013

Reading what I wrote about the telecast of Wagner’s Siegfried from the Met, I cannot help wondering how flattering these microphones can be. Even if it is not fair to compare two different performances, the forces involved are more or less the same and the impression could not be more different.

First of all, after having seen the telecast, I wrote that Fabio Luisi had shown his Wagnerian credentials and have mentioned even a sense of “rhythmic alertness”. The same cannot be said this evening, I am afraid. To start with, the house orchestra’s string section sounded so recessed and/or colorless that the only positive side one could mention is that you could indeed hear the beautiful playing from woodwind throughout. The pace was generally slow and, in the context of thin and modest orchestral sound (the introduction to act III could be described as downright clumsy), one could feel how slow it could be. In the defence of Maestro Luisi, he was extremely considerate with his singers – his leading tenor lacks power and had some false entries (Wotan was sometimes “creative”, especially with the text). The moment when the conductor stopped  being nice to his cast, things actually became more effective (we are talking about act III…) – the final scene was actually quite exciting with some instances of beautiful articulation from the violins.

In the telecast. Jay Hunter Morris sounded like a light, slightly metallic yet plausible Siegfried. This evening, I would not use these words. The sound was often unfocused, sometimes raw and often lacking slancio. His German is accented and sometimes his personality is too likable for boorish Siegfried. There are moments, especially in act III, when one can see his heroic potential in some firm and full high notes, but I would say that jugendlich dramatisch roles sound more reasonable for his voice, provided he tries a more elegant approach to phrasing.

Actually, one tends to be harder on the Siegfried when the Mime displays such firmness, power and volume as Gerhard Siegel has this evening. I would add that, when he stays away from Spieltenorish placement (let’s call it like this), one perfectly believes that this German tenor has sung roles such as Florestan and Tannhäuser (and maybe should sing them more often). He is also a very imaginative and charismatic actor, stealing the show this evening.

The Siegfried’s Brünnhilde will never be Katarina Dalayman’s best friend – and she had to resort to the usual adaptations (shortening note values and disregarding dynamic markings when things get high – and they tend to STAY high in this part) to make it happen. That said, she was in very good voice this evening. Although her acuti were unvariedly forte and often tense, she sang warmly and sensitively most of the time. Moreover, it is always a pleasure to hear such a big velvety soprano voice in the theatre.

I’ve heard Mark Delavan sing richer high notes as Wotan in Berlin, but this evening he showed deeper understanding of his role, singing spiritedly and with flair. Also, his voice is noble and ample as required. He seems to need some extra rehearsals in this productions, one could notice. The contrast to Eric Owens’s Alberich was quite telling. If there is something in the telecast that is truly consistent to reality is the American bass-baritone’s performance. This is truly a Wagnerian voice of outstanding quality – large, forceful, rich, dark and quite flexible. Among the non-native speakers this evening, his was by far the best German, not only in terms of pronunciation but also in what regards declamation. He has an intense stage presence but, differently from Rhinegold, the director gave him here nothing to work from.

As a friend said this evening, Hans-Peter König is one of the rare Fafners these days whose voice sound large even when it is NOT offstage. Meredith Arwading has impressive deep contralto notes while coping with the mezzo area of the Siegfried Erda, but her diction is imprecise – not enough to disguise a strong accent. As for Lisette Oropesa’s Waldvogel, this is a bit tricky, especially when you sing it offstage (these days, directors tend to put the soprano ON stage), but this evening the impression was especially pale.

As for the production, there is very little to add to what I have previously written. One often reads about how Robert Lepage’s production does not go beyond the “machine” and how there is no Personenregie. Well, I would say that even in what regards the machine, there is still some space for improvement. The dragon in act II is almost funny and the  sets in the closing scene is far less impressive than the way they looked in the end of Die Walküre, for instance.

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The Teatro La Fenice has a history with Japan since 2001, when it first visited Tokyo with two productions (La Traviata, with Dimitra Theodossiou and Ambrogio Maestri, and Simon Boccanegra, with Lucia Mazzaria and Fabio Sartori), repeating the experience once more in 2005 (Attila, again with Dimitra Theodossiou, La Traviata, with Patrizia Ciofi and Roberto Saccà, and Les Pêcheurs de Perles, with Annick Massis) only to come back now for one opera and concerts with operatic excerpts.

This year, the main item in the program is the staged performance of Verdi’s Otello with an international cast and conductor Myung-Whun Chung, whose recording with Cheryl Studer and Plácido Domingo with the forces of the Opéra de Paris for Deutsche Grammophon is a recommended item in the discography. The Korean conductor proved again that he knows this score very well, focusing, as in his CDs, in orchestral coloring and forward movement. The orchestra from Venice is less impressive than the Opéra Bastille’s in studio, but woodwind and brass gave adept and expressive contributions to a perfectible string section that could nonetheless produce the varied sonorities requested by the maestro. It is hard to tell if the lighter textures are a side-effect to the conductor’s coloristic approach or a necessity due to a lightweight cast.

Gregory Kunde, for instance, is a name one would rather associate with Rossini’s Otello, but since his Enée in Gardiner’s Les Troyens in Paris, the American tenor has flirted with heavier repertoire. He is probably the lighter-toned Otello I have ever heard. Even Luciano Pavarotti in Georg Solti’s recording from Chicago sounds richer in comparison. That does not mean that he had any problem in being heard this evening – his finely focused, bright-toned tenor pierces through thicker orchestral textured without effort. The fact that he is used to high-lying roles made some very tricky passages – act II’s amore e gelosia vadan dispersi insieme!, for instance – unproblematic in comparison to almost every tenor in this role, but, for the same reasons, his low register sounded a couple of sizes too slim. He is a musicianly singer, attentive to dynamic shading, and has very clear diction. He does not really have any wildness in him and his Otello was often less than convincing when he had to sound fierce. When Desdemona said that she was hearing a fury speaking through his voice, she must have used her imagination. However, he could produce the necessary intensity and despair in quieter passages such as Dio! mi potevi scagliar or in a very expressive death scene.

His Desdemona, American soprano Leah Crocetto, has a very interesting, almost endearingly old-fashioned big lyric soprano voice. Although there are moments when the tonal quality is a bit saccharine and grainy, she is adept when things get more difficult – she can float beautiful mezza voce, has reserves of power in “lirico spinto” moments and has beautiful legato. At this point, she would rather be labelled a “promising name”, but, if she lives up to the promise, she could be an interesting name for roles who are usually cast with less generous vocal natures.

Lucio Gallo is hardly a force of nature as Iago, but he is a very presentable one nonetheless, provided you adjust to relatively reduced volume. His baritone is more pleasant on the ear than I remembered and he uses the text subtly and effectively.

To say the truth, if the performance actually was rather underwhelming, I would rather blame Francesco Micheli’s superficial and overbusy production that concentrates rather on kitsch effects (how about a bunch of guys in skeleton-bodysuits piercing Otello with swords during Dio! mi potevi scagliar?) than in actually directing singers who were rather “now-I-take-off-my-shoe-and-recline-on-that-pillow” than really acting. To make things worse, the sets required lots of operation and showed dubious taste (zodiac patterns, starlit-sky lamps, red-and-blue lighting, tons of golden foil…). Act IV alone was so schmaltzy (Desdemona’s ghost wondering around and leading Otello to their postmortem love idyll) that one had to close one’s eyes to actually feel moved by the music.

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A few years, the Tokyo Harusai (Spring Festival) has opted for a Wagnerian Schwerpunkt, which is a concert performance of a Wagner opera with international casts and conductor every year. This series is supposed to culminate in a Ring cycle with Marek Janowskis starting from next year.

This year, the Harusai has decided to give the proceedings a Bayreuthian flavor by inviting conductor, tenor and baritone from Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Sebastian Weigle deserves many praises for his sensible choices – the performance was conducted on the safe but sure side, with exemplary internal balance and between orchestra and soloists. The NHK Symphony Orchestra often offered beautiful refulgent strings, accurate brass and volume in Wagnerian scale. These musicians still have to learn to have fun in “serious repertoire”, but the maestro never failed to inject animation right at the moments when they started to loose steam. The Tokyo Opera Singers too deserve praise for the firm, clear and beautiful choral singing this evening. This was certainly a highlight in this year’s concert calendar in Japan.

Replacing Gal James, Anna Gabler sang with beautiful legato and unfailing good taste, but her velvety voice sometimes lacks slancio in the more “Wagnerian” moments. In any case, she launched Selig wie die Sonne with absolute poise. Klaus Florian Vogt was not in his best voice this evening, his high notes often pinched.  This is nonetheless a role where he knows how to pull all the stops and he managed to “sell” his softer version of exposed acuti. Jörg Schneider is a congenial David who makes great use of the text, his Spieltenor easier on the ear than I would first believe. Maybe Vogt was victim of the hay-fever season, for Adrian Eröd too seemed to be below his usual level, his voice getting noticeably rougher during act II. He too is an intelligent and charismatic singer who could build a convincing performance in spite of that. I cannot say the same of Alan Held, a Hans Sachs of Wotan-ian amplitude but little variety who sounded tired and unfocused in act III. Günther Groissböck was an incisive, firm-toned Pogner (doubling as Nachtwächter) and Eijiro Kai was a forceful Fritz Kothner.

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Karl Marx probably did not have the Berliner Philharmoniker in mind when he said that history repeats itself first as tragedy than as farce, but Simon Rattle’s series of remakes of Karajan’s festival opera recordings with glamorous casts puts the trajectory of the famous German orchestra in perspective and makes one wonder about the British conductor’s contribution to its prestigious history.

One would not call Rattle a Mozart conductor, although his live recording of Così Fan Tutte speaks in his favor in this repertoire – but it seems that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a milestone in the career of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s most important conductors: Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado. A good friend of mine would say that, if a conductor is not able to conduct a solid performance of this opera, he (or she) is not really apt for German repertoire.

I have heard that Rattle’s Zauberflöte in Baden-Baden have not received positive reviews – and this has been seen as a good example of how one should look forward for his recently announced resignation. As a matter of fact, if one compares this evening’s performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker’s discography, this is probably the less coherent and most problematic of all. Some will point out that Karajan’s Berlin recording is far from exemplary – and I would agree – but it has a very clear concept, which the conductor realizes with absolute conviction. Listening to this evening’s performance, I often had the impression that the concept here was basically trying to be different.

When I wrote the last time Bizet’s Carmen was played in the Philharmonie, I said that the performance had been held under “the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found”. If the approach made Bizet’s music more eloquent, I am not sure about its success in Mozart. First of all, as much as I dislike Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s fussy acc. and ritt. in his Zürich recording, there seems to be some method into that, questionable as the results are. This evening, the fact that the rhythmic structure of various numbers were artificially undermined in order to highlight one or other word of the libretto did not seem to make particular sense – some other numbers (Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit or Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehen for instance) were so hectic that one could not help feeling sorry for choristers and soloists spitting out the text in high velocity. Even when the beat did not show any eccentricity (as in Sarastro’s arias), one felt that the music was not being given enough time to breath and produce its effect. There were moments too, when one could see how effective things could be if they had been left alone – Der Hölle Rache, for instance, was very excitingly played in a very organic manner. As a matter of fact, the Berliner Philharmoniker never ceased to marvel with full-toned, clearly articulated playing. Seid uns zum zweiten Mal wilkommen had beautiful effects in the strings. The Rundfunkchor Berlin too sang with impressive accuracy. The excellence of these musicians alone made the performance worth the while, but one would wish nonetheless to see their talents employed to portray a less capricious and more integrated vision of this work.

The cast here assembled is particularly glamorous in small roles, but features some upcoming singers in main roles. Klemperer did the same when he had, for instance, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp in his recording – and he proved to have bet in the right names. Here one is not so sure. One can see a touch of Kiri Te Kanawa in Kate Royal’s voice, but only now and then. At that point of her career, Dame Kiri was already a flawless Mozart singer, while Royal has too many awkward moments. She does have imagination – her Ach, ich fühl’s (not surprisingly her best moments) was less generically expressive than illustrative of the text. It did catch my attention. Replacing Simone Kermes – an odd choice for the role anyway – Ana Durlovsky proved to be very attentive to the text and to have a warm low register and very clear fioriture, but it is a helplessly light voice for the Queen of the Night, especially in the higher reaches. Benjamin Hulett (Pavol Breslik takes the role of Tamino otherwise) too has a light voice for his part and had his taut moments, but the voice is so pleasant and his sense of style so sure that one tended to take his side. Michael Nagy was an almost ideal Papageno: his baritone is warm, his diction is crystalline, his tonal variety praiseworthy. He masters the art of being funny without overdoing it. Dimitri Ivashchenko finds no difficulty in the writing of Sarastro and fills the hall with dark and focused sounds. Sometimes one misses some nobility of tone and emotional generosity, but maybe I’m spoiled by René Pape’s performance in the Staatsoper.

Some have found the idea of casting the Three Ladies with Annick Massis, Magdalena Kozena and Nathalie Stutzmann exaggerated. I haven’t – I found it very exciting to see their combination of their unique vocal and expressive qualities. I am not so sure about the idea using the deleted cadenza for the opening number, though. José Van Dam (Sprecher) does not sound as a veteran singer at all and the three boys from the Aurelius Sängerknaben sang beautifully too.

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This year’s Festtage’s theme could be called “das Ende, das Ende” – first there was the complete Ring with Götterdämmerung and not only one but TWO Requiem masses, Verdi’s (which I’ve unfortunately missed) and Mozart’s. While Verdi had a deluxe guest in the Teatro alla Scala forces, Mozart had been reserved to the Staatsoper’s orchestra and chorus. For the first part of the program, even the Staatskapelle Berlin’s musical director doubled as Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27’s soloist.

As much as I appreciate Daniel Barenboim’s sensitive playing this evening, it was rather informed by the Romantic point-of-view that this is angelic music that requires some sort of very expressive yet delicately univocal elegance. The orchestra embraced the approach wholeheartedly and painted broad lines rather than small and contrasted paintbrushes. Even if the encore (Mozart’s piano sonata’s no.10’s andante cantabile) had more than a splash of Schubert, it featured more chiaroscuro and more sharply defined phrasing. Again, a matter of taste.

When it comes to the Requiem (here performed in the good old Süßmayr version), Barenboim showed himself as an entirely different conductor who offered a highly theatrical account of Mozart’s last religious work. The maestro employed a large chorus and made heavy demand of his orchestra. The introitus showed a very good sense of balance in a big-scale perspective, but one could see in the Kyrie fugue that the Staatsopernchor is not really in the top of its game in this kind of music – the sound was blowsy, the divisions a bit labored and soft dynamics lacked naturalness throughout. Stimulated by the maestro’s energetic beat, their results could be short of messy (in Dies irae, all musicians were having a hard day’s work coping with the incisive beat and fast tempo). In any case, the dramatic approach did paid off in spite of the shortcomings until the lacrimosa. After that, Süßmayr’s ideas seemed to inspire less commitment from all involved and the impression was rather of hyperventilation than of vigor. The team of soloists was crowned by a thoroughly stylish Maria Bengtsson whose creamy soprano soared effortlessly and elegantly above everything else. Bernarda Fink partnered her well with her warm and velvety mezzo. Rolando Villazón’s phrasing involved an emphatic beginning of every phrase and some reluctance to hold back, but his usual fervor and commitment are always welcome. René Pape seemed a bit unconcerned and miscalculated the important opening of tuba mirum. All in all, a thought-provoking concert that required either more rehearsal or more aptly Mozartian forces.

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