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Archive for November, 2013

For performances at the Musikfest Bremen and the Beethovenfest Bonn, conductor Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie have prepared semi-staged performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio with dialogues replaced by Roccos Erzählung, a text written by literature historian Walter Jens for concerts conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (with Julia Varady, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) in Hohenems in 1986, here spoken by German actor Wolf Kahler. Although the story as seen by Rocco’s point-of-view, with fine imagery and some political content, is interesting in itself, it is far less scenically efficient than the libretto’s own dialogues. Moreover, the fact that scenes were interrupted so that Mr. Kahler could read the text had the unwelcome effect of preventing singers from steadily developing into the theatrical action, here reduced to basic movements, no costumes and no props other than the chairs reserved for the cast. It must be mentioned that, even if there were subtitles for Jens’s text, hearing it spoken in German for foreign audiences has far less impact than for Germans, who are able to enjoy Mr. Kahler’s talents. If one has in mind he did not use a microphone, there is much to praise there in any case.

I don’t have the impression that Maestro Järvi has an extensive experience as an opera conductor, having focused his career rather in symphonic repertoire. The fact that his tempi, accents and interpretative choices were almost invariably counter-intuitive for any singer would confirm my impression. This afternoon, his conducting of Beethoven’s masterpiece was bombastic, unsubtle, unclear, messy in ensembles, problematic for his soloists and not really flattering for his rough-sounding orchestra. It was basically overfast in a very awkward manner and occasionally made slow when things got really tangled (as in Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen). As a result, the excitement was generally built from outside and did not seem an expressive feature but rather a byproduct. Truth be said, thanks also to the very commendable contribution of the chorus of the Tokyo College of Music, an exhilarating closing scene did finally pay off, earning these musicians enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The performances in Germany were supposed to have Emily Magee as Leonore, but she cancelled and was replaced by Cécile Perrin. I assume that these concerts in Yokohama might be her debut in this role. The fact that she was the only singer in the cast with her score (and the absence of any previous performance in Fidelio in her website) seem to confirm this assumption. This American soprano usually appears in jugendlich dramatisch roles, but has been flirting with heavier assignments these days. Although the percussive acuti and low notes of a legitimate dramatic soprano are really not within her possibilities, what she offers is reliable and perfectly acceptable (if not really exciting). Her asset in this role is her ability to spin clean, creamy lyrical phrasing when this is required, to excellent results in the canon quartet, for instance. Still, she needs to mature in the role. Even with her notes in hand, there were some wayward moments, most notably in her difficult aria. The role of Marzelline too had a different singer in Germany, Mojca Erdmann. For the Japanese tour, Christina Landshammer was originally announced, but finally and most felicitously replaced by South African soprano Golda Schultz. Ms. Schultz is a name to keep – she has a truly lovely velvety voice with soaring high notes on top of an irresistibly warm middle register, unfailing musicianship and sense of style and a winning personality. She was an ideal Marzelline and I hope to hear her again – and soon!

This is the first time I was able to listen to Burkhard Fritz in perfect health. When I first saw him,   being indisposed didn’t prevent him from singing quite impressively. I cannot say something similar of the second time. In any case, his performance this afternoon deserves nothing but praise. He sang with good taste and sensitivity, judiciously avoided excessive heroic quality finding the right touch of vulnerability and dealt with the intricacies of the testing part of Florestan without any hint of effort. Julian Prégardien too was very well cast as Jaquino. The role of Pizarro was originally cast in Germany with Evgeny Nikitin, who must have offered a powerful performance, but would be replaced in Japan by Falk Struckmann until the name Tom Fox was finally announced.  At this point in his career, the rust in his singing was entirely predictable. He still manages forceful top notes, but not really much beyond that. He is a clever singer, however, and knew to play his liabilities as characterization.  Dmitri Ivaschenko (Rocco) took some time to warm up, but even then his voice sounded a bit less focused than what I used to hear from him. But that’s comparing him to himself. The tone quality was never less than pleasant and dark and he was stylish and strong in articulation as always. Finally, Detlef Roth’s baritone is a bit on the high side for the role of Don Fernando.

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Kita-ku is not one of Tokyo’s fashionable neighborhoods and most tourists never go there. It’s district hall has a 1,300-seat theatre called Sakura Hall, where a collaboration with the Japanese period-instrument orchestra Les Boréades has brought about a yearly concert since 1995 with foreign guest musicians, featuring works ranging from Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie to Gluck’s Les Pèlerins de la Mecque. This year, they return to Mozart with Le Nozze di Figaro (in 2011, there was Così fan Tutte and, in 2004, there was Idomeneo with tenor John Elwes, a CD of which has been released).

Conductor and violinist Ryo Terakado is a key name in the Japanese HIP scene and has performed with every Japanese artist in this repertoire you can think of. I have, for instance, recognized some members of Masaato Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan on stage today. His approach to Mozart is hardly meant to cause any revolutionary impression. On the contrary, it seems exclusively informed with the intent of making this score clear, spontaneous and theatrical. Tempi were flowing, but not rushed, accents sounded natural and harsh sonorities were not seen as an expressive tool. Although Les Boréades is a very decent orchestra, it is no Les Musiciens du Louvre: strings are a bit on the thin side, the brass section is bumpy and woodwind could be little bit more in the foreground. I don’t know the hall acoustics, but I have the impression that singers had too much advantage on the orchestra too. And we’re speaking of a semi-staged performance with instruments on stage. In any case, I would be curious to see what Terakado could do with a more technically adept team.

I have the impression that Mozart would expect someone closer to Klara Ek than Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Countess Almaviva. Hers is a light, dulcet voice incapable of an ugly sound throughout its range. I had seen her before as a thoroughly lovely Romilda in a production of Handel’s Serse in Kopenhagen. Today, her Porgi, amor was sung with the spontaneity of a song one would sing to oneself, but I guess we’ve become too used to hear some like Te Kanawa making it an example of sublime. She was happier when the role’s tessitura was higher and offered an exemplary Dove sono, in which she proved capable of some shading. Roberta Mameli is the prove that a great Susanna has to have brains first – and then a good voice. Her voice is not devoid of charm – it comes in one pleasant bell-toned quality with enough body but very little tonal variety. If she could produce true mezza voce and allow her low notes to blossom properly, she could have a career as a Mozart singer, for she masters the style and is musicianship incarnated. What makes her Susanna so special, however, is her understanding of the art of Italian declamation. Whoever had the opportunity to attend a theatre performance in Italy knows that this country has a highly formalized theatrical tradition. You can close your eyes and guess who’s the damsel in distress, who’s prince charming, who’s the bad guy, who’s the damsel’s father et al only by the way they speak. Ms. Mameli’s Susanna is deeply imbued of buffo tradition and her recitatives are an exquisite concoction in which you can find thousands of information about who is Susanna and what she is doing at that precise moment. Better – she can retain this ability in her arias and ensembles without any sacrifice to vocal line. Even better – she is an excellent actress with a three-dimensional view of her role. This Susanna is clearly a servant, she obviously is in love with her fiancé, she evidently resists the Count and enjoys the distinction of being allowed in the Countess’s privacy. Most of all, she likes to think she is cleverer than everyone else. In the act II finale, she makes it clear that her greatest surprise there was not that Figaro could prefer an older woman, but simply the fact that someone could have finally fooled her. Later on, she used every little word in Deh vieni, non tardar to allure, to seduce not only Figaro, but everyone in that theatre. I have seen and heard great singers as Susanna, some of them had superior voices, but Roberta Mameli simply offered me the most completely interesting performance in this role in my experience. Bravissima.

As Mutsumi Hatano (Cherubino) has fallen unexpectedly ill and become completely hoarse, our Marcellina, Yuko Anazawa, had to dub her from behind the orchestra. Ms. Anazawa has a lovely, fruity voice and, nervous as she was by having to deal with previously unrehearsed recitatives, offered charming accounts of both Cherubino arias and a quite impressive rendition of her own aria, with extremely clear divisions. If she solves the lack of focus around the passaggio (and improves her Italian), she could have an important career.

Fulvio Bertini is a very funny actor, but his light and clear baritone is often too discrete for the role of the Count. Jun Hagiwara’s baritone too is light, but richer in harmonics (except in his high notes, when it is well focused nonetheless). His is an ideal voice for baroque music, but his Figaro was pleasant in its agreeable tonal quality and congeniality (his Italian too deserves some improvement). Makoto Sakurada has an international career in baroque repertoire and his cameo appearance here meant that we could hear Don Basilio’s aria, probably the best rendition I have ever heard (ok, the competition is generally a tenor near retirement…).

Considering this was only semi-staged with improvised costumes and props, it was amazing how much depth some singers were able to find here. Other than the above mentioned Mameli and Bertini, Ek never forgot that the Countess is a very young woman and portrayed her role’s essential dilemma: she fell in love with the Lindoro from Il Barbiere di Seviglia and ended up married to the Count Almaviva from Le Nozze di Figaro. I like too the fact that she doesn’t act as if she would become the title role in La Mère Coupable, because this is not the character portrayed by Mozart.

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In his days in the Opéra de Paris, Myung-Whun Chung seemed to have made to the short list of conductors who get the best orchestra, soloists and recordings – I can remember the Samson et Dalila with Waltraud Meier and Plácido Domingo, the Otello with Cheryl Studer and Domingo, La Damnation de Faust with Anne Sofie von Otter and Bryn Terfel. He would later appear more often in Italy, where his appeal for the musical establishment has declined a bit (a Carmen with Andrea Boccelli sounds desperate to you?). However, the Italian years have revealed a most positively surprising facet of the Korean conductor – his  Wagnerian credentials. I particularly remember a Tristan and Isolde from Rome with Violeta Urmana, which seemed then quite fresh-sounding and compelling. That is why I have decided not to let go the opportunity of seeing Maestro Chung conduct this very work here in Tokyo (only three hours after my arrival from Germany).

Chung is Honorary Conductor Laureate of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2001 and has decided to give the orchestra an opportunity to celebrate the Wagnerian jubilee in the grand manner – a concert performance of Wagner’s masterpiece with international soloists. As much as I admire Furtwänglerian depth, deluxe strings and stately tempi, I cannot help believing that this score is about passion and works particularly well when done urgently, intensely and dramatically. And that’s Maestro Chung’s point of view. From the overture on, this music runs inevitably and unbridedly to its Liebestod. Of course, this is also the sensible choice when you don’t have an orchestra the sound of which is alone an expressive tool such as the Staatskapelle Dresden*. The Tokyo Philharmonic has done a very good job this evening, keeping up with the conductor continuous demand for forward movement and engagement in the drama, but the strings still lack a distinctive sound and there were some near problematic moments with the French horns, for instance. As in Rome, the highlight of this performance was act III, thanks to an exceptionally successful partnership with the tenor in the title role.

Replacing John MacMaster, Daniel Barenboim’s most recent discovery, Austrian tenor Andreas Schager has simply offered one of the most impressive renditions of this impossibly difficult role I have ever heard, in some ways revelatory. First, he sounds like a tenor, you know, trumpet-like brightness and that feeling of “please let me show you my next AMAZING high note”. Better, although the sound is leaner than, say, Ludwig Suthaus’s, it is beyond any doubt a heroic voice, with a positive low register and the ability of riding orchestral tutti almost effortlessly. Second, the man has solid technique. His method is very visible – you can see how he uses his body to propel his clarion Spitzentöne in a way that would probably be difficult (or not?) if he had to act moribundly in act III  – and he evidently knows exactly what he has to do to produce the precise effect he is looking for. Here, liquid, almost Italianate phrasing, even in the most unsingable passages (how about an almost Bellinian “Heia, mein Blut! Lustig nun fliesse!”?), aided by perfect diction and the ability of softening or coloring the tone. Third, this is a singer with intelligent and sensitive phrasing and sense of style. Given the tenor’s facility, the conductor felt free to let his orchestra loose and intensify the pace in climactic moments, for truly impressive effects. I definitely want to hear more from him.

This is the first time I see Irmgard Vilsmaier in a big role. It is indeed a big voice with a pleasant reedy quality, unusually young-sounding for a soprano in this repertoire. It is just a pity that her breath support is erratic to the extent of impairing her impressive natural vocal qualities. This evening, her whole method seemed to involve working exclusively from tension, as if her sole purpose was attacking the first note after her intake of air. After that, she seemed to have nowhere to develop too – long notes would acquire an impossible edge (they were often cut short for an extra breath soon afterwards) and phrases would often be chopped not because there was lack of breath, but because of lack of space to work with. As a result, she would fall back on even more tension, using her fists as a boxer and looking as if she would die on exposed high notes, which were often not only shorter but flatter than written. I have read that she intends to sing Elektra soon. She should think seriously about her technique before she compromises a voice still intact by abuse. This all sounded harder to overlook in comparison to Ekaterina Gubanova’s healthy, homogeneous and creamy singing as Brangäne. An exemplary performance.

Baritone Christopher Maltman seemed to find the part of Kurwenal a bit heavy and would sound a bit tired halfway in act III. That did not prevent him from offering a rich-toned, spirited performance, subtler than what one usually hears in this role. Although Mikhail Petrenko’s voice still tends to become unfocused, especially in its higher reaches, the part of King Mark is more congenial to his vocal nature than that of Hagen. I particularly liked his more energetic and emotional approach to the role, which here seemed a younger uncle to Tristan, rather paralyzed by than devoid of passion. Having Tetsuya Mochizuki (a Siegmund) as the Seamen and the Shepherd is an example a luxurious cast, which has paid off.

* Chung has been appointed its first Principal Guest Conductor since this year. I have the impression that Christian Thielemann will still get the A-team Wagner performances.

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Is there any other opera that inspires so much tolerance in the audience as Die Frau ohne Schatten? Everything is so impossibly difficult that one feels even grateful that singers, conductor, director, members of the orchestra et al have agreed to do this possibly for the same fee they would receive for, say, Carmen…  In any case, the Bavarian State Opera can certainly boast to have a new production against which there could be little competition this day. Of course, there are shortcomings – even Karajan’s 1964 recording from the Vienna State Opera has shortcomings (nota bene – he had Fritz Wunderlich for the Erscheinung eines Jünglings and Lucia Popp for the Stimme des Falken) – but the level of success of individual contribution is so high that you feel inclined to overlook that the sum of the parts is noticeably less impressive.

I have seen Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne, Arabella and the Marschallin and found her Straussian performances so far only intermittently satisfying. Her Kaiserin this evening was in an entirely other level: golden tone, noble phrasing, unfailing musicianship and the necessary mysterious glamor, you would find all these qualities in her singing this evening. Elena Pankratova is one of the most interesting Färberinen that I have ever heard (I’m including recordings here). Her voice has a cold, slightly metallic quality one would rather expect to find in the role of the Kaiserin. At first, one feels that her voice is two sizes smaller than the required dramatic soprano, but she is the kind of singer who doesn’t show all her trump cards right away; when you’d least expect, there would come solid low notes, powerful acuti, mezza voce and even commendable legato for lyric passages. She has no problem with high notes, but the composer’s unrealistic demands in act III understandably brought about some screechy moments. In any case, the way she could musically show the character’s development during the opera is the reason why she goes to my shortlist, presided by Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her career, it is very bold of Deborah Polaski to sing a role as demanding as the Amme, especially in its complete version. Although her soprano has always had a dark color and she always had to push a bit for her high b’s and c’s, that does not mean that she was a pushed-up mezzo – and one could hear that this evening. The lack of weight in the bottom of her range was compensated by a noticeable ease around the area where mezzos have their passaggio, what allowed her to be particularly smooth and clean. I don’t believe she was in a very good day though: the voice lacked focus and she had to go full powers to pierce through, what eventually tired her. And her last scene is probably the most demanding of all.

Johan Botha showed no difficulties in the role of the Emperor, producing consistently beefy, clarion sounds, but little variety. As it usually happens, nobody seemed to know what to do with this role. And I can only imagine that a singer needs some coaxing to care for giving that little extra that makes all the difference of the world in a role as ingrate as this one. When I first saw Wolfgang Koch’s Barak in Salzburg, I thought that he could be subtler. But then Barak was not subtle in that production. Now I see that, in normal circumstances, his performance in this role can be as benign as the composer and librettist conceived it. Considering his recent Wotans in Bayreuth, I expected his voice to sound a little bit more voluminous than this evening.  Last but not least, Sebastin Holecek was a very powerful Spirit Messenger.

Richard Strauss would be proud of his hometown opera’s orchestra. The Bayerische Staatsorchester offered this evening the dictionary definition of Straussian orchestral playing, offering crystalline, almost fairytale like sonorities and expressive solos throughout. Conductor Kirill Petrenko has followed Strauss’s conduct-it-as-if-it-were-Cosi-fan-tutte advice as a religious credo. He rarely unleashed a true orchestral forte, worked rather from tonal coloring and and brightness, never drowned his singers and offered the kind of clarity that would make following it with the score in hands really unnecessary. It was a performance of unusual musical elegance and intelligence. If I had not seen Thielemann conduct this opera in Salzburg as transparently as today and far more excitingly with a force-of-nature Vienna Philarmonic, I would have considered this evening the best FroSch live in the theatre in my experience. It is very important to stress that the disfiguring cuts that reduce the role of the Amme and make the long scene with the Empress in act III a bit abrupt have been opened out here. This involved a sizeable monologue very commendably dispatched by the non-native-speaker soprano. It was a long evening in a busy trip and I may have missed something, but I have the impression that a couple of tiny cosmetic cuts have made to accommodate the staging.

Well, if this evening had an advantage over the Salzburg Festspiel , this has to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. This came as a surprise for me. I have bad memories of his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, but here he offered more than compensation. This was probably the best staging of this acknowledgedly unstageable opera I have ever seen. Warlikowski proved depth of understanding of the libretto and, if the Freudian approach has been already tried by Robert Carsen in the Vienna State Opera, the consistent way with which the director used all scenic resources to portray the complex situations in the plot – especially the awkward changes in act II – was all but masterly. I am sorry to disappoint those who were expecting a concept too distant from the original story, for this was truly understandable (I mean, until act III, where at least he keeps interest going when every other director more or less gives up). Inspired by Alain Resnais’s L’Année Passée à Marienbad, the story is set in a cure resort where a rich woman (the Empress) traumatized by some sort of dramatic incident with her husband and in strong oblivion and denial of her life is put under the responsibility of a psychiatrist (the Amme) who has developed an unhealthy attachment to her patient. As some sort of therapeutic experiment, she is put in contact with the janitor’s wife – possibly an Internet bride from the East who has found her “looser” husband and new low-life life far below her expectations – whose marriage is getting dangerously close to a violent episode as the one we assume to have happened with the Empress. Once you understand that, Warlikowski does not try to bend the symbology – when the characters talk about a shadow, it’s really a shadow they are talking about. This eventually makes act III difficult – there is an elderly gentleman who is supposed to be Keikobad whose connections with the cure resort is hard to understand. The water of life is indeed a glass of water, but it is hard to make something out of that – especially because the whole “having babies”-moral is more or less it. I have noticed that lots of people have a problem with the “having babies”-issue. If you are interested in my opinion, I don’t believe that this is what Hofmannsthal was trying to say here – although “having babies” is the most elementary way of exerting the selflessness HvH was talking about.

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Like Malvina and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Frank van Aken are singers taking the roles of Isolde and Tristan who happen to be married. This is not their first joint Wagnerian venture: they have, for instance, sung the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Frankfurt, New York etc. He has sung the role of Tristan before at least in Frankfurt in 2011; she has sung her first Isolde last September in La Coruña and it seems she is scheduled to sing it in Bayreuth in the near future. These performances in Dresden are their first together in this opera. As this production is 8 years old and the Staatskapelle Dresden’s chief conductor Christian Thielemann did not find the opportunity to conduct it enticing enough, the Van Akens are supposed to be this revival’s selling feature.

I have to confess that I was not dying to see either of them. I had seen him only once as Siegmund in La Scala in a bad night and, since I first saw her as a compelling Cassandre in Amsterdam, I have found her less and less interesting. Maybe low expectation has done the trick this time, for this evening proved to be “educational”. I’ll start by saying that Isolde happens to be a good career decision for the Dutch soprano. Although there is a lot to be developed here, I found it far less univocal than her Sieglindes. Act I was actually surprising in how consistently she managed the dramatic vocalità: the voice was at once voluminous, rich, powerful in her acuti and more or less functional in the lower reaches. Also, she seemed readier to soften her tone and produced two or three soaring examples of mezza voce. Act II caught her a bit out of steam though. The voice sounded clearly smaller, she shortened some high notes and had her straight/strained moments. However, in the Liebesnacht, when her husband began to sound ill-at-ease with the lyrical writing, she regained her strength and was able to produce a feminine, sensuous tonal quality. Her final appearance was a bit rough, but – this may seem funny – she produced the best last phrase in the Liebestod I have ever heard in a theatre (it is curious how that last note usually sounds flat or thin or unsupported or a combination of all those).  All these problems could have been overlooked, if there had been a more noticeable interpretation going on here. As it was, her diction is not very clear, she is not very responsive to the text and she is often heavy-handed in what regards phrasing. In the end, she is a singer singing the notes Wagner wrote to the part of Isolde. She is sometimes convincing when she has to portray fury, but not much beyond that. Of course, experience will add depth to her performance, but experience needs a starting point to develop from.

Van Aken is far more engaged dramatically than his wife. Although his whole method turns around roughness, his voice is unmistakably heroic in its powerful and incisive high notes. He is a trouper and tries everything – even nuance, although this often challenged his ability to keep his voice focused and placed. Act II was his most problematic – legato is not his best friend and trying to rein in his voice often brought about flutter and some nasality. He is not a man who gives up – act III used up his last ounce of energy and, whenever you would think that he was helplessly tired, he would conjure everything he still got to produce some powerful notes over the orchestra. The whole thing was a bit exhausting to watch, but worked somehow as a dramatic point.

Christa Mayer was a commendable Brangäne. Her soft-centered, velvety mezzo is very pleasant and clean. If she could produce a little bit more “mystery” in her calls from the tower in act II, she would have left nothing to be desired in this role. Christoph Pohl is a very handy guy – whenever you need a last-minute replacement, he is there. This evening, he sang a very clean, firm-toned and stylish Kurwenal. As King Marke, Georg Zeppenfeld displayed rock-solid vocalism: his bass was thoroughly big, rich, firm and powerful. Although this was impressive enough, the lack of variety in his singing made it all sound grandiosely boring, I am afraid.

When you have the Staatskapelle Dresden and the ideal acoustics of the Semperoper, it is very difficult for a conductor to fail in Tristan and Isolda. The Wunderharfe’s unique blend of richness and flexibility makes it impossible for one to be indifferent to Wagner’s music – it has such presence and clarity that you almost feel that you don’t need anything else. And Maestro Ascher Fisch has a very clear musical mind, keeping this music as transparently organized as one could wish and showing great skill in knowing the right moment when it is more important to fill the hall with sound while not making his singers sound unnecessary. However, as much as everything this evening, the thrill was not really there. The feeling, the idea, the dramatic impulse behind a crescendo, behind a flexible beat, behind elastic sense of pause were not there, although you could hear all those effects in their most abstract manner. This was particularly bothersome when the conductor adopted a slower tempo for more verbose passages in which a singer was not doing much in terms of interpretation. Later on, the conductor seemed to have realized that this was not working and act III, for instance, had sometimes a let’s-move-on feeling.

As for Marco Arturo Marelli’s production, it goes with this performance’s character. It is decorative in a very abstract way. What you get is what you see – you don’t get much, but you don’t get very much bothered about that either.

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On explaining his new production of Verdi’s Falstaff for the Deutsche Oper, director Christof Loy says he was influenced by Brecht-ian heritage in Berlin, by the fact that this year is Verdi’s jubilee and by the role aging plays in one’s relationship with society (as related to the fact that Verdi composed Falstaff as an old man, that he founded the Casa Verdi for retired musicians and by Daniel Schmid’s documentary “Il Baccio di Tosca”). Hmm. He also says that he had to find the courage to stage comedy these days. In other words, comedy is not really his thing. One could say that it is not really Germany’s thing. In Italy, I would rather believe that a director would need some guts to stage… a tragedy with philosophical and intellectual undertones – the audience would take rather naturally to comedy. And I don’t mean that Italian comedies are superficial; on the contrary, the most famous examples of Italian cinema show that Italians have an instinct for finding the hidden tear behind the laughs… or the laugh behind the tears. The keyword here is “naturalness”.

If someone has to explain something to you, then the concept is not very clear. As much as I have found the bogus documentary shown before the opera probably the funniest thing this evening, was it really necessary? Well, it was – otherwise, you would not understand that the action takes place in the Casa Verdi… do you see my point? And do you really need to know that? Well, if the point had been naturally conveyed through the staging rather than upon the staging, no… In other words, there were two events in place this evening: Verdi’s Falstaff and the director’s thoughts inspired by Verdi’s biography. In act I, these events often collided in an uncomfortable way. Characters are all showed as pensioners in Casa Verdi and they all (except Nannetta and Fenton) look elderly. As the plot begins to unfold, the action brings them back to their youth. It is not clear if everybody knows that this is a play in the play and their rejuvenescence is only a symbol of the way they feel or if the play is really the play. I can live with that. However, from act II one, Casa Verdi pretty much disappears and everybody is in tenue de soirée, there are waiters, champagne aplenty and it looks a lot like Robert Carsen’s let’s-make-it-chic staging for La Scala, only more intelligently and efficiently directed. In the closing scene, it seems that someone thought “Oops… what about the Casa Verdi?!” and everybody puts on their elderly-people costumes again. I mean: I would have enjoyed either a Herheim-like “Casa Verdi” staging or a Claudette Colbert/Don Ameche glamorous production, but it seems that a decision has not been made. In any case, I like Christof Loy and (especially from act II on), I’ve had fun with the beautiful sets and costumes, the excellent Personenregie and some intelligent/elegant ideas. Everyone else seems to have found no problem in the incoherent concept – it’s been a while since I’ve last seen a boo-less opening night at the Deutsche Oper.

Actually, my problem lies rather in the musical side of the performance. The program book says, at some point, that “the orchestra leads the stage direction”. Exactly. In Falstaff, the orchestra does not only tell the story, it embodies the story. Every little dot in the score IS the story. If a note goes astray or unnoticed, you’ve missed part of the story. This requires a very specific orchestral sound – clear, transparent but very much present, as you would find at La Scala – a Swiss-clockmaker precision in balancing stage and pit and  urgent conducting that will keep ebullience up to the last bar. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra is very German in sound, but some conductors have made wonders in giving it an Italian soul. Unfortunately, the house’s GMD has never been one of them. This evening, for instance, the thick and indistinct orchestral sound did not seem to convey any theatrical point rather than accompanying the singers (or drowning them at many occasions). And that is a no-go in this score. Pity, for there was a good cast (both in musical and dramatic terms).

Barbara Haveman, a singer I had never heard before, was an almost ideal Alice – clear-toned, nimble, spirited and charming. The always efficient Jana Kurucová was an exceptionally pleasant and attractive Meg. The fact that I mention her just right after the prima donna shows how good she was. Elena Tsallagova was a healthy, creamy-toned Nanetta who produced ideally ethereal pianissimi in her aria. Dana Beth Miller relished the upfront chest-voice routine as Ms. Quickly with aplomb and it must be mentioned that the gear change to the middle register was expertly managed too. Joel Prieto (Fenton) took some time to warm but once he got there sang with abandon and good taste. I am not sure if Ford is a very good role for Michael Nagy – he seemed a bit overparted and sounded often monochromatic, but that one color was pleasant enough. Replacing Markus Brück (although the Deutsche Oper explains that he was sick, this must be a very long disease, for the replacement appears both in the opening film and in every rehearsal photo), Noel Bouley proved to have the necessary charisma and dramatic engagement. He competently embraced the director’s idea of showing that Falstaff never let the child in himself go and that this makes him special. He has a forceful but not truly large voice, good low and high notes, but he does not yet vocally inhabit the text as a singer with long experience in the role would do. I have recently seen Ambrogio Maestri sing it and, well, I’m afraid I was spoiled by the experience… Last but not least, Thomas Blondelle, Gideon Poppe and Marko Mimica really made something of the roles of Doctor Caius, Bardolfo and Pistola.

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When the Deutsche Oper premièred Marco Arturo Marelli’s production of Don Carlo back in 2011, Anja Harteros was its selling feature and her cancelling would have made me very disappointed if it did not mean hearing Lucrezia Garcia for the first time. This evening, however, La Harteros not only did not cancel but also volunteered to cover for Barbara Frittoli next week. This has also been an opportunity to make sure that, good as Ms Garcia was, Harteros is in altogether another level. First, she can act. Second, she has a wonderful attitude for aristocratic roles. Third, she has this uniqueness only great singers have. I have often discussed with my fried Cavalier here about German singers in Italian roles – and I have often said that Anja Harteros should concentrate more on German roles, which highlight her best qualities. Although her voice still lacks that typical Italian brightness, she brings undeniable assets to the role of Elisabetta – a substantial lyric soprano with solid low notes, powerful acuti, soaring mezza voce and elegant phrasing. Experience in this repertoire has helped her to find a more authentic Verdian style – she is learning to play her chest notes, to build interpretation from atmosphere rather than word-to-word tonal coloring (“German style”) and even knowing how to utter her parole sceniche to thrill the audience in key moments. As she was in very good voice, her performance grew steadily in strength to a Tu che le vanità wide ranging in expression and a ideal rendition of the final duet.

I saw Violeta Urmana sing the role of Eboli back in 2005. Then I praised her absolute homogeneity and pondered that, if her poise was welcome, it was ultimately dull in this repertoire. But that was eight years ago – she was a mezzo with impressively easy high notes back then. Now that she is billed as a soprano, her high notes have lost the exuberance  (and homogeneity is not always there either) . I have noticed that in her Parsifal in Berlin last March and it seems that this is the moment for an engine check. Seriously. Basically, every high note sounded strained, tense and effortful this evening. O don fatale had a perilous start until the stretta, when she surprised me with a very powerful and accurate ending.  

I had never heard Russell Thomas’s name before this evening and I am still not sure of the right way to describe his performance as Carlo this evening. This American tenor has an appealing vocal quality – his voice is rich, large and dark, but irregularly supported in the middle and (especially) in his low register. He squeezed too often his high notes (especially in the beginning) and his mezza voce was often poorly focused. That said, he has very good Italian, an instinctive grasp of Verdian style and, if he was not always subtle, he was never vulgar either. He showed great sensitiveness in his final duet with Anja Harteros, shading his voice to match the German soprano’s now legendary ductility.

Dalibor Jenis was an emotional Rodrigo in his warm and vibrant baritone, in great shape this evening. The role is a little bit on the heavy side for him and he had some patches of fatigue (especially in his big scene with the king). His death scene was generously and convincingly sung.

Hans-Peter König’s Filippo is an interesting chapter in the above-mentioned “German singers in Italian roles”-debate. This Wagnerian bass has a big, solid voice, exceptionally powerful in its lower reaches, but rather clear and slightly straight in its higher reaches. Although the tonal quality is very German, his approach is legitimately Italian (his pronunciation is only occasionally very lightly accented). Because of the lack of vibrancy and darkness in exposed high notes and also of a somewhat placid temper, some key moments in the opera sounded rather discrete than imperious, but this very self-restraint helped him to build an intimate and direct Ella giammai m’amò. Albert Pesendorfer too was a powerful Inquisitor, but the low register could be a little bit more percussive. Last but not least, Tobias Kehrer was a strong and incisive Monk.

Compared to last time, Donald Runnicles performance was far more compelling this evening – the orchestral sound was consistently big and rich (what proved to be testing to some members of this cast), but he still has not learned to produce cumulative tension in this repertoire. For instance, the introduction to Elisabetta’s big aria, a moment in which a German orchestra’s beefy sound always produces the right effect, failed to develop in strength and the soprano had to create the necessary momentum basically by herself.

I have written about the production last time and I would only observe that it seems that there has been some welcome cleansing in the direction and that it had seemed somewhat more effective this evening (a better acting cast has helped that impression too).

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