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Archive for January, 2015

Taijiro Iimori is the conductor of choice for Wagner’s operas not only in the New National Theatre, but in many other Wagnerian ventures in Tokyo. His is a musical mind of admirable of structural awareness and capable of leading his musicians through the path of clarity and coherence. But this is no guarantee that this anatomically correct and physiologically functional body of a performance has indeed a soul. I reckon that, should Mr. Iimori could count with the playing of an orchestra such as the Vienna Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Dresden, the orchestra would confide its spirit to his capable guidance and a performance of Klemperer-ian depth might come out. However, as long either the Tokyo Philharmonic or the Tokyo Symphonic are on duty, the result would be rather described as slow and dull. The brass section played valiantly, but the strings were life- and pointless throughout. If we had an island of animation in the appearance of the ghost crew, it is rather the result of the commendably clear singing of the house chorus – even if the unnecessary “sea wind” recorded noises  managed to cloud some of it. (How about listening to Wagner’s music? It’s already there!)

Previous incarnations of this production in the New National Theatre featured Anja Kampe and Evgeny Nikitin in the leading roles. I can imagine that singers like that would have added some color to this evening’s performance. As we heard it today, over the greyish orchestral background (maybe an attempt to help the cast?), it all sounded like variation of matte. Thomas Johannes Mayer has always been more about force than volume and, with the help of his intense stage persona, he might be a particularly vehement Holländer. In a good day. But not today: although the voice sounded particularly dark, it also sounded almost devoid of Strahlkraft, i.e., he had to sing at 100% to pierce through. At some point, he grew tired, but one would not notice the difference. It is sad that I’ve had a ticket for today – I was eager to see him in this role… Rafal Siwek’s Daland did not feature much color either, but his is a naturally big voice, if a bit young-sounding for the role. Daniel Kirch’s tenor’s too was almost devoid of brightness and the sound was muscled and not very ingratiating. And Erik is a role one tends to overlook if the singer does not draw the audience towards him. The fact that Tetsuya Mochizuki, who sang Siegmund in Yokohama not long ago, was struggling with the Steuermann and squeezing his notes as if his life depended on it, makes me believe that the flu must have plagued that cast. It certainly had its victims in the audience. Although Ricarda Merbeth’s Senta was basically edgy and strident, I have to confess that the fact that someone was producing _a_ bright sound on stage – even if quavery and often foggy – was something of a relief.

Matthias von Stegmann’s production is at once simple and hard to describe. It is basically a series of anachronistic and aestheticized scenes with the level of Personenregie that could be described as “Senta, whirl or raise your arms – pick one”, “Holländer, collapse to the ground or raise your arms – pick one”, “chorus – cute choreographies or raise your arms – pick one”. In the very final scene, there is an interesting twist, but then it is too late, isn’t it?

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This concert performance in the Hong Kong Kong Cultural Centre marks the beginning of an ambitious project: the first official international recording of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen made in Asia*. The first concert two days before was actually the Hong Kong première of Rheingold. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s musical director, is confident that this is going to establish the HK Philh’s reputation as a world-class orchestra. The audience, at least, proved to be truly international (and the level of concentration and silence in the hall is certainly exemplary).

In a hall of modest size, Maestro van Zweden decided to out-Karajan Karajan in the chamber-like orchestral sound, emphasis rather in dynamic and colouring rather than articulation and clarity and the choice of some light-toned voiced in key roles. Although the Hong Kong Philharmonic cannot compete with the Berlin Philharmonic in exuberance or richness of sound, it faithfully followed the conductor’s intent of producing different colors to establish an aural “setting” for each scene. The performance lacked the sense of building tension (it worked rather on “terraced” levels of loudness – purely orchestral passages ON in loudness and OFF when the singers were there), but the sense of theatre was furthermore guaranteed by the prominence given to vocal soloists, who felt comfortable to scale down to conversational volume whenever they deemed appropriate. Something van Zweden has not in common with Karajan is his keenness on having woodwind upfront in almost Mozartian interplay with singers. This all could have meant that the performance was particularly exciting, which unfortunately is not the case: most key moments lacked any sense of climax, especially Alberich’s curse, where the conductor proved rather reticent than propelling, or in Donner’s Heda-hedo, which turned out quite polite. Most surprisingly, the six harps on stage sounded a bit off focus in the context of the aural picture and failed to produce the crystalline effect of the rainbow bridge. However, I do not want to sound blasé: this evening was certainly fun, and the contrasted and characterful cast has a big share of responsibility in that.

I have to confess that I was not entirely idea convinced by the idea that Matthias Goerne could do justice to the role of Wotan, even in Das Rheingold. I had seen him only once in a Wagner opera, as Wolfram, and found him lacking volume and projection. In this evening’s ideal circumstances, that was definitely not the case. Although his voice often has a muffled sound in his middle register (which translates as “velvety” in a Hermann Prey-ish way when the repertoire is either Bach or Schubert), he has healthy low notes and could gather his energy to deal with heroic high notes reliably if not truly freely: pressed by the needs of piercing a loud orchestra, his high register lacks roundness and color and often sounds tenor-ish in sound. His interpretation is that of a Lieder singer, working on details rather than on the big-picture. While this could make him sink in the background when dealing with his colleagues’ more flamboyant personalities, it has also given his Wotan a very particular atmosphere, as if he ran on a different rpm than all other characters. That distance was in itself an interesting “theatrical” effect, one that made Wotan some sort of outsider in his own game. In any case, I would be surprised if he accepted to go further in Die Walküre.

The very international cast meant that the accent in some singers were a bit more evident than in others. In any case, with one exception, every member of the cast seemed to be completely in control and able to use the text with craftsmanship. For instance, Egyptian-born baritone Peter Sidhom has exemplary diction and truly crispy enunciation of Wagner’s libretto. He also seemed to be having the time of his life playing a 100% bad-guy Alberich. His voice is a bit soft-centered in its middle register, but he relies on a very bright and forceful edge to produce the necessary ping in this part’s difficult full-intensity, angular phrasing. His sharp sense of humor was a welcome tool to add dimension to a role often made too uncongenial. In that sense, his interaction with Kim Begley’s Loge was in the core of this performance. The English tenor is a veteran only in age: his voice – a Charaktertenor with a nasal sound à la Robert Tear albeit with Spitzentöne to make some Heldentenors envious – proved to be in excellent shape once it warmed after a fluttery start. There is indeed a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan in his Loge, but very aptly so. The two other tenors in the cast proved to be very well cast: Charles Reid (Froh) has a beautiful voice with spontaneous and firm high notes and David Cangelosi is simply the best Rheingold Mime I have ever seen or heard, his approach refreshingly three-dimensional and varied. As always, Kwangchul Youn steals the show as Fasolt, here ideally partnered by Stephen Milling’s dark-toned, perfectly-focused Fafner.

The ladies were also uniformly excellent. Michelle DeYoung is a rich-voiced Fricka who uses her registers provocatively. At some point, she lost a bit concentration, and this is a role that needs constant engagement. In any case, it is always a pleasure to hear a singer with riches of voice and personality in a role often cast “from the ensemble”. Deborah Humble’s Erda is very classy throughout the whole range, and Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermine Haselböck were perfectly cast as the Rheintöchter.

* I use the word “international”, because  Takashi Asahina’s recorded a complete Ring for Fontec with the New Japan Philharmonic and an all Japanese cast in the 1980’s.

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