Archive for July, 2015

The raw material of Manon Lescaut is passion. If you catch yourself pondering or evaluating or judging anything during a performance of Puccini’s first big success, then you can claim your money back in the box office: you’ve been defrauded. The wigs and crinolines might pose an extra challenge for the audience to reach this emotional status, but considering the plot (a girl under 18 is sentenced to transportation to the colonies for indecent behavior), one would have to use a great deal of imagination to update it in any way – my suggestion: make Manon a refugee or something like that and you might stage a very dramatic airport scene.

Director Hans Neuenfels might have a legitimate interest for opera, but does he really like it? In his stagings, his efforts are basically concentrated on trying to rescue the librettos from its bourgeois and decadent values (yes, so last century…) by replacing the setting, the dialogues or stage instructions by superficially deep statements the shadow of truth of which can be found in the libretto as it is by someone with three functional brain cells. This evening, for instance, we have the usual laboratory lighting and décors, a chorus dressed as silver-clad teletubbies with red wigs, a Manon with costumes that vary from an outfit tailor-made for a missionary to those of a make-up sales-assistant in a department store, not to mention that the physical attraction here is left to imagination (although both singers in the leading roles have some chemistry going on between them). Considering the credentials involved, I was expecting a particularly repelling Geronte or a powerful deportation scene, but it was all very sanitized under cold lighting.

One could say – there is still Puccini’s music to make it all work. Not so fast, I am afraid. Faced with a lightweight cast, conductor Alain Altinoglu made everything in his powers to provide some orchestral lushness within the limits of restricted volume. He was often successful, but at the point he reached the intermezzo the whole calculation exercise proved too well-behaved: the crescendo was so managed and groomed that the climax just did not happen (you can imagine how the sexual depiction in the act II duet felt like…). Although the circumstances in the video from the Covent Garden were not exactly ideal, Giuseppe Sinopoli had it permanently on white heat, forcing Kiri Te Kanawa out of her comfort zone into the arms of an ideally inspired Plácido Domingo.

The fact that Kristine Opolais is no Renata Tebaldi is not a tragedy per se – many famous Manons weren’t either (the discography alone shows names of sopranos who sang Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, such as Licia Albanese or Mirella Freni). However – I am not old enough to vouch for Albanese – Freni’s mezzo forte would eat Opolais’s fortissimo for breakfast. What I “heard” today was a voice opaque in color, limited in volume and highly manipulated in both ends of her range. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to speak of any interpretation or even musical values (a high rate of false entries made it even more doubtful). I would say this is not her repertoire and will never be, but her biography says she is an Aida, a Butterfly… Hmm…

On paper, Jonas Kaufmann – in spite of the baritonal color of his tenor – is a bit on the light side for Des Grieux, but that was not at all a disadvantage – his tenor, as a whole, is sizeable enough for the part and he withstood the demands of some of the most testing passages in the score with admirable stamina. Anyway, this is not what I want to write about his performance; the reason why it rescued the whole evening from its rigor mortis was the fact that he sings it more interestingly than anybody else. Every little phrase is sung to the complete rendition of both its musical and dramatic values, by means of his customary control of dynamics and legato – all that without any hint of affectation and with real gusto for Italian style. Markus Eiche is an unexpected piece of casting as Lescaut. Although some high notes are tense and straight in sound, he sounded quite idiomatic in it. The voice lacks a bit volume – especially in his low register – but he compensated by incisive delivery of the text and animation.


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I have reread everything I’ve written about Don Carlos here in order to avoid repeating myself, but the fact is: I cannot. So I’ll sum it up: it is an opera that does not work by itself; it requires, therefore, a dream team (including stage director, orchestra and conductor) to develop its uniquely dark and oppressing atmosphere; this dream team never exists, even in legendary recordings, but opera houses should not accept this as inevitable and understand that it is something special (as in “if you see it as routine, better give up”). Now let’s speak of this evening’s performance.

Although I am very much surprised by Asher Fisch’s pulse, alertness and tension-building – he should try all of that in Wagner and R. Strauss – tiny miscalculations undermined too many key moments. First he seemed partial to a big orchestral sound, but then he seemed to believe that clarity and rich strings were incompatible until he finally seemed to have decided that his cast would prefer lower dynamics.  Act V – we had the Italian 5-act versions – was basically a misfire in terms of conducting. When you have the Bavarian State Orchestra, you have everything you need to transport the audience to the overwhelming massiveness of San Jerónimo de Yuste in time for Elisabetta’s aria. Today, the strings had the ideal roundness of sound, but that basically did not build up in intensity. Then the poor soprano had to tackle the famously dangerous intervals of the aria without the “orchestral cushion” that would envelope her sound to form the ideal blend of a single musical statement. Her pleas to have her tears reported in heaven received a sprightly accompaniment that made one think of Amelia Boccanegra enjoying patrician life in the shores of Genova. Nothing compares to the closing of the opera – the ghost of Charles V appears, Amelia is terrified and then… then when I realized, it was over. One could barely notice that! If a conductor does not find it cataclysmic that the ghost of a dead emperor raise from the tomb to rescue his grandson from the hands of one of the most powerful monarchs of the earth and a gruesome fanatical religious leader, then what again is he doing there? If I cannot put across my meaning, just grab any of Karajan’s recordings to hear what I am talking about.

When it comes to staging, I have already accepted that all contemporary productions of Don Carlos look exactly the same: simplified historical costumes, minimalistic and monochromatic sets turning around the idea of a cross and no Personenregie to speak of. I find it all so petty and cheap and banal that my very soul craves to see Agnes Baltsa looking and moving racée as hell in her impossibly wrought dress in the gigantesque sets of the Grosses Festspielhaus. Of course, I would like to move on, but directors have not helped me so far. In any case, I would like to give Jürgen Rose the benefit of the doubt. This production was premiered in 2000 and this is the first time I see it. I once had a conversation with a stage director specialized in opera who was candid enough to say that he often had to deal with famous singers not willing to learn the concept and basically wanting to know where they enter from and exit through. This seems to be an accurate description of this performance: the body language of practically every soloist was wrong (nobody bowed to the king and queen, he often had to pick objects on the ground himself, Rodrigo demanded Carlo a sword he already had taken from him, Rodrigo does not kneel to be knighted, touching ladies during conversation seem to be standard practice etc), blocking was nonsensical and chaotic and there were many embarrassing moments where singers just stopped and looked around in a “what now?”-attitude. This would have not worked in a performance of Carmen or La Bohème for tourists, let alone in a difficult Schiller-adaptation of a story involving historical, philosophical, political and religious issues.

Anja Harteros is the exception to the stage awkwardness – she has an innate ability to portray aristocratic characters, moving with great dignity, doing beautiful, meaningful gestures and responding to the dramatic situations of the plot. Of course, real direction would have made her even more compelling, but in terms of theatre, she was this evening a beacon in the darkness. To make things better, she sang famously too. This is a role that poses her no difficulties and, if she is still not the most Italianate of sopranos, she has clearly made a serious effort in that direction. If you think that nobody else sings this so beautifully and interestingly as she does these days, that’s a win-win situation. The other German singer in the cast, René Pape, has also made a serious exercising in Italianizing himself. I find this performance a complete improvement in terms of style since I last saw him in this role in the Schiller-Theater in Berlin. He was in superb and commanding voice – and I cannot think of someone better equipped for this part today – and yet he still sounds a bit calculating and not truly trusting the power of Verdi’s melodic imagination in his big aria. In this sense, the only Italian in the cast, young baritone Simone Piazzola, offered a lesson of how you infuse emotion in this repertoire essentially by the quality of vocal production. In his death scene, his control of vibrato to increase expression shows that he knows Piero Cappuccilli’s performances (as heard in many recordings with Karajan, for instance). This is a voice of the right color and range for this repertoire, but I am afraid that volume is still a bit on the light side, especially in his lower register.

Anna Smirnova is a singer I saw before she became a household name. Although her all-out approach was reckless, it was also exciting in a very raw way. Since then, she has become more self-controlled, but also less powerful, less tonally rich in her middle range –  and her diction is becoming indistinct. She could nonetheless pull out an O don fatale very easy in high notes and surprisingly close to what is written in the score.  Tenor Alfred Kim’s dependability and cleanliness of phrasing made for a not truly engaging tonal quality – grainy and slightly nasal – and lack of squillo to pierce through in his high notes. Although Don Carlos is not considered one of Verdi’s most difficult roles, it is curious how rarely one listens to a truly convincing performance from a tenor in it. Last time I saw Rafal Siwek in this opera, he was Filippo – here he is back to the usual casting as the Inquisitor, where the sheer size of his voice is an undeniable asset, even if he is not truly vehement or frightening in it.

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There have been so many words written about Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2007 production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin for the Bavarian State Opera that I wonder if there is anything left to say. In any case, the production has been nicknamed “Brokeback Onegin”, and there is no ill will in the joke: the director does acknowledge the reference, not only to Ang Lee’s movie, but also to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I would add something of Elias Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in the way the young Tatyana is portrayed (and I guess that a reference to Natalia Zakharenko – a.k.a. Natalie Wood – is not out of place here). The cinematographic references are hardly what the nay-sayers complained about – but the fact that the fact that Tchaikovsky’s own homosexuality here stands for the reason why shirtless cowboys do everything but lap-dance Onegin just after he has killed Lensky. On choosing this wording, I mean that many of those who dislike the production probably do not find problem in suggestion that there is more than friendship in the feeling between the two leading male characters in the plot. Even if Pushkin did not envisage that, this perspective is compatible with a plot in which the young poet rages and – most puzzlingly – vilifies his adored Olga without much reason while Onegin accepts the provocation that leads him to kill his only friend instead of acting with the kind of condescension typical of his haughty personality (as we have seen in his reaction to Tatyana’s letter). I even believe that the staging has grounds to put the matter in a more than “Platonic” way; the part I don’t go along with is the premise that both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky could have done better, that they got the second act all wrong and that the third act is a mistake that had to be corrected. I am sorry, but the only misjudged thing in Pushkin’s life was the duel – the real-life one that got him killed way too young. Tatyana’s refusal of Onegin is the culminating scene of the book and the opera – and the Lensky/Olga situation is the main step that took them to that point. I am not a cynical person – call me silly if you want – but I appreciate Tatyana’s decision to be faithful to herself and what she stands for (even if one does not share her beliefs). And I say all this having found the cavorting cowboys far less camp than the ballet numbers usually seen in the third act.

I always say that Onegin is the opera I’ve been most often lucky with: last time I saw it Mariss Jansons was conducting the Concertgebouw. My very high records with it made me difficult to feel happy about Leo Hussain’s conducting this evening. By saying this I do not mean it was bad, but rather that it did not bring me any satisfaction. It lacked the fundamental sense of sustained and increasing tension, some of Tchaikovsky’s famous emotional passages were played without any conviction, the orchestral sound lacked warmth and apparently the chorus could not really understand the conductor’s beat. I also have the impression – especially in the girls/boys quartet in act I – that soloists were basically doing their thing. I will never forget the exemplary sense of control and demi tintes that Jiri Belohlavek achieved at the Met with Mattila, Semenchuk, Beczala and Hampson – and what I heard today it miles away from that experience. And one cannot fault his cast.

This is the first time I see Anna Netrebko in a Russian opera and it seems that it is true that one has always an extra sparkle in the repertoire of his or her own country. She sang with extraordinary richness of tone in her whole range, tackled the exposed high notes roundly and without hesitation and gave a lesson in how to tell apart act I Tatyana and act III Tatyana just by the sound of her voice. The Letter Scene – where a most compelling conductor would have done all the difference in the world – she could find unusual alertness to the changes of mood (and there are many). Brava. It was more than a lucky coincidence that she could find a top-notch Olga in Alisa Kolosova, the best I have seen live, her mezzo ideally young-sounding with judiciously used reserves of depth in her low notes. Also, she knows exactly what kind of woman her character is. Brava anche lei. Since I last saw him, Pavol Breslik has grown immensely in the role of Lensky. It is still a light voice for the part, but the lightness is now used entirely in his favor, in phrasing of Mozartian poise and ductility, not to mention that he has developed in strength to deal with the most outspoken passages.

There is much to admire in Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin – he sings with sense of style, an unmistakably baritonal sound and commitment. He does seem a little tired in the last scene, but so are most singers in this part. And yet I missed the sheer chic a great Onegin exudes in acts I and II and the truly spiritual exhaustion in act III. The intent to portray this is there, but I have the impression that a voice of more depth and weight is required to fully accomplish that. Günther Groissböck, on the other hand, has the voice for Prince Gremin, but his aria was sung too objectively, the mellifluous legato a Russian bass would never fail to employ there largely missing.

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The Théâtre de l’Archevêché has for the opera-goer the appeal of being the place where Teresa Stich-Randall sang her Mozart roles, where Régine Crespin sang her Ariadne, where Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey appeared together in Rossini’s Semiramide… I had never attended any performance there before and was very much surprised by its unfavorable acoustics: voices and orchestra are denied any bloom and the aural picture gives a metallic low-fi impression. I was wondering how someone could perform Mozart there – but then I remember that those were the days when people like Pilar Lorengar, Anna Moffo and Rolando Panerai sang Mozart. Those days are sadly gone. In any case, I strongly recommend anyone who is seeing Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to forget that people like Margaret Price, Francisco Araiza or Kurt Moll have ever existed.

As it is, this evening’s performance is quite well cast for the present standards of Mozartian singing. If these singers had sung this in the Opernhaus Zürich or at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées, it would have been quite satisfying. In the Archevêché’s unfriendly open-air venue however, one felt often short-changed. Soprano Jane Archibald had the advantage of a very bright sound that runs into the “auditorium” without problems. Although the voice is not appealing per se and a bit light for the part, she tackles the long range without any problem and her coloratura is almost flawless. Some of her runs sounded almost new to my ears in their accuracy (in very fast tempo). As much as the leading tenor, she was made to sing an edition without many of the internal cuts usually heard in theatres and many recordings. Ms. Archibald grew steadily in strength during the performance: Ach, ich liebte sounded a bit grainy and not ideally focused, Traurigkeit could have done the extra mile of loveliness, but Martern aller Arten really sounded as if she had really lost it (and that’s rare) and her singing was simply exquisite and sensitive in the duet with the tenor. Her Blonde, Rachele Gilmore, too could pierce through the dry acoustics, but the sound was often… piercing, legato left a lot to be desired and her German is artificial. Truth be said, she has the voice for the part and by the way she won the competition with Osmin over their low notes in their duet, she might develop into “bigger” things.

Daniel Behle was announced indisposed and one could see that he took a long time to warm. He is a very stylish Mozartian, with a dulcet tone and reasonable flexibility. When I saw his Tamino in Berlin, I could not help appreciating the elegance and musicianship, but the vocal production is a bit manipulated and complicated in a, let’s say, German way. The high register has neither brightness nor naturalness and is generally dealt with mezza voce (which he does beautifully). When he really has to sing out, the result is labored and dry. In another theatre and healthier conditions, he might pull off a charming performance. Today, he understandably made do, but I’ll retain a very lyric and pleasant Ich baue ganz.  He was partnered by a very good Pedrillo in David Portillo, maybe the all-round best performance of the evening. He sang both arias very well – and that’s new in my experience of watching this opera at the theatre. Franz-Josef Selig sand the part of Osmin in all performances but this evening’s, and I am sad I could not see him in it. His replacement, Mischa Schelomianski, did a quite decent job. It is a pleasant, full-toned voice and he generally seemed to know his way through a Mozartian phrase. Except when things get very difficult. Then it was just ok. This is already better than most, one must concede him.

I had very high expectations for Jérémie Rhorer, especially after his brilliant Clemenza did Tito last year in Paris. If I had not seen the Freiburger Barockorchester in such terrific form yesterday, I would have misjudged this performance. I do not sincerely think that a period-instrument orchestra should perform in a venue with such problematic acoustics. The sound was basically juiceless and – in the “Turkish” moments – one could basically hear drums and a collection of wiry sounds. It took me a while to get used to that and truly see what Rhorer and his musicians were doing. But once I got there, it was worth the while. First, I will say what bothered me – the fortepiano (it did not spoil the fun, but why?) and some overfast tempi that made singers spit German consonants in a sorry way. Other than this, the fact that one can hear the violas in the Overture already offered hope. His understanding of how woodwind should blend with the singers is everything a Mozartian could dream, but best of all is the structural clarity that makes every element of every number make sense as part of a whole, not only musically but theatrically. There were so many moments in which well-known passages revealed new meanings that I only felt more frustrated for not being to hear this in proper circumstances.

I leave Martin Kusej’s heartily booed production for last. Although I have no problem per se with relating Die Entführung aus dem Serail with contemporary Middle East issues other than the fact that many people in Europe have more concerns with the problem in thesis than with the people who live in neighborhoods in their town they would rather not pass through, I do have a problem with poorly directed stagings such as this one. First, I dislike the concept that the director is cleverer than the composer. Mozart was, indeed, not satisfied with the libretto at first and he imposed changes to make it acceptable. Case closed. The director has to make it happen – and replacing the dialogues just proves he could not do that. Especially with the pseudo-serious, awkward and alienating text used as Ersatz here. Second, the director has this idea – Konstanze et al are prisoners of a 1920’s Middle-East warlord who is sick of the incipient but regrettable Western interference in the region’s problems and there cannot be a happy ending for that (Osmin does not exactly carry out Pasha Selim’s final instructions…) – and he is so happy about it that he feels his job is done. For instance, Konstanze is musing about her lost love. Then a group of heavily-armed warriors surround her and start to grope her. Would you keep thinking “Ah, Belmonte, how I miss you…?” in that situation? Example 2: Blondchen is trying to avoid being raped by Osmin. She threatens him and he finally seems to give up. Would you find this the right moment to jump onto him and ride him while saying “You’ll see if you keep trying to harass me”? Example three: Pedrillo explains to Osmin that the wine he is going to serve him has been stolen from the Pasha*. Osmin says “well, I am forbidden to drink, but don’t tell anyone”. Then, all other warriors appear and everybody decide to steal the rest of the wine from their master while Osmin just forgets that he had just said that nobody could know – especially because it is against the law there. Third, there is this black humor made at the expense of the story some Regietheater directors are fond of: here Belmonte et al run away through the desert and are overcome with exhaustion and thirst à la Manon Lescaut. Then Pedrillo starts to sing Im Mohrenland. Belmonte gathers his forces to say: Oh, Pedrillo, this is lovely. Carry on! At least, Tobias Moretti seemed to find some sense in what he was required to do as Bassa Selim. I used to watch Komissar Rex and found it nice to see him on stage.

*In the original libretto there is no explanation about the origin of the wine. Since Belmonte has a ship nearby, one understands he brought it with him.

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St. Thomas Aquinas professed that one can sin by excess or by deficiency. The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s Alcina may have many virtues, but its sin is definitely excess. Katie Mitchell’s addresses precisely the key issue in what regards baroque “magic operas” – the notion that women have to charm a man. Alcina and Morgana are not ordinary women; they are sorceresses, i.e., they have special powers. However, they may transform people in animals and conjure lifelike visions, but – most inexplicably – they cannot find someone who loves them, like ordinary women do. In spite of all their qualities. The obvious answer is: man are blind to their natural qualities, so they have to make believe that they have the desirable requirements in order to attract them. Do you need to go to Ariosto to see that? No, when women cease to be young, aren’t they made to believe that they have to resort to every available trick (make-up, special diets, exercise routines, plastic surgery, implants, you name it…) to create the illusion of youth? So here we have two elderly women who have the power to look young and attractive in very special circumstances: in one room of their house, the bedroom, where they are ready to perform any sexual prowess to keep their “victims” under their spell.

The trick is done by a very ingenuous stage device – both doors to this bedroom are thick enough to hide a passage to the area behind the a scenic wall. Thus, when the actresses playing the old Alcina and Morgana step in the threshold, the singers cast as the young Alcina and Morgana quickly come through the hidden passage and appear on the other side, and vice-versa. To make it more interesting, the adjoining rooms are not glamorously decorated as the bedroom, but are workshop-like greyish places with industrial lighting where both sorceress work on stuffed animals (which stand for the men transformed by their spells). On the second floor, we can see the lab where the transformation is performed by a machine. Naturally, the set is too complex for changes. Therefore, all scenes have to take place in these rooms, for some awkward effects: characters discuss their plans to destroy Alcina’s magic realm while she is just in the next room. Too often characters have to look in only one direction not to see something obviously in front of them. Another side effect is: since this is a single set and this is a long opera, variety is provided by a group of extras playing Alcina’s servants – they enter, grab an object, put it somewhere, exit, come back, grab the same object, put it somewhere else and exit again etc etc. Most of the time, they just walk slow motion through the sceneries. Why? Actually, the great problem with the stage trick is: it is complex (and that is why it is so good) but its very complexity simply does not afford a second trick. For instance, since the singing Alcina is the young one, she sings, for instance, Mi restano le lagrime, alone and powerless, but looking like a million bucks.

At any rate, my problem are not the stage devices. Katie Mitchell makes an important question here, but does not bother to answer. Or to try to answer. Alcina is shown as a lonely and sorry seductress, but still a seductress, a woman who came to no good. As far as I know, everybody gets old. Not only sorceresses. Bradamante too will get old – and, considering her fiancé’s spiritual depth, she will use all the tricks on her sleeve to seem attractive, if she still wants have something to do with him. Actually, she is already doing this, isn’t she? She conjures a magic word, “a promise”, and a magic power , “morality” to charm a man not really willing to be with her. This is where I do not get why the production draws a line. All right, the director makes a point in showing that they are not going to be happy, but, really, everybody knew that from the beginning. All in all, the insight is powerful enough, the staging is clever enough, the sets and costumes are eye-catching and the Personenregie is faultless. I’ve had fun.

Patricia Petibon repeats in every interview that her voice is developing towards bigger things and she has a point. The catch is how big “big” is. Her soprano sounds indeed fuller, richer in its lower riches and capable of some expansion in her high notes. All that without any loss of firmness and brightness. In her present vocal condition, the role of Alcina is indeed within her powers, but the tessitura is low enough for a mezzo like Joyce DiDonato to sing it. This means, in many moments, it seats in the less congenial part of Ms. Petibon’s voice. You can still hear her, but the sound is not terribly expressive there. If a conductor like Marc Minkowski (i.e, a conductor who understand voices) were on duty, I am sure he would have guided his prima donna towards optimal results. The problem is Patricia Petibon is the kind of singer who likes to sin by excess – if her voice alone cannot do it, there is going to be some shouting, grotesque chest-resonance sounds, unwritten pauses, labored-breathing-effect, unstylish turns of phrase, the works… She won’t give up until she’ll have had it all out. Maybe it’s me, but I find it distracting. Even in a slimmer-toned shape, her Alcina would have met her goals by one very simple magic tool: trusting Handel’s inspiration. Karina Gauvin, not a force-of-nature even at her best, has done that in Beaune (2005?) and the results were moving. I found what I’ve heard today crafty.

Always at her best in baroque repertoire, Anna Prohaska had some beautiful moments as Morgana. She handles the Italian text admirably and could produce some pure-toned, exquisite phrases, especially in Credete al mio dolore. At other moments, she could be clumsy, miscalculating her breath support and either forcing her high notes or lacking steam for long high-lying passages. Tornami a vagheggiar was more mechanical than charming. Katarina Bradic, usually cast in minor roles at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, proved to have very long breath and very clear divisions, even in the really fast tempi for her arie di bravura. She sounds opaque around the passaggio and that jars with some cavernous low notes that do not always go with the affetto portrayed by Handel.

I am not convinced that the role of Ruggiero truly works for a countertenor. In terms of loveliness of tone, legato and fluent coloratura, Philippe Jaroussky is above his competition. He was the only member of the cast who could get away with overornamentation, offering a haunting Mi lusinga il dolce affetto and a touching Verdi prati, but was only partially audible in Stà nell’Ircana or Di te mi rido. He also pushed some high notes in a way that sounded dangerous to my ears. The part of Oronte remains to be properly cast – and this evening did not change that. Krzystof Baczyk (Melisso) has a very resonant and forceful voice, but his approach is too buffo for Pensa a chi geme. The boy soprano from the Tölzer Knabenchor did a commendable job as Oberto. Understandably, he was exempted from his third aria, which is dramatically pointless anyway.

Andrea Marcon presided over a rich-toned Freiburger Barockorchester, fully engaged and tonally varied. The conductor generally preferred fast tempi, giving practically no leeway for expression in the coloratura in some florid arias. He indulged the excess of ornamentation from his soloists and had a fondness for pauses and emphases that made Handel’s music less powerful in its expression. But that was rather the exception than the rule. The orchestral sound was clean and forceful, the continuo creatively and stylishly conceived and he and his singers seemed to be in complete understanding. The edition had very few excisions (including some in the opening sinfonia and the ballet) and the numbers shorn of their repeats were rewritten to end in the tonic key by means of a short orchestral comment or even by the repetition of a few verses.

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Only twenty years ago, one would never fancy to see any of Claudio Monteverdi’s operas in an important opera house, but the increasing popularity of baroque music and (most probably) the colorful libretto of L’Incoronazione di Poppea has brought the work of this Italian composer to the general public in places like Paris* and Madrid. The less theatrically flamboyant L’Orfeo has not had the same luck. The Bavarian State Opera decided last year to take the lead by presenting a new staging cast from its own roster. The première conductor, Ivor Bolton, opted to be mostly faithful to the instrumental forces used by Monteverdi himself back in 1607. For that purpose, a continuo ensemble has been added to a group of members of the Bavarian State Orchestra.

For many, the main source of interest is the casting of the German Lieder-singing “superstar” Christian Gerhaher in the title role. This is a repertoire he is not usually associated to. I, for instance, have never heard him say let alone sing a word in a language other than German. I had very low expectations and, therefore, cannot truly vouch for my mostly positive impression: his Italian is not idiomatic, but more than acceptably delivered; his coloratura is not a model of accuracy, but is fluent and generally effortless; his purity of line stands for baroque style, except when he verges on veteran-Fischer-Dieskau-like hectoring in high and louder-than-piano passages (truth be said, rarely); his fastidiousness and lack of fondness for legato less problematic in this more declamatory music. At any rate, taking in consideration the variety of his repertoire and the difficulty of the task, one can easily deem this performance successful, especially from a baritone. His Euridice was the sensuous sounding Elsa Benoit, while Anna Stéphany was grainy yet sensitive and stylish as Musica and Speranza. Having Anna Bonitatibus as the Messaggera and Proserpina, however, had the effect of exposing the liability of the performance as a whole. Monteverdi’s music requires an absolute mastery of the natural rhythm of Italian language. This is particularly noticeable in florid passages, where inexpert ears fail to distinguish the “main” notes from embellishment. One just needs to turn to  Jordi Savall’s video where the not truly impeccable Furio Zanasi is rhythmically always right on the mark and therefore fully understandable even during extremely florid passages. Accordingly, Savall responds to his cast with more vivid and contrasted tempi and more expressive playing. But it would be unfair not to praise conductor Cristopher Moulds and his instrumentalists – this was stylish and beautiful music-making.

David Bösch’s imaginative production never ceased to offer the audience something to watch, by virtue of detailed stage direction to soloists and choristers and use of stage devices. His re-interpretation of the libretto is intelligent and subtle if very depressing. I only wish the lighting could add a little bit more difference between what goes in the world of the living and that of the dead. Unless this was a dramatic point I did not notice…

*It would be unfair to overlook the fact that the Opéra de Paris dared to stage it in 1978… with Gwyneth Jones, Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig and Nicolai Ghiaurov.

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Film director Andreas Dresen has been praised by his sensitive portraits of ordinary people’s lives generally from the former DDR (as the director himself). In his staging of Richard Strauss’s Arabella for the Bavarian State Opera, one can easily see the sensitive Personenregie in the thoroughly developed characterization from leading to minor roles. However, the aesthetics of a decadent imperial Vienna is here more reminiscent of the design behind the iron curtain than of the art direction in Charles Vidor’s The Swan. All right, the action is here set at some point of the XXth century, but I won’t be able to risk when, given the prevailing anachronism. Matthias Fischer-Dieskau’s sets are uninspired, uninspiring and remarkably ugly. They also look poorly finished. They are not half as problematic as Sabine Greunig’s horrendous costumes: Arabella has a missionary’s wife dress in act I, looks like a suburb cabaret singer in act II and has a leather motorcycle jacket ready for every entrance and exit. Accordingly, her father appears like a member of a rumba trio in his black-and-red outfit. One would feel tempted to close his or her eyes at some points, but the stage direction itself had plenty of interesting ideas, very well informed by the libretto. The episode with the glass of water in the closing scene alone offsets a great deal of the prevailing kitschfest – it sums up the director’s efficient grasp of the comical, psychological and philosophical elements in the libretto.

Although I often wished for better-defined articulation and a more crystalline sound from the orchestra, Philippe Jordan never failed to find the right tempo, the ideal balance between stage and pit and to produce rich and beautiful but never loud sonorities throughout. Whenever the conductor fails to find the absolute clarity and thematic coherence required by the complex writing, the second half of act II seems a bit clumsy and pointless. Compared to what one usually hears live, the results were quite decent, but still below the illuminating guidance – alas, rarely – provided by the masterly baton of the likes of Sawallisch.

Although this is not Anja Harteros’s debut as Arabella (she has sang it recently in Dresden, to start with), it is a role she does not sing as usually as she should. The fact that is has been live-streamed by the Bayerische Rundfunk might make her take on the part known to a wider audience. Deservedly so, for she has today no rivals in this role. The writing fits her voice as a glove – she has no problem with the occasional visit to the lower end of her range, tackles the exposed high notes roundly and healthily and shades her soprano to mezza voce without flinching. She has a clear advantage over many a famous Arabellas: singing her own language, she handles the conversational passages with expert word-pointing, tone coloring and theatrical awareness. Some overlooked phrases sounded extraordinarily meaningful and sensitive. As every leading Straussian soprano, she surprised the audience with added glamor in a performance consistently elegantly phrased. I’ve had to think for a while to find something amiss, and I could save three lines in this review by saying that I found nothing. But I don’t have an editor and I’ll use them: if one thinks of Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa, one would have the impression of a provocative reserve in attitude that made Arabella different from everyone else. Anja Harteros was more German than Austrian in her Arabella: she sounded absolutely sincere and involved. Considering her talents, it is an approach I can easily get used to.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was a most reliable Zdenka, her light, bell-toned soprano very much at ease with the excruciatingly high tessitura and surprisingly well-blended with Anja Hartero’s velvetier tone. She is certainly the best Zdenka I have ever seen (she also does look very convincingly boyish), but it has been a while since we have last heard an important voice à la Anneliese Rothenberger or Lucia Popp in that role. On purely acting terms, Joseph Kaiser was an interesting Matteo – the sexual frustration over Arabella and the puzzlement over the whole Zdenko/a affair finely portrayed – but the top register is entirely devoid of brightness (and I might be wrong, but his culminating high note in act III did not sound like a high b). At first, Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Mandryka sounded lacklustre in his lack of volume and tonal appeal, but he gradually grew in the part out of engagement, attention to the text and forceful top notes. Kurt Rydl was a powerful, funny Waldner, but Doris Soffel’s mezzo is a bit grating these days, what made her a rather uncongenial Adelaide. Eir Inderhaug deserves praise for producing a refreshingly non-cute Fiakermilli.

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In the season in which Richard Strauss’s 150th birth anniversary is celebrated, the opera house in his birth city offers a treat for Straussians with three of his operas: Die schweigesame Frau, Arabella and Elektra. This first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a reprise of Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 production (as seen on video in Christian Thielemann’s DVD from Baden-Baden). As the director himself says, this staging eschews any attempt of characterization other than acting: the stage is practically empty, costumes are basic and there are two stage props (a royal robe in the style of the Bavarian State Opera curtain and, of course, the axe). As it is, with very little to see, one truly pays attention to what the singers are doing. This evening they were basically trying to guess which part of the stage the followspot would light and then jump onto it. Most singers seemed a bit at a loss figuring out what to do, the more gifted in the acting department doing their thing. The various examples of poor blocking suggest that there were not enough rehearsals for the cast to understand what they should do and – more important – why they were doing it. The closing scene looked almost unintentionally comic with all surviving members of Agamemnon’s family raising their arms for no particular reason while trying to make a tragedy face.

In terms of conducting, the performance seemed to be as reticent as it staging. Although the Bavarian State Orchestra produced rich and transparent sounds throughout, the conductor showed himself particularly reluctant in terms of pulse and forward movement. This libretto and this score abound in text and music that should simply erupt into sound. This evening, however, no firework in Strauss’s powerful score caught you by surprise: one could see the gunpowder being lighted, then count one, two and three to finally see the effect actually happen. On saying this, I do not mean that every performance of Elektra should sound like Georg Solti’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. On the contrary, by saying this, I mean the understanding of the musical-dramatic structural coherence that focus all recurrence of motives in their appropriate theatrical purpose. As it was, at some point, when the proceedings actually required some impact, Maestro Fisch finally forced his hand and brought about a brassy, unsubtle but not truly expressive sound in his otherwise excellent orchestra. To be honest, this performance’s best moment were invariably the more lyric passages (such as the Recognition Scene), when the beauty of the orchestral sound and the conductor’s consideration to his cast invariably paid off.

Although Evelyn Herlitzius took some time to warm up and, even then, she understandably shortened the difficult high c’s, she remains unparalleled in clarity of diction, understanding of the libretto and stamina. Although my memory of her 2011 performances in Berlin shows her then in more exuberant vocal health, I found that this industrious soprano proved to have never ceased to improve her singing in this role. This evening, I found her less prone to squalling than I would expect. Many high notes were roundly and goldenly sung and, to her own risk, she tried to produce softer dynamics in some dangerous passage, not always very successfully, truth be said. Her Chrysothemis was Adrianne Pierczonka, who was occasionally fazed by long high-lying phrases. The Canadian soprano, however, sang with fine projection, crispy delivery of the text and animation. Compared to her performances in Berlin under Marek Janowski, Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra sounded marginally more comfortable in her low notes, but still uncongenial in a role that requires an entirely different voice, I am afraid. Even her intelligence and insight cannot hide the contre-emploi (as the French would say). As much as I respect her artistry, I still believe Strauss wrote the low-lying part for a reason. Günther Groissböck was a dark, firm-toned Orest, somewhat stiff at times, but it seems that thi is what the production expected from him. Among the minor roles, Okka von der Damerau (as always) called attention with her finally focused and powerful singing.

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