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Archive for August, 2017

My final impression of Frank Castorf’s Ring is more positive than I could have imagined when I saw it for the first time in 2014. It is still has its patches of silliness, conceptual laziness and pretentiousness, but it is very well directed and has many important insights. Even if most of them are underveloped, they are still valid and thought-provoking. Götterdämmerung not only seems better now, it has indeed been refined since 2014 too. The scenes in the Gibichungenhalle are all more tightly knit in terms of characterization, acting and timing, to start with. This time, the idea of Hagen as a figure between two worlds represented by his ability to cross the Berlin Wall made the concept even sharper than when I just saw him as a small time crook in Kreuzberg. On the other hand, the closing scene seemed to me less effective. I might be mistaken too, but it seemed edited too. I don’t remember Gutrune saying “Brünhilde, du Neiderboste!”, then Brünnhilde answer “Armselige, schweig!” and finally Gutrune’s final “Verfluchter Hagen!” lines. I don’t know if this has something to do with the accident that made it impossible for this evening’s Brünnhilde to stand up without crutches after act 1. After that, the role was played by the director’s assistant (a man) while the soprano sang from her wheelchair downstage.

Marek Janowski might have noticed that he and his orchestra fare better when unleashed and did give his singers a hard time. No complaints here – the orchestra played richly and the cast could cope with it most of the time. Not in Siegfried’s and Brünnhilde’s duet, when both singers seemed to be saving their resources for what lied ahead nor in the Waltraute scene, when things lost steam from all sides. The chorus sang excitingly and earthly, but act 3 failed to be the climax of this evening. The conductor seemed to have lost a bit of his pulse around Siegfried’s death. The funeral march was well done if a bit coldly and the Immolation scene hanged some fire. One can understand that the soloist had to deal with the difficulty of the scene and a calf sprain, but the fact is that the final orchestral bars were dispatched  rather bureaucratically. In terms of expression, the performance was already over by then.

Catherine Foster started cautiously and had some trouble with pitch when saying farewell to Siegfried, but warmed up to her top form in the scene with Waltraute. Singing on a wheelchair and standing up with the help of crutches tested her concentration, but did not prevent her from dealing athletically with her many high notes in act 2. The Immolation scene was sung musicianly and sensitively and her final phrases were flashed with complete abandon and power. Her achievement in this cycle will certainly reserve her a place in the pantheon of the great Wagnerian soprano of our days. If Allison Oaks (Gutrune) did not cause a lasting impression in 2014, today she offered full-toned singing and dramatic commitment. Unfortunately, Marina Prudenskaya (Waltraute) seemed a bit lost around the passaggio and could not make much of an unhelpful slow tempo in her scene. I don’t know what Stefan Vinke took before this performance, but the effect was both impressive and frightening. In the course of the performance, he became gradually more and more hyper while counting with vocal resources to match. By act III, he seemed basically mucho loco, tossing stentorian high notes in sequence and making some of them even longer than written . He tackled the woodbird narration as if he could start the opera all over again. Of course, there was not very much space to poise or finish there, but I guess good old Siegfried does not need that anyway. Markus Eiche was a firm-toned almost congenial Gunther, while Stephen Milling was a dark, threatening Hagen, unfortunately short of resonance in his high notes, as if he had a cold or something like that. Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Stephanie Houtzeel and Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde) and Christine Kohl (3. Norn) were fresh-toned and expressive Norns and Rheintöchter.

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Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is probably the least funny comedy you’ll ever see. The dialogues are overwrought, the scenes are long, the whole affair around the mastersingers is obscure, the leading man is not very friendly and there is more than a splash of xenophobia in its agenda. It also has some glorious music and that is the reason why we sit there for hours of joyless theatre. As I am a half-full-glass person, I tend to expect that one day a director will be able to dig out the humor in it and put some of the nasty stuff in perspective at the same time. I mean, at this point, everybody knows that Richard Wagner was not a nice guy – and his personal credo is not what we want to celebrate here, as much as we don’t want to listen to Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village because he wrote the Discourse on Inequality. In other words, the discussion on Wagner’s deplorable political thinking won’t be less important if directors finally overcome the guilt complex of making this comedy entertaining, while proposing (rather than superimposing) some kind of discussion.

Barry Kosky, for instance, clearly feels that comedy shouldn’t be about laughing at the expense of someone. And he is right – Beckmesser is here bullied, ridiculed and outcast by an unforgiven society of which he believed to be a part of. I don’t believe I am going to say something positive about Katharina Wagner’s production for the festival, but here it goes. Instead of focusing on Beckmesser as the victim of exclusion, she tackled the conservative forces that operate exclusion under the banner of protection of culture and national values. Mr. Kosky, instead, is a victimologist and offers a case study of how Wagner’s antisemitism pervades Meistersinger, although the libretto itself doesn’t make any direct statement of the kind. As far as the story as told goes, Beckmesser is a master singer in Nuremberg just like Pogner and Sachs. But not in this production.

Act 1 is staged in Villa Wahnfried. Eva is Cosima, Pogner is Liszt, Beckmesser is Hermann Levi (Parsifal’s original conductor, who was abused by Wagner for being Jewish) and both Sachs and Walther (and even David) are Richard Wagner. The idea is illuminating, but the staging was very difficult to understand with all those Wagners (dressed with the same costume) running to and fro. Also, the episodes with Eva and Walther seemed completely nonsensical in those circumstances. Act 2 is set in Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice (where the Nuremberg Trials took place) covered in green grass, a representation of a Germanic paradise for Germans only. Gradually all characters appear with their proper costumes (but for Cosima), until Beckmesser is finally shown as a caricature Jew. The concept here had the upper hand: Eva and Walther’s romance against the background of Beckmesser’s serenade frustrated by Sachs leading to the confusion with David and the apprentices is here something almost entirely reduced to the lynching of Beckmesser. Act 3 too is staged in Courtroom 600, but only Wagner is judged here. The good people of Nuremberg get a pass: they are after all portrayed here as innocent puppets. I don’t have to say that this overambitious program impacts the romantic plot, comedy timing and the portrayal of these characters. Everything became secondary to Mr. Kosky’s construction, which added very little insight about the characters. His discussion about the composer is no novelty in itself. In any case, there were clever and beautiful stage solutions, the sets and costumes were creative and extremely well built.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search for the late-Karajan ideal of rich orchestral conveyed through the turbo version of legato, allied to a clear sense of forward movement, made this a very pleasing performance, with the exception of an extremely messy act 2. I am not sure if I find this the best approach to this opera, the complex score of which can always benefit of clear articulation and well-defined rhythms, but it seems that these performances are not about giving Meistersinger what it needs. In any case, they would have benefited from a cast more vocally impressive than this one.

Anne Schwanewilms, to start with, offered an unacceptable performance. It was barely hearable and, whenever she had to sing out, it was raspy, wiry and her breath wouldn’t last for more than three notes in a row. This is not Brünnhilde, and Germany has plenty of good lyric sopranos able to sing the role of Eva. Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther), on the other hand, sang very smoothly. Too smoothly, I would say. His high a’s needed a little bit more support to ring freely as they should, but, in the context of this evening, this was elegant and spontaneous. Daniel Behle was a musicianly and sensitive David who lacked projection in his high notes and relied too much on falsetto. Michael Volle’s baritone is two sizes smaller than the part of Sachs, but made the best of what he had with his intelligent delivery of the text and his stage charisma. Unfortunately, he was evidently tired in act 3 and had to cheat a bit to get to the end. His scene with Beckmesser was a bit bothersome, for both singers abused off-pitch effects, making it testing to the audience. Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) proved to be capable of some smooth singing. Yet too often preferred “acting with the voice”. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was a light, fruity Magdalene and Günther Groissböck an exemplary Pogner.

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Siegfried is the toughest cookie in Frank Castorf’s Ring. I have just read what I wrote in 2014 and realize that I haven’t made my mind about it yet. I have less sense of humor than the director and would more often than not look at just the part of the stage where the original plot was taking place to avoid being distracted by the funny/cute parallel actions. In any case, as much as in 2014, I could have fun with this Siegfried many options of which I don’t endorse. It is well directed and executed – and it isn’t short of ideas.

The musical performance is a very different story. After a bumpy start with problems of synchrony, the proceedings were gaining in strength, especially after an unfocused Mime/Wanderer scene. Whenever the conductor had a large-voiced soloist, one could feel that the performance came to life not only in volume and intensity, but also in purpose and precision. When that happened, this was a very satisfying Siegfried, large-scaled but not brutal. Fortunately, the cast featured many voices sizable enough to let Maestro Janowski unleash his orchestra. The pride of place goes to Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde). In 2014, one could see that she has a beautiful voice of Wagnerian proportions, but now her singing has acquired almost Frida Leider-ish freshness, poise and radiance. She sang with unforced clarity either in lyric passages, where she offered mezza voce, legato and trills worthy of a Verdian soprano, or in exposed acuti that darted across the auditorium. Stefan Vinke’s task is far more difficult, what makes his endurance even more praiseworthy. He showed signs of fatigue towards the end of act 2 and in his scene with the Wanderer, but seemed to count with reserves of energy for his final scene, when he even managed to soften his tone now and then. Mr. Vinke’s singing is not to everyone’s taste – its middle register is nasal, his phrasing is extremelly cupo and he is not always in the centre of pitch, but he is a marathon runner and seems to be happier when flashing huge Spitzentöne in the hall. I would say that he sang better than last time I heard him in this role in the Deutsche Oper Berlin: his high notes are less constricted and therefore richer in overtones. He is also a very likable Siegfried, his boyish manners quite apt for this role. He was extremely well partnered by Andreas Conrad (Mime), a Charaktertenor with a forceful high register and a crisp and intelligent delivery of the role, not to mention that he is a stage animal. Although Albert Dohmen seemed a bit too detached as Alberich in Rheingold, here he was particularly efficient in that role, his voluminous bass baritone riding over a Wagnerian orchestra to chilling effects.

Thomas Johannes Mayer, unfortunately, was not in good voice. It lacked color and projection and his singing came across as effortful and rough. He has been pushing and forcing his tone for a wile and I am afraid that this is starting to take its toll. It is also a pity that Nadine Weissmann too was not in good shape, sounding ill at ease and greyish as Erda. Finally, Ana Durlovsky was an intelligent and crystalline Woodbird, producing some truly birdlike effects in her singing.

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The fact that a DVD of the Bayreuth Festival’s current production of Wagner’s Parsifal has been released, while the previous one, staged by Stefan Herheim, never was will remain a mystery to me. I was lucky to see Herheim’s Parsifal twice and it will remain of the most fascinating theatrical experiences in my life. I don’t believe I’ll remember Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production in two weeks. It is a collection of clichés based on a superficial premise and very poorly directed.

As it is, Mr. Laufenberg’s production sets Parsifal in the context of the clash of religions in the Middle East. Montsalvat is a Christian community threatened by the advance of Islam. There are soldiers everywhere and, probably because they are isolated and disconnected from Rome, their liturgy has taken a radical charismatic turn, which involves a very literal staging of the eucharist (yes, this is one of those Parsifals in which everyone drinks Amfortas’s blood). Titurel is very much alive and kicking and has the control over his congregation by offering this very special ritual. Parsifal is a soldier who finds the whole thing gruesome and goes away until he ends up in some sort of public bath where he is entertained by girls in burkas who finally decided to strip to their odalisque bikinis. The host, of course, is Klingsor, who seems to be trying to become Muslim, although he has a fetiche in crosses, of which he has a big collection. Kundry shows up to a naked Parsifal, whom she decides to dress up before she tries her seduction. Once he has put on some clothes, she tells him about his mother and using her mother-figure routine, she kisses him. But he doesn’t need to have any insight there: Amfortas shows up there too, what makes it puzzling when he later demands to be taken to… Amfortas.  Kundry sees that she has to try another technique and decides to play vulnerable and tells him about the hideous sin she has committed and the spiritual torment she has lived in her many incarnations since then. However, Parsifal did not care to hear. He went inside to change back in his soldier’s uniform. When he comes back, he promises to redeem her although he has no idea of what she should be redeemed of because he wasn’t even there. Anyway, he has superpowers now: Klingsor appears with the holy spear but is frozen by a Jedi gesture of Parsifal, who gets this object of venerations and breaks it in two parts, making a cross with it. Although the place is full of crosses, that one seems to be particularly powerful.

Years later, Parsifal shows up again in Montsalvat. Although he was a soldier and has maps, he couldn’t find it because of Kundry’s curse. This is supposed to be the Middle East, but the place was overgrown with gigantic tropical plants – one particular leaf is 15-meter long. But those are not regular plants – those plants represent the return to Eden. This means that the website of the Foreign Office must have deleted their warning about travelling in war zones, for a group of female tourists show up out of nowhere and decide to strip to their underwear and bathe into a tropical storm. They even decide to socialize with a funny-looking old lady who happens to be Kundry. That’s the moment when Parsifal feels ready to become king. Christians, Jews and Muslims surround Amfortas and demand explanations about Titurel’s death. It seems that they want him to perform the eucharist too, but that – even in these circumstances – is too absurd, I must have misunderstood it. At this point, Parsifal comes with the holy spear/improvised cross, which he throws away in Titurel’s coffin. Then everybody realize that they can dispose of their holy symbols there too. Now that they have seen that their religions were not that important, Parsifal says “open the shrine”. Here this means that the whole church had to be open, so the sceneries are dismantled and the lights of the Festspielhaus are turned on, so that the audience realize that… art should be the universal, all-embracing religion. You have seen that in other productions too, I suppose. Now imagine this with the level of acting of having people open their arms whenever they say something that is supposed to be important.

If you have found this all over the place, you would be twice disappointed to discover that Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting was in the same spirit. Mr. Haenchen was keen on proving that he could conduct this almost as fast as Pierre Boulez – and he did keep it in less than four hours. During the prelude, things seemed promising – it was unusually clear and organized, but as soon as poor Gurnemanz started to speak, things seemed to turn around micro-objectives, all of them related to getting over to the next point. Never any act seemed to be a coherent unit, but rather a collection of moments that had their own little climax and that would die away at zero tension. Even if the second act was particularly frustrating  in its emulation of Boulez’s beat without the French conductor’s sense of building tension, the Karfreitagzauber was the main victim of the micromanagement – when the orchestra started to feel something for it, there were only two minutes left.

I was curious about Elena Pankratova’s Kundry. I had seen her as the Färberin in Munich and was very well impressed. Therefore, I have to believe she was not in good voice this evening. Her singing today was mostly colorless and sometimes hooty, the high notes were forced and her attempt of dynamic refinement was not guided by a deep understanding of the text, which was not clearly articulated anyway. I would have to see her in this role again before I can say something. Last time I saw Parsifal, Andreas Schager took the title role. This was at the Berlin Staatsoper, and Daniel Barenboim must have been a positive influence on him, because he offered then a subtler performance. Today, it was a bit emphatic, but it is still an untiring voice of true heroic possibilities. The third act was a showcase of his possibilities, some phrases sung sensitively and musicianly. Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas is no news to me. He is another example of the rule – the vocal quality of an Amfortas is inversely proportional to the amount of skin he shows on stage. As in Buenos Aires, his grainy and greyish baritone did not pierce through the orchestra without effort. Derek Welton’s Klingsor fared better – the voice has an attractive color, even if it looses focus in its higher reaches. On the other hand, Georg Zeppenfeld’s voluminous and rich-toned bass filled the auditorium. His Gurnemanz benefited from very clear diction and, if I don’t call if fully satisfying, it is because it lacks the last ounce of the benign authority (and the glorious fullness of high notes) of a René Pape.

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My review of the Frank Castorf’s Walküre back in 2014 shows my attempt to make sense of the various and not smoothly integrated elements in his Dramaturgie. Watching it again knowing what comes next is an entirely different experience: many of the gaps left open by a messy concept are now filled by the geopolitic frame offered by the Berlin setting of both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The representation of the Rhinegold as oil (we have already seen it pictured as atomic energy in Harry Kupfer’s staging on the Green Hill) is revelatory in its associations between Gods, Nibelungs etc and the various alliances built around the oil business to these days. The way it is dealt with in the various installments of the Ring is irregular (especially in Götterdämmerung), but it makes particular sense in Die Walküre, even if the Sieglide/Siegmund affair seems a bit lost in it. Here too, it seems that the staging has been refined to achieve more coherence, even if it remains a bit all over the place.

Marek Janowski took a while to find his way in this evening’s performance. Act I alternated moments of great clarity with surprisingly messy passages. The final did not build up in continuous intensity, in spite of beautiful isolated passages, such as a light-footed Winterstürme aided by a well-chosen soloist. The second act showed the orchestra in greater form and, after a bumpy Fricka/Wotan scene, things settled in rich sonoroties and some urgence, something that would reach a peak in the last act, in which Wotan’s entrance was the highlight of the whole evening, a truly exciting moment of great power and amazing playing of the string section, in perfect balance with the bass.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde has greatly developed since 2014. With the exception of her first scene in act III, when she sounded a bit tired and quite wayward with intonation in her high notes, she sang with naturalness and youthfulness of tone, praiseworthy lyricism, variety and elegance. Camilla Nylund’s Sieglinde was intelligently conceived and smoothly sung, but the lack of cutting edge in her soprano had her consistently on 100% and therefore rather monochrome. Nonetheless, she still found it difficult to pierce through, leaving the conductor two options: reining in the orchestra to adjust or drowning her. In her climactic act III solo, the second solution was chosen, a sensible if still a bit disappointing choice. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre Fricka. She sounded out of sorts and was not very precise with her notes either. Christopher Ventris was a lyric, fresh-toned Siegmund, without any hint of baritonal quality in his singing. John Lundgren’s basic tonal quality is apt for the role of Wotan, even if the sound could be overly nasal and both ends of his range could sound short of overtones and a bit forced. Fortunately, he could gather his resources for the closing scene. Although the mezza voce was unfocused, he did not refrain from trying to soften his tone and reached the end of the opera in healthy voice. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding was really more convincing here compared to his performance in Salzburg, where he sounded a bit well-behaved and not truly menacing. As for the Valkyries, there was some problem of intonation in an otherwise forceful and characterful group of singers.

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Having seen Frank Castorf’s staging of the Ring for the Bayreuth Festival in its second season , I cannot help comparing the experience of watching it again in its final run with my impressions from 2014. “Puzzling” is a word I could use to describe the whole affair back then: the staging seemed incoherent and the musical performance was extremely disappointing, especially in what regarded Kyrill Petrenko’s conducting. Today, when my neighbor asked me why on Earth Marek Janowski was being booed (by a small group of people, truth be said), I answered him “These people definitely weren’t here in 2014”.

Today’s was hardly unforgettable, but was quite satisfying. At least today there was a sonorous orchestra on duty. It has not started very well, though. The prelude was a bit imprecise and the opening scene was rather messy, but it would gradually gain purpose. It was very occasionally exciting and it would invariably offer more satisfaction when lyricism was called for. This would steadily develop into a noble sounding, well-balanced and clear closing scene, when one could hear the hallmark full-toned yet not aggressive echter Bayreuther Klang. This was actually my first Rheingold with Maestro Janowski. Although I had seen all the non-Ring operas (but for the Holländer) in his cycle at the Philharmonie with the Berlin RSO, the only installment of the Ring under his baton I could see was the Walküre at the Tokyo Harusai , a performance where forward-movement and clarity seemed to be the priority (qualities that could be used to describe his studio recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden). I cannot say that today’s Rhinegold is consistent with these words, but I am curious to hear the Walküre tomorrow before I say anything else.

Now that I know what is going to happen next in Mr. Castorf’s production, I confess that I have just watched his Rhinegold without any intent of finding meaning in it, but let myself follow it and ultimately find it more satisfying (even if still incoherent and eventually pointless). It is very well directed in terms of Personenregie and the Fassbinder-ian atmosphere adds some dimension (not a truly Wagnerian one, but anyway…) to these characters. Also, three years later, blocking looks sharper, many ineffective details have been deleted and there is more a sense of ensemble. I would only say that the episodes involving Alberich are marginally less satisfying, but that involves the choice of a veteran singer in this key role.

Although Albert Dohmen (whom I saw as Wotan in Bayreuth in Tankred Dorst’s production) is still in resonant and firm voice, his stage persona just lack the drive and the intensity necessary for this force-of-nature role. In 2014, Oleg Bryjak sounded far less polished, but the rawness and the drive were there. This evening’s Wotan, however, offered something more focused than Wolfgang Koch three years ago. Iain Paterson’s bass baritone is less incisive than Koch’s, but nobler in tone and richer in its middle register. While Koch’s Wotan was vulgar-and-loving-it, Paterson was cynical and self-involved and even funnier in Castorf’s dark screwball approach. I am not so enthusiastic about this year’s tenors, however. Daniel Behle was ill-at-ease as Froh, unsure about his lines and constricted of tone, and Roberto Saccà’s squally and grainy Loge lacked variety and projection. Among male singers, none was as exciting as the basses cast as the giants – a powerful, intense Günther Groissböck (Fasolt) and a firm-, dark-toned Karl-Heinz Lehner as Fafner.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was a light, fruity Fricka, a bit upstaged by Nadine Weissmann, whose Erda developed a lot since 2014. It is now deeper in tone, smoother in legato and even more expressive.

 

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Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk used to be a “for a change” item in the repertoires of big theatres in the world and you would expect to see the B-team creative team working on a low budget. It has, however, increasingly tempted adventurous first-rate sopranos (especially those who sing Wagner) willing to try a role challenging both in terms of music and theatre. Although this is a groundbreaker in Russian opera, the discography and videography practically feature no recordings made in Russia. For instance, Galina Vishnevskaya is the only Russian soprano whose performance in the title role has been officially released. As it is, this work’s performance tradition has been built rather in the “20th century opera” than in the “Russian opera” shelf of one’s library. This evening in the Großes Festspielhaus, in one hand, confirms this trend: it has the Vienna Philharmonic (there already is a live recording with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) conducted by Mariss Jansons (who had already recorded it with Eva-Maria Westbroek, Christopher Ventris and the Concertgebouw) and was supposed to feature Nina Stemme’s Katarina Izmailova. With her cancellation due to illness, this finally ended up being one of the most “Russian” casts ever to appear in an important theatre in the West. The leading tenor is American – and there are two Ukrainians.

In any case, the most important element of this performance is Mariss Jansons’s conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Maestro Jansons has developed the reputation of a specialist in Shostakovich’s music and proves to be immune to all clichés and shortcuts in this score. He resists the temptation of having an angle and lets the score speak in its wide-raging possibilities. Under his baton, this is grand-scale drama. The Latvian conductor paints, with deluxe orchestral sound, the kaleidoscopic atmosphere of this wide-ranging story without any parti pris. Every scene is given what its text and music demands, as a seasoned Lieder singer would do in a Schubert song. Mr. Janssons does not make light of Katarina’s predicament – he does convey the composer’s cynicism, but he takes it seriously too. And this only makes everything more poignant and more cruel. The fact that he has the Vienna Phiharmonic with him can be described by my neighbor’s reaction, which was letting go a “Wahnsinn!” every time he heard vortices of perfectly blended woodwind, brass and strings spin out in absolute precision. And this was often.

Originally cast as a prisioner in the last act, Evgenia Muraveva was promoted to the title role (it is not clear to me if she had already sung it or if she was scheduled to sing it for the first time in the Mariinsky in the near future) as Ms. Stemme fell ill. Hers is a vibrant and slightly metallic soprano one typycally calls “Slavic”, with a mezzo-ish low register and yet surprisingly ductile in floated mezza voce and keen on legato whenever lyricism is demanded. Being Russian herself, the text is delivered with crispness and purpose. Although I was curious to hear Nina Stemme’s unique vocal colors in it, I was fully satisfied by Ms. Muraveva’s freshness of approach and authencity. By the enthusiastic applause she received, I believe that everyone else in the theatre agrees with me. Her Sergey was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, whose warm tenor has the necessary smile to make the character truly believable. For someone who sings Wagner, his high notes did not ring heroically in the auditorium, but that only added a welcome soft-spoken quality to his character. Dmitry Uliyanov was a resonant, firm-toned Boris Timofeyevich and all minor roles were aptly cast.

Andreas Kriegenburg stages this in the decayed courtyard of a suburban residential building and, even if it might seem contemporary, this is actually secondary to the sensation of isolation, confinement and social desintegration. Although Harald B. Thor’s sets are impressive and atmospheric, the director’s focus is on the Personenregie, which tries to depict the moods and feelings of the character rather than make them symbolic or metaphoric.  As a result, the audience couldn’t help being drawn into the dramatic action and empathize with those people whose stories are being told on stage.

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Before the purchase of a ticket for a performance of Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear, I only knew its existence from seeing the DGG CD with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on its cover in music stores. As I had never seen Gerald Finley is a fully staged opera before (I did see him as Golaud in a semi-staged performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in Berlin), why not give it it a try? In order to prepare myself, I’ve downloaded the CD with Fischer-Dieskau, to whom the role had been written, and ordered the libretto through amazon.de . I have to be honest here – it took me a great deal of will power to keep listening after 10 minutes.

To start with, King Lear is my least favorite among Shakespeare’s plays. When my father first explained the plot when I was a kid, I remember thinking that every character was either very mean or very stupid – all of them conceited. Decades later, my impression has not changed much. Second, Reimann does not know how to write vocal parts. Singers are generally repeating the same note in a very uncomfortable spot in their range, generally a note too high to allow them to make any sense of the text. Also, the vocal lines are not truly integrated to the orchestra, which is on paper very complex in its serial motives, sophisticated sequences of clusters and ostinato bass, but ultimately sounds very loud, percussive and repetitive in its comments after the singer has ended to sing what he or she has to “sing”. It is so uniformly bombastic that after a while you just get used to the fact this is the default – and only very occasionally one is able to feel some emotional connection with what is going on on stage. Sitting through a whole performance of Lear made me see charms long forgotten in Verdi’s Aida.

In any case, I don’t think that I need a second chance. This evening’s performance had the Vienna Philharmonic jumping at every (and rare) opportunity to produce expressive sounds in a way the Bavarian State Orchestra could not dream to compete with, especially here under Franz Welser-Möst’s judicious conducting. One could see he was trying to add some contrast and variety to the proceedings, but was reduced by the very quality of this music to making things precise and balanced. His soloists too embraced their difficult parts with absolute engagement and often sounded more interesting than the singers in the original recording. Although Gerald Finley’s baritone  is less powerful than DF-D, his warmer tonal quality made him more clearly vulnerable and therefore touching. His absolute commitment to his role was the highlight of this evening. It is an admirable accomplishment of an ungrateful task, one that required immense artistic generosity. Taking a role first sung by Julia Varady, Anna Prohaska was often taken to her limits and was not always easy to hear, but brought a splash of freshness in her pure-toned soprano and poised phrasing. I am not sure if I prefer Evelyn Herlitzius’s Goneril to Helga Dernesch’s, whose extra warmth and clearer projection in her middle register added something regal to that uncongenial character. In any case, Ms. Herlitzius’s hoch dramatisch Sopran always causes a flashing impression in the theatre. The fact that Gun-Brit Bakmin’s Regan did not shy away of the competition in terms of radiance and power makes me think that there might be an Elektra or a Brünnhilde waiting for her in the future. She was far preferable to the singer featured in the première. I have the impression that Matthias Klink (Kent) and Charles Workman (Edmund) should have traded roles, for the former’s incisive projection of high notes would have added more menace to the latter’s role.

The Felsenreitschule is a difficult venue for a stage director – and Simon Stone had some very creative ideas, especially in the closing scene, but relied to much on repetitive gags and some Regietheater clichés that finally were more distracting than illuminating. I understand that the plot is very gloomy and pessimistic and that a bit of contrast might help, but when the caricature seems to be in the very core of a staging it is difficult to find the human beings behind the slapstick.

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The Salzburg Festival’s Aida is the best Aida money can buy these days. It has the world’s leading prima donna, the world’s most renowned Verdi conductor and one of the world’s top orchestras. As many of Verdi’s grand operas, it needs sacro fuoco to take off. And the problem is that this is something one can’t buy. In any case, the parts here were greater than the sum and all of them deserve respect.

I won’t make suspense and start with what everybody wants to read about. Anna Netrebko is a singer incapable of doing things bureaucratically. Even when she is not very specific about what she is doing, she always seems to be having lots of fun with it. Having fun with a role as formidably difficult as Aida requires that you are up to sing it. And she is. This is the first time I have been in the theatre to see this opera that I knew from the start that the soprano would reach the last scene without putting herself in a difficult situation. From beginning to end, her voice sounded full, unforced, voluminous and rich, every high note blossoming exquisitely in the large hall. The acuti in O patria mia sounded like music; with one exception, she floated her high pianissimo notes famously and chopped her lines less than she is often accused of doing. Some may say that this was rather a diva act than a coherent dramatic performance (i.e., something sung by Maria Callas or Renata Scotto), but that is not me. I’ve really got what I had paid for. And the ticket was expensive.

Ekaterina Semenchuk is a very solid singer, with faultless technique and good taste, but she is not a powerhouse Amneris. These days nobody is – and she comes closer than everyone else. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect things like “chewing the scenery” or “peeling the paint off the walls”. In any case, a crispier projection of the Italian text could have make it more compelling. I’ve seen a lighter-toned Daniela Barcellona generate some thrill just by her incisive delivery and two or three tricks under her sleeve. Tricks that she must have shared with Francesco Meli, who survived the role of Radamès really commendably. He understandably chose poise over macho-ism, never forced his tone, sang his high notes firmly but prudently and relied on the brightness and naturalness of his voice. In the end, he left an impression of youth and vulnerability that sounded like a viable option in those circumstances. Luca Salsi (Amonasro) was in very good voice. This was probably the best I’ve ever heard from him. At this point, Roberto Tagliavini could say his job is “King of Egypt” and he does it really as an expert. Dmitry Belosselskiy was a resonant Ramfis, firmer in tone than he sounded in the visit of the Rome Opera in Tokyo three years ago.

Riccardo Muti has serious competition in his younger self when he recorded Aida in London for EMI with Montserrat Caballé, Plácido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto. Verdi is no Brahms and what makes it happen is raw energy guided by clockwork precision. And that was Maestro Muti’s hallmark quality. Some decades later the raw energy is not there anymore. There is still the firm pulse and the ear for detail, but this is only half of what you need. When you expect things to develop to full impact they are only rounded off very professionally. I’ve had the luck to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct Aida in La Scala’s visit to Tokyo and the feeling was that you’re watching some very primitive force of nature being unleashed. This evening,  I’ll remember a closing scene in which the Vienna Philharmonic produced sounds the heavenly beauty of which might have inspired Richard Strauss.

Visual artist Shirin Neshat is a newcomer to the world of opera and one can see that in her generic, highly aestheticized production that looked as if she had bought everything in a Muji Store. I would use some of those sets if I had a garden big enough for them. The costumes borrowed from Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, however, were bought somewhere else. Somewhere cheap.

 

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The most famous opinion about Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is Empress Maria Luisa’s remark at the premiere that it was nothing but a porcheria tedesca (i.e., a German piece of sh*t) . The fact, however, is that absolutist monarchs could not have liked a work the whole concept of which is compromise. In terms of operatic writing, it blends the highly formal tradition of opera seria with the most recent innovations in terms of theatre and music eagerly apprehended by Mozart in his travels and readings, but most importantly: it is a story about acknowledging the point-of-view of one’s ennemies. As director Peter Sellars says, it is about “sharing the government with those who have tried to kill you”. This thought led him to compare the Titus Vespiasianus in the libretto with Nelson Mandela, whose example of reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa has become exemplary in contemporary History.

The idea in itself is thought-provoking and illuminating (and so fitting to libretto involving situations so similar to press conferences, state meetings, public events and even a terrorist attack). As conceived by Mr. Sellars, Tito is a Mandela-like head of government who makes a point in including a white friend (Sesto) in his inner circle. However, he has to deal with a close collaborator, Vitellia, who orchestrates a coup against him by seducing Sesto and pushing him into an attempt against the president’s life. In this version, it is not Lentulus who is killed by mistake. Here, Titus himself is seriously wounded and eventually dies in the end of the opera, just after forgiving his murderers.

It is indeed an interesting idea, but the problem about theatre is that you don’t _stage_ ideas, but _actions_. That is when the whole Dramaturgie concocted by Mr. Sellars starts to sink. First of all, the Felsenreitschule is no regular stage. It is a huge space with a very characteristic and inescapable multileveled colonnade that dwarfs actors and all possibility of zoomed-in acting. Combined with the fact that the director showed no interest in the private affairs of these characters, the plot here is reduced to public utterances the reason of which the audience is unable to understand. One doesn’t see any sexual attraction between Vitellia and Sesto, any sign of friendship between Tito and Sesto, anything behind Vitellia’s bitchiness towards Tito. Even after Sesto’s attempt against Tito’s life, the victim doesn’t seem really concerned about the fact that it was a close friend who has tried to kill him. In the end, the whole purpose of trying to reconcile these people and the country is left to imagination. Titus does not seem to care about any of them. What one ultimately sees on stage is almost nihilistic – the president is dead and everything seems lost. That could be a story, but not this story.  There are beautiful stage effects, but one feels shortchanged, especially when shown a possibility that could have worked beautifully if it had been REALLY staged.

Peter Sellars is not the only person with ideas here. Conductor Teodor Currentzis is a box of Pandora in that department. For instance, sandwiching numbers of Mass K427 and other works by Mozart in the performing edition, which has been shorn of the Tito/Sesto/Publio trio to make space for pages and pages of music in Latin. More problematic is the fact that the recitatives have been butchered in a way that one can hardly understand what goes on in act II, since the only link between one number and the next is a Kyrie or a Qui tollis. When Tito finally says he has forgiven Sesto, the poor fellow makes an expression of surprise. No wonder – all dialogues in which this fact was stated had been deleted!

Although the performance itself has many of the usual niceties associated to Mr. Currentzis – the orchestral playing is multicolored and theatrical, the structural clarity is revelatory, the choral singing is immaculate and there is energy aplenty – his mannerisms are all there too. There is the pervasive fortepiano, a dangerous amount of unwritten pauses, a fancy for overdecoration and a playing with the beat to highlight details that distorts the overall sense of proportion. I had known Mr. Currentzis’s Mozart from recordings and found all of them interesting for a change before I go back to less excentric performances, but live it has the virtue of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

In terms of cast, this afternoon was quite below the reputation of the Salzburg Festival, with the exception of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa (Sesto). Her finely focused, firm and warm mezzo sails through Mozartian lines without any hint of effort. She had the audience on her feet in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when she offered flawless coloratura and forceful high notes. Moreover, she has dramatic temper to spare and is a very good actress. Although Jeanine De Bique (Annio) is a soprano, I only discovered that when she sang the solo in the Kyrie from the Mass K 427. Until then, her mezzoish singing had fooled me. She could have caused a more positive impression, though, if her diction was a little bit clearer. The veteran Willard White (Publio) is still in firm voice and found no problem in his aria.

Golda Schultz is, of course, a lovely Mozartian soprano, but one cannot make a Vitellia out of a Servilia. As it was, her singing never went beyond prettiness and she was sorely tested by the tessitura in Non più di fiori. Russell Thomas has a strong, interesting voice, but Mozart is not his repertoire (I had seen him only once before, in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo). He sounded ill at ease with the style, needed more breathing pauses than every tenor I have heard in this role and sounded greyish when had to soften his tone. I have the impression he was not at his best voice today. Finally, Christine Gansch has beautiful high notes, but often sounded ungainly and blowsy, especially in her aria.

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