Archive for December, 2018

For his only opera, Beethoven took no easy options and gave his musicians – either on stage and in the pit – no easy job. It is a work of extremes, it is a cry for freedom, it must be an overwhelming experience for all involved, the artists and the audience. Of course, for the musicians it is also another day at work. I.e.: although the idea that they would give their all in one performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is very romantic, there are other performances in the run and even other work assignments. This must sound an overstatement, but those who have read Christa Ludwig’s biography know the temptation of giving too much in this of all operas and having to face the consequences later. In any case, almost everybody involved in this evening’s performance in the Staatsoper Unter den Linded need not to fear. This was a job almost entirely done on the safe side. Another day at the office, task completed. One can hardly blame their musicians for his or her own expectation of catharsis.

As my eight of nine readers might have guessed, this means I left the theatre frustrated. Believe it or not, this was my first Fidelio in Germany. It is a bit unfair that my last Fidelio, in the Vienna State Opera, fulfilled all my expectations and the “homecoming” to the Lindenoper after so many years in the Schiller-Theater made me wish for something unforgettable too. If someone has a great share of responsibility in my disappointment this would be Karl-Heinz Steffens. His conducting this evening could appear in the dictionary as the example of the bad meaning of the word kapellmeister. Not only his traffic cop duties were performed with little affection, but considering the high level of false entries his beat must be a bit difficult to follow. There was also a problematic approach to phrasing, as if the idea were to emulate Herbert von Karajan’s “smoothness” , what came across as simply as smudgy. The blunders with the French horns in Leonore’s big aria were just a symbol of everything that was not working properly this evening. Fortunately, the chorus was willing to give more and, when finally allowed to let loose, they showed how this performance should have been. Unfortunately these were the last five minutes of the opera.

It did not help either that the Leonore 2 was preferred to the Fidelio overture. Always when that happens, I can’t help thinking that Beethoven must have given a great deal of thought when he finally decided how this opera should begin. The fact that we had Marzelline aria before the duet with Jacquino, however, does not mean that this was an early version of the opera. Other than two noted differences, the regular final version of Fidelio seemed to have been adopted.

Harry Kupfer’s 2016 production for the Staatsoper actually has a great share of the low level of drama this evening. The director himself explains that it is a mistake to see Fidelio as a work that begins as a Spieloper, develops into a heroic opera until it finally settles as an oratorio, but curiously this is exactly how he stages it. After the overture, we see the chorus and the soloists as musicians in the Musikverein hall. Suddenly, the backdrop falls and they are in a prison. In the first finale, the prisoners shed their prisoner uniform and appear as themselves. The second act first shows Florestan as a tenor with the score of Fidelio. He then chains himself and “becomes” Florestan. The finale ultimo is performed again as a concert performance in the Musikverein, Don Fernando as the conductor and everybody reading from their scores. If you ask me if these directorial choices boost any theatricality, the answer is “no”. It drains Fidelio of its dramatic force, straitjackets the cast and denies Fidelio of its triumphant climax. This is the second time this week I have been denied the “triumph of goodness” and, if directors go on like that, I will have to resort to Walt Disney to find solace from the prevailing idiocracy in this world.

Simone Schneider’s rich, lyric soprano, rock-solid in bottom notes is judiciously used by a singer who knows her voice well and is fully prepared for a difficult task. She confidently sailed through Abscheulicher! without ever putting herself in danger, but this was a performance about the mechanics. Her voice lacks a cutting edge and act II showed her rather well-behaved and small-scaled. At some point, she sounded also a bit tired. In the end, one has to acknowledge her professionalism, but the character envisaged by Beethoven has little to do with what we heard tonight at the theatre. Curiously, Mandy Fredrich, who made a career as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, sounded similarly dispirited as Marzelline, rather unfocused in her high notes, even if she did not seem to find any problem in producing them. In the short but important role of Don Fernando, Arttu Katajan too sounded small-scale and lacking nobility.

Fortunately, the remaining singers in the cast inhabited a whole different universe. I am surprised by Klaus Florian Vogt’s fully committed incursion in the difficult role of Florestan. His was a rather Mozartian approach to the part, albeit one sung in a naturally voluminous voice and fully informed by the text. Even if his singing lacked powerful heroic top notes, this seemed coherent to his almost instrumental approach to the usually unsingable stretta of his aria. Actually, the unheroic quality of his singing scored many points in terms of theatre. This was rather the voice of a prisoner almost starved to death and kept alive by the dream of seeing his beloved wife once more time. This also made more sense in his pairing to Ms. Schneider’s also rather Mozartian Leonore. Moreover, one could bet that what Beethoven might have heard is closer to what we hard tonight than to what Klemperer offers in his recording (namely Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers). Finding Falk Struckmann in firm voice after all those years of heavy use and was a very good surprise. His Pizarro was powerfully sung and he has no problem with sounding really nasty. In that sense, he was extremely well contrasted to René Pape’s utterly likable Rocco. Mr. Pape’s singing was predictably one of this evening’s greatest assets. Last but not least, Florian Hoffmann was a light-toned, vulnerable and congenial Jacquino.


Read Full Post »

The fact that Handel is no longer a rarity in the repertoire has made opera houses curious about what is still there to be explored in terms of baroque opera. The Berlin Staatsoper has been particularly serious in its intent of venturing in the most unusual corners of the XVIIIth and XVIIth centuries by programing works of composers such as Telemann and Graun, but it might sound hard to believe that Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie is having its Berlin première (in the 1757 version plus borrowed scenes from previous editions) in 2018. Actually, it is not hard to explain. French tragédie lyrique is a genre that never travelled well until France took a prominent position in the movement of historically informed performances. Many French musicians (or foreign artists who have made France their home such as William Christie) found a mission in performing and recording the pillars of French music, such as the works of Charpentier, Lully and Rameau. With them, a generation of singers made their names singing French baroque music. We could quote Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Mireille Delunsch. Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie has pride of place in terms of popularity. Since the now legendary performances in Aix-en-Province under John Eliot Gardiner with Jessye Norman and José van Dam, it has been recorded in studio by William Christie (with Lorraine Hunt) and Marc Minkowski (with Gens and Bernarda Fink) and live in the theatre on video, most notably in the Palais Garnier in a spectacular production by Ivan Alexandre conducted by Emanuelle Haïm with Sarah Connolly and Stéphane Degout (both singers would appear again in a video from Glyndebourne conducted by Christie).

Normally, a performance like this in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden would be conducted by René Jacobs, but this time the former principal director of the Berliner Philharmoniker was the driving force behind this project. He had already conducted Rameau’s Les Boréades decades ago and found in it an opportunity for both him and his wife, Magdalena Kozena, to perform an opera considered by both particularly innovative at the time in its dramatic potentials. However, the peculiarities of staging an opera with so many dance numbers made him carefully choose his creative team. After some years of negotiation, he finally had choreographer Aletta Collins as director and Ólafur Eliasson as designer. Whereas Sir Simon has opted for a period instrument orchestra in the Freiburg Barockorchester, Ms. Collins and Mr. Eliasson had decided to recreate the impact of baroque theatre not by being faithful to the letter, but by recreating the experience of integration between stage and auditorium and the use of all kind of theatrical effects to dazzle the audience. Even if one must concede that the staging tended to be static and short in drama, the light effects that flooded the hall in color were simply otherworldly. The dance numbers were very effective, creative and well-integrated in the concept as a while. I am not so convinced about the unbecoming and sometimes awkward costumes for both leading ladies, though.

I won’t lie. Rameau works for me better in small doses rather than in a whole bottle. Although something like Les Indes Galantes is intrinsically problematic in terms of story (basically, it has none), it is far more varied than Hyppolite et Aricie, whose melodic numbers tend to sound like one another. None of them is as catchy as Forêts paisibles or exquisite as Tendre amour. The conductor seems to be aware of this and offered a hearty, vigorous performance, more German in its sheer energy than French in its poised and spirited suppleness. This is not a problem per se, but that meant that the orchestra – in the renovated Lindenoper’s warm acoustic – was loud and a group of accordingly louder singers would have done all the difference in the world.

Let’s talk first of the two singers who were, as the French say, bien dans leur peau, those in the title roles. This is not Anna Prohaska’s first staged Rameau and, being a specialist in baroque music, she proves to be comfortable with the style and the language. Moreover, her silvery soprano is an unusual choice in a role taken by creamier-toned singers, a choice that pays off in its young-sounding and bell-toned impression. Aricie is a role that tends to the faceless, and an edgier sound gives it some character. Reinoud Van Mechelen’s haute-contre has more substance in his high notes than what is one used to hear. As Hyppolite is usually referred to as “the hero” , a little bit testosterone is welcome. This does not mean that Mr Van Mechelen does not float his high notes in head tones as he is supposed to, only that he manages to do that without sounding disincarnate. Elsa Dreisig too was very well cast as Diane, her lyric soprano homogenous, round and spontaneous.

I am not so sure about the royal couple, good as both singers are. Magdalena Kozena does not lack intensity in the role of Phèdre, but her voice does lack amplitude for it, especially in her lower register. We have heard it with the above mentioned Norman, Hunt, Fink and Connolly, all of them richer in sound and darker in tone. In comparison with these ladies’ tragical grandeur, Ms. Kozena sounded just annoyed. Gyula Orerndt too sang with vehemence and engagement, but he shares with his Phèdre the small scale. Some small roles were very well sung (and danced): the sweet-toned Slavka Zamecnikova and Serena Saenz Molinero offered praiseworthy performances. The Staatsoper chorus does not usually sings French baroque music, but acquitted itself quite commendably too.

Read Full Post »

The Semperoper’s new staging of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is not limited to what happens on stage. On arriving at the theatre’s foyer, one could see a group of people in tuxedos and long dresses having dinner to the sound of live chamber music. One would discover later that these are the guests to the dinner party in the house of Vienna’s richest man in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. As the butler insists to say, the main event in this soirée is going to be the fireworks. As we left the theatre, the usher did not fail to hand out sparklers to all members in the audience. Does that mean that director David Hermann faithfully followed every word written by Hofmannsthal? Even if the action is updated to our days, Mr. Hermann showed unusual care to the libretto. For instance, according to the text, the lord of the house gave clear instructions that the actors in the vaudeville were supposed to “decorate” the depressing sets of the opera, but what one usually sees is Zerbinetta and her troupe appearing on stage only when they have to sing. Not here. As asked by their patron, the comedians are practically continuously on stage – and Mr. Hermann really had to use his imagination to make that work. And, well, it did work. The clash of neoclassical and rococo aesthetics as represented by commedia dell’arte and opera seria are in the core of this mise-en-scène’s concept. The problem of a production so observant of the author’s original ideas is that the eventual liberty taken by the director cannot help being at-your-face conspicuous. For instance, the gender-ambiguous Composer or the Bacchus in his ordinary clothes who seems to have transcended the limits of role-playing and acquired some sort of hyperconsciousness that allows him to “operate” the stage à la “Matrix”. It seems that the director at some point decided that he should add some sort of insight to the proceedings, but it did feel rather “added upon” than “built from within”. In any case, this is a beautiful staging with plenty of clever scenic solutions and careful Personenregie – and it could have perfectly done without the “interpretative touch of genius”.

If there is a repertoire in which Christian Thielemann can do no wrong this is Richard Strauss. The kind of orchestral sound this music requires is something that he is naturally able to obtain from an orchestra, especially the one Strauss himself called the Wunderharfe. Tonight, the audience was treated the most exquisite orchestral playing in the market. Mr. Thielemann’s main purpose this evening seemed to be absolute clarity, but not in the sense of “making everything hearable” , but rather in that of revealing the meaning behind every phrase in this score. A deaf person would have left the auditorium knowing the complete structure of thematic relations devised by the Bavarian composer. During the prologue, I could not help thinking this was the Straussian performance of a lifetime, but the opera itself – good as it was – did not reach the same paramount level. Although Mr. Thielemann is one of the most solid conductors of our days, there is something pretty much beyond his reach, and this is “relaxing”. Ariadne auf Naxos will always be a tough cookie, for reconciling the burlesque and the grandiose in the opera will always be a challenge, especially for typically Wagnerian conductors. Although I fully endorse Mr. Thielemann’s idea of making the comedy episode more serious by keeping a more regular beat and a considerate tempo (and a certain fullness of sound), when Ariadne and Bacchus are alone at last, instead of regaining the flexibility shown in the prologue and the even at the first part of the opera, the tendency to make things more serious had already gained too much momentum to be contained. By the end, the impression was rather of ponderousness. Had he been able to boost the volume of his orchestra, this could have somehow worked in a very Siegfried-ian way, but his cast was hanging fire by then and there was no other option but to rein in.

I have always believed that there is some sort of curse involved the title role in this opera. It is almost never marvelously sung, even when a great soprano is indeed cast. For instance, Krassimira Stoyanova was a very good Marschallin in Salzburg, and the idea of g her as Ariadne seemed natural. On paper, her voice is perfect for the role. At first, it was all there: the creamy tone, the floated mezza voce, the low notes, the noble phrasing and even a special attention to the text. But the climax of Es gibt ein Rich already showed an opaque quality to her high notes whenever she sings above mezzo forte. In order to be heard in those moments, she had to employ a great deal of energy, with variable results. The sound has very little squillo these days and her only tool to ride the orchestra was really going full powers. In the difficult final scene, she was just too tired, the tone was gray and she had to adapt what R. Strauss wrote to reach the end of some phrases. That is indeed a pity, for, maybe in a better day, she could be a plausible exponent of this role. Her liability here was made more evident by the vocal opulence of her Bacchus, Stephen Gould at his most powerful and richest toned. This part is on the high side for his voice and I was worried by what he would make of it. He scored many points by producing perfect mezza voce in the high a in Weh, bist du auch solche eine Zauberin?, but started to get pinched until he finally omitted the high b flat* in his final phrase. In spite of that, Mr. Gould sang beautifully and I was glad I could hear him in this role.

Daniela Fally is an extremely light-toned Zerbinetta, rather on the soubrettish side of the soprano spectrum. She is a musicianly and intelligent singer, whose vivid handling of the text in her native language is highlighted by very clear diction, even when things get really high. Her coloratura is clear and her trills are acceptable. As many superlight Zerbinettas, she gets nervous when Strauss takes her above the high c. In this moments, the tone becomes glassy and her breath shorter. Other than this, she offered a charming and spirited performance. She was very well partnered by Rafael Fingerlos’s Harlekin, with more than a splash of Olaf Bär in his light, dulcet baritone. Although Albert Dohmen’s vowels are a bit overdark, he was in very good voice and sang forcefully as the Music Master. There was also a truly euphonious trio of nymphs in Tuuli Takala, Evelin Novak and Simone Schröder. Joseph Dennis and Carlos Osuna were probably the richest-toned pair of tenors ever to appear in Zerbinetta’s troupe – and Alexander Pereira (yes, the Alexander Pereira) was a funny Haushofmeister.

I leave the best for last. As she was in Berlin, Daniela Sindram is a superlative, out-of-this-world Komponist. Her singing of this role is of golden age quality. As she is less famous than she deserved to be, I make a point of making it clear how much I appreciate her singing both here and in Der Rosenkavalier.

Read Full Post »

I had not been in the Opéra Bastille for a long while and, on leaving the subway, the view of something that resembles Christoph Schlingensief’s Parsifal was definitely a bad omen. Once past the abyssal subway exit, I took a good look at the building. I did remember it was an uninspired project, but not that it was so ugly. It did not take long to recollect the unhelpful acoustics – and then I had to deal with an audience who behaved as everybody was five years old. As if coughing without any attempt of muffling the noise or fidgeting with their personal belongings were not enough, there was always anyone getting up and walking to the exits and back. Not to mention the perpetual whispering and sounds of cellphones. I have to be honest: all that made me disinclined to enjoy the performance.

If I tell you all that, it is because I want to be fair before I say that the whole experience was extremely disappointing. Enfant terrible director Calixto Bieito says that Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is an opera he particularly likes. In his opinion, Verdi took special pains in portraying his character’s psychology. Hence his decision on concentrating in a scenic space beyond time and space, where Simon’s dreams and nightmares can be seen. In terms of staging, this means a very poorly lit rotating stage decorated by a three-story structure vaguely similar to a ship. That does not make any difference in terms of dramatic action, for almost every scene is set downstage right on the edge of the stage. One step further and those singers would fall into the orchestral pit. Actually, that does not make any difference either, for the actor who receives more attention from the director is someone unlisted in the dramatis personae, i.e., Maria Boccanegra, snr, who paces up and down, looking like a junkie and making eerie faces. The real characters in the plot are left to fend for themselves. Amelia says she loves her father, but she never really comes near him at all, even when the text says she is supposed to be doing that. Actors claim to have objects that nobody see, to go out while remaining in the same place and a neverending list of absurdities. Everybody knows that the plot of Simon Boccanegra is a bit difficult to follow, but this staging guarantees its utter incomprehensibility. One could say – yes, but the trade-off is the gain in insight and expression. Well, my neighbors consistently laughed of the most touching scenes in the story. So much for the extra insight… If this performance caused me any insight, this was realizing that Elijah Moshinski’s staging for the Royal Opera House, unimaginative as it is, is really better than I thought.

Unfortunately, the musical side of this performance was not really of great help here. Conductor Fabio Luisi never ceased to give example of finesse and intelligence this evening. If he did have a truly responsive orchestra, this could have sounded like Richard Strauss. As it was, the house band lacked sound and homogeneity. Mr. Luisi deserves praise for the almost physical effort employed to make sure that there would be at least the minimal polish. That meant that there was very little possibility of working on expression here. This was particularly bothersome in terms of tension. The energy levels of this evening’s music making kept sagging and in the end nobody really cared anymore. Only a cast like the one inClaudio Abbado’s recording could have saved a performance  like this. And this was hardly the case.

Anita Hartig was until recently the Vienna State Opera’s resident Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. This says almost anything you need to know about her Amelia. Hers is an appealing, bright-toned voice used with musicianship and sensitivity. Even if its radiance makes it all right hearable, it lacks volume, especially in its lower end. Also, she is not truly capable of full lyric high notes. As ersatz, she offers glaring, fluttery and brittle sounds that – loud as they are – are not truly integrated in the legato she observes in less demanding passages. Her mezza voce, on the other hand, is truly lovely. But that is pretty much it. Her Adorno was the similarly light-toned Francesco Demuro, whom I saw as Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte a couple of years ago. As his Amelia, he can distort the tone to find a brighter edge to pierce through. But the results remain small-scaled, lachrymose and lacking spontaneity. Mika Kares (Fiesco) does have a voluminous voice and dark enough. It is however rather soft-centered, more suggestive of a Sarastro than Verdi-material. That said, he had a brave stab at the part. Nicola Alaimo (Paolo) too has big enough a voice and sang with animation, even if the very high notes in the part could have a little bit more focus.

Then there is Ludovic Tézier in the title role. This is the first time I hear him live, and his grainy, vibrant baritone does has a Cappuccilli-ian je-ne-sais-quoi, albeit less powerful. This evening at least, although he sang healthily and reliably, there was only a very intermittent connection with the role’s predicaments. There was indeed a generic snarl, but, when things got really emotional and someone like Piero Cappuccili or Giorgio Zancanaro would have pressed the “turbo” button and vibrate with all their overtones, Mr. Tézier had a somewhat business-like attitude. Something like “let’s call it a fortissimo and move on”.  I’d have to see him again in better circumstances to form an opinion.

Read Full Post »

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is an example of what makes Italian art great: its unique blend of funny and touching. I would say that in these days when the news are so depressing all over the world, going to the theatre to see the triumph of goodness can be reassuring. In his new production for the Opéra de Paris, director Guillaume Gallienne, however, proves to be skeptical. In his view, happy ending is only for those short of memory. Here, Cinderella is serious about her intent to make herself nobler by her good actions when she forgives her stepfather and sisters, but she cannot forget. In her new found splendor, she thinks only of her sad days of abuse, poverty and unhappiness. Although this is an intelligent view of the story by a director new to the world of opera, Mr. Gallienne makes the #1 mistake of directors not acquainted with the genre: the idea that it should be rescued from its obsoleteness and stuffiness. This invariably involves keenness on naturalistic action, a decision challenged by music’s own tempo, especially in operas the numbers of which are composed in forms that involve recapitulation. Directors of the “rescuing” type invariably resort to extras with parallel subplots in order to supply some interest while the helpless tenor and soprano are singing their boring arias. When they can indeed act, keeping them overbusy is inevitable. As much as this approach requires lots of imagination and cleverness, in the end it only alienates an audience who is already used to the peculiarities of operatic staging and ready to savor everything it has to offer if given enough time to do that.

I am not sure if I like the visual aspect of the prodiction. The idea of showing this as a Neapolitan comedy is apt, and the idea of sun-soaked decayed palaces fits the plot. But there are problem is: the director does not seem to know what the Neapolitan attitude is. The singer who succeeds in portraying that is, predictably, the Italian buffo. Also, the sets are frankly ugly and adapt themselves awkwardly to the dramatic action, especially in the scenes in the Prince’s palace. Costumes are also uncharacteristic and not particularly beautiful either.

In terms of theatre, what makes this staging special is the acting of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa. She seems to have gone deeper than the director in Cenerentola’s predicament, by the way she established not only her scenic persona but as she sings it too. Her whole performance glows with a rather dark light. She has paid close attention to the text and portrays a girl traumatized by years of ill-treatment and neglect. When the Prince asks who she is and she answers she is nobody, she means it. When her stepfather says she is dead and she says to herself “They are speaking of me”, she does sound as she had already died. When she implores to go to the ball, it is a cry for help. It’s either seeing a light in the end of the tunnel or succumbing. The trauma informs even the happy scenes – her entrance in the Prince’s party is everything but flashy. The glamor has no effect on her, she has been in the dark for so long that she has become blind to it. She is there only to grab onto her last hope – the valet to the prince who had SEEN her although she was covered in ashes. Ms. Crebassa’s singing was similarly self-contained and introvert. She dealt with the coloratura in absolutely adept but unspectacular way. It had nothing of the narcissism usually associated to technical display. She sang her runs as a pianist playing a nocturne by Chopin, purely as an expressive tool. To say the truth, the part is a bit in the end of her possibilities, especially in what regards climactic high notes, but she even used that for her interpretation purposes. This Cenerentola did not explode in bright high notes, but rather relished her warm, fruity and disarming low register. I have to confess that having seen Olga Borodina in this part made me a bit immune to the charms of Mozartian or Handelian mezzos lost in this repertoire, but Ms. Crebassa made something so unique here that she will be stored in my experience as sui generis.

Lawrence Brownlee’s acting abilities are not up to Marianne Crebassa’s level. Maybe that is why the director made him use a splint on one leg as a way of portraying some sort of fragility. It might have worked, for I found him less self-conscious in his leading man routine than elsewhere.  His tenor a bit less dulcet than last time I heard him, but the trade-off came in the shape of a slightly more heroic quality to his singing. As expected, he does not even flinch before the coloratura and the very high notes. In terms of singing, however, it is Florian Sempey who deserves pride of place. His is a naturally big voice, warm and firm and unproblematic. Even if he indulges in ga-ga-ga coloratura à la Christina Deutekom, how many Dandinis actually tackle their divisions a tempo as he has done? Most of all, he is a stage animal, ready to give his 100%, as if he felt energized by the audience’s appreciation. Bravo. He partnered veteran buffo Alessandro Corbelli to perfection. The Italian bass is still in firm, flexible voice and, if he goes for all the buffo mannerisms, he does it with aplomb. Finally, Adam Plachetka is an unusual choice for the part of Alidoro. The sound is not very Italianate, but he sang his difficult aria in a rich, full voice and complete commitment.

Even if the house orchestra is not really at ease with Rossinian phrasing, conductor Evelino Pidò managed to go beyond the imprecision and thickness to produce the necessary ebullience by choosing very fast tempi that left every musician in the pit on the edge of their seats. It must be said that he was able to do that without making violence to his cast, giving them enough leeway to truly communicate… and to breathe.

Read Full Post »