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Archive for March, 2019

Faced with the revival of Harry Kupfer’s innocuous 2011 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the Opernhaus Zürich probably decided to add some zest to the event with role debuts for two of the most sought after new voices in the Wagnerian firmament. Although she has been called the next great Wagner soprano by reviewers and fans all over the world, Lise Davidsen has been very careful in her exploration of Wagner’s operas. The words “dramatic soprano” has appeared here and there – and, yes, it would be rash for such a young singer to start off with an Isolde or a Brünnhilde – but there is no doubt that her voice is two sizes bigger than the role of Elisabeth. This is the first time I hear her live – and the singer who occurred more often in my comparison is Astrid Varnay, who debuted as Sieglinde younger than Ms. Davidsen’s present age. Actually, I could not help thinking that Sieglinde would be a perfect role for her at this point. But first some clarifications: differently from Varnay (whom I know only from recordings, of course ), Lise Davidsen’s top notes do blossom in full radiance in a way the Swedish-American soprano’s would not (Varnay herself would be the first to admit that it was not the most exuberant part of her range); and, no need to say,  it would be unreasonable to dismiss her Elisabeth for her voice being too big.

As much as Varnay, Ms. Davisen’s soprano has nothing virginal and girlish about it. Her low and middle registers are full, rich and warm, but its tightly focused projection makes sure that you not mistake her for a mezzo. From a high f on, the focus increasingly acquires a laser-beam-like intensity that makes her high notes effortlessly irradiate in the auditorium. That quality alone made her interventions in concertati simply thrilling. Most fortunately, this invaluable Norwegian soprano is capable to scale down her Valkyrian soprano to pianissimo. This and her purity of line enable her to produce something close to Innigkeit, but one can see that it is an effect she can produce once in a while yet not all the time. As a result, the act 3 prayer proved to be her less compelling moment in the whole evening. She is a clever singer who knows her text and husbanded her resources to make this moment less about resignation and world-weariness and but rather the expression of a conflicted soul over God’s unscrutable designs. To make things better, Ms. Davidsen has a very likable personality and, in spite of her statuesque frame, is able to convey fresh-eyed femininity without affectation.

This was also Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s debut as Venus. Based on my impressions on her Fricka both in Bayreuth and Chicago, I confess I was not surely convinced of this particular piece of casting, but at least in a theatre of the size of the house in Zürich, her performance left nothing to be desired. She sang in consistently voluptuous tone, dark and creamy, and produced some truly exciting high notes always mezzo-ish in quality.

Stephen Gould, by now a veteran in the title role, was not in his best voice,  squeezing his high notes, especially in the first act, and intonation was not beyond reproach. However, his voice has the right color and size for the role – and his experienced with the part helped him out in many a dangerous passage. This afternoon was supposed to be Stephan Genz’s debut in Zürich, but he was indisposed and was replaced by Christoph Pohl, whose baritone would be ideal for Wolfram were it a bit less grainy. Mika Kares proved to be more at ease in Wagner than he was in Verdi, offering a noble toned account of the role of the Landgraf.

Axel Kober does not try to bring Tannhäuser closer to Wagner’s later works and is not afraid of going Weberian in leaner sonorities, a tempo beat and marked rhythms. It is difficult to tell apart the orchestra’s less than rich-sounding strings, the hall acoustics and the conductor’s intensions in all that, but the fact is that the three act finali benefited from the circumstances and shone in absolute clarity.

Harry Kupfer’s unimaginative staging updated the action to the sort of contemporary setting that does not amount to any extra insight. Tannhäuser has taken a bad turn from his bourgeois milieu and ended up in a decadent night club scene that was supposed to seem depraved, but ultimately looks like as if Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut had been filmed in Dresden or in Leipzig. The Landgraf and the Minnesänger sport polo shirts and play golf – and their competition looks like Germany’s got Talent. The final scene takes place in a train station – and have I said that the pope appears personally to apologise for his bad customer services?

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Adolphe Adam’s claim to fame is the ballet Giselle, but for a while he was also known – in France and in Germany – as the composer of the tenor aria with a written high d  from an opera called Le Postillon de Lonjumeau. It has been famously recorded by Nicolai Gedda, but also by Helge Rosvaenge and Joseph Schmidt. However, the opera itself has very rarely been performed. Curiously, the occasional stagings would appear even in Germany but not in the venue of its première, the Opéra-Comique, where it was last heard in 1894 before today’s performance.

Of course, this opera’s raison d’être is the tenor, and the long-standing relation between the Salle Favart and American tenor Michael Spyres explains this long due revival, and all involved are to be thanked for unearthing this hidden gem. To say that the plot is convoluted in an understatement. Chapelou is a coachman in the town of Lonjumeau who is too proud of his personal charm and his singing voice. It is the day of his wedding with the beautiful innkeeper Madeleine, a scout from the Royal Opera happens to hear him and promises fame and success in Paris. He does not think twice and abandons his wife before the honeymoon. Ten years later, they would meet again in court. She has received an inheritance and is now a glamorous socialite with whom he falls in love without realizing he is already married to her. Shocked by his complete oblivion of her, Madeleine decides to encourage him and, when he proposes, she accepts it as part of her revenge. When he is about to be taken by the police for bigamy, she decides that the whole thing has gone too far and reveals herself. He is overwhelmed by his own luck, but she reminds him that he had left her for the theatre before . His answer is “and now I am leaving the theatre for you”.

The score does not loose time with pretentiousness – everything is glittery, catchy and endearingly quaint. The second act has its best music, with wonderfully witty parodies of grand opéra for both tenor and soprano.

This is the first time I hear Michael Spyres live and it could not be a more relevant occasion. Mr. Spyres has made his name singing impossibly florid music and for his supernatural ease with in alts. Although his high extension is based on a very well connected falsettone stretching roughly from a high b flat to a high f above tenor’s high c, the main part of his voice is rich and warm, and his low register is surprisingly solid. In this moment of his career (he has recently sung operas like Carmen and Fidelio), he still can shift to his special-effect lighter and brighter high notes, but one feels that his “regular” voice is dying to blossom. This evening, he sang his aria’s high d without flinching and offered all kind of optional high notes, even higher than that, but one or other high c seemed to fall in the wrong slot and grated a bit. When I write this, I mean no criticism – it was a fabulous performance – but as a promising sign of development in his repertoire. Mr. Spyres is an extremely musical singer, with crystal-clear diction, sense of style, perfect trills and the sense of vocal narcissism so rare these days. He spoke his lines in good French and proved to have sense of humor too.

The role of Madeleine may sound secondary, but it is actually as difficult as the tenor one. It requires a high coloratura soprano, and the most recent complete recording features no one less than June Anderson. I was not able to find a copy before the performance and got acquainted with the work in Jules Gressier’s CD with Janine Micheau. Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette cannot compete with the famous French lyric soprano in creaminess and roundness. Hers is a very high voice, almost soubrettish and it simply lacked tone in its middle register, but her fioriture are more nimble and exciting than her predecessor’s. She managed very well to show the difference between Madeleine the innkeeper and Madeleine the heiress in purely musical terms too.

Under the expert baton of conductor Sébastien Rouland, the chorus Accentus and the orchestra of Opéra de Rouen Normandie were entirely at home in this music, and Michel Fau’s supercolorful pseudo-baroque staging was funny without making fun of the text and the music.

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The first time I have ever heard Aleksandra Kurzak, it was a broadcast of Rossini’s Tancredi in which she dispatched fioriture very close to the speed of light. Then I saw her as Donna Anna and thought that the role was too heavy for her. The first time I have ever seen Roberto Alagna was in the video of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in which he wowed the world with the naturalness of his delivery and his round Italianate high notes. After that, I have always seen him in purely lyric tenor roles, in which – truth be said – his voice sounded increasingly too heavy. Finally, the Opéra de Paris announced that they would sing together the leading roles in Verdi’s Otello. Believe it or not, I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to hear this evening. I have seen people like Gregory Kunde and Soile Isokoski as Otello and Desdemona (not in the same evening) and both had their moments.

Before I say anything, I must admit that I have learned this opera in Herbert von Karajan’s recording with Mirella Freni, Jon Vickers and the Berlin Philharmonic, and although it is unreasonable to use it as reference, well, at least I am being honest about that. Kurzak is no Freni, but she holds her own as Desdemona quite commendably. Her voice has grown in size but still sounds clear and pure enough. When I last saw her as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, her high notes often sounded breathy and glassy, but – in this lyric emploi – this never happened, what makes me believe that the change in repertoire makes sense. Here she phrased with great affection, showed almost idiomatic Italian and offered breathtaking floated pianissimi hard to rival these days. Her very sound is spontaneity itself and at times makes one think of Freni, but differently from the famous Italian diva, she cannot shift to the fifth gear when things get really high and loud. Then she sounds more reminiscent of another Polish Desdemona, Teresa Zylis-Gara, whose slightly veiled acuti would span and soar on stage rather than flash in the auditorium.

Roberto Alagna is no Vickers, but there are advantages here. First of all, Alagna’s voice is warmer, his Italian sounds like the Italian language and he is not afraid of high notes. In terms of volume, at this point in his career, he has no problem with being heard. As his Desdemona, the problem is shifting to fifth gear. Although Otello is an intense character, his intensity is not a line parallel to the x axis in the graph, but rather a peaky one with acute angles all over. He snaps and acquires an explosive ferocity in less than a second. And when he does that, the effect is scary. He drives away all soloists and chorus off stage with just one sentence – and he does not need to repeat it. In order to portray that danger, than almost uncontrolled menace, the tenor really needs an edge in his voice that Roberto Alagna does not really have. His Otello was surprisingly smoothly sung, but smoothness was the bottom line here. The fact that he was the shortest man on stage did not help him to compensate for that in terms of scenic presence either. But let’s not talk about the staging yet.

Giorgio Ganidze is hardly the world’s most exciting Verdian baritone. He has a voice big enough and can snarl all right when he needs, but his punch comes from the outside rather than from inside. I have to be fair: I had never seem him as dramatically engaged as this evening, but still this is comparing him to himself. In this context , this has not spoilt the fun in any way. On the contrary, he felt at home in a performance that belonged into the realm of the well-behaved and bureaucratic. Yes, the house orchestra is no Berliner Philharmoniker, and conductor Bertrand de Billy had to cope with lighter voices and he did balance well the almost opposite demands of clarity and violence in the opening scene, but strings simply lacked volume throughout. In ensembles, the brassy sound picture was rather band-like and, as much as his soloists, he has no edge. One could count to ten before he cued his musicians to strike the kind of orchestral chord Verdi would use to mark an abrupt shift in the dramatic action.

And then there is Andrei Serban’s lazy, lazy staging. We’re in Cyprus, so there is a palm tree. We’re in war, so we have barbed wire near the beach etc etc. The anachronistic sets are unimaginative and lack atmosphere, but that is not unforgivable. This is the 43rd performance since the première and I would like to believe that much of the original Personenregie has been lost since the director itself worked on it, for what I saw today was truly amateurish. Blocking was nonsensical and one often had the impression that singers were standing there just waiting to do the next thing they were told to do. I’ll give to examples:

a) Otello grabs Desdemona’s wrist, calls her a whore than leaves by the next door. The horrified lady is so scared that she rans away TO THE VERY PLACE WHERE HE IS. When he sees that she is coming his way, he goes back inside before they bump into each other.
b) Desdemona is depressed because she feels something horrible is going to happen. Emilia looks concerned and tries to be nice to her. She carefully folds her lady’s dress and leaves the room with this expensive piece of clothing that she just tosses away on the floor. OK, let’s pretend that the audience is supposed to believe that the floor is the “wardrobe”. Then Desdemona asks for her wedding gown. Emilia passes by the red dress, crosses an archway and comes back with the white dress. If the wardrobe is inside, why didn’t she just cross the same archway two minutes before that to throw away the red dress in the floor somewhere where the audience could not see it? Seriously…

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Among Richard Strauss’s operas, it is probably Ariadne auf Naxos the one that gave the composer more trouble to complete. First of all, there was the unpractical idea of having it as the divertissement in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, what made for one of the longest nights in the theatre in one’s lifetime. Then there was Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s tug of war with the libretto, which the composer felt as obscure and nonsensical, while the librettist insisted that even his servants could follow its neoclassical, proto-psychologic imagery. And finally there was the problem of rewriting it to extricate it from the Molière by devidong a prologue that theoretically would propose the musical motives already developed in the opera inside the opera.

Director Katie Mitchell is right when she affirms that the work in its final form has a flaw: the first part does not go seamlessly in the second. The Composer and Zerbinetta’s duet hints at something that never happens, her quick appearance in the last scene seems like an afterthought, not to mention that the mise-en-abyme feels like a torso if we don’t have something like a final scene, even if it were a relatively short ensemble as in the finale ultimo of Don Giovanni: the tenor is happy he got the last scene, the soprano promises never working with the composer again, but he does not care for he has discovered new possibilities in Zerbinetta’s “talents”. She has probably already set her thoughts on someone else, the richest man in Vienna perhaps. Who knows?

That is exactly what Ms. Mitchell tries to do here – not only we have a glimpse of what happens after the end of the opera, but also we are able to witness what goes on in the audience while it is being performed. The Composer is trying to conduct a score edited in haste and is desperate with the intrusions of the buffo actors. My admiration for the director’s many interesting ideas – most of all, Zerbinetta disguised as a doctor (and later as an intellectual), as one would see in any -etta role, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes in the highly distracting and very ineffective decision of including the cross dressing lord and lady of the house in the story, interfering with the action in ways that could be described as all the variations of silliness. I will not call it the staging’s worst idea, for there was the fact that members of the “audience” would speak as loudly as they could over Richard Strauss’s music in a way nobody would have in real life, ruining some beautiful and expressive pages of this score. That is the moment when Ms. Mitchell should have followed the advice of a man who understood everything about structure: Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more”.

Until this evening, Jérémie Rhorer was a Mozart conductor with noteworthy sense of rhythm and drama. The fact that his Straussian credentials were unknown to me have an explanation: this is the first time he conducts an opera by Richard Strauss. It is, therefore, more puzzling that in this most Mozartian among the Bavarian composer’s operas Mr. Rhorer’s instincts have proved to be so wrong. As heard  this evening, the score sounded at its most square, unvaried, unclear and devoid of theatricality. Karl Böhm would marvel that Strauss could make a relatively small group of musicians could alternately sound as a the continuo of baroque opera and as a full Romantic orchestra. Not this evening – even when the music demanded impetuosity and richness, the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris insisted in dwelling within a very restricted sound palette.

Camilla Nylund started the opera with the wrong foot. The lower tessitura did not flatter her rather colorless middle register (the extreme low notes themselves were actually very good) and her lack of slancio made Es gibt ein Reich sound quite dull. She would fare really better in the final duet, where her long breath and pellucid pianissimo gave an elegant if still cold impression. For a change, she did not need to fear the competition from Olga Pudova’s unsubtle, metallic Zerbinetta. The Russian soprano is not familiar with the style, the German language and what she sang in some moments is not really what Strauss wrote. It has been a while since Roberto Saccà included the part of Bacchus in his repertoire and he still sounds healthy and secure in it, but the voice has become even grainier and more glaring than it used to be. In any case, it was refreshing to hear a voice that could pierce through the orchestra without much ado.

Kate Lindsey’s extra-light mezzo soprano had reserves of colors I did not know. Although the part requires everything she has to offer, she makes little of her own limits. Her singing this evening was secure, expressive and beautiful. Her ease with high mezza voce made her get away with very difficult passages and gather her strengths to the exposed high notes in the end of the prologue (when one was forced to recognize that a little bit more volume would make all the difference in the world). Even sailing through a rocky shore, she still found the opportunity to show off exemplary breath control and let go breath pauses that normally stand between almost every other singer and asphyxia. Brava.

Among minor roles, Huw Montague Randall displayed a firm and warm baritone as the harlequin and Lucie Roche super dark low notes in the part of the dryad sounded really promising.

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Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin is my lucky opera. That is why I did not need to think twice when I saw it was being staged by The Atlanta Opera with a group almost entirely made of names unknown to me when I happened to be in town. Although the company does not rank into America’s big operatic outfits, it is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary season. Judging by this afternoon’s performance, I could bet that “prudence” must be the secret of their success. What I witnessed today was budget carefully and judiciously used in a way that makes its subscribers happy. For instance, this was an Onegin for first-timers. The audience reacted to the plot in almost interactive way. The “go, girl!” applause when Tatyana turns Onegin down in act 3 shows an involvement with the proceedings not always seen in Paris, London or MIlan, even when high-profile directors are racking

Although the company does not rank into America’s big operatic outfits, it is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary season. Judging by this afternoon’s performance, I could bet that “prudence” must be the secret of their success. What I witnessed today was budget carefully and judiciously used in a way that makes its subscribers happy. For instance, this was an Onegin for first-timers. The audience reacted to the plot in almost interactive way. The “go, girl!” applause when Tatyana turns Onegin down in act 3 shows an involvement with the proceedings not always seen in Paris, London or MIlan, even when high-profile directors are racking their brains to show them unheard-of angles of Pushkin’s masterpiece.

According to the interview in the program, director Tomer Zvulun is a veteran in staging Evgeny Onegin, but I wouldn’t have guessed it. Even if he is just telling the story, the level of attention to detail in his Personenregie adds some perspective to a production the Schwerpunkt of which is its unpretentiousness. Costumes and sets are harmlessly pleasant to the eyes, but there is room for the director’s personal view. His sympathy for Onegin is clear – one can see that he is almost as disappointed as Tatyana that he can reciprocate her feelings in act 1 and how desperate he is by the turn of events around the duel with Lensky. In the last act, he is almost a vampire. He has already died and is just trying to suck some life into his body. Tatyana, on the other hand, shows here more Schadenfreude than usual. She is almost provocative when she says that an affair with her would make Onegin’s reputation as a seducer. One can almost hear her thinking “a reputation as anything other than a spoilsport”. I have to say that this approach made the closing scene less dramatic, but it is always interesting to discover a new perspective of something one believed to have investigated thoroughly.

Conductor Ari Pelto’s contribution too turned around unpretentiousness. His orchestra lacks the density of sound this score cries for, and the decision of keeping things moving is the wise one in these circumstances, even if it did not brought about any sense of excitement. Raquel González’s shimmering creamy soprano could stand in the dictionary’s entry for “lyric soprano”. The sound is lovely and she phrases with affection and musicianship. Her singing is disarmingly beautiful and one almost overlooks the fact that it lacks a bit of slancio for the most outspoken scenes. The only singer I previously knew in the cast is tenor William Burden, who offered a spontaneous and vocally unproblematic take of the role of Lensky. The undemonstrative, almost Lieder-like manner he sang his aria was one of the highlights of this performance.

David Adam Moore acted and looked just like Evgeny Onegin, but his voice is too soft-grained and also slightly unfocused for this part. As a result, the performance was short of a torso. Önay Köse, the only non-American singer in the cast, offered an unusually unemotional account of his aria. His bass is extremely soft on the ear and produced with utmost spontaneity, but his main purpose seemed to ennunciate the text with utmost clarity in a – truth be said – very hearable mezza voce, Among the low voice female singers, Meredith Arwady (Filipevna) takes pride of place for her spacious rock-solid low register. I am unable to comment on these singer’s pronunciation of the Russian language.

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