Archive for August, 2019

Tobias Kratzer’s new production of Tannhäuser for the Bayreuth Festival provoked curiosity even before the premiere: the cast list featured two extra characters, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat. There has been some rant about the inclusion of a drag performer in a Großer romantische Oper by Richard Wagner and that the end of the world is nigh etc etc, but it seems that everybody has forgotten Sebastian Baumgarten’s excrement processing production. If there is something positive about it is that it was an absolute low. Anyone can stage anything in Bayreuth knowing that they won’t ever be responsible for the worst staging in the history of the festival. That is why I had my mind open to what I would find today – and being open-minded always pays.

Tobias Kratzer’s new production is worlds apart from empty provocation. Although the sight of a caravan and a tenor in a clown suit might make one think that he or she ended up in the wrong opera, this is indeed Tannhäuser and the director explores its libretto from an unusual point of view. As he says in an interview, everybody makes it about sex, but there’s a lot more to it. In purely structural terms, this is an opera about exclusion. Tannhäuser abandons society for for a forbidden lifestyle he finally leaves behind with the hope of finding salvation. Then he is banned and sent to a superior spiritual authority in seek of forgiveness and ends up excommunicated. Then he is informed that God’s grace does not exclude anyone. Mr. Kratzer sees a caveat in all that: if you are excluded and is able to make your way back, then you have never truly been an outsider. Here we first see Tannhäuser in a group of anti-establishment street intervention artists. The thrill seems to have been gone for him and his score of Wagner’s Tannhäuser seems to tempt him back to his former life. He jumps off the car and finds himself in the Festspielhaus where the pilgrims are the Wagnerian crowds. His fellow singers recognize him and invite him back, but Elisabeth is not excited about that.

The second act shows the stage of the Festspielhaus where the second act of Tannhäuser is being presented in a traditional production the sets of which look very much like the Wartburg. But there is mise-en-abîme here – the Elisabeth/singer playing Elisabeth is not happy in Wagnerian paradise either. After Tannhäuser left, she felt left behind and tried to kill her self, for unlike him she knows no other world to escape to. The disruption of the singing competition is caused here by the trespassing of Tannhäuser’s troupe – Venus, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat, who make an intervention in the façade of the theater (actually, their words of order are a revolutionary motto by Richard Wagner himself). The police is called, but Elisabeth pleads here not for Tannhäuser’s salvation, but for her own. Venus is disappointed to see that he has never been really disconnected from the high art establishment and watches him being arrested by the police.

In the final act, Elisabeth looks for Tannhäuser in outcasts’ dens and finally find some solace in the company of Oskar. Wolfram tries to bring her back to their “safe” environment, but only catches her attention when he uses Tannhäuser’s old clown costume. Then they have sex, but this only shows him that he has lost her forever – and shows her that she is irreversibly lost. After hearing himself being condemned not by the pope, but by the text in the score he has carried with himself all the way,  Tannhäuser tries to join Venus again, but discovers that the troupe is not the same anymore and that Elisabeth has just killed herself. In the final chorus, he pictures the vagabond life he could never share with her.

This description may make the concept seem a bit all over the place, but that was not the case, Mr. Kratzer’s reading follows the dialogues very closely and creates atmosphere admirably. The Venusberg scene in the caravan had unusual tension, all characters confined in the front seat, Venus driving in an Autobahn under the moonlight. The two extra characters were made to seem integrated in the action and added lots of character to the depiction of the alternative scene Tannhäuser inhabits. The challenges in act 2 were harder to surmount. Mr Kratzer’s video projections did bring about some zest to a scene that tends towards the repetitive and the static, but the comedy touches – well executed and timed as they were – ultimately had an alienating effect. Not only did they make the weight of exclusion over the outsider characters lighter, but also diverted attention from the predicament of the characters who belonged to the establishment but did not feel comfortable in it. As this was supposed to be the issue addressed by this production, the very fact that it was belittled drenched the whole affair of its dramatic power. I myself left the hall saying “oh, it was fun…” and it took me a while before I realized that this was not supposed to be made fun of. Act 3 redeems part of it by focusing on Elisabeth’s depression and suicide. The director was able to express the sadness and desperation of the situation, but the extra/outsider characters remained pretty much outside. Tannhäuser himself seemed secondary in the context. All in all, this was more than worth the detour: Mr Kratzer uses scenic elements with skill, knows how to direct actors and offered visually seductive imagery throughout.

I saw Lise Davidsen and Stephen Gould sing Elisabeth and Tannhäuser some months ago in Zurich, and both offered superior performances today. Ms. Davidsen made a point of lightening her tone to human proportions and phrased almost exclusively in demi-tintes, relying on the sheer size of her voice to sing with disarming directness. Her acting was also unaffected and convincing. Mr. Gould was in very good voice and, if he does not have anymore the vocal insolence of his better years, his singing has gained even more in sensitivity and musical finesse. The sincerity of his acting and the way he embraced the directorial choices showed me new dimensions in his scenic abilities. Elena Zhidkova, live and on video, showed admirable acting skills too, but her voice has developed an instability that tampers with intonation. I had seen her as Venus in Tokyo some years ago (in the Paris version) and had a very different impression back then. Markus Eiche’s voice too has lost a bit of juice and now sounds merely efficient in the role of Wolfram. Stephen Milling was unfortunately not in very good shapes, his bass sounding a bit rusty and his breath a bit short. Last but not least, Katharina Konradi was an ideal shepherd, one of the best in my experience both live and in recordings.

I had read that Valery Gergiev was having trouble with the peculiarities of the orchestral pit in the Festspielhaus, but after seeing a triumphant Simon Boccanegra with him in Salzburg, I did not expect something as unsatisfactory as I’ve heard today. The recessed orchestral sound, the imprecise beat, the sagging tempi, the really messy ensembles, singers left to fend for themselves, all that made an impression of sloppiness hard to believe. I would have not believed if I had not heard it myself.


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It is very easy to dismiss Katharina Wagner. After all, she owes her career to her family name and therefore she would not “deserve” it. Well, as always, the story is not that simple. First, Ms. Wagner is not the worst stage director in the world of opera. She is not the best either. I would not say that she is even a good one, but that does not mean that she has nothing to say about Richard Wagner. I actually believe that she has a lot to say about her great-grandfather’s work. Now that I have seen both her Meistersinger and Tristan, I could affirm that her knowledge of both Wagner’s music and text is above the level of the average opera director. However, staging a work goes beyond knowing it. As a matter of fact, it goes beyond having valid insights about it too. Ms. Wagner is an insightful Wagnerian, who sees these works from a very unusual perspective. The problem is the fact that she is not extraordinarily gifted as a stage director full stop. And I have the impression that she does not see it this way, the booing and bad reviews probably meaning to her a confirmation of the prejudice against her family connections.

Anyway, I like her angle to Tristan und Isolde. Romanticism usually involves the shock of real world and the characters’ Weltanschauung, and the reader or the audience is supposed to take the hero or the heroine’s point of view. But what if we took an objective point of view about those individuals, the “police report” account of the plot? So Tristan already knew Isolde before he suggests her as a bride to his uncle. More than that, they already had something going on back in Ireland (platonic, of course, and yet still something pretty intense), but, considering he had killed Morold, the king’s champion and Isolde’s fiancé, a relationship between them would be impossible. In Ireland. And that is the moment when we have the whole situation of her engagement to King Marke, under the suggestion of none other than Tristan himself, his nephew. Nobody explains convincingly Tristan’s intentions, the King himself says that he would have blessed their union if it had been mentioned to him in the first place. Yes, there are impediments – although they are aware of their own feelings, the young man benefited from her help while concealing from her that he was the assassin of her fiancé. Even if she herself yielded to her own feelings against her duties, her honor would be irrevocably lost if she tried to explain the whole affair to her parents (and everyone else in Ireland, I guess). So, this is a relationship that could only happen hidden from daylight, in secret. Exactly as in Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare, there is no magic potion – the whole thing is just a gimmick (that goes awfully awry, of course). And that is when Katharina Wagner’s staging starts.

In Ms. Wagner’s first act, there is no ship, but a labyrinth of staircases the only purpose of which seems to be keeping Tristan and Isolde apart. Both Kurwenal and Brangäne know exactly what is going on there and they are on their wits’ ends to make a safe delivery of the bride to her husband-to-be. This is not the first staging of Tristan in which the love potion is just an excuse, but here both lovers know it from the start. Their whole discussion about making amends and what is proper in their situation is only a teasing game. Now, in the ship, they are neither in Ireland nor in Cornwall and being in no man’s land is what makes their encounter possible. It is only possible in this transitory situation. As soon as they set foot somewhere, then it is the beginning of the end. But it had already started. And that takes us to act 2.

As the saying goes, the husband (or the wife) is the last one to know, but the assumption that the king did not notice anything seems dangerously close to wishful thinking. Brangäne herself says that, in the event of their arrival, all looked in wonder to the very suspicious situation. In the libretto, the royal hunt is just an excuse to surprise the lovers. In a certain way, letting them believe that they were safe only made them suffer more. One could argue that there was an element of psychological torture there. Well, in Ms. Wagner’s second act, the torture is two levels above “psychological”. The scene has place in what can be described as a torture chamber – both Tristan and Isolde know this. They even use the “equipment” to inflict injures  on themselves. And they know that the end has already begun. There has been more ending than beginning with them.

Act 3 is the end kurz und gut. Of course, Tristan was fatally stabbed and, in his dying moments, he sees Isolde everywhere. He is back to the transitory situation where he can love freely. In his dying, he can be entirely hers without any restriction. It is like a “second chance” for them. Isolde remains, however, in the real world. She tries to have a Liebestod – but that only happens in books. Here she is dragged from the presence of Tristan’s corpse by her increasingly abusive husband.

That is an approach to the story that, curiously, almost makes it even more Romantic, even if brutally so – and I would have enjoyed to see that staging. The way Ms. Wagner does it, however, the insight is rather a starting point than a realization. Even if the sets of act 1 are ugly in a inexplainable industrial way, the concept could have worked, if the Personenregie had informed the attitudes of the actors on stage more sharply. Realism does not mean prosaicness. And here everything was quite matter of fact, stage mechanism being almost the main source of interest. I understand that Ms. Wagner’s decision for act 2 is a bold one –  having the characters restrained in a dungeon makes it very difficult to provide scenic interest for a whole hour. But the way she decided to fill in the blanks proved to be the low point of this production. I don’t know if the humor was intentional, but it was there and it basically ruined the atmosphere. No one in the extreme situation those characters find themselves in would look for a comic relief. If done seriously and honestly, this could have been an extremely depressing second act, the very hopelessness of it all would have haunted the audiences for a while. As it is, it was just awkward. Act 3, surprisingly, is an example of how everything could be if Ms. Wagner showed more concentration. The images in the mind of the dying Tristan were done effectively in their unicity. When it comes to symbology, less is more. And that is an advice that would have benefited the whole production.

To make things a little bit worse, the singers in the title roles did not help much both in terms of theatre and music. In different levels, truth be said. After having seen Petra Lang as Isolde in the Bayerische Staatsoper, I dreaded the perspective of having to hear her again as the Irish princess. To be honest, she was in good voice today, but that does not mean that she sang well. In her adaptation to become a dramatic soprano, Ms. Lang’s voice was crafted to produce acuti, what she does forcefully, even if they are sometimes sharp. Her middle voice, however, has very little color and projects poorly. Intonation is also hazardous. In order to help her being heard in the auditorium during more conversational passages (i.e., 70% of her part), the conductor had to refrain his luxuriant orchestra, something particularly harmful to the lyric section of the Liebesnacht. She is not a cypher in terms of acting, but her acting involves striking poses and showing tautological facial expressions that make everything look very insincere. I don’t know if a more rigorous director could have integrated her to the concept, but that would have been worth the try. Stefan Vinke too hardly has an expressive stage presence and seemed ill at ease with Ms. Wagner’s really sombre take on the story. He fulfilled his acting tasks quite bureaucratically. I wish I could say that his singing offered the expression missing in his acting. Mr. Vinke’s main quality is his endurance – the man is tireless and got to the end of the opera untouched by the famous difficulties of the part, a feat in itself, but phrasing itself was rough-edged and emphatic and tonal variety was not included in the package. His act 3 monologues lacked spiritual quality and pathos. His tenor is not appealing per se – the powerful high notes a bit tight (yet rock-solid) and low notes pronouncedly nasal.

Fortunately, the remaining members of the cast only added strength to the performance. Christa Mayer offered an ideal Brangäne, who sang creamily throughout and floated her mezza voce in act 2 to the manner born. Greer Grimsley has more than a splash of wooliness in his bas-baritone but the voice is big enough to allow the conductor to give free rein to his orchestra. To make things better, Georg Zeppenfeld sang richly and could even find the right nasty touch to this bad-guy version of King Marke.

This is my first live Tristan conducted by Christian Thielemann and, even faced with a problematic Isolde, he proved his absolute mastery of this score. The prelude itself was worth the price of the tickets – here the ideal balance between clarity, depth, richness and flexibility has been achieved. During the first act, the orchestral playing was a paragon of transparency and fullness. In the second act, Mr. Thielemann wisely turned down orchestral volume to let the audience hear the words and notes written by Richard Wagner, but that only increased the demand of expression on soloists whose singing was rather concerned with the mechanics. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that both soprano and tenor have extremely clear diction, though. Act 3 proved to be more challenging. The conductor opted for an extremely subtle prelude that ultimately gave an impression of detachment. The softer touch made Tristan’s predicament sound a bit cold and the Liebestod was hardly a culmination. The intention of building an extremely gradual crescendo meant a beginning with very light orchestral playing around flawed solo singing and the climax finally exploded out of nowhere, with no sense of resolution out of absence of building tension.

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The current production of Parsifal from the Bayreuther Festspiele is not new to me and I have written about it two years ago. Even if I see tiny adjustments to make it (marginally) more coherent, my opinion about it remains the same and I’ll refrain from adding any comments in what regards the staging.
The musical aspect of the performance, however, has novelties. First, we have a new conductor, Semyon Bychkov, who offered pretty much the opposite Hartmut Haenchen proposed last time. Now we are dealing with some sort of Klangkultur approach, in which rich, warm and transparent sonorities ooze in the auditorium. For a while, after an absence of two years in the green hill, this seemed a viable option for this score, but around the end of the act, one couldn’t help noticing the lack of pulse that would ruin the second act. Phrasing was so slack, accents were so flaccid that all notes seemed to be dragged into a black hole of pointlessness. I cannot really say if act 3 was indeed a bit better of if by then we had already abandoned all hope. Not everything was lost. There was a good cast and fabulous choral singing (as always in the festival).
Last time, I wrote that I would need to see Elena Pankratova as Kundry to say anything. Well, I can see she was not in good voice two years ago. Today, she sounded in good shape, provided some big acuti and her low register is warm and appealing. And yet I remain hesitant to join the high praise bestowed on her. First, although her Kundry is very properly sung, I don’t see true meaning behind her delivery of the text, but rather pencil markings on her score under the advice of a coach or a conductor. And this is not a role that works if the expression does not come from within. Second, I find her middle register in this role rather colorless, what is explainable by the fact that she is a not a mezzo soprano, but this takes me to “third”. Third, for a soprano, her dealing with the big high notes in the end of the second act is rather underwhelming. I have seen mezzos offer something more solid and with more impact there. I know, it is cruel to add a third item because of five minutes of music, but I was spoiled by Gwyneth Jones in Pierre Boulez’s recording. If there is a soprano, I want extra panache there. Even Marianne Schech – a quite bored-sounding Marschallin in Karl Böhm’s recording of Der Rosenkavalier – generates some thrill there. So I guess it’s reasonable to expect something similar of someone who sings Elektra.
Andreas Schager’s Parsifal is not a complex psychological impersonation, but if you believe that the keywords are “reiner Tor” than he is particularly convincing in his fresh-eyed and rather blunt take on the role. And he also emits some excitingly loud Spitzentöne whenever he feels like it. If I find Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas grainier and throatier than last time, Derek Welton’s Klingsor is perfectly consistent with what he offered two years ago. And there is Günther Groissböck’s Gurnemanz. Mr. Groissböck has been announced as Bayreuth’s next Wotan – and one could hear that in his voice today. I was always afraid that, in the next moment, he would call Loge to help him steal back the holy spear from Alberi… I mean, from Klingsor. I don’t mean that this very talented Austrian bass is not capable of singing Gurnemanz – he has the voice and the intelligence for it, but he has not found the spiritual disposition for the part yet. His heart and his mind are on Wotan – as he should. That role is closer to his personality and attitude and it is great that he will be able to try it in his prime. I can’t wait to hear it!

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After having seen Cecilia Bartoli sing Alcina in Zurich, I have said that this is her best Handelian role, and her performance tonight confirms that impression. Reading what I wrote back then, I realize that what she has done tonight is consistent with my memory. To be honest, she surpassed herself tonight – the coloratura in Ombre palide was more focused, she finally found her mojo in Mi restano le lagrime and her display of variety of phrasing in Ah, mio cor was impressive, even for someone who is not reaLly her fan. I mean, me. Although I admire the intelligence and ability behind all that, I just need to watch Arleen Augér in that video from Geneva to see that honest singing and emotional sincerity are better than craft and mannerisms. Sandrine Piau’s soprano is not as fresh as it used to be and fioriture in Tornami a vagheggiar lacked finish, but once she warmed up, she produced an exquisite Credete al mio dolore. Kristina Hammarström’s fast divisions are still something to marvel, but, other than that, her Bradamante now sounds lost around the passaggio. Philippe Jaroussky is now marginally more comfortable with the more heroic moments in the part of Ruggiero, but his countertenor is also marginally less soaring in the arie d’affetto. In any case, this is comparing him to himself. His Verdi prati remain a thing of beauty. I will never understand why the part of Oronte is never cast with a tenor graced by a beautiful voice. Christoph Strehl does have a long breath and his high g’s are firm, but that is pretty much it. Alastair Miles’s bass remains dark and powerful, and the Wiener Sängerknabe Sheen Park proved to be really brave with florid singing.

The Musiciens du Prince will never be the world’s richest toned orchestra, but their strings are far less scrawny than they used to be when I last saw them in this theater. This time, Gianluca Capuano too seemed a different conductor. He tried many different things in terms of phrasing (the contrasts in sound in Ah, mio cor were particularly innovative) and adopted some unusual ornamentation in the orchestra in some of the repeats. His continuo too was extraordinarily varied: there was a harp, a theorbo, a cello, a harpsichord and even an organ. All in all, his conducting was dramatically alert and the slow tempi in the arie d’affetto seemed to serve the purpose of highlighting his soloists’ expressive powers.

Damiano Michieletto’s exquisite looking production features some of this director’s hallmarks – rotating stage, retro décors, dreamlike sequences. Here Alcina’s island has something of the haunted hotel in The Shining. The stage is divided by a glass wall that mixes the reflex of what happens downstage with the action behind it upstage, the superpositions blurring fantasy and reality. The idea of having an older actress playing who Alcina is without her powers is a survival of Katie Mitchell’s staging from Aix-en-Provence, but Michieletto’s approach is ultimately cleaner and psychologically sharper, even if he does not try to wow you with his Régie insights.

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At this point, my 9 or 10 readers know that I have a soft sport for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. When the lights dim in the theatre before the performance, I am always ready for an emotional experience – and all I need is that the artists involved do not mess up. In other words, I can do with “ok”. As a matter of fact, my experience of seeing this opera has been variations of “ok”, until today’s performance in the Grosses Festspielhaus. This was a classy, festival experience with distinguished soloists in top form, amazing choral singing and one of the world’s best orchestras under a top-tier conductor.

Marina Rebeka was not the most touching of Amelias, but she is extremely well equipped for the job. Her sizable soprano is youthful, flexible and always easy on the ear – and she is the kind of singer who won’t find any problem singing all her notes, no matter how difficult the phrase is. She would even mellow during the opera and sang sensitively and tastefully the closing scene. Her Adorno, Charles Castronovo, proved to be an ideal partner. Even if his tenor is light on paper for the part, he was in healthy form and projected round, easy top notes without thinking twice. His singing was Italianate, fervent and appealing. Luca Salsi too was a very convincing Boccanegra, firm of tone, stylish in phrasing and dramatically alert. Some may say he does not compare to famous baritones in the past, but, even in his less than exuberant high notes, he displayed the virtue of making this performance about his character (and not about himself, as many singers in this repertoire). Truth be said, René Pape (Fiesco) almost stoled the show. His bass flooded the auditorium in dark-chocolate sounds, and his singing – even if a bit too straight to the point – was always expressive and elegant. Bravissimo. One feels a bit shortchanged not to find a world-class Paolo (as in Abbado’s or Solti’s recordings from La Scala), but unfortunately that is increasingly an exception – and the baritone cast is the role today never spoiled the fun.

The Vienna Philharmonic offered playing of superlative quality and finesse under Valery Gergiev’s Karajan-esque conducting – the orchestral sound always full, big, rich, flexible and yet transparent. Even if the cast could cope with such abundance of sound, Mr. Gergiev could lighten the picture for the more intimate scene without ever producing pale sonorities. And the Vienna State Opera chorus sang with firmness, homogeneity and animation. When a conductor has forces of such excellency, he does not need to resort to bombastic to make his points. This performance left nothing to be desired in terms of impact, but never needed to appeal to any kind of exaggeration or vulgarity.

Unfortunately, the paramount level of accomplishment is restricted to the musical side of this performance. Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging had more than a splash of amateurism not only in his Personenregie (which is nonexistent) but in his blocking of actors on stage. Saying that singers were often doing things that made no sense to what they were saying is an understatement. They would walk away from each other when they were saying that they were embracing, they would often have to be invisible not to be seen doing things supposed to be hidden in front of everybody and their movements were almost always poorly timed to the score. There is this moment, when Simon asks Amelia how she was able to escape from her kidnappers and, under Kriegenburg’s direction he does not even bother to listen. He walks away without really caring if she had suffered any kind of abuse, unlike every other parent in the whole planet. Just before that there was this moment when he ordered the doors of the palace to be opened for the people outside to enter. And yet nobody actually gets in! When he asks plebeian and patricians to reach out for each other, one would have to use his or her imagination to guess what he is talking about. The updating of the action per se is not a bad idea, the use of cellphones and twitters particularly effective to explain how Paolo could get so much support for Boccanegra’s candidacy in less than 10 minutes… The single set, striking looking as it is, was ill suited for the most intimate scenes. When Simon starts to feel the effect of the poison, he wasn’t even granted a table or a couch to recline on – and the whole affair of the poisoned bottle of water was carried on on a thin shelf near to a wall invisible to those seated in the extreme sides of the theater.

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The celebration of Jacques Offenbach’s 200th birthday is something of an unclaimed event. German by birth, but intrinsically French as an artist, he is a name in a no man’s land in the middle of the Rhein. Nonetheless, his key participation in the creation of the genre operetta certainly reserves him a special place in the hearts of Austrian musical history. This is why it is fitting that the Salzburg Festival has included a tribute in this year’s program in a new production of Orphée aux Enfers, a work famous for its galop infernal, usually referred to as the “can can”.

I am not familiar with French operetta and learned the piece in Marc Minkowski’s recording, a who’s who of the French vocal scene at the time, an ideal memento of a performance of historic status, but at the same time a reference of paramount excellence that somehow spoiled a bit of the fun to me this afternoon. Operetta performances are irreverent by definition, but when you have Barrie Kosky and his creative team from the Komische Oper in Berlin, be prepared to have something a little bit racier than “irreverent”. However, we are speaking of the staging later. For the moment, it suffices to say that the boldness here meant that the brushstrokes were far larger than those used by Minkowski’s troupe, the atmosphere more Kirchner than Toulouse-Lautrec in style. This means that none of the singers here displayed the chic piquancy seen and heard in the performances in Lyon. I felt particularly shortchanged by the casting of Kathryn Lewek as Eurydice. She is all right a good actress and has a creamy voice, the in alts and the coloratura, but it all sounded monochrome in comparison to Natalie Dessay’s vocally nuanced and scenically multilayered offering. It is unfair to expect anyone to meet these standards, but at least I would have enjoyed to make out the French words in her text instead of the plethora of shrieks and off-pitch effects that soon outstayed their welcome. Although Yann Beuron remains as the dictionary reference of French tenor singing, Joel Prieto’s round, warm tenor ultimately made more of an impression as Orphée.  His French unfortunately lacks the necessary crispness. Marcel Beekman came closer than anyone else to handling his text as meaningful words rather than as a sequence of sounds, the tonal quality itself very appropriate to the role of Pluton. Martin Winkler at least was clear of diction and deployed a bass of Wagnerian proportions as Jupiter. He too has comic timing and the audience in his hand.  It is endearing to find Anne Sofie von Otter on stage, yet her voice is now extremely soft-centered – and the part is really low for her (I tried to clean my mind of the sound of Ewa Podles’s contralto in Minkowski’s recording). Before the second act, she sang Offenbach’s Barcarolle with piano accompaniment quite charmingly.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola cleaned the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic of all glamour and elicited from the venerable orchestra its rawest and earthiest sounds, something those musicians gladly did. Even if the overall impression was not French in form, the palpable sense of fun was true to the spirit of operetta.

When I write that I missed something of the charm of the Laurent Pelly’s video, I don’t mean that this was a surprise to me. Being familiar with Kosky’s work in the Komische Oper, I did expect a Berliner edge, with a touch of the Kabarett aesthetics, in this production’s angle. That meant that some of the humor was heavy-handed, but done with gusto as this afternoon, it is hard to resist – provided you grant Offenbach his German-ness back. Dealing with an international cast, Kosky made the bold yet effective idea of having actor Max Hopp voice over all dialogues for the whole cast, a virtuoso feat. Mr. Hopp is a vocal chameleon not only in terms of producing different vocal personalities, but he also made all sound effects such as footsteps – and also sang John Styx’s aria with the help of a microphone. Costumes and sets, predictably were striking and Otto Pichler’s choreographies were outrageously funny. Although one or two people booed the director, one could feel that everyone else in the theatre had the time of their lives today.

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In his program for a Mozart Matinée concert in the Mozarteum’s Grosser Saal, Raphaël Pichon has concocted a program of pieces by Mozart himself and contemporary composers such as Martín y Soler, Salieri and Paisiello that somehow led the Salzburg-born composer towards the creation of his Da Ponte operas. The program was therefore organized in three parts, one related to Le Nozze di Figaro, the other to Don Giovanni and finally one to Così Fan Tutte. As well as shedding some interesting light on the creation of these masterpieces (the relation between Paisiello’s cavatina for the Count Almaviva and Cherubino’s Voi che sapete being the best example), the concert offered the opportunity of hearing upcoming young singers in this repertoire.

I had never heard Claire de Sevigné’s voice before and I am afraid I was not very impressed. The program says she sings the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, but the lack of brightness, the reduced volume and the smeared coloratura made it hard to believe. She sang an orchestral adaptation of Myslevecek’s Ridente la calma, but the final impression was of extreme paleness. Siobhan Stagg’s voice too lacks substance and was too light for the big concert aria for Josepha Duscek (the first Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito) Bella mia fiamma, but she acquitted herself quite decently. I had heard Léa Desandre sing music written for the contralto voice and found it puzzling to hear her so soprano-like in tone in items like Vado, ma dove? and Chi sà, chi sà qual sia? Although she seemed uninvolved and a bit careful in everything she sang, her voice, if on the small side, sounded appealing in a reedy way and very flexible. Tenor Mauro Peter has a disarmingly velvety tone and sing affectingly, but is essentially incapable of projecting anything above high f in the hall. He sang an item Francisco Araiza happened to perform in the same hall some decades ago – Per pietà non ricercate – and the Mexican’s tenor firm and forceful high notes are worlds apart of what one (did not) hear today. Bass baritone Robert Gleadow is a regular in Mozart performances in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées, and I had the opportunity to hear him there a couple of times. I am not really fond of his metallic, open-toned singing, but he is a funny guy. I left the best for last, Huw Montague Rendall made dad and mom (mezzo Diana Montague and tenor David Rendall) proud in his rich, firm-toned singing. He is in his mid-twenties and is on his way of having an important career in this repertoire.

If I have to be honest, the shining feature of this concert was the brilliant playing of the Mozarteum orchestra (natural horns and trumpets) under Mr. Pichon’s exemplary conducting – everything sparkled in his ebullient, transparent and structurally coherent approach. If the spirit of Mozart still haunts his birthplace, he certainly recognized his music today.

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Cherubini’s Médée’s claim to fame has less to do with Beethoven’s interest in the Italian composer’s orchestral narrative writing but rather Maria Callas’s assumption of the title role (in its Italian version with recitatives). It is not difficult to understand why a singing actress would be interested in it – once Medea is on stage, the show is about her and the way Cherubini devised the part makes little concession to vocal narcissism. It is a Kunstdiva role through and through. This does not mean that you don’t need exceptional soloists to complete the cast – both the parts of Jason and Dircé are high lying and fairly exposed. And the orchestra does not give singers a rest.

I have to be honest: although I recognize the historical importance of Cherubini’s Médée, I cannot really say that I like it. I am unable to find a melodic genius behind this score, which does not strike me as harmonically profound either. And its nervous, relentless orchestra is so uniformly busy that, in the ends, it gives me the impression rather of fidgetiness than of intensity. In any case, the Schwerpunkt of a performance of Médée should be the way the TEXT is colored by these singers’ declamatory powers against the backdrop of the orchestral filigree. And that is why I find the Salzburg Festspiele’s effort self-defeating. First of all, the Grosses Festspielhaus is the wrong venue for an opera like this. In its huge stage and big auditorium, the text is largely lost. Cherubini makes it even more difficult by having most of Médée’s music in the most uncongenial part of the soprano voice – and most of Jason’s in the less comfortable part of the tenor’s voice. Having to project over the Vienna Philharmonic – even reined-in by Thomas Hengelbrock’s “historically informed” conducting – these singers’ last concern was textual clarity. This fact alone made this evening’s performance pointless.

To make things worse, not one singer in the cast seemed truly idiomatic in the language of Corneille and Racine. I understand that the original casting of Sonya Yoncheva in the title role was these performances’ raison d’être: the Bulgarian soprano is a capable actress with a very distinctive voice and long experience in French roles under the approval of French audiences. I cannot say the same about Elena Stikhina. If her voice is more powerful than Yoncheva’s (and therefore more appropriate to the large hall), the glory of this Russian soprano is not its lower and middle register. As a result, most of the text was lost to the public and, when you could indeed make out what she was saying, it hardly sounded flashing and formidable as it should. The tonal quality itself is appealing in its blend of metal and velvet, but, in spite of all her commitment, she is not the woman for the task. I knew Rosa Feola exclusively from recordings and, judging by what I heard today, she must have not been in very good voice. There was unexpected tension in her high notes and her phrasing sounded graceless and unaffecting. I will have to hear her again before I form my opinion. I had low expectations about Pavel Cernoch’s Jason. As written above, this is a high-lying part, and it did not flatter Mr. Cernoch’s tight upper register. His voice sounded bottled-up and rough-edged. He did not give an amorous impression in his scenes with Dircé and was overshadowed by Ms. Stikhina’s more exuberant instrument. Vitalij Kowaljow’s large bass baritone made all the difference in the world as Créon. I certainly understand the temptation of hearing Cherubini’s Medea in capital letters with a big orchestra. But then you’ll really need the likes of Maria Callas, Renata Scotto and Jon Vickers to make it happen.

Under Mr. Hengelbrock’s disciplinarian baton, the Vienna Philharmonic hardly sounded Beethovenian, but played with animation and clarity throughout – the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor also deserves praise for its rich yet precise singing.

At any rate, even if the musical performance had offered everything the listener could hope for, Simon Stone’s superficial and extravagant staging is the one who put the bullet in the heart of this opera. In its kitsch, realistic and various sets, the story of Medea is reduced to soap opera depth and the caliber of this most shocking of classical tragedies is reduced to the immigration agenda. Here, Medea is a Russian bride who hit jackpot living the wonders of bourgeois life with a rich and handsome husband, until she finds that he has another woman. Then she has to return to her shitty hometown (where she has to use an internet cafe when there is no shortage of power) to realize that it is unfair – dove sono i bei momenti by the lake, the expensive kitchen appliances? She only needs an episode of public embarrassment by immigration authorities on  returning to her alpine paradise to settle things with her ex, before she decides that enough is enough, the kids will have to die. That plot has very little to do with Medea, who never was simply a housewife to start with. In Mr. Stone’s view, it all sounds dangerously close to a warning against marrying crazy foreign women. When things go wrong, they won’t give up before you’ll have to call the police. Seriously? And I have to say that the closing acts are anticlimactic as they can be. In the original plot, Dircé is burnt to death in a cursed dress – and here she is just stabbed. Yes, stabbed. Considering that knives already existed in the days of Euripides and Seneca, if the idea were having such a prosaic death scene, a knife would have been chosen, wouldn’t it? The final scene first looks as if you’re going to have an extraordinary pyrotechnic special effect, but it seems that the budget had already been used up by then. Boo.

In these performances, all dialogues have been deleted, some of them replaced by messages from Medea in Jason’s cellphone, the text written by the director.

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When I saw Peter Sellars and Teodor Currentzis’s take on Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito for the Salzburger Festspiele two years ago, I wrote that both stage director and conductor suffered from excess of ideas – and that, regardless of how good one’s ideas are, you cannot stage an idea. If it does not work scenically, then it belongs exclusively to the booklet sold by the usher when you get to the theater.

Although the above mentioned production’s success is debatable, the ideas were thought-provoking and, in the end, you really wished the whole concept worked in terms of theatre. I am not sure about their Idomeneo, though. When I entered the Felsenreitschule and saw the stage covered with inflatable plastic props, I thought it all looked like plastic pollution. Little did I know that, well, it was plastic pollution. At least, that is what the Dramaturg says in the booklet. I’ll take his word for it. I would later discover that plastic was not the only useless stuff washed ashore in Crete. There was Idomeneo himself too, but let’s talk about that later. What we see here is this timeless place covered with gigantic jellyfish-like plastic structures and the police separating the orange-uniform team from the blue-uniform team. As the policemen seemed to obey the people in blue, we could guess that the Trojan guys were the orange team. When Idomeneo endly shows up, he does not get a blue uniform like everybody else, he gets a military one, just like Arbace’s. So far, although there are dangerous levels of choristers doing cute steps as if they survived not from the Trojan War, but from the sixth season of Glee, the story seems to be exactly the one in Giambattista Varesco’s libretto, what could be a notable thing. However, my Italian neighbors kept complaining that, at La Scala, there were sand, rocks, waves, ships and people who looked like a royal family. But that impression was soon to be dismissed. Since the edition adopted by Mr. Currentzis involved an amazing level of cuts, there was a moment when it was impossible to understand the story anymore. I happen to like the scene when Idamante realizes that his father avoids him not because of disgust, but as an attempt to spare him of a gruesome fate and, having his confidence restored, volunteers his own princely neck to save the good people of Crete. I am afraid I’ll have to wait for another staging to see all that. Here Idamante is not urged to sacrifice anything; Neptune just needs to see him and Ilia together and, overwhelmed by the power of love, grants  them the throne and retrieves the kraken he had released before.

Although I found Mr. Sellars’s concept really frustrating (the sets were all right often beautiful and more integrated to the huge stage of the Felsenreitschule than those used in his Clemenza di Tito), I have to say that Mr. Currentzis’s contribution to the show tested my patience. First, the constant nipping and tucking did not make a long opera seem shorter, especially with the inclusion of music from Thamos, König in Ägypten (which worked fine nonetheless) and the concert aria Non temer, amato bene (the one with the piano), a piece Mozart never intended to include in this opera and whose dramatic voltage is such that makes one understand why Mozart called it a CONCERT aria. Second, there were pauses, long, disturbing, disruptive, disfiguring, uncalled for, annoying. I guess Mozart knew quite well when he wanted a pause in his music – those are the moments where he WROTE them in the score. Mr. Currentzis seemed especially happy to employ these gigantic pauses whenever the composer intended a dramatic contrast, entirely lost these afternoon to an audience who could barely remember what happened hours before each pause. Third, there were the nonsensical tempi. Everything tended to be slow in a way one could barely feel the pulse of the music anymore. Idol mio alone felt as if it lasted three hours and a half. Unless when the conductor decided it had to be fast – Tutta nel cor mi sento felt like it lasted three seconds. No wonder poor Elettra said she needed some time off in the depths of the underworld to get things a little bit clearer in her mind. Some numbers, even in correct tempo, were so short in atmosphere and theatricality – O voto tremendo could easily be mistaken by a number in La Finta Giardiniera today. Although the musicAeterna chorus sang with remarkable clarity and homogeneity, the impression was that they were singing long stretches of sacred music.

The Freiburger Barockorchester played well (woodwind particularly virtuosistic), but in the expanses of the Felsenreitschule, it sounded undernourished, more so in the lethargic tempi used by the conductor. I don’t know if the orchestra was kept under leash to spare the singers or if instruments and voices were together victimized by the venue’s difficult acoustics. Not one singer in the cast seemed truly at ease projecting in the auditorium. Ying Fang’s lovely soprano sounded a bit modest in terms of size, and her habit of resorting to mezza voce whenever the line is too exposed made her Ilia a bit pale and low-cal. She is ideally stylish and natural sounding, and I bet that in ideal conditions she could be exemplary in this role. Nicole Chevalier’s pure-toned and soft-centered soprano made me think that maybe Ilia would be her role, but – even if the results were hardly electrifying – her D’Oreste, d’Ajacce hit home somehow, rather by dramatic engagement than by vocal exuberance. Paula Murrihy too sang with knowledge of style and intelligence, but the voice itself is rather indistinctive and tonally unvaried. I could not help thinking of how Marianne Crebassa, Sesto two years ago, would have helped to lend this performance some profile. I still do not understand the idea behind casting Russell Thomas in Mozartian roles. He is ill at ease with the style, stresses all the wrong Italian syllables, is heavy handed with fioriture (even in the simplified version of his aria) and was in really unfocused voice, to make things worse. I  do not understand either the point of hiring the promising Rossinian tenor Levy Sekgapane NOT to sing any of Arbace’s florid music. Finally, Issacchah Savage’s Grand Priest of Neptune sounded juicier of voice than his Idomeneo.

Truth be said, the ballet music was my favorite moment of today’s performance. First, the orchestra offered its best playing under Mr. Currentzis’s really alert beat. And, yes, I liked the Samoan dancers. Their choreography matched the music really well, and their understated movements looked like the exotic version of Classical inutilia truncat. It felt that this was an example of how things could have worked well shorn of the prevailing cuteness and pretentiousness.

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