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Archive for April, 2020

In my brief career in theatre as an assistant director in two plays, the casting policy – for budgetary reasons – was offering big parts to familiar faces normally seen on small roles. That strategy involved lots of emotional breakdowns from these actors having to deal with many pages of dialogue and a great deal of on-stage time. Most of all, the responsibility of carrying the show on their shoulders. As the director was the bad cop, I was the one who had to deal with tantrums. That is why I loved Regina. She was a woman with decades of career in theatre – most often off-stage – who took a small but key role in the second play.  She was almost always on stage, but didn’t have too many lines. Regina was always in good mood, she never created problems, she always had a wise word in the middle of chaos and she often volunteered to help with production matters. And she was a hell of an actress.

One day I realized that her performance only gained in depth – small gestures, looks. She almost stole every scene she was in. I say “almost” because she knew she wasn’t the star of the show and her whole acting was actually meant to help the leading actress. She would always offer her something to work with. I asked her – how do you do it? Regina explained me that small roles require a great deal from the actor, for the author gives them very little to develop from. So she explained to me how she imagined her character’s daily life, everything that happened to her outside the scenes in the play. She told me how was the character’s childhood, her teenage, love-life, family ties, dreams etc. Then she said – that is why I can always find something to add to a scene, because it is very clear to me who my character is.

I found it all so interesting and asked her if she had never been tempted to appear in a leading role. Then she answered – being an actor and wanting to be the star are two different things. Being an actor means loving theatre and wanting to be on stage; wanting to be the star of the show means taking all risks to be the center of all attentions. One thing doesn’t exclude the other, of course. Regina had  children and she was a hands-on person – so I remember she took care of her grandchildren, worked part-time in her son’s company. She was always busy. All she needed from theatre she got in her small roles.

In every opera house, there are many singers like Regina. Sometimes nature gives them voices too special to be overlooked. And I would say that, in the world of opera, it is easier to catch the attention of the audience in a small roles. How many times one leaves the theatre saying “Did you hear the Freia? Huge voice!” That story sometimes ends with unambitious singers being cast in big parts. They often are like Regina – they have family obligations, cannot travel or they just don’t have patience for all the mambo jambo. Everywhere you go, when you overhear locals in after-performance conversation on their way home, you hear “I don’t know why they bothered to hire [name a diva], when we have [name an ensemble singer], who would have done it really better”. I would like to talk about them.

In Berlin, I myself had my list of singers who deserved to be better known outside their home theatres. The first Wolfram I saw at the Deutsche Oper was Markus Brück, and I remember I wrote that I thought his performance uniformly excellent. The next time I saw this production, a more famous singer had been invited and, after the show, I was the one who said “Why haven’t they called Markus Brück?”. At the Deutsche Oper I would see him in many Wagner roles such as Beckmesser, Gunther, the Herald (in Lohengrin), but it was a most positive surprise for me when I saw him together with Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann as Michonnet in a concert performance of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. He was so well cast in that Italian role – then it was my turn to say “Why do they import baritones to these roles when they have this guy here?”. Well, that was not true. When Simon Keenlyside cancelled his Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata, the “replacement” was Brück – and his singing was one of the highlights of that performance. I remember once postponing a flight back from Berlin to see him as Falstaff, but then he cancelled and was replaced by another singer. Mr. Brück is well respected in Berlin and I reckon he is happy with his career there, but, from my part, I always felt frustrated when I told friends elsewhere “And there was Markus Brück as Wolfram” and got a “who?”-look as an answer.

However, my time in Tokyo would take me to an entirely new level of local casting. Many people outside Japan know about visiting opera companies from Europe and USA with glamorous casts, but little is written or spoken about local companies, such as the Nikikai or the Fujiwara, among others. I myself cannot say if they are still there, for now I am outside Japan. I can’t really remember the name of a Wagner festival in suburban Tokyo where whole Ring cycles were staged with local casts. The New National Theatre must be praised for their intent of having Japanese singers in A casts together with visiting stars. I could write pages about Japanese singers – and I wrote many reviews here that made me happy for the simple fact that I was exposing their names for readers abroad. But I had a Japanese “Markus Brück” there – who happened to be Wagnerian soprano Yuka Hashizume, I first saw her as Kundry and was really fascinated with her performance. I don’t know how her singing is now, but then it was a voice of so many possibilities that I wished someone would take her to Berlin, Munich or Bayreuth. I would see her again as Sieglinde – this time in an international cast, Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Eva Johannson as Brünnhilde. Again the amazing potential was there. When I write “potential”, it seems that there was something unfulfilled, but that was not the cast. She gave fully accomplished performance of both roles, but I could see that there was more there – it just needed a high-profile musical director to make her shine in all brightness. I know absolutely nothing about Ms. Hashizume – and again she was an acknowledged Wagner singer not only in Tokyo, but in the whole country. I used to think that listening to her was almost a secret pleasure. But I still wish she could have been less than a secret.

 

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Nonserious Wagner

The other day a colleague from work mentioned he knew someone who used to read this blog. “Used to?” I asked. “Yes”, he said, “before the author ended up being such a die-hard Wagnerian”. That came as a surprise to me. To my mind, Wagnerians were people who could quote Alfred Lorenz’s structural analyses in German and mention that Nilsson sang “Nicht ihre Zauber Kraft?” instead of “Nicht ihre Zauber Macht” in the second act of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner is definitely one of my favorite composers, but I would shy away from calling myself “a Wagnerian” because of all the seriousness involved, I mean, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, motivic derivation, Norse mythology usw… To say the truth, I have a serious mistrust of intellectualized approach to music, especially Romantic music. I am not denying that Wagner’s opus is complex and that someone could spend a lifetime studying it – but in my most humble opinion the experience of watching and hearing these works runs in an entirely different level. Later, you can always dissect that experience through the lens of Philosophy, History, Psychology etc, but the experience itself happens in its very own field.

Among Wagner works, it is Tristan und Isolde the major victim of its reputation of profoundness. I had a German friend who thought it was her duty as an educated person to see a performance of T&I in Bayreuth as some sort of bucket-list item, but she never gave me the impression of actually being curious about what happens therein in terms of music and theatre. I remember the first time I decided to listen to it. It was an act of courage for someone with limited knowledge of Philosophy. Libretto in hand, I tried to process everything that was happening between overwrought German, harmonic complexity and vocal prowess. Meanwhile, the CD kept playing for a mind too busy trying to discover the hidden meaning of something right in front of me.

When I finally saw a staging of Tristan, I remember I gave up hope of understanding everything and just watched and listened. To this day, whenever the lights go off and the prelude is about to start, I experience the same excitement of being transported to another level of consciousness where time dissolves, where only the now exists. It took me a while to realize that this “sensation” is what Tristan and Isolde is about. Finding that “moment” when you are entirely there, where the outside world and the inside world are in perfect alignment, and knowing that it will necessarily end – unless you make it your last one. Then you’ll never see it end. This is something that you cannot learn by reading (and the way I poorly explained it only proves that). But you have to BE there – rather than lost into the recollection of you readings while it is happening.

It took me a while for a second insight about Tristan and Isolde. It happened at the Vienna State Opera just before Christmas. It was a performance in which not one of the musicians seemed to have a point to make. The conductor is what one calls a Kapellmeister (but a very good one) and both soprano and tenor were the opposite of a Waltraud Meier. Those were singers who sang Tristan and Isolde today and Aida and Amneris the next week. And they were probably more concerned about buying Christmas gifts to their beloved ones the next day. You may be asking HOW this could have been good. Well, it was. It was the first Tristan I have ever seen where everybody was doing exactly what was written in the score. The Isolde was so unconvincing in all her explanations about why she should be furious with Tristan and it all felt like tantrum (instead of holy wrath). All those big statements “Sein Lob hörtest du eben/”Hei! unser Held Tristan”/der war jener traur’ge Mann” or “Nun dien ich dem Vasallen” followed by vortices of violin passagework with the effect of an aural “OMG!”, and then by Brangäne’s cajoling in seductive music that felt like eye-rolling. It was weird to realize that the “superficial” treatment actually made more sense within the story AND the music.

That is why I was so surprised by the new production by Dmitri Tcherniakov for the Berlin Staatsoper, streamed last month. When the curtains opened to show the yacht cabin with a huge flat screen TV, whisky glasses, expensive cigars, preppy costumes, Vuitton bags and antics all over the place, I couldn’t help thinking of telenovela. Yes, telenovela characters make very complex plots just to teach a lesson to a beloved person who scorned them. They have sidekicks to whom they make dramatic revelations and who react in large scale to everything they hear. I had a teacher who used to say that “telenovelas are like undying relics from the world of Balzac and Victor Hugo”. In telenovelas, people even drink magic potions – sometimes they are not really magic potions, but it’s always a good excuse to make something unacceptable. To be honest, the Staatsoper’s production did not live to its promise – Tristan and Isolde are supposed to be young people who try to figure grown-up world in obscure flux of consciousness. Everybody who was 15 one day knows all about that. In Tcherniakov’s staging everybody looked too long in the tooth and acted too grandly for that to make any sense. Although I cannot say I like the production – it was often quite laughable – the fact that Therniakov was reacting (awkwardly) to the dynamics of the libretto and the music made me curious for the second act.

It opens in an adjoining hall to a ballroom – a party is about to begin. Isolde is waiting for Tristan and when he arrives, with febrile, almost uncomfortable music around him, he comes bouncing and they play a game. He asks “Are you mine?” with a facial expression “Ha, beat that!”, snap fingers, and she winks and says “Do I have you again?” and so on. I can’t deny – it was embarrassing, but somehow it made sense to the rhythm of the music and the story. As teenagers who have to deal with all that sexual tension without really knowing what to do with it, they let the steam go in this athletic bouncing and winking and snapping and joking and then when they are breathless and have nothing else to say, then they sing O sink hernieder. Only the production made them look too old for all that – and all one could feel was vicarious embarrassment. That said, what kept me watching to the end was the superb conducting of Daniel Barenboim, for me, the maestro who really goes for the heart of the matter in this music, that flame, that moment, that impetus that could never go on forever. I saw Anja Kampe sing the role for him in Buenos Aires, but she was not nearly in good voice as in Berlin. Andreas Schager was not indefatigable as when I saw him in Tokyo a couple of years ago, but still it is an instrument of undeniable impact and a color that has nothing of the pushed up baritone.

 

 

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We all had plans – my plans involved a Straussian/Wagnerian April and May. Last January someone asked me “How are you these days?” and my answer “I only care that I’ll be in Germany next April”. Well, that is not going to happen, but thanks to the generosity of some opera houses, we can pretend that we are in New York, Munich, Vienna or Milan with a little help of free streaming. In a moment when we tend to disconnect, it is important to stay connected with these institutions that help us through our bad days. So, I guess a donation – even a small one at some point – would be a nice gesture from the audience for those theatres that are sharing a bit of their archives with us. One silver lining in watching opera at home is that you can comment in real time with friends. I know there are hateful people who comment in real time IN THE HOUSE, but there is a special place in hell for them, I am sure.

I have recently discovered that some part of me knew that there would be some sort of lockdown, because I have bought in the last years a huge amount of DVDs that I have never even opened. That is why I am not watching telecasts that I already have in my collection. I am using the opportunity to finally watch them in the process of rewriting the discographies. So far, it’s basically been an overdose of Entführung aus dem Serail.

I haven’t written reviews of these telecasts. Ideally, this would require watching them a couple of times – and that is not possible. It is different from writing about a live performance, when one is primarily concerned with sharing the atmosphere of being there rather than being thorough with the description of detail. The main item in my cancelled European trip would be Janowski’s Fidelio with Lise Davidsen in Dresden, so I was more than curious to hear the broadcast from London. When I first started to make plans, the London Fidelio was the idea, but it was impossible to find a ticket – and I see that – as Leonore says – es gibt eine Vorsehung. Pappano’s conducting was appalling. I have seen Fidelio with subpar orchestras and third-rate conductors, but what I heard there was probably really a serious contender for the worst ever. It was wrong in concept and poor in execution – as if these people had never rehearsed it before they showed it to an audience. Before I speak of the cast, I must say that there was something wrong with the recording itself – all voices sounded differently from my experience of hearing them live. But I’ll speak only of Davidsen’s Leonore.

It is not the first time that I find her voice, as recorded, different from what one hears her in the theatre. Unrecordable voices are not a myth – I had a friend who was an audiophile, a record collector and a regular in Bayreuth and Salzburg. I was a kid then and couldn’t afford expensive tickets – and he played a game of making me guess, through recordings, who had the bigger, louder or more projecting voice. It is tricker than it seems – as much as the camera loves some faces, the microphone loves some voices. Lise Davidsen’s voice has a complex structure. I clearly remember the first time I heard her live and, to make it simpler, I’ll divide it in two parts – the lower part is quite dark in color but is not dense in texture as a mezzo soprano. It is not really matte, but it is definitely not bright and forward. It fills the auditorium per sheer size. Around the passaggio, it acquires a squillo. I avoided the word “brightness”, because it suggests a tightly focused sound. That is not what I hear there – it is rather an incandescence. As if a metallic beam had reached red heat. When unleashed, these high notes do not pierce your ears, but you feel the bulk of their physical “presence” on your eardrums. As you can sense in my description, the spacial element is essential for the experience of hearing that voice. A matter of mike placement? I don’t know if it is as simple as that: what one hears in recordings, such as the Decca Vier letzte Lieder, is a middle register that sounds a bit “off”. I am no sound engineer, but I guess that something like that might happen when you adjust for the impact of those high notes. My impression is that trying to reconcile the two parts of this very special voice will always be a short-blanket dilemma. And this is just one problem of hearding Davidsen’s Leonore in that broadcast.

I notice some reviewers tend to feel frustrated with the fact that, having a big voice, Davidsen never “lets it rip”. This is an old discussion – singers who burn it all too soon (à la Elena Souliotis) or singers who end up being boring saving resources for a future that never comes. I take Lise Davidsen’s side once again – having to manage one’s resources through a long work with a big orchestra is not something that you learn in theory. You really have to discover where you can save so that you can spend when saving is not an option. But the key is: you have to know HOW TO save. This involves the ability of spinning notes from the core, expanding for the full sound and then focusing it back to the core point. It is not easy as it sounds – it requires a mastery of placement and breath control that has to be adjusted at each different point of your range. When you know this core or starting point, this also means you can actually stay in it, when you want to produce softer dynamics or produce absolutely clean legato. I don’t mean here that a singer like Davidsen should be singing Mozart right now – but she is right in having this discipline at this point in her career when it comes more easily to her. She has a true Wagnerian voice – she doesn’t need to go 100% to be heard over the orchestra. So why blast and burn all her fuel in the first ten minutes if she can save and keep the finesse of a bel canto singer right to the end of the opera? Here we’re speaking of Fidelio, this is not Wagner nor Richard Strauss – so even in terms of style, she is right in producing a lean and clean vocal line and phrasing with classical (yes, classical) poise, unless when circumstances demand otherwise.

All that said, she is still maturing in the role. And this requires the guidance of someone who really knows it – Gwyneth Jones has spoken about how Karl Böhm was important for her in terms of style and musical thoroughness. And you just need to hear his recording to hear that – it is all there. But Pappano is no Böhm. It is almost an insult to Karl Böhm to mention his paramount recording when speaking of that broadcast. I noticed that there were many moments when Davidsen could have had a helping hand from the conductor, the extra two seconds for breathing before a long and difficult phrase or holding back the orchestra just a bit in a note where the singer cannot put too much weight otherwise it will be difficult to climb to a top note. This kind of essencial help you are supposed to offer when you are conducting opera. But again – it would be wonderful if she could find the right conductor to tell her “you can really let yourself go here, I’ll be there for you”. If one considers she was basically fending for herself, then one has to acknowledge that she deserves compliments rather than the cold reception she got for it. A friend of mine who saw it live texted me as soon as she left the theatre – “No difficulties whatsoever. None. Very moving portrait as well. Impressive.” (C., I’m not naming you, because I haven’t asked your permission to quote you). Those who were not lucky to see Jones, Nilsson, Rysanek as Leonore (me included), think of all other singers you saw in the role and consider if you would have described it like that. So, yes, this is not Lise Davidsen’s last word as Leonore, but when she finally get it, I can only believe she’ll shake your world.

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Intermission

A mortal creature is unique and once dead, it is really the end. The coronavirus pandemic is no tragédie lyrique; a deus ex machina does not appear in the last scene to save innocent victims. It just puts everything in a hard perspective. Immortal things can die too; but the good news is that they can always come back. One just needs people willing to give them life and people willing to be there and witness their brief appearances in the world of the living. In this moment – and nobody knows for how long – the spirits who inhabit the realms of opera and lift us from our routines to an upper level of meaning, feelings and beauty won’t be visiting us. In practical terms, this means some opera houses will probably end their activities, most of them will endure extreme difficulties and everything will be different from a while. It is not the first time this happens. In their biographies, artists such as Peter Schreier or Christa Ludwig tell us of the bombing of temples such as the Vienna State Opera, the Semperoper, the Teatro alla Scala, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden – and yet here they are, proudly standing in the world’s most important boulevards. In their various reincarnations, they have seen the twilight of so many gods and yet at some point they always open their doors to new generations ready to another ritual of music, theatre, literature and many other things.

I confess I was in gloomier mood, but then I was exchanging e-mails with my friend Olivier and he said something that set my mind going. Of course, opera houses will have hard times for a while and then they will realize they will have to adapt. Since the dawn of the Salzburg Festival and its increasing informal collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera House (those were the days when Dr. Böhm and his FroSch team – Rysanek, Ludwig, King, Berry – could always be seen both sides of the Atlantic), the world of opera has been dominated by star system. Theatres have been organizing their programs around singers (sometimes conductors, occasionally directors) who can bring people from all over the world and establish or reaffirm these companies’ international reputations. This is exactly how the audience buys their tickets – I myself browse their websites to see the next opportunity to see the most shining starts in operatic firmament and since time is money, the more, the merrier. Everyone of us has grown spoiled and used to “festival casts”. We expect that each of the great opera houses in the world is going to show us a Trovatore quartet for every performance. This means that opera has become a little bit like wine – you’ll have to fit in in some grand varietal, otherwise it’s going to be hard to sell it. So, after a while casts gradually tended to have the same taste everywhere. Of course, this is opera and people have always wanted to see the great artists of the age – the Adelina Pattis, the Jenny Linds, the Enrico Carusos. But this was before the airplane and, while the big shots were crossing the oceans, local singers had their opportunities to sing a big role and nurture their home audience’s tastes until a legendary diva would appear. But now let me concentrate on the world of opera just after World War II: opera houses destroyed, limited budget, some stellar careers interrupted (Germaine Lubin being always the most notable example). Management had to deal with what they had at hand. Conductors had to look for new people who often required some extra push to reach ideal performance level. In other words, ensemble performances.

I have recently mentioned here Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s interview for August Everding, when she discusses the issue of Mozart performances. Everding asked her why the old Viennese performances were so uniformly excellent with people like Jurinac, Seefried, Dermota, Kunz. I don’t remember Schwarzkopf’s exact words, but her answer was: we were not starts, we were the group of singers chosen by people like Karajan or Böhm in order to perform their vision of how this or that work should go. All of them trained by the same guidance, singing work after work together. After a while, she says, they knew it beforehand how it would be. They knew each other’s strengths, weaknesses, peculiarities and most of all they had a clear vision of the frame within which they were expected to deliver. Böhm or Karajan or Erich Kleiber would always be there to remind them, that’s for sure. Beyond the Alps, something similar – in different repertoire – was happening at La Scala or in Rome, with full Italian casts who were nurtured together under the guidance of someone like Tulio Serafin. So here we are – less money, less flights, less willingness to travel, less members in the audience – and maybe there is a silver lining here. For decades, ensemble operas – Mozart most of all, but not only – have been the victim of star system. There is no time for rehearse, singers with jarring stylistic approach, lack of precision in ensemble etc. With less shows, house talents, familiar not only with each other, but also with members of the chorus and the orchestra, who knows what could happen?

The fact that performances won’t be routine as they have been might be a great difference for all involved, artists and audience. How often have we all spent money with expensive tickets, flights, hotel etc for all-star performances with a bureaucratic feeling about it? The Aida was singing Butterfly in Dresden the week before and will be singing Micaela next week in Vienna and she barely remembers where she is at this point and all she thinks is that she misses her daughter somewhere in Ukraine or Spain. Nobody wants the show to end too late, otherwise all restaurants will be closed, the orchestra has no clue of the reason why the conductor who barely speaks the language wants it phrased this or that way. I know, it is their jobs – and even if one loves his or her job, it’s essentially a job in the end of the day, but sometimes one just want to ask: where is the love? I’ll speak about a performance I never reviewed here. I was in Hamburg for the Ring and there was a free evening. As I know nobody there, I looked for something to do and discovered that there would be a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor with the period-instrument Elbipolis Barockorchester in the Blankenese Kirche am Markt. I remember it was tricky to get a ticket, for there was no box office and I have to write to the parish. When I got to the church, it took me a while to understand that the lady in the “box office” (a table at the entrance), the ushers and the whole staff were actually the chorus members. Then I realized that they were no professional chorus – they were actually the congregation. Those who were not singing were watching. I was probably one of the few outsiders there. Of course, they could not compare with the Monteverdi Choir or the RIAS-Kammerchor, but they were so excited to be there singing Bach for their families! It was impossible not to think that this was closer in atmosphere (and maybe in standard…) to what Bach himself must have heard than the professional performances I have attended in the Philharmonie. So, yes, I hope that this time out will help us remember how important every performance is to all of us, artists and members of the audience.

In what regards this blog. In the beginning – in the times of the old blog – it was less about “reviews” but rather about sharing experiences, and that had to do with the fact that I had then far less opportunities to attend performances. I miss writing some essays – such as the one about Donna Anna and what she wants or that one about puzzling elements in Così fan tutte. Sometimes, less structured texts like the one about the Verdi’s Princess Eboli. I have to find if I still have it in me, but for the time I’m working on a project that was an important part of the old blog, the discographies. For the last 10 years, I have tried to revise and publish it again, but it advanced very little. In its original version, it involved almost the entirely repertoire (but for Russian opera and most XXth century works). In its current form, it has some Mozart and Handel. Some old readers (I don’t know if they still read, but anyway…) have asked me if I would publish them again, and the results are the discographies published in www.operadiscographies.com . They are almost of all of them work-in-progress: there are entries missing, some of them really have to be re-written, but I like to believe that, if someone checks once in a while, he or she is going to find something “alive”. I revise the entire text every time I add a new item and sometimes the inclusion makes me rewrite related entries. The Da Ponte operas are more or less in their final shape, but the German operas are being trickier than I thought – especially The Abduction from the Seraglio, which is in something like “soft opening” at the moment.

Finally, as almost everyone else, I have been watching lots of telecasts and broadcasts. I might write something about them, as I used to do in the past. Last time I did that was by the time the Met unveiled its new Ring. So it’s been a while…

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