Archive for October, 2021

The Cantata BWV 120, Gott, man lobet in der Stille, is a work of elusive nature. It is a cerimonial cantata composed for the council elections in Leipzig in 1742, i.e., it is something Bach had to do as a purely contractual obligation. As Bach is Bach, this has nothing to do with quality or lack thereof, but this explains that every number but the recitatives were borrowed from previous works, some of them would still be used again. All that poses an extra challenge on interpreters: first, producing the impression of coherence in something that was originally a hotchpotch and, second, making it sound as if Bach really meant it, “it” being the sincere wish that the rulers of his town were wise and well meaning, as we hear in the text of the cantata. 

Bach was the kind of man who was unable of not having an opinion – and here he very subtly lets us know what was in his mind when he assembled this cantata. Festive works tend to start with a trumpet+drums number, for those instruments were understood in the baroque as a symbol of gods and kings (via their military nature). But here they come in third place. The opening number is actually an aria of pastorale nature with two oboes d’amore for the alto voice. The text: we praise God in silence.

As in every concert in this series, an invited speaker shares his thoughts about the cantata between two performances of the same work. This evening, a businessman with musical background, Mr. Hermann Hess (no second “e” in his family name) reminded us that praising God and the King in the 18th century was almost the same thing – and Bach proves here to have an Aufklärung bone in his body. First he tells us what is the real devotion – the one you show in silence, alone as a shepherd far away from all ostentation and richness. Then he performs his professional duty with the protocolar trumpet + drum chorus, one he would use again in a (glorious) work he composed out of sheer convenience, the Mass in B Minor. 

Before this concert, I renewed my acquaintance with this cantata with the Suzuki and the Koopman recordings, both of which go for glitter and glamour. Then I checked Herreweghe’s and he just sold me his concept. In his recording, there is a gentle, warm, unrushed atmosphere that makes us understand that the good people of Leipzig have a sincere faith that God in his wisdom will send them the ruler they deserve. In musical terms, this basically means making the “protocolar” chorus less fireworky than it is. I confess that I don’t find it a very inspired number, and the gentler approach makes it clearer in terms of structure and more gracious in terms of expression. 

This evening conductor Rudolf Lutz seems to see the work very much like either Suzuki or Koopman. And I wished that he didn’t. The Herreweghe approach would have flattered his forces better. As performed today, his chorus lacked clarity both in terms of articulation and balance. Their singing basically sounded tangled and mostly overshadowed by drums and trumpets (which could have offered something less erratic in a more considerate tempo). In the first aria, countertenor Jan Börner tacked his divisions precisely and elegantly. I have the impression that a female alto in the acoustics of the Olma-Halle would fare less better in this tessitura. That said, I have developed a fondness for Ingeborg Danz’s fruitiness of tone in that number. She sounds softly authoritative and that feels right in the number in which Bach is teaching us a lesson. Replacing Sybilla Rubens, Miriam Feuersinger sang her aria with her customary stylishness and tonal plushness – but both Hanna Blazikova (for Suzuki) and Deborah York (for Herreweghe) shows us that this is really meant for a bell-toned (rather than pellucid) voice. Both male soloists have only recitatives to deliver. Both of them sang them knowingly, but their counterparts in recordings offer something distinctively more mellifluous. 


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Il Trovatore is supposed to be opera’s most ludicrous libretto: nobody makes rational choices, it is difficult to understand if parents have their children’s welfare in mind, people commit gruesome crimes, there is a nonsensical war nobody really understands and one sometimes laughs of horrible things, even if the joke is on oneself. So, yes, on a second thought, you can’t help believing that real life must have a very poor libretto too. From that point of view, Adele Thomas’s new production for the Opernhaus Zürich (and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) has something refreshing about it. Although it looks dangerously close to Monty Python’s Jabberwocky – with medieval costumes, duh-gags, very silly choreographies and supposedly-on-purpose stock gestures, it does confront the audience with the question “is this really laughing stock?”. Leonora sings the Miserere surrounded among dismembered corpses and the closing scene’s grotesque is glaringly distasteful. Yes, on reading my own words here, I myself feel like watching it, although I have just seen it and – to be honest – there is a lot of room to improvement there. Ms. Thomas says in her interview she admires Shakespeare’s ability to mix comedy and drama – and reminds us that Verdi too was a great admirer of the Bard – but on watching this production, it doesn’t seem that this director shares with Shakespeare the ability she admires so much. The level of slapstick is so high – and the Personenregie obsessed with making every person on stage produce a movement corresponding to every note in the score is so fidgety – that the result is ultimately all over the place, failing to share the director’s sincere belief in this work.

The rather crude staging offered a strong contrast to Gianandrea Noseda’s almost too refined account of the score. The orchestra produced rich, full sounds of an almost Wagnerian quality. Yet the maestro was able to render all of Verdi’s discreet little touches often overseen but essential to show you that the image of “the big guitar” orchestration is rather the result of bad conducting. However, a truly efficient performance of Il Trovatore must have something raw, something punchy about it, a splash of garish, with really loud anvils and exhilarating tempi in all those dramatic confrontations. It simply sounds dull with the Brahms Requiem approach. That said, I still prefer what Mr. Noseda has done this evening to what he did years ago at the Met in a performance where his single concern seemed to be helping the cast. Curiously, at least in terms of orchestral volume, that didn’t seem to be the case this evening, although this cast was consistently lighter in tone and power than his singers in New York (an old timer might say that the NY cast was already light compared to what one would hear in an opera like this in the 50’s and 60’s).

Marina Rebeka is a singer I first knew as faultless Mozartian – and “Mozartian” was an adjective I would use to speak about her even when she was singing 19th century repertoire. I can’t say if this is positive or negative, but she didn’t make me think of Mozart at all this evening. Her voice did not sound instrumental, but vibrant in a fast-vibrato-ish way, her low register not always truly connected to the rest of her voice (and often hard to hear) and mezza voce essentially non-functional. On the positive side, for a singer often accused of coldness, she delivered her text with theatrical awareness and, given her non-Mozartian mood, often chose passion over subtlety. She predictably shone in passages involving coloratura, where most sopranos just make do. The casting of Agnieszka Rehlis made me think of some old Italian recordings where the Azucena was clearly a contralto stretched with Verdi’s demands of exposed dramatic high notes. Ms. Rehlis’s mastery of the passaggio and absolutely natural low register seem to be the hallmark of a true contralto – she never needed to overcharge her chest resonance to be heard over the orchestra. Her voice is spontaneously dark and rich. Maybe that is why she felt comfortable for the filigree rarely heard in Stride la vampa. Nonetheless, forceful as her acuti were, they felt stretched and bottled up (what is expected of a contralto in a role truly in the mezzo soprano range). And Azucena must feel like a force of nature, it must be an overwhelming voice. It has to peel the paint off the walls, I’m afraid.

Manrico is not a role I would expect to see in Piotr Beczala’s repertoire. I had seen this Polish tenor sing Verdi before – Ballo in Maschera in Berlin some years ago. Back then – well as he sang, he sounded like a lyric tenor in a role a couple of sizes larger for him, the voice too velvety to pierce through in the most exposed passages and a bit short of metal in the extreme high notes. His Manrico still sounds like Alfredo Germont’s walk on the wild side but I’m not sure if that – in a small theatre as the opera house in Zurich – is a negative thing. Manrico is supposed to be a teenager – and Mr. Beczala’s dulcet tone, ease with mezza voce, honeyed legato suggest youth and vulnerability. Truth be said, his voice now is a bit richer than it was in his Riccardo in Berlin and, taken in consideration all nips and tucks, he offered a very decent Di quella pira. It didn’t feel heroic at all, but he delivered the short notes nobody cares to sing and even articulated the ”-mi” in the end of his final, interpolated “all’armi”. I had never heard Quinn Kelsey before and I am frankly puzzled by what I heard. His was probably the most natural voice in this performance – it is unforcedly large, firm and also pleasant… for a Mozart baritone. If he were indeed singing the role of the Count Almaviva, then the clarity, the cleanliness, the straightforwardness – the very long breath – would all have been praiseworthy. Mr Kelsey often sang in a pop-like voice, almost short of resonance, tended to phrase with restricted legato, showing a fondness for offering key notes in a straight-tone. Maybe I’m too used to Italian baritones who deliver an aria like Il balen with an increasing, seamless curve of vibrancy and richness, maybe he was not in a good day. I would need to hear him again to say something.

I would have preferred a more focused, Italianate tone than what we heard from the singer in the part of Fernando, but Bozena Bujnicka offered something more attractive what what we usually find in the small part of Ines. The chorus sang with the right balance between animation and homogeneity, sometimes a bit ahead of the conductor’s beat.

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Reviews of Italian opera tends to speak about the singers first – and that makes sense. I at least won’t see an opera like Puccini’s Tosca if I am not interested in the cast, whereas I would go for Frau ohne Schatten or Lohengrin even if the cast were lacklustre. The revival of Robert Carsen’s 2009 production, for instance, would hardly be a reason for me to buy a ticket. First, it was released with the original cast (Magee, Kaufmann, Hampson) on DVD. Generically beautiful as it is, it is hardly illuminating. Twelve years later, it feels even more generic, and one had the impression that the current cast was rather imposing their own game in the outline of what Carsen actually devised as stage direction. For instance, Tosca is a woman who has to be on top of situations – and that is why she is a diva. Everything is supposed to happen the way she wants – and, when things run out of control, she throws a tantrum. Here, Carsen seems to want to show that this is a defense mechanism rather than an attack mechanism – and when things really go south, it doesn’t even work. In that sense, Tosca is doomed from the start. She only has the upper hand when she is acting – and that is why she acts a lot during the plot. She even tries acting for Scarpia, who couldn’t care less. From that point of view, Vissi d’arte, usually regarded as an interruption to the plot, is actually central to the stage action. This is what Tosca is about – it is almost a multiple personality disorder. When things are too real-word for poor Floria, then La Tosca comes on stage. The problem is that, in the current incarnation of this old production, this is performed in a rather self-explanatory way, almost like in a play for small children. The evening prima donna would raise her arm and open wide her eyes – and we were supposed to think “ah, this is one of those moments”.

The conductor in charge this evening is also the one in the original run back in 2009, Paolo Carignani. He deserves praises for demanding from the house band a truly late Romantic sound – this was probably the thickest and loudest I have ever heard this orchestra. I cannot really say it was a Dresden or Berlin “thick and loud” – it felt a bit edgy and almost on the verge of derailing, but it was exciting in an almost over the top way. On the other hand, there was a clear disagreement between singers and the conductor. The tenor was desperate with the sluggish tempo for Recondita armonia, the soprano rushed forward without looking back throughout the whole first act. And they were right – Puccinian melody works better when the Italian text sounds crisp. The Wagnerian approach just make things sound a bit silly when character are speaking about how they are going to make out in the garden later that night. I am someone who watches Tosca for the second act. As this evening, it was clearly the Schwerpunkt of the performance – it just played for the strengths of everyone involved – I could forget how little atmosphere and charm the first act had.

When Sonya Yoncheva sung her first Tosca a couple of years ago, I thought it was a bad idea. I had seen her as Mimì in La Bohème at the Met, and the way her high notes flapped jarred with a voice still capable of loveliness and legato. Now her Mozart days are definitely behind her. It is a voice that has gotten over loveliness. It is like the garden variety of Marias Callas’s voice – the low notes are chesty, the middle has a bottled-up sound and the high notes are metallic and vibrant in an almost piercing way. In her first scene, she was rarely appealing. She didn’t even try mezza voce and her attempts at piano were often wiry and lacking floating quality. The overall impression was rather bossy. In act 2, her singing of the cantata was a bit wild, but once in the presence of Scarpia, Ms. Yoncheva seemed to be in her element, flashing big, bright high notes without flinching and using the text with sense of theatre and almost without any exaggeration. It also involved her best acting during the whole evening. She looked almost scary when she killed Scarpia and then shifted between vulnerability and panic and a bit craziness, adding some three-dimensionality to a scene that is almost a little hard to believe.

I had not seen Joseph Calleja for a while and considering my experiences with him in more heroic roles, I was wondering how he would fare as Cavaradossi. The fact is his voice has developed since I last saw him. First, now he has acquired the right metal for exposed acuti. They are still a bit tight, but now firm and bright and a bit denser than in the past. His hallmark vibratello, however, is now something like a rattling sound around the passaggio and sometimes the tone lacks a bit color too. He has also acquired some Caballé-ian mannerisms – abandoning consonants to reach high notes and shifting for mezza voce whenever things are difficult to handle. In any case, it is still a dulcet sound and he is congenial as always. He felt a little bit more inclined to act this time, even comfortable in his matinée leading man approach.

I was a bit surprised to discover that Thomas Johannes Meyer was our Scarpia this evening. He is a singer who used to go for broke in very heavy roles and I wondered how long he would survive like that. The voice now is basically rough and lacking focus. I had never found it voluminous but rather forceful – and yet this evening he sang in a very muscular way and proved to have plenty of stamina to tackle a big role like that. There was very little room for nuance and textual clarity, though.

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Pelléas et Mélisande is an opera I’ve seen more often in concert version than staged – and I wonder if it was not better this way. Of course, this is a libretto adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s play and therefore conceived for the stage, but I have the impression that the blanks left by the text’s elusiveness are better filled by the tempo of straight theatre than by that of opera. I don’t have an answer for that – Eric Ruf’s new staging for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées surely did not proved my suspicion wrong.

Yes, this opera is supposed to have a shadowy atmosphere, but there is so much color in the music and it is a bit frustrating to sense the existence of forests, towers, caves, beaches in the music and having to watch an uninspiring (also uninspired) single set (a dam or something like that) that moves noisily and – differently from what the director expected – does not create an atmosphere of repressed emotions. And I’d blame the Personenregie for that. Yes, P et M requires a certain stillness (as much as Tristan und Isolde) but you have to perceive a certain tension – erotic in particular – in that stillness. Otherwise, these characters look just bored. In the important scene in which Mélisande looses her wedding ring, the director makes both her and Pelléas move around with their arms open as if they were trying not to fall on the slippery grounds. After 20 seconds, it just looked silly and distracting. Mélisande’s costumes were to big for her and she slouched so much when she walked that it was difficult to understand the fascination she exerted on every man on stage. Pelléas lacked any introspection and had an almost alpha-male confidence, while Golaud displayed  a miserable, boorish attitude from his first appearance that made one hardly realize when he is finally being downright abusive. I wonder if anyone found any new insight in this joyless production.

Fortunately, the musical side of the performance had enough compensation for the theatrical dreariness. Conductor François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles have the mission of finding the right color for every work by researching the instruments used by the conductor at the time of each piece’s creation. So here we have Érard harps, older style flutes with smaller bore etc with the purpose of creating a subtler and more varied tonal palette. As a matter of fact, the orchestral sound was this evenings’s greatest asset. The way woodwind and strings would blend during the whole performance created atmosphere with immediacy, and even if the sound picture was dense it was never overwhelming in terms of volume. Actually, those used to Karajan’s or Rattle’s recordings may have found it lacking impact in scenes such as the end of act 4. 

Unable to sing because of a sudden illness, Patricia Petibon acted – in an almost zombiesque way – the role of Mélisande, while Vannina Santoni sang the part for her from one side of the stage. Ms. Santoni has a light Mozartian soprano with lovely floated mezza voce and crystalline diction. She is a sensitive, musicianly singer and deserves praise for her beautiful performance. I personally prefer a mezzo-ish, sexier tonal quality for the role, but Ms. Vanoni is probably the voice Debussy expected to hear in it. Her pairing to the robust-toned Stanislas de Barbeyrac offered an interesting contrast. One always expects something Mozartian of a tenor Pelléas, but Mr. de Barbeyrac sounded darker than some baritones in it and handled the part with almost Puccinian slancio (yet not Puccinian power). As a result, he seemed less in love with love than every singer I have ever heard in the role, but rather hot-headed and testosterone high. I don’t know if this is the approach I’d like to hear as a rule, but it was refreshing to hear it sung differently.

Simon Keenlyside’s white-heat Golaud might have worked better some years ago. As it is, his voice now has a touch of rust that made his singing almost uniformly rough. Here the example of José Van Dam – who kept the role until late in his career – would have been helpful, for this Belgian bass baritone was able to create a chiaroscuro of warm tonal quality and smooth phrasing when we first hear Golaud that made for a more three-dimensional character. In any case, Mr Keenlyside deserves praise for his commitment and also very clear French.
In the role of Géneviève, Lucille Richardot sang with lightness of tone and homogeneity rare in a contralto these days. Jean Teitgen has the right gentleness of tone for Arkel and Claire Briot was an unusually rich-toned and characterful Yniold.

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Although one rarely hears about Radamisto, it was one of Handel’s big hits at the Royal Academy of Music. The first run of performances was so successful that the composer could present it again a couple of months later with a different cast, for which he made adaptations, such as rewriting or even adding new numbers. The new group of singers was an all-stars affair, with the great castrato Senesino in the title role and Margherita Durastanti as his wife Zenobia. This certainly had a lot to do with the original popularity of this now rarely performed work, and this is also why the A-team gathered this evening for a concert performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées made this an opportunity to sample the thrill of the London première in 1720.

Predictably, the Senesino edition has been chosen for the concert, since Philippe Jaroussky was featured in the primo uomo part (the work’s première had a soprano Durastanti as Radamisto). Jaroussky’s “angelic” countertenor does not come to mind when one thinks of the parts Handel wrote for Senesino, I’d say. My experience is that he tends to shine in arie d’affetto rather than heroic numbers, in which he lacks a stronger low register and some punch too. However, this evening Jaroussky sang in what one could call the autumnal phase of a countertenor’s voice (which can come earlier as one would want sometimes). The effortless legato and soprano-like high notes were not entirely there, yet the voice has acquired an edge which makes it less beautiful but rather a little bit more metallic in color. This means that, if his singing did not sound immaculate, it did sound more convincing as a castrato sound. At some point he did become tired and had to force some high notes. Fortunately he was able to recover for a refined version of Qual nave smarrita, far smoother than his Ombra cara.

This evening’s Zenobia was Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who can be a controversial Handelian. When I saw her as Polinesso (Ariodante) and in the title role in Giulio Cesare in Egitto (with Alan Curtis), the heroic music had more than a splash of grotesque. Ms. Lemieux loves her chest notes and takes no prisoners when she wants to produce cavernous sounds, even if this means a mushy passaggio to a somewhat overcovered high register. In those roles, her coloratura could sound rather labored too. That said, the part of Zenobia plays for all her strengths. She is a very expressive singer and the character’s many lamenti were all of them sung with unrestrained emotion and a natural ear for Handelian melody. It is also a part with some very peculiar arias with contrasting moods in highly dramatic situations. In these moments, Ms. Lemieux went for larger than life and close to the limits of baroque style. And yet she did that with such gusto and imagination that one couldn’t help surrendering to her artistry.

Radamisto is an opera with two queens – Zenobia and Polissena. In the latter, Emöke Baráth sang with remarkable passion too. Her voice has developed since I last saw her as Sesto (with Lemieux as Cesare). Then it had an almost boy soprano sound, while now it offers a Mozartian roundness of tone and a very solid low register too. In the role of Tigrane, Anna Bonitatibus sang with such nimble coloratura, firmness of tone and feeling for the text that I felt sorry that the part was – understandably- shortened. Alicia Amo, as Fraarte, wasn’t particularly appealing in sound, but handled the coloratura with more aplomb than poise, what is a valid approach for a breeches role with heroic arias.

After having seen a series of throaty tenors in all kinds of repertoire, I couldn’t help finding Zachary Wilde refreshingly bright and free, if not truly dulcet as Tiridate. As he was playing a psycho anyway, Mr. Wilde relished his bad guy routine, snarling when necessary and producing some very long phrases on the breath. Last but definitely not least, baritone Renato Dolcini left absolutely nothing to be desired as Farasmane. I can’t wait to hear more from him.

With the Il Pomo d’Oro orchestra, conductor Francesco Corti did not seem concerned about making this score grander or more exciting as some conductors in this repertoire like to do these days. He rather let it speak for itself in natural tempi and a light orchestral sound that acquired variety though color and accent rather than volume or power. Considering his cast’s intensity of expression, I can’t say this was an ineffective choice.

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When one watches works like Die Feen or Das Liebesverbot, it is obvious that the young Richard Wagner still had to learn the actual limits of live performance, especially in what relates to singers. Although Der fliegende Holländer is not included in the “early Wagner” set, I am not sure if I wouldn’t consider it impractical as the “early” ones. I haven’t seen it as often as I’d like – and maybe I’ve just had bad luck – but I have never sat through a performance of it remotely close to being really satisfying. None as unsatisfying as the one that took place in the Opéra Bastille this evening.

Willy Decker’s 2000 production could hardly be considered problematic in the context of everything that went awry tonight. I can’t say if it was the first one to replace all seashore atmosphere by a big seascape painting (I’ve seen a couple of them) but the truth is that it is difficult to say if anything remains from the original Personenregie. As it is today, it involves the main actors walking like zombies, throwing objects they profess to adore to the floor – and, when they are empty-handed, throwing themselves to the ground.

Even if this is the first time I hear Hannu Lintu conduct, I feel I can understand what was going on his mind. When you have an unreliable orchestra in a formidable score such as this, you won’t try to make it sound like Tristan und Isolde (as Thielemann did in Bayreuth with forces very different from those available in Paris): you just try to go for the Weberian approach and pray to God that singers won’t ruin the whole thing. In the overture, it seemed like a viable option – he kept strings as light and bright as possible, went for the egg-timer tempo and there was some excitement in hearing the orchestra barely cope. However the effort could increasingly be heard – the violins became less and less precise during the evening, brass instruments more and more erratic and the overall impression finally band-like. The chorus was a bit unruly and mismatches abounded – but the subpar singing of sopranos and altos is something that requires serious attention from the chorus master. Really.

My Wagnerian friend C. never refers to Tomasz Konieczny by his name but rather as “the Alberich guy”, because we were truly amazed by his performance in Das Rheingold at the Deutsche Oper Berlin a couple of years ago. This involves her saying things like “but the Mandryka is the Alberich guy?”. When I told her I was going to see this performance, she obviously said “the Alberich guy as the Holländer….?” Actually, that was the one million dollar question. Whenever the Holländer was in a “cursing” mood, then the Alberich guy was very convincing, unleashing his powerful, big and a bit weird-sounding Heldenbariton in the auditorium. But when the Holländer was rather in the “cursed”, Angst-y mood then Mr.Konieczny audibly struggled with mezza voce, pitch, phrasing. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more effective if he forgot José Van Dam in the Karajan recording and really went for 100% tormented/demonic. In any case, his really big-scale vocalism is an undeniable asset in a role where most singers have a bad tine being heard at all.

The other relevant performance this evening is also in the low-voice department. Even if Günther Groissböck’s bass has lost a bit of its original exuberance (high notes are now all of them a bit raw), he was the single person on stage who operated on consistent legato, clear diction and some nuance.

I had never heard tenor Michael Weinius before, but I have to believe he was seriously indisposed tonight. His singing as Erik was short-breathed, barely supported in very uncomfortable high notes. If he was ill – and he must have been – the theatre should have made that clear for the audience before the performance. I’ll have to hear him again before I form an opinion.

I can’t say I had never seen Ricarda Merbeth before: this is actually the third time I hear her as Senta. Not even when she was in her prime I would consider that she is my kind of singer. It is a difficult role and one must always keep that in mind, but tonight it was difficult to find anything remotely musical behind the screechiness, the random intonation, the quavery vocal production, the blowsiness.

Finally, I would like to know why the role of Mary has to be cast with singers without any functional note in their middle register.

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Attending a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Opéra Comique has something special about. Other than the connections between the genre opéra comique and the Singspiel (and the libretto’s French source), it is exactly the kind of theatre where this work would be staged in Beethoven’s time both in terms of size and acoustics. Conductor Raphaël Pichon himself shares in an interview how the venue made him look for an early 19th century rather than a late 19th century perspective for his take on it, a work “between Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Weber’s Der Freischütz”. In other words, performing it as Beethoven might have “heard” it. The inverted commas are not facetious. It is irrelevant whether Beethoven was able to clearly hear or not a performance of his Fidelio. The composer increasingly conceived music that challenged the technical possibilities of both instruments and voices at the time. That is why I’m always worried when I hear about a historically informed approach in Beethoven. To be honest, I don’t think that hearing a work “the way the composer is supposed to have heard” is something valid in itself. What I personally care is hearing the work at its structurally clearest and most expressive. If that isn’t the way the composer was able to hear it, too bad for him…  Anyway, I seriously doubt that Beethoven would have chosen this afternoon’s performance over, say, Karl Böhm’s Dresden recording. Does the DG set with the Staatskapelle seem a bit Wagnerian? Yes, but I guess if you asked Wagner, he’d say without Fidelio he wouldn’t have become the composer he became in the first place.

Does that mean I disliked Mr. Pichon’s conducting? Not at all. I actually believe he has all right the measure of the work. I probably never heard the quartet Es schlägt der Rache Stunde in a live performance as clearly as I have today. If I have to say something about Mr. Pichon’s view of the work is that he could give it a bit more time to produce the right emotional effect rather than sticking that much to the metronome. For instance, in the Leonore/Florestan/Rocco trio, when Leonore gives her husband a piece of bread, it’s the first time she goes near him in years. It is the moment she dreamed about night after night, the music is crying for some flexibility there. Today it sounded extremely matter of fact. And that happened elsewhere too often this afternoon. 

I also wonder if Pygmalion is the right orchestra for this work. Again I’ll be honest – I don’t think Fidelio gains anything in being perform with period instruments. On the contrary. There is no increased clarity or even tonal variety. This afternoon the orchestra sounded mostly edgy, its strings’ clarity of articulation mostly lost in a brassy overall impression. Maybe I’m too used for hearing strings enveloping singers’ voices rather than obscuring it, but sometimes it felt like noise to the singing line. And maybe I’m too used to noble sounding rather than squawking French horn in Leonore’s aria. This might work in a period performance of Così fan tutte, where Fiordiligi’s Per pietà is about the kind of fidelity that does survive one day of absence (and that’s why the horns are there, as a traditional expression of INfidelity in romance languages). But that’s not what Leonore is talking about here.

Mr. Pichon also disagrees with the opinion that Beethoven did not know how to write for the human voice and decided to invite a lyric rather than a dramatic soprano for the title role. The problem is that there are all kinds of lyric sopranos. When summoned by Herbert von Karajan to sing the role, Gundula Janowitz asked some time to think and finally decided she wasn’t ready. And yet this legendary German soprano had already sung Elisabeth, Elsa, Eva, the Empress in Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten, Odabella in Verdi’s Attila and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème when she finally sang it in the Vienna State Opera for Leonard Bernstein, who wanted instead Gwyneth Jones in her place. Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg felt ready for it after having tackled Agathe in Freischütz. 

I saw Ms. Stagg sing Mozart’s concert aria Bella mia fiamma (for Mr. Pichon in Salzburg), and I thought it was too heavy for her (you’ll find it sung by the likes of Margaret Price and Julia Varady in recordings). Even in an auditorium as small as the one at Salle Favart, she sounds mousy in face of the formidable challenges in the part. Nobody can say she did not sing correctly – she did. But who cares? The tonal quality was matte, the high notes lacked radiance, her Marzelline overshadowed her in ensembles. At least at this point of her career, it is simply not a role for her voice. What she lacked in vocal exuberance, she almost compensated by subtle and efficient acting – and the video close-ups only highlighted her abilities.

Although Mari Eriksmoen’s soprano is on the monochromatic side, her high notes – as mentioned – blossomed and ran in the hall. She is comfortable with the style and came across as a competent if rather cold Marzelline.

On paper, Michael Spyres’s voice is also light for the role of Florestan. Yet his tenor has enough color for it and he masters the art of focusing the tone and piercing the orchestra. He is also very cunning and used every opportunity in his aria to relax and offered a far more varied interpretation than I am used to hear in it. It’s still a big sing for him, but he made it work. In the end of the afternoon, one would consider his the most expressive performance in this Fidelio. He couldn’t be more contrasted with the Jacquino, Linard Vrielink, whose tenor is a tad artificial darkened and a bit short of overtones (what seems to be a tendency these days).

Bass baritone Gabor Bretz, on the other hand, has the right color for the role of Pizarro, but at least this afternoon not the weight or the volume, his voice mostly staying on stage and lacking therefore menace. Veteran Albert Dohmen seemed to be there to prove that a large voice makes all the difference of the world in this repertoire. He sounded less rusty than last time I saw him and, other than some shortness of legato in his upper reaches, offered an exemplary account of the part of Rocco. Last but no lease, Christian Immler was as noble toned as the part of Don Fernando requires.Even if the Pygmalion chorus looked understaffed for this work, their singing was effective enough, clear and well balanced.

At first, Cyril Teste’s staging could make you think Florestan had been arrested in Switzerland: there are very few prisoners, everything looks shining new and the wardens have Eames office chairs. But then you realize that the prisoners are tortured and there’s lethal injection there, so the whole thing is rather related to the stage designer’s intent of making it a stylish place of violation of human rights. As cameras making close up of actors seems to be pretty much the trendy thing to do in terms of staging these days (you just need to see Guy Cassiers’s adaptation of Dostoievski’s The Demons at the Comédie Française for another example), there is a cameraman on stage as if a documentary were being made. The images are projected on screens mounted on wheeled frames. As written above, the director took advantage of his leading lady’s acting abilities for some touching effects. When Leonore looses her gun in the confrontation scene, she grabs the camera, which seems to frighten Pizarro more than the pistol. Unfortunately, there are moments when one feels that director is a bit at a loss for ideas and then there is no economy of clichés. In the end – and this seems to have been made on purpose – it all looks crafty yet emotionally cold.

Finally, I must make a disclaimer. I am so fond of Beethoven’s final version of Fidelio that I can’t repress my irritation when I have to hear any replacement of the 1814 music by any of the composer’s early ideas. And the final O Gott, welch ein Augenblick is one of my favorite pieces of music. I felt shortchanged by having to hear the version Beethoven himself though it better to rewrite. But that’s me. End of rant.

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I have just realized my first encounter with Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges took place under the baton of Lorin Maazel in a New York Philharmonic concert with Suzanne Mentzer and Patrizia Ciofi. I wouldn’t think about the again until I first saw it staged in the Saito Kinen Festival in a starry cast under Seiji Ozawa. Then I realized how special a work it is, probably the chicest peace of music ever written for children. Anyway, I really regret I wasn’t ready to appreciate Maazel’s concert, for now I understand why his recording is considered in France the absolute reference in the discography. I gave it a listen to establish a comparison with Mikko Franck’s recording with the same forces of this evening’s concert. 
As much as I acknowledge Mr Franck’s symphonic approach in which the music sound its most modern, I can’t help missing Maazel’s “music hall” approach, with its marked rhythms, slim sonorities and sense of humor. I have to be honest: I don’t know if it would be a good choice for the very, very warm acoustics in the Philharmonie de Paris. The rich orchestral sound was definitely challenging singers this evening. And that’s almost a pity – for a case made entirely of native speakers was a pleasure in itself. Although the recording has a most glamorous cast, the key piece of casting there could be heard tonight too: Chloé Briot’s fruity toned, vital Child, characterful without ever sacrificing musical values. And even in a non staged performance, one can see she is a good actress. I was curious about Jodie Devos’s as the fire, the princess and the nightingale. Since I find Arleen Augér in André Previn’s recording just perfect, I tend to be disappointed while hearing anyone else. Ms. Devos has crystal-clear divisions, transparent diction and easy high notes, but her staccato – at least tonight – failed to project. The rest of the cast compensated lack of star quality with engagement and clear love for the piece. The Radio France Chorus sang with ideal purity of tone (and they’re French, let’s not forget that. 
The Radio France orchestra can’t help feeling at home in this repertoire. In the first part of the programe, they just offered the most sensuous, warm-sounding account of Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The flute solos alone were worth the price if the ticket.

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