Archive for December, 2021

I have written here that all I need from a performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is for it to be ok, that if one has “the emotional experience” then it was worth the while. However, I have been forced to acknowledge that producing “the emotional experience” is more difficult than it seems. This is a score considered to be of Verdi’s most refined, but it is still Verdi and every scene is built in view of an emotional climax. When it misfires, it feels like a huge fiasco. What is ok is to make tiny little errors en route to the climax, but once you get there, it has to happen. Otherwise, just choose another composer. Or singers and conductor.

Another misconception about Simon Boccanegra is that these vocal parts are the easiest among Verdi roles. NOT. They may work with less spectacular voices, but when it comes to HOW you sing this music, there is something almost Mozartian required here. This music demands tasteful, sensitive, musicianly phrasing – you cannot make do with panache precisely because it has nothing to do with spectacular vocal natures. In other words, you need the A-team here. And opera houses tend to believe they can spare some cash here in order to use it elsewhere. Big mistake.

This evening’s performance at the Opernhaus Zürich, for instance, did not have much of a chance, but it also seemed to be an off night for all involved. To start with, Jennifer Rowley as Amelia. I had only once seen Ms. Rowley as the singer originally cast for that particular performance. In my experience, she has been the dictionary definition of replacement singer – she is reliable, she is a trouper, she is fearless. But we’re never transported to any kind of musical paradise when she is singing. And I can’t relate any positive development since I last heard her, rather on the contrary. Her soprano always had a nondescript color, but now it sounds as if she were singing from behind a wall of cotton puffs. As her vowels are indistinct, her Italian has no crispness and there is very little feeling for lines, the loveliness, the radiance, the vulnerability that are in the core of her character is basically not there. This is a part I really, I mean REALLY appreciate, so maybe I’m being a bit too particular here. As it was, it felt like going to a restaurant and discovering that the dish you wanted to order was out of the menu.

In comparison, tenor Otar Jorjkia sounded like naturalness itself, in his sunny, spontaneous tenor which a very faint splash of Roberto Alagna. But I’m afraid that this was it. The technique is not solid – breath support often miscalculated, with some tense high notes involved. In his aria, “non-functional” would be an apter description; the voice just fell apart and he only made it to the end out of sheer willpower. I hope it was just a bad night. It is also sad that Christof Fischesser sounded ill at ease as Fiesco. His vibrant bass sounded dangerously close to tremulous and he didn’t seem to relish the flow of Verdian melody. It is a difficult role – the character is not very congenial, we know – but it needs to exude a patrician quality (he is the head of the Patrician party, after all) and we must feel like we’re hearing the Rolls-Royce of low voices here.

I left baritones for last, because both singers in that Fach raised up the bar this evening. A replacement for Ludovic Tézier, George Petean is a singer I saw only once a couple of years ago in Tokyo in the title role of a guest performance of Simon Boccanegra with the Rome Opera under Riccardo Muti. My memory was that Mr. Petean had a bigger voice, but other than my impressions this evening are consistent with my previous experience of his singing. He is the kind of singer who can carry a tune. This sounds like a trivial thing, but unfortunately it is not. Mr. Petean has a natural sense of cantabile, a clear diction, an idiomatic Italian and an instinctive grasp of the style. If his high notes did not loose color, I would consider his an exemplary Boccanegra – in terms of singing. He took part only in three performances of this production and one understands that he is not fully immersed in the staging, but his presence just lacked command. He walked a bit funnily too – and his pants are too long for him (this is not his fault, of course). I mention this because Nicholas Brownlee, this evening’s Paolo, tended to overshadow him in their scenes. First, because his voice is bigger, firmer and more incisive. Second, because he is a better actor too. Or at least he moved around as if he owned the place – and that is what we would rather expect from the guy in the role of the city’s ruler. He must still work in his Italian, though. But that’s an interesting voice, and I would like to hear more from him.

I have used more than once the adjective “reliable” here, but I am afraid that is the word that comes to my mind when I speak of Marco Armiliato. He is more than a traffic cop – he is really someone who knows the ropes in Romantic Italian repertoire. And he is not the kind of conductor who needs ideal forces to make things happen, although we’re not speaking of life-changing experiences either. And yet I have the impression that the combination of the house orchestra and his rather white-heat approach are not a good match for this score. As it was, the impression was was rather of getting things done. The performance moved forward without much leeway for atmosphere or feeling, the orchestral sound tended to the brassy, strings lacked roundness – the whole impression was rather mechanical. So, yes, the emotional climaxes tended to flop one after the other, either because singers were incapable of rendering the emotional context by lack of interpretation and/or vocal charm or because the orchestra couldn’t supply what was missing in the singing department (if that is possible in Verdi at all). The fact that the chorus was not allowed on stage made things even worse – the council chamber scene with an offstage chorus was one of the hugest misfirings I have ever witnessed in an opera house. It felt basically dull.

You might be asking – why no chorus on stage? Yes, Andreas Homoki’s production was premiered last year, in the context of strict COVID sanitary measures. So many adaptation had to be be made (such as the offstage chorus). This also included keeping singers apart from each other. All this was cleverly conceived by the director, there was a rotating set used ad nauseam (literally, it rotated so much that I can only imagine how these singers were not sick in their stomachs) to make for the absence of people on stage, especially in the above mentioned council chamber scene. Instead of making his speech for the senate, Simon dictates it for his secretary and then we have all characters entering and exiting in precise cue for their lines because – as seen today – the hot stuff was always taking place somewhere else. Yet all this only makes sense in order to comply with regulations. Now that you can have a chorus on stage, please do like Simon Boccanegra himself did: allow them to enter! I don’t know about you, but I find it bizarre a scene in which a father and a daughter reunite after 20 years in which they don’t go nowhere near each other (although they keep saying “embrace me”). I seriously need to be convinced that not rethinking it wasn’t just laziness. It is ultimately sad, for there are good ideas in this production, like the constant reenacting both in Amelia’s and Simon’s minds of the moment when she is alone in the world when she was young. If you put yourself in the place of these people, I am sure it would be something that would really haunt you – and this was very efficiently conveyed in this staging.


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Judge me if you will, but I have to be honest: Messiah is probably my least favorite among Handel’s oratorios. And the fact that every concert hall in the planet schedule a performance of it in the third week of December does not make it any favor. I ask you – when was the last time when you heard a truly outstanding performance of Messiah, with A-team soloists, chorus and orchestra? I don’t think I could give one single example. This evening, for instance, we had top level choral singing from the Gabrieli Consort, all voices well contrasted yet in perfect balance, tenors particularly admirable. They would have been even more impressive if conductor Paul McCreesh had given them time to sing. The way these singers had to spit consonants and rush through passagework with the egg timer on made me feel almost sorry for them. In his recording with his own orchestra, tempi were all of them on the fast side, and yet one never feels there the sense that everybody is trying to get the bothersome thing done in time for dinner as tonight. First, his beat in the recording is a little bit more sensible than here (you just need to compare the Hallelujah chorus there with the messy performance this evening). Second, this evening one did not feel any expressive gain in singers and musicians a bit desperate trying to keep up with high velocity. Third, there is no comparison in terms of clarity in the recording and this concert. Although the chorus proved to have amazing dexterity, at that tempo, their melisme made only made sense in terms of athleticism, very little in terms of music. The Kammerorchester Basel – usually a good ensemble – here sounded mostly impressionistic in terms of phrasing and grey in terms of color. There was very little sense of story telling, let alone of any religious feeling. I am not meaning this was exciting in an operatic way (as in the Minkowski video, for instance) – it just felt exhausting for all involved.

Even with low expectations, one can still be disappointed when it comes to soloists in a Christmastime performance of Handel’s Messiah. Mary Bevan’s breathy soprano, often hard to hear, brought me very little joy. Replacing Helen Charlston, mezzo Caitlin Hulcup, usually a reliable single, was clearly ill at ease with the tessitura and had very little leeway to do anything in terms of phrasing and interpretation. I have to confess I had fun with Ashley Riches’s singing of the bass part straight from the Church of the Quivery Brethren. He roared famously in an over the top approach that could have gone wrong in many different ways, but the tone is focused, the breath is long and the diction is very clear. Benjamin Hulett alone offered an exemplary account of tenor part – dulcet in sound flexible, tonally varied and stylish.

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Although the Cantata BWV 122, Das neugeborne Kinderlein, technically is meant to be a Christmas season item, its first performance happened to take place on December 31st, 1724. This is probably the reason why Bach decided it should be a little more uplifting than a piece composed for a regular mass for the Sunday after Christmas.

Actually, the whole idea behind the text of the BWV 122 is that there is a very special gift we receive every year, even if we didn’t behave very well the last 12 months: a brand new year! If we come to think of these last two years, one could think “meh”, but as our guest speak, tenor Daniel Johannsen, reminded us: we’d only feel blasé about it if we look at it with an adult mind. This is a cantata about a newly born child – and we’re not only speaking of the baby Jesus, but of the possibility of finding the child within us and being able to see things from a clear-eyed perspective. More than that: finding the kingdom of heaven everywhere just by being able to see things the way we did as kids, with enthusiasm, innocence and joy. And Bach knew exactly how to give us a little help to reach this state of mind.

The Cantata BWV 122 is like a richly wrapped, exquisite Christmas gift, lovingly thought out to make us perfectly elated and relaxed. It is the feel-good cantata. Choräle often sound overserious and stiff in their regular rhythms and one rarely feels like “oh, this is going to be fun!” on hearing them. But not so fast! Here Bach disguised all the choräle in multicolored ribbons and wrapping paper in lovely patterns. You almost have to look for it in the opening, menuetto-like number. It all sounds sprightly and entertaining. The first aria is supposed to be the one where you advise the ill-behaved members of the congregation that they should make a more serious effort the next year. But it doesn’t sound cranky at all. The old-fashioned, continuo-only, highly ornate number is almost unintentionally funny in its “dissenting note” to the festivity. We’re quickly transported back to a candy cotton world with the soprano recitative with recorders, an introduction to another disguised chorale, covered with double helpings of soprano and tenor melisme in charming rhythms. The bass comes again, now with a smile in his face to prepare us for one final, undisguised chorale – one that feels rather sweet and congenial. 

Rudolf Lutz and the Bachstiftung St Gallen couldn’t repress their genuine enthusiasm – this was their last performance in the uninspiring Olma-Halle, a measure made necessary to cope with the challenges of the pandemic. Next year they’ll be back in the old venue, the Kirche Trogen, and that’s the first blessing of the new year. The performance exuded therefore an atmosphere of joy,  the opening chorus unashamedly animated, you almost felt like tapping your feet to the beat. Bass Stephan MacLeod captured the Grinch atmosphere of his aria, even if this involved a matte quality to his upper register. In the last recitative his bass unfolded in its richest, and yet the hint of woolliness still there. He handled the coloratura with admirable poise and precision. 

Replacing Hanna Blazikova, Swiss soprano Mirjam Wernli-Berli proved to be the ideal singer for this piece in her almost boy-soprano tonal color and ideal projection. Indeed, one hardly felt how difficult the hall acoustics are when she sang. She was joined by tenor Raphael Höhn in the trio in which the chorale in the alto voice was a bit less well “disguised” by the fact that it was sung by the chorus rather than by a single soloist (as in Masaaki Suzuki’s recording, for example), without any loss in terms of balance with the solo voices. The orchestra played warmly throughout. 

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I might be the single person in the world who has no problem with the fact that Dorabella and Fiordiligi do not recognize Ferrando and Guglielmo when they appear disguised as Tizio and Sempronio in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. I actually find an interesting idea in terms of playwriting that could be explored in a million different ways – but I had never seen it handled the way Russian director Kirill Sebrennikov did in his 2018 staging for the Opernhaus Zürich. Sebrennikov has become a known quantity of the general public for having been placed in house arrest in his native Russia after accusations of embezzlement. While he was unable to leave his apartment, he was able to direct, with the help of a proxy and video, a Parsifal for the Vienna State Opera (broadcast on the company’s website with Elina Garanca’s first appearance in the role of Kundry) and the Così fan tutte I’ve just seen this evening.

In this production, Don Alfonso has developed a grudge against women for having been dumped on WhatsApp by his girlfriend and decides to enlighten his young friends from the gym about what he considers to be the true nature of their fiancées. Mr. Sebrennikov’s cheats a lot to make the libretto fit his concept. Every bit of recitative that doesn’t endorse his view is deleted, the text in the German and English titles was vaguely similar to what Da Ponte wrote, but differently from the original concept, in which everything happens in one single day, the story here takes months: Soave sia il vento is not sung as a parting song, but rather as funeral hymn. Don Alfonso makes the sisters believe the young men were killed in combat, both girls go through a mourning process – and two guys, Tizio and Sempronio, are hired to seduce them. Although the director explains in the interview they are supposed to be avatars of the actual Ferrando and Guglielmo, that is not what we see on stage. They are four different people. If he wanted us to believe something different, then he failed. But that is not a problem per se. The idea of an experiment is more evident when we watch Ferrando and Guglielmo following their fiancées through hidden cameras and their reactions to every move of both seducers, very much like we see on cheap television reality shows. There is one moment when they even pose as salespeople – but the girls, now under the spell of the Albanian boys, don’t even notice them. The Personenregie is very detailed and extremely convincing – all singers act well and are comfortable with the extremely busy blocking – and the sets are intelligently conceived (in two levels, making for uninterrupted action regardless of set changes).

There is a clear advantage in his concept: the fact that the girls considered that their fiancés are dead makes their overreactions more realistic and surprisingly more poignant. Così is an opera that rarely works updated for our days, because everybody seem very silly for their ages, but in Mr. Sebrennikov’s concept – although there is some exaggeration to make the whole thing funny – all characters seem relatable. However, there are many disadvantages too. First, the whole business of parallel actions was extremely distracting. Mozart himself would not have cared for Per pietà when you have a topless mezzo and an man in boxers giving soft porn actors a run for their money upstairs. Even if these singers acted very well, they were often super busy, dancing, cavorting, simulating sex, whatever while dealing with extremely challenging vocal lines – in a way people like Francisco Araiza and Margaret Price never had to. And I didn’t find any interest in the personal assistant/counsellor/activist Despina at all. The most important thing about this character is that she is the single poor person in the plot. That means she has more important and imminent issues to see to – and here this fact is not evident at all, although both Da Ponte and Mozart made a point in showing us that. Most of all – even if one or two pages of the finale ultimo had been deleted and replaced by the opening bars of the overture to Don Giovanni (don’t ask me…) – there is no revelation in the end. It all ends exactly as every production of Così Fan Tutte (but for the fact that the girls were “unfaithful” to their fiancés with other men and not with each other’s sweethearts) with everybody staring away in mental confusion. Ah, not really – Don Alfonso’s writes on the wall – Così fan tutte. Then he crosses the last “e” and writes an “i”. Please forgive my lack of enthusiasm – Despina has been explaining that since the world première.

This production of Così fan tutte clearly is about what you see and not really about what you hear, but the Opernhaus Zürich deserves praise for making a point of preserving musical values too. First, conductor Christopher Moulds led a thoroughly stylish performance, very keen on Mozart’s rhythmic crispness and on the ebb and flow of Mozartian phrasing. The orchestra – garnished with valveless brass instruments – played with an aptly drier, flexible sound and, even when the stage action made precision in ensemble impossible (most notably in the end of the finale primo), Mr. Moulds made sure that it all sounded like Mozart. As implied above, this is not a cast chosen by the ability of transporting the audience to Mozartian heaven. The prima and seconda donne often had to sing in their underwear, to start with. That said, this was – all in all – a very capable cast, one that counted with the conductor’s ability to help them without making it obvious for the audience. Even when a tempo was slightly slower than it should (in the context of this performance, of course), one rarely noticed that, for we could always feel the necessary rhythmic propulsion and vitality of phrasing.

In her first duet with Dorabella, Armenian soprano Ruzan Mantashyan did not convince me Mozart was her best suit. The high notes tended to spread and she does not master the art of mezza voce. She took some time to warm, but once she did, she proved to have a fruity, appealing rich lyric voice, reasonably comfortable with the demands on low notes and easy in its upper register. When left alone to just sing, she also showed herself more than capable of producing clean, sculpted phrasing in true classical style and dealing with roulades, scales, trills with dexterity. Soft dynamics were never there, but other than this she sang well, especially in her act 2 aria and in the duet with Ferrando. Anna Goryachova is a hell of an actress and she made a serious effort in Mozartian style, but her voice is too thick and dark for Dorabella. She has stamina and, even when the tessitura was killing her (as in the end of È amore un ladroncello), she had things under control. But that’s not her role – and I had the impression that she had a negative effect on her Fiordiligi, who had to adjust to a mezzo who often came up too strongly in their duets. This is the first time I hear Rebeca Olvera and I’d have to hear her again to form an impression. As it was this evening, her Despina seriously lacked charm. Her soprano often shifted from a rather nasal middle register into piercing high notes. And one did not feel much love for Mozartian style in the emphatic way she phrased tonight.

This is the second Ferrando I hear from Mauro Peter, and I am not sure if I see a positive development from what I heard in Munich some years ago. This evening, he crooned every note above a high f and was very hard to hear in ensemble. I find his natural tone quality dulcet and he sings with affection, but he was probably not in a good day, for even Un’aura amorosa sounded pale. I have probably written many and many times that Guglielmo is a tough part, in the sense that it tends to disappear if the baritone doesn’t offer something really special. Konstantin Shushakov sang well, his voice far better focused than his Ferrando’s, and yet it all lacked the last ounce of elegance and imagination. Edwin Crossley-Mercer could be an almost ideal Don Alfonso – the tone is warm and pleasing, the text is clear, he knows the style, but his bass tends to loose color in the upper reaches.

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Marek Janowski has been true to his own artistic credo as he has been to the composers who have been the core of his repertoire: Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Some expect conductors in late Romantic music to have an immediately recognizable imprint and to make the audience hear a work under an entirely particular light. When Mr. Janowski conducts, you hear nothing but the composer – and I have to say I find this refreshing. Judge me, but I’m a bit tired of conductor who have a lot to say but are incapable of guiding a group of musicians to produce a coherent performance, an effective orchestral sound and delivery at least 75% of what is written in the score. Call him kappellmeisterlich (in the wrong sense of the word), but the good old German conductor REALLY knows his craft. This evening, the atmosphere in the Tonhalle was entirely different from what I have experience from previous concerts with this orchestra. Every musician exuded confidence – there was palpable joy of music making. The Tonhalle is a good ensemble, but hearing the first bars in the opening number, I felt teletransported to the Semperoper in Dresden or the Philharmonie in Berlin. This was the echt Romantic German orchestral sound – full, dense yet flexible, strings rich enough to withstand the competition with the brass section, absolute, I mean ABSOLUTE clarity.

Although Mr. Janowski was not keen on the bombastic and the spectacular, his rendition of the Overture and the Bacchanale of Wagner’s Tannhäuser steadily and lovingly developed into an orchestral tour de force. He never rushed or overdid anything, all transitions natural and consequent, every phrase musically clear and intelligible both in itself and in terms of its role in the big structural picture. Without exaggerations and excesses, this score’s identity made itself clear to the audience: Weber was there, the grand opéra was there, Beethoven was there, a touch of Holländer and a sip of Tristan. You didn’t have to chose – the conductor didn’t have a parti pris, he let YOU pick whatever you wanted from this music.

The soloist in the second item in the program was supposed to be Anja Harteros, but she has made a habit of being supposed to sing rather than singing. Her replacement curiously was a soprano I heard only once as Zdenka to Harteros’s Arabella in Munich six years ago: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller. Although R. Strauss’s Four Last Songs are usually heard with the Arabella type of sopranos, the discography – if not the actual experience of hearing it in concert – has its share of Zdenkas too: Barbara Hendricks, Arleen Augér, Anneliese Rothenberger. Reading my impressions on Ms. Müller’s singing, I noticed the word “bell-toned”. This is not how I would describe the voice this evening. Things have changed in her career – while she used to be an -ina soprano back then, now her battle-horse is the part of Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the outer limits of her possibilities as this evening, Ms. Müller’s voice has not much of a color, but it definitely runs in the auditorium. The lack of core poses as a nondescript floating quality not unwelcome in this repertoire, and she has not lost an ounce of her facility with high notes. Most importantly for these songs, her breath is admirably long and her diction is very clear. I reckon that someone who listened to a recording of this concert would find her performance dull, but in the auditorium there was enough to be cherished. Even if the first song was far from a bumpy ride, the voice was produced with a pronounced flutter and intonation was dodgy. She gained in strength through the remaining songs; the flutter became less prominent, the natural tone began to give sign of life, some turn of phrases showed understanding of the text and, being a native-speaker of the German language, she made now and then a convincing inflection of the text. After the violin solo in Beim Schlafgehen, she reached her optimal level, the tonal quality came close to sounding creamy in the perilous ascending phrases and the final “zu leben” was right on the mark. We had already reached cruise speed in Im Abendrot. Ms. Müller’s voice had there enough color to enable a full interpretation, and she raised to the climax of the song effortlessly and expressively. I don’t see a Lucia Popp in the making there – I’d be surprised if Hanna-Elisabeth Müller ever tried anything close to Arabella or a Feldmarschallin – but she has solid enough a technique to have her 30 minutes in big lyric soprano field.

Again Mr. Janowski offered ideal support to his soloist in these songs. His approach was rather objective, à la Karl Böhm, the tempo was flowing, the orchestra was kept under leash but not in the background, the soprano being a soloist in the orchestra as much as a flute or an oboe, what makes for unusual level of clarity – the conductor’s keyword – anyway. I have to say I particularly enjoyed his approach to Frühling, without unnecessary weight and ponderousness. Let’s remember it is a song about spring, freshness, light.

After the interval, we were back to Wagner with the Siegfried-Idyll, in which the string section played with warmth in an unrushed tempo, beautiful solos from all involved. If I am a little bit less enthusiastic about the final item – Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung, this has nothing to do with the quality of the orchestral playing, which remained consistent throughout, French horns outstanding. I’m afraid I find that there is a tiny little splash of kitsch in this tone poem – and Mr. Janowski’s earnestness serves is it as it is, right when it needs to be shown in the right angle for us to see its best profile.

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When it rains, it pours when it comes to Donizetti’s so called Tudor Trilogy. After being long out of favor with the audience, these operas have steadily established themselves in the repertoire and the Showtime series with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer just aded an extra touch of interest for those who are not usually into opera. It was only last month that I saw it in Geneva with Elsa Dreisig and Stéphanie d’Oustrac, and it appears again on Swiss stages, now in a new production for the Opernhaus Zürich. Unlike the Grand Théâtre (where Anna Bolena has just had its première), the Zurich opera house is proud of its reputation of being an “almost Italian” theatre due to the commitment to bel canto.

David Alden’s staging has one really strong point – and many drawbacks. But the strong point is really strong. From the first scene, it is staged as a “turn of the screw”-situation. Henry VIII is the hunter and he has two preys – Anne has to die, Jane is cage-worthy. The whole staging – costumes, sets, props – turn around English hunting icons. The whole thing is a trap, and the audience (even if it didn’t know the plot) has no illusions about how this is going to end. Well, that’s the end of good news. Although costumes – which mix some iconic outfits for the King and the Queen with apparel from the 1940 – are beautiful, the sets are only intermittently so. There is an omnipresent very cheap-looking stonewall, some hideous red tufted leather sofas, a truly ridiculous enthroned skeleton. The direction itself is almost rococo in its superposition of distracting meaningless elements – pseudocute funny touches, choristers in silly choreographies, illustrative video projections (Anna sings about a castle and we have the image of… a castle) etc. When Bolena asks “cessa, cessa!”, the director should have understood this as a valuable advice. To make things worse, he seems to have indulged all mannerisms from his fidgety prima donna – her spasmodic, robot-like movements are just unacceptable. I doubt anyone could see any expressive power in what often looked like she was doing the Thriller dance (yes, the one in Michael Jackson’s videoclip).

Now the big question is: should Diana Damrau sing the title role in this opera? This is not the first Donizetti I saw from her; that was Lucia at the Met back in 2008, when her voice was in far better shape. Even then, I remember she did not sound convincing as a bel canto singer (even if she masters some of the requirements, like fioriture and in alts). Thirteen years later, her voice seems to have shrunk in its middle register (where a great deal of the part of Bolena lies) and was often inaudible, except in her high notes. Her hallmark crystalline mezza voce comes with a little bit more effort now, the voice now has some tremulousness from mezzo forte on and she croons really more often than not. I have to be honest, until her last scene, this performance for me was about everybody else but her. How she managed to produce – with all the above observations – a truly touching (if small scaled) Al dolce guidami is still a mystery to me, but touching and beautiful it was. The subsequent prayer also beautifully done, with the right balance between serenity and disappointment. Only Coppia iniqua sounded really beyond her, what surprised me. She used all the adaptations Edita Gruberová did to fit her voice (which was similarly high-lying for the part), but while Gruberová seemed to shine in an increasingly brighter light there, Ms. Damrau sounded a bit fazed by everything she had to do. This is, of course, her role debut, and she sure is going to do some fine-tuning of all elements in her performance – but the fussiness has to go. Really.

I had never seen Karine Deshayes live before this evening, and I am really glad I first did in the role of Giovanna Seymour. As much as its creator, Elena Orlandi, Ms. Deshayes is a singer really between the mezzo and the soprano Fach, as we can see in various radio broadcasts in which she appears as Adalgisa (another Orlandi role). In her creamy voice, flexible, homogeneous and entirely comfortable with her extreme high notes, Ms. Deshayes basically stoled every scene she took part in. Not only did she toss some forceful acuti, but also was keen on attacking softly her high notes, being able to produce phrases of Mozartian purity. As a result, she convincingly sounded as a younger rival for the queen, sweeter in the disposition, but also sincere in her remorse. That said, the real revelation in this performance was Russian contralto Nadezhda Karyazina. It’s difficult to describe perfection, but that was it: she left nothing to be desired as Smeton. She has a beautiful voice, with natural spacious low notes, a bright, easy high register, accurate coloratura, good taste for phrasing, acts well and her physique is also very good physique for trouser roles too.

This evening’s Percy, Alexey Neklyudov, is evidently a gifted Mozart tenor. His is really a dulcet voice, used with elegance and good technique, but it sounds incomplete in bel canto repertoire. It lacks the buzz in high notes you ought to have to tread into this treacherous tessitura. As a result, one could feel the tension whenever he lunged in his high notes, produced this even more by virtue of muscle than of resonance. When he reached his final aria, one could just feel he was beyond his limit. I would like to hear Mr. Neklyudov in his field as Ferrando or Belmonte. There are so few singers these days who really sing well these parts, and it would be nice to hear someone who can for a change. When I saw Luca Pisaroni as Enrico nine years ago, I thought that his bass was two sizes smaller than the part. This evening, he did sound a bit fuller (well, and the opera in Zurich is a fraction of the size of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan), but also shorter in terms of range. He basically screamed his high notes today. And yet he really has his way with this role not only in terms of acting: he delivers the text with real knowledge of the dramatic situations and has an interesting vocal color for it. It is a classy, seductive hue that just brings the character to life.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola seems determined to prove that Donizetti is not a second-tier composer – what is good – but not if you want to prove it by making his music sound like Weber’s. As much as I appreciate the care with orchestral colors, the blending with strings and woodwind and the clarity, the Sinopoli-isms don’t make any favor in a style of music that has nothing to do with the intellectual. And that is nothing to be ashamed of. Anna Bolena is a score that just needs to move forward, and if the conductor keeps the ball always in the air, then the right tension is established. Of course, bel canto has to do with rhythmic flexibility, but that is intrinsically connected to how singers need to breath, produce contrast, create emphases. It can’t be something you decide before rehearsals because it is going to sound cool that way.

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Is there a right voice for a cycle of songs such as Schubert’s Die Winterreise? If you ask around, I guess that the off-the-cuff answer would be “the baritone”. I can see why. These songs have a dark, brooding mood that suit the baritone voice (and the lower edition makes the piano also less bright in sound). But what about the bass voice? Kurt Moll recorded it, Karl Ridderbusch too, and Theo Adam, Robert Holl later, even Marti Talvela did. Do we mention these recordings in our Winterreise shortlists? Most of them are indeed out of print. When I read that Georg Zeppenfeld was to sing this cycle in a Liederabend at the Opernhaus Zürich, I realized I had never seen a bass sing it at all. To be honest, I wouldn’t be naturally inclined to choose the bass voice for this cycle. Romantic poetry involves behaviours that you wouldn’t associate to maturity – and the bass voice is usually chosen to portray fathers, kings and gods.

In terms of voice alone, Georg Zeppenfeld is a paragon of excellence. His bass is velvety, full, voluminous, resonant in its bottom register and firm in its high notes – and he scales down to softer dynamics without any trouble. He ticks two important items in my checklist for Lieder recitals. One – he has a substantial voice, and I happen to find it refreshing to hear a singer undisturbed by having to send his voice to the last seat in the hall (as it sometimes happens in Liederabende). Second – he is not afraid of using his voice. This means, he unleashes the full Wagnerian scope when he wants. This is a matter of taste, of course, but – judge me – I find lilliputian Schubert boring. That said, the impression of hearing a Francisco Araiza or a Brigitte Fassbaender unleashing their voices in this repertoire is hardly stentorian, as when you have a bass singing it. The impression of authority and command of a singer like Mr. Zeppenfeld in these songs place him in an entirely different emotional level of the young man in the poem. The expressive realm we’re talking about here has more to do with Gurnemanz narrating the events in the act one of Wagner’s Parsifal than with the vulnerability, hopelessness and depression the character in the poems experience. This – and the fact that the approach to phrasing here is really German (funny as it sounds) – made this Liederabend admirable rather than touching. Mr. Zeppenfeld’s narrative style in this songs turns around the clear delivery of the text in his crystalline diction and finding the right accent and colouring for every word rather than relishing the natural flow of the phrase, making it very cerebral and rather short in sensuousness. And there’s plenty of room for it in songs like Rast or Einsamkeit. He would be far more comfortable in numbers energetic in nature that required some sort of dramatic impact, such as Der stürmische Morgen or Mut, which made me remember that he was such a terrific Kaspar when I saw him in Weber’s Der Freischütz in Dresden.

Gerold Huber was the ideal accompanist for Mr. Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz-ian singing of this cycle. His piano was large in sound, unashamedly pedalled and bold in accent. Maybe to adjust for the singer’s weight of voice, tempi tended at first to be a tad slower than I was used (what further challenged the use of legato in the vocal part too), but then I realized that this applied only to the more meditative items. Songs like Frühlingstraum or Der Lindenbaum had an almost objective pace to them.

Surprisingly for Zurich, both artists received a standing ovation, a well-deserved one. This was an important voice, guided by masterly technique, accompanied by a pianist who not only knew to adjust to the scale of the singer and also to the kind of expressive goal established here. The joy of Lieder singing certainly is the possibility of hearing someone’s personal angle on texts and music the audience know well, even if by the end of the night one’s affinities lie somewhere else.

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