Archive for January, 2022

I have written so often here that Mozart has been ill treated by opera houses that I thought that it would be an overkill to start yet another disappointed review of any performance of a Mozart opera by repeating it, but this evening has set a new low. It was a combination of the vocally inadequate with the vocally immature with a brief stop at “past his/her prime”. I feel bad for writing this, for the roles in Don Giovanni are a tough assignment and those singers took their tasks seriously. My issue here is with the opera house itself: why staging an opera the roles of which are famously demanding in all senses – musical, theatrical, technical, stylistic, spiritual – with such irresponsabilty. So my boo goes for the person who exposed these artists and the audience to such an experience as joyless as this. My advice is “stage something else”. I generally don’t leave at the intermission, but I was tempted this evening.

The reason why I stayed was conductor Jordan de Souza. His approach was hardly theatrical, and it took me 10 minutes to realize how thoughtfully and lovingly he conducted this score. His tempi were almost never exciting – if never slow either – but the way he made sure that balance was constantly ideal, that clarity reached optimal level, that stage and orchestra responded to each other so complementarily made me experience the whole performance as if the program was one of Mozart’s late symphonies. I have been listening to Don Giovanni for ever, but I could learn a thing or two this evening. And the orchestra seemed to be thrilled to have a conductor who demanded so much from them – this evening, these musicians was the great soloist and deserve a sincere bravi. Really, guys, you saved my evening.

Director Sebastian Baumgartner will ever stay in my mind as the guy responsible for another low in my opera going experience, the Tannhäuser I saw in Bayreuth in 2011. I’ll never forget how an extremely shy colleague, famous for always speaking in a volume that would require an extra p for pianissimo, booed it from the top of his lungs. I didn’t even know he was capable of actually projecting his voice until that day. Back to Don Giovanni, the previous sentence means that I had very low expectations. If there were not feces on stage, I would feel grateful. Maybe this explains why I decided to play along with the director’s concept and accept the fact that the story was set in some sort of Amish community, Zerlina and Masetto and the choir in matching clothes, no idea what a military Don Ottavio, a Lana Turner-like Donna Anna and a Marlene Dietrich-like Donna Elvira had to do with it, but still I was open to it. To be honest, if Mr. Baumgartner cared to have developed the idea, maybe it could have worked, for, yes, the story doesn’t make much sense in our days if you don’t have any kind of repression paralysing these characters. The problem is that, after the finale to act 1, it looked like any other staging of Don Giovanni plus the amish extras. Maybe this is why it wasn’t so bad after all. Anyway…

I left the paragraph about the cast for last, because I am still not sure I want to write about it. But I want to say something about Tuuli Takala’s Donna Anna. So here we go. First of all, this is her role debut, and, in her case, I can see why she was offered the part. She has a Donna Anna voice. It is creamy and it just flows into her high notes. It is one of those voices that sounds happy up there, and yet it has a lovely sound in the middle register and the low notes are natural and well projected. It is an ideal voice for Mozart. Yet there is something off there, something standing between her and greatness. My take: it is a mix of technical and stylistic misconception. For some reason, she seems to believe that finesse means disconnection. So whenever the music demands her 100%, instead of giving it, she takes refuge in some sort of boosted mezza voce that sounds like amplified crooning that eventually begins to sound predictably and obviously sharp. It is really a pity, for she has one of those voices that remains round and firm at forte and maybe fortissimo even. And Donna Anna really works wonders when sung like that. You don’t need to believe me, just listen to any recording of the part with Margaret Price. I would like to single out the fact that the Masetto, Andrew Moore, should have been cast as either Don Giovanni or Leporello, for his was the single low voice that sparked any joy this evening.


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While neither Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana nor Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci figure among my favorite operas, there is something about watching the combo in the theatre, something like the hardcore experience of Italian opera, two hours and a half of raw orchestration, raw feelings, exposed acuti, sirupy melody and, before you notice, you’re enjoying it. Both works used to make more sense when you had old-school Italian vocioni peeling the paints off the wall. Conductor-centric versions were an unexpected development, generally involving puzzling pieces of casting (like Joan Carlyle’s Nedda or Jessye Norman’s Santuzza), but the sad truth about performances of Cav&Pag in the last two decades is that they rarely have either great voices or great conductors. And that’s when you start to think what is the point of the whole experience.

With Cavalleria, the problem is more obvious. The score is clearly inferior to the one of Pagliacci and it depends enormously on the personality and vocal calibre of the cast. I can think of one single performance of Cavalleria with a less-than-ideal cast that proves this wrong, which is Riccardo Muti’s video from Ferrara with Waltraud Meier and José Cura. It actually spoiled the experience of watching it altogether: the level of acting is good enough for a movie and their singing is so individual and expressive that you don’t even stop to think of people like Giulietta Simionato or Mario del Monaco. And there’s Muti not trying to make it sound like Mahler but pulling all the stops with his orchestra. This evening, we had nothing like that. First, the performance took long to take off. The undernourished strings in the orchestra made it all sound like a band was on duty. There were serious problems of synchronicity between chorus and orchestra, and the cast seemed a bit off, like they had something else in their minds. We noticed the strings were there only when we reached the intermezzo, which was the spiritual beginning of this performance. After that, everybody seemed to be vibrating in a whole new level – including conductor Paolo Carignani – but still those singers were not entirely at ease with what they had to do.

The show turned around Elina Garanca’s Santuzza, what is a problem in itself. Garanca has been accused of iciness in operas like Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. You can only imagine that her approach to verismo is nothing close to sacro fuoco. That is not a bad thing per se, for one could notice that she has really given a great deal of thought about her Santuzza. It had many tiny, meaningful details, but it remained an effort of someone trying to be something completely foreign to her nature – including in terms of voice. On paper, it is a plausible one for the role – it is big enough, the high notes are powerful enough, the middle register is solid enough. Yet it is soft-cored for Italian repertoire, too smooth and too indistinct in terms of diction to make any sense in a work like this. She was mostly in charge, but sounded tired by the end of her duet with Turiddu, working hard for her acuti, which were more muscular than naturally projecting at that point. In terms of interpretation, she couldn’t help seeming a bit too cerebral and, if the idea was showing the character as schemy and frankly vindictive, then it worked. Marcelo Álvarez is no longer at his freshest-toned and delivered the opening song in a nasal, unappealing tone. In the duet with Santuzza, he had to lunge for his high notes, yet the voice gradually acquired his usual roundness and spontaneity. He seemed a bit uncomfortable being the object of desire of two mezzo sopranos, but once wine started to be poured, he found a congenial, Latin American “macho” vibe that carried him effortlessly to the end of the opera. George Petean’s velvety baritone does not sound Alfio-material to my ears. He sang with beautiful legato, far more than what I am used to hear in the role, and crisp diction. That said, he is too much of a nice guy to pose any threat. When he has a knife, you think he is going to carve some parmigiano reggiano rather than kill anyone. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Mamma Lucia who is also a Bach contralto, and this seems to be a good thing, for Irène Friedli offered a touching account of the part, singing with a warm, gentle tonal quality and acting with restrained intensity. Last but not least, Svetlina Stoyanova’s fruity mezzo was very well employed for the part of Lola.

It seemed that Cavalleria was the test run for Pagliacci, for the second part of the evening started off far more animatedly, even the chorus sounded more strongly and the orchestra fuller and more engaged. The lack of synchronicity was still there – but at least singers’ voices were cushioned in the sound of strings as only occasionally before that. The lightweight quality of the cast, however, was even more evident. With one exception: the velvet in George Petean’s baritone worked wonders in the prologue, even his high notes sounded firmer and richer. And he proved to be very well cast as Tonio, both in terms of singing and of acting. Maybe it is the clown costume, but he also managed to project a psychopathic impression. Bravo. Ekaterina Bakanova acted well as Nedda, yet her voice is simply to light for the part. She could muster all her resources to produce some forceful high notes, but they were in a universe apart from the rest of her voice. She survived her difficult (and not really appealing) balatella, decent trills involved. Even at his prime, Marcelo Álvarez was on the light side for the part of Canio. Now he makes do bracing for the high notes and disguising a ragged line by some acting with the voice. It all sounded a bit careful in a part that requires something usually labelled as “force of nature”. In terms of acting, however, he was fully inside his character, making us almost feel for him even when we shouldn’t. Finally, Xiaomeng Zhang was a firm- rather dark-toned Silvio.

In terms of staging, one can praise the Personenregie in Grischa Asagaroff’s 2009 staging (revived by himself), but that is pretty much it. The sets were generally ugly and very distant of what anyone would imagine of an Italian setting. More than that, in terms of concept, there is nothing to talk about. I won’t even try.

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A hidden gem in bel canto repertoire, Le Comte Ory is one of Rossini’s most consistent works. If I were to be really picky, there is one number I don’t like in the whole opera – the rest is bubbly and fresh like champagne, including a libretto clearly less silly than those in his Italian opere buffe. I will be forever spoilt by first hearing it live in truly authentic circumstances at the Opéra Comique with a cast impossible to match. That said, the Opernhaus Zürich can stand proudly to the competition with this evening’s performance. First, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Courier’s staging is intelligent, entertaining and visually catchy, amazing acting from all involved, including individual members of the chorus. The action is updated to the 1960’s and we witness the lives of these ladies from an ultracatholic milieu waiting their husbands return from the Algerian War. May 1968 is only 6 years ahead, and our Comte Ory with his marijuana leaf t-shirt is a sample of what is happening next. And, no, the staging is not pretentious at all – if you don’t read the program, you’ll get all that without racking your brain. It’s there and is not obtrusive at all.

Conductor Victorien Vanoosten doesn’t think of bel canto as chantilly and marzipan. The first thing one would notice about this evening’s performance was that the orchestra was very much there in full, earthy sound, a bit rough in the edges, what becomes this kind of screwball comedy. Although I still miss a bit of the filigree in John Eliot Gardiner’s CDs, the boldness is not unwelcome and the tempi were lively enough, what makes the level of precision in ensembles even more praiseworthy, especially if one has in mind the level of physical comedy involved. Bravi.

In terms of singing, I am afraid I had to avoid comparisons with what I heard in Paris. With one exception, which is Uruguayan tenor Edgardo Rocha in the title role. First, he is a terrific – really, amazing – comedy actor. He could twist the audience around his little finger with his facial expressions and gestures. One could see that there was some ad lib involved, especially when he felt that everyone was really fixed on his every little movement. I was about to say his is a typical Rossini tenor voice, but it is actually warmer and rounder than, say, Juan Diego Flórez’s if a bit less impressively articulate in coloratura. His trump card actually are his high notes. He is the kind of tenor who is really dying to sing the next high c sharp! And his French is really crystal-clear.

Brenda Rae too was very funny as the Countess Adèle, yet her voice is neither typically Italian or French, in the sense that it is a bit colorless and rather unfocused in the middle. So, when the phrase was rather central, she could be a bit hard to hear. In any case, even if the voice has no inbuilt magic, she sang very well, tackled her coloratura adeptly, has reasonable legato and, even if her in alts were a bit freer in the past, they’re still there, true in pitch and firm. Rebeca Olvera’s overbright, nasal soprano is not my kind of voice and she too was a bit hard to hear in the middle register, but her fioriture is fluent. In spite of a apt physique not truly apt for trouser roles, she was scenically very convincing as the page Isolier. As the gouverneur, Andrew Moore had a clear advantage in a noble, velvety bass voice, a bit on the high side for the role. Liliana Nikiteanu too is a mezzo in a contralto role as Ragonde, but she made it work for her in an extremely likeable performance.

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Watching a complete Ring is a unique experience. For a whole week, one lives in a two-tiered reality, half in a world of symbols and myth, half dealing with very prosaic questions, such as which is the best time for lunch in order not to be late for the Götterdämmerung performance starting at 16:00. This time, it has been even more unique: there is a world-changing event outside, with protests, the police, breaking news all the time. And there are opera-goers living the fear of a negative test and not being able to see the rest of the Ring. Worse: being sick and stranded far away from home, if you don’t live in town. And there is the opera house itself handling disinfection, hundreds of tests for musicians, extras, stagehands, replacements for very difficult roles. So it is a collective experience as never before, one where themes involving life, death, love, indifference, nature, society, hope and hopelessness are more than just concepts.

This means that a Ring conceived in such circumstances offered a special opportunity for a director to speak to and engage the audience more than the regular festival aperol spritz-sipping experience. This is one of the reasons why I was so disappointed with the Siegfried last Friday, when one had the impression that the director was addressing his imaginary friends (or foes) rather than the people in front of him in the auditorium. You may imagine how positive was the surprise of finding the foyer of the Deutsche Oper represented on stage when the curtains first opened this evening: I felt as if the director had read my thoughts and, maybe for the first time in this Ring, I felt being talked to. But not for long. Although the last installment of Herheim’s Ring is also the most consistent, it is also very frustrating in its agenda.

But let’s speak of the strong points first: the idea of showing the Gibichungen Halle as the world where we live, where we got away from our ideals and get our hands in the dirt – as much as Siegfried and Brünnhilde – is very successfully rendered by placing it in the very opera house where we were. The mythical level remains the “staging”, with its sets made of suitcases, gods in winged helmets etc. Also, the scene with Siegfried disguised as Gunther was probably the strongest point of this whole production: here we have both tenor and baritone on stage sharing their lines, using the same costume, including the Tarnhelm (here a clown mask, Alberich’s face). There is also a Hagen who is among us – he sings his scene with Alberich seated in the front row. He is the one who uses the myth, the staging to manipulate the public for his own purposes.

But there are considerable weaknesses here too: many scenes look like the budget was over and no huge idea came up – one has too often the sensation of high school theatre in some key passages (such as the immolation scene, no less). There are structural problems too. The migration agenda, for instance.

Yes, the Ring is about people on their way of changing their places in their social structure (Alberich and Wotan trying to get to the top of the power system, Brünnhilde being attracted out of the Walhalla into the real world in search of love, the Wälsungen lost in the world and trying to find home etc) – but it is not about the issue of migration in its religious/economic/politic dimension as we experience it today. These people are not agents in a power/love conflict as Herheim sees them, and their problems are far more immediate than a mythic/aesthetic discussion. So one couldn’t help wondering – what does all this have to do with them? Therefore, when we are shown a closing scene where the production is just over and a cleaning lady dusts the piano symbolizing the whole creative impulse of the myth as if it meant nothing to her, one has the impression that the director is really telling us that this work has nothing to offer to anyone with real problems, that it has lost its power of communication/inspiration/manipulation. If we have in mind the effort of all involved – the audience too – to be there for these performances, I am afraid I cannot agree with that.

The musical side of this Götterdämmerung too is in a way contradictory. Again, I cannot say this performance brought any special inside in its leisurely tempi and flaccidity of accent, heavily dependent on richness of the orchestral sound to draw the audience (and the brass section has again its small accidents now and then). However, when I think about it, it did not feel long at all. And this is no small feat. At first, I had the impression that the unusual sense of flow in scenes famous for their ”lack of continuity” (the scene with the Norns, the first Gibichungen scene, Siegfried’s death) was achieved by excessive roundness of its sharp angles – everything smoothed out in an all-purpose version of Knappertsbuschianism, but that would be unfair. There was a unique combination of fluency and depth of sound that made its performance very easy to follow.

In terms of cast, this Ring was crowned by Nina Stemme’s performance as Brünnhilde. She has achieved a level the Japanese would call “living national treasure”, in a sense that she displays a mastery in this part that it is not about her doing everything immaculately perfect, but rather a deep experience that allows her to go beyond simple perfection. Although she evidently sounds taxed by extreme high notes now, I found her more interesting and in charge than when I saw her sing it back in 2012 in Munich.

Clay Hilley was again a solid Siegfried, really pleasant of tone, textually clear and right on the spot in terms of personality. Even a bit short in the lower end of his voice, Albert Pesendorfer was a powerful, intense, hypnotic Hagen, well contrasted to Thomas Lehman’s warmer-toned a bit grainier Gunther. Okka von der Dammerau offered a richly sung, glamorous Waltraute. Jordan Shanahan again sounded rather velvety and noble-toned as Alberich, but that’s me being picky. Among the minor roles, Beth Taylor stood out as a dark-, firm-toned First Norn.

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Stefan Herheim is a director whose work I have learned to appreciate, and I don’t mean that this was an acquired taste, but mostly as the acknowledgment of a clear development in his style. Regardless of what he professes in his interviews, my first impression of his productions was of someone who didn’t like opera at all. His stagings were drained of emotional content, the plot was ridiculed, everything replaced by a joyless, restless sense of comedy as some sort of statement of nonconformity. As I believe that the entertainment industry is intrinsically dependent of comedy, staging tragedy these days is actually what requires some guts. Therefore, I couldn’t help finding the whole approach ultimately superficial. But then I saw his Bayreuth Parsifal, his Amsterdam Onegin and could finally see what he was truly capable of. That is why I was eager to see his Ring for the Deutsche Oper. 

I have tried to keep an open mind, but this Siegfried made it difficult to me. In the performance booklet, the Dramaturg speaks of the importance of laughing in the Ring, but it seems that this translates into this staging exclusively in its laughableness. At moments, I looked around and saw members of the audience tsking in sheer Fremdscham. When you have the migrant agenda (whose relevance to the plot is still open to debate) reduced to refugees partaking in an orgy in the Brünnhilde/Siegfried duet, one is made to believe that the laugh is in one’s own expense. And I don’t mean this because I was shocked – this is the world of free porn! – but because it was just embarrassing. Even the extras looked disconcerted for being part of something so utterly lame. And there’s the omnipresent lapse of taste. We are made to see too many things that shouldn’t be there in the first place – angel-like winged Sieglinde and Siegmund in the forest scene, for instance. Especially when it seemed that the purpose of their presence was the need to disentangle the huge white fabric that is the single solution for every scenic instruction in the libretto. And the piano, of course. I don’t know, but people pretending to play a piano looks just ludicrous to me. And every character does that in this production. For instance, Siegfried crossing the magic fire here is nothing but a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation.

The way I write makes it probably seem worse than it actually was – and maybe this is true. There was the occasional successful moment, of course: the basic scenic idea for the dragon is efficient (it ends poorly – with dancers!), the slightly psycho boy woodbird cheering over Mime’s death could be even scarier without the gags. As everything was overwrought and constructed, it was difficult for the audience to endorse it for more than 5 minutes without cringing.

Musically speaking, this performance is also so far the nadir in this Ring. This might be a matter of taste, but I believe that the score and the plot of Siegfried require a crisper performance, with a stronger sense of forward movement, firm accents, an impression of raw energy. Yet Donald Runnicles seemed to be stuck in Walküre mode here. Everything sounded basically comfortable and polite. When it was impossible to take refuge in Gemütlichkeit – as in the scene with Erda, the sensation was rather of awkwardness, the brass section a bit below its usual standards.

I don’t think I had ever seen Nina Stemme as the Siegfried Brünnhilde, and now I regret it, for even past her prime, she sang it very well. With the help of mezza voce, she acquitted herself commendably in some difficult high-lying passages, phrased with beautiful legato and generated warmth and affection. She pushed all her acuti and the final high c was something of a screech with a nondescript pitch, but still a classy performance.

This is the first time I hear Clay Hilley, without any doubt a Heldentenor: the voice is firm, the stamina ia admirable (he got tired only in the last 10 minutes), he is not afraid of the high tessitura, his German is clear and credible. Once you hear someone like Andreas Schager as Siegfried, you might get used to more ringing acuti, but Mr. Hilley’s tonal quality is maybe more spontaneous and he is very likable in the role in spite of an unheroic physique. In this sense, he was well contrasted with Ya-Chung Huang’s petit frame as Mime. The Taiwanese tenor displayed admirable command of the German language and the style, yet his voice is a bit soft-centered for the part. The lyrical quality of has its advantages, though: his singing as Mime was unusually smooth too.

Iain Paterson was clearly in stronger voice than in Die Walküre, and yet he still had to work hard in the competition with the orchestra and sounded fatigued in the scene with Siegfried. The evening’s Alberich, Jordan Shanahan too had a voice a bit velvety for the part, but could produce a cutting edge for his exposed high notes and came across as an unusually congenial. Tobias Kehrer too was rather smooth as Fafner, but Marina Prudenskaya, who stood in for the originally cast Erda, was not in her best form and had her ungainly moments.

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In the context of the release of a CD of songs by Evard Grieg, Lise Davidsen is on tour with a recital the first part of which mirrors the repertoire of the disc, while the second is devoted to the composers she is usually associated with: Wagner and Strauss. 
While I am unfamiliar with most of the Grieg items, they offered an interesting perspective to Ms. Davidsen’s artistry. The German songs op. 48 showed her at her lightest and most crystalline, floating mezza voce at will and producing firm, radiant streams of sound, but the op. 67 – Haugtussa – in her native Norwegian brought about a spontaneity of tone, an almost pop like immediacy, an ability of tone coloring that made me wonder if this was not the best singing I have ever heard from her. The language did not pose any barrier between her and the audience – with the power of interpretation, an expressive face and a congenial personality she was able to put across the meaning of these texts.

After the intermission, the Strauss items sounded more similar to her usual operatic persona. The tone was immediately darker, big high notes filled the room without effort – and yet sometimes one felt that something slimmer and brighter would make her sound more natural, just like she had just done in the Norwegian items. As it was, Ruhe, meine Seele was drawn in a large dynamic range and Cäcilie was sung in a Valkyrian scale. In Morgen, she proved again capable of Innigkeit and polish. Maybe Befreit was the most interesting item in the set – Ms. Davidsen explored all possibilities of her voice in it, a tour de force.

In Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder the tone displayed a mezzo-ish quality that never stood in the way of refulgent, rich high notes. Maybe I’m too fond of Régine Crespin’s recording with Georges Prêtre,  but I missed the sensuousness, the flexibility of line, the fantasy. Her pianist in the recording, Leif Ove Andsnes, had to cancel because of COVID, being replaced at the last second by James Baillieu, an accompanist with a good ear for color and bold use of the pedal, but not 100% clear in articulation and a bit percussive in the most “orchestral” moments. As it was, Träume proved to be their best item – at moments she almost found her Grieg-ian spontaneous voice and feeling for the natural flow of the line. 

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Das Rheingold is the installment of the Ring in which directors use all their understanding of Philosophy, Psychology, Anthropology, Politics to dazzle the audience with their ideas. Then there is Die Walküre with characters and their lives and passions and needs – and this is where we see if the Dramaturgie is just for show or not.

Stefan Herheim seems to be determined to prove that his concept is solid – even if he has to underline everything for us to see that. Sieglinde lives in a house made of suitcases – I’m ok with that, it is an unobtrusive idea. It is not a place where she wants to stay. Instead of the tree, there is the piano with the sword stuck in its keyboard. So, yes, she cannot play her own music, she doesn’t have a voice, that’s a powerful image. In act 2, the migrants are everywhere, watching and occasionally interacting with the gods. They are the audience – and this is a play. I don’t find this adds anything in terms of dramatic tension, but rather diffuses it – but, hey, maybe that’s just old silly bourgeois me wanting to entertain myself with make-believe human suffering… So, yes, Wotan is telling the story of why the world is going awry and why he is so alone just for the benefit of Brünnhilde’s eyes… surrounded by twenty people. In the Fricka/Wotan scene, they observe everything with a sympathetic look, for, yes, it’s not as if they had bigger personal problems to think about…  The third act begins with the actors in this mythical play (the Valkyries) surprised by the fact that the audience is there and the show had already begun. It was cool, we laughed, that’s something you can do when you don’t have money for flying horses. And then there’s the Valkyries being sexually assaulted by the extras – but that one I’ll leave for the director’s shrink to explain. So, yes, it’s all there, but so what? It all seemed like patina over these people’s predicaments. 

And yet the director proved to have some interest in the petite histoire within this big story – here Sieglinde has a son with Hunding, a Malatestino-like pre-teen with a sick smile and a fondness for playing with knives. He is so poorly treated by everybody that he develops an immediate affection for Siegmund: he might be a stranger overtly flirting with his mother in his father’s house, but he is nice. So, put yourself in Sieglinde’s place: you’re stuck in a gloomy old house with a brutal husband and a psychopathic son until one day a nice guy comes along and he was big and strong and he even liked the weirdo kid. What would you do? Cut your own child’s throat just for the fun of it?! Well, my friends, that’s what Sieglinde does here. When she gets to the Walhalla, she obviously finds her own hell loop in the ghost of her murdered child. There’s a TV series about that, and if you watched it, you’ll know it’s all about guilt. And so Mr Herheim explains – in act 2, the passion is gone, Sieglinde worships an idealized version of Siegmund and is embarrassed for soiling his reputation with her own shame. And is there a better way to show all that than inventing a filicide? Of course not…!

The big question is :  ok, but does this work scenically? Occasionally, generally when no new idea was being staged and it just looked like any performance of Die Walküre. There’s a problem of kitsch here too – like the tree growing from the piano with video projections worthy of a videoclip of a song by Lionel Richie. And, man, it was cold, the gags making it even less relatable. It made me think of Guy Cassiers’ production for the Lindenoper with nostalgia. I wasn’t a fan of it – but in the end there were no dry eyes in the audience (me being bourgeois again, I know). And Daniel Barenboim had a great share of responsibility. He probably threatened to fire everyone if there was one dry eye in the audience, I guess. I don’t know – it just worked. 

Here Donald Runnicles has a strong asset in a world-class Wagnerian phalanx in the pit, but a problematic cast on stage. I have never understood the idea behind Brandon Jovanovich as a Wagnerian tenor. For me the sound lacks core and seems to spin backwards rather than forward around a high f and above. This evening the inaudibility and difficulty in holding a phrase was such that even a nay-sayer like me was expecting someone to announce him as indisposed. That happened in the first intermission. This alone involved the conductor reining in his orchestra in an almost baroque-ensemble level of volume. The strings coped famously with lustrous passagework and velvetiness of tone. But you could hear the frustration in the sound of that Wagnerian brass section. In other words, this compromised the sound picture in an almost irreversible way. The fact that we had a small-scale Wotan in Iain Paterson did not help it either. As in the scenes with Sieglinde and Siegmund, one could clearly notice the orchestra being dimmed for his every utterance. And he got tired in spite of that midway his big act 2 monologue. All that said, Mr. Paterson’s bass baritone has an appealing sound, he sings in the right style and delivers the wordy text with sense of line. Only in act 3, the conductor finally found an ideal balance by letting the orchestral sound overshadow his Wotan whenever the music really demanded it while cutting him some slack in the more lyrical moments. 

Among the male singers, only Tobias Kehrer displayed a truly Wagnerian voice as a dark-toned Hunding, almost congenial in tonal warmth. In any case, cherchez la femme. Elisabeth Teig was a lyric, creamy-toned Sieglinde who phrased with affection and Inningkeit. She had to work a bit hard to keep up with the more outspoken moments, but could do that without loss of color and focus. Although Annika Schlicht operates on a restricted tonal palette (especially in the upper half of her voice), she offered a classy account of the part of Fricka, with ideal word pointing, sharp sense of rhythm, good projection and charisma.

And there was Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. This Swedish soprano has been singing dramatic roles for more than a while and one can feel that the trigger point for pushing top notes seats a bit lower than it used to in her prime. But still, her voice retains her hallmark fullness and the volume is all one wants in a big auditorium. I have to say that, in a way, I believe she is more satisfying than in the days her means were even more generous and she would now and then lack focus in her middle register. Hers was not the most exciting or touching account of the role (Barenboim could extract more from her in this department when I saw them at La Scala some years ago), but it was richly and sensitively sung – what proved to be essential to lift this performance above the prevailing okness.

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The last scene of Götz Friedrich’s Ring for the Deutsche Oper Berlin showed the gods covered in sheets like pieces of old furniture. That’s exactly how it began too. I saw its last run and was curious about what Stefan Herheim would do in his new production for the opera house in Charlottenburg. While Friedrich seemed to believe that there is a continuous cycle of decadence and rebirth of myth, Herheim’s view is that the great story of society is about movement; people are always in transit and that’s why there constantly are collisions, beginnings and ends.

In his staging, the Rhine is just a metaphor for that. His Rheingold start with a lit auditorium, an empty stage, migrants with suitcases staring at us. And there is a piano – when a key is pressed then the “story” begins. This is one of those stagings that don’t try to pretend that there is a fourth wall.  The truth about it is the fact that it is being staged. That is not an original idea – and almost everything in this Rhinegold is reshuffled and reheated, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So, here nature and paradise are the same thing and everybody strips to their underwear to show us that and there’s free love galore (i.e., sex). Alberich is some kind of clown who – for some reason – is not accepted by those people who accept everything and judge nobody. My own take is that he wanted love as in “possessing someone”: he wants to _catch_ one of the Rhinemaiden. And that is why he is rejected and then he rejects love itself. His power is possessing before anyone else, accumulating and not sharing.  

As in many other stagings, the Alberich/Wotan identity is evident (Wotan is basically upping Alberich’s game, for instance as he is willing to renounce Freia for the sake of the Walhalla). The moment when this dichotomy is clearer is in the Nibelheim scene: Alberich doesn’t transform himself in a dragon, but merely opens his zipper and shows his “Wurm” . He doesn’t morph into a frog either – he acts as if he were trying and then laughs. Wotan and Loge try to overwhelm him, but they can’t, for Alberich has the ring. This is actually well observed – theoretically he has the supreme power. And he uses it here, by getting the three of them to the gods’ world. It is there that he is actually tricked into negotiating – and that’s when he looses the ring.

The piano is an omnipresent scenic element. What transforms nature in society is a story – and the person who tells it is an important instrument of power. Here we see Mime characterized as Wagner. He is an artist and he creates two amazing masterpieces – the ring and the Tarnhelm. This evening, he also had the score of Das Rheingold and, once it is there, Wotan, Alberich et al never miss an opportunity to take a look at it to know what happens next. Is it a silly joke? Yep. Mel Brooks uses it in Spaceballs when a VCR tape of… Spaceballs appears and they decide to check what is going to happen.

Why am I mentioning Mel Brooks? Because Mr. Herheim has a fondness for gags. It has made his Lohengrin for the Lindenoper a bit hard to digest, for instance. Here there’s so much of it that it almost felt as if we were watching Oscar Strauss’s Die lustige Nibelungen. Yet it was well directed, nobody can deny it. All singers had perfect timing, the blocking was efficient, everybody was comfortable with what they had to do. At first, the staging was so simplistic that one couldn’t help thinking “money was over”, but then you realize that the handling of the huge piece of white fabric used to represent water, mountains, clouds, fire, even a tree was complex and perfectly executed. At times one wished for something a little bit more spectacular and unique – but again this works. Even when you read what director and Dramaturg say in the libretto and find it all over the place and constructed, this works as a scenic experience. And that’s the whole point of a staging.

In terms of conducting, I have to say that General Music director Donald Runnicles seemed to be on the same wavelength: there was nothing original in his conducting , but it worked for these circumstances. First, the empty stage poses a challenge for singers. One could feel their voices getting lost on stage rather than being conveyed by the sets into the auditorium. So, no, nobody sounded like having a Wagnerian voice, even those who do have tge pipes for it. Mr. Runnicles (or Sir Donald, if you are a subject of the Queen) kept it soft textured in an almost Festspielhaus style, and yet the sound was rich, well-balanced and clearly articulated. Only a world-class Wagnerian orchestra could do something like that. Bravi. Has the musical performances changed my life, wowed my world, opened new possibilities? No, no, no. But it worked. And, all considered, this is something to be appreciative of.

I can’t say if this is pandemics-related, but this was largely an ensemble cast. For instance, Derek Walton’s Wotan. I knew this Australian bass baritone from his Klingsors in Bayreuth. It’s a Wagnerian-lite voice, noble in tone and keen on James Morris-style legato, but unvaried and short in projection in its higher reaches. It lacks presence and one rarely believes he is the honcho in this story, but again the sound is apt and he sings well. I don’t understand why Marcus Brück was cast as Alberich – I would think of him rather as a baritone and not a dramatic one. As it was, everything seemed on the low side for his voice and his attempt to beef it up predictably tired him. When he reached the curse scene, he was on the last bar of his battery. And I have memories of Tomasz Konieczny in his prime in this role in this very theatre. Replacing an indisposed Thomas Blondelle, Matthias Klink was a very persuasive Loge. Although the Spielleiterin acted the part. I couldn’t help looking at Mr. Klink, who had his own acting to boost his vocal interpretation. It joins the best qualities of a Spieltenor and a lyric tenor – even with the usual distortions, the tonal quality in itself is very pleasant. The giants were well contrasted – Tobias Kehrer a warm-toned, big-voiced Fafner and Andrew Harris a bit harder in tone and firm in emission as Fasolt.
In spite of a monochrome voice. Annika Schlicht proved to be a convincing Fricka in her cleanliness of line and clarity of diction. A last minute replacement, Scottish mezzo Beth Taylor sang Erda for the first time in her career, yet you wouldn’t notice it. The low notes are solid, the phrasing is smooth, she was more than up to the task.

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The closest I have ever been to listening to a perfect performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is Karl Böhm’s DG studio set with Gwyneth Jones, James King and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Some will say it’s not even perfect. Indeed, it’s not, but still it is my desert island recording, because its imperfections make it even more convincing to my ears and my heart. Actually, enjoying a performance of Beethoven’s single opera has more to do with embracing its liabilities than profiting from its assets.

The performance at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino this afternoon had evident liabilities. First, at this point in his career, Zubin Mehta no longer commands the necessary energy to conduct a work as demanding as this. He trod cautiously – tempi were invariably slow, accents lacked vigor, at times it even felt like a graduation concert. Although the orchestra’s string section is more consistent than one would guess, it is hardly the nec plus ultra in articulation. The French horns, however, were mostly bumpy. The fact that all members of the chorus wore masks brought about a rather muffled choral sound, what made the performance even less edgy than one would wish.

All that posed an extra challenge on soloists. Excitement was produced exclusively by their singing. Also, the fact that the conductor gave them all the time of the world offered advantages and disadvantages: there were many opportunities for breathing pauses but it also meant that some long phrases became really more challenging in terms of breath. For a while – probably until Pizarro’s aria – the performance seemed to be about the mechanics, but especially in the second act, even in these almost cerimonial circumstances, something happened in the dungeon scene. That was the point in which the liabilities became to play in favor of expression – we could feel everyone’s engagement and, even heavy-footed and a bit stolid, the performance for a while generated two or three sparkles.

It didn’t hurt at all that there was a truly strong cast on duty, even starry, some would say. First, there was Lise Davidsen in the title role. In terms of ease, she probably has no rivals in the role today. There is no bar in this music that seemed to require any effort from her – and she seemed to be willing to make everything even more impressive by rejecting opportunities to steal a breath almost every other soprano would crave for. Maybe I’m used to the effort, but sometimes there was an impression of detachment, something the stage direction only seemed to stimulate in this gag-centered semi-staged concert in which director Matthias Hartmann seemed to believe that Leonore’s main concerns are making everybody believe she is a guy and keeping Marzelline as far away from her as possible. Ms. Davidsen is probably the youngest Leonore I have ever seen in the theatre , and in spite of her vocal facility, one can hear that there’s more in her voice that she presently offers. There are moments when she sings with a Nilssonian steel, and I can’t help believing that, at this stage, this works better for her than when she tries Flagstadian weight. In those moments, the voice can sound a bit opaque. By writing this I don’t mean to seem a nay-sayer. On the contrary, I really believe Ms. Davidsen is in her way of being the leading dramatic soprano of her generation – and the fact that she is already capable of such abandon in a famously difficult part only speaks in her favor. 

With her shimmering soprano, Francesca Aspromonte has the right sound for Marzelline. Moreover she seems comfortable with the style and her German is more than acceptable. She rises to the most challenging moments, but at times lacks finish and the tone spreads too. 

I had seen Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Berlin a couple of years ago. I was impressed then by how adeptly he navigates through this perilous part and how right he sounds in term of style – if distinctively unheroic. This afternoon, he seemed even more at ease. In terms of volume, he did not need to fear the competition in this high-octane cast. Even if one had the impression of a Tamino on steroids, this was a voice that was always on top of ensembles. One cannot forget that here his enemy Pizarro was given the voice of Tomasz Konieczny, not always true in intonation but almost scary in terms of power and intensity. Franz-Josef Selig no longer has the mellowness of tone of his prime, but it is still a voice of outstanding roundness and darkness. I would say that the occasional roughness makes him more believable as Rocco than in those days when he sounded like Sarastro in disguise. Luca Bernard was well cast as Jaquino, appealing in tone and clear in diction, and Birger Radde was a competent Don Fernando.

As hinted at above, I don’t think that the semi-staged option meant any gain in terms of insight. On the contrary, the insistence in comic relief only diffused dramatic tension. And some ideas – the women in the chorus in glittery party dresses, for instance – were frankly self-defeating. A concert version would have probably been more efficient. 

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