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Archive for April, 2022

Wagner wrote most of Das Rheingold in Zurich. Is that relevant to a performance of the first instalment of the Opernhaus’s new productin of the Ring? In interviews, both director Andreas Homoki and conductor Gianandrea Noseda are confronted with the question. None were able to produce an answer, but Noseda says that he is glad to be conducting the Ring in a German speaking place outside Germany, because he would feel intimidated as an Italian musician to do this in Munich or Berlin. Before listening to the performance, this seemed like the kind of platitude one says in interviews for opera programs. But it took me 15 minutes into the performance to realize that the maestro really indulged himself in conducting this opera from his own perspective. And that perspective can’t help being Italian. I have to be honest – I have never been wowed by Mr. Noseda’s conducting. I have just reread what I wrote about his work Verdi and Puccini operas, and I notice I called it excessively analytic and the word “Wagnerian” appeared once. Therefore, I myself find it funny that now I am using the word “Verdian” for this Rheingold. Nevertheless, I am using it, for I mean it as a compliment here. Although one or two people booed the conductor this evening, I have to say that I really enjoyed this performance. Basically, it was the Rheingold I would have liked to hear here in Zurich. I don’t think that the opera house – considering the quality of its orchestra, the hall’s acoustic and the size of the theatre – would be the best venue for a Furtwänglerian performance. What Mr. Noseda offered this evening flattered every element at his disposal. He calls the house “a boutique opera”, and I believe his boutique Rheingold was also a good choice for Andreas Homoki’s production, but we’ll talk later about the staging.

This was probably the most transparent performance of Das Rheingold I have ever heard, the slim, bright strings offered immaculate articulation. Even when one felt that a little bit more atmosphere would be welcome, you could hear every 16th note just like in a Krystian Zimerman playing a fiendishly difficult Beethoven piano sonata. The balance with the brass section was ideal throughout – the burnished orchestral sound just projected in the hall without any need of huge volume. That does not mean that Mr. Noseda did not use the orchestra’s full power for effects, and whenever that happened, the effect was thrilling. I guess the booers were probably unhappy by another very Italian feature of the performance – it moved forward in an a tempo approach that rarely relaxed but eventually zipped forward with exciting passagework vignette from the violins, very much like in a performance of Macbeth. This means that the orchestra was commenting the action rather than adding a philosophical depth to the proceedings. And that’s all for the better: this is an exciting work with vertiginous plot, and I bet Wagner would rather expect to keep his public on the edge of their seats rather than lost in meditation in this first episode of the tetralogy. I have already implied that the orchestra played with gusto. Sometimes I forget that they can offer something of that level. Bravi.

In terms of singing, this cast is a curious assortment of singers, one that ultimately worked in spite of the oddities. I was frankly surprised to see two distinguished Handelian singers lost in the Walhalla. Actually, it is unfair to say that Irish contralto Patricia Bardon is a newcomer, since she has sung at least the role of Erda, most notably at the Met. Even in her natural tessitura, it is not a booming voice, but she would do fine (especially in Das Rheingold). In a mezzo soprano part, I would not describe it the way. Her high register lacks a piercing edge (and there is not the necessary volume to make for it). It all sounded a bit pale, and I am afraid that this will be even more evident in Die Walküre. I’ve heard Christopher Purves live only once singing a low b flat (one half-tone lower than the lowest note in Der Rosenkavalier, and it was a performance with baroque tuning…). As you can see, he is that kind of bass. I mean, the one who sings Fasolt or Fafner rather than Alberich. In the latter role, he brought his outstanding acting skills to the part – and he can really deliver the text knowingly, This is not his first Alberich (he sang the role in Munich at least), but he seemed ill at ease at times. There was a mix up with the text in the curse scene, when he was really tired and was mostly acting with his voice. It is just too high for him. He has panache and made it work – and I’ve seen singers in the right Fach far more disappointing, but I personally have a problem with the role of Alberich: having seen the young Tomasz Konieczny sing (and act) the hell out of it in Berlin ruined the whole thing for me. To make things worse, Konieczny was our Wotan today, only to remind me how he famously cursed that ring. It’s probably still echoing in the Deutsche Oper’s auditorium to this very day. Before I learned to pronounce his name, I called Konieczny “the Alberich guy”, and I have always been wary of hearing him as the Licht-Alberich. I shouldn’t have. Yes, he is not noble-toned as most Wotans are, but he brings a high-octane intensity to the table that just suits the dramatic situations in Das Rheingold. This is the voice of a man who put everything on stake in order to have the upper hand and is seeing everything going out of control. Konieczny knows his voice is big, and sometimes I have the impression he relies too much on it (as in his Holländer in Paris last year), but this evening he seemed keen on exploring all levels of dynamic and was unusually conversational. His vowels can be a bit overdark, and that was a daring bet, that payed off. When he unleashed the whole scope of his voice, the sound was just massive. And it was really exciting.

I heard Matthias Klink sing the part of Loge as recently as January in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new Ring. He was a last-second replacement and only sang from the side of the stage. But his facial expressions were so convincing that I kept looking at him. Here, allowed to act too, he proved that this is a role he knows from inside out. He is a lyric tenor – he used to sing Mozart roles – in a part that requires something a bit more heroic, which he accomplishes by tiny adjustments and distortions. He knows how to do the trick – and he has a legitimate card on his sleeve, which is the natural pleasant tonal quality of his voice. As a matter of fact, the performance was all strong in the tenor front – Omer Kobilijak showed some exciting heroic high notes as Froh and may develop into heavier Wagnerian parts in the future, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime is now something of a classic. It is praiseworthy that he always sings it as if it were the first time. I was less impressed by both basses cast as Fafner and Fasolt, rather throaty and/or woolly in tone, less dark in tone than their Wotan, what sounds a bit confusing to me. Our Erda too, sounded more Fricka-material than our Fricka, her low notes less earthy than one should expect, but her middle register firm and projecting. Last but not least, the Rhinemaidens were very well cast, especially Uliana Alexyuk, whose high notes are entirely spontaneous and trouble-free.

It is difficult to write about a staging of any part of the Ring without having seen the whole cycle – and we’ll have to wait a couple of months for Die Walküre. I am not usually a Homoki-person – I find his stagings generalized (this one looks a lot like his Rosenkavalier for the Komische Oper… and maybe the Simon Boccanegra here in Zurich too). As it is, we have a rotating set with… guess what?…. rooms with white boiserie and elements of furniture that are recombined to show we are not in the same place anymore. It is staged to look like the time the opera was written (in Zurich, remember?). Wotan and Fricka are dressed like rich people, Froh and Donner are in their cricket uniforms, Fasolt and Fafner seem like people from the countryside in their hunting hats and Loge has a Jack Sparrow costume but no shoes. All scenes are indoors, and the Valhalla is just a big painting in a golden frame. I don’t know who said that the main character in Feydeau’s comedies are the doors – but it seems this goes for this Rheingold too, for characters keep opening and closing doors and many scenes involve crossing many rooms (and opening and closing doors, of course). As this is a rotating set, this means that they could do it forever, but there is the advantage of allowing a specific set to be changed very quickly. For instance, when the gods start to pile up the gold, it’s still tiny, but one spin around the axis is enough to make it the biggest heap of gold I’ve ever seen in a Rheingold. There is also a magic wardrobe as in The Chronicles of Narnia, serving as an elevator to the Nibelheim and as Alberich’s “transformation chamber”. I don’t know about you, but I actually find it refreshing to see a dragon that looks like a dragon for a change. As you can see, I can’t say much about the Dramaturgie, but it was well-directed, well-rehearsed, all singers act well and their interactions are credible. As of Das Rheingold, it is a staging more fun to watch than to write about.

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Compared to the BWV 31, performed yesterday in the Kirche Trogen, the BWV 41, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, is the dictionary definition of “feel-good cantata”. It’s a New Year cantata, and its theme could be summarized as such: “Jesus, thanks for a good year – we’ll promise to behave in the new one, so that we deserve 12 months as good as those were”. In order to help the congregation feel in their “safe place”, Bach used as raw material  a new-year hymn well-loved in Leipzig (“Jesu, num sei…”) from 1593 by Johannes Herman. Bach being Bach, the hymn melody first appears draped in complex thematically independent counterpoint as cantus firmus in the soprano voice in augmentation, only to appear in its regular note values later, still in the unusually long opening chorus. The cantata goes further in a rather “cute” soprano aria with three oboes and an exquisite tenor aria with cello solo surrounded by two recitatives before a final chorale in which the trio of trumpets from the opening number bring back their uplifting theme. In many cunning ways, Bach made this a cantata about beginning again. Even the material from each aria is unusually repetitive (never a problem when Bach is involved). 

This evening’s performance couldn’t be more contrasted to yesterday’s account of the BWV 31, when a feeling of unease seemed to hover around. Here the opening chorus bursted into life with irresistible animation, but without the sense of yesterday’s untidiness. Even the trumpets offered playing of superior quality.

I confess I used to find the soprano aria a bit bureaucratic, and yet conductor Rolf Lutz enveloped it in such warm sonorities and chose a more considerate tempo that made it sound welcoming and comforting. Julia Doyle again proved to be an ideal soloist, bell-toned in her high notes and sensuous in tone in her middle register. Furthermore, she sings with genuine joie de chant. Florian Sievert too sang his aria with absolute elegance, none of the strained nasality one usual finds in tenor in this repertoire and a truly dulcet voix mixte. I hope he is invited again in the J.S. Bach-Stiftung’s concerts. Stephan McLeod sounded like an entirely different singer today – his velvety bass now ideally focused and resonant. Last but not least, mezzo soprano Antonia Frey sang her recitative in an ideal boy-alto-ish tone.

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The BWV 31, Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubiliert is one of Bach’s most puzzling cantatas. It is an Easter cantata and, as such, is supposed to be festive. And it does sound so at the beginning. First we have a truly uplifting sonata with the trinity trio of trumpets plus drums, followed by a grandiose chorus in the same spirit with exuberant fugal passages and laugh-like melisme on the word “lacht” (laughs) and giggling-like divisions on “jubiliert” (celebrates). The text vaunts Christ’s triumph over death. In a recitative with an almost graphic text (blood spatters included), the bass speaks of Jesus as a hero, a prince in reverential dotted rhythm. And suddenly the mood changes. The tenor tells us in a lilting melody accompanied by strings only that we must let the old man in ourselves, marked by the original sin, die and let the man of the new covenant be born in us. And then the soprano comes in an ecstatic high-lying aria with oboe obligato (in what is supposed to be Bach’s last version arranged in his Leipzig years) to share with us that she cannot wait for the moment of her death in order for her to join Christ in his glory. The trumpets in the serene closing chorale about the joys of eternal life almost sound like an afterthought. 

Tô be honest, I had never quite really “gotten” that cantata until this evening, when guest speaker Christine Blanken, a musicologist and researcher in the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, reminded the audience that the cantata was premiered in Weimar in 1715 in very particular circumstances. Although the occasion demanded a joyous cantata, the young Prince Johann Ernst, a composer himself who even played with Bach in court concerts, had been seriously ill for a long while. At that point, it was clear he wouldn’t live long, although nobody, especially his mother, was ready to accept the fact, probably not even Bach himself. This means that it was probably difficult to get in full celebratory mode then. The prince did die a couple of months later. Music was then banned from the court, and Bach wouldn’t be allowed to complete his series of cantata for the year. 

Because of its ambiguous nature, this cantata is especially challenging for performers. I’ve listened to Suzuki, Gardiner and Koopman, and I don’t think that any of them was capable to render all facets of this score with consistent success. Then I discovered Raphaël Pichon’s video from Paris with his Ensemble Pygmalion. I still find his chorus below the competition in terms of clarity of enunciation, but a conductor raised in the tradition of the concert spirituel has an instinctive and immediate grasp of music making at once solemn, profound… and graceful. 

For instance, even if conductor Rudolf Lutz and the J.S Bach Stiftung orchestra did manage to produce a palpable sense of animation in the opening numbers, they also sounded quite rough, even awkward in the case of the sonata. In the first performance, it sounded downright poorly synched. The repeat after Mrs. Blanken’s speech fared far better, but the problem of wayward trumpets remained. Although the chorus sounded a bit unbalanced towards soprano and altos (who also outnumbered the tenors and basses) , its singing of the “laughing” chorus was simply ideal in its clear articulation. Most important, the number has moments when the chorus has to underline the key slogan-like verses of the text almost as in a TV advertisement: “the creator lives!”, “heaven laughs!” – and these singers couldn’t have done it better. 

The single number I don’t really like in Pichon’s video is the bass aria, for the organ’s decoration are a bit overdone for my taste. Here Mr. Lutz and his organist offered something more effective and sober. The “solemn” continuo is always a bit tough, for it usually sounds rather heavy and ungainly. This evening it created a somewhat “athletic” impression that fits the text description of Christ as a hero. In it, Stephan McLeod lacked the last ounce of focus and at times simply lacked tone. He managed the florid writing smoothly. However, if you had Peter Kooij’s full- and dark-toned singing in Suzuki’s recording in your memory, you’d have missed the true impact this aria can produce. 

I was anxious to see tenor Bernhard Berchtold, whose singing in the J.S. Bach-Stiftung videos is just awesome. So you can imagine how frustrated I was on hearing that he was replaced in the last minute. In any case, Florian Siever, lighter yet sweeter in tone, sang very well, caressing his lines ideally. Although she made a mistake in the second time, Julia Doyle’s first account of the aria was absolutely lovely. I don’t recall having heard the aria sung with such smooth legato, the difficult intervals handled with absolute homogeneity, her middle register appealing and the overall interpretation convincing in its longing. It’s just a pity that the oboist’s solo was more expressive the second time (which probably won’t be make into the final video). 

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It is difficult to write about something that does not agree to your taste. You may even acknowledge that there are many qualities in something that you do not really like, but the heart remains indifferent to everything the mind proposes. I am afraid that is my situation with Christian Gerhaher, a singer I had read a lot about before I had the opportunity to hear him in recital as early as 2007 (a Schöne Müllerin at the Carnegie Hall). Back then I wrote that the musicianship, the intelligence and the sensitivity were undeniable, but I couldn’t go beyond the chopped legato, the fussiness, the unsupported ending of phrases, the almost parlando not truly on pitch effects. And I am afraid I still can’t. This has nothing to do with Mr. Gerhaher’s talent – it’s just my personal taste to expect keenness on legato on items that really need it to produce its real effect and, most of all, some generosity of emotion. Singing Schubert and singing Brahms are two entirely different arts – here the description of feeling does not replace the feeling itself.

All that said, I have enjoyed this recital in an almost purely “intellectual” way. First, the all-Brahms program is extremely well chosen, showing all kinds of songs by a composer particularly wide-ranging in his approach to Lieder writing. Second, Mr. Gerhaher’s clarity of diction – more than that, his crispness of textual delivery – is exemplary. You can feel his love for declamation in the German language, and while I don’t believe this is an Ersatz for the true love of musical phrasing, this is still something that deserves and inspires love. Third, pianist Gerold Hubor almost makes for the singer’s fastidiousness in his round, warm-toned, fully-engaged playing. I wouldn’t want to hear Mr. Gerhaher accompanied by anyone else.

The first part of the program, the 9 Lieder und Gesänge op. 32 – to my taste – require a little bit more of flowing cantabile and sense of unity to evoke the right kind of atmosphere – as one can hear in Thomas Quasthoff’s recording with Justus Zeyen for Deutsche Grammophon. The Vier ernste Gesänge seems to me a more appropriate choice for Mr. Gerhaher’s talents. While I still believe these songs sound more “serious” and imbued of spiritual wisdom with a singer more direct in style, this German baritone’s crispness of delivery and oratorical approach aptly brings a splash of the sermon for the congregation to the concert hall. There is also something refreshing in the large dynamic range employed by Mr. Gerhaher – he is not afraid of going 100%, and his well-focused projection make for real presence in his burnished high notes.

After the intermission, the baritone offered some of his best singing – again – for my taste. Items that require some sensuousness invariable hang fire, but those who require real introspection and a sense of dejection and world-weariness such as Regentropfen aus den Bäumen (from the “Regenlied-Zyklus”) and Herbstgefühl met entirely my expectations. In any case, if someone like me who does not have a natural affinity for this singer found this Liederabend worth the while, I can only imagine that those who enjoy his artistry more readily must have really cherished the experience.

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Although Rigoletto was one of the first operas I have ever heard in my life, it is a title I have rarely seen in the theatre. No particular reason, just bad luck. Or maybe just luck, for I’ve never seen any performance of it I have truly enjoyed. Why am I writing this? Because this afternoon’s performance may be the best Rigoletto I have ever seen, although there was plenty of room for improvement. To start with, all in all, Tatjana Gürbaca’s production – available on video with Aleksandra Kurzak and Saimir Pirgu – is extremely clever in reducing the story to its most important features and avoiding all the tiny details that have become either pointless or hard to deliver. Through her perspective, this is a story about the exploration of innocence by those either with good or bad intentions. And, of course, this is a story about power – because ignorance is by definition a state of vulnerability. The way the back-to-basics approach relates to minimal and powerful stage elements is the key of this staging’s success, and this was probably the best assassination scene I have ever seen in any Rigoletto in video or in the theatre.

Sardinian conductor Leonardo Sini’s contribution to this performance’s success is not to be overlooked either. First of all, the Opernhaus orchestra sounded like bona fide Italians this afternoon. The quicksilvery strings, the punchy brass, the clarity of articulation, it was all there. At moments, I even had to make myself pay attention to the singers, so right in style the orchestral playing sounded this afternoon. And he knows how to balance singers’ needs and what the overall effect should be. Bravo.

And these singers were all of them a bit tricky to handle, although nobody could say this was a bad cast. Let’s start with the Gilda. I can understand why Sandra Hamaoui would accept an invitation like that – maybe it would be a good part to sing with her husband (Bernjamin Bernheim) – and even if she is a solid singer, hers is not a voice for Italian opera. It is too light, a bit opaque in color, short in radiance. She lacked tonal variety, was hard to hear in the middle and low register, her in alts were breathy, she needs lots of breath pauses when things get difficult – and her legato is challenged by a clear sense of full stop every time she needs to breathe or the phrase ends. Although this is something of a turn off, she is a musicianly singer and in the right repertoire a valuable one. Nobody wants to hear me say this, but considering the dismal casting of the -ina parts this season in Zurich, why wasn’t she chosen for Despina or Zerlina? Those would be parts that would play for all her strengths and I can bet she would be pretty good or even great in them. That said, she did not spoil the fun at all. She had the right looks for the part in this production and never offered something unacceptable during the whole performance.

Fresh from his short excursion in Baden Baden, Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan proves he can play bad guys too. Although he is too short for a leading man role, he seemed determined to prove that short is the new tall. He acted with nonchalance and self-absorbed charm. As in yesterday’s Iolanta, he has a strong asset for a part like this: his unending supply of big high notes. Nota bene: his is not a big voice, but he loves his high notes and they just flash into the auditorium. I have the impression that they would sound even better if he did not try to make them so big and I would even dare to bet that, if he kept it all lighter, he would have amazing in alts too. For instance, his acuti in La Donna è mobile (whose atmosphere is lighter and more teasing) sounded really better than Parmi veder le lagrime. Anyway, his is a voice with tonal appeal and, if he is too fond of some di Stefano-esque mannerisms, he does it with conviction and the text is always crisp. I would like to hear him as Nemorino one of these days. When it comes to Quinn Kelsey, things are a little bit harder to describe. He does have the voice for the part – it is big, warm and easy on the ear. His Italian is very clear too. There are two levels of interference in what essentially was a good performance. First, his acting is simply below the minimal level acceptable for such a difficult part – and that is very problematic in Cortigiani, vil razza and everything after that. One does not feel the despair, the spiritual exhaustion, the humiliation and most of all, that visceral need of having Gilda for himself. The key scene in this opera is when he gets his daughter back, first pretends nothing happened and then – and that’s a big “then” – he realizes that his toy is broken, but it is the only toy he has to play and he’ll show his love for it even more now that it doesn’t really DESERVES his affection. That never happened this afternoon. The second problematic level – and this has to do with the acting problem – is that there is a permanent sense of calculation in Mr. Kelsey’s singing – he is always trying to save his voice, which is a clever thing, I would probably do the same thing if I were to sing Rigoletto live in an important theatre. But I am not a good actor. And this is a part that requires that the audience feels that the singer is giving everything he’s got. The last pietà in the scene with the Duke’s entourage when he’s pleading for Gilda, you have to feel that there there is nothing let inside the singer, not one molecule of oxygen, not one teardrop in the eye, not a drop of blood in his eye. It’s all over for him there. If you feel that that note is being managed for optimal control, then it’s not Rigoletto.

The minor parts were almost all of them cast from strength. Brent Michael Smith’s very dark, almost lugubrious-sounding bass is perfect for Sparafucile, Nadezhda Karyazina was a super glamorous piece of casting as Maddalena, Ziaomeng Zhang was simply awesome as Marullo, Grace Durham was a spirited, strong-voiced Giovanna and even Bozena Bujicka sang the tiny parts of the Countess of Ceprano and the page with a burnished, attractive voice color.

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Tchaikovsky’s one-acter Iolanta could be described as “sentimentalized” and “kitsch”, but as usual with schmalzy things, they can be surprisingly effective when done with conviction and truth. Tchaikovsky certainly makes it easy for any performer since his music is communicative in an unpretentious way – and yet this is a demanding score for all involved. 

It is the first time I hear it live (unfortunately in concert), after having discovered it in Rostropovich’s recording with Galina Vishnevskaya and Nicolai Gedda. It had been a while since then and I’ve decided to refresh my acquaintance with it in Emmanuel Villaume’s CD with Anna Netrebko and Sergey Skorokhodov. Although the recording is a tour de force with a superb cast, this evening’s performance stands the comparison with the advantage of having one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras on duty. Sometimes one takes the Berliner Philharmoniker for granted, but when you haven’t heard it for a while and you rediscover its richness of sound in every dynamic range, you do remember what it is so famous. Under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, these musicians produced sounds of Wagnerian richness in the conductor’s almost objective approach. It is said that you should never highlight the obvious, and so Mr Petrenko eschewed the temptation of milking every ounce of feeling but rather let the score speak for itself, refraining from the obvious Romantic mannerisms. The restraint paid off in making the music sound almost “modern” in its orchestral introduction and less syrupy in its double servings of harps and flutes throughout. And please indulge me if I repeat that the Berliners offered superb orchestral playing, an ideal balance of weight and flexibility. 

If Sonya Yoncheva lacks the sheer volume of Anna Netrebko’s voice, her soprano sounds more immediately young and vulnerable. Moreover, it projects famously in the auditorium. I confess I had misgivings about this evening, after finding her voice a bit worn and unwieldy last time I heard her in Zurich as Tosca. This is definitely not how I would describe her today. She sounded at her most crystalline, her low register natural and well integrated and her high notes full and surprisingly solid. Even someone who doesn’t speak Russian (like me) could understand each word – and she brought the character to life avoiding coyness while delivering the text with disarming sincerity. A beautiful performance. 

I also had misgivings about hearing Dmytro Popov, whom I heard a while ago as an unsubtle Puccini tenor. Unfortunately I cannot report how he sounds these days, for he fell ill and was replaced by Liparit Avetisyan, who was brought in the last minute from Zurich, where he is singing the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Mr. Avetisyan’s voice is lighter than Mr. Popov’s or, for that matter, than Sergey Skorokhodov’s. But let’s remember it is Gedda who sang the part of Vaudemont for Rostropovich. This Armenian tenor has a warm lyric sound that truly blossoms in his high notes. He sings with an almost old-fashioned ardor (and a slight lachrymosity to his acuti) that makes sense for the role of the impetuous knight who desperately falls in love with Iolanta in less than two minutes. The youthful quality of his singing matched that of this evening’s prima donna and – although he was a last-second replacement – they established a winning partnership. 

This is the first time I hear Mika Kares (King René) in Russian repertoire, and I have to say that it suits the Finnish bass’s voice, which always sounded a bit foreign to me ears in Italian opera. The role of the doctor is cruelly high, and requires a voice with more slancio than that of Michael Kraus, who had to do with a lot of muscular effort. Fortunately he has enough stamina. Andrey Zhilikhivsky too could have done with a little bit more metal in his rather dark sound in the role of the Duke of Burgundy. He too has admirable energy and sang with animation and heroic quality, eliciting a great share of the applause in the end of the performance. Margarita Nekrasova sang the role of Marta with a huge contralto and was superbly partnered by Anna Denisova (Brigitta) and Viktoria Karkachova (Laura). Last but not least, the Slovakian Philharmonic Chorus offered strong singing too. 

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I saw Phillippe Herreweghe conduct one of Bach’s Passionen maybe 25 years ago in Rio. It was a concert that made every member in the audience feel directly involved in the passion of Christ (which is exactly what Bach had in mind). After the performance, I had the opportunity to talk to the cellist in the orchestra and she said that she was not very inspired by the look of the hall, but the moment they started to play and sensed how good the acoustics were she knew it would be a good concert. And this takes us to the theme – Bach choral works in concert halls.

Everything about performing Bach is particular, but I can’t help believing that no other music is so sensitive to acoustics as the work of Bach. The challenges of conducting the Matthäus-Passion for a large audience have been dealt with since the first time it was performed in those conditions by Mendelsohn. You basically use a large orchestra, chorus and soloists with big voices. The problem is that, in the end, it sounds rather like Beethoven. That is why musicians like Harnoncourt and Leonhardt realized you should scale back to the sound picture Bach himself had in mind when he composed these pieces – original instrument, historically informed practices, a smaller chorus and soloists with notion of how one sang before Manuel García etc, etc. Since HIP performances have become the standard for this repertoire, we have been confronted with the puzzling experience of hearing orchestras like the Collegium Vocale Gent in places intended for the Berlin Philharmonic to play Wagner. And, well, when this happens, the thrill is largely gone. It feels small-scaled, distant and one barely hears the vocal soloists. As I like to make things more complicate, I’ll mention that I did listen to the Matthäus-Passion in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and it wasn’t optimal either. But let’s go back to the Tonhalle. If I am not mistaken, the inaugural concert in Zurich’s prime orchestra hall featured the music of Gustav Mahler. Even if I am indeed mistaken, I can tell you the hall was not designed for Bach. Even if this evening’s performance was a very good one, the experience of feeling part of the drama was largely lost due to the clear acoustic separation between stage and audience.

Once you adjusted to the fact that you were looking at it rather than being at it, the performance had many assets. It was conducted from a true baroque perspective, with clear dance rhythms, swift accents and a sense of story telling. Some would say it was too fast – and I am tempted to say that at moments I would agree. In O mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, I’d rather feel the effect of the repeated-note phrases in the orchestra, as in Herreweghe’s own recording for Harmonia Mundi. Also, in Erbarme dich, a little bit more time to let the music sink in would have transformed something beautiful in something moving – and the violin solo would have sounded less spasmodic too. On the other hand, the rushed approach made for a dramatic opening number and a rightly uplifting Mache dich. The gamba solos alone were worth the ticket price – rarely have I heard them at once so illustrative of the text and also played with such virtuoso quality. And the 3 per part (soloists included) choruses plus ripieni sang with clarity of tone and precision. That said, numbers involving solo voices and the chorus simultaneously, especially So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen, simply misfired. The soprano and alto too much in retreat and the chorus tiptoeing is the opposite of the kind of impact we expect from a number like that.

With few exceptions, all the very good singers this evening sounded a bit lost in the hall acoustics and a bit hard to hear in their lower registers. The very expressive and stylish Dorothee Milds, not in her freshest voice today, could only show her credentials in Aus Liebe, because the tessitura was congenial, enabling her to produce some lovely floated sounds. Grace Davidson sang Blute nur with great charm, maybe too much charm considering the theme of the aria, and yet she too would have benefited of more intimate acoustics. Tim Mead has unusual clarity in his low notes and started from strength in Buss und Reu. At some point he – understandably – lost some steam but recovered for a pure-toned and expressive Erbarme dich. He couldn’t be more contrasted to James Hall, whose whole attitude is rather operatic, the voice a bit higher in range and his singing less echt in terms of style. As I suspected, Handel is rather his cup of tea. Samuel Boden sang Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen with unusual firmness of tone, but the hall was simply too big for him. Both basses were a little bit less challenged by the size of the auditorium. Tobias Berndt has clear divisions and the right naturally dark tone for this music. If his extreme low notes failed to project, this is no exception in singers in this repertoire. Replacing Peter Kooij, Johannes Kammler sang with velvety tonal quality and scaled down to mezza voce without effort. He is clearly a baritone in a bass part, and this was the only thing one could observe about his singing this evening. He offered a clean yet rich toned Mache dich, especially when the tessitura was not too low.

Both singers in the “parts” of the Evangelist and Jesus deserve one paragraph for themselves. I had previously seen Reinoud van Mechelen in his haute-contre duties in Rameau and thought him particularly “heroic” in tone without any sacrifice to lightness of tone. If I have heard more “Schubertian” tenors in this part (Mark Padmore in the concert 25 years ago, for instance), Mr. van Mechelen was vocally really impressive, both in the solidity of his middle and low registers and how his high register simply blossomed in the auditorium. Given his facility, he could let himself go in the more dramatic moments as few other singers in this tricky part these days. Bravo. He was clearly the audience’s favorite this evening. Everybody says baritone Konstantin Krimmel looks like Jesus in a painting by Rubens, but his approach to the text and the music is less predictable than his looks. Anyone expecting the benign nobility of a Hermann Prey this evening was probably shocked with Mr. Krimmel’s almost too human intensity. He spoke to his apostles as a leader, responded to his judges with something close to disdain and faced death with a hint of terror. His voice too is rather in the baritonal range, but the color is rich and one can see that there is reserves of power still not explored there.

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The third part in Vincent Huguet’s “trilogy of liberation, the new staging of Don Giovanni is in its second performance since the premiere eight days ago. During the first bars of the overture, one could notice it got the lion’s share in terms of rehearsals and maybe resources in the context of the Festtage. But let’s speak of the staging first. It has been marketed as an opportunity of seeing Michael Volle in the title role, what seemed odd if one has in mind that these days his physique is rather of Don Juan’s father, instead of that of the man himself. However, the dramaturgy here explains us that Don Giovanni is a man whose youth is already behind him, disillusioned in his view of women and in some sort of death drive. If we attentively read the libretto, personal charm is not Don Giovanni’s mojo. When he offers Leporello money, his servant says “don’t think you can buy me with money as you do with your women”. So, yes, we’re in a Weinstein/me too context that makes this story surprisingly relevant. The catalogue aria is a presentation with photos of famous actresses and models, Zerlina is drawn away from her bachelorette party with a photo session, act 1 finale is a PR disaster in a public event around the great fashion photographer Giovanni and the finale ultimo is the man’s public condemnation, the end of his professional activity. This could have been even better if the director had taken the pains of doing it rightly. There are many loose ends, none worse than the first scene where Donna Anna – again! – is denied her metoo moment. The whole episode is nonsensical, poorly handled and it almost spoils the whole fun. The whole idea of Donna Elvira as the wife in a long, failed marriage with Don Giovanni is also awkwardly handled. Sometimes we have the impression the director doesn’t know what to make of a character that works fine the way Da Ponte conceived it.

This was also a musical performance of superior polish, compared to those of Nozze and Così. The house band finally showed the level of clarity of articulation one expects from an orchestra on duty in a Mozart opera, balance between sections almost ideal. Daniel Barenboim seemed always ready to help his singers, especially in keeping the orchestra in a flattering volume during arias and in providing handy breath pauses whenever they needed. Paradoxically, thia was a performance the intensity of which was achieved exclusively by accent and richness of sound. In other departments, it felt like “safe playing”, in very comfortable tempi that seemed to have the purpose of making sure things would fall into place. The finale último sounded almost prosaic in its stolid, heavy-footed, almost slo-mo conducting, regardless of beauty of sound. Most ensemble lacked clarity too, for these singers’ voices did not seem to blend as they should. Fortunately that was not the case of the mask trio, which was one of the highlights this evening.

I first heard Slávka Zámecniková singing Donna Anna’s aria in a video from the Neue Stimmen competition and was impressed by what she did there. I was curious about what she would achieve in a complete performance of the role – and I can say she did not disappoint me. She has the right Fach for this part – her soprano just runs effortlessly to its high notes, glides through every fioriture with accuracy and projects naturally in the auditorium. She seemed understandably nervous , and I am sure she can do even better than tonight. In any case, don’t mistake my words – she offered a beautiful, technically adept and fully stylish performance. Brava.

Elsa Dreisig is probably the best Elvira I have heard in a while, but I have to be honest. I don’t know if the Janowitz-impersonation is doing her any favors in this part. I don’t remember that constriction in her high register in her performance as Anna Bolena in Geneva, and I can’t help thinking that fullness of sound would have upgraded a correct performance to the status of greatness. But again, I’m being a bit picky here because the level of accomplishment is high enough to make one greedy for a little bit more. I am a bit less enthusiastic about Serena Sáenz’s Zerlina, for the part is on the low side for her voice and the middle register is not appealing as her high notes. She was sometime hard to hear too. I know the days when people like Mirella Freni would be cast in this part are over, but it’s such charming music that I think I’m entitled to dream.

I’m repeating myself here, but the bar is so low in what regards tenors in the part of Don Ottavio that Bogdan Volkov stands out with his amazingly long breath, clear divisions and ability of producing mezza voce. His is not a big voice and I wished he didn’t try to compensate that – with the heavy duty, his naturally pleasant tone finally sounds a bit grainy and not truly ingratiating.

Michael Volle’s imposing bass-baritone gets to the center of attention whenever he is singing. It still retains its tonal beauty and he worked hard for lightness and flexibility too. His Italian is a tad accented, and yet this is a minor observation. He proved to be responsive to the text and dramatic situations, and the slight rust in his mezza voce made sense in this “mature” approach to the role.

Replacing Riccardo Fassi in the last minute, Adam Palka was a bit in retreat compared to the rest of the cast. His is a big, rich but throaty voice that unfortunately often failed to pierce through. Peter Rose was not in his best shape as the Commendatore either. He sounded a bit tremulous and, having to sing really far upstage, found himself in disadvantage in terms of making his low notes carry into the hall.

I have to say that the singing by the Staatsoper chorus had been really below standard in both Così and Nozze. This evening they offered something a little bit closer to their reputation.

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After Thursday’s dismal Così fan tutte, I went to this evening’s performance of Le Nozze di Figaro with no expectations. It is actually a staging I have already seen on video and even written about. Sure there have been replacements – a new Susanna was announced from the start, later on a new Cherubino and only yesterday a new Figaro. 

In terms of production, I actually don’t have much to add from my original post. Now I understand why the performance is set in the 1980’s and some details are indeed more clearly developed than in the original run. If I were to add something, this would be my puzzlement with the fact that these Mediterranean settings are portrayed with so little sunlight.    

The musical side of the performance is not too different from the video either – I had seen Daniel Barenboim offer something livelier, more intelligent and more stylish in terms of Le Nozze di Figaro. Here we’re again in a string-heavy sound picture and limited clarity of articulation, but at least this is still reminiscent of Mozart in a way the Cosi wasn’t. Although there was no real animation here, the proceed did move forward and, whenever woodwind obviously needed to be heard, you would hear them. No ensemble really took off, for various reasons, including casting, but some arias did hit home. So in the end, one could call it an ok-ish performance with some interesting singers in it.

Elsa Dreisig is probably the best equipped singer for the role of the Countess Almaviva these days. She can produce a large-scale tubular sound à la Gundula Janowitz that is the key ingredient of an exemplary rendition of Porgi, amor, as heard in the Staatsoper this evening. Dove sono could have done with a tiny little bit more of legato, but still – she is a natural Mozart soprano, entirely at ease with the style, the technical demands. A beautiful performance. She was not ideally paired with Regula Mühlemann’s Susanna. The Swiss soprano sounded tiny in comparison, barely hearable in ensemble. And this has nothing to do with stinginess. She really worked hard to produce volume, but that involved emulating a lyric voice she does not possess rather than relying on the bell-toned quality of her -ina instrument. I have the impression that this too was rather under-rehearsed; although there was not the abysmal level of asynchrony as in the Così, there was some. And Ms Mühlemanm seemed to have trouble following the conductor’s beat for she lost her entry more than a couple of times, even in her first aria. She did bring something to this performance – crispy Italian. She really infused her recitatives with sense of theatre and a good ear for the language of Dante Alighieri. And that’s an important requirement for any Susanna. Marina Viotti took a time to warm – her first aria, heavily conducted, showed her tone a bit overbright, almost harsh. Yet she more than compensated the audience with a truly, really truly lovely Voi che sapete in the grand manner.

In the video Gyula Orendt comes to grief around the finale of act 1, fights against his aria and loses. This was not the case this evening – he was in healthy voice, but we can see that the part requires a touch of metal in the upper range Mr. Orendt doesn’t have. His is an all-velvet tonal quality. If he cheats a bit in the stretta of his aria, that’s forgivable. He is a good actor and a solid singer with a pleasant voice. Replacing Riccardo Fassi, Peter Kellner too has the advantage of a dulcet, firmly produced bass. Sometimes it develops a nasal patch, but it is always easy on the ear. He has the right attitude for the role, congenial but never overly clowny – and his Italian is above average. Peter Rose was a vocally imposing, very funny Bartolo too.

We also had Waltraud Meier as Marcelina. She was in an off day in terms of voice, but acted famously as always, making the reunion scene with her son a multilayered affair. Siegfried Jerusalem was there too as Don Curzio, while Stephan Rügamer fulfilled the duties of the part of Basilio.

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It wouldn’t be true to say that all successful performances are alike – for there are different types of success – but every unsuccessful performance is indeed unsuccessful in its own way. This evening’s Così fan tutte at the Berlin Staatsoper, for instance, failed in a spectacular, grandiose way. As in a horror movie, even when your heart tells you to look away, you kept watching for the sheer fascination of seeing gore, destruction and despair. 

The raison d’être of this year’s Festtage was the opportunity of watching Mozart with stellar casts, especially the feat of one single soprano tackling the roles of Fiordiligi, the Countess Almaviva and Donna Elvira in the same week. I guess “concern” is a light word when you read this soprano  – Elsa Dreisig – declare that enough is enough, that sometimes boundaries have to be set and that she had made the decision of canceling the Fiordiligi due to limited rehearsal schedule. Concern goes to the amber alert level on discovering that the part would be given to an ensemble member who had never sung it before in her life. 

Maybe because of Covid, the cast list of this Così had already experienced some change – one of the Ferrandos cancelled too. To make things more adventurous, the conductor Daniel Barenboim had been experiencing health issues and I was wondering if he would make it.  

He did, but in a very peculiar state of mind. I used to think of this Argentinian conductor as someone essentially non-Mozartian based on his recordings of the Da Ponte operas with the Berlin Philharmonic. This opinion was changed when I had the opportunity of seeing him conduct both Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro at the Staatsoper.  It was even inspiring to witness how Barenboim had evolved from Furtwänglerian ponderousness to almost Abbadian crispness. That is why I was so shocked to hear him relapse in his old habits in an age when nobody, absolutely nobody conducts Mozart like that anymore. The exquisite concoction by the Austrian composer was buried in thick layers of heavy, greasy, lifeless masses of orchestral sound from second one. A sluggish beat couldn’t make it move, it just stumbled in its total absence of clarity, woodwind hidden away somewhere in Potsdam lost to the cave-like acoustics of the “new” auditorium. And Ms. Dreisig was right, I felt happy for her, that she was spared of being there in a performance where singers tried to push forward in vain, the level of mismatch astounding for an important opera house, the finali dangerously reaching the level of cacophony.  Normally I would regret that so much of the recitative had been cut, but this evening it made no difference at all. 

Evelin Novak is a very courageous woman and deserves praise for boarding into a sinking ship. She knows the ropes of Mozartian singing and the tonal quality is pleasant in a sweet way, but God did not make her voice for the part of Fiordiligi. It is impossibly low for her, and sometimes a bit high too, something evident whenever she had to float mezza voce. Not for one moment did she come close to spoiling the show. First, it was doomed from the onset. Second, she navigated the disaster most confidently – her accuracy in the duet with Ferrando even above average. With the exception of a distinctive color in her high notes, Marina Viotti is an exemplary Dorabella. She sang with charm and animation – her second aria was one of the single moments this evening that sounded close to a decent Così. 

Barbara Frittoli, once an ideal Fiordiligi even in an auditorium as big as the Met’s, graced this shipwreck in the role of Despina. She never had the quicksilvery voice for the part, but she still sounds juicy and flexible enough for it. And she handles the text famously. To tell the truth, she was the most interesting person on stage. I myself left the theatre in relatively good mood because of her alone. 

Bogdan Volkov did not seem to be in his best voice –  his intent of singing the repeat of Un’aura amorosa piano involved some poor intonation – but never showed himself less than stylish and capable. He seemed more in control after the intermission and offered a classy, technically impeccable Tradito, schernito. Gyula Orendt has the right velvety, smooth tonal quality for Guglielmo. And he has the leading man attitude for it too. While Lucio Gallo delivered his recitatives to the manner born and was in firm voiced, he had a bad time scaling down for the trio with the sopranos, ultimately disturbing the balance in this key moment of the opera. 

Director Vincent Huguet believes that the Da Ponte operas can be shown as a cycle if Cosi comes first. Here we watch the young Guglielmo honing his skills as a lover and getting married. Then we’ll meet him again as the Count Almaviva dealing with the bitterness of a failed marriage. In the end of his life, we see him as Don Giovanni in a devil may care mood resisting all attempts of redemption offering by his estranged wife (Donna Elvira). In terms of timing , Così is set in the late 60’s, Nozze in the middle 80’s and Don Giovanni in the present days. I can’t say if this actually adds something to the experience of the individual operas, for I’ve just seen part 1. As it is, although it was rather a joyless Così in terms of staging too, it did make sense as few productions of this work do. Here Don Alfonso and Despina are a been-there-done-that couple who owns a beach resort near Naples where free love is encouraged. Two bourgeois young couples are drawn into Alfonso and Despina’s seduction and finally open their eyes for the whole new world before them (i.e., the 70’s). As all other guests are seeping around, it makes more sense that the girls decide that it is harmless to see other people and that their fiancés forgive them too in one single day. They were the only people there fussing about things like that after all! At some point the girls are informed as well of the bet and have an opportunity to save face: Fiordiligi appears in the wedding scene disguised as Dorabella, and Dorabella as Fiordiligi. When Ferrando and Guglielmo accuse them of betraying them, they reveal themselves and it is their turn of being exposed too. Visually, it is not 100% accurate in terms of the aesthetic of the 60’s, but it has its catchy moments in spite of sone awkward set changes. 

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