Archive for May, 2022

The closing item in the program of the 29th edition of the Internationales Bachfest Schaffhausen, a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor with René Jacobs and his Berliner combo of the Akademie für alte Musik and the RIAS Kammerchor took place in the most important church in Schaffhausen’s old town, the St. John’s Church. I have written about the challenge of finding the right venue for the performance of Bach’s choral music. Again I am not sure that a church setting is automatically the right answer – even if these works were meant to be performed in churches we more or less know. St. John’s is a big venue, larger than some concert halls – and its acoustic is less resonant than many a religious space used for musical performances, and yet it is still challenging for solo singers. My personal opinion – go for the small venue. I don’t think Bach had much of a choice, as in “If we don’t perform these cantatas in the Kirche Trogen in Switzerland, then I quit”, first because he never went to Switzerland (I’m joking, but really those acoustics are to die for), second because he was hired to provide music for a particular church, regardless of how good the acoustics were and, third, we can assume that, even if he made the best he could, the quality of actual performances were not up to his very high standards. In the case of the Mass in B minor, there isn’t evidence that Bach ever heard it performed at all.

Back to St. John’s Church in Schaffhausen. As heard this afternoon, the hall provided a pleasant glow around the orchestra and chorus, but wasn’t so kind to solo singers. That said, let’s talk about the chorus first. Bach wrote the Mass in B minor mostly for a 5-voice chorus (two sopranos), but for the last part, where he employs double chorus. I am not sure that he clearly indicated that what we call “arias” and “duets” were meant for solo voices, but – even if he didn’t, it’s easy to guess because they a) are not meant for the complete chorus and b) have the same kind of accompaniment an aria in a cantata would have. This might sound obvious, but if you have listened to René Jacobs’s last recording of this work, you’ll notice that there is far more solo singing going on than one is used to find in any performance (except if we’re talking about Joshua Rifkin’s). The solo quintet would sing whole numbers or just pop up in parts of a number traditionally performed by the chorus alone or they would just join the chorus, not in the Rifkin-ian sense of blending in but being very much hearable above it. There is no rule about how many singers should be singing passages meant for the chorus in Bach – and many a knowledgeable author has written about this. In the case of this performance in Schaffhausen, this involved a lot of moving about. First the “main chorus” was placed in front of the orchestra together with the soloists, while a line of “ripienists” sat behind the orchestra. For the double-chorus items, soloists were sent “upstage”, what brought about the advantage of having the tenor and the flautist next to each other in the Benedictus.

Now that we cleared the logistics, let’s talk about the playing and singing themselves. For a while, René Jacobs’s 1992 recording (always with the RIAS Kammerchor and the Akamus) of the Mass in B Minor used to be my go-to CDs for the BWV 232. Listening to it today, I realize how undemonstrative and unfussed Jacobs was back then. It is a performance that takes a while to produce its effect. At first, it sounds almost too “comfortable”. This afternoon’s performance (and the 2022 recording) couldn’t be more different – it grips the audience from bar one, with its sense of forward movement and its dramatic accents. One might think that it was operatic as some of Jacobs’s Bach are, but, no, it did move forward albeit in a natural way, each turn of phrase well-shaped, in a balletic rather than athletic approach. With one exception – the fastest Sanctus I have ever heard. These musicians managed to keep all clean and precise, but still it felt a bit coming out of nowhere.

The 1992 CDs had rather substantial-voiced singers in Hillevi Martinpelto, Bernarda Fink, Matthias Görne, Franz-Josef Selig – and I missed them today. I’ve never understood the idea of Sunhae Im as a Bach soprano. I heard her sing the Weichnachtsoratorium in Vienna nine years ago and she sounded operetta-ish to my ears. The news that she was replacing Robin Johannsen made me curious to see if there had been any development since then. I am afraid not. She was very hard to hear and her high notes did not blossom at all. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s high register was far more hearable and she tackled the fioriture with gusto, but wasn’t helped by the acoustics lower in her range – and her phrasing is rather choppy. In Qui sedes, countertenor Benno Schachtner showed admirable flexibility, and yet he sounded small-scaled and a tad monochrome in the Agnus dei, even with the rather flowing tempo. Judging from his singing this afternoon, maybe the Bach phase of Sebastian Kohlhepp is coming to an end. His tenor now sounds a bit too complex for this writing and, even if he acquitted himself commendable, the honeyed ductility one hears in a Prégardien (the father back then and the son these days) is no longer there. And then there was Andreas Wolf, totally unfazed by the acoustics, singing his very long florid lines on the breath, producing rich low notes and absolutely clear high notes. If he had not been a tad ahead of the beat in one single moment, his Et in spirictum sanctum could stand as the dictionary example of this aria. Bravo.

Even if the playing of the Akademie für alte Musik (other than a squawky French horn) left nothing to be desired, the crowning glory of this performance was the RIAS Kammerchor. This was truly superior choral singing, all voices perfectly blended, absolutely clear in their divisions, the sound was in itself exquisite. Yet I have to single out the tenors. I have rarely heard a chorus in a historically informed performance with such a solid group of tenors. Bravi.


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Although Lucia di Lammemoor is regarded as one of the most forward-looking operas in the bel canto repertoire, I am not sure that Donizetti intended to compose anything really off the beaten tracks back in 1835 in Naples. Actually, he was rather busy fighting with the direction of the Teatro San Carlo about the librettist, had to ask for a new deadline and finally wrote the whole opera in seven weeks. In other words, Lucia’s “blueprint” is quite conventional – and the “originality” is something rather built by the appreciation of 20th century audiences in deeming Donizetti’s use of these conventions dramatically convincing. By saying this, I don’t mean Lucia was not a success in its première (it was) but it gradually took a secondary place compared to other Donizetti’s works such as L’Elisir d’Amore or Don Pasquale probably until Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland made it a central item in the repertoire. And this has not changed since then.

I needed the introductory paragraph in order to say that its effectiveness doesn’t happen by itself – it has to be built by the perceptive eyes and hands and voices of all involved in an effort to bring to the fore the traits almost accidentally left by Donizetti’s quill on the score. Without the help of its performers, conventional it will remain. For instance, women stage directors seem to find something there that still needs to be shared with the audience. Katie Mitchell in London, Barbara Wysocka in Munich and now Tatiana Gürbaca in Zurich seem to agree that Lucia is not the passive sacrificial lamb shown on stage decade after decade, but rather a woman with her own opinion who meets a tragic end when forced to act against her will. At the Royal Opera House staging, Lucia kept her wits longer than we thought, premeditating Arthur’s murder only to finally get caught by the stress of miscarriage while carrying away her plan; at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Lucia’s mind is resilient enough to deal with everything but for the fact that in the end she realizes she has bern trapped in her brother’s plan. In Zurich, madness is actually the only way of breaking free from a society where women are not supposed to act or think. This is a very reasonable explanation, but Ms. Gürbaca goes a little bit further in relating Edgardo and Lucia’s relationship with their own sanity. In Walter Scott’s novel, Lucy meets Edgar in a very stressful moment – he rescues her from a wild bull – and they seem to see in each other a “safe environment” in the very disturbed circumstances they live in (Lucy’s parents are rather mean in the book – and keen on making these young people’s lives hell). This is shown in this staging as some sort of night terror – Lucia sees in her dreams a ghost with a bull’s head and Edgardo, here a childhood friend, makes it go away. This ghost haunts these two people throughout the opera – and one is entitled to see an omen there, for they will only be together in death.

I am afraid these were the good news about this production. I have recently seen two production by Tatiana Gürbaca – Rigoletto in Zurich and Jenufa in Geneva – and have praised minimalism as her main asset as a director. This Lucia is everything but minimalistic – and I wished Ms. Gürbaca had kept to what she knows how to do. This staging is visually polluted, unfocused, full of distracting gags of poor taste and ultimately very ineffective. It is also very ugly – and not in the dramatically sense of the word “ugly”. Just ugly. The sets particularly, as if the story took place in Tegel Airport or a subway station in Berlin’s U3 line. In terms of Personenregie, it’s extremely busy, with characters wandering around a rotating set and moving as in the videoclip of Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller”. It can be also amazingly disappointing – Lucia’s wedding party is like a wild event, with sex, booze and drugs and I wonder why the guests would be so shocked on hearing about Arthur’s murder as to stop everything and fall to their knees and pray for God to spare them from His wrath.

Fortunately, the musical side of the performance left a far more positive impression, even for someone who made the big mistake of listening to a tape of one of Claudio Abbado’s performances from La Scala with Renata Scotto only last evening. Conductor Andrea Sanguinetti is no Abbado in terms of making this music sound a little bit more complex than it really is, and yet he delivered a grand performance in which the orchestra was very much an important part of it. This does not mean that he made it a bit Verdian in impact and fullness. Mr. Sanguinetti established a dialogue between orchestra and singers from a true bel canto perspective. However, that means that singers had to work for their money, especially in a edition including the Raimondo/Lucia and the Wolf Crag scenes – and I’ve ultimately found it better this way. Not one of the singers in this cast has a classic Italianate voice, and this added a special interest in the proceedings. Let’s start with out prima donna, Lisette Oropesa. If you compare, for instance, this American soprano’s tone with, say, Scotto’s, you’ll notice none of the usual brightness usually heard in Italian sopranos in this repertoire. Ms. Oropesa’s voice has a rather pellucid sound, not exactly clear in the middle register and slightly recessed right when a peninsular soprano would flash in the auditorium. This is something I had already noticed in Ms. Oropesa’s “new voice” (as compared to the days when she sang Susanna): around and above a high a it seems to spin backwards rather than forward and acquire a flutey sound without much core. In that patch of her range, she was often overshadowed by the tenor, what is unusual for a Lucia. I don’t remember that happening with, say, Dessay, whose voice is/was lighter in comparison. I mention this just almost as a side comment, for the writing of the part of Lucia doesn’t really require forceful singing in that area. In any case, what is obvious about Ms. Oropesa’s singing is her technical adeptness. Nobody would ever dream of saying this is not an extremely difficult piece of singing, but you would hardly notice that this evening. She sang all scales a tempo in perfect legato, tackled every trill, sailed through the mad scene as if she were singing Caro mio ben or Se tu m’ami. One could notice that the in alts were a bit short and a bit on tiptoe, but they were always true in pitch and hearable. She was never less than stylish and expressive and committed, but I won’t make comparisons with Scotto in terms of interpretation. That would involve talking about the true art of bel canto, which is colouring the tone, playing with dynamics ON THE TEXT with millimetric precision – and very few people could and can do this. In terms of acting, I regret I haven’t seen Ms. Oropesa in a more “traditional” staging, for she has an ideally Romantic stage presence, a bit superfluous in a staging where she stabs and slits her husband’s throat in front of the audience.

When I first heard Benjamin Bernheim sing Donizetti, it was in a broadcast from L’Elisir d’Amore from Vienna. I had seen him sing Mozart here in Zurich some years before that and all I thought was “why is he darkening his high notes like that in Una furtiva lagrima?” I mean – you really don’t need it and the music doesn’t ask for it at all. Then I saw him in Macbeth some months ago and I noticed he really masters the art of darkening his tone as no other tenor I have ever seen. The voice keeps it focus and actually gains in force (rather than receding, as usually), but again here we are in Donizetti and I couldn’t help thinking it would have sounded more stylish and graceful and sensitive if he kept it clearer and lighter. Then when he got to the Maledetto sia l’istante part of the wedding scene, this would have really surprised us. There were moments when his phrasing was a bit too straightforward, the legato a bit strait-laced, the acuti a tad dry. But don’t mistake me – he sang well and was in healthy voice this evening.

I can’t say if Massimo Cavalletti (Enrico) was in a bad-voice day – it sounded excessively grainy to my ears – and he does not seem at ease with bel canto. He aspirated a lot his fioriture in his aria and sang a bit crudely throughout. I still have to understand what happens with singers in the part of Raimondo, since they almost always tend to get tired at some point. Although Vitalij Kowaljow sang with very little affection this evening, his deluxe bass-baritone always causes a great impression, and yet the fatigue was evident in act 3.

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Camilla Nylund is the Opernhaus Zürich’s next Isolde and Brünnhilde. That is probably why I took a while to decide if a Liederabend at this point was a good idea for someone just about to go for broke in hoch dramatisch repertoire. A less than half full auditorium seemed to show that I was not the only one to have doubts about this evening. All I can say I am glad I finally bought this ticket, for this was a truly enjoyable recital. First of all, Ms. Nylund’s voice does not show any sign that she has been singing really heavy repertoire for a long while. It now sounds its absolute best – a combination of full warmth and focus as one could hear in some Golden Age Italian prime donne. She plunged into her low register with absolute naturalness, the middle is velvety yet clear and the high notes are full and rich.

But that’s not all – differently from many singers who deal with Wagnerian repertoire, she does not sound eager to prove that she deserves to be there. She sings with her own voice throughout; she does not try to make it sound darker, bigger, stronger or more penetrating. It is voluminous enough and she knows that. Plus her technique is rock-solid. All that enabled her to produce immaculate legato, deliver the text with crystalline diction and to offer singing of disarming emotional honesty. Even if you prefer someone else singing any of these songs, you would not feel inclined to compare her with anyone else, because she was being truly herself there. She addressed the public and shared her feelings about the Sibelius items in the program. Twice she got the wrong stanza of the text and had to stop, and yet she seemed so at ease that the audience felt almost in a private concert when she excused herself, showed a congenial smile and picked up where she left with unchanged commitment.

Other than “Black roses”, I was not familiar with the other Sibelius songs performed this evening, but as much as I can judge without speaking Swedish (and Finnish for one of the songs), she sang with ardor and yet a very clean line. Jubal op.35, no.1, for instance, was phrased with almost Mozartian grace without any loss of passion. The Mahler part of the program was an odd assortment of songs. Nylund negotiated well the melisme in Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? and sang the “dialect” heartily. Ten seconds later, she showed Innigkeit and dynamic variety in Wo die schöne Trompeten blasen. Das irdische Leben was fully operatic, her middle register delivered with a splash of the spoken voice. And back we were to the spiritual concentration of Urlicht, only to return to the operetta-ish word of Verlorne Müh’ and Scheiden und Meiden. If sometimes we had the impression that, nimbly as she lightened her voice, that the operation required the ability of someone on a tightrope. Therefore, the most outspoken numbers felt a little bit more relaxed. And it is never enough to repeat: she handled the text really adeptly, if often with a touch of the operatic.

After the intermission, she offered – for the first time with piano accompaniment in her career, as she explained – Alban Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder. She had the score with her “just to make sure everything would be fine” and one could sense a little bit of loss in personality there. That said, these songs gain a lot with a richer voice, especially one that manage some dynamic variety in high notes. Although one cannot speak of true mezza voce, Nylund’s voice has a natural float that does the trick. As expected, the Strauss items were the highlights of this recital. I don’t think anyone today can sing these pieces better than her. Songs like Cäcilie and Ruhe, meine Seele benefit from a round big, voice of course (and her climactic high notes really filled the hall with a satined glow), but I don’t think I had ever enjoyed Malven as much as I have this evening for the very same reasons. And her almost hushed Morgen was effective too.

The combination of Ms. Nylund’s creamy, impassionate singing with Joonas Ahonen’s almost detached pianism, keen on very precise and economic pedalling, could seem odd at first, but I thought it really added an extra dimension to this recital in his musical clarity and objectivity and ear for tonal coloring. It complemented rather than reinforced the singing. And he handled the most athletic items with gusto.

Ms. Nylund found it important to sing the Wesendonk Lieder in Zurich – and offered as encores Schmerzen and Träume, both truly richly and sensitively sung. And yet I really enjoyed the extra Sibelius item too – an exquisite song called “Was it a dream?”.

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I don’t think I am alone in considering Arabella a masterpiece, and I have often wondered why it is so rarely staged. This evening the answer was evident to me – the forces required are above what an opera house is able to offer in regular circumstances. It is obvious that all main roles are hard to sing, but sometimes one forgets that the small parts are also very tough to sing, not only the Fiakermilli – Elemer is pretty hard and the fortune-reader is tricky, just to name two. To make things worse, the score doesn’t spare the orchestra one second. And we cannot forget – it is also hard to stage. If you are going for a traditional staging, then you need the full glamour (and it is not going to be low-budget). On the other hand, the libretto is so deeply connect to the Viennese setting that it is very difficult to stylize, update or adapt. So let’s talk about the staging first.

As much as in his production of Rosenkavalier for Salzburg and New York, Robert Carsen finds it important to show this in the context of its creation. As the plot doesn’t go as far as the 18th century as in the case of the Marschallin, the Count Octavian and the Baron Ochs, having it played in the 1930’s makes far more sense for the Waldners. It is bold – and probably only approved by the Intendant because we’re in Switzerland – to have swastikas all over the place – and it makes sense in a the-sound-of-music point-of-view. Mandryka comes from a Romantic context of castles and forests and rescues Arabella from a corrupt and perverted society. God knows the world is sorely in need to be reminded of the dangers of evil and extremism, but I guess the point would have been more efficiently taken if the approach were less heavy-handed. You know, when we slowly take in and suddenly realize “Good Lord, they’re nazis!” For instance, the ballet in the interlude between act 2 and 3 with the yodellers being “assaulted” by the SS troopers was the dictionary example of overkill – and it was noisy and I’d rather hear Strauss music without it. Anyway, unsubtle as the whole thing was, I could live with it. I could live with the unimaginative Personenregie too, even if it tended to the overbusy and the emphatic. What really turned me off was the scenery. I don’t think any grand hotel in Vienna in the 1930’s would look so ugly and common as in this staging. I guess managers of less grand hotels would have lost their jobs if they let the carpet in the main lobby as rippled as the one seen on stage this evening. Call me conservative, but I missed a staircase too. Its absence involved lots of character vanishing backstage and appearing on the second floor and then screaming their lines for someone on ground level.

I guess that maybe three or four opera houses in the world have an orchestra capable to perform the score of Arabella with paramount standards of excellence. And the Opernhaus Zürich is not one of them. I don’t write this as nay-sayer, but it is important to establish this fact to explain this particular performance. Conductor Markus Poschner offered a formidable account of the score, one that would have left audiences in the Vienna State Opera or in the Semperoper in absolute awe. The orchestral sound was full and rich and well blended, the tempi were dramatic, flexible in keeping with the dramatic situations with swift accents and some vertiginous passagework from the strings. A more cautious conductor would have noticed that the forces available were sorely tested by the fireworks-like conducting and would have probably adapt the concept to something more foolproof. To be honest, in most of Arabella’s and Zdenka’s music, it worked. It felt grand and emotional. Not really so in Mandryka’s music, when the impression could be of lack of polish and sometimes awkwardness. In all honesty, nobody could say it was not exciting, and these musicians gave their all this evening. Let’s say it just isn’t one for the records. You’d have to be there to get the picture.

When the 2021/2022 season was announced, the name of Anja Harteros appeared in the cast list. I don’t think that, at this point, anybody believed she would actually sing. So the big suspense here was to guess who would replace her. A couple of months ago, this German soprano was supposed to sing R. Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Marek Janowski at the Tonhalle until we heard that she would be replaced by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, a singer I had seen only once in the part of Zdenka when Harteros herself was singing Arabella. Ms. Müller’s voice has developed since then and, although there is little tonal glamour, she managed to do a more than decent job in that concert. The problem is that “tonal glamour” is a requirement for Arabella, and I was curious of how she would fare in a Lotte Lehmann role. Well, it seems I’ll still have to discover, since she was replaced in the last minute by Jacquelyn Wagner. I am not sure that Ms. Wagner has a Lotte Lehmann voice either – but neither Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa could be described in those terms – and Ms. Wagner comes fresh from her Elsa in Salzburg and has one recording of Arabella to her credit. When I heard her live many years ago as Micaela in Berlin, I recall a Mozartian voice of some purity and creaminess of tone. Her incursions in heavier repertoire have since then brought about a certain graininess à la Deborah Voigt (without the heft) that is not immediately appealing. It is still a lyric soprano’s voice, one without the last ounce of volume necessary for us to hear everything she sings in her middle register. Yet it is a very healthy voice, one that goes up and down through her registers without any visible shift or hesitation. She took the whole first act to warm – what is understandable, considered she was flown in only yesterday for this performance – and at moments seemed overshadowed by her Zdenka. In act 2, her soprano showed its full bloom, she seemed more at ease and sang effortlessly the high-lying phrases of her duet with Mandryka. Most importantly, she proved to be able to let the exposed high notes spin and gain projection without forcing, especially in the last scene, which she sang really richly. She is a singer incapable of bad taste and, being tall and blond, is just convincing enough in the part. If she doesn’t look and sound truly seductive, at least there is some patrician restraint in her, which is more than I can say of some Arabellas I have seen.

I wonder how the pairing of Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (as Arabella) and Anett Fritsch (as Zdenka) might have sounded, because these are singers of similar Fach and repertoire. Ms. Fritsch is one of those sopranos whose glory is rather the middle than the high register, what maybe at odds with the tessitura of the role of Zdenka. As it was, she was often the most hearable person on stage. As she used the text with unusual intelligence, there was always an interesting turn of phrase (also in terms of tone colouring) to entertain the audience. But the hallmark of a good Zdenka is how she handles her high notes, especially if she can float mezza voce in the duet with Arabella. Predictably, that was not the case here. Ms. Fritsch worked hard and didn’t disgrace herself at all, but her high register could be piercing and was never smooth. That said, she shone in all conversational passages, especially in her scenes with Matteo, when she could provide the necessary intensity without tampering with a bright, feminine basic sound. I took a while to recognize Pavol Breslik in the latter role. I had not heard him in a long while and the voice has now a darker quality and a little bit less projection than I remembered. He handles the high notes famously and has the right personality for the part. This performance had more than one Wagner in the cast, as Josef Wagner (as in the première) takes the role of Mandryka. His is a curiously smoky voice, what makes him work hard to pierce through the orchestra, except in high notes, which are tightly focused and big. We can see he knows when he needs to scale down for the more lyrical passages, but his tonal palette is not very wide. To his favor, he has the right attitude and looks for the part and is comfortable with both comedy and romance.

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There is no accounting for taste, but you can always write an account of your experience with something. A commission from the Opernhaus Zürich to Swiss composer Stefan Wirth, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is not a work to my taste. And this is pretty much my problem, not the composer’s, of course. That said, I’ll try to explain why I don’t like it as a member of the audience. I.e., I won’t speak of composition technique etc, because that’s above my depth.

First, I don’t feel that Tracy Chevalier’s book is a good source for an opera libretto. I didn’t even like the film beyond the historical reconstitution and maybe the cinematography as an experiment. Second, Philip Litell’s libretto is inept in its total aloofness. Characters narrate event rather than live through it and exchange platitudes instead of expressing any feeling. So you have long stretches of dialogues that sound like “I separate vegetables by colour”. “Is an onion the same white as a radish?” Third, I guess not even Mozart would have been able to inject some life in a libretto like that – and one can hear that in the music. Mr. Writh’s writing for the orchestra is rich in unusual colors and the recurring “motives” are identifiable etc, but they are telling a story totally unrelated to the “plot”. And we know why – there is no plot and there is nothing to express. I mean, one could dig up and make something about “growing up”, “discovery of new emotions” etc, but that is not what the librettist did here. Girl with a Pearl Earring is not the first opera whose main character is not a person, but a work of art or rather its creation. Yes, I am speaking of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. Some will point out Capriccio is arguably Strauss’s most “boring” opera (I don’t agree) – and yet Strauss had a better libretto. It’s witty and the whole affair with the creation of the opera is directly related to these character’s feelings. “Music or literature?” is not a rhetorical question there, it is a matter of feelings, a mater of love.

Strauss has also two clear advantages over Mr. Wirth. The first of them is that good old Richard knew how to write for voices, while the Swiss composer basically have them repeating notes or note patterns in uncongenial part of their voices in a way that make it impossible for them to put any personal content in their singing. You don’t actually need to write catchy melodies (as Strauss could when he needed) to write an opera. There is only one “song” in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and it is not even very catchy, but it is extremely suggestive and atmospheric. How many catchy tunes are there in Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites? Or in Janacek’s Vec Mackropulos? And yet they catch our attention in a way some melodic operas fail to do because these composers really knew how to catch the “pattern” (and I am using the concept of Japanese art here, as mastering the framework of a natural object in a way that allows you to stylize it as a thing of beauty) of spoken language and to make its inner aesthetic quality blossom. This allows the singer to relate, the audience to relate in a way that goes beyond “a lovely tune”. But again – I liked the writing for the orchestra and I would have enjoyed this as an “orchestral suite” no longer than 25 minutes in a concert.

Director Ted Huffman had to work hard with a libretto devoid of drama, burdened by flashbacks (never a good idea in opera) and sequences of short scenes in different locations. It felt a bit rushed, but it worked with very simple stage elements, although costumes could have been a little bit more convincing. I mean, they looked a bit like the budget was short. I can’t speak about the conducting, since I have no elements of comparison.

In the title role (Griet), Lauren Snouffer had a thankless job, something like singing two hours of Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder in English translation. It must have been exhausting to sing so much high-lying music with so little vibrato with very clear diction. Not to mention it must requires a prodigious musical memory. I can’t say she made it all sound “expressive” because I don’t think this is possible, but it did sound tasteful. And her sound is apt for the role and there was enough tonal roundness to make it palatable. I hadn’t seen Laura Aikin in a very long while, and yet I found her remarkable fresh of tone as Ms. Vermeer. Her character had a little bit more to work with in terms of basic emotions, and she could make it very clear that she wasn’t happy about what was going on there. Embodying the voice of the Vermeer children, Lisa Tatin sang a part that makes Mozart’s Popoli di Tessaglia sound like something written for a low voice. And she seemed curiously very enthusiastic about it. The three low-voice female singers – Liliana Nikiteanu, Irène Friedli and Sarah Castle – had the advantage of singing music more central in tessitura and, therefore, could make a little bit more of the text than the sopranos. Tenor Andrew Owens deserves a medal for learning the part of Van Ruijven in a couple of days because the originally cast singer fell ill. And there’s Thomas Hampson as the man himself, Vermeer. The libretto has very little material for acting in the role – and Hampson makes it happen by virtue of charisma. What he did – and this is truly remarkable – and that he was able to create the illusion that this music is actually singable. Bravo.

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It is almost a surprise to myself how much I enjoy every performance of Janacek’s Jenufa, regardless of how good it actually is. No other opera in the repertoire speaks so readily to the heart. This means that it is actually hard to have an objective view, but I’ll try. 

This is only the second time I see a staging by Tatiana Gürbaca, and I have to say she has a very organized mind. Every scenic element on stage is there for a reason and everything relates to the main concept in an almost mathematical way. This also means that they tend to the cerebral – and Jenufa is a work supposed to speak directly to the heart. My first impression this evening was that the single set was too Scandinavian, too conceptual and too designed. Gradually it made sense in its claustrophobic atmosphere, in the way it highlighted the acting and, most of all, how efficiently it worked for every scene, regardless of outdoor or indoor circumstances or of how many people were involved. All that means that you had no distractions; the director made you look at the actors in an almost microscopic way. The problem is that you need real actors in circumstances like that. 

I cannot put my finger on what was wrong with Corinne Winters’s Jenufa -or even if what was wrong was a directorial choice. At least for me, a key element of the role is the vulnerability and how in the end it turns out to be a strength rather than a weakness. And to my eyes, Ms. Winters looked puzzlingly self-possessed and in charge throughout the opera. She seemed piqued rather than desperate with the prospect of being a single mother in act 1, she delivered the text about death being the best thing for the baby as if she actually believed that, she smiled too much and too openly when Laca appears to propose and, in act 3, she looked almost happy in preparation for her wedding. And then in the end, when she should behave as if she had an epiphany or something like that, there is very little contrast for one to notice the transformation. In a sense, it seemed that the opera was being performed around her rather than with her. Vocally, I must say that hers is not the voice I expect in the role. It lacks naturalness in its constructed tonal plushness that prevents her high notes to generate any radiance (or dynamic contrast). This only reinforced this sense of self-containment and discretion. This does not mean she did not sing well – she is a musicianly singer who does nothing wrong, but it felt like listening to music for the violin played in a viola. 

Sharing the stage with Evelyn Herlitzius did not make it easier for her. This German soprano is used to dramatic roles and has no problem in living up to the intensity of a scene. And she does it quite naturally. Her big act 2 monologue, for instance, felt especially disturbing. The way this Kostelnicka spoke of killing a baby was almost like the way a farmer explains why one put a calf “to sleep”. For some reason, this is a role often cast with a singer no longer in her prime. On paper, that’s the case of Ms. Herlitzius. That said, it sits in all the sweet spots of her voice – and this is probably the healthiest singing I have heard from her in a while. It has always been an odd voice – and you’ll find all its hallmark peculiarities here. But – once you’re not hearing a “normal voice” in the part (I mean – and I’m repeating myself here – like Eva Randová’s in the MacKerraa studio recording) – Herlitzius’s “oddity” makes sense.  

An important part of the success of a performance of Jenufa has to do with the contrast between the tenors cast as Laca and Steva. Traditionally, Steva’s handsomeness is portrayed by an Italianate tone, while Laca’s inaptitude gets a more typicality tight “Slavic” sound. This evening, the contrast was alright there, but in a rather surprising way. Our Laca, American Heldentenor Daniel Brenna, sang with stentorian power, flashing Siegfried-ian big high notes in the auditorium with no effort. I can’t say how good an actor he is, but he looked convincing in his naturalness. Sometimes when Laca is made to sound like Mime, it is difficult to understand Jenufa’s change of opinion of him. It has been a while since I last heard Ladislav Elgr. I had the memory of a lyric, rather dulcet voice. This evening his sing was more angular and metallic, what made the character’s less appealing side more evident. All minor roles were well cast – both in terms of singing and acting. 

This is the second time I hear Tomáš Hanus conduct Jenufa. Last time I wrote about an apparent attempt of reining the orchestra to help the cast. That was not the case this evening. The hall has rather dry acoustic, but one could feel nonetheless the volume of orchestral sound. Mr. Hanus has a long experience with the work, and one can hear it in the way each scene got its precise color and pace while at the same time it all connected in an organic and coherent way. 

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Almost everybody says that the Decca/Culshaw Ring is the most important release of the golden age in which opera was recorded in studio. I beg to differ. Paramount as the Solti Ring was, no other project was so decisive for the diffusion of the works recorded as the Philips series of Haydn’s Esterházy operas. First, these were recording premières. Second, although those were unknown works (and still are), they were extravagantly cast with some of the most legendary singers of the age: Norman, Cotrubas, Augér, Ameling (!), Prey, Bruson, Ramey et al. This is something nobody would be able to do today. It is like visiting Versailles and wondering why there are not buildings like that anymore. Third, they were all superbly conducted by Antal Doráti. And where? Here in Switzerland, with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. That is why I took the train to see this performance of Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, involving singers from the Opernhaus Zürich’s International Opera Studio plus the forces of the Musikkollegium Winterthur in the Theater Winterthur.

As it is, this is a performance involving young names – and comparisons with the formidable names in the Doráti recording are out of place. That said, some of these singers this evening acquitted themselves quite well, two of them even lived up to the competition. Even sabotaged by a director who made her fidget around and bounce and jump and God knows what during extremely difficult coloratura in her first aria, Chinese soprano Ziyi Dai, once recovered from an understandably bumpy account of the said number, offered singing of classical poise, tasteful phrasing, real trills and soaring, exquisite high notes. In the case of Mexican tenor Leonardo Sánchez, even if he couldn’t help Donizetti-sizing his Haydn whenever he could include an extra high note, I would say I prefer him to Luigi Alva in the recording. His voice is more beautiful than Alva’s, warm and round in the tradition of Francisco Araiza and Ramón Vargas, his phrasing is cleaner and he was the only person on stage who really used the Italian language in his favor. He has an exuberant personality – boosted by the director’s fondness for overacting – and probably wouldn’t like to hear that he could be a superlative Mozart tenor (we all knows, this has become something of an offence these days). Venezuelan tenor Luís Magallanes deserves to be mentioned too – the role of Cecco is a bit tricky, the tessitura is high, and yet he sang it with unusual poise and cleanliness. It is a pity he had an accident before the performance and wasn’t able to act. I have seen him in small roles in Zurich – and he can be a very efficient actor. I am not fully convinced that Chelsea Zurflüh is really a soprano, although she has all her high notes. Her low register is warm and round, but her incursions in sopranoland involve some constriction, just like a high mezzo à la Magdalena Kozená cast in soprano parts. She has here the responsability of taking the role Swiss soprano Edith Mathis sang in the Doráti recording – and constriction apart – she has a natural instinct for classical style (as in Mozart and Haydn). She sculpts her phrases with instrumental poise – and raised to the challenge of the opera’s most beautiful number, the act 2 love duet with the tenor.

When Haydn wrote Il Mondo della Luna, he noticed that there is one single role that could be called “serious”, which is the role of Ernesto. That is why he composed it for the castrato voice. I mean, the 18th century public would immediately understand that the role for the castrato is the serious role. And that was also part of the fun of the story – Ernesto is supposed to be the non-funny guy having to take part in this comedy for a serious reason: he is in love and that is the only way of getting to marry his beloved Flaminia. Hence I find it difficult to accept the idea of hearing the part transposed to the tenor voice, what involves having a singer permanently in the less appealing part of his range and with serious difficulty of producing legato in some of the noble music Haydn wrote. As the stage direction seemed incapable of understanding any kind of nuance, Ernesto seemed rather like a buffoon in a serious sugar rush – and it was hard to understand why the “serious” sister (Flaminia) would have any interest in him.

I am trying not to write too much about the production, but its shortcomings had so many negative effects in the musical side of the performance that it’s been difficult to avoid the topic. I understand that the opera is very long and cuts had to be made, but – in order to accommodate the director’s restlessness – almost every number of a gentler nature (all of them exquisite) were deleted, while a great some unimportant chunks of recitative (rarely delivered in idiomatic Italian, one of the official languages of this country) were left untouched. I might sound here crankier than what I really felt these evening – that is why I must say that I like director Tomo Sugao’s concept. He didn’t try to make the story more politically correct than it is (it verges on the unacceptable), but showed it in a context (a home for elderly people) that makes we understand why Bonafede (the detestable father) behaves like he does, what is an undeniable plus. The fact that the whole “voyage to the moon” is fuelled on drugs is also an effective way of telling this story – and Michaela Barth’s costume are terrific in showing the shift to the ”lunar” setting – but everything is so exaggerated, noisy, anti-musical, gratuitous that it all felt like high school theatre. I guess now that it’s out of my chest, I can praise Joseph Bastian’s stylish conducting, the ensembles – even amid that overacting-fest – were amazingly precise, the orchestra had the right touch of roughness, he was always there to help his singers, who also took some risks in fast tempi.

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