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Archive for June, 2022

I have to be honest here – I really dislike Puccini’s Turandot. I once told a friend “I only go to the theatre to see Puccini if a ray of light from the sky appears before my eyes and a voice tells me I have to”. But that’s not entirely true, because I did see Turandot a couple of times without God telling me to do it and I have never enjoyed the experience. Curiously, the first opera I have ever seen in my life was… Turandot and, hey, I’m still here. 

So the question is – why have I took the train to Geneva for Turandot? 1 – I haven’t been in an opera house in a while, 2 – I like going to the opera in Geneva, 3 – it was supposed to be a production with dazzling use of technology etc. 

I must have very little knowledge of lighting technology, for I wouldn’t be able to tell that I was witnessing anything groundbreaking there, although I could see that they were pulling all the stops in what regards light design and videos. It only looked like something the Cirque du Soleil might do better (I have no actual idea, for I prefer Turandot to the Cirque du Soleil). Director Daniel Kramer explains he intended to show this as a futuristic dystopia à la 1984. The theatre’s website used the slogan “When Puccini meets the Hunger Games”. Yes, there are moments when it looks like a reality TV show, and yet this is only hinted at in a very incoherent way. In the end, it looks just like any other staging of Turandot – but there’s a big “but” here. Mr. Kramer is collaborating in this staging with the Japanese artist collective teamLab – and one tends to think of scrumptious design when one thinks of Japan. But Japan has its own version of tawdry – and this is one very evident example. OK, Turandot comes as the illustration in the dictionary’s definition of kitsch. But there are all kinds of kitsch – and this here goes to the “gruesome” end of the scale. It was ugly, awkward, pretentious and alarmingly crude. Mr. Kramer’s convolute stage direction (and his obsession with graphic description of castration and phallic visual gags) couldn’t help making it even worse, I don’t mean anyone was offended by anything – the feeling was rather Fremdscham. 

The musical side of the performance had the immediate advantage of Luciano Berio’s ending. Although there is very little love between me and Turandot, there is a abhorrence in my relationship with the Alfano ending. Conductor Antonino Fogliani evidently wants us to know every facet of Puccini’s tutti-frutti – and he did it with a sure hand, the orchestra played well, all colors and stylistic influences were there. For someone who does not like the score, this makes it even kitschier. But that’s not Mr. Fogliani’s fault, who was an umile ancello del genio creatore. Someone like me would rather go for the Karajan “let’s pretend it’s Richard Strauss”-approach. But that’s my fault, of course.

In terms of singing, I can’t say there was a lot of joie de chant here. It is not unusual to find singers struggling in Turandot, but this afternoon seemed to be about how difficult everything was. Ingela Brimberg was the Grand Théâtre’s Elektra a couple of months ago. In that role, the lack of edge and the felt-like middle registers brought about an added dimension to the role; she sounded vulnerable in it. Here, on the other hand, it’s all about edge – a cutting edge. And Puccini is expecting the soprano to deliver the goods both in the extreme top and low notes. And that was a bit beyond was Ms. Brimberg has to offer. In order to cope with the unrealistic demands, she has to distort the tone amd was often unclear with the text. In her favor, one can say she could scale down and almost float her tone when that was possible. 

It is clear that Francesca Dotto knows exactly what has to be done in the role of Liù – and she mostly did it with a voice helplessly light for the role. As it was, she sounded a bit mealy, whiny and really tremulous. 

There is no doubt about the quality of Teodor Ilincai’s voice – it is big and has a naturally pleasant color. And he definitely has stamina. Yet the technique is puzzling. One feels that the higher overtones are never there – all vowels are a bit too dark, he never goes beyond a French “o” and a French “é”, the passaggio is a bit all over the place and intonation goes a bit dubious there. High notes are right in pitch yet bottled up and muscular rather than projecting. I wondered how far he could go this way – and he went rather far, just enough to sing Nessus dorma. After that it was 50 shades of grey. 

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The fact that Bach composed the Cantata BWV 211 (Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht – the “coffee cantata”) is arguably more amusing than the cantata itself. Written in 1734 in the context of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society founded by Telemann that used the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig as a concert venue, it feels today rather as a dad joke set to exquisite music. This alone makes it challenging for any musician: those who try to make something hilarious of it usually ruin the good part of the experience (the music) and those who try to ignore the comedy make it even odder, a misguided episode of silly “sacred” music. 

It will always seem astonishing to me that Gustav Leonhardt –  whom I tend to regard as rather austere – is the conductor who got it just right in his recording with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a lovely Barbara Bonney. There charm comes first, in warm orchestral playing, catchy rhythms and a subtly characterful conducting that finds every musical gag in the score – and nobody comes close to Lina Beznosiuk in playing the flute solos with a musical wink. But the keyword here is “subtly”. 

This evening Rudolf Lutz and the J.S. Bach-Stiftung reduced to one per part never lost from sight the comedy element – and never overdid it – yet rather than Leonhardt’s refined charm they offered something on the rustic sound, with strongly marked dance rhythms and hearty, almost folk-like strings. The harpsichord continuo felt a bit overbusy to my taste, clashing a bit with the slightly unsophisticated atmosphere. 

There is nothing easy in the vocal parts in the BWV 211. As usual with Bach, it is hard to sing although it must always sound spontaneous. The soprano takes the lion share here. Although everyone tends to focus on her first aria, the second one has a very awkward tessitura that usually involves some inaudible low notes and some high notes below true pitch in the end of phrases. Nobody sings them better than Carolyne Sampson in the recording with the Bach Collegium Japan (an impressively full-toned Dorothea Röschmann in Bernard Labadie’s recording is also hard to overlook). Not only is she ideally bright toned, even in her low register but also she sounds entirely unfazed by the difficult intervals and the long phrases. And she makes it clear that this cantata is not about coffee (it’s about you-know-what). Although Miriam Feuersinger was no exception in the perilous spots in the second aria, she sang with irresistible smoothness of tone and clarity of diction. She didn’t seem to try to make any point and embraced coyness without looking back.

As Schlendrian, the ill-humored father, Dominik Wörner delivered the text with savoir-faire and never tried to be too funny. A darker voice and ampler in the lower end would have helped the characterization (and given him a little bit more leeway). The tenor part is short but not sweet – it is uncomfortable to sing and only a few tenors really make something of it. Sören Richter found in it the right “gossipy” note. 

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The recording of Bach’s orchestral suites in my MP3 player is the one with Diego Fasolis and his orchestra I Barrochisti. This is why I’ve decided to take the train to see them perform Bach’s Mass in B minor with their go-to chorus, the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera. Three weeks ago I saw the same piece in Schaffhausen with the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin with René Jacobs – and the difference between these performances are as big as the Alps. 

Edith Wharton wrote that Catholics never write good ghost stories, for the supernatural is part of their daily lives. This might explain why the Northern European musicians have shown Bach’s Catholic mass as an almost theatrical event, powerfully expressive and deeply spiritual, while this evening performance seemed almost comfy in comparison. The opening Kyrie progressed in a relaxed rhythm, all sharp angles rounded and padded in almost legato-ish phrasing, the slurred groups of two notes  “eh-eh” on the word “eleison” delivered in a graceful almost sprightly way. Things risked to be a bit predictable until the last number in the first part, Cum Sancto Spiritu, when the proceedings suddenly seemed almost too animated and a bit rough-edged. 

The new atmosphere was nearly raised to sugar-rush level in the Credo section of the mass. The Radiotelevisione chorus is not the last word in terms of precision – sopranos and tenors were a tad flat now and then – and in these exhilarating tempi, melisme were often imprecise and a bit behind the beat. At some point they started to sound a bit tired and the whole performance began to sound like a difficult chore. After a pause where the chorus was repositioned and two or three extra choristers were brought in for the doubling in the Osanna, the evening finally settled into an exalted mood as if the whole point was showing that this is Bach’s monumental contribution to the choral repertoire. So it ended in a positive, emotional note. 

I don’t think Bach has ever experienced a day as hot and humid as today in Lugano. And this can be tricky when you’re playing period instruments. The corno da caccia in the bass aria was particularly tricky, but one must acknowledge that the natural trumpets were far above average. The solos in the arias did not strike me as particularly inspired and often sounded in a different expressive word from some of the singers, who would go for something that could be described rather as “austere”. In any case, this was a good group of vocal soloists, who benefited from the very good acoustics in the LAC.

Replacing Hanna Herfurtner, Swiss soprano Marie Lys sang with ideal bell-toned purity and naturalness. Taking the second soprano solos, Italian mezzo Lucia Cirillo displayed an almost boy soprano clarity of tone in her low notes, but came across as rather straitjacketed in her intent of producing thoroughly straight tone. 

I was eager to hear for the first time live two Austrian singers who have come to attention in their recordings with the J.S. Bach-Stiftung. Contralto Margot Oitzinger can be considered a Bach specialist whose hallmark is her extremely economical use of chest resonance. Her bottom register has an almost pop sound that carries reasonably in the auditorium. While it would have been exciting to hear the full color of her voice, her almost instrumental purity of sound, long breath and absence of affectation are praiseworthy. While most singers try to produce an ecstatic impression in the Agnus Dei, Ms. Oitinger sang it probably as it should – as a plea for redemption. Since I first saw Bernhardt Bechtold on YouTube, I have found him the example of how tenors should sing Bach. He is no tenorino.  His voice has some volume, what allows him to sing lightly without worrying about being heard in a larger hall. And his tenor is so perfectly focused that he never has to resort to falsetto to reach high notes. His middle register has a pleasant color too. I wouldn’t say he was at his best voice today, but he sang impeccably nonetheless. 

Last but not least, there was the Bach bass of choice in the 2000’s Klaus Mertens, now a veteran and something of a living national treasure in Germany. The voice is still very much firm, a bit less resonant in the lower reaches and less smooth now and then. And yet the authority, the sense of style, the flexibility and the love for this music are still all there. 

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My decision to buy a ticket to see the “new” production of Janacek’s Jenufa at the Berlin Staatsoper (it was actually premiered last year without an audience) is linked to the experience of watching Tatiana Gürbaca’s staging in Geneva. There, I wasn’t convinced by the way the title role was portrayed. As I had seen Asmik Grigorian only as Marie in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck this seemed to be a good opportunity to kill two birds with o e stone. Yet I need to speak of everything else before I can describe Ms. Grigorian’s performance. 

First we must talk about Damiano Michieletto’s production. In his interview in the program, he expressed his concern about the contrast between local and universal perspectives in a story so rich in details specific to its setting. Although we have seen stagings where the local folklore is used to add some color, most productions these days opt to show Jenufa as a story that could have happened in any context where having a baby out of wedlock is a catastrophic scenario. As much as Gürbaca, Michieletto goes a step further in terms of stylization. To be honest, she goes a step further – he goes a whole mile. The story is set in a cold storage room, where an iceberg gradually sinks in until it starts to thaw in the last act. I won’t lie – I don’t believe that this concept added anything to the story, which, yes, mentions ice in the very specific context of the death of Jenufa’s baby.  As it was, the cold lighting, the large sheets of transparent plastic and the gigantic iceberg had an alienating effect, as if these people were just Guinea pigs in a laboratory. It literally turned the dramatic temperature down. Also, I understand that the chorus couldn’t be on stage due to COVID protection measures, but they have been lifted and the director ought to have reviewed that decision. Act 1 with off-stage voices was completely nonsensical. Someone who had never seen this opera couldn’t have understood what was going on at all. Act 2 had many examples of people asking to be let in while they were already in – and Laca would need to be blind not to see the baby’s cradle right in the middle of the stage. And yet it was probably the most effective. In act 3, the director seemed happy enough playing with his own iceberg while almost everybody else at some point seemed to have to fend for themselves.

On the other hand, conductor Thomas Guggeis operated in a completely different universe, where emotionalism seemed to be the keyword. The underlining of particular turns of phrase seemed to be more important that the structural context in which these phrases were inserted, just like one hears in a performance of, say, Tosca or Cavalleria Rusticana. If Tomáš Hanus had a less exuberant orchestra in Geneva, his superior structural vision and control of it made his a performance of almost exemplary clarity and sense of atmosphere. Mr. Guggeis’s collections of moments did not amount to a coherent whole – and his verismo-ish conducting in the hall’s acoustics made it difficult for this cast to enunciate the text with clarity and still be heard. Even Evellyn Herlitzius and Hanna Schwarz, who were basically louder than everyone else, sounded strangely dry in tone. With one exception, every other singer had some trouble at some point in terms of being heard.

So now we’re back to Asmik Grigorian in the title role. In terms of tonal quality and phraseology, this Lithuanian soprano is here aptly cast. She produces as impression of youth and femininity even in the most outspoken moments. In her high register she always managed to pierce through, but the voice seemed to stay on stage rather than irradiate in the auditorium. In the first act, she seemed rather absent-minded. At some point, Steve says Jenufa has changed, that she was not playful and happy as she used to be. And yet one couldn’t imagine something like that by watching her acting this evening. As it was, act 2 showed her at her best, naturally bright in tone, unaffected and convincing in her expression of sadness and hopelessness. 

Although Evelyn Herlitzius’s performance was not essentially different from what she did in Geneva it seemed somehow more efficient there first because the acoustics allowed more color in her voice and second because Tatiana Gürbaca did not demand from her so much fidgeting and contorting and moving about as here. And the result was ultimately more convincing. Stephan Rügamer’s tenor never was ear-friendly but it has become a bit weird in its extreme nasality. He did manage to project better than almost everyone else and was very hearable throughout. Yet one always has the impression that Mime somehow showed up in the wrong opera. In any case, he fared better than Alexey Dolgov (Steva), whose overly darkened voice lacked projection and, given a bizarre directorial choice, looked more kooky than alpha-male-ish.

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I had never heard before this evening that Anton Webern actually enjoyed it when he saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West – and one can see why in a performance such as this evening’s, where almost everyone involved has at some point been part of a production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. It is not a favorite of mine – I have listened at home to a whole recording only once in my life when I bought the Matacic CDs with Birgit Nilsson and João Gibin. To be honest, this is the second time I see it live in the theatre (although I’ve watched both the Met’s and La Scala’s DVDs with Plácido Domingo). Even if the libretto is unconvincing and the music is elusive in its only occasional use of melody, live in the theatre it grabs your attention somehow by the way the story moves forward and the score always takes unexpected turns. 

Maybe it is not a coincidence that both times I’ve attended a performance of Fanciulla there was a German orchestra on duty. This evening, a world-class one in the Staatskapelle Berlin. Conductor Massimo Zanetti seems to know how lucky he is to have deluxe forces at his disposal and gave them all the time of the world to employ their complete tonal palette. Not only because the house’s next Brünnhilde and a consummate Wotan were on stage, the performance moved almost at Wagnerian pace – densely, richly, with singers piercing through the orchestral tapestry rather than taking pride of place. 

My single Puccinian experience with Anja Kampe and Michael Volle took place with this very company when I saw them as Tosca and Scarpia. Kampe isn’t a singer one can call foolproof in terms of technique, but the resources are all there and she has a je ne sais quoi that puts you on her side. She did part of her studies in Italy and, although there is nothing Italianate in her singing., she knows the style and handles the text adeptly in Dante Alighieri’s language. As Tosca, she was quite persuasive if you overlooked the taut high register. Since then, even if the tension is still there, she has developed a new reliability with her extreme high notes, which are all of them big, firm and penetrating. And there’s a lot of truly exposed acuti in the part of Minnie. What one still misses is a sense of focus and flow in the not-só-high notes, which can soube hard-pressed and colorless. As it was, act 1 was the one which agreed the most with her voice. Her warm middle register made all the conversational passages appealing and colorful. Laggiù nel Soledad had a real sense of story telling and she could scale down to mezza voce for her scenes with and about Johnson. Second act exposed her Achilles’ heel more often than one would wish. In those moments, she could be overshadowed by the orchestra and grey in sound. All that said, she has the right personality for the role and embraced it wholeheartedly, making it far more believable than one could expect. 

I was less enthusiastic about Volle’s Scarpia back then. At some point he was overcome by fatigue and made do until the end of the opera. That is not what happened this evening. Mr. Volle retained his vocal health throughout; yet there were patches of rust here and there. And his Italian is a tad accented. The tonal quality is pleasant as always – and he can fill the hall when he needs to. At least in Berlin. He doesn’t seem very dangerous, but there is something of the small-town sheriff in him. 

Marcelo Álvarez has been singing roles too heavy for his voice for a while with variable success. I would say that Johnson/Ramerrez is probably the less suitable in the list. It is impossibly low for him – he practically spoke his low notes – and he has to brace for every dramatic outburst. Again, in terms of personality he is ideal for the part and acted convincingly. All small roles were competently handled if none of these performances stood out in any way. 

Having an American director for The Girl of the Golden West is always a good idea, and Lydia Steier did a good job in finding the right slot between authenticity and stylization. In a way it looks like what Nevada or New Mexico was in the 60’s or 70’s – and at the same time it doesn’t in its impression of a DDR TV western. There is some effort to avoid cliche – Wowkle and Billy are not native Americans but drug addicts instead who behave oddly because they’re high – and there is some kind “discussion” about violence in society on top of everything. Act 3 becomes here the cowboy version of an auto-da-fé in the old old scenic trick of having the last act set in a messy and dirty version of the sets of the opening act. In terms of Personenregie, this was truly commendable – all characters sharply defined, all singers comfortable with what they had to do and even the fight scenes realistic. 

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In the former Ittinger Carthusian monastery near Frauenfeld, there is a small festival during the Pentecost holidays with daily concerts in their small concert house, the Remise. This year’s edition is curated and led by Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout and is an all-Bach affair. 

The opening concert features the reconstructed concerto for violin and oboe (based on the harpsichord concerto) BWV 1060 plus two cantatas, all items presented in a one-voice-per-part distribution. I am not sure that the combination of the acoustics and the slim orchestral force was advantageous for the concerto, which sounded a bit cold and businesslike, in spite of all the talents involved, especially Isabelle Faust herself, who played the challenging solo violin with her usual finesse. 

On the other hand, the chamber-like proportions really suit the solo cantata BWV 199, Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut. Leading from harpsichord and the positiv, Mr. Bezuidenhout established a dramatic atmosphere from the opening bars, which Dorothee Mields relished in a very expressive account of recitatives and a truly emotionally sincere and highly communicative account of her arias. The tessitura is a bit low – and I understand why John Eliot Gardiner chose Magdalena Kozena for this item in his Bach Pilgrimage – and yet Ms. Mields did not take refuge in a “spoken” tone and met the challenge of singing her low notes with just enough color. I had seen this German soprano only once at the Tonhalle, where her singing felt a bit lost in the large venue. Here one could savor her every inflection and tonal shade. A masterly performance in every aspect, warmly accompanied by the group of highly distinguished musicians, such as Clara Blessing, Cecilia Bernardini, Donata Böcking, Kristin von der Goltz and James Munro.

The BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele is a more complicated affair. It is a very special cantata whose theme could be described as how faith in Christ saves the  sinner as much as a physician cures a sick person. The opening number has all the elements of an atmosphere of dejection, with its chromatic descending ground and repeated notes. Every statement of the chorale (carried by the soprano) is wrapped in counterpoint in the other voices, as if the message of salvation has not yet been heard. But cure is not far away – Bach’s most Rossinian duet has soprano and alto sprinting to be healed. The tenor comes for a very curious aria, a musical transfusion of Christ blood in everflowing moto continuo from the flute obligato while the singer affirms he is regaining his strength. The bass appeara in complete health to his florid aria with oboe, ready to win and triumph over sin, before the closing chorale. 

Understandably, considering the forces available, Mr. Bezuidenhout here pressed forward without looking back. If that made the orchestral parts extraordinarily clear. I am not sure that it is particular easy, especially in Bach, to have all singers equalized as you can do with a chorus, even a small one. In any case, I have never heard a more satisfying account of the duet, sprightly but not excessively jumpy, the voices of Dorothee Mields and countertenor James Hall perfectly blended. Hugo Hyman sounded to me rather a Mozart tenor, not truly crispy in the recitative, but dulcet and flexible with a pleasant touch of velvet in the aria. Drew Santini found the bass part on the low side for his voice. He does have more than enough volume and flexibility, but seemed ill at ease at times. 

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