Archive for July, 2022

Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon is a work that escapes definition – is it an Italian or a French opera? An opera or an oratorio? Is it bel canto or early Romantic opera? Is it worth the detour or not? The creation of this peculiar work explains its uniqueness – what began as an adaptation of Rossini’s own 1818 Mosè in Egitto, premiered at the Teatro San Carlo, in Naples, for the 1827 season of the Opéra de Paris ended up in an extreme make-over that turned it into a grand Opéra with two extra acts, a ballet and newly composed numbers. The transformation is more than structural; the opera seen in Naples was more eventful and turned around personal affairs with a biblical background, while the Parisian opera is mostly about the religious and political situation famously described in the Old Testament with the chorus as the most distinctive element of the score. 

It is, of course, very tricky to stage – not only because of the special effects – and director Tobias Kratzer concocted a very crafty and often clever production for the work’s premiere in Aix-en-Provence. The action is updated to our days and all historical and geographical references are deleted. The opposition between two people is the story told here – and the duality is mathematically followed during the 5 acts. First we see a place that looks like the Place des Martyres de la Résistence (i.e., the Archevêché, the venue where these performances take place). It is divided in half by an imaginary line – to the right a business office with design furniture, to the left a camp with refugees. All communication between these words is carried by computers and loudspeakers. Only Moses is seen exactly as in Cecil B. DeMille’s movie with Charlton Heston. For the festivities for Isis, the place is entirely shown as the Pharaoh’s designed offices, but the division remains. To the right we have the seating area for those who are watching the ballet on the left. The action doesn’t stop for the dance – while we’re watching Jeroen Verbruggen’s charming, athletic choreography, the “Egyptians” are reading on Twitter about what  the “Hebrews” are up to. The plagues are shown on big screens – fire, flood, hurricane, drought – it looks as if they had are watching today’s news on CNN. Now we go for the SPOILER ALERT moment – the last set shows the same scenery as if the seashore was just on the other side of the square. Apparently there is no division – we’ll only discover it when Moses and his followers get on boats facing the audience. The lights are off and then we see them crossing to the auditorium. Soloists and chorus singers sit next to us to watch a film where we see the “Egyptians” (the corporate people in suits and tailleurs) drown and sing the last chorus.

Although there are structural problems – the situation of refugees in Europe is dissimilar to that of the Hebrew slaves in pharaonic Egypt (the Egyptians don’t want them to leave in the first place…), and the updating involves lots of tiny micro-actions with extras on cell phones   to make complete sense. And there are the miracles – such as those real refugees pray for yet never happen. in actual life: The audience, however, willingly overlooked the details – the sets were classy, the costumes were convincing, even the least important extra was well directed, everyone involved seemed fully immersed in the concept and – if the “message” is unclear in the end – the enveloping stagecraft behind it was efficient and creative. So – even if the performance ended on 01:20 AM – the audience felt it was worth the detour. And here we have the answer to the question made in the first paragraph.

Mr Kratzer is not alone to blame for the philosophical void in the core of his staging. Rossini and his librettist too weren’t willing to dig much into the story. It is told in an almost matter of fact way – and the only issue seems to be “taking the right side”, something that costs dearly to Anaï, the soprano role invented in the libretto. Therefore, when she and the other refugees crossed to our side in the end, one starts to wonder what he have paid for to be in the right side, other than the expensive opera ticket, of course.

I have to stop with the habit of choosing Riccardo Muti’s recordings of less known Italian operas in order to prepare for live performances. In his video from La Scala, not only does he have deluxe forces but also and most importantly he seems to grab this score and stretch it to the ideal tension, as a violin string. It vibrates and moves forward with inevitable momentum to a monumental conclusion. The forces at conductor Michele Mariotti’s disposal are less formidable, the acoustic – if far more favorable to Rossini and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra de Lyon than to Mozart and period instruments – are still on the dry side – so it feels almost unfair to say that he doesn’t keep the ball always in the air as Muti used to do. Yet one couldn’t help notice that the opera is long and is rather repetitive at moments. At the La Scala video, the repetitions produced a cumulative effect catalyzed by a powerful group of singers. At any rate, this evening performance has a clear advantage – it felt idiomatic and in keeping with French style. 

Even in its more “intimate” proportions, this was a strong cast that – and here we can say this- added up to a whole greater than its parts.  Michele Pertusi recorded the part of Moses back in 1997 in Pesaro. Twenty five years later, no one could say he is at his prime. If he sang in very good French and with great conviction, vocally it was far from authoritative and forceful as one wishes for. In terms of acting, he was perfect for the part. In a way, his vocal seniority and experience made sense in this characterization of Moses as “someone from an old movie” – yet this music demands an important voice. And, as the title suggests, also for the character of the pharaoh. Adrian Sampetrean sang the part correctly, but the tone lacks weight and color. In comparison, Edwin Crossley-Mercer sounded more forceful as Osiride. 

The mezzo department of the case was strongly held by Vasilisa Berzhanskaya amd Géraldine Chauvet. Ms Berzhanskaya’s sang fearlessly in the role of Sinaïde, even if it lies a bit on her limits, and yet she’s the kind of singer who turn this into an advantage. Ms. Chauvet, in the less demanding part of Marie, offered the necessary warmth of tone and personality. 

I am not sure that Italian bel canto is the right repertoire for Jeanine De Bique, whose somber soprano a bit tight à la Barbara Hendricks lacks radiance. And volume. Muti had Barbara Frittoli in it, and the Festival in Pesaro invited Eleonora Buratto to sing it last year. Ms. De Bique often sounded small in it, but she made beautiful sounds throughout and sand her big aria with irresistible enthusiasm (and tackled the fioriture excitingly). 

Pene Pati ia a singer I had read about but never seen before this evening. It seems Rossini is not his usual repertoire – but French opera definitely is. He has the perfect voice and technique for it. It is a clear, light but penetrating voice with easy high notes and spontaneous mezza voce. The diction is clear, the ardor is right and the style is instinctive. And he has just enough flexibility for what Rossini demanda here. This was a very positive surprise. 


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Mozart’s Idomeneo is an opera I really appreciate. On paper. I mean, I often listen to it with great pleasure, but I cannot recall any staged performance I have truly enjoyed. And this has less to do with the quality of the singing but rather with a strange phenomenon interfering with the conducting. I don’t know what goes on in conductors’ minds, but they tend to feel that they have to save this score from God knows what. And as everyone in a mission, they tend to overdo things and cause more damage.

Raphaël Pichon is a conductor who tends to make his presence known; he wants you to hear Bach by Pichon, Handel by Pichon or Mozart by Pichon rather than Bach, Handel or Mozart and, as Isolde would say, the little word in between makes all the difference in the world. That’s not bad per se; I believe the final balance of what he adds and subtracts tends to be positive, particularly in Mozart. That said, maybe the inexperience with conducting opera live and definitely the difficult venue have a lot to do with it, but he succumbed to the creativitis that afflicts those leading a performance of Idomeneo. 

To be honest, the overall frame of what he did this evening was sound. Once you adjusted to the impossibly dry acoustics of the Archevêché – even more unforgiving with period instruments – the results were clear, well-balanced and purposeful. The problem lied rather in the many tiny, apparently brilliant little ideas. First, the unwritten pauses. Opere serie are just like big trucks full of cargo – they are long, heavy, hard to brake and it will take a while before you regain momentum. So once you set them in motion, for God’s sake, let them move. Especially in a theatre where you won’t hear any nuance in the orchestral playing. Then there is the problem of the falsely expressive lower tempo (as in Placido è il mare). Yes, in any normal theatre you could sell the concept on beauty of sound – even if Mozart is showing you that his idea is the opposite of that – but not in a place where the orchestral sound NEVER, EVER blossoms. There were also the grotesque cadenze – Idamante sang almost a whole new a capella item before the end of Non ho colpa – and the one in Fuor del mar sounded as if Charles Ives had written it. Do I really need to say that there was an omnipresent, overcreative fortepiano? I can’t say that any of those genius strokes added any spark in drama.  For instance, this evening’s was the less gripping O voto tremendo I have probably ever heard. The Pygmalion chorus, unfortunately, for all its clarity and balance, has not yet learned to generate excitement in theatrical terms.

Then there was the edition. The excision of recitative was so close to butchering that it was basically impossible to follow the story. And I don’t mean only the secchi ones, but also the accompagnati fell victim to the red pencil. Elettra got all her arias (even if Idol mio’s accompaniment was reduced to chamber music proportions – another masterpiece of overinventiveness), Arbace got to sing Se colà, Idamante lost No, la morte (but received instead a reworking of the tenor Idamante duet with Ilia) and Idomeneo sang the florid version of his big aria yet lost Torna la pace. The closing scene involved a snippet of the dance music. 

It is hard to say who had a negative influence on whom, but Mr. Pichon’s whimsical conducting and Satoshi Miyage’s staging was some sort of marriage made in hell. They pressed all the wrong buttons on each other, but I wouldn’t go as far as demonizing (or booing, as many in the theatre did) this production. To start with, it’s wrong for the venue. It ideally requires a theatre with more technical possibilities, a really dark rather than open air auditorium and definitely not a festival audience. Japanese theatre is sui generis by definition. Not only is it immersed in ritual – with all the implications this has in tempo – but most importantly, as everything in Japanese art, it is self-referent. Many an inexpert member of the audience would tell you nothing happened, but actually there were many items there that meant a lot – all of that probably lost maybe in a failed attempt to make it relatable to Western audiences and also by these singers’ insufficient acquaintance with the style. More than that – the very interesting reference to post WW2 Japanese history is not so obvious, such as the famous broadcast of the recorded speech by the Emperor –  an event that seemed more unreal than a sea monster or the voice of Neptune to Japanese people those days, also one that revealed an unexpected twist of fate – a deus ex machina, as Mr Miyage explains in his interview. All that said, almost everyone there would describe the show as almost static singers on top of individual floats and a chorus dancing like robots amid fuzzy screens (faintly reminiscent of artist Chiharu Shiota’s work). 

The raison d’être of these performances was arguably Michael Spyres in the title role. If you overlook the matte quality of passaggio notes (yes, he is still in the darkened tone week), it was a performance ideal in flexibility, clarity and variety. It was also a bit uninvolved – and I bet it would be more spontaneously expressive if he sang it in his own voice (just like he did in Handel’s Theodora in Milan). But this is a very small “but” – almost nobody these days can sing the role as efficiently as he does. 

My nine or ten readers might be wondering if I adopt unrealistic standards for Mozartian singing. Well, Sabine Devieilhe’s Ilia was very much ideal. I have always found her recording of the replacement aria Alcandro, lo confesso… Non so donde viene (with Pygmalion and Mr. Pichon) exquisite – and her singing this evening left nothing to be desired. There was no difference between technique and expression in her performance, every note and every phrase lovingly sung. Beautiful. Anna Stéphany was the Idamante originally announced – and I am glad to have found Anna Bonitatibus instead in the cast list. The part is a tad high for her – and when the tessitura requires too much of her upper register, there is a persistent tremolo, a loss in color and sometimes she is below true pitch. That said, she is a stylish Mozartian, the basic tonal quality is appealing and her clear diction in her native language is always an asset. 

There was a second piece of cast change in this performance. Replacing Siobhan Stagg, Nicole Chevalier, who appeared in Salzburg’s last Idomeneo, sang the role of Elettra. Hers is not the most distinctive soprano in the market and this role lies a bit on her limits, yet I found her more satisfying with Theodor Currentzis back in the Felsenreitschule. This evening, there was a prevailing instability and an overfondness of crooning. Last but not leasr, Kresimir Spicer was a firm-toned and urgent gran sacerdote. 

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I once had a boss who did not really like opera, but made an exception for one item in the repertoire: Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. According to him, the intelligent and entertaining libretto could be used for a movie almost as it is and yet  for once music and text are so intrinsically woven that you can’t imagine one without the other. I would add “AND staging”. I confess I have first discovered the work audio only (in Harnoncourt’s recording with Helen Donath and Elisabeth Söderström) and didn’t find it so compelling as when I first saw it staged. 

It is also a work that directors love to stage. Conductor Leonardo García Alarcón tells us that Patrice Chéreau was willing to direct it in Aix, a project that never came to life – and one can only wonder how it would have been. Director Ted Huffman is not a theatre genius as Chéreau was – what we saw today looks like a remix of many ideas en vogue in the theatrical scene in the 2000’s and 2010’s. Empty stage, all actors permanently on, watching the action, getting on costume in front of the audience and handling props and other scenic elements themselves, costumes you could buy at Comme des Garçons, you name it, it was all there. Yet it worked – and the level of acting was superlative overall. 

Mr García does not agree that the score of L’Incoronazione is “incomplete”; Monteverdi wrote there everything a conductor needs to build a performance, very much like a pop musician has it when he buys an album with the vocal line and chords. As almost everyone else, his starting point is the Venice score, but what he does is really remarkable in the sense that – in the intimate acoustics of the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume – his small ensemble (basically a deluxe continuo group) sounds so full, warm and rich. Truly, one hardly had the impression of “chamber music, such as when one hears one of Handel’s “secondary” arias in most performances these days. The one moment when I felt a bit more would have added some flavor was the final duet, but then I realized it was on purpose. The accompaniment was gradually reduced as if to show us that the opera – or maybe the “good” part of Poppea’s and Nero’s relationship (he would trample her to death when she was pregnant after all…) – was over.

Last time I saw L’Incoronazione, Julie Fuchs sang the title role, and she was so perfect in it that I took a while to adjust to Jacquelyn Stucker’s performance this afternoon. While Ms. Fuchs was everything Nero claims to see, Ms. Stucker chose something more intriguing and ultimately more challenging. Hers was a Poppea from Poppea’s point of view. The voice is not immediately beautiful – it’s slightly astringent and quite big for the role. It has a floaty, almost smoky quality that doesn’t pierce into the auditorium but naturally fills a small theatre like the Jeu de Paume. Her Italian is not 100% crisp, but the tone coloring is very efficient. This Poppea is a player – you know she is just manipulating you but you can’t resist it anyway. And the sound is seductive in a totally non-sweet way. In other words, sexy. 

The part of Nero is always very high for a countertenor, and yet Jake Arditti (at this point a specialist in Nero roles, if we remember the video of Handel’s Agrippina with Patricia Bardon from Vienna) fares better than most. The extreme high notes are predictably tense and the middle tends to the colorless, yet he got to the end of the opera still in fresh voice. I understand that a male singer is preferable in scenic terms, but I would like to see a female singer as Nero for a change just to hear someone really comfortable with the writing. In the more realistic part of Ottone, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian offered a richer sound and tasteful coloratura. I had seen him previously in Handel’s Theodora and I must say that the Italian language suits him better. French singers are often accused of rounding off the sharp angles of the Italian language, and I have to say: not this afternoon. Fleur Barron, a singer new to me, offered a forceful, wide-ranging account of the part of Ottavia. Here is a voice with many colors, expertly used to embody the text. A very commendable performance. I am curious to hear more from her. The part of Seneca was also very well cast with Alex Rosen, a naturally dark voice forwardly produced, flexible and crystal-clear in diction. 

There is no small role in this opera – and there was no weak-link here. Julie Roset’s bright soprano and charismatic persona made her a compelling Amor and valetto, in spite of a slight American accent, Miles Mykkanen was ideally cast as Arnalta and Maya Kherani was a fleece-toned Drusilla and Fortuna.

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The instant success of Salome was something of a curse in disguise for Richard Strauss. On one hand, it made him a celebrity and earned him a considerable amount of money. On the other hand, it was so widely performed that he has plenty of opportunity to witness how singers, conductors and stage directors increasingly misunderstood it and perverted it. He often complained of stagings around the idea of Salome as a man-eater and insisted on an impression of innocence. He himself would gradually realize that he was a bit to blame – the score features a formidable orchestration that requires a Wagnerian soprano and all the heavy-handedness there involved, including in what requires the characterization. This is when he started to dream of a voice like Elisabeth Schumann’s in the role. Then he realized that a lighter orchestra was feasible. Although he never convinced Schumann to sing the role, he seized the opportunity to test the theory in 1930, when the Semperoper chose the rather Mozartian soprano Maria Rajdl to sing the title role. 

In other to accommodate her more delicate instrument, the composer got hold of the printed score and with a green pencil started to snip and cut. Not the vocal part – which remained exactly as originally written – but bits of the orchestra in the more testing passages for the soprano. Basically, he tried to make the texture a bit lighter by cutting doublings (i.e., repeated parts that were there to add “substance”) and a little bit more in what involved brass instruments (that not only are louder but make the strings play a little bit louder too in order to keep balance). Strauss was so happy with the results – and with Ms. Rajdl’s performance – that he insisted it was the most sensible idea and even tried to get it published. This edition was nicknamed the “Dresden Retouchen” and has mostly fallen in oblivion since Strauss’s death. 

The creative team behind the performances of Salome this year in Aix-en-Provence, however, has decided it deserved a test drive. Director Andrea Breth is einverstanden with the composer – she dislikes vamp-ish Salomes and thinks that youth and inexperience are very much in the core of a performance of the character. And the Dresden Retouchen offered her what she needed – a soprano with the physique and the voix du rôle. As we can see in the cast list, this is mostly a group of artists with whom Ms. Breth is used to work with – and conductor Ingo Metzmacher was there to make it possible. 

Mr. Metzmacher is not the name I think of when a light touch is required, but here he did his best to Karajanize the proceedings in order to make it possible for a lyric soprano to tackle the role of Salome. More than that – the conductor rebalanced his approach to the score as a whole to match the lighter sound of the retouched passages. In an interview, he even said he was glad to have the Orchestre de Paris instead of a German orchestra on duty, for French formations are readier to produce lighter sounds (in keeping with their national repertoire). The one-million-dollar question, of course, is : did ir work? 

I would say – yes, mostly. It is hard to say if an innocent listener would notice that this was not the original edition. I would bet he would at least say “the orchestra sounded undernourished in the climactic moments”. Yes – the most immediate effect of the Retouchen is the Ariadnizing of the big Salome scenes. You hear all the woodwind and the harps and three ants crossing a leaf outside in the garden. The advantage for the singer is obvious – it doesn’t make the role easier at all, it only makes the audience HEAR what ahe is doing. Obviously, there is a price in terms of impact. When Salome goes for Allein, was tut’s?, you don’t feel any overwhelming unleashing of basic and/or base instincts on stage. And yet Strauss was right – it does sound more touching. Mr. Metzmacher got all that rightly – the problem was the transition to the punchy moments. Sometime they hanged a bit fire, sometime they felt a bit awkward, the strings lacked the last ounce of refulgence and the French horns had their squawky moments. I hate to say that, ideally, a Vienna Philharmonic was needed – but well… Anyway, I don’t want to give a false impression. It was a very enjoyable performance – and well cast. 

I have written that Elsa Dreisig’s soprano has a splash of Gundula Janowitz, yet I have never heard it so clearly as this evening. As much as Janowitz, Ms. Dreisig sounds at her best when she is giving her 100%. Her tubular soprano is even more sharply focused when hard-pressed and pierces well the orchestra without excessive strain. If some would like a little bit more roundness in her high notes, her middle and low registers are an example for any soprano in her Fach; homogeneous, well-connected and always forward. Even with little leeway, she was able to produce some tonal variety (including beautiful pianissimo) and, when she couldn’t, her word pointing was good enough. I have the impression that Strauss himself would approve of Ms. Dreisig’s singing – she sang with Mozartian poise (more than when she actually sang Mozart some months ago in Berlin) and with a child-like lack of affectation that made the final scene quite chilling. While I don’t think she would really manage the original score with, say, the Berlin Philharmonic and a conductor like Christian Thielemann (I really hope she won’t try anything like that), I wonder if Eva wouldn’t be a wise choice. Maybe in a while an Elisabeth or even an Arabella. Who knows? 

Her Jochanaan, Gábor Bret’s, was also light in volume, but full toned and really effective in his high notes, all of them finely focused. He managed to make – both by the velvet in the voice and the svelter-than-Wagnerian physique –  the audience see why Salome was attracted to him in the first place. As this production eschewed the idea of him singing off-stage, we saw (a bit early in the story) only his head on a silver tray during the scenes with Herod and his guests. I have the impression that this prevented the complete resonance of his voice to travel into the auditorium.

John Daszak too is a bit on the light side for the role of Herod – his is hardly a Karl Burian voice but rather a Charaktertenor with an almost spoken middle register and loud metallic high notes. I don’t know if his reserve is the result of directorial choices or if he didn’t find his way into the role. As it was, he was overshadowed by the intensely charismatic Angela Denoke as Herodias. There isn’t much left in terms of voice, and yet she makes whatever she’s still got work. Joel Prieto’s tenor was also one size smaller than the role of Narraboth, his high notes a bit bottled-up. 

In her interview. Andrea Breth says she was always annoyed by the single set in Oscar Wilde’s play, because it never provides everything each scene needs. I had never thought of it, but now I see she has a point. I don’t know if her staging actually provided what each scene needs – and in a coherent way – but the idea in itself is undeniably effective. The basic set – a dark rocky landscape with light oozing from its cracks – was effective enough. The transitions to the more intimate sets proved, however, to be a bit awkward – one of them required an intervention in Strauss’s score to make tine for the set change. I don’t think that the Balthusian take on the last supper for Herod’s party added anything to Oscar Wilde’s Salome. I found it rather distracting. The bathroom for the closing scene is a good idea – the flute effects always make me think of fluorescent lamps – but I find it jarred with the whole visual concept of the staging. What I truly dislike is the idea of having everybody moving in dance-like steps (except, of course, in the dance of the seven veils…). With the exception of Ms. Denoke, everyone else in the case felt a bit self-conscious and self-absorbed. 

In terms of Personenregie, Ms. Breth was true to her word – here no character ran on cliché. Salome doesn’t seem to know herself what is going on with her, I would dare to say neither does Jochanaan. The fact that Herod is not as lecherous as usual makes indeed him more interesting – and even a womanly rather than skanky Herodias adds some complexity to the story. I just don’t think that the director’s idea that the end of the opera means the end of that world is well conveyed. As shown here, it just looked as if she has lost the interest in the other characters. 

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There are very few stones unturned by Beaumarchais in Le Mariage de Figaro. It is pretty much a summary of everything who was going wrong in one’s personal life in the pre-revolutionary French society. We’ve seen stagings that turned around social inequality or gender inequality or marital problems or power balance, you name it. Almost every production avoid the central theme of the play, though, which is the droit du seigneur. Yes, it is pretty much an obsolete thing, and most members of the audience don’t even know it existed. Maybe not in the 1960’s if one saw the movie with Charlton Heston. Anyway, if you want to update the plot, then this is definitely something that doesn’t fit in the context and we basically accept the fact that the Count Almaviva behaves like that because he is a bad guy. Well, Jan Philipp Gloger begs to differ. His new production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is about the droit du seigneur – and he successfully proves it is not an old thing at all. Some men think that they are entitled to have everything – sex included – because they are rich and powerful. Then there was MeToo – and suddenly it was impossible to openly exert something that these people believe to be a prerogative. And you’ve seen companies publicly condemning sexual harassment etc – but these guys, are much as the Count Almaviva, still are who they’ve always been. It’s not that that they feel bad or that they feel in the bottom of their hearts that they have behaved wrongly. From their point of view, THEY are the victims. And that’s the story of Le Nozze di Figaro. Even though Susanna is not willing to “comply”, she was born in this world and she can forgive this behaviour too easily, as long as it does not affect her. She feels sorry for the Count when she lies about submitting to his insistence – and she finds it even charming when Cherubino behaves inappropriately.

That’s the idea behind the production. The fact that it is “successful” has less to do with it than with the fact that you don’t need to read the libretto to see this. It is all there on stage. Mr. Gloger knows how to direct singers, knows how to infuse the action with his concept without making violence to it or superimposing the approach over the needs of the storytelling. We could feel that the audience was really following what was going on. There was an “ah!” in the auditorium now and then. Also, the staging itself is clever – act 1 takes place in the basement of this big house (an official residence?) and we go one floor higher until we finally reach the attic in act 4. In a certain way, it is central to this staging – as it is to the play – that we feel that Susanna and Figaro are being lifted from their low standing in society during the play. Figaro discovers he is the son of a gentleman, and Susanna even gets to pose as the lady of the house. All sets and costumes are realistic and visually catching – but act 4 (as usual) is where things go a bit astray. The attic is too small to start with – and the action is contrived. As it is the “boring” act – Mr. Gloger tried too hard to make it a little bit more entertaining. There are lots of silly gags, characters start to behave nonsensically and a bit of their relatability is lost in the process.

Conductor Stefano Montanari seems to be in the same wavelength of the stage director – he clearly doesn’t want us to think of this score as something from the 18th century. Everything is fast, formidable, a bit rough-edged (and we have natural brass instruments to add an extra serving of roughness). The balance between orchestra and singers is ideal – we could hear the way instruments and voices responded to each other and everything seemed imbibed in the dramatic situation at hand. There is a downside to this proactive approach – at many moments, one couldn’t help thinking that the conductor was really trying too hard. Sometimes, the excitement came at the expense of articulation. There were moments when the interpretative touch was a bit Harnoncourtian (in the bad sense of the word), especially in the finale ultimo when the Countess reveals herself. And, God, I really felt like throwing my program at the fortepiano. I took a while to adjust for the manic continuo during the recitatives. At first, my sensation was “I would rather hear the nuances in the dialogues…”, but then it settled in “it must be refreshing for those not used to secco recitatives to hear so much activity going on in the pit”. But its disfiguring interference in the numbers was testing. It ruined the absolutely important dance rhythm in Deh vieni, non tardar, and transformed Dove sono in a very cheesy thing. At any rate, this did not spoil the fun to me as much as the fact that Mr. Montanari is not the kind of conductor who cares to balance singers’ voices in ensembles. In Riconosci in questo amplesso, for instance, Don Curzio presided over the ensemble. In the finale to act 2, some of the ping-pong between both sopranos was left to imagination. Some key phrases not echoed by any other singer were basically lost because the singer in charge of it decided to sing it too softly. And there were random cuts in the recitatives. For example, I have no idea why Susanna was denied Venga poi lo smargiasso, io qui l’aspetto before she goes into the closet and waits for the Almavivas to arrive.

Anita Hartig offered a schyzophrenic performance as the Countess Almaviva. She sang her arias very poorly, only occasionally hitting the right pitch and producing strained high notes. Everywhere else, she offered a commendable performance. The tone was basically instrumental, the phrasing in keeping with Mozartian style, clear in diction, even the acuti in the trio with the Countess and Susanna firm and right in the mark. She was very charming in the duettino with Susanna, disguised her voice well in the last act. Her Susanna, Louise Alder, is a terrific actress, who really inhabited the central slot in the action Beaumarchais reserved her. Vocally, it was slightly less impressive. She has a beautiful voice, but a funny habit of producing it in a pop-like style that stands between her and projection, especially in the middle and lower areas of her voice. That was particularly problematic in her act 4 aria, where the decoration was also a bit overadventurous. When I first heard the Barbarina, Ziyi Dai, respond in bright, forward tone to Susanna in the scene in which Cherubino is dressed up as a girl, it felt like wearing glasses when you have myopia. One could say Lea Desandre stole the show in the latter role. I confess I had never found her much of an actress, but here she was more than perfect. The way she moved, her facial expressions, the comedy timing, the physique du rôle, she left nothing to be desired. She also has an ideal voice for the part – homogeneous, pearly, easy in both ends. She also know the style and made a lot of the text. I only have to mention that she was quite short-breathed this evening, chopping her phrases as no other singer more than one is used to hear..

Daniel Okulitch’s velvety bass-baritone matches the idea of a Count who – from his perspective – is not being a bad guy. His singing was all suaveness – he even managed the melisme in the end of his aria really smoothly. Only his high register is basically matte, often disappearing in ensembles. The Figaro, Morgan Pearse, too suffered from discoloration in his high notes. As the rest of his voice is alright focused, the effect is a bit disconcerting. He has a likeable personality – and that offsets a bit the indistinctive tonal quality – but his Italian could be 5% more crispy. Among the small roles, it was endearing to find Malin Hartelius as Marcellina. I am not sure if it was a wise idea to tackle such a difficult aria at this point of her career, when one has in mind she would have done it without flinching back in the day.

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The original four or five readers of this blog may remember that Verdi’s Falstaff was an opera I took a while to appreciate. I have been lucky to have seen exceptional performances that taught me that, in optimal conditions, this is a unique operatic experience, both in terms of theatre and music – the emphasis on “optimal”. This evening I was reminded of why it wasn’t love at first sight – and this doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good performance. It was above the standards of Italian opera these days, but optimal it wasn’t. Relieved from the pressure of proving he belongs to the repertoire – as in his recent Wagner performances – Gianandrea Noseda is here in his element. And I write this not as an entirely positive thing. I mean, I wished we had 75% of the clarity and precision he bothered to extract from his musicians in, say, Das Rheingold. Here the orchestra was alright big and rich – singers had to work really hard this evening – but it seems that the conductor’s view of this work is that it is something robust and brash. The sound was full, the accents were bold, phrasing was a bit driven, it felt almost tense. Is that a problem per se? Not at all, it’s a Falstaff-ian view of the score at any rate. That said, if the approach tampers with what Verdi is telling – and what he is telling is in the orchestra filigree – than it’s just the stained xerox copy of the score. With a dense contribution from the pit, all the burden of story telling was carried by the cast. And for this kind of performance, we needed a different cast.

The first time I’ve seen Irina Lungu, she was singing Nanetta in the La Scala tour to Japan under Daniel Harding. I wrote back then that the voice was smoky but the mezza voce was apt. Now Ms. Lungu appears rather in prima donna roles, such as Alice. The voice is even grainier now, but it is firm and flexible. Nobody can says she is not a competent singer in the sense that everything she sings sounds like music. The problem is that one cannot understand a word. I cannot really see the point of having someone sing a text adapted from a comedy by William Shakespeare if the text is not really there. I mean, I saw Anna Caterina Antonacci sing it – and I swear it was something of an entirely different level. Sandra Hamaoui is far better cast as Nanetta than as Gilda earlier in the season. It is the right voice for the part, floating and velvety, and she finds no problem with high pianissimo. The middle register lacks focus and she still tends to place full stops in the end of each phrase rather than keeping the ball in the air until the end of the page. But that’s just a small “but” – her singing here was charming enough and she acts well and has the physique du rôle. The single Italian person in the cast, Marianna Pizzolato, a singer whose performance as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri at the Met I really enjoyed, could have added some authenticity to the proceedings, but the truth is that her voice is a bit light and high for the part – and she ended up eclipsed by the orchestra too often. At any rate, she did sing well and has a congenial personality and acted with naturalness too. This evening’s Meg was Niamh O’Sullivan – and I want to hear more from her. The part is not rather on the ingrate sound, but what I could hear was fruity, warm and appealing.

The first Sir John Falstaff I have ever seen live was Bryn Terfel at the Met back in 2005. I can’t say I have a good memory of that – he was in extremely rough voice and went completely hoarse in the last act. Moreover, his whole performance was mannered. Seventeen years later, one cannot say that he is still in his prime. The voice still retains the characteristic tone and is big enough and sometimes even impressively so. Now he cheats a lot – and yet he still had a voice in the end of the opera. In terms of interpretation, what he offers now is more convincing and more coherent. In terms of acting, it was even subtle. He could make the audience laugh by the way he moved a finger. His whole stage attitude is now almost ideal to the part. We almost feel that this Falstaff knows from the start that he just wants someone to tell him to retire. If Mr. Terfel could deliver the text in spontaneous Italian, it would have been really commendable. As it is, there is the hint of an accent and the lack of flow of Italian language as produced by a native speaker. Mr and Mrs Ford here have a lot in common – Konstantin Shushakov’s baritone is basically grainy too and he too sang “well”. The voice is consistent in color, even under pressure. It sounds a bit darkened, what makes it limited in projection. Although his Italian is correctly pronounced, it is not truly crispy, and he makes nothing of the text. This may sounds grumpy – but this is Italian comedy and it is vital, it is compulsory to handle the text expertly. This is what Italian theatre is about. When I think of, say, the last production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri here in Zurich, I remember Cecilia Bartoli and Nicola Alaimo making the whole house laugh with the way they held one syllable or rolled an “r” or stressed a double t. And that is what we REALLY need here too. Last but not least, Cyrille Dubois was a very light-toned Fenton, and one you gladly leaned forward to hear His voice is dulcet, and he sings with refinement and absolute love for the music.

I notice now I have written nothing about the production. So here we go: Premièred in 2011, Sven-Eric Bechtoff’s production (in his usual collaboration with Rolf and Marianne Glittenberg) is purely decorative. The action is updated to some point between the 50’s and the 60’s, and yet it is intentionally anachronistic (Falstaff wears period costumes, for instance), everything is blueish and there are little choreographies in ensembles. The sets are vacuously elegant in a way that has “limited budget” written all over it (I mean, that has to be the reason). As far as I understand, Mr. Bechtoff was not here to direct the revival; so kudos to the Spielleiter: the cast acted and interacted well and everybody looked to be having fun.

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This season’s performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Opernhaus Zürich carry a double burden. On watching it, the audience is not only appreciating the quality of this revival of a 2008 production, but probably also trying to use it as a test drive for a far more ambitious ride – the three remaining premières of the new Ring Cycle. Here we have the house’s future Brünnhilde, the conductor behind both projects – and also the underlying idea that Zurich was the setting of the creation of both works.

Although this Tristan is a production by Claus Guth and the Ring is being directed by Andreas Homoki, they look separated at birth. Judging from The Rhinegold, the sets are extremely similar, to start with. Mr. Guth was a little bit more literal with the Zurich connection, what is understandable if we have in mind that the whole affair involving the Wagners and the Wesendoncks are written in the DNA of this score and this libretto. That said, I wonder if Richard Wagner himself would consider that the biographic details and the story of Tristan and Isolde – rather than the feelings and world-perspective behind them – are so intimately connected. At any rate, the concept itself is valid. As often with Mr. Guth, the problem is rather the way it goes awry at some point. So here we have a house that could be the Villa Wesendonck (today the Museum Rietberg), where its rich owners are facing a serious crises – the wife and the husband are, each in their own way, attached to the very same person in their household. There is no ship here, no tower, no hunting party, no war – here we have the same good old story of the perils of misbehaviour in good society. Love is wonderful, but money is wonderful too. So we have two Isoldes – the Isolde/Isolde (the one who gets to sing the Liebestod) and the Brangäne/Isolde. Isolde/Isolde is dying to dissolve in the wehende All among waves of soft air, and billows of wondrous fragrance, while Brangäne/Isolde is very much happy with her own comfortable corner of the world. We don’t need any sea to show how unstable the circumstances are – we have the greenhouse of Mathilde’s Wesendonck’s poem to show us how Isolde/Isolde feels a stranger in paradise. We don’t need the hunting party, for a cocktail party can be as tricky and dangerous for those who are ready to transgress under the eyes of the gentry etc etc. To my sensibility, this approach reduces the whole problem of Tristan and Isolda to the emptiness of bourgeois life. And I don’t think that this is what Wagner was talking about. At all. But anyway – the problem dwells rather in the fact that act 3 goes totally off script in the industry’s oldest trick: the decayed version of the sets of act 1 (which is nonsensical in the context of a concept that establishes that everything happens in the interior, the intimacy of this rich house, where there is no physical decay). In the end, Isolde/Brangäne lets her fantasy die in a glorious Romantic way and takes the hand of her husband/King Marke to go back to the cocktail parties and fancy dresses. Yes, maybe the decayed set is the way her fantasy shows it – but that should have been made a little bit more clearly. Just to make sure we’ve got it.

And there’s still the problem of reviving a very old production – most of the newcomers (the Tristan, especially) seemed not to understand why exactly they were doing what they were doing – and a lot of what they do here looks a bit pointless. I took almost the whole third act to understand if Tristan was actually dying in this evening. The guy looked perfectly healthy and moved about as if he were ready for new adventures – until he started to scratch his chest trying to soak his hand in stage blood. That was my “ah…”-moment.

The musical side of this performance casts a worrisome shadow on the next instalments of the Ring. I have written here how positively surprised I was about Gianandrea Noseda’s Rhinegold. Its almost-Verdian approach made it sound genial, transparent and animated. Although I would still praise the orchestral playing this evening – far above the usual level of the house – I can’t say that this approach works for Wagner’s more, how should I put it?, “grandly Romantic”? “profounder and more philosophical”? works. I know I that I myself use to say that a brighter, slimmer orchestral sound does wonder in terms of clarity, but – maybe I have been brainwashed by Barenboim and by Thielemann – Tristan needs a deeper sound. Richer low strings in any case. And this score demands more time to produce its effect. The overture has many suspension points – the way Wagner concocted its harmonic development is meant for the audience to imagine what’s going next only to be surprised by what actually comes next. And here what comes next came really right away. When I started to think about it, the prelude was just over. And not in an exciting, Welser-Möst-ish way, it went fast in a very regular beat to its conclusion. And the sense of a suffocating crescendo was not achieved at all, I’m afraid. You can imagine how the Liebesnacht felt in this “ok – next”-approach. Throughout the opera, one could hardly feel a sense of strong, tightly-knit structure hanging all musical elements together. And that’s bizarre for Tristan. This is the most perfect example of coherent development in large scale in the late Romantic repertoire. And just keeping a tempo and making it transparent, unfortunately, doesn’t do the trick here. You really, I mean REALLY, need the “big arch” here – and paradoxically, this only comes with a flexible beat to make all these motives and variations musical be perceived by the audience as musical ideas. More than that, for the atmosphere to be established. In Tristan, the atmosphere and the structure are the same thing. When you are immersed in this atmosphere, then you just read the structure like the green numbers in the matrix. It comes to life – and it makes sense.

I actually had a ticket for the performance last Saturday, but Camilla Nylund – here singing her first complete Isolde – felt ill and was replaced by Martina Serafin. As I made a point of sampling how she might sound in Die Walküre in a couple of months, I’ve decided to wait and bought myself a ticket for this Wednesday. Ms. Nylund is a very solid singer – and she was probably the most trouble-free Isolde I have ever seen in the theatre. In the end, she sounded as if she could sing the whole thing again right away. But that’s just part of the story. Seeing her in a role like this makes me think that she is still essentially a lyric soprano. A big-voiced one, no doubt about that. And definitely a SOPRANO. The highlights of her performance this evening were high notes, high-lying passages. All of them full, big, round, healthy, pleasant on the ear, alright climactic. The middle register, however, tended to the matte and was not always easy to hear. I don’t think it would be wise for her to sing this role in a big house. In purely musical terms, she sang with a flowing line, absolute consistency of tonal quality and an all-purpose sensuousness. What I missed was textual crispness. The tonal consistency meant that there was very little variety going on – we got a deluxe, double-cream one colour throughout. And without an extra dose of verbal pointing, things could be a bit on the bland sound. I have no idea of what she thinks about the role – like when we do when we listen to, say, Nilsson or Meier or Dernesch or Varnay. Maybe this will come with experience. That’s what happened to Stemme, for instance.

Her Tristan, Michael Weinius offered an even more puzzling performance. A former baritone, Mr. Weinius seems to sing with two different voices. There is this “lyric tenor” voice – nasal, a bit reedy and a bit vibrant – which he makes a point of using in the first octave and on to the passaggio. And there’s this Heldentenor voice – which sounds full-bodied and is very big but a tad taut. Both voices are pleasant in sound. The problem is when he tries to shift mid-phrase. When he is in his Mozart voice he goes to a high f without much ado. If he has to sound loud in it, the sound tends to be really open. When he tries to top a Mozart-voice phrase with a beefy Heldentenor note – then focus is gone and one can hardly hear him at all. His Wagner voice works really fine if he starts in the first octave and jumps across the passaggio or if he just hits a note above the passaggio. Then it’s exciting – and he has stamina. Musically, it’s a bit all over the place. Breathing pauses happen when they have to happen, wrong syllables are stressed if he is in the end of his comfort zone, note values and pitch often get the cavalier treatment, phrasing can be a bit one-note-after-the-other and some passages sound a bit like Sprechgesang. This is only the second time I hear Mr. Weinius – the other time it was Erik in a Flying Dutchman in Paris and he sounded as if he were seriously ill. So maybe he is just inconsistent – or he is still finding his footing in this heavy (and very difficult) repertoire.

Michelle Breedt, a very experienced Brangäne, now sounds just like someone who had sang the role of Brangäne for many, many and many ears. The middle register is now unreliable, she chopped phrase generously and every excursion to high notes made us go to the edge of our seats for the wrong reasons. At some point in act 2, she seemed to reach true performance-level and offered an ok-ish contribution to the Liebesnacht. There was evidently something funny going on with our Kurwenal, Martin Gantner. He sounded almost like a Bach-tenor. The mystery was explained just before act 3 – he was supposed to have a cold, but it was more than this. He was completely hoarse in the end of act one. Phone calls were made all over Switzerland, Germany and Austria, but everybody is in Bayreuth right now. Problem: no baritone to sing the end of the opera. A very courageous man called Michael Richter, the house’s Head of Musical Staff, volunteered to voice the part with a microphone on the side, while Gantner would act. Mr. Richter is not a singer and definitely not a baritone – and the fact that he did it at all is an inspiration to all of us. Even if Franz-Josef Selig is past his prime – the voice now lacks firmness to start with – it is still a beautiful, big sound and he knows the part from inside out. His scene was probably the one point of the whole evening when one could say things “sounded just right”.

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