Archive for August, 2022

I took a while to discover that there would be a performance of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in this year’s festival in Luzern, because it was labelled in the program “Cecilia Bartoli’s concert”. Then I discovered that the whole enterprise was devised by La Bartoli herself as director of the Whitsun Festival in Salzburg, where it was first presented last year. I can understand why she decided that it deserved a European tour – the audience was so excited about it that they could have watched it all over again as an encore. Me included. La Clemenza di Tito is one of favorite operas, and it saddens me when it is called boring or dull…. or una porcheria tedesca! And the fact that this evening it was heard at its most exciting is what made this concert special.

Conductor Gianluca Capuano did not go for the marmoreal approach usually reserved to opera seria – and rightly so. Mozart himself did not consider La Clemenza di Tito an echt opera seria, but rather as an adaptation of an old libretto and an old genre to his own standards from the point of view of someone who could feel that the tenets of classical style would not last long. This evening, nothing felt solemn and formulaic. The expression of emotions seemed to be the driving force of this performance – it determined the accents, the orchestral color, phrasing, the tempo… and most importantly the tempo shifts. This also means that this was a performance where the text had pride of place. You could understand all the musical choices made here if you followed the libretto. More than that, the drama. Although it was a concert performance, you didn’t really need costumes and sets. There was not an attempt to make it semi-staged – for instance, the rest of the cast would exit for a colleague to sing his or her aria alone. What I mean is that recitatives were crisply and purposefully delivered, with vivid interaction from all involved, and no number was sung bureaucratically.

The ouverture itself was delivered with the turbo button pressed on, and at first the Musiciens du Prince seemed a bit rough in the edges, but that was just an impression. Violins tackled their passagework with exhilarating precision, the double-bass boomed in the hall, all the famous woodwind solos were delivered with imagination. The chorus, Il canto di Orfeo, too deserves praise for a performance at once stylish and attuned to the needs of drama (what is not always obvious in the context of historically informed performances). Both finali hit home powerfully – especially the first one, the dark sonorities of which perfectly rendered by these musicians.

I had read that the Salzburg performances puzzlingly featured Anna Prohaska in the role of Vitellia, and I was intrigued by what I was going to hear this evening. That was not to be, for she had to cancel for health issues. We were informed that, while the Festival was sorry to learn about her indisposition, they were also happy to tell us that they were lucky to have found in the last minute a worthy substitute in Malin Hartelius. For a while, Ms. Hartelius was the Mozart soprano of choice in European opera houses, most especially the Opernhaus Zürich, where she recorded her Pamina, Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira, Fiordiligi, Konstanze and Servilia. I wasn’t aware she had actually sung the role of Vitellia before; hers is not a voice one would immediately think of for the part, but she has indeed sung it, at least in London with Alice Coote and Rosa Feola under the baton of Louis Langrée ten years ago. I myself heard her as Elisa in Mozart’s Il Re Pastore a while ago and then a couple of months ago in some sort of veteran’s cameo in Zurich as Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro. I was truly wowed by what she did – without much preparation – today. Vitellia is a famously unsingable role, and Ms. Hartelius is, yes, past her prime, her high register now a bit piercing and hard, and yet she almost stole the show. If in the past her voice was almost too sweet for the role, now she has the edge it requires. The coloratura is superior to almost everyone I’ve seen in it (in their primes or not), she went for the high d in the act 1 trio, the low register was natural and well-connected, the phrasing was stylish. Some high notes were cut short and she adapted a thing or two, but whatever she did, she got away with it out of sheer glamour. She inhabited the text even when sight reading her recitatives, exploring all nuances in her line in excellent Italian, everything in the service of characterization.

This is the first time I see Cecilia Bartoli sing Mozart in the theatre. I feel tempted to say that this is the music that flatters best her voice. I am not an unconditional admirer, but what she did this evening was quite admirable. She sang the role of Sesto as an actress would have read it, finding in Mozart’s writing all the shades of meaning and feeling. She was also in good voice – and it was also fascinating to see how she sang it entirely differently from her studio recording with Christopher Hogwood. She was well contrasted to Léa Desandre’s Annio, whose singing this evening could be added to the dictionary definition of “poise”. “Exquisite” explains it to perfection. I have seen Charles Workman only once – Bach’s Missa in B Minor with Abbado in Salzburg – but I found his tenor freer and clearer today. Actually, he sang the part of Tito extremely well, in exemplary Mozartian style and phrasing with instrumental clarity, clear and effortless runs in his last aria included. I had never seen Mélissa Petit before – and now I want to hear her again. Servilia is a part I first heard with Lucia Popp in Colin Davis’s recording, and Ms. Petit offered something in keeping with those standards. Her lyric soprano is rich and full, yet she is able to produce crystalline or floated sounds at will. The duet with Léa Desandre was out of this world. Last but not least, Péter Kalmán was an incisive, forceful Publio.


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The 1726 cantata BWV 19 “Es erhub sich ein Streit” (Then a war broke out in Heaven) was composed for the Michaelmas celebration, the imagery of which famously turns around the battle between the angelic hosts (led by the archangel Michael) and the devil (the dragon) and his demons. As we can still see on cable tv, this is a popular subject to these days, and one can only imagine the effect it had on a congregation who could never imagine that computer animation and other special effects would ever exist.

The cantata’s most famous number is its opening chorus, which starts in media res: no orchestral introduction, no introductory chords. It bursts into life in full fugal glory directly over the biblical text from the Revelation. The vocal writing, the trumpets and drums, everything there shows you what is going on. You don’t need to understand the German text.

The Bible doesn’t spend too much words describing the event. And neither does Bach. The following numbers don’t even deal with the apocalyptic contention, but focus on its effects in everyone in the congregation: Michael did expel Satan and all demons from heaven, but that means that they have been closer to us since then. Therefore, everyone is supposed to contend in his or her everyday life with the temptation of evil. This is not a battle as splendid as the one described by St John – while probably more arduous – but there is a secret weapon: you already know the end of the story. So it is just a matter of resisting and believing. And this is ultimately the subject of this cantata.

Bach illustrates the everyday personal battle by remnants, garden varieties elements of the formidable musical forces of the opening chorus (strings plus three trumpets, two oboes d’amore, one oboe da caccia and drums). In the first aria, the soprano’s “weapons” are the oboes d’amore, which shield her in interlocking counterpoint while she handles very difficult coloratura in the least congenial parts of her tessitura. The tenor isn’t more lucky – it is a a fiendishly difficult vocal part with “only” one trumpet to help him. Its cantus firmus echoes his plead for angelic help with the chorale melody Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr: “Ach, Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein / am letzten End die Seele mein / in Abrahams Schoß tragen…’ (‘Oh Lord, may your dear little angels / carry at the end my soul / to Abraham’s bosom).

As much as Masaaki Suzuki (who was present at this concert) remains a reference in his brilliant recording of the BWV 19, I’ll dare to prefer Rudolf Lutz’s performance with the J.S. Bach-Stiftung this evening for its superior sense of drama. In a way, Suzuki’s opening chorus is almost too perfect for a battle depiction. Mr. Lutz and his forces left nothing to be desired in terms of clarity, but added three extra servings of excitement – and the way his chorus enunciates the text with the right touch of awe in “rasende Schlange” and “höllische Drache” makes all the difference in the world.

This is my first concert in the Kirche Teufen – and good as the acoustics are, I still find the Kirche Trogen incomparable in the way it allows you to hear all voices with absolute clarity while still uniting in a pleasant blend. Here the resonance rendered the middle of the spectrum a bit overrich, making it especially difficult for the soprano. As much as I enjoy Julia Doyle’s singing – the silvery tone, the joie de chant and the sheer charm of her phrasing – in this venue, a singer with a stronger core im her middle and low registers would have had an easier time. Now I see why Gardiner chose a Mozart singer (Malin Hartelius) for his live recording. I am really impressed by Georg Poplutz’s chutzpah on singing here his high notes in full voice with such level of purity and flexibility. It might have not been 100% smooth, but it was exciting, it was the right decision for the venue and it made sense with the text and his interpretation. How this is going to sound in the recording, now that’s a different story. Last but not least, Daniel Pérez handled the bass recitative with the required urgency.

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My history with Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production cannot be reduced to the dichotomy positive/negative. While I appreciate his serious intent of seeing each work he stages from an entirely fresh perspective – a perspective that is distinctively “foreign” to the Western European context of German/French/Italian opera – this exercise in making sense from his very own personal point-of-view often involves too much of contortion and distortion of these work’s inner structures, sometimes to the point of making things nonsensical (e.g, the Don Giovanni from Aix). At his best, his own effort in appropriation is an invitation for everyone in the audience to review his or her own rapport with the opera he or she is watching (e.g, the Parsifal at the Berlin State Opera). His 2021 staging of Der Fliegende Holländer for Bayreuth is only occasionally nonsensical, distorts a great deal of the story and leaves too many open ends – and yet it succeeds in making it approachable and immediate. I really don’t care for the “Besuch der alten Damen”-like pre-history of the young man taking revenge by force of money on the old town who did his mommy wrong. From my point of view, the staging would have sounded more powerful and scary if we didn’t know at all why this Holländer is behaving the way he did.

The original plot of The Flying Dutchman has a small-town setting and a naval backdrop. The fact that there is no ship, no sea, no tempest here surprisingly made the idea of confinement more powerful. I have to say that watching a total stranger sit at the table and behave like the evil version of the main character in Chesterton’s Manalive was far more creepy than a ghostly crew in a black ship. Actually, the choral confrontation where the team Holländer looked like mobsters felt more scary than the usual bunch of guys with pale make-up. I mean – in real life, people do get killed in shootings. However, the Schwerpunkt of this staging is the re-read of the role of Senta. Yes, she is the dictionary example of a woman created by male fantasy in the way she surrenders to a man’s project with no regard of her own welfare (and life). At the same time, she is clearly an outsider in the spaces society reserved women in the context of the plot. She doesn’t do summ und brumm at all. This very contrast is somehow (but not exactly) mirrored by the score’s dual stylistic nature – it sounds like Weber at its most conventional moments and it sounds like echt Wagner at its most daring. Senta is somehow in the middle of this stylistic shock. She interrupts the full Weberian spinning chorus with a ballad that veers toward Tannhäuser. In her duet with Holländer, she has her Agathe and her Sieglinde moments (and maybe that is why it is so difficult). Here Tcherniakov underlines this stylistic irregularity by having Senta speaks all her Agathe-esque lines in an ironic tone. At some point, the trick becomes predictable. After a while, she sounds like a Jennifer Lawrence character, heavily underlining her text, rolling her eyes and acting kooky. And then there is the moment when she seems to fall into the Holländer’s mobster stravaganza spiel. That is a key turning point in this staging, which needed a bit more clarity. I had to use my own Tcherniakov-like appropriation to get through this. Here there is no chemistry between the Holländer and Senta. They’re clearly not interested in each other – she just sees that he is going to tear everything apart and THAT is something she’s interested at.

The role a woman plays in a story seems more relevant when we’re watching the first woman conductor in Bayreuth, Oksana Lyniv. I had seen Ms. Lyniv only once – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Bavarian State Opera. It is not the world’s most complex score, and yet one could see that being a kapellmeister is not her thing. Some conductors complain of how difficult it is to adapt to the peculiar acoustics of the Festspielhaus. That did not seem to be a problem to Ms. Lyniv – she elicited from the orchestral hallmark big and rich orchestral sonorities, did not seem keen on classically filigree articulation, but rather went for Karajan-like smooth finish without indulging in “philosophical” tempo. The performance moved forward boldly and excitingly. To my ears, it only lacked some affection in the more lyrical passages. The Senta/Holländer duet, for instance, could have done with a little bit more time for emotions to set in. Anyway, she clearly knows what she wants and knows how to make it happen. And the second part is what makes a great conductor. And she has it. The standing ovation showed it.

When I was about to see Elisabeth Teige as Sieglinde in Berlin, a friend had told me how great she had been in an earlier performance. Unfortunately, she was not at her best the day I saw her. She sang well, but it was hardly a life-changing experience. This evening, she was in top form. It is a unsingable role and she took some time to warm. First, there were some fluttery and off-focus moments, but her performance gained steadily in strength. Once at her optimal level, she offered rich, warm, big sounds, homogeneous throughout her range. She goes for broke in her high notes – and fortunately she is one of those singers who sounds even more interesting when challenging her limits. To be honest, she is the best Senta I have ever seen. To be honest again, I have seen no legendary singer in the role. Yet judging from recordings, no singer can be taken as a full reference in it. It is an ungrateful role – and Rysanek, Nilsson, Varnay, Jones, Stemme, Behrens struggle at some point. (To my taste, Varady in the video from Munich is the most beautifully sung Senta in recordings). I saw Thomas J. Meyer as the Holländer in Tokyo a couple of years ago. He has always been a singer who gave his 100% and didn’t spare himself, with evident costs to his vocal production. I was a bit wary of what I would hear, but – considering his present vocal state – he sang well. The voice now is basically throaty and rattles a bit, and his candle still burns from both ends. So, it was dark-toned, full-force singing that gained in intensity in the more outspoken passages, but never in volume or projection. He has the ideal personality and presence for this staging – I can’t imagine anyone else doing this better than him in terms of acting. It was ideally larger-than-life and scary enough. Eric Cutler was better cast as Eric as he was as the Kaiser in Frau ohne Schatten. He offered a less passive than usual account of the role, quite Italianate in approach (if not in sound). Attilio Glaser – who is singing Lohengrin in Berlin this season – has a pleasant tonal quality, more velvet than steel, and offered a convincing account of the role of the Steuermann. Last but not least, Georg Zeppenfeld left nothing to be desired as Daland. It is a perfect role for his voice and personality.

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Summer is the season when one feels more adventurous about discovering new things; theatres are closed and one wouldn’t mind a long trip to see a concert in a place one doesn’t know yet. Especially if it involves Beethoven’s Fidelio. That is why I took a train and a bus to Gstaad, even if I am a bit wary of concerts in tents. I don’t have entirely positive memories of seeing R. Strauss’s Salome in Verbier because of the tent’s acoustics. So I had that in mind before I entered the “Festival-Zelt” in Gstaad. It seems that conductor Jaap van Zweden seemed to have that in mind too. His conducting was a lesson in doing the best of the forces available (and of the “hall”). In a place like that, it is impossible to speak of a booming orchestral sound, and Mr. van Zweden used the dryness in his favour to offer a very transparent performance, almost HIP in sound, very precise in accent and on the fast side but without any sense of hecticness. It felt alright urgent, but the good string section of the festival orchestra felt comfortable with the demands and offered more than satisfying articulation. The only moment when one felt any sense of apprehension was in the quartet Er sterbe, where the key word was rather cautiousness. To be honest, this is how this difficult number is usually performed – and here at least it paid off in a a relatively bumpless rendition. In a certain way, I have heard more exhilarating accounts of the final chorus, but again playing safe under those circumstances is never a wrong choice. I must point out that this was a very special rendition of the duet O namenlose Freude. It is usually received by the audience with the question “Where is the love?”, but Mr. Van Zweden and his Leonore and Florestan made it more tender than what one normally hears.

The concert was originally advertised with Anja Kampe. As far as I understood, her cancellation is related to her upcoming Brünnhildes in Berlin and the risks of travelling in this post(?)-pandemic times. She was to be replaced by Simone Schneider, who finally cancelled for health issues. One week before the performance, the name of Irish soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace appeared on the playbill. She was a name new to me. The press release informs us that she had previously sung the role of Leonore with Laurent Equilbey, Stanislas de Barbeyrac and the Insula Orchestra. Anyone listening to a recording of the concert in Gstaad would never understand why her performance finally proved satisfying in spite of all the observations one could make. First, hers is not exactly the voice for the role. It is a big lyric soprano, artificially darkened to sound “dramatic”, with the unavoidable loss in tonal sheen, projection and focus involved in the process. That doesn’t mean that she struggled with her high register. On the contrary – with the exception of the exposed high b’s in her aria, she ascended to her high notes without any difficulty, showed flexibility in the occasional melisma, could scale down to softer dynamics and proved to have an extraordinarily long breath. She was even naughty with how long she could go without a breath pause. But that is not the reason why her performance was praiseworthy. She sang with such enthusiasm and love for the music and showed unusual attention to the text. Even in the context of a concert performance, she proved to be a good actress, reacting to the dramatic situation and interacting with her colleagues discreetly yet efficiently. I had seen Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan only once in 2008 in Paris, when he offered a very exciting performance. Fourteen years later, his voice has grown rather dark for the role. He still was able to produce “his” long messa di voce in his first high g, and first sang with some joie de chant, which gradually ceded to his obvious dissatisfaction with the fact that he was not in his best voice. He struggled with the repeated high b flat in the end of his aria (where most tenors fail anyway, but not his younger self). After that, he never seemed to be truly enjoying himself, but that did not spoiled the enjoyment of the audience. His tenor was not challenged by the acoustic, sounded very rich and firm and he as always is incapable of bad taste. It is amazing how Falk Struckmann at 64 still produces very big and dark sounds in the role of Pizarro, the dry acoustics helping to disguise the occasional tremulousness. I must mention Patrick Grahl as Jaquino, whose light tenor ran admirably into the auditorium without any effort. Bravo. The chorus from the Czech Philharmonic Brno sang with clarity and firmness, their sound surprisingly non-operatic. As in other concert versions, dialogues were replaced by the Walter Jens’s Rocco Erzählung, here delivered with a little bit more variety than usual by Austrian actor Peter Simonischek.

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Music Lounge (53)

I can’t think of a singer less controversial than Kurt Moll. I have never read or heard anyone express anything but appreciation for his artistry, even when someone actually prefers someone else’s interpretation of a particular piece. Nature was generous when it granted him an unusually rich and deep and dark low register. But he evidently did not took it for granted; his technique was solid. I cannot think of another bass whose voice is more sharply focused than his. From the lower to the highest notes, his voice was produced with the concentration of a laser beam. There was no grey patches, no hint of wooliness, throatiness, tremulousness, discoloration. You could hear every little bone in his head and chest resonating in every note in ideal blend. The obvious and immediate advantage is the clarity of diction, which was a key element of his singing. Indeed, his singing displayed Swiss precision, even in famously difficult roles such as the Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, Sir Morosus in Die schweigsame Frau or Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Some may point out that Moll wasn’t a singer famous for insight. He was rather dazzling in how he did it all perfectly without any hint of effort and with the illusion of absolute naturalness. Rarely an artist of shadows and demi-tintes, his singing was basically honest and generous. This does not mean it was inexpressive. On the contrary, he sang good-guy roles, bad-guy roles, serious roles, comic roles in all kinds of styles, all this parts sharply and clearly defined as his singing. Italian opera was not, however, his strongest suit. Not only did the voice itself sound rather German in its preciseness, but also the approach per se could sound too direct and proper. And his Italian was evidently transalpine. In any case, that was not his core repertoire. He was obviously an A-teamer – he sang in the most important opera houses in the world, with the greatest conductors and orchestras and with the most relevant singers of the day. His association with the Salzburg Festival meant that he was widely recorded, mostly with Herbert von Karajan, and he soon became the bass of choice in Austria and Germany (and in the Metropolitan Opera House via James Levine). He is the King Marke in Carlos Kleiber’s Tristan und Isolde with the Staatskapelle Dresden, Charlotte’s father in Chailly’s Werther from Cologne, Rocco in Haitink’s Fidelio from Dresden, the animal tamer in Dohnányi’s Lulu from Vienna, the King in Abbado’s Lohengrin from Vienna, plus many roles in Sawallisch’s and Solti’s recordings. He even sang Bach for Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

It is difficult to choose one track to say “here – this is Kurt Moll”, because he was definitely a marathon runner and not a 100-meter sprint singer. He is not someone who will convince you with a turn of phrase, but rather by the constant optimal level of his performance. And this is why we’re not listening to his Sarastro, always exemplary in every recording made in various moments of his careers, and yet you might feel other less excellent singers might be a tad more personal here or there. This is maybe the reason why Moll seldom was a reference in Lieder. And yet I invite you to listen to his recording of the first song in Carl Loewe’s Liederkranz, op. 145.

Loewe is famous – mostly in German-speaking countries – as a composer of ballads. Some of them, such as Die Uhr, are a must for baritones and basses in recital. Meeresleuchte is a far more modest affair. It is a strophic song, almost in barcarolle style, reminiscent of a song by Bellini, such as Vaga luna, che inargenti , very simple in structure. It turns around a single motive, first shown in E major in a section ending in the dominant. Then we have the same motive – now in F# minor – in a tenser harmonic perspective, capped by a cadenza-like phrase with both the highest note in the song (a b natural and an e natural in the bottom octave of the bass range). These songs were composed around 1859 for a singer called August Fricke. Loewe himself had the reputation of being a good singer (first as as a boy soprano and then as a tenor or, according to some sources, a high baritone) – and he really knew what he was doing when he added to the title of this collection “for the bass voice”, for these songs are a tad uncomfortable for a baritone. They were written to flatter the low register of the bass voice.

The song is a setting of a text by Carl Siebel, a poet who wasn’t always highly regarded by critics – and here we can see why. The text is as follows: Wieviel Sonnenstrahlen fielen goldenschwer,/ fielen feurig glühend in des ew’ge Meer! /Und die Woge sog sie tief in sich hinab,/ und die Woge ward ihr wild lebendig Grab.// Nur in stiller Nächte heilger Feierstund’// sprühen diese Strahlen aus des Meeres Grund./ Leuchtend roll’n die Wogen durch die dunkle Nacht/ wunderbar durchglüht sie funkensprüh’nde Pracht. (Many a sunbeam fell heavy as gold/, fiery sunbeams glowing into the eternal sea!/ And the wave sucked them deep inside the waters/ and the wave became its wild, living grave// Only in the sacred solemnity of silent nights/these beams flash from the seabed/and the waves roll in light through the dark night/ when a sparkling splendour wonderfully shine through them). As much as we can feel tempted to find some depth in these verses – like “even a cold nature can exude warmth under the influence of a radiant influence” – they ultimately are a highly flourished and romanticized description of a phenomenon of bioluminescence. So, yes, we’re talking about a rare (and therefore mysterious) natural event. Its subject is the wonders of nature. And Loewe set it to music to its face value. Therefore the folk-like approach – the piano part roughly consist of repeated chords with the barcarolle-like rocking rhythm, the melodic line based on a winding figure suggests the rolling waves – and the hymn-like harmony shows us that a superior power (the sun? God’s benign influence?) is being evoked here. But it all depends on the bass’s voice. The melody is timed to have the bass produce awesome, almost fantastic big low notes in key words: Grab (grave), Pracht (splendour). These spacious low notes are this song’s special effect – they just have to be there, otherwise you won’t have seen/heard the natural wonder. It does not require anything, but an unfailing, unwavering, amazing voice. And this is why Kurt Moll is the perfect singing for it. His voice is the natural phenomenon – there is no artifice, no illusion, no attempt to persuade the listener. You just hear it and you know it’s out of this world.

The song doesn’t really require any nuance – some singers try to employ some shading in words like “night” or “darkness” are used (Florian Boesch does it quite tastefully, for instance). That said, Moll’s homogeneously rich singing here says far more than any interpretative touch. By the sheer monumentality of his voice, he gives variety to the song. For instance, the melodic cell of the song, always involve a down-and-up third in the end of it, which lie lower than the rest of the melody. Moll always sing them with gusto – the voice sounds even darker there. However, when Loewe expects the bass to wow the audience with the extreme lowest notes in the song, Moll’s shows he still has reserves of colour. The song does not go really high either, but the ascent to the highest notes in it are so firm and focused and rich that they almost sound like a secondary wow element.

Of course, Kurt Moll sang far more impressive music than this song, but here – in this little Lied when the singer is supposed to embody the greatness of nature – one can feel how unique Kurt Moll was.

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R. Strauss’s Capriccio, Bayerische Staatsoper, 23.07.2022 (1)
R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Bayerische Staatsoper, 24.07.2022 (2)
Puccini’s Il Trittico, Salzburger Festspiele, 29.07.2022 (3)
R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, Bayerische Staatsoper, 30.07.2022 (4)

Richard Strauss was born in Munich. Between 1894 and 1896, he was the principal conductor of the Bavarian State Opera, the venue for the premières of Friedenstag in 1930 and Capriccio in 1942. And yet we tend to think of Vienna and Dresden when we speak of him, since some of his most famous works for the theatre were premiered both in the Vienna State Opera and the Semperoper. Yet the word “Bavarian” was often used by his contemporaries when describing the famous composer and conductor – and watching his operas in his hometown is always a special experience. That is why I couldn’t resist this year’s summer opera festival, which turned around some of his works, all of them shown in new or recent productions.

My agenda began on a sad note. I’ve been wishing to see the Bavarian State Opera’s production of Die schweigsame Frau and was very excited about the experience. In the theatre’s café, I could overhear an old lady report how she enjoyed watching Kurt Moll in the Rennert production conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch (which I had just watched on video to refresh my acquaintance with the work). Alas, it turned out to be an unforgettable performance for a tragic reason: conductor Stefan Soltézs, who was leading a very exciting performance, bubbly, multicolored with an outstanding performance from Daniel Behle up to that point – collapsed during the first act. We could see the singers gasp and look entirely at sea, the lights go on, someone calling for a doctor. It was so sudden that it almost felt unreal. The next day, the house’s general manager did not call for a minute of silence in his memory, but rather for applause, which was a fitting tribute for the conductor and the deserved conclusion for an interrupted performance in keeping with the Bavarian State Opera’s reputation as a Straussian theatre.

(1) I am not sure if I subscribe to David Marton’s ambitious (overambitious?) agenda for Capriccio, but the Personenregie was apt and Christian Friedländer’s sets were ingenuous and really beautiful. And there was an all-round starry cast. Even if Diana Damrau’s soprano has seen more refulgent days, she was very well cast as the Countess. She has always been a singer who takes the text very seriously and tries to give every word the right color, weight and intention. So here we literally had a muse who gave music and text equal degree of importance. And she knows the style and sang with poise. A classy performance. I had always seen Vito Priante sing in Italian, but as far as I could understand, this Neapolitan baritone has a degree in German literature and sang not only in perfect German, but also in perfect German style. And to make things even better, he was also in very good voice. It is a tricky work for any conductor – and it is curious that I had very little expectation about Andrew Davis when I first saw the work at the Met in 2011, but my memory is of a superior understanding of balance, ensemble and organicity. In any case, there is always the Bavarian State Orchestra as compensation.

(2) I had seen Barry Kosky’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier when it was streamed by the Bavarian State Opera during the COVID season and couldn’t help thinking that it was high time for the old production to go – and Kosky’s production seems to establish a dialogue with it, what is always a healthy way of transitioning into a new context of interpretation of a work misleadingly time-related but ultimately anachronistic as Der Rosenkavalier. Kosky goes straight to the heart of what Rosenkavalier is accused of – the kitsch – and embraces it without looking back. As he establishes an oneiric atmosphere, in which everything is possible and everything makes sense, a very clever idea. That said, it looks far more “busy” (in the sense of “all over the place too) live – and I almost feel curious about how the Bavarian State Opera’s next production of this work is going to be. In Munich, the work feels somehow less “kitsch” than everywhere else (maybe not Vienna either) – and one could feel the public following the story almost as in an annual festival. The lady next to me surreptitiously took picture of every scene, not to mention the occasional hum-along of the waltz themes. Marlis Petersen’s transition to “prima donna” roles is almost a product of her relation with the Bavarian State Opera. There she sang Salome, then the Marschallin and next year we’ll see her as Elsa in Lohengrin. It is not a big or substantial voice – and not terribly individual in tone. Yet there is something immediately likeable about her singing – it is a healthily produced voice, almost pleasant in sound and she phrases with unfailing good taste. She has very clear diction – and her Marschallin has something chic about the way she doesn’t try anything too hard. It doesn’t hurt either that she acts very well and has the looks for the part. I had never seen Liv Redpath before, and it was a nice surprise to find a Sophie who can really float shimmering high mezza voce just like the part requires. The role is not simple as it seems – Kosky calls it a torso, a cardboard part. I don’t know if I agree – she herself knows she is still trying to figure out who she is and sometimes calls herself a “a weak thing”, but that’s not what we see in the plot. The moment she is not happy about what is going on, she speaks her mind and refuses to accept the marriage of convenience her father tries to force on her. Yes, she still uses cuteness as a weapon . Anyway, she’s young and she’ll know better later. There was a second, unexpected cast change in relation to the video, which was Günther Groissböck replacing Christof Fischesser. He was in better voice than he was at the Met when I last saw him in the role, and yet I still have an even more positive memory of his performance in Salzburg, when he was also a bit less broad in his approach. I was curious to hear and see Fischesser in it, because I enjoyed a more “serious” take on the role, which is I always efficient in comedy. You know, when someone is not working superhard to make you laugh.

(4) The last performance of the Festival, a revival of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten proved to be eventful. We went to the opera house aware that two singers had been replaced, but 10 minutes before the beginning the general manager informed us in a PA that Nina Stemme was ill and that her replacement was being at the moment flown from Finland. The assistant spielleiterin would act the part. So the performance would begin with a delay of two hours (and it would end at 23:40). In fact, soprano Miina-Liisa Värelä was escorted by the police directly to the theatre in order to find time to, you know, process the whole thing and warm her voice. Understandably she was nervous and had a lapse of memory here and there, and yet she offered a compelling performance. Hers is a very appealing voice – very warm yet focused, except around a high b flat and above, when it has not yet acquired the last ounce of steel. The emphasis here is on “not yet”. For someone who’s been singing heavy repertoire, she is unusually keen on legato and tackled even the most unsingable bars of the role with the intent of making them sound like music. I want to hear more from her. The other Finnish singer in the cast was Camilla Nylund as the Empress, who – in my opinion – is the best Kaiserin in activity these days. Her high register just pours forth with absolute poise and that’s a must for the role. Moreover, there is this floaty quality in her tone that works as well as the bright crystalline sopranos we’re used to hear in it. Michaela Schuster was, for a while, the most exciting Amme in the operatic scene. Now, the voice has many rusty patches, but the presence, the imagination and the charisma are still there. I had seen Michael Volle a couple of years ago in Zurich as Barak and was happy to see him again in the part, which he sings with a disarming directness. More than that – some Baraks sound overauthoritative and dark and even gruff, and this makes it hard for us to understand why his wife would change her mind about him at some point. With Michael Volle, we get it. There is a tenderness and a sincerity in his singing that explains why his wife resisted him at first and then why she finally surrendered. It is the second time I see this production – and I have fond memories of Kirill Petrenko’s conducting it in the première. With Sebastian Weigle, the impression was not so immediately coruscating, but gradually one would discover many riches of detail in it. And his structural control was such that it all felt coherent and consequential. In the end, I was surprised of how kurzweilig this long opera felt, especially in the last act.

(3) As a final note to this Straussian cornucopia, I must say that I couldn’t resist checking Salzburg’s new Trittico. I am not a Puccini person – and I had seen only Suor Angelica live (my favorite in the trio) so far. All I can say is that with the deluxe forces of the Salzburg Festival, no work is beyond enjoyment. Maybe these operas are now spoilt to me forever. How often does one hear them with the Vienna Philharmonic? During one sentimentalized performance of La Bohème in Munich last Saturday, I couldn’t help realizing how Puccini gains from being served straight, no sugar, no ice. Back in the Grosses Festispielhaus with Franz Welser-Möst, Gianni Schicchi felt like Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Suor Angelica felt like Kindertotenlieder. The orchestral colouring was varied, the balance with singers ideal and the expression hit home more effectively without the exaggeration – even in the end of Il Tabarro, when the whole thing is over the top by definition. Many singers have sung and recorded the three leading soprano roles, although they were not supposed to be a set – and, most importantly, they ideally require different voices. Asmik Grigorian’s soprano is sui generis – it is not a dramatic voice, I don’t know even if I would call her a lirico spinto or a jugendlich dramatisch. The example of Julia Varady came to mind. Yet Varady’s voice was edgier and the high notes were more exuberant. Grigorian’s voice is rock solid, bright and focused in the middle and low register, which project famously in the auditorium. Her high notes spin and gain momentum rather than flash, which is the safe way to go when you don’t have a dramatic voice – and yet she can muster her strength for the occasional big acuto and also soften for mezza voce. She sang an ideal O mio babbino caro, appealing in tone, in flowing legato, beautiful pianissimo and the right approach: she is not killing herself, we know it, she knows it, her father knows it. The transition to Lauretta is a tough one – there are exposed big high notes, lots of conversational stretches in the middle and the atmosphere is passionate – yet she acquitted herself well. As she sang it in her own voice, the character sounded young, nostalgic and emotional. And the Angelica was simply beautiful – full of subdued feeling until the end, when her interpretation blossomed powerfully. The aria was sung with the right balance between musical and dramatic values. A very touching performance. The cast around her was mostly compelling – Misha Kiria was a firm-toned, big-voiced, unexaggerated and really funny Gianni Schicchi, Roman Burdenko was an unusually warm-toned and self-contained Michele that wowed the audience with some truly big singing in the end. And there was Karita Mattila as the Zia Principessa. Her adaptation to the mezzo soprano emploi was fascinating in itself, very expertly done, although one could point out that a true-blue mezzo would be even more exciting. She was mesmerizing as always and the velvet, seductive quality in her voice (in comparison to the upfront solidity of an Italian mezzo) shed an entirely different light on the character. We could also hear some interesting young lyric Italian sopranos that evening, like Giulia Semenzato and Lavinia Bini. Christof Loy’s production was not the usual festival stravaganza, but rather low-budget in its clean sets with economic use of scenic elements. The Gianni Schicchi was particularly successful – all actors were comfortable in their roles and very efficient. I understand the temptation of making Il Tabarro a little bit more palatable, but the “Paris, je t’aime”-opening made the shifting to the “Criminal Intent” atmosphere in the end a bit bumpy. I really enjoyed the way Mr. Loy took all characters in Suor Angelica seriously, even the small roles. I am still trying to understand why he felt it important to have Angelica back in her “civilian” clothes (plus the cigarette) for the final scene. My gut feeling is that keeping her in the exalted state of mind of the aria would make it easier to believe why she would let herself go and drink poison overlooking the fact that this is a mortal sin. I’d have to see the show again to see his point.

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