Archive for October, 2022

I wish I could do as Brünnhilde by the end of the Ring and say that I know everything and that all has been revealed to me. And yet I’ll allow myself my own little insight about Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of the Ring for the Lindenoper. In Siegfried, an elderly Wotan calls an Erda also in her old age to ask for advice. She realizes that he has not understood what she had told him when she warned him about the ring’s curse (namely, that the whole problem is the idea of power). In this production, this is the 1970’s, women have still very little say in the world’s affairs. And yet that time Wotan hears Erda, and surrounded himself with a group of female warriors whose job is to execute his intents as lord of the battles, among them Brünnhilde. This is why Erda is now surprised when she hears that Wotan did not turn to the Valkyrie when he needed advice (i.e., in the episode with the Wälsungen), but also silenced her and persisted in his projected of somehow getting the supreme power over the world (although he himself claims to be disgusted with it). His reaction to Erda’s assessment of the situation is accusing her of not understanding anything and getting abusive with her (in this staging, even physically abusive). I guess most women would tell us that this is basically everyday at the office. 

Now let’s talk about this Götterdämmerung. Here we have the most readable concept in the whole production. Although there is no magic fire, no magic potion, no tarnhelm, no sword (or replacements for them), the story is being basically told “as it is”, and those are invariably the moments when Tcherniakov’s Personenregie shines. I was still trying to look for the whole mind controlling/scientific experiment thing, and the fact that it only surfaced very superficially (the Rhinemaids as lab researchers, for instance) made me realize that maybe that was it: the all-male power-seeking project from the 1970’s had simply lost its point. It is dysfunctional and, as Erda told us back in the 1970’s, it was to end. It took a while for Brünnhilde to realize that as long as she acted inside this project, as a sidekick of either Wotan or Siegfried, regardless of how much she loves or was loved by them, it would never END. There must be a new project, conceived from the beginning with a feminine voice. Here we see the whole production vanish in the end. In the open stage Brünnhilde sees Erda while the text of the “Schopenhauer ending” is projected on the wall: “Grieving love’s profoundest suffering opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end”.  

When we think of Tcherniakov’s own Holländer in Bayreuth (Mary kills the Holländer before Senta sacrifices her own life for him), the point is even clearer. It is only sad that Tcherniakov’s concept in terms of staging is so messy and all over the place. For instance, the first Gibichungen scene. Every element of the plot the director could not make something of was giggled at by Gunther, Gutrune and Hagen, as if they were permanently doing air quotes. After five minutes, even the singers felt self-conscious and unconvincing. It is also contradictory that all expression of emotion is made fun of and ridiculed – I guess that this goes against to what the libretto, the aesthetics, the philosophy behind it is about. But maybe I’m being bourgeois and sentimental. 

Musically, this was the best item in the cycle. Although the brass section was in erratic mood throughout, the orchestra first sounded full and rich as one expects in a score like this, The prologue and the opening duet probably the better accomplished moments in the whole cycle. Then the Gibichungen scene succumbed to the pointlessness these performances tended to present whenever Wagner doesn’t help the conductor with a clear driving element for the music to move forward. Still the scene with Waltraute would prove to be the low point in the evening. There, the conjunction of light voices and the acoustically unfavorable set got the best over Thomas Guggeis: back we went to recessed orchestral sound and a rather square management of tempo. In moments like Siegfried’s Journey through the Rhine or the funeral march, the sound picture could be brassy and the phrasing a bit impatient. 

In spite of her ability to find a lyric note in the role of Brünnhilde and to muster her strengths to produce some big acuti, the part does not truly flatters Anja Kampe’s voice. She was often edgy, greyish in tone in her middle register and sometimes naughty with the way she handled her chest voice. Andreas Schager, on the other hand, is everything one could expect from a Siegfried. His voice is s bit darker than when I heard him in the same part in Hamburg, yet he still produces big high notes at will. Johannes Martin Kränzle again acted and sang famously as Alberich. Mika Kares unfortunately was not in his best voice and had his woolly moments, but he still has an ideal attitude for the role, and his bass is more than big enough. Both Gutrune and Gunther were too light-voiced for their parts, while the Rhinemaidens and especially the Norns were strongly cast. 


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Although Semiramide is regarded as a masterpiece in Italian Romantic operatic repertoire, it has enjoyed a relatively short period of popularity, having become a rarity since the end of the 19th century. It has mostly been revived as a prima donna’s show. Indeed, you can find recordings (mostly made live) with Sutherland, Caballé, Ricciarelli, Devia, Anderson, Gruberová and recently DiDonato. However, it is everything but a prima donna vehicle – and this may account for its rarity. It is a score that needs an all-star cast, a large chorus, a big orchestra and, at least as devised by the librettist, a complex production. Its demands verge on the monumental – and maybe this is why most members of the audience find it hard to relate. For instance, when I saw the revival of the John Copley production from the Met, the audience’s reaction was similar to what you feel while watching the documentary channel on TV.

This is probably why the Deutsche Oper’s decision to present it semi-staged in a regular theatre, the orchestra downstage and singers upstage (on a platform) with a contemporary scenario seemed to make it somehow more approachable  – and not only for the fact that we were watching musicians from so close. In director Philine Tiezel’s concept, Semiramide is the owner of a world-famous gallery who intends to step down in favor of one of her artists – the media darling and bad boy Assur, the performer Idreno or the newcomer Arsace. We are supposed to be attending this great event. On reading it, you might feel that it was a silly-fest, but the very fact that the whole thing was very superficial allowed the audience to follow the story as if it was just Semiramide and, in spite of the occasional misfiring from the direction, it worked its trick. The theatre was less than half full, but everybody who was there seemed to be fully involved. 

All roles in Semiramide but one are challenging, and the Deutsche Oper made an effort of mixing some top level ensemble members with guest singers. None of them in the Caballé/Horne/Ramey league, and for some reason, this also seemed to help the opera to step down from its pedestal. In the title role, there was Georgian soprano Salome Jicia, a singer I knew only from reviews. After five minutes into her performance, I could understand why she raises controversy. It is not a voice that flatters the ears. The middle register is mushy and sometimes hard to hear, her coloratura has its yugga-yugga moments and some acuti tend to the screechy, but she is one of the rare singers today who make the jump without the net. Even when you’d prefer polish and focus, her singing felt truthful in its imperfection, at least live in the theatre. The contrast to Scottish contralto Beth Taylor’s Arsace was very much central to this performance. Ms. Taylor’s beauty and richness of tone down to the bottom of her range, sculpted phrasing and natural flexibility won the audience from her first note. She sounds like an ideal Handel singer, but in a theatre like the Haus der Berliner Fesrspiele can still manage to face a larger orchestra when things run towards the mezzo soprano tessitura. 

Levy Sekgapane’s light, round tenor found no difficulties in the part of Idreno (here shortened to include only his first aria, replanted in the second act). Riccardo Fassi’s bass is one size smaller than the part of Assur (here shorn of his big final aria), and yet he sang firmly, with excellent coloratura and crispy pronunciation of his native Italian. Bogdan Taloe’s voluminous bass caused a grand impression in the part of Oroe, and Patrick Guetti completed the low-voice trio with a powerful rendition of Nino’s ghost’s “appearance”. There are few sopranos these days who project purity of tone with enough volume to deliver a Mozart prima donna role – and I have the impression Maria Motiligyna is one of those rare specimens. Although she had just a few phrases to sing as Azema, the golden purity of her voice made me really eager for more. 

Conductor Corrado Rovaris offered a rather “classical” account of the score – no bombastic accents, theatrical accelerando effects, but rather balanced sections and very subtle fluctuation of tempi. If the chorus sang heartily, the orchestra sounded at its most Italian with slim, bright-ish violins. This might have also helped to make the work less monumental and it was the right choice for this cast, even if one could at times wish for a tad more punch in big ensembles and confrontation scenes. 

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Sometimes when you are watching a new production of a Ring, you have to make a serious effort in order to collect your impressions, identify the references, refer the concept to major lines of historical, philosophical, aesthetic discussions – and it is very frustrating when you begin to suspect that your efforts feel a little bit more serious than the director’s. Yes, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production centers about the idea of “scientific experiment”, a theme ample enough to deserve a little bit more structuring to sustain 15 hours of performance. As we’ve seen, Rheingold seemed to be about mind controlling drugs as a means of dominating the world. Even then, it was dubious how the key elements of the story – the gold, the ring, the Tarnhelm – were incorporated in the concept. In Die Walküre, the sword, the magic fire, Brünnhilde’s disobedience and punishment too were either reduced to irony or nonexistence.

And here we are in Siegfried, where the idea of experiment is very much there: Siegfried and Mime are observed by Wotan; the whole episode with the dragon takes place in the research institute, Fafner some sort of Hannibal Lecter, the Waldvogel a young assistant with a mechanical bird; there are some silly-titled procedimental steps like “listening to the inner voice”, “meditating” and “realizing the existence of unknown desires”. Brünnhilde plays along and just pretends to be sleeping. Typically for this director, emotional scenes are made fun of and downplayed. So Brünnhilde and Siegfried behave rather like John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease during their final scene. 

As we see, the staging’s central idea follows its own scenario and is either used or discarded according to the director’s whim, while Richard Wagner’s libretti are very much about a ring, a sword, a magic fire. You can decide that the ring is not a ring – it could be a vial with a new drug, for instance – but it cannot be nothing. It’s not a decoration – it is a structural element of the story. Having a sword that goes broken to the end of the opera while we hear 30 minutes of music description of it’s being reforged is, I’m afraid, unacceptable. I mean, unless you belong to the members of the audience who actually pay to watch something supposedly “sacred” being “desacralized” just for the fun of it. 

If I can speak plainly, act one was a disheartening experience. It features the same acoustically dysfunctional open stage set seen in Die Walküre (“Hunding’s house”), and I am puzzled by the fact that the intendant allowed the director to let a tenor exhaust himself in order to be heard at all in one of the most strenuous parts in the repertoire like that. Most of all, that the singer agreed to risk his vocal folds on it. It just felt that he was singing an open air performance without microphones. Whenever singers went stage right, it seemed like their voice was being sucked to a void.  This is clearly a set unfit to opera. And the creative team ought to know that. To make things worse, the very tenor fighting against the acoustic was made to jump about, set things on fire, destroy props and kick pieces of furniture during the most demanding passages. 

I have seen Andreas Schager sing the role of Siegfried in Hamburg, what he did effortlessly and with verbal acuity. During act 1, his low register was lost in the open stage, his famously bright high notes rather opaque. He had to work extremely hard, and it is no wonder he sounded basically tired during the rest of the opera, when the sets were more appropriate in terms of acoustics. Mr. Schager deserves praise for his heroic effort this evening and his willingness to agree to sing in these circumstances. Stephan Rügamer’s nasal and rather more piercing if lighter tenor somehow carried in the hall, but there was little room for nuance. In any case, Mr. Rügamer, a terrific actor, managed to explore the ambiguity in the role. There were moments you could almost believe Mime was being sincere in his affection for Siegfried. 

It would be dishonest to say that this staging of Siegfried was entirely dissatisfying. When we feel that the director really took the pain of working on the Personenregie (and had good actors at his service), the results were compelling. The Alberich/Wotan scene left nothing to be desired, and the Wotan/Erda scene might have been the best I have ever seen, with illuminating little details that made me rethink that passage as a whole. As in the two previous installments, Michael Volle was an ideal Wotan. Johannes Martin Kränzle here shone in the part of Alberich, delivering his lines with ideal clarity and acting famously. I’ve heard Peter Rose (Fafner) in better voice, but still he sang with firmness and understanding of the text (and the acting demands were superior than when we have a machinery dragon). 

As almost every true contralto in the role of Erda, Anna Kissjudit found the tessitura here a bit less congenial than in Das Rheingold. Still it is a voice of unusual darkness. Victoria Randem was ideally cast as the Waldvogel, a lovely tonal quality and personality. 

I was curious about Anja Kampe in the high-lying part of the Siegfried Brünnhilde. The way she managed to lighten the tone for the more lyrical passages is praiseworthy, and she mostly got the extreme high notes right. However, she often sounded hard-pressed and greyish in tone. In the end of the scene, she basically pushed it. She is not the only soprano cast in the three last operas of the Ring who has sounded out of sorts in Siegfried, and she had her moments, but I wonder how uncomfortable it must have felt for her. 

Conductor Thomas Guggeis made a serious effort in eliciting more sound from his orchestra this evening. Act 3 was probably the most “Wagnerian” moment in this Ring so far. I can’t dispel the impression that the hall is somehow to blame. At one moment, in the Brünnhilde/Siegfried scene, the violins sounded as full and bright as one expects to hear in a performance of a Wagner opera, and I could help thinking how wonderful it would be to hear orchestral sound of that nature throughout. Just like what we hear, say, at the Deutsche Oper. Other than this, superior to both Rheingold and Walküre as it was, it still was rather squarely conducted, the Mime/Wotan scene a bit stodgy, the forest scene rather earthbound, Brünnhilde’s awakening unspectacular. The orchestra still deserves praise for the quality of its musicians and their evident commitment, and yet the fact that the overall results are not up to their own work in the last Ring in the Schiller-Theater is something that requires consideration. 

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My decision to attend this evening’s performance of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia was made in the last minute. It is not an opera I particularly like and there was no name of special interest to me. The idea was actually not writing about it at all. I was free and I had never seen Ruth Berghaus’s staging, maybe the oldest still in use in the house. When I think about why I had never seen it, the reason probably was: they always use ensemble singers in it and there was always something more glamorous going on elsewhere. 

I have to be honest – I’ve never been in love with Tara Erraught’s mezzo soprano, but I am glad to report she wowed me with her effortless, accurate, vital coloratura and round top notes this evening. I wonder if she is not developing into soprano repertoire. As Rosina, she was charming, musicianly and technically adept. She was well-partnered by Siyabonga Maqungo, whose dulcet tonal quality and absolutely spontaneous high register make a difference in a repertoire where most tenors are not necessarily pleasant in tone. I have seen Arttu Kataja in many roles in the Staatsoper. His baritone is not an example of tonal glamour, but it worked well enough for Figaro. He more than compensated some lack of freedom in his upper notes by virtue of clarity of passagework. And his acting was refreshingly unexaggerated. Maurizio Muraro sang the part of Bartolo in a dark and rather voluminous bass, and only sounded a bit out of sorts by the end of his aria. David Ostrek’s Basílio was cast from strength: firm, rich voice and excellent comedy acting. Adriane Queiroz too was a funny Berta who sang his aria better than what I am used to hear.

This is not a score usually given the routine treatment in what regards conducting. That is why Anu Tali’s ear for tone colouring and rhythmic precision made for a particularly detailed and musically compelling musical performance. 

And there’s Ruth Berghaus’s production. At this point it is difficult to know what remains from her original ideas – but it’s very to-the-point-ness and economy of resources make it a model of value for low budget. Even the singers not truly gifted in the acting department offered satisfying performances, and the audience clearly enjoyed what they saw.

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When a friend asked me why I was going to see this evening’s performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Lindenoper, I took a while to answer “why would I not want to hear Verdi with a top level orchestra?” As soon as I’ve said that, I remembered that one clichéd piece of criticism against this opera is that the orchestra is reduced to a “big guitar”. Of course I disagree with that opinion. Yes, it is not a complex score, but it is not easy to conduct either. It requires a raw sound palette that few conductors and orchestras are able to produce. 

It was only when I bought the program that I realized that Axel Kober, whom I’ve often seen in Strauss and Wagner, was the maestro in charge. This was probably the first time I have heard this opera without an Italian conductor on the podium. My first impression was that the proceedings were indeed too polite, the orchestra too well-behaved, too much in the background, the accents a bit square, almost detached from the dramatic situations. Only occasionally – as in the “gypsy chorus” – one could feel the effect of an A-team in this music. I mean, the chorus and the orchestra were in great shape, but a combination of an almost Donizettian conducting and the puzzling acoustics of the hall after the renovation, almost reduced everything to the bossa nova level of intensity. After the intermission, things seemed to acquire a new animation. We were still miles ahead of raw energy, but the orchestral sound was simply more present, things tended to move more willingly forward (if still a bit squarely) and by the end this proved to be a pasteurized yet curiously entertaining performance.

One always hopes to find a starry cast in Il Trovatore, and that was definitely not the case here. Yet the audience was up to some good surprises this evening. The sure deal here was obviously Marina Rebeka’s Leonora. I had seen her sing it in Zurich last year, and she offered then a dependable account of the role. Today, she was not at her best voice – she had to shift to fifth gear for her acuti and some of the mezza voce sounded breathy. However. I found her performance superior as a whole this evening. Her middle and low registers were more positive, her tone richer in color, even the occasionally Callas-esque hollow sounds added some zest to a performance more dramatically connected and Italianate in style than last year. Brava. I don’t believe that Azucena is a role for Elena Maximova, in spite of her commitment, flexibility and very solid low notes. Whenever the part required singing of dramatic quality in the upper reaches, the voice sounded tremulous and strained. There are very few singers who can really shine in a challenging part like this, and still it is the central role of the opera. It is the very embodiment of its gutsiness.

Tenor Ivan Magri is a name new to me. According to the opera’s website he first started in lighter roles as Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale before he developed into more heroic repertoire. The tonal quality is very peculiar, as if Phillip Langridge had borrowed Chris Merritt”s high notes. Actually, this Italian tenor sounded at his easiest and firmest in his extreme high notes. This means, he offered an exciting ending to Di quella pira. He sang more of what Verdi wrote than I have heard in years – and dealt with the final note Verdi did not actually write with abandon, articulating the text until the “i” in alarmi and sustaining it for a while in this tricky vowel. Baritone Vladislav Sulimsky wowed the audience as the Count di Luna with a dark, voluminous baritone, a long breath and vibrant, powerful singing. Last but not least. Grigory Shkarupa’s Ferrando was sung in a big, firm bass, clear in diction and agile enough.

Philipp Stölzl’s 2013 production can be seen on video, yet it is particularly effective in the theatre. Its study on stock gestures is apt to the text and to the music, at first bringing a certain comic relief to the grim story, but becoming more and more convincing in terms of drama by the end. It also successfully engages the chorus in the action. There is always something interesting to see in every part of the stage – and the single set is effectively adapted to each scene by virtue of lighting and projection. I must mention that the chorus not only acted famously but also sang strongly.

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In overly conceptual stagings of the Ring, the transition between Das Rheingold (where there’s a lot of raw material for invention) and the first act of Die Walküre (where there’s little) is always a bit bumpy, and we must credit Dmitri Tcherniakov for his attempt at making it coherent. This does not mean that he has made it easier for the audience, only that the relation is evident. The opera actually starts in Wotan’s office. He has a one-way mirror there to observe the interior of Hunding’s house. Yes, Wagner makes it clear that the whole Wälsung story is an experiment, but here it is a calculated one from the beginning. We are also made to see images of TV news about Siegmund’s prison escape when he is described as delusional and dangerous. Then we see Sieglinde, evidently bored to death and unhappy. So when Siegmund appears at her door, she is ready to let him in. He behaves manically, she gives him all the signs of her interest in him, anything to disrupt her domestic ennui, almost as in a play by Tennessee Williams. Then Hunding, a security agent for Wotan’s institute, returns home and everything more or less happens as in the libretto. The idea of Siegmund as mentally unsound – a result of the experiments? – makes it easier to sell a lot of turns of dialogue a bit odd in the context of a contemporary setting. The problem involves rather the role of Sieglinde. She is first shown as frustrated and miserable, but increasingly starts to act kookily without any obvious explanation. As much as in his staging of Tristan und Isolde for the Lindenoper, the director seems determined to rid any emotional scene of… emotion. Sieglinde and Siegmund’s rapport is here portrayed as awkward, almost as if they were playing at running away rather than discovering any kind of feeling for each other. If Sieglinde were under the influence of any drug – she has some episodes of tremor, for instance – then the audience could have understood it as in Rheingold. In other words, using the experiments as an explanation for the fact that characters are referring to things we are not seeing on stage, such as chemistry between them.

The first part of the second act has the same sets of act 1 – Wotan’s office and Hunding’s house. Wotan and Brünnhilde are celebrating the Wälsungs’ escape as a successful project, when Fricka appears. Things run a bit by the book until the Todesverkündung. Sieglinde and Siegmund run away… to the lab where tests on human subjects are made (well, first they stop at the floor with the cages with guinea pigs and bunnies). This would have made sense if we noticed that Siegmund needs something there – his drugs? – but this too is left unexplained. The fight between Siegmund and Hunding is shown as a product of Sieglinde’s imagination, who at this point is indeed acting as a zombie, although we only know she is very tired. Curiously, this fight scene, for which Wotan gave Brünnhilde very precise instructions, should have happened in real life, shouldn’t it? Otherwise, what is act 3 about again? The act ends with Hunding and Siegmund being brought to the presence of Wotan without any sign of a previous fight. Wotan tells Hunding to report to Fricka, and so he calmly walks away. Siegmund is brutalized by security agents. 

The Walkürenritt takes place in the institute’s conference room. The Valkyries are in charge of a study about violent behavior and their task is to review data of the participants. Brünnhilde appears with a groggy Sieglinde. When Wotan storms into the room, he brings Sieglinde back for no apparent reason (she just leaves again with the Valkyries) and Brünnhilde makes no attempt to hide, even if Wotan keeps asking where she is. When they are finally alone, first she makes little of Wotan’s threat. Then she realizes that it is serious, gathers some chairs, climbs on top of one of them and plays airplane while asking for a magic fire. This is another moment when we think – is she being mentally manipulated? – but there is no visual evidence of that. When the magic fire music is on, a very much awake Brünnhilde gets a red pen and draws flames on the back of the chairs. It felt terribly underwhelming, until Brünnhilde steps down with her back pack from the set, which moves away from her until it is too distant. She is totally separated from that world.

While the idea of the experiments is still present in the staging of Die Walküre, the concept feels added upon rather than a driving force of the events in the story. This had an alienating effect in terms of emotionally engaging the audience. I’ve heard members of the audience saying things like “Well, differently from what we saw in Bayreuth, this was at least entertaining”.

Unlike the Rheingold, the Personenregie this evening did not look efficient across the board, maybe as a byproduct of the contrived concept – and I have the impression that some examples of effectiveness in terms of acting have more to do with the natural instincts of the more experienced and/or gifted singers in the cast. I mean, the tenor looked uncomfortable with what he had to do, the Sieglinde tried hard but – as much as we – seemed a bit lost about why she was acting like that. However, the most perverse effect of the staging was the scenery. Wotan’s office was fashioned like a box in the middle of the open stage. Behind it, there is Hunding’s house, entirely free of walls. A rotating machine operated the change. As a result, when Wotan, Fricka or Brünnhilde sang from the box (the office), they sounded all right, but when they were in Hunding’s house, there was no wall or ceiling or any scenic element big enough for their voices to bounce back towards the auditorium. 

You can only imagine how disturbing it must have been to sing Wagner in those circumstances, especially when you were one of the members of the cast without a dramatic or big voice. Vida Mikneviciute’s fleece-like soprano à la Teresa Zylis-Gara, for instance. She has solid technique, the voice is round and healthy and she has amazing stamina, but hers is not a penetrating voice and she had to work very hard throughout. This meant she had her colorless and/or flat moments, and she could be a bit behind the beat when she just needed a bit more time to breathe. She offered an engaged performance and the tonal quality is pleasant, what guaranteed her a great deal of applause. Her Siegmund, Robert Watson, has one of these baritonal, overly complex voices once associated with this part. He managed to produce some muscular yet even long notes in the calls for Wälse in Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater, yet he was often too dark in color to pierce through, a tad unclear with his vowels and free with note values. Although Claudia Mahnke’s high notes sounded a bit pale in the unfavorable sceneries, she handled the text famously, displayed admirable control of her passaggio, acted in the grand manner and shared real insight about the role of Fricka.

I saw Anja Kampe sing Brünnhilde in Salzburg, and I can say she was not at her best voice this time. Although the extreme high notes were firm, her high register today was often cloudy and lacking projection. She spared herself for the third act, when she offered her best singing. That said, she is a congenial artist, the tonal quality is apt and warm and she always comes up with something expressive in terms of phrasing. As much as in Rheingold, Mika Kares (Hunding) offered a forceful performance both in scenic and musical terms.

I leave the best for last: Michael Volle’s Wotan. The voice was heroic in scale, his delivery of the text was spontaneous, always spot on in terms of inflection, he handled the soft singing in the end of act 3 with poise. His was a less godlike Wotan than one would expect. There was something intrinsically human in the way he acted and sang. In some passages, there was a hint of parlando in his phrasing that did not entirely disturb the flow of phrasing but added an extra layer in terms of credibility.

There was also a very strong team of Valkyries, Flurina Stucki and Clara Nadeshdin particularly rich in tone as Helmwige and Gerhilde.

Thomas Guggeis again proved to be a very “hands-on” conductor – he made his best to accommodate the lighter-voiced members of the cast, the acoustically problematic sets, the wrong entries, you name it, he was there. But I wonder if he should sacrifice his _vision_ so readily as he did. I mean, if I were a singer in the cast, I wouldn’t want any other maestro, but that often mean that the sound picture was often Mozartian rather than Wagnerian. Nothing wrong about that either, but one wonders if this was ultimately the product of necessity rather than an aesthetic decision. As it was, act 1 sounded surprisingly short in passion, but pleasantly coloristic. The string section of the Staatskapelle Berlin deserves again high praise for their ability to produce just enough tonal sheen to be heard in low volume and with sufficient clarity of articulation. One part of me missed sheer sound, but the rest of me really discovered new details in the score around the end of the act. In the second act, all the practical problems for the conductor to deal with brought about a certain matter-of-fact-ness in scenes that require the extra miles in terms of psychological/spiritual/philosophical depth, most especially the Todesverkündung. With sets that resembled an acoustic shell, Michael Volle’s foolproof projection and Anja Kampe finally going for broke, act 3 was predictably the moment when the Mr. Guggeis could be less of a problem-solver and show his Wagnerian credentials more freely.

This was a performance where the parts were greater than the sum. It was actually interesting to witness the many little problems being dealt with by singers, conductor and orchestra. Even some apparent limitations finally turned out as an ersatz for actual aesthetic decisions: the Siegmund’s craggy singing as an image of his unsettled mental state, the Sieglinde’s overpartedness as an image of her helplessness. I could be a little bit more enthusiastic, but the premiere of the older production with Theorin, Pape and Barenboim, everybody in the audience moved to tears, is still vivid in my memory.

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I am no newcomer to Dmitri Tcherniakov’s productions, and I am no nay-sayer, but I have developed my own method of experiencing them. I take them on face value, and if I can’t make anything out of one of his productions without reading the program, then i say I don’t like it. When I bought tickets for the second cycle of his new Ring for the Berlin Staatsoper, I’ve decided not to read anything about it and react to what I’ve seen live. 

As always with this Russian director, the visual impact of his technically complex stagings is immediate. Yet this time he’s gone for the works – I don’t think there is one piece of machinery in the Lindenoper that has not been used in this Ring. The 70’s aesthetics, the  splashes of comedy, the plots involving conspiracy theories, drugs and plans of dominating the world makes it almost an Austin Powers Rheingold. Judging from this installment only, one cannot really say if the impression of opacity is going to be focused at some point. So I’ll try to explain how things look from my own effort of interpretation so far. 

Wotan is here an ambitious yet not sophisticated entrepreneur behind a state-of-the-art research center, maybe in the pharmaceutical area. He has two big problems to deal with. First, in order to build it, he has been involved with mobsters (Fafner and Fasolt). Second, there has been an unexpected development in a research with human subjects about drugs that influence the perception of reality. One of the participants of the study, Alberich, goes rogue and steals ~ and this part is hard to understand – something that enables him to have some power over the remaining participants (the ring). The Tarnhelm, the gold, the very control he has over the remaining patients are entirely produced by the effect of mental manipulation enabled by the drug. Alberich himself exerts this influence under the influence of the drug. What makes him different is that he somehow has learned to direct it. And that’s the most confuse part of the staging:

 a) He is not shown as a scientist. If that is the idea, it’s not clearly developed that he was experimenting on himself. If he is not a scientist, then the fact that he was able to make something of the experience by himself is something very hard to believe. 

b) Alberich is a patient in Wotan’s institution. The latter only has to call two nurses to get the “ring” from him. Id est, differently from the plot of the Ring, he represents no real threat to Wotan’s power or has any chance of getting control of anything. It is not even clear how he got the upper hand on the other subjects in the research. Again, if he was a doctor who subverted the research and stole the formula of a new drug, then the whole thing would seem coherent. But then we would need more than what we got in order to get the point – a white lab coat, for instance. 

I don’t think that the director’s idea went along those lines, but I could not make out any plausible explanation so far for this  central element of the story. Anyway, the nurses get the “ring” from Alberich and give it to Wotan. If this was indeed a “mind controlling drug”, then, yes, it would be a powerful resource for someone like Wotan (I.e., someone in the pharmaceutical industry). When the mobsters come to collect their money, they get no gold at all. There is a discussion about what seems to be a contract (what makes sense – Freia produces a miracle youth substance that would be worth a lot of money today), but they want the ring (again, if it’s a formula of a mind controlling drug, then it makes sense). At this point, Erda appears and explains Wotan the whole thing is bad karma. In this plot, this is very important, for it would be something like scientific responsibility, the drug is morally unacceptable, there might be very damaging consequences to the institute itself etc. I personally would have found it more effective if we in the audience could understand why this woman who just appears there in a blue dress carries so much authority. Is she a respected professor? A famous scientist? The whole concept of “renouncing love” could be seen under this light, what is relevant in a world where we have whole industries making money regardless of the consequence to other people (like the asbestos business) The opera ends to the inauguration of the research center, when all the special effects are shown as magic party tricks (something Tcherniakov seems to find more wowing than us in real life do). 

I am obviously being finicky here about details, everybody more or less got the main philosophical issues here. I just believe it would have been more interesting to the audience if we could have concentrated more in the ideas behind the staging rather in understanding the rococo scenic solutions intended to convey them. In any case, this was undeniably very well directed. It was fascinating to follow individual characters during each scene, even the extras were up to the point. The sets were spectacular enough  – and the “gags” were not obtrusive and mostly apt. And the cast was very strong in the acting department. 

The central piece of casting here is undeniably Michael Vole’s Wotan, firm and forceful in tone throughout the whole range, especially in punchy heroic high notes. His delivery of the text was crispy without being fussy, and he could incorporate the kitsch demanded from him in terms of stage persona without tampering with the tenets of Wagnerian singing. Bravo. The part of Alberich has always been on the limit of Johannes Martin Kränzle’s voice, but he has learned to disguise it well. He’s a terrific actor who managed to make something of a stage direction that gave him very little to work with. Then there is Rolando Villazón’s Loge. At this point his voice is largely shot and he belted in an alarmingly open tone everything around a high f and above, sometimes with insufficient projection. Yet he didn’t deserve the booing from some members of the audience. First, he went beyond many healthy-voiced Loges in his intent of really singing the part. Also, the tonal quality is still there somewhere. Second, there was something distinctive about him, and Loge is supposed to be different from anyone else. And he acted famously. Really. I had heard Mika Kares before and always had the impression that there was more in his voice there. This evening he showed everything he can do as Fasolt, his voice stronger in core than before. He just sounded huge in the hall. 

Claudia Mahnke delivered a highly intelligent performance as Fricka, and very smoothly sung too. She also made a lot with what the director gave her in scenic terms. I’m eager to see what she’s doing tomorrow. Anna Kissjudit offered an Erda of great class, ample in the lower reaches and firm in her high notes. The Rheintöchter – Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka and Anna Lapkovskaya – were well matched and effective too. 

Yes, I got the non-Thiielrmann Ring. And I’m ok with that. I’ve seen Thielrmann’s Ring in Bayreuth, some of the things he did with the orchestra, especially in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were unforgettable, but I was curious to hear something new too. Thomas Guggeis was brave to try something so essentially non-Thielrmann-esque. His conducting was all about vertical clarity, tonal variety and giving the floor to his cast. The sound was often light and atmospheric, and he made a palpable effort in not drowning his singers and cushioning their voice in just enough sound, à la Karajan. He has a great orchestra in the Staatskapelle Berlin, which retained refulgence even in softer dynamics. It must be said that intensity of accent is not his strongest suit, and at some points where the score required a little bit more from the conductor to move forward, things tended to get slack and lack purpose, more notably in the Nibelheim scene. 

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Staging the story of Romeo and Juliet is never an easy task for a director. Even in this non Shakespearian libretto, it has this plot that everybody knows and expects to see. I mean, everyone knows the plot of most titles in the repertoire of opera houses, but here nobody, even directors, wants to see Romeo or Juliet as zombies, astronauts or plush animals. Even when it is updated, what you ultimately see is the story being told pretty much as it is. Therefore, most productions tend to the decorative. 

Robert Carsen’s 1995 staging for the Opéra is no exception. Yet the way he made the visual part of the story-telling is clever and efficient. Here we have only two colors – red for the Capulets and black fur the Montaigus, with a Juliet in a white gown. The way these colors appear are essentially narrative. You just look at the stage and you know what’s going on. Lighting too plays a role here, in the way it points out one or two elements on stage. The rest is almost left in the dark. At times, even singers during their arias are in the shadow, for striking results in term of atmosphere, especially in the closing scene.

Effective if hardly illuminating as this production is, the wow element here was Speranza Scapucci’s conducting. This was probably the most solid performance I have heard from the house orchestra in a long while, but more than that, it has shown a masterly understand of the rhythmic ebb and flow of phrasing in Italian Romantic opera. Bellini’s score sparkled and fizzed whenever brilliance was required, while Ms. Scapucci’s flexibility of beat also provided numbers of more lyrical nature with the necessary variety (and leeway for singers to sculpt their phrases). It is sad that she had to deal with the hall’s unfavorable acoustics that rob orchestra and voices of tonal sheen. 

The venue also ideally required singers with either more volume or projection. It is hard to say if some of them were not in a good day or if their voices suffered in the difficult auditorium. This evening’s Giulietta, Julie Fuchs, for instance, is a reliable singer lovely in tone, stylish and technically fluent. Today, however, her high register often lacked color in a way new in my experience of hearing her live. Anna Goryachova (Romeo) had the disadvantage of a tone too somber and a voice too light, but she gained in strength during the evening, producing some gutsy singing and acting with panache. Francesco Demuro (Tebaldo) sounded a bit brittle in his high notes, yet flexible enough and ideally clear in his delivery of the text. Krzysztof Baczyk’s smoothness of tone made him aptly cast as Lorenzo, and he was well contrasted to Jean Teitgen’s more forceful bass.

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The idea of hearing Lise Davidsen singing Verdi and Wagner with a chamber orchestra in a hall as small as the Salle Gaveau seemed so unusual that I could not resist it at all. Actually, this was my first visit to this concert hall, and its acoustic surprised me in every aspect. First, the Ensemble Appassionato, here enlarged to cope with the repertoire, seems to be used to perform in the venue and fooled the audience into sounding bigger than one could have believed in the overtures to I Vespri Siciliani and Nabucco and even in Amelia’s Ecco l’orrido campo. Only in Tu che le vanità one could feel that a more substantial string section was needed to produce the right effect. Then the German items did feel a bit chamber-like. That is not a bad thing per se, for the interplay between sections in the pocket format adds a great deal in terms of clarity, even if one would want a bit more atmosphere. Second, this is also an orchestra of young musicians, and the the gutsiness more than compensated the lack of volume. For instance, the prelude to the third act of Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg was a particularly apt choice for this formation. Matthieu Herzog, former violist of the Ebène Quartet and now a conductor who obviously builds his performances on rhythmic precision, proved to be an effective Verdi maestro, a bit à lá Riccardo Muti. The ouverture to Freischütz fizzed with clarity, and the Wagner items predictably had more to do with, say, Böhm than Knappertsbusch.

As you must have already guessed, this was a very ambitious program, the first part all Verdi, the second part Weber/Wagner. It is quite bold to start a concert like this with the item from Un ballo in maschera. There has been some discussion about Ms. Davidson’s approach to attack. Some people have complained about her fondness for starting a note lightly and dead on center and then letting it acquire its full resonance. It never bothered me, but I understand the effect it has on legato in Italian repertoire. This evening, Ms. Davidsen seemed determined to prove the nay-sayers wrong. She sang her Amelia with a regular amount of vibration and a tone so dark you could mistake her for a mezzo soprano. The effect was massive, her ascent to the high c more athletic than soaring. The fact that she could sing it like that is something of a feat. I confess I felt relieved to hear her more soprano in sound for Elisabetta’s big aria. The voice still a bit heavy, she had first to work hard to soften then tone, but gradually she found her way and produced some stunning pianissimo notes in the end. I had remarked how effectively she had differentiated Amelia’s sheer despair from Elisabetta’s grand spiritual resolve. For someone who has been also accused of some coldness, those were convincing and detailed characterizations. Yet she would surprise the audience even more with the way she sang Desdemona’s Ave Maria. This is not a role I would associate to a singer like Lise Davidsen, and yet she produced her creamiest tone here, and the mezza voce was more than reasonably floating for a voice like hers. In terms of interpretation, I had never heard anyone sing it like she did today. Normally there is a lyric soprano at her most exquisite producing singing of surpassing beauty as an image of spirituality. Ms. Davidsen sang it as if Desdemona had no hope left, she’s already facing her death there, as if God were putting her to her great test. It felt really sad, and it moved me as probably never before.

After the intermission, when she sang her first note in the recitative of Agathe’s Leise, leise in her silveriest voice, I couldn’t help thinking that this was Lise Davidsen at her best. She produced almost Mozartian purity in grand scale, the text crispy, the girlishness believable and the acuti laser-like. Her Sieglinde still had a touch of the Agathe when she started, what made the closing of Du bist der Lenz even more awesome in its volume and power. Dich teure Halle is probably “her” aria, and her singing was easy, radiant and majestic.

The audience was so enthusiastic that we got two encores. The first was an unexpected Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca. Someone who hear a recording of this item would find that her attempt of finesse there ultimately sounded a bit matte, but live it made sense. The way it contrasted to her Nilsson-ian conclusion was an aural image of the internal struggle in Tosca. This is a commanding woman at her less commanding, this is when the character realizes she has done everything right and yet she’ll loose in the end of the game. Although members of the audience screamed for Ariadne, the second extra was understandably a repeat of the Walküre, a bit more intimate this time.

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I saw Guillaume Galienne’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola for the Opéra de Paris in its original run. Back then I found it a bit all over the place, but surprisingly effective in the way it took the issues in the plot seriously. A key element there was Marianne Crebassa. The French mezzo offered something unique in insight if vocally a bit unspectacular. Ms. Crebassa is not the only French mezzo in the constellation of the Paris Opera, and the reprise this season features a glamorous cast headed by Gaēlle Arquez, who will be heard as Carmen in the same venue in December and also in the Opéra Comique next year. Whereas neither Crebassa nor Arquez have the quicksilvery sound one usual finds in a Rossini specialist, their voices couldn’t be more different. Ms. Arquez’s claim to fame is the velvety smoothness throughout her whole range. Although it is a voice richer in sound than Ms. Crebassa’s reedier mezzo, the very velvet makes it less penetrating too. She tackled her divisions always legato, and works hard for clarity of diction in patter. In other words, she does not sound particularly Italianate, what is not an asset or a liability in this repertoire. In any case, while she sailed through the florid writing with aplomb, she was often more persuasive in more cantabile passages. Then, she could take profit of the tonal beauty and her elegant phrasing for touching effect. Her approach to the role is more conventional than Crebassa’s, what made the production less thought-provoking, but no less effective. This Cinderella really believed her ordeal would end – she accepts this as a natural development, some sort of good karma or something along those lines. With her appealing stage presence and subtle acting, she has the audience on her side from moment one.

Her Prince Charming, Dmitry Kirchak, is not the most dulcet or precise among Rossini tenors, but he sings with refreshing fullness. Some years ago in Vienna, he could already do with a gentler touch – and looked a bit more animated than this afternoon. In any case his singing is healthy and uncomplicated, what is an undeniable plus in this music. 

The tenor had fierce competition from a charismatic low voice department. As every Dandini is supposed to do, Vito Priante almost stole the show. He was truly funny in his acting, has an ideal physique for the part, the voice is firm and focused and offered above-average coloratura in this difficult part. Although one would be able to mention a list of more vocally impressive Don Magníficos, Carlo Lepore sang as if he could do no wrong. He is entirely in charge of the music and the text – and his clarity of diction is admirable. His acting was also spot on. I have heard Luca Pisaroni in smoother voice, but the occasional roughness didn’t prevent him from offering a stylish and sensitive account of the part of Alidoro. Both singers cast as Clorinda and Tisbe were excellent actresses with pleasant voices, but a brighter edge would have made the ensembles more sparkling.

Conductor Diego Matheuz’s option for the exhilarating approach seemed like a risky decision, yet his control over ensembles in tempi as fast as these ultimately made the proceedings quite exciting. It certainly placed an extra level of pressure in a cast who would have benefited from a more considerate pace, and yet one never has the impression that these singers were left to fend for themselves. Even when things came close to derailing, it all felt like a carefully calculated risk.

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