Archive for January, 2023

In his interview about his new production of Parsifal for the Grand Théâtre de Genève, director Michael Thalheimer says that he is happy to stage Parsifal at this moment in which nobody can make sense of the world, although it is clear that something new must happen. During this afternoon I couldn’t help noticing some younger members of the audience looking either puzzled or fully uninterested in the proceedings – and I cannot blame them. This staging – under the aegis of minimalism – offered something almost entirely hermetic and aloof. Then I started to wonder if one can blame the director in charge of the very difficult task of staging this sacred scenic festival in a world where nothing is sacred.

One can say that the easiest way to communicate is just telling the story. And that did not really happen this afternoon – and this is not because it was staged in the moon or in a nightclub or in an entirely nonsensical way. It was well directed – almost every member of the cast offered excellent acting – the sets were efficient and visually striking , and there seemed to be a concept, although it is impossible to describe it (even after you’ve read the interview in the program). Ages ago in a class of Film Studies, the professor said “Titanic is at once a bad movie and a structurally original script, in the sense that it doesn’t really have a story or characters, it is about the ship, how it works, how it separates (and unites) people and how it sank”. I guess Wagner’s libretto for Parsifal is something along these lines in a philosophically far more complex way, although Monsalvat is miraculously rescued from hitting the iceberg 5 minutes before the crash.

The key word here is “miraculously” – there is a miracle going on in the end, “the redemption of the redeemer”. Although it sounds profound as a concept, it is a miracle and is supposed to elude explanation. It is a matter of belief, and it cannot be experienced in a purely rational way. Yes, I know, trying to sell all that debate about purity and sin taken on face value for a contemporary audiences is tough – but it has been done. Taking refuge in abstraction just makes it sound old and distant even if you show Kundry in a suit and high heels. And carrying a gun! Here she shots Klingsor in the end of act 2. Her service in act 3 is writing bits of the text on the wall and then erasing it, while Parsifal comes with a clown make up. When he unveils the grail, there is a big white light on him and it feels as if he were going to sing Vesti la giubba. Maybe this was a dramatic point – only a fool would accept to chair a failed institution?

In a sense, Jonathan Nott’s conducting shares the staging’s abstraction. Structurally transparent as it was, it seemed to be taking place in its own non-dramatic world in which you admired the way singers’ voices were paired with woodwind just like in a performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The house orchestra is not famous for the density of its strings, it is true, but there was a matter of accent too. You could feel the energy sag between phrases and all seemed to be the beta version of a real performance, in its inexpressiveness and recession of orchestral sound. At some point, one started wondering if the performance was long or if it just felt long. With 4 hours of music, this was actually an average Parsifal in terms of tempo, actually quite forward-moving in the second part of act 2.

There was a glamorous cast on duty, and well served by the unchallenging volume of the orchestra. Many singers are debuting in their roles in this run of performances, and I wonder if some of them will keep them in their repertoires or try them in bigger houses (or with more formidable orchestras). Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Kundry, for instance, has to be sampled in two levels. She is usually a terrific actress. Yet this evening she did not seem immerse in the director’s concept, moved in a very artificial way and lacked conviction in her interpretation as a whole. The part is a tad heavy for her velvety mezzo, but she sang it with admirable security and technical finish, if rather bureaucratically. That said, I can’t remember the last time I heard the end of act 2 sang so richly, big round high notes, reliable intonation, musicianly phrasing.

This is the first time I see Swedish tenor Daniel Johansson, and the first thing one notices about him is that he is a tenor, not a pushed up baritone or any other kind of adaptation. His voice is in the right size and color for the part of Parsifal – there is a hint of youth in its bright sound, and his high register is focused and juicy as this repertoire requires. He also proved to be committed to the Personenregie, which involved some silent acting during the prelude. I was used to hear Christopher Maltman in Mozart. When a friend told me that he had a “huge voice” after seeing him in Rigoletto, I thought he mistook him for another person. Yet he is not wrong – as Amfortas, he did sing with Wagnerian volume and a cutting edge, even in low notes, that could pierce through a loud orchestra. There is an issue of tremulousness, though, which is something I don’t remember from his Mozart days. Tareq Nazmi was a noble-, velvety-toned Gurnemanz, with excellent diction, a bit overcautious with his high notes. Martin Gantner’s baritone is a bit high and light for Klingsor, but he projects well and is a hell of an actor.


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Renée Fleming is a singer whose recordings are not always among my favorites, but who has surprised me live with compelling performances more often than not. Other than a lackluster Otello at the Met, I have good memories of a Rusalka , a Manon and a Capriccio there – and I really liked the Daphne in the Carnegie Hall. I had never thought of her as a recitalist, although she has explored some out-of-the-beaten-track corners of the artsong repertoire. To be honest, my decision of taking the train to Lucerne this evening had more to do with seeing Evgeny Kissin. 

Fleming’s operatic appearances have often been described as a display of her glamorous  self in costume, yet her persona is apt for the role of grande dame de la chanson. I mean, she really inhabits the stage as a recitalist, presenting each song in a very efficient and professional way. She is in charge. This sounds like I am being ironic, but, no, I mean it as a compliment. With her, one never has the impression of “if you don’t like it, it’s the composer’s fault” , because she’ll make everything to make you like it. 

With her infamous jazzy mannerisms, Ms. Fleming would hardly be called a Schubertian, and yet her Schubert this evening was really praiseworthy. First, her diction is above average, and her Suleika I, done a bit more leisurely than usual, had a sense of story telling, her verbal pointing not truly discrete but coherent with her personality. At this stage of her career, it is admirable how she could achieve lightness of tone and reasonable purity of phrasing in items that other sopranos her age would find too girlish, such as Die Vögel. Actually, Nur wer due Sehnsucht kennt was admirably fresh-toned and and to the point in terms of expression. And it is remarkable how she kept her legato in Rastlose Liebe (again sung slower than usual). 

The Liszt items in German played more to her strengths, especially her ability to spin a long note in a way that makes you curious to know what she’s doing with it next. Freudvoll und leidvoll and ûber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh partifularly benefited from her rich middle register. Although the Rachmaninov items – Lilacs and A dream were both of them on the elegiac side, they were a step further in terms of tessitura, allowing Ms. Fleming to show that she still masters the art of mezza voce. The Russian repertoire also agrees with her instincts, which always tend to conduct the phrase all the way rather than letting it follow its natural course. If I’ve found the French items in the program less remarkable is only that the text sounded a little bit more generic and – particularly Duparc’s Le Manoir de Rosemonde – showed her voice at its lest round. For Liszt’s French songs – S’il est un charmant gazon et Oh, quand je dors, Ms. Fleming chose the original 1844 versions, which now flatter her voice better than the usually heard second editions.

The encores were Schubert’s Ave Maria, sung with the Latin text of the prayer, followed by a passionate account of Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters and a touching and floating account of R. Strauss’s Morgen.

The match of Renée Fleming’s rich soprano and Evgeny Kissin’s dense, rich sound proved to be a very good match. The accompaniment in the Schubert items proved to be surprisingly clean for a grand concert pianist, but always warm and full in tone, even in softer dynamics. Both singer and pianist prefer slower speeds and both make good use of it to offer complex sonorities. Naturally, the Liszt and Rachmaninov items gave him more opportunity for technical display, and yet he always had the singer’s voice in mind both as a reference of sonority and in the sense that he always enveloped the soprano rather than overshadow it. In the solo item, one could feel a sense of continuity. His Sposalizio from Les Années de Pèlerinage seemed almost nightly in atmosphere in the considerate tempo, the dark hue of the piano sound and the round and pearly effect in the upper octaves. Even the more playful items glowed seemed to be infused the deeply expressive sound-culture that marked this recital.

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The BWV 153 , Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feinde is a curious entry in the corpus of Bach cantatas. It was intended for the Sunday after New Year, January 2nd 1724. Bach’s musicians had been really busy in a tight performance schedule with demanding items since Christmas, and the composer’s practical mind couldn’t help but take that into consideration. The cantata requires only a string orchestra, there is no soprano solo and the chorus is not required to sing complex counterpoint, what requires less rehearsal time. On a structural level, Bach’s invention seemed to have used the very sparseness as a rhetorical tool.

The text of the cantata basically says “Lord, my enemies are too many, and I’m unable to fight them without help”. Yes, the musical forces reduced to the minimum, there are no special features. This is a “real life” cantata. The opening number isn’t formidable in any way. It doesn’t look like any miracle is going to happen. No wonder the alto sounds so desperate in his recitative – “I live among lions and dragons who’ll soon finish me off”. Predictably God responds in the bass voice. And yet the answer is not solemn at all – in a seductive, dance-like aria, he says “no need to fear, I’m already here”. If you think about it, this is a rather unsettling answer. It basically means that the Christian soul actually is BLIND to the presence of God. It says “I live with dragons and lions” – and God gives a nudge “Look again”. This has the effect of making the Christian soul sing one register lower, in the tenor voice. In the second recitative, it acknowledges God’s presence “yes, you give me solace etc, but the stuff here is really serious – I live in hell”.  Time for a lesson – the chorale reminds him “Not even the Devil himself could defeat God”.

After the second wake-up call, the tenor seems to have gotten the memo. Even with his string-only orchestra, he makes a brave statement in an aria that could have been written by Vivaldi, with tempestuous passagework in the strings and illustrative coloratura. We go one step lower in register for the next recitative, when the Christian soul now speaks with the same register used for the voice of God. Now the Christian soul is in full harmony with God: as much as Jesus has carried the cross, it is up to everyone to carry his or her own cross with the belief that God has never abandoned him or her. Once the voice has been “internalized”, we hear the Christian soul sing the cantata’s last aria in his own original alto voice. Now that the full cycle has been completed, it sings with the same dance-like serenity we heard in God’s voice in the cantata’s first aria as an expression of the determination of facing adversity with spiritual confidence.

With the exception of John Eliot Gardiner’s expressionistic recording, conductors tend to build on the mature graciousness of Bach’s writing, the change of atmosphere in the tenor aria being its coup de théâtre. Maestro Rudolf Lutz is no different, offering a warm account of this score in relaxed tempi, extensive use of decoration and short introductions and interventions by the organ and a curious rendition of the middle verse of the last chorale by the soloists (plus a soprano borrowed from the chorus). 

Jan Börner sang the alto solos with admirable clarity of tone but his account of the spiritual Angst in the first part of the cantata was a bit too chic for the circumstances. The contrast to Daniel Johannsen couldn’t be more evident. Witt his customary verbal acuity, he employed a large dynamic and tonal palette to depict the spiritual torments in the tenor recitative and proved to be in excellent, incisive voice in an heroic account of the difficult “tempest” aria. Most tenors fight with the consonants and difficult vowels in the text, but Mr Johannsen sounded unfazed. Bass Sebastian Noack seems to have tried to boost the roundness and color to match the sound of God’s voice with the price of occasional tremulousness. 

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I had read a lot about Barbara Hannigan before I heard the sound of her voice for the first time. Magazines described her as the first lady of alternative repertoire, a soprano heiress of Cathy Berberian or something of the kind. It is a repertoire in which is difficult to establish how extraordinary a voice is for sheer lack of comparison, but Ms. Hannigan found a place for herself and even surprised the audience by her increasing activity as a conductor. My experience of her artistry had been restricted to YouTube videos until this evening, when she appeared both as soloist and maestra in a curious double bill of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with the Musikkolegium Winterthur.

On a second thought, the combination of Strauss’s study for string orchestra and Poulenc’s “pocket” opera share a state of mind, the reluctant parting with a disappearing reality. In a way, Ms. Hannigan could capture the ambiguity behind that in both works. Although there are more glamorous accounts of Metamorphosen in terms of beauty of sound, this evening’s performance offered something very special in terms of dynamic flexibility and the unhurried, loving way intensity was gradually built. I had never seen La Voix Humaine live, and my experience with it was mostly based on George Prêtre’s recording with the singer for whom the role was written, Denise Duval. My first impression this evening had to do with the sound picture. In a work like this, the audience expects an “intimate” perspective of a close-up singer with orchestral “accompaniment”, almost like a magnified continuo in a long recitative. This is why I was surprised to find again the Straussian, string-dense sound in the Poulenc. The soprano voice was wrapped in orchestral sound and seemed to form a single unity with it that made expression even more intense. This does not mean that Ms. Hannigan as a soloist offered a heavily expressive performance. On the contrary.

On hearing Ms. Duval’s performance in the Prêtre recording, one can understand what Poulenc saw in her. Beauty of tone and clarity of delivery are never opposed in her performance – it is delivered in absolute textual transparence, naturalness and femininity. The listener is immediately captivated. Although the voice has a richly textured to sound, she sings this text as an actress would have spoken it. Ms. Hannigan’s voice is less rich and softer-cored than Denise Duval’s, especially in the middle/low areas. She sang it rather with a Mélisande “float” that brought a sense of seduction and mystery to her performance. Is the whole thing an act? Is she for real? What is true and what is not? It is particularly fascinating that having the tiple job of singing, conducting and acting (although she had her back to the audience, a projection on a screen let the audience watch her every movement, which doubled as indications for the orchestra and a theatrical choreography) her perfomance was so subtly varied in every aspect. First, her voice live is more appealing than in recordings. I remember having had a similar experience when I saw Felicity Lott live for the first time – there is more to the sound than the microphones can capture. I cannot say if there was miking this evening (because she sang to the orchestra and not into the auditorium), but if indeed there was, it was subtle and only enhanced the natural sound of her soprano. Second, her French is more than idiomatic; she delivered it with all the little idiosyncrasies of a native French speaker. Third, although the acting couldn’t be naturalistic in these circumstances, it was really integrated in her vocal performance. In other words, the fact that she was concentrating all these aspects made the whole music making this evening especially coherent. One could imagine that this could have been distracting for the musicians in the orchestra, but that did not seem to be the case. I noticed that they felt particularly connected to the expressive universe of the piece and responded accordingly. This was so unique that one couldn’t help but feeling overwhelmed. Even if the Strauss was well received by the audience, the Poulenc got a standing ovation.

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Every time I write about Verdi’s La Traviata, the first paragraph is about how unexcited I am about the prospect of watching it yet again. Yes, it is probably my least favorite Verdi at this point. So I braced for it – I had never seen it in Zurich before – and, well, it was less painful than I had thought. And I must praise in the first place the opera house itself for the way it has taken this opera, usually staged as some sort of slot machine for stray tourists, as seriously as they would a work meant for “serious” audiences. I mean, Verdi himself had the best intentions when he composed it – it was an unusual contemporary setting with a rather risqué subject, a highly difficult prima donna role with unusually detailed vocal characterization and some of his most famous choruses (and an exquisite prelude). It is also difficult to conduct, but not in a way that seems to spark the interest of great conductors. In order to make dramatic sense of the prevailing squareness, the maestro would have really to use his imagination, but not too much volume for voices here tend to be on the light side. In any case, this 2015 production (originally cast with Sonya Yoncheva, Pavol Breslik and Quinn Kelsey) comes closer to make something of it than any other in my experience.

Director David Hermann himself says in the interview in the program that he was not excited at first with the task, but after making an effort of reading the libretto without prejudice, he believed to have found things yet to be explored there. “La Traviata” is a title the meaning of which nobody seems to care about too much – ‘The Fallen woman” being its common translation, but it literally means “someone who was led astray”, generally in the context of “being corrupted”. And yet this is primarily the story of someone who actually lags behind, who can’t find her way back. As the director points out, the first scene tells us everything we need to know – Violetta offers a huge party but the guests take forever to come. They were at Flora’s having fun and only very late drop by just to leave 30 minutes later. Their hostess used to be popular, then fell ill only to find that now her place has been taken. This is the way of the world of “easy” money – there’s always someone new, younger, more glittery to replace you. In Mr. Hermann’s staging, Violetta might have a lung disease or it might be just burnout syndrome, we’ll never know. It just is too much for her. She knows she will never be the alpha female in the demimonde again, but then there’s the chance of trying something else. And she goes for it with everything she’s got. And this is the point where the director fails to see into Violeta’s Catholic ethos. When Germont, sr, offers her the possibility of being an “angel” – and this is something beyond her most ambitious dreams – she buys it, but this does not mean that she became a religious person, as portrayed here in the third act. Yes, from some point one, she speaks only of charity, heaven and penitence, but that does not mean that she is leading a saintly life because she chose it, only that she’s dying and that she is ready to collect the prize for her good action. As portrayed here, act III Violetta required a lot of suspension of disbelief, what is sad. If she had been shown as a real person dying in a hospital fantasising that Alfredo and his father really appeared at her deathbed, then this could have been more moving. But again – this was more than C plus for effort. For a while, it made sense in the 21st century – and that deserves respect.

I must say that conductor Francesco Ivan Ciampa too deserves praise for making everything to avoid sentimentality at all costs: the orchestral sound was rich, he worked hard for offering something structurally coherent, rather than indulging the whims of a prima donna or a star tenor (in any rate, this was not the case here). While his pressing forward was refreshing for a work that doesn’t show Verdi at his most inspired, you can’t pretend the sentimentality isn’t there. It is in the core of this music. You have to acknowledge it, without overdoing it. In musical terms, a little bit more of flexibility would have made all the difference in the world, especially in the duet Violetta/Germont, sr duet. That said, this would have probably required soloists with a tad more music-dramatic imagination. All in all, this was far from bureaucratic, and that’s more than what you usually get in this work.

I have read the name of Russian soprano Nadezhda Pavlova in connection with Teodor Currentzis’s performances of Mozart operas, and was curious to hear her. I knew she had sung Donizetti’s Lucia, and yet Violetta requires a little bit more something. “Interesting” is a word people don’t like to write or read, but I’ll use it for Ms. Pavlova. It is a voice that can be easy on the ear, but it is always a bit unusual. The basic sound is essentially “Russian” in its slight hootiness sound and a lightly acidic edge. Some sopranos with this description may become pinched in the higher reaches, but Ms. Pavlova’s opens up forcefully and effortlessly in its high register, for stunning effects in the theatre. It is never an Italianate sound, her pure-toned mezza voce, for instance, shows an almost “baroque” fixed quality. As one never knew what would come next, one was kept curious about the way she would handle each phrase in the part. Sometimes, she came across as rather Mozartian, with clearly sculpted phrasing and instrumental tonal quality. At other moments, she would produce phrasing of more “Romantic” nature, with generous use of portamento and some parlando effects. I have never seen someone handle the reading of the letter better than her. One hardly noticed the difference between spoken and sung voice (and the conductor probably asked the concert master to avoid the usual syrupy quality normally associated to this passage). In terms of acting, she is probably not the woman for the part (as Yoncheva might have been), but she brought her A game nonetheless. She would have benefited from more chemistry with her Alfredo. Bosnian tenor Omer Kobijak, both in tonal quality and stage presence, is hardly mellifluous and could exert a bit more love for legato. Yet he too worked hard to embody a character a bit distant to his own personality. In his first duet with Violetta, he offered truly beautiful mezza voce and blended his voice with the soprano to perfection. I also tend to take the side of tenors as Mr. Kobijak who don’t smear the small notes in the part of Alfredo. Even if George Petean was not in his best voice – he took some time to warm after a short-breathed start – one could say he nonetheless stole the show. He had advantages – his baritone is tailor-made for the part, he masters the style and he was bien dans sa peau as M. Germont, père. Among the minor roles, Simone McIntosh (Flora) called my attention with a fruity, firm-toned mezzo.

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