Archive for February, 2023

As much as the cantata BWV 153, featured in the last concert with the J.S. Bach-Stiftung in Trogen, the BWV 154, Mein Liebster Jesus ist verloren (My dearest Jesus is lost), was first heard right in the beginning of 1724 in the context of a very busy schedule, soon after the performance of an item that required full choral and orchestral forces. So here was Bach again having to produce a piece that did not demand too much rehearsal and a reduced ensemble (and again no solo soprano). However, the text couldn’t be more different from that of the BWV 153. 

While the latter involves the usual concerns about being able to resist temptation and requiring protection or mercy, the 154 turns around the episode in which Mary and Joseph notice that 12-year-old Jesus is missing on their way home from a trip to Jerusalem, only to be found back in the temple discussing theology with his elders. His answer when he is found – “don’t you know that I am supposed to take care of my Father’s business?” – is quoted verbatim in the bass arioso. 

The way the anonymous author of the text deals with this situation is very peculiar and must have posed an extra challenge for Bach to musically represent it. Parents are well aware of the stomach-wrenching sensation of realizing that a child is missing and the tenor’s opening aria at first make us believe that we’re hearing this story from Joseph’s (or Mary’s) point of view. The harmony is tense, the atmosphere is ominous, the tenor phrases in chopped lines as if he were breathless and desperate. Then the following recitative shows us that this is only a starting point, for Christ is not referred to as an object of protection but rather the opposite: he is the savior of the Christian soul. So, yes, we’re talking now of something more philosophical: the loss of the faith in Christ. Time for a lesson, i.e., a chorale. Predictably, this cantata
only has chorales (which require less rehearsal). In the first one. we learn that the natural state for the Christian soul is the longing for Christ. Then we hear the aria for alto and the oboes d’amore, “Jesus, let yourself be found”. It is curiously free of any anguish or torment. With its double layer of amore (the two oboes, of course), it is rather an example of the ideal attitude for the faithful soul, which is that of a parent toward his children. Nothing is more precious to a mother than his children – and yet you cannot know where they are all the time. You’ll just know that they will come back because love binds them to their parents, as much as love connects the Christian soul to Jesus, even when you are not sure if he is there. And yet there is something slightly disturbing in Jesus’s response to his parents, which is the next number in the cantata. Predictably, there comes the bass,  and just like the voice of God in the BWV 153, the voice of Jesus sings in dance-like accents and spare accompaniment. This time, however, the text says “what I am doing concerns my Father, not you (Mary and Joseph)”. You know when your kid goes missing in the shopping mall (because you refused to buy him an expensive toy) and then when you find him with the security agent, he says “I don’t know these people…”?  This is why the next recitative is probably the key number in this cantata – here we hear that “God will refresh you at the right time”. This means: he won’t refresh you all the time. There’s this thing about faith – it has more to do with things that are not there with you than with the things you’re facing in the actual time. So it is at the same time about letting go (in an immediate sense) and holding on (in a spiritual level). 

This journey is fulfilled with the aria (for alto and tenor) where the Christian soul affirms “I have found Jesus – he will show himself to me when it really matters (in eternal life) and my faith makes him present to me in the meanwhile”. It is no wonder that now the Christian soul has found a response within itself (it sings now in two voices that respond to each other) in cheerful rhythm and the full orchestral forces. The fully learned lesson is reinforced in the final chorale.

This evening in the Kirche Trogen, Rudolf Lutz and the forces of the J. S. Bach-Stiftung offered a performance glowing in a warm, gentle light that somehow made the cantata more coherent and integrated. In comparison, Masaaki Suzuki’s recording seemed both more theatrical in the opening numbers and more sprightly in the final duet. And yet the more pensive atmosphere of the tenor recitatives and the more legato approach to the duet added a layer of affection on a piece that may sound superficial compared to more complex or philosophical cantatas by Bach.

As usual in these concerts, we heard the cantata twice, and never before have I found such difference between the first and the second time. In the first performance, tenor Bernhard Bechthold sounded as if he had a bad cold, his high notes breathy and brittle. His interpretation was nonetheless very sensitive, with fine tone coloring and word pointing, each word wrought to its precise  expressive weight. Fortunately, he seemed to have warmed for the second presentation, in which he proved to have found again the brightness of his top register. He then sang with absolute lightness and the necessary focus that allowed the conductor to employ a bit more volume from his instrumental ensemble. Mr. Bechthold was ideally paired to Elvira Bill, an exemplary Bach contralto, firm yet flexible in emission, free in her top register and rich and dark enough in her low notes. She also is entirely at ease with the style, phrasing with instrumental poise. Brava. 

An event that disturbed the concentration in the first part of the concert was a cell phone from a member of the audience who took forever to turn it off, right before the bass arioso. No wonder that bass Jonathan Sells sounded a tad more confident the second time. The solidity and forcefulness of his voice produced an impression of youth (something not always easy with basses) much welcome if we have in mind that he was singing the words said by the 12-year-old Jesus in the biblical episode.I’ve also had the sensation that both arias (the “duet” is named an “aria” by the composer) were also clearer in texture in the repeat. 

 For both chorales, Mr. Lutz decided to go for OVPP, with the help of soprano Jessica Jans. The balance between the solo voices was such that one could indeed advocate that this is the ideal solution for Bach choral works if one had never heard the glory of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung’s own complete chorus.


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With this new production of Roberto Devereux, the Opernhaus Zürich ends its last take on Donizetti “Tudor operas”, an enterprise that started two seasons ago. It is my favorite item in the “trilogy” (the composer never intended them as a combo), and probably one of my favorite operas by Donizetti. If admirably straight to the matter and strong in melodic invention, the plot basically consists of a series of confrontations around one single event. Yet one never feels the action sagging. As everything in bel canto, it viscerally depends on singers to take off. If they don’t have the right voices, perfect technique and understanding of the style, the whole structure will sink to the ground – in terms of tempo, orchestral picture, clarity, dramatic effectiveness. So it is no wonder that you’ll rarely find anyone deeming it a masterpiece. Chances are that no one ever saw it in ideal circumstances. I myself have witnessed it only once in Munich, where the conductor had a great orchestra at his disposal, a strong (if not ideal ) cast led by Edita Gruberová, whose love for the prima donna role was such that one would forget it was created for a soprano very different from hers.

The Zurich trilogy was originally intended as a David Alden/Enrico Mazzola/Diana Damrau collaboration. Yet Damrau’s career has veered towards other corners of the repertoire, and her singing in last season’s Anna Bolena already showed that Devereux would not have been a wise idea. The original cast surprisingly featured Inga Kalna as Elisabetta. She is not an Italianate soprano and I was actually curious to hear her in the role, but she fell ill after the first performances and was even more surprisingly replaced by Elena Mosuc. This Romanian singer, a fixture of the Opernhaus Zürich’s seasons for many years, appears in recordings with this company in roles such as Zerbinetta and the Queen of the Night. For instance, I saw here here as Norma twelve years ago. In that fearsome role, I had the same impression from my experience of seeing her as Lucia and Gilda – that she had a pleasant voice and that she sang prettily and elegantly. This is why I hesitated to see her. Elisabetta, not a role for canaries, especially one whose been around for a long while. We never know how expectations play with our perception of reality, but I have to say I am glad I’ve made that decision.

At 59, Ms. Mosuc is debuting in the role – again, as a replacement – and not only did she prove to be in far better voice than as Leonora in Il Trovatore a couple of months ago standing in for Anja Harteros (!), but also this was probably the most interesting performance I have ever seen from her. Although the voice is still very pleasing, she treads now carefully with high-lying passages, mezza voce and coloratura. She does manage all that (and better than many a younger singer), but we can see her brain managing the situation. As a compensation, the voice sounds a bit fuller in the middle register now and her solution for low notes is quite effective. She has an advantage on both Damrau and Kalna – an instinctive grasp of bel canto style. Even with a shorter breath at this point of her career, she phrases with Chopin-ian cantabile, masters the art of dynamic variety, offers the morbidezza this music requires from the soprano voice and has the necessary narcissism. Whenever the line was difficult, one could feel the “hell, yeah!” feeling oozing from her chest (especially in in alts). That said, I won’t lie, in purely vocal terms, it was ok. Yet she got me with something I had never noticed in her – this evening she offered a commendable interpretation. She really did something of the text, delivered the parole sceniche with the right weight, used Donizetti’s music to build a character, her own’s voice present state to portray the ageing Queen Elizabeth’s personality. She has learned the whole thing – music, staging – not long ago and one could notice the recurrent look at the conductor or at her colleagues to check if things were alright. Nobody would call it electrifying, but it was classy and it was interesting too.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac was supposed to sing the part of Sara after a recital of French mélodies in the opera house. Both appearances were cancelled, and in the end Anna Goryachova took over the seconda donna role. Ms. Goryachova is no Shirley Verret, but neither were Delores Ziegler (in Gruberová’s CD) or Jeanne Piland (in Gruberova’s DVD). I had Sonia Ganassi’s performance in mind (as I’ve been listening to the Opera Rara recording with Nelly Miricioiu) – and all I can say is that this Russian mezzo soprano more than held her own in the competition. She sang richly, coped well with the high tessitura and offered solid low notes. The dark tonal hue proved apt for the part of this frustrated married woman trapped in a major tragic event. I have seen Stephen Costello only in Donizetti – first as Arturo (in Lucia di Lammermoor) at the Met and then as Edgardo in London. He is a dependable singer whose lack of Italian squillo always required some adaptation from my ears. This evening he was announced lightly indisposed, and I can’t tell if this had an influence in the sound he produced. If it indeed had, it was a positive one. His was never a bright voice and sometimes it sounded too nasal for my taste. Not this time – the sound was consistently dark, especially in high notes. When one hears “dark-toned tenor”, one immediately thinks of driven phrasing, glottal attacks and releases and other evidences of effortfulness. Yet again not this time – Mr. Costello sang with admirable purity of phrasing and sense of style. Only in the end of his cabaletta (Ma non resti abbandonata) his extreme high notes predictably didn’t pierce through. The part of the Duke of Nottingham is heavy for Konstantin Shushakov – and he often simply lacked volume, yet I have found his voice rounder and firmer this evening than in my previous experience.

Conductor Enrico Mazzola proved he is a trouper today. His orchestra lacked tone, the chorus was indisciplined, his soloists required all kinds of adjustment – and yet he was always there to make it happen. When his soprano had very long lines, the beat got faster to accommodate her; when the chorus missed the beat, he would subtly hold it to catch them; when the baritone needed to be heard, the strings would smoothly plunge into softer dynamics. He managed to do all that without any loss in forward movement and with some sense of theatre, but exciting it was not. The big ensembles lacked exuberance, the orchestra was almost always in the background. Nevertheless, following the mechanics of this performance that could go wrong (but didn’t) was fascinating in itself.

I haven’t seen this trilogy’s Maria Stuarda, but I have found David Alden’s direction in Anna Bolena quite disappointing, with its ugly sceneries, schyzophrenic costumes and over-the-top gesturing posing as Personenregie. All those features were even more damaging in Roberto Devereux. The sets often looked downright provincial. To make things worse, although these sceneries were supposed to be simple, they took forever to “change”. Even if the cast seemed committed, one could feel that they were not comfortable with the over-the-top semaphoric acting demanded from them. Some of the blocking was unnecessarily complicated, making for some misfiring that made members of the audience laugh (especially in the final scene). I cannot say it really spoiled the fun, but this was definitely not compelling in terms of theatre, as the trilogy in Genève is proving to be.

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After a diet of productions by Barrie Koskie all of them very similar to each other and mostly entertainingly superficial all of them, this 2017 staging of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin (a Komische Oper Berlin/Opernhaus Zürich coproduction) surprised me by its unobtrusiveness or willingness to let the work speak for itself without any added irony, pseudo-objectiveness and willingness to shock. Here everything on stage seems to magnify the Personenregie and make all characters three-dimensional and relatable. The idea of staging the whole story in the garden is apt, the realistic set is beautiful and atmospheric and also allows us to see Tatyana and Onegin final encounter in the same setting of their fateful first meeting. Although this is a reprise, its richness of detail, coherence and perfection of timing made it look like a première.

Gianandrea Noseda is like a box of chocolate – you never know what you gonna get. I’ve seen great conductors in this score – Belohlavek, Jansons, Barenboim – and it is a work that comes to life when the orchestra is in the center of events. That is why I was really glad to realize that Mr. Noseda was able to convince his musicians to produce an orchestral sound as close as possible to what one hears with East European formations. Although the results were not truly up to the competition, the necessary duskiness in the string section was there. The conductor elicited real enthusiasm from the orchestra and led them with élan in an agitated, intense performance, perfectible here and there but true in spirit to the music. To make things better, the chorus sang heartily too. One could feel the audience drawn to the musical drama and by the end one felt the auditorium transported.

On perusing the program one sees the photos of the première with Olga Beszmertna, Pavol Breslik, Peter Mattei and Christof Fischesser. Since the pandemic, things tend to be less evident in terms of casting. For instance, I had never heard of our Tatyana, Ekaterina Sannikova. The first thing one notices about her is that she has an ideal physique for the part. The second is that she is really a terrific actress. I will avoid one word on describing her voice, but I’ll resort to “vibrantly metallic” to let you know how it sounds. It is not truly varied in tonal color either. Nevertheless, she did not seem at trouble with anything she had to sing and rose to all challenging moments with confidence. So, yes, this might not have been a performance for the gramophone, but the complete package was compelling and she got a great share of this evening’s applauses. Although Igor Golovatenko does not look these days as dapper as Onegin should, he has the attitude for the role and acted with great conviction as well. He also has the right voice for the part. The natural sound is pleasant and patrician enough, but he can shift to a fifth gear to produce a big, edgy sound when he has to pierce through the the full orchestra. Both Ms. Sannikova and Mr Golovatenko have crystalline diction, and even those who cannot speak Russian (such as me) could get every syllable and realize that their delivery reflected the nuances in the text. I have usually seen Benjamin Bernheim in Italian roles, where one misses only a bit of squillo in his high notes. However, the observation does not apply to his singing in Russian. His firm, focused, a bit darkened high notes fit the nature of the writing, and his usual elegance and musicianship made him a very believable Lensky. I would say this was the best acting I have seen from him too. The confrontation with Onegin in the ball scene had the right amount of testosterone and one could almost understand why the character acted the way he did there (which is always a tricky thing). Rachael Wilson was a light-toned Olga (what is not a bad thing) with surprisingly solid low notes. She too managed to convince the audience of her character’s volatility and intensity. At this point of his career, Vitalij Kowaljow is not the world’s most deluxe Gremin – and he looked a bit too old for a Tatyana who looked really really young – yet he sang his aria in less a matinée manner than usual, showing real concern for the text and coloring his tone accordingly. Stefanie Schäfer and Irèene Friedli are less dark (and big) in tone than the kind of singer you would see in the role of Larina and Filipevna in Russia. That said, their singing was natural and shared the scenic abilities of the remaining members of the cast.

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Mozart’s Requiem is a piece the legend around which has been more discussed than the music itself. I mean, its intrinsic quality has secondary importance compared the fact that it is regarded as a perfect soundtrack to Mozart’s own dramatic death, especially for those who have seen Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Nobody would call it Mozart’s choral masterpiece, but it is nonetheless effective and maybe would have culminated into something more powerful if Mozart could have completed it. Although many have tried to provide a more successful endings to the work, the old Süssmayr – low-voltage as it is – has been concocted in the same context of Mozart’s creation by people who knew Mozart and were tutored by him. So it has something no other version will ever provide: authenticity. 

I haven’t seen a performance of Mozart’s Requiem for a while and was lured to Lausanne by the prospect of hearing an extraordinary group of singers led by Julie Fuchs. However, Ms. Fuchs seems not to be in top form these days. She has been cancelling concerts, and last time I finally saw her as Bellini’s Giulietta in Paris, she was not at her best. This evening she was replaced by Swiss soprano Marie Lys, whose hometown is Lausanne.

As the Requiem was only the second part of the program, after a beautiful account of Ave Verum Corpus, we could hear Ms. Lys in the famous motet Exsultate, jubilate. Hers is a light voice, yet creamy, ideally free in her upper register and relatively solid in its lower reaches. She offered clear articulation in the fioriture and phrased in the grand manner too. 

In the Requiem, Ms. Lys sang with richness of tone and ideal poise. Her voice blended well with the solid contralto of Beth Taylor, expressive and stylish as usual. Hearing Cyrille Dubois in Mozart is always a reward in itself. The tone is exquisite, the phrasing is immaculate. Last but not least, I was glad to find Hanno Müller-Brachmann, whom I often saw in Berlin in roles ranging from Papageno to Wotan, delivering the bass part with focus and elegance of line. 

The Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne has an interesting blend of round-toned sopranos and firm-toned tenors that produced a characterful ensemble the purity of emission of which is praiseworthy. 

The Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne is always in its element in this repertoire and offered precise articulation in the context of transparent orchestral sound. In the Exsultate, jubilate, nothing was left to be desired under the baton of John Nelson. In the Requiem, I have the impression that the chorus was a tad too big for the orchestra, the airy perspective of which was often overshadowed by the chorus’s vocal health. Mr. Nelson did amazing filigree work, bringing many little yet important effects in the strings sometimes taken for granted. Those who see this as sacred music (which is how Mozart saw it anyway) must have found it refreshing. Those who were there for the drama of mortality maybe would have missed a denser orchestral sound – and maybe the atmosphere too.

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Marc Minkowski’s recordings of Handel operas are important items for any collector of stage works by thr Caro Sassone, and it was somehow sad that his masterpiece Alcina had been recorded live in Vienna in circumstances where this conductor was not working with his own team, but rather with a cast assembled by the Vienna State Opera. Although one would hardly complain of the glamorous names there assembled (some of them seen some years before in Munich, as reported here), Mr. Minkowski is a conductor known for his interest for singers, having discovered many artists who are now household items. This is why I was so curious about his series of concert this year, which is probably related to some sort of commercial release at some point. Here he offered a substantial edition – the dance numbers in the first act, the dream pantomimes, the three arias for Oberto. And there was a truly special cast, a group of singers whose artistry makes for any occasional shortcoming. 

Alcina is a role mezzos have flirted with. Joyce DiDonato has recorded it for Alan Curtis, Cecilia Bartoli has sung it in Zurich. The tessitura is indeed pretty central – and that poses a problem for mezzos in what regards decoration. If there was one drawback in this evening’s performance, it was the prevailing fancy for excessive embellishment, the kind of which sounds like the singer has reached a point he or she doesn’t know what he is doing anymore and starts to repeat random bits of text with no clear development. When a soprano finds herself in that situation, she can always use a secret weapon by resorting to unwritten high notes. That’s not the case with mezzo sopranos – and all of them here being high mezzo sopranos, their lower incursions were often underwhelming. So, as Mies van der Rohe used to say, sometimes (more often than not), less is more.

As it was, Magdalena Kozená was fully in charge with the notes written by Handel. She had sung in concert and recorded  at least one aria written for the title role (Ah, mio cor), but the comparison with her older self is favorable to what she is doing today. Ms. Kozená’s voice tends to the angelic, and to achieve some gutsiness she often had to distort a bit the tone. Now that her voice has matured, this comes more naturally to her. The slightly raucous effects are more integrated, the dynamic range has enlarged, the chesty effects in low notes hit home more effectively – and the feeling is more palpable in music of more passionate nature. Therefore, she managed to portray the development from charming hostess in Di, cor mio to raging fury in Ma quando tornerai, while making it believable that her feeling for her Ruggero was the single real thing in her magic island. 

Reviewers have often written that Erin Morley’s soprano can want tone or projection in Romantic repertoire, but the very smoothness of her high register is an asset in a role like Morgana. She never saturated the sound in her top notes, singing with constant poise, creaminess and naturalness, floating exquisite sounds in the hall. She offered a chic Tornami a vagheggiar, the variations in the repeat discrete, the coloratura effortless and charm in buckets. Her two arie d’affetto were sung with Innigkeit and poise too. Brava. 

Anna Bonitatibus’ silky mezzo soprano is not of heroic nature – she lacks space in the lower end of her range and her shimmering high notes are soft in tone. As the part of Ruggero is only occasional heroic, this means that she had plenty of opportunity to show off in terms of mezza voce and long winded legato. I have seen Philippe Jaroussky in this part, and I am afraid that his superior imagination and good taste made the  embellishment in elegiac numbers such as Mi lusinga il dolce affetto or Verdi prati far more touching. On the other hand, she could wow the audience with the fluidity of her fioriture, even in very fast tempi. 

Elizabeth DeShong can do no wrong in contralto roles in this repertoire. Her low register booms gloriously in the hall – and the conductor didn’t spare her in superfast accounts of her first two arias, where she displayed astonishing accuracy and a very long breath. If the tempo had been a tad less hectic, she could have done even more with the tone coloring and word pointing. Brava. 

The fact that Alois Mühlbacher was the boy soprano in Minkowski’s video from Vienna makes his appearance here as a countertenor in the same role of Oberto an involuntary theatrical effect (the character is looking for his father and it takes years until he finds him). It is a soprano part and it can be testing for a countertenor. The way we heard it this evening made it somehow childlike, as it should. And the tone is penetrating enough for a concert hall. 

Although Valerio Contaldo’s tenor is curiously bottled up (and his curiously closed vowels make it project even less), his ease with fast divisions, long breath and sense if theatre are praiseworthy, especially in a part usually poorly sung as Oronte. Last but not least, even if Alex Rosen sings in a way more buffo than the part requires, his bass is apt for the role, his bottom notes rich and full. 

I leave the best for last – Marc Minkowski’s understanding of the theatrical nature of Handel’s music is a lesson for every conductor in this repertoire. His ear for the dramatic effects in the context of tempo and phrasing brings the score to life in its absolute complexity and variety. And he can do it without ever making violence to his singers’ voices. This concert took place during a strike that made it difficult for the audience to leave the concert hall without the subway in a problematic neighborhood. When I realized he would play all the purely orchestral numbers, my first reaction was “oh, no, I’ll miss the midnight bus”, but 30 seconds later all I could care about was the spectacular playing of the Musiciens du Louvre. Their richness of tone, variety, bravado and commitment made them the most impressive “soloist” this evening. Bravissimi. 

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I have thought of a way of not repeating myself on writing about today’s performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore in the Paris Opera, but I can’t. So, in a nutshell: although it’s considered an opera where only the singers matter, I disagree. It is an opera about raw passion and it requires an orchestra and a conductor capable of delivering the punch in the stomach. You’ll ask me: if you keep on with the rant, isn’t it high time you realize you’re talking of something that does not exist? The first time I bothered to really listen to Il Trovatore, a friend made me listen Herbert von Karajan’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic pouring volcanic sounds and producing Musikdrama with a capital M. Although I have never heard live something really like that, both in Berlin and in Salzburg I’ve had the opportunity to witness hell going loose in the pit during performances of this work and all I can tell is: once you’ve been there, you never go back. 

That is why I can’t really say I was disappointed by the bloodless pageant offered by the Opéra de Paris this afternoon. Maestro Carlo Rizzi conducted this polite divertissement around a baby burnt to death with an orchestra that seemed to be playing from the Palais Garnier while the singers at the Bastille were left to fend for themselves in terms of producing any excitement. 

Anna Pirozzi’s naturalness of tone and feeling for the style are hard to resist. At moments, in the middle register up to a high g or a she even made me think of Montserrat Caballé in her tasteful use of portamento and roundness of tone. Yet Leonora is a role that requires a freedom in the upper register this valuable Italian soprano doesn’t truly possess at this point. Her high notes have hardened and she worked hard for mezza voce and often gave up. After an unsubtle D’amor sul’ali rosee she seemed to reach her optimal level and sang an urgent, firm-toned Miserere, a rich-sounding duet with the baritone and a touching death scene. Judit Kutasi obviously knows the requirements of the part of Azucena and goes for it with all she’s got – but what she’s got is soprano-ish in sound, light in tone and not earth-shattering as it has to be. This is the central role of the opera – the mezzo soprano must really blow you away from your seat with dramatic top notes, formidable chesty low register and the kind of declamation in which you hear every consonant. Anything else is just not acceptable. Ms. Kutasi is evidently a committed singer and actress and I hope to see her in any other role in the future, but this is the deep end of the swimming pool. 

Yusif Eyvazov is everything but appealing to the ears – it is rather nasal in the lower and middle register and rather glaring too – and his singing is emphatic in a way that every syllable is stressed and glottal release abounds. Yet he really really likes to sing Di quella pira and offers more notes written by Verdi than anyone in a long while. So, yes, the aria was sung with such panache that one has to recognize that he truly embodied the gutsy spirit of this score at that moment. Étienne Dupuis is a technical immaculate singer with a beautiful voice. My old school friends would say that he sounds less dark than a couple of Italian tenors, and it would be hard to dispute that. Yet he sang richly and with feeling for the style. He sounded too much like the good guy compared to Eyvazov’s ear-unfriendly tone and not truly refined ways, but again: he sang really well. Finally Roberto Tagliavini was a velvety-toned, characterful Ferrando. Among the small roles, Samy Camps (Ruiz) stood out with a tenor of unusual tonal warmth. Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesueur too was classier than usual as Ines. 

Alex Ollé’s production involves a single set, transformed for every scene by concrete-like slabs inspired by Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Although there is no direct reference, the opera is staged in a WW2-ish setting, everybody carrying guns and lots of people being executed. Although it is effective enough, it fails somehow to provide something really exciting. The whole stage machinery is too complex, slabs being suspended and brought down by cables and everywhere. I imagine that everyone on stage was at some point busy trying not to bump into anything – and there’s a price in terms of naturalness in sets like these in the context of an operatic performance. 

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Some performances catch your attention from moment one because of their excellence, but they can be predictable (because everybody more or less knows how perfection should be), while others are simply fascinating in their imperfection. When it comes to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, one will probably found the second type more often. Not as often as performances that are just uninteresting, I’m afraid. The main reason is that this is a work for a truly great orchestra. If it is just ok, then it won’t be memorable and you’ll know it before you arrive at the opera house. And you still need singers at least apt enough for the conductor to let the orchestra go without having to adjust for a cast not truly up to it.  If you share my opinion, the Opéra de Paris won’t ever deliver a group one Tristan. This evening, my neighbor asked me how was the cast (she had missed act one). When I started to talk about the orchestra, she interrupted me “we all know too well how the orchestra is…”. 

Yet the conductor was Gustavo Dudamel, and I was curious about what he would do. I am always curious about what non-German conductors will make of Tristan, because they weren’t brainwashed into thinking that they have to emulate Furtwängler and end up offering pseudoprofoundness. To be honest, I have never heard Dudamel conduct Wagner and guessed he would offer something very fast, loud and intense. Yet he didn’t. The whole performance was the opposite of that. It is actually difficult to say what it was, for it was something different for every act. 

Act one opened to a very a tempo prelude, the building intensity so gradual that you hardly noticed it. The orchestral sound was airy in the sense that the strings were so smooth in sound (I’m trying not to use the word “thin”) that you could actually hear the woodwind with unusual immediacy. And the beat was flowing and forward moving, which is a good thing. In this act, all events are coming up in the last minute. Everything that didn’t happen during the whole trip from Ireland is happening now, and the audience has to feel it. The problem is that all this repressed energy should be there too – and this evening it all felt like Mahler’s 4th. To be honest, it didn’t bother me – It was a valid approach considering the forces available, and it actually sounded beautiful and transparent. 

When it comes to act 2, the sense of “real time” is not really there anymore. This is a actually a matter of atmosphere. And this is achieved through tonal coloring and a flexible beat. There was a tad more orchestral sound, for the very nature of the first part of the soprano/tenor scene demands it. But the whole act seemed concert-bound in its isolated beautiful elements in a business-like context. 

Only act three actually brought something In terms of story-telling from the orchestra. From that third act, one could see that with experience (and a top level orchestra), Mr. Dudamel could create something worth while the detour. Unfortunately, this new intensity and creativity did not last to point of the Liebestod, here an entirely uneventful affair. 

Now you’ll ask me if the cast was an asset or a liability, and the answer is in between. I’ve read the name of Mary Elizabeth Williams as Isolde with puzzlement. I had seen her Amelia in Verdi’s Ballo with the Welsh National Opera. She did sing well, but the part seemed a bit heavy for her. She has solid technique – and she has been singing increasingly heavier roles. So, no, she did not disgrace herself at all in Wagnerland. This was actually a lesson in how to sing a heavy role. She lightened the tone in every conversation passage, charmed the audience with floating mezza voce whenever she could, worked her acuti from brightness and focus rather than beefing up and only resorted to chesty low notes in congenial phrases. She is a highly musician singer, who sculpted her phrases à lá Margaret Price and tried to respond to every mood shift, yet her manner is diva-ish in an Italianate way. I mean, she didn’t sing it like Puccini, yet she sounded foreign in her carefully pronounced and only occasions mispronounced German, in the way the phrase giving pride of place to word-pointing (for stunning effects sometimes, truth be said), in the recessed quality of her middle register and in the rather bottled-up quality of her high notes. In lyrical passage, the combination of fleece and reed à la Roberta Alexander in her soprano brought a distinctive sensuousness to her singing. In terms of acting, she stroke some big arm movements and responded to every little development in the staging. On one hand, it felt a bit soap opera-ish in its excessively “knowing” quality. On the other hand, it filled a lot of blanks in a vacuous staging. I have to say that I listened to every turn of phrase. She sang the part differently from everyone else – and only in the Liebestod I felt her lacking. 

Even if Okka von der Dammerau was not in her best voice – her calls in act two were flat and unsubtly loud – the natural radiance of her voice (now more soprano in sound that it uses to be) – exposed the prima donna’s lack of Wagnerian raw material. She sang throughout with admirable spontaneity and effortlessness. In terms of acting, she did not seem to have found herself in this production (and I can’t blame her). 

I considered Michael Weinius technically irregular when he sang Tristan in Zurich last year, as if he were trying to make his voice bigger and darker. So I am glad to report an entirely different experience this evening. Here his tenor sounded at its brightest and – in a positive way – lightest. His voice had an immediate, clear sound throughout, and his high g’s and a’s pierced though naturally. He offered a solid act 3, did not sound tired and only cut some high notes a bit short and the tone could seem more Charakter- than Heldentenor. But that’s just a side comment. He even acted with more enthusiasm than in Zurich. A commendable performance. 

Ryan Speedo Green has a voice of Wagnerian proportions (and an ideal stage persona for the role of Kurwenal), yet there is anoverkilling vocal production that stood between him and complete success. Everything is excessively covered, supported, emitted – it is so extenuating that the voice more than once derailed, and it shakes a bit in softer dynamics. It is sad that Eric Owens is past his prime – the voice is quavery and reduced in power these days – for he has the measure of the role of King Marke and did some sensitive things this evening. 

This is the second time I see Peter Sellars production with Bill Viola videos (the first time was in 2008, with Waltraud Meier, Clifton Forbis and Semyon Bychkov), and I realize that I have not changed my mind about it. Reading what I wrote last time, I notice that this evening I preferred to follow the stage action than the videos – and I can’t say that it was for the best. 

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It was not surprising to find a full house this evening in the Opernhaus Zürich. Regula Mühlemann’s is Switzerland’s best known soprano these days, and her recital – the program of which has just been released on disc – is a celebration of all things Swiss in the world of artsong. As a matter of fact, the program, as she very charmingly explained this evening, is not 100% Swiss, for Ms. Mühlemann believes that the connection between one’s feeling for his or her own motherland has very much to do with his or her connection to nature – at once a Romantic concept and also a very Swiss one too. And that is why the program begins and ends with Schubert, whose Lieder are the dictionary example of musical depiction of nature. It doesn’t hurt either that he has many songs about lakes, rivers and mountains. It is also most fortunate that Regula Mühlemann has an ideal voice for his songs. A Schubert soprano must have a completely spontaneous high register, the audience shouldn’t even notice that the tessitura is high in a Schubert song. The voice most sound almost pop-like in absolute purity and naturalness. And that’s what we’ve had this evening. It is not a multicolored or complex sound, but it is a voice admirably free and round considered its absolute lightness. I don’t think it would truly work for a Schumann or a Brahms Liederabend, but in its clarity allied with crystalline diction, expert word-pointing and feeling for the text, it hits home in this repertoire.

Im Frühling is a rather tricky song – it is light in atmosphere, but should suggest melancholy at the same time. I particularly enjoy Cheryl Studer’s recording with Irwin Gage, when the voice has a bright, youthful tone, but enough shading to let us know that these waters are deeper than its shiny surface. This evening, it sounded rather pretty in a very stylish and catchy way. Der Knabe’s played to all her strengths, since this singer has a special ability to drain “pretty” music of all schmaltz and show it as freshly and in bright-eyed a manner as one could possibly imagine. Auf der Strom, in which she was brilliantly partnered by Konstantin Timokhine in the natural French horn, demanded far more from her in terms of volume, tessitura and depth. While the freshness of tone and purity of line were undeniable assets, the competition with the horn made her work a bit harder than one would ideally want for the purpose of really hearing the text. As it was, one could call her interpretation rather “operatic” in the way it had more to do with the embodiment rather than the description of the emotions found in the text. In any case, it was an interesting opportunity to see that this Swiss soprano might develop into a more lyric voice in the future. Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, in which Rita Karin Meier played the clarinet with fine dynamic shading, is, on the other hand, a perfect vehicle for Ms. Mühlemann. She sings it as if she had composed it herself, delivering the text with immediacy and offering immaculate articulation in the closing section.

The Swiss items were all of them new to me – and I could guess to many members in the audience. Wilhelm Baumgartner’s Du bist wie eine Blume made for an opportunity for the audience to hear the Heine text in a different (and yet not that different) setting. Richard Flury’s Wandern mit dir is a jewel of a song – 40% Schumann, 60% R. Strauss. The two items sung in Swiss German brought a richer color in the soprano’s middle register, a phenomenon not uncommon when one sings in the language with which he or she grew up. Marguerite Roesgen-Champion’s mélodies are wonderful in atmosphere, especially Cette étoile perdu, and Ms. Mühlemann proved to have what it takes for music composed in French style, an ideal combination of textual spontaneity in the context of legato. The items in romansh, a bit higher in tessitura, showed all the soprano’s money notes. Ms. Mühlemann’s performances were all superior in the theatre in comparison with what one hears in the recording, Live, her voice opened more richly and floated more in softer dynamics.

The program would feature one more Schubert item – La Pastorella al prato, sung with Mozartian poise, well contrasted to Rossini’s La pastorella dell’Alpi, delivered with spirit and very good Italian.

Pianist Tatiana Karusnskaya’s tonal brightness, rhythmic crispness and cleanliness of texture served well Regula Mühlemann’s lightness of tone and instrumental quality. I confess I expected to hear Schuber’s Schweizerlied – proudly featured in Edith Mathis’s volume in the Hyperion complete edition – as an encore, but we got instead an arrangement for all musicians involved in this concert of the final part of the last movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony.

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