Archive for March, 2023

Maybe twenty years ago, we’d hear old-timers saying that the golden age of Wagner and Verdi singers was over, that all “new” names were Mozart singers. As I had missed the era of Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Margaret Price, Francisco Araiza et al, I couldn’t help thinking my older friends were completely off the mark. They wouldn’t dream that these new “Mozartian” would in two or three years never ever sing Mozart again. As a matter of fact, it would be more accurate to say that the days of Mozartian singing are gone. Opera houses now usually cast their Mozart operas with young members of the ensemble who deal with it as a chore, a joyless experience of being formatted into absolute legato, flawless intonation, immaculate phrasing and perfect coloratura. You can always hear in their voices the hopes of making into a Bohème or a Lohengrin the following season. When you do find the A-team in a Mozart opera, this won’t probably happen in an opera house, but either in a festival (as in Salzburg) or in a concert hall (as in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées) instead. 

A semi-staged Così Fan Tutte had been originally scheduled with the Kammerorchester Basel under Giovanni Antonini with Julia Kleiter (their Donna Anna in their Mozart opera series). However, due to the pandemics, the concerts were postponed, finally taking place this month with a different cast. Although one wouldn’t call it an all-stars enterprise, it did feature of trio of big names in the “historically informed” corners of the classical music scene: Julia Lezhneva as Fiordiligi, Emöke Barath as Dorabella and Sandrine Piau as Despina. These days, this is as close as we can get to glamorous casting, and I wouldn’t risk to miss it.

I have to be honest. After Emmanuelle Haïm’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in Berlin, I wasn’t very excited about hearing Ms. Lezhneva, because she gave me the impression there of undergoing some kind of vocal crisis. I am happy to report that this is not true. This evening she proved to be in her best form. At any rate, this was a vocal display, even if one would think twice before calling it an exemplary rendition of the part of Fiordiligi. It is not as simple as saying “good”, “bad” or “meh”, for it was at once impressive and puzzling. This Russian singer has always been hard to classify – she has been called a mezzo but has often sung soprano music, although her money notes has never been on either extreme of her range. At this point, she manages high tessitura without ado, yet the voice often looses color around a high a, and she tends to cut notes short in those moments. But that’s entirely unimportant. One would rather raise one’s eyebrows because of her peculiar way of building her interpretation around off-pitch effects, emphatic attack, parlando and an occasional yowly attach of individual notes. All this sounds more noticeable because she can otherwise produce crystal-clear Mozartian phrasing and seamless legato, when she does not indulge in episodes of overornamentation — and she often does. Again: this is not a problem. I would bet that Adriana Ferrarese del Bene must have done the same in her days. All that said, Ms. Lezhneva’s jaw-dropping facility with fioriture allows her to sing Mozart’s most excruciating passagework perfectly a tempo, even when the tempo is fast. And the gain in terms of rhythmic clarity is enormous. She also presided the ensembles with a radiating naturalness and floated some beautiful soft high notes. And she knows the text and is reactive to it. The balance was certainly positive, and even in a narcissistic and not 100% stylish way, she brought a diva quality to the game that is sorely missing in this repertoire.

My curiosity about Ms. Barath’s Dorabella remains unsatisfied, for this Hungarian soprano fell ill and was replaced by German mezzo Susan Zarrabi, whose very light mezzo has an irresistible fruity quality. She sang with unfailing charm and showed some joie de chant rare to find in a singer in the role of Dorabella. Sandrine Piau is not a big-theatre singer, and yet Despina is a part that fits her voice. She can produce the quicksilvery sheen expected from a Mozart soubrette, yet is also able to sound unusually full-toned in the big moments. She also has some trumps up her sleeve in what regards low notes. What made her probably the most interesting person on stage this evening, however, was sheer charisma.

Among the men, bass Tommaso Barea stood out with a voice rich, forceful and flexible that shows great potential. His native-speaker’s delivery of the text makes all the difference in the world too. Alasdair Kent’s tenor is not on the dulcet side and is a tad rattling, yet he manages coloratura expertly, marching Ms. Lezhneva’s dexterity in their duet. Konstantin Wolff sounded hoarse as Don Alfonso, and his Italian lacks spontaneity. If he was indisposed, this should have been made known to the audience.

Giovanni Antonini is not the kind of Mozart conductor who transports you to a universe of sensorial bliss. He is fond of raspy strings, spasmodic accents and a rather “dry” orchestral sound. As the Stadtcasino Basel’s acoustics are almost too warm for this repertoire, the effect was of a rather diffuse sound picture. Nevertheless, the rhythmic alertness in a performance with tempi on the fast side made ensembles truly exciting. One could feel the thrill of the risk of dealing with these pages of difficult music for all singers in a breathtaking pace. And after a long diet of bureaucratic Mozart, I did appreciate.


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Although I had bought Mark Elder’s Ring with the Hallé Orchestra when it was released, I actually only listened to it when a friend asked me my impressions of it in comparison to Jaap van Zweden’s set from Hong Kong. This was fortunate because I could read what I wrote then before Mr. Elder’s Siegfried’s act 3 in concert this evening with the Sinfonieorchester Basel featuring the same soprano and tenor as on CD. 

At the time of its release, the Hallé Ring was singled out for its lack of connection to the world of theatre, and one could notice how much the conductor treated the orchestra as the main soloist, highlighting details and shaping perspectives in an almost finicky and not always dramatic way. This evening, the Basel Symphonic Orchestra too played with remarkable attention to detail, with beautifully articulated passagework from the violins, unusual balance between sections, even in the loudest moments and a sense of unrushed yet forward-moving pace. The brass section has its glitches, but all in all this was exciting, big, hallmark late romantic orchestral playing in extremely warm acoustics, what made it difficult for every singer to pierce through in their middle registers. 

In a way, the fact that the conductor did not lighten the orchestral sound for his singers made this evening still more compelling. There was a sense of healthy “competition” between voices and instruments and their combination in climaxes was often thrilling. As mentioned above, one could miss the flair of theatre here too – and yet this felt refreshing in this music often abused in the name of drama (and maybe fatigue after two acts of  athletic singing and playing). 

I have an undying curiosity about Rachel Nicholls, whom I first saw singing Bach with Masaaki Suzuki in Kobe and then as Isolde with Daniele Gatti at the Théâtre de Chamos Elysées. In Paris, I found her singing youthful and effortless and even used the name of Frida Leider as a model (not as a comparison, for the legendary German soprano was incomparable). A friend commented that I was exaggerating, and that Ms. Nicholls distorted her vowels and lacked body in her middle and low registers. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but I thought I had reasons to be enthusiastic. Her singing in the Ring recording showed me a different story. There, I found some of her singing rather tremulous. Today in Basel, yes, one has to acknowledge that the voice is now quite vibrant (a bit too much so around a high f) but that’s less disturbing in the hall. It is now a basically very full sound though the whole range, the middle and low registers less exuberant yet true in color and high notes easy and ringing. In this concert, I thought her readier to soften the tone and produce some beautiful mezza voce than she would in the CDs. She capped the evening with a flashing high C and probably got the greatest share of applause among all soloists. 

Simon O’Neill was very consistent with his work in the recording. The tone is Mime-ish, yet he doesn’t need to muscle up for the acuti due to the very brightness of the tone. Some of the most exposed high notes were actually quite exciting in natural radiance. While Ms. Nicholls tends to sing with a legato-ish line, Mr. O’Neill is a bit choppier and clearer in diction. He doesn’t go for the full-macho approach, what is always a relief in this music. 

Wiebke Lehmkuhl was in excellent voice this evening, offering rich, dark, never harsh sounds in the contralto-end of her voice, and she delivered most of the higher-lying part of the music better than most. Derek Welton is not the most voluminous-voiced Wotan in the world, but his bass-baritone is focused and forceful, the phrasing clear. A highly commendable performance. 

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The last performances of R. Strauss’s Elektra I have seen produced the effect of making me wonder if the violence, the rawness in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s text really mean that Strauss’s score needs to be performed with the on-your-face vehemence of Georg Solti’s studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. The softer approach does make it more relatable and maybe multifaceted etc etc, but after the full-power performance in the Deutsche Oper Berlin this afternoon, all I can say is – nah, I’d still go for good old let-it-rip anytime! 

I had seen conductor Alexander Soddy only once in an exciting account of Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Lindenoper seven years ago, but his name didn’t ring a bell when he was announced as a replacement for Donald Runnicles. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it again. When the orchestra blasted the Agamemnon motive right in the beginning of the opera in a way that you could feel your hair been blown from your head, everybody in the auditorium knew this was not going to be boring at all. If yesterday the brass had their occasional slips in Arabella, this afternoon these musicians established paramount standards only matched by the richness of sound of the strings. At every moment, my expectations in terms of clarity, phrasing, expression, structural understanding were fulfilled by Mr. Soddy and the Deutsche Oper Orchestra to the minimal details.  Now I know how Elektra felt when she recognized Orestes – this is just what we experienced today: here was Elektra in its full and true colors. Bravissimi. 

This is an opera impossible to cast, especially when hell was going loose in the orchestral pit. Every singer on stage had to work hard for their money, and all of them did not seem to resent that. Everyone gave their 100%, each one of them seemed to understand that there was something special going on today. And that alone made this performance even more cherishable, in spite of occasional shortcomings and flaws. 

I had seen Catherine Foster sing the title role twice – in concert (without cuts) in Berlin and in São Paulo in a staging in the Teatro Municipal – and I have always admired her ability to balance the needs of the part in terms of heroic, percussive singing and the more lyric aspects, especially in the recognition scene. Seven years later, after a steady diet of dramatic roles, one cannot truly say she is still in her absolute prime, but nobody can deny she is up to the task. The voice itself now sounds a bit drier and a tad less radiant, yet she rarely disappoints in the key moments, offering some big acuti,  enough verbal acuity and some surprising examples of tonal shading. The messa di voce in “seliger als ich gelebt” alone was worth the ticket price. In terms of acting, it’s admirable how she throws herself into the role without any vanity or self-consciousness – and she manages the moments of irony and provocativeness better than most: 

After a brilliant performance in the role of Christine in Strauss’s Intermezzo in Basel, I expected a little bit more brightness and projection from Fiurina Stucki today. Maybe she was not in her best voice, maybe all the heavy roles she has been singing are to blame. In any case, she has reserves of stamina and tries to make Chrysothemis less passive than what one usually hears. 

Although Karita Mattila has reinvented herself as a mezzo soprano at this stage of her career, here she is going a little bit further into contralto repertoire. She does the trick rather well, but with just enough volume to be heard at all. That said, she made you want to listen to her, for – in spite of all observations – she did sing this difficult part with unusual sense of line and attention to harmonic twists. In terms of characterization, having the charisma for it. she predictably went for broke. When she says “do I look like a sick person?” and awkwardly stroke a grand pose, she proved she belongs here, full stop. 

Tobias Kehrer not only presided over the big orchestra in his singing as Orest, but also did it with deluxe tonal quality. He also managed to suggest the character’s vulnerability in his encounter with Elektra. In a word: bravo!

I realize that I wasn’t enthusiastic about Kirsten Harms’s staging when I saw it 13 years ago in a double bill with Gnecchi’s Cassandra. I can’t say for sure, but I’ve found it marginally more effective this time. Maybe the personalities of all involved steered it towards superior effectiveness. The scene with the dancers in the end, for instance, seemed embarrassing in 2010, but this time the result looked less balletic, Ms. Foster seemed more integrated in the choreography than the soprano in the title role back then. 

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Some operas seem to have been born to be stylized, updated or reinvented, while other titles are resistant to any kind of adaptation. R. Strauss’s and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Arabella goes for group two. There are carnival balls, waltz and champagne galore, girls to be married, concerns about honor and respectability – and yet this all exerts a fascination in a world where people can’t wait for the next season of Downton Abbey (or the new take on Empress Sissi’s life on German TV). Yet director Tobias Kratzer is apparently bothered. Why a work so unrelated to contemporary ethos is still around? And that’s what his new staging for the Deutsche Oper Berlin is about. 

It starts most surprisingly with costumes, sceneries and Personenregie apparently copy-pasted from Otto Schenk. But then you realize that there’s something odd there – the whole thing is so traditional that it veers towards cuteness. And there is a camera crew on stage highlighting some random elements of the scene. Sometimes they would block the view of Arabella’s face to film a vase of flowers, the image of which could be seen on a screen as big as half the scenic space. 

It is only when Arabella and Mandryka finish their duet that we realize that suddenly everybody is dressed as if they were in the 20’s, then the 30’s and so on until we reach the present days by the end of the act. The staging and the plot seem to be increasingly at odds with each other, but it is only in the last act that the growing abyss becomes evident. There are no sceneries, no “costumes” anymore. The “romantic” plot follows its own course on video – with a duel between Matteo and Mandryka, where Zdenka falls as a victim when she tries to interrupt it. On stage, there remains only one common aspect with the film – the transgender character, Zdenko/Zdenka, and that Matteo – very clearly in the libretto – confesses that he somehow sensed he went to bed with his best buddy. Arabella takes her sister’s side no matter what she’s done – “nothing you’d do would make us love you less”. Mandryka follows, the Waldners deem it a happy endings Arabella and Mandryka learn that romantic reverie means nothing. Love is about accepting and not judging. 

Although I have found Mr. Kratzer’s exercise in making sense of Arabella (rather than just accepting it without judging it) compelling, I have to quote Hofmannsthal: „Und in dem „Wie“ da liegt der ganze Unterschied“. Time shifts seemed to be happening a priori. Just like in the Opernhaus Zürich, the Nazis come to brutalize the guests during Fiakermilli’s yodeling. Then everybody gets intoxicated in the 70’s, Adelaide flirts in the clubber scene. So, yes, we could see the connection, and yet Hofmannsthal’s plot gets a bit lost in the middle of all that. We don’t know why a present-day Arabella finds it important to say goodbye to her maidenhood with a waltz, why Adelaide and Waldner are so concerned with damage to their daughter’s reputation in the middle of a party with naked people and drugs etc etc. In its own setting, these things take care of themselves. But once you take these important elements out of context, they need to be redefined in a new web of meaning. The way this was done, there was no time for development and the whole thing felt just thrown at our faces. The sloppiness in the adaptation only had the side effect of making the idea itself – which is not bad per se – questionable. The third act is marginally more successful in the sense that the directorial choices were clear, because there the text offers the director and the audience enough material to chew on. Arabella herself explains she has learned a lesson from Zdenka, she herself doesn’t want to be the woman everybody wanted her to be, she wants a new setting – and that’s precisely what the director gives her, even if the sets at this point were high-school theatre level and the costumes were horrendous (unless there was a point in making the singer in the title role look awful). More than that, I simply find the story as it is more believable than watching a bunch of people in black coming from an electronic music rave remotely interested in a family drama, especially when they gather around Matteo, Zdenka and Arabella in a collective embrace. 

All that said, even with the many and many loose ends in the concept, this was an undeniably valid theatrical experiment that restored the role of Zdenka to its central position in the plot – and if you have in mind the house’s dismal old production, you’ll even find it a win, win situation. 

When it comes to Donald Runnicles’ conducting, the results are also controversial. On one side, there is this ideal late-Romantic plush orchestral sound enveloping singers’ voices – and also a certain understanding of how to create the right atmosphere for each scene. On the other hand, clarity was rarely truly there – the strings phrased rather impressionistically and things tended to be unclear in terms of balance. The second part of act 2 is tricky, and it would be unfair to single out this performance for the sensation of untidiness in those pages that have only made sense when under the baton of genius conductors with the world’s best orchestras. The reason why the usual ungainliness felt doubly damaging this evening lies precisely in the fact that this was also the moment when the staging itself went through its less efficient moment too. 

These performances were announced with Rachel Willis-Sorensen in the title role, only to be replaced by Gabriela Scherer until Sara Jacubiak finally took over the premiere. As I have always been curious to hear Ms. Jacubiak in this part, I deemed it good news. Indeed, this American soprano has an ideal voice for the role. The sound is creamy, big enough, she has a rich middle register that makes her hearable enough in conversational passages and yet she has a non-problematic high register. Especially from act 2 on, she also managed to fine down her voice to softer dynamics and to color the text stylishly and intelligently. Her Arabella isn’t much of the “chic coolness” type à la Lisa della Casa, but rather fun-loving, warm-sounding with a tiny splash of Eleanor Steber (who was even richer in tone and more commanding too). 

Elena Tsallagova is probably the rounder-toned Zdenka I have ever seen live. Even if the old production had Julia Kleiter in the role, Ms. Tsallagova simply projected more forcefully in a way that also fitted this staging’s concept of a Zdenka who does not really want to sound vulnerable at all. She too acted very well. 

At first Robert Watson (Matteo) sounded like an entirely different tenor from the tenor who sang Siegmund in the Lindenoper. In act 1, he showed a tonal sheen new to me and seemed unfazed by the high tessitura. Later on, he would loose focus and increasingly make me remember the impression he caused in that Walküre. 

I hadn’t heard Russel Braun in ages and was surprised to find him again here as Mandryka. He is not the classic Heldenbariton one usually finds in this part, but rather made me think of Bernd Weikl in the natural brightness of his high register and the tasteful phrasing. Even announced as indisposed, he sang healthily and with great animation. 

This performance was filmed for German TV and is supposed to be released on DVD too. Although there was some booing in the end (both for stage director and conductor), the audience received it with applause. At some point, a group of people who were cheering it enthusiastically was questioned by a lady near them, “are you friends of the director?”. Yes, I can see her point, this wasn’t flawless, and yet I doubt you could find a performance these days with a more solid cast together with a world-class orchestra… and a staging at least worth while discussing.

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Before I wrote the first word in this text, I’ve really had to ponder a lot about my impressions of this evening. When I thought that I could have been in Trogen listening to Bach rather than here watching a staging that could be described as “embarrassing”, it was hard to be objective. 

There are many productions of Salome that turn around about child abuse, but I have never thought I would see one that made people laugh, as this evening with Claus Guth’s, first seen in the Deutsche Oper in 2016. You know when a comedy movie has a scene when someone takes a character to the theatre to see “intellectually profound” staging and the whole thing is a joke? Here we have it all – the spotlighting against a dark background with characters moving like zombies, shopwindow mannequins being beheaded, lots of extras doing the same character, the whole textbook of eurotrash used without looking back. Herod is a high-profile tailor – there are suits and neckties everywhere, Salome fantasizes about a Jochanaan who is a a doppelgänger of her stepfather, momma dresses like Cruella DeVil and looks the other way and, in the end, when Salome has had her little bourgeois catharsis with grand orchestra and tons of Leitmotifs, she gets her overcoat and leaves. 

Anyone willing to perform in a nonsense-fest like that deserves praises, but the truth is that no one in the cast had their moment of glory this evening. If Vida Mikneviciute (Salome) sang smoothly and without any sign of fatigue in a role evidently heavy for her voice, she sounded small-scaled, fluttery, often colorless and not faultless in terms of intonation. Jordan Shanahan’s bass baritone is three sizes smaller than the the part, and his darkened vowels did not help a lot in terms of projection. The tone itself is apt for the role and he is definitely is a trouper in his disposition of running to and fro in his underwear while trying to pierce through the orchestra. If Thomas Blondelle’s attempt of producing heroic high notes often resulted a greyish sound and his acting had more than a splash of exaggeration, his Herod brought variety and animation to a show dismal by definition. 

It is difficult to assess Axel Kober’s conducting this evenings, for he was too busy in his traffic cop duties of reining the orchestra in so that his light-voices cast could be heard at all, while trying to preserve the torso of this score’s structure. Luckily, the Deutsche Oper Orchestra was able to retain some tonal refulgente in those circumstances, and this alone made the experience less of a disappointment. 

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After a promising start with Das Rheingold, Zurich’s new Ring took a dubious turn with a lacklustre Walküre, musically and dramatically all over the place. I had misgivings about Siegfried. It it is always the one scheduled for a Thursday in a one-week cycle, and I’ve been through performances of this work in which I was basically very tired. After a day in the office, I braced for a second shift in the opera house. Well, things turned out quite differently. Even at its less exciting, this was an interesting account of the third instalment of the Ring. “Interesting” is a word nobody likes to use but me. If a long opera performance can keep your interest after hours, then this is something that deserves mention. Siegfried is the testosterone-high opera in the tetralogy – the tenor works hard to produce big Spitzentöne and is half-dead by the end of act 2, the whole thing is usually brassy and massive, the acting is heavy-footed, everything is written in capital letters. This is why I was so surprised when the word “Mendelsohnian” occurred to me when I tried to make sense of what I was hearing.

The Zurich Ring can’t help being a fascinating experience: it is not a Wagnerian temple by any definition, it is a small venue, its orchestra is not Germany-level, the Italian conductor is almost asking the audience permission to dare to step into this repertoire and the casting has some surprising names in key roles. In other words, the creative team here cannot fly on autopilot here – you need a concept to make sense of all that. I mean, you could try your luck and see what happens (as it seems to have been the case with Die Walküre), but, well, better not. Here, however, the fact that the world’s official Lohengrin, Klaus Florian Vogt, was debuting in the title role obliged both conductor and stage director to make adjustments. In musical terms, decisions had to be made in terms of volume, tempo and phrasing. Basically, conductor Gianandrea Noseda established an airy orchestral sound, a very regular beat and an approach that meant that everything should be clear and transparent. This all sounds obvious and predictable, but in practical terms it is less simple than it seems at first. And that is why everything was so interesting. The first scenes, for instance, seemed a bit empty without huge and/or penetrating tenor voices and a certain roughness and boldness of sound. When a bass-baritone of heroic proportions (i.e., our Wotan) made his appearance, the proceedings seemed to go into a more classically Wagnerian direction, the orchestra was louder when he was on, for instance. But again the Mime/Wotan scene is one of those really challenging scenes for not truly experienced Wagner conductors – it is looser in structure and the maestro has to work hard to give it coherence. A regular beat seems like a good idea, but it rarely works – the music is Protean by nature and it required a great deal of micromanagement from the maestro if he wants to produce a sense of dramatic effectiveness. Then we reached the scene with the forging song. I cannot truly say that this was the most exciting Wagnerian display in my life, but it was so refreshing to hear it as just like… a song. The tempo was comfortable, the tenor didn’t produce any wow-ish high note, but it all felt cantabile and organic – and maybe truer to the scene. This is no confrontation – it’s just Siegfried confidently forging his song in very good mood, while Mime is happy too that his plan is starting to look like it’s gonna happen. Even if the house orchestra is not competitive if one thinks of what goes on in Berlin, Munich, Dresden or Vienna, the strings were flexible enough and there was a lot of Italianate zipping passagework (which I always like in Wagner).

Siegfried rarely sounds long-winded, there is a lot going on musically and in terms of plot, but this evening it felt almost short. One hardly noticed how long the opera actually is. The second act is the one naturally apter for the lighter approach. All dramatic confrontations actually abound in humor: Wotan makes fun of Alberich, the dragon makes of everybody, the woodbird scenes are pure slapstick, everybody is mid-laugh when Mime is murdered. If that was the best part of this evening, this also means that the third act was the less immediately successful. Yes, the Erda/Wotan scene is the more classically Wagnerian moment in the score and it needed more orchestral weight and Furtwänglerian “profoundness” to reach its ideal effect. The Siegfried/Wanderer encounter too could have done with a little bit more “danger”. I haven’t made my mind about the Brünnhilde/Siegfried “duet”. On one hand, it was refreshing to hear it sung like a love scene, nobody screaming, nobody tired and a Weberian orchestra. On the other hand, this scene needs a deluxe string section to live up to its full potential.

To make complete sense, any report about this evening’s performance needed to talk about the cast in the context of the conducting, so intimate was the relation between these two elements. It is difficult to determine what is cause and what is consequence, but that would have been very difficult to read. So let’s make it the traditional way. It is impossible not to start with Mr. Vogt. His voice is so sui generis in its effortless and almost bodiless spontaneity that some people cal him Heldenchorknabe. I had seen him as Siegmund in Munich some years ago and it felt just weird. The reason is that his low register is hardly supported, and that is a problem for a low-lying role such as the one in Die Walküre. Here, the low register was the permanent snag in his performance – one could hardly hear the end of words and the intonation was not faultless down there. The lack of core in the classically heroic passages – i.e., exposed high notes and singing around the passaggio over the full orchestra – was surprisingly not a problem per se, but it was odd. The first impression was not positive – it felt like someone rehearsing the part and not truly singing it. But then you realized that, probably for the first time, there was a tenor basically not screaming. Tamino-ish as his singing was, there was a positive effect in the sense of its cantabile quality – some passages really sounded like music – and he never, ever felt tired during the whole opera. I don’t know if I would always like to hear the part sung that way, and I can’t imagine it sung this way in a big house, but it was really mesmerizing to hear that. In terms of interpretation, the fact that this Siegfried was Mozartian in sound makes it impossible for the director to make him the boorish fellow we usually see. And there I find that the casting of Mr. Vogt was an asset in theatrical terms. I probably never liked the guy Siegfried as much as I did this evening. Today I could only see someone dealing with an abusive childhood and inexplicably ready to love. If we think of what is going to happen in Götterdämmerung, this approach to Siegfried makes a lot of sense. Here’s a man who always dreamed of loving and being loved – he cannot resist it. He’ll never had enough – he can’t help responding to being liked. It’s his greatest asset and his greatest liability at the same time. It is no wonder that Brünnhilde responds to both sides of this very same thing in such extreme and ambiguous way.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is an experienced Mime who unfortunately was not in his best voice (his high notes remained unfocused during the whole evening) and who either did not find himself in this production or was not directed into something coherent in this production. I’ve seen him sing the part in Munich, and I could recognise part of his routine here, which always veers toward the purely comic and cute-ish. And this staging really, I mean REALLY needed a dangerous Mime. I can’t help thinking of what Wolfgang Schmidt did in Bayreuth – singing like a Charaktertenor when Mime was playing harmless and unleashing a full heroic sound when he was showing his true colours. A heroic Mime this evening against Mr. Vogt’s smooth Siegfried would have been truly groundbreaking in terms of Musikdrama. I would have loved seeing and hearing something like that.

The Siegfried Brünnhilde is the one that always works better for more lyric sopranos. I’m speaking a lot about the Munich Ring here, but I remember well how Catherine Naglestad did some stunning things there. That is why I expected that Camilla Nylund would have a ball with it. Yet I think she was just not in her best voice today, and I would believe if someone tells me “you know, the day I saw she was great”. This evening, she took a long while to warm. Only in the second half of the duet her high register acquired the necessary focus (and she did a hell of a high c in the end of the opera). Before that, she sang with her costumery tonal warmth, musicianship and commitment, but it all basically lacked projection. It is difficult to find a contralto who shines in Siegfried in the same manner she did in Das Rheingold, and one could say Anna Danik was no exception. That said, I don’t think she was in her best voice either. One could hear her fighting with her low register and making everything to focus the sound in her bottom register.

I can’t help thinking that the role of Alberich is too high for Christopher Purves, who clearly knows everything one needs to play this character. However, his upper register fails to pierce through and there is a lot of acting with the voice to make up for it, most of which was covered by the orchestra anyway. He couldn’t help being overshadowed by Tomasz Konieczny, whose voice is simply too big and forceful to go unnoticed and – I’ll say this for the 100th time – who also happened to be the best Alberich I have ever seen. In any case, the Wanderer is his best Wotan in the tetralogy. Here a noble sound is less important, and Mr. Konieczny plays the irony and the bitterness in the text very aptly. David Leigh is one of the few Fafners I have ever seen who sounds as dark and voluminous on stage as offstage (when the amplification always makes the real thing a bit disappointing).

Although Andreas Homoki’s Ring is mostly decorative, I would say I liked the Siegfried better than the two previous instalments. Maybe because the story is more visual, his highly designed fidelity to the libretto (there is a forge, there is even a dragon) are more effective than elsewhere. Moreover, the above-mentioned take on the title role made you look at some scenes from an entirely new angle. I still find that the permanent rotation of the sceneries distracting, the whole idea behind the woodbird guiding dead people into the next life kitsch and the magic fire totally hanging fire, but this time I found there was more to deal with in purely practical terms. It remains quite blank in terms of concept, though.

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I am myself puzzled by what I have written about Asmik Grigorian. I first saw her as Marie in Salzburg, and I wasn’t truly impressed. I remember that the voice sounded metallic to my ears. Then she was hailed everywhere as the new big name in soprano-dom. And I thought “The Marie?!” So I made a point of hearing her live again, and caught her Jenufa in Berlin. The word “metallic” did not occur to me at all, but I did write “her voice pierce through but rather stayed on stage”. Last time I saw her it was in Salzburg’s Trittico and I could finally understand why she is so popular these days. It is a voice as we haven’t heard in a while – a bright, focused sound that withstands heavier parts without ever loosing its lightness of tone. I even mentioned Julia Varady to establish some comparison. When I realized I could see one her Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninov song recital in Zurich, I did not want to miss an opportunity to see a new size of her career.

I am not a specialist in Russian songs, but I have always understood why they are so appealing to opera singers in piano recital: they use the full range of one’s voice with suitable piano accompaniment rather than the reductions in vocal scores of operatic repertoire, which always sound a bit meh. In the Tchaikovsky-only first part of the program, Ms. Grigorian caught me by surprise. She sang Sred shumnovo bala with true Innigkeit, a voice so spontaneous that you could think she was a pop singer (with a hidden microphone…). It was an example of how create the illusion of intimacy in a great hall. Then she sang one of my favorite songs by Tchaikovsky, Snova, kak prezhde, the recording of which with Olga Borodina is the theme of one Music Lounge. Again, she opened the song with this gorgeously, spontaneous voice, it could be Ella Fitzgerald singing that song. But it is not only the quality of the voice, but the absolute innate musicianship with which she delivered these lines. And then, in the middle section she really wowed the audience by the way she produce a steady crescendo without ever sacrificing tonal quality. In the end, she was truly loud, yet the voice retained almost unbelievable purity. Every other item in the Tchaikovsky part of the program (op. 6/6, op.6/4, op. 47/5 and op. 57/3) offered this ideal combination of vocal glamour, musical sincerity and intensity. I was also mesmerized by the way pianist Lukas Geniusas produced sounds of pure velvet in the context of legato so seamless you could always believe that the piano was bowed string instrument.

After the intermission we mostly heard Rachmaninov, and the change in atmosphere was such that I took a while to adjust. I am used to hear V molchan’i nochi tajnoj sung with in a slower tempo and with a more sensuous approach. Here Ms. Grigorian sounded to my ears a tad too operatic and the piano almost sprightly. Ne poj krasavitsa too is a song where the atmosphere is rather melancholic, with singers showing off their mezza voce in the final part of the song. This evening, this item too seemed a bit too objective (and the tempo a bit fast and the piano a bit short in legato). Then we reached Jeshchjo v poljakh belejet sneg, which is supposed to be performed in bold letters. Ms. Grigorian and Msr. Geniusas did not hang fire – she producing truly forceful, firm, lustrous acuti and he providing the kind of powerful pianism one associates with the Russian repertoire. The second group of Rachmaninov songs started on a very positive note with the very famous Zdes choroso, performed with the right sense of delicate passion in an unrushed pace. The difficult pianissimo in the end could be smoother, but that’s me being picky. It was a beautiful rendition of this exquisite piece. After that the program took a steady course to a powerful account of Dissonans – the glass in the hall’s candelabra must be still shaking while I write this. I cannot forget to mention that Ms. Geniusas played every one of the Tchaikovsky soli piano items (op.5, op. 19/2 and op. 59) with a wide dynamic range and a true ability of “story telling”, not to mention some breathtaking ease with passagework.

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R. Strauss’s and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s experiments with Greek mythology are like icebergs: the largest part of the structure is the one you don’t see. At its best, as in Elektra, their collaboration does not really require that you sink below water level to grasp the full concept. Both parts – the one shown to you and the one you have to discover are perfectly mirrored and related. At its less functional, as in Die ägyptische Helena, you are well aware that you’re just starting at the tip of it. In any case, overwrought and excessive as Hofmannsthal’s concoctions were, they were pretty much organic in the poet’s mind and he was always ready to explain the whole thing if you asked him. 

I am not sure that this was the case with Joseph Gregor when he wrote the libretto of Daphne for Richard Strauss. The composer almost drove him crazy blaming the librettist for the unforgivable crime of not being Hofmannsthal – and, worse, at some point decided to be the Hofmannsthal in the relation, trying to pile up layers of philosophical references to this mythic episode not truly capable of carrying all the weight. Anyway, prima lá musica. What at first might sound a high-level exercise of development of a not truly inspired musical material (I have previously referred to this score with words like these) turns out to be an admirable attempt at a sustained atmosphere of elegiac, pure, almost abstract beauty, which is more or less what Daphne herself is experiencing on stage. 

In other words, this work is far more challenging for the stage director than for the conductor. And I am afraid that Romeo Castellucci’s own personal web of aesthetic and intellectual connections has not made it simpler for all involved. For the audience, one could say that the effect is rather alienating. This bucolic tragedy is here set in a frozen landscape where Daphne’s tree is just a stub. Although the costumes are almost prosaic — everybody in down hoodies but Daphne, whose intimate relationship to mature means she must be in her underwear — Apollo introduces himself as a shepherd in an Armani suit. The invernal setting is not a drawback per se. We get it that it is an image of a nature that refuses to blossom or even of a world shorn of an idealized innocence. The problem is rather than it just does not fit the story or the music. Nevertheless, the problem lies rather in the added upon profoundness – Leukippo’s blood ia stored in a plastic fuel container on a pedestal with the letter ER. When Apollo changes his white suit for a black one and acknowledges the murder of the young man, he turns the pedestal and now we can read SIE. Then I realized those were German words. Previously, when he places his Armani overcoat on Daphne’s shoulders we could read “Vera”, which is no German word, unless you’re referring to the civil name of the singer in the title role. When Daphne’s mystical transformation is announced by apparition of the frontispiece of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland’s first edition in gigantic proportion, that was the moment a friend should have told him “please, don’t – we have already got it”. Anyway, Mr. Castellucci’s pleasure was not entirely solitary – the dreamlike scenery somehow invited the audience to contemplative mood, which is a good way of experience the serene beauty of the music.

After a rather disheartening experience of square conducting in the Lindenoper’s new Ring, I had low expectations for this evening’s Daphne. Although I don’t mean that this is a score that conducts itself, differently from Wagner, R. Strauss is a composer who leaves very little for the conductor to figure out in terms of structure. “Pretend it’s Così fan tutte” very much covers 75% of what you have to do. And yet, easier said than done. In a multitextured, coloristic work such as Daphne, achieving a concertante effect as in a Mozart opera requires lots of discipline, and most conductors would rather set for a classic Romantic string-centered sound rather than the chamber ensemble effect you’d find in Karl Böhm’s live or Bernard Haitink’s studio recordings. This evening, Mr. Guggeis found a most satisfying balance between these two perspectives – the filigree was very much present on the surface of a warm and full-bodied but not heavy basic orchestral sound. Tempo moved forward naturally, singers had all their needs cared for. In a word, everything sounded exquisite as it should. As the cast was mostly top notch, one can call this a successful performance no matter what. 

I had never heard Vera-Lotte Boecker before and one can’t help being impressed by what she brings to the game. Her reedy soprano has a bright edge that pierces through the orchestra without great difficulty and by virtue of spinning exposed acuti rather than pushing or forcing, she sounds poised even in the most outspoken moments. The whole approach is very German in sound and one won’t find here the creaminess of, say, Renée Fleming, yet the crystalline sound of her voice, the tasteful, musicianly phrasing, the verbal acuity, the naturalness more than covered everything a soprano needs to succeed here. Moreover, she has an ideal physique for the role and is a committed actress too. 

Replacing Linard Vrielink, Magnus Dietrich first caused a puzzling impression with a tenor too dark in sound for a tenor as light as his. If the tonal quality was pleasant per se, one felt something missing, almost as if we had a baritone in a tenor role. In his confrontation scene, he proved to muscle up for some full sounds above the passaggio. Yet I have the impression it must be exhausting to sing high-lying music written for the tenor voice that way. He too had an ideal boyish stage presence and physique for the role of Leukippos. To be honest, when I first read the name of Pavel Cernoch in the cast, I thought he would sing that part. Let’s not forget that this was Fritz Wunderlich’s role in Karl Böhm’s Salzburg performances — and one could say that this legendary German tenor offered something more ringing in terms of high notes than Mr. Cernoch did as Apollo this evening. Firm as his high register is, it is also a tad bottled up and lacking squillo in a part one would call “heroic” (Wunderlich sang it against James King’s Apollo). 

Even if not in his most resonant voice, René Pape was a glamorous piece of casting as Peneios, and Anna Kissjudit brought a deluxe contralto to the part of Gaea. All minor roles were brilliantly taken by members of the ensemble such as Evelin Novak, Natalia Skycka, Florian Hoffmann and Arttu Kataja. 

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The fact that Korngold was a household name in German-speaking countries at the time his operas were premiered with glamorous casts and conductors only to fall from popularity has made him the item of choice when one thinks of neglected repertoire. Theatres willing to offer their audiences something different have increasingly scheduled Die tote Stadt in their seasons, and it’s become less of a rarity. 

I saw Korngold’s most famous opera only once some years ago in Tokyo, and to be honest: I’ve found it kitsch beyond rescue. Yet I thought it would be a shame to miss this revival of Christof Loy’s production of Das Wunder der Heliane in the Deutsche Oper Berlin and got acquainted with it with the help of John Mauceri’s Decca studio CD’s (which happened to be recorded in Berlin too). My first impression is that the libretto gives Die tote Stadt’s a run for its money in kitsch. Although the music itself is to my ears superior in quality, there are also invisible choruses commenting about the power of love, an amazing amount of notes for harps and celesta, and I can’t say that I was fully convinced it was worth the detour. 

Thirty minutes into this evening’s performance, I couldn’t help thinking that Mauceri’s recording was more transparent than what I was hearing. Then I realized that I was actually enjoying it more in the theatre. The Deutsche Oper has a reputation as Wagner orchestra, with massive strings and a powerful brass section. In this context, Korngold’s glittery effects rather than superimpose on the basic orchestral sound, blended into the sound of the strings, coloring it in a very much late Romantic aural picture. This might suggest that this was heavyweight music making, but this was definitely not the case. Conductor Marc Albrecht could at once keep the volume of sound in a level that did not make violence to the cast and yet retained its full color and also keep the proceedings moving forward excitingly. Sometimes you would feel that things were on the brink of getting out of control, but Mr Albrecht proved you wrong: he knows exactly how far he can go to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. To make things better, the chorus too was in top form, producing powerful singing throughout. 

This 2018 production has been released on DVD, and Sara Jakubiak still appears in the title role. In Mauceri’s recording, Anna Tomowa-Sintow causes an immediate impression with her floating mezza voce that suggest the character’s angelic quality. In comparison, Ms. Jakubiak sounds at first more earthbound. However, when things reach white heat level, she responds with such richness of tone and intensity that it is simply hard to resist. I don’t think anyone can actually sing the opera’s big aria better than her. The fact that she also acted in the grand manner made hers an all-round compelling performance. 

The tenor originally scheduled to sing this month has fallen ill and one show even had to be cancelled. This evening was rescued from the same fate by tenor Daniel Kirch, who was flown from Stuttgart where he had sung the role of Siegfried in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung yesterday only to return tomorrow to sing the role again. As he does not know the production, he sang from one corner of the stage, while the Spielleiterin acted the part. In these circumstances, we can only appreciate the fact that he was willing to go through all this trouble to save the evening. I would only say that the production could have found him a more acoustics-friendly spot. As soon as he stepped on stage for the final scene, one could feel how easier it could have been if he had been there (or anywhere more favorable to a singer) from the beginning. 

Even if the voice is one size smaller than the part of the Ruler, Jordan Shanahan sang richly and in very clear German. At any rate, a performance more solid than Hartmut Welker’s in the studio recording, Derek Welton is the other only repeater from the DVDs in the role of the Doorman. He sang firmly and only sounded a bit tired by the end of his final solo. Maaiju Vaahtoluoto (The Messenger) too is preferable to Reinhild Runkel in Mauceri’s CDs. 

Christof Loy’s production, as seen on video, is, well,  a Christof Loy production. While one can legitimately claim that he or she has already seen it somewhere else (the same company’s Der Schatzgräber, for example), it works. Its cleanliness offsets a great deal of the libretto’s excess, the Personenregie is effective and the two key scenes didn’t hang fire: the nudity episode was extremely well done, the singer was comfortable with it and produced the right effect in it, and one could feel the frisson in the audience during the resurrection scene. 

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One notable and praiseworthy aspect of the Berlin Philharmonic is the acknowledgment of the importance of performing baroque music from a stylistically valid point of view. I mean, the whole concept of a symphonic orchestra is foreign to baroque aesthetics in terms of size, sound culture, musical direction, performing venue – and yet the music of Bach, Handel and even Vivaldi (via Bach) are in the DNA of a great share of the symphonic repertoire. And an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic only gains from trying to experience this universe. I actually first saw the BPO in a Bach program with Claudio Abbado, and one cannot deny how much the orchestra has learned in terms of lightness and clarity since then. Later I could see it conducted by the likes of Ton Koopman… and Emmanuelle Haïm. 

Ms. Haïm concert back then involved some Berlin premieres of many Rameau’s orchestral numbers from stage music and excerpts of Handel’s Water Music. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, because she managed to bring her own historically informed approach without ever trying to make the Berliners sound like her own Concert d’Astrée. On the contrary, she seemed to be open to dialogue with the BPO’s tradition and create something that felt legitimate to all involved. 

This is why I could not miss the opportunity of hearing them again in Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. Ms. Haïm’s recording was something of a turning point in the discography – it features the most glamorous cast one could think of and a theatrical approach that some thought to be sometimes too broad. Predictably, the collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic made the results a little bit more polite in terms of gesture, but surprisingly revelatory in terms of clarity, with amazing interplay between sections. The conductor’s hallmark is arguably her rhythmic crispness. With her, music always seems to dance – and she does not need to make everything overfast to achieve this. Today, many numbers were performed slower than in her recording, but they still sounded animated and forward-moving and filled with life. If there was one moment when I felt that the concept seemed overcooked, this was sadly the closing aria. The more sustained orchestral sound, and a violin solo that felt a bit syrupy in its ornamentation and resource to vibrato defeated – to my ears – the purpose of it. Here we must experience the proceedings stripped to the bone, the orchestra must sound almost dead. We must reach another level of beauty beyond pleasantness or even emotionalism. Only the soprano is entitled to decoration, exclusively as a means of expressing spiritual exaltation, her being transported higher and higher. And here we must speak of the peculiar group of soloists in this performance. 

Elsa Benoit’s shimmering, creamy soprano makes one immediately think of Mozart rather than Handel. It sounds like the sexy version of Luba Orgonasová’s voice. She sang with unfailing charm and beauty of tone. Yet her voice is more central than those of every other singer I have heard in the part either live or in recordings, and that also made her sound less ecstatic in the closing aria too, when she had to tread a bit more cautiously. 

I haven’t seen Julia Lezhneva (replacing Franco Fagioli) in a long while, and it is difficult therefore for me to explain her performance this evening. Ten years ago, my impression was of an utterly stylish singer with absolute ease and finish. This is why I was surprised to hear a somewhat dryish sound in the middle register,  tense top notes, some sliding into notes and wayward intonation. All that seemed to be part of a concept in which the “role” of Pleasure was shown under a psychotic light, an interesting if stylistically questionable idea. The fact that Lascia la spina received the same treatment makes me wonder how intentional the whole thing was. In any case, she could wow the audience with her legendary command of fast fioriture in Un pensiero nemico di pace and Come nembo che fugge. 

Iestyn Davies sang in a pure-toned, instrumental countertenor, phrasing with elegance and sensitivity, shining in moments like the A section of Crede l’uom. When one is used to contraltos in the part of Disinganno, his contributions in the quartet could be sometimes too discreet. One normally hears more dulcet, typically Handelian tenors in the part of Tempo, and I needed some time to adjust to Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani’s Charaktertenor. Delivering the text in his native language, he made a great deal of the text, and yet a little bit more smoothness and steadiness would have made some difference. 

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