Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

In its yearly Wagner offering, the Tokyo Spring Festival goes a step further in its Ring cycle conducted by Marek Janowski featuring international casts (some singers from Janowski’s Wagner series recorded live in the Philharmonie in Berlin appear here too) with two concert performances of Die Walküre. In order to add some theatrical flavor to the proceedings, video projections depicting the sets for each act are shown, although none of these images are remotely as expressive as Waltraud Meier’s face.

The German mezzo, in excellent voice this afternoon, has adapted her Sieglinde to her present lighter-voiced self, building a particularly vulnerable and touching character, especially in act III when she thanks Brünnhilde for saving her life with palpable sense of awe and fervor. Without any doubt, I would call this the best Sieglinde I’ve heard from her in recent years. It was also fortunate that Catherine Foster too was in great shape, offering here a Brünnhilde more smoothly and sensitively sung rather than either in Bayreuth or in Berlin. Elisabeth Kulman’s Fricka is a lesson in how building a dramatic performance with a lyric voice: her mezzo is ideally focused in every register; the crystal-clear diction and the rhythmic accuracy make for unfailing incisiveness; and she handles the text with imagination and intelligence. Robert Dean Smith is, as always, a light Siegmund, with ideal legato and dynamic variety, but some might miss some radiance in his high notes. Egils Silins is a vocally unproblematic yet monochromatic and not truly subtle Wotan. In Sung Sim is a powerful and dark-toned Hunding. The team of Japanese valkyries was rather irregular, especially among the lower-voiced singers.

Maestro Janowski led a forward-moving and rhythmic alert performance that responded competently to some practical problems: a fast account of Wotan’s big act II monologue to compensate for a not particularly expressive soloist, for example. He demanded everything from the NHK Symphony Orchestra, which, inspired by Rainer Küchl’s ad hoc activity as spalla, worked hard for a bright, focused sound à la Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians produced some praiseworthy passagework in the end of act I, but the strife for clarity in the Walkürenritt ultimately brought about an impression of disjointedness. At some point, one could feel a sense of exhaustion, but giving up was fortunately never an option this afternoon. This performance only confirms the NHK SO’s Wagnerian potential still to yield interesting results as this ring cycle progresses.

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Gilbert Deflo’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut  (a co-production with the Deutsche Oper Berlin actually) is entirely free of any Regie approach – it just tells the story in some sort of foolproof way that involves minimalistic sets/elaborate costumes combo. There is not much of a Personenregie either, but I would rather say that this wise choice under the circumstances. In any case, some things could be refined: for instance, when Des Grieux comes to prevent Manon to board the ship to Louisiana, the other deportees act as nothing were happening (what is VERY unlikely). Also, Geronte has the gait of an elderly man, but has no problem in reaching things on the floor and then getting up.

Pier Giorgio Morandi is usually a reliable conductor in this repertoire – and he did get things moving on, but “passion” is not the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra’s specialty. The score requires plenty of that, but here the replacement was “brassiness”. As a result, the overall impression was of bureaucratic noisiness. At least, singers were given enough leeway to take care of the interpretation department.

Svetla Vassileva is something of a director’s dream casting for the role of Manon: she has the looks and – although her Manon is too much of a good girl (at least in this production) – the attitude. I would not say she truly has the voice for it, but her lyric soprano can deal with it without much problem. Her soprano has a Freni-like shimmering quality that can get quite vibrant at times, but a very warmth and velventiness of her soprano eschews hints of what some call “Slavic” vibrato. She manages the passaggio very adeptly and deals with the low tessitura seamlessly and without any vulgarity. She can still be overshadowed by the orchestra down there (as in Sola, perduta, abbandonata), but compensates with sensitive shading and beautiful mezza voce now and then, not to mention flexibility and charm in the act II gavotte. The natural feeling for Italian style and the fact that she seems to inhabit her text and notes adds up to a pleasing if not truly moving performance. I have the impression that purely lyric roles would show her more advantageously. After seeing Gustavo Porta as an unsubtle Canio some months ago, I was not really looking forward for this afternoon. I am glad to report that his Des Grieux was a different story. I found the voice stronger-centered and a bit darker in sound. As in the NNT’s Pagliacci, he deals with heroic high notes without effort, but proved to be capable of some nuance too: he scaled down for piano quite often and even floated mezza voce once or twice. His line was also clean of some vulgarities some tenors sell as “verismo style”, but calling it “elegant” would be a stretch. There are moments of flutter and he seemed a bit tired in No, pazzo son. Dalibor Jenis was a congenial Lescaut, in particularly good voice today.

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The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and its musical director, Jonathan Nott, have offered today excerpts of Wagner’s Parsifal paired with Alban Berg’s Three Pieces from the Lyrische Suite as opening item. I have seen the Tokyo Symphony play Wagner at the New National Theatre a couple of times and I confess I was not very enthusiastic about this. Although there was some finely focused pianissimo in Berg’s highly atmospheric pieces, the final impression was of lack of variety and clarity. It is not fair to compare it to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, but, well, it has confirmed my impression.

Although the orchestra did fare better in a strange composite of Parsifal’s Prelude, plus the long Kundry/Parsifal scene in act II (without the flower maidens and Klingsor) and – most anticlimactically – further into the Karfreitagzauber after a series of shortcuts, the impression of lack of expansion persisted: one could feel as if listening to a radio recording with compressed range. Jonathan Nott’s didactical conducting adding very little sense of drama to the proceedings: slow tempi, his beat quite a tempo, reduced sense of continuity (the pauses in the overture sounding like interruptions rather than breathing points), very little nuance but everything made very clear (a recessed string section’s “positive collateral effect?”).

If the concert had any interest it is related to the very unusual appearance of Alexandrina Pendatchanska (why “Alex Penda”?!) as Kundry. Last time I checked a Kundry who also sings Rossini… this was… not Maria Callas… Agnes Baltsa has done it after that… and maybe Doris Soffel*. Anyway, once she had sung Salome, Pendatchanska must have started to wonder if there were more ahead in terms of German repertoire for her. Hers is a very particular voice – in her first appearances, it had a squally, piercing quality that made it a bit difficult to appreciate her flexibility and long range. Then she had put herself under the guidance of René Jacobs, who led her through Handel, Haydn and Mozart towards a more relaxed vocal production, legato and an ampler tonal palette. And now she found her way back into Romantic repertoire.

First of all, it would be unfair to call this her “final product” in terms of Wagnerian singing, but rather an early experiment made in safe conditions (a concert performance of a single scene in a non-German speaking country). One could see a certain anxiety, a concern in not losing sight of the score and some uneasiness in terms of interpretation until the very difficult end, when – not really curiously – one could finally see that she was finally “doing her thing”. All of this is perfectly understandable: this is no small challenge. First, although she can produce very forceful high and low notes, her voice is not of Wagnerian proportions. And one can clearly hear that when she is in the middle register, where there are no special effects to be played. Second, although she clearly knows the text, her German is still a bit artificial, “i” sounds like “ee”, “e” too often sounds like the one in “get” and “ch” still needs considerable work. Also, sometimes the wrong syllable is too heavily accented, especially when she resorts to chest voice to get to the end of a low-lying phrase (in Verdi, this usually works, because he probably had in mind that his singers would do something like that). Third, there is still a sense that she is trying to do it correctly, as if she had listened to Waltraud Meier’s recording one hundred times to get it right.

All this considered, this was still very fascinating for anyone interested in voice, technique and national styles. Ms. Penda could teach a lesson in breath control to many Wagnerian singers. She takes legato very seriously and would not adopt the usual pause between verb and object to gain an extra breath. For instance, phrases like “wann dann ihr Arm dich wütend umschlang” or “So war es mein Kuss, der welt-hellsichtig dich machte?” were sung in a single breath without any hint of constriction or strain by the end of them. Also, some of her most exciting high notes were sang without forcing or pushing, but span freely and roundly. One might argue that some effect of emphasis in key words were lost in this kind of approach. I wouldn’t disagree, but I would rather hear someone who chooses to do that rather than someone who cannot do it otherwise. And it’s easier to learn German than breath support technique. And there is the matter of style  – while the use of portamento (such as in “Fern – fern – ist meine Heeeeimat”) is interesting, historically correct (although this has been forgotten by most Wagnerian singers of our days), I still have to think before I say something about low register in full chest resonance Italian-style. The first time I saw Eva Randová in the video from Bayreuth, this had called my attention, but Alex Penda goes a little bit further. While it produces a thrilling effect in “Ein Sünder sinkt mir in die Arme”, it sounds rather odd in “des Trostes Süsse labte nie auch dein Herz”. I don’t have an “in conclusion” for this paragraph. If she really wants to be a Wagner singer (and I don’t see an Elsa or Elisabeth in her), this means tackling roles like Kundry and Ortrud (maybe Senta could be interesting), which require complete mastery of the text (and therefore a more spontaneous pronunciation of German). Moreover, although proper acquaintance of Wagnerian tradition would help a bit (for instance: her last utterance would be easier and more effective with a lighter “ge…” followed by quick and precise ‘…Leit” rather than emphasis in both syllables and the last one hold a bit longer than written), the most important thing is finding her own truth in this music. One could get a glimpse of that just before that moment from”Hilfe! Herbei!”. There I could see the Alex Penda I’ve seen as Handel’s Agrippina: the fiery temper, the flashing presence, the amazing energy, that old-style glamour in tackling very large intervals with this “the low note was great, but the high not was amazing, wasn’t it?”-attitude. As my 10 readers have seen, she got me to write three paragraphs just about her!

Christian Elsner will get one paragraph only. I have already seen his complete Parsifal in Berlin (and also his Siegmund). Back in 2011, I had found his tonal quality appropriate for the role of Parsifal, but his approach to high notes too Mozartian for the circumstances, while today he did not give me this impression. His attitude to passaggio seemed improved and his high notes larger and darker than before. It still lacks some brightness and he has to work hard to pierce through. After a while, he sounded tired. In any case, his was a sensitive and often musicianly performance.

* Well, Christa Ludwig too, but she herself would not put her Rossini as a staple in her repertoire. It also comes to my mind that Renata Scotto once sang Kundry, but I wouldn’t call her a usual visitor to the master of Pesaro either.

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Even among Vivaldi’s rarely performed operatic works, L’Oracolo in Messenia stands out as an absolute rarity – and the reason is that there is no surviving score. The fact that it has been performed at all is violinist and conductor’s Fabio Biondi creative re-invention based on a patchwork of numbers borrowed mainly from Geminiano Giacomelli (who composed a work on the same libretto), but also from operas by other composers and by Vivaldi himself. Taking a little longer than two hours and based on a libretto full of volte-face, Biondi’s pastiche is entertaining enough, even if it doesn’t avoid the sensation of sameness: all numbers are either arie di bravura or di furore that sound a bit like each other. Vivaldi composed some beautiful meditative and expressive arie, and the libretto would certainly gain in having incorporated some of them for the sake of contrast (isn’t it one of the key concepts of baroque art?).

Biondi conducted his edition in concert in Vienna in 2012 and a CD has been recorded live then. As a celebration of the 60th anniversary of its Concert Hall, the Prefecture of Kanagawa has invited the Italian conductor and his L’Europa Galante to re-create the concert, this time in full staging. Although the budget seems to have been modest, director Tadashi Miroku made the right choice when he decided to find inspiration in Japanese theatre. In its cleanliness, Izumi Matsuoka’s sets are vaguely reminiscent of Noh; Midori Hagino’s costumes too suggest that tradition, albeit with a splash of Issey MIyake. It is clear that the Personenregie intended to infuse in the cast Japan’s highly aestheticised stock gestures, but either communication problems or limited rehearsal prevented complete success here: some singers seem to have intuitively understood that, while others preferred to do their thing. That – and some amateurism in the production – made an experience that could be illuminating only very interesting.

The cast is basically the same as seen in Vienna, but for three singers. While the CDs treasure Ann Hallenberg’s flashing performance in the key role of Merope, Marianne Beate Kielland – in spite of a more substantial voice – is tamer of temper and not truly adept with Italian language. Her mezzo soprano has a truly pleasant and clean sound and she is stylish and committed, but this repertoire requires real command of the text. Back in Vienna, Romina Basso seemed somehow too formidable as Elmira, while today’s Marina de Liso’s fruity mezzo is more feminine in sound and readier to soften and float mezza voce. It is also rich, vibrant and spacious. Some would say “too much” for Vivaldi. The last replacement is Martina Belli, who takes the bad-guy role of Anassandro, previously cast with Xavier Sabata. There are interesting dark sounds and textual intelligence, but it is still a potential.

Vivica Genaux (Epitide) did not seem to be in her best voice: she sounds less abrasive in the recording. That did not prevent her from tackling difficult coloratura with aplomb and singing expressively and stylishly as always. Although the role of Licisco takes Franziska Gottwald to her limits, she goes to her limits without looking back. An intelligence and compelling performance. Julia Lezhneva appears here in the small role of Trasimede, but gets two showstoppers – one of them Broschi’s Son qual nave (created for Broschi’s brother, Farinelli). Some of her trills seemed to be made exclusively of one note, but other than this that was a Golden-age coruscating coloratura display. As much as in the recording, Magnus Staveland, for all his commitment, is not at home in florid writing, not to mention that his dulcet tenor does not suggest any evil unless distorted in Charaktertenor style.

When it comes to Biondi and the Europa Galante, one can only praise the sense of drama, the wide-ranging tonal colouring, the rhythmic alertness and the virtuoso quality of its strings. Bravi!

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Taijiro Iimori is the conductor of choice for Wagner’s operas not only in the New National Theatre, but in many other Wagnerian ventures in Tokyo. His is a musical mind of admirable of structural awareness and capable of leading his musicians through the path of clarity and coherence. But this is no guarantee that this anatomically correct and physiologically functional body of a performance has indeed a soul. I reckon that, should Mr. Iimori could count with the playing of an orchestra such as the Vienna Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Dresden, the orchestra would confide its spirit to his capable guidance and a performance of Klemperer-ian depth might come out. However, as long either the Tokyo Philharmonic or the Tokyo Symphonic are on duty, the result would be rather described as slow and dull. The brass section played valiantly, but the strings were life- and pointless throughout. If we had an island of animation in the appearance of the ghost crew, it is rather the result of the commendably clear singing of the house chorus – even if the unnecessary “sea wind” recorded noises  managed to cloud some of it. (How about listening to Wagner’s music? It’s already there!)

Previous incarnations of this production in the New National Theatre featured Anja Kampe and Evgeny Nikitin in the leading roles. I can imagine that singers like that would have added some color to this evening’s performance. As we heard it today, over the greyish orchestral background (maybe an attempt to help the cast?), it all sounded like variation of matte. Thomas Johannes Mayer has always been more about force than volume and, with the help of his intense stage persona, he might be a particularly vehement Holländer. In a good day. But not today: although the voice sounded particularly dark, it also sounded almost devoid of Strahlkraft, i.e., he had to sing at 100% to pierce through. At some point, he grew tired, but one would not notice the difference. It is sad that I’ve had a ticket for today – I was eager to see him in this role… Rafal Siwek’s Daland did not feature much color either, but his is a naturally big voice, if a bit young-sounding for the role. Daniel Kirch’s tenor’s too was almost devoid of brightness and the sound was muscled and not very ingratiating. And Erik is a role one tends to overlook if the singer does not draw the audience towards him. The fact that Tetsuya Mochizuki, who sang Siegmund in Yokohama not long ago, was struggling with the Steuermann and squeezing his notes as if his life depended on it, makes me believe that the flu must have plagued that cast. It certainly had its victims in the audience. Although Ricarda Merbeth’s Senta was basically edgy and strident, I have to confess that the fact that someone was producing _a_ bright sound on stage – even if quavery and often foggy – was something of a relief.

Matthias von Stegmann’s production is at once simple and hard to describe. It is basically a series of anachronistic and aestheticized scenes with the level of Personenregie that could be described as “Senta, whirl or raise your arms – pick one”, “Holländer, collapse to the ground or raise your arms – pick one”, “chorus – cute choreographies or raise your arms – pick one”. In the very final scene, there is an interesting twist, but then it is too late, isn’t it?

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This concert performance in the Hong Kong Kong Cultural Centre marks the beginning of an ambitious project: the first official international recording of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen made in Asia*. The first concert two days before was actually the Hong Kong première of Rheingold. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s musical director, is confident that this is going to establish the HK Philh’s reputation as a world-class orchestra. The audience, at least, proved to be truly international (and the level of concentration and silence in the hall is certainly exemplary).

In a hall of modest size, Maestro van Zweden decided to out-Karajan Karajan in the chamber-like orchestral sound, emphasis rather in dynamic and colouring rather than articulation and clarity and the choice of some light-toned voiced in key roles. Although the Hong Kong Philharmonic cannot compete with the Berlin Philharmonic in exuberance or richness of sound, it faithfully followed the conductor’s intent of producing different colors to establish an aural “setting” for each scene. The performance lacked the sense of building tension (it worked rather on “terraced” levels of loudness – purely orchestral passages ON in loudness and OFF when the singers were there), but the sense of theatre was furthermore guaranteed by the prominence given to vocal soloists, who felt comfortable to scale down to conversational volume whenever they deemed appropriate. Something van Zweden has not in common with Karajan is his keenness on having woodwind upfront in almost Mozartian interplay with singers. This all could have meant that the performance was particularly exciting, which unfortunately is not the case: most key moments lacked any sense of climax, especially Alberich’s curse, where the conductor proved rather reticent than propelling, or in Donner’s Heda-hedo, which turned out quite polite. Most surprisingly, the six harps on stage sounded a bit off focus in the context of the aural picture and failed to produce the crystalline effect of the rainbow bridge. However, I do not want to sound blasé: this evening was certainly fun, and the contrasted and characterful cast has a big share of responsibility in that.

I have to confess that I was not entirely idea convinced by the idea that Matthias Goerne could do justice to the role of Wotan, even in Das Rheingold. I had seen him only once in a Wagner opera, as Wolfram, and found him lacking volume and projection. In this evening’s ideal circumstances, that was definitely not the case. Although his voice often has a muffled sound in his middle register (which translates as “velvety” in a Hermann Prey-ish way when the repertoire is either Bach or Schubert), he has healthy low notes and could gather his energy to deal with heroic high notes reliably if not truly freely: pressed by the needs of piercing a loud orchestra, his high register lacks roundness and color and often sounds tenor-ish in sound. His interpretation is that of a Lieder singer, working on details rather than on the big-picture. While this could make him sink in the background when dealing with his colleagues’ more flamboyant personalities, it has also given his Wotan a very particular atmosphere, as if he ran on a different rpm than all other characters. That distance was in itself an interesting “theatrical” effect, one that made Wotan some sort of outsider in his own game. In any case, I would be surprised if he accepted to go further in Die Walküre.

The very international cast meant that the accent in some singers were a bit more evident than in others. In any case, with one exception, every member of the cast seemed to be completely in control and able to use the text with craftsmanship. For instance, Egyptian-born baritone Peter Sidhom has exemplary diction and truly crispy enunciation of Wagner’s libretto. He also seemed to be having the time of his life playing a 100% bad-guy Alberich. His voice is a bit soft-centered in its middle register, but he relies on a very bright and forceful edge to produce the necessary ping in this part’s difficult full-intensity, angular phrasing. His sharp sense of humor was a welcome tool to add dimension to a role often made too uncongenial. In that sense, his interaction with Kim Begley’s Loge was in the core of this performance. The English tenor is a veteran only in age: his voice – a Charaktertenor with a nasal sound à la Robert Tear albeit with Spitzentöne to make some Heldentenors envious – proved to be in excellent shape once it warmed after a fluttery start. There is indeed a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan in his Loge, but very aptly so. The two other tenors in the cast proved to be very well cast: Charles Reid (Froh) has a beautiful voice with spontaneous and firm high notes and David Cangelosi is simply the best Rheingold Mime I have ever seen or heard, his approach refreshingly three-dimensional and varied. As always, Kwangchul Youn steals the show as Fasolt, here ideally partnered by Stephen Milling’s dark-toned, perfectly-focused Fafner.

The ladies were also uniformly excellent. Michelle DeYoung is a rich-voiced Fricka who uses her registers provocatively. At some point, she lost a bit concentration, and this is a role that needs constant engagement. In any case, it is always a pleasure to hear a singer with riches of voice and personality in a role often cast “from the ensemble”. Deborah Humble’s Erda is very classy throughout the whole range, and Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermine Haselböck were perfectly cast as the Rheintöchter.

* I use the word “international”, because  Takashi Asahina’s recorded a complete Ring for Fontec with the New Japan Philharmonic and an all Japanese cast in the 1980’s.

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The operetta is a genre that thrived from the cultural exchange between Paris and Vienna. The libretto of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus is an adaptation of the French play Le Réveillon by Meilhac and Halévy and the very origins of operetta itself is arguably connected to the style of musical theatre established in the Opéra Comique. Director Ivan Alexandre has decided that a performance of this work at this very theatre should be special: a new French translation by Pascal Paul-Harang has been commissioned and the staging takes place in a highly stylized version of our days (sets and costumes are a bit confusing though). Although the music loses a bit when divorced of the very particular rhythm of the German language (you just need to compare Mit dem Profil im griech’schen Stil/Beschenkte mir Natur/Wenn nicht dies Gesicht schon genügend sprichst/So seh’n Sie die Figur with Regardez ce front, ce nez ce menton/Comme ils sont dessinés/Vous le voyez bien, vous ne trouvez rien/Qui ne soit distingué), the French text is faithful to the spirit and adds a very French sense of humor to the proceedings. As for the staging, much of what Mr. Alexandre creates is delightful: as usual, the ballet in Orlofsky’s party is not used, here replaced by a power shortage that has the audience retire (for the interval) only to be compensated by some offering by Prince Orlofsky – a couple of dances by Johann Strauss and his own impersonation of Cecilia Bartoli in Vivaldi’s Agitata da due venti from Vivaldi’s Griselda (I wasn’t very keen on this one but after two seconds I was laughing my heart out) – and the Frosch with a social conscience. Although the idea that Alfred is so infatuated by himself that he does not realize that Rosalinde would not require much of an effort of seduction is funny, but makes Rosalinde too much of a hypocrite. Anyway, this is evidently carefully conceived Personenregie and the cast is top level in the acting department. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had fun.

I was not so taken by the musical side of the performance. Although Marc Minkowski had already conducted this work in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic, I was surprised by how little idiomatic his conducting sounded this evening. There was very little flexibility with tempo, to start with. Then the strings lacked the necessary suppleness and charm – I understand that the idea was to highlight particular colors in other sections of the orchestra, but the result was a little military-band-like. I was surprised to hear an orchestra used to rapid passagework in Handel, Rameau and Gluck so imprecise in this music. All things Viennese had this ambiguity between seriousness and humor. When you listen to the Brüderlein und Schwesterlein ensemble in all recordings in Vienna there is this inimitable mélange of melancholy and sensuous playfulness – here it sounded just serious. In any case, although charm was very restricted, there was forward movement and animation.

Although the cast had many interesting singers, almost none of them were truly well cast. Chiara Skerath has an appealing smooth voice, flexible enough and ductile in lovely mezza voce, but she is helplessly light for this role: whenever things get low or high and fast or requiring louder dynamics, she sounds off focus and colorless. She should have avoided in alts in any case. I am not a fan of the idea of a countertenor Orlofsky. Kangmin Justin Kim has some naughty ideas about how to mix his chest voice in and finally has done better than most, but Brigitte Fassbaender, for instance, surpasses him in everything, even androgyny. He does deserve praise for his Bartoli-caricature – it is almost frighteningly accurate… Although Philippe Talbot’s extreme high notes are a bit tight, it is an extremely pleasing and natural tenor voice – and he phrases with elegance. Stéphane Degout is, of course, an impressive singer who deals heroically with the high tessitura of the part of Eisenstein… but you have noticed that I have written “heroically”? Precisely. Florian Sempey (Falke) sounded a bit grey-toned in the beginning but he developed later an almost Hermann Prey-ish velvety-toned charm for the Brüderlein and Schwesterlein scene. I leave the best for last: when Sabine Devielhe learns how to control the overmetallic quality of her in alts, she is going to be a perfect singer. As she is today, she is only very, very good: her soprano is delightfully bell-toned, her diction is exemplary, she phrases musicianly, has exciting coloratura and is also a terrific actress with looks to spare.

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