Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

It has been a while since Dresden was in the forefront of the operatic world, in spite of its world-class orchestra and enviable acoustics. Christian Thielemann’s tenure in the Semperoper has already made some serious attempts of changing this, none as glamorous as this year’s Lohengrin, in which both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala made their Wagnerian debuts along some of the most celetrabted Wagnerian singers these days. The expression “golden age” is rarely used to performances after 1980 and one tends to believe that this is just what reviewers write when they are old and nostalgic of their own “golden” days, but the truth is: nothing like watching a cast of A-listers competing for the love of their audience. This is the kind of phenomenon in which the sum is always far greater than its parts, especially when a strong-handed conductor healthily keeps it under tight control.

For instance, Anna Netrebko is not just a great soprano, she is one of the leading stars in the world of opera. One would have imagined a crowd of fans to guarantee thunderous applause – and she surely received it, as much as every other singer on stage this afternoon. In any case, Netrebko’s Elsa is no vanity project. She clearly studied the part with utmost care and made sure that she was singing her own personality into it. When Victoria de los Angeles sang Elisabeth in Bayreuth, purists called it “sentimentalized”; I wonder what they would think of the Russian diva in these Wagnerian shores. Hers was certainly no conventional Elsa: her full, luscious middle and low registers alone made her different from almost anyone else in this role. This Elsa was everything but cold and bloodless. She carefully worked on her pronunciation, on her delivery of the text and on what one would call “German” style. Yet she caressed her lines and coloured her tone very much in bel canto style (and the discrete use of portamento would reinforce that impression), for truly interesting results. It is true that the first scene caught her a bit off her element (and also that she could be once or twice a bit more precise with intonation), but hers developed into a very solid performance, sung with rich and voluminous tone throughout (she was impressively hearable in ensembles), floated beautiful mezza voce and had this intriguingly sensuousness that showed entirely new sides of this role.

Evelyn Herlitzius’s squally singing is not for everyone’s taste, but even those who dislike it must concede that an Ortrud unchallenged by a loud orchestra is a refreshing experience. She did make efforts in terms of subtlety, but her voice does not suggest the chic of a Christa Ludwig or the seduction of a Waltraud Meier. It is rather Ortrud, the witch, and that is not necessarily a drawback. Moreover, she was in good voice, supplying hair-raising powerful acuti without flinching.

Piotr Beczala’s matinée-idol lyric tenor is ideal for the role of Lohengrin. If his top notes lack some power, they are well connected and in keeping with his ardorous phrasing and appealing tonal quality. The farewell to the swan both in act I and III were soft in tone and the long duet with Elsa passionate and sensitive. One must always remember that Mr. Beczala is no newcomer to German repertoire, having sung roles like Tamino and Belmonte. He was well contrasted to Tomasz Konieczny’s steely, powerful Telramund, very much in control of the difficult part, especially in act II, where most baritones are desperate with what they have to sing. Georg Zeppenfeld is an experienced King Heinrich, this evening a bit short of resonance in his high register, but still firm and true. Derek Welton’s Herald, however, had his woolly moments.

Christian Thielemann’s approach to this score is, not surprisingly, very objective, forward-moving, favoring a big yet clear orchestral sound, for truly impressive effects in the prelude to act III. His reaction to the notorious homogenity of tempo in this score is a marked flexibility with his beat, usually for the faster whenever a singer started an “aria” or to mark the changes of mood throughout the opera. The Furtwänglerian Wagnerian would find it lacking depth, and I remember being more moved by Barenboim in this opera, particularly in the opening bars and especially in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, but complaining of such high-level music-making would be totally unjustified. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

I have already written about Christine Mielitz’s 1983 production, but one must register that costumes and sets look fresher than last time and that the Spielleitung has added some efficient touches to the proceedings, notably a woman’s point-of-view of the oppression experienced both by Elsa and Ortrud as key players in a men’s game and how it seemed to produce some sort of connection between them.

Read Full Post »

Writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore is an exercise in restraint: there are so many irresistible clichés (the best four singers in the world, the libretto’s absurdity, the big-guitar orchestral writing…) one is advised to avoid, but how to avoid them in an opera that is the very model of all clichés about opera?

It is not true that you just need the four best singers in the world  to cast a Trovatore, but you do need some singers in very specific and unusual Fächer: a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a dramatic mezzo, a Verdi baritone and a sui generis style of tenor, not too dramatic yet not too lyric. Singers like that are not usually bound to an opera house; the result is that this is a title rarely cast from the ensemble. This is precisely why the Deutsche Oper’s habit of casting Verdi from their roster proves adventurous in a work like this. Soprano and tenor are usually reserved for guest singers, given the problem of finding Italianate voices this side of the Alps. The opera in Bismarckstraße is Angela Meade’s European “home away from home”. Soon after the Met has decided to invest in her, the Deutsche Oper featured the American soprano in some very difficult Italian roles. Although I have seen her in the US as Semiramide and here as Lucrezia Contarini, I have never somehow pictured here as Leonora, a role entirely within her natural gifts and abilities. She has the big high notes, the strong low register, the floating pianissimi, most of the trills and the flexibility… and yet she is rarely convincing in it. Her voice is now often fluttery and somewhat “spongy” in tone; long noble phrases as in her opening aria lack the poise and legato that are the hallmark of every famous Leonora. Ms. Meade, however, is always persuasive when things get athletic. Then she negotiates runs, leaps, staccato, you name it with animation, precision and sheer energy. In those moments – when most sopranos are usually desperate – she sounds like an important singer. Elsewhere, her heart seems to be elsewhere.

A Trovatore without an Azucena is something close to fraud – this role is in the core of a performance of this opera and it is no wonder that singers who excel in it, such as Cossotto or Zajick in their days, tend to the ubiquitous. Dana Beth Miller is a member of the ensemble, a reliable singer out of her depth in a dramatic emplois. As the part requires some sort of bizarre, many singers take profit of that label to make some very strange sounds and get away with it. Ms. Miller is not fond of shortcuts and dealt seriously with all the difficulties written by Verdi, but she was operating on her limit. This often involved her sounding sharp, mostly colorless. She has the dramatic temper for this, and one felt inclined to like her, but this sort of kamikaze-mission is rarely healthy for the singer and the audience.

I confess I was not eager to see Carlo Ventre as Manrico and welcomed his replacement by Turkish tenor Murat Kaharan, although I had never heard about him before. It is not a beautiful voice, rather steely in sound and stentorian in volume. It is also refreshingly unproblematic in its high register. Although one cannot speak of nuance or elegance, his singing is not vulgar either, but rather matter-of-fact. His restrained delivery of Ah, sì, ben mio, beautiful trills included, surprised me. Its infamous cabaletta had only one verse and it was adjusted to fit the interpolated high notes. This is not an age for tenors truly able of singing this role; therefore, Mr. Kaharan is a name to keep. I have heard better in recordings, but not live, I am afraid.

Dalibor Jenis was a capable Count di Luna, not the most velvety in tone for his big aria, but rhythmically alert and dramatically engaged. Marko Mimica offered a skilled account of the role of Ferrando, keen on his divisions and tonally varied.

Roberto Rizzi Brignoli’s flexible and energetic approach to the score found in the house orchestra an ideal ensemble, rich in sound and light-on-its foot. These musicians really left nothing to be desired this evening. Actually, there is one moment that called my attention: the anvil chorus, when the anvils seemed out of synch.

Hans Neuenfels’s 1996 production is of the sometimes illuminating, sometimes irritating type. Sets and costumes are always beautiful and stylish, the show is visually compelling in its symbology that parts with the need of real acting from the cast. Some ideas are powerful – both Manrico and di Luna are shown in the same bullfighter costume, the audience can see Azucena set not only her son but her own mother on fire during Condotta ell’era in ceppi and a closing scene when mother and son look entirely deprived of dignity as brutalized and traumatized prisoners. At the same time, Neuenfels loves silliness – choristers (as always) behaves as if they had some sort of mental disorder; in the cloister scene, Jesus (!) waltzes with a cardinal and there are bartenders during the soldiers’ chorus.

Read Full Post »

Only a few hours before the congregation was chanting over the chords of the organ in the first scene of act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a procession had taken place in the Theatinerstrasse nearby: there was chanting, there was the organ and there were banners for the festivities of corpus christi. As nowhere else, this opera feels at home in Munich – it was premiered in what is called today the Bavarian State Opera and its setting is indeed Bavarian. This new production also features the city’s (and the world’s) star tenor. It is any wonder that director David Bösch decided to bring the action to the present time? A foreign eye would have some trouble to recognise this as “present time”, but this is what it looks like in small-town Germany.   In the Bavarian State Opera’s new production, Die Meistersinger takes place in some sort of Schlagerparadies, some sort of reality show à la Bauer sucht Frau, in which the audience/inhabitants of a decadent village eagerly await the town’s yearly song festival with special excitement, for the sponsor has promised his daughter to this edition’s winner. The small town has its share of social problems. Beckmesser is assaulted not only by David in the end of act II; a gang of masked teenagers armed with baseball bats attack him and vandalize the dreary Plattenbau complex where these characters live. Here Walther is evidently someone from a big city, who disapproves Sachs’s final plead for nationalism. Disgusted, he just takes Eva’s arm and leaves: there is a whole world outside. Even if the concept is clever – and the audience immediately recognized its imagery – what made this performance special was its efficient comedy timing. I had never truly laughed in a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg until today. All members of the cast were fully integrated int its detailed Personenregie and felt easy and natural with that they had to do on stage, which was not always simple.

To make things better, my misgivings about Kirill Petrenko’s disastrous Ring in Bayreuth were immediately dispelled: this performance left nothing to be desired in terms of conducting. The Bavarian State Orchestra played richly, expressively and animatedly; the chorus coped with the heavy demand famously. Maestro Petrenko favored swift tempi, offered absolute clarity and placed the orchestra as this evening’s main soloist. Although the text is wordy and most scenes can seem declamatory, Wagner took the pains of keeping the melodic interest constantly on in his writing for the orchestra. Most conductors understans this and, on their intent of highlighting the orchestral “cantabile”  end on 0vershadowing singers and ultimately denying them lightness and textual variety. Not this evening, where the ideal balance was achieved: singers and orchestra blended in an organic theatrical and musical statement. Considering the overall sense of clarity and organization, the difficult ensemble in the end of act II was boldly paced in a rather fast beat, challenging to all musicians and surprisingly short in roughness.

I have always had bad luck with casting for this opera. Therefore, this happens to be the best group of singers I have seen in it, even if recordings show me that this could still be improved. No German soprano seems to be interested in the great German lyric roles these days, so here comes again Sara Jakubiak (Christian Thielemann’s Agathe in Dresden’s last Freischütz). As I said before, the Kiri Te Kanawa-like plushness is more than welcome and she survives the testing scene with Sachs in act III with poise (and trills commendably), but there are too many moments of tonal blandness and charmlessness to make it really unforgettable. Okka von der Damerau shows she can do lightness when necessary and offered a winning Magdalene.

The role of Walther ideally requires more clarity and smoothness than the now darker-voiced Jonas Kaufmann can provide. As a result, his performance seemed rather boorish and short in mellifluousness. Singing his own language, he was comfortable in deliverying his lines with spirit, but the interpretation was built rather in word-pointing than in tone-colouring. If he did produced his high notes strongly and firmly, the result was often more muscular than soaring. If there was a vocally exceptional moment this evening, this was the quintet, when his control of dynamics showed me new possibilities in this passage. His David, Benjamin Bruns – as always in this opera – projected more easily and naturally in the auditorium. His rounder tonal quality suggested rather a lyric tenor than a Charaktertenor, what is always pleasant in this part. Markus Eiche too was ideally cast as Beckmesser, in this production a more congenial yet tragic character than usual. He cleverly adopted a flowing, legato line as his character was actually “singing”  and dealt with the otherwise declamatory passages with crystalline diction. Wolfgang Koch has the required nobility of tone to the role of Hans Sachs and, as usual, handles the text with absolute naturalness and imagination. However, there are moments when the Alberich creeps in and makes the experience somewhat schyzophrenic. Christof Fischesser was rich in voice and spontaneous in attitude as Pogner. Among the Meistersinger, it was endearing to find the still splendidly fresh-toned Eike Wilm Schulte as Kothner and a powerfully dark-toned Peter Lobert as Hans Schwarz.

 

Read Full Post »

Only last week I saw the Royal Opera House’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor radically rethought by director Katie Mitchell and here I am in the Bavarian State Opera watching another woman’s take on Lucy Ashton’s tragedy. Polish director Barbara Wysocka, in her 2015 production, agrees with her English colleague in seeing no victim in the title role. As she points out, Lucia actually does nothing she is told to during the whole opera. When she agrees to marry Arturo, it is after she herself had considered that she had no future with Edgardo and, in that case, she could indeed make a sacrifice for her family. After all, it was her family too. In order to stress the imposition made of women in families involved in politics, Ms. Wysocka decided to update the plot to the 1960’s in the United States – the predicaments of the Kennedys offerring her inspiration. While I do find the dramaturgie valid and insightful, the staging itself is less accomplished than its concept. Lucia is first shown as some sort of silly goose, while Enrico is a telenovela-style bad guy. When we finall reach the Mad Scene, their developments seem a bit awkward. Actually, I did not like the scene at first – Lucy in a glittery party gown, a pistol and a microphone (it could have been inspired in Marilyn Monroe’s singing of happy birthday to you, when the blond bombshell was living her own mad scene, but that was not the case). But then I realized that this Lucy’s traumatic event was realizing that she was, after all, the victim. What she was acting out was, in fact, being IN CONTROL, pointing her gun at the guests and making this opera her little show. Again, all this could have been more powerfully put across if more carefully directed. In any case, imaginative it was.

Munich had an edge on London by having two women in charge, for the conductor was Kirill Petrenko’s assistant Oksana Lyniv. Although there were some rough edges now and then (and the balance stage/pit was perfectible), this was one of the most exciting performances of a bel canto opera I have ever listened to. If Giuseppe Sinopoli had conducted Lucia (had he? I have no idea!), the results would have been similar. Ms. Lyniv had a “global” approach to tempo, determining the beat in every number in relation to the overall concept and to the depth of the musical material provided by Donizetti; if there were something that you should hear, she would make sure that you would. In this sense, every contribution of woodwind and brass would be highlighted in its dramatic-musical sense and no string accompanying figure would be considered too unimportant in its potential to add meaning. In a score in which Donizetti gave such prominence to solos from the orchestra, this proved to be very important.

Casting this evening’s performance must have been something of a puzzle. It was originally announced as Brenda Rae, Pavol Breslik, Alessandro Scotto di Luzio, Levente Molnár and Goran Juric. Only Mr. Juric survived the cancellations. All in all considered, I do not think that the audience had much to complain. Armenian soprano Nina Minasyan’s vocal nature suggests rather Mozart than bel canto, but her purity of tone, bell-like sonorities, accurate yet natural coloratura, soaring mezza voce and musicianship offered more than compensation for some tense acuti, textual genericalness and lack of tonal variety. As the edition here adopted the revisions based on the autograph (plus the Marchetti cadenza with minor adaptations), I was particularly thrilled to hear the upward and downward scales on perdonare ti possa un Dio in her duet with the baritone. Moreover, the way she blended her voice with the glass harmonica in the end of the mad scene was the very definition of otherworldly. Brava. Her Edgardo, Italian tenor Piero Pretti lacked tonal glamour, but sang sensitively and, although he seemed a bit tired in his last scene, this did not prevent him from offering true affection. I am not convinced that Luca Salsi is a singer for this repertoire. He seemed to find the part on the high side too and was sometime wayward with note values and pitch, but he knows how to do his bad guy routine. Goran Juric started off brilliantly, offering noble tone and real depth. However, his voice  became increasingly curdled and woolly at times.

Read Full Post »

Although Poland is the birthplace of some bright starts of the operatic firmament (only last week I saw Aleksandra Kurzak and Artur Rucinski in the Royal Opera House’s Lucia di Lammermoor and, by the end of the week, Piotr Beczala and Tomasz Konieczny in Dresden), the Opera Narodowa in Warsaw is not truly stellar in its otherwise healthy and steady season.

My first visit to the Teatr Welki for a performance of Verdi’s Aida led me to an auditorium the “Ostalgie”-charm of which had the effect of preparing my spirit to a production very similar in style to the ballet that Julie Andrews and Paul Newman watch in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. Then I discovered that Roberto Laganà Manoli’s staging was premiered in 2005. Let’s say that seeing Radamès die in a pink robe added a new perspective to the closing scene.

Although the house orchestra is not truly competitive (but the chorus has some very impressive basses), Patrick Fournillier seemed determined to make these musicians work for their money. His tempi were swift, his accents were bold and he never missed an opportunity for theatrical effects. Conducting an act IV with an underpowered mezzo can be tricky – but Mr. Fournillier managed to keep her hearable without ruining excitement.

Lucrezia García was born to sing Verdi – her soprano is rich yet focused, has a distinctive reedy quality, softens for mezza voce when necessary and plunges into chest voice with naturalness. She also has clear diction and sense of style – and the voice is voluminous enough. Although she has made progress since I first saw her as Elisabetta in Don Carlo some years ago in Berlin, she is still dramatically uninvolved and dangerously matter-of-fact in her interpretation. Also, her act-3 aria – even better than most – showed her overly cautious and purely concerned with producing a high c and ending it as fast as possible, the feeling mostly left for imagination. As much as everybody else in this role, she would show some fatigue during the duet with the tenor, but still produced beautifully floated notes. With a little bit more discipline and involvement, this could become a major performance, but it is not yet it.

Korean tenor Rudy Park, as many singers from that part of the world, are extremely reverent to a style of Italian singing as one could hear in Milan or in Rome in the 1950’s. In casu, he seems to be channelling Mario del Monaco in his every turn of phrase. This rarely is a formula to success, but the fact is: Mr. Park sounds like a true tenore di forza. The voice is slightly artifficially darkened, but it is still very, very big and his high notes are always firm and forceful, presiding over a loud orchestra and crowded ensembles. These are qualities hard to overlook, but I’m afraid Verdi expected this part still should sound like music, i.e., it should feature qualities such as legato, dynamic variety, tonal colouring etc. He also does look like someone who could kill a person with a stage sword, what is always a plus for a character supposed to lead an army.

Although Andrzej Dobber’s baritone has its rusty moments, his Amonasro is still effective in a raw, Tito Gobbi-like way. I’d rather not comment on the Amneris – I tried to play Stefania Toczyska in my mind during the Judgment Scene.

Read Full Post »

Lucy Ashton is the epitome of Romanticism’s favorite character: the innocent victim. Reading books like the Bride of the Lammermoor, one is convinced that being beautiful and good natured is very dangerous: the poor girl is emotionally and physically abused, publicly humiliated, gets involved in a gruesome murder only to die herself of a mental exhaustion. But that is how men portray the ordeals women had (have?)  to endure on the whim of a male relative or a husband. Now let’s call a woman to tell Lucy’s story. Director Katie Mitchell rescues Lucy from her passiveness and places her along her sisters Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw. That means, Lucy may finally succumb, but not without a fight.

Here, she is no ingénue. Her relationship with Ashton is everything but spiritual (there is an akward almost graphic scene during Veranno a te to make that clear), her reluctance to marry Arthur has to do with the fact that she is very much pregnant and the fact that she kills him is no insanity: Alice and her premeditate his murder hoping to get rid of the body probably to allow her time to explain Edgard the whole situation and elope. Now the reader will ask: hmm, what about the MAD scene? That is precisely the point: something else happens this evening. The stress of the murder has other casualties that evening: a miscarriage that accounts for 95% of the blood on her dress and her mental breakdown.

Although I do find that Ms. Mitchell is telling a story only slightly related to the libretto, it finally paid off in a truly gripping mad scene, the gore only enhancing the pathos, the musical theme of act I love duet transformed in a lullaby to her unborn child. This alone made me forgive a great deal of the unnecessary excess. First: Lucia is shown either dressing or undressing in almost every scene. Since her gowns are not easily put on, this involved some nervous and diligent effort from these singers to get her ready. Second: Vicky Mortimer’s exquisite Kersting-like sets are permanently split in two different spaces, with independent dramatic action. During the Wolf Crag’s scene, while Henry and Edgard discuss the details for their duel, we see Lucy kill Arthur. Of course, nobody paid any attention to what the libretto actually wanted you to watch by then. Third: there are two ghosts who are so omnipresent that one almost expects them to be served a glass of wine in the wedding scene.

As usual, the director’s concepts veer towards the crafty, but the visual element is powerful and beautiful and the Personenregie is effective and finely knit to musical gestures.

The A cast of this run of performances had Diana Damrau, Ludovic Tézier and Kwangchul Youn, but – tempting as this is – I opted for the B team. Basically because I’ve already seen Damrau in this role in New York and was not really convinced by her bel canto credentials. On the other hand, a broadcast of Rossini’s Tancredi with Aleksandra Kurzak made me wish for more. However, some days ago, a friend warned me about decay in her high register, and I was suddenly apprehensive about what I might hear in the theater. It is true that her voice now looses focus as it reaches its acuti, which  often sound breathy. On the other hand, her soprano sounds bigger than when I last saw her live as Donna Anna in Venice. That did not prevent her from producing crystal-clear coloratura and trills. She was not truly adventurous with ornamentation, eschewed some florid options during the opera, but gave us the Melba cadenza in the mad scene. She also insisted in singing the puntature, all of them in pitch, but rather smoky in tone. She is no Renata Scotto or Maria Callas, but sang with affection and poise. Truth br said, She even produced some aptly raw sounds in specific moments of the mad scene, for chilling effects.

Stephen Costello is an intense Edgardo, whose high register never sounds relaxed and whose phrasing is sometims too cupo. Although David Jonghoon Kim (Arturo) is not really exciting, the sound of healthy, round tenor high notes did highlight this problem in the leading tenor. As usual, Artur Rucinski is a paragon of breath control and firm tone. He could have tried a bit more nuance to make it really memorable.

Daniel Oren is a conductor attentive to the dynamic demands un the score, shifting to singer-friendly accompaniment to full orchestral sound (as in the sextet) for flashing results.

Read Full Post »

This current run of performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (a new production later to be reprised in Rome) in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées did not seen to be unmissable in a first look: no big names in the cast (Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne being too ubiquitous to be regarded as such), which also happens to be a tad exotic and a conductor who has a difficult relationship with the Parisian public (a long difficult relationship, since he has been the musical director of the Orchestre Nationale de France for eight years).

Actually, the whole venture is more adventurous than I hinted at: this is the first time Daniele Gatti conducts Tristan. Considering my experience with him, I braced myself for “loud and slow “. Gatti, however, states that he has been preparing himself for that for a long time – and I cannot say he has not. The first impression I had from the prelude was how structurally clean and musically organized it was, even when the articulation in his string section could be more clear. It was the work of someone who really took the pains of determining how to present every layer in the texture and, most importantly, and which one is the Hauptstimme. The rest of act 1 confirmed my first opinion: accompanying figures propelled the performance in almost Verdian manner and “a tempo” (not slow neither fast – let’s say “natural”) seemed to be the rule, volume rather restrained to allow clarity.

My enthusiasm would be tested in the second act: the opening scene straight jacketed in the rigid beat suggested the mechanical rather than the energetic, and once Wagner’s concept begins to become more  fluid, Mr. Gatti’s weapons of choice too began to miss the mark. Act III is even more elusive and requires something that would gradually prove to be missing this evening: a vision. In his masterpiece, Wagner does not accept solutions “from the outside”: one really has to understand in his or her heart was this music is about before one sets his mind at work to discover how this “emotional truth” allows itself to become “music “. I don’t mean that Daniele Gatti is incapable of having this vision; it is just his first experience and the “infrastructure ” is already mostly there.

I saw Rachel Nicholls in 2008 in Kobe, singing Bach with Masaaki Suzuki. Then I wrote that it was pleasant to hear a big-voiced Bach soprano (although she was too loud for the orchestra and the venue). One or two years later I read an interview where she declared she was training to sing Wagner. As I couldn’t recall a precedent, I eagerly read her explanation of how there is only a difference in intensity but not in procedure: the Wagner sound being a development from her Bach sound, both beginning from the same core. This is a very good piece of advice (provided you really have the natural volume and stamina) – and I wanted to see if she was true to her explanation. However, her dramatic soprano career seemed restricted to regional opera houses and festivals. Until Emily Magee cancelled her participation in these performances.

After what I heard this evening, I must understand that this is the inevitable beginning of her international career. To put it simply, I had only heard a soprano sing Wagner’s dramatic roles with absolute legato and the same kind of “cantabile” one would expect in Verdi in recordings with Frida Leider or Florence Austral. Although Rachel Nicholls’s voice is not as imposing and big as these formidable ladies, it is absolutely natural, cleanly and easily produced as theirs were. She sings PHRASES, not groups of notes, her high c’s perfectly integrated to what happened before and after, all exposed acuti seamlessly and effortlessly connected. It is rather a high than a low voice, but the low register is natural and hearable. Furthermore, it is a young-sounding voice, almost too sweet for this role. But no – I have thoroughly enjoyed this feminine take on it. All that said, Ms. Nicholls’s Wagner, enticing as it is, is still work in progress. She has a very tame nature and, while she seems to be aware of that and evidently works hard for attitude, this is something she still has to discover. Also, her German, acceptable as it is, is still a bit cautious. And she has to figure out why her “a” often sounds like “ä” when things get high and loud.

Torsten Kerl too is a young sounding Tristan who produces unmistakably tenor-ish tones throughout. His voice has fine projection, but when Wagner demands truly heroic singing from him, he seems to shift to one invariable “Heldentenor”-gear, where the voice has a hint of a snarl. In any case, he sang with animation, clear diction, rhythmic alertness and got to the end of the opera almost as freshly as he started. Maybe if he too had more of a vision, his Tristan would have been a little bit more than getting to the end without fatigue, an “athletic” accomplishment not to be snobbed anyway.

At first, Michelle Breedt sounded a bit too smoky, but she settled into a compelling performance, with beautifully floated mezza voce in act II. Brett Polegato was a firm-toned, congenial Kurwenal, probably the all-round most interesting musical/dramatic accomplishment this evening. I cannot unfortunately say something similar of Steven Humes’s King Marke, nasal in tone, erratic in pitch and dramatically dull.

I have always found Pierre Audi’s productions on the decorative side – and not even to my taste. The rusty iron naval structures in act I did help to create some atmosphere, but the set of act II looked like the carcass of a whale and I could not see the point of the night-club decoration of Tristan’s “room” in Kareol. The costumes too were idiosyncratic, but the main problem was the fact that the director overlooked his cast’s acting limitations and just pretended this would sort itself out. It had not: these singers diligently followed gestures and attitudes they did not seem comfortable with and the point of which seemed to elude them entirely.

 

 

Read Full Post »

I understand that Weber’s Der Freischütz with its hunter chorus, bridal wreath song and farmers shouting Hussa! may seem extremely kitsch if you happen to be born in Germany. It is considered by many the quintessential German opera, and it is rarely performed outside German-speaking countries (although it is a fundamental work to understand the aesthetics of German opera… and it doesn’t hurt the fact that it is also a masterpiece superior in quality to many works more usually seen in opera houses around the world). This makes the audience hostage to the discomfort of German opera directors who believe that their sacred mission is to save the opera from itself. Hunters singing tra la la la can only be shown if in the context of a joke, not to mention the “embarrass” of allowing a pious hermit warning the audience against the temptations of evil…!  I actually have seen a Freischütz staged by a non-German director, but it seems that he found it too harmless and tried to spice it up, to diastrous effects. In any case, nothing in my experience comes as so ineffective as Michael Thalheimer’s lazy, reluctant, sterile production.

Premiered only last year, Thalheimer’s staging takes place in some sort of black, barely lit conical cave where all scenes look like the Wolfschlucht scene. Actually, the Wolfschlucht scene is probably the one that looks less like the Wolfschlucht scene, for there is no forging going on there. The opening number is actually more scary with farmers shown as zombies carrying dead branches in the dark. When someone is supposed to act, this is understood of performing some sort of contorsions and uncomfortable postures that made the audience laugh. Most of the dialogue is replaced by either nothing or grunts by an omnipresent Samiel who looks like a hoolingan who passed out in the mud. I could go further, but differently from Mr. Thalbach, I would like to spare those who like this opera from this nonsense.

When you think that the single set does not serve any dramatic purpose other than looking invariably spooky, you discover that it has the dubious advantage of working as an acoustic shell, amplifying the chorus to deafening proportions and overshadowing a Staatskapelle in great shape. Conductor Alexander Soddy subscribes the Carlos Kleiber approach (curiously not in the act I Ländler scene), with zipping excitingly clear articulation from his strings and hearty playing from brass instruments. Were it not for the imbalance with the stage and the Schiller-Theater’s extremely dry acoustics, this could have been very close to an orchestral tour de force.

Promoted to the role of Agathe, Dorothea Röschmann offers her customary clear diction and the alertness to the text of a Lieder singer. Even if her voice is warm and sturdy, it is unfortunately unsuited for this part. Her big aria started uncomfortably, seemed to settle for a clean and firm stretta that ultimately tested her sorely in the final bars, a shriek standing for the high b written by the composer. Most surprisingly, the long lines in her act III prayer seemed beyond her possibilities and she seemed to need too many breath pauses to get to the end of any phrase. Only in the closing scene, she seemed in her element, producing rich, velvety sounds without difficulty. Her Ännchen, Evelin Novak offered a commendable performance, coping with the technical demands of her role with abandon and musicianship. A little bit more charm and a more individual tonal quality would have left nothing to be desired. At this point, it seems that Andreas Schager has sung too many Siegfrieds to be truly convincing as Max. Even if the Austrian tenor’s projection is truly extraordinarily clean and forceful, he seemed helpless when facing the needs of softening his tone, producing quieter dynamics or phrasing with poise and expression. His aria sounded unsubtle and occasionally imprecise in what regards intonation and note values. At moments, his tenor seemed edgy or taut, as if he were experiencing some sort of fatigue. The name of Tobias Schabel does not ring a bell, but his performance of the difficult role of Kaspar was very capable. It is not the big voice we are used to hear in the role and it also has some grainy patches, but he sang it with animation, long breath, clear divisions and the right amount of roughness. Jan Martiník was a noble-sounding Hermit, Roman Trekel a firm-toned Ottokar and it was endearing to find Victor von Halem, still admirably resonant, as Kuno. Finally, I must say that Peter Moltzen was, vocally speaking, the best Samiel I have ever heard, speaking his line with the right piercing edge.

 

Read Full Post »

Patrice Chéreau was a stage director of legendary status, his final production of R. Strauss’s Elektra a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Festival d’ Aix-en-Provence, the Finnish National Opera, the Lindenoper in Berlin and the Liceu in Barcelona. Although many reviewers tend to prefer original productions (especially when the “imported” one is preceded by a video release, as in this case), the whole venture is such a candidate for an entry in the history of operatic performance that audiences all around the world seem eager to see it live in their cities. The Met decided to make it more alluring by featuring Nina Stemme’s Elektra, a role added to her repertoire only last year in Vienna.  The DVD (with Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role) has shown the production for Straussians all over the world, and I can do nothing but confirm Chéreau’s masterly Personenregie (here revived by Vincent Huguet) and his unprejudiced view of these characters, finding palpable feeling in a tragedy that often tends to the monumental.

Nina Stemme declared that she learned from Kristin Scott-Thomas’s performance in the Old Vic’s staging of Sophocles’s Electra. That was a very intelligent exercise – Scott-Thomas built her character not on increasing tension, but around a delicate mix of scorn, frustration, sarcasm and, most importantly, the strife for restoration, for making things right again. Her Electra had to kill the woman Clitemnestra had become to have back her mother as she was and should have always been. Stemme is no Birgit Nilsson – her voice lacks the steel and the flashiness to portray an unrelenting fury. This Elektra is more comfortable wailing for her father, trying to lure her sister and regaining her vulnerability in her encounter with Orest. Although it is big enough a voice, this role exposes its essentially lyric, warm-toned and soft-grained quality.  She did hit her two high c’s commendably, but exposed dramatic notes often required some preparation and sounded forced compared to the moments in which she could attack softly and soar in high-lying cantabile. Even if her low register was often cloudy and the text was not always crispy,  this was offset by the expressive quality of her phrasing. For instance, the last ” duet”  with Chrysothemis never sounded so touching as this evening, both sopranos floating her high registers as Arabella and Zdenka would do some years later: these sisters were finally sisters again.

Adrianne Pieczonka was an intense, solid Chrysothemis. Her high register could sound effortful and, from some point on, raspish, but she refused to let her character sink in the background (as it often happens). My ten or eleven readers know that I do not think that Waltraud Meier has the voice for the role of Klytämnestra, in spite of her dramatic intelligence and pyshcological awareness. However, vocally speaking, this was probably the best performance I’ve heard from her in this role. The low register had a little bit more color than usual – and that makes a lot of difference in this role. I don’t think, however, that those in the Family Circle could really HEAR that. Burkhardt Ulrich  (Aegysth), too, had some trouble piercing through. That was definitely not a problem for Eric Owens’s admirably dark-toned, voluminous, grave yet surprisingly clear-eyed Orest. Minor roles had plenty of enderaing surprises – an intense, firm-toned Fifth Maid from Roberta Alexander (I’ve really cherished the opportunity of finally seeing her live) and Susan Neves showing what dramatic high notes really sound like as the Aufseherin.

Although this was an interesting cast, this performance was really special because of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exemplary conducting. First, he truly understands the musical-dramatic effects and its internal relations. Second, the optimal level of balance (in the orchestra and with his singers) allowed him absolute transparence. While one felt as if reading the score, he or she would also be costantly surprised by how eloquent and powerful this score is. Third, Mr. Salonen never resorted to loudness, abruptness and grandiloquence. The Met orchestra rarely sounded so crystalline and flexible.

Read Full Post »

Unlike the Bavarian State Opera or the Vienna State opera or the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Met has no “state”  in its name. That does not necessarily mean that they don’t get any money from the government, but it means that someone still has to pay the bills if the budget is not enough. This is where the patrons (both in the sense of private sponsors and the regular opera-goer) make all the difference of the world.

As one can easily guess, the expression ” eurotrash”  was not invented in Europe. Many among these patrons understand that there is a dichotomy in what regards operatic stagings: the traditional ones with their crinolines and wigs in which the story is really being told and the degenerate ones where some crazy European director has everybody in the wrong costumes or with no costumes at all, his mental derangement standing for the plot. As everything else in this world, the situation is more complex than this.

Faithfully telling the story is not just a matter of sets and costumes. It involves the serious intent of telling the story, i.e., why Otello so readily believes Iago, why Desdemona refuses to see what is going on around her, why Iago is not happy just to have some influence over Otello (let’s remember, he insists that Desdemona should die a violent death). When the Met announced a new production by Bartlett Sher, I wondered why exactly one would like something new by a director who is happy to keep things as decorative and superficial as possible. Here the whole concept is – the staging is updated to reflect the time of the creation of the opera. Hmmm… Why exactly? The soprano could have big dresses and Otello does not need to be blackfaced. Even if the fact that racial prejudice basically is the Schwerpunkt of the story: if Othello were Italian, Desdemona’s father probably would not mind her marrying him, Iago would not feel so offended to be his subordinate in command etc etc. But there always remains the problem of avoiding the injurious practice of blackfacing (unfortunately, this is not as easy in opera as it is in movies: there are many actors who could portray Shakespeare’s Othello for the cameras, while only a few tenors can sing the role as written by Verdi ). Of course, there are other ways of showing that the Moor does not belong in Venetian society. For instance, many refugees in the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy are perfectly similar in appearance to the Mediterranean Europeans who insist that there is a big difference between them. But that does not happen in this production, I am afraid. These people just wander around plastic architectonic models and among fancy sea-image projections on screen.

As Sonya Yoncheva sang the role of Desdemona in the première, reviewers praised her acting abilities against a backdrop of theatrical void. This is unfortunately not the case with Hibla Gerzmava, who seems little concerned with drama. Although her soprano is on paper fit for the part, she sang it in too businesslike a manner: her diction is unclear, the low register is a bit guttural and her approach to mezza voce is hit or miss, not to mention that a great deal of her singing in most exposed passages is hooty and piercing. If one checks her old performances on Youtube (a Letter Scene from Evgeny Onegin, Mozart’s Laudate dominum (K. 339)), one will hear a lyric soprano of great potential,unfortunately not fulfilled. If there is a moment for serious rethinking, this is now. Aleksandrs Antonenko has important assets for the role of Otello: his tenor is big and forceful, the high notes flash all right in the auditorium and he is not insensitive to softer dynamics. It is not an Italianate voice, though. The whole method lacks the mastery of portamento and colouring a tenor truly acquainted with the style would have. One could always say that he also avoids the vulgar turns of phrase some Italian tenors would wrongly employ in Verdi, but after two acts of emotionally detached singing in this of all roles, the audience was ready for some feeling, even at the expense of elegance. It was a pity that, during act III, Mr. Antonenko started to fight with his high notes that – truth be said – showed some instability since the beginning. Most alarmingly, this difficulty developed into hoarseness. We have to thank Italian tenor Francesco Anile for voicing act IV from the wings to the Antonenko’s “acting” on stage.

Although Zeliko Lucic’s baritone used to be more insolent in both ends of his range, it is still admirably rich and warm, not to mention that he phrases with musicianship and good taste. He is also hardly electrifying as a performer, but that can be an interesting dramatic point in the role of a schemer such as Iago in the context of an otherwise thrilling performance. Not this afternoon, I am afraid. In this sense, Lucic was very much in the same mindset of his conductor. Adam Fischer offered a Verdi of Mozartian grace and poise, transparent and forward-moving. At first, this seemed refreshingly valid, until a sensation of sameness and lack of building tension prevailed. In the end, nobody on stage and in the auditorium seemed to really care.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »