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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. Although she hit her two high c’s commendably, 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. Her low register was often cloudy and the text was not always crispy, but 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.

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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 is basically is the Schwerpunkt of the story: if he 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. Of course, one can always find way to avoid the injurious practice of blackfacing (unfortunately, this is not as easy in opera as it is in movies, since 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 ). For instant, 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. Not 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 as 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.

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Last time I saw John Dexter’s 1979 production for the Metropolitan Opera House, that was the Met’s 67th performance of the opera. Eight years later, I am to discover that this evening’s performance happens to be… the 69th. I wrote then that the Met could not produce a soprano like Margaret Price, a tenor like Francisco Araiza or a bass like Kurt Moll as in the good old days, but the cast gathered for the occasion was probably the best available in 2008. I am not sure that I can write the same today. For instance, Pavol Breslik is a superb Mozart tenor. My experience of seeing his Belmonte in 2009 was that it was impeccable. Even if he had become less impressive in this role almost a decade later, he would still be superior to Paul Appleby. To start with, the American tenor’s voice is basically grainy in sound and unfortunately not ingratiating per se. He does have easy high notes, can produce clear runs and seems to be having fun (what is always important in this repertoire). However, his singing is emphatic, short in legato and his phrasing turns around fussy pronunciation, explosive top notes and the kind of graceless ardour one never expects in this repertoire.

In her opening aria, Albina Shagimuratova sounded a bit metallic and vibrant in a way one used to associate with Slavic sopranos. But that was a first impression. Her soprano is unusually full and radiant and, once she warmed up, she proved capable of sculpting her phrases with poise. Although the expression is generalized and her German is not truly spontaneous, she sang Traurigkeit with affection and produced many stunning moments in Martern aller Arten. There, she found some trouble with the (very) low notes and needed extra breathing pauses, but one can excuse her all that: her voice has extraordinary projection, she is not afraid of in alts and produces her coloratura a tempo with relatively little blurring. By the end of the opera, she had the audience on her side. Kathleen Kim too has bright and firm high notes, but her German is sketchy and her intonation can be problematic in the middle register. Both sopranos blended well in ensembles.

Hans-Peter König’s voluminous, glitch-free voice and talent for comedy made him an almost ideal Osmin. The superlow notes in his big aria were true in pitch, if recessed, and the fioriture did not truly work, though. With theatrical flair, he turned this in his favor and, if we consider that there is nobody remotely close to Kurt Moll these days, one could say that he has little competition in this role. He made a good stage partnership with debuting tenor Brenton Ryan (Pedrillo). His voice is a bit thick and dark, but he managed to do fine in both his arias.

James Levine can do little wrong in Mozart. His tempi were animated, coherent with both musical and theatrical demands and, even if the orchestra was a bit rough-edged, he could keep textures always clean and structurally transparent. As always (and very understandably with these extremely difficult vocal parts) he made concessions to his singers, but without spoiling the fun for the audience.

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Every time I have to write about Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, I wonder what editorial choices might have escaped me. Without my books and writing from an iPhone do not help either. Anyway, the Komische Oper explains that this is the Kaye/Keck edition. But not so fast – Frantz’s Jour et nuit is inexplicably inserted in the Giulietta scene, to start with.

As performed this evening, all dialogues and/or recitatives were replaced by a patchwork of texts by E.T.A. Hoffmann read in German by an actor playing the role of “old Hoffmann”. The effect was mostly confusing and failed to provide the audience with the necessary information to understand what would come next. The prologue missed the glouglou chorus but featured almost a page of the overture of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Nicklausse retained all his arias, but suffered cuts in recitatives in the prologue and never transformed into the muse in the epilogue. The Olympia act seemed practically “normal”, but Antonia died without trilling over recapitulation of previously sung material. The Giulietta act retains the barcarolle, but looses Scintille, Diamant and ends in the ensemble in which Hoffmann is laughed at for having lost his mirror reflection. The epilogue has more Mozart than anything else.

Have I forgotten to mention that the prologue and act I have been done in the “baritone version “? As a result, Hoffmann is “upgraded” to the tenor range after the intermission (the final Hoffmann count is three performers: one actor and two singers).

As we can see, most choices have been made to accommodate the production than for any musical reasons. That could have been relevant if this production turned around musical values. As it is, this performance is about the staging, and conductor Stefan Blunier is there to perform the traffic cop duties. His concerns are about tempo in the sense of keeping up with the stage action: clarity, tonal coloring, structural understanding are matters of no consequence. If the director requires unwritten pauses, voice overs, you name it, no problem. The poor Barcarolle has to do without soloists, invisibly singing somewhere in Poland, I can only guess.

Nicole Chevalier’s acting abilities are praiseworthy; she is utterly convincing as every one of Hoffmann’s love interests. Vocally, it is a different story. Her high soprano tackles Olympia high tessitura effortlessly, but the coloratura has its blurred moments. Antonia brought about a nasal, grainy and unattractive middle register. Here we have the coloratura Giulietta, and a brighter and better focused sound made her more appealing than in the previous act. The fioriture in her big aria was more hinted at than truly articulated. Alexandra Cadurina, whom I saw as Dorabella at the Bolshoi last year, is a fruity, clean Nicklausse who was not always true in intonation, certainly vivacious and charming.

The choice of a baritone and a tenor Hoffmanns would have made more sense with a darker-toned baritone and brighter-toned tenor. Dominik Köninger was a faceless Guglielmo in Tokyo, but has developed a warmer sound since then. The baritone version makes Hoffmann more introvert and elegant – the Kleinzach aria gains a lot in dignity (I invariably find it vulgar and boring) without effortful acuti Although Mr. Köninger miscalculated some high notes, he sang with sense of style and good French. The choice of Edgaras Montvidas for the remaining acts puzzles me – it is a voice essentially throaty and lacking projection, foreign to the peculiarities of French opera. Although Dimitry Ivashchenko was not in his best voice as the four villains, his is always a commanding voice spacious up to his top notes and down into his low register. He still needs to be better acquainted with the language of Racine and Molière, though.

Barrie Kosky says he finds Offenbach a genius, but curiously tampers with his music whenever it does not suit his purposes. In any case, his is an aesthetically attractive production, focused on the actors and intelligently conceived in terms of staging (all scenic elements cleverly taken profit of), but curiously short in insight, finally more entertaining than enlightening.

 

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Gounod’s Faust is an opera of extreme circumstances: although it was one of the most performed titles in XIXth century, it has become something of a rarity these days (the Met has proven otherwise faithful to the work that inaugurated its old theatre); although it has this utterly German subject, it is entirely French in style and atmosphere. Karsten Wiegand’s 2009 production for the Berlin Staatsoper (here shown as recreated in Weimar in 2011) is accordingly extreme: it could have been featured in Zitty magazine in its Mauerfall sensibilities. Here the devil comes from the West and wears Prada. His modus operandi is based on money: once he enrolls good old Dr. Faust, their aim is using, abusing and discarding the people once their sweet dreams are over. Poor old Gretchen believes her faith will save her soul, but the pious Easter chanting is sung by a golden elite presided by none other than the devil himself (obviously in praise of themselves). In other circumstances, this could be called an oversimplification, but – all things considered – it is an efficient and powerful oversimplification. For an old production, it looks remarkably fresh and soloist and chorus seem comfortable with it.

The edition used by the Staatsoper follows the staging’s convenience: some cuts are made, usual excisions are opened and some numbers are rearranged (the Golden Calf song is here sandwiched with Faust’s and Marguerite’s big arias). Simone Young offers a very expressive account of the score, warmly played by the Staatskapelle and abundant in beautiful solos from her musicians, the violin in Salut, demeure more poetic and haunting than the singer. I have the impression that there could have been a little bit miss rehearsing, so that the concertati sound truly synchronized.

I confess that I was not dying to hear Tatiana Lisnic’s Marguerite as a replacement for Krassimira Stoyanova. Fortunately, she sounds really better live than in recordings. Even if the voice is not particularly beautiful and her high notes are smoky and the low register still needs to be sorted out (… and the trill is not there), she sang with affection, charm and understanding of the dramatic situations. She could also take pride of place in ensembles, something I could not say of her tenor. Dulcet as Pavol Breslik’s voice sounds, it is helplessly small-scaled for this part. And the high c in his aria had more than one foot in the falsetto field. The idea of having Stephan Rügamer as “the old Faust” was not exactly great: the French language has the power of making his usually nasal tone entirely nasal.

Marina Prudenskaya was a firm-toned Siebel that could treat her lines a bit more gently – the first aria especially sounded on the fluttery side. The grains in Alfredo Daza’s baritone are starting to become loose in a way very close to wobbling. Valentin is a soldier and doesn’t necessarily need to seem smooth, but I don’t see the point of the increasing roughness.

If it is true that René Pape is no longer comfortable in the very end of his low register, he still makes good use of it in a role where he can do no wrong. He is the raison d’être of this performance, and those in the audience will be able to tell their grandchildren of having seen Pape’s Méphistophélés in the theatre.

I wonder what a Frenchman would say of the treatment French language received this evening. All singers had plausible pronunciation and made sense of what they were singing (in the case of Mr. Pape, more than this), but soprano and tenor sounded studied and were not always very clear about the differences between “e”, “é” and “è”.

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I reckon that anyone involved with a staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel must spend a great deal of time wondering where the hell they can start with – Valery Bryusov’s story is both fascinating and puzzling, Prokofiev has composed music that makes the audience feel as if they had been swept by a tsunami and all roles are challenging to sing and to act, let alone sing and act at the same time. The Komische Oper has decided that the only way to face a task like that is without  a safety net. Berlin’s “third” opera house has a tradition of presenting the entire repertoire in translation, but opted instead for the original Russian libretto this time. Then Australian enfant-terrible theatre director Benedict Andrews has been invited to direct it. Fortune favors the bold – this 2014 production was very well received by critics and has been drawing audiences to the opera house in Behrenstraße ever since.

This is actually the first time I’ve seen this opera. Until yesterday, I had only known it through Neeme Järvi recording with Nadine Secunde and Siegfried Lorenz. While listening to it, I had curiously never “staged” it in my mind, but what I’ve just seen makes me feel it could not have been done otherwise. Although Mr. Andrews quotes David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as an influence (surprisingly apt), the staging never fails to convince because it has been able to be: a) faithful to the libretto without being overwhelmed by it; b) adventurous without exaggeration – the plot as it is has impact to spare; c) universal by going beyond the immediate symbology and yet very Russian in its aesthetic and its very particular large dramatic gestures (and even a hint of comedy). In this staging, Renata is a victim of child abuse who acts out by creating a scenario in which she was instead “visited by an angel”. The problem is: when she becomes aware of her own sexuality and tries to sexually relate to “the angel”, she is no longer a victim, she is the perpetrator. She chastises herself and is tormented by demons. Ruprecht is another outsider who develops some sort of folie à deux with the beautiful and provocative young woman who demands everything from him… but sex. If I have to be picky, the final scene in the convent would ideally require an approach less taken at face value to be fully coherent with the overall concept. In any case, it does not spoil the fun at all: the production is always visually catching, imaginative and interesting.

Svetlana Sozdateleva denies her Renata nothing – she plunges into the role without thinking twice. Her voice is not typically shrill or wobbly, but rather warm enough as the part requires, but it is a bit unfocused, especially in the middle register. She makes for it in stamina and clarity of articulation. Evez Abdulla’s baritone has a tenor-ish edge and a keenness on cantabile even in the most declamatory passages that makes his Ruprecht particularly congenial. Jens Larssen was a particularly firm-toned and powerful Inquisitor, the only member in the cast who could actually preside over an invariably loud orchestra. I wouldn’t blame veteran conductor Vassily Sinaisky for that, though: the performance ran with absolute clarity and unfailing rhythmic propulsion. Even tested by the heavy demands, the house orchestra acquitted itself commendably.

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I can only imagine that Simon Rattle, when asked “which is going to be your next operatic project with the Berliner Philharmoniker?”,  consults Herbert von Karajan’s discography. Although Karajan sometimes opted to record some of his performances made live with his Berliners with the Vienna Philharmonic, that was not really the case with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. His recording with Frederica von Stade and José van Dam is both famous and controversial, but the truth is that he never performed the work with the Berlin Philharmonic in concert or in the opera house, but rather did it in the Vienna State Opera with Hilde Güden and Eberhard Wächter in 1962/1963. His successor in Berlin, Claudio Abbado, also chose to record it with the Vienna Philharmonic with Maria Ewing and again José van Dam after performances in the Austrian opera house. Therefore, the name of the present music director is connected to the performance history of Debussy’s only opera – since 2006 the Berlin Philharmonic has only played it under his baton.

Karajan is accused of “germanizing” the opera in the above mentioned orchestra-oriented EMI recording, but I would not say he disregarded the composer’s efforts in avoiding Wagnerism at all costs. That recording could be rather fittingly called “Brahmsian” in its large scale and gravitas. Rattle instead begs to differ. How often one sees a child so determined to behave differently from his parents only to realize in the end that he is more similar to them than what he would like to admit? The fact that Debussy had Wagner as a “non-model” on writing Pelléas et Mélisande only meant that Wagner was in his thoughts while he wrote it – this seems to be the concept of this evening’s performance in the Philharmonie. Although I am not really a fan of Sir Simon’s, I do admire his intent of thinking things anew, even if this sometimes involves things going really astray.

I would not say that this evening went astray. Every little aspect in his performance was coherently informed by his Tristan-esque concept and rendered expertly to this purpose. The Philharmonic sounded its fullest, deepest and richest, responded to the conductor’s demands on increasing intensity adeptly and excelled in tone coloring. Act V, in particular, showed febricity enough to make the delirious Tristan in act III tame in comparison. As my 9 or 10 readers might be guessing by now, I do not subscribe to this concept. Some designs made in blue look just vulgar in red. The multilayered demi-tintes conceived by Debussy exposed to this coruscating approach sounded just like Mascagni without the catchy tunes to my ears, especially when the cast, having to compete with the full glory of the Berliner Philharmoniker, most often than not had to sing at full powers and – in the central tessitura preferred by the composer – would mostly sound overpowered.

To call this a staged performance may seem at first an exaggeration – director Peter Sellars made it almost exclusively by lighting effects, the only props here being a letter and a platform right in the middle of the stage. He explored all spaces available in the hall (some of them quite invisible to large parts of the audience); the remoteness also made some of the singing hard to hear under these circumstances. Mr. Sellars too does not believe in demi-tintes – his approach is a bit on the telenovela side. For him, this is a domestic abuse tale. Mélisande cannot help her sexuality; Pelléas is a nice chap in a high-testosterone groping way; Golaud is a psychopath, but it is not his fault: his father is a dirty old man and his mother is absent-minded. Here, the hapless title-couple kiss at the first opportunity, are quite graphic in the tower scene, Arkel molests the pregnant Mélisande, who is kicked in her belly by Golaud, who couldn’t care less about her condition. This might make things a bit too clear for those who were not getting in the first place – but if you come to think that Debussy took the pains of writing the scene in the castle’s souterrain just to suggest that Golaud is threatening Pelléas without actually saying anything, having the cuckold pointing a knife at his brother makes the whole detour pointless, isn’t it? Again, if I disagree with the concept, it does not mean it wasn’t expertly done – the Personenregie was utterly convincing, all singers placed in each scene to optimal dramatic and aesthetic results and fully in grasp of the meaning of each gesture.

Although this evening’s cast is what one would call “glamorous”, I have the impression that a Wagnerian approach would ideally require a Wagnerian cast. I mean it- I always wondered about the possibility of hearing some like Régine Crespin, Tatiana Troyanos or Jessye Norman as Mélisande – particularly when you have a loud and powerful orchestra on duty. Although Magdalena Kozená is the opposite of Wagnerian, her Mélisande (with whom I was acquainted from a broadcast from Paris with Marc Minkowski) was ideally sung in absolute clarity of text and line and, by the way of perfect focus and bright tonal quality, very easily heard. Her approach is extremely artless and direct, what does not exactly goes with the circumstances. Sylph-like bell-toned Mélisandres seem to be the default for this role, but I plead guilty to my preference for Maria Ewing’s powers of suggestion of making you wonder what she is aiming at by saying Si, si, je les ferme la nuit… Christian Gerhaher (Pelléas)is a singer with fondness for the emphatic and the underlined. Prompted by the bombastic direction and the grandiloquent conducting, he sometimes made me think of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau’s Scarpia in Lorin Maazel’s recording. But that is me being mean – he has very clear French, handles the text with hallmark care of a Lieder singer and is comfortable with the high tessitura. But he is no Stéphane Degout. Gerald Finley is a paragon of perfect technique and musicianship, not to mention that his French sounded perfectly idiomatic to my non-native ears. He is a very amiable guy, though, and the demands of having to seem wild and dangerous involved some barking, distortion of line and parlando effects that I found a little distracting. Bernarda Fink was an expressive Genieviève, comfortable in this contralto emploi, but I’ve found Franz-Josef Selig far more persuasive in the context of Charles Dutoit’s subtle performance in Tokyo one year ago.

 

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