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The fact that the Matthäus-Passion is Bach’s largest and greatest choral work has encouraged many a conductor to produce performances in large scale, especially in the context of symphonic halls. When we come to the subject of the original forces under the composer’s supervision, it is difficult to be precise of what is large and what is small in terms of number of people involved. The experience of hearing it in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig convinced me that a choir as big as the one used today would be impractical in the church’s resonant acoustics.

But this afternoon’s concert took place in the Sala São Paulo and the orchestra at hand was the OSESP. Under these circumstances,  conductor Nathalie Stutzmann must be praised by the reasonable decisions made for these events. First, she has not tried to emulate period-instrument sonorities and yet was able to keep it lean and clean. Second, that did not prevent her from adopting a dance-oriented approach, with sharply defined rhythms, firmly bass-rooted. Things did not run always smoothly: O Mensch bewein dein Sünden groß  was a bit all over the place and the orchestra sounded challenged with the (at the fast beat chosen by the conductor ) sprightly figures in the strings in Mache dich.

Although sopranos and altos lacked tone,  the OSESP chorus acquitted itself quite well, crystal-clear articulation was a bit beyond the possibilities allowed by the context of these concerts. What is remarkable is Ms. Stutzmann’s ability to inspire the chorus to give the chorale numbers a wide expressive palette.

Finding the right Bachian singers for a large hall is always tricky, and this evening was not an unmitigated success in this particular. The usually reliable Martina Jankova, for instance, sounded here brittle and not truly capable of floating her high-lying lines in Aus Liebe. Aude Extremo’s mezzo is more substantial, her low notes rich and well-connected, but the faulty intonation compromised her delivery of Erbarme dich. Robin Tritschler’s Evangelist benefited from exceptional ease through the passaggio and a crispy delivery of the text. Mirko Ludwig would have been ideal in the tenor arias if his voice did not acquire such pronounced nasality from a high f on. Stephen Powell’s Jesus was a bit on the operatic side and Leon Kosavic’s forceful baritone lacked a bit of Innigkeit to produce the right effect.

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Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for he Opéra de Paris has all his hallmark features – the labo chic sets, curtains, video projections, a cowboy costume, glittery party dresses. It has more to do with Warlikowski than with Nikolai Leskov. First, it looks too glamorous for the circumstances. Second, the approach is too detached for a story about human passions at their rawest. Third, act 3 – visually attractive as it is – makes no sense in terms of the plot. The whole affair with the discovery of the corpse and the appearance of the police simply did not match what was shown on stage. In Mr. Warlikowski’s favor, one must recognize that his Personenregie was effective and his intent of portraying the main character’s sexual obsession was right on the mark.

The combination of this staging and Ingo Metzmacher’s extremely cerebral approach to the score (unaided by an orchestra not exactly adept in tonal variety) made the characters’ predicaments even more distant to the audience. This does not mean that the conductor did not serve the music well. There were many moments of unusual transparence and finish – and it is hardly his fault that I’ll be forever spoilt by what Mariss Jansons did with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg.

I am no sure if I find the idea of using Rudolf Barshai’s orchestral adaptation of the first movement of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet as an interlude between the last two acts was effectively. The way the composer devised this transition seemed more coherent for me in its unbroken impact.

The extreme demands in terms of acting made on the soprano explains the casting of Aurine Stundyte as Katerina Izmailova. She gave herself entirely to the task and shone in all intensity whenever she was on stage. In terms of singing, I am less enthusiastic. Ms. Stundyte’s throaty, greyish voice does not suggest sensuousness and comes close to stridence in exposed high notes. Pavel Cernoch’s tenor has developed a lot since I last saw him. The tightness is gone and now he can all right produce heroic top notes. However, the tonal quality is not truly ingratiating and there is no smile in his voice. I have written that, once you’ve heard Nicolai Gedda in Rostropovich’s recording, it is difficult to hear the role otherwise. In the legendary Swedish tenor’s interpretation, you can always hear what is really going in Sergey’s mind while he speaks about how sensitive a man he is. In that sense, the comparison is too hard with every other tenor, Mr. Cernoch included. His effort to portray a role distant to his personality is praiseworthy , and he has done a very good job in terms of acting. Minor roles were all brilliantly taken – Dmitry Ulyanov again is a firm-toned and characterful Boris Timofeevich, John Daszak’s bright-toned Zinovy Borisovich had the right touch of nervousness and Alexander Tsymbalyuk was a rich-voiced police officer.

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Is Handel’s Semele an opera or an oratorio? The question is actually irrelevant. I’ve seen it staged – and provided the director finds a way to mix in the chorus in the dramatic action, it works famously – and now I see it in concert and, provided that everybody has sense of humor, it works as well as in the opera house. 

The English Concert, the historic instrument ensemble, launched a couple of years ago a project of performing Handel operas with international soloists such as Joyce DiDonato and Christiane Karg. Although the English language libretto makes it less accessible for continental singers, the cast features a list of names from both sides of the Atlantic.

Brenda Rae has sung the title role on stage and her experience is evident by the way she takes profit of every note and word of the score. It does not hurt either that she is a terrific actress. Ms. Rae is a specialist in high-lying coloratura roles – and one can hear that in her voice. Although Semele is a role for high sopranos, we’re talking about what baroque composers considered high tessitura. The key to success in a Handelian prima donna role is a clear and expressive middle register. Ms. Rae’s, however, is the kind of voice who really blossoms from the high f on. As a result, much of what she sang lacked some color and did not project as it should. I suppose she was not in her best voice either. In any case, that did not prevent her from dispatching impossibly difficult coloratura with aplomb and producing some beautiful examples of mezza voce.

As it was, Elizabeth DeShong (Ino/Juno) almost stole the show with her fruity mezzo perfectly connected to solid low notes and exemplary control of fioriture. She too made a great deal of the text and could make the audience laugh by just rolling her eyes. Christopher Lowry’s countertenor sounds distinctively English, even if he was born in the US. He handled his divisions accurately and sang sweetly Athamas’s Your tuneful voice.

Benjamin Hulett smudged one or two runs, but sang his Jupiter with affection and a dulcet tone. In the double part of Cadmus and Somnus,  Solomon Howard’s superdark bass is a bit on the grainy side, but he tackled the florid More sweet is that name with firmness and surprising flexibility for a voice of that size. In the tiny role of Iris, Ailish Tynan sang stylishly and showed ideal comedy timing. 

Good as the cast was, the glory of this evening performance was the superlative singing of the Clarion Choir. Their homogeneity, clarity and accuracy is something to marvel. Conductor Harry Bicket led the performance with a strong sense of forward movement that came close to the egg-timer treatment. This is understandable in a long work, but one could feel that his musicians would gain if the beat was just a little bit more relaxed some times. Balance had the orchestra in disadvantage against the chorus at least in the acoustics of the Barbican.

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For a while, the Welsh National Opera used to be mentioned in magazines not because of the many famous singers born in Wales, such as Gwyneth Jones, Margaret Price or Bryn Terfel, but rather for its association with Decca and Teldec record labels. Then Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti, Samuel Ramey would join the company to record Bellini’s Norma. Those days are long gone, but the WNO has not exactly kept within regional limits, as this tour in England proves.

The tour program involves Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, the last title also part of a project of staging three operas by Verdi. In partnership with the opera house in Bonn, director David Pountney and stage designer Raimund Bauer have devised something that they call “the Verdi Machine”, three panels that can be moved and shaped to form all kinds of set.

In Mr. Pountney’s production, the panels are used to create a sense of play within the play, a kind of red-and-white bizarre masquerade, where everybody is playing a part in Riccardo’s Fellini-esque fantasy. The staging is overbusy, and its farcical approach makes the story far less dramatic than it should. Also, visually, the production looks seedy in a way that suggest the cabaret rather than the opera house. Maybe a richer budget would do the trick.

The run of performances was first led by the WNO’s conductor laureate Carlo Rizzi and taken over by Gareth Jones. The musical direction this evening was nothing but serviceable and it is hard to imagine that, a couple of decades ago, Reginald Goodall recorded Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with these forces.

This evening’s Amelia was American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, whose full lyric voice is a model of homogeneity, all registers rich and distinctive, and her technique is solid. One feels that nerves of steel make her operate so surely and cleanly close to her limits in an emploi in the vicinity of dramatic soprano repertoire, and yet I would be curious to hear her comfortably within her natural range as a formidable Donna Elvira, Elettra or Vittelia. This evening, not surprisingly, the most lyric pages in her part, the aria Morrò, ma prima in grazia, let Ms. Williams show the whole extent of her talents. There she sang with such naturalness and sincerity that one would need a heart of stone not to be touched.

Gwyn Hughes Jones is one of those natural tenors who are not afraid of high notes. He relies a bit too much in nasal resonance and, whenever he wants to boost projection, his sound can become quite glaring. Nonetheless, he has the necessary congeniality for Riccardo and sings with true animation. Sara Fulgoni too is a natural contralto whose low notes sound integrated and well-connected to her middle register. Hers is not really a big voice as one is used to hear in this role, but she has good projection and found no trouble in the small auditorium. Julie Martin du Theil was a sweet-toned Oscar with good divisions and charm to spare.

Roland Wood (Renato) was victim to a lung infection and was unable to sing the first scene in the third act. Before and after that, his forceful baritone sounded healthy enough but for one or other instances of instability. His replacement (whose name I could not understand) sang with a richer and darker but marginally less focused sound. Both offered satisfying performances. 

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I have never met anyone who would say that La Forza del Destino is their favorite opera by Verdi. It does feature some of Verdi’s best arias and duets, but everything else is either dramatically ineffective, pointless, kitsch or a combination of these adjectives. I myself have seen it in the theatre only twice: once at the Met (Voigt, Komlosi, Licitra, Delavan, Pons, Ramey) and once in Tokyo (I left after the intermission, so technically I saw it 1 1/2 time).

The reason why I was at the Royal Opera House this evening is the same reason the performance was sold out: the starry group of singers. The role of Leonora, for instance, is particularly hard to cast. Its tessitura is exceptionally low for a soprano and yet it requires exceptional control of dynamics and legato in high lying passages. I have never heard a Leonora that I could call faultless – and Anna Netrebko comes really close. The naturalness with which she plungers in her low register is something to marvel, and one never has the impression of crudeness suggested by some singers who just knock the audience out with their chest notes. Accordingly, she has tackled exposed high notes with a softer, essentially lyric approach that made her sound consistently dignified yet vulnerable. Ms. Netrebko produced beautiful mezza voce throughout and delivered a La vergine degli angeli poised but not purely angelical, an element of disquiet still lurking in the background. It is difficult to listen to Pace, mio dio with any other singer once you have got used to Leontyne Price, but I have to say that this evening I did not feel shortchanged.

Jonas Kaufmann’s tenor has grown throatier and more effortful since I last saw him sing an Italian role. His acuti lacked brightness and he was often overshadowed by the baritone (what is unusual) and yet he sang with his customary care for the text and tonal variety. His phraseology does not always go along with legato, and at some point one would trade all the highlighting and nitpicking by just good old cantabile. That all said, differently from most tenors in this role, Mr. Kaufmann was able to project a sense of fragility and desolation that made his Alvaro simply interesting in terms of drama. In comparison, Ludovic Tézier sounded as a paragon of vocal health in the role of Carlo, his baritone dark, rich and vibrant. He is not the most electrifying singer in this repertoire, though. Don Carlo is a character difficult to pull out, there must be a psychotic drive behind everything he does – and Mr. Tézier rather skated on the surface of a generic intensity.

Ferruccio Furlanetto’s bass is big and dark enough for Padre Guardiano, but the tonal quality does not suggest the spiritual authority deeper and ampler voices can provide here. In any case, he was better cast than Alessandro Corbelli, who – in spite of his comic verve and congeniality – lacks volume for the part. Veronica Simeoni’s light, slightly hooty mezzo is not my idea of Preziosilla. Last but not least, it was endearing to see Roberta Alexander and Robert Lloyd in the first scene.

Although Antonio Pappano received a standing ovation, his conducting was kappellmeisterlich in the bad sense of the world. After a band-like overture, strings scarce in sound, he seemed to be accompanying his singers in a way that no one of his stars would complain of having their lives made difficult. As a result, one never felt his soloists enveloped in orchestral sound and pretty much alone to produce themselves all excitement and expression. This is not the kind of score that works its magic by itself – so we had to do with the magic-less version this evening.

Christof Loy’s was a one-trick production. Leonora has always been trapped in her childhood of abuse – and the audience soon realized that by watching the same set of her father’s house morphing into Padre Guardiano’s church, Preziosilla’s inn and the barracks. But that cannot be all that he had to say. The plot of La Forza del Destino has a lots of blanks to be filled, and not all of them by pocket psychology, I am afraid.

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Faced with the revival of Harry Kupfer’s innocuous 2011 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the Opernhaus Zürich probably decided to add some zest to the event with role debuts for two of the most sought after new voices in the Wagnerian firmament. Although she has been called the next great Wagner soprano by reviewers and fans all over the world, Lise Davidsen has been very careful in her exploration of Wagner’s operas. The words “dramatic soprano” has appeared here and there – and, yes, it would be rash for such a young singer to start off with an Isolde or a Brünnhilde – but there is no doubt that her voice is two sizes bigger than the role of Elisabeth. This is the first time I hear her live – and the singer who occurred more often in my comparison is Astrid Varnay, who debuted as Sieglinde younger than Ms. Davidsen’s present age. Actually, I could not help thinking that Sieglinde would be a perfect role for her at this point. But first some clarifications: differently from Varnay (whom I know only from recordings, of course ), Lise Davidsen’s top notes do blossom in full radiance in a way the Swedish-American soprano’s would not (Varnay herself would be the first to admit that it was not the most exuberant part of her range); and, no need to say,  it would be unreasonable to dismiss her Elisabeth for her voice being too big.

As much as Varnay, Ms. Davisen’s soprano has nothing virginal and girlish about it. Her low and middle registers are full, rich and warm, but its tightly focused projection makes sure that you not mistake her for a mezzo. From a high f on, the focus increasingly acquires a laser-beam-like intensity that makes her high notes effortlessly irradiate in the auditorium. That quality alone made her interventions in concertati simply thrilling. Most fortunately, this invaluable Norwegian soprano is capable to scale down her Valkyrian soprano to pianissimo. This and her purity of line enable her to produce something close to Innigkeit, but one can see that it is an effect she can produce once in a while yet not all the time. As a result, the act 3 prayer proved to be her less compelling moment in the whole evening. She is a clever singer who knows her text and husbanded her resources to make this moment less about resignation and world-weariness and but rather the expression of a conflicted soul over God’s unscrutable designs. To make things better, Ms. Davidsen has a very likable personality and, in spite of her statuesque frame, is able to convey fresh-eyed femininity without affectation.

This was also Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s debut as Venus. Based on my impressions on her Fricka both in Bayreuth and Chicago, I confess I was not surely convinced of this particular piece of casting, but at least in a theatre of the size of the house in Zürich, her performance left nothing to be desired. She sang in consistently voluptuous tone, dark and creamy, and produced some truly exciting high notes always mezzo-ish in quality.

Stephen Gould, by now a veteran in the title role, was not in his best voice,  squeezing his high notes, especially in the first act, and intonation was not beyond reproach. However, his voice has the right color and size for the role – and his experienced with the part helped him out in many a dangerous passage. This afternoon was supposed to be Stephan Genz’s debut in Zürich, but he was indisposed and was replaced by Christoph Pohl, whose baritone would be ideal for Wolfram were it a bit less grainy. Mika Kares proved to be more at ease in Wagner than he was in Verdi, offering a noble toned account of the role of the Landgraf.

Axel Kober does not try to bring Tannhäuser closer to Wagner’s later works and is not afraid of going Weberian in leaner sonorities, a tempo beat and marked rhythms. It is difficult to tell apart the orchestra’s less than rich-sounding strings, the hall acoustics and the conductor’s intensions in all that, but the fact is that the three act finali benefited from the circumstances and shone in absolute clarity.

Harry Kupfer’s unimaginative staging updated the action to the sort of contemporary setting that does not amount to any extra insight. Tannhäuser has taken a bad turn from his bourgeois milieu and ended up in a decadent night club scene that was supposed to seem depraved, but ultimately looks like as if Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut had been filmed in Dresden or in Leipzig. The Landgraf and the Minnesänger sport polo shirts and play golf – and their competition looks like Germany’s got Talent. The final scene takes place in a train station – and have I said that the pope appears personally to apologise for his bad customer services?

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Adolphe Adam’s claim to fame is the ballet Giselle, but for a while he was also known – in France and in Germany – as the composer of the tenor aria with a written high d  from an opera called Le Postillon de Lonjumeau. It has been famously recorded by Nicolai Gedda, but also by Helge Rosvaenge and Joseph Schmidt. However, the opera itself has very rarely been performed. Curiously, the occasional stagings would appear even in Germany but not in the venue of its première, the Opéra-Comique, where it was last heard in 1894 before today’s performance.

Of course, this opera’s raison d’être is the tenor, and the long-standing relation between the Salle Favart and American tenor Michael Spyres explains this long due revival, and all involved are to be thanked for unearthing this hidden gem. To say that the plot is convoluted in an understatement. Chapelou is a coachman in the town of Lonjumeau who is too proud of his personal charm and his singing voice. It is the day of his wedding with the beautiful innkeeper Madeleine, a scout from the Royal Opera happens to hear him and promises fame and success in Paris. He does not think twice and abandons his wife before the honeymoon. Ten years later, they would meet again in court. She has received an inheritance and is now a glamorous socialite with whom he falls in love without realizing he is already married to her. Shocked by his complete oblivion of her, Madeleine decides to encourage him and, when he proposes, she accepts it as part of her revenge. When he is about to be taken by the police for bigamy, she decides that the whole thing has gone too far and reveals herself. He is overwhelmed by his own luck, but she reminds him that he had left her for the theatre before . His answer is “and now I am leaving the theatre for you”.

The score does not loose time with pretentiousness – everything is glittery, catchy and endearingly quaint. The second act has its best music, with wonderfully witty parodies of grand opéra for both tenor and soprano.

This is the first time I hear Michael Spyres live and it could not be a more relevant occasion. Mr. Spyres has made his name singing impossibly florid music and for his supernatural ease with in alts. Although his high extension is based on a very well connected falsettone stretching roughly from a high b flat to a high f above tenor’s high c, the main part of his voice is rich and warm, and his low register is surprisingly solid. In this moment of his career (he has recently sung operas like Carmen and Fidelio), he still can shift to his special-effect lighter and brighter high notes, but one feels that his “regular” voice is dying to blossom. This evening, he sang his aria’s high d without flinching and offered all kind of optional high notes, even higher than that, but one or other high c seemed to fall in the wrong slot and grated a bit. When I write this, I mean no criticism – it was a fabulous performance – but as a promising sign of development in his repertoire. Mr. Spyres is an extremely musical singer, with crystal-clear diction, sense of style, perfect trills and the sense of vocal narcissism so rare these days. He spoke his lines in good French and proved to have sense of humor too.

The role of Madeleine may sound secondary, but it is actually as difficult as the tenor one. It requires a high coloratura soprano, and the most recent complete recording features no one less than June Anderson. I was not able to find a copy before the performance and got acquainted with the work in Jules Gressier’s CD with Janine Micheau. Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette cannot compete with the famous French lyric soprano in creaminess and roundness. Hers is a very high voice, almost soubrettish and it simply lacked tone in its middle register, but her fioriture are more nimble and exciting than her predecessor’s. She managed very well to show the difference between Madeleine the innkeeper and Madeleine the heiress in purely musical terms too.

Under the expert baton of conductor Sébastien Rouland, the chorus Accentus and the orchestra of Opéra de Rouen Normandie were entirely at home in this music, and Michel Fau’s supercolorful pseudo-baroque staging was funny without making fun of the text and the music.

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