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I have to be honest here – I really dislike Puccini’s Turandot. I once told a friend “I only go to the theatre to see Puccini if a ray of light from the sky appears before my eyes and a voice tells me I have to”. But that’s not entirely true, because I did see Turandot a couple of times without God telling me to do it and I have never enjoyed the experience. Curiously, the first opera I have ever seen in my life was… Turandot and, hey, I’m still here. 

So the question is – why have I took the train to Geneva for Turandot? 1 – I haven’t been in an opera house in a while, 2 – I like going to the opera in Geneva, 3 – it was supposed to be a production with dazzling use of technology etc. 

I must have very little knowledge of lighting technology, for I wouldn’t be able to tell that I was witnessing anything groundbreaking there, although I could see that they were pulling all the stops in what regards light design and videos. It only looked like something the Cirque du Soleil might do better (I have no actual idea, for I prefer Turandot to the Cirque du Soleil). Director Daniel Kramer explains he intended to show this as a futuristic dystopia à la 1984. The theatre’s website used the slogan “When Puccini meets the Hunger Games”. Yes, there are moments when it looks like a reality TV show, and yet this is only hinted at in a very incoherent way. In the end, it looks just like any other staging of Turandot – but there’s a big “but” here. Mr. Kramer is collaborating in this staging with the Japanese artist collective teamLab – and one tends to think of scrumptious design when one thinks of Japan. But Japan has its own version of tawdry – and this is one very evident example. OK, Turandot comes as the illustration in the dictionary’s definition of kitsch. But there are all kinds of kitsch – and this here goes to the “gruesome” end of the scale. It was ugly, awkward, pretentious and alarmingly crude. Mr. Kramer’s convolute stage direction (and his obsession with graphic description of castration and phallic visual gags) couldn’t help making it even worse, I don’t mean anyone was offended by anything – the feeling was rather Fremdscham. 

The musical side of the performance had the immediate advantage of Luciano Berio’s ending. Although there is very little love between me and Turandot, there is a abhorrence in my relationship with the Alfano ending. Conductor Antonino Fogliani evidently wants us to know every facet of Puccini’s tutti-frutti – and he did it with a sure hand, the orchestra played well, all colors and stylistic influences were there. For someone who does not like the score, this makes it even kitschier. But that’s not Mr. Fogliani’s fault, who was an umile ancello del genio creatore. Someone like me would rather go for the Karajan “let’s pretend it’s Richard Strauss”-approach. But that’s my fault, of course.

In terms of singing, I can’t say there was a lot of joie de chant here. It is not unusual to find singers struggling in Turandot, but this afternoon seemed to be about how difficult everything was. Ingela Brimberg was the Grand Théâtre’s Elektra a couple of months ago. In that role, the lack of edge and the felt-like middle registers brought about an added dimension to the role; she sounded vulnerable in it. Here, on the other hand, it’s all about edge – a cutting edge. And Puccini is expecting the soprano to deliver the goods both in the extreme top and low notes. And that was a bit beyond was Ms. Brimberg has to offer. In order to cope with the unrealistic demands, she has to distort the tone amd was often unclear with the text. In her favor, one can say she could scale down and almost float her tone when that was possible. 

It is clear that Francesca Dotto knows exactly what has to be done in the role of Liù – and she mostly did it with a voice helplessly light for the role. As it was, she sounded a bit mealy, whiny and really tremulous. 

There is no doubt about the quality of Teodor Ilincai’s voice – it is big and has a naturally pleasant color. And he definitely has stamina. Yet the technique is puzzling. One feels that the higher overtones are never there – all vowels are a bit too dark, he never goes beyond a French “o” and a French “é”, the passaggio is a bit all over the place and intonation goes a bit dubious there. High notes are right in pitch yet bottled up and muscular rather than projecting. I wondered how far he could go this way – and he went rather far, just enough to sing Nessus dorma. After that it was 50 shades of grey. 

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The fact that Bach composed the Cantata BWV 211 (Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht – the “coffee cantata”) is arguably more amusing than the cantata itself. Written in 1734 in the context of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society founded by Telemann that used the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig as a concert venue, it feels today rather as a dad joke set to exquisite music. This alone makes it challenging for any musician: those who try to make something hilarious of it usually ruin the good part of the experience (the music) and those who try to ignore the comedy make it even odder, a misguided episode of silly “sacred” music. 

It will always seem astonishing to me that Gustav Leonhardt –  whom I tend to regard as rather austere – is the conductor who got it just right in his recording with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a lovely Barbara Bonney. There charm comes first, in warm orchestral playing, catchy rhythms and a subtly characterful conducting that finds every musical gag in the score – and nobody comes close to Lina Beznosiuk in playing the flute solos with a musical wink. But the keyword here is “subtly”. 

This evening Rudolf Lutz and the J.S. Bach-Stiftung reduced to one per part never lost from sight the comedy element – and never overdid it – yet rather than Leonhardt’s refined charm they offered something on the rustic sound, with strongly marked dance rhythms and hearty, almost folk-like strings. The harpsichord continuo felt a bit overbusy to my taste, clashing a bit with the slightly unsophisticated atmosphere. 

There is nothing easy in the vocal parts in the BWV 211. As usual with Bach, it is hard to sing although it must always sound spontaneous. The soprano takes the lion share here. Although everyone tends to focus on her first aria, the second one has a very awkward tessitura that usually involves some inaudible low notes and some high notes below true pitch in the end of phrases. Nobody sings them better than Carolyne Sampson in the recording with the Bach Collegium Japan (an impressively full-toned Dorothea Röschmann in Bernard Labadie’s recording is also hard to overlook). Not only is she ideally bright toned, even in her low register but also she sounds entirely unfazed by the difficult intervals and the long phrases. And she makes it clear that this cantata is not about coffee (it’s about you-know-what). Although Miriam Feuersinger was no exception in the perilous spots in the second aria, she sang with irresistible smoothness of tone and clarity of diction. She didn’t seem to try to make any point and embraced coyness without looking back.

As Schlendrian, the ill-humored father, Dominik Wörner delivered the text with savoir-faire and never tried to be too funny. A darker voice and ampler in the lower end would have helped the characterization (and given him a little bit more leeway). The tenor part is short but not sweet – it is uncomfortable to sing and only a few tenors really make something of it. Sören Richter found in it the right “gossipy” note. 

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The recording of Bach’s orchestral suites in my MP3 player is the one with Diego Fasolis and his orchestra I Barrochisti. This is why I’ve decided to take the train to see them perform Bach’s Mass in B minor with their go-to chorus, the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera. Three weeks ago I saw the same piece in Schaffhausen with the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin with René Jacobs – and the difference between these performances are as big as the Alps. 

Edith Wharton wrote that Catholics never write good ghost stories, for the supernatural is part of their daily lives. This might explain why the Northern European musicians have shown Bach’s Catholic mass as an almost theatrical event, powerfully expressive and deeply spiritual, while this evening performance seemed almost comfy in comparison. The opening Kyrie progressed in a relaxed rhythm, all sharp angles rounded and padded in almost legato-ish phrasing, the slurred groups of two notes  “eh-eh” on the word “eleison” delivered in a graceful almost sprightly way. Things risked to be a bit predictable until the last number in the first part, Cum Sancto Spiritu, when the proceedings suddenly seemed almost too animated and a bit rough-edged. 

The new atmosphere was nearly raised to sugar-rush level in the Credo section of the mass. The Radiotelevisione chorus is not the last word in terms of precision – sopranos and tenors were a tad flat now and then – and in these exhilarating tempi, melisme were often imprecise and a bit behind the beat. At some point they started to sound a bit tired and the whole performance began to sound like a difficult chore. After a pause where the chorus was repositioned and two or three extra choristers were brought in for the doubling in the Osanna, the evening finally settled into an exalted mood as if the whole point was showing that this is Bach’s monumental contribution to the choral repertoire. So it ended in a positive, emotional note. 

I don’t think Bach has ever experienced a day as hot and humid as today in Lugano. And this can be tricky when you’re playing period instruments. The corno da caccia in the bass aria was particularly tricky, but one must acknowledge that the natural trumpets were far above average. The solos in the arias did not strike me as particularly inspired and often sounded in a different expressive word from some of the singers, who would go for something that could be described rather as “austere”. In any case, this was a good group of vocal soloists, who benefited from the very good acoustics in the LAC.

Replacing Hanna Herfurtner, Swiss soprano Marie Lys sang with ideal bell-toned purity and naturalness. Taking the second soprano solos, Italian mezzo Lucia Cirillo displayed an almost boy soprano clarity of tone in her low notes, but came across as rather straitjacketed in her intent of producing thoroughly straight tone. 

I was eager to hear for the first time live two Austrian singers who have come to attention in their recordings with the J.S. Bach-Stiftung. Contralto Margot Oitzinger can be considered a Bach specialist whose hallmark is her extremely economical use of chest resonance. Her bottom register has an almost pop sound that carries reasonably in the auditorium. While it would have been exciting to hear the full color of her voice, her almost instrumental purity of sound, long breath and absence of affectation are praiseworthy. While most singers try to produce an ecstatic impression in the Agnus Dei, Ms. Oitinger sang it probably as it should – as a plea for redemption. Since I first saw Bernhardt Bechtold on YouTube, I have found him the example of how tenors should sing Bach. He is no tenorino.  His voice has some volume, what allows him to sing lightly without worrying about being heard in a larger hall. And his tenor is so perfectly focused that he never has to resort to falsetto to reach high notes. His middle register has a pleasant color too. I wouldn’t say he was at his best voice today, but he sang impeccably nonetheless. 

Last but not least, there was the Bach bass of choice in the 2000’s Klaus Mertens, now a veteran and something of a living national treasure in Germany. The voice is still very much firm, a bit less resonant in the lower reaches and less smooth now and then. And yet the authority, the sense of style, the flexibility and the love for this music are still all there. 

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My decision to buy a ticket to see the “new” production of Janacek’s Jenufa at the Berlin Staatsoper (it was actually premiered last year without an audience) is linked to the experience of watching Tatiana Gürbaca’s staging in Geneva. There, I wasn’t convinced by the way the title role was portrayed. As I had seen Asmik Grigorian only as Marie in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck this seemed to be a good opportunity to kill two birds with o e stone. Yet I need to speak of everything else before I can describe Ms. Grigorian’s performance. 

First we must talk about Damiano Michieletto’s production. In his interview in the program, he expressed his concern about the contrast between local and universal perspectives in a story so rich in details specific to its setting. Although we have seen stagings where the local folklore is used to add some color, most productions these days opt to show Jenufa as a story that could have happened in any context where having a baby out of wedlock is a catastrophic scenario. As much as Gürbaca, Michieletto goes a step further in terms of stylization. To be honest, she goes a step further – he goes a whole mile. The story is set in a cold storage room, where an iceberg gradually sinks in until it starts to thaw in the last act. I won’t lie – I don’t believe that this concept added anything to the story, which, yes, mentions ice in the very specific context of the death of Jenufa’s baby.  As it was, the cold lighting, the large sheets of transparent plastic and the gigantic iceberg had an alienating effect, as if these people were just Guinea pigs in a laboratory. It literally turned the dramatic temperature down. Also, I understand that the chorus couldn’t be on stage due to COVID protection measures, but they have been lifted and the director ought to have reviewed that decision. Act 1 with off-stage voices was completely nonsensical. Someone who had never seen this opera couldn’t have understood what was going on at all. Act 2 had many examples of people asking to be let in while they were already in – and Laca would need to be blind not to see the baby’s cradle right in the middle of the stage. And yet it was probably the most effective. In act 3, the director seemed happy enough playing with his own iceberg while almost everybody else at some point seemed to have to fend for themselves.

On the other hand, conductor Thomas Guggeis operated in a completely different universe, where emotionalism seemed to be the keyword. The underlining of particular turns of phrase seemed to be more important that the structural context in which these phrases were inserted, just like one hears in a performance of, say, Tosca or Cavalleria Rusticana. If Tomáš Hanus had a less exuberant orchestra in Geneva, his superior structural vision and control of it made his a performance of almost exemplary clarity and sense of atmosphere. Mr. Guggeis’s collections of moments did not amount to a coherent whole – and his verismo-ish conducting in the hall’s acoustics made it difficult for this cast to enunciate the text with clarity and still be heard. Even Evellyn Herlitzius and Hanna Schwarz, who were basically louder than everyone else, sounded strangely dry in tone. With one exception, every other singer had some trouble at some point in terms of being heard.

So now we’re back to Asmik Grigorian in the title role. In terms of tonal quality and phraseology, this Lithuanian soprano is here aptly cast. She produces as impression of youth and femininity even in the most outspoken moments. In her high register she always managed to pierce through, but the voice seemed to stay on stage rather than irradiate in the auditorium. In the first act, she seemed rather absent-minded. At some point, Steve says Jenufa has changed, that she was not playful and happy as she used to be. And yet one couldn’t imagine something like that by watching her acting this evening. As it was, act 2 showed her at her best, naturally bright in tone, unaffected and convincing in her expression of sadness and hopelessness. 

Although Evelyn Herlitzius’s performance was not essentially different from what she did in Geneva it seemed somehow more efficient there first because the acoustics allowed more color in her voice and second because Tatiana Gürbaca did not demand from her so much fidgeting and contorting and moving about as here. And the result was ultimately more convincing. Stephan Rügamer’s tenor never was ear-friendly but it has become a bit weird in its extreme nasality. He did manage to project better than almost everyone else and was very hearable throughout. Yet one always has the impression that Mime somehow showed up in the wrong opera. In any case, he fared better than Alexey Dolgov (Steva), whose overly darkened voice lacked projection and, given a bizarre directorial choice, looked more kooky than alpha-male-ish.

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I had never heard before this evening that Anton Webern actually enjoyed it when he saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West – and one can see why in a performance such as this evening’s, where almost everyone involved has at some point been part of a production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. It is not a favorite of mine – I have listened at home to a whole recording only once in my life when I bought the Matacic CDs with Birgit Nilsson and João Gibin. To be honest, this is the second time I see it live in the theatre (although I’ve watched both the Met’s and La Scala’s DVDs with Plácido Domingo). Even if the libretto is unconvincing and the music is elusive in its only occasional use of melody, live in the theatre it grabs your attention somehow by the way the story moves forward and the score always takes unexpected turns. 

Maybe it is not a coincidence that both times I’ve attended a performance of Fanciulla there was a German orchestra on duty. This evening, a world-class one in the Staatskapelle Berlin. Conductor Massimo Zanetti seems to know how lucky he is to have deluxe forces at his disposal and gave them all the time of the world to employ their complete tonal palette. Not only because the house’s next Brünnhilde and a consummate Wotan were on stage, the performance moved almost at Wagnerian pace – densely, richly, with singers piercing through the orchestral tapestry rather than taking pride of place. 

My single Puccinian experience with Anja Kampe and Michael Volle took place with this very company when I saw them as Tosca and Scarpia. Kampe isn’t a singer one can call foolproof in terms of technique, but the resources are all there and she has a je ne sais quoi that puts you on her side. She did part of her studies in Italy and, although there is nothing Italianate in her singing., she knows the style and handles the text adeptly in Dante Alighieri’s language. As Tosca, she was quite persuasive if you overlooked the taut high register. Since then, even if the tension is still there, she has developed a new reliability with her extreme high notes, which are all of them big, firm and penetrating. And there’s a lot of truly exposed acuti in the part of Minnie. What one still misses is a sense of focus and flow in the not-só-high notes, which can soube hard-pressed and colorless. As it was, act 1 was the one which agreed the most with her voice. Her warm middle register made all the conversational passages appealing and colorful. Laggiù nel Soledad had a real sense of story telling and she could scale down to mezza voce for her scenes with and about Johnson. Second act exposed her Achilles’ heel more often than one would wish. In those moments, she could be overshadowed by the orchestra and grey in sound. All that said, she has the right personality for the role and embraced it wholeheartedly, making it far more believable than one could expect. 

I was less enthusiastic about Volle’s Scarpia back then. At some point he was overcome by fatigue and made do until the end of the opera. That is not what happened this evening. Mr. Volle retained his vocal health throughout; yet there were patches of rust here and there. And his Italian is a tad accented. The tonal quality is pleasant as always – and he can fill the hall when he needs to. At least in Berlin. He doesn’t seem very dangerous, but there is something of the small-town sheriff in him. 

Marcelo Álvarez has been singing roles too heavy for his voice for a while with variable success. I would say that Johnson/Ramerrez is probably the less suitable in the list. It is impossibly low for him – he practically spoke his low notes – and he has to brace for every dramatic outburst. Again, in terms of personality he is ideal for the part and acted convincingly. All small roles were competently handled if none of these performances stood out in any way. 

Having an American director for The Girl of the Golden West is always a good idea, and Lydia Steier did a good job in finding the right slot between authenticity and stylization. In a way it looks like what Nevada or New Mexico was in the 60’s or 70’s – and at the same time it doesn’t in its impression of a DDR TV western. There is some effort to avoid cliche – Wowkle and Billy are not native Americans but drug addicts instead who behave oddly because they’re high – and there is some kind “discussion” about violence in society on top of everything. Act 3 becomes here the cowboy version of an auto-da-fé in the old old scenic trick of having the last act set in a messy and dirty version of the sets of the opening act. In terms of Personenregie, this was truly commendable – all characters sharply defined, all singers comfortable with what they had to do and even the fight scenes realistic. 

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In the former Ittinger Carthusian monastery near Frauenfeld, there is a small festival during the Pentecost holidays with daily concerts in their small concert house, the Remise. This year’s edition is curated and led by Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout and is an all-Bach affair. 

The opening concert features the reconstructed concerto for violin and oboe (based on the harpsichord concerto) BWV 1060 plus two cantatas, all items presented in a one-voice-per-part distribution. I am not sure that the combination of the acoustics and the slim orchestral force was advantageous for the concerto, which sounded a bit cold and businesslike, in spite of all the talents involved, especially Isabelle Faust herself, who played the challenging solo violin with her usual finesse. 

On the other hand, the chamber-like proportions really suit the solo cantata BWV 199, Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut. Leading from harpsichord and the positiv, Mr. Bezuidenhout established a dramatic atmosphere from the opening bars, which Dorothee Mields relished in a very expressive account of recitatives and a truly emotionally sincere and highly communicative account of her arias. The tessitura is a bit low – and I understand why John Eliot Gardiner chose Magdalena Kozena for this item in his Bach Pilgrimage – and yet Ms. Mields did not take refuge in a “spoken” tone and met the challenge of singing her low notes with just enough color. I had seen this German soprano only once at the Tonhalle, where her singing felt a bit lost in the large venue. Here one could savor her every inflection and tonal shade. A masterly performance in every aspect, warmly accompanied by the group of highly distinguished musicians, such as Clara Blessing, Cecilia Bernardini, Donata Böcking, Kristin von der Goltz and James Munro.

The BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele is a more complicated affair. It is a very special cantata whose theme could be described as how faith in Christ saves the  sinner as much as a physician cures a sick person. The opening number has all the elements of an atmosphere of dejection, with its chromatic descending ground and repeated notes. Every statement of the chorale (carried by the soprano) is wrapped in counterpoint in the other voices, as if the message of salvation has not yet been heard. But cure is not far away – Bach’s most Rossinian duet has soprano and alto sprinting to be healed. The tenor comes for a very curious aria, a musical transfusion of Christ blood in everflowing moto continuo from the flute obligato while the singer affirms he is regaining his strength. The bass appeara in complete health to his florid aria with oboe, ready to win and triumph over sin, before the closing chorale. 

Understandably, considering the forces available, Mr. Bezuidenhout here pressed forward without looking back. If that made the orchestral parts extraordinarily clear. I am not sure that it is particular easy, especially in Bach, to have all singers equalized as you can do with a chorus, even a small one. In any case, I have never heard a more satisfying account of the duet, sprightly but not excessively jumpy, the voices of Dorothee Mields and countertenor James Hall perfectly blended. Hugo Hyman sounded to me rather a Mozart tenor, not truly crispy in the recitative, but dulcet and flexible with a pleasant touch of velvet in the aria. Drew Santini found the bass part on the low side for his voice. He does have more than enough volume and flexibility, but seemed ill at ease at times. 

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The closing item in the program of the 29th edition of the Internationales Bachfest Schaffhausen, a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor with René Jacobs and his Berliner combo of the Akademie für alte Musik and the RIAS Kammerchor took place in the most important church in Schaffhausen’s old town, the St. John’s Church. I have written about the challenge of finding the right venue for the performance of Bach’s choral music. Again I am not sure that a church setting is automatically the right answer – even if these works were meant to be performed in churches we more or less know. St. John’s is a big venue, larger than some concert halls – and its acoustic is less resonant than many a religious space used for musical performances, and yet it is still challenging for solo singers. My personal opinion – go for the small venue. I don’t think Bach had much of a choice, as in “If we don’t perform these cantatas in the Kirche Trogen in Switzerland, then I quit”, first because he never went to Switzerland (I’m joking, but really those acoustics are to die for), second because he was hired to provide music for a particular church, regardless of how good the acoustics were and, third, we can assume that, even if he made the best he could, the quality of actual performances were not up to his very high standards. In the case of the Mass in B minor, there isn’t evidence that Bach ever heard it performed at all.

Back to St. John’s Church in Schaffhausen. As heard this afternoon, the hall provided a pleasant glow around the orchestra and chorus, but wasn’t so kind to solo singers. That said, let’s talk about the chorus first. Bach wrote the Mass in B minor mostly for a 5-voice chorus (two sopranos), but for the last part, where he employs double chorus. I am not sure that he clearly indicated that what we call “arias” and “duets” were meant for solo voices, but – even if he didn’t, it’s easy to guess because they a) are not meant for the complete chorus and b) have the same kind of accompaniment an aria in a cantata would have. This might sound obvious, but if you have listened to René Jacobs’s last recording of this work, you’ll notice that there is far more solo singing going on than one is used to find in any performance (except if we’re talking about Joshua Rifkin’s). The solo quintet would sing whole numbers or just pop up in parts of a number traditionally performed by the chorus alone or they would just join the chorus, not in the Rifkin-ian sense of blending in but being very much hearable above it. There is no rule about how many singers should be singing passages meant for the chorus in Bach – and many a knowledgeable author has written about this. In the case of this performance in Schaffhausen, this involved a lot of moving about. First the “main chorus” was placed in front of the orchestra together with the soloists, while a line of “ripienists” sat behind the orchestra. For the double-chorus items, soloists were sent “upstage”, what brought about the advantage of having the tenor and the flautist next to each other in the Benedictus.

Now that we cleared the logistics, let’s talk about the playing and singing themselves. For a while, René Jacobs’s 1992 recording (always with the RIAS Kammerchor and the Akamus) of the Mass in B Minor used to be my go-to CDs for the BWV 232. Listening to it today, I realize how undemonstrative and unfussed Jacobs was back then. It is a performance that takes a while to produce its effect. At first, it sounds almost too “comfortable”. This afternoon’s performance (and the 2022 recording) couldn’t be more different – it grips the audience from bar one, with its sense of forward movement and its dramatic accents. One might think that it was operatic as some of Jacobs’s Bach are, but, no, it did move forward albeit in a natural way, each turn of phrase well-shaped, in a balletic rather than athletic approach. With one exception – the fastest Sanctus I have ever heard. These musicians managed to keep all clean and precise, but still it felt a bit coming out of nowhere.

The 1992 CDs had rather substantial-voiced singers in Hillevi Martinpelto, Bernarda Fink, Matthias Görne, Franz-Josef Selig – and I missed them today. I’ve never understood the idea of Sunhae Im as a Bach soprano. I heard her sing the Weichnachtsoratorium in Vienna nine years ago and she sounded operetta-ish to my ears. The news that she was replacing Robin Johannsen made me curious to see if there had been any development since then. I am afraid not. She was very hard to hear and her high notes did not blossom at all. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s high register was far more hearable and she tackled the fioriture with gusto, but wasn’t helped by the acoustics lower in her range – and her phrasing is rather choppy. In Qui sedes, countertenor Benno Schachtner showed admirable flexibility, and yet he sounded small-scaled and a tad monochrome in the Agnus dei, even with the rather flowing tempo. Judging from his singing this afternoon, maybe the Bach phase of Sebastian Kohlhepp is coming to an end. His tenor now sounds a bit too complex for this writing and, even if he acquitted himself commendable, the honeyed ductility one hears in a Prégardien (the father back then and the son these days) is no longer there. And then there was Andreas Wolf, totally unfazed by the acoustics, singing his very long florid lines on the breath, producing rich low notes and absolutely clear high notes. If he had not been a tad ahead of the beat in one single moment, his Et in spirictum sanctum could stand as the dictionary example of this aria. Bravo.

Even if the playing of the Akademie für alte Musik (other than a squawky French horn) left nothing to be desired, the crowning glory of this performance was the RIAS Kammerchor. This was truly superior choral singing, all voices perfectly blended, absolutely clear in their divisions, the sound was in itself exquisite. Yet I have to single out the tenors. I have rarely heard a chorus in a historically informed performance with such a solid group of tenors. Bravi.

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Although Lucia di Lammemoor is regarded as one of the most forward-looking operas in the bel canto repertoire, I am not sure that Donizetti intended to compose anything really off the beaten tracks back in 1835 in Naples. Actually, he was rather busy fighting with the direction of the Teatro San Carlo about the librettist, had to ask for a new deadline and finally wrote the whole opera in seven weeks. In other words, Lucia’s “blueprint” is quite conventional – and the “originality” is something rather built by the appreciation of 20th century audiences in deeming Donizetti’s use of these conventions dramatically convincing. By saying this, I don’t mean Lucia was not a success in its première (it was) but it gradually took a secondary place compared to other Donizetti’s works such as L’Elisir d’Amore or Don Pasquale probably until Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland made it a central item in the repertoire. And this has not changed since then.

I needed the introductory paragraph in order to say that its effectiveness doesn’t happen by itself – it has to be built by the perceptive eyes and hands and voices of all involved in an effort to bring to the fore the traits almost accidentally left by Donizetti’s quill on the score. Without the help of its performers, conventional it will remain. For instance, women stage directors seem to find something there that still needs to be shared with the audience. Katie Mitchell in London, Barbara Wysocka in Munich and now Tatiana Gürbaca in Zurich seem to agree that Lucia is not the passive sacrificial lamb shown on stage decade after decade, but rather a woman with her own opinion who meets a tragic end when forced to act against her will. At the Royal Opera House staging, Lucia kept her wits longer than we thought, premeditating Arthur’s murder only to finally get caught by the stress of miscarriage while carrying away her plan; at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Lucia’s mind is resilient enough to deal with everything but for the fact that in the end she realizes she has bern trapped in her brother’s plan. In Zurich, madness is actually the only way of breaking free from a society where women are not supposed to act or think. This is a very reasonable explanation, but Ms. Gürbaca goes a little bit further in relating Edgardo and Lucia’s relationship with their own sanity. In Walter Scott’s novel, Lucy meets Edgar in a very stressful moment – he rescues her from a wild bull – and they seem to see in each other a “safe environment” in the very disturbed circumstances they live in (Lucy’s parents are rather mean in the book – and keen on making these young people’s lives hell). This is shown in this staging as some sort of night terror – Lucia sees in her dreams a ghost with a bull’s head and Edgardo, here a childhood friend, makes it go away. This ghost haunts these two people throughout the opera – and one is entitled to see an omen there, for they will only be together in death.

I am afraid these were the good news about this production. I have recently seen two production by Tatiana Gürbaca – Rigoletto in Zurich and Jenufa in Geneva – and have praised minimalism as her main asset as a director. This Lucia is everything but minimalistic – and I wished Ms. Gürbaca had kept to what she knows how to do. This staging is visually polluted, unfocused, full of distracting gags of poor taste and ultimately very ineffective. It is also very ugly – and not in the dramatically sense of the word “ugly”. Just ugly. The sets particularly, as if the story took place in Tegel Airport or a subway station in Berlin’s U3 line. In terms of Personenregie, it’s extremely busy, with characters wandering around a rotating set and moving as in the videoclip of Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller”. It can be also amazingly disappointing – Lucia’s wedding party is like a wild event, with sex, booze and drugs and I wonder why the guests would be so shocked on hearing about Arthur’s murder as to stop everything and fall to their knees and pray for God to spare them from His wrath.

Fortunately, the musical side of the performance left a far more positive impression, even for someone who made the big mistake of listening to a tape of one of Claudio Abbado’s performances from La Scala with Renata Scotto only last evening. Conductor Andrea Sanguinetti is no Abbado in terms of making this music sound a little bit more complex than it really is, and yet he delivered a grand performance in which the orchestra was very much an important part of it. This does not mean that he made it a bit Verdian in impact and fullness. Mr. Sanguinetti established a dialogue between orchestra and singers from a true bel canto perspective. However, that means that singers had to work for their money, especially in a edition including the Raimondo/Lucia and the Wolf Crag scenes – and I’ve ultimately found it better this way. Not one of the singers in this cast has a classic Italianate voice, and this added a special interest in the proceedings. Let’s start with out prima donna, Lisette Oropesa. If you compare, for instance, this American soprano’s tone with, say, Scotto’s, you’ll notice none of the usual brightness usually heard in Italian sopranos in this repertoire. Ms. Oropesa’s voice has a rather pellucid sound, not exactly clear in the middle register and slightly recessed right when a peninsular soprano would flash in the auditorium. This is something I had already noticed in Ms. Oropesa’s “new voice” (as compared to the days when she sang Susanna): around and above a high a it seems to spin backwards rather than forward and acquire a flutey sound without much core. In that patch of her range, she was often overshadowed by the tenor, what is unusual for a Lucia. I don’t remember that happening with, say, Dessay, whose voice is/was lighter in comparison. I mention this just almost as a side comment, for the writing of the part of Lucia doesn’t really require forceful singing in that area. In any case, what is obvious about Ms. Oropesa’s singing is her technical adeptness. Nobody would ever dream of saying this is not an extremely difficult piece of singing, but you would hardly notice that this evening. She sang all scales a tempo in perfect legato, tackled every trill, sailed through the mad scene as if she were singing Caro mio ben or Se tu m’ami. One could notice that the in alts were a bit short and a bit on tiptoe, but they were always true in pitch and hearable. She was never less than stylish and expressive and committed, but I won’t make comparisons with Scotto in terms of interpretation. That would involve talking about the true art of bel canto, which is colouring the tone, playing with dynamics ON THE TEXT with millimetric precision – and very few people could and can do this. In terms of acting, I regret I haven’t seen Ms. Oropesa in a more “traditional” staging, for she has an ideally Romantic stage presence, a bit superfluous in a staging where she stabs and slits her husband’s throat in front of the audience.

When I first heard Benjamin Bernheim sing Donizetti, it was in a broadcast from L’Elisir d’Amore from Vienna. I had seen him sing Mozart here in Zurich some years before that and all I thought was “why is he darkening his high notes like that in Una furtiva lagrima?” I mean – you really don’t need it and the music doesn’t ask for it at all. Then I saw him in Macbeth some months ago and I noticed he really masters the art of darkening his tone as no other tenor I have ever seen. The voice keeps it focus and actually gains in force (rather than receding, as usually), but again here we are in Donizetti and I couldn’t help thinking it would have sounded more stylish and graceful and sensitive if he kept it clearer and lighter. Then when he got to the Maledetto sia l’istante part of the wedding scene, this would have really surprised us. There were moments when his phrasing was a bit too straightforward, the legato a bit strait-laced, the acuti a tad dry. But don’t mistake me – he sang well and was in healthy voice this evening.

I can’t say if Massimo Cavalletti (Enrico) was in a bad-voice day – it sounded excessively grainy to my ears – and he does not seem at ease with bel canto. He aspirated a lot his fioriture in his aria and sang a bit crudely throughout. I still have to understand what happens with singers in the part of Raimondo, since they almost always tend to get tired at some point. Although Vitalij Kowaljow sang with very little affection this evening, his deluxe bass-baritone always causes a great impression, and yet the fatigue was evident in act 3.

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Camilla Nylund is the Opernhaus Zürich’s next Isolde and Brünnhilde. That is probably why I took a while to decide if a Liederabend at this point was a good idea for someone just about to go for broke in hoch dramatisch repertoire. A less than half full auditorium seemed to show that I was not the only one to have doubts about this evening. All I can say I am glad I finally bought this ticket, for this was a truly enjoyable recital. First of all, Ms. Nylund’s voice does not show any sign that she has been singing really heavy repertoire for a long while. It now sounds its absolute best – a combination of full warmth and focus as one could hear in some Golden Age Italian prime donne. She plunged into her low register with absolute naturalness, the middle is velvety yet clear and the high notes are full and rich.

But that’s not all – differently from many singers who deal with Wagnerian repertoire, she does not sound eager to prove that she deserves to be there. She sings with her own voice throughout; she does not try to make it sound darker, bigger, stronger or more penetrating. It is voluminous enough and she knows that. Plus her technique is rock-solid. All that enabled her to produce immaculate legato, deliver the text with crystalline diction and to offer singing of disarming emotional honesty. Even if you prefer someone else singing any of these songs, you would not feel inclined to compare her with anyone else, because she was being truly herself there. She addressed the public and shared her feelings about the Sibelius items in the program. Twice she got the wrong stanza of the text and had to stop, and yet she seemed so at ease that the audience felt almost in a private concert when she excused herself, showed a congenial smile and picked up where she left with unchanged commitment.

Other than “Black roses”, I was not familiar with the other Sibelius songs performed this evening, but as much as I can judge without speaking Swedish (and Finnish for one of the songs), she sang with ardor and yet a very clean line. Jubal op.35, no.1, for instance, was phrased with almost Mozartian grace without any loss of passion. The Mahler part of the program was an odd assortment of songs. Nylund negotiated well the melisme in Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? and sang the “dialect” heartily. Ten seconds later, she showed Innigkeit and dynamic variety in Wo die schöne Trompeten blasen. Das irdische Leben was fully operatic, her middle register delivered with a splash of the spoken voice. And back we were to the spiritual concentration of Urlicht, only to return to the operetta-ish word of Verlorne Müh’ and Scheiden und Meiden. If sometimes we had the impression that, nimbly as she lightened her voice, that the operation required the ability of someone on a tightrope. Therefore, the most outspoken numbers felt a little bit more relaxed. And it is never enough to repeat: she handled the text really adeptly, if often with a touch of the operatic.

After the intermission, she offered – for the first time with piano accompaniment in her career, as she explained – Alban Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder. She had the score with her “just to make sure everything would be fine” and one could sense a little bit of loss in personality there. That said, these songs gain a lot with a richer voice, especially one that manage some dynamic variety in high notes. Although one cannot speak of true mezza voce, Nylund’s voice has a natural float that does the trick. As expected, the Strauss items were the highlights of this recital. I don’t think anyone today can sing these pieces better than her. Songs like Cäcilie and Ruhe, meine Seele benefit from a round big, voice of course (and her climactic high notes really filled the hall with a satined glow), but I don’t think I had ever enjoyed Malven as much as I have this evening for the very same reasons. And her almost hushed Morgen was effective too.

The combination of Ms. Nylund’s creamy, impassionate singing with Joonas Ahonen’s almost detached pianism, keen on very precise and economic pedalling, could seem odd at first, but I thought it really added an extra dimension to this recital in his musical clarity and objectivity and ear for tonal coloring. It complemented rather than reinforced the singing. And he handled the most athletic items with gusto.

Ms. Nylund found it important to sing the Wesendonk Lieder in Zurich – and offered as encores Schmerzen and Träume, both truly richly and sensitively sung. And yet I really enjoyed the extra Sibelius item too – an exquisite song called “Was it a dream?”.

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I don’t think I am alone in considering Arabella a masterpiece, and I have often wondered why it is so rarely staged. This evening the answer was evident to me – the forces required are above what an opera house is able to offer in regular circumstances. It is obvious that all main roles are hard to sing, but sometimes one forgets that the small parts are also very tough to sing, not only the Fiakermilli – Elemer is pretty hard and the fortune-reader is tricky, just to name two. To make things worse, the score doesn’t spare the orchestra one second. And we cannot forget – it is also hard to stage. If you are going for a traditional staging, then you need the full glamour (and it is not going to be low-budget). On the other hand, the libretto is so deeply connect to the Viennese setting that it is very difficult to stylize, update or adapt. So let’s talk about the staging first.

As much as in his production of Rosenkavalier for Salzburg and New York, Robert Carsen finds it important to show this in the context of its creation. As the plot doesn’t go as far as the 18th century as in the case of the Marschallin, the Count Octavian and the Baron Ochs, having it played in the 1930’s makes far more sense for the Waldners. It is bold – and probably only approved by the Intendant because we’re in Switzerland – to have swastikas all over the place – and it makes sense in a the-sound-of-music point-of-view. Mandryka comes from a Romantic context of castles and forests and rescues Arabella from a corrupt and perverted society. God knows the world is sorely in need to be reminded of the dangers of evil and extremism, but I guess the point would have been more efficiently taken if the approach were less heavy-handed. You know, when we slowly take in and suddenly realize “Good Lord, they’re nazis!” For instance, the ballet in the interlude between act 2 and 3 with the yodellers being “assaulted” by the SS troopers was the dictionary example of overkill – and it was noisy and I’d rather hear Strauss music without it. Anyway, unsubtle as the whole thing was, I could live with it. I could live with the unimaginative Personenregie too, even if it tended to the overbusy and the emphatic. What really turned me off was the scenery. I don’t think any grand hotel in Vienna in the 1930’s would look so ugly and common as in this staging. I guess managers of less grand hotels would have lost their jobs if they let the carpet in the main lobby as rippled as the one seen on stage this evening. Call me conservative, but I missed a staircase too. Its absence involved lots of character vanishing backstage and appearing on the second floor and then screaming their lines for someone on ground level.

I guess that maybe three or four opera houses in the world have an orchestra capable to perform the score of Arabella with paramount standards of excellence. And the Opernhaus Zürich is not one of them. I don’t write this as nay-sayer, but it is important to establish this fact to explain this particular performance. Conductor Markus Poschner offered a formidable account of the score, one that would have left audiences in the Vienna State Opera or in the Semperoper in absolute awe. The orchestral sound was full and rich and well blended, the tempi were dramatic, flexible in keeping with the dramatic situations with swift accents and some vertiginous passagework from the strings. A more cautious conductor would have noticed that the forces available were sorely tested by the fireworks-like conducting and would have probably adapt the concept to something more foolproof. To be honest, in most of Arabella’s and Zdenka’s music, it worked. It felt grand and emotional. Not really so in Mandryka’s music, when the impression could be of lack of polish and sometimes awkwardness. In all honesty, nobody could say it was not exciting, and these musicians gave their all this evening. Let’s say it just isn’t one for the records. You’d have to be there to get the picture.

When the 2021/2022 season was announced, the name of Anja Harteros appeared in the cast list. I don’t think that, at this point, anybody believed she would actually sing. So the big suspense here was to guess who would replace her. A couple of months ago, this German soprano was supposed to sing R. Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Marek Janowski at the Tonhalle until we heard that she would be replaced by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, a singer I had seen only once in the part of Zdenka when Harteros herself was singing Arabella. Ms. Müller’s voice has developed since then and, although there is little tonal glamour, she managed to do a more than decent job in that concert. The problem is that “tonal glamour” is a requirement for Arabella, and I was curious of how she would fare in a Lotte Lehmann role. Well, it seems I’ll still have to discover, since she was replaced in the last minute by Jacquelyn Wagner. I am not sure that Ms. Wagner has a Lotte Lehmann voice either – but neither Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa could be described in those terms – and Ms. Wagner comes fresh from her Elsa in Salzburg and has one recording of Arabella to her credit. When I heard her live many years ago as Micaela in Berlin, I recall a Mozartian voice of some purity and creaminess of tone. Her incursions in heavier repertoire have since then brought about a certain graininess à la Deborah Voigt (without the heft) that is not immediately appealing. It is still a lyric soprano’s voice, one without the last ounce of volume necessary for us to hear everything she sings in her middle register. Yet it is a very healthy voice, one that goes up and down through her registers without any visible shift or hesitation. She took the whole first act to warm – what is understandable, considered she was flown in only yesterday for this performance – and at moments seemed overshadowed by her Zdenka. In act 2, her soprano showed its full bloom, she seemed more at ease and sang effortlessly the high-lying phrases of her duet with Mandryka. Most importantly, she proved to be able to let the exposed high notes spin and gain projection without forcing, especially in the last scene, which she sang really richly. She is a singer incapable of bad taste and, being tall and blond, is just convincing enough in the part. If she doesn’t look and sound truly seductive, at least there is some patrician restraint in her, which is more than I can say of some Arabellas I have seen.

I wonder how the pairing of Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (as Arabella) and Anett Fritsch (as Zdenka) might have sounded, because these are singers of similar Fach and repertoire. Ms. Fritsch is one of those sopranos whose glory is rather the middle than the high register, what maybe at odds with the tessitura of the role of Zdenka. As it was, she was often the most hearable person on stage. As she used the text with unusual intelligence, there was always an interesting turn of phrase (also in terms of tone colouring) to entertain the audience. But the hallmark of a good Zdenka is how she handles her high notes, especially if she can float mezza voce in the duet with Arabella. Predictably, that was not the case here. Ms. Fritsch worked hard and didn’t disgrace herself at all, but her high register could be piercing and was never smooth. That said, she shone in all conversational passages, especially in her scenes with Matteo, when she could provide the necessary intensity without tampering with a bright, feminine basic sound. I took a while to recognize Pavol Breslik in the latter role. I had not heard him in a long while and the voice has now a darker quality and a little bit less projection than I remembered. He handles the high notes famously and has the right personality for the part. This performance had more than one Wagner in the cast, as Josef Wagner (as in the première) takes the role of Mandryka. His is a curiously smoky voice, what makes him work hard to pierce through the orchestra, except in high notes, which are tightly focused and big. We can see he knows when he needs to scale down for the more lyrical passages, but his tonal palette is not very wide. To his favor, he has the right attitude and looks for the part and is comfortable with both comedy and romance.

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