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A hidden gem in bel canto repertoire, Le Comte Ory is one of Rossini’s most consistent works. If I were to be really picky, there is one number I don’t like in the whole opera – the rest is bubbly and fresh like champagne, including a libretto clearly less silly than those in his Italian opere buffe. I will be forever spoilt by first hearing it live in truly authentic circumstances at the Opéra Comique with a cast impossible to match. That said, the Opernhaus Zürich can stand proudly to the competition with this evening’s performance. First, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Courier’s staging is intelligent, entertaining and visually catchy, amazing acting from all involved, including individual members of the chorus. The action is updated to the 1960’s and we witness the lives of these ladies from an ultracatholic milieu waiting their husbands return from the Algerian War. May 1968 is only 6 years ahead, and our Comte Ory with his marijuana leaf t-shirt is a sample of what is happening next. And, no, the staging is not pretentious at all – if you don’t read the program, you’ll get all that without racking your brain. It’s there and is not obtrusive at all.

Conductor Victorien Vanoosten doesn’t think of bel canto as chantilly and marzipan. The first thing one would notice about this evening’s performance was that the orchestra was very much there in full, earthy sound, a bit rough in the edges, what becomes this kind of screwball comedy. Although I still miss a bit of the filigree in John Eliot Gardiner’s CDs, the boldness is not unwelcome and the tempi were lively enough, what makes the level of precision in ensembles even more praiseworthy, especially if one has in mind the level of physical comedy involved. Bravi.

In terms of singing, I am afraid I had to avoid comparisons with what I heard in Paris. With one exception, which is Uruguayan tenor Edgardo Rocha in the title role. First, he is a terrific – really, amazing – comedy actor. He could twist the audience around his little finger with his facial expressions and gestures. One could see that there was some ad lib involved, especially when he felt that everyone was really fixed on his every little movement. I was about to say his is a typical Rossini tenor voice, but it is actually warmer and rounder than, say, Juan Diego Flórez’s if a bit less impressively articulate in coloratura. His trump card actually are his high notes. He is the kind of tenor who is really dying to sing the next high c sharp! And his French is really crystal-clear.

Brenda Rae too was very funny as the Countess Adèle, yet her voice is neither typically Italian or French, in the sense that it is a bit colorless and rather unfocused in the middle. So, when the phrase was rather central, she could be a bit hard to hear. In any case, even if the voice has no inbuilt magic, she sang very well, tackled her coloratura adeptly, has reasonable legato and, even if her in alts were a bit freer in the past, they’re still there, true in pitch and firm. Rebeca Olvera’s overbright, nasal soprano is not my kind of voice and she too was a bit hard to hear in the middle register, but her fioriture is fluent. In spite of a apt physique not truly apt for trouser roles, she was scenically very convincing as the page Isolier. As the gouverneur, Andrew Moore had a clear advantage in a noble, velvety bass voice, a bit on the high side for the role. Liliana Nikiteanu too is a mezzo in a contralto role as Ragonde, but she made it work for her in an extremely likeable performance.

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Watching a complete Ring is a unique experience. For a whole week, one lives in a two-tiered reality, half in a world of symbols and myth, half dealing with very prosaic questions, such as which is the best time for lunch in order not to be late for the Götterdämmerung performance starting at 16:00. This time, it has been even more unique: there is a world-changing event outside, with protests, the police, breaking news all the time. And there are opera-goers living the fear of a negative test and not being able to see the rest of the Ring. Worse: being sick and stranded far away from home, if you don’t live in town. And there is the opera house itself handling disinfection, hundreds of tests for musicians, extras, stagehands, replacements for very difficult roles. So it is a collective experience as never before, one where themes involving life, death, love, indifference, nature, society, hope and hopelessness are more than just concepts.

This means that a Ring conceived in such circumstances offered a special opportunity for a director to speak to and engage the audience more than the regular festival aperol spritz-sipping experience. This is one of the reasons why I was so disappointed with the Siegfried last Friday, when one had the impression that the director was addressing his imaginary friends (or foes) rather than the people in front of him in the auditorium. You may imagine how positive was the surprise of finding the foyer of the Deutsche Oper represented on stage when the curtains first opened this evening: I felt as if the director had read my thoughts and, maybe for the first time in this Ring, I felt being talked to. But not for long. Although the last installment of Herheim’s Ring is also the most consistent, it is also very frustrating in its agenda.

But let’s speak of the strong points first: the idea of showing the Gibichungen Halle as the world where we live, where we got away from our ideals and get our hands in the dirt – as much as Siegfried and Brünnhilde – is very successfully rendered by placing it in the very opera house where we were. The mythical level remains the “staging”, with its sets made of suitcases, gods in winged helmets etc. Also, the scene with Siegfried disguised as Gunther was probably the strongest point of this whole production: here we have both tenor and baritone on stage sharing their lines, using the same costume, including the Tarnhelm (here a clown mask, Alberich’s face). There is also a Hagen who is among us – he sings his scene with Alberich seated in the front row. He is the one who uses the myth, the staging to manipulate the public for his own purposes.

But there are considerable weaknesses here too: many scenes look like the budged was over and no huge idea came up – one has too often the sensation of high school theatre in some key passages (such as the immolation scene, no less). There are structural problems too. The migration agenda, for instance.

Yes, the Ring is about people on their way of changing their places in their social structure (Alberich and Wotan trying to get to the top of the power system, Brünnhilde being attracted out of the Walhalla into the real world in search of love, the Wälsungen lost in the world and trying to find home etc) – but it is not about the issue of migration in its religious/economic/politic dimension as we experience it today. These people are not agents in a power/love conflict as Herheim sees them, and their problems are far more immediate than a mythic/aesthetic discussion. So one couldn’t help wondering – what does all this have to do with them? Therefore, when we are shown a closing scene where the production is just over and a cleaning lady dusts the piano symbolizing the whole creative impulse of the myth as if it meant nothing to her, one has the impression that the director is really telling us that this work has nothing to offer to anyone with real problems, that it has lost its power of communication/inspiration/manipulation. If we have in mind the effort of all involved – the audience too – to be there for these performances, I am afraid I cannot agree with that.

The musical side of this Götterdämmerung too is in a way contradictory. Again, I cannot say this performance brought any special inside in its leisurely tempi and flaccidity of accent, heavily dependent on richness of the orchestral sound to draw the audience (and the brass section has again its small accidents now and then). However, when I think about it, it did not feel long at all. And this is no small feat. At first, I had the impression that the unusual sense of flow in scenes famous for their ”lack of continuity” (the scene with the Norns, the first Gibichungen scene, Siegfried’s death) was achieved by excessive roundness of its sharp angles – everything smoothed out in an all-purpose version of Knappertsbuschianism, but that would be unfair. There was a unique combination of fluency and depth of sound that made its performance very easy to follow.

In terms of cast, this Ring was crowned by Nina Stemme’s performance as Brünnhilde. She has achieved a level the Japanese would call “living national treasure”, in a sense that she displays a mastery in this part that it is not about her doing everything immaculately perfect, but rather a deep experience that allows her to go beyond simple perfection. Although she evidently sounds taxed by extreme high notes now, I found her more interesting and in charge than when I saw her sing it back in 2012 in Munich.

Clay Hilley was again a solid Siegfried, really pleasant of tone, textually clear and right on the spot in terms of personality. Even a bit short in the lower end of his voice, Albert Pesendorfer was a powerful, intense, hypnotic Hagen, well contrasted to Thomas Lehman’s warmer-toned a bit grainier Gunther. Okka von der Dammerau offered a richly sung, glamorous Waltraute. Jordan Shanahan again sounded rather velvety and noble-toned as Alberich, but that’s me being picky. Among the minor roles, Beth Taylor stood out as a dark-, firm-toned First Norn.

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Stefan Herheim is a director whose work I have learned to appreciate, and I don’t mean that this was an acquired taste, but mostly as the acknowledgment of a clear development in his style. Regardless of what he professes in his interviews, my first impression of his productions was of someone who didn’t like opera at all. His stagings were drained of emotional content, the plot was ridiculed, everything replaced by a joyless, restless sense of comedy as some sort of statement of nonconformity. As I believe that the entertainment industry is intrinsically dependent of comedy, staging tragedy these days is actually what requires some guts. Therefore, I couldn’t help finding the whole approach ultimately superficial. But then I saw his Bayreuth Parsifal, his Amsterdam Onegin and could finally see what he was truly capable of. That is why I was eager to see his Ring for the Deutsche Oper. 

I have tried to keep an open mind, but this Siegfried made it difficult to me. In the performance booklet, the Dramaturg speaks of the importance of laughing in the Ring, but it seems that this translates into this staging exclusively in its laughableness. At moments, I looked around and saw members of the audience tsking in sheer Fremdscham. When you have the migrant agenda (whose relevance to the plot is still open to debate) reduced to refugees partaking in an orgy in the Brünnhilde/Siegfried duet, one is made to believe that the laugh is in one’s own expense. And I don’t mean this because I was shocked – this is the world of free porn! – but because it was just embarrassing. Even the extras looked disconcerted for being part of something so utterly lame. And there’s the omnipresent lapse of taste. We are made to see too many things that shouldn’t be there in the first place – angel-like winged Sieglinde and Siegmund in the forest scene, for instance. Especially when it seemed that the purpose of their presence was the need to disentangle the huge white fabric that is the single solution for every scenic instruction in the libretto. And the piano, of course. I don’t know, but people pretending to play a piano looks just ludicrous to me. And every character does that in this production. For instance, Siegfried crossing the magic fire here is nothing but a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation.

The way I write makes it probably seem worse than it actually was – and maybe this is true. There was the occasional successful moment, of course: the basic scenic idea for the dragon is efficient (it ends poorly – with dancers!), the slightly psycho boy woodbird cheering over Mime’s death could be even scarier without the gags. As everything was overwrought and constructed, it was difficult for the audience to endorse it for more than 5 minutes without cringing.

Musically speaking, this performance is also so far the nadir in this Ring. This might be a matter of taste, but I believe that the score and the plot of Siegfried require a crisper performance, with a stronger sense of forward movement, firm accents, an impression of raw energy. Yet Donald Runnicles seemed to be stuck in Walküre mode here. Everything sounded basically comfortable and polite. When it was impossible to take refuge in Gemütlichkeit – as in the scene with Erda, the sensation was rather of awkwardness, the brass section a bit below its usual standards.

I don’t think I had ever seen Nina Stemme as the Siegfried Brünnhilde, and now I regret it, for even past her prime, she sang it very well. With the help of mezza voce, she acquitted herself commendably in some difficult high-lying passages, phrased with beautiful legato and generated warmth and affection. She pushed all her acuti and the final high c was something of a screech with a nondescript pitch, but still a classy performance.

This is the first time I hear Clay Hilley, without any doubt a Heldentenor: the voice is firm, the stamina ia admirable (he got tired only in the last 10 minutes), he is not afraid of the high tessitura, his German is clear and credible. Once you hear someone like Andreas Schager as Siegfried, you might get used to more ringing acuti, but Mr. Hilley’s tonal quality is maybe more spontaneous and he is very likable in the role in spite of an unheroic physique. In this sense, he was well contrasted with Ya-Chung Huang’s petit frame as Mime. The Taiwanese tenor displayed admirable command of the German language and the style, yet his voice is a bit soft-centered for the part. The lyrical quality of has its advantages, though: his singing as Mime was unusually smooth too.

Iain Paterson was clearly in stronger voice than in Die Walküre, and yet he still had to work hard in the competition with the orchestra and sounded fatigued in the scene with Siegfried. The evening’s Alberich, Jordan Shanahan too had a voice a bit velvety for the part, but could produce a cutting edge for his exposed high notes and came across as an unusually congenial. Tobias Kehrer too was rather smooth as Fafner, but Marina Prudenskaya, who stood in for the originally cast Erda, was not in her best form and had her ungainly moments.

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In the context of the release of a CD of songs by Evard Grieg, Lise Davidsen is on tour with a recital the first part of which mirrors the repertoire of the disc, while the second is devoted to the composers she is usually associated with: Wagner and Strauss. 
While I am unfamiliar with most of the Grieg items, they offered an interesting perspective to Ms. Davidsen’s artistry. The German songs op. 48 showed her at her lightest and most crystalline, floating mezza voce at will and producing firm, radiant streams of sound, but the op. 67 – Haugtussa – in her native Norwegian brought about a spontaneity of tone, an almost pop like immediacy, an ability of tone coloring that made me wonder if this was not the best singing I have ever heard from her. The language did not pose any barrier between her and the audience – with the power of interpretation, an expressive face and a congenial personality she was able to put across the meaning of these texts.

After the intermission, the Strauss items sounded more similar to her usual operatic persona. The tone was immediately darker, big high notes filled the room without effort – and yet sometimes one felt that something slimmer and brighter would make her sound more natural, just like she had just done in the Norwegian items. As it was, Ruhe, meine Seele was drawn in a large dynamic range and Cäcilie was sung in a Valkyrian scale. In Morgen, she proved again capable of Innigkeit and polish. Maybe Befreit was the most interesting item in the set – Ms. Davidsen explored all possibilities of her voice in it, a tour de force.

In Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder the tone displayed a mezzo-ish quality that never stood in the way of refulgent, rich high notes. Maybe I’m too fond of Régine Crespin’s recording with Georges Prêtre,  but I missed the sensuousness, the flexibility of line, the fantasy. Her pianist in the recording, Leif Ove Andsnes, had to cancel because of COVID, being replaced at the last second by James Baillieu, an accompanist with a good ear for color and bold use of the pedal, but not 100% clear in articulation and a bit percussive in the most “orchestral” moments. As it was, Träume proved to be their best item – at moments she almost found her Grieg-ian spontaneous voice and feeling for the natural flow of the line. 

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Das Rheingold is the installment of the Ring in which directors use all their understanding of Philosophy, Psychology, Anthropology, Politics to dazzle the audience with their ideas. Then there is Die Walküre with characters and their lives and passions and needs – and this is where we see if the Dramaturgie is just for show or not.

Stefan Herheim seems to be determined to prove that his concept is solid – even if he has to underline everything for us to see that. Sieglinde lives in a house made of suitcases – I’m ok with that, it is an unobtrusive idea. It is not a place where she wants to stay. Instead of the tree, there is the piano with the sword stuck in its keyboard. So, yes, she cannot play her own music, she doesn’t have a voice, that’s a powerful image. In act 2, the migrants are everywhere, watching and occasionally interacting with the gods. They are the audience – and this is a play. I don’t find this adds anything in terms of dramatic tension, but rather diffuses it – but, hey, maybe that’s just old silly bourgeois me wanting to entertain myself with make-believe human suffering… So, yes, Wotan is telling the story of why the world is going awry and why he is so alone just for the benefit of Brünnhilde’s eyes… surrounded by twenty people. In the Fricka/Wotan scene, they observe everything with a sympathetic look, for, yes, it’s not as if they had bigger personal problems to think about…  The third act begins with the actors in this mythical play (the Valkyries) surprised by the fact that the audience is there and the show had already begun. It was cool, we laughed, that’s something you can do when you don’t have money for flying horses. And then there’s the Valkyries being sexually assaulted by the extras – but that one I’ll leave for the director’s shrink to explain. So, yes, it’s all there, but so what? It all seemed like patina over these people’s predicaments. 

And yet the director proved to have some interest in the petite histoire within this big story – here Sieglinde has a son with Hunding, a Malatestino-like pre-teen with a sick smile and a fondness for playing with knives. He is so poorly treated by everybody that he develops an immediate affection for Siegmund: he might be a stranger overtly flirting with his mother in his father’s house, but he is nice. So, put yourself in Sieglinde’s place: you’re stuck in a gloomy old house with a brutal husband and a psychopathic son until one day a nice guy comes along and he was big and strong and he even liked the weirdo kid. What would you do? Cut your own child’s throat just for the fun of it?! Well, my friends, that’s what Sieglinde does here. When she gets to the Walhalla, she obviously finds her own hell loop in the ghost of her murdered child. There’s a TV series about that, and if you watched it, you’ll know it’s all about guilt. And so Mr Herheim explains – in act 2, the passion is gone, Sieglinde worships an idealized version of Siegmund and is embarrassed for soiling his reputation with her own shame. And is there a better way to show all that than inventing a filicide? Of course not…!

The big question is :  ok, but does this work scenically? Occasionally, generally when no new idea was being staged and it just looked like any performance of Die Walküre. There’s a problem of kitsch here too – like the tree growing from the piano with video projections worthy of a videoclip of a song by Lionel Richie. And, man, it was cold, the gags making it even less relatable. It made me think of Guy Cassiers’ production for the Lindenoper with nostalgia. I wasn’t a fan of it – but in the end there were no dry eyes in the audience (me being bourgeois again, I know). And Daniel Barenboim had a great share of responsibility. He probably threatened to fire everyone if there was one dry eye in the audience, I guess. I don’t know – it just worked. 

Here Donald Runnicles has a strong asset in a world-class Wagnerian phalanx in the pit, but a problematic cast on stage. I have never understood the idea behind Brandon Jovanovich as a Wagnerian tenor. For me the sound lacks core and seems to spin backwards rather than forward around a high f and above. This evening the inaudibility and difficulty in holding a phrase was such that even a nay-sayer like me was expecting someone to announce him as indisposed. That happened in the first intermission. This alone involved the conductor reining in his orchestra in an almost baroque-ensemble level of volume. The strings coped famously with lustrous passagework and velvetiness of tone. But you could hear the frustration in the sound of that Wagnerian brass section. In other words, this compromised the sound picture in an almost irreversible way. The fact that we had a small-scale Wotan in Iain Paterson did not help it either. As in the scenes with Sieglinde and Siegmund, one could clearly notice the orchestra being dimmed for his every utterance. And he got tired in spite of that midway his big act 2 monologue. All that said, Mr. Paterson’s bass baritone has an appealing sound, he sings in the right style and delivers the wordy text with sense of line. Only in act 3, the conductor finally found an ideal balance by letting the orchestral sound overshadow his Wotan whenever the music really demanded it while cutting him some slack in the more lyrical moments. 

Among the male singers, only Tobias Kehrer displayed a truly Wagnerian voice as a dark-toned Hunding, almost congenial in tonal warmth. In any case, cherchez la femme. Elisabeth Teig was a lyric, creamy-toned Sieglinde who phrased with affection and Inningkeit. She had to work a bit hard to keep up with the more outspoken moments, but could do that without loss of color and focus. Although Annika Schlicht operates on a restricted tonal palette (especially in the upper half of her voice), she offered a classy account of the part of Fricka, with ideal word pointing, sharp sense of rhythm, good projection and charisma.

And there was Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. This Swedish soprano has been singing dramatic roles for more than a while and one can feel that the trigger point for pushing top notes seats a bit lower than it used to in her prime. But still, her voice retains her hallmark fullness and the volume is all one wants in a big auditorium. I have to say that, in a way, I believe she is more satisfying than in the days her means were even more generous and she would now and then lack focus in her middle register. Hers was not the most exciting or touching account of the role (Barenboim could extract more from her in this department when I saw them at La Scala some years ago), but it was richly and sensitively sung – what proved to be essential to lift this performance above the prevailing okness.

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The last scene of Götz Friedrich’s Ring for the Deutsche Oper Berlin showed the gods covered in sheets like pieces of old furniture. That’s exactly how it began too. I saw its last run and was curious about what Stefan Herheim would do in his new production for the opera house in Charlottenburg. While Friedrich seemed to believe that there is a continuous cycle of decadence and rebirth of myth, Herheim’s view is that the great story of society is about movement; people are always in transit and that’s why there constantly are collisions, beginnings and ends.

In his staging, the Rhine is just a metaphor for that. His Rheingold start with a lit auditorium, an empty stage, migrants with suitcases staring at us. And there is a piano – when a key is pressed then the “story” begins. This is one of those stagings that don’t try to pretend that there is a fourth wall.  The truth about it is the fact that it is being staged. That is not an original idea – and almost everything in this Rhinegold is reshuffled and reheated, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So, here nature and paradise are the same thing and everybody strips to their underwear to show us that and there’s free love galore (i.e., sex). Alberich is some kind of clown who – for some reason – is not accepted by those people who accept everything and judge nobody. My own take is that he wanted love as in “possessing someone”: he wants to _catch_ one of the Rhinemaiden. And that is why he is rejected and then he rejects love itself. His power is possessing before anyone else, accumulating and not sharing.  

As in many other stagings, the Alberich/Wotan identity is evident (Wotan is basically upping Alberich’s game, for instance as he is willing to renounce Freia for the sake of the Walhalla). The moment when this dichotomy is clearer is in the Nibelheim scene: Alberich doesn’t transform himself in a dragon, but merely opens his zipper and shows his “Wurm” . He doesn’t morph into a frog either – he acts as if he were trying and then laughs. Wotan and Loge try to overwhelm him, but they can’t, for Alberich has the ring. This is actually well observed – theoretically he has the supreme power. And he uses it here, by getting the three of them to the gods’ world. It is there that he is actually tricked into negotiating – and that’s when he looses the ring.

The piano is an omnipresent scenic element. What transforms nature in society is a story – and the person who tells it is an important instrument of power. Here we see Mime characterized as Wagner. He is an artist and he creates two amazing masterpieces – the ring and the Tarnhelm. This evening, he also had the score of Das Rheingold and, once it is there, Wotan, Alberich et al never miss an opportunity to take a look at it to know what happens next. Is it a silly joke? Yep. Mel Brooks uses it in Spaceballs when a VCR tape of… Spaceballs appears and they decide to check what is going to happen.

Why am I mentioning Mel Brooks? Because Mr. Herheim has a fondness for gags. It has made his Lohengrin for the Lindenoper a bit hard to digest, for instance. Here there’s so much of it that it almost felt as if we were watching Oscar Strauss’s Die lustige Nibelungen. Yet it was well directed, nobody can deny it. All singers had perfect timing, the blocking was efficient, everybody was comfortable with what they had to do. At first, the staging was so simplistic that one couldn’t help thinking “money was over”, but then you realize that the handling of the huge piece of white fabric used to represent water, mountains, clouds, fire, even a tree was complex and perfectly executed. At times one wished for something a little bit more spectacular and unique – but again this works. Even when you read what director and Dramaturg say in the libretto and find it all over the place and constructed, this works as a scenic experience. And that’s the whole point of a staging.

In terms of conducting, I have to say that General Music director Donald Runnicles seemed to be on the same wavelength: there was nothing original in his conducting , but it worked for these circumstances. First, the empty stage poses a challenge for singers. One could feel their voices getting lost on stage rather than being conveyed by the sets into the auditorium. So, no, nobody sounded like having a Wagnerian voice, even those who do have tge pipes for it. Mr. Runnicles (or Sir Donald, if you are a subject of the Queen) kept it soft textured in an almost Festspielhaus style, and yet the sound was rich, well-balanced and clearly articulated. Only a world-class Wagnerian orchestra could do something like that. Bravi. Has the musical performances changed my life, wowed my world, opened new possibilities? No, no, no. But it worked. And, all considered, this is something to be appreciative of.

I can’t say if this is pandemics-related, but this was largely an ensemble cast. For instance, Derek Walton’s Wotan. I knew this Australian bass baritone from his Klingsors in Bayreuth. It’s a Wagnerian-lite voice, noble in tone and keen on James Morris-style legato, but unvaried and short in projection in its higher reaches. It lacks presence and one rarely believes he is the honcho in this story, but again the sound is apt and he sings well. I don’t understand why Marcus Brück was cast as Alberich – I would think of him rather as a baritone and not a dramatic one. As it was, everything seemed on the low side for his voice and his attempt to beef it up predictably tired him. When he reached the curse scene, he was on the last bar of his battery. And I have memories of Tomasz Konieczny in his prime in this role in this very theatre. Replacing an indisposed Thomas Blondelle, Matthias Klink was a very persuasive Loge. Although the Spielleiterin acted the part. I couldn’t help looking at Mr. Klink, who had his own acting to boost his vocal interpretation. It joins the best qualities of a Spieltenor and a lyric tenor – even with the usual distortions, the tonal quality in itself is very pleasant. The giants were well contrasted – Tobias Kehrer a warm-toned, big-voiced Fafner and Andrew Harris a bit harder in tone and firm in emission as Fasolt.
In spite of a monochrome voice. Annika Schlicht proved to be a convincing Fricka in her cleanliness of line and clarity of diction. A last minute replacement, Scottish mezzo Beth Taylor sang Erda for the first time in her career, yet you wouldn’t notice it. The low notes are solid, the phrasing is smooth, she was more than up to the task.

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The closest I have ever been to listening to a perfect performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is Karl Böhm’s DG studio set with Gwyneth Jones, James King and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Some will say it’s not even perfect. Indeed, it’s not, but still it is my desert island recording, because its imperfections make it even more convincing to my ears and my heart. Actually, enjoying a performance of Beethoven’s single opera has more to do with embracing its liabilities than profiting from its assets.

The performance at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino this afternoon had evident liabilities. First, at this point in his career, Zubin Mehta no longer commands the necessary energy to conduct a work as demanding as this. He trod cautiously – tempi were invariably slow, accents lacked vigor, at times it even felt like a graduation concert. Although the orchestra’s string section is more consistent than one would guess, it is hardly the nec plus ultra in articulation. The French horns, however, were mostly bumpy. The fact that all members of the chorus wore masks brought about a rather muffled choral sound, what made the performance even less edgy than one would wish.

All that posed an extra challenge on soloists. Excitement was produced exclusively by their singing. Also, the fact that the conductor gave them all the time of the world offered advantages and disadvantages: there were many opportunities for breathing pauses but it also meant that some long phrases became really more challenging in terms of breath. For a while – probably until Pizarro’s aria – the performance seemed to be about the mechanics, but especially in the second act, even in these almost cerimonial circumstances, something happened in the dungeon scene. That was the point in which the liabilities became to play in favor of expression – we could feel everyone’s engagement and, even heavy-footed and a bit stolid, the performance for a while generated two or three sparkles.

It didn’t hurt at all that there was a truly strong cast on duty, even starry, some would say. First, there was Lise Davidsen in the title role. In terms of ease, she probably has no rivals in the role today. There is no bar in this music that seemed to require any effort from her – and she seemed to be willing to make everything even more impressive by rejecting opportunities to steal a breath almost every other soprano would crave for. Maybe I’m used to the effort, but sometimes there was an impression of detachment, something the stage direction only seemed to stimulate in this gag-centered semi-staged concert in which director Matthias Hartmann seemed to believe that Leonore’s main concerns are making everybody believe she is a guy and keeping Marzelline as far away from her as possible. Ms. Davidsen is probably the youngest Leonore I have ever seen in the theatre , and in spite of her vocal facility, one can hear that there’s more in her voice that she presently offers. There are moments when she sings with a Nilssonian steel, and I can’t help believing that, at this stage, this works better for her than when she tries Flagstadian weight. In those moments, the voice can sound a bit opaque. By writing this I don’t mean to seem a nay-sayer. On the contrary, I really believe Ms. Davidsen is in her way of being the leading dramatic soprano of her generation – and the fact that she is already capable of such abandon in a famously difficult part only speaks in her favor. 

With her shimmering soprano, Francesca Aspromonte has the right sound for Marzelline. Moreover she seems comfortable with the style and her German is more than acceptable. She rises to the most challenging moments, but at times lacks finish and the tone spreads too. 

I had seen Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Berlin a couple of years ago. I was impressed then by how adeptly he navigates through this perilous part and how right he sounds in term of style – if distinctively unheroic. This afternoon, he seemed even more at ease. In terms of volume, he did not need to fear the competition in this high-octane cast. Even if one had the impression of a Tamino on steroids, this was a voice that was always on top of ensembles. One cannot forget that here his enemy Pizarro was given the voice of Tomasz Konieczny, not always true in intonation but almost scary in terms of power and intensity. Franz-Josef Selig no longer has the mellowness of tone of his prime, but it is still a voice of outstanding roundness and darkness. I would say that the occasional roughness makes him more believable as Rocco than in those days when he sounded like Sarastro in disguise. Luca Bernard was well cast as Jaquino, appealing in tone and clear in diction, and Birger Radde was a competent Don Fernando.

As hinted at above, I don’t think that the semi-staged option meant any gain in terms of insight. On the contrary, the insistence in comic relief only diffused dramatic tension. And some ideas – the women in the chorus in glittery party dresses, for instance – were frankly self-defeating. A concert version would have probably been more efficient. 

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I have written here that all I need from a performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is for it to be ok, that if one has “the emotional experience” then it was worth the while. However, I have been forced to acknowledge that producing “the emotional experience” is more difficult than it seems. This is a score considered to be of Verdi’s most refined, but it is still Verdi and every scene is built in view of an emotional climax. When it misfires, it feels like a huge fiasco. What is ok is to make tiny little errors en route to the climax, but once you get there, it has to happen. Otherwise, just choose another composer. Or singers and conductor.

Another misconception about Simon Boccanegra is that these vocal parts are the easiest among Verdi roles. NOT. They may work with less spectacular voices, but when it comes to HOW you sing this music, there is something almost Mozartian required here. This music demands tasteful, sensitive, musicianly phrasing – you cannot make do with panache precisely because it has nothing to do with spectacular vocal natures. In other words, you need the A-team here. And opera houses tend to believe they can spare some cash here in order to use it elsewhere. Big mistake.

This evening’s performance at the Opernhaus Zürich, for instance, did not have much of a chance, but it also seemed to be an off night for all involved. To start with, Jennifer Rowley as Amelia. I had only once seen Ms. Rowley as the singer originally cast for that particular performance. In my experience, she has been the dictionary definition of replacement singer – she is reliable, she is a trouper, she is fearless. But we’re never transported to any kind of musical paradise when she is singing. And I can’t relate any positive development since I last heard her, rather on the contrary. Her soprano always had a nondescript color, but now it sounds as if she were singing from behind a wall of cotton puffs. As her vowels are indistinct, her Italian has no crispness and there is very little feeling for lines, the loveliness, the radiance, the vulnerability that are in the core of her character is basically not there. This is a part I really, I mean REALLY appreciate, so maybe I’m being a bit too particular here. As it was, it felt like going to a restaurant and discovering that the dish you wanted to order was out of the menu.

In comparison, tenor Otar Jorjkia sounded like naturalness itself, in his sunny, spontaneous tenor which a very faint splash of Roberto Alagna. But I’m afraid that this was it. The technique is not solid – breath support often miscalculated, with some tense high notes involved. In his aria, “non-functional” would be an apter description; the voice just fell apart and he only made it to the end out of sheer willpower. I hope it was just a bad night. It is also sad that Christof Fischesser sounded ill at ease as Fiesco. His vibrant bass sounded dangerously close to tremulous and he didn’t seem to relish the flow of Verdian melody. It is a difficult role – the character is not very congenial, we know – but it needs to exude a patrician quality (he is the head of the Patrician party, after all) and we must feel like we’re hearing the Rolls-Royce of low voices here.

I left baritones for last, because both singers in that Fach raised up the bar this evening. A replacement for Ludovic Tézier, George Petean is a singer I saw only once a couple of years ago in Tokyo in the title role of a guest performance of Simon Boccanegra with the Rome Opera under Riccardo Muti. My memory was that Mr. Petean had a bigger voice, but other than my impressions this evening are consistent with my previous experience of his singing. He is the kind of singer who can carry a tune. This sounds like a trivial thing, but unfortunately it is not. Mr. Petean has a natural sense of cantabile, a clear diction, an idiomatic Italian and an instinctive grasp of the style. If his high notes did not loose color, I would consider his an exemplary Boccanegra – in terms of singing. He took part only in three performances of this production and one understands that he is not fully immersed in the staging, but his presence just lacked command. He walked a bit funnily too – and his pants are too long for him (this is not his fault, of course). I mention this because Nicholas Brownlee, this evening’s Paolo, tended to overshadow him in their scenes. First, because his voice is bigger, firmer and more incisive. Second, because he is a better actor too. Or at least he moved around as if he owned the place – and that is what we would rather expect from the guy in the role of the city’s ruler. He must still work in his Italian, though. But that’s an interesting voice, and I would like to hear more from him.

I have used more than once the adjective “reliable” here, but I am afraid that is the word that comes to my mind when I speak of Marco Armiliato. He is more than a traffic cop – he is really someone who knows the ropes in Romantic Italian repertoire. And he is not the kind of conductor who needs ideal forces to make things happen, although we’re not speaking of life-changing experiences either. And yet I have the impression that the combination of the house orchestra and his rather white-heat approach are not a good match for this score. As it was, the impression was was rather of getting things done. The performance moved forward without much leeway for atmosphere or feeling, the orchestral sound tended to the brassy, strings lacked roundness – the whole impression was rather mechanical. So, yes, the emotional climaxes tended to flop one after the other, either because singers were incapable of rendering the emotional context by lack of interpretation and/or vocal charm or because the orchestra couldn’t supply what was missing in the singing department (if that is possible in Verdi at all). The fact that the chorus was not allowed on stage made things even worse – the council chamber scene with an offstage chorus was one of the hugest misfirings I have ever witnessed in an opera house. It felt basically dull.

You might be asking – why no chorus on stage? Yes, Andreas Homoki’s production was premiered last year, in the context of strict COVID sanitary measures. So many adaptation had to be be made (such as the offstage chorus). This also included keeping singers apart from each other. All this was cleverly conceived by the director, there was a rotating set used ad nauseam (literally, it rotated so much that I can only imagine how these singers were not sick in their stomachs) to make for the absence of people on stage, especially in the above mentioned council chamber scene. Instead of making his speech for the senate, Simon dictates it for his secretary and then we have all characters entering and exiting in precise cue for their lines because – as seen today – the hot stuff was always taking place somewhere else. Yet all this only makes sense in order to comply with regulations. Now that you can have a chorus on stage, please do like Simon Boccanegra himself did: allow them to enter! I don’t know about you, but I find it bizarre a scene in which a father and a daughter reunite after 20 years in which they don’t go nowhere near each other (although they keep saying “embrace me”). I seriously need to be convinced that not rethinking it wasn’t just laziness. It is ultimately sad, for there are good ideas in this production, like the constant reenacting both in Amelia’s and Simon’s minds of the moment when she is alone in the world when she was young. If you put yourself in the place of these people, I am sure it would be something that would really haunt you – and this was very efficiently conveyed in this staging.

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Judge me if you will, but I have to be honest: Messiah is probably my least favorite among Handel’s oratorios. And the fact that every concert hall in the planet schedule a performance of it in the third week of December does not make it any favor. I ask you – when was the last time when you heard a truly outstanding performance of Messiah, with A-team soloists, chorus and orchestra? I don’t think I could give one single example. This evening, for instance, we had top level choral singing from the Gabrieli Consort, all voices well contrasted yet in perfect balance, tenors particularly admirable. They would have been even more impressive if conductor Paul McCreesh had given them time to sing. The way these singers had to spit consonants and rush through passagework with the egg timer on made me feel almost sorry for them. In his recording with his own orchestra, tempi were all of them on the fast side, and yet one never feels there the sense that everybody is trying to get the bothersome thing done in time for dinner as tonight. First, his beat in the recording is a little bit more sensible than here (you just need to compare the Hallelujah chorus there with the messy performance this evening). Second, this evening one did not feel any expressive gain in singers and musicians a bit desperate trying to keep up with high velocity. Third, there is no comparison in terms of clarity in the recording and this concert. Although the chorus proved to have amazing dexterity, at that tempo, their melisme made only made sense in terms of athleticism, very little in terms of music. The Kammerorchester Basel – usually a good ensemble – here sounded mostly impressionistic in terms of phrasing and grey in terms of color. There was very little sense of story telling, let alone of any religious feeling. I am not meaning this was exciting in an operatic way (as in the Minkowski video, for instance) – it just felt exhausting for all involved.

Even with low expectations, one can still be disappointed when it comes to soloists in a Christmastime performance of Handel’s Messiah. Mary Bevan’s breathy soprano, often hard to hear, brought me very little joy. Replacing Helen Charlston, mezzo Caitlin Hulcup, usually a reliable single, was clearly ill at ease with the tessitura and had very little leeway to do anything in terms of phrasing and interpretation. I have to confess I had fun with Ashley Riches’s singing of the bass part straight from the Church of the Quivery Brethren. He roared famously in an over the top approach that could have gone wrong in many different ways, but the tone is focused, the breath is long and the diction is very clear. Benjamin Hulett alone offered an exemplary account of tenor part – dulcet in sound flexible, tonally varied and stylish.

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Although the Cantata BWV 122, Das neugeborne Kinderlein, technically is meant to be a Christmas season item, its first performance happened to take place on December 31st, 1724. This is probably the reason why Bach decided it should be a little more uplifting than a piece composed for a regular mass for the Sunday after Christmas.

Actually, the whole idea behind the text of the BWV 122 is that there is a very special gift we receive every year, even if we didn’t behave very well the last 12 months: a brand new year! If we come to think of these last two years, one could think “meh”, but as our guest speak, tenor Daniel Johannsen, reminded us: we’d only feel blasé about it if we look at it with an adult mind. This is a cantata about a newly born child – and we’re not only speaking of the baby Jesus, but of the possibility of finding the child within us and being able to see things from a clear-eyed perspective. More than that: finding the kingdom of heaven everywhere just by being able to see things the way we did as kids, with enthusiasm, innocence and joy. And Bach knew exactly how to give us a little help to reach this state of mind.

The Cantata BWV 122 is like a richly wrapped, exquisite Christmas gift, lovingly thought out to make us perfectly elated and relaxed. It is the feel-good cantata. Choräle often sound overserious and stiff in their regular rhythms and one rarely feels like “oh, this is going to be fun!” on hearing them. But not so fast! Here Bach disguised all the choräle in multicolored ribbons and wrapping paper in lovely patterns. You almost have to look for it in the opening, menuetto-like number. It all sounds sprightly and entertaining. The first aria is supposed to be the one where you advise the ill-behaved members of the congregation that they should make a more serious effort the next year. But it doesn’t sound cranky at all. The old-fashioned, continuo-only, highly ornate number is almost unintentionally funny in its “dissenting note” to the festivity. We’re quickly transported back to a candy cotton world with the soprano recitative with recorders, an introduction to another disguised chorale, covered with double helpings of soprano and tenor melisme in charming rhythms. The bass comes again, now with a smile in his face to prepare us for one final, undisguised chorale – one that feels rather sweet and congenial. 

Rudolf Lutz and the Bachstiftung St Gallen couldn’t repress their genuine enthusiasm – this was their last performance in the uninspiring Olma-Halle, a measure made necessary to cope with the challenges of the pandemic. Next year they’ll be back in the old venue, the Kirche Trogen, and that’s the first blessing of the new year. The performance exuded therefore an atmosphere of joy,  the opening chorus unashamedly animated, you almost felt like tapping your feet to the beat. Bass Stephan MacLeod captured the Grinch atmosphere of his aria, even if this involved a matte quality to his upper register. In the last recitative his bass unfolded in its richest, and yet the hint of woolliness still there. He handled the coloratura with admirable poise and precision. 

Replacing Hanna Blazikova, Swiss soprano Mirjam Wernli-Berli proved to be the ideal singer for this piece in her almost boy-soprano tonal color and ideal projection. Indeed, one hardly felt how difficult the hall acoustics are when she sang. She was joined by tenor Raphael Höhn in the trio in which the chorale in the alto voice was a bit less well “disguised” by the fact that it was sung by the chorus rather than by a single soloist (as in Masaaki Suzuki’s recording, for example), without any loss in terms of balance with the solo voices. The orchestra played warmly throughout. 

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