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

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

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

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

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Wagner from the South

A review of the Teatro Colón’s 2015 staging of Wagner’s Parsifal published in the latest issue of Opernwelt might have something do with this blog.

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L´inferno qui vedo…

That was Gilda´s opinion when reviewing the service of Sparafucile and Maddalena’s tavern in Mantua. This is more or less my feeling while dealing with the press office of Teatro Colón.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Unlike Pinky and The Brain, Sonya Yoncheva does not have a plan to conquer the world; she focus on one country at a time. Her journey has really got momentum in France, where she sang everything from Rameau to the three leading roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Her next station was the USA, where her Gilda, Desdemona and Violetta have received rave reviews. Although she had already sung in Germany, a new production of La Traviata made specially for her at the Berlin Staatsoper with Daniel Barenboim seems to be the real beginning of her German “campaign”. I had seen her only once in four very exciting minutes of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes in the anniversary gala of the Concert d’Astrée – and was eager for more (her lovely CD of French arias plus Violetta’s Sempre Libera made me even more curious), even if it meant having to sit through a whole Traviata. Especially one staged by Dieter Dorn, whose Nozze di Figaro for the Bayerische Staatsoper and Elektra for the Lindenoper are hardly my favorite productions, to put it mildly.

This evening’s Traviata did not made me change my mind. Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors, a photograph showing a skull built from seven naked bodies, is recreated live as an image in Violetta’s mirror, in the top of which there is a very drab looking brown bag supposed to be an hour glass, the sand falling on a writing table. Around it, there is a semicircular black wall with doors. It is a single set for a performance without intermission. This fact alone makes for very problematic situations: Alfredo says he does not have any fun when Violetta is not there – but she is there; Violetta says she is leaving for good, but she is still there. Since the set has almost no piece of furniture, everybody has to sit on the floor and lie down and crawl. This makes me believe that Germont, Snr., is visually challenged – Violetta is shoeless, disheveled, crouching near a wall, there is a lot of her thighs to be seen, and his opinion is “She is so ladylike”. Then he looks around at that rathole and adds “But how about a luxurious place such as this?”. In any case, one could have said: “ok, this is a very ugly Traviata; now let’s focus on everything else!”. But this would not be an easy task. There are some vey basic problems – the blocking is often nonsensical, singers are often uncomfortable with what they have to do and Yoncheva has always her arms stretched out as if she were swimming rather than walking and more than once twirls as a 6-year-old girl… in her anticipation of vortices of pleasure… I don’t want to publish a spoiler, but the death scene is truly embarrassing. Peter Mussbach’s old production was not faultless, but it is worlds apart from this one in atmosphere, Personenregie and insight.

Although I have never been keen on Daniel Barenboim’s Verdi, this evening he has set a new low in his records: to start with, the orchestral sound was so recessed, brassy and unsubtle that one could legitimately believe that the banda off stage was in charge the whole evening through. La Traviata is not one of Verdi’s most inspired examples of writing for the orchestra, and this demands an extraordinary effort from the conductor in order to produce musically and dramatically coherent and refined phrasing. The performance this evening could rather be described as mechanical in terms of rhythm, inexistent in terms of strings and non-functional in terms of expression. If one remembers that the orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is even mind-boggling. A moment that exemplifies all the faults in this evening’s performance: the emotional peak in the whole opera is the act II Amami, Alfredo: it features the musical theme of the preludes to act I and act III, it comes as a culmination of a very difficult scene with a truly wide-ranging emotional aspect and it builds up to a vocal and orchestral climax. At this point, Ms. Yoncheva was trying to balance her strengths in a passage that tests her lyric voice. But then the orchestra was still comfortably in ppp. It erupted only abruptly for one second: Amami, AlfrE (outburst from the orchestra)-edo, Amami, quanto io T’A(another outburst)-amo. The effect seemed like cannon shots rather than a crescendo. Why?!

The success of La Traviata depends on the soprano in the leading role – and these performances have a clear advantage there. Sonya Yoncheva is simply the most interesting Violetta Valéry I’ve seen on stage. She knows exactly what every note and word means and does not take any second for granted. She kept me on the edge of my seat during the whole evening by virtue of her imagination and good judgment. To make things better, her voice is interesting in itself. It is not pretty in a classical way and at moments suggests the tonal “flashness” of an Callas (albeit in a lighter and smaller version) with the technical discipline of a singer who sang Mozart and Handel: until act III her passaggio was handled with unfailing precision, not to mention that her coloratura and mezza voce are very adept. And she masters the art of tone coloring – it is a voice that can caress and kill depending on the moment. So why am I not more excited about the performance as a whole? Intelligent, stylish and well-crafted as it was, it never sounded truly sincere. This was Sonya Yoncheva singing La Traviata, and it turned around her many talents, but Violetta’s emotional journey, from the intoxicated despair of act I, via the joys of the newly discovered sense of belonging even at the expense of happiness in act II, towards depression, mourning of her own dreams and hope of spiritual bliss in act III – all this was largely absent. Since act III is also the most challenging to her voice, the lack of a “vision” made this fact very clear. All that said, it is still the most interesting Violetta I’ve seen live (and I’ve seen some very good ones) and I reckon that apter production and conducting plus more experience in the role will make it closer to what it  is meant to be.

Her Alfredo was Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri. It is a very particular voice, something like: Joseph Calleja minus the vibratello, the idiomatic Italian, the imagination and the technical finish. Now being fair: he was evidently very nervous, and I am sure that the wrong notes, the frogs and the extra breath pauses probably won’t be there by the end of the run. But there already is plenty to cherish: the good taste, the mezza voce, the flexibility, the naturalness and the good size for a lyric voice. The all-round more complete performance this evening was, however, Simone Piazzola’s as Germont, père. His Renato-Bruson-like baritone may lack some volume in its higher reaches, but the style comes to him without effort and he alone seemed to have some real emotional connection with what was going on on stage, even if one might call the approach rather generalized compared to the prima donna’s meticulous understanding of her lines.

 

 

 

 

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Im fernen Land…

If you happen to be a subscriber of Opernwelt and find a review of a staging by movie director Fernando Meirelles of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles from Belém do Pará, this blogger may have something to do with it.

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São Paulo has been called the no.1 destination in South America for classical music, mainly for its compelling symphonic orchestra (the OSESP) and its home theatre (the Sala São Paulo). Things, however, are not up to the same levels in the opera house. I saw a complete opera in the Theatro Municipal just once in my life, more than 10 years ago – and it happened to be Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The performance was nothing to be ashamed of, and it was my first encounter with Albert Dohmen, who happened to be Wolfram then. The present series of performance can boast an even more impressive cast (I’m speaking of the “premium” cast, since I was not able to see more than one evening). And singers are the redeeming feature of today’s experience.

Marion Ammann is an exemplary Elsa in terms of style, musicianship and good taste. Her creamy soprano has its instable and hooty moments, but it is mostly easy on the ear, especially in soaring mezza voce. She was aptly contrasted with the provocative Ortrud from Marianne Cornetti. Hers was an Italianate approach to the role – keen on legato, powerful in top notes, varied in tone coloring and distinctively mezzo-ish in quality. Her second act was entirely built in seduction, subtlety and intelligence. In proper circumstances, she could have offered something truly memorable. Here let’s say that it was highly commendable that – having to guess the conductor’s beat – she was able to find leeway to develop an interpretation. Tomislav Muzek was a light, firm-toned Lohengrin, with a natural tenor quality and ardent phrasing. Extremes of dynamics did not come very easily to him, but the spontaneity was more than compensation. I’ve seen Tomas Tomasson’s Telramund in Bayreuth, unfortunately not in a good day. This time we were luckier – he was in incisive voice and only showed sign of fatigue by the end of act II. He and Marianne Cornetti established a winning partnership that rescued the whole performance of its emptiness. In spite of Luiz-Ottavio Faria’s nobility of tone and volume, his King Henry could not go beyond the lack of focus and wooliness. Carlos Eduardo Marcos’s Herald too had its throaty moments.

I am afraid that there is nothing positive to report other than that. John Neschling conducted a score notorious for its sameness of tempo as squarely as possible. This was made more evident by the blatant imbalance in his orchestra: a piercing brass section saturating a sound picture with strings as good as inexistent. Woodwind were not terribly expressive either. Then there was a colossal problem of synchronicity, most seriously in what involved soloists. By the first 15 minutes it was clear that the performance was scandalously under-rehearsed. Elsa was often ahead the beat, Lohengrin would constantly look hopeless trying to figure out where he was, Ortrud and Telramund mostly conducted themselves (and proved to be more efficient than the maestro in charge, for that matter). Ensembles were often everyone-doing-their-thing. To make things more “interesting”, the chorus was short of disastrous: tenors could not produce mezza voce to save their lives (in this of all operas), sopranos produced some funny sounds and I have never heard the altos as constantly as this evening.

I first thought that Henning Brockhaus’s production was amateurish, but curiously he seems to be a professional stage director. Hmm…  The first scene had the men from the chorus playing billiards, some “dancers” contorting themselves standing on chairs and people acting like zombies. Then Lohengrin appears, the swan is a grey box with feathers stuck on a black fabric. There is a curtain of brass instruments to show that Lohengrin represents a dimension of beauty and transcendence. It is replaced by a curtain of knives for the duel. Characters enter from wrong places, exit through nonsensical spots (Elsa invites Ortrud in, but they take different directions; the grey box is supposed to be the swan, but Gottfried – here a piece of marble – appears in the opposite side of the stage), cast and chorus are required to squat and lie on the floor 80% of the time… Fremdscham is the bottomline here. Wagner deserved better.

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