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I myself find it hard to believe, but this evening’s performance of Aida in Rome is the first performance of an Italian opera I gave ever seen in Italy. It is not, however, my first performance of an Italian opera by an Italian opera company, thanks to the visits of La Scala, La Fenice and even the Rome Opera to Tokyo. In any case, I did not have high expectations. An Italian friend even told me that I was a fool to buy a ticket for a performance of an opera company that could cease to exist amidst financial problems. In any case, the performance happened without any surprises. And this could unfortunately describe the performance itself.

Although Micha van Hoecke has explained that his intension was to avoid grandiosity, he did not seem to mind kitsch: the audience was treated to generose doses of stock gestures, cute ballet numbers, technicolor costumes plus absence of insight. It seems that this production was first seen in the Arena di Verona, where the setting was supposed to add the atmosphere sorely missing this evening. Conductor Jader Bignamini evidently took pains for keeping the proceedings clean and correct, and that basically involved refraining everyone’s enthusiasm (except in what regarded the drummer). The result was a recessed string section, low dramatic tension and no sense of building climax, probably as a side effect of having to help out a light-voiced cast who did not have much to say about their roles.

Csilla Boross is not a dramatic soprano. I wouldn’t call her a soprano lirico spinto ither, but rather a lyric soprano in the sense of someone who should be singing the Countess Almaviva but who is not of afraid of distorting her already edgy high register into something piercingly metallic to cope with dramatic passages. Although she seemed to have an emotional connection with Aida’s predicaments and the tonal quality per se is youthful, the lack of morbidezza and the bottled-up high notes and increasing strain did not help her in lyric passages wither. I am not sure if Radamès is a role for Fabio Sartori either, especially this evening, when his tenor sounded unfocused and somewhat rasping. He could phrase cleanly as usual and produce some big high notes, but they sounded pushed and wooden too. I do not think he was in his best shape and an uncongenial part only showed that more clearly. Both basses were also on the light side for their roles. Giovanni Meoni’s baritone is a bit hard and his manners are a bit boorish, but that goes well for Amonasro. The fact that he was the only singer not overparted on stage sounded particularly refreshed this evening.

Anita Rachvelishvili’s Amneris deserves a paragraph for herself. I had not seen her live before and was positively impressed by the plushness and warmth of her mezzo soprano, qualities used with great skill to produce a feminine and seductive impression. As a matter of fact, this Amneris scored every point in what regards subtlety and was never afraid of floating mezza voce and keeping a pure legato line. In many moments, her approach made the role sound entirely new to me, also because of her fine word pointing and clear diction. But the fact remains that this is a part for a dramatic mezzo soprano. Rachvelishvili can flash a dramatic high note now and then, but too many of them in sequence clearly tax her. The fact that she generally is honest about her passaggio often collides with her intention of producing impact around her gear change, what makes the whole proceedings even more exhausting to her. She does have the fiery temper for the Judgment Scene, but I have an impression that a cool head there would be more effective in keeping her from going beyond her limits and exposing the limitation itself – a lesson she could learn from Daniela Barcellona, who gave her 100% in a concert performance of the Teatro alla Scala with Gustavo Dudamel in Tokyo, but never more than that. Or, if she is not that kind of person, then throwing caution to the winds should be more exciting than frustrating (cf Agnes Baltsa or Brigitte Fassbaender). All that said, she was the reason why I didn’t leave in the intermission.

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Almost every opera is about love and death, but Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maachera goes a step further with a love scene in a graveyard. Director Katharina Thoma, however, did not seen to have found this enough: why not staging the whole opera in the graveyard?! Although props and scenic elements clearly shows us the different locations in the libretto against the cemetery backdrop, the audience still has to deal with a bunch of ballet dancers characterized as perambulant graveyard sculptures that interact with Amelia and Riccardo. Curiously, the only supernatural aspect of the story – the fortune teller Ulrica – is shown here as a charlatan, even if all her prophecies turn out very accurate. The fact that the “American” version of the libretto is retained in a staging that looks distinctively European is quite puzzling too. Also, having Oscar dressed as a soldier during the final minutes comes entirely out of the blue and seems to imply that Ms. Thoma has found the predicaments of Riccardo, Amelia et al irrelevant compared to “really serious matters”. In any case, if most of that looks a bit ludicrous and contrived, Ms. Thoma does deserve credit for making Joseph Calleja do, for once, something very similar to acting.

The Royal Opera House has gathered a stellar cast for this new production. Liudmyla Monastyrska has done some very commendable Verdian singing, but Amelia is so far her most compelling role: she finds no technical challenges in this difficult writing, avoids the usual trap of coming up too formidable and shows Amelia vulnerability in exquisite mezza voce and truly musicianly phrasing. Some demanding passages sounded entirely new to my ears in their cleanliness and shapeliness. When I saw Marianne Cornetti as Ulrica during the Japanese tour of the Teatro Reggio di Torino some months ago, I had the impression that her voice had taken the soprano direction, but she proved me wrong this evening in her solid and natural low register and the warm (if soft grained) quality of her voice. Serena Gamberoni was an ideal Oscar, her soprano full toned up to its highest reaches.

Although Riccardo is not among Verdi’s heaviest roles for tenor, it is nonetheless heavy for Joseph Calleja. Of course, it is always a pleasure to hear a tenor of unusual good taste, intelligence and extremely dulcet tonal quality, but his high notes sounded bottled up, some of them grating a bit. There is a great deal of low lying passages in this part and he was not truly at ease in them either. I wish this invaluable Maltese tenor is not directing his career towards roles that do not show up his many strong qualities. Dmitri Hvorostovsky has seen fresher toned days, but that did not prevent him from offering a strong performance, sometimes overthetop on emotionalism, but never boring, profuse in rich high notes and reserves of legato for soft passages. All small roles were ver well cast.

Daniel Oren presided over a very well organized and balanced performance that eschewed any kind of vulgarity and allowed his singers enough leeway to express themselves both in flexibility with tempo and dynamic variety.

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The Kammerorchester Basel, a versatile ensemble that has tackled a wide-ranging repertoire with period practices very much in sight, has chosen Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for their European tour in the holiday season. I have to confess that I did not really understand that the performance would be split in two concerts and, therefore, will be able to speak only about the first one. Led by their concert master, Julia Schröder, the orchestra showed animation and a rhythmic vitality in the more festive numbers, usually given very fast tempi. In more pensive numbers, phrasing had some squareness and lack of purpose: Schlafe, mein liebster sounded too matter-of-fact in its purely dance-bound perspective and the sinfonia to the II Cantata could have done with a little bit more variety. The fact that the string section lacked tone did not help much in moments like that either. Furthermore, it could sound underwhelmed by the Deutscher Kammerchor, although it only had three voices per part. I also had the impressions that altos were too much in retreat, while tenors were often a little prominent,

The all-male group of singers here chosen places an immediate interest in this performance. The velvety-toned Valer Sabadus is my first countertenor in the soprano part in this piece. Unfortunately, the most challenging numbers for that voice appear in the second half of the program. As it is, Sabadus’s sound is a bit soft-grained in middle register but smooth and round in the higher part of the ressitura. Volume too could seem restricted at times. In the alto solo, Terry Wey sounded like a fruitier and cleaner version of the young René Jacos and sang incisively and with disarming directness. Again, Schlafe, mein liebester could  be more expressive – and the fast tempo made some turns of phrase sound yodell-ish rather than graceful. Werner Güra was in excellent form both as the Evangelist and the solo tenor, his Frohe Hirten showed him at his most Wunderlich-ian. Last but not least, Matthias Goerne proved to have everything a bass in this repertoire should have: noble tone, clear diction and flexibiliy. I am really sorry I won’t be able to see the second concert.

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BTW…

… the discography of Così fan Tutte in www.operadiscographies.com has been updated.

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Before I write that this is my first visit to the legendary Bolshoi Theatre, an eventual Russian reader might observe that I have never actually been in the Bolshoi, for the true venue of this performance of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte is the “New Stage”, an annex to the old building just across the street. Dutch director Floris Visser’s production was premiered there only this year (according to the program, the actual première of Così in the old stage took place only in 1978…). Mr. Visser is a new name to me and, although his interview (also in the program) suggested something far more ambitious than what one ultimately sees, this staging is particularly noteworthy for its direction: the stage action is meticulously conceived, convincingly carried out by young and skilled singers and costumes, sets and use of stage contraptions is imaginative and always pleasing to the eyes.

If the director’s thesis that this work is essentially a tragedy with comedy touches does not really work, that must have done with the fact that the musical side of the performance was essentially very inexpressive. I was actually tempted to call it perfunctory – but this would be inaccurate. Conductor Stefano Montanari claims to have a background in historically informed performances, but acknowledges that it would be unpractical to have a period-instrument band duty in an opera house. In any case, the Bolshoi orchestra must be praised by its willingness to embrace an “authentic” approach – strings with very limited vibrato, woodwind presiding the orchestral sound, an overbusy fortepiano and fussy handling of tempo. I would have enjoyed many of the conductor’s interesting ideas – the mirroring of the overture’s pace in the stretta of Come Scoglio, for instance, was quite revelatory or the way the military chorus, made slower than usual, had all its illustrative effects “spoken” rather than “painted” (to use Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s terminology), but the sad truth is that the overall impression was rather disjointed, often awkward, strings poorly articulated, an amazing level of mismatch with every soloist, for catastrophic results in Soave sia il vento. In these circumstances, Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s expressive powers were very occasionally only hinted at.

Truth be said, although the cast was most efficient in the acting department, the singing itself was unfortunately variable. Anna Kraynikova’s basic tonal quality is extremely apt for the role of Fiordiligi. Her creamy, shimmering soprano is appealing and pleasant and nature gave her the range and the flexibility (but not trills) for it. However, the technique is not up to the task: her breath support is faulty, she is too often off steam in the end of phrases, her coloratura has bumpy moments and her approach to mezza voce is hit-or-miss. The beautiful Alexandra Kadurina has a truly interesting mezzo: it is firm, clean, warm but not overdark in its low reaches and occasionally ductile even in high tessitura. At moments, she sounds like a world-class Fiordiligi, in others she can be a little blowsy, rather metallic and sometimes just rough. If she can see to these drawbacks, there will be nothing between her and a great career. Alina Yaroyava (Despina) was probably the most finished female singer in the cast – the tonal quality is pleasing, her Italian is vivid and she has the low notes without which the role sounds incomplete. However, she is too often careless about her phrasing, with some gusty passages, forced high notes and some moments of dubious intonation. Her disguise as the notary was extremely well-handled.

The men proved to be altogether more reliable. Yuri Gorodetsky (Ferrando) is an extremely dependable singer: he produces all his notes easily, clearly and a tempo. But that is pretty much it. The tone is a bit dusky in the middle register but opens into rather nasal and glaring high notes, and his phrasing is blunt and without much affection. He was spared of some testing passages by the deletion of Dal fato dal legge, Ah, lo vegg’io and Tutto, tutto, o vita mia in the finale ultimo. Alexander Miminoshvili,on the other hand, was a winning Guglielmo, dulcet-toned and spirited. Last but not least, Nikolai Kanansky was a powerful, rich-toned Don Alfonso, who could have done with a lighter touch in the trio with the sopranos.

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German singers in Italian repertoire are a recurrent issue in these pages. I have often praised the cleanliness of line and keenness on interpretation usual with singers this side of the Alps, but have also found their Lieder-singing  word-by-word tonal coloring intellectualized and unconvincing and there is also the problem with unsupported low register and/or hard high notes. On the other hand, when a German-school singer understands the differences in approach and has flexible enough a technique, the results can be uniquely compelling – and you just have to hear any of Brigitte Fassbaender’s Verdi recordings to hear what I am talking about.

This is why I was so curious to hear the Berlin Staatsoper’s new production of Tosca, featuring both Anja Kampe in the title role and Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia. Kampe is a singer for whom I have a soft spot, in spite of a sometimes unruly high register. Her Fidelio in Vienna last December made me fear for her vocal health, but her Sieglindes are always attractively sung, even in a not-so-good day. Reading that she would appear in this Tosca came as a surprise for me, but, even if you don’t hear that in her singing, she had indeed studied in Italy. Furthermore, she has performed Italian roles there, most notably at La Scala. The first thing that should be noted about her Tosca is the crystal-clear diction and the excellent Italian pronunciation. The second thing is that the sound is intrinsically un-Italianate: the whole range is homogeneous, even the very strong low notes are well connected, the middle register is lusciously warm and dark in an almost pellucid way and the acuti are not bright and vibrant, but felt-like and projecting rather on sheer volume than on radiance. Although the high notes are not her selling feature, she was shrewd enough to get away with tricky passages by lightening the tone and shortening note values with portamento. Her mezza voce can sound a bit on the colorless side, and yet it still benefits from the naturally beautiful tonal quality and I do believe that she would gain from using something similar in her German roles too. Many members of the audience have found her performance ill-informed in terms of style, too direct and sober in approach, too short in vocal glamor and too proper in terms of characterization. They might not be essentially wrong. However, I beg to differ in my appreciation. The almost classical shapeliness of her phrasing is musicianly and free of any vulgarity or cheap emotionalism. Besides, the warmth and fruitiness of her middle register made many usually neglected passages sound like music rather than the eligibility period for the next high note. Truth be said, when things got high and stayed high, the impression was of caution rather than abandon. But that really seemed a reasonable trade-off for me. I would say that a different conductor would have put all that in perspective. But let’s speak of the singers first.

When it comes to Michael Volle, I am not so sure that the Italian excursion has truly paid off. First, his Italian is not natural as this evening’s prima donna. Second, his bad-guy expressive tool involve lots of snarling and the kind of hectoring that brings about either a overly forward or alternately woolly and gray-toned quality to more outspoken passages. At some point, he sounded plainly tired. Moreover, his interpretation was a series of variations of villainy. While singers like Ruggiero Raimondi could find a patrician quality that gave his Scarpia more three-dimensionality, or that even an exotic name such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau brought about an eerily psychopathic side to the character, Volle pressed the same bad-and-loving-it key the whole evening and finally suggested telenovela rather than verismo.

There was one true Italian singer in the cast, Barenboim’s official “tenore”, Fabio Sartori. As always, it is a very rich and powerful voice, and he has more nuance that many other tenors in this repertoire. However, his singing has developed some sort of whimpering quality that becomes bothersome after a while. Also, he is not really engaged dramatically speaking, and his attempts of rising the emotional temperature invariably sounded calculated. Among the minor roles, Jan Martinik deserves praises for his unexaggerated Sacristan, his nobility of tone being no obstacle for a character role.

This is the first time Daniel Barenboim has conducted an opera by Puccini. And one can see that in the evident care he has taken with the score: all effects are cleanly understood and played out, the orchestra has a Wagnerian, Musikdrama-ish narrative quality and there is an evident intent of avoiding kitsch. Good as these intentions are, they ended on overcooking the procedures: everything was so intense and bright and forceful that you would take five minutes to adapt to it and notice that there was no progression in atmosphere, no increase in tension: it all sounded uniformly loud and driven. Except in what regarded pace – since the orchestral fireworks followed a logic of its own, it did not necessarily matched the tempo of the stage action. Worse: it seemed to be operating in an universe completely apart of the singers. The result was ultimately schizophrenic rather than heightened in expression by the combined work of all its elements.

My first impression of Alvis Hermanis’s production was that the projection of a cartoon with the story of Tosca over the poorman’s version of traditional sceneries would be distracting. And they were, but in a positive way. When one looked at the singers, one would see nonsensical blocking, silly Personenregie and lack of imagination, while the cartoons looked like Zeffirelli’s film with Raina Kabaivanska and Plácido Domingo. So, after a while, you would rather look at the screen than at the absurdity performed below. Examples: Tosca is generally kept 10 m apart from Cavaradossi while saying “you’re ruining my hairstyle” or “we shouldn’t do this in front of the Madonna”.  When Tosca says how much it would cost to bribe Scarpia, she reclines on a divan, her legs dangerously apart for the circumstances. Then he talks about sex – and she makes a what-made-you-think-of-something-like-that expression. Actually, this is not accidental, Mr. Hermanis is convinced that Tosca has a crush on Scarpia: although she barely touches the man she loves, she volunteers to kiss, grab, fondle etc the man she professes to hate. Even if one could assume something like that, the bluntness and the exaggeration are entirely self-defeating in a character who is shown as a Catholic woman who attends mass regularly, who tells her confessor everything and who is basically incapable of handling the situation in the cold-blooded way the director unsuccessfully tries to imply.

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The more I think about the Deutsche Oper’s marketing strategy for this concert performance of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, the less I like it. To say the truth, I haven’t resisted its appeal: the title role is usually poorly sung and the opportunity to hear the leading Straussian soprano of our days in it was beyond my powers of resistance. I did take in consideration the fact that Anja Harteros is very close to become the world’s most cancellation-prone singer (pop music included), but I clung to the idea that it was ONLY ONE CONCERT PERFORMANCE and that she would only disappoint her admirers in these circumstances if she were on the brink of death. This line of reasoning generally leads to an impression of delusion, so let us speak about the fact that the city of Berlin is covered with posters of Anja Harteros, as if all one needs to perform Ariadne auf Naxos were a prima donna. I don’t remember anyone mentioning the other singers: you would have to go to the website and press “Besetzung” to discover that. Then, the apparent raison d’être of this evening is announced indisposed one week before the concert. E-mails have been sent: sorry, folks, no Anja Harteros for you. The last time I received a communication like that from the Deutsche Opera, Angela Gheorghiu (who else?) had a similar indisposition, but a 10 EUR bonus was offered as consolation. Anyway, if the whole point of this evening was having a famous singer in the leading role, why exactly wasn’t she replaced by another famous singer? I happen to know who Meagan Miller is, but the Deutsche Oper seemed unsure about her fame: a text explaining who she is was attached to the cancellation note.  In any case, it is not always possible to find a world-class diva in short notice, but then I understand that you should find an unknown name with tremendous talent so that the audience develop the notion that they have witnessed the birth of a star, such as when an unknown Astrid Varnay replaced Lotte Lehmann, or an unknown Montserrat Caballé replaced Marilyn Horne or an unknown Margaret Price replaced Teresa Berganza.

As it is, Meagan Miller is a very courageous woman. Her task this evening was extremely ingrate, and I’ve prepared myself to have an open mind about it, all the more because Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble opera, with three important soprano roles, one challenging tenor role and a series of interesting shorter characters. It also requires a very good orchestra and a conductor with a very flexible beat and sense of tonal coloring. And I am glad I have done that effort. I have seen Ms. Miller as Elisabeth and Marietta (Die tote Stadt) and wasn’t truly beguiled by the mushy vocal production, the gustiness and the instability. This evening, however, I could see the artist behind the singer: she showed clear diction, real understand of the text and dramatic situations and proved to be aware of the demands of Straussian singing. In the beginning of the opera (i.e, after the intermission), the whole venture seemed to be something like c+ for effort. The tremulousness disfigured many key phrases, the middle register had no color and she had to adopt the “Maria Reining” alternative for the neverending beginning of Ein Schönes war. And yet she was entirely absorbed by the predicament of Ariadne, with complete understanding of the shifts of mood and very alert to the right inflections to the text – and the very difficult low notes were adeptly dispatched. Once she reached Es gibt ein Reich, the voice began to acquire a creamier, more luminous quality and her mezza voce started to develop from the level of acceptability to that of truly expressive beauty. Exemplary phrases would alternate with some wobbly, curdled-toned ones, but from Gibt es kein Hinüber? to the end her singing left nothing to be desired. In conclusion, although Meagan Miller’s performance has plenty of room for development, she tackled some very difficult passages in the grand manner and never failed in commitment. The elements for an important Straussian voice are there, but, if she wants to be more than the replacement of a Straussian diva, she must first round off many sharp angles. It would be a pity if she didn’t try.

Regardless of who was Ariadne, Daniela Sindram sang the role of the Composer. And that could be the raison d’être of this concert. This was superb Straussian singing and definitely one of the best accounts of this part that I have heard live or in recordings. I am really happy I was able to listen to it. Generally, it is the Zerbinetta the singer who gets more attention in a performance of this opera. I am afraid that this was not the case this evening. Susanne Elmark has a lovely personality and her high notes are not metallic as one would expect in this role, but the voice lacks substance, tonal variety and, if she tackles some of the trills commendably, her coloratura is unacceptably imprecise.  Stefan Vinke’s tenor has more than a patch of nasality and many notes are finished in an abrupt manner, and yet he sang the part surprisingly easily and cleanly, flashing some very powerful acuti now and then.

I never cease to admire the level of quality of the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper.  This evening, all roles were taken not only by great voices, but also by artists of great sophistication. The three nymphs were ideally cast with the lovely-toned Siobhan Stagg, the crystal-clear Elena Tsallagova and the truly rich-toned Ronnita Miller, whose mezzo has a welcome Grace Bumbry-ish quality and some very dark low notes. Thomas Blondelle and Markus Brück offered forceful and spirited performances as the Dance Master and the Music Teacher. Carlton Ford was a strong, firm-toned Harlequin, ideally partnered by Jörg Schörner, Paul Kaufmann and a phenomenal Tobias Kehrer. Franz Mazura was an endearing and terrific piece of casting as the Haushofmeister.

Ulf Schirmer gave his cast all the time of the world in an unhurried performance without much profile. Only by the end of the opera, the proceedings gained momentum, but by then his tenor had gotten used to the lack of forward movement and took some time to adjust. I don’t know if the effect of having brass and percussion downstage is to blame, but the strings were on the recessed side throughout and the end of the opera could be described as rather noisy. The lack of an ideal balance robbed many important passages of the necessary clarity. If this performance finally hit home, it was rather by the fact that the conductor allowed individual personalities to shine through rather than led the way himself.

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