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I have thought of a way of not repeating myself on writing about today’s performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore in the Paris Opera, but I can’t. So, in a nutshell: although it’s considered an opera where only the singers matter, I disagree. It is an opera about raw passion and it requires an orchestra and a conductor capable of delivering the punch in the stomach. You’ll ask me: if you keep on with the rant, isn’t it high time you realize you’re talking of something that does not exist? The first time I bothered to really listen to Il Trovatore, a friend made me listen Herbert von Karajan’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic pouring volcanic sounds and producing Musikdrama with a capital M. Although I have never heard live something really like that, both in Berlin and in Salzburg I’ve had the opportunity to witness hell going loose in the pit during performances of this work and all I can tell is: once you’ve been there, you never go back. 

That is why I can’t really say I was disappointed by the bloodless pageant offered by the Opéra de Paris this afternoon. Maestro Carlo Rizzi conducted this polite divertissement around a baby burnt to death with an orchestra that seemed to be playing from the Palais Garnier while the singers at the Bastille were left to fend for themselves in terms of producing any excitement. 

Anna Pirozzi’s naturalness of tone and feeling for the style are hard to resist. At somente in the middle register up to a high g or a she even made me think of Montserrat Caballé in her tasteful use of portamento and roundness of tone. Yet Leonora is a role that requires a freedom in the upper register this valuable Italian soprano doesn’t truly possess at this point. Her high notes have hardened and she worked hard for mezza voce and often gave up. After an unsubtle D’amor sul’ali rosee she seemed to reach her optimal level and sang an urgent, firm-toned Miserere, a rich-sounding duet with the baritone and a touching death scene. Judit Kutasi obviously knows the requirements of the part of Azucena and goes for it with all she’s got – but what she’s got is soprano-ish in sound, light in tone and not earth-shattering as it has to be. This is the central role of the opera – the mezzo soprano must really blow you away from your seat with dramatic top notes, formidable chesty low register and the kind of declamation in which you hear every consonant. Anything else is just not acceptable. Ms. Kutasi is evidently a committed singer and actress and I hope to see her in any other role in the future, but this is the deep end of the swimming pool. 

Yusuf Eyvazov is everything but appealing to the ears – it is rather nasal in the lower and middle register and rather glaring too – and his singing is emphatic in a way that every syllable is stressed and glottal release abounds. Yet he really really likes to sing Di quella pira and offers more notes written by Verdi than anyone in a long while. So, yes, the aria was sung with such panache that one has to recognize that he truly embodied the gutsy spirit of this score at that moment. Étienne Dupuis is a technical immaculate singer with a beautiful voice. My old school friends would say that he sounds less dark than a couple of Italian tenors, and it would be hard to dispute that. Yet he sang richly and with feeling for the style. He sounded too much like the good guy compared to Eyvazov’s ear-unfriendly tone and not truly refined ways, but again: he sang really well. Finally Roberto Tagliavini was a velvety-toned, characterful Ferrando. Among the small roles, Samy Camps (Ruiz) stood out with a tenor of unusual tonal warmth. Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesueur too was classier than usual as Ines. 

Alex Ollé’s production involves a single set, transformed for every scene by concrete-like slabs inspired by Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Although there is no direct reference, the opera is staged in a WW2-ish setting, everybody carrying guns and lots of people being executed. Although it is effective enough, it fails somehow to provide something really exciting. The whole stage machinery is too complex, slabs being suspended and brought down by cables and everywhere. I imagine that everyone on stage was at some point busy trying not to bump into anything – and there’s a price in terms of naturalness in sets like these in the context of an operatic performance. 

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Some performances catch your attention from moment one because of their excellence, but they can be predictable (because everybody more or less knows how perfection should be), while others are simply fascinating in their imperfection. When it comes to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, one will probably found the second type more often. Not as often as performances that are just uninteresting, I’m afraid. The main reason is that this is a work for a truly great orchestra. If it is just ok, then it won’t be memorable and you’ll know it before you arrive at the opera house. And you still need singers at least apt enough for the conductor to let the orchestra go without having to adjust for a cast not truly up to it.  If you share my opinion, the Opéra de Paris won’t ever deliver a group one Tristan. This evening, my neighbor asked me how was the cast (she had missed act one). When I started to talk about the orchestra, she interrupted me “we all know too well how the orchestra is…”. 

Yet the conductor was Gustavo Dudamel, and I was curious about what he would do. I am always curious about what non-German conductors will make of Tristan, because they weren’t brainwashed into thinking that they have to emulate Furtwängler and end up offering pseudoprofoundness. To be honest, I have never heard Dudamel conduct Wagner and guessed he would offer something very fast, loud and intense. Yet he didn’t. The whole performance was the opposite of that. It is actually difficult to say what it was, for it was something different for every act. 

Act one opened to a very a tempo prelude, the building intensity so gradual that you hardly noticed it. The orchestral sound was airy in the sense that the strings were so smooth in sound (I’m trying not to use the word “thin”) that you could actually hear the woodwind with unusual immediacy. And the beat was flowing and forward moving, which is a good thing. In this act, all events are coming up in the last minute. Everything that didn’t happen during the whole trip from Ireland is happening now, and the audience has to feel it. The problem is that all this repressed energy should be there too – and this evening it all felt like Mahler’s 4th. To be honest, it didn’t bother me – It was a valid approach considering the forces available, and it actually sounded beautiful and transparent. 

When it comes to act 2, the sense of “real time” is not really there anymore. This is a actually a matter of atmosphere. And this is achieved through tonal coloring and a flexible beat. There was a tad more orchestral sound, for the very nature of the first part of the soprano/tenor scene demands it. But the whole act seemed concert-bound in its isolated beautiful elements in a business-like context. 

Only act three actually brought something In terms of story-telling from the orchestra. From that third act, one could see that with experience (and a top level orchestra), Mr. Dudamel could create something worth while the detour. Unfortunately, this new intensity and creativity did not last to point of the Liebestod, here an entirely uneventful affair. 

Now you’ll ask me if the cast was an asset or a liability, and the answer is in between. I’ve read the name of Mary Elizabeth Williams as Isolde with puzzlement. I had seen her Amelia in Verdi’s Ballo with the Welsh National Opera. She did sing well, but the part seemed a bit heavy for her. She has solid technique – and she has been singing increasingly heavier roles. So, no, she did not disgrace herself at all in Wagnerland. This was actually a lesson in how to sing a heavy role. She lightened the tone in every conversation passage, charmed the audience with floating mezza voce whenever she could, worked her acuti from brightness and focus rather than beefing up and only resorted to chesty low notes in congenial phrases. She is a highly musician singer, who sculpted her phrases à lá Margaret Price and tried to respond to every mood shift, yet her manner is diva-ish in an Italianate way. I mean, she didn’t sing it like Puccini, yet she sounded foreign in her carefully pronounced and only occasions mispronounced German, in the way the phrase giving pride of place to word-pointing (for stunning effects sometimes, truth be said), in the recessed quality of her middle register and in the rather bottled-up quality of her high notes. In lyrical passage, the combination of fleece and reed à la Roberta Alexander in her soprano brought a distinctive sensuousness to her singing. In terms of acting, she stroke some big arm movements and responded to every little development in the staging. On one hand, it felt a bit soap opera-ish in its excessively “knowing” quality. On the other hand, it filled a lot of blanks in a vacuous staging. I have to say that I listened to every turn of phrase. She sang the part differently from everyone else – and only in the Liebestod I felt her lacking. 

Even if Okka von der Dammerau was not in her best voice – her calls in act two were flat and unsubtly loud – the natural radiance of her voice (now more soprano in sound that it uses to be) – exposed the prima donna’s lack of Wagnerian raw material. She sang throughout with admirable spontaneity and effortlessness. In terms of acting, she did not seem to have found herself in this production (and I can’t blame her). 

I considered Michael Weinius technically irregular when he sang Tristan in Zurich last year, as if he were trying to make his voice bigger and darker. So I am glad to report an entirely different experience this evening. Here his tenor sounded at its brightest and – in a positive way – lightest. His voice had an immediate, clear sound throughout, and his high g’s and a’s pierced though naturally. He offered a solid act 3, did not sound tired and only cut some high notes a bit short and the tone could seem more Charakter- than Heldentenor. But that’s just a side comment. He even acted with more enthusiasm than in Zurich. A commendable performance. 

Ryan Speedo Green has a voice of Wagnerian proportions (and an ideal stage persona for the role of Kurwenal), yet there is anoverkilling vocal production that stood between him and complete success. Everything is excessively covered, supported, emitted – it is so extenuating that the voice more than once derailed, and it shakes a bit in softer dynamics. It is sad that Eric Owens is past his prime – the voice is quavery and reduced in power these days – for he has the measure of the role of King Marke and did some sensitive things this evening. 

This is the second time I see Peter Sellars production with Bill Viola videos (the first time was in 2008, with Waltraud Meier, Clifton Forbis and Semyon Bychkov), and I realize that I have not changed my mind about it. Reading what I wrote last time, I notice that this evening I preferred to follow the stage action than the videos – and I can’t say that it was for the best. 

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It was not surprising to find a full house this evening in the Opernhaus Zürich. Regula Mühlemann’s is Switzerland’s best known soprano these days, and her recital – the program of which has just been released on disc – is a celebration of all things Swiss in the world of artsong. As a matter of fact, the program, as she very charmingly explained this evening, is not 100% Swiss, for Ms. Mühlemann believes that the connection between one’s feeling for his or her own motherland has very much to do with his or her connection to nature – at once a Romantic concept and also a very Swiss one too. And that is why the program begins and ends with Schubert, whose Lieder are the dictionary example of musical depiction of nature. It doesn’t hurt either that he has many songs about lakes, rivers and mountains. It is also most fortunate that Regula Mühlemann has an ideal voice for his songs. A Schubert soprano must have a completely spontaneous high register, the audience shouldn’t even notice that the tessitura is high in a Schubert song. The voice most sound almost pop-like in absolute purity and naturalness. And that’s what we’ve had this evening. It is not a multicolored or complex sound, but it is a voice admirably free and round considered its absolute lightness. I don’t think it would truly work for a Schumann or a Brahms Liederabend, but in its clarity allied with crystalline diction, expert word-pointing and feeling for the text, it hits home in this repertoire.

Im Frühling is a rather tricky song – it is light in atmosphere, but should suggest melancholy at the same time. I particularly enjoy Cheryl Studer’s recording with Irwin Gage, when the voice has a bright, youthful tone, but enough shading to let us know that these waters are deeper than its shiny surface. This evening, it sounded rather pretty in a very stylish and catchy way. Der Knabe’s played to all her strengths, since this singer has a special ability to drain “pretty” music of all schmaltz and show it as freshly and in bright-eyed a manner as one could possibly imagine. Auf der Strom, in which she was brilliantly partnered by Konstantin Timokhine in the natural French horn, demanded far more from her in terms of volume, tessitura and depth. While the freshness of tone and purity of line were undeniable assets, the competition with the horn made her work a bit harder than one would ideally want for the purpose of really hearing the text. As it was, one could call her interpretation rather “operatic” in the way it had more to do with the embodiment rather than the description of the emotions found in the text. In any case, it was an interesting opportunity to see that this Swiss soprano might develop into a more lyric voice in the future. Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, in which Rita Karin Meier played the clarinet with fine dynamic shading, is, on the other hand, a perfect vehicle for Ms. Mühlemann. She sings it as if she had composed it herself, delivering the text with immediacy and offering immaculate articulation in the closing section.

The Swiss items were all of them new to me – and I could guess to many members in the audience. Wilhelm Baumgartner’s Du bist wie eine Blume made for an opportunity for the audience to hear the Heine text in a different (and yet not that different) setting. Richard Flury’s Wandern mit dir is a jewel of a song – 40% Schumann, 60% R. Strauss. The two items sung in Swiss German brought a richer color in the soprano’s middle register, a phenomenon not uncommon when one sings in the language with which he or she grew up. Marguerite Roesgen-Champion’s mélodies are wonderful in atmosphere, especially Cette étoile perdu, and Ms. Mühlemann proved to have what it takes for music composed in French style, an ideal combination of textual spontaneity in the context of legato. The items in romansh, a bit higher in tessitura, showed all the soprano’s money notes. Ms. Mühlemann’s performances were all superior in the theatre in comparison with what one hears in the recording, Live, her voice opened more richly and floated more in softer dynamics.

The program would feature one more Schubert item – La Pastorella al prato, sung with Mozartian poise, well contrasted to Rossini’s La pastorella dell’Alpi, delivered with spirit and very good Italian.

Pianist Tatiana Karusnskaya’s tonal brightness, rhythmic crispness and cleanliness of texture served well Regula Mühlemann’s lightness of tone and instrumental quality. I confess I expected to hear Schuber’s Schweizerlied – proudly featured in Edith Mathis’s volume in the Hyperion complete edition – as an encore, but we got instead an arrangement for all musicians involved in this concert of the final part of the last movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony.

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In his interview about his new production of Parsifal for the Grand Théâtre de Genève, director Michael Thalheimer says that he is happy to stage Parsifal at this moment in which nobody can make sense of the world, although it is clear that something new must happen. During this afternoon I couldn’t help noticing some younger members of the audience looking either puzzled or fully uninterested in the proceedings – and I cannot blame them. This staging – under the aegis of minimalism – offered something almost entirely hermetic and aloof. Then I started to wonder if one can blame the director in charge of the very difficult task of staging this sacred scenic festival in a world where nothing is sacred.

One can say that the easiest way to communicate is just telling the story. And that did not really happen this afternoon – and this is not because it was staged in the moon or in a nightclub or in an entirely nonsensical way. It was well directed – almost every member of the cast offered excellent acting – the sets were efficient and visually striking , and there seemed to be a concept, although it is impossible to describe it (even after you’ve read the interview in the program). Ages ago in a class of Film Studies, the professor said “Titanic is at once a bad movie and a structurally original script, in the sense that it doesn’t really have a story or characters, it is about the ship, how it works, how it separates (and unites) people and how it sank”. I guess Wagner’s libretto for Parsifal is something along these lines in a philosophically far more complex way, although Monsalvat is miraculously rescued from hitting the iceberg 5 minutes before the crash.

The key word here is “miraculously” – there is a miracle going on in the end, “the redemption of the redeemer”. Although it sounds profound as a concept, it is a miracle and is supposed to elude explanation. It is a matter of belief, and it cannot be experienced in a purely rational way. Yes, I know, trying to sell all that debate about purity and sin taken on face value for a contemporary audiences is tough – but it has been done. Taking refuge in abstraction just makes it sound old and distant even if you show Kundry in a suit and high heels. And carrying a gun! Here she shots Klingsor in the end of act 2. Her service in act 3 is writing bits of the text on the wall and then erasing it, while Parsifal comes with a clown make up. When he unveils the grail, there is a big white light on him and it feels as if he were going to sing Vesti la giubba. Maybe this was a dramatic point – only a fool would accept to chair a failed institution?

In a sense, Jonathan Nott’s conducting shares the staging’s abstraction. Structurally transparent as it was, it seemed to be taking place in its own non-dramatic world in which you admired the way singers’ voices were paired with woodwind just like in a performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The house orchestra is not famous for the density of its strings, it is true, but there was a matter of accent too. You could feel the energy sag between phrases and all seemed to be the beta version of a real performance, in its inexpressiveness and recession of orchestral sound. At some point, one started wondering if the performance was long or if it just felt long. With 4 hours of music, this was actually an average Parsifal in terms of tempo, actually quite forward-moving in the second part of act 2.

There was a glamorous cast on duty, and well served by the unchallenging volume of the orchestra. Many singers are debuting in their roles in this run of performances, and I wonder if some of them will keep them in their repertoires or try them in bigger houses (or with more formidable orchestras). Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Kundry, for instance, has to be sampled in two levels. She is usually a terrific actress. Yet this evening she did not seem immerse in the director’s concept, moved in a very artificial way and lacked conviction in her interpretation as a whole. The part is a tad heavy for her velvety mezzo, but she sang it with admirable security and technical finish, if rather bureaucratically. That said, I can’t remember the last time I heard the end of act 2 sang so richly, big round high notes, reliable intonation, musicianly phrasing.

This is the first time I see Swedish tenor Daniel Johansson, and the first thing one notices about him is that he is a tenor, not a pushed up baritone or any other kind of adaptation. His voice is in the right size and color for the part of Parsifal – there is a hint of youth in its bright sound, and his high register is focused and juicy as this repertoire requires. He also proved to be committed to the Personenregie, which involved some silent acting during the prelude. I was used to hear Christopher Maltman in Mozart. When a friend told me that he had a “huge voice” after seeing him in Rigoletto, I thought he mistook him for another person. Yet he is not wrong – as Amfortas, he did sing with Wagnerian volume and a cutting edge, even in low notes, that could pierce through a loud orchestra. There is an issue of tremulousness, though, which is something I don’t remember from his Mozart days. Tareq Nazmi was a noble-, velvety-toned Gurnemanz, with excellent diction, a bit overcautious with his high notes. Martin Gantner’s baritone is a bit high and light for Klingsor, but he projects well and is a hell of an actor.

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Renée Fleming is a singer whose recordings are not always among my favorites, but who has surprised me live with compelling performances more often than not. Other than a lackluster Otello at the Met, I have good memories of a Rusalka , a Manon and a Capriccio there – and I really liked the Daphne in the Carnegie Hall. I had never thought of her as a recitalist, although she has explored some out-of-the-beaten-track corners of the artsong repertoire. To be honest, my decision of taking the train to Lucerne this evening had more to do with seeing Evgeny Kissin. 

Fleming’s operatic appearances have often been described as a display of her glamorous  self in costume, yet her persona is apt for the role of grande dame de la chanson. I mean, she really inhabits the stage as a recitalist, presenting each song in a very efficient and professional way. She is in charge. This sounds like I am being ironic, but, no, I mean it as a compliment. With her, one never has the impression of “if you don’t like it, it’s the composer’s fault” , because she’ll make everything to make you like it. 

With her infamous jazzy mannerisms, Ms. Fleming would hardly be called a Schubertian, and yet her Schubert this evening was really praiseworthy. First, her diction is above average, and her Suleika I, done a bit more leisurely than usual, had a sense of story telling, her verbal pointing not truly discrete but coherent with her personality. At this stage of her career, it is admirable how she could achieve lightness of tone and reasonable purity of phrasing in items that other sopranos her age would find too girlish, such as Die Vögel. Actually, Nur wer due Sehnsucht kennt was admirably fresh-toned and and to the point in terms of expression. And it is remarkable how she kept her legato in Rastlose Liebe (again sung slower than usual). 

The Liszt items in German played more to her strengths, especially her ability to spin a long note in a way that makes you curious to know what she’s doing with it next. Freudvoll und leidvoll and ûber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh partifularly benefited from her rich middle register. Although the Rachmaninov items – Lilacs and A dream were both of them on the elegiac side, they were a step further in terms of tessitura, allowing Ms. Fleming to show that she still masters the art of mezza voce. The Russian repertoire also agrees with her instincts, which always tend to conduct the phrase all the way rather than letting it follow its natural course. If I’ve found the French items in the program less remarkable is only that the text sounded a little bit more generic and – particularly Duparc’s Le Manoir de Rosemonde – showed her voice at its lest round. For Liszt’s French songs – S’il est un charmant gazon et Oh, quand je dors, Ms. Fleming chose the original 1844 versions, which now flatter her voice better than the usually heard second editions.

The encores were Schubert’s Ave Maria, sung with the Latin text of the prayer, followed by a passionate account of Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters and a touching and floating account of R. Strauss’s Morgen.

The match of Renée Fleming’s rich soprano and Evgeny Kissin’s dense, rich sound proved to be a very good match. The accompaniment in the Schubert items proved to be surprisingly clean for a grand concert pianist, but always warm and full in tone, even in softer dynamics. Both singer and pianist prefer slower speeds and both make good use of it to offer complex sonorities. Naturally, the Liszt and Rachmaninov items gave him more opportunity for technical display, and yet he always had the singer’s voice in mind both as a reference of sonority and in the sense that he always enveloped the soprano rather than overshadow it. In the solo item, one could feel a sense of continuity. His Sposalizio from Les Années de Pèlerinage seemed almost nightly in atmosphere in the considerate tempo, the dark hue of the piano sound and the round and pearly effect in the upper octaves. Even the more playful items glowed seemed to be infused the deeply expressive sound-culture that marked this recital.

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The BWV 153 , Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feinde is a curious entry in the corpus of Bach cantatas. It was intended for the Sunday after New Year, January 2nd 1724. Bach’s musicians had been really busy in a tight performance schedule with demanding items since Christmas, and the composer’s practical mind couldn’t help but take that into consideration. The cantata requires only a string orchestra, there is no soprano solo and the chorus is not required to sing complex counterpoint, what requires less rehearsal time. On a structural level, Bach’s invention seemed to have used the very sparseness as a rhetorical tool.

The text of the cantata basically says “Lord, my enemies are too many, and I’m unable to fight them without help”. Yes, the musical forces reduced to the minimum, there are no special features. This is a “real life” cantata. The opening number isn’t formidable in any way. It doesn’t look like any miracle is going to happen. No wonder the alto sounds so desperate in his recitative – “I live among lions and dragons who’ll soon finish me off”. Predictably God responds in the bass voice. And yet the answer is not solemn at all – in a seductive, dance-like aria, he says “no need to fear, I’m already here”. If you think about it, this is a rather unsettling answer. It basically means that the Christian soul actually is BLIND to the presence of God. It says “I live with dragons and lions” – and God gives a nudge “Look again”. This has the effect of making the Christian soul sing one register lower, in the tenor voice. In the second recitative, it acknowledges God’s presence “yes, you give me solace etc, but the stuff here is really serious – I live in hell”.  Time for a lesson – the chorale reminds him “Not even the Devil himself could defeat God”.

After the second wake-up call, the tenor seems to have gotten the memo. Even with his string-only orchestra, he makes a brave statement in an aria that could have been written by Vivaldi, with tempestuous passagework in the strings and illustrative coloratura. We go one step lower in register for the next recitative, when the Christian soul now speaks with the same register used for the voice of God. Now the Christian soul is in full harmony with God: as much as Jesus has carried the cross, it is up to everyone to carry his or her own cross with the belief that God has never abandoned him or her. Once the voice has been “internalized”, we hear the Christian soul sing the cantata’s last aria in his own original alto voice. Now that the full cycle has been completed, it sings with the same dance-like serenity we heard in God’s voice in the cantata’s first aria as an expression of the determination of facing adversity with spiritual confidence.

With the exception of John Eliot Gardiner’s expressionistic recording, conductors tend to build on the mature graciousness of Bach’s writing, the change of atmosphere in the tenor aria being its coup de théâtre. Maestro Rudolf Lutz is no different, offering a warm account of this score in relaxed tempi, extensive use of decoration and short introductions and interventions by the organ and a curious rendition of the middle verse of the last chorale by the soloists (plus a soprano borrowed from the chorus). 

Jan Börner sang the alto solos with admirable clarity of tone but his account of the spiritual Angst in the first part of the cantata was a bit too chic for the circumstances. The contrast to Daniel Johannsen couldn’t be more evident. Witt his customary verbal acuity, he employed a large dynamic and tonal palette to depict the spiritual torments in the tenor recitative and proved to be in excellent, incisive voice in an heroic account of the difficult “tempest” aria. Most tenors fight with the consonants and difficult vowels in the text, but Mr Johannsen sounded unfazed. Bass Sebastian Noack seems to have tried to boost the roundness and color to match the sound of God’s voice with the price of occasional tremulousness. 

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I had read a lot about Barbara Hannigan before I heard the sound of her voice for the first time. Magazines described her as the first lady of alternative repertoire, a soprano heiress of Cathy Berberian or something of the kind. It is a repertoire in which is difficult to establish how extraordinary a voice is for sheer lack of comparison, but Ms. Hannigan found a place for herself and even surprised the audience by her increasing activity as a conductor. My experience of her artistry had been restricted to YouTube videos until this evening, when she appeared both as soloist and maestra in a curious double bill of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with the Musikkolegium Winterthur.

On a second thought, the combination of Strauss’s study for string orchestra and Poulenc’s “pocket” opera share a state of mind, the reluctant parting with a disappearing reality. In a way, Ms. Hannigan could capture the ambiguity behind that in both works. Although there are more glamorous accounts of Metamorphosen in terms of beauty of sound, this evening’s performance offered something very special in terms of dynamic flexibility and the unhurried, loving way intensity was gradually built. I had never seen La Voix Humaine live, and my experience with it was mostly based on George Prêtre’s recording with the singer for whom the role was written, Denise Duval. My first impression this evening had to do with the sound picture. In a work like this, the audience expects an “intimate” perspective of a close-up singer with orchestral “accompaniment”, almost like a magnified continuo in a long recitative. This is why I was surprised to find again the Straussian, string-dense sound in the Poulenc. The soprano voice was wrapped in orchestral sound and seemed to form a single unity with it that made expression even more intense. This does not mean that Ms. Hannigan as a soloist offered a heavily expressive performance. On the contrary.

On hearing Ms. Duval’s performance in the Prêtre recording, one can understand what Poulenc saw in her. Beauty of tone and clarity of delivery are never opposed in her performance – it is delivered in absolute textual transparence, naturalness and femininity. The listener is immediately captivated. Although the voice has a richly textured to sound, she sings this text as an actress would have spoken it. Ms. Hannigan’s voice is less rich and softer-cored than Denise Duval’s, especially in the middle/low areas. She sang it rather with a Mélisande “float” that brought a sense of seduction and mystery to her performance. Is the whole thing an act? Is she for real? What is true and what is not? It is particularly fascinating that having the tiple job of singing, conducting and acting (although she had her back to the audience, a projection on a screen let the audience watch her every movement, which doubled as indications for the orchestra and a theatrical choreography) her perfomance was so subtly varied in every aspect. First, her voice live is more appealing than in recordings. I remember having had a similar experience when I saw Felicity Lott live for the first time – there is more to the sound than the microphones can capture. I cannot say if there was miking this evening (because she sang to the orchestra and not into the auditorium), but if indeed there was, it was subtle and only enhanced the natural sound of her soprano. Second, her French is more than idiomatic; she delivered it with all the little idiosyncrasies of a native French speaker. Third, although the acting couldn’t be naturalistic in these circumstances, it was really integrated in her vocal performance. In other words, the fact that she was concentrating all these aspects made the whole music making this evening especially coherent. One could imagine that this could have been distracting for the musicians in the orchestra, but that did not seem to be the case. I noticed that they felt particularly connected to the expressive universe of the piece and responded accordingly. This was so unique that one couldn’t help but feeling overwhelmed. Even if the Strauss was well received by the audience, the Poulenc got a standing ovation.

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Every time I write about Verdi’s La Traviata, the first paragraph is about how unexcited I am about the prospect of watching it yet again. Yes, it is probably my least favorite Verdi at this point. So I braced for it – I had never seen it in Zurich before – and, well, it was less painful than I had thought. And I must praise in the first place the opera house itself for the way it has taken this opera, usually staged as some sort of slot machine for stray tourists, as seriously as they would a work meant for “serious” audiences. I mean, Verdi himself had the best intentions when he composed it – it was an unusual contemporary setting with a rather risqué subject, a highly difficult prima donna role with unusually detailed vocal characterization and some of his most famous choruses (and an exquisite prelude). It is also difficult to conduct, but not in a way that seems to spark the interest of great conductors. In order to make dramatic sense of the prevailing squareness, the maestro would have really to use his imagination, but not too much volume for voices here tend to be on the light side. In any case, this 2015 production (originally cast with Sonya Yoncheva, Pavol Breslik and Quinn Kelsey) comes closer to make something of it than any other in my experience.

Director David Hermann himself says in the interview in the program that he was not excited at first with the task, but after making an effort of reading the libretto without prejudice, he believed to have found things yet to be explored there. “La Traviata” is a title the meaning of which nobody seems to care about too much – ‘The Fallen woman” being its common translation, but it literally means “someone who was led astray”, generally in the context of “being corrupted”. And yet this is primarily the story of someone who actually lags behind, who can’t find her way back. As the director points out, the first scene tells us everything we need to know – Violetta offers a huge party but the guests take forever to come. They were at Flora’s having fun and only very late drop by just to leave 30 minutes later. Their hostess used to be popular, then fell ill only to find that now her place has been taken. This is the way of the world of “easy” money – there’s always someone new, younger, more glittery to replace you. In Mr. Hermann’s staging, Violetta might have a lung disease or it might be just burnout syndrome, we’ll never know. It just is too much for her. She knows she will never be the alpha female in the demimonde again, but then there’s the chance of trying something else. And she goes for it with everything she’s got. And this is the point where the director fails to see into Violeta’s Catholic ethos. When Germont, sr, offers her the possibility of being an “angel” – and this is something beyond her most ambitious dreams – she buys it, but this does not mean that she became a religious person, as portrayed here in the third act. Yes, from some point one, she speaks only of charity, heaven and penitence, but that does not mean that she is leading a saintly life because she chose it, only that she’s dying and that she is ready to collect the prize for her good action. As portrayed here, act III Violetta required a lot of suspension of disbelief, what is sad. If she had been shown as a real person dying in a hospital fantasising that Alfredo and his father really appeared at her deathbed, then this could have been more moving. But again – this was more than C plus for effort. For a while, it made sense in the 21st century – and that deserves respect.

I must say that conductor Francesco Ivan Ciampa too deserves praise for making everything to avoid sentimentality at all costs: the orchestral sound was rich, he worked hard for offering something structurally coherent, rather than indulging the whims of a prima donna or a star tenor (in any rate, this was not the case here). While his pressing forward was refreshing for a work that doesn’t show Verdi at his most inspired, you can’t pretend the sentimentality isn’t there. It is in the core of this music. You have to acknowledge it, without overdoing it. In musical terms, a little bit more of flexibility would have made all the difference in the world, especially in the duet Violetta/Germont, sr duet. That said, this would have probably required soloists with a tad more music-dramatic imagination. All in all, this was far from bureaucratic, and that’s more than what you usually get in this work.

I have read the name of Russian soprano Nadezhda Pavlova in connection with Teodor Currentzis’s performances of Mozart operas, and was curious to hear her. I knew she had sung Donizetti’s Lucia, and yet Violetta requires a little bit more something. “Interesting” is a word people don’t like to write or read, but I’ll use it for Ms. Pavlova. It is a voice that can be easy on the ear, but it is always a bit unusual. The basic sound is essentially “Russian” in its slight hootiness sound and a lightly acidic edge. Some sopranos with this description may become pinched in the higher reaches, but Ms. Pavlova’s opens up forcefully and effortlessly in its high register, for stunning effects in the theatre. It is never an Italianate sound, her pure-toned mezza voce, for instance, shows an almost “baroque” fixed quality. As one never knew what would come next, one was kept curious about the way she would handle each phrase in the part. Sometimes, she came across as rather Mozartian, with clearly sculpted phrasing and instrumental tonal quality. At other moments, she would produce phrasing of more “Romantic” nature, with generous use of portamento and some parlando effects. I have never seen someone handle the reading of the letter better than her. One hardly noticed the difference between spoken and sung voice (and the conductor probably asked the concert master to avoid the usual syrupy quality normally associated to this passage). In terms of acting, she is probably not the woman for the part (as Yoncheva might have been), but she brought her A game nonetheless. She would have benefited from more chemistry with her Alfredo. Bosnian tenor Omer Kobijak, both in tonal quality and stage presence, is hardly mellifluous and could exert a bit more love for legato. Yet he too worked hard to embody a character a bit distant to his own personality. In his first duet with Violetta, he offered truly beautiful mezza voce and blended his voice with the soprano to perfection. I also tend to take the side of tenors as Mr. Kobijak who don’t smear the small notes in the part of Alfredo. Even if George Petean was not in his best voice – he took some time to warm after a short-breathed start – one could say he nonetheless stole the show. He had advantages – his baritone is tailor-made for the part, he masters the style and he was bien dans sa peau as M. Germont, père. Among the minor roles, Simone McIntosh (Flora) called my attention with a fruity, firm-toned mezzo.

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Following the disastrous circumstances of the creation of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, it has disappeared from the repertoire until the 1960’s. It is nonetheless the most popular item in the “Tudor Trilogy” – and one can see why. It is one of the rare bel canto operas that has enough room for two prime donne in equal standing, with a famous confrontation scene. It is also rather structurally square, and yet it shines in scenes and recitatives (a Donizetti specialty). If the arias are not the composer at his most inspired, they are dramatically effective in their “Mozartian” characterization: Stuarda is something of the Donna Anna to Elisabetta’s Donna Elvira. 

As originally composed by Donizetti, both parts were written for the soprano voice. Yet at the official Milanese premiere, the title role was given to Maria Malibran, what involved lower options to fit her voice. That said, the audiences always expect the soprano to be the tenor’s beloved and the Donizetti revival would mean that Sutherland and Gencer would appear as the Queen of Scotts, while Tourangeau and Verrett would wear the English crown. That’s also what would we hear in the 1970’s and 1980’s in combos like Caballé/Berini or Gruberová/Baltsa. The recent interest in Malibran changed things a bit, making for a curious cast reversal: mezzo Stuardas against soprano Elisabettas, most famously at the Met with Joyce DiDonato and Elza van den Heever. 

Last time this opera was heard in Geneva, DiDonato sang Elisabetta to Gabriele Fontana’s Maria. That is why I realized only 30 minutes before the performance that Elsa Dreisig would actually sing Elisabetta, with Stéphanie d’Oustrac in the role of Maria. I first thought it was a misprint – I couldn’t make sense of this cast. I can understand that Dreisig was chosen for all the Tudor roles in the ongoing trilogy, but their vocal nature says otherwise. Anyway, that train had already left the station, so there’s nothing one could do but keep an open mind. 

Elsa Dreisig is not the kind of high soprano who can’t wait for the puntatura as one usually hears in this repertoire, but rather a lyric voice with a middle register solid enough for a part like Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte. As Elisabetta she did not find anything actually low. She sang securely and firmly throughout in very good Italian and with her customary classical poise. I was trying to look for a word an Italian opera goer would use to describe what was missing. “Morbidezza”? Her tubular soprano runs without any problem to its high notes, but it doesn’t truly blossom as with a bona fide bel canto soprano. She worked hard for characterization, but the fact that she sounds young and vulnerable (Elizabeth I was in her 50’s when Mary Stuart died) didn’t make her seem commanding, venomous or dangerous as we’re used to hear. And it’s a role that requires a little bit more playing with the text. Although Anna Caterina Antonacci was booed at La Scala when she sang it there, she plays the libretto around her little finger in a way you can almost find the Schiller in it. That said, in this production, Elisabetta is young and tight-corseted while Mary is sexy and womanly. So, ok, point taken. If this is the intended effect, it worked. 

The situation with Ms. d’Oustrac’s Maria is quite different. Except in the confrontation scene, the role is all about long, floating legato (and this is probably why Caballé liked it so much). The problem: this is hardly a quality one would associate with this French mezzo. She actually offered some forceful acuti and even beautiful mezza voce, but the sound had little sensuousness, the text was cloudy and intonation wasn’t flawless. She is a terrific actress and gave her all in the scenic department. Live in the theatre, it was interesting, but that was ultimately what her fellow Frenchmen call a contre-emploi. The whole cursing and name calling in the confrontation scene is the single example in recorded history in which Joan Sutherland is more dramatically efficient than anyone else – her “t” in “bastarda” hurts like a slap – and I was expecting something thrilling this evening, but that was limited to her acting. 

I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone with a microphone had informed us that Edgardo Rocha had the flu this evening. He sounded as if he were fighting mucus during the whole evening. It was amazing that he kept his cold blood and went through with a voice in the verge of breaking. At any rate, it didn’t – and he feels comfortable with the high tessitura, which is more than what one can say about almost anyone else in this part. Both Nicola Ulivieri (Talbo) and Simone del Savio (Cecil) were cast from strength, offering some of the best singing this evening. Last but not least, Ena Pognac was a characterful, firm-voiced Anna. 

It is difficult to talk about editions in a work that sounds different every time you hear it. Conductor Andrea Sanguineti says in the program he finds the idea of faithfully following the critic edition (which was first recorded in the video with Carmela Remígio and Sonia Ganassi) unthinkable in a repertoire in which the composers themselves adapted everything to the forces available. As it was, we had no overture (which is a good thing) and the jolly opening chorus (I confess I prefer the “inauthentic” one used in the past). Predictably, one would recognize some Malibran variations and other embellishments plus fortepiano add-ons during numbers. Mr. Sanguinetti showed he is at home in bel canto. He knows how to breath with his singers, has a most flexible beat, excellent control of ensembles and offered the most musical confrontation scene I have ever heard. The concertato that closes it normally feels mechanical and a tad awkward. Definitely not this evening, even if the choral singing was a bit subpar.

Director Mariame Clément connects Maria Stuarda to Anna Bolena via Elizabeth’s traumatic memory of her own mother’s execution – and the rather Freudian way she channels both her father’s tyrannical attitude and Leicester’s desire for Mary. Here the Stuart queen is the woman Elizabeth would like to be. While she is shown in short hair and trousers, Mary is seen in a pink, vaporous gown. The director tries to give Elizabeth some credit when she calls Mary scheming and manipulative, by staging the execution like a media stunt produced in order to sanctify her and make way for a comeback of the Stuarts. All that would be irrelevant if Ms. Clément hadn’t directed it in a way that hits home. I find it particularly commendable the way she uses the rigid cavatina/cabaletta structure on the context of courtly dance numbers in the first act, an idea that gave new life to scenes that almost always look a bit contrived. 

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The BWV is a perfect example of Bach’s feel-good cantatas, as one would expect in a new year’s service (it was first performed December 30th, 1725). It curiously opens with a dance-like aria for solo soprano with a trio of oboes. The text is about singing a song of gratitude, for God has given so many good things during the present year – so let’s hope he’ll give us even more in the next one. I find it entirely non-religious in mood in its whimsical sensuous rhythms.

The contrast to the gloriously profound second movement, a bit old-fashioned in style, did not make much sense to me at first, until I realized that this contrast is what this cantata is about. The lively soprano aria is very much a “me moment”. It’s all about “receiving” – we received so many good things this year, so let’s say thanks to God in order to see if we can get even more the next year. Yet the song of praise – the chorale – works from an entirely different level. It is about being weak and having sinned and nonetheless getting to experiment God’s grace. Its motette-like structure, the soprano voice blossoming from the introductory counterpoint of the other voices, the chromatic description of sin and the uplifting, luminous ending is almost a generational dialogue. We have this youthful opening solo, full with eagerness and looking at the bright side. Then the old lesson – the hymn – reminds us that the blessing has less to do with us deserving it than with God’s infinite providence.

The third movement promises to be very austere, we’re going to hear the words of the Lord, as said to Jeremiah in a moment when things were not particularly positive. Yet he says that bad things should happen to make people need God and never turn away from him. Thus, he can make sure that he’ll be able to do good to us. This chapter alone would deserve a doctor’s thesis, but Bach doesn’t want to explain anything to us, he just SHOWS us, by giving God here a very charming, friendly voice. We’re already in the second part of the story: we have kept close to him, and we know that because we had a year full of good things.

In the fourth movement – the tenor recitative – we hear our response to the text of the Bible: if we give ourselves to God without reserve, like children do, then we’ll be able to witness his neverending generosity. It has an exalted yet simple quality, and many a commentator finds that all movements after the chorale are underwhelming in comparison. However, this is Bach’s point – once you have given yourself entirely to God, you don’t need to fear, for he’ll show you only his congenial, familiar face. And that’s what we’ll hear in the duet. Its Italian-cantata simplicity is the very image of childlike, bright-eyes contentment. The cantata ends in a serene chorale.

Differently from Suzuki or Gardiner, who make it essentially brilliant and animated (with the formidable chorale in the middle of it), conductor Rudolf Lutz tries to show the work as an organic and coherent piece, the opening aria more graceful than glittery, the alto/tenor duet less sprightly than in most recordings. And rightly so. The text of the cantata follows a logical structure, and Bach composed it accordingly. Therefore, not stressing the contrasts make it surprisingly more eloquent as a whole.

I don’t think anyone can sing the opening aria better than Dorothee Mields. In her performance, there is charm and there is also the textual intelligence to establish the connection with the following choral. The venerable Peter Kooij offered an ideal rendition of the recitative, the tone appealing, the phrasing immaculate, the expression always true. Another veteran in this performance, tenor Charles Daniels sang with a light, firm and natural tone that blended well with Terry Wey’s pellucid countertenor in a rather austere rendition of their duet.

The acoustics at the Kirche St. Mamgen are a bit drier than in Trogen, where the right touch of warmth give all voices a heavenly halo. But dryness for baroque music is always better than excessive reverberation – and the chorus’s exemplary performance could be sampled with absolute clarity. The orchestra too retained the necessary tonal roundness and played warmly throughout – only singers suffered a tiny little bit, tenor and soprano sounding a tiny little bit hard in their hard notes.

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