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If Gluck was the most important advocate of the reform of opera in 18th century, his most famous (but arguably not best) opera, Orfeo ed Euridice (as he called it in its première in Vienna) is infamously undramatic. Its claim to fame it is a piece of ballet musique where basically nothing happens, and yet it is a favourite among mezzo sopranos (if you think of it, basically everybody recorded it, from Giulietta Simionato, Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett to Magdalena Kozená and Bernarda Fink, via Marilyn Horne, Janet Baker and Agnes Baltsa) and increasingly of tenors (in the Paris version in French). The interest of mezzos for the title role may have something to do with the fact that Hector Berlioz prepared a version of this score for the legendary Pauline Viardot-Garcia, first heard at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in 1859. That said, it was probably more often recorded than staged until the last ten years, as video releases have been popping out from everywhere (one of them even features Roberto Alagna as Orphée). I myself have seen it only once, twenty years ago at the Teatro Nacional in Brasília.

In a work where the dramatic action could be described in one line, nothing really disastrous in terms of staging can happen, one could believe. Yet not so fast. Although Orphée is a relatively short work, director Christoph Marthaler managed somehow to make it feel longer than Berlioz’s Les Troyens in his pseudoprofound 2019 staging for the Opernhaus Zürich. Undramatic as it is, its symbolism is strong and there is room for interpretation to fill in the blanks of the apparently uneventful libretto (to be honest, someone dies, then comes to life, then dies again and then comes to life again in less than two hours). Mr. Marthaler’s concept may be a bit obvious at first (if someone converses with a dead person, he or she must be crazy), but it is actually a very clever one for this libretto. A director could show Orpheus as someone dealing with some kind of mourning process (especially if he feels responsible for Euridice’s death in some way) or even show him as someone who cannot deal with reality and fantasizes that someone who is actually living is dead. Or maybe he is not fantasizing at all – this person is indeed alive but she is the one fantasizing that she is dead. There are many possibilities, none of them explored here, coherence is an extremely bourgeois concept after all, isn’t it? As it is, we are in some sort of limbo that looks like a mental institution, where a very much depressed Orpheus can’t get over the death of Eurydice. Everything that happens after this starting point is a bit hard to explain – there are silent characters who seem to suffer from rheumatic chorea (and that is what you get for the ballet scenes) not dressed either as patients or staff. They occasionally get to speak some dialogues à la Wes Anderson, perform lots of physical gags that are funny exclusively to people born in some parts of the world or recite (again!) T.S. Eliot. At some point, an aria from Pergolesi’s Orpheus cantata is sung with piano accompaniment. You know, the works. In his interview, the director talks about the fact that the Berlioz edition (here adopted) meant that the part of Orphée was for the first time meant to be sung by a woman etc etc, while the fact remains that Mme. Viardot was playing a male role and nobody saw it otherwise. To be honest, I did not see it otherwise this evening – the mezzo soprano cast as Orphée looked as if she was in a breeches role and, well, I have no problem with that. One could have indeed staged it as if Orphée(e) was a woman looking inside herself for some kind of idealized femininity represented by Euridice etc, but I guess this would require some serious Dramaturgie.

I have the impression that the Berlioz edition does not contain the surprising pauses made to accommodate the many little physical jokes and I missed one number from John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Berlioz edition. That is not important, in the context of the alert, stylish performance conducted by Stefano Montanari with animated, clearly articulated and expressive playing by the house orchestra. Replacing the originally announced Nadezhda Karyazina, Ukrainian mezzo Olga Syniakova sang with a fruity mezzo, clean lines, clear French and admirable flexibility. She just lacked a bit projection, especially in her low register. Alice Duport-Percier was a charming, bell-toned Amour, very French in sound. Chiara Skerath’s soprano is not to my taste, and one tends to be picky in a part not technically challenging usually taken by singers with evidently beautiful voices (della Casa, Moffo, Rothenberger, Janowitz, Lorengar and Popp for instance).


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I have a friend who used to live in a small rented flat in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin and dreamed of buying a place for her. She is far from rich and it took a while until one day she told me she had purchased a house. The next time I was in Berlin she told me I had to see it and she gave me an address in Biesdorf. The house was a typical East Germany post-WWII building, almost falling apart and constructed in haste with poor quality materials – and I am not sure if she ever moved there. Whenever she tried to fix something, something else felt apart. Why am I writing this? The current production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in the Opernhaus Zürich, premièred in 2014 and directed by Berlin-born director Tatjana Gurbaca and is set is a house that looks just like the one my friend has got in Biesdorf. This made me see this staging in some sort of east/west dynamics à la Unterleuten (the novel by Juli Zeh). When Tamino appears in that middle of nowhere telling he is a prince “from the other side” and Papageno answers “Is there another side?”, I couldn’t see it otherwise anymore. In her interview, the director says that The Magic Flute is about opposites completing each other towards progress: night/day, woman/man. So why not east/west? Die Zauberflöte is somehow part of what one would call “the common identity” of German speaking countries. In Milos Forman’s Amadeus, we see it as the culmination of Mozart’s campaign in favor of a German form of opera etc etc. So I find it fitting to see it here shown as a page of the story of the development of post-Berlin Wall German identity too. We have the Queen of the Night as some sort of dusty symbol of a lost Empire, Sarastro as the architect of the future (or, at least, this is what he claims to be). Is there a place for outsiders in this new Germany? That’s a question Monostatos asks in the new dialogues created for this production. What about Papageno/Papageno? They don’t seem to fit in the Wirtschaftswunder concept either. I’ll stop here, because this is just my take on this compelling production. To be honest, I hadn’t had so much fun with Die Zauberflöte in ages until this evening. The new dialogues are coherent to the plot, very entertaining and intelligent, everybody (including the chorus) is very well directed, all stage elements are effectively handled, conveying to an organic conclusion in the last scenes, the attempts to make it less cute are not overdone and give it a distinctive “Berliner” edge. Chapeau!

The musical side of the performance also had a distinctive edge. Under the expert baton of Nicolaj Szeps-Zneider, this much abused score shone in absolute structural clarity the extra chantilly. Although the program states that this is not La Scintilla (the house’s period-instrument band), from my place I could see valveless brass and old-style timpani and the sound was unmistakably tangy, woodwind very much prominent, crispily articulated violins, tempi that allowed the ebb and flow of Mozartian phrasing to come to life. Most of all, it was the right sound for this production. Without thinking too hard, I would say that this was the best Mozart I have heard in the Opernhaus in the last two years.

For some reason, The Magic Flute has become something of an opera for tourists, i.e., opera houses don’t care to use their A-teamers because nobody cares, tickets will be sold anyway. Performances as seen on video, like the Bayerische Staatsoper’s with Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberová, Francisco Araiza and Wolfgang Brendel or the Metropolitan Opera’s with Kathleen Battle, Luciana Serra, Araiza again (why not?) and Kurt Moll no longer exist – and using that standard of reference wouldn’t make any sense these days. As it was, although the singing this evening would hardly rock anyone’s world, it was solid and, without any doubt, stylish. I’ll just mention two members of the cast. Even if Thomas Erlank sounded as if he had a bad cold (high g, a flat and a all grating above piano), he sang with elegance and understanding of Mozartian phrasing sorely missing in the competition. And the voice is dulcet and has enough body. I leave the best for last – I had seen Ruben Drole’s Papageno on video, but I would say he surpassed himself this evening. He was in very good voice, actually less grainy than it sometimes can be, voluminous enough for him to sing naturally, in the semi-pop approach the part demands. And the acting was simply outstanding. He twisted the audience around his little finger, it was genuinely funny.

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In spite of the success Handel’s Tolomeo found in its creation  (it was revived in 1730 and 1733 after the 1728 premiere),  it has not made into the repertoire like Alcina, Giulio Cesare or Orlando. Many say that the plot is to blame, a highly embellished affair superficially inspired by succession conflicts in Egypt around Ptolemy IX, his brother Ptolemy X Alexander (in the libretto Alexander) and his mother Cleopatra III (i.e., nothing to do with Cleopatra VII, Julius Cesar and Mark Antony), and that’s not entirely wrong. There is no dramatic tension in the main line of “events”: Tolomeo is upset because he believes his brother Alessandro has the intent of murdering him and his wife Seleuce is dead. However, Alessandro goes to Cyprus just to tell him he actually is on his side. Furthermore, Seleuce happens to be there too alive and still very much in love with him. So you’ll ask: happy ending in the first scene? Not so fast: the King of Cyprus, Araspe, and his sister Elisa are in hunting season: he harasses Seleuce (undercover as the shepherdess Delia) and she calls dibs on Tolomeo (undercover as the shepherd Osmino). They won’t rest until they make the Egyptians very very unhappy until they change their minds and get out of their way. These two worlds are represented by music clearly written in serious style with more than of splash of pastoral elements (including flutes and recorders) for the Egyptian characters and in semiserious style for the Cypriot siblings. There is yet an additional challenge here: this is the last opera written for the “rival queens” Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, and the fact that they both demanded to sing the same amount of music does not make any sense in a libretto like this. Since the Egyptian characters don’t have anything to do but complain, they sing a lot, I mean A LOT of melancholic, lamenting music. As Handel did not lack imagination here, their arias are beautiful if not truly varied. The semiserious music – which there is a plenty of – is a tad below that standard, and one eventually wishes to concentrate on exquisite melodies and forget about the theatrical action. 

In concert, as presented this evening in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées, this is not problematic at all – and a slightly trimmed score made sure this was not overlong. Although Tolomeo’s discography is very short, it features maybe Alan Curtis’s best recording, made in studio. Curtis was hardly the most dramatic of conductors, but he was keen on warm sonorities, elegant tempi and polish, which is exactly what this works calls for. This was originally intended as a vehicle for three stars (there was also Senesino in the title role), and Curtis had a dream team in Karina Gauvin, Anna Bonitatibus and Ann Hallenberg with a glamorous help of Romina Basso and Pietro Spagnoli. The problem: once you hear it, you’ll make comparisons. 

Conductor Francesco Corti and his ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro are entirely at home in this repertoire – the rhythms are contagious, the dramatic atmosphere is efficiently established, the orchestra is responsive to the affetto of each number, their playing is exciting and stylish. They never gave up on their intent of rescuing Tolomeo from its intrinsic lack of drama – and at some point one started to wonder if this was the ideal cast for it with two countertenors in castrato parts to start with. That is not a criticism – for this was a very compelling group of singers – only an observation. 

I had never seen Jakub Józef Orliński live before, and one can quickly see why he has become so famous. The personality is engaging, he obviously loves to be on stage (he even indulged in some acting) and exudes joie de chant. The voice itself is pure and beautiful in tone, and he sculpts his phrases appealingly. He excels in elegiac music, what is a huge asset in a Senesino role. As with many countertenors of this kind (Scholl comes to mind), arie di bravura miss some heroic quality, and Mr. Orliński sometimes tries to compensate with some under the note effects and and emphatic manner that accordingly requires a crispier Italian. Predictably, the opera’s big “hit”, Stile amare, was sung sensitively and touchingly. 

He was ideally partnered by Mélissa Petit as Seleuce (the Cuzzoni part). This French soprano sings with irresistible creaminess of tone, technical abandon and musicianship, offering exquisite floated mezza voce, perfect trills, clear runs and above all an evident love for the music. Brava. Mezzo Giuseppina Bridelli took the Faustina part (Elisa), in which she displayed enviable flexibility, what made possible for the conductor to go for some fast tempi in richly florid arias. The tone itself is not immediately charming and her diction could be just a bit clearer, what would highlight even more the delivery of her native language. 

The part of Alessandro is a bit low in range and mostly in the difficult part of a countertenor’s voice. In both 1730 and 1733 revivals, the part was cast with the contralto Francesca Bertolli. Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian coped commendably and projected well, but he has a funny habit of sliding into notes. 

In the role of Araspe, Andrea Mastroni sang with a booming, dark voice, sometimes close to woolly, tackling divisions accurately. He and Ms. Bridelli showed praiseworthy understanding of the half-serious nature of their parts. 

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Handel operas have never been more popular than these days, and yet they are often performed in not truly “popular” circumstances, but rather in festivals or independent productions and concert performances for audiences keen on baroque music, eager to hear specialized singers, orchestras and conductors. In other words, it is a niche. Yet opera houses are always ready to show different titles and may face with Handel a special challenge. On one side, there is the expectation of the baroque music enthusiast, who is used to hear these works in ideal circumstances, including halls in the same scale of the venues of the original performances (and singers and orchestras adapted to modest-sized auditoriums). On the other hand, the general audiences hoping to see their favorite stars in every title of the repertoire in glamorous productions in big theatres. At first, one may think that there is a right answer here – but there is not. Handel saw his operas with stellar casts in high-profile events and expected them to reach an audience as large as possible. It was not a private-society affair for connoisseurs. 

There is not a success formula either. Sometimes – as in Munich – the house orchestra responds to the stylistic demands with satisfaction. Sometimes having a period-performance group in the pit – as in Berlin – works famously. Sometimes not – as in the last production of Giulio Cesare in Amsterdam (about which I preferred not to write). In Paris, the challenge is a bit tougher – the Opéra is a touristic attraction and there is a great deal of first-timers who would probably prefer to see Carmen or La Bohème. So far, it has been able to find a commendable compromise in a hall – the Palais Garnier – ok-ish in terms of acoustics considered the size of the theatre (big but not huge), period instrument orchestras mostly capable of dealing with the larger scale and casts that mix known quantities, specialists and some wild cards to make it a tad more adventurous. In any case, Robert Carsen’s Alcina with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Natalie Dessay plus Les Arts Florissants under William Christie was the house’s most glittering item in this collection. 

For their new production of Ariodante (a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera), here is again Robert Carsen, offering something grander than one normally sees in this repertoires: there are many set changes, all sceneries eye-catching on their exploration of something I had never realized before: in its Scottish setting, Ariodante is the single Handel opera set in Great Britain, where most of them were actually composed and premiered. There is a reason for that: opere serie characters were either mythological gods or royalty. And the last thing one would need those days was trouble with the reigning family. But we’re now in the age of paparazzi, and one could say that it is the royal family today the one who would rather avoid trouble with public opinion above all. This – and the Scottish setting – are the two main axes of Mr. Carsen’s staging. On one side, there are kilts, tartans, bagpipes galore. On the other hand, there are press conferences, photo ops, PR events and scandal as a driving force behind every turn of events. It all looks decadently aristocratic in very striking colors – and it all works very well in the context of a baroque libretto, probably better than the pseudo-psychology directors tend to force into those works.   

Conductor Harry Bicket at this point is something of a specialist in big-house Handel opera performances. He is not famous for being an exciting maestro, but here offered an apt solution for the hall and forces available. Forward movement seemed to be the concept behind his conducting this evening – although one couldn’t call it rushed or overfast, tempi tended to be on the brisk side, accents crisp and the playing of The English Concert alert and clear in articulation, with the occasional bumpy trumpets and enough volume in the string sections when necessary. Two very famous numbers curiously did not follow that standard: Ariodante’s Scherza Infida, played in a slow, highly expressive manners that seems to be in vogue these days, and Polinesso’s Dover, giustizia, amor, a bit polite in the well-behaved tempo. There were far let cuts than one would expect: the audience were served practically all arias in their intact ABA structure and the ballet music was used.

The first time most of us have seen Emily D’Angelo was the video from the 2017 Neue Stimmen competition in Berlin in which she sings the aria di bravura Dopo notte. And one can understand why she won second prize (some believe she deserved to win that competition full stop) – her ease with coloratura is admirable. It’s a very difficult role, probably Handel’s most difficult primo uomo role, written for the castrato Carestini, whose flexibility and high notes (he started as a soprano) are legendary. I can’t say if Ms. D’Angelo was in her best voice, though, for she took a long time to warm. Sometimes she gives me the impression of overcomplicating her vocal production by making the tone darker than it naturally is and, at times, she lacked projection. Her delivery of the text could have also done with a bit more crispness, and the color palette was not truly wide (what made the slower Scherza, infida seem again not the wisest choice here). All that said, she handled the fioriture truly excitingly, looked very “handsome” in the title role and moved with elegance and the right patricianly attitude. 

One generally expects a certain bell-toned quality in sopranos in baroque music, yet both Olga Kulchynska as Ginevra and Tamara Banjesevic as Dalinda offered both here a round-toned, soft-centered lyric soprano voice one usually finds in Romantic music. Ms. Kulchynska is very musicianly, handled the coloratura adeptly and phrased with affection. Ms. Banjesevic’s high register has more presence, she acts well but her coloratura can be what the French call savonnée. If Eric Ferring’s high register is a tad opaque, his performances is still way above the competition in this repertoire in terms of firmness and assurance. The part of Lucanio is rather ingrate, it is low in tessitura and often sits in uncongenial areas of the tenor voice, and Mr. Ferring showed himself consistently in charge. I have seen Matthew Brooke in the part of the King of Scotland some years ago in Braunschweig, and my impression is unchanged: the role is a bit low for his voice, but he sings it well nonetheless.

I leave the best for last: as much as in Salzburg, Christophe Dumaux is an exemplary Polinesso, now even more solid in his middle and low registers without any loss in flexibility. It may sound funny when I write that he was also the singer who projected more naturally – and efficiently – in the hall this evening. Bravo.

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A friend who worked his whole life as a translator, dramaturg and coach used to say “never highlight the obvious”. Catalan director Calixto Bieito has built his reputation of enfant terrible by showing even the cutest items in the operatic repertoire at their most lurid. Yet Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the District of Mtsensk is intentionally and explicitly lurid, and I wonder what gain in insight there is in showing white at its whitest and black at its blackest. As it was, this 2014 production originally created in Antwerp with the same soprano and tenor seen this evening seemed so uniformly, predictably and unvariedly naturalistic that after a while it felt like watching three hours of Animal Planet. This does not mean it was poorly directed – everyone on stage was entirely immersed in the concept and responsive to each other. That said, only the leading lady made the audience curious about her character’s motivations. 

Rebecca Ringst’s single set – an industrial plant with a container unit downstage serving as an all-white sitting room with a bar area (plus another unit on top supposed to be Boris Izmailov’s bedroom) – proved insufficient for the practical demands of almost every scene (especially the wedding), and its disassembling for the purpose of the last act took ages to be completed. This seemed more evident in a staging that has no interval between scenes or acts (except for the intermission), what made the action a little confuse; someone seeing the opera for the first time could wonder how Katerina could kill her husband, dispose of the corpse and be allowed to wed another man “in the same day” etc etc 

The musical side of the performance inhabited an entirely different universe. Even if I have rarely heard the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande play with such animation, it was still quite tame in absolute terms. The brass section must be praised for its alert and almost glitch-free playing, but the balance with strings was unequal (yes, it’s a challenging score, but I have the impression that a good old Russian orchestra’s string section would be up to it) and there was very little wildness going on in terms of accent, tempo and volume, especially when singers were involved. Sometimes it felt like they were being “accompanied”, bel canto-style, without the part of the beautiful singing. 

Ausrine Stundyte is such a compelling actress that one cannot just look away when she is on stage. This is the second time I see her in the role, and it was fascinating to see how she adapted to the new (actually “back to the old”) staging. However, hers is not my kind of voice – and I can’t say she sang better this time, intonation particularly wayward.   

The fact that Dmitry Ulyanov (Boris) looked almost the same age of Ladislav Elgr (Sergey) and younger than John Daszak (Zinovy, i.e. his son) made the action as a whole a bit nonsensical. Maybe because the director wanted to show the character as hands-on sadistic and loving it, this made him look the most energetic and testosterone-highest man on stage. Also, there was no attempt from the make-up team to make him look older. Mr. Ulyanov sang the role as powerfully as always, but was a bit short in the lower end of his range this evening. Mr. Elgr sings the part of Sergey with a bright and slightly edgy sound and no fear of high tessitura. It is difficult to tell if the directorial choice of showing him as 100% evil brought about the distortion of basic tonal quality and the amount of acting with the voice he employed today. This is no different with many tenors in this part, while my opinion is that it gains a lot from being sung with a constant full tone “Italian style” to evoke the character’s personal attractiveness and narcissism. Mr. Daszak has the right voice for the part of Katerina’s husband, his tenor projecting efficiently in the auditorium. 

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Even during Richard Wagner’s lifetime, his attitude towards Italy – and Italy’s attitude towards his music – was ambivalent. And somehow it still is. The usual opinion about performances of Wagner’s music in Italy is that Italian orchestras are not up to it. I could mention Riccardo Muti’s Walküre from La Scala as an evidence that this is not always true, yet someone will always call it the proverbial exception that confirms the rule. Yes, for the obvious reasons, German orchestras have specialized in the repertoire in a way that makes them incomparable. That said, one can still hear Wagner this side of the Alps in keeping with the acceptable standards of effectiveness. I remember having seen solid performances of Tristan and Tannhäuser in Rome, for example. 

Although I have often praised an orchestra for an Italianate sound in the sense of clarity of articulation and transparency of their strings, I wouldn’t be able to describe the orchestra of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples this way in their playing of Wagner’s Die Walküre this evening. In the rare occasions it showed its full power, the sound was rather band-like, the strings wiry and unclear in phrasing, the brass section erratic. In this context, it is difficult to say something of Dan Ettinger’s conducting, since he was basically busy in his traffic cop duties. One could see he was once  assistant to Daniel Barenboim by the way he hissed all night, mostly in vain, as a way of getting the extra mile from his musicians. As it was, he was mostly busy trying to keep everybody in synch and helping the cast in difficult spots. The performance moved forward rather stodgily with so many blank spaces between episodes (and sometimes even phrases) that it felt as if someone has forgotten to press the “gapless playing” button. I mean, until exposed high-lying passages for singers. Than things could suddenly gain momentum. Curiously, in the very end of the performance, something seems to have fallen into place, and the passage starting in Der Augen leuchtendes Paar benefited from something close to an orchestral sound that created an emotional atmosphere.And the singers most definitely had something to do with that. 

I have always admired Okka von der Damerau’s singing in Wagner mezzo soprano roles, and couldn’t help being curious about her incursion in sopranoland in the role of Brünnhilde. Even when a mezzo has very easy high notes, you can always tell that they’re beyond their natural Fach by the way their voices behave, especially above the passaggio observed in the mezzo range. The most fascinating trait of Ms. von der Damerau’s singing this afternoon involved the fact that almost everything in her voice screamed “soprano”, even her low notes. The tonal quality was rich yet bright, her extreme high notes did show some tension but the sound was connected, consistent in tone and – most of all – blossomed and flashed just like you would expect from a dramatic soprano. What one could notice is that she is cautious with her ability of supporting long high notes. For instance, she didn’t force her tone in her ho-jo-to-hos, but she produced an unwritten breath pause in the middle of the long high note in the end. She would shorten a couple of high notes throughout the second act, and one could feel she was saving for act 3. All that said, the naturalness, the feminine tonal quality, the clarity of diction, the tasteful phrasing made me think of Régine Crespin. And I’m unable to resist even to a tiny splash of anything à la Crespin. Of course, even if the legendary French soprano was often tested in the end of her range, she was trained as a soprano and could be excitingly naughty with her high b’s and c’s. I mean, she didn’t feel she had to be careful or cautious at all. Also, she mastered the ability of floating mezza voce and could get away with some tricky passages with it. I can’t say if Ms. von der Damerau may someday develop in a way that makes her really apt to steadily tackle dramatic soprano roles. There are too many variables there, but the potential seems to be there. In any case, I am glad that I was able to hear her as the Walküre Brünnhilde. What she offered this evening was often beautiful and distinctive.

The idea of Christopher Maltman in Heldenbariton roles sounded odd at first, but his Amfortas in Geneva convinced me that the voice is big enough and he has the stamina for it. In the role of Wotan, he sounded more baritone than bass, a bit à la Thomas Stewart, what made for a curious déjà entendu effect in act 3 with Ms. von der Dammerau. He sang with great clarity too and offered beautiful dynamic effects by the end of the opera. Even those used to more voluminous and darker voices would consider the untiring poise with which he sang the role refreshing, an approach that highlighted the human quality in a god not at his godliest moment.

I had seen Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund once in his role debut in New York. Then his voice was smoother and less dark, and his attitude less self-indulgent and more engaged too. He didn’t seem to be in his best voice this evening. Some of his singing around the passaggio was a bit opaque, and yet he mustered his forces for some ringing big notes in every key moment. Other than this, although he sings with unusual sense of line (and with astonishing long breath), I can’t say I found much affection or ardor in his singing this time. 

With a conductor who gave her all the time of the world to breathe, Vida Mikneviciute offered a more consistent performance than she did in Berlin. This is probably her best role, the lower tessitura flatters her voice, and again her stamina is admirable (especially in her final contribution in act 3). 

I had known Varduhi Abrahamyan from her performances of contralto roles in Handel operas and was not aware that she sang roles like Fricka. Wagner brings a slight harshness in her upper register and she has to work a bit hard to compensate a voice not naturally voluminous. If she phrases with an Italianate cantabile, avoiding a chopped line, she lacks some crispness in her delivery of the text.  I had not heard John Relyea in a long while, yet I have found him better than ever in a dark- toned and forceful Hunding. This was a curious team of valkyries, not particularly penetrating in sound. If you find that the effect of eight Wagnerian female voices at the same time too deafening, then maybe this was your horn of mead. 

Federico Tezzi’s 2005 production is a rather puzzling affair. The stylized sets – a metallic cubic structure paired with props ranging from large rocks to IKEA furniture -look like variations on shopping mall concourses and the costumes are stylistically nonsensical and unbecoming (Wotan’s is so ill-assembled that makes him look ridiculous) in a way that makes us forget that Italy is famous for its fashion industry. Yet all this is secondary to an extremely odd Personenregie – Sieglinde strikes stock gesture like an 18th century prima donna, Siegmund paces leisurely to and fro and Fricka goes for soap-opera-ish bitchy facial expressions, while Wotan and Brünnhilde basically stand and delivery. It was doubly surprising that, by the end of the opera of the opera, Mr. Maltman and Ms. von der Dammerau could find a personal note in spite of all this and add some palpable feelings to the proceedings. 

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Although the cantata BWV 134, “Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiss” (A heart that knows its Jesus lives), was intended for Easter Tuesday in 1724, it actually is adaptation of a previous secular cantata composed in Köthen in honour of the house of Anhalt-Köthen (“Die Zeit, der Tag und Jahre macht). Bach did some cosmetic changes (the 134a, to start with, is longer than the later church setting), and yet the work is unusually short in the rhetorical “special effects” Bach liked to employ to communicate in music terms the content (or the feeling behind) the text and the gospel reading of the day. This does not mean at all that it is “inferior” in any way. On the contrary, this is Bach at his most charming, contagious dance rhythms, irresistible melodies and balletic coloratura galore, as one would expect in a festive courtly event.

The million dollar question – what does all that have to Easter? – can be answered by: Easter _is_ a festive event and, as much as the guests in Kôthen, the congregation has a lot to be thankful to the one who made it all possible (in the context of our church cantata, Jesus). Therefore, we have no chorales, no lessons to be learned, this is a feel-good cantata in which we celebrate the blessings and show gratitude.

In the secular cantata, the tenor had the allegorical role of “Time”, while alto is “Divine Providence”, and maybe this is why the alto voice remains more serenely confident in the church cantata too. In any case, the two arias (one of them, a duet) and the final chorus with both soloists, is all about exuberant joy.

Is it possible to create a religious sentiment in a cantata the atmosphere of which is so evidently non religious?, that’s the big question behind every performance of the BWV 134. In his studio recording , Masaaki Suzuki finds the best solution in a account of this score that can only be described as chic: the rhythms are clear and forward-moving but not rushed, the orchestral sound is smooth and the phrasing is sustained, there are two brilliant soloists in Robin Blaze and Makoto Sakurada, who sing with bel canto-ish poise. If you compare this to Mr. Suzuki’s recording of the secular version, the BWV 134a, you’ll see exactly what he wanted to do: to avoid the impression of entertainment of the new year celebration in Köthen, which he depicts with marked dance rhythm and a lighter and harsher string section. When one turns to John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording of the sacred cantata, one feels that the athletic approach makes it even more remote to the Easter celebration. One can’t help thinking that Suzuki’s impression of the church lovingly battling for the Christian soul is apter in the adaptation of a text that only in its original form wanted to suggest the agitation of dispute. 

As it is, Rudolf Lutz stands rather in the middle ground in his performance this afternoon. The concept is definitely closer to Gardiner’s in the fast tempi, astringent string section and hearty accents. What added a layer of sophistication to this account written in bold letters was Daniel Johannson’s cultivated singing of the tenor solos, every nuance in the recitatives carefully colored and inflected. Although his is not the most dulcet tonal quality, he delivered the coloratura with poise and handled the difficult vowels around the passaggio adeptly. Terry Wey’s pellucid countertenor did not blend very well with Mr. Johannson’s very bright sound, yet he phrases with dexterity too. As always, the chorus sang with exemplary clarity. 

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Although Regula Mühlemann has sung a bit of everything (and her repertoire is taking some surprising directions), Mozart has been central in her activity as a singer. She has recorded together with conductor Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli two CDs of Mozart arias, has sung Mozart’s music (both sacred music and opera) here and there and back she is in a selection of Mozart arias with the Kammerorchester Basel and Benedetti Michelangeli. I know these CDs well, and one can see how her voice has developed since then. I myself first heard her live not long in Mozart’s Mass K. 427, and found her then a bit wanting in projection and tonal variety, if dexterous in fioriture and stylish. My impression of hearing her Susanna in Berlin was not essentially different, but since her recital of Swiss songs, I noticed a new fulness in her voice that I could confirm in her singing as Gilda (in Verdi’s Rigoletto) in Basel. This evening, comparing her with her former self, I can’t help preferring her present performances, in which one notices a richer medium and a rounder top register without any loss in flexibility and spontaneity. Basically, one feels she is singing with the capital and not only with the interests (was it Karajan who said that to Mirella Freni when he invited her to sing Madama Butterfly?) and that’s a good thing in every sense. Ms. Mühlemann not only has admirable control of her voice; she is also a musicianly singer with a spontaneous sense of style, great attentiveness to the text (and pronunciation) and a congenital personality.

Her first item in the program was Susanna’s “garden” aria, which she sang with velvety tone and none of the pecking and piping she occasionally indulged in in Berlin. In L’amerò (from Il Rè Pastore), her high register soared with no constriction, hesitation or impediment to legato. She dialogued with the konzertmeiser Daniel Bard in true chamber music spirit, offered perfect trills and lovely tonal quality through and through. She has excellent Italian and really meant the words in the text, as I have rarely heard in this aria.

I thought there must have been a misprint when I saw Konstanze’s Martern aller Arten as the last item before the interval. This is a role usually cast with what today we call “soprano drammatico d’agilità”, and, yes, the role has an almost impossible range, the orchestra can be “heavy” (as in… Martern aller Arten) and one expects a sound with color and presence. Yet the first Konstanze – Austrian soprano Caterina Cavalieri – was once described as possessing a soprano “small yet pleasant”. As much as it is exciting to hear an imposing voice in it, how often can we say that all runs are precisely delivered, that the intonation is faultless and the style is impeccable? When Arleen Augér recorded the part for Karl Böhm in studio, some reviewers snobbed her as “too light”. Nevertheless, her rendition of both Ach, ich liebte and Martern aller Arten are often mentioned when one wants to speak of accuracy and poise. I don’t mean that Ms. Mühlemann should be singing Konstanze or not, but hearing her tackle this fearsome aria with astonishing precision was refreshing and quite exciting. She is a shrewd vocalist and knows when she has to keep it light and when she can put a little bit more weight – and her use of the German language with expert word-pointing and stressing of the right syllable at the right moment made it unusually vivid. And – although she had a “pheew!”-expression on her face in the end, it was rather in the sense “boy, that was fun!” rather than “please call 911” (as often).

After the intermission, she offered a rhythmically accurate, absolutely poised account of Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl’s. If one might point out that he or she has heard it before with a little bit more legato at points, this was a small price to pay for the verbal crispness and idiomatic delivery of the text. Zaide’s Ruhe sanft sounded exquisite in the ideal combination of instrumental clarity and a lyric and unforced quality of her high register. And again she proved to know how to establish a dialogue with the solo instruments in the orchestra. The last item in the program was one of my favorite concert arias – Schon lacht der holde Frühling, and Ms. Mühlemann’s recording is probably my favourite because of the almost pianistic clarity of articulation in the coloratura. If live she takes two extra breath pauses, the extra creaminess in her high notes makes it irrelevant. There were two encores – a charming Un moto di gioia (from Le Nozze di Figaro) and – to keep with the spring season – J. Strauss’s Frühlingsstimmen waltz, again sung with spirit and technical finesse.

Mr. Benedetti Michelangeli is an ideal Mozart conductor. I would love to hear him in a complete Mozart opera. His understanding of balance, rhythm, clarity and musical depiction of dramatic situations is just a lesson to every conductor in this repertoire. And Kammerorchester Basel – as in their Così fan Tutte with Giovanni Antonini – is an orchestra with Mozart in its DNA. Yet the program was not entirely about Classical style, there was a splash of “neoclassical” (if one might say so) in Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques, the Pavanne and the Tombeau de Couperin, all of them performed from a Mozartian point of view, i.e., prominent woodwind, a steady tempo and a balletic elegance.

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There is something fascinating about operas that were popular with the audience for a while only to sink into the status of rarity afterwards. Although Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette has never disappeared from the repertoire, it is usually staged on demand of French sopranos and tenors, especially in the performance does not take place in France. I remember the first time I heard it, a group of friends only bought the DVD because they liked Roberto Alagna. In the end, everybody was surprised by how beautiful the music actually is. And that is the most curious part of it – everybody is always surprised by how beautiful Gounod’s music is. Considering his historical importance and the success of his works during his lifetime and maybe some 60 years after that, everybody assumes that they are uninteresting. Yes, there is something of exquisite entertainment for the bourgeoisie in their sentimental approach to some key works in literature, but if we have in mind the prevailing lack of sensitiveness in social interactions these days, some sentimentality is not entirely unwelcome. I would dare to say R&J is probably my favorite among Gounod’s works – and I try not to miss an opportunity of watching it. That said, I have seen it only three times. Ages ago, in my first visit to the Bayerische Staatsoper, with Angela Maria Blasi and Marcelo Álvarez, and twice at the Met with Natalie Dessay (and Maureen O’Flynn who replaced her in the première of Guy Joostens’ production) and Ramón Vargas.

The Opernhaus Zürich’s new production had an immediate appeal, therefore, in featuring two favorite French singers in the title roles: Julie Fuchs and Benjamin Bernheim. We’ll speak of Mr. Bernheim first, who offered an immaculate performance as Roméo. His lyric tenor is firm, spontaneous, uncomplicated and he has an admirable ability of flashing some big high notes with an ideal blend of bright and dark, as the many high b flat in his honeyed account of Ah, lève-toi, soleil! His voice was in such healthy shape that he even ventured the unwritten high c in the act 3 finale. However, his singing offered far more than health. His diction is crystal-clear, he phrases with poise, shades his tone at will and exudes joie de chant. He also acted confidently and with charm. Ms. Fuchs too offered charm in buckets, handled the coloratura in Je veux vivre with aplomb and trilled to the manner born. She is a singer who really wowed me as Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory in the Salle Favart, and that is why I was a bit surprised by a colorless high register when I saw her as Bellini’s Giulietta at the Opéra. This evening, the basic tone sounded less round than before, there was some instability in high notes, sometimes in a way that tampered with intonation. I hope that this is just a phase.

Omer Kobilijak is the Opernhaus Zürich’s official Tybalt – that was his role in the house’s last production of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. I would say that French style flatters his voice better – he offered a strong performance, firm-toned and clear in diction too. The role of Gertrude is rather small, but Katia Ledoux’s velvety mezzo didn’t fail to catch my attention in it. She also acted with great dignity. Svetlina Stoyanova dealt with Stéphano’s tricky chanson with panache and a fruity high mezzo.Yuriy Hadzetskyy sang the part of Mercutio with ideal lightness and spontaneity. And Jungrae Noah Kim (Gregorio) is a name to keep in mind.

Gounod is not a composer whose works are considered to be up to the A-team of conductors, and if I cannot say that something went wrong this evening, the orchestral sound lacked some crispness, ensemble (especially with chorus) missed the last degree of precision and some pages would have done with a little bit more flexibility. I must observe that the chorus’s pronunciation of the second language of Switzerland could be a tad clearer too.

Ted Huffman’s new production is the dictionary example of minimalism. The sets are grey, there are only chairs on stage, the back wall moves downstage at every scene. Everybody is in formal attire, men in white tuxedo, props are reduced to the minimum. If you didn’t know the story, it would be difficult to understand when we are inside, outside, in a palace or in a church, but, well, everybody knows the story and that wasn’t a problem at all. As the concept was entirely unpretentious and unobtrusive, the Personenregie was thorough and efficient (even the fight scene looked credible), one can call this a success. And it certainly did not cost a lot of money.

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When it rains, it pours. Last time I wrote about Lakmé (six months ago), I was saying that I had seen the opera only once before in concert in New York. Laurent Pelly’s production for the Opéra Comique remains therefore the only staging I have ever seen, since this evening in Zurich it was again presented in concert version, with some acting from the singers just to make it seem like a story was being told. While in Paris, in the theatre where it was created (the Opéra Comique), there was an urge to contextualize, reinvent, resignify, you call it, this is a work rarely staged outside France and the audience in Zurich seemed basically just curious to know what’s there beyond the flower duet. And that’s a good question.

This is a score rich in catchy melodies and colorful orchestration, and I am afraid I preferred conductor Alexander Joel’s unashamedly Romantic approach than Raphaël Pichon’s scientific dissection in the Salle Favart. As we had an orchestra on stage, singers’s voices were always cushioned with the sounds from the string section and dialogued with woodwind, almost as you would expect to hear in, say, Der Rosenkavalier. Mr. Joel made too a very bold choice in not rushing the most tender/ethereal moments of the score. Most conductor would feel like they would not sustain the “Mahlerian” tempo, but – to my own surprise – they do, but you need the right cast for it.

The leading Lakmé is Sabine Devieilhe, who took it over from Natalie Dessay a while ago. As much as in Paris, one can feel that her voice is no longer 100% free with in alts as it used to be, but no worries here. She still holds her own most commendably above high c. What makes her special, however, is the utterly musicianly, highly sensitive and technically immaculate singing – and the slightly more lyric quality one hears in her voice now is definitely an asset. Even if the Bell Song got her huge applause, I am convinced that the audience’s appreciation went beyond glittering coloratura and involved the way she sculpted her phrases in the grand manner, with evident love for the music and the text. In Edgardo Rocha she got a more convincing Gerald than she had in Paris. If Mr. Rocha was not at his most refulgent (and was sometimes too dependant of the score), he has the voice for the role and tackles the excruciatingly high tessitura without looking back. He took a while to warm, but in the final scenes ideally partnered Ms. Devieilhe, even when this involved high mezza voce. Philippe Sly’s baritone may be too smooth for Nikalantha, and yet he sang forcefully and authoritatively. A great team of members of the ensemble was chosen for the small parts – Sienna Licht Miller offered truly lovely singing in the flower duet as Malika, Björn Burger was a characterful and warm-toned Frederic, Sandra Hamaoui, Bozena Bujnicka and Irène Friedli formed a strong trio of English ladies and Savely Andreev sang Hadji’s solo with sense of style and appealing tonal quality.

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