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The Lyric Opera is seen as one of the leading opera companies in the United States, but Chiagoans are keen on explaining that it is a more modest affair than the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is indeed a newer company (it was founded in 1954) and does not have the rich Wagnerian tradition of the Met. Nonetheless, since 1971, it has offered its audience at least incomplete  Rings every decade*. Differently from the Met, their new Ring is not meant to be spectacular nor extravagantly expensive. Director David Pountney explains that, in opera, music and theatre narrate tell their own story each. As Wagner’s music is an overwhelming affair, he believes that an overcomplex staging would make things ultimately confuse. Thus, he leaves all the tricks to the orchestra and singers – his staging does not try to illude the audience. On the contrary: its truth is its tricks. The curtains open to what seems to be the backstage of a production, its structures very reminiscent of the stage in Bayreuth. The norns are very much the director here, presiding over stagehands who bring the Rhinemaidens in trolleys similar to those used by Wagner himself. Later, Fricka, Wotan and Freia would be brought in floats decorated with attributes, the giants being a complex structure with huge head and hands in which the singers would just stand while stagehands would operate it. In terms of symbology, Pountney seems to have left all the thinking to Patrice Chéreau: the gods are represented in Ancien Régime costumes (the director says “Habsburg style”), Alberich is the nouveau riche in flashy gold and the stagehands double as the sans culottes regular people. There are some new ideas: Freia falls in love with Fasolt and resents the way the gods treated them (an interesting idea, for she sings lots of “help!” in the first part of the opera, but later she is curiously silent). It is too early in the tetralogy to say much, but one can see that a compromise has been made to try something different to an audience that is really not into Régietheater. The program says that different concepts will be used for each opera: Walküre will be Ibsen-ian, Siegfried is to explore a child’s perspective and Götterdämmerung turns around grand opéra. Let’s wait and see.

The company’s music director, Andrew Davis, is hardly a reference in Wagnerian conductor, but rather someone snobbed as “kapellmeisterlich”. There is some truth in this – I use the word for a conductor who is reliable but never illuminating. That would describe my impressions of this evening. The orchestral playing had exemplary balance and clarity and Sir Andrew was commendably structurally conscious, especially in what regarded highlighting Leitmotive. However, Wagner does not make it easy for the conductor: many and many pages in the Ring do not “move by themselves “: sometimes there are no propelling bass figures and too much depend on singers’ rhythmic accuracy. Some conductors (like Karl Böhm) would keep everybody under a tight leash (especially his singers) and make it move at any costs; others would flood the hall in glorious sounds and infuse every moment with depth as if it couldn’t be otherwise, à la Furtwängler. Maestro Davis has done neither, and there were passages when one note did not seem to be the inevitable consequence of the previous one.

The raison d’être of this Rheingold was Eric Owens’s Wotan. After his exciting take on Alberich on the Met, one could only imagine what he would do with the “light side of the force”. So far, it is still work-in-progress. Vocally speaking, he is the rare kind of Wotan who has no problems with either low or high notes. And this is already something.  He seems to take James Morris (the Lyric Opera’s last Wotan) as a model in his kennness on legato and vocal coloring. However, his voice sounded a bit grainier than last time (when I heard him as Orest in New York). But the real problem is that he does not seem to have found the Wotan in himself. It is hard to tell his opinion about the role and he would often stand or move on stage with little authority and sinking in the background to the performance of his Loge. This is the third time I see Stefan Margita in this role – and he seems to become even better in it. While some singers seemed to find some trouble with the hall, this tenor projected with absolute clarity and effortlessness, delivering his lines with absolute dramatic conviction. Samuel Youn cannot be accused of not trying as Alberich – his performance was an example of dramatic commitment in a role not really meant for one’s voice and personality. As one could see in his Holländer in Bayreuth, he is hardly a force of nature and having to portray Alberich’s raw intensity really took him out of his comfort zone. Praiseworthy as this was, one could not help noticing that this was rather discipline than nature. The part was also on the heavy side for his voice – he would often sound open-toned and under true pitch and a bit shy of sustaining high notes. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was an elegant, fruity-toned Fricka, and Okka van der Damerau was predictably terrific as Erda, flashing high and low notes in the auditorium in the grand manner. Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a vehement Fasolt, well contrasted to the admirably deep-toned Tobias Kehrer.

 

* I could not easily find this information (the Lyric Opera’s website does not offer a search in their archives), but it seems that there was no Ring in the 1980’s. [Update: a friend informs me that the Lyric’s first complete Ring was staged in the 1990’s]

Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, once favored by both singers and the audience, is now rather a rarity. I, myself, had never seen it staged before today. Although its rightly famous arias are foolprof with the public, the truth is that the score has more than a hint of a patchwork, many pages of which giving the impression of being stop gaps between the big-tune moments. Also, the plot lacks organicity and its very historically precise setting giving very little opportunity for a director to try to make something out of it. Nonetheless, it can be a pleasant evening in the opera – the historical aspects are interesting, the big arias are really something to write home about and the leading roles are raw material for singers with musical and dramatic imagination. If you left the theatre this evening feeling shortchanged, you cannot blame it on San Francisco Opera: every effort has been made to guarantee that Giordano received premium treatment. Even if – some might say – he probably did not make his best efforts to deserve it…

In an age in which the likes of Renata Tebaldi or Mario del Monaco are not easy to found, this run of performances offered – once idealness is not really possible – interesting voices that still drawed some interest when things did not really work as expected. Anna Pirozzi’s soprano, for instance, is something hard to resist – it is natural in tone, warm in color, homogeneous through its registers and completely ductile in floating mezza voce. She also has crystal-clear diction and has an almost Cerquetti-ian spontaneity in her phrasing that makes you think she was born singing this music. In other words, in three minutes, I’ve decided that I liked her full stop. Then I realized that shifting from lirico to lirico spinto required some preparation and that then her tone, even if still firm and hearable, acquired some tension and lost some bloom. And then there is La mamma morta. She did sing it with purity of tone, clarity of enunciation and flowing legato – but the thrill, that moment of spiritual liberation when she realizes that it was love the reason for living… Then one could feel that the singer was busy with her notes. There was more than a moment when I imagined the pleasure of listening that voice in Dove sono i bei momenti (yes, from Le Nozze di Figaro) and I could not help worrying about the Abigailles and Aidas in her repertoire. But again: even at that moment, I still like her.

Yonghoon Lee is an even more intriguing voice. His muscular, dark-toned and curiously taut but not edgy tenor – not Italianate in sound – made me think of some other voice, but it took me 20 minutes to produce the name of James King. But then the idea seemed absurd – James King’s high notes were different (and the repertoire too) – and yet there was this splash of James King in it, even in the way he released the sound with something like a gulp. Mr. Lee’s high notes, however, are almost unique in its absence of brightness – the sound lacks projection and, without the usual high overtones in a tenor high register, are produced with extreme physical effort. As he is not short in stamina, the method worked almost to the end of the opera. In the last act, he was visibly tired: notes were abruptly ended for many extra breath pauses. Before that, he seemed keen on legato (sometimes at the expense of textual clarity) and of shading without ever coming close to falsetto. He is an extremely serious man – and I cannot see him, with that voice and attitude, in lighter roles. On the other hand, the absence of squillo in his high notes would make it difficult to tackle really heroic roles. Also, his stand-and-deliver stage attitude is not to everybody’s taste. For Andrea Chénier, however, all that – fervor included –  worked out somehow.

George Gagnidze is no new name for me, and yet he sounded invested with a dramatic commitment this evening new to me. From his first entrance, he sang passionately and acted with unusual awareness to the theatrical action, culminating in an intense Nemico della patria?. He too could have done with a little bit more volume, but could be heard without problem.

The issue of volume – a problem for every singer in the cast – has special relevance since Maestro Nicola Luisotti did not spare his orchestra. In a score with many uninspired moment, he took the right decision of filling the blanks with sheer sound, for positive effects. Whenever he reined in his musicians – invariably to help out his singers in their arias and duets – one missed a bit the orchestral opulence a more dramatic-voiced cast could have allowed him to employ more often.

Confronted with the practical problems of staging a historical drama, director David McVicar chose a highly decorative approach: costumes and sets were exquisite and historically informed and sometimes one had the impression of watching a Merchant Ivory film. One can only imagine that the absence of stage animals in the cast may have been challenging, but an extra effort (especially regarding the leading tenor) would have paid off.

 

I have to be honest: I have listened to Plácido Domingo in a Verdi role for baritone (as Simon Boccanegra in Berlin) and did not leave the Staatsoper wishing for more: although he had the low notes, his voice – miraculously, truth be said, sounded just like in the days when he was billed as a tenor and I find this puzzling. Also, Verdi knew that the baritone voice acquires a certain edge in the highest reaches of its range and used it for dramatic purposes, a device largely lost in a tenor’s voice (even in a “senior” tenor’s voice), pretty much in his comfort zone in a high f or f#. But I am in LA and I like Verdi’s Macbeth. I cannot say if my negative disposition had the effect of low expectation on my judgment, but – to my surprise – I found the experience more convincing this time. First, it is amazing how firm and healthy his voice is at his age. This might seem a trivial comment, but, no, Macbeth is not an easy role, both musically and scenically, and Mr. Domingo was able to offer an all-round satisfying performance in it. First, after so many decades on stage, he knows where his strengths lie: his Macbeth is not driven by ambition, he is not driven at all. In his passiveness and spiritual exhaustion, he comes across rather as a depressed man given a last chance. Vocally, this is achieved by the very disadvantages that marred his Simon Boccanegra for me: the roundness and ease in the part’s high-lying passages stand for an impression of apathy; the lighter tonal quality made this Macbeth less authoritative than a Cappuccilli or a Bruson. In act IV, he did seem a little bit physically tired, and he did use that too to show the character’s sucididal drive: the only drive he had left. All that said, as much as I respect what this venerable singer has done here, this was a sucess “everything considered”: a real Verdi baritone would have provided all the thrill this performance desperately needed.

For a mezzo in a tricky soprano part, Ekaterina Semenchuk was surprisingly unfazed by what she had to do. It is true that  she needed slower tempi in florid passages, but she never seemed less than confident about what she had to do. Although her self-assurance came dangerously close to predictability, she had a card or two hidden under her sleeves: such as a high-strung repeat of her toast in act II or a Sleepwalking Scene painted on a broad tonal palette and crowned by stunning mezza voce effects. A singer as gifted and reliable as Ms. Semenchuk should be an asset in every ensemble. However,  she is hardly a crowd-puller as Shirley Verrett or Fiorenza Cossotto used to be in this repertoire. If I can guess the reason, I would bet on: a) her high notes, easy  as they are, do not truly blast in the auditorium as these formidable ladies used to do; b) she is not truly an electrifying actress, but rather bureaucratically strikes some grand poses now and then. Also, although her vowels are quite dark as one would expect in a Russian singer, she has relatively clear diction. Nonetheless, her delivery of the text can be a bit unspecific. Curiously, her reading of the letter in act I was really effective.

Roberto Tagliavini’s velvety tonal quality and seamless legato made for a noble and expressive Banquo. A beautiful performance. Arturo Chacón-Cruz took a while to warm, but was up to his big aria, even if his tenor is too often fluttery and also emphatic in his high notes.

This is my first visit to the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and I cannot say if the acoustics or the orchestra is to blame for the “dynamic range compression”-feeling I had during the whole afternoon. Whenever one expected the surge in volume in big concertati, I had the impression that intensity would not build up because the orchestral sound seemed basically recessed. Although this could be helpful to his cast, there were scenes that seemed a bit empty without a full orchestra to challenge these singers. Other than this, maestro James Conlon seemed fully in charge: tempi were flowing, accents were impetuous and he seemed keen on rounding all edges. He certainly listened to Riccardo Muti’s recording – and that is a good thing – but if I had to choose a word to say what was missing today this would be: edge. This is Macbeth, there is passion, murder, betrayal, ghosts, war on stage! I should add that the house chorus (in spite of lifeless Italian pronunciation, a serious drawback for the episodes with the witches), is very well balanced and smooth, the basses particularly impressive.

Darko Trenjak’s production is a bizarre affair: the single sets look as remains from the original Star Trek series, but the costumes are supposed to look “traditional”, although they are stylistically inconsistent. The witches are represented by a group of demons who look like extras from the Broadway version of The Lion King. They are supposed to be funny too, a dubious advantage in a performance of Macbeth. I could have put up with that if there had been some Personenregie to speak of. Also, the banquet in Act II was alarmingly ineffective, Banquo’s appearances lackadaisical and the lighting effects predictable and uncreative.

It has been a while since Dresden was in the forefront of the operatic world, in spite of its world-class orchestra and enviable acoustics. Christian Thielemann’s tenure in the Semperoper has already made some serious attempts of changing this, none as glamorous as this year’s Lohengrin, in which both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala made their Wagnerian debuts along some of the most celetrabted Wagnerian singers these days. The expression “golden age” is rarely used to performances after 1980 and one tends to believe that this is just what reviewers write when they are old and nostalgic of their own “golden” days, but the truth is: nothing like watching a cast of A-listers competing for the love of their audience. This is the kind of phenomenon in which the sum is always far greater than its parts, especially when a strong-handed conductor healthily keeps it under tight control.

For instance, Anna Netrebko is not just a great soprano, she is one of the leading starts of the world of opera. One would have imagined a crowd of fans to guarantee thunderous applause – and she surely received it, as much as every other singer on stage this afternoon. In any case, Netrebko’s Elsa is no vanity project. She clearly studied the part with utmost care and made sure that she was singing her own personality into it. When Victoria de los Angeles sang Elisabeth in Bayreuth, purists called it “sentimentalized”; I wonder what they would think of the Russian diva in these Wagnerian shores. Hers was certainly no conventional Elsa: her full, luscious middle and low registers alone made her different from almost anyone else in this role. This Elsa was everything but cold and bloodless. She carefully worked on her pronunciation, on her delivery of the text and on what one would call “German” style. Yet she caressed her lines and coloured her tone very much in bel canto style (and the discrete use of portamento would reinforce that impression), for truly interesting results. It is true that the first scene caught her a bit off her element (and also that she could be once or twice a bit more precise with intonation), but hers developed into a very solid performance, sung with rich and voluminous tone throughout (she was impressively hearable in ensembles), floated beautiful mezza voce and had this intriguingly sensuousness that showed entirely new sides of this role.

Evelyn Herlitzius’s squally singing is not for everyone’s taste, but even those who dislike it must concede that an Ortrud unchallenged by a loud orchestra is a refreshing experience. She did make efforts in terms of subtlety, but her voice does not suggest the chic of a Christa Ludwig or the seduction of a Waltraud Meier. It is rather Ortrud, the witch, and that is not necessarily a drawback. Moreover, she was in good voice, supplying hair-raising powerful acuti without flinching.

Piotr Beczala’s matinée-idol lyric tenor is ideal for the role of Lohengrin. If his top notes lack some power, they are well connected and in keeping with his ardorous phrasing and appealing tonal quality. The farewell to the swan both in act I and III were soft in tone and the long duet with Elsa passionate and sensitive. One must always remember that Mr. Beczala is no newcomer to German repertoire, having sung roles like Tamino and Belmonte. He was well contrasted to Tomasz Konieczny’s steely, powerful Telramund, very much in control of the difficult part, especially in act II, where most baritones are desperate with what they have to sing. Georg Zeppenfeld is an experienced King Heinrich, this evening a bit short of resonance in his high register, but still firm and true. Derek Welton’s Herald, however, had his woolly moments.

Christian Thielemann’s approach to this score is, not surprisingly, very objective, forward-moving, favoring a big yet clear orchestral sound, for truly impressive effects in the prelude to act III. His reaction to the notorious homogenity of tempo in this score is a marked flexibility with his beat, usually for the faster whenever a singer started an “aria” or to mark the changes of mood throughout the opera. The Furtwänglerian Wagnerian would find it lacking depth, and I remember being more moved by Barenboim in this opera, particularly in the opening bars and especially in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, but complaining of such high-level music-making would be totally unjustified. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

I have already written about Christine Mielitz’s 1983 production, but one must register that costumes and sets look fresher than last time and that the Spielleitung has added some efficient touches to the proceedings, notably a woman’s point-of-view of the oppression experienced both by Elsa and Ortrud as key players in a men’s game and how it seemed to produce some sort of connection between them.

Writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore is an exercise in restraint: there are so many irresistible clichés (the best four singers in the world, the libretto’s absurdity, the big-guitar orchestral writing…) one is advised to avoid, but how to avoid them in an opera that is the very model of all clichés about opera?

It is not true that you just need the four best singers in the world  to cast a Trovatore, but you do need some singers in very specific and unusual Fächer: a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a dramatic mezzo, a Verdi baritone and a sui generis style of tenor, not too dramatic yet not too lyric. Singers like that are not usually bound to an opera house; the result is that this is a title rarely cast from the ensemble. This is precisely why the Deutsche Oper’s habit of casting Verdi from their roster proves adventurous in a work like this. Soprano and tenor are usually reserved for guest singers, given the problem of finding Italianate voices this sound of the Alps. The opera in Bismarckstraße is Angela Meade’s European “home away from home”. Soon after the Met has decided to invest in her, the Deutsche Oper featured the American soprano in some very difficult Italian roles. Although I have seen her in the US as Semiramide and here as Lucrezia Contarini, I have never somehow pictured here as Leonora, a role entirely within her natural gifts and abilities. She has the big high notes, the strong low register, the floating pianissimi, most of the trills and the flexibility… and yet she is rarely convincing in it. Her voice is now often fluttery and somewhat “spongy” in tone; long noble phrases as in her opening aria lack the poise and legato that are the hallmark of every famous Leonora. Ms. Meade, however, is always persuasive when things get athletic. Then she negotiates runs, leaps, staccato, you name it with animation, precision and sheer energy. In those moments – when most sopranos are usually desperate – she sounds like an important singer. Elsewhere, her heart seems to be elsewhere.

A Trovatore without an Azucena is something close to fraud – this role is in the core of a performance of this opera and it is no wonder that singers who excel in it, such as Cossotto or Zajick in their days, tend to the ubiquitous. Dana Beth Miller is a member of the ensemble, a reliable singer out of her depth in a dramatic emplois. As the part requires some sort of bizarre, many singers take profit of that label to make some very strange sounds and get away with it. Ms. Miller is not fond of shortcuts and dealt seriously with all the difficulties written by Verdi, but she was operating on her limit. This often involved her sounding sharp, mostly colorless. She has the dramatic temper for this, and one felt inclined to like her, but this sort of kamikaze-mission is rarely healthy for the singer and the audience.

I confess I was not eager to see Carlo Ventre as Manrico and welcomed his replacement by Turkish tenor Murat Kaharan, although I had never heard about him before. It is not a beautiful voice, rather steely in sound and stentorian in volume. It is also refreshingly unproblematic in its high register. Although one cannot speak of nuance or elegance, his singing is not vulgar either, but rather matter-of-fact. His restrained delivery of Ah, sì, ben mio, beautiful trills included, surprised me. Its infamous cabaletta had only one verse and it was adjusted to fit the interpolated high notes. This is not an age for tenors truly able of singing this role; therefore, Mr. Kaharan is a name to keep. I have heard better in recordings, but not live, I am afraid.

Dalibor Jenis was a capable Count di Luna, not the most velvety in tone for his big aria, but rhythmically alert and dramatically engaged. Marko Mimica offered a skilled account of the role of Ferrando, keen on his divisions and tonally varied.

Roberto Rizzi Brignoli’s flexible and energetic approach to the score found in the house orchestra an ideal ensemble, rich in sound and light-on-its foot. These musicians really left nothing to be desired this evening. Actually, there is one moment that called my attention: the anvil chorus, when the anvils seemed out of synch.

Hans Neuenfels’s 1996 production is of the sometimes illuminating, sometimes irritating type. Sets and costumes are always beautiful and stylish, the show is visually compelling in its symbology that parts with the need of real acting from the cast. Some ideas are powerful – both Manrico and di Luna are shown in the same bullfighter costume, the audience can see Azucena set not only her son but her own mother on fire during Condotta era ell’era in ceppi and a closing scene when mother and son look entirely deprived of dignity as brutalized and traumatized prisoners. At the same time, Neuenfels loves silliness – choristers (as always) behaves as if they had some sort of mental disorder; in the cloister scene, Jesus (!) waltzes with a cardinal and there are bartenders during the soldiers’ chorus.

Only a few hours before the congregation was chanting over the chords of the organ in the first scene of act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a procession had taken place in the Theatinerstrasse nearby: there was chanting, there was the organ and there were banners for the festivities of corpus christi. As nowhere else, this opera feels at home in Munich – it was premiered in what is called today the Bavarian State Opera and its setting is indeed Bavarian. This new production also features the city’s (and the world’s) star tenor. It is any wonder that director David Bösch decided to bring the action to the present time? A foreign eye would have some trouble to recognise this as “present time”, but this is what it looks like in small-town Germany.   In the Bavarian State Opera’s new production, Die Meistersinger takes place in some sort of Schlagerparadies, some sort of reality show à la Bauer sucht Frau, in which the audience/inhabitants of a decadent village eagerly await the town’s yearly song festival with special excitement, for the sponsor has promised his daughter to this edition’s winner. The small town has its share of social problems. Beckmesser is assaulted not only by David in the end of act II; a gang of masked teenagers armed with baseball bats attack him and vandalize the dreary Plattenbau complex where these characters live. Here Walther is evidently someone from a big city, who disapproves Sachs’s final plead for nationalism. Disgusted, he just takes Eva’s arm and leaves: there is a whole world outside. Even if the concept is clever – and the audience immediately recognized its imagery – what made this performance special was its efficient comedy timing. I had never truly laughed in a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg until today. All members of the cast were fully integrated int its detailed Personenregie and felt easy and natural with that they had to do on stage, which was not always simple.

To make things better, my misgivings about Kirill Petrenko’s disastrous Ring in Bayreuth were immediately dispelled: this performance left nothing to be desired in terms of conducting. The Bavarian State Orchestra played richly, expressively and animatedly; the chorus coped with the heavy demand famously. Maestro Petrenko favored swift tempi, offered absolute clarity and placed the orchestra as this evening’s main soloist. Although the text is wordy and most scenes can seem declamatory, Wagner took the pains of keeping the melodic interest constantly on in his writing for the orchestra. Most conductors understans this and, on their intent of highlighting the orchestral “cantabile”  end on 0vershadowing singers and ultimately denying them lightness and textual variety. Not this evening, where the ideal balance was achieved: singers and orchestra blended in an organic theatrical and musical statement. Considering the overall sense of clarity and organization, the difficult ensemble in the end of act II was boldly paced in a rather fast beat, challenging to all musicians and surprisingly short in roughness.

I have always had bad luck with casting for this opera. Therefore, this happens to be the best group of singers I have seen in it, even if recordings show me that this could still be improved. No German soprano seems to be interested in the great German lyric roles these days, so here comes again Sara Jakubiak (Christian Thielemann’s Agathe in Dresden’s last Freischütz). As I said before, the Kiri Te Kanawa-like plushness is more than welcome and she survives the testing scene with Sachs in act III with poise (and trills commendably), but there are too many moments of tonal blandness and charmlessness to make it really unforgettable. Okka von der Damerau shows she can do lightness when necessary and offered a winning Magdalene.

The role of Walther ideally requires more clarity and smoothness than the now darker-voiced Jonas Kaufmann can provide. As a result, his performance seemed rather boorish and short in mellifluousness. Singing his own language, he was comfortable in deliverying his lines with spirit, but the interpretation was built rather in word-pointing than in tone-colouring. If he did produced his high notes strongly and firmly, the result was often more muscular than soaring. If there was a vocally exceptional moment this evening, this was the quintet, when his control of dynamics showed me new possibilities in this passage. His David, Benjamin Bruns – as always in this opera – projected more easily and naturally in the auditorium. His rounder tonal quality suggested rather a lyric tenor than a Charaktertenor, what is always pleasant in this part. Markus Eiche too was ideally cast as Beckmesser, in this production a more congenial yet tragic character than usual. He cleverly adopted a flowing, legato line as his character was actually “singing”  and dealt with the otherwise declamatory passages with crystalline diction. Wolfgang Koch has the required nobility of tone to the role of Hans Sachs and, as usual, handles the text with absolute naturalness and imagination. However, there are moments when the Alberich creeps in and makes the experience somewhat schyzophrenic. Christof Fischesser was rich in voice and spontaneous in attitude as Pogner. Among the Meistersinger, it was endearing to find the still splendidly fresh-toned Eike Wilm Schulte as Kothner and a powerfully dark-toned Peter Lobert as Hans Schwarz.

 

Only last week I saw the Royal Opera House’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor radically rethought by director Katie Mitchell and here I am in the Bavarian State Opera watching another woman’s take on Lucy Ashton’s tragedy. Polish director Barbara Wysocka, in her 2015 production, agrees with her English colleague in seeing no victim in the title role. As she points out, Lucia actually does nothing she is told to during the whole opera. When she agrees to marry Arturo, it is after she herself had considered that she had no future with Edgardo and, in that case, she could indeed make a sacrifice for her family. After all, it was her family too. In order to stress the imposition made of women in families involved in politics, Ms. Wysocka decided to update the plot to the 1960’s in the United States – the predicaments of the Kennedys offerring her inspiration. While I do find the dramaturgie valid and insightful, the staging itself is less accomplished than its concept. Lucia is first shown as some sort of silly goose, while Enrico is a telenovela-style bad guy. When we finall reach the Mad Scene, their developments seem a bit awkward. Actually, I did not like the scene at first – Lucy in a glittery party gown, a pistol and a microphone (it could have been inspired in Marilyn Monroe’s singing of happy birthday to you, when the blond bombshell was living her own mad scene, but that was not the case). But then I realized that this Lucy’s traumatic event was realizing that she was, after all, the victim. What she was acting out was, in fact, being IN CONTROL, pointing her gun at the guests and making this opera her little show. Again, all this could have been more powerfully put across if more carefully directed. In any case, imaginative it was.

Munich had an edge on London by having two women in charge, for the conductor was Kirill Petrenko’s assistant Oksana Lyniv. Although there were some rough edges now and then (and the balance stage/pit was perfectible), this was one of the most exciting performances of a bel canto opera I have ever listened to. If Giuseppe Sinopoli had conducted Lucia (had he? I have no idea!), the results would have been similar. Ms. Lyniv had a “global” approach to tempo, determining the beat in every number in relation to the overall concept and to the depth of the musical material provided by Donizetti; if there were something that you should hear, she would make sure that you would. In this sense, every contribution of woodwind and brass would be highlighted in its dramatic-musical sense and no string accompanying figure would be considered too unimportant in its potential to add meaning. In a score in which Donizetti gave such prominence to solos from the orchestra, this proved to be very important.

Casting this evening’s performance must have been something of a puzzle. It was originally announced as Brenda Rae, Pavol Breslik, Alessandro Scotto di Luzio, Levente Molnár and Goran Juric. Only Mr. Juric survived the cancellations. All in all considered, I do not think that the audience had much to complain. Armenian soprano Nina Minasyan’s vocal nature suggests rather Mozart than bel canto, but her purity of tone, bell-like sonorities, accurate yet natural coloratura, soaring mezza voce and musicianship offered more than compensation for some tense acuti, textual genericalness and lack of tonal variety. As the edition here adopted the revisions based on the autograph (plus the Marchetti cadenza with minor adaptations), I was particularly thrilled to hear the upward and downward scales on perdonare ti possa un Dio in her duet with the baritone. Moreover, the way she blended her voice with the glass harmonica in the end of the mad scene was the very definition of otherworldly. Brava. Her Edgardo, Italian tenor Piero Pretti lacked tonal glamour, but sang sensitively and, although he seemed a bit tired in his last scene, this did not prevent him from offering true affection. I am not convinced that Luca Salsi is a singer for this repertoire. He seemed to find the part on the high side too and was sometime wayward with note values and pitch, but he knows how to do his bad guy routine. Goran Juric started off brilliantly, offering noble tone and real depth. However, his voice  became increasingly curdled and woolly at times.