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Lucy Ashton is the epitome of Romanticism’s favorite character: the innocent victim. Reading books like the Bride of the Lammermoor, one is convinced that being beautiful and good natured is very dangerous: the poor girl is emotionally and physically abused, publicly humiliated, gets involved in a gruesome murder only to die herself of a mental exhaustion. But that is how men portray the ordeals women had (have?)  to endure on the whim of a male relative or a husband. Now let’s call a woman to tell Lucy’s story. Director Katie Mitchell rescues Lucy from her passiveness and places her along her sisters Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw. That means, Lucy may finally succumb, but not without a fight.

Here, she is no ingénue. Her relationship with Ashton is everything but spiritual (there is an akward almost graphic scene during Veranno a te to make that clear), her reluctance to marry Arthur has to do with the fact that she is very much pregnant and the fact that she kills him is no insanity: Alice and her premeditate his murder hoping to get tid of the body probably to give her time to explain Edgard the whole situation and elope. Now the reader will ask: hmm, what about the MAD scene? That is precisely the point: something else happens this evening. The stress of the murder has other casualties that evening: a miscarriage that accounts for 95% of the blood on her dress and her mental breakdown.

Although I do find that Ms. Mitchell is telling a story only slightly related to the libretto, it finally paid off in a truly gripping mad scene, the gore only enhancing the pathos, the musical theme of act I love duet transformed in a lullaby to her unborn child. This alone made me forgive a great deal of the unnecessary excess. First: Lucia is shown either dressing or undressing in almost every scene. Since her gowns are not easily put on, this involved some nervous and diligent effort from these singers to get her ready. Second: Vicky Mortimer’s exquisite Kersting-like sets are permanently split in two different spaces, with independent dramatic action. During the Wolf Crag’s scene, while Henry and Edgard discuss the details for their duel, we see Lucy kill Arthur. Of course, nobody paid any attention to what the libretto actually wanted you to watch by then. Third: there are two ghosts who are so omnipresent that one almost expects them to be served a glass of wine in the wedding scene.

As usual, the director’s concepts veer towards the crafty, but the visual element is powerful and beautiful and the Personenregie is effective and finely knit to musical gestures.

The A cast of this run of performances had Diana Damrau, Ludovic Tézier and Kwangchul Youn, but – tempting as this is – I opted for the B team. Basically because I’ve already seen Damrau in this role in New York and was not really convinced by her bel canto credentials. On the other hand, a broadcast of Rossini’s Tancredi with Aleksandra Kurzak made me wish for more. However, some days ago, a friend warned me about decay in her high register, and I was suddenly apprehensive about what I might hear in the theater. It is true that her voice now looses focus as it reaches its acuti, which  often sound breathy. On the other hand, her soprano sounds bigger than when I last saw her live as Donna Anna in Venice. That did not prevent her from producing crystal-clear coloratura and trills. She was not truly adventurous with ornamentation, eschewed some florid options during the opera, but gave us the Melba cadenza in the mad scene. She also insisted in singing the puntature, all of them in pitch, but rather smoky in tone. She is no Renata Scotto or Maria Callas, but sang with affection and poise. Truth br said, She even produced some aptly raw sounds in specific moments of the mad scene, for chilling effects.

Stephen Costello is an intense Edgardo, whose high register never sounds relaxed and whose phrasing is sometims too cupo. Although David Jonghoon Kim (Arturo) is not really exciting, the sound of healthy, round tenor high notes did highlight this problem in the leading tenor. As usual, Artur Rucinski is a paragon of breath control and firm tone. He could have tried a bit more nuance to make it really memorable.

Daniel Oren is a conductor attentive to the dynamic demands un the score, shifting to singer-friendly accompaniment to full orchestral sound (as in the sextet) for flashing results.

This current run of performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (a new production later to be reprised in Rome) in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées did not seen to be unmissable in a first look: no big names in the cast (Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne being too ubiquitous to be regarded as such), which also happens to be a tad exotic and a conductor who has a difficult relationship with the Parisian public (a long difficult relationship, since he has been the musical director of the Orchestre Nationale de France for eight years).

Actually, the whole venture is more adventurous than I hinted at: this is the first time Daniele Gatti conducts Tristan. Considering my experience with him, I braced myself for “loud and slow “. Gatti, however, states that he has been preparing himself for that for a long time – and I cannot say he has not. The first impression I had from the prelude was how structurally clean and musically organized it was, even when the articulation in his string section could be more clear. It was the work of someone who really took the pains of determining how to present every layer in the texture and, most importantly, and which one is the Hauptstimme. The rest of act 1 confirmed my first opinion: accompanying figures propelled the performance in almost Verdian manner and “a tempo” (not slow neither fast – let’s say “natural”) seemed to be the rule, volume rather restrained to allow clarity.

My enthusiasm would be tested in the second act: the opening scene straight jacketed in the rigid beat suggested the mechanical rather than the energetic, and once Wagner’s concept begins to become more  fluid, Mr. Gatti’s weapons of choice too began to miss the mark. Act III is even more elusive and requires something that would gradually prove to be missing this evening: a vision. In his masterpiece, Wagner does not accept solutions “from the outside”: one really has to understand in his or her heart was this music is about before one sets his mind at work to discover how this “emotional truth” allows itself to become “music “. I don’t mean that Daniele Gatti is incapable of having this vision; it is just his first experience and the “infrastructure ” is already mostly there.

I saw Rachel Nicholls in 2008 in Kobe, singing Bach with Masaaki Suzuki. Then I wrote that it was pleasant to hear a big-voiced Bach soprano (although she was too loud for the orchestra and the venue). One or two years later I read an interview where she declared she was training to sing Wagner. As I couldn’t recall a precedent, I eagerly read her explanation of how there is only a difference in intensity but not in procedure: the Wagner sound being a development from her Bach sound, both beginning from the same core. This is a very good piece of advice (provided you really have the natural volume and stamina) – and I wanted to see if she was true to her explanation. However, her dramatic soprano career seemed restricted to regional opera houses and festivals. Until Emily Magee cancelled her participation in these performances.

After what I heard this evening, I must understand that this is the inevitable beginning of her international career. To put it simply, I had only heard a soprano sing Wagner’s dramatic roles with absolute legato and the same kind of “cantabile” one would expect in Verdi in recordings with Frida Leider or Florence Austral. Although Rachel Nicholls’s voice is not as imposing and big as these formidable ladies, it is absolutely natural, cleanly and easily produced as theirs were. She sings PHRASES, not groups of notes, her high c’s perfectly integrated to what happened before and after, all exposed acuti seamlessly and effortlessly connected. It is rather a high than a low voice, but the low register is natural and hearable. Furthermore, it is a young-sounding voice, almost too sweet for this role. But no – I have thoroughly enjoyed this feminine take on it. All that said, Ms. Nicholls’s Wagner, enticing as it is, is still work in progress. She has a very tame nature and, while she seems to be aware of that and evidently works hard for attitude, this is something she still has to discover. Also, her German, acceptable as it is, is still a bit cautious. And she has to figure out why her “a” often sounds like “ä” when things get high and loud.

Torsten Kerl too is a young sounding Tristan who produces unmistakably tenor-ish tones throughout. His voice has fine projection, but when Wagner demands truly heroic singing from him, he seems to shift to one invariable “Heldentenor”-gear, where the voice has a hint of a snarl. In any case, he sang with animation, clear diction, rhythmic alertness and got to the end of the opera almost as freshly as he started. Maybe if he too had more of a vision, his Tristan would have been a little bit more than getting to the end without fatigue, an “athletic” accomplishment not to be snobbed anyway.

At first, Michelle Breedt sounded a bit too smoky, but she settled into a compelling performance, with beautifully floated mezza voce in act II. Brett Polegato was a firm-toned, congenial Kurwenal, probably the all-round most interesting musical/dramatic accomplishment this evening. I cannot unfortunately say something similar of Steven Humes’s King Marke, nasal in tone, erratic in pitch and dramatically dull.

I have always found Pierre Audi’s productions on the decorative side – and not even to my taste. The rusty iron naval structures in act I did help to create some atmosphere, but the set of act II looked like the carcass of a whale and I could not see the point of the night-club decoration of Tristan’s “room” in Kareol. The costumes too were idiosyncratic, but the main problem was the fact that the director overlooked his cast’s acting limitations and just pretended this would sort itself out. It had not: these singers diligently followed gestures and attitudes they did not seem comfortable with and the point of which seemed to elude them entirely.

 

 

I understand that Weber’s Der Freischütz with its hunter chorus, bridal wreath song and farmers shouting Hussa! may seem extremely kitsch if you happen to be born in Germany. It is considered by many the quintessential German opera, and it is rarely performed outside German-speaking countries (although it is a fundamental work to understand the aesthetics of German opera… and it doesn’t hurt the fact that it is also a masterpiece superior in quality to many works more usually seen in opera houses around the world). This makes the audience hostage to the discomfort of German opera directors who believe that their sacred mission is to save the opera from itself. Hunters singing tra la la la can only be shown if in the context of a joke, not to mention the “embarrass” of allowing a pious hermit warning the audience against the temptations of evil…!  I actually have seen a Freischütz staged by a non-German director, but it seems that he found it too harmless and tried to spice it up, to diastrous effects. In any case, nothing in my experience comes as so ineffective as Michael Thalheimer’s lazy, reluctant, sterile production.

Premiered only last year, Thalheimer’s staging takes place in some sort of black, barely lit conical cave where all scenes look like the Wolfschlucht scene. Actually, the Wolfschlucht scene is probably the one that looks less like the Wolfschlucht scene, for there is no forging going on there. The opening number is actually more scary with farmers shown as zombies carrying dead branches in the dark. When someone is supposed to act, this is understood of performing some sort of contorsions and uncomfortable postures that made the audience laugh. Most of the dialogue is replaced by either nothing or grunts by an omnipresent Samiel who looks like a hoolingan who passed out in the mud. I could go further, but differently from Mr. Thalbach, I would like to spare those who like this opera from this nonsense.

When you think that the single set does not serve any dramatic purpose other than looking invariably spooky, you discover that it has the dubious advantage of working as an acoustic shell, amplifying the chorus to deafening proportions and overshadowing a Staatskapelle in great shape. Conductor Alexander Soddy subscribes the Carlos Kleiber approach (curiously not in the act I Ländler scene), with zipping excitingly clear articulation from his strings and hearty playing from brass instruments. Were it not for the imbalance with the stage and the Schiller-Theater’s extremely dry acoustics, this could have been very close to an orchestral tour de force.

Promoted to the role of Agathe, Dorothea Röschmann offers her customary clear diction and the alertness to the text of a Lieder singer. Even if her voice is warm and sturdy, it is unfortunately unsuited for this part. Her big aria started uncomfortably, seemed to settle for a clean and firm stretta that ultimately tested her sorely in the final bars, a shriek standing for the high b written by the composer. Most surprisingly, the long lines in her act III prayer seemed beyond her possibilities and she seemed to need too many breath pauses to get to the end of any phrase. Only in the closing scene, she seemed in her element, producing rich, velvety sounds without difficulty. Her Ännchen, Evelin Novak offered a commendable performance, coping with the technical demands of her role with abandon and musicianship. A little bit more charm and a more individual tonal quality would have left nothing to be desired. At this point, it seems that Andreas Schager has sung too many Siegfrieds to be truly convincing as Max. Even if the Austrian tenor’s projection is truly extraordinarily clean and forceful, he seemed helpless when facing the needs of softening his tone, producing quieter dynamics or phrasing with poise and expression. His aria sounded unsubtle and occasionally imprecise in what regards intonation and note values. At moments, his tenor seemed edgy or taut, as if he were experiencing some sort of fatigue. The name of Tobias Schabel does not ring a bell, but his performance of the difficult role of Kaspar was very capable. It is not the big voice we are used to hear in the role and it also has some grainy patches, but he sang it with animation, long breath, clear divisions and the right amount of roughness. Jan Martiník was a noble-sounding Hermit, Roman Trekel a firm-toned Ottokar and it was endearing to find Victor von Halem, still admirably resonant, as Kuno. Finally, I must say that Peter Moltzen was, vocally speaking, the best Samiel I have ever heard, speaking his line with the right piercing edge.

 

Patrice Chéreau was a stage director of legendary status, his final production of R. Strauss’s Elektra a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Festival d’ Aix-en-Provence, the Finnish National Opera, the Lindenoper in Berlin and the Liceu in Barcelona. Although many reviewers tend to prefer original productions (especially when the “imported” one is preceded by a video release, as in this case), the whole venture is such a candidate for an entry in the history of operatic performance that audiences all around the world seem eager to see it live in their cities. The Met decided to make it more alluring by featuring Nina Stemme’s Elektra, a role added to her repertoire only last year in Vienna.  The DVD (with Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role) has shown the production for Straussians all over the world, and I can do nothing but confirm Chéreau’s masterly Personenregie (here revived by Vincent Huguet) and his unprejudiced view of these characters, finding palpable feeling in a tragedy that often tends to the monumental.

Nina Stemme declared that she learned from Kristin Scott-Thomas’s performance in the Old Vic’s staging of Sophocles’s Electra. That was a very intelligent exercise – Scott-Thomas built her character not on increasing tension, but around a delicate mix of scorn, frustration, sarcasm and, most importantly, the strife for restoration, for making things right again. Her Electra had to kill the woman Clitemnestra had become to have back her mother as she was and should have always been. Stemme is no Birgit Nilsson – her voice lacks the steel and the flashiness to portray an unrelenting fury. This Elektra is more comfortable wailing for her father, trying to lure her sister and regaining her vulnerability in her encounter with Orest. Although it is big enough a voice, this role exposes its essentially lyric, warm-toned and soft-grained quality. Although she hit her two high c’s commendably, exposed dramatic notes often required some preparation and sounded forced compared to the moments in which she could attack softly and soar in high-lying cantabile. Her low register was often cloudy and the text was not always crispy, but this was offset by the expressive quality of her phrasing. For instance, the last ” duet”  with Chrysothemis never sounded so touching as this evening, both sopranos floating her high registers as Arabella and Zdenka would do some years later: these sisters were finally sisters again.

Adrianne Pieczonka was an intense, solid Chrysothemis. Her high register could sound effortful and, from some point on, raspish, but she refused to let her character sink in the background (as it often happens). My ten or eleven readers know that I do not think that Waltraud Meier has the voice for the role of Klytämnestra, in spite of her dramatic intelligence and pyshcological awareness. However, vocally speaking, this was probably the best performance I’ve heard from her in this role. The low register had a little bit more color than usual – and that makes a lot of difference in this role. I don’t think, however, that those in the Family Circle could really HEAR that. Burkhardt Ulrich  (Aegysth), too, had some trouble piercing through. That was definitely not a problem for Eric Owens’s admirably dark-toned, voluminous, grave yet surprisingly clear-eyed Orest. Minor roles had plenty of enderaing surprises – an intense, firm-toned Fifth Maid from Roberta Alexander (I’ve really cherished the opportunity of finally seeing her live) and Susan Neves showing what dramatic high notes really sound like as the Aufseherin.

Although this was an interesting cast, this performance was really special because of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exemplary conducting. First, he truly understands the musical-dramatic effects and its internal relations. Second, the optimal level of balance (in the orchestra and with his singers) allowed him absolute transparence. While one felt as if reading the score, he or she would also be costantly surprised by how eloquent and powerful this score is. Third, Mr. Salonen never resorted to loudness, abruptness and grandiloquence. The Met orchestra rarely sounded so crystalline and flexible.

Unlike the Bavarian State Opera or the Vienna State opera or the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Met has no “state”  in its name. That does not necessarily mean that they don’t get any money from the government, but it means that someone still has to pay the bills if the budget is not enough. This is where the patrons (both in the sense of private sponsors and the regular opera-goer) make all the difference of the world.

As one can easily guess, the expression ” eurotrash”  was not invented in Europe. Many among these patrons understand that there is a dichotomy in what regards operatic stagings: the traditional ones with their crinolines and wigs in which the story is really being told and the degenerate ones where some crazy European director has everybody in the wrong costumes or with no costumes at all, his mental derangement standing for the plot. As everything else in this world, the situation is more complex than this.

Faithfully telling the story is not just a matter of sets and costumes. It involves the serious intent of telling the story, i.e., why Otello so readily believes Iago, why Desdemona refuses to see what is going on around her, why Iago is not happy just to have some influence over Otello (let’s remember, he insists that Desdemona should die a violent death). When the Met announced a new production by Bartlett Sher, I wondered why exactly one would like something new by a director who is happy to keep things as decorative and superficial as possible. Here the whole concept is – the staging is updated to reflect the time of the creation of the opera. Hmmm… Why exactly? The soprano could have big dresses and Otello does not need to be blackfaced. Even if the fact that racial prejudice is basically is the Schwerpunkt of the story: if he were Italian, Desdemona’s father probably would not mind her marrying him, Iago would not feel so offended to be his subordinate in command etc etc. Of course, one can always find way to avoid the injurious practice of blackfacing (unfortunately, this is not as easy in opera as it is in movies, since there are many actors who could portray Shakespeare’s Othello for the cameras, while only a few tenors can sing the role as written by Verdi ). For instant, many refugees in the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy are perfectly similar in appearance to the Mediterranean Europeans who insist that there is a big difference between them. Not in this production, I am afraid. These people just wander around plastic architectonic models and among fancy sea-image projections on screen.

As Sonya Yoncheva sang the role of Desdemona in the première, reviewers praised her acting abilities against a backdrop of theatrical void. This is unfortunately not the case with Hibla Gerzmava, who seems little concerned with drama. Although her soprano is on paper fit for the part, she sang it in too businesslike a manner: her diction is unclear, the low register is a bit guttural and her approach to mezza voce is hit or miss, not to mention that a great deal of her singing in most exposed passages is hooty and piercing. If one checks her old performances on Youtube (a Letter Scene from Evgeny Onegin, Mozart’s Laudate dominum (K. 339)), one will hear a lyric soprano of great potential,unfortunately not fulfilled. If there is a moment for serious rethinking, this is now. Aleksandrs Antonenko has important assets for the role of Otello: his tenor is big and forceful, the high notes flash all right in the auditorium and he is not insensitive to softer dynamics. It is not an Italianate voice, though. The whole method lacks the mastery of portamento and colouring a tenor truly acquainted with the style would have. One could always say that he also avoids the vulgar turns of phrase some Italian tenors would wrongly employ in Verdi, but after two acts of emotionally detached singing in this of all roles, the audience as ready for some feeling, even at the expense of elegance. It was a pity that, during act III, Mr. Antonenko started to fight with his high notes that – truth be said – showed some instability since the beginning. Most alarmingly, this difficulty developed into hoarseness. We have to thank Italian tenor Francesco Anile for voicing act IV from the wings to the Antonenko’s ” acting” on stage.

Although Zeliko Lucic’s baritone used to be more insolent in both ends of his range, it is still admirably rich and warm, not to mention that he phrases with musicianship and good taste. He is also hardly electrifying as a performer, but that can be an interesting dramatic point in the role of a schemer such as Iago in the context of an otherwise thrilling performance. Not this afternoon, I am afraid. In this sense, Lucic was very much in the same mindset of his conductor. Adam Fischer offered a Verdi of Mozartian grace and poise, transparent and forward-moving. At first, this seemed refreshingly valid, until a sensation of sameness and lack of building tension prevailed. In the end, nobody on stage and in the auditorium seemed to really care.

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

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

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

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

Wagner from the South

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