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BTW…

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

The Music Director Emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, has inscribed his name in the performance history of Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande with his recording from Montreal, a reference for those who want this work at its least “operatic”, and he conducted it most recently in 2012 at the Verbier Festival with Stéphane Degout as Pelléas. For someone who is not very keen on opera, Maestro Dutoit has conducted some key XXth century stage works in Japan:  Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, the Japanese première of Szymanowski’s King Roger and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. This afternoon, he offered the Tokyoite audience a concert performance of Debussy’s only complete opera with an all-star cast.

Although Dutoit is still faithful for his strictly-demi-tintes approach, eliciting very subtle and colorful playing from the NHK SO in flexible but never rushed tempi, some may find the orchestral sound a little bit more embracing than on his CDs, although weight is a word no-one would ever think of here. In comparison, Claudio Abbado sounds almost Verdian in his urgent and theatrical DG recording, in which the Vienna Philharmonic dazzles the listeners in kaleidoscopic orchestral effects. In any case, provided you have a cast as impressive as the one gathered here today, the Swiss conductor will be proved right in giving Maeterlinck’s text all the time and prominence it deserves.

If I had to be picky about the choice of soloists, I would say that Karen Vourc’h is one or two millimeters below her colleagues. Although her voice has an appealing shimmering femininity à la Ileana Cotrubas, it acquires a certain graininess above mezzo forte and the low notes are mostly left to imagination. On her favor, there is not a word in the text the meaning of which she does not fully understands – even if her approach is surprisingly sincere. Other singers could find a bit more sensuousness in this role, and I am afraid I have finally got used to that, especially in Mes longs cheveux, sung today without any hint of mystery or seduction. Stéphane Degout is simply the best Pelléas of his generation. First, it is vocally flawless; second, it is crystalline in diction; third, it is entirely devoid of affectation and unusually “masculine”. There is something extremely honest and direct about his performance that makes the role extremely believable. Vincent Le Texier is a forceful and intense Golaud. He is the less aggressive or fatherly Golaud I have ever heard and one can see why Mélisande agreed to marry him in the first place. Midway through act III, when the writing becomes somewhat heavier, Le Texier started to increasingly show some signs of fatigue, but he managed to channel this into his performance. Nathalie Stutzmann and Franz-Josef Selig as Geneviève and Arkel are the dictionary definition’s of embarras de richesses. Khatouna Gadelia and David Wilson-Johnson were ideally cast as Yniold and the doctor.

I have a long story with Marco Arturo Marelli’s producion of Verdi’s Don Carlo: I’ve seen the première in the Deutsche Oper and a reprise with a different cast last year. It must be said that serious rethinking has been done and I could say that third time’s a charm: not only does it look better within the New National Theatre’s higher proscenium arch, but also many important adjustments have been done, especially in the auto-da-fé scene. In any case, if the really superior blocking and acting is the result of Spielleiter Yasuko Sawada’s work, then she truly deserves compliments. Another improvement over the Berlin performances is Pietro Rizzo’s conducting. The Tokyo Philharmonic orchestra played with unusual animation and richness of tone, only occasionally lapsing into the customary bureaucracy. Maestro Rizzo did a very good job in balancing the need to accommodate a largely light-voiced cast and Verdi’s demands of a rich orchestral sound. He rightly opted for forward-moving tempi and theatrical effects. This was indeed one of the best performances in the New National Theatre in the recent years.

Serena Farnocchia’s lyric soprano is two sizes smaller than the role of Elisabetta and, if she sang elegantly and musicianly, she often seemed to be saving steam for her big moments. Once in the final act, she thew caution to the winds and offered an exciting account both of her aria and the ensuing duet. Sonia Ganassi too is hardly the dramatic mezzo soprano one usually finds as Eboli. Although her voice had a bleached out sound in its higher reaches, she husbanded her resources most intelligently and offered a dramatically compelling and vocally acceptable performance. As usual, her attention to the text makes all the difference in the world. I had never heard Spanish tenor Sergio Escobar before. It is an interesting voice without any doubt: its bright, firm sound has palpable presence in the auditorium and, when the phrase is congenial, he can provide some exciting acuti. He still needs to work on breath support, though – he is often caught short and some high-lying passages grate a bit. He has not been blessed with acting abilities and invariably looked awkward when he tried to reproduce some gesture or attitude outside his comfort zone. Markus Werba is the third singer below the right Fach for his part today. This did not prevent him from offering a convincing performance – he has solid technique, did not beef up unnecessarily his high baritone and only showed some sign of strain during the long scene with Filippo in the first act (this is the Italian 4-act version). I had seen Rafal Siwek as the Inquisitore in the Staatsoper back in 2011 and found him authoritative but lacking variety. For the role of Filippo II, the natural volume of his voice is an undeniable advantage. The slightly veiled tonal quality and a tiny hint of throatiness prevent him from providing the necessary impact in the auto-da-fé, but he proved to scale down to real Innigkeit in his act III aria. If Hidekazu Tsumaya could produce more consistent high notes, he would have been an entirely successful Inquisitore – here he sounded underpowered in many key moments.

When a theatre has the name of Constantin Stanislavsky, one expects to find acting of a certain level in any of its performances – and I have not been disappointed this evening. Although sets and costumes in Alexander Titel new production makes one think of stagings as one would find in European theatres in the 1970’s, the approach sounds fresh in the detailed Personenregie and the attention to Lorenzo da Ponte’s text rendered in a way that makes complete sense for audiences nowadays. Although I dislike the idea of Donna Anna as a hypocrite who would overlook the murder of her own father for a fatal attraction, this has been shown in a way that at least makes some sense. It is also very courageous to show Donna Elvira as the mezzo carattere role she really is, even if the seriousness in Mi tradì felt somewhat contrived. I have never seen such an all-round convincing  portrait of Zerlina as today: here she is definitely earthy, ready to have fun and streetwise: she plays the victim to Don Giovanni as long as she believes that she can profit from that. Even Don Ottavio has some nuance here, his lack of alpha-male quality combined with a repressed aggressiveness when his fiancée refuses him his intent to marry her as soon as possible. All this is made possible in a staging that focus the actors – the single set is a structure that shows a staircase covered by grapevine on one side and a wall of upright pianos on the other side. Don Giovanni’s final feast is a bit overdone with all those plastic grapes, but the effect of the Commendatore dragging his prey inside the wall was very striking and original.

This performance has been conducted by the assistant director, Timur Zangiev, who showed a very good grasp of rhythmic flow in his forward-moving beat dictated by needs of structural clarity and a good ear for matching the Hauptstimme in the orchestra with his soloists on stage. I wonder how the results would be with a truly adept orchestra.

My main source of interest this evening was the Donna Anna of Hibla Gerzmava, a soprano I have first heard in the solo of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore. Her singing in this recording impressed me so much that I decided that I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear her live. It is a voice of unusual creaminess and homogeneity used with seamless legato, but either she was not in a very good day or she has become a little careless since that Laudate dominum. Whenever things got high or fast or loud or all those, her soprano would acquire a metallic edginess that jars with her usual smooth vocal delivery. It is praiseworthy that she had tackled the stretta of Non mi dir a tempo in a fast pace, but the sound could be a bit Mara Zampieri-esque. In terms of interpretation too, although her Italian is very clear and well-pronounced, the impression was rather generalized, especially in a very tame Or sai chi l’onore. In any case, she sounded like a paragon of Mozartian singing in comparison with the sour-toned and gusty Donna Elvira. Although Inna Klochko had her unfocused moments, her bell-toned soprano is tailor-made for Zerlina. Vedrai carino was particularly lovely, graceful and sexy. She is a very good actress and knows who to use music and text to create a complete performance.

When it comes to Artem Safronov’s Don Ottavio, one must praise his extraordinarily long breath and flexibility, but his voice has very strange placement, his high register matte and bottled-up. Dmitry Zuev (Don Giovanni) too has long breath, but the tonal quality is too open, metallic and unvaried. His idea of interpretation was basically keeping you on the edge of your seat while he spitted out long stretches of text without breathing pauses in uninflected Italian. Although Denis Makarov’s Italian is very poor too, that is all I can fault in his Leporello – the voice is warm and pleasant and he is funny without exaggeration. Maksim Okosin too was a pleasant Masetto, richer toned than unsual. Finally, Dmitry Stepanovich was a very powerful Commendatore, a bit eerie in his straight-toned vocal production and weird vowels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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