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Reviewers have written miles and miles of sentences about the difficulty of performing Wagner, Brahms or Bruckner, but the sad truth is that no composer has written music as difficult to pull off as that of Johann Sebastian Bach’s. The vocal parts are unsingable, the instrumental parts require virtuoso quality and the ensemble is very hard to balance. Worse: it has to sound effortless and informed by some sort of spiritual depth. Now that we are being honest about the whole thing, it is also truth that, if traditional instruments tend to make it monochrome and opaque, historic instruments live can be testingly erratic. And then there is the complexity of the music itself.

Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre are a reference in baroque music and they are almost unrivalled when one thinks of Handel operas. And this is where the problems of this evening’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (cantatas I, II, IV and VI) begin. An opera by Handel, Rameau or Gluck  was written for a group of professional singers whose expressive powers were supposed to be highlighted in the course of performances. Their interpretation was an unwritten part of the score. Without it, the music sounds incomplete. Bach, on the other hand, rarely had musicians up to the task of performing his sacred works. They were not written to flatter their personalities. They weren’t even written to flatter Bach’s own personality, but rather as a means of sharing his vision of the joys of Christian faith, uncool as this sounds today. The key element of a performance of  Bach cantata is the presence of the congregation, who would even sing in the chorales during the performances in church. This music was written to SPEAK to the audience, to involve it in the feelings and ideas conveyed by the text and the music. This evening’s performance did not inhabit this universe. It had to do with being on stage, having fun and letting it rip. If you did not get it, then it is your problem.

Almost everybody in the theatre seemed happy about it, so the fact that I did not enjoy it is actually my problem anyway. I do believe that the slow tempi traditionally used to Bach’s sacred music actually disfigured it, robbing it of the dance rhythms around which they are structured. However, overfast tempi can be disfiguring too, sometimes in a most unmusical way. When you hear an orchestra that hardly copes with hitting the notes in supersonic speeds on pitch and without any nuance and singers spitting the text without any possibility of clarity, then this cannot be the right tempo. And there is the problem of balance. Maybe it was the acoustics of the hall, but the performance was heavily bass-oriented, violins barely hearable against a wall of cellists and bassists that moved as if they would burn their instruments on stage after playing them with their teeth. This can be very exciting in Ariodante, but not here, when the feeling is very different and when it obscures a lot of powerful examples of music rhetorics and counterpoint itself.

In the chorus, this was even more problematic. The forces available involved a 3-per-part (including soloists), but for the bass, who had two singers. They were often overshadowed by the small orchestra and, due to the lack of homogeneity, balance was very poor. Again, it could be the acoustics, but one would hear the basses, one of the tenors and sometimes one of the sopranos. In the encore, a one-per-part experiment was made in a number of the 5th canatata and one should thank the conductor for avoiding this for the rest of the evening. Then there was a very exotic group of soloists.  Both sopranos lacked the purity of tone and the instrumental focus a Bach soprano is supposed to have. Both sounded ungainly and projected poorly. Lenneke Ruiten at least could produce some edge to pierce through, but then the results were acidulous. Helena Rasker is a true contralto who could caress her lines in Schlafe, mein Liebster and produce, for once in the whole evening, some Innigkeit, but was sabotaged by fast tempo and heavy-accented orchestral playing. Valerio Contaldo dispatched amazingly clear coloratura in warm tone in Frohe Hirten, but sounded small-scaled elsewhere. Paul Schweinester sounded a bit grainy (or it might be the acoustics), but otherwise stylish and engaged in his Evangelist duties. I leave the best for last: James Platt’s dark, resonant and flexible bass was the secret weapon in this concert. For he alone, this was worth the detour.

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The fact that Haydn’s The Seasons could be described as “the Gemütlichkeit’s guide to life, love, agriculture, hunt etc” does not make it a favorite in the Austrian composer’s opus. Generally, when a concert hall gathers the forces necessary to perform it, it ends up using them for a performance of The Creation. In any case, even if it is true that the latter is a more consistent work, The Seasons has its moments, especiaolly the large scale chorus numbers. If one feels inclined to give it a try, then Douglas Boyd and the Orchestre the Chambre de Paris could be the perfect advocates for it.

As performed this evening, The Seasons had very little coziness in it, but rather vital tempi, excitingly articulate divisions by the violins and readiness of attack. Although sentimentality was avoided, Mr. Boyd and his soloists did not shy from feeling and dealt with the akward libretto with respect. Accentus offered animated choral singing and, if the excellent group of sopranos seemed to overshadow the other voices, this seems to be a side-effect of the acoustics of the Philharmonie. Mari Eriksmoen’s soprano veers towards the soubrettish, but she sang with absolute purity of tone and sense of style. Toby Spence has all the advantages of an English tenor, but avoids the usual drawback: his tenor has heft and color enough for the more outspoken passages. It was a spirited, musicianly performance. Daniel Schmutzhard sang with great sensitivity and firmness of tone, but his voice lacks depth in both ends of his range and may stray from true pitch when things get too low or too high.

Nina Stemme’s Elektra has become something of a classic of our days. As in her performances at the Met, it is an unconventially vulnerable take on the role, built on velvetiness of tone, cleanliness of phrasing and restraint rather than flashiness. In the favorable acoustics of the Philharmonie de Paris, it is even more cherishable. The warmth of her low register is more immediately felt, she does not have to force and the clarity of the text is not lost. To make things better, she was in excellent voice, at moments even reminiscent of that of Astrid Varnay so focused and clear it sounded this evening. She has to brace for the extreme high notes (as she did at the Met), but they all sounded big. This was a musicianly and sensitive accounf of this difficult role, even if one is entitled to find it un-Elektra-ish in its soft core. The contrast to Gun-Brit Barkmin’s bright- and metallic-toned Chrysothemis was this performance’s Schwerpunkt. Even if one can find a hint of a flutter in some of her singing, this was the most compelling performance of this role in my experience. First, her voice rides the big orchestra effortlessly. Second, her crispy diction and understanding of the dramatic situations are exemplary. Most important of all: this evening, a role that tends to fall in the background was shown in its full scale. In Ms. Barkmin’s interpretation, the part is particularly touching in an approach in which one clearly seas that Chrysothemis is not the younger sister as usually shown, but the other sister, the one who has not understood that it is too late for her. I have written a great about Waltraud Meier’s Klytaemnestra and I will only add that, if her voice is showing the singer’s age, it did sound more comfortable with the tessitura than ever. Norbert Ernst was a reliable Aegysth, but Mathias Goerne sounded ill in the role of Orest, failing to project in the auditorium as he should. Minor roles were very well cast, particularly Lauren Michelle as a fruity-toned Fourth Maid and Valentine Lemercier’s incisive Third Maid.

Mikko Franck’s controle over his forces is truly praiseworthy. The balance achieved both between the orchestral sections and with the soloists could be used as a lesson for many conductors. Not only did it allowed for absolute transparency but this also gave singers enough leeway to make music. I am not sure if his attempt to produce a permanent crescendo in intensity is the safest plan for this score. In order to make it happen, the first part of the opera was kept really low in excitement and the result could be undramatic in the gentleness of attack and ponderousness of tempo. Klytaemnestra was the main victim of this approach. The whole scene lacked tension and one could hear the space between one note and the next. It is hard to blame Waltraud Meier for trying to push things ahead and ending up one bar earlier than the conductor. From the next scene on, the proceedings reacher optimal leven and the Recognition Scene was admirably subtle and large-scaled at once. After Aegysth’s death, things turned up overcooked and, for once in the evening, the orchestra had its lound and unsubtle moments. In any case, this was a smal price to pay in an evening rich in new insights and perspectives.

My final impression of Frank Castorf’s Ring is more positive than I could have imagined when I saw it for the first time in 2014. It is still has its patches of silliness, conceptual laziness and pretentiousness, but it is very well directed and has many important insights. Even if most of them are underveloped, they are still valid and thought-provoking. Götterdämmerung not only seems better now, it has indeed been refined since 2014 too. The scenes in the Gibichungenhalle are all more tightly knit in terms of characterization, acting and timing, to start with. This time, the idea of Hagen as a figure between two worlds represented by his ability to cross the Berlin Wall made the concept even sharper than when I just saw him as a small time crook in Kreuzberg. On the other hand, the closing scene seemed to me less effective. I might be mistaken too, but it seemed edited too. I don’t remember Gutrune saying “Brünhilde, du Neiderboste!”, then Brünnhilde answer “Armselige, schweig!” and finally Gutrune’s final “Verfluchter Hagen!” lines. I don’t know if this has something to do with the accident that made it impossible for this evening’s Brünnhilde to stand up without crutches after act 1. After that, the role was played by the director’s assistant (a man) while the soprano sang from her wheelchair downstage.

Marek Janowski might have noticed that he and his orchestra fare better when unleashed and did give his singers a hard time. No complaints here – the orchestra played richly and the cast could cope with it most of the time. Not in Siegfried’s and Brünnhilde’s duet, when both singers seemed to be saving their resources for what lied ahead nor in the Waltraute scene, when things lost steam from all sides. The chorus sang excitingly and earthly, but act 3 failed to be the climax of this evening. The conductor seemed to have lost a bit of his pulse around Siegfried’s death. The funeral march was well done if a bit coldly and the Immolation scene hanged some fire. One can understand that the soloist had to deal with the difficulty of the scene and a calf sprain, but the fact is that the final orchestral bars were dispatched  rather bureaucratically. In terms of expression, the performance was already over by then.

Catherine Foster started cautiously and had some trouble with pitch when saying farewell to Siegfried, but warmed up to her top form in the scene with Waltraute. Singing on a wheelchair and standing up with the help of crutches tested her concentration, but did not prevent her from dealing athletically with her many high notes in act 2. The Immolation scene was sung musicianly and sensitively and her final phrases were flashed with complete abandon and power. Her achievement in this cycle will certainly reserve her a place in the pantheon of the great Wagnerian soprano of our days. If Allison Oaks (Gutrune) did not cause a lasting impression in 2014, today she offered full-toned singing and dramatic commitment. Unfortunately, Marina Prudenskaya (Waltraute) seemed a bit lost around the passaggio and could not make much of an unhelpful slow tempo in her scene. I don’t know what Stefan Vinke took before this performance, but the effect was both impressive and frightening. In the course of the performance, he became gradually more and more hyper while counting with vocal resources to match. By act III, he seemed basically mucho loco, tossing stentorian high notes in sequence and making some of them even longer than written . He tackled the woodbird narration as if he could start the opera all over again. Of course, there was not very much space to poise or finish there, but I guess good old Siegfried does not need that anyway. Markus Eiche was a firm-toned almost congenial Gunther, while Stephen Milling was a dark, threatening Hagen, unfortunately short of resonance in his high notes, as if he had a cold or something like that. Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Stephanie Houtzeel and Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde) and Christine Kohl (3. Norn) were fresh-toned and expressive Norns and Rheintöchter.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is probably the least funny comedy you’ll ever see. The dialogues are overwrought, the scenes are long, the whole affair around the mastersingers is obscure, the leading man is not very friendly and there is more than a splash of xenophobia in its agenda. It also has some glorious music and that is the reason why we sit there for hours of joyless theatre. As I am a half-full-glass person, I tend to expect that one day a director will be able to dig out the humor in it and put some of the nasty stuff in perspective at the same time. I mean, at this point, everybody knows that Richard Wagner was not a nice guy – and his personal credo is not what we want to celebrate here, as much as we don’t want to listen to Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village because he wrote the Discourse on Inequality. In other words, the discussion on Wagner’s deplorable political thinking won’t be less important if directors finally overcome the guilt complex of making this comedy entertaining, while proposing (rather than superimposing) some kind of discussion.

Barry Kosky, for instance, clearly feels that comedy shouldn’t be about laughing at the expense of someone. And he is right – Beckmesser is here bullied, ridiculed and outcast by an unforgiven society of which he believed to be a part of. I don’t believe I am going to say something positive about Katharina Wagner’s production for the festival, but here it goes. Instead of focusing on Beckmesser as the victim of exclusion, she tackled the conservative forces that operate exclusion under the banner of protection of culture and national values. Mr. Kosky, instead, is a victimologist and offers a case study of how Wagner’s antisemitism pervades Meistersinger, although the libretto itself doesn’t make any direct statement of the kind. As far as the story as told goes, Beckmesser is a master singer in Nuremberg just like Pogner and Sachs. But not in this production.

Act 1 is staged in Villa Wahnfried. Eva is Cosima, Pogner is Liszt, Beckmesser is Hermann Levi (Parsifal’s original conductor, who was abused by Wagner for being Jewish) and both Sachs and Walther (and even David) are Richard Wagner. The idea is illuminating, but the staging was very difficult to understand with all those Wagners (dressed with the same costume) running to and fro. Also, the episodes with Eva and Walther seemed completely nonsensical in those circumstances. Act 2 is set in Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice (where the Nuremberg Trials took place) covered in green grass, a representation of a Germanic paradise for Germans only. Gradually all characters appear with their proper costumes (but for Cosima), until Beckmesser is finally shown as a caricature Jew. The concept here had the upper hand: Eva and Walther’s romance against the background of Beckmesser’s serenade frustrated by Sachs leading to the confusion with David and the apprentices is here something almost entirely reduced to the lynching of Beckmesser. Act 3 too is staged in Courtroom 600, but only Wagner is judged here. The good people of Nuremberg get a pass: they are after all portrayed here as innocent puppets. I don’t have to say that this overambitious program impact the romantic plot, comedy timing and the portrayal of these characters. Everything became secondary to Mr. Kosky’s construction, which added very little insight about the characters. His dicussion about the composer is no novelty in itself. In any case, there were clever and beautiful stage solutions, the sets and costumes were creative and extremely well built.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search for the late-Karajan ideal of rich orchestral conveyed through the turbo version of legato, allied to a clear sense of forward movement, made this a very pleasing performance, with the exception of an extremely messy act 2. I am not sure if I find this the best approach to this opera, the complex score of which can always benefit of clear articulation and well-defined rhythms, but it seems that these performances are not about giving Meistersinger what it needs. In any case, they would have benefited from a cast more vocally impressive than this one.

Anne Schwanewilms, to start with, offered an inacceptable performance. It was barely hearable and, whenever she had to sing out, it was raspish, wiry and her breath wouldn’t last for more than three notes in a row. This is not Brünnhilde, and Germany has plenty of good lyric sopranos able to sing the role of Eva. Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther), on the other hand, sang very smoothly. Too smoothly, I would say. His high a’s needed a little bit more support to ring freely as they should, but, in the context of this evening, this was elegant and spontaneous. Daniel Behle was a musicianly and sensitive David who lacked projection in his high notes and relied too much on falsetto. Michael Volle’s baritone is two sizes smaller than the part of Sachs, but made the best of what he had with his intelligent delivery of the text and his stage charisma. Unfortunately, he was evidently tired in act 3 and had to cheat a bit to get to the end. His scene with Beckmesser was a bit bothersome, for both singers abused off-pitch effects, making it testing to the audience. Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) proved to be capable of some smooth singing. Yet too often preferred “acting with the voice”. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was a light, fruity Magdalene and Günther Groissböck an exemplary Pogner.

Siegfried is the toughest cookie in Frank Castorf’s Ring. I have just read what I wrote in 2014 and realize that I haven’t made my mind about it yet. I have less sense of humor than the director and would more often than not look at just the part of the stage where the original plot was taking place to avoid being distracted by the funny/cute parallel actions. In any case, as much as in 2014, I could have fun with this Siegfried many options of which I don’t endorse. It is well directed and executed – and it isn’t short of ideas.

The musical performance is a very different story. After a bumpy start with problems of synchrony, the proceedings were gaining in strength, especially after an unfocused Mime/Wanderer scene. Whenever the conductor had a large-voiced soloist, one could feel that the performance came to life not only in volume and intensity, but also in purpose and precision. When that happened, this was a very satisfying Siegfried, large-scaled but not brutal. Fortunately, the cast featured many voices sizable enough to let Maestro Janowski unleash his orchestra. The pride of place goes to Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde). In 2014, one could see that she has a beautiful voice of Wagnerian proportions, but now her singing has acquired almost Frida Leider-ish freshness, poise and radiance. She sang with unforced clarity either in lyric passages, where she offered mezza voce, legato and trills worthy of a Verdian soprano, or in exposed acuti that darted across the auditorium. Stefan Vinke’s task is far more difficult, what makes his endurance even more praiseworthy. He showed signs of fatigue towards the end of act 2 and in his scene with the Wanderer, but seemed to count with reserves of energy for his final scene, when he even managed to soften his tone now and then. Mr. Vinke’s singing is not to everyone’s taste – its middle register is nasal, his phrasing is extremelly cupo and he is not always in the centre of pitch, but he is a marathon runner and seems to be happier when flashing huge Spitzentöne in the hall. I would say that he sang better than last time I heard him in this role in the Deutsche Oper Berlin: his high notes are less constricted and therefore richer in overtones. He is also a very likable Siegfried, his boyish manners quite apt for this role. He was extremely well partnered by Andreas Conrad (Mime), a Charaktertenor with a forceful high register and a crisp and intelligent delivery of the role, not to mention that he is a stage animal. Although Albert Dohmen seemed a bit too detached as Alberich in Rheingold, here he was particularly efficient in that role, his voluminous bass baritone riding over a Wagnerian orchestra to chilling effects.

Thomas Johannes Mayer, unfortunately, was not in good voice. It lacked color and projection and his singing came across as effortful and rough. He has been pushing and forcing his tone for a wile and I am afraid that this is starting to take its toll. It is also a pity that Nadine Weissmann too was not in good shape, sounding ill at ease and greyish as Erda. Finally, Ana Durlovsky was an intelligent and crystalline Woodbird, producing some truly birdlike effects in her singing.

The fact that a DVD of the Bayreuth Festival’s current production of Wagner’s Parsifal has been released, while the previous one, staged by Stefan Herheim, never was will remain a mystery to me. I was lucky to see Herheim’s Parsifal twice and it will remain of the most fascinating theatrical experiences in my life. I don’t believe I’ll remember Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production in two weeks. It is a collection of clichés based on a superficial premise and very poorly directed.

As it is, Mr. Laufenberg’s production sets Parsifal in the context of the clash of religions in the Middle East. Montsalvat is a Christian community threatened by the advance of Islam. There are soldiers everywhere and, probably because they are isolated and disconnected from Rome, their liturgy has taken a radical charismatic turn, which involves a very literal staging of the eucharist (yes, this is one of those Parsifals in which everyone drinks Amfortas’s blood). Titurel is very much alive and kicking and has the control over his congregation by offering this very special ritual. Parsifal is a soldier who finds the whole thing gruesome and goes away until he ends up in some sort of public bath where he is entertained by girls in burkas who finally decided to strip to their odalisque bikinis. The host, of course, is Klingsor, who seems to be trying to become Muslim, although he has a fetiche in crosses, of which he has a big collection. Kundry shows up to a naked Parsifal, whom she decides to dress up before she tries her seduction. Once he has put on some clothes, she tells him about his mother and using her mother-figure routine, she kisses him. But he doesn’t need to have any insight there: Amfortas shows up there too, what makes it puzzling when he later demands to be taken to… Amfortas.  Kundry sees that she has to try another technique and decides to play vulnerable and tells him about the hideous sin she has committed and the spiritual torment she has lived in her many incarnations since then. However, Parsifal did not care to hear. He went inside to change back in his soldier’s uniform. When he comes back, he promises to redeem her although he has no idea of what she should be redeemed of because he wasn’t even there. Anyway, he has superpowers now: Klingsor appears with the holy spear but is frozen by a Jedi gesture of Parsifal, who gets this object of venerations and breaks it in two parts, making a cross with it. Although the place is full of crosses, that one seems to be particularly powerful.

Years later, Parsifal shows up again in Montsalvat. Although he was a soldier and has maps, he couldn’t find it because of Kundry’s curse. This is supposed to be the Middle East, but the place was overgrown with gigantic tropical plants – one particular leaf is 15-meter long. But those are not regular plants – those plants represent the return to Eden. This means that the website of the Foreign Office must have deleted their warning about travelling in war zones, for a group of female tourists show up out of nowhere and decide to strip to their underwear and bathe into a tropical storm. They even decide to socialize with a funny-looking old lady who happens to be Kundry. That’s the moment when Parsifal feels ready to become king. Christians, Jews and Muslims surround Amfortas and demand explanations about Titurel’s death. It seems that they want him to perform the eucharist too, but that – even in these circumstances – is too absurd, I must have misunderstood it. At this point, Parsifal comes with the holy spear/improvised cross, which he throws away in Titurel’s coffin. Then everybody realize that they can dispose of their holy symbols there too. Now that they have seen that their religions were not that important, Parsifal says “open the shrine”. Here this means that the whole church had to be open, so the sceneries are dismantled and the lights of the Festspielhaus are turned on, so that the audience realize that… art should be the universal, all-embracing religion. You have seen that in other productions too, I suppose. Now imagine this with the level of acting of having people open their arms whenever they say something that is supposed to be important.

If you have found this all over the place, you would be twice disappointed to discover that Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting was in the same spirit. Mr. Haenchen was keen on proving that he could conduct this almost as fast as Pierre Boulez – and he did keep it in less than four hours. During the prelude, things seemed promising – it was unusually clear and organized, but as soon as poor Gurnemanz started to speak, things seemed to turn around micro-objectives, all of them related to getting over to the next point. Never any act seemed to be a coherent unit, but rather a collection of moments that had their own little climax and that would die away at zero tension. Even if the second act was particularly frustrating  in its emulation of Boulez’s beat without the French conductor’s sense of building tension, the Karfreitagzauber was the main victim of the micromanagement – when the orchestra started to feel something for it, there were only two minutes left.

I was curious about Elena Pankratova’s Kundry. I had seen has as the Färberin in Munich and was very well impressed. Therefore, I have to believe she was not in good voice this evening. Her singing today was mostly colorless and sometimes hooty, the high notes were forced and her attempt of dynamic refinement was not guided by a deep understanding of the text, which was not clearly articulated anyway. I would have to see her in this role again before I can say something. Last time I saw Parsifal, Andreas Schager took the title role. This was at the Berlin Staatsoper, and Daniel Barenboim must have been a positive influence on him, because he offered then a subtler performance. Today, it was a bit emphatic, but it is still an untiring voice of true heroic possibilities. The third act was a showcase of his possibilities, some phrases sung sensitively and musicianly. Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas is no news to me. He is another example of the rule – the vocal quality of an Amfortas is inversely proportional to the amount of skin he shows on stage. As in Buenos Aires, his grainy and greyish baritone did not pierce through the orchestra without effort. Derek Welton’s Klingsor fared better – the voice has an attractive color, even if it looses focus in its higher reaches. On the other hand, Georg Zeppenfeld’s voluminous and rich-toned bass filled the auditorium. His Gurnemanz benefited from very clear diction and, if I don’t call if fully satisfying, it is because it lacks the last ounce of the benign authority (and the glorious fullness of high notes) of a René Pape.