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The Semperoper’s new staging of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is not limited to what happens on stage. On arriving at the theatre’s foyer, one could see a group of people in tuxedos and long dresses having dinner to the sound of live chamber music. One would discover later that these are the guests to the dinner party in the house of Vienna’s richest man in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. As the butler insists to say, the main event in this soirée is going to be the fireworks. As we left the theatre, the usher did not fail to hand out sparklers to all members in the audience. Does that mean that director David Hermann faithfully followed every word written by Hofmannsthal? Even if the action is updated to our days, Mr. Hermann showed unusual care to the libretto. For instance, according to the text, the lord of the house gave clear instructions that the actors in the vaudeville were supposed to “decorate” the depressing sets of the opera, but what one usually sees is Zerbinetta and her troupe appearing on stage only when they have to sing. Not here. As asked by their patron, the comedians are practically continuously on stage – and Mr. Hermann really had to use his imagination to make that work. And, well, it did work. The clash of neoclassical and rococo aesthetics as represented by commedia dell’arte and opera seria are in the core of this mise-en-scène’s concept. The problem of a production so observant of the author’s original ideas is that the eventual liberty taken by the director cannot help being at-your-face conspicuous. For instance, the gender-ambiguous Composer or the Bacchus in his ordinary clothes who seems to have transcended the limits of role-playing and acquired some sort of hyperconsciousness that allows him to “operate” the stage à la “Matrix”. It seems that the director at some point decided that he should add some sort of insight to the proceedings, but it did feel rather “added upon” than “built from within”. In any case, this is a beautiful staging with plenty of clever scenic solutions and careful Personenregie – and it could have perfectly done without the “interpretative touch of genius”.

If there is a repertoire in which Christian Thielemann can do no wrong this is Richard Strauss. The kind of orchestral sound this music requires is something that he is naturally able to obtain from an orchestra, especially the one Strauss himself called the Wunderharfe. Tonight, the audience was treated the most exquisite orchestral playing in the market. Mr. Thielemann’s main purpose this evening seemed to be absolute clarity, but not in the sense of “making everything hearable” , but rather in that of revealing the meaning behind every phrase in this score. A deaf person would have left the auditorium knowing the complete structure of thematic relations devised by the Bavarian composer. During the prologue, I could not help thinking this was the Straussian performance of a lifetime, but the opera itself – good as it was – did not reach the same paramount level. Although Mr. Thielemann is one of the most solid conductors of our days, there is something pretty much beyond his reach, and this is “relaxing”. Ariadne auf Naxos will always be a tough cookie, for reconciling the burlesque and the grandiose in the opera will always be a challenge, especially for typically Wagnerian conductors. Although I fully endorse Mr. Thielemann’s idea of making the comedy episode more serious by keeping a more regular beat and a considerate tempo (and a certain fullness of sound), when Ariadne and Bacchus are alone at last, instead of regaining the flexibility shown in the prologue and the even at the first part of the opera, the tendency to make things more serious had already gained too much momentum to be contained. By the end, the impression was rather of ponderousness. Had he been able to boost the volume of his orchestra, this could have somehow worked in a very Siegfried-ian way, but his cast was hanging fire by then and there was no other option but to rein in.

I have always believed that there is some sort of curse involved the title role in this opera. It is almost never marvelously sung, even when a great soprano is indeed cast. For instance, Krassimira Stoyanova was a very good Marschallin in Salzburg, and the idea of g her as Ariadne seemed natural. On paper, her voice is perfect for the role. At first, it was all there: the creamy tone, the floated mezza voce, the low notes, the noble phrasing and even a special attention to the text. But the climax of Es gibt ein Rich already showed an opaque quality to her high notes whenever she sings above mezzo forte. In order to be heard in those moments, she had to employ a great deal of energy, with variable results. The sound has very little squillo these days and her only tool to ride the orchestra was really going full powers. In the difficult final scene, she was just too tired, the tone was gray and she had to adapt what R. Strauss wrote to reach the end of some phrases. That is indeed a pity, for, maybe in a better day, she could be a plausible exponent of this role. Her liability here was made more evident by the vocal opulence of her Bacchus, Stephen Gould at his most powerful and richest toned. This part is on the high side for his voice and I was worried by what he would make of it. He scored many points by producing perfect mezza voce in the high a in Weh, bist du auch solche eine Zauberin?, but started to get pinched until he finally omitted the high b flat* in his final phrase. In spite of that, Mr. Gould sang beautifully and I was glad I could hear him in this role.

Daniela Fally is an extremely light-toned Zerbinetta, rather on the soubrettish side of the soprano spectrum. She is a musicianly and intelligent singer, whose vivid handling of the text in her native language is highlighted by very clear diction, even when things get really high. Her coloratura is clear and her trills are acceptable. As many superlight Zerbinettas, she gets nervous when Strauss takes her above the high c. In this moments, the tone becomes glassy and her breath shorter. Other than this, she offered a charming and spirited performance. She was very well partnered by Rafael Fingerlos’s Harlekin, with more than a splash of Olaf Bär in his light, dulcet baritone. Although Albert Dohmen’s vowels are a bit overdark, he was in very good voice and sang forcefully as the Music Master. There was also a truly euphonious trio of nymphs in Tuuli Takala, Evelin Novak and Simone Schröder. Joseph Dennis and Carlos Osuna were probably the richest-toned pair of tenors ever to appear in Zerbinetta’s troupe – and Alexander Pereira (yes, the Alexander Pereira) was a funny Haushofmeister.

I leave the best for last. As she was in Berlin, Daniela Sindram is a superlative, out-of-this-world Komponist. Her singing of this role is of golden age quality. As she is less famous than she deserved to be, I make a point of making it clear how much I appreciate her singing both here and in Der Rosenkavalier.

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I had not been in the Opéra Bastille for a long while and, on leaving the subway, the view of something that resembles Christoph Schlingensief’s Parsifal was definitely a bad omen. Once past the abyssal subway exit, I took a good look at the building. I did remember it was an uninspired project, but not that it was so ugly. It did not take long to recollect the unhelpful acoustics – and then I had to deal with an audience who behaved as everybody was five years old. As if coughing without any attempt of muffling the noise or fidgeting with their personal belongings were not enough, there was always anyone getting up and walking to the exits and back. Not to mention the perpetual whispering and sounds of cellphones. I have to be honest: all that made me disinclined to enjoy the performance.

If I tell you all that, it is because I want to be fair before I say that the whole experience was extremely disappointing. Enfant terrible director Calixto Bieito says that Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is an opera he particularly likes. In his opinion, Verdi took special pains in portraying his character’s psychology. Hence his decision on concentrating in a scenic space beyond time and space, where Simon’s dreams and nightmares can be seen. In terms of staging, this means a very poorly lit rotating stage decorated by a three-story structure vaguely similar to a ship. That does not make any difference in terms of dramatic action, for almost every scene is set downstage right on the edge of the stage. One step further and those singers would fall into the orchestral pit. Actually, that does not make any difference either, for the actor who receives more attention from the director is someone unlisted in the dramatis personae, i.e., Maria Boccanegra, snr, who paces up and down, looking like a junkie and making eerie faces. The real characters in the plot are left to fend for themselves. Amelia says she loves her father, but she never really comes near him at all, even when the text says she is supposed to be doing that. Actors claim to have objects that nobody see, to go out while remaining in the same place and a neverending list of absurdities. Everybody knows that the plot of Simon Boccanegra is a bit difficult to follow, but this staging guarantees its utter incomprehensibility. One could say – yes, but the trade-off is the gain in insight and expression. Well, my neighbors consistently laughed of the most touching scenes in the story. So much for the extra insight… If this performance caused me any insight, this was realizing that Elijah Moshinski’s staging for the Royal Opera House, unimaginative as it is, is really better than I thought.

Unfortunately, the musical side of this performance was not really of great help here. Conductor Fabio Luisi never ceased to give example of finesse and intelligence this evening. If he did have a truly responsive orchestra, this could have sounded like Richard Strauss. As it was, the house band lacked sound and homogeneity. Mr. Luisi deserves praise for the almost physical effort employed to make sure that there would be at least the minimal polish. That meant that there was very little possibility of working on expression here. This was particularly bothersome in terms of tension. The energy levels of this evening’s music making kept sagging and in the end nobody really cared anymore. Only a cast like the one inClaudio Abbado’s recording could have saved a performance  like this. And this was hardly the case.

Anita Hartig was until recently the Vienna State Opera’s resident Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. This says almost anything you need to know about her Amelia. Hers is an appealing, bright-toned voice used with musicianship and sensitivity. Even if its radiance makes it all right hearable, it lacks volume, especially in its lower end. Also, she is not truly capable of full lyric high notes. As ersatz, she offers glaring, fluttery and brittle sounds that – loud as they are – are not truly integrated in the legato she observes in less demanding passages. Her mezza voce, on the other hand, is truly lovely. But that is pretty much it. Her Adorno was the similarly light-toned Francesco Demuro, whom I saw as Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte a couple of years ago. As his Amelia, he can distort the tone to find a brighter edge to pierce through. But the results remain small-scaled, lachrymose and lacking spontaneity. Mika Kares (Fiesco) does have a voluminous voice and dark enough. It is however rather soft-centered, more suggestive of a Sarastro than Verdi-material. That said, he had a brave stab at the part. Nicola Alaimo (Paolo) too has big enough a voice and sang with animation, even if the very high notes in the part could have a little bit more focus.

Then there is Ludovic Tézier in the title role. This is the first time I hear him live, and his grainy, vibrant baritone does has a Cappuccilli-ian je-ne-sais-quoi, albeit less powerful. This evening at least, although he sang healthily and reliably, there was only a very intermittent connection with the role’s predicaments. There was indeed a generic snarl, but, when things got really emotional and someone like Piero Cappuccili or Giorgio Zancanaro would have pressed the “turbo” button and vibrate with all their overtones, Mr. Tézier had a somewhat business-like attitude. Something like “let’s call it a fortissimo and move on”.  I’d have to see him again in better circumstances to form an opinion.

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is an example of what makes Italian art great: its unique blend of funny and touching. I would say that in these days when the news are so depressing all over the world, going to the theatre to see the triumph of goodness can be reassuring. In his new production for the Opéra de Paris, director Guillaume Gallienne, however, proves to be skeptical. In his view, happy ending is only for those short of memory. Here, Cinderella is serious about her intent to make herself nobler by her good actions when she forgives her stepfather and sisters, but she cannot forget. In her new found splendor, she thinks only of her sad days of abuse, poverty and unhappiness. Although this is an intelligent view of the story by a director new to the world of opera, Mr. Gallienne makes the #1 mistake of directors not acquainted with the genre: the idea that it should be rescued from its obsoleteness and stuffiness. This invariably involves keenness on naturalistic action, a decision challenged by music’s own tempo, especially in operas the numbers of which are composed in forms that involve recapitulation. Directors of the “rescuing” type invariably resort to extras with parallel subplots in order to supply some interest while the helpless tenor and soprano are singing their boring arias. When they can indeed act, keeping them overbusy is inevitable. As much as this approach requires lots of imagination and cleverness, in the end it only alienates an audience who is already used to the peculiarities of operatic staging and ready to savor everything it has to offer if given enough time to do that.

I am not sure if I like the visual aspect of the prodiction. The idea of showing this as a Neapolitan comedy is apt, and the idea of sun-soaked decayed palaces fits the plot. But there are problem is: the director does not seem to know what the Neapolitan attitude is. The singer who succeeds in portraying that is, predictably, the Italian buffo. Also, the sets are frankly ugly and adapt themselves awkwardly to the dramatic action, especially in the scenes in the Prince’s palace. Costumes are also uncharacteristic and not particularly beautiful either.

In terms of theatre, what makes this staging special is the acting of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa. She seems to have gone deeper than the director in Cenerentola’s predicament, by the way she established not only her scenic persona but as she sings it too. Her whole performance glows with a rather dark light. She has payed close attention to the text and portrays a girl traumatized by years of ill-treatment and neglect. When the Prince asks who she is and she answers she is nobody, she means it. When her stepfather says she is dead and she says to herself “They are speaking of me”, she does sound as she had already died. When she implores to go to the ball, it is a cry for help. It’s either seeing a light in the end of the tunnel or succumbing. The trauma informs even the happy scenes – her entrance in the Prince’s party is everything but flashy. The glamor has no effect on her, she has been in the dark for so long that she has become blind to it. She is there only to grab onto her last hope – the valet to the prince who had SEEN her although she was covered in ashes. Ms. Crebassa’s singing was similarly self-contained and introvert. She dealt with the coloratura in absolutely adept but unspectacular way. It had nothing of the narcissism usually associated to technical display. She sang her runs as a pianist playing a nocturne by Chopin, purely as an expressive tool. To say the truth, the part is a bit in the end of her possibilities, especially in what regards climactic high notes, but she even used that for her interpretation purposes. This Cenerentola did not explode in bright high notes, but rather relished her warm, fruity and disarming low register. I have to confess that having seen Olga Borodina in this part made me a bit immune to the charms of Mozartian or Handelian mezzos lost in this repertoire, but Ms. Crebassa made something so unique here that she will be stored in my experience as sui generis.

Lawrence Brownlee’s acting abilities are not up to Marianne Crebassa’s level. Maybe that is why the director made him use a splint on one leg as a way of portraying some sort of fragility. It might have worked, for I found him less self-conscious in his leading man routine than elsewhere.  His tenor a bit less dulcet than last time I heard him, but the trade-off came in the shape of a slightly more heroic quality to his singing. As expected, he does not even flinch before the coloratura and the very high notes. In terms of singing, however, it is Florian Sempey who deserves pride of place. His is a naturally big voice, warm and firm and unproblematic. Even if he indulges in ga-ga-ga coloratura à la Christina Deutekom, how many Dandinis actually tackle their divisions a tempo as he has done? Most of all, he is a stage animal, ready to give his 100%, as if he felt energized by the audience’s appreciation. Bravo. He partnered veteran buffo Alessandro Corbelli to perfection. The Italian bass is still in firm, flexible voice and, if he goes for all the buffo mannerisms, he does it with aplomb. Finally, Adam Plachetka is an unusual choice for the part of Alidoro. The sound is not very Italianate, but he sang his difficult aria in a rich, full voice and complete commitment.

Even if the house orchestra is not really at ease with Rossinian phrasing, conductor Evelino Pidò managed to go beyond the imprecision and thickness to produce the necessary ebullience by choosing very fast tempi that left every musician in the pit on the edge of their seats. It must be said that he was able to do that without making violence to his cast, giving them enough leeway to truly communicate… and to breathe.

There is something about Simon Boccanegra that makes it special among all operas by Verdi. The fact that the composer himself never really got over its unsuccessful premiere in Venice shows that he himself was fond of it the same way die-hard Verdians are. Even after Arrigo Boito’s revision for the Milanese performances in 1880, the libretto remains contrived, but still I find Amelia/Maria, her fiancé, her father and her grandfather some of the most congenial characters in the operatic repertoire. Their inconsistencies, grudges, passions are often as illogical as real life is. Most important, the fact that, in spite of all the convoluted turn of events, their family ties never let them go really far from each other. Literally: although they are hiding from each other or pretending to be someone else or simply disappeared,  the Doge can see from his window the house where Fiesco and Amelia/Maria have lived all those years. Of course, all that would be of little importance if Verdi’s music were not as inspired and expressive as it is, especially in what regards the episodes involving father and daughter. What I mean is: the creators of Simon Boccanegra give performers a lot of material to work with. You don’t need a genius director or the most spectacular cast to make it work. I am not sure if I would say the same thing of the demands made on the conductor. The opening of act I is very hard to pull out. As far as I remember, only Claudio Abbado could make something of it.

This evening, for instance conductor Henrik Nánási took a while to gain his footing. Come in quest’ora bruna, for example, sounded its most mechanical and unaffecting, but the performance slowly got momentum. The last act, in particular, found the right balance between orchestra and soloists and also in terms of ensemble. The cast, as well, took some time to warm, but after the intermission after the first act, responded to the duets and trios in a very coherent and sensitive way.

The first time I saw Simon Boccanegra was the very same Elijah Moshinski production in a video release from the Royal Opera House. It is not the most memorable staging in the world and it seems to concentrate in just telling the story without calling special attention to any scenic element. Everything is discrete to a fault, but the point seems to leave singers all the necessary leeway to do their thing. Although the cast on video was very impressive, I have to say that the acting this evening was even more convincing. And again, this has to do with the way singers responded to each other. Boccanegra’s death scene was particularly well blocked, everyone’s gestures perfectly timed without making impossible demands in terms of acting abilities,  all directorial choices very sensible. It was indeed touching.

On video, Moshinski (and Georg Solti) had Kiri Te Kanawa in her best Verdi role. Although I would not call her the definitive Amelia in terms of singing (Freni and Ricciarelli, for example, were better equipped for the part), maybe her personal story made her relate in a very special way. I write that to explain that I could not help comparing any singer in that blue dress with my memories of the video. And Hracuchi Bassenz was not really at ease in her opening aria. She would gradually gain in confidence, but I have the impression she was not at her best voice. Hers is a velvety soprano that needs an extra push to pierce through in both ends of her range – and that had a cost. By the end, she sounded a bit tired. She had to work hard for high mezza voce, and one could hear her effort to keep her pianissimo on pitch when notes were a bit longer. And they usually were. If her performance was rather unspectacular in purely vocal terms, she never showed herself less than involved and the final impression was mostly congenial. Francesco Meli is an experienced Adorno and seemed to be more at ease with softer dynamics than his soprano. However, when he had to sing forte, he could sound a little emphatic and short on legato. In any case, he is very well cast in this role and offered an almost ideal balance of ardor and sense of style. It is amazing how healthy Ferruccio Furlanetto’s voice still is. At this point in his career, he cannot offer the round and extra-rich nobility of tone the role of Fiesco requires, and yet he sang reliably and expressively throughout. I leave the best for left. I had not seen Carlos Álvarez since he recovered from the health problems that kept him away from the operatic scene for a while, and I am glad to report he was in beautiful voice and that he sang with feeling, sense of line, awareness of style and commitment.

This is not the first time I have seen Claus Guth’s staging of Götterdämmerung for the Staatsoper Hamburg. I was able to see it right after the première when Simone Young was the conductor (as one can hear in the recording). Although I have not seen the other Ring operas, Mr. Guth, a director I usually find overambitious and all-over-the-place, seems to have pressed the right buttons in his pétite-histoire approach to the Tetralogy, in which the focus seems not to be the cosmogony and eschatology of THE world, but of one’s own personal word. It is, of course, a reductionist approach and a lot is left out, but I have the impression (I would have to see Rheingold and the Walküre to say more about it) that the idea was indeed paring it down to human size and make it a personal experience, something of a Bildungsroman. I have noticed also that the new cast and Holger Liebig’s Spielleitung have made it drier, less silly but also less forceful in terms of theatre. In any case, the sets already look worn out in a distracting way.

As much as in Munich ,conductor Kent Nagano opts for fast tempi and deals with the score almost in an abstract way, as if this the dramatic action had nothing to do with the music. I would say that one almost had the impression that Mr. Nagano believes that the music would disturb the dramatic action, so detached and unobtrusively it leaves all the job of interpretation and expression to the cast. One could conduct Bellini’s I Puritani like that. I have been careful not to use the word “symphonic”, for this would assume that structure and clarity would be the Schwerpunkt of this performance, but that was definitely not the case. The orchestral playing was mostly imprecise (the brass section particularly so) and awkward, and the sense of development very loose. This was particularly harmful in the many recapitulation scenes in this score, in which Leitmotive are showered upon the audience. There the sensation was more of cumulating than building up. The Immolation Scene was particularly short of momentum and organicity, hardly the climax of 15 hours of music and hundreds of pages of text.

I realize now I was unfair to Lise Lindstrom two days ago. The Siegfried Brünnhilde is so impossible to sing that, in the context, of a Ring performed in one or two weeks, most sopranos would simply give up the possibility of success in it and rather save resources for the strenuous but more realistic demands of Götterdämmerung (when they don’t simply delegate it to another singer, as often). In other words, it would be unfair to judge Ms. Lindstrom’s Brünnhilde’s credentials based on her performance in Siegfried. This evening she took the whole duet with Siegfried to warm, but after that sang consistently well. Saying that she is a lyric soprano in a dramatic role would be an oversimplification. There is something sui generis in the way her voice tackles some demands of the dramatic writing, but is dysfunctional in others. For instance, there are lyric sopranos out there whose lower registers are far richer than Ms. Lindstrom’s. In her lower reaches, she treads extremely carefully and some moments cannot help sounding anticlimactic (Ruhe, ruhe du Gott, for instance). Her high notes, however, have the right ping and most often than not flash in the auditorium quite firmly. Sometimes above the right pitch, truth be said. Most importantly, she is not afraid of high notes at all. This evening, she reached the end of the opera in better voice than she started. There was a moment in which one could clearly see that she decided to give the audience a little bit more just because she could. If you saw a “but” coming, you are right. She did handle some very difficult passages really adeptly, the end of acting 2 particularly, but everything generally sounds small-scaled, self-possessed and calculated. I understand that this is probably the reason why she manages her resources so well, but nobody goes to the theatre to admire energetic management. I mean, I left the theatre without a clue of what she thinks of this role.

Andreas Schager, on the other hand, is really “into” his Siegfried. Although he is not exactly an “actor”, he is very much at ease and alert on stage. This means, he is always communicating with his audience. In a very marked manner, but anyway, he is not just a guy providing sounds and making gestures. He inhabits the text and makes his points very clearly. For instance, he has a very unforgiving view of who is Siegfried. His whole performance turned around an exhibitionism that verged on nastiness. This Siegfried is like a star soccer player or a pop star. He can do whatever he wants and gets away with it. The all-out vocal approach to match is effective, of course, but less interesting than what one could hear before in Siegfried. Anyway, Mr. Schager was in rich voice and had more than enough leeway to make a show-inside-the-show in his death scene, mimicking the voice of Mime and producing the Waldvogel lines with flexibility and enough lightness. It must be said that his baritonal voice for the Tarnhelm scene is the most effective I have ever heard.

Stephen Milling offered a surprisingly subtle Hagen. This does not mean that he did not let out raw, slightly off-pitch hei-ho’s as every Hagen does, but everywhere else he seemed to run on “less is more” and this made him a little bit more sinister than usual. This also made sense for a singer not truly comfortable in the upper end of his range. As Alberich, Werner van Mechelen sounded somewhat woolly and had to resort to an emphatic attack that made his delivery closer to speaking. Vladimir Boykov’s grainy, rich baritone at first gave Gunther some gravitas, but he soon got tired and fought a bit with his high notes. Alison Oaks’s Gutrune seemed lighter and more girlish than in Bayreuth. Claudia Mahnke’s mezzo too was a bit softer-centered as Waltraute and the First Norn than I remembered. That did not prevent her from offering an alert accoubt of her narrative. Last but not least, Katharina Konradi’s Woglinde and Katja Piewek’s Second Norn are very well cast.

Although my experience of watching Claus Guth’s production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung for the Staatsoper Hamburg back in 2010 was thought-provoking, I had never had the opportunity of seeing other installments of the Ring at the Gänsemarkt until this evening’s presentation of Siegfried. As expected, the staging offers an intelligent approach to specific issues of this libretto while keeping coherence with the concept shown in the Tetralogy’s last opera. The backbone of Guth’s idea is the burden of History as a paralyzing element in a structure of power in contrast to the unfettering and dangerous effect of ignorance. Here we see Siegfried achieve everything the gods could not because he is entirely free from the constraints in which Wotan tangled himself by building the world. This is why he can also destroy it so easily. He has not real involvement with anyone or anything, because that is how he was raised, unaware even of his own history. He is incapable of fear because ultimately he has nothing to lose.

I have seen Kent Nagano conduct Siegfried once in Munich, and my impression was that Wagner is not his repertoire. This has been confirmed by this evening’s performance. It is true that back in the Bayerische Staatsoper Siegfried was the most successful item in the package, mainly because Mr. Nagano’s low-testosterone conducting sheds an interesting light in Wagner’s highest-testosterone score. With a help of the unusually poised singing offered by the cast, the American conductor led an almost Mozartian view of a music often referred to as raw and heavy. The problem is that after a while, one could see that what seemed to be legato was indistinct phrasing, what sounded like elegance was lack of accent and what passed for clarity was nothing but an indecision of what to highlight and when. Although the house acoustics made for an almost ideal balance of voices and orchestra, the orchestral sound itself was not particularly expressive or even exciting. The final bars in the closing scene, instead of portraying any sense of building exhilaration, sounded frankly awkward and bureaucratic.

The shining feature of this performance was, without any shadow of doubt, Andreas Schager’s firm-toned, unfatigable Siegfried. The penetrating quality of his tenor and his ability to boost power without making violence to phrasing made everything he sang sound like music. Nevertheless, Mr. Schager never made the mistake of making his Siegfried too chic. He is not the most gifted actor in the operatic scene, but his natural boyishness and goofiness make him particularly convincing here. Moreover, he seems to be having fun – in a role usually seen and heard as impossible to pull off. This is also the first time I hear a Mime who is not louder than the tenor in the title role. That is hardly Jürgen Sacher’s fault, who sang healthily and intelligently, albeit in too a Charaktertenor-ish way. Maybe it is a matter of taste, but I believe that the role gains a lot by being sung straight. I’ve had some trouble in recognizing in John Lundgren the singer I heard in Bayreuth. Here his Wanderer sounded so rich and dark that one would rather label him as a bass in a bassbaritone role. It is true that some high notes were a bit short in steam, but that was forgivable in this context. He sustained the illusion really well until the last act, when his voice lost some of the admirable darkness. Then the lack of a squillo became more of a problem. In any case, his was a cleanly-sung and musical take on the part. Although Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s baritone is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of Alberich, he sings it with welcome vehemence and forcefulness, not to mention the snarling and acting with the voice that always add zest to this part. Doris Soffel is an admirable veteran whose technical mastery allows her to get away with the low tessitura, but Erda requires a contralto voice. Elbenita Kajtazi was a very clear and fresh-toned Waldvogel.

This is the first time I’ve seen Lise Lindstrom. I had heard her on Youtube sing dramatic roles such as Turandot and Elektra and imagined myself something very different from what I heard this evening. Maybe it is the toil of a consistent diet of heavy parts on a light voice, but live she sounded hard-pressed and edgy in exposed acuti, hard to hear in low-lying passages and ill-at-ease as rule. After she warmed, she could bring a pleasant lyric quality to her singing, but the nasal, reined-in vocal production made her sound uninvolved and small-scaled. In her defense, she really made something of the trills, her rendition of the text was admirably clear and she could often give an impression of youth, also in her personal appearance. But she is not really an actress.

This evening’s performance is the first time I’ve seen a fully staged Pelléas et Mélisande and I finally realize how difficult a job it is for the director. First, almost every scene has its own setting. Second, the libretto is really wordy and more often than not singers must remain on stage for a long time while someone else sings. Third, you can’t have a soprano as Yniold. 

I wouldn’t have guessed that the staging’s shortcomings would be so distracting for the musical experience. I have seen many poorly directed performances of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, but the music itself offers some sort of “safe place” where one can take refuge while the eyes have to go through what is going on stage. With Pelléas this seems not to be necessarily so.

At first, Iacov Hillel’s production for the Theatro Municipal de São Paulo looks intriguing enough in Hélio Eichbauer’s Wieland Wagner-ian sets, but one doesn’t take long to see that the “empty space” is filled with extremely banal Personenrégie. All actions are taken in face value and the ambiguity so dear to Maeterlinck and Debussy is reduced to Walt Disney’s depth. Not to mention the moments of kitsch and nonsense (like people opening imaginary windows or saying that they are near when they are 10 meters away). The handling of imaginary objects is particularly bothersome when the placement of the actual props on stage was so cumbersome and noisy. There were moments where I couldn’t help wishing this was a concert version.

Rosana Lamossa is a name I would have expected in the role of Mélisande 15 years ago. Although she still looks young enough, her whole attitude is now too ladylike and poised for it. Her Cotrubas-like shimmering soprano is still appealing, but her break in her low register is now abrupt and forced. The result is that many passages that should sound seductive and feminine come across as shrewish and gutsy. That said, she was still the most interesting singer on stage in terms of tone coloring and imagination. Her Pelléas, Chinese baritone Yunpeng Wang displayed a dark-toned yet perfectly focused voice, healthy and firm all the way. And the singer phrased with absolute cleanliness and commendable French pronunciation. But no nuance. He sang his last note just the same healthy and firm way as he did every other note in his part. American baritone Stephen Bronk too sang in impeccable style and dramatic engagement. At moments his singing suggested that he knows his José Van Dam’s recordings, but at this point in his career he works hard for projection and tires easily – and was often overpowered by his Pelléas. 

Lidia Schäffer was a most efficient Géneviève, but the Arkel was frankly inadequate. I felt shortchanged when I realized that Andrey Mira’s extra-rich bass was wasted in the small part of the doctor. Understandably, Yniold’s scene with the rock was cut. 

Alessandro Sangiorgi’s view of Debussy’s score is very objective and forward moving, a wise choice considering the orchestra at his service. When things start to take a more dramatic turn though, one expects an increase in tension that never came to happen. In more atmospheric performances, this can be portrayed in a more “metaphysical way”, provided that an endless supply of orchestral coloring is to be heard. And more inspired singing too.