Posts Tagged ‘Adrianne Pieczonka’

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

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

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

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


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In the season in which Richard Strauss’s 150th birth anniversary is celebrated, the opera house in his birth city offers a treat for Straussians with three of his operas: Die schweigesame Frau, Arabella and Elektra. This first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a reprise of Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 production (as seen on video in Christian Thielemann’s DVD from Baden-Baden). As the director himself says, this staging eschews any attempt of characterization other than acting: the stage is practically empty, costumes are basic and there are two stage props (a royal robe in the style of the Bavarian State Opera curtain and, of course, the axe). As it is, with very little to see, one truly pays attention to what the singers are doing. This evening they were basically trying to guess which part of the stage the followspot would light and then jump onto it. Most singers seemed a bit at a loss figuring out what to do, the more gifted in the acting department doing their thing. The various examples of poor blocking suggest that there were not enough rehearsals for the cast to understand what they should do and – more important – why they were doing it. The closing scene looked almost unintentionally comic with all surviving members of Agamemnon’s family raising their arms for no particular reason while trying to make a tragedy face.

In terms of conducting, the performance seemed to be as reticent as it staging. Although the Bavarian State Orchestra produced rich and transparent sounds throughout, the conductor showed himself particularly reluctant in terms of pulse and forward movement. This libretto and this score abound in text and music that should simply erupt into sound. This evening, however, no firework in Strauss’s powerful score caught you by surprise: one could see the gunpowder being lighted, then count one, two and three to finally see the effect actually happen. On saying this, I do not mean that every performance of Elektra should sound like Georg Solti’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. On the contrary, by saying this, I mean the understanding of the musical-dramatic structural coherence that focus all recurrence of motives in their appropriate theatrical purpose. As it was, at some point, when the proceedings actually required some impact, Maestro Fisch finally forced his hand and brought about a brassy, unsubtle but not truly expressive sound in his otherwise excellent orchestra. To be honest, this performance’s best moment were invariably the more lyric passages (such as the Recognition Scene), when the beauty of the orchestral sound and the conductor’s consideration to his cast invariably paid off.

Although Evelyn Herlitzius took some time to warm up and, even then, she understandably shortened the difficult high c’s, she remains unparalleled in clarity of diction, understanding of the libretto and stamina. Although my memory of her 2011 performances in Berlin shows her then in more exuberant vocal health, I found that this industrious soprano proved to have never ceased to improve her singing in this role. This evening, I found her less prone to squalling than I would expect. Many high notes were roundly and goldenly sung and, to her own risk, she tried to produce softer dynamics in some dangerous passage, not always very successfully, truth be said. Her Chrysothemis was Adrianne Pierczonka, who was occasionally fazed by long high-lying phrases. The Canadian soprano, however, sang with fine projection, crispy delivery of the text and animation. Compared to her performances in Berlin under Marek Janowski, Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra sounded marginally more comfortable in her low notes, but still uncongenial in a role that requires an entirely different voice, I am afraid. Even her intelligence and insight cannot hide the contre-emploi (as the French would say). As much as I respect her artistry, I still believe Strauss wrote the low-lying part for a reason. Günther Groissböck was a dark, firm-toned Orest, somewhat stiff at times, but it seems that thi is what the production expected from him. Among the minor roles, Okka von der Damerau (as always) called attention with her finally focused and powerful singing.

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Is there any other opera that inspires so much tolerance in the audience as Die Frau ohne Schatten? Everything is so impossibly difficult that one feels even grateful that singers, conductor, director, members of the orchestra et al have agreed to do this possibly for the same fee they would receive for, say, Carmen…  In any case, the Bavarian State Opera can certainly boast to have a new production against which there could be little competition this day. Of course, there are shortcomings – even Karajan’s 1964 recording from the Vienna State Opera has shortcomings (nota bene – he had Fritz Wunderlich for the Erscheinung eines Jünglings and Lucia Popp for the Stimme des Falken) – but the level of success of individual contribution is so high that you feel inclined to overlook that the sum of the parts is noticeably less impressive.

I have seen Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne, Arabella and the Marschallin and found her Straussian performances so far only intermittently satisfying. Her Kaiserin this evening was in an entirely other level: golden tone, noble phrasing, unfailing musicianship and the necessary mysterious glamor, you would find all these qualities in her singing this evening. Elena Pankratova is one of the most interesting Färberinen that I have ever heard (I’m including recordings here). Her voice has a cold, slightly metallic quality one would rather expect to find in the role of the Kaiserin. At first, one feels that her voice is two sizes smaller than the required dramatic soprano, but she is the kind of singer who doesn’t show all her trump cards right away; when you’d least expect, there would come solid low notes, powerful acuti, mezza voce and even commendable legato for lyric passages. She has no problem with high notes, but the composer’s unrealistic demands in act III understandably brought about some screechy moments. In any case, the way she could musically show the character’s development during the opera is the reason why she goes to my shortlist, presided by Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her career, it is very bold of Deborah Polaski to sing a role as demanding as the Amme, especially in its complete version. Although her soprano has always had a dark color and she always had to push a bit for her high b’s and c’s, that does not mean that she was a pushed-up mezzo – and one could hear that this evening. The lack of weight in the bottom of her range was compensated by a noticeable ease around the area where mezzos have their passaggio, what allowed her to be particularly smooth and clean. I don’t believe she was in a very good day though: the voice lacked focus and she had to go full powers to pierce through, what eventually tired her. And her last scene is probably the most demanding of all.

Johan Botha showed no difficulties in the role of the Emperor, producing consistently beefy, clarion sounds, but little variety. As it usually happens, nobody seemed to know what to do with this role. And I can only imagine that a singer needs some coaxing to care for giving that little extra that makes all the difference of the world in a role as ingrate as this one. When I first saw Wolfgang Koch’s Barak in Salzburg, I thought that he could be subtler. But then Barak was not subtle in that production. Now I see that, in normal circumstances, his performance in this role can be as benign as the composer and librettist conceived it. Considering his recent Wotans in Bayreuth, I expected his voice to sound a little bit more voluminous than this evening.  Last but not least, Sebastin Holecek was a very powerful Spirit Messenger.

Richard Strauss would be proud of his hometown opera’s orchestra. The Bayerische Staatsorchester offered this evening the dictionary definition of Straussian orchestral playing, offering crystalline, almost fairytale like sonorities and expressive solos throughout. Conductor Kirill Petrenko has followed Strauss’s conduct-it-as-if-it-were-Cosi-fan-tutte advice as a religious credo. He rarely unleashed a true orchestral forte, worked rather from tonal coloring and and brightness, never drowned his singers and offered the kind of clarity that would make following it with the score in hands really unnecessary. It was a performance of unusual musical elegance and intelligence. If I had not seen Thielemann conduct this opera in Salzburg as transparently as today and far more excitingly with a force-of-nature Vienna Philarmonic, I would have considered this evening the best FroSch live in the theatre in my experience. It is very important to stress that the disfiguring cuts that reduce the role of the Amme and make the long scene with the Empress in act III a bit abrupt have been opened out here. This involved a sizeable monologue very commendably dispatched by the non-native-speaker soprano. It was a long evening in a busy trip and I may have missed something, but I have the impression that a couple of tiny cosmetic cuts have made to accommodate the staging.

Well, if this evening had an advantage over the Salzburg Festspiel , this has to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. This came as a surprise for me. I have bad memories of his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, but here he offered more than compensation. This was probably the best staging of this acknowledgedly unstageable opera I have ever seen. Warlikowski proved depth of understanding of the libretto and, if the Freudian approach has been already tried by Robert Carsen in the Vienna State Opera, the consistent way with which the director used all scenic resources to portray the complex situations in the plot – especially the awkward changes in act II – was all but masterly. I am sorry to disappoint those who were expecting a concept too distant from the original story, for this was truly understandable (I mean, until act III, where at least he keeps interest going when every other director more or less gives up). Inspired by Alain Resnais’s L’Année Passée à Marienbad, the story is set in a cure resort where a rich woman (the Empress) traumatized by some sort of dramatic incident with her husband and in strong oblivion and denial of her life is put under the responsibility of a psychiatrist (the Amme) who has developed an unhealthy attachment to her patient. As some sort of therapeutic experiment, she is put in contact with the janitor’s wife – possibly an Internet bride from the East who has found her “looser” husband and new low-life life far below her expectations – whose marriage is getting dangerously close to a violent episode as the one we assume to have happened with the Empress. Once you understand that, Warlikowski does not try to bend the symbology – when the characters talk about a shadow, it’s really a shadow they are talking about. This eventually makes act III difficult – there is an elderly gentleman who is supposed to be Keikobad whose connections with the cure resort is hard to understand. The water of life is indeed a glass of water, but it is hard to make something out of that – especially because the whole “having babies”-moral is more or less it. I have noticed that lots of people have a problem with the “having babies”-issue. If you are interested in my opinion, I don’t believe that this is what Hofmannsthal was trying to say here – although “having babies” is the most elementary way of exerting the selflessness HvH was talking about.

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In an age when opera stagings are permanently updated and discarded, the fact that Filippo Sanjust’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is still in use after 33 years is something of an archeological experience. For many a Straussian, it may feel like some sort of operatic eucharist- the recurrent resurrection of the mythic production on video featuring Karl Böhm’s conducting with Gundula Janowiz and René Kollo.

Those 30 years have been kind on the production, the unpretentious classical aesthetics of which are more or less immune to the change of fashion. The three decades have also been rather kind on its Zerbinetta too. But they are very much part of her performance now. Edita Gruberová’s stardom has begun in this very production in the Wiener Staatsoper back in 1976, when Böhm declared her the absolute Zerbinetta. She dazzled audiences for years in this role with the instrumental accuracy of her fioriture and her intelligent and sensitive interpretation. Now at 63, Gruberová cannot compete with her former self. First, the standard is too high. Then there are moments of incertain intonation, some excursions above high c are uncomfortable, her low register has become even less reliable. But Gruberová does not seem ashamed of her seniority. Although the tonal quality remains crystal-clear and her roulades, scales and staccato are still impressive, her Zerbinetta is clearly not a young woman, but rather a veteran seductress who can now and then still charm the occasional suitor. It is an evidence of the Slovak soprano’s rare artistry the way she transforms what could be a handicap in the special feature of her performance. The day when she says her farewell to Zerbinetta, we will have to wait long before we hear the role sung again with such spirit and Echtheit.

Adrianne Pieczonka’s big creamy lyric soprano is tailor-made for the role of Ariadne; she is certainly the best I have heard in a long while. That said, I cannot really class her among the great exponents of this part. Along  moments of surpassingly beautiful singing, there were too many examples of clumsy management of breath support. As a result, she forced many high notes, had her shallow-toned episodes, opted for odd Luftpausen and misfired a couple of pianissimi.

I can only understand that Michelle Breedt was not in a god day. Her voice did not really carry in the auditorium, the low register was not funcional and the ascents to high notes extremely strenuous. Her indisposition seemed to increase during the performance – and she only ended it out of sheer willpower. Although I dislike the overephatic non-legato-ish approach, one must acknowledge that she is a very convincing stage actress with illuminating word-pointing and imagination. I hope to see her Composer under better circumstances.

I have read a great deal about Lance Ryan and was extremely curious to hear him. I cannot deny, though, that the first impression was not really positive. His voice has an open raw nasal tonal quality that is the opposite of pleasing and the volume is not as generous as the Heldentenor repertoire might require. On the other hand, his vocal health and expert breath support are impressive. I have never, live or in recordings, heard a Bacchus who could sing those dangerously high-lying phrases with such ease. His ability to sing long stretches on the breath is truly amazing.

Ulf Schirmer is an experienced Straussian who knows how to balance vertical clarity with rich sonorities. The house band ‘s long history with this music is evident in the crystalline, ductile orchestral sound and the way the “theatrical” effects in the score were perfectly handled. Nevertheless, I have the impression that the performance was under-rehearsed. Ensemble was not truly polished and, with the exception of the leading tenor, the other main roles (including the Hausmeister) suffered from lapses of memory.

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I have added to the  discography of R. Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder comments about the Adrianne Pieczonka/Friedrich Haider, Michaela Kaune/Eiji Oue, Ricarda Merbeth/Michael Halász and Anja Harteros/Fabio Luisi recordings.

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