Posts Tagged ‘Angela Denoke’

Janacek’s fantastic opera Vec Makropulos is a favorite with intense singing actresses and has appeared more and more in the seasons of opera houses around the world – but it is not yet a regular item. For instance, this is the first time I have ever seen this opera in the theater. As almost everyone, I first met this very unique work in Charles Mackerras’s recording with a mesmerizing Elisabeth Söderström (probably my favorite performance with the Swedish soprano in this series).

It is a very difficult work – it has a very Protean musical quality that follows the rhythm of dialogues in kaleidoscopic orchestral effects, while the balance between cynical and philosophical comedy is hard to find. Cristoph Marthaler’s new staging does not try to interfere with the already tangled plot, but rather frames it into a theatrical concept of recurrent and repetitive actions carried out by actors. Every act is preceded by some sort of pantomime with the extras that finally outstay their welcome in a performance without intermission. Anna Viebrock’s single sets depict a courtroom with adjoining waiting-room, corridors. Characters of an unrelated (or maybe not) trial pop out until the room is packed with actors in the last act. Because the libretto is very clear, one could understand that none of those scenes actually take place in a courtroom, even if the courtroom did not seem to bring any particular atmosphere to any scene, especially the last one.

In comparison to Mackerras, Esa-Pekka Salonen adopted an almost Karajanesque large and rich orchestral sound in which hard-edges sometimes were a bit rounded out, but – with the help of deluxe playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, this score has probably never sounded so expressive and immediately approachable. Last time I saw Angela Denoka, it was an opera by Janacek too. She was not then in good voice and I feared that she had undergone some vocal decline, but this evening she showed herself in very good shape. Those used to Söderström’s recording might find her a bit generalized, but Denoke’s pure-toned yet large soprano had a slightly eerie effect that fits the role. She sounds like no-one else in the cast, and her almost Mozartian take on Janacek makes sense to the role of an opera singer “with perfect technique” and ice-cold allure. Raymond Very (Gregor), Peter Hoare (Vitek) and Ales Briscein (Janek) dealt commendably with Janacek’s difficult writing for the tenor voice. Both Johan Reuter (Prus) and Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Kolenaty) offered rich and surprisingly smooth-toned accounts of these key bass roles. Finally, I don’t have the faintest idea of how idiomatic or verbally specific these singers sound in Czech in an almost non-Czech cast (Briscein alone is a fellow countryman of the composer).


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In Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome comes to a terrace in Herod’s palace where she would eventually hear the voice of Iokanaan coming from a cistern. It must be terrible to be in so black a hole. It is like a tomb, she says. But in Harry Kupfer’s ooooold production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden, one may wonder if the cistern is worse than the prison-like setting where the Herod entertains his guests. I mean, it is not a prison-like setting – it is a prison in the 1970’s. Why women are allowed there at all, it is a question one might ask oneself. The page of Herodias, for instance, is here shown as a woman too – with a bizarre wig. Why is there a party in the facilities? And what these orthodox Jewish guys are doing there? These seem to be picky question in the context of these production, but once you are there in the theatre, you cannot help seeing the whole thing and making questions. In any case, it seems that a new head could not be produced to fit James Rutherford’s looks. The one Salome had did not look like him at all. By the way, probably because the head “belonged” to other Jochanaan, Salome could not do with it everything she said she would.

In any case, the Lindenoper is the right place to hear to this opera – the hall’s relatively small size gives the cast the opportunity to reserve their full-power singing to the key moments, what is essential in such a difficult score. In that department, maestro Pedro Halffter Caro deserves praises for finding the right volume of sound not to cover singers on stage and to uncover the complex writing for woodwind. However, the recessed string sound involved also a great loss of clarity.

Angela Denoke’s Straussian credentials are beyond suspicion – her sizeable creamy lyric soprano floats through Straussian lines to the manner born. It is also a voice that sounds lovely and young as Strauss would have wanted the role to sound. However, although this is a singer who has Sieglinde and Fidelio in her repertoire, Salome does require a very special kind of voice – those high-lying voices the glimmer of which pierce through an orchestra without much effort (such as Ljuba Welitsch’s or Hildegard Behrens’s). Denoke’s impressive technical control allowed her to prevent any loss of creaminess and roundness throughout, but that was achieved at the expense of carrying power in climactic high notes, in which wavering in pitch would also afflict her line. As a result, the closing scene would be her less successful moment and she seemed finally tired at the end of it. She is also a powerful stage actress, but her whole method is too intellectualized for a teenager. As a result, one would think rather of an experienced vamp trying her seductive powers on a new object. And that is not the story Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss’s story. Also her dancer-like movements throughout the opera preempted the effect of her not-really-danced dance. I do not want to give the impression that Angela Denoke’s Salome is not worth while the visit to the theatre – one the contrary, this is a Salome with an exquisite voice, who can act and who can let the seventh veil drop without embarassing herself. But the sum of these exceptional parts do not add to a truly overwhelming performance.

James Rutherford’s Jochanaan similarly benefits from the hall’s small auditorium. It is not a huge voice, but forceful enough and he sings with commitment.  Although Reiner Goldberg’s approach is sometimes too over-the-top, his heldentenor is still impressive for a Charaktertenor role and he has the necessary charisma. Stephan Rügamer sang Narraboth with ardour and elegance, but the theatre should have announced Rosemarie Lang’s indisposition before letting her step on stage in such dire vocal condition. It is a small role, but the likes of Grace Hoffman, Agnes Baltsa and Leonie Rysanek have not refused the opportunity to sing it.

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In the booklet to his performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio for the Paris National Opera, Sylvain Cambreling explains why he believes that some ideas in early versions of this work (usually referred to as Leonore) are, in his opinion, more effective than the definitive alternatives settled in the composer’s final 1814 version. Naturally, Beethoven’s own ideas of what is more effective are irrelevant compared to Cambreling’s, but let’s not talk about that. The edition performed at the Palais Garnier this evening featured the graceful Leonore I instead of the much loved and highly dramatic Fidelio overture. Also, Marzelline’s aria comes before the duet with Jaquino, which is followed by the trio Ein Mann ist bald genommen. In any case, replacing Beethoven by Beethoven might be debatable, but hardly matter for disappointment. The problem involves the replacement of the original functional if (refreshingly) self-effacing spoken lines by Martin Mosebach’s foolish dialogues which are supposed to connect every loose end in the plot by pseudo-smart explanations full of pocket philosophy and over-the-bar-table psychology.


One could say that these replacements could limit the musical and dramatic strength of Beethoven’s Fidelio, but lightness seemed to be the bottomline here – Cambreling ensured that the house orchestra offered clear, warm sounds in the context of a well-balanced and behaved performance. Although accents were firm and rhythms tended to be forward-moving (with the exception of a whimsical beat for Rocco’s “gold” aria), pride of place seemed to be given to shapeliness and correctness. The quartett Er sterbe, for example, never suggested anything wild or dangerous, but rather a certain orderliness. Accordingly, Johan Simons’s production offers us the pasteurized version of this prison drama – sceneries are aseptically white, inmates are dressed in pastels, Florestan is monitored by surveillance cameras. It takes some time to adjust to this Biedermeier version of Beethoven’s humanist drama in which blood and guts are replaced by the political correctness featured in Marie Claire magazine, but once you do that, it does fit one’s general ideas about classical elegance and balance. If you really don’t get my meaning, do yourself a favour by buying Karl Böhm’s CDs with Gwyneth Jones, James King, Theo Adam and the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Above any discussion about stylistic approach is the paramount quality of the cast gathered here. Angela Denoke has received some harsh criticism on her Leonore in Simon Rattle’s recording for EMI some years ago for excessive detachment and undernourished vocalism. Even if her Fidelio is still rather cool, it does feature the kind of Gundula Janowitz-like shapely sculpted phrasing even in the most hair-raisingly difficult moments that matches to perfection Florestan’s idealized vision of an angelic Leonore. Her voice is at once firm, radiant, pure-toned and surprisingly forceful – I sincerely doubt that there are many other singers around who can sing the role as musicianly as she does these days. Moreover, she looks believably boyish and offers acting of disarming sincerity. It is always difficult to find the right Marzelline when the singer taking the title role has such a beautiful voice – and casting Julia Kleiter is an evidence of good judgment. Not only does she have one of the loveliest lyric soprano voices in our days, but also boasts an engaging and charming stage presence.

Jonas Kaufmann is also a skilled actor. He convincingly portrayed Florestan’s physical debilitation even when this involved singing difficult music in very uncomfortable positions. His opening aria, for example: he risked to attack his initial high g on almost falsetto-like mezza voce only to slowly develop it into a very dark fff lying on the floor with his legs crossed in a truly disturbing manner. In the ensuing aria, he sang with sensitivity and imagination and negotiated its difficult second section with unusual accuracy. At this point, any doubts about his ability to sing heroic repertoire should be dispelled. I have seen Alan Held sing the role of Pizarro many years ago and again in Rattle’s EMI recording, but never better than this evening. His voice has acquired a darker hue but still has the necessary concentration to pierce through the orchestra, especially in high higher register. Ideally, the part requires a heavier and larger voice, but operating close to the limits does not prevent this singer from offering a satisfying and reliable performance. Franz-Josef Selig is again a most sensitive and rich-toned singer – only poor focus on high higher notes stands between him and complete success. Ales Briscein is a most pleasant Jaquino, while Paul Gay is a bit modest in sound and attitude for Don Fernando. Last but not least, although the Paris National Opera chorus still lacks some discipline, the final scene was effectively grand in sound and animated.

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In the Met’s old and yet still beautiful production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin’s elegant and unexaggerated boudoir and Faninal’s white palace with hundreds of windows for Vienna to watch inside are spetacular as they should be. Only the 3rd act Wirthaus looks a bit confusing, since the limits between the room and the corridor are not entirely clear. The same cannot be sad of Donald Runnicles’ conducting, which is clarity itself. The second act and especially the third act were performed in an unusually euphonious manner in a sense of organization and continuity which would win the heart even of the most suspicious Straussian. To say the truth, some moments needed a more distinctive orchestral sound to work to perfection, such as the delivery of the silver rose, which ideally requires richer but still transparent sonorities. Maybe divided violins were not the best idea for that big venue… However, after a promising haunting pianissimo ending to act I, the orchestra delivered an exciting structurally clear prelude to act III (despite some blunder in the brass section) and an exquisite final trio, truly powerful in its rising tension. It is also remarkable the naturalness with which Runnicles finds the dance rhythms even in the most structurally complex scenes.

Angela Denoke’s Marschallin is an evidence that the golden age of Straussian singing is not over. Her blond slim graceful figure and playfulness have something of Schwarzkopf, although she eschews all kind of exaggeration. Her reedy floating full-bodied tone has something of Janowitz, although there is nothing cool and distant about her. The warm feminine low register and appealing mezza voce have something of Crespin, although she is entirely comfortable with her top register. However, in spite of all comparison, she was pretty much herself: a Marschallin whose appetite for life thinly disguises a highly sensitive nature that learned never to indulge in gloominess. Glücklich ist der vergißt… could be this Marschallin’s motto. Her crystal-clear diction, the natural delivery of her native language, allied to a wide tonal palette, projected her highly expressive portrayal vividly into the vast auditorium with no vocal constraint. Being a highly accomplished singing actress, her monologue and ensuing duet with Octavian scored so many points in subtle inflection and the sheer beauty of tone was so beguiling that even a non-German speaking person in the audience would take her slightest point. Her floating full pianissimi made for a particularly touching launching of the final trio. If one would like to find any criticism about this exquisite performance, that would be a certain flutter in her vocal production, especially in high notes from mezzo forte on, probably due to the frequentation of dramatic roles. Let us hope that her sucess in the part of the Feldmarschallin will mark the beguinning of a new phase in her career dedicated to Romantic German lyric roles, tailor-made for her voice and personality.

Probably not in her best form, Susan Graham displayed a rather bleached out tone above mezzo forte and the top notes took a second or two to blossom, with the exception of her appealing mezza voce singing. In act III, she seemed to be in better shape and ended the opera with a stream of velvety floating sounds. She is a committed staged performer, but her Octavian is too much of a tomboy to be really convincing – a fault shared by most singers in this part (the notable exception being the young aristocrat played by Sena Jurinac in the video from Salzburg).

It seems Lyubov Petrova has recently delivered a baby and that may explain a certain lack of radiance in her voice. She could float her tone all right in the delivery of the rose, but in a rather unexceptional manner. A certain rattling in her vocal production and the China doll looks gave her old-fashioned charm, but the necessary breathtaking vulnerability and loveliness – even more so when the Marschallin displays such a beautiful voice – were still missing . All in all, she was a stylish Sophie and I would like to see her in better condition.

Peter Rose’s bass is entirely functional for Ochs – the tone is firm and rich and he has the low notes. Nevertheless, the voice is a couple sizes too small for the Met. His Baron was refreshingly young sounding and he could find the right balance for the rustic aristocratic devised by Hofmannsthal.

Håkan Hagegård’s straightforwardness as Faninal was also most welcome – and his solid clear baritone is still a pleasure to listen to. Matthew Polenzani had to force his otherwise dulcet tone for the Italian tenor aria. Unfortunately, Wendy White was rather small-voiced for Annina.

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