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Posts Tagged ‘Anja Harteros’

I have reread everything I’ve written about Don Carlos here in order to avoid repeating myself, but the fact is: I cannot. So I’ll sum it up: it is an opera that does not work by itself; it requires, therefore, a dream team (including stage director, orchestra and conductor) to develop its uniquely dark and oppressing atmosphere; this dream team never exists, even in legendary recordings, but opera houses should not accept this as inevitable and understand that it is something special (as in “if you see it as routine, better give up”). Now let’s speak of this evening’s performance.

Although I am very much surprised by Asher Fisch’s pulse, alertness and tension-building – he should try all of that in Wagner and R. Strauss – tiny miscalculations undermined too many key moments. First he seemed partial to a big orchestral sound, but then he seemed to believe that clarity and rich strings were incompatible until he finally seemed to have decided that his cast would prefer lower dynamics.  Act V – we had the Italian 5-act versions – was basically a misfire in terms of conducting. When you have the Bavarian State Orchestra, you have everything you need to transport the audience to the overwhelming massiveness of San Jerónimo de Yuste in time for Elisabetta’s aria. Today, the strings had the ideal roundness of sound, but that basically did not build up in intensity. Then the poor soprano had to tackle the famously dangerous intervals of the aria without the “orchestral cushion” that would envelope her sound to form the ideal blend of a single musical statement. Her pleas to have her tears reported in heaven received a sprightly accompaniment that made one think of Amelia Boccanegra enjoying patrician life in the shores of Genova. Nothing compares to the closing of the opera – the ghost of Charles V appears, Amelia is terrified and then… then when I realized, it was over. One could barely notice that! If a conductor does not find it cataclysmic that the ghost of a dead emperor raise from the tomb to rescue his grandson from the hands of one of the most powerful monarchs of the earth and a gruesome fanatical religious leader, then what again is he doing there? If I cannot put across my meaning, just grab any of Karajan’s recordings to hear what I am talking about.

When it comes to staging, I have already accepted that all contemporary productions of Don Carlos look exactly the same: simplified historical costumes, minimalistic and monochromatic sets turning around the idea of a cross and no Personenregie to speak of. I find it all so petty and cheap and banal that my very soul craves to see Agnes Baltsa looking and moving racée as hell in her impossibly wrought dress in the gigantesque sets of the Grosses Festspielhaus. Of course, I would like to move on, but directors have not helped me so far. In any case, I would like to give Jürgen Rose the benefit of the doubt. This production was premiered in 2000 and this is the first time I see it. I once had a conversation with a stage director specialized in opera who was candid enough to say that he often had to deal with famous singers not willing to learn the concept and basically wanting to know where they enter from and exit through. This seems to be an accurate description of this performance: the body language of practically every soloist was wrong (nobody bowed to the king and queen, he often had to pick objects on the ground himself, Rodrigo demanded Carlo a sword he already had taken from him, Rodrigo does not kneel to be knighted, touching ladies during conversation seem to be standard practice etc), blocking was nonsensical and chaotic and there were many embarrassing moments where singers just stopped and looked around in a “what now?”-attitude. This would have not worked in a performance of Carmen or La Bohème for tourists, let alone in a difficult Schiller-adaptation of a story involving historical, philosophical, political and religious issues.

Anja Harteros is the exception to the stage awkwardness – she has an innate ability to portray aristocratic characters, moving with great dignity, doing beautiful, meaningful gestures and responding to the dramatic situations of the plot. Of course, real direction would have made her even more compelling, but in terms of theatre, she was this evening a beacon in the darkness. To make things better, she sang famously too. This is a role that poses her no difficulties and, if she is still not the most Italianate of sopranos, she has clearly made a serious effort in that direction. If you think that nobody else sings this so beautifully and interestingly as she does these days, that’s a win-win situation. The other German singer in the cast, René Pape, has also made a serious exercising in Italianizing himself. I find this performance a complete improvement in terms of style since I last saw him in this role in the Schiller-Theater in Berlin. He was in superb and commanding voice – and I cannot think of someone better equipped for this part today – and yet he still sounds a bit calculating and not truly trusting the power of Verdi’s melodic imagination in his big aria. In this sense, the only Italian in the cast, young baritone Simone Piazzola, offered a lesson of how you infuse emotion in this repertoire essentially by the quality of vocal production. In his death scene, his control of vibrato to increase expression shows that he knows Piero Cappuccilli’s performances (as heard in many recordings with Karajan, for instance). This is a voice of the right color and range for this repertoire, but I am afraid that volume is still a bit on the light side, especially in his lower register.

Anna Smirnova is a singer I saw before she became a household name. Although her all-out approach was reckless, it was also exciting in a very raw way. Since then, she has become more self-controlled, but also less powerful, less tonally rich in her middle range –  and her diction is becoming indistinct. She could nonetheless pull out an O don fatale very easy in high notes and surprisingly close to what is written in the score.  Tenor Alfred Kim’s dependability and cleanliness of phrasing made for a not truly engaging tonal quality – grainy and slightly nasal – and lack of squillo to pierce through in his high notes. Although Don Carlos is not considered one of Verdi’s most difficult roles, it is curious how rarely one listens to a truly convincing performance from a tenor in it. Last time I saw Rafal Siwek in this opera, he was Filippo – here he is back to the usual casting as the Inquisitor, where the sheer size of his voice is an undeniable asset, even if he is not truly vehement or frightening in it.

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Film director Andreas Dresen has been praised by his sensitive portraits of ordinary people’s lives generally from the former DDR (as the director himself). In his staging of Richard Strauss’s Arabella for the Bavarian State Opera, one can easily see the sensitive Personenregie in the thoroughly developed characterization from leading to minor roles. However, the aesthetics of a decadent imperial Vienna is here more reminiscent of the design behind the iron curtain than of the art direction in Charles Vidor’s The Swan. All right, the action is here set at some point of the XXth century, but I won’t be able to risk when, given the prevailing anachronism. Matthias Fischer-Dieskau’s sets are uninspired, uninspiring and remarkably ugly. They also look poorly finished. They are not half as problematic as Sabine Greunig’s horrendous costumes: Arabella has a missionary’s wife dress in act I, looks like a suburb cabaret singer in act II and has a leather motorcycle jacket ready for every entrance and exit. Accordingly, her father appears like a member of a rumba trio in his black-and-red outfit. One would feel tempted to close his or her eyes at some points, but the stage direction itself had plenty of interesting ideas, very well informed by the libretto. The episode with the glass of water in the closing scene alone offsets a great deal of the prevailing kitschfest – it sums up the director’s efficient grasp of the comical, psychological and philosophical elements in the libretto.

Although I often wished for better-defined articulation and a more crystalline sound from the orchestra, Philippe Jordan never failed to find the right tempo, the ideal balance between stage and pit and to produce rich and beautiful but never loud sonorities throughout. Whenever the conductor does not find the absolute clarity and thematic coherence required by the complex writing, the second half of act II seems a bit clumsy and pointless. Compared to what one usually hears live, the results were quite decent, but still below the illuminating guidance – alas, rarely – provided by the masterly baton of the likes of Sawallisch.

Although this is not Anja Harteros’s debut as Arabella (she has sang it recently in Dresden, to start with), it is a role she does not sing as usually as she should. The fact that is has been live-streamed by the Bayerische Rundfunk might make her take on the part known to a wider audience. Deservedly so, for she has today no rivals in this role. The writing fits her voice as a glove – she has no problem with the occasional visit to the lower end of her range, tackles the exposed high notes roundly and healthily and shades her soprano to mezza voce without flinching. She has a clear advantage over many a famous Arabellas: singing her own language, she handles the conversational passages with expert word-pointing, tone coloring and theatrical awareness. Some overlooked phrases sounded extraordinarily meaningful and sensitive. As every leading Straussian soprano, she surprised the audience with added glamor in a performance consistently elegantly phrased. I’ve had to think for a while to find something amiss, and I could save three lines in this review by saying that I found nothing. But I don’t have an editor and I’ll use them: if one thinks of Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa, one would have the impression of a provocative reserve in attitude that made Arabella different from everyone else. Anja Harteros was more German than Austrian in her Arabella: she sounded absolutely sincere and involved. Considering her talents, it is an approach I can easily get used to.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was a most reliable Zdenka, her light, bell-toned soprano very much at ease with the excruciatingly high tessitura and surprisingly well-blended with Anja Hartero’s velvetier tone. She is certainly the best Zdenka I have ever seen (she also does look very convincingly boyish), but it has been a while since we have last heard an important voice à la Anneliese Rothenberger or Lucia Popp in that role. On purely acting terms, Joseph Kaiser was an interesting Matteo – the sexual frustration over Arabella and the puzzlement over the whole Zdenko/a affair finely portrayed – but the top register is entirely devoid of brightness (and I might be wrong, but his culminating high note in act III did not sound like a high b). At first, Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Mandryka sounded lacklustre in his lack of volume and tonal appeal, but he gradually grew in the part out of engagement, attention to the text and forceful top notes. Kurt Rydl was a powerful, funny Waldner, but Doris Soffel’s mezzo is a bit grating these days, what made her a rather uncongenial Adelaide. Eir Inderhaug deserves praise for producing a refreshingly non-cute Fiakermilli.

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When the Deutsche Oper premièred Marco Arturo Marelli’s production of Don Carlo back in 2011, Anja Harteros was its selling feature and her cancelling would have made me very disappointed if it did not mean hearing Lucrezia Garcia for the first time. This evening, however, La Harteros not only did not cancel but also volunteered to cover for Barbara Frittoli next week. This has also been an opportunity to make sure that, good as Ms Garcia was, Harteros is in altogether another level. First, she can act. Second, she has a wonderful attitude for aristocratic roles. Third, she has this uniqueness only great singers have. I have often discussed with my fried Cavalier here about German singers in Italian roles – and I have often said that Anja Harteros should concentrate more on German roles, which highlight her best qualities. Although her voice still lacks that typical Italian brightness, she brings undeniable assets to the role of Elisabetta – a substantial lyric soprano with solid low notes, powerful acuti, soaring mezza voce and elegant phrasing. Experience in this repertoire has helped her to find a more authentic Verdian style – she is learning to play her chest notes, to build interpretation from atmosphere rather than word-to-word tonal coloring (“German style”) and even knowing how to utter her parole sceniche to thrill the audience in key moments. As she was in very good voice, her performance grew steadily in strength to a Tu che le vanità wide ranging in expression and a ideal rendition of the final duet.

I saw Violeta Urmana sing the role of Eboli back in 2005. Then I praised her absolute homogeneity and pondered that, if her poise was welcome, it was ultimately dull in this repertoire. But that was eight years ago – she was a mezzo with impressively easy high notes back then. Now that she is billed as a soprano, her high notes have lost the exuberance  (and homogeneity is not always there either) . I have noticed that in her Parsifal in Berlin last March and it seems that this is the moment for an engine check. Seriously. Basically, every high note sounded strained, tense and effortful this evening. O don fatale had a perilous start until the stretta, when she surprised me with a very powerful and accurate ending.  

I had never heard Russell Thomas’s name before this evening and I am still not sure of the right way to describe his performance as Carlo this evening. This American tenor has an appealing vocal quality – his voice is rich, large and dark, but irregularly supported in the middle and (especially) in his low register. He squeezed too often his high notes (especially in the beginning) and his mezza voce was often poorly focused. That said, he has very good Italian, an instinctive grasp of Verdian style and, if he was not always subtle, he was never vulgar either. He showed great sensitiveness in his final duet with Anja Harteros, shading his voice to match the German soprano’s now legendary ductility.

Dalibor Jenis was an emotional Rodrigo in his warm and vibrant baritone, in great shape this evening. The role is a little bit on the heavy side for him and he had some patches of fatigue (especially in his big scene with the king). His death scene was generously and convincingly sung.

Hans-Peter König’s Filippo is an interesting chapter in the above-mentioned “German singers in Italian roles”-debate. This Wagnerian bass has a big, solid voice, exceptionally powerful in its lower reaches, but rather clear and slightly straight in its higher reaches. Although the tonal quality is very German, his approach is legitimately Italian (his pronunciation is only occasionally very lightly accented). Because of the lack of vibrancy and darkness in exposed high notes and also of a somewhat placid temper, some key moments in the opera sounded rather discrete than imperious, but this very self-restraint helped him to build an intimate and direct Ella giammai m’amò. Albert Pesendorfer too was a powerful Inquisitor, but the low register could be a little bit more percussive. Last but not least, Tobias Kehrer was a strong and incisive Monk.

Compared to last time, Donald Runnicles performance was far more compelling this evening – the orchestral sound was consistently big and rich (what proved to be testing to some members of this cast), but he still has not learned to produce cumulative tension in this repertoire. For instance, the introduction to Elisabetta’s big aria, a moment in which a German orchestra’s beefy sound always produces the right effect, failed to develop in strength and the soprano had to create the necessary momentum basically by herself.

I have written about the production last time and I would only observe that it seems that there has been some welcome cleansing in the direction and that it had seemed somewhat more effective this evening (a better acting cast has helped that impression too).

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If someone actually paid me to write in this blog, I would say that the text I am about to write was written for the money. On writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore, everybody quotes Caruso’s famous line that says that all you need are the four greatest singers in the world. And I won’t make an exception – I have just quoted it!  – and that is why I feel it is somehow unfair to say that this tenor or that soprano had their share of shortcomings in a work in which almost everybody – even the greatest ones – has their shares of shortcomings. But I thought that Cavalier is such a faithful reader and that he would like to read it – so here it goes. This evening, the Deutsche Oper offered the first of two concerts featuring Verdi’s rawest and earthiest opera. Although the score is often laughed at as simplistic (“big guitar” is the expression often used), it is quite puzzling how the results are rarely effective live. It is raw music, with violent percussive use of the orchestra, vertiginous rhythms and exciting ensembles with glittering effects, especially in the violins. The use of the word “glittering” is not accidental – you just need to listen to the last scene in act I in Karajan’s eccentric 1977 studio recording to see how the Berliner Philharmonic is at its brightest-sounding, its violins gleaming upfront along with singers, exactly as La Scala’s orchestra had in Karajan’s 1956 mono recording with Maria Callas. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra is, of course, typically German in sound and is always at its best in Wagner. But under the right guidance, these musicians can get into cisalpine mood with the extra richness and roundness reserved for key moments. Not this evening, I am afraid. Although young conductor Andrea Battistoni is indeed Italian, he certainly did not inspire his musicians to make the southbound “spiritual” journey. I have to confess that I have never heard this orchestra so colorless in sound as this evening. The maestro jumped, gesticulated, moved about his arms and I could see no difference in animation, dynamic or intensity as a result. The powerful climaxes sounded just loud, the fast tempi mechanical, the frisson left to imagination. Battistoni is keen on keeping things a tempo – which is probably the right choice for this music – but if you are not breathing with your singers, the effect is just straight-laced and spasmodic. The chorus had sometimes problem with following his beat in tricky passages (the stretta of the opening bass aria, for example) and his soloists often had a could-you-please-give-me-some-time? expression on their faces. It had been a while since I last saw a conductor booed at the Bismarckstraße (differently from directors, who are almost always booed there), but this evening those were not isolated manifestations of displeasure.

This evening’s selling feature was probably Anja Harteros’s Leonora. Like everybody who has ears, I am an admirer of this German soprano – especially when she is singing German repertoire. The fact that hers is not an Italianate voice could be called secondary in a role where one is just happy to find someone who can actually do this music justice. Would you call Leontyne Price’s tonal quality Italianate, for example?  If I had to say “yes” or “no”, I would say that Harteros was a successful Leonora – her voice is big, warm and homogeneous, she can trill, phrases with utmost sensitivity and good taste, has listened to her Callas CDs and did not seem desperate with what she has to do. But still the style doesn’t come very naturally to her. Her interpretation is often too “intellectual” in approach (as opposed to “emotional”), her “Italianate” effects sound a bit calculated and she doesn’t do low register Italian way.  Moreover, I would say she was not at her best this evening: she worked hard for mezza voce and was sometimes a bit flat. Writing all this is a bit embarrassing – she was probably better than any other Leonora one would find in big opera houses today, but still a singer of her caliber should always be compared with the very best. And I mean it as a sign of respect. If I have to keep a souvenir of her performance this evening, this would be her direct, touching, heartfelt Miserere – her Mozartian background used to the best effect in purity of line and sincerity of expression.

Stephanie Blythe had been originally announced as this evening’s Azucena, but was later replaced by Dolora Zajick. It was very heartwarming to see how Harteros made a point on showing deference to this almost legendary Verdian mezzo-soprano (and how gracefully Zajick received it and made a point of acting likewise). If you think of how long she has been singing these impossibly difficult Verdi roles in some of the world’s leading opera houses, one must acknowledge her abilities. At this point of her career, her voice is “merely” very, very big (compared as to how gigantic it used to be, say, 10 years ago), her middle-register has recessed a bit and become sometimes rather nasal and her vowels are now and then unclear. But, whenever things become really testing, she is still admirable – she tries every trill, never recoils from singing piano, ventured into her optional high note in the act II duet with Manrico, you name it. I had seen her sing this role at the Met in a day in which she was not truly in the mood, but this evening – without costumes and scenery – she simply lived through Azucena’s predicaments, the character’s conflicts all clearly presented. And, God, her “sei vendicata, o Madre!” was dramatically, vocally, spiritually (choose an adverb and fill in the blanks here) thrilling. She alone brought the edge to a blunt performance of an opera that is about edge.

I had seen Stuart Neill before only once ages ago in a Verdi Requiem with Denyce Graves in Rio (don’t ask me when was that – I have no idea). My distant memory of the event tells me of a voice big enough and right in style in a not really musically elegant singer. This evening, in the context of his competition, I would say that – in a concert version where his bulk is not a hindrance – he is fairly viable choice for the role. His voice was built around an Italian sound, his pronunciation is extremely convincing, he sounds believably “rustic” and even has functional mezza voce. It is also true that his phrasing is a bit emphatic and not very keen on legato and his notes too often crudely finished off. Ah, sì, ben mio was not graceful or heartfelt, but Di quella pira – highly adapted, as it often is, to the necessities of the final acuto – put across its “message” (in the sense that it sounded all-right heroic and athletic rather than desperate and arthritic). If I had to be really honest, I found Dalibor Jenis’s Count di Luna the all-round most reliable performance this evening. When I saw him in Un Ballo in Maschera, I couldn’t see all the qualities he displayed this evening – a forceful, dark voice with the right touch of harshness, but also supple enough for a sensitively sung Il balen. Finally, Marko Mimika was a decent Ferrando who could do with a tiny little bit less wooliness.

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Otto Schenk’s production of R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier is probably by now listed in Frommer’s and TimeOut as one of Munich’s historical attractions: it was first shown in 1972 and made famous in Carlos Kleiber’s DVD with Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp. I can understand the Bavarian Opera’s unwillingness to part with it – it is an expensive staging that is still very popular. The sets to the second act were received by applause, something I had never seen in Germany before.  In any case, having seen the DVD does not mean that you’ll know beforehand what you are going to see. The new cast has brought it’s own contribution under a Spielleitung that responds to contemporary tastes rather than those of 1972.

Anja Harteros, for example, is a far more sensuous and less pensive Marschallin then Gwyneth Jones in the video. Her lighter approach is coherent with what Strauss himself expected in this role. She was, of course, born to sing it: she has the looks, the attitude and the voice. Her rich soprano finds no difficulties in the often low-lying declamatory passages, expands effortlessly in its higher reaches (exemplary contribution to the closing trio) and takes easily to mezza voce. She took a while to warm and only sounded her full-toned self by the beginning of her monologue. Although her diction is very, very clear and, being herself German, is usually spontaneous in her delivery of the text, I had the impression that she – very understandably – is still finding her way in this role. In many a key moment, she would opt for a studied, ready-made inflection borrowed from her famous predecessors in the role rather than trusting her own instincts. In these moments, her Marschallin invariably sounded uninvolved. But don’t mistake my words: if I make these observations, it is precisely because Harteros is on her way to becoming the leading Marschallin of her generation. If she is not that yet, the good news are that she is going to be even better in the future!

On the other hand, Sophie Koch is by now an experienced Octavian who knows exactly where her strengths are. Her creamy mezzo has the necessary brightness to pierce through, her passaggio is very smooth, she avoids pushing and can spin some forceful high notes and beautiful pianissimo. She is only tested when the tessitura remains too long in the soprano area. Even then, she acquits herself quite commendably. I like her stage performance as well; she knows how to play boyishness without making a charicature of it and how to seem aristocratic without seeming mature. She handles the physical comedy without overindulging herself too.

Lucy Crowe too is a convincing Sophie – she has the physique and finds the right balance between darlingness and purpose. Her soprano is a bit more substantial than usual in this part, but she can sound edgy and her cleanly attacked and floating high pianissimi sometimes develop a light, but noticeable beat. The other Briton in the cast, Peter Rose has the required low notes and clear articulation for the Baron Ochs. He is an excellent comedy actor too and can find a patrician note in an otherwise rustic character. I saw him in this role in 2003 at the Met, when he was more restrained with his ad libs and funny touches. At any rate, he has enough charisma to pull this out and certainly is one of the best exponents of this role in our days.

Conductor Constantin Trinks drew rich, warm sounds from the Bavarian State Orchestra without forgetting structural clarity; the prelude to act III was particularly clean – but had problems to find the right balance between pit and stage, often drowning his singers. In the more intimate passages, he gave the impression of being reined in and without ideas, while complex ensembles, especially those involving Ochs, were often messy.

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For someone who has truly lost interest in La Traviata, I’ve been quite often in the opera house for it. To be more specific, the only reason why I went to the Deutsche Oper today was Anja Harteros – and maybe I was curious to see Simon Keenlyside after a while (last time, it was 1999) – but it was not to be, for he cancelled due to illness. In any case, an entirely non-Italian cast proved to be interesting. Götz Friedrich’s thoroughly outdated production was given an accidental freshen-up out of having a non-narcissistic tenor and a world-class diva in the title role.

Anja Harteros has sung the role of Violetta Valéry in the world’s leading opera houses and developed her stage performance with various directors, and I can only guessed that, faced with the prevailing shabbiness, she has brought her own stage direction as prime donne in the XVIIIth century would do with their arie di baule. Truth be said, the German soprano’s overall attitude is unfit for the role – she seems more voracious than seductive in act I, more regal than vulnerable in act II and more tragical than touching in act III – but her intent to inhabit the stage and react to what happens in it simply made the show more interesting. This does not mean that it was a gripping performance – theatrically speaking, it was not. It was rather an affair of craftiness than of emotional generosity. But then she needed a director to guide her through this process. In act III, when she decided to stumble around a bit to show Violetta’s declining health and yet her willingness to go on, the poor tenor probably did not get what was going on and kept to what has been blocked, leaving his ailing beloved to fall to the ground and get up by herself. One could say “of course, he is a tenor!”, but I have one good thing to say about Pavel Cernoch. As he seemed to be really doing what he was told to do, his Alfredo seemed particularly composed and naive, what makes far more sense with the libretto than the usual bravado displayed by most tenors. For once, his increasing childishness in his act II scene with his father (by the end, he was in fetal position on a couch) explained a lot his subsequent behavior.

Although Yves Abel conducting missed some important theatrical moments (particularly Alfredo’s “denunciation” of Violetta in Flora’s party), he did give time for his orchestra and singers to build their phrases in a musicianly and meaningful way. The orchestra, in spite of some blunders (especially in the overture), had a beautiful, full sound and the overall impression was of polish and elegance. With the help of his soprano and his baritone’s expressive performances, this approach has somehow paid off.

It is not only Anja Harteros’s attitude that seems distant to the role of Violetta, her big, creamy lyric soprano is not Italianate and lacks the brightness usually associated to it. But what she has works very well for the role – the voice fills the theatre without problem, her low notes are natural, her high notes never turn out shrill and she has enough flexibility for the fioriture. Actually, she seems in absolute command of what she has to do in this difficult part, what is already remarkable. I would guess that she has probably studied some of her famous predecessors’ performances; she seems in this role very keen on producing some hallmark “Italian” qualities, such as the tasteful use of portamento, knowing where to let the natural rhythm of Italian language to lead the way and some acting with the voice (that I am not too happy about). Her balance between portraying the deterioration of Violetta’s health and keeping a pure line in act III was extremely well-judged, and I will not be able to tell if the sudden choke that interrupted a sustained pianissimo was involuntary or not – it just worked perfectly in the situation.

Markus Brück proved to be more than a replacement for Keenlyside – I sincerely doubt that that the British baritone would have done better. As always in Italian roles, Brück sings with unfailing grace, almost Mozartian musicianship and with more than necessary volume and firmness of tone. I know I have written here that some of his Wagner performances were disappointing – especially Beckmesser and Gunther – but I would like to make clear that Brück is a first-rate singer who deserved more acknowledgment outside Berlin.

As for Pavel Cernoch, I am not sure if this repertoire is the best fit for him. At first, he sounds like the poor man’s Neil Shicoff, but unlike the American tenor he lacks brightness and slancio in his high register – and the problematic optional high c in O mio rimorso was reached by virtue of good, old falsettone. He seems to be a sensitive singer and avoided vulgarity throughout, but the voice is basically too tight and lacking roundness for Italian opera. The performance booklet says Steva in Janacek’s Jenufa is his calling-card role and I can bet he sounds far better in it.

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In an attempt to give a twist to the usual orchestral concert, the minds behind the Deutsche Oper had the preposterous idea of inviting a Patch-Adams-like physician to moderate in a Mozart/R. Strauss program. When Intendentin Kirsten Harms introduced him as a Glückspezialist, I could not help understanding he was some sort of expert in the music of Cristoph Willibald GLUCK. But I was wrong – he is indeed a specialist in happiness. And he is can be funny all right, but what is the point of inviting an ignoramus in music to introduce a concert. When someone in the audience shouted “Please let the music begin”, I found it rude at first, but when I realized the moderation only made the concert one hour longer with no added insight to my musical experience, I began to think that – although this person was still rude – he had a point.

As it was, the first part of the concert had weaknesses harder to overlook – I have rarely heard such a spineless performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 as this evening’s. Tempi dragged helplessly, strings had its scrawny moments and were often quite imprecise and Donald Runnicles’s lack of pulse made this congenial work sound finally boring. After the pause, back to his comfort zone, he would prove to be the  reliable Straussian he has always been and the house orchestra would respond with rich sonorities and clarity aplenty. He also showed a particularly good ear for producing the right balance between his soloist and the orchestra. And since the soloist was this concert’s main point of interest, I must praise him effusively for that.

I have been writing that, although Anja Harteros offers beautiful performances in Italian opera, her real strength is the German repertoire, especially Richard Strauss. But I’ve said that with the single experience of a performance of the Four Last Songs with Zubin Mehta and the Staatskapelle Berlin last year in the Konzerthaus. This evening she sang two key Straussian scenes and – I won’t keep my four or five readers in suspense – proved me right: this generation has found has in her its leading Strauss soprano. R. Strauss simply brings the best in her – the tone is creamy and floating as usual, she has reserves of strength for the occasional heavier passage, her diction is very clear and the text is, of course, idiomatically and imaginatively handled. The closing scene of Arabella’s act 1 was sung in the grand manner – nothing disturbed the velvetiness of her soprano and rarely has a singer handled the shift to lower register in it as seamlessly as she has done this evening. Capriccio’s closing scene did not lack imagination either. I am afraid, though, that she was not in her absolutely top form this evening and I bet she can sound a bit more comfortable in some high-lying moments where she had to keep dynamics low. But this is comparing her to herself – the warm tone, the sense of style, the no-nonsense interpretation are a reward in themselves. And it doesn’t hurt either that her looks and attitude are perfect for these roles.

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