Posts Tagged ‘Anja Kampe’

I once had a teacher who would invariably give me the same piece of advice whenever I looked frustrated for not being able to achieve something: if you want the result, concentrate on the process. Although Herbert von Karajan is usually remembered for his megalomania, he was an artist of unsual perseverance, fastidiousness and discipline. Although he would hardly admit it, he was always looking for the best and, therefore, always open to development. For instance, his ambition of conducting Italian opera led him to Milan where he could learn from working with the likes of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Or he would mention in an interview how much he admired a particularly passage of Tosca as conducted by Victor de Sabata. His Wagnerian projects were even higher in purpose. Name an important artist related to the master of Bayreuth – and you will see that somehow somewhere Karajan had worked with him or her at some point. In other words, before he finally launched his greatest project – the Ring conducted and directed by himself in a festival created also by him – he had researched every kind of approach and gathered all kind of experiences in order to have a very clear idea of what he wanted to do.

But that is not the most important part. The real formula to success there was the fact that he truly concentrated on the process. As the Easter Festival has shown in two documentaries screened in an exhibition in the Salzburg Museum, Karajan took the pains of coaching his cast in painstaking detail, rehearsing his orchestra obsessively, recording everything before stage rehearsals began and minutely blocking the gesture of every Valkyrie on stage. As the narrator of one of these videos explained, “he left nothing to chance”. That was the spirit of the Easter Festival – knowing that the audience was being served the absolute best because there was a mastermind there making sure that the best was being served.

When I read that the Easter Festival was celebrating its jubilee by paying a tribute to Karajan’s inaugural 1967 production of Wagner’s Die Walküre and reviving Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets in a new production directed by Vera Nemirova and conducted by Christian Thielemann, I decided that I had to see this. I have been introduced to Wagner’s music by friends who had regularly seen Karajan in Salzburg and never ceased to tell me about the paramount standards of these performances (they would also made me frustrated by saying that neither CDs nor DVDs could give an idea of how splendid everything was). As expectations can play tricks on one’s perceptions, I have decided to keep them low – but this evening’s performance has surprised me in how wrongly things can go with a big budget and prestigious forces.

If I say that the best thing in Vera Nemirova’s production is the scenery designed by Schneider-Siemssen, I am still not even close to explaining how poorly conceived and executed it was. To say the truth, there is not truly a concept there: the audience left the theatre without any new information or extra insight about this story and these characters. However, one could clearly see how amateurishly staged it was. Characters would most often than not do things opposed to what the text requires (for example, they would leave when they were supposed to stay or stay when they were supposed to leave); actors would be placed in a way incoherent to the action (Sieglinde says she is watching the veins in Siegmund’s temples although they are 10 meters apart); or things were just wrong (Wotan doesn’t shatter Siegmund’s sword, the pieces of which would inexplicably later appear in Brünnhilde’s hands). In an interview, Ms. Nemirova says she rejected the original costumes, because they did not make the characters look like real people. I wonder what kind of people she knows, for everything looked terribly unconvincing. At least, the 1967 costumes had some éclat, which is more of what I can say about the ones seen this evening, which look like everyone went for their morning run but Sieglinde, who is dressed as Snow White’s evil stepmother.

In any case, I could have lived with the school-pantomime direction if the musical performance had made it irrelevant. The Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s best orchestras, as one could hear (and marvel at) Myung-Whun Chung’s Fauré/Saint-Saëns concert on Friday and Franz Welser-Möst’s Mahler concert on Saturday. One could also hear that in Christian Thielemann’s own Bruckner concert on Sunday (in spite of problematic French horns). But not today. The extra rich and warm strings were often reduced to inaudbility, the brass section would sound unsubtle and glitch-prone, ensemble was often unclear and disjoint, tempi had inexplicable fluctuation and many a mannered unwritten “dramatic” pause, not to mention the high level of false entries that could suggest the highly improbable hypothesis of insufficient rehearsing. I have already seen Thielemann conduct Die Walküre in Bayreuth: although there could be lack of expression and drama, the orchestral sound was invariably rich and beautiful. On hearing the undernourished and unbalanced orchestra this evening I could only wonder if he wanted to try a Karajan-esque “chamber Ring” approach. If that was indeed the case, that was not a very good idea. Differently from Thielemann, Karajan was able to adapt his orchestral sound into a transparent, light but penetrating sound that would envelope singers’ voices without drowning them.

The main victim of this misconception was act I. After an underpowered and awkward opening, the performance never seemed to settle in its meagerness of sound, surprisingly high level of mistakes and indequate casting. Act II was only marginally better due to the contribution of individual singers, which seemed to inspire the conductor to let himself and the orchestra go a little bit more. Predictably, Wotan’s long monologue set a new lowest level of uneventfulness the purpose of which seemed to be offsetting a staid closing scene. As in Bayreuth, act III would show a palpable improvement, but only after a band-like and vulgar Walkürenritt. Maybe the sound of ten singers on stage had the power of finally eliciting an orchestral sound of Wagnerian proportions. Brünnhilde and Wotan fortunately could benefit from the transformation and offer the first truly moving moment in this performance. That would not last to the magic fire music, when the proceedings returned to their heavy, unstuble and unclear standards.

On paper, Anja Harteros is an interesting idea for the role of Sieglinde. Hers is a sizeable soprano with enough warmth in its low reaches to deal with Italian roles such as the Leonora in La Forza del Destino. The actual performance, however, had very different results. The part seats on the least congenial area of her voice, which often sounded smoky and astrigent. The advantage of a lyric soprano in the role is the dynamic variety and sense of legato, as one can hear in Gundula Janowitz’s performance for Karajan. Not this evening, though: Ms. Harteros’s singing had very little variety and affection. Also her attempt of an interpretation seemed mannered, as much as her stage attitude had more than a splash of the grande dame, an odd choice for an orphaned girl forced into an abusive marriage against her will. Her twin brother took the improbable shape of Peter Seiffert, who looked old, tired and bored as Siegmund. Although it is still a beautiful voice that projects well in the auditorium, the low notes are left to imagination and the high ones are open in tone and unstable in quality, some of them sung in indeterminate pitch. Although both of them were quite hearable, the conductor seemed keen on keeping the orchestra very low whenever they were on stage. Georg Zeppenfeld’s noble and round-toned Hunding did not help to create much sense of drama.

Act II had compensation in terms of singing. Although Christa Mayer’s mezzo could do with a little bit more color, her Fricka was forcefully and intensely sung. Her theatrical engagement seem to inspire the musicians in the pit into offering a little bit more in terms of commitment. Even if Vitalij Kowaljow’s bass does not sound as voluminous in the Großes Festspielhaus as it had at La Scala, it remains a voice of admirable firmness and beauty of tone throughout the complete range. If he has clear diction and sense of line, act II still lacks spontaneity and expression, but he lived up to the challenge of the closing scene, when he showed control of mezza voce and musicianship. The shining feature of this performance, however, is Anja Kampe’s sensitive, touching Brünnhilde, sung in the ideal blend of velvet and steel. The sincerity of her interpretation and her naturalness and emotional generosity made it a beautiful tribute to the singer who took this role here 50 years before, Régine Crespin, whose Brünnhilde was also exemplary in its wide expressive range.

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German singers in Italian repertoire are a recurrent issue in these pages. I have often praised the cleanliness of line and keenness on interpretation usual with singers this side of the Alps, but have also found their Lieder-singing  word-by-word tonal coloring intellectualized and unconvincing and there is also the problem with unsupported low register and/or hard high notes. On the other hand, when a German-school singer understands the differences in approach and has flexible enough a technique, the results can be uniquely compelling – and you just have to hear any of Brigitte Fassbaender’s Verdi recordings to hear what I am talking about.

This is why I was so curious to hear the Berlin Staatsoper’s new production of Tosca, featuring both Anja Kampe in the title role and Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia. Kampe is a singer for whom I have a soft spot, in spite of a sometimes unruly high register. Her Fidelio in Vienna last December made me fear for her vocal health, but her Sieglindes are always attractively sung, even in a not-so-good day. Reading that she would appear in this Tosca came as a surprise for me, but, even if you don’t hear that in her singing, she had indeed studied in Italy. Furthermore, she has performed Italian roles there, most notably at La Scala. The first thing that should be noted about her Tosca is the crystal-clear diction and the excellent Italian pronunciation. The second thing is that the sound is intrinsically un-Italianate: the whole range is homogeneous, even the very strong low notes are well connected, the middle register is lusciously warm and dark in an almost pellucid way and the acuti are not bright and vibrant, but felt-like and projecting rather on sheer volume than on radiance. Although the high notes are not her selling feature, she was shrewd enough to get away with tricky passages by lightening the tone and shortening note values with portamento. Her mezza voce can sound a bit on the colorless side, and yet it still benefits from the naturally beautiful tonal quality and I do believe that she would gain from using something similar in her German roles too. Many members of the audience have found her performance ill-informed in terms of style, too direct and sober in approach, too short in vocal glamor and too proper in terms of characterization. They might not be essentially wrong. However, I beg to differ in my appreciation. The almost classical shapeliness of her phrasing is musicianly and free of any vulgarity or cheap emotionalism. Besides, the warmth and fruitiness of her middle register made many usually neglected passages sound like music rather than the eligibility period for the next high note. Truth be said, when things got high and stayed high, the impression was of caution rather than abandon. But that really seemed a reasonable trade-off for me. I would say that a different conductor would have put all that in perspective. But let’s speak of the singers first.

When it comes to Michael Volle, I am not so sure that the Italian excursion has truly paid off. First, his Italian is not natural as this evening’s prima donna. Second, his bad-guy expressive tool involve lots of snarling and the kind of hectoring that brings about either a overly forward or alternately woolly and gray-toned quality to more outspoken passages. At some point, he sounded plainly tired. Moreover, his interpretation was a series of variations of villainy. While singers like Ruggiero Raimondi could find a patrician quality that gave his Scarpia more three-dimensionality, or that even an exotic name such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau brought about an eerily psychopathic side to the character, Volle pressed the same bad-and-loving-it key the whole evening and finally suggested telenovela rather than verismo.

There was one true Italian singer in the cast, Barenboim’s official “tenore”, Fabio Sartori. As always, it is a very rich and powerful voice, and he has more nuance that many other tenors in this repertoire. However, his singing has developed some sort of whimpering quality that becomes bothersome after a while. Also, he is not really engaged dramatically speaking, and his attempts of rising the emotional temperature invariably sounded calculated. Among the minor roles, Jan Martinik deserves praises for his unexaggerated Sacristan, his nobility of tone being no obstacle for a character role.

This is the first time Daniel Barenboim has conducted an opera by Puccini. And one can see that in the evident care he has taken with the score: all effects are cleanly understood and played out, the orchestra has a Wagnerian, Musikdrama-ish narrative quality and there is an evident intent of avoiding kitsch. Good as these intentions are, they ended on overcooking the procedures: everything was so intense and bright and forceful that you would take five minutes to adapt to it and notice that there was no progression in atmosphere, no increase in tension: it all sounded uniformly loud and driven. Except in what regarded pace – since the orchestral fireworks followed a logic of its own, it did not necessarily matched the tempo of the stage action. Worse: it seemed to be operating in an universe completely apart of the singers. The result was ultimately schizophrenic rather than heightened in expression by the combined work of all its elements.

My first impression of Alvis Hermanis’s production was that the projection of a cartoon with the story of Tosca over the poorman’s version of traditional sceneries would be distracting. And they were, but in a positive way. When one looked at the singers, one would see nonsensical blocking, silly Personenregie and lack of imagination, while the cartoons looked like Zeffirelli’s film with Raina Kabaivanska and Plácido Domingo. So, after a while, you would rather look at the screen than at the absurdity performed below. Examples: Tosca is generally kept 10 m apart from Cavaradossi while saying “you’re ruining my hairstyle” or “we shouldn’t do this in front of the Madonna”.  When Tosca says how much it would cost to bribe Scarpia, she reclines on a divan, her legs dangerously apart for the circumstances. Then he talks about sex – and she makes a what-made-you-think-of-something-like-that expression. Actually, this is not accidental, Mr. Hermanis is convinced that Tosca has a crush on Scarpia: although she barely touches the man she loves, she volunteers to kiss, grab, fondle etc the man she professes to hate. Even if one could assume something like that, the bluntness and the exaggeration are entirely self-defeating in a character who is shown as a Catholic woman who attends mass regularly, who tells her confessor everything and who is basically incapable of handling the situation in the cold-blooded way the director unsuccessfully tries to imply.

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Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer is a key work to understand German Romanticism, a richly orchestrated score of sophisticated musical invention and dramatic impact. Yet, it is not staged as often as one would guess. Why? The immediate answer is that the two main roles are impossibly difficult. It is also quite testing for the orchestra – but one could make similar observations of operas like Tristan und Isolde or Götterdämmerung, which are nonetheless more frequent in opera houses’ seasons.

I would add that Der Fliegende Holländer is also difficult to stage. Even if you have a low budget and go Regie, if you don’t provide any kind of “special effect”, then it’s going to be a colossal debacle anyway. In his 2012 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, Andreas Homoki never forgets that. He has throwed ships, spinning wheels, fjords etc away, but there are plenty of spooky tricks to keep up with Wagner’s diminished seventh chords. Homoki explains he decided to stage his Holländer onshore – and so he does. Daland has a trading company and his instructions to his crew are here translated into telephonic communication with his ships at sea. However, whenever Wagner’s orchestra suggests sea tempests, everybody on stage falls to the ground as in they were on a ship. So, again, could we make a decision here? Aboard or onshore? Later I understood that the chorus has to remain onstage longer than what Wagner intended because they are supposed to screen the Holländer’s “magical” appearances and disappearances. So it is rather a convenience than an aim in itself. And one can see that. Also, the pre-war English setting is atmospheric and goes well with the story, but the association with the burdens of colonial system is a bit far-fetched. We see maps of Africa, Daland has an African servant and, when the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly crews is supposed to appear, the African servant is turned in a warrior and mysterious arrows kill Daland’s employees. This could be an interesting approach – Daland is in Europe and sees only the profits of colonial enterprise, while the Dutchman could be someone plagued by the actual heart-of-darkness experience of colonial oppression who cannot redeem himself. He does not fit anymore in the blood-stained welfare of his civilized surroundings. But this is not the story we see here – the Dutchman is pretty much concerned about himself and the African qualms are just added upon his plot.

The Opernhaus Zürich made a point, in this production, of trying to revive “the original version” of the score. In the program book, they acknowledge that Wagner has done so much retouching in so many instances that it is actually impossible to speak of one “original” version, but roughly speaking we had no intermission, the acts linked to each other by interludes and no redemption music in the end. Orchestration issues has been dealt with case by case. Maestro Alain Altinoglu seemed concerned with the large orchestral sound prescribed by Wagner and made a point in keeping his musicians in leash.  As a result, strings were often on the thin side and crescendo passages had very little development. The sound picture was often band-like, robbing this music of momentum and nobility. In terms of tempo,  the conductor made it fast and animated (sometimes making it difficult for the chorus to articulate the text) – but without weight of sound, the final impression had more to do with bounciness than suspense.

Although Anja Kampe was severely tested by high-lying passages (especially in the end of the first part of her duet with the Dutchman), her Senta was richly, sensitively and touchingly sung. It is a hard piece of singing – and there is no perfect Senta, even in recordings – but that did not prevent this German soprano of making this music hers. In what regard tenors, Marco Jentzsch’s singing is the opposite of ingratiating and the Steersman was too light-toned for his role. It is almost a miracle that Matti Salminen still holds his own as Daland. Now many passages are more spoken than sung, but he does it with such naturalness and conviction that you almost believes that this is supposed to be done that way. Last but not least, Bryn Terfel may not be the most voluminous or dark-toned (his high notes often sounded strangely bright in an almost tenor-ish way) Holländer in one’s experience, but he sings it with such commitment, tonal variety, clarity of diction and imagination that you can’t help taking his side. Even in the end, when his voice started to grate a bit, such was his engagement that you felt ready to see in it the Holländer’s and not the singer’s exhaustion. Thanks to him and Anja Kampe, this performance would intermittently rise above routine into something truly exciting and special.

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Although Die Walküre is the most human-scale work in the tetralogy, it is strange how elusive it is to stage directors, who seem to be more comfortable among the gods: how often does one sees how lonely and unhappy Sieglinde is, how vulnerable and desperate (and therefore capable of some very dangerous deeds) Siegmund is, how the fact that they are siblings in a family “hated by everyone” (Hunding’s words) makes them a couple? Certainly not this evening. Andreas Kriegenburg considers that Die Walküre is crossed by two axes – war/love, male/female – the impossibility of love in a world of violence makes it possible for an impossible love to exist. Well, this is a clever thing to say – but Kriegenburg was hired to stage and not to say clever things. In his staging, Sieglinde lives in some sort of female community (plus Hunding) that collects dead men’s bodies to be buried. They don’t have to go very far to find them – most of them are hanging from the ash-tree just above the table where they eat (this does not seem to bother them). There are some girls with lanterns on the palms of their hands who work as some sort of collective searchlight or sometimes as some sort of kurogo “invisible” stage-hands. From the point-of-view of the audience, it basically looks as if Sieglinde had 20 servants that make all the hard work while she makes sad expression for a Siegmund on the other side of the stage. Later their purpose would be something like a human-screen for Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love-making. Apparently, two is company and 22 is voyeurism.

If act II is a bit all over the place, at least it has some interesting ideas. Wotan’s “new position in the world” means that he no longer has time for being a warrior and has to perform executive duties. The set shows an audience hall more or less 1940’s in style with a large Romantic painting showing a forest scene on the rear wall. There is a desk too. Fricka, some sort of Jackie O-like first lady in a party gown, and Wotan do not need armchairs, they have each 10 waiters who double as furniture when they need to sit down. These godly couple likes to break glasses with their own hands during their discussions, but none of the 20 servants care to clean anything. Kriegenburg loves his stage machinery, and walls and ceiling go back and forth, up and down throughout. While Wotan is about to end his scene with Brünnhilde, lots of war survivors appear on stage, but with an impatient sign of his hand, they drop dead. The rest of the act takes place among the dead bodies and extensive usage of stage lift.

I had written that Zenta Haerter’s choreographies were effective in Das Rheingold. Not this evening, I’m afraid. Wagner’s music for act III had to wait for more or less 8 minutes while 14 girls in nightgowns played horsy. Yes, we’d got it on the first 30 seconds “ride of the valkyries – the girls are the horses”, but then the audience lost its patience around the fifth minute and started to boo and shout angrily. Then the act began – the horse girls went somewhere upstage, while the valkyries had long leather reins to play with. After heavy usage of stage lift, Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone. In the end, she is raised on a round platform while the no-longer-horse girls come with some sort of flammable cable and gather around Brünnhilde. Yes, Siegfried wouldn’t be afraid of that – probably of the girls (as you remember – he had never seen any girl before getting to Brünnhilde’s rock) – so image of fire is projected everywhere to make it more formidable. Final curtain.

Does this sound uneventful? Now think of it with Kent Nagano’s conducting on the background. “On the background” is an apt description of the musical performance. Regardless of tempo, this conductor’s more evident feature is flaccid accent. When the music requires a more considerate tempo, as in the final scene of act I, the warmth of the Bavarian State Orchestra’s strings and the fact that singers could whisper over the recessed orchestral sound made for some sense of Innigkeit. Under the baton of other conductor, one could go for chamber-music like transparency, but although one could always hear woodwind, the articulation was so lazy, the structural coherence left to imagination, that the results couldn’t help being dyspeptic. When energy was required, you got drums and brass louder than the rest of the orchestra but without much consequence. Even then, the impression was of flabbiness – one felt like throwing a box of Viagra in the orchestral pit.

Even if Anja Kampe seemed to be in more flexible voice both times I saw her in Berlin (in a smaller hall, truth be said), she is still a radiant, ideally cast Sieglinde. I felt sorry for her in her farewell to Brünnhilde – she was about to launch the “redemption”-motive and she took three seconds to realize that she was alone there, the orchestra was still playing Debussy. It felt uncomfortable trying to carry all the hope of the world alone. Katarina Dalayman has everything to be an ideal Brünnhilde – the voice is big, warm and full and she phrases with unusual elegance, but the high notes do not come naturally to her. Or rather: she can hit some impressive percutant acuti provided they do not come too close to each other. When they do (as in the ho-jo-to-ho’s), she gets tired dangerously fast. In order to prevent that, she shortens note values without much ado.  It seems that she took the decision of saving steam in act II, but then the tenor and the conductor made the Todverkündung so uninteresting that she suddenly decided to plug in and save not only Siegmund but the whole scene (too late unfortunately). I have the clear impression that Sophie Koch has carefully listened to Christa Ludwig’s recording for Georg Solti – and right she did, for it is with the masters that one is supposed to learn. Her voice, of course, is lighter than the legendary German mezzo soprano’s, but she is a cunning singer and made it work in her voice – actually, Nagano could learn from her how to produce impact in restricted dynamics.

When Sieglinde says that the echo of her own voice sounds similar to Siegmund’s, this generally sounds as something only a Romantic character would say. Well, this evening, it sounded less impossible than usual, for I cannot think of a tenor as light in tone as Klaus Florian Vogt in the part of Siegmund. The low tessitura generally involves a baritonal voice in the role – and hearing a voice far from virile in it was a puzzling experience for me. Although his tenor is definitely not heroic, it is curious how hearable it is. When the tessitura was congenial, such as in Winterstürme, this brought about a fresh lyricism to the role – but the role requires more than that. In exposed heroic moments, such as the Wälse sustained notes, he sounded nasal and strained and you could hear that (his voice is very projecting and there was very little orchestral sound to speak of). The Todverkündung scene simply did not work – he cannot properly support low notes, some of them were barely sung, he often seemed to be speaking and not singing the text and he produced far more breathing pauses than any other  Siegmund I have ever seen. As usual, he was hugely applauded – so I guess that James King must have done everything wrongly in his performances.

When describing a particular singer, a friend of mine said, “her voice was more vertical than horizontal, if you can get my meaning”. These words describe Thomas J. Meyer’s voice very aptly. It is a truly forceful voice, but not really voluminous. When he has to operate on the lower end of his range, the sound is rather juiceless and unflowing. On the other hand, when the phrase is congenial, he can produce some big top notes. In heroic moments, he is often harsh of tone and pushes more often than he should – but he has a big personality and makes it part of a bully-approach to the role. And he pulls it out somehow. It is surprising that he could soften his tone for the closing scene and find a tonal palette that he could not count with in his long act II narration, where he successfully compensated by emphasis and clear declamation. I cannot help thinking that he is doing too much too soon – John Tomlinson made many Handel and Mozart recordings before tackling Wagner. James Morris, for example, had his share of Rossinis and Mozarts too – and, differently from Mayer, sang Banquo and not the title role in Macbeth (if you think that Morris’s Wotan had easier and more spacious high notes than Mayer’s, this seems something to be taken in consideration). Ain Anger was a very good Hunding, dark-toned, comfortable with the low notes and really menacing. Finally, I thought that the Bavarian State Opera could find a more efficient team of valkyries. Something was really wrong this

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Before the Deutsche Staatsoper shows its complete Ring (made in collaboration with Milan’s La Scala) in 2013, a recapitulation of the previous two installments has been offered during the Festtage 2012. While Das Rheingold had cast changes (most notably René Pape as Wotan), Die Walküre has the same cast from last year, when I could catch the last performance, conducted at white heat by Barenboim and sung in the grand manner by almost everyone in the cast. This evening, the circumstances proved to be somewhat less exciting. After an aptly raw introduction, Barenboim took some time to switch full powers and, even when he did, one had the sensation that, instead of continuous development, one would rather see moments when things seem to connect and build up in momentum only to sag back to slimmer orchestral sound and less exciting music-making. Friday he conducted Rheingold; Saturday, Lulu; this evening, Walküre – maybe this explains his variable level of energy. In any case, when all elements actually converged – as in the Fricka/Wotan scene and especially in the Sieglinde/Brünnhilde act III scene – memories of last year came back very vividly.

In terms of casting, all women deserve high compliments this evening. Iréne Theorin displayed a particularly strong middle register this evening without any loss of power in her high notes. Some may find her voice overmetallic now and then, but her artistry is beyond minor snags. Everything about her performance is generous: her powerful voice, her keenness on tonal and dynamic variety (exquisite pianissimi throughout), her fully committed stage persona. It is hardly her fault that Anja Kampe could sometimes be even more touching – she was born to sing Sieglinde and has inscribed her name along the great exponents of this role. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka has only grown in strength since last year – she offers a perfect blended of warmth and focus in her rich mezzo-soprano.

Although Simon O’Neill has received warm applause, I have to say that his singing this evening got on my nerves. If you are curious to know how Gerhard Stolze would have sounded as Siegmund, you just needed to be in the Schiller Theater today. In any case, Stolze was a better actor (and a singer of more nuance) than O’Neill, who hams as if his life depended on it. Mikhail Petrenko’s bass sounded throaty and unsupported and offered very little impact as Hunding.  As we have often discussed here, the part of Wotan is on the high side for René Pape, but – in one of these six days in the year when one’s voice is just perfect – he has no rivals in depth, nobility and musicianship. Alas, this was not one of these six days, and his high register was basically non-functional. In the second act, he struggled a lot with it and had to resort to every trick available to get away with high-lying passages. Fortunately, he excelled in rounded, rich, voluminous tones in his long recap of Rheingold, in which he used all his Lieder singer abilities. The problem remained that he still had act III to sing. The fact that he saved his voice for the closing scene would be more disturbing, if Pape had not cunningly found a dramatic excuse for that: I have never seen such a world-weary, depressed Wotan as this evening. When he sang Nicht send’ ich dich mehr aus Walhall, it sounded as if he was describing all the torments of HIS life without Brünnhilde. When he finally had to sing out, the voice was still tense and unflowing in its upper reaches, but he still could make it to the end commendably. During the curtain calls he seemed at first a bit apologetic and then legitimately touched by the audience’s recognition. I just wonder how rewarding the experience is for him – and I have to believe that his intent to expose his reputation as an immaculate singer in such a strenuous part must come from his unreserved love for Wagner music. And I respect that.

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Guy Cassier’s “Ring of the present moment” does not belie its concept. Those who have seen it in Milan have now discovered an updated version in Berlin. If Cassier has reacted to some of the criticism of his La Scala première, then he deserves double praises for polishing his staging. Act 1 set looks less empty, the projections reflect changes of mood more sharply… and, most of all, there seems to be stage direction for his singers now. Siegmund and Sieglinde react to each other, Brünnhilde has a touching issue (as in expression affection by touching the person one loves) with her too formidable father later to be transferred to a passionate Siegmund and finally dealt with in the opera’s closing scene – it is still all too elementary, but it already makes all the difference in the world. In the end, if this production is too basic and overreliant in empty aesthetics, it definitely does not stand in the way when musicians are willing to add some emotion into the proceedings. And they certainly have.

As this is the last performance in the run, I have the impression that Daniel Barenboim has decided to give free rein to his impulses, sometimes to the surprise of his singers, what added an urgency and vividness of expression rarely caught so uniformly in a cast as this evening. Barenboim opted for very rich sonorities, with revelatory highlighting of woodwind, impressive sense of theatre and protean orchestral sound. Although he had a very good cast this evening, the orchestra stood in the very core of the events, a paragon of flexibility itself – in terms of tempo, tone coloring, accent – carrying drama forward by magnifying the expressive power of soloists or challenging them in expression. At moments, I almost jumped from my seat with the impact of what the Staatskapelle Berlin was doing. The occasional white-heat approach tested these musicians at times: a hectic closing scene to act I, a hard-edged magic fire music and a somewhat rushed, almost Mozartian Winterstürme. It would be difficult to describe the many interesting features of this evening’s performance – sometimes a performance just catches fire and this one certainly has.

Anja Kampe’s rich soprano is focused and young-sounding and yet aptly expands to warm, powerful climaxes when this is required. She achieves a perfect balance between vulnerability and earthiness, what makes her an ideal Sieglinde. Her ecstatic singing of the “redemption through love” was one of the highlights of the evening. Although Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was still more powerful in Milan, her performance this evening had power, class and engagement to spare. Mikhail Petrenko, unfortunately, had his hooty and/or throaty moments as Hunding, but his characteristically Russian bass fits the part. Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) is capable of some impressively loud notes, but the voice is distressingly nasal and his attempts at animation often sounded Mime-esque. He did sang solidly, but in a cast such as this evening’s, he sounded basically uninteresting.

This is my first experience with Irene Théorin’s Brünnhilde. Hers is not a phonogenic voice: it is very metallic, a little bit tremulous in the middle and a bit short in the bottom. But if there is one high dramatic soprano in activity these days, she is it. Her endless supply of effortless blasting acuti is something to marvel. For a change, a singer who tosses her ho-jo-to-ho’s as if she were having fun with it. And at the same time Théorin finds no problem in scaling down to mezza voce, even in some very tricky passages. Her Todverkündung and act III had many breathtaking moments when she just floated pianissimi in a touchingly intimate manner. But there is more than this in this invaluable Swedish soprano. I couldn’t help noticing how alert an actress she is, responding to events on stage in an immediate and convincing manner – and her facial expression in her long scene with Wotan in act III was exceptionally moving. That scene brought the audience to tears – and the partnership with René Pape’s Wotan has a great share of responsibility.

I know I myself had become skeptical about Pape as Wotan since his Milanese Rheingold, but this evening he made an important stab at it. At this point in his career, nobody doubts his ability to portray nobility and authority. It is an exceptionally rich, warm, dark and beautiful voice – the question being how he would survive the test of singing in the Heldenbariton tessitura. The answer is difficult. When the phrase is congenial, he produces some impressively round and forceful high notes. When it is not, the voice sounds a bit straight and devoid of color, but never ugly, one must say. This is the last show in the run and I cannot say how wisely he dealt with the role before, but today his long act II narrative seemed to tire him. After that, he had to manage his resources to get to the end, which he did with a little help from Barenboim’s fast tempi in the most testing passages. All that said, he can soften the tone adeptly and takes advantage of that to produce the sort of sensitively varied singing one expects from a Lieder singer.  Der Augen leuchtendes Paar, for example, was so touchingly sung that one felt ready to forgive the German bass everything. My 11 or 12 readers (I see that I have a few more these days…) might be asking themselves if Pape is bound to be the great Wotan of his generation. As I was telling a friend at the theatre today, there are two kinds of Wotan: those who fight with low notes and those who fight with high notes (and there used to be James Morris…). Not long ago, John Tomlinson too had to find a way through the high-lying passages in the role, as many others before him. Pape has the advantage of an excellent technique that allows him to scale down instead of up when he needs some variety and the voice is naturally big, what exonerates him from forcing. Judging from this evening’s really moving performance, I would say that it is definitely worth the effort!

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