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Posts Tagged ‘Anke Vondung’

Sometimes I feel that opera stage directors are the loneliest people in the world. They have to be orphan and friendless; otherwise someone would tell them “I know that this idea seems to work IN YOUR MIND, but the truth is…” And yet, no, they go all alone to their pitfalls – except for the audience, who is dragged to the directors’ ordeal without getting, unlike them, a penny for that.

When Jens-Daniel Herzog appeared on stage to take his bow in the end of the performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Semperoper, he seemed to be a nice guy, what makes it doubly sad that no-one, absolutely no-one had ever told him “just don’t” when he decided to indulge in some absolutely proven operatic sins, such as staging the overture, reserving loud action for extras while singers and orchestra are trying to make music, devising difficult movements and/or postures in vocally challenging passages or creating an atmosphere on stage in a different mood from the one portrayed by the music. But nothing – absolutely NOTHING – is so hideous as having soloists and chorus members perform cute choreographies while singing. First of all, these people rarely really know how to dance; second, it looks silly; thirdly, it looks silly.

What makes Herzog’s staging doubly frustrating is the impression that this is the flower power version of the Glyndenbourne production, in which the choreographies were meant in the context of Bollywood aesthetics. Here the action is set in Egypt all right, but in the 1940’s. Where the cute steps fit in is a mystery to me – the all-about-decolleté Cleopatra in a Muslim country makes even less sense! But let’s not concentrate on details. Many a misfire in Herzog’s staging is shared by almost every other director who tackles a Handel opera, especially not trusting the power of music and introducing all sort of funny little parallel actions to “entertain” the audience while what seems bo…ring music to them is being played in the background.

All that said, it would be unfair if I gave the impression that Mr. Herzog is the target of what is ranting about the general state of affairs. In this production, the cast seemed to be having fun, acted with conviction and many of the complex movements were actually well executed. I confess I have particularly enjoyed the idea of showing Lidia/Cleopatra during V’adoro, pupille as a crooner in some sort of nightclub, where the solo violinist in Se giulivo is one of those musicians who play for customers trying to entice them to give him some money.

The staging’s flamboyance contrasted to conductor Alessandro de Marchi’s rather inflexible approach. Having an opera house orchestra follow period practices in baroque music is always risky business, and de Marchi succeeded in immerse his musicians in the right stylistic universe. However, this was a compromise one could feel. There was a sense of straight-jacket in the slimmer sound picture of the traditionally lush-toned Staatskapelle Dresden and the fast tempi showed precision without true animation. I do not mean that the performance sagged in any way – it just lacked dramatic conviction. Although it is always good to find some energy in Cornelia and Sesto’s gloomy mourning, a little bit more suppleness would have helped to boost expression in a performance that seemed primarily about getting things rightly done. Although a die-hard purist would be nauseous, for instance,  at some of John Nelson’s performances at the Metropolitan Opera House (I’m particularly referring to the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels) , at least the ordinary opera-goer would definitely get some thrill out of the proceedings. If you’re playing Bach in a Steinway, it will be useless trying to make it sound like a harpsichord – better make it in the grand manner like Martha Argerich does.

The edition here adopted involved as expected the trimming of the B section of some arias, but this has been judiciously done. Tu la mia stella sei was fortunately preferred to Tutto può donna vezzosa, but the lovely Venere bella (among other numbers) was deleted, while Nireno’s aria has been kept.

Laura Aikin is an experienced Cleopatra, but the years have  robbed the roundness of her top register. It is still an extremely charming voice, but everything around a high g sounds a bit hard and unflowing. And to think that in 1999 she was an amazing Zerbinetta in Sinopoli’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Milan! Let’s hope she was just not in a good day. The rather awkward cadenze written by the conductor (for all soloists) tented to highlight the problem. Her Se pietà was pleasing if not heartfelt and she met with confidence the challenge of Da tempeste, in spite of some shrieking high options.

Casting a high mezzo as Cesare is a helpless idea. It is hardly Anke Vondung’s fault that she seemed a bit out of sorts almost all the time. More generously endowed singers, such as Tatiana Troyanos, experienced the same problems in this role. Nevertheless, this performance made that German mezzo rise in my esteem. She offered more or less fluent coloratura, has good trills, expert messa di voce, phrases tastingly and – if she does not sound heroic at all – her singing of the difficult fioriture in Al lampo dell’armi while performing a difficult stage fight with five extras deserves enthusiastic praise.

Christa Mayer is evidently no specialist in baroque opera, but she diligently adapted her Wagnerian contralto to the circumstances and offered some lovely moments as Cornelia, especially in Son nata a lacrimar. Pity that Janja Vuletic was not at the same level – her Barbarina-like soprano simply does not work properly in this lower tessitura and her wayward breath support involved many stances of unfocused tone and approximative pitch. She is a very good actress, though, and cuts a believably boyish figure on stage. Max Emanuel Cencic’s countertenor is not as rich in the lower reaches as Bejun Mehta’s or David Daniels’, but his firm-toned, vivid singing is very effective in this role, not to mention that some of his forceful high notes are truly exciting. Cristoph Pohl’s strong and flexible bass was ideally cast as Achilla and Christopher Field’s bright and flexible countertenor was finally worth the inclusion of Nireno’s Chi perde un momento.

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When I saw Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 2005, I named my review “Contessa, perdono”, because of the words I had written about the evening’s prima donna. Now I repeat the same title because of the words I did write back then. This fall’s reprise had been anounced with Dorothea Röschmann and Isabel Bayrakdarian as mistress and servant in the Almaviva household – an exotic idea considering these ladies’ similarity of Fach. However, Röschmann’s health problems and Bayrakdarian’s pregnancy forced the Met to recast. Therefore, Hei-Kyung Hong, the Met’s resident Countess was called to fill in.

Although Hong’s soprano used to be more crystalline in 2005, these two years must have been very rewarding to the Korean soprano. This afternoon she proved to be an all-round entirely satisfying Countess. As in 2005, her voice is an admirable instrument: at once full and silvery lyric soprano with a very easy and gleaming top register. However, her ability to convey it through Mozartian lines is impressively improved. Maybe I saw her in a bad day in 2005, but the difference is simply striking. She is still not entirely at ease with Porgi, amor, but her Dove sono was note-perfect. Hers was a spirited, charming performance – and her stage persona could not be more graceful. I doubt that Röschmann would have been better, judging from her Salzbug DVD with Harnoncourt.

The “replacement” Susanna is also a true find. The young and volatile Lisette Oropesa from New Orleans has the proper quicksilvery voice, idiomatic Italian, complete grasp of style, enough cutting edge to pierce through the orchestra and a most likeable personality. In her Met debut, Anke Vondung offered an intense and irresistible Cherubino. Her Non so più was a bit thick-toned but Voi che sapete was beautifully sung. If I am not more enthusiastic, it is because I have witnessed the incomparable Joyce DiDonato’s Met debut in the same role in 2005.

There are plenty of Figaros more richly sung than Erwin Schrott’s – if my memory does not fail me, Luca Pisaroni’s performance in 2005 was rather more consistent too. But the Uruguayan bass-baritone’s stage charisma is an undeniable asset. With his neverending imagination, he illuminates Lorenzo da Ponte’s text with fresh new ideas throughout. Also, his ability to interact and to extract the best from his stage partners is praiseworthy, particularly in what refers to his Susanna, with whom she formed a vivacious couple. I am afraid Michele Pertusi is not in the level of the other singers – his slightly veiled bass is not devoid of charm but his whole approach is too buffo for this role.

Britain’s contribution to this production is far superior in 2007 than in 2005 – Ann Murray is still a formidable Marcellina and Robin Leggate was in particularly strong voice as Basilio. For once it was a pity they they were deprived of their arias.

Back in 2005, Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was considered too fast and nervous – and I have to confess a soft spot for the “tense” approach for this opera. Philippe Jordan’s comfortable, well-organised perspective was too reliable on the cast to produce the necessary sparkle. Differently from 2005, the string playing was often blurred and the brass section again left a lot to be desired.

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