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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Prohaska’

The fact that Handel is no longer a rarity in the repertoire has made opera houses curious about what is still there to be explored in terms of baroque opera. The Berlin Staatsoper has been particularly serious in its intent of venturing in the most unusual corners of the XVIIIth and XVIIth centuries by programing works of composers such as Telemann and Graun, but it might sound hard to believe that Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie is having its Berlin première (in the 1757 version plus borrowed scenes from previous editions) in 2018. Actually, it is not hard to explain. French tragédie lyrique is a genre that never travelled well until France took a prominent position in the movement of historically informed performances. Many French musicians (or foreign artists who have made France their home such as William Christie) found a mission in performing and recording the pillars of French music, such as the works of Charpentier, Lully and Rameau. With them, a generation of singers made their names singing French baroque music. We could quote Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Mireille Delunsch. Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie has pride of place in terms of popularity. Since the now legendary performances in Aix-en-Province under John Eliot Gardiner with Jessye Norman and José van Dam, it has been recorded in studio by William Christie (with Lorraine Hunt) and Marc Minkowski (with Gens and Bernarda Fink) and live in the theatre on video, most notably in the Palais Garnier in a spectacular production by Ivan Alexandre conducted by Emanuelle Haïm with Sarah Connolly and Stéphane Degout (both singers would appear again in a video from Glyndebourne conducted by Christie).

Normally, a performance like this in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden would be conducted by René Jacobs, but this time the former principal director of the Berliner Philharmoniker was the driving force behind this project. He had already conducted Rameau’s Les Boréades decades ago and found in it an opportunity for both him and his wife, Magdalena Kozena, to perform an opera considered by both particularly innovative at the time in its dramatic potentials. However, the peculiarities of staging an opera with so many dance numbers made him carefully choose his creative team. After some years of negotiation, he finally had choreographer Aletta Collins as director and Ólafur Eliasson as designer. Whereas Sir Simon has opted for a period instrument orchestra in the Freiburg Barockorchester, Ms. Collins and Mr. Eliasson had decided to recreate the impact of baroque theatre not by being faithful to the letter, but by recreating the experience of integration between stage and auditorium and the use of all kind of theatrical effects to dazzle the audience. Even if one must concede that the staging tended to be static and short in drama, the light effects that flooded the hall in color were simply otherworldly. The dance numbers were very effective, creative and well-integrated in the concept as a while. I am not so convinced about the unbecoming and sometimes awkward costumes for both leading ladies, though.

I won’t lie. Rameau works for me better in small doses rather than in a whole bottle. Although something like Les Indes Galantes is intrinsically problematic in terms of story (basically, it has none), it is far more varied than Hyppolite et Aricie, whose melodic numbers tend to sound like one another. None of them is as catchy as Forêts paisibles or exquisite as Tendre amour. The conductor seems to be aware of this and offered a hearty, vigorous performance, more German in its sheer energy than French in its poised and spirited suppleness. This is not a problem per se, but that meant that the orchestra – in the renovated Lindenoper’s warm acoustic – was loud and a group of accordingly louder singers would have done all the difference in the world.

Let’s talk first of the two singers who were, as the French say, bien dans leur peau, those in the title roles. This is not Anna Prohaska’s first staged Rameau and, being a specialist in baroque music, she proves to be comfortable with the style and the language. Moreover, her silvery soprano is an unusual choice in a role taken by creamier-toned singers, a choice that pays off in its young-sounding and bell-toned impression. Aricie is a role that tends to the faceless, and an edgier sound gives it some character. Reinoud Van Mechelen’s haute-contre has more substance in his high notes than what is one used to hear. As Hyppolite is usually referred to as “the hero” , a little bit testosterone is welcome. This does not mean that Mr Van Mechelen does not float his high notes in head tones as he is supposed to, only that he manages to do that without sounding disincarnate. Elsa Dreisig too was very well cast as Diane, her lyric soprano homogenous, round and spontaneous.

I am not so sure about the royal couple, good as both singers are. Magdalena Kozena does not lack intensity in the role of Phèdre, but her voice does lack amplitude for it, especially in her lower register. We have heard it with the above mentioned Norman, Hunt, Fink and Connolly, all of them richer in sound and darker in tone. In comparison with these ladies’ tragical grandeur, Ms. Kozena sounded just annoyed. Gyula Orerndt too sang with vehemence and engagement, but he shares with his Phèdre the small scale. Some small roles were very well sung (and danced): the sweet-toned Slavka Zamecnikova and Serena Saenz Molinero offered praiseworthy performances. The Staatsoper chorus does not usually sings French baroque music, but acquitted itself quite commendably too.

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In my fourth post on the Berlin Staatsoper’s 1994 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, I should probably start by saying that there is nothing new to write about the staging, but the fact is that this is not true. Spielleiterinen Katharina Lang and Cornelia Sandow have done a good job in letting the Ensemble singers bring their own personalities to August Everding’s original plan and the show has never seemed fresher to my eyes as this evening. Wolfram-Maria Märtig too is a new name to me – and he too seemed determined to give the Magic Flute some refreshing: the Staatskapelle Berlin showed a light, precise sound, scarce in vibrato and soft on singers on stage. I can see the conductor’s keenness on elegance, giving the orchestra time to sculpt Mozartian phrasing I absolute clarity. I can also see the way he seemed to have the text in mind, trying to stress the variations of atmosphere in the libretto – I just don’t understand why it has been done at the expense of natural rhythmical flow and dynamic variety. The result was often crafty but rather unconvincing and short in expression, the equivalent of producing a perfect plastic rose and trying to persuade a seasoned florist to sell it instead of natural flowers. As it was, tempi were usually on the slow side, with many artificial breathing pauses and ralentando effects that tested unnecessarily his soloists. The only instance of fast pace was the true andante adopted for Pamina’s aria, extremely well judged and an example of how better the performance could have been if Mozart could speak for himself unaided more often today.

Anna Prohaska’s Pamina has the advantage of a Irmgard Seefried-like naturalness built rather by verbal acuity, clear diction, rhythmic alertness, good taste, directness of expression and sense of style than by tonal variety or extraordinary vocal quality. Some awkward passages – the ending of her duet with Papageno for instance – sounded unusually nimble and musicianly, but the role is still a bit heavy for her. Pamina’s “suicide attempt” scene took her to her limits, even if she did not produce any ugly sound even then. She is an animated actress, but still needs to learn how to move in a less angular and unnatural way, as she presently does. Anna Siminska was the main victim of the conductor’s ponderousness, which robbed the Queen of the Níght’s arias of any impact or élan. The soprano proved to be a trouper, taking profit of the circumstances to make something of the text, but she could not produce the necessary excitement by herself. I have often wondered why mastery of Mozartian style and the ability of singing with honest technique and naturalness are more often than not incompatible qualities for tenors in this repertoire. This evening, Stephan Rügamer showed that he knows how this music should be sung, but his manipulation of basic tonal quality (especially the always increasing nasality of his vocal production) makes the results rather an acquired taste. Gyula Orendt, on the other hand, is spontaneity itself as Papageno, a commendable performance. Jan Martiník’s Sarastro has more than a splash of the young Franz-Josef Selig: the tone is noble and clean in a very German way, the low register is easy and spacious and he tackles Mozartian lines with poise and feeling. Among the small roles, Raimund Nolte was a strong Sprecher, Anna Lapkovskaja a fruity-toned Third Lady and Michael Smallwood an unusually pleasant Monostatos.

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Michael Thalheimer’s non-staging of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Deutsche Staatsoper has an interesting strategy to prevent the audience from running away during the interval – it has no intervals. The good news is that the transmigration for the Schillertheater has the dubious advantage of allowing the whole audience to see the show (in the old Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the director carefully chose every blind spot of the stage to place a singer on it). As a result, now the audience knows that there is very little difference between seeing and not  seeing what does not happen in this production. Pity, for the cast here gathered could act.

Replacing an ailing Susan Gritton in the last minute, Cornelia Götz, scheduled to sing Blondchen later this year, jumped in for Konstanze, a role she has been singing for a while. I saw Ms. Götz only once, as an accurate but small-scale Queen of the Night at the Met a couple of years ago, something that accounts for the fact that I would not classify her as an “ambitious Blondchen”. Her soprano is creamier and fuller than many a Konstanze out there, but the easy and spontaneous top register resents a more “dramatic” approach and the low notes are only occasionally there. That said, what really matters is the fact that she is a natural Mozartian singer, with a truly lovely voice, almost perfect runs, a good trill and exquisite high mezza voce. She is also attentive to the words, adding some illuminating inflections here and there and reciting her dialogues with spontaneity and engagement. Since last year, Anna Prohaska’s Blondchen has become more natural, less heavily underlined and more seductive too, but she would have welcomed a less rapid tempo for Welche Wonne, welche Lust. Kenneth Tarver finds no difficulties in the role of Belmonte, pouring liquid coloratura throughout his entirely homogeneous voice. His tenore is a bit too leggero for Belmonte, but what may be bothersome after some time  is the monochromatic quality of his singing. Florian Hoffmann’s Spieltenor proved to be more substantial and he is definitely more comfortable with the heroics of Frisch zum Kampfe. As for Reinhard Dorn, it is true that he is a legitimate basso profondo, who could tackle the impossible low notes without much ado. That said, his singing is so poorly supported that he basically speaks everything above his low register. I have to understand that he was in one of those days in which the voice is not really responsive and praise his professionalism in showing up on stage for a role so difficult to replace*. Friedrich Haider knows his Mozart and offered a variegated, lively and clear performance. The orchestra responded with spirit, being a central part of the action in its faithful portrayal of the wide range of emotional atmospheres in this score. The chorus was not immune to the animation and sang with enthusiasm and accuracy.

* It must be said that the gratitude for Cornelia Götz’s last-minute replacement in such a difficult role did not inspire the Staatsoper either to print a small notice for the cast-lists sold in the foyer or even – until now – to credit her on their website.

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One of Handel’s most massive oratorios, Israel in Egypt is a tour de force for the chorus – the solo numbers are very scarce and, in the contrasting three parts (the original version was adopted for this performance), a showcase of choral writing possibilities are displayed – from anthem-like parallel structures to complex fugal episodes. The challenge was taken by the RIAS-Kammerchor with relish. This ensemble excels in transparent textures and crystal-clear divisions, but their trump card is their dramatic commitment. The approach here was fortunately remote from the venerable tradition found in some old English recordings, but almost operatic in its graphic description of the predicaments of the Israelite people in its way out of bondage through the Red Sea and its special effects.

 “Special effects” is an expression one could easily use to define Handel’s imaginative writing for the orchestra, with its graphic descriptions of frogs, flies, locusts, fire vortices and the torrents in the Red Sea. All that was intensely brought to life by the Concerto Köln under Hans-Christoph Rademann’s baton. The quasi-operatic approach paid its dividends in this homogeneously wie-ein-Kondukt intense performance, fortunately recorded by Deutschlandradio Kultur (to be broadcast on July 2nd). Despite the occasional (if unobtrusive) German accent, it also deserved a CD release.

 The fact that there is only a few solo numbers – none of them famous as Joshua’s O had I Jubal’s lyre or Samson’s Let the bright seraphim – does not mean that the task is easy. The alto solo is featured in some key moments and both duets for basses and sopranos are not only exciting but also very difficult to sing. Ditte Andersen’s exquisite golden tone was ideally contrasted to Anna Prohaska’s more silvery sound, but it is Tim Mead (replacing Marjana Mijanovic) who deserves special mention for his eloquent account of his arias. His velvety angelic countertenor is ideal for oratorio. Tenor Andreas Karasiak has accurate divisions, but the sound is not truly ingratiating and his English needs some work. Bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer offered rich, focused and flexible singing, also beautifully contrasted to Jonathan de la Paz Zaens’s leaner and straighter sound in their duet.

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What is wrong with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to inspire some of the worst operatic stagings in the history of opera? Michael Thalheimer’s new production for the Statsoper unter den Linden is one of the most pretentious pieces of stage direction ever shown to an audience. One might wonder why I am surprised considering the Lindenoper’s record with Regietheater. But make no mistake – Thalheimer’s Entführung is no Regietheater, it is rather a non-Regie. The whole plot is reduced to basically nothing. In most épatons-la-bourgeosie productions, an innocent bystander would believe he understood the plot, although what he understood has nothing to do with the actual story. For example, if someone who had never seen this most genial among Singspiele were invited to see Stefan Herheim’s production in Salzburg, he would later tell he saw something like the operatic adaptation of feature movie Beetlejuice. But if you took this same fellow to the Staatsoper this evening, he would ask you what the orchestra and the audience were doing in a preliminary rehearsal.

 To start with, the German taxpayer should claim Olaf Altmann’s fee back – he is billed as set designer, but all he did was to install a suspended cat downstage. And that’s it. Most singing and acting take place outside the stage or very near to the edge of it. As a result, the German taxpayer who could not afford a parterre ticket actually missed most of the show. Basically he paid twice for nothing. Katrin Lea Tag’s creative process as a costume designer seems to be: she took a flight to Tokyo, got to Shibuya Subway station and lured the six first people who appeared in front of her into selling her their clothes. I took a while to understand if Pedrillo was a boy or a girl. As for the choristers, she probably went to the Galeries Lafayette and said “give me some 80 black garments”. The guinea pig of our “Regie-experience” is asking himself to this moment why this minimalist fashion show had Turkish-flavoured music.

 If you bought the performance’s booklet, then you will understand that the director was really fascinated with the “language issue” – that there are Spanish characters dealing with Turkish characters while speaking and singing German. “Food for thought”, he might have thought. And this to this moment irrelevant aspect of the work took pride of place – so basically a) the plot; b) the sets; c) the costumes and d) common sense were replaced by dialogues spoken 75% in German and 5% in Italian (there is one Italian singer in the cast) and 20% in English. One may ask himself – considering that the plot is set in Turkey and that Berlin is one of the largest “Turkish” cities in the world – why nobody decided to add a bit of Turkish in this melting pot. I mean all this if you REALLY believe that there is a language issue in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In New York, where all these languages are entirely foreign, the Metropolitan Opera House had all dialogues spoken in German.

 The nonsense-fest on stage did not affect the pit – Philippe Jordan offered a wide-eyed, alert reading of the score. His beat was flexibility itself and he always found the right balance between animation, lyricism, theatricality and elegance. The house orchestra responded accordingly, offering transparent sounds and clearly articulated phrasing. The edition here adopted opened the cuts in Martern aller Artern und Wenn der Freude. I wonder, however, how a serious conductor such as Jordan accepted the idea of interrupting Mozart’s arias in order to accommodate the director’s wishes. Mozart has not written such pauses and allowing them is insulting a genius to comply with the wishes of a nobody.

 William Christie’s recording (and Marc Minkowski’s video) show that Konstanze is a hard-day work for Christine Schäfer – and the passing of time does not made the task easier for her. I do not mean that the voice has suffered any decline. It has not – it still has a unique blending of luster, roundness and metal that makes it soft yet penetrating at the same time. However, the impossible filigree written by Mozart to Caterina Cavalieri is a continuous test to her abilities – many a coloratura passage is smudged, some long phrases are butchered for breath pauses and the lower end of the tessitura is often drowned in inaudibility. Because of that, Ach, ich liebte sounded frankly awkward, Traurigkeit a bit tentative and she seemed to connect only from Martern aller Arten on, rounded off rather from panache than from polish. Most disturbing was her unconvincing parlando and off-pitch effects. I know it has worked for her in contemporary repertoire – but really here it just sounds a trick to get away with difficult passages.

 Although Anna Prohaska sometimes underlines her phrasing too heavily, she has a contagious personality and often sings with instrumental accuracy. In this production, both Blondchen and Pedrillo are very, very gloomy, but she seems to have found a way to make it work for her. I cannot say the same of Florian Hoffmann. Without the animation, there is nothing left in Pedrillo and the heroic ascending phrases of Frisch zum Kampfe took him to his limits. Maurizio Muraro is my first Italian Osmin. Me may have a light accent, both in song and in dialogue and yet he produces flowing and meaningful German. As almost every Osmin, he does not really have the impossible low notes required by Mozart, but he has everything else. The voice is powerful, dark, firm and flexible and he sings stylishly. I save the best for last – Pavol Breslik is simply the best Mozart tenor of our days. I have found him more spontaneous in Italian, but still he is one of the best Belmontes I have seen both live or in recordings. Although he is a light lyric tenor, the sound is what the French call corsé – firm and incisive, yet ductile enough for mezza voce and flexible enough for breathtakingly accurate fioriture. When I mean breathtaking, I mean also that he has very long breath and produces some very fast and lengthy melisme a tempo without any hint of blurring. To make things better, the tone is extremely pleasant, something like a lighter Gösta Winbergh.

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