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Posts Tagged ‘Bayerische Staatsoper’

The raw material of Manon Lescaut is passion. If you catch yourself pondering or evaluating or judging anything during a performance of Puccini’s first big success, then you can claim your money back in the box office: you’ve been defrauded. The wigs and crinolines might pose an extra challenge for the audience to reach this emotional status, but considering the plot (a girl under 18 is sentenced to transportation to the colonies for indecent behavior), one would have to use a great deal of imagination to update it in any way – my suggestion: make Manon a refugee or something like that and you might stage a very dramatic airport scene.

Director Hans Neuenfels might have a legitimate interest for opera, but does he really like it? In his stagings, his efforts are basically concentrated on trying to rescue the librettos from its bourgeois and decadent values (yes, so last century…) by replacing the setting, the dialogues or stage instructions by superficially deep statements the shadow of truth of which can be found in the libretto as it is by someone with three functional brain cells. This evening, for instance, we have the usual laboratory lighting and décors, a chorus dressed as silver-clad teletubbies with red wigs, a Manon with costumes that vary from an outfit tailor-made for a missionary to those of a make-up sales-assistant in a department story, not to mention that the physical attraction here is left to imagination (although both singers in the leading roles have some chemistry going on between them). Considering the credentials involved, I was expecting a particularly repelling Geronte or a powerful deportation scene, but it was all very sanitized under cold lighting.

One could say – there is still Puccini’s music to make it all work. Not so fast, I am afraid. Faced with a lightweight cast, conductor Alain Altinoglu made everything in his powers to provide some orchestral lushness within the limits of restricted volume. He was often successful, but at the point he reached the intermezzo the whole calculation exercise proved too well-behaved: the crescendo was so managed and groomed that the climax just did not happen (you can imagine how the sexual depiction in the act II duet felt like…). Although the circumstances in the video from the Covent Garden were not exactly ideal, Giuseppe Sinopoli had it permanently on white heat, forcing Kiri Te Kanawa out of her comfort zone into the arms of an ideally inspired Plácido Domingo.

The fact that Kristine Opolais is no Renata Tebaldi is not a tragedy per se – many famous Manons weren’t either (the discography alone shows names of sopranos who sang Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, such as Licia Albanese or Mirella Freni). However – I am not old enough to vouch for Albanese – Freni’s mezzo forte would eat Opolais’s fortissimo for breakfast. What I “heard” today was a voice opaque in color, limited in volume and highly manipulated in both ends of her range. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to speak of any interpretation or even musical values (a high rate of false entries make it even more doubtful). I would say this is not her repertoire and will never be, but her biography says she is an Aida, a Butterfly… Hmm…

On paper, Jonas Kaufmann – in spite of the baritonal color or his tenor – is a bit on the light side for Des Grieux, but that was not at all a disadvantage – his tenor, as a whole, is sizeable enough for the part and he withstood the demands of some of the most testing passages in the score with admirable stamina. Anyway, this is not what I want to write about his performance; the reason why it rescued the whole evening from its rigor mortis was the fact that he sings it more interestingly than anybody else. Every little phrase is sung to the complete rendition of both its musical and dramatic values, by means of his customary control of dynamics and legato – all that without any hint of affectation and with real gusto for Italian style. Markus Eiche is an unexpected piece of casting as Lescaut. Although some high notes are tense and straight in sound, he sounded quite idiomatic in it. The voice lacks a bit volume – especially in his low register – but he compensated by incisive delivery of the text and his animation.

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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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There have been so many words written about Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2007 production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin for the Bavarian State Opera that I wonder if there is anything left to say. In any case, the production has been nicknamed “Brokeback Onegin”, and there is no ill will in the joke: the director does acknowledge the reference, not only to Ang Lee’s movie, but also to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I would add something of Elias Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in the way the young Tatyana is portrayed (and I guess that a reference to Natalia Zakharenko – a.k.a. Natalie Wood – is not out of place here). The cinematographic references are hardly what the nay-sayers complained about – but the fact that the fact that Tchaikovsky’s own homosexuality here stands for the reason why shirtless cowboys do everything but lap-dance Onegin just after he has killed Lensky. On choosing this wording, I mean that many of those who dislike the production probably do not find problem in suggestion that there is more than friendship in the feeling between the two leading male characters in the plot. Even if Pushkin did not envisage that, this perspective is compatible with a plot in which the young poet rages and – most puzzlingly – vilifies his adored Olga without much reason while Onegin accepts the provocation that leads him to kill his only friend instead of acting with the kind of condescension typical of his haughty personality (as we have seen in his reaction to Tatyana’s letter). I even believe that the staging has grounds to put the matter in a more than “Platonic” way; the part I don’t go along with is the premise that both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky could have done better, that they got the second act all wrong and that the third act is a mistake that had to be corrected. I am sorry, but the only misjudged thing in Pushkin’s life was the duel – the real-life one that got him killed way too young. Tatyana’s refusal of Onegin is the culminating scene of the book and the opera – and the Lensky/Olga situation is the main step that took them to that point. I am not a cynical person – call me silly if you want – but I appreciate Tatyana’s decision to be faithful to herself and what she stands for (even if one does not share her beliefs). And I say all this having found the cavorting cowboys far less camp than the ballet numbers usually seen in the third act.

I always say that Onegin is the opera I’ve been most often lucky with: last time I saw it Mariss Jansons was conducting the Concertgebouw. My very high records with it made me difficult to feel happy about Leo Hussain’s conducting this evening. By saying this I do not mean it was bad, but rather that it did not bring me any satisfaction. It lacked the fundamental sense of sustained and increasing tension, some of Tchaikovsky’s famous emotional passages were played without any conviction, the orchestral sound lacked warmth and apparently the chorus could not really understand the conductor’s beat. I also have the impression – especially in the girls/boys quartet in act I – that soloists were basically doing their thing. I will never forget the exemplary sense of control and demi tintes that Jiri Belohlavek achieved at the Met with Mattila, Semenchuk, Bechala and Hampson – and what I heard today it miles away from that experience. And one cannot fault his cast.

This is the first time I see Anna Netrebko in a Russian opera and it seems that it is true that one has always an extra sparkle in the repertoire of his or her own country. She sang with extraordinary richness of tone in her whole range, tackled the exposed high notes roundly and without hesitation and gave a lesson in how to tell apart act I Tatyana and act III Tatyana just by the sound of her voice. The Letter Scene – where a most compelling conductor would have done all the difference in the world – she could find unusual alertness to the changes of mood (and there are many). Brava. It was more than a lucky coincidence that she could find a top-notch Olga in Alisa Kolosova, the best I have seen live, her mezzo ideally young-sounding with judiciously used reserves of depth in her low notes. Also, she knows exactly what kind of woman her character is. Brava anche lei. Since I last saw him, Pavol Breslik has grown immensely in the role of Lensky. It is still a light voice for the part, but the lightness is now used entirely in his favor, in phrasing of Mozartian poise and ductility, not to mention that he has developed in strength to deal with the most outspoken passages.

There is much to admire in Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin – he sings with sense of style, an unmistakably baritonal sound and commitment. He does seem a little tired in the last scene, but so are most singers in this part. And yet I missed the sheer chic a great Onegin exudes in acts I and II and the truly spiritual exhaustion in act III. The intent to portray this is there, but I have the impression that a voice of more depth and weight is required to fully accomplish that. Günther Groissböck, on the other hand, has the voice for Prince Gremin, but his aria was sung too objectively, the mellifluous legato a Russian bass would never fail to employ there largely missing.

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Only twenty years ago, one would never fancy to see any of Claudio Monteverdi’s operas in an important opera house, but the increasing popularity of baroque music and (most probably) the colorful libretto of L’Incoronazione di Poppea has brought the work of this Italian composer to the general public in places like Paris* and Madrid. The less theatrically flamboyant L’Orfeo has not had the same luck. The Bavarian State Opera decided last year to take the lead by presenting a new staging cast from its own roster. The première conductor, Ivor Bolton, opted to be mostly faithful to the instrumental forces used by Monteverdi himself back in 1607. For that purpose, a continuo ensemble has been added to a group of members of the Bavarian State Orchestra.

For many, the main source of interest is the casting of the German Lieder-singing “superstar” Christian Gerhaher in the title role. This is a repertoire he is not usually associated to. I, for instance, have never heard him say let alone sing a word in a language other than German. I had very low expectations and, therefore, cannot truly vouch for my mostly positive impression: his Italian is not idiomatic, but more than acceptably delivered; his coloratura is not a model of accuracy, but is fluent and generally effortless; his purity of line stands for baroque style, except when he verges on veteran-Fischer-Dieskau-like hectoring in high and louder-than-piano passages (truth be said, rarely); his fastidiousness and lack of fondness for legato less problematic in this more declamatory music. At any rate, taking in consideration the variety of his repertoire and the difficulty of the task, one can easily deem this performance successful, especially from a baritone. His Euridice was the sensuous sounding Elsa Benoit, while Anna Stéphany was grainy yet sensitive and stylish as Musica and Speranza. Having Anna Bonitatibus as the Messaggera and Proserpina, however, had the effect of exposing the liability of the performance as a whole. Monteverdi’s music requires an absolute mastery of the natural rhythm of Italian language. This is particularly noticeable in florid passages, where inexpert ears fail to distinguish the “main” notes from embellishment. One just needs to turn to  Jordi Savall’s video where the not truly impeccable Furio Zanasi is rhythmically always right on the mark and therefore fully understandable even during extremely florid passages. Accordingly, Savall responds to his cast with more vivid and contrasted tempi and more expressive playing. But it would be unfair not to praise conductor Cristopher Moulds and his instrumentalists – this was stylish and beautiful music-making.

David Bösch’s imaginative production never ceased to offer the audience something to watch, by virtue of detailed stage direction to soloists and choristers and use of stage devices. His re-interpretation of the libretto is intelligent and subtle if very depressing. I only wish the lighting could add a little bit more difference between what goes in the world of the living and that of the dead. Unless this was a dramatic point I did not notice…

*It would be unfair to overlook the fact that the Opéra de Paris dared to stage it in 1978… with Gwyneth Jones, Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig and Nicolai Ghiaurov.

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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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Staging a Ring cycle is probably a director’s most challenging enterprise: the plot is contrived; there obviously is a “message” to deliver, a message not restricted to a specific moment in time, but originally intended to a specific audience (i.e., the Germans); and an added insight, an opinion, a point-of-view is expected. But the philosophic side does not replace the scenic side of the task: you may read all the books or – easier – surround yourself with those very clever people who write the cryptic texts in the program, but if these ideas don’t make into the stage action – and they rarely do, for stage gestures have to be immediate to be effective* – then all that has been in vain.

I am sure that Andreas Kriegenburg has a plethora of ideas about the Ring – and he definitely has lots of ideas (and experience) about theatre in general, but I have the impression that “in general” is the keyword here. For instance, this is a production centered on people: the stagehands are visible, the stage effects consist of choreographies, in the end (I mean in the Götterdämmerung) the world as we know ends because it is not anymore about people and the “redemption through love” music is represented by the seid-umschlungen-Millionen white-clad group from the Rheingold in a collective hug on poor Gutrune. But the problem is that all this seems to follow its own plot while the singers playing Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich et al seem to be a burden the director had to bear in order to tell his story rather then being the story.

This has been more evident in Götterdämmerung than in the other operas: here the action seems to be set in Frankfurt – after all, the Rhine is nearby and the big euro-symbols (very much in evidence – Gutrune is usually seen riding one) in  a bank headquarters’ lobby (the Gibichungenhall) seem to corroborate the hypothesis – not very far-fetched if you bear in mind that the Bundeskanzlerin couldn’t find time to go to the UN environment conference in Rio because the Euro was considered a priority over mother nature. Back to Wagner: as usual, the Gibichungen are shown as new money with ostentatious habits. Their corporative lobby is made of steel and glass, nature is reduced to a Damien-Hirst-style horse sculpture and a Patrick-Blanc-style vertical garden, there are many cleaning ladies in uniform sadistically molested by Gunther (Strauss-Kahn references?), while Gutrune plays the vamp to the executives who respond to Hagen’s calls to arms with mobile phones. However, nobody finds it strange when Hagen has a spear at arm’s length when one is “needed” or when Brünnhilde decides to burn Siegfried’s dead body just outside. What I mean is, the action is updated when the director has an idea about it. When he does not, things are carried out as in the libretto, regardless of how nonsensical it looks on stage.

There are staging problems too. The sets for the bank lobby are too complex to be dismantled and put together; therefore, a structure very similar to a barn was concocted downstage for all the other scenes. Forget about Brünnhilde’s rock – she has to make do with a bench in there. The norns too were transferred to the barn – plus a whole bunch of refugees from Fukushima (these sisters learn their never-ending wisdom from CNN here). The scenes that are too complex for the barn are basically set in the lobby – the Rhinemaidens make a short walk from the Rhine and “swim” on a gigantic Euro symbol.  The end of the world too has not much room to happen: it is shown very far away upstage behind the lobby’s walls in a very believable pyre that does not affect much of the structure however. Hagen basically watches to the whole thing from one corner until he decides, for no specific reason, to shout, “hands off the ring!”, even if the ring had not been there for a while.

In musical terms, the performance is an improvement from the previous installments. First of all, the orchestra had a more immediately Wagnerian sound, in the sense that it was big, rich and very much in the center of events. Second, many of the atmospheric orchestral effects that misfired in the previous evenings here seemed more successfully achieved. Third, the pace tended to be more agile. Actually, when the score has a propulsive rhythmic figure to support it, Kent Nagano would respond to it more or less effectively, but as soon as the structure becomes more fluid, depending on the maestro’s beat to move forward, things tended to sag. But this is a fault one can find in many a conductor who ventures into Wagnerian territory. Although the orchestral sound was usually very beautiful, there were mismatches and the occasional blunder in the brass section too.

When Nina Stemme began to sing, she seemed to be in the Helen Traubel-ian shape she showed in Barenboim’s Valkyrie at La Scala: her middle register was at its most focused and even the low notes were rich and integrated, not to mention that she were handling her lines with almost Straussian fluidity. But – and that was a problem for Traubel too – as soon as things started to get perilously high, this warm-toned Swedish soprano had to push, a bad sign. In her second appearance, she seemed to have recovered and sang with amazing abandon. Act II is a tough piece of singing – and exposed high notes come in plenty. Pushing is something that works once, twice, but not three times in this kind of writing without evident loss of quality. At this point, many low passages were just hinted at, some consonants had been left to imagination, breath pauses started to grow in number and a couple of high notes were shortened. Although she was evidently unhappy about that (she appeared at curtain calls puffing in relief), she was able to keep up with the dramatic demands of the scene. Fortunately, Wagner gives the soprano some time to rest before the Immolation Scene, which she negotiated expertly until things became high and fast again. Then she proved to have nerves of steel and managed out of technique and willpower, for she was reaching the very end of her resources. This is the first time I see her in this opera and don’t know if she was below her usual form – it seemed her voice was dying to sing Sieglinde, so velvety and voluminous were his middle and low registers – but if the role’s high tessitura is usually that demanding for her, I ask myself if it is wise to sacrifice herself in the name of Wagner as she did today. Of course, I have seen sopranos who in their best voice weren’t able to offer something as appealing as Stemme did today, but a hard-day work it was and one could hear that. My respect for her commitment and professionalism – but I wonder if she had found any fun in it.

The role of Siegfried is basically too high for Stephen Gould. This tenor is a shrewd singer with a very solid technique and an untiring voice and thus he sang his part without any serious accidents. This is a basically unsingable role and the fact that a singer has sung it more or less like Wagner wrote it without giving the impression of being about to collapse is already something to be praised, but one who had heard Gould as Siegmund or Tristan wouldn’t recognize in the rather taut vocalism and pinched high notes his customary warm tonal color and poise in strenuous passages. As he was more occupied with getting the job done, his interpretation was restricted this evening mostly to stage action – he has a congenial stage presence and could follow the director’s comedy touches without making them extraneous.

Attila Jun was a very dark-toned Hagen who relished the bad-guy routine with some very earthy singing, but who could be tremulous in some moments. Although Wolfgang Koch could do with less off-pitch effects, his Alberich is sung with such conviction and richness of voice that he can’t help sounding convincing. Iain Paterson was a cleanly sung Gunther – the voice has a restricted tonal palette in this repertoire, but he uses the text expertly and is a very good actor, with a Michael Caine-ian attitude that made the role more interesting than usual. Anna Gabler has developed since I last saw in this role – the voice sounds bigger without any loss of roundness. The direction made the role rather incongruent, but she embraced the directorial choices, relishing the vamp-ish moments. Michaela Schuster was an expressionistic Waltraute, very wide-ranging in interpretation, her mezzo easily projecting in the hall. The Rhinemaidens were exemplarily sung (again Okka von der Damerau is a name to keep in mind), the norns not particularly so (Jamie Barton excepted – a truly beautiful, interesting voice). Since the promising Irmgard Vilsmaier (3rd norn) is being upgraded to the role of Brünnhilde in some quarters and had a bad time with her high notes this evening, I wonder if she shouldn’t make a complete check-up in her technique while it is still time. As Julia Varady once said, a soprano should always sing something like Donna Elvira’s Mi tradì now and then and she’ll see if something is not working properly. Finally, the Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera offered aptly sung with raw energy and commitment.

* I don’t mean that the concept has to be simple – it might be complex as you wish, but what you see on a stage is only what you see on a stage. There are not footnotes on the supertitles.

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I have a friend who says you cannot ruin a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the cast may be awful, the director may be an imbecile, but the Bard’s text will shine through nonetheless. Is it Wagner’s Siegfried something similar? I don’t know, but I have realized that, in many performances of the tetralogy in my recollection, it was Siegfried the most effective in the lot (before my 13 or 14 readers ask me which one tends to be the worse, this is Die Walküre). Is it the propulsive rhythms, the inescapable necessity of crisply declaimed texts teaching where the right tempo is, the vertiginous action? This evening, for example, the energetic nature of the music has certainly led Kent Nagano into the right direction. Of course, the score did not give him the pulse and the precision he ideally should have, but the tension between a score that almost ran ahead by itself and a conductor who wanted to round off its sharp angles brought about the dynamic lacking in the previous evenings. Act I was particularly interesting – its raw energy transformed into “classical” buoyance with an important help of the Bavarian State Orchestra deluxe strings. Act II proved that the physicality of Mime and Siegfried’s interaction was probably the antidote to the other evenings’ flabbiness – once Mime was killed, the rhythmic backbone seemed to disappear and some awkwardness and disjointedness seemed to prevail again. The real clarity that was never really there became more evident. This afflicted act III especially:  the opening scene sounded arthritic and purposeless, the Siegfried/Wanderer passage lacked tension and, when I feared for the worst, Brünnhilde’s awakening reserved the audience some surprises. The lyrical episodes sounded truly lyric, Nagano’s lack of propulsion almost passed for a Furtwänglerian suspension of time (again – exquisite sounds from the orchestra, even if French horns had their bumpy moments), but then Siegfried wanted some action and things turned out rather messy than exciting.

Once one adjusts to Catherine Naglestad’s somewhat shrewish middle register and recessed low notes, there was plenty to delight in her unforced high notes. Her smooth attack, development and finish in exposed acuti were often revelatory, particularly in Ewig war ich, lovingly sung. When things would develop into something more properly heroic, one could see that this is not really her repertoire, but I cherish the way she caressed – as I have almost never heard it – these difficult Wagnerian phrases. Although Jill Grove is a bit on the light side for Erda, it is always a treat to find a true contralto in the role, especially a fruity, firm-toned one. Anna Virovlansky was also an ideal woodbird – her diction clear, the tone fresh and lovely and the high notes rich and easy.

Lance Ryan’s forte has never been legato, tone colouring and the kind of subtlety that lies behind the word “cantabile” –unfailing stamina, clear diction a naturally animated stage attitude are in the core of her performance as Siegfried. One is truly amazed of how in control of his resources he is, particularly in the most demanding passages (the forging song being the showcase of his abilities). Nevertheless, my memory may betray me, but I have the impression he was truer to pitch in Bayreuth two years ago. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime shows no surprises – he builds his performance around the distorting vocal effects character-tenors seem to find inevitable in this role. Wolfgang Koch was in strong voice and offered the most dramatically gripping performance this evening. He is definitely one of the best Alberichs of our days. I have seen Alan Held a couple of times and my first impression this evening was that he has reached the peak of his abilities. His Wanderer fulfilled all the basic vocal requirements of the role – his bass-baritone was firm, rich and homogeneous – and he sang with authority and animation, but he would soon start to tire, his high notes gradually became colorless and by the end he was basically grey-toned. Rafal Siwek was a very dark-toned Fafner.

Andreas Kriegenburg’s production started off full of ideas – this was very much a Siegfried from the point-of-view of a child. Act I sets seemed to have sprung from a schoolchild’s drawing, with the kurogo stagehands (actually, the should be called shirogo, for they were all dressed in white…) carrying cotton clouds on stick, hidden under a green carpet through which their hands carried daisies etc. There were many clever ideas going on – and the 40 extras on stage were a helpful device to operate vertiginously fast set changes, but they were often really distracting with their little slapstick parallel actions, particularly during the forging scene. Act II turned around a striking-looking dragon consisting of the actors under a red lighting plus eyes and fangs. Unfortunately, the device was not truly agile, making for a particularly frustrating scene with Siegfried. The final act seemed to be the victim of short budget – using the extras as sets and props were rarely an illuminating resource (with the possible exception of the Erda/Wanderer scene), but seemed rather a necessity to wave plastic and fabric into “oceans of fire”, both literally and metaphorically (the closing scene, when the comic touches elicited too many laughs while Brünnhilde and Siegfried are sealing the fate of the universe, among other things).

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