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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Bernheim’

I would be in Zürich for the Fliegende Holländer. So why not checking this new staging of Bellini’s rarely staged La Straniera? I’ve got the last ticket available and then Opera Rara’s recording to prepare myself. I had never listened to this work before, but had read ages ago a report on Diapason that made me feel curious: the black pearl among Bellini operas or something like that. I won’t lie – I couldn’t make it to the second CD. I almost brought it with me in case jet lag prevented me from sleeping at night.

Maybe (very) low expectations have done the trick, but live at the theatre I kept wondering why I had found the CDs so boring. I have some theories:

1) although it has been often performed in concert, this is an opera that has to be experienced staged. The fact that there are no big arias (the tenor doesn’t even have an aria to speak of) and that numbers are so unorthodoxly structured is explained by the fact that the composer really wanted his audience to concentrate in the drama;

2) although the Opera Rara CDs has superior orchestral playing and a conductor who is a specialist in this repertoire, the cast is problematic and “thrilling” is not the word that comes to my mind when I think of it.

Why has this evening made me change my mind on Bellini’s bleak-pearl opera? To start with, Fabio Luisi proved to have made the right decision when he decided not to make little of Bellini’s score (there are many niceties, including an aria accompanied by flute arpeggi). As the orchestra has received a “Beethovenian” treatment, singers were obliged to take the cue from the pit and that basically keep them together in an unified musical concept instead of the usual coincidence of individual ego trips. The house orchestra is far from ideal, but the fact that it was there in the center of the event made everything sound different – rare indulgent tenuti or puntature to start with. Considering that this score has many interesting harmonic twists, it is particularly good to be able to hear more than a soloist andsomeguysaccompanyinghimorher. Especially when the soloists are that good!

Edita Gruberová first sang the part of Alaide last year. I am glad that, at this point of her career, she is still willing to add a new role to her repertoire, but I am sorry that she has not done that before, for this is indeed a role that fits her voice and personality like a glove. First, the high tessitura and the long-sustained-phrase writing highlight the Slovakian soprano’s best vocal abilities. Second, the role has a dreamy, otherworldly quality that agree to her dramatic instincts. We first hear Alaide off-stage singing a sequence of ascending trills and we are supposed to be in awe – so it must be a voice with inbuilt magic, and that was we got this evening. Gruberová was in amazingly good shape – her soprano was at its luminous best, she trilled with complete abandon and was at her less fussy. I understand that, if you compare her performance with Renata Scotto’s for instance, there is going to be more than a splash of Zerbinetta in it (as she has often been accused of), but – seriously – this is a small price to pay for her technical excellence and textual clarity and theatrical imagination.

As much as in the Opera Rara CDs, the Isoletta here lacks a youthful, truly agreeable tone. At least, Veronica Simeoni, being Italian, brings an idiomatic quality that, aided by crystalline diction, made the role less a cipher than it can be. The tenor between these two ladies is the same from the CDs – Dario Schmunk, whose emphatic singing style fits his the exalted personality of his role. His voice is more pleasant heard live, when the squeezed high notes sound less edgy and the off-focus mezza voce is not devoid of charm.  A convincing performance. Franco Vassallo has developed a lot as a Bellini singer since last time I saw him – this evening, he sung with poise, elegance and sensitivity and still offered his hallmark big, firm top notes. The ensemble singers too were extremely well cast here – Benjamin Bernheim (Osburgo) sang with round tone, focused low notes and perfect Italian style and Reinhard Mayer’s rich, dark bass was shown to advantage in the role of the Prior.

Christof Loy’s staging could be called minimalistic – there is only one set, which is indeed a “stage set”, you can see the mechanisms and that this is nothing but a piece of scenery. Characters operate the ropes themselves. Costumes are stylized 19th century and everything turns around a very sharp symbology – stage ropes that double as hangman’s halters, a Romantic painting of a lake that represents Arturo’s fantasy of happiness with Alaide, black and white veils and costumes to show the parallels between the fantasized woman (Alaide, as perceived by Arturo) and the real one (Isoletta). It is not a staging that reveals any hidden angle, but that makes the story itself clear and immediate. Considering that this is a very convoluted plot, this is no small feat.

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Even compared to Mozart early works such as Mitridate and Lucio Silla, his delightful stage serenata Il Re Pastore is a rarity. There is not much of a plot to speak of (basically a couple of connected misunderstandings involving unusually good-intentioned people) and fiendishly difficult vocal parts, but the lack of appeal of a pastoral setting might ultimately be to blame for that. Director Grischa Asagaroff considered a great challenge to respect the original atmosphere and yet to bring some fresh air into it. As an inspiration, he looked up to Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s stagings of Mozart operas. As a result, the story is told without much interference from superimposed concepts other than having it set in a baroque garden stravaganza from which these characters spring into life when unobserved by visitors from our days.  The concept – particularly the closing scene – made me think of Tankred Dorst’s staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (without the pretentiousness, of course). In terms of stage direction, the director transformed the libretto’s “awkward” naivete into almost sitcom-like physical comedy. While his primo “uomo” and his primo tenore have a natural instinct for it, the remaining members of the cast looked a bit lost on stage. If everything looks like polite entertainment, one can never blame him for doing exactly what Metastasio probably had in mind. In any case, without cute gestures and green fauns and with a little bit more imagination, the concept might have come to life.

Although William Christie says that Il Re Pastore is a hidden gem among Mozart’s early work, his conducting did not show great affection for the music. Abrasiveness seemed to be the keynote – the overture sounded rough and uncomfortable, arie di bravura received the egg-timer approach and lyrical moments sounded devoid of feeling, especially the Aminta/Elisa duet, which should be the opera’s centerpiece. The exception was – not surprisingly – a L’amerò a tad slow for my ears (I am used to Margaret Price and James Lockhart’s recording when everything sounds flowing and spontaneous). Under these circumstances, singers (with one notable exception) couldn’t help by sounding nervous and often imprecise – the orchestral sound was unpolished and rather cacophonic. Justice be made to concertmaster Ada Pesch, who played the solo part in Aminta’s famous aria expressively. In his recording with a period instrument orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a far more persuasive advocate of the hidden gem, finding far more variety and dept in it.

Aminta is a role generally taken by lyric sopranos, who can benefit from a serviceable lower register and creamy top notes. In Neville Marriner’s recording, there is Angela Maria Blasi, whose voice was substantial enough to sing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and in Thomas Hengelbrock’s DVD, we find Anette Dasch, Bayreuth’s current Elsa in Lohengrin. Martina Jankova is the Opernhaus Zürich’s resident -ina and couldn’t help finding the tessitura uncomfortable. Although she sang stylishly and often beautifully, her usually bell-toned soprano seemed opaque in its higher reaches and sometimes sharp. Her voice is very agile, but she would sound even more convincing in Aer tranquillo if the conductor had given her a little bit more leeway. Malin Hartelius’s last Mozartian role in Zürich was Fiordiligi and the next is going to be Konstanze. Elisa’s breathtakingly high tessitura accordingly suggests a bright-toned soprano “happier” in its higher reaches: an Arleen Augér role. Hartelius’s voice sits a bit lower than this. At any rate, if she is going to sing Martern aller Arten  in the near future, I have to believe she was really not in very good voice this evening. Her high notes were recessed and often unfocused. Only solid technique saved her in her act II aria. Her coloratura was generally precise and fluent, but she too strayed from what Mozart wrote in a couple of tricky notes. In any case, both ladies were far better cast than Sandra Trattnigg, who fought pitch, fioriture and low notes as Tamiri. It could have been nerves, but I suspect this is not her repertoire.

The men proved to be  far more commendable – Benjamin Bernheim has a firm, substantial and pleasant tenor. His voice is not very flexible and sometimes his phrasing is too cupo. But he has great potential, which he has yet to fulfill. Rolando Villazón had his hard edges in a role in which everybody else is basically  all hard edges. In other words, although the approach was sometimes too broad for Mozart, I have never heard it so beautifully sung as this evening: the tone is warm, natural and dulcet, his control of divisions is impressive and he even found variety, feeling and sense of humor in the role. He could also build a very funny yet unexaggerated character – the ad libs appropriate and sometimes hilarious. I am glad he has decided to explore lighter roles, in which had proved to more than fulfill the technical and musical requirements.

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