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Posts Tagged ‘Bernarda Fink’

I can only imagine that Simon Rattle, when asked “which is going to be your next operatic project with the Berliner Philharmoniker?”,  consults Herbert von Karajan’s discography. Although Karajan sometimes opted to record some of his performances made live with his Berliners with the Vienna Philharmonic, that was not really the case with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. His recording with Frederica von Stade and José van Dam is both famous and controversial, but the truth is that he never performed the work with the Berlin Philharmonic in concert or in the opera house, but rather did it in the Vienna State Opera with Hilde Güden and Eberhard Wächter in 1962/1963. His successor in Berlin, Claudio Abbado, also chose to record it with the Vienna Philharmonic with Maria Ewing and again José van Dam after performances in the Austrian opera house. Therefore, the name of the present music director is connected to the performance history of Debussy’s only opera – since 2006 the Berlin Philharmonic has only played it under his baton.

Karajan is accused of “germanizing” the opera in the above mentioned orchestra-oriented EMI recording, but I would not say he disregarded the composer’s efforts in avoiding Wagnerism at all costs. That recording could be rather fittingly called “Brahmsian” in its large scale and gravitas. Rattle instead begs to differ. How often one sees a child so determined to behave differently from his parents only to realize in the end that he is more similar to them than what he would like to admit? The fact that Debussy had Wagner as a “non-model” on writing Pelléas et Mélisande only meant that Wagner was in his thoughts while he wrote it – this seems to be the concept of this evening’s performance in the Philharmonie. Although I am not really a fan of Sir Simon’s, I do admire his intent of thinking things anew, even if this sometimes involves things going really astray.

I would not say that this evening went astray. Every little aspect in his performance was coherently informed by his Tristan-esque concept and rendered expertly to this purpose. The Philharmonic sounded its fullest, deepest and richest, responded to the conductor’s demands on increasing intensity adeptly and excelled in tone coloring. Act V, in particular, showed febricity enough to make the delirious Tristan in act III tame in comparison. As my 9 or 10 readers might be guessing by now, I do not subscribe to this concept. Some designs made in blue look just vulgar in red. The multilayered demi-tintes conceived by Debussy exposed to this coruscating approach sounded just like Mascagni without the catchy tunes to my ears, especially when the cast, having to compete with the full glory of the Berliner Philharmoniker, most often than not had to sing at full powers and – in the central tessitura preferred by the composer – would mostly sound overpowered.

To call this a staged performance may seem at first an exaggeration – director Peter Sellars made it almost exclusively by lighting effects, the only props here being a letter and a platform right in the middle of the stage. He explored all spaces available in the hall (some of them quite invisible to large parts of the audience); the remoteness also made some of the singing hard to hear under these circumstances. Mr. Sellars too does not believe in demi-tintes – his approach is a bit on the telenovela side. For him, this is a domestic abuse tale. Mélisande cannot help her sexuality; Pelléas is a nice chap in a high-testosterone groping way; Golaud is a psychopath, but it is not his fault: his father is a dirty old man and his mother is absent-minded. Here, the hapless title-couple kiss at the first opportunity, are quite graphic in the tower scene, Arkel molests the pregnant Mélisande, who is kicked in her belly by Golaud, who couldn’t care less about her condition. This might make things a bit too clear for those who were not getting in the first place – but if you come to think that Debussy took the pains of writing the scene in the castle’s souterrain just to suggest that Golaud is threatening Pelléas without actually saying anything, having the cuckold pointing a knife at his brother makes the whole detour pointless, isn’t it? Again, if I disagree with the concept, it does not mean it wasn’t expertly done – the Personenregie was utterly convincing, all singers placed in each scene to optimal dramatic and aesthetic results and fully in grasp of the meaning of each gesture.

Although this evening’s cast is what one would call “glamorous”, I have the impression that a Wagnerian approach would ideally require a Wagnerian cast. I mean it- I always wondered about the possibility of hearing some like Régine Crespin, Tatiana Troyanos or Jessye Norman as Mélisande – particularly when you have a loud and powerful orchestra on duty. Although Magdalena Kozená is the opposite of Wagnerian, her Mélisande (with whom I was acquainted from a broadcast from Paris with Marc Minkowski) was ideally sung in absolute clarity of text and line and, by the way of perfect focus and bright tonal quality, very easily heard. Her approach is extremely artless and direct, what does not exactly goes with the circumstances. Sylph-like bell-toned Mélisandres seem to be the default for this role, but I plead guilty to my preference for Maria Ewing’s powers of suggestion of making you wonder what she is aiming at by saying Si, si, je les ferme la nuit… Christian Gerhaher (Pelléas)is a singer with fondness for the emphatic and the underlined. Prompted by the bombastic direction and the grandiloquent conducting, he sometimes made me think of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau’s Scarpia in Lorin Maazel’s recording. But that is me being mean – he has very clear French, handles the text with hallmark care of a Lieder singer and is comfortable with the high tessitura. But he is no Stéphane Degout. Gerald Finley is a paragon of perfect technique and musicianship, not to mention that his French sounded perfectly idiomatic to my non-native ears. He is a very amiable guy, though, and the demands of having to seem wild and dangerous involved some barking, distortion of line and parlando effects that I found a little distracting. Bernarda Fink was an expressive Genieviève, comfortable in this contralto emploi, but I’ve found Franz-Josef Selig far more persuasive in the context of Charles Dutoit’s subtle performance in Tokyo one year ago.

 

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This year’s Festtage’s theme could be called “das Ende, das Ende” – first there was the complete Ring with Götterdämmerung and not only one but TWO Requiem masses, Verdi’s (which I’ve unfortunately missed) and Mozart’s. While Verdi had a deluxe guest in the Teatro alla Scala forces, Mozart had been reserved to the Staatsoper’s orchestra and chorus. For the first part of the program, even the Staatskapelle Berlin’s musical director doubled as Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27’s soloist.

As much as I appreciate Daniel Barenboim’s sensitive playing this evening, it was rather informed by the Romantic point-of-view that this is angelic music that requires some sort of very expressive yet delicately univocal elegance. The orchestra embraced the approach wholeheartedly and painted broad lines rather than small and contrasted paintbrushes. Even if the encore (Mozart’s piano sonata’s no.10’s andante cantabile) had more than a splash of Schubert, it featured more chiaroscuro and more sharply defined phrasing. Again, a matter of taste.

When it comes to the Requiem (here performed in the good old Süßmayr version), Barenboim showed himself as an entirely different conductor who offered a highly theatrical account of Mozart’s last religious work. The maestro employed a large chorus and made heavy demand of his orchestra. The introitus showed a very good sense of balance in a big-scale perspective, but one could see in the Kyrie fugue that the Staatsopernchor is not really in the top of its game in this kind of music – the sound was blowsy, the divisions a bit labored and soft dynamics lacked naturalness throughout. Stimulated by the maestro’s energetic beat, their results could be short of messy (in Dies irae, all musicians were having a hard day’s work coping with the incisive beat and fast tempo). In any case, the dramatic approach did paid off in spite of the shortcomings until the lacrimosa. After that, Süßmayr’s ideas seemed to inspire less commitment from all involved and the impression was rather of hyperventilation than of vigor. The team of soloists was crowned by a thoroughly stylish Maria Bengtsson whose creamy soprano soared effortlessly and elegantly above everything else. Bernarda Fink partnered her well with her warm and velvety mezzo. Rolando Villazón’s phrasing involved an emphatic beginning of every phrase and some reluctance to hold back, but his usual fervor and commitment are always welcome. René Pape seemed a bit unconcerned and miscalculated the important opening of tuba mirum. All in all, a thought-provoking concert that required either more rehearsal or more aptly Mozartian forces.

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There are people who like to dislike – I am not like that. When one dislikes something, one generally tends to miss an important aspect of what he or she dislikes. For example,  I like René Jacobs – I like his Bach, Handel and Haydn recordings. I even found his Rossini interesting – but I really don’t like his Mozart opera series for Harmonia Mundi. I find the orchestral sound brassy and unclear, the casting is eccentric and there is not a drop of sensuousness in these performances (at least for me, a serious blemish for the Da Ponte works). But I know I am alone here – everybody loves these recordings, they were awarded hundreds of prizes etc. That is why I am always ready to give a second chance.

If I had to rescue one among Jacobs’s Mozart recordings, this would certainly be La Clemenza di Tito. His baroque mannerisms somehow fit more comfortably in the context of opera seria – and that is why I finally decided to spend my last evening in Paris in the Salle Pleyel to check his concert performance of Idomeneo (to be released on CD).

First of all, I have discovered that Harmonia Mundi has a great share of responsibility in my dislike. Live at the theatre, I found the Freiburger Barockorchester significantly more pleasant than in Jacobs’s recordings. The brass instruments are far more integrated in the texture and the fortepiano (as one could imagine) is truly less intrusive (although we were treated to a mini-overture for act II on it ). I still expected clearer execution of passagework in string instruments, but what I heard is closer to what one would expect of a period instrument group (even if I have personally heard some far more polished in sound).

In what regards the conducting in itself, this was a gripping and theatrical performance, less efficient in lyrical passages when – again – everything seriously lacked affection. Part of the reason is the conductor’s overbearing intrusion in singers’ phrasing. For example, if he suspects something is a grace note, be sure that he’ll make the poor singer (or the orchestra) hiccup on it regardless of legato or the expressive atmosphere. Of course, the concept of legato and our intuitive ideas of expression do not belong to the XVIIIth century – but we, for that matter, don’t belong to that age either. In any case, this is too long a discussion for this post and I’ll answer the 1,000,000-question: yes, I will buy the CDs. Well, the truth is that I have bought all the others. So, I should say I will probably listen to this Idomeneo quite often – especially for the extremely well-buit public scenes, in which the RIAS Kammerchor offer accurate and dramatically aware singing: the act I finale is particularly effective.

Jacobs also counts with a distinguished cast here – some of these singers have appeared in previous releases in the series, but here they are more or less better cast. The immediate exception would be Sunhae Im, whose soubrettish voice is not anyone’s first idea for such a lyric soprano role. Her tone comes basically in one bell-like shape and, if her response to more dramatic scenes never went beyond adding a slightly more metallic edge to her voice, she finally convinced us of her Ilia by virtue of crystal-clear diction, vivid and intelligent response to the text and immaculate technique. Her ability to sing loooooong lines in one breath is really praiseworthy, for instance. It is a pity that the conductor prepared her such elaborate ornamentation for Zeffiretti lusinghieri – again the classical motto inutilia truncat would have ensured touching instead of extravagant results.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, on the other hand, has the perfect voice for Elettra. She is a singer with impressive resources, not always perfectly handled, but Jacobs seems to be a good influence on her. It is true that Tutte nel cor  was a bit lost on register shifting and  the fast and dance-like Idol’ mio was overcareful, but she really developed to create, in spite of an awkward close, the right effect in D’Oreste, d’Ajacce. To be more specific, the accompagnato Oh, smanie! Oh, furie! was sung in the great manner, with some stunning high pianissimi.

Bernarda Fink’s voice has seen more generous days – it is still lovely, but the lower end has become quite modest and top notes are less focused than they used to be. That said, she is the kind of singer who always goes straight to the point in what regards interpretation.  Her encounter with Idomeneo in act I and the sacrifice scene were extremely moving and convincing.  Considering her commendable handling of the difficult tessitura in No, la morte, one could say her performance gained in strength since a rather colourless Non ho colpa.

When Richard Croft first appeared on scene, I feared he might be indisposed or something like that. He seemed uncomfortable, often had his hands on his mouth or his ears and an anxious look about him, but as soon as he produced his first note, I reckoned that whatever affliction he might be experiencing had no effect on his singing. This is a voice of immediate charm, extremely pleasant on the year, light-toned but firm and strong to the bottom of his range. His phrasing is amazingly graceful and stylish (he was probably the one singer in the cast who followed Jacobs’s disciplinarian regime on phrasing and ornamentation as if he himself had devised all that) and his accuracy with fioriture is a marvel. His account of his difficult arias (including the long version of Fuor del mar and Torna la pace) were exemplary – I only wish he could gave himself a bit more to the emotional experience of singing Idomeneo. His approach to the role was so detached that sometimes I felt he was sight-reading his recitatives! Maybe this was the effect of his apparent uneaseness. In any case, this is a performance I don’t wish to find fault with – this was simply Mozart singing of the highest order.

The role of Arbace was similarly cast from strength with Kenneth Tarver, who is one of the most elegant and technically accomplished Mozart tenors these days. For a change, listening to both Arbace’s arias was rather a pleasure than an ordeal to the audience.  Nicolas Rivenq sang  the short role of Neptune’s High Priest to perfection and Luca Tittolo’s sonorous is exactly what the voice of Neptune requires.

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In a series of concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst chose for his second program Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, a piece the main difficulty of which in live performances seems to be awake genuine enthusiasm in the musicians while keeping the complex ensembles functional and transparent. The Austrian conductor certainly succeded in eliciting elegance and clarity. But truth is that the performance rarely went beyond politeness. Those accustomed to Bernstein’s intense approach could even found it dull – the translucent strings did not produce the volume of sound one expects in this this music and did not blend very well with a brass section that sounded as if those instruments could have caught the flu. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, on the other hand, poured forth smooth well-balanced sounds. It is a pity that the climactic last movement did not take off – there had not been the necessary building tension to pave the way for it. Unfortunately, both soloists were rather small-scaled for the venue – Malin Hartelius’s ill-focused singing did not carry into the auditorium and the usually excellent Bernarda Fink failed to float her high register and had to distort her vowels to make for the demands on soft dynamics.

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