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Posts Tagged ‘Bryn Terfel’

Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer is a key work to understand German Romanticism, a richly orchestrated score of sophisticated musical invention and dramatic impact. Yet, it is not staged as often as one would guess. Why? The immediate answer is that the two main roles are impossibly difficult. It is also quite testing for the orchestra – but one could make similar observations of operas like Tristan und Isolde or Götterdämmerung, which are nonetheless more frequent in opera houses’ seasons.

I would add that Der Fliegende Holländer is also difficult to stage. Even if you have a low budget and go Regie, if you don’t provide any kind of “special effect”, then it’s going to be a colossal debacle anyway. In his 2012 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, Andreas Homoki never forgets that. He has throwed ships, spinning wheels, fjords etc away, but there are plenty of spooky tricks to keep up with Wagner’s diminished seventh chords. Homoki explains he decided to stage his Holländer onshore – and so he does. Daland has a trading company and his instructions to his crew are here translated into telephonic communication with his ships at sea. However, whenever Wagner’s orchestra suggests sea tempests, everybody on stage falls to the ground as in they were on a ship. So, again, could we make a decision here? Aboard or onshore? Later I understood that the chorus has to remain onstage longer than what Wagner intended because they are supposed to screen the Holländer’s “magical” appearances and disappearances. So it is rather a convenience than an aim in itself. And one can see that. Also, the pre-war English setting is atmospheric and goes well with the story, but the association with the burdens of colonial system is a bit far-fetched. We see maps of Africa, Daland has an African servant and, when the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly crews is supposed to appear, the African servant is turned in a warrior and mysterious arrows kill Daland’s employees. This could be an interesting approach – Daland is in Europe and sees only the profits of colonial enterprise, while the Dutchman could be someone plagued by the actual heart-of-darkness experience of colonial oppression who cannot redeem himself. He does not fit anymore in the blood-stained welfare of his civilized surroundings. But this is not the story we see here – the Dutchman is pretty much concerned about himself and the African qualms are just added upon his plot.

The Opernhaus Zürich made a point, in this production, of trying to revive “the original version” of the score. In the program book, they acknowledge that Wagner has done so much retouching in so many instances that it is actually impossible to speak of one “original” version, but roughly speaking we had no intermission, the acts linked to each other by interludes and no redemption music in the end. Orchestration issues has been dealt with case by case. Maestro Alain Altinoglu seemed concerned with the large orchestral sound prescribed by Wagner and made a point in keeping his musicians in leash.  As a result, strings were often on the thin side and crescendo passages had very little development. The sound picture was often band-like, robbing this music of momentum and nobility. In terms of tempo,  the conductor made it fast and animated (sometimes making it difficult for the chorus to articulate the text) – but without weight of sound, the final impression had more to do with bounciness than suspense.

Although Anja Kampe was severely tested by high-lying passages (especially in the end of the first part of her duet with the Dutchman), her Senta was richly, sensitively and touchingly sung. It is a hard piece of singing – and there is no perfect Senta, even in recordings – but that did not prevent this German soprano of making this music hers. In what regard tenors, Marco Jentzsch’s singing is the opposite of ingratiating and the Steersman was too light-toned for his role. It is almost a miracle that Matti Salminen still holds his own as Daland. Now many passages are more spoken than sung, but he does it with such naturalness and conviction that you almost believes that this is supposed to be done that way. Last but not least, Bryn Terfel may not be the most voluminous or dark-toned (his high notes often sounded strangely bright in an almost tenor-ish way) Holländer in one’s experience, but he sings it with such commitment, tonal variety, clarity of diction and imagination that you can’t help taking his side. Even in the end, when his voice started to grate a bit, such was his engagement that you felt ready to see in it the Holländer’s and not the singer’s exhaustion. Thanks to him and Anja Kampe, this performance would intermittently rise above routine into something truly exciting and special.

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The second step in Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera House has few surprises for the audiences treated to his Rheingold a couple of months ago. All money, energy and creativity have been invested in the development of the structure called “the machine”. In act I, it represents, with the help of realistic projection, both tree trunks in a forest and then the ceiling of a wallless house plus the ash tree; in act II, it becomes a rocky landscape where Fricka arrives in her chariot; in act III, individual planks going up and down are supposed to be horses for Valkyries and, by the end, projections take care of the magic fire. Considering that costumes look almost exactly like those Amalie Materna wore in 1885, I cannot recall the point of making a new Otto Schenk production whose single novelty is a mechanical structure that makes singers afraid of falling down: Voigt was on scene for barely 2 minutes when she had her first accident. So far the director has not showed a single insight about the libretto. In an interview, his profound take on the role of Brünnhilde is “she has the wisdom she inherited from Erda and the personal sense of justice that comes from Wotan – these two things are in conflict and she’s trying to find a way to be faithful to both, which is typical of a tragic character, trying to reconcile two aspects of one’s own personality”. At this point, my 6 or 7 readers may have guessed that singers ran to and fro striking stock gestures while the machine turned and showed Lion-the-king-like “flashback” little films to add some spice to Wagner’s narrative episodes.

Maestro James Levine is, of course, an experienced Wagnerian, but at his age and afflicted by health problems, he is no longer able to provide the richness of sound necessary for a slow-paced performance. At times, a surge of energy seemed to come from the podium, such as in the closing of act I, with beautiful transparent sonorities, but the Walkürenritt was basically messy and, in the last scene, the orchestra seemed just tired – brass were variable from the beginning. It must be said that the conductor had to adapt for a very particular cast with various levels of difficulties and never failed to help them out in the many instances in which they found themselves in trouble.

For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s rich soprano started to hang fire after 30 minutes. In the end of act I, the voice was grey and unfocused. Before act II, she was announced indisposed but willing to go on, but was finally replaced by a powerful Margaret Jane Wray, who understandably seemed a bit short of breath in act II before a most-satisfying farewell to Brünnhilde in act III*. In her debut as Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt seemed to be in control of her resources and survived to the end of the opera, but what these resources are deserve consideration. Round, big top notes have always been her assets in this repertoire, but in a hoch dramatisch assignment one quickly realizes that bracing for every one of them does not make her the most comfortable Brünnhilde in the market. Also, her middle register is foggy and overgrainy and the basic tonal quality is extremely unattractive, shrewish and nasal, as if she were dubbing a Walt Disney character instead of evoking anything noble or heroic. One could adjust to that nonetheless if there were some interpretation going on. As far as I can remember, she sang everything in the basic mezzo forte, uninflected style, not to mention a not really idiomatic German. Although Stephanie Blythe barely moves in this production, her presence alone exposes the lack of true Wagnerian quality in almost everyone in this cast. This is a true dramatic, flashing voice in the whole range, with some intelligent and discrete word-pointing. If you want to sample a legitimate Wagnerian mezzo soprano, you really have to listen to Blythe.

Voigt’s was not the only role debut this evening: Jonas Kaufmann’s first Siegmund was probably the raison d’être of this evening. Although his tenor is adequately dark, the fact is that his voice is a bit more lyrical than the usual Siegmund’s. As a result, a great deal of low lying passages sounded a bit timid. He took sometime to understand how to make his voice work in the role and his attempts at intensity often ended in lachrymosity and lack of immediate impact. The intermission proved to be providential, for the German tenor seemed more at ease then, readier to try his hallmark soft singing and to convey stamina when necessary. I don’t think he will ever be a really powerful Siegmund, but I am convinced that a little bit more experience will focus his performance into something more in keeping with his reputation.

Bryn Terfel’s bass-baritone is more incisive than rich, but it is big and authoritative enough. I am not sure if I agree with his whimpering approach to the role, but one must acknowledge that his detailed delivery of the text brought it to life, even if this involved some hamming. Last but not least, Hans-Peter König was a strong, reliable Hunding.

*My original text read “I first thought that the problem was nerves, for she was in far better shape. The voice was then bright and clean, but one could see she needed a great deal of extra breath pauses to reach the end of phrases. The effort cost her act III, when she was replaced by a powerful and solid Margaret Jane Wray”. Although it seems that the Met has confirmed that Ms. Wray sang act II, she too sounded (and looked) different in act II and III. No conspiracy theory suggested, but the whole situation is somewhat strange.

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