Posts Tagged ‘Burkhard Ulrich’

Leonard Bernstein’s Candide’s hybrid nature – is it a musical? is it an operette?  Trying to determine which can make the experience of watching it particularly difficult for those who are not used to the musical theater.  I must confess it for musicals are not my cup of tea. But I have made my acquaintance with Candide through the video in which Bernstein himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with a team of soloists that are apt enough for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda or Verdi’s Luisa Miller, even though many of the participants were barely recovered from a severe case of flu.

In the version performed in the Deutsche Oper, Bernstein’s colorful orchestration has its Richard Straussian-ian (and its Johann Straussi-ian) moments – and it makes perfect sense that a good orchestra would want to try it. In any case, these two concert performances were dedicated to Loriot, whose German texts were used to link the musical numbers sung in the original language. The German humorist wrote that Candide is a unique musical, in the sense that the story outline, briefly described, takes as long as the musical itself to be told.

The very circumstance of having a Wagnerian orchestra such as the Deutsche Oper’s, under the baton of its musical director Donald Runnicles, made the performance interesting even for those – such as me – not really attuned to the musical idiom. Although the composer himself found an inimitable intensity of expression he could at the same time conjure tongue-in-cheek playing from his musicians. Runnicles cannot be accused of lack of enthusiasm. The orchestra offered brilliant playing and, in its relatively better-behaved approach, offered truly Mahlerian grandeur in many moments. If I am less enthusiastic about the chorus, it is because I could barely understand their English.

Toby Spence was supposed to sing the title role, but was replaced in the last minute by Stephen Chaundy, who did a very decent but hardly inspiring job in it. His Cunegonde couldn’t help being more flashy in comparison. Simone Kermes’s soprano is a couple of sizes lighter and smaller than June Anderson’s in Bernstein’s video – and her low notes were often overshadowed by the orchestra. She also missed Anderson’s native-speaker verbal fluency.  (For example, I cannot help finding it funny when the American soprano sings apparently unimportant things such as  “Paris, France” in her aria), but Kermes knows how “to carry a tune”, in the sense that even the most angular passages sounded singable and easy on the ear. Maybe there was more than a splash of Berlin-style cabaret in her “Glitter and Be Gay”, but only a purist would feel disturbed, and her ease with staccato and in alts is always impressive.

Casting for Grace Bumbry the Old Lady is, I suppose, a tribute to the mezzo-soprano-cum-soprano. (Christa Ludwig sings the role in the Bernstein video.)  Bumbry is now 75 and, of course,  there are many rusty patches in her voice, but one cannot cease to wonder nonetheless how healthy it still is, especially a fruity chesty low register that she understandably stretches up higher than she used to do. What I can say is she still can pull out a very seductive “I Am Easily Assimilated”. The other soloists did a splendid job, especially the charismatic and forceful Burkhard Ulrich (which role did he perform) and the funny and technically adept Simon Pauly as Dr. Pangloss and Martin.

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Although Götz Friedrich’s Siegfried has more many splashes of kitsch, it remains my favorite production in his 1984 Ring for the Deutsche Oper – the blacksmith’s shop in act I is just irresistible (I like to believe that I have learned to forge a sword only by watching it). Jasmin Solfaghari’s Spielleitung could not avoid to follow some instructions that did not work very well for this cast, but I have found many scenes more spontaneous this year than last time. That said, there were too many examples of stage management amateurism this evening for comfort (especially an inextinguishable magic fire that required many visible stagehands).

I cannot tell if this performance’s more positive orchestral sound is the result of extra effort from Donald Runnicles or his orchestra – or simply a natural consequence of Wagner’s more rhythmic, brassy and percussive score. This fact alone – even if singers had to struggle to be heard – made this Siegfried more classically Wagnerian, but the bureaucratic feeling was still there. Although some moments sounded indeed agitated, the results were more mechanical than lively. In my memory, the also better cast performance I saw last year feature music-making of superior quality. During this performance, I couldn’t help wondering why the Deutsche Oper deemed it important to revive this Ring at all – the production is helplessly old, the conductor’s heart seems to be somewhere else and the orchestra is not really in the mood. And the casting is problematic. If there is good weather on Sunday, I might not even come for Götterdämmerung.

The congenial and convincingly boyish Torsten Kerl is very much a son of Robert Dean Smith’s Siegmund. As his “father”, he has a pleasant, natural voice, finds no problem in flowing legato and his tenor is two sizes smaller than it should. He sang with crystalline diction, good taste and sensitivity in a way that made the role of Siegfried surprisingly cantabile, but was often hard to hear, even in his top register, which is rather soft-centered and does not quite pierce through. His Mime, Burkhard Ulrich, as it often happens, was quite more forceful than him (probably the most hearable voice in this cast). Although I prefer a less hyperactive approach to the role, Ulrich deserves unreserved praise for his full commitment, acting skills and vocal security.

Last year, Mark Delavan had not sung the role of the Wanderer and decided to give it a try in Berlin for the first time this evening. I have the impression that he was not in very good shape – the voice sounded even more reduced in volume than usual and he was quite tired by the end. He had his share of problems with the text too, but I would risk to say that he is finding a Wotan inside him somehow. His stage attitude is more appropriate and his singing more integrated (instead of long undistinguished passages with occasional big important notes). In comparison, Gordon Hawkins sounded richer-toned and more forceful, but even less at ease in terms of personality in his role than on Rheingold. Ewa Wolak remains an impressive Erda, Ante Jerunica is again a most efficient Fafner and Hila Fahima is an ideal Waldvogel. When it comes to Janice Baird’s Brünnhilde, I am afraid that her performance is even more problematic than last year. She seemed so concentrated on trying to produce the notes that there is no interpretation to write about – and even the notes themselves left more than something to be desired. By the end of the opera, she was just trying to survive. I wonder how she is going to manage to sing the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, which has far more than one difficult duet with Siegfried.

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The Deutsche Oper’s concert performances of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (probably together with the Staatsoper’s upcoming Walküre with Irène Théorin and René Pape) are seen as the operatic event of this season. Although Cilea is hardly a “superstar” composer, what he might miss in “coolness” has been provided by the casting of Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann in the leading roles. There was not a free seat in the whole house and tickets were practically sold out a week after the box office opening a couple of months ago. I won’t deny that star casting has paid off this evening, but what really made it a special event was the effect of an extraordinary ensemble.

I saw Marco Armiliato conduct Adriana at the Met last year, and found it awkward and unatmospheric. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra, on the other hand, seemed to be having fun with a work that had not been performed in the house for decades. Even in comparison with James Levine’s famous CDs with the Philharmonia Orchestra (so far, probably the only serious “orchestral” performance of this work), the musicians from Berlin gave it the most beautifully rich-toned and full-blooded performance one could think of. Here the Italian conductor seemed at home to produce a most expressive performance that eschewed the kind of vulgarity usually taken for “verismo”.

Angela Gheorghiu is not the lirico spinto one would wish to hear in this part, but that is all I can find fault with in her performance. Her feeling for this music is admirable, her dramatic portrayal is vivid, her ability to evoke glamour is most important in this of all roles, and there still are her floating mezza voce and elegant use of portamento to round it off. A bit more clarity of enunciation would make her performance go beyond touching and stylish, but her declamation of spoken lines was expertly done. Since there is neither a new Renata Tebaldi to provide all the Italian soprano exuberance the role demands nor a new Renata Scotto to get you in the guts as it should, I would say that Gheorghiu could consider herself unrivaled as Adriana these days. In any case, it is most commendable that she could provide both vocal sophistication and variety of interpretation in this difficult role.

As her rival, Anna Smirnova received the most enthusiastic applause in the evening. Her mezzo is alright big and powerful and she proved to be less blunt than I had expected based on my previous experience of her singing. Yet her middle register is still unfocused and her vowels are unclear. Although the Slavonic metallic edge does not suggest patricianship, she had something grand about her and could find some sense of humor in her character.

As expected, Jonas Kaufmann has more than the measure of the role of Maurizio. I would even say that his singing had never sounded as Italianate as it did today. I had found his Cavaradossi too chic for the circumstances, but this evening one could really believe that he hails from somewhere further south than Monaco di Baviera, in spite of the dark tonal quality. The ardor did not stand between him and his customary sensitive use of mezza voce and attention to the text.

Even in such a starry cast, my favourite singer was one member of the ensemble: Markus Brück, who sang an infinitely subtle and intelligent performance as Michonnet. His voice really works beautifully in Italian repertoire, while his natural legato and ability for tonal coloring makes one think of a Mozartian singer. But not mistake my words – the voice is always large, rich and ringing. Minor roles were cast from strength, especially Burkhard Ulrich (the house’s Loge and Mime), here an intelligent and funny Abbé de Choizeul.

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