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Posts Tagged ‘Camilla Nylund’

This year’s Berlin Staatsoper Festtage’s operatic première is Claus Guth’s new staging of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten under Zubin Mehta, whom I had previously seen in the same theatre some years ago conduct Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus with the same leading soprano seen this evening.

Mehta has one recording of Salome with the Berlin Philharmonic to his credit, but he is hardly a regular in what regards the operatic production of the Bavarian composer. Although I cannot tell how often he conducted Die Frau ohne Schatten in his long career, the first impression I had today was of extreme caution. To his defense, the Italianate orchestral sound, very transparent and light, was very flattering to his cast and made for great vertical clarity. I would not say, however, that structural clarity was truly there, since the complex poliphony concocted by Strauss was shown rather at face value, some important motivic references sunk into the background of restatement of musical ideas already presented as they were shown before or among accompaniment figures. When one listens to Herbert von Karajan’s live recording from Vienna (with Leonie Rysanek and Christa Ludwig), one can see how helpful the masterly hand of the conductor can be in guiding his audience through this multilayered score. Thus, Mehta’s tool to achieve “legibility” was a certain kind of fastidiousness that involved a regular beat in a very steady and considerate tempo. This was again very helpful for his singers, but did not help to provide the necessary theatrical effects. The end of act II, where the stage director too seemed to have had lost his hand, was this approach’s main victim – the impression was rather of politeness in its clean transversal of the tricky harmonic development. Compare it to Karl Böhm’s broadcast (from Vienna? I would have to check, again with Rysanek and Ludwig) and the Austrian conductor will knock you out in an awesome display of excitement and precision. Most surprisingly, though, was the positive effect of the Indian conductor’s organized and restrained view on act III, here unusually subtle and coherent in his unifiying control of the proceedings. As the last act rarely works out in live performances, I left the theatre with the sensation of witnessing something special.

In any case, the cast gathered for these performances would make sure that this was something special. I have always admired Camilla Nylund’s solid technique and tonal warmth, but this evening she offered a performance of outstanding finesse and beauty, floating velvety sounds throughout her range even in the most impossibly difficult passages, without ever disregarding clarity of enunciation and the dramatic demands of every scene, including the Kaiserin’s act  III melodram, not a small feat for someone whose first language is not German. She was ideally contrasted with Iréne Theorin’s powerful and bright-toned Färberin. The Swedish soprano was in exceptionally good voice, particularly smooth in the middle register that is not usually her forte. She could float beautiful mezza voice, even in very high-lying passages and scored many points in subtleness. Only in her act III duet with Barak, her intent of singing softly taxed her, but she soon recovered to her best form, adding stunning dramatic acuti to a performance abundant in vocal excitement.  Burkhard Fritz sang the part of the Kaiser with clean sense of line and something very close to the spontaneity of an Italian tenor, but his high notes soon became tight and, somewhere in the middle of his act II solo, he started to sound tired and dealt with the rest of the part with prudence rather than abandon. This is my third Barak from Wolfgang Koch and probably the best one. Although the conductor challenged him with slow tempi, his bass baritone sounded generously round and rich. Moreover, his personality is extremely proper to this role. I leave the best for last. I had seen Michaela Schuster’s Amme in Salzburg with Christian Thielemann, but found it small-scaled. Now I am inclined to believe that the unimaginative production must have straitjacked her (and the smaller auditorium in Berlin is an undeniable advantage), for this evening she just stole the show, even in such prestigious company. She projected her high mezzo insolently, handled the text in a way that would make Meryl Streep envious and twisted the audience around her little finger. During the directorial miscalculations in the end of act II, she proved to be a secret weapon, commanding everyone’s attention with her precise body movements and facial expression. Bravissima.

Although Jung-Sang Han showed an attractively dark tonal quality to his Erscheinung des Junglings and Barak’s brothers (Karl-Micahel Ebnerm Alfredo Daza and Grigoery Shkarupa) were unusually smooth sounding, the voices of the unborn/imaginary servants to the Dyer’s Wife were not properly cast. The impression was of extreme effortfulness, what ruined the effect of everyone of their “appearances” .

Claus Guth’s new staging is inspired by August Strindberg’s Dream Play. The oneiric atmosphere being the perfect excuse for many sensible and clever solutions for many of the unrealistic stage instructions. It also allowed him to deal with the mirrored structure of the story by showing the Dyer’s Wife and the Nurse as projections of the Empress’s own personality and Barak as an idealized version of the Emperor. Here, the Empress, as in many other stagings, is a patient in an institution, suffering from something very close to catatonia. Then the libretto’s most problematic feature (i.e., that the Emperor is punished by the Empress’s inability to produce a shadow) is avoided by showing her as the one “turned to stone”. The dramatic moment in which she demands to be punished by Keikobad is nothing but her seeing herself bed-ridden in the hospital. However, the most curious dramatic device developed by the conductor is the fact that the patient does not recover. Her disease is actually her only way of achieving her connection to a husband a children she cannot really deal with in real life. Although there was some booing in the audience, I have to say this is unfair: this was alright a bizarre solution, but surprisingly one that delivered the best act III I have ever seen either in the theatre or in videos. I won’t say “if I had to change something”, for I would have changed a couple of things, but I couldn’t help finding the video projections subpar in quality. More creative images in sharper quality would have done all the difference in the world. Christian Schmidt’s sets and costumes were otherwise beautiful and very efficient.

 

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The second item in the RSB’s Strauss opera program this week, a concert performance of Elektra, showed Marek Janowski in his element: absolute structural clarity, understanding of the score’s graphic orchestral effects, a forward-moving approach to tempo that avoided unnecessary ponderousness and the right decision making in what regarded balance between singers and orchestra. This could only work because of the RBS’s extreme affinity with this piece: all musicians were fully integrated in the dramatic action and were ready to try different sounds, not to mention that the harsh and aggressive sound picture of Elektra comes more readily to this orchestra than the crystalline kaleidoscope in Daphne.

Casting too proved to be very effective, even when it was not ideal. Catherine Foster’s performance in the title role has to be considered with the fact that she has agreed to sing her part having an orchestra on stage and without cuts usually adopted to help singers in the most demanding passages. There has only been one perfect Elektra – and that was Birgit Nilsson – all the other singers fall in two groups: those who manage to get to the end of the opera singing something similar to what Strauss wrote and those who don’t. Ms. Foster fits in the first group. She has clear advantages: her basic tone is clear, youthful and spontaneous, she can lighten her voice for curvier phrases and to float mezza voce now and then and she proved capable of producing some very loud acuti in climactic passages. Although she manages her resources relatively well, there are moments when she is understandably tired, most notably in the final scene. Then she can sound fluttery, strained and brittle. But there is never the feeling that she “is not going to make it”. Her performance has strong irony, intelligence, vulnerability and a certain provocativeness. When this Elektra shows her soft side (as in the Recognition Scene), this sounds like a natural consequence. The problem remains that Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is doomed from the start – there cannot be a sense that she is going to survive this. And Catherine Foster is somehow too self-possessed and too ready to soften to ultimately deal with the escalating paroxysms leading to the final exhaustion in the end of the opera. If I had to point out a drawback in this performance, however, this would be less than crispy declamation, making some of Elektra’s vituperation generalized and unvaried.

Camilla Nylund’s velvety soprano offered a nice contrast for Chrysothemis. She dealt with the testingly high tessitura without saturating the picture with strident high notes and blended well with her Elektra towards the end of the opera. A beautiful performance. I have never warmed to Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra and hearing her live only confirmed my impression that she lacks resonance in this lower role, often resorts to speaking voice and is sometimes inaudible. Her understanding of the psychology of this role is very keen and more believable than the caricature put on by some exponents of this part. Günther Groissöck was a dark-toned, resonant Orest, and the role of Ägysth was glamorously cast with Stephen Gould, who could sing all his notes over a loud orchestra. Small roles were all of them well taken, but Gala El Hadidi (Second Maid) and Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Third Maid) deserve special mention.

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R. Strauss’s “bucolic tragedy” Daphne, written during the Second World War, has seldom been staged and, although some might blame the static libretto with its complex transformation scene at the end, I would rather mention the extremely difficult vocal parts and virtuosic writing for the orchestra. In any case, it is still a challenging story for a stage director and Torsten Fischer must be praised for his imaginative approach to the story that adds unusual depth to the plot without making violence to it.

Although the connection with the young anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl seems at first far-fetched, it ultimately pays off in the portrayal of a Daphne who refuses to blend in a world that has lost its innocence. The staging actually opens with the projection a touching quotation from one of her letters in which she praises the beauty of nature in comparison with the ugliness brought about by the work of mankind. The Dyonisian rites are here performed as pro-régime rallies with the deceptive appearance of Apollo as some sort of commanding officer that first promises the glory that Daphne dreams about and ultimately brings destruction by the killing of Leukippos. The closing scene alone is worth the price of the tickets – from her prison cell, Daphne dreams of walking out from it, climbs a long staircase and, by virtue of a long mirror hanging over the stage, we can see her joining her dead friend and all other members of the cast and chorus in a gigantic “human tree” of victims of the war. Has the director imposed his own view on the plot? If we have in mind the days when the opera was written, the idea behind the myth and the fact alone that this concept allows for a far more moving closing to the opera than awkward attempts of the title role’s transformation into a tree (you just have to write the words “Daphne” and “Strauss” on youtube.com to see my point), Torsten Fischer’s production goes far beyond the usual superficiality and narcissism of régietheater and offers far more than a traditional staging could propose. And it does not hurt either that costumes, sets and lighting are beautiful and well-judged.

Although Camilla Nylund’s soprano is a bit unfocused, she sang the impossibly strenuous title-role with poise and sensitiveness. Her warm tonal quality and clean phrasing are aptly Straussian and it is only a pity that exposed dramatic notes lack a brighter edge to shine in the auditorium. Her restrained and dignified acting are also praiseworthy. Ladislav Elgr’s firm and bright tenor proved to be up to the challenge of singing the role of Leukippos and could be said to steal the show, especially because Robert Dean Smith clearly was not in a good day. The role of Apollo is extremely testing and he seems to have an unending supply of high notes in his favor, but the voice lacked color and failed to pierce through. He is not dashing as the role ideally requires either. Christa Mayer seemed at ease with the contralto tessitura of Gaea and sang richly throughout, while Georg Zeppenfeld gave an ideal performance of the role of Peneios. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber took some time to warm – the first scenes lacked clarity and he did not seem to find an ideally transparent orchestral sound while trying to make singers’ lives easier. Fortunately, the tragic half of the story counted with dense sonorities of the Staatskapelle’s legendary strings in ideal balance with singers on stage and with the remaining sections of the orchestra.

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