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Posts Tagged ‘Christa Mayer’

I once had a teacher who would invariably give me the same piece of advice whenever I looked frustrated for not being able to achieve something: if you want the result, concentrate on the process. Although Herbert von Karajan is usually remembered for his megalomania, he was an artist of unsual perseverance, fastidiousness and discipline. Even if he would hardly admit it, he was always looking for the best and, therefore, was always open to development. For instance, his ambition of conducting Italian opera led him to Milan where he could learn from working with the likes of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Or he would mention in an interview how much he admired a particularly passage of Tosca as conducted by Victor de Sabata. His Wagnerian projects were even higher in purpose. Name an important artist related to the master of Bayreuth – and you will see that somehow somewhere Karajan had worked with him or her at some point. In other words, before he finally launched his greatest project – the Ring conducted and directed by himself in a festival created also by him – he had researched every kind of approach and gathered all kind of experiences in order to have a very clear idea of what he wanted to do.

But that is not the most important part. The real formula to success there was the fact that he truly concentrated on the process. As the Easter Festival has shown in two documentaries screened in an exhibition in the Salzburg Museum, Karajan took the pains of coaching his cast in painstaking detail, rehearsing his orchestra obsessively, recording everything before stage rehearsals began and minutely blocking the gesture of every Valkyrie on stage. As the narrator of one of these videos explained, “he left nothing to chance”. That was the spirit of the Easter Festival – knowing that the audience was being served the absolute best because there was a mastermind there making sure that the best was being served.

When I read that the Easter Festival was celebrating its jubilee by paying a tribute to Karajan’s inaugural 1967 production of Wagner’s Die Walküre and reviving Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets in a new production directed by Vera Nemirova and conducted by Christian Thielemann, I decided that I had to see this. I have been introduced to Wagner’s music by friends who had regularly seen Karajan in Salzburg and never ceased to tell me about the paramount standards of these performances (they would also made me frustrated by saying that neither CDs nor DVDs could give an idea of how splendid everything was). As expectations can play tricks on one’s perceptions, I have decided to keep them low – but this evening’s performance has surprised me in how wrongly things can go with a big budget and prestigious forces.

If I say that the best thing in Vera Nemirova’s production is the scenery designed by Schneider-Siemssen, I am still not even close to explaining how poorly conceived and executed it was. To say the truth, there is not truly a concept there: the audience left the theatre without any new information or extra insight about this story and these characters. However, one could clearly see how amateurishly staged it was. Characters would most often than not do things opposed to what the text requires (for example, they would leave when they were supposed to stay or stay when they were supposed to leave); actors would be placed in a way incoherent to the action (Sieglinde says she is watching the veins in Siegmund’s temples although they are 10 meters apart); or things were just wrong (Wotan doesn’t shatter Siegmund’s sword, the pieces of which would inexplicably later appear in Brünnhilde’s hands). In an interview, Ms. Nemirova says she rejected the original costumes, because they did not make the characters look like real people. I wonder what kind of people she knows, for everything looked terribly unconvincing. At least, the 1967 costumes had some éclat, which is more of what I can say about the ones seen this evening, which look like everyone went for their morning run but Sieglinde, who is dressed as Snow White’s evil stepmother.

In any case, I could have lived with the school-pantomime direction if the musical performance had made it irrelevant. The Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s best orchestras, as one could hear (and marvel at) Myung-Whun Chung’s Fauré/Saint-Saëns concert on Friday and Franz Welser-Möst’s Mahler concert on Saturday. One could also hear that in Christian Thielemann’s own Bruckner concert on Sunday (in spite of problematic French horns). But not today. The extra rich and warm strings were often reduced to inaudbility, the brass section would sound unsubtle and glitch-prone, ensemble was often unclear and disjoint, tempi had inexplicable fluctuation and many a mannered unwritten “dramatic” pause, not to mention the high level of false entries that could suggest the highly improbable hypothesis of insufficient rehearsing. I have already seen Thielemann conduct Die Walküre in Bayreuth: although there could be lack of expression and drama, the orchestral sound was invariably rich and beautiful. On hearing the undernourished and unbalanced orchestra this evening I could only wonder if he wanted to try a Karajan-esque “chamber Ring” approach. If that was indeed the case, that was not a very good idea. Differently from Thielemann, Karajan was able to adapt his orchestral sound into a transparent, light but penetrating sound that would envelope singers’ voices without drowning them.

The main victim of this misconception was act I. After an underpowered and awkward opening, the performance never seemed to settle in its meagerness of sound, surprisingly high level of mistakes and indequate casting. Act II was only marginally better due to the contribution of individual singers, which seemed to inspire the conductor to let himself and the orchestra go a little bit more. Predictably, Wotan’s long monologue set a new lowest level of uneventfulness the purpose of which seemed to be offsetting a staid closing scene. As in Bayreuth, act III would show a palpable improvement, but only after a band-like and vulgar Walkürenritt. Maybe the sound of ten singers on stage had the power of finally eliciting an orchestral sound of Wagnerian proportions. Brünnhilde and Wotan fortunately could benefit from the transformation and offer the first truly moving moment in this performance. That would not last to the magic fire music, when the proceedings returned to their heavy, unstuble and unclear standards.

On paper, Anja Harteros is an interesting idea for the role of Sieglinde. Hers is a sizeable soprano with enough warmth in its low reaches to deal with Italian roles such as the Leonora in La Forza del Destino. The actual performance, however, had very different results. The part seats on the least congenial area of her voice, which often sounded smoky and astrigent. The advantage of a lyric soprano in the role is the dynamic variety and sense of legato, as one can hear in Gundula Janowitz’s performance for Karajan. Not this evening, though: Ms. Harteros’s singing had very little variety and affection. Also her attempt of an interpretation seemed mannered, as much as her stage attitude had more than a splash of the grande dame, an odd choice for an orphaned girl forced into an abusive marriage against her will. Her twin brother took the improbable shape of Peter Seiffert, who looked old, tired and bored as Siegmund. Although it is still a beautiful voice that projects well in the auditorium, the low notes are left to imagination and the high ones are open in tone and unstable in quality, some of them sung in indeterminate pitch. Although both of them were quite hearable, the conductor seemed keen on keeping the orchestra very low whenever they were on stage. Georg Zeppenfeld’s noble and round-toned Hunding did not help to create much sense of drama.

Act II had compensation in terms of singing. Although Christa Mayer’s mezzo could do with a little bit more color, her Fricka was forcefully and intensely sung. Her theatrical engagement seem to inspire the musicians in the pit into offering a little bit more in terms of commitment. Even if Vitalij Kowaljow’s bass does not sound as voluminous in the Großes Festspielhaus as it had at La Scala, it remains a voice of admirable firmness and beauty of tone throughout the complete range. If he has clear diction and sense of line, act II still lacks spontaneity and expression, but he lived up to the challenge of the closing scene, when he showed control of mezza voce and musicianship. The shining feature of this performance, however, is Anja Kampe’s sensitive, touching Brünnhilde, sung in the ideal blend of velvet and steel. The sincerity of her interpretation and her naturalness and emotional generosity made it a beautiful tribute to the singer who took this role here 50 years before, Régine Crespin, whose Brünnhilde was also exemplary in its wide expressive range.

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Like Malvina and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Frank van Aken are singers taking the roles of Isolde and Tristan who happen to be married. This is not their first joint Wagnerian venture: they have, for instance, sung the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Frankfurt, New York etc. He has sung the role of Tristan before at least in Frankfurt in 2011; she has sung her first Isolde last September in La Coruña and it seems she is scheduled to sing it in Bayreuth in the near future. These performances in Dresden are their first together in this opera. As this production is 8 years old and the Staatskapelle Dresden’s chief conductor Christian Thielemann did not find the opportunity to conduct it enticing enough, the Van Akens are supposed to be this revival’s selling feature.

I have to confess that I was not dying to see either of them. I had seen him only once as Siegmund in La Scala in a bad night and, since I first saw her as a compelling Cassandre in Amsterdam, I have found her less and less interesting. Maybe low expectation has done the trick this time, for this evening proved to be “educational”. I’ll start by saying that Isolde happens to be a good career decision for the Dutch soprano. Although there is a lot to be developed here, I found it far less univocal than her Sieglindes. Act I was actually surprising in how consistently she managed the dramatic vocalità: the voice was at once voluminous, rich, powerful in her acuti and more or less functional in the lower reaches. Also, she seemed readier to soften her tone and produced two or three soaring examples of mezza voce. Act II caught her a bit out of steam though. The voice sounded clearly smaller, she shortened some high notes and had her straight/strained moments. However, in the Liebesnacht, when her husband began to sound ill-at-ease with the lyrical writing, she regained her strength and was able to produce a feminine, sensuous tonal quality. Her final appearance was a bit rough, but – this may seem funny – she produced the best last phrase in the Liebestod I have ever heard in a theatre (it is curious how that last note usually sounds flat or thin or unsupported or a combination of all those).  All these problems could have been overlooked, if there had been a more noticeable interpretation going on here. As it was, her diction is not very clear, she is not very responsive to the text and she is often heavy-handed in what regards phrasing. In the end, she is a singer singing the notes Wagner wrote to the part of Isolde. She is sometimes convincing when she has to portray fury, but not much beyond that. Of course, experience will add depth to her performance, but experience needs a starting point to develop from.

Van Aken is far more engaged dramatically than his wife. Although his whole method turns around roughness, his voice is unmistakably heroic in its powerful and incisive high notes. He is a trouper and tries everything – even nuance, although this often challenged his ability to keep his voice focused and placed. Act II was his most problematic – legato is not his best friend and trying to rein in his voice often brought about flutter and some nasality. He is not a man who gives up – act III used up his last ounce of energy and, whenever you would think that he was helplessly tired, he would conjure everything he still got to produce some powerful notes over the orchestra. The whole thing was a bit exhausting to watch, but worked somehow as a dramatic point.

Christa Mayer was a commendable Brangäne. Her soft-centered, velvety mezzo is very pleasant and clean. If she could produce a little bit more “mystery” in her calls from the tower in act II, she would have left nothing to be desired in this role. Christoph Pohl is a very handy guy – whenever you need a last-minute replacement, he is there. This evening, he sang a very clean, firm-toned and stylish Kurwenal. As King Marke, Georg Zeppenfeld displayed rock-solid vocalism: his bass was thoroughly big, rich, firm and powerful. Although this was impressive enough, the lack of variety in his singing made it all sound grandiosely boring, I am afraid.

When you have the Staatskapelle Dresden and the ideal acoustics of the Semperoper, it is very difficult for a conductor to fail in Tristan and Isolda. The Wunderharfe’s unique blend of richness and flexibility makes it impossible for one to be indifferent to Wagner’s music – it has such presence and clarity that you almost feel that you don’t need anything else. And Maestro Ascher Fisch has a very clear musical mind, keeping this music as transparently organized as one could wish and showing great skill in knowing the right moment when it is more important to fill the hall with sound while not making his singers sound unnecessary. However, as much as everything this evening, the thrill was not really there. The feeling, the idea, the dramatic impulse behind a crescendo, behind a flexible beat, behind elastic sense of pause were not there, although you could hear all those effects in their most abstract manner. This was particularly bothersome when the conductor adopted a slower tempo for more verbose passages in which a singer was not doing much in terms of interpretation. Later on, the conductor seemed to have realized that this was not working and act III, for instance, had sometimes a let’s-move-on feeling.

As for Marco Arturo Marelli’s production, it goes with this performance’s character. It is decorative in a very abstract way. What you get is what you see – you don’t get much, but you don’t get very much bothered about that either.

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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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Sometimes I feel that opera stage directors are the loneliest people in the world. They have to be orphan and friendless; otherwise someone would tell them “I know that this idea seems to work IN YOUR MIND, but the truth is…” And yet, no, they go all alone to their pitfalls – except for the audience, who is dragged to the directors’ ordeal without getting, unlike them, a penny for that.

When Jens-Daniel Herzog appeared on stage to take his bow in the end of the performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Semperoper, he seemed to be a nice guy, what makes it doubly sad that no-one, absolutely no-one had ever told him “just don’t” when he decided to indulge in some absolutely proven operatic sins, such as staging the overture, reserving loud action for extras while singers and orchestra are trying to make music, devising difficult movements and/or postures in vocally challenging passages or creating an atmosphere on stage in a different mood from the one portrayed by the music. But nothing – absolutely NOTHING – is so hideous as having soloists and chorus members perform cute choreographies while singing. First of all, these people rarely really know how to dance; second, it looks silly; thirdly, it looks silly.

What makes Herzog’s staging doubly frustrating is the impression that this is the flower power version of the Glyndenbourne production, in which the choreographies were meant in the context of Bollywood aesthetics. Here the action is set in Egypt all right, but in the 1940’s. Where the cute steps fit in is a mystery to me – the all-about-decolleté Cleopatra in a Muslim country makes even less sense! But let’s not concentrate on details. Many a misfire in Herzog’s staging is shared by almost every other director who tackles a Handel opera, especially not trusting the power of music and introducing all sort of funny little parallel actions to “entertain” the audience while what seems bo…ring music to them is being played in the background.

All that said, it would be unfair if I gave the impression that Mr. Herzog is the target of what is ranting about the general state of affairs. In this production, the cast seemed to be having fun, acted with conviction and many of the complex movements were actually well executed. I confess I have particularly enjoyed the idea of showing Lidia/Cleopatra during V’adoro, pupille as a crooner in some sort of nightclub, where the solo violinist in Se giulivo is one of those musicians who play for customers trying to entice them to give him some money.

The staging’s flamboyance contrasted to conductor Alessandro de Marchi’s rather inflexible approach. Having an opera house orchestra follow period practices in baroque music is always risky business, and de Marchi succeeded in immerse his musicians in the right stylistic universe. However, this was a compromise one could feel. There was a sense of straight-jacket in the slimmer sound picture of the traditionally lush-toned Staatskapelle Dresden and the fast tempi showed precision without true animation. I do not mean that the performance sagged in any way – it just lacked dramatic conviction. Although it is always good to find some energy in Cornelia and Sesto’s gloomy mourning, a little bit more suppleness would have helped to boost expression in a performance that seemed primarily about getting things rightly done. Although a die-hard purist would be nauseous, for instance,  at some of John Nelson’s performances at the Metropolitan Opera House (I’m particularly referring to the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels) , at least the ordinary opera-goer would definitely get some thrill out of the proceedings. If you’re playing Bach in a Steinway, it will be useless trying to make it sound like a harpsichord – better make it in the grand manner like Martha Argerich does.

The edition here adopted involved as expected the trimming of the B section of some arias, but this has been judiciously done. Tu la mia stella sei was fortunately preferred to Tutto può donna vezzosa, but the lovely Venere bella (among other numbers) was deleted, while Nireno’s aria has been kept.

Laura Aikin is an experienced Cleopatra, but the years have  robbed the roundness of her top register. It is still an extremely charming voice, but everything around a high g sounds a bit hard and unflowing. And to think that in 1999 she was an amazing Zerbinetta in Sinopoli’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Milan! Let’s hope she was just not in a good day. The rather awkward cadenze written by the conductor (for all soloists) tented to highlight the problem. Her Se pietà was pleasing if not heartfelt and she met with confidence the challenge of Da tempeste, in spite of some shrieking high options.

Casting a high mezzo as Cesare is a helpless idea. It is hardly Anke Vondung’s fault that she seemed a bit out of sorts almost all the time. More generously endowed singers, such as Tatiana Troyanos, experienced the same problems in this role. Nevertheless, this performance made that German mezzo rise in my esteem. She offered more or less fluent coloratura, has good trills, expert messa di voce, phrases tastingly and – if she does not sound heroic at all – her singing of the difficult fioriture in Al lampo dell’armi while performing a difficult stage fight with five extras deserves enthusiastic praise.

Christa Mayer is evidently no specialist in baroque opera, but she diligently adapted her Wagnerian contralto to the circumstances and offered some lovely moments as Cornelia, especially in Son nata a lacrimar. Pity that Janja Vuletic was not at the same level – her Barbarina-like soprano simply does not work properly in this lower tessitura and her wayward breath support involved many stances of unfocused tone and approximative pitch. She is a very good actress, though, and cuts a believably boyish figure on stage. Max Emanuel Cencic’s countertenor is not as rich in the lower reaches as Bejun Mehta’s or David Daniels’, but his firm-toned, vivid singing is very effective in this role, not to mention that some of his forceful high notes are truly exciting. Cristoph Pohl’s strong and flexible bass was ideally cast as Achilla and Christopher Field’s bright and flexible countertenor was finally worth the inclusion of Nireno’s Chi perde un momento.

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