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Posts Tagged ‘Christian Thielemann’

The Semperoper’s new staging of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is not limited to what happens on stage. On arriving at the theatre’s foyer, one could see a group of people in tuxedos and long dresses having dinner to the sound of live chamber music. One would discover later that these are the guests to the dinner party in the house of Vienna’s richest man in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. As the butler insists to say, the main event in this soirée is going to be the fireworks. As we left the theatre, the usher did not fail to hand out sparklers to all members in the audience. Does that mean that director David Hermann faithfully followed every word written by Hofmannsthal? Even if the action is updated to our days, Mr. Hermann showed unusual care to the libretto. For instance, according to the text, the lord of the house gave clear instructions that the actors in the vaudeville were supposed to “decorate” the depressing sets of the opera, but what one usually sees is Zerbinetta and her troupe appearing on stage only when they have to sing. Not here. As asked by their patron, the comedians are practically continuously on stage – and Mr. Hermann really had to use his imagination to make that work. And, well, it did work. The clash of neoclassical and rococo aesthetics as represented by commedia dell’arte and opera seria are in the core of this mise-en-scène’s concept. The problem of a production so observant of the author’s original ideas is that the eventual liberty taken by the director cannot help being at-your-face conspicuous. For instance, the gender-ambiguous Composer or the Bacchus in his ordinary clothes who seems to have transcended the limits of role-playing and acquired some sort of hyperconsciousness that allows him to “operate” the stage à la “Matrix”. It seems that the director at some point decided that he should add some sort of insight to the proceedings, but it did feel rather “added upon” than “built from within”. In any case, this is a beautiful staging with plenty of clever scenic solutions and careful Personenregie – and it could have perfectly done without the “interpretative touch of genius”.

If there is a repertoire in which Christian Thielemann can do no wrong this is Richard Strauss. The kind of orchestral sound this music requires is something that he is naturally able to obtain from an orchestra, especially the one Strauss himself called the Wunderharfe. Tonight, the audience was treated the most exquisite orchestral playing in the market. Mr. Thielemann’s main purpose this evening seemed to be absolute clarity, but not in the sense of “making everything hearable” , but rather in that of revealing the meaning behind every phrase in this score. A deaf person would have left the auditorium knowing the complete structure of thematic relations devised by the Bavarian composer. During the prologue, I could not help thinking this was the Straussian performance of a lifetime, but the opera itself – good as it was – did not reach the same paramount level. Although Mr. Thielemann is one of the most solid conductors of our days, there is something pretty much beyond his reach, and this is “relaxing”. Ariadne auf Naxos will always be a tough cookie, for reconciling the burlesque and the grandiose in the opera will always be a challenge, especially for typically Wagnerian conductors. Although I fully endorse Mr. Thielemann’s idea of making the comedy episode more serious by keeping a more regular beat and a considerate tempo (and a certain fullness of sound), when Ariadne and Bacchus are alone at last, instead of regaining the flexibility shown in the prologue and the even at the first part of the opera, the tendency to make things more serious had already gained too much momentum to be contained. By the end, the impression was rather of ponderousness. Had he been able to boost the volume of his orchestra, this could have somehow worked in a very Siegfried-ian way, but his cast was hanging fire by then and there was no other option but to rein in.

I have always believed that there is some sort of curse involved the title role in this opera. It is almost never marvelously sung, even when a great soprano is indeed cast. For instance, Krassimira Stoyanova was a very good Marschallin in Salzburg, and the idea of g her as Ariadne seemed natural. On paper, her voice is perfect for the role. At first, it was all there: the creamy tone, the floated mezza voce, the low notes, the noble phrasing and even a special attention to the text. But the climax of Es gibt ein Rich already showed an opaque quality to her high notes whenever she sings above mezzo forte. In order to be heard in those moments, she had to employ a great deal of energy, with variable results. The sound has very little squillo these days and her only tool to ride the orchestra was really going full powers. In the difficult final scene, she was just too tired, the tone was gray and she had to adapt what R. Strauss wrote to reach the end of some phrases. That is indeed a pity, for, maybe in a better day, she could be a plausible exponent of this role. Her liability here was made more evident by the vocal opulence of her Bacchus, Stephen Gould at his most powerful and richest toned. This part is on the high side for his voice and I was worried by what he would make of it. He scored many points by producing perfect mezza voce in the high a in Weh, bist du auch solche eine Zauberin?, but started to get pinched until he finally omitted the high b flat* in his final phrase. In spite of that, Mr. Gould sang beautifully and I was glad I could hear him in this role.

Daniela Fally is an extremely light-toned Zerbinetta, rather on the soubrettish side of the soprano spectrum. She is a musicianly and intelligent singer, whose vivid handling of the text in her native language is highlighted by very clear diction, even when things get really high. Her coloratura is clear and her trills are acceptable. As many superlight Zerbinettas, she gets nervous when Strauss takes her above the high c. In this moments, the tone becomes glassy and her breath shorter. Other than this, she offered a charming and spirited performance. She was very well partnered by Rafael Fingerlos’s Harlekin, with more than a splash of Olaf Bär in his light, dulcet baritone. Although Albert Dohmen’s vowels are a bit overdark, he was in very good voice and sang forcefully as the Music Master. There was also a truly euphonious trio of nymphs in Tuuli Takala, Evelin Novak and Simone Schröder. Joseph Dennis and Carlos Osuna were probably the richest-toned pair of tenors ever to appear in Zerbinetta’s troupe – and Alexander Pereira (yes, the Alexander Pereira) was a funny Haushofmeister.

I leave the best for last. As she was in Berlin, Daniela Sindram is a superlative, out-of-this-world Komponist. Her singing of this role is of golden age quality. As she is less famous than she deserved to be, I make a point of making it clear how much I appreciate her singing both here and in Der Rosenkavalier.

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It has been a while since Dresden was in the forefront of the operatic world, in spite of its world-class orchestra and enviable acoustics. Christian Thielemann’s tenure in the Semperoper has already made some serious attempts of changing this, none as glamorous as this year’s Lohengrin, in which both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala made their Wagnerian debuts along some of the most celetrabted Wagnerian singers these days. The expression “golden age” is rarely used to performances after 1980 and one tends to believe that this is just what reviewers write when they are old and nostalgic of their own “golden” days, but the truth is: nothing like watching a cast of A-listers competing for the love of their audience. This is the kind of phenomenon in which the sum is always far greater than its parts, especially when a strong-handed conductor healthily keeps it under tight control.

For instance, Anna Netrebko is not just a great soprano, she is one of the leading starts of the world of opera. One would have imagined a crowd of fans to guarantee thunderous applause – and she surely received it, as much as every other singer on stage this afternoon. In any case, Netrebko’s Elsa is no vanity project. She clearly studied the part with utmost care and made sure that she was singing her own personality into it. When Victoria de los Angeles sang Elisabeth in Bayreuth, purists called it “sentimentalized”; I wonder what they would think of the Russian diva in these Wagnerian shores. Hers was certainly no conventional Elsa: her full, luscious middle and low registers alone made her different from almost anyone else in this role. This Elsa was everything but cold and bloodless. She carefully worked on her pronunciation, on her delivery of the text and on what one would call “German” style. Yet she caressed her lines and coloured her tone very much in bel canto style (and the discrete use of portamento would reinforce that impression), for truly interesting results. It is true that the first scene caught her a bit off her element (and also that she could be once or twice a bit more precise with intonation), but hers developed into a very solid performance, sung with rich and voluminous tone throughout (she was impressively hearable in ensembles), floated beautiful mezza voce and had this intriguingly sensuousness that showed entirely new sides of this role.

Evelyn Herlitzius’s squally singing is not for everyone’s taste, but even those who dislike it must concede that an Ortrud unchallenged by a loud orchestra is a refreshing experience. She did make efforts in terms of subtlety, but her voice does not suggest the chic of a Christa Ludwig or the seduction of a Waltraud Meier. It is rather Ortrud, the witch, and that is not necessarily a drawback. Moreover, she was in good voice, supplying hair-raising powerful acuti without flinching.

Piotr Beczala’s matinée-idol lyric tenor is ideal for the role of Lohengrin. If his top notes lack some power, they are well connected and in keeping with his ardorous phrasing and appealing tonal quality. The farewell to the swan both in act I and III were soft in tone and the long duet with Elsa passionate and sensitive. One must always remember that Mr. Beczala is no newcomer to German repertoire, having sung roles like Tamino and Belmonte. He was well contrasted to Tomasz Konieczny’s steely, powerful Telramund, very much in control of the difficult part, especially in act II, where most baritones are desperate with what they have to sing. Georg Zeppenfeld is an experienced King Heinrich, this evening a bit short of resonance in his high register, but still firm and true. Derek Welton’s Herald, however, had his woolly moments.

Christian Thielemann’s approach to this score is, not surprisingly, very objective, forward-moving, favoring a big yet clear orchestral sound, for truly impressive effects in the prelude to act III. His reaction to the notorious homogenity of tempo in this score is a marked flexibility with his beat, usually for the faster whenever a singer started an “aria” or to mark the changes of mood throughout the opera. The Furtwänglerian Wagnerian would find it lacking depth, and I remember being more moved by Barenboim in this opera, particularly in the opening bars and especially in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, but complaining of such high-level music-making would be totally unjustified. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

I have already written about Christine Mielitz’s 1983 production, but one must register that costumes and sets look fresher than last time and that the Spielleitung has added some efficient touches to the proceedings, notably a woman’s point-of-view of the oppression experienced both by Elsa and Ortrud as key players in a men’s game and how it seemed to produce some sort of connection between them.

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At some point during the Ring performances conducted by Kirill Petrenko this week, I’ve started to wonder if my recollection of the orchestral sound in the Festspielhaus when I first saw the Ring with Christian Thielemann there in 2010 was some sort of “affective memory”, a collage of the actual experience of listening to the Ring in Bayreuth and the excitement of doing that in the Festival for the first time. Well, it was not not – Christian Thielemann himself showed me today that my memory did not betray me. It took him 10 seconds to do that: rich, full sonorities flooded from the pit and filled the whole auditorium. Some may say that the conductor’s approach was too Tristanesque and that everything sounded too loud, too powerful and too intense, but the fact is that he could sell his approach out, even to those who would prefer it the Weberian way: the musical effects were powerful, the orchestral sound was perfectly blended and yet absolutely transparent, even at full powers, strings tackled fast passagework cleanly. Even before anyone started to sing, you knew that this performance would be a complete success: you could hear the wind, the sea, the despair and the passion. This experience redeemed this year’s dubious musical standards in the Grüner Hügel.

One could have wished for a cast as compelling as the conductor, but this was fine enough. Ricarda Merbeth’s soprano lacks color (especially in its lower reaches), variety and subtlety, but she has stamina and dealt with the more testing heroic passages adeptly. If Tomislav Muzek (Erik) took some time to warm, once he did that, he sang with a bright, pleasant tone and a good sense of line. Benjamin Bruns (Steuermann) offered a spirited performance, sung in a spontaneous, dulcet tenor. Simon Youn’s baritone is on the light side for the Holländer and yet it is forceful enough and very well focused. His phrasing could have a bit more nuance and affection, though. Kwangchul Youn proved to be in excellent form and left nothing to be desired as Daland. To make things better, the Festival chorus sang famously, with admirable homogeneity and animation.

Jan Philipp Gloger’s production, as seen on DVD, turns around beautiful and elegant sets and the idea that Senta wants more than a glorious death: she wans to leave the world she lives in, but not THE world. As we see it, the Holländer is a man who has sold his freedom and happiness to a corporate world and wanders from airport to airport having lost faith in life, until he meets Senta, the daughter of the CEO of a company that produces ventilators, the “values” of which involve its employees having a tv advertisement “perfect” lifestyle. They burn dollar bills together and, when he doubts her intent of leaving all that behind, she symbolically kills herself, although the wound appears in his chest rather than hers: he is again a man of flesh and blood, they are free, but the establishment can still make money on them: Daland’s company now sells action figures of Holländer kissing Senta. It is not silly as it sound, although it could be a little bit less aestheticized and more meaningful in its conclusion. Beyond any shadow of doubt, it is very well directed – the choristers are made to act most efficiently.

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R. Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten’s first studio recording has a legendary status – Karl Böhm tried to convince Decca’s Moritz Rosengarten to take profit of his excellent Vienna State Opera cast and record the opera for the first time. Rosengarten agreed to the proposal but offered him such a limited budget that the cast was obliged to sing for free in an unheated studio. The result, in experimental stereo sound, is the performance by which every other is judged. Including the one presented by the Salzburg Festival this evening. Why am I telling all this? Well, because director Christof Loy supposes that everyone in the audience knows that, even if it actually has intrinsically  nothing to do with the opera composed by Richard Strauss and written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

The plot of Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most complex in the whole repertoire, based on a wide-ranging and hermetic symbolism that addressed nonetheless some of the most important issues both in psychological and sociological levels at the time of its creation. If there is an opera that still needs a director to guide the audience through it, this is Frau ohne Schatten. It is a formidable task – those who are brave enough, such as David Pountney, have made a stab at it, most hide behind vague stylization, but Loy is the first director I have heard of who has given up before he tried. When Mary Zimmerman staged Bellini’s La Sonnambula as a rehearsal and portrayed all characters as singers et al, she met with harsh criticism, but I have to say that a) although Zimmerman did not really get the plot of La Sonnambula, it is a story a five-year-old kid would understand; and b) although Zimmerman’s concept was poorly developed, her stage direction itself was quite efficiently done, in the sense that there were well-defined characters, an imaginative use of the scenic space and actors acted well. I cannot say the same of this evening’s performance – the beautifully built scenery shows the Sofiensaal (where Solti’s Ring and not Böhm’s Frau ohne Schatten was recorded) prepared for recording sessions. Even if Loy explains very clearly his concept in the booklet – the Empress is a young singer who has to deal with her inner conflicts and mature as an artist through the experience of seeing a bitter aging diva (the Amme) trying to ruin the marriage of a younger colleague (Barak’s Wife) with prospects of success – what one basically sees is: singers with a score on a music stand while an engineer records it. The funny thing is that it is far less interesting than The Golden Ring documentary, where Birgit Nilsson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Georg Solti are far more fascinating characters under God’s direction. Unlike some other members of the audience, I did not feel that I had to close my eyes to concentrate on the music, but – considering that the future of the euro is a bit uncertain right now – I feel sorry that so much money has been spent for exchange of insights below soap-opera level.

Under these circumstances, the audience certainly turned its attention to the musical side of the performance, and Christian Thielemann more than met the challenge. His performances of FroSch in the Deutsche Oper have left a very positive memory in Berlin and, if there is a composer in whose work the German conductor’s skills are not doubted, this is Richard Strauss. And this opera’s original orchestra is the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (both in the first performance and in the Böhm recording*). Therefore, hearing him conduct it with the Vienna Philharmonic has a special meaning. As he explained in the booklet, Richard Strauss’s music is so multilayered and dramatic that it requires from conductors the discipline to restrain themselves and let the music speak by itself. On listening to this evening’s performance, one could see that Thielemann really meant it. His approach is extremely respectful to the score, performed without cuts. It is at once full-toned (without being simply loud) and structurally transparent. He never forces the flow of this music and masterly knows how to build a climax. This evening, I have discovered many niceties in this work that I had previously never noticed. And it is doubly praiseworthy that one never felt a pedantic effort to highlight details, this happened quite naturally. To make things better, the orchestra was at its resplendent best, expressive solo passages, amazingly warm and rich sound picture and real commitment from the musicians. If Thielemann lacks Böhm extraordinary sense of “special effect”, it is probably because Böhm never felt he had to “respect” a score that he felt as his very own.

Considering the sense of care that the conductor obviously have with every little aspect of the score, it is most curious that he did not always care to follow the composer’s description of what kind of voice goes for each role.  For example, the Kaiserin is supposed to be a hoch dramatisch soprano and the Amme, a dramatic mezzo soprano. Anne Schwanewilms is probably the less dramatic soprano who ever sang the role of the Empress. Although her voice has a cutting edge, it just does not work here: her high register is pinched, fluttery and often thin; her low register is mostly left to imagination and she has the habit of pecking at notes or finishing them by a downwards portamento that I find quite unsettling. I understand that one wishes to hear a crystalline sound in this role – and Schwanewilms has it and is obviously a sensitive singer and also a good actress – but, overparted as she is here, every advantage can only be counted as such if you take too many things in consideration. I frankly thought Manuela Uhl in Berlin far more consistent (although she isn’t either a hoch dramatisch sopran, at least she is a jugendlich dramatisch soprano with properly supported flashing top notes). Other than this, I am not being ironic when I say that, this evening, she offered one of the most exciting accounts of the melodrama I have ever heard. As for Michaela Schuster, even if one can see she has all the right ideas about the role of the Amme, her voice is too light for it. If Strauss gave the Kaiserin a lighter orchestral texture to pierce through, such is not the case of the mezzo soprano part. It does require a hefty, bright, exciting voice. This evening, I too often had to add in my mind Grace Hofmann from Karajan’s recording to fill in the blanks of an overshadowed if charismatic singer. I must say, though, that friends who saw her in previous performances told me that today was below her standard in this run.

I have to confess I found Stephen Gould’s name in the cast list with some surprise. Although he is a singer who definitely finds no problems in being heard over a large orchestra, the role of the Kaiser requires a brighter and higher voice than his. It is also true that many a Siegmund-esque Heldentenor has tried it, usually with little success. Gould did sing better than most – he can keep a line in some unsingable parts (and he even sang “es ist anstatt ihrer” instead of the usual replacement “es ist für die Herrin”) – but he often had to operate carefully and couldn’t avoid the strain in the end of his second “aria”. Wolfgang Koch was a reliable Barak who lacked a tiny little bit velvetier and a nobler tone, as Johan Reuter’s in Berlin and Michael Volle’s in Zürich (to keep within recent performances). With the exception of a Thomas Johanns Mayer’s Messenger Spirit (clearly in a bad-voice day), minor roles were uniformly strongly cast: Rachel Frenkel was a very accurate Voice of the Falcon, Peter Sonn sang the “young man”‘s long lines without effort and Markus Brück, Steven Humes and Andreas Conrad were the best trio of Barak’s brothers I have ever heard. I leave the best for last – an incandescent Evelyn Herlitzius in the best performance of her life. Since the bad press she got in Bayreuth for Ortrud, I notice she has done a very serious effort of re-thinking her singing and the result is a far more relaxed tonal quality, a cleaner attack in softer dynamics and a warmer sound. Here all of them used to great effect – without any loss in her Nilson-esque missile-like acuti that could fill a hall twice larger than the Grossesfestspielhaus. She also acted with great sincerity and commitment.

*The Vienna Philharmonic, which comprised of members of the Opera orchestra, appears in some of Karl Böhm’s live recording’s (including the one released by DGG with Birgit Nilsson), Herbert von Karajan’s live recordings and both Georg Solti’s live and studio recording).

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Christian Thielemann’s reputation as a Straussian conductor is somewhat older than his as a Wagnerian, and I would dare to say that, although he is often mentioned as some sort of Bayreuth’s great hope, R. Strauss’s music is still the repertoire where all his strengths lie. His instincts are basically almost invariably right in this music, his ability to produce perfectly transparent textures in large scale is admirable, and the sense of forward movement and objectivity that make his Wagner sometimes insensitive drain his Strauss of all hint of sentimentality.

This evening, the conductor decided to explore some rare Straussian pieces with famous soloists to draw a larger audience. The orchestral numbers were composed in circumstances that explain their almost complete oblivion today: the Festmusik for the city of Vienna was a 1942 official command and, although the Festliches Präludium was composed in 1913, it was performed in the celebration of the German chancellor’s birthday in 1943. While the former is a quite uninteresting piece for brass instruments and timpani, the later is an impressive (if rather shallow) tour-de-force for organ and great orchestra expertly calculated to produce a standing ovation (as in this evening). Thielemann resisted the temptation of overdoing the effect and gave a sober yet powerful rendition of this exuberant score.

The conductor’s sense of balance proved providential for his soloists – Renée Fleming offered a gorgeously and stylishly sung Traum durch die Dämmerung over a delicate carpet of orchestral sound. Winterliebe requires a lighter touch for its upwards melisme that made it a bit difficult for her to pierce through, but she still then eschewed any vulgarity. The Gesang der Apollopriesterin (op. 33-2) showed the soprano in her best form and behavior – savoring the text, coloring it with imagination and producing beautiful round top notes throughout. In Waldseligkeit, she could not find the necessary ethereal mezza voce, but her voice has inbuilt floating quality and she handled the lower end of the tessitura better then most. Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a bit higher than almost everything he sang this evening requires; he could barely be heard in the bottom of his range and exposed high notes were a bit rough. Nonetheless, he showed himself as an ideal interpreter for the somber declamation of both the Hymnus (op.33-3) and the Notturno (op. 44-1) and still produce the right hearty enthusiasm for the Pilgers Morgenlied (op.33-4). Thielemann provided kaleidoscopic sounds, perfectly blended to his singers, knowing the right moment when he should and could boost his orchestra and when to scale it down to give pride of place to vocal effects.

Both singers would appear again in the big romantic scene in the second act of Arabella. Fleming’s clear diction and creamy tones worked to perfection. When she decides to put her jazzy mannerisms aside (as in this evening), one can really understand why she is considered the leading Straussian of her generation. Hampson had to work hard for impact, but blended exquisitely in Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein. The audience would also be treated to the prelude to act III, where Thielemann proved not only to have a superior understanding of the structure of this passage, but also to make it sound consequent, polished, animated and surprisingly beautiful. The Berliner Philharmoniker responded in the great manner during the whole evening. I really can’t wait to hear his Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg this Summer.

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I have sat through a couple of performances of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in the space of a week and cannot recall the sensation of exhaustion of hearing all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in one week, as I have now that I have “completed” the series of concerts of Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker in Berlin. Differently from the Ring, I don’t believe Beethoven ever intended to have them performed in sequence, as Wagner has intended his tetralogy to be. I have no basis to bet that the composer has probably understood each symphony as a step further rather than a completion to a whole set of works; some may dispute that by quoting the 8th, but I am no Beethoven specialist to engage into a discussion like that. At the contrary, I am so entirely convinced of Böhm’s and Abbado’s classical approach (rather than the proto-late-Romantic concept many conductors seem to follow) that I have never felt tempted to investigate further into the discography. As a result, I cannot boast to write a review (if I can really boast to write a review about anything), but rather my impressions, which are pretty much the consequence of my subscription of the above-mentioned conductor’s readings of these works.

If listening to these concerts was a demanding (and certainly gratifying!) experience, I wonder how exhausting it must have been for the musicians. These were no studio recording nor retouched broadcasts recorded in concerts months apart, but one more run of performances closely scheduled in a tour (and Berlin was not even the first destination). In view of that, the unfaltering energy, precision and virtuoso quality of the Vienna Philharmonic only show why this is one of the very best orchestras in the world. If the legendary French horn players had their small share of blunders, who can really blame them? This is difficult music performed consistently in such a large scale that only the best could survive. And they have really commendably.

As for the conductor, I have to say that if I am picky in some of my observations about Thielemann, the reason is that he is such a gifted musician that one is doubly upset to find fault in something. First of all, I must mention that his sense of balance is remarkable even among great conductors. Under his baton, all section of an orchestra are matched in perfect proportion, no matter how loud the sound is (and it is generally quite loud) and I still have to remember a performance of the 9th where soloists, chorus and orchestra were so perfectly combined as his. Also, he knows how to take profit of an orchestra’s particular strong feature; in this case, the Vienna Philharmonic’s hallmark crystalline pianissimo playing. Although some tempi could seem slow for some ears, the sense of rhythm is always remarkable and his punchy, precise accents are everything this music needs. That said, I do believe Thielemann is too much of a disciplinarian. His almost obsessive control of the orchestra too often straightjackets the proceedings, denying it emotional content (as I have noticed in his last Bayreuth Ring) and the last ounce of abandon that makes a performance really memorable. This slot for emotion is replaced by some kind of relentless intensity, which has its mechanical and spasmodic moments. Sometimes one had the impression that every little chord was so strongly highlighted, accented, forcefully played that the necessary chiaroscuro that produce the sense of development, contrast and climax was lost. Every moment seemed a climax and, in the end, one got finally used to that and started to find a sensation of sameness. If I could give, out of the depth of my insignificance, Thielemann some advice, it would be – make a trip somewhere warm, get some caipirinhas, make some Brazilian friends, listen to some Nina Simone and learn to relax. When he has done all that, I bet we all are going to see far more complex rather than formidable music-making of a conductor who has no technical fault and seems to be able to achieve anything.

For my taste, symphonies 1, 3 and 9 were this series’ best items. In the 1st symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic’s amazingly precise articulation in the context of a full-powers approach sold me the conductor’s Wagnerian approach (which I do not normally enjoy). In spite of the 3rd symphony’s rather rough finale, I found the massive, weighty marcia funebre strangely convincing. As for the 9th, one can see in his attitude on the podium alone that the conductor has a particular relationship with this piece. Its more visionary concept, its large scale and its inbuilt emotionalism and unbridled energy fit Thielemann’s talents as a glove. The French horns were not ideal, the chorus has its matte moments and, apart from an exemplary Mihoko Fujimura and an expressive Robert Holl, the solo singers were below standard – but the performance never failed to sound right.

On the other hand, the 2nd symphony lacked concentration and ultimately spirit to my ears. Apart from a brilliant allegro ma non troppo, the 4th symphony disappointed me in a mechanical adagio and no sense of humor and lightness in the remaining movements. This lack of grace, humor and variety deprived the 8th of its true charm. In the 5th, I found his statement of the “fate” motive (unstressed third note and weak emphasis on the last one) mannered and ineffective. The first movement lacked forward movement and contrast as a whole and the French horn interventions sounded a bit rushed and ultimately awkward, but the final allegro was truly uplifting. To say the truth, that evening’s encore, a powerful, profound Egmont was the best item in the whole series. The 6th symphony could use with a lighter-foot – the performance was helplessly heavy, the contrast of the storm and the last episode largely lost, especially because the Gedänke did not sound particularly froh here. As for the 7th, I am afraid that the allegretto lacked pathos and sense of mystery and the final allegro con brio was so heavily handled that one could only admire the Vienna Philharmonic to achieve some flexibility in this context.

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After a musically outstanding Rheingold, expectations for this evening’s Walküre were high, but the event reserved a few surprises, not all of them positive. To start with, although the orchestral sound was consistently beautiful and rich, act I lacked, in the absence of a better word, passion. Often the buildup to a climax would be cut off too soon and one would rather hear particular successful moments (such as a lyric, touching Winterstürme, sensitively sung by the tenor) that did not merge into a continuous arch of musical-dramatic development. Act II suffered from tempi that did seem slow, particularly during Wotan’s run-through of previous events when this evening’s Wotan failed to give life to the text. The Todverkündung suffered from absence of atmosphere, a situation when forward-movement rather than lingering is recommended, especially when the Brünnhilde did not seem really inspired. Only the Sieglinde/Siegmund situations came through as improvement from act I, since both singers showed themselves even more connected to the dramatic situation, and also the conductor could warm to their performances and wrap them in sounds that offered more than sheer sonic beauty. Something might have happened during the second intermission, for act III redeemed the whole evening. After a structural clear Walkürenritt, Christian Thielemann treated the audience with a Golden Age Wagnerian performance – the orchestra’s luxuriantly beautiful sounds were also laden with meaning and emotion, not only commenting the theatrical action, but carrying it forward with almost unbearable intensity. Sieglinde’s farewell was not an isolated powerful moment, but rather the culmination of a truly poignant scene, but the final Brünnhilde/Wotan scene stood out as the highlight of the evening, both singers giving their very best and an orchestra that magnified their performance in admirable expressive power. When Wotan kissed Brünnhilde’s godhead away, the very sound of the Festival orchestra transpired grief. By then, if you were not crying, you probably don’t have a heart. In a word, although the first two acts had their moments, act three alone was worth the price of the ticket, plus transportation and hotel costs.

If anything in this performance was consistently excellent during the three acts, this has to be Edith Haller’s peerless performance as Sieglinde. I had never heard her before, but she joins today my list of favourite singers. Her youthful, exquisite and bright-toned soprano often made me think of Maria Müller’s vulnerable Sieglinde from the 1936 Festival (elegant portamenti included), but Haller’s top register is more corsé, flashing through the auditorium without any hint of strain or difficulty. Her qualities are, in any case, more than purely vocal – she is an extremely musical, sensitive and intelligent artist. Linda Watson took more time to grow into her Brünnhilde – although her ho-jo-to-ho had flat sustained high b’s, she was well at ease with the rest of her battle cry. Her long scene with Siegmund challenged her otherwise in the expressive department. As well as unvaried, her exposed high notes sounded squally sometimes. Although not a very good actress, she finally offered a beautiful account of the third act, when she proved capable of real nuance and legato, never forced her voice and seemed engaged enough to offer a touching interpretation. Moreover, the scene’s tessitura fits her rich and warm low register. Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre’s Fricka, but she is a shrewd singer who knows how to handle her resources to deliver the right effect in the right moment. Johan Botha’s voice is higher-lying than those of the tenors usually cast in this role. As a result, the raw excitement of dark, beefy high g’s was not really there. In exchange, a brighter tonal quality and more flowing legato throughout. When Innigkeit was required, such as in his contemplation of the sleeping Sieglinde in act II, the South-African tenor was particularly appealing. In spite of his heavy frame, he did not appear to be really awkward on stage, but rather quite convincing in his attraction to Sieglinde in act I. Albert Dohmen did not show any improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold until the opera’s last scene, when he conjured all his means to produce a sensitive and varied farewell to Brünnhilde. His invocation of Loge right before the end of the opera even brought about his first really Wotan-like powerful top notes. As for Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding, saying that he was less than perfect would be an unforgivable lie. Last but not least, the casting of the remaining eight valkyries is praiseworthy.

As for Tankred Dorst’s production, it still lacks purport – the sets are  not really original, the intrusive presence of contemporary bystanders is tautological, stage direction has too many careless moments, the ugly costumes often make it difficult for singers to move (Fricka’s specially). If I should be positive about this staging, I would mention that it is well crafted – the sets are flawlessly built, the lighting is sophisticated and there is very little silliness going on here (something that should be cherished considering the present state of operatic staging).

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