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Posts Tagged ‘Clifton Forbis’

My three or four reader (I guess by now I can say five or six) may remember how much I disliked Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Verdi’s Otello for the Deutsche Oper, but I guess they would understand why I saw it again when they learn that Soile Isokoski was taking the role of Desdemona. Other than that, I would say this evening’s rather Wagnerian cast (it features a Siegmund, a Mime and a Wotan), if not sensational, is an improvement on the original one. My previous experience with Clifton Forbis was limited to the roles of Siegmund and Tristan, where a stentorian and very powerful high register finally compensated a rather curdled middle-register and the absence of seamless legato. Although Otello is a role for a dramatic tenor, it is one that occasionally requires sustained ascents to notes as a high b natural. In that sense, Forbis was no disappointment, he generally dispatched big high a’s and b flat’s with very little effort, but the the lack of flowing and tonal beauty is a problem difficult to overlook in this repertoire. He also has to work hard to scale down below mezzo forte and is not really specific about the Italian text. He seemed a bit at a loss in Kriegenburger’s staging in which the title role has less profile than some of the extras who have their own parallel plots.

I have often written that Mark Delavan’s strength in his Wagnerian roles lies in the noble quality of his bass-baritone. It is true that this is not necessarily advantage for Iago, but I have to confess that this was probably the best performance I have heard from him in a while. He was in very good voice and proved to be more comfortable with some awkwardly written high notes than some famous exponent of the roles, not to mention that he found no problem in the mezza voce and the clear articulation without which the role is helplessly generic. His stage performance turned around playing the bad-guy-and-loving-it, but the contrast with his velvety, “honest sounding” singing gave some depth to his Iago.

Soile Isokoski’s light-toned, fast-vibrato-ish, almost Mozartian Desdemona had an endearing old-style appeal about it. She sang with great affection, rock-solid technique, immaculate musicianship and is capable to produce her own version of Italianate chest voice for the most outspoken scenes. Her soprano is a couple of sizes smaller than the role, but this valuable Finnish singer masters the almost forgotten art of projecting without forcing or weighing the tone. Curiously, she seemed rather economic with her pianissimi and saved it for a haunting conclusion of her Ave Maria.  I owe Liane Keegan an apology: when I saw the première of this production, I could not help to notice that her Emilia was impressively sung and acted, but forgot to write about it. This time, I found her even more eloquent and expressive.

Donald Runnicles’s conducting is the opposite of Patrick Summers last year – the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered an almost Straussian performance, with clear, transparent textures and unfailing sense of establishing tempi that allowed perfect balance between forward-movement and polish, but all that did not prevent the performance from lacking punch: the result was often well-behaved and ultimately undramatic. In any case, the audience did not seem to be really into catharsis this evening – the symphony of coughs that presided over softer dynamics must have been testing for the poor musicians trying to produce lustrous pianissimo effects, not to mention that Desdemona’s “post-mortem” lines provoked a collective episode of hilarity. Since 1604, poor Desdemona has been saying “O, falsely, falsely murder’d!” after having been smothered by her jealous husband, but it seems literature is not a subject in German schools anymore.

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I do not know if the Deutsche Oper used the bad-news-first strategy, but it seems that their Ring has finally found the right track. Regardless of how intrinsically good today’s Walküre was, it is a significant improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold. To start with, Götz Friedrich’s production here is far more efficient than in the tetralogy’s first installment. Peter Sykora’s sets are more functional and better looking and, with the exception of a bunch of pointless props in act II (plastic dolls?) and of an unsensational solution for the magic fire  (as you might remember, it is supposed to be extraordinarily frightening – and four isolated bonfires fifty-centimeter-tall are hardly that). Actually, the costumes shown here are far more frightening – the Valkyries outfit and make-up reminded me the rock band Kiss. However, the most notable positive development is Gerlinde Pelkowski’s Spielleitung: both leading sopranos and the tenor interacted most sensitively – act I was particularly convincing – and gestures were economic, coherent and contributed to the understanding of the story. I am not sure if I actually like the weepy Wotan, but I guess that the approach fits the rather uncharismatic singer taking the role.

Musically, the most immediate difference from yesterday is the larger orchestral sound. Although the brass section still leaves more than something to be desired, the general sound picture was adequate and, by act III, quite satisfactory. It was hardly an orchestral tour de force, but rather honest and acceptable piece of work. Maestro Runnicles showed an inclination for a tad slower tempi than he had adopted at the Met (if my memory does not betray me). Curiously, the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene in act II seemed somewhat fast. Maybe because the Wotan available is not really fluent with the text and has instead an almost Mozartian legato-ish approach, this tricky passage gained a flowing, conversational character which struck me as quite refreshing. Naturally, it would have worked far better if the text could be more expressively handled. The ensuing Todesverkündgung was, on the other hand, particularly slow, an approach that would require from singers far more nuanced phrasing and from the orchestra far more narrating quality (as Maazel produced in his Met’s Walküre in 2008). Act III proved to be more successful, chamber-like textures were provided when necessary, the Walkürenritt clear and well-balanced and the closing scene sensitively built.

It is a pity that Violeta Urmana’s Verdian ventures have been hold against her status of leading singer in our days. Her work in Wagner is of surpassing quality – it is a pleasant, rich-toned, large voice with firm, round top notes with a most musical and elegant quality of phrasing. Of how many Wagnerian singers one could say something like that? Her Sieglinde is a touching portrayal, passion and vulnerability perfectly balanced. No wonder she was the favorite of the audience this evening. Evelyn Herlitzius’s Brünnhilde is more controversial. First of all – and one must keep this in mind on assessing her artistry – she is a singer whose Fach is simply the one required by Wagner for this role: she has no problem with the tessitura, tosses bright, powerful, unconstricted acuti, handles her passaggio to chest voice adeptly and enunciates the text with great accuracy. In fact, her technical security is quite soothing for audiences who have been too often kept at the edge of their seats fearing for the health of the soprano taking this role. That said, it is difficult to warm to the flutter mid-range, the squally articulation and the faulty legato. She is an energetic woman – and this is very positive for her engaging and convincing stage presence – and I have the impression that the overemphasis and the absence of shading (a drawback in the long Wotan/Brünnhilde  scene in act III) are maybe a byproduct of her attitude.

In spite of a a quite unseductive tone, Clifton Forbis is a most efficient Siegmund, who produces some powerful and firm high g’s. His crescendo in the sustained Wälse! Wälse! passage in act I is as impressive as it was in New York. It is a pity that his tenor is growing rather juiceless for cantabile passages – and Winterstürme was probably his weakest moment. He and Urmana established a particularly convincing partnership in their scenes, both musically and scenically. Reinhard Hagen was extremely well cast as Hunding – an all-round most satisfying performance. Mark Delavan’s Wotan still gives me an impression of work-in-progress. He responds for the particular challenges quite successfully, but his performance does not make into a coherent whole, but rather as a collection of moments. He seems to brace for the every musical or theatrical challenge and then simmer down to recover instead of keeping a continuous musical and interpretative line. I have to confess I rather saw in him “the guy playing Wotan”. I understand that he must have James Morris’s smoothly, elegantly sung account of the role as a model, but the veteran singer had at once a more powerful and voluminous voice, more spontaneous musicianship and a far more imposing presence. If Delavan wants to fill his shoes, he should tie all these loose ends in his performance first. It is a pity that Judit Németh was not really in good voice today – her Fricka sounding shrewish above everything else. Among the Valkyries, the Helmwige, Heidi Melton, offered a particularly accomplished ho-jo-to-ho, trills included.

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First seen at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, Peter Sellars’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has become famous for the projection of videos by Bill Viola, while the action takes place in a dark setting with no props or other pieces of scenery. It is true that the videos might be an efficient tool to create atmosphere, on showing exquisite images of the ocean or woods etc, but the fact is that they can also be distracting while depicting actors lighting candles, walking or just getting naked. They can also be unnecessary as showing images of fire when the libretto has words like “ardor”, for example. In any case, I did not feel that they highlight the action itself, which is poorly lit and in the end most people are just following the video presentation.

And the truth is that the performance seriously needed atmosphere. The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris is not truly noble-sounding – wind instruments are not very distinctive and the sound of its string is not full, rich and supple as one would like to hear in a Wagner opera. It does not spoil the fun, but a  stronger-willed conductor than Semyon Bychkov would be of great help in that department.  Most people point out the fact that he tends to opt for slow tempi, but in his defense I would say that he knows when some animation is needed and more or less knows how to make such transitions work. The problem, however, is the absence of a structural backbone. Act I, for example, seemed incoherent and rather loose – even the dramatic tension seemed to escape through the cracks of a poorly structured reading. In act II, truth be said, Bychkov’s justifiable main concern was to help his soloists through the difficult writing – only the final act would benefit from a palpable sense of development, although the Liebestod would prove to be quite tame.

The reader might be asking him or herself if I am not going to describe the positive effect Waltraud Meier had on the proceedings. Those who have seen her video from La Scala know how she can electrify a performance, but, alas, that would not be the case here. Probably because she might be still recovering from the illness that troubled her during the first evening in this run of performances, this admirable German mezzo-soprano seemed overcareful in the first act. She still seemed mistress of the situation then, pouring forth gleaming tone and hitting firm if somewhat clipped top notes.  One may remember more gripping accounts of the narration and curse by this singer, but she still has no rivals in her know-how of mood-shifting through tone colouring and perfect diction. Unfortunately, act II and III were mostly a matter of surviving to the end. There were long stretches of inaudibility, imprecise pitch and other needs for adaptation, requiring a lot of help from the conductor, to the loss of orchestral tonal refulgence.

On the other hand, Clifton Forbis was in extremely healthy voice. Although his tenor is basically throaty, he effortlessly produces powerful notes at the top of this role’s range. His act III monologues were not necessarily subtle, but particularly intense and, it is never enough to say that, reliable. Ekaterina Gubanova could be a refreshing Brangäne – she has a young-sounding yet rich and velvety mezzo and is at ease with Wagnerian style, but the very velvetiness which made her act II calls from the watchtower ethereal did not help her to pierce through heavy orchestration. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was a particularly sensitive Kurwenal, exploring softer dynamics than most exponents of this role, but Franz-Josef Selig must be singled out for his King Marke – he used his chocolate-coloured bass with Lieder-singing expressiveness and good taste.

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The first production of Wagner’s Die Walküre I have ever seen was precisely the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen at the Met back in 1997. I may have published my comments somewhere in this website, but the fact is that I remember it as if I saw it yesterday. Deborah Voigt was a creamy-toned Sieglinde and the fact that she was overweight posed no problem considering her dramatic engagement, Plácido Domingo was in beautiful if not entirely heroic voice as Siegmund, Hanna Schwarz looked short in her first appearance but seemed to end her scene taller than her Wotan so majestic was her bearing and so incisive was her singing and Gabriele Schnaut… Before you start grimacing, I can tell you that back in 1997 Gabriele Schnaut was a fantastic Brünnhilde. Except for tight top c’s and the absence of mezza voce, she was just perfect. Our Wotan was James Morris and – what can I say? – he was more than perfect. He will always be my favourite Wotan. I know everybody says Morris is too smooth, but I think Wotan must leave an apollonian impression(after all, he is the Lichtalberich – the dark one is Alberich Alberich…). I remember, though, that the orchestra was not in a good day and I would only acknowledge Levine’s Wagnerian credentials in a superb Siegfried a couple of days later.

Seeing this production again eleven years later was like re-visiting in dreams people you have never seen again: there is a certain familiarity, but it is definitely not the same thing. To start with, although the sceneries still look beautiful in their Kaspar-David-Friedrich-ness , maybe it is time for a new production (even if it is another “traditional” one). I could neither sense any stage direction going on here – a regisseur pointing out entrances and exits at most. However, this performance breathes a fresh new excitement for me, due to the presence of Lorin Maazel at the pit. I don’t know if this has to do with the maestro’s legendary mastery of conducting technique, but rarely or maybe never have I listened to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in such great shape. Even the difficult passagework for the violins in the end of Act 1 was clearly articulated and you wouldn’t believe the perfect blending of rich soft-textured strings and glowing woodwind in the Walkürenritt. Also, the brass players can be proud for the almost complete absence of blunders. Some have complained about Maazel’s slow tempi – but that is nonsense. Not only do these tempi make musicians more comfortable for the extra polish displayed here, but also Maazel showed more than enough imagination to fill in the blanks offered by the more considerate pace. I was particularly impressed by the way the orchestra portrayed what Wotan explained to Brünnhilde in the long declamatory scene in Act 2 – that was the dictionary definition of what a truly Wagnerian conductor should accomplish as musical-dramatic expression.

Deborah Voigt has seen many changes in her life in these 11 years. Now she looks her part and seems even younger than she was in 1997, but as soon as you close your eyes, a shrewish tone, indifferent delivery of the text and complete absence of tone colouring soon dispel that impression. Only her big top notes remain to her advantage in this repertoire. Even her acting has become generalized and artificial. In that sense, I must admit that – in spite of her many flaws – I still preferred Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde. It is true that she started her performance with the Ho-jo-to-ho from hell, during which she sang not one note written by Richard Wagner, but this Australian soprano is a most intelligent and musicianly singer, who knows her German text as if that was her first language and who commands shapely and sensitive phrasing (provided she does not have to sing around a top a and above). I cannot deny that this is a significant drawback in this role and, as much as I am tempted to say that there must be one of those traditional tongue/throat/neck/you-name-it tension-problems impairing the flow of her top notes, I am more inclined to believe that she is no dramatic soprano, but rather a large-voiced lyric soprano trying to deal with hoch dramatisch roles. The basic sound of her voice is lyric to my years – it is a smooth, pleasant warm sound before it becomes tense in the higher reaches. She has all-right an impressively natural low register, but this is not a sign of a dramatic voice; otherwise, someone like, say, Carol Vaness would have to be labeled accordingly. Gasteen is also a very good actress and brought to her Brünnhilde a surprisingly teenage impatience and bravado, which I found particularly illuminating.

Michelle DeYoung’s debut at the Met also happened in that 1997 Ring at the Met (cycle B, if I am not mistaken) – she was Fricka in Das Rheingold. I remember I had a more positive impression of her voice then than I had tonight. She was a small-scaled and rather shallow-toned Fricka in this Walküre, but she is also a cunning artist and her astute word-pointing finally helped her to make her dramatic points clear. Clifton Forbis was a reliable Siegmund. His tenor can get off focus now and then and his high register may sound bottled-up at times, but this is a healthy big voice and he achieves really impressive results sometimes, such as neverending crescendo in Wälse, Wälse, wo ist dein Schwert?

As for James Morris, it is true that his luxuriant bass-baritone has lost some weight and power in a decade and that his tone has also become a bit more nasal and his mezza voce less spacious – but I don’t think any of his younger rivals can sing this difficult role as beautifully and expressively as he still does. I would add that his present resources are still entirely satisfying for this role – he still produces marvelous firm rich large sounds and anyone who saw him only tonight can claim to have seen the greatest Wotan of his generation.

Finally, Mikhail Petrenko is a decent Hunding, not particularly dark or menacing, but definitely unproblematic. I cannot forget to mention the impressive team of Valkyries gathered here – truly amazing.

You might have noticed that the title of this post mentions a third Walküre – it is the one to which I am listening right now on my iPod. It has also taken place at the Met and featured a famous conductor, but it also boasted the greatest cast of one’s life, which – alas -was not the case of tonight’s performance. I am talking about March 1st 1969, when Herbert von Karajan presided over another one of those greatest nights of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I was told that Karajan smuggled in many musicians from the NY Philharmonic to achieve that, but those were days when the Met’s house band had a notorious reputation. If you have never listened to this recording, don’t miss one more minute: Birgit Nilsson, Régine Crespin, Josephine Veasey, Jon Vickers, Theo Adam and Martti Talvela, all of them in great voice, and also a plugged-in Karajan, oozing energy from the pit. Those were truly great artists and personalities. Some might say that there was actually a great clash of personalities then, but it has certainly paid off.

[I feel I might be rambling, but if you think that Karajan’s rather highbrow DGG Walküre is a cosmetic affair, you should also sample his live performance at Salzburg, in which Régine Crespin and Gundula Janowitz are even more impressive than in the studio.]

PS – Maybe this has no importance, but I guess I saw Donald McIntyre near the box office at the Met. So I saw two Wotans at the same evening.

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