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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Barenboim’

Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Salzburg Festival can be seen on DVD – and I have written about it in operadiscographies.com. As much as I find Christian Schmidt’s hyper-realistic sets exquisite and truly atmospheric and Guth’s Personenregie most efficient, I dislike on principle productions in which what characters say makes no sense with what they are doing – like talking to people who do not exist or referring to going outside when they are already outside or going up where there is no upstairs. I find it even cheaper when the nonsense is explained as a regular basis with the fact that the characters are intoxicated; ad absurdum, if your premise is that characters are really delirious, you don’t even have to stage it at all.  Call me fastidious, but I also dislike the idea that Donna Anna – and I have already written about that – is a double-faced scheming bitch.

In any case, this evening’s Don Giovanni was a different experience from the Salzburg Don Giovanni. First, it uses a different edition. While in the Festival, we basically had the Vienna edition without the closing scene, here we have the “standard” edition without the closing scene. Second, the audiences in Salzburg had Bertrand de Billy’s well-behaved conducting, while Berliners had a more appropriately ebullient Daniel Barenboim. Third, the cast changes gave the show a somehow different atmosphere – this evening’s Donna Anna, for instance, seemed more depressed than predatory, and her Don Ottavio more unconcerned than bitter.

But let’s talk about Barenboim first. Since his last Nozze di Figaro in the Schiller Theater, I have developed a new interest in what this conductor has to offer in this repertoire. Although Figaro was an all-round more satisfying experience, this Don Giovanni was no less interesting. This evening, the maestro tried to reconcile two traditions of Mozart performance: on one side, absolute transparency achieved through optimal balance between singers and the orchestral lines, especially woodwind (violins could have been a tad more clearly articulated); on the other, the intent to infuse phrasing with drama through accent, tone-coloring and dynamics. These two objectives some time collided in the occasional lack of polish, but I would say that, on the frame of very carefully picked tempi, they generally cohabited with interesting results. La ci darem la mano, for instance, sounded truly fresh in its rhythmic alertness; Dalla sua pace had lovely hushed strings (in spite of a tenor who could not blend in), both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira had intense, psychologically-aware accompagnati before their arias; and the supper scene (here the last one) was truly powerful without ever loosing forward-movement. The fact that Barenboim could provide the necessary punch (seriously lacking in Salzburg) made Guth’s staging sharper – to say the truth, there were many moments in which the drama was really happening in the orchestral pit rather than on stage.

I reckon that gathering an all-star Mozartian cast for Don Giovanni must be quite challenging these days: singers who sang Mozart in the days of Gundula Janowitz and Fritz Wunderlich now are basically Wagner/Verdi singers and the Donna Annas of our days would have had a career as Blondchen or Barbarina back then. In this context, this evening’s was an effective cast. In any case, those disappointed by Anna Netrebko’s cancelling had a most positive surprise in Maria Bengtsson. If her voice is not truly distinctive in tone (I had seen her as Pamina and was not particularly impressed), it is particularly rich and creamy for a high soprano. The fact that it seemed to blossom and feel really comfortable in the upper reaches made for a particularly smoothly sung Donna Anna (maybe a bit too smooth in Or sai chi l’onore), and the large supplies of legato and mezza voce (plus reliable if not breathtaking fioriture) made her an example of Mozartian poise today. From now on, I am curious to see what she is doing next.

Compared to her performance on video, Dorothea Röschmann sounded far healthier this evening. Her voice flashed in the hall, the low register particularly rich, and she sings every moment as if it were the last one, what is almost a requirement for a Donna Elvira. That said, her high register does sound labored these days: everything above a high g (high g included) is sung with an important amount of pressure. When urgency is involved, it works somehow; when poise is required, one is consistently left wanting. Anna Prohaska is better cast as Zerlina than as Susanna – her soprano comes in one very bright color and she is not particularly seductive in sound and in attitude, but she is admirably intelligent in what regards making use of the text.

I had seen Giuseppe Filianoti only once a long while ago in a Lucia at the Met. Then I had found him an elegant singer, but it seems that the years have not been kind on his voice. It is still substantial for a Mozart tenor and he has very long breath (as one could particularly see in his runs in Il mio tesoro), but he now sounds impressively tout and hard above the passaggio. Tonal variety is gone, pitch goes awry now and then and the results are simply not truly ingratiating. In this cast, he was also the less interesting actor – one had the impression that he was truly annoyed by being there. Since Don Giovanni is in death agony in this staging, it is difficult to say if Christopher Maltman is actually portraying his character’s declining vigor or if he does get actually tired with everything he has to do (it is a very “physical” approach to the role), but I’ll take the first option and add that his well-focused baritone has both the necessary Mozartian sheen and the hint of rawness to make his Burlador de Sevilla three-dimensional. Erwin Schrott’s Leporello was not really subtly sung, but he did sing it forcefully and his acquaintance with the Italian text and his imagination to play with it always work miracles. Stefan Kocan’s Slavic-toned bass sounded somehow too important for Masetto, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore is more than resonant enough. One could wish for a bit more menace in his singing, but solidly sung it was.

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Staging an incomplete work – be it Puccini’s Turandot or Berg’s Lulu – is always tricky. One never knows how much of the torso would remain if the composer could have had the time to behold the complete work and make his final touches. In the case of Lulu, one could actually write an opera about it – when Berg died, he had written acts I and II. For act III, there were the vocal parts and a couple of scenes fully composed (basically those appearing in the Lulu suite) – the particella would show more or less what he envisaged for the rest of it. Although Berg’s widow first showed an interest in commissioning the completion of the opera, she would  later mysteriously change her mind and finally forbid anyone to see the material left by her husband, let alone do anything about it. The editors, however, smuggled copies to Friedrich Cerha, whose final edition would only be performed in Paris in 1976 (as we can listen in the live recording with Teresa Stratas conducted by Pierre Boulez). This year, the Deutsche Staatsoper decided to write a postlude to this story. Based on the opinion that the Prologue was composed to appease eventual censorship, it was decided that it should be cut off. You notice that I did not produce the name of who made this decision – it must be someone far more authoritative than Berg himself, who took the pains to compose the music for it. The second big decision was to have act III beginning right from the London scene. This time the reason was that it is dramatically flawed and musically inconsistent. That is why English composer David Robert Coleman was invited to re-orchestrate what remains of the controversial last act. I am no specialist in Berg’s music and have listened to Lulu only a couple of times in my life, but – even if I mistrust people who find themselves more clever than the original composers themselves – I have to confess that I found Coleman’s intentionally “more intimate” orchestration effective, rich in atmospheric effects and aptly uncanny.

I am hardly the best person to assess how successful Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is in this repertoire. I have listened to his recording of Wozzeck and found it a bit dull, but this evening, even if an expert tries to convince me of the contrary, I would stick to my very positive impression. I have written here that I found Levine’s last Wozzeck at the Met “Straussian” in its beautiful orchestral sound – but this evening’s Lulu was almost Tristan-esque in its rich-toned, dense, dark, intense, passionate conducting. When I write “passionate”, I can see some people raising their eyebrows – and I answer that I don’t mean by it that it was loud and full of contrasting tempi. No, the performance flowed naturally and the orchestra had a Bayreuth-ian “full but not loud” aural picture, with amazing effects in wind instruments in truly concertante writing with singers on stage. I would say that those who left the theatre this evening still disliking this opera should probably loose hope of ever liking it.

The cast here assembled could also hardly be bettered. First of all, the casting of Mojca Erdmann in the title role couldn’t be more interesting. Her sweet, almost edulcorated soprano is not really expressive in itself – it does not suggest seduction, raw energy, rapaciousness, you name it. It’s almost virginal purity, allied to her almost abstract interpretation, made her Lulu more puzzling than any other singer I have seen in this role. Some say that Lulu is nothing but a projection of the desires of those surrounding her, and that is how she sounded this evening, some sort of perverted Olympia (yes, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann). She sang with great accuracy, Mozartian poise and very clean high notes. In other repertoire, some could find her in alts a bit underwhelming, here I found them instrumental and musically elegant, in the sense that they never saturated the picture, but rather blended into it. She must be praised too by her willingness to sing this impossibly difficult music in the most difficult positions, being carried by other actors and even almost upside down at one point.

Deborah Polaski was similarly an elegantly understated Countess Geschwitz, her sizable dramatic voice giving her enough leeway to deliver her text in a most musically spontaneous way. The Staatsoper must be praised by the impressive group of tenors featured this evening. Stephan Rügamer caressed Berg’s lines as if they had been composed by Mozart in the role of the Painter and nimbly executed a complex choreography as the Negro while singing with the right sense of humor. Thomas Pifka proved to be a more heroic Alwa than often, less smooth than, say, Peter Straka (in Jeffrey Tate’s recording) but more positive and varied, while Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke displayed a more metallic and verbally specific approach to the Prince. Among the low voices, Michael Volle (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper) called attention in its velvety richness and volume, but he would tire a bit by the end of act II. In comparison, Thomas J. Mayer(the Athlete) sounded recessed and rough-toned, but he is an excellent actor and used the text very convincingly. Jürgen Linn’s pitch-dark Schigolch had too much off-pitch expressive effects, but this seems to be the rule in this role. Anna Lapkovskaja (dresser/high-school boy) deserves mentions too for her forceful, fruity voice.

As for Andrea Breth’s production, although I quite like the decadent atmosphere she was able to produce and her very precise Personenregie, I cannot stand stagings in which people behave like puppets. The fun of watching opera is seeing PEOPLE on stage and the richness of expression they can convey with their faces and gestures. If they are supposed to walk like a robot, then I would rather see the concert version – especially in a concept in which the libretto is very loosely followed in a plot that demands a little bit more attention (too many characters, too many unconventional reactions, too many different settings…) from the audience. To make things more problematic, from act II on, the robot-walking is replaced by somewhat more realistic acting, but then one has already given up. I am sure that, in straight theatre, where the dialogues are more specific, this may work (or not?) – but here it was just “noise” to the music.

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I wrote only yesterday about the redeeming powers of an exceptional musical experience in the context of a shabby old production. Thomas Langhoff’s 1999 staging for the Berlin Staatsoper is as provincial looking as can be (it is very similar to the one shown in the Estates Theatre in Prague – and I don’t mean this as a compliment) – sets and costumes are anachronistic and display very poor taste, when they don’t look downright cheap, but differently from what I saw in the Deutsche Oper yesterday, the Spielleitung is very efficient and the sense of comedy timing is never lost. More than this, these singers natural abilities are well taken profit of and some scenes seemed almost spontaneous (something remarkable in a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, an opera in which things tends to be a little bit look-how-I’ll-do-this-and-how-I’ll-do-that).

However, the acting is hardly the reason why this evening’s performance was remarkable – here the laurels go to Daniel Barenboim. I have both his recordings (English Chamber Orchestra with Heather Harper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Berlin Philharmonic with Lella Cuberli and Andreas Schmidt) and find them ponderous and poorly acquainted with Mozartian style and I was bracing myself for a long evening. But fortune favors the bold – although the conductor does not care very much for clearly articulated phrasing, the Staatskapelle Berlin in top form could find clarity in its rather legato-ish approach to fast passagework in the overture, which counted with clean attacks and a flowing but not hectic pace. During the whole evening, the maestro seemed to ponder how fast every number should be by the criteria of expressiveness and polish. He proved this evening to have understood the way Mozart operas benefits from a “concertante” approach, in the sense that soloists and orchestra were always presented in the same perspective, with singers and woodwind responding to each other in structurally commendable and exquisite sounding organicity. If singers needed a bit more intimacy, the orchestra would shift together with them to a softer yet positive sound. Voi che sapete, for example, sounded wholly fresh to my ears – every shift of mood perfectly rendered, oboes and clarinets increasingly seductive during the arietta.  The conductor never lost from sight that great comedy always operates on the thin line that separates the funny from the touching, and, while avoiding cuteness, these characters’ feelings were never made fun of. Riconosci in questo amplesso, for instance, has its moments of physical comedy, but it also portrays a mother finding a long lost son – and, as R. Strauss would say of Der Rosenkavalier, one should have one eye dry and the other one wet here. And so we had this evening. My hat for Barenboim – this was Mozart playing of top level, and that he has achieved that relatively late in his successful career only confirms that he is truly a great musician.

Mozart operas tend to be cast from the ensemble in German and Austrian opera houses – and it is relatively lucky that the Staatsoper has so many great singers under permanent contract. Dorothea Röschmann is the Susanna in the video from this very production (with Emily Magee and René Pape) and has since then developed into big lyric roles and had to pay some price for it (she had cancelled some performances and her recent Donna Elviras involved sometimes a Mi tradì transposed down). I am, however, glad to report that this invaluable singer is finding her way back to the top of the game. Her Countess is featured both in a video from London (with Miah Persson and Gerald Finley) and from Salzburg (with Anna Netrebko and Bo Skovhus), but her performance this evening was clearly better than in both these recordings. Although she comes close to holding to dear life by the end of the stretta of Dove Sono (the high a’s were there all right, but they felt like high c# sharps in her physical effort, and the high c’s in Susanna or via sortite were abandoned for the ossia*), this evening she sang with more seamless sense of legato and scaled down more willingly (and comfortably) to piano when necessary. In terms of interpretation, she is a singer who always gets to the heart of the matter – and if one will recall smoother renditions of Porgi, amor, this one unmistakably had a broken heart.

This evening’s Susanna was both enchanting and disappointing. Anna Prohaska is a highly intelligent singer, with stupendous Italian pronunciation, REAL understanding of the text (I had to write that in capital letters, for she found more original and insightful turns of phrasing than almost anyone else since Lucia Popp), sense of style, acting skills and personal charm, but the voice itself is simply too small-scaled for Susanna. It comes in one basic silvery color, but not “silvery” enough to pierce through in ensembles, and her low notes – the fact that you could hear them is commendable in itself – were produced in something very close to Broadway belting. I am not saying that she should never sing Susanna – but I am not sure if she should sing this role now. One could say that Popp, Cotrubas, Freni et al sang this role when they were very young. But those were very different voices, I am afraid. I hope Christine Schäfer has some good and honest friends kind enough to tell her that she should take a break and think about what she has been doing. In the last three years, I have only seen her in bad shape, but this evening it was a bit more serious than this. Considering that the role is Cherubino – and that this singer has ventured into singing Violetta Valéry in La Traviata a few years ago – and that she could barely make it this evening, this cannot be seen as normal. She is a singer I had known and liked from recordings (the Mozart/Strauss CD with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado was a favorite of mine for a while) – and it would be sad to see her going down so soon.

Artur Rucinski was a clean and poised Count Almaviva. He lost a bit steam for his big aria, but that did not prevent him from offering clear divisions and a good trill even then. Vito Priante was a most likeable Figaro, in his spontaneous, resonant voice, crystal-clear diction, rhythmic buoyancy and sense of comedy. He does belong in this repertoire and I hope to hear more from him (so far, I knew him from baroque opera recordings). Finally, Maurizio Muraro was an excellent Basilio and Katherina Kammerloher, shorn of her aria, was a fresh-toned Marcellina.

* This may sound picky, but I firmly believe that the Countess should sing her high c’s in this scene. If one remembers Kathleen Battle’s claims for the prima donna dressing room in the Met in the 1980′s, the answer should be clear: “the prima donna is the one with the high c’s, the trills… and the big aria”.

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Guy Cassier’s “Ring of the present moment” does not belie its concept. Those who have seen it in Milan have now discovered an updated version in Berlin. If Cassier has reacted to some of the criticism of his La Scala première, then he deserves double praises for polishing his staging. Act 1 set looks less empty, the projections reflect changes of mood more sharply… and, most of all, there seems to be stage direction for his singers now. Siegmund and Sieglinde react to each other, Brünnhilde has a touching issue (as in expression affection by touching the person one loves) with her too formidable father later to be transferred to a passionate Siegmund and finally dealt with in the opera’s closing scene – it is still all too elementary, but it already makes all the difference in the world. In the end, if this production is too basic and overreliant in empty aesthetics, it definitely does not stand in the way when musicians are willing to add some emotion into the proceedings. And they certainly have.

As this is the last performance in the run, I have the impression that Daniel Barenboim has decided to give free rein to his impulses, sometimes to the surprise of his singers, what added an urgency and vividness of expression rarely caught so uniformly in a cast as this evening. Barenboim opted for very rich sonorities, with revelatory highlighting of woodwind, impressive sense of theatre and protean orchestral sound. Although he had a very good cast this evening, the orchestra stood in the very core of the events, a paragon of flexibility itself – in terms of tempo, tone coloring, accent – carrying drama forward by magnifying the expressive power of soloists or challenging them in expression. At moments, I almost jumped from my seat with the impact of what the Staatskapelle Berlin was doing. The occasional white-heat approach tested these musicians at times: a hectic closing scene to act I, a hard-edged magic fire music and a somewhat rushed, almost Mozartian Winterstürme. It would be difficult to describe the many interesting features of this evening’s performance – sometimes a performance just catches fire and this one certainly has.

Anja Kampe’s rich soprano is focused and young-sounding and yet aptly expands to warm, powerful climaxes when this is required. She achieves a perfect balance between vulnerability and earthiness, what makes her an ideal Sieglinde. Her ecstatic singing of the “redemption through love” was one of the highlights of the evening. Although Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was still more powerful in Milan, her performance this evening had power, class and engagement to spare. Mikhail Petrenko, unfortunately, had his hooty and/or throaty moments as Hunding, but his characteristically Russian bass fits the part. Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) is capable of some impressively loud notes, but the voice is distressingly nasal and his attempts at animation often sounded Mime-esque. He did sang solidly, but in a cast such as this evening’s, he sounded basically uninteresting.

This is my first experience with Irene Théorin’s Brünnhilde. Hers is not a phonogenic voice: it is very metallic, a little bit tremulous in the middle and a bit short in the bottom. But if there is one high dramatic soprano in activity these days, she is it. Her endless supply of effortless blasting acuti is something to marvel. For a change, a singer who tosses her ho-jo-to-ho’s as if she were having fun with it. And at the same time Théorin finds no problem in scaling down to mezza voce, even in some very tricky passages. Her Todverkündung and act III had many breathtaking moments when she just floated pianissimi in a touchingly intimate manner. But there is more than this in this invaluable Swedish soprano. I couldn’t help noticing how alert an actress she is, responding to events on stage in an immediate and convincing manner – and her facial expression in her long scene with Wotan in act III was exceptionally moving. That scene brought the audience to tears – and the partnership with René Pape’s Wotan has a great share of responsibility.

I know I myself had become skeptical about Pape as Wotan since his Milanese Rheingold, but this evening he made an important stab at it. At this point in his career, nobody doubts his ability to portray nobility and authority. It is an exceptionally rich, warm, dark and beautiful voice – the question being how he would survive the test of singing in the Heldenbariton tessitura. The answer is difficult. When the phrase is congenial, he produces some impressively round and forceful high notes. When it is not, the voice sounds a bit straight and devoid of color, but never ugly, one must say. This is the last show in the run and I cannot say how wisely he dealt with the role before, but today his long act II narrative seemed to tire him. After that, he had to manage his resources to get to the end, which he did with a little help from Barenboim’s fast tempi in the most testing passages. All that said, he can soften the tone adeptly and takes advantage of that to produce the sort of sensitively varied singing one expects from a Lieder singer.  Der Augen leuchtendes Paar, for example, was so touchingly sung that one felt ready to forgive the German bass everything. My 11 or 12 readers (I see that I have a few more these days…) might be asking themselves if Pape is bound to be the great Wotan of his generation. As I was telling a friend at the theatre today, there are two kinds of Wotan: those who fight with low notes and those who fight with high notes (and there used to be James Morris…). Not long ago, John Tomlinson too had to find a way through the high-lying passages in the role, as many others before him. Pape has the advantage of an excellent technique that allows him to scale down instead of up when he needs some variety and the voice is naturally big, what exonerates him from forcing. Judging from this evening’s really moving performance, I would say that it is definitely worth the effort!

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Daniel Barenboim’s close collaboration with both La Scala and Staatsoper Unter den Linden has resulted a joint venture, which is a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, apparently at the rate of one opera every season both in Milan and at the Schiller Theater. Although the production is going to be one for both theatres, casting differs. For example, Nina Stemme and Waltraud Meier sing Bruennhilde and Sieglinde in Die Walkuere in Milan, while Berlin will feature Irene Théorin and Anja Kampe.

Barenboim’s almost Furtwaenglerian large-scaled approach to the Ring is known through his Bayreuth performances released both in CD and DVD and it seems that the conductor tried to justify his second visit to the Nibelungs with a whole new different approach. Although Furtwängler himself has conducted a Ring at La Scala, one would believe that the maestro inspired himself in another German who has also tried his tetralogy there: Wolfgang Sawallisch (1973).  This time, large scale are hardly the words that come to mind – the orchestral sound is rather chamber-like and clear, with beautiful textures and rather detailed phrasing in more lyric moments, especially when soft dynamics are involved. In more purely “Wagnerian” passages, things tend to lack some finish. Curiously, the performance is dramatically rather blank and, in spite of the lightness, tempi rarely flow. Probably because of the light-voiced cast, restrain seems to be the keyword, what impared many of the opera climaxes, especially Alberich’s curse, which really misfired here.

The main source of curiosity in this performance is René Pape’s first Wotan. The Dresdener bass has made a reputation out of Wagnerian roles such as King Marke in Lohengrin and the King Heinrich in Lohengrin, but, if I am not mistaken, this is his first Wagnerian Heldenbariton emploi. Although the tonal quality is noble and the attitude is stylish and knowing, Pape’s velvety voice does not seem really cut for the part. In this tessitura, his voice does not really sound large and his high register sounds a bit bleached, what gives a more tentative than commanding impression. His Alberich, Johannes Martin Kraenzle, is similarly out of his sort. He seems to know what Alberich should be like and is also a good actor (even if he looks old for the part), but he cheats in every high note and is often overwhelmed by the orchestra, even in its light-toned version. Stephan Rügamer is also light-toned for Loge – and his nasality is often bothersome – but this imaginative tenor sings with amazing  tonal variety and an almost Mozartian dulcet quality that makes his character particularly insinuating. As always, he is a most gifted actor – certainly the singer who made most of the mechanical stage direction. Curiously, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s voice proved to be more penetrating than his in the role of Mime. Maybe it is a bit late for Doris Soffel to tackle the role of Fricka – her vocal production is now a bit raspish. She is a subtle artist with intelligent word-pointing and some effective use of mezza voce, but one wants more vocal comfort. Anna Larsson lacked firmness as Erda and Anna Samuil (Freia) was rather metallic in tone if quite hearable in her flashy Slavic voice. The remaining minor roles were all ineffectively taken. Truth be said, the only singer truly at ease in this performance was Kwangchul Youn, whose Fasolt outclassed the remaining members of the cast.

To make things even less exciting, Guy Cassiers’s production is a series of misconceptions. The omnipresent ballet dancers making their distracting steps all over the place would make Wagner turn in his tomb. In any case, it made me feel like kicking them and their clueless choreographies off the stage. From a certain point on, all effects described in the libretto were replaced in a most unconvincing way by dancers doing their routines.  Enrico Bagnoli’s sets are quite unsensational and oversimple. The whole concept turned around the use of water in the first scene, for a rather awkward impression, and, since it is not simple to dry the whole set, it remained wet to the end, the attempts to make that make sense even more pointless. The audience’s reaction was quite cold and it made me wonder if some things are going to be changed for next season’s prima, Die Walküre, which is going to need something more consistent than this.

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The Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Festtage is one of the world’s most puzzling festivals in the world – basically you are offered the same operatic productions showed during the year with more or less the same casts, but with a far more expensive ticket price. One could say that this is an opportunity to see a showcase of the Lindenoper’s best productions – but that is not the case either. There is nothing special about their current Tristan und Isolde – and Achim Freyer’s Onegin is one of the most embarrassing  productions ever shown to an audience. It is ugly, pointless and confusing. The three-dimensionality of Puschkin’s characters as conveyed into music by Tschaikovsky is what makes this opera a masterpiece – and it is an offense to both writer and composer to see them reduced to semaphoric puppets. Pity – it is a beautiful opera. If someone had explained it to the director, he would probably like it.

As a compensation for the horrors shown on stage, Daniel Barenboim offered a grandiose, quasi-Wagnerian account of the score in its large orchestral sound, almost feverish intensity and flexibility of tempo. The Staatskapelle Berlin played it to the manner born – deep, rich, warm string sounds and expressive woodwind solos. The orchestra alone was a pleasure in itself. The cast here gathered had no weak link and it is doubly commendable that they could sing so expressively straight-jacked by the silliest stage direction in the galaxy.

Although Anna Samuil’s soprano tends to acidity in the most outspoken moments, she masters the art of evoking girlishness and innocent radiance elsewhere. She is particularly adept in conveying spontaneity in conversational passages in her natural middle register and avoidance of aggressive break into chest voice. She was probably the only soloist who has survived the ludicrous scenic choreographies with her expressive eyes and the concentration of her movements. She was ideally partnered by Maria Gortsevskaya’s Olga, who was able to produce warm sounds without suggesting a matron (a too usual mistake in the role). That said, Katharina Kammerloher’s mezzo still sounded too young in comparison to her daughters’ voices. Margarita Nekrasova’s spacious contralto, on the other hand, couldn’t be better suited to Filipjewna. She should be a great Erda – I hope that Barenboim remember her in his next performances of the Ring.

Artur Rucinski’s warm and dark baritone suggested a handsome and elegant Onegin. This Polish singer gave us a stylish and firm-toned performance. Some high-lying passages seemed a tiny bit tense, but he used it to good dramatic purposes. The glamourous casting of René Pape as the Prince Gremin was an extra treat to the audience in its outpouring of velvety sounds. All that said, I guess my four or five reads are probably curious about my impressions on Rolando Villazón’s Lensky. As I do not speak Russian, I cannot say how idiomatic he was. But I can certainly report on a most sensitive performance from this Mexican tenor. Although some high notes could be more strongly supported, he produced seamless legato, shaded his voice to touching effects and never sang with less than full commitment. And his tenor remains extremely pleasant, with a solid middle and low registers. His big aria was particularly heartfelt in its intimate melancholy. These purely lyric roles suit him and I hope that, after the ordeal he recently went through, he avoid heavy repertoire from now on.

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In order to fund the old house’s renovation, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has programmed a series of concerts to raise money. Taking profit of the opportunity of Plácido Domingo’s baritone venture in Simon Boccanegra, a Wagnerian evening with star soprano Nina Stemme and conductor Daniel Barenboim was organized in the Philharmonie. However, the Swedish soprano fell ill and was replaced at the last minute by a regular in the Lindenoper, mezzo Michaela Schuster, last seen as Ortrud in the première of the new production last April.

However, before these singers could open their mouths, Barenboim treated the audience to a sensational performance of  Tristan und Isolde’s Prelude and Liebestod. As in his last performance in the Staatsoper, the conductor indulged in a considerate tempo in order to showcase the orchestra’s sophisticated phrasing, tonal refulgence and clarity. The ensuing Liebestod offered an entirely contrasting approach, almost dance-like, in which the escalating chromatic figures spiralled in clearly defined alternate dynamic effects to breathtaking results.

After a white-heat start, The Valkyrie’s Act I would finally settle into something rather less impressive. Although the orchestra was in great shape, the need to adapt to the soloist’s necessities took its toil in what regards horizontal clarity and pace. Of course, Plácido Domingo’s vocal longevity is a marvel. The tone is certainly darker these days, but the sound is still fresh. However, the tenor needed some time to prepare for his ascent to top notes or for fast declamatory passages, forcing the conductor to step on the break pedal, for the loss of fluency sometimes. That said, he seemed far more comfortable than last time I heard him as Siegmund at the Gala concert in Munich with Waltraud Meier some two or three years ago.  A colleague from the Staatsoper’s Noccanegra, Kwangchul Youn was in great voice, producing some powerful sounds as Hunding.

Michaela Schuster deserves a paragraph for herself. I have seen her only twice as Ortrud, both in Berlin and Munich, and have found her vocally no more than efficient, but tonight, in this soprano role, I was able to understand more about her voice. Free from the burden of sounding formidable and dramatic, one can see the naturally lighter hue of her voice, which is surprisingly pleasant, soft and bright. I could imagine that she would be a touching in French roles such as Charlotte or Didon. In her more relaxed self, she floats lovely mezza voce and phrases with authentic legato. When things start to get too “Wagnerian”, the usual harsh quality comes unfortunately about. Of course, when the phrase is congenial she produces some firm big acuti, but generally she attacks them in a strangely backwards placement only to focus them a few seconds later. In order to accomodate her, the conductor had often to kept the orchestra’s enthusiasm on a leash.  But that is all secondary when one considers her highly expressive interpretation. Crystal-clear diction, the wide tonal palette of a Lieder singer and a highly alert and imaginative way of colouring the text. Some moments of her performance were original and illuminating even in comparison with some very famous Sieglindes. I really wish she would give her Ortruds and Kundrys a rest and made better use of her talent for subtlety for more than a change.

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The Staatsoper unter den Linden’s prima does not have the glamour associated to La Scala’s season opening performance, but the event does involve the presence of the Bundespräsident and simultaneous broadcast to thousands of people at the adjoining Bebelplatz. For the 2009/2010 season, an old production has been chosen, Harry Kupfer’s Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2000.

Although the local press calls it legendary, it is actually quite unexceptional. The only set for the three acts shows a giant sculpture of an angel (inspired by a photo by Isolde Ohlbaum of a statue found in Rome) that doubles as a rocky landscape, which turns around to create different perspectives. On the background, some piece of furniture and people in XIXth century clothes (supposed to represent “society”) or a stylized sea landscape. Although the word “angel” does not appear at all in the libretto, if we are to believe that the composer’s feelings for  Mathilde Wesendonck were the early sparkles of inspiration for the opera, then we should remember that the first of her poems set to music by Wagner is… Der Engel. In any case, I really do not see any added insight to the understanding of the story or its interpretation. What one could clearly see was that walking on it was rather difficult and all singers had to watch their steps while trying to sing difficult music. I have not previously seen this staging, but I have the impression that the director’s original ideas might have faded since 2000. In many scenes, singers seemed a bit at a loss with their blocked gestures and tried to milk meaning from generalized stage attitudes. Even the charismatic Waltraud Meier had her clueless moments. If I had to single out someone, this would be Ian Storey, who knows how to scenically pull out act III better than almost anyone I have seen – live or on videos – in this role.

When it comes to the musical direction, Daniel Barenboim has no weak links in his monumental yet supple approach to the score. On his DVD from La Scala, a beautifully crafted act 1 would open the proceedings in the grand manner only to settle in less intense remaining acts. Not this evening. After a deep Furtwänglerian prelude when absolute structural clarity was paradoxically achieved in the context of sophisticated agogics, the first act took a while to take off – probably because the conductor had to accommodate his cast’s needs. From act II on, the performance gained in strength. The Staatskapelle Berlin was at its resplendent best, offering thick Wagnerian sound and breathtaking flexibility throughout. That meant that singers would now and then find themselves drowned in orchestral sound, but the trade-off paid itself – sometimes during the Liebesnacht one would feel that time stood still in sheer beauty of sound and clarity and dramatic purpose. But act III surpassed even these paramount levels. Never in my experience had it sounded as flowing as it did this evening – as it had been produced in one perfectly integrated arch from the first bars of the introduction to the Liebestod’s last chord.

Waltraud Meier has had an up-and-down experience with the role of Isolde. So far I’ve had bad luck live, but I cannot make my mind whether this evening was a lost opportunity. I would not say she was in bad voice, only that her voice was not willing to sing Isolde. It sounded lean and lyrical and resented the least dramatic turn of phrasing. A less experienced singer would have horribly failed. Not Waltraud, who husbanded her present resources with such shrewdness and imagination that she finally convinced me that she was experimenting with a Margaret Price-like approach to the role. On one hand, the lightness helped to create a more youthful and legato-ish sound that certainly brought about a more immediately romantic tonal palette to the role; on the other hand, she had many moments of inaudibility, pecked at high notes in an almost operetta-ish way and simply did not sing her act II high c’s. Later on, she would warm a bit and gather her strength to produce some loud Spitzentöne, some of them below true pitch. Some of these problems afflicted her Liebestod, but there she and Barenboim achieved such unity of phrasing that no-one could help but surrendering. In any case, that final scene was vastly superior to their studio recording in every sense.

As for Ian Storey, first of all, I must apologize for my opinion on his Tristan as heard at the Deutsche Oper a couple of months ago. Except from an extremely unfocused frenzy on hearing the news of Isolde’s arrival on act III, he sounded this time relatively comfortable with what he had to sing. His dark-toned tenor has a certain disconnected quality around the passaggio that brings about a marked flutter and loss of tonal quality, and his procedure to make his top notes incisive lets itself being noticed. But I don’t want to seem picky – his voice is big, warm and ductile and he has imagination, good taste and his general attitude fits the part. His Tristan finds the right balance between heroic and vulnerable, which is quite rare with Heldentenöre.

In spite of the soprano and the tenor’s achievements, the outstanding vocal performance this evening is beyond any doubt René Pape’s. This great bass sang with such richness, authority, sensitivity and sheer vocal glamour that one for once could feel that the act II monologue could be a bit longer!  In the performance booklet, Harry Kupfer suggests that King Marke and Tristan’s relationship goes beyond nephew/uncle and reaches an almost incestuous level. In this production, the similarity of age, the violence of feelings and the heartbreak in Pape’s voice almost make this bold assumption work.

Although Michelle DeYoung is not the subtlest Brangäne around, she was in very healthy voice and managed to pierce through the occasional thick and/or lound orchestral moment without forcing. I cannot say the same of Roman Trekel – the role of Kurwenal is on the heavy side for him and he sounded invariably rough and hard-pressed. He is an intelligent artist, however, and found space to add a discrete sense of humor to his lines.

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Stefan Herheim must be the most irritating among living stage directors working for an opera house in the whole world. His production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Staatsoper unter den Linden has an ambitious agenda – to discuss the relationship between religion, myth and politics through the idea of Lohengrin as a messianic leader who would restore purity inside everyone of us before we are confronted with the fact that an imperfect world cannot be redeemed by perfect solutions. Here Lohengrin does not bring back the Duke of Brabant before he flies away in his giant white feather (apparently, the swann itself does not stop at Bebelplatz): he actually collapses on the ground a few moments later – he was nothing but a fantasy, a human-sized marionette. Accordingly, the “creator” itself,  Richard Wagner is shown as a bouncing marionette during the overture.

Although there is plenty of intelligent ideas going on here (I do not know if I could say the same of Herheim’s Entführung aus dem Serail for the Salzburg Festival), there are way too many of them to start with. Herheim’s staging begins as the cheapest example of Regietheater with soloists and chorus members in casual clothes, carrying string puppets and posters with the words “State”, “Comic”, “German”, “Opera” etc, then develops to something like a mix of Broadway shows Hair and Spamalot until it finally takes off on Act III in a sensitively staged bridal chamber scene, with fine acting from the cast’s Lohengrin and Elsa. I was determined to close my eyes and let myself enjoy the music, but the truth is that – in spite of the high levels of sheer silliness – it does set one’s mind going once you start to consider the many perceptive points about the interrelation of private and public affairs in the libretto. But that’s a virtue of such an acknowledgedly masterly libretto, which not deserves to be made fun of.

If I really had decided to close my eyes and enjoy the music, the balance would definitely be positive. The first chords in the overture revealed such crystalline pianissimo string playing that one could legitimately felt transported to paradise. However, while Daniel Barenboim could extract the last ounce of beauty in lyric passages in grand yet clear orchestra sounds with an expert’s ear for tempi that let musical effects work in the right way, more complex scenes brought about an unsubtle brassy orchestral sound, as in the introduction to act III, for example.While the chorus was unusually accurate in Lohengrin’s arrival and particularly smooth-toned in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, the orchestra failed to produce either the kaleidoscopic impression in the former or the increasing tension in the later. My memory may betray me, but I have the impression that Barenboim was more substantial and less bombastic when I saw him conduct  this work in the Lindenoper back in 1999.

In what I believe to be her debut in the role of Elsa von Brabant, Dorothea Röschmann not only dispelled my doubts about her venture in jugendlich dramatisch repertoire, but indeed impressed me with her continuous flow of creamy, rich tone and her intelligent and emotional interpretation. Although the voice is still light for the role, her technical control steered her through the perilous exposed moments in ensembles and especialy in the act III duet with Lohengrin. She has mastered the art of projecting Spitzentöne in the hall without forcing her lyric voice, and her ability to produce strong chest notes is of great help in declamatory passages. All I can say is that, although I have immensely enjoyed her Mozart performances, this is the definitely the best I have seen from this very special singer.

Michaela Schuster fulfils the basic vocal requirement for Ortrud, but small miscalculations around the passaggio spoiled some key moments. She relishes the Cruella DeVille approach and handles the text in an unusual yet refreshing sort of evil-and-loving-it manner. Gerd Grochowski’s light but forceful bass-baritone is often drowned by the orchestra, and his very clear articulation of the text helped he out in the last minute. I guess no-one really missed René Pape, who was unable to sing the role of King Henry, since Kwangchul Youn, his replacement, offered an exemplary performance. He was at his most Karl Ridderbusch-ish while offering his own kind of sensitive verbal nuance.

I leave Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin for last. It is difficult to descibe such an extraordinary voice. His high-placed, straight-toned voice is so devoid of the corsé quality which is the hallmark of a tenor that it almost has an almost infantile colour. His ability to produce effortless floating mezza voce is impressive and, at the same time, he can pierce through dense orchestration with very little strain. I could not help thinking that it almost resembled a pop singing style. I say “almost” because a) he did not need a microphone to achieve that and b)  sometimes his phrasing could be more flowing and have less of that sensation of one-note-after-the-other, especially when he had to plunge to the lower end of his range. In any case, if Lohengrin should have an unearthy, angelic feeling about him,  Klaus Florian Vogt is hors concours. He is almost like the tenor answer to Gundula Janowitz’s Elsa – the sound of his voice says everything you need to know about the role and you tend to part with the demand for a collection of interpretative gestures that would only imitate what nature itself has somehow produced.

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