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Posts Tagged ‘Deborah Polaski’

Is there any other opera that inspires so much tolerance in the audience as Die Frau ohne Schatten? Everything is so impossibly difficult that one feels even grateful that singers, conductor, director, members of the orchestra et al have agreed to do this possibly for the same fee they would receive for, say, Carmen…  In any case, the Bavarian State Opera can certainly boast to have a new production against which there could be little competition this day. Of course, there are shortcomings – even Karajan’s 1964 recording from the Vienna State Opera has shortcomings (nota bene – he had Fritz Wunderlich for the Erscheinung eines Jünglings and Lucia Popp for the Stimme des Falken) – but the level of success of individual contribution is so high that you feel inclined to overlook that the sum of the parts is noticeably less impressive.

I have seen Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne, Arabella and the Marschallin and found her Straussian performances so far only intermittently satisfying. Her Kaiserin this evening was in an entirely other level: golden tone, noble phrasing, unfailing musicianship and the necessary mysterious glamor, you would find all these qualities in her singing this evening. Elena Pankratova is one of the most interesting Färberinen that I have ever heard (I’m including recordings here). Her voice has a cold, slightly metallic quality one would rather expect to find in the role of the Kaiserin. At first, one feels that her voice is two sizes smaller than the required dramatic soprano, but she is the kind of singer who doesn’t show all her trump cards right away; when you’d least expect, there would come solid low notes, powerful acuti, mezza voce and even commendable legato for lyric passages. She has no problem with high notes, but the composer’s unrealistic demands in act III understandably brought about some screechy moments. In any case, the way she could musically show the character’s development during the opera is the reason why she goes to my shortlist, presided by Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her career, it is very bold of Deborah Polaski to sing a role as demanding as the Amme, especially in its complete version. Although her soprano has always had a dark color and she always had to push a bit for her high b’s and c’s, that does not mean that she was a pushed-up mezzo – and one could hear that this evening. The lack of weight in the bottom of her range was compensated by a noticeable ease around the area where mezzos have their passaggio, what allowed her to be particularly smooth and clean. I don’t believe she was in a very good day though: the voice lacked focus and she had to go full powers to pierce through, what eventually tired her. And her last scene is probably the most demanding of all.

Johan Botha showed no difficulties in the role of the Emperor, producing consistently beefy, clarion sounds, but little variety. As it usually happens, nobody seemed to know what to do with this role. And I can only imagine that a singer needs some coaxing to care for giving that little extra that makes all the difference of the world in a role as ingrate as this one. When I first saw Wolfgang Koch’s Barak in Salzburg, I thought that he could be subtler. But then Barak was not subtle in that production. Now I see that, in normal circumstances, his performance in this role can be as benign as the composer and librettist conceived it. Considering his recent Wotans in Bayreuth, I expected his voice to sound a little bit more voluminous than this evening.  Last but not least, Sebastin Holecek was a very powerful Spirit Messenger.

Richard Strauss would be proud of his hometown opera’s orchestra. The Bayerische Staatsorchester offered this evening the dictionary definition of Straussian orchestral playing, offering crystalline, almost fairytale like sonorities and expressive solos throughout. Conductor Kirill Petrenko has followed Strauss’s conduct-it-as-if-it-were-Cosi-fan-tutte advice as a religious credo. He rarely unleashed a true orchestral forte, worked rather from tonal coloring and and brightness, never drowned his singers and offered the kind of clarity that would make following it with the score in hands really unnecessary. It was a performance of unusual musical elegance and intelligence. If I had not seen Thielemann conduct this opera in Salzburg as transparently as today and far more excitingly with a force-of-nature Vienna Philarmonic, I would have considered this evening the best FroSch live in the theatre in my experience. It is very important to stress that the disfiguring cuts that reduce the role of the Amme and make the long scene with the Empress in act III a bit abrupt have been opened out here. This involved a sizeable monologue very commendably dispatched by the non-native-speaker soprano. It was a long evening in a busy trip and I may have missed something, but I have the impression that a couple of tiny cosmetic cuts have made to accommodate the staging.

Well, if this evening had an advantage over the Salzburg Festspiel , this has to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. This came as a surprise for me. I have bad memories of his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, but here he offered more than compensation. This was probably the best staging of this acknowledgedly unstageable opera I have ever seen. Warlikowski proved depth of understanding of the libretto and, if the Freudian approach has been already tried by Robert Carsen in the Vienna State Opera, the consistent way with which the director used all scenic resources to portray the complex situations in the plot – especially the awkward changes in act II – was all but masterly. I am sorry to disappoint those who were expecting a concept too distant from the original story, for this was truly understandable (I mean, until act III, where at least he keeps interest going when every other director more or less gives up). Inspired by Alain Resnais’s L’Année Passée à Marienbad, the story is set in a cure resort where a rich woman (the Empress) traumatized by some sort of dramatic incident with her husband and in strong oblivion and denial of her life is put under the responsibility of a psychiatrist (the Amme) who has developed an unhealthy attachment to her patient. As some sort of therapeutic experiment, she is put in contact with the janitor’s wife – possibly an Internet bride from the East who has found her “looser” husband and new low-life life far below her expectations – whose marriage is getting dangerously close to a violent episode as the one we assume to have happened with the Empress. Once you understand that, Warlikowski does not try to bend the symbology – when the characters talk about a shadow, it’s really a shadow they are talking about. This eventually makes act III difficult – there is an elderly gentleman who is supposed to be Keikobad whose connections with the cure resort is hard to understand. The water of life is indeed a glass of water, but it is hard to make something out of that – especially because the whole “having babies”-moral is more or less it. I have noticed that lots of people have a problem with the “having babies”-issue. If you are interested in my opinion, I don’t believe that this is what Hofmannsthal was trying to say here – although “having babies” is the most elementary way of exerting the selflessness HvH was talking about.

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Although Guy Cassiers’s Ring for La Scala/Deutsche Staatsoper is supposed to be a “ring of the ‘now'”, you would need a crystal ball to discover that, whereas Claus Guth’s Ring for the Hamburg Staatsoper definitely seems to address contemporary issues. I write “seems to”, for the new production of Götterdämmerung is the only one in the cycle I could see – now I am curious to see the rest.  Although Guth follows the cliché of architecture as a symbol of society, his symbology strikes home in a clear way. In the program, he explains that in the beginning of Rheingold, the world still had a clear “architecture” of power:  gods above, dwarfs beneath and mankind in the middle. When Alberich steals the rhinegold, he irrevocably subverts the structure. After that, nothing will be the same – Wotan betrays the principles by which he rules only to finally loose the ring to Fafner, who treasures it in the underground. So the question is – how one is supposed to understand his place in a world whose structures of power are unclear? In this sense, the Volsungs are the characters with whom we, in a very similar world, are supposed to identify with.

The opera starts in some sort of motel room, a place unconnected and far away where Brünnhilde and Siegfried are living their idyll until she realizes that he wants to see the world. He finds it in the Gibichungenhall, a Bauhaus-like structure inhabited by the bourgeois siblings plus Hagen and haunted by the weakened gods and by Alberich. Siegfried is seduced by wealth and also by Gutrune and, without the help of any magic potion, lets Brünnhilde go in order to find himself a place in society. This twist alone could seem contrived, but Guth’s efficient stage direction makes it believable – Siegfried sees in Brünnhilde a motherly figure and acts as a child who has his way knowing that in the end he is going to be forgiven. He will eventually learn by experience that, on letting Brünnhilde go, he had somehow sold his soul and, again without the help of any potion, betrays himself on purpose in the suicidal manouvre of someone who has gone astray and cannot find his way back. Accordingly, his death scene is portrayed in the motel room where he fancies to be in the moment of his death. The immolation scene follows the same structure and seems to explain that this is not the end of the world, but the end of that world. On returning the ring to the Rhine, Brünnhilde opens the path to a new world in a self-effacing attitude. The world she knew has been corrupted by absence of principles and she has made a difference by sticking to hers:  she refused to renounce to love,  for the private sphere had proved to be the only place where one can be at home in an incomprehensible society.

As you can see, plenty of food for thought. It is only a pity that episodes of silliness enfeeble somehow the concept. Siegfried trying to find his way through the Rhine with a city map, Brünnhilde having her corn flakes during Waltraute’s narration and a finally a Siegfried disguised as Gunther upset by the impossibility of having a beer while wearing the tarnhelm – all that is unnecessary and ultimately distracting. Without those cute touches, one could have perfectly understood that Siegfried is childish or that Brünnhilde no longer has anything in common with Waltraute. Other interesting resources are overdone – the ghost-like appearance of gods would be more effective if not repeated every time their names or ideas associated to them are mentioned. Also, the revolving set (Guth seems to have a fetish in this particular stage device) where something is always happening offers unnecessary competition to Wagner’s magnificent orchestral interludes.

Simone Young is a conductor of rare musical organization – textures are always clear, you don’t have to look for hidden woodwind phrases, for they are right there on your face, and, more than that, her sense of pulse is quite remarkable. Because of this unity of beat during a whole act, Wagner’s music sounds especially organic under her baton. The tricky first act was finally the most successful – I cannot recall a Gibichungenhalle scene so fluent and consequent as I have heard this evening. Unfortunately, the second act proved to be the negative side of the conductor’s qualities, since the orchestra was not comfortable following her a tempo-approach; the result was the occasional example of poor synchronicity, unpolished sound and a chorus ill-at-ease. Having to accommodate the needs of her soloists finally backfired in the last act, the sense of forward-movement largely lost and an Immolation Scene overcautious and unatmospheric. All that said, I would be curious of what she could do in this repertoire with a Vienna Philharmonic.

At 61 (but looking 15 years younger than her actual age), Deborah Polaski still commands regal tonal quality as Brünnhilde. She has never been comfortable in the upper reaches, but now she has to tread a bit cautiously up there, with variable results. In any case, the sensitivity, the warmth of her sound, the sheer size of her voice and her intelligence concur to a noble performance. It is only sad that the last scene caught her already too tired for the challenge. Anna Gabler’s soprano is a couple sizes too small for Wagner, but she has hold her own with dignity and is also a good actress. Although Petra Lang got generous applause for her Waltraute, it took me some time to recognize her in a singer with screechy high notes, sketchy low register and dubious intonation, her vehemence largely conveyed through strain. At some point in his career, Christian Franz might have had  one of those bright, natural tenor voices in a more lyric Fach. Today, his Siegfried  exists by means of constant manipulation of vocal resources, note values and pitch, plus a generous serving of parlando effects. Even if one does not like the comedy touches in this production, one cannot deny this tenor’s comedy skills. Robert Bork was a far more positive Gunther than usual, and his grainy, dark baritone can produce some welcome heroic top notes. In this point of his career, John Tomlinson’s  voice has lost the juice in its higher end. Around Siegfried’s entrance in their first common scene, the British bass-baritone had some dangerously patchy moments. Otherwise, his dark and forceful voice and knowledge of Wagnerian musikdrama are assets hard to overlook. Last but not least, the Hamburgische Staatsoper must be praised for the excellent choice of Norns and Rhinemaidens in their ensemble.

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If one had to create a production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 15 minutes, it would probably look like  Dieter Dorn’s 1994 production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Grey geometrical walls – check, sacrificial instruments – check, robes and veils – check. One could miss a damaged statue of Agamemnon, but it seems the budget was not rich enough for that.  After all these years, it is difficult to say anything about stage direction. It is clear that production veteran Deborah Polaski – and, to some extent, Jane Henschel – shows a certain  unity in her gestures. The others seem quite lost. I also know that the title role is really long and is permanently on stage and that a singer should feel thirsty at some point, but I am not entirely convinced that having a bucket of water and a cup as a stage prop is the good idea – no-one in the audience felt that this was connected to the action in any way, but rather a mere necessity one should bear with. Considering the work has completed one hundred years since its creation in Dresden (and its first performance in Berlin roughtly one month later), maybe a newstaging could have been produced.

In what regards horizontal clarity, Michael Boder offered an exemplary performance: complex harmonies were as easily perceived as if you had the score in front of you. However, no pun intended, the proceedings were rarely electrifying, although the orchestra was very responsive to Strauss’s descriptive effects. Sometimes, I had the impression that clarity was achieved at the expense of forward movement, as in Klytämnestra’s nightmare. Also, it is a pity that the brass section lacked finish in a general way.

It is something of a feat that Deborah Polaski is still regularly singing the role of Elektra at 60 (this performance was actually her birthday celebration). Provided you can put up with approximative pitch on exposed high notes, one could say it is still a most effective performance of this most difficult role. Hers is one of the less microphone-friendly voice I have ever heard – on recordings, it almost invariably sounds colourless, while live it is a voluminous stream of warm, rich sound. Above the stave, legato tends to disappear and the tone can become constricted. The extreme top notes were a matter of hit-or-miss, but her relative ease to float mezza voce rescues her from many a difficult passage. Unfortunately, the Recognition Scene, which should be her best moment, caught her bit out of steam.  What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, aided by very clear diction, and dramatic commitment. Although some might find the flaws difficult to overcome, there is one undeniable asset – this is a dramatic soprano with feeling for Straussian style who often beguiles the listener with creamy stretches of expressive singing. Of how many Elektras one could say something like that? But don’t check your recordings to prove me wrong – this time you’ll really have to listen to her yourself at the theatre.

Although Anne Schwanewilms is very popular here in Germany, I believe that Chrysothemis is a no-go for her. Her voice is light for the heavy orchestration, she has problems to pierce into the auditorium in her higher register, often pecks at notes when the score requires flowing legato and, when there is no fallback position and she really has to produce some acuti, the sound is often strained. Not to mention that the buzzing sound over her voice does not help her either.

Jane Henschel’s clear yet forceful mezzo soprano counted with a neverending range of tonal colouring and her clear intervals are a strong asset for the harmonic challenging passages. Although she has clear diction, she still has to work on her American “r”. Hanno Müller-Brachmann offered focused firm tone. I do not know for how long he has been singing the role – he did not seem in his element in terms of interpretation. Reiner Goldberg’s Heldentenor is still very healthy and he never cheated with Ägysth’s angular writing. I have to say something about Monika Riedler’s Aufseherin – she offered one of the most accurate performances of this tiny but critical role that I have ever heard, live or in recordings.

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