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Posts Tagged ‘Deborah Voigt’

The second step in Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera House has few surprises for the audiences treated to his Rheingold a couple of months ago. All money, energy and creativity have been invested in the development of the structure called “the machine”. In act I, it represents, with the help of realistic projection, both tree trunks in a forest and then the ceiling of a wallless house plus the ash tree; in act II, it becomes a rocky landscape where Fricka arrives in her chariot; in act III, individual planks going up and down are supposed to be horses for Valkyries and, by the end, projections take care of the magic fire. Considering that costumes look almost exactly like those Amalie Materna wore in 1885, I cannot recall the point of making a new Otto Schenk production whose single novelty is a mechanical structure that makes singers afraid of falling down: Voigt was on scene for barely 2 minutes when she had her first accident. So far the director has not showed a single insight about the libretto. In an interview, his profound take on the role of Brünnhilde is “she has the wisdom she inherited from Erda and the personal sense of justice that comes from Wotan – these two things are in conflict and she’s trying to find a way to be faithful to both, which is typical of a tragic character, trying to reconcile two aspects of one’s own personality”. At this point, my 6 or 7 readers may have guessed that singers ran to and fro striking stock gestures while the machine turned and showed Lion-the-king-like “flashback” little films to add some spice to Wagner’s narrative episodes.

Maestro James Levine is, of course, an experienced Wagnerian, but at his age and afflicted by health problems, he is no longer able to provide the richness of sound necessary for a slow-paced performance. At times, a surge of energy seemed to come from the podium, such as in the closing of act I, with beautiful transparent sonorities, but the Walkürenritt was basically messy and, in the last scene, the orchestra seemed just tired – brass were variable from the beginning. It must be said that the conductor had to adapt for a very particular cast with various levels of difficulties and never failed to help them out in the many instances in which they found themselves in trouble.

For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s rich soprano started to hang fire after 30 minutes. In the end of act I, the voice was grey and unfocused. Before act II, she was announced indisposed but willing to go on, but was finally replaced by a powerful Margaret Jane Wray, who understandably seemed a bit short of breath in act II before a most-satisfying farewell to Brünnhilde in act III*. In her debut as Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt seemed to be in control of her resources and survived to the end of the opera, but what these resources are deserve consideration. Round, big top notes have always been her assets in this repertoire, but in a hoch dramatisch assignment one quickly realizes that bracing for every one of them does not make her the most comfortable Brünnhilde in the market. Also, her middle register is foggy and overgrainy and the basic tonal quality is extremely unattractive, shrewish and nasal, as if she were dubbing a Walt Disney character instead of evoking anything noble or heroic. One could adjust to that nonetheless if there were some interpretation going on. As far as I can remember, she sang everything in the basic mezzo forte, uninflected style, not to mention a not really idiomatic German. Although Stephanie Blythe barely moves in this production, her presence alone exposes the lack of true Wagnerian quality in almost everyone in this cast. This is a true dramatic, flashing voice in the whole range, with some intelligent and discrete word-pointing. If you want to sample a legitimate Wagnerian mezzo soprano, you really have to listen to Blythe.

Voigt’s was not the only role debut this evening: Jonas Kaufmann’s first Siegmund was probably the raison d’être of this evening. Although his tenor is adequately dark, the fact is that his voice is a bit more lyrical than the usual Siegmund’s. As a result, a great deal of low lying passages sounded a bit timid. He took sometime to understand how to make his voice work in the role and his attempts at intensity often ended in lachrymosity and lack of immediate impact. The intermission proved to be providential, for the German tenor seemed more at ease then, readier to try his hallmark soft singing and to convey stamina when necessary. I don’t think he will ever be a really powerful Siegmund, but I am convinced that a little bit more experience will focus his performance into something more in keeping with his reputation.

Bryn Terfel’s bass-baritone is more incisive than rich, but it is big and authoritative enough. I am not sure if I agree with his whimpering approach to the role, but one must acknowledge that his detailed delivery of the text brought it to life, even if this involved some hamming. Last but not least, Hans-Peter König was a strong, reliable Hunding.

*My original text read “I first thought that the problem was nerves, for she was in far better shape. The voice was then bright and clean, but one could see she needed a great deal of extra breath pauses to reach the end of phrases. The effort cost her act III, when she was replaced by a powerful and solid Margaret Jane Wray”. Although it seems that the Met has confirmed that Ms. Wray sang act II, she too sounded (and looked) different in act II and III. No conspiracy theory suggested, but the whole situation is somewhat strange.

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There is nothing new in saying that recordings do not say everything about a live performance – but I have never experienced that sensations as strongly as I have today in Verbier. Before you jump to the conclusion that the unrecorded part of the event was the thrill, I tell you right away that the performance was particularly unexciting. The unrecordable part actually was the technical aspects of making a demanding score work in unideal circumstances.

To start with, although many like to say that Salome is a symphonic poem with voices, Richard Strauss composed this music to follow the theatrical action – its effects, its atmosphere, its tempo were conceived to create a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk experience, and that is why this it is seen as a masterpiece. Of course, the depth of R. Strauss’s writing can survive the absence of a staging, but then the conductor has to make the action take place in the orchestra and soloists have to make it happen in their voices. That was not the case today. But this does not mean that the performance was devoid of interest.

Valery Gergiev faced two problems – a festival orchestra (a fact that goes beyond the absence of cohesion that long-standing orchestras have, but most of all that involves having to build a sound culture for the particular piece – something one would not need to explain to the Vienna Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Dresden, for example) and extremely unfavourable acoustics. The Salle des Combins is a very large temporary structure with particularly dry acoustics. Warm orchestral sound is impossible in such a venue and singers had to work hard to be heard. What struck me as particularly commendable of Mr. Gergiev was the fact that, not only was he aware of that, but also that he adjusted his whole performance to these conditions. As a result, instead of sensuous, rich sounds, the audience was treated to an impressively structurally transparent performance of this opera: singers did not have to shout themselves out to pierce through a thick orchestra, R. Strauss’s sophisticated harmonic effects were clearly defined and each part of this multicoloured score formed a coherent whole. What was missing then? The sparkle of imagination to make this marvelous structure say something. From the Dance of the Seven Veils, the performance started to simmer down and, by the closing scene, when things should be running unleashed, they seemed quite well-behaved and lacking purpose.

I wonder how microphones caught Deborah Voigt’s formidably unsubtle performance. I had the impression that R. Strauss would have found it unforgivably vulgar if he heard something like that in, say, the Vienna State Opera. Considering the venue’s difficult acoustics, however, its unvariably loud quality was quite refreshing. After some shaky moments in the recent years, it seems this American soprano has regained her vocal health and stamina, for she really had no problem with producing a neverending series of big top notes. I know her high register has always been the strong feature of her voice, but they seemed very well integrated into a serviceable middle register, differently from what I’ve heard from her the last three times I saw her – in singer-friendlier theatres. Her interpretation turned around naughtiness, what is probably what one does when one has no tonal and dynamic variety, but more believable pronunciation of German would have made all the difference in the world. This evening, Salome did not want to kiss Jokanaan, but seemed to want from him an object that would be translated as a mouth-pillow. Although Evgeny Nikitin’s German needs improvement as well, his very Russian-sounding baritone is impressively powerful and firm-toned. He is also emphatic to the point of hamminess in the interpretation department, but at least he more or less fulfilled the character description more readily than anyone else this evening. Siegfried Jerusalem struggled with his top notes through the whole evening, but his voice retains its natural tonal quality and his diction is exemplary. As for the 74-year-old Dame Gwyneth Jones, although she flashed one or two incisive notes during the evening, one must understand this as a generous cameo appearance from one singer who deserves more than anyone else the title of World’s Living Treasure. Someone like me, who did not have the luck to see her before her official retirement, should cherish the opportunity just to watch her on stage.

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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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