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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Runnicles’

Das Licht — wann löscht es aus? Wann wird es Nacht im Haus? In Richard Wagner’s libretto, Tristan’s view of the world turns around an opposition roughly summarized as light-day/world/society and night/house/individuality, probably divided by an axis in which his mother, Isolde and death are the main poles. This is not me trying to be clever; a superficial reading of the libretto shows that; so it hardly qualifies as an “insight”. But director Graham Vick begs to differ and probably believes that this has to be really un-der-lined so that the audience un-der-stand it. So, away with the ship, the tower, Kareol and here comes… a house. At first, I thought we were watching the first mafia-wedding production of Tristan und Isolde – a tacky nouveau-riche house, a coffin, Tristan in a black suit, Kurwenal has an apron over his, there are lots of ill-behaved men with a wide job description who harass Isolde in a way only a Neapolitan would care to do and there are drugs – the love potion comes in syringes here. But then I realized it was a surrealistic mafia-wedding production, for there is a naked girl walking around unmolested by the testosterone-high henchmen and… a gigantic floating spotlight that could pass as the und in Tristan und Isolde, for whenever they are together, it comes closer to them. But then I realized it was not a mafia-wedding Tristan, but a house/light Tristan. In any case, the audience had a big laugh when, in act III, the spotlight comes nearer Tristan and he says Die Leuchte, ha! Act II shows the house on a different angle, inside and outside are blurred, crags grow from nowhere, a naked guy digs a grave, the naked girl watches him – love/death, house/world, light/darkness. Of course, it all looks awful. Act III almost hits an interesting idea – Tristan is shown as a somewhat senile old man, his questions of “where am I?” etc and his streams of consciousness surprisingly fit the concept. Everyone is old in the house, Kurwenal, the shepherd. Tristan does not die, only that Tristan died, I thought, goes into the world and is haunted by his lost self in the shape of Isolde; I could live with that. But no – Brangäne appears as an old woman and Marke should be something of a walking Titurel by then, but he only needs a walking-stick to make his entrance and, to make things worse, an elderly Isolde comes very realistically on stage, sings her Liebestod for the coffin (a part of the decoration since act I) and the centenary Brangäne and Marke.

Have I mentioned that it was amazingly poorly directed? Awkward love-potion scene (if you think that this evening’s Tristan and Isolde are actually a married couple, you start to wonder why they take so much time to seem intimate), ludicrous Melot-Tristan scene, various scenes in which singers remain on stage without anything to do, just watching the often dramatic or delicate situations depicted by the libretto. It is no wonder that, at the end, the audience almost unanimously booed the director (almost, there were probably 50 people – me included – who just did not applaud and the guy who incessantly bravo-ed everything, even the extras).

God must have thought that a poor musical performance would have made the audience tear the Deutsche Oper to pieces and granted the guinea-pigs in the opening night most solid conducting from Donald Runnicles. The prelude could be a little be more inspired, more organic, a stronger sense of arch could have been achieved, the increasing dynamic less deliberate, but other than this the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered a structurally clean performance, very consequent in its phrasing, all elements (including soloists) perfectly balanced and the house orchestra responded with exemplary Wagnerian sounds throughout. If someone deserves bravo this evening, these should be the members of the orchestra. It is true that the performance lacked the profoundness of expression of Daniel Barenboim’s Tristans in the Staatsoper, but that is only a matter of difference of approach. Runnicles’s more cerebral transverse of the score is equally valid in its musical thoroughness and transparency.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is probably the lighter Isolde I have ever seen on stage. Margaret Price never sang the role live, but she proved to have had a far more positive middle register (and low notes) in her Verdian roles. The unsubstantial lower end of Schnitzer’s voice robbed many passages from their gravitas (the Liebesnacht, for example), but her ease with high notes (even dramatic high notes – quite full and forceful) could be counted as a compensation. She has a solid technique and never showed any sign of fatigue. For me, the young-sounding quality of her voice and its creaminess made her Isolde quite congenial, but after a while the lack of tonal and dynamic variety could be felt. It must also be said that she is a really accurate singer and her acting talents are not to be overlooked. She alone looked three-dimensional as a sensuous woman who would follow the man she loves in his own particular world without quite understanding it.

This was the first time I’ve seen Peter Seiffert as Tristan. His tonal quality is also a bit light for the role, but it is voluminous enough a voice with a bright sheen on it. In order to make for the tonal lightness, he pushes more often than he should and, as a result, his tenor sounds dangerously open-toned now and then, some notes oscillate in a René Kollo-esque manner and sometimes he sounds frankly strained. By now, he has learned where his strengths are in this role and saves when he can in order to give it all in act III, where he allows himself more legato than most tenors anyway.

At first, Jane Irwin’s light, yet incisive mezzo with a touch of Janet Baker seemed promising for Brangäne, but her calls from the tower were mostly flat and that is the moment when a Brangäne shows her skills. Eike Wilm Schulte is not my idea of a Kurwenal – his baritone is too high and he has neither the physique nor the attitude – and he was simply in a bad-voice day. In more outspoken moments, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s bass lacks the necessary nobility for the King Marke, but he knows how to scale down his spacious and dark voice, an important quality for his long monologue, which can sound monotone without proper tone colouring.


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If Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra does ring a bell in your mind, it is because of the famous article Telepatia musicale in which Giovanni Tebaldini suggests by means of musical examples that Richard Strauss either copied or had a transalpine case of coincidental inspiration with the Italian composer who premièred his opera a couple of years before the première of Elektra in Dresden. I had never heard Cassandra before this evening and the first bar already shows the famous motive associated to Agamemnon in Strauss’s opera. And this is only the first of a series of similarities. In any case, comparison between the two works only show that, if Strauss indeed “borrowed” some motives from Gnecchi, the Bavarian composer’s superior usage of them should have been reason for Gnecchi to be proud. As it is, Cassandra sounds like Turandot with a bold harmonic twist. The canzonetta-style of its melodies sandwiched between dissonant chords is something that requires some adaptation, but the work is certainly atmospheric and the orchestration is imaginative. It is curious, however, that the title role is more or less unimportant in the plot, even if it has a big scene before the opera abruptly ends.

Donald Runnicles could find the right balance between Italianate and German qualities in the work and provided beautiful sounds throughout. In the cast, Markus Brück stands out in a powerfully and richly sung account not only of the role of Egisto but also in the prologue (replacing an ailing Nathan De’Shon Myers). Takesha Meshé Kizart’s smoky soprano is a bit on the light side for Clitennestra, but she certainly did not seem fazed by what is required from her, producing some exciting chest voice in her low register throughout. Gaston Rivero is too light-toned for Agamennone, but sang firmly and securely in a tricky tessitura. Julia Benzinger could also do with a more dramatic voice. These singers suggested rather efficiency than thrill, and the results were finally quite unexciting, but I am afraid that the score itself is also to blame.

After the intermission, Donald Runnicles proved again that he is a most reliable Straussian, ensuring ideal balance in his orchestra and helping his singers by keeping his forces under the leash without losing tonal quality. The transparent reading was musically extremely rewarding and, if the cast allowed him a bit more power, it could be a quite gripping experience. As it was, the final impression was of sensitivity and stylishness. And the house orchestra followed the conductor in an exemplary account of this difficult music.

In the title role Eva Johansson could figure as an example of a long list of what-not-to-do in a voice lesson – her soprano lacks harmonics in her entire range, her intonation is erratic, there is no legato to speak of, the low register is unsupported, the high notes are pushed – but still I have to confess I found her flawed performance quite touching. If I may borrow a concept from La Cieca’s Parterre Box, this would be  “emotional journey”. Her underwhelming Elektra seemed more humane in her faltering expression of rage, a more believable sister to Chrysothemis. Her Recognition Scene finally produced the right effect for the wrong reasons – the imperfect attempt to produce a lyric line (topped by a praiseworthy intent to produce mezza voce whenever this was required) was itself the sound image of Elektra’s ruined beauty. All this aided by an engaged stage performance made me forgive the never-ending list of drawbacks, but I wonder how long she will be able to tackle this repertoire in such a reckless manner. Manuela Uhl seemed to be in an off day – the voice refused to flow, sounded shrill in its higher reaches and failed to pierce elsewhere. Julia Juon is an experienced Klytämnestra, her mezzo still pleasant and rich, but spacious low notes were not really there. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was in her prime when she sang the role in the Dresden première and I wonder why opera houses believe that this role should be cast exclusively by veterans. I really dream of listening to it by a large, full, warm voice. Burkhard Ulrich was a firm-toned Aegisth, but Stephen Bronk lost a bit steam in the middle of his performance. Katarina Bradic’s First Maid and Ulrike Helzel’s Third Maid are worthy of mention.

Director Kirsten Harms uses the same set for both operas – and I don’t need to describe it, for it looks like almost every set designed for R. Strauss’s Elektra. The same goes for costumes. It seems that the axe is very important for her, because Klytämnestra had to carry it throughout both operas. It is unintentionally funny when Cassandra says that she foresees a murder that very day as Clitennestra makes a what-is-she-talking-about?-face while greeting her husband with that enormous axe in her hand. As I use to say, Mrs. Harms has a problem with third acts and I thought that, since there was no third act today, she could feel a bit more confident about her directing. But there is always a last scene – in Elektra, for example, she found it important to have some ghost girls perform a ballet around Elektra. Maybe they were remains of a production of an old staging of Adam’s Giselle who were still bound by contract to the Deutsche Oper.

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Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is one of the the toughest cookies in the operatic repertoire. Technically, it is a comedy – but if you get ten instances of laughing during its almost five-hour length, this was a hilarious staging. Then the score involves impossibly complex ensembles with intricate counterpoint for soloists and chorus. To make things worse, the main roles require the subtlety of a Lieder singer and the dexterity of a bel canto specialist. In other words, if you want to listen to this opera, you have to be prepared to take the wheat AND the chaff – moreover because they are generally parts of the same thing.

The fact that Stefan Anton Reck was unable to conduct the whole run of performances finally proved to be a minor hazard, since Donald Runnicles, whose Wagnerian credentials are beyond any doubt, has taken over the baton. I haven’t had the luck of seeing Mr. Runnicles as often as I would like, but I have very good memories of a Rosenkavalier and a Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that this evening’s performance was clearly below that level rather puzzled me, especially if one bears in mind that the Deutsche Oper orchestra is a more seasoned Wagnerian ensemble than the Met’s orchestra. I could imagine that limited number of rehearsals may be to blame. The famous overture did not highlight any of the house orchestra’s qualities – the color was unusually opaque, the brass section (particularly poor today) produced some unsubtle sounds and there was little sense of exuberance. The remaining act I lacked purpose and the fact that the scenery brought about disfiguring echo for anyone singing on stage right did not help much. Considering the monumental difficulties of act II, the level of mismatch was relatively reduced – and it must be pointed out that the conductor fortunately did not hold tempo back in order to make things easier. The sounds from the pit remained transparent, but kept on a level of volume comfortable for the singers and rather meagre for the audience. Pity that the chorus was not in its best shape either. Things tended to get into focus in act III, its pensive introduction particularly haunting, the whole Sachs/Walther/Eva was episode expressively handled and the quintet was sensitively conducted.

Having to write about Michaela Kaune always proves to be a difficult task for me. She is such a tasteful musician and her vocal nature is so lovely that it makes one doubly upset that the results are ultimately frustrating. The role of Eva should not pose her any difficulties – she is a lyric soprano who has the extra 5% to deal with the only stretch of jugendlich dramatisch singing in the whole part (i.e., O Sachs, mein Freund, du teurer Mann). However, she treats her creamy soprano rather heavily and the result is that either high-lying or more conversational passages sound rather colorless and unfocused.  Although her voice spread a bit during this difficult scene, something might have happened after that, for she launched Selig wie die Sonne in the grand manner. From this moment on, her voice sounded brighter, lighter, more concentrated and younger-sounding. If she consistently sang like that, she would belong to the great German lyric sopranos of our days.

I have previously seen Klaus Florian Vogt solely in the role of Lohengrin, in which his strangely boyish yet penetrating vocal quality underlines the character’s unearthliness. Walther is a rather more romantic leading man role – and his permanent mixed-tone approach to his top register and a lack of flowing legato in high-lying passages make the character less impetuous and ardent than one expects. The beauty and spontaneity of tone and his almost instrumental phrasing certainly make the character noble and touching, but I confess I wished for rich, full, vibrant top notes to crown the climaxes of the Preislied, for example.

I do not subscribe to the idea of showing Beckmesser as a ridiculous character and I regret the fact that the excellent Markus Brück has embraced the directorial choice with such passion to the point of nasalizing his dulcet baritone as he did. Beckmesser is a Meistersinger – and one who prizes his vocal abilities above his poetic imagination. His heavily decorated serenading probably means that he should sing with Bellinian poise. Maybe it is just a matter of taste, but I find that the plot gains more from a Beckmesser that offers some real competition than one portrayed like a manic goblin.

Kristinn Sigmundsson’s indisposition involved the last-minute replacement by Frank van Hove from Mannheim. As much as I like the Icelandic bass, van Hove’s spacious velvety bass was a pleasant surprise. If I have to fault Ulrike Helzel’s Magdalene, it would be because of her appealing and seductive high mezzo that made her often sound younger than Eva, what goes against the libretto. In the tiny role of the Nachtwächter, Krysztof Szumanski seized the occasion to display his firm voluminous bass. No wonder he received so warm applause.

I am afraid that James Johnson’s Sachs is a serious piece of miscast. Although he has very clear German and tackles declamatory passages very well, his bass-baritone has a rusty, curdled quality that robs the character of all spiritual nobility and likability. And that is something Hans Sachs cannot part with. David is a difficult and important role, who has a challenging aria that catalogues every kind of vocal difficulty. It requires A-casting – Herbert von Karajan, for example, had Peter Schreier both in his Dresden studio recording and in his live Salzburg performances in 1974 (where he gave René Kollo a run for his money). Paul Kaufmann is a congenial actor and has the right ideas about the role, but the voice is a bit small for the theatre.

Although Götz Friedrich’s production was premièred in 1993, it is impregnated with the aesthetic of the 1980′s. The sets serve a pointless aesthetic concept turning around a circumscribed square, costumes follow disparate styles and the direction of actors (under Gerlinde Pelkowski’s responsibility) involve the heavy utilization of cliché and awkward slapstick comedy.

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From the first bars of today’s performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, one could say what a difference a new conductor makes. Donald Runnicles’s fast tempi and extremer dynamic effects would replace Maazel’s more balanced and organized approach to the score, crowned by true nobility of orchestral sound. I don’t imply that this was better than that or the other way round; only it is fascinating to compare. In any case, Runnicles’s more extrovert theatricality seemed to have a positive effect on Lisa Gasteen, who offered a more nuanced Todesverkündung today.

Cast only for the last performance, Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) offered a less baritonal and also less powerful voice than Clifton Forbis’s. Indeed, the newcomer’s tenor tends to be open and metallic, but his feeling for legato is most welcome – also his enthusiasm, which managed to draw some commitment from the otherwise sleepwalking Deborah Voigt (whose indifferent delivery of the German text reached its apex with a verse composed by her carelessness: Erschaffung quick ich). The remaining members of the cast were consistent with their previous performances, only a bit more tested by a louder orchestra today.

Unfortunately, I could not stay for the third act. Thus, I missed the opportunity of checking how Runnicles would deal with the Valkyries and if Gasteen would similarly offer a more varied dialogue with Wotan in their last scene.

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In the Met’s old and yet still beautiful production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin’s elegant and unexaggerated boudoir and Faninal’s white palace with hundreds of windows for Vienna to watch inside are spetacular as they should be. Only the 3rd act Wirthaus looks a bit confusing, since the limits between the room and the corridor are not entirely clear. The same cannot be sad of Donald Runnicles’ conducting, which is clarity itself. The second act and especially the third act were performed in an unusually euphonious manner in a sense of organization and continuity which would win the heart even of the most suspicious Straussian. To say the truth, some moments needed a more distinctive orchestral sound to work to perfection, such as the delivery of the silver rose, which ideally requires richer but still transparent sonorities. Maybe divided violins were not the best idea for that big venue… However, after a promising haunting pianissimo ending to act I, the orchestra delivered an exciting structurally clear prelude to act III (despite some blunder in the brass section) and an exquisite final trio, truly powerful in its rising tension. It is also remarkable the naturalness with which Runnicles finds the dance rhythms even in the most structurally complex scenes.

Angela Denoke’s Marschallin is an evidence that the golden age of Straussian singing is not over. Her blond slim graceful figure and playfulness have something of Schwarzkopf, although she eschews all kind of exaggeration. Her reedy floating full-bodied tone has something of Janowitz, although there is nothing cool and distant about her. The warm feminine low register and appealing mezza voce have something of Crespin, although she is entirely comfortable with her top register. However, in spite of all comparison, she was pretty much herself: a Marschallin whose appetite for life thinly disguises a highly sensitive nature that learned never to indulge in gloominess. Glücklich ist der vergißt… could be this Marschallin’s motto. Her crystal-clear diction, the natural delivery of her native language, allied to a wide tonal palette, projected her highly expressive portrayal vividly into the vast auditorium with no vocal constraint. Being a highly accomplished singing actress, her monologue and ensuing duet with Octavian scored so many points in subtle inflection and the sheer beauty of tone was so beguiling that even a non-German speaking person in the audience would take her slightest point. Her floating full pianissimi made for a particularly touching launching of the final trio. If one would like to find any criticism about this exquisite performance, that would be a certain flutter in her vocal production, especially in high notes from mezzo forte on, probably due to the frequentation of dramatic roles. Let us hope that her sucess in the part of the Feldmarschallin will mark the beguinning of a new phase in her career dedicated to Romantic German lyric roles, taylor made for her voice and personality.

Probably not in her best form, Susan Graham displayed a rather bleached out tone above mezzo forte and the top notes took a second or two to blossom, with the exception of her appealing mezza voce singing. In act III, she seemed to be in better shape and ended the opera with a stream of velvety floating sounds. She is a committed staged performer, but her Octavian is too much of a tomboy to be really convincing – a fault shared by most singers in this part (the notable exception being the young aristocrat played by Sena Jurinac in the video from Salzburg).

It seems Lyubov Petrova has recently delivered a baby and that may explain a certain lack of radiance in her voice. She could float her tone all right in the delivery of the rose, but in a rather unexceptional manner. A certain rattling in her vocal production and the China doll looks gave her old-fashioned charm, but the necessary breathtaking vulnerability and loveliness – even more so when the Marschallin displays such a beautiful voice – were still missing . All in all, she was a stylish Sophie and I would like to see her under better conditions.

Peter Rose’s bass is entirely functional for Ochs – the tone is firm and rich and he has the low notes. Nevertheless, the voice is a couple sizes too small for the Met. His Baron was refreshingly young sounding and he could find the right balance for the rustic aristocratic devised by Hofmannsthal.

Håkan Hagegård’s straightforwardness as Faninal was also most welcome – and his solid clear baritone is still a pleasure to listen to. Matthew Polenzani had to force his otherwise dulcet tone for the Italian tenor aria. Unfortunately, Wendy White was rather small-voiced for Annina.

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