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Posts Tagged ‘Erwin Schrott’

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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I have seen wonderful performances at the Met and occasionally some bad ones – but tonight’s Don Giovanni is probably the most lacklustre I have ever seen in that prestigious opera house. Frankly, I left the theatre wondering why it was found necessary to stage it at all.  I understand that the selling feature is supposed to be Erwin Schrott’s Don Giovanni – but again is it still something surprising enough to justify a second-rate staging in which Schrott’s manic Don Giovanni seems entirely ill-at-ease?

In any case, Erwin Schrott is still the shining feature in the whole staging. He has the voice, the attitude and the physique du rôle. More than that, his almost frantic approach fits the part (I wouldn’t say the same of his Figaro, though). He knows Da Ponte’s text and is free to explore the many theatrical possibilities it allows. When the Leporello is available for this interaction, the whole show gains a lot from that – and Ildar Abdrazakov established a good partnership with his Don Giovanni. It is only a pity that his voice seems to have shrunk both in volume and range since last time I saw him. On the other hand, I felt sorry for Susan Graham, who seemed a bit disturbed by Schrott’s ad libs. She missed her line twice because of that and I believe it is somehow ungracious to unbalance a colleague like that on stage.

In any case, Graham had other problems to deal with. I have written that before – casting a mezzo as Donna Elvira is a troublesome affair. Truth be said, she was probably the less unsuccessful example of this rule I can report so far. She has exemplary control of divisions, floats lovely high pianissimi and has attitude to spare, not to mention that few singers in my experience showed such understanding of the role’s mezzo carattere nature. That said, the tonal quality was pale, legato was mostly nonexistent and pitch was approximative. Mi tradì did not sound comfortable, even with the adjustments, but emotionally tame and vocally only correct.

Krassimira Stoyanova’s Donna Anna was something of an irritating experience to me – up to a high g, her performance was exemplary – her voice was once firm, forward, clear and flexible – everything a Mozartian voice must be. Above that, if we are not talking of her lovely floated pianissimi, the tone was otherwise constricted, bottled up, not truly in pitch, unfocused. We got the Waldseligkeit-version of Or sai chi l’onore with enough mezza voce to make Montserrat Caballé envious. Non mi dir fared a little bit better (and I must acknowledge that she brought more spirit into it than many a famous prima donna), but the recessed tonal quality of her high register seriously needs rethinking.

Matthew Polenzani used to have an almost Wunderlich-ian voice and I had great hopes in him. I don’t know if the frequentation of heavier works is to blame, but the juice in his tone is mostly gone. He still leaves a positive impression with his elegant phrasing, ease with softer dynamics and good taste. I cannot say the same of Monica Yunus (a replacement for Isabel Leonard). Her hallmark role is Papagena – and one could guess that from the metallic, unfocused sound she produced throughout. Unfortunately, Phillip Ens’s Commendatore was too rusty and curdled.

If Don Giovanni was a divertimento,  Louis Langrée’s conducting would be exemplary. Everything exuded elegance, the accompanying figures in the orchestra had an admirable cantabile quality and the structural clairity was something to marvel. The house band accordingly produced a light, supple sound. However, Don Giovanni is not a divertimento – and I expected more from someone who can offer theatrical accounts of Mozart’s sacred music…

Marthe Keller’s production is discrete to the point of being indifferent. Everything looks beige, the closing scene is an anti-climax, the costumes are idiossincratic… Really, Peter Gelb’s “new Met” could do better.

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When I saw Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 2005, I named my review “Contessa, perdono”, because of the words I had written about the evening’s prima donna. Now I repeat the same title because of the words I did write back then. This fall’s reprise had been anounced with Dorothea Röschmann and Isabel Bayrakdarian as mistress and servant in the Almaviva household – an exotic idea considering these ladies’ similarity of Fach. However, Röschmann’s health problems and Bayrakdarian’s pregnancy forced the Met to recast. Therefore, Hei-Kyung Hong, the Met’s resident Countess was called to fill in.

Although Hong’s soprano used to be more crystalline in 2005, these two years must have been very rewarding to the Korean soprano. This afternoon she proved to be an all-round entirely satisfying Countess. As in 2005, her voice is an admirable instrument: at once full and silvery lyric soprano with a very easy and gleaming top register. However, her ability to convey it through Mozartian lines is impressively improved. Maybe I saw her in a bad day in 2005, but the difference is simply striking. She is still not entirely at ease with Porgi, amor, but her Dove sono was note-perfect. Hers was a spirited, charming performance – and her stage persona could not be more graceful. I doubt that Röschmann would have been better, judging from her Salzbug DVD with Harnoncourt.

The “replacement” Susanna is also a true find. The young and volatile Lisette Oropesa from New Orleans has the proper quicksilvery voice, idiomatic Italian, complete grasp of style, enough cutting edge to pierce through the orchestra and a most likeable personality. In her Met debut, Anke Vondung offered an intense and irresistible Cherubino. Her Non so più was a bit thick-toned but Voi che sapete was beautifully sung. If I am not more enthusiastic, it is because I have witnessed the incomparable Joyce DiDonato’s Met debut in the same role in 2005.

There are plenty of Figaros more richly sung than Erwin Schrott’s – if my memory does not fail me, Luca Pisaroni’s performance in 2005 was rather more consistent too. But the Uruguayan bass-baritone’s stage charisma is an undeniable asset. With his neverending imagination, he illuminates Lorenzo da Ponte’s text with fresh new ideas throughout. Also, his ability to interact and to extract the best from his stage partners is praiseworthy, particularly in what refers to his Susanna, with whom she formed a vivacious couple. I am afraid Michele Pertusi is not in the level of the other singers – his slightly veiled bass is not devoid of charm but his whole approach is too buffo for this role.

Britain’s contribution to this production is far superior in 2007 than in 2005 – Ann Murray is still a formidable Marcellina and Robin Leggate was in particularly strong voice as Basilio. For once it was a pity they they were deprived of their arias.

Back in 2005, Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was considered too fast and nervous – and I have to confess a soft spot for the “tense” approach for this opera. Philippe Jordan’s comfortable, well-organised perspective was too reliable on the cast to produce the necessary sparkle. Differently from 2005, the string playing was often blurred and the brass section again left a lot to be desired.

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The fact that the visual imagery proposed by designer Marja Björnsson in this 2002 production by Francesca Zambello – frankly anachronical in its disparaged style of costumes and sceneries – is ultimately unconvincing could be the reason why the intendant decided to give it a twist by selling the show as a “feast to the eyes both to ladies and a gentlemen” (I swear this sounds more appealing in French when this woman said it to a friend next to me while entering the theatre).

What is beyond doubt is that the Royal Opera House has succeded in its purpose of catching the attention of new audiences – Lorenzo da Ponte’s jokes rarely missed the mark and the cast would more often than not felt inclined to overact in order to boost laugh in a way that would have been splendid if it not tampered with Mozart’s music.

Although Paul Syrus proved to know his Mozart, the house band did not feel inclined to respond to his athletic yet not overfast approach. The sound picture was restricted, ensemble often imprecise and articulation blurred. Laughs had an easy advantage on them.

Anna Netrebko was supposed to be a treat to the eyes, but she proved to be also a treat to the ears, even announced to be indisposed. That could be felt in her reluctance to sing softly and a certain caution with high notes. That did not prevent her, however, from pulling out a dramatic and full-toned Or sai chi l’onore, guilt, regret and revolt finely balanced. Although she felt she was unable to go on after the intermission, I could bet she would still be the highlight of this performance in case she had decided to keep singing. Her replacement, Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya does have a forceful flexible voice, but not the polish of a Mozartian singer. She is scheduled to sing Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo soon – she should work on her mezza voce before that.

Ana María Martínez has indeed the temper for Donna Elvira, but cannot disguise the fact that she cheated with her high notes during the whole performance. When a young soprano has problems with a and b flat, something really wrong must be going on. After a shaky start, Sally Fox managed to produce a teazing lovely Zerlina in spite of a technique more proper to Bach cantatas than to Mozart. I have to say Robert Murray’s grainy tone prone to curdling in high notes is not to my liking, but he sang both his arias well. Erwin Schrott’s long experience with the role of Don Giovanni is evidentin his mastery of all dramatic aspects – especially the intelligent use of recitatives. The French would say he is bien dans sa peau as a seducer, as a rogue and as a nobleman. Sometimes he lets himself go too much and one is inclined to find the performance narcissistic but that is soon dispelled by the singer’s irresistible charisma. His bass-baritone is also in mint condition. The fact that Leporello has less rich a voice than his master’s is always a good dramatic point, but Kyle Ketelsen is more a baritone than a bass-baritone and the low tessitura really seemed uncomfortable for him. He was not fazed by that and sustained the challenge of interacting, establishing a splendid partnership with Schrott. Matthew Rose was a strong-voiced likeable Masetto and, in spite of the occasional rusty moments, Robert Lloyd was an efficient Commendatore.

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Since Riccardo Muti left La Scala and Claudio Abbado has made his activities as an opera conductor rarer, some might be asking themselves who would carry on the Mozartian tradition in Italy. Although Gustavo Dudamel comes rather from Venezuela than from Venice, it seems he has fallen into Abbado’s protection. Thus, this Don Giovanni might be a kind of test of fire to see if the young South-American conductor is able to fill in the shoes of his famous predecessors. In fact, La Scala’s Don Giovanni could not answer the question. It seems Dudamel has a strong sense of theatre and galvanizes his orchestra to enthusiastic music-making, but in the end I got the impression he was only trying really hard not to have a definable approach and to overgesticulate to the last seat in the theatre. If one asks me if Dudamel’s Don Giovanni was fast or slow, I wouldn’t be able to tell. For example: he responds to situations in a way that has more to do with making it loud and louder. I can say, however, what I did not hear: clear articulation. Rapid string passages sounded imprecise and muffled, and clarity was not this performance’s strongest asset. I have to say I really missed Muti’s masterstroke – and if the orchestra keeps to this subpar standard the Milanese will eventually join me.

When it comes to the cast, however, the afternoon reserved good surprises. Anna Samuil does have the metallic voice one would expect from a high soprano from Russia, but that’s all I could not be enthusiastic about in her performanc. She has a sizable, homogeneous and flexible voice that can sound sweet when this is necessary. She knows the kind of sound Mozart demands from her, has clear diction and some temperament. Her Or sai chi l’onore was phrased with elegance and accuracy after a vivid recitative. Non mi dir lacked nothing – long breath, pianissimi, trills and clearly articulated divisions a tempo. Morover, her melisme in the second act sextett crowned the ensemble in a way rarely available in recordings. She is a young singer and still has to mature; her potential, however, is beyond doubt. Annette Dasch was a light creamy-toned Elvira. Truth be said, the part is a bit heavy for her voice and she would now and then sound opaque. Fortunately, Mi tradì happened to be her best moment, even if she was operating really close to her limits. Sylvia Schwartz’s capable Zerlina was only hampered by a kind of Judith-Raskin-like old-school vocal production. It must be said that these three singers were quite good-looking and more willing to act than one would generally expect. When it comes to the men, the results are less impressive: Jeremy Ovenden has a nasal unappealing sound and, for a tenor who sings Handel, his runs in Il mio tesoro could be smoother. Alex Esposito’s Leporello had all the necessary elements to build a congenial performance (and he is a very good actor) but a substantial voice. His baritone sounded quite small-scaled, especially in La Scala’s dry acoustics. Ernesto Panariello has a really forceful voice, but not the depth and darkness a Commendatore should have. When it comes to the title role, there was indeed an outstanding performance from Erwin Schrott. He just has it all – the voice, the attitude, the style and even the looks. His command of Italian declamation is masterly – and he made one interesting intepretative point after the other from beginning to end.

Peter Mussbach’s production for the Lindenoper is very elegant in its revolving walls and blue lighting and, when there is a cast skilled as this one, concentrating on acting is always a good idea. However, when one has actors performing in such a naturalistic manner, the odd implausible directorial choice stands out: why Don Ottavio asks servants to fetch Donna Anna’s salts and carry away the body, when there is no one there? Why Donna Anna asks where the corpse is when she wakes from her faint she is right in front of it? Why Donna Elvira reads Don Giovanni’s victims’ names from a wall when the audience sees there is nothing written there? There must be a concept behind all that but in the end it all looks like sloppy work.

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