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Posts Tagged ‘Ewa Wolak’

Although Götz Friedrich’s Siegfried has more many splashes of kitsch, it remains my favorite production in his 1984 Ring for the Deutsche Oper – the blacksmith’s shop in act I is just irresistible (I like to believe that I have learned to forge a sword only by watching it). Jasmin Solfaghari’s Spielleitung could not avoid to follow some instructions that did not work very well for this cast, but I have found many scenes more spontaneous this year than last time. That said, there were too many examples of stage management amateurism this evening for comfort (especially an inextinguishable magic fire that required many visible stagehands).

I cannot tell if this performance’s more positive orchestral sound is the result of extra effort from Donald Runnicles or his orchestra – or simply a natural consequence of Wagner’s more rhythmic, brassy and percussive score. This fact alone – even if singers had to struggle to be heard – made this Siegfried more classically Wagnerian, but the bureaucratic feeling was still there. Although some moments sounded indeed agitated, the results were more mechanical than lively. In my memory, the also better cast performance I saw last year feature music-making of superior quality. During this performance, I couldn’t help wondering why the Deutsche Oper deemed it important to revive this Ring at all – the production is helplessly old, the conductor’s heart seems to be somewhere else and the orchestra is not really in the mood. And the casting is problematic. If there is good weather on Sunday, I might not even come for Götterdämmerung.

The congenial and convincingly boyish Torsten Kerl is very much a son of Robert Dean Smith’s Siegmund. As his “father”, he has a pleasant, natural voice, finds no problem in flowing legato and his tenor is two sizes smaller than it should. He sang with crystalline diction, good taste and sensitivity in a way that made the role of Siegfried surprisingly cantabile, but was often hard to hear, even in his top register, which is rather soft-centered and does not quite pierce through. His Mime, Burkhard Ulrich, as it often happens, was quite more forceful than him (probably the most hearable voice in this cast). Although I prefer a less hyperactive approach to the role, Ulrich deserves unreserved praise for his full commitment, acting skills and vocal security.

Last year, Mark Delavan had not sung the role of the Wanderer and decided to give it a try in Berlin for the first time this evening. I have the impression that he was not in very good shape – the voice sounded even more reduced in volume than usual and he was quite tired by the end. He had his share of problems with the text too, but I would risk to say that he is finding a Wotan inside him somehow. His stage attitude is more appropriate and his singing more integrated (instead of long undistinguished passages with occasional big important notes). In comparison, Gordon Hawkins sounded richer-toned and more forceful, but even less at ease in terms of personality in his role than on Rheingold. Ewa Wolak remains an impressive Erda, Ante Jerunica is again a most efficient Fafner and Hila Fahima is an ideal Waldvogel. When it comes to Janice Baird’s Brünnhilde, I am afraid that her performance is even more problematic than last year. She seemed so concentrated on trying to produce the notes that there is no interpretation to write about – and even the notes themselves left more than something to be desired. By the end of the opera, she was just trying to survive. I wonder how she is going to manage to sing the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, which has far more than one difficult duet with Siegfried.

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Here we go again with Götz Friedrich’s old, old, old production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. I understand that producing a new Ring could be too expensive for the Deutsche Oper Berlin and it’s sure better to have an old Ring than none, but I don’t believe that these reprises are doing justice to Götz Friedrich: this Ring looks its age and those who are sampling it for the first time in the XXIst century won’t leave the theatre understanding why Friedrich was such an important director. Paraphrasing Christa Ludwig’s famous quote about time to retiring, it is always better to say “pity it’s no longer there” than “pity it still still there”. The good news is that Jasmin Solfaghari’s Spielleitung looks more like “stage direction” than Søren Schumacher’s last year. This doesn’t mean that it looks effective – it does not – but again, it is better some than none. There is now an attempt of making comedy that I find quite distracting and blocking is still awkward, especially when singers have close interaction.

As for the musical aspects of this evening’s performance, I have to confess that last year’s was so disappointing that it was not really a great challenge to offer something better this evening. First of all, the orchestra was in far better shape tonight. One could feel that conductor Donald Runnicles had to scale down for his mostly light-voiced cast, but at least the orchestra had some sound even in those moments. That said, I still find it unconvincing – if the conductor is not going to offer hallmark lush Wagnerian sound, why not opting for clean accents, forward movement, clarity and excitement? As it was, many moments sounded dull and one could often feel time pass. Last year, the Deutsche Oper had a trump card that made the evening memorable, Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich for the ages. Having to live up to this standard is an unfair demand on Gordon Hawkins, whose weighty, dark and grainy bass-baritone cannot produce the same kind of impact. He does not seem to have the proper personality to the role – and sometimes his more self-contained attitude and rich tonal quality made me think that Wotan could have been his role if he had clearer consonants and more variety as a whole. As it was, his Alberich was rather well-behaved than gripping. Although Mark Delavan’s voice was a tiny little bit opaque in its higher reaches this evening, his Wotan has clearly developed since last year. He is more comfortable on stage, his text is somewhat crispier and his heroic top notes more integrated. But there is still a lot of road before him until he achieves true musical and dramatic impact. Daniela Sindram’s light but well-focused Fricka was sensitively sung and she has enough presence to bring her role off the background. Let’s see what she is going to do tomorrow. Burkhard Ulrich’s vivacious Loge is consistent with last year’s performance, but it is Ewa Wolak’s excellent Erda who deserves the “special mention” in this cast, an exemplary performance.

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Third time lucky – even if luck probably has little to do with that. The name of the trick is “more rehearsal time”, and the result is that Donald Runnicles could finally show his credentials in this cycle. The audience was treated to top class orchestral playing – strings zipped adeptly through passagework, brass offered noble playing, expressive woodwind solos and properly otherworldly sounds in Brünnhilde’s awakening. The richer orchestral sound, rhythmic alert cast and flowing tempi concurred to a most agile account of the score – one could barely feel how long is an opera where theatre often gives pride of place to musical values.

This feeling was certainly aided by the casting of singers in key roles with excellent stage performances: the leading tenor is energy itself, looks and acts convincingly boyishly and is so comfortable with his forging duties that I would not be surprised if someone told me he was actually a blacksmith for a while; his Mime is an all-round accomplished actor and the Alberich is, as in Rheingold, a true find. Pity that Spielleiter Søren Schumacher gave the Nibelungen some very silly movements abounding in hopping and flapping the arms. Other than this, the stage action was quite well-timed, especially in act I. It is a pity that the soprano seemed entirely clueless and marred the closing scene with meaningless antics. Although Act I’s scenery has more than a splash of high school pantomime, the blacksmith shop is so convincingly arranged that one tended to overlook the prevailing kitsch. Erda’s African tent in act III represents a woeful misfire, but the idea of a mechanic dragon for Fafner is well-done if entirely unrelated to the aesthetics here adopted. And when Wagner wrote “Stimme des Waldvogels” in the score he knew what he meant – no sopranos  ludicrously dressed as in a carnival parade hanging from a rope.

Stefan Vinke’s stage performance as Siegfried is so likable that one makes an effort to forgive the vocal glitches. Therefore, let us start with the positive aspects – he is certainly healthy, has stamina to sell and no problem with singing a tempo, even in the rather fast tempi chosen to exciting effects by Runnicles for the forging song. His basic sound (and a couple of mannerisms) makes me think of René Kollo, including his ability to pull back to mezza voce when necessary, albeit one  seriously misguided about vocal placement. The approach is extremely forward and nasal and above the passaggio everything is extremely tight, straight-toned, muscular and short in harmonics. It is indeed remarkable that he was able to sing forte high notes like that – and sustain them – in a manner so stressful for the vocal chords. Considering the difficulty and length of the role, he even showed himself relatively untired in the end of the evening.

If you are a partisan of the sugar-rush approach to Mime, then Burkhard Ulrich offered a varied and imaginative account of the role. I’ve grown up feeling relieved when Wolfgang Windgassen finally put an end to Gerhard Stolze and always wish that someone like Graham Clarke  (whom I had the pleasure to see in the Met’s Siegfried back in 1997) take this role.

Although Egils Sillins’s bass-baritone is a bit timid in the lower reaches and has its throaty moments, it is also spacious, firm and forceful enough for the Wanderer. Nevertheless, he was actually upstaged by the impressive Tomasz Konieczny in the opening of act II. The Polish bass-baritone is arguably the best Alberich on stage these days. It is a pity that Andrea Silvestrelli could not sing Fafner today – his voice is particularly well-suited to this role. That said, Ante Jerkunica offered a faultless performance of this small but important role. Ewa Wolak remains an impressive Erda, but Burcu Uyar’s unfocused singing spoiled a bit the fun in the part of the Waldvogel.

Unfortunately, Janice Baird was visibly uncomfortable in the part of Brünnhilde. She was often under the note, got lost now and then and fought with the tessitura. When she could relax, as in the Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich lyric moments, she showed welcome keenness for legato, but she rarely had the opportunity and, in the end, the impression was rather of tentativeness.

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After the Wagner Wochen, I have to confess my expectations about the Deutsche Oper Ring have been kept low. This is probably why I am not terribly upset by the frankly unsatisfactory Rheingold presented today as I was when I left the theatre after that dreadful Lohengrin.

To start with, Götz Friedrich’s 1984 production belongs to its age – it makes movies like Flashdance or Xanadu look like an example of timeless design. The basic set, although reminiscent of the Washington Metro, offers a large-scaled, interesting perspective. But that’s the only positive thing to say about the visual aspects of this staging. The scene under the Rhine was a matter of transparent fabrics that could have worked in a rather predictable way, if someone had decided to test the mechanism before the performance. The screens hanged rather loosely until one of them got caught somewhere. Then, it had to be ripped from its pipe lest the opera be interrupted for repairs. The whole episode in the Nibelheim is decidedly provincial (the complex stage contraption giving rather a contrived than awe-inspiring impression) and the scenes on Wotan’s mountaintop look depressively poor. Peter Sykora’s costumes are so ugly, drab and dirty that you feel like throwing a 5 cent coin on stage as a donation for the gods. To make things worse, Søren Schuhmacher’s Spielleitung basically consists of letting actors do whatever they seem fit, except for silly choreographies that make the ordinary opera silly choreographies look clever. Not to mention that scenes involving physical interaction seemed poorly rehearsed. I left the theatre wishing for a concert performance.

I had never seen Donald Runnicles conduct any Ring opera, but for the first two acts of a Walküre at the Met, of which I had a very positive impression, especially in what regards the quality of the orchestral sound. Not today. The performance started with the wrong foot – brass were so poorly pitched that I prayed that the strings begin soon. They did begin – albeit in very restricted volume, a situation which persisted through the whole length of the opera, with the exception of Alberich’s curse, in which the decision to drown the baritone seems to have been taken. I wish I could single out something positive – like tempi did not drag – but the sound picture was simply wrong for this music and Wagner’s multicoloured effect failed to work against the prevailing matte atmosphere.

Although the cast had no weak performance, only the Poles offered something to tell home about. Tomasz Konieczny’s forceful, dark-toned Alberich displayed the necessary intensity lacking almost everywhere else in this production and Ewa Wolak’s rich-toned, extremely concentrated Erda created alone the impact her scene has to offer. Although Judit Németh’s mezzo is a bit high for the Rheingold’s Fricka, she coloured her text knowingly. Burkhard Ulrich’s Loge was dexterous enough, handled his lines with clarity and found no problem in Loge’s sinuous writing. I prefer more heroic-sounding Loges, but there is nothing to fault, but instead much to praise in his performance. Andrea Silvestrelli’s cavernous Fafner, ideally partnered by Reinhard Hagen’s more focused Fasolt, is also worthy of mention. When it comes to Mark Delavan’s Wotan, it must be noted that his voice is noble sounding and reasonably large in its lower reaches. His bass-baritone has the proper sound for the role, but not necessarily the full impact. However, what might have disturbed a couple of members of the audience, who finally booed him in the curtain calls, is the undeniable lack of experience in the part. Although he was too clearly prompted, he still had some trouble with the text and, therefore, could not help but skating on the surface of the role. I hope that Die Walküre finds him a little bit more prepared!

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