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Posts Tagged ‘Franz Welser-Möst’

Christmas was yesterday, and the ingestion of Gänsebraten and Sekt is usually high this time of the year. For singers who had to appear in Beethoven’s Fidelio the next day, this must have required tremendous willpower. Anyway, one member of the cast – the Leonore, Ricarda Merbeth, did not even make it. Anja Kampe had to be flown in to take the title role. As almost everyone else, the German soprano was not in a good-voice day, but, as much as Leonore, sie hat Mut and has risked her vocal folds (as many singers before her) for the love of Beethoven. Some would say that Ms. Kampe does not have the high notes for the role, but my impression is that the notes are indeed there – the technique to handle them not really. She has a beautiful, warm voice, a sensitive and musicianly way of building her phrases and is always dramatically on, but one could see that she knew beforehand that some passages would simply not work as written and that the make-do solutions are rather part of her performance than accidents in it. As it was, whenever things got high and loud (and they often do), the options were crooning or shouting. She is an intelligent singing actress and would invariably found a plausible theatrical attitude to justify this, except in her big aria, when things really went astray. Because of her generosity as an artist, she had the audience on her side, but it would be sad to see her eventually pay the price of such hazardous use of her voice.

Peter Seiffert seemed to have avoided the effects of Christmas supper and was really keen on preferring heroic to lyrical singing, although the latter usually suits his vocal nature better. In any case, this evening, his voice sounded at once large, focused, flexible and dulcet, even in the trickiest passages. Maybe as a tribute to René Kollo (who appears in this same production on video), he tried the messa di voce in his first note, which, as much as with Kollo, did not work very well. But other than this, he offered a truly satisfying performance.

Tomasz Konieczny, on the other hand, must have had a hell of a Christmas, for his entrance made me worry for him. He, basically, looked very ill: his hands shaking, his breathing very loud and labored, his face flushed, he missed one entry, then the text and his voice seemed to be all over the place. Either he is an excellent actor with a wildly misguided concept of the role or he was a hero to sing the part of Pizarro in that condition. Fortunately, he gradually recovered and, in the second act, peeled the paint off the walls with truly stentorian singing in his confrontation with Mr. and Ms. Florestan. I confess I was surprised to see the name of the more-than-veteran Matti Salminen in the important role of Rocco. Although his voice is still admirably firm and characterful, it now is essentially very rough, with some grey-toned patches in his range. He is a bête-de-scène and has no problem in making this work; however,  in an evening where almost every soloist required some adjustment, I only hoped during the first act that I would hear a reliable and unproblematic piece of singing.

Ildiko Raimondi’s soprano is a bit juiceless and intonation has its dodgy moments, but she does not spoil the fun at all. Her Jaquino, Sebastian Kohlhepp, proved to be in far better shape, but his singing lacked variety and imagination. Finally, the role of Don Fernando requires a voice completely different from that of Boaz Daniel.

If this performance proved to be something special, we owe this to the impressive playing of the Vienna State Orchestra under the wide-ranging conducting of Franz Welser-Möst. The State Opera’s General Musical Director was at his most Toscanini-an, pressing forward with ruthless rhythmic precision and extracting excitingly accurate playing from his musicians even in extremely fast tempi. For instance, this was the fastest O welche Lust that I have ever heard, more nervous and ominous than touching and hopeful. All concertati challenged soloists and choristers in their fast pace, but not the orchestra, which could not only cope with the technical demands, but also comment the action with wide tonal variety and produce rather than respond to the different shifts of mood in the score and the libretto. The maestro would make an exception for Pizarro’s scene in the dungeon in act II – there he opted to produce excitement rather from accent and accuracy, what made his soloists more comfortable and allowed him enough leeway to build into a powerful Es schlägt der Rache Stunde. Since the Mahlerian tradition of playing the Leonore no.3 before the closing tableau is still very much respected in Vienna, the audience received a Christmas gift in an orchestral tour de force to make you forget that there are other orchestras in the world. Few conductors would risk to take an opera house orchestra to its limits of dynamic possibilities, articulation and balance as successfully as we heard it today – the level of power, precision and transparence achieved by Mr. Welser-Möst and his musicians was something one could tell his or her grandchildren. Truly uplifting.

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Die Frau ohne Schatten is arguably Richard Strauss’s most formidable score, composed to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s most complex libretto, the symbolism of which is almost awkward in its multiple levels. Magic opera, psychological drama, myth, social analysis… there is plenty to choose in it. To make things more difficult, the music is some sort of Straussian showcase – from the multicolored chamber music atmosphere of Ariadne auf Naxos to the all-together-now hysteria of Elektra. That operatic Goliath does not seem to have intimidated Zürich’s small but brave opera house, though.

Although director David Pountney believes that the work is about the discovery of one’s own humanity, he seems to focus his staging on the social disintegration caused by the exploitation of working class in the early day of capitalism, more of less Hofmannsthal’s lifetime. Thus, the story is set on the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. While the Emperor and the Empress are here shown as k. u. k. aristocrats, Barak and his wife are proletarians in a sewing workshop. The Nurse is a key  figure in this context, since she is portrayed as something like a less fortunate relative who depends on her patrons’ favors (therefore, her interest in the Empress comes through more like self-interest than in other stagings). The magic elements of the plot are not abandoned, however. The surrealistic aesthetics of Max Ernst serve as inspiration to dream-like costumes and sets. Many ideas come through quite effectively, such s the play-in-the-play seduction of the Dyer’s Wife, where the Amme literally stages the poor woman’s romanesque fantasies (it is truly amazing how the music fits this concept), but many a detail ultimately seem unintentionally comical, such as the ballet-dancer falcon (why people feel that they have to bring the “voice of the falcon” to the stage?) or the walking dolls cloaked in white who are supposed to be the Ungeborene… If the many imaginative touches do not make an unforgettable experience, poor direction of actors is to blame. The cast did not seem comfortable with what they had to do and most scenes gave the impression of a routine followed with little conviction and almost no coherence: the tenor’s approach was stand-and-deliver, the baritone offered naturalistic acting and both sopranos seemed entirely lost. Only the mezzo seemed to invest the stylized acting required from her.

Franz Welser-Möst similarly eschewed any larger-than-life quality in his reading. The Opernhaus Zürich has a small auditorium and its orchestra is used to produce leaner sounds. Moreover, the conductor professes that Straussian style should involve lighter textures over which the text can still be easily followed by the audience. Let’s call it the “Cosi-fan-tutte golden rule”. I have to confess that I took some time to adjust to the undernourished orchestral sound, especially in what regards the string section. There was transparence in plenty, but the fact that the sound never ever blossomed even in the orchestral interludes finally robbed the music of a great deal of its impact. The end of act I sounded particularly deprived of substance. That could be overseen, if volume had been replaced by accent (as Marc Minkowski has showed us in his performance of R. Wagner’s Die Feen at the Théâtre du Châtelet), but, alas, the lack of forward movement and a sameness in what regard phrasing all in favor of orchestral polish finally suggested overcautiousness. The Mozartian poise had its advantages – a particularly clean ensemble in the difficult act II closing scene – but I am not really sure if this is how FroSch should sound.

The role of the Kaiserin is a bit high for Emily Magee, who had to chop her phrases too often to prepare for the next dramatic high note. However, her creamy soprano is a Straussian instrument by nature and, even when tested, she never produced a sour note during the whole opera. Jenice Baird was a puzzling Färberin. I have never heard her in such good voice – she really sang the part in her rich vibrant dramatic soprano, but seemed to be sleepwalking in the interpretative and dramatic departments. Her rather slow delivery of the text drained the Färberin music of all its bite. Although Birgit Remmert was quite overparted as the Amme, the size of the hall helped her to produce the right effect in this role. She has spacious low notes, clear declamation and, even if her top register is a bit strained, that did not prevent to produce some firm acuti. I know: Roberto Saccà’s voice is ugly, but I must say that I have never listened to anyone sing this part with such flowing lyricism, nuance and ringing top notes before. He almost convinced me that the role should be cast with jugendlich dramatisch voices. Michael Volle was extremely well cast as Barak – his spacious baritone is extremely pleasant on the ear and he sang sensitively throughout.

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In a series of concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst chose for his second program Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, a piece the main difficulty of which in live performances seems to be awake genuine enthusiasm in the musicians while keeping the complex ensembles functional and transparent. The Austrian conductor certainly succeded in eliciting elegance and clarity. But truth is that the performance rarely went beyond politeness. Those accustomed to Bernstein’s intense approach could even found it dull – the translucent strings did not produce the volume of sound one expects in this this music and did not blend very well with a brass section that sounded as if those instruments could have caught the flu. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, on the other hand, poured forth smooth well-balanced sounds. It is a pity that the climactic last movement did not take off – there had not been the necessary building tension to pave the way for it. Unfortunately, both soloists were rather small-scaled for the venue – Malin Hartelius’s ill-focused singing did not carry into the auditorium and the usually excellent Bernarda Fink failed to float her high register and had to distort her vowels to make for the demands on soft dynamics.

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