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Posts Tagged ‘Georg Zeppenfeld’

It is very easy to dismiss Katharina Wagner. After all, she owes her career to her family name and therefore she would not “deserve” it. Well, as always, the story is not that simple. First, Ms. Wagner is not the worst stage director in the world of opera. She is not the best either. I would not say that she is even a good one, but that does not mean that she has nothing to say about Richard Wagner. I actually believe that she has a lot to say about her great-grandfather’s work. Now that I have seen both her Meistersinger and Tristan, I could affirm that her knowledge of both Wagner’s music and text is above the level of the average opera director. However, staging a work goes beyond knowing it. As a matter of fact, it goes beyond having valid insights about it too. Ms. Wagner is an insightful Wagnerian, who sees these works from a very unusual perspective. The problem is the fact that she is not extraordinarily gifted as a stage director full stop. And I have the impression that she does not see it this way, the booing and bad reviews probably meaning to her a confirmation of the prejudice against her family connections.

Anyway, I like her angle to Tristan und Isolde. Romanticism usually involves the shock of real world and the characters’ Weltanschauung, and the reader or the audience is supposed to take the hero or the heroine’s point of view. But what if we took an objective point of view about those individuals, the “police report” account of the plot? So Tristan already knew Isolde before he suggests her as a bride to his uncle. More than that, they already had something going on back in Ireland (platonic, of course, and yet still something pretty intense), but, considering he had killed Morold, the king’s champion and Isolde’s fiancé, a relationship between them would be impossible. In Ireland. And that is the moment when we have the whole situation of her engagement to King Marke, under the suggestion of none other than Tristan himself, his nephew. Nobody explains convincingly Tristan’s intentions, the King himself says that he would have blessed their union if it had been mentioned to him in the first place. Yes, there are impediments – although they are aware of their own feelings, the young man benefited from her help while concealing from her that he was the assassin of her fiancé. Even if she herself yielded to her own feelings against her duties, her honor would be irrevocably lost if she tried to explain the whole affair to her parents (and everyone else in Ireland, I guess). So, this is a relationship that could only happen hidden from daylight, in secret. Exactly as in Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare, there is no magic potion – the whole thing is just a gimmick (that goes awfully awry, of course). And that is when Katharina Wagner’s staging starts.

In Ms. Wagner’s first act, there is no ship, but a labyrinth of staircases the only purpose of which seems to be keeping Tristan and Isolde apart. Both Kurwenal and Brangäne know exactly what is going on there and they are on their wits’ ends to make a safe delivery of the bride to her husband-to-be. This is not the first staging of Tristan in which the love potion is just an excuse, but here both lovers know it from the start. Their whole discussion about making amends and what is proper in their situation is only a teasing game. Now, in the ship, they are neither in Ireland nor in Cornwall and being in no man’s land is what makes their encounter possible. It is only possible in this transitory situation. As soon as they set foot somewhere, then it is the beginning of the end. But it had already started. And that takes us to act 2.

As the saying goes, the husband (or the wife) is the last one to know, but the assumption that the king did not notice anything seems dangerously close to wishful thinking. Brangäne herself says that, in the event of their arrival, all looked in wonder to the very suspicious situation. In the libretto, the royal hunt is just an excuse to surprise the lovers. In a certain way, letting them believe that they were safe only made them suffer more. One could argue that there was an element of psychological torture there. Well, in Ms. Wagner’s second act, the torture is two levels above “psychological”. The scene has place in what can be described as a torture chamber – both Tristan and Isolde know this. They even use the “equipment” to inflict injures  on themselves. And they know that the end has already begun. There has been more ending than beginning with them.

Act 3 is the end kurz und gut. Of course, Tristan was fatally stabbed and, in his dying moments, he sees Isolde everywhere. He is back to the transitory situation where he can love freely. In his dying, he can be entirely hers without any restriction. It is like a “second chance” for them. Isolde remains, however, in the real world. She tries to have a Liebestod – but that only happens in books. Here she is dragged from the presence of Tristan’s corpse by her increasingly abusive husband.

That is an approach to the story that, curiously, almost makes it even more Romantic, even if brutally so – and I would have enjoyed to see that staging. The way Ms. Wagner does it, however, the insight is rather a starting point than a realization. Even if the sets of act 1 are ugly in a inexplainable industrial way, the concept could have worked, if the Personenregie had informed the attitudes of the actors on stage more sharply. Realism does not mean prosaicness. And here everything was quite matter of fact, stage mechanism being almost the main source of interest. I understand that Ms. Wagner’s decision for act 2 is a bold one –  having the characters restrained in a dungeon makes it very difficult to provide scenic interest for a whole hour. But the way she decided to fill in the blanks proved to be the low point of this production. I don’t know if the humor was intentional, but it was there and it basically ruined the atmosphere. No one in the extreme situation those characters find themselves in would look for a comic relief. If done seriously and honestly, this could have been an extremely depressing second act, the very hopelessness of it all would have haunted the audiences for a while. As it is, it was just awkward. Act 3, surprisingly, is an example of how everything could be if Ms. Wagner showed more concentration. The images in the mind of the dying Tristan were done effectively in their unicity. When it comes to symbology, less is more. And that is an advice that would have benefited the whole production.

To make things a little bit worse, the singers in the title roles did not help much both in terms of theatre and music. In different levels, truth be said. After having seen Petra Lang as Isolde in the Bayerische Staatsoper, I dreaded the perspective of having to hear her again as the Irish princess. To be honest, she was in good voice today, but that does not mean that she sang well. In her adaptation to become a dramatic soprano, Ms. Lang’s voice was crafted to produce acuti, what she does forcefully, even if they are sometimes sharp. Her middle voice, however, has very little color and projects poorly. Intonation is also hazardous. In order to help her being heard in the auditorium during more conversational passages (i.e., 70% of her part), the conductor had to refrain his luxuriant orchestra, something particularly harmful to the lyric section of the Liebesnacht. She is not a cypher in terms of acting, but her acting involves striking poses and showing tautological facial expressions that make everything look very insincere. I don’t know if a more rigorous director could have integrated her to the concept, but that would have been worth the try. Stefan Vinke too hardly has an expressive stage presence and seemed ill at ease with Ms. Wagner’s really sombre take on the story. He fulfilled his acting tasks quite bureaucratically. I wish I could say that his singing offered the expression missing in his acting. Mr. Vinke’s main quality is his endurance – the man is tireless and got to the end of the opera untouched by the famous difficulties of the part, a feat in itself, but phrasing itself was rough-edged and emphatic and tonal variety was not included in the package. His act 3 monologues lacked spiritual quality and pathos. His tenor is not appealing per se – the powerful high notes a bit tight (yet rock-solid) and low notes pronouncedly nasal.

Fortunately, the remaining members of the cast only added strength to the performance. Christa Mayer offered an ideal Brangäne, who sang creamily throughout and floated her mezza voce in act 2 to the manner born. Greer Grimsley has more than a splash of wooliness in his bas-baritone but the voice is big enough to allow the conductor to give free rein to his orchestra. To make things better, Georg Zeppenfeld sang richly and could even find the right nasty touch to this bad-guy version of King Marke.

This is my first live Tristan conducted by Christian Thielemann and, even faced with a problematic Isolde, he proved his absolute mastery of this score. The prelude itself was worth the price of the tickets – here the ideal balance between clarity, depth, richness and flexibility has been achieved. During the first act, the orchestral playing was a paragon of transparency and fullness. In the second act, Mr. Thielemann wisely turned down orchestral volume to let the audience hear the words and notes written by Richard Wagner, but that only increased the demand of expression on soloists whose singing was rather concerned with the mechanics. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that both soprano and tenor have extremely clear diction, though. Act 3 proved to be more challenging. The conductor opted for an extremely subtle prelude that ultimately gave an impression of detachment. The softer touch made Tristan’s predicament sound a bit cold and the Liebestod was hardly a culmination. The intention of building an extremely gradual crescendo meant a beginning with very light orchestral playing around flawed solo singing and the climax finally exploded out of nowhere, with no sense of resolution out of absence of building tension.

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Why cannot Max hit his mark anymore? The explanation in the libretto is that Kaspar had him on a spell. OK. Next question: why cannot Kaspar suffer Max and Agathe’s prospects of happiness? Countertenor-turned-stage-director Axel Köhler gives us the obvious answer: post-traumatic stress disorder. Max and Kaspar fought at the Thirty Years’ War, a particularly gruesome conflict that led to devastation, famine and disease. While Max had found hope in his love for Agathe and is understandably uncomfortable with a gun in his hand, Kaspar is a prisoner of battlefield terror and is resentful of having his ex-comrade in arm’s possibility of redemption. In this staging, the war is just over: all sets are ruins, people are clearly edgy and the Wolfschlucht scene does not need supernatural horrors: the memory of what had just happened is far more frightening. The concept is all right coherent, clear and often revelatory, but it is somewhat superficially represented in the Personenregie. Moreover, the anachronistic costumes jar against the Rolf-Liebermann-opera-movie sceneries. Those who have first discovered this opera in Carlos Kleiber’s DGG studio recording would have some trouble in recognizing the same orchestra this evening under the baton of Christian Thielemann. While Kleiber, Jr., had the Staatskapelle Dresden sizzle in bright sonorities and fast tempi, Thielemann works on a dense orchestral sound, his interpretation made from large brushstrokes and focused on contrast of atmosphere, with transitions heavily underlined. With the glamorous help of the Staatskapelle, success was guaranteed: the Wunderharfe’s rich velvety strings enveloped the vigorous brass-and-drums approach, the Semperoper’s uniquely warm acoustics offered an almost Bayreuthian glow and the Sächsische Staatsopernchor sang heartily. The conductor proved to be very kind to his singers, cushioning their voices in rich yet not overwhelming accompaniment in their arias – in return he kept them in tight rein in more rhythmically exacting passages. In her Kiri-Te-Kanawa-like plush lyric soprano, Sara Jakubiak has an ideally appealing voice for the role of Agathe. She sang with affection, sensitivity and good taste. If she wasn’t completely successful, this has to do with perfectible German (and I am not talking about the dialogues) and the fact that she sounds fazed when the least flexibility is required from her (as in the end of Leise, leise). In long, poised lines, she was always in her element and offered a touching Und ob die Wolke. I would be curious to hear her as Arabella. Christina Landshamer (Ännchen) sounds a bit out of sorts in both ends of her range, but other than this sang with charm, spirit and spontaneity. Michael König took a while to warm and could not make much of his aria. He made some beautiful tonal shading in his trio with Agathe and Ännchen, but the tone was too often too open and a bit nasal. It must be challenging to sing Kaspar in the theatre where Theo Adam built the “golden standard” for this role, but Georg Zeppenfeld, maybe as a preparation for his upcoming ambitious Heldenbariton venture (yes, Wotan…), more than met the challenge. This was a truly exciting performance: the voice firm and dark over the complete range, the text crispy and clear, the dramatic intentions perfectly understood and rendered, the dialogues exemplarily handled, the acting fully mastered. Bravo. In comparison, Andreas Bauer’s Hermit sounded quite woolly and prosaic. Adrian Eröd had no problem with the high tessitura of the role of Prince Ottakar, Albert Dohmen was an imposing Kuno, Sebastian Wartig took the limited opportunity offered by the role of Killian to show an interesting voice and real acting talent and all bridesmaids were competently cast.

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Hans Neuenfels would be disappointed to discover that, instead of feeling provoked by his staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin (as he says to fear in the program), the audience in Bayreuth would welcome it effusively. It is also true that the enthusiasm gave the impression of a statement: I wouldn’t say that everyone in the theater was delighted by what they have just seen, but it seems that it was important to show approval for a production of a clearly more professional level than that of those of Meistersinger and Tannhäuser performed in the previous days. I myself have seen more thought-provoking and more consistent Lohengrins than this one, but I too found it important to acknowledge that Neuenfels’s satisfies (or rather more than satisfies) the expected standard of quality expected from the Bayreuth Festival. Some may call it a bourgeois demand from a paying audience, I would call it the necessary requirement of talent in order to deal with the work of a great genius.

The first thing one notices about Bayreuth’s 2010 production of Lohengrin is its elegant, cold stage design: some sort of tomography lab aesthetics which are in the core of the concept here developed. Having to deal with a world where we are nothing but laboratory rats of a random, pointless experiment, we choose to believe in some sort of fiction – love, religion etc – to give it some sense of consequence and order. This consciousness – this understanding of nothingness and the choice of an imaginary sense to frame it – is what tells man from animal. Elsa produces a vision of a swan knight and provokes a collective religious experience that inspires people around her to a development into order through belief. But Lohengrin too indulges into the self-delusion of having found unconditional love in Elsa and agrees to abandon the glory of the knights of the Grail. Ortrud is some sort of skeptical soul who does not content with the shadows and would rather see objects themselves, even if this means disrupting any attempt of order. Her Erfahrt wie sich die Götter rächen has the effect of a pragmatic conclusion to an experiment: if you want to seek the ultimate truth, be ready to find chaos as an answer.

The question is how literal it is to portray the chorus in rat costumes in order to depict the concept above. I tend to believe that this was an easy choice – and I frankly dislike the little “mouse-comedy” numbers in orchestral interludes. Neuenfels could have suggested the “lab rat” impression in subtler ways, but he has a point that Lohengrin is some sort of fairy-tale, an aesthetic environment in which men and animal naturally interact. It is not the first staging either to show the evolutionary process set about by the arrival of Lohengrin. In Stefan Herheim’s Lindenoper production, Lohengrin leads the whole society to a Rousseaunian state-of-nature that would dissolve with the revelation that Lohengrin is nothing but a puppet; in Richard Jones’s Munich production, society organizes into some sort of Lohengrinic religion that endorses Elsa’s edificial project. Here, rats gradually become people as they embrace Lohengrin’s command. Curiously, if you abstract the rodent costumes, the production is quite coherent and well-conceived, in the sense that symbols are added to rather than replace the original storyline, making it richer by association and more fantastic by the unusual twist. In any case, the beauty of costumes and sets, the meticulous direction of actors and choristers, the mathematically calculated light-effects, the visually striking scenes – this all pleases the eyes in a way that even a nay-sayer would let himself be seduced by the approach.

It is also curious that the original reviews stressed Andris Nelsons’ conducting as impressive and revelatory. Maybe he was not inspired this evening, but I am at a loss of words to define my neutral impression. The orchestral sound didn’t persuade you either for richness or for clarity, but other than this there was nothing particularly bothering or pleasing going on. If I have to make an effort of finding a distinctive trait in him this evening, it would be his attention to his singers, particularly knowing how loud he could be in every moment (in what regards giving his cast enough time to breath in tricky moments, Nelsons wasn’t always very friendly though). The chorus sang heartily and acted keenly, but the otherworldly effect in passages such as Lohengrin’s first arrival was not really achieved.

Although I am surprised by Annette Dasch’s ability to spin jugendlich dramatisch top notes when you least expected it, her soprano remains limited in terms of volume and color in this repertoire. She has sense of style and sings sensitively, but one is constantly left wanted – especially in comparison with the more properly Wagnerian voices of her colleagues. I am not a fan of Petra Lang –  overmetallic and rasping are words that come to my mind – but her absolute control of dramatic top notes is really very impressive. Even if she failed in contrast, variety and subtlety, her Entweihte Götter (act II) and Fahr heim, du stolzer Helde (act III) correspond to everyone’s fantasy: she pierced through the loud orchestra with impressive power and security, often making very high notes even longer in admirable abandon. Lohengrin is Klaus Florian Vogt’s signature role, his uncanny boyish yet forcerful sound is the aural picture of the role and this alone makes for the occasional deficit in legato. Moreover, at moments, he is now even more sensitive and elegant in his high mezza voce than before. No wonder he received a standing ovation such as I have rarely witnessed in an opera house. Tómas Tómasson seems to have the right voice for Telramund, but evidently fell victim to a vocal glitch by the middle of act I that robbed him of any possibility of singing full out in his high register, being obliged therefore to resort to falsetto and transposition whenever he could. I know it is a difficult role, but it was rather insensitive of the Festival administration to let him carry on under those circumstances. Last but not least, Georg Zeppenfeld offered an immaculate performance as King Henry, as much as Samuel Youn was an exemplary Herald.

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Never say “never”. I clearly remember saying that I would never see Katharina Wagner’s staging of her great-grandfather’s Meistersinger, but here I am to witness its last performance before it is finally discarded for good. As in previous runs, the stage direction has been retouched and, if I may say something positive, I would acknowledge that it has now become more clearly a comedy – funny moments are better timed and there was more laughter from the audience this year than last time. That did not prevent, however, the director from being massively booed in the end. Don’t feel sorry for her – she seems to receive disapproval as a confirmation of her foresight unshared by her bourgeois audience. Naturally, she doesn’t mind cashing the money from ticket sales. In any case, I don’t think that the production was devoid of insight – there is some insight there that could be made into something truly thought-provoking and scenically efficient in the hands of a talented director. For instance, although the composer shows in his score that Beckmesser was rejected by the audience because he is not really talented, the fact remains that he was good enough to be accepted as a Meistersinger. If baritones resist the temptation of caricature, one can hear that he can handle, for example, florid singing. His sin could have been nothing but having indulged into the false glamor of French/Italian style (if we use Sachs’s final speech as a reference) – and therefore he would not conformed to the accepted standard, not because he was avant-garde (the concept probably does not apply here), but simply because his aesthetic approach was not… popular (and therefore inauthentic and bad, according to traditional principles of German cultural identity). This is not an uninteresting discussion, but Katharina Wagner does not have the stature to tackle it, both as a director and as an intellectual.

The fact that the musical side of the performance was below standard made the evening doubly testing for the audience. Last year, I found Sebastian Weigle’s conducting unclear yet rich-toned and structurally coherent. This evening, it was basically unclear. Although the sound is still irresistible in its warm tonal quality and blended sections, strings often failed to offer clean passagework, the level of mismatch with the stage was alarming and many passages were almost pointless in terms of horizontal clarity. The cast remains the same of last year with one notable exception. I have found Adrian Eröd a bit more consistent last time, but still very clean-toned and dramatically purposeful; Norbert Ernst is far more forceful, especially in his high notes, as David, but stills works hard for tonal and dynamic variety; James Rutherford’s grainy and often woolly bass-baritone does not suggest nobility, but he is a little bit more expressive this year. If I have to choose a favorite singer this evening, this would Georg Zeppenfeld, an ideal Pogner.

And there is Burkhard Fritz as Walther von Stolzing. I disagree with the opinion that his tenor is too light for this music – I have seen him previously in Schrecker’s Der ferne Klang in Berlin and found then that maybe there was a little more than Walther and Lohengrin in him. This evening, the voice sounded so poorly supported in acts 1 and 2 that one could almost guess that he would be announced indisposed, what proved to be true. Curiously, his illness was explained as “circulatory problems” and the he would try to go further. If he could not, Simon O’Neill would sing instead. But for a broken high g (or a), he sang to the end of the performance, probably better after the announce. Of course, the tougher part of the role comes in the first two acts – but then everything above a high e was basically pushed, unfocused and (therefore) strained. Once he began to sing more cautiously, softer attack made his voice brighter (yet lighter if ultimately audible) and even more pleasant. But legato was still faulty and pitch, eccentric. But, given the announced indisposition, one cannot tell if he needs to rethink his technique or just take care of his health.

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R. Strauss’s “bucolic tragedy” Daphne, written during the Second World War, has seldom been staged and, although some might blame the static libretto with its complex transformation scene at the end, I would rather mention the extremely difficult vocal parts and virtuosic writing for the orchestra. In any case, it is still a challenging story for a stage director and Torsten Fischer must be praised for his imaginative approach to the story that adds unusual depth to the plot without making violence to it.

Although the connection with the young anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl seems at first far-fetched, it ultimately pays off in the portrayal of a Daphne who refuses to blend in a world that has lost its innocence. The staging actually opens with the projection a touching quotation from one of her letters in which she praises the beauty of nature in comparison with the ugliness brought about by the work of mankind. The Dyonisian rites are here performed as pro-régime rallies with the deceptive appearance of Apollo as some sort of commanding officer that first promises the glory that Daphne dreams about and ultimately brings destruction by the killing of Leukippos. The closing scene alone is worth the price of the tickets – from her prison cell, Daphne dreams of walking out from it, climbs a long staircase and, by virtue of a long mirror hanging over the stage, we can see her joining her dead friend and all other members of the cast and chorus in a gigantic “human tree” of victims of the war. Has the director imposed his own view on the plot? If we have in mind the days when the opera was written, the idea behind the myth and the fact alone that this concept allows for a far more moving closing to the opera than awkward attempts of the title role’s transformation into a tree (you just have to write the words “Daphne” and “Strauss” on youtube.com to see my point), Torsten Fischer’s production goes far beyond the usual superficiality and narcissism of régietheater and offers far more than a traditional staging could propose. And it does not hurt either that costumes, sets and lighting are beautiful and well-judged.

Although Camilla Nylund’s soprano is a bit unfocused, she sang the impossibly strenuous title-role with poise and sensitiveness. Her warm tonal quality and clean phrasing are aptly Straussian and it is only a pity that exposed dramatic notes lack a brighter edge to shine in the auditorium. Her restrained and dignified acting are also praiseworthy. Ladislav Elgr’s firm and bright tenor proved to be up to the challenge of singing the role of Leukippos and could be said to steal the show, especially because Robert Dean Smith clearly was not in a good day. The role of Apollo is extremely testing and he seems to have an unending supply of high notes in his favor, but the voice lacked color and failed to pierce through. He is not dashing as the role ideally requires either. Christa Mayer seemed at ease with the contralto tessitura of Gaea and sang richly throughout, while Georg Zeppenfeld gave an ideal performance of the role of Peneios. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber took some time to warm – the first scenes lacked clarity and he did not seem to find an ideally transparent orchestral sound while trying to make singers’ lives easier. Fortunately, the tragic half of the story counted with dense sonorities of the Staatskapelle’s legendary strings in ideal balance with singers on stage and with the remaining sections of the orchestra.

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For the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s season opening concert, musical director Antonio Pappano has chosen Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a work that this orchestra had the honour to premiere in Italy in 1924 (!). It is certainly the right choice to highlight the abilities of chorus and orchestra – and the Santa Cecilia acquited itself quite well in the test. The strings have a clear, bright sound and deal rather commendably with passagework and the brass are generally accurate and noble sounding. The chorus has a full-toned quality almost exclusively found in Italy – the tenors are particularly healthy-sounding. I found their energetic approach proper to Beethoven and maestro Norbert Balatsch has done a very good work to keep discipline within the animation. The sopranos had their edgy moments and some melisme could be clearer, but that are minor blemishes in a commendably large-scale and enthusiastic approach. At this point, my five or six readers may be puzzled by these words in relation to this post’s title – yes, the 1,000,000 dollar-question is: why has this performance ultimately failed to deliver the goods?

I have a friend who uses to say that you should always see the last in a series of concerts in Germany and the first of them in Italy. According to him, the last concert in Germany will have gained in experience from the previous ones and offer an improved experience, whereas in Italy the musicians will simply have lost steam before that. Is that a prejudiced notion? Probably. I haven’t seen the first concert out of these tree performances with Pappano, but the truth is that the last one seemed to have the flesh, but not the spirit. His phrasing was lively, even theatrical at times, but the sound picture lacked weight somehow and instead of momentum, one had the impression of edge, hysteria rather than vehemence. I do not know how much the acoustics are to blame, but I found many contrapuntal passages blurred also. The solo by the orchestra’s spalla in the heavenly Benedictus was too sentimentalized in its generous vibrato to produce the right effect and the dona nobis pacem just failed to culminate into a sensation of conclusion.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is also hard work for the soloists, and Pappano’s choice of singers was almost invariably wrong for the approach and for the hall. To start with, larger voices were needed. It is not that these singers were almost always overshadowed by the chorus, they were sometimes difficult to hear when singing with the orchestra alone. The soprano part, for instance, is particularly difficult because of the periculously high tessitura. Emma Bell does master the art of floating high mezza voce, although one can now and then feel how strenuous this must be, but when the dynamic is other than piano, the sound is simply too unfocused to carry in the auditorium. Anna Larsson’s low register, dark as it is, is similarly too soft-edged for this piece. Considering the riches of choice of Italian mezzos and contraltos with a forceful sound down at the bottom of their range, this is particularly frustrating. If Roberto Saccà is technically accomplished, the tone is too metallic and unflowing for this music. Only German bass Georg Zeppenfeld produced the right effect in this music, especially in the second part, when he sang with classical poise, liquid phrasing and chocolate-y tonal quality.

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