Posts Tagged ‘Hamburgische Staatsoper’

Director Guy Joosten believes that the Egyptian setting is almost irrelevant to the story of Aida: there was very little knowledge about pharaonic Egypt in Verdi’s days and Verdi and his librettists were rather interested in the public/private conflicts in times of war. Although this was my first non-Egyptian Aida, I believe Mr. Joosten has a point. I did not miss the elephants and pyramids, but that’s basically where my agreement with the director ends. Everything else in this staging is kitsch, superficial, scenically messy and devoid of expression. Considering that Aida and Radames are buried alive, the giant ants are in very poor taste. Even if this was a joke (?!).

The fact that Stefan Soltesz kept the whole performance under a very tight rein – metronomic beat whenever his singers did not insist very much in rubato, dry sound palette and an emphasis rather in discipline than in interpretation – gave the performance as a whole a very cold impression.

I had seen Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth and thought that, although she sang impressively, her personality would work for better effect in a less formidable character. That was not off the mark. I am indeed surprised that this soprano was able to found an almost ideal morbidezza, truly exquisite mezza voce and a commendable sense of legato. I have the impression that Montserrat Caballé is her model for this role and her whole performance was built around vulnerability, loveliness and emotional generosity. Good as this was, it would benefit from the guidance of a truly experienced conductor and maybe director to refine her choices in terms of interpretation and some stylistic and also technical aspects (poorly supported low register, especially) to make it really special. It is definitely worth the while – in terms of facility, volume and commitment it is already top level.

There has been a great deal of replacement this afternoon. Michaela Schuster was supposed to sing Amneris, but had to be replaced by Marina Prudenskaya in the last minute. This Russian mezzo is extremely gifted in the acting department, but hers is not an Italian dramatic mezzo: volume was insufficient and there was not enough slancio to help her out. She made it – securely, it is true – by virtue of sheer physical force and technical security. As it is, praiseworthy as the effort is, it is not really more than this. The other replacement, previously announced, was Carlo Ventre, who jumped in for Roberto Alagna. Mr Ventre’s tenor is still smokier than last time and his glottal gulps and the habit of starting phrases with mm are becoming quite annoying. He still has very powerful high notes, but there is little art elsewhere. It was endearing to find Franz Grundheber as Amonaaro – his baritone still firm and pleasant, if understandably a little dry.


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Although Guy Cassiers’s Ring for La Scala/Deutsche Staatsoper is supposed to be a “ring of the ‘now'”, you would need a crystal ball to discover that, whereas Claus Guth’s Ring for the Hamburg Staatsoper definitely seems to address contemporary issues. I write “seems to”, for the new production of Götterdämmerung is the only one in the cycle I could see – now I am curious to see the rest.  Although Guth follows the cliché of architecture as a symbol of society, his symbology strikes home in a clear way. In the program, he explains that in the beginning of Rheingold, the world still had a clear “architecture” of power:  gods above, dwarfs beneath and mankind in the middle. When Alberich steals the rhinegold, he irrevocably subverts the structure. After that, nothing will be the same – Wotan betrays the principles by which he rules only to finally loose the ring to Fafner, who treasures it in the underground. So the question is – how one is supposed to understand his place in a world whose structures of power are unclear? In this sense, the Volsungs are the characters with whom we, in a very similar world, are supposed to identify with.

The opera starts in some sort of motel room, a place unconnected and far away where Brünnhilde and Siegfried are living their idyll until she realizes that he wants to see the world. He finds it in the Gibichungenhall, a Bauhaus-like structure inhabited by the bourgeois siblings plus Hagen and haunted by the weakened gods and by Alberich. Siegfried is seduced by wealth and also by Gutrune and, without the help of any magic potion, lets Brünnhilde go in order to find himself a place in society. This twist alone could seem contrived, but Guth’s efficient stage direction makes it believable – Siegfried sees in Brünnhilde a motherly figure and acts as a child who has his way knowing that in the end he is going to be forgiven. He will eventually learn by experience that, on letting Brünnhilde go, he had somehow sold his soul and, again without the help of any potion, betrays himself on purpose in the suicidal manouvre of someone who has gone astray and cannot find his way back. Accordingly, his death scene is portrayed in the motel room where he fancies to be in the moment of his death. The immolation scene follows the same structure and seems to explain that this is not the end of the world, but the end of that world. On returning the ring to the Rhine, Brünnhilde opens the path to a new world in a self-effacing attitude. The world she knew has been corrupted by absence of principles and she has made a difference by sticking to hers:  she refused to renounce to love,  for the private sphere had proved to be the only place where one can be at home in an incomprehensible society.

As you can see, plenty of food for thought. It is only a pity that episodes of silliness enfeeble somehow the concept. Siegfried trying to find his way through the Rhine with a city map, Brünnhilde having her corn flakes during Waltraute’s narration and a finally a Siegfried disguised as Gunther upset by the impossibility of having a beer while wearing the tarnhelm – all that is unnecessary and ultimately distracting. Without those cute touches, one could have perfectly understood that Siegfried is childish or that Brünnhilde no longer has anything in common with Waltraute. Other interesting resources are overdone – the ghost-like appearance of gods would be more effective if not repeated every time their names or ideas associated to them are mentioned. Also, the revolving set (Guth seems to have a fetish in this particular stage device) where something is always happening offers unnecessary competition to Wagner’s magnificent orchestral interludes.

Simone Young is a conductor of rare musical organization – textures are always clear, you don’t have to look for hidden woodwind phrases, for they are right there on your face, and, more than that, her sense of pulse is quite remarkable. Because of this unity of beat during a whole act, Wagner’s music sounds especially organic under her baton. The tricky first act was finally the most successful – I cannot recall a Gibichungenhalle scene so fluent and consequent as I have heard this evening. Unfortunately, the second act proved to be the negative side of the conductor’s qualities, since the orchestra was not comfortable following her a tempo-approach; the result was the occasional example of poor synchronicity, unpolished sound and a chorus ill-at-ease. Having to accommodate the needs of her soloists finally backfired in the last act, the sense of forward-movement largely lost and an Immolation Scene overcautious and unatmospheric. All that said, I would be curious of what she could do in this repertoire with a Vienna Philharmonic.

At 61 (but looking 15 years younger than her actual age), Deborah Polaski still commands regal tonal quality as Brünnhilde. She has never been comfortable in the upper reaches, but now she has to tread a bit cautiously up there, with variable results. In any case, the sensitivity, the warmth of her sound, the sheer size of her voice and her intelligence concur to a noble performance. It is only sad that the last scene caught her already too tired for the challenge. Anna Gabler’s soprano is a couple sizes too small for Wagner, but she has hold her own with dignity and is also a good actress. Although Petra Lang got generous applause for her Waltraute, it took me some time to recognize her in a singer with screechy high notes, sketchy low register and dubious intonation, her vehemence largely conveyed through strain. At some point in his career, Christian Franz might have had  one of those bright, natural tenor voices in a more lyric Fach. Today, his Siegfried  exists by means of constant manipulation of vocal resources, note values and pitch, plus a generous serving of parlando effects. Even if one does not like the comedy touches in this production, one cannot deny this tenor’s comedy skills. Robert Bork was a far more positive Gunther than usual, and his grainy, dark baritone can produce some welcome heroic top notes. In this point of his career, John Tomlinson’s  voice has lost the juice in its higher end. Around Siegfried’s entrance in their first common scene, the British bass-baritone had some dangerously patchy moments. Otherwise, his dark and forceful voice and knowledge of Wagnerian musikdrama are assets hard to overlook. Last but not least, the Hamburgische Staatsoper must be praised for the excellent choice of Norns and Rhinemaidens in their ensemble.

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The Hamburgishe Staatsoper’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (a revival from the 1976 Deflo/Frigerio staging) has become today something like the generic version of Barbiere di Siviglia. You have seen bits of that kind of stage direction, of those sets, of those costumes, of the physical comedy touches in some Barbiere somewhere at some point. I am unable to tell how original the whole thing was in 1976, but I will not deny that it has some sort of outdated charm, especially if you want to take someone to the opera for the first time in their lives.  The two children seated next to me, for example, were having the time of their life (of course, we are talking about German children).

Alexander Winterson’s conducting had the right degree of animation, forward movement, lightness and theatricality. At first, one feels that a bit more volume would make the experience more vivid, but later it became clear that this was probably a decision to accommodate some very light voices in the cast. Sometimes, things were a bit untidy in ensembles and less fast tempi could have done the trick.

Silvia Tro Santafé’s tangy mezzo soprano sounds too formidable for Rosina. It is a sizeable, colourful voice and flexible enough (although intonation in a couple of runs were a bit approximative) for Rossini’s difficult coloratura demands. Her method involves an intrinsical use of chest voice that, although generally well knit to upper parts of her range, seems more suitable to masculine roles. Lawrence Brownlee’s light and high tenor is more velvety than most tenorini’s and his ease with fioriture is very commendable. It is still a small voice that could use with a bit more tone colouring to make a difference, especially for someone whose short height makes his casting in leading roles a bit difficult. Wilhelm Schinghammer’s resonant bass is properly cast for Basilio, but his diction could be clear. In this aspect, the casting of Renato Girolami as Bartolo somehow exposes the whole cast. Of course, he has the advantage of singing his own language – in any case, his diction is remarkably crystalline. His voice is forceful if a bit raw and, as almost every buffo since immemorial times, his vocal production is very irregular, as if he saved his full harmonics only for the key moments. All in all, this is a singer immerse in the right tradition of Italian comedy. Unfortunately, Oleg Romashyn was clearly below the leves of his colleagues – and he took the opera’s title role. His pronunciation of Italian language is unacceptably sketchy – overdark vowels largely to blame – and he tended to be drowned by the (light) orchestra too often for comfort. He has some rich top notes and commendable flexibility – but this is simply not the right voice for this repertoire.

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