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Posts Tagged ‘Hanno Müller-Brachmann’

Although some may dislike Georg Solti’s overkilling conducting in his studio recording of R. Strauss’s Elektra, every Straussian cherishes Birgit Nilsson’s superpowerful performance in the title role, in which she sounds unfazed by the role’s  impossible demands. Live in the theater, however, the experience is usually quite different: one is often more concerned with the singer’s survival rather than with Musikdrama. I am glad to report that this is not the case with Evelyn Herlitzius. I know this German soprano awakens controversy whenever it appears in a cast list: it is a hoch dramatisch voice, but prone to squalliness and not entirely adept in flowing legato and shading. However, few other singers these days (the name of Irene Théorin comes to my mind when I have to think of someone else) are able to supply the excitement of a truly big voice over a very loud orchestra without effort as she does. After some very negative reviews of her Ortrud in Bayreuth, I am glad to see that this Elektra means a step ahead in her career.

First of all, although tone-colouring and shading is not Herlitzius’s main asset, in a role in which most singers are just trying to cope with,  she has enough leeway to make something out of it. And in comparison, she can’t help sounding more interesting than most. Her clear diction, her expert understanding of the text and the instinct for the right inflection makes her particularly convincing in the most difficult declamatory passages. One can really hear in her voice when she is being ironic, vulnerable or just rightaway aggressive. It is even more praiseworthy that she has been working hard on her technique – I found her more willing to keep a melodic line when necessary, more keen on shading her tone or trying softer sounds than ever. She still works really hard for that – and one can hear it – but she is really a trouper here:  she never refused to give each particular moment its right “atmosphere”. In the Recognition Scene, for example, although the tone could seem a bit grey, she did scale down, never attacked any note too strongly and now and then achieved something of a mezza voce. Was it perfect? Probably not – but it was effective. And other than Nilsson, who could be called “perfect” in this role? To make things better, her stage presence was magnetic, even more telling for her looking (and also sounding) young in a role usually made to sound more mature in dramatic sopranos’ voices and bulk. And, last but not last, Herlitzius knows how to play her trump card – when she unleashed her stentorian acuti, the physical “presence” of these notes in the auditorium was an exciting experience in itself.

Emma Vetter’s Chrysothemis too is an improvement from what I’ve heard from her in Stockholm. She still needs to work on her projection in her middle and low register, but she seems less coy and a bit more able to keep intensity in her phrasing. I wonder if the role is proper to her temper at all, but she is definitely finding her way in this jugendlich dramatisch role.  Although Renate Behle had been often called a pushed-up mezzo while she sang Wagnerian soprano roles, I wonder how much of a mezzo she actually is.  For a veteran, her voice is still finely focused and even young sounding in its brightness. She only betrays her maturity in failing to support her sustained high g’s.  While she is able to keep focus down to the lower end of her range, she does not have by nature lots of resonance there, what is always frustrating when the role is Klytämnestra. It is most curious that, even if one could hear the souffleur cueing her, her performance was spontaneous yet subtly shaded. It just did not match Herlitzius’s larger-scaled contribution. Both men were properly cast – Reiner Goldberg, as always, is a efficient, firm-toned Ägysth and, although Hanno Müller-Brachmann hams a lot as Orest, his uniquely dark and bright bass-baritone is taylor-made for the role.

Conductor Johannes Debus has a very clear notion of what a Straussian orchestral sound is – the Staatskapelle Berlin produced gleaming, rich sounds that never overwhelmed singers on stage. The way woodwind had pride of place and blended with brass in Straussian kaleidoscopic orchestration deserves mention too.  However, the beautifully transparent sonic frame failed to produce a coherent structural image. Although one could hear everything, the individual elements of Richard Strauss’s complex score did not seem to have a lot of… individuality, as if one still need to press the “sharpness” button on a TV set.

As for Dieter Dorn’s old, old, old staging, there is nothing else to be said. Herlitzius seemed to find a new life in it and interacted very precisely with Renate Behle in their scene, while Emma Vetter did not seem really comfortable with playing intensity – as mentioned-above, Müller-Brachmann desperately needs the director here. And, if I may suggest something as disrespectful as that, if the Staatsoper really wants to use this production again, do we really have to live with the Life-of-Brian costumes? Especially when the men had modern shoes on their feet?!

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As the optimistic person that I am, I have decided to give the Cassiers/Barenboim Rheingold a second chance; maybe last time at La Scala was just a collective bad day and I was curious about the new pieces of casting. In an impossibly positive scenario, Cassiers could have rethought his concept after the unanimous dislike he met with. But no – he is a man of conviction. I should admire that – if I had been given a free ticket maybe…

To make things worse, this time I could read dramaturg Michael Steinberg’s explanatory text about the production*. In it, he says that he and this production’s creative team are opening a new era in the staging of Wagner’s Ring: all stagings since the 1980’s represent a throwback from Chéreau’s revolutionary historical concept, while Cassiers would be basically “in the same line” as the French director. But, nota bene, Cassiers is  supposed to be a development from that concept: his Ring “will show how the globalized world of 2010 is still based on the Wagnerian vocabulary of 1870”. More than that, it “won’t begin in 1870 and move towards 1945, but rather develop from our days – it will take place in the ‘now'”. I know, I too was curious to see how they intended to do this: “these aesthetics work with the double meaning of  ‘projection’, as understood by Freud and others. On one hand, projection is the photographic and cinematographic technology – an image is projected from one source onto a surface. On the other hand, a projection has also psychic dynamic that comprehends the externalization of internal experience and (in symbolical sense) the ascription of emotional causes and attributes to a secondary, external source”. OK, now I got the cameras under the waters of the Rhine, but I guess Mr. Cassiers and his team should have rather learned with Chéreau the craft of true stage direction. I’ll make it easy for them: the art of knowing how to place actors on stage and give them meaningful attitudes, instead of having Friedrichstadt-Palast-like choreographies to portray that.

If I have to compare this evening with that in La Scala, the performance tonight seemed more technically finished (especially lighting), but the cast seemed less animated (particularly Stephan Rügamer). I cannot say if it is my imagination, but some scenes seemed cleaner, the Rhinemaidens less messy, Fasolt and Froh less lost in the context and, maybe it is because Berlin saw the thinner Wotan in the history of opera, his suit looked far less salvation-army-style than the one given to René Pape in Milan. On the other hand, Fricka has a kitschier gown to deal with.

Musically speaking, the dyspeptic approach to the score in Milan was unfortunately not accidental. Although the orchestra seemed more recessed here in Berlin (I don’t think that the mini Bayreuth-hood on the pit has any acoustic consequence), with a clear advantage for the singers, the extra sonic beauty of the Staatskapelle Berlin involve some exquisite orchestral effects, particularly in the rainbow bridge episode, what is always helpful in the context of slow tempi. In any case, the absence of rich orchestral sound will be for many Wagnerians (me included) a coup de grâce in Barenboim’s chamber-like (?) new approach.

Ekaterina Gubanova’s sensuous-toned if not completely incisive Fricka is an improvement from Milan. The other newcomer deserves more explanation: I don’t believe that Hanno Müller-Brachmann is going to add the role of Wotan to his repertoire, but is rather covering for René Pape, who has to sing Boris Godunov at the Met. His bass-baritone is impressively well-focused in the whole range; his technical security is such that he finds no problem in producing dark bottom notes and heroic top notes. The sound is, however, a bit slim and lacking weight, not to mention that the upper end of the tessitura may sound a bit clear. However, his main advantage over René Pape is his verbal specificity. Instead of painting with broad atmospheric paintbrushes, Brachmann delivers the text with crystal-clear diction and admirably precise declamatory abilities. The overall effect might not be the most grandiose around, but he does keep you interested in the proceedings. In any case, in a large hall with a powerful orchestra, I have the impression that Wolfram or maybe Beckmesser would be more appropriate for his voice.

Johannes Martin Kränzle was in far healthier voice here than in Milan. He is a vivid actor with a forceful voice, but his open-toned approach to top notes is a no-go for the more dramatic scenes. Stephan Rügamer was a bit less exuberant – also in the acting department – this evening. In any case, his Mozartian Loge is always interesting. It is a pity that he cannot do without the nasality that distorts his vowels. Again, Kwangchul Youn offered the most solid Wagnerian performance of the evening, but Anna Larsson proved to be here more convincing than in Italy. Maybe Ewa Wolak (at the Deutsche Oper) has spoilt the role for me, but the Swedish contralto still sounds too soft-grained for this role to my taste.

* It had been published at La Scala too, but I could not find it among thousands of pages of advertisement.

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Franz Schreker’s opera Der Ferne Klang, premièred in Frankfurt am Main in 1912, made the composer one of the brightest stars in German operatic world before and during WWI until he was blacklisted as creator of Entartete Musik, what probably concurred to his early death in 1934. Although the shadow of names such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler has been large enough to cover contemporary composers, Schreker has had his advocates – such as Gerd Albrecht who recorded the work in Berlin in 1990 and Michael Gielen who persuaded the Lindenoper to stage it in 2001. This very production has been revived this evening.

Schreker’s main assets as a composer are his harmonic imagination, masterly orchestration and talent for writing declamatory music. It is a pity that melodic imagination and dramatic timing do not make into the list. As it is, many scenes overstay their effect and, although the music is precisely set to his own text, one must say that Schreker the librettist is no Hugo von Hofmannsthal. As a result, the opera, to use Hofmannsthal’s words, enthält Längen, gefährliche Längen… Strauss would have said that he might not be a first-rate composer, but then he would be a first-class second-rate composer. At any rate, one can certainly feel how inspired he seems even when he looses his way (as in FroSch’s act III, for example) in comparison to Schreker.

In any case, Die Ferne Klang is a work one should experience – its atmosphere of uncanny sensuousness is certainly noteworthy  – although it is one opera one can only truly enjoy when the forces available are top class to make it work as it should. In other words, this is not a bad-casting-proof work. The Lindenoper cast has two notable singers in key roles: tenor Burkhard Fritz as… Fritz and Hanno Müller-Brachmann as the Count. Although he has been singing jugendlich dramatisch tenor parts such as Lohengrin and Walther, Fritz’s rock-solid voice shows great depth in the lower reaches and an unusually clean top register. It cuts through the orchestra without any hint of effort and he phrases with true legato, a rarity these days. Even if he was announced indisposed, one could only guess that only from one or two constricted exposed high notes many a healthy tenor would have produce anyway. Müller-Brachmann’s perfectly focused dark baritone is always a pleasure to the ears – and he seized the occasion to offer a detailed and varied account of the glühenden Krone ballad. One must also not forget tenor Stephan Rügamer, who sang the role of the Questionable Individual with liquid tone.

However, a great deal of a performance of Der ferne Klang depends on the singer cast as Grete. Anne Schwanewilms is an extremely gifted actress, is a beautiful woman and has a good way with words, but her “tubular” lyric soprano is not what this music requires. In her first scene, her Gretel sounds rather childish than youthful and her transformation in demimondaine does not bring about anything sensuous, let alone sexy with it. Although she seemed to be in very good voice, she was too often strained by the writing, ending on being covered by the orchestra too often and her vocal production was more than occasionally fluttery. Her habit of pecking at notes does not help her to produce any sense of passion either. I wonder how much her casting has influenced Maestro Pedro Halffter, who obviously love this music and never failed to produce the right color effects in it, to adopt a rather restrained approach. I know that the name of Gabriele Schnaut makes many cringe, but back in 1990 in Albrecht’s recording, she could offer something far more impassioned and thrilling. Her closing scene (with a mellifluous Thomas Moser and the RIAS orchestra in full power) is something that would hardly leave anyone indifferent.

When it comes to the staging, one should really close one’s eyes and enjoy the music. First of all, it all looked ugly beyond salvation – and kitsch. Second, if you haven’t previously read the plot, you would not understand the story at all – I know directors love to say that everybody already knows the story, but that is just an excuse for poor results. The places described in the libretto are replaced by multipurpose dingy-colored sets that add nothing to the experience – the same happens to the characters’ actions, who are also replaced by some pointless choreographies (this time, I must acknowledge, expertly handled by the cast, especially Schwanewilms) that involve lots of trembling and shaking. Worse: many singers take various roles without changing costumes. As they hang around on stage in scenes in which none of their characters were supposed to appear, the results are even more confusing. The playing with the story is particularly harmful to the closing redemption scene, which looks here just messy and dull. Schreker has all effects played by the orchestra – nobody can accuse him of lacking that ability – and creates mood wonderfully. He really needs no help in that department – and stage directors should take note of that.

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Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo has been around for a long while. Although his voice sounds amazingly fresh, the kind of heroic high notes required by leading Italian tenor roles are now beyond realistic possibilities. Since low register has never been a problem for him, why not try baritone roles then? The title role in Simon Boccanegra is not Verdi’s heaviest baritone role and one could also argue that the fact that Verdian baritone parts are usually too high should not be a problem for a tenor, even one short of his high c’s and b’s. On paper, this is all true. Not only on paper – Domingo can sing all the notes Verdi wrote for Simon Boccanegra. He even sings them stylistically and expressively. But does he sound convincing in the role? I am afraid not.

First of all, although his tenor has a bronze-toned quality, he does not sound baritonal at all. His low notes, easy as they are, do not possess real depth and his ascents to high notes are free from the intense quality a true baritone has. As a result, the lighter and slightly nasal tonal quality, weird as it sounds, make the character seem younger than he should and many a climax moment do not blossom as they should. Of course, Domingo is a clever, experienced singer and profits of every opportunity to make it happen. This evening, for example, he was announced to be indisposed and took advantage of the occasional coughing and constriction to depict Boccanegra’s decaying health.

The tenor in a tenor role this evening was Fabio Sartori, whose voice has the raw material of a important singer: it has a most pleasant blend of richness and brightness and more than enough carrying power, he can produce elegant phrasing and, of course, he is idiomatic and Italianate. Some of his top notes are impressively focused and powerful. But he can be clumsy while handling all those things and, in the end, you are too often wishing that he could make this or that a little bit better. He should also try to loose some weight if he wants to take some leading man roles these days. I finally had the impression that roles like Adorno will be soon too light for him. It is not unusual for dramatic voices in the making to be difficult to handle before the whole “mechanism” find its optimal modus operandi. I am curious to see what follows.

Anja Harteros’s creamy soprano and its exquisite floating mezza voce are hard to resist and she is consistently musicianly and sensitive. She is a good Amelia, but when things get too Italianate, she could be caught a bit short. Although there is always pressure for a singer with her qualities to deal with Italian roles, I do believe she should explore more German repertoire, which shows her under the best possible light.

In spite of the odd woolly moments, Kwangchul Youn was admirably sensitive and tonally varied as Fiesco – and his low register was particularly deep and rich. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was similarly forceful and dark-toned as Paolo – and he lived up to the expectations of his role’s difficult high notes.

As for Daniel Barenboim, I am afraid that Verdian style is beyond his immense skills. The orchestral sound is too soft-centered, the proceedings generally lack forward-movement, emotionalism is kept in leash. In this sense, the conducting matched Federico Tiezzi’s entirely uneventful production. Maurizio Balò’s sets look cheap, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes look tacky and the stage direction is sketchy, artifficial and old-fashioned. The “choreographies” for chorus members is short of ridiculous. Considering that Italy is famous for design, I guess they bought this one in a highway outlet for operatic production.

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If one had to create a production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 15 minutes, it would probably look like  Dieter Dorn’s 1994 production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Grey geometrical walls – check, sacrificial instruments – check, robes and veils – check. One could miss a damaged statue of Agamemnon, but it seems the budget was not rich enough for that.  After all these years, it is difficult to say anything about stage direction. It is clear that production veteran Deborah Polaski – and, to some extent, Jane Henschel – shows a certain  unity in her gestures. The others seem quite lost. I also know that the title role is really long and is permanently on stage and that a singer should feel thirsty at some point, but I am not entirely convinced that having a bucket of water and a cup as a stage prop is the good idea – no-one in the audience felt that this was connected to the action in any way, but rather a mere necessity one should bear with. Considering the work has completed one hundred years since its creation in Dresden (and its first performance in Berlin roughtly one month later), maybe a newstaging could have been produced.

In what regards horizontal clarity, Michael Boder offered an exemplary performance: complex harmonies were as easily perceived as if you had the score in front of you. However, no pun intended, the proceedings were rarely electrifying, although the orchestra was very responsive to Strauss’s descriptive effects. Sometimes, I had the impression that clarity was achieved at the expense of forward movement, as in Klytämnestra’s nightmare. Also, it is a pity that the brass section lacked finish in a general way.

It is something of a feat that Deborah Polaski is still regularly singing the role of Elektra at 60 (this performance was actually her birthday celebration). Provided you can put up with approximative pitch on exposed high notes, one could say it is still a most effective performance of this most difficult role. Hers is one of the less microphone-friendly voice I have ever heard – on recordings, it almost invariably sounds colourless, while live it is a voluminous stream of warm, rich sound. Above the stave, legato tends to disappear and the tone can become constricted. The extreme top notes were a matter of hit-or-miss, but her relative ease to float mezza voce rescues her from many a difficult passage. Unfortunately, the Recognition Scene, which should be her best moment, caught her bit out of steam.  What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, aided by very clear diction, and dramatic commitment. Although some might find the flaws difficult to overcome, there is one undeniable asset – this is a dramatic soprano with feeling for Straussian style who often beguiles the listener with creamy stretches of expressive singing. Of how many Elektras one could say something like that? But don’t check your recordings to prove me wrong – this time you’ll really have to listen to her yourself at the theatre.

Although Anne Schwanewilms is very popular here in Germany, I believe that Chrysothemis is a no-go for her. Her voice is light for the heavy orchestration, she has problems to pierce into the auditorium in her higher register, often pecks at notes when the score requires flowing legato and, when there is no fallback position and she really has to produce some acuti, the sound is often strained. Not to mention that the buzzing sound over her voice does not help her either.

Jane Henschel’s clear yet forceful mezzo soprano counted with a neverending range of tonal colouring and her clear intervals are a strong asset for the harmonic challenging passages. Although she has clear diction, she still has to work on her American “r”. Hanno Müller-Brachmann offered focused firm tone. I do not know for how long he has been singing the role – he did not seem in his element in terms of interpretation. Reiner Goldberg’s Heldentenor is still very healthy and he never cheated with Ägysth’s angular writing. I have to say something about Monika Riedler’s Aufseherin – she offered one of the most accurate performances of this tiny but critical role that I have ever heard, live or in recordings.

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I have to confess I was eager to see August Everding’s 15-year old production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for the Staatsoper unter den Linden because of the attempt to reproduce sets and costumes from the famous 1816 Karl Friedrich Schnikel production for the Königlichen Schauspiele, as seen below.

In the booklet, Everding and his creative team explain what sort of adaptations had to be made to transform these set designs into three-dimension sceneries, but the truth is, unless you have an orchestral seat right in the middle of the auditorium, the experience is seriously impaired by the fact that the production seems depressingly two-dimensional: you can always see the end of backdrops and the wood-structures that keep everything in place, not to mention that nothing seems really symmetric. I have a serious problem with directors who disregard that opera houses have seats on the right and left sides and also on the other levels. We all know that XIXth century-sceneries tended to be flat, but once you’re adapting, this problem could have been seen to. I also dislike the shining black surface added to the stage floor – the sets do not seem to take advantage of the reflex and, otherwise, its modernity does not go with the cardboard scenic elements and painted backdrops. It might be only a detail, but it makes the whole thing look like the Epcot-center version of the Magic Flute. 

To make things even less atmospheric, conductor Julien Salemkour seemed to be really concerned about not being late for dinner. He tried to make things fast, but without any hint of animation or the energetic accents that would make phrases actually alive. To say the truth, the performance seemed underrehearsed – there was very little clarity in the orchestral playing, mismatches with soloists abounded and, at some moments, there seemed to be a struggle between singers and the conductor to set the pace, as in Bei Männer or, more seriously in Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen.

In the cast, the low voices stand out – Christof Fischesser has a natural and spacious low register and, although his voice could be a bit nobler, he compensated that by  sober, elegant phrasing. On the other hand, Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s dark-toned Papageno was always vivacious and keenly sung. Stephan Rügamer’s Mozartian singing still needs some work. The basic tonal quality is extremely pleasant, he is musicianly and stylish, but whenever he has to ascend through the passaggio in full voice, the tone acquires an intense nasality that robs his tenor of all pleasantness. As for Sylvia Schwartz, this is a technically accomplished singer with no hint of effort or discomfort, but the voice has a grainy quality that prevents it from sounding really lovely, young-sounding and ultimately seductive as a singer in her Fach should. If you can go beyond this minor drawback, hers was an exemplary account of the part of Pamina. Ana Durlovski has a strange voice for the Queen of the Night – the sound has the right impact… in the lower reaches. Her high register lacks cutting edge and she slides a bit in order to keep in tempo with her fioriture, but her high staccato notes are truly accurate.

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