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Posts Tagged ‘Hans-Peter König’

Last time I saw John Dexter’s 1979 production for the Metropolitan Opera House, that was the Met’s 67th performance of the opera. Eight years later, I am to discover that this evening’s performance happens to be… the 69th. I wrote then that the Met could not produce a soprano like Margaret Price, a tenor like Francisco Araiza or a bass like Kurt Moll as in the good old days, but the cast gathered for the occasion was probably the best available in 2008. I am not sure that I can write the same today. For instance, Pavol Breslik is a superb Mozart tenor. My experience of seeing his Belmonte in 2009 was that it was impeccable. Even if he had become less impressive in this role almost a decade later, he would still be superior to Paul Appleby. To start with, the American tenor’s voice is basically grainy in sound and unfortunately not ingratiating per se. He does have easy high notes, can produce clear runs and seems to be having fun (what is always important in this repertoire). However, his singing is emphatic, short in legato and his phrasing turns around fussy pronunciation, explosive top notes and the kind of graceless ardour one never expects in this repertoire.

In her opening aria, Albina Shagimuratova sounded a bit metallic and vibrant in a way one used to associate with Slavic sopranos. But that was a first impression. Her soprano is unusually full and radiant and, once she warmed up, she proved capable of sculpting her phrases with poise. Although the expression is generalized and her German is not truly spontaneous, she sang Traurigkeit with affection and produced many stunning moments in Martern aller Arten. There, she found some trouble with the (very) low notes and needed extra breathing pauses, but one can excuse her all that: her voice has extraordinary projection, she is not afraid of in alts and produces her coloratura a tempo with relatively little blurring. By the end of the opera, she had the audience on her side. Kathleen Kim too has bright and firm high notes, but her German is sketchy and her intonation can be problematic in the middle register. Both sopranos blended well in ensembles.

Hans-Peter König’s voluminous, glitch-free voice and talent for comedy made him an almost ideal Osmin. The superlow notes in his big aria were true in pitch, if recessed, and yet the fioriture did not truly work. With theatrical flair, he turned this in his favor and, if we consider that there is nobody remotely close to Kurt Moll these days, one could say that he has little competition in this role. He made a good stage partnership with debuting tenor Brenton Ryan (Pedrillo). His voice is a bit thick and dark, but he managed to do fine in both his arias.

James Levine can do little wrong in Mozart. His tempi were animated, coherent with both musical and theatrical demands and, even if the orchestra was a bit rough-edged, he could keep textures always clean and structurally transparent. As always (and very understandably with these extremely difficult vocal parts) he made concessions to his singers, but without spoiling the fun for the audience.

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When the Deutsche Oper premièred Marco Arturo Marelli’s production of Don Carlo back in 2011, Anja Harteros was its selling feature and her cancelling would have made me very disappointed if it did not mean hearing Lucrezia Garcia for the first time. This evening, however, La Harteros not only did not cancel but also volunteered to cover for Barbara Frittoli next week. This has also been an opportunity to make sure that, good as Ms Garcia was, Harteros is in altogether another level. First, she can act. Second, she has a wonderful attitude for aristocratic roles. Third, she has this uniqueness only great singers have. I have often discussed with my fried Cavalier here about German singers in Italian roles – and I have often said that Anja Harteros should concentrate more on German roles, which highlight her best qualities. Although her voice still lacks that typical Italian brightness, she brings undeniable assets to the role of Elisabetta – a substantial lyric soprano with solid low notes, powerful acuti, soaring mezza voce and elegant phrasing. Experience in this repertoire has helped her to find a more authentic Verdian style – she is learning to play her chest notes, to build interpretation from atmosphere rather than word-to-word tonal coloring (“German style”) and even knowing how to utter her parole sceniche to thrill the audience in key moments. As she was in very good voice, her performance grew steadily in strength to a Tu che le vanità wide ranging in expression and a ideal rendition of the final duet.

I saw Violeta Urmana sing the role of Eboli back in 2005. Then I praised her absolute homogeneity and pondered that, if her poise was welcome, it was ultimately dull in this repertoire. But that was eight years ago – she was a mezzo with impressively easy high notes back then. Now that she is billed as a soprano, her high notes have lost the exuberance  (and homogeneity is not always there either) . I have noticed that in her Parsifal in Berlin last March and it seems that this is the moment for an engine check. Seriously. Basically, every high note sounded strained, tense and effortful this evening. O don fatale had a perilous start until the stretta, when she surprised me with a very powerful and accurate ending.  

I had never heard Russell Thomas’s name before this evening and I am still not sure of the right way to describe his performance as Carlo this evening. This American tenor has an appealing vocal quality – his voice is rich, large and dark, but irregularly supported in the middle and (especially) in his low register. He squeezed too often his high notes (especially in the beginning) and his mezza voce was often poorly focused. That said, he has very good Italian, an instinctive grasp of Verdian style and, if he was not always subtle, he was never vulgar either. He showed great sensitiveness in his final duet with Anja Harteros, shading his voice to match the German soprano’s now legendary ductility.

Dalibor Jenis was an emotional Rodrigo in his warm and vibrant baritone, in great shape this evening. The role is a little bit on the heavy side for him and he had some patches of fatigue (especially in his big scene with the king). His death scene was generously and convincingly sung.

Hans-Peter König’s Filippo is an interesting chapter in the above-mentioned “German singers in Italian roles”-debate. This Wagnerian bass has a big, solid voice, exceptionally powerful in its lower reaches, but rather clear and slightly straight in its higher reaches. Although the tonal quality is very German, his approach is legitimately Italian (his pronunciation is only occasionally very lightly accented). Because of the lack of vibrancy and darkness in exposed high notes and also of a somewhat placid temper, some key moments in the opera sounded rather discrete than imperious, but this very self-restraint helped him to build an intimate and direct Ella giammai m’amò. Albert Pesendorfer too was a powerful Inquisitor, but the low register could be a little bit more percussive. Last but not least, Tobias Kehrer was a strong and incisive Monk.

Compared to last time, Donald Runnicles performance was far more compelling this evening – the orchestral sound was consistently big and rich (what proved to be testing to some members of this cast), but he still has not learned to produce cumulative tension in this repertoire. For instance, the introduction to Elisabetta’s big aria, a moment in which a German orchestra’s beefy sound always produces the right effect, failed to develop in strength and the soprano had to create the necessary momentum basically by herself.

I have written about the production last time and I would only observe that it seems that there has been some welcome cleansing in the direction and that it had seemed somewhat more effective this evening (a better acting cast has helped that impression too).

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Maybe inspiration did not last long, but Rheingold is by far Robert Lepage’s best effort in his staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. Here we find the best use of the “machine” and, maybe because there is so much going in the plot, singers have more to do and look less left alone (as in the remaining installments). Seen live, the effects are even more impressive than in the movie theatre.

The fact that Rheingold’s music is very “busy” may explain why Fabio Luisi is more comfortable here than elsewhere. There are lots of “micro goals” for him to concentrate on while most scenes have a clear rhythmic lead to follow. The orchestra was in very good shape and, except for the fact that some scenes lost steam and energy has to be built from scratch. Erda scene, for instance, was low valley to build up from and the closing scene resulted less climactic than it should. All in all, a good performance, strongly cast.

Replacing an indisposed Stephanie Blythe after having appeared as Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, Elizabeth Bishop proved to be a first-rate Fricka, actually more varied, especially in what regards acting, than Blythe herself.  Wendy Bryn Harmer is a full-toned Freia and Meredith Arwady is a forceful but not fully idiomatic Erda. As he did in Munich, Stefan Margita was clearly the audience’s favorite as Loge. He actually was in better voice here than at the Bavarian State Opera, his singing smoother and even more fluent. He also made far more of the staging than Richard Croft on the telecast. Robert Brubaker was probably the loudest Rheingold Mime I have ever heard. Considering that he has sung the Emperor in Frau ohn Schatten (in the Deutsche Oper Berlin, for instance), this is a curious piece of casting. Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich finds the role of Alberich a bit low and heavy for his voice, but he is a good actor and has good diction. Greer Grimsley has never been a noble-toned Wotan, but a very powerful one with exciting high notes. Although Franz-Josef Selig is still a commendable Fasolt, it is sad to see how his beautiful voice has been deteriorating. In his brief contributions, Hans-Peter König (Fasolt) proves to be again a great asset in the Met’s Ring. One cannot forget Dwayne Croft’s firm-toned Donner.

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Reading what I wrote about the telecast of Wagner’s Siegfried from the Met, I cannot help wondering how flattering these microphones can be. Even if it is not fair to compare two different performances, the forces involved are more or less the same and the impression could not be more different.

First of all, after having seen the telecast, I wrote that Fabio Luisi had shown his Wagnerian credentials and have mentioned even a sense of “rhythmic alertness”. The same cannot be said this evening, I am afraid. To start with, the house orchestra’s string section sounded so recessed and/or colorless that the only positive side one could mention is that you could indeed hear the beautiful playing from woodwind throughout. The pace was generally slow and, in the context of thin and modest orchestral sound (the introduction to act III could be described as downright clumsy), one could feel how slow it could be. In the defence of Maestro Luisi, he was extremely considerate with his singers – his leading tenor lacks power and had some false entries (Wotan was sometimes “creative”, especially with the text). The moment when the conductor stopped  being nice to his cast, things actually became more effective (we are talking about act III…) – the final scene was actually quite exciting with some instances of beautiful articulation from the violins.

In the telecast. Jay Hunter Morris sounded like a light, slightly metallic yet plausible Siegfried. This evening, I would not use these words. The sound was often unfocused, sometimes raw and often lacking slancio. His German is accented and sometimes his personality is too likable for boorish Siegfried. There are moments, especially in act III, when one can see his heroic potential in some firm and full high notes, but I would say that jugendlich dramatisch roles sound more reasonable for his voice, provided he tries a more elegant approach to phrasing.

Actually, one tends to be harder on the Siegfried when the Mime displays such firmness, power and volume as Gerhard Siegel has this evening. I would add that, when he stays away from Spieltenorish placement (let’s call it like this), one perfectly believes that this German tenor has sung roles such as Florestan and Tannhäuser (and maybe should sing them more often). He is also a very imaginative and charismatic actor, stealing the show this evening.

The Siegfried’s Brünnhilde will never be Katarina Dalayman’s best friend – and she had to resort to the usual adaptations (shortening note values and disregarding dynamic markings when things get high – and they tend to STAY high in this part) to make it happen. That said, she was in very good voice this evening. Although her acuti were unvariedly forte and often tense, she sang warmly and sensitively most of the time. Moreover, it is always a pleasure to hear such a big velvety soprano voice in the theatre.

I’ve heard Mark Delavan sing richer high notes as Wotan in Berlin, but this evening he showed deeper understanding of his role, singing spiritedly and with flair. Also, his voice is noble and ample as required. He seems to need some extra rehearsals in this productions, one could notice. The contrast to Eric Owens’s Alberich was quite telling. If there is something in the telecast that is truly consistent to reality is the American bass-baritone’s performance. This is truly a Wagnerian voice of outstanding quality – large, forceful, rich, dark and quite flexible. Among the non-native speakers this evening, his was by far the best German, not only in terms of pronunciation but also in what regards declamation. He has an intense stage presence but, differently from Rhinegold, the director gave him here nothing to work from.

As a friend said this evening, Hans-Peter König is one of the rare Fafners these days whose voice sound large even when it is NOT offstage. Meredith Arwading has impressive deep contralto notes while coping with the mezzo area of the Siegfried Erda, but her diction is imprecise – not enough to disguise a strong accent. As for Lisette Oropesa’s Waldvogel, this is a bit tricky, especially when you sing it offstage (these days, directors tend to put the soprano ON stage), but this evening the impression was especially pale.

As for the production, there is very little to add to what I have previously written. One often reads about how Robert Lepage’s production does not go beyond the “machine” and how there is no Personenregie. Well, I would say that even in what regards the machine, there is still some space for improvement. The dragon in act II is almost funny and the  sets in the closing scene are far less impressive than the way they looked in the end of Die Walküre, for instance.

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The second step in Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera House has few surprises for the audiences treated to his Rheingold a couple of months ago. All money, energy and creativity have been invested in the development of the structure called “the machine”. In act I, it represents, with the help of realistic projection, both tree trunks in a forest and then the ceiling of a wallless house plus the ash tree; in act II, it becomes a rocky landscape where Fricka arrives in her chariot; in act III, individual planks going up and down are supposed to be horses for Valkyries and, by the end, projections take care of the magic fire. Considering that costumes look almost exactly like those Amalie Materna wore in 1885, I cannot recall the point of making a new Otto Schenk production whose single novelty is a mechanical structure that makes singers afraid of falling down: Voigt was on scene for barely 2 minutes when she had her first accident. So far the director has not showed a single insight about the libretto. In an interview, his profound take on the role of Brünnhilde is “she has the wisdom she inherited from Erda and the personal sense of justice that comes from Wotan – these two things are in conflict and she’s trying to find a way to be faithful to both, which is typical of a tragic character, trying to reconcile two aspects of one’s own personality”. At this point, my 6 or 7 readers may have guessed that singers ran to and fro striking stock gestures while the machine turned and showed Lion-the-king-like “flashback” little films to add some spice to Wagner’s narrative episodes.

Maestro James Levine is, of course, an experienced Wagnerian, but at his age and afflicted by health problems, he is no longer able to provide the richness of sound necessary for a slow-paced performance. At times, a surge of energy seemed to come from the podium, such as in the closing of act I, with beautiful transparent sonorities, but the Walkürenritt was basically messy and, in the last scene, the orchestra seemed just tired – brass were variable from the beginning. It must be said that the conductor had to adapt for a very particular cast with various levels of difficulties and never failed to help them out in the many instances in which they found themselves in trouble.

For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s rich soprano started to hang fire after 30 minutes. In the end of act I, the voice was grey and unfocused. Before act II, she was announced indisposed but willing to go on, but was finally replaced by a powerful Margaret Jane Wray, who understandably seemed a bit short of breath in act II before a most-satisfying farewell to Brünnhilde in act III*. In her debut as Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt seemed to be in control of her resources and survived to the end of the opera, but what these resources are deserve consideration. Round, big top notes have always been her assets in this repertoire, but in a hoch dramatisch assignment one quickly realizes that bracing for every one of them does not make her the most comfortable Brünnhilde in the market. Also, her middle register is foggy and overgrainy and the basic tonal quality is extremely unattractive, shrewish and nasal, as if she were dubbing a Walt Disney character instead of evoking anything noble or heroic. One could adjust to that nonetheless if there were some interpretation going on. As far as I can remember, she sang everything in the basic mezzo forte, uninflected style, not to mention a not really idiomatic German. Although Stephanie Blythe barely moves in this production, her presence alone exposes the lack of true Wagnerian quality in almost everyone in this cast. This is a true dramatic, flashing voice in the whole range, with some intelligent and discrete word-pointing. If you want to sample a legitimate Wagnerian mezzo soprano, you really have to listen to Blythe.

Voigt’s was not the only role debut this evening: Jonas Kaufmann’s first Siegmund was probably the raison d’être of this evening. Although his tenor is adequately dark, the fact is that his voice is a bit more lyrical than the usual Siegmund’s. As a result, a great deal of low lying passages sounded a bit timid. He took sometime to understand how to make his voice work in the role and his attempts at intensity often ended in lachrymosity and lack of immediate impact. The intermission proved to be providential, for the German tenor seemed more at ease then, readier to try his hallmark soft singing and to convey stamina when necessary. I don’t think he will ever be a really powerful Siegmund, but I am convinced that a little bit more experience will focus his performance into something more in keeping with his reputation.

Bryn Terfel’s bass-baritone is more incisive than rich, but it is big and authoritative enough. I am not sure if I agree with his whimpering approach to the role, but one must acknowledge that his detailed delivery of the text brought it to life, even if this involved some hamming. Last but not least, Hans-Peter König was a strong, reliable Hunding.

*My original text read “I first thought that the problem was nerves, for she was in far better shape. The voice was then bright and clean, but one could see she needed a great deal of extra breath pauses to reach the end of phrases. The effort cost her act III, when she was replaced by a powerful and solid Margaret Jane Wray”. Although it seems that the Met has confirmed that Ms. Wray sang act II, she too sounded (and looked) different in act II and III. No conspiracy theory suggested, but the whole situation is somewhat strange.

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The Deutsche Oper’s revival of the 1980 Götz Friedrich production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was plagued by the same Tristanlosigkeit that has afflicted the Metropolitan Opera House’s last attempt on Wagner’s masterpiece. The original cast featured Robert Gambill, but one week before the performance the name of Peter Seiffert appeared as a replacement, but it was Ian Storey who finally showed up on stage. He is a singer I had previously seen as Ägysth in São Paulo and his performance left me wondering how he could possibly sing this fearsome role in the famous opening night at La Scala in the Barenboim/Chéreau production. The broadcast showed that my doubts were not entirely misplaced – but then the press wrote he was afflicted by understandable nervousness in the event.

 But the event is now in the past – and the role is still impossible for him. The baritonal tonal quality is certainly welcome and he phrases with good taste, but I am afraid his voice is rather backward placed, lacking therefore the necessary metal to pierce through. When he has to sing out around the passaggio and above, one feels that he has to give his 100% – the problem is that he still had to sing act III. I have to confess it was very painful wondering whether he would survive or not – he voice cracked at one point, he was inaudible for long stretches and tonal quality was something that did not make it to the final act. In lower dynamics, his voice has an instable quality, giving him practically no leeway. One must still acknowledge that it was gracious of him to perform such a difficult role on such short notice, but for his own sake he should not keep the role in his repertoire. It must not be healthy to undergo such an ordeal in a regular basis. On a positive note, although he had very little opportunity to block this production’s stage movements, he seemed quite convincing throughout.

 The evening’s Isolde, Evelyn Herlitzius, is the typical German dramatic soprano who sings the Färberin in R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. The voice itself is not attractive, but healthy, big and solid and she is a compelling singer actress. A name that came to my mind during the performance was Christel Goltz’s. The overall impression is not very sensuous, in spite of a rich low register, but clear diction, powerful top notes and relatively accurate phrasing are always an asset. The absence of softer dynamics was a liability for act II and III. Her inspiration seemed to be Birgit Nilsson in the sense that indignation and rage suited her better than longing and passion. The sad truth is that act II taxed her a bit and her voice sounded a bit juiceless in the Liebestod. In any case, it is always good to hear a really big voice in this repertoire – especially in a singer with such dramatic imagination.

 Another last-minute replacement, Daniela Sindram left a very positive impression. Her mezzo soprano may be light for the role, but her voice is so beautiful, her floated mezza voce so beguiling and her musical and theatrical instincts so right that in the end she was one of the most congenial Brangänes I have recently seen (and heard). Tristan was also well served by his Kurwenal. Samuel Youn’s forceful, focused baritone made him a young-sounding faithful friend. The youthfulness made his act III behavior particularly believable. Although Hans-Peter König was not in his best shape – he seemed to be experiencing some sort of glitch that impaired his ascent to top notes (and he looked quite upset about that too) – it is an imposing, dark and big voice with touch of Kurt Moll in it.

 Pinchas Steinberg’s conducting had its on and off moments. Act I seemed to be his best moment – singers were still in fresh voice and he could unleash the orchestra now and then. Act II, however, found the orchestra wanting color and clarity (the brass section did not seem to be in a good day either). The conductor’s priority seemed to help an understandably underrehearsed tenor to make through the Liebesnacht. In one or two moments of the final act, one could see an authentic large and rich Wagnerian sound, but the need to help singers out or simply the lack of inspiration resulted in a very cold Liebestod.

 Götz Friedrich’s production (as restaged by Gerlinde Pelkowski) has some interesting ideas, especially a particularly physical approach to Tristan and Isolde, but the staging’s 28 years of age start to show in many examples of carelessness. For example, Günther Scheinder-Siemssen’s set for act I has no separation between cabin and deck, but wood platforms in different levels to show the ship’s different areas. At some points, there seem to be “imaginary” walls, what explains the fact that Isolde cannot hear what Tristan says to Brangäne three meters away, but in the next moment people can see, hear and even pass through them. Some backdrops look now drab, the lighting in act II and III do not reflect the dramatic action and at some point during one of Tristan’s monologues they simply gave out as if an eclipse had happened while Isolde’s ship followed its course.

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