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Posts Tagged ‘Kristinn Sigmundsson’

2013 is Wagner’s bicentennial: opera houses that can afford a staging of the Ring are all of them doing that; those that cannot are doing their best. Calling this revival of Hans-Peter Lehmann’s 2007 production a “commemorative event” would be pushing it a bit far; the New National Theatre has been staging one Wagner opera a year for a while, and Tannhäuser is it this year. Last year’s Lohengrin got at least a smart new production (the one in which Jonas Kaufmann was supposed to sing), an adjective I cannot use to describe this one. Think of columns of ribbed plexiglass/aluminum moved about by a bunch of stage hands, cold lamps, slide projections and some kitsch-y pseudo-medieval costumes – no, it is not a cos-play competition at the entrance of Iidabashi Station! But if you guessed that, it was quite close to what you could see on the stage of the Tokyo Opera Palace this afternoon. To make it worse, Personenregie could be summed up like this: “Elisabeth, bounce around, then stop it when everybody draw their swords”, “Venus, play with your cape; when you’re annoyed, raise your arm”; “Tannhäuser, act ‘drunk’; when you’re embarrassed, kneel down” etc. I won’t waste anyone’s time with the ballet… but, YES!, the Paris “edition” was played today.

This is the second time I hear conductor Constantin Trinks – and the experience is very different from the first time. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is not exactly a Wagnerian phalanx – the string sections basically sounds too thin for this kind of music and the dynamic range is somewhat limited – and I have the impression that the maestro decided to give propriety pride of place. As a result, ensembles were clean, texture was clear, every musician had time enough to tackle their parts (especially singers, who did not even need to look at the conductor for an extra breath pause), but after five minutes you could tell how the next page of the score would sound. Saying that the performance was slow-paced (it often was) does not explain it all – often experienced conductors opt for a slower pace when they notice that their orchestra cannot cope with what they had in mind, but the audience should not notice that they are being served the second-best option. It might take Furtwänglerian talents to offset an orchestra’s weaknesses, let alone turn them into something of a “feature”, but the fact if that if there is no drama, there is no Musikdrama. And one felt each uneventful second of this performance passing.

I had never heard Meagan Miller before and cannot tell if today was a bad-voice day, but what I heard did not make me feel eager for a second time. It is a big voice with some healthy top notes, but the tone is curdled and piercing without being properly focused, there are moments of tremulousness, low notes often abrupt and phrasing not always elegant. She had her moments – unfortunately both arias were blowsy and gusty – her mezza voce soared beautifully and effortlessly in the big concertato in the end of act II, for example. The adoption of the long Venusberg scene paid off in the casting of Elena Zhidkova as Venus. When one thinks of a Russian mezzo, one generally pictures something like Elena Obrastzova in his or her mind. Not the case here – hers is not a gigantic dramatic voice with a powerful vibrato, but rather a middle-weight forceful, perfectly-focused voice with an extremely well-connected bottom register. One could  hear in the occasional moment in which she was caught off-steam why Wagner called it a soprano part, but she handled the climactic top notes adeptly, producing rich, round sounds rather than pushing and screeching. There are more characterful Venus around, but Zhidkova’s sensuous voice and solid technique are more than praiseworthy. I cannot forget to mention Tomoko Kunimitsu, a full-toned yet boyish Shepherd. A beautiful voice.

Back in 2009 I saw Stig Andersen as Tannhäuser. He is a Heldentenor of unusual poise (and the voice is still young-sounding and pleasant), but the intervening years had not made the arduous title role easier for him. Rather the opposite. He knows how to balance his resources, but the effort was too palpable to be overlooked. Moreover, most of what had sounded “subtle” in Rome (I mean – his performance in Rome, not Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage) here sounded just voice-saving tricks. In any case, at this stage in his career, it is already commendable that he actually sings the role better than many a younger tenor. And probably more intelligently and expressively. Jochen Kupfer is a new name for me – and one to keep. It is a velvety, ductile, rather large voice with enough dark resonance to avoid any hint of tenorishness. His Wolfram was at home either singing heroically or in flowing legato. There is something stiff in his manners, and I have the impression that he still needs to mature in the part. But do not mistake my words – what he offers now is already worth the detour. Last but not least, Kristinn Sigmundsson (Hermann) was in great shape this afternoon – a flawless performance.  Also, minor roles were very well cast from the ensemble. Actually the “last but not least” should go to the New National Theatre Chorus, which sang very cleanly too.

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Although the production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte presently performed at the Opéra de Paris has been warmed-up several times since its première at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, it still elicits some booing.  It am not a partisan of such public demonstration of dislike, but I can certainly understand why that happens. It is true that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto its hardly a masterpiece, but experience has shown that those who tried to improve it have only disgraced themselves in the enterprise. Alex Ollé and Carlos Padrissa, from the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, are responsible for what happened to be, in my experience, the most unfortunate attempt of interpretation of Mozart’s Zauberoper. Apparently, the ambiguous nature of the dichotomy “good/evil” is for them something of a novelty worthy of heavy underlining – beside the three genii and three ladies, we have also three dancers half-dressed as Sarastro and half-dressed as the Königin der Nacht… So you see, now you can un-der-stand the plot.

However, adding is something of an exception in this production – basically every element in the plot is replaced by a combination of gigantic air mattresses and video projection of texts featuring the cheapest version of pocket philosophy slogans. In other words, we have a completely white stage with some twenty people dressed as lab researchers carrying around the transparent mattresses  while the words “good-evil”, “beautiful-ugly” are projected all over the place.  Also, the original dialogues are often replaced by what is supposed to be psychologically insightful lines.

Let me give an example: before Pamina’s “suicide” scene, we have to wait two minutes while the  lab people sweat their way along mounting a pyramid of mattresses. Because the libretto instructions are Das  Theater  verwandelt sich  in einen kurzen Garten, I thought that the pyramid ought to be very important. Pamina had to climb on it and try not to fall to her feet while singing. In the end, she climbs down and the lab people jump like madmen on it to deflate the whole thing.  

The silliness was unfortunately not confined to the visual aspects of this production. Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has a fancy for pointless acc. and rit.-effects and unpolished orchestral sound. The result was more mannered than dramatic and more unattractive than revelatory. In the undernourished overture, different sections of the orchestra rushed to follow the beat and singers were often caught short by the inappropriate tempi. As usual, the most serious victim was the Queen of the Night.

Although Erika Miklosa is still very impressive in her high staccato singing, her passagework was uncomfortable and unclear. Moreover, her voice seems a couple of sizes more modest than it used to be and her low register is left to imagination.  Soprano Maria Bengtsson did not seem comfortable either as Pamina. Her basic tone is not really appealing and requires the art of phrasing to work its charm. She did pull out a sensitive and stylish Ach, ich fühl’s crowned by breathtaking mezza voce, but elsewhere she seemed either squally or curdled-toned or even shrewish or a combination of all that. American tenor Shawn Mathey was far closer to the mark as Tamino – he sang with naturalness and purity of line, offering a charming account of Dies Bildnis. Russell Braun clearly knows what the role of Papageno requires from him, but the tone too often lacks repose and/or focus and the results are sometimes rather graceless than artless. Kristinn Sigmundsson is an experienced Sarastro – I have seen him more connected to the proceedings in other occasions – but who can blame him?

I leave the endearing detail for the end: taking what is supposed to be a farewell role, José Van Dam was still an expressive and firm-toned Sprecher.

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Mozart’s over-the-top-on-purpose Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail has been performed only 67 times in the Metropolitan Opera House. Some might say that the German dialogues might have something to do with that; I would rather blame the impossible casting: something like the German version of a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a flexible lyric tenor with an absolutely free top register, a soubrette with in alts and a basso profondo (profondissimo?) with perfect control of divisions and ease for patter… in German. If you check the discography, most symptomatically no recording features a cast like that.

You might imagine how much of a challenge this work is for any opera house. If the Met did not produce a cast in the standards of a Gruberová/Araiza/Moll-team, it is only because singers like that do no exist these days. Before I am accused of ungenerosity, I hasten to explain that I am convinced that today’s is the best possible casting one could think of. In the case of Matthew Polenzani, I still wonder if he does not belong to the shortlist of great Belmontes. It is true that the frequentation of heavier roles has robbed a bit of the golden quality of his tenor, but he still sings it with impressive fluency and richness of tone. Probably only Wunderlich would offer such liquid warmth in this demanding role. What I’ve missed is precisely the way the legendary German tenor caressed his fioriture, while Polenzani sounds a bit as if he were really looking forward to the end of every fastidious melisma. Belmontes less gifted by nature – such as Kurt Streit or the late Deon van der Walt – finally pulled out more convincing results in those tricky moments. Maybe this unease explains the adoption of the simplified version of Wenn der Freuden.

Diana Damrau could be a great Konstanze – she does have a most spontaneous high register, impressively clean fioriture and some heft. More solid low notes would help, but that is a problem even some very great Konstanzes (such as Gruberová) had to deal with. However, what will always remain a liability in Mozartian repertoire (with the possible exception of the Queen of the Night, the role that made Damrau famous) is an impure, metallic, harsh quality in her vocal production that devoids it entirely of loveliness. I am dying to use the word “focus” (because I use it a lot), but that is exactly what her soprano wants. The lack of focus prevents her from producing clean trills, from piercing through ensembles when in her middle and low registers and finally and most seriously from offering truly consistent legato. I notice she is a very energetic person – and sometimes singers with such disposition tend to overkill a bit. In any case, I don’t wish to complain about her performance: Diana Damrau is an extraordinarily intelligent singer, who invests her lines and phrases with such dramatic understanding and meaning that one cannot help enjoying her work. Her ease with mezza voce is also a strong asset. The descending serpentine phrasing in the end of Traurigkeit has rarely been so expressively handled and the way she blended her voice with the strings in des Himmels Segen belohne dich (in Matern aller Arten) was spellbinding.

Kristinn Sigmundsson was an excellent Osmin. The extreme low notes were not his best moments (as with almost every bass in this role), but his dark firm tone, his flexibility, imagination and sheer charisma were more than compensation. I had only seen this Icelandic Bass in serious roles and did not know he had such a bent for comedy!

Aleksandra Kurzak has the right quicksilvery voice for Blondchen and did not seem fazed with the very high notes in Dürch Zärtlichkeit. On the other hand, the voice lacks some substance and Welche Wonne, Welche Lust was a bit brittle. I felt somewhat sorry for Steve Davislim. He does not seem to be a very playful fellow and did seem a bit annoyed with having to play the ebullient Pedrillo. That did not prevent him from offering a firm-toned Frisch zum Kampfe, though.

It must sound surprising, however, that the shining feature of today’s performance was David Roberton’s masterly conducting. Rarely have I seen the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra so adept in Mozart style as today – the strings were entirely at ease with the rapid passagework, the level of clarity was admirable, not to mention the sense of animation so important in this score. Robertson offered vigorous, crystalline and dramatic alert conducting – the overture itself was exemplary in the way it filled the “Turkish” and “European” themes with the sense of storytelling.

If I am not mistaken, John Dexter’s is the Met’s old production from 1979. It still looks well in its Henri Rousseau-like portrayal of a cardboard Turkey. Some costumes look a bit 70’s-bound and the stage direction is only fair, if unobtrusive. I have to confess a more positive Selim than Matthias von Stegmann would be helpful. His portrayal is so devoid of menace and passion that it makes difficult to understand why Konstanze would fear or respect him at all.

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The Teatro Municipal’s music director Jan Latham-König has conducted many a Wagner and Strauss opera in Santiago – and trusting him Die Zauberflöte seemed to be a choice for heavy Mozart playing, as in the days in which Harnoncourt was just a baby. That preconceived notion was soon dispelled in the first bars of the overture: Latham-König’s Mozart not only is structurally crystalline but also dramatically and coherently conceived. His eye for detail and his care with clear pheasing are praiseworthy, and the orchestra’s dry string playing and the occasionally blunder in the brass section could easily be overlooked. Michael Hampe’s understated production verged on the artless and one could easily think of budget limitation, but in the end the show’s old-fashioned charm found a convincing note. Some moments really gave me the feeling of watching a production sprung from a black and white picture from the 30’s – and I only hope this was intentional!

Conductor and director had an animated cast to work with. I confess I was not really excited to read that Valentina Farcas was taking the role of Pamina. My previous experience with this singer was Salzburg’s video of Die Entführung der Serail, in which she is an extremely metallic-toned Blondchen. Live her soprano is far warmer, if diminute and lacking roundness in the higher reaches. Despite those drawbacks, she produced a most sensitive Ach, ich fühl’s. From this aria on, she showed her strengths in floating pianissimi and an impressively long breath. As the Königin der Nacht, Canadian soprano Aline Kutan resisted the temptation of making it pretty and produced forceful intense accounts of her arias. Her in alts are certainly impressive and her fioriture are really accurate. French tenor Xavier Mas has an extraordinarily velvety voice and a caressing line, but his whole method is too heavy for such a lyric instrument. Because of that, his ascents above high f were invariably tense. Maybe if he could relax and adopt a higher and more natural placement, he would achieve optimal results. It was good to see again Rodion Pogossov’s beautifully sung Papageno. He has indeed a most likeable stage persona – and witnessing him out of Julie Taymor’s Met Zauberflöte is an evidence that a less intrusive production is always healthy. Kristinn Sigmundsson was in excellent voice as Sarastro, dealing with the role’s problematic tessitura without any difficulty and singing his lines with true feeling for Mozartian style. The Teatro Municipal has some good talents at its disposal – the three ladies were excellent, especially Evelyn Ramírez’s Third Lady. Her strong contralto is a true find. Jenny Muñoz’s bell-toned Papagena was certainly refreshing and Gonzalo Araya was a firm-toned Monostatos.

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The much awaited début of Guy Joostens’ production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette has been talked about in the media as the Natalie Dessay’s Met début in a serious role (if I am not mistaken, her roles in the house have been so far Fiakermilli, Zerbinetta and Olympia). Maybe because of that, her last minute cancellation has thrown an awkward atmosphere in the whole production. It is not that Maureen O’Flynn has spoilt the show. She proved to have nerves of steel on stepping in in circumstances like that. Dexterous as she is, she still has a slightly acidulous voice and her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. However, her tone is penetrating enough for comfort and she looks gracious enough for the role. The problem is that the whole show has been concocted for Dessay’s acting abilities – and her absence left the remaining singers/actors uncomfortable – and that may account’s for the overall reticence in the rest of the cast. Finally granted its Juliette, the whole performance seemed transformed – most of all conductor Bertrand de Billy. While his account of the score on Monday seemed a bit contrived and miscalculated, he showed a mastery of his orchestra and a sense of vitality on Thursday to an extent that someone might take him for another maestro.

And there was Dessay. Although the voice has these days a tendency to spreading on top notes, this is not really bothersome in the theatre. On the contrary, it is a most charming, entirely musical instrument that gives life to every bit of melody in the part of Juliette. Her native French, her tone colouring col testo, her legendary flexibility and accuracy with roulades, runs and trills – there is no doubt that she deserves her reputation and her moving into lyric roles is most welcome. Most noticeable of all was the wealth of stage movements and character building that filled scenes which looked uneventful on Monday. Her Juliette is spirited and whole-hearted in fun and in woe. Accordingly, Ramón Vargas responded more ardently to this Juliette, although his legato seemed to be more thoroughly knit on Monday. His voice is also entirely suited to this role – his dulcet tenor has enough volume for the most exposed moments, although this must not be confounded with the heroic quality one might expect from him considering his recent choice of roles. He sang with grace, sensitivity and sense of style and proved to be comfortable with his acting in a way few tenors in this repertoire do. The other tenor, Dimitri Pittas, in the role of Tybalt, is firm-toned and rightfully incisive to depict the character’s sense of pride and self-importance. Stéphane Degout’s Mercutio is similarly forceful, but also idiomatic and – thank God – unexaggerated. Kristinn Sigmundsson has the right gravitas for the role of Frère Laurent and Joyce DiDonato is a vivacious Stéphano.

As for the production, it is lots of ideas – most of them innocuous but inoffensive. Having the action set on a display of a clock with astrological/astronomic associations seems to imply the idea of ill-starred lovers taken to an untimely death, but that’s too intellectual to guarantee an extra amount of feeling. It certainly looks beautiful, though. I am not a Gounod-ian, so I have seen this opera only once before, in Munich (with Angela Maria Blasi and Marcelo Álvarez), in a wonderful modern production that actually added insight to the story, but my “default” is the MacKerras video in which everything simply looks like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I’ve missed that.

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