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“I have a friend who says you cannot ruin a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the cast may be awful, the director may be an imbecile, but the Bard’s text will shine through nonetheless. Is it Wagner’s Siegfried something similar? I don’t know, but I have realized that, in many performances of the tetralogy in my recollection, it was Siegfried the most effective in the lot (before my 13 or 14 readers ask me which one tends to be the worse, this is Die Walküre). Is it the propulsive rhythms, the inescapable necessity of crisply declaimed texts teaching where the right tempo is, the vertiginous action?”. It sounds utterly unimaginative to quote oneself, but I have to register another occurrence of the Siegfried-phenomenon.

It is hard to believe that this is the same orchestra and conductor from last Sunday’s Walküre. Then I have said that, from the opening bars, one could see that the performance would not take off. This evening, from the onset, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin caught my attention. The variety of tonal possibilities explored by this orchestra this evening – ranging from the raucous to the crystalline – could tell alone everything you have to know about this opera. Even in the infamously dry acoustics of the Schiller Theater, the fulness of sound was often surprising. Clarity and coloring were the means chosen by the conductor to build his interpretation this evening – and the fact that the cast involved some big voices was reason enough for satisfaction. It was the orchestra the story-teller this evening – and the fact that these singers could be heard over it allowed Barenboim to fill the hall with sound and give his musicians leeway to produce some very interesting effects. Instead of going for excitement and fast tempi in the forging song, for instance, he allowed his tenor to articulate the text, while a kaleidoscopic sound picture unfolded itself around him. Later, when Siegfried longed for the mother his never knew, one could feel the presence of the forest around him in the vividness and warmth of the Staatskapelle’s string section’s playing. If I have to be picky, act III had a less impressive start, with a noisy and unsubtle Erda/Wotan scene; one could also imagine a more otherworldly awakening for Brünnhilde, but this difficult last scene developed very naturally and organically.

I have seen Lance Ryan as the Siegfried in Siegfried both in Bayreuth and Munich – and I have the impression that this evening’s was his most convincing performance. His singing still turns around clear diction, power and stamina rather than legato, sense of line and a truly pleasant voice, but he was both in better shape than in Munich and offered some very impressive full high notes such as I cannot recall to have heard in the Green Hill. I have the impression that he will never do justice to the grandiosely romantic lines of the final scene, but this evening he evidently did his best to sound smoother there.

Peter Bronder is a gifted actor with crisp articulation of the text, but his Mime has very little tonal variety. His very metallic tenor sometimes spreads in the higher ranges and is not really comfortable when things get low. By the end of act II, he sounded a bit tired too. I never cease to be amazed with Terje Stensvold’s vocal health at this stage of his career. His Wotan lacks variety and charisma (and has a patch of nasality in the middle range), but it is an uncomplicated and  very powerful voice, especially in the baritone area of his bass-baritone. The contrast with Johannes Martin Kränzle’s intense, detailed performance as Alberich is quite telling. I was not very impressed when I saw him in Rheingold both in Milan and in Berlin, but this evening he was in very good voice, singing clearly and forcefully. Anna Larson is a soft-centered Erda with rich low notes, Rinnat Moriah was a somewhat edgy Waldvogel, and Mikhail Petrenko’s Fafner was a little better than his Hunding.

Anyone who expects perfection in the singing of Brünnhilde in this opera is bound to be disappointed. The role requires lyrical qualities that no dramatic soprano is able to offer in a tessitura as high as this one – and lyric sopranos find the part basically very strenuous. Irene Théorin trod carefully this evening, switching to mezza voce to produce a flowing line in high-lying passages, never letting go a convenient breathing point and keeping things as light as possible. This had the benefit of making her Brünnhilde sound particularly vulnerable and appealing. The transition to sheer Wagnerian voluminousness in climactic high notes were sometimes a bit abrupt, but she never failed to respond to these requirements. All in all, a very commendable performance.

As for Guy Cassiers’s production, I cannot see any concept behind the proceedings, which basically tell the story in a very generalized way, the Personenregie often very blank. Since there is a lot of physical action in Siegfried, one feels that less when the title role and Mime are involved. The projections are very effectively use in the forging scene, but generally sets, costumes and props are used for purely visual aesthetics. The bad news is that the dancers are back. This time they have swords and they use them to form patterns (like stars, hexagons and other completely irrelevant and distracting things). They also animate a very primitive dragon, made with a white blanket and projections.

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If Takred Dorst’s unimaginative production of Der Ring des Nibelungen reached its most bureaucratic in the anachronistic and pointless staging of the Gibichungenhalle as a masked ball in a place that looks like an emergency exit in the Lincoln Center while the guests’ outfit suggests rather the 1930’s, Christian Thielemann seemed to sum up the best and the worst in his conducting in the three other installments of the Tetralogy: the first scene with the Gibichungen was particularly spineless and his reliance in Furtwänglerian-like grandiose perspectives could not make up for the absence of a clearer sense of structure and timing in slacker and more conversational passages. In other moments, when his instincts seemed to invite him to more impact, but the need to accommodate less voluminous-voiced soloists led him astray, one missed more profile and more drama, such as during Waltraute’s narration and, unfortunately, the immolation scene. On the other hand, Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s duet was excitingly and exquisitely handled, the soloists flexible enough not to thwart forward-movement. Even if singers lacked stamina for a truly thrilling act II, the conductor created atmosphere admirably with impressively theatrical effects in his orchestra. In any case, Siegfried’s funeral march was the unforgettable highlight of the whole performance – the powers of nature seem to emerge from the pit in the Festspielhaus. My final impression is that, although Thielemann is often very impressive and sometimes exemplary, he has not given his last word about Wagner’s Ring – what should be considered good news anyway, given the fact that he is a relatively young conductor. After Daniel Barenboim’s amazingly disappointing Rheingold in Milan, I wouldn’t like to establish definitive comparisons, but the Argentine conductor’s recording from Bayreuth shows a similar large-scaled, momentous approach, in which the dramatic gestures and the power to instill emotion in the proceedings are more readily available though.

Linda Watson’s performance as Brünnhilde started on a very positive note – she sang warmly and femininely her first scene. Later, she would ultimately seem too well-behaved for the circumstances. I suspect she is not the right soprano for Brünnhilde’s more outspoken scenes, her round top notes lack the necessary slancio and she is too often overshadowed by the orchestra in the bottom of her range. Edith Haller was a luminous Gutrune who sang touchingly her last scene, a rare achievement in a role that can seem almost intrusive. Although Lance Ryan’s singing is generally short of flowing cantabile, his ease with the murderous tessitura, his ability to shade his tone when necessary and his rhythmic accuracy are extremely welcome – his report of the woodbird’s lines were actually more fluent, more clear and more understandable that those sung by the soprano taking that role on Wednesday. And one must not forget – he is an excellent actor. His stage performance will probably be the one I will compare everyone else’s too from now on. Andrew Shore’s Alberich still suffered from opaque high notes replaced by unvaried emphasis and parlando effects and, if Eric Halfvarson could produce a powerful calling in act II, his voice seemed quite tired this evening. By the end of the opera, he was practically speaking his part. In any case, both were preferable to the seriously miscast Ralf Lukas as Gunther. If Christa Mayer sang sensitively, she still lacked projection as Waltraute. Although one could imagine more dramatic Norns, Christiane Kohl, the fruity-toned Ulrike Hetzel and Simone Schröder (better cast here than as 1rd norn) were excellent Rhinemaidens.

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If this week’s Die Walküre from Bayreuth took some time to warm, this evening’s Siegfried did not hang fire. Christian Thielemann conducted a dense, large-scaled performance that did not need to rush to suggest intensity, but rather increased in tension steadily and progressively. Some conductors opt for raw excitement in this score’s percussive rhythmic effects, but Thielemann never tried any easy option. The forging song, for instance, achieved its effect rather through motivic clarity and rich almost weighty orchestral sound (which never drowned singers). The Neidhöhle scene benefited from dark menacing perspectives and the sort of harmonic transparence that makes one see in this music the hint of what would happen in the next century. The Brünnhilde/Siegfried scene benefited from otherworldly sounds and exploded in passionate, volatile full-toned orchestral playing under the maestro’s flexible beat.

Replacing an ailing Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in the last minute, Sabine Hogrefe offered a creamy-toned soprano with firm, big acuti, dynamic variety and a very decent trill. She bills herself as a dramatic soprano, but a limited lower range and a round rather than penetrating tonal quality would make one think rather of a jugendlich dramatisch voice. I am not sure if I would be tempted to see her Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, but I would certainly cherish the opportunity to sample her Elsa or Elisabeth. In any case, although she was understandably nervous, her singing was extremely accomplished, musicianly and sensitive. Lance Ryan’s tenor is not voluminous, but very well-focused and his high notes are easy and full. He is not afraid of shading his tone and is more accurate about rhythm than many a famous singer in the title role. He is also an excellent actor who knows how to portray innocence without looking silly. His interaction with Wolfgang Schmidt’s Mime is in the core of this evening’s success. I have written of Schmidt’s performance in Rheingold that I had the impression that he manipulated his voice to produce a Spieltenor sound. This evening he expertly managed this ambiguity of heroic and character Fächer to portray the alternating comic and evil sides of his role. He too offered top-level acting – the scene in which he tries to explain fear to Siegfried particularly well done. Andrew Shore still sounds unfocused and strained in his high register, but he is nonetheless a very convincing Alberich, while Albert Dohmen was in noticeably better voice today, offering spirited accounts of his scenes with Mime and Alberich. Again he has his throaty moments and a nobler tonal quality would make his scene with Erda more impressive, the latter role a bit on the low side for Christa Mayer. I mean it as a compliment when I say that Diógenes Randes’s voice is too beautiful for Fafner. As for Christiane Kohl’s Waldvogel, it lacked clearer vowels.

Tankred Dorst’s production still seems clueless about what to do with the plot – the schoolroom set for act I exclusively meant to add humor to the Wotan/Mime guessing game, but failing to respond to the needs of the forging scene. The set to act II looked indeed impressive, but the preparation to Fafner’s coming out of his cave was finally more impressive than his uneventful appearance as Fafner, the giant (rather than as Fafner, the dragon).  Act III was rather bureaucratically dealt with. In any case, the stage direction itself deserves praises for the successful characterizations of both Siegfried and Mime.

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In an age when opera stagings are permanently updated and discarded, the fact that Filippo Sanjust’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is still in use after 33 years is something of an archeological experience. For many a Straussian, it may feel like some sort of operatic eucharist- the recurrent resurrection of the mythic production on video featuring Karl Böhm’s conducting with Gundula Janowiz and René Kollo.

Those 30 years have been kind on the production, the unpretentious classical aesthetics of which are more or less immune to the change of fashion. The three decades have also been rather kind on its Zerbinetta too. But they are very much part of her performance now. Edita Gruberová’s stardom has begun in this very production in the Wiener Staatsoper back in 1976, when Böhm declared her the absolute Zerbinetta. She dazzled audiences for years in this role with the instrumental accuracy of her fioriture and her intelligent and sensitive interpretation. Now at 63, Gruberová cannot compete with her former self. First, the standard is too high. Then there are moments of incertain intonation, some excursions above high c are uncomfortable, her low register has become even less reliable. But Gruberová does not seem ashamed of her seniority. Although the tonal quality remains crystal-clear and her roulades, scales and staccato are still impressive, her Zerbinetta is clearly not a young woman, but rather a veteran seductress who can now and then still charm the occasional suitor. It is an evidence of the Slovak soprano’s rare artistry the way she transforms what could be a handicap in the special feature of her performance. The day when she says her farewell to Zerbinetta, we will have to wait long before we hear the role sung again with such spirit and Echtheit.

Adrianne Pieczonka’s big creamy lyric soprano is tailor-made for the role of Ariadne; she is certainly the best I have heard in a long while. That said, I cannot really class her among the great exponents of this part. Along  moments of surpassingly beautiful singing, there were too many examples of clumsy management of breath support. As a result, she forced many high notes, had her shallow-toned episodes, opted for odd Luftpausen and misfired a couple of pianissimi.

I can only understand that Michelle Breedt was not in a god day. Her voice did not really carry in the auditorium, the low register was not funcional and the ascents to high notes extremely strenuous. Her indisposition seemed to increase during the performance – and she only ended it out of sheer willpower. Although I dislike the overephatic non-legato-ish approach, one must acknowledge that she is a very convincing stage actress with illuminating word-pointing and imagination. I hope to see her Composer under better circumstances.

I have read a great deal about Lance Ryan and was extremely curious to hear him. I cannot deny, though, that the first impression was not really positive. His voice has an open raw nasal tonal quality that is the opposite of pleasing and the volume is not as generous as the Heldentenor repertoire might require. On the other hand, his vocal health and expert breath support are impressive. I have never, live or in recordings, heard a Bacchus who could sing those dangerously high-lying phrases with such ease. His ability to sing long stretches on the breath is truly amazing.

Ulf Schirmer is an experienced Straussian who knows how to balance vertical clarity with rich sonorities. The house band ‘s long history with this music is evident in the crystalline, ductile orchestral sound and the way the “theatrical” effects in the score were perfectly handled. Nevertheless, I have the impression that the performance was under-rehearsed. Ensemble was not truly polished and, with the exception of the leading tenor, the other main roles (including the Hausmeister) suffered from lapses of memory.

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