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Posts Tagged ‘Linda Watson’

Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Frank Miller? Director Kasper Holt seems to find a connection between the philosophical fairy-tale world of Die Frau ohne Schatten and neo-noir comics in his new production of R. Strauss’s opera for Copenhagen’s Royal Theater. Even if one finds hard to see that, one must acknowledge that using projections over a black screen and limiting the scenic action to individual spaces that work as panels on a page is a clever ideal when one does not really have the means to deal with the impossible special effects in the libretto. I just don’t see why the stage design should have a “Sin City” atmosphere that does not go with the plot. Images of Keikobad show him as some sort of mob big shot, while the Emperor and the Empress have golden crowns (they even sleep with it) and Barak’s Wife has a regular “Frau ohne Schatten”-costume. The incoherence involves acting styles too – the Empress acts as if she were playing children’s theatre, the Nurse goes for the Bette-Davis approach, Barak acts naturalistically, while the Emperor doesn’t act at all. I have the impression that the director really wanted to make a Frank Miller staging, then someone offered him Frau ohne Schatten and it had to do. It he had really tried, it could have been interesting. Some moments – such as the Empress’s nightmare or a particularly insightful and aesthetically compelling judgment scene – offered intelligent solutions where normally one is usually let down by unconvincing imagery.

I had never been in the new Copenhagen opera house before and cannot tell if the acoustics or if Michael Schønwandt were to blame for the strange sound picture: when playing alone, strings had a bright, pleasant sound, but the full orchestra sounded brassy and poorly blended. Singers’ voices could seem a bit drained of bloom (in Duisburg, Linda Watson sounded quite richer-toned in comparison). Woodwind had also no problem to preside over textures, but – even if the result was unusually structurally clean – the overall impression was of disjointedness. Lyric scenes worked very finely, though, for Schønwandt has a very particular way of producing flowing “cantabile” in his string section. In fact, after an excitingly well-shaped closing scene to act II, the whole performance seemed to find its focus. Act III was truly praiseworthy – the orchestral playing in the difficult melodrama was really thrilling and if around the end there were still some episodes of brassiness (and overloud percussion), the conductor had already sold you the concept.

I haven’t seen Sylvia Valayre in a while. Last time, I had the impression that she artificially darkened her voice to sound “dramatic”, but I don’t recall the worn out tone she had this evening. But for some Rysanek-like loud, full yet floating notes (high c’s and above were pretty solid), her soprano did not flow, often flapped in a bothersome way, shredded in her attempts at mezza voce, sounded hooty in the middle register and showed a bumpy break into unsubtle chest voice in the lower end of her range. Although there was no interpretation to speak of and the results were often unpleasant, it must be said that some tricky high-and-loud passages were adeptly handled. Maybe if she had tried the role earlier in her career, it could have worked better. Linda Watson’s performance was consistent with that of Duisburg: she is hardly electrifying, but sings the part with unusual finish and musicianship. In this production, the Dyer Wife is more vulnerable and almost regrets her fits of bitchiness soon after she had them – the approach works well for her temper and voice. Again, she was the best singer in the cast. Ildiko Szönyi has the elements of the part of the Nurse in her mezzo – she has a quick, clear delivery of the text, is capable of strong, focused low notes and can produce some piercing acuti when this is necessary. Unfortunately, all this is a bit chaotically handled and the final impression is of tentativeness. Pity – she is an intelligent performer and has something to say in this role.

I understand that Johnny van Hal frequently sings Heldentenor roles – he has a large voice all right – but I wonder if he was properly trained to deal with them. His tenor has a glaringly open quality and his high notes sound squeezed and disconnected. His first appearance was hardly heroic or ardent. “Effortful” would be a good description. But then, the scene in the falconry showed an entirely different singer, phrasing with heady tones in an almost Mozartian way. Although nature probably gave him a Wagnerian voice, I couldn’t help noticing that he just feels more comfortable singing this lighter way. John Lundgren was a sensitive  and stylish Barak. He has a surprisingly dark and round bass-baritone and is able to retain this quality even in his high notes. Although the sound is not throaty, it is a tiny little bit muffled, what prevents him from piercing through when the orchestra is too loud or when singing with a dramatic soprano like Linda Watson.

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R. Strauss’s and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is a tour de force if there ever was one. It draws the line that separates men from boys and women from girls. If one has the intention to stage it or take part in a staging of this work, one must be more than prepared – one must be on the top of his or her game. Reading that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has decided to stage it in the opera house in Duisburg, I must confess that the idea only seemed promising because an international team has been assembled. This is the kind of opera that cannot be assigned without consideration to ensemble singers, resident director and conductor.

I had seen only one staging by Guy Joosten before – a Roméo et Juliette at the Met, which was hardly earth-shattering, but, with a little help from the Met’s cash flow, beautiful enough. Not this FroSch, it looked downright cheap, poorly built, second-hand. Although Guy Joosten and his dramaturg, who must be his brother or something, seemed to have given a thought of two about the work and stated that the historical context of Hofmannsthal writing his fable in the context of WWI played a great role in their concept, what one sees on stage is so all-over-the-place that it is difficult to say anything. The set is basically a rotating black stadium tier – the upper part with the steps has a salvation-army bed which stands for the Emperor’s stately palace. It is only curious that under the tier, where Barak and his wife are supposed to live, there are purple and blue Arabian-Nights curtains everywhere. OK, this goes more of the less with the libretto and Barak is a dyer. But why then he wears a suit, drinks Budweiser, brings metallic gas balloons home when he is drunk (this Barak has a drinking problem…) and his brothers have a) a Mickey Mouse hat; b) a Chucky Doll mask and c) a Scream mask? Then there are too many examples of characters saying things that they are not doing: Barak and his wife have a long scene about him complaining about a broken mortar after she has warned him of a trespasser. But here he breaks nothing or does nothing at all. Besides a shrew, this Färberin sees things that do not exist. Joosten has seen pictures of dead people in WWI and everything is replaced by extras with bloodstained costumes. Is that all that he’s got? Unless he has given this production free of cost, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has given away money of its limited budget for nothing. If Plato was right to say that necessity is the mother of invention, then she gave this production to adoption.

Although the Duisburger Philharmoniker (differently from the orchestra at La Scala) is a commited group of musicians, it is unfortunately not up to the herculean task imposed by Richard Strauss, especially the strings, which basically lacked tone throughout. When it has to produce a full sound, the result was often dry, sometimes awkward and often brassy. I was going to write that I would need to see Axel Kober conduct this work with a more seasoned orchestra before I said something, but then I’ve remembered that I did see him conduct FroSch last year in the Deutsche Oper. Although the results were far superior, they were not illuminating either. He does not master the sense of effect of a Karl Böhm and does not keep the proceedings going. The score finally seemed mechanical rather than complex.

Morenike Fadayomi has a rich-toned lyric soprano with some impressive resources: it is capable of heft, has easy top notes, floats adeptly in mezza voce and can keep a line with naturalness. Unfortunately these dramatic soprano (or even jugendlich dramatisch) emplois take her so often to her limits that one has some trouble to see how gifted she is. If she were singing Arabella or the Feldmarschallin rather than Salome or Aida, I bet she would be more of a household name, also because her acting skills are not negligible. As it is, although she acquitted herself quite well in the part trickiest moments, the sound was sometimes strained, sometimes squally, sometimes tremulous and hooty but for her rich-toned high notes. Although Linda Watson treaded carefully when the line took her above the stave and seemed entirely unconcerned in the interpretation department, she sang the role of the Färberin in her warm, spacious soprano without the stridence most singers display here. I would dare to say that her singing of the act 3 duet stands among the smoothest and most lyrical I have ever heard. Susan Maclean seemed not to be in her best voice and the comedy approach required from her robbed her performance of some of its incisiveness. That said, she has the measure of this role vocally and interpretatively. She finds no problem with the difficult writing, handles the text intelligently and produces both powerful chest notes and dramatic acuti at will. The semaphoric gestures, obvious in an almost childish way, chosen by the director are quite annoying, but Maclean showed her professionalism on performing them with miraculous conviction.

As in Zürich, Roberto Saccà’s tenor is far from ingratiating, but he sounds almost comfortable with the high-lying and exposed phrasing of the role of the Emperor. His flowing phrasing in the most strenuous passages is indeed praiseworthy. Tomasz Konieczny sang powerfully as Barak, but his metallic, tightly focused voice basically lacks the necessary warmth and roundness in this role. Maybe because the sound is so forward and driven, he found problem in softening when the composer required gentler dynamics. As I feared, the bad-guy voice that made his thrilling Alberich so intense was not his Alberich-voice, but basically his voice. As the director did not seem to know what to do with Barak (beside the drinking problem), Konieczny sometimes seemed a bit lost on stage too. Finally, James Bobby’s forceful, dark-toned Geisterbote deserves to be mentioned. A name to keep.

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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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After a musically outstanding Rheingold, expectations for this evening’s Walküre were high, but the event reserved a few surprises, not all of them positive. To start with, although the orchestral sound was consistently beautiful and rich, act I lacked, in the absence of a better word, passion. Often the buildup to a climax would be cut off too soon and one would rather hear particular successful moments (such as a lyric, touching Winterstürme, sensitively sung by the tenor) that did not merge into a continuous arch of musical-dramatic development. Act II suffered from tempi that did seem slow, particularly during Wotan’s run-through of previous events when this evening’s Wotan failed to give life to the text. The Todverkündung suffered from absence of atmosphere, a situation when forward-movement rather than lingering is recommended, especially when the Brünnhilde did not seem really inspired. Only the Sieglinde/Siegmund situations came through as improvement from act I, since both singers showed themselves even more connected to the dramatic situation, and also the conductor could warm to their performances and wrap them in sounds that offered more than sheer sonic beauty. Something might have happened during the second intermission, for act III redeemed the whole evening. After a structural clear Walkürenritt, Christian Thielemann treated the audience with a Golden Age Wagnerian performance – the orchestra’s luxuriantly beautiful sounds were also laden with meaning and emotion, not only commenting the theatrical action, but carrying it forward with almost unbearable intensity. Sieglinde’s farewell was not an isolated powerful moment, but rather the culmination of a truly poignant scene, but the final Brünnhilde/Wotan scene stood out as the highlight of the evening, both singers giving their very best and an orchestra that magnified their performance in admirable expressive power. When Wotan kissed Brünnhilde’s godhead away, the very sound of the Festival orchestra transpired grief. By then, if you were not crying, you probably don’t have a heart. In a word, although the first two acts had their moments, act three alone was worth the price of the ticket, plus transportation and hotel costs.

If anything in this performance was consistently excellent during the three acts, this has to be Edith Haller’s peerless performance as Sieglinde. I had never heard her before, but she joins today my list of favourite singers. Her youthful, exquisite and bright-toned soprano often made me think of Maria Müller’s vulnerable Sieglinde from the 1936 Festival (elegant portamenti included), but Haller’s top register is more corsé, flashing through the auditorium without any hint of strain or difficulty. Her qualities are, in any case, more than purely vocal – she is an extremely musical, sensitive and intelligent artist. Linda Watson took more time to grow into her Brünnhilde – although her ho-jo-to-ho had flat sustained high b’s, she was well at ease with the rest of her battle cry. Her long scene with Siegmund challenged her otherwise in the expressive department. As well as unvaried, her exposed high notes sounded squally sometimes. Although not a very good actress, she finally offered a beautiful account of the third act, when she proved capable of real nuance and legato, never forced her voice and seemed engaged enough to offer a touching interpretation. Moreover, the scene’s tessitura fits her rich and warm low register. Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre’s Fricka, but she is a shrewd singer who knows how to handle her resources to deliver the right effect in the right moment. Johan Botha’s voice is higher-lying than those of the tenors usually cast in this role. As a result, the raw excitement of dark, beefy high g’s was not really there. In exchange, a brighter tonal quality and more flowing legato throughout. When Innigkeit was required, such as in his contemplation of the sleeping Sieglinde in act II, the South-African tenor was particularly appealing. In spite of his heavy frame, he did not appear to be really awkward on stage, but rather quite convincing in his attraction to Sieglinde in act I. Albert Dohmen did not show any improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold until the opera’s last scene, when he conjured all his means to produce a sensitive and varied farewell to Brünnhilde. His invocation of Loge right before the end of the opera even brought about his first really Wotan-like powerful top notes. As for Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding, saying that he was less than perfect would be an unforgivable lie. Last but not least, the casting of the remaining eight valkyries is praiseworthy.

As for Tankred Dorst’s production, it still lacks purport – the sets are  not really original, the intrusive presence of contemporary bystanders is tautological, stage direction has too many careless moments, the ugly costumes often make it difficult for singers to move (Fricka’s specially). If I should be positive about this staging, I would mention that it is well crafted – the sets are flawlessly built, the lighting is sophisticated and there is very little silliness going on here (something that should be cherished considering the present state of operatic staging).

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