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Posts Tagged ‘Lorin Maazel’

The first production of Wagner’s Die Walküre I have ever seen was precisely the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen at the Met back in 1997. I may have published my comments somewhere in this website, but the fact is that I remember it as if I saw it yesterday. Deborah Voigt was a creamy-toned Sieglinde and the fact that she was overweight posed no problem considering her dramatic engagement, Plácido Domingo was in beautiful if not entirely heroic voice as Siegmund, Hanna Schwarz looked short in her first appearance but seemed to end her scene taller than her Wotan so majestic was her bearing and so incisive was her singing and Gabriele Schnaut… Before you start grimacing, I can tell you that back in 1997 Gabriele Schnaut was a fantastic Brünnhilde. Except for tight top c’s and the absence of mezza voce, she was just perfect. Our Wotan was James Morris and – what can I say? – he was more than perfect. He will always be my favourite Wotan. I know everybody says Morris is too smooth, but I think Wotan must leave an apollonian impression(after all, he is the Lichtalberich – the dark one is Alberich Alberich…). I remember, though, that the orchestra was not in a good day and I would only acknowledge Levine’s Wagnerian credentials in a superb Siegfried a couple of days later.

Seeing this production again eleven years later was like re-visiting in dreams people you have never seen again: there is a certain familiarity, but it is definitely not the same thing. To start with, although the sceneries still look beautiful in their Kaspar-David-Friedrich-ness , maybe it is time for a new production (even if it is another “traditional” one). I could neither sense any stage direction going on here – a regisseur pointing out entrances and exits at most. However, this performance breathes a fresh new excitement for me, due to the presence of Lorin Maazel at the pit. I don’t know if this has to do with the maestro’s legendary mastery of conducting technique, but rarely or maybe never have I listened to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in such great shape. Even the difficult passagework for the violins in the end of Act 1 was clearly articulated and you wouldn’t believe the perfect blending of rich soft-textured strings and glowing woodwind in the Walkürenritt. Also, the brass players can be proud for the almost complete absence of blunders. Some have complained about Maazel’s slow tempi – but that is nonsense. Not only do these tempi make musicians more comfortable for the extra polish displayed here, but also Maazel showed more than enough imagination to fill in the blanks offered by the more considerate pace. I was particularly impressed by the way the orchestra portrayed what Wotan explained to Brünnhilde in the long declamatory scene in Act 2 – that was the dictionary definition of what a truly Wagnerian conductor should accomplish as musical-dramatic expression.

Deborah Voigt has seen many changes in her life in these 11 years. Now she looks her part and seems even younger than she was in 1997, but as soon as you close your eyes, a shrewish tone, indifferent delivery of the text and complete absence of tone colouring soon dispel that impression. Only her big top notes remain to her advantage in this repertoire. Even her acting has become generalized and artificial. In that sense, I must admit that – in spite of her many flaws – I still preferred Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde. It is true that she started her performance with the Ho-jo-to-ho from hell, during which she sang not one note written by Richard Wagner, but this Australian soprano is a most intelligent and musicianly singer, who knows her German text as if that was her first language and who commands shapely and sensitive phrasing (provided she does not have to sing around a top a and above). I cannot deny that this is a significant drawback in this role and, as much as I am tempted to say that there must be one of those traditional tongue/throat/neck/you-name-it tension-problems impairing the flow of her top notes, I am more inclined to believe that she is no dramatic soprano, but rather a large-voiced lyric soprano trying to deal with hoch dramatisch roles. The basic sound of her voice is lyric to my years – it is a smooth, pleasant warm sound before it becomes tense in the higher reaches. She has all-right an impressively natural low register, but this is not a sign of a dramatic voice; otherwise, someone like, say, Carol Vaness would have to be labeled accordingly. Gasteen is also a very good actress and brought to her Brünnhilde a surprisingly teenage impatience and bravado, which I found particularly illuminating.

Michelle DeYoung’s debut at the Met also happened in that 1997 Ring at the Met (cycle B, if I am not mistaken) – she was Fricka in Das Rheingold. I remember I had a more positive impression of her voice then than I had tonight. She was a small-scaled and rather shallow-toned Fricka in this Walküre, but she is also a cunning artist and her astute word-pointing finally helped her to make her dramatic points clear. Clifton Forbis was a reliable Siegmund. His tenor can get off focus now and then and his high register may sound bottled-up at times, but this is a healthy big voice and he achieves really impressive results sometimes, such as neverending crescendo in Wälse, Wälse, wo ist dein Schwert?

As for James Morris, it is true that his luxuriant bass-baritone has lost some weight and power in a decade and that his tone has also become a bit more nasal and his mezza voce less spacious – but I don’t think any of his younger rivals can sing this difficult role as beautifully and expressively as he still does. I would add that his present resources are still entirely satisfying for this role – he still produces marvelous firm rich large sounds and anyone who saw him only tonight can claim to have seen the greatest Wotan of his generation.

Finally, Mikhail Petrenko is a decent Hunding, not particularly dark or menacing, but definitely unproblematic. I cannot forget to mention the impressive team of Valkyries gathered here – truly amazing.

You might have noticed that the title of this post mentions a third Walküre – it is the one to which I am listening right now on my iPod. It has also taken place at the Met and featured a famous conductor, but it also boasted the greatest cast of one’s life, which – alas -was not the case of tonight’s performance. I am talking about March 1st 1969, when Herbert von Karajan presided over another one of those greatest nights of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I was told that Karajan smuggled in many musicians from the NY Philharmonic to achieve that, but those were days when the Met’s house band had a notorious reputation. If you have never listened to this recording, don’t miss one more minute: Birgit Nilsson, Régine Crespin, Josephine Veasey, Jon Vickers, Theo Adam and Martti Talvela, all of them in great voice, and also a plugged-in Karajan, oozing energy from the pit. Those were truly great artists and personalities. Some might say that there was actually a great clash of personalities then, but it has certainly paid off.

[I feel I might be rambling, but if you think that Karajan’s rather highbrow DGG Walküre is a cosmetic affair, you should also sample his live performance at Salzburg, in which Régine Crespin and Gundula Janowitz are even more impressive than in the studio.]

PS – Maybe this has no importance, but I guess I saw Donald McIntyre near the box office at the Met. So I saw two Wotans at the same evening.

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It seems the first time Arturo Toscanini ever conducted an orchestra before an audience happened to be in Rio de Janeiro in 1886. The opera then was Aida – and Aida (in concert version) was chosen by Lorin Maazel and the Symphonica Toscanini to pay him a tribute. As I have written in my comments on the Symphinica Toscanini’s Avery Fisher Hall concert with René Pape, this is an orchestra made of young musicians of which Maazel himself is the musical director. The 2007 tournée is meant as a tribute to Toscanini’s death 50th anniversary.

It is predictable that the main feature of the concert was Maazel himself. The prestigious conductor found the right balance between a symphonic reading and attention to soloists. His orchestra has an extremely polished sound and Maazel tried to cleanse the score from all vulgarity. Large ensembles looked amazingly Mahlerian in their polish and orderliness, without any loss in excitement. On the contrary: these young musicians were particularly enthusiastic and inside the dramatic action as rarely one sees in a concert version of opera. One could feel their interaction with soloists, masterly tutored by the conductor, especially in the more “chamber-like” proportions of act III. A beautiful rendition of Verdi’s masterpiece.

Maria Guleghina’s exuberant voice and personality do not fit entirely the role of Aida. Her soprano is powerful and ductile as demanded, but the low register eludes her entirely and having to produce some volume down there eventually tired the singer and her tendency to misfiring her top notes increased during the night. When sung forte, they could be below pitch. When sung piano, they could be airy and fragile. In any case, Guleghina is an intelligent, engaged artist who never cheats; her artistic sincerity and generosity steered her to the end of the opera with the audience on her side. Young mezzo soprano Anna Smirnova has all the elements of a Borodina-like dramatic mezzo in the making, but it seems she is tackling heavy roles too soon. She is a capable singer who has many tricks on her sleeves, but the fact that her powerful top notes and contralto-like low notes cannot hide a barely hearable middle register is an evidence that she should give her voice some time to develop. One can understand the seduction of singing roles such as Amneris to such a convincing and intense singer, but it would be a pity to see a talent such as hers burn out because of impatience. Walter Fraccaro is a very solid Radamés. His voice is the lirico spinto one would expect to hear in this opera and one will forgive his absence of variety and nuance in a role usually treated to overparted singers. Juan Pons’s sizeable baritone has seen better days and the most dramatic moments show him overemphatic and a bit behind the beat, but the tone is always pleasant to the ears and he has the charisma to make it work. A disappointing King Marke in Rome last year, Rafael Siwek works far better as Ramfis – his dark large bass produce the necessary authority in a role in which he does not have to be so verbally specific as in Tristan und Isolde.

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When I have read that an indisposed Renée Fleming had been replaced by René Pape in the tribute to Toscanini organized by Lorin Maazel in the Avery Fisher Hall, I have to confess I had to repress a certain disappointment. You all may be rightly surprised – I have consistently praised René Pape and often discussed René Fleming’s achievements. But the fact is – when you have a singer requested for three arias, it is easier to a soprano to make an impression in 15 minutes and then go home. I am not saying it is impossible for a bass to present a stunning recital. One of the most amazing recitals I have ever seen happened to be Samuel Ramey’s in São Paulo – after a theatrical Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele, we had such an impressive Rossini display that everybody would feel more than satisfied to go home after that (but, no, we were still treated to Verdi, Kern and Cole Porter!). But René Pape – I know, invited in short notice out of his vacation – chose Banquo’s aria from Macbeth, Ella giammai m’amò from Don Carlo and Leporello’s catalogue aria and sung them scrumptuously. However, I am afraid these items are not Pape’s Dresden-made noble bass’s strongest suit. I wonder how exciting it would have been to see Pape sing something like a a Wunderhorn song or, if we had to keep in the realms of opera, a bit of Hans Sachs (that would be a nice opportunity for him to try that). And then maybe the Don Carlo aria. In any case, the whole concert had some puzzling items. The proceedings began with R. Strauss’s Don Juan played by the New York Philharmonic. I am no Toscanini specialist, but I didn’t know this was a representative piece in HIS repertoire. Then we had an orchestra called Symphonica Toscanini to play Respighi’s Pini di Roma. I am unable to say something knowledgeable about that since I dislike Respighi, but I must confess my amazement with the techical display of this apparently pick-up orchestra. This flashing impression would eventually be tamed by their dubious results in Leporello’s aria. Finally, both orchestras teamed for one of the most thunderous accounts of Tchaikovsky’s Francesa da Rimini (not a favourite of mine either). The truth is I wasn’t in the right mood for this concert – and left the theatre still in the same mood.

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