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Posts Tagged ‘Manuela Uhl’

Die Lieber der Danae is probably the most notable rarity among the R. Strauss’s later operas. Although Hofmannsthal original ideas were already quite convoluted, Joseph Gregor’s nonsensical libretto has a great deal of share in the work’s unpopularity. The composer himself often complained that he couldn’t find inspiration in Gregor’s verses. And Strauss did not make it easier by composing a difficult score for a large orchestra with impossible leading roles (tenor and soprano are required to sing heroic high c#’s). As a result, it has been almost never performed – and the only existing recordings have been made live, often with unglamourous casts. But the music is far more interesting than one could expect – after an unfocused act I, act II features a beautiful long scene for tenor and soprano and the last act closes in the grand manner. I would have no problem on choosing it over Die Ägyptische Helena or Friedenstag.

The fact that the libretto is flawed to say the least requires from the stage director a great deal of imagination – and R. Strauss himself acknowledges Rudolf Hartmann’s contribution in this department as a key element in the Salzburg première. The Deutsche Oper Intendentin, Kirsten Harms, however, preferred to press the “easy solution”-key in permanence in this new (?) production. I wonder which is the purpose of doing something so outdated in its 1980’s gloss and superficiality when one has nothing to say. I would gladly have a highly aestheticized stylization instead anytime. As it is, as in Harms’s Frau ohne Schatten, Elektra etc etc, the action is set in some sort of elevator or staircase hall that crumbles down to act III. An upside-down piano hanging from the ceiling is supposed to be the unifying symbolism of it all. To make things worse, it does not look well. Considering the prima donna’s personal beauty and the fact that she should wear, according to the libretto, some stunning costumes, one has to use one’s imagination to see that.

As a compensation, conductor Andrew Litton is entirely at home in this repertoire. He did not spare effect, grandiosity, impact and forward movement. The immediate result is that the opera did not sound long or boring, even when R. Strauss’s creative power left something to be desired. The negative aspect of the 100%-approach is that his cast had to work hard for their money. None of these singers have the large, dramatic voices necessary to preside over the dense orchestral sound: in spite of their best efforts, they often sounded distant and effortful. And the house orchestra played heartily (even with this orchestra’s Straussian credentials, this evening’s performance sounded particularly successful) – the chorus understandably still needs some time to adjust to the rhythmically complex writing.

In the title role, Manuela Uhl (whose recording for CPO is probably the only uncut version available for sale) brings her silvery, full-toned soprano, clear diction and stylishness to the difficult part. Her voice, unfortunately, has seen better days and she took almost two acts to warm. The ascents above the stave were unfocused and/or brittle and limited in volume – and the score requires a lot from the soprano’s high register. In her long scene with Xanthe, the extremely well-cast Hulkar Sabirova often sounded richer and more hearable in comparison. In any case, Uhl would eventually gather her resources for a sensitively sung act III with some thrilling high mezza voce. If I may make her a suggestion, I guess she should follow Julia Varady’s advice and give the jugendlich dramatisch repertoire a pause, sing two or three Nozze di Figaro Countesses, settle a couple of things and only then return to the Straussian roles that used to show her so advantageously. Matthias Klink’s tenor is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of Midas, but – except for one glitch by the end of act II – held his own bravely. His tightly focused tenor pierces through without difficulties, but having to sing constantly at full-powers robs him of operating area for nuance. Mark Delavan is a puzzling Heldenbariton – the voice certainly has the color for this Wotan-like role, but he too sounded small-scaled and lacking volume. And he still lacks presence for those god-in-chief roles. Thomas Blondelle offered an all-round satisfying performance as Merkur, singing with imagination with his bright and firm tenor and proving to be entirely at ease with the acting requirements of this comic role. The four queens were also cast from strength from the Deutsche Oper ensemble with Hila Fahima, Martina Welschenbach, Julia Benziner and Katarina Bradic.

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Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most formidable works in the operatic repertoire – it is like performing Mahler’s 6th Symphony with the cast of Verdi’s Il Trovatore and the scenography of Wagner’s Ring. These superhuman requirements demand the sympathetic ear of the audience and probably also some gratitude. It is such a monumental and unique masterpiece that being able to see it live at all is an unmissable opportunity. An opportunity we should probably thank the Deutsche Oper’s Intendantin, even if she also happens to be the stage director.

If there is a subject in Operatic Stage Direction course called “how to stage act III”, Kirsten Harms probably missed it. As in her Tannhäuser, although her acts 1 and 2 are not the most amazing things on the face of Earth, they are quite acceptable –  what she really ruins is the end. Here she tries to relate the plot to the time of the work’s creation – although the costumes suggest rather WWII, the action is set during WWI and we see the Empress and the Emperor living in a palace that looks like a hall in the Pergammonmuseum, while the Baraks live in their rather large and airy shanty. Since the sets are quite good-looking and the idea is not bad per se, I had no problem with that – but I confess I find Harms’s idea of deleting the plot’s magic elements self-defeating. As it is, the Empress and the Nurse’s scheming to get a shadow seems to be work exclusively on money. And I am not sure that this is the idea. But that is a detail compared to the fact that the Emperor here wird nicht zu Stein. He is kidnapped at night in front of the Empress’s eyes, who has no dream at all about that. Have I forgotten that the Nurse is executed by the Spirit Messenger? And that all the complex imagery imagined by Hofmannsthal to act III is reduced to a setting who seemed to be a rest from the closing tableau of an old production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut? Because Harms believes that, after act II, “nothing exists anymore, no imperial palace, no shelter for the impoverished; all dreams, all mistakes are over”. I am sorry – but that is not what the libretto says and it sounds just an excuse to justify the fact that the budget was used up in acts I and II.

Considering the economy of means on stage, one would feel inclined to turn to the pit to find riches of expression, but the truth is that Ulf Schirmer was a bit economical himself. He is a stylish Straussian who never forgot to play it “as if it were Così fan tutte”, keeping thus the proceedings extremely clean, elegant and transparent, but one could expect a bit more abundance of sound in the purely orchestral passages and a bit more Schwung in the highly dramatic situations of act II, for example. Lyric moments such as the Emperor’s act II scenes seriously lacked affection and forward movement.

Manuela Uhl does not exactly possess the hoher dramatische Sopran required in the score, but what she has does fine as well. Her jugendlich dramatisch voice has the necessary crystalline quality, she has easy top notes and knows how to spin a Straussian phrase, but exposed dramatic passages bring a touch of sourness and some flutter too. She is a committed actress, uttered a chilling “ich will nicht” and looks really well. Eva Johansson comes closer to the high dramatic soprano label and she can even floats high mezza voce, but her vocal production has many unstable and insecure moments. Because of her technical glitches, she is often too busy with the notes to find enough leeway to express anything.  The difficult end of act II found her really out of sorts and often off pitch. When Robert Brubaker first opened his mouth, the words “James King” occurred to me, but soon it became clear that the role is too high for his voice and strained him beyond any possibility of smoothness. On the other hand, Johan Reuter’s dark and rich bass-baritone fills Straussian lines sensitively and elegantly. I leave the best for last: yes, it is true that bête de scène Doris Soffel is not a dramatic mezzo soprano, but she is the kind of artist who makes it happens, regardless of what “it” is. She is not afraid of going larger than life, knows how to create dramatic impact and has an endless supply of forceful top notes. Finally, the Deutsche Oper should be praised for the high quality of singers in small roles, particularly Hulkar Sabirova in a series of key high soprano parts.

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