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Posts Tagged ‘Matthias Goerne’

This concert performance in the Hong Kong Kong Cultural Centre marks the beginning of an ambitious project: the first official international recording of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen made in Asia*. The first concert two days before was actually the Hong Kong première of Rheingold. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s musical director, is confident that this is going to establish the HK Philh’s reputation as a world-class orchestra. The audience, at least, proved to be truly international (and the level of concentration and silence in the hall is certainly exemplary).

In a hall of modest size, Maestro van Zweden decided to out-Karajan Karajan in the chamber-like orchestral sound, emphasis rather in dynamic and colouring rather than articulation and clarity and the choice of some light-toned voiced in key roles. Although the Hong Kong Philharmonic cannot compete with the Berlin Philharmonic in exuberance or richness of sound, it faithfully followed the conductor’s intent of producing different colors to establish an aural “setting” for each scene. The performance lacked the sense of building tension (it worked rather on “terraced” levels of loudness – purely orchestral passages ON in loudness and OFF when the singers were there), but the sense of theatre was furthermore guaranteed by the prominence given to vocal soloists, who felt comfortable to scale down to conversational volume whenever they deemed appropriate. Something van Zweden has not in common with Karajan is his keenness on having woodwind upfront in almost Mozartian interplay with singers. This all could have meant that the performance was particularly exciting, which unfortunately is not the case: most key moments lacked any sense of climax, especially Alberich’s curse, where the conductor proved rather reticent than propelling, or in Donner’s Heda-hedo, which turned out quite polite. Most surprisingly, the six harps on stage sounded a bit off focus in the context of the aural picture and failed to produce the crystalline effect of the rainbow bridge. However, I do not want to sound blasé: this evening was certainly fun, and the contrasted and characterful cast has a big share of responsibility in that.

I have to confess that I was not entirely idea convinced by the idea that Matthias Goerne could do justice to the role of Wotan, even in Das Rheingold. I had seen him only once in a Wagner opera, as Wolfram, and found him lacking volume and projection. In this evening’s ideal circumstances, that was definitely not the case. Although his voice often has a muffled sound in his middle register (which translates as “velvety” in a Hermann Prey-ish way when the repertoire is either Bach or Schubert), he has healthy low notes and could gather his energy to deal with heroic high notes reliably if not truly freely: pressed by the needs of piercing a loud orchestra, his high register lacks roundness and color and often sounds tenor-ish in sound. His interpretation is that of a Lieder singer, working on details rather than on the big-picture. While this could make him sink in the background when dealing with his colleagues’ more flamboyant personalities, it has also given his Wotan a very particular atmosphere, as if he ran on a different rpm than all other characters. That distance was in itself an interesting “theatrical” effect, one that made Wotan some sort of outsider in his own game. In any case, I would be surprised if he accepted to go further in Die Walküre.

The very international cast meant that the accent in some singers were a bit more evident than in others. In any case, with one exception, every member of the cast seemed to be completely in control and able to use the text with craftsmanship. For instance, Egyptian-born baritone Peter Sidhom has exemplary diction and truly crispy enunciation of Wagner’s libretto. He also seemed to be having the time of his life playing a 100% bad-guy Alberich. His voice is a bit soft-centered in its middle register, but he relies on a very bright and forceful edge to produce the necessary ping in this part’s difficult full-intensity, angular phrasing. His sharp sense of humor was a welcome tool to add dimension to a role often made too uncongenial. In that sense, his interaction with Kim Begley’s Loge was in the core of this performance. The English tenor is a veteran only in age: his voice – a Charaktertenor with a nasal sound à la Robert Tear albeit with Spitzentöne to make some Heldentenors envious – proved to be in excellent shape once it warmed after a fluttery start. There is indeed a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan in his Loge, but very aptly so. The two other tenors in the cast proved to be very well cast: Charles Reid (Froh) has a beautiful voice with spontaneous and firm high notes and David Cangelosi is simply the best Rheingold Mime I have ever seen or heard, his approach refreshingly three-dimensional and varied. As always, Kwangchul Youn steals the show as Fasolt, here ideally partnered by Stephen Milling’s dark-toned, perfectly-focused Fafner.

The ladies were also uniformly excellent. Michelle DeYoung is a rich-voiced Fricka who uses her registers provocatively. At some point, she lost a bit concentration, and this is a role that needs constant engagement. In any case, it is always a pleasure to hear a singer with riches of voice and personality in a role often cast “from the ensemble”. Deborah Humble’s Erda is very classy throughout the whole range, and Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermine Haselböck were perfectly cast as the Rheintöchter.

* I use the word “international”, because  Takashi Asahina’s recorded a complete Ring for Fontec with the New Japan Philharmonic and an all Japanese cast in the 1980’s.

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The Kammerorchester Basel, a versatile ensemble tackling a wide-ranging repertoire with period practices very much in sight, has chosen Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for their European tour in the holiday season. I have to confess that I did not really understand that the performance would be split in two concerts and, therefore, will be able to speak only about the first one. Led by their concert master, Julia Schröder, the orchestra showed animation and a rhythmic vitality in the more festive numbers, usually given very fast tempi. In more pensive numbers, phrasing had some squareness and lack of purpose: Schlafe, mein liebster sounded too matter-of-fact in its purely dance-bound perspective and the sinfonia to the II Cantata could have done with a little bit more variety. The fact that the string section lacked tone did not help much in moments like that either. Furthermore, it could sound underwhelmed by the Deutscher Kammerchor, although it only had three voices per part. I also had the impressions that altos were too much in retreat, while tenors were often a little prominent,

The all-male group of soloists here chosen places an immediate interest in this performance. The velvety-toned Valer Sabadus is my first countertenor in the soprano part in this piece. Unfortunately, the most challenging numbers for that voice appear in the second half of the program. As it is, Sabadus’s sound is a bit soft-grained in middle register but smooth and round in the higher part of the ressitura. Volume too could seem restricted at times. In the alto solo, Terry Wey sounded like a fruitier and cleaner version of the young René Jacos and sang incisively and with disarming directness. Again, Schlafe, mein liebester could  be more expressive – and the fast tempo made some turns of phrase sound yodell-ish rather than graceful. Werner Güra was in excellent form both as the Evangelist and the solo tenor, his Frohe Hirten showed him at his most Wunderlich-ian. Last but not least, Matthias Goerne proved to have everything a bass in this repertoire should have: noble tone, clear diction and flexibiliy. I am really sorry I won’t be able to see the second concert.

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I have read a lot about Robert Carsen’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and regretted that I could not be in Paris to check it. So when I read that it would be re-staged in Rome, I’ve decided to follow Elisabeth’s advice: Nach Rom! However, here I am in Rome, but not Carsen’s production… The Teatro dell’Opera had later on checked its pocket and realized that, oops, they couldn’t afford to bring it. I felt inclined to be upset, but since they took the decision to hire Riccardo Muti as musical director, I have been trying to keep my mind open to the Roman opera house’s decisions. But, as much as Tannhäuser had to keep his eyes closed not to see Italy’s charming landscape, I felt I should do the same before Filippo Crivelli’s ad hoc production. OK, limited budget is always challenging etc, but what I have just seen vies with Cecilia Bartoli’s new CD’s cover for the title of human race’s ugliest creations. And the idea was to knock you out from moment one.

Venusberg is basically an archway made of pink fabric upon which imaged of naked women taken from famous paintings were projected. Ah, and there was a couch for Venus, whose costume is reminiscent  of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. When the mention of the Virgin Mary’s name transforms the whole thing in Thuringia, Crivelli must have thought of the DDR, since it basically consists of three sets of flat tree trunks with a catwalk on the background. Act II was more conventional – it looks like the Met’s production bar the money. To make things worse, the show was truly poorly lit and the costumes left a lot to be desired. I leave the worst for last – Gillian Whittingham’s coreography for the bacchanale. Some of my neighbours laughed, while I tried to look away out of compassion.  In a few words, the idea seemed to have some people running back and forth or giving hands to each other and circling. Seriously, if vice looks like that, one can perfectly understand why Tannhäuser longed so much for the Virgin Mary.

As it was, Béatrice Uria-Monzon had to provide all the sexiness by herself. Her soft-grained yet spacious mezzo soprano does seduction without much ado, but the exposed dramatic high notes test her sorely. I do not know if the conductor tried to help her with very fast tempi in the Venusberg scene, but apparently only made her lag behind the beat at moments. Martina Serafin seemed to inhabit an entirely different theatrical and vocal universe. Although she is Viennese, her whole approach suggests the words soprano lirico spinto. She has a warm, large, rich soprano, approaches phrasing almost like a Verdian soprano, with portamento aplenty and a Renata Tebaldi-ian cantabile glamour. The comparison with Tebaldi is not accidental – although she is very expressive, it is some sort of generalized yet touching expressiveness. Also, her whole stage attitude has an old-fashioned grandeur, hardly compatible with the chaste Elisabeth. In any case, this is a voice of impressive resources albeit not entirely in control. Many loud top notes came off poorly focused or harsh, and her mezza voce is not really reliable. Dich teure Halle was more solid than triumphant, but her act III prayer was sensitively done. I am not entirely convinced that Tannhäuser is a good role for Stig Andersen. His voice is not truly large, but he produces some forceful top notes now and then, provided that there is not many of them in sequence, for they noticeably tax him. Because of the stress, his praising of Venus in act I was quite arthritic, but he finally pulled out act III out of the freshness of his approach. Whereas many a tenor in this repertoire would tell his pilgrimage to Rome as a piece of heroic singing, Andersen sang it with restraint, savoring the words, creating the impression of a broken spirit, coloring the Pope’s wolds with real scorn. A flawed yet valid performance. Matthias Goerne also has problems with high notes – anything above mezzo forte is dealt with either strain or head voice. But the whole performance seemed to be conveyed to the Abendstern song, which was so exquisitely performed that one would forgive him anything. Finally, Christof Fischesser was a reliable Landgraf in spite of the occasional curdled-toned moments.

After a bumpy act I, conductor Daniel Kawka settled into such a honest performance that he finally won me over with his transparent ensembles, natural pace and cleanliness. I particularly appreciate the way he embraced the orchestra’s sound – bright and flexible, as many Italian orchestras tend to produce – instead of trying to impose a Teutonic large and fat sound that would only vex them. And the house orchestra was in good shape – the brass section could be nobler, but was quite clean, the lean-sounding string sections produced liquid divisions and everybody kept animation to the last chord. It is a pity that the chorus was way below that level – the women are particularly problematic, including what regards intonation.

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