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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Nagy’

Karl Marx probably did not have the Berliner Philharmoniker in mind when he said that history repeats itself first as tragedy than as farce, but Simon Rattle’s series of remakes of Karajan’s festival opera recordings with glamorous casts puts the trajectory of the famous German orchestra in perspective and makes one wonder about the British conductor’s contribution to its prestigious history.

One would not call Rattle a Mozart conductor, although his live recording of Così Fan Tutte speaks in his favor in this repertoire – but it seems that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a milestone in the career of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s most important conductors: Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado. A good friend of mine would say that, if a conductor is not able to conduct a solid performance of this opera, he (or she) is not really apt for German repertoire.

I have heard that Rattle’s Zauberflöte in Baden-Baden have not received positive reviews – and this has been seen as a good example of how one should look forward for his recently announced resignation. As a matter of fact, if one compares this evening’s performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker’s discography, this is probably the less coherent and most problematic of all. Some will point out that Karajan’s Berlin recording is far from exemplary – and I would agree – but it has a very clear concept, which the conductor realizes with absolute conviction. Listening to this evening’s performance, I often had the impression that the concept here was basically trying to be different.

When I wrote the last time Bizet’s Carmen was played in the Philharmonie, I said that the performance had been held under “the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found”. If the approach made Bizet’s music more eloquent, I am not sure about its success in Mozart. First of all, as much as I dislike Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s fussy acc. and ritt. in his Zürich recording, there seems to be some method into that, questionable as the results are. This evening, the fact that the rhythmic structure of various numbers were artificially undermined in order to highlight one or other word of the libretto did not seem to make particular sense – some other numbers (Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit or Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehen for instance) were so hectic that one could not help feeling sorry for choristers and soloists spitting out the text in high velocity. Even when the beat did not show any eccentricity (as in Sarastro’s arias), one felt that the music was not being given enough time to breath and produce its effect. There were moments too, when one could see how effective things could be if they had been left alone – Der Hölle Rache, for instance, was very excitingly played in a very organic manner. As a matter of fact, the Berliner Philharmoniker never ceased to marvel with full-toned, clearly articulated playing. Seid uns zum zweiten Mal wilkommen had beautiful effects in the strings. The Rundfunkchor Berlin too sang with impressive accuracy. The excellence of these musicians alone made the performance worth the while, but one would wish nonetheless to see their talents employed to portray a less capricious and more integrated vision of this work.

The cast here assembled is particularly glamorous in small roles, but features some upcoming singers in main roles. Klemperer did the same when he had, for instance, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp in his recording – and he proved to have bet in the right names. Here one is not so sure. One can see a touch of Kiri Te Kanawa in Kate Royal’s voice, but only now and then. At that point of her career, Dame Kiri was already a flawless Mozart singer, while Royal has too many awkward moments. She does have imagination – her Ach, ich fühl’s (not surprisingly her best moments) was less generically expressive than illustrative of the text. It did catch my attention. Replacing Simone Kermes – an odd choice for the role anyway – Ana Durlovsky proved to be very attentive to the text and to have a warm low register and very clear fioriture, but it is a helplessly light voice for the Queen of the Night, especially in the higher reaches. Benjamin Hulett (Pavol Breslik takes the role of Tamino otherwise) too has a light voice for his part and had his taut moments, but the voice is so pleasant and his sense of style so sure that one tended to take his side. Michael Nagy was an almost ideal Papageno: his baritone is warm, his diction is crystalline, his tonal variety praiseworthy. He masters the art of being funny without overdoing it. Dimitri Ivashchenko finds no difficulty in the writing of Sarastro and fills the hall with dark and focused sounds. Sometimes one misses some nobility of tone and emotional generosity, but maybe I’m spoiled by René Pape’s performance in the Staatsoper.

Some have found the idea of casting the Three Ladies with Annick Massis, Magdalena Kozena and Nathalie Stutzmann exaggerated. I haven’t – I found it very exciting to see their combination of their unique vocal and expressive qualities. I am not so sure about the idea using the deleted cadenza for the opening number, though. José Van Dam (Sprecher) does not sound as a veteran singer at all and the three boys from the Aurelius Sängerknaben sang beautifully too.

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A classic example of German heavy-handedness is the fact that Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is supposed to be a comedy, but few people know that Wagner composed other comic opera, his second opera actually (after Die Feen), Das Liebesverbot, inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The action takes place, in the libretto, in Palermo (whereas the play is set in Vienna, and one can see the young composer’s intent of producing an Italianate atmosphere here). This fact alone makes the opera an interesting experience – although Wagner proved to have understood the formulae of opera buffa, he struggled a bit with bel canto (his attempts at writing florid lines often sound awkward) and with strophic stucture (the repeats often give the impression of overstaying their welcome). However, the quality of the music is impressive. Sometimes, it seems like the upgraded version of Donizetti minus the spontaneous melodic invention and the comic timing. At its best, such as in the Isabella/Dorella/Luzio act II trio, it is truly funny and musically effective. And you still gets to find some ideas later recycled in Tannhäuser! Why is it not more often staged then? As with Die Feen, Wagner requires for Das Liebesverbot impossible voices – Bellinian voices in singers who can also tackle German declamatory style (can we really blame Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient for that?).

As almost everybody, I know this opera from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s live recording from Munich. There one can already hear how exhausting it is to sing these roles and how the German cast is uncomfortable with the virtuosistic writing. They sing with utmost conviction nonetheless under Sawallisch’s galvanic conducting – an orchestral tour de force from the Bayerische Staatsoper orchestra.

The fact that the concert performance heard this evening in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper is going to be commercially released is something of a mystery to me. The exceptional cast, essential to make this music work (think of Bellini’s Norma with a so-so cast…), has not been gathered here – actually, some singers were rather below standard. That was a pity, for the Frankfurter Opernorchester played very well, offering aptly bright, lean sonorities under Sebastian Weigle’s agile, balanced and stylish conducting. I had never before been in the Alte Oper and maybe had a bad seat, but I found the acoustic awful: the orchestral sound could not bloom and louder dynamics brought about a noisy, brassy quality. Singers’ voices too suffered in the unflattering hall. Maybe because of that Weigle seemed a bit too self-controlled, too well-behaved in comparison to Sawallisch – in an opera about carnival, passion and fun!

In the impossibly difficult role of Isabella, the invaluable Christiane Libor, a champion of early Wagner operas, offered an exciting performance. Her big creamy flexible lyric soprano has the necessary heft for the occasional exposed dramatic acuti, and she sang with unfailing good taste, imagination and sense of humor. She would sometimes understandably sound off-steam (far less than Sabine Hass in the Munich recording), but if my memory doesn’t fail me, she was in more exuberant shape as Ada in Minkowski’s Die Feen in Paris in 2009. In any case, I still don’t understand why her career has been relatively modest so far.

As Mariana, Anna Gabler sang with poise and sensitiveness with her mezzo-ish soprano that opens up in floaty tones in the high notes. If Pamela Coburn had not been so ideally cast in Munich, I would have been more impressed. The role of Dorella requires a  brighter toned soprano than Anna Ryberg, who was too often inaudible. When it comes to these almost unsingable tenor roles, one would need a Gedda and a Wunderlich to do them justice. There are no new Geddas nor new Wunderlichs, but there are more acceptable options around. In the romantic leading-man role of Luzio, Peter Bronder was at least loud enough, but one did not need to read the program to see that Mime is his usual role. As Claudio, Charles Reid aptly sang in Italianate style, but seemed nervous, showed limited volume and fought with his high notes. Julian Prégardien (Pilato) was the one tenor in the cast with a natural, pleasant voice, but the high register is still a bit stiff. Simon Bode (Antonio) has a curiously boyish voice – if he can master tonal colouring, he might be a firm-toned Evangelist in Bach’s Passionen. Here it all lacks body and roundness.

In the key role of Friedrich, Michael Nagy sang with richness and musicianship. As much as with Hermann Prey in Munich, one feels that a voice a tad more heroic would make the role far more interesting. Last but not least  Thorsten Grümbel was a brilliant Brighella. He is a singer I would like to hear again.

Considering the opera’s length and the strenuous roles, I understand that it has probably never been performed without cuts. This evening a bit more generous than in Sawallisch’s live recording (of a staged performance).

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