Posts Tagged ‘Michael Volle’

After seeing Alexander von Pfeil’s production of R. Strauss’s Arabella for the Deutsche Oper Berlin, I’ve formed the opinion that staging Hofmannsthal’s last collaboration with R. Strauss in Berlin is something like reading a Chinese translation of a play by Shakespeare as provided by Google Translator. Yes, there is a context of decadence in Arabella – it is actually more than a context, it is right in front of one’s eyes when one reads the libretto. But, nota bene, this is about decadence, not decay. And the central element of that all is charm – if the proceedings do not ooze charm, then the whole thing is a tremendous loss of time. And Vienna’s decadent charm is something far more sophisticated and complex than arm, aber sexy. Lufthansa has a cheap flight for Vienna (one hour only) from Berlin on Saturday morning – I guess the Deutsche Oper could have spent EUR 100.00 and made some field research first. As it seems, Mr. von Pfeil thought of the decayed Michigan Movie Theatre in Detroit, the transformation of which into a parking space became some sort of symbol of the end of an era. What has that exactly to do with Hofmannsthal, I mean outside Mr. von Pfeil’s mind? Some people think of a nice glass of wine while listening to, say, Tosca – and that does not mean that one should stage it in a gigantic glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

In any case, this Arabella is set in the Michigan Theatre parking lot and lots of car drive through, including during the ball, where nobody dances. Actually, people refer to a staircase, to going up or down, to going into a room, to bellboys, to a chaperon… but that is replaced by… by cars, which obviously have a central role in Hofmannsthal’s symbology. After all, why would he call Arabella’s ball… the Fiakerball….? Clever, huh…

At least conductor Ulf Schirmer bothered to study the score to make an opinion about this opera. In his interview featured in the program, he explains that having conducted the opera in Vienna he learned to associate to a certain “morbid/smooth” tonal quality in the strings. Indeed, this effect was rightly achieved – the orchestral sound was often very beautiful and melancholically expressive. Lyric passages profited from this, especially when strings and woodwind intertwined sensitively. More feverish passages, such as the opening scene or the end of act II, however, lacked comfort in the conductor’s driven approach. During Mandryka’s intoxicated frenzy, this could have made sense if the overall effect counted with more clarity, particularly important in a moment in which countless motivic references are made. Other side-effect of the ripe string sounds was that the orchestra was often loud, making it doubly difficult for every singer in the cast to project into the hall. Maybe a brighter but less voluminous sound picture would have done the trick. Hence, the performance often suggested a pantomime and all singers clearly became increasingly tired during the length of the opera.

Adrianne Pieczonka is a puzzling and ultimately irritating Arabella. She has the right big lyric soprano for the part, but at least this evening she had a serious problem with the highest end of the tessitura, an area of her voice in which she seemed incapable of real legato. Her attempts to produce mezza voce often turned out off-placement and/or strained and, for each beautifully full top note, two unfocused ones would follow. What made her irritating, though, was the fact that, when the writing seemed congenial, she proved capable of echt Straussian style – nobility of tone, feeling for melody, a certain glamour and, most of all, the ability to make the text speak through tone coloring and very personal inflections that are the hallmark of the truly great Straussians. One example of that was her act II farewell to her three suitors, truly charmingly sung and probably the one moment when I believed that Pieczonka was Arabella instead of a woman in a fur coat fighting with difficult high notes. All that said, I make a strong appeal to Anja Harteros: you may like your Verdi, but it is R. Strauss who is in dire need of your talents!

My heart aches when I write that Julia Kleiter’s Zdenka was all in all disappointing. She was often overshadowed by the orchestra and it seems that her golden top notes needed a bit more silver in them to pierce through Ulf Schirmer’s morbid/smooth/loud strings. Aber der richtiger was the main victim of the lack of radiance in both sopranos’ high notes, which should dazzle the listener with gleaming rather than matte intervals. The production also sabotaged her – although the opera is called Arabella, the most important character in the plot is Zdenka – it is her twisted noble action that inspires Arabella and Mandryka to unconditional love. Incidentally, I am still to understand why the lines Zdenkerl, du bist die Beste von uns zweien etc are cut from the performing edition, such as today.

At first, the name of Martin Homrich for Matteo seemed a good choice – I had found his Tamino at the Staatsoper too robust. Indeed his voice seems more at ease in this kind of writing, but the loud orchestra brought about a permanently tense sound from him and it is no wonder that the testing tessitura in act III was rather dealt from willpower in the context of fatigue. Michael Volle had the most substantial voice in the cast and was at ease either in the most intimate or in the most outspoken moments, but even he suffered from the competition with the pit. He was clearly tired in the end of the opera and had to cheat a bit to get away with some tricky phrases. That should be considered a minor flaw in an evening when things were not really working well. His spacious, pleasant-toned voice should should sound comfortable in this part under better circumstances. When it comes to minor roles, it is understandable that the Deutsche Oper cannot offer glamorous casting in an opera so full of them, but the Waldners require more vocally vivid singers than Liane Keegan and Stephen Bronk, robbed by the production of any possibility of congeniality in their rotten-from-moment-one approach truth be said, and Elemer should definitely sound and look more dashing than the reliable Clemens Bieber.

Finally, the edition here adopted involves the Munich 1939 option of joining acts II and III with the deletion of the choral outbursts around Fiakermilli’s final yodeling. My memory might be failing me, but other than Arabella’s acknowledgement of Zdenka’s good nature, the coachmen’s cheering in the Fiakerball and the guest’s comments on the events in the hotel lobby have been trimmed too, probably to save the participation of the chorus (after all, they had to rent all those cars which, we must remember, are a key element for the understanding of the plot…).


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Die Frau ohne Schatten is arguably Richard Strauss’s most formidable score, composed to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s most complex libretto, the symbolism of which is almost awkward in its multiple levels. Magic opera, psychological drama, myth, social analysis… there is plenty to choose in it. To make things more difficult, the music is some sort of Straussian showcase – from the multicolored chamber music atmosphere of Ariadne auf Naxos to the all-together-now hysteria of Elektra. That operatic Goliath does not seem to have intimidated Zürich’s small but brave opera house, though.

Although director David Pountney believes that the work is about the discovery of one’s own humanity, he seems to focus his staging on the social disintegration caused by the exploitation of working class in the early day of capitalism, more of less Hofmannsthal’s lifetime. Thus, the story is set on the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. While the Emperor and the Empress are here shown as k. u. k. aristocrats, Barak and his wife are proletarians in a sewing workshop. The Nurse is a key  figure in this context, since she is portrayed as something like a less fortunate relative who depends on her patrons’ favors (therefore, her interest in the Empress comes through more like self-interest than in other stagings). The magic elements of the plot are not abandoned, however. The surrealistic aesthetics of Max Ernst serve as inspiration to dream-like costumes and sets. Many ideas come through quite effectively, such s the play-in-the-play seduction of the Dyer’s Wife, where the Amme literally stages the poor woman’s romanesque fantasies (it is truly amazing how the music fits this concept), but many a detail ultimately seem unintentionally comical, such as the ballet-dancer falcon (why people feel that they have to bring the “voice of the falcon” to the stage?) or the walking dolls cloaked in white who are supposed to be the Ungeborene… If the many imaginative touches do not make an unforgettable experience, poor direction of actors is to blame. The cast did not seem comfortable with what they had to do and most scenes gave the impression of a routine followed with little conviction and almost no coherence: the tenor’s approach was stand-and-deliver, the baritone offered naturalistic acting and both sopranos seemed entirely lost. Only the mezzo seemed to invest the stylized acting required from her.

Franz Welser-Möst similarly eschewed any larger-than-life quality in his reading. The Opernhaus Zürich has a small auditorium and its orchestra is used to produce leaner sounds. Moreover, the conductor professes that Straussian style should involve lighter textures over which the text can still be easily followed by the audience. Let’s call it the “Cosi-fan-tutte golden rule”. I have to confess that I took some time to adjust to the undernourished orchestral sound, especially in what regards the string section. There was transparence in plenty, but the fact that the sound never ever blossomed even in the orchestral interludes finally robbed the music of a great deal of its impact. The end of act I sounded particularly deprived of substance. That could be overseen, if volume had been replaced by accent (as Marc Minkowski has showed us in his performance of R. Wagner’s Die Feen at the Théâtre du Châtelet), but, alas, the lack of forward movement and a sameness in what regard phrasing all in favor of orchestral polish finally suggested overcautiousness. The Mozartian poise had its advantages – a particularly clean ensemble in the difficult act II closing scene – but I am not really sure if this is how FroSch should sound.

The role of the Kaiserin is a bit high for Emily Magee, who had to chop her phrases too often to prepare for the next dramatic high note. However, her creamy soprano is a Straussian instrument by nature and, even when tested, she never produced a sour note during the whole opera. Jenice Baird was a puzzling Färberin. I have never heard her in such good voice – she really sang the part in her rich vibrant dramatic soprano, but seemed to be sleepwalking in the interpretative and dramatic departments. Her rather slow delivery of the text drained the Färberin music of all its bite. Although Birgit Remmert was quite overparted as the Amme, the size of the hall helped her to produce the right effect in this role. She has spacious low notes, clear declamation and, even if her top register is a bit strained, that did not prevent to produce some firm acuti. I know: Roberto Saccà’s voice is ugly, but I must say that I have never listened to anyone sing this part with such flowing lyricism, nuance and ringing top notes before. He almost convinced me that the role should be cast with jugendlich dramatisch voices. Michael Volle was extremely well cast as Barak – his spacious baritone is extremely pleasant on the ear and he sang sensitively throughout.

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