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Posts Tagged ‘Michaela Schuster’

This year’s Berlin Staatsoper Festtage’s operatic première is Claus Guth’s new staging of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten under Zubin Mehta, whom I had previously seen in the same theatre some years ago conduct Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus with the same leading soprano seen this evening.

Mehta has one recording of Salome with the Berlin Philharmonic to his credit, but he is hardly a regular in what regards the operatic production of the Bavarian composer. Although I cannot tell how often he conducted Die Frau ohne Schatten in his long career, the first impression I had today was of extreme caution. To his defense, the Italianate orchestral sound, very transparent and light, was very flattering to his cast and made for great vertical clarity. I would not say, however, that structural clarity was truly there, since the complex poliphony concocted by Strauss was shown rather at face value, some important motivic references sunk into the background of restatement of musical ideas already presented as they were shown before or among accompaniment figures. When one listens to Herbert von Karajan’s live recording from Vienna (with Leonie Rysanek and Christa Ludwig), one can see how helpful the masterly hand of the conductor can be in guiding his audience through this multilayered score. Thus, Mehta’s tool to achieve “legibility” was a certain kind of fastidiousness that involved a regular beat in a very steady and considerate tempo. This was again very helpful for his singers, but did not help to provide the necessary theatrical effects. The end of act II, where the stage director too seemed to have had lost his hand, was this approach’s main victim – the impression was rather of politeness in its clean transversal of the tricky harmonic development. Compare it to Karl Böhm’s broadcast (from Vienna? I would have to check, again with Rysanek and Ludwig) and the Austrian conductor will knock you out in an awesome display of excitement and precision. Most surprisingly, though, was the positive effect of the Indian conductor’s organized and restrained view on act III, here unusually subtle and coherent in his unifiying control of the proceedings. As the last act rarely works out in live performances, I left the theatre with the sensation of witnessing something special.

In any case, the cast gathered for these performances would make sure that this was something special. I have always admired Camilla Nylund’s solid technique and tonal warmth, but this evening she offered a performance of outstanding finesse and beauty, floating velvety sounds throughout her range even in the most impossibly difficult passages, without ever disregarding clarity of enunciation and the dramatic demands of every scene, including the Kaiserin’s act  III melodram, not a small feat for someone whose first language is not German. She was ideally contrasted with Iréne Theorin’s powerful and bright-toned Färberin. The Swedish soprano was in exceptionally good voice, particularly smooth in the middle register that is not usually her forte. She could float beautiful mezza voice, even in very high-lying passages and scored many points in subtleness. Only in her act III duet with Barak, her intent of singing softly taxed her, but she soon recovered to her best form, adding stunning dramatic acuti to a performance abundant in vocal excitement.  Burkhard Fritz sang the part of the Kaiser with clean sense of line and something very close to the spontaneity of an Italian tenor, but his high notes soon became tight and, somewhere in the middle of his act II solo, he started to sound tired and dealt with the rest of the part with prudence rather than abandon. This is my third Barak from Wolfgang Koch and probably the best one. Although the conductor challenged him with slow tempi, his bass baritone sounded generously round and rich. Moreover, his personality is extremely proper to this role. I leave the best for last. I had seen Michaela Schuster’s Amme in Salzburg with Christian Thielemann, but found it small-scaled. Now I am inclined to believe that the unimaginative production must have straitjacked her (and the smaller auditorium in Berlin is an undeniable advantage), for this evening she just stole the show, even in such prestigious company. She projected her high mezzo insolently, handled the text in a way that would make Meryl Streep envious and twisted the audience around her little finger. During the directorial miscalculations in the end of act II, she proved to be a secret weapon, commanding everyone’s attention with her precise body movements and facial expression. Bravissima.

Although Jung-Sang Han showed an attractively dark tonal quality to his Erscheinung des Junglings and Barak’s brothers (Karl-Micahel Ebner, Alfredo Daza and Grigoery Shkarupa) were unusually smooth sounding, the voices of the unborn/imaginary servants to the Dyer’s Wife were not properly cast. The impression was of extreme effortfulness, what ruined the effect of every one of their “appearances” .

Claus Guth’s new staging is inspired by August Strindberg’s Dream Play, the oneiric atmosphere being the perfect excuse for many sensible and clever solutions for many of the unrealistic stage instructions. It also allowed him to deal with the mirrored structure of the story by showing the Dyer’s Wife and the Nurse as projections of the Empress’s own personality and Barak as an idealized version of the Emperor. Here, the Empress, as in many other stagings, is a patient in an institution, suffering from something very close to catatonia. Then the libretto’s most problematic feature (i.e., that the Emperor is punished by the Empress’s inability to produce a shadow) is avoided by showing her as the one “turned to stone”. The dramatic moment in which she demands to be punished by Keikobad is nothing but her seeing herself bed-ridden in the hospital. However, the most curious dramatic device developed by the director is the fact that the patient does not recover. Her disease is actually her only way of achieving her connection to a husband a children she cannot really deal with in real life. Although there was some booing in the audience, I have to say this is unfair: this was alright a bizarre solution, but surprisingly one that delivered the best act III I have ever seen either in the theatre or in videos. I won’t say “if I had to change something”, for I would have changed a couple of things, but I couldn’t help finding the video projections subpar in quality. More creative images in sharper quality would have done all the difference in the world. Christian Schmidt’s sets and costumes were otherwise beautiful and very efficient.

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In order to fund the old house’s renovation, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has programmed a series of concerts to raise money. Taking profit of the opportunity of Plácido Domingo’s baritone venture in Simon Boccanegra, a Wagnerian evening with star soprano Nina Stemme and conductor Daniel Barenboim was organized in the Philharmonie. However, the Swedish soprano fell ill and was replaced at the last minute by a regular in the Lindenoper, mezzo Michaela Schuster, last seen as Ortrud in the première of the new production last April.

However, before these singers could open their mouths, Barenboim treated the audience to a sensational performance of  Tristan und Isolde’s Prelude and Liebestod. As in his last performance in the Staatsoper, the conductor indulged in a considerate tempo in order to showcase the orchestra’s sophisticated phrasing, tonal refulgence and clarity. The ensuing Liebestod offered an entirely contrasting approach, almost dance-like, in which the escalating chromatic figures spiralled in clearly defined alternate dynamic effects to breathtaking results.

After a white-heat start, The Valkyrie’s Act I would finally settle into something rather less impressive. Although the orchestra was in great shape, the need to adapt to the soloist’s necessities took its toil in what regards horizontal clarity and pace. Of course, Plácido Domingo’s vocal longevity is a marvel. The tone is certainly darker these days, but the sound is still fresh. However, the tenor needed some time to prepare for his ascent to top notes or for fast declamatory passages, forcing the conductor to step on the break pedal, for the loss of fluency sometimes. That said, he seemed far more comfortable than last time I heard him as Siegmund at the Gala concert in Munich with Waltraud Meier some two or three years ago.  A colleague from the Staatsoper’s Noccanegra, Kwangchul Youn was in great voice, producing some powerful sounds as Hunding.

Michaela Schuster deserves a paragraph for herself. I have seen her only twice as Ortrud, both in Berlin and Munich, and have found her vocally no more than efficient, but tonight, in this soprano role, I was able to understand more about her voice. Free from the burden of sounding formidable and dramatic, one can see the naturally lighter hue of her voice, which is surprisingly pleasant, soft and bright. I could imagine that she would be a touching in French roles such as Charlotte or Didon. In her more relaxed self, she floats lovely mezza voce and phrases with authentic legato. When things start to get too “Wagnerian”, the usual harsh quality comes unfortunately about. Of course, when the phrase is congenial she produces some firm big acuti, but generally she attacks them in a strangely backwards placement only to focus them a few seconds later. In order to accomodate her, the conductor had often to kept the orchestra’s enthusiasm on a leash.  But that is all secondary when one considers her highly expressive interpretation. Crystal-clear diction, the wide tonal palette of a Lieder singer and a highly alert and imaginative way of colouring the text. Some moments of her performance were original and illuminating even in comparison with some very famous Sieglindes. I really wish she would give her Ortruds and Kundrys a rest and made better use of her talent for subtlety for more than a change.

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Stefan Herheim must be the most irritating among living stage directors working for an opera house in the whole world. His production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Staatsoper unter den Linden has an ambitious agenda – to discuss the relationship between religion, myth and politics through the idea of Lohengrin as a messianic leader who would restore purity inside everyone of us before we are confronted with the fact that an imperfect world cannot be redeemed by perfect solutions. Here Lohengrin does not bring back the Duke of Brabant before he flies away in his giant white feather (apparently, the swann itself does not stop at Bebelplatz): he actually collapses on the ground a few moments later – he was nothing but a fantasy, a human-sized marionette. Accordingly, the “creator” itself,  Richard Wagner is shown as a bouncing marionette during the overture.

Although there is plenty of intelligent ideas going on here (I do not know if I could say the same of Herheim’s Entführung aus dem Serail for the Salzburg Festival), there are way too many of them to start with. Herheim’s staging begins as the cheapest example of Regietheater with soloists and chorus members in casual clothes, carrying string puppets and posters with the words “State”, “Comic”, “German”, “Opera” etc, then develops to something like a mix of Broadway shows Hair and Spamalot until it finally takes off on Act III in a sensitively staged bridal chamber scene, with fine acting from the cast’s Lohengrin and Elsa. I was determined to close my eyes and let myself enjoy the music, but the truth is that – in spite of the high levels of sheer silliness – it does set one’s mind going once you start to consider the many perceptive points about the interrelation of private and public affairs in the libretto. But that’s a virtue of such an acknowledgedly masterly libretto, which not deserves to be made fun of.

If I really had decided to close my eyes and enjoy the music, the balance would definitely be positive. The first chords in the overture revealed such crystalline pianissimo string playing that one could legitimately felt transported to paradise. However, while Daniel Barenboim could extract the last ounce of beauty in lyric passages in grand yet clear orchestra sounds with an expert’s ear for tempi that let musical effects work in the right way, more complex scenes brought about an unsubtle brassy orchestral sound, as in the introduction to act III, for example.While the chorus was unusually accurate in Lohengrin’s arrival and particularly smooth-toned in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, the orchestra failed to produce either the kaleidoscopic impression in the former or the increasing tension in the later. My memory may betray me, but I have the impression that Barenboim was more substantial and less bombastic when I saw him conduct  this work in the Lindenoper back in 1999.

In what I believe to be her debut in the role of Elsa von Brabant, Dorothea Röschmann not only dispelled my doubts about her venture in jugendlich dramatisch repertoire, but indeed impressed me with her continuous flow of creamy, rich tone and her intelligent and emotional interpretation. Although the voice is still light for the role, her technical control steered her through the perilous exposed moments in ensembles and especialy in the act III duet with Lohengrin. She has mastered the art of projecting Spitzentöne in the hall without forcing her lyric voice, and her ability to produce strong chest notes is of great help in declamatory passages. All I can say is that, although I have immensely enjoyed her Mozart performances, this is the definitely the best I have seen from this very special singer.

Michaela Schuster fulfils the basic vocal requirement for Ortrud, but small miscalculations around the passaggio spoiled some key moments. She relishes the Cruella DeVille approach and handles the text in an unusual yet refreshing sort of evil-and-loving-it manner. Gerd Grochowski’s light but forceful bass-baritone is often drowned by the orchestra, and his very clear articulation of the text helped he out in the last minute. I guess no-one really missed René Pape, who was unable to sing the role of King Henry, since Kwangchul Youn, his replacement, offered an exemplary performance. He was at his most Karl Ridderbusch-ish while offering his own kind of sensitive verbal nuance.

I leave Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin for last. It is difficult to descibe such an extraordinary voice. His high-placed, straight-toned voice is so devoid of the corsé quality which is the hallmark of a tenor that it almost has an almost infantile colour. His ability to produce effortless floating mezza voce is impressive and, at the same time, he can pierce through dense orchestration with very little strain. I could not help thinking that it almost resembled a pop singing style. I say “almost” because a) he did not need a microphone to achieve that and b)  sometimes his phrasing could be more flowing and have less of that sensation of one-note-after-the-other, especially when he had to plunge to the lower end of his range. In any case, if Lohengrin should have an unearthy, angelic feeling about him,  Klaus Florian Vogt is hors concours. He is almost like the tenor answer to Gundula Janowitz’s Elsa – the sound of his voice says everything you need to know about the role and you tend to part with the demand for a collection of interpretative gestures that would only imitate what nature itself has somehow produced.

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