Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Breedt’

This current run of performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (a new production later to be reprised in Rome) in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées did not seen to be unmissable in a first look: no big names in the cast (Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne being too ubiquitous to be regarded as such), which also happens to be a tad exotic and a conductor who has a difficult relationship with the Parisian public (a long difficult relationship, since he has been the musical director of the Orchestre Nationale de France for eight years).

Actually, the whole venture is more adventurous than I hinted at: this is the first time Daniele Gatti conducts Tristan. Considering my experience with him, I braced myself for “loud and slow “. Gatti, however, states that he has been preparing himself for that for a long time – and I cannot say he has not. The first impression I had from the prelude was how structurally clean and musically organized it was, even when the articulation in his string section could be more clear. It was the work of someone who really took the pains of determining how to present every layer in the texture and, most importantly, and which one is the Hauptstimme. The rest of act 1 confirmed my first opinion: accompanying figures propelled the performance in almost Verdian manner and “a tempo” (not slow neither fast – let’s say “natural”) seemed to be the rule, volume rather restrained to allow clarity.

My enthusiasm would be tested in the second act: the opening scene straight jacketed in the rigid beat suggested the mechanical rather than the energetic, and once Wagner’s concept begins to become more  fluid, Mr. Gatti’s weapons of choice too began to miss the mark. Act III is even more elusive and requires something that would gradually prove to be missing this evening: a vision. In his masterpiece, Wagner does not accept solutions “from the outside”: one really has to understand in his or her heart was this music is about before one sets his mind at work to discover how this “emotional truth” allows itself to become “music “. I don’t mean that Daniele Gatti is incapable of having this vision; it is just his first experience and the “infrastructure ” is already mostly there.

I saw Rachel Nicholls in 2008 in Kobe, singing Bach with Masaaki Suzuki. Then I wrote that it was pleasant to hear a big-voiced Bach soprano (although she was too loud for the orchestra and the venue). One or two years later I read an interview where she declared she was training to sing Wagner. As I couldn’t recall a precedent, I eagerly read her explanation of how there is only a difference in intensity but not in procedure: the Wagner sound being a development from her Bach sound, both beginning from the same core. This is a very good piece of advice (provided you really have the natural volume and stamina) – and I wanted to see if she was true to her explanation. However, her dramatic soprano career seemed restricted to regional opera houses and festivals. Until Emily Magee cancelled her participation in these performances.

After what I heard this evening, I must understand that this is the inevitable beginning of her international career. To put it simply, I had only heard a soprano sing Wagner’s dramatic roles with absolute legato and the same kind of “cantabile” one would expect in Verdi in recordings with Frida Leider or Florence Austral. Although Rachel Nicholls’s voice is not as imposing and big as these formidable ladies, it is absolutely natural, cleanly and easily produced as theirs were. She sings PHRASES, not groups of notes, her high c’s perfectly integrated to what happened before and after, all exposed acuti seamlessly and effortlessly connected. It is rather a high than a low voice, but the low register is natural and hearable. Furthermore, it is a young-sounding voice, almost too sweet for this role. But no – I have thoroughly enjoyed this feminine take on it. All that said, Ms. Nicholls’s Wagner, enticing as it is, is still work in progress. She has a very tame nature and, while she seems to be aware of that and evidently works hard for attitude, this is something she still has to discover. Also, her German, acceptable as it is, is still a bit cautious. And she has to figure out why her “a” often sounds like “ä” when things get high and loud.

Torsten Kerl too is a young sounding Tristan who produces unmistakably tenor-ish tones throughout. His voice has fine projection, but when Wagner demands truly heroic singing from him, he seems to shift to one invariable “Heldentenor”-gear, where the voice has a hint of a snarl. In any case, he sang with animation, clear diction, rhythmic alertness and got to the end of the opera almost as freshly as he started. Maybe if he too had more of a vision, his Tristan would have been a little bit more than getting to the end without fatigue, an “athletic” accomplishment not to be snobbed anyway.

At first, Michelle Breedt sounded a bit too smoky, but she settled into a compelling performance, with beautifully floated mezza voce in act II. Brett Polegato was a firm-toned, congenial Kurwenal, probably the all-round most interesting musical/dramatic accomplishment this evening. I cannot unfortunately say something similar of Steven Humes’s King Marke, nasal in tone, erratic in pitch and dramatically dull.

I have always found Pierre Audi’s productions on the decorative side – and not even to my taste. The rusty iron naval structures in act I did help to create some atmosphere, but the set of act II looked like the carcass of a whale and I could not see the point of the night-club decoration of Tristan’s “room” in Kareol. The costumes too were idiosyncratic, but the main problem was the fact that the director overlooked his cast’s acting limitations and just pretended this would sort itself out. It had not: these singers diligently followed gestures and attitudes they did not seem comfortable with and the point of which seemed to elude them entirely.



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Marek Janowski’s Wagner series with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is connected to recordings to be released by the label PentaTone, but the truth is that, until this evening, good as every performance has been, none of them has resulted a CD that has taken the discography by storm. Although it is impossible to predict how the recording made this evening is going to be, I cannot wait to buy it, for it is a Tristan und Isolde that I have always wanted to hear.

The very nature of Wagner’s most famous work calls for ponderousness, for an intensity cooked at low fire, for an approach to unending melody that almost invariably involves a very special tempo in which time seems to stand still. But the work is about passion – even at its most metaphysical – and passion is still the keynote here. And I like the way Maestro Janowski takes it at face value – I was tempted to write “in almost Verdian agitation”, but I have the impression that most Wagnerians would frown at it.  The feverish pulse, clearly articulated accompanying figures, the impacting accents, the brisk pace, the almost relentless forward movement – one would never mistake it for La Forza del Destino, but one could think of it at times. The first act benefited particularly from this concept – the drama developed without repose, as a single theatrical gesture wrapped in brilliant, angular, aptly raw orchestral playing. In act II, the conductor softened his orchestra for a more intimate perspective and one missed now and then the tonal focus in lower dynamics that only the top orchestras of the world have. It goes without saying that the level of clarity was short of sensational – I have discovered many novelties in this score (that I have last heard live only Saturday). Act III seemed entirely original to my ears – Tristan’s physical languor took second place to his spiritual turbulence and Janowski grew from intensity to downright frenzy in vortices of string playing that would have made it impossible for almost any tenor to survive the experience.

If Janowski’s vibrant conducting were not reason enough to single this performance out, Stephen Gould would alone be worth the detour. It is not difficult to say that he has no rivals in this role these days, but I also tend to think that he stands comparison with the best Tristans in recordings too. His voice is naturally powerful, firm and unproblematic – and Janowski did not spare him even in his most difficult monologues, in which he had to provide very fast declamation over the passaggio with a really loud orchestra on stage. It is doubly amazing that he was able to do this almost entirely within the rules of cantabile: Gould phrased with unusual elegance, sang long phrases on the breath, interpreted with imagination and tonal variety, shifted to softer dynamics more often than most. I have to confess that I have barely recognized some passages, so cleanly and musicianly as they sounded. Naturally, the task is inhuman and there were (rare) moments of tension and tightness – I can only wonder that, in the studio, he would be, well, unrealistically perfect. Bravissimo.

I took almost the whole first act to get used to Nina Stemme’s Isolde. It is a voluminous, weighty voice but very short on cutting edge. If her smoky, velvety tonal quality makes her immediately unique among dramatic sopranos, it is also true that she is often overshadowed by the orchestra, except above a high g, when she produces a truly exciting sound, even more so for its roundness and firmness (the high c’s were truly amazing). It is only when you get to the second act that you understand why Stemme’s Isolde is so highly appreciated – her warm tonal quality, her floating mezza voce, her generous flow of velvety tone makes her an outstandingly sensuous Isolde. And her Liebestod is certified top-quality too. It is curious that she seemed somewhat nervous this evening, especially in the first act, when she made some false entries and other minor blunders.

Michelle Breedt was an interesting choice for Brangäne – her forceful, finely focused mezzo sounded lighter and more penetrating than her Isolde’s voice. She seemed to miss stage action and tried to infuse meaning in every little syllable. Sometimes the result could seem a bit fussy, but her intent was always clear and aptly conveyed. The gigantic orchestral proved to be challenging to Johan Reuter (Kurwenal), who had to work hard to be heard and often without success. As King Marke, Kwangchul Youn did not have to struggle – he sang generously and sensitively, but his bass was unfortunately not at its firmest this evening.

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I know Christoph Marthaler’s Tristan und Isolde from DVD and was not really excited about seeing it live. Maybe low expectations have done the trick for me. I still dislike the production – it is so minimalistic than it is even difficult to hate it. If the director could have stripped the staging from every superfluous detail and concentrated on powerful symbols, maybe the emptiness could have meant something. As it is, we have a DDR-style building that goes one floor lower for each act. All effects are restricted to fluorescent lamps (actually neon lamps) that are turned on and off or twinkle or whatever a regular lamp can do, which is not much. Costumes end on having a very important role – other than chairs and then a quite fancy hospital bed, there is nothing on stage. In act I, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne are dressed like old people; in act II, they are dressed like middle-age people in the style of the 60’s; and in act III, they have younger people’s clothes in a quite contemporary taste. Kurwenal’s only “costume” involves a kilt and the King Marke has a suit and an overcoat. Why? It must be important, but I don’t feel like investigating. What I was curious to know is why the stage action is so awkward and why the director felt it important to have his cast often act in a way that evidently does not fit their personalities. With her attitude and voice, Irène Théorin looks often unintentionally funny in her coy manners, while Robert Dean Smith is not naturally heroic either in voice or in attitude.

In any case, veteran Peter Schneider proved that experience counts when you are conducting in Bayreuth. I won’t make a suspense – this was certainly one of the best performances I have listened to on the Green Hill and one of the best in my experience with this opera. Schneider is rather a Kapellmeister than a “creative” conductor, but today he has proved that faithfulness, if allied to virtuoso quality, does pay off. This evening Tristan sounded exactly as it should: the orchestral sound generously filled the hall without any loss in transparency and an extra serving of depth and beauty, truly deluxe sound; Schneider’s beat proved to be extremely flexible, taking its time when gravitas was required and flashing along where excitement was the keyword; and, to make things better, transitions were naturally and consequently handled. Although he did not spare his singers, Schneider knew the best way to balance stage and pit without ever damaging the building of climax. This was truly honest, efficient and truthful music-making.

Irène Théorin is evidently not a vulnerable Isolde, but rather ranks along Birgit Nilsson among the imperious Irish princesses who are more comfortable giving vent to their fury than mellowing in tenderness. Unlike Nilsson’s, her middle range might be a bit grainy and tremulous, but is always ready to shift into mezza voce. Predictably, act I was her strongest, in spite of a lapse or two during her Narration. Act II showed her first quite unfocused, but then she sang her Liebesnacht entirely in demi-tintes and blending perfectly to her Tristan. Unfortunately, act III was not a development from that. I suspect this was not one of her good-voice days, but still lots of very impressive moments. Michelle Breedt is a light Brangäne with firm, bright top notes and tonal variety. Robert Dean Smith is a sui generis Tristan – rather jugendlich dramatisch than dramatic, 100% musicianly, subtly phrasing in pleasant legato in an almost bel canto manner. Although the role takes him to his limits, he never indulges in forcing his tone, but rather lets his voice spin and acquire momentum in the trickiest passages. Naturally, act III exposes his lightness, but one must never forget: he sang it to the end without ever showing fatigue or any ugliness. He won’t probably ever sing the role in a theatre like the Met, but he is certainly worth the detour if you want to hear a fresh-sounding tenor as Tristan. Jukka Rasilainen was a most solid Kurwenal, but Robert Holl – in spite of a beautiful voice and sensitive phrasing – had his rusty moments as King Marke. I must mention Arnold Bezuyen’s Shepherd too, truly beautifully sung.

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When reviewing Janowski’s Parsifal with the RSB, I have written that clarity above richness of sound seemed to define the conductor’s approach to Wagner, especially if one has his recording of the Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden in mind. Well, this evening proves that Janowski’s Wagnerian abilities are more varied than I thought. Maybe because Die Meistersinger is notoriously long and massive, the conductor might have hought that a little orchestral glamour could be helpful. And his musicians did not hang fire. The overture alone was worth the expensive ticket price – full orchestral sound without any loss of structural transparence and flexibility. Then the Rundfunkchor Berlin happened to be in top form. The evening had a promising start.

I had never seen this opera in concert version and never realized until this evening how much of a challenge it is to balance a big orchestra on stage and roles meant for lighter voices in many conversational passages, often in the middle register of singers’ voices. Janowski took the decision of not sacrificing his orchestra and allowed singers to be heard over it by a very small margin. In the end of act I, for example, instead of giving the tenor the opportunity to shine in Fanget an! , he would rather give pride of place to the sensuous ebb and flow of string sounds in a way that made me rethink the whole scene. Act II never sounded so organic, with the difficult transitions spontaneously and coherently handled. If I had to make any observation, this would regard the last scene, the “on stage” band could be a little bit subtler and more integrated with the main orchestra. I am tempted to say that the more “intimate” passages could have a bit more Innigkeit and less objectivity and forward-movement, but then I am not sure if we had this kind of cast this evening.

My first and foremost vocal interest this evening was Edith Haller’s Eva. I saw her Gutrune and Sieglinde in Bayreuth last year and found her simply outstanding. My first impression this evening was that her interpretation was too much about minauderie. Her Eva was desperately little-woman-ish, piping and pecking at notes old-Viennese style. One would have never believed she sings roles like Elsa or Sieglinde. Eventually I would start to suspect that she was simply not in good voice – some high notes were a bit sharp and often fixed and unflowing. Of course, she still has a lovely voice and had no problem piercing through the orchestra, but I will really have to hear her Eva again to say something about it. Michelle Breedt was a very charming Magdalene, supple and warm-toned. Robert Dean Smith has the right voice and personality for the role of Stolzing. He sings with exemplary legato, real feeling for the words and good taste. His high g’s and a’s could be a bit ampler and brighter, but were round and easy nonetheless. I have seen more flexible and varied Davids than Peter Sonn, but I confess I like his straight-to-the matter ways with the role. Thank God he is no tenorino, while the voice is warmer than the usual Spieltenor’s as well. Dietrich Henschel’s unfocused and often rough Beckmesser made one wonder why one would consider that Meistersinger-level. Albert Dohmen’s bass-baritone sounds too heavy and sometimes effortful in his high notes as Hans Sachs. The tone is not really noble, but the voice is large and he is able to keep clear articulation for more declamatory passages and even soften for one or two key moments. But the results were too often Wotan-like in a role where congeniality is important. Georg Zeppenfeld was an efficient Pogner, but Matti Salminen’s cameo as the Nachtwächter showed up his younger colleagues’ less classically Wagnerian voices.

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Bellini’s Norma has a singular mystique among opera-goers. Although fans of German repertoire dismiss it as insubstantial, Richard Wagner himself was an admirer of the work and acknowledged that a great deal of its power relies in its unhindered melodic flow that translate sentiments with unusual nobility. The fact that this simplicity that eludes explanation is capable of such expressive power is probably Norma’s mystery – and also its main difficulty for performers. A single mistake is enough to ruin a sublime moment – and it is not really difficult for a singer to make a mistake in a work that demands so much from its soloists. Nevertheless, even if it is true that this is not a challenging orchestral score, it is one entirely consistent of effects: if those arpeggi for strings do not display crystal-clear sound and intonation, if those sostenuto notes in the French horns do not appear unforced and blend with the framework of strings, if the plangent cello solos do not sound almost unbearably expressive, then one may have a good cast, but not a good Norma.

This evening, I came to the theatre with the expectation of a musically scrumptious performance. This is an orchestra used to Wagner and R. Strauss and, as much as some performances bel canto operas from the Bavarian State Opera, I hoped to find the ultimate level of refinement and polish. However, conductor Paolo Carignani and his musicians did not quite offer that. Maybe because of light-voiced singers, the maestro seemed to focus on the score’s, to use Felice Romani’s own words, molli affetti. In those moments, his good ear for balance and his attention to his singers’ needs payed off touchingly. In the remaining moments,  the orchestra basically lacked punch: accents were rather saggy, tempi somehow dragged, intense moments often sounded ultimately noisy. To make things worse, the chorus sang with surprising sluggishness. If the Gaul battle cry was supposed to be so languid, the only reason why Pollione’s army did not wipe them off the surface of the Earth in a couple of hours is because he was too busy fooling around with the local beauties.

However, if someone is to blame for the lack of backbone this evening, this should be Bob Wilson. You don’t really need to read anything I write here to know how it was – it was basically what he does everywhere in whatever he does. He says naturalistic theatre is a fraud, but I guess I would rather be defrauded than bored to death. I still have to be enlightened about how the attempt to recreate human feelings on stage should be less desirable than walking-like-an-Egyptian. All right, some images are beautiful, but some are kitsch too – like having pieces of Norma’s glittery pyramidal “temple” dancing around static actors in the first act’s finale. If there is something to be redeemed in this staging, this would be this evening’s soprano impressive embodiment of this anti-naturalistic approach as a means to increase (and not decrease, as in everything else) drama. Her face had the tragic quality of a mask, her figure the grandeur of a statue and even the slightest movement was filled with the emotional charge that gives sense to everything.

If you are not a soprano drammatico d’agilità, Norma will probably an ungrateful job. It is doubly sad then that practically nobody can claim herself this Fach. Certainly not Elena Mosuc, who would rather be classified as lyric coloratura soprano. Although she has a solid low register, she is no Norma by nature and I suspect we won’t hear her in that role other than in the Opernhaus Zürich. Her voice is extremely appealing in its creaminess and floated pianissimi, but it does resent the slightest attempt of producing a dramatic note. She treated carefully but stylishly through Casta Diva, was not really at ease with Bello, a me ritorna and only survived the second act because she rather adapted the role’s demand to her own means. This made her Norma unusually passive and vulnerable, but if this approach should constitute a valid view of this multifaceted role, she would first need to master the art of blending words and sounds in one single, inseparable unity in the way Giuditta Pasta probably did or a Callas or a Scotto used to do. The Rumanian soprano has clear diction and phrases with elegance, but in the end the results are excessively understated to be called anything else but a laudable attempt.

I have to confess I never expected to find a mezzo soprano like Michelle Breedt in the role of Adalgisa and yet she proved to be adept in the art of messa di voce and to have reasonable coloratura. Hers is still an unitalianate voice, its smoky, a tiny little bit thick sound does not convey any sense of youth and innocence, but this was really an intelligent and capable rendition of a difficult role – and it does not hurt that her top notes are so full and free.

Roberto Aronica is easily the larger voice in the case and probably the only name you would find in a cast list of this opera in normal circumstances. His extreme top notes are not really easy and he sings a bit stodgily, but the sound is always firm, full and echt. Although Giorgio Giuseppini did not seem to be in very good voice (the higher end of his range sounded unfocused), he offered a decent if not quite noble Oroveso with some spacious low notes.

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