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Posts Tagged ‘Michelle DeYoung’

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 audiences in Berlin are almost uniquely spoiled – besides two major opera houses (and an adventurous third one), the city counts with a a couple of world-class orchestras. I have to understand that as the reason for the way Marek Janowski and his RSB Orchestra are usually overlooked. I particularly value Mr. Janowski for his complete recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a paragon of structural clarity if a bit short on drama (and a more natural recorded sound…). When I had the opportunity of asking him years ago what is his objective as a Wagnerian conductor, his answer was: “clarity, clarity, clarity!”. And he is still faithful to his creed, as he proved this evening.

Janowski and the RSB have launched a very ambitious project of performing all Wagner’s mature works (in the sense of “from Der fliegende Holländer on”) in concert with international casts. Unfortunately, I have missed the first installment, but couldn’t let the second one pass. And it has been certainly worth the detour. Although the RSB does not have the glamorous sound of the Berlin Philharmonic (it is particularly unvaried in color and maybe short in dynamics), it is an extremely capable Wagnerian orchestra, ready to give its conductor all it can do. And I suspect purely beautiful and big sounds are not what Janowski is looking for anyway. Although they might have been helpful in the Karfreitagszauber passage and other key moments, one would find more than compensation in a performance where one could feel as if reading the score. Really, everything Wagner wrote would come clearly and naturally to you in transparent orchestral sound, perfectly balanced and intelligently set together and consequent tempi that made phrasing sharp as blue-ray image. That said, life is never so simple – although I had the second act of my dreams this evening, the outer acts, clear and musical as they were, seem to cry for… overwhelmingly rich orchestral sound, even at the expense of some transparency. Especially in a concert performance. But then these acts depend very much on the casting for Gurnemanz.

That Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is outstandingly beautiful is no matter of dispute. Its voluminous velvetiness and the ductility that allows it touching soft tones made his Sarastro famous. One can feel a “but” coming and here it comes – since some time, his high register has been sounding tense and discolored unless he sings it piano. As it is, his fondness for low dynamics and his elegant phrasing makes his Gurnemanz convincingly benign and sensitive, but recently he sounds too often uncomfortable when required to sing full out in his high register. As a result, many Wagnerian climaxes hang fire – particularly in the Philharmonie, which is not the user-friendliest place for singers.

Christian Elsner’s lyric yet warm-toned tenor made Parsifal sound young as he should, but he is not really impetuous as an interpreter and his high notes lack the necessary brightness to pierce through when he has a big orchestra behind him. In any case, he sang elegantly and let Michelle DeYoung’s feline Kundry take center stage. I’ve seen this American mezzo-soprano a couple of times and have always found her good, but this evening she really wowed me. Other than bringing sexy back to Kundry with her fruity, rich voice that takes very easily to mezza voce, she masters as very few mezzos either live or in recordings the ability of producing big dramatic high notes. The closing of second act found her entirely in control – and that was something new for me in the theater. Moreover, she is an intelligent, charismatic performer who knows how to produce the thrill of the stage in a concert performance. In that sense, she was finely matched by Evgeny Nikitin’s intense Amfortas. There have been more varied performers of this role, but the Russian bass-baritone brings out the tormented side of this character quite vividly. In a couple of moments, he forced his high notes a bit, but even that worked out in his intense approach to the role. And it doesn’t hurt that his voice flashes out in the auditorium. The other Russian in the cast, Dimitry Ivaschenko, sang the part of Titurel and proved to have an unbelievably big voice. In particularly strong voice this evening, Eike Wilm Schulte was a venomous Klingsor. Small roles were cast from strength with the likes of Clemens Bieber and Tuomas Pursio, but it was the Rundfunkchor Berlin who got the biggest applause of the evening.

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The Staatsoper unter den Linden’s prima does not have the glamour associated to La Scala’s season opening performance, but the event does involve the presence of the Bundespräsident and simultaneous broadcast to thousands of people at the adjoining Bebelplatz. For the 2009/2010 season, an old production has been chosen, Harry Kupfer’s Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2000.

Although the local press calls it legendary, it is actually quite unexceptional. The only set for the three acts shows a giant sculpture of an angel (inspired by a photo by Isolde Ohlbaum of a statue found in Rome) that doubles as a rocky landscape, which turns around to create different perspectives. On the background, some piece of furniture and people in XIXth century clothes (supposed to represent “society”) or a stylized sea landscape. Although the word “angel” does not appear at all in the libretto, if we are to believe that the composer’s feelings for  Mathilde Wesendonck were the early sparkles of inspiration for the opera, then we should remember that the first of her poems set to music by Wagner is… Der Engel. In any case, I really do not see any added insight to the understanding of the story or its interpretation. What one could clearly see was that walking on it was rather difficult and all singers had to watch their steps while trying to sing difficult music. I have not previously seen this staging, but I have the impression that the director’s original ideas might have faded since 2000. In many scenes, singers seemed a bit at a loss with their blocked gestures and tried to milk meaning from generalized stage attitudes. Even the charismatic Waltraud Meier had her clueless moments. If I had to single out someone, this would be Ian Storey, who knows how to scenically pull out act III better than almost anyone I have seen – live or on videos – in this role.

When it comes to the musical direction, Daniel Barenboim has no weak links in his monumental yet supple approach to the score. On his DVD from La Scala, a beautifully crafted act 1 would open the proceedings in the grand manner only to settle in less intense remaining acts. Not this evening. After a deep Furtwänglerian prelude when absolute structural clarity was paradoxically achieved in the context of sophisticated agogics, the first act took a while to take off – probably because the conductor had to accommodate his cast’s needs. From act II on, the performance gained in strength. The Staatskapelle Berlin was at its resplendent best, offering thick Wagnerian sound and breathtaking flexibility throughout. That meant that singers would now and then find themselves drowned in orchestral sound, but the trade-off paid itself – sometimes during the Liebesnacht one would feel that time stood still in sheer beauty of sound and clarity and dramatic purpose. But act III surpassed even these paramount levels. Never in my experience had it sounded as flowing as it did this evening – as it had been produced in one perfectly integrated arch from the first bars of the introduction to the Liebestod’s last chord.

Waltraud Meier has had an up-and-down experience with the role of Isolde. So far I’ve had bad luck live, but I cannot make my mind whether this evening was a lost opportunity. I would not say she was in bad voice, only that her voice was not willing to sing Isolde. It sounded lean and lyrical and resented the least dramatic turn of phrasing. A less experienced singer would have horribly failed. Not Waltraud, who husbanded her present resources with such shrewdness and imagination that she finally convinced me that she was experimenting with a Margaret Price-like approach to the role. On one hand, the lightness helped to create a more youthful and legato-ish sound that certainly brought about a more immediately romantic tonal palette to the role; on the other hand, she had many moments of inaudibility, pecked at high notes in an almost operetta-ish way and simply did not sing her act II high c’s. Later on, she would warm a bit and gather her strength to produce some loud Spitzentöne, some of them below true pitch. Some of these problems afflicted her Liebestod, but there she and Barenboim achieved such unity of phrasing that no-one could help but surrendering. In any case, that final scene was vastly superior to their studio recording in every sense.

As for Ian Storey, first of all, I must apologize for my opinion on his Tristan as heard at the Deutsche Oper a couple of months ago. Except from an extremely unfocused frenzy on hearing the news of Isolde’s arrival on act III, he sounded this time relatively comfortable with what he had to sing. His dark-toned tenor has a certain disconnected quality around the passaggio that brings about a marked flutter and loss of tonal quality, and his procedure to make his top notes incisive lets itself being noticed. But I don’t want to seem picky – his voice is big, warm and ductile and he has imagination, good taste and his general attitude fits the part. His Tristan finds the right balance between heroic and vulnerable, which is quite rare with Heldentenöre.

In spite of the soprano and the tenor’s achievements, the outstanding vocal performance this evening is beyond any doubt René Pape’s. This great bass sang with such richness, authority, sensitivity and sheer vocal glamour that one for once could feel that the act II monologue could be a bit longer!  In the performance booklet, Harry Kupfer suggests that King Marke and Tristan’s relationship goes beyond nephew/uncle and reaches an almost incestuous level. In this production, the similarity of age, the violence of feelings and the heartbreak in Pape’s voice almost make this bold assumption work.

Although Michelle DeYoung is not the subtlest Brangäne around, she was in very healthy voice and managed to pierce through the occasional thick and/or lound orchestral moment without forcing. I cannot say the same of Roman Trekel – the role of Kurwenal is on the heavy side for him and he sounded invariably rough and hard-pressed. He is an intelligent artist, however, and found space to add a discrete sense of humor to his lines.

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The first production of Wagner’s Die Walküre I have ever seen was precisely the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen at the Met back in 1997. I may have published my comments somewhere in this website, but the fact is that I remember it as if I saw it yesterday. Deborah Voigt was a creamy-toned Sieglinde and the fact that she was overweight posed no problem considering her dramatic engagement, Plácido Domingo was in beautiful if not entirely heroic voice as Siegmund, Hanna Schwarz looked short in her first appearance but seemed to end her scene taller than her Wotan so majestic was her bearing and so incisive was her singing and Gabriele Schnaut… Before you start grimacing, I can tell you that back in 1997 Gabriele Schnaut was a fantastic Brünnhilde. Except for tight top c’s and the absence of mezza voce, she was just perfect. Our Wotan was James Morris and – what can I say? – he was more than perfect. He will always be my favourite Wotan. I know everybody says Morris is too smooth, but I think Wotan must have an apollonian (after all, he is the Lichtalberich – the dark one is Alberich Alberich…). I remember, though, that the orchestra was not in a good day and I would only acknowledge Levine’s Wagnerian credentials in a superb Siegfried a couple of days later.

Seeing this production again eleven years later was like re-visiting in dreams people you have never seen again: there is a certain familiarity, but it is definitely not the same thing. To start with, although the sceneries still look beautiful in their Kaspar-David-Friedrich-ness , maybe it is time for a new production (even if it is another “traditional” one). I could neither sense any stage direction going on here – a regisseur pointing out entrances and exits at most. However, this performance breathes a fresh new excitement for me, due to the presence of Lorin Maazel at the pit. I don’t know if this has to do with the maestro’s legendary mastery of conducting technique, but rarely or maybe never have I listened to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in such great shape. Even the difficult passagework for the violins in the end of Act 1 was clearly articulated and you wouldn’t believe the perfect blending of rich soft-textured strings and glowing woodwind in the Walkürenritt. Also, the brass players can be proud for the almost complete absence of blunders. Some have complained about Maazel’s slow tempi – but that is nonsense. Not only do these tempi make musicians more comfortable for the extra polish displayed here, but also Maazel showed more than enough imagination to fill in the blanks offered by the more considerate pace. I was particularly impressed by the way the orchestra portrayed what Wotan explained to Brünnhilde in the long declamatory scene in Act 2 – that was the dictionary definition of what a truly Wagnerian conductor should accomplish as musical-dramatic expression.

Deborah Voigt has seen many changes in her life in these 11 years. Now she looks her part and seems even younger than she was in 1997, but as soon as you close your eyes, a shrewish tone, indifferent delivery of the text and complete absence of tone colouring soon dispel that impression. Only her big top notes remain to her advantage in this repertoire. Even her acting has become generalized and artificial. In that sense, I must admit that – in spite of her many flaws – I still preferred Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde. It is true that she started her performance with the Ho-jo-to-ho from hell, during which she sang not one note written by Richard Wagner, but this Australian soprano is a most intelligent and musicianly singer, who knows her German text as if that was her first language and who commands shapely and sensitive phrasing (provided she does not have to sing around a top a and above). I cannot deny that this is a significant drawback in this role and, as much as I am tempted to say that there must be one of those traditional tongue/throat/neck/you-name-it tension-problems impairing the flow of her top notes, I am more inclined to believe that she is no dramatic soprano, but rather a large-voiced lyric soprano trying to deal with hoch dramatisch roles. The basic sound of her voice is lyric to my years – it is a smooth, pleasant warm sound before it becomes tense in the higher reaches. She has all-right an impressively natural low register, but this is not a sign of a dramatic voice; otherwise, someone like, say, Carol Vaness would have to be labeled accordingly. Gasteen is also a very good actress and brought to her Brünnhilde a surprisingly teenage impatience and bravado, which I found particularly illuminating.

Michelle DeYoung’s debut at the Met also happened in that 1997 Ring at the Met (cycle B, if I am not mistaken) – she was Fricka in Das Rheingold. I remember I had a more positive impression of her voice then than I had tonight. She was a small-scaled and rather shallow-toned Fricka in this Walküre, but she is also a cunning artist and her astute word-pointing finally helped her to make her dramatic points clear. Clifton Forbis was a reliable Siegmund. His tenor can get off focus now and then and his high register may sound bottled-up at times, but this is a healthy big voice and he achieves really impressive results sometimes, such as neverending crescendo in Wälse, Wälse, wo ist dein Schwert?

As for James Morris, it is true that his luxuriant bass-baritone has lost some weight and power in a decade and that his tone has also become a bit more nasal and his mezza voce less spacious – but I don’t think any of his younger rivals can sing this difficult role as beautifully and expressively as he still does. I would add that his present resources are still entirely satisfying for this role – he still produces marvelous firm rich large sounds and anyone who saw him only tonight can claim to have seen the greatest Wotan of his generation.

Finally, Mikhail Petrenko is a decent Hunding, not particularly dark or menacing, but definitely unproblematic. I cannot forget to mention the impressive team of Valkyries gathered here – truly amazing.

You might have noticed that the title of this post mentions a third Walküre – it is the one to which I am listening right now on my iPod. It has also taken place at the Met and featured a famous conductor, but it also boasted the greatest cast of one’s life, which – alas -was not the case of tonight’s performance. I am talking about March 1st 1969, when Herbert von Karajan presided over another one of those greatest nights of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I was told that Karajan smuggled in many musicians from the NY Philharmonic to achieve that, but those were days when the Met’s house band had a notorious reputation. If you have never listened to this recording, don’t miss one more minute: Birgit Nilsson, Régine Crespin, Josephine Veasey, Jon Vickers, Theo Adam and Martti Talvela, all of them in great voice, and also a plugged-in Karajan, oozing energy from the pit. Those were truly great artists and personalities. Some might say that there was actually a great clash of personalities then, but it has certainly paid off.

[I feel I might be rambling, but if you think that Karajan’s rather highbrow DGG Walküre is a cosmetic affair, you should also sample his live performance at Salzburg, in which Régine Crespin and Gundula Janowitz are even more impressive than in the studio.]

PS – Maybe this has no importance, but I guess I saw Donald McIntyre near the box office at the Met. So I saw two Wotans at the same evening.

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