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Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’

I have seen wonderful performances at the Met and occasionally some bad ones – but tonight’s Don Giovanni is probably the most lacklustre I have ever seen in that prestigious opera house. Frankly, I left the theatre wondering why it was found necessary to stage it at all.  I understand that the selling feature is supposed to be Erwin Schrott’s Don Giovanni – but again is it still something surprising enough to justify a second-rate staging in which Schrott’s manic Don Giovanni seems entirely ill-at-ease?

In any case, Erwin Schrott is still the shining feature in the whole staging. He has the voice, the attitude and the physique du rôle. More than that, his almost frantic approach fits the part (I wouldn’t say the same of his Figaro, though). He knows Da Ponte’s text and is free to explore the many theatrical possibilities it allows. When the Leporello is available for this interaction, the whole show gains a lot from that – and Ildar Abdrazakov established a good partnership with his Don Giovanni. It is only a pity that his voice seems to have shrunk both in volume and range since last time I saw him. On the other hand, I felt sorry for Susan Graham, who seemed a bit disturbed by Schrott’s ad libs. She missed her line twice because of that and I believe it is somehow ungracious to unbalance a colleague like that on stage.

In any case, Graham had other problems to deal with. I have written that before – casting a mezzo as Donna Elvira is a troublesome affair. Truth be said, she was probably the less unsuccessful example of this rule I can report so far. She has exemplary control of divisions, floats lovely high pianissimi and has attitude to spare, not to mention that few singers in my experience showed such understanding of the role’s mezzo carattere nature. That said, the tonal quality was pale, legato was mostly nonexistent and pitch was approximative. Mi tradì did not sound comfortable, even with the adjustments, but emotionally tame and vocally only correct.

Krassimira Stoyanova’s Donna Anna was something of an irritating experience to me – up to a high g, her performance was exemplary – her voice was once firm, forward, clear and flexible – everything a Mozartian voice must be. Above that, if we are not talking of her lovely floated pianissimi, the tone was otherwise constricted, bottled up, not truly in pitch, unfocused. We got the Waldseligkeit-version of Or sai chi l’onore with enough mezza voce to make Montserrat Caballé envious. Non mi dir fared a little bit better (and I must acknowledge that she brought more spirit into it than many a famous prima donna), but the recessed tonal quality of her high register seriously needs rethinking.

Matthew Polenzani used to have an almost Wunderlich-ian voice and I had great hopes in him. I don’t know if the frequentation of heavier works is to blame, but the juice in his tone is mostly gone. He still leaves a positive impression with his elegant phrasing, ease with softer dynamics and good taste. I cannot say the same of Monica Yunus (a replacement for Isabel Leonard). Her hallmark role is Papagena – and one could guess that from the metallic, unfocused sound she produced throughout. Unfortunately, Phillip Ens’s Commendatore was too rusty and curdled.

If Don Giovanni was a divertimento,  Louis Langrée’s conducting would be exemplary. Everything exuded elegance, the accompanying figures in the orchestra had an admirable cantabile quality and the structural clairity was something to marvel. The house band accordingly produced a light, supple sound. However, Don Giovanni is not a divertimento – and I expected more from someone who can offer theatrical accounts of Mozart’s sacred music…

Marthe Keller’s production is discrete to the point of being indifferent. Everything looks beige, the closing scene is an anti-climax, the costumes are idiossincratic… Really, Peter Gelb’s “new Met” could do better.

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A review of the new DVD from Zürich with the Harnoncourt/Kusej Zauberflöte has been added to the discography in re:opera (look right for the link). It is a pity that the talent of the marvelous Mozartian soprano Julia Kleiter has been wasted in such a lamentable production. She is indeed an underrated singer who deserves more attention. She would have been an immense improvement in the Met’s last Clemenza di Tito (in which Heidi Grant Murphy was Servilia) or, for instance, in their Zauberflöte (in which Lisa Milne was the most frequent Pamina). Think about it. (I mention the Met, because it was precisely in New York the only time I saw Kleiter live, in a secondary role in Bychkov’s performance of R. Strauss’s Daphne at the Carnegie Hall).

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A review of Gustav Kuhn’s Così Fan Tutte (live from Macerata in 1991) has been added to the discography in re: opera (please find the link on the right). I have to confess that despite the minor flaws, Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Fiordiligi is really impressive. It is a pity I was never able to listen to the broadcast of her Dorabella (with Melanie Diener’s Fiordiligi and Abbado conducting)…

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If Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is now part of the repertory of the world’s opera houses, James Levine has had a great share of responsibility in it. He saw in Mozart’s last opera a “neglected masterpiece” and helped to make it widely known in a Unitel production directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle available on VHS, LD and then DVD featuring Tatiana Troyanos in the role of Sesto, a legendary impersonation. In various seasons in the Metropolitan Opera, this opera has seen glamourous casting with the likes of Renata Scotto, Anne Sofie von Otter, Ben Heppner et al.

Then today, for the first time, the opera was performed at the Met with a conductor other than James Levine. As much as Harry Bicket offered us a most reliable account of this score, I still believe Levine’s love for this music would have made some difference. As performed tonight, sometimes expression and grandeur were achieved with the expense of clarity. The old Ponnelle production holds its own better than its twin sister production, the same director’s Idomeneo for the same theatre. Ponnelle’s static and overformal stage direction (here revived by Laurie Feldman – but you just have to see the video to see its fidelity to the original) may look silly for those not used to opera seria, but it is otherwise refreshing not to see the story carelessly adapted into a corporate drama or a former East European dictatorship…

Lucia Popp once said that a singer has only six days per year when his or her voice is in such excellent shape that you know beforehand that everything is going to be perfect. In the title role, Ramón Vargas was clearly not in one of these days. His tenor lacked brightness during the entire first act and he tried to compensate that with upwards decoration that only brought upon an impression of effort. The intermission proved to be healthy for him. The voice sounded more natural and he handled the difficult coloratura in Se all’impero with confidence and accuracy. In the finale ultimo, few other tenors would pierce through the remaining soloists, chorus and orchestra as he did tonight. Considering the positive results, all I can say is that he must be one of the truly great Titos in a good-voice day.

Although Susan Graham sounds these days more like a short soprano than a mezzo, her sensitive account of the role of Sesto is truly touching. She is a natural Mozartian and dealt with the fireworks of the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio with panache and could break anyone’s heart with her deeply felt Deh per questo istante solo. In the difficult role of Vitellia, Tamar Iveri had everything in her favour but a more powerful voice. In a smaller hall, she should work to the right effect in this role. At the Met, her rich flexible soprano tended to disappear in ensembles. In the trio Vengo, aspettate, for instance, she was barely hearable. On a positive note, she negotiated the low notes quite commendably and displayed the right temper for the role. Although Non più di fiori is not usually billed as a mad scene, it fulfills the basic requirements for that – and the Georgian soprano explored this concept most successfully.

Both Anke Vondung and Oren Gradus offered reliable performances as Annio and Publio. Only Heidi Grant Murphy twittery and shallow soprano was below the level of acceptability, what is a pity considering the lovely aria reserved for Servilia.

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Mozart’s over-the-top-on-purpose Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail has been performed only 67 times in the Metropolitan Opera House. Some might say that the German dialogues might have something to do with that; I would rather blame the impossible casting: something like the German version of a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a flexible lyric tenor with an absolutely free top register, a soubrette with in alts and a basso profondo (profondissimo?) with perfect control of divisions and ease for patter… in German. If you check the discography, most symptomatically no recording features a cast like that.

You might imagine how much of a challenge this work is for any opera house. If the Met did not produce a cast in the standards of a Gruberová/Araiza/Moll-team, it is only because singers like that do no exist these days. Before I am accused of ungenerosity, I hasten to explain that I am convinced that today’s is the best possible casting one could think of. In the case of Matthew Polenzani, I still wonder if he does not belong to the shortlist of great Belmontes. It is true that the frequentation of heavier roles has robbed a bit of the golden quality of his tenor, but he still sings it with impressive fluency and richness of tone. Probably only Wunderlich would offer such liquid warmth in this demanding role. What I’ve missed is precisely the way the legendary German tenor caressed his fioriture, while Polenzani sounds a bit as if he were really looking forward to the end of every fastidious melisma. Belmontes less gifted by nature – such as Kurt Streit or the late Deon van der Walt – finally pulled out more convincing results in those tricky moments. Maybe this unease explains the adoption of the simplified version of Wenn der Freuden.

Diana Damrau could be a great Konstanze – she does have a most spontaneous high register, impressively clean fioriture and some heft. More solid low notes would help, but that is a problem even some very great Konstanzes (such as Gruberová) had to deal with. However, what will always remain a liability in Mozartian repertoire (with the possible exception of the Queen of the Night, the role that made Damrau famous) is an impure, metallic, harsh quality in her vocal production that devoids it entirely of loveliness. I am dying to use the word “focus” (because I use it a lot), but that is exactly what her soprano wants. The lack of focus prevents her from producing clean trills, from piercing through ensembles when in her middle and low registers and finally and most seriously from offering truly consistent legato. I notice she is a very energetic person – and sometimes singers with such disposition tend to overkill a bit. In any case, I don’t wish to complain about her performance: Diana Damrau is an extraordinarily intelligent singer, who invests her lines and phrases with such dramatic understanding and meaning that one cannot help enjoying her work. Her ease with mezza voce is also a strong asset. The descending serpentine phrasing in the end of Traurigkeit has rarely been so expressively handled and the way she blended her voice with the strings in des Himmels Segen belohne dich (in Matern aller Arten) was spellbinding.

Kristinn Sigmundsson was an excellent Osmin. The extreme low notes were not his best moments (as with almost every bass in this role), but his dark firm tone, his flexibility, imagination and sheer charisma were more than compensation. I had only seen this Icelandic Bass in serious roles and did not know he had such a bent for comedy!

Aleksandra Kurzak has the right quicksilvery voice for Blondchen and did not seem fazed with the very high notes in Dürch Zärtlichkeit. On the other hand, the voice lacks some substance and Welche Wonne, Welche Lust was a bit brittle. I felt somewhat sorry for Steve Davislim. He does not seem to be a very playful fellow and did seem a bit annoyed with having to play the ebullient Pedrillo. That did not prevent him from offering a firm-toned Frisch zum Kampfe, though.

It must sound surprising, however, that the shining feature of today’s performance was David Roberton’s masterly conducting. Rarely have I seen the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra so adept in Mozart style as today – the strings were entirely at ease with the rapid passagework, the level of clarity was admirable, not to mention the sense of animation so important in this score. Robertson offered vigorous, crystalline and dramatic alert conducting – the overture itself was exemplary in the way it filled the “Turkish” and “European” themes with the sense of storytelling.

If I am not mistaken, John Dexter’s is the Met’s old production from 1979. It still looks well in its Henri Rousseau-like portrayal of a cardboard Turkey. Some costumes look a bit 70’s-bound and the stage direction is only fair, if unobtrusive. I have to confess a more positive Selim than Matthias von Stegmann would be helpful. His portrayal is so devoid of menace and passion that it makes difficult to understand why Konstanze would fear or respect him at all.

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James Robinson’ s production of Mozart’ s Abduction from the Seraglio for the Boston Lyric Opera has the action transferred to a train trip in the Orient Express, depicted as three wagons that move lengthwise according to each scene. In this concept, the Pasha Selim is a dandy, Blondchen is self-interested and smokes a lot and Osmin… well, Osmin resists updating and stays more or less like he usually is. Listening to the text translated to English has less to do with the feeling of musical theater than the slapstick comedy touches. Actually, there are many imaginative ideas going on there and the singers/actors generally cope well with the stage director’ s demands, which is mostly attentive to the text in order to avoid mismatch between what we see and what the text says. As for the translation, the flowing nature of English language robs a great deal of the cacophonic patter explored by Mozart in this Singspiel – Osmin and Blondchen’ s duet is the main victim of that.

Considering that we were probably hearing a pick-up band, conductor Willie Anthony Waters did a good job on playing safe and choosing considerate tempi in order to achieve clarity and finish. The results were hardly illuminating, but decent and unobtrusive. He is also a most attentive maestro for singers, helping them through difficult passages – something to be cherished considered the limits of his cast.

Mary Dunleavy has sung bel canto roles at the Metropolitan Opera House, but from what I could see today hers is rather a light coloratura struggling through a role helplessly heavy for her. The basic sound is remniscent of Natalie Dessay’s, except that she is strained when required to sing anything above high c (a liability in this role), her runs have their dangerous moments and she cannot float a mezza voce to save her life. Although she is a musicianly and sensitive artist, her singing makes one realize how difficult the role of Konstanze is. I understand that at this stage of her career, she must take risks to continue on the limelight, but heavy usages as this one cannot be healthy. Her Blondchen, Amanda Pabyan, is in the beginning of her career, but her grainy and metallic soprano sound distinctively less pleasant and young-sounding, in spite of a likeable personality and theatrical commitment. Norman Reinhardt’ s Belmonte was far more accomplished – he is a stylish Mozartian with more than enough technique to deal with the tricky writing Mozart reserved him. It is not the dulcet voice one expects to hear in this role, though. Timothy Oliver is a congenial Pedrillo, but the heroic patches of Frisch zum Kampfe test him. My first impression of David M. Cushing’ s bass is that it seriously lack focus. It is a sizeable and dark enough instrument and he is more precise with his divisions than many a famous singer recorded in studios on the other hand. I was going to say he is a bit short in the impossibly lower end of his range – but that is a sin he shares with almost everyone else, isn’t it?

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Just to say that a review of Eugen Jochum’s Così Fan’ Tutte on DG has been added to re: opera (please find the link on the right of the page).

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