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Posts Tagged ‘New National Theatre Tokyo’

Although Die tote Stadt is considered Korngold’s best opera, it had fallen of grace since the days when divas like Maria Jeritza appeared in it in opera houses like the Met. Until the 1980’s, when the Deutsche Oper (with Karan Armstrong and James King) gave it a try and performances occasionally but increasingly pop up here and there. I had never seen it live and know it from Erich Leinsdorf’s recording with Carol Neblett, René Kollo and Hermann Prey. I have to say that I still have to learn to like Korngold, but it is also true that I’ve never tried really hard. In any case, I had very low expectations, and this is always helpful in these situations.

On listening again to the Leinsdorf CDs, I’ve almost changed my mind about actually going to the New National Theatre today: the plot is bizarre, the demands on singers and orchestra are extreme, the music rarely takes off and, when it does, it turns out quite kitsch. Fortunately, the forces involved in this production – developed for the Finnish National Opera as seen on video with Camilla Nylund and Klaus Florian Vogt – took the challenge seriously. I cannot blame director Kasper Holten for sanitizing the staging of its pierrots, nuns, orgiastic dance numbers and gondolas. He has also found a not unwelcome comedy touch in serious scenes that helped the audience to indulge into something suspension of disbelief. However, the grotesque is a bit part of the story and this opera loses some of its flavor when rescued from its cheesiness. Conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink too has decided to deny it its operetta-ish undertones and go for the Frau-ohne-Schatten approach. And for someone like me who hasn’t yet acquired the taste for this opera, this seemed the right decision. The performance moved forward without indulgence, highlighting the coloristic orchestration and preferring objectivity to sentimentality. Of course, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is not Leinsdorf’s Müncher Rundfunkorchester, but – even if its strings like warmth and weight – these musicians played with great animation. Unfortunately, the effort would become more noticeable during the opera. The prelude to the third act was everything but polished. But the animation was still there – and that the conductor could keep it throughout is really praiseworthy.

I had seen Meagan Miller just once before – as Elisabeth here in the New National Theatre. It seems that bad girls bring the best in her. Although the voice lacks a distinctive color, has many tremulous moment and phrasing can be bumpy, she gave an exciting performance in the role of Marietta. First, her big lyric soprano is the voice for the role. Second, the high tessitura shows her best qualities (round, effortless top notes and endless stamina). Third, the provocative character suits her vocal nature better than the spiritual subtlety of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Also, although she wouldn’t convince anyone that she could be a dancer, she seemed to be having the time of her life playing the femme fatale. It is hardly her fault if Torsten Kerl was this afternoon’s shining star. His spontaneous, glitch-free tenor gleams in this demanding part. And he sings elegantly and musicianly too. Under a conductor who never forgot his singers, his jugendlich dramatisch voice could be heard without problem. Moreover, if René Kollo sounds more tormented in the CDs, it is Kerl who makes this music sound singable and expressive in his tasteful legato and almost classical poise. I would say that the director did not seem to demand from him any sort of spiritual torment, the approach being rather detached and caricatured rather than internalized or intense. I had previously seen Anton Keremidtchev as Macbeth in Berlin and was positively surprised by the German side of his repertoire. His rich, sizable voice worked very well both in Frank’s conversational phrasing and in Fritz’s aria, in which I curiously didn’t miss Hermann Prey’s sophistication and variety. Although Makiko Yamashita (Brigitta) was not very clear in diction, her voice is extremely pleasant and the singer is stylish. All minor roles were well cast too.

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Once when I showed a video of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Madama Butterfly to a Japanese friend, she would say “eeeh… that’s so strange” every 30 seconds. As I had never seen any Japanese production of Puccini’s Japanese opera, I thought that Tamiya Kuriyama’s 2005 staging for the New National Theatre could be a good opportunity to check if the Western stagings I had previously seen would look so different in comparison. Well, I am glad to see that European directors are not terribly off the mark. The big picture this evening was quite similar to what I had previously experienced in New York and in Berlin. Of course, there was a plethora of tiny details that made an important cumulative effect, but I guess those are only noticeable once you’ve lived in Japan. As it is, Kuriyama does not try to relate this to any form of Japanese theatre or any other Japanese traditional art. The scenery is stylized in an almost detached way – Butterfly’s house has no walls but for some shouji upstage, you know that her wedding takes place in autumn for the kouyou leaves on the floor and that Pinkerton comes back in spring for the sakura that replaces them. Other than this, costumes and props are quite “Japanese”.

If someone is responsible for some atmosphere here this is conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who has done a splendid job in her symphonic approach, good ear for color effects, eschewal of sentimentality and a sense of theatre that has nothing to do with gimmickry. The Tokyo Symphony showed itself at its most engaged and the always excellent choristers offered a haunting humming chorus. Ms. Wilson is a conductor I would like to hear again in an opera house. She was lucky to have Alexia Voulgaridou in the title role. Although the part is a bit on the heavy side for her  (the first part of act II found her a bit tired and she went off steam in her big aria, for instance), her velvety, floating soprano, incapable of a shrill sound, has the necessary youthful tone and morbidezza for this role. She has obviously studied Mirella Freni’s recording for Karajan and was able to produce on stage the famous Italian soprano’s vulnerability, congeniality and sincerity. In spite of the occasional awkward turn of phrase, this was an inspired and touching performance, helped by the Bulgarian soprano’s ideal physique and reasonable acting abilities. It is sad that a more persuasive Pinkerton could not be found: Mikhail Agafonov squeezes his high notes and is not intonation’s best friend. Tomoko Obayashi’s dark-toned and well-focused mezzo was ideally employed for Suzuki. Furthermore, she could produce a less two-dimensional characterization of a role often restricted to cardboard level. Eijiro Kai too was an above-average Sharpless. His tone has a pleasant, warm sound and he is capable of nuance.

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