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Posts Tagged ‘Nina Stemme’

Patrice Chéreau was a stage director of legendary status, his final production of R. Strauss’s Elektra a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Festival d’ Aix-en-Provence, the Finnish National Opera, the Lindenoper in Berlin and the Liceu in Barcelona. Although many reviewers tend to prefer original productions (especially when the “imported” one is preceded by a video release, as in this case), the whole venture is such a candidate for an entry in the history of operatic performance that audiences all around the world seem eager to see it live in their cities. The Met decided to make it more alluring by featuring Nina Stemme’s Elektra, a role added to her repertoire only last year in Vienna.  The DVD (with Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role) has shown the production for Straussians all over the world, and I can do nothing but confirm Chéreau’s masterly Personenregie (here revived by Vincent Huguet) and his unprejudiced view of these characters, finding palpable feeling in a tragedy that often tends to the monumental.

Nina Stemme declared that she learned from Kristin Scott-Thomas’s performance in the Old Vic’s staging of Sophocles’s Electra. That was a very intelligent exercise – Scott-Thomas built her character not on increasing tension, but around a delicate mix of scorn, frustration, sarcasm and, most importantly, the strife for restoration, for making things right again. Her Electra had to kill the woman Clitemnestra had become to have back her mother as she was and should have always been. Stemme is no Birgit Nilsson – her voice lacks the steel and the flashiness to portray an unrelenting fury. This Elektra is more comfortable wailing for her father, trying to lure her sister and regaining her vulnerability in her encounter with Orest. Although it is big enough a voice, this role exposes its essentially lyric, warm-toned and soft-grained quality. Although she hit her two high c’s commendably, exposed dramatic notes often required some preparation and sounded forced compared to the moments in which she could attack softly and soar in high-lying cantabile. Her low register was often cloudy and the text was not always crispy, but this was offset by the expressive quality of her phrasing. For instance, the last ” duet”  with Chrysothemis never sounded so touching as this evening, both sopranos floating her high registers as Arabella and Zdenka would do some years later: these sisters were finally sisters again.

Adrianne Pieczonka was an intense, solid Chrysothemis. Her high register could sound effortful and, from some point on, raspish, but she refused to let her character sink in the background (as it often happens). My ten or eleven readers know that I do not think that Waltraud Meier has the voice for the role of Klytämnestra, in spite of her dramatic intelligence and pyshcological awareness. However, vocally speaking, this was probably the best performance I’ve heard from her in this role. The low register had a little bit more color than usual – and that makes a lot of difference in this role. I don’t think, however, that those in the Family Circle could really HEAR that. Burkhardt Ulrich  (Aegysth), too, had some trouble piercing through. That was definitely not a problem for Eric Owens’s admirably dark-toned, voluminous, grave yet surprisingly clear-eyed Orest. Minor roles had plenty of enderaing surprises – an intense, firm-toned Fifth Maid from Roberta Alexander (I’ve really cherished the opportunity of finally seeing her live) and Susan Neves showing what dramatic high notes really sound like as the Aufseherin.

Although this was an interesting cast, this performance was really special because of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exemplary conducting. First, he truly understands the musical-dramatic effects and its internal relations. Second, the optimal level of balance (in the orchestra and with his singers) allowed him absolute transparence. While one felt as if reading the score, he or she would also be costantly surprised by how eloquent and powerful this score is. Third, Mr. Salonen never resorted to loudness, abruptness and grandiloquence. The Met orchestra rarely sounded so crystalline and flexible.

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Tannhäuser is the last Wagner opera that Marek Janowski and the RSB are presenting in the Philharmonie before they tackle the Ring. Other than the Ring, it was probably also the only non-Ring opera that Janowski recorded on studio (albeit incomplete, as the soundtrack for Istvan Szabo’s movie Meeting Venus – Kiri Te Kanawa’s only Wagner recording, if you don’t count the Waldvogel in Haitink’s Siegfried or one Blumenmädchen in Solti’s Parsifal). It has been a while since then, which now is going to be an interesting pendant to the live recording  made this evening – while the 1993 release (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) presented the point of view of “Tannhäuser as fully mature Wagner”, the concert this evening showed it still enveloped in a post-Weberian atmosphere (or maybe it it is because I have seen Das Liebesverbot only this week…) – with lean, bright orchestral sonorities, cleanly articulated strings, an a tempo-approach to rhythms and an almost objective interpretation: no manipulation of dynamics, tempi or phrasing to create momentum. Each act developed spontaneously and naturally to their climactic final ensembles. These choices fit the RSB’s natural sound (which is not German-style beefy in itself). It is a pity, though, that the French horns were not in their best shape this evening. The Rundfunkchor Berlin was a strong feature this evening, especially the men. I just wonder why nobody wants to perform the “Paris” version anymore – I really don’t care if it does not really “matches” the rest of the opera. It is MARVELOUS music and I cannot understand why a conductor wouldn’t want to perform it.

Although Nina Stemme’s voice is a bit too mature for the virginal Elisabeth, she proved to master the ability of producing large-scaled Innigkeit, suggesting the necessary vulnerability in clean phrasing and aptly controlled fervor. She was also in splendid voice – full, warm and naturally voluminous. It is doubly regrettable that the “Paris” version was not used this evening, for Marina Prudenskaya would certainly be more than capable of tacking the extra challenge. I have heard her before only in small roles – and did not know the full extension of her voice. Her big, dark yet focused and ductile mezzo is entirely at home in Wagner – she does not need to force and phrases with homogeneity and elegance. If her interpretation is still a bit unspecific, this is only because she needs a bit more experience in the repertoire. And I am sure that there won’t be lack of opportunities for that – I cannot think of anyone else around closer to the physique du rôle in the operatic stages . The third female singer in the cast did not let down either – Bianca Reim has the ideal voice for the Shepherd, clear, pure and almost boyish.

Replacing an indisposed Torsten Kerl (who isn’t these days?!), Robert Dean Smith displayed amazing technical security and musicianship. It is a pity that his tenor lacks squillo in its higher register (what made him a bit inaudible in ensembles), but that it is the only thing one could complain about this evening. He  sang with unfailing good taste, flowing quality, crystalline diction and breathtakingly long breath. The fact that the role is not very close to his personality – I am afraid that there is not an ounce of wildness in someone one would rather describe as debonair – even made me rethink the role of Tannhäuser. This evening, there was no revolutionary artist trying fighting the establishment, but rather a harmless, heart-on-sleeve fellow who is suddenly told he is a sinner even without understanding exactly why. In this sense, the contrast to Christian Gerhaher’s extremely mannered Wolfram also worked as a dramatic point. This German baritone has a very beautiful voice and I know that I am alone in my opinion here, but I find annoying the way he sings without any legato, stressing this and that syllable, singing some notes unsupported and white toned or, when more energy is required, hectoring his way along in end-of-career Fischer-Dieskau-ian style. Fortunately, the Abendstern song prompted him to let the music speak for itself, and the result couldn’t be better: this was one of the highlights of this evening. Although there were rusty patches in Albert Dohmen’s singing, he was in far better voice than last time I saw him in Lohengrin and offered a very commendable performance . Finally, Peter Sonn was a very secure and forceful Walther. His is an interesting voice – but he could benefit from a more liquid, round-toned, natural phrasing.

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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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According to the program of his staging of Das Rheingold, director Guy Cassiers believes his Ring is a Ring of the “present moment” as an opposition to a historical approach. Although his dramaturgs’ grandiloquent ideas hardly make into what one sees on stage, he might have  unintentionally achieved his aim by producing the first ever interactive staging of the Ring. First, he has done the unthinkable feat of creating consensus among Wagnerians. Yes, the ballet dancers are gone! La Scala’s bible-like program even shows photos of two green ones hanging from ropes, but it seem that the audience has had the last word and they were dispatched back to where they should have never left. The Corriere de la Sera has also published an article where Waltraud Meier says that the director does not help its cast and is more concentrated on his video projections. Although this kind of pre-première statement is usually considered ungentlemanly (or, in the case, unladylike…), readers seemed to have taken her side. Maybe that is why she (and, for that matter, neither Siegmund) are not wearing the elaborate costumes portrayed in the program.

In any case, Meier has a point – if there is any stage direction to speak of in this production, one probably has to wear 3-D glasses to see it… The approach to acting as seen this evening is basic the classical stand-and-deliver while remaining singers on stage basically watch it with generalized concerned expressions. Not Waltraud Meier, who tries to apply her famous histrionic skills when she finds space for that. It is true that her maneuvers may have become something of a routine by now, but they have actually rescued many scenes of complete boredom. I have to confess that I find her understanding of change of moods in the final act really masterly. Although stage direction is supposed to be the main element of a staging, there is more than that in a staging – and expertly devised sets, costumes and effects can ultimately deliver what is missing elsewhere. Not here, I am afraid. Mr. Cassiers’s philosophically and psychologically overcharged ideas are often scenically realized with the depth of a schoolboy’s drawing. As a result, the audience has to deal with very elementary imagery (and remember: clueless and cueless actors) in a long opera. The depthlessness of Hunding’s house is portrayed with… video projections showing a fireplace, just like those DVDs you can buy to pretend you have a fireplace. It made me afraid that they would use the fishbowl one in the next scene. And there are giant white toothpicks – I know they are supposed to be giant spears, but they look like giant toothpicks – landing on stage during Winterstürme. The toothpicks are such important stage devices that they become… tree trunks in the forest-landscape of act II. Images are, of course, projected on them – when singer sings about Glut, you have… flames, for example. After all, how the audience would understand the reference without it? During the Siegmund/Brünnhilde scene, the projection of a leaf-canopy becomes sequences of falling computer numbers. I thought it was just my imagination, but that is indeed a quote from Matrix. Remember – this is a Ring of the “present time”… In act III, the Walkürenritt is a group of ladies in stylized black Victorian dresses on top of wood-crates. And Brünnhilde’s magic fire is 10 or 11 red steaming lamps (two of them not working). Wotan’s costumes suggests that he was found in a dumpsite, that Brünnhilde is a regular at the party-scene in Berlin, that Fricka has just come from Paris Fashion Week and that Sieglinde and Siegmund are actually using the costumes borrowed from a normal staging of Die Walküre.

As you see, one had to concentrate on the musical side of the performance. And that also required some sort of commitment from the audience. The house orchestra clearly was not in the mood. Daniel Barenboim quickly understood that making energetic gestures did not elicit from these musicians any extra ounce of enthusiasm, so he started to make energetic noises. To very little avail. From some point on, I started to suspect that the noises were meant to show the audience that he was trying. If I have to be fair, a great share of responsibility for the act-1 debacle goes to the singers. Waltraud Meier was simply not in good voice. As always, she is such a cunning performer that she took any opportunity for quiet singing to score her interpretative points, but she could not really sing anything relatively high above mezzo forte. She was clearly saving for act III, where her understated and heartfelt account of the Redemption motive fitted her waning vocal resources*. Replacing Simon O’Neill, Frank van Aken was so visibly nervous that it is almost a miracle that something really bad did not happen. He lacked concentration, had a hit-or-miss approach to breathing (he often let go breathing pauses only to get breathless in the next ten seconds) and does not really seem to have a natural Siegmund voice. As heard here, the tonal quality was often curdled and the sound had a patch of nasality. I would really need to see him under other circumstances to say something. Next to John Tomlinson, tenor and soprano sounded mousy. But he was approximative with pitch and overcareful with the high end of his range. The lack of direction made his Hunding particularly short of menace. Having to deal with this situation, the conductor could do nothing but play down an orchestra that has no tonal refulgence in softer dynamics.

Act II took off more promisingly. The orchestra had a more positive, if not necessarily polished or exciting sound and some fresh-voiced singers left the maestro more operational space. I have often read about how Nina Stemme can be a special singers, but my only experience with her (a closing scene from R. Strauss’s Salome with Ingo Metzmacher and the DSO in the Philharmonie Berlin) was quite disappointing. I am glad to say that this evening I could finally have the complete Nina-Stemme-experience. First of all, she was in excellent voice and, although she does not have the bright-toned impact of Irène Théorin, she offers the modern version of the Helen-Traubel-approach to Brünnhilde, with her round, plush, extra warm soprano with impressively sensuous low notes and seamless legato. Although one can feel that the exposed top notes require some preparation from her, she offered very commendable Ho-jo-to-ho‘s and transported the audience to a state of grace with her exquisite account of the act 3 Wotan/Brünnhilde scene, when her command of dynamic effects and expressive, shapely phrasing could melt a Wagnerian heart. She has also a very positive stage presence and made the best of very little. To make things better, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova offered a Fricka in the grand manner. Her full-toned, rich singing was matched by her intense delivery of her demands to Wotan and by her regal bearing. Finally, Ukranian bass-baritone Vitalij Kowaljow is a name to keep. He still has to develop his performance and ran a bit out of steam by the end, but he is a legitimate Wagnerian Heldenbariton and offered a far more secure account of the role than both Mark Delavan in Berlin and Albert Dohmen in Bayreuth earlier this year. These singers added a new life to the performance and, around act 3, the atmosphere was entirely changed. La Scala’s orchestra never achieved true brio this evening, but at least the proceedings acquired a Wagnerian scale after the second intermission. If I had a question to Mr. Barenboim, this would be – why keeping such considerate tempi with an orchestra that cannot fill in the slow pace with a big, intense sound? If that contributed to beautiful chamber-like sonorities in Brünnhilde’s pleas to Wotan in their last scene, it robbed most of any other moment of nobility and profoundness.

* disclaimer: I really like Waltraud Meier’s more intimate O hehrstes Wunder! For me, it describes more effectively Sieglinde’s gratitude than the usual full-powers approach.

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