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La Gazza Ladra is considered by many Rossini’s most original opera, the one in which comedy and tragedy are most perfectly connected and theatrical conventions then in force were most frontally and effectively challenged. Then the question is: why is it so rarely staged? And the answer is very simple: the vocal parts are so difficult and the acting requirements are so considerable that opera houses usually find it safer simply to refrain from staging it at all. For instance, for a long while, the only available recording had been made live with Katia Ricciarelli as Ninetta, Luciana d’Intino as Lucia, Bernadette Manca di Nissa as Pippo, William Matteuzzi as Gianetto, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fernando and Samuel Ramey as the Podestà. Although one would kill to see a cast like this, reviewers had called it a hands off because the romantic couple is sung by singers past their prime. Let’s consider it a tribute to their artistries that they still hold their own quite easily considering the competition.

For instance, this evening’s Ninetta, Sophie Bevan, shares with Ricciarelli a creamy tonal quality and a natural feeling for classical style, but, although she is far younger than Ricciarelli at the time of the recording, she too sounds strained when things get high – and also often unfocused and sometimes hooty. If her coloratura is nimbler than her predecessor’s, the Italian soprano had a far more substantial voice, a quality much missed this evening. In any case, Bevan has a congenial stage presence and is dramatically fully committed. As much as Matteuzzi’s, Francisco Brito’s tenor has a quite nasal sound. However, that does not ensure him the kind of brightness usually associated to it: the voice does not pierce through easily and his high notes come through as effortful.

Katarina Leoson (Lucia) is no Luciana d’Intino, but her voice has enough volume and flexibility, if not an individual tonal quality. Alexandra Kadurina (Pippo) sang her act II duet with Ninetta most sensitively, but sounded small-scaled elsewhere. Although Jonathan Lemalu had his woolly moments, he sang with imagination and sense of style, his overgenerous vibrato here less bothersome than usual. I leave the best for last: even if one can hear that there still room for development in Kihwan Sim’s singing, what he is doing now (as we could hear in his performance of the role of the Podestà) is already quite impressive. His forceful bass voice is extremely flexible, the sound is firm, dark and pleasant and he has attitude. He can certainly go places.

Conductor Henrik Nánási likes his Rossini fast and intense, and the fact that his orchestra was working noticeably hard to follow him did not seem a sign that maybe he should give his musicians a little bit more leeway. As it was, although the intentions were honorable, the results were often jagged and sometimes messy, what prevented some of the numbers with softer affetti to achieve true touchingness. This was made even more difficult by director David Alden’s refuse to take these characters seriously and to go for the slapstick approach, even in the serious passages. As a matter of fact, seriousness has been replaced by some sort of political agenda involving  Jewish question. The libretto has one rather stereotyped Jewish character, who is shown as amiable by the librettist, while Alden makes him someone quite nasty. Why then making all involved with Ninetta’s trial Jewish? While making little of Ninetta’s predicament? Is it really La Gazza Ladra’s story?! In the end, it all sounded excuse for some empty stylization. For me, it was only noise to Rossini’s music.

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La Fanciulla del West is probably no one’s favorite opera; although Puccini’s imaginative writing for the orchestra and harmonic adventurousness are often mentioned, the whole spaghetti western impression comes across are unforgivably kitsch for most opera goers. This is why the fact that director Christof Loy had not decided to rescue it from its innocence is what makes his staging particularly effective. His Golden West is a place of need for affection – almost every character yearn for their moms and behave in a childlike way. If you don’t take this in face value, the whole story seems awkward and silly. In this staging, this emotional need takes pride of place and even if the production could be described as “traditional”, it ultimately does not look traditional because it feels realistic in its almost Scandinavian movie restraint (it happens to be a coproduction with Stockholm’s Kungliga Operan). Under Loy’s direction, almost every one on stage offer convincing acting.

With her Claudette Colbert-like cheekbones, Barbara Haveman could have been a realistic leading actress in a Western movies if she had been born some decades earlier. Actually, she is at any rate a very accomplished actress full stop. Whenever she is on stage, it is very difficult to look away. And she happens to be a very compelling singer too. Her lyric soprano is not very distinctive in itself but for the fact that it always sounds natural, feminine and unforced. Naturally, the role of Minnie is on the heavy side for her, but her good technique makes it entirely functional in a small house such as the Oper Frankfurt: she masters the art of exploring her chest register as few transalpine sopranos and deals with exposed dramatic acuti rather by letting her voice spin in its natural brightness than beefing it up or pushing. However, what makes her performance remarkable is her complete understanding of the relation between music and text. Her Johnson/Ramerrez, Carlo Ventre, unfortunately doesn’t share her musical-dramatic intelligence. In any case, his unexaggerated acting under a good director places him above the regular standard as far as tenori di forza go. Although his voice sounds a bit breathy and worn in its middle register, his top notes are always impressively full and powerful, if not remotely nuanced. Marco Vratogna has the perfect attitude for the role of Jack Rance and, if his baritone is generally soft-centered and velvety, it produces the right effect in outspoken moments by sheer volume.

The Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester seemed fully engaged in the dramatic action, relishing the coloristic orchestration and boosting the effect of what was happening on stage. Conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi’s symphonic approach in this score paid off in the sense that one could feel the gradual increase in tension through the three acts. He did not spare his cast and unleashed quite often his orchestra, fortunately not very Teutonic in its rather leaner sound. Although he is not the conductor in the première (as well as soprano and baritone), it is impressive how the whole performance seemed coherent in its overall concept.

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A classic example of German heavy-handedness is the fact that Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is supposed to be a comedy, but few people know that Wagner composed other comic opera, his second opera actually (after Die Feen), Das Liebesverbot, inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The action takes place, in the libretto, in Palermo (whereas the play is set in Vienna, and one can see the young composer’s intent of producing an Italianate atmosphere here). This fact alone makes the opera an interesting experience – although Wagner proved to have understood the formulae of opera buffa, he struggled a bit with bel canto (his attempts at writing florid lines often sound awkward) and with strophic stucture (the repeats often give the impression of overstaying their welcome). However, the quality of the music is impressive. Sometimes, it seems like the upgraded version of Donizetti minus the spontaneous melodic invention and the comic timing. At its best, such as in the Isabella/Dorella/Luzio act II trio, it is truly funny and musically effective. And you still gets to find some ideas later recycled in Tannhäuser! Why is it not more often staged then? As with Die Feen, Wagner requires for Das Liebesverbot impossible voices – Bellinian voices in singers who can also tackle German declamatory style (can we really blame Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient for that?).

As almost everybody, I know this opera from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s live recording from Munich. There one can already hear how exhausting it is to sing these roles and how the German cast is uncomfortable with the virtuosistic writing. They sing with utmost conviction nonetheless under Sawallisch’s galvanic conducting – an orchestral tour de force from the Bayerische Staatsoper orchestra.

The fact that the concert performance heard this evening in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper is going to be commercially released is something of a mystery to me. The exceptional cast, essential to make this music work (think of Bellini’s Norma with a so-so cast…), has not been gathered here – actually, some singers were rather below standard. That was a pity, for the Frankfurter Opernorchester played very well, offering aptly bright, lean sonorities under Sebastian Weigle’s agile, balanced and stylish conducting. I had never before been in the Alte Oper and maybe had a bad seat, but I found the acoustic awful: the orchestral sound could not bloom and louder dynamics brought about a noisy, brassy quality. Singers’ voices too suffered in the unflattering hall. Maybe because of that Weigle seemed a bit too self-controlled, too well-behaved in comparison to Sawallisch – in an opera about carnival, passion and fun!

In the impossibly difficult role of Isabella, the invaluable Christiane Libor, a champion of early Wagner operas, offered an exciting performance. Her big creamy flexible lyric soprano has the necessary heft for the occasional exposed dramatic acuti, and she sang with unfailing good taste, imagination and sense of humor. She would sometimes understandably sound off-steam (far less than Sabine Hass in the Munich recording), but if my memory doesn’t fail me, she was in more exuberant shape as Ada in Minkowski’s Die Feen in Paris in 2009. In any case, I still don’t understand why her career has been relatively modest so far.

As Mariana, Anna Gabler sang with poise and sensitiveness with her mezzo-ish soprano that opens up in floaty tones in the high notes. If Pamela Coburn had not been so ideally cast in Munich, I would have been more impressed. The role of Dorella requires a  brighter toned soprano than Anna Ryberg, who was too often inaudible. When it comes to these almost unsingable tenor roles, one would need a Gedda and a Wunderlich to do them justice. There are no new Geddas nor new Wunderlichs, but there are more acceptable options around. In the romantic leading-man role of Luzio, Peter Bronder was at least loud enough, but one did not need to read the program to see that Mime is his usual role. As Claudio, Charles Reid aptly sang in Italianate style, but seemed nervous, showed limited volume and fought with his high notes. Julian Prégardien (Pilato) was the one tenor in the cast with a natural, pleasant voice, but the high register is still a bit stiff. Simon Bode (Antonio) has a curiously boyish voice – if he can master tonal colouring, he might be a firm-toned Evangelist in Bach’s Passionen. Here it all lacks body and roundness.

In the key role of Friedrich, Michael Nagy sang with richness and musicianship. As much as with Hermann Prey in Munich, one feels that a voice a tad more heroic would make the role far more interesting. Last but not least  Thorsten Grümbel was a brilliant Brighella. He is a singer I would like to hear again.

Considering the opera’s length and the strenuous roles, I understand that it has probably never been performed without cuts. This evening a bit more generous than in Sawallisch’s live recording (of a staged performance).

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