Posts Tagged ‘Petra Maria Schnitzer’

Last year, the first Ring Cycle in the Deutsche Oper clearly showed progressive improvement and accordingly the Walküre was an altogether more satisfying experience than the Rheingold. This time, the development is far more difficult to understand. First of all, the issue of orchestral sound volume is more complex this year. The cast last time was made of substantially larger voices (with one exception), what made it easier for the conductor to give freer rein to his orchestra. Before someone points out that I have been pressing the same key: even if a large orchestral sound is not essential for Wagner, it is nonetheless the safer way of producing the right effect. Herbert von Karajan, for instance, opted for chamber-like sonorities for his Salzburg Ring – and one easily realizes that the level of craftsmanship required is far above average. One needs only a top-tier orchestra exhaustively rehearsed to draw on tonal colouring and accent. And some still find it a bit undramatic. Is it fair to expect that every Wagner performance in the theatre to be thrilling? Maybe not – but a Ring Cycle is supposed to be a special occasion and, if I have to be honest about this evening’s performance, the adjective is “boring”. I was afraid to use this word, but then a singer friend who was there agreed sotto voce  “I was so afraid to call it boring, but that is what it was”. So, we both encouraged each other to express our feelings and the result is that I am writing it here. From the first bureaucratic bars, one could know what was coming. Not the last word in clarity, no tingle factor out of momentous orchestral sound, only occasional sense of forward movement: wherever you ran to, disappointment was waiting. Act II felt like as long as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the most uninteresting Todesverkündung scene ever shown to an audience included). After a messy Walkürenritt, only halfway act III seemed to catch some fire – the Deutsche Oper’s shining feature as a Wagnerian orchestra, its almost unique blend of brass and string sounds, was finally conjured, some emotion was put into the proceedings and, with the big-voiced singer in the evening alone on stage, Musikdrama made a fast but somewhat late appearance.

Jennifer Wilson seems to be one of those singers cursed with an exceptional vocal nature. God has really wanted her to be a dramatic soprano, but she has received very little help from her teachers. Basically, I don’t really think that the way she sings now is everything she can do. It is all right a big, bright, easy voice, but imperfectly supported. To start with, I know that the ho-jo-to-ho’s are assignments from hell, but she was audibly breathless in her first appearance and breathless she often was, chopping phrases more often than I am used to hear. Problematic breath support has many consequences – faulty legato, instances of dubious pitch, tonal meagerness, patches of reduced audibility (especially middle and low register), hootiness, lack of finish in long notes. This evening, there were examples of all that. Sometimes, seeing that an exposed high note would come, an extra effort would be made and a legitimate rich, full, vibrant note would be produced and one could see how exciting everything could be.  It is clear that she has the right instincts but, if she was not in a very bad day, she should look into her technique, for her voice is really worth the effort.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is almost the perfect opposite of her Brünnhilde: she is a lyric soprano with solid schooling who knows all the tricks to deal with dramatic roles without damaging her voice. Although she was not in any way exceptional , she was still a touching Sieglinde. Her voice is not very distinctive, but it is pleasant, round and healthily produced. As a result, it has a youthful appeal that, aided by unfailing sense of style and a very likable personality, puts you on her side. Predictably, the lower end of the tessitura proved to be more challenging than the high notes – and probably only in Der Männer Sippe one could feel some discomfort. Daniela Sindram is the Octavian/Komponist kind of mezzo and not someone would expect to find as Fricka. She knows that she is no Christa Ludwig and fortunately did not try to be that. With her focused, round mezzo she produced an elegant performance with some forceful high notes and a discrete use of chest register to pierce through in her low notes. She is also a very intelligent and charismatic singer. It is always a pleasure to see and hear her – even in a role not really meant for her.

Yes, Robert Dean Smith has sung Tristan – and, as our good friend Cavalier has reminded me – even at the Met – but Siegmund has a very special kind of difficulty. He is not the first lighter-toned singer in this role – Jonas Kaufmann at the Met is another example – and the comparison with Kaufmann is interesting. Vocally speaking, I find JK basically more “interesting” than RDS – the voice is more immediately recognisable, the high notes are more incisive and he is more dramatically connected. But Dean Smith has one great advantage – he is more experienced and only steps on firm soil. His Siegmund was beautifully sung in flowing legato and – this is the first time I use Leontyne Price’s little concept for a singer in Wagnerian repertoire – joie de chant: one can feel he is enjoying himself there and, to keep quoting Price, if he were not, neither would we. I’ve seen that many members of the audience were truly satisfied with his performance – I was to a certain point. Beautiful as it was, it lacked some thrill, and the lack of volume was only part of it.

Greer Grimsley’s curdled and slightly unwieldy bass-baritone is not very seductive – and his emphatic and often rough approach to phrasing and unclear vowels don’t make it more appealing, but – and this evening this is a big “but” – he has a voice of truly Wagnerian proportions. When I was ready not to like him, I noticed that, whenever he was singing, the maestro could really relax and let his orchestra hit home. Then I remembered how uneventful last year’s otherwise more pleasant-toned Wotan had been and Grimsley’s performance began to have some interest. When he proved capable of some nuance in the closing scene, I’ve decided to consider him an asset in this performance. Finally, Reinhard Hagen was, as always, a most reliable Hagen.

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Das Licht — wann löscht es aus? Wann wird es Nacht im Haus? In Richard Wagner’s libretto, Tristan’s view of the world turns around an opposition roughly summarized as light-day/world/society and night/house/individuality, probably divided by an axis in which his mother, Isolde and death are the main poles. This is not me trying to be clever; a superficial reading of the libretto shows that; so it hardly qualifies as an “insight”. But director Graham Vick begs to differ and probably believes that this has to be really un-der-lined so that the audience un-der-stand it. So, away with the ship, the tower, Kareol and here comes… a house. At first, I thought we were watching the first mafia-wedding production of Tristan und Isolde – a tacky nouveau-riche house, a coffin, Tristan in a black suit, Kurwenal has an apron over his, there are lots of ill-behaved men with a wide job description who harass Isolde in a way only a Neapolitan would care to do and there are drugs – the love potion comes in syringes here. But then I realized it was a surrealistic mafia-wedding production, for there is a naked girl walking around unmolested by the testosterone-high henchmen and… a gigantic floating spotlight that could pass as the und in Tristan und Isolde, for whenever they are together, it comes closer to them. But then I realized it was not a mafia-wedding Tristan, but a house/light Tristan. In any case, the audience had a big laugh when, in act III, the spotlight comes nearer Tristan and he says Die Leuchte, ha! Act II shows the house on a different angle, inside and outside are blurred, crags grow from nowhere, a naked guy digs a grave, the naked girl watches him – love/death, house/world, light/darkness. Of course, it all looks awful. Act III almost hits an interesting idea – Tristan is shown as a somewhat senile old man, his questions of “where am I?” etc and his streams of consciousness surprisingly fit the concept. Everyone is old in the house, Kurwenal, the shepherd. Tristan does not die, only that Tristan died, I thought, goes into the world and is haunted by his lost self in the shape of Isolde; I could live with that. But no – Brangäne appears as an old woman and Marke should be something of a walking Titurel by then, but he only needs a walking-stick to make his entrance and, to make things worse, an elderly Isolde comes very realistically on stage, sings her Liebestod for the coffin (a part of the decoration since act I) and the centenary Brangäne and Marke.

Have I mentioned that it was amazingly poorly directed? Awkward love-potion scene (if you think that this evening’s Tristan and Isolde are actually a married couple, you start to wonder why they take so much time to seem intimate), ludicrous Melot-Tristan scene, various scenes in which singers remain on stage without anything to do, just watching the often dramatic or delicate situations depicted by the libretto. It is no wonder that, at the end, the audience almost unanimously booed the director (almost, there were probably 50 people – me included – who just did not applaud and the guy who incessantly bravo-ed everything, even the extras).

God must have thought that a poor musical performance would have made the audience tear the Deutsche Oper to pieces and granted the guinea-pigs in the opening night most solid conducting from Donald Runnicles. The prelude could be a little be more inspired, more organic, a stronger sense of arch could have been achieved, the increasing dynamic less deliberate, but other than this the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered a structurally clean performance, very consequent in its phrasing, all elements (including soloists) perfectly balanced and the house orchestra responded with exemplary Wagnerian sounds throughout. If someone deserves bravo this evening, these should be the members of the orchestra. It is true that the performance lacked the profoundness of expression of Daniel Barenboim’s Tristans in the Staatsoper, but that is only a matter of difference of approach. Runnicles’s more cerebral transverse of the score is equally valid in its musical thoroughness and transparency.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is probably the lightest Isolde I have ever seen on stage. Margaret Price never sang the role live, but she proved to have had a far more positive middle register (and low notes) in her Verdian roles. The unsubstantial lower end of Schnitzer’s voice robbed many passages from their gravitas (the Liebesnacht, for example), but her ease with high notes (even dramatic high notes – quite full and forceful) could be counted as a compensation. She has a solid technique and never showed any sign of fatigue. For me, the young-sounding quality of her voice and its creaminess made her Isolde quite congenial, but after a while the lack of tonal and dynamic variety could be felt. It must also be said that she is a really accurate singer and her acting talents are not to be overlooked. She alone looked three-dimensional as a sensuous woman who would follow the man she loves in his own particular world without quite understanding it.

This was the first time I’ve seen Peter Seiffert as Tristan. His tonal quality is also a bit light for the role, but it is voluminous enough a voice with a bright sheen on it. In order to make for the tonal lightness, he pushes more often than he should and, as a result, his tenor sounds dangerously open-toned now and then, some notes oscillate in a René Kollo-esque manner and sometimes he sounds frankly strained. By now, he has learned where his strengths are in this role and saves when he can in order to give it all in act III, where he allows himself more legato than most tenors anyway.

At first, Jane Irwin’s light, yet incisive mezzo with a touch of Janet Baker seemed promising for Brangäne, but her calls from the tower were mostly flat and that is the moment when a Brangäne shows her skills. Eike Wilm Schulte is not my idea of a Kurwenal – his baritone is too high and he has neither the physique nor the attitude – and he was simply in a bad-voice day. In more outspoken moments, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s bass lacks the necessary nobility for the King Marke, but he knows how to scale down his spacious and dark voice, an important quality for his long monologue, which can sound monotone without proper tone colouring.


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In the context of the Wagnerian Wochen, Kirtsten Harms’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser has been revived with a different cast and conductor, but the concept of having one singer for both Venus and Elisabeth, central to the production’s “message”, persists. In the original production, Nadja Michael proved to be miscast in both roles. Not the case this evening. Although Petra Maria Schnitzer is rather short on tonal richness, low notes and sexiness for Venus, she proved to be a most efficient Elisabeth. I refrain from the word “illuminating”, for Schnitzer is the kind of reliable singer who is sufficiently satisfying in every single department, but rarely takes you by surprise in anything. Her large lyric soprano has no glitches – her tonal quality is golden, she produces big top notes when this is required from her, she can fine her voice down to pianissimo and sings with good taste throughout – she even produced an intimate touching prayer in act III. Pity that Dietrich Henschel no longer possesses the nobility of tone for Wolfram. His vocal production was either rasp, throaty, fluttery, poorly supported, nasal or a combination of these. Where is Markus Brück when we need him? Pity also that the reliable Reinhard Hagen found some difficulties with the higher end of tessitura in the role of the Landgraf.

Conductor Ulf Schirmer offered transparent orchestral sound, with some exciting fast passagework from strings. I have missed the sheer voluminousness that Philippe Auguin could conjure last time – and some scenes dragged a bit: this was hardly the most sensuous Venusberg in the market. If things happen there in such low pace, I perfectly understand why Tannhäuser longed for green fields, nightingales and other rural articles. As usual, the Deutsche Oper Chorus did a terrific job.

I leave the best for last. I have always believed that Tannhäuser was a role condemned to be poorly sung. Today I was gladly proved wrong – Stephen Gould’s performance this evening should appear in the dictionary next to the entry “Tannhäuser”. His voice is at once big, firm, easy and pleasant. He phrases with musicality, has perfect diction, knows how to tackle declamatory passages with the dexterity of an Astrid Varnay, snarls when one wishes him to do so and even reserves unconstricted mezza voce for some key moments. Have I mentioned that he ended the opera almost as fresh-toned as in the beginning? There was no moment when the audience had to worry about the next dramatic top note. This is a singer in the top of his game in Wagnerian heroic repertoire.

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