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Posts Tagged ‘Philippe Jordan’

The Straussian credentials of the Philippe Jordan+Staatskapelle Berlin team have been more than sucessfully presented in this year’s season opening concert, when they treated the audience to an exemplary rendition of the Alpensinfonie.  Playing in the Lindenoper’s pit has not prevented them from offering a truly symphonic approach to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. From the  first bars, one could feel that this would be a special evening: faultless French horn solos, glistening string playing, vivid woodwind. More than that – a conductor in complete control of his forces who could therefore concentrate on expression and drama.

Although the score features beautiful and touching vocal parts, the audience would turn to the orchestra tonight to find the multilayered portrayal of the character’s emotions. Maestro Jordan did not need to play effects, he could give himself and his musicians the necessary time to let notes speak – during the Feldmarschallin’s famous act I monologue, one would invariably be distracted from Hofmannsthal’s text by the richly coloured chamber-like writing for wind instruments. Act III showed such thematic clarity that one would never consider it a long stretch of unmelodic music between act II and the final trio, which did not fail to be the emotional highlight of the evening in its perfectly calculated dynamic and tempo ebb-and-flow .

So why was this performance finally not unforgettable? I am afraid that the answer is simply that a symphonic approach needs voices large enough to cope with a large orchestral sound – and rather than adding to the ensemble, the largely light-voiced cast gathered here was overshadowed by it. Although Anne Schwanewilms often produces some exquisite sounds, her lyric soprano is also often too thinly produced to be really heard over the full orchestra. When she really tried too sing loud, the results were often pinched, unflowing or rather edgy, not to mention that her method to reach high notes is basically pecking at them. She is an intelligent singer who uses the text effectively, but I wonder how long her technique will allow her to sing roles that require true legato in the high register.

Katharina Kammerloher is usually billed as a mezzo-soprano, but at least this evening one would take her for a soprano. At some moments, her voice even sounded similar to her Marschallin’s, although her basic tone is creamier and her top notes richer. Even if her Octavian was rather on the light and feminine side, it was also beautifully and stylishly sung. I have previously written that I was curious to hear Sylvia Schwartz in a high-lying role – and I was right to suspect that they work particularly well for her. As Sophie, she could explore the best part of her voice and float effortlessly velvety top notes. It is true that her soprano is a bit small, but Sophie rarely has to deal with heavy orchestral writing – and she also has the looks and the right attitude for the role.

I had never been convinced by Alfred Muff, whom I knew from recordings, and I was doubly surprised by his Ochs tonight. First, because his voice is far darker and larger than the microphones suggest. Second, because the part really fits his voice. He finds no problem with the very low notes and the declamatory writing. He has some fondness for off-pitch effects, but the truth is he was the only member of the cast who could really project over the orchestra (I would also add Irmgard Vilsmaier’s quasi-dramatic soprano, rather too loud for the role of the duenna). Martin Gantner was an efficient Faninal, but he missed too many theatrical points to be really convincing and, in spite of the anounced sickness, Stephen Rügamer seemed at ease in the difficult tessitura of the Italian Tenor’s aria.

Nicolas Brieger’s 14-years old staging takes so many unnecessary and pointless liberties with the libretto (Mohammed is here a dwarf, the three orphan girls are here boys, naked maids run through Faninal’s palace, the act III inn is depicted as an outdoor place with a bed hidden behind bushes) that in the end you just believe that nobody bothered to read the libretto. To make things worse, Joachim Herzog’s costumes are erratic, mixing styles from different centuries with no apparent purpose.  It is decidedly provincial and unworthy of Germany’s capital city.

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What is wrong with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to inspire some of the worst operatic stagings in the history of opera? Michael Thalheimer’s new production for the Statsoper unter den Linden is one of the most pretentious pieces of stage direction ever shown to an audience. One might wonder why I am surprised considering the Lindenoper’s record with Regietheater. But make no mistake – Thalheimer’s Entführung is no Regietheater, it is rather a non-Regie. The whole plot is reduced to basically nothing. In most épatons-la-bourgeosie productions, an innocent bystander would believe he understood the plot, although what he understood has nothing to do with the actual story. For example, if someone who had never seen this most genial among Singspiele were invited to see Stefan Herheim’s production in Salzburg, he would later tell he saw something like the operatic adaptation of feature movie Beetlejuice. But if you took this same fellow to the Staatsoper this evening, he would ask you what the orchestra and the audience were doing in a preliminary rehearsal.

 To start with, the German taxpayer should claim Olaf Altmann’s fee back – he is billed as set designer, but all he did was to install a suspended cat downstage. And that’s it. Most singing and acting take place outside the stage or very near to the edge of it. As a result, the German taxpayer who could not afford a parterre ticket actually missed most of the show. Basically he paid twice for nothing. Katrin Lea Tag’s creative process as a costume designer seems to be: she took a flight to Tokyo, got to Shibuya Subway station and lured the six first people who appeared in front of her into selling her their clothes. I took a while to understand if Pedrillo was a boy or a girl. As for the choristers, she probably went to the Galeries Lafayette and said “give me some 80 black garments”. The guinea pig of our “Regie-experience” is asking himself to this moment why this minimalist fashion show had Turkish-flavoured music.

 If you bought the performance’s booklet, then you will understand that the director was really fascinated with the “language issue” – that there are Spanish characters dealing with Turkish characters while speaking and singing German. “Food for thought”, he might have thought. And this to this moment irrelevant aspect of the work took pride of place – so basically a) the plot; b) the sets; c) the costumes and d) common sense were replaced by dialogues spoken 75% in German and 5% in Italian (there is one Italian singer in the cast) and 20% in English. One may ask himself – considering that the plot is set in Turkey and that Berlin is one of the largest “Turkish” cities in the world – why nobody decided to add a bit of Turkish in this melting pot. I mean all this if you REALLY believe that there is a language issue in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In New York, where all these languages are entirely foreign, the Metropolitan Opera House had all dialogues spoken in German.

 The nonsense-fest on stage did not affect the pit – Philippe Jordan offered a wide-eyed, alert reading of the score. His beat was flexibility itself and he always found the right balance between animation, lyricism, theatricality and elegance. The house orchestra responded accordingly, offering transparent sounds and clearly articulated phrasing. The edition here adopted opened the cuts in Martern aller Artern und Wenn der Freude. I wonder, however, how a serious conductor such as Jordan accepted the idea of interrupting Mozart’s arias in order to accommodate the director’s wishes. Mozart has not written such pauses and allowing them is insulting a genius to comply with the wishes of a nobody.

 William Christie’s recording (and Marc Minkowski’s video) show that Konstanze is a hard-day work for Christine Schäfer – and the passing of time does not made the task easier for her. I do not mean that the voice has suffered any decline. It has not – it still has a unique blending of luster, roundness and metal that makes it soft yet penetrating at the same time. However, the impossible filigree written by Mozart to Caterina Cavalieri is a continuous test to her abilities – many a coloratura passage is smudged, some long phrases are butchered for breath pauses and the lower end of the tessitura is often drowned in inaudibility. Because of that, Ach, ich liebte sounded frankly awkward, Traurigkeit a bit tentative and she seemed to connect only from Martern aller Arten on, rounded off rather from panache than from polish. Most disturbing was her unconvincing parlando and off-pitch effects. I know it has worked for her in contemporary repertoire – but really here it just sounds a trick to get away with difficult passages.

 Although Anna Prohaska sometimes underlines her phrasing too heavily, she has a contagious personality and often sings with instrumental accuracy. In this production, both Blondchen and Pedrillo are very, very gloomy, but she seems to have found a way to make it work for her. I cannot say the same of Florian Hoffmann. Without the animation, there is nothing left in Pedrillo and the heroic ascending phrases of Frisch zum Kampfe took him to his limits. Maurizio Muraro is my first Italian Osmin. Me may have a light accent, both in song and in dialogue and yet he produces flowing and meaningful German. As almost every Osmin, he does not really have the impossible low notes required by Mozart, but he has everything else. The voice is powerful, dark, firm and flexible and he sings stylishly. I save the best for last – Pavol Breslik is simply the best Mozart tenor of our days. I have found him more spontaneous in Italian, but still he is one of the best Belmontes I have seen both live or in recordings. Although he is a light lyric tenor, the sound is what the French call corsé – firm and incisive, yet ductile enough for mezza voce and flexible enough for breathtakingly accurate fioriture. When I mean breathtaking, I mean also that he has very long breath and produces some very fast and lengthy melisme a tempo without any hint of blurring. To make things better, the tone is extremely pleasant, something like a lighter Gösta Winbergh.

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When I saw Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 2005, I named my review “Contessa, perdono”, because of the words I had written about the evening’s prima donna. Now I repeat the same title because of the words I did write back then. This fall’s reprise had been anounced with Dorothea Röschmann and Isabel Bayrakdarian as mistress and servant in the Almaviva household – an exotic idea considering these ladies’ similarity of Fach. However, Röschmann’s health problems and Bayrakdarian’s pregnancy forced the Met to recast. Therefore, Hei-Kyung Hong, the Met’s resident Countess was called to fill in.

Although Hong’s soprano used to be more crystalline in 2005, these two years must have been very rewarding to the Korean soprano. This afternoon she proved to be an all-round entirely satisfying Countess. As in 2005, her voice is an admirable instrument: at once full and silvery lyric soprano with a very easy and gleaming top register. However, her ability to convey it through Mozartian lines is impressively improved. Maybe I saw her in a bad day in 2005, but the difference is simply striking. She is still not entirely at ease with Porgi, amor, but her Dove sono was note-perfect. Hers was a spirited, charming performance – and her stage persona could not be more graceful. I doubt that Röschmann would have been better, judging from her Salzbug DVD with Harnoncourt.

The “replacement” Susanna is also a true find. The young and volatile Lisette Oropesa from New Orleans has the proper quicksilvery voice, idiomatic Italian, complete grasp of style, enough cutting edge to pierce through the orchestra and a most likeable personality. In her Met debut, Anke Vondung offered an intense and irresistible Cherubino. Her Non so più was a bit thick-toned but Voi che sapete was beautifully sung. If I am not more enthusiastic, it is because I have witnessed the incomparable Joyce DiDonato’s Met debut in the same role in 2005.

There are plenty of Figaros more richly sung than Erwin Schrott’s – if my memory does not fail me, Luca Pisaroni’s performance in 2005 was rather more consistent too. But the Uruguayan bass-baritone’s stage charisma is an undeniable asset. With his neverending imagination, he illuminates Lorenzo da Ponte’s text with fresh new ideas throughout. Also, his ability to interact and to extract the best from his stage partners is praiseworthy, particularly in what refers to his Susanna, with whom she formed a vivacious couple. I am afraid Michele Pertusi is not in the level of the other singers – his slightly veiled bass is not devoid of charm but his whole approach is too buffo for this role.

Britain’s contribution to this production is far superior in 2007 than in 2005 – Ann Murray is still a formidable Marcellina and Robin Leggate was in particularly strong voice as Basilio. For once it was a pity they they were deprived of their arias.

Back in 2005, Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was considered too fast and nervous – and I have to confess a soft spot for the “tense” approach for this opera. Philippe Jordan’s comfortable, well-organised perspective was too reliable on the cast to produce the necessary sparkle. Differently from 2005, the string playing was often blurred and the brass section again left a lot to be desired.

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Two orchestras, of course. That is why the Theatro Municipal in Rio was crowded for the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester all-Mahler concert under Philippe Jordan on Sunday afternoon. Many might say that having Thomas Hampson for a selection of songs from the Knaben Wunderhorn could explain a bit of appeal, but the truth is that an amazingly precise and virtuosistic account of the 6th symphony met with far more success with the audience. Mahler’s orchestral songs are always hard to pull out live – the orchestra is too big and the composer has a fondness for singers’ middle registers (making it hard to pierce through the large orchestra). Hampson generally made himself heard, truth be said, but even if he still has retained most tools in his kit of expressive tone colouring, his baritone has lost a bit of its honeyed quality and exposed passages lacked flowing quality. I understand that in order to make for this unease with legato, he chose only “military” songs in the cycle. The result was rather tautological.

The singer would face a sort of anthropological experience. Part of the audience had not been introduced to the practice of restraining from applause until the end of a program’s part and decided to clap their hands in approval after each song. The rest of the audience decided to show their education by energetically shh-ing them. The pro-applause group has decided to react by applauding with renewed enthusiasm. By the third installment of this battle of wills, the soloist himself decided to intervene. “Thank you very much, I really am honoured, but these songs require concentration and I would ask you to applause only in the end”. These words sufficed to produce the necessary silence – even after the last song. Encouragement from the orchestra cued the audience to deserved cheering.

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