Posts Tagged ‘Piotr Beczala’

It has been a while since Dresden was in the forefront of the operatic world, in spite of its world-class orchestra and enviable acoustics. Christian Thielemann’s tenure in the Semperoper has already made some serious attempts of changing this, none as glamorous as this year’s Lohengrin, in which both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala made their Wagnerian debuts along some of the most celetrabted Wagnerian singers these days. The expression “golden age” is rarely used to performances after 1980 and one tends to believe that this is just what reviewers write when they are old and nostalgic of their own “golden” days, but the truth is: nothing like watching a cast of A-listers competing for the love of their audience. This is the kind of phenomenon in which the sum is always far greater than its parts, especially when a strong-handed conductor healthily keeps it under tight control.

For instance, Anna Netrebko is not just a great soprano, she is one of the leading stars in the world of opera. One would have imagined a crowd of fans to guarantee thunderous applause – and she surely received it, as much as every other singer on stage this afternoon. In any case, Netrebko’s Elsa is no vanity project. She clearly studied the part with utmost care and made sure that she was singing her own personality into it. When Victoria de los Angeles sang Elisabeth in Bayreuth, purists called it “sentimentalized”; I wonder what they would think of the Russian diva in these Wagnerian shores. Hers was certainly no conventional Elsa: her full, luscious middle and low registers alone made her different from almost anyone else in this role. This Elsa was everything but cold and bloodless. She carefully worked on her pronunciation, on her delivery of the text and on what one would call “German” style. Yet she caressed her lines and coloured her tone very much in bel canto style (and the discrete use of portamento would reinforce that impression), for truly interesting results. It is true that the first scene caught her a bit off her element (and also that she could be once or twice a bit more precise with intonation), but hers developed into a very solid performance, sung with rich and voluminous tone throughout (she was impressively hearable in ensembles), floated beautiful mezza voce and had this intriguingly sensuousness that showed entirely new sides of this role.

Evelyn Herlitzius’s squally singing is not for everyone’s taste, but even those who dislike it must concede that an Ortrud unchallenged by a loud orchestra is a refreshing experience. She did make efforts in terms of subtlety, but her voice does not suggest the chic of a Christa Ludwig or the seduction of a Waltraud Meier. It is rather Ortrud, the witch, and that is not necessarily a drawback. Moreover, she was in good voice, supplying hair-raising powerful acuti without flinching.

Piotr Beczala’s matinée-idol lyric tenor is ideal for the role of Lohengrin. If his top notes lack some power, they are well connected and in keeping with his ardorous phrasing and appealing tonal quality. The farewell to the swan both in act I and III were soft in tone and the long duet with Elsa passionate and sensitive. One must always remember that Mr. Beczala is no newcomer to German repertoire, having sung roles like Tamino and Belmonte. He was well contrasted to Tomasz Konieczny’s steely, powerful Telramund, very much in control of the difficult part, especially in act II, where most baritones are desperate with what they have to sing. Georg Zeppenfeld is an experienced King Heinrich, this evening a bit short of resonance in his high register, but still firm and true. Derek Welton’s Herald, however, had his woolly moments.

Christian Thielemann’s approach to this score is, not surprisingly, very objective, forward-moving, favoring a big yet clear orchestral sound, for truly impressive effects in the prelude to act III. His reaction to the notorious homogenity of tempo in this score is a marked flexibility with his beat, usually for the faster whenever a singer started an “aria” or to mark the changes of mood throughout the opera. The Furtwänglerian Wagnerian would find it lacking depth, and I remember being more moved by Barenboim in this opera, particularly in the opening bars and especially in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, but complaining of such high-level music-making would be totally unjustified. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

I have already written about Christine Mielitz’s 1983 production, but one must register that costumes and sets look fresher than last time and that the Spielleitung has added some efficient touches to the proceedings, notably a woman’s point-of-view of the oppression experienced both by Elsa and Ortrud as key players in a men’s game and how it seemed to produce some sort of connection between them.


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Think of pale pink and blue, and bright red and silver and the 60’s and a grand hotel somewhere in Alabama and the State’s governor political campaign – and segregation, witchcraft and murder. No, it is not a movie with Jane Fonda and Paul Newman. It is the Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Although it takes a while to get used to the glitter, the idea is not bad per se. After all, when Verdi  had to adapt his plot because of censorship, he himself chose the United States as alternative set. I might be thrown stones at, but I have always found something Broadway-like in Un Ballo in Maschera – take David Parry’s recording in English, look for We can all go and see her together (i.e., Dunque signori aspettovi), close your eyes and tell me, if you can, that you do not feel at Broadway. In any case, although the concept has plenty to offer, it requires a far more complex production.

To start with, the pink ballroom simply does not work as an all-purpose set. Riccardo says that they have to go somewhere else to see Ulrica, but here they do not have to move to see her. Second, Ulrica tells Amelia she has to go to yet another place to find the herbs for the incantation she is looking for. Here, it is again the ballroom and having a bunch of ferns inside the columns sounds like a cheap solution. Third, Riccardo asks Renato to escort Amelia back to her place in town. Here, Amelia just needed to take the same corridor she had taken to get to her room in the same hotel. Finally, none of the main characters but Amelia uses a mask in the closing scene. They are actually seated side by side and unconvincingly seem not to realize each other’s presence. I mean, when you have to “accept” all that, it just looks like sloppy work. Couldn’t they stage the scene by the gallows in some sort of parking place? That would not be a set so difficult or expensive to build. Ulrica’s scene could take place in a storage room at the hotel – an even cheaper set. With some patience, that sort of thing could be done. At least, when some bad seats with limited views are sold for almost 50 euros, one could show a bit more consideration to the audience. Just having ideas is the easy part of the job – making them work is the hard part.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search of elegance and symphonic quality is always an advantage in Verdi. The love duet’s closing section, for example, may sound like band music when not properly handled, but animation can live with polish. Otherwise, uneventfulness may creep into the proceedings and finally turn the whole performance unmemorable.

Catherine Naglestad is no Verdian soprano – in a part often recorded by non-Verdian soprano such as Margaret Price or Josephine Barstow. Although her voice is not intrinsically exquisite, she sings with good taste and imagination and floats beautiful pianissimi. She is also a good actress, but her lower register not always works properly, she invariably blurs crotchets and the extreme top notes in act II eluded her entirely.

Un ballo in maschera is considered a tenor opera – and having the uprising Piotr Beczala as Riccardo places an immediate interest in the performance. There is no doubt about his beauty of tone, sense of style and animation – this is a voice always pleasant in the ears. He also know how to place a smile in his singing – and this is important for such a debonair character. The question is – should he really advance further in Verdian territory?  In a small opera house such as the Lindenoper, the role ultimately works well for him, but one can see that he has to brace himself for the heroic moments, especially in act II, when he was often overshadowed by the soprano – except at the duet’s last note, when both were covered by the orchestra.

Alfredo Daza has the measure of the role of Renato and he plunges in the part with body and soul. Sometimes the results are dramatically over the top and the curdled sound his baritone acquires above mezzo forte does not suggests much nobility to this non-villain character. Mariana Pentcheva knows how to play her voice’s unequal registers to the right effect for Ulrica – and she has the necessary charisma for the role. Announced indisposed, Sylvia Schwartz only sang the first verse of her two arias. Nonetheless, this was the best performance I have seen with this singer – her absolutely free top register floats beautifully in this higher-lying roles. Maybe she should explore this repertoire more often than the purely lyric roles I have often seen her sing. As a curiosity, Oscar here is a girl – her act I costumes are a bit at odds with the surroundings. She looks like a dominatrix, but she is only Riccardo’s secretary – but I wonder if a woman in that position in the 60’s would dress like that.

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The Metropolitan Opera House has been more faithful to Russian opera than many important opera houses around the world outside Russia. Many Russian singers have achieved international fame at the Met – and the New York audience is quite keen on this repertoire. That said, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneguin is not necessarily a work in need of advocacy – it is probably the best known Russian opera in the West and the Met accordingly gave it well-loved singers.

Robert Carsen’s production has seen some glamourous casting – it has been featured on DVD with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in leading roles – but it is not in itself a glamourous production. On the contrary, it is simplicity itself. The bare white stage receives props for each scene and colour is largely provided by Michael Levine’s beautiful costumes. In the countryside scenes, the use of autumn leaves is poetic and creates the necessary atmosphere, but the Moscow scenes just needed something. As it is, the audience has the impression of watching a rehearsal.

If I had to mention the reason for this Onegin’s sucess, I would mention Jiri Belohlavek’s conducting. To start with, the Met’s orchestra seemed transfigured – offering voluminous, rich and warm sounds throughout. Belohlavek’s noble, pensive approach fits the work melancholy – some may say that he drained a bit of the Russian-ness of the score, but I considered the gain in expressive, almost Straussian atmosphere most welcome.

Karita Mattila’s soprano is smokier and less impetuous in both ends than it used to be – but the sound is irresistibly warm and creamy. She soared in ensembles and fulfilled her solos with immense depth of feeling. Her stage portrayal, from shy teenager to socialite, was expertly produced. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s solid mezzo soprano made Olga a bit more substantial than we are used to see.  Although Thomas Hampson was a bit fazed by Act III demands, his was an intelligent and elegantly sung performance. However, Piotr Beczala will remain the audience’ s favourite member in the cast. He sung with beauty of tone, sensitivity and good taste – Nicolai Gedda is the name that came to my mind. And this is a high compliment.

Among the minor roles, Wendy White deserves praise for a smoothly sung Madame Larina and  Barbara Dever was a touching Filippyevna. James Morris, on the other hand, was a bit rusty as Prince Gremin – and the role ideally requires a darker and deeper voice.

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It is not that I am in a disliking-mood – to start with, I have found Mary Zimmermann’s staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor silly and cheap-looking from the moment-one, when Natalie Dessay was the selling-feature of this production. It remains so – it is particularly annoying to have extra twenty minutes in the theatre due to problems in the change of such uninspiring sceneries. In any case, the reason for my second visit to this Lucia was Diana Damrau. I have to confess that it was rather the curiosity to see how she would deal with a role which is, on paper, unsuited to her voice.

Before I am thrown stones at, I rush to say that I like Damrau – I find her extraordinarily intelligent and creative, but I wish she could transcend this coloratura-label. Because she does dispatch some amazing fioriture, one tends to indulge the snags, particularly the alternately overmetallic and unfocused quality of her vocal production.  In other words, this is a voice without the hallmark morbidezza an Italian soprano is supposed to have, especially in ingénue roles. As far as we are speaking of mezza voce, this German soprano is adept in producing effortless soft phrasing in every register, but the rest of her singing comes forth as rather harsh and unable to pierce through.  Most of Regnava nel silenzio was a guessing game for the audience and, most inexplicably for a high soprano, she tended to be overshadowed by her partners in duets and ensembles and some of her in alts, true in pitch as they were, could be barely noticed. If I am blunt about this, it is only in the hope that such a serious artist be able to fix these minor but noticeable drawbacks before it is too late.

But let’s speak of the positive aspects in Damrau’s Lucia. First of all, even if Natalie Dessay pulled out a far more polished and coherent performance, I must say I could connect more to Damrau’s work, particularly because of its sincerity – somehow she embraced the character without any “added” attitude or underlying comment. I would say more – in spite of Dessay’s acknowledged talent for acting, I find the newcomer even more compelling in comparison.

When on stage, Damrau is not expertly repeating carefully throught-through and rehearsed routines, but very much “alive” there – reacting to the actual situation of being on stage in a way only experienced actors do.  She also has excellent intuition for finding stage meanings for musical ideas and has personality and vivaciousness to make all that work. It is only a pity that she did not receive enough attention from a director – sometimes she would try too hard and spoil the effect of a good idea by overusing it or doing it in the wrong moment. It is the task of the director to review and correct this, what makes it doubly regrettable that such a skilled performer could not benefit from that.

The problem was particularly bothersome in the mad scene, without any shadow of doubt the highlight of the whole performance (as it should be). There,  Damrau could go beyond the Romantic lyricism and let through just the necessary ounce of nastiness to transform something merely beautiful into something touching. But at moments when she should invest in some repose, to let the effect work, she would try something else or repeat a bit of what she had just done to semaphoric effects.  From the musical point of view, the lighter orchestral accompaniment enabled her more comfort to play with tone colouring and also add a sense of story-telling through phrasing alone. Only in the very end, she could not avoid some hardness and shrillness, but by then she could twist the audience around her little finger.

Her Edgardo was tenor Piotr Beczala, whom I knew from healthy but rather unsubtle Mozart performances. At first, he is more at ease in bel canto repertoire. His voice is pleasant, light but compact. He has considerably elegant phrasing and is sensitive to the text. I can see a Nemorino there, but not much beyond that – Bellini would be too high for him, Rossini would be too fast and, although he has been singing Verdi, I find it heavy for his voice. In any case, Edgardo is a good fit for him – and, even in the closing scene (where the demands were a bit hard on him), he never showed himself other than in an elegant manner. He also interacted beautifully with Damrau in their act I duet and looked believably dangerous in the wedding scene.

In the role of Enrico, Vladimir Stoyanov displayed a velvety middle-size baritone that would work to perfection in a smaller house. At the Met, some of his high notes sounded a bit pale. As in his Leporello, Ildar Abdrazakov’s bass seems to be shorter on both ends this day. The timid low register was particularly problematic. 

As for the musical direction, Marco Armiliato showed us the cliché of a Donizetti performance – lively tempi, unpolished phrasing, noisy ensembles and a general idea that the expressive aspects are the singers’ responsability.

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