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Posts Tagged ‘René Pape’

For his only opera, Beethoven took no easy options and gave his musicians – either on stage and in the pit – no easy job. It is a work of extremes, it is a cry for freedom, it must be an overwhelming experience for all involved, the artists and the audience. Of course, for the musicians it is also another day at work. I.e.: although the idea that they would give their all in one performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is very romantic, there are other performances in the run and even other work assignments. This must sound an overstatement, but those who have read Christa Ludwig’s biography know the temptation of giving too much in this of all operas and having to face the consequences later. In any case, almost everybody involved in this evening’s performance in the Staatsoper Unter den Linded need not to fear. This was a job almost entirely done on the safe side. Another day at the office, task completed. One can hardly blame their musicians for his or her own expectation of catharsis.

As my eight of nine readers might have guessed, this means I left the theatre frustrated. Believe it or not, this was my first Fidelio in Germany. It is a bit unfair that my last Fidelio, in the Vienna State Opera, fulfilled all my expectations and the “homecoming” to the Lindenoper after so many years in the Schiller-Theater made me wish for something unforgettable too. If someone has a great share of responsibility in my disappointment this would be Karl-Heinz Steffens. His conducting this evening could appear in the dictionary as the example of the bad meaning of the word kapellmeister. Not only his traffic cop duties were performed with little affection, but considering the high level of false entries his beat must be a bit difficult to follow. There was also a problematic approach to phrasing, as if the idea were to emulate Herbert von Karajan’s “smoothness” , what came across as simply as smudgy. The blunders with the French horns in Leonore’s big aria were just a symbol of everything that was not working properly this evening. Fortunately, the chorus was willing to give more and, when finally allowed to let loose, they showed how this performance should have been. Unfortunately these were the last five minutes of the opera.

It did not help either that the Leonore 2 was preferred to the Fidelio overture. Always when that happens, I can’t help thinking that Beethoven must have given a great deal of thought when he finally decided how this opera should begin. The fact that we had Marzelline aria before the duet with Jacquino, however, does not mean that this was an early version of the opera. Other than two noted differences, the regular final version of Fidelio seemed to have been adopted.

Harry Kupfer’s 2016 production for the Staatsoper actually has a great share of the low level of drama this evening. The director himself explains that it is a mistake to see Fidelio as a work that begins as a Spieloper, develops into a heroic opera until it finally settles as an oratorio, but curiously this is exactly how he stages it. After the overture, we see the chorus and the soloists as musicians in the Musikverein hall. Suddenly, the backdrop falls and they are in a prison. In the first finale, the prisoners shed their prisoner uniform and appear as themselves. The second act first shows Florestan as a tenor with the score of Fidelio. He then chains himself and “becomes” Florestan. The finale ultimo is performed again as a concert performance in the Musikverein, Don Fernando as the conductor and everybody reading from their scores. If you ask me if these directorial choices boost any theatricality, the answer is “no”. It drains Fidelio of its dramatic force, straitjackets the cast and denies Fidelio of its triumphant climax. This is the second time this week I have been denied the “triumph of goodness” and, if directors go on like that, I will have to resort to Walt Disney to find solace from the prevailing idiocracy in this world.

Simone Schneider’s rich, lyric soprano, rock-solid in bottom notes is judiciously used by a singer who knows her voice well and is fully prepared for a difficult task. She confidently sailed through Abscheulicher! without ever putting herself in danger, but this was a performance about the mechanics. Her voice lacks a cutting edge and act II showed her rather well-behaved and small-scaled. At some point, she sounded also a bit tired. In the end, one has to acknowledge her professionalism, but the character envisaged by Beethoven has little to do with what we heard tonight at the theatre. Curiously, Mandy Fredrich, who made a career as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, sounded similarly dispirited as Marzelline, rather unfocused in her high notes, even if she did not seem to find any problem in producing them. In the short but important role of Don Fernando, Arttu Katajan too sounded small-scale and lacking nobility.

Fortunately, the remaining singers in the cast inhabited a whole different universe. I am surprised by Klaus Florian Vogt’s fully committed incursion in the difficult role of Florestan. His was a rather Mozartian approach to the part, albeit one sung in a naturally voluminous voice and fully informed by the text. Even if his singing lacked powerful heroic top notes, this seemed coherent to his almost instrumental approach to the usually unsingable stretta of his aria. Actually, the unheroic quality of his singing scored many points in terms of theatre. This was rather the voice of a prisoner almost starved to death and kept alive by the dream of seeing his beloved wife once more time. This also made more sense in his pairing to Ms. Schneider’s also rather Mozartian Leonore. Moreover, one could bet that what Beethoven might have heard is closer to what we hard tonight than to what Klemperer offers in his recording (namely Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers). Finding Falk Struckmann in firm voice after all those years of heavy use and was a very good surprise. His Pizarro was powerfully sung and he has no problem with sounding really nasty. In that sense, he was extremely well contrasted to René Pape’s utterly likable Rocco. Mr. Pape’s singing was predictably one of this evening’s greatest assets. Last but not least, Florian Hoffmann was a light-toned, vulnerable and congenial Jacquino.

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Peter Konwitschny’s yellow-sofa Tristan for the Bavarian State Opera is now almost 20 years old and has developed from the outrage of its premiere into some sort of museology of Regietheater, i.e., it has become “a classic”. I had only previously seen it on video and remember joining then a discussion about it on an Internet message board. It was my first “eurotrash” Tristan, but I have curiously enjoyed it from moment one. I remember having written about the yellow sofa and its meaning of homeliness in a inhospitable world and other seemingly clever ideas in order to make a case for its validity. Well, I have just seen it live for the first time and I stand by it. As always with Konwitschny, things could be more coherent, but it has been able to rekindle the thrill of an opera that has become shrouded in monumentality, profoundness and hermetism, while it has always essentially been a Romantic (and also romantic) opera.

At first Simone Young seemed to have understood the spirit of this production, offering an act I marked by an extremely flexible beat, deep theatrical understanding and almost Verdian sense of emotionality and vigor. In this approach, the youth and its sense of life and death intensity rescued Tristan and Isolda from the world of abstraction into palpable drama. Alas, as Tristan and Isolda themselves have noticed, some things are not meant to last in this world. A cast not in their best health pressed the conductor to a compromise. The string section has been kept under tight leash during the entire act II (a fancy for showing everything you are probably missing in the woodwind department must have something to do with that too) in order make it easier for soprano and tenor. That – and a tempo that increasinly tended to slowness – only had the dubious effect of exposing these singers’  shortcomings and drained the proceedings of any expressive content. Things would show some improvement in the last act – the conductor would now and then come to the obvious conclusion that it was better to screen her soloists behind orchestral sound and let it sing for singers who were obviously facing vocal troubles and could not do more than making do. In the end, a performance starting intelligently and brilliantly ended into being something about the mechanics of being an opera conductor under unideal circumstances.

As announced, this run of performances would feature Christiane Libor’s Isolde, whose youthful tone and sense of line would have made a lyrical, sensitive Irish princess at least on paper. However, she cancelled “for health issues” and was replaced by Petra Lang, a singer I had only seen as Ortrud and never a particularly subtle one. As heard this evening, Ms. Lang’s reinvention as a dramatic soprano does not involve the volume one usually finds in a Wagnerian singer. She does have truly amazing stamina and gets to produce forceful acuti tirelessly, even when things go wrongly. This adaptation, which is vaguely reminiscent of Martha Mödl’s method (I mean “vaguely”, for Mödl was far more adept in it, as her admirable recording in this role with Herbert von Karajan live from Bayreuth shows), has consequences: her middle register is unfocused to the point of inaudibility, her low notes are guttural, the hootiness is inevitable and intonation is dysfunctional. She is an alert actress and can surprise you with isolated phrases in which she sounds like an important singer, but in the end one just feels like listening to consistently unproblematic singing. The sheer size, beauty of tone and youthfulness of Okka von der Damerau’s mezzo soprano just exposed her Isolde’s inadequacy. Unfortunately, even she could not survive the prevailing vocal poor form that plagues this evening’s performance. In act II, her voice sounded thick and a difficulty with high notes would prevent her from floating her warning. She would recover for her short appearance in the end of the opera. To make things worse, Stephen Gould, a reliable and experienced Tristan, was frankly ill. His big, warm and powerful tenor started to grate in his act I scene with Isolde. This is never a good sign, and one could see that high notes on “ee” and “ay” started to sound more and more constricted until they finally made him cough. After a while, excursions above a high f were more a matter of will than of possibility. The fact that he agreed to sing act III is a sign of perseverance. If one has in mind the illness that afflicted his voice, he really deserve the applauses for recklessly forcing it into keeping “acting with the voice”  and adaptations to the written notes as minimal as possible. Iain Paterson (Kurwenal) could not escape this evening’s vocal indisposition either: his baritone lacked steadiness and sounded a bit opaque. Only René Pape proved to be in infallibly good voice, singing the part of King Marke richly, expressively and beautifully. If the conductor had cushioned it in the rich sonorities the Bavarian State Orchestra is more than able to provide, it would have been this evening’s emotional highlight.

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I remember having read a long time ago in an Italian dictionary an anecdote about a group of monks who gave shelter to some women in a very cold night. In the morning, they were found sleeping in the same room because it was the only one sufficiently warm. As the abbot found them and demanded an explanation, the answer was “tutto è permesso agli innocenti” (everything is permitted to the innocent man”). After a puzzling second act during which stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov gave me more questions than answers, this story did occur to me in the beginning of act III and inspired me to an interpretation of a staging that seemed outright incoherent until then.

To say the truth, act I was not problematic. This is not my first Parsifal in which the grail ceremony involves extracting blood from Amfortas’ wound for the consumption by the congregation. Claus Guth’s staging seen in Barcelona and Tokyo turned around a very similar ritual in a concept that turned around blood (also in the sense of “family ties”) and I somehow expected a similar development this evening. But that was my mistake. Here Klingsor is some sort of goofy schoolmaster in a school for girls. The sets were identical to act I, but now they were full white. As Kundry seems to be some sort of counsellor, I could not help thinking of Sabina Spielrein’s Dyetski Dom, the methods of which have been accused of stimulating the premature sexuality of children. In the beginning of her long scene with Parsifal, Kundry’s “professional”  approach and Parsifal’s insight about his mother angrily interrupting his first sexual encounter with a girl seemed to confirm this interesting psychoanalitic view. Wagner’s text serves the purpose: Kundry directs Parsifal into self-discovery until the kiss. Although Spielrein’s own experience involved a romantic affair with her psychoanalist (i.e., Carl Jung), the comparison started to fall apart then. Parsifal sleeps over and only in the morning has the epiphany about Amfortas. From that point on, Kundry contents herself to behave like a rejected lover. If I still wanted to defend the Spielrein-angle, both she and Kundry have been “diagnosed” with hysteria. But to say the truth, by then even this point of view seemed uncomfortable and artificial.

This takes me to my own “epyphany” in act III. As in every production of Parsifal, act III shows a decayed version of the sets of act I until the moment when Parsifal shows Kundry the toy knight involved in his traumatic episode with his mother, while Kundry shows him a doll just like the ones the girl in the white school had. It is true that the male/female symbolism of the grail and the spear are in the core of this libretto, but the toys here gave it a whole new level of understanding. The main theme of this staging actually is the destruction of innocence by the establishment of prohibitions. The whole purpose of the grail knights was to achieve purity (i.e., innocence) by following a set of rules and vows. From that point on, a line had been drawn between guilty and innocent ones. Then there is Klingsor, who cannot fit into either side and decides to act out innocence. His white school is the theatre of innocence, the illusion of innocence. That is why he is more childish than the girls around him – he has to be more innocent than innocence itself. This is what Parsifal realizes – that there was no guilt in Amfortas. As much as the young Parsifal was accused of depravity by following a natural inclination, Amfortas was tainted by his encounter with Kundry. And we can infer that he had very little notion of what was going on there until he was charged with sinful behavior. Therefore, the moment when Parsifal say “sei heil – entsündigt und entsühnt!” is more than rhetorics. Innocence is not the aim, it is the starting point. One has to BE innocent to achieve enlightenment: everything is permitted to the innocent. He or she needs no rule, because everything is redeemed by innocence. That is why the redeemer is redeemed – the simple conviction of innocence makes everything permissible. The very institution of the grail knights makes redemption impossible: it just creates guilty ones.

All that said, the closing scene could be somewhat testing. When we see Kundry and Amfortas openly kissing, we understand why she had to seduce Parsifal: to regain her own innocence, which she seemed to have found when she was confronted with Amfortas’ innocence. But that is the moment Gurnemanz stabs her to death (she does not die “naturally” here as it is described by the libretto). The fact probably is that Kundry has to die. Although she truly wants to be innocent again, her very nature is to seduce. If she is not a seductress, than she is nothing. As she herself probably knew from her desire of “peace” and “rest” , death is her path to innocence, the state in which she can do no harm. Is this a sound analysis? Probably not, but then the staging is so overambitious and unclear and all over the place that one is allowed his or her share of misunderstanding. Although I very much like the idea that institution is doomed to destroy what it was supposed to protect and that the idea of purity could be interpreted as some sort of empowerment (instead of the usual negative agenda almost inevitably associated in the context of the Wagner family and the pre-war Bayreuth festival), I am not sure if this staging serves this idea as efficiently as it should. Also, although Tcherniakov usually offers scrumptious scenery and costumes to make powerful visual statements, I find this staging rather tame and uneventful in this department.

The sense of emptiness was actually highlighted by Daniel Barenboim’s idiosincratic conducting. After a prelude of unusual structural clarity, the performance seemed to collapse under its own ponderousness. Although one could see that the aim was achieving a Furtwänglerian timelessness in which every note would sound to produce its complete sense, one would feel instead the blanks between these notes. Only an impatiently built Verwandlungsmusik suggested some sense of unity. Act II sounded particularly disjoint and lacking building tension, an impression made more evident by the conductor’s keeping his dynamic range under leash to help his leading lady. In any case, the Staatskapelle Berlin’s consistent beauty of sound offered some compensation.

Anna Larsson’s incursion in soprano repertoire is an undeniable sign of courage. She must have nerves of steel to keep producing high notes in every dynamic range so consistently in spite of the very obvious effort. The problem remains that – although she can keep a sense of line even when things turn out really unfavorably to her – intonation could be hazardous, the tonal quality was often very breathy and colorless. In any case, it is a voice of unusual warmth, and that prevented her from producing ugly sounds. If there were some exceptional theatrical intelligence and charisma à la Waltraud Meier, she could have got away with it. As it was, this was rather an experiment of discutable success. The same cannot be said of her Parsifal. It is true that Andreas Schager is not a stage animal, but he showed himself fully engaged in fulfilling some very strange directorial choices. And his singing was just exceptional. He phrases with unusual clarity, musicianship and variety and also produced consistently youthful, bright and firm sounds that projected forcefully into the auditorium. This was Wagnerian singing of very high standards. His scenes with René Pape’s masterly Gurnemanz were the apex of this performance. The German bass was at his best, pouring forth exquisite, voluminous sounds in all registers and also featured the textual intelligence of a Lieder singer. It is curious that the first Gurnemanz I have ever seen live, Matthias Hölle, was this evening’s Titurel, his voice still big and dark. Stage directors seem to have an increasing fancy in undressing the baritone in the role of Amfortas and it seems that the amount of skin shown is directly proportional to the level of miscasting. This evening, the throatiness and graininess were another evidence of that rule. Finally, Tomas Tomasson was a firm-toned, rather metallic Klingsor, very much at ease with the director’s curious choices for this role.

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My aunt once said that a person who has never gone through psychoanalysis is like a ship adrift, unaware of the forces that pull him in this or that direction. Or maybe she was quoting someone. Director Mariusz Trelinski seems to agree with her: the first image in his new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a radar screen, then a ship in a tempest and then the young Tristan in his father’s arms. The father figure is Tristan’s idée fixe: he would appear on stage in key moments of the opera. His younger self appeared too during the third act, as a vision to his unconscious older self in a hospital. The infamously hard-to-direct monologues are here staged or illustrated by videos – the first of them actually sung in a dreamlike burnt house set on fire by the kid himself. The confusion between reality and fantasy also explains Isolde’s last solo in the end of act II. As Marke’s thugs had escorted her out before the King’s monologue, her acceptance to Tristan’s invitation to the realm of night only happens in his imagination. Here, the whole soul searching happens within Tristan alone.

Although Trelinski’s insights are apt and occasionally thought provoking, I am not sure if I am convinced by the way he stages it. Although the lighting tends to mirror the black and white cinematography of the video projections, the ship’s metallic structures and appliances and also costumes suggest a contemporary setting. We’re in a military vessel, but the war prisoner status of Isolde as a bride against her will feels funny in these circumstances (not to mention magic potions etc). There is also a flashback of Morold’s execution by gunfire. The choice of a control tower for act II offers very little atmosphere for the Liebesnacht, and the aurora borealis showed how frigidly this couple made love to each other. I know, it is rare to see a Tristan where the title couple truly touches each other, but here only fleeting kissing and embracing stood for this fatal passion. This could actually be a dramatic point – how much Tristan really, I mean really, desires Isolde? Is she just a symbol for something else? This line of interpretation was unfortunately not further developed. There is also a curious change of sets in the middle of second act – Tristan and Isolde are exposed by Melot in some sort of fuel storehouse – the purpose of which is mysterious to me: the control tower was probably too small for the closing scene.
Act III predictably opens in a hospital room and, other than the depictions of Tristan’s delirious thoughts, shows an Isolde who takes drugs to get in the mood for her Liebestod. Everything is dark, men have military uniforms and Isolde has a regrettable wig and a dress made from an old curtain.

“The sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word ‘focus’ is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the ‘singing’ line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity.” Those were the words I wrote after listening Sir Simon conduct the second act in concert in Berlin. I have also listened to the broadcast of the complete performance (also in concert with the same tenor) in the Philharmonie and cannot cease to be amazed by the English conductor’s absolute structural understanding, the naturalness with which he builds the performance on thematic framework and how the mastery in his choice of the Hauptstimme in the orchestra is frequently more expressive of the dramatic purpose of each scene than the singing. The broadcast from Berlin shows, however, that the Berlin Philharmonic made a huge difference for the final results: the Berliners’ refulgence and consistency of sound in lower dynamics are a great asset when the cast is not up to the full powers of a Wagnerian orchestra.

If Nina Stemme now shows complete understanding of the text and colors her voice accordingly, her soprano  has lost a bit in impetuosity. High notes require extra pushing and the sound may be a little opaque. Hence, her first act lacked punch. As usual, she was more comfortable in the second act, when her tonal warmth and rich high register are most appealing. The Liebestod had a shaky start but ended beautifully in haunting mezza voce. Ekaterina Gubanova is always a reliable Brangäne, even if her voice was too thick this afternoon to float her repeated Habet Acht in act II.

Stuart Skelton is the most dulcet Tristan I’ve probably ever heard, phrasing with Mozartian poise and clarity of diction. But – and this is a big “but” – his voice lacks focus above the passaggio and is produced up there by pushing, with reduced projection. He has enviable stamina, but act 3 was mostly bottled up and strained. As the frenzy required by the libretto is not really in his personality, the whole impression was of witnessing someone performing an impossible task. Evgeny Nikitin, on the other hand, has no problem piercing through a big orchestra. However, I had the impression that his alpha-male natural disposition is not truly comfortable with Kurwenal’s ancillary attitude. To say the truth, the important singing this evening was offered by René Pape, who left nothing to be desired as King Marke. Whenever he sang, even the orchestra sounded better. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Daniel Baremboim, but this afternoon – in spite of the conductor’s paramount knowledge of this score and abilities – engaged my brain, the heart was only occasionally involved.

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Gounod’s Faust is an opera of extreme circumstances: although it was one of the most performed titles in XIXth century, it has become something of a rarity these days (the Met has proven otherwise faithful to the work that inaugurated its old theatre); although it has this utterly German subject, it is entirely French in style and atmosphere. Karsten Wiegand’s 2009 production for the Berlin Staatsoper (here shown as recreated in Weimar in 2011) is accordingly extreme: it could have been featured in Zitty magazine in its Mauerfall sensibilities. Here the devil comes from the West and wears Prada. His modus operandi is based on money: once he enrolls good old Dr. Faust, their aim is using, abusing and discarding the people once their sweet dreams are over. Poor old Gretchen believes her faith will save her soul, but the pious Easter chanting is sung by a golden elite presided by none other than the devil himself (obviously in praise of themselves). In other circumstances, this could be called an oversimplification, but – all things considered – it is an efficient and powerful oversimplification. For an old production, it looks remarkably fresh and soloist and chorus seem comfortable with it.

The edition used by the Staatsoper follows the staging’s convenience: some cuts are made, usual excisions are opened and some numbers are rearranged (the Golden Calf song is here sandwiched with Faust’s and Marguerite’s big arias). Simone Young offers a very expressive account of the score, warmly played by the Staatskapelle and abundant in beautiful solos from her musicians, the violin in Salut, demeure more poetic and haunting than the singer. I have the impression that there could have been a little bit miss rehearsing, so that the concertati sound truly synchronized.

I confess that I was not dying to hear Tatiana Lisnic’s Marguerite as a replacement for Krassimira Stoyanova. Fortunately, she sounds really better live than in recordings. Even if the voice is not particularly beautiful and her high notes are smoky and the low register still needs to be sorted out (… and the trill is not there), she sang with affection, charm and understanding of the dramatic situations. She could also take pride of place in ensembles, something I could not say of her tenor. Dulcet as Pavol Breslik’s voice sounds, it is helplessly small-scaled for this part. And the high c in his aria had more than one foot in the falsetto field. The idea of having Stephan Rügamer as “the old Faust” was not exactly great: the French language has the power of making his usually nasal tone entirely nasal.

Marina Prudenskaya was a firm-toned Siebel that could treat her lines a bit more gently – the first aria especially sounded on the fluttery side. The grains in Alfredo Daza’s baritone are starting to become loose in a way very close to wobbling. Valentin is a soldier and doesn’t necessarily need to seem smooth, but I don’t see the point of the increasing roughness.

If it is true that René Pape is no longer comfortable in the very end of his low register, he still makes good use of it in a role where he can do no wrong. He is the raison d’être of this performance, and those in the audience will be able to tell their grandchildren of having seen Pape’s Méphistophélés in the theatre.

I wonder what a Frenchman would say of the treatment French language received this evening. All singers had plausible pronunciation and made sense of what they were singing (in the case of Mr. Pape, more than this), but soprano and tenor sounded studied and were not always very clear about the differences between “e”, “é” and “è”.

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I have reread everything I’ve written about Don Carlos here in order to avoid repeating myself, but the fact is: I cannot. So I’ll sum it up: it is an opera that does not work by itself; it requires, therefore, a dream team (including stage director, orchestra and conductor) to develop its uniquely dark and oppressing atmosphere; this dream team never exists, even in legendary recordings, but opera houses should not accept this as inevitable and understand that it is something special (as in “if you see it as routine, better give up”). Now let’s speak of this evening’s performance.

Although I am very much surprised by Asher Fisch’s pulse, alertness and tension-building – he should try all of that in Wagner and R. Strauss – tiny miscalculations undermined too many key moments. First he seemed partial to a big orchestral sound, but then he seemed to believe that clarity and rich strings were incompatible until he finally seemed to have decided that his cast would prefer lower dynamics.  Act V – we had the Italian 5-act versions – was basically a misfire in terms of conducting. When you have the Bavarian State Orchestra, you have everything you need to transport the audience to the overwhelming massiveness of San Jerónimo de Yuste in time for Elisabetta’s aria. Today, the strings had the ideal roundness of sound, but that basically did not build up in intensity. Then the poor soprano had to tackle the famously dangerous intervals of the aria without the “orchestral cushion” that would envelope her sound to form the ideal blend of a single musical statement. Her pleas to have her tears reported in heaven received a sprightly accompaniment that made one think of Amelia Boccanegra enjoying patrician life in the shores of Genova. Nothing compares to the closing of the opera – the ghost of Charles V appears, Amelia is terrified and then… then when I realized, it was over. One could barely notice that! If a conductor does not find it cataclysmic that the ghost of a dead emperor raise from the tomb to rescue his grandson from the hands of one of the most powerful monarchs of the earth and a gruesome fanatical religious leader, then what again is he doing there? If I cannot put across my meaning, just grab any of Karajan’s recordings to hear what I am talking about.

When it comes to staging, I have already accepted that all contemporary productions of Don Carlos look exactly the same: simplified historical costumes, minimalistic and monochromatic sets turning around the idea of a cross and no Personenregie to speak of. I find it all so petty and cheap and banal that my very soul craves to see Agnes Baltsa looking and moving racée as hell in her impossibly wrought dress in the gigantesque sets of the Grosses Festspielhaus. Of course, I would like to move on, but directors have not helped me so far. In any case, I would like to give Jürgen Rose the benefit of the doubt. This production was premiered in 2000 and this is the first time I see it. I once had a conversation with a stage director specialized in opera who was candid enough to say that he often had to deal with famous singers not willing to learn the concept and basically wanting to know where they enter from and exit through. This seems to be an accurate description of this performance: the body language of practically every soloist was wrong (nobody bowed to the king and queen, he often had to pick objects on the ground himself, Rodrigo demanded Carlo a sword he already had taken from him, Rodrigo does not kneel to be knighted, touching ladies during conversation seem to be standard practice etc), blocking was nonsensical and chaotic and there were many embarrassing moments where singers just stopped and looked around in a “what now?”-attitude. This would have not worked in a performance of Carmen or La Bohème for tourists, let alone in a difficult Schiller-adaptation of a story involving historical, philosophical, political and religious issues.

Anja Harteros is the exception to the stage awkwardness – she has an innate ability to portray aristocratic characters, moving with great dignity, doing beautiful, meaningful gestures and responding to the dramatic situations of the plot. Of course, real direction would have made her even more compelling, but in terms of theatre, she was this evening a beacon in the darkness. To make things better, she sang famously too. This is a role that poses her no difficulties and, if she is still not the most Italianate of sopranos, she has clearly made a serious effort in that direction. If you think that nobody else sings this so beautifully and interestingly as she does these days, that’s a win-win situation. The other German singer in the cast, René Pape, has also made a serious exercising in Italianizing himself. I find this performance a complete improvement in terms of style since I last saw him in this role in the Schiller-Theater in Berlin. He was in superb and commanding voice – and I cannot think of someone better equipped for this part today – and yet he still sounds a bit calculating and not truly trusting the power of Verdi’s melodic imagination in his big aria. In this sense, the only Italian in the cast, young baritone Simone Piazzola, offered a lesson of how you infuse emotion in this repertoire essentially by the quality of vocal production. In his death scene, his control of vibrato to increase expression shows that he knows Piero Cappuccilli’s performances (as heard in many recordings with Karajan, for instance). This is a voice of the right color and range for this repertoire, but I am afraid that volume is still a bit on the light side, especially in his lower register.

Anna Smirnova is a singer I saw before she became a household name. Although her all-out approach was reckless, it was also exciting in a very raw way. Since then, she has become more self-controlled, but also less powerful, less tonally rich in her middle range –  and her diction is becoming indistinct. She could nonetheless pull out an O don fatale very easy in high notes and surprisingly close to what is written in the score.  Tenor Alfred Kim’s dependability and cleanliness of phrasing made for a not truly engaging tonal quality – grainy and slightly nasal – and lack of squillo to pierce through in his high notes. Although Don Carlos is not considered one of Verdi’s most difficult roles, it is curious how rarely one listens to a truly convincing performance from a tenor in it. Last time I saw Rafal Siwek in this opera, he was Filippo – here he is back to the usual casting as the Inquisitor, where the sheer size of his voice is an undeniable asset, even if he is not truly vehement or frightening in it.

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My story with Guy Cassiers’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre is everything but uneventful: it had a very bumpy start in Milan (with one important compensation); than it became something truly impressive in its first season in Berlin, only to become something notably less spectacular one year later. In the fourth chapter of our chronicle, a trend seems to be confirmed – this evening’s performance proved to be even less compelling than last year. From the opening bars, one could see that the energy of previous years could not be reproduced this evening. Although the conductor could elicit some excitement from his musicians now and then, a sense of structure could not be produced, pace seemed to sag, the orchestral sound tended to be heavy and brassy and occasionally messy (the Walkürenritt was downright bad, a disappointing group of valkyries and the orchestra really poorly integrated). There were moments when the performance seemed to be on, but in a very incoherent way.  Whenever Sieglinde and Siegmund entered in Tristan-esque mood, Barenboim would press the brake predal and opt for a dense string-based sound and heavily expressive style that maybe could have build into a Furtwänglerian experience if this could be sustained for more than two minutes.

His Sieglinde seemed to suffer from the same problem. In the first act, Waltraud Meier seemed out of sorts – low notes left to imagination, faulty legato, approximative pitch and very tense high notes. Later her voice would improve and produce some edgy but powerful dramatic high notes. She seemed particularly adept when she got a moment of Innigkeit and lyricism. Then she would remind us of her younger self, offering sensuous and exquisite turn of phrases, with beautiful hushed moments.. As much of everything else in her performance, these moments too seemed calculated. There was no spontaneity in this Sieglinde, who behaved rather as if the Feldmarschallin had been kidnapped and held hostage by Hunding. That said, one cannot cease to wonder of how intelligent and perceptive her scenario is.  For example, the way she sang So lass mich dich heißen, wie ich dich liebe: Siegmund – so nenn’ich dich convinced me that all other singers did not truly get what Sieglinde meant there. There is a lot to be learned from a performance with so many instances of superior understanding of the text like this, even if the results were undeniably vocally flawed.

I have seen Irene Théorin produce more exuberant top notes than this evening, but otherwise I have particularly enjoyed what she has done today. First of all, her voice was overall warmer – especially in the middle register – and rounder this evening than what I can remember. Although she usually finds no trouble in singing softer dynamics, today her mezza voce was particularly exquisite and effortless. She reserved her truly scintillating acuti for key moments and, as a result, her Brünnhilde sounded particularly youthful and touching. And she deals with act III as few other singers – it is truly an emotional journey, done with a very wide-ranging tonal palette and artistic generosity. If I sound mean by saying that Ekaterina Gubanova too seemed not to be in her absolutely best day, the explanation is that she was even richer-toned and more forceful last year.

Christopher Ventris is a great improvement in terms of casting in this production. He is the lest hammy Siegmund here since 2010 to start with. His is not a memorable voice, but one used with fine technique and good taste. His lyric approach to the role pays off in moments like Winterstürme and he can produce some powerful notes now and then. There are some underwhelming moments and some instances of indifferent delivery of the text, but I cannot help finding his singing refreshing in comparison to his competition both in the Schiller Theater and at La Scala. René Pape still struggles with the high tessitura, but he was in a better day this evening than last year. Although most of his upwards excursions were constricted or tense, his voice is naturally big and noble enough to offset this most of the time. In any case, he sails through the role in grand style, tackling Wotan’s act II big monologue with crystal-clear diction, sensitive delivery of the text and tonal variety. As for Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding), his bass was often poorly focused and sometimes hooty. In order to make for that, he often “acted with the voice” in a distracting manner.

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