Christian Thielemann’s reputation as a Straussian conductor is somewhat older than his as a Wagnerian, and I would dare to say that, although he is often mentioned as some sort of Bayreuth’s great hope, R. Strauss’s music is still the repertoire where all his strengths lie. His instincts are basically almost invariably right in this music, his ability to produce perfectly transparent textures in large scale is admirable, and the sense of forward movement and objectivity that make his Wagner sometimes insensitive drain his Strauss of all hint of sentimentality.
This evening, the conductor decided to explore some rare Straussian pieces with famous soloists to draw a larger audience. The orchestral numbers were composed in circumstances that explain their almost complete oblivion today: the Festmusik for the city of Vienna was a 1942 official command and, although the Festliches Präludium was composed in 1913, it was performed in the celebration of the German chancellor’s birthday in 1943. While the former is a quite uninteresting piece for brass instruments and timpani, the later is an impressive (if rather shallow) tour-de-force for organ and great orchestra expertly calculated to produce a standing ovation (as in this evening). Thielemann resisted the temptation of overdoing the effect and gave a sober yet powerful rendition of this exuberant score.
The conductor’s sense of balance proved providential for his soloists – Renée Fleming offered a gorgeously and stylishly sung Traum durch die Dämmerung over a delicate carpet of orchestral sound. Winterliebe requires a lighter touch for its upwards melisme that made it a bit difficult for her to pierce through, but she still then eschewed any vulgarity. The Gesang der Apollopriesterin (op. 33-2) showed the soprano in her best form and behavior – savoring the text, coloring it with imagination and producing beautiful round top notes throughout. In Waldseligkeit, she could not find the necessary ethereal mezza voce, but her voice has inbuilt floating quality and she handled the lower end of the tessitura better then most. Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a bit higher than almost everything he sang this evening requires; he could barely be heard in the bottom of his range and exposed high notes were a bit rough. Nonetheless, he showed himself as an ideal interpreter for the somber declamation of both the Hymnus (op.33-3) and the Notturno (op. 44-1) and still produce the right hearty enthusiasm for the Pilgers Morgenlied (op.33-4). Thielemann provided kaleidoscopic sounds, perfectly blended to his singers, knowing the right moment when he should and could boost his orchestra and when to scale it down to give pride of place to vocal effects.
Both singers would appear again in the big romantic scene in the second act of Arabella. Fleming’s clear diction and creamy tones worked to perfection. When she decides to put her jazzy mannerisms aside (as in this evening), one can really understand why she is considered the leading Straussian of her generation. Hampson had to work hard for impact, but blended exquisitely in Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein. The audience would also be treated to the prelude to act III, where Thielemann proved not only to have a superior understanding of the structure of this passage, but also to make it sound consequent, polished, animated and surprisingly beautiful. The Berliner Philharmoniker responded in the great manner during the whole evening. I really can’t wait to hear his Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg this Summer.
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R. Strauss never made anyone’s lives easier with his complex and often almost unsingable operas – and that’s what makes them so interesting! – and would not change that in his farewell to the world of opera. Capriccio’s conversational style is a challenge to singers, conductor, director but most frequently… to the audience. Not this evening, I am glad to say. Underrated conductor Andrew Davis knows and loves this score and never fails to show how beautiful and expressive it is. His judgment in what regards the balance between orchestra and soloists is ideal. To say the truth, under his bâton singers and orchestra were one organic unity that breathed together and complemented each other in one coherent musical statement. His tempi were often animated, and the cleanliness in the complex ensemble with the Italian singers deserves double praise therefore.
The Countess is probably Renée Fleming’s most interesting role. Her mannered delivery of the text fits the role’s “phraseology” and ultimately makes it more varied and interesting than it normally is. Her creamy soprano, of course, is tailor-made for the part. I can imagine that she is able to deliver a smoother closing scene than this evening’s, which was nonetheless quite satisfactory. If I have one criticism is that, although Fleming brings the necessary glamour to the role, this is not exactly the aristocratic glamour one would expect to find in it. Lets say it was rather Lana Turner than Deborah Kerr.
Next to her, only Peter Rose’s La Roche managed to create a convincing performance. The English bass’s large and dark voice retains its quality even in fast declamation passages. It is only a pity that his great solo caught him a bit off steam. The remaining singers did not spoil the show and proved to have great spirit of ensemble. I realize that I am maybe mean with Sarah Connoly, who delivered a fruity, charming Clairon, but memories of Tatiana Troyanos makes one demanding. Joseph Kaiser’s grainy tenor does not suggest a passionate or persuasive Flamand, but he sang sensitively. Russel Braun’s Oliver also wants a more appealing tonal quality. Morten Frank Larsen is even less vocally seductive as the Count, but he is vivid enough an actor. Both Olga Makarina and especially Barry Banks almost stole the show with their funny and well sung Italian singers.
John Cox’s 1998 production updates the action to pre-WWII XXth century, but the XVIIIth century château has only a telephone to show that. Regietheater-lovers would probably prefer to see it staged in a bunker, but I found that this choice allowed the director to concentrate on the acting – and I would say it proved to be a wise choice, for the whole cast responded adeptly for his detailed and subtly funny guidance
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Last time I saw Renée Fleming, Johan Botha and Semyon Bychkov together was in 2005 and the opera was R. Strauss’s Daphne. Although the opera this evening was Verdi’s Otello, there was more than a splash of Strauss in the proceedings, which I found quite refreshing, to say the truth.
To start with, Bychkov offered an elegant account of the score, rounding many a sharp angle in Verdi’s writing and producing ripe, dense orchestral sonorities, sometimes at the expense of his singers.
You all know I am not an unconditional admirer of Renée Fleming, but I cannot deny it is a pleasure to hear her in a role entirely convenient to her voice and attitude. She eschewed the ingénue cliché and offered a quasi-Arabellian aristocratic, proud and feminine Desdemona. Not only was her acting finely shaded, but also she was in excellent voice. Except for some mishandling of passaggio in her act II duet with Otello, she sang effortlessly and expressively throughout. Her Willow Song/Ave Maria combo aria excelled in ethereal floating creamy mezza voce and spiritual concentration.
In the title role, Johan Botha does not boast neither a dark nor Italianate sound, but his unusually pleasant Heldentenor filled Verdian phrasing with purity of line and musicianship. At this stage of his career, the role is not a stretch for him and he dealt with difficult tricky passages such as his opening Esultate! quite commendably. Although he lacked the emotional depth and the weight of sound to do full justice to moments such as Sí, pel ciel, he compensated that with sensitive and tonally varied accounts of scenes such as Dio, mi potevi scagliar. A subtle and touching performance.
Carlo Guelfi was more conventionally cast as Iago. Moments such as Credo in un dio crudel showed him operating a bit close to his limits, grey and woolly top notes involved, but his is idiomatic quality is one of his strongest assets. Among the minor roles, Wendy White’s firm-toned vehement Emilia is worthy of mention.
I had not previously seen Elija Moshinsky’s rather generalized if inoffensive production, but the costume designer deserves praises for the costumes created for Johan Botha.
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Daphne has always been, in my opinion, the hidden jewel among the unknown late Strauss operas and I guess that Renée Fleming has applied to a membership to the selected club of Straussian sopranos by championing it. Leonie Rysanek has done so with Frau ohne Schatten, Lisa della Casa with Arabella, Gundula Janowitz with Ariadne, Kiri Te Kanawa with Capriccio and Lucia Popp with basically all of it. As it is, this example of artistic generosity is most welcome and concert performances following the studio recordings with such a mediated diva will certainly help to place Daphne in the repertoire. As it is, although the part requires a more spacious soprano, such as Maria Reining’s, the truth is that the most famous exponents of the part, at least in recordings, tend to be lyric soprano tout court. In that sense, Fleming has the advantage of an absolutely creamy rounded tone, comfortable with the fast articulation for declamatory passages and readily taking to legato in the high-lying melodic moments. It is praiseworthy that she has really decided to delve into Straussian style and eschew the jazzy mannerisms displayed in her Arabellas and Marschallins. Here she is ready to take a pure line while still keeping some spirit. Compared to the recording, though, the voice tends to lose some colour in the more dramatic passages. The middle register does not come across as clearly as it should either, compromising some of the understanding of the text. That said, her performance is generally lovely and charming. If one has Hilde Güden in mind, a certain bright quality allowing for a more positive delivery of the text may be missed. Now if one has Lucia Popp in mind, one will miss an interpretation more verbally intense and a wider resource to tone-colouring, not to mention the important girlish impression in this role about chastity and innocence. All in all, this is an important step in Fleming’s career, in the sense that she is on her way to find the right balance between stylishness and expression in a repertoire close to her vocal nature.
As Apollo, Johann Botha is probably one of the most easily produced tenors visiting the part. As much as in the recordings, his top notes do not blossom as one might expect, but he knows how to keep legato and tries to play with dynamics. Those who know Böhm’s recording will be forever spoiled by the sheer charisma of James King, not to mention the vocal lushness of Fritz Wunderlich. That said, Roberto Saccà offered his best performance so far. Here, his focused tone and fearless approach to the role were all for the best. A thoroughly beautiful performance. As much as the excellent Michael Schade in the studio recording, he is no Wunderlich, but who else is? Robert Holl has not the dark sound required by the role, but was able to pull out a plausible performance out of his soft-grained yet forceful bass. The other roles were splendidly cast. The statuesque Anna Larsson’s deep contralto is impressive in itself, Julia Kleiter’s First Maid is the evidence that there is no small role, only small singers. I am eager to listen to her Mozart. There is no need to say Eike Wilm Schulte as First Shepherd is an example of embarras de richesse.
Nevertheless, the reason why this was above all a beautiful performance is Semyon Bychkov’s exemplary conducting of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. His vision is grander in manner than both Böhm and Haitink, but still keeping the necessary clarity enveloped in exquisite orchestral sound, positively indulgent in sensuous slow tempi in the most romantic passages.
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